Woody Allen: He’s Still Good

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When Cate Blanchett walks up to the podium to accept her Best Actress accolades next spring for her stunning performance in Blue Jasmine (and she most certainly will be winning them all, from Golden Globe to Oscar), she will be sharing the award with the ghost of a white Chanel jacket tastefully trimmed in black. That jacket says more about her character, Jasmine Francis, than any piece of costume since Superman's cape. It is Jasmine’s connection with the world she once inhabited, and she wears the expensive jacket casually, as you or I might toss a windbreaker over our shoulders.

Jasmine Francis is a woman beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown; she has already gone over the edge, and is desperately trying to hang on. She not only lives in the past, she talks to people in her past, rehashing old conversations right out loud, while standing on the sidewalk or sitting at a party. We see this as flashbacks triggered by key words or images that remind her of her old life. Through this process we see the juxtaposition of Jasmine’s old life as a glamorous socialite and wife of a multibillionaire, and her new life as the poverty-stricken widow forced to live with her sister, a spunky San Francisco grocery clerk.

The story is a thinly veiled roman à clef that imagines the post-scandal life of Bernie Madoff's wife, Ruth. Madoff, of course, was the investment banker who swindled $65 billion from friends, relatives, and charitable organizations in the largest financial fraud in history. After the Ponzi scheme came to light, Ruth Madoff complained that she couldn't go anywhere without being vilified. Shunned by her former friends, she couldn't go to her gym, her favorite restaurants, or even shopping because everyone stared at her and made disparaging remarks. Well duh! It's one thing for a legitimate money manager to misjudge the markets and suffer losses once in a while. But Madoff never even tried to be a wise money manager for his clients. He just kept raking in the dough and spending it on yachts and homes and cars, while sending out phony statements to keep his clients happy. How could anyone feel anything but contempt for such shysters?

Like Ruth Madoff, Jasmine goes to live with a sister. Ginger (Sally Hawkins) lives in a tiny, frowsy San Francisco apartment with her two young sons. Ginger's marriage has also collapsed, partly because Jasmine's husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) had convinced her and her husband to invest their $200,000 lottery prize in his "real estate fund" instead of supporting their goal to start a business of their own. Of course, there was no investment fund; Hal had been funneling everyone's money into his own personal accounts. The big question is: how much did Jasmine know? An even bigger question: how can a person deliberately defraud a family member or friend? Simply shocking.

Jasmine is tasteful and smart and elegant, but she has absolutely no idea how to exist in the real world. She has no income and virtually no money, yet she gives her taxi driver a $100 tip and flies across country first class because she cannot imagine any other way to act. (When Ginger asks, "How did you pay for a first class ticket?" Jasmine responds with a dismissive wave of her hand, "I don't know. I just did.")

Popping Xanax like breath mints and washing it down with Stoli vodka, Jasmine lives in a daze of denial. She knows she has to reinvent and redefine herself, but she can't let go of the past that was so comfortable, nor can she come to terms with how it all happened. Meanwhile Ginger and her friends try in vain to welcome Jasmine into their world of pizza, beer, and cheap dates. The disconnection provides for many comic moments, but the undercurrent of tragedy is always present.

Woody Allen is one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood. He has been making films for nearly half a century, but (in my opinion) he has done his best work in the past decade, at an age when other people are retired and chasing golf balls. Last year's Midnight in Paris, about a frustrated writer who mysteriously finds himself hobnobbing with the likes of Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds in 1920s Paris, was brilliant. So is Blue Jasmine. It is one of Allen's finest films. The story is at once contemporary and timeless and true. Cate Blanchett gives an utterly fearless and totally vulnerable performance as Jasmine, and the rest of the cast rise to her level of abandon, forgetting themselves in the characters. And kudos to Suzy Benzinger as costume designer . . . I hope that Chanel jacket shows up at the Oscars.


Editor's Note: Review of "Blue Jasmine," written and directed by Woody Allen. Perdido Productions, 2013, 98 minutes.



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Film and the Fight for Freedom

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In many works of fiction, the protagonist is an "outsider," either one who literally comes from outside the community or one who resides within the community but nevertheless is an outsider in terms of personal values and behavior. This character allows the reader or the audience to identify with the community and at the same time view the beliefs and values of the community through fresh eyes — often, in so doing, reevaluating ideas and practices that we once took for granted as self-evident and unalienable.

In Wadjda the title character (Waad Mohammed) is this kind of protagonist. She is a 10-year-old girl living within the orthodox community of Saudi Arabia, but she has very unorthodox desires. She does not openly defy the values and practices of her community; indeed, she wears her scarves and abaya as though they were as natural as her hair, and she nods nonchalantly when her mother tells her she is old enough to start covering her face with her ayallah when she goes outside. She attends a religious girls' school and works hard to learn her lessons, which are replete with the acknowledgement that everything is controlled by the goodness of Allah. When one of her pre-pubescent classmates is married over the weekend, Wadjda giggles but is not concerned. These are givens in her community.

But Wadjda has her own values as well. She wears sneakers under her abaya, and inside those shoes her toenails are painted candy-apple blue. She listens to western music on an ancient cassette tape player in her room, and she often wears a t-shirt emblazoned with "I am a great catch" in English (although we never know for sure whether she understands what the words mean). She is attracted to the culture of the West, even though she is immersed in the culture of the Middle East.

Most of all, Wadjda wants to own a bike. She wants to know the freedom of riding faster than she can run, and the satisfaction of racing against her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who happens to be a boy. All the boys have bikes. But nice girls don't ride bicycles. A fall could be dangerous to their virginity — and we know how important that is in Middle Eastern culture. So no one encourages or helps Wadjda in her goal.

"Wadjda" does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film.

Nevertheless, Wadjda is determined to buy the shiny green bike on display at the local sundries store. She becomes an entrepreneur by making bracelets to sell to her friends. She charges acquaintances for running errands and with a determined voice and a winning smile convinces them to pay her extra. She forgoes instant gratification in order to save for her big purchase when she no longer buys treats and trinkets from the corner store when her friends go shopping. Eventually she realizes that she will never save enough money by doing menial tasks, especially when the local store begins selling Chinese-made bracelets at a fraction of the former price.

So she does what every good entrepreneur must do: she uses her savings as seed money to capitalize a larger business venture. Lured by the prize money of 1,000 riyals, she decides to enter the school's Quran recitation contest (sort of like a spelling bee or Geography Bowl). But since she has never been a good student of the Quran, she invests all her savings to purchase "capital goods": an expensive electronic study aid. It is a big risk, but it is the only way that she can turn her 80 riyals into the 800 riyals she needs to purchase the bike.

Wadja's mother (Reem Abdullah) is also an entrepreneur of sorts who understands that success requires taking risks. (Significantly, she has no name in the film except "Mother.") Her mother-in-law is shopping for a second wife for her husband, and she is determined to thwart that plan by showing everyone in the community that she is beautiful and desirable so that no other woman would be willing to become a second wife to her. To do this, she decides to invest her money in a stunning red dress to wear to a relative's upcoming wedding. This will remind everyone, including her husband, that she is not an old woman to be set aside and replaced. She is still beautiful, sexy, and valuable — not the kind of woman that another woman would want to compete with as second wife. She also makes it clear to her husband that she will no longer live with him connubially if he takes another wife. Like Wadjda, she risks everything to accomplish her goal.

As with the best of outsider fiction, Wadjda does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film. In fact, it is more about following one's dreams and making things happen than it is about the evils of a particular culture. Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour presents the Saudi culture respectfully and matter-of-factly, without exaggeration or overt criticism. The film is subtly nuanced and carefully crafted not to offend; in fact, a true believer in the Saudi way of life could view this film as an example of what happens to women who rebel. No men ever step in to exert authority over the women. No overt abuse occurs. No legal authorities step in to limit these women's rights.

In fact, most of the rules are applied by other women. They simply accept the cultural mores regarding gender and enforce the rules themselves. The bike shop owner (a man) has no problem selling a bike to a girl; the men who see Wadjda and the other girls in public do not tell them to withdraw. In fact, it does not even seem to be against the law for girls to ride a bike; it simply isn't done, and it is the women, not the men, who enforce this cultural taboo. Moreover, Wadjda's father seems to be a very loving and affectionate man who is somewhat trapped by the culture himself.

Nevertheless, it took great courage to make this film in Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt that Al-Mansour expects her audience to open their eyes and see the hypocrisy and injustice that the characters themselves seem to overlook. Nineteenth-century writers and dramatists such as Jane Austen and Henrik Ibsen opened the eyes of their audiences in similar ways. They presented the current culture as it was, creating a setting in which the audience felt comfortable and at home. Then they skillfully allowed an outsider protagonist to lead the audience into discovering the hypocrisy and injustice of the culture in which they felt so comfortable. Why should Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), two of Jane Austen's most beloved characters, have fewer opportunities for happiness in marriage simply because their fathers did not inherit the family wealth? Why should Nora (Ibsen's proactive protagonist in A Doll's House), be forced to hide in the attic, earning money by copying documents, simply because she is a married woman and doesn't have her husband's consent to work?(Writers today take it another step and challenge the Victorian idea that marriage is the key to happiness.)

Works of fiction still have the power to influence their culture by shining subtle lights back upon itself. They have more power to change a cultural mindset than all the "pinprick" assaults and direct attacks of war will ever have. Film has the power to change minds and hearts, and Wadjda is an instance. It presents one of the spunkiest and most charming protagonists to come along in quite a while. Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through. Wadjda is a film that will warm your heart even as it breaks it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Wadjda," written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. Highlook Communications and Razor Film Produktion (2012), 98 minutes. (In Arabic with English subtitles. But don't let that hold you back.)



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Why Is Arms Control for Civilians Only?

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In the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2009, Oscar Grant III was killed by an overzealous transit cop in Oakland’s Fruitvale BART Station. He was 22 years old, the father of a four-year-old daughter. Grant and his friends were returning from watching the New Year's Eve fireworks when an altercation started among the revelers on the train. The fight had already ended before the cops arrived, but they still wanted to assert their thuggish authority. Grant was lying face down on the platform when he was shot. Several bystanders caught the arrest and shooting on their cellphones, and these grainy images of the actual event are seen at the beginning of "Fruitvale Station," which tells the story of Oscar Grant's final day of life.

The film is a lot like Gabriel Garcia Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold in that we know from the beginning that Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is going to be shot, just as we know from the first sentence of Chronicle that this is the day when Santiago Nasar is going to be killed. Nevertheless, both stories are taut and suspenseful because they focus on the "who" and the "why" of the stories rather than the end result. Fruitvale Station is a moving character study of the young man, and of the socioeconomic conditions that influenced his life and death. It is an important film for today, when stories appear of a 95-year-old man who refused medical attention being killed by cops with a beanbag round propelled from a shotgun, and an 18-year-old skateboarder being killed by another taser-happy cop after spraypainting an abandoned building. What ever happened to due process?

Oscar is presented as a generous-hearted young man, the kind who notices others and goes out of his way to help them in simple ways — he's that guy who will reach something from the top shelf of the grocery store for a stranger, or pick up something you need on the way home from work and not let you pay him back. He likes being a nice guy.

But we see a darker side to Oscar, too. He wears a mask of easygoing generosity, but behind that mask he is worried, and he is lying. He has lost his job at the grocery store, and he doesn't want anyone in his family to know it because he doesn't want to disappoint them. He has already disappointed them enough; we soon discover that he has done time in prison for various offenses, including drug dealing. The sad fact is that 40% of black males aged 18–26 are unemployed today, and a large proportion will spend time in prison. When they get out, their chance of finding employment drops even more. Dealing drugs is the fastest and surest way to make some quick cash. But it's also the fastest and surest way of ending up back in prison. Oscar doesn't want to go back.

Without the cellphone record, Oscar's death would likely have been reported as just one more former felon "shot while resisting arrest."

The conflict between the good man Oscar seems innately to be and the outlaw he is struggling to leave behind makes this film much more than a diatribe against police brutality. One of the most powerful moments in the film occurs when Oscar suddenly dons his "prison mask" during a visit with his mother (Octavia Spencer). Another inmate challenges him in the visiting room, and Oscar immediately becomes vicious and challenging in return. In the next moment he is a little boy again, desperate for his mother's understanding and affection. He is like the small dog who bares his teeth and growls menacingly when a larger dog enters his territory. It is a defensive stance, intentionally aggressive and defiant in order to avoid an escalation to physical violence. We see that mask once more during the film, and both times it is a stunning piece of acting.

There are many heroes in this film, but Oscar is not one of them. The film honors his memory, but he is a victim — a victim of poor education, of cultural poverty, and ultimately of random circumstances that put him on that train car in that station at that moment with a scared young cop who didn't know his taser from his service revolver. The true heroes are the ordinary citizens who pulled out their cellphones and began filming the event, even as cops yelled at them to put the phones down. Without that record, Oscar's death would likely have been reported as just one more former felon "shot while resisting arrest." Good riddance. And his friends who were on the platform with him would likely have ended up in jail instead of being released hastily when the police realized they were in deep trouble.

As the late Andrew Breitbart maintained, we have become a militia of journalists, armed with our cellphone cameras and ready at a moment's notice to protect the strangers around us by documenting many kinds of abuse.

Recently when I was picking my son up at the airport, I dutifully circled the terminal at least half a dozen times while waiting for him to arrive. Finally he called to say that he had his luggage and was ready to be picked up. As I pulled to the curb, however, the airport cop yelled at me, "Move along! This area is only for active loading!" I pointed toward my son and opened my door to get out. "Stay in your car and move along!" he yelled again. I pointed again at my son. "I could have you arrested,” he threatened.

"For what?" I demanded. "For picking up my son who is standing right there?"

The cop's arm twitched backward toward his holster. Seriously. For an alleged parking offense. (Maybe that's where he kept his citation pad . . .) At that point the officer noticed that my daughter was filming the whole event on her cellphone. And suddenly his whole demeanor changed. "I'm sorry Ma'am," he said. "It's been a long day. I'm at the end of a double shift." Smile, copper. You're on candid camera.

The film is NR (not rated) because of pervasive ethnic street language that would have garnered an X (filmmakers will opt for NR to avoid the deadly X rating) but for the fact that the language is realistic and appropriate to the cultural environment. Frankly, I'm amazed that the word "nigger" blaring from the hip-hop songs on Oscar's radio would be considered worse than the gore and nudity that earns an R rating, but hey — I don't let the Hollywood police tell me what to watch anyway.

Fruitvale Station won both the Drama Grand Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance this year. It is a powerful film, well worth seeing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Fruitvale Station," directed by Ryan Coogler. The Weinstein Company, 2013, 85 minutes.



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The Forgotten Gibbs

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Wolcott Gibbs contributed more words to The New Yorker than any of his better-remembered contemporaries — Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, E.B. White, to name a few. And unlike them, he contributed pieces of every kind. His boss, founding editor Harold Ross, called him “the best goddam editor in the world.” Yet, as Thomas Vinciguerra reminds us, Gibbs is hardly thought of today. To remedy this unfortunate oversight, editor Vinciguerra has brought forth a new collection of Gibbs’ writing, which he entitles Backward Ran Sentences. With a useful introduction by the editor and a foreword by P.J. O’Rourke, the book is a literary bargain.

Gibbs wrote fact and fiction pieces — “Talk of the Town” items, so-called casuals, profiles, short stories, reviews of plays and motion pictures. His writing had an elegant bounce, when he was just trying to be funny, or when he was taking apart an unsatisfactory play or a bothersome personality. And yet, as editor Vinciguerra tells us, Gibbs was a sad man, full of self-doubt, caught up in cycles of alcoholism, and all the while a chain smoker. Like Harold Ross, A.J. Liebling, and Alexander Woollcott, Gibbs died in his fifties. His wife suspected suicide, but smoking on top of pleurisy and too many martinis may have been enough to kill him.

Backward Ran Sentences contains some fascinating cultural history. The names associated with the Gibbs era roll off the pages like gumdrops — Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Mrs. Fiske, Marlon Brando, Joan McCracken, Ethel Merman, Alfred Drake, Eva Le Gallienne, and on and on. Among his shorter pieces, Gibbs addresses the joys of getting the measles — a disease with little suffering, but still requiring a quarantine — and the sadness of leaving his beloved refuge, Fire Island, and returning to Manhattan. There is the tale of a man who leaves his car, typewriter, and golf clubs in a creek because he was “tired of fooling with it.” (I am in complete sympathy.) And consider the following lines from an item dated December 13, 1941: “War came to us with the ball in Brooklyn’s possession on the Giants’ forty-five yard line. ‘Japanese bombs have fallen on Hawaii and the Philippine Islands,’ a hurried voice broke in to announce.”

Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.”

Gibbs’ profiles describe the rise to prominence of some New York lights and contain perhaps the best writing in the book — witty, detached, and not overly personal.

One unique offering describes a lady who collects stray cats and hauls them to the SPCA.

While not an icon, “Our Lady of the Cats” — Miss Rita Ross — will live on in this footnote to New York’s history. The three-part profile of Alexander Woollcott isn’t all that insulting, though it led to a final break between Woollcott and Harold Ross. Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.” Other profiles in the present collection include those of Lucius Beebe, epicure, journalist, chronicler of “Cafe Society”; Ethel Merman, who could carry a Broadway musical “on her shoulders”; and William Sylvester Maney, famously irreverent press agent and inventor of an ersatz profanity. The not-quite-flattering description of Thomas E. Dewey led him to impound Gibbs’ bank account. According to editor Vinciguerra, Dewey thought Gibbs was employed by the Democrats. When the Gibbs article appeared, Dewey wasn’t yet Governor (here the editor errs), but still District Attorney for New York County. Thus he could sequester Gibbs’ reserves as evidence in a criminal investigation — though the necessary legal cause has eluded me. At the time (1940), Dewey was beginning his first run for the presidency after a famous tour as prosecutor of mobsters. He became the prototypical Republican losing candidate.

The Ralph Ingersoll profile contains some interesting history. Ingersoll worked at The New Yorker and then for Henry Luce at Time. While there, he split with Luce over the traditional Time cover showing the Man of the Year. The chosen man in this case was Adolf Hitler. Luce wanted to display an ordinary photograph, but Ingersoll preferred an illustration carrying an anti-Hitler message. Later, in the course of building the left-leaning PM magazine, Ingersoll scooped everyone on the burning of the French ocean liner Normandie. The US government had seized the liner and was converting it into a troop ship when it caught fire in its berth in New York Harbor. Before the fire, a PM reporter had sneaked aboard the Normandie and discovered that it was, as Gibbs put it, “a fire-bug’s dream.” And so, when the liner finally burned, the PM story was ready to run.

Placed among a cluster of Gibbs’ parodies — those of Hemingway and Noel Coward are themselves funny — is his famous portrait of Henry Luce, written in the compressed, turned-around style invented by Luce’s late partner, Briton Hadden. In it we find the words, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” which provide the title for editor Vinciguerra’s collection. The parody of Time’s style later became a tit-for-tat justification for Tom Wolfe’s satirical treatment of The New Yorker as it was under William Shawn. Wolfe’s effort was rather more barbed than Gibbs’ parody, its author perhaps having failed to see the sadness of a man trying to preserve an age forever gone. Still, as the legend goes, when Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window. Were passages like the following all that provocative? “Very unlike novels of Pearl Buck were his early days. Under brows too beetling for a baby, Luce grew up inside compound, played with two sisters, lisped first Chinese, dreamed much of the Occident.” Or this one: “Typical perhaps of Luce methods is Fortune system of getting material. Writers in first draft put down wild gossip, any figures that occur to them. This is sent to victim who indignantly corrects errors, inadvertently supplies facts he might otherwise have withheld.” Well — perhaps.

The New Yorker “casuals” were very short stories, short fact pieces, anecdotes, and even brief parodies. In these and in his short stories, Gibbs could be unfunny when he wrote about the drinking class and its special problems. “Wit’s End” is a depressing story about a man who awakens to find his bed on fire — a situation in which Gibbs found himself more than once. On the other hand, “Ring Out, Wild Bells” is an amusing tale of his own youthful performance as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His mother had sewn little bells on his costume, and as he maneuvered on stage their ringing drowned out the other players’ lines. “The Curious Incident of Dogs in the Night-Time,” a story set in a restaurant, tells of two men, learned in Sherlock Holmes lore, who ingest an unbelievable number of martinis. Finding their way to an upstairs dining room, they think they’ve discovered a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars. Actually, it’s a convention of roofers from Denver. The story ends with the two inebriates singing at the piano and the conventioneers filing out of the room.

As the legend goes, when Henry Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window.

For 18 of his New Yorker years, Gibbs was its drama critic — for some of that time, he also reviewed motion pictures, a task he disliked. As P.J. O’Rourke writes, “He was not fooled by talent.” His standards applied equally to everyone who wrote, acted in, or directed Broadway productions. Taken together, his reviews represent a theatrical history of Broadway’s great age. They address plays by, among others, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, and musicals with words or music by Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner, and Lowe. The productions had names such as Ah, Wilderness! (a mixed review from Gibbs, with praise for George M. Cohan, playing the father), The Time of Your Life (slightly favorable), Romeo and Juliet (poor, but Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh will attract an audience), Blithe Spirit (good), Oklahoma! (great, of course), South Pacific (excellent, with special praise for the players), Guys and Dolls (great, with praise for Pat Rooney, Sr.), Me and Juliet (mixed, but with praise for the fated Joan McCracken), The Glass Menagerie (excellent, with exceptional praise for Laurette Taylor), My Fair Lady (excellent), Waiting for Godot (“meager moonshine”), Long Day’s Journey into Night” (good, with reservations about the play’s “epic scale of calamity,” but with praise for director Jose Quintero), West Side Story (fair, with praise for choreographer Jerome Robbins), The Music Man (good, but “not as good as all that”).

There are bits and pieces of other reviews under the heading “Curtain Calls,” including a very good one for Kiss Me Kate and a dismantling of Shaw’s The Millionairess and Katharine Hepburn’s performance in the title role. There follow some movie reviews, including an amusing one of National Velvet, and some personal essays. Among these last is a tribute to his friend Robert Benchley, who preceded Gibbs as The New Yorker’s drama critic. Benchley was famous for such humorous essays as “The Menace of Buttered Toast” and “Carnival Week in Sunny Las Los,” as well as his appearances in movies. Like Gibbs, he was a serious drinker, and like Gibbs, he died at the age of 56.

As I emphasized, Wolcott Gibbs drank to excess and was a chain smoker. Neither of those habits met with the same disapprobation that meets them today. Writers drank — perhaps Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis set the style — and some drank too much. (The trick was to drink without being tiresome.) The quality of Gibbs’ writing doesn’t appear to have suffered from the constant bombardment of martinis. But why did he saturate himself so often? Perhaps because what he had wasn’t what he wanted, and what he wanted, he couldn’t have. When Gibbs said he should be writing novels, I think he was telling the awful truth. That was what he perceived as unattainable. But was it really? — no, not if he had been less of a defeatist. He certainly had the talent required to write novels. Perhaps he should have gotten away from New York — with all its personal and professional entanglements — found some odd corner, and started pecking away on his Royal typewriter. But that would have put at risk the only comfort and security he had ever known. So, instead, he maintained his self-deprecating attitude, and took to minimizing the importance of the writing profession and the magazine that employed him. He remained a resident outsider, which probably made him a more effective editor and critic. And he kept on drinking to ease his pain.

The final Gibbs piece in the current collection is an intra-office memo that found its way into print. It’s entitled “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles,” and contains some worthwhile advice for writers. For example — “Writers use too damn many adverbs. On one page recently, I found eleven modifying the verb ‘said.’” The office copy of the Gibbs memo carried a note by his contemporary, the fiction editor Katharine White. It describes Gibbs as “one of the most talented and witty magazine editors of all time.” He was that good.


Editor's Note: Review of "Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker," edited by Thomas Vinciguerra. Bloomsbury, 2011, xix + 646 pp.



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Liberty, and the Dignity of Life

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Nearly 30 years ago, when I visited mainland China for the first time, I was traveling with a tightly controlled group of Americans. While our young, government-trained tour guide was telling us about China, two of the men in our group were determined to teach her about the freedom available in America. "You live in government housing," they said at one point. "But in America, we own our own homes. We have private property."

"No we don't," I contradicted. Then, seeing the look of outrage on their faces, I explained. "What would happen if you didn't pay your property taxes? The government would take your land away. So we don't really own our property. We just rent it from the government for the price of our property taxes."

I thought of that incident as I watched Still Mine, a moving little indie film based on the true story of a Canadian rancher, Craig Morrison (James Cromwell) who just wants to build a small house on his own property where his invalid wife Irene (Genevieve Bujold) can live comfortably and safely in a home without stairs. An experienced carpenter who learned the skill of building from his father, a master shipbuilder, Morrison plans and erects the house with his own hands and very little help. The scene of this spry 88-year-old man gently guiding the roof supports into place by himself with pulleys and ropes is simply beautiful, almost like watching Baryshnikov dance.

Enter the municipal building department. Morrison needs to apply for a permit. And submit a blueprint. "Why should I have to pay $400 for a permit to build a house on my own land that I pay taxes on?" he asks. When told that the county will have to inspect the house to make sure it is built to code, Morrison responds, "There are houses all over this town that were built 200 years ago, and not one of them was built to code!"

Nevertheless, he complies. He pays for a permit. He has a blueprint made. And he continues to build. When the inspector cites him for using lumber that isn't "stamped" and joists that aren't authorized, Morrison hires a lumber expert to testify that his two-year-old air-dried ash surpasses the quality of the government-sanctioned "stamped lumber." But to no avail. The building department threatens to bulldoze the cozy little house. When Morrison continues to build, he is threatened with jail. "These are not rules but standards," Morrison's attorney argues. "He has exceeded the standards." But all the bureaucrats care about are the rules and the violations. Their minds are already made up — no one is going to flaunt their rules and get away with it.

While this aspect of the film fills my libertarian soul with righteous indignation, the film is not really about building houses. It is about building relationships. The love between Craig and Irene, especially as she descends into the darkness of Alzheimer's, is palpable. A quick montage of early scenes establishes the closeness of their relationship: two aged hands touch on the back of a pew at church; two aged backs bend side by side as they weed their garden; two bodies intertwine under the quilt as they nestle together in sleep. Bujold is 71 now, but she is as beautiful today, silver haired and wrinkled, as she was in Obsession (1976 — my favorite of her films). And Cromwell, one of the finest character actors in Hollywood, fills the star's shoes with ease. It's about time he had the opportunity to carry a film. He does so with deeply controlled emotion, the stoicism in his face belying the tenderness his character feels. Like so many heroes who deal with a spouse's Alzheimer's, Craig just keeps moving forward. He is determined to maintain as much normalcy as possible for his wife, yet at times he can't help becoming annoyed by her forgetfulness. This tension between tenderness and frustration expresses the heartbreak that so many couples experience as they face this debilitating condition. Craig and Irene speak often about the past, because that is where she lives.

All the bureaucrats care about are the rules and the violations. Their minds are already made up — no one is going to flaunt their rules and get away with it.

In one scene, Craig talks about a dining room table he built many years before. "I put twelve coats of finish on that table," he recalls. Then he recalls the injuries to that table — the spilled ink, the dropped forks, the pencils pressed too hard as seven children did their homework over the years. As he speaks we see his hands gently caressing the gouges and scars on the table. He doesn't say it, but we know that he yelled at the kids when those scratches were made. Now he caresses the scars in the way he would caress the tops of the children's heads if they were still at home. "I should have used oak," he muses. "Pine holds a lot of memories." Craig wants to be as strong and stoic as an oak, but he's a softie inside and out. He has earned his scars — they are the scars that come from loving deeply. He reminds me a lot of my father.

Still Mine is a slow film, but it is a fine film, with beautiful scenery, excellent characterizations, a thoughtful story, and a wonderful cast. Never mind the big, splashy, forgettable blockbusters this summer. Find a good little theater specializing in small independent films, or watch for this one on Netflix. Your mind and your heart will be enriched.


Editor's Note: Review of "Still Mine," directed by Michael McGowan. Mulmer Feed Co. Production. [Yes, that's right. Mulmer Feed Co. Production. Are you surprised it isn't plural?] 2012, 102 minutes.



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Privacy? What Privacy?

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The Bling Ring tells the mostly true story of a group of Hollywood Hills teenagers who were convicted of burgling over $3 million in cash and personal items from celebrity homes over the course of a year.

It is as much a tale of stalking as it is of burglary. The thieves would track the whereabouts of glamorous celebs like Paris Hilton, Megan Fox, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson, and Audrina Patridge by perusing such websites as TMZ.com and the celebs’ own Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. Then they would locate the homes through Internet sites like Google Maps and celebrityaddressaerial.com. They were careful at first to take only a few things at a time, things that would probably not be missed from the overstuffed closets and drawers of the rich and famous. Mainly they wanted to wander around the mansions and pretend to live there. The fact that they were able to do this so effortlessly — letting themselves in through doors that had, incredibly, been left unlocked — made this a fascinating story when it broke in 2010.

The film is timely and important as a cautionary tale. Americans today routinely “check in” when they’re at the restaurant, the theater, the sporting event, or wherever else they happen to be. They post happy, smiling pictures from vacations while they are still away from home. Ostensibly they do this to say, “Hey, come join me,” or “Look at how much fun I’m having.” But they tell every person who has access to Facebook (and that’s everyone, period), “I’m not home. Now would be a good time to rob me.”

I avoided using the collective “we” because I never “check in” on Facebook, no matter how glamorous or exciting the place may be. I don’t even put my real address into my car’s GPS map; I use the nearby shopping center as the address to help me find my way home. But how many people drop their cars off at a parking garage and never think twice about leaving house keys, garage door openers, and home addresses along with the important detail, “I’ll be back in four hours”? Sheesh! We complain about the NSA and its Utah spying center, and then blithely violate our own privacy every day.

Although The Bling Ring focuses on this important topic, it is not a very good movie. The characters are thinly drawn and the actors are overdirected. They know their lines, but they wait patiently for their turn to deliver them. They don’t seem to be having genuine conversations. It’s almost like watching a middle-school play. One can almost hear Sofia Coppola in the background saying, “Okay, look like you’re excited. Now look like you’re more excited. Now look like you’re stoned.”

But perhaps Coppola simply didn’t have much to work with. Much of the dialog for the film is taken directly from interviews that were taken with the shallow, star-struck thieves and published in Nancy Jo Sales' Vanity Fair article, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.” Marc (Israel Broussard), based on Nick Prugo, is the gay kid who just wants to fit in; Rebecca (Katie Chang), based on Rachel Lee, is the ringleader who wants to be “part of the lifestyle”; and Nicki (Emma Watson), based on Alexis Neiers, wants to be noticed by celebrities and literally walk around in their shoes. In fact, when told that the victims of their crimes knew who they were, Nicki asks excitedly, “What did Lindsay [Lohan] say?”

The real life Alexis Neiers was involved in creating a reality TV show for E! about the life of a party girl, when she got involved with the Burglary Bunch. Consequently, the reality film crew was following her around during this time, filming her at parties wearing stolen clothing. When she was arrested, according to Sales’ article, they began filming her arrest and directing the family’s reaction to it. (Let’s say it together: what an idiot!)

The irony of having a camera crew following Nicki around might have made this film more interesting and suspenseful, but Coppola chose to leave that out. Instead, Nicki’s mother, Laurie (Leslie Mann) is a self-appointed guru who raises her children on the “principle of attraction” found in that inane self-help book, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (2006). (See my review of The Secret, “Better Living Through Fluff,” in the October 2007 Liberty.) The premise of homeschooling based on such a cockamamie book could be turned into a hilarious comedy. Laurie greets her three girls in the morning with a cheery, “Time for your Adderall!” She leads them in inane affirmations that she calls prayers and teaches them the principle of attraction from a series of poster boards demonstrating Angelina Jolie as a role model whose characteristics the girls should “attract.” Meanwhile the girls languish on the couch as virtual prisoners. One almost thinks that jail would be a relief.

During a post-arrest media interview, as Nicki and Laurie vie for attention and screen time, Nicki makes a statement she seems to think is extremely profound: “I’m a firm believer in Karma, and I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I see myself being like an Angelina Jolie, but even stronger, pushing even harder for the universe and for peace and for the health of our planet. I want to lead a huge charity organization. I want to lead a country, for all I know.”

This is exactly what Alexis Neiers said on-camera in her post-arrest interview. But despite being based on real life, these scenes are simply overdone and out of place. Coppola is not skilled enough to create a meaningful juxtaposition between the family scenes and the scenes of out-of-control night-clubbing and “closet shopping.” We don’t see enough of the characters’ backgrounds, beyond what the kids choose to tell us. We see glimpses of what this film might have been in the hands of a better scriptwriter, but those glimpses emphasize the fact that the film has no real point of view, other than recreating an interesting crime spree.

If you are interested in this story, save yourself the price of admission and popcorn, and just read Nancy Jo Sales’ article.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Bling Ring," directed by Sofia Coppola. American Zoetrope, 2013, 90 minutes.



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Not Your Typical Zombie Movie

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As zombie movies go, World War Z is one of the best. “Big deal,” you might respond. “I don’t like zombie movies anyway.” Well, neither do I. But World War Z is the first blockbuster of the season that is truly worth seeing, and that’s because it isn’t really a zombie movie. It’s an exciting, suspenseful action film; a tense, intelligent sci-fi thriller; and a tender, emotional family story that just happens to be swarming with gnashing, growling, undead zombies.

In this film a rabies-like virus or toxin has suddenly developed and is being spread through saliva-to-bloodstream contact. If you are bitten by an infected person, you are immediately transformed into a rabid, howling, teeth-gnashing, pack-swarming zombie. And there is no three-week incubation with this virus; people are transformed in twelve seconds. One moment our hero is being aided by another sympathetic character; the next moment he is running for his life from the same character. This creates ever-changing rushes of emotion for the audience.

The film begins with our hero, Gerry (Brad Pitt) driving with his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters (Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove) on what seems to be an ordinary day. Gradually they notice anomalies: too many helicopters are in the air; traffic has come to a standstill; emergency vehicles are ramming their way through traffic; and people are running — running for their lives. Gerry and his family start running too. Anyone who lived in New York on 9/11 or has seen films of that day (and that includes everyone on the planet) can understand the terror of knowing something is up, but not knowing what it is.

Inner-city residents have already learned this truth: police don’t prevent crime, they just clean up after it. So you’d better have a gun to protect yourself.

What makes this film so good is that it doesn’t rely on the blood and gore of a standard zombie film to titillate the audience. In fact, we don’t see much of that at all — the gore remains discreetly at a distance, in the shadows. We don’t need to see it to know it’s there. In fact, the acting of the zombified humans is one of the most powerful parts of the film, because we can still see the humanness that was once theirs. Michael Jenn is especially good as the zombie who threatens Gerry inside a lab vault, not with vicious physical attacks but with an eerie quiet, his teeth barely chattering as he sniffs the air and listens for evidence of Gerry’s location.

The film subtly encourages us to focus, not on gore, but on the family relationships of the characters and to think about what we would do in a disaster, how we would react, and how those around us would react.

First, of course, is the looting. Everyone needs supplies, so how do you decide who gets food, who gets medicine, who gets to be evacuated to an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean and who has to go to a landlocked refugee camp? Money is meaningless, but Gerry has a rifle. That gets him the inhalers his asthmatic daughter needs. It also allows him to protect his wife from would-be attackers (the pre-zombie kind). Cops run into the fray, but they have no intention of keeping the peace — they too are just looking for supplies. Inner-city residents have already learned this truth: police don’t prevent crime, they just clean up after it. So you’d better have a gun to protect yourself.

The film also asks us to think about the nature of epidemics. Most viruses send people to bed, not out into the streets like these zombies. But people infected by the flu or the plague or smallpox can be just as deadly, infecting their care-givers, their friends, their family. One man whom Gerry meets tells him, “My wife and my son were running away. A zombie caught her and then she . . .” In twelve seconds she was a carrier, and the nearest person to her was the son she was trying to protect. I know one sweet, well-meaning family who decided not to have their children vaccinated for fear of autism. Somehow their older children got whooping cough and brought it home to their six-week-old brother, who died in less than a week. Viruses do not have to turn people into marauding zombies to make them deadly. And metaphorically, of course, the virus of a bad philosophy can infect whole communities and generations of people.

The film’s treatment of the kind of issues I’ve mentioned gives it a subtlety and an intellectuality that fast-paced thrillers seldom have. But it is a fast-paced thriller, one that is entertaining as well as insightful.

As a former investigator for the UN, Gerry has access to a helicopter that can whisk his family to the safety of the aircraft carrier. There a UN group is figuring out how to stop the virus. A crew must be sent to “ground zero,” the place where the virus was first seen, and they need Gerry to protect the virologist. But like John Russell (Paul Newman) in Hombre (1967), he feels no altruistic responsibility to risk his life to save the community, even though he possesses the best skills for success. “I can’t help you,” he tells the UN commander, Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena). “I can’t leave my family.” “Then you can’t have a bunk on this ship,” Thierry replies.

Again, we are forced to consider the question of how to distribute scarce goods when money has become meaningless. Gerry reluctantly agrees to lead the team, not to save the world, but to protect his own family. Productivity and protection become the media of exchange when paper money no longer matters. One can’t help applying this thought to the reversal of priorities in our current economic situation, in which non-producing citizens are given food, shelter, and medical care at the expense of the productive element of society.

The film’s metaphorical power becomes abundantly clear in a vivid scene in which the zombies form a Masada-like ramp by climbing on top of each either to scale the wall that has been built around Jerusalem to keep the zombies at bay. Ants will do this too, swarming en masse and even crushing those beneath them in order to gain access to food.

This representation of the baser side of animal nature, in contrast to the nobility and intelligence of humans, is rather refreshing for a Hollywood movie. The credits begin with images of birds flocking, ants swarming, and wolves baring their teeth, reminding us that the animal kingdom isn’t as benign as we lately have been led to believe. Humans are good after all! In this story, we can root for our heroes as they struggle to thwart nature’s latest mutation, instead of flagellating ourselves with guilt for being the destroyers of all things good. The virologist who volunteers to find a cure for the diseasedeclares, “Mother Nature is a serial killer. And like a serial killer, she wants to get caught.”

Luckily for us, we humans have the right kind of brains for catching her.


Editor's Note: Review of "World War Z," directed by Marc Forster. Paramount Pictures, 2013, 116 minutes.



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The Never-Ending Trek

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Wookiee vs. Trekkie: The friendly competition between Star Wars and Star Trek aficionados has raged for decades. Star Trek was more scientific and cool, emphasizing the technology of "Beam me up" rather than the intuition of "Feel the force." Even their goals were different: the cast of Star Trek was on a mission merely to observe the universe, while the cast of Star Wars was out to save it. But Star Trek's "Prime Directive" demonstrates democracy at its worst: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." No wonder I've never been a Trekkie.

The latest episode of Star Trek — Star Trek: Into Darkness — is a bit of a muddle between these two fan-chises: some characters early in the film look and talk like Ewoks, a la Return of the Jedi; they meet in a jazzy bar populated by strange rubber-bodied creatures a la Star Wars: and the film begins with our heroes fleeing alien creatures on an alien world without our knowing why, a la The Empire Strikes Back. James Kirk (Chris Pine) even looks a lot like Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in the second two Star Wars films, after Hamill's aquiline nose became pugged from a car accident he had between films.

The technique of beginning a film at the climax of a storyline that the audience hasn’t seen is recognized as Cubby Broccoli's trademark opening for the James Bond films, and it’s used in this movie too. It succeeds in giving the audience an early adrenaline rush. Just five minutes into the film we see Spock falling into a churning volcano. (Hmmm. Spock is a Vulcan. Vulcan is the god of volcanoes and the forge . . . shouldn't he have felt right at home there?) After his dramatic rescue (no spoiler alert here, since this happens ten minutes into the film), that storyline ends, and we settle into the central conflict for this film.

In this episode a former Starfleet commander (Benedict Cumberbatch) has turned rogue (a la Darth Vader . . . there they go again!), and the crew of the Enterprise is enlisted to go after him. That's about all you need to know. There's a lot of warp speed action, dodging of asteroids, climbing around on cool CGI-generated equipment, and fist-to-fist fighting — love how these Star Trek films come full circle and use brawn over brain or technology when people are fighting; Star Wars still goes in for those laser swords.

The Star Trek films were popular in the ’80s and ’90s, but they started to wear thin, as the original actors started to wax larger, both in age and in heft. The only way to continue the franchise was to turn from sequel to prequel. That worked extremely well in Star Trek (2009). It was fun to ooh and ahh over the excellent casting selections and see the back stories of the characters who have become a part of our cultural fabric for more than four decades. And director J.J. Abrams successfully repackaged Star Trek from a cerebral exercise in philosophy to an action-packed sci-fi adventure.

It was also cool in the 2009 movie to see the young Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) fall in love with the young Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana). For nearly 50 years the biggest challenge for the Star Trek crew has not been fighting Klingons but trying to get Mr. Spock to feel and express emotion. Spock is a Vulcan, and Vulcans don't have feelings (odd that the god of fire would be chosen as the name for the passionless planet, isn't it?). But Spock is also half human, and in every film there is the possibility that his human heart might kick in and overpower his logic. All of that has happened in previous episodes, however, so that too is starting to wear thin. We get it: with enough provocation, Mr. Spock can cry. He can kiss. He can bicker with his girlfriend. Enflamed by a desire for revenge, he can even beat an enemy to a pulp with his bare hands. He's becoming positively touchy-feely.

Star Trek fans love this movie. Reviewers seem to like it too. I thought it was pretty good, for what it is. But my patience for the whole Star Trek franchise is starting to wear thin. Or maybe I'm just waxing old. I'd rather just see a movie that boldly goes where no man has gone before.


Editor's Note: Review of "Star Trek: Into Darkness," directed by J.J. Abrams. Paramount Pictures, 2013, 129 minutes.



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Deist Dystopia

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Yet another film about earth's dystopian future hit the theaters this week, with at least two slated for later this summer. We humans seem to need some scolding about our profligate ways, and Hollywood, that bastion of restraint, is just the town to let us have it.

In After Earth, humans have again evacuated from earth to a distant location in space after destroying the home planet by pollution, overpopulation, and nuclear war. It is now a thousand years later, and "everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans." (Although one has to wonder how this evolution occurred, considering that no humans remained behind to contribute to the natural selection process . . .)

On the new planet, Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) is a young cadet who wants to become a brave and respected ranger like his father Cypher Raige (Will Smith). But mostly Kitai just wants to be accepted by his father, who seems distant, cold, and demanding, more like a commander than a father.

When Cypher is called up for a mission, he decides to bring Kitai along. The ship is damaged in a magnetic storm and crash lands on — you guessed it — earth, where all those animal predators have evolved to kill humans. Strapped in during the crash, Kitai is unhurt, but Cypher's legs are both badly broken, and the other crew members are dead. The only hope of survival is to retrieve the emergency beacon from the wreckage of the tail, 100 kilometers away. Kitai must make the journey by himself, through unfamiliar land where predators have evolved . . . well, you get the picture.

For a sci-fi film populated by savage beasts terrorizing a likeable young boy, After Earth is surprisingly bland and extremely slow moving.

The predators are attracted to humans through the pheromones released by fear. No fear, no predators. Cypher encourages his son with the film's philosophical tag line: "Danger is real. Fear is a choice." It's a powerful concept, and if there is only one takeaway from the film, it's a good one. "Fear is not real," Cypher explains. "Fear is a product of our thoughts of the future. We are all telling ourselves a story. Fear exists only in the imagination. Stay focused in the present, and there is nothing to fear." I kind of like this version that I found on Facebook today: "Surrender to what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be."

Unfortunately, "fear is a choice" is about the only takeaway. For a sci-fi film populated by savage beasts terrorizing a likeable young boy and an actor known for both his wisecracks and his ability to save planets, After Earth is surprisingly bland and extremely slow moving. Trapped by his broken legs, Cypher himself can't move. Instead of movement, we see his stoic reserve, his pain-induced wooziness, and his pensive flashbacks of family times at home.

Midway through, the film turns into a heavy-handed allegory. Before sending Kitai off into the lone and dreary wilderness, Cypher dresses him in a mechanized space suit equipped with a 360-degree camera and heat sensors. This gives Cypher a bird's eye view of Kitai's surroundings; Cypher can see everything in front of Kitai and behind him. Thus Cypher operates as an unseen, disembodied voice who guides Kitai from a position of omniscience. The boy must trust his father's voice and obey his commands in order to survive. At one point Kitai's receiver stops working. He can't hear his father's voice, but his father can still hear him. He thinks that his father is no longer watching him, but of course the father is there all along. The deist allegory is crystal clear, and rather satisfying if you like that sort of thing. I sort of do.

It makes even more sense when the credits roll and M. Night Shyamalan's name appears as director. Shyamalan is known for the spiritual themes that permeate his works, but also for the decline of his storytelling technique. He is best known for his stellar freshman work, The Sixth Sense, which is possibly the best ghost story ever made, and Bruce Willis' best and most serious acting job. Shyamalan was a shining star back then, but his star his dimmed to a nightlight now. In fact, the trailers for this film didn’t even include his name. Nor did it appear in the opening credits. The name that used to fill theaters is now considered box-office poison, I guess.

Allegory or not, the film remains heavily antihuman. Even after 1,000 years without people, the earth has not managed to stabilize. In fact, climate change has deepened. Temperatures drop well below freezing at night but soar into the tropical zone during the day. Oddly, broadleafed trees and warmblooded bison have no trouble thriving in these extreme temperatures.

The original screenplay for this film was not set in the future, or even in space. Father and son were driving a lonely road when their car crashed and the father's legs were broken. The young son had to hike through the forest on his own to find help and save his father's life. Will Smith decided that the film would be much more exciting if it were a sci-fi story set in space, with scary aliens and cool equipment. But I'm not so sure they made the right decision.

Father trapped in a car? Sending young son out into the woods alone? In this day and age? Now there's a scary story.

Danger is real. Fear is a choice. And even though movie danger isn't real at all, I think I would choose to be very fearful watching that scenario.


Editor's Note: "After Earth," directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Columbia Pictures, 2013, 89 minutes. (But it seems like two hours, at least.)



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Astonish Us!

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With its cool jazzy music, its glamorous Las Vegas setting, and its wisecracking camaraderie among slightly shady characters, Now You See Me is a high-spirited and stylish homage to (some might say “knock-off” of) the successful Ocean’s Eleven franchise.

The film begins as the Ocean’s movies do, with a quick introduction to the characters who will be gathered for a heist. Each is a highly-skilled street magician with moderately suspect morals; each uses magic tricks not only to entertain, but in some cases to shake down or rip off the audience. Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is a mentalist who blackmails his targets with information he gleans while they are hypnotized. Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is a magician who picks his audience’s pockets. Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) uses his mystique as a magician to woo women. And Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) is Danny’s former assistant who wants to headline her own act.

When each of these magicians receives a Tarot card with an address and a date written on the back, they team up under the direction of a mysterious, unidentified leader. Billing themselves as The Four Horsemen, they perform magic tricks that test the boundaries of what we know about magic (that it’s all illusion) and what we hope about magic (that it’s real). For example, they select an unsuspecting dupe from the audience, slap a helmet camera onto his head, and whisk him magically to a bank vault in Paris, where he deposits the obligatory (for magic tricks) playing card with his signature on it in exchange for all the money. Moments later, 3 million euros are seen swirling up out of the vault and raining down into the Las Vegas audience. It isn’t possible. It has to be an illusion. And yet — the bank vault in Paris is empty. And the dupe’s signature is on the card.

A skillful director is like a skillful magician, packing the film with charming assistants, smoke and mirrors, exploding devices, and entertaining patter that may or may not be significant to the story.

Showy tricks like this drive the film as the crew moves from venue to venue all over the country, with audiences massing for the money they expect to receive. We don’t know what the ultimate heist is, and neither do the magicians, because The Horsemen are guided by the unidentified stranger who has brought them together. They also have to stay one step ahead of the law, as FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) pursue them for the bank job, leading us to enjoy many entertaining cons, chases, and escape tricks.

Also following The Four Horsemen is Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who makes his living by secretly videotaping magic shows from his seat in the audience and then selling DVDs debunking the tricks. Citing a character in the film who is supposed to be the world’s highest-paid magician, Thaddeus cynically explains, “He makes $1.6 million a year performing magic. I earn $5 million a year telling people how he does it.” But Thaddeus is in it for more than the money; his resentment toward magicians runs deep, so he helps Rhodes and Dray chase the magical thieves by enabling them to anticipate the Horsemen’s next move.

This is all entertaining and interesting. The reflections it kindles may be even more interesting. Magic is an apt metaphor for moviemaking. A skillful director is like a skillful magician. He or she packs the film with charming assistants, smoke and mirrors, exploding devices, and entertaining patter that may or may not be significant to the story. With a magic show, we want to be astonished. We want to believe that anything is possible. We know that our attention is being diverted in order for a trick to be performed, but we go along with it because the sensation of being amazed is so satisfying. With movies, we also enter a world in which seeing is believing. We suspend our disbelief and accept whatever the director wants us to believe is possible. We know that our attention is being diverted, and we try to catch the trick — to figure out who the bad guy really is, or in this case who the mastermind is — but what we really want is not to figure it out until the very end. Amazement trumps knowing it all, every time. And that’s one thing we mean when we discuss the art of cinema.


Editor's Note: Review of "Now You See Me," directed by Louis Leterrier. K/O Paper Products, 2013, 115 minutes.



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