Movie Review: A Hidden Life

At two hours and 45 minutes, A Hidden Life ought to have been an unforgettable epic given its topic, one man’s refusal to sanction Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, instead, writer and director Terrence Malick’s movie suffers from too many problems. Like Malick’s overly romanticized 1978 farm drama, Days of Heaven, the distinctly cinematic director takes an approach that compartmentalizes the leading couple to the point of detachment. They’re neither sufficiently detailed and realistic to be plausible on the film’s terms nor romantic enough to be as noble as Malick apparently intends.

It takes a while to realize that A Hidden Life isn’t as profound as Malick evidently must’ve thought it could, should or would be. My first clue was the audio introduction, which precedes the opening pictures. The sounds of wind, insects and nature envelop the audience. This takes the audience into the setting, which is Austria’s mountain valley farms in 1939. A narrator comes next, speaking in the past tense beginning with an admission of error as black and white footage of the National Socialist acceptance and spread over Germany sweeps over the screen very effectively, demonstrating more or less that the whole of Germany knowingly and enthusiastically accepted the Nazi philosophy.

To anyone who’s seen the trailer or knows history, the quaint Austrian farming village and its young romantic couple (August Diehl and Valerie Pachner) clearly haven’t much of a chance. As in Days of Heaven, Malick lets the couple frolic in the fields, which is mostly what they do and for a long, long time. They’re soon married, with a few kids appearing at an early point, always with the Nazi threat looming but never in clear and explicit terms. By the time husband Franz (Diehl) is called upon to enlist in the Army and swear an oath to the Nazi dictator, which he declines to do, neither he nor anyone in town has really mentioned, let alone discussed, the Nazis; men are off to train, fight and defend Nazis. Women, children and old men are left alone to toil in the fields.

Those left behind still laugh, play, raise pigs and, amid neatly interspersed pictures of Nazis, life goes on. Only Franz objects to the takeover of Austria by dictatorship. That he does so without much of a reason is treated as unexceptional. His opposition is never really named and identified. It’s just something he does that’s regarded by villagers as unusual, then as unpatriotic and by loved ones as unusual, then inconvenient. The Nazi invasion comes without much impact other than the men being drafted and conscripted into military service. Jews never merit mention in A Hidden Life, remarkably. Every aspect of Nazi Austria just sort of happens without much rancor, notice or fuss.

Perhaps this is Malick’s point. But the lack of any exposition of the origin or progression of Franz’s convictions certainly makes more glaring that the leading man never articulates his opposition, which forms the basis for the entire film. The vacuum gets filled, slowly but surely, with faith and religion.

A Hidden Life depicts Austria as lovely and enchanting, with its fields, hills and simple people as God’s country and people, contaminated by the Nazi invaders through very little fault of their own. When Franz asks his “dear wife … what’s happened to our country?” I couldn’t help wondering why it took him so long to ask himself the same question. I also wondered why he and his wife never ask in the present, not the past, tense. That one so resolute in refusal does not ask “what’s happening?” before asking “what’s happened?” strikes me as impossible or unlikely.

As Franz pays the price for a refusal to submit, asking his God-fearing wife to “pray for me” when he’s jailed as she takes comfort in the land’s “wind, wheat and sky”, Nazis try to reason with him to cease his stubborn refusal to renounce his opposition. One of his jailers promises him that he can go free.

“But I am free,” he replies in what could’ve been A Hidden Life’s best line. Malick expects the audience to intrinsically grasp why. Franz’s refusal is less a principled stand than the refusal to put faith in the state above his faith in God, though even this is portrayed as too abstract. Heaven’s light shines upon him, while his long-suffering wife, working the farm and raising her kids with her sister and mother-in-law and being shunned by pro-Nazi villagers, surrounds herself with crucifixes, church attendance, a priest, prayer and pictures of Jesus Christ. For their part, the children are seen and not heard, playing and smiling as if largely and blissfully ignorant of their poverty, deprivation and absent father.

Compounding these problems are the languages of A Hidden Life, which switch from foreign to English in key scenes and transitions. Like its enticing advertisement, and most of the movies Malick makes, A Hidden Life looks like it contains great filmmaking, holding the promise of deliverance and adding up to a momentous epic. Yet, while it thankfully doesn’t sugarcoat the true life based consequences of opposing Nazis, it is too satisfied to take itself on faith.


Movie Review: Richard Jewell

Clint Eastwood (J. Edgar, Jersey Boys, Gran Torino, Sully, Invictus, The 15:17 to Paris) surprises me again with another excellent motion picture. It’s another of director Clint Eastwood’s movies for Warner Bros., which is owned by AT&T. Extremely true to facts about the Atlanta Summer Olympics bombing of 1996, it’s another movie about a persecuted white male. In fact, this persecuted white male was vilified. He was almost destroyed. He was completely innocent. There was no reason to attack him. He was railroaded by the United States government, specifically the federal police known as the FBI (how’s that for relevance).

His name is Richard Jewell.

By titling his movie, sharply written by Billy Ray (The Hunger Games), with the name of the individual unjustly accused, persecuted and ruined by the U.S. government, Mr. Eastwood carefully and unequivocally draws your focus to the one against the mob. Indeed, this unreleased movie’s already being smeared by the Me, Too movement and attacked by the media. Yet Richard Jewell is unassailable in depicting the awful truth of what America’s press, state and public did in fact to Richard Jewell.

Never mind that Richard Jewell‘s uncannily timely, with its scathing indictment of today’s abuse of government power, media sensationalism, entrenched government officials for the status quo who thrive on favoritism and police power lust and puny-minded parasites that live through damaging decent, productive Americans through unsubstantiated claims and arbitrary assertions. That’s all cake icing, itself a credit to Clint Eastwood‘s unwavering vision and sense of justice, peppered here with references to John Wayne, cowboys and real, not artificial, quid pro quo.

The real surprise of Richard Jewell lies in its deft and subtle scope. The taut, sparse and purposeful movie concentrates on Jewell, portrayed by Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya) in the year’s most emotional and best screen acting, a flawed, fat man who lived with his mother (fearless and exemplary Kathy Bates), worked as a policeman and private security guard and became an American hero.

But this is also the story of the American South, the son and mother bond, the bond between men who share values, the virtuous cop, the productive American, the lone, self-confident individualist and the few, kind, lonely and courageous souls that move the world. Richard Jewell ties together all of these and more, thanks to screenwriter Ray, director Eastwood and the outstanding cast, and it does this with power, clarity and a thundering strike against the surveillance state and its Big Government control.

That said, Bates and Hauser are joined by Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards) as a radical government lawyer, Jon Hamm (TV’s Mad Men) as an FBI agent and, in a career best performance, Olivia Wilde (Cowboys & Aliens) as a skanky newspaper reporter. All five major cast members and others, including and especially Nina Arianda as an immigrant from a country where “when the government claims someone’s guilty, that’s how you know they’re innocent”.

Richard Jewell as played by Hauser packs a wallop but it’s loaded and packed with wisdom and lessons. How men comfort one another with affection and without shame. How a mother fears for her son, especially when he’s perceived as weaker and doesn’t look like most people assume heroes are supposed to look. How men who are sons protect their friends, mothers — and total strangers.

Jewell may be obese, kind and slow, and he talks with a Southern accent, yet he possesses a commanding and disarming eye for detail. Over and over, from his astute ability to listen, watch and take note of what’s essential to his sense of awareness of human physicality with particular decency toward people who are physically challenged in some way, the young “rent-a-cop” refuses to disable his powers of observation. It’s what ultimately mitigates the bomb’s deadly impact on the Summer Olympics in Atlanta’s Centennial Park, where he’s assigned to patrol with a mix of local, state and federal police.

But what gave the Federal Bureau of Investigation its reputation for being the federal bureaucracy of incompetence in the 1990s, due to the agency’s debacles at Ruby Ridge, Waco and its bungled and unsolved inquiry into the explosion of TWA Flight 800 10 days before the Atlanta Olympics bombing, seizes the hero’s life. Hamm’s and Wilde’s characters are, in this way, part of larger and corrupt institutions. That they both fan the corruption with fully conscious and fundamental choices is undeniable. They know exactly what they’re doing.

They know exactly why, too. They are small, petty, foul creatures. This is what makes Richard Jewell rise to the historic (and, I must say, amid this week’s congressional disclosures of evidence of the FBI’s astonishing rot, quite timely) occasion. When the weight of the world goes against the fat security guard and his mother, pushing you to prejudge them as flawed and suspect, it’s the Others, traipsing and gallivanting with fanfare, who are the fraudulent wannabes. It’s Jewell who stands up to scrutiny.

That he does so against impossible fraud, injustice and malice to destroy him is what makes Richard Jewell an elegiac American forewarning. The man who studied maps, logs and Vincent Bugliosi’s outstanding literary case against the butcher of Brentwood, Outrage, is aided by an individualist of law, principle and, as a poster on the wall suggests, loyalty to individual “liberty”. Will their combined fidelity, bravery and integrity be enough to defend against the increasingly powerful state?

Richard Jewell in this sense poetically depicts and pays tribute to heroism while carefully showing you the truth, like Loving, of the cost of constantly fighting the corrupt, insidiously inflating Big Fat Government. It is not easy to watch. It is infuriating. Yet, as Hauser, Rockwell, Ray and Eastwood push you to the brink by making too simple the tale of the one who guarded Americans against an act of terrorism and was persecuted for being honorable, Richard Jewell stirs you to cheer for his stealthily victorious reclamation of self-esteem. This is what makes Richard Jewell one of 2019’s best pictures. This is what makes Richard Jewell, with the woman who raised him, worth knowing as remarkably decent, heroic and larger than life.


Mr. Rogers, Rand, Carnegie and Pittsburgh

Read my article “Bridging Ayn Rand and Pittsburgh” in the winter edition of Pittsburgh Quarterly, currently on sale at certain newsstands in the city of bridges. I bought a copy at a downtown Pittsburgh shop during a recent visit over Thanksgiving (more on the trip below). It’s an account, and I think perhaps the first in publication, of the philosopher who described herself as a radical for capitalism and what contends as the foremost city of the Industrial Revolution. I pitched a few ideas to my editor and publisher and this is the byproduct of the one he thought best serves the magazine’s readers.

In the piece, which may become available online, I focus on the Forties, when Rand wrote her observations of Pittsburgh in her journal, corresponded with an admiring book critic for a Pittsburgh newspaper and prepared for the movie adaptation of her 1943 novel The Fountainhead. All of these tie into each other and relate to an interesting comment by Objectivist scholar Greg Salmieri, whom I interviewed for the article. Dr. Salmieri, who’s editing the University of Pittsburgh Press series of books studying Rand’s philosophy, gives his opinions on Rand’s ideas and how they’ve been interpreted within the context of today’s false left-right political dichotomy.

I am delighted that publication of the first article about Rand and my hometown coincides with the first reprinting of my article about Andrew Carnegie in Capitalism Magazine (read it here). Carnegie is one of my first heroes. I became fascinated with him as a boy. As with Ayn Rand, the more I learn and know about this man, the more I admire him. I wrote this piece several years ago as a sidebar to an article I’d been asked to write for a magazine.

Having just visited the city of Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and, yes, Carnegie Hall (not the one portrayed in Green Book), I can happily say that I think you’ll find this profile of Andrew Carnegie worth reading. I won’t be surprised if you discover that you’ve learned something new and admirable, even exciting, about this amazing man, whose birthday I celebrated while I was in Pittsburgh.

One of the things I love about Pittsburgh is that its residents have real awareness, knowledge and appreciation, even admiration, for capitalists and captains of industry. Wherever I went on Carnegie’s birthday while visiting Pittsburgh, everyone with whom I discussed the man was instantly interested, engaged and aware of his legacy, his stature, his greatness. I’ve written about Pittsburgh on this blog several times, and will write more soon about this year’s Thanksgiving trip, but I find that I am often surprised by this city’s unique ability to wall off the world’s spreading religion of hatred of moneymaking. There’s real reverence for it here, however unpolished or weary it may be. The city of steel, in this sense, can spark like that.

This is one reason it was wonderful to see the new movie about Pittsburgh’s pioneering child development host, Mr. Rogers, with my family in Pittsburgh. It’s a warm, thought-provoking film that holds your interest as an individual, challenging you to introspect, engaging you with silence, not screaming, blaring, sensory-driven assault. Yet it comes together as a whole, respecting the uniqueness of each individual and his choices, even when those choices deviate from traditional notions of family, holidays and what constitutes a proper gathering. See A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers by yourself, alone and in solitude or with a friend. Or with your chosen family as I did. Read my movie review on the cover of the New Romanticist here.

Look for more posts — on its theater, culture, hospitality, downtown and sports — about this fall’s trip to Pittsburgh soon.


Movie Review: Judy (2019)

Based on a stage play, The End of the Rainbow, Judy starring Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland takes too many falls. This biographical film, directed by Rupert Goold, is relatively innocuous.

Its maudlin theme is that this woman, an astonishing movie star (Judgment at Nuremberg, A Star is Born (1954), Meet Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, Easter Parade), singer and entertainer whose alcoholism and drug addiction killed her by age 47, was doomed. But Judy is neither dramatized at the proper depth for the caliber of its subject nor does it accomplish a successful depiction of Garland, who married several men including Vincente Minnelli and Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) and mothered three children, all portrayed here.

Judy’s mixed success is not necessarily Zellweger’s fault. She’s a fine actress with a good record. But she’s either been misdirected, misguided by the script or ventured out of her league playing Garland, whom Zellweger portrays in fragments. Just when you’re willing to go along with the depiction, and there is both resemblance and success in her performance, an overly mannered tic or expression betrays the actress and you’re out of the movie. Judy is telescoped in flashbacks and her final London stage engagement, so end-stage career acts are portrayed. Zellweger (Chicago), singing in her own voice, hasn’t got the pipes.

Domineering movie studio types, a tracheotomy, attempt at suicide, custody battle with Luft over the two kids, poverty, a crush on Mickey Rooney and the chronic need stemming from the child star’s damaged ego to gain intimacy with an audience; all of these, much of it happening off screen, drive Garland’s addiction to drugs and booze. A party at daughter Liza’s, who’d go on to face similar struggles, leads to another marriage to another man that needs and doesn’t satisfy Judy. Addiction’s vicious spiral gets its due.

Judy doesn’t give Garland her due. It’s possible to make a late life movie about her without depicting her in her finest vocal form. Yet Judy gets bogged down in too many disparate segments without any single theme. Her London engagement, for example, becomes the focal point for her swan song, Judy suggests, leading to a climax in which she gains some deeper form of audience bond. This would’ve been more effective, however, with better seeding through exposition.

Oddly, Zellweger’s created more of a smaller-scale caricature of the maudlin caricature that’s been the mainstay of the gay male adoration than a convincing portrayal of a real-life falling star. There are finer moments, especially with a gay couple in an arc that nicely cashes in on the best of Judy‘s subplots and themes. Jessie Buckley (the fireman’s wife in Chernobyl) has a lovely turn as Judy’s main contact during the London show. An actor named Finn Witrock (La La Land, TV’s The Normal Heart) plays one of the men who becomes one of the husbands. Michael Gambon is fine, too, and Judy looks and sounds terrific.

Judy Garland deserves something either deeper or lighter than Judy. This is because something about her stardom and demise has been lost, very, seriously lost and fouled up, since she self-destructed. A scene in which her doctor, giving her an injection as he admits his childhood admiration for her portrayal of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, gets at what this movie needs and lacks.

After skimming the surfaces of her sordid past, which is all Judy ultimately does, he urges her toward proper self-care, an idea rooted in egoism which is only, very rarely properly practiced let alone properly understood. Liza Minnelli, whose thoughts on her mother are very serious, deep and profound, lives and talks as though she gets what egoism means. So does Elton John. Both are addicts and survivors, for the moment, and, like Judy Garland and others such as Whitney, Elvis and Amy Winehouse, they’re stars whose ability radiates.

Judy, to paraphrase the poem that, if realized, gets and keeps you clean and sober, hasn’t the wisdom to show the difference.


Movie Review: The Good Liar

The primary problem with the otherwise innocuous, enjoyable star vehicle The Good Liar co-starring Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren is not its main plot twist, which is abrupt and abrasive. The basic flaw in this slick thriller, based on a novel by Nicholas Searle, is that the twist entails a bait and switch. This is not merely in manner and tone. I’ll give a hint as to why the bait and switch breaches reality without spoiling the switch or twist.

A light, jaunty online dating interplay between woman and man (Mirren and McKellen) opens the movie. The exchange occurs to Carter Burwell’s chipper music. The cute and clever messages during opening titles match sounds of typewriter keys as the leads drink, smoke and lie to one another about their habits, facts and lives.

So, The Good Liar opens as a romantic comedy. You think you’re in for a treat by two arch, accomplished actors who are at their best in dry, British roles. Of course, McKellen’s movie career gained steam when he starred in director Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters. Mirren often makes an impression whether as the queen of England, Jon Voight’s ex-wife or Ayn Rand, though her best performances remain in supporting roles, such as the actress in Collateral Beauty or the Communist in her husband Taylor Hackford’s thrilling White Nights.

The fun powers the first half of The Good Liar, which is written by Jeffrey Hatcher, who wrote screenplays for McKellen as Mr. Holmes, which is awful, and for director Lasse Hallstrom’s Casanova, which is delightful. That movie retained its lightness while building suspense and weaving a sense of ominous threat without killing the joy.

The Good Liar does not.

Both characters, McKellen’s white collar con man and Mirren’s suburban London grandmother, are obviously hiding something. Their facial expressions, clever interplay and deliberate movements build audience interest with tantalizing anticipation; you know that lives will change and plot points will pivot and, with these two playing each other, it’s enjoyable. As soon as there’s mention of a Nazi, followed by another mention of Spandau in Germany, and certain, singularly gruesome acts, it’s clear that something more sinister is coming.

In cat and mouse contests in Mirren’s kitchen, McKellen’s boardroom and on walks outside London’s shops and boutiques, webs of deception spin, tremble and take form, catching a number of smaller players, including partners in crime, supposed victims and a mysterious driver in Mirren’s suburban enclave. Things turn sharply amid the interplay, and there’s plenty of play with knowing, witty banter, as the humor reaches a high point with talk of a “windfall”.

Fun gets whisked away as the twist is more like a chokehold. I’d describe the turn of events as more serious than a heart attack but it’s more severe, not merely serious, than that. Condon tends to take serious matters too wispily. Then, Condon takes those minimized matters and he portrays them much too densely and heavily, whether depicting sex research (Kinsey) or the rise of a girl group (Dreamgirls).

But never more than he does here. This dooms The Good Liar, which, for all the pictures and chatter about book burning, Berlin and Nazis, doesn’t bother with the matter of Jews. So goes The Good Liar in a markedly different direction.

This might’ve made for a successful divergence, but not in a movie that for over an hour teases the audience with banter, winks and lightness, inculcating a false sense of what’s going on. Maybe this is The Good Liar‘s point, that the big lie’s a game movies can play, too, though there’s no fun in being played for a chump especially when it’s delivered with preachy lessons taken from political propaganda.

Good movies about achieving a kind of triumphal liberation through outwitting deception, such as Sleuth, Deathtrap, even lighter fare such as Working Girl, Tootsie and Housesitter, ultimately deal in truth. Not The Good Liar, which piles on excessive points to distort reality.

Is there good in its lie? The Good Liar‘s makers apparently think so. However, a discerning audience will be neither entertained nor deceived.


University Professor Distorts My Writing in Her New Book

Years ago, I wrote movie reviews for a website in which I was a partner, editor and writer, which I later sold to an subsidiary. One of them was a review of director Roland Emmerich’s environmentalist movie, The Day After Tomorrow, which I did not praise, let alone recommend. I titled the 2004 article, which was published prior to the film’s debut, “Ecozilla”. The article’s no longer available. Like much of my writing, it’s not included on my site’s archives.

An English professor in California found and read the review; she cites it in her book, Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age (University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

Yet the author Nicole Seymour, the associate professor at California State University, Fullerton, who also authored a book titled Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination, falsely describes me in her book as a “conservative”. The author made no attempt to reach out to me in advance of publication, let alone attempt to confirm her assertion as fact. I do not claim to be and have never described myself as a conservative writer, journalist or thinker. In fact, most of what I’ve written about conservatives, including my commentary for newspapers such as the Arizona Republic, San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Daily News and my blog post “Conservatives and the Tea Party”, which is publicly available, disavows conservatives. 

Additionally, on the movie website the author references, most of my writing, including reviews, columns and other articles, explicitly criticizes conservatives, including President George W. Bush. My review of one of the religious movies released by Disney, and another article criticizing fundamentalist Catholic Mel Gibson, received some of the most threatening reader feedback of my career, including death threats.

Nevertheless, Professor Nicole Seymour writes that:

[a] conservative review of the 2004 climate change-themed blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow echoes liberal Jones, though much more sourly: “Prepare for more religious propaganda: [The Day After Tomorrow] is the New Left’s doomsday evangelism with ecology as its religion“ (Holleran 2004). A political conservative complaining about “religious propaganda” is, of course, an irony in itself though one a bit beyond the scope of this chapter.”

This distorts the truth, adding a deeper distortion by implying that this writer is also religious; indeed, it’s clear that the Cal State Fullerton scholar holds that every conservative is inherently religious (is Seymour unaware that one can be both secular and conservative, as one, such as Hillary Clinton or Pete Buttigieg, can be both religious and liberal?) Again, the author made no attempt to reach out to me in advance, during or after publication. The author simply prejudged me as a “political conservative” and as a religious conservative at that based on a negative review of an environmentalist movie. The California State University professor’s dishonesty provides an important example of an academic jumping to conclusions, not going by facts, not even attempting to go by facts, and distorting the truth with abandon.

As usual, and as is increasingly necessary, particularly with regard to claims by those promoting environmentalism, the reader should doubt and scrutinize what he reads. This is because, to paraphrase a terrific line, what you read ain’t necessarily so.