Category Archives: Movies

Sicario: Movie Review

Sicario is one of those movies that come with a lot of hype that it doesn’t quite live up to, while remaining an awfully good movie anyway. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an FBI agent specializing in kidnapping cases. She leads a SWAT team into a very nice home in Chandler Arizona, a Phoenix suburb, only to discover a horror show; dozens of bodies sheetrocked into the walls. Her handling of the case brings her to the attention of Matt (Josh Brolin), who recruits her into an anti-drug task force he heads up. She soon meets Matt’s partner, Alejandro, (Benicio Del Toro), who, she’s told vaguely, is a DEA asset. She’s never quite sure of Matt either–what agency he works for, what his authority might be, though her superiors make it clear that questioning any of that is way beyond her pay grade. And so begins her slow descent into the moral quagmire of America’s (and Mexico’s) war on drugs. Kate’s a cop’s cop; she wants to bust bad guys, build cases that can be prosecuted in a court of law; she wants clear-cut rules and procedures, and she want her work to be by the book. Matt and Alejandro make clear what they think of her naivete. That’s not remotely what they do, though what they do does seem to have been approved by someone. By someone ‘elected,’ she’s condescendingly informed.

I’ve heard this movie described as shocking and profoundly disturbing and a revelation. I didn’t find it to be any of those things. These are movie tropes of an ancient lineage; morally ambiguous cops who stray outside normal procedures to disrupt and disturb the heads of big drug cartels? We haven’t seen that before? Like in every episode of The Wire? Or the deeply troubled cop seeking revenge for the dreadful things some bad guys did to his family? Seen it all before.

A ‘sicario’ is, as an early title informs us, an assassin. I suppose part of the mystery of the piece is to figure out which of these characters is, in fact, not a cop, but an assassin, a sicario. Except that I figured that out twenty minutes in. Not to spoil things by spilling those particular frijoles, but it’s not all that difficult; I’ll bet you figure it out too, just as quickly.

So it’s really a pretty conventional example of the ‘nihilist cop revenge narrative.’ Like, say, The Departed, The French Connection, Chinatown, all the Dirty Harry movies, Heat, Traffic, Bullitt, Training Day, all the Lethal Weapons, End of Watch, Donnie Brasco, LA Confidential, or The Untouchables? It’s still stylishly made, and exceptionally well acted.

Del Toro is particularly magnificent. He looks ravaged, and all the more dangerous for it. Near the end of the movie, he explains to Kate why she could never fight the war that consumes him. “You’re not a wolf,” he says. “And this is the time for wolves.” And later, when she’s given the chance to shoot him, she can’t bring herself to do it, in part because he had earlier saved her life. His Alejandro is haunted, compassionate, and utterly ruthless. It’s a brilliant creation. Brolin is equally terrific, playing a cheerful cynicism, perhaps even a trifle gleeful in his nihilism.

It’s Emily Blunt, though, who the movie is built around, and she’s fine. For me, though, she seemed just a trifle too naive. A woman with her history dealing with criminals wouldn’t seem quite so surprised (or appalled) at Matt and Alejandro’s antics.

And, thank heavens, the movie does finally place the blame for the destruction and death and mayhem of the drug wars where the blame belongs; squarely on the shoulders of the American people. In the film, Brolin casually mentions the 20% of Americans who regularly use illegal drugs. In fact, the number is nowhere near that high; it’s more like 7.5%, and most of that is marijuana; only about two million Americans regularly abuse cocaine and meth. That’s still a sizeable market. Add to that the tendency of American voters to prefer anti-drug hysteria for sensible drug policy, and our usual casually Trumpian racism towards Mexico, and we have all the necessary elements for a first-rate drug war. Cocaine is a commercial product, and its price is controlled by the immutable laws of supply and demand. Treat drug abuse (and addiction) as a public health problem and not a criminal problem, and demand would drop, leading to a drop in prices, and, presumably, lucrative criminality. This is a stylish and fashionably hopeless (and to be honest, a fashionably sentimental) movie. But it describes a problem that could be solved.

And not by running around shooting the poor soldiers and mules and corrupt (but soccer-playing) cops of the Mexican drug cartels.  No matter how mean they were to your poor lost daughter. We need sensible policy, working in concert with Mexican officials and authorities. Not an army of American Dirty Harrys.

The Intern: Movie Review

Nancy Meyer’s The Intern is an agreeable enough entertainment, low key and charming. My wife and I enjoyed it, especially the first two-thirds of the movie, before it got all squishy. What’s odd about it, though, is that it’s just about the most conservative movie I’ve seen in a good long while. It’s not conservative politically, particularly; it’s not really a political movie, at least not overtly. It’s not contentiously political, in any kind of partisan sense. It’s conservative in this sense: the unmistakable message of the movie is that old guys rule.

So, Robert De Niro plays Ben, a 70-year-old former executive, now retired, who finds that time weighs heavily when you don’t have a job to go to. He sees a flyer for a elder-intern program, and on a whim, applies for it, getting his nine-year-old granddaughter to help him with the required video job application. It’s at an on-line fashion website, founded and run by Jules, played by Anne Hathaway.

Hathaway’s company looks like a fun place to work. It’s one of those e-commerce start-ups where the employees are all 24, and there aren’t any offices, and the boss gets from meeting to meeting by riding her bicycle, weaving in and out of people’s workstations. Jules herself seems sort of insanely hand-on, as a boss. Characters talk about how ‘tough’ and ‘difficult’ she is, but she never seems anything but kind of sweet and supportive, if a trifle scattered. She does dump a lot on her personal assistant, Becky (Christina Sherer), who was otherwise winsome and charming.

Anyway, Ben shows up, the new intern, and initially fits in like a Mormon at a wine tasting. He can barely use a computer, he’s forty-plus years older than everyone else, and he wears a suit and tie in a shop where casual hardly begins to describe the dress code. But he’s smart, and hard-working, and he begins to find jobs that need doing, and does them briskly and efficiently, and Jules begins to notice that that desk where everyone just piled all their crap has been neatly organized and that memos that once just disappeared seem to show up when she needs them. And it freaks her out, and she fires Ben. He’s just so . . . observant, she says.

He stays fired for one day, as she realizes how indispensable he’s become. A key moment arises when she realizes that she sent an overly-frank email to her Mom. Ben puts a team of geeks together, they break into her Mom’s home and delete the email. So that maybe goes outside the usual duties of an intern at a start-up, but it was a funny moment. It solidifies Ben’s value for Jules and for her company, and she realizes just how special and important he is to her. And love blossoms.

No, it doesn’t. No love, no romance, no rom-com nonsense. Actually, Ben hooks up with the company masseuse (Rene Russo). (Of course, they have a company masseuse). To the extent that the film is a rom-com, it’s not a May/December romance; more like a November/December one. I would have hated the movie if a De Niro/Hathaway romance had happened, and there are numerous moments in the film where it looked like it might. I applaud the movie for not going there. I mean, Rene Russo is eleven years younger than Robert De Niro (she’s 61, he’s 72), but that’s at least plausible. No, it turns out that Jules doesn’t need, or want, a septuagenarian lover. What she wants is a Dad.

Ben’s old-school values (standing when women enter a room, keeping a handkerchief handy for those inevitable female crying jags, politeness and discretion) transform, not only the company (all the guys there start dressing better), but also Jules’ life. Her marriage is on the rocks; Ben becomes her sounding board and confidante. He babysits her daughter.

The central conflict in the film is an odd one; should Jules hire an experienced businessman as CEO of the company, letting him (it’s inevitably a guy) run the company, so she can spend more time at home, fixing her marriage. In fact, from a business sense, a CEO makes sense. Jules is perhaps a trifle too hands-on and scattered to be an effective boss, and as business has increased, things have been falling through the cracks. Her investors have been pressing her to hire someone, and much of the film involves her interviews with prospective . . . bosses? Because she’ll report to whoever she hires? Not sure how that works, since it’s her company–there’s no suggestion of a board, or that the company is beholden to stockholders. But I’m not a businessman; maybe this makes business-world sense.

Except Ben thinks this hire is a bad idea, and that means that it is a bad idea, because, in the world of this film, Ben is always, always right. Because he’s an old guy, experienced, with the wisdom of his years. It turns out that Jules company does probably need better management. Which Ben is perfectly capable of providing. As an intern. And as Jules’ surrogate Daddy. (No problem, either, with Jules and Ben working together–she’ll just do everything he says).

Now, Ben isn’t some fossil. He’s a self-described feminist. His late wife, we hear, was a jr. high principal, which suggests a woman with some force to her personality. And De Niro has a lot of fun with the role. He’s charming and funny, and carries an otherwise rather limp picture. Still, we can’t escape what seems to be the film’s essential premise. Old guys rock. Old is the new Young. Old people have hard-earned wisdom and an understanding of how the world works, and should therefore be listened to.

Well, I’m getting older, and I certainly don’t think I have an special insight into the world. And I look around at old guys, and I think a lot of us are cranky and have to take a lot of pills, and watch Fox News and intend to vote for Donald Trump. And some old guys really are awesome. It depends on the old guy, is what I’m saying. Which is, of course, really what this film is saying too; that it’s Ben that rules, not just older people. Except that this film has something else going on too.

It’s a film in which every real-life serious conflict basically disappears. It’s a film in which the ugliness and scarring pain of real life are simply . . . dispensed with, waved away by magic Ben and his unerring advice. And that’s another thing about older folks that I’ve noticed, that a lot of them, even while dealing with genuine difficulties incident to age, nonetheless want to offer advice that neatens up life’s essential messiness. I mean, isn’t there also just this kind of reality-denial at the heart of contemporary conservatism? There are two main conflicts in this film, both involving Jules, Hathaway’s character, and both just sort of . . . disappear. Because: Ben.

I understand, of course, that Hollywood is selling fantasy, just as Jules is on her website. But Nancy Meyers takes some shortcuts here, making her film more palatable. Ben’s health is never an issue, and neither are the other actual issues the film pretends to deal with–infidelity, marriage communication. The resolution of these issues is way less interesting than the way they’re all initially raised. I liked The Intern just fine. But there’s a better movie here, wishing it could emerge.


Everest: Movie Review

Everest is a terrific movie, with a single major handicap it never quite succeeds in overcoming. The movie is very exciting, builds genuine tension, was very moving, and was superbly acted. It’s also a beautiful film to watch, though I really think just pointing a camera at the Himalayas would make for a lovely film viewing experience. (I didn’t see it on IMAX, but I suspect it would be spectacular in that format).  But it’s also about a number of people wealthy enough to indulge their whims, people who choose to spend their leisure time and disposable income recklessly putting themselves in harm’s way. And about the loss of life among those tasked with rescuing them.

The movie does not claim to be based on Jon Krakauer’s best-seller Into Thin Air, a book I know well, but a controversial one. Surely, though, the screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, were familiar with it, and the movie is about the same 1996 episode as Krakauer’s book. On a big May climb, in 1996, an unanticipated storm hit a number of groups attempting to climb Mount Everest, and 8 climbers died. Krakauer’s book was very controversial, though in all fairness, he’s unsparing about his own ineffectual efforts to help with the rescue, which the movie also shows. Krakauer is also a character in the movie, played by the wonderful Michael Kelly as a bit of a self-promoting schmuck.

But Krakauer is right about this main point: climbing Everest has become an industry, with hundreds of amateur climbers attempting the ascent annually, and so many people try it that the safety of all of them is compromised. It continues, though, because the sale of climbing permits is a significant revenue source for the government of Nepal, and dozens of guiding organizations are able to charge up to $100,000 per climber. This film primarily focuses on two such outfits: Adventure Consultants, led by renowned climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), and its main competitor, Mountain Madness, led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal). Hall is the film’s protagonist, in a film that deals generously with the stories of many characters.

So the film isn’t so much an expose of various calculations of greed that lead a whole lot of unqualified climbers up one of the world’s most dangerous mountains. It’s not really a celebration of the human spirit that leads all those people up that peak. It’s sort of an tribute to the blue-collar types, the hard-core mountaineering pros who lead all those amateurs to the summit, and the risks they run on behalf of their clients, and of the Sherpa natives who find lucrative employment making Everest climbs feasible. Above all, though, the title nails it; it’s a tribute to one magnificent, stark, dangerous, treacherous mountain, gloriously and lethally beautiful. The gifted young Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur paces the film beautifully. Above all, though, he manages to capture shots that seem impossible. Drone cameras? CGI? I don’t know. It’s a magnificent looking film, though, and the loveliness of the cinematography contrasts with the tragedy of the story. This time, the mountain wins. The human cost is heart-breaking. And so the central dramatic question of the film becomes this: why?

The first half of the film deals with preparations for the trip by Hall and his associates; the second half, with the ill-fated climb on May 10, 1996. We establish a number of characters: Andy Harris (Martin Henderson), Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington), and Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), as Hall’s associates, and also the amateur climbers, especially an older Texan, Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a mailman, Doug Hanson (John Hawkes), and a Japanese woman Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who has climbed the highest peaks on the other continents, and wants to finish it off with Everest.  We also meet a third group of people; the climbers’ families, most especially Rob Hall’s wife Jan Arnold (Keira Knightley), and Beck Weathers’ wife, Peach (Robin Wright).

I should also mention two other crucial climbers, Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson), and Ang Dorjee (Ang Phula Sherpa). Boukreev’s portrayal was one of the more controversial characterizations in Krakauer’s book. Krakauer called him irresponsible for not using oxygen, but other climbers insisted that Boukreev was extraordinarily heroic, and that without his efforts, other amateurs would have died. The movie leans in that direction. Also, Dorjee stands in for the many Sherpa climbers without whom any Everest ascent would much more difficult than it already is, if not, in fact, impossible.

So: a large cast. A lot of characters to keep track of, though it frankly helps that a few of them are movie stars. Honestly, though, I thought all the characters were distinctive and interesting. I never found the large cast confusing, not remotely. It helps that these are all wonderful actors–Jason Clarke, Michael Kelly, John Hawkes, Ingvar Siggurdsson, Emily Watson. Clarke nails his Kiwi accent, and he’s otherwise terrific. Hall is conscientious and compassionate; he comes across as the one tour guide who probably should be up there, actually. The others come across, uh, less well, especially Gyllenhaal, who plays Fischer as a guy with a serious substance abuse problem, leading to carelessness and endangering lives.

The fact is, for an amateur climber to summit Everest is only possible because dozens of more experienced climbers lay down rope lines and build camps and cache oxygen along the way. And when too many people are on the mountain, those preparations are compromised. The ’96 climbers who died were let down by previous groups that removed rope lines, or drained oxygen bottles. And Rob Hall’s group doesn’t discover any of that (and therefore can’t fix problems) until it’s very late in the day; later than is safe, given Everest’s propensity for sudden, lethal storms.

And Hall is also let down by his own compassion, his very occasional reluctant willingness to compromise his own standards, to help a client he likes and respects; specifically, in this case, Doug Hanson, the mountain climbing postman, so memorably played by Hawkes.

I knew what was going to happen, of course. I’m something of an Everest freak, and I’ve read Krakauer’s book, and Graham Ratcliffe’s book, and Galen Rowell’s account and all the rest of them. I knew going in what happened, and I knew who died, and who, miraculously, did not die.

It didn’t matter. I was still powerfully moved by it all, by the scenes in which climbers used sat phones to call their loved ones across the world to say goodbye, by scenes in which we see characters we care a lot about fall off the tallest mountain in the world. Human beings are not meant to climb a mountain the same height as the cruising altitude of a 747. Human beings are not meant to go that high. People die up there. They begin dying the moment they set foot at certain altitudes.


So yes, to some extent, it’s also a movie about race, and class, and rich white Americans indulging a whim, scratching an itch, crossing off another item on a bucket list. And the deaths of those trying to protect them, indulge them, and the human tragedy of those deaths. Still, we climb.  We see why people climb; why they feel like they have to do it. There is something magnificent about that, too.


Sharknado, the first three: review

I think the success of the first Sharknado movie took the programmers at the Syfy network sort of by surprise. Of course it was a preposterously bad movie, based on a ridiculous premise. One of the enchanting pleasures of Syfy is their glorious revival of the tradition of the B-movie. No, not just of B-movies, of entertainingly terrible movies, the whole grindhouse/drive-in/American International/Roger Corman movie tradition. When I was a teenager, my friends and I loved to go to the Starlight Drive-in and watch abysmal (but fun) movies. Or, on nights when my parents weren’t home, we’d watch Sammy Terry’s Nightmare Theater on WTTV, the Indianapolis station that also showed IU and Indiana Pacers’ basketball games. I grew up watching awful sci-fi/horror movies. I think they’re awesome. Sharknado proudly partakes of, and contributes to, that tradition. Which is why my wife and daughter and I recently watched the last two.

But really, was Sharknado that much more ridiculous than other Syfy offerings? Was it worse than Scream of the Banshee, say, or Dinocroc? Or Dinocroc vs. Supergator? Or Dinoshark? Or Frankenfish, Pteracuda, Piranhaconda, Lavalantula, or The Man with the Screaming Brain? Yep, they’re all for real, and have all been broadcast in the last five years on Syfy network. So once you’ve committed to a movie on the premise of an anaconda/piranha crossbreeding, why not follow it up with one about tarantulas made of lava? Or, for that matter, a movie about a tornado that sucks sharks out of the sea and drops them on big cities?

But Sharknado took off. One main reason is Twitter. The actual viewing audience for the initial broadcast was actually not all that impressive. But enough people live-tweeted it, and those who did were sufficiently snarky, Syfy decided to re-broadcast the next night, but include the more amusing tweets. Let’s not pretend for a second that Syfy isn’t in on the joke.

But what about the actors? And there you have it, the secret to the success of these movies. Let’s not kid ourselves, acting in Sharknado requires a certain skill set that’s not quite, but is related to, acting. Ian Ziering has starred in all three Sharknados, and, you know, he does just fine. He treats the character Fin (yes, the character is named Fin) seriously, and commits physically to all the action requirements, most of which would seem to require a chain saw. You don’t ever not believe him. In the third movie, when he announces that he plans to name his infant son Gill, the joke landed precisely because he committed to it. After Beverly Hills 90210, his career pretty much flat-lined, which makes him just the right kind of star for a Sharknado-type movie. Famous enough to carry the picture, desperate enough to accept the role. (John Heard was in the first one, a better known, and probably even more desperate actor–he slept-walked through the first third of the movie, then became shark bait without anyone missing him).

The first movie also featured two main actresses: Tara Reid and Cassie Scerbo.  Tara Reid, you probably know. It’s not like she doesn’t have some impressive film credits: The Big Lebowski, American Pie. But she never could act, and after some forays into reality TV (and a famously botched boob job), she needed a hit. But she’s dreadful in all three Sharknados. Part of it’s the writing. Thunder Levin, the writer, has yet to give April, her character, anything to do except stand on the periphery of scenes and bite her lip in anxiety. Plus, Fin and April, for some reason, use a shark attack crisis as a perfect opportunity to work out their relationship issues. But whatever the challenges of the character, Reid conspicuously fails to meet them. In the perfect marriage of actress and character, April and the actress who plays her both manage to do nothing but annoy. (Bo Derek (!) plays her Mom in the third movie, and manages to out-bad-act even her.)

Cassie Scerbo, though, is something else again. Again, it may be the writing; her character, Nova, is a badass. She isn’t given much to do; shoot a semi-automatic weapon, throw hand grenades, look good in a bikini. But she more than meets all three challenges. More to the point, she has some energy. She’s forceful; she’s fun to watch. She’s only in the first and third movies, and the second movie is poorer for it. She’s the one actor in this thing that I think could have a subsequent actual career. Fin is a bit torn between the two great loves of his life, April and Nova, and Syfy obligingly sent a piece of debris hurtling towards April at the end of the third movie. Now we all get to vote on-line on whether April dies or not, in the fourth movie. Guess how I voted.

I appreciate watching a good actor meet an acting challenge, though. And in the third movie, they bring in the perfect Sharknado actor, for a far-too-brief appearance near the end. David Hasselhoff. And, I’m sorry to say this, but he’s brilliant. Genuinely good. Just tongue-in-cheek enough to play up the ridiculousness of the movie’s premise, but also charismatic. I mean, Hasselhoff’s career was built on joke-TV–Baywatch. His job was to be the one actual dramatic character in a show that was otherwise all about the bikinis. Well, this one’s about sharks. He knows how to handle this kind of material. (Frankie Muniz was also pretty great).

I mean, watching Sharknado movies does require a good deal more suspension-of-disbelief than is usually the case. If, in fact, tornados could suck sharks out of the ocean, they’d just die. If, miraculously, sharks didn’t die up in the air, they’d die when they hit the earth. Even if, somehow, they survived the fall, they’d die anyway, because they’re fish; they can’t live out of water. Even when (in all three movies) they land in commercial swimming pools, they’d die; fresh water with chlorine? Lethal to salt water sharks. Certainly, sharks wouldn’t be biting people much. But the silliness of the premise is most of the fun.

But in addition to the, you know, actual actors in these things, there are also many many cameos. In the third movie, Mark Cuban plays POTUS, and is impressive; at least, he looked like he was having fun. Ann Coulter plays VPOTUS. (Never have I so rooted for sharks to eat someone. But alas).  Matt Lauer and Al Roker play themselves in the last two movies, until they both become shark lunch. We get to see Lou Ferrigno, Bill Engvall, Jackie Collins, Lorenzo Lamas. Will Wheaton was in the second one. Of course, they all get shark-chomped pretty quickly, but that’s the gig; you get ten seconds of screen time, and then the actual stars of the movie–the sharks–take over.

And the sharks are, well, dreadful. Bad CGI is half the charm. The action isn’t really ever terribly convincing, and the effects are, well, low budget. And quite apart from the general absurdity of a sharknado, the movie’s plots are preposterous. But that’s why and how Syfy makes them. They don’t cost much, and they deliver. Movies are supposed to be fun. It’s nice when they’re also not poo. But when the movie is called Sharknado, I’ll settle for fun.


Once I was a Beehive: Movie Review

Let me start with the easy stuff: Once I was a Beehive is terrific fun. Within the sub-genre of ‘Mormon films,’ we’ve seen plenty of excellent serious films, many of them about missionaries. Maclain Nelson, who co-wrote and directed Beehive, even starred in one: The Saratov Approach. But the comedies haven’t been much good, ranging from the mediocre The Singles Ward to the execrable The Home Teachers. What we haven’t had up to now is a comedy made with intelligence, insight, humanity and good-hearted affection for the quirks and oddities of Mormon culture. I know that comedy’s hard. Still, I can’t begin to describe how good it feels to see Once I was a Beehive, a genuinely funny movie that avoids every potential misstep and creates believable human characters and derives its humor from carefully observed and beautifully realized actual people; a comedy, in short, that just plain works.

The movie begins with Lane Speer (Paris Warner), on her way to a camping trip with her Mom (Amy Biedel) and Dad (Adam Johnson). She’s fifteen, there’s a party she wants to go to, and she doesn’t particularly want to go camping. But her good-natured Dad teases her out of her bad mood, and we see the bond between them, and when they get into their canoe and head for the wild, what we see is a real family, outdoorsy and close-knit.

Cut to Dad’s funeral. Cancer. And Lane is quietly devastated.

Cut ahead a year. And Mom Speer is engaged to remarry, to a Mormon guy, Tristan Samuelson (Brett Merritt). And they’re going on a three week honeymoon, and they have arranged for Lane to spend those weeks with Tristan’s sister, Holly (Hailey Smith). And Holly’s daughter, Phoebe (Mila Smith), is sort of a brilliant mess, with a serious anxiety disorder, a therapy dog she can’t be parted from, and a sort of needy nerdiness. Enter Sister Carrington (Lisa Clark), an obnoxiously enthusiastic Young Women’s President, who pressures both Phoebe and resolutely non-LDS Lane to come to Girls’ Camp.

Clark is initially very funny in the role, but in her characterization, I thought I identified the film’s first major pitfall; that kind of cartoonish caricature wears pretty thin pretty quickly. I needn’t have worried. As Carrington’s exquisitely planned (and scrapbooked) schedule falls apart, so does the character, and Clark’s performance shifts, turns Carrington into a real person, vulnerable and snappish. Hailey Smith gives a quieter, still funny, but equally nuanced performance as Holly. And then they arrive at their campsite, and Barta Heiner rides up in a motorcycle.

In a rational universe, Barta Heiner would be recognized as the national treasure she really is; both the best acting teacher in the country, and an actress at the level of Meryl Streep and Judi Dench. That’s not hyperbole, though I also admit to a certain prejudice; she has been my revered friend and colleague for nigh on thirty years. In Beehive, she plays Nedra, the Girls’ Camp director and a tough and crusty outdoorswoman. Poor Lane, who by now is totally weirded out by the whole Mormon-centric Girls’ Camp experience, immediately recognizes a kindred spirit, and decides to stick around.

And a good thing she does. Because of her father, Lane has skills the other girls lack–she can set up a tent, read a map, cook a tasty meal over a campfire. And we also see her basic, essential kindness, also learned from her father, we presume. She befriends odd little Phoebe, helps her come out of her shell, helps hide, and protect, her therapy dog.

There are ten girls at this camp, and all are fully realized characters, both in the screenplay and through their performances. Clare Niederpruem is particularly strong, as Bree, Sister Carrington’s daughter, whose immediate, instinctive reaction to self-reliant Lane is essentially that of Elphaba to Galinda. And vice-versa. (Everybody sing along: “Loathing, unadulterated loathing, for your face, your voice, your clothing!”) But the movie really works based on the performances of Paris Warner and Mila Smith, as Lane and Phoebe. Both girls are tremendous. At times, Smith comes across as a precocious little female version of Sheldon Cooper; at times, she’s a frightened child with an anxiety disorder who just wants her doggie. These two performances make the movie–the grown-up actors, all of whom are terrific, are really there in support the two girls.

And it’s all pretty funny. There’s a scene where the girls, challenged to pair up and create, with a partner, a ‘spirit animal’ that defines something about themselves, give us a pretty hilarious menage of lions and dogs and (in the case of Lane and Phoebe) Galapagos tortoises. A little later, Sister Carrington reveals her ‘spirit animal.’ When Lisa Clark said ‘cougar,’ I laughed out loud. It was just a little throwaway joke, without the set-up-payoff-reaction shot structure of most movie jokes, but it nailed me. You know that obnoxious faux-profound line ‘I never told you it would be easy. I said it would be worth it?’ In this movie, it’s a punch-line, and a funny one. But also not in a mean-spirited sort of way.

I have a feeling that people who have been to Girls’ Camp would find the movie funnier than I did. And, let’s face it, Girls’ Camp is, in our culture, as much an exercise in indoctrination as it is a fun camping experience for teenaged girls. This movie faces that reality, finds a way to make it funny, but it does so with some real affection, and with this perspective: Girls’ Camp is about a lot more than just Mormon-centric preachifying.

That’s a fine edge. Does this movie make fun of Young Women’s programs, and especially, of Girls’ Camp? Yes. Does it recognize how relentlessly didactic Girls’ Camp can get, with every hike an object lesson and every task a sermon? Yes. Those are all fine subjects for satirical comedy, and the movie realizes the comedic potential inherent in each. But does the movie ultimately suggest that Girls’ Camp can provide a genuinely empowering experience for young women? That it’s about friendship and fellowship and kindness as much as it’s about ‘Trial of Faith’ scavenger hunts? Yes. That’s a thin line for a movie to tread, and I applaud Nelson and his whole team for treading it so dextrously.

(I don’t want to give away too much, but there’s one choice the movie might have made that would have ruined it, I think, and which, gratefully, it decided not to make. Comment for further enlightenment).

There’s one final issue I’d like to raise. Is this a feminist movie? Is this a movie likely to be applauded by Mormon feminists, or should it be? It is, after all, a movie with an almost entirely female cast. (There’s one guy at camp with them, the bishop, who apparently spends the entire week in his tent listening to an audiobook version of The Hunger Games; a pretty good joke right there.) It’s a movie about female leaders, about a Young Women’s President, and also about Bree, a Laurel President, who learn how to be real leaders over the course of Girls’ Camp. It’s about women with genuine leadership skills, about strong, independent, powerful women. It’s about Nedra, the older woman played by Barta, with a military background and wonderful compassion and friendship for young Lane. It’s about teenaged girls who overcome cattiness and cliqueish-ness and selfishness and grow, as friends, as women, as Christians. (It’s also, in one of its funnier scenes, about women pretty shamelessly objectifying hot young male forest rangers). Best of all, not one modesty lecture. Never once.

I consider myself a Mormon feminist, to the extent that I can be, given my gender. But, sure, yeah. It’s a movie about one official LDS program that really does try to empower young women. I’d say, sure, it’s a feminist film, maybe not with a capital F, but in its own quietly effective way.

Two final, personal notes. Full disclosure: I know and consider myself friends with many, if not most of the people in this movie. Not the kids; most of the grown-ups. Yes, that absolutely means that I was prejudiced for it to be good. Get over it.

Also this: there’s a testimony scene at the end of the movie. And I mostly dislike testimony scenes in LDS movies. And see, here’s the thing: I have this weird medical thing, a product of my chemo-therapy, where the tear duct in my right eye is damaged. I tend to cry a lot, even when I’m not remotely sad. So, in that testimony scene, I noticed my right eye was leaking a lot. And I thought, ‘well, that’s annoying.’ And then I noticed my left eye was leaking just as much. And my left eye isn’t damaged at all. So that happened too. Seriously, people, go see this.


Rickie and the Flash: Movie Review

Rickie and the Flash is a big hearted, excessive wreck of a movie, as vital and messy as rock and roll music itself. It features a powerhouse performance by Meryl Streep, wonderful acting from an ensemble cast, playing sharply written characters in a wonderful Diablo Cody screenplay, in which nothing really is resolved at the end, because that’s just how life works sometimes. My wife and I both loved it. Sure, it’s flawed, and maybe a trifle sentimental, and a lot of critics haven’t liked it. Ignore them. When Meryl Streep and Rick Springfield rock out to Bruce Springsteen’s My Love Will Not Let You Down, the movie comes together perfectly.

Streep plays Rickie, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for a California bar band by night, and a grocery store cashier by day. Her life is a mess. She’s broke. She has an on-again, off-again thing with her lead guitarist, Greg, a wonderfully grizzled Rick Springfield. The rest of her band consists of elderly rock and roll wrecks: Rick Rosas, Joe Vitale, Bernie Worrell (real life session musicians, all of them terrific). Streep learned guitar for the movie, and Springfield only agreed to act in it if the Flash got to really play; if they could plausibly play a rockin’ set in a real venue. The bar scenes are alive and electric. You sense how much the crowd there, in the bar, loves these guys; how much it means to them, to come every night and have a beer and listen to great old-time rock and roll. And their song list was terrific: from Tom Petty’s American Girl to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, from U2’s I still Haven’t Found What I’m Lookin’ For, to Sam and Sham’s Wooly Bully.

(In fact, I found myself wondering if the Flash are too good; if it was plausible that a band this solid would never have broken out of the bar/cover band ghetto. I don’t think so, though. I think there are a lot of terrific bands out there like this; not quite able to give up the music that is life itself to them, but also never quite famous or successful).

In the meantime, Rickie’s children despise her, and her daughter has attempted suicide. Years before, she left her husband, Pete (Kevin Kline) and their three children to pursue the life of a rocker. She put out an album, then her career receded into obscurity. Pete’s now a successful businessman, living in Indianapolis, and his second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald), has raised the children. The two sons, Josh (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate), have become successful young professionals. Josh is engaged, to Emily (Hailey Gates) who spends much of the movie looking horrified at the prospect of a life with this aging gargoyle of a mother-in-law. Adam is gay. In an interesting twist on expectations, Rickie, the Californian, is a die-hard Tea Party Republican; the rest of her family is vegan Democratic. Adam particularly loathes his mother, for what he perceives as her homophobia; Josh is more willing to forgive, as long as it doesn’t involve actually, you know, inviting her to his wedding.

And Julie, the oldest child and only girl, is a suicidal mess. With cause; her husband has left her for another woman. And Julie is played, superbly, by Meryl Streep’s daughter, Mamie Gummer.

Ordinarily, Julie’s crisis is the kind of thing Maureen would cope with. But her father is dying, and Pete, feeling out of his depth, calls on Rickie. Who does, in fact, fly home, and tries, awkwardly, to help. And there are a lot of wonderful cultural crisis scenes. Rickie’s a rocker; she wears more eye makeup than Alice Cooper, more leather than Joan Jett, and more bling than Mr. T. Meanwhile, her family–the Brummels–have become tastefully upper-middle-class, live in a McMansion, adorn the family kitchen with uplifting/humorous little posters. The first time we see Julie, she’s a total wreck; hasn’t showered in days, hair tangled, wears pajamas, flies off the handle. In fact, Rickie does help her, a little. They go out together (on Julie’s husband’s credit card), have a manicure and pedicure and eat food that’s bad for them and do Mom/daughter things. But Julie also blows off a therapy appointment, and then the three of them, Rickie, Julie, Pete, smoke some weed together, so when Maureen comes home, she hits the ceiling. And sends Rickie packing.

And that’s one of the best scenes in the movie. I’ll grant that it’s a bit odd for a movie musical, starring Audra McDonald, to have Meryl Streep do all the singing. But McDonald is tremendous in this movie, a beautifully controlled and calibrated performance, balancing righteous indignation with genuine compassion. It would be so easy for Maureen to be the villain in this movie; the cold-hearted bitch keeping Saint Meryl from her children. It would be equally easy to make this a movie about selfish Meryl, heedlessly ruining her children’s lives to pursue a hopeless and foolish dream. But the movie doesn’t go either of those directions. Maureen comes across as, well, a really really good Mom. She’s the step-mother, obviously, but she put in the time; she raised the kids, and did a darned good job of it, and will cope with Julie’s illness, as she copes with everything, and we see, clearly, that she loves Julie every bit as much as Rickie does, only probably more effectively. And while Rickie’s clearly a woman who made some choices she regrets, we also see her in those bar scenes. We can see just how brilliantly good The Flash are, and how playing with that band, with those guys, is about as much joy as she ever gets to experience in life.

Jonathan Demme directed Rickie and the Flash with his usual humanity and compassion and intelligence. Demme’s 70 now; this might be his last movie. But as always, the acting is marvelous. Streep is as terrific as always, as is Kline, and as are both the young actors who play her sons. Mamie Gummer is brilliant. But the real revelation here is Rick Springfield, who almost walks away with the movie.

I’m not going to spoil the ending. Suffice it to say that nothing is particularly resolved, but that the characters all resolve to be grownups, set aside their pain and resentment, and acknowledge the essential messiness of love. And then the Flash play, and rock and roll works its magic. I loved this movie. If you don’t love good rock and roll, well performed, don’t bother with it. If you do, it probably won’t be in the cineplexes for long. Catch it soon; you won’t regret it.

Movies best seen with other people

For the last few days, I’ve been watching, in bits and pieces, the Rocky Horror Picture Show. There’s a reason I didn’t just sit down and watch the whole thing from beginning to end; it’s terrible. It’s astonishing, how bad it is. Tim Curry’s performance isn’t even all that great; his initial entrance, singing ‘I’m a sweet transvestite’ is extraordinary, but he spends most of the rest of the film flouncing around throwing hissy fits. (His reading of the line ‘Oh, Rocky!’ is pretty great too, I admit.) The story is completely incoherent, the choreography is beyond execrable, both in conception and (OMG) execution. There are some catchy songs. That’s about it.

But here’s the thing, the first time I saw it (winter of ’78), it was at the old Blue Mouse Theater in Salt Lake, a midnight show. And I absolutely loved it. Most of the audience was in costume, and there was an entire meta-theatrical/cinematic ritual at play; people shouting things at the screen, with rice throwing, squirt guns, newspapers to hold over your head. I went in the attitude of pith-helmeted anthropologist, and I had a ball. And so did everyone else in the theater that night, as far as I could tell.

It got me wondering if there were other films like this, films that are best seen with a crowd of people, shared experience films. I suppose another word for them is ‘cult films,’ but that phrase doesn’t quite capture the experience I’m describing. I don’t mean bad films, I mean films that are particularly enjoyable in some kind of group setting. To extend that thought a bit, can we say that certain films are enjoyable precisely because they affirm group identity. They’re insider films, beloved precisely, perhaps, because in some way they are incomprehensible to people not in the group.

Family films fit this category, for example. My wife and her family are all particularly fond of the old Danny Kaye classic, The Court Jester. And with good reason; it’s a terrifically funny film, superbly acted, a delicious parody of Hollywood swashbuckling action/adventure. When we watch it as a family, we repeat lines, we laugh together, we repeat favorite sequences. We can riff off the phrase ‘the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true,’ ad infinitum. Our family does the same for Galaxy Quest; another tremendously entertaining comedy that we enjoy together.  And whenever we see an actor who was in that film–especially the otherwise anonymous folks who played Thurmians, we all go ‘hey, it’s a Thurmian!’ Cross to bear for those actors, but hey, that’s the gig.

It’s not a movie, but a TV series, but the fourteen iconic episodes of Firefly have that in-group vibe. Of course, years after that show was cancelled (for lack of ratings), it’s a Comic-con staple. But don’t you know people who can quote it endlessly? I do. And am one.

Get a bunch of theatre people together at a party, and it’s not unusual for someone to haul out Waiting for Guffman. A funny, inside jokey kind of film, particularly suited for anyone who has done community theatre.

What are some other group identity films? I’d love to hear your faves.


Mad Max, Fury Road: Movie review

Finally saw it. Took me a month, saw, like, ten other movies in the meantime. Despite rapturous reviews, both from professionals and from friends, it took me forever. Nothing against the movie; I liked it just fine. Just this: based on the previews, I thought I might find its admittedly state-of-the-art Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Cirque du Soleil aethestic a bit tiresome. That happened, but much less than I was afraid of. As a triumph of stunts, CGI, design, cinematography, editing, and just pure imagination, it’s really quite astounding.

It’s basically Buster Keaton’s The General, with slightly less amazing stunt work, but with updated sexual politics. In Keaton’s day, of course, they couldn’t cut around anything; any action sequences were entirely designed and performed by Keaton himself, and he treated that old civil war locomotive as his own private playground. But the two films are structured identically. It involves a chase, a decision, leading to another chase. Our Hero (and companion) is badly unnumbered in both films, and the bad guys have every advantage. But pluck, determination, and an astonishing ability to scramble up and around vast pieces of machinery allow Our Hero to save the day.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Go watch The General. I’ll wait.

Finished? Great, wasn’t it? Let’s move on.

Here’s the biggest similarity between the two films. The General is set in the middle of the American Civil War, with photography specifically inspired by Matthew Brady. This new Mad Max is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where deformed and motley brigades of macho dudes fight over the most basic liquid elements of life; water, gasoline, mothers’ milk. Women are completely subordinate; we see a room full of nursing mothers hooked up like cattle to milk extractors. The most attractive women are the exclusive property of grotesque warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who also preaches a post-mortality in which he will choose his fellow Valhalla immortals, incentivizing his War Boy followers to feats of the most astounding derring-do at his behest.

But neither film actually feels particularly tragic. The General is a romp; Keaton turns the Civil War into slapstick. Death itself becomes a set up for a sight gag. And Mad Max never gives us time to consider the implications of this post-global warming/post nuclear holocaust slayground. The stunts in both films are spectacular, and we respond viscerally; we’re in awe. They’re not just the same film in terms of plot structure; they’re tonally similar. Only the gender politics are different.

So: gender. In Mad Max, the women of this horrific community have a savior, Furioso (Charlize Theron). And she has embarked on a daring plan to rescue women from Joe’s harem, and take them to her home, a Green Place. It involves a huge semi-truck, a war truck, a beast of a machine that can all kinds of punishment, and has to. But Joe sends his boys to chase it down. Over the course of that chase, Max (Tom Hardy) joins forces with her (after an obligatory ‘getting to know you’ slugfest between them), and they’re also joined by a renegade War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), converted, I think, by the power of Troo Luv (he falls for one of the women).  The most important decisions in the film are generally made by Furiosa (though advised by Max), and she gets a lot more screen time. She can shoot, she can steer a truck through the most impassable obstacles, she can beat up bad guys; she’s an action movie star. And she shows remarkable leadership skills, including occasional moments of compassion and tenderness.

So she’s a feminist heroine, right? And that’s one way the film has been marketed and sold–it’s a strong feminist triumph story. And I suppose you could argue that the Hollywood model which this film follows so closely is inherently anti-feminine. But she’s not a terribly feminine feminist, if that makes sense. She has the central characteristic of male action figures. She’s good at violence.

Again, in contrast to The General, it’s refreshing. Keaton riffed on gender roles throughout, but of course it’s gender as understood in 1926. Marion Mack is his comic foil. He rescues her repeatedly, but without much tenderness–a lot of the comedy comes from Mack’s game willingness to be stuffed into sacks, tossed onto boxes, stepped on and trapped in a bear trap and otherwise mistreated. Not that Buster’s ever violent towards her; it’s all slapstick violence. They’re on the run, and Keaton’s character doesn’t have time for chivalrous delicacy. Marion Mack’s character is courageous, plucky and patriotic; you could make a case for her feminism too, if you wanted to and were willing to overlook a 1920s culture’s construction of gender.

Both films are awesome; The General because it’s so funny, Mad Max because the stunts and the design are so spectacular. We’re more blown away by them than we are moved or thoughtfully provoked. It is a little strange to have nuclear destruction and global warming (or for that matter, the Civil War), treated as throwaway background for otherwise frenetically active movies. In the case of Max Max, I kept thinking of another, far better (and infinitely less successful financially) film, John Hillcoat’s 2009 version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which also starred Theron. Another road movie, another despairing future, another trip through hell. But The Road was relentless in its despair. To the extent that there are things we could do to prevent global warming or nuclear war, it’s a lot more responsible film. But almost nobody saw it, and everyone saw Max Max.

I mean, seriously, Mad Max showed the War Boys riding into battle with a soundtrack, provided by one vehicle carrying four kettle drums, and by another with a guitarist hanging from bungee cords, playing his axe while bouncing around in front of a moving vehicle. A flame throwing guitar, I should add. And sure, Custer rode into battle with a regimental band playing Garry Owens, and for Apocalypse Now‘s helicopters, it was Wagner, so war can certainly have a sound track. But the guitarist was just pure amazing. It was the kind of throwaway detail that made the viewing experience so viscerally rewarding.

So Max is certainly one of the most exciting action films in years. It was a triumph of design and of film craftsmanship. I enjoyed it; don’t think I didn’t. If I felt a trifle cheated at the end, it’s maybe because the movie fed the gut much more than it fed the mind. That’s okay. But the pieces were in place for a full meal; not just dessert.


The Cokeville Miracle: movie review

The Cokeville Miracle is unquestionably a powerful and affecting film about a terrible, traumatic event. It was ably filmed and directed by T. C. Christensen, nicely edited by Tanner Christensen, features a lovely musical score by Christian Davis and Rob Gardner, and was beautifully acted by an exceptional cast. It’s a film about faith, the efficacy of prayer, and, as the title suggests, about the possibility of miracles. I saw it on a weekday, a late morning screening, and was surprised to see the theater half full. Listening to the comments of the rest of the audience as they left, they clearly found the film inspiring and testimony-affirming. In most respects, it has to be seen as one of the strongest LDS films since God’s Army in 1999.

And yet, and yet, and yet . . . . But give me a moment to think it through.

In 1986, in the small ranching community of Cokeville, Wyoming, children at the town’s elementary school were taken hostage by a heavily armed, bomb wielding fanatic named David Young (Nathan Stevens), and by his wife, Doris Young (Kym Mellon). The film tells us that there were 99 child hostages–other sources say it was 136 children, and 18 adults. (I don’t know what purpose was served by changing the number of hostages). After a standoff lasting two and a half hours, the bomb detonated. Both Youngs died, and the explosion injured, but did not kill, the children or their teachers. The scenes involving the capture of the school, the taking of hostages, and David Young’s gradual mental breakdown, were as riveting as you might imagine. All the child actors were excellent in those scenes, as were the actors playing the teachers.

After the crisis was over, some of the children began to claim that they had seen personages dressed in white protecting them. Many of the children identified the angels from old family photos as deceased family members. A sheriff’s deputy, Ron Hartley (Jasen Wade), charged with investigating the event, becomes the lens through which we see its aftermath, as he puts together the various angel stories, and also the forensic analysis of Young’s bomb, and why it was so much less destructive than it ought to have been. Hartley, who seems to be suffering from some kind of job-related PTSD, is going through a crisis of faith, which the testimony of his children (both of whom were in the school), help him resolve.

And it’s at that point, in the film’s depiction of Hartley’s difficulties with his testimony, that I began to feel uneasy. First of all, it seems strange to me that the screenplay would make Hartley its protagonist, when he had essentially nothing to do with the event. He was out of town when the Youngs showed up at the school, and didn’t arrive on the scene until after the bomb exploded. Wade gives a fine performance, but it seems like an odd choice. What it suggests is that the main purpose of the film is not actually to tell the story of this terrible event, but to guide and direct our response to it. No, not guide and direct: mandate. It’s a film about a miracle, period. There are no ambiguities here, no other permissible reactions. Angels saved those kids. End of story.

But human nature, cross-grained and rebellious, recoils from this narrative approach. It brought out my inner cynic, not my inner believer. And so, I dig in my heels. I thought the film was very powerful, right up to the third act. It was nicely made up to that point. But the film’s Mormon-centric didacticism amplified more contrary responses.

Like this, from Wikipedia:

After a two-and-a-half hour standoff, the children were becoming restless, so the teachers led them in prayer. The praying appeared to make David Young agitated and he decided to leave the room. Before leaving the room, David Young attached the bomb’s detonation device to his wife’s wrist. When the children became increasingly loud, Doris Young began begging the teachers to settle the group down. At one point she lifted her arm sharply and the bomb went off prematurely.

In the film, the children decide to pray on their own, unprompted by their teachers. In the film, the teachers also pray, but quietly, to themselves. In the film, David doesn’t become agitated by their prayers; he becomes agitated, frankly, because, as portrayed by Stevens, he was bughouse nuts. And there’s not much doubt that David Young was crazy. But the actual guy was Unabomber-style-crazy; he showed up at the school with a long, rambling manifesto. In the film, he mentions ‘Brave New World.’ One of the teachers tells us it’s a reference to reincarnation. Uh, not the Aldous Huxley novel everyone had to read in high school? Reincarnation? In fact, though, the teacher wouldn’t have known that, but authorities did; it was the central idea in his manifesto. He thought he would rule the dead children after they died and were reincarnated. But if the Wikipedia account of the event is true (and I tend to believe it, because of other corroborating details from other sources), then the children’s prayer was an act of aggressive resistance. Good for them, too. But perhaps not quite as . . .pious.

And, in its best moments, the film went there too; depicted little kid brattiness. And I loved it for that. One obnoxious little girl, for example, kept correcting Doris Young’s syntax, pretty much every time she spoke. I adored that little girl. When one teacher created a ‘magic box’ around David Young, a taped-off space kids were not supposed to enter, we see two little boys doing exactly what little boys have done from time immemorial–crossed the line, broke the rule, pushed the boundaries. I loved those little boys. I loved it when the film got the human stuff right.

Other difficulties: the film says only 2 of the bomb’s blasting caps went off, because the leads to the other 14 had been severed. Who severed the leads? We’re meant to conclude that angels did it. But most other sources say there only 5 blasting caps, 4 of them with severed leads. (A minor detail, but details are what convince us). So did angels sever 4 leads? Isn’t it more likely that Doris Young (who was surely deluded and abused and not all there, but who was at least more humane and well-intentioned than her husband) did the other ones? As portrayed in the film by Mellon, Doris is far and away the most interesting character in the film, and far more sympathetic than her husband, but that also fits other accounts of her. In fact, the bomb didn’t even kill her–David Young shot her after it exploded, before ending his own life. Did she sabotage it? Isn’t that at least a possibility? In fact, was she busy cutting wires when the children’s loud prayers distracted her? Wo, could the kids’ praying have been a proximate cause for the explosion? How much more intriguing would the film have been if it had gone there?

Also, the blast was ineffectually defuse, in part because the teachers had opened the windows in the classroom, giving the fireball a path out. So here’s my question: if the children were spared at least in part due to specific actions, specific, human, non-divine choices made by the teachers and by Doris Young, shouldn’t that possibility have been presented in the film? And wouldn’t that alternate explanation also be faith-affirming, but just in a different way?

Because for me, cynical secular humanist that I undoubtedly am, the film was genuinely inspiring, and became increasingly less so the harder it worked, in the end, to force me down one specific understanding of the event. What I found inspiring were those teachers. One teacher (and I’m sorry that I didn’t catch the character’s name, but she was played by Barta Heiner), was the last person out of the room. She stayed behind to get the last child out, despite bullets flying, from cartridges Young placed in the bomb. Earlier, she volunteered, to Young, to give up her life for the lives of the children, and she lived up to that same principle after the bomb exploded. And I totally believe it. Teachers would. In that situation, with a few teachers and 136 children, teachers would do whatever it took to save them. And we see those teachers, in that classroom behave heroically.

My gosh, that’s inspiring. At Sandy Hook, Sandy Hochsprung and Mary Shurloch were the first two victims in the school. Both teachers. A third teacher, Natalie Hammond, was badly wounded, but survived. Another teacher, Lauren Rousseau, was killed trying to keep the killer out of her classroom, as was Rachel D’Avino, a behavioral therapist. A school custodian was also shot, but survived. These teachers were, absolutely and unequivocally, heroes. But any other teacher, in any other school in America, would do what they did. And that’s what inspires me.

I don’t know whether real angels really intervened in Cokeville, Wyoming. Some children said they saw angels; most did not. Adults did not. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the men and women charged with the education of the children at that school were heroes. Could angels have been there? Sure. And I think it would be swell if angels intervened in school shootings. I wish Heavenly Father tasked them to do just that; sent angels to Nigeria to protect the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, for example, sent heavenly beings to Sandy Hook and to Columbine and to Utóya Island in Norway. I believe in God, and I humble myself before Him, and the infinite mystery of why and where He chooses to intervene, when evil encroaches.

But I do believe this; that on those blessedly rare occasions when some deranged individual chooses a school to act out some fantasy of absolute evil, our response should be national, legal, and political, aimed at doing whatever we can to not let deranged individuals have access to weaponry. And the Second Amendment be hanged–it’s about militias, not individuals, and who cares anyway. Let bad guys have as much access to non-rifled muzzle-loading muskets as they want. But that’s a subject for another day, and another soapbox.

Anyway, in many respects, this is an awfully good film. I wish it were a better one. If it had preached a bit less zealously, it might have been exceptional. As it was, the best I can say is that it was ultimately unconvincing. Tell the story; let us figure it out. Don’t force a response. As Sgt. Friday was fond of saying, ‘just the facts.’

Tomorrowland: Movie Review and commentary

Finally catching up on movies that have been out forever, we saw Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland last night. I think it’s the ‘lost in the shuffle’ big summer movie, the one that just didn’t generate enough buzz to really take off, which is a shame. It’s an energetic and enjoyable flick, and also a seriously intended commentary on contemporary society and politics. In fact, that’s its biggest problem, I think. Bird has something significant to say in this movie, but the vehicle for his message is so pretty and funny and light that the message doesn’t penetrate. Except when it did.

The movie first. A kid, Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), brings an invention to the 1964 World’s Fair, a jet pack, an awesome piece of James Bond-ish technology that has the solitary defect of not working very well. Queried about it by an enigmatic judge figure, Nix (Hugh Laurie), young Frank admits that it’s not a practical invention. It could, however, inspire young people, he insists. Not good enough, says Nix, and leaves, his nine-year-old daughter, Athena (Raffey Cassidy) accompanying him. But Athena gestures for Frank to join them, and he does, ending up in Tomorrowland, a magic world of amazing technology, like Epcot Center on steroids.

Cut to the future, and we meet a teenaged girl, Casey (Britt Robertson), about to commit an act of sabotage. It’s the future (or our present?), and the NASA launch pad at Cape Canaveral is scheduled for demolition. Casey, a plucky optimist and science freak, thinks this is unconscionable, and zips around on her motorcycle, frying the controls of the demolition equipment. This leads to fights with her father (Tim McGraw), a soon-to-be-unemployed NASA engineer. But we sense how much father and daughter (and also her younger brother (Pierce Gagnon) care about each other. And in their conversation, the ruling metaphor of the film finds its first expression. The human spirit is likened to two wolves: one, positive, optimistic, kind, the other selfish, fearful, negative. Which one will survive? The one we feed.

Okay, so Casey is caught and arrested, and Dad makes bail, but in her effects, she finds something that’s not hers; a pin with a T on it. And she discovers that when she touches the pin, she’s transported to a wheat field outside a magical city, the same techno-paradise that young Frank saw in the earlier scenes. But the pin has a time limit, and when hers expires, she returns to her reality. Obviously, the next step is an internet search for that pin, which leads her to a curios shop in Texas, run by the amusingly menacing couple, Ursula (Kathryn Hahn) and Hugo (Keegan-Michael Key). When Casey won’t tell them where she got the pin, they pull out space age blasters, and start shooting. She’s rescued, however, by little Athena, aged not a day from her earlier iteration, but now with mad martial arts skills. Athena then sends Casey to the home of a world-weary recluse, Frank, now played by George Clooney.

The world, it seems, is on the brink of destruction. Climate change, political instability, ethnic hatreds, all are leading us to destruction. We have about two months left. But old Frank sees something on his various monitors that tell him that the world might still be salvageable, because of this girl, Casey, because of her optimism and courage. And so he takes her with him to Tomorrowland. He takes her to, in other words, a technologically advanced society living in a parallel universe to earth, run by, yes, Nix, Athena’s putative father (who also hasn’t aged).

And amidst their various struggles, Nix gives a speech. Seeing the end of the world rapidly approaching, he decided to send a signal from his world to ours, showing precisely what would happen if we all continued in our current course. He thought the warning would wake us up. He thought we’d change our ways. He thought we’d all figure out what we were doing wrong and make the political and cultural changes that would hold destruction at bay. He thought the human capacity for innovation and invention would prevail, that we’d allow it to prevail. But in fact, he ‘fed the wrong wolf.’ We embraced nihilism. We embraced various visions of dystopia. We fetishized it, in pop culture, in movies and television and video games. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss: we’ve accelerated our headlong rush to oblivion. And he doesn’t see a lot of reason to stop sending that signal. He warned us. We don’t seem to care. Let us blow ourselves up.

What can we do? Well, we can blow up that signal, and Clooney and Laurie can scrap a bit, finally Casey wins, and with Frank’s aid, she createss a whole bunch more Tomorrowland pins, which she distributes, which I read as ‘recruit forward-thinking optimists and get things solved.’ The ending of the movie really was genuinely moving and inspiring. I mean, yes, in part, the movie is arguing for a Disney-esque vision for mankind, and asks us to reject the values of the other big box office movie released the same week, the new Mad Max. It’s Disney asking us all to adopt Disney values. (And reject worldly nihilistic values). It’s Disney Corp. saying only Disney can save us. See what I did there? Used a positive family-values movie to feed my inner cynic?

But in fact, Nix is right. I know, he gives a pretentious and didactic bad-guy-monologuing nihilist speech at the end of a fun fantasy adventure movie, and I’m probably taking that speech way too seriously. But he is right. He accuses mankind of short-sightedness, laziness, selfishness and complacency, and he basically gets us right. Doesn’t he?

I mean, I live in Provo, Utah. A nice little town, maybe 100, 000 contented souls. And it’s a town built on the suburban model. It’s all single-residence homes, grass yards, transportation needs filled by cars. It’s an ecological disaster. Hardly any mass transit, which one of the most contentious local political issues involves expanding. If global warming is raised as an issue at all, it’s in the context of disputing whether or not the science can be trusted.

We should probably change. We should increase buses, add more rail options, move into apartments, retire our cars. (I live with my wife and daughter–we own three cars between us). We should make massive cultural and lifestyle changes in an effort to stave off global warming. And we’re not going to. We don’t want to. I don’t want to. Run for public office on a ‘radically downsize society, or we’re doomed’ platform. You’d get, what, 1% of the vote? Less?

It’s easier to amuse ourselves with dystopias. It’s easier to comfortably embrace nihilism. Yes, global warming, how very dreadful. Gonna be tough on our grandkids. But, hey, they’ll figure something out.

I found Tomorrowland . . . unsettling, in a way that’s peculiarly at odds with its colorful and fast-paced fantasy storytelling. I liked Clooney, liked the child actress Cassidy, really liked Robertson. But Hugh Laurie ended up costing me sleep. Brad Bird is a visual stylist of the first order. But he’s also a bright guy, with something to say. We should probably all pay more attention.

But we’re not going to. It’s too much trouble.