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Book Review: Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide

Maltin2015MovieGuidefinalThis is the last edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which is available tomorrow in both mass market and trade paperback (click on the book jacket image to buy it on Amazon).

The reference book is an excellent resource. Each motion picture is entered alphabetically in boldface, in fine print, with parenthetical year of release, an indication if the movie’s in color, running time, director and cast and whether it’s on DVD or other home entertainment formats. The Movie Guide, which film scholar Maltin tells me is compiled and cross referenced by a staff of 20 or more, also includes trade association ratings and awards information (which don’t mean much to me). A plot and key character synopsis is bundled with a few words of opinion, accompanied by a star evaluation, about the picture. The final edition of Maltin’s Movie Guide includes an author’s introduction and guide to symbols.

Leonard Maltin (read my 2011 interview here and last week’s interview here) is an extremely knowledgeable source for movies, especially Disney movies, and Hollywood history. At age 63, he still writes books and posts for his Web site, teaches at University of Southern California’s film school and does regular media appearances. His work is fact-based and detail-oriented. The best part of his Movie Guide is its ability to identify and address popular and essential aspects of a movie and its legacy. Occasionally, though not often, an insight comes through which has not previously been named elsewhere by other writers. Maltin primarily deals here as a reporter of facts, whatever one thinks of his conclusions about movies, and his attention to what’s essential about a movie and accuracy is impeccable, especially when compared to today’s sloppy online copy-editing and pathetic lack of proofreading. As a movie journalist, I never rely on movie Web sites alone (if at all) for information. Maltin’s Movie Guide is best for crucial research and cross referencing.

The final 2015 edition is no exception. Though reviews tend to be conformist and he generally likes what most critics like, and scorns what most critics scorn, his analysis is always thoughtful and comprehensive. This handy volume is essential for anyone who cares about movies – watching, enjoying and studying them – and it is evident that he takes movies seriously. Too many regard movies as a cavalier, unserious indulgence or, alternately, as inscrutable works of art. Leonard Maltin, whose best work I hope is yet to come, understands that movies have the potential to be powerful and are meant for general audiences all over the world. His Movie Guide, with over 15,000 entries (13,000 on DVD), is the movie industry’s most definitive yet accessible expression of this wonderful truth about movies.

Movie Review: The Giver

Giver posterThe Giver doesn’t generate enough tension and conflict to sufficiently recreate a collectivist dystopia against which to rebel. This is too bad, because the film is poetic, elegiac and at times subtle and moving in a secular and spiritual way. This is also too bad because art in the West desperately needs to ignite the passions of the youngest minds to defy conformity and resist the rise of statism.

The Giver is too timid to light the match, though it does enlighten and inspire if you know what to look for. But you have to know in advance. Otherwise it’s just a picture show with pretty words and people.

What a show. Beautifully filmed in black and white and based on the novel by Lois Lowry, with surges of color that bring the theme to life, The Giver, directed by Philip Noyce, gives the audience its strict collectivist dystopia straight with lines about pure egalitarianism – all people are treated as equal in all aspects regardless of differences and ability – and the goal of a total, government-controlled life. From birth to death, the government dictates every aspect of one’s existence. With Meryl Streep as a matriarch in limp strands of gray hair with bangs, it’s like watching a withered old white woman doing a version of preachy Michelle Obama dictating what food to eat and nagging that you didn’t build that; the collective did.

The collective reigns supreme over the individual in this sterile, bright future, which of course means certain clusters of power-lusters control everyone else, so that even on high school graduation day, when the trio of friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan), Fiona (Odeya Rush) and heroic Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) are commanded by the state to submit to their assigned vocations ala Anthem by Ayn Rand, as Big Mother (Streep) coos like it’s a guitar mass with kumbaya that “today we honor differences” and really means that We the Ordained dictate what those differences shall be. Watching The Giver is like seeing ObamaCare dramatized – the state dictating winners and losers while denouncing winning and losing – and in this sense it’s fabulously clever filmmaking.

It really is. With deliberation in every scene, the fresh-faced youths bound forth in life with enthusiasm and idealism, eager to live large what they’ve been taught are the four virtues: intelligence, integrity, courage and “the capacity to see beyond [the range of the moment]”. In fact, these are virtues though the kids soon discover that the Female Deity they worship defines each by a standard which may or may not match their own. The ultimate goal of the post-climate controlled society is to fit each individual into the collective. Everyone, it appears, must submit to the group. This means no expressing emotions, no public displays of preference, no identities for infants of questionable value to the greater good – especially males, apparently – it’s a sexless feminist-Puritanical totalitarian regime. There’s no kissing, but at least there’s no porn and nobody’s obese.

Enter masculine, upright Jonas, whose assigned vocation is somewhat murky as the Receiver. The more he learns, at the hands of master Jeff Bridges as the Giver of memories, the more he wants to sense, to experience and to think, know and feel. Of course, with everyone including his mother (Katie Holmes) chanting “we forgive you” like it’s Jonestown, Guyana, and his own friends reminding him that “we need sameness”, the urge to think different poses a problem.

With powerful scenes and images of winter, joyous people in harmony – as against vacant people bound by force – and an image of the lone man who stood against a government tank in Communist China’s Tiananmen Square, the ethereal movie with its conflicted love triangle evokes Gattaca and, faintly, We the Living. As each of the three pure-minded youths faces the choice to sink into submission or rise to defiance, ultimately with Bridges as the Giver and Streep as the Taker of life, The Giver stirs the wise old soul to a knowing, bitter and almost breathtaking resolution.

But unlike its protege, it requires foreknowledge of what a society based on total state control means and it is too vague and unspecific in its beautifully rendered affirmations, which unfortunately include faith as a kind of innocent belief in the good, even though the tyranny of conformity depicted is impossible without widespread submission to belief without evidence. The three young leads are exquisite in their roles (especially Thwaites) and The Giver‘s allegory is a reward, with a well-integrated theme about doubt – Jonas asks “how do I know…?” and eventually the girl assigned as his younger sister stares ahead to no one in particular in open church and dares to ask “how do they know…?” – with lines of real affirmative power always emphasizing the role of free will, free choice and the individual’s right to assert it. The role of a single baby boy, too, the antithesis of what this monstrous anti-life feminist dystopia represents, is crucial and joyful at times to behold.

It is also impossible not to notice in The Giver, and this is one of my favorite aspects of Noyce’s poetic approach to the adaptation, that solitude is treated as sacred to man’s existence. That this comes in conjunction with a man’s unconquered delight at nurturing a child is a rare sight in today’s movies. It’s not enough to give The Giver what it needs the most: an explicit depiction of what the collective does to those who deviate from dictatorship. Still, it’s worth a look for individualists who know better and think ahead.


New Articles on New Trier’s Experiment

“You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.” — O’Brien, 1984 by George Orwell

1984It is with irony that this quote from Orwell’s classic novel comes to mind. I recently wrote for a suburban Chicago publication about what was for me a painful, if mercifully brief, modern education experience during my youth. It was a high school within a high school called the Center for Self-Directed Learning, part of a New Left educational movement that sprouted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Center, as it was known, occupied New Trier’s room 101.

The former study hall had been converted in 1972 into the place where 600 students, including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R, IL) and actress Virginia Madsen, would enter and exit during the course of their high school studies. The Center existed for 10 years without grades, teaching or classes. I recently interviewed the school’s co-founder, Arline Paul (read the interview here), the only New Trier faculty member to serve during the Center’s entire existence. Mrs. Paul, who had taught me political science in the traditional high school, was assigned as my “facilitator”, and she was kind enough to grant me an interview for the local newspaper. I asked tough questions and she answered them. It is interesting to go back and revisit high school as a journalist covering this radical experiment. I also reviewed the book of faculty and student memoirs she co-edited (read the review here). I wanted to provide a clear, factual account of this example of modern education.

My overall experience in government-sponsored education was atrocious. It was so bad that the quote from Orwell’s 1984 – which, ironically, I read while enrolled as a student in the Center – strikes me as an apt prelude for these articles about the Center. I’ve already heard from one reader who defends the whim-based approach to education. I have also heard from another reader. He tells me that he is young and that he, too, experienced the ravages of today’s modern, anti-conceptual education. He wrote to tell me that, after reading what I reported about the widely acclaimed New Trier, he thinks that his experience was worse. This is what I hope to counter. This is why I wrote these pieces, which I intend as an honest report and review of the facts of modern education.

Book Review: Shane by Jack Schaefer

ShanejacketPublished in 1949, Shane by Jack Schaefer is an uneven but irresistible Western about a boy’s coming of age. With elements of hero worship, the short novel is narrated in retrospect by a Wyoming homesteader’s son named Bob, an only child whose parents take kindly to a dark stranger with a mysterious past.

The child describes Shane as possessing “a kind of magnificence”: “He rode easily, relaxed in the saddle, leaning his weight lazily into the stirrups. Yet even in this easiness was a suggestion of tension. It was the easiness of a coiled spring, a trap set.” When Shane agrees to stay on the farm and whacks at a stubborn old tree stump as he bonds with Bob’s father, Joe Starrett, amid a looming property dispute with a bullying cattle driver, the boy’s mother questions whether any of this is good for the family, including the boy and especially Shane, whom she and everyone falls for in a way.

It’s all there in Schaefer’s clipped prose. Even the kid is aware that, for all the mastery, fancy duds and shiny gun, “it puzzled me that a man so deep and vital in his own being, so ready to respond to father, should be riding a lone trail out of a closed and guarded past.” Tension builds as the cattleman villain, who seeks government contracts, taunts and baits Shane into a confrontation that envelops the whole town. As Joe watches over his property, the wife worries, the kid snoops and the cowboys, townies and homesteaders take up sides. The loner contemplates whether taking on the villain is worth being thrown off his own trail.

As the narrative alternates between life at home with Shane and the parents and the gathering storm, suspense builds and the boy learns life lessons from the man he idolizes. That Shane is portrayed as a better man than Bob’s father complicates and limits the story and makes it too elusive to have a lasting impact but there is good writing here. “Listen, Bob,” Shane tells the kid one day. “A gun is just a tool. No better no worse than any other tool, a shovel — or an axe or a saddle or stove or anything. Think of it always that way. The gun is as good – and as bad – as the man who carries it. Remember that.”

Schaefer interjects Shane into the Starrett family with aplomb and the result is a complex portrayal of a young Western family at the mercy of a stranger, which is what makes Shane a rare psychological mystery about how he impacts the boy, the Starretts and the town, which is “still not much more than the roadside settlement”. The character, portrayed by Alan Ladd in the 1953 motion picture version, is so remote as to render the plot almost surrealistic, though when he lets loose, Shane comes into focus. “And then the summer was over,” Schaefer writes in a plain, evocative transition. “School began again and the days were growing shorter and the first cutting edge of cold was creeping down from the mountains.” The way out West stays and lingers in Shane, culminating in a conflict that shapes a landscape, a family and a man and, mostly, delivers a simple campfire story that’s well told.

Book Review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum

WWOOzIn the introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by W. W. Denslow, the Chicago author writes that he aspires to create a “modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.” Since it was published in 1900, his Oz stories, and this one in particular, have earned an enduring literary and cinematic legacy. Whether Baum achieves his goal is open to debate. But his main character, Dorothy, embodies the virtue of loyalty to herself in this coming of age tale about developing good character as the essence of adulthood.

Not that Baum had that in mind or even explicitly identifies the theme in his short children’s novel (I read the Signet Classic edition). But that’s what his fairy tale means, with Dorothy, who lives “in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife”, as the child on the brink of becoming an adult. As in MGM’s classic 1939 musical, her loyalty to herself is often displayed through her fierce protection of her smart and scrappy little dog, Toto.

The fantasy’s three wise men, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, carry the action throughout the strange, dark world of Oz. Baum’s original tale is less fanciful than the film, of course, without music and Technicolor and with the Wicked Witch of the West relegated to a single short section toward the end of the story. Here, unlike the film, the witch does not track the quartet with a crystal ball; their misfortunes and challenges arise organically most of the time. This allows for the depth of characterization that comes from a resourceful trio that each already embody the qualities they seek.

For example, Scarecrow confides to Dorothy that, with his head filled with straw, he wonders: “how am I ever to know anything?” The Tin Man, among the most developed characters, tells her that when he was a woodsman, he fell deeply in love with a Munchkin girl that lived with an old woman who “was so lazy she wished the girl to remain with her and do the cooking and the housework.” Intent upon stopping their union, the old woman enlists the Wicked Witch, who keeps cutting off the man’s body parts until his whole body is made of tin. But he keeps coming back until, finally, the girl cannot return the love of the one who is no longer the man with whom she fell in love. One day, it rains and he is left without his oilcan to rust in the woods. As the Tin Man tells Dorothy: “It was a terrible thing to undergo, but during the year I stood there I had time to think that the greatest loss I had known was the loss of my heart. While I was in love I was the happiest man on earth…”

The Cowardly Lion, too, considers himself deficient in certain ways while struggling to find courage. Each of the three represents the three basic literary conflicts; Scarecrow, who through no fault of his own is born without a brain, represents man versus nature; Tin Man, who is decapitated by an old woman’s wicked accomplice, represents man versus man and the Cowardly Lion, who goes after little dogs to mask his own fear, represents man versus himself. With Oz as the place to get mystical resolution, each eventually discovers that there is no such thing. Instead, they learn that it’s a hard life and that they will have to achieve their fullest virtues in action and earn their way to a joyful life. As the wizard, who is flawed but kind, tells Dorothy, “everyone must pay for everything he gets. Help me and I will help you.”

For her part, the witch is cruel. When she learns that the girl whose house landed on and killed her sister is traveling with an entourage, she tells a pack of uber-wolves: “Go to those people and tear them to pieces.” The witch is both magical and evil but her powers are less than omnipotent and, as a villain, she is an ultimately small and insignificant slavemistress. The violence depicted is jarring and the subtext of a modern girl trying to make sense of the world around her is compelling, and, if Baum’s story remains unusual, dark and strange, it is also engrossing and still relevant over 100 years after it was published. The theme of making one’s own character in a cruel yet beautiful world remains a striking piece of fiction, especially for a character that’s a girl. At one point, take-charge Dorothy, whose journey in Oz differs in significant ways from the MGM film adaptation, steps up and plainly asks: “Can you straighten out those dents in the tin Woodman, and bend him back into shape again, and solder him together where he is broken?” This can-do Midwestern spirit permeates a classic American children’s tale.