Captain Fantastic

I liked this movie, although probably not as much as Dan did.  A guy whose politics incorporates every stereotype of the loony left decides to take his 6 children, aged about 5 to about 17, off the grid — WAY off the grid, in a mountain cabin someplace in the Pacific Northwest. No phone, no lights, no motor car,not a single luxury. No toilets either. The family grows or kills its own food.  Schooling is completely by book — with no limit on what you can read.  Your 14-year old daughter wants to read Lolita?  Fine — now tell your dad exactly what you thought of it, in front of your 5-year old sister.

Maybe I’m just practically minded, but after a while the artificiality of the set-up really got to me.  The family lives in a cabin in the woods, miles from civilization and surrounded by wild animals.  But nobody has a gun — really?  The dad is militantly anti modern “corporate medicine — you just know none of those kids has been vaccinated.  What happens when one of his kids actually gets sick?  The conspicuous lack of even semi-modern plumbing and cooking facilities also bothered me — those home-preserved vegetables didn’t can themselves.  The family’s missing mother is described, admiringly, as a Buddhist, and therefore an opponent of organized religion.  Um, no. After several trips to Japan, I can assure you that Buddhism has temples, priests and prayer services — all the trappings of organized religion.  By the time we got the family party for Noam Chomsky Day, I was pretty sure the moviemakers were having us on — at least I hope they were.  I wound up rooting for the rich, right-wing, Christian grandparents, although I’m sure you were supposed to think of them as the villains.

The cast is good, and much of the dialog is engagingly written.  In addition to the Lolita scene, I enjoyed the kids’ encounter with a skeptical highway patrolman (shoutout to OSF actor Rex Young), as they convince him that they are home-schooled crazy Christian children, and not crazy lefties.  The mental alertness and physical fitness of off-the-grid kids, compared to those who spend their lives glued to their screens seemed accurate enough.  So did the oldest kid’s confusion when he’s trying to chat up a girl and is faced with an unfamiliar TV show reference.

On balance, it’s an entertaining film — but it might be best to treat it as a fable.  \

Side note:  A few years ago, Jedediah Purdy, a kid home-schooled by his lefty parents in rural West Virginia made some headlines when (like the kid in the movie) he got into Harvard.  In some of his early work, Purdy seemed confused by students who laughed at the film Love Story — he couldn’t understand why his fellow students had no empathy for the young woman who died so tragically young.  Purdy lacked the context to understand that what the students were laughing at was not the story, but the comically bad dialogue and inept acting — and isn’t that the real problem with raising your kids so completely on your own?

Advertisements

Genius

Thomas Wolfe, a young novelist from back-of-beyond North Carolina, convinced that he was a genius and desperate to be heard, writes to all the publishers in New York.  Max Perkins, editor of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, agrees to publish him.  Wolfe is a totally undisciplined writer, and his manuscript needs a lot of work.  Somehow, the collaboration works, and the book is a commercial success.  At that point, Wolfe dumps Perkins, as he seems to have dumped nearly everyone he no longer needs.   Wolfe dies young, so we never know what else he might have written with a normal life span.

This movie has an interesting story, a good script, and a terrific cast.  Yet somehow it falls flat.  I think it’s because two of the three leads, while fine actors, are badly miscast.

Jude Law, an often under-rated actor, gives a fantastic performance as Wolfe, a man from nowhere who somehow speaks in flamboyant poetry, and who experiences life in all its majesty with a passionate intensity (and not much concern for anyone else).

I can’t say as much for Nicole Kidman, who plays Aline Bernstein, the woman who left her husband and family for Wolfe and bankrolled him before he became famous.  In real life, Bernstein was short, plain, and significantly older than Wolfe; Kidman is none of those things, Bernstein’s bizarre, public suicide attempt, while faithfully reproduced, is not credible in Kidman’s portrayal — as an actress, Kidman is simply too beautiful, too resilient, and has too much dignity for us to bridge the gap between movie and reality.    It’s as if Robert Redford had played the lead in The Graduate instead of Dustin Hoffman (don’t laugh — Redford auditioned for the role).

The bigger problem, though, is with Colin Firth, a fine actor who seems to have completely misunderstood his character.  We are told that Perkins has “the gift of friendship.”  But as portrayed by Firth, he is taciturn and morose.  We see the joy he gets from reading Wolfe’s work — but not how he conveys his admiration to the author himself.  Maybe it’s the hat.  Perkins was known for wearing hats everywhere, even at the dinner table.  But since nobody in the movie mentions it, even as a jocular aside (“Whatever you do, don’t ask him about his hat”), it just comes across as weird.

Two scenes in the movie give a tantalizing hint of how good this movie could have been.  One is a scene between Perkins and Hemingway (Dominic West !).  The two men engage in a kind of easy camaraderie and mutual respect that likely made Perkins such a genius editor.  But we don’t ever see that side of him again.  The second scene occurs towards the end of the movie, when Perkins meets Wolfe’s mother, an aging country woman who eagerly starts speaking to him in flamboyant poetry. Now we know where Tom came from — but where did she?

Postcript:  Firth based his accent on Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who was famously fired by Richard Nixon in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”  Cox apparently sounded a lot like Perkins, and with good reason — he was his nephew.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

Ramanujan, a self-trained mathematician unable to find an academic position in India, had a poorly played job as a clerk.   Convinced that he was a genius and desperate to be heard, he sends letters with samples of his work to major British universities.  He receives a reply from Professor G. H. Hardy at Cambridge, who invites him to come to the university.  Things do not go smoothly — many of Hardy’s colleagues are not all that enthusiastic at the idea of working with an uneducated (in their view) Indian.  Even those who accepted his mathematical genius regarded him with a kind of bemused condescension, considering him kind of an idiot savant — someone with genuine insights, but no idea how he got there.  And the social differences loomed large.  Ramanujan, although he lived in abject poverty,  was a Brahmin, used to thinking of himself as a superior being by virtue of his birth.  This did not go over well with his English colleagues, who thought of themselves as sole masters of the universe.  And how did a vegetarian manage to survive in an England where even vegetables were often cooked in lard?

Ramanujan, as it turned out, was capable of producing the rigorous proofs Prof. Hardy thought were necessary for his work to be taken seriously.  So the two men eventually developed a working partnership, if not true friendship.  But Ramanujan could never answer Hardy’s persistent question — where do you get these insights?   Perhaps, said Ramanujan, it is because God speaks to me.  Given that much of Ramanujan’s work was in what mathematicians would call infinite series, that’s as good an answer as any.

The movie works, I think, because of the strong performances of the two leads, Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel.  Irons is a fine actor, who has been known to chew the scenery when he is bored with a role.  He is not bored here, and finds the right balance between social awkwardness and political savvy (he is, as it turns out, an adept player of academic politics).  Patel likewise finds the right line in a difficult part, balancing a man aware of his supreme intellectual gifts but one who nevertheless depended on friendship and family support, both of which were sorely lacking in his new world.

Ramanujan returned to India after WWI, and died young, so we don’t know what he might have accomplished with a normal life span.  His work was recognized as brilliant in his own time.  But as is common in number theory, few practical applications for his work were found for many decades.  These days, his work is used in advanced cryptography and to explain the physics of black holes.

Rebellion (Netflix)

This Irish mini-series depicts the failed Easter Rebellion of 1916, when a group of Irish nationalists seized government buildings in Dublin and declared a free republic.  The rebellion went pear-shaped almost immediately, and was put down by the British army in short order.  The rebels did not, initially, garner a lot of public support.  But the ferocious response of the British government, including summary executions without trial of the principal rebels, led to a dramatic change in public opinion.  Before WWI, it was generally assumed that Ireland would remain in the UK under some form of home rule.  After this event, it was independence or nothing, at least in the Catholic-majority areas of the island.

Although the series depicts the principal actors and events of the rebellion, it focuses on a number of smaller actors in various roles, both men and women, who have to decide what side they are on — sometimes in opposition to their own families.  The British don’t generally come off that well (understandable, since this is an Irish show).  But Eamon de Valera, later president of Ireland, doesn’t come off that well either.  The series takes a surprisingly sympathetic view of Irish Protestants living in the South, who realize very quickly there will be no place for them in post-independence Ireland.   Most poignantly of all, the series depicts the plight of the Irish soldier, asked to open fire on his own countrymen to put down the rebellion.

The writing is of varying quality (a subplot involving a relationship between and Irish woman and a married British administrator doesn’t really work that well).   But most of the storylines and characters are very interesting, and illustrate a historical event that generally hasn’t been well served by film-makers in either the US or the UK.

Most of the actors are Irish and not well known here, although fans of Game of Thrones, which uses a lot of Irish actors, will see some familiar faces.

The Night Of (HBO)

Naz Khan, a Pakistani-American college student in NY, “borrows” his father’s cab to go to a party in Manhattan.  On the way, he sees a pretty lady looking for a ride, and he decides to pick up a “fare.”  One thing leads to another, and he winds up going to her apartment, doing way too much booze and drugs.  He wakes up, in the middle of the night, and finds out that pretty lady has been viciously stabbed in her bed.   Panicking, he runs, gets back in the cab, makes an illegal left turn, and gets stopped by the police.  Pretty soon, he’s the prime suspect in the girl’s murder.

Although the mini-series appears to be a routine murder mystery, it is more of an examination of the American judicial system, particularly as it plays out with respect to poor or unsophisticated defendants.  The police don’t bother to do a competent investigation, since the case appears open and shut.  Lacking good representation, Naz is denied bail and sent to Rikers Island, where is is mixed in with career criminals.  The big-firm lawyer who takes his case on a pro bono basis loses interest when Naz refuses a plea deal.

Steve Zaillian, the screenwriter, also wrote Schindler’s List, and the series benefits from a number of complex, very well drawn characters.  The prison scenes are particularly good and, I’m afraid, all too realistic.  The trial scenes are marred by what appear to be a lot of very basic errors — has no one heard of the hearsay rule?  For all I know, though, the low quality of the proceedings on both sides may be the norm for these kinds of cases, which may be part of the point.

This was originally a passion project for James Gandolfini, TV’s Tony Soprano.   After he died, the role of the jailhouse lawyer who eventually defends Naz was taken by John Turturro, a pretty good actor who lacks the emotional intensity Gandolfini might have brought to the role (a silly subplot involving panic-induced eczema doesn’t really substitute).  Riz Ahmed, a British actor, is very good as Naz.  And the supporting characters are generally excellent as well, particularly Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar in The Wire) who plays the Big Dog prisoner at Riker’s Island.

Worth seeing, but I’m not sure where (or when) it will be available if you don’t have HBO.

Call the Midwife (PBS)

It may seem strange to recommend a show about midwives in London’s East End in the late 1950s to a group of guys.  There are a lot of stories about pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for newborns.  But over the course of its five seasons, this extraordinarily well-written series finds a way to cover a whole range of other kinds of issues,, not just those related to childbirth — unwanted pregnancies, forced adoptions, domestic violence, childhood illnesses — but also more general social issues, like substance abuse, racial and class prejudice, PTSD, the social problems of urban renewal, and even the rewards (and difficulties) of a religious vocation.  These issues are examined in a realistic, remarkably non-judgmental way.  Things don’t always work out, but the midwives (and the nuns they live with) try to do their best for the women they care for, however difficult the situation.

The show is particularly good at depicting the problems of the aging poor.  There were many civilian deaths in the East End during WWII, which means that many lost, not just fighting-age sons, but spouses and young children in the war, leaving many to grow old alone. In this show about birth, it’s noteworthy that some of the best episodes are about death.

Most interesting, to me at least, is what I would call the “medical sociology” aspects.  Whatever you think of government-run health care, it is undeniable that, in this poor part of London, the NHS brought first-world quality medical care to a population that had traditionally received charity care, or none at all.  (Indeed, some of the services, including frequent pre- and post-natal home visits, is probably better than a lot of women sometimes get today in the US). That dramatic improvement in access to medical care changed the relationship of people in these neighborhoods with their government, in ways not always easy to foresee.

Although the show was originally based on the memoirs of one young nurse, starting in Season 4, they ran out of source material and developed fictional storylines.  The later seasons remain well-written, but are perhaps a bit more political than the early ones (a doctor, faced with a measles epidemic, sighs, “If only we had a vaccine.”). But the “thalidomide” episodes, following the local medical practitioners as they slowly realize that the unprecedented birth defects they are seeing in newborns are actually the result of drugs they themselves have prescribed, are some of the best they’ve ever done.  All the same, the later episodes lack some of the quirkiness of the earlier “real-life” ones, like the story of identical twins who apparently share a husband — no scriptwriter would dare to make that up.

Parental advisory:  This is a show about childbirth.  There is at least one birth scene per episode, sometimes more.   The realities of childbirth are clearly presented, but are not overly explicit– e.g., you might see blood on a newborn’s head, and the occasional nipple as a newborn latches on.  But you won’t see any female genitalia..  No child over 12 will be traumatized.  Can’t promise the same for queasy adult males, though.

Mr. Robot (USA Network)

Elliott is a quiet computer security expert by day, crusading hacker by night — we first meet him bringing a child porn purveyor to book.  But when the firm’s biggest client removes Elliott’s  friend from their account in a particularly humiliating way, Elliott is disturbed.  And when he meets a curious character on the train — the eponymous Mr. Robot — who offers him the chance to bring down the Evil Corporation, and maybe the world financial system to boot, Elliott is all too willing to go along.

We know, right from the beginning, that something is not quite right with Elliott.  He lives alone, has no social life, takes carefully controlled levels of opiates, and visits a psychiatrist, apparently under duress.  But since we see most of the action from Elliott’s point of view, it takes us a while to figure out just how messed up his view of events really is.  He’s the ultimate unreliable narrator.

As has become traditional, pop culture references are scattered around the episode like Easter eggs.  Most of these are based on music I’ve never heard, or cult films I’ve never seen, and so go right over my head.  But every once in a while there’s an Easter egg aimed directly at me.  1994 World Series?  Never happened.

Rami Malek, best known to mass audiences as King Tut in Night at the Museum, does an outstanding job as the enigmatic Elliott.  The supporting cast is very good, too, particularly Christian Slater as Mr. Robot.  And, unusually for a low-budget cable production, this is a show set in NY that is actually shot in NY (at least the street scenes).  A number of scenes are set in Coney Island which, however seedy it may be during a NY summer, is strangely beautiful in the winter.

I haven’t figured out whether this quirky, unusual show is good or not.  But it sure is entertaining.  And it’s certainly not predictable.

Theeb

A British officer, during WWI, hires some Bedouin guides to take him across the Arabian desert.  Theeb, a boy of about 10 and the younger brother of one of the guides, decides to tag along.  After a series of unfortunate incidents, Theeb finds himself alone in the desert with a man he has no reason to trust, but on whom he must depend if he is going to stay alive.  Readers of Dune will recognize the problem.

The movie is billed as an adventure story, but it is more of an ethnographic study, in the tradition of silent films Nanook of the North and Grass, each of which sought to document a way of life that was rapidly disappearing.  The film-makers spent a year with the Bedouin tribe they eventually used as the basis for the film, and several of the characters (Theeb and his older brother) are played by actual Bedouins, not professional actors.  The difficulties of negotiating life in an unforgiving environment — with the war being in many ways the least of those problems — is vividly demonstrated.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film — the first nomination for Jordan.

I was a little surprised at the high quality of the cinematography, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.  While Jordan has no internationally recognized directors or film stars, it has been a favored location for high-profile Hollywood films for decades, from Lawrence of Arabia to The Martian.  Since those films usually hire local crews, it makes perfect sense that their film-making standards would be pretty high.

A fascinating film, and well worth your time.  No s&x or graphic violence, but the scenes involving the little boy completely alone (as he thinks) in the desert might be too intense for younger children.

Macbeth

I really wanted to like this movie, and in truth there is a lot to recommend it.  It’s an honest rendering of the play — although there are minor changes and cuts, none of them do violence to the play’s basic story.  The settings are almost hyper-realist, with many scenes shot on the Isle of Skye.  Many of the cast are actual Scots, or at least do a good rendering of Shakespeare’s words in a Scottish mouth.  The cinematography is superb, and the battle scenes are well done.  And Michael Fassbaender’s portrayal of Macbeth finds the right balance between charismatic leader and morally bankrupt plotter, which is not easy to do.

But I didn’t like the movie much.

One advantage of doing a play on film, instead of onstage, is that the actors can speak in a range of natural voices — they don’t have to play to the back row.  Done correctly, you can have everything from quiet conversations between husband and wife to loud shouting on the battlefield.  The director, though, seems to have let this freedom to speak quietly go to his head.  Almost all the dialogue is spoken in hushed whispers, and is hard to understand through the heavy accents.  Mumblecore Shakespeare is not a good choice.  When Duncan’s death is discovered, what should be a scene of great hurly-burly — a man was murdered in his sleep! — becomes just a bunch of guys saying, “The king is dead — huh.”  And Marion Cotillard’s portrayal of Lady M is too calm and refined for a woman descending into madness, leaving a big hole where the emotional center of the play should be.  There’s some shouting in the climactic battle scene, which is really thrilling, but it comes too late.  It’s merely an indication of what might have been.

Unless you’re a huge Macbeth buff, this one probably isn’t worth your time.

Labyrinth of Lies

A young German prosecutor in the late 1950s discovers that a former Auschwitz camp guard is teaching in his local elementary school, which is supposed to be illegal.  He decides to prosecute, and quickly runs into a wall of opposition, in his own office.  Germany in that era was well into denialism —  most Germans preferred to believe that Nazis had been a small minority, and virtually all of them were prosecuted at Nuremberg. Why open that can of worms again?  But the young prosecutor finds he has an unexpected ally — the country’s Attorney General, who is himself Jewish, and wants very much to open that can of worms, preferably spearheaded by someone too young to be implicated in the crimes of the Nazi era.

The prosecutor’s single investigation ultimately morphed into a successful class action against several hundred mid-level Nazis, hiding in plain sight in postwar Germany.  More importantly, the testimony of German Jewish survivors forced ordinary Germans to come to terms with their own history — a salutary exercise.

The basic outlines of the story are true, although the personal details of the young prosecutor have been fictionalized to make him more of a German “everyman.”  The Jewish AG, Bauer, was very real, as were his backchannel contacts with Mossad.

Highly recommended.