Category Archives: Movies

The Avengers: Age of Ultron, movie review

Marvel’s newest, latest, biggest, noisiest entry in the ‘dominate escapist filmmaking’ sweepstakes, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, certainly has everything you might want in a summer popcorn movie; lots of action, exceptionally well staged, lots of ‘splosions, lots of feats of derring-do, and a basically coherent storyline, which ends up dovetailing nicely with the twenty other Marvel storylines found in other movies, TV shows, and, of course, comic books. Writer-director Joss Whedon is a better filmmaker than his rival billion-dollar blockbuster mavens, Michael Bay and James Cameron and JJ Abrams, and Age of Ultron had the potential to be a much better movie than than the various entries in the Star Wars, Star Trek, or Transformers franchises (anticipating whatever the new Star Wars trilogy will be).  Ultimately, though, this film was undermined by the unavoidable fact of it being part of that Marvel universe. Allow me to explain.

The big challenge for Whedon with this film is precisely that it’s an Avengers movie. There have to be storylines and character arcs and motivations and reasons to care about a whole buncha characters. There has to be a Bruce Bannon/Hulk storyline, and one for Natasha/Black Widow, and a Steve Rogers/Captain America one, and a Thor one, and a Clint Barton/Hawkeye one, plus of course, the plot has to basically revolve around Tony Stark and Iron Man. Plus, we end up adding two more Avengers, the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, and they need an origin story and a certain amount of backstory screen time. Plus, this one has a terrific new villain, Ultron, who also needs some explanation and some time to monologue about who he is and what dastardly misdeeds he wants to do and why. It makes for a long movie. This puppy clocks in at 141 minutes, and therefore has to sustain our interest throughout. I didn’t check my watch until somewhere around the 120 mark. But I did check my watch.

To explain both the best thing about this movie, and also the reason that my interest in it finally flagged a bit, let me do a basic structural analysis. Who is the protagonist of the movie? Well, it had nine main characters, so that’s a bit difficult to suss out, but ultimately the guy who drives the main action of the film is Tony Stark. He’s the guy who figures out that Ultron is loose and dangerous, he’s the guy who figures out what to do about it, he’s the guy who sees what Ultron’s destructive plan is, and what can be done to stop it. It’s about Tony Stark and various iterations of Iron Man, good and evil.

And who is the antagonist, the main villain or bad guy? Obviously, Ultron. Who is an artificially intelligent entity, embodied in a whole series of really destructive robots. And who was created by Tony Stark. That’s Stark’s big plan; to create some Turing-test-passing robot entities to protect the Earth forever, making the Avengers, ultimately, redundant, and unnecessary. Ultron is, in other words, also Tony Stark. He’s Tony’s alter ego; he’s Tony’s Id to Iron Man’s Superego. In other words, the protagonist of this narrative is the character Tony Stark. And so is the antagonist.

I love that. I think that’s smart, and innovative, and morally complex. Tony becomes Frankenstein, and Ultron his Monster. And Ultron wants something more; to become sort of human. He wants to create an ultimate indestructible but biological body for his evolved AI consciousness. But in a terrific action sequence, his body, stuck in a kind of incubator, gets captured by the Avengers. And Tony gets it to his laboratory. And he, Tony, decides to go ahead and finish it. His good guy alter ego consciousness lab assistant entity, Jarvis, is around; Tony decides to download Jarvis into this Ultron-created body. And Bruce Bannon reluctantly agrees to help him. Tony’s convincing argument? “We’re both mad scientists.”

I’m sitting there in the theater thinking ‘what a terrible idea.’ And the other Avengers show up, and they all agree. And they have this fight scene, right there in the lab, Cap and Black Widow and Hawkeye fighting over this incubator thing. And then Thor charges in and hits the incubator with his hammer. And a new creature emerges, with all sorts of superpowers, but sort of neutral, morally. It’s Vision, and he’s wonderfully indestructible, and also decidedly ambiguous on a hero/villain scale.

I loved all of that. I loved the fight in the lab, I loved Tony Stark having this terrible idea, to finish Ultron’s creation, I loved Bannon helping him, I loved all of it. It’s loopy and strange and filled with equivocation and all sorts of dramatic potential. Could the Avengers’ squabbles wreck their potential to Save the Earth? Could Tony Stark’s hubris and arrogance doom us all? Are mad scientists good for humanity, or bad, or both? I thought the whole scene, including the creation of Vision, was Joss Whedon at his best.

And then? What happens next?

Spoiler Alert: a big fight scene. Completely predictable and frankly kind of dull. Will Captain America save all the people of this town? Of course he will. Will The Scarlet Witch help save the day? Obviously. With forty five minutes to go, the film could have gone literally anywhere, narratively. And where did it go? Nowhere, except for a very long sequence of obligatory heroics.

There’s absolutely nothing else Whedon could have done, of course. He was hired to make an Avengers‘ movie, not deconstruct the Tony Stark character and narrative.  It’s a movie about superheroes. They have to fight as heroes, and they have to be super good at it. I can sit there and mourn the waste of promising (but unrealized) story threads all I want to. This movie was going to end in a big action sequence, which would be won by the good guys.

Except maybe not. Because there is a final scene, an homage to films like The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s a conversation between Vision and Ultron, over this question, which also is the main dramatic question in TDTESS. Is mankind worth saving? If a super-powerful alien entity was sent here to earth to humanity to the ultimate test, to determine if we, as a species, should be exterminated or allowed to live, what would the verdict be? Ultron thinks it’s a no, Vision, a kind of equivocal yes. I liked that final moment a lot too.

So it’s a superhero movie that had the potential to be more than that, a potential that absolutely could not be realized, but that was at least there, in the room, haunting the whole movie like a ghost. It’s also a witty and intelligent film–with a very funny Eugene O’Neill joke, bless it–up to a point, before becoming yet another exercise in evil robot bashing. It’s going to make a lot of money and I don’t begrudge it its success. But it made me hungry for a film about, you know, human beings. The Marvel thing is still playing itself out. As long as they throw in quirky projects like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant Man, I’ll pay attention. But it’s time to retire Iron Man, at least. Nice to have spent time with you sir. And Marvel, give us new stories to follow.

Freetown: Movie Review

Freetown is the latest missionary-oriented Mormon movie to come from director Garrett Batty, following his Saratov Approach two years ago. Like Saratov, Freetown is well acted, photographed, edited; it’s professionally done in every sense. The screenplay is credited to Batty and Melissa Leilani Larson; an amazing writer. I wish I could report that I liked this movie as much as I liked Saratov. I didn’t. I didn’t like it at all, for what are almost certainly completely idiosyncratic reasons of my own.

But first, the story. Freetown is set in Liberia, in 1989, right at the beginning of their first 7-year tribal and civil war. There was an LDS mission there, but the movie shows how the (white) mission leadership decamped to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to wait out the violence. They left behind the native Liberian missionaries. Among other dangers, rebels targeted a small ethnic tribal minority, the Krahn, the ruling tribe of Liberian President Samuel Doe. One missionary was Krahn. So six missionaries were transported across the country to Freetown, crammed into a tiny car and driven to safety by an LDS church member, Brother Abubakar (Henry Adofo), who had been left in charge of the mission office after the President’s departure.

In one of the first scenes in the movie, we see Abubakar sitting in his little car (which has Mark 9:24 on the back windshield), stuck in a mud puddle. He’s about to get out of the car, when he sees a small rebel patrol. They’re a dangerous looking bunch, very young, variously armed, and they do African rebel-y things like fire their AKs into the air. (Why do they do that? A bullet, fired directly upwards, will eventually fall back down to earth. It could hit someone. How many innocent folks are killed annually by falling bullets idiotically fired into the sky?). The rebels approach him, clearly suspicious. He doesn’t seem too bothered by them, though, just opens the car trunk, gets out some water, offers them a cup to drink. This apparently mollifies them. He then reaches to the roof of his car, gets out some planks of wood, which he uses to give his tires some traction, and off he drives. The rebels watch him go. So, heavily armed, deeply irresponsible teenage rebels are an ordinary fact of life for this guy. But Brother Abubakar knows how to deal with them. And so the main dynamic of the movie is established; this movie is set in a world that’s actually quite mundane and ordinary, and also dangerous and violent beyond belief.

Ordinary and also insane. Quotidian and surreal. That’s the whole movie. We see these six missionaries, and they’re normal Mormon guy missionaries; zealous, enthusiastic, hardworking. They street-contact, they hand out pamphlets, they share their testimonies with anyone who will listen. And also, there are these insanely violent murdering rebel gangs all over the place. And they’re simultaneously a disciplined military force, and also out of control violent and drunken and arbitrary. Freetown explores a world where ordinary people, on the street, minding their own business, can just get shot in the head, randomly. And also a world of normal daily routines. We see a group of saints chattering happily on their way to a baptism. But one of them is carrying a machete and an AK, and stands guard while they celebrate. It’s a movie where a branch member drives the missionaries around in his car. And crams six of them in this teensy crappy little car. And they drive hundreds of miles on these dirt roads, while rebels stop them every few miles to harass them.

And in time, it becomes the cognitive dissonance movie of the year. There’s one scene in which this is expressly spelled out. One of the missionaries, Elder Menti (Michael Attram) talks to Abubakar about how, after he’d joined the Church, he learned of the policy of priesthood exclusion, and it really bothered him, learning about the racist past of the Church he’d just joined. It led, he says, to cognitive dissonance. I’m glad that scene was in there, because, to me, the entire movie was a cog-diss exercise.

It’s a movie about this one Church member, and these six missionaries, and their journey through fearsomely dangerous Liberia to the comparative safety of Sierra Leone. And along the way, they are rely on a series of miracles. Like, there are almost no places for them to buy gasoline, but the car never runs out of gas until they’re out of money, at which point they find one station willing to give them enough to get them to safety. And when they get to the border, the bridge to Sierra Leone is out, but Brother Abubakar has a revelation about a ferry they can take instead. So they’re all these little but real miracles. God loves His missionaries. God loves these specific missionaries enough to help save them. That’s the message we’re meant to take away.

But it really doesn’t register much, because it takes place in the middle of the Liberian Civil War. Which we see enough of to be horrified by. A closing credit tells us that the missionaries, and Brother Abubakar, spent the next seven years in Sierra Leone, in safety. But what about their families? What about Brother Abubakar’s wife and children?  How are we to take this? That God loves these six missionaries enough to intervene, to save them, but doesn’t love everyone else in Liberia about to be butchered?  Cognitive dissonance indeed.

I know this is an idiosyncratic issue I have. Like, in Church, you’ll hear people bear their testimony about how they know God loves them, because there was this time that they needed to get to a Church meeting, but couldn’t find their car keys, so they prayed and, lo!, there were the keys. And I’m thinking, ‘yes, and what about Sister so-and-so in the ward, dying of liver cancer.’ Or Asian children forced into human trafficking, or starving kids in Darfur or the violence in the Congo. Does God really love Mormons enough to help us with reasonably trivial problems, but He doesn’t love other people (non-Mormons?) enough to intervene in some of the real horror shows in the world? Before Freetown aired, I saw a preview for a new Christian movie about a school shooting in which none of the kids died, because, the kids say, angels intervened. And I thought, ‘great. Good for you. Wouldn’t it be great if that happened more often.’

Also, I wish there weren’t just that teensy bit of vestigial colonialism in there. Like, the white mission President getting out just ahead of the violence, someone clearly having decided that his safety was essential, and the safety of his Liberian missionaries maybe kind of less so. And the super nice mission home in Sierra Leone reserved for the President. Except that was probably true, so including it is at least honest, revealing just that small sense of possible priorities back in ’89.

Could this have been fixed? Garrett Batty is a smart guy, a good director; Melissa Larson’s a terrific writer. I don’t think they intended to make the Cognitive Dissonance Plus Philosophical Problem of Evil movie of the year 2015. It’s the juxtapositioning of quiet little miracles for Mormon guys and the Horrors of African Civil Wars for everyone else that made this such a disquieting (and not in good ways) viewing experience.

First, the movie’s awfully coy about violence, and in this case, I think it was a mistake. We’re not really forced to confront it. We see a guy being led off to be shot, and then the camera pans away, and we hear the shot; we don’t see him killed. I think we need to really face up to the reality of rebel civil war.

But simultaneously, we need to see some larger purpose to saving these missionaries. Michael Attram, the actor who played one missionary, looks a lot like Malcolm X, for example. Well, these six guys come across really well; they seem like really good guys. What if the movie suggested that they’re the solution? Frankly, a screwed-up poor country like Liberia could really use some smart, decent natural leaders. What if one of the missionaries (Menti, probably) were individualized just a bit more, made to seem like a genuine future statesman? What if the movie just hinted that God needed to save these six guys to give Liberia some kind of future, some hope, some desperately needed moral leadership?

And maybe that’s all subtly suggested, and I just missed it. I have cognitive dissonance issues of my own, after all. I’m not saying don’t see it. Just be aware; I found it a very strange movie, and nowhere near as inspirational as I think it was intended to be.



Woman in Gold: Film review

Woman in Gold is a terrific movie, much better than I expected. It reminded my wife of The King’s Speech; it reminded me of Philomena, and it’s a movie that fits nicely with either of those equally terrific films. Only The King’s Speech won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor, and Philomena was nominated for both. Woman in Gold, meanwhile gets the obscurity of an April release, no Oscar buzz, a lower-than-deserved Rottentomatoes score, and gets to battle Furious 7 for audience share. Ah, the vagaries of Hollywood release strategies! Philomena, based on a true story, starred Judi Dench as an elderly woman coming to terms with her past, helped by an initially-reluctant-but-increasingly-engaged younger male cohort; Woman in Gold, likewise historically based, stars Helen Mirren as ditto, and Ryan Reynolds as ditto. They’re both approximately twelve billion times better movies than Furious 7. I repeat: ah, the vagaries!

Mirren plays Maria Altmann, an Austrian Jew who escaped Vienna in the midst of the Anschluss. From a well-to-do, well connected family; her aunt, Adele Bloch Bauer was the model for the Gustav Klimt painting, Woman in Gold. Another relation was the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Maria now lives in California, and runs a small dress shop. When her sister dies, she finds old letters that convince her that the Austrian ownership of the Klimt painting is of dubious legality. She asks a distant nephew, Randol Schoenberg (Reynolds), an attorney, to research the case. He becomes increasingly convinced that her case has merit, and pursues it, first to the US Supreme Court (which rules that the Austrian government can legitimately be sued in American courts), and then to Austria, where he and his client agree to binding arbitration.

The legal machinations are fascinating. No one questioned that the painting was owned by Adele Bloch Bauer, then retained after her death by the Bloch Bauer family, then subsequently stolen by the Nazis when they took over. The Austrian government claimed that Adele’s will bequeathed the painting to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. Schoenberg’s research discovered that the will was not legally valid, that the painting was actually left to her husband, and subsequently to the family.

But it’s an incredibly famous painting, the Austrian Mona Lisa, a painting featured on post cards and coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets. The Austrian Cultural Ministry, of course, wanted to return stolen Nazi art to its original owners. Up to a point. But come on. Not the Woman in Gold.

Mirren is tremendous as Altmann, at times peppery and opinionated, at times profoundly unwilling to confront her own tragic past. We also see why her past haunts her. At least a third of the movie is told in flashback, as we see her as a young married woman during the Nazi takeover. That takeover was hardly resisted at all, and as anti-Semitic brutality grew, it was generally cheered by the majority of Austrians. The young Maria is played by Tatiana Maslany, the wonderful Canadian actress who is so spectacular in the BBC America series Orphan Black. All the scenes involving her were riveting.

I thought the flashbacks were the best part of the picture. I was equally taken with a pivotal character, Hubertus Czernin (German actor Daniel Brühl). Czernin is an Austrian journalist who helps Maria and Randol in their fight against the Austrian cultural authorities. As he points out, Austria is still engaged in a battle to define itself culturally. Hitler was Austrian, raised in the anti-Semitic sinkhole that was Austrian society before the First World War. The Austrians hardly fought the Nazi takeover at all, and were willing participants in the lethal persecutions of Austria’s Jews. Obviously, post WWII Austrians would much prefer to forget that any of that was true. Not just older Austrians, but Czernin’s own generation resents having the past dredged up against.

Go to Paris, and you expect post cards to feature the Eiffel Tower; go to the Louvre, and post cards will feature Mona Lisa. In Austria, in the 1990s, the Woman in Gold had much of that same cultural allure and prominence. The idea that that painting had been stolen by Nazis, that it represented the most shameful part of Austria’s past, and that its rightful owner wanted it removed from the most important museum in Vienna and sold to Americans was a decidedly unwelcome one. No wonder they fought Maria so hard.

I’ve generally thought of Ryan Reynolds as something of a lightweight actor. Not in this film. Initially, a little bland, he becomes more and more engaged in the case, more and more invested in his own past. The fact that he’s a Schoenberg struck me as particularly apt. Arnold Schoenberg’s music is, of course, difficult to appreciate the first time you hear it. But the twelve tone approach he created rewards those listeners willing to put the time in. The more you listen to it, the more it affects you, and in the end, what initially seemed like an academic exercise becomes closer to an agonized lament, for a time he could see was ending in violence and death. At one point, Randol and Czernin go to a concert, and hear a Schoenberg piece; my one complaint about the movie is that we don’t get to hear more of it.

Anyway, don’t let this movie slip past you. It may not be in town for long; catch it while it is. It’s really powerful, really well done. Beautifully written and acted and photographed and edited; see it, please.

Cinderella: Film Review

When I first heard that Disney was doing a live-action film based on the old Cinderella animated feature, I had the same reaction I’m sure a lot of you did: Why? The 1950 film was a classic in its day, Golden Age Disney at its best. But we’ve outgrown that time and culture. I could imagine a satire of Disney princesses, a la Enchanted. Or a tougher, stronger Cinderella, like in Ever After. Or a feminist or Marxist deconstruction Cinderella. But just a live-action version of the cartoon, with retrograde classist and patriarchal assumptions left unchallenged? No.

And of course, this new Kenneth Branagh version isn’t that either. It is, however, gloriously and unapologetically romantic in its look and its storytelling. It’s a gorgeous film. (My number one reaction to it, walking out of the theater, was that Sandy Powell just earned her 11th nomination and 4th Oscar for Costume Design). If anything, it’s a humanist reconstruction of the story. Yes, it’s a Cinderella in which a handsome prince sees a beautiful princess at a ball and falls in love at first sight. Except they’ve met before. And he doesn’t know if she actually is a princess, and doesn’t care. And they spend their time at the fancy dress ball playing hooky from it and, you know, talking. Engaging in conversation. And he likes her because she’s vivacious and smart and funny, not just because she looks amazing in that blue dress. (Although she does look amazing in that dress).

A critic I really like, the Village Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek said that she liked the film precisely because it wasn’t full of ‘female empowerment’ messages, that it wasn’t a film that said to girls ‘you can become anything you want to!’ That isn’t actually true, of course. Instead, Ella’s mom, as she dies, tells her two things, to be brave, and to be kind. I love that. I can’t imagine better advice for my own daughters, and my sons too. Be brave and be kind.

Cinderella is played by Lily James, who you probably know from Downton Abbey. And when you look at Lily James in closeup, you realize that she’s hardly a classic beauty; her nose is a little big, her mouth a little wide, her teeth a bit oversized. And it couldn’t possibly matter less. Her smile lights up her face, and she’s got such vivacity and energy and is so open emotionally, she’s spectacular in the role. The prince, Richard Madden, Robb Stark from Game of Thrones, is of course an exceptionally good looking prince. But he’s also a little dorky, a little awkward. You can see that he doesn’t really know how to talk to girls–he’s a prince, an apprentice king, learning politics on the job–but he likes Ella because she’s easy to talk to, because of her open enthusiasm for, basically everything. The evil step-sisters, Drisella (Sophie McShera, Daisy on Downton Abbey), and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), aren’t physically unattractive (they’re not ugly step-sisters), but they’re unkind, mean, selfish and stupid. And the name ‘Cinderella’ is pejorative, an insult. Until Ella embraces it. She doesn’t want her Prince to have any illusions; she wants him to know her as she is, a servant girl. But she says it proudly, with a smile. She’s learned what it means to be brave, and kind.

Cate Blanchett is the evil step-mother, and again, it’s a smart and human portrayal. Blanchett plays her as a survivor, a tough-minded pragmatist who does what she needs to do to get by in a world dominated by men. She expects Cinderella to wait on her and for the household’s dwindling income to extend to fancy dresses, because keeping up appearances is the way to catch a man, and without a man to look after her, how is she to survive? Her scenes with the King’s evil advisor, the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgaard) are delicious, as we see two crafty practitioners of real-politikk sum each other up, and make common cause.

As we left the theater (I saw it with my wife and daughter, and a niece and her husband), we all laughed a bit, at the glorious preposterousness of Cinderella’s ball gown, at this imagined Mittel-European kingdom, on a picturesque coast, but also with Alps, and rosy-cheeked Scandanavian-looking peasants, but also, apparently, a thriving black community. Of course, it’s a fantasy; the whole thing’s a fantasy. But one with at least one foot in the reality of actual human experience. And a fantasy grounded in the notion that in a tough and brutal world, a world full of death and despair, we still have the capacity for courage. And kindness. It’s a terrific film.


The Sound of Music, Lady Gaga, and the Oscars

Last night was the annual Academy Awards broadcast, and as always, it was bloated and self-congratulatory and unfunny and often sort of weird. I liked it anyway. I always do. Neil Patrick Harris was a perfectly adequate host, a movie I liked a lot won Best Picture, lots of total strangers shared with the world the happiest moments of their professional careers, while the orchestra rudely played them off the stage, John Travolta seems to have thought that the way to apologize to Idina Menzel was to paw at her face disconcertingly, lots of people wore horrifically unflattering clothing, and Jennifer Lopez’s dress, heroically, managed, barely, to not fall off her. It was an Oscar night. As Bette Midler (bless her) once put it: ‘betcha didn’t think it was possible to overdress for this occasion.’

There were, as always, several musical numbers. Most of them were quite forgettable, but three in particular that stood out. First, the frenetically choreographed number for ‘Everything is Awesome,’ that fabulous song from The Legos Movie. The biggest Oscar travesty of the year is that TLM didn’t even get nominated in its category, Best Animated Feature. It was just too inventive and amazing and fun and funny and smart; can’t have that! Anyway, I liked the number; love Tegan and Sara. Second, I really liked the performance of ‘Glory,’ the song from Selma, John Legend and Common. One of the pre-Oscars’ narratives had to do with that movie, and how its director and star were both snubbed. The song and performance were powerful, as was John Legend’s comments after it won best song.

And then Lady Gaga performed a medley of songs from The Sound of Music. She sang very very well, and then introduced the still-radiant Julie Andrews. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of that film, and apparently it’s being re-released. And I said something rude about it on Facebook. And lots of friends told me, kindly and with great forbearance, that I am an idiot. I probably am. Still, let me explain myself.

The Sound of Music. It’s the most uplifting, triumph of the human spirit, relentlessly upbeat movie ever made. Fresh faced, incandescently talented young Julie Andrews and her mob of well-scrubbed adorable urchins. ‘Climb Every Mountain.’ Grouchy Captain van Trapp healed by the power of True Love. The heroic escape from evil Nazis. ‘Doe, a deer, a female deer.’ All those kindly nuns worrying about how to solve a problem like Maria. ‘The lonely goatherd.’ What kind of grinch wouldn’t like The Sound of Music? The great Pauline Kael was supposedly fired from McCall’s because she gave it a bad review. (Not true; she was fired because she gave every big popular movie a bad review.) Serves her right, you might think. (And apparently, most of my friends do think).

Let me be clear: I don’t think Art has to be a downer. I don’t think that Art shouldn’t be happy, cheerful and uplifting. I have no objection to art that is upbeat and positive. Art can be anything: gloomy, sad, tragic, funny, mean, crushing, and also buoyant, jaunty, merry, fun. I love ‘Anything is Awesome,’ a song so relentlessly cheery it burrows into your brain like a remora into a shark’s hide. I just think that there’s something strange about a movie musical being as upbeat as The Sound of Music when its subject matter is the German annexation of Austria, the Anschluss. I think the shadow of the Holocaust darkened everything about that time and place.  Don’t you think maybe Liesl’s Nazi boyfriend, Rolfe, could sing something a trifle darker than that condescending ‘sixteen going on seventeen’ number?

Other cheerful happy musicals managed it. Take the musical 1776. A fun show about our Founding Fathers and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Charming cute songs. But then there’s the song ‘Molasses to Rum to Slaves.’ The South Carolina delegate, Rutledge (otherwise a minor enough character), sings it, attacking the hypocrisy of the North over the slave trade, pointing out how they benefit from it too. The shadow of slavery darkened those deliberations, and although it’s a fun musical, an upbeat musical, that shadow is given a face and voice and point of view. Or South Pacific, with the song ‘They’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’. Or the dream ballet in Oklahoma, where Laurie imagines the death of her lover. You can do dark, amidst cheerful.

More to the point, the actual story of Maria von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers is essentially ignored in the stage musical and film. For example, Maria did not want to marry Georg von Trapp. She wasn’t in love with him, and she really, genuinely wanted to be a nun. She was ordered to marry him by her Mother Superior. She says she went through the entire wedding ceremony seething with resentment towards him, the Church, and God. ‘Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, ’til, you, find, your, dream!’ Not so much the case. More like ‘Do what you’re told girl, do as I say, ignore your real feelings, obey, obey, obey, o-bey!’

What bothers me about this isn’t the fictionalizing. I get that in the late fifties-early sixties, you couldn’t have authority figures be wrong. A Mother Superior had to be portrayed as kindly and wise; mainstream audiences of the time wouldn’t stand for any of that commie subversion-of-authority stuff. I get that. No, what bothers me is that the real story is so much better. It’s a much more compelling, honest, powerful, human conflict. By turning truth into uplift, they cheapened the power of actual human experience. Maria was raised an atheist. She was converted by the music of Bach. So include some Bach in the film!  Maria von Trapp became the powerful matriarch of a family choir (and the loving wife of the Captain) through sheer force of will. She made herself strong and independent. You could say that she obeyed, and was rewarded for her obedience. But I see it as the triumph of someone who made the best of terrible circumstances.

Like starting a family choir. Which she did out of sheer necessity. That lovely huge home in Austria where they all live in the movie? They lived in a much smaller house, and took in borders. Captain von Trapp lost his shirt in the great depression. They sang to put food on the table. They were not a wealthy family. And again, that’s a more interesting story. You couldn’t have all that in the early sixties either; fathers were all-wise patriarchs, not spend-thrift ne’er-do-wells.

Nor was Captain von Trapp a distant, brooding father. Nor was Maria a freespirited young woman. She was moody and a strict disciplinarian; he was charming and fun and very close to his children. He liked singing with them, but found the prospect of earning money from their music embarrassing.

They also didn’t sneak off with their musical instruments and suitcases in the middle of the night, hiding in a cemetery so the Nazis wouldn’t catch them. They carefully weighed the offers they got from the Nazis (which were more lucrative than the fees they earned initially in the US), and decided, on balance, it would be better for their kids if they left. They told everyone they were leaving, and left on a train, their papers in order and fares properly paid. And they didn’t sneak off to Switzerland. They went to Italy, and from there, to America, all arranged by their agent. That’s, again, a better story; not fake persecution, but adults, coolly and thoughtfully weighing their options, making the right decision for their kids.

Anyway. I really can’t stand The Sound of Music. It’s nothing but compromises, fake moral uplift, phony conflicts and ludicrous character depictions. And the von Trapps hated it too, especially the portrayal of stern and distant Captain von Trapp.

But there’s the music. Those songs are really famous and really pretty. And Gaga does have an impressive set of pipes. I get why she might want to sing those songs, and I thought Julie Andrews’ appearance last night was lovely. But it grated, it really did. I mean, I get why Elvis Costello made an album with Burt Bacharach. And Lady Gaga has recorded with Tony Bennett. And that’s fine. And Gaga’s career has stalled, and she’s getting married, and wanted, perhaps, to go back to her roots, in musical theatre. Still. It felt tone-deaf, after the Selma song.  It felt like a white girl celebrating whiteness. It felt . . . off. Someone as relentlessly avant-garde and post-modern and intentionally transgressive as Lady Gaga should probably use the Oscars to do, I don’t know, something radically transgressive. It felt like (and I hate this, I genuinely hate this), a sell-out.

And I’m sorry if I offended even more people. I just don’t like that musical very much.

Taken 3: Film review

Ah, yes, another chapter of ‘Eric reviews movies that have been out for a month.’ But, come on, it’s a Taken movie. Must-see stuff, but maybe not exactly opening weekend. But I finally saw it, and oh my gosh. Wow. I mean, seriously.

I love the Taken movies, as I love all things Luc Besson, but I let’s face it, cinematic masterpieces, they’re not. Liam Neeson is clearly having a ball in his new role as ‘elderly action hero,’ and if what you want from movies is lots of ‘splosions, lots of hand to hand combat action sequences, lots of scenes where bad guys fire hundreds of rounds from automatic weapons at Our Hero and somehow miss every time (in fact, where horrible bad guy marksmanship seems central to Our Hero’s plan, like something he’s planning on), lots of spectacular car crashes, all leavened with Family Values sentimentality, well then, the Taken movies are for you. They’re red meat for red staters. Or in that carefully hidden lizard brain red stater at the heart of most guys.

Of course, if you want the plot to make a lick of sense, then you might want to try something, you know, good. Narrative incoherence is part of the strategy. Or rather, they’re incoherent in any kind of real-world sense. I mean, Taken 1 requires that we believe that hundreds of teenaged upper-middle class American girls, vacationing in France, could just go missing, sold as sex slaves, with no reaction whatsoever from the US Embassy, or State Department, or Homeland Security, or CIA, FBI, ATF, Interpol, the girls’ parents (Liam Neeson excepted), or from CNN, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, Fox News, MSNBC, Politico, Vox. Facebook. Twitter . . . Nope. Nada from anyone. Except for Liam Neeson, on a one man killing spree of villainous Albanians. In France. Actually, in Paris. With also no reaction from the French police, except for covering it all up, because they’re in the pocket of Albanians. I’m totally not kidding, I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed myself more at a movie. Funniest thing ever.

Of course, Taken 2 upped the stakes. Moved it to Istanbul (not Constantinople). More Albanians, only this time we’re supposed to believe that Liam Neeson’s character’s daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) could just drop hand grenades off the tops of buildings, in Istanbul, blowing up peoples’ cars and stuff, with no reaction from Turkish police. Wow. Just, wow.

But, so, okay, Taken 3. (Besson didn’t direct this one BTW; he wrote and produced it, but it was directed by his long-time 2nd unit director, Olivier Megaton). So, Liam plays, as always, former Special Forces ace Bryan Mills. His ex-wife, Lenore, is married to rich douche-bag, Stuart St. John (Dougray Scott). Daughter Kim is in college, living with her boyfriend, and pregnant. Lenore is unhappy in her marriage, and kinda wants to get back together with Liam/Bryan, but he’s too noble to take her up on it; suggests she sort out her relationship with Stuart first. So, Liam/Bryan gets a text; Lenore wants to meet to talk over bagels, so Liam/Bryan gets the bagels, dashes home, sees her car parked there, goes in, and she’s dead. Murdered. He sees knife, picks it up, then cops pour in. So there he is, caught red-handed. Framed.

Okay, it turns out that what happens next is the turning point for the entire movie. Liam/Bryan could just get arrested, explain everything, trust in the cops to get it right. Main cop is Forest Whitaker, who is always a smart guy in these things, so that wouldn’t seem like a bad strategy. But Bryan/Liam decides to beat up all these cops instead and make his escape. Most of the rest of the movie is this big chase scene, with loads of cops chasing Liam/Bryan around, while he hacks into the police computer and figures out various clues as to who-dun-it (murdered Lenore and framed him for it). And Forest Whitaker basically follows him around, always a few minutes late. Eventually, it turns out that Stuart was behind the whole thing, trying to put together some money he can use to pay off the Russian mob. (The main Russki mobster, BTW, was played by the brilliant character actor Sam Spruell, also the main baddie in Snow White and the Huntsman. Skinny blonde guy? Anyway, always glad to see his work.)

So, anyway, finally, Bryan/Liam breaks into the Russian mob stronghold, kills a couple of dozen guards, gets shot at, hundreds of rounds worth, by various automatic weapons, never gets hit, and uncovers nasty Stuart’s whole plot.And the Russian bad guy dies. So Stuart takes Kim with him, and races off, to his private jet.

Leading to this: Liam/Bryan is driving the Porsche he took from the main Russian guy. He gets to Santa Monica airport just as Stuart’s jet is taking off. Now, remember, Liam/Bryan is mostly interested in protecting Kim. That’s all he cares about; protecting his daughter. The police, at that point, know Stuart’s the bad guy. Jets have to land somewhere, and wherever that one lands, Stuart will be arrested. So, knowing Kim’s in the jet, Liam/Bryan decides the best thing to do is to ram the jet with the Porsche. ‘Cause there’s just no way that could go wrong, plane crashes being notoriously safe for passengers.

Of course it works. It’s a movie, stupid crap like that always works in movies. But then comes the very next scene, a final conversation between Liam/Bryan and Main Cop/Forest Whitaker. And the cop admits that he’s known the whole time that Bryan’s innocent.

Which made me realize something crucial. What if, when he first found his wife dead, Liam/Bryan had just let himself be arrested. The cops, we learn, were suspicious of the crime scene. They were planning to investigate the murder. They’re always five minutes behind Liam/Bryan as he puts the clues together and works it out. They’re smart cops. If Liam/Bryan had just let them arrest him, the result would have been exactly the same. Minus all the dead people.

‘Cause there’s also this: all those chase scenes, with cops chasing Liam/Bryan around, they’re all massively costly. We see dozens of cars destroyed, at high speeds, on LA freeways. There’s no way someone didn’t die, though in fact it appears that no one did, in the movie. Lots of cops get hurt, beat up, concussed, kidney punched. But Forest and Liam have this nice chuckle together and go, ‘it’s all good, we’re fine.’ What? Seriously?

Here’s what I think: in real life, people who cause dozens of high speed traffic accidents for no purpose whatsoever generally are taken to account for it. People who beat up dozens of police officers aren’t allowed to go free.

Now, I’m not saying that it was irresponsible or immoral for Besson/Megaton to make a movie in which those specific crimes aren’t punished. I do think it makes for bad film making. I think it’s specifically bad film making when, in order to enjoy the happy ending, we have to forget everything that happened earlier in the movie.

I’ll grant you that the standard isn’t high. But Taken 3 is far and away the stupidest movie in that particular franchise. This one actually manages to be stupid enough to not be enjoyable. That wasn’t true of the last two, but it is true of this one. It took awhile, but I’ve finally been stupided out by a Luc Besson film.

Jupiter Ascending: Film Review

Jupiter Ascending is looking like a very expensive flop. According to IMDB, it cost $175 million dollars to make, and had an opening weekend of $19 million. It’s gotten terrible reviews; a Rotten Tomatoes score of 22. You’ve probably heard what a bad movie it is. I’m here to tell you that none of that is true. My wife and I went to see it last night, and we had a blast. It’s fast paced and fun, visually stunning, and tells a story that’s certainly out there, but that is coherent and holds together and is never for a second boring. The Wachowski siblings are immensely imaginative sci-fi story-tellers, and while this isn’t The Matrix, it’s a thoroughly engaging piece, with contemporary political relevance, even. We both liked it. It’s a movie that needs, and that will reward, your support.

As one of my friends put it, it’s a movie where the final scene involves a werewolf doing battle with a giant lizard, a fight taking place in and on Jupiter (the planet’s) red spot, while a huge factory there explodes around them. While that’s true, it leaves out the turbo-powered gravity-defying sneakers worn by the werewolf (played by Channing Tatum). Add to it Mila Kunis having a super-cool superpower–she’s able to control bees, which she sends swarming around bad guys trying to kill her–an extended comic scene about the universe’s worst bureaucracy, and Eddie Redmayne alternately whispering and shouting all his lines, and you’ve got yourself a space opera that dares actually be operatic, by golly.

The Jupiter of the title is actually Jupiter Jones, played with moxie and bravado by Mila Kunis. She lives in Chicago with her Russian emigre extended family, including her Mom (Maria Doyle Kennedy, so terrific as Mrs. S on Orphan Black). The family has a maid service business, and Jupiter’s specialty, apparently, is cleaning toilets. Her life sucks, in other words.

Turns out, she’s actually royalty. Like, one of four ruling members of the most powerful family in the universe. She’s an Abrasax, and she has three part-siblings, each of whom owns huge amounts of the universe. Earth, it seems, is tiny, but kind of important, because it’s a perfect source for this liquid with magical life-extending powers. Super rich people will do anything (will pay anything) for that liquid.

Spoiler alert: skip this paragraph if you don’t want the plot ruined. The magic life-restoring liquid is actually soylent green. It’s people. That’s why the Abrasaxes want Earth; they intend to harvest our excess people. We’re a particularly good source for the stuff. It’s all about profit, in other words.

Alright, so, Jupiter is a perfect genetic match for the three Abrasax siblings’ Mom, and the richest Abrasax, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), wants her dead. He sends an assassination team to Chicago to dispatch her. But they’re spoiled by Channing Tatum, playing a former-soldier-turned-mercenary, Caine Wise. He’s half wolf, and has, as mentioned, these awesome rocket power shoes. He rescues Jupiter, and takes her to his old partner/mentor, Stinger, (Sean Bean). See, he’s been hired by Titus Abrasax (Doug Booth), an effete sensualist who wants Earth and its potential profits. But instead, Caine and Stinger deliver Jupiter to Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton), ruthless socialite, who sort shows Jupiter the ropes. And Jupiter makes her claim to Earth ownership, negotiating this horrendous intergalactic imperial bureaucracy to accomplish it.

Suffice it to say that Jupiter gets to spend some time with each of her Abrasax family members, discovering how increasingly loathsome they are. Meanwhile, she’s increasingly attracted to Caine, who seems pretty much into her too, but he’s got that doggie DNA problem. (“But I like dogs,” Jupiter assures him).

There’s also, it seems, a inter-galactic police force, led by Diomika Tsing (the stunning Nikki Amuka-Bird) trying to force all the Abrasaxes to play nicely together. And meanwhile, Caine keeps having to fight various baddies who are trying to kill Jupiter. Who does some pretty impressive fighting herself.

Sci-fi can (and some would insist, should) have some contemporary relevance. Stories about imagined futures ought to, in some sense, comment on our problems and needs. I don’t think that’s a requirement, but Jupiter Ascending surely meets that challenge. For all its flash and action, this is a film about income inequality, is it not? The super-rich don’t get rich on the backs of the poor, they literally kill poor people so they can bathe in their extracted human essence. Until they’re challenged by a tough American girl who grew up scrubbing toilets. I think the film makes a strong political statement.

The film is failing in box office terms, and it doesn’t make sense. Compare it to the Terminator movies, which it somehow resembles. Cosmic politics playing out on Earth? Ginormous creatures doing battle in the sky, midst ‘splosions? The difference is that Jupiter Ascending is 47 times a better movie. (Yes, my phone has that app). The Wachoskis can stage a big CGI action sequence where we can always tell what’s happening, we’re always oriented in time and space, and we actually have the time to care about or worry about characters we’ve come to like. The spectacle, in a Wachoski film, isn’t just awesome, it means something. I know, comparing them to Michael Bay is to damn them with faint praise. But this was a fun movie, an enjoyable time in the theater. The last Transformers movie was a bore. I never cared about any characters in it, couldn’t follow the back story, and couldn’t bring myself to care enough to follow the plot.

It was also a big hit. This one cost a lot to make too, and won’t be a hit. And that’s a shame. At least they got my ten bucks.

Movie Review. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

So finally, finally, I saw it. The latest Hobbit movie, the one you guys all saw and made up your minds about two months ago. (Forgive me; I like to see these with my wife, and we’ve had a lot going on). What everyone said about it was that it wasn’t very good, and that there was no reason to make three movies based on one thin novel. In this case, everyone was right.

For starters, it’s not about a battle involving five armies. It’s about a battle involving either four, or seven armies, depending on what you call an army. Count ’em: there’s a human army, led by Bard (Luke Evans). An elvish army, led by Thranduill (Lee Pace). An dwarvish army, led by Dain (Billy Connolly). An Orc army, led by Azog (Manu Bennett). That’s four. There’s also Thorin (Richard Armitage), the dwarf king, and his twelve dwarf pals, if you want to count them as an army, plus a second Orc army, plus an army of giant eagles who show up sort of deus ex machina-y. So: seven. Four, or seven, take your pick. Not five.

But that’s only for the final battle sequence, which takes up maybe the last forty minutes or so of the movie. Up to that point, the major dramatic question asked by the screenplay was this: will Thorin, out of sheer buttheadedness, provoke a completely unnecessary war, which he will lose in about four (or seven) minutes, involving humans and elves, who outnumber him five bazillion to one, all battling for a buncha worthless gold. And which we, in the audience, don’t care about. Or the gold, or the war. Or Thorin. Or, at that point, actually, even Bilbo.

See, when last we visited Middle Earth, the big question was, would Smaug, the dragon, attack Bard’s village, and if so, would Bard summon up the strength and courage to shoot it down with a big iron arrow someone crafted specifically for that task. That was an awesome question. It gets answered five minutes into this thing. Smaug sets fire to the town, Bard shoots it down, badda boom badda bing. Lots of devastation, though, so Bard up and decides they’ll all move to this abandoned town by the dwarfish mountain stronghold. (We all saw the Two Towers, we all know that moving your town to a mountain stronghold is a bad idea).

Then we spend forever watching Thorin go all Gollum on us over all that dragon gold. Which for some reason, the humans want some of (they’re starving, what they actually need is food and medical supplies, which they can’t use gold to buy because, far as we can tell, there’s no one anywhere to sell it to them). And then the elf army shows up, wanting their special elf crown jewels, which we’ve totally never even heard of before. Then a big ol’ supporting dwarf army shows up, and all three of these armies spend some time posturing and glowering at each other. Then, finally, super-evil Orc armies start showing up, and we get to the big battle scene we’ve all been waiting for.

Which wasn’t remotely suspenseful, and was actually kind of hilarious. Intentionally? Could be; a troll head-butts a wall, and knocks himself silly–that’s funny stuff. An Orc is allowed to drown–trust me, it was funny. Legolas defies gravity again: funny. We do get to find out what happens when Legolas runs out of arrows. But that’s not actually all that suspenseful, because we know Legolas shows up in the three movies to which this serves as prequel. So we know Gandalf’s gonna be safe, and Bilbo. The real dramatic tension involves Thorin, who we, by that point, have stopped caring about.

All three movies felt padded, but this was far and away the most padded of the series. Bottom line: we don’t actually care if Thorin gets his gold. That was the driving impetus, story-wise, of all three movies, and we never did care about it. And in this movie, when he’s being such a sulky drama queen about his precious precious gold, we care least of all. I don’t fault Armitage, a fine actor, who is never unconvincing. It’s a story problem, a script problem.

What we have here is a script that never really did work, but that managed to hide that fact behind the smoke-and-mirrors of a lot of stunt-and-CGI action sequences. It was fun to visit Middle Earth again. It was fun to see Galadriel again, and Evangeline Lilly was terrific as Tauriel (though I never did manage to care about her love story), and nice to see Christopher Lee play a good guy for once. Radagast is a fun character, and they found Evans, an actor who looks a lot like Viggo Mortenson, to play Bard, who’s a lot like Aragorn. But when all that affection wears off, and all that admiration for good actors trying their best, what we’re left with is, frankly, some resentment. I didn’t so much look forward to seeing the three Hobbit movies as I felt sentenced to buy tickets to them. I will not purchase the DVDs, and I certainly won’t watch them on HBO. Peter Jackson earned a lot of good will by making three spectacularly great movies. He did, sadly, somewhat squander that good will by making three much-less-good ones.

Begin Again, and ‘authenticity’

I loved John Carney’s brilliant indie film Once. Loved the music, loved the sort-of-yes-sort-of-no love story, loved Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Of course, I especially liked Hansard’s music. “Falling Slowly” remains one of the great love songs ever.

It’s a movie musical about a busker, and so the music has a raw, unpolished quality that’s very appealing. It feels ‘authentic,’ whatever that might mean. Anyway, it’s one of my favorite movies ever, and when I saw that the director, John Carney, had made another movie, another love story, again about musicians that were struggling to break through, I couldn’t wait to see it. And so, thanks be to Netflix, I finally watched Begin Again.

Carney’s a bigger deal this time (that’s what happens when you make a movie for $60,000 and it grosses ten million). This time, he had a budget; this time, the movie has movie stars, Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. And it’s got some great songs again, by Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals. Like Once, it’s about a male-female relationship that isn’t quite a love story, but in which the two characters really do come to care about each other. Complicated and dimensional and human, rather than just boy-meets-girl. I liked it, I liked the music, I recommend it.

But. How real is the music, how raw and unpolished, how–that word again–authentic. Because in Once, Hansard’s music really does feel, you know, all those things, genuine. Musical authenticity isn’t an issue in the film, it’s just what the film is. But Begin Again is directly and specifically about that issue, the issue about staying true to your art, keepin’ it real, selling-out vs. not-selling-out. Artistic integrity. It’s a movie about musical authenticity.

Okay, so Knightley plays a singer-songwriter, and her boyfriend, Dave, has just signed with a record label, and she’s in New York to support him in a girlfriendly sort of way, and so she even lies about the fact that most of the songs on his album were co-written by him with her. She doesn’t want the songwriting credit, she’s too thrilled for his success to care. And the label sends him to LA to re-record some tracks, and while there, he cheats on her. He’s a creep in other words. And we realize that the label is going to turn all his (and her) songs into conventional pop tracks, and spoil the, you know, passion, truth, real-ness of the work. And Dave, the cheatin’ creep is played by Adam Levine. Lead singer for Maroon Five. The definition of inauthentic bubble gum pop.

But so anyway she’s ready to take her broken heart and blow New York and go back to London. But her pal Steve (James Corden, the Baker in Into the Woods) takes her to a nightclub, and makes her get up on stage and perform, and she does, rather badly, sing one of her songs. But Mark Ruffalo (a newly fired record exec/drunk named Dan) hears her song, and knows, instantly, in his soul, that she’s got It, that she’s the real thing, that she’s the artist he’s been waiting for. Or rather, he hears the song as he would produce it; he hears, not her song, but what he could make of it. It’s a lovely scene: enjoy.

This leads to a conversation about musical authenticity, and he challenges her to name a genuinely authentic artist. ‘Bob Dylan,’ she says, and Ruffalo points out all the ways in which Dylan, with the sunglasses and the carefully tousled hair, is pose and artifice. Then she says ‘Randy Newman,’ and Ruffalo concedes that Randy Newman is indeed, in his own way, authentic.

It’s an issue that recurs throughout the movie. She hears creepo Dave’s album, and it seems overproduced. She and Dan decide to make her album, and record it on the streets of New York, with ambient noise in the background. See: more authentic. (Except we see how carefully Mark Ruffalo controls the street sounds, bribing street kids and asking for quiet). She downloads her album onto the internet instead of allowing the label to release it, and it sells like crazy. (Because she knows Cee Lo and he tweets about it).

The first rule of artistic representation is that portrayal does not equal advocacy. I don’t know the extent to which Carney intends his film to deconstruct the pose of artistic and musical authenticity and the extent to which he’s relying on it. I mean, the epitome of ‘integrity’ in this film is supposed to be Keira Knightley’s character. And she can sing, some; a smallish voice, but okay for this kind of music. But at least in Once, Glen Hansard was singing songs he, Glen Hansard, wrote and performed as a busker. In this movie, ‘authenticity’ is represented by songs performed by a movie star, written for her by someone else.

I’m not knocking Keira Knightley. I like her as an actress, I think she does a nice job in this film, and she can sing enough to pull off the role. I just loathe that entire issue of musical authenticity. We all know the drill: Neil Young good, Neil Diamond not good. Janis Joplin real, Karen Carpenter not real. Thumbs up: REM, thumbs down: Hootie and the Blowfish. Punk: good. Disco: not so much. (Wasn’t Sid Vicious essentially a sociopathic poseur? Does Donna Summer’s pain not count?)  What bothers me about it is that we’re imputing a moral stance to what is essentially an aesthetic judgment. As it happens, I like Neil Young and I like REM; I love Dylan too. But sell-out is too harsh a term to apply to anyone. I genuinely believe that most artists really are trying to use their art to say something cogent about the world they inhabit. Just that some folks have muses that are more commercially appealing. Luck, not sin.

And yet and yet. This scene, this song, is lovely. And yes, it’s inauthentic. Knightley singing a song someone wrote for her (like that’s a crime), Ruffalo pretending to play bass (acting, in other words), Hailee Steinfeld pretending to rock out on guitar (again, acting). I don’t care. I think it’s a terrific moment in a movie I liked a lot.

And that’s what we actually care about, isn’t it? Whether we like the music.

Movie Review: Blackhat

I know I know I know. What kind of movie critic is it who does not review (because he hasn’t seen) most of the Oscar-worthy December releases, and then when finally he starts going back to the theaters, reviews Blackhat? A darn poor one, you might say, and you’d be right. Blackhat got a 31% favorable rating on rottentomatoes. It cost 70 million to make, and has made back around 4 million since its release. Flop-eroni. Bomb-eroo. A bad movie that didn’t do business. Avert your eyes, young-uns.

Well, they’re all wrong, and I’m right: it’s great. Well, maybe not great, but really good. Blackhat isn’t Oscar-bait, and the screenplay has some structural flaws the film (however stylishly made) never quite manages to overcome. That said, it’s a beautifully acted, romantic and human thriller, compellingly watchable and engaging. It’s also a Michael Mann film, his first feature film in seven years, and quite possibly the last film of his great career (Mann is 71).

The film inside the cable and wires and circuits of a computer network. Then we cut to a keyboard, and a finger pushes an Enter key. And the next thing we see is a nuclear power plant’s cooling system fail, and its reactor core blow. It’s that easy. That’s the world we live in. One finger hits one key, and boom.

So Chinese authorities, tracing the virus that caused the meltdown, turn to MIT-educated military officer (cyber-division) Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) to figure it all out. He, in turn, contacts his sister, Chen Lien (Wei Tang), likewise a computer nerd. And they figure out that the virus is built on a model Dawai had originally built with his best friend in college, Nick Holloway (Chris Hemsworth). And he’s in prison, for hacking into a bank and stealing a lot of money. This leads eventually to some very shaky and borderline hostile international cooperation between the FBI (represented by Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), and the Chinese military. Holloway is allowed out of prison, with all sorts of restrictions on what he’s allowed to do, and he and the Chens do all sorts of computer-y things, involving very fast and intense typing.

My guess is that people who are a lot more computer-literate than I am (which means everyone on earth age 20-35) found this part of the movie a bit cringe-worthy. I didn’t care about the computer-y stuff, though. It didn’t interest me, except as the stuff that had to happen to drive the plot forward. What did interest me, a lot, was the human element of this awkward multi-national cooperation. The stakes are very high–a madman is crashing stock market computers and blowing up nuclear power plants: why? Dawai and Holloway are old friends, but Dawai has divided loyalties, to his government, and also to his sister. Agent Barrett has to enforce the restrictions on the one guy who might solve the problem, and also doesn’t trust any of the Chinese authorities. Her partner, Jessup (Holt McCallany) is courageous and smart, but a rule-follower; they fight a lot. Nor is she trusted, much, by her FBI superiors.

Meanwhile Lien and Holloway are falling in love.

Wei Tang is tremendous in this film, as she was in Ang Lee’s brilliant (and controversial) Lust, Caution. And of course, that’s always what Michael Mann has done wonderfully well; work with actors: James Caan in Thief, Pacino/De Niro in Heat, not just Daniel Day-Lewis but also Madeleine Stowe in Last of the Mohicans. Wei Tang and Chris Hemsworth are both terrific in this, even when their characters are asked by the screenplay to do quite ludicrous things, as Hemsworth is in this. Again, I didn’t much care. I thought the acting was terrific, Hemsworth and Wei, but also McCallany and Davis and Leehom Wang. I know it’s just a thriller. But it’s a thriller about actual, believable human beings.

A good thing, too, because, from a plot standpoint, the last third of the film is a bit silly. Holloway, a hacker, becomes an action hero; goes after the bad guys, tries to overpower them physically. I think the film wants us to conclude that, while in prison, Holloway worked out a lot (we get a glimpse of it), and also became really really good at fighting, and also at making effective shivs out of regular hand tools. No more spoilers, but I didn’t believe it, and found the ending sadly preposterous.

But up to that point, we get one of the trademarks of Mann’s work; he isn’t afraid to kill off main characters, and to show characters we’ve come to care about die in horrible, slow-motion tragic ways. I got caught up in it, honest I did.

Remember this?

My wife and I agreed: there’s a scene in Blackhat that we were much reminded of. Blackhat‘s not as good a movie overall. But it’s got some powerful moments, and was well worth watching, we thought.

So catch it on Redbox. It’ll be there soon enough. You won’t regret it.