Royal Rumble: Academics vs. Film Critics

AP/Belknap Press
It's not every Sunday morning I find myself engaged in a Twitter quarrel with Richard J. Evans, today's foremost (though Ian Kershaw may disagree) academic historian of the Third Reich. But Sir Richard—yes, he's been knighted—is also the foremost academic defender of Ben Urwand's controversial new book The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler , and I had a bone to pick with him. I can't say I'm not grateful he answered, although my dream of blowing off Cambridge's Regius Professor of Modern History by tweeting, "Gotta go. Saints game's on!" didn't materialize. The nature of my bone—and I suspect I've waited years to commit that phrase to the public's tender mercies, Prospect readers—was fairly simple. I haven't read The Collaboration yet, a disqualifier from passing judgment on it I strongly urge you to keep in mind. Because I'm a movie reviewer and my colleagues are involved, I'd been a fascinated onlooker to the kerfuffle over Urwand's alleged "reckless" misinterpretations...

Restorative Justice's After-School Special

“Education was where my heart was,” says Tyrone Sinclair in Growing Fairness , a documentary showcasing the impact restorative-justice programs can have in our nation's schools. Sinclair says he was expelled from school at 16, became homeless, and then ended up in jail. Now, he organizes young people in Los Angeles. “I knew that wasn’t the place for me,” he says of prison. “I love to learn every day.” Growing Fairness was screened at the Thurgood Marshall Center in Washington, D.C., this Wednesday, at an event hosted by Critical Exposure, a local youth group that trains high-school students in photography so they can document problems in their communities. The audience included mostly high-school students and people in their 20s, most of whom were interested in or researched education reform, though a few older community members and attorneys for civil-rights organizations were also present. The event was part of the fourth annual Week of Action organized by the Dignity in Schools...

You’re Tearing Us Apart, Tommy!

Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s new book, The Disaster Artist, basks in the delightful weirdness of The Room and its chief architect.

Photo by Amanda Edwards/PictureGroup
T he greatest bad movie ever made." That's what the subtitle of The Disaster Artist, by Greg Sestero with co-author Tom Bissell (Simon & Shuster, $25.99), calls crackpot director-writer-star Tommy Wiseau's The Room, on which Sestero labored as costar, line producer, and thunderstruck eyewitness. The object of a worldwide cult that's still going strong a decade after the movie's 2003 "release”—it played for two weeks in a single L.A. theater rented by Wiseau, to mostly empty houses until word began to spread that this was no ordinary train wreck— The Room has definitely displaced the previous bad-movie champ, Ed Wood's legendary 1959 Plan 9 From Outer Space, in both notoriety and audience affection. And what a bitter pill for Wood's ghost, since the only superlative he ever earned has been snatched away by an even crazier usurper. The differences are considerable, though. Beyond his staggering ineptitude, Wood was mainly hampered by a budget barely adequate to running a lemonade...

Michael Bay Blows Up Detroit

Cal Sport Media via AP Images
I t's a morning in early August when Detroiters awaken to find a piece of Hong Kong rising in their midst. Beneath the shuttered skyscrapers of Grand Circus Park, the multi-story setpiece for Michael Bay's Transformers 4 buzzes with work crews painting balustrades and roofing life-sized tong lau . It has been little more than a week since Detroit became the largest city in the United States to declare bankruptcy. Under the People Mover, a monorail loop newly outfitted with sleek Chinese-language Red Bull ads, a group of professionals commute to work as if nothing were amiss. They take sips from covered cups of coffee and frown at the news on their smartphones, look towards the river and shake their heads at the distant rainclouds. To them, it's just another morning, off to the law office or accounting firm or the mortgage superbank. They aren’t incurious. It’s just that this isn’t the first time the Motor City has played host to China as a cinematic fabulation, though it may be the...

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" Shows Why We Can't Have Nice Things

AP Photo
AP Photo/Columbia T he year of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural, director Frank Capra—not yet renowned as the inventor of "Capracorn"—made a racy, exotic movie called The Bitter Tea of General Yen, starring Barbara Stanwyck as a virtuous Yankee missionary who falls for a Chinese warlord. Because things don't end well for him, wags promptly retitled it The Bitter Yen of General Tea. But to understand why today's GOP is known in my household as "The Bitter Tea Party of Frank Capra," you only need to recall a much more influential film of his. I mean, of course, 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, maybe the only "political" movie Americans have ever truly loved. Ted Cruz's one-man show this week was blatantly indebted to its celebrated climax: hoarse, beleaguered Jimmy Stewart on the Senate floor, fighting the good fight with only his frayed vocal chords keeping evil's triumph at bay. But was Cruz's unofficial remake really such a travesty? Afraid not, folks. Not only this week...

The Last of the Late-Term Abortion Providers

After Tiller A t one point early in After Tiller , a new documentary on third-trimester abortion, a counselor at a late-term abortion clinic asks a patient to explain why she wants to terminate her pregnancy just a few months before she gives birth. “My baby’s got a disease, and it’s fatal in a lot of ways,” the woman explains between sobs. The camera zooms in on her hands, clenched around a ball of tissue. “He could be stillborn. He would have a very short life, full of surgeries and seizures until he would pass. He’s not a viable child. The most loving thing I can do is let him go now.” Stories like this echo throughout After Tiller , directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, which opens today in New York City. The film follows the lives and work of the only four doctors in the country who perform abortions in the last trimester of pregnancy. Three of the doctors portrayed in the film—Stacey Sella, Susan Robinson, and LeRoy Carhart—worked for George Tiller, the late-term abortion...

The Known Known of "The Unknown Known"? Rumsfeld Has No Regrets

AP Photo/Wally Santana
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais T he best news at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF for short) is that Brit director Steve McQueen’s much anticipated 12 Years A Slave— starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man of color who was kidnapped and sold into bondage in the Deep South in 1841—is as extraordinary as everybody says it is. Aside from Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, a very different sort of cinematic coup, no other movie I’ve seen here can touch it, and I’m pretty sure no other movie on the subject of slavery can either. If you couldn’t stand Django Unchained, McQueen’s far more ruthless and perceptive dismantling of the Peculiar Institution’s social and sexual pathologies opens stateside next month. Then again, what with TIFF’s usual salad bar of touted, untouted, and never-to-be-heard-of-again offerings no doubt I’ve missed a lot, and not always by choice, considering that a rare technical snafu—TIFF is usually sterling—turned the mobbed press...

Rummy Returns

Donald Rumsfeld in Errol Morris' new film.
Don Rumsfeld, believe it or not, is back. And though I haven't read Rumsfeld's Rules , (available in paperback soon!), I'm pretty sure he hasn't changed a bit. Which is something that I think it's fair to say is true of most people who worked at high levels for George W. Bush. As far as they're concerned, they were right all along, about everything. Rumsfeld thinks President Obama is going about this Syria thing all wrong, about which he could well be right, but how can anybody hear him offer opinions about that sort of thing and not remind themselves that he bore as much responsibility as anyone for what was probably the single greatest foreign-policy screw-up in American history? Anyhow, the real reason I mention Rummy is that Errol Morris has a new documentary about him coming out soon called The Unknown Known . Like Morris' The Fog of War , his film on Robert McNamara, it's basically a long interview with Rumsfeld. But unlike McNamara, Rumsfeld has no regrets. Watch this preview...

"Blue Jasmine" Another Black Mark

Woody Allen's new movie is the latest evidence of how superficial he is—and how his humor and New York sensibility have lured critics and filmgoers into overlooking his shallowness.

AP Images/Andrew Medichini
AP Images/Andrew Medichini T he new movie, Blue Jasmine, has been so wildly embraced by critics, while being so replete with its writer-director’s worst tendencies, that it provides the best example in years of Woody Allen’s status as America’s most overrated filmmaker. At the center of the picture is the calculatedly neurotic performance by the otherwise fine actress Cate Blanchett, who exhausts our patience within five minutes and, for having done so, has emerged as a front runner for the Academy Award; her Jasmine is the stranger next to you on a plane who never shuts up about herself and commandeers your attention without a clue or care that you might have a life too, since she decided long before she laid eyes on you that you exist for no reason but to enable her or advance her interests or, if need be, save her. She’s certainly not somebody in whose company you want to spend an hour and a half, even with a movie screen between you. Admirers of Blue Jasmine have characterized the...

Morally Compromised Art, on the Big Screen

A scene from the upcoming film of Ender's Game.
Look around the Internet at any list of the best science-fiction novels of all time, and Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game will be at or near the top (see here , here , or here ). Frankly, I've always thought it was a little overrated. A good book, certainly, but better than Dune or 1984 or the Foundation trilogy? Come on. In any case, Ender's Game was published in 1985, and it's finally reaching the screen this November, in a big-budget blockbuster starring Harrison Ford, among other people. As soon as the film was announced, people started advocating a boycott of the film because of Card's views about politics in general and same-sex marriage in particular. Card is not just an opponent of marriage equality, he used to be on the board of the National Organization for Marriage, the most prominent anti-marriage-equality organization. And his writings about politics aren't just conservative, they're positively unhinged, run through with the kind of venomous hatred for liberals in general...

More Than a Teenage Dream

The Spectacular Now recalls an era of films that dealt with a complicated adolescent existence.

AP Images/Matt Sayles
AP Images/Matt Sayles The Spectacular Now easily earns the epithet of teen film, a genre known more for its box-office potential than festival and critic buzz. It has all the makings of another superficial flick—sex, booze, a teenage soap star in a leading role, and a plot borrowed from young-adult literature. Yet as evidenced by the Grand Jury Prize it won at Sundance, the movie transcends these stereotypes and embraces the kind of realism in the 1980s’ “Brat Pack” films, many written and directed by the iconic John Hughes. By acknowledging that young-adult lives encompass more than school, parties, and puberty, Brat-Pack movies and their portrayal of disaffected youth boosted the teen film into a realm of emotionally resonant cinema that had cultural staying power. With a similar gritty authenticity and dynamic characters, as well as a novel rebuke of adolescent nostalgia, Spectacular presents a new model for the modern teen film. Spectacular , based on the book by Tim Tharp, opens...

Artificial Love

Like HAL, except way, way nicer.
Could you fall in love with Siri? OK, let's not say Siri in particular, since Siri is as dumb as a stump and doesn't understand anything you ask her. But what about a version of Siri that's a few generations away, one with not only better voice recognition but a real personality, one that learns and changes and gets to know you, one with which (whom?) you build a complicated relationship? Could you fall in love with that program? That's the question that Spike Jonze's new movie Her seems to be asking. Check out the trailer: Like most of Jonze's films, Her looks to be filled with longing and melancholy. And the possibility doesn't seem too far-fetched, both from the perspective of the software and our remarkable ability to imbue non-human things—both inanimate and otherwise—with human characteristics. After all, in Japan, there are men who have deep emotional relationships with pillows . Granted, that's absurd, but have you ever had a crush on a character in a television show? You know...

Zombies, Zombies Everywhere

How the video game The Last of Us fits into the growing catalog of post-apocalyptic media.

P iles of rubble. Slowly collapsing buildings. Dirty, desperate people. Monsters in human shape, either by choice or by disease. The symbols are common by now. The rising wave of post-apocalyptic stories is one of the dominant cultural stories of the past decade. There's The Walking Dead , which went from comics to television, or The Hunger Games and World War Z , novels adapted to film. More importantly, it looks like the apocalypse is here to stay. Post-apocalyptic isn't “in” just because a few films were popular and spawned more films, it's popular because stories from different mediums are both reinforcing one another and building from the same foundation. The beating heart of this cross-media obsession is, in my view, video games. Over the past decade, games have become an increasingly understood (if not always explicitly acknowledged) component of the media landscape, particularly as people who were raised with games begin to create their own art, or analyze it. 1 1 In this...

Not That Exciting

Pedro Almodovar's latest film, I'm So Excited! is less than thrilling but doesn't spell the end of the famed Spanish director. 

AP Images/Paola Ardizzoni/Emilio Pereda
AP Images/Paola Ardizzoni/Emilio Pereda I'm So Excited! might have made a good 15-minute sequence in one of Pedro Almodovar's bubbly movies of the '80s and early '90s, when he was more or less single-handedly putting Spanish cinema on the international map after the country's pivot from Francisco Franco's sclerotic reign to giddy (those were the days) democracy. Stretched out to feature length, the premise wears thin fast, not least because the execution is a tuckered-out facsimile of the director's youthful zest. I don't take any joy in confessing it, but it's the first time I've ever caught myself dozing off at an Almodovar film. Back in the cushy days when I used to catch his latest at Cannes, he was always a great cure for jet lag. Either that or Holding Pattern would be a better title for his latest than the one adopted by his English-language distributors. (The Spanish title is Los Amantes Pasajeros .) When fictional Peninsula Airlines' Flight 2549 to Mexico City develops a...

Last Day of a Young Black Man

Fruitvale Station's intimate portrait of Oscar Grant promises better days ahead for black film.

AP Images/Ron Koberer
T hree hours before the advance screening of Fruitvale Station I attended in Chicago, a line of eager fans snaked through the Cineplex. Many were dressed up, hair done right, faces beat. Writer and director Ryan Coogler and stars Octavia Spencer and Michael B. Jordan were on hand for a talkback after the screening. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, introducing the actors and the drama, which won the 2013 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, referred to the movie’s subject matter as “Trayvon Martin in real time” and led a vigorous call-and-response. There was a charge in the air, like the one I felt a month earlier at a crowded screening of the romantic comedy Peeples, written and directed by Tina Gordon Chism. During both screenings, attended by predominantly black audiences, the crowd laughed, nodded in the darkness, and, when each movie finished, offered sighs of contentment and effusive praise. At the end of Fruitvale Station, there were also tears. Contemporary black film is something of a...