Crazy Rich Asians: Movie Review

Ten minutes in, I realized that I had misunderstood the title. Crazy Rich Asians does not mean ‘Asians who are both Crazy and Rich.’ It means, Asians that are Crazy Rich. Very rich, extremely rich, super rich. I like that better. It’s not trashing Asians, calling them (or at least some of them) deranged. It’s saying ‘it’s crazy how rich these people are.’

In most respects, Crazy Rich Asians is a rom-com. It’s actually a fairly conventional one; built around an attractive young couple, who we root for to find Troo Luv in each other’s arms. It has many of the romantic comedy plot points. There’s the rush to the airport (implied, in this case, but still) by one member of the loving couple, to rescue the relationship in the nick of time. It has wise advice from the Gay Best Friend. Meanwhile, it bases the comedy on something other than the happy (then unhappy, but ultimately happy) couple, usually the funniest bits involving their best friends and/or eccentric family members. It’s just set in modern Asian culture, or a subset thereof. Asian culture, though one in which essentially all the characters have Western names, have studied at Cambridge or Yale, love Western pop music, and speak English, dipping only occasionally into Chinese. If you like romcoms, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t like this one.

In fact, you’ve seen it before. The main factors preventing the couple from uniting are basically class and family–class-based family expectations. Set it in modern England, and He’s from an aristocratic family, and She’s from the London East Side; same movie. Regency England: it’s Pride and Prejudice. Set it in LA, and it’s Clueless. New York? Maid in Manhattan. Make the girl a hooker, and it’s Pretty Woman. Remember Arthur? 1981, Dudley Moore, John Gielgud, Liza Minelli? This movie is basically Arthur.

But there are, of course, subtle differences between All Other Romcoms Ever and this one, just as there are always differences between various movies in any genres, and those differences make the difference, between a terrific movie and a pedestrian one, or even a super-creepy one. (While You Were Sleeping, anyone?) Crazy Rich Asians is top-of-the-line.

Here’s why. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), is an economics professor at NYU. Newly minted, we presume, because she’s young for a PhD, and certainly pre-tenure, but an academic hotshot, specializing in game theory. She’s a confident, capable, sensible and successful professional woman, with a career she loves and is good at. Her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), is good looking, charming, and in love with her. None of that changes for either of them over the course of the movie. At the beginning of the movie, they’re a happy couple in love, and at the end of the movie, they’re still a happy couple in love. Their breakup (and of course they break up, it’s a romantic comedy) does not involve either of them meeting someone else, or anything silly like that. Rachel, if she loses Nick, will go back to New York, teach again, and presumably put her life back together. She wants to marry him, and will if nothing intervenes. But something does intervene, and there’s (momentary) trouble in paradise. Which she will survive.  I love that.

And trouble is inevitable, because there are things about Nick Rachel initially does not know. One is: he’s rich. Crazy rich. He’s the scion of a crazy rich Asian family living in Singapore, but with business interests everywhere. His Dad, who we never meet, is, we’re told, in Shanghai putting together a business deal. In the first scene of the movie, Nick’s just a little kid when his Mom, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is refused service in a swanky London hotel in which she has a reservation. She responds by buying the hotel. So they own a hotel. Rachel doesn’t know any of that. She has been dating Nick for a year, and knows he is, in his words “comfortable.” She doesn’t realize what that means.

Nick’s best friend Colin (Chris Pang) is getting married in Singapore, and Nick invites Rachel to join him, and meet his family. And she has an inkling what that implies, and what it might mean to their relationship, and decides to go for it. And then is taken aback when they board their commercial jet, and sit, not in economy, and not in first class, but in a private hotel-suite-like compartment with beds. Nick is, in fact, crazy rich. And this trip is going to be an adventure.

One draw for Rachel is that Singapore is where her good friend, Peik Lin (Awkwafina) lives, a long limbed, awkward, fashion-sense-deprived gamin who was easily the most charming and fun character in the film. And Peik Lin catches her up on all the Young family background.

See, Eleanor, the Mom, wants Nick to come home to Singapore, and run the family business. Dad (not present in the movie, but very much in everyone’s thoughts), has been running himself ragged, and it’s time for the next generation to begin to take up the slack. And, aside from Nick, they’re mostly not up to the task.

And then we meet them, and boy howdy. There’s the slimy Wye Mun (Ken Jeong, at his smarmiest), sex-obsessed and creepy. There’s party animal Bernard, (Jimmy Yang), who clearly must never be allowed to run anything. There’s Eddie (Ronnie Chieng) an obnoxious petty tyrant, who chews out his children because they’re only attractive enough for Chinese Vogue, not American Vogue. There’s talentless filmmaker wannabe Alistair (Eddie Hii). And more substantively, there’s the melancholy fashion icon Astrid (Gemma Chan), married to Michael (Pierre Png). She’s a model and designer, and rich on her own; Michael is a former soldier, with no money of his own, starting his own company. Astrid and Michael form an interesting contrast with Rachel and Nick, which I will discuss in a sec.

With the exception of Astrid, all these characters are comic relief. They’re in the movie to satirize a new class of Asian nouveau riche, avatars of conspicuous consumption. Rachel would have studied Veblen in grad school, and the movie invites us to see these rich idiots through Rachel’s eyes, almost anthropologically, certainly objectively, as the film’s buffoons. Look at the actors playing them–Ken Jeong, Ronnie Chieng, Jimmy Yang. American/Asian comedians, with movie careers type-cast as various Asian stereotypes. This movie’s use of them suggests that successful Asians regard them much as American producers do, as clownish. It’s a little discomfitting, but they’re all gifted comedians, and the checks all cleared–they were undoubtedly happy for the work.

A more substantive critique, though, comes from Eleanor. She opposes any marriage between Rachel and Nick, and although she’s clearly the villain of the piece, her reasoning gave me pause, because she’s not wrong, and the movie clearly thinks so too. Eleanor thinks that Asian culture (particularly Chinese culture), understands the concept of family very differently than American culture does. Americans ultimately believe in self-fulfillment, in Family as something that enables and supports children to pursue their own ideas of what will make them happy. Chinese culture, on the other hand, puts Family first, always. The wants and needs of individual family members are immaterial. What’s important are the needs of the Family. And Eleanor looks at all the cousin/relative extended family members there in Singapore, and sees ne-er-do-wells and wastrels using family money to pursue their own lives, and making a frightful mess of it. (We spend quite a bit of time at various Singapore parties, and never, not for one second, do any of them look fun).  And Nick, steady, bright, responsible, thoughtful Nick is her son. He’s the one to restore the family, to save it. And while she rather likes Rachel (or at least respects her), Rachel’s an American, with a career in New York that she loves. She will not give that up for Nick, to live in Singapore and raise their children traditionally. Even if she does, she’ll resent it. So no to the marriage. Can’t happen.

She’s wrong-ish in the world of the movie. After all, we like Nick and Rachel, both individually and as a couple together, and we’re rooting for that to happen. But the movie focuses nearly-equal attention to Astrid and Michael’s marriage, which, over the course of the movie, falls apart. They couldn’t make it work, because Michael does NOT put family first. He puts his business ahead of her, and ends up having an affair. And yes, the fact that she has all the money and he has none is a factor. Which will also be the case for Nick and Rachel. He’s crazy rich, and she’s a college professor. Which is a good income, and a great life. But not one likely to make you a billionaire.

I love that about the movie. Eleanor is a wonderful character (and wonderfully played by Yeoh), precisely because she’s simultaneously terribly, hurtfully wrong, and also right. And while the movie does satirize crazy rich Asian culture, it does so lovingly. Singapore is lovely, and the food they’re constantly being served is amazing looking.

Rachel gives up Nick, turns down his marriage proposal, because she can’t bear the thought of him losing his family. She then explains why through a wonderfully unexplained game of mahjong she plays with Eleanor. (If you see the movie, it may not make much sense to you; this explainer helps.) Eleanor then responds by giving the marriage her blessing. And Nick makes it to the airport in time to propose. Like in every romcom ever. And you think to yourself, a successful family business could actually be run as effectively from New York as it could from Singapore. And a game-theory microeconomist would be handy to have around.

Anyway, it’s a wonderful movie. I strongly recommend it to anyone, whatever your ethnic background. And even if you’re an unromantic old curmudgeon like myself. Seriously, it’s terrific. It’s a crazy rich movie, emotionally, about a fascinating world subculture. I’m so glad someone was fool enough to make it. (And make tons of money off it!)

What we’ve learned

The last few days have been among the most consequential and remarkable in American history. On Tuesday, President Trump’s campaign chairman and his personal attorney each were found guilty of multiple felonies, with an hour of each other. In pleading guilty to felonies of campaign finance reform, Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s attorney, declared that he had committed his crimes at the behest of and with the full knowledge of the President.

I hardly need say that this series of events is essentially unprecedented. It feels much as Watergate felt; disorienting, terrifying, and heartening in equal measure. The word everyone seems to be using is surreal. Commentators and friends alike have invoked Lewis Carroll. We’re going down a rabbit hole, we’re behind the looking glass, our only companionship a mad hatter, and a Cheshire cat. It is indeed brillig, and slithy toves are gyring and gimbeling their frantic lives away. Fortunately, our vorpal blades have one last charge in them. We can’t just beware the jabberwock. We have to kill it.

During Watergate, amidst the daily revelations of Richard Nixon’s utter contempt for the rule of law (and remember that he, no less than Trump, ran under a ‘law and order’ platform, promising to restore American stability after the chaos and disorder of the late 1960s), we were reassured to see the basic mechanisms of governance stepping up and providing a counterbalance to Nixon’s cynical and lawless power grab. First, the press investigated and published daily revelations of misconduct by Nixon and his associates. Congress launched an investigation. The Justice Department, in the event known as the Saturday Night Massacre, gave us the stellar examples of integrity Elliott Richardson and William Ruckelshaus.  Special prosecutors did their job, as did the Supreme Court. Above all, Republicans in Congress only stood by their man up to a point. When party loyalty became untenable, they ended their support for the President. Had he not resigned, he would have been impeached and removed from office.

The system worked. Not perfectly, not smoothly, but eventually, the right people stepped up and did their job. A Nixon henchman, John Dean, flipped. (Just as Cohen, fingers crossed, seems to be doing). Sam Ervin investigated. Woodward and Bernstein became American icons of investigative journalism. America survived.

The Trump situation strikes me as different. I have no crystal ball, no prophetic powers, but I remember Watergate vividly, and this is different, and a good deal more dangerous. The gatekeepers envisioned by the Framers of the Constitution seem enervated, or corrupted, or cowardly. We’re in this alone now.

For one thing, the press is not the force it once was. The great echo chamber of the internet has reduced the power and impact of good journalism. There’s great journalism being done, of course, dedicated reporters and editors trying their best to sort out what’s actually going on and what it all means. But it feels at times like they’re in a losing battle. Powerful forces prefer obfuscation to fact-based revelations, and the most powerful man in the country most especially profits from nonsense. Donald Trump has emerged not just as a moral relativist–we always knew that–but as an ontological relativist unmatched in the history of solipsism. Or rather, as the ultimate cynic, as someone perfectly willing to distort absolutely any notion of facts or reality. “Truth is not Truth,” said Rudy Giuliani (Trump’s astonishingly pliable attorney-spokesman: remember when he was looked up, admired?) recently. Any revelation inconvenient to this most astonishingly narcissistic of Presidents becomes ‘Fake News.’ And the internet enables the proliferation of fantasies, conspiracy theories and outright lies because it is built on a foundation of pure subjectivity, absolutely democratic. It is our collective subconsciousness, and from time to time, on social media, its true hideousness–the hideousness we learn, to our horror, of which our fellow citizens are capable–comes spewing out. 4chan, incels, the alt-right, Infowars, Breitbart, QAnon.  At its worst, the internet is pure chaos, unmediated and without any underpinnings in any worldview or moral stance, including the ones we learned as children: don’t lie. Liars are bad people. Presidents, however, are patriots. They’re here to protect us. Not anymore.

(“What is truth?” the oh-so-sophisticated Roman Pilate asked Jesus, and then dismissed the possibility of an answer. He could have answered it himself, though. Truth is power. “I am the Truth and the Light,” would have struck Pilate as absurd. Truth: a prisoner executed on a cross. How absurd).

So the Press is trying. But there are alternative voices ceded equal authority by many, even when they’re clearly and obviously lying. Congress, meanwhile, is under control of a Republican party that has abdicated, completely and thoroughly, any pretense of paying anything but lip service to Congressional oaths of office. They want their tax cut fraud, and they want nutjobs in the Supreme Court. Which is about to be joined by a man who has opined in the past that Presidents are above the law. In fact, that’s likely the reason Kavanaugh was chosen.

Some of us hold out hope that rule of law will yet prevail, and cling to the integrity and patriotism of the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller. His fight is an uphill one, however, with a President willing to fire and pardon his way out of trouble. That leaves us. We, the People. And we have to win in November. That’s what this comes down to; we have to win. We have to prove the basic decency and patriotism of the American people. And in my opinion, it won’t do just to win back the House. We need to win the Senate too (a much tougher challenge), and we need not just to win the House, but obliterate Republican candidates for the House.

But here’s what I keep coming back to. What, actually did we learn this week? We learned that Donald Trump’s closest associates are hopelessly corrupt and dishonest, and that not just his associations, but his fundamental understanding of the world is that of a criminal. (John Dean is ‘a rat.’ Flipping witnesses should be illegal.)  But didn’t we already know all that? We learned that the Trump campaign went out of its way to keep the American people ignorant of the most unsavory sexual escapades of their candidate. Nothing new there. We learned that Trump hasn’t the faintest idea what is legal and illegal when campaigning for national office. No big revelation there: he knows nothing, and has no interest in learning anything, at all, ever.

Slate Magazine recently published an article by William Saletan arguing that we don’t actually need any new revelations of kompromat or sex tapes or money laundering to prove that Donald Trump betrayed the United States. All the evidence is already out. He puts the story together convincingly–of course Trump has committed high crimes and misdemeanors. We know that; it’s obvious. We don’t need further Mueller revelations to prove it, though of course we want the Special Counsel to keep after it, and we do anticipate a lot more criminality to be revealed. Still, argues Saletan, the case has been made. The evidence has been provided. Haven’t we always known Trump to be what he is now revealed to be? A conman and a grifter, a career white collar criminal, a racist and a sexual predator, and the most arrogant ignoramus imaginable? How is any of that news?

Our country remains in a state of emergency. The story is racing towards its conclusion, and unlike Hollywood, there’s no guarantee the good guys will win. If we love our country and its freedoms, this next election may well be our last chance to save it. Sorry, but it’s so. This guy’s instincts are all authoritarian. We can only keep our Republic if we fight for it. Vote, call, give rides, give money, post. Do what you’re able to.

 

The first salvos in the 2020 Presidential election

Last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act, a bill that would, among other things, require that certain very large corporations change the composition of the membership of their boards of directors. On Thursday, Kevin Williamson of the conservative National Review wrote a scorching article attacking Warren’s proposal, calling it, among other things, ‘batty,’ and charging that it would require the nationalization of essentially all American businesses. Matt Yglesias, one of the editors for Vox.com, responded at length, calling Williamson’s article ‘unhinged,’ and questioning if he had ever read Warren’s actual proposal. The kerfluffle has been, to say the least, entertaining.

Let me admit right up front that I’m on Team Yglesias on this one.

Here’s what Warren’s proposal calls for. This proposal would only apply to businesses with over a billion dollars in assets, which would be required to apply for a federal corporate charter, not state charters as happens now. A federal charter would include these stipulations. First, corporate boards would be instructed to take into account the interests of all relevant stakeholders–not just shareholders, but communities, workers, customers–when making decisions. Currently, boards are generally instructed to consider only shareholders, the value of publicly traded stocks. Second, boards of directors would no longer be elected by shareholders only, but also 40% of them would be elected by workers. Third, executives would have to hang onto stocks received as part of their compensation for five years. Fourth, any political actions by the corporation would require approval by 75% of shareholders and board members.

Williamson says this would involve nationalizing all of American businesses. Yglesias responds that it would national zero businesses, and wouldn’t even apply to most smaller businesses. Williamson also uses a conservative slippery-slope argument, insisting this would result in the creation of a huge federal bureaucracy. Nothing like that appears in Warren’s bill. As Yglesias puts it: “I’m not sure he even read it.”

Any argument in which words like ‘deranged’ and ‘bonkers’ appear is surely entertaining, and both articles make for fun exercises in political vitriol. I’m on Yglesias’ side, though, for one main reason.

Surely corporate power is massive right now. And while capitalism is great and good and market economies rule, money is power, and big companies can surely be said to wield too much of it. Certainly corporations want to be profitable, and investors want to see a positive return on their investments. But corporate profitability is not the only national interest, nor the only natural interest. Communities want big companies to be good community citizens. Workers want to be paid a living wage. And the role of government is, it seems to me, to be an honest broker between competing interests. Not automatically side with business or labor, but work to find a balance between what they both want.

Corporations are people, we’re told. That legal fiction is in force in our society. Fair enough. We don’t want corporate ‘people’ to be vicious, selfish sociopaths (Hello, Amazon!).

In the meantime, why does there not exist a national service workers union? Why aren’t Walmart and Amazon and McDonald’s union shops? One issue in the last Presidential campaign–and I suspect in the next one as well–was the minimum wage. Bernie Sanders wants it to be fifteen dollars and hour nationally. While that’s an attractive proposal, it’s seems to be ham-handed and short sighted. After all, both wages and cost-of-living expenses differ wildly by region. Instead, how about increasing unionization? Let the workers at each company collectively bargain what their compensation will be.

And, as Yglesias also points out, the new boards of directors Warren imagines is hardly a radical proposal. What Warren is describing is called codetermination, and it’s common throughout Europe. In Denmark, any company with 35 workers has to include workers on its board. In Germany, half of the board can be workers, depending on the size of the company. Maybe there are good reasons to question whether codetermination would work here. But it’s worth studying. In short, Warren has made a proposal that is the norm in many other prosperous countries internationally, which she thinks we should try here. That’s hardly ‘batty.’

But I’m not sure this is necessarily about a Senate bill that, at least for now, will never so much as come to a Senate vote. I think it’s about 2020. I think Elizabeth Warren is going to run for President. I think this bill is her first major campaign proposal. And I think Williamson is preemptively trying to label her. Suggest she’s an extremist, suggest that her proposals are extreme and socialistic and untrustworthy. Suggest that she’s too batty to be a good President.

That’s all normal political positioning and a certain amount of rhetorical overkill is surely not unknown in major party politics. I like Elizabeth Warren a lot. I think she’s probably going to compete effectively for the Party nomination, along with Kamala Harris, Kristen Gillibrand, Corey Booker, a few others. But I like this proposal. I like the inclusion of labor in board decisions. I like requiring boards to include perspectives in addition to those of shareholders. I like codetermination. And I like a major party candidate taking a imaginative and creative solution to an important issue to launch her campaign. Team Yglesias all the way.

Korihor’s Children: Part 6.5

I had intended my next post in this series to be a) a lot sooner and b) a continuation of the arguments made earlier. Illness has intervened, however, and I thought a brief side excursion first might be helpful. I want to talk about a challenge I see a lot. My conservative friends frequently ask this: where in the scriptures does it suggest that the coercive powers of government can or should be used to help alleviate poverty? Isn’t charity a private matter? Doesn’t the Church oppose public welfare; isn’t our obligation to the poor supposed to be a matter of agency? Everyone agrees that the scriptures urge us to help the least of these, Christ’s brethren. But do we partially fulfill that through a government program?

The difficulty is that the scriptures describe a variety of societies very distant from our own. We are a religiously pluralistic society, with a democratic republic governing. We believe in a separation of Church and state. Throughout most of human history–and certainly every society described in scripture–none of that was true. A public v. private understanding of charity would have been nonsensical in ancient Israel, for example. The predominant political structure throughout most of history was monarchy or, occasionally, theocracy. Most nations had, and enforced a state religion. And caring for the poor was rarely any kind of governing priority. And even so, there are still a number of scriptures in which political/governmental entities engaged in supporting charitable activities.

To begin with, the Israelite practice of Jubilee was surely intended to alleviate poverty. As described in Leviticus 25, every fiftieth year, all prisoners and slaves were freed, and all debts canceled. Fields were to lay fallow, and everyone urged to celebrate the bounty of the earth. It was to be a year of simple living, with class distinctions erased. Property would revert to hereditary ownership. What that means in practical terms is that you couldn’t really buy or sell land–you could only lease it.

The existence of jubilee years would seem to preclude the possibility of income inequality, or at least reduce inequality. After all, if land is money, and land is power, the fact that anyone would have to return land purchased from other people every fiftieth year would militate against the accumulation of wealth.

So what we have described here in Leviticus 25 is a divinely mandated, but legally enforced anti-poverty, pro-equality program. Every fiftieth year, everyone’s debts were cancelled, and purchased land reverted to its previous owners. Would you say that’s a private anti-poverty mandate, or a public one? The context is so radically unlike our own, those terms are close to meaningless. But it was, in pre-exile Israel, a requirement, not optional. The coercive powers of the state could be said to enforce it.

What about the practice of gleaning? Leviticus 23 is clear enough about it:

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the Lord your God.

Again, the practice of gleaning was not an option. It was a requirement of the law of Moses, legally enforceable. When harvesting, you were expected to leave the corners of the field alone, and the edges of the fields as well. The grain in those areas was free pickings for poor people. Farmers were not allowed to discriminate–decide which poor people they’d let into their fields, nor frighten away gleaners with dogs. They were required to harvest so that gleaning could follow, and they were supposed to allow gleaners in.

That practice is central to understanding the book of Ruth, which I consider one of the most beautiful works found in scripture. Boaz obeyed the law, and seeing Ruth gleaning in his fields, was impressed by her. And the rest of the story followed.

No one knows how long gleaning took place in ancient Israel, or by what legal mechanisms it was enforced. It’s quite possible that the book of Ruth was included in scripture to encourage the practice. Many European nations continued doing it up through the mid-nineteenth century, and in Israel, some communities practice it today. You could argue that this was an example of private, not public charity. But if communities enforced it, and likely some did, then it wasn’t optional. It was a mandate.

What conservatives really object to, of course, is tax revenues being used for charitable purposes, as legally required and enforced by a strong central government. That’s the system we have today in the US (and elsewhere), and the conservative argument is that coercion, with the threat of violence, corrupts the giving of alms. ‘Let me keep my own money, and I will use it to help the poor, as God requires of me.’ (I hope I haven’t misrepresented the conservative argument here–let me know if I have).

The difficulty is that the situation of today, with a large, centralized, somewhat distant central government collecting taxes from us (under threat of violence if we don’t pay) doesn’t really have much of a parallel in scripture. That didn’t really describe the political situation found in most of the Bible, or in LDS scripture.

There is, however, one exception: Rome. When the New Testament was written, Palestine was under Roman occupation. Rome was big, distant, powerful, violent and rapacious for taxes. Taxes were collected by publicans, public contractors, member of the conquered community, who took a percentage of taxes collected for his own use, and also maintained public buildings. So, Jewish publicans were, well, Jews. And the profession was much hated, as you can imagine. It’s no accident that the phrase ‘publicans and sinners’ so frequently is found in scripture.

And there were many kinds of taxes. Land taxes, estate taxes, taxes on manufactured goods and traded commodities, a tax on widows and orphans specifically earmarked to pay for upkeep of military horses, a tax on unmarried men, a special tax if you owned slaves, another one if you freed slaves, and a third if you sold slaves. So many taxes, for so many purposes. And all of them massively unpopular.

What did Jesus think about them?

Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Cæsar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. (Matthew 22: 15-21)

It was a verbal trap. Let’s ask this Jesus guy about taxes. If he says ‘taxes are evil; don’t pay them,’ the Romans will arrest him. If he says ‘taxes are fine; pay ’em,’ he’ll alienate everyone. Instead, Jesus presents a third alternative. Pay your taxes; obey the law. And worship God. It’s a beautiful answer.

The Romans had a tax for everything, and a use for every tax. And most of those tax dollars were spent on the military, or on civic infrastructure. But taxes were also used to . . . alleviate poverty. In fact, a major Roman expenditure was for what has come down to us as ‘panem et circenses.’ Bread and circuses.

Romans were conquerers, and brutal ones. Roman circuses–the Roman Games–were horrific, bloody, violent spectacles. But panem? The grain dole–the annona–was instituted by Gracchus in the second century BCE, and continued under the emperors, and literally could be the difference between life and death for the Roman poor. It was also, of course, a way to prevent civil unrest and the potential for violent revolution. It was hardly benign. But people who might not otherwise get to eat did get to.

Should we have to pay this tax? At least one of those taxes was used to feed poor people. Did Jesus endorse it? No, he sidestepped the question. But he did not condemn it.

Certainly, the scriptural record does not unequivocally endorse public charity. Nor does it condemn it. And there are scriptural passages that support at least some form of public assistance for the poor. Of course, our best, most relevant scripture on the subject is found in the Book of Mormon, with King Benjamin’s address. I’ll address that next.

 

The Meg: Movie Review

It’s about a really big shark. The shark eats some people; other people heroically try to kill it. You already knew all that, and you already know the story. Plus I saw it last week, amid health issues. So rather than actually review it, here’s a different approach:

Fifteen responses The Meg.

  1. Far and away the most compelling, engaging and enjoyable performance by an actor in The Meg is delivered by an eight-year old girl, Shuya Sophia Cai. She plays Meiying, the daughter of Suyin (Bing-bing Li) the main marine biologist at a research center off the coast of China. Little Meiying has all the best lines in the movie, delivers them with aplomb, and is just insanely cute. My daughter thinks the movie’s costume designer took Cai to a particularly cool shopping mall and let her get anything she wanted, including moon boots with flashing lights, plus angel wings. Having no idea what he was doing, The Meg‘s director, Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure, Cool Runnings, The Kid) had Meiying disappear for the middle third of the picture. Yep; the movie had exactly one character you cared about, and she was gone, for no reason, for a good chunk of the movie.
  2. But Bing-bing Li is terrific too. She’s been a top actress in China since 1994, though not in movies most Americans will have seen. If this is meant to be her Hollywood breakthrough role–probable–it’s just a shame it’s not in a better movie. She’s outstanding–heroic and brave and nuanced. And old enough that her romance with Jason Statham isn’t all creepy.
  3. And Statham, playing the movie’s putative hero, Jonas Taylor, an underwater rescue expert, gives a perfectly acceptable Jason Statham action movie performance, no better and no worse than he’s given in twenty other movies. Statham’s 51 now, and looks terrific–most guys his age would kill for those abs. Short, bald and British do not preclude a long action-movie career. (Still, isn’t Statham the guy you get if you can’t get Bruce Willis?)
  4. Big roles for both Caucasian and Chinese movie stars, and long scenes in Chinese, with titles–they’re marketing this in China, and it might do pretty well. I mean, it’s not like the story is culturally specific–sharks are scary everywhere. There are, what, 300 million regular movie attenders in China? And that number is growing exponentially? I loved the casting of this movie, and loved seeing really good Asian actors doing good work. What I did think was weird was how many Asian extras get chomped. I would have thought that they would have made some effort towards equal opportunity shark victims.
  5. The movie does waste a bit of time with pseudo-scientific gibberish meant to explain why a megalodon, extinct for around a million years, still survives and why it’s starting snacking on homo sapiens. I get that movies have to do that, make the improbable premise of the movie seem probable. But it went on a bit long for my taste. Not that I mind movie science-y gibberish. The flux capacitor!
  6. My goodness, though; the characters in these movies make some dumb decisions. These kinds of movies always have scenes where all the characters sit around going ‘how do we fix this?’ But someone, in at least one of those scenes, has to say ‘no. Come on, that’s idiotic.’ They’re dealing with a shark maybe thirty times bigger than any shark ever, and they think someone will be safe in a shark cage? Seriously?
  7. Sheriff Longmire is also in this. That is, Robert Taylor, who plays Sheriff Longmire, is like the whitest guy in the movie. My daughter and I immediately decided he was going to be first character to die. We were wrong. He was second. But he does get to die heroically. Of course.
  8. I desperately hope, and do actually believe, that Rainn Wilson is a prince of a guy. I bet he is. I bet he’s a really good guy in real life. Because, my gosh, he’s great at playing obnoxious twerps. Or privileged rich jerks, which is what he plays here. I mean, check out his IMDB page: he voices Gargamel! Gargamel!
  9. Boy, that’s one scary shark, though. The Meg is a seriously ugly, exceptionally mean antagonist. And convincing.
  10. In fact, both of them are. Sorry! Spoiler! But, yeah, there are two Megs.
  11. Meg Ryan is not one of them. Another spoiler: Meg Ryan does not appear in a movie called The Meg.
  12. There exists, apparently, a new beach toy (new to me, anyway). Basically, it’s a big bubble, and guys climb into them, and you can run on the water, kind of like a hamster ball. It looks really fun. And it pops very satisfactorily when a ginormous shark bites down on it.
  13. There’s an actress in the movie, Ruby Rose, who plays an engineer named Jaxx. I don’t remember having seen her before, though I actually have seen several movies she was apparently in.  But she’s great in this. I liked her character in part because I could never quite decide if she was going to die or not. That’s a lot of the pleasure of a movie like this: guess who’s going to buy the farm, and in what order. Quiet Likeable Asian Family Man? Doomed. Comic Relief Black Guy? Probably okay. Cute little lapdog? Action Movie Dogs are immortal. My daughter and I guessed right every time.
  14. The Meg isn’t trying to be anything it’s not. It’s a movie about a really big prehistoric shark. It’s exceptionally predictable and nothing in it is likely ever to surprise you. The shark CGI is nicely done, but that’s Hollywood standard nowadays–you just don’t see a lot of crappy CGI anymore. It’s a popcorn movie, and perfectly acceptable on those terms. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing. My daughter and I enjoyed ourselves very much.
  15. Just don’t make it a priority.

The Incredibles 2: Movie Review

When my wife and I went to see the new Incredibles sequel, it started with what honestly felt like an apology: Holly Hunter and Samuel L. Jackson and Craig T. Nelson helpfully explaining why it had taken Pixar so long to do an Incredibles sequel. I thought that was weirdly unnecessary. In fact, Incredibles 2 required nothing of the kind. It’s an energetic, imaginative family/superhero comedy, a perfectly enjoyable piece of popular entertainment. With–tread lightly here–some non-intrusive-but-not-uninteresting political overtones and ramifications.

Both of the Incredibles movies posit a world where superheros exist, do good,save people, catch crooks–especially supervillains– but due to the property damage they sometimes cause, have become politically problematic. I think that’s a funny conceit, and I also totally get it. How many cities have been wrecked in the Avengers‘ movies? A popular superhero movie cliché is the fight scene where one superhero flings another one into a building, which is wrecked, though the superhero remains unscathed. I think that particular trope started with Richard Donner’s Superman, way back in 1978, which might be the first one where special effects were sufficiently advanced to make things like Christopher Reeve flying and smashing up things look realistic. Anyway, if any of that were real, someone would have to pay for all those ruined buildings, and probably means government, and that means tax increases, which no one likes, least of all politicians. So, yeah, ban superheros. Absolutely. Make ’em get normal-people jobs, put away the capes and skin-tight lycra costumes, punch a clock. Darn right too. Why do they get all the excitement and, you know, celebrity? Not fair.

In the first Incredibles, that’s precisely what Bob Parr (aka Mr. Incredible), voiced by Nelson, has done. His superhero costume has been put in a closet, and barely fits anyway. He works as an insurance executive, and hates everything about it. But that’s what you do when you have a young family. Nights, he sneaks off with Lucius/Frozone (Jackson), and monitors police radios. And dreams of doing superhero things. And Bob’s wife, Helen/Elastigirl (Hunter), is the occasionally nagging voice of domestic conventionality. And then a really nasty supervillain shows up, and Mr. Incredible is again needed, along with Frozone and Elastigirl.

Now, in the sequel, the politics are ever so slightly more front-and-center. A business mogul/political operative, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), is into superheros, about the way Elon Musk is into space travel. Winston’s plan is to choose one particularly appealing and personable superhero, and send her out to rescue people, stop bad guys, do superhero stuff. Generate some positive public support. (He’s assisted in all this by sister Eleanor (Catherine Keener). And the hero he chooses is Elastigirl. And Helen is both intrigued and reluctant. But the money is good, hubby would seem to be temporarily unemployable, plus she really likes being Elastigirl. So she jumps at it.

So the movie splits focus, and we cut from Elastigirl’s heroic antics, to Bob’s best attempts at parenting. And he has some challenges. Daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), is busy negotiating the terrifying world of junior high crushes and romance. Son Dash (Huck Milner), is a boy’s boy, flunking math, into sports,  hyperactive, and also possessed of a super-speed superpower. And they’re the easy kids. There’s also baby Jack-Jack (voiced by Eli Fucile), who has a baby’s energy, a baby’s lack of discipline, plus a whole raft-full of emerging superpowers, some of them truly freaky. Bob is quickly exhausted. And seeks help, from, obviously, his favorite costume designer, Edna Mode (Brad Bird). And boy does she come through.

That’s the main body of the film, those intercut scenes, with Elastigirl’s heroing, and Bob trying to be a good Dad. Meanwhile back at the ranch. And the scenes with Bob and the kids are far more engaging. I mean, Elastigirl is an awesome hero, and her action sequences are cleverly conceived and beautifully drawn. But a very long extended scene of a battle royale between Jack-Jack and a racoon is a comedic masterpiece, brilliant and also terrifying (Jack-Jack is , after all, a small child, and racoons are predators! And susceptible to rabies! Yikes!) All the stuff with Bob at home is quite brilliant.

The last third of the film feels more pro forma. There is, inevitably, a supervillain, and convention requires that it be someone we’ve already met, which means either Winston or Evelyn, or both of them. I figured out which one it was ten seconds after the character made an appearance, and, it turns out, got it right. And of course, the kids have to ride to Mom and Dad’s rescue. There are also a bunch of lesser superhero characters, with amusingly varied powers, who also have to be exploited, then rescued. The final action sequences are, I suppose, sufficiently exciting and fun for the movie to work. But Bob and Jack-Jack are such comic gold, they overshadow the rest of the movie.

But I also like the film’s take on, well, politics, on irrationality and fear and prejudice. Superheroes, in the world of this film, are extraordinarily talented and capable individuals with almost limitless capacities. But they ‘cost too much.’ And must therefore be discriminated against, guarded against, regulated. Much the way immigrants are today. The Incredibles handling of weighty issues of xenophobia and prejudice isn’t remotely heavy-handed. It’s in the background, ever-present but not front-and-center. But it’s still there. So nice to see Pixar take a stand.

 

 

Mary Lou Thorne Samuelsen

My Mom was my pal and my confidante. She was my friend, in addition to being my Mom. When I was younger, she was the one member of my family I felt I could really talk to. She was a school teacher, and she’d come home from a hard day at school, and get started on dinner, and there I was, pestering her. I’m sure it got awfully annoying. But she never pushed me away, never sent me off, never so much as suggested that I was bothering her, or ask me to leave her alone. She listened. She engaged. Sometimes she’d disagree, show me where my thinking about some issue had gone off the rails. What she never did, never once that I can remember, was push me away.

Mary Lou Thorne Samuelsen. She didn’t particularly like the ‘Lou.’ Preferred just Mary, unless Dad called her ‘Lou,’ teasingly. She didn’t mind that. She was the only woman in a family of rambunctious boys. Three sons, and a husband who was a boy through and through. We were outdoorsy and active, loved sports and hiking and waterskiing and wrestling. And fart jokes and terrible puns and pranks. Mom was, well, ladylike and refined. She did all the guy things we guys did, but with a feminine twist. So we’d go waterskiing. She loved waterskiing–her way. She’d slowly lower herself off the boat, careful not to muss her hair, and ski sedately behind the big boat, and then toss the tow rope aside and slowly sink into the lake, her hair still in pristine condition. We’d go camping, and she’d camp along with us, but while we were climbing trees and annoying bears, she’d find a comfy camping chair and sit there with a book.

She loved to read; still does. When she was a kid, she’d strap on her roller skates and skate down to the Provo library, and check out a half dozen books, and then at home, she’d climb out her window and onto the roof and read, where she wouldn’t be disturbed. I never saw her do that, but I believe it; she grew up in my great-grandmother’s house, and it had large gabled windows leading onto the roof. And the roof meant privacy. That’s my Mom. She was an outgoing, friendly person, but also very private, if that makes sense.

In some ways, the defining event of her life–of her family’s life–was the murder of her father, my grandfather, Harold Arthur Thorne, in 1940, when she was five. He was a traveling salesman, and he picked up a hitchhiker who killed him and stole his car. The killer was caught soon thereafter, and his trial remains my Mom’s earliest memories. The prosecutors wanted Mom and her four siblings to sit on the front row, in front of the jury, to remind everyone of a family deprived of their father. When the trial was over, my Grandmother, Lucile Thorne, moved in with her mother, Mary Markham, and Grandma Mary raised the kids, while Grandma Lucile went to work. Grandma Lucile eventually earned a PhD, and was hired on the faculty of BYU. She was a remarkable woman, and I was very close to her. But all of my aunts and my uncle were remarkable.

That generation of women, the ones born in the ’30s, raising their families in the late ’50s and early ’60s, that whole group weren’t expecting to, or expected to, work. They were to be the homemakers, while their husbands were the breadwinners. But my Mom and my fierce and smart and funny and wonderful aunts–Janice, Joyce and Sally–knew how untrustworthy that expectation could be. They all received advanced academic degrees, and they all worked professionally. (Aunt Sally also joined her Mom on the BYU faculty). Uncle Jim was also outstanding–a brilliant architect and a gentle and kind-hearted soul. The murder didn’t poison them. But it did affect them–how could it not? My Mom never particularly considered herself a feminist. But she was tough, independent, and proud; an overachiever. One Relief Society lesson too many on why women shouldn’t work outside the home and she boycotted Relief Society for years. Until a sensible bishop called her as Relief Society President.

My Mom was loyal. That’s the best word I can think of to describe her; loyalty was second nature to her. To Mom, loyalty meant that if someone she loved was fond of something, she would do whatever possible to understand it and embrace it and become fond of it too. She didn’t particularly like basketball, but then my brother Rob played on the varsity basketball team, and my Mom became an avid, knowledgeable and deeply passionate basketball fan. Same with me and theatre; same with Rolf and caving. If we were into something, she got into it too.

I’m sure that when she was growing up, she didn’t really expect to be an opera buff. But my father was an opera singer, and so she became a huge opera fan. We talked about it sometimes. You think of ‘opera,’ and you tend to think of a pastime, an art form, that is effete, precious, esoteric, refined. My father was a university professor and an opera singer; that suggests a certain aesthetic and approach. Hoity toity?

Not so much. In fact, if you know opera at all, you know that it’s the most melodramatic, spectacle-laden, overpowering, sensational art form ever invented. My Mom loved Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and especially Wagner. She loved the preposterous, violent, sexy plots, and the big, bombastic music. She loved the excitement of it, the energy. She loved opera, with everything it implies. She wasn’t much into chamber music. Wanted full orchestras, and other-worldly human voices rising above all the instruments in the pit. She thought rock-and-roll was, in contrast, rather tame. All that electronically generated sound; it felt unearned, she thought. I liked rock, and she’d politely listen, and she’d try to find the good in it–she rather liked Jethro Tull, for example. Simon and Garfunkle, some. But it just was all so tame, in her view. Opera’s visceral guttiness was what she loved about it.

Her way. She wanted to sit in the theater, sedately, and politely applaud at the end. She wasn’t a demonstrative fan, particularly. She loved opera, but she was always, always lady-like about it.

And so, as a teacher, she had her students write operas. She took a workshop offered by the Met, and she’d work with her kids. They did all the work; they wrote the scripts, they composed the music–there were always a few kids who had taken piano lessons–and they performed. And Mom would supervise. It was the highlight of the school year for those kids, and Mom loved doing it. She eventually worked with Michael Ballam, director of the Utah Festival Opera, and he brought the opera program to grade schools in Utah. She’d videotape the kids’ operas, and I watched a few. They were splendid. They were operas about issues the kids themselves were concerned about–bullying, and peer pressure, and making friends. Life changing. Couldn’t happen today, with teachers all teaching to the test, and what a shame that is.

And, oh my gosh, she could be funny. You could tease her, and she’d tease right back. She was, in short, an innovator and educator, a well-read sophisticated woman with a wicked wit and a deep compassion, and she was also my best friend.

A lot of that’s now gone. She has Alzheimers, and we’re losing her.  She is moving to Utah next week, where we can move her into a memory care facility, where she can be safe and have her medical needs met. She moved with my Dad to Indiana in 1962, and now she’s coming back to Utah. I wish there was another, better answer, but I’m aware that there really isn’t. She can still remember some things, from the past. Chatting with her, I can see the ghost of my Mom. But she’s lonely, and frightened, and we need to care for her. The way she cared for us.

But she’s extraordinary. Strong and capable and courageous. I’m so amazingly lucky.

 

Tag: Movie Review

In 2013, the Wall Street Journal published a story about 10 close friends who, every February, played a massive, endless game of Tag. That’s Tag, the children’s game, where you, you know, tag people. A reporter named Russell Adams apparently broke the story, and included the detail that Hollywood was sniffing around.

And now, in 2018, someone greenlit the project, and someone else funded it, and a bunch of good actors signed on, and we have Tag, the movie. Hollywood being what it is, the movie is a good deal more preposterous than the actual Tag game it’s based on. That’s okay. There are ten real guys; to make the cast size manageable, the movie cuts it down to five. And to sharpen and heighten the conflict–to make sure there actually is a conflict–one of them, named “Jerry” (Jeremy Renner) has to be the all-time GOAT, the champeen, the never-once-ever-by-anyone-literally-lifetime-untagged Michael Jordan of tag. Who is also getting married and therefore retiring from the game. So the stakes are high; this will be the only chance these friends have of tagging Jerry. Who is, for all intents and purposes, untaggable.

And also, the WSJ reporter who breaks the story and follows these friends around getting details for it has to be cute, female, and blonde. Because: Hollywood. She’s given the character name Rebecca Crosby, and played by Annabelle Wallis (remember her as Jane Seymour in The Tudors? British actress, nicely affecting a ‘murrican accent for this). Sadly, her character never evolved beyond ‘character-other-characters-tell-things-to.’ Plus, ‘attractive blonde in a guy movie’. Wish they’d given her more to do: Wallis can act.

The actual tag guys all had sort of vaguely generic white-guy American names; the characters in the movie are given different generic American names. Hogan (Hoagie) Malloy (Ed Helms) is the leader of the band, the guy who especially wants to tag Jerry, for personal and private reasons of his own. The sensible (and rich) friend, is Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), who is reluctant to commit to some of the more extreme tagging notions of his friends, but who seems happy enough to finance the finding of various clues as to Jerry’s whereabouts. Their stoner/loser/divorced pal, Randy “Chilli” Cilliano (Jake Johnson), seems to find whatever meaning in life he’s capable of mustering in their shared tag quest. And casting diversity was provided by the character, Kevin Sable (Hannibal Burress); contemplative, philosophical and eccentric. His comic timing was spot-on throughout. Best of all, though, imho, was Isla Fisher as Anna Malloy, Hogan’s wife, who is prevented from playing tag by her gender, (?) but who is invested in the game at a level the others can barely dream of. Anna is very sweet and supportive of her husband and his friends, except occasionally, when her ferocious competitive spirit just flat explodes. She’s the one, for example, who decides that waterboarding one of Jerry’s employees would be just a fine idea. Fisher basically walks off with the movie–tough to do in a guy-oriented buddy comedy, but she’s magnificent.

The cast is rounded out by Rashida Jones, playing Cheryl, a high school friend who Callahan and Chilli both still have massive crushes on, a fact that Jerry ruthlessly exploits. I think Jones is a terrific actress and comedic screen presence, but she’s given much too little to do here, and her part fell flat. Far more effective was Leslie Bibb, who plays Susie, Jerry’s fiancee. When we meet her, she’s a generic pretty blonde ditz, happy to be engaged, thrilled with Jerry, and just delighted to meet his old friends with their silly game. That’s all pose: Susie, it turns out, is actually a far more cold-blooded and effective gamester than any of them, a formidable foe of the first order, and Bibb has a lot of fun with the part.

So we have a guy comedy, a male-oriented ensemble piece about a bunch of grown men who have been playing the silliest of children’s games seriously for 30 years. And yet four women round out the cast, and two of the women end up taking over the movie. (Of course, one of them was Isla Fisher, who genuinely is one of the funniest women alive). That’s promising. That could portend a really funny comedy.

Sadly, it’s my duty to report that the movie is maybe 20% less good than it ought to be–20% less funny, and 20% less satisfying. There are a lot of scenes that work really well. Every thing Fisher does works, and pretty much everything involving Bibb. And since it’s about a game of Tag, there’s plenty of opportunity for physical comedy, for slap-sticky extended sequences in which guys dive to tag someone and miss, or dive to avoid being tagged and crash into things. One such sequence involved a golf cart chase scene, which worked because, hey, golf carts. Even that scene, though, was less funny than it should have been, because it insufficiently exploited the inherent tension between the sedate lack of exertion involved in golfing, and the conventions of madcap chase scenes. This director–first-timer Jeff Tomsic–doesn’t seem to know yet how to build an extended comedy sequence, how to top this joke with a funnier one. Compare it to Game Night, a much much funnier movie on a similarly thin premise. This movie is funny, but it’s not, you know, funny.

Plus there was the script. Not the story, the script–the verbal humor. Which is only occasionally funny, despite having actors–Jon Hamm, Ed Helms, Hannibal Burress–perfectly capable of making verbal wit just sing.

Here’s the thing. I’m not generally troubled by crude, R-rated, sexually explicit humor. In the right hands, that kind of humor can be very effective and very funny. Ask Aristophanes. Or, Moliere, or Shakespeare, or Congreve. But sexually oriented humor only works when it rises organically from the characters and situation. You have to buy these guys, in that situation, talking that way. You have to buy that that’s how they talk–that their relationship as guys involves, you know, dick jokes. Great example is the HBO workplace comedy series Silicon Valley. You buy it–that’s how those guys talk. And I just didn’t, in this movie. It felt off.

There’s one extended sequence, for example, in which they’re trying to find Jerry, and ask one of his employees, Dave (Thomas Middleditch, speaking of Silicon Valley). Dave’s every line is crudely sexual. And it just doesn’t play. You don’t buy guys like Hoagie, or Callahan, or Sable in that situation. The only thing that saves the scene is when Anna decides to waterboard him. Isla Fisher to the rescue, in an otherwise flat sequence. The movie wastes a lot of time in scenes like that one, where the crudity falls flat.

And there are also a few montage sequences where the action is cut to rap songs. I have no objections to rap music, and no objection to cutting action sequences with rap. That’s all just fine. But it’s not the music these guys would listen to. We know that, because there are scenes in which the guys do listen to their kind of music, and it’s ’80s rock. I darkly suspect that director Tomsic likes rap, and likes rap-based montage sequences, and that’s why those scenes are in the movie. And they detract. They pull you out of the picture.

So Tag is a moderately funny movie, in spots, instead of hilarious. And, not wanted to asperse, but I think the director is to blame. It’s a less funny movie than it ought to have been. Not a bad movie, not a failure, not a flop. Just not as good as the premise could have allowed for. My wife and I enjoyed it. Dinner and a movie–we made a nice night of it. But our basic reaction is pretty ‘meh.’ Isla Fisher got some work in, and was stunning. Jon Hamm refined his comedic chops, and Ed Helms had some serious moments, and Leslie Bibb and Hannibal Burress did some really nice work too. But Game Night went ‘tag, you’re it,’ and Tag promptly fumbled the chance away. Shame when that happens.

Superfly: Movie Review

The original Superfly came out in 1972, part of that new wave of blaxsploitation films following Sweet Sweetback’s Badaasssss Song in ’71. The word blaxsploitation was initially a pejorative, suggesting that they were bad films that exploited black performers and audiences. In time, though, filmmakers came to embrace the term. To be sure, these films may have done harm to black perceptions and ambitions, given how they dealt, for the most part, with the stereotypical black urban world of gangsters, drug dealers and pimps, whores and violent criminals. But a lot of really good actors got work and paychecks. And as a teenager, I loved ’em. Shaft, Foxy Brown, Blacula, I saw a bunch of ’em. I loved their energy, their cool, their nihilism. I loved seeing the action scenes, and the cool, tough guy characterizations. And I loved the soundtracks. Superfly was maybe not the best film of the genre, but it had Curtis Mayfield’s superb soundtrack, which I bought and wore out.

Now comes a 2018 remake of Superfly, and it follows the basic story and characters of the original fairly well. It’s now set in modern Atlanta, which it portrays as a city of crooked cops, corrupt politicians, and a rising black upper middle class. In a lot of ways, though, I found it more reminiscent of the TV show The Wire–quite possibly the best show in the history of television. The hero of the original Superfly was Priest (Ron O’Neal), the toughest, smartest drug dealer in Harlem. In this one, Priest has a first name: he’s Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson). He’s smart. He’s basically Stringer Bell from The Wire, only 10% smarter, and with less of a tendency towards violence. Priest prides himself on the fact that he’s never been arrested, that the police don’t even know who he is. He never uses a gun, though he’s a juijitsu expert, and isn’t afraid to fight. He’s always in control, relaxed and calm, the kind of guy who thinks three steps ahead while his enemies are reacting to events. He’s reasonable. He also has two girlfriends, Georgia (Lex Scott Davis), and Cynthia (Andrea Londo), with whom he enjoys leisurely shower threesomes.

Priest, however, is richly blessed with enemies, adversaries, and untrustworthy friends. His mentor, Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams, from The Wire), is also, sort of, his boss and supplier. But Priest wants more. He sees the handwriting on the wall, realizes that a career in the drug trade is bound to end badly, and he wants out, with as much money as he can possibly get together, running off to a country with no US extradition. So he plans one final big score. This requires that he takes the kinds of chances he has previously eschewed. His business partner, Eddie (Jason Mitchell), isn’t 100% on board, though he reluctantly goes along, only to make the one big mistake that Priest has always feared. Which also gets Priest’s bodyguard, Fat Freddy (Jacob Ming Trent), killed.

Priest also faces a rival gang, the spectacularly flamboyant Snow Patrol (cocaine=snow), a gang that only wears white jump suits, drives white cars, and fires white guns. Priest is on uneasy good terms with them, but, again, Eddie screws that up. He also has to push to the breaking point his relationship with Adalberto Gonzalez (Esai Morales), Scatter’s supplier, a cartel boss who he also uses. Plus, a dirty cop, Detective Mason (Jennifer Morrison), has learned of him and expects her cut.

The rest of the movie involves Priest’s careful negotiation of that perilous terrain, with various gangbangers, bad police, a drug cartel, and his old mentor all out to get him. And we root for him to get away with it, to outwit his various enemies.

The film’s music score was by rapper Future, and it pales next to Mayfield’s masterwork. But the director, Director X, keeps the action moving, and Jackson’s performance holds the movie together. It was a pretty good Moviepass movie. And, hey, a whole bunch of good actors got work. It’s very seriously R-rated, like all blaxsploition films, but it passed the afternoon agreeably enough.

Hereditary: Movie Review

My daughter and I went to see Hereditary this morning, a 10 a.m. screening where we had the theater to ourselves. I’m glad the place was empty. About the only way we made it through was to comment on it back and forth. Had to do something to break the tension.

It is one creepy, scary movie. A first-time feature, written and directed by a young guy named Ari Aster, it’s a remarkable achievement, a combination of psychological thriller, nightmare, ghost story and awake-an-ancient-evil Lovecraftian mind trip. It’s one of those movies where you’re never quite sure if what you just saw really happened, or if it’s meant to be a dream. Sometimes, when the movie signals that it was just a dream, it feels more real than the movie’s actual setting, in a dreams-tell-the-truth kind of sense. And it’s held together by an utterly stunning central performance. Two stunning central performances, actually.

As the movie begins, Annie (Toni Collette), speaks at her mother’s funeral. Their relationship appears to have been fraught, and Annie’s eulogy is hardly warm and loving, but she gets through it. Annie works as an artist, a crafter of miniature houses, with furnishings and tiny human figures. Many of them resemble her own house, and other places from her life, including one of the hospice where her mother died. Which, I might as well tell you, is very far from the creepiest piece in her collection. She’s putting together a big show of her work at a gallery, and they call from time to time, rather pointedly checking up.

Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), seems to be somewhat older than she is, and is clearly the more stable partner. Annie is, uh, volatile. At times, she seems like a loving, concerned mother, wife and daughter, but her work is disturbing, and at other times, she seems quite demented. She does sleepwalk, cannot find repose in the bed she and Steve share, and she also seems to have chosen to keep their house at a temperature he finds freezing. Still, he supports her. Their house is away from the city; looks like a nice mountain cabin-like residence like you see well-off people owning in places like, well, Utah.

They have two children. The oldest, Peter (Alexander Wolff), is in high school, probably a senior, which would make him 17 or so. He seems to be doing fine in school, and also has a few close friends, who he bonds with over bong hits. The youngest, Charlie (Millie Shapiro), is a decidedly awkward and more-than-a-little-creepy thirteen-year old girl, who seems to be following her mother’s footsteps in the building things from scratch department, but who was essentially raised by her late grandmother, we’re told. She also has a strange habit of making a popping mouth noise.

SPOILER ALERT:

I’m not sure how much of this is a spoiler, in fact, because it happens pretty early in the film, and everything subsequently relies on it, but, okay: Charlie dies. In the most shocking and horrific way. And it’s arguably Peter’s fault. And also, arguably, her Mom’s fault. Certainly, enough so that Mom and son, who don’t much get along anyway, have some knock-down drag-out fights over it, horrendous battles that leave both of them shaken and devastated and in tears.

And so, Annie turns to spiritualism. Which we learn, her Mom was also into. And which involves a dear, sweet, kindly woman she meets at a grief group counseling session, Joannie (Ann Dowd), who, of course, turns out not at to be what she appears to be.

Things go badly from there, and then go unimaginably worse. Having said that, I would add this: I found the ending disappointing, and insufficiently prepared for. So much of the movie focuses on Annie’s deteriorating mental state, and her battle-to-the-death with both her surviving family members, that when that focus shifted late, I found it less creepy and scary and imaginative than I expected. This is 9/10s of a terrific horror movie. The last tenth worked less well. But that small criticism doesn’t ruin the movie or anything. I liked it very much indeed.

And Toni Collette is glorious. Oscar-nominee brilliant. And Wolff is likewise terrific. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric horror film, and a thoughtful and intelligent one, that doesn’t rely on cheap spectacle or gotcha jump cuts to achieve the terror it produces. And earns. It’s a movie where you have to watch the entire frame, where you’re constantly going ‘wait, there in the corner, is that . . . ?’ Highly recommended, for those who like horror as a genre. Don’t see it alone.