Missing the Economic Boat

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The Company Men is a highly relevant film about the financial meltdown of 2008, when hundreds of thousands of workers suddenly lost their jobs to downsizing and company closings. As a work of entertainment, it's overly didactic and preachy, but as a social commentary it provides many insights and offers great fodder for conversation and debate about the economy and how to fix it.

The film begins with a montage of the homes and toys of the super-rich. The camera pans through wealthy neighborhoods of elegant mansions with their gleaming kitchens, high-priced antiques, luxury cars, fancy swimming pools, and garages full of tony sports equipment. These are people who know how to enjoy their incomes. In the background we hear a voiceover of news reports about the financial meltdown, when, for example, 53,000 Citigroup workers lost their jobs in a single day.

The film highlights three mid- to high-level employees of a fictional conglomerate who lose their jobs in the blink of an eye. Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is a local boy who worked his way through college to earn an MBA and a well-paying job as a sales representative. Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) is the head of a division that was once his own shipbuilding company, now owned by the conglomerate. Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) is a 30-year veteran of the company who started as a welder in the factory and worked his way up to management.

All three lose their jobs to downsizing. One minute they're high-fiving each other about their golf scores; the next minute they're packing their boxes and heading out the door with twelve weeks' severance pay and the address of the Outplacement Center. There they sit in cubicles much like the ones where they worked in the company, only now what they're selling is themselves as they hunt for jobs that are increasingly scarce. As the weeks wear on, they become more discouraged, resentful, and scared. As Bobby complains, "I'm 37. How can I compete against MBAs fresh out of college who are willing to work for half what I was earning?"

What a swell guy! Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could work permanently for nothing?

The men's wives also become discouraged and resentful. At first, they all appear to be snippy housewives whose lives revolve around shopping and decorating, but each reacts differently to the news of her husband's layoff. One gets busy tightening the family budget and going back to work as a nurse. Another refuses to let anyone know, insisting that her husband continue leaving the house every morning, carrying a briefcase, and not letting him return until evening. A third marriage breaks up. In many ways, losing a job is as stressful as experiencing a death, and the reactions are as profound and as varied. Strong marriages become stronger; weak ones fall apart.

Writer-director John Wells has a definite point of view, and it is decidedly not in favor of people who make money by buying and selling. Borrowing a page from Marx's attitude toward money, he sees salesmen as useless middlemen who produce nothing and use nothing; they just handle the money. By contrast, Wells presents Bobby's blue-collar brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner) as the film’s true hero. Even Jack's modest home, where everyone drinks beer instead of wine and plays football in the backyard, is presented as being more fun than Bobby's fancy home.

Jack is a homebuilder by trade, and he hires people to help him. Unlike the corporate CEOs, who earn their bonuses no matter how poorly the company has performed and then fire employees to reduce costs, Jack actually underbids a job that will barely break even for him, just so he can keep his workers employed. What a swell guy! Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could work permanently for nothing? The film’s economic assumptions are hardly plausible, especially its Pollyanna ending (which I won't reveal here). And it conveniently overlooks the fact that the construction industry has taken a hard hit in the recession as well.

As I watched this film I thought about the plight of the people with which it is most concerned, the upper-middle class who in 2008 were working hard and following a path laid out for them by the preceding generation. They are people caught in the middle — they aren't important enough to have golden parachutes, like the CEOs, but they aren't poor enough to be able to maintain their lifestyles through unemployment checks, Section 8 housing, and government welfare. They don't qualify for Medicaid or food stamps, but they can't afford to pay their mortgages, make their car payments, or keep up with tuition and insurance when they lose their jobs. People who build their dreams on debt and long-term contracts just can't cut back when times get hard. They have no way to weather a storm.

The government’s intervention has created an artificial imbalance in the marketplace. It's time for government employees and union workers to start feeling the pinch as well.

Another thought that came to mind is that private businesses have borne the brunt of this recession. They are the ones making the difficult decisions to cut back or close down. A select few corporations have been bailed out by the government, but at the expense of others that are forced to contribute to their own demise through onerous taxation that funds the privileges awarded to their competitors. The government’s intervention has created an artificial imbalance in the marketplace. It's time for government employees and union workers to start feeling the pinch as well.

The Company Men makes some excellent points about how hard it is to deal with long-term unemployment. Affleck, Jones, and Cooper play their parts with a dignity, pathos, and poignancy befitting the characters they play in this film and typical of their own talented careers. But Wells is woefully underqualified to offer solutions to the economic problems we continue to face.

 


Editor's Note: Review of "The Company Men," directed by John Wells. Weinstein Productions, 2010, 104 minutes.



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Breaking Out of the Box

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It is a priori unlikely that a movie would enlighten viewers on subjects as different as autism and animal welfare, but there is such a film — a fine bioflick that aired on HBO last year and is now available on DVD. It’s the moving story of Professor Temple Grandin, its eponymous heroine.

Even today, autism is not well understood. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder that usually manifests itself in the first two to three years of a child’s life. It is typically characterized by severe difficulty in communication and social interaction, and by limited, repetitive behavior (such as endlessly eating the same kind of food or watching the same TV show). While the cause is still unknown, it appears to be a genetic defect afflicting about 1 or 2 children per thousand. While most autistic children are never able to live independently as adults, some — often called “high functioning” — are.

Temple Grandin is arguably the most famous high-functioning autistic person in the world. She was born in 1947, and was diagnosed with autism when she was three. With the help of speech therapists, she was able to learn to talk, and with the help of her extremely high intelligence, she went to an elite boarding school, where a gifted teacher mentored her.

She went on to get a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, a master’s degree from Arizona State University, and a doctoral degree from the University of Illinois in the field of animal science. She is now a professor at Colorado State University.

The focus of her work has been on the means by which animals, especially cattle, perceive and communicate, through the sounds they make and the way they move. Her autism seems to give her a distinct advantage here, because (as she explains it) she thinks the way cattle do, visually and concretely rather than verbally and abstractly, like ordinary people.

Her career has focused on the design of cattle lots, storage pens, and slaughterhouses that make them far more humane than in times past. Over half the slaughterhouses in America now incorporate her designs. The movie conveys her work beautifully. In one scene, we see her figuring out what is spooking cattle, as they move through a passageway, by getting down on all fours and walking the passageway herself, trying to capture visually exactly what is frightening them.

The movie also effectively conveys her view of our obligations towards animals, one that could be summarized as “Respect what you eat!” In her words, “I think that using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animals respect!”

The movie also deftly expresses certain aspects of Grandin’s autistic personality, such as her repetitive eating habits (she loves Jell-O) and her indifference to movies about emotional relationships (such as love!). In one charming scene, she is channel surfing and happens on the famous kiss-on-the-beach scene from the movie From Here to Eternity. She grimaces and quickly moves on to an action flick.

Temple Grandin is superbly done. Mick Jackson’s direction is sure and steady. He elicits perfectly pitched performances from the actors, performances that are emotionally true without being sentimental. And despite the serious nature of the story, the film is infused with humor. Julia Ormond is marvelous as Grandin’s mother Eustacia, evincing a combination of vulnerability and resilient strength. Catherine O’Hara is solid as Grandin’s Aunt Ann, whose ranch Grandin often visited. Another fine supporting actor is David Strathairn as Professor Carlock, a key mentor to Grandin in developing her understanding of science.

Especially wonderful is Claire Danes as Grandin. She shows us in sometimes painful detail what autism entails, and the suffering it brings, but she also shows us Grandin’s unique genius. Danes apparently studied her subject intensely, and it shows in her performance. She well deserved her Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress.

The film was a clear success with both the critics and the audience. It was nominated for 15 Emmys, winning seven; besides Danes’ award for Outstanding Lead Actress, they included an Emmy for Outstanding Made for Television Movie.

This is a treat that should not be missed.


Editor's Note: Review of "Temple Grandin," directed by Mick Jackson. HBO Films, 2010, 103 minutes.



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Getting Your Way

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One of the most useful concepts I know is Friedrich Hayek’s distinction between freedom and power. Freedom, he says, is the right to be left alone; power is the ability to have and to do things. Confusion on this score can be fatal. The world is full of people who believe that their nation, race, or religion can be “free” only if it has power over its neighbors. Here at home, our government is bankrupting its citizens by forcing them to pay for everyone’s alleged “freedom” to have healthcare, to have a job, and to have 15 children whether you have a job or not.

Libertarians have rightly emphasized freedom in its true definition. But power is also important, nor is it a bad thing, if it helps one to enjoy one’s freedom and master one’s own life. To get a job, maintain a home, gain money and respect, improve one’s existence materially and spiritually — these are good things; these are ways of shaping life creatively. Yet personal power can easily be squandered, passed off to others, in the sordid transactions of daily life.

This is where Sharon Presley comes in. Her book starts in this way:

“Experts and authorities can take your power away by intimidating, manipulating, abusing and bamboozling you. Examples are everywhere. Physicians tell you to leave your treatment to them because they are the experts. Bureaucrats give you the run-around. Clerks and customer service reps say it can’t be done . . . .”

She continues in that vein, because such conflicts are everywhere; and although many of them are unimportant in themselves, they are always discouraging. Remember the last time something went wrong with your computer. How many hours did you spend trying to interpret the “advice” you got when you resorted to the “help” button? How many hours did you then waste on the phone, fuming while an “expert” treated you like a child, suggesting to you that your machine might not be plugged in, putting you on hold, interrupting your attempts to explain, mystifying you with terminology ten times more opaque than even the insultingly unhelpful “help” pages?

If you’re like me, your day was ruined. You lost your cool, yelled at the “expert,” yelled again at his supervisor and his supervisor’s supervisor, felt helpless and guilty, and finally found yourself searching the phonebook for a fixit company that would charge you a hundred dollars an hour to repeat the process.

That’s not power, and that’s not life. But these conflicts are inevitable, and some of them are much more serious than that glitch in your downloads. Just consider what may happen on one of those awful, though possibly “routine,” visits to your doctor’s office. I well remember the horrors of dealing with the office staff of my former “primary healthcare provider” — people who put me off, wouldn’t listen when I talked, said they’d return phone calls but didn’t, communicated lab results long after they should have been available, and offered me no help at all when, facing a possible diagnosis of cancer, I was unable to get an appointment with a relevant specialist without waiting three months for it. Finally I located a hospital ombudsman (actually a woman) who was concerned about my plight and in a few days got me a quick appointment with a specialist — a magnificent doctor, who immediately found the cancer and removed it. Never once did my “primary healthcare provider” or his office check back with me.

Libertarians are often taught to value themselves on behavior that is “right,” though self-destructive — or even right because it is self-destructive.

At my next routine physical, which required months to arrange, I sat in the doctor’s waiting room for almost an hour after the scheduled time, wondering why medical doctors are the only people who keep you waiting like that. Then a fat nurse or para-nurse (all these people are fat) opened the door, boomed out “Cox” as if she were calling hogs, and led me into an examining room, where I sat for another half hour. At that point, I went crazy. When the doctor asked me how I was, I said, “Angry! I’m angry! I’m sick of being your patient and seeing myself and all your other patients being treated like cattle!” Then I recited what I’ve written above, except that by now I was shouting loud enough, I hoped, for the poor slaves in the waiting room to hear what I said.

What surprised me was the expression on the doctor’s face. It was obvious that he had never been talked to like that in his life. He wanted to object, but he didn’t know how, because he obviously had no idea of how his office operated, from anything like the patient’s end of things. I almost felt sorry for him — almost.

The next time I came back to that office, the situation had changed. I was now “Mr. Cox,” and there were more or less appropriate displays of civility. Later, I found that if I persisted to a moderate degree, I could actually get my calls put through to someone who knew something, without waiting weeks to obtain the information I required. This improvement may have had some relation to the fit I threw.

Was it worth it? I suppose it was. But perhaps I could have handled it better. I don’t want to live in a world in which people — even people like me — are always screaming at each other. I want things to work right, without my having to scream. I want the power to get things done, without throwing a fit.

Sharon Presley knows all about such situations, and she has excellent practical advice about how to deal with them. It’s not about the supposed delights of naked “self-assertion” (i.e., yelling). It’s about ways of gaining people’s attention and getting them to do what needs to be done for you, in the way that’s most likely to be successful and least likely to deplete your own energy. It’s not about sermons on self-esteem; it’s about gaining self-esteem by increasing your practical power. And of course a lot of it is about thinking through what authority figures, whether doctors or teachers or technical experts, have to say, to make sure that you possess enough information to take power over your own decisions. In short, a lot of it is about exercising your power of rational analysis.

Presley doesn’t want her readers to get locked into hopeless conflicts with The Man. She wants them — all of us — to succeed.

Presley’s practical advice is divided into sensible categories: dealing with doctors, lawyers, teachers, bosses, merchants, and so on. The subheading of one of her chapters reveals her primary concern: “Dealing with Bosses without Getting Fired.” A book of psycho-babble would focus on “taking back your power” by “communicating your feelings” and expressing your “true identity.” Presley isn’t opposed to such goals, but she doesn’t want you to lose your job, either. You don’t have much power if you don’t have a job. Presley wants you to be yourself and keep your paycheck, too — in other words, to have your cake and eat it. Sounds good to me.

One excellent feature of this book is the fact that Presley bases her advice on the experience of hundreds of real people; there are no made-up characters. Another is that she seems to have consulted every book, article, and website in the field of “critical thinking,” personal power relations, and just plain good advice for the contemporary world.  She tells you which texts she thinks are useful, and why. That’s a big gain.

I want to compliment Presley for her constant and persuasive suggestion that adults should act like adults. What she wants is for her readers to get their way, satisfy their legitimate demands, and achieve success and happiness. Dissident minorities, such as libertarians, are often taught to value themselves on behavior that is “right,” though self-destructive — or even right because it is self-destructive, as in the familiar zest for martyrdom. Presley will have none of this. She doesn’t want her readers to get locked into hopeless conflicts with The Man. She wants them — all of us — to succeed. She doesn’t mind getting down to basics:

“Develop a skill that you can succeed at. If you already have a skill, keep that in mind when you feel as if you can’t do things right. Perhaps there was a time when you were able to stand up to an authority figure. You lived through it, didn’t you? Remember your successes, not your failures.”

Isn’t that good advice? Wouldn’t we all be happier if we followed it? It’s a matter of perspective. Rather than banging the computer keys and screaming at that poor “technical consultant” in India, have some coffee, think about the good things you’ve done in your life, and turn to the chapter where Presley suggests how to deal with the immediate problem.


Editor's Note: Review of "Standing Up to Experts and Authorities: How to Avoid Being Intimidated, Manipulated, and Abused," by Sharon Presley. Solomon Press, 2010, 389 pages.



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Escape and Transformation

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War is evil, not only because of the atrocities committed by invading armies, but also because of the atrocities that victims are sometimes forced to commit in an effort to survive.

As The Way Back begins, Janusz (Jim Sturgess) a young Polish freedom fighter, is being interrogated by the Russian police. Janusz's wife, in obvious agony from both physical torture and mental anguish, testifies against him, and he is sent to Siberia. There he meets a variety of prisoners, some incarcerated for political crimes and others for street crimes. The true criminals run the living quarters, and the guards run the work camps.

The most notorious prisons have always been guarded not by men but by nature. Devil's Island, Alcatraz, Ushuaia at the southern tip of South America were all known for harsh surroundings that made successful escape virtually impossible. Siberia, the prisoners are told, is surrounded by "five million square miles of snow." Nevertheless, Janusz and others hatch a scheme to escape the prison and make their way across the Trans-Siberian tracks to Mongolia with a motley group of friends that includes Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), an artist; Khabarov (Mark Strong) a pastor; Smith (Ed Harris), an American; and Valka (Colin Farrell), a common street thug. When Smith warns Janusz that not everyone will make it alive, Janusz responds, "They won't all survive, but they will die free men."

Within the prison we see the free market at work as the men barter their skills for meager material goods such as cigarettes, food, and clothing. One man paints pictures; another offers protection; yet another tells stories. Each of these men harbors a secret sorrow that fills him with unspeakable regret — regret for something he has done, as a result of the war, to a friend or family member; regret that drives him forward, seeking absolution or perhaps punishment. Janusz is driven by the determination to tell his wife he forgives her and release her from the self-loathing he knows she must feel for having informed against him.

The trek across 4,000 kilometers of snow and desert leads many of the men to a soul-cleansing sacrifice. This theme is personified in the portrayal of Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a girl they meet along the way. As they cross the Mongolian Desert, one of the men weaves for her a large wreath of bent twigs to protect her from the searing sun. The hat brings to mind the crown of thorns Christ wore during his trek toward Calvary. As they march across the desert she leans heavily upon a wooden staff and falters several times, falling to her knees and then being helped up by the men. At one point, she lies on the sand and the hat falls behind her to reveal the soft blue scarf she wears beneath it. She looks up at them with the calm serenity of a Madonna and smiles a peaceful benediction at them. If more proof is needed that she is a combination Madonna and Christ figure, Irena even walks on water — well, she runs across a frozen river — and she gently washes Smith's blistered feet when they find an oasis. These are small moments in the film, but they express one of its major themes in a subtle and moving way.

The richly orchestrated original score by Burkhard von Dallwitz contributes to the emotion of the film and keeps most of the audience in its seat till the end of the credits, savoring the experience. The cinematography by Russell Boyd is also gorgeous, focusing on the grand landscapes of the desert, the Himalayas, and the starlit skies, as one would expect from a film produced by National Geographic. Some wide-angle scenes of the weary travelers are so perfectly composed that they give new meaning to the phrase "moving pictures." These are literally photographs that move. Director Peter Weir adds to this impression by presenting each scene as a separate snapshot of the journey, without narrative transition. At times one almost feels that one is turning the pages of a photo album.

This does not distract, however, from the development of the characters and their story. When they start their journey, the men are almost like animals. They eat food that has been stomped into the earth; they lap water from muddy pools. Colin Farrell as the Russian criminal, Valka, paces like a lone wolf on the outskirts of the group. He is ruthless, unpredictable, and inhumanly willing to kill for survival. Smith only half jokingly calls Janusz's kindness a "weakness" that he plans to exploit when he needs someone to carry him. At one point the men chase a pack of wolves away from a freshly killed animal, then fall onto the carcass themselves, tearing at the raw meat and elbowing one another out of the way in their frenzied hunger.

These scenes are harrowing. But they do not dominate the movie. Even more impressive is the symbolic transition from the darkness of the Siberian forest to the bright light of the desert. The further the men journey from their physical prison, the more their sense of humanity returns, releasing them from their internal prisons. The Way Back is not just a movie about traveling back home, but about finding a way back from the darkness of war to the light of human dignity and self-respect. It is truly a wonderful film.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Way Back," directed by Peter Weir. National Geographic, 2010, 133 minutes.



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Tourist Class

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Johnny Depp, my favorite actor to rave about, and Angelina Jolie, my favorite actress to rage against, together in the same film — how could I resist The Tourist? Despite its poor critical reviews, I had to see the film for myself.

The Tourist is an old-school spy thriller in the style of Alfred Hitchcock. Two strangers meet on a train. One is the cool and beautiful spy, Elise Clinton-Ward (Jolie). The other is Frank Tupelo (Depp), a hapless math teacher vacationing in Venice. Treasury agents are on the train, hoping she will lead them to her boyfriend, the mysterious Alexander. Elise needs to find a patsy to throw them off the trail. Frank fits the bill, and the game of cat-and-mouse begins. Add an international crime boss (Steven Berkoff) intent on regaining the money Alexander has stolen from him — a crime boss who also believes that Frank is Alexander — and the big dogs enter the chase.

Film buffs will recognize obvious allusions to Hitchcock's North by Northwest, including the famous cut to the overhead shot of the train barreling through the tunnel as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint discretely make love. The film is sprinkled with allusions to several other iconic films as well, including Star Wars and Indiana Jones. These allusions are subtle and fun, good for a knowing chuckle without becoming campy or distracting.

The Tourist is also blessed with a witty script, written by director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and Christopher McQuarrie. It contains several rapid-fire verbal exchanges worthy of a Word Watch column by Liberty's own Stephen Cox. One, involving the words "ravenous" and "ravishing," is hilarious, mainly because of Frank's deadpan sincerity. His continued use of Spanish tourist phrases as he tries to communicate with Italian hoteliers and policemen is equally humorous (and realistic). The plot itself has enough turns and twists to satisfy an audience of thrill seekers, and it keeps us guessing until the end. The supporting cast is fine too, especially Paul Bettany as the Treasury Inspector Acheson and Timothy Dalton as Inspector Jones.

So why is The Tourist being panned by most critics? There is that unfortunate casting decision — the selection of Angelina Jolie as the femme fatale. Even director Donnersmarck was unhappy with her selection, and left the project for a while after she was cast. Jolie is simply too cold and hard to play the role convincingly. Yes, Eva Marie Saint was cool and distant in North by Northwest, and it worked brilliantly. But she was a more versatile actress, and she played the role of Eve Kendall with intelligence and reserve. Her costumes — mostly smart suits topped by a sophisticated beehive hairstyle — emphasized a cool restraint that hinted at a hot passion simmering beneath the surface. The result was completely believable, and the scenes between Grant and Saint fairly sizzled with repressed desire.

Jolie, however, is the unwitting poster child for the age-old question: is it possible to be too rich or too thin? The answer, it seems, is Yes. She makes unintentional comedy as she tries, with her pencil-thin legs, to sashay down the street or through a room in a flowing silk dress while swaying her hips a la Marilyn Monroe. The trouble is, she has no hips to sway. To compensate for this problem, the costume designer added long ribbons to the back of each dress, apparently so there would be something to bounce. Nevertheless, the film contains several long scenes of heads turning as Elise skims through a restaurant, casino, or hotel lobby. One wonders, at times, whether this is a spy film or a perfume commercial.

There are some problems about Depp as well. His trademark quirkiness is intact, especially when he is running from the mobsters who think they are chasing Alexander. But his character’s ragged, cheek-length hairstyle emphasizes the fact that his face has rounded out with age, making him more reminiscent of an angsty Billy Crystal than the dashing Captain Jack Sparrow or debonair John Dillinger whom Depp has played in recent years. This may be good for his character as the timid and confused mathematics teacher, but not so good for viewers who look forward to seeing Depp's dashing good looks.

Several editing goofs also mar the film. For example, at one point Elise receives a hotel key inside a note card. When she uses the key, it has a thick red tassel attached, but when she received it, there was no tassel. Are we supposed to believe that she has spent the intervening moments shopping for a tassel and attaching it? Even more glaring is a mistake that happens when she drives a boat to take Frank to the airport. (This is in Venice, remember.) She is wearing a white sweater and dark slacks when she drops him off, but she has somehow changed into a gray knit dress when she drives away. Mistakes like this are very distracting, especially in a mystery thriller, where viewers are always on the lookout for clues.

The Tourist is an okay film, but it's a disappointment because it had the potential to be a great film. It will be worth watching on a long flight or when it comes to Showtime on TV, but it's unfortunately not worth the price of popcorn and admission.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Tourist," directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Spyglass Entertainment, 2010, 103 minutes.



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Finding a Voice

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Robert Frost defined poetry as “a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love-sickness . . . where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words.”

Just as a poem can express an emotion or describe a relationship through a single snapshot, sometimes a person’s character can be summed up in a single experience. For King George VI (“Bertie,” as he was called by his family) that experience occurred in his determined effort to overcome a pronounced lifelong stammer. The King’s Speech is a wonderfully witty, brilliantly acted, and emotionally satisfying film that tells of the singular moment when an unorthodox speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) helped the king (Colin Firth) to find his voice, at a time when England — and the free world — desperately needed it.

One of the unexpected pleasures of this film is the opportunity to see the royal family in their living rooms, so to speak, when they were young and not expecting to become king or queen. A rumble of recognition is heard in the theater, for example, as viewers realize with a start that Helena Bonham Carter’s character is the young Queen Mum, already demonstrating her twinkling smile and munching on the marshmallows that would eventually lead to her familiar round torso. “That’s Queen Elizabeth!” at least one viewer gasped as the young princess, Elizabeth (Freya Wilson) is seen romping in pink pajamas with her little sister Margaret (Ramona Marquez) as they listen eagerly to a bedtime story told by their father, the man who did not expect to be king.

It is also unexpectedly intimate to see the debonair playboy Prince of Wales cum King Edward VIII cum Duke of Windsor (Guy Pearce), bursting into tears and sobbing on the shoulder of his mother, Queen Mary (Claire Bloom), at the death of his father George V (Michael Gambon) — sobbing not because his father has died but because of what it will mean to his relationship with the twice (and still) married Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). He would remain king for less than a year, not even enough time for his official coronation, induced to abdicate because of the relationship with Mrs. Simpson and because of his general incompetence.

George VI was a great example of courage, confidence, and commitment during World War II, not only in his speeches but also in his actions.

As the film opens, Bertie, the timid younger son of a domineering father, attempts to stammer his way through a radio speech under the disapproving eye of King George V, whose Christmas radio speeches were as important to his people’s sense of good will as Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats became in America. The film suggests that George V’s raging disapproval and faultfinding may have contributed to Bertie’s stammer.

Sitting behind him and stoically willing him to succeed, his wife Elizabeth (Bonham Carter) exudes tender disappointment when he fails. She is not embarrassed by him; she hurts for him. Several royal doctors try to cure Bertie of his awkward and unregal stammer, but to no avail. In one particularly ironic scene, a doctor urges him to smoke cigarettes frequently because it will “relax” his vocal cords. (Sadly, George VI would die of lung cancer and arteriosclerosis at the age of 56.) Eventually Elizabeth finds an unconventional therapist, Lionel Logue (Rush), who changes Bertie’s life by restoring his voice, and by becoming his lifelong friend.

The film is a delightful mixture of royal protocol and unexpected earthiness. Logue refuses to treat the Duke of York any differently from the way in which he treats his other clients, even insisting that they use first names. Their banter is droll and often hilarious. When Myrtle Logue (Jennifer Ehle), who is unaware of her husband’s famous client, comes home a bit early to find the king and queen of England standing in her parlor, she asks querulously, “Will their Majesties be staying for dinner?” Elizabeth, knowing it would be inappropriate for them to stay, responds charmingly, “We would love to. Such a treat! But alas . . . a previous engagement. What a pity.” No wonder everyone loved the Queen Mum!

The King’s Speech is a tour de force for Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, two masters of the king’s English, who spar and vie for dominance in each scene. But despite the humor there is an underlying seriousness to Bertie’s effort to overcome his impediment, especially when his struggles are set against the backdrop of his older brother’s abdication and the run-up to World War II. One of the most brilliant scenes in the film is King George VI’s 1939 Christmas speech to the British people, on the eve of the war with Germany. The speech is familiar to anyone who has studied that period of history. It has always seemed emotionally charged and solemn because of its halting delivery. Learning that this delivery was the result of a speech impediment does not lessen its gravity. Instead, it increases it, as it demonstrates the king’s strength and courage at a time when the British people would be called upon to demonstrate strength and courage of their own. Logue literally conducts the king in his delivery of the speech in the way a maestro would conduct an orchestra, virtually transforming it into a lyric, set to the solemn strains of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which fills the theater throughout the scene.

George VI was a great example of courage, confidence, and commitment during World War II, not only in his speeches but also in his actions. When Buckingham Palace was bombed and his advisors urged him to move his family to the safety of Canada for the duration of the war, the king refused, joining Londoners in underground air raid shelters. While his people sent their children to the safety of the English countryside, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret stayed in town.

Meanwhile, the abdicated Edward VIII and his beloved Wallis Warfield Simpson led an unhappy life. Suspected of German sympathies, they met with Hitler before the war, and he was finally sent by Churchill to govern the Bahamas, mainly to keep him out of the way. Hitler himself was quoted as saying, "I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us." One has to wonder where England might have stood during World War II — and what Europe would be like today — if Wallis Simpson hadn’t stolen Edward’s heart and caused him to give up the throne.


Editor's Note: Review of "The King’s Speech," directed by Tom Hooper. See-Saw Films/The Weinstein Co., 2010, 118 minutes.



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Dickie Eklund's Punch-Out!!

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Do we really need another rags-to-riches movie about boxing? Probably not. But filmmakers keep making them, and we keep watching them. Whether you like boxing or not, there is something cathartic about the hero's struggle itself. Like the best boxing movies, the latest one is more about the fighter than the fight, more about the family duking it out outside the ring than the boxing going on inside it. We can always use another film about family dynamics and the will to overcome obstacles, and The Fighter is one of those.

Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) is the classic small-town hero, still basking in the glory of a quasi-victory 14 years earlier, in a bout where he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Not knocked out, mind you, but knocked down. And some say that Sugar Ray actually tripped. Nevertheless, Dickie is called “The Pride of Lowell,” and as this film begins he is swaggering down the street in that Massachusetts town with an HBO film crew in tow, documenting his “comeback” as a trainer for his younger half-brother, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg).

Micky’s manager is his mother Alice (Melissa Leo), a hard-driving, chain-smoking, no-nonsense matriarch in tight pants and high heels. Leo is over-the-top perfect in this role, from the moment she prances into the gym, clipboard in hand, and asks the film crew, “Did you get that? Do you need me to do it again?”

Alice is the ultimate stage mother: pushy, strong, manipulative, and naively confident in her ability to manage her sons’ careers. “You gonna let her talk to me like that?” she rages at Micky when his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) stands up to the rude and domineering matriarch. “I have done everything for you!” she screeches. She is also a classic enabler. Like many mothers who know how to give affection but don’t know how to parent, Alice sees no wrong in Dickie, and her constant sympathy and approval contribute to his sense of entitlement and its disastrous consequences.

Boxing movies are never really about the fights; they’re about the fighter.

The story of fraternal conflict is as old as Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob. In this case, two brothers vie for their parents’ love and attention, while trying to work out their own relationship. Dickie is clearly Alice’s favorite, but since he is virtually washed up as a boxer, Micky becomes the family’s new great hope — even his seven sleazy sisters are completely focused on the light they share from their brothers’ moments of fame. Dickie is the son mired in past glory, and Micky is the son trying to break away and rise above his toxic roots. But Micky is constantly pulled back by his love for his crazy family, and especially by his childlike love for his older brother.

As with many small-town heroes, adulthood has not been good to Dickie. He hangs out in bars and crack houses when he should be in the ring training and sparring with Micky. He shows up several hours late for training — while the HBO cameras keep rolling. He dives out the back window of his girlfriend’s house when he hears his mother coming, afraid of her disapproval. Nevertheless, throughout the first half of the film, Dickie is high on life, hopped up, and wide eyed. His backstreet swagger oozes confidence and joy.

Partway through the film, however, we realize that the documentary isn’t going to be about Dickie’s comeback as a fighter and trainer; it’s going to be HBO’s High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell (1995). Richard Farrell, who directed the HBO doc, plays a character much like himself in a cameo as a cameraman in this film. Of course, Dickie and his family don’t know the true topic of the documentary, and their moment of realization is devastating, performed with an understated emotion from each actor that is pitch-perfect. Farrell captured the tragedy of crack addiction in the real documentary, and Russell does it again with this film. (Note to self: never trust anyone with a movie camera, no matter what the person tells you is being filmed.)

Boxing movies are never really about the fights; they’re about the fighter, so this film as aptly titled. It’s not about one fighter, though, but about several — Dickie, the has-been boxer fighting to regain his former glory; Micky, the stronger brother fighting to break out of the other’s shadow; Charlene, the girlfriend fighting for respect; and Alice, the mother fighting for her family’s success. All of this takes place in a setting that has seen more rags than riches over the years, a place where boxing can be a pathway to money and status, but more often leads to broken hearts and broken bones.

The Fighter is a film about choice — about choosing to work hard, or not; choosing to be self-interested, or not; choosing the right friends, or not. Dickie’s choices land him in prison; Micky’s choices (when unencumbered by Dickie’s and Alice’s management) land him on a path to the welterweight championship. The scenes juxtaposing Micky’s training in the gym with Dickie’s sparring in the prison yard (and Alice’s chasing her husband with a frying pan) say a lot about choice and consequence in this film about fighting — it’s not just about beating someone up, but about fighting to survive.

This is also a film about love, and how to express it when the person you love is toxic; here, true love is expressed by knowing when someone is hurting, and reaching out to carry the load. This is a film about breaking away, but also about hanging on. How Dickie and Micky manage to do both makes The Fighter well worth watching, even though it might be called“justanother boxing film.”

 


Editor's Note: Review of "The Fighter," directed by David O. Russell. Paramount Pictures, 2010, 115 minutes.



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Turn Out the Lights, the Party's Over

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With a budget of $65 million, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is touted as the most lavish musical ever mounted on Broadway. Much of the money has been invested in mechanical lifts and flying machines, high-tech costumes, and, unfortunately, medical bills. Already one performer has broken both wrists, another has broken both feet, another has fractured his ribs and injured his back, and the leading actress has suffered a concussion that took her out of the show for a while. And Spider-Man hasn't even officially opened yet. (It's still in previews, and the official opening date, when the show will be set in stone and critics are invited to write their reviews, keeps being pushed back.)

You know you're in trouble when the stage manager has to make an announcement before the first act assuring the audience that OSHA representatives are on hand backstage to make sure the stunts are in full compliance with safety requirements, and that the state Department of Labor has okayed the production, despite the numerous injuries. (The continued injury rate gives you a lot of confidence in OSHA and the Department of Labor, doesn't it?) Going to a performance of this new musical feels eerily like going to a hockey game or a stock car race — you hate to admit it, but you're almost hoping to see blood. Look at all the laughs Conan O'Brien has milked from the show's growing injury list.

Let’s be frank: accidents aside, the show was doomed from the beginning. All the stunts and technical tricks in the world can't make up for a bad script, and this one is a snoozer. It gained the potential for an interesting plot by introducing an unexpected new character, the mythological Arachne of Greek mythology, who was transformed into a spider for boasting that she was a better weaver than Athena, patron goddess of weaving. Two characters from different eras cursed with spidery traits and struggling to become human again could have produced a dynamic new story.

Going to a performance of this new musical feels eerily like going to a hockey game or a stock car race — you hate to admit it, but you're almost hoping to see blood.

But instead of focusing on this new character development and trusting the audience to know the story of how Peter Parker became Spiderman (which any possible audience is certain to know already), the show's producers decided to leave Arachne dangling (literally) for most of the show and concentrate on retelling the core story.

The production is framed by four punk teens who seem to be writing a script or filming a video (it isn't clear what they are doing) in front of the stage. They tell each other the story, and then their story comes to life as the actors perform it, almost action-for-action and word-for-word the way we have already seen it in comic books, on film, and in amusement parks. First we hear it, then we see it — yet we already know it. Talk about overkill! I was ready to pull out the industrial strength Raid before the first act was finished.

Even then . . . The show could have survived a weak storyline if director Julie Taymor had delivered what she is known for: a montage of splashy, whimsical, creative production numbers that wow the audience with unexpected visual delights. This is what she did in her film Across the Universe and Broadway's phenomenal The Lion King. In both those shows, the story is just a vehicle for delivering breathtaking musical productions — and it works. Who can forget the spectacular parade of lifelike animals or the dancing grasses and rivers in The Lion King? The sets, the costumes, the choreographies, and the thrilling music are simply magnificent, despite the silliness of some of the main characters.

Unfortunately, Taymor's vision for Spider-Man falls as short as the safety harness that was supposed to catch Spidey's stand-in during his unintentionally death-defying drop into the orchestra pit. Yes, Arachne's spider costume is pretty cool as she hangs and twists in the air while her legs and abdomen grow. But we saw something quite similar at the end of Act One in Wicked. The dance of the golden spiders as they swing from 40-foot golden curtains is lovely as well, but we've seen that in every Cirque du Soleil show of the past 20 years. The fights between Spidey and Green Goblin as they fly above the audience and land in the balconies are probably the most unexpected and technically difficult, but only about half the audience can actually see them, since the fights take place high at the back of the theater.

In short, even if the production crew of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark can get its acts together and fix the technical problems, the show will still have artistic problems that may be insurmountable. It isn't as showy as Cirque de Soleil, or as campy as Spamalot, or as interesting as Wicked. It simply isn't very good, and it certainly isn't worth risking people's lives for. My advice: turn out the lights; the party's over.


Editor's Note: "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" is currently in previews at the Foxwoods Theatre on 42nd Street.



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New Grit

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The story of True Grit is as simple as a classic western and iconic as a Greek drama — a tale of revenge and redemption, told with wit, grit, and a dash of cathartic poignancy.

Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) has killed Frank Ross in cold blood. Frank's 14-year-old daughter, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), is determined to see Chaney hanged for murder. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is a murderer of a different sort: as a U.S. Marshall, he has a license to go after outlaws and bring them back, dead or alive. More often than not, he brings them back dead.

Mattie is looking for a marshal with "grit" to help her find her father's killer. The trigger-happy Cogburn is her choice. But the title of the film could just as easily describe Mattie herself. Smart enough to outnegotiate a horse trader, well-versed in the law, plucky enough to tame and ride a new mustang, and tenaciously persistent, she is a girl with true grit. Cogburn is at first irritated by this young whippersnapper, but as he sees her determination, irritation gives way to grudging admiration. Eventually he grows to love her with the protective ferocity of a mother bear.

As they travel together, Cogburn slowly reveals his past to her. He has two failed marriages behind him, as well as a son who, he admits, "never liked me very much." With her unflinching courage and impressive education, Mattie becomes both the son and the daughter Cogburn did not raise. Gradually she comes to represent his opportunity for redemption as a father.

Comparisons to the 1969 version of True Grit, starring John Wayne, are inevitable. After all, the Duke won his one and only Oscar for this role. Many critics have complained that Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn is a grizzled old coot, barely visible behind his whiskers and eye patch. Nevertheless, Bridges sells it, supplying what I consider the original film’s missing ingredient: the growing emotional connection between the precocious yet vulnerable young girl and the old man who has buried his personal life in a whiskey bottle. The chemistry simply didn't exist between Kim Darby and John Wayne, who openly complained about his costar's lack of experience and depth.

Darby's Mattie was bent on reforming the irascible, hard-drinking, cynical Cogburn, but Steinberg's Mattie simply accepts him for who he is and takes care of him when he needs it. When she removes Rooster's tobacco and rolling paper from his fumbling hands and deftly produces a tight cigarette, she does it without condemnation or flourish; it's apparent that she has rolled cigarettes for her father many times before. The gesture symbolizes a subtle transfer of Mattie's affection and signals the beginning of Cogburn's redemption. By contrast, in Kim Darby's hands the cigarette is an unspoken accusation of his immorality.

The Coen Brothers are probably the most versatile moviemaking team in the business. They defy any attempt to place them in a genre box, unless that box is just labeled "Good." It has been said that paper is cheaper than film, and the Coens have taken that axiom to heart, beginning with a great script that leads inevitably to a great story and a great film. From the quirky Raising Arizona to the starmaking Fargo to the sleazy The Big Lebowski to the sublime O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men, they’ve known how to make movies the old fashioned way: with great stories, great acting, and great cinematography. True Grit may not be their quirkiest or most original, but it is a true winner.


Editor's Note: Review of "True Grit," directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Skydance, 2010, 110 minutes.



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Which Is the Real One?

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This seems to be the season of Black Swans. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable spent 17 weeks on the bestseller list and is still being discussed as an explanation for what is happening with the economy. Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake returned to New York this fall with its menacing all-male corps de ballet bringing a sizzlingly dark interpretation to this most-beloved of ballets. And now we have the much-anticipated release of the movie Black Swan. The film stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis as ballerinas competing for the coveted role of the Swan Queen in a company headquartered at Manhattan's Lincoln Center.

Swan Lake is Tchaikovsky's iconic folktale about Odette, an innocent young girl whom a wizard transforms into a swan. As in many fairy tales, only true love can restore the heroine to her original form. Odette falls in love with Prince Siegfried, but before he can marry her, the wizard substitutes his own daughter, Odile. Odile attends a ball given by Siegfried and tricks him into believing she is Odette, seducing him with her more passionate charm. Traditionally the parts of both women are played by the same ballerina, suggesting to some modern interpreters that the White Swan and the Black Swan are actually warring parts of a single psyche, the Angel and the Whore.

This psychological dilemma figures prominently in the new film. In its version of the story, Nina (Portman) is a member of the corps de ballet who hopes to earn a principal role in the company's upcoming performance of Swan Lake. Lily (Kunis) is a new member of the corps who also hopes to earn the role. Nina is timid and innocent, like the White Swan, while Lily is confident and daring, like the Black Swan. Nina doesn't know what to make of Lily: is she friend or foe?

Black Swan is a traditional backstage movie with a sinister twist. Instead of learning to inhabit the role of the black swan, Nina is horrified to find the swan entering her own exterior world. She must deal with her jealous, overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey) who has given up her own career in the ballet so she can have Nina. The mother is reminiscent of the queen in Snow White, who becomes so jealous of her stepdaughter's beauty that she wants her to be killed. Nina also has to contend with an evil stepsister of sorts, as Lily manages to become Nina's alternate and seems determined to sabotage her chance to star as the Swan Queen.

Actors often talk about the goal of becoming so immersed in a role that they turn "seeming into being," as Emerson wrote in his journals. Nina is technically capable of dancing the choreographies, but she lacks the passion to become the seductive Black Swan convincingly. Her sleazy director (Vincent Cassel) tries to help her by seducing her himself. Lily tries to help her by making her angry. What seems lacking in this film, however, is a Prince Siegfried character, someone for whom Nina could feel honest love and genuine passion.

Instead, the audience must endure several explicit scenes of masturbation and oral sex that is rendered more as an unemotional attack than as lovemaking. Apparently, the purpose of these scenes is to show how Nina gets in touch with her inner passion, but the scenes are gratuitous and unnecessarily graphic. They mar what is otherwise an exciting and fascinating film.

Both Swan Lake and Black Swan are stories of transformation, but the film is deliberately ambiguous about what happens. Is the transformation in this film metaphoric, metaphysical, or merely hallucinogenic? We never really know, and it doesn't really matter. Ultimately the film is about the ecstasy of a perfect performance, demonstrated on several levels both on and off the stage.


Editor's Note: Review of "Black Swan," directed by Darren Aronofsky. Cross Creek Pictures/Fox Searchlight, 2010, 108 minutes.



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