Snowpiercer: Movie Review

Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer is the most exciting summer action movie of the summer.  It’s also a excellent example of smart, inventive, science fiction.  It’s a profound and powerful film about poverty and social class and income inequality.  It’s a religious allegory of sophistication and intelligence.  It’s a cautionary tale and a meditation on leadership and power.  And the film itself is a metaphor for our lonely and desperate sojourn on this rickety craft we call planet earth. It’s also probably not playing at your local cineplex.  It certainly wasn’t playing at mine; I had to catch it at an art house in Salt Lake.

The producers of this film made the cheeky decision to release it the same weekend that Michael Bay’s fourth Transformer film came out, a movie that Snowpiercer is approximately 194,000 times a better movie than.  But Snowpiercer does not have the essential elements needed for a film to be embraced by the summer popcorn movie crowd: a pretty girl in shorts and skimpy top, and the smashed-up destruction of a major world city.  Nor does it feature trucks riding dinosaurs.  So it’s getting the slow, city-by-city art house release strategy.  Which means that so far, it’s made (approximately) 194,000 times less money than Bay’s movie has made, or is going to make. This is a situation you can personally make a small contribution towards rectifying: may I urge you to start this weekend.

Because Snowpiercer is just so, so good. Here’s the premise: earth has been rendered uninhabitable by a world-wide freeze.  Shot after shot of a world in icy desolation.  But eccentric billionaire Wilford somehow managed to build a train that could survive those conditions, and that could run a permanent looping course over rails covering the entire planet. The train’s engine is self-sustaining, and though ecologically a closed system, the engine can itself provide power, water and nourishment for a human population.  For seventeen years, a few thousand folks have survived on this train, the Snowpiercer. They are rigidly divided by class.  At the very front of the train, is the engine, tended by Wilford (who is, by now, essentially worshipped as a God).  At the very rear of the train are the poor people, crammed into tiny bunks, with just enough water to drink and to take care of sanitary needs, but not enough to wash up much. They’re fed on ‘protein bars,’ horrible gelatinous purple square things, strictly rationed.  Iron gates guard the other sections of the train, and initially we can only imagine how the people live in the rest of the train.  And from time to time, armed soldiers come back to the poor section and requisition people needed for some undescribed tasks elsewhere on the train. The astonishing Tilda Swinton plays Mason, the liaison between Wilford and the poor, and a ferociously comical propagandist for the social order.  Everyone has a place in the world, she insists.  You would not wear a shoe on your head; nor should the poor expect the benefits due to the wealthy. And so she culls them:  an elderly violinist is separated from his wife (who protests, and is savagely beaten).  Children are carefully measured and taken away.  And the poor folks seethe, and plot.

They’re led by Curtis, superbly played by Chris Evans, of Captain America fame. He’s organized, efficient, a natural leader, though he deflects any praise on that account. He also is haunted by secrets from his past (which, when eventually revealed, are a psychic punch in the guts).  He’s advised by the one-armed Gilliam (John Hurt), who may also have the ability to supplant Wilford and run the train. A friend, Tanya, (Octavia Spencer) brings her own maternal ferocity, when her son Tim (Marcanthonee Reis) is taken off by Mason.  And he has a younger assistant, Edgar (Jamie Bell, the kid from Billy Elliott). And from time to time, a capsule with a message inside shows up in their protein bars, and Curtis plans his revolution. He’s going to fight his way to the front of the train.  And he’s going to take over the engine.

The first step is to bypass the gates separating sections, and one of the cryptic capsule messages informs him that a security expert, someone able to open gates, can be found in the security detention area, which Curtis thinks he can reach.  And indeed, the first battle of the revolution does gain them that detention space, where detainees are stored in lockers.  And we meet Minsoo, played by the superb Korean actor Kang-ho Song.  Who tells them he requires a drug, Kronol, and wants two cubes of it every time he opens a gate.  And who also insists he won’t work without his 17-year-old girlfriend, Yona (Ah-sung Ko).

Kang-ho Song starred in Bong’s 2006 film, The Host, my favorite monster movie of all time.  He’s a tremendous presence in this film as well.  As Minsoo, he is soulful, intelligent, brave, untrustworthy and addicted, and deeply secretive.  Curtis needs him, but never quite trusts him, which turns out to be sensible.  Yona is similarly mysterious, in another terrific performance.

The heart of the film, then, is the journey through the train by Curtis and his increasingly depleted band of impoverished warriors.  And nothing that subsequently happens is in any way predictable.  Every time Minsoo opens another gate, we see another sub-stratum of Snowpiercer society, another world opens up, and they’re just astonishingly inventive and interesting.  And meanwhile, the train motors on, through a frozen wasteland, and from time to time we see icy barriers, results of an avalanche or snowfall, and we see Snowpiercer smash its way through, at times careening wildly on two wheels, nearly derailing, but always moving forward.

Early in the film, Bong describes the train as ‘an ark,’ and, watching it, I teased out one potential meaning.  The train seems all-powerful, self-sufficient, completely safe, a refuge and port-in-the-storm.  But it’s not safe at all.  It’s actually kind of ramshackle, an improvisation, not all that carefully designed or engineered.  And yet the people seem largely unaware of that reality (which we, in the audience, see all too well).  And the champagne pours and steak and seafood appears on wealthy folks’ plates.  Well, isn’t that our position here, now, on the Planet Earth?  Global catastrophe beckons, but we’d rather squabble over the politics of science?  And we don’t much trouble ourselves over it, as long as we’re well-fed, well-housed, well-clothed, and able to reproduce?  And we’re vaguely aware of people living lives of starvation and despair, and we may occasionally make some noise about helping them.  But we also send out Tilda Swinton to lecture about the inevitability of social classes and the destructiveness of threatening the existing social order.  We’re on top, and like it that way.  And if our craft frequently careens on the edge of disaster, it really always has righted itself, has it not?  So not to worry.

To explore other possible meanings and ideas in this film would require that I reveal details of the plot, which, for this film, I’d rather not divulge.  Ordinarily, I’m Mr. Spoiler, but this film isn’t in general release (yet), and I’d rather persuade you to see it than advance a critical conversation.

Suffice it to say that, an hour in, I made all sorts of predictions about what would happen, none of which turned out to be even a little bit true.  And I never failed to be astonished by the endless inventiveness of this wonderful director and his production team.  This is Bong’s first film with movie-star-like actors and American stars and, you know, a budget.  I’ve loved his earlier work–especially The Host and Mother–and this film fulfills and exceeds the promise he’s previously shown.

A couple of days ago, I raved (possibly even over-raved) the new Planet of the Apes movie.  I loved this film too, possibly even a little better.  I saw it with a friend, and we were both blown away by it; couldn’t talk about anything else all the way home.  See Snowpiercer.  Do not miss this film.  And then let’s talk, after you’ve seen it.

Dawn of the Planet of Apes: Movie Review

It’s a big blockbuster summer action movie.  About monkeys.  I went with fairly low expectations.  But Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the smartest, saddest, most deeply tragic film of the year, a soulful, brilliant movie, thoughtfully conceived and superbly rendered.  It feels like a Shakespearean tragedy, honestly, that kind of power and resonance.  Images linger.  My wife and I went home, and could hardly talk about it; it overwhelmed us both.  It’s just a remarkable film, an amazing meditation on leadership and the limits of leadership and on the inevitability of violence and the way peaceful intentions can become derailed.

If you saw the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with James Franco, this is the sequel.  In that earlier film, Franco played a scientist researching a cure for Alzheimer’s, desperate for a cure for his rapidly diminishing father.  He experiments on Caesar, his pet chimpanzee, and is astonished when Caesar develops human intelligence and emotional complexity.  But Caesar is taken from him, and placed in an ape sanctuary, where he becomes a leader to the other apes.  He acquires more of the drug developed by Franco, and he and the other apes escape to a forest sanctuary.  But the same drug, it turns out, is toxic to humans, and a massive pandemic threatens mankind.

As this film begins, most of the human race has died in the pandemic.  Some few survivors, however, had a genetic defense against it, and have gathered in San Francisco, where they have formed a community under the leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).  Also in that community, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his domestic partner, Ellie (Keri Russell), a doctor, and his teenaged son from before the pandemic, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The community’s energy reserves are badly depleted, and Malcolm has been tasked with repairing the electrical generators at a nearby dam.  But his route to that dam runs straight through Caesar’s forest home.

Caesar, meanwhile, has created a city, a refuge for apes, perfectly adapted to simian abilities and needs.  They have a highly sophisticated kind of sign language, but can also speak human English, though they have difficulty forming words.  They tend to use the human language for emphasis, but for conversations requiring subtlety and nuance, they prefer signing.  They’re mostly chimps, along with one gorilla and one elderly orangutan, Maurice, who serves as the teacher for their school.  And Caesar has given them a religious code of sorts, the first commandment of which is ‘ape not kill ape.’  Caesar’s ‘chief-of-security’ is a deeply damaged and angry ape named Koba.  Caesar is also married, with a son, and his wife has just given birth to a second boy.

As in the earlier film, Caesar is played, in an extraordinary physical performance (then animated via CGI), by Andy Serkis.  As in the earlier film, Maurice is played by Karin Konoval.  But the film’s antagonist, Koba, is now an actor named Toby Kebbell.  And he gives the performance of the film.

Okay, so, the first big cultural clash between human and ape comes when Malcolm’s team of humans, trying to fix the generators at this dam, cross ape territory, and are confronted by a security team led by Koba.  One of the humans shoots and wounds an ape, and it appears as though the confrontation is likely to turn violent.  But Caesar shows up, and by his sheer presence, forces Koba to back down.  Malcolm and his party retreat back to San Francisco.  The next day, Caesar and a large party of apes show up at the human colony and Caesar warns the humans not to return.  He’ll maintain the peace, as long as humans stay in their territory and don’t trespass into ape lands.  (All this is expressed in a few words, but it’s unmistakable).

The problem is, the human colony desperately needs energy, for heat and light and, above all, for communications, for attempts to contact other possible human enclaves.  And so Malcolm goes back, and negotiates a truce with Caesar.  He promises that humans will surrender their guns, if safe passage can be guaranteed to and from the dam.  And Caesar agrees to this, although it really puts his authority with his own people to the test.  Koba especially does not trust humans.  Koba was, in the earlier film, the subject of the most brutal kinds of animal testing–he’s a torture victim–and in a deeply moving scene, he points to his various scars and says ‘human work, human work, human work.’  (Which is one of the things I love about this film.  Koba is the ‘villain’ of the piece, but he’s a deeply wounded, damaged, sympathetic character, beautifully written and acted.)

So Malcolm and his men get the dam repaired (with considerable help from the apes), and suddenly, San Francisco has electricity.  And we see one of the characters, searching through a suddenly-aglow gas station, and he finds a CD player, and he puts in a CD, and we hear the strains of The Band playing The Weight.  And we see him dance.

But Koba, always mistrustful, leads a small team back to the city, and finds where the human weapons’ arsenal is.  And he sees a a group of human soldier-wannabes taking target practice.  And all his suspicions about the untrustworthiness of humans are confirmed.  And when the human ‘soldiers’ see him, they’re about to shoot, but he puts on a happy monkey act for them, what would be for apes a Stepin Fetchit act.  A Cheetah act; jivin’ and grinnin’; monkey blackface vaudeville.  It’s a tremendous scene, and an effective one, seeing Koba demean himself to survive.  And then Koba playfully grabs an AK-47.  And then he starts shooting humans.

And then, back at the ape town, Koba shoots Caesar, abandons him, and leads the rest of the apes back to San Francisco, on horseback, heavily armed.  And a battle scene commences, an ugly, violent horrific war between man and ape.  And then Koba commandeers a tank, and we see the battle unfold from his POV.  And the humans are defeated, and crowded into cages.  As are Caesar’s remaining allies among the apes, including Maurice.  And Caesar lingers, close to death.  And Caesar’s older son is torn, between his loyalty to his father, and his admiration for Koba and Koba’s courage and charisma and pain.

But Malcolm and Ellie find Caesar, and Ellie performs life-saving surgery.  And Caesar survives.  And heads back into San Francisco, again to lead his people.

I don’t want to give away the ending.  But what’s remarkable is this; it’s not triumphant.  Caesar and Malcolm remain close friends to the end, but this will not end peacefully.  The two real leaders have become impotent; peace eludes them, and will continue to elude them.  Foolishness and paranoia and fear and the enticing prospect of violence are too ingrained in both human and ape personalities; war must come, and it will not end well.

I kept thinking of historical parallels.  The first is to our own history, and the ugly warfare between whites and Indians that marred it.  Caesar could parallel some of the extraordinary Native American leaders of the past, men like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and Tecumseh and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. On the other hand, the people against whom Sitting Bull was pitted had not been decimated in a pandemic, while Native tribes certainly all were.  Or we might look to our day, to the inevitability of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, to the current battles fought between the Israeli army and Hamas.  Or we might look to other historical parallels.  Much of the power of this film is in its dissection of what inevitably happens when two peoples fight over limited resources.  This film manages to feel historically grounded, without recalling any one specific historical period or conflict.  But it’s completely convincing, especially in its depiction of genuine, great leadership (Caesar, and to a lesser extent, Malcolm), and suspicion and hatred and paranoid leadership (Dreyfus and Koba).  Leaders can only lead up to a point.  And then everything blows up.

I should add a word about the acting in this film.  Obviously, Serkis and Kebbell give extraordinary performances, given the extra detail of seamlessly integrated CGI.  But I can’t say enough about Jason Clarke.  He was terrific in Zero Dark Thirty, equally fine in The Great Gatsby.  This is his first big action movie lead, and I hope it really launches him.  He’s a tremendous actor, another of those Aussie acting marvels, and I’d love to see him have one of those Mark Ruffalo/Peter Sarsgaard careers, where he’s great in everything in he’s in, but is never quite an A-list superstar.  He’s certainly remarkable here, if a bit overshadowed by Serkis’ performance.

Anyway.  Wow.  Great movie.  See it.  I know; summer action movie.  Monkeys.  It doesn’t matter.  This is the best movie of the year, so far.  See it.

Much Ado about . . . zombies?

Once upon a time, there was a big theater in a medium sized town.  And the people who ran that theater thought that, in addition to Foreigner and Beach Boys concerts, and Miss Provo beauty pageants, it might be nice to perform some actual honest-to-goodness plays.  And so they did ask the general public what they would like to see, and some wag waggishly suggested that Shakespeare’s great comedy, Much Ado About Nothing might be improved by the addition of zombies. And the Halloween slot did beckon. And many many other people on-line saw this suggestion, and said to their own personal Siri-person things like ‘ooo’ and ‘ah,’ and ‘awesome.’  And then the theater management rubbed their chins thoughtfully, and said ‘hmm.’  And then some sensible person said, ‘wait!  Someone has to direct.  What directors do we know who are crazy enough to want to do this?’

And behold, my phone did ring.

I really dig zombies.  I think the very idea of zombies is creepy and scary and sick and funny, and those are all words I like very much.  I’ve liked zombies ever since I was in high school, and I read a column in the local newspaper by, I’m pretty sure, George F. Will (yes, he was bloviating even way back then), in which he described a movie, a film that had been released some years earlier but was now being re-released, called The Night of the Living Dead.  He said it was the kind of movie that signaled the end of civilization as we knew it, that it was so extreme, so horrific in its violence and so nihilistic in its attitude towards that violence that it simply should never have been made, and certainly never released, and absolutely never seen by teens or children.  I think I was fifteen or sixteen, and instantly knew this was a must-see movie, and went with a friend, and it was amazing.  Terrifying and funny and best of all, forbidden.  (A few years later, a talk in Church said similar things about The Exorcist, that under no circumstances whatever should LDS teens see this movie. Saw it the next night, and loved how scary it was. Walked home afterwards, and every tree was haunted, and every dog possessed.)

So, I love zombies.  Love the old George A. Romero Night of the Living Dead zombies, shambling and moaning and eating brains.  Love the newer zombies, the hard-to-kill Olympic sprinter zombies of 28 Days Later, the virus-hits-in-seconds wall-scrambling zombies of WW Z, the lonely and bewildered (and romantically inclined) zombies of Warm Bodies. I even liked the rotting Nazi zombies of Dead Snow, a fairly terrible Norwegian zombie movie of five years ago.  The movie wasn’t very good, but the zombies were very scary.  My niece, Marilyn, was even in a zombie movie a couple of years ago; titled (if memory serves) The Undeadening. It never got theatrically released, but hit the link–it’s got a trailer!

But sadly, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is lamentably deficient in references to zombies. Not just that play, but his entire oeuvre has hardly any actual zombie characters.  Ghosts, oh, heck yeah. Shakespeare never met a ghost he didn’t like. And I suppose you could always turn his ghosts into zombies.  But there aren’t even ghosts in Much Ado.

And I love Much Ado.  It’s a genuinely brilliant comedy, one of the best comedies ever written by anyone.  So why mess with it?  Why impose on a brilliant comedy some conceit like zombies?  Why take a timeless classic and reduce it to pop culture memes.  In other words, how do we avoid just doing a production of Much Ado with a bunch of zombies shambling pointlessly about on the periphery?

It’s no good saying ‘because this is what we do, because this is current and new, because this kind of updating is how people do Shakespeare nowadays.’  A bad idea doesn’t become a good idea just by being current.

No, this is only worth doing if adding zombies somehow clarifies and illuminates the text.  I’m not interested in just tossing zombies into a Shakespeare comedy because, hey, that’s the gig.  I respect Shakespeare too much, I respect Much Ado too much,  heck, I respect zombies too much, to do that.

Much Ado is a great love story, the story of two bright and lonely and wounded people, Beatrice and Benedick, both of whom have renounced love forever, who nonetheless find each other.  But it’s also about Claudio and Hero, two lovers poisoned by slander and gossip and the nasty political machinations of Keanu Reeves Don John.  It’s about life and romance and taking a chance on love again.  But death is a constant presence; Hero’s (faked) death and Claudio’s (threatened) death at Benedick’s hand.  And under all that is war.  The characters are soldiers, men who have seen death first-hand, and are now embracing the sweet celebration of life that love represents.

Zombies represent death.  In fact, zombies represent the ever-present human fear of death, a terror that follows when the dead rot in their graves, but still won’t quite stay dead.  And they crave . . . brains, the site and source of human personality, of consciousness itself, of what we call the soul.  If vampires are the undead, zombies are the unalive, the anti-alive.  They’re sheer malevolence, unreasoning evil.  They work really well for Don John.

So that’s what our production attempts, to explore that dynamic: love/life (Beatrice and Benedick), vs. hate/death (Don John/zombies).  And trapped in the middle are Claudio and Hero, the innocent victims, trapped between life and death, love and hatred.  We’re cutting down most of Claudio’s lines.  He’s been infected by the virus, is losing the ability to speak.  But he can fight it.  Hero makes him want to fight it.  Benedick is likewise torn, between killing the zombie and restoring the friend.

A terrific writer named Becky Baker has been doing the adaptation, having combed all of Shakespeare to find every even vaguely zombie-sounding line.  I love what she’s doing with the script.  She’s bright and talented and unafraid–everything I like in a writer.  And as we talked about a setting for this version of Much Ado, I kept thinking it might work if we set it in some version of Victorian society, a society absolutely saturated by the fear of death.  But it’s a fictional world, obviously, not Shakespeare’s Messina, but some approximation of reality.  (The ‘war’ they’re all returning from, for example, is a war against zombies).

So we’re going steam-punk with it.

The Covey Center designers are having a ball with it, and the design is going to be spectacular.  We have original music, being composed even as we speak, for Shakespeare’s poems.  (Balthazar, the minstrel, is the first zombie infected).  We haven’t cast yet, and won’t until September–actors, it’s going to be lots of fun, so brush up your monologues!

And tickets are already on sale; here’s the link.

I really think it’s going to be fun. And if you’re going to be in Provo around Halloween, come see us!  Zombies, and Much Ado!  What could possibly go wrong?



Movie Review: America, Imagine the World Without Her

Dinesh D’Souza’s new documentary, America: Imagine the World Without Her is, let’s admit it, a competently made piece of Tea Party propaganda.  I saw it at a matinee at 10:30 in the morning, and the place was packed.  I was also the youngest person in the audience by twenty years.  Leaving the theater afterwards, I heard audible sobs, saw genuine tears shed, saw people who had clearly been moved by it.  Part of me wanted to make a scene, but I didn’t. Internet trolls are bad enough; a movie troll is nothing to aspire to.

And I admit: it’s pretty well made.  Lots of costumed reenactments–Washington leading troops to battle, Lincoln giving speeches, Frederick Douglass likewise. Lots and lots of sweeping helicopter shots of American landmarks–Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge.  Lots of inspiring country rock patriotic music.  It sets a brisk pace, makes its points with clarity.  Even the ubiquity of D’Souza’s presence as interviewer is intentional and effective.  He’s from India; he’s dark-skinned and he’s conservative, One of Us, so we’re absolved from the charge of racism.

And he has some interesting interviews; gets some pretty prominent lefties to say suitably inflammatory things: Ward Churchill, Alan Dershowitz, Bono.  So it looks, you know, balanced and reasonable.  Fair.  It isn’t.

The stated premise of the film is intriguing; what would the world be like without America?  Would it be a better or a worse place?  Specifically; the movie starts off with a battle scene in which a British sniper kills George Washington.  Well, what if that had happened, what if we Americans had lost the Revolutionary war?  But D’Souza doesn’t pursue that question much, probably because the answer’s pretty mundane.  We don’t know what would have happened, but probably we’d have just ended up more or less like Canada.  Slavery would have ended sooner than it did, and our system of government would be parliamentary but still democratic.  No 2nd Amendment.  We’d be fine, in other words.

What really interests D’Souza, though, is Howard Zinn.  Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States tells our history from the perspective of marginalized people–Native Americans, slaves, poor immigrants, workers.  D’Souza clearly loathes Zinn and everything he stands for, and offers an alternative American history; that of Alexis de Tocqueville.  D’Souza thereby sets up a false dualism; the American narrative is either that of a 60s radical socialist historian, or that of an early 19th century French aristocrat who rode around Ohio and was impressed by this nation of farmer/inventor/entrepreneurs.  And those are our choices.  America is defined by one of those narratives; it’s either/or, Zinn or de Tocqueville.  Ignoring, oh, the work of maybe 20, 000 historians also defining America narratively.

And that’s what we get, this insultingly simplistic rendering of the American story. Zinn says that we robbed Native Americans, practiced genocide.  D’Souza says ‘no, we didn’t murder Native Americans!  They died of disease.  We made treaties!  We were civilized!’  And thereby reduces a complicated history to one that’s more comfortable to us today.  Or slavery; yeah, we practiced slavery.  But so did lots of countries!  Plus, we had white people slaves, people in indentured servitude!  Plus we fought an idealistic war to get rid of it!  So we’re not really to blame for anything.  At all.  America still gets to be good!

Of course, D’Souza has his villains.  Obviously.  Worst of all: Saul Alinsky.  In D’Souza’s unsubtle rendering, Alinsky is essentially a mobster, a commie agitator, a secretive operative intent on destroying America.  And he has two great allies today: Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton.  (Obama’s grandfather knew Alinsky slightly in Hawaii; Hillary wrote her senior thesis on Alinsky.)  See, Alinsky was trying to destroy America!  Because he was a communist!  And now Obama is trying to destroy America! Because he’s a communist, fundamentally hostile to American entrepreneurial capitalism.

That was one of the times I laughed out loud.  I couldn’t help it; it’s just too funny.  A pro-business moderate like Obama (or for heaven’s sake, Ms. Wall Street Hillary Clinton!) being portrayed as a communist!  Corporate profits were around 10 trillion last year; if Obama’s trying to destroy capitalism, he’s really bad at it.

The historical ignorance of this movie, the straw man arguments, the foolish knee-jerk anti-Obama assertions, the astonishing lack of nuance, ultimately it makes for a dispiriting experience.

I wondered how D’Souza would deal with the fact that he’s in jail: that he was arrested for violating campaign finance law.  It’s nicely done.  First, we see him sitting in a jail cell, in handcuffs.  He looks glum, and the voiceover says ‘I made a serious mistake.’  And then he goes on to talk about the IRS “scandal”, where the IRS supposedly targeted Tea Party groups seeking 501 (c) (4) status. See what he did there?  Sleight of hand: he can say ‘hey, I admitted my errors,’  but in the context of Obama persecuting critics of his administration. Like Dinesh? You can read it that way if you like. . .

At one point, the film shows a clip of Michael Moore at an Occupy Wall Street rally.  Earlier, D’Souza makes a big deal of the fact that his previous film, Obama’s America, was the second biggest money-making political documentary ever.  Well, what’s first?  Moore’s Farenheit 9/11.  And Moore’s the one filmmaker more than any other who D’Souza resembles.  They both make propaganda films, polemical films essentially defining the political divide.  They both make films that play to the confirmation bias of hard-core partisans, left and right.  They both make unsubtle, manipulative films.

And they both lost.  Moore’s film tried to win the 2004 election for John Kerry; D’Souza’s first film tried to win 2012 for Mitt Romney.  Both made tons of money-both failed to achieve their more important objective.  This film is aimed at Obama again, to be sure–conservatives can’t clear their throats nowadays without expressing their contempt for this President.  But it’s also aimed at Hillary.  It’s making sure that We all understand what a Threat she is.  That’s nonsense, of course, and I think it’s likely to fail again. A diet of pure bile is never all that nourishing.  And this guy has nothing to offer but bile.


Transformers: Age of Extinction,Movie Review

Yesterday, the Fourth of July, my wife and I went to see the latest Transformers movie, as the Founders intended.  Waking up this morning, I can tell: the brain cell loss was considerable.

We didn’t expect much, of course–it’s a Michael Bay movie, after all–but I’ll give it this, it was entertaining.  We laughed a lot, especially at things that the filmmaker pretty obviously didn’t intend to be funny.  As a result, we were at the receiving end of dirty looks from fellow congregants audience members.  I’ll also admit that the fact that, for me, absolutely nothing in the movie made the tiniest lick of sense is almost certainly due to ignorance.  I’ve seen one other Transformers movie and remember almost nothing about it, except for big noisy fight scenes between robots, some of which we were supposed to be rooting for and some we were supposed to be rooting against, but I had no idea which were which.  So I had a bit of a struggle unpacking the mythology.

Because there is a mythology.  Bay, and his pet writer, Ehren Kruger, have created an entire back story involving transformers.  And considering that their source material consists mostly of a children’s toy from the mid ’80s, plus a completely terrible TV show from a few years after that, it’s an impressive feat.

The Age of Extinction part of the movie’s title has to do with dinosaurs.  We even see it. Lots of dinosaurs attacked by a space ship, which transformates them. That’s like forty seconds into the movie, a sequence lasting maybe thirty seconds more.  And the title, the Extinction thing–has nothing whatever to do with anything else that ever happens ever again in the whole entire three hour movie.

So cut to the present, and an archeologist, Darcy Tirrell (Sophie Miles), has found transformatiated dinosaurs.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch, an inventor/mechanic played by Mark Wahlberg has found an old truck which he’s trying to fix and sell, while his superhot daughter, Nicola Peltz frets about the impending foreclosure on his property, while hiding from Daddy the existence of a boyfriend, played by Jack Reynor.  (And dear old Dad spends the whole movie creepily obsessed with her dating life).  (These ‘characters’ all have character names, BTW, but I never did catch what any of them were).  And the evil armed minions of evil CIA chief Frazier Crane–sorry, I meant Kelsey Grammer–show up, making evil threats.  And billionaire Stanley Tucci chews out his staff because the lobby music in his place of business isn’t imposing enough.

Okay, so: Kelsey Grammer.  He’s head of the CIA, working under what we’re given to understand is a weak milquetoast of a President.  (We never meet this President, but props to Thomas Lennon, who turns the President’s Chief of Staff into a wonderfully ineffectual comic character).  Anyway, ‘Murrica’s been attacked by evil robots.  Saved by good robots, most especially the splendidly named Optimus Prime.  (Who has, one presumes, a saturnine twin named Pessimus Prime, plus maybe a sister named Meh.)  Anyway, American armed forces are clearly out of their league fighting Transformers.  So here’s Frazier’s brilliant scheme.  He’ll ally with the evil Transformers.  See?  Brilliant, huh?  And help them hunt down Optimus, plus his five bizarrely culturally stereotyped Transformer friends.  And then, see, the CIA will locate dead Transformers, melt them down, and use the stuff they’re made of to create an army of pro-’Murrican Transformer soldiers.  And those soldiers will be built by Stanley Tucci’s company!  The military-industrial complex: Transformiated!  (Rimshot).

(What are the politics of this ridiculous plot?  That the CIA needs oversight?  That we shouldn’t ally with bad guys, that it would make more sense to ally with good guys?  That Stanley Tucci should probably consider shaving?  That we shouldn’t put Kelsey Grammer in charge of, like, everything?  I read lots of nonsense about how retrograde this movie’s politics were; I’d say it’s more incoherent than anything.  American soldiers are evil!  Except when they’re good!  Or maybe: broke inventors rule?)

Oh oh oh, and the stuff, the raw material of Transformer construction, the stuff Tucci’s company is going to built its army from?  It’s called transformium.  When we heard that name, I heard my wife guffaw out loud.  Transformium.  I guess ‘Unobtainium’ was taken.

Okay, so, that’s the evil plot by evil Kelsey Grammer.  And Tucci’s built him a prototype, called Galvatron, made from the transformium they got from the bad Transformer from a previous movie, Megatron.  No big deal, because this is a Transformer we ‘Murricans can control, see.  Except Megatron’s consciousness lingers, and takes over, so all Grammer/Tucci’s evil machinations have managed to really create is a superpissed super bad guy Transformer.  Plus there’s a new evil Transformer, Lockdown.  I think the good guy Transformers are called ‘autobots’ and the bad guy Transformers are called ‘decepticons’.  (Which would make Dick Cheney a decepti-neocon?  Rimshot).  And Mark Wahlberg and daughter and daughter’s boyfriend are on the side of Optimus Prime. Who they can totally fight effectively alongside of.  Lots and lots of fight scenes ensue, trashing first Mark Wahlberg’s farm, then Chicago, then Hong Kong.

And things get really weird.  Like, there’s an alien space ship, where apparently Lockdown gathers lots of specimen/hostages from many planets, and where he briefly incarcerates Optimus Prime.  But also, a second space ship, which Our Heroes commandeer.  Plus there are Transformer evil dogs.  Plus good-but-uncivilized-and-unruly Transformer dinosaurs.  Plus Tucci makes a big deal about how little transformium he has, only barely enough to finish Galvatron, but also apparently enough for fifty Transformer soldiers, which just sort of show up randomly.  Plus at one point Mark Walhberg looks Stanley Tucci in the eye, broke inventor to billionaire inventor, and persuades him to stop being evil, and from that point on, Tucci’s a good guy.  Evil comic sidekick characters are allowed, of course, to switch sides and become good guy comic sidekick characters, according to the sacred laws of 19 century melodrama, which no action movie, ever, can ever ever violate, as per constitutional mandate.

Oh, my goodness, it’s a silly movie.  And at the end, when Optimus Prime is intoning portentiously “when you look up at the stars, think of me. . . ” my wife and I both just lost it.  One of those laughing spells, like in Church, where you have to try to stifle it, but end up making things worse.

The biggest problem with the movie is not the wacko plot or the bad dialogue or the two-dimensional characters.  It’s a Michael Bay movie.  It’s the action sequences, big fights between robots where you’re never oriented in time or place, have no idea even who is fighting and who we’re supposed to be rooting for, or why we should care.  He’s too in love with the ‘people running from big ‘splosions’ shot.  He gets to use Chinese martial arts actress Bing-bing Li, and films the sequence in tight quarters, where you can’t see what’s going on.  He’s the most successful action movie director of all time and his action sequences are the worst things in his mostly terrible movies. I just felt bad for the good people of Hong Kong, whose city just got thrashed. Or at least a model of it.

Wahlberg’s fine, I guess.  Tucci’s actually a lot of fun.  Nicola Peltz is very pretty, cries on command, and runs away from evil blue screen robots really convincingly.  Titus Welliver got to do his usual evil soldier schtick, and is always a pleasure to watch.  Jack Reynor was completely forgettable.

But hey, it was the Fourth of July.  We had hamburgers and hot dogs and french fries and then went to see a big, dumb, noisy movie.  Pursuing happiness, man.  Proud to be an American.  ‘Cause at least I know I’m free.

Scary scary economics

So, okay, my wife and I were watching a Netflix movie last night.  It was that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit thing.  Very entertaining, with Captain Kirk (the young one, Chris Pine) pretending to be an economist/CIA agent, Kevin Costner as his handler, Kenneth Branagh as a super-scary Russki bad guy, and Keira Knightley given absolutely nothing whatever do to except get rescued.

But here’s the bad guy’s plot.  He runs a Russian multi-national corporation, but one with a lot of assets that don’t turn up on their financial reports.  Which super-sleuth Jack Ryan (working for the American branch of the same multi-national as, I think, a shadow accountant/spy) digs deeply enough to find, the rest of the company’s accounting staff consisting, apparently, of trained chimpanzees.  It’s seriously amazing; he’s supposed to be doing this astonishing feat of accounting legerdemain, but from what we can see, it seems to consist mostly of Googling ‘my company’s hidden assets’ and waiting ten seconds.

Anyway, Jack sleuths around, and mopes over his laptop a lot, and blows off dates with Keira Knightley, and figures it out.  The Russians are buying American dollars.  A lot of dollars; like, 2 trillion dollars worth.  (Which are overvalued!  A company is buying overvalued assets!  What do they know!)  And then they’re going to sell ‘em all the same day, and destroy the American economy.  On the same day that a bomb goes off on Wall Street!  And it’ll totally work!  A second Great Depression!

I am not an economist, or a financial expert, or a stockbroker, or the CEO of a big corporation.  I’m a playwright who doesn’t know how to balance a checkbook.  But I have studied economics some (onnacounta this play dealy I wrote).  Lots of companies buy T-bills.  Buy and sell.  So, first of all, if you set off a bomb on Wall Street, they’d suspend trading and all those sell orders wouldn’t mean doodly squat.  But if you did suddenly sell dollars, what would happen?  Uh, not much, and nothing bad.

I texted my son (who is an economist) and described this nefarious plot.  He thought it was silly too, “because the ensuing low interest rates would just wreak havoc.”  (Cue heavy sarcasm music). And that’s about it.  Interest rates would go down.  Might spur investment.  Otherwise, yawn.

Now a truck bomb in downtown Manhattan would be bad.  And Our Hero thwarts that one too, with a big fight scene against the son of Branagh’s bad guy character, who is (of course) also in on it.  So yay for us!

But this is such a fantasy, oft-heard by conservatives.  “See, what happens if the Chinese decide to call in all that debt we owe them!  It would destroy our economy!”  But no, that’s not how it works.  If China suddenly decided to sell off all their treasuries, the price would go down, and they’d lose a ton of money. It would have no effect on the US economy.  Likewise, Russia. Or anyone else.  No one’s going to call in their debt, and if they did, it wouldn’t be a big deal.  It would lower interest rates some.

The movie makes passing mention of the reason this dastardly Russian plot would work; because the US national debt is so high.  And it’s true, our national debt is high.  And that might cause a problem sometime down the road.  But it’s not hurting anything now.  If the national debt were damaging to the economy today, we’d see it in a rise of inflation.  And that’s not happening.  And it would be good, right now, if we did see some mild inflation.  So that’s another chimera.

The 2 trillion dollars the Russians are planning, in the movie, to dump onto monetary markets is an interesting figure.  For one thing, if you want to destroy the American economy, it’s way way way too small.  It’s like a mouse saying ‘I know how to kill that elephant; feed it one more peanut.’  One multi-national corporation is not capable of destroying the American economy by selling off T-bills.  (It takes a whole bunch of corporations trading in worthless mortage-based CDOs!)  But it’s also more or less the same amount of cash that the biggest American corporations are sitting on right now, mostly stashing off-seas.  They’re not investing it, they’re not opening factories, they’re not hiring people; they’re just sitting on it. Why?  Demand is low.  It’s one of the ways bad economies self-perpetuate; people are worried about their jobs, so don’t purchase, so demand remains low, so companies don’t produce goods, and jobs aren’t created.  The way to break the cycle is with a stimulus–hire people, put them to work, get them consuming.  So what are the chances that a jobs bill, or any kind of stimulus bills, make it through the House of Representatives as currently constituted?

This is all just macro-economics 101.  I don’t blame Kenneth Branagh (who also did a nice job directing the film, which I quite liked), for not knowing how silly the plot was. I blame Tom Clancy, who wrote the novel it’s based on.  The sky is not falling, the Russians (or the Chinese, or Somali pirate cartels) are not capable of destroying the American economy with one big trade on them there fancy schmancy computer-type internet deals.

It’s a harmless enough movie.  Chris Pine is great in it, and so is Kevin Costner.  Plus there’s a brief Nonso Anozie sighting (a very large but really good British actor who I’ve liked in everything I’ve seen him in).  As my wife pointed out, we don’t want action movies to feature actually workable, plausible terrorist plots.  We want silly ones.  And she’s completely right.  But there’s silly and then there’s silly.  It really only works for people who don’t know anything about economics, which means, of course, most people.  Don’t be troubled, though.  It really, genuinely is just a movie.

The Case Against 8: film review

On the morning that I had set aside to watch The Case Against 8–the HBO documentary about the legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8–I received two news alerts.  The first was about how an District Judge had ruled Indiana’s ban on same sex marriage unconstitutional.  I’m from Indiana, so that was particularly interesting, as well as serendipitous, given the film I was watching.  A few minutes later, another news alert informed me that the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals had upheld Judge Richard Shelby’s decision which similarly overturned Utah’s same sex marriage ban.  The Utah decision, Kitchen v. Herbert, will likely be further appealed to the US Supreme Court, which is also where Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the case described in the film, ended up.

Although it’s a film about one of the most contentious political/social issues of our time, I actually found The Case Against 8 kind of celebratory.  What it was celebrating was not, mostly, marriage equality, but the American legal system.  Our legal system is, in many respects, kind of a mess, of course.  But this film spent most of its 110 minutes following lawyers as they worked on the case.  And, of course, the two main lawyers in the case were Theodore Olson and David Boies.

Remember Ted Olson and David Boies?  They were the opposing attorneys in Bush v. Gore.  Ted Olson is a conservative icon, one of the giants of the conservative movement.  Boies is equally well known in liberal circles. When Chad Griffin, one of the founders for the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), happened to meet with Ted Olson, other members of AFER’s board were initially skeptical.  But Olson, in addition to being a brilliant attorney, is a passionate supporter of marriage equality, which he believes is an important conservative issue and ideal.  He talks about it in the film, how conservatives believe families are the foundation of society, and should therefore support anyone’s right to marry.

Over the course of the film (which followed five years worth of legal battles), we can see how much Boies and Olson admire each other.  Olson says that Boies is as skilled at  cross-examination as any lawyer ever. Boies calls Olson’s closing argument in the initial District Court case the best he’s ever seen.  Sadly, we don’t get to see them much in action–federal court proceedings are closed to the public.  We do get the next best thing; Olson reading from a transcript of his closing argument.

The one exception is in the depositions we’re shown. That’s another specialty of Boies, and we do get a sense of his approach.  The defendants in the case had eight expert witnesses they wanted to call, each supporting traditional marriage. We only see the experts’ faces; Boies is just a voice off-camera.  He’s mild, reasonable.  He’ll say “now, would you say that such and such is true?”  “Yes,” says the expert, “I guess I do.”  Boies: “well, if that’s the case, then wouldn’t it follow that thus and such is also true?”  Expert: “Yes, I guess so.”  Boies: “well, then, wouldn’t it be logical to conclude that this final thing is true?”  And the experts would falter, as they realized they had just made a most damaging admission.  And then, the filmmakers would tell us, that expert witness ended up deciding not to testify in court after all.

Eight expert witnesses, all of them so damaged by Boies in their depositions that they withdrew from the case, without him ever once raising his voice, or sounding anything but pleasant and calm.  And so, the defendants ended up with only one expert witness, a guy named David Blankenhorn, who (the film shows us), subsequently had a complete change of heart, and now is an enthusiastic supporter of marriage equality.  He says so right there in the film.

The film has other heroes, though.  AFER wanted to be sure that the plaintiffs in the case would be good representatives of the marriage-seeking gay community.  They selected two couples, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, and Jeff Zarillo and Paul Katimi.  They’re all terrific; just ordinary people, deeply in love, smart and articulate folks who want to spend their lives together.  Perry and Stier each had children from earlier relationships, and they included the children in the decision to pursue the case.  And we see the cost of it.  We hear some of the threatening phone calls they received, and we see the protesters in front of the various courtrooms in which they appear.  Perry is a little older than Stier, and she comes across a bit more poised, perhaps, while Stier seems a bit more emotional.  Zarillo talks about how nervous he was before testifying, and how his leg wouldn’t stop shaking, until Katimi leaned over and patted him on the knee, calmed him down.  You like all four of them. They’re easy to root for.

The film, of course, doesn’t even pretend to be objective.  I mean, the title of it is The Case Against Eight; a dispassionate analysis of the issues relating to marriage equality is clearly not in the cards.  LDS viewers worried about a Church-bashing film needn’t worry, though–Mormonism is only mentioned, very briefly, once, in passing.

But it’s really a film about the genius of the constitution, about the checks and balances that moderate pure democracy.  We see democracy–the voice of the people– in action in this film, and it’s not a pleasant sight. Outside each court venue, protesters gather, on either side of the issue, and frankly, they’re mostly a sorry lot, passionately unreasonable.  The secret to getting noticed by television cameras is to make a memorable poster or sign, but ‘memorable’ in this case does not suggest a commitment to reasoned discourse.  The fact is, Proposition 8 was an exercise in democracy–it was a state-wide referendum.  This film is about a legal challenge to that referendum’s constitutionality.  And it presents legal battles compellingly.  Olson and Boies and the teams of lawyers who work with them all seem attractive in the same way that intelligent people who are good at their jobs are always attractive.  I’m glad we live in a democratic republic, even when it seems dysfunctional, as ours sometimes does today.  But what’s on display in this film is the constitution in action, courts overturning pure majority rule, thus defending the rights of unpopular minorities.

Given the events of today, I should add one final note.  The ‘pro-traditional-marriage side’ of this debate really needs some better arguments.  I don’t mean to be snarky here, but that side of the question is on a major losing streak nowadays, and it seems likely to continue.  In the Utah case, for example, one argument that was presented is that the word ‘marriage’ has always been defined as being between one man and one woman, so the term ‘same sex marriage’ is fundamentally oxymoronic.  Today’s 10th Circuit decision (found here) eviscerated that argument:

Appellants’ assertion that plaintiffs are excluded from the institution of marriage by definition is wholly circular. Nothing logically or physically precludes same-sex couples from marrying, as is amply demonstrated by the fact that many states now permit such marriages. Appellants’ reliance on the modifier “definitional” does not serve a meaningful function in this context. To claim that marriage, by definition, excludes certain couples is simply to insist that those couples may not marry because they have historically been denied the right to do so. One might just as easily have argued that interracial couples are by definition excluded from the institution of marriage.
In other words, ‘guys, that’s a really bad argument.  Try a different one.’  But it points to a problem.  People who support marriage equality (including some insanely smart attorneys) have been waiting for this moment for years.  They’ve been studying, preparing, bouncing ideas off each other, engaging in passionate argumentation about it.  Isn’t it fair to suggest that people who support traditional marriage have been, during the same time frame, pretty complacent?  This ‘definitional’ argument would suggest so.  ‘Marriage has always been understood a certain way.  So that should just continue.’  But as the 10th Circuit so memorably put it “we see no reason to allow Utah’s invocation of its power to define the marital relation to become a talisman, by whose magical power the whole fabric which the law had erected is at once dissolved.”
The Deseret News has published nearly daily op-eds and letters opposing marriage equality.  The arguments presented there have been pretty much always terrible ones. The most recent article, for example, presented this summation of the issues:
To advocates of same-sex marriage, gays and lesbians are seeking normalcy. Gays and lesbians say they want the legal right to express their loving relationships through government recognition of their unions. To advocates of man-woman unions, marriage cannot be casually redefined. Male-female relationships are the foundation for sexual reproduction, and supporters say that marriage between a man and a woman provides for the optimal rearing of children, who constitute society’s future generations.
His ‘compromise solution’ was federalism; let every state decide. But this writer can’t even get the facts right.  As the 10th Circuit explicitly stated, this is a Fourteenth Amendment case.  Gays and lesbians aren’t pleading for the right to marry, they’re arguing that they already have that right, as citizens, and that it’s been denied them due to nothing but discrimination.  They seek equal protection under the law.  And that argument is winning.
Find better arguments.  Or you’re going to lose.  That’s the unspoken conclusion of this film.  And Kitchen v. Herbert explicitly made the same case today.



Edge of Tomorrow: Movie Review

As I left the movie theater after seeing Edge of Tomorrow, the exciting new Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt sci-fi action film, I saw a young hipster snissing the plot to a group of his friends.  “Snissing” is a new word I just invented: a portmanteau combining ‘snark’ and ‘dissing.’  Snarkily dismissing?  Snissing.  Your assignment is to use it in at least three conversations this week: I’m hoping it catches on.

For some reason, this movie seems to attract snissers.’s review was a sniss.  Salon’s review snissed the film. It’s got a 89% positive score on, but those positive reviews were all of them pretty snissy.  Yeah, it’s a good movie, these critics all agree.  But it’s a Tom Cruise movie.  How good can it be?  He’s sooooo tiresome.  The sculpted abs, the toothy grin, the way his eyes narrow in intensity.  Plus his religious beliefs are comical.  But, yeah, it’s a pretty good flick. For a Tom Cruise movie.  Sniss sniss sniss.

I’ll grant that it’s a summer action movie.  It’s fast and fun and exciting and inventive, but hardly profound. But I enjoyed it immensely, and so did my wife, and so did the couple from our ward who we chatted with afterwards.  The premise is astonishingly imaginative, and the movie looks great, and it moves and the action sequences are tremendous, beautifully staged and shot and edited.

Cruise plays a guy named Cage, a public relations officer for American armed forces, sort of their go-to guy for TV appearances, like Neil DeGrasse Tyson tends to be for any TV program talking about science.  The world has joined together to fight an alien attack which has essentially conquered Europe. The aliens–metallic squid-like things, which bury themselves and then come whirring out of the ground, real scary–seem able to anticipate mankind’s every move–forces are generally even, but the aliens appear to way ahead of us in terms of strategy and tactics.  Apparently, Cruise’s television appearances have royally ticked off American General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), and Cruise/Cage has been busted down to private and is being sent to Normandy, where the plan is to reenact WWII–invade France and open a second front.

Cage doesn’t even know how to turn off the safety of his weapon.  But he straps on these big framelike combat suits, and stumbles into battle.  Where he is, quite predictably, killed.  But he kills an alien before dying, and is sloshed with alien blood.  And then he dies.  And then, Cage . . . resets.

That’s the central conceit of the movie.  Every time Cage dies, he gets to reset time, travel back 24 hours to the day before his deployment.  But every time, he remembers what happened in all his previous deployments, and he learns more each time.  He stays alive a little longer–is able to keep his squad mates alive a little longer too.  He becomes a better soldier.  That’s why the aliens are winning–they have this talent too, and only passed it on to Cage inadvertently.  But he’d better use it sensibly, because mankind is in big trouble.

It’s been compared to Groundhog Day, that classic 1993 Harold Ramis comedy, with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell.  I’d compare it to that, yes, but also to Starship Troopers, not the movie but the classic Heinlein novel–we can see it in the battle armor the soldiers wear, and in the camaraderie of the small squad our hero fights with.  But really what it’s like is a video game.  Learning a new video game, you get used to seeing your character die.  And you learn more about how to win every time it resets.

Cage meets, soon enough, Rita (Emily Blunt), a sort of legendary super-soldier, who, it turns out, once had the same power he has.  Getting drenched in alien blood is the key, it turns out. But you do have to reset every time your character fails.  If you are merely wounded–especially if you get a blood transfusion–you lose the go-back-in-time superpower.  So as Rita teaches Cage how to fight better, he becomes repeatedly injured, and every time he’s hurt, she shoots him in the head–resets him. So we get all these shots of Emily Blunt shooting Tom Cruise in the head. It’s pretty funny, in a dark kind of way.  And that’s one of the things the movie has going for it–it’s really very funny, at times.

But the invasion scenes, all sort of futuristic versions of the actual WWII battle of Normandy beach, they’re really quite stunning.  Nothing will ever equal the extraordinary verisimilitude of Stephen Spielberg’s Normandy scenes in Saving Private Ryan.  But this movie comes close.  The difference is a matter of tone.  These battle scenes are terrifying and exciting and fearful, but they do involve space aliens–they never do seem entirely real.  Still, we get a sense of the horror of war.  And it’s a war that mankind must win–our survival as a species depends on it.  And we’re losing.  This is a very high stakes scenario.

Emily Blunt is tremendous.  We see in her face the weariness of a long-time soldier, the hopelessness of losing battle after battle.  Every time Cage resets, he goes back to see her, and every time, she’s balanced in a kind of horizontal handstand, muscles taut and face shining with effort.  Small wonder he falls in love with her.  But she can’t possibly fall for him, of course–every time he meets her is essentially a first meeting ever, for her.  Plus, every ‘date’ ends with her shooting him in the head.  So, sure, it’s Hollywood, romance blooms, but it gets increasingly one-sided.  He’s in love with her, and she literally doesn’t know he exists.

Of course it’s a Tom Cruise vehicle. But isn’t Tom Cruise, in a way, a perfect movie star?  He works hard.  He produces in addition to acting, and only chooses scripts that play to his strengths as an actor.  He promotes the films like the thorough professional he is.  I could care less about his religious beliefs. For me, Tom Cruise movies are the one dependable part of Hollywood.  They’re always action movies, they’re always very well made, and exciting.  He’s in terrific shape, and he has excellent comic timing, and he’s better than almost anyone (except maybe Jason Stratham) at action sequences.  He gives good value.  I feel confident entrusting him with my entertainment dollar.

Of course his movies aren’t likely to change anyone’s lives for the better. They’re escapist entertainment.  But they’re well done escapist entertainment. I admire professionalism, and I admire craftsmanship. Enough with the snissing. Edge of Tomorrow  is an outstanding movie, a movie that accomplishes everything it tries to accomplish.  It’s exciting, genuinely entertaining.  I had a great time at this movie, and I think you will too.



A Million Ways to Die in the West: Movie Review

I went to see A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth McFarland’s rude take-down of the Olde West, with a friend.  When we bought our tickets, it looked as though we’d have the theater to ourselves, but we grabbed some lunch, and came back, and in the meantime, it did fill up some.  Mostly guys, mostly small groups of guys with that elaborately self-conscious body language that says ‘we’re here as friends; but, hey, we’re both straight!’  Two little old ladies sat directly behind us.  Just to my right, though, were two teenagers, a guy and a girl, both really quite sensationally nerdy looking.  The guy had this really high pitched hyena-like laugh, and clearly thought the movie was hilarious.  The girl never laughed once, and kept looking over at him, like ‘seriously?  You thought that was funny?’  By the end, she had developed quite a look of scientific detachment, as though her date was some kind of exotic species she was observing in the wild.  A first date, I think, and likely also a last.

The movie’s like that; incredibly funny if your sense of humor tends towards the crude, and not remotely funny if you just don’t get poop jokes.  I laughed a lot; my friend didn’t laugh once, and thought the movie was cretinous.  Which I suppose it also sort of is.

But for those of us with an interest in American history, the movie is not uninteresting.  The comic premise of the movie is simply that the old west of myth and folklore, the American Western Frontier, sucked. That it was a terrible time and place to be alive, not least because death beckoned so frequently and so ferociously.  The cheapness of human life becomes a major theme in the movie; the humor is not just scatological, but specifically morbid. And every time someone is killed, the characters react, in shock and surprise, at least. Well, Seth MacFarlane does. The other characters seem astonished that he’s so bothered. So, yes, the movie does derive cheap laughs from the cheapness of human life, but it does also value human life, in its own way.

MacFarlane plays Albert, a sheep farmer, who seems to be the only character in the movie who notices how bad everything is.  That’s essentially it; that’s the movie’s source of humor.  All the characters just sort of take for granted how terrible life is.  Albert is passionate on the subject, evangelistic.  Three times in the film, he faces a duel to the death in the streets of his own town.  The first time, he talks his way out of it, just completely rejecting the Code of the West, and offering to sell a couple of sheep so he can recompense the cowboy who’s angry at him.  Everyone in town calls him a coward for it, which he’s not.  He’s just unwilling to die if he can avoid it.

Second time he faces a duel, it’s with elaborately mustachioed Neil Patrick Harris, as the man now dating Albert’s former girlfriend, Amanda Seyfried.  But before they can shoot at each other, Harris is overcome with a bout of diarrhea, leading to the movie’s grossest (and IMHO funniest) scene, one in which Harris drops trou and snatches a spectator’s ten gallon hat, which he then proceeds to, uh, fill.  Okay, he poops in the guy’s cowboy hat.  Sorry, sue me, I thought it was funny.

The final duel is with Liam Neeson, playing the fabled gunslinger Clinch.  Clinch is married to Anna, played by Charlize Theron.  She’s befriended hapless Albert, and also taught him how to shoot.  And they’ve fallen in love. And Clinch wants revenge.  That’s the final shootout–Albert vs. Clinch. Seth MacFarlane v. Liam Neeson. Not a battle Albert has the remotest possibility of winning. Unless aided by the spiritual insights of our Native American friends.  (The terrific Cherokee actor, Wes Studi, makes a tremendous blissed-out Cochise, and walks off with all his scenes with MacFarlane).

MacFarlane is a pretty funny writer, but he’s not much of an actor, nor much of a director.  Without Theron, this movie wouldn’t work at all.  She saves it.  She plays straight man to MacFarlane’s smart-aleck, know-it-all neurotic, and she nails every joke.  I had no idea.  I know she’s a fine actress; I had no idea she had comic timing that superb.  She seems bemused by it all, a little superior to everyone, and therefore able to crack wise when she finally finds a man who shares her own sense of her time and place.  It’s her confidence, her intelligence that are funny, because they’re so misplaced.  McFarlane comments on how bad the Western frontier really is, and implied in his criticism is a sense of how much better things could be.  She embodies that hope and that future, but she does it effortlessly.  When she finally meets Amanda Seyfried, her romantic rival, so to speak, for MacFarlane’s attentions, you can see how little the rivalry bothers her.  There’s never been a day in her life when she hasn’t been able to beat out girls like Seyfried.

Later in the movie, when it makes the mistake of finally taking its plot and story seriously, Theron is called upon to register vulnerability and fear, which she does competently enough.  But it’s not very convincing, because we can’t really imagine this woman ever being actually vulnerable, or ever in much danger.  (She’s a better shot than most men, for one thing, and does the pistol twirl reholster thing like a pro.)

The movie exists entirely in our era, of course.  Nothing in the dialogue suggests anything remotely 19th century, and the film’s frequent cameos give the joke away.  Sarah Silverman has a lot of fun playing the town prostitute, with the twist being that she’s engaged to MacFarlane’s best friend, played by Giovanni Ribisi, but that they haven’t consummated their relationship, because they’re both Christians.  That may have been intended to mock the 19th century sexual double-standard; it reads more like a ‘aren’t Christians silly hypocrites?’ piece of tiresomeness.  But at other times, MacFarlane uses his, and our distance, from the Olde West in smart ways.  The appalling racism of 19th century America is fully deconstructed, and just at the point when you think ‘dang, these people could use a little Django Unchained in their lives,’ Jamie Foxx shows up to provide it.

I thought the movie was smart and clever and funny.  The friend I saw it with thought it was nothing of the kind.  Neither did the young woman sitting next to me; her entirely unprepossessing date seems to have agreed with me.  Take that for what it’s worth; your mileage may vary.

Maleficent: Movie Review

Jack the Giant SlayerOz: the Great and Powerful.  The Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland.  Now Maleficent.  So apparently this is kind of a thing now; take old fairytale movies and retell the story, with a twist. Do we call them, pretentiously, post-modern deconstructions of classic tales?  Or are they just more modern examples of what Disney’s always done: shape a classic tale to fit contemporary sensibilities.  When, during the closing credits, I heard Lana Del Rey’s cover of Once upon a Dream, it all came clear.  The original Once Upon a Dream was all chirpy and soprano-y; a song fitting that late 1950′s sensibility.  Lana Del Rey’s version is sultry, ironic, much darker.  It fits our time.  Maleficent isn’t as daring, as bold, as deconstructive as it seems to think it is.  It’s very good, and I enjoyed it immensely, but it could have been, and I think perhaps wanted to be, just a shade darker, just a hint more troubling.

What Maleficent tries to do, though, is remarkable and bold enough.  Structurally, it’s a Hollywood narrative melodrama in which the protagonist and the antagonist are the same character. Back when I was teaching dramatic structure 101, I suggested that a story in which protagonist and antagonist are the same person is what we call a tragedy. Oedipus is a great example.  Oedipus the King is busy trying to root out the evil that plagues his city.  The deeper he digs, though, the more he uncovers–he is that evil.  His actions have brought about the sickness killing his people.  He is trying to eradicate the consequences of his own choices.

And that’s very much the case with Maleficent.  The young fairy Maleficent has wings, and can fly. She lives in an enchanted forest next door to a powerful human kingdom. She’s magnificent, beautiful and powerful and strong.  And then she falls in love with a young human male, Stefan.  But he’s a poor kid, and ambitious.  When the elderly and addled human King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) decides to destroy the fairy world, and is defeated by Maleficent’s army, he offers his crown to anyone who can beat her.  Stefan (Sharlto Copley, so great in District Nine), knows Maleficent’s only vulnerability is to iron.  He visits her, whispers sweet nothings, and when she’s asleep, uses an iron chain to cut off her wings. And the scene when Angelina Jolie wakes, in terrible pain, without her wings, is heart-breaking.

From that scene on, we’re sympathetic to her, and we’re basically on her side when she shows up at King Stefan’s daughter’s christening and curses this newborn child.  We get it.  Jolie is superb in that scene, with her sharp cheekbones and bright red lipstick and the black horns protruding from her skull.  She’s scary, strong, angry.  She’s earned it, her fury and her revenge. And she has a companion, the crow Diaval (Sam Riley), who is her counselor and conscience, and who she can shape shift into anything she needs–a wolf, a horse, a ravaged-looking human).

And so, King Stefan decrees, all spinning wheels are to be destroyed, and Princess Aurora sent off to be raised by three inept fairy guardians, Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistlewit (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, all of them very fun), who give the film some comic relief.  And Aurora grows into a delightful, lovely, radiant teenager, played sweetly and beautifully by Elle Fanning.  And Maleficent grows to love her.

That relationship, between Maleficent and Aurora, becomes the key to the entire film.  And we believe it.  Aurora thinks Maleficent is her fairy godmother, and in a way, she is.  And Maleficent tries to break her own curse.  She no longer wants revenge on King Stefan, certainly not a revenge that will cast an innocent child into a permanent coma.  She wants Aurora to be happy.  The way any Mom would.

It’s at this point in the story that thoughts about Angelina Jolie, her history and her pop culture persona, do intrude a bit.  The key to Maleficent is this simple thought: the love of a mother for her adopted child can be as deep and lasting and permanent and powerful as the love of a mother for her biological child.  That idea, of that equivalency, seems pretty well unarguable.  Of course it’s true; it’s obviously true.  But it’s an idea that, I suspect, has a greater resonance with Jolie than it might for other actresses.

I want to continue this thought, but to do so requires a spoiler; so SPOILER ALERT, and stop reading if you don’t want the movie ruined.

Okay, the curse takes hold, Aurora becomes Sleeping Beauty.  Just before that scene, though, Prince Philip, from One Direction, shows up.  I’m kidding; he’s Brenton Thwaites, and his last movie credit was the remake of The Blue Lagoon.  He’s very good looking, in other words, in a boy band kind of way.  And he and Aurora have an awkward teenage conversation, and Elle Fanning plays it perfectly–girl’s first crush.  So we know how the story’s going to go, right?  Sleeping Beauty is cursed; she can only be woken by a True Love’s Kiss. By the Prince.  But Disney already deconstructed True Love’s Kisses, right?  In Enchanted?  And isn’t that very notion sort of, uh, stupid?

So the good looking boy band member/prince shows up, and, egged on by the three inept fairies, kisses the pretty girl he’s met once before, for ten minutes. And nothing happens.  Nothing happens at all, because ‘love-at-first-sight true-love’s-kisses’ are romantic twaddle.  The Prince doesn’t love Aurora.  He just sort of has a crush on her.

But a mother’s kiss?  A kiss by a woman who has sacrificed for her child, and watched over her, and worried over her, and kept her safe?  Yes, that’s true love. That kiss might work.  And it does.  And Sleeping Beauty awakes.

That kiss, a modest kiss on the forehead by a mother, is lovely, a splendid moment in an excellent movie. What comes immediately after, though, is pretty disappointing, and the movie becomes sadly, predictably, safe.

Oedipus is both protagonist and antagonist in Sophocles’ play.  In a sense, you could say the same about Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s play.  A narrative in which a character is both the hero and villain is, generally, a tragedy.  And the consequences, for those protagonists, is usually, well, tragic.

But Maleficent isn’t a tragedy. The writers and director and producers cop out.  They had the story, and they had the actress with the power to pull it off, but they didn’t have the courage to let the story go where it needed to go.  Maleficent pays no price for her curse.  She does this dreadful thing, uses her powers to curse a child, and that action gets the narrative spinning, but her actions have no subsequent consequences.  Maleficent should have been a tragedy.  But the didn’t dare end it tragically.

Having kissed Aurora, and saved her, and ended the curse, Maleficent really should die. Whether by the hand of her lover-turned-madman, Stefan, or by her own hand, or (my choice), torn apart by the power of the curse itself, Maleficent should have to genuinely sacrifice.  Hamlet dies; Oedipus is blinded.  Maleficent gets her wings back. No.

But no. The ending is just so much typical, generic Hollywood tosh.  There’s a big fight scene (of course there is).  Stefan and Maleficent fight a final duel (of course they do).  She wins, but then forgives him, won’t kill him, however much he deserves it. (As in so many other Hollywood narratives).  And she and Aurora live happily ever after, their realms reunited, the fences between them destroyed.  And Aurora marries her absurdly good looking dude, and Maleficent gets to be like a fairy grandmother or something.

The ending is so disappointing.  But the movie is really excellent up to that point.  The script is smart and witty, and Jolie is tremendous as Maleficent, and Fanning is charming, and Sam Riley gives the film some weight and sadness.  The film looks terrific, and my wife and I really enjoyed it.  I can wish that the filmmakers hadn’t played it quite so safe, and that the fascinating possibilities of their structure had been more completely realized.  But it’s a hundred million dollar movie.  So they chickened out at the end.  That’s just barely forgiveable.