Movie Review: ‘Maggie’

It’s pretty obvious that “Maggie,” an unusual zombie drama starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, is not your typical Hollywood blockbuster: The apocalyptic newscast that Schwarzenegger’s character is listening to as the film opens is not on broadcast television — or even CNN — but National Public Radio. As Schwarzenegger’s Wade Vogel drives down a deserted highway in his beat-up pickup truck, he hears the measured, decidedly unhistrionic words of the radio anchor setting up the film: A mysterious virus has led to an outbreak of the walking dead (or, as the NPR host puts it, “necro-ambulists”).

There are other differences between this film and most other zombie thrillers. The transformation from normal person to flesh-eating ghoul takes place not in seconds or minutes, but only after six to eight weeks. This gives Wade, a taciturn farmer, a lot of time to wrestle with his decision about what to do with his teenage daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin), who has recently been bitten, but so far shows no symptoms.

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His choices, as articulated by the country doctor (Jodie Moore) who examines Maggie, are threefold: Send her to a government quarantine camp, where she will (quite literally) rot; inject her with a drug cocktail that leads to a slow, painful death; or “make it quick.” For those wondering what the latter option means, Wade is shown dispatching a couple of neighbors who have turned into zombies with a hatchet.

Messy, but effective.

Wade can’t bring himself to pick either of the first two options. So he takes the advice of his wife (Joely Richardson), to enjoy the time they have with Maggie, even as he keeps his shotgun close at hand.

Though Wade does dispatch a handful of zombies over the course of the film, “Maggie” is more of a family drama than an action film. Directed by first-timer Henry Hobson, an English graphic designer who created the title sequences for such films as “Snow White and the Huntsman,” the movie has an artfully washed-out look, with sounds of distant, rumbling thunder repeatedly reminding us of Maggie’s impending doom. If Schwarzenegger at first looks out of place in an indie arthouse film, he quickly settles nicely into the role of an introspective, tortured dad. “Maggie” suggests that there may be an entirely new career ahead for the 67-year-old actor, who will soon age out of the action genre, if he hasn’t already.

The film suffers a bit for its slowness. But once you get used to the fact that this is not “World War Z,” it has its small pleasures, which are both cerebral and emotional. As Maggie sits around with her teenage friends, one of them (Bryce Romero) — who, like Maggie, is also infected — expresses the agony that families go through in deciding when and how to say goodbye to a loved one. “What would you do?” he asks. “What should my dad do to me?”

It’s not the weightiest dilemma to build a movie around, but it’s a darn good question.

★ ★ ½

PG-13. Contains grisly images, scary sequences and some coarse language. 95 minutes.

Book Review: ‘Last Days of the Condor’

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In 1974, at age 24, James Grady published “Six Days of the Condor,” his memorable tale of a young CIA agent running for his life from rogue elements of the spy agency. The novel, and the popular movie it became, embodied as well as any fiction of the era the disenchantment that millions felt after the horrors of Vietnam and Watergate. By the time the young Condor saw his lover gunned down on Capitol Hill and was transformed into an all-too-willing killer, the innocence of the Kennedy era was long gone, for him and for the multitudes who cheered his story.

Now, 41 years later, we have Grady’s wonderful “Last Days of the Condor,” the latest and perhaps last of his hero’s adventures. Like “Six Days,” this is essentially a chase novel, with the Condor again running from sinister forces within our government, but much else has changed. Though still not to be trusted, the government has evolved from the Watergate era to the present age of the national-security state. Grady’s talent has evolved, too. “Six Days” offered a fine, understated narrative, but now, after long experience with novels and screenplays, his style is far more loose, colorful, challenging and fun. Reading the novel, I sometimes thought of Orwell’s novel “1984,” sometimes of the Dylan song “Desolation Row.”

Condor has changed, too. After the events of the first novel, he returned to the CIA and became a legendary agent. (His original name is forgotten; his code name stuck.) But a few years back, surrounded by terrorists, he called in a drone strike on himself; his enemies perished and Condor survived, but his bosses had come to doubt his sanity, and he was banished to “the CIA’s secret insane asylum in Maine.”

As this novel opens, he has been released and is living on Capitol Hill. He has a make-work job at the Library of Congress and receives “home evaluation visits” from Homeland Security agents who make sure he’s behaving. One evening, he returns home and finds one of those agents dead in his living room. Condor knows that someone is out to frame him. He flees, and the chase begins.

Condor joins forces with one of his minders, an attractive young woman named Faye, a former CIA operative who is lethal with her Glock or her bare hands. Scores of shoot-to-kill agents are soon scouring the city for him, but Faye wants to bring him in alive. They team up with a woman Condor admires, tough-minded Merle, who at 53 is more age-appropriate for a hero who even on the run has time for romance.

Is romance appropriate in this context? Grady offers this cautionary exchange between Faye and her lover:

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Love isn’t lethal.”

“Sure it is.”

Grady finds time for a satirical look at the Homeland Security bureaucracy. Faye works at a “vast spy factory” on Wisconsin Avenue, one that “hums and crackles like Dr. Frankenstein’s Laboratory,” houses employees “of America’s sixteen officially admitted intelligence agencies” and invents such acronyms as PITS (Personnel In Transition Stations). As the absurdities pile up, Grady is clearly asking whether sanity can survive.

Condor and Faye’s efforts to evade their pursuers also enable Grady to paint a vivid picture of the city he has called home for years. He sets a gun battle in a station on the Red Line. As Condor and the women navigate Rock Creek Parkway, the author points out its charms. On the Hill, we glimpse Eastern Market, and Faye visits the venerable Tune Inn for a burger.

But Grady’s story is deadly serious. Watergate was a third-rate burglary, called forth by a paranoid president and executed by clowns. Here Grady confronts us with post-Patriot Act patriots who are blessed with a miraculous ability to transform illegality — torture, warrantless wiretapping, the highway robbery called “civil forfeiture” — into enlightened public policy. In Grady’s scenario, these people have also created a secret domestic spy agency with billions to spend and zero accountability, one that, in its haste to kill Condor, kills several innocent bystanders. Could such an agency exist in our government? Grady clearly thinks so.

When Condor confronts one of this agency’s leaders, once his lover, she shrugs off the collateral damage: “If we don’t do it, we’ll get it done to us.” When Faye protests the illegality to an even more senior official, he replies, “Illegal is a term of law decided by courts and presidential signatures.” So what are people like Condor and Faye to do? Fight a government out of control or stay and try to fix it? That’s the question Grady leaves us with in a novel that’s supremely entertaining and a sad, important look at the United States today.


By James Grady

Forge.  300 pp.  $25.99


My first thought on closing this compact volume was that Frank Bruni has written an important book for a pretty small number of people. He is speaking to young men and women competing to gain admission to Ivy League and other highly selective universities in America. He’s also speaking to their parents, guidance counselors, friends and teachers. Then I realized that his book also speaks to the culture of manufactured meritocracy — a culture of rankings and branding, of recruiting and rejection. When you begin pulling on the string of Bruni’s concerns, you find yourself tugging against the weight of current attitudes that are eating away at the soul of higher education in this country. In fact, he has written an important book for an audience much larger than would-be Ivy Leaguers.

The title sums up its core message nicely: “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.” Many talented high school students in this country receive exactly the opposite message. They are told to pack their résumés with activities that will impress admissions counselors; they are coached not to make any mistakes that might blemish their records; they are tutored and tutored and tutored so as to have every competitive advantage on high-stakes tests that are “standardized” in name only. It’s a dismal learning trajectory: The point of high school is to get into the college that rejects the highest percentage of its applicants; the point of college is to gain access to employers or graduate programs that turn away the greatest number of qualified candidates; the point of life is to have more of the stuff that other people are unable to acquire. What a sorry, soul-killing lesson this is: to value things only to the extent that other people are deprived of them.

Bruni tackles the roots of this lesson with example after example of successful, accomplished and happy people whose college experiences were far from the elite halls of Stanford or Harvard. Some of the most compelling stories are of people who had their hearts set on getting into some hyper-selective school. They checked all the boxes, had the grades, the great SAT scores, the community service. But still they were denied admission (because there just aren’t enough seats for all the highly qualified applicants). Actually, according to a study cited by Bruni, where you apply is more important with respect to success later in life than where you end up going. And often, he finds, it’s rejection by highly selective schools that turns out to be key to a person’s success. Learning to deal with rejection can be a much deeper lesson than figuring out how to fit into an elite institution that has granted you access. Bruni quotes star journalist Christiane Amanpour, a graduate of the University of Rhode Island: “I don’t think entitlement is good for a career.”

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But what families will do to gain that access! Bruni has horror stories of young people desperate to find a way to impress (or just be remembered by) admissions officers reading hundreds to thousands of applications: A kid who isn’t gay writes a coming-out story for his application essay to make it seem that he had overcome familial challenges; a group of students jokes about their increased chances for college admissions if a bus transporting class leaders crashes; a young girl tries to demonstrate how much she cares about ideas by writing on her application that she urinated on herself rather than interrupt a teacher. This last example gives new meaning to grit!

“Yearning and scheming have long been part of applying to colleges,” Bruni writes, “but they’ve turned into something darker.” He describes “a swell of panic, a surrender of principle, a spreading cynicism” that has crept into the race to get into the best schools.

But whoever came up with the idea that there is a best school? Some of Bruni’s most scathing pages confront the rankings systems, particularly that of U.S. News & World Report, whose listings have crept into the psyches of highly talented (and competitive) families. The magazine’s rankings encourage schools to spend more and more, thereby contributing to sharp increases in tuition. They also have prompted elite schools to pursue a perverse quest to reject more students: If you are more selective, you get points in the rankings. Some top schools spend buckets of money recruiting kids to apply just to be able to reject them.

Against this mania, Bruni provides telling examples of many different kinds of schools that proved to have been just right for students who went on to do great things after graduation. Those examples include large universities and small liberal arts colleges (and not just the usual suspects) — a number of them may not have even crossed the minds of many students and their parents. So many students come here from around the world, Bruni says, because America has “a plenitude and variety of settings for learning that are unrivaled.”

I should say that I teach at and am president of Wesleyan University, a highly selective liberal arts school, and although the author doesn’t write about my school in this book, he once interviewed me about my book on liberal education. I am also the father of a high school senior who has just come out of the admissions frenzy Bruni describes. The message she kept getting from peers was that she had to find the best (most selective) school possible. Calming her anxiety, her mother and I kept reinforcing the notion that there are many great schools out there right for her.

As an educator, I applaud Bruni’s advice to disregard the false rankings systems and recognize that hundreds of schools across the country offer fantastic opportunities for people eager to work and learn. As a father, I am grateful for his reminder of the importance of family for students: “something so much more essential and nourishing and lasting” than admission to a college — no matter how highly ranked.

Bruni is not writing here about struggling community colleges, or about burdensome student debt, or about the dramatic defunding of great public university systems. Instead, he is addressing young people who find themselves gauging their worth by their success in a manic admissions race that makes little sense. Bruni doesn’t want strong students to simply hone their skills for getting into a vaunted institution. He wants them to develop “robust and lasting energy for hard work,” to cultivate “an openness to serendipity,” and to find meaning and happiness in their families and communities.

In a world of frenetic arguments about the instrumental value of a college education, this is a humane, measured book. And in its authentic humanity, it has lessons for a very wide audience indeed.

~~  Michael S. Roth - President of Wesleyan University ~~

An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania

By Frank Bruni

Grand Central. 218 pp. $25

Mural by GSC Art Professor to Go Up in Buckhannon

GLENVILLE, WV - Liza Brenner, an Associate Professor of Art at Glenville State College, soon will have a large mural on display in Buckhannon, West Virginia.

The piece will be a much-enlarged version of one of Professor Brenner’s original artworks.

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This larger version, which will measure 10 feet tall by 25 feet wide, will be a lighted display on the side of a building on Traders Alley off of Main Street in the Upshur County town.

The mural is part of a project designed to bring art to public spaces called Art26201; the number being a nod to the town’s zip code.

Brenner says the idea for one of her paintings to be used first came about when she and Bryson VanNostrand, who is part of ‘Create Buckhannon’ and who serves as the main organizer for the art project, began discussing it.

In an interview with the Elkins Inter-Mountain newspaper Brenner talked about the mural’s subjects – monkeys. As Brenner puts it, “Some of my other paintings were similar and focused on technology and how we’re all turning into monkeys and also featured monkeys.“ The mural will feature a monkey riding a bike, one playing cards, and another hanging from a window with a camera.  Brenner explained, “With this one, I just wanted to do something fun. I love to ride my bike in town and I like monkeys. It’s really as simple as that.“

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Brenner, who lives in Buckhannon, has been a professor at GSC since 2007.  She received her Masters of Fine Arts in Painting in 2004 and a Masters of Art in Art Education in 2000, both from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. In addition to her courses, she serves as the Art Gallery Director at GSC.

Brenner’s art has been featured in galleries in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia, and elsewhere. She was invited to participate in an exhibit celebrating West Virginia’s sesquicentennial at the Huntington Museum of Art along with 17 other artists from Mountain State colleges and universities. In 2014 her ‘Liza Brenner: The Red and Blue Series’ show was featured at the West Virginia State University art gallery. Most recently she had pieces on display at the Gallery on 43rd Street in downtown Pittsburgh that were inspired from a trip to Italy where she attended a plein air workshop that focused on painting outdoors; that show wrapped up in April 2015.

Organizers say they hope to have Brenner’s mural installed within the next month.

For more information about her artwork or art programs at Glenville State College, contact Brenner at or 304.462.6346.

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