Movie Reviews

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION

 

 

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation character posters released, new ...

 

Featuring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg

Review Date: October 14, 2015

There are a few good questions to ask about the purpose of this review.  For starters, why am I writing it?  Since, as a heavy critic of mass popular culture and its soulless inanity, why should I bother with a movie which could just as well represent inanity at its most fulsome?  And with our world crashing around us, haven’t we other things to distract us?

The answer is simple, if not particularly ennobling.    Tom Cruise is a 50-something guy who is reportedly able, at his advanced age, to cling to the fuselage of a cargo jet in full flight – and not just once, but for as many as eight takes during filming.  He dives into the vortex of a whirlpool and holds his breath for as long as six minutes, while fiddling with, losing and then recovering a key card.  He drives a motorcycle like a mother and survives a crash that would have ripped the skin and bones off mere mortals.  And all of these encounters he performs on his own – no stunt men, no CGI, no body doubles.

And so:  I am also a 50-something guy a couple of years older than Mr Cruise. Personal adventure is something that still swivels my chair and I am unashamed of admitting that I  live for the thrill of doing things like riding bicycles around Iceland or scaling  the peaks of  the Grand Tetons, even as those undertakings  become increasingly challenging as the years go by.

But I have marveled for years at how aging rockers such as Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and actors such as Sylvester Stallone and Liam Neeson have been able to remain viable action oriented entertainers into their  60s ( 70s in the case of Jagger!)  – sprightly,well-muscled, lean – as if the passage of time means nothing.     If they can do such things at such advanced ages, then surely I can personally handle my rather more modest physical challenges. Right?

Well, sort of. No one should be under the illusion that any of these men are able to achieve their physical wonders without the aid of an army of assistants and helpers and physicians and dieticians who monitor everything they put into their bodies and every activity they undertake.

But still – how many stars at similar ages in the 1950s and 60s could have assumed as limber and as dexterous a role as if they were twenty years younger?

So there you have my admission.  I am in awe of Tom Cruise. Or, should I say even more truthfully, I am just plain jealous of him.  This alpha of alpha males takes on roles which actually endanger his life and through mental application, skill and perhaps even a little good luck, survives them.  Given these facts, the whole movie and its asinine plot is almost beside the point.  It is, after all,  merely a vehicle for Mr. Cruise to prove to us that he has still got it.

The Mission Impossible franchise, one that Cruise actually owns, has arguably sustained him as not only a major action figure but as a successful motion picture artist in general. Many of his other films outside of the franchise have bombed so miserably that they alone would not be able to maintain his status as Hollywood’s most bankable star.  But don’t credit the strength of plot, character development or story continuity in any of these films for that success.

And the pattern continues with Rogue Nation which reprises the role of Cruise’s character, Secret Agent Matthew Hunt.  Hunt’s task in the new film, which he never gets to really either accept nor decline, is to identify and then blot out the leadership of ‘ The Syndicate’, a shadowy group of malcontent geniuses seeking to destabilize world governments through assassinations of key political figures. Why it is doing this and what it hopes to gain by undertaking such perverse action is never made very clear.  But the evil consortium (which comes complete with its own German-accented, Aryan-looking leader who even has the obligatory twitching eyebrow) is a daunting foe, seemingly capable of predicting its adversaries’ actions several movie frames ahead.

The trouble is, Hunt’s organization, the IMF ( the Impossible Missions Force – yes, that really IS its name  –  and it is right up there in a contest with unobtainium from Avatar for the Nomenclature Laziness Award) has lost the confidence of the CIA and is being disbanded, its funding cut while Agent Hunt is in mid-mission.

What is more the CIA does not believe The Syndicate even exists. In order for Hunt to reclaim his organization’s good name and its funding, let alone save the world, he must expose  The Syndicate.  And for this he must go rogue –  at risk to his own life and livelihood.

Such nobility of soul …. admirable, if hardly credible.

But OK.  Suddenly Hunt finds himself being hunted by The Syndicate, the FBI and his own erstwhile colleagues at the IMF – who are trying to get to him before all the others do.

Confused yet?  Well, join me, the audience and most of the seemingly befuddled movie cast itself in that category.

But not to fear, it all comes good in the end, even if it never becomes  exactly clear who is hunting who.  Hunt zips in and out of Vienna opera theaters, Moroccan strongholds, the U.K’s prime ministerial residence and a host of other exotic locations, seeking to single handedly ( although eventually joined by some of his ex- IMF pals who similarly go rogue) to bring down The Syndicate and retrieve his honor.

 

Hunt’s love interest in Rogue Nation is the fetching Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), an agent of no fixed nationality, whose primary role seems to be to rescue Hunt from all manner of disastrous life threatening situations in which he places himself.  And she’s not really even on his side!  Their affair steams with all the heat from a fetid swamp.  The closest they get to actual romance is an off hand comment from Hunt at the end of the film about getting  away from it all to live a quiet life on a Caribbean island.

So what makes Rogue Nation so eye-poppingly watchable?  Biometrics, used cleverly in identification devices;  dazzling computer graphics;  disguises that are so inventive that you will wonder how they did that; action scenes in diving suits, on rappelling ropes, on motor cycles and of course on jets at 5,000 feet – all offering enough entertainment to keep us involved, even we don’t really know what is going on.

Its all impossible, but so what?  Most of us create fantasies about who we are or who we want to be and Hollywood offers to transform such illusions into celluloid for a few hours of distracting entertainment.  I am no different in that regard. And I loved it.  May Matthew Hunt or Tom Cruise  – whichever one of them is the real person- go on solving impossible problems on impossible missions for that impossibly named outfit he works for all the forseeable, if impossible, future.  I will be ready to offer my vote of thanks with my $15.00.

Avi Davis is the president of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone.

BEST OF ENEMIES: A REVIEW

 

Produced and Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

Featuring: William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal

Review Date: August 12, 2015

Although it is hard to imagine today, there really was a time when public intellectual giants bestrode the Earth.   And from the mid-1950s through to the end of the 70s, two of the most renown  of these collusii  were William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal .  Emerging from opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum – – the first conservative, the latter progressive, these towering figures with their writings, speeches, pronouncements and television appearances were the the stuff of endless public scrutiny and fascination.  Buckley, an overachieving prodigy, practically carved the conservative movement out of whole cloth; He was the founder of National Review, an essayist extraordinaire, a television host,  author of countless books on politics, art and culture, avid sailor and a concert harpischordist.   Vidal, a polymath and a hedonistic aesthete, was the author of such groundbreaking novels as The City and the Pillar(1948)  and  Myra Breckenridge (1968) and a historical revisionist of the first order.  They were born within months of one another; were almost the same height and spoke with the same honeyed, mellifluous accents of the East Coast patrician class.

 

 

So it was not so astounding that ABC, then limping well behind NBC and CBS in national viewership decided, before the Democratic and Republican Conventions of 1968, to enlist both men as commentators on the proceedings.  The antipathy between the two was well known, as was the divergence of views in politics, culture and art. Fireworks were certainly expected, but nothing on the level of what eventuated.

This documentary captures the two men in all  their scintillating, intellectual prime using the actual archival footage of the time to portray not just two men at diametrically opposed ends of the political spectrum,  but two cultures and ideas of America in direct collision. Here we can look into the first shots fired in America’s cultural  civil war –  a war that rages on unabated today, with the the Vidal wing  having gained the upper hand.

Much about the debate would presage the way the two camps would face off in the future.  The film makers go to great pains to reveal how Vidal had no real intention of fulfilling his role as commentator on the conventions but from the beginning sought to provoke Buckley into revealing what he considered his ‘unbridled hypocrisy’.  The ad hominem attack strategy worked well for Vidal and he used it as bait to lure Buckley into a trap into which he fell helplessly in the ninth debate.   During the raucous and violent Democratic Convention of August that year, Vidal in an off hand comment, referred to his co-commentator as a crypto – Nazi; Buckley, the veins in his neck bulging, leaned close to Vidal and declaimed:

“Now stop calling me a crypto- Nazi you queer or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and  you will stay plastered.”

The outburst was entirely out of character for the unflappable Buckley who had learned to bear the lances of liberals for decades with considerable pluck and dignity and was one of the country’s finest debaters.

The host quickly cut to a break and Buckley stormed off.  But the incident was to take on a life of  its own, leading to years of litigation between the two men and unending public squabbles in the national press.

Clearly the documentary, which is even handed in its review of the life and work of the two men, attempts to portray an America at the crossroads, using the voices of two of its great antagonists as a barometer.

Yet even  more exquisitely it seeks to investigate the impact of the debates and the fatal outburst on the lives and consciousnesses of the two men themselves.  A telling interview of Buckley by Ted Koppel in 1994 is presented in which Buckley, now aged and frail, is shown the infamous clip once again.  His response is an uncomfortable silence and it is clear that he views the event with deep regret, one of the few missteps in otherwise brilliantly calibrated public career.

Vidal, on the other hand, is shown at his mansion on the Amalfi coast in Italy, a house built on a precipice, which gives him the perfect vantage, he says, to witness “the collapse of western civilization.” Now aged and frail himself, his books out of print and his silver tongued voice no longer in demand in the public square, he bears his own regrets, and although the photos on his wall of the two men in 1968 are presented as a form of trophy, as if he won the scalp of the firebrand conservative, there is a sadness in his voice – perhaps revealing that the events of so long ago had left him with a bitterness he had not yet expunged.

All of us have moments in our lives that we regret – that we long to go back to and make right.  Some of those incidents and events lie buried for decades but occasionally crop up to haunt us.   Buckley and Vidal were no different in this regard and despite their tremendous public careers and famously impregnable intellects, remained sensitive men to the end.  The true beauty of this film is in its revelation of this simple truth  –  that they were gargantuan forces to be reckoned with, no doubt, but in reality mere mortals bearing their humanity with all the angst, pride, ego and sadness of us all.

 

Avi Davis is the President and Senior Fellow of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles.

 

PATTERNS OF EVIDENCE:  EXODUS 

by Avi Davis

Director and Producer: Tim Mahoney
Release Date: January 19, 2015
Review Date: January 27, 2015
In April  2001, 42-year-old Rabbi David Wolpe, regarded as one of the leading Jewish prelates and thinkers in America, dropped a bombshell.  Speaking before his congregation, Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles, he admitted that he had little reason to believe that there was much historical basis to the Exodus narrative. As reported in the Los Angeles Times he said:
“The truth is that virtually every modern archaeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.”
The fact that Wolpe was speaking on Passover itself – the Jewish festival which commemorates the Exodus  –  and that the Los Angeles Times was there to cover his sermon, goes a long way to explaining the purpose of Wolpe’s sudden admission: he was engaged in an act of political and theological revisionism (some might even say sabotage) –  attempting to bring Judaism into line with modern scholarship and archaeological research, which, he later averred, had found nothing in 200 years to corroborate the Biblical account of the Israelite departure from Egypt.
The characterization of the Exodus as a fanciful myth has of course some telling consequences.  Among them is that many of the greatest events of the Biblical period may never have actually occurred.  It would mean that there was no historical Moses, no Ten Plagues, no slaughter of the first born, no parting of the Red Sea, no desert wandering, no fall of Jericho and no conquest of the land of Canaan.  It could also just possibly mean that there was no ‘ historical’ Ten Commandments at all.
Without sufficient archaeological evidence to corroborate the Exodus narrative, the entire story can be regarded as no more than a heroic narrative woven out of whole cloth by later chroniclers to lend both legitimacy and purpose to the Israelite claim to the land of Israel.  This of course plays into the hands of an assorted range of secularists, atheists, anti-Semites and Israel bashers who are looking for exactly such a quote from a major Jewish leader to delegitimize the State of Israel and the Jewish people’s historical claims to the land.
 Wolpe’s admission naturally caused a firestorm in the  American Jewish community but he was quickly supported by many contemporary Biblical scholars who bewailed the absence of an authoritative archaeological record and who had to sadly admit that the archaeologists may be right.
But what if Biblical archaeology has made some fundamental errors about the historical occurrence of the Exodus?
It is almost universally accepted that the Exodus, if it occurred at all, took place in the 13th Century BCE, during the reign of the greatest of Ancient Egypt’s builders –  Rameses II.  And it is true enough that in this period there is scant archaeological evidence to buttress the Exodus story.
Yet is it possible that Biblical archaeologists for the past 100 years have been looking in the wrong time period?  Could it be that they may have been off the historical mark on the Exodus by up to 300 years? And if so, what would they find if they looked there?
That is the starting point for Tim Mahoney’s elegant documentary Patterns of Evidence, a film which records the personal journey of a film maker seeking to uncover the truth about the Exodus. His journey takes him to several countries – to archaeological sites in Egypt and Israel, to the halls of academia in the United States, England and Germany while attempting to maintain an objective mind  -free, as much as possible, of the pitfalls of bias and prejudice which at one time or another afflicts almost every historical academic discipline.

 At the beginning of the film Mahoney outlines his mission: “I didn’t go with a preconceived conclusion, but I was willing to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt as we searched for the truth. I went to the top people in the world and said: ‘Tell me what you know about this story and what does the archaeology tell you.’ I talked with both sides – people who can’t see any evidence for Exodus and people who see the evidence. It became a balanced approach.”

As the film proceeds the evidence mounts that the period of the Middle Kingdom,(2050 BCE and 1652 BCE) if assessed to be the correct chronological time for the Exodus, rather than the New Kingdom (1570–1070 BCE) provides a trove evidence for the existence of a slave tribe which resided in the Nile Delta, its sudden departure from the historical recor , graves which might belong to the twelve sons of Jacob and one grave of which is missing its sarcophagus and might be the grave of the Biblical Joseph.

The film reveals is that there is a body of scholarship – although substantially in the minority, which has found that there is abundant evidence to validate the Exodus, but only if the chronology is shifted back 250 years.  Included in such evidence is a papyrus dated from that time period which recounts an episode of blood in the River Nile and plagues of insects descending on the Nile Delta. In addition to this hieroglyphics on stelae indicating the existence of the Biblical Joseph and  grave sites offering a glimpse into the slave life of the ancient homeland of Azair – the Biblical Goshen  – all of which offer tantalizing evidence to support the Middle Kingdom hypothesis.

So what is keeping archaeologists from making this leap?   Well, first all, this kind of revisionism messes up history big time since the dating of other civilizations is tied to the Ancient Egyptian chronology and calendar. Second, there are reputations to consider since if the key Biblical archaeologists have been getting their chronology wrong all these years what does it say about their credibility as historians?  As we have seen repeatedly in recent years, money, reputation, career advancement and the quest for academic survival can often trump the search for truth in academia. Archaeologists have a great deal to protect in continuing to debunk the Bible as historical fact.

But as I watched the film I was visited by an uneasy feeling.

Arguing that secular scholars are completely wrong or that their opponents are completely right does not serve historical analysis too faithfully.  Could it be that truth falls somewhere in between the position that Mahoney stakes out and the one traditionally advanced by Egyptologists?   It is impossible to either know or to understand this from viewing a two hour film. Real historical research is pounded out in the dialogue between hundreds of articles and papers, and refined in the back and forth of peer review.

By viewing this documentary most people, for instance, would not know that the revised Egyptian chronology is not a new theory at all –  is in fact decades old –  and that it  has been shown to create as many problems for biblical chronology as it solves.

And one thing other thing Mahoney fails to do is to examine in depth the reason Biblical scholarship focuses so intently on the New Kingdom rather than the Middle Kingdom to locate the story of the Exodus.  After all, there is such a thing as carbon dating, as well as comparative literature from the period and other scientific indicators which might justify the time period almost universally accepted by the Biblical scholars.  This question demanded much greater examination.

And of course there are then the philosophical arguments.

In the midst of narrator’s journey Mahoney comes across the writings of Sir Alan Henderson Gardiner – one of the world’s most famous Egyptologists, who admits that all we really have left of the great civilizations that once existed in the desert sands of the Middle East are mere ‘rags and tatters’ –  the detritus of a civilization and not its essential core.

With so little evidence, not only for the Exodus story but for any civilization or event which once existed, how can archaeologists truly be sure of anything?  Is it not true that the findings of archaeologists lead not to the re-creation of historical  facts, but rather the establishment of theories that are rarely ever so water tight that they can never be challenged?

This kind of discussion also leads to some pretty heavy epistemological arguments, namely, how do we actually ever know anything?  Aren’t those who accept the argument that the Exodus never happened merely transferring their faith from one written version of the past to a faith in another’s scientific methods that they can neither personally nor empirically verify nor corroborate?

I have always marveled at David Wolpe’s reasoning on this level: for surely, as a rabbi who believes in the existence of a G’d, he understands the philosophical contortions through which he must pass in order to state so affirmatively that the Biblical story is almost certainly myth. He is, after all, relying on research that he did not personally conduct and on a historical methodology for establishing a chronology with which he is probably unfamiliar. How can he be so sure that the perspective he has so wholesomely adopted was not itself refracted through bias and prejudice and which might be just as determined not to find any evidence of the Exodus as the film maker’s archaeological subjects are to find it?

People of faith don’t require archaeology to corroborate their beliefs.  If we accept that archaeology is a notoriously inexact method of determining historical truth – given the ‘rags and tatters ‘ theory elucidated above, could it not be that the evidence of the Exodus is still waiting to be discovered beneath the mountains of sand and sediment in the Nile Delta?

Why then the rush to judgement when, in the absence of authoritative proof such as a contemporary manuscript, we have what is essentially a written historical narrative, written many many centuries closer to the events than we stand today and which operates as at least a tangential guide to understanding this era?  This amounts to giving the Bible ‘the benefit of the doubt’ as Mahoney states in his introduction and it is what the pre-modern archaeologists certainly did.

The eagerness to debunk the Bible’s historical validity is a default intellectual reflex in today’s secular world- a world riven with satirists, deconstructionists and debunkers who gleefully skewer religion at every available opportunity.

But as Mahoney himself states in his book on the subject, the absence of evidence should never be regarded as evidence of absence. That is a credo that both sides of the divide of this important historical inquiry would be well advised to adopt.

 

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone

 

Wild: A Review

By Avi Davis

Wild Movie Poster

Release Date:  December 18, 2014

Review Date: January 13, 2015

 

Twenty minutes into Wild, a film which relies largely on flashbacks to round out its full story, I began to experience a few flashbacks of my own.

There I was in southern England, facing a slope which looked as though it rose at a 70% gradient.  The wind was kicking hard at my back and the rain had begun to pelt. I was alone and my feet, already callused from five weeks of walking, felt as though they were sodden from either sweat or blood. My back, aching from carrying  a 50 lb pack for five hours, didn’t think it could bear any further strain.

But…. I started climbing.

An hour later, drenched and heaving for breath, I reached the top and with an elated whoop looked triumphantly down at the path I had just conquered.   My victory jig though didn’t last long.  That’s because it brought me round  to face the path looming ahead ……… which I saw climbed yet another mountain much like the one I had just conquered- and then three following it.

I think it was the first time I had openly wept since I was child.

Which is all to say, I felt quite an empathy for Caroline Strayed, the heroine of Wild. Played by the diminutive Reese Witherspoon with great pluck, Wild is the story of a woman emotionally and psychologically devastated who seeks redemption by steeling herself to walk solo along the 2,500 mile Pacific Crest Trail on the U.S. west coast – a trek which begins in the arid Sonoma Desert on the California/Mexico border and ends in the damp Cascades of Washington State.  Over its course, paralleling the Western seaboard, the Trail traverses parched desert, sparse chaparral, snow covered passes and deeply forested canyons.  It is one of the most grueling long distance paths in the world and those who complete it are regarded as having reached the top tier of the world’s long distance hikers.

There are two journeys competing for our attention in Wild.  The first is the account of the trek itself which Strayed undertakes as a bumbling neophyte.  The second, and the more interesting, is the chronicle of her descent into drugs, prostitution and self abuse following the early death of her deeply loved and missed mother – all of which precedes and then occasions the trek.

The walk itself starts off in blistering heat along a desert path as Strayed encounters sunburn, rattlesnakes, coyotes and desert foxes.  In her first days she meets with a ranch hand who invites her to stay the night in his house and we can feel her deep trepidation as she accepts.  It turns into a benign invitation and the ranch hand and his wife become her friends. Along the trails she encounters an assortment of men, some of whom seek to befriend her, some to seduce her and one , menacingly to assault her. But as the trek proceeds she gathers confidence and a level of self realization which is only possible when you pass through a monumental struggle alone.

Her mother looms as the guiding light in her life and it is to her that Caroline dedicates the walk.

The second journey in this film revolves around the life of dissipation into which Caroline sinks as her marriage crumbles, her friends and family abandon her and she turns to drugs, junkies and casual sex for fulfillment. It is a harrowing argosy because as she passes through it, she can see the life her mother wished her to live, slowly fading away.   Her ultimate redemption can only be achieved, she rightly perceives, by passing through an ordeal  which will test her faith in her self, in humanity and in an unknown future which awaits her on the other side.

Much of the story of the walk I recognized as authentic – the daydreams and dueling conversations held alternately with friends and foes; the endless juke box of music – remembered songs and melodies, called upon to keep oneself entertained and from going mad;  the deep longing for ice cream and anything with sugar;  the constant regrets about not bringing essential camping or walking gear;  the improvisations made when things break or are lost;  the intense anticipation of reaching a destination where letters and food supplies await;  the fear of camping alone on a windswept plain with only the howls of animals as company; the deep camaraderie which develops with others met along the trail and most important of all- the gritty determination to keep going no matter what.

Witherspoon shines in the role of Strayed and gives us an entirely convincing portrait of a woman in deep turmoil but who will let few obstacles – natural or man made deter her. Laura Dern as the mother is not quite as convincing and her on screen conviviality seems at times forced although she projects enough of a life force against which Caroline’s bitter disappointment in herself can be measured.

Can a walk of this magnitude really act as a form of redemption and recast one’s life? The answer is an emphatic yes.  Although I walked with none of Witherspoon’s assorted demons, I similarly began my own trek with a desire to understand myself and my purpose.  The three months I spent walking  across Southern England and into central England  as a 24-year -old , gave me time to think and dwell on the things that mattered to me and the life I wanted to live.

In Wild, Caroline Strayed  emerges from her journey a different woman, someone who has saved herself by dint of  deep personal commitment and sacrifice.   The self -reliance and self -confidence this has engendered now gives her the courage to shape a new life.

There may be few people who can see themselves in Caroline’s sweat sodden  shoes.  But for those who can they will know that the inner journey can be as brutally long as the physical one and of the two, usually the one more difficult.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unbroken

 

Director: Angelina Jolie

Featuring: Jack O’Connell, Domehall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Whitrock

Release Date: December 25, 2014

Review Date: January 5, 2015

In the first scene of Unbroken, we find ourselves floating in a bank of nimbus clouds, watching as what appear to be a flock of birds careen towards us.

A few seconds later and we hear the drone of plane engines, startled to realize that we are in the direct path, not of migrating geese, but of a squadron of bombers.  Almost immediately, the fuselage of a World War II vintage B 24 booms past us and we suddenly know we are in a time and place very different from our own.

This is scintillating film making, providing a raw introduction to a desperate era, when American air force pilots were manning draughty, unreliable craft that were seemingly held together by tape and glue.   The bomber, on this particular run, releases its payload on a Japanese occupied Pacific island below but its bombing tray jams, making it impossible for the pilot to properly lower his landing gear.  As the plane heads for home, the plane’s problems are compounded when flak pounds the disabled plane and a Japanese fighter appears out of nowhere to spray the Americans with a deadly round of bullets.  With two men severely injured, the plane must limp home and attempt a landing almost on its belly.

So begins Unbroken with the promise of a roiling adventure story that is fraught with unexpected  dangers and perils.

And so it is.  But the action is fairly short lived and the movie slowly winds down to a gritty tale of sheer endurance  – both for the film’s lead character and for the audience  – in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Its tale of danger, grit in the face of brutality and an ultimate redemption that is a long time in coming.

But first things first.  This is the story of the war time travails of one Louis Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic athlete and competitor in the 5,000 meter dash at the Berlin Olympics, who finds himself, six years later, a bombardier on one of the creaky planes that the U.S. Air Force hastily ( and perhaps inadvisedly) commissioned into action in the early 1940s.

His back story, provided via flashbacks,  is filled in as he waits anxiously with his other six crew men to land their plane in the hope it does not break apart upon touchdown.

Here we find  the young Louis, a truant Italian kid in a non-descript mind western town, stealing cigarettes and getting involved in scuffles with the local gang and thereafter being hauled off  by the local constable to face a dressing down from his father.  His older brother, an athlete, decides that the way to lift  the ten-year-old out of his certain destiny as a jailbird is to turn him on to running for which he seems to think he might have some talent.  The scene which follows, lifted straight out of Forest Gump, portrays the young Louis transforming, while running into the adolescent Louis who then matures into the 20 year old character played ultimately by Jack O’ Donnell.  A later scene will show Louis arriving for the Berlin Olympics and competing in the 5,000 meters at which he places a respectable eighth.

So much for the back story.  Louis and his crew, sans one, survive the crash landing of their plane and engage in some well earned R&R, when they are informed that they must immediately undertake a search and rescue mission for a downed plane.  But no sooner are they gazing over long endless stretches of Pacific Ocean for the missing airmen, than their own plane’s left engines give out and the crew realizes that they must ditch in the sea.

What follows is the most graphic recreation of a crash landing since Castaway.  The plane essentially falls apart upon contact with the water and the crew members are shown desperately attempting to save themselves as the fuselage collapses and quickly sinks.  Louis, trapped, is finally able to pry himself loose as the plane descends to the ocean floor.  Breaking the surface he sees that two others have survived – the pilot and the machine gunner who have managed to inflate two life rafts.  Thereafter the three men must survive searing heat, thirst, hunger, shark attacks, storms,  strafing from Japanese fighters and each other as they float helplessly on the ocean for 47 days.  In the course of this harrowing experience they lose Mack the bombadier, whose corpse they choose not to cannibalize but consign to the deep.

Their ultimate rescue, by a Japanese cruiser, is not exactly a godsend since their immediate internment begins a long period of barbaric confinement and torture.

It is here that the story essentially stops and we are witness to two years of brutal treatment of American prisoners at the hands of Japanese prison guards.  For some obscure reason (it is never entirely explained  in the film) the prison warden, dubbed by the American prisoners “The Bird” takes a particular interest in his Olympian prize and invents all kinds of tests of the airman’s resolve.  The cold Spartan life, which the  POWs are forced to endure is conveyed by Jolie with no attempts to cover up the sheer inhumanity of the experience. Bare, uninsulated barracks, hard board planks as beds, a grueling exercise regimen in below freezing weather and regular latrine duty is the quotidian lot of these men.

Ultimately the “The Bird ” is reassigned, but so are the men of the POW camp as Louis and his nemesis come face to face yet again.

The second half of the film is constructed as a test of wills between”The Bird” (played  by an insouciant Miyavi –  in real life, a Japanese rock star) and Louis, who is constantly reminded in his mind of his brother’s admonition to play to win.  His spirit, unbroken by the violence that is visited upon him, is justly celebrated as the mark of a great American – a brutalized young man who even determinedly refuses, in exchange for his release,  the entreaties of his captors to turn traitor and send weekly broadcasts of his good treatment over the airwaves back to mainland America.

And of course there is indeed something stirring about this man’s determination to survive and to never give in to the humiliations and privations that are repeatedly visited upon him.  Yet in making this point Director Angelina Jolie loses the soul of her movie, dwelling endlessly on Louis’ pain and suffering without providing any context or understanding for the motivations behind his captor’s endless infliction of pain.  Although this movie should not have attempted in glamorize the life of a torturer and vicious Commandant, some back story as to how this young Japanese man, almost the same age as Louis, became so irretrievably twisted and why he saw in Louis the most fitting target to enact his fearsome crimes, might have been appropriate.

For all that, Unbroken does not fail as a movie.   In places it in fact shines magnificently as a testament to the human will to survive even the most gruesome barbarity – the same point made in the best films about the Holocaust.  Its only true fault is that it gives over this story in a rather prosaic manner which adds very little to the story of survival under Japanese hegemony in such films as Bridge On the River Kwai.

But before leaving Unbroken I must give the movie credit for two areas of film making that are notoriously underappreciated – costuming and make up.  The World War II period uniforms and hairstyles are presented with delicate accuracy and believability – from the parting in Jack O’ Donnell’s quaff to the creases in his fatigues.   They lend the film an immediacy it might not have otherwise have possessed. So too the make up – particularly the scenes of the parched lipped airmen on the floating rafts and later the incarcerated POWs in the Pacific jungles – everything is done to provide authenticity and it goes a long way to highlighting the mens’ desperate quest for survival.

Perhaps the greatest statement of our hero’s determination comes at  the end when we see documentary footage of the aged Louis, now in his 70s, carrying the Olympic torch to be lit – in, of all places, Japan.   Jolie gives little time to  Louis’ post-war struggles, documented so powerfully in the Hildebrand book – to overcome his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and his ultimate embrace of Christianity, which he attributes to saving his life.

Maybe that latter day episode in Louis Zamperini’s  life presents the framework for an  entirely different movie. But meanwhile this film’s impact can be summed up quite simply: I very much wanted to learn more about the man and what drove him to his feats of endurance. If a film is able to leave us with a burning desire to uncover, through outside sources, more about its hero’s motivations and drive, in order to bring some of that strength and vitality into own lives, then we should not hesitate to credit that film a great success.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of the Intermediate Zone

 

 

 

 

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (OR HOW HEAVY EYELINER AND EVEN HEAVIER  BRITISH ACCENTS INVADED ANCIENT EGYPT)

Director: Ridley Scott

Featuring: Christian Bale, John Turturo,  Signourey Weaver, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul

Length: 150 minutes.

Release Date: December 12, 2014

Review Date: December 27, 2014

One has to marvel at the current Hollywood penchant for repeatedly mining the Bible for its entertainment value.  In the past twelve months alone there has been Noah, The Red Tent and the three part mini-series The Bible.  When you think of it though, it should not be so surprising.  The stories of the Bible have everything needed to make for good movie fare: strong characters, dramatic plots, unexplained, serendipitous miracles, heroes who must overcome impossible odds and lots of evil guys who are trying to get in their way.

But on all counts, Exodus: Gods and Kings fails in its attempts to meet any of this criteria. Part Spartacus, part Arthurian legend, part Robin Hood, it leaves its audience scratching its heads as to which part was left over for the actual Biblical narrative.

Moses (Christian Bale) the favored prince and most trusted general of Pharaoh Seti, is the Egyptian equivalent of a rock star, striding around Memphis in his black armor and swinging pendants with a Tom Cruise haircut and a James Dean swagger. Forget the meek, mild mannered Moses of Bible fame, who stutters and is riven with self-doubt.  Not this guy. He is as comfortable stabbing grapes on his plate as he is gleefully impaling Hittites with his Excalibur-like sword.

Moses’ counterpart is the feckless son of Seti, Ramses, (Joel Edgerton) who competes with Egypt’s favorite hero for his father’s attention. Ramses amuses himself by playing with his father’s pet pythons whose venom he uses to enhance his martial prowess.   They are sent off together to join battle with the invading Hittites whom they dispatch rather quickly, but not before Moses saves the life of the stupefied Ramses who freezes in combat.  Everything swings along hummingly in Ancient Egypt until Moses, out of town on a royal mission to inspect the building projects at Pithom, is slipped a note by a Hebrew slave to meet with the Tribal elders. There he is informed that he is not an Egyptian at all, but, gasp, the son of a Hebrew slave. Why he should believe this, particularly since he does not have any outward physical attributes of Hebraic character – neither a Jew-fro, short stature nor the pronounced schnozz ( although we know nothing of the give away evidence which might be dangling beneath his tunic) is left unanswered.

The only hint we have that Moses has been questioning his identity is when Jewish elder Nun (Ben Kingsley) reminds him that he has always felt there was something wrong. Huh? Its the first time that this ancient Egyptian is revealed to have had any qualms at all about his charmed existence as a much venerated Egyptian icon.   But the revelation nevertheless seems to knaw at him for at least a few seconds since soon after stepping outside Nun’s door he feels compelled to murder a couple of Egyptian guards.

Unfortunately for Moses the whole episode is overheard by two Jewish informers and news travels quickly to the Court.  Thereafter there is a rather rapid downfall as Ramses sentences his foster brother to an ignominious exile. Moses is briefly reunited with his real mother and sister before setting off into the wilderness. Eventually he comes across a Midianite community whose daughters he saves at a well from harassing goat herders.  There, after marrying the demure Tzipporah and after nine bucolic years as a shepherd, he meets up, in the pouring rain on a mountain top with the burning bush and through the agency of an eleven-year- old  messenger from G’d,  receives his instructions to return to Egypt in order to liberate his people from bondage.

Thereafter Moses the warrior prince transforms into Moses the guerrilla leader.  He is seen training his brigades in all manner of shooting arrows from horseback and they are given to acts of sabotage that would make a good day’s work for the French Underground. But none of this has much impact on Ramses; nor does it  impress the eleven-year-old messenger.  Moses is told to sit back and watch as  G’d , with his ten plagues, decisively finishes the job.  Gruesome suffering is unloaded on the hapless Egyptians as the final plague – the killing of the first born , ends Ramses’ cloying noodling of his infant son, whom he loves in extremis because, as we are informed, his own father didn’t give him enough love.

 

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The Israelites win permission to leave. Ramses decides to give chase and his army follows. Ramses loses most of that army when it falls over a cliff. But he presses on to see the Israelities crossing the Red Sea which has miraculously receded just prior to the onset of a Tsunami. The Egyptian army follows across the suprisingly unsodden landscape in hot pursuit only to realize the rise of the Tsunami wave is upon them.  The Israelites make it to the other side but Pharaoh and his cohorts are predictably swept away. Both Pharaoh and Moses stagger to their respective shores as the Hebrews stare in blank disbelief and the dead Egyptians, washed up on the shore, are picked apart by carrion.

 

 

The last scenes have Moses chipping away at the Ten Commandments under the messenger’s instructions as he is given the option( finally!) to end the whole  thing – and go back, I guess, to his rarefied life as Egyptian cynosure.  Moses prefers life in the cave with the tablets and the boy messenger.  The last we see of him,  he is bouncing  along over the desert in a horse drawn cart , already quite aged, with a curious expression on his face – which could be wonder at how and why this movie was ever made.

Now for some of the more perplexing aspects of the film’s lead characters:

Ramses is a befuddled leader who even in peace time can’t seem to get a handle on his role as ruler of the world’s greatest civilization and stumbles around his palace po-faced and uncertain of what to say next.  Joe Edgerton appears to be particularly bored and embarrassed to be playing this rather helpless monarch and despite the devastating plagues visited against Egypt, adds quite a bit of weight as the movie progresses (not to mention hair) – perhaps a means of dealing with his boredom.   Though, as is seemingly de rigeur with most Hollywood portrayals of villains these days, we are exposed to his affecting humanity in his role as a father, a husband and martyr to his cause.

John Turturo plays the rather fey Seti I, father to Ramses and surrogate father to Moses, who seems to be dying  from pink lipstick poisoning since he wears it with relish even on his deathbed. His heavy British accent makes you feel as if you are watching a Monty Python parody of Pharaoh in which the lipsed line ” Do you have a problem with the name Biggus Dickus? ” would not be entirely out of place.

The Hebrew slaves are, for the most part, hairy stoic mutes who more resemble the Morlocks from the 1960 version of H.G. Wells’  The Time Machine, than the embittered,quarrelsome and rather garrulous peons of the Biblical narrative.

The Royal Palace of Memphis seems to be open for business at all hours – open, that is, to the invading locusts, lice, frogs and other assorted plagues as well as to would-be assassins like the fugitive Moses and his accomplices who sneak in completely unnoticed and surprise the sleepwalking, unguarded Pharaoh who is astonishingly wandering around the palace in his pajamas.

Moses’ love interest, the fetching, lip-tattooed shepherdess Tzipporah, offers one of the few limited roles for any woman in the movie. Her heart is apparently won over when Moses capably shears a goat in her presence.  They are united under the canopy in an exchange of vows  that sounds like it was cribbed from a new age wedding script at the Esalen Institute.   It is so corny that you half expect them to break out into the Ancient Egyptian song version of I Must Have Done Something Good  from The Sound of Music.  

Of course the imaginative king hit of this movie is the casting of an eleven- year -old boy to play G’d – or G’d’s messenger.  Isaac Andrews plays a pouty, cynical go-between who appears before the burning bush to instruct Moses in his new mission. G’d’s motivations are somewhat obscure.   He does seem rather curiously vengeful toward the Egyptians, considering they have enslaved his people, but on his own watch,  for 400 years.  Why, the audience might ask, just as rabbinic commentators have questioned for a few thousands  years, does He get so animated about the issue now?   No answer from the director.

The relationship between the messenger and  the benighted liberator never gets much beyond mutual distrust, and they behave more like two squabbling siblings than accommodating partners, which in turn  makes you wonder why Moses even bothers.   Yet it is all worth while  since the boy messenger repays all Moses’ hard earned efforts in fleeing Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, enduring enormous privation and generally securing the liberation of his people by brewing him a cup of tea as he chisels away at the Ten Commandments.  The moment is so touching that you would think they were a long married couple, pleasantly sliding together into old age.

The babble of accents in the film can be disconcerting.  One minute the Royal Pharonic court is debating a range of options to how to deal with the plagues  – and their British accents make them sound like a gathering of  Winston Churchill’s War Council, when Queen Mother Tuya (Signourey Weaver) abruptly interrupts them with her brash East Coast American accent.  They all seem to pivot and stare at her in wonder, amazed that the casting director could have let this spoiler enter the room.  The accents that tumble off the screen include Spanish, Lebanese, Irish, Italian and Australian – anything but convincingly Egyptian.

The biggest question that the movie leaves unanswered is why was the liberation necessary at all.  The Hebrew slaves are not all that much different than any other slaves we have seen in recent movies (eg: Twelve Years a Slave).  According to the narrator, whose voice over opens the movie, the one thing that distinguishes them from the Egyptians is that they believe in one God and not multiple deities.  But there is no background to their story; no real sense of their origins, how they became slaves and why they feel the need to return to Canaan. The individuality of the Israelites that morally and ideologically sets them apart , not just from the Egyptians, but from all other peoples of the world, is entirely glossed over.

As is the actual purpose of their journey across the desert to the Red Sea and into Sinai.  In the Bible, Moses makes clear, in his petition to Pharaoh, that the purpose of their exodus is to travel three days into the desert to worship G’d and then to return.  As we learn later in the Biblical narrative, that purpose became a little more firmly focused when the Children of Israel were presented with the Ten Commandments.  But the Ten Commandments themselves are given short shrift in Exodus: Gods and Kings, not even five minutes of screen time.  They had become the center of Cecil B. de Mille’s 1956 epic and  the great denouement of the DreamWorks animated 1998 remake, The Prince of Egypt.  An explanation might be that the director’s oft stated agnoticism gave the Ten Commandments little role in his own epic as he was more concerned with the action drama of liberation than with the purpose of that liberation. But this makes Scott’s epic morally hollow and teleologically flat.

And another matter:  Who, exactly, are the Gods and Kings referred to in the movie’s title?  The Egyptian  Gods are largely AWOL and not even really mentioned by name.  Pharaoh pronounces himself a God but if so, he is a rather lack luster deity and a disempowered one at that – who does not rely on his own abilities to stanch the strings of  disasters visited upon Egypt but instead hands the job over to his ingratiating but useless magicians.

And missing from the film entirely is one of the most quizzical elements of the entire  Exodus story – G’ds decision to harden the heart of Pharaoh making it impossible for him to make amends  even if he desires to do so. This issue is philosophically central to an understanding of  the relationship between G’d and man and is an opening to a discussion about human free will, which lies at the heart of Judaism and most monotheistic religions.  A real argument between Moses and  G’d/the messenger on this subject would have been of greater interest than the spat between the two over tactics.

Hollywood directors, in their use of creative license, often produce several endings for their movies, with only one eventually chosen.

For a movie which strays so far from its original source material there could be several alternative endings, right?

So why not this one?:

Pharaoh staggers ashore – but unfortunately for him, it is the same shore as Moses where the Israelites are waiting for him with their swords drawn.  Realizing that the jig is up, he confesses the error of his ways, gives up his royal life and his chariot and decides to join the Israelites on their 40 year trek through the desert. In the process he becomes chief Israelite cook, invents the bagel, discovers lox and after some experimentation founds the exotic chain of famous delicatessens known in ancient times as  ‘Rami’s Deli?’

Improbable?

Not if you think that Christian Bale’s swashbuckling prince presents an accurate portrait of the Biblical Moses or that one of the greatest civilizations the world has known could be run by such blithering idiots.

In Cecil B. de Mille’s 1956 take on the Exodus story, the defeated Pharaoh (Yul Brynner) returns to the royal palace and is confronted by his wife who bates him about his failure to kill Moses. He turns on her and declares ” His God is G-D.”  It is hard to imagine such an admission from almost any major Hollywood director today;  yet in case either they or we have forgotten, it is almost the entire point of the Exodus narrative.  That “story”, as rich as the material it might have provided for entertainment vehicles since the advent of moving pictures, has offered the inspiration for man’s quest for liberty for over 3,500 years and is remembered by the Jewish people ever since as the most significant event in their nation’s long history.   Establishing the existence of one God,  cementing the bond between that Deity and the Jewish people and framing the latter’s role as the moral leaders of mankind, would  provide – one might think-  just as interesting a focus as the highlighting of a distracting sibling rivalry and a mere Spartacus-styled slave rebellion.

What a shame the director of this movie misses them entirely.

 

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles and the editor of The Intermediate Zone

 

BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) 

 

Birdman Movie Poster

 

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Featuring:  Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Lindsay Duncan, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, and Naomi Watts

Length: 119 minutes

Review Date: December 14, 2014

 

What is it about Birdman that makes me feel so uncomfortable?

I have been trying to work this out for several days after viewing the film early last week.    It could be the gritty New York streets which seem so dank and dark;  Or perhaps its the claustrophobic set, which is established in and around the immediate vicinity of a Broadway theater; Or perhaps, yet again, it is the dizzying camera work which follows the lead characters up and down narrow stair wells, into dirty bathrooms and in and around tiny dressing rooms.

It could be the uneasy mix of hard  American realism laced with Latin American magical realism, which is jarring and sometimes distracting.

Or perhaps it is the fact that this film is in reality a film of a play within a play which is retold in many different ways over the course of two hours and involves characters who are broken and quite knocked around by their individual life experiences. Perhaps their world is so circumscribed by  their situations and their interactions with one another that there is no actual room for the audience to share their dilemmas and their crises.

The story revolves around Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) a screen actor who 30 years before had played the fictional Birdman in a series of  films which were enormously successful.  In an attempt to rehabilitate an acting career which was, he feels, prostituted to fame and money, he has written a play based on the Raymond Carver short story What We  Talk About When We Talk About Love which he has chosen to produce and direct himself.   In a four person cast , the play, of which we only see snippets (and the same snippets over and over again – even if performed in different ways)  reveals  the characters of the actors as much as the actors as characters and the trials of the actors on stage seems to mimic the trials of the actors in real life.   In real life Riggan is a divorcee with a truant, whip smart 20 -year- old daughter ( Emma Stone)  whom he has hired as his assistant.  He is filled with self-doubt and misgivings about his career and haunted by his alter ego The Birdman who plays on his conscience throughout the film.   The supporting male lead ( for both the film and the play) is  Mike Shiner ( Edward Norton) , a deeply opinionated  braggart who has his own idiosyncratic reading of the play and whose stage  tantrums nearly upend it.   Lesley (Naomi Watts) — to some unexpected news from the production’s other actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts), the female lead, is an experienced  screen actress who has been desperate to open on Broadway for all her acting career; And  Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is Riggan’s some time frustrated  lover who is not sure how she fits into the actor’s life or really into the play itself.

Riggan feels that the play is truly his last chance to re-establish himself as a serious actor and in many ways he  is standing on the ledge of his own life, looking down, not certain whether it is worth it.  In fact all the actors in this film are in one way or another standing out  on the ledge of their lives and  ‘the ledge’ plays as a metaphor consistently throughout the film as Riggan,  Mike and Natalie at one time or another dangle from a window sill, a parapet or  the edge of  a roof top and look down.

We look down into the abyss with these characters as they pass through their existential crises.  The film asks questions about the emptiness of fame without love, money without artistic success and familial ties without commitment but in the end answers none of them. We are left wondering at the end, even with the play an unexpected artistic triumph, what the characters have really gained except for a temporary reprieve from oblivion.  When Riggan ultimately destroys his alter ego, his imagined or real flight, independent of that fictional being, leaves only questions about who he really is.

Identity is the central dilemma for these characters as it must be for most serious actors.  So habituated to thinking and performing as characters who are not  themselves they fnd it difficult to play their own real life roles as husbands, fathers and lovers  –  which results in a sense of alienation when they return to resume their own reality.

Ultimately, Birdman is unsatisfying because it fails to provide true contact between the actors and their audience  –  which is true enough for the play within a play as much as it is true for the film itself.  A highly stylized film that we are made to feel was recorded all in one take, Alejandro González Iñárritu has made an American  film with the flavor of a Latin American one.  The magic realism of those great South American novelists has never translated all that well to film and this is so for Birdman as well. There are too many jarring scenes:  Where Riggan first imagines he is flying and then perhaps is actually flying; where the Birdman is not a fictional alter ego but a flesh and blood character who speaks to Riggan as if their roles are reversed;  or where the jazz drummer, whose pattering is heard in the background throughout the film and who then makes a sudden, inexplicable cameo appearance completely out of context in one of the last scenes.  At one point, Riggan strolls down the street, clicking his fingers to make cars explode, and balls of flame sizzle from the heavens. There is even a giant black griffin that clings to a skyscraper and screeches down at city life. It is a confusing and disturbing mix of fantasy and fiction where the lines between the two are often blurred – much like we see in the novels of  Gabriel Garcia Marquez , Jorge Amado and Maria Vargas Llosa but not as successfully executed.

Without successfully resolving the many tensions between fact and fiction, real life and stage life and monetary success and artistic success, the movie leaves us pondering too many open ended questions without providing quite enough clues to answer them.  That might be fine for a novel, whose length provides the author with enough scope to guide the reader forward. But for a film of only two hours, the open endedness only brings frustration and dissatisfaction, a great shame for a movie which could have been so much more.

 

INTERSTELLAR:  A REVIEW

 

 

Director:  Christopher Nolan

Cast:   Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine

Theatrical Release Date:  11/11/14

Length: 165 mins

Review Date:  December 5, 2014

*** SPOILER ALERT!   Would advise not reading this review if you intend seeing this movie.  But strongly advise reading it if you have either seen it or have no intention of doing so.

Near the end of Interstellar, the latest offering from Hollywood superstar director Christopher Nolan, the movie’s hero Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, returns from a mission to another solar system to find himself rescued by a patrol from an oddly placed space station orbiting the planet Saturn.  He soon discovers that while he has only been traveling in space time by his own reckoning for about two years, in Earth time he has been away for 86.

By the time the credits roll, audience members could be excused for thinking they had spent those full 86 years with him.   The movie is so incomprehensibly elongated and lugubrious that  it makes you wish that time could have been contracted, rather than stretched, so that we could have traveled back several light years earlier.

Interstellar is a BIG movie – big in special effects, big in its musical soundtrack, big in philosophical statements, big in the solving of difficult scientific questions.  But here are some of things it is not big on – a plot, a screenplay, good acting, character development, story continuity  and proper calibration between the musical score and the screen action.

Epic sci-fi movies in the modern era always have to live up to a difficult standard – the great accomplishment of Stanley Kubrick’s  2001: A Space Odyssey  which long ago established that sci-fi could be brainy, exciting and technologically challenging.

Unfortunately Interstellar strives for all three and fails to ignite on any of them.   It is instead a murky mix of movie scripts and over used plots ranging from Disney’s Black Hole to Event Horizon to the children’s book  A Wrinkle in Time with nothing particularly original. It is an interesting exercise in soullessness and dopey dialogue aboard a Ferrris Wheel styled space craft whose mission makes no sense and whose crew don’t seem to know anything about one other or their real purpose until they are several years into their mission.

Interstellar is really composed of two stories  – one of  Planet Earth and  the other of a particular Earth family.  As it turns out, the fates of both are intertwined and curiously dependent upon one another.

The Earth story concerns a planet that  is dying – a fact which no one seems to know or appreciate save for one scientist, who keeps the secret rather close to his chest.  Food has become scarce and the only crop that will grow is corn and even that staple is subject to the ravages of enormous dust storms.    In order to save what is left of humanity, NASA has engineered a massive space station which it plans to send into space through a wormhole, on the other side of which it there is believed to exist several planets with life sustaining environments similar to Earth.    Ten years or so earlier NASA had sent twelve astronauts though the same wormhole to discover which of the suspected planets on the other side could seed human life.  Only three of those missions have radioed their survival.  NASA needs a second mission to pour through the wormhole to discover the success of the first.  And although this does seem a lot like throwing good money after bad , there is a point to this enormous scientific effort which will drain the last coffers of a rapidly asphyxiating world: the new world will be carrying 500 embryos which will be hatched upon arrival in order to seed the new planet(s) with life.

The human story  revolves around a retired crash pilot astronaut, Cooper, who still has nightmares about the crash which almost took his life. He is the widowed father of  Tom and Murphy ( a  terrific Mackenzie Foy), a precocious 10 -year- old with a scientific bent and who is mystified by the ghostly tumbling of books onto the floor of her rural home’s study.  Cooper is now  reduced to farming in a world that does not need test pilots or astronauts, but food providers.    But Cooper gets a  chance to return to space when he and his daughter stumble upon the coordinates of  a secret NASA work station.  The two visit the work station only to discover that it is being run by his old teacher, Professor Brand. Brand is delighted to meet his old student because he has arrived just in time to captain a special mission to determine the fate of the lost astronauts.  The next day, seemingly, Cooper with no training or even a good space manual, is an astronaut again, lifting off with his crew of three  – Professor Brand’s daughter biologist Amelia ( Hathaway) an engineer ( Romilly)  and  Doyle  a microbiologist with a very bad hair piece.

In order to survive  the two year journey to Saturn without lapsing into endless philosophical babbling about the purpose of life and the even more daunting exposition about quantum physics ( which must be saved for filling blank space later in the movie) , the crew of the Endurance slide into cyro – sleep, using what seems to be the same antiquated freeze machines, re-engineered  from the mid-60s television series  Lost in Space.

Soon enough the Endurance is entering the orbit of Saturn and is quickly sucked into the void of the wormhole, travelling light years into the future – or the past ( depending upon your perspective).  Ejected from the black hole, the Endurance spins in search of the three planets where signals, though weak, keep arriving.  Cooper and Brand descend  to the first planet, named, imaginatively, “Planet Miller” ( for the astronaut whose signal they keep picking up) only to discover she had died when a giant tidal wave overcame her craft soon after landing.   Time passes extremely slowly on Planet Miller so that for every hour they spend on its surface, seven years elapse on Planet Earth. By the time they return to the Endurance ( sans  Doyle, the astronaut with the bad hair piece who was lost when the second craft too encounters a tidal wave) Romilly, the lone astronaut who had remained aboard the mother ship, greets them with a  sad expression and  a wobbly voice, declaring that he had been waiting for them for 23 years.   When Astronaut Brand questions why he didn’t take advantage of the same cyro-sleep beds that had been used on the outbound trip, he mumbles, almost apologetically, “I had things to do.”  Obviously such a busy life did not involve preparing for the crew’s triumphant return with champagne and caviar.

OK.   Enough of the plot. I have already given away too much to make any one want to see this movie unless you are interested  in pompous dialogue, inexplicable physics and time travel which defies human understanding.

But  if you do venture on after the disastrous mission to Planet Miller you will encounter  the ( space) mad nutter Professor Mann ( Matt Damon – who has survived in cyro-sleep on the eponymously labeled Planet Mann), reprising the role of Lost in Space’s Dr. Zachary Smith and who tumbles into an awkward space fight with McConaughey’s Cooper butting space helmets with him like two elk in rut.

You will discover that the alluring Amelia, the lone woman on this space mission, in whom none of the men on the space craft seem to have demonstrated any sexual interest after years aboard the Endurance (giving the craft’s name a very special meaning), reveals that she has a secret passion for  Edmunds,  the last of the three supposedly surviving astronauts and whom she travels a few billion miles to find.  It is here you will hear her burble the one  inimitable, immortal line from the film, something we  should never let the scriptwriters forget   –  ” love is the one thing that transcends time and space.”

                 

You will also encounter the Tesseract, a floating library in the black hole in which all human memory exists and where time in fact  appears as a spatial ” fifth” dimension  and which any passing astronaut from the past or future with, I guess,  the adequate key card, can access.   The script writers make clear that the Tesseract’s construction was made possible by future humans and only because Cooper had successfully completed his mission in saving humanity many eons before.  But his mission is only a success because of the Tesseract  – with his manipulation of the past and his ability  to communicate with his ten- year -old daughter in another dimension.  All of which  makes us ponder what came first – the highly advanced Tesseract or Cooper’s mission?  Or is all time and space just  jumbled together – much like the script, story, acting and the props in the actual movie?  No answer provided by the film makers.

As you float through this tangle of movie making flotsam and jetsam, you will encounter several other puzzling anomalies which will demand your attention:

  • Near the beginning of the film, a  wayward Indian made ( YES, Indian made) space drone appears out of nowhere beginning an excited dance over the cornfields of Louisiana which in turn sparks a turbo charged truck chase (on only three good tires) by Cooper and his two children through said corn fields.  But when they finally capture the drone it is as if they have just landed a fish they have to throw back.  It seems to bear little interest for Cooper or anyone else  and after gutting the brains of the craft, the hulk is towed back to the farm to do what, exactly?  We never see it again.
  • If you look at all the vehicles on Earth in the film,  they appear to be current day models, including the Dodge RAM truck that Cooper drives. How did  earthlings in the not too distant future (lets say, to be generous, 2030)  then develop super spaceships to travel to the stars but yet can’t seem to solve the food crisis on Earth?
  • Why does Cooper’s daughter appear to age but the chief  NASA scientist, played by Michael Caine, does not appear to age at all and is wearing the same clothes years later? I know he’s an engineer but even they wash and change clothes sometimes.
  • If wheat died several years ago, what beer is still available for Cooper to drink?
  • Why doesn’t Cooper know where NASA is located , particularly since he apparently once worked for the agency,  it is near his home and his old professor, who immediately press gangs him into service for the benefit of humanity, has known that he has been living only a few miles away for several years?
  •  Why  are there only two plans – Plan A and Plan B – made available to the astronauts?  Aren’t there limitless options available to astronauts once they become space borne?  And couldn’t the script writers come up with better names for these plans which actually accord with  NASA’s rather creative use of mythological references for its missions in the past ( anyone remember Apollo, Gemini and Viking?)
  •  Why does Caine’s Professor Brand, endlessly and annoyingly intone lines from Dylan Thomas poem  Do Not Go Gentle  Into that Good Night  – acting more  like a doddery NASA monk than a NASA scientist, a cleric who has run out of ideas and is now relying solely on faith and his knowledge of mid-20th century poetry  to propel Endurance through the Universe?
  • There are three Earth-like planets orbiting around a black hole, yet there’s no proper star in this system. Without a  celestial body, how do any of these planets support human life or even provide sunlight?  Remember that black holes are the result of dead suns which have collapsed  in on themselves. To solve a  food problem, a team of scientists and explorers then  have knowingly come to a planetary system with a dead star. The light we see on these planets  may be due to some kind of accretion disc around the black hole –  but that is notoriously unstable –  so betting on its light to support human life is scientifically out of the question.
  • Why, when Cooper and his faithful robot TARS, are finally discovered by a space patrol floating through space, do the several generations of his expanded family (children, grandchildren and great- children) not excitedly flock to him when he  enters the room of his dying daughter who has been waiting earnestly all of her remaining 86 years for his return?   Strange that no one seems to want to have much to do with him, given his status as the hero, (as his daughter  knows him to be) who saved humanity.
  • Why does Cooper then decide to jet off to Planet Edmunds, leaving behind his huge family ( I mean isn’t family everything-  as Cooper at one time expostulates in the movie?), defying the potentially bone crushing gravitational forces within the Black Hole once again, in order to meet up with Amelia, who, as we have now discovered, has uncovered the body of her dead lover amidst the wreckage of his landing craft?  But it was not as if heat had sizzled between the two astronauts while they were space borne. In fact, a less steamy relationship, confined as it is most of the time, to clunky space suits, cannot be imagined. Perhaps the film makers were after all attempting to validate Amelia’s verdict on time and space  – and that “love” transcends it.  Perhaps love even transcends good film making.  Who knows?
  • More perplexing than any of this is the question of the need to leave Earth in the first place.   Isn’t the job of saving Earth a gazillion times easier and less costly than jetting a know-nothing crew through an unknown black hole to an unknown solar system where the fate of the humans who had preceded them is similarly unknown?  Couldn’t all of that technology (and money, if it still exists) have been better employed to save the Earth from its cruel fate?

I have saved the philosophical issues for last because they are actually the most interesting.   In no review of Interstellar that I have so far read, does the Earth’s final fate even rate a casual mention.  The doomed planet is ultimately and fatally doomed – a result of man made degradation.   Nothing mankind is capable of conceiving can save it.   There is not even a  Plan B minus for Earth.  All two of the professor’s plans are directed at ejecting humanity from the Earth, rather than harnessing human intelligence and will power to avoid catastrophe.   The ultimate conclusion is that the devastated Earth, because of man’s willful neglect and abysmal greed is now not even worth saving.   This is of course of a piece with the environmentalist mindset of Hollywood directors and script writers – whose sci-fi oeuvre from The Day After Tomorrow to Avatar  is replete with such nonsense.   And that is why, buried deep in the script you will find such baleful lines as:

“Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here” or “This world’s a treasure, but it’s been telling us to leave for a while now.”

Really?  The idea of mankind exhibiting an inherent rottenness is itself rooted in a religious (gasp!) concept of good and evil, with man in perpetual sin, incapable of defeating his baser impulses. One then wonders, with such a philosophical mindset, exactly how Nolan and his brother co-writer understand that the new generation of embryos, sent off to be raised by Universal Mother Amelia, is going to grow up to be any different than its ancestors?  Or will humanity, having left behind on Earth the evil Conservatives, Republicans, CEOs and Tea Party maniacs who have encouraged the world’s defilement, finally be free to live a healthy, organic life, free of carbon toxins and pollution- and thereby prosper?   The philosophical questions abound.

The second philosophical trope that one encounters is a disturbing existentialism which fails to mention or consider the presence of any Divine intelligence that might play some kind of role in the formation and order of the Universe.   When the NASA scientists explain to Cooper that someone or something has “placed” a wormhole near Saturn as an invitation for humanity to pass through, I would guess that half the audience would be thinking this ‘something’  is aliens  and the other half would be thinking it is GOD.    When the Endurance passes through the black hole and is nearly ripped to shreds, a hand reaches out to shake Amelia’s.  Alien or the hand of God?

I hazard to guess that there is not a NASA astronaut who has ever ventured beyond the Earth’s atmosphere who has not pondered the existence of G-d  given the universe’s extraordinarily delicate balance and order.  One does  not have to actually believe in a divine intelligence to contemplate its existence.  What you need is an open mind, something I assume space travel, a human adventure that only a handful of beings have ever experienced ,tends to encourage given the unparalleled vistas  and wonders encountered.  But how interesting it is that in all the blather about quantum physics, ‘love’ and family attachment in the movie, there is no discussion at all among the space crew about order in the Universe and the fact that there might be some unknowable force (perhaps the dark matter which constitutes 80% of the Universe and of which both they and we know nothing) which might be exerting an influence on not just on the planets but also on the individual missions of  each of the astronauts themselves.

It is an important question  because this movie, if it concerns anything, is about life’s purpose.  If the Earth is no longer a useful vehicle for organic life and Man such an irresponsible steward,  then why waste the energy to jettison that life to another solar system to begin again?   The answer that the movie wants to give is that life does, actually, have purpose and tries to satisfy the question by rhapsodizing about family and love. But in the end this nothing but a hollow conceit.  Cooper completely abandons his extended family on the space station in the end for life on a rather forbidding planet with Amelia.  Amelia’s love drive is revealed as an empty, futile quest as the chances of Edmunds’ survival, given the disappearance of 10 of the other astronauts on his mission, was never likely.  As a scientist she could have easily calculated the odds.  No, what we might say drove her was the sense that she could claim to begin human life again, in order to train it to reach a higher purpose.

What that higher purpose might be was beyond the reach of these film makers and actually beyond the thinking of almost everyone in Hollywood.  Perhaps one day our world will produce sci-fi movie makers who are also deep thinkers, connected to a reverence for the mystery and wonder of our Universe and in fact deeply humbled by it – men and women who are not afraid to ask difficult questions of how it  – and we- all came about.  In the meantime,  we should all  revel in the uniqueness of Planet Earth and its fortunate place  in the Universe and the extraordinary luck that we find ourselves in this location and at this time.  The third rock from the sun is providing its own transportive journey through the cosmos and we should all perhaps be enjoying the ride

 

ALICE IN WONDERLAND

 

 

Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Matt Lucas
Length: 108 min
Theatrical Release Date: 03/05/2010
Review Date: April 2, 201o

One would think that Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland would be  tailor made for a film maker of Tim Burton’s prodigious talents.  The director of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd, whose dark flights of fancy have captivated us for nearly three decades, would seem a natural choice to reproduce the quirky humor and shifting time sequences of Alice on film.

But Alice has defeated plenty of other directors who have sought to capture the book’s mystery and magic and Burton is only the latest to crash and burn in the attempt.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that his new film attempts  to be both a sequel and a reworking of the storyline in an effort to offer the audience something entirely new, yet ends up producing neither effectively.

In order to produce an original take on Alice, Burton and his screenwriter Linda Woolverton, combine Alice in Wonderland with  Carroll’s own sequel to that book, Through the Looking Glass and introduce a denouement that has  sweet little Alice transformed into a Lord of the Rings-like warrior, dragooned into a fight to the death  with the dreaded Jabberwocky.

In the process it presents us not with the original precocious  six-year- old Alice, but an eighteen-year-old version of the heroine, who, to her dismay, is being shunted into a hasty marriage to a boor.

We meet this older Alice at her Victorian engagement party, which has been unsuspectingly organized in her honor.  But just as her dour intended asks publicly for her hand,  she is distracted by the waist-coated white rabbit, who scurries by the gazebo where the betrothal is about to take place.  She  abruptly drops everything, including her intended’s  hand, to pursue the bounding rodent down the rabbit hole.  As is to be expected, she tumbles into an endless tunnel, crashing into the familiar room in which she either grows too tall to enter the door to Wonderland or else becomes too small to reach the key.

After figuring it out,  just as her earlier incarnation had done, Alice is free to wander in the garden of the the kingdom that has inexplicably changed its name during her absence from Wonderland to Underland, even if many of her old friends are still roaming its forests and fields.

 

Surprisingly, Alice has no recollection of her earlier visit or of the manic characters she once encountered there.  And while  she does meet up with the Blue Caterpillar, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Cheshire Cate, the March Hare and of course the Mad Hatter and they all persistently remind her of her earlier visit, her memory, until much later, remains unjogged.

But Wonderland has transformed in the intervening 12 years since her last journey and has endured an environmental degradation through war, pestilence and, one might think, the Underland version of global warming.

 

 

From thereon the plot of Alice In Wonderland takes us on a wayward path to the Red Queen’s castle, but in truth, appears pretty uncertain of where it is really heading.    In the process  we encounter  a number of highlights from both books but miss some of Carroll’s most indelibly drawn characters and scenes.  They include the White Knight, the Red King, Humpty Dumpty, the Lion and the Unicorn, the Gryphon  and the Mock Turtle.  Sadly lost or missing in action are the scenes of the  Caucus Race, the Lobster Quadrille and the trial of the Knave of Hearts.

The acting, save for some wonderful work from Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, is often stilted.   Johnny Depp, as the Mad Hatter, never seems to really commit to the role and often slips into an Scottish brogue that is all but incomprehensible.  He is by turns a wispy-voiced popinjay and at other times a tragedian, mooning over lost opportunity.   The over application of makeup seems strangely apposite for a film that is all color and no substance.   His breakdance at the end of the movie, with the introduction of a pounding disco beat,  is one of the more unsettling modern motifs slapped onto a film that presents itself, for the most part, as Victorian Gothic.

Anne Hathaway is out of place and out of her depth as the White Queen and her mannerisms are unconvincing.  Matt Lucas is suitably villainous as the Red Queen’s henchman but offers nothing particularly  original nor memorable.

 

 

One of the great disappointments is the failure to connect the characters in the opening scenes of  Alice’s engagement party, to the characters she later encounters in Wonderland.    This, after all, was one of the special delights of the Carroll book, where known political and local personalities would appear in the guise of  Wonderland characters (see, for instance, the Lion and the Unicorn as the battling personalities of Disraeli and Gladstone in Through the Looking Glass).  Burton misses the opportunity to have the imperious mother-in-law appear later as the Red Queen;  the more sympathetic and solicitous father- in-law portrayed as the Red King (or the King of Hearts)  and the Tweedledum and Tweedledee brothers ( who are marvelous CGI characters in Underland)  make an earlier appearance as stodgy twins at the engagement party.

 

 

 

 

 

Another disappointment is the failure to tell much of the original story of the first Alice in Wonderland through Alice’s reminiscences, scenes alluded to by the Underland characters, but rarely given any cinematic expression.  As Alice finally connects her many dreams over the intervening years with her current situation, we are only privy to a 30 second flashback of her six-year-old self painting white flowers red, attending an earlier Mad Tea Party and an encounter with the blue caterpillar.

But these are fleeting moments that leave the viewer with the unsettling impression that Burton in fact once made an entirely different film, one more faithful to Carroll’s original vision, only to trash it in favor of this mishmash of themes and plot lines.

I have always thought that it takes an act of presumption to write a sequel to a masterwork of world literature, years after the author died.  It also seems something of conceit to rewrite the story line completely, leaving only ghostly smatterings of the original story as if a license had been given to reconstruct a tale that had become too either tired or outdated for modern tastes.

But Lewis  Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is neither tired nor outdated and lives on as one of the most compelling literary works of  imagination ever set to paper.   Burton’s attempts to rewrite it ends up as a  misconceived mess that not only  does discredit to a great work of fiction but compromises  his own well honed  skills as a film maker and storyteller.

 

 

AVATAR

 

Director: James Cameron
Cast:   Sam Worthington, Signourey Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel Moore, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang
Length: 160 minutes
Review Date: December 20, 2009

Avatar, if anything, is big. Big on the screen (I saw it at an IMAX Theater so it was really big); big on computer graphics, big on technology, big on scenery, big on messages.

The film, through its vast publicity machine, has made a great claim on originality.  Yet in spite of its technological wonder, there is not really all that much original to be found in the 2 hours and 40 minutes of action.

Well…… lets think about that.  If you are looking for ‘meaning’ then perhaps Avatar might indeed offer you something original to chew on.   Hollywood directors these days have a particular fondness for the parable – overweening attempts to convey moral or religious viewpoints through story line.

If so, then Avatar is parable city:  Corporate greed; man’s degradation of the environment; the evils of Western colonialism; the despoliation of native populations; American avariciousness in the search for mineral wealth; and, of course, the power of love to conquer all differences (even, apparently, when your beloved is ten feet tall, blue and has a tail) – are all included as statements on our current and past malaise.

But is that original? Perhaps – if you buy all these liberal tropes.   Yet not if you have been watching mainstream movies for the past twenty years and witnessed the descent of Hollywood blockbusters like this into an embrace of anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism and denial of human exceptionalism.

Oh well.   Then what about the plot?

It lumbers along in its hodgepodge vein, a colorful quilt, stitched together from material that has been lying around Hollywood for decades. The tailoring is fairly apparent : Take a central thread from Pocohantos, weave it through  Dances With Wolves, lace in scenes from Platoon, sew on a rather large patch  of Fern Gully, dye it all in the colors of The Emerald Forest and there you have it – your Avatar comforter, as tattered, as commonplace, yet as snug, as anything you could purchase in a second hand store.

Character development and continuity is also not the film’s strong suit. Neytiri, the female lead, transforms, over the course of two hours, from snarling, feral feline, into a latter day Bambi, whose loving gazes at her blue betailed beloved are only missing those fluttering red hearts we have come to associate with Bugs Bunny cartoons.

The leader of the American mercenaries, Col. Miles Quaritch, played by Stephen Lang, is the swaggering blowhard commander dredged up from movies as distant as Beau Geste, (remember Sergeant Lejaune?) whose uni-dimensional character has not changed one iota in all those years and still has no redeeming quality.  Like all those bad guys in old Westerns, his malice leaves us nothing with which to sympathize, and it is easy enough to cheer his rather gruesome end.

If you are looking for romance to heat up your theater seat then you will also be sadly disappointed. The love affair between the two lead characters has all the passion of a rotting tree stump and since they mate off camera, one can only wonder about the acrobatics necessary to squirm in and out of  the body hugging spandex forest suits that pass as their native clothing.

And I’m not done yet.

The “treasure” the humans are seeking (which remains buried beneath the jungle canopy) is called “Unobtainium,” a substance apparently unobtainable on earth, whose value to humans is never fully explained.   You have to wonder if the script department was out to lunch when the decision was made to employ this clumsy title.  ”  Kryptonite,” at least, sounds alien. But “Unobtanium?” I would think that such an original film would deserve a more originally named centerpiece.

Then there is the language thing. The inhabitants of the Pandoran jungle are the Na’vi and they speak an impenetrable native tongue that some of the humans, led by Signourey Weaver, have only just begun to learn.  Yet several of the natives speak rather good English – or at least are quite capable of understanding the lead characters when they explain themselves.  Since the denizens of the deep jungle seem completely oblivious to human ways, how and where then, did they learn English? No one bothers to explain.

OK, I have savaged the film. That is because as a film it is nothing special. Yet as an entertainment vehicle….well that’s something different. The Pandoran jungle (the true star of the show) and the creatures that inhabit it, are astounding.  The computer graphics which are capable of summoning up extraordinary floating islands ( inspired, I assume, by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki), raptor-like birds of prey, humanoid fighting machines and cascading waterfalls are a feast for the senses, dazzling in their complexity and scintillating in their eye for detail. The motion capture used for the creation of the ten feet tall Na’vi and their movements, is of a sophistication that could only be dreamed about ten years ago (apparently the reason Cameron waited so long to make his film) and provides some of  the true wonder of the spectacle.  Here we finally have a sci-fi epic where the alien nature of the content is matched by the alien nature of the technology used to create it.

But it’s a funny thing. When I think back on the film, several days after viewing it, I can barely envision its florid scenes. All that pops up for me is a cartoon – animation and no soul. Perhaps that is because a movie that relies so heavily on technology to stir its audience’s emotions yet remains fundamentally empty at is core, will leave little impression on our consciousness.

James Cameron doesn’t have to worry about any of that. His film will inevitably become the highest grossing motion picture in history and he might even carry home this year’s Oscar.  But back here on earth, we have other things to worry about and while Avatar might be a pleasant enough distraction, it adds nothing, despite its earnest attempts, to an understanding of our own world and how to grapple with our problems. It seems to complain about a lot of things, but offers no solutions.    Such an effort might have given Avatar the spark of originality.   It was an opportunity sadly wasted.

SHOOTING MICHAEL MOORE

Director: Kevin Leffler

Cast: Documentary

Length : 97 minutes

Review Date: February 22, 2010

I’ll admit it from the beginning.  I have never trusted Michael Moore.  From his very first aw-shucks days filming Roger and Me, that sly and ultimately savage depiction of corporate America, I have found his irreverent film making approach shallow and self -serving.   At the time the documentary was released however, not many Americans agreed with me.   Moore, as country  bumpkin, cleverly springing traps for General Motors CEO Roger Smith, was regarded in many circles as the late 20th century cinematic answer to Mark Twain,  skewering self-important businessmen and politicians and taking delight in exposing their foibles.

But subsequent Moore directed documentaries proved my hunch correct.   Farenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine and Sicko, all with their trademark boffo humor, increasingly revealed Moore to be a sensationalist, generally more interested in a punchline than either truth or balance.  Yet  possessing a keen sense of what hot button issues and raw footage would sell popcorn, he has been able to pack them into the theaters, oblivious to the impact of his hucksterism on impressionable minds.

With all that said, I still didn’t expect Moore to be a shyster too, who, as a film maker, would prove himself blithely disinterested in the welfare of his film subjects, while in his private life conducting himself  as much of a money grubbing capitalist as the Wall Street bankers, corporate raiders and conservative kingpins he so gleefully pillories in his films.

But that is the indeed the image that cements itself in one’s mind upon a vewing of college professor Kevin Leffler’s profoundly disturbing Shooting Michael Moore.  Adopting Moore’s now famous technique of seeking out his prey through relentless stalking, Leffler sets out to find the “real” Michael Moore – not the baseball hat-graced figure of his  numerous films, but the fat cat multi-millionaire who has left dreary Flint, Michigan far behind for a swank apartment on New York’s Upper Westside.

And he finds him alright, but not before uncovering an extraordinary trove of information that would, if publicly known and accepted, transform Moore into the great American anti-hero.  For this is a Michael Moore who cheats on his taxes,  maintains a non-profit organization that invests in such “malign” corporations as Exxon Mobil,  Pfizer and Halliburton;  whose $2 million property in Michigan is in violation of innumerable environmental ordinances;  who pays the impoverished main subejects of his films (remember the “rabbit lady” from Roger and Me?) a pittance while his films rake in millions;  who edits his films in such a way to take his subjects’ quotes out of context and distorts the representation of their beliefs.

No greater evidence of Moore’s fraudulent approach to film making is offered than his decision to use the British and Cuban health systems as the measure to judge the American.  In Sicko, Moore takes us to the U.K. to witness the supposedly beneficent free health care system operated by the Brits’ NHS – the National Health Service.  Immigrants are shown beaming with the good fortune of having landed in the U.K.  A couple, leaving the hospital with their new born child, relate the great service they received, sharing a good laugh about how free it all is.

Leffler also travels to Britain but reveals a very different state of affairs.  Over crowded hospitals and long wait lists strain the system, forcing the elderly to wait months, if not years, for scheduled operations. Pregnant women can’t find beds at local hospitals and there are reports of some delivering their children on bean bags.  The NHS itself is shown to be on the verge of bankruptcy, forced to shutter innumerable hospitals in impoverished areas for lack of funding.

But Leffler reserves his greatest bile for the way Moore represents the Cuban system.   Far from the utopian, patient-oriented welfare system presented in Sicko, Cuba’s  universal health care service is revealed to be a cesspool of neglect and avarice, with patients in elderly hospices forced to lie on filthy cots for days in their own excrement and routine check ups impossible to schedule without the right connections.  Moore, it is speculated, could not have conducted his interviews and filming in Cuba without the direct assistance of the Cuban government, who in turn, would only have given permission for the tour if it believed that the film maker’s ultimate product would prove useful as anti- American propaganda.

Ultimately, Leffler, who grew up in the same town as Moore ( Davison, MI – not Flint, MI) , went to the same school and even knew him as a child, comes to know the grown up version of his schoolmate in a more substantial way than Moore has ever known any of  his subjects.  Because public tax records, evidence of local citations and other written materials by Moore himself, don’t lie and cannot be manipulated,  without the most grevious consequences.  They all go to prove that the  Michael Moore of public acclaim, is not the humanitarian and defender of the ” little man” whom his admiring public thinks him to be, but an unrepentant con-artist and raconteur, who, since his earliest days, allowed his quest for for “truth and  justice” to be overwhelmed by his infatuation with fame, wealth and himself.

There is an ironic injustice that with each sensationalistic documentary, bathed as they are in anti-Americanism and self -reverence, Moore gets richer and his films win more awards.    But the good news is that there do exist “little men” such as Kevin Leffler who are willing to take such true fat cats to task for their  hype, hypocrisy and hubris  and then lacerate them with the same stinging observations that these doyens of the far left once applied to others.   For anyone out there thinking of following in his footsteps, I have just two words:  Al Gore.

THE ROAD

Director: John Hillcoat

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit- McPhee, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce

Length: 1 hr 20 min.

Somewhere near the middle of The Road, the two protagonists, a father and his son, stumble on a barn at the top of a snow swept hill.  As they tentatively open the barn door they are exposed to a frightening sight: three bodies, two adults and an adolescent, hang from the rafters.  The camera focuses on the son’s face as he registers the tragedy.

“ You know why they are dead,” the father mutters, almost matter-of-factly.The boy doesn’t answer.  But the sorrow is clearly etched on his face.

The three died, it is revealed, for either of two reasons:   Either to pre-empt the certainty of a slow death by starvation; or else a defiance of the resort to cannibalism – almost the only means of sustaining life in a land where nothing grows.

Its easy to see why Cormac McCarthy’s novel, transferred to the screen, is viewed as yet another tall tale in a long line of films depicting man pitted against man and man against nature.  But that would be to miss the film’s deeper and more pointed meaning. For The Road is no mere survival film but a portrait of humanity on the brink of extinction and the immutable fact that human survival depends not only on physical nourishment but on fundamental moral choices.

As the father and son (never identified with names in either the book or the movie) wander across the desolate American landscape, they must contend with what it means to be human and the overarching question of whether survival is worth the moral cost of abandoning all human values.

The movie could therefore have easily have been titled The Test.

That is because the two are driven to extremes, as their sense of human decency is repeatedly stretched to the limit by the situations they encounter and the individuals they meet.  After the father is forced to kill another man to save the boy’s life, both are visited with the deepest dread of the implications of the deed.  A starving elderly man, who asks for nothing, is given food nonetheless, after the boy implores his father to do so.  A wild child, glimpsed through a window in a deserted town, becomes the subject of  a heated exchange between father and son as the latter beseeches his father to find the child and bring him along with them; a thief who steals all their possessions is hunted down and rather than being killed, is forced to disrobe and left to stand naked in the wind and rain.  Only after hours of pleading from the boy does the father return to the spot where they first caught up with him, to deposit the items of clothing on the ground in the hope the thief will return to reclaim them.

In the clash between the father’s drive to protect his son and the almost febrile articulation of the boy’s moral consciousness, we are given a parable of the deep tension which has afflicted western civilization for the past 100 years:  the struggle between the demand for fulfillment of individual needs and the quest for social responsibility.

McCarthy, himself, has never sounded so assured in his defense of humanity.   While the world may well have been annihilated by human hand, he seems to believe in an ultimate goodness for which the task of regenerating mankind is made all the more worthwhile.   This is the “fire” the man urges his boy to carry, a symbol of life and goodness that separates “the good guys”  from “the bad guys” and is the clearest statement yet in a McCarthy novel of the demarcation between absolute goodness and ultimate evil .   In this way The Road is a fundamental departure from other McCarthy works such as No Country for Old Men, Suttree and Blood Meridian – all of which display a deep ambivalence about humanity and its purpose.

For all its inherent bleakness, The Road is a profoundly uplifting movie. While it recognizes that there are two forces of evil that prevail upon us -one from within and the other from without –  it also suggests that with sufficient vigilance and preparedness both can be defeated.

The two main characters emerge, then, as symbols of  this drive.

The boy comes to represent the virtues of principle and idealism.  He nudges his father’s conscience and repeatedly forces him to face the prospect of his own descent into inhumanity.   The father, on the other hand, represents deep faith tempered by experience. He presents as a model of human resilience in the face of catastrophe. It is, after all, his unflinching vision of a better life which drives the two onward toward their uncertain, obscure future.

But even more impressive than this is the deep bond of love that binds father to son as they grapple with the exigencies of survival.  It is evident in the final moments of both book and film, in one of the most touching scenes I have ever read on a page or viewed on screen.  When everything is lost, when there seems little reason for either hope or faith, can love survive and become a source for both?  Countless anecdotes from the Holocaust have suggested that it can.

It is a question to which The Road seems to respond resoundingly in the affirmative.

At a time in history when man’s failures to maintain peace are wrathfully condemned by our elites and human interference with nature regarded as a blight on earth, it is good to see a film which pulls no punches in exploring the potential for human goodness and celebrates the cause of human exceptionalism.

THE LAST STATION      Sunday,  January 17,  2010

Director: Michael Hoffman
Cast: James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Helen Mirren, Anne-Marie Duff
Length: 1hr 52min‎‎ – Rated R‎‎ – Drama‎

The last years of Tolstoy’s life have provided  endless fascination for biographers and novelists alike.   The great novelist’s new found commitment to asceticism, his estrangement from his wife and family and his growing repugnance of wealth and fame, made him a figure of enormous interest in pre-War Russia.   An entire Tolystoyan movement, based on his precepts arose in Russia in the early years of the 20th Century, a testament to the power of  author’s commanding personality and literary  influence.

The one thing those who profess to know something about  the life of Leo Tolstoy all agree upon,  is that he died in a remote railway station , far from his own large estate in central Russia, supposedly  fleeing both his wife and his life of his privilege.  Dressed as a Russian peasant and with only a small coterie of friends and admirers, he ended  his life a virtual fugitive from his own legacy.

This movie centers on the  events which led to that flight –   the battle for Tolstoy’s  written legacy  waged by his wife Sofya Andreyevna – who wants the copyrights for his great books to remain within the family and his leading disciple Vladimir Cherkov – who believes that the copyrights belong to Mother Russia ( ie: the public domain).    Torn between them is  Tolstoy’s newly appointed 23- year -old secretary  Valentin Bulgakov who appreciates both Cherkov and Sofya’s points of view, but ultimately sides with Tolstoy’s histrionic wife.   It is often painful to watch the desperation with which the broken Sofya throws herself upon her husband of 48 years, still passionately in love with him and yet unconvinced that the aging author has any further interest in her.

In this dramatic pas de deux, the acting of Christopher Plummer ( remembered 45 years ago as the suave Captain Von Trapp from The Sound of Music)  is an extraordinarily convincing Tolstoy, emiting his mystical , if confused philosophy and portraying the author  as a tragic figure who has lost control of his own destiny.  Helen Mirren, still quite alluring at 65, plays  the tempestuous ,  devoted Sofya, whose jarring mood swings dominate the movie.   The ever versatile Paul Giamatti plays the devious Cherkov with enough verve  and determination to make us remember his extraordinary performance in HBO’s  triumphant series, John Adams.   And finally James McAvoy ( remembered for his star turn in  The Last King of Scotland) plays the ingenuous Bulgakov who innocently stumbles into a struggle of wills for which he is totally unprepared.

The movie does tend to drag in places and the scenes in which the virginal Bulgakov is seduced by the free spirited Tolstoyan Masha, seems out of place in the movie and adds a love interest that distracts from the truly passionate struggle between Tolstoy and Sofya.

The success of the movie is that we end  feeling for both Tolstoy and his wife , who seem unable to thwart the lot that fate has thrown them.   Tolstoy emerges , not as the author of the book that is universally regarded as the greatest work of fiction ever written, but as a latter day aesthete, carried away by his own imagination and philosophies, which had very little to do with  a world that only four years later would plummet  into a desperate world war.   That war would sweep away forever the world Tolstoy, his wife and their coterie had known, making their  ideas of passive resistance and universal love, hopelessly out of step with the time.

Tolstoy had longed to be remembered , not for the magnificent literary achievements of War and Peace and Anna Karennina but for his moral philosophy.  That is one legacy, however, time has yet to grant him.  And perhaps we should be thankful for it.

 


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One Response to Movie Reviews

  1. Theola Lois says:

    Indeed a great topic to read and learn about too. Thanks bud

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