Europe on Five Characters a Day

Woody Allen's latest travelogue is sprightlier than you'd expect.

Starting with its generic title, predictably eclectic cast, and cornball opening tune ("Volare," for Pete's sake), To Rome With Love looks like it's going to be another of Woody Allen's paint-by-numbers late-life divertissements. Those picture-postcard settings? In the bag. Not to mention that loose ensemble of coatrack characters—which bauble of your genius will you hang on me, Woody?—among whom he can parcel out his latest idle thoughts on art, love, and fate while indulging his septuagenarian fascination with the mating habits of comely young people. And you know what? To a large extent, that's exactly what the movie is. Only it's sprightlier and more inventive than you'd expect. At any rate, Allen does seem to be in an unusually genial if not downright perky frame of mind. He gives whimsy its due without either nudging us to remember he's too good for it or reminding us of how bad he can be when he's doing it on automatic pilot. It's a boon that the story's four strands never do...

Pixar's Take on Kafka

Brave tackles the Scottish countryside and family tensions in a poignant—if slightly by-the-books—way.

(AP Photo/Disney/Pixar)
He that hath children hath given hostages to Disney, as Francis Bacon would no doubt have put it if he'd lived in our time. That's why the latest reason I'm glad little Thomasina Carson doesn't exist—there are many, and Justin Bieber's existence is the least of them—is the woe I'd feel at watching her innocently toddle off to see Brave. It's not that the movie's bad, understand. After a shaky start and despite some later missteps, it turns into one of Pixar's best, and definitely one of the most surprising. In the wake of, among others, Up and Wall-E— well, the latter's first half, anyway—presumably we can all agree that's no trivial claim. But the movie's power is due to a certain Big Transformation of a major character midway through that, like my colleagues, I have to wrestle with divulging or not—even though, as my pal Glenn Kenny of MSN grumped , the whole world will know about it by the weekend. (It's already in the movie's plot summary on Wikipedia, making critics' good manners...

The Blander Bush

HBO's 41 asks none of the hard questions about George H.W. Bush's uninspired career

(Wikimedia/Reagan Library Archives)
P remiering tonight on the channel that just got through bringing us Season Two of Game of Thrones —believe me, you'll miss its brute realism— 41 couldn't be a tenderer, more wart-free portrait of George H.W. Bush if one of his grandkids had put it together for a private screening on Poppy's 88th birthday. Which was, as it happens, Tuesday, and many happy returns. But that's no excuse for HBO to air nominal documentarian Jeffrey Roth's (who is he, you ask? Beats me.) feature-length Hallmark card. There's a place for valedictories this thoroughly pablumized. Namely, presidential libraries, one venue where even mediocre ex-Chief Executives are allowed to appear in a cloud-cuckoo-land that stays unmarred by anything less than awe at their wonderfulness. But since those who don't learn from the History Channel are doomed to reruns, or however that saying goes, I'm concerned the HBO brand may give today's youngsters the wrong idea. Few people would dispute that Bush the elder has gained a...

Math is Hard v. I Wanna Be an Engineer!

We've all been hearing that the U.S. future depends on developing more technological talent, so we can keep up with China, et al . And since half the country's potential talent pool is female, that means making sure girls don't end up as innumerate as I am. Both my parents were math majors. My mother took on math with a fury when she was told, in first grade, that girls weren't good at it: She loved it with a passion and was determined to beat every boy at it, which she did, until she met my dad, whom she therefore married. And so she laments the fact that her two daughters absolutely, mulishly refused to study math beyond junior high. God knows they tried to make us, but we balked. We were idiots. Were we held back, unlike our mother, by " stereotype threat "? You know this idea, well-established by researchers since Claude Steele introduced the concept in the 1990s. When students (or anyone, really) from a particular group are reminded about a cultural trope about their group's...

Crazy and Crazier

Fear this baby, America!
In the last few years, many different kinds of communication technologies have been democratized. For instance, up until not too long ago, making a film that didn't look amateurish was impossible without a whole bunch of equipment whose expense made it out of reach for almost everyone, not to mention the technical expertise required. But today, you can buy a professional-quality HD video camera for a couple thousand dollars and video editing software like Apple's Final Cut Pro for a couple hundred, and presto, you can make what looks to be a "real" movie. That means that a kid with a dream to be the next Steven Spielberg can see that dream realized. It also means that a crazy person with a conspiracy theory can see his dream realized. Which brings us to two new movie previews for anti-Obama films that, when you look at them, seem remarkably like "real" movies. The first, called "2016," is based on Dinesh D'Souza's nutty book "The Roots of Obama's Rage." It explains how Barack Obama is...

What the F@%& Is Up With Stephen King?

When I was a kid, I was plagued by nightmares. One scary TV show, and boom, I'd wake up paralyzed with terror after a night in which animal-headed people tried to kill me all night, or Nazis pursued me through the streets of New York. After awhile, my little brothers knew to protectively chase me away from the television if something even faintly Hitchcockian came on; while they'd watch, I'd hunker down in my bedroom with Anne of Green Gables or, later, Tolstoy. My basic aversion to, or caution about, horror movies and scary books lasted well into my adulthood, until I learned how to tune down the fear and sleep through the night. But horror is a taste that I've never fully developed. All of which is to say that I haven't ever been a Stephen King reader or viewer—until yesterday, when he jumped on the Warren Buffett bandwagon with his Daily Beast blast, "Tax Me, For F@%&’s Sake!" Here's the gist: At a rally in Florida (to support collective bargaining and to express the socialist...

The Madwoman in the Attic

Awhile back, I wasted an evening watching the 2011 film version of Jane Eyre , something that every former lit major should avoid. I loved the novel for its depiction of the vivid, rich inner life of a proud introvert who is passionately engaged in her life despite the fact that she knows it to be outwardly pathetic. The movie, unable to reproduce the character's inner liveliness, reduced the story to a melodramatic and utterly unlikely romance between a poor orphan and an arrogant nobleman. I had wasted marital chits on a movie that I hated as much as my wife knew she would. (Sports movies, here we come. Sigh.) Watching the movie sent me back to Jean Rhys’s astonishing Wide Sargasso Sea , which I remembered as an imagining of Bertha Rochester’s backstory, asking how, exactly, did the madwoman in the attic get there to begin with? I’ve lately been stripping my bookshelves, getting rid of novels I know I won’t read again, like Rhys’s earlier sharply drawn portraits of women I have no...

Stacked Decks

The Titanic’s surprisingly timely centenary

Copyright Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images
Is it callous to call the Titanic ’s sinking everybody’s favorite disaster? No doubt, but you know what I mean. Considering how oodles of the tragic minutiae no buff can do without bump up against the climax’s unknowns, April 15, 1912, is like an ideal cross between the assassination of JFK and the Alamo. The unprovoked attack on a blameless iceberg by the pride of the White Star Line is far from the worst maritime disaster on record. It’s dwarfed in loss of life by the 1945 torpedoing of the Nazi leisure tub turned refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff . Only three years after the Titanic ’s demise, the Lusitania ’s sinking in 1915 had more historical consequence, rallying neutral America against the Huns and dangling the temptation of playing world policeman. For resonance and romance, though, there’s no contest. On a bitterly cold night 100 years ago, modern civilization didn’t just say goodbye to more than 1,500 boosters. It gained an industry. Now that the centenary is here, Titanic--...

Judges as Defendants, Directors as Judges

The Law in These Parts asks tough questions about the role of the courts in Israeli settlement policy.

Praxis Films
This time, it seems, justice has won: The West Bank settlement outpost of Migron must be demolished. So ruled the Israeli Supreme Court this week. Migron is the best known of the outposts, small settlements set up across the West Bank since the '90s with the help of Israeli government agencies—but without the government approval required under Israeli law since official approval would drawn too much publicity. The outpost stands entirely on privately owned Palestinian property. The landowners, with the help of Israel's Peace Now movement, went to court in 2006. In this week's decision, the court rejected a government proposal to put off evacuating the settlers for three years until new homes could be built for them elsewhere. The ruling blasts the proposal as "egregiously unreasonable" in light of the "grievous and ongoing harm to the rule of law." Prima facie, the court upheld the rights of Palestinians over the government's fear of enforcing the law against settlers. The Israeli...

Someone's Lucky Day

Since the Mega Millions jackpot is now at a record $540 million, I thought it'd be a good time to link back to an interview I did in 2010 with the brilliant filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz, whom you may know from his Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound , or his excellent feature film Rocket Science . I interviewed him about his film Lucky , which offers portraits of lottery winners to see how their lives changed after coming in to millions of dollars. The film doesn't offer simple answers to the questions it poses, but overall it's not a pretty picture. Here's an excerpt: You have one subject who had his siblings put a hit out on him (unsuccessful, I should note). Were there any other depths of human depravity this subject exposed that surprised you? That was a winner named Buddy who, indeed, had his siblings try to kill him. Once was through a hit man. Buddy also told us that the bolts were taken out of his car and that he was given arsenic twice. And while this gives the movie some...

A Life Without Compromise

(Flickr/Zoran Veselinovic)
Thanks to a nasty bug last week, I'm still emptying my South by Southwest notebook. A documentary about a musician's fall is sure to be particularly powerful stuff at a festival known largely for launching bands to stardom. Perhaps that's part of what made Beware of Mr. Baker such a favorite at South by Southwest, where it won the coveted Grand Jury Award. The documentary, after all, tells the tale of talented, rakish drummer Ginger Baker, who has finally become old, sitting at home in South Africa, low on cash, short on friends, and far removed from his heyday. The documentary is in many ways a straightforward, chronological narrative of Baker's life, largely based around interviews with those who have known or been influenced by the drummer. For those of us lacking in a strong background of rock history, the film does an excellent job establishing Baker's unique talent in a context. Jay Bulger, the movie's director and writer, seemed to have found just about every famous drummer in...

Lost Opportunities

(AP Photo / Moviestore / Rex Features)
Unlike the last young adult sensation, Twilight , The Hunger Games is actually easy to understand for those who missed the initial hype. The novel, by Suzanne Collins, takes place in a future, post-apocalyptic North America, where war and ecological disaster have left the population under the control of a totalitarian government. To maintain order, the leaders of Panem—from the Latin panem et circenses , or bread and circuses—have instituted an annual contest, where 24 young people ("tributes") are chosen from each of the twelve districts, and forced to fight to the death in a contest that is some combination of Lord of the Flies, The Most Dangerous Game , and the cult Japanese film Battle Royale . The genius of the book was that it combined a familiar plot device—kids sent in a strange place and left to fend for themselves through any means necessary—with a scathing critique of reality show culture, an examination of class, and the question of personal versus political obligations...

Hell's Belles

Tracking the teen heroines of the new dystopian thrillers

(Photo courtesy of Scholastic)
L ike the flu virus, the genre of dystopic novels for young adults has many strains. The one featuring a teenage girl battling for her life got a massive boost in the fall of 2008, when the first volume of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy was published. Collins’s franchise has more than 23.5 million books in print and a movie adaptation due out next week, while new entries in the genre keep pouring forth, eagerly welcomed by fans and Hollywood. Why have readers been so drawn to catastrophic futures when the present seems troubled enough? Why are young heroines thrust into ruined worlds and then routinely hunted, harassed, or beaten into unconsciousness? A New York Times forum on the grim dystopia boom featured one novelist in the genre asserting that teens in our mismanaged times are demanding to read “something that isn’t a lie.” Writing on the phenomenon in The New Yorker , critic Laura Miller wondered if the authoritarian societies that dominate the trend are analogues to...

A Nightstick Turned into a Song

Two new books and a documentary cue up the soundtrack of the black-power movement.

(Courtesy of Louverture Films)
I n January, President Barack Obama made his singing debut on the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater. During a campaign fundraising speech, he leaned into the microphone, gently slid his State of the Union baritone up to a whispery falsetto, and nailed the opening line from “Let’s Stay Together,” the Al Green soul classic that has melted hearts and warmed sheets since its release in 1971. “I-I-I-I, I’m so in love with you,” Obama cooed. The video of his impromptu performance has logged more than four million views, and the song has become an unofficial re-election theme. Obama’s rendition is available as a ringtone; inevitably, Green showed up to sing it at an event in February. Yet the power of the clipped cover version was its resurrection of the ghosts of Obamas past. The serenade was a reminder not just of the subtle swagger that found Obama brushing the dirt off his shoulders à la Jay-Z back in 2008 but also of a tradition of civil rights–era black culture and politics that Obama...

McCain's Oops Moment

Nothing quite so aptly conveys the charade of practiced authenticity in our national politics as the four-star hotel room on a long-slog campaign run—a mess of tasseled drapes, ample sofas, and crisp white sheets all straining in hollow imitation of home. In what is one of the many huddles in hotel rooms such as this in HBO’s Game Change , which premiers this Saturday, March 10 on HBO, an (initially) pants-less John McCain, played by Ed Harris, talks with his senior campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) and campaign manager Rick Davis (the whiny-voiced Peter MacNicol of Ally McBeal fame) about the possibility of bringing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin onto the GOP ticket. To allay his candidate’s fears that the choice might be “too outside the box,” Schmidt lays out his reasoning, and coincidentally, the theme of the film: Sir, we live in the age of YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle. How else do you think a man who has absolutely no major life accomplishments is beating...