220px-A_Star_is_BornNote I had to say that this is about the 2018 version, as opposed to the 1937 version, the 1954 version, or the 1976 version. This concept of a young woman being plucked from obscurity by an older male star and rising to fame is an enduring one, apparently. In this edition, the young woman is named Ally, and portrayed by Lady Gaga, and the man is named Jackson Maine, and portrayed by Bradley Cooper, who also directs.

I’d give you the plot summary, but in truth, I pretty much just did: there’s not a lot to the story besides what I outlined above. The two meet, Jackson instantly sees Ally’s promise, and soon has her singing onstage at one of his concerts. Before long, the two are married, and Ally is skyrocketing to fame, while Jackson is plagued by alcoholism and lingering issues from his troubled family life. All seems poised to work out until…

Spoiler Warning!

…Jackson kills himself, apparently because of a combination of worsening tinnitus, and the fact that Ally’s manager, Rez, has taken a dislike to him. No, really; he has a brief confrontation with Rez, in which Rez tells Jackson to keep away from Ally–that’s right; from his own wife--and Jackson hangs himself afterward. I wasn’t buying that.

Look, I don’t want to be flip, but there wasn’t much more to the movie than that. I’m not saying it’s an awful movie–most of the performances are good, and I’ve always liked Lady Gaga, even though I’ve never listened to her music. She has a very nice voice, and most of the musical numbers are therefore pleasant to listen to.

It just felt… artificial. The story is not a complex one, apart from the sad ending, which seemed tacked-on to give the story weight. Though, in fairness, this seems to be an inherited trait from the original. I think that someone back in the ’30s (Dorothy Parker, probably) realized there was no interesting way to end the story unless somebody died.

Well, it showed. The quality of the plot seemed soap-opera-ish to me. Indeed, I get the idea that the writers must have felt that what they had was rather saccharine, and so they were looking for a way to make it edgier.

The answer the writers appear to have hit on was to use the F-bomb as much as they possibly could. It is used as an intensifier when people are angry. It is used when they are not angry. It is used repeatedly in casual conversation, and for no apparent reason. An occasional “goddam” is sprinkled here and there, but this is the exception that proves the rule.

To be clear, I have no problem with strong language. There are times when the scene and the character demand the strongest obscenities a writer can command. These words exist in our language for a reason, and when the situation arises should be unhesitatingly deployed.

But the word is used too liberally here; and by many different characters. It is used so much it grates on the ear. At a certain point, I found myself wishing they would use a different word, any word, even if it were one more hideously offensive than the obscenity du jour, just to break the monotony.

And I hate to make this accusation; I really do–but I have to believe this was done just to make this “PG” story a solid “R”. There’s some brief nudity that I suspect was included for this reason as well. But that was only for a second; if they had taken the same approach to nudity as they did to language, everyone would have gone around naked for half the film.

(If anyone’s wondering, the single best use of an obscenity I’ve ever seen in cinema occurs in the comedy The Brothers Bloom. That’s some effective swearing.)

Again, it was not a terrible film, but I didn’t feel like it was a must-see. A decent romantic drama; nothing more. It felt overlong to me, but then, the easiest scenes to cut would be the songs, and I think everyone would agree those are also the best parts.

I’ll be honest: I wish they’d written a new story. Something else with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga singing, as opposed to just giving an old story a new coat of obscene paint. But I guess this theme is one that resonates with people, and has for a long time: the idea that a seemingly ordinary person can be elevated to the ranks of the wealthy and famous–it’s a quintessentially American rags-to-riches story, in the spirit of Horatio Alger, and therefore will probably always be popular.

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Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

[Thanks to Lydia Schoch for inspiring me to write this. Be sure to check out her post on fictional romances.]

You’ll notice I don’t often write romantic sub-plots in my stories. I was feeling pretty bold with 1NG4 and included one, but it’s largely implied and in the background of the larger story. 

Romance is hard to write. You need characters who work on their own, and also complement one another. It’s about balance. If you get unbalanced characters, it doesn’t work—or at best, it only works as wish-fulfillment for people who want to imagine their perfectly ordinary self being married to a demigod or goddess. 

And if you’re writing a story where the romance is the plot, then you also have to come up with some reason why two characters who clearly belong together aren’t. Usually social expectations are the best mechanism for doing this, to the point that it’s a cliché—A can’t marry B because it would violate all of their society’s most sacred traditions!

The problem with these sorts of stories is that too often, it becomes more about the pursuit, and in the process, one character gets reduced to nothing more than a McGuffin that the other character is trying to get. I hate that.

Here are some fictional romances I consider effective. You’ll notice that they are generally sub-plots, or at least not the sole focus of the story.

Evie Carnahan and Rick O’Connell (The Mummy) 

Image result for rick and evie o'connell
Evie Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) The Mummy. Universal Pictures. Re-used under Fair Use

This works because it’s pretty well-balanced—Evie’s brains and Rick’s adventuring skills make them a natural team. This is what I mean—if Evie were always a helpless damsel in distress, or Rick were always a big stupid lug, it would be dopey. But as it is, you can see why they would gravitate to one another, apart from “It’s a movie and we need a romance.”

Thomasin Yeobright and Diggory Venn (The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy)

When you read about Return of the Native, 90% of what you hear about is Eustacia Vye this, Damon Wildeve that. I love the book, but as far as I’m concerned, both of them can go soak their heads. Oh, wait—I guess they do. Sorry if I spoiled this 141-year-old book. Anyway, what I like about the book is Venn’s loyalty to Thomasin, and his (admittedly credulity-straining) adventures as the almost super-human “Reddleman” looking out for her.) 

Miranda Lawson and Commander Shepard (Mass Effect 2-3)

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Commander Shepard (voiced by Mark Meer) and Miranda Lawson (voiced and modeled on Yvonne Strahovski) Mass Effect 3. Electronic Arts. Re-used under Fair Use.

Am I the only person who doesn’t hate Miranda? I might well be. Most players find her stuck-up, but I like her. Maybe part of it is that because ME 2/3 built up Commander Shepard as this awesome hero, and Miranda seems like the nearest thing to his equal in a universe that otherwise regards him as something close to a God. She saved his life, and she’s genetically engineered to be perfect, so she  can meet him on even ground. I like that. I don’t see an equivalent romantic interest for female Shepard.

But maybe it’s just my fondness for Australian accents that’s making me biased here.

Honorable Mentions: Unrequited Romances

I started out to make a list of good requited romances, because those are harder for me to write than unrequited ones. But that’s not to say that an unrequited romance can’t make for a good story, because it absolutely can. In fact, the advantage of these stories is that they have conflict inherent in them, as opposed to having to be introduced externally. So, here are some good ones:

-The Carlo/Corelli sub-plot in Corelli’s Mandolin. One of the most interesting things about the disastrous movie adaptation was that this was the only romantic sub-plot that even remotely made sense. 

– The Atris/Jedi Exile relationship in Knights of the Old Republic II. I talk a little about that here. Actually, KotOR II is brimming with tons of unfulfilled or outright doomed romances. Chris Avellone is great at writing those.

-Elsie Maynard and Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard. Just listen to this.

And now, for my favorite fictional romance…

Jane Ballard and Dan Frost (Jane Got a Gun)

Jane and Dan
Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman) and Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) Jane Got a Gun. The Weinstein Co. Re-used under Fair Use.

Come on, you all knew this would be here. I love this movie, and a big reason why is the relationship between the two leads. The way they gradually rekindle their relationship under brutal circumstances makes for a great story, and the carefree romance of their past contrasted with the grim present is very powerful. True, a lot of what makes it work is the acting as much as anything—the same lines with lesser actors wouldn’t work as well.

I suppose that writing romance for the screen or the stage is easier than writing it in a novel. In a visual medium, putting two attractive people with great chemistry together gets you at least halfway to making the audience to buy in. On the page, though, you have to do a lot more work.

Lucy is about a woman named, in fact, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) who gets tricked into carrying an experimental new drug for a gang in Taipei. When the drug is accidentally released into her body, it gives her superhuman powers as it unlocks more of her brain, gradually turning her into a seemingly omniscient being. And that’s pretty much it. Thanks for reading!

 

What? I need more words or it throws off the formatting of the poster? OK, gimme a minute…

The trouble with this movie is that it feels like there’s not much to it beyond the concept I outlined above. Which is a good concept, but also kind of thin. I like to imagine they filmed it and then realized they only had a forty-five minute movie.

As a result, there’s a lot of filler: clips from nature documentaries loosely analogous to what’s happening in the plot, a lecture by a professor (Morgan Freeman) who studies the human brain, lots of B-roll of Scarlett Johansson walking places in tight clothes, and an interminable car chase through the streets of Paris.

Car chases in general bore me. This one was especially bad:

Movie: Look, she’s driving the wrong way!

Me: Yeah, I see that.

Movie: No, see when you drive the wrong way, other cars come towards you! Look!

Me: Uh huh. Can they please get to the destination so the plot can advance?

Movie: …but see, also the police pursuing her are getting into these crazy wrecks because they too are forced to drive the wrong way!

I don’t mean to be too harsh. There are some good things in this movie–the opening twenty minutes are filled with tension when the gang kidnaps Lucy, as well as some delightful banter in the first scene between her and her boyfriend Richard (Pilou Asbæk), who initially tricks her into delivering the drugs. Johansson and Asbæk are really good together.

The acting in general is fine; nobody is asked to do anything spectacular, but all the actors are competent. And the story, despite being based on a completely inaccurate idea that humans only use 10% of their brains, is well-told and clever.

It’s just way too padded out. At one point, about halfway through, Lucy has the main villain completely at her mercy and doesn’t kill him. This is after the guy has killed her boyfriend, kidnapped her, killed another prisoner in front of her, and sewn drugs into her stomach so she can act as an unwilling mule for him. And she’s already killed a bunch of his henchmen by this point, so she’s no pacifist. The only reason for her to spare him is because otherwise there would be no plot.

This story would’ve been much better as a one-off episode in a show like The Twilight Zone or something. It’s a nice concept, but not one that can sustain 90 minutes of screen time without any other elements thrown in.

I watched this movie because someone said it was like Ghost in the Shell. And there are some similarities: in both movies, Scarlett Johansson is turned against her will into a nearly-unstoppable super-human crimefighter. Also, the best scenes in both movies are the ones with Johansson and Asbæk together.

So yeah, it’s a fair comparison. But Ghost in the Shell has more interesting characters and a meatier plot with more twists and turns. Lucy is more like a first draft of a promising script that no one bothered to revise.

Star_Wars_The_Last_JediYes, it finally happened. I watched it.

As some readers may recall, I was, shall we say, not impressed with the first film in the Disney Star Wars series, The Force Awakens. It was so bad that I had no interest in seeing any of their subsequent efforts.

But then I started to hear things about The Last Jedi. It’s controversial and polarizing. The alt-right is griping that it’s full of preachy progressive politics. There are hundreds of YouTube videos made by angry fans complaining about multiple aspects of the film. At the same time, I also heard elements of the film’s plot compared to the game Knights of the Old Republic II, which I consider the greatest Star Wars story ever, and one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever experienced.

This sounds like fodder for an interesting review, I thought. Could be a lot to talk about here. I enjoy writing reviews, and I am no stranger to unorthodox opinions on Star Wars movies, whether it’s my hatred for Force Awakens or my defense of the prequel movies. I wondered how I would react to this most divisive Star Wars film.

Well, there certainly was no lack of things to talk about. This is going to be one of my signature long, sometimes meandering reviews, so settle in for the long haul and prepare to read my thoughts on The Last Jedi.

(more…)

donavons_reefThe title is a quote from the Roman politician Cicero, meaning something roughly like “Oh, the times! Oh, the customs!” He was bemoaning corruption in the Roman senate, and the refusal of the senators to punish an obvious criminal conspirator.

Fortunately, we have no problems like that in the modern-day United States. So this post isn’t about politics. It’s about a 1963 movie called Donovan’s Reef. A friend of mine lent it to me the other day. This isn’t going to be one of my movie review posts, though. I’m going to talk instead about what the movie says about culture.

Donovan’s Reef is a comedy about a sailor named Donovan, played by John Wayne, who has been living on a Polynesian island since World War II. Several other sailors live there as well, including one, William Dedham, who had several children with a native of the islands.

Dedham’s daughter Amelia arrives from Boston, seeking to prove that her long-lost father is not a “moral” man, which will allow her to claim his shares of the Dedham Shipping Company.

Donovan gets word of this plan and pretends that Dedham’s children are his own to deceive Amelia. Although the prim Boston lady and the rough sailor initially clash, they eventually–shocker!–fall in love. And Amelia ultimately finds out the truth, but although she fights with Donovan about it, in the end, they still get married.

There’s one hilarious scene where Donovan and Amelia race each other to the shore from Donovan’s boat. It’s mainly an excuse to show Amelia in a swimsuit, but what I found funny is that right before diving in, Donovan has to extinguish his cigarette–and yet it’s apparently supposed to be a surprise when a young, fit woman beats him to the shore?

The ending of the movie is bizarre: throughout there has been a running joke that Amelia and Donovan will fight about something, and then make peace by saying “pax”. The movie ends with them arguing about what they will name their son if they get married, and ultimately Donovan says “From now on, I wear the pax in this family!”, before grabbing Amelia, spanking her a few times, and then kissing her. She resists at first but then kisses back.

Yeah.

(Keep in mind that John Wayne was 22 years older than Elizabeth Allen, the actress playing Amelia, and honestly, I would have guessed he was more like 40 years older. That doesn’t help matters at all.)

There are also some racial slurs, some jokes directed at the Chinese and the Polynesians, and other stuff that would typically shock modern audiences. It’s not all mean-spirited; there’s even a rather sweet scene where the island’s inhabitants–of all different ethnicities and nationalities–celebrate Christmas together. But still, it wouldn’t pass muster today.

At this point, some readers are probably thinking, “Wow, we’ve come a long way since 1963.” (Well, maybe some readers are thinking, “Ah, for the good old days, when men were real men, and women were men’s property real women!”)

I don’t mean to pick on Donovan’s Reef specifically here. I’m sure there are lots of old comedies with elements that people nowadays will find cringeworthy, or even downright offensive. But these were completely invisible to moviegoers in 1963. And there are probably things in modern movies that will strike subsequent audiences the same way.

I actually don’t think we’ve come a particularly long way since 1963. Human nature evolved over millennia and so is about the same as it was in 1963. (There are still plenty of people who were alive then, for one thing.) We just have different taboos. Audiences in 2073 will probably be watching our movies shaking their heads and thinking, “Wow, and they thought that was OK in 2018? We’ve come a long way.”

Who knows what it is the 2073 audiences will find unacceptable. Maybe it will be all the violence.  Or maybe they will be neo-Victorians, and find the idea of seeing so much as an ankle to be too much nudity. Or maybe they will just wonder why people in 2018 had such a fondness for washed-out blue-grey color palettes.

Strange as this may sound after I’ve gone on an Ignatius J. Reilly-style rant about a 1960s comedy, this is why I enjoy watching old movies, and why I like history generally. It’s a way of getting perspective. The first part is the shock of discovering all the weird stuff people in the past did. The second part is the realization that people haven’t changed that much.

220px-Bandidas_(movie_poster)I happened to see the end of this movie on TV the other week. I’d never heard of it before, but I like Westerns, so I decided to watch the whole thing.

Maria Álvarez (Penélope Cruz) and Sara Sandoval (Salma Hayek) team up to get revenge on Tyler Jackson (Dwight Yoakam), a sinister land baron who is taking control of huge swaths of Mexican land. In the course of the land grab, he murders Sandoval’s father, and nearly Alvarez’s as well.

Initially, the two women fight with one another about various petty disputes. (Maria is an unsophisticated farm girl, Sara is wealthy and educated.) But both want to avenge their fathers and help their countrymen, so they begin robbing banks to give back to the people, after training for time with a “retired” bank robber. (Sam Shepard.)

The fame of “las bandidas” grows, and eventually they team up with a detective named Quentin Cooke (Steve Zahn), after they convince him of Jackson’s immoral methods. The trio pulls off increasingly daring and complicated heists, until finally Jackson tries to flee the country by rail with all the gold from the bank of Mexico.

It seems hardly necessary to say it, but of course, the bandidas foil him, having learned to work together as partners, and respect one another as friends. They are a little disappointed when Quentin returns to the U.S. with his fiancee, but they still happily ride off into the sunset together.

It’s a fast-paced and funny film, with over-the-top action sequences and complicated bank robberies that don’t make much sense (e.g. where did Sara find the ice skates she uses in one heist?) but it doesn’t matter, because they are fun to watch, and Cruz, Hayek, and Zahn are all likable heroes.

A few times, the bickering between the two women does get a little tiresome–but the film moves so fast it’s hard to complain about it too much. The other thing that annoyed me was a scene where, to demonstrate his quick-draw prowess, the former bank robber shoots the hat off Maria’s head. I hate it when movies make it seem like guns are toys for doing magic tricks. Granted, this is an over-the-top action comedy, so it’s in keeping with the overall tone, but it still grated on me.

It was interesting to watch this so soon after writing this post about female characters. On the one hand, this film doesn’t shy away from cheesecake-y shots of the stars. If you want examples of “male gaze” in cinema, there are plenty in Bandidas. At one point, Maria and Sara dress up as burlesque dancers and pose sexily with Quentin. During their bank robber training, they do push-ups in a river while wearing low-cut blouses for… some reason.

But despite this, it never felt like they were being objectified. Sara and Maria aren’t driven purely by a desire to please men, and their friendship isn’t destroyed by their attraction to Quentin. They are fully-realized characters in their own right. The movie easily passes the Bechdel test–not only do they have conversations that are not about men, they even have one that’s about the rudimentary principles of gold-backed currency! (I propose a “Gambrel test”: do characters in a film have at least one conversation about economic theory?)

In short, the film seemed sexy without being sexist. At least, that’s how it struck me. It’s a lighthearted, somewhat cheesy Western comedy that never takes itself too seriously. It’s not a deep, thought-provoking film that you’ll think about for hours afterward. But it is a lot of fun while you’re watching it.

MV5BMTUzMTM0MDc3OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDI1NjM0NTM@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_A couple years ago, I read the Jonathan Safran Foer book upon which this film is based, and at the time I wrote that it made me feel very glad to have been a vegetarian all these years.

Well, the movie also does that, and then some. It’s one thing to read about how the proverbial sausage gets made. Seeing it is stomach-churning. A word to the wise: skip the snacks before this one, or make sure you eat them all during the previews.

But Eating Animals isn’t just a glimpse into the sickening nature of the meat industry. It’s partly that, for sure, but it also explores alternatives, interviewing organic farmers and animal welfare advocates who offer other, less horrifying systems for farming.

One of the key points that the film and the book raise is the way that modern farming has corrupted the biology of the animals. What we think of as “normal” chickens aren’t where the meat comes from—instead, meat chickens are bred to be morbidly obese, barely able to walk once they reach adulthood. (I’ve seen these first-hand; it’s incredibly sad.)

And it gets worse: because modern animal farming conditions are so horrible, the animals need to be pumped full of antibiotics just to survive to adulthood. And those antibiotics end up in the meat that people eat, and in turn cause antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” to breed. 

This is really the big takeaway from Eating Animals: the modern farming system is hurting humans too. Whether it’s dumping animal waste in cesspools that drain into rivers or allowing pus from diseased cows to seep into milk, the problems with the present-day meat industry aren’t simply related to animal welfare, but ours as well.

As a film, it works pretty well, though it is a bit disjointed as it hops back and forth to tell the stories of various farmers and activists. For the most part, it’s done in a straightforward interview style, although there was one cut from a KFC commercial to the interior of a corporate chicken farm that had a darkly ironic tone worthy of a Michael Moore film.

The film makes a number of strong points about the ties between the meat industry and the U.S. government charged with regulating it. As with so many things, the lobbying interests are able to control the bureaucrats who are supposed to regulate them. 

This brings me to one question that the film never fully answered: the role of government regulation. The general theme of the film is that the huge, centralized nature of the meat industry is responsible for most of the appalling practices. (In the film, Christopher Leonard from something called “New America” likens the meat industry’s structure to the Soviet Politburo) The better alternative, the film implies, is local, organic farming—in other words, farming as it was prior to 1960 or so.

The problem here is that it would be hard for the government to regulate such small, decentralized outfits, which in turn runs the risk of food produced in a non-standardized fashion, which could very easily become contaminated. Say what you want about the current system, but it at least hasn’t caused a major pandemic yet. That might be due to pure luck, but still, I would have liked to see more of an explanation of how, exactly, the FDA or the USDA or whatever is supposed to regulate a nation of small, independent organic farmers.

This, by the way, is one of the less obvious points about political economy that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats like to acknowledge: that government and big business need each other. Government needs big business because it’s too hard to regulate (or raise money from) small business. Big business needs government because it can lay a foundation for it to maintain its monopolies or oligopolies. 

Eating Animals makes a strong case that the current, horrible system of factory farming has developed as a result of deals and organizational hierarchies devised by huge organizations, but from there, it doesn’t address how we’re supposed to get back to the “old” style of farming. After all, the fundamental factors that caused organic farming to vanish in the last half-century are still present. How do we change that?    

By the end, the film suggests that nature will change things for us—perhaps in the form of a pandemic or severe global climate change. In the meantime, the best we can do is try to think long and hard about our food choices, and choose options that are healthier and less destructive.

Watching Eating Animals was a surprising experience for me personally because of how close to home it hit—much of the film is shot in the rural Midwest, and the farms and fields look like the ones I remember from my childhood. Many of those interviewed could have been my neighbors. And, most disturbingly, some of the footage of animal cruelty came from a farm in Plain City, Ohio; a mere 20 minutes from where I grew up. (You can read about the case here—be warned; there are some disturbing pictures.) The horrible consequences of modern farming are all around; it’s just that few people bother looking for them.

After seeing an early sequence in the film showing aerial footage of cesspools outside pig farms, I decided to check online and see if they really looked like that. Sure enough, if you go on Google maps and look at the satellite images, you can see the pink-tinted pools outside the long, grey buildings that house the pigs. They’re all over the place in North Carolina.

Of course, most people know, in some vague, abstract sense, that the way their meat got made was not pretty, and frankly, most of them would just as soon remain ignorant of the details. When I recommend this movie to my meat-eating friends, most of them react by saying “I’d rather not know.” Some of them go a step further and try to justify eating meat as a hard-nosed “just-the-way-of-the-world” realism that only naïve idealists ignore. And some of them say simply “I have to eat meat.” (They assert this without ever having tried to do otherwise.)

Eating Animals isn’t arguing that everyone should abandon meat altogether. (I might argue for that—but then, I’m awfully fond of cheese and eggs, so I can’t claim total innocence in this.) But it is arguing that we need to think long and hard about the way we get our meat, and whether this system is one that can continue indefinitely without causing massive, deadly problems. And to do that, we first need to be willing to confront the current reality. There may be some nasty things in the world that are best left unexamined—the comments sections on most news articles come to mind—but this isn’t one of them.

Chances are that most people who voluntarily go to see Eating Animals are people who have read the book or who are already aware of the problem of factory farming. And that’s well and good, but it isn’t enough, because the film is most effective as a form of aversion therapy to make people reconsider what they eat. So I not only recommend that you go see it, but drag some of your carnivorous family and/or friends along as well. Say you’ll treat them to dinner afterwards—and then see if they don’t suddenly become interested in organic or vegan food.

A_tale-of-love-and-darkness-poster
Image via Wikipedia

[I saw this film a couple years ago, but never posted a review. I will do so now, for no particular reason. 🙂 ]

I don’t feel fully qualified to review this film, because it’s in Hebrew, which I don’t speak. So I can’t comment on the actors’ delivery of their lines, or even on the script, since I’m basing it off of English subtitles that may not reflect the full meaning.

Even more significantly, Hebrew etymology itself is an important concept in the film, and I can’t be sure to what extent I grasped the word play that goes on. At one point, the narrator alludes to the fact that the Hebrew word for childlessness is related to the word for darkness, which is related to the word for forgetting. This leads me to suspect the title has more meaning in the original. (The film is based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Israeli author Amos Oz, from which this passage is adapted.)

All that said, I’m going to do my best to review what I can, and let you know when I think my opinions might be colored by my ignorance of the language.

The film is told from the perspective of the young Amos Oz (Amir Tessler) and chronicles his experience growing up in what was then British Mandatory Palestine, which over the course of the film is partitioned by a U.N. Resolution and then falls into civil war.

This political element is mostly shown through glimpses and murmurs in the background, since Amos is a young child, and what he perceives first and foremost are incidents in his own family. His father Arieh (Gilad Kanana) and mother Fania (Natalie Portman, who also directed the film and wrote the screenplay) are his main influences. Both are well-educated and, in their own ways, teach him about language and storytelling. His father, a scholarly and bookish man, frequently lectures him about Hebrew words and their interrelated meanings.

Fania is a more romantic type than her husband, and early sequences show her fantasies as a girl growing up in Europe. envisioning Israel as the “land of milk and honey”, to be settled by heroic pioneers. In keeping with her imaginative nature, she tells young Amos stories—some fanciful and fairytale-like, others more depressing and realistic, such as the story from her childhood of a Polish army officer who committed suicide as she watched.

Amos also overhears things he shouldn’t—such as Fania’s mother berating her, causing the younger woman to slap her own face in shame, or Fania telling another grim tale of her youth in Europe: a woman who committed suicide by locking herself in a shed and setting it on fire.

The film shows these scenes, as imagined by young Amos, and you can’t help feeling these aren’t healthy for a child to hear. At the same time, even if you didn’t realize that Oz grows up to be a writer, it becomes very clear in watching the film that this is his calling—everything in his upbringing leads him towards it.

Gradually, as the film wears on and political upheaval takes its toll, Fania begins to succumb to depression. It’s a grim decline, as we see her slowly wasting away, but the film does a good job capturing the pain and frustration seeing a loved one with a mental health disorder brings upon a family. (Even more heart-wrenching is the fact that the doctors prescribe sleeping pills and other depressants—at the time, proper treatment for such disorders was not widely available.)

Fania goes away to her sisters’ home in Tel Aviv, and there overdoses on sleeping pills. In the closing moments of the film, we see Amos as a young man, meeting with his father at a kibbutz. Finally, we see an elderly Amos writing the word “mother” in Hebrew.

The overall film is haunting and evocative, with a gorgeous soundtrack by Nicholas Britell that captures the gloomy mood of Jerusalem, which Oz at one point likens to a black widow.

I did have some issues with the cinematography. It has that washed-out gray/green palette that is way, way overused in films these days—especially those set in the past. I would have preferred to see it in the normal range of colors.

However, while this was a drawback, I did think it very successfully communicated one thing about Jerusalem: its age. Throughout the film, but especially in the shots of the winding, narrow streets that Amos and his family traverse through the city, I could practically feel the weight of all the accumulated history of this ancient place. The film conveyed the mystical power of its setting, and gave a sense of why it is so important to so many.

Again, I don’t want to comment too much on the acting, since I was reading subtitles rather than listening to the speech, but it seemed very good indeed. Tessler is the standout—he had to carry the immense burden of seeming wise beyond his years while still behaving like a normal child, rather than The Boy Who Is Destined To Become A Famous Writer. And he manages it splendidly from what I can tell.

Small moments, like the sequence in which Arieh is celebrating that all five copies of his new book have been purchased, and Amos later sees all five, still in their wrapping paper, at the house of an author Arieh knows (either a friend or relative; I couldn’t tell which), are what stick in my mind. The man simply closes the shelf lid over the books and gives Amos a look that says “we will not speak of this”, without uttering a word.

I went to this film expecting it to be a downer—I knew that it ended with Fania falling into depression and ultimately committing suicide—and for a large part of the second half, it did feel excruciatingly bleak. Watching someone sit silently in the dark, overcome with psychological torment, while her family members suffer in impotent grief, while perhaps true to life, is not a pleasant cinematic experience, and that’s how the film trends for some time. I was ready to write it off as an interesting picture that drowns in mental anguish in the second half.

And then something amazing happened.

I want to write about it, because I haven’t seen many others address it—but I also hate to spoil it. So I’ll make a deal with you: if you haven’t seen the movie, but think you might want to, stop reading now and watch it. Pay particular attention to the scenes of Fania’s stories—the drowning woman, the woman in the shed, the Polish officer. Then come back and read the rest of this. If you’ve already seen it, or just don’t care to but read this far and want to know it all, read on.

(more…)

The_Death_of_Stalin
A truly great poster! (via Wikipedia)

What a crazy idea, to make a comedy about the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. But there is something about the absurdity of the overly-bureaucratized communist mass-murder machine that lends itself to dark humor—the petty logistical concerns and office politics familiar to white-collar workers everywhere, combined with the matters of life and death that concern a government, particularly a totalitarian one.

The film definitely plays this weird juxtaposition to the hilt right from the opening scene, in which Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) calls the manager of a concert broadcast live over the radio to demand a recording of it. When the manager learns there is no recording, he frantically tries to reassemble the orchestra to perform it again. The piano player, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) initially refuses, but ultimately gives in when bribed. After the performance is finished, she places an insulting note to the dictator inside the record sleeve.

Intercut with this are scenes of Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of Stalin’s secret police, dispatching his men to seize people from their homes and torture them in secret prisons. Beria holds immense power in the government, and when Stalin dies—on reading the note Maria has written—Beria is the first into his office, hastily removing important documents before other members of the Central Committee, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), arrive.

They are reluctant to pronounce him dead, and even the doctors hastily assembled to examine him are hesitant to give their assessment. When they finally do, the Committee proceeds with Georgy Malenkov nominally in charge, but with all of the Committee members, Khrushchev and Beria in particular, jockeying for power.

Stalin’s children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), arrive for their father’s funeral. Vasily repeatedly launches into drunken rages, attacks guards and makes wild threats. Beria keeps Khrushchev busy dealing with these matters while he moves to consolidate his power by putting the city under the control of the secret police, increases his popularity by pausing arrests, and seizes control of the train system, preventing people from entering the city.

Beria also reveals that he has the note that Maria wrote to Stalin. She is an acquaintance of Khrushchev’s, and Beria uses this to threaten Khrushchev, implying that he will use the note to incriminate both of them should Khrushchev try to cross him.

In frustration, Khrushchev orders that trains to Moscow resume running, causing people to enter the city and be shot by Beria’s secret police. The Committee argues over whether Beria or his lower-level officers should be blamed for this.

Meanwhile, Marshal Georgy Zhukov arrives in Moscow, annoyed to find his army confined to barracks. Khrushchev secretly strikes a deal with Zhukov to help him remove Beria from power during Stalin’s funeral.  Zhukov agrees, on the condition that Khrushchev has the support of the entire Committee, which Krushchev manages to secure by bluffing that he has Malenkov’s backing.

At a Committee meeting after the funeral, Khrushchev signals Zhukov and his men to storm the room and arrest Beria. After much badgering from Khrushchev, Malenkov reluctantly signs off on the summary trial and execution of Beria.

The film ends with Khrushchev watching Maria play at a concert while Leonid Brezhnev (Gerald Lepkowski) looks ominously over his shoulder.

It’s an odd movie, with scenes of slapstick comedy (the Committee members awkwardly transporting Stalin’s body from the floor to his bed) mixed with more subtle satire, as in the sequences depicting Committee meetings, and one unforgettable scene in which Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) are speaking contemptuously of Molotov’s presumed-dead wife Polina, who was arrested as a traitor to the Party, only to change their tone mid-sentence to singing her praises as Beria appears with her in tow, having released her from prison to secure Molotov’s loyalty.

The humor throughout is very, very dark: for example, there is a running gag in the scenes in the secret police prisons where we repeatedly hear prisoners off-screen exclaiming “Long Live Comrade Stalin!” followed by a gunshot.

But in addition to the sometimes over-the-top satire, the plot is that of a very tight and coherent political thriller, as Khrushchev and Beria joust for power. I went in expecting it to paint all the Soviet elites as villains in equal measure—and they certainly all do some nasty things—but in my opinion the film pretty firmly sides with Khrushchev as the hero and Beria as the villain. The former is depicted as vulgar and a bit corrupt, but reasonably well-meaning. (He reminded me, in both looks and manner, of a Don Rickles character.) It’s impossible not to root for him over Beria, who, besides all his other crimes as head of the secret police, is a sexual predator of the most evil sort. It is altogether fitting and satisfying that the most graphically violent death in the film is Beria’s execution.

As you might expect, the film is very controversial, and was banned in Russia and former Soviet States. A member of the Russian Culture Ministry stated: “The film desecrates our historical symbols — the Soviet hymn, orders and medals, and Marshal Zhukov is portrayed as an idiot.”

I can’t speak to the hymn, the orders, or the medals, but I will say that while Zhukov is certainly a caricature (he’s played by Jason Isaacs, whose hammy acting  works much better here than in Harry Potter), for me, he was one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, after Khrushchev and Maria.

I would like to see a historian specializing in Soviet history do a thorough examination of what is and isn’t accurate in this movie. This article mentions some inaccuracies—notably, that Beria’s downfall was more protracted than the hasty arrest and execution depicted in the film. But that’s the sort of change that can be excused for the sake of the drama. I don’t know much about the Soviet Union post-World War II, but on cursory scanning of Wikipedia entries about the people and events depicted, I was surprised (and quite often disturbed) to learn how much of it was accurate.

Of course, the mark of a really good work of historical fiction is that it’s not just about the time period depicted, but that it contains observations about human nature that are relevant to the present-day. This is why, for example, the historical dramas of Shakespeare are still read and performed today.

So does The Death of Stalin contain any interesting lessons beneath the caricatures of historical enemies of Western capitalism and farcical depictions of Soviet state ceremonies? It’s hard to say. Maybe there is something about the dehumanizing effect that power has upon both those who wield it and those upon whom they exercise it. But that has been pretty well picked-over by people like George Orwell. The absurdity of bureaucrats administering lethal force? Joseph Heller covered that. So I’m not sure this picture brings anything new to the table in that regard.

Would I recommend seeing it? I don’t know. If you’re a Soviet history buff, it might be interesting to see what they got right and what they got wrong. If you like your comedy extremely black, then it might be worth a watch. But if you prefer uplifting cinema, or if you don’t like violence, or if you are offended by swearing, or–above all else– if one of your relatives worked for the Soviet Secret Police, then you should probably skip it.

Most fiction is treated as entertainment and nothing more. You watch a movie for two hours, maybe talk about it a little with your friends afterward, and that’s it. There are some works here and there that are so dazzling they make a more lasting impression on you. Really spectacular special effects in a movie, or a particularly good line of dialogue, or a moving character death in a novel can do this.

This is as much of an impression as most fiction makes upon its audience. But there is another level on which a story can function. It is the most powerful, and also the hardest to achieve. That is the type of story that actually makes the audience look at the world differently, and act differently as a result.

This is, I think, pretty rare. There may be many stories trying to achieve it, but only a few succeed. And even those that do succeed probably only do so for a small percentage of their total audience.1

Note that when I say “act differently”, I’m not referring to the people who saw Star Wars or Harry Potter and decided to start attending fan conventions in costume, or to name their children “Anakin” or “Hermione”, or to have themed weddings based on the stories. That’s fandom, and can happen with anything.

What I’m talking about is general knowledge that you can apply to a wide variety of situations. And it has to be something that wasn’t obvious or easy, at least not for you. Lots of stories try to have some overarching theme on the order of “You can do anything if you believe in yourself”. Which may be true, but is so obvious most audiences probably have heard it already.

Naturally, the idea for this post began when I asked myself, “What works of fiction changed how I act?” This is the list I came up with. Long-time readers will probably not be surprised by most of the entries:

  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. (In a nutshell, the big takeaway is that every action has consequences, often ones we don’t foresee. So choose wisely and think about how your actions will influence others.)
  • Jane Got a Gun. (The lesson here is that you should never assume you know the whole story. You should listen to what other people have to say, even if you think you know better.)
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. (This one is pretty well known, but for me the lesson is that people try to seize power not only by force, but by controlling the thoughts of others. You have to resist them.)
  • Eating Bull by Carrie Rubin. (The point here is that what people eat is driven by a number of personal, societal and economic factors. Your diet is a more complicated business than you might realize.)

KotOR and Jane changed how I approach day-to-day interactions with people. Nineteen Eighty-Four changed how I read political news and think about government. And Eating Bull changed how I eat.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of fiction I consider “good”, though it is a sub-set of it.2 In fact, I was shocked at how short the list is, given how many works of fiction I enjoy in different genres and media.

I am a big fan of weird fiction, but I can’t say I did anything different after reading Lovecraft et al. (Other than trying to write weird fiction myself, I guess.) I love the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, but they didn’t change how I approach the world. And the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are also absent from this list, even though it was from a G&S critic, Gayden Wren, that I first learned how to analyze fiction in terms of “levels” of storytelling.

Now, it’s probably true that the stories I listed above weren’t the only way I could have learned these lessons. Maybe the reason I needed fiction to learn them at all is that I’m an especially unobservant person, or else I would have figured them out myself from observing the real world.3

But if so, that speaks to the power of fiction: it can teach people things they would otherwise never have learned.

NOTES

  1. To a degree, it’s a personal thing. The unique circumstances under which somebody sees a film, plays a game, or reads a book, probably play just as much of a part as the work itself.
  1. It’s important to realize that a story can also be pretty bad, from a technical perspective, but still change how people see the world. Many people seem to get life-altering epiphanies from reading Ayn Rand’s novels, but they still have many flaws as works of drama. This raises an important point, which is that some people  “cheat” and try to tell a story about big, powerful themes without first having a solidly-constructed plot and characters. If you do this, you usually just end up making something incoherent and pretentious.
  1. I guess this is the central difference between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is entertainment, and it’s a bonus if you learn something from it. Whereas every work of non-fiction should teach you something new, or it’s a waste of time.