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.
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.
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?’
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.
BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
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
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.
- 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
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.
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
Cast: James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Helen Mirren, Anne-Marie Duff
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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