Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

The Circle (Knopf, 2013), by Dave Eggers, is a latter-day version of 1984.  A company like Google and Facebook develops technology with which it collects information about everybody everywhere in the world.  It manufactures inexpensive but highly effective cameras and places them everywhere.  It pressures politicians to wear the cameras around their necks (this is called becoming transparent) so that their behavior is visible to anyone in the world.  The result is elimination of political corruption.  It places cameras in family homes, around the necks of family members, and thereby eliminates spousal and child abuse.  In public places, the cameras eliminate crime.

In the company called The Circle employees are expected to share information about everything they’re doing, and they’re expected to comment on the activities of others in the company—to send them “smiles” as a sign of approval.  “Sharing” becomes not merely a voluntary expression but mandatory, a way of life.  The main character of this novel, Mae Holland, is criticized by her supervisor early in her work for the company when she goes kayaking alone and doesn’t post about it to the company web site.  In this regard “The Circle” is much like Facebook, but while in Facebook one’s sharing of information is entirely voluntary, the Circle requires it.

The Circle describes how the company develops and grows and eventually takes over the world.  There isn’t much tension in the narrative.  A few people resist the expansion of the Circle, but for the most part it grows without opposition.  Therefore the novel lacks tension, suspense, and in the end a degree of interest. 

One problem is the main character Mae.  She lacks fiber, substance.  She graduates from college and goes to work for a utilities company, where she is unhappy.  She asks her friend Annie, who has a high-level job in the Circle, to help her find a place there.  Once she joins the Circle, she exhibits little will, virtually no awareness or concern about the all-seeing ambitions of the company, and in the end becomes a primary agent of its ubiquity.  She becomes the company’s first transparent employee, and then becomes its spokesperson, speaking to the millions of Circle followers as its transparent public face. Her ambition, combined with her narcissistic vacuity, makes her a fairly exasperating and unsympathetic character.  Her blindness to the needs of her parents, and her treatment of her former boyfriend, make her unlikeable.  But this is part of Eggers’ point, I think.  Individualism, privacy, one’s inner life—these all disappear in the Circle. He is worried they will disappear from our contemporary world as well.

One must admire the message in The Circle but not its presentation.  One expects some sort of dramatic showdown between the rapidly expanding Circle and a mysterious man who appears periodically, warning Mae of the dangers of the Circle. She never learns his name, even when they have sex, and we know that in some way he is an important figure.  When we finally learn who he is, as if we haven’t quite guessed already, it is a letdown.  For some inexplicable reason, he believes Mae can put a stop to the Circle if only she will inform her followers of how dangerous it has become.  The novel putters to a stop, and the Circle reigns supreme.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


The trailer for Lucy contains all of its worthwhile moments.  The trailer also bears little resemblance to the film.  The title refers to the main character, played by Scarlett Johansson, and also to the name given to the remains of the ancient australopithecine ancestor of humankind uncovered in Ethiopia in 1973.  Evolutionary leaps, with nods to Michelangelo, 2001, and E.T., are what this film would like to be about.

Premise: Asian drug lords force a young woman to be an unwilling mule for a drug they want to smuggle internationally.  When she is kicked in the stomach, the drug, a powerful artificial growth hormone, leaks into her body.  As a result, she develops unusual abilities, and her body begins using previously unutilized portions of her brain, so that she becomes physically powerful, hyper-intelligent, can manipulate matter, and travel through time.

Here is what Lucy (2014; dir. Luc Besson) has going for it: Morgan Freeman, mainly his voice; Johansson herself, passive and beautiful; special effects—they’re actually good, although there are few opportunities to put them on display; the director, who in The Fifth Element (1996) showed a few skills. 

There are neutral elements: Asian drug peddlers, many of them, in great abundance. Why Asians? What statement is made here, intentionally or not? Also, Paris. It has little bearing on the central plot, but it is picturesque, especially the Eiffel Tower.  We can’t have Paris without the Eiffel Tower. And it diverts our attention from other elements, such as black goo merging with computers.
What pulls this movie down to abject and craven failure? The screenplay, which is preposterous, illogical, superficial, incoherent, and silly. 

Whom do we fault?: the screenwriter, the producers, the director (who should have rejected the screenplay), the actors (ditto), and anyone else who had anything to do with the film. 

Let us give due credit to the makers of the trailer.


Selma (2014; dir. Ava DuVernay) features as main characters people who actually lived and who in some cases are still alive.  I lived through and paid much attention to the Civil Rights movements and its leaders.  I know the faces of M. L. King, Ralph David Abernathy, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, John Lewis, and others.  It was jarring in this film to see these figures played by actors who at best only slightly resembled them.  I often struggled to identify them.  This was a distraction, but not something the film could help.  Eventually I recognized that the actor in overalls was Hosea Williams and that the man with thick-rimmed glasses played Abernathy.  David Oyelowo’s work as King is excellent, and especially in the speeches he made he became a convincing simulacrum of the original.

Selma powerfully depicts the events leading up to and surrounding the march on Selma.  It’s clear, I think, that one of the purposes of the film is to remind viewers of the sacrifices and risks made by the many participants in the movement, and to pay tribute to its leaders.  The movie presents them as heroes, and that is what they were.  But it also portrays them as human beings.

The film’s intelligence is reflected both in the three-dimensional portrayals of King and his wife Coretta and in how it shows King and others in the movement strategically planning the Selma march in order to bring the greatest amount of national attention.  King is shown both as determined and hesitant, and when during the second march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge he pauses and then turns back, he receives much criticism from his supporters.  This moment of apparent retreat is never fully explained.  We hear various people attempt to understand it.  King himself tries to explain it as the result of his concern for the people who might be injured if the gathered police decide to attack.  Most importantly this moment contributes to the humanity and mystery of King as he is portrayed in the film.  He is rightly regarded as a man of moral vision—we see this aspect clearly--but the film also shows him also as a politician and a strategist.  It also shows him as a husband and father.  A short scene in the film alludes to his affairs with women, and to the unhappiness this caused in his marriage to Coretta.  It shows as well his anxieties over the welfare of his family, especially given how his leadership in the movement made him a target for violence.

Several scenes show the brutal abuse of Civil Rights protestors by white Southerners.  The central scene is in the first march on the Pettus bridge, where police and gathered white crowds viciously attached the marchers.  John Lewis’ skull was cracked.  We see several murders and are told about others.  It was painful to watch these scenes and tempting to view them as exaggerations.  However, newsreel footage, photographs, and numerous reports from bystanders and participants make clear that these portrayals of violence and hate are accurate. 

Malcolm X briefly appears in the film.  He played a small role in the events surrounding the Selma march, and his inclusion was probably a gratuitous acknowledgement of a man who was King’s leading critic among African Americans during the early years of the 1960s, and whose activism represented an alternative approach to the nonviolent tactics of King’s strategy for working towards civil rights.

There are historical inaccuracies in the film.  Many of them may be minor, but the portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson is a significant misrepresentation.  Johnson was responsible for pushing both the Civil Rights bill and the Voting Rights act of 1965 through Congress.  He was not an opponent of voting rights.  At worst he and King differed over the timing of the bill.  By the time of the events the film portrays, Johnson had already called for a voting rights bill to be drafted.  Recordings and transcripts of public and private conversations and comments make clear his support for the voting rights bill. Selma makes out Johnson to be the opponent who must be convinced by the Selma march of the bill’s necessity.  In fact, Johnson needed no convincing.  Another issue is the omission of the 1964 Freedom Summer project, including the murders in Mississippi of three civil right workers.  Those events together with the efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation to be seated at the 1964 Democratic Convention did as much as the Selma March to galvanize support for the voting rights act and to bring about its passage.[1]

Although these are serious flaws, especially given the focus on a crucial moment in the Civil Rights movement, they do not ruin the film, which is a dramatic, inspiring, and moving tribute to King and other leaders of the movement.

[1] For various opinions see Elizabeth Drew, “’Selma’ vs. History,” The New York Review of Books, Jan. 8, 2015,; Ann Hornaday, “Film fact-checking is here to stay,” The Washington Post, Jan. 3, 2015,; Amy Davidson, “Why ‘Selma’ is More than Fair to L.B.J.,” The New Yorker, Jan. 22, 2015,; Bill Moyer, “Bill Moyers on LBJ and ‘Selma,’”; Dee Lockett, “How Accurate is Selma?,” Slate, Dec. 24, 2014, 



Monday, January 26, 2015

Silver Linings Playbook

In Silver Linings Playbook (2012; dir. David O. Russell) four main characters carry the film.  Jacki Weaver is excellent as the worried and sometimes frightened mother who gets her bipolar son released early from the mental institution where he has been under treatment for six months.  The look in her eyes makes clear that she doesn’t know what to expect of him (and of her husband, played by Robert De Niro) from one moment to the next.  Bradley Cooper as the explosively bipolar Pat, and Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany, hyperactive and depressed over the death of her husband, are excellent.  Without these characters, the hackneyed plot would be more evident—a young man who must recover from adversity and prove his worth; a young woman quietly seeking the attention of a man who often doesn’t seem to know she exists; two young people who are meant for each other but who first have to realize the fact.

Cooper is convincing as the young man struggling to recover and regain his equilibrium.  But Lawrence was the best element in the film.  She’s absolutely convincing.  She brings an intensity and credibility to the role that makes us wonder how close to life it is.

This comic romance, with all its charms (and I did enjoy it) depends on our willingness to laugh at the difficulties and mishaps of the mentally ill.  Part of our interest in Pat lies in our uncertainty about what he is going to do next—his fits of temper, his bursts of outrage (he is outraged when he gets to the end of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and wakes his parents at 2:30 in the morning to throw a fit).  His wife has taken out a restraining order against him.  In the first half of the film he is constantly on the verge of doing something that will get him sent back to the institution.  All these episodes and outbursts are funny and entertaining.  But my sense is that for those in mental and emotional distress, they are not so funny.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown

1936 Olympics Crew Gold MedalThis novelistic approach in The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown (Viking 2013), to the story of how the 1936 University of Washington crew team won the Olympics gold medal uses a novelistic approach that left me wary.  Brown describes the main figures of his story in detail, recounts their speech, tells us what they are thinking.  Clearly some inventive license is taken.  Yet his research notes and his account of his sources make clear that in writing the book he drew from letters, diaries, published articles, interviews with some of the characters and with their relatives in other cases, journal entries, newspaper articles, meteorological records, and historical studies. Detailed notes are included at the end of the book, and the author indicates his web site will list 1,000 endnotes (they were listed as “coming soon” when I checked).

Brown develops the book around the character of Joe Rantz, whose hard life as a Washington native made him an unlikely candidate for a crew team.  He tried out for the team in an effort to find an activity that would help pay his way through college.

Other important characters are Joe’s girlfriend and future wife Joyce, his coach Al Ulbrickson, and the man who builds the “shells” on which the team races, George Pocock.  Statements by Pocock serve as introductory epigrams for each chapter.  They document his view of crew as a way of life, as a philosophical approach to living, an art.  The epigrams make him the Zen master of this book, which is as much about perseverance and dedication to a craft as it is about victory in a competition. 

The Boys in the Boat is a book in the vein of the Lauren Hillenbrand books on Seabiscuit and Louis Zamperini.  Hillenbrand is effective at embedding her stories in the larger history of the times.  Brown tries the same approach, and to some extent succeeds.  However, he seems to force the issue a bit by trying to tie the story of the crew team members to the Dust Bowl and Depression, and this is not wholly convincing.  He’s more convincing in his portrayal of the economic differences between the mostly working class University of Washington team and the upper class teams from the East—Harvard, Yale, and so on.

Photo credit: Univ. of Washington

This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It, by David Wong/Jason Pargin

I have to credit This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It (2012), by Jason Pargin (under the name of David Wong), for inventiveness.  It’s a follow-up to John Dies at the End (2001), which features the same two main characters: stoner dudes who take a drug at a party that gives them access to alternative dimensions and brings them in contact with all sorts of disturbing creatures and beings.  With this premise the author has free license—he can have anything happen in the book, and it does.  In this second book, we begin with a scene in which one of the characters wakes up in his bedroom to a spider-like creature that is crawling up his leg.  In short order, his house is on fire, a policeman has been taken over by the creature, and all sorts of apocalyptic carnage occurs.  The characters move back and forth in their town through portals that take them instantaneously to different locations.  I don’t usually enjoy books like this one, but because of the two main characters, the fantastic situations they get themselves into, the unlikely ways they get out of trouble, and the author’s skill at building suspense and contriving bizarre and horrific situations, I was hooked.  This book features a detective who drives a Porsche and is focused on being cool. He starts out as the nemesis of our two heroes, but ends up as their ally.  It also features a literal deus ex machina, though in cardboard form. We have an interesting Labrador named Molly, and all examples of monsters, inter-dimensional beings, and secret government agencies.  By the time it’s all over, I was exhausted and looking forward to the next book.

The Giver

The Giver is a teenage novel by Lois Lowry that I have not read.  Whatever its faults and strengths, it deserves a better film adaptation than the one provided in 2014 by director Phillip Noyce.  The film portrays a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world in which the surviving members of humanity live in a community engineered to avoid conflict or inequality or unhappiness.  When babies are born they are assigned to parents.  Old people and, presumably, the sick, are remanded to a place euphemistically named “Elsewhere.”  So too are people who don’t fit in.  Everyone takes medication to suppress emotions, such as love.  Love is all there is in this sappy film.  Students attend school and when they graduate are assigned jobs: drone pilot, child bearer, etc.  Our lead character Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is assigned to be a “Giver,” who carries the memories of everyone in the community, who knows what many do not know.  His mentor is played by Jeff Bridges, like Jonas a person who doesn’t quite fit, and who understands the real nature of the community, where love is suppressed, where rebels and the sick and the old are euthanized.  Well, once Jonas learns the truth about the community, he sets out to set things right.  The incredible amount of hooey and hoopla in this film prevents it from having to meet any standards of logic or even narrative coherence.  Jeff Bridges in particular speaks as if his mouth is full of pebbles, or as if he has just been to the dentist.  Meryl Streep, as the Chief Elder of the community, is severe and distant and autocratic and wholly bland and one wonders exactly what compelled her or Bridges to appear in this film.  The whole effort seems half-hearted and sloppy, as if no one thought it worthwhile to write a script that made sense or had continuity.

Child of God

James Franco may take the literary texts he has adapted into films too seriously.  His adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (2013) was interesting and, I thought, an admirable and creative attempt to render the novel into film.  Faulkner’s novel is primarily a series of internal monologues by his characters, fifteen of them.  In the film, Franco uses voiceovers, camera angles, various cinematographic ploys, and split screens to convey the inner lives and the poetic prose of the novel.  To some extent he succeeds in the effort, but to another extent he fails.  While the novel to me is intensely interesting and psychologically immersive, the film at times seems inert and lifeless.  Certain key scenes, most significantly the attempt of the Bundren family to cross a flooded river, fall flat.  But in general I felt the film was an authentic effort to convey intense literary experience in cinematic form.

It’s clear that Franco admires Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel Child of God, another novel that largely centers on a character’s internal life.  Franco preserves the essential structure of the novel and relies on voiceover commentary by members of the community where the action occurs to establish the basic focus on Lester Ballard. It has been a while since I read the novel, but my sense is that Franco is doing something different with McCarthy’s novel in the film than he did with Faulkner’s.  While I thought Franco was trying to translate Faulkner’s novel to film, preserving the essential aspects of the narrative, here I think he is using McCarthy’s novel as a source for a film that in some ways tells a different story.  The film is mainly what I want to consider here.  In tone it is significantly different from the novel.  Our sense of the main character is significantly different. We never see him at all in the novel—we hear people talk about him and we see the world from within his head—in the film, we see him constantly.  As often as we see him, as the camera follows him in doing what he does, we never get inside his head (although we may speculate about what’s going on there).  The film’s intensely visual depiction of Lester Ballard portrays him as a physically and mentally defective hillbilly degenerate, the kind of depraved stereotype who creeps up on the cars of necking teenagers on remote country roads we might encounter in folktales and films from the 1950s and 1960s (the story of “the claw” comes to mind—does anyone remember it)?  Lester is an extreme variation on some of the characters who terrorize the Yankee teenagers in 200 Maniacs.  Even though what Ballard does in the novel—kill women, have sex with their bodies, hide their bodies in a cave) is horrendous and depraved, because much of our knowledge of Ballard comes from within his own consciousness, we don’t immediately view him as a monster.  He is, after all, a child of God, and the novel challenges us to see him that way, in addition to seeing him also as an insane killer.  For all that he is, we’re compelled to see cause and effect, and we’re compelled to consider his humanity.  Given its subject, that the novel would make this demand of its reader in itself is remarkable, and one could argue that the novel goes too far in this regard.  Franco’s film doesn’t toy with our views of Ballard.  From the beginning—from how he behaves and talks, to how he holds his jaw, the uneven cast of his eyes, his slurred and often unrecognizable speech, we see him as mentally challenged and as potentially psychopathological from the beginning.    

The pacing of the film is uneven.  Ballard wanders back and forth across Tennessee farmlands, spies on the man who bought his father’s farm, and not all these scenes have a point.  In an early scene, we see Ballard defecate in the woods and then wipe himself with a stick—what’s the point of this other than to suggest his primitive savagery?  I didn’t see the need for this scene at all, by the way.  He goes into a town and buys a red dress for one of his victims and the young girl who waits on him—with his smelly clothes, his dirty and haggard appearance, his inarticulate speech—seems not to think anything is unusual about him.  Does she have customers like him every day?  (Others in the community, especially the sheriff, are very aware of what is unusual about him).

It’s difficult even in McCarthy’s novel to accept the meaning of the title—that Ballard is after all one of God’s children, marginalized, orphaned, abandoned, driven by bad genes and change in the circumstances of his own life and in the changing conditions of his world to become what he becomes.  In the end, perhaps, though we as readers want to maintain a great distance between Ballard and ourselves, though we want to be sure he doesn’t roam free to do what he does, we come to understand something about him.  In Franco’s film this moment doesn’t come—the resolution of the film differs substantially from the resolution of the novel, and as Ballard wanders across an empty field proud of himself for eluding his former captors, what we’re supposed to think or feel—other than confusion and disgust—is just never clear. Ballard remains a monster.

The rollicking bluegrass music that accompanies parts of the film, especially the opening scenes, doesn’t seem appropriate to the content.

Into the Woods

In most musicals music matters more than story.  Such is the case with Into the Woods (2014; dir. Rob Marshall), where Stephen Sondheim’s songs are mature, thoughtful, deeply emotional and philosophical commentaries on the differences between romantic ideals and realities, fantasies and disillusion.  Most films based on musical plays, at least the films that I’ve seen, don’t work very well.  Stage plays are designed and conceived for stages, and transforming them into films often doesn’t succeed.  Into the Woods largely does work.  The director doesn’t hide the stage origins of the film, which largely takes place on sets that preserve the artifice of staged productions.  The one time in the film when I felt that this approach faltered was with the appearance of a giant.
Into the Woods interweaves a series of familiar childhood fairy tales.  They become the pretext for a series of excellent Sondheim songs that are entertaining and fun.  The second half of the film replaces romantic fantasy with reality.  A wife becomes bored with her husband, a formerly charming prince turns out to be a deceiver, a main character accidentally dies, and everyone makes a series of choices—individually they seem minor moments of deceit—that lead to disaster.  The songs in the film’s second half are about what it’s like to live in a world turned to dross, where dreams that once came true have vanished into nothing. 

The best actor in the film, not surprisingly, is Meryl Steep, as a witch.  We can joke about how often she’s been nominated for best actress, but if she’s nominated this time, it will be deservingly.  Also excellent in the film is Anna Kendrick, as Cinderella.

The Equalizer

The virtues of The Equalizer (2014; dir. Antoine Fuqua) lie in the craft with which it is made, the acting by Denzel Washington, and the deft way in which the film takes a well worn and formulaic plot and makes it fresh.  It’s entertaining throughout, it doesn’t drag, it’s fast-paced and engaging.  It’s also violent.  The main character Robert McCall is a former CIA operative skilled in killing.  He fakes his own demise after his wife’s death and goes to work at a store similar to Home Depot.  When the plight of a young prostitute who hangs out at the same diner where he reads late into the night attracts his moral outrage, he comes out of retirement and takes action.  You can predict the sequence of events from that point forward, but the artful way in which the film works commands your attention.  Washington is effective as a pleasant, congenial, low-key man whose placid exterior gives no hint of his past and his capabilities.  He spends his idle hours reading great books, a sign that he is a feeling and deep-thinking soul.

McCall’s victims in this film are evildoers—corrupt cops and the Russian mob--with virtually no redeeming value.  They’re as evil as he is good.  They’re also exploiting vulnerable and decent people.  We’re supposed to accept that they deserve justice, and we do.  In this way the film justifies its own violence, but there is no escaping the fact of the violence.  McCall kills with precise and always effective skill, like a robot.  Before he kills, he gives his victims the opportunity to make the right choice.  He then pauses to watch his victims die, sometimes counting down the seconds until they lose consciousness.  He’s the hero of this film, the avenger of the weak, and as such he commands our admiration and attention.  But the fact that this film seduces us into liking someone capable of such viciousness—even when in the cause of moral righteousness—is disturbing.  Yet I’d watch this film again.

The diner where Washington reads his books must have been modeled, loosely, on the Edward Hopper painting “Night Hawks at the Diner.”

The Interview

Was The Interview (2014; dirs. Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen) necessary? What did it achieve?  I believe in freedom of expression.  But I also believe in good judgment.  Why was it necessary to make a film insulting to the leadership of North Korea and, in a more general way, insulting to North Koreans?  Although the film avoids the most glaring of Asian stereotypes, it doesn’t hesitate to show Asians being shot and blown to bits while the bumbling American main characters escape, improbably, with only two missing fingers. Admittedly, these victims are mostly military officers who serve the North Korean leader. 

It does seem clear that the film meant to provoke North Korea.  Certainly it was not provocative to most Americans.  The main complaint I have about it is that I spent money on it, and that is my fault.  Our own culture provides many opportunities for poor judgment.  In general, when we find ourselves the victim of such instances, we grin and bear the consequences.  In other cultures, patience and stoicism are not always evident.  The recent horrific example of the terroristic murder of 12 staff members of Charlie Hebdo is evidence enough of that fact.  I support the right of Charlie Hebdo to free expression.  I do not support the publication of cartoons and other materials deliberately insulting to and disrespectful of another culture and its religion.  To believe on the one hand that living in a civilized culture means exercising patience and restraint is not also to believe that it is wise or acceptable to engage in offensive and insulting behavior.

The Interview is occasionally funny.  It’s written on the level of a protracted TV comedy skit.  It reminded me of one of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road movies from the 1940s and 50s.  The acting is on that level.  Seth Rogen plays himself, essentially, while James Franco (I don’t have a sense of him as a person) plays a fairly dimwitted and un-self-respecting cable TV interviewer who will do anything to get good ratings.  Are ticket sales and ratings the objective of this film?  Franco wants respect as a director and screenwriter.  Rogen wants respect as a writer and comic actor.  Surely both appreciate financial success.  This film serves the welfare of neither.  It’s just a stupid and pointless waste.  Which brings me to a final question: did the U. S. government fund this film?  Was it intended as propagandistic provocation?

The Imitation Game

The title of The Imitation Game (2014; dir. Morton Tyldum) refers to a test proposed by Alan Turing which through a series of questions seeks to distinguish between the artificial intelligence of a machine and the intelligence of a human brain.  It’s also a metaphor for the subject of this film and suggests the idea of impersonation, of pretending to be one thing when you’re something else, either for the sake of achieving a particular end, or for self-protection.  It also refers, I think, to the way that social rules and mores can force one to act in a particular way that is against his or her inner nature.  In mid-20-century Britain, a country with strict laws against homosexuality that sent thousands of people to prison, Alan Turing impersonates a definition of normalcy that runs against his nature. Ultimately, he fell victim to those laws.
Being a homosexual is not Turing’s only challenge.  The film portrays him as a sociopath who exhibits many characteristics of autism.  He’s socially inept and awkward.  He doesn’t understand jokes.  He doesn’t work well with members of his team.  He’s wholly self-absorbed and focused only on the things that interest him.  Because he’s a brilliant mathematician who loves puzzles, he’s presented in this film as the ideal person to decrypt the code that the Nazis used during World War II.  His success in doing so enables the Allies to win the war.
The Imitation Game has been criticized for how it portrays Turing’s homosexuality and other aspects of his life, including his work during World War II.  It announces in the opening credits that it is “based on a true story” (a misleading statement if ever there was one because it implies that liberties with the truth have been taken), and this lends an aura of authenticity.  In a very general sense the film gives an accurate account of Turing’s important contributions.  His work played a central role in helping the Allies win the Second World War.  He conceptualized the first computers and developed the concept of artificial intelligence.   He was also victimized by the oppressive laws of his time: he was arrested in 1952 and convicted of “indecency.”  But in many ways the film changes, distorts, simplifies, and invents many details of the story.  See “A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing” in the 12-1-24-14 issue of The New York Review of Books (

Few of us understand what is involved in the decrypting machine Turing built or the ways one goes about deciphering an incredibly complex code.  That part of the film we must take at face value because we lack the knowledge necessary to understand what was involved.  However, accounts of Turing’s life make clear that his work during World War II was considerably more complex and challenging than the film portrays.  He worked on a number of teams, many more people than Turing’s team were involved in decrypting the code, and there was no sudden breakthrough moment (as the film portrays).  Rather, there was gradual progress. Moreover, Turing was not autistic, he did have a sense of humor, and he remained intellectually active to the end of his life (the films shows his intellect as damaged by the hormone treatments he agreed to take to avoid imprisonment after his conviction).  As good a drama as this is, as incisive a character study as it purports to be (Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Turing), it is not good history, and the character it studies is not the historical Alan Turing.  Rather, that character is a simulation of Turing—similar in some ways, different in others.
One may argue (as has been argued in defense of the film Selma’s inaccurate portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson) that films are artistic creations that shouldn’t be judged on the basis of historical accuracy.  However, when films purport to present history, I believe accuracy matters.  It’s a cheap and tawdry claim to make on the one hand that a film is based on a true story and then to excuse its departures from truth on the basis of its artistic nature.  Without truth, what do we have?  Lies, simulations, inaccuracies, misunderstanding.
When the war is over, Turing’s supervisor tells the team to go home and never to talk about the work they have done.  He indicates that the government will not acknowledge them in any way.  Thus, as the film implies without stating outright, when Turing is arrested for indecent behavior, he cannot turn to members of his team or to the government for assistance in any way.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Although The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014; dir. Peter Jackson) preserves many of the major plot points, it diverges significantly from the latter portion of Tolkien’s novel in tone and nuance.  Bombastic and overdrawn, its main focus falls on the king of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield, who is so overcome by greed once his band recovers the dwarf kingdom and the dragon’s hoard that he loses his grip on sanity.  He doubts the loyalty of the other dwarves and orders that Bilbo be thrown over the walls when he learns that he had taken the Arkenstone.  While a major battle takes place outside the walls of the citadel, Thorin sees no reason to fight alongside the people who had been his allies.  He sits in the citadel and guards his treasure.  The central question is whether he will come to his senses.  He does, at the right moment, but his transformation from greedy demented king to bold leader, as the film portrays it, makes little sense.  It just happens.

Although Bilbo Baggins is ostensibly the main character, he seems largely superfluous in the third film, appearing now and then to throw stones at goblins or to deliver messages or try to convince Thorin to be reasonable.  The film overlooks his importance.

Director Jackson owed no bond to the text of Tolkien’s novel.  He was free to make whatever decisions he needed in order to produce a good film.  In his Lord of the Rings films he managed in a general way to preserve many of the most compelling aspects of Tolkien’s trilogy—the range and depth of characters, the humor, the aura of myth and legendry, the adventure, the magic.  He recognized what was special about the novels and successfully conveyed it in the films. With the three overly complicated and bombastic Hobbit films he abandons the modest and quaint virtues of the novel and creates instead overlong battles, loud noises, and flat characters.  The Hobbit films are a major disappointment.

The Butler

The Butler (2013; dir. Lee Daniels) begins in perilous fashion.  A young black boy working with his family in a cotton field in 1927 watches his mother led to a nearby shack for sex with the son of the plantation owner.  Afterwards, when the white man emerges from the shack, the boy’s father confronts him and is shot dead.  The plantation mistress walks into the field, orders the boy to stop crying, and tells him that she is going to take him into her house and train him to be a “house nigger.”
I use the term "perilous" because the opening scene suggested I was about to watch a nightmarish melodrama of extremes lacking subtlety or intelligence, a film that compels us to view the players purely in terms of victims and victimizers, of clearly marked boundaries of good and evil.  Not so.  Although slavery was long over in 1927, many black Southerners still worked under conditions approaching slavery, especially black farm workers and sharecroppers.  The possibility of violence by white Southerners against blacks was ever present.  But scenes as extreme as the one that opens this film were rare.  As bad as conditions were for many Southern blacks in 1927, few young black boys witnessed crimes against their parents so heinous as these.  The Butler is a more balanced and nuanced film than its opening scene suggests.
The Butler is loosely based on the life of a man who served as butler for seven presidents in the White House. It chronicles the fictional life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), the man who the young boy in the cotton field became.  After the plantation mistress teaches him how to serve, he finds a job in a nearby town and later in a posh Washington, D. C., hotel.  Ultimately he begins work in the White House as one of several butlers during the Eisenhower administration.  In the background, as one president succeeds another, history takes place.  The events of the Civil Rights movement serve as markers that carry us from the cotton field to the White House in a literal sense: in the final scene Cecil prepares to meet the first black president of the United States.  The Butler is a history of the nation during the Civil Rights movement, with its murders and demonstrations and achievements, and of the political disagreements and struggles in the black community during these decades.  Cecil observes these events from his post in the White House, while his son, Louis, participates in them.  Cecil fears for his son’s safety and disagrees with the activism of the civil rights movement, while his son doesn’t understand his father’s passive, conservative attitudes. 
The Butler shares similarities with Forrest Gump, which follows the life of a young Southerner as history unfolds around him.  Forrest Gump is more a pageant sort of play than this film, which, by dramatizing contrasting views of the struggle of African Americans for equality, offers a more analytical view of events as they occur.[1]  It employs a series of contrasting scenes that show Cecil Gaines at work in the White House, serving the white politicians who run the country, against scenes of his son Louis, who takes an increasingly activist role in the Civil Rights movement.  (A younger son is killed in Viet Nam).  At times the film seems to favor the son’s extremism.  Increasingly, however, it focuses on the butler Cecil.  Its attitude becomes clear in a scene where Martin Luther King is talking to a group of student activists, one of whom is Louis, who is ashamed of his father’s role as a butler to white men.  When King learns that Louis’s father is a butler, he comments on the importance of people like Cecil, who serve with quiet dignity, gradually changing by their example the attitudes of white Americans towards American blacks.  The Butler endorses both points of view, but when Louis faces the prospect of deeper involvement with the Black Panthers as they move to adopt violent tactics, he backs away.  Later we learn he has earned a graduate degree and entered politics.  Paralleling the film’s exploration of two different ways in which African Americans were involved in the civil rights struggle is the story of the father and son estranged from one another and ultimately reconciled.
Some elements of The Butler are predictable, and it can be overly simplistic and sentimental, but its encompassing view of the civil rights years seeks to reconcile points of view that were once at extreme odds.  Its efforts at conciliation extend beyond the African American community.  Most of the major white American figures in the film appear to struggle with their own attitudes towards race.  Ronald Reagan, well played by Alan Rickman, overturns policies supported by the movement but he also worries that he is on the wrong side of the struggle.  Only Nixon comes across as a one-sided caricature.

[1] Wikipedia notes reviews in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, St. Louis Dispatch, and Miami Herald that draw the Forrest Gump connection.  See

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

This is Where I Leave You

This is Where I Leave You (2014; dir. Shawn Levy) would like its audience to feel amused and heartwarming as an eccentric group of family members come together to sit shiva for their dead father. There are definite emotional moments, and not a small number of comic ones, but in general the film invokes every hackneyed cliché imaginable. Think The Big Chill and The Royal Tenenbaums and any installment of the Fockers franchise and stir them all together and dilute them and overcook them and you have something like this film. There is the loud and un-self-censoring mother who says whatever comes into her mind, especially when it is embarrassing to her adult children, especially when it involves her sex life with her deceased husband. There is the oldest brother, who stayed at home to run the family hardware store, and not very well, and who is jealous of the siblings who left home.  (He and his wife are desperately trying to conceive a child).  There is a bitter sister in a loveless marriage (Tina Fey).  There is a middle brother (Jason Bateman) who has just discovered his wife having sex with his boss. She appears halfway through the film to announce she is pregnant.  And there is the fuck-up youngest brother who has never grown up, and who is very aware of his failures. As these family members mourn, they argue, reminisce, have tender moments, and fight. There are reunions with former lovers. There are humiliating scenes in front of family friends and neighbors. There’s a shocking revelation.  And so on. Tina Fey is especially good as the bitter sister.  Jason Bateman is likable as the brother with the errant wife. Jane Fonda, not much of an actor in my estimation, does as well as she can with her heavily drawn character of the widowed mother. At the end of this film, as everyone leaves, I am glad to see them go.  

Family life has never been so reducible, so reductive.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

In Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2014), the main character Tsukuru in high school has four close friends: two men and two women.  They do everything together.  When they graduate, four of them stay in their home town, but one, Tsukuru, goes to Tokyo to study engineering.  In his sophomore year, returning home for a visit, Tsukuru learns that his friends do not want to see him again, and that he is not to attempt to contact them.  This dismissal causes a terrible crisis in his life.  For six months he is depressed, at loose ends, on the verge of death, either through suicide or simply through wasting away.  Gradually he recovers his equilibrium and goes on with his life.  For years he doesn’t look back, accepting without question the loss of his friends. This is the underlying premise of Murakami’s most recent novel.  The question it circles around concerns the reasons for the dismissal, and what will happen with Tsukuru.

1. The narrative focuses on Tsukuru’s thoughts and experiences.  We sink deeply into his mind.  I cannot tell whether it is Murakami himself driving the translated prose, or whether his translator is simply a good writer, but the narration is smooth, calm, and immersive. There hardly seems to be separation between ourselves as the readers and Tsukuru’s thoughts as main character.  For much of the novel, this approach is effective.  In the end, it becomes irritating when the author rather than illustrating certain realizations coming to Tsukuru simply describes what they are. 

2. I did not recognize until almost the end that a schematic design drives this novel, so that the effect is too automatic.  We assume early on that we will learn the cause of the schism between Tsukuru and friends.  That point arrives, ultimately, in a way that is too formulaic.  Seventeen years after he lost his friends, Tsukuru meets and becomes interested in Sara Kimoto, a woman a few years older than he.  They spend the night together, and a longer-term relationship seems a possibility.  When he tells her about the loss of his friends, she is surprised that he has never tried to learn the reason for the break.  She tells him that if he wants her to consider him seriously he must visit the former friends and ask for an explanation.  He does so, he learns what happened--a terrible misunderstanding and failure of personal ethics on the part of his former friends—but it is all too down to earth.  The explanation is more like something you’d learn from an episode of Dr. Phil than what you expect from a Murakami narrative.  After this point, the novel has nowhere to go.

3. Tsukuru’s attitude towards himself and his life is too self-absorbed, too sentimental.  He is weak, passive, and besotted with the inertia of a mind that cannot will itself forward.  Instead he must wait for things to happen, and it is only through the insistence of the woman he thinks he might love that he decides to contact his former friends.  Is my judgment of Tsukuru based on some misunderstanding of Japanese culture?  Is Tsukuru a typical Japanese male?  Or is his passivity, his solipsistic self-scrutiny, an aberration of character?  One evening as he prepares to reconnect with his old friends, he sits in a restaurant, looking out the window, and sees Sara Kimoto, the woman whom he thinks he may love, walking down the street with another man.  Tsukuru doesn’t know what this means.  Is she involved with another man?  Is her interest in him different from his interest in her?  He doesn’t seek answers to these questions.  Suddenly his future seems less certain, unsettled.  He is forced out of his self-absorption to consider that his future with her is not set, that it is in fact wholly unresolved.  Yet his inherently passive attitude doesn’t alter.  He knows he will accept whatever happens, even if it means he dies.  This attitude is exasperating.

4. Not surprisingly, there is no true resolution to this novel.  It ends without ending.  Tsukuru prepares to have dinner with Sara.  She will tell him that she wants a relationship with him, or she will dismiss him.  He doesn’t know which.  He wants a life with her, and believes that if she rejects him he may die.  But he is willing to accept whatever happens.   Other elements of the novel end unresolved as well, but they did not bother me so much—Tsukuru’s strange sexual dreams involving two of his friends, the disappearance of Fumiyaki Haida, the student he became friends with in college, the nature of another friend’s death.  These are all left unresolved.  The novel hints faintly that in some way Tsukuru might have been involved in his friend’s death, or that his dreams might have been more real than they seemed, that his fantasies may be entwined with his realities (a standard Murakami theme), but it also hints with equal contrary force that none of this may be true.  It just ends.  That is the way of life, irresolution, uncertainty, continuance, until the final moment of blackness.

5. Colorless Tsukuru has great narrative force.  I enjoyed reading it, until it fell victim to its own scheme.  Moreover, the stakes are not earthshaking. Or are my reservations the result of the possibility that in reading this minor Murakami book, after having read several other much better ones—Norwegian Wood, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84—I am simply recognizing designs that were there all along?


Like other Murakami novels, this one explores the meaning of identity and personal responsibility and the relation of fantasy and reality.  It is highly readable, interesting, and exasperating.  Patti Smith, in her New York Times review, writes, "On a first reading, 'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' seems kin to Murakami’s more minimalist novels 'Sputnik Sweetheart' or 'Norwegian Wood,' but it does not really fall into that category. Nor is it written with the energetic vibe of 'Pinball, 1973' or in the multidimensional vein of his masterpiece, 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.' Here and there realism is tinged with the parallel worlds of ‘ IQ84,' particularly through dreams. The novel contains a fragility that can be found in 'Kafka on the Shore,' with its infinite regard for music. . . . there are moments of epiphany gracefully expressed, especially in regard to how people affect one another. 'One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone,' Tsukuru comes to understand. 'They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss.’"

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013; dir. Peter Jackson) marks a lot of time.  In the first film, we had exposition—Bilbo Baggins and a group of dwarves set out towards the Lonely Mountain to retrieve the dwarf kingdom and treasure.  We expect setbacks and challenges along the way, and The Desolation of Smaug provides them: a thickly wooded forest in which it is easy to become lost, monstrous oversized spiders that tie the group up in webs, elves that imprison them, goblins that chase them, and so on.  There are fights and pursuits and escapes.  There is a reasonable amount of intrigue, though more of the film than one would expect takes place indoors, especially in the hidden elf settlement in the forest and in Bardstown.  Those who know the novel will note significant differences.  The basic plot is here, but there are characters who didn’t appear in the novel, including Sauron and Legolas and Galadriel.  There is a love plot between one of the members of Bilbo’s group, Kíli, and a young elf named Tauriel—this wasn’t in the novel.  (Without Galadriel and Tauriel, the film would have no significant women characters). Just as the wandering dwarves get lost in the murky wood, so too does this film lose itself.  Where it really takes flight is in the scenes at the Lonely Mountain, where Bilbo encounters Smaug and steals the Arkenstone.

In the novel, as I recall, the Battle of the Five Armies was an aftermath to the killing of Smaug.  Obviously, the battle is a primary focus of the third film.  Moreover, it’s clear that Jackson has set out to interweave the three Hobbit films more tightly with his Lord of the Rings films than Tolkien ever meant to link his novel The Hobbit to the later trilogy.  His first novel was a loose prequel. 
The Desolation of Smaug is entertaining but it lacks the charm of the Lord of the Rings films. It is more loosely and carelessly put together, and there is a strong sense of one’s having gone through the motions.  There’s no discovery or delight, except in rare moments, as when Tauriel heals Kíli’s infected leg, and when Bilbo Baggins has his encounter with Smaug.  For the most part, the film gives up the quaint, fairy-tale-like story in Tolkien’s novel for a blundering, overwrought Hollywood juggernaut.  


At any moment Frank (2014; dir. Leonard Abrahamson) follows one or more of several paths.  There is the existential drama of a talented rock musician who hides his identity from the world: why?  Is his large cartoon-like mask a rejection of the cult of celebrity, a way of focusing his audience on the music, an embrace of privacy? There is the path of an outsider, Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) invited to join a band that already tilts on the edge of sanity when its keyboardist tries to drown himself?  Burroughs brings ambition and new ideas that threaten the band and its members (the film is told mainly from his point of view, so that it takes us a while to recognize how damaging his intrusion into the band has been).  Or do we follow the path of mental illness?  At various moments this film, titled after the name of the band member who always wears a large mask over his head, follows one or more of these paths.  It’s at its best when it follows the first path, at its most melodramatic when it follows the second, and its most maudlin and sentimental when it follows the third.

Michael Fassbinder plays Frank, and for most of the film that means we hear his voice only.  We don’t see his face.  For all we know Fassbinder could be providing the voice while another anonymous body wears the mask.  But he throws himself fully into the role of a character who seems both talented and demented.

It’s never clear whether the band’s music is meant to be seriously good or a joke.  Is this performance art, cutting-edge music, or a parody? It’s not clear how seriously the film takes itself.  It’s only in the final scene that we really get to hear the band perform, and what at first starts out as a pathetic and muling caterwaul ends up being a really good song.  (But who am I to pass such judgments?—I’m 64 and this music, not to mention this film, probably doesn’t aim at people like me).  I find Frank a dark comedy that lapses towards the end into sentimentality.

All the members of the band, with perhaps the exception of the intruder keyboardist Burroughs, seem to totter on the verge of mental illness, and the band itself seems the incarnation of neurosis and self-preoccupied narcissism.   This is what I found most interesting about the film.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is good as the band member who resents Burroughs and secretly loves Frank.


American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Throughout Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (1996) Stephen King’s influence loomed, especially the Stephen King of The Stand and The Shining.  This surprised me because I have found Gaiman in his other, later works to be a fairly creative, original writer.  Like King in the two aforementioned books, Gaiman interweaves narrative strands and characters, builds towards a mounting climax, and then can’t quite make it work.  There’s much that is interesting and original about American Gods, but parts are derivative, parts wander or drag, and parts are intent on teaching us a bit too much about comparative religions.
American Gods could easily have been a graphic novel.  Its premise would have worked well in that medium: millennia of American immigrants, beginning with the first native Americans, brought their own religions to America.  By the time of the novel, all the old gods of the immigrant traditions—these gods are actual characters in this narrative--have been forgotten or trivialized, replaced by the gods of media, capitalism, and industry.  The United States is not hospitable to the old religions.  The novel builds towards a final confrontation (referred to in increasingly tiresome terms as a “storm” that “is coming”) between the old gods and the new.
This novel certainly works well in the tradition of American road novels, moving back and forth across the continent, mostly through the middle sections of the United States, with occasional visits to the west (Las Vegas) and the East.  The final battle is set in Rock City on Lookout Mountain.  America as this novel portrays it is an expanse of empty spaces, of towns with dwindling populations, of wandering and embittered gods who have been forgotten or cast out or both.
An interesting array of characters populates the novel, many of them based on gods from Nordic and African and Asian traditions.  A grifter named Wednesday (based on the Nordic god Odin) plays a prominent role, as does a paroled prisoner who refers to himself as Shadow.  He is the central character.

Students of comparative religion and world mythologies would find this book rich and interesting.  It’s full of hypotheses and theories about how religions are born, how they develop and die out.  This is a novel, after all, and its speculations would probably not hold up under careful scrutiny.  Gaiman certainly did a lot of research for the book, and I suspect he knew Joseph Campbell (Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough) well.  Sometimes the baggage of New Age mythologies weighs the narrative down. But I found it readable and interesting.

Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

Stardust (1999) by Neil Gaiman is an adult fairy tale about a young man named Tristan Thorne who seeks to win the hand of the woman he thinks he loves by recovering a star that has fallen to earth. He lives in a small town named Wall that adjoins a region called Faery. The worlds of fantasy and reality overlap somewhat, but for the most part they remain separate.  Guards at the entrance to Faery prevent its inhabitants from entering the town. The story is set in the early years of Victorian England, though in the regions of Faery we seem to be in medieval times, or even no times at all. The clear distinction between the real and unreal in this narrative, the underlying premise that normal rules of science and logic do not apply, at least in the realm of Faery, make it diverting and in a certain way enchanting. Gaiman’s handling of characters, his whimsical tone, his steady control of the tale, enhance the overall impact.  I read this book to counterbalance and assuage the effects of the history of the Holocaust that I had just finished.  But as much as I might want to claim that its story is light and fanciful, it has dark moments.  Three brothers die in various ways as they seek to lay claim to the throne of their dead father. And a vicious witch tracks the fallen star—a young woman named Yvaine—with the intent of killing her and cutting out her heart.

This fairy tale has a happy ending of sorts, but it is qualified by the differences between the land of the real and the realms of Faery—one is mortal and transient while the other is governed by fancy, magic, and imagination.  The happy conclusion in the end becomes remote and chilly.