Iron Man 3: The Low-Down

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Literature is fraught with examples of the hero who longs to be ordinary: the prince who covets the life of the pauper, the mermaid who trades her magical tail for the legs of a human, the gods who walk the earth and mate with mortals, the bewitching bride who abandons her powers to marry a mortal. These are just a few.

Iron Man is such a hero. He is torn between a sense of duty to protect his country from the attacks of weaponized soldiers and his desire to enjoy the luxurious lifestyle his successful entrepreneurship affords him. In Iron Man 3 he spends much of his time outside the super suit, fighting the bad guys not as Iron Man but as his alter ego, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.).

I like Iron Man. He’s my favorite superhero. First, his alter ego, Tony Stark, is anything but a “mild mannered” Clark Kent. He’s spunky, witty, and unpredictable. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether he’s a visionary or a maniac. Or just manic. I also like the fact that he isn’t stoic. When he gets punched, he bruises and bleeds. In this episode he suffers panic attacks too.

Stark is a scientist, not a mutant as most of the superheroes are. He designed and built his own superhero suit to counteract a nearly deadly injury to his heart. He calls himself “a mechanic” because ultimately, like most practical scientists, he fixes things. He’s also an entrepreneur. Yes, he’s wealthy, but he earned his wealth through intelligence, capital, and hard work. I like that.

OK, he also made much of his money by creating weapons of war, so I can’t give him an A-plus as a libertarian . . . but hey, he’s just responding to the market! And it’s the Department of Defense, not War, that he helps, right? But it does bother him that his scientific experiments contributed to the technology for creating the weaponized soldiers who are now attacking America. He feels responsible.

Superheroes have become our modern mythology, representing the changing values and beliefs of a changing culture.

As this episode begins, Stark is no longer the bon vivant playboy of previous iterations; he is now in a “committed relationship” with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his long-time, longsuffering assistant. Pepper is no longer a wallflower in the background but a buff and courageous überwoman who even gets to “suit up” in the Iron Man paraphernalia a couple of times. Nevertheless, she is kidnapped, early on, by an evil anatomist (Guy Pearce) who has created a new army of weaponized soldiers. Meanwhile, the world is threatened by an Osama-like villain known as “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley) who is taking credit for suicide bombers exploding in public places throughout the world. Tony spends most of the film fighting these hybrid soldiers, thwarting the maniac, and rescuing his damsel. He vows: “No politics or Pentagon this time — just good old fashioned revenge.”

While chasing down clues to the bad guys in a small Tennessee town, Tony runs into a cute kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins) who helps him fix his Iron Man suit and get it recharged. The sweet, casual interplay between these two characters creates the best part of the film. Tony doesn't have any experience with kids, and as a result, he talks to Harley in the way he would to a grown-up, and Harley responds as though they were best buds. Their conversations are charming and natural.

Iron Man 3 is not as good as the original, but it is certainly better than the second episode. The story is tighter, the villains are stronger, and the character development is deeper. Stan Lee, who created Spider-Man, Iron Man, and many other superheroes of the Marvel comic book franchise, makes his usual cameo appearance, this time as the judge at a Tennessee beauty pageant. Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man movies, chose to produce and act in this one instead: he plays Tony's overzealous bodyguard, Happy. It's not great filmmaking by any means, but it’s interesting as a cultural artifact.

Superhero movies are the safest bet for Hollywood studios today. They require big budgets, but they bring home big box office receipts. No fewer than four are slated for release this summer. Fans attend midnight showings on the first day of release, and audiences applaud enthusiastically throughout the show. It's almost like attending an old tent revival meeting. This isn't terribly surprising, because superheroes have become our modern mythology, representing the changing values and beliefs of a changing culture. The various superheroes continue to cross over into each other's mythologies, with numerous references to each other within their separate movies. It is worth watching the films if only to see how their characters and values change from year to year, and to observe the cultural phenomenon they have become.


Editor's Note: Review of "Iron Man 3," directed by Shane Black. Marvel Studios, 2013, 130 minutes.



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When the Audience Laughs in the Wrong Place . . .

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In literature, a tragic hero is a protagonist who has all the characteristics of a classic hero, but also possesses a fatal flaw that leads to his downfall. He means well and often sacrifices for the good of his community. As a result, the audience tends to feel pity rather than contempt at his downfall. On its surface The Place beyond the Pines is a simple crime drama about a bank robber and the cop who seeks him, but at its heart it is a character study of heroes with fatal flaws. Unfortunately, the film itself is a tragic hero. Its elegant and heroic first two acts are marred by a third that is simply overflowing with fatal flaws.

The first act follows Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stunt rider who travels the carnival circuit from town to town. He is a hero only in the sense of his earthy charisma and his devil-may-care courage during his “death-defying stunts.” But when he learns that Romina (Eva Mendez), a girl in one of the towns he visits, has given birth to his baby, he is struck with a deep desire to be a good father to that child. He quits the carnival and moves into town, but he has no way of supporting a family. He meets Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who hires him to work at his mechanic shop, but there is barely enough work to support one person, let alone two. What’s an undereducated adrenalin junkie to do? Rob banks, of course.

Like his namesake Robin Hood, Robin seems to think it’s OK to take money from a bank when “you’re only earning minimum wage.” He teaches Luke the tricks of the trade: No more than one or two jobs a year. Never use guns — they’re vulgar. “I never needed anything but a note,” he explains. “You’re gonna like doing this — it’s the biggest rush of your life.” Luke violates every rule except the last one. (About this time the person sitting behind me said to the person sitting next to him, “That’s smart. I couldn’t quit.” Hmmmm!)

The contrast between the tender father and the terrorizing bank robber is profound. We know Luke is doomed, but we empathize with his motive, largely because of Gosling’s uncanny ability to communicate deep emotion with his eyes and body language. He is one of the most gifted actors of this generation.

With a nifty and unexpected transition, Avery (Bradley Cooper) enters the film and act two begins. Avery is a rookie cop who happens to be on duty while Luke is pulling a job. That Avery is intended to be a foil for Luke is clear, because the family setups are almost identical: both households include a “wife,” a mother-in-law, and a one-year-old son. Both even have the same crystal-clear blue eyes. And both are pressured by their peers to turn toward a life of crime. In this film, cops are robbers too. As with Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, the paths of these two characters are fated to meet.

As AJ, Emory Cohen doesn’t just go over the top; he heads halfway to the moon with overacting.

Acts one and two are tightly written, suspensefully directed, and expertly acted. Everything about them is first rate, even to the dissonant music that surfaces, at moments of character transition, to suggest that something is not right. The film is subtly nuanced and brilliantly performed. But then act three appears, and spoils the whole effect.

Fifteen years have passed, and the sons of these two men, Luke and Avery, have ended up in the same school. One pressures the other to score him some drugs — with far-reaching consequences. The story idea is good, but the acting destroys the act. As AJ, Emory Cohen doesn’t just go over the top; he heads halfway to the moon with overacting. He’s like a double dose of Marlon Brando and James Dean — brooding lips, simmering eyes, and potty mouth — and the verbal malfeasance doesn’t make sense, because his character has been raised in a life of privilege. Sure, rich kids curse a blue streak. But they don’t develop grammatically lazy street accents peppered with "he don't" and "I ain't" after being raised by parents with perfect diction. It reveals a flaw in the script as well as in the acting that Cohen is unable to demonstrate AJ's rebelliousness without modeling him on a poor kid from the Bronx. Cohen’s character is simply laughable, and that’s what the audience does during act three — it laughs. A lot. And it’s really too bad, because the story is so good, and the first two parts are outstanding.

Despite its flaws, The Place beyond the Pines is well worth seeing. It’s a movie about how good people go bad, how bad people try to be good, and how some people rise above peer pressure. And for the most part, the quality of the filmmaking is heroic.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Place beyond the Pines," directed by Derek Cianfrance. Focus Features, 2013, 140 minutes.



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A Movie Called Mud

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Set in the bayou of rural Arkansas, Mud unfolds as slowly as the river on which it is set. And that's a good thing — it's a back porch story crawling with snakes and daddy longlegs, one that ought to be savored like a mint julep as it develops toward its unexpectedly thrilling climax.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two 14-year-old boys on the cusp of manhood. They're old enough to be talking about girls, but young enough to be looking for a clubhouse. As Mud opens, the boys are pushing off in a ramshackle motorboat to explore an island where they find the perfect magical clubhouse — a cabin cruiser that has lodged high in a tree, probably during a storm that flooded the river the previous season. There they meet a mysterious drifter named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who engages the boys as his gofers by urging them to bring him food and supplies from town and promising to pay them if they do.

Mud is waiting for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to come and join him. Juniper is the love of his life. He has loved her since he was Ellis' age. He knows she will come, and when she does, Mud can escape. Meanwhile, he becomes the leader of this strange little club of boys.

Neckbone is wary. He's suspicious of this stranger with the gun in his waistband who is waiting for a girl but is afraid to be seen in public. He wants to go home and never come back. But Ellis is more open to helping the fugitive. Ellis is looking for something, and Mud seems to represent what that "something" is. It isn't adventure, exactly, although that is certainly part of the attraction; it's something deeper.

Ellis is late returning to their houseboat, where his father, Senior (Ray McKinnon), has already iced and loaded the day's catch of fish that they will sell door-to-door. At the end of the day Senior withholds half of Ellis' pay because he was late. "I work you hard because life is hard," he says, but he says it kindly. He is simply teaching Ellis a lesson: be an ant, not a grasshopper. Grasshoppers die when winter comes.

Later, when Senior discovers that Ellis and Neckbone have been filching supplies from the local junkyard, he shouts angrily at Ellis, "Don't you have any respect for a man's livelihood?" Ellis understands. Senior is a good father who teaches his son self-reliance and respect for the property of others. But it's hard on Ellis. His father isn't fun. Even his mother wants to leave the river and move into town.

Ellis is more drawn to the reckless Mud, a man who is driven by love, even though he knows that Mud's life is dangerous. Ellis is looking for something to believe in. He is looking for true love.

There is plenty of love in this story — the requited kind and the unrequited kind, the married kind and the unmarried kind, the fatherly kind and the brotherly kind. And the kind that gets you killed. But Ellis can't see it, because he's just a little too young for the nuances. His parents love each other, but they are talking about divorce. Neckbone doesn't remember his parents and lives with his uncle, who has a different girl every other night. Ellis likes a girl at school, and even fights for her honor, the way Mud would do. So he doesn't understand why she can't be faithful to him. He wants to believe in fidelity.

Ellis is looking for love, but he is also looking for himself — the self he will be when he grows up. In many respects, Mud is a foil for Ellis's father. Should he follow in Senior's footsteps, or should he break out on his own, which in reality would just be following in Mud's footsteps?

This is a film about choices, about looking forward and looking back. Mud is also looking for love. Like Neckbone, he grew up without parents, and Juniper seems to represent love and loyalty to him. Like Ellis, he is looking for himself, and he sees a lot of himself in these two boys.

All of this unfolds subtly and naturally — I don't want to give the impression that it's gooey or romantic. This is a man's kind of love story. There is plenty of suspense, shooting, and fighting as out-of-town bounty hunters come looking for Mud and figure out that the boys know where he is. All the story lines come together in a dramatic climax. And the film contains one of the most astounding race sequences I have ever seen, comparable in passion and tension to the end of the Coen Brothers' True Grit (2010). Simply an exquisite piece of filmmaking.

Matthew McConaughey is the quintessential good ol’ boy. He loves the South and treats it as if it were another character in his films. But the real star of this film is 16-year-old Tye Sheridan as 14-year-old Ellis. He is an actor to watch during the next decade. He has the sly charm and good looks of a young Tom Cruise, with the emotional depth and versatility of Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom began acting in their early teens. Sheridan is completely at ease in this role that appears deceptively simple. He makes the film wondrous.


Editor's Note: Review of "Mud," directed by Jeff Nichols. Everest Entertainment, 2013, 130 minutes.



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Sci-Fi for Thinkers

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What will we do when earth is no longer habitable, either because of environmental pollution or because of an annihilating war? Several films this season imagine a dystopian future in which humans have to leave the earth to survive: Oblivion, with Tom Cruise; After Earth, with Will Smith; and Elysium, with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. All have seemed promising. The first to be released is Oblivion, and it is satisfying in all the ways you want a film to satisfy — the acting is good, the special effects are thrilling, and the story is meaty enough to maintain the interest of philosophical viewers.

The film opens in a bleak, silt-covered New York where earthquakes and tsunamis caused by the destruction of the moon have made the landscape completely unrecognizable. Occasional bits of rubble tell us this was once the public library or the Empire State Building or Giants Stadium. I imagine that an ancient Roman returning to the Forum today would experience the same sense of loss, seeing the great temples and marketplace reduced to a few broken columns. The voice of our hero Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) explains, "We won the war, but we lost the planet" (while defending it against alien invaders). The anti-war message is pretty clear: there are no victors in a nuclear war.

I couldn't help noticing the similarities to Luke Skywalker's battle at the end of the first Star Wars movie. That set the benchmark for special effects, and we haven't seen fundamental changes, even after 35 years.

A skillfully written exposition quickly brings us into the story. Humans have moved to a moon of Saturn, but a few "techs," such as Harper, have remained behind to oversee the creation of energy cells from seawater that will be transported to the new community, and to patrol the area for scavenging aliens called, appropriately, "Scavs." Jack is the ground tech, and his wife Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) watches the computer screens from their sky-high tower home to warn him of potential danger. "Security and maintenance," Harper admits wryly. "We're the mop-up crew." A modern-day Crusoe and Friday or Adam and Eve, they are the only people on this part of earth.

Several exciting skirmishes with the scavs give Cruise fans the thrills they expect in an action movie. He even ends up with the scar across the bridge of his nose that is becoming as much a trademark as his footrace through most of his movies. Adding to the assignment are wild chases through the canyons of broken buildings while being pursued by rogue drones. But I couldn't help noticing the similarities to Luke Skywalker's battle at the end of the first Star Wars movie, back in 1977. That set the benchmark for special effects, and we haven't seen fundamental changes, even after 35 years.

What sets this film apart is its subtle references to history, literature, and philosophy, especially to the image of the cave in Plato's Republic. Jack is careful to stay inside the perimeter of safety, away from the radiation-tainted grids identified by their computer screens. Victoria watches carefully, warning him if he strays too close to the boundary. Who holds the truth? How do we know? Plato asked that question millennia ago, and the question remains.

What is really on the other side of the perimeter? Victoria turns out to be the "Adam" in this reverse Eden, so obedient that she won't even accept a flower that Jack brings her from outside the tower, because it is forbidden. Jack is the "Eve," always pushing the limits to satisfy his curiosity. He cannot coax her to join him. Victoria's kind of blind compliance is essential for tyranny to succeed.

The opportunity to contemplate the conflicts between man and machine, nature and science, and free will and obedience makes this a thinking person's action movie. It is sci-fi of the best caliber. But as the movie ended and the credits rolled, I overheard the person behind me say cynically, "That was a one-timer." I guess we can't all be thinkers.


Editor's Note: Review of "Oblivion," directed by Joseph Kosinski. Universal Pictures, 2013, 126 minutes.



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Home Run

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When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and Congress adopted the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery and involuntary servitude were officially ended in the United States. But racism and segregation were far from over. In fact, relations between blacks and whites remained so tense that during the ensuing century the US sanctioned a number of "Jim Crow" laws mandating segregation under the "separate but equal" interpretation.

Laws can mandate actions, but they cannot mandate public opinion. It took the free market, in the form of "America's favorite pastime," to start ending Jim Crow.

Baseball was America's most popular sport during most of the 20th century. Whites played it. Blacks played it. Women played it. But they didn't play it together. Early segregation was a form of protectionism. African-American players, such as Bud Fowler and Moses "Fleetwood" Walker, played on integrated teams in the 1880s, but they were so good that white players began to feel threatened that they would lose their positions and their jobs. "Whites Only" signs began to appear in locker rooms.

Soon two different leagues were formed. African American fans would often attend MLB games (sitting in the "Colored" section, of course) but with very few exceptions, whites would not attend NLB games. Consequently they seldom saw such baseball greats as Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, and Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays, who played in the Negro League.

They might have stayed there, too, unnoticed by the mainstream history books, if it weren't for Wesley Branch Rickey and the free market. Rickey was owner and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He wanted to win the World Series, and that meant hiring the best players in baseball. He also wanted to fill the seats at Ebbets Field, and that meant expanding the appeal for African-American fans. Rickey decided it was time to integrate Major League Baseball, and he was just the man to do it: a thick-skinned, cigar-smoking Methodist named after John Wesley himself.

The story of how Branch Rickey integrated major league sports is told in an outstanding new film called 42, Jackie Robinson's number for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the only number that has been permanently retired by all of baseball in honor of his courage and grit. With strong actors in both supporting and leading roles and a quotable script that tells the story with honesty and unfeigned respect, it is a film that should not be missed.

Rickey (Harrison Ford) is the quintessential libertarian hero. He wants to right a wrong he committed as a coach at Wesleyan University when he "didn't do enough for a fine black pitcher." But most of all, Rickey is motivated by profit and success. He wants to sell tickets, and he wants a World Series pennant. "Dollars aren't black or white," he says to his critics; "they're green." To accomplish both the win and the ticket sales, he hires the first African-American Major League baseball player. Rickey knows it won't be easy. By wooing black audiences, he may lose the existing white fans. One of his advisors warns, "There's no law against hiring a Negro player, but there's a code. Break that code, and you'll pay for it." But Rickey believes he can persuade people to change their opinions simply by giving them a great show. And public opinion would change laws.

Choosing the right player was essential to the success of his plan. He couldn't have a hothead. In their initial meeting, Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) asks Rickey, "You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?" and Rickey responds, "I want a player who has the guts not to fight back." Robinson would have to endure namecalling, physical threats, beanballs, bad calls, and more. His teammates would have to try to overcome their own prejudices, some without success.

Robinson was no pushover. Before becoming a Dodger he refused to acquiesce to Jim Crow laws. He played in UCLA's integrated team. As a member of the US military he was court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of the bus. In the film, when he is not allowed to use a gas station's toilet while his Negro league baseball team stops for gas, he says to the attendant, "Then take that hose out of the tank and we'll get our 99 gallons of gas somewhere else." The attendant lets them use the toilet, and they buy the gas. Dollars aren't black or white; they're green.

Rickey was taking a big risk, because public opinion could just as easily have turned against him and the Dodgers. But he knew the power of the free market.

It isn't easy for Robinson to hold his tongue and his temper. He has to endure degradation from all sides. One of the worst offenders is Phillies’ coach Ben Chapman, who shouts racial slurs whenever Robinson comes up to bat. Chapman defends his actions by saying, "Hey, it ain't nothing. We call DiMaggio a wop. We call Hank Greenberg a kike," as though that makes it right. Rickey encourages Robinson to remain strong. "You can't meet the enemy on his own low ground," he says when the desire to fight back is almost overwhelming.

But there are moments to make one proud as well. After a cop forces Robinson off a southern baseball field for mixing with whites, saying, "That's our law here, and I'm going to enforce it," a local man approaches Robinson looking like nothing so much as a redneck racist. But he smiles shyly and says, "If a man's got the goods, he deserves a chance. I'm pulling for you. A lot of us are." Watching the tide of public opinion slowly turn produces a profound cathartic effect throughout the film.

The physical and emotional struggle Robinson endures is mitigated not only by Rickey, who stands by him like a father, but also by his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), who soothes and uplifts him throughout the film.42 is as much a love story as it is a sports story.

Some of the best moments in the film occur simply when Robinson plays baseball. He had a loose, bouncing way of moving on the field. His arms seemed to stretch an extra foot when he dove for a ball, and he danced between the bases as he threatened to steal. His smile was magical. Relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman slips into that role with an ease as natural as the ballplayer he portrays. Waiting about a mile off base while the pitcher prepares for his windup, his fingers twinkle and dance and he bounces low in his knees, just daring the pitcher to throw him out. His relaxed smile is charming and disarming, confirming Rickey's decision that Robinson was the right man for the right time. As Mordecai said of Esther, who risked her life for the lives of the Jewish people, "Who knows but that you were born for such a time as this?" Robinson seems to have been born for his time.

Branch Rickey was born for such a time as well. He knew that laws can control actions, but they can't force people to overcome their prejudices. (Hell, it was laws and political activism that created segregation in the first place!) But he knew the power of the free market. Rickey was taking a big risk, because public opinion could just as easily have turned against him and the Dodgers. But he was certain that once he proved black players would make baseball better, other teams would have to follow. To some extent the worries of those early baseball players who rejected Bud Fowler and Moses Walker were warranted. Major league sports are dominated by minority players today. But the game is enriched because of it. And America is richer too.


Editor's Note: Review of "42," directed by Brian Helgeland. Warner Brothers, 2013, 128 minutes.



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It’s Scary, All Right

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Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight book series about teenaged vampires and werewolves living in a small Oregon town, is a pop idol to the teenaged girls who grew up taking sides between “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” as they debated whether the books’ high-school protagonist, Bella, should marry the vampire (Edward) or the werewolf (Jacob). (See my review of Breaking Dawn in Liberty, August 2008.) Talk about a step backward in the evolution of women’s opportunities!

The Host represents Meyer’s foray into legitimate science fiction, with its alien ganglia traveling from a distant planet that take over human bodies by inserting themselves surgically into the necks of unsuspecting hosts. (Wait! Wasn’t that already done in Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1956 and 1978] and Invaders from Mars [1953 and 1986]?) What made those two films and their remakes so powerful is that the invaders could be interpreted as a metaphor for alien ideas and philosophies that often overtake a community.

In the end, the problem is resolved when the aliens and the humans decide to be friends.

Unfortunately, The Host does not resonate with any philosophical relevancy. The opening scene teases the audience with the hint of a satisfying idea when the narrator says, “We are at peace. There is no hunger, no poverty, and no violence. The world is perfect. But it is not ours.” In this seemingly perfect world there is no violence or dishonesty, but peace has come at a price: there is no free will. Humans are forced by their invaders to do good. This “goodness” is represented in the lack of corporations and commercialism, of course; food is packaged in nondescript containers with labels that simply identify the contents in block letters, and obtained from a large box building called “STORE.” Notice I used the word “obtained,” rather than “purchased”; in this utopian world there is no money.

How food is produced and transported with neither profit motive nor coercion and distributed with neither money nor violence could have provided an interesting story. However, once again Meyer quickly moves away from addressing any philosophical problem so that she can focus on the romantic interests of her young protagonist, in this case Melanie (Saoirse Ronan). When Melanie is injected with a space-traveling “Soul” named “Wanderer,” her sense of will is somehow strong enough to enable her to keep fighting to control “their” body. She (or they) escape to the desert, where a community of humans, including Melanie’s brother, uncle, and boyfriend, has been hiding in underground caverns to avoid being injected by aliens. Melanie is still in love with Jared (Max Irons) but doesn’t want “Wanderer” to experience kissing him. Another buff young survivor, Ian (Jake Abel), falls for “Wanda,” and Melanie doesn’t want her (or their) body kissing Ian. A lot of slapping goes on as a result.

That’s the philosophical conflict we are forced to consider. We’re back to Team Edward and Team Jacob, but with a bizarre Siamese-twin kind of twist.

In the end, the problem is resolved when the aliens and the humans decide to be friends. Wanda shows them how to coax the aliens’ ganglia out of the hosts’ necks, without hurting either one. The aliens are placed in space-travel containers and shot into outer space, where they can terrorize another planet; but that’s OK because, as Wanda reassures them, “by the time they reach another planet your grandchildren’s grandchildren will be grown up.” That’s a little like saying, “The national debt doesn’t really matter because we’ll all be long gone before our grandchildren’s grandchildren have to pay it.” And if you don’t have children, then heck! You’re home free!

One qualification: the aliens are allowed to stay in their human host bodies if the human psyche or soul or essence cannot be revived after the alien is removed. In other words, if you sufficiently overpowered your host’s body, you get to keep it. So Melanie gets Wanda out of her system, Wanda gets a new body, and Ian gets a new girlfriend. And somewhere out in the distant universe, an unsuspecting population is getting some uninvited visitors.

Just so it isn’t us.

Let’s all sing a chorus of “Kumbaya.”


Editor's Note: Review of "The Host," directed by Andrew Niccol. Chockstone Pictures, 2013, 125 minutes.



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Who Rules the Republic?

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Some years ago, in an interview with Mike Wallace, conservative commentator Fulton Lewis, Jr. stated that the federal government was run, not by elected representatives, but by the civil service; that policy was made, not by secretaries or assistant secretaries, but by non-appointed officials. He said further that the president should have authority to appoint people to agencies at whatever level policy was made. I saw the original telecast — on February 1, 1958 — and recently found it online, preserved by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

What brought the interview to mind was Professor Angelo M. Codevilla’s recent book, The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It. The author complains of the administrative state, rooted in the New Deal — a federal government in which “bureaucrats make, enforce, and adjudicate nearly all the rules.” He labels as the Ruling Class those who populate the federal bureaucracy, along with elected representatives devoted to big government and hangers-on from the private sector who profit from government or who trade campaign dollars for access and favors. They are the power elite, the statist minority that rules the republic. By contrast, the author refers to the majority of Americans, those who live in the private sector and represent traditional America, as the Country Class.

These two classes represent the fundamental political division across the country. Members of the Ruling Class occupy the “commanding heights of government,” convinced that they own the secret of our deliverance and hungry for power to prove it. This class constitutes a “machine” that transfers “money, jobs, and privileges” to its clients. The results of its domination are an extension of the culture of dependency, an assault on the family, on religion, and on conventional morality. This class has bent science and reason to the service of power. It has placed public schools beyond the reach of parents, filled our cars with inscrutable gadgets, and thrown away billions on economic bailouts. And worse, it has led us into a procession of wars, expensive in blood and treasure but without clear purpose or outcome.

Codevilla covers the spectrum of complaints about big government — the problems of public education, the Kelo decision, the global-warming necromancy, the absurd regulatory minutiae, crony capitalism, alliances with labor unions (especially those of government workers), the abetting of family disintegration, and the complexity and favoritism in our laws.

Still, the author sees hopeful signs. The discontent of Republican voters with their party suggests that the Country Class is getting restless, and the Tea Party movement is stark evidence of its discontent. Many of its members want to “restore a way of life that has been largely superseded.” For Codevilla, the “signature cultural venture” of the Country Class is the homeschool movement. It represents the reassertion of parental prerogatives and, I might add, a back-of-the-hand to public education, which Mises warned must inevitably become indoctrination. But why haven’t Republicans — members of America’s “conservative” party — acted to expose the incompetence of the Ruling Class? Author Codevilla answers — they’re “salivating” to join that class.

That the Tea Party movement elevated the anxieties of the American Left wasn’t surprising, but the response of prominent Republican David Frum to Codevilla’s book was troubling. Reviewing The Ruling Class on Frum Forum, he referred to the author as a “grumpy old man,” neglecting the possibility that there was something to be grumpy about. He faulted the book for being short on substance. But clearly, it was intended to raise an alarm rather than provide a paradigmatic analysis. Frum worries about the Republican Party. He frets over the loss of the young and educated, never suspecting that their education may be to blame — that academics tend to produce Democrats. Professor Codevilla perceives the relationship between the universities, the power elite, and its preferred political home — the Democratic Party.

Why haven’t Republicans — members of America’s “conservative” party — acted to expose the incompetence of the Ruling Class? Because they’re salivating to join that class.

But he isn’t traveling a fresh path. Consider a comment from Democracy in America. In the chapter discussing European governments, de Tocqueville added a footnote, which I quote in part: “As the functions of the central government are multiplied, the number of officials serving it increases in proportion. They form a state within each state, and since they share the stability of government, increasingly take the place of the aristocracy.” Earlier in the same masterpiece, I find the following: “When I arrived in the United States, I discovered with astonishment that good qualities were common among the ruled, but rare among the rulers.” Codevilla refers to the Ruling Class as a bunch of “pretentious, incompetent, losers” — in other words, they lack good qualities.

In Free to Choose, Milton and Rose Friedman warned us of a new power elite: “The new class, enshrined in the universities, the news media, and especially the federal bureaucracy, has become the most powerful of special interests. The new class has repeatedly succeeded in imposing its views, despite widespread public objection, and often despite specific legislative enactments to the contrary.”

Earlier, James Q. Wilson had described the history and development of the federal bureaucracy in his essay “The Rise of the Bureaucratic State.” He identified the fundamental problem — the transfer of authority from elected representatives to an “unaccountable administrative realm.” In the process, client relationships develop between certain sectors of the economy and government agencies. Regulatory agencies gain broad powers derived from the need to make “binding choices without clear standards of choice.” Thus the “new class” forms bureaucratic alliances with and gains power over the private sector. Wilson pointed out the fact that all democratic regimes tend to enlarge the administrative side of government and move “resources” from the private to the public sector. This is the very centralizing tendency in democratic governments that so concerned de Tocqueville.

Perhaps, before we decide on an anti-Ruling Class strategy, it might be a good idea to consult another critic of government, the late John T. Flynn. In The Road Ahead: America’s Creeping Revolution (1949), he foresaw what now so obviously confronts the republic — a conspiracy to increase the size and power of government. Flynn saw the conspirators as American versions of the British Fabian Socialists. He drew up a list of ten imperatives that he believed necessary to halt the drift toward socialism. I present them here without the author’s elaborations, though the latter are well worth consulting. All are contained in the final chapter of The Road Ahead. In the 60 years since this remarkable chapter first appeared, America’s creeping revolution has crept on and on, with much of the country either indifferent to, or benefiting from, the encroachments of government. This, in Flynn’s words, is how to stop them:

I. We must put human freedom once again as the first of our demands. There can be no security in a nation without freedom.

II. We must stop apologizing for our Capitalist society.

III. Not one more step into socialism. Hold the line for the American way of life.

IV. Get rid of compromising leaders.

V. We must recognize that we are in the midst of a revolution — that it is war — and that we must begin to fight it as such.

VI. We must put an end to the orgy of spending that is rapidly bankrupting the nation.

VII. We must put an end to crisis government in America.

VIII. We must stop “planning” for socialism and begin planning to make our free system of private enterprise operate at its maximum capacity.

IX. We must set about rebuilding in its integrity our republican system of government.

X. We cannot depend on any political party to save us. We must build a power outside the parties so strong that the parties will be compelled to yield to its demands.

Any questions?

Sources
Flynn, John T. The Road Ahead: America’s Creeping Revolution. New York: Devon-Adair, 1949. http://mises.org/books/roadahead.pdf
Friedman, Milton, and Rose Friedman. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. New York: Avon, 1981.
Frum, David. “How the Elites Became Tea Party Enemy #1.” Frum Forum (Sept. 19, 2010). www.frumforum.com/how-the-elites-became-tea-party-enemy-1
Kurtz, Howard. “Conservative David Frum Loses Think-Tank Job After Criticizing GOP.” Washington Post ( March 26, 2010).www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/25/AR2010032502336.html
“Mike Wallace Interview: Fulton Lewis, Jr., 2/1/58.” The Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. www.hrc.utexas.edu/multimedia/video/2008/wallace/lewis_fulton_t.html
Mises, Ludwig von. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, 3rd. Revised Ed. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1966.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Trans. George Lawrence. Ed. J. P. Mayer. New York: Anchor, 1969.
Wilson, James Q. “The Rise of the Bureaucratic State.” National Affairs (Fall 1975). www.nationalaffairs.com/doclib/20080527_197504106theriseofthebureaucraticstatejamesqwilson.pdf


Editor's Note: Review of "The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It," by Angelo M. Codevilla. Beaufort Books, 2010, 147 pages.



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The Dirty War

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How much would you be willing to do for your children? Would you give up a good career to be a stay-at-home parent? Go into debt for college? Donate a kidney? How about joining a drug cartel to keep your child out of prison?

Based on a true story, Snitch offers an inside look at the drug war, and what we see isn’t pretty. A system that forces people to lie, snitch, and entrap their friends in order to avoid severe jail time is nothing to be proud of. According to the film, the US has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, with 25% of all prisoners worldwide residing behind our bars.

Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron) is a typical high school senior. He has a girlfriend, he’s applying for college, and he’s trying to fit in. When his best friend Craig (James Allen McCune) skypes from overseas and asks him to accept a FedEx package, Jason is torn between pleasing his friend and not wanting to get involved in something so risky. Mailing drugs from foreign countries has become the transportation of choice since airport security became more stringent. Jason doesn’t agree, but the next day, the package arrives anyway — along with a federal tracking device and about a dozen armed DEA agents. It turns out that Craig was caught mailing the drugs, and in order to get a reduction in his mandatory sentence, he said that Jason was planning to distribute the drugs.

Now Jason is offered the same deal. He faces a mandatory ten years in prison, but if he will snitch on someone else, his sentence will be reduced to two years. Shorter if he fingers someone big. The only problem is, Jason is a good kid. He doesn’t do drugs. The only person he knows who does drugs is Craig, and the feds already have Craig.

“Get someone to sell to you, and we’ll give them the same offer,” the feds tell him. “That’s the way it works.” Mandatory sentencing is not designed for punishment or rehabilitation of the offender; it’s not even designed to get users off the streets. It’s designed to get offenders to snitch. “That’s how we work our way to the top,” the feds tell them. Snitches “pay it forward” until a big one gets caught.

Jason’s parents are desperate to get their son out of this situation. “Take the deal!” they tell him.

“I can’t set someone up!” Jason says. He’s scared, but he’s adamant. “You’re asking me to do this to someone else! I won’t do it.” You gotta admire that. Jason is, as I said, a good kid. But drug enforcement officers are anything but good. The so-called war on drugs is all about entrapment and deceit.

Jason’s dad, John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson) is a successful business owner of a construction company. He has some connections on the local police force and he knows a couple of judges. But it doesn’t do him any good. The trouble with federalmandatory sentencing laws is that they are mandatory. Local judges have no authority to use judgment. Only the feds can offer a deal, and deals are only made to snitches.

The US has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, with 25% of all prisoners worldwide residing behind our bars.

US Attorney Joanne Keegan (Susan Sarandon) has no problem with the ethics of turning people into snitches. “I believe in the mandatory minimums,” she says. “We’re fighting a war on drugs, and the violence they cause.” But the violence is caused by the illegality of the drugs, not the drugs themselves. If drugs were legalized, most of the crime and violence associated with them would go away.

This point is made subtly early in the film, when Jason is first arrested. His mother (Melina Kanakaredes) waits outside, puffing on a cigarette. When John goes home, he pours himself a scotch. These are drugs too, but they are legal. Consequently, their use doesn’t lead to violent crimes and turf warfare. Yes, there are externalities that merit certain regulations; you have the right to smoke and drink whatever you want, as long as you avoid violating another person's reasonable right to privacy and safety. Reasonable regulation leads to reasonable use. John drinks a scotch in the evening, but when he goes to work the next day, he drives an 18-wheeler and runs a successful business.

Eventually John offers himself as the snitch in the place of his son. Keegan agrees that if he will go undercover and catch a drug dealer — any drug dealer! — she will reduce Jason’s sentence to one year. From this moment forward the film becomes what we expect from “The Rock” (Dwayne Johnson’s screen name and WWE moniker before he had children and started making family-friendly films like Tooth Fairy [2010] and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island [2012]), with plenty of bulging muscles, steely glares, blazing guns, car chases, and crashes.

The film tries to maintain John’s heroic stature by portraying “his” drug dealers as dirty, vindictive, dangerous criminals. But he needs an introduction to that underworld, and toget it he sets up an ex-con who works for him. He does the very thing that his son refused to do. There is just no way to stay clean in the dirty business of the war against drugs.

Snitch is intense and exciting, but it’s not a run-of-the-mill action film. It is an important film about how the federal government is destroying lives in its relentless and futile attempt to stop the use of illegal drugs. Drug laws destroy lives. The drug war destroys lives. It’s time we end the war and recognize that drug abuse is a medical problem, not a legal problem.


Editor's Note: Review of "Snitch," directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Summit Entertainment, 2013, 112 minutes.



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Philosophical Thriller

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When Martin (Channing Tatum), the husband of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), is released from prison after serving five years for insider trading, her troubles should all be over. Her handsome husband has come home, ready to start rebuilding his life with her. Instead, they are just beginning. She just can't seem to shake the depression and sadness. First she drives herself head-on into a brick wall. Then she nearly steps off a platform into the path of a subway train. She feels inexplicably sad and cries all the time. Her psychiatrist Dr. Banks (Jude Law) prescribes traditional antidepressants, but they don't seem to help. Then he prescribes a newly developed antidepressant that picks her right up. She laughs again. Her libido returns. But there are side effects. She sleepwalks. And she kills her husband.

True depression — not an occasional bout of the blues — is a serious problem. It has been described clinically as "the inability to imagine a future," and poetically as "a poisonous fog bank rolling in at 3 pm." Clinical depression is often caused by the brain's inability to release or absorb essential hormones or communicate effectively with itself. In these cases, psychotropic drugs can offer relief. As Dr. Banks tells Emily, "It doesn't make you someone you aren't; it just makes it easier for you to be who you are." As the parent of an epileptic daughter whose grand mal seizures are completely controlled by medication, I am grateful for pharmaceutical companies that have worked diligently to develop better and more effective drugs.

But psychotropic drugs can also have severe side effects, including erratic and even violent behavior. Public massacres in recent months have brought the discussion of these drugs to the forefront, but it is difficult to know whether the drugs themselves cause the violent urges, or whether the violent urges already existed within the troubled mind of these young men who planned the massacres. Michael Jackson's doctor was convicted of administering drugs that his client requested — demanded! — but those drugs ended up killing him. Who is culpable in these cases?

Director Steven Soderbergh examines these issues in his fine film Side Effects, which opened this week. We watch Emily as she struggles with sadness and suicidal desires. Her psychiatrists Dr. Banks and Dr. Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) attend conferences where new drugs are introduced and promoted. Banks attends a lunch meeting where he is offered a lucrative deal for recruiting his patients to participate in experimental trials of a new drug.

The first half of the film seems almost like an anti-pharmaceutical Public Service Announcement sponsored by Scientology. In one scene, several doctors are interviewed on "Good Morning America," allowing the screenwriters to ask — and answer — several probing questions. One of the cops investigating Martin's death threatens Dr. Banks to make him comply with the prosecutor's office, saying, "Either she's a murderer, or she's a victim of her medical treatment. Which do you want it to be?" After all, Dr. Banks had already been told about Emily's sleepwalking. Shouldn't he have taken her off the drug?

Under these circumstances, "Did she do it?" and "Is she guilty?" become two very different questions. Can she be guilty if she was completely unconscious of the act? But a man is dead. If she isn't guilty, who is? Since most people are able to use these drugs without adverse effects, should the doctor be held accountable when a patient does have a bad reaction? Is she not guilty by reason of insanity, or a victim of circumstance and her own biology?

The first half of the film presents the audience with these philosophical questions. But don't be put off by the PSA sensibility. The second half of the film turns into a taut and engaging murder thriller as Dr. Banks tries to salvage his career by answering these questions. In the end, the film is as tense and exciting as it is philosophically engaging. Great performances and a fascinating denouement make this a film well worth seeing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Side Effects," directed by Steven Soderbergh. Endgame Entertainment, 2013, 106 minutes.



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Not Just Your Typical Zombie Film

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"From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, / A pair of star crossed lovers take their life." These words from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet suggest that humans are controlled by destiny and fate, not by choice and accountability. Romeo and Juliet meet by fate; their families are at war by fate; and their story ends tragically by fate.

The foundation story appears in Greek mythology as "Pyramus and Thisbe," and is oddly set not in Greece, but in an unnamed location in the Orient. This suggests that the story has an even earlier foundation. It is also found in the Old Testament in the form of the story of Dinah, the Israelite daughter who goes for a walk in a heathen town and is taken by a local boy who wants to marry her. Shakespeare set his version of the story in Italy as Romeo and Juliet, and was so taken with the myth that he presented it again in A Midsummer Night's Dream through the clownish traveling troubadours. Prokofiev's ballet is another favorite, especially the powerful "Dance of the Knights" (Montagues and Capulets). Choreographer Jerome Robbins saw the exciting possibilities of Irish and Puerto Rican gangs duking it out through dance and convinced Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents to write West Side Story. Other musicians and artists have adapted the story as well.

Often the sole focus of R&J is the love story, with the feuding families fading so far into the background that it is hard to understand why they are fighting, but that isn't always the case. One of the most fascinating interpretations I have seen of R&J was a recent production by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival set in modern Afghanistan. In this version, Romeo is an American soldier, and Juliet is a local Muslim girl. Audiences truly "got it" in this interpretation when Juliet's mother appeared dressed in a burqa and her father smacked her so hard across the face that she fell down screaming. Still, her love for her soldier endured.

The core story of Romeo and Juliet has resonated throughout the centuries because it represents change and resistance to learned cultural values and prejudices. The star-crossed lovers from warring families epitomize independent thinking, change, tolerance, and acceptance. And it's a great love story to boot.

The latest offering is Warm Bodies, a film that opened this week. The movie focuses more on the differences between the two families, and the allusions are subtler than in most adaptations; in fact, it didn't hit me that R&J was the core story until the balcony scene, and then it all fell into place: the girl named Julie (Teresa Palmer), her dead boyfriend named Perry (Dave Franco), her new boyfriend known as "R" (Nicholas Hoult), her friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton) who wants to be a nurse. Oh — and did I mention that R is a Corpse?

The "idle class" is now made up of poor people, while the wealthy are working their tails off. We are being eaten alive by the entitlements given to the poor.

This unusual adaptation is set in a dystopian future where an incurable disease has turned humans into walking corpses who feed on living humans. Truly serious cases become "boneys," who "will eat anything." Uninfected humans have built a gigantic wall around their city to protect themselves, but they need supplies from the other side. At the center of the film is a love story between Julie, who goes outside the wall with her young friends to forage for medicine, and "R," a cute and quirky young Corpse who narrates the story. He communicates through grunting and doesn't know his own name, but he begins to change because of his growing love for Julie.

The film is fun and clever despite its zombified cast, and the young lovers are fresh and sweet. (Well, she's fresh. He smells like rotten meat — in fact, he protects her from other Corpses by smearing goo on her face to cover her fresh scent. But he does it in a way that is as likely to elicit an "Awww" as an "Ewww" from the audience.)

What sets this film apart is the depth of possibilities provided by the core story — the star-crossed lovers from warring cultural groups who find a common ground of understanding and tolerance. I don't know what director Jonathan Levine and author Isaac Marion intended audiences to think, but that's the beauty of a well-formed myth or metaphor — it can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. I think this version makes an insightful statement about the conflict between working Americans and nonworking Americans.

As the film opens, R is wandering through an abandoned airport. Other Corpses wander there too. "I don't remember my name anymore," he thinks out loud. "Sometimes I look at others and try to imagine what they used to be. We're all dead inside." Like Gregor Samsa, the traveling salesman in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, who wakes up one morning to discover that he has become a bug, R and the others in the airport have succumbed to the rat race. Work has dehumanized them. "It must have been so much better,” he muses, “when we could communicate and feel things."

Corpses don't work or produce anymore. They just eat people. I see this as a metaphor for the welfare state, in which more and more people are being infected by entitlements. A wall of intolerance is being erected today between working people and nonworking people. There is a deadness in the eye of people who scurry from business meeting to business meeting without time for love and relationships, but the tragedy of not working or producing is even more deadening. As the infection spreads and more people become nonproducers, even the producers begin to suffer. The collapsing standard of living is not caused by the wealthy having too much, but by the 47 % producing too little. Ironically, the "idle class" is now made up of poor people, while the wealthy are working their tails off. We are being eaten alive by the entitlements given to the poor.

Another interesting social commentary in this film is the way young people are treated. They are the draftees. While the older folks remain safely behind the wall, the youths are given a pep talk about honor and patriotism by Julie's father (John Malkovich) and then sent out to face the dangers of the Corpses and Boneys. Their mission is to bring back supplies for the grownups inside. Julie and Nora look sexy and buff as they cock their rifles to defend themselves. (And that's a little creepy, given all the crazy shootings that have been experienced in America lately.) When the older folks do go outside, they travel inside tanks and jeeps. They are the cavalry; the kids are the infantry. I guess that's where the word "infantry" comes from. How despicable is war.

What changes R? Partly it's the chemistry of love: his attraction to Julie reboots his heart. But it's more than that. Caught in the world outside the wall and surrounded by Corpses and Boneys who want to eat her, Julie needs protection. She needs food. She needs warmth, shelter, clothing, and entertainment. And R has to provide all these things for her. In the process of producing and providing, he becomes human again. I love that idea, whether Jonathan Levine intended it or not.

What changes the other Corpses? Hope. As they see R change through the power of love (or the power of producing), they gain hope that they might change too. They begin to sleep and to dream again, which is something Corpses aren't able to do. Their dreams cause them to wake up and act for themselves. They begin to come alive.

But they Boneys don't like it. They are like the politicians and welfare bureaucrats who want to keep the poor in their place, receiving their spiritually deadening entitlements but never learning to live or to feel joy. As R laments, "The Boneys are too far gone to change."

The Corpses are not "too far gone," however. They just need to wake up. We are surrounded by welfare Corpses today, and the infection is spreading to epidemic proportions. Some have become Boneys, but others can be cured. They can be changed through the power of pride and production and love. If they will join the Townies to fight against the Boneys, they can dream again. And wake up again. And live again.


Editor's Note: Review of "Warm Bodies," directed by Jonathan Levine. Summit Entertainment, 2013, 97 minutes.



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