Not Just a 9/11 Flick

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To say that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about 9/11 is akin to saying that Moby-Dick is about a whale. Yes, the attack on the Twin Towers is an essential part of the story, but it is used as a metaphor, not as a plotline. The attack provides a setting and a backdrop for exploring the universal issues of grief and crisis, and of family relationships. This film is about fathers and sons, and about mothers, too. It is about trying to make sense out of something that is essentially senseless.

Death is always cataclysmic. It always feels like two giant towers collapsing. When one person dies, another disintegrates. That's the larger point of this film.

Many elements of the movie just don't seem to make sense — initially. The central figure, 9-year-old Oskar (Thomas Horn), simply isn't reacting properly. When he returns home from school on the morning the Towers come down, he's too flippant with the doorman, and too calm when he enters his apartment. The doorman is flippant in return. I was in New York that day. I know what it was like. And it wasn't like this — calm and normal, as though nothing had happened at all.

Before long, however, I realized that this was the other point of the film. It challenges our ideas of what "normal" means. And "proper." And "making sense." The film's series of mistakes isn't really a mistake. It is a deliberate means of conveying an idea: life doesn't make sense, but we have to try to make sense of it anyway.

To make this point, director Stephen Daldry uses a precocious young boy as his central figure. Oskar has a remarkably close relationship with his father (Tom Hanks), who encourages his young son's imagination with games of discovery and "expeditions." Oskar has "something like Asperger's syndrome," which gives him tremendous focus and memory. It also explains his odd reactions in the first half hour of the film. His condition provides not only a skewed point of view, but a metaphor.

Grief, we come to realize, does not have to be public to be cataclysmic.

The film's title is about Oskar's reaction to sensory stimulation, not to the planes flying into the Towers. Oskar has extraordinary intelligence, but struggles to make sense of ordinary things, like sidewalk lines and answering machines. Similarly, we struggle to make sense of the crises that happen in our lives. Death is an "ordinary" thing. It happens every day. But when it happens to someone we know and love, it isn't ordinary at all. And it does not make sense.

When Oskar finds a key inside a vase in his father's closet, he is convinced that it will lead him to something profound that his father left for him. With his unusual focus and quirky intelligence he devises a plan and sets out on a journey that will take him over the boroughs of New York, searching for a message from his father. He knows it will be nearly impossible, but he says, "If things were easy to find, they wouldn't be worth finding."

Along the way Oskar meets dozens of New Yorkers. Many of them have experienced a profound loss. Their losses are not as public or as shared as the losses experienced at the Towers that day, but they are felt just as deeply. Grief, we come to realize, does not have to be public to be cataclysmic.

Early trailers focused on the scenes that include Tom Hanks, a multiple Oscar winner and box-office draw. This makes good marketing sense, even though Hanks is seldom on screen. But after the Oscars were announced last week and Max von Sydow was nominated for best supporting actor, I noticed that the trailers suddenly changed and von Sydow became their new central figure. That makes good business sense too, and even better artistic sense. Von Sydow plays a renter who lives in an apartment across from Oskar's building. Known simply as The Renter, he has experienced a trauma that prevents him from speaking, but not from communicating. Von Sydow is simply brilliant in the role. His expressions transcend the need for words.

As Oskar's mother, Sandra Bullock also demonstrates a wide range of emotions, from numbness to horror to sadness to joy. Yes, even joy, amid the loss. Her grief is almost too painful to watch as she realizes that her husband is doomed, yet she never steps into the realm of melodrama. She manages to stay authentic and vulnerable in every scene.

I wish the same could be said for Thomas Horn as Oskar. He speaks precociously enough, and his moment of cathartic crisis is believably powerful. But he does not portray Asperger’s (or the condition that is "like Asperger’s") well. He has the actions down, but something is missing. Or, more to the point, something almost imperceptible is not missing from the look on his face. It keeps the film from quite making sense . . . but that seems to be the point too, doesn't it?

I wasn't planning to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I really wasn't ready to see a schmaltzy, melodramatic movie about the day the Twin Towers were attacked, and that's exactly what the early trailers led me to believe Extremely Loud would be. But when it was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, I felt an obligation to review it, even if just to say, "What was the Academy thinking?"

Having seen it now, I have to admit: the Academy was right. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is another of this season's artistic gems. I don't think it deserves the Oscar, but it certainly does deserve the recognition of an Oscar nod.


Editor's Note: Review of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," directed by Stephen Daldry. Paramount, 2011, 129 minutes.



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Sad and Confused

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In 1996 Margaret Thatcher was the keynote speaker at the Foundation for Economic Education's 50th anniversary banquet at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. It was such a big event, and Thatcher was such a gigantic speaker, that William F. Buckley, a formidable force in conservative circles, agreed to appear as a moderator rather than a speaker.

Buckley’s role was simply to introduce Lady Thatcher and handle questions during her presentation. He was told to keep things moving and not let the answers go on for more than a couple of minutes. Buckley took his job seriously, standing up after two minutes to gently let Mrs. Thatcher know it was time to stop talking and let him ask the next question.

But Lady Thatcher was having none of that. She had handled the members of Parliament for over 30 years; she could certainly handle William F. Buckley! A questioner asked about China; Lady Thatcher began speaking; and after two minutes, Buckley stood up. Thatcher continued speaking. Buckley edged toward the microphone. Body language shouted for Thatcher to yield.

She did not. The Iron Lady filibustered on China for several minutes. She talked about politics. She talked about industry. She talked about pandas! She spoke eloquently and intelligently, including specific names and details. She knew her stuff. Buckley stood beside her like an errant fool, until he finally backed away and sat down. Only then did Thatcher conclude her remarks on China and graciously ask, "Next question?"

She was a lady throughout. She never scowled, she never lost her temper, she never stopped speaking. But she had a spine of iron. The great William F. Buckley was put soundly in his place, with grace and good manners. And she gave the audience a jolly good show. I've never forgotten it.

We see none of that character and grace in The Iron Lady, now in theaters with more than a few whispers of another Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep. Streep is indeed wonderful in the role she is playing. She shuffles with the hesitant gait of a woman in her 90s. She mimics Thatcher’s voice and cadence. She carries her unnecessary handbag with the dignity of the Queen. But she projects none of the grit, power, and philosophy that made Margaret Thatcher one of the most important leaders of the 20th century. For most of the film, her Thatcher is pathetic and befuddled.

We do not go to a movie about Margaret Thatcher to see how sadly she has aged. We want to see her in her greatness, not her twilight.

The Iron Lady opens on an elderly nondescript woman shuffling through a grocery store, hesitating over whether to purchase a quart or a pint of milk. She selects the smaller container, pays the grocer her meager 49 pence, then shuffles out, bumping into other shoppers who refuse to yield for the seeming bag lady. After returning home to breakfast, she complains to her husband (Jim Broadbent) about the price of milk. This is not the prime minister who rescued England from bankruptcy; this is the grocer's daughter who seems to live now in the projects.

Worse, it turns out that Dennis Thatcher has been dead from cancer for several years. Nevertheless, he and Margaret talk to each other throughout the film. He is in her dressing room, her kitchen, her living room, her bed. She knows he is dead. She knows she is hallucinating. But she talks to him anyway. It's natural to speak to a deceased loved one and say "I miss you" out loud. Jimmy Stewart "talks" to Martha at her graveside in Shenandoah. Heath Ledger poignantly breathes the smell of Jake Gyllenhaal's shirt at the end of "Brokeback Mountain." Streep does something similar when she goes into Dennis's closet and breathes in the smells from his jacket. But she goes way beyond portraying grief. Streep’s Thatcher is bereft, bewildered, and befogged.

It is true that Mrs. Thatcher has suffered a couple of strokes in the past few years, and it may be that her mind has become befuddled. She's 87 years old. But we do not go to a movie about Margaret Thatcher to see how sadly she has aged. Or to see how well Meryl Streep can play an aged woman. We want to see evidence of Thatcher's iron will, her brilliant economic philosophy, her political wit and candor. We want to see her in her greatness, not her twilight.

As so often happens in Hollywood when filmmakers portray conservative heroes, the producers of this film are fascinated by their subject but unwilling to give her credit for her accomplishment. We see numerous scenes of IRA bombings and union riots. We hear voiceover about spending cuts, unemployment, and Britons' inability to pay their mortgages. Thatcher proclaims at one point that they will need to close inefficient mines.

All this makes the film very timely, reminding the audience of current events in America: high unemployment, falling wages, mortgages in default, out-of-control deficits, and Romney's ill-advised statement, "I love to fire people." What's missing is the mountain of good that was accomplished by Thatcher's privatization policies, under which government workers were given the opportunity to own shares in the privatized utilities for which they worked.

I lived in London during the ’80s. I saw the results of privatization. Allow me one personal example. When we bought our flat in 1985, we wanted to add a second phone line. We were told we would have to wait at least two years for a number to become available. We also needed some repair work done on the existing phone line, for which we were given an appointment six months in the future. Six months! We were stuck with the antiquated instrument itself. Brits could not even purchase their own equipment; everything belonged to the government utility, and the government utility was not about to update the phone.

As so often happens in Hollywood when filmmakers portray conservative heroes, the producers of this film are fascinated by their subject but unwilling to give her credit for her accomplishment.

A couple of years later, after the phone company had been privatized, I called again to have my phone repaired. A repairman was at my flat the following morning. In a few short years the company had become profitable, efficient, and prompt. Yes, some people lost their jobs, especially from the ranks of bloated, redundant management. Cutting costs does hurt in the short run. But they were offered severance packages and early retirement opportunities. In the long run, the entire citizenry profited from lower costs and better technology. The filmmakers deliberately overlook this point, and all points like it.

Instead, we see glimpses of Thatcher's life through the eyes of a sad, confused old woman. Occasionally she reaches back into her days as the daughter of a grocer (albeit a grocer who was active in local politics), determined to "make one's life matter," and to her decade as prime minister. But these scenes are brief and unsatisfying. They focus mostly on her ineptness as a mother, her shrillness as a speaker, her bouffant makeover, and her problems with being accepted by Parliament.

I ask you: would Dennis have been criticized for choosing to go into politics instead of staying home to raise the children? Yet Margaret is vilified for her decision — and by a triumvirate of females, no less: woman screenwriter, woman director, woman producer. Her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) flounces off in anger when Margaret announces that she is going to stand for the leadership of the Conservative party, and apparently the audience is supposed to be sympathetic — to Carol! When the elderly Mrs. Thatcher looks through a box of mementoes, it is filled with hand-drawn cards and crayoned pictures that say "I love you Daddy." None are written to "Mummy." This hardly seems fair, especially in today's climate of opinion. If a man isn’t criticized for leaving his family while he goes to work, why should a woman be?

Thatcher brought a unique sensibility to her role as prime minister. As she wrote in at least one letter to the parents of a soldier killed in the Falklands War: "I am the only prime minister in Britain's history to have been a mother." She had long-term vision, coupled with an understanding of short-term costs. She was exactly what Britain needed. She should be remembered as a woman who devoted 50 years of her life to public service. She should not be remembered as a pathetic old lady who barely knows her own name.

The young Margaret Thatcher is played winningly by Alexandra Roach. Perhaps if Roach had been prosthetically aged and allowed to play the entire role, The Iron Lady would have been an engaging and enlightening biopic similar to the very fine film The Queen (2006), in which Helen Mirren gives an intimate and insightful portrait of Queen Elizabeth. Instead, The Iron Lady is simply a vehicle for Ms. Streep to demonstrate her considerable skill at mimicry.

This is not necessarily Streep's fault. She did not write the script. But I doubt that she bears any of the admiration for her subject that Mirren bears for hers. I'm certain that she enjoyed portraying Thatcher as the shuffling, elderly, hallucinatory woman who was written for her to play. She will probably receive her umpteenth Oscar nomination for the role.

I just hope she never has the bad fortune to meet Lady Thatcher in public. I suspect Streep would receive a gracious, well-mannered cold shoulder that would make Buckley's treatment at the FEE banquet look like a warm embrace. And it would be much better deserved than the Oscar nomination she is likely to receive.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Iron Lady," directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Weinstein Productions, 2012, 105 minutes.



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Restoring a Lost Art

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Most contemporary filmgoers do not well understand — much less appreciate — that early, unique cinematic art form known as the silent movie or silent film. The silent era in cinema lasted roughly from the mid-1890s to the early 1930s. It created thousands of films. It created the film industry, both in America and worldwide. That era is the focus of a fine little art flick called The Artist,playing now at selected locations.

Silent films were made, not because filmmakers didn’t want to incorporate sound (dialogue, music, and sound effects) into their productions, but simply because of the formidable technological challenge of coordinating (“synchronizing”) the sound to the rapidly moving frames. So while the first primitive moving pictures appeared in the late 1870s, and the first narrative film in 1888, and movies were popular throughout the industrialized world from the late 1890s on, sound took a generation more to develop.

The first attempt to create sound pictures began at the Edison Company in 1896, but really viable film-sound technology only emerged during the period from 1921 to 1929. (To be precise, there were a number of competing sound technologies during this time.) The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first movie that included sound and was a commercial success, but most movies in 1928 and 1929 were still silent. Only in the early 1930s did silent films essentially disappear. A few movies were specifically made as silent films by the artistic choice of the producers. Especially notable was the choice of Charlie Chaplin to make City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) as silent flicks.

The earnings of the top silent films show how popular they could be, despite their limitations. My figures may be a little off — I had to convert early-20th-century dollar earnings into 2011 dollars — but the top ten American silent films earned big dollars. The top grossing silent movie was The Birth of a Nation (1915)at $217 million, followed by $81 million for The Big Parade (1925), $70 million for Ben-Hur (1925), $58 million for Way Down East (1920), $54 million for The Gold Rush (1925), $49 million for The Covered Wagon (1923), $48 million for The Circus (1928), $45 million for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), $45 million for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and $44 million for The Ten Commandments (1923).

Playing chase sequences, for example, at higher rates of speed seemed to enhance the suspense.

These are very impressive gross earnings, especially when you remember that the nation had a much smaller population back then — about 100 million in 1915 and maybe 120 million in 1928, which is only about 30% to 40% of our present population. The nation was also much poorer. The average household had dramatically less money for entertainment than today’s household. Finally, the distribution channel was much smaller, with many rural communities not having any theaters at all.

Despite the accomplishments, artistic as well as commercial, of the silent era, it is difficult for modern audiences to appreciate them. The reasons arise from the nature of the medium.

Begin with acting. Obviously, silent movies had to convey their stories by pantomime. True, the pantomime was aided by “title cards” (also called “intertitles,” key lines of dialogue or commentary about the action, printed out on screen) and typically a musical score. The score was played on piano, organ, or (in larger setttings) a pit orchestra. At the peak of their popularity, silent film theaters were the largest source of employment for instrumental musicians.

But music — while a vital tool in conveying tone and enhancing emotion — can’t supply much if any narrative detail. Indeed, to try to do so — as did some early scores, by, say, using an ascending scale to mirror a movie character's ascending a stair — is apt to create a cartoonish effect. And the title cards were inherently limited. If producers had tried to put any appreciable amount of dialog text on screen, the audience would have spent most of the evening reading.

So pantomime bore the brunt of conveying the narrative. And in many cases (early on, at least), directors encouraged actors to accentuate their gestures, facial expressions, and other body language in the hope of amplifying communication. Unfortunately, this led to a kind of acting that strikes modern viewers as “mugging,” and at best a kind of campy comedy. There was a gem of a TV comedy series that played in 1963–64 that exploited the hamminess of some of the silent films: Fractured Flickers, produced by Jay Scott and hosted by Hans Conried. The series would take classic silent films and do funny voiceovers.

But it is fair to observe that the movie-going public in the silent era increasingly preferred more naturalistic acting, and major actors such as Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish, Sessue Hayakawa, and Mary Pickford accommodated their work to a more restrained style. Still, silent film acting does take some time to get used to.

Another problem is that during the silent era, film shooting and projection speeds were not standardized. Projection speed became so only early in the sound era. Silent films were shot at speeds (“frame rates”) ranging from 12 to 26 frames per second (fps), depending on the country or even studio of origin. Complicating things even further is the practice of some directors who consciously intended their films to be projected at variable speeds and gave instructions to projectionists accordingly. (They did this because playing chase sequences, for example, at higher rates of speed seemed to enhance the suspense.) Also, projecting cellulose nitrate film (the standard medium of the silent era) too slowly dramatically increased the risk of fire.

As a consequence, when early TV showed silent movies, they were often played at incorrect speeds. Add to this the fact that the films were by then often severely deteriorated, and the unintended consequence was to make audiences simply dismiss as inferior an artistic medium that was in fact quite powerful.

Film directors, critics, and historians long have tried to combat that sorry consequence. Many university film departments worldwide have worked to preserve and restore silent films, and the Turner Classic Movie channel shows some of the best of them.

Moreover, directors throughout the sound era have occasionally produced homages to the silent era. Need I mention the great film Sunset Boulevard, in which actual silent era movie star Gloria Swanson plays fictional movie star Norma Desmond, a woman unable to come to grips with her eclipse by talking pictures? Or perhaps the greatest of musicals, Singin’ in the Rain, which was based on the transition of cinema from the silent to the sound era?

It is in light of all these factors that we should consider the film under review. The Artist is a joint French-American production, and it is a well-written comedy-drama. It is mainly silent, though sound enters toward the end. It is therefore reminiscent of some 1940s films — such as The Moon and Sixpence and The Picture of Dorian Gray — that were shot in black and white, but shifted to color to accentuate an effect; and the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz, in which the scenes that take place in presumably dull, real-life rural Kansas are done in black and white, while the scenes that happen in the magical, imaginary world of Oz are shot in color.

Some silent film stars were disdainful of the talkies’ new technology, thinking it inherently less aesthetically powerful than the old.

The protagonist of The Artist is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a popular “leading man” in silent films. We see clips of his (fictional) movies, in which he comes across as a combination of Rudolf Valentino (hence his name) and a Douglas Fairbanks type of screen action hero. While he is meeting the press after the screening of his new movie, a very beautiful young admirer, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) literally bumps into him. She is photographed with him and winds up on the front page of Variety with the headline, “Who’s That Girl?”

A short time later, George runs into Peppy on the lot as she stands in line for an audition to be part of a chorus line in a musical. He pushes the studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) to give her a minor part in his new film.

This sets up the story's central dynamic. Peppy’s career rapidly rises, but two years later, when talkies take over the industry, George's plummets. He can’t make the transition — for reasons initially unclear — and takes to drink, hitting bottom when he sets fire to his own home.

He is rescued in the short term by his exceptional dog, and in the long term by Peppy’s exceptional love. She not only saves him — she works to save his career.

Now, it is historically true that some silent film stars wouldn’t or couldn’t make the transition to sound flicks. There were a variety of reasons. Some actors (especially those who directed their own films) were disdainful of the new technology, thinking it inherently less aesthetically powerful than the old. Some had pronounced foreign accents, which audiences didn’t expect, at a time — like our own — when anti-immigrant feelings were running high among the general public. Others, especially actors without extensive stage experience, had diction and grammar problems. And some had weak or — in the case of a few male action leads — effeminate voices.

When George finally does speak at the end of the film, we get a clue as to why he had problems making the transition. I won't spoil the film by telling you what it is.

How is the acting in this film about actors? It's outstanding, with strong performances by Dujardin as George and Bejo as Peppy. Bejo is particularly appealing. To me, she is very reminiscent of the marvelous French actress and dancer Leslie Caron, and that's saying a lot.

Absolutely delightful in support — doing silent acting as if it were their first careers — are veteran American actors John Goodman as studio head Zimmer, and James Cromwell as Clifton, George’s faithful chauffeur and valet. And I simply must mention Uggie, who plays Dog, George’s dog. I can’t recall a better performance by a, yes, again, dog in any recent film.

Michel Hazanavicius has done a marvelous job of directing, eliciting robust but still restrained performances from actors none of whom — including the canine! — had ever done a silent film. He also wrote the script, aiming to fulfill a long-standing desire to create a contemporary silent film. (He is also married to the beautiful Bejo.) It's a risky and exciting enterprise, and Hazanavicius succeeded. He clearly spent a good deal of time studying silent film, and profiting from his studies. He performs with panache the difficult task of writing melodrama with comedic touches — and using few title cards.

The film has already won Dujardin a Best Actor award at Cannes, Hazanavicius a nomination for a Palme d’Or, and Uggie a Palm Dog award. The New York Film Critics Circle just awarded Hazanavicius the Best Director award, and gave the film the Best Picture.award. I have no doubt that many more awards are in store.

I recommend seeing this picture with young people if possible. I brought my daughter and her two friends, all young women in their twenties. None had ever seen a silent film before. All of them were entranced by this film, and had no trouble following the action or keeping their interest.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Artist," directed by Michel Hazanavicius. La Petite Reine-La Classe Americaine, 2011, 100 minutes.



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Adventures and Explanations

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December is the month when a slew of movies are released, from family films hoping to warm a few hearts, to independent films hoping for Oscar recognition, to franchise installments hoping to be "the Christmas blockbuster" this year. Ironically, December is also the month when we have the least amount of time for moviegoing. But not to worry! They will still be around in January. Here are two you may want to see.

Both are action thrillers that fit the last category above — new installments in the highly successful Sherlock Holmes and Mission Impossible franchises. Both feature handsome megastars (Robert Downey, Jr. and Tom Cruise), likable supporting characters, sardonic wit, and ample fight scenes with breathtaking risks. And both of this season’s offerings feature arms-dealing villains set on starting a war in order to make a buck.

One works brilliantly. The other falls a little flat.

To understand why one works and one doesn't, a little literary history is in order. When Edgar Allan Poe invented the deductive armchair detective, Auguste Dupin, in 1842, he wisely created a slightly dense sidekick to go along with him and narrate the story. Poe’s unnamed narrator needed to have everything explained to him. Obviously, this narrator represented the unseen audience. We readers were the ones who really needed the explanation, and Dupin kindly and patiently complied, providing a logical account of the proceedings to the narrator, who then provided it to us.

Forty years later, Arthur Conan Doyle patterned his soon-to-be-famous Sherlock Holmes on Poe's Dupin, right down to the deerstalker hat and the Meerschaum pipe. His narrator had a name, Dr. Watson, and Watson became our interpreter within the stories. Rex Stout followed the same pattern, providing Archie Goodwin as the narrator of the great detective Nero Wolfe’s affairs. And so the tradition continued.

Director Guy Ritchie's new interpretation of Holmes lifts him out of Basil Rathbone's meditative moods and puts him back in the field of action, where he started. Doyle's Holmes was a pugilist, sword fighter, magician, martial artist, drug addict, and master of disguise. Downey plays him with unbalanced spunk and daring. (See my review in Liberty, March 2010).

But alas! Ritchie has broken with tradition in an unfortunate way. He has decided in this new installment, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, to make Watson (Jude Law) more an unwilling partner than a narrator. Gone are the patient, patronizing explanations to the dunderheaded Watson of the Rathbone films. Watson now fights side by side with Holmes. As a result, the audience has trouble following the plot, which involves Holmes with a widening array of bad guys and gals. Suspense is suspended, because we can't understand the significance of the various discoveries or characters. A Game of Shadows is an apt subtitle. The story is murky and illegible.

The film sports many exciting fight scenes, but we never quite know why various people are chasing Holmes and Watson. As in the previous episode, Ritchie employs an effective technique of showing Holmes's deductive reasoning by using a dark filter for scenes that take place in Holmes's mind. But fight scenes and funny disguises are not enough to carry a film. I was sadly disappointed by this much-anticipated release.

By contrast, the writers of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol learned their lessons well from Messrs. Poe and Doyle. They employ not one but two likable dunderheads (Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner), both of whom are analysts reluctantly pulled into performing as operatives in the field. Throughout the mission, Ethan (Tom Cruise) must explain to them who the next bad guy is and why they have to go after him. This keeps the audience in the know, and we are ready to continue into the next hair-raising stunt.

And they are hair-raising indeed. Ethan escapes prison, breaking arms and noses along the way. He climbs the outside of a structure over 100 stories high. He catapults into buildings and jumps from level to level in a parking garage. He outruns a dust storm. He never quits.

Then there are the trademark maneuvers we have come to expect in a Mission Impossible film: Jumping onto flying vehicles. Hanging spread-eagled inside a government building. Going rogue because the government has disavowed Ethan yet again. And, of course, Tom Cruise running like the wind through crowded streets, as he has done in nearly every film since The Firm in 1993. Add to this a wittier script than we got in previous MI episodes, and we have a close-to-perfect action thriller.

If you have time on your hands this season, you should see both these films. They’re both fun, despite the bad things I said about one of them. But if you're going to see only one, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is certainly the one to choose.


Editor's Note: Review of "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," directed by Guy Ritchie. Warner Brothers, 2011, 129 minutes; and "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," directed by Brad Bird. Paramount, 2011, 133 minutes.



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"We're Letting Mom Go"

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Like the very fine film Contagion, which I reviewed earlier this year, The Descendants focuses on a man who must deal with the death of his wife. And, as in Contagion, this man discovers, after the fact, that his wife had been having an affair. The concept gives one pause: if you left the office this afternoon and didn’t make it back home, what secrets would your loved ones discover while trying to put back together the pieces of their lives? Would their memory of you be forever shadowed by some discovery that you were no longer alive to explain?

Although I would never condone an extramarital relationship, I felt sad for both of these cheating characters (especially when I read the book version of The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings).  We all wear different labels for different occasions. Yes, Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) must wear the label “Adulterer,” but she also wears the label “Mother.” And “Friend.” And “Adventurer.” And “Artist.” And “Wife.” And, apparently, “Neglected Wife.” Is it fair that “Adulterer” is the only one by which she will be remembered?

Matt King (George Clooney) seems to recognize this. He admits in voiceover narration that “before the accident we hadn’t spoken in three days. In a way, we hadn’t spoken in months.” Similarly, he acknowledges that he hasn’t spent time alone with his daughters Scottie (Amanda Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) in at least seven years. He’s a busy attorney as well as the executor of a family trust that belongs to the descendants of King Kamehameha of Hawaii. In the latter role he has the responsibility of deciding what to do with a huge parcel of undeveloped land on Kauai before the trust is dissolved in seven years. While his wife lies in a coma, he is trying to decide which of several development offers to accept. This family trust provides a backdrop and metaphor for the family drama unfolding in the foreground.

When Matt discovers — from teenaged Alexandra, no less — that Elizabeth had been cheating on him, he decides to track down her paramour. Not to punch him, mind you, although that thought brings a smile to Matt’s face. Somehow he is able to feel enough love and compassion, and perhaps even guilt, to give his wife and her lover the opportunity to say goodbye. The journey to find the lover becomes, in a sense, a journey for Matt to find himself and, in the process, to change his own label to “Father.”

As he surveys the land that is owned jointly by his cousins, Matt muses, “We didn’t do anything to own this land — it was just entrusted to us.” In a way, this is true of families as well. We fall in love, we get married, and children show up. We don’t do anything to prove that we are ready for them. We don’t have to get a training manual to raise them (yet). But they are entrusted to us nevertheless. Matt goes on to note about the land trust, “We were expected to protect this land. I have seven years left to figure out how to keep it.” His family is like that, too. He is already a father genetically; he has about seven years left to become a father in fact.

Set in Hawaii, The Descendants provides a rustic glimpse of the close-knit, laid-back life of the native Hawaiians who aren’t really all that “native” — many of them are blonde and blue-eyed. One can almost smell the frangipani in the background and feel the warm sidewalks under their bare feet. The art on the walls of the various homes is also uniquely Hawaiian, creating a visual luau of colors and designs. It is a lovely film in every respect.

As is usually the case, however, the novel on which the film is based has more depth than the screenplay. Film adaptations always have to take shortcuts to fit the story inside the movie’s limited time structure, and character development often suffers in the process. While The Descendants is a good film, I missed the nuances that come out in the book, where we see more of Elizabeth, her background, her motivation, and the joy and tragedy of her life than we do in the film.

Several years ago, some new acquaintances told me their “how we met” story. John had been married to Mary’s sister Kathleen, and when Kathleen contracted cancer, Mary came to help nurse her and take care of their children. On the way home from Kathleen’s funeral, one of the children volunteered from the backseat, “Aunt Mary, can you be our new mommy?” And that is what happened. John and Mary thought this was a wonderfully happy and romantic story. From their perspective it is. But my heart went out to Kathleen. On the way home from the funeral? They couldn’t mourn her and let her be the mommy for just a little while longer?

I thought of that story as I watched Matt become a father to his daughters. After the doctor tells Matt that there isn't any hope for Elizabeth's recovery, Matt says to ten-year-old Scottie, "We're letting Mom go tomorrow." He says it matter-of-factly, almost as he might say, "We're letting the maid go" or, "We're letting the gardener go." The Neglected Wife became the Adulterer, and "Mother" is erased from her resume. I was happy for Matt and his daughters to have rekindled their bond. But my heart ached for Elizabeth. It made me want to go home and throw away all my secrets.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Descendants," directed by Alexander Payne. Fox Searchlight - ad hominem enterprises, 2011, 115 minutes.



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This Is Not a Spoiler

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Sometimes I just want to say, "See this movie!", without any explanations. Hugo is one of those movies.

But this is a review, so I have to give you something. I'll give you this: Hugo is enchanting. It's magical. And like all magic tricks, the less you know about it, the better. But unlike the

typical magic trick, this story is true. And that's quite a trick for a story that begins with a little boy who lives in a train station.

Director Martin Scorsese is known for his dramatic edge, so it comes as quite a surprise to see him making a holiday film with a PG rating and a children's theme. Don't let that theme and rating deceive you, however; this film is a masterpiece of subtle allusion, deep emotion, and satisfying metaphor.

In many respects Hugo is a paean to movie making itself — which raises the film far above the typical holiday release. Watch for allusions to great movies of the silent era. Even Hugo 's setting inside a train station is a tribute to the very first motion picture, which simply showed a train pulling out of a station. Audiences jumped out of their seats in terror, thinking they would be hit by the speeding object. That's the magic of illusion. And fear of a speeding train is part of the magic in Hugo.

Scorsese's decision to film Hugo in 3-D is also a tribute to the pioneers of movie making, who went to great lengths to create a sense of depth and reality in their films. Hugo reveals some of the early tricks, thus becoming a history of cinematic art as well as a great piece of art itself.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a boy of about eight who lives behind the walls of a Paris train station during the 1930s. Unbeknownst to the people in the station below him, he takes care of the numerous clocks by winding them daily and fixing their works when they wear out or break. From his ceiling roost he watches the quirky, almost cartoonish characters below him, and he watches over them as well.

To the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), however, Hugo is just one of many little street urchins who pilfer food from the station shops and belong in the local orphanage. The Inspector has been injured in the war and wears a mechanical brace on his leg. He, too, is broken — almost like Hans Christian Andersen's "Steadfast Tin Soldier." His character is both menacing and endearing, especially when he gears up the courage to talk to the station's flower-shop girl (Emily Mortimer).

Hugo can fix anything — clocks, windup toys, and even a robotic "automaton" that his father (Jude Law) has found in a museum. His vision of the world as a giant machine brings comfort to him in his loneliness. "There is never an extra piece in a machine," he tells a young girl who befriends him (Chloe Grace Moretz). "Every part has a purpose. So I must have a purpose too."

In a sense, Scorsese is that little boy who can fix things. With the magic of film he rights a wrong that was perpetrated almost a hundred years ago. And he does it with a film that is wondrous, luminous, and entertaining.

Go see Hugo. Let the magic envelop you. Get caught up in its tale of dreams brought to life. Then spend a few minutes on the internet finding out how the trick was done. You will be astounded to learn the background of this amazing story. But I won't give you a single hint until you've seen the show for yourself.


Editor's Note: Review of "Hugo," directed by Martin Scorsese. GK Films-Paramount, 2011, 127 minutes.



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Blue-Suited Vultures and Childlike Demands

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Margin Call is another offering in the growing list of movie dramas and documentaries that attempt to explain the economic meltdown of 2007–08. This one gives an insider's view of a giant financial institution — perhaps a Lehman Brothers, although that company is never identified — as its analysts suddenly realize that it can no longer sustain its high levels of margin-driven debt against its falling asset values.

The film opens with a cadre of blue-suited vultures — most of them women — storming the office to let employees go. At the end of the day, nearly half of them have been fired, including middle manager Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). Dale has been working out a logarithm that seems to be predicting financial catastrophe, but no one will listen as they usher him out the door. This scene is perhaps the most intense of the whole movie. Women literally tap men on the shoulder and signal for them to follow, an action reminiscent of the Rapture that will herald the beginning of Armageddon. It is hard to say which is better — to be summoned away, or to be left behind to face destruction.

As a parting gesture, Dale tosses a flash drive to his protegé, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and warns him to be careful. Sullivan opens the file, and after adding a few mathematical computations of his own, discovers that the company's net worth is less than the debts it owes. Considerably less. And with the multiplier effect caused by buying on margin, the gap will widen exponentially in a matter of days, unless the markets as a whole turn around. An emergency meeting is called, with all the corporate bigwigs arriving in the middle of the night.

Here the film becomes heavy with pointed dialogue intended to explain the problem to those of us in the popcorn gallery. It is not unreasonable to assume that every one of these high-powered business people in this high-powered room is a genius at math and finance. Yet CEO John Guld (Jeremy Irons), sinister in his impeccable gray suit, his impeccable British accent, and his frighteningly sharp face, threatens Sullivan, "Speak to me as you would a child, or a golden retriever." This childlike demand is designed for the audience's benefit, of course, but it is almost laughable in the circumstances and reveals J.C. Chandor's inexperience as a writer and director. He doesn't yet know how to set up exposition believably.

The explanation that Sullivan then delivers is so abstract and obtuse that only someone who already understands it would be able to fill in the missing specifics and render it understandable to others. We know that the company has borrowed too much against assets that are diminishing in value, but we don't gain any further light from having seen this movie, and we certainly don't learn anything about how to prevent a similar meltdown.

Films such as "Margin Call" continue to garner glowing praise while vilifying an economic system that allowed America to become the wealthiest, most powerful, and most generous country in the world.

More interesting are the ethical conversations that follow. After Guld reminds the Board of his motto of success: "Be first, be smarter, or cheat," he adds, "I don't cheat, and we aren't any smarter, so we will have to be first." This means that his brokers will have to sell all their assets within hours of the market opening in the morning, before buyers realize that the asset values are dropping.

Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), a 34-year veteran of the firm, offers the free-market answer to government regulation when he argues, "But you'll be selling something you know is worthless. They will never buy anything from you again." He's right, of course. The greedy businessperson looks for the quick profit that comes from offering inferior quality at an inflated price, then hurriedly moves on. But the wise businessperson offers good quality at a fair price, knowing that satisfied customers will provide steady gains from repeat sales for a lifetime. Cynically Guld gives the opposite view of the free market: "We'll be selling at the 'fair market value.' It's not our fault if the fair market keeps falling." Acknowledging Sam's point about repeat customers, he continues, "This is the big one. We have to get out all at once."

To entice brokers to destroy their own careers by ruining all their customer rapport and good will, the company leaders offer them huge incentive packages for unloading the majority of the company's assets by the end of the day. The brokers may not be able to get a job for a while, but with this kind of compensation, they won't have to. Integrity can't be bought, but it can be sold.

Karl Marx argued that those who deal in money deal in nothing. They don't produce anything of value, and they don't consume anything of value. They just provide a medium of exchange. Thus, in a Marxist view, being a salesman or stock broker is the lowest form of labor. This point comes through in the film when Dale laments, "I used to be an engineer. I built a bridge once." He then recounts how much time and energy he has saved for all the people who have used his bridge every day for years. The implication is clear: as an employee of this financial institution, his life has been meaningless.

Sam Rogers responds in a similar fashion when Guld says derisively, "You could have been a ditchdigger" instead of a wealthy financial analyst. "Yes," Sam agrees, "but then at least there would be some holes in the ground." Guld continues in Darwinian style, "It's just money; it's made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It's not wrong. And it's certainly no different today than it's ever been. . . . You and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it. . . .We just react. And we make a lot of money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the side of the road if we get it wrong."

This cynical attitude about the role of financial institutions is continuing to drag down our economy as surely as investing on margin did. It willfully ignores the fact that financial institutions provide capital for funding those bridges and ditch-digging projects. And it encourages viewers of films like this to ignore that fact. These films continue to garner glowing praise while vilifying an economic system that allowed America to become the wealthiest, most powerful, and most generous country in the world.

For a relative newcomer (this is his first full-length feature film) Chandor managed to do several things right. He secured major funding and assembled an all-star cast that includes not only Tucci, Spacey, and Irons but also Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, and many others. He has garnered accolades from the mainstream critics. He has written a script that, despite its schoolboy reliance on potty language (thus its R rating), has "gravitas." But while it may seem "important," it isn't very entertaining, or very thrilling. Interesting is about as high as my praise will go. His direction is often affected and heavy handed, especially with his actresses. Wait for Margin Call to be available on Netflix.

quot;


Editor's Note: Review of "Margin Call," directed by J.C. Chandor. Before the Door Pictures, 2011, 107 minutes.



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Unsubstantiated: Without Substance

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In Katherine Mansfield’s one-act play Trifles, trifling evidence such as a reticent personality, a half-cleaned table, a broken birdcage, and a canary with a broken neck lead the audience to conclude that a woman has murdered her husband. Motive and opportunity. That’s all it takes to find her guilty in the eyes of her peers. The play is written with a delicious sense of irony and poetic justice. My students at Sing Sing don’t buy it, however. “That’s just circumstantial evidence!” they complain. “You can’t convict on that!”

They’re right, of course. Motive and opportunity — and sometimes opportunity alone — once led to a vigilante justice system that culminated in countless lynchings in our nation’s history. Compounded by a healthy dose of police-induced false witness, it continues to lead to wrongful incarcerations today.

Motive, opportunity, and false — or at least unsubstantiated — witness lie at the heart of Clint Eastwood’s new film, J. Edgar. Eastwood has created a kind of wrongful incarceration inside a film that will stand as an unending sentence. Instead of relying on what is known about J. Edgar Hoover’s public life, Eastwood chose to focus on the very private life that was always hinted at but never confirmed. Books have been written about Hoover, but the conclusive evidence is missing. Even Eastwood acknowledges in this film that Hoover’s official biography may have been full of inaccuracies. The people who might have known the facts are dead, and the famous confidential files that Hoover collected over the years no longer exist. Writers can speculate about their contents, and they have. In print. But no one actually knows.

Hoover’s greatest legacy was his insistence on using evidence-based science to investigate crime. He recognized, for example, the value of using fingerprints, ballistics, and marked money to identify criminals. If he were alive today, he would cheer the use of DNA evidence. His was a bureau of investigation first and foremost.

“J. Edgar” ought to be one of the most fascinating and powerful films of the year. Instead, it is overlong, underinteresting, and often just plain creepy.

His not-so-great legacy was his willingness to trample constitutional rights in his march to justice. He was determined to protect America from political subversives, kidnappers, and organized crime rings. To do this he needed to create a public outcry that would (to paraphrase Ben Franklin) make additional security seem worth the cost of essential liberty. Several early scenes in J. Edgar emphasize Hoover’s disregard for constitutional rights. Again, if he were alive today, he would probably be at the forefront of Homeland Security and the TSA.

With Eastwood as director, Leonardo DiCaprio as actor, and the most influential law enforcement leader of the 20th century as its subject, J. Edgar, which opened this weekend, ought to be one of the most fascinating and powerful films of the year. Instead, it is overlong, underinteresting, and often just plain creepy.

Much of the creepiness comes from the way Eastwood portrays Hoover's relationships with his mother (Judi Dench); his secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts); and his lifelong friend and right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Fighting crime gets short shrift in this film that focuses on speculations about Hoover's private life. Eastwood pays very little attention to Hoover’s work in the Bureau, except to show how Hoover manipulated public opinion about crime to federalize the FBI and expand his power.

Arrests of notorious criminals in the 1930s are presented as photo ops for Hoover. The Kennedy assassination is mentioned, but receives less than two minutes of screen time. The Lindbergh kidnapping weaves throughout the plot, mostly to demonstrate Hoover’s conflict with states’ rights, but the tone regarding the kidnapping is strangely detached and unemotional. Even the bombing of private homes by anti-American groups in 1919 is presented as an exercise of free speech.

But what of the private life on which this film dwells? Much of what is “known” about Hoover’s private life is based on hearsay and innuendo, motive and opportunity. The film is unable to settle on a clear point of view. Was Hoover a homosexual? Possibly. He never married. He had a close relationship with Tolson, who also never married. But Hoover’s lifelong secretary, Helen Gandy, never married either. Does that make her a homosexual as well? Or simply a woman dedicated to her job, as Hoover always claimed to be?

And why should his private relationships matter, anyway? My biggest concern about this film is that, after deciding to establish that Hoover and Tolson were lovers, Eastwood pulls back, suggesting that they weren’t lovers after all. He presents their relationship as awkward, creepy, and heartless. There are plenty of scenes to suggest homosexuality: Tolson significantly passes a white hanky to Hoover at their first meeting (an anachronistic reference to a code that seems to have developed in the early 1970s); they hold hands in the back seat of a car; Tolson tells Hoover, “I want us always to have lunch and dinner together,” almost like a fiancé setting down the rules. And yet, when Tolson kisses Hoover, at the culmination of a physical fight reminiscent of those awful 1950s movies when a man would often slap a woman into erotic submission, Hoover responds furiously, “Don’t ever do that again!” What gives? Either they are seeing each other romantically or they are not. I think Eastwood was trying to portray Hoover’s own conflict over his homosexuality, but it gives the film itself a decidedly homophobic tone.

Even creepier is Hoover’s relationship with his mother. Hoover's father is portrayed as suffering from psychotic paranoia. His mother is domineering and flirtatiously predatory. She parades her new gowns for him, dances with him, buys a diamond ring for him. He is controlled by her and obsessed with her. Judi Dench is at her best in this role, and if this were a fictional film about fictional characters, I would say bravo. Chances are that having a mother like that would indeed lead to psychosexual deviance. But the problem here is that Eastwood is portraying as fact scenes that can only be speculative. And he is suggesting that homosexuality is a psychosexual deviation.

Eastwood was trying to portray Hoover’s own conflict over his homosexuality, but it gives the film itself a decidedly homophobic tone.

An additional source of creepiness is in the prosthetic makeup used to age the characters as the plot moves back and forth between the 1970s and the 1930s. Armie Hammer, in particular, looks like he is dressed as an alien for Halloween, or for a skit on Saturday Night Live. The prosthetic material does not move like skin, and the liver spots that dot his forehead and face are hideous. Hammer is so handsome and debonair as the young Tolson that it comes as a shock each time his character moves into the 1970s.

Much has been written about Hoover’s secret life, and rumors have entered the realm of “everybody knows.” But secrets are just that: secrets. Hoover's confidential file is legendary, in the true sense of that word, but no one knows what was actually in them, because all the files were destroyed by Helen Gandy as soon as he died. But this lack of concrete evidence has not prevented authors, journalists, and filmmakers from speculating on their content.

It is an understatement to call J. Edgar Hoover a complex man. He was a fierce patriot who saw nothing wrong with deporting naturalized citizens exercising freedom of speech. He was a crime-fighter who broke laws to fight crime. He is quoted as saying, “Sometimes you have to bend the rules a little in order to protect your country.” He was a man with an enormous ego fed, perhaps, by private demons. He may have been a hypocrite who vilified homosexuals while engaging in homosexual acts himself. But to quote my Sing Sing students, that’s all circumstantial evidence. The only people who actually know the truth are dead. Eastwood’s film convicts J. Edgar by demonstrating a possible motive and a definite opportunity, fueled by probable false witness. In the process he has created a film that is homophobic itself.

At 137 minutes, J. Edgar is long. It isn’t suspenseful. It isn’t interesting. And it isn’t reliable. If you want to see a film that presents a more reasoned, though still critical, portrait of Hoover, I suggest you rent Public Enemies (2009) instead.


Editor's Note: Review of "J. Edgar," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2011, 137 minutes.



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Parents and Children

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The Way is a quiet film with a quiet soundtrack that emphasizes the quiet introspection of its main character, Tom (Martin Sheen). But do not equate “quiet” with “boring.” This is a compelling film with a compelling story, told against the backdrop of the beautiful Pyrenees.

Tom is an ophthalmologist who has trouble seeing things clearly. He has chosen a traditional path for his life: He attended a respectable college, entered a respectable career, and reared what he thought would be a respectable family. His son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez), has taken a different way. “I want to see Spain, Palau, Tibet!” he exclaims to his father during what will be their last day together. “Come with me,” he pleads. But Tom is too practical. He has his ophthalmology practice to consider. Leave for two months or more? Just to wander along a mountain trail? When he shouts back about choice and accountability, Daniel responds tersely, “You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.”

The two part angrily, but it is abundantly clear that Tom loves and misses his son. In one early scene, Tom’s receptionist informs him that Daniel has left a message while Tom was busy with a patient. Tom’s disappointment is palpable. “Did he leave a number this time?” he asks anxiously. “Do you know where he is?” Any parent who has been estranged from an adult child knows this feeling and can relate to Tom’s despair.

The next phone call is the one no parent ever wants to receive: Daniel is dead. While setting off to walk across the Pyrenees along the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage also known as “The Way of Saint James,” Daniel was caught in a freak storm. Tom must fly to Spain to identify the body and bring Daniel home. When the coroner suggests that cremation is an easier way to transport the body back to America, Tom decides that he will help Daniel complete the journey by walking the path himself and depositing a handful of Daniel’s ashes at each way station.

Along the way Tom meets several other pilgrims, each traveling The Way for seemingly practical reasons. Joost (Yorick van Wagengingen) is a jovial Dutchman who simply wants to lose weight for his brother’s wedding. Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) is a flirtatious cougar who wants to quit smoking at the end of the journey. Jack (James Nesbitt) is a journalist looking for a good story.

All these characters have deeper spiritual conflicts that they have avoided facing. The film becomes a journey of introspection, self-discovery, and companionship as they travel not together, exactly, but side by side. Tom’s self-deception is perhaps the most pronounced, and he makes the deepest discoveries. Several times Tom sees Daniel, or imagines he sees him, in a crowd or on a hill, encouraging him and urging him forward. Daniel’s great desire was for Tom to accompany him on this journey. By dying, Daniel has found a way to make it happen.

The Way is a film about the relationship between a father and a son, made by a father and a son. Emilio Estevez, who wrote, directed, produced, and performs in The Way, seems to be Sheen’s less wayward offspring. One can’t help but think about the heartache Sheen must be experiencing in real life as he has watched his more celebrated son, Charlie Sheen, blow up in public over the past year. The younger Sheen was finally fired from his successful TV show, “Two and a Half Men,” because of problems associated with accusations about drugs, alcohol, and extramarital sex. The elder Sheen’s own heartache as a father is apparent in his portrayal of Tom, a man tortured by the way he said his last goodbye to a son whose way of life he did not approve. He plays the role with restraint, but his body language and facial expressions effectively convey his character’s deep emotions.

Tom tells himself he is walking The Way for Daniel, but as one pilgrim wisely tells him, “You walk The Way for yourself. Only yourself.” This is true of life, of course. We make the life we live. Another character tells Tom, “I wanted to be a bullfighter. My father wanted me to be a lawyer.” He blames his father for his failure to choose a more satisfying path, but it was his own choice to put his father’s approval ahead of his own happiness. The essence of good parenting is to provide protection and opportunity without forcing children into a way that is not their way. And above all—never say goodbye in anger.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Way," directed by Emilio Estevez. Filmax, 2010, 121 minutes.



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And the Winner Is — Ryan Gosling

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Ryan Gosling is having a helluva great year. First he demonstrated his comedic depth and timing in Crazy, Stupid Love. Then in Drive he gave one of the quietest, subtlest, most understated, and yet most over-the-top-brutal performances since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.

Gosling is the man who made grown men cry in The Notebook. He's one of the finest actors in Hollywood. And he's thinking of retiring. At 30. Please, Ryan, say it ain't so!

But now he has stolen the spotlight from the master scene-stealer himself, George Clooney, in The Ides of March.

Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, a campaign staffer and media specialist for presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney). Stephen is a career campaign worker with the goal of becoming a campaign manager some day. But Morris is a candidate Stephen believes in. This time it goes beyond business. He really wants Morris to win.

As a libertarian, I had a hard time agreeing with the idealistic Stephen on this. During several scenes, Morris is heard campaigning in the background while political intrigue is developing in the foreground between Stephen and other characters. His slogans are intended to be taken seriously (director-producer-screenwriter Clooney is, of course, an outspoken Democrat), but they are laughably naive. Here’s a sampling:

"The rich complain that our tax policy is a redistribution of the wealth, but what they really want is distribution of the wealth to the richest Americans by our government." This is received with wild applause, as though our paternalistic government somehow creates all the wealth in the country and then doles it out to its favorite sons. (Sadly, this silly idea seems to be believed by many Americans.) In case we didn't get the point that the wealthy cause all our ills, he adds, "Greed and corruption ruin our industries and our shorelines." Shorelines? I’ll bet you weren’t expecting to see that at the climax of the sentence.

"The cause of terrorism is oil," he naively observes. "If we don't need oil, the terrorists will go away." This simple-minded foreign policy is quickly followed by Morris' economic strategy: "Within four years of my administration, no new cars will run on combustible engines, and we will lead the world again!" Now there's a plan to jumpstart this economy!

And this one: "Everyone should be able to afford college. Under my administration, all 18-year-olds will perform two years of mandatory national service, and when they return, their college tuition will be free." Stephen cynically tells Morris this is a win-win proposition because voters are over 18 and thus would not have to serve, while people under 18 can't vote. Doesn't he realize that people under 18 have parents who are over 18? Doesn't he realize that the "free tuition" would have to be funded by taxpaying voters? And doesn't he realize that "mandatory service" is not “free”?

In case we didn't get the point that the wealthy cause all our ills, he adds, "Greed and corruption ruin our industries and our shorelines."

The first half of the film focuses on the background machinations of the campaign trail, especially Stephen's interactions with Morris's campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the manager of Morris' chief opponent. These scenes are intended to create suspense leading toward the second act, but they are dialogue-heavy and rely too much on the audience’s understanding of the background politics. The film is adapted from a stage play, and often this leads to a screenplay that is too heavy in exposition. The scenes are smart and sassy and intended to be ironic, but irony only works when the audience knows the dual meaning of what is said and can anticipate the punchline or unintended result.

In this case, it doesn't quite work. The film's conflict pivots on a meeting, early in the train of events, between Stephen and Tom. The meeting is in a public place and lasts a few minutes. Ida (Marisa Tomei), a seasoned campaign reporter, gets wind of the meeting and threatens to print the story, as though it would create a major scandal. Sure, people working behind the scenes might be concerned about the purpose of such a meeting, but in light of the fact that no information is exchanged, would the public be alarmed? Would anyone care? Come on! There are any number of legitimate reasons for representatives of the two campaigns to meet. James Carville and Mary Matalin, darlings of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, are married, for heaven's sake! This is no scandal, and it weakens the first half of the story, when suspense should be developing.

Nevertheless, if the viewer is able to suspend disbelief about that, the scandal that develops in the second half of the film, when the campaigning ends and the dirty tricks begin, is dynamite. It involves a beautiful young intern (Rachel Evan Wood) whose father (Gregory Itzin, the Nixon lookalike who played slimy President Logan in 24) is president of the DNC. Tension mounts, rising toward a showdown that more than makes up for the slowness of the first act. But now the focus is on personal relationships, not on politics.

Director Clooney wisely allows his fourth-billed actor to run away with this show. Giamatti, Clooney, and Hoffman may be the award-winning veterans, but Gosling is the ascending star. At one point his character is struggling with what to do about the clashing dilemmas. Instead of hamming it up with scenery-chewing angst, a la Giamatti (who plays his role with Machiavellian effect, I might add), Gosling turns inward. At one point we see him seated in a straight-backed chair, eyes staring forward, virtually interrogating himself. Suddenly his eyes glance to his right, as though he were reading his own mind. Nothing else moves, and nothing is said. So simple. So effective.

Clooney's own politics are well known in Hollywood and throughout the country. He uses his celebrity to spread political propaganda for the Democrats. So it may seem surprising to see him portray a Democratic candidate who is corruptible and opportunistic. But this cagey maneuver effectively defuses any sense that this is a propaganda project. It allows the film to transcend party politics and appeal to a broader audience. Unfortunately, however, Clooney adds a throwaway line early in the film that reveals his true feelings. Campaign manager Zara defends a campaign decision by saying, "We are simply doing what the Republicans have been doing successfully for years." In other words, the Republicans made him do it. Mike Morris may be a Democrat in philosophy, but his mistakes are entirely Republican. Bravo, Clooney!

The film's title, The Ides of March, suggests a conflict between loyalty and betrayal in high places, and in that respect, the film delivers. Clooney's own politics aside, it is not so much about political policy as it is about office politics. It is about friendship, revenge, and disillusionment.

My favorite line from the film is a character's justification for retaliation: "You didn't make a mistake. You made a choice." The Ides of March isn't a great film, but it's a good film with several great performances. I think it would be a mistake if your choice is to miss it. Moreover, Ryan Gosling recently announced on Conan O'Brien's show that he might not be making any more. And that choice would indeed be a mistake.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Ides of March," directed by George Clooney. Columbia Pictures-Cross Creek, 2011. 101 minutes.



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