Hits and Misses

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A Simple Favor isn’t a libertarian film. It doesn’t make any political commentary, it doesn’t cover timely issues, and it has little to say about economics beyond an offhand remark about the relative value of stay-at-home moms and “working moms.” I suppose I could stretch it to consider what Ayn Rand might have said about the concept of doing simple favors, but I won’t.

So why am I reviewing this movie for Liberty? Because it’s surprisingly good, one of the most entertaining films in months, and worth seeing for the quality of the acting, the twists and turns of the plot, and the subtle, unaffected comedic delivery of Anna Kendrick.

These three form a twisted romantic triangle with a twisted plot that takes us on a twisted romp through a dark side of suburbia.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is a stay-at-home mom with a compulsive penchant for volunteerism, a chirpy vlog called “Hi Moms!” where she talks about cooking and crafts, and a dark secret that drives her compulsiveness. When Emily (Blake Lively), a glamorous, high-powered working mom whose son attends the same preschool as Stephanie’s, befriends her, Stephanie becomes as giddy and malleable as a middle-school wallflower who suddenly finds herself walking home with the head cheerleader. Sean (Henry Golding), an award-winning novelist who hasn’t written anything publishable since marrying Emily ten years earlier, is suave, sexy, and hot for his wife. These three form a twisted romantic triangle with a twisted plot that takes us on a twisted romp through a dark side of suburbia.

When Emily goes missing, Stephanie volunteers to help Sean take care of their son, Nicky, and begins playing house in Emily’s mansion. Soon she starts her own investigation into Emily’s disappearance, discovering secrets in Emily’s past. Sean has his share of secrets too, and the result is a satisfying mystery thriller that is not only scary and suspenseful but often laugh-out-loud funny, especially when Stephanie tries to remain cool and nonchalant during an interview with the police about Emily’s disappearance — while wearing one of Emily’s dresses. With its bright colors, upbeat music track, and delightfully awkward leading lady, A Simple Favor is not your typical mystery thriller, but it is a simple delight.

Henry Golding, the handsome British-Malaysian whose previous screen credit was hosting a travel show, is having quite a season on the big screen. He’s also starring this month in the hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, based on the book of the same name by Singaporean-American Kevin Kwan. Its greenlight follows the success of ABC’s TV series “Fresh off the Boat” and stars some of the same actors.

Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur inhabited this plot perfectly in 1938, and the formula has been working ever since.

CRA is trying very hard to be socially relevant by marketing itself as the supposedly first mainstream film that focuses entirely on Asian culture with an extensively Asian cast and crew. But it’s really just a light, fluffy romantic comedy that happens to be set in Singapore. Rich Singapore boy Nick Young (Golding) meets poor immigrant girl Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) while studying in the United States. Rich boy’s mother Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh, who was stunning in 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) tries to break up rich boy’s romance when they come to Singapore for Nick’s best friend’s wedding. Poor girl’s family has more integrity than rich boy’s family, leading to rich boy losing poor girl. Care to guess where they end up? Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur inhabited this plot perfectly in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You in 1938, and the formula has been working ever since. CRA is cute and fun, but it isn’t groundbreaking, despite its marketing plan.

In fact, its IMDb page reveals just how muddled the claim to “first” is:

Excluding movies and animation extensively featuring Pacific Islanders and East Indians produced in America such as Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, and Moana, and excluding The Last Samurai (2003), which featured a majority East Asian cast but with a white lead, this is the first Western-produced major studio film with an extensive East Asian cast since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016). Other movies with extensively East Asian casts include Revenge of the Green Dragons (2014), A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and Joy Luck Club (1993).

And that doesn’t even acknowledge the above-mentioned “Fresh Off the Boat,” now in its fourth season. With all those caveats, the idea that they would even attempt to call themselves “the first Western-produced major studio film with an extensive East Asian cast” is pretty laughable.

If an American crew instead of an Asian crew had made CRA, Asian audiences would likely be howling “foul play.” First, its leading actor, whose character is supposed to represent old-world Chinese family and customs, isn’t even fully Asian! Golding’s mother is Malaysian, but his father is British. And yes, those rounder eyes and British accent probably make him more attractive to western audiences. (In fact, some are recommending Golding as the next James Bond.) Moreover, stereotypes are stereotypes. The crazy rich Asian women in the movie care only about shopping for designer clothing and designer plastic surgeries in order to catch a rich husband. Those rich husbands care only about getting richer. And the unmarried rich boys are sex-crazed and pathetic. Not a pretty portrayal, even if the author, director, and cast are all Asian.

The crazy rich Asian women in the movie care only about shopping for designer clothing and designer plastic surgeries in order to catch a rich husband. Those rich husbands care only about getting richer.

The one exception to the designer hive in Singapore is Rachel’s quirky, yellow-haired friend from college, Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), who rejects the fashion stereotype and is true to her own sense of style and identity. But she is accepted in Singapore society largely because her daddy’s rich and her family is old. And she, too, wears designer clothes, just quirkier ones. To be fair, in A Simple Favor Emily also has a closet full of designer clothes, shoes and bags, but at least she paid for them herself with her high-powered job, and she is anything but a follower. If any message is clear in modern movie making, it’s this: where women are concerned, the devil does indeed wear Prada.

Crazy Rich Asians is a fun movie if you’re in the mood for a predictable romantic comedy set in an exotic locale. The sumptuous wedding scene at Singapore’s Raffles hotel (where Nick is serving as best man, not groom — this isn’t a spoiler) is breathtakingly gorgeous. But if you’re looking for a serious film about serious issues, or even a lighthearted comedy with a little depth, this isn’t it.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Simple Favor," directed by Paul Feig. BRON Studios/Feigco Entertainment, 2018, 117 minutes; and "Crazy Rich Asians," directed by Jon M. Chu. Warner Bros., 2018, 120 minutes.



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A FreedomFest Report

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FreedomFest, LasVegas, July 2018: Fewer breakout sessions. Shorter hours. Only one special-event luncheon. What’s going on at FreedomFest? Are we losing it?

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Too much choice can be daunting. As first timer Walter Block of the Mises Institute and Loyola University told us, “I attended FreedomFest for the first time in 2018. It was a magnificent experience. Rarely have so many lovers of liberty gathered under one roof. The only ‘problem’ I had with the event was the concurrent sessions. I wanted to attend ALL of them!”

We wanted this year’s event to involve our attendees more directly — not just sitting in chairs listening to speakers, but participating actively in the discussion.

History professor Barry Strauss of Cornell University concurred, saying, “FreedomFest was one of the few conferences that I’ve attended in my professional career of which I could say, ‘I only wish that I could have attended more sessions.’ From start to finish, it was an inspiration.”Imagine the frustration of previous years, when we offered 30% more sessions from which to choose!

Sometimes “less” really is “more.” When presentations are tightened, only the best remain. That’s what we decided to do at FreedomFest this year, reducing the number of concurrent breakout session from 13 to ten and ending each day at 6:30 instead of 8.

We wanted this year’s event to involve our attendees more directly — not just sitting in chairs listening to speakers, but participating actively in the discussion. So we lengthened our Q&A times, reduced the number of breakout sessions, created a scavenger hunt that brought attendees more actively into the exhibit hall, and added “conversation circles” in the evenings where attendees and speakers could discuss thematic topics. We expanded our “FreedomFest after Dark” activities with Karaoke led by “Lady of Liberty” Avens O’Brien and clubbing at a local night spot. The result was a more vibrant, engaged experience for everyone.

The Mock Trial was back too, this year charging the Public School System with fraud. We even had a hint of scandal in the jury box.

Of course, not everything was brand new. Perennial favorite Judge Napolitano was back, reporting on the Constitution and the significance of President Trump’s choice of Brett Kavanaugh to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. And we followed his speech with a special-event luncheon moderated by Steve Forbes. But most attendees enjoyed the break time by visiting the exhibit hall, viewing one of our lunchtime movies, or buying a sandwich and visiting with other attendees in our lounge areas.

The Mock Trial was back too, this year charging the Public School System with fraud. We even had a hint of scandal in the jury box, when the foreman announced a tie of 6–6, even though the collected ballots were clearly marked 7 to convict, 4 to acquit, and one with both options marked. Was this an example of the New Math? Or the “everybody wins a trophy” mindset? We promise Price Waterhouse wasn’t tabulating the results!

Of course, FreedomFest is never without controversy. Our panel on “The Rise and Triumph of the Angry Voter” led to some testy anger among the panelists, and the debate between Newsmax contributor Wayne Allyn Root and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat over whether Trump is more like Reagan or Mussolini became predictably (for Root) loud. The debate between Douthat and Hugh Hefner biographer Steve Watts on whether FreedomFest should dedicate a room to the late Hugh Hefner was controversial as well — was Hefner a hero who liberated women from Victorian sexual mores, or a lecher who objectified women by turning them into sexual playthings? Interestingly, the debate on “Faith and Reason” between Dan Peterson and Michael Shermer was more popular than the Playboy debate, with standing room only.

Eli Whitney, John Deere, Alexander Graham Bell, and even Ray Kroc drastically changed the face and future of America, “and it did not begin at the ballot box."

First-timer George Will was another keynote speaker, delivering an inspiring speech about the power of entrepreneurship and innovation. Referencing Ted Kennedy’s declaration that “change begins at the ballot box,“ Will offered several examples refuting the claim; he reminded the audience that Eli Whitney, John Deere, Alexander Graham Bell, and even Ray Kroc drastically changed the face and future of America, “and it did not begin at the ballot box. It began with the spark of entrepreneurial genius. . . . It began in individualism, which is important to everyone in this audience.”

Financial speakers have always been part of our faculty, and this year attendees enjoyed the new “Fast Money Summit” sponsored by Eagle Publishing, with its shortened 25-minute breakout sessions featuring top financial experts such as Steve Forbes, Mark Skousen, Doug Casey, Jim Rogers, Gena Lofton, Alex Green, Peter Schiff, Keith Fitz-Gerald, Marin Katusa, Jim Woods, and many more. At FreedomFest we believe that financial freedom is just as important as political freedom; money makes it possible to support causes and live a fuller personal life. “One good tip is worth the price of your admission,” was Eagle’s promise.

Others found their way to the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival — and some never left. “I can buy the recordings of the speeches,” one woman told me. “Where else can I watch these great films and meet the directors afterward?” In all modesty, as the director of the world’s only fully juried libertarian film festival — I couldn’t agree more. We had the best films and the best attendance in our eight-year history, with four world premiere films, five SRO screenings, 11 hard-hitting panels, and films that inspired us even as they told stories that outraged us. Libertarian films can be depressing when they’re set in dystopian futures or focus entirely on the hopelessness of big government; what I loved about this year’s lineup is that they offered hope for a brighter future through greater freedom, greater courage, greater understanding, and greater technology. And the production values of our films this year were top notch.

Storytelling can be more powerful than a lecture because of the emotional connection it creates with the audience.

Our films focused on themes such as immigration, escape from communism, criminal justice reform, and technology. Their messages were often indirect and compelling. One of my favorites was the Best Comedy winner The Inconsiderate Houseguest (Rob and Letitia Capili), which offers a subtle (Rob claims “unintended”) and unexpected theme about immigration beneath its quirky story about an uptight, rule-oriented roommate. “Subtle” is the key here; messages don’t need to shout if they are presented well. Storytelling can be more powerful than a lecture because of the emotional connection it creates with the audience. In fact, at our Thursday night Master Class for filmmakers, one of the panelists credited the television show Modern Family with changing public opinion, and thus public law, regarding gay marriage because of its likeable gay couple and its reluctantly tolerant and loving family patriarch. “Everyone knows the message of a Michael Moore movie, but almost no one watches his documentaries. They just hear about it on the news,” another panelist observed. Engaging stories with nuanced messages have the power to move hearts and change minds. That’s the main reason we started the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival.

The $2,500 Anthem Grand Prize went to Skid Row Marathon (Mark Hayes, director), an inspiring documentary about L.A. Judge Craig Mitchell who, troubled by the outrageous mandatory sentencing he was forced to impose, started a running club to help former felons regain their self-confidence and restart their lives. Mitchell has taken the club to marathon competitions throughout the world. The club is financed through private donations and teaches the principles of choice and accountability. Club member Rafael Cabrera was on hand for the Q&A following the screening. The film also won the $500 AnthemVault Prize for Best Original Score, featuring music composed by club member Ben Shirley. I defy you to watch this film with a dry eye.

Saber Rock (Matt and Thomas Locastro, directors), about a young Afghan interpreter for the American military who was targeted for assassination by the Taliban when he began teaching children about the principles of freedom, won the Anthem award for Best Short Documentary. The real Saber Rock attended the festival and gave an impassioned opening night speech to the FreedomFest crowd. Rock was a festival favorite, taking selfies with numerous fans throughout the week. He was awarded Anthem’s Special Jury Prize for heroism and received a standing ovation from the audience.

The room was so packed that we had to bring in 50 more chairs, while many leaned against the walls or sat on the floor and at least 20 more brought chairs to sit five-deep in the doorway.

Festival judge Gary Alexander argued at the judges’ meeting that America Under Siege: Antifa was one of the most important films at the festival because it reveals the truth behind the rising violence against free speech. Meanwhile, the gentle tone of Off the Grid with Thomas Massie won the hearts of festival attendees, who awarded it the Audience Choice trophy. Director Matt Battaglia follows the brilliant MIT graduate and inventor around the Kentucky farm that he built and maintains with his own hands as he talks about the priorities in his life and why he went to Congress. In one memorable segment he describes his congressional lapel pin, which garners him deferential treatment wherever he goes in Washington, as “Precious” and describes how difficult it can be to keep “Precious” from corrupting one’s focus and integrity.

A second Audience Choice trophy was awarded to Jimmy Morrison for his film The Housing Bubble, which features interviews with FreedomFest regulars Doug Casey, Peter Schiff, Jim Rogers, Gene Epstein, Tom Palmer, and others. It offers a cogent history of money, interest rates, inflation, and how they affect each one of us. The room was so packed that we had to bring in 50 more chairs, while many leaned against the walls or sat on the floor and at least 20 more brought chairs to sit five-deep in the doorway. The post-screening panel included all of the speakers who were featured in the film. Said director Morrison of the experience, “After all the delays with my movie, I really needed to make a statement with my premiere. I can't thank you enough for all that you did to make last week so successful!” That’s why we do what we do. These libertarian films need a venue. We provide it.

The Anthem Libertarian Film Festival is one of the fastest-growing features of FreedomFest, and also the best kept secret. Film aficionados can purchase a FilmLovers Pass for all four days for just $149, less than a third of the FreedomFest retail price. It includes all the films, plus film panels featuring top FreedomFest speakers and entrance to the exhibit hall. You can’t attend the FreedomFest general sessions or breakout sessions with it, but come on — with films and panels like these, who needs FreedomFest?

Members of the Reason crew presented the libertarian position on drug policy, gun control, biotechnology, pensions, prison reform, Bitcoin, transportation, and more. It was a libertarian feast.

My husband, Mark Skousen, who produces FreedomFest, completely disagrees with me on this, of course! “Why would anyone go to a movie when they can hear these great speakers in person?” he often asks me. And he has a point. With nearly 250 speakers and over 200 sessions, it’s hard to choose. A good point, but only one point.

This year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Reason magazine, FreedomFest hosted six Reason Day breakout sessions, plus the Reason Media Awards at our Saturday night banquet. Reason notables Katherine Mangu-Ward, Nick Gillespie, Matt Welch, Bob Poole, Ronald Bailey, Jacob Sullum, Lisa Snell and others presented the libertarian position on drug policy, gun control, biotechnology, pensions, prison reform, Bitcoin, transportation, and more. It was a libertarian feast, culminating in presenting the Friedlander Prize to Steve Forbes at the Saturday night banquet.

But don’t just take me word for the success of FreedomFest 2018; here’s what Marc Beauchamp, former west coast bureau chief for Forbes Magazine, foreign correspondent in Tokyo, and trade association executive director in Washington DC, said about FreedomFest this year:

“For me . . . FreedomFest is where you hear things you don’t hear anywhere else.

“Like the foreign policy panel where it was pointed out that Russia’s economy is smaller than that of Italy or South Korea and Doug Casey said, ‘Russia is a gas station in a wheat field attached to a gun store.’

“You can get pretty glum watching talking heads on cable TV. The antidote is David Boaz’s optimism — that there’s never been a better time to be alive in the United States, and in almost any other country on the planet.

FreedomFest is an individualist’s dream (though admittedly, for those who arrange it, it can have its nightmare moments).

“FreedomFest is a movable feast. You never know what’s on the menu. I enjoyed Skeptic magazine’s Michael Shermer’s breakout session on the scientific search for evidence of an afterlife, and his conclusion that we should focus on living a full meaningful life rather than worrying about what might or might not happen in the afterlife.”

In sum, FreedomFest is an individualist’s dream (though admittedly, for those who arrange it, it can have its nightmare moments). As in those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels of the ’70s and ’80s, you can create your own conference as you circle your favorite sessions and decide what you’re going to hear and do.

We can’t wait to see all of our friends at FreedomFest 2019 where our theme is “The Wild West.” Escape the Deep State to Live Free! Come choose your own adventure in Las Vegas July 17–20. Hats and boots optional. Leave your horse at home.




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When Stalinists Collide

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There is a newly released movie called The Death of Stalin. It’s not really about Stalin or his death, but you should see it anyway. One reason is that it’s been banned in Russia; the other, much more important reason, is that it’s really good and really entertaining (in a really grim way).

Stalin does appear for a few minutes at the start of the film, where we see him as a drunken clod with a low sense of humor and a proclivity for intimidating and boring his colleagues. Like Hitler, he forces people to stay up all night watching B movies from Hollywood. Then he dies, and the real story begins, as the second and third bananas battle one another to capture his authority. The movie is about the difficult process of redistributing power in an ideological regime that has become a personal regime and is now becoming a regime of bureaucrats. First came the Idea (communism); then came the Man (Stalin); now we have the Men, the party hacks and the heads of this or that, who survived long enough to start asserting their own personalities. We get to see what those personalities are, once asserted, and to study their grisly and comic clashes.

First came the Idea (communism); then came the Man (Stalin); now we have the Men, the party hacks and the heads of this or that, who survived long enough to start asserting their own personalities.

The lead actors are remarkably skillful at entering their roles and projecting them. Simon Russell Beale, playing Lavrentiy Beria, head of the secret police, succeeds in making Beria seem what he was, one of the most repulsive figures of history. Jeffrey Tambor, playing Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s presumed successor, presents Malenkov as a man who, if you don’t like Woodrow Wilson, looks and acts exactly the way you imagine Woodrow Wilson looked and acted. Jason Isaacs, playing Marshal Zhukov, conqueror of Berlin, demonstrates that absurdly over-the-top masculinity still has its dramatic interest. Steve Buscemi, the star of the show, plays Nikita Khrushchev as the smartest and most complicated and most interesting of them all.

This is stage-play politics, but it might actually have been politics in the stagy totalitarianism that was the Soviet Union. Some of the characterizations do seem questionable to me. Stalin was not the overt fool that we see in Adrian McLoughlin’s performance (which no doubt responded to Armando Iannucci’s direction). Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), doesn’t seem rigid and doctrinaire enough, nor as constantly devoted to his insanely doctrinaire wife as Molotov actually was. (Stalin sent Madame Molotov to the gulag, but this did nothing to reduce her devotion to him.) I don’t know whether Svetlana Stalin was the way Andrea Riseborough (and the script) portrays her — a goofy, spoiled, adult brat — but I would have enjoyed watching her performance for much longer than the movie’s run time.

Simon Russell Beale succeeds in making Beria seem what he was, one of the most repulsive figures of history.

And here’s something strange. If you deplore, as I do, the creepy foreign accents that non-English speakers are given in Anglophone movies, there’s none of that in this film — everyone speaks with some kind of British accent. Yet hearing Stalin speak like a working-class Brit was startling to me, and the other people’s speech was only slightly less startling. That’s probably because I’m an American, so it all seemed foreign to me — but in a strangely displaced way. Yet that’s what’s supposed to happen on stage, isn’t it — some kind of strange displacement? The strangeness makes you conscious that you are watching someone else’s conscious performance, a re-creation of human life in which your own imagination needs to be involved.

So, for many reasons: if this film has already left your theater, make a note to see it when it comes out on DVD and other means of presentation.

Finally, here’s a SPOILER. Look away if you’re not ready for it.

Khrushchev wins in the end.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Death of Stalin," directed by Armando Iannucci. Main Journey-Quad Productions, 2017, 107 minutes.



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Horror — and More

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In the opening minutes of A Quiet Place, a small group of people tiptoes silently through an apparently abandoned grocery store, loading supplies into a backpack. Are they stealing? Hiding? Both? A small figure darts down a shadowy aisle, running so fast that we can’t see who, or even what, it is. Is it after them? With them? A woman reaches for a prescription bottle with the intense concentration of a person playing pick-up-sticks; her fingers tremble as she lifts the bottle without touching the bottles around it. Perhaps these are druggies looking for a fix? No — a young boy lies on the ground beside the woman, bundled in a blanket and leaning lethargically against the wall. This is a family, we realize, utterly silent, and utterly afraid. Within minutes we understand why: an alien species is terrorizing the neighborhood, and it hunts by sound rather than sight or smell. The people must remain silent in order to survive.

This is a family, we realize, utterly silent, and utterly afraid.

A Quiet Place is the best kind of horror film, relying on tension, foreshadowing, and misdirection rather than blood and gore to create panic in the audience. The family members communicate through sign language, walk barefoot, identify creaky floorboards with paint, cover hard surfaces with cloth to muffle their noise, and widen their eyes in terror with every misplaced movement that might elicit a sound. Shadowy lighting, a suspenseful musical score by Michael Beltrami, sudden noises, incomplete information, and brief sightings of the monsters are enough to make us curl our toes and grab the hand beside us.

But this is more than a horror movie. It’s a movie about how to exist as a family when everything around you has turned upside down, when silence is essential to survival, and when each family member has the potential to put all the others at risk through something as simple as a sneeze, a cough, or a slip of the fingers. A newspaper headline about the invasion warns inhabitants, “They Can Hear You.” Another advises, “Stay Silent, Stay Alive.” I couldn’t help but compare these monsters that hunt their victims through sounds made in the privacy of their own homes to an Orwellian government that spies on its citizens, devours them, and turns children against their parents.

But this is more than a horror movie. It’s a movie about how to exist as a family when everything around you has turned upside down.

How do you create a sense of normalcy for your children in the face of such unrelenting surveillance? Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt) provides schooling for her children, even though they can’t speak out loud. Children Regan (Millicent Simonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and Beau (Cade Woodward) learn self-reliance and accountability as they work, play, and tussle together. Father Lee (John Krasinski) feels a particular burden to provide for his family, protect them from this danger, and teach them how to survive it. He’s a true libertarian hero, relying on wit, courage, and innovation to take care of his own. There are many tender acts of love in this film that raise it above the level of a merely scary movie, as well as poignant moments of misunderstanding that need to be resolved, before the thrilling climax.

When Krasinski was offered the role of the father, he liked it so much that he revised the script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, signed on as director, hired his wife Emily Blunt to play the mother, and insisted on hiring deaf actress Millicent Simmonds (who was so good in last year’s Wonderstruck) to play the deaf daughter. He ended up with an executive producer credit as well. The result is one of those perfect labors of love that unite terrific storytelling with terrific character development and a terrific ending that keeps you thinking about it long after the credits roll. I will probably see this one a second time.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Quiet Place," directed by John Krasinski. Platinum Dunes, 2018, 90 minutes.



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The Movie of the Multipliers

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The multipliers. These are some of the most dangerous elements of political life.

Intelligence, knowledge, persuasiveness, experience in political affairs — all these good things may add much to a politician’s ability to succeed. The lack of such qualities may subtract from it. But you can be possessed of all of them and still be only half as likely to win public office as a person who lacks them completely, but has real money, or one-quarter as likely as a person whose father happened to be a noted politician, or one-tenth as likely as a person who happens to possess the right age, color, or creed. Wealth, unearned prestige, the accidents of demographics — these are multipliers, and there are many others.

The first President Bush, a man of normal abilities, achieved high political office by means of multipliers unrelated to political ideas or performance. He was rich, his father had been socially and politically important, and his contrast with Ronald Reagan endeared him to journalists who, for their own reasons, valued that contrast. The second President Bush, a man of no ability at all, was a nice guy, which added something to his political appeal. But the multiplier was the fact that his father had been president and had been surrounded by a gang of hacks who wanted to get back in power.

Wealth, unearned prestige, the accidents of demographics — these are multipliers, and there are many others.

Political multipliers can be mildly amusing, innocently useful, morally disgusting, or existentially disturbing. In the case of the Kennedy family, they are terrifying. One of the Kennedys — John — had intelligence, courage, and a personality that was attractive in many ways. On its own, this ensemble of good attributes would probably have gotten him nowhere important in the political life of his time. His success depended on multipliers — a large fortune; an ambitious, politically manipulative father, good at surrounding young John with media toadies; a family ethic that sanctioned and demanded constant, conscienceless lying; a support base of fanatical Irish Catholics prepared to vote for anyone who shared their ethnic and religious identification, no matter what that person did; and an unbroken phalanx of media writers and performers for whom “Jack” embodied fantasies of male potency and sophisticated “culture.” His assassination provided another mighty multiplier, so mighty that sane people should thank God every morning that his brother, Edward (“Teddy,” then “Ted”) Kennedy, the inheritor of John’s manufactured charisma, never realized his life’s purpose of attaining the presidency.

Few readers of this journal need to be reminded of the fact that Edward Kennedy had no good qualities whatever, political or otherwise. Yet he might have become president; and after he died, he continued to be celebrated by crazed or cynical followers who would have hounded any person without his multipliers out of politics, if not out of the country.

Finally, a mere five decades after the event, a serious film has been made about the great divider of Kennedy’s political prospects, the incident of July 18, 1969, in which a drunken Kennedy drove a car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, drowning the young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, who was with him. Kennedy left her to die, trapped in the car. Then he tried, in various ridiculous ways, to conceal his involvement. This proving impossible, he admitted some vague form of responsibility, retreated to his Irish Catholic base, which, I repeat, would swallow any kind of explanation from a Kennedy, and, with the aid of friendly media and the accustomed throng of social and intellectual gofers, rebuilt his political career.

Political multipliers can be mildly amusing, innocently useful, morally disgusting, or existentially disturbing. In the case of the Kennedy family, they are terrifying.

Jason Clarke, who plays Kennedy in this film, and director John Curran, both apparently modern liberals, seem to think that Kennedy rebuilt not only a career but a self; they seem to believe that he became a genuinely great political figure. The idea is absurd, and the film does nothing to support it. It shows Kennedy deciding to recover from the incident at Chappaquiddick by founding his life on ever more aggressive lies — which is exactly what he did.

The film is, indeed, closer to fact than any historical movie I have ever seen. By the time it’s done, you have encountered all the relevant evidence, evidence that gains power by being introduced slowly, by frequent revisits to the scene of the crime. The scenes, both indoor and outdoor, are impeccably authentic and meaningful as further evidence. To select a small detail: the camera notices that when Kennedy is to make a particularly “authentic” television broadcast, he is seated at a serious looking desk behind a case full of important looking books, but the legs of the desk are propped by haphazard piles of the same kind of books — a good indication of the importance of knowledge in the life of Ted Kennedy.

As for acting — at the start of the movie, Clarke doesn’t look or talk much like the Kennedy we saw all too frequently, but as he develops the character’s psychology he actually convinces you that the two are exactly the same, right down to the shape of the face. The other well-known people who are impersonated do the same (a sign of great direction). One of them is Bruce Dern, playing Kennedy’s father. Dern is the most recognizable of actors, but I didn’t discover who he was until I read the credits. Kate Mara has a hard job playing Mary Jo Kopechne, and her performance is not memorable, but she had a difficult task, given the fact that Kopechne was not allowed to achieve distinctness in real life. Clancy Brown does a magnificent Robert McNamara; Taylor Nichols presents an interesting view of the psychology of Ted Sorensen (perhaps the most respected of the Kennedy hacks), though without aspiring to the height of Sorensen’s towering arrogance; and Ed Helms does an excellent job in the difficult role of the one good guy, Kennedy sidekick Joe Gargan.

Ted Kennedy left Mary Jo Kopechne to die, trapped in the car. Then he tried, in various ridiculous ways, to conceal his involvement.

Real artists often exceed their conscious ideological programs simply by taking seriously their jobs as artists, so that in their hands a representation of human life takes on a life of its own, which is simultaneously our own real life, seen more deeply and rendered more self-explanatory. Artistic insight becomes analysis, and fact becomes a more suggestive truth. This is what Chappaquiddick does. Particularly revealing are the serious but irresistibly comic scenes in which all the hacks that money can buy are assembled to advise Teddy Kennedy about how to get out of the mess he has made. Here, viewed without overt explanation, analysis, or moralization, are a horde of important men, operating on the assumption that (A) the politician they serve is a destructive fool; (B) this politician must be elected president; and (C) his supporters must create all the lies and corruption necessary to make him so. The childishness is funny; the absolute lack of conscience is, in these true images of the powerful, terrifying. Add to that the movie’s evocation of the stolen prestige of John Kennedy’s presidency, and the Mafia-like adulation of “family” that has always characterized the Kennedys and their followers, and you have all the multipliers you need. The picture is complete.

I consider Chappaquiddick the third-best film about American politics, after Advise & Consent and The Manchurian Candidate. That’s quite an achievement.


Editor's Note: Review of "Chappaquiddick," directed by John Curran. Apex Entertainment, 2017, 101 minutes.



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Why I Won’t Be Watching the Oscars This Year

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I used to love the glitz of Oscar night. I saw all the movies, reviewed them for Liberty, rooted for my favorites, and predicted the winners. I looked forward to Billy Crystal’s opening monologue, the mashup of Best Picture nominees, the performances of the nominees for Best Songs, Barbara Walters' pre-show interviews, the schmaltzy in memoriam list, and even the acceptance speeches. My friends gave fancy black-tie viewing parties and held contests to see who would correctly forecast the most winners. I wouldn’t miss Oscar night.

But I’m not watching the Oscars this year. I’m writing this before the ceremonies, so you can compare what I say with what actually happened; but I’m not changing my mind. It’s not that I’m boycotting the ceremony; frankly, it isn’t important enough to boycott. I just don’t care anymore. The awards shows have made themselves obnoxiously political and tediously irrelevant. Last year it was “Not my President.” At the Golden Globes it was black dresses and #MeToo. Now it’s “Boycott the NRA.” Do we really need Meryl Streep lecturing us about gun control this week? How do they even find time to make movies with all the activism they’re involved in?

It’s not that I’m boycotting the ceremony; frankly, it isn’t important enough to boycott.

For some actors, the answer is: they don’t. Four-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner Jennifer Lawrence recently announced that she’s taking a year off from making movies to teach kids about the importance of “getting big money out of government.” (Not sure if she means “from government” or “away from government,” but there you have it. She’s involved.) The 27-year-old middle-school dropout explained to Stephen Colbert, “When Trump got elected, my head spun off. And I read all these books and I have really learned myself good about our government.” (Yes, that’s how she said it. She learned herself good.) She went on to admit that she didn’t know how to answer any of the students’ questions during her first high school visit. “They were so smart!” she said incredulously. Nevertheless, she will spend the next year visiting schools to teach children about corruption in politics because, you know, she plays a spy in Red Sparrow.

And then there’s the Harvey Weinstein scandal, with everyone in the entertainment field expressing outrage as though they had been learning about his sexual aggressions and manipulations for the first time. I have to admit I miss Harvey a little bit: how can we get excited about the Oscars or even know which movies are “The Best Film of the Year!” without Weinstein out there promoting his entries with full-page ads in all the papers for the past two months? The stardust is gone. I just don’t know what to do or what to think without his help.

Nevertheless, Lawrence will spend the next year visiting schools to teach children about corruption in politics because, you know, she plays a spy in Red Sparrow.

Oscar is responding to the scandal by protecting its ingénues with items in the famous swag bags given to each attendee. In a press release the security systems company Sabre said that it planned to “help others by inspiring self-empowerment,” and therefore would be handing out items including a keychain pepper spray, gel pepper spray, and personal body alarms, as well as a testing kit that determines whether a drink has been drugged.

The irony of all this “pepper spray” is that it wouldn’t have done a bit of good in the Weinstein scandal, since all these women had to do to protect themselves was to get up and walk out the door. Or how about not going through the door in the first place? Who “takes a meeting” in a hotel room at 2 a.m.? On the other hand, being able to tell whether your drink was spiked with roofies is probably a good tool to have when you’re partying with Hollywood bigwigs. So thank you, Sabre, for inspiring our ingénues with empowerment. And for handing them a weapon.

Kimmel argues that entertainers have an obligation to use their platform for politics. I don’t find that particularly entertaining. Or pleasant.

In an interview with Good Morning America, Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel (who loaded last year’s monologue with digs at the newly elected President Trump) said he wants to be kinder this year. “This show is not about reliving people’s sexual assaults,” he said. “It’s an awards show for people who have been dreaming about maybe winning an Oscar for their whole lives. And the last thing I want to do is ruin that for someone who is nominated for, you know, best leading actress or best supporting or best director or cinematographer or whatever, by making it unpleasant.”

Unless you happen to be a nominee whose politics don’t mix with Kimmel’s. Then he’ll be as unpleasant as he likes. In that same interview he hinted that he will be delving into politics and voicing his opposition to President Trump, arguing that entertainers have an obligation to use their platform for politics. I don’t find that particularly entertaining. Or pleasant.

And what about the movies the Academy has chosen lately as Best Picture? Yes, there are some good nominees this year. I like the new policy of nominating up to 10 films for Best Picture. It allows unexpected little gems such as last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road and this year’s Get Out to have a moment of glory. My favorites this year are The Shape of Water, Dunkirk, Get Out, and Darkest Hour. Each is artistically stunning and each has an engaging storyline with strong character development. But they won’t win.

There ought to be some connection between the films people like and the films that are considered best picture.

And that’s why the Oscars have become irrelevant. The audience-pleasers don’t have a chance any more. In the past ten years, only one of the Best Picture winners (Argo) has earned more than half a million dollars on opening weekend, and most have earned under $300 thousand. Only three of them have broken through the $100 million barrier in lifetime worldwide box office receipts. I mean come on — The Hurt Locker ($50 million) beating out Inglourious Basterds ($300 million) and Avatar ($2 billion) in 2009? Even the animated film Up ($780 million — also nominated in 2009) would have been a better choice than The Hurt Locker with the viewing audience that year. I’m not suggesting that box office should determine the award, but there ought to be some connection between the films people like and the films that are considered best picture.

In short, middle America doesn’t have a dog in the race any more. The Academy insists on awarding the coveted statue to “important” films rather than the best film of the year, and most movie goers simply don’t care enough to sit through three-plus hours of self-adulation and snide remarks about their president to cheer for a film they haven’t seen. Neither do I. Sure, I’ll check out the results on Monday morning, and I might catch some of the speeches on YouTube if I learn that something outrageous has happened — like last year’s erroneous announcement that La La Land won instead of Moonlight, while the man whose sole purpose is to stand in the wings with the list of winners and quickly step in to make the correction if someone ever makes such a mistake was distracted backstage taking a selfie with the beautiful Emma Stone, who had just won the Oscar for Best Actress. Now that was worth watching. Almost.




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Vibranium Victorious

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Certain films create a cultural footprint that transcends the films themselves. Black Panther is one of them. As a piece of entertainment, it’s just one more in a growing list of superhero movies based on the comic-book world of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The story is fairly familiar — the superhero, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must save the world by preventing a new weapon from falling into the hands of an arms dealer, Klaue (Andy Serkis), who is aided by the supervillain, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Along the way there are ample badass battles to satisfy the superhero fans in the audience.

What makes this film significant is that T’Challa is the first black superhero who’s more than a sidekick to the real superhero. As such, Black Panther is having an impact across the nation. Finally — a film set in a black community that isn’t about the ’hood, drugs, gangsters, sidekicks, buffoons, or slavery. It isn’t even about racism or being black. No wonder it’s breaking box office records.

Finally — a film set in a black community that isn’t about the ’hood, drugs, gangsters, sidekicks, buffoons, or slavery.

Granted, the filmmakers had to go all the way to Africa to accomplish this task. Black Panther is set in a Shangri-La-like kingdom called Wakanda, located in the center of Africa and hidden from view in the way Harry Potter’s Hogwarts is — a shimmering, reflective barrier blocks the way, but it just takes a little faith and courage to enter the utopian kingdom. Wakanda flourishes because of a secret mineral deposit called vibranium that can be used to create everything from microchips to skyscrapers to weapons. It’s also responsible for a glowing medicinal flower, infused with vibranium, that has seeped into the soil. An elixir made from this vibranium plant gives Black Panther his powers and can also heal mortal wounds.

Five tribes occupy the kingdom of Wakanda, each with a distinct language and culture represented in the film by the color and design of their costumes and accessories. One of the five tribes, Jabari, has chosen not to join the federation of tribes, but the five coexist peacefully; the other four do not force the Jabari to join or succumb to majority rule. I like that.

The Wakandan culture is an odd yet beautiful mixture of technology and tradition. The architecture of the royal city is futuristic and grand, built of vibranium, powered by vibranium, and protected by an air force of wasplike jets that are guided by vibranium-charged computers. A Wakandan princess (Letitia Wright) also makes gadgets from the stuff for the hero to use in his battles against evildoers, reminiscent of the gadgets Q provides in the James Bond films. On the other hand, the Wakandans’ clothing is made of bright, colorful fabrics, their jewelry is large and gaudy, their feet are mostly bare, and their warriors’ weapon of choice is a spear with a shield, suggesting a traditional culture of long ago.

The cotumes, props, and sets help the film successfully navigate the fine line between tradition and stereotype, providing an authenticity that counters the “oonga-boonga” of the Tarzan era.

One scene of celebration, with tribespeople chanting and bouncing, feels riskily close to wide-eyed Tarzanesque stereotyping, and the elixir used to transform the king into Black Panther comes dangerously close to witchdoctor voodoo. However, director Ryan Coogler and production designer Hannah Beachler, who based the costumes, props, and sets on traditional African culture, successfully navigate the fine line between tradition and stereotype, providing the film with an authenticity that counters the “oonga-boonga” of the Tarzan era.

Also adding to the authenticity is the quality of the acting. Angela Bassett as the queen mother brings a quiet dignity to her role, while Danai Gurira is fierce as Okoye, the chief of the bald female warriors who serve as the king’s guard. Academy Award winner Lupito Nyong’o brings depth to the role of T’Challa’s partner and love interest, while Michael B. Jordan (Creed, Fruitvale Station) is simply superb as the villain who exudes magnetism and swaggering leadership rather than two-dimensional evil. Martin Freeman, the token white, amiably provides the comic heroism usually reserved for a token black actor in movies like this. The actors recognized that they were part of something important in this production, and it shows.

One of the things I especially liked about Black Panther is the fact that I could watch it without feeling that nagging collective white guilt. In poems such as “Negro” and “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” Langston Hughes marginalized the impact of the American experience by turning it into a blip on the vast African timeline. Coogler does something similar with Black Panther by setting it not in America but in Africa, where he is free to create a noble and heroic backstory that transcends the need to be factual. While I’ve outgrown superhero movies, I was able to enjoy this one for its cultural import and what it says (and doesn’t say) about modern politics. In essence, Coogler has appropriated Lee and Kirby’s story and used it to create a whole new myth of African society. (Incidentally, the Marvel character predates the Black Panther organization by two months and was temporarily changed to Black Leopard to distance the superhero from the political movement.)

Martin Freeman, the token white, amiably provides the comic heroism usually reserved for a token black actor in movies like this.

So what about the politics of the movie — does it have a message? As the new king, T’Challa receives political advice from several sources. His sister Shuri (Wright) runs the technological research of Wakanda and represents the brains of the kingdom. Her answer to the problem of global poverty is to provide aid and technology. Recognizing Wakandan exceptionalism, she feels a responsibility toward the poorer nations of Africa akin to noblesse oblige. Coogler portrays her as something of a Bill Gates — creating wealth through technology, and then using that wealth to provide for the needs of others globally. Of course, we’ve seen the disruption caused by the Gates Foundation’s global influence, but giving aid always has a nice ring to it.

W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), T’Challa’s best friend and the leader of the border tribe, favors isolationism as the way to maintain peace. “Let refugees in, and they bring their problems with them,” he maintains, suggesting that it’s wiser to go out and clean things up where the refugees live, so they can stay where they are. Meanwhile Okoye, representing the military, is loyal to the throne, regardless of who sits there or what the new king represents ideologically. Killmonger favors the path his name would suggest. Eventually T’Challa decides that “the wise build bridges, the foolish build barriers.” And the peaceful coexistence of the five tribes? This enlightened civility is contradicted by the way they choose a new leader. When the king dies, a representative of any tribe can challenge his heir’s sovereignty through physical combat à la David and Goliath, and the king’s guard will immediately swear loyalty to the winner. So much for thoughtful discussion and peaceful transition; might evidently does make right — especially when it leads to an exciting battle at the top of a waterfall.

Ryan Coogler describes the film's central theme as “responsibility and identity.” He said in an interview, "What do the powerful owe those in need? It separates the good guys from the villains. What value is strength unless you're using it to help someone? Wakanda pretends to be just another struggling African country, but some of its neighbors are struggling for real. If Wakandans don't stand up for themselves, who will? But if they stand only for themselves, then who are they?" What I find troubling about this noble goal is the way it has played out in practice around the world, leading to imperial expansionism, victimhood, and an unintentional restraint against poorer nations becoming self-sustaining. Entrepreneurship, the only sure system for rising out of poverty, is never mentioned, and in fact, no one seems to work in this Wakanda where vibranium and the military take care of all needs. Still, the goal of sharing one’s good fortune is noble, and I like the fact that Wakandans plan to share, not just their wealth, but their knowledge and technology with the world.

Of course, we’ve seen the disruption caused by the Gates Foundation’s global influence, but giving aid always has a nice ring to it.

Black Panther has the potential to empower black families and black children in a whole new way. Instead of identifying with the victims, gangsters, and sidekicks they see on the screen, now they’re identifying with a leader. One of my black friends saw the movie five times on opening weekend. He is as energized by it as if he had taken a dose of vibranium. That makes me happy because, as I said in my review of last year’s Oscar nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro, “Could the solution [to black victimhood] be as simple as mothers and fathers and teachers telling black children everywhere, ‘You can do anything. You can be anything’?” If seeing a black superhero as the leader of a strong, successful, smart kingdom can give black children that kind of boost, I’m all in favor of it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Black Panther," directed by Ryan Coogler. Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures, 2018, 134 minutes.



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Collateral Allegory

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Hostiles is an elegant and moving western that challenges viewers to look beyond the western genre to examine something larger and more contemporary. It begins in the way many great westerns have: a wide-angle shot of blue skies and golden prairie zooms in to a homesteader’s cabin, where the inhabitant, Wes (Scott Shepherd) is working in the yard and his wife Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) is teaching a grammar lesson to their daughters. When a band of Indians swoops over the horizon, Wes rushes his family out the back door while he stays to fend off the attackers — who are soon tracking Rosalie through the woods. Her fear is palpable. We are in the trees with her, hiding under the log, terrified of being caught.

Cut to the next scene. We hear the offscreen wails of a woman and see a closeup of our hero, Captain Joe Blocker. We know he’s our hero because this is Christian Bale in an Army uniform, and we are certain that he has arrived to rescue Rosalie. But as the camera pans back, we see with revulsion that Captain Blocker is the aggressor here; his men are rounding up a family of Natives and dragging them off to the local fort. This juxtaposition of brutal attacks on two peaceful families of opposite backgrounds sets us up for a film that is going to challenge our social, cultural, and political values.

But as the camera pans back, we see with revulsion that Captain Blocker is the aggressor here.

Blocker has been working most of his career on the western frontier, rounding up Indians and bringing them to Army stockades. About to retire, he is given one final assignment: by order of the president (who is concerned about public opinion), he must take a dying Cheyenne chieftain (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana, where they will be allowed to remain. Blocker doesn’t want to do it; it goes against everything he has done throughout his career. But he’s an Army man. If his commander tells him to dig a hole just to refill it tomorrow, he’ll do as he’s told. He doesn’t have to like it.

The rest of the film is a typical trail-ride western, with the typical conflicts among the troops, attacks by the enemies (both white and red), bouts of bad weather, and pensive conversations under the stars. There’s even a discreet romance. And the acting is first rate, especially by Bale and Pike.

"Hostiles" is a parable, all right, but not of the American West.

But it’s hard to watch a “typical western” about cowboys and Indians these days; our sensibilities bristle at the way indigenous people have been treated and portrayed. Mainstream reviewers don’t seem to know what to say about this movie. One wrote, “There's a good movie here, but it's buried by too many attempts to be something it's not, most egregiously some kind of great dramatic examination of our treatment of Native Americans.” Well, excuse me for disagreeing, but I think the “something it’s not” is a “great dramatic examination of our treatment of Native Americans.” And if you think that’s what it’s about, you’re going to be confused by the ambiguity of the tone and the characters.

Another reviewer wrote that it “works as a contrived but effective parable of the American West, [with] its painful legacy, and small measures of redemption.” Hostiles is a parable, all right, but not of the American West. The American West is being used here as an allegory of the Middle East. Its very name should offer the first clue; “hostiles” is the word modern soldiers use to identify the enemy. And Hostiles is a subtle parable about modern war.

Whether this was director Scott Cooper’s intent or not, it’s about as perfect an antiwar film as we’re going to get

We see officers obeying orders simply because “that’s my job.” We see peaceful families suffering the collateral damage of a prolonged war. We see “good Indians” and “bad Indians” representing the difference between good Muslims and jihadist Muslims. We see soldiers ravaged by PTSD and torn by the guilt of having killed. We see other soldiers struggling with the realization that in one circumstance killing is considered murder, but in another it’s considered heroic. Most of all, we see the importance of judging individuals by their character and their actions, not by their label or their group. Hostiles asks us to focus on what makes us human instead of what makes us enemies. Whether this was director Scott Cooper’s intent or not, it’s about as perfect an antiwar film as we’re going to get. Sometimes truth is that self-evident.

The body count for Hostiles comes close to that of a Quentin Tarantino movie (or Hamlet, for that matter) but without the gratuitous blood and guts of Tarantino. It’s tense and suspenseful because we care about the characters, but there’s a distance from the killing, just as there is a distance between these broken and dysfunctional characters. The pace is slow at times and the story is somewhat predictable. But what it subtly says about the personal, psychological ravages of war is important. And the final scene is so exquisitely moving and perfectly acted, it’s one of those moments in film that you never forget. Well worth the two and a half hour trail ride, just to get there.


Editor's Note: Review of "Hostiles," directed by Scott Cooper. Entertainment Studios, 2017. 134 minutes.



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Yes, But Is It True?

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You probably heard the scuttlebutt about All the Money in the World, even if you haven’t seen the movie: the film was set for a mid-December release with Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty, but six weeks before its release actor Anthony Rapp made sexual allegations against Spacey, and rather than risk their $60 million investment in the film, producers opted to cut all of Spacey’s scenes and reshoot the film with Christopher Plummer. Plummer was an excellent choice — he even looks like Getty — and the editing is virtually seamless. But after seeing the film, my reaction was that they needn’t have bothered. Getty is so despicable in this film that Spacey would have fitted right in. I was so repelled by the character’s meanheartedness that I couldn’t even stomach the thought of visiting the Getty Museum again.

But how accurate is this film?

It’s set in July 1973, when young J. Paul III (Charlie Plummer — no relation to Christopher), Getty’s 16-year-old grandson through Getty’s fourth wife, is kidnapped in Rome. The backstory shows Getty with a special affinity for this particular grandson — his namesake, in fact — and his desire to groom young Paul for the business world. (Come to think of it, that might have been extra creepy with Spacey playing the role.) This makes it all the more despicable when Getty refuses to pay the $17 million ransom demanded for Paul’s return. Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) is determined to change his mind, and soon Getty’s security agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) is on her side. Much of the film focuses on the conflict between the two: Getty, who loves only his money and his art, and Gail, who is willing to give up all further ties to the Getty fortune if her former father-in-law will just pay the ransom for her son. In one particularly deplorable scene, Getty turns Gail away and then immediately meets with an art dealer who offers him a painting of the Madonna and Child by an old master. Getty pays the price demanded — almost as much as the kidnappers’ latest demands — without batting an eye, and caresses the face of the cherubic baby with more apparent love for this oil-on-wood painting than he feels for his family.

J. Paul Getty is so despicable in this film that Kevin Spacey would have fitted right in.

Meanwhile, one of Paul’s captors, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), befriends Paul and begins to protect him from the other kidnappers. He cares for him tenderly, almost like a father for a son. The film becomes as much a story about what it means to be a family as it is about a kidnapping. In the end, Getty dies clutching his painting while Paul is nurtured by Cinquanta. Gail inherits the Getty fortune, and she gets the idea of turning his California villa into an art gallery to share with all the world.

Hold on a minute. That isn’t exactly how it happened. Getty died in 1976, three years after Paul’s abduction and two years after the Getty Museum was founded — by Getty, not by Gail. And it was his son J. Paul II, not Gail, who negotiated with his father for the ransom. Moreover, Getty provided three legitimate reasons for not paying the ransom. First, he had 14 grandchildren, and he felt that paying the ransom would put all of them at risk. Second, he believed that giving in to the demands of criminals leads inevitably to increased hijacking, lawlessness, and terror. The third and most compelling reason was that, far from being the favorite, Paul had been something of a hippie and a bum, was estranged from his grandfather, and had often joked about faking a kidnapping to get money from the billionaire. Getty, ever careful with his money, initially wanted to call Paul’s bluff. Once he knew that Paul was truly kidnapped, he negotiated with the kidnappers and paid the money. Getty does present these reasons in the movie, but because Paul has been established as a favorite (and because the audience has seen that the kidnapping is real) the arguments seem callous, uncaring, and heartless.

It’s true that Getty was frugal to a fault, but he was also a risk-taker who earned his billions. He invested $50 million in his Middle East oil fields before they finally paid off. No one would have bailed him out if his oil wells hadn’t come in. And he recognized his weaknesses. He often lamented the fact that he wasn’t a good husband. He is quoted in Psychology Today as having said, “I hate to be a failure. I hate and regret the failure of my marriages. I would gladly give all my millions for just one lasting marital success."

The film becomes as much a story about what it means to be a family as it is about a kidnapping.

If you can set all this aside and watch All the Money in the World as a work of fiction, you could probably enjoy it. Gail is a strong, indefatigable heroine. Getty is a mean, despicable villain. Paul is a sweet, likable victim. Chase is a character who undergoes change. The acting is topnotch, and the story is tight and suspenseful. But as a piece of history, it leaves me outraged, especially because so many teachers looking for a shortcut will use this as the definitive representation not only of Getty, but of capitalists in general. I’m always puzzled by how hateful Hollywood capitalists are toward capitalists in any other field.

Another biopic with a liberal sociopolitical agenda and a sketchy hold on the truth is The Post. Once again we see a film about a real person that is heavily skewed to fit Hollywood’s culturally acceptable storyline, whether it’s true or not. In this case, the story is “women were oppressed in the ’60s.” The “oppressed woman” is Katharine Graham, the powerful Pulitzer-Prize-winning publisher of the Washington Post during its most successful and influential decades.

In the mid-1960s, Daniel Ellsberg was a military analyst working on a top-secret study of classified documents about the war in Vietnam. What Ellsberg discovered was a trail of misrepresentations and outright lies about US involvement in Southeast Asia stretching as far back as the Truman administration. This 7,000-page study would become known as the Pentagon Papers. The gist of the story was that everyone knew that Vietnam was a war the US could not win, but no one wanted to be associated with defeat, so they kept offering platitudes like “our progress over the past twelve months has exceeded our expectations” when they knew we were losing ground. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of American teenagers were being drafted to fight — and many to die.

As a piece of history, it leaves me outraged, especially because so many teachers looking for a shortcut will use this as the definitive representation not only of Getty, but of capitalists.

Disillusioned by what he discovered, Ellsberg began systematically sneaking the report out of the offices a few folders at a time over the course of several months, right under the noses of the guards. After copying the originals and returning them to their filing cabinets, Ellsberg made the papers available to several antiwar congressmen before offering them to Neil Sheenan of the New York Times, who wrote a series of nine articles containing excerpts and commentaries. But before the second story could be published, a federal court issued a restraining order and shut the story down, citing national security violations and threatening felony indictments if the Times published another installment.

Ellsberg had made numerous sets of copies, and offered them to several publications. The restraining order applied specifically to the Times, leaving the door ajar for the Washington Post and other papers to publish. Maybe.

This is where The Post begins. The movie is not so much about what the Pentagon Papers contained or Ellsberg’s role in obtaining them as it is about the Post’s decision about whether to defy the implicit injunction and run the story. At the center of the conflict are publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and Graham’s close advisor Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), who was in the middle of helping Graham take the Post public when the story broke. Not only was freedom of the press at stake, but Graham stood to lose millions of dollars if the sale of shares in the Post fell through.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of American teenagers were being drafted to fight — and many to die.

Standing trial in this film are both the New York Times and the stifling cultural setting of the 1960s — especially the upper-class 1960s. Streep’s Graham is not the tough, iron lady we expect the publisher of a major national newspaper to be — male or female. She’s tentative, indecisive, often close to tears as she faces decisions. In one scene, Beebe coaches her on what to say in a meeting with potential investors. She writes the phrases down on a notepad so she won’t forget them. She fumbles as she enters the boardroom, unsure where to put her armful of books and notes. And when the time comes to say her words, she stares at them on the notepaper, unable to give them voice. Beebe, noticing how flustered she is, steps in and makes the point for her.

As a 21st-century audience with 21st-century sensibilities about women, we aren’t comfortable with Graham’s discomfort. We want her to be bold and take charge. We don’t like seeing her walk behind three male colleagues as they virtually snub her, and having her take it without so much as a roll of her eye or a clenching of her jaw. We don’t like the fact that she seems clumsy and always out of breath. We also aren’t comfortable with the way she inherited the Post, almost as an afterthought, from her grandfather to her father to her husband and finally, when no one else was left, to her.

Kay Graham was a skilled hostess and socialite at a time when a woman’s home and children were a reflection of herself. At a social gathering of ladies, one woman asks Kay, “How do you find time for everything when you go to the office all day?” My audience groaned, but these women were serious. Similarly, at a dinner party, as soon as the conversation turns to politics, the hostess calls out cheerily, “That’s our cue to leave the table, ladies!” And they do — cheerily.

Meryl Streep’s Katharine Graham is not the tough, iron lady we expect the publisher of a major national newspaper to be — male or female.

This scene reminded me of being invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a wealthy college classmate in Chevy Chase, a posh neighborhood near DC, in 1972, just a year after this film takes place. After dinner I went into the TV room with my then-boyfriend, where all the men were watching football. Soon the matron of the house called to me from the doorway, “Wouldn’t you like to join the women in the living room?” I was enjoying the men’s conversation and told her I was comfortable where I was. Undaunted, she coaxed again, suggesting that I might want to join the cousins for board games. Finally, exasperated, she sent me to the playroom with a trumped-up message about cake and ice cream for the children. I had no idea at the time that men and women were supposed to separate after dinner.

But this was Kay Graham’s life — or so the filmmakers would like us to believe. It fits the social narrative that women are victims. And there is some support for this characterization of Graham. In her memoirs, she said of her father’s decision to give the paper to her husband, “It never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper.” She also confesses to having lacked confidence in her own decisions and having been slighted by the men in the room during business meetings. Streep presents these weaknesses to a fault in the film.

While the film is interesting historically, it isn’t very exciting or compelling dramatically.

But Graham was a cagey, crafty woman. Notice that she didn’t say, “It never crossed my mind that I was capable of taking on an important job at the paper.” She said, “It never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me” as such. The remark says more about her father than it does about her. Similarly, if men slighted her in business meetings, she would have considered that a condemnation of them, not herself. I asked a friend of mine, a publisher who was part of the news scene in Washington during the decades when Graham ran the Post, what he thought of her. Without thinking twice, he said, “She was strong, demanding, and hard to work for.” Not for one second did he buy Meryl Streep’s characterization of Kay Graham as timid and indecisive.

The characterization of Kay Graham isn’t my only complaint about The Post. While the film is interesting historically, it isn’t very exciting or compelling dramatically. Let’s face it: this is a piece about writing. And talking. And talking about writing. There isn’t much action, and Spielberg is an action director. He does what he can to spice it up with odd camera angles, mood lighting, and naturalistic acting techniques. But it doesn’t quite work. The movie does pick up in the second half, when they’re racing against time to read the Pentagon Papers and meet the Post’s front page deadline. But again — it’s about reading. And talking about what they’re reading. This film would also be difficult to follow for someone who doesn’t already know the story. Spielberg provides precious little exposition, and if you didn’t already know who key players are from their names, you wouldn’t be able to figure it out from the context.

Nevertheless, The Post has been nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture for Spielberg and Best Actress for Streep. And if it weren’t for the fact that she so utterly misrepresents Kay Graham, I might agree. It’s a stellar piece of acting. Streep is famous for listening attentively and stepping into the conversation before her partner has completed his lines — as though she just thought of something and can’t wait to say it. But when Hanks parrots back the same style, the result seems forced and competitive. I’m crossing my fingers for Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water (see my review, “Knights in Dark Satin”) if only because I don’t want to be lectured about politics even one more time by Meryl Streep.

In creating their political parable, Spielberg and screenwriter Liz Hannah are about as subtle as the Old Spice aftershave your father used to wear. They want us compare the era of the ’60s to ours and come up with the same conclusion: throw the bum out of the White House. They do this by presenting the cultural victimhood of women, the importance of whistleblowers, the so-called separation of the “fourth estate,” and the suspicious, paranoid personality of the president in the White House.

But let’s examine these so-called similarities. MeToo movement aside, women have made gigantic strides in journalism, medicine, boardrooms, academia, politics, and just about every field except perhaps moviemaking, where the casting couch is finally airing its dirty linen. Whistleblowers are back too, but they don’t need the New York Times to break their stories. Wikileaks, YouTube, cable news, and Project Veritas are just a few of the current outleats for non-mainstream voices.

The filmmakers want us compare the era of the ’60s to ours and come up with the same conclusion: throw the bum out of the White House.

And journalists are still in bed with the stories they cover. The Grahams frequently socialized with the Kennedys, the Johnsons, Robert McNamara, and other leaders in Washington. Their stories were influenced by their friendships. The Post went after Nixon with a vengeance, but looked the other way at the Kennedy men’s sexual infidelities and Bob McNamara’s part in the Vietnam War. In the movie, Ben Bradlee glances wistfully at personal photographs taken with the Kennedys and declares, “The days of smoking cigars together are over,” suggesting that journalists would now become objective and trustworthy — that today’s mainstream media are objective and trustworthy. Spielberg might like to think that’s true, but it isn’t. Journalists and Hollywood types continue to fawn over their favorite politicians, especially the Clintons and the Obamas, but also including Donald Trump (if they want to get an interview).

George Orwell selected the title of his famous dystopian novel by flopping the publication date, 1948, to create 1984, and Spielberg likes to point out the similar connection between 1971 and 2017 to emphasize his allegorical connection between Nixon and Trump. (In fact, he rushed production of The Post in order to release it in 2017.) Nixon is portrayed as the bad guy in this film, going off on a tirade against the press and banning all Washington Post reporters from ever entering the White House again. (These are Nixon’s own words, by the way, using audio from the Oval Office tapes, although we don’t know the context of the recording; was he banning them because of the Pentagon Papers or because Post reporter and future “Miss Manners” columnist Judith Martin crashed his daughter Tricia’s wedding?) President Trump’s paranoid war against the press, tweeting diatribes in the middle of the night, and threatening to close down the mainstream media, come inevitably to mind.

Ironically, Richard Nixon was the president who finally had the courage to end the draft and the war in Vietnam, and therefore he should be considered the hero in the Pentagon Papers. But Nixon’s brooding paranoia would not allow him to let Ellsberg get away with being a whistleblower. Hoping to tarnish Ellsberg’s reputation, Nixon’s lackeys broke into the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, searching for records that would impugn his mental heath. That break-in led to the Watergate investigation, Nixon’s downfall, and the Post’s biggest story. Could a similar downfall be on the horizon for Trump?


Editor's Note: Reviews of "All the Money in the World," directed by Ridley Scott. Imperative Entertainment, 2017, 132 minutes; and "The Post," directed by Steven Spielberg. Amblin Entertainment, 2017, 116 minutes.



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Knights in Dark Satin

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It’s awards season again, that glittery time when Hollywood elites gather to praise each other’s work, comment on each other’s clothing, and make political statements we mere mortals in suburbia couldn’t possibly understand without the help of their stunning insights.

The circuit began with the Golden Globes on January 8 and will culminate in the awarding of the Oscars on March 4. At the Globes, all the gals showed up in sexy black evening gowns to show their solidarity with women who have been mistreated, abused, harassed, or misunderstood. It made me think of junior high: “What are you going to wear?” “I don’t know, what are you going to wear?” “Muffy Sinclair is wearing plaid overalls and knee socks.” “Ooh! Me too! Me too!” Suddenly the elite of the elite were controlling what all the women would wear to the Globes. And scarcely anyone dared to be different.

I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear.

Regardless of how I feel about their particular issue, I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear. Any woman who had chosen to express her own voice by wearing red or blue or white, no matter what the reason, would have been castigated by the press and by her peers. Just as women knew they had to play the Weinstein game if they wanted a role in Hollywood, they knew they had to wear a black dress if they wanted to fit in. Nothing has changed in Hollywood. You either toe the party line or move into another career.

Let’s face it: many of these seasoned women in their glitzy black dresses had to have known all about the Hollywood casting couches long before Harvey Weinstein’s shame became public. They endured it to get ahead, and then kept quiet about it when other women had to endure it. Sorority hazing at its worst. Not until it became public and, might I say, fashionable, did they join in with their #MeToo stories. Until then, they dared not risk the careers — for which they had paid dearly — by speaking out against Weinstein and his ilk. In fact, they embraced him. They played the game. Even after they were rich enough and famous enough and awarded enough that they didn’t need to. Now, to assuage their guilt and cover their shame, they’re shouting the loudest and pointing the longest fingers. And pressuring other women to play along, like it or not. It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped them get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

Two years ago the hypocrites of the Academy self-righteously awarded the Oscar for Best Picture to Spotlight (2015), a good but hardly great film about the Boston Globe’s exposé of pedophilia within the Catholic church, as though pointing a finger at someone else’s institutionalization of systemic sexual predation would atone for the guilt in their own institution. Last year, after the Academy fielded complaints of racism for not nominating enough black actors and filmmakers in 2016 films, the award for Best Picture went to Moonlight, an obscure little film about a transgender black. Again, a good film, but not great and not memorable.

It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped the likes of Weinstein get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

This week, in another bid for both relevance and absolution, the Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor went, predictably, to Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film about a plucky woman who stands up against injustice (or seems to). After all, this is the year of the woman as victim, right?

So let’s review this film that’s bound to garner increasing acclaim as the award season drags on. Is it a good film? In terms of production values, yes. The story is quirky and unexpected, the plot taking one dark turn after another. The actors are all in, portraying their characters with the kind of free-for-all abandon that often leads to critical acclaim and award nominations. An upbeat musical score contributes to the quirky tone and provides a jarring contrast to the beatings and violence that turn up at the least expected moments. The dialog is sharp and punchy, and the small town setting is authentic and believable, even if the characters are not.

And that’s my main criticism of Three Billboards, a film that’s supposed to be about a heroic woman’s fight against Town Hall in the form of the police department. She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic. She’s vengeful and pathetic and, in many ways, wrong.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a grieving and disgruntled mother whose daughter has been gruesomely raped and murdered. Seven months later, angered that the police haven’t arrested anyone for the crime, she turns on the chief of police (Woody Harrelson) and publicizes his failure by leasing the rights to three billboards, on which she posts: “Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests?”, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” Understandably, the chief is not amused.

She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic.

But he isn’t unsympathetic, either. The thing is, we really can’t find fault with the chief. He’s kind. He’s understanding. And he’s trying. There simply aren’t any leads in the case. Mildred wants a conviction. Any conviction will do. But the only thing worse than not convicting the perpetrator of a crime is arresting the wrong man and convicting him instead, just to make the community feel safer.

I appreciate the chief’s methodical rigor in this case. At one point he says to Mildred, “I'd do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes, but when the DNA don't match no one who's ever been arrested, and when the DNA don't match any other crime nationwide, and there wasn't a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well . . . right now there ain't too much more we could do.” And I abhor Mildred’s mean, spiteful, crude, ugly vengeance. She responds to Chief Willoughby’s rational concerns about civil rights and due process with “If it was me, I'd start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ’em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.”

The story completely jumps the shark when Dixon, Chief Willoughby’s deputy (Sam Rockwell), a disgraced, racist, drunken cop, suddenly becomes the hero, in a way so bizarre and unbelievable that even if I told you how it ends, you would think I was kidding, in order to avoid revealing the true plot. So I won’t tell you. But it’s bad.

Three Billboards has an interesting premise about a vigilante citizen using public opinion to shame a police force into doing its job of bringing a criminal to justice. But it squanders the premise on vulgar, vengeful, violent characters created more for shock value instead of any enlightening or lasting message. You might want to see it just for the production values, but it would have to be an awfully rainy day or interminably long flight to induce me to see it again.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity.

The only reason Three Billboards won three Golden Globes is that it’s about a woman whose daughter was raped and who blames a man, because that’s the name of the game this awards season in Hollywood. Ironically, those short-sighted, dimwitted Hollywood voters didn’t even notice that their heroine agrees to go to dinner with a man and implies that she might “be dessert” in order to get something she wants. Sheesh. Have they learned nothing?

Well, they did learn to wear black dresses to the party when Oprah says so.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity. Libertarians won’t want to miss Molly’s Game, which tells the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier who for a dozen years ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game. Her clients included celebrity athletes, Hollywood stars, Middle Eastern moguls, and underworld figures who came as much for the celebrity as for the game.

Molly is everything we want to see in an entrepreneur: she’s smart, she’s honest, she anticipates demand and creates supply, and she makes decisions based on long-term goals and expectations. She plays within the rules, provides a service that people want, and cares about her customers and her employees. She’s the model libertarian. No wonder the Black Dress Ladies ignored this film.

Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients.

The movie begins two years after Molly has closed her business, when 17 FBI agents bang on her door and arrest her at gunpoint. They know she’s clean, but they arrest her anyway because they need her to turn state’s evidence against some underworld types who had been regulars in her game. Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients. Virtually penniless now and living with her mother, she nevertheless convinces attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her by telling him her story, which we see in flashback and hear in voice-over narration. Based on the book Molly’s Game by the real Molly Bloom, this is a fascinating tale about an unlikely heroine dressed in Coco Chanel and Jimmy Choo’s without a single conservative (or conformative) black dress in the wardrobe closet. Libertarians won’t want to miss it.

Even more impressive in the female protagonist genre is The Shape of Water, a beauty and the beast tale with the added twist of the classic conflict between the individual and the state. Directed by the brilliant Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water has the magical quality of a painting brought to life. In this film he does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

The story is set in the 1950s, an era characterized by the Red Scare, nuclear experiments, conservative values, and the race for space. The Russians have launched a dog into orbit, fueling Americans’ fear of failure. Giant irradiated ants and spiders and creatures from the Black Lagoon terrorize communities on the silver screen. Against this backdrop, life imitates art as military scientist Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) discovers an amphibious man (Doug Jones) in a South American river and brings the creature to a secret laboratory in San Francisco where military leaders hope to learn something that can help them in the race against the Russians.

Del Toro does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaning woman who works the night shift at the laboratory and lives a solitary life above a movie theater — another contribution to the film’s liquid mixing of art and life. Found as a baby near a river bank, she has a strange affinity for water, even before meeting the river creature. Her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a lonely, out-of-work artist with a dozen half-eaten slices of lime green pie in his refrigerator and a pride of cats on his couch. He and Elisa watch old musicals on television and share a close but fraternal relationship.

Prodded and studied by the self-righteous and sadistic Strickland, the creature attacks him and draws blood. Yet Elisa isn’t afraid of him. Assigned to clean the creature’s space, she shares her lunch with him, expressing a shy charm reminiscent of the ingénues in the romantic musicals she enjoys with Giles. She develops a tenderness toward the creature and vows to rescue him when she learns that he is going to be studied by vivisection and then autopsy.

Sally Hawkins delivers a luminous performance as Elisa, communicating eloquently through sign language, body language, and facial expressions that make us forget she cannot speak. She manages to be both meekly shy and fiercely powerful. Richard Jenkins portrays the quiet despair of a man too old to start over who senses that he will leave no footprint on this earth. Michael Shannon has settled nicely into the sadistic villain role that seems to have become his forte. And the creature is, as artist Giles describes him, “beautiful.” This film has been described as “beauty and the beast,” but the only beast in the film is Strickland.

In sum, The Shape of Water celebrates art, emotion, intuition, difference, choice, and individuality. It is everything the Black Dress conformists are not. No wonder they overlooked it in favor of the vulgar, violent, vengeful Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Don’t you make the same mistake.


Editor's Note: Review of "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri," directed by Martin McDonagh. Blueprint Pictures, Fox Searchlight, 2017. 115 minutes; "Molly’s Game," directed by Aaron Sorkin. STX Entertainment, 2017. 140 minutes; and "The Shape of Water," directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Fox Searchlight, 2017. 123 minutes.



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