Masterminds: Movie Review

Since Napolean Dynamite in 2004, Jared Hess has continued to follow his own quirky, weirdly comic muse. And power to him. I didn’t initially much like Nacho Libre (2006), but have since had a chance to reevaluate, and have found unexpected pleasures in the world of luchadores. Gentleman Broncos (2009) is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and I absolutely do mean that as a compliment. I haven’t seen Don Verdean yet–it’s on my Netflix DVD queue, and I’ll catch it this week. I looked forward to seeing Masterminds. And was disappointed by how, I don’t know, conventional it was.

Masterminds is basically a caper film. It’s about a mismatched gang pulling off a big robbery. It’s loosely (very loosely) based on an actual event, an armored car driver who robbed his own company. Most caper films, however, emphasize the cleverness of the robbers, their careful plotting and skills, the mechanics of how they pull off the heist. In this one, they’re all dumb, essentially, incredibly stupid. They’re utter dolts. As such, it can feel awfully misanthropic–not that that’s all that unusual for Hess. Napolean Dynamite is punctuated by flashes of misanthropy–the cruelty of the other high school kids, for example. What saves it is the friendship between Napolean and Pedro, and Napolean’s fabulous dance of support and kindness at the end of the film. And, to a lesser extent, the budding, awkward romance between Napolean and Deb. That’s pretty much what saves Masterminds too.

Zach Galiafinakis plays David Ghantt, a driver/security guard for an armored car company. He’s partnered with Kelly (Kristen Wiig), who wears her uniform shirt unbuttoned just that one button more than is strictly needed for comfort’s sake, and he’s completely, permanently, hopelessly smitten. And when she idly mentions, conversationally, her fantasy of robbing the car, he laughs it off, but we can tell, is tempted.

Meanwhile, he’s engaged. To the frozen-smiling Jandice, a marvelous comic creation from Kate McKinnon. And we get one of the real Jared Hess moments in the film; a montage of preposterous engagement photos, with Dave and Jandice striking a series of ridiculous poses. Hess gets tackiness, and relishes it.

Kelly, meanwhile, has fallen in with a criminal gang–they seem to share living space. The leader of this gang is Steve (Owen Wilson), not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but the most forceful of personality. (I think it’s revealing that when Steve and his girlfriend, Michelle (a marvelous Mary Elizabeth Ellis) do come into money, they immediately get braces for their teeth. Straight teeth are their calling card as middle-class. Plus, of course, they overspend for a mansion). Anyway, Kelly is persuaded to persuade David to pull off the robbery, assisted by Steve et al. And amidst some low-rent farcical hijinks, David does exactly that. He’s given a fake ID, with the name of another Steve acquaintance, Mike McKinney (Jason Sudeikis), a professional contract killer. And he’s sent to cool his heels in Mexico, while Steve and Michelle go on a spending spree. And Kelly gets to string David along telephonically, promising to join him down south ‘some time soon.’

Eventually the cops (led by Leslie Jones, who is a comic delight in the role), put together the case against David, and Steve decides he needs David to be gone. So Mike is dispatched to Mexico to bump David off. Sudeikis is suitably menacing as this cartoon sociopath, but when he actually meets David, and sees his (fake) ID, he’s entranced by the fact that there’s this other person in the world with his exact same name and birthday. And David and Mike click, become immediate BFFs.

Meanwhile, Kelly, who was never actually that into David, feels bad over the way Steve’s treating him, and her heart starts to soften. She realizes that this good-hearted criminal schlubb really is completely devoted to her. She’s maybe, possibly, a little won-over.

And that nascent romance, between David and Kelly, becomes the movie’s saving grace. These characters are all very very stupid, and at times the movie feels a bit condescending. And they are caricatures, all of them; cartoons. So does this movie have any humanity to it, the way Napolean Dynamite ultimately did, beyond all the stylization and the terrible food and Uncle Rico’s ridiculousness? Yes. There is a genuine, human connection between David and Kelly. Kristen Wiig pulls it off. Her character is a sexpot manipulator, but she’s not evil, just indolent and, we suspect, a bit contemptuous of men. Under all that, she does have a heart. And without a lot of comedy to play, she walks off with the movie.

It’s a pretty conventional Hollywood comedy, and Galiafinakis’ performance doesn’t wear well. And it’s not quite funny enough to survive the incomparable stupidity of its characters. Having said all that, it does have its moments. I laughed quite a bit, more than I thought I would. And I hope Hess gets better material to work with for his next film.

The Spirit of the Game: Movie review

The Spirit of the Game is an LDS film, a Mormon movie. I’m a Mormon, and a movie nut. So my initial inclination is to go easy on a film that is certainly well-intentioned. And it tells an interesting story. And Aaron Jakubenko, who stars in it, is very good, even though he can’t play basketball. There’s a lot to like here. The theater was half-full when I saw it (an early weekday matinee), so that’s encouraging. And it’s certainly not as bad as, say, The Home Teachers, which remains the flaming dragon’s breath of hell worst movie ever made, ever, by anyone.

On the other hand, The Spirit of the Game starts off not very good, and ends goshawful, and that also needs to be said. And if we want cinematic depictions of our faith and culture to improve, we do need to foster a candid critical culture. And sorry, gentle readers, but spoilers will abound. Advance apologies to everyone.

The Spirit of the Game is about the Mormon Yankees, an LDS missionary basketball team that was asked to teach the Australian national team hoops fundamentals in time for the 1956 Olympics. It focuses on one guy, DeLyle Condie (Jakubenko), an Idaho kid who, we’re told, is one of the stars of the University of Utah basketball team. He falls in love, gets engaged to a nice girl named Emily (Emilie Cocquerel)–the movie spends lots of time on that romance. And then she breaks his heart, dumps him for another dude. So Condie, rebounding, decides to go on a mission, and is sent to Australia.

Written and directed by J. D. Scott, it’s not really about basketball much, or the Olympics at all. Really, it’s about the power of male Mormon patriarchy. Every single major decision in the movie made by any character is preceded by an Inspiring Speech by a male authority figure. Or not, actually; Condie gets engaged precipitously, without permission from her father, or an Inspiring Speech from his father. That’s why the engagement fails.

When writing a screenplay, you have to decide that sorts of scenes to privilege. Obviously, a certain amount of screen time has to be given to basic exposition–who are these people, what do they want, why should we care? This movie gives immense amounts of screen time to Inspiring Speeches. It just stops dead in its tracks, and lets a male authority figure deliver an IS. At which point, Our Hero, Elder Condie (the least volitional protagonist in the history of film), is redirected. Except when its him giving the speeches.

So, he arrives in Australia, meets the mission President–Inspiring Speech. He meets considerable opposition–nobody’s interested, kids throw tomatoes at him. He gets discouraged, writes his Dad (Kevin Sorbo!). Inspiring Letter keeps him going. He’s offered the opportunity to help coach up the Aussie national team. But the mission President (Mark Mitchell), says no, in an Inspiring Speech full of appropriate bromides. Condie writes his father. And then, see, we get what passes for a plot twist. Condie wants to play basketball, but he’s stymied. But his father is also a male authority figure, and knows a higher one. So Dad writes President David O. McKay, who gives an Inspiring Speech to the rest of the First Presidency about the proselyting power of basketball, then orders the Mission President to let the boys play. And Condie becomes the coach of the Mormon Yankees. Which means he’s now a male authority figure, and authorized to give Inspiring Speeches too. Which he does, repeatedly. And so, finally, the movie half over, we get to seeing people play basketball.

And, oh my gosh, are they bad at it.

There are two basic approaches you can take when making a basketball movie. You can cast actors, and teach them how to play. Or you can take basketball players, and teach them how to act. Both can work. The greatest basketball movie of all time, Hoosiers, cast guys who could actually play basketball. White Men Can’t Jump took the other approach. They’re both good movies. Jakubenko is a good looking kid, and fairly athletic looking. I don’t doubt that he worked hard. But he has a high dribble, where he runs really fast kind of slapping at the ball, which bounces up around his chin. He dribbles like every kid on my son’s Junior Jazz team when he was six. And Condie’s supposed to be the point guard! Jakubenko can’t shoot, and never has to–they cut around him, use lots of hand-held camera, and basically fake the basketball sequences. (Condie does hit a couple of layups). He’ll shoot a jumper–and oh, that form!–and then they cut to a ball going in. And it’s called ‘the hoop’, people–at one point, they actually call it a ‘ring.’ I wanted to strangle someone.

I don’t mean to be unkind, but if you’re going to make a movie about basketball, let me gently suggest that you have someone on-set who actually knows something about basketball. One kid in the movie had a decent jump shot, and another kid could jump a little–they let him get all the rebounds. But mostly, during the basketball bits, I averted my eyes.

Sports movies always have to build to a Big Game climax, and this one is no exception. The movie kind of forgets about how the Mormon Yankees are supposed to be coaching the Aussie team, and lets them play in a pre-Olympics warm up tournament, a decision that requires another IS. And they’re really good, we’re told–able to hold their own against all the Olympic teams. The Big Game is against the nasty wasty French team. (The coach of the French team has a moustache, and twirls it, I’m totally not kidding). So that’s the big game–a nationally televised (in Australia) game between the Mormon Yankees and the thuggish French nationals. And, see, the French play dirty. And our virtuous boys can’t respond in kind, of course, as Condie reminds them in one of his Inspiring Speeches. They’re playing for God or something.

This is a major Spoiler, but I have to do this; at the end of the Big Game, this movie goes completely off the rails. Let me set it up for you. There are 9 guys on the Mormon Yankees team. That’s important–remember that number: 9. The game is very close, though how close we don’t know because the movie never shows us the score. Anyway, our guys are all wearing brave little dabs of makeup blood on their faces, to show how dirty the French are. There’s a collision between Condie and a French kid. Condie looks dazed. Time for a concussion protocol intervention, except, wait, this is 1956 and they didn’t worry about concussions. So Condie (who is also the team coach) may have to come out of the game. And the referee says “you’re down to three players, you’re going to have to forfeit.”

What? Are you kidding me? I sat there in the theater, absolutely dumb-founded. They have 9 guys on the team. They’re down to 3?!?!? How did that happen? How did (carry the 7, multiply by pi) 6 guys either foul out or get injured? We didn’t see anyone foul out. We didn’t see anyone get injured. What we see is Condie getting fouled, resulting in . . . someone else on his team getting disqualified? And the French team getting the ball out of bounds? Also, the ref (an Olympic referee) is talking forfeit? He doesn’t know the rules well enough to know that you are, actually allowed to play 3 on 5?

What happens is this: Condie shakes off his brain fog, gives an Inspiring Speech, and he and his pals do battle, 3 on 5. And for once, the movie gets the basketball a little right–the French, with a two man advantage, spread the floor and go backdoor for the game winning layup (though the final score remains a classified military secret). Condie hangs his head for a bit. But the Aussie crowd goes wild, standing O, cheering with enthusiasm, and then rushing the court to make appointments with the missionaries for discussions leading to mass baptisms. (I may have made that last bit up).

If that ending doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because it doesn’t make sense. (6 guys fouled out, that’s like 60 free throws–no wonder that the Frenchies won). I was reduced to sitting there in the movie theater going “What? What?” This is not how you should feel at the end of a feel-good sports movie.

I will say this about it: the cars all looked great. It used all these vintage ’50s cars, and they all looked terrific. And there’s a throwaway character, a little kid named Lindsay Gaze, who I assume was Andrew Gaze’s grandfather. And teenaged Bill Russell makes a brief appearance. (And why oh why do the opening credits run over footage from Texas Western beating Kentucky? In 1966?) So it had some nostalgia value for fans. (Also, I’m a Utah Jazz fan, and there are two Aussies on our squad this year).

Still. This. A story of a group of missionaries teaching the inept Australian basketball team how to play basketball is an inherently comedic one, isn’t it? Isn’t it hoops Cool Runnings? But instead, we get this exercise in patriarchal sanctimony. It’s not terrible. But it was unfortunate. That’s a good story. Hope someone tells it better some day.

A fundamental question of patriotism

There was a debate last night. For the last time in this election cycle, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton made their case to America. At times, they engaged in a fairly substantive discussion. An early question about abortion allowed each to establish their, respectively, pro-choice and pro-life bonafides. I don’t think either of them won any voters over on that most polarizing of issues, but both defended their positions with some passion. Trump did, I think, badly misrepresent the pro-choice position, but it’s likely that my pro-life friends would say the same about Secretary Clinton.

I wouldn’t say, up to that point, that Donald Trump did well. He spoke forcefully enough. But he’s woefully ill-informed about the issues, and is much given to strong declarative statements on policy that turn out to be entirely and completely untrue. And I wish I could say that Hillary Clinton confined her comments to substantive discussions of policy, but Trump has made too many bizarre pronouncements on the campaign trail to really ignore. She spent much of the debate plucking that low-hanging fruit. That works tactically for her, as he’s sufficiently thin-skinned that he can’t help but respond to what he perceives as insults, finally blurting out “what a nasty woman.” (The nimbleness of the Clinton campaign is evidenced by the fact that, within minutes, they had purchased the web domain, which now redirects to the Clinton For President website).

But then came the defining moment of the debate, the headline in every paper in America this morning. Here’s the exchange. I’m going to quote it at length, because it’s so important:

Wallace: Mr. Trump, I want to ask you about one last question in this topic. You’ve been warning at rallies recently that this election is rigged and that Hillary Clinton is in the process of trying to steal it from you. Your running mate Governor Pence pledged on Sunday that he and you, his words, will absolutely accept the result of this election. Today your daughter Ivanka said the same thing. I want to ask you here on the stage tonight, do you make the same commitment that you’ll absolutely accept the result of the election.

Trump: I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now, I’ll look at it at the time. What I’ve seen, what I’ve seen, is so bad. First of all, the media is so dishonest and so corrupt and the pile on is so amazing. “The New York Times” actually wrote an article about it, but they don’t even care. It is so dishonest, and they have poisoned the minds of the voters. But unfortunately for them, I think the voters are seeing through it. I think they’re going to see through it, we’ll find out on November 8th, but I think they’re going to see through it. If you look —

Wallace: But, but —

Trump: Excuse me, Chris. If you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people that are registered to vote. Millions. This isn’t coming from me. This is coming from Pew report and other places. Millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn’t be registered to vote. So let me just give you one other thing. I talk about the corrupt media. I talk about the millions of people. I’ll tell you one other thing. She shouldn’t be allowed to run. It’s — She’s guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run, and just in that respect I say it’s rigged because she should never —

Wallace: But, but —

Trump: Chris. She should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with e-mails and so many other things.

Wallace: But, sir, there is a tradition in this country, in fact, one of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power and no matter how hard fought a campaign is that at the end of the campaign, that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying you’re necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?

Trump: What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?

Clinton: Well, Chris, let me respond to that, because that’s horrifying.

“I’ll keep you in suspense.” “That’s horrifying.”

In 1800, John Adams lost the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson. It was a nasty, contentious election, and although the two men would eventually reconcile, at the time Adams was furious. But when the votes were counted, he graciously conceded defeat, and stepped down. That precedent for the peaceful transfer of power has become one of the great strengths of American democracy. When Presidential candidates lose an election, they concede, completely and without reservation. They pledge their support for the new President.

Two examples, one from each party. In 1960, the Presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was exceedingly close. Kennedy won by a little over 100,000 votes nationwide: 49.72% to 49.55%. Kennedy did win the electoral college 303-219.

But the vote totals were questionable, Kennedy’s victory tainted. In Illinois, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was widely perceived as corrupt (because he was), and the Daley political machine guilty of voter fraud, which was, uh, not unimaginable. (“I see no reason to deprive a loyal, life-long Democrat of his voting franchise merely because he has passed on to a better world,” a Daley flunky is supposed to have said). And Texas politics were similarly colorful. And Kennedy’s running mate was “Landslide” Lyndon Johnson, whose place in the Senate was due to widely suspected chicanery, as he defeated former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson by 87 votes in 1948.

My father-in-law, a lifelong Republican, was convinced that Kennedy’s victory was illegitimate. He believed that Kennedy won both Texas and Illinois due to voter fraud, and that both states should have gone to Nixon, which would have given him exactly 270 electoral votes, enough for the win. And Nixon’s advisors wanted him to contest the election. Make a fuss. Insist on a full investigation, including recounts in both states. Nixon refused. He said “I want Senator Kennedy to know he has my wholehearted support.” It had been a bitterly contested election, and Nixon would not allow divisiveness to continue.

In that moment, Richard Nixon proved himself a patriot. He put the good of the nation ahead of his own personal ambitions. And, of course, he was eventually elected President, and we all know how that turned out. Still, he deserves full credit for his 1960 concession. He upheld the American democratic tradition. If you lose, you step down.

Next example: 2000. Al Gore and George W. Bush engaged in one of the closest elections in American history. Gore won the popular vote, 50, 999, 879 to 50, 456, 002. The deciding state was Florida, and the margins were razor thin. Initially, it appeared that Bush had won Florida by 537 votes; that total was close enough to trigger a mandatory recount according to Florida law. The exact mechanics of the recount was extensively litigated. Finally, the US Supreme Court stepped in, and by a 5-4 margin, Bush was declared the winner.

Again, Gore might have contested it in the court of public opinion. He did not. Al Gore was a patriot. Citing “the strength of American democracy” as his guide, he conceded the election.

I could discuss other examples. Democrat Samuel Tilden, in 1876, won the popular vote by a substantial margin. But electoral votes were disputed for three states–Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. A commission was appointed to resolve the issue, and a deal was struck, ending Reconstruction in exchange for the election of Rutherford Hayes, by one electoral vote. And Tilden was a patriot. Tilden conceded defeat.

The time and energy and money and, above all, emotional investment required to run for President of the United States must be far above anything most of us ever go through. (Probably the one thing we might compare it to is pregnancy–that level of total commitment). Therefore the ultimate test of the strength of our democracy comes when the election is over, when we peacefully transfer power to the new President. Our losing candidates go into the process aware of our traditions, hoping to win, aware that they might lose, aware as well of the absolute necessity of a graceful concession.

That’s why the post-debate commentary last night was so strongly stated and so unanimous. “I’ll keep you in suspense?” Not in America. Donald Trump’s refusal to state unequivocally that he will concede defeat if he loses was the main topic every commentator addressed. Steve Schmidt (John McCain’s campaign manager) condemned it. Nicolle Wallace, who worked with Schmidt, agreed with Hillary Clinton: his comments were “horrifying.” And Hugh Hewitt (conservative commentator) called Trump’s comments “disqualifying.”

And Hewitt’s right. Wallace’s question went right to the heart of who we are as a democracy. Donald Trump was faced with the ultimate test of his patriotism. And he failed. Donald Trump has disqualified himself to serve as President of the United States. He put his ego over his country. He has proven himself insufficiently patriotic.


The Accountant: Movie Review

The Accountant is sort of an odd duck of a movie. On the one hand–and most successfully–it’s an action thriller. On the other hand, its hero is autistic. Much of the movie seems to be suggesting a spectacularly ill-conceived approach to raising an autistic child. But the autistic adult that emerges from that approach seems reasonably high-functioning. And good at violence. So: mixed bag.

In a way, the movie could be titled Rain Man: Action Hero. It perpetuates the stereotype that autistic equals math savant. In fact, as I understand it, autistic people are as diverse as the neurotypical population are. I suspect that people who know more about autism than I do might not like this movie very much; might even dislike it intensely.

Ben Affleck plays, well, let’s call him “Christian Wolff,” though the movie takes some pains to point out that that’s not his real name. He’s autistic. He’s a superstar forensic accountant, a guy with uncommon abilities to concentrate on, memorize and synthesize complex financial records, who seems mostly to work for the most dangerous criminal enterprises, but sometimes just for common-or-garden corporate bad guys. He can take fifteen years worth of corporate financial records and over the course of a single night, uncover how much money is being embezzled, and by whom. This skill set tends to make certain highly vicious clients angry, so it’s helpful that he’s also good at violence. He’s an exceptionally well trained martial artist, a sniper of uncommon accuracy, in addition to elite level Navy-SEAL/Army Ranger/Green Beret type combat skills.

Like many autistics, Christian has certain sensory sensitivities, to light and sound, which he overcomes through “stimming,” a strategy of sensory overload. Every night at 9:41, he subjects himself to 20 minutes of screamingly loud death metal music, combined with strobe lights, while stroking his legs with a rolling pin. He maintains a small accounting office, and in an early scene, helps an elderly couple resolve their tax bill creatively. He copes. He may miss non-verbal cues from time to time, but he can function. And then all the shooting starts.

He gets a new client, a brother-and-sister owned robotics firm (John Lithgow and Jean Smart). An irregularity has been discovered by a junior accountant there, Dana (Anna Kendrick). He plows through the company’s records, writing on the wall with magic markers the way movies always show math geeks doing, code for ‘genius at work.’ When Dana sees it all, she immediately gets it. We sense that Christian is charmed. He’s met a kindred spirit.

Honestly, Anna Kendrick saves this movie. It’s a dark action thriller, full of intense conversations between menacing bureaucrats (including J. K. Simmons, as a Treasury Agent, and Cynthia Addai-Robinson as his colleague). Kendrick is so much more alive than any of the other characters, charming and funny. The movie just barely hints at a possible romance between Christian and Dana, and I wish they’d actually gone there, not because it needs a romance, but because it would have given Anna Kendrick more screen time.

Okay, so the robotics company sends hit men after Dana, and Christian fights them all off, and more violence ensues, pitting Affleck’s merciless efficiency against Jon Bernthal’s Brax, a ruthless hit man for hire. And the action sequences were competently rendered, if a bit John Wick-ish. (The new trend seems to be the headshot–you knock the bad guy down, shoot him in the chest, then put him away with one shot to the forehead).

But what I found fascinating were the movie’s many flashback sequences, in which we see Christian’s upbringing. His father, played by Robert C. Treveiler, is a military officer, who believes in a code of toughness. Recognizing that his autistic son is different, and recognizing that people who are different are more often bullied, he trains both his boys to fight. They get lessons from martial arts experts. They get advanced combat training. Young Christian becomes a fighting machine, and so does his younger brother.

Well, is that the way to raise an autistic kid? To fight, and then to fight some more? I doubt it. But the movie could be seen as making an argument. This world’s a tough and violent place, and autistic people can easily be victimized, as can anyone unusual. Do you train a ten-year old the way you’d train a Navy SEAL? No, obviously. But maybe this movie is trying to make a strong anti-coddling statement. If so, look how Affleck’s character turns out? In constant danger, yes. But also wealthy, successful, a refined owner of paintings by Pollock and Degas. Able to communicate, to meet someone, to chat, to connect, at least somewhat. And also able to blow off a guy’s head at 500 yards, then sneak closer, and kill with his bare hands.

I think it kind of depends on how seriously to take this. It’s basically Taken (“I have a certain set of skills”), and Taken isn’t a movie anyone would bother, you know, studying. Bill Dubuque’s screenplay concludes with two plot twist reveals, one of which I completely missed and had to have my wife explain to me (“Oh, that’s what was going on there!”). Those are always fun, and that’s the thing; if you don’t overthink it, this is an entertaining and exciting action movie.

A profound commentary on autism? Certainly not. Though baby steps towards some kind of comment seems to be buried amidst the shooting and stabbing and punching. Take the movie seriously, and it all falls apart. But relax with it, on a cold fall day, and you’ll probably have a guilty-pleasure good time.

Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, book review

On July 4, 1788, in Poughkeepsie, New York, the good citizens of the town gathered together for a patriotic celebration and parade. The parade culminated in a giant bonfire. And at the top of the bonfire, they carefully placed a copy of the proposed Constitution of the United States. And everyone cheered as the Constitution went up in flames. Why would they do this? Why, for obvious reasons. These were freedom loving people, patriots all. And this newfangled Constitution thing was the most obvious possible threat to American liberty.

Reading this story was just one of the many pleasures of Pauline Maier’s splendid new book, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. Maier’s book is exhaustively researched; as such, it’s full of surprises. We tend to think of our Constitution as kind of miraculous, as divinely inspired, even. Certainly nobody at the time thought so. Even it’s strongest defenders were convinced that it was a deeply flawed document, and in many cases, the best defense that could be mustered for it added up to ‘let’s try it, and in time, we’ll see clearly enough–and can amend–its most serious flaws.’ Heck, we could probably do worse, all things considered.

I did not know, for example, how much the Federalists (that loose coalition of people who fought for ratification), feared Patrick Henry of Virginia. Virginia was the ultimate swing state–the most populous in the union, the United States could not plausibly survive without it, and the ratification vote was likely to be very close indeed. And in part, that was because of Henry, Mr. “Give me Liberty or Give Me Death” (which he almost certainly never said). Henry was an extraordinary orator, inexhaustible and eloquent, and fiercely opposed to the Constitution. The fear was that that, all by himself, he could sway undecided delegates by the bushelful. And it turns out that what Henry probably wanted was essentially two independent American nations, one in the North and one in the South, with the Southern confederation retaining the peculiar institution of slavery.  I say ‘probably’ because he never quite was able to make that case explicitly–he seems to have been aware that it was too radical for most of his fellow delegates. So he limited himself to tying the convention in knots.

There was a general consensus that one fellow delegate might have the knowledge and eloquence to combat Henry, James Madison. Madison was not, however well, and initially didn’t even think he could manage to attend the ratifying convention. And when he did show up, his illness weakened him to the point that he was difficult to hear, apparently. (He was a slight man, physically, anyway). But even on the written page, Madison’s intellect just shines. The Virginia debate between Madison and Henry becomes one of those time machine moments; you wish you could have been there. (Understanding that Henry and Madison each spoke for hours at a time, in that multi-clause, densely punctuated 18th century prose).

The specific issues that the various ratifying conventions had with the Constitution read oddly today, though Maier does a brilliant job of putting them into context. In many instances, anti-Federalists were animated by local concerns, with issues specific to their own circumstances. One of the biggest worries is the brief reference in Article 2 Section 3 about ‘direct taxes.’ Those who opposed the Constitution often cited that provision as particularly odious. They felt that state legislators were more likely to tax people fairly, because of their close acquaintance with their circumstances; even then, the federal government was seen as too distant from citizens’ concerns. Nobody knew what ‘direct taxes’ were, or how they would function, but still they were feared. (Needlessly, as it happens; direct taxes were hardly ever collected, only at time of war, and were eventually superceded by the federal income tax after the passage of the 16th amendment).

Another major concern had to do with the office of Vice President. That office was seen as unnecessary and dangerous–in fact, the fear was that the Vice President would become uncontrollably powerful. That idea is amusing to us today. But since the Vice President breaks a tie in the Senate, and since the presumption was that Senators would disagree about everything, Anti-Federalists thought the VP would be breaking ties all the time, giving him near-dictatorial powers.

The biggest issue raised in all the ratifying conventions had to do with amendments. Pretty much everyone agreed that the Constitution was flawed, and would need to be amended. New York recommended dozens of amendments. For one thing, the Constitution didn’t have a proper bill of rights. And every state took issue with some provision or another, direct taxes being particularly controversial. So delegates at those state ratifying conventions had to decide; should they ratify now and amend later, or should they agree to ratify only if certain amendments were agreed to beforehand.

Our constitution might look very different today if those ratifying delegates had insisted on amendments as a precondition to ratification. Fortunately, no state did, though the margin was razor-thin in some states, most particularly New York, Virginia and Rhode Island.

If you love the Constitution, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. But don’t look for evidence of divine inspiration or miraculous interventions. Such were never part of the writing of the Constitution or of its ratification. Instead, what we had were a large number of intelligent and thoughtful men with very different agendas and priorities, arguing, discussing and eventually compromising their way to a document that none of them thought perfect, but which all agreed was probably the best they could come up with, given their circumstances. And it’s served us well. That’s miracle enough for me.


Lying, corruption, and the Presidential election

Let’s talk about lying.

In this endless, soul-abrading electoral season, accusations of lies and corruption and rampant dishonesty have been tossed back and forth like so many hand grenades. Both candidates are described by their enemies as being the biggest liars in the history of American politics. And corrupt beyond description. And completely untrustworthy. And so on.

And it can all be difficult to sort out. Who is trying to mislead us; what sources can be trusted. And, of course, we all want our President to be a basically honest person. And we also have to ruefully admit that none of us could withstand the kind of scrutiny to which a Presidential candidate is subjected. I think I’m a reasonably honest guy. But if everything I ever said ever about anything was carefully parsed by a national media just looking for inconsistencies and errors, I’d probably end up looking terrible.

So here are some ground rules that I think reasonable people can agree on.

First, in order to call a statement a lie, the person saying it has to know it isn’t true. There has to be a deliberate attempt to deceive. That’s why policy differences shouldn’t really inflated to ‘lies.’ I saw an internet meme the other day: ‘twenty Hillary Clinton lies.’ Eighteen of them were just statements of policy. Example: Hillary stated that her tax proposals will result in ‘x’ dollars in new tax revenue. ‘That’s a lie!’ this meme shrieked. But a policy estimate is not the same thing as a lie. I suppose it’s possible that an economic projection could be a lie. If you said “The Tax Policy Center says this proposal will reduce the deficit by x amount,” and the TPC had never vetted the proposal, and you knew that when you said it, okay, that’s a lie. But that kind of thing rarely happens. Even if your proposal is bonkers, you can probably find a think tank somewhere to praise it. To call someone a liar, you have to know that they said something untrue, that the knew it was it untrue when they said it, and that they said it with intent to deceive.

Second, to judge the veracity of some statement or another, you need to know where the information came from and if it’s a reliable source. So, for example, there’s a new book about Bill and Hillary Clinton, published by WND Books. It has Hillary acting in a particularly shrewish manner. A little research shows that WND Books is a rabid right-wing publisher, having published, among many other fine tomes, a book accusing President Obama of treason. The putative author of this book, Dolly Kyle, claims to have had a 33 year affair with Bill Clinton. No proof, just her word on it. Even then, the most damaging stories in the book, she admits, describe events she didn’t see, but heard about second or third hand. This book, in other words (and I’m not going to tell you the title), is a very poor source for information about the Clintons. In fact, it really has no credibility at all. (A tell-all book by some supposed intimate of Donald Trump, published by, say, The Daily Kos, wouldn’t be terribly reliable either). FWIW, I automatically discount any story that was ever reported, at all, by Matt Drudge, or that ever appeared in The Drudge Report and Breitbart are automatically suspect sources.

Third, when it comes to charges of corruption and wrong-doing, we have to have solid, unimpeachable evidence. For example, Hillary Clinton gave paid speeches for big New York investment banks. Does this automatically mean that she’s corrupt? For many people on both the Right and Left, the answer to that question is ‘yes.’ She took money from Wall Street. That makes her a corrupt tool of the system. But that doesn’t follow. Corruption is a serious charge. You have to prove it. You have to demonstrate some clear example of a quid pro quo. She took this money, and she did that for it. No one has found a single instance of this for Hillary.  By the same token, Donald Trump is a New York real estate developer. That industry has traditionally had ties to criminal enterprises. That doesn’t mean that Donald Trump is mobbed up. I want proof before I’ll believe it.

So with those ground rules in place, let’s look at some news stories that have become part of the Trump’s-a-crook, Hillary’s-crooked narratives.

Benghazi. “Hillary lied; people died.”

Well, no. First of all, there’s absolutely no connection whatsoever between whatever lies Secretary Clinton may have told and the tragic deaths of Ambassador Stevens and the three security personnel. Even if the nastiest right wing Benghazi narratives were true, Benghazi has been thoroughly investigated and adjudicated. About all that’s left is this: the day after the attacks, she met with the families of those who had died, and told them that the Benghazi attacks were the results of an anti-Islamic video. Was this a lie?

No, it absolutely was not. Hillary Clinton didn’t lie to anyone about Benghazi. Her information didn’t happen to be entirely accurate. But that doesn’t make it a lie.

September 11 2012 was a terrible day for the State Department. A vicious, anti-Muslim video, Innocence of Muslims, had been broadcast throughout the Middle East, leading to spontaneous, angry rioting in most major cities, usually outside US embassies. For awhile there, it looked like the US embassy in Cairo would be overrun. In that ‘fog of war’ context, the Benghazi attack must have looked like similar riots in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere.

In fact, Benghazi was a little different; it was a more carefully planned and executed attack, though the Benghazi attackers did say they were responding to the video. Secretary Clinton did tell the Benghazi families that the attack on the mission was a spontaneous anti-video uprising. Meanwhile, she sent an email to Chelsea (just a quick ‘this is what’s happening’ thing) saying the attack had been made by Al Qaeda. That wasn’t true either; the attack was made by the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia.

In other words, on a particularly confusing day, with contradictory intelligence arriving all the time, the Secretary provided the victims’ families with an explanation that reflected the noise and confusion of a particularly difficult day. It turned out not to be true. That doesn’t make it a lie. For her to have lied makes no sense anyway; what was there to gain by misleading those families? What possible reason could she have, aside from an imaginary natural predilection for malevolence. It was a terrorist attack, and it was organized, and it happened in response to the anti-Islamic video. That’s the essence of what she said about it, and what President Obama said about it the same day.

Okay. What about Trump? Did Donald Trump lie about sexually assaulting various women? It’s not looking good for him.

In the second debate, Trump said, unequivocally, that the actions he described in the famous ‘Billy Bush’ video did not describe anything he’d actually done. Ten women have now come forward with stories of being assaulted by him. In every case, they had corroborating evidence–usually involving friends they’d told of the attacks at the time they happened. So, yes, I think we can say he did lie in the debate.

What’s really remarkable about Donald Trump, though, is that he consistently denies having said things in the past that he clearly and obviously did say. It’s really bizarre. When we’ve seen him say things, it really doesn’t make sense to deny it.

To be fair, though, it’s also clear that Bill Clinton lied when he said he didn’t have sexual relations with Monica Lewinski. That was a lie. But Bill Clinton isn’t running for public office this year. And as far as I can tell, his wife is generally a very honest person. Allegations are not evidence, and she’s been investigated more thoroughly than most previous candidates. And found not guilty every time. And when you hear about the various Hillary lies she’s supposed to have told, they tend to vanish into thin air. She just isn’t much of a liar. Honestly, she isn’t.

Mascots: Movie review

It’s always a glorious day in the Samuelsen home when we learn that Christopher Guest has released a new mockumentary. Starting with This is Spinal Tap (1984), in which he acted but did not direct, and continuing with the films he both wrote, directed and starred in: Waiting For Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003), For Your Consideration (2006), Guest has created a bitter-sweet comedic body of work that stands up to the test of time, as funny and human as anything done anywhere by anybody.  I mustn’t neglect the TV series Family Tree (2013), which I loved, but which wasn’t quite as laugh-out-loud funny as the movies have been. Now comes Mascots, just released on Netflix. I’d say it’s B+ Guest, funny and heartbreaking, but perhaps not quite as profound as the very best of his work: Guffman, Show, and Wind.

The Guest method has been refined to perfection. He starts off with a setting–a community musical, a dog show, a folk music revival concert. We meet dozens of brilliantly rendered and eccentric characters attached in some way to that event, drawn, usually, from the same extraordinary pool of actors. They improvise scenes and monologues while the camera rolls, and then Guest and his editors put it all together. In the case of Mascots, it’s an international sports mascot competition.

I missed Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean and Eugene Levy, Guest regulars. But Guest made up for it by reprising his role as Corky St. Clair, the sublimely inept director/playwright/actor from Waiting for Guffman. He’s back, mentoring Parker Posey’s Cindi Babineaux, a superbly avant-garde Alvin the Armadillo mascot, with tire tracks all over her costume, and a cheerleader-overcome-by-l’ennui affected cheering pose. She’s just a spectacular creation, exactly what we can imagine Libby Mae Brown (Posey’s character from Guffman) becoming under Corky’s tutelage. And she partners with her half-sister, Laci (Susan Yeagley), who chews gum incessantly, even when seducing fellow mascots in elevators.

I was also entranced by Zach Woods and Sarah Baker, playing Michael and Mindy Murray, Ollie the Octopus and Tammy the Turtle, baseball playing mascots, whose act, at times, reveals a deeply seated mutual hostility as their otherwise cheery marriage unravels. Both Woods and Baker were brilliant–an oh-so-happy couple, with, uh, issues. And it was thrilling to see Tom Bennett again, who was so wonderful as a dopey aristocrat in Love and Friendship. Here, he’s Owen Golly (pronounced Jolly), a soccer loving Hedgehog mascot, a role he inherited from his Dad and Granddad. Bennett gets less funny things to do and say than some of the other characters, and makes more of them–I fell in love with the whole Golly clan. There’s also Christopher Moynihan, as Phil, a Plumber mascot, who comes complete with a prop toilet, and a Turd sidekick. And finally Chris O’Dowd as Tommy, a massively aggressive mascot called The Fist. He’s just a big Fist. His sport is hockey, and he proudly declares he’s been banned from six different venues.

Also included are Jane Lynch and Ed Begley Jr. as judges–winners get a Fluffy; that’s what they call the main prize. And Jennifer Coolidge and Bob Balaban as the wealthy couple, the Lumpkins, who underwrite the event. And John Michael Higgins as a representative from the Gluten Free Network, TV producers who might be willing to broadcast future Fluffys. And finally, the immortal Fred Willard, who brings his astounding cluelessness to bear as a mascot coach fascinated by little people. (“Did they make you this size so you could fit in the worm costume?”)

Is it as good a movie as Waiting for Guffman? No. Is it better–certainly funnier–than any other movie playing in town right now? Absolutely. Netflix streaming, folks. Christopher Guest is back.

Ubu for President

Down the rabbit hole. Kafkaesque. 2016: where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. Just describing this current election strains the descriptive faculty. This election feels more like art than politics. But not the kind of art we’re used to; weird art, avant-garde art. A hundred years after the preposterously brutal horror of World War One led to the rise of futurism, surrealism, expressionism, absurdism, artists insisting that art no longer describe reality, reality itself having been violently shattered, so what we needed instead was anti-art, reflecting a radical opposition to/immersion in politics. I feel like we’ve stepped into a time machine, gone back 100 years, to 1916 and Zurich and the Cabaret Voltaire, where Dada reigned. Dada was a nonsense word for nonsense art; its performers tore up Shakespeare’s sonnets, then read their words in random order. Or placed a lovely French child on-stage, in her first communion dress, to read a poem consisting of the vilest profanities in German, a language of which the child was ignorant. Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, and Jean Arp, who was also called Hans Arp, because as he held joint citizenship in France and Germany.  This election reminds me of Dada. Anti-art, reflecting anti-politics. Because the Republican Party–the conservative, white bread, buttoned down, relentlessly bourgeois party!–has nominated Donald “Ubu” Trump for the Presidency.

But let’s take our time machine back another twenty years. To December 10, 1896, the one performance of Ubu Roi, a hilarious and blasphemous and horrifying and intentionally offensive play by the madman/genius Alfred Jarry, at the Theatre de lŒuvre in Paris. Riots shut down the show. In fact, rioting began with the first word spoken on-stage: “merdre,” almost, but not quite, a French swear word. And in the play, the fat and disgusting Ubu raged and whined and beat his wife and insulted women, while conquering Poland.  In the audience was William Butler Yeats. He was shocked and horrified and appalled by the play, but more than a little impressed, and reflected on his own avant-garde past, and then added “after us, what more is possible? The savage God.” Ubu Roi is a grotesque caricature of the bourgeoisie, with the revolutionary Ubu at its center: violent, inarticulate, brutal, venal, misogynist, racist. A revolutionary who becomes King. Sound like someone you know?

So I make this case. Ubu Roi, by Alfred Jarry, prefigures the candidacy of Donald Trump. It’s savage and it’s funny and it’s profoundly anti-democratic. Isn’t Trump running, not for President, but for King? Isn’t his candidacy built, as Ubu’s first line puts it, on ‘merdre?’ Not quite merde, but close to it, the misspelling adding to the ridiculousness of it, the whole play teetering on the edge of comedy, if it wasn’t so horrifying. After its one performance, it was obvious that the play could no longer be performed as written. So Jarry turned it into puppet theatre. And wrote two more plays in an extended Ubu saga, neither of which was performed in his lifetime, except with puppets. And Ubu begat dada, and surrealism, and absurdism. Ubu leads to Zurich, and the dada crowd.

This is now. This is happening. Murderous clowns cavort in southern forests. An advisor to a major party Presidential nominee insists that the current President of the United States is demonic, that he reeks of sulphur and attracts hordes of flies. A new movement has arisen, insisting that Obama was demonized–turned demonic–by the Grand Demon from Hell: Oprah Winfrey. A televised Presidential debate was conducted with a Greek chorus of accusing Furies, assault victims of one candidate’s husband, sitting in grim judgment. As for Hillary Clinton, another close advisor to Mr. Trump has detailed descriptions of 67 homicides she’s supposed to have committed. That’s where we are. A sizeable percentage of the electorate is convinced that one of the candidates is a serial killer.

Our political process has become ontologically unstable, if not epistemologically unhinged. We can’t agree on what’s real. We can’t agree on what sources we can read that might describe what’s real. To paraphrase Yeats again, in his greatest poem, we’re turning, turning in the widening gyre, the center really cannot hold. (But, boy, can we ever more clearly than ever, the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born). We don’t agree about the basic nature of the world. We don’t agree about what ‘truth’ means. We have at our fingertips the greatest technology for the dissemination of information ever invented, and we have learned, to our dismay and shock, that all it does, aside from sharing cute kitten videos, is exacerbate confirmation bias. Make us more polarized. More at each other’s throats.

We’re used to elections in which the candidates do not agree about policy. That’s normal. That’s usual. I feel considerable nostalgia for 2012 (so long ago in the past, it feels!) when Barack Obama and Mitt Romney disagreed about things like tax policy. Deep in our hearts and souls, we knew that both men were fully qualified to become President, and would do their best to serve honorably if elected.

(But there was always something beneath that, wasn’t there? An irrational core of festering hatred and fear and racism and self-disgust. It was always there, barely acknowledged, but bursting forth periodically).

But what now, when we can’t even agree about what issues our country actually faces, what problems we expect our politics to solve? Look at Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. It was death and destruction, murder and violence, hordes of roaming illegal immigrants slaughtering our children. He said “Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this Administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.” He said “This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction and weakness.”

Apocalyptic language; if Hillary Clinton wins this election, we cannot survive. And of course, that’s happened before. Hyperbolic prophecies of incipient doom are often invoked by the most fanatical political partisans, Right or Left. But this is something else again. I’ve talked to Trump supporters, and if there’s one thing they have in common, it is an insistence that our country is in terrible shape, and that unless something is done about it, we may not any of us survive. Or at least, our fragile democracy is seriously threatened.

(And it’s all nonsense. Violent crime statistics show massive decreases over the last eight years. Nafta didn’t destroy our economy, and Isis isn’t much of a threat, and immigration is a good thing, economically, even if it’s illegal. He’s factually wrong about everything).

When irrationality triumphs, what’s left are irrational false narratives. Conspiracy theories. Here was Donald Trump today on the campaign trail.

Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt — now, when I say “corrupt,” I’m talking about totally corrupt — political establishment. There is nothing the political establishment will not do — no lie that they won’t tell, to hold their prestige and power at your expense. And that’s what’s been happening. . It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.

This is not simply another four-year election. This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not we the people reclaim control over our government.

This is nothing new. This kind of rhetoric has been used before, most appallingly in Germany in the 30s. Once it was the Rothschilds, or, more simply, a cabal of “Jewish bankers” conspiring together to destroy America, or the world economy, or western civilization. Or ‘mongrel races.’ Or it was ZOG that threatened (Zionist Occupation Government, a favorite acronym of the Ku Klux Klan). Or perhaps something more actively demonic. Alex Jones (a ‘2-degrees of separation’ Trump advisor) had this to say.

I’m told her and Obama just stink, stink, stink. You can’t wash that stuff off, man. I’m told there’s a rotten smell around Hillary. I’ve been told this by high-up folks. They say, listen, Obama and Hillary smell like sulphur. I’ve talked to people who are on protective details. They’re scared of her. They say, listen, she’s a demon, and so’s Obama, and they stink of sulphur.

And now, it appears, there’s a new evangelical group of Trump backers, who claim to have identified the arch-demon who turned Barack and Hillary evil. Who? Wait for it: Oprah Winfrey.

That’s where we are. That’s where we stand. At the end of Ubu, he wrestles, and defeats a bear, a traditional symbol for Russia. Earlier, Russia invades Poland. It’s like Jarry sort of even got the politics right. Russia as threat and savior? Seriously?

Jarry once described himself as ‘blind and unwavering undisciplined at all times the real strength of free men.’ Blind as Trump is blind, unwavering (the Mexicans are paying for that wall, by golly!), and so remarkably undisciplined, with insanely self-destructive tweets at four in the morning. Every morning, I check the internet. What else has happened? Could anything get stranger? Ignoring two major hurricanes, because that madman did something even more surreal last night. Dada: absolutely. Ubu indeed.




The Mormon Artists’ Retreat

Cows. Paintings of cows. Long faced cows, staring out at us, forlornly. Cows, representing the artist’s own fractured family. There’s an artist who looks at fields, from the vantage point of a driver on a lonely highway, and sees subjects for wonderfully flat paintings. Painting after painting, sculpture after sculpture, LDS artists finding inspiration in images and vistas and subjects I would never so much as consider. And transforming them.

The Mormon Artists’ Retreat this year was held, as in the recent past, at Aspen Grove, right up by Sundance, back side of Timp. We moved from cabin to cabin, making new friends, embracing old ones. The culmination of the weekend was on Friday night, when we gathered together for Show and Tell. We heard musicians I hadn’t heard before (and bought their CDs!). We saw a power point of the painters and sculptors and photographers, and saw the world through their eyes. And basked in art. In new art, old art, fresh art, spoken art, written art, painted and carved and sculpted and sung and played and acted art.

I needed this. This time last year, I was coming off my second surgery of what would be three, getting ever sicker and feeling more hopeless. This time last year, I had no gigs, no prospects for gigs, no inspiration. Now, a year later, I have two play productions on the horizon, a paper to write for a conference, a blog to neglect. The Artists’ Retreat blew a breath of renewal. I came away refreshed, inspired. Also knackered, but in a good way.

Saturday morning, after breakfast, a guitarist, Ben Howington, got up on stage and started playing the guitar and singing; the Battle Hymn of the Republic, that fabulous old abolitionist anthem. And then a woman I don’t know, Melody, a jazz pianist, went up to the piano and joined in, and they played together, passing solos back and forth. And Sam Cardon adjusted a mic so we could hear her better. Sam Cardon, one of the most distinguished of Mormon composers, playing roadie. And we started singing, a full-throated shout of praise and thanksgiving and determination. “As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free!” Sing it.

And then we’d gather, and talk. And it occurred to me; I’ve been going to this for twenty years. And in the past, there’d be talk about The World, and the kind of Worldly Art we Mormons needed to shun, or transcend, or generally avoid. This year, that was gone; this year, the rhetoric was about seeing the World, recognizing its glory, building on the best. The relationship between The World and The Spirit is not one of opposition. It’s a conversation.

Let the conversation continue. My people are doing great work, and so are people, everyone, everywhere. Mine eyes have seen the glory! Hallelujah.

The Magnificent Seven: Movie Review

I was so looking forward to seeing this movie. Chris Pratt, Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio. A western. Plus a remake/new version of two of the greatest movies ever: Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) and John Sturges The Magnificent Seven (1960). A terrific trailer, using a hard rockin’ version of The House of the Rising Sun to drive it. Anthony Fuqua directing. It had everything going for it.

Except a good movie. It wasn’t the worst movie I’ve seen this year. It was a pretty conventional action thriller, with a higher body count than most. Denzel did Denzel things and Chris Pratt did Chris Pratt things and some of the battle sequences were well-staged. Byung-hun Lee has the chops to hold down an action movie on his own some day, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo does the gunfighter pistol-twirling thing as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. Also, who’s Martin Sensmeier? As the film’s token Native American good guy, he had some real charisma.

So the movie was ah-aight. But the earlier two movies it’s based on are among the finest films ever made. They’re films with astonishing action sequences, but in a context of moral ambiguity, pain, tragedy, human complexity. I don’t know what went wrong this time, but it’s the biggest disappointment of the year, even more so than the recent mediocre Ben-Hur. Hollywood seems intent these days in taking absolutely great movies of the past and wrecking our recollection of them with these crappy remakes. Thanks for the meh-mories, guys.

Could it have been better? Absolutely. The performance of the movie came from Haley Bennett, playing a young widow named Emma. She’s the woman who finds Chisholm (Denzel), and hires him to hire a few more guns, to fight off the marauding hordes of nasty businessman Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). That’s the plot, basically. But Bennett grounds her too infrequent scenes in an overpowering foundation of pure grief. Missed opportunity; we see Faraday (Pratt), the gambler, checking her out, and we get a sense of a womanizer sizing up his next prey. But he never does make his move; he’s a perfect gentleman. He’s a professional gambler and card cheat, and he murders his card victims. Faraday is a thoroughly unpleasant character as written–which is great dramaturgically. After all, the Seven aren’t supposed to be good guys. It’s a movie where both sides are morally compromised, and if the Seven finally do redeem themselves, it’s due to their brave fight against impossible odds.

So, really, Faraday should make a move on Emma. And who knows, maybe she even consents, to a meaningless tryst that might solidify this particular gunman’s commitment to her fight? Why not? It doesn’t mean anything to her; in Bennett’s performance, this woman has ceased caring about anything, except the deaths of the men who murdered her husband.

Instead, Chris Pratt is allowed to be winsome and cute and heroic, and Haley Bennett’s brilliant performance is wasted in a generic shoot-em up. What a shame.

(Haley Bennett, BTW, was only in one other movie I’ve seen, a paint-by-numbers rom com, Music and Lyrics (2007). She played a spoiled pop singer, a Miley Cyrus-like diva, who wants Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore to write a song for her. She was hilarious; she kind of walked off with the movie. Totally different character than the widow in this movie. My gosh, this woman can act!)

Ethan Hawke is great too, playing Goodnight Robicheaux, a washed up, deeply haunted sharp shooter, now surviving as a hustler, managing Billy Rocks, a fighter (Kim). Again, he’s an essentially tragic character, adding a moral seriousness to this shoot-em-up. Again, I can’t help but think of the possibilities, if the script had ever been interested in creating morally ambiguous characters. The movie wasn’t, though. For shame.

And Vincent D’Onofrio. Remember how good he’s been; Edgar in Men in Black, the bad guy in the new Jurassic World. He’s just one of the great American character actors. In this, he affects a high pitched whine of a character voice, and plays up his character’s religious mania, and it’s a tremendous performance. Wasted, of course.

Finally, Sarsgaard as Bogue, with a comic book name and a badly underwritten character, gives the film’s villain a twitchy face and a dead-eyed sociopathic stare. And the character offers three motivations for his evil behavior. One: a liberal’s caricature of conservatism–God wants us capitalists to pursue wealth. Two: a nihilist’s ‘what does anything matter’ cynicism. And Three: a religious mania; culminating in a Hamlet-can’t-kill-repenting-Claudius moment. Sarsgaard’s another good actor, but even he can’t make this character work as written. Still, bad action films need bad guys.

That’s all this is. A bad action movie, an opportunity to pile up dead bodies (but they’re all evil, so it’s okay). All the good guys can shoot brilliantly, and their guns only need to be reloaded when the plot requires it. And their plans work splendidly. And the townspeople are revealed as honest and courageous. And all the children live, though almost none of the grown-ups. In the real old West, at the OK corral, only three men died in a 30 second gun battle. In this thing, it’s closer to three hundred. But that’s okay. Chris Pratt got to be in a Western, and Denzel Washington got to be in quite another Western, and Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio got to share one, while Haley Bennett gave the performance of the movie in a different movie entirely. I hope it lost money.