Category Archives: Movies

Ben-Hur: Movie Review

There are essentially two ways a movie could be called a success. First, it could be a popular success, as measured by box office receipts.  Or it can be a critical success, the kind of movie people like me love, but that have a hard time finding their market. Well, the new Ben-Hur, directed by Timur Bekmambetov and starring Jack Huston, is neither a financial nor a critical success. It cost a hundred million dollars to make, and so far, has made around twelve million in box office, a dismal enough figure that it’s closing all across the country. Critics haven’t liked it. It’s around 29% on By those criteria, it’s not a successful film.

And you can’t help but wonder why it was even made. The 1959 William Wyler film, with Charlton Heston, won eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (to Heston), and Best Director. I’m not sure how well it holds up anymore, but it’s certainly a classic, an important and memorable film. Why remake it? Why make a new version, directed by the guy who directed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and starring John Huston’s grandson? Why greenlight it, why fund this production, why market and distribute it? It’s seems like a peculiarly unnecessary venture.

I’m also aware that I have this fault as a critic; I like pretty much everything. I like movies; I like the experience of seeing movies, and my son teases me by saying that my one superpower is finding something positive in even quite wretched movies. So my positive comments here are easy to discount. I get that. I do.

The fact is, though, the new Ben-Hur isn’t terrible, and at times, it’s quite gripping. My wife and I were pleasantly surprised by it. Jack Huston’s not Charlton Heston, but he’s a fine actor, and makes a creditable Ben-Hur. The acting is generally just fine, and the story unfolds at a brisk pace (which can’t really be said about the four-hour-long ’59 classic).  And I don’t have much hesitation recommending it.

I’m sure you remember the essential story. Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince living in Jerusalem, has an adopted brother, Masala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman orphan his family took in.  The men grow up as brothers, and are inseparable. But Masala wants to advance in the Empire, and becomes a centurion. Eventually, he’s posted to Judea, working for the prefect, Pontius Pilate. When a Zealot assassin Ben-Hur has been protecting tries to kill Pilate, Masala has his brother arrested, and condemned to the slow, horrific death of a galley slave. But in a sea battle, Ben-Hur’s ship sinks, and he makes it safely to shore. He is rescued by Ildurim (Morgan Freeman), who trains horses and riders for chariot racing, a popular Roman sport. He trains Ben-Hur, setting up a big climactic chariot race between Masala and Ben-Hur.

In some respects, this new movie is kind of a Cliff Notes version of the ’59 classic. The movie is built around two big action set pieces–the sea battle between galley ships, and the chariot race. Both take up a lot of screen time, and both were well staged and filmed. I already knew perfectly well who was going to win the chariot race, but I still found it exciting and suspenseful.

The interstitial stuff between the big action scenes were less well handled. When Ben-Hur is arrested, his mother and sister are arrested too. He agonizes over that fact, assumes they’re dead, and wants, at least, to see them properly buried. Turns out they didn’t die, but the resolution of that plot point was perfunctory and unconvincing. Likewise, Ben-Hur’s marriage to Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) was rushed through, as were subsequent scenes showing their reunion, quarrel, and reconciliation.

But the film’s biggest failure, in my opinion, has to do with its handling of Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro). The Civil War General Lew Wallace, who wrote the novel all this is based on, titled it Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Ben-Hur meets Jesus periodically throughout the movie, but is unpersuaded by His message. But (SPOILER ALERT), not entirely. Esther becomes a Christian, and Ben-Hur himself eventually comes around. The point of the movie, I think, is this; both Ben-Hur and Masala are men who are consumed with hatred and pain and anger and an insensate desire for revenge. Christ’s message is that those emotions are false, are temptations of the Adversary, and that instead, we need to embrace love and forgiveness. After seeing his brother badly injured in the chariot race, Ben-Hur, touched by Jesus’ teachings, reconciles with his brother, and the men embrace and forgive. Yay for them; closing credits.

It doesn’t really work, though. The resolution is much too perfunctory, and the scenes with Jesus were hampered, in my opinion, by Santoro’s limitations as an actor. And by Huston’s limitations as well; his ‘consumed with anger’ looks very much like his ‘desperate to forgive.’

(And I’m hardly an expert on this historical period, and would love to be corrected if it turns out I’m wrong, but I do not believe that Pilate’s Jerusalem ever featured a big Cirkus for chariot races. Also, I don’t think a Roman Centurion would have been a big name chariot racer. Wrong social class. Also, I’m not sure what caste Ben-Hur belonged to. A ‘Jewish Prince’ who is really wealthy and nonetheless charitable and kind and beloved in Jerusalem? A Herodian? Not sure that guy could have existed. But if I’m wrong, let me know).

If you want to see an exceptionally well-made and well acted movie, set in Palestine during Jesus’ ministry, see Risen, with Joseph Fiennes, a much better movie on the same subject, only without chariot races. Meanwhile, Ben-Hur really can’t be said to have succeeded, exactly. But it’s not half bad, and parts of it are very well done indeed. So I recommend it. And you’ll have to hurry; it’s leaving town soon.

Two lovely movies for families and children: Movie Reviews

I saw The BFG a few weeks ago, but did not review it–it happened at a time when I was without computer access. I saw Pete’s Dragon this morning. Narratively, the two movies are very similar. They’re both about orphans who become friends with very very large magical creatures. Both the Giant in The BFG and the Dragon in Pete’s Dragon are generous and kind, but both are badly mistreated by gangs of dolts, and both need help from grown-ups–either the Queen of England, or Robert Redford. And both films are beautiful. They’re both paced a little slowly for children’s movies, but only by the frenetic standard of so many noisy, busy ‘family’ films. They both take the time to appreciate loveliness. But they’re both playful when needs be, too. They’re both beautifully designed and lighted and shot. And both films feature terrific child actors.

BFG stands for Big Friendly Giant, played by Mark Rylance, who seems to have become Steven Spielberg’s new favorite actor. Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), lives in an orphanage, a lively place, but a desperately lonely one. The Giant sees her see him, and can’t bear it; Giants have to remain invisible. (Invisibility is a trait of Pete’s Dragon as well). He collects dreams, and that requires trips to the city, but only if he can stay unspotted. His home is absolutely splendid, with a Rube Goldberg ingenuity to it, and all sorts of odd pieces of equipment that enable his life’s work. He also has a wondrous way of talking, employing, not the right word, but its second cousin.

The Giant would never hurt little Sophie, and protects her as best he can. Because, you see, he’s a very big Giant by her standards, but an absolute runt by Giant standards. And his fellow Giants are loutish, stupid brutes. Ruby decides she needs to protect her big friend, and needs help to accomplish it. Well, where would an orphaned English girl turn for help? To the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton), of course. (When the Giant meets the Queen, he says “your madjester, I am your most humbug servant.” She’s charmed).

I think for some smaller children, The BFG might be a little hard to follow, not because the story’s all that complicated, but just because it’s an unfamiliar sort of tale. We’re used to wisecracking anthropomorphic animals–we expect to see chase scenes. This has neither. You have to pay attention. But it’s so eccentrically lovely, so lyrical and sweet-tempered, it’s worth the effort.

Pete’s Dragon did not interest me at all, until too many friends told me how good it was. I saw it today, and was entranced. Pete, as a precociously reading three-year-old, sits in back as his father navigates a narrow forest road. Pete reads his favorite book, Elliott Gets Lost, about a wayward puppy. He sees the word ‘brave,’ and asks his mother about it, and she tells him she thinks he’s the bravest boy in the world. And then, swerving to avoid a deer, their car overturns, and Pete’s Mom and Dad are killed. (That scene, so awful, was beautifully but heartbreakingly filmed–not violent, but lyrical, and all the more affecting for it). Pete wanders into the woods. Wolves gather. And then are frightened away. By a massive green dragon. Who befriends, and saves, and raises young Pete.

Six years later, Pete (Oakes Fegley), is a wild child, blissfully happy and well cared for by Elliot, the Dragon. (Of course, he named it Elliot). And we get the most beautiful montage, showing Pete running through the forest, leaping from trees, completely confident that Elliot will catch him. It was my favorite scene in the movie, and one that did not advance the plot in any way, but was just purely joyful. Then we cut to Robert Redford, playing a woodworking codger named Meacham, who entertains children with his stories about an encounter he had in the woods with a big green dragon. His daughter, Grace, it turns out, is a forest ranger. She’s played by Bryce Dallas Howard, and she’s in constant conflict with a company of loggers, who ignore her proscriptions over which parts of the forest can be clear-cut. And that gets tricky, because her fiancee, Jack (Wes Bentley), runs the logging firm, and his main foreman is his brother, Gavin (Karl Urban). Jack’s daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), is an adventurous nine-year old. And she’s the one who spots Pete.

So Pete is brought back to civilization, his history explored, and plans are made to turn him over to Social Services. And Pete’s miserable. He misses Elliot. He can’t figure out why he can’t just keep living in the forest with his dragon.

Gavin is the villain of the piece, I suppose, and his loggers serve as his gang. But there’s never a moment in the film when we don’t completely understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s not malevolent, just a normal human–a little selfish, a little uncaring. Not a bad person, though, of course, Pete hates him.

The movie does turn, in its last twenty minutes or so, rather Disney. There’s a comic car chase. There are moments of sentimentality, not unearned, but a trifle saccharine. But most of the movie is exquisite. Elliot’s forest is just a normal Northwestern US forest (though in fact, it was filmed in New Zealand). But director David Lowery has an eye; he lets us see the forest the way Pete sees it. He takes the time, to linger on a forest stream, to let Elliot play with a butterfly.

I’m an old guy; my children are in their twenties and thirties, and we have no grandchildren. But I’m so grateful for movies like these two, for family-oriented movies with some lyricism and sense of magic. I know that The BFG is considered kind of a flop, but it’s a Spielberg film; it will be remembered, and reevaluated in time. Pete’s Dragon is in theaters now, and is doing well. I well remember how difficult it could be to find good, appropriate films for children. Here are two excellent ones.


Suicide Squad: Movie Review

Suicide Squad is one of those movies that audiences like a lot more than critics do. It’s gotten terrible reviews–its score is 26, and even the positive reviews have tended to be of the ‘ah, it’s not so terrible’ variety. I guess I’m in a critical minority; I rather liked it, and certainly thought it was an interestingly political movie, and not in some metaphorical sense.  It’s quite specifically and directly about the War on Terror, and about the American prison system, and the moral ambiguities of our age. It’s a zeitgeist movie, a movie that captures something about our age. Superhero movies often are.

It’s basically The Dirty Dozen. Remember that one? Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes? The government recruits an army of bad guys to fight a particularly dangerous enemy? Well, that’s Suicide Squad, except the bad guys are superheroes.  Or, you know, people with enhanced powers.

We’re introduced to each of the characters’ backstories in a series of opening vignettes. Deadshot (Will Smith) is a professional assassin, deadly with any firearm. When we meet him, he’s got a bead on a target, but refuses to pull the trigger until his client ups the pay. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is a former psychiatrist who grows infatuated with The Joker (Jared Leto), who then tortures her out of love, leading to her Stockholm Syndrome-type reciprocal love for him. Diablo (Jay Hernandez) has the ability to set things on fire, which he doesn’t control very well–he accidentally killed his family, and now refuses to use his powers. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Adbaje), appears to be half-human, half crocodile. Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is an expert with blades. Katana (Karen Fukuhara) has a sword that stores the souls of the people she kills. There were a few others, less well defined. They’re all deeply damaged, deeply troubled people, hostile to authority and with agendas of their own.

The US government is represented by a bureaucrat and a soldier. Viola Davis plays Amanda Waller, who brings the Suicide Squad together as an elite anti-terrorist unit because she’s afraid of what might happen if America’s enemies should find gifted/troubled superhero types of their own. She has recruited Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinneman) to lead her motley force. He’s got his own demons. He is in love with an archeologist, June Moone (Cara Delevigne), who is possessed by an evil witch spirit. But no worries–Waller has her heart–literally, she found it in the cave–and therefore controls her.

A number of critics disliked the movie because, as several of them put it, its plot is incoherent. But it’s not. The plot is perfectly coherent, just a trifle busy. Ordinarily, in a superhero movie, you’ve got your good guys and your bad guys; it’s all pretty clear. It isn’t here. Col. Flagg is one of the good guys, but he’s also in love with the main bad guy–the witch who has possessed his girlfriend. And that character, that evil spirit witch thing, wants to conquer the world, and may have the power to accomplish it. Among her skills is the ability to capture people and turn them into mindless killing monsters. That ability forms the basis for the first army the Suicide Squad has to contend with. Meanwhile, The Joker has allied himself with the Witch, and keeps texting Harley Quinn to join him/them. And Waller is hardly on the side of the angels. Davis plays her as an amoral pragmatist, perfectly willing to murder innocent people if it will advance her interests. Granted, she’s trying to protect the United States, but she also has a career to look out for. And the only reason the Suicide Squadders agree to help her is because she has bombs implanted in their heads. And she controls the phone app that will set them off.

Well, doesn’t all that seem familiar? In order to defeat the forces of terrorism, the US uses unmanned drones, and can kill bad guys remotely–though we do try to keep collateral damage down. And one of the two major party Presidential candidates currently running thinks this isn’t close to enough. He wants to bring back torture. Viola Davis’s brutal amorality in this doesn’t seem remotely overstated.

All these characters are damaged goods. All are traumatized and violent. The most extraordinary among them is Harley Quinn. Margot Robbie’s performance dominates the movie. She’s constantly smiling, but we never trust it; this is a violent woman, not the sexpot cutie-pie she affects. And under that is abuse, horrific abuse. And under that, some kind of deep seated insecurity. Check out Robbie’s IMDB page, and you’ll see a series of extraordinary characterizations. She was the best thing in Tarzan, the best thing in Focus, the best thing about Whisky Tango Foxtrot, the best thing in The Wolf of Wall Street. She even pulls off a feat that seems quite impossible. She convinces us that her character is genuinely in love with Jared Leto’s Joker. Leto’s a fine actor, but he’s just unwatchably bad in this movie. (There’s a moment where we think The Joker has died, and I realized how much I hoped it was true).

But everyone else was excellent. Will Smith brought the film some gravity, and Jay Hernandez, a conscience and some heart. Even Delevigne is good, in an impossible part–the archeologist/Witch character never really does make a lick of sense. And Viola Davis scared the wee out of me. Superheroes don’t actually exist. Bureaucrats willing to murder in order to combat terrorism? I wish I didn’t think they do.

Florence Foster Jenkins: Movie Review

The difficulty in writing a screenplay about any famous eccentric, is battling the temptation to make fun of them. You know, in a funny, but also kind of mean way. Florence Foster Jenkins’ life was eminently mockworthy–she’s mostly famous for being the most atrocious opera singer to ever perform in public. Which is why I was so delighted to see that Stephen Frears’ new film about her is so splendidly generous and open-hearted and kind.

It helps that Jenkins is played by Meryl Streep, who brings a remarkable combination of confidence and vulnerability to the role. And yes, when she sings, it’s incredibly funny–my wife, my daughter and I were doubled over. But there’s more to her than bad singing. Her husband, St Clair Bayfield, could well have been played as the smarmiest sort of git, especially since that’s a characterization easily in Hugh Grant’s wheelhouse. Instead, he gives the most sensitive and complex performance of his career. And Simon Helberg, from Big Bang Theory, could have made Jenkins’ accompanist, Cosme McMoon into a comic caricature. Instead, Helberg imbues McMoon with an undercurrent of loneliness that became deeply touching. (That name, Cosme McMoon, is, astonishingly, historical–that was the actual name of her actual accompanist).

The film is set in 1944, when Jenkins presided over The Verdi Club, a society of wealthy patrons of the musical arts, mostly all women. They enjoyed evenings of dramatic recitations (by Bayfield, who had been an actor), and tableaux vivants, in which Madame Florence would dress up as a muse or something and be lowered into a scene by ropes. This was what passed for entertainment back in the day before we invented fun.

St Clair and Florence had, um, an unusual relationship. Her house was where she socialized, featuring her collection of chairs-in-which-famous-people-had-died, which no guests were allowed to sit in. There was also a bathtub kept full of potato salad for parties. At night, they have a routine; he recites, to help her sleep, then replaces her wig with a turban, kisses her gently, then heads off to his apartment. Which she pays for. Which he shares with his girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson).

But Miss Florence had a yen to sing again. So St Clair hires a voice teacher, the associate conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, Carlo Edwards (David Haig), whose job it is to keep reassuring Florence how splendidly she’s singing. And St Clair begins auditioning accompanists. Cosme gets the gig because he plays softly–Miss Florence abhors bombast.

And that’s one of the directions this film’s narrative could have chosen. It’s Florence as victim, and St Clair as a hustler. As long as he indulges her every whim, he has everything he could ask for–a pretty girlfriend, a nice apartment, plenty of money. But he has to keep scrambling. When Florence gives small subscription recitals for her club, St Clair has to keep unsympathetic newspaper critics at bay. He has to hand-pick every invitee. Nothing can be allowed to intrude on her serene self-confidence. Toscanini stops by–he wants to feature a young coloratura in a recital, but needs another thousand bucks, which Florence happily forks over. After all, she’s supporting the musical arts–nothing makes her happier. Cosme’s in on the hustle–he is being overpaid for his services and knows it, and if that means offering no criticism of Florence’s ambitions, so be it.

So that is a story the movie tells. But there’s more than that going on. St Clair is well-compensated, sure. But he also does genuinely love Florence. He protects her from bad reviews, because he has to–the con depends on her being happy. But he also wants to protect her out of affection, out of love and loyalty. Cosme doesn’t want to perform in public as her accompanist; he has a musical reputation to preserve. But when she comes over to his tiny, crummy apartment, scolds him for its untidiness, and sets about doing his dishes, and he’s touched by it. He likes her. He even admires her, for her persistence. And they play a Chopin prelude together. And it’s lovely.

So that’s another story; a story of love and friendship and mutual respect. And yes, Florence thinks she’s a marvelous singer, and she’s atrocious, and it’s really funny when she sings. The film is a comedy, and a richly humorous one. But she’s also worthy of our respect.

There’s one character, I think, who personally embodies the journey we go on with Florence. One of her Verdi Society acolytes is a wealthy older man named Phineas Stark. As has been known to happen with old rich bald guys, he has remarried, to Agnes (Nina Arianda), a cutie-patootie forty years his junior. Bad blonde dye job, gum-chewing, Brooklyn accent. (Arianda is spectacularly funny in the role). Anyway, her husband drags her to one of her subscription recitals. She’s reluctant, but goes, expecting to be bored. And when Florence begins singing, Agnes perks right up. She loves it. It’s the funniest thing ever! Overcome with laughter, she has to be physically hauled out of the recital hall.

Spoiler paragraph:  Florence’s life ambition is to sing at Carnegie Hall. She has enough money to make that happen, and does. And when a recording she’s made begins playing on local radio stations, her Carnegie appearance gets some buzz. She’s becoming famous, as the worst singer anyone’s ever heard. She decides, patriotically, to give a thousand tickets to the concert to Our Boys in Uniform; a thousand tough marines descend on Carnegie Hall, primed to laugh. And when they do laugh, it’s Agnes, converted by Florence’s courage and grit, who shouts them down, gets them applauding, and gives Florence, already faltering because of the laughter, to continue.

Is it admirable to pursue one’s dreams no matter how unrealistic they are? Is there power in perseverance, even when it’s preposterous? Is it better to have sung really badly, than to never sing at all? Florence Foster Jenkins, the movie, insists that the answer must be yes.

It’s a wonderful movie. Prediction time: Meryl Streep will receive her twentieth (20th!) Oscar nomination for this movie, and will win again for it. Hugh Grant will win his first, for Best Supporting Actor. (Although actually, St Clair is the movie’s protagonist, now that I think about it). And when you go see it–and you must–you will laugh a lot too, and be moved by the end. It’s a lovely movie.

Jason Bourne: movie review

It’s been nine years since The Bourne Ultimatum, nine years for Matt Damon to grow older and for the issues the original Bourne trilogy dealt with to die down a bit. In the meantime, Jeremy Renner played a Bourne-like Treadstone-project character in The Bourne Legacy, and is expected to return for another. So one might argue that the Jason Bourne character is played out. And Jason Bourne didn’t get great reviews–57% on, not great, not awful. It’s a simpler, more straightforward movie than the previous ones. I liked it. I liked its simplicity; I liked the stripped-down simplicity. It felt iconic, like an exercise in Ur-Bourne essentialism. It takes the Bourne template and just follows that, with nothing extraneous or unneeded. And the focus now is on a few simple moral choices. Here’s Jason Bourne. He knows who he is and what he can do, and he also can now remember what he’s done in the past. What does he do about it?

As the movie begins, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is a deeply troubled, haunted man, making a living as a bare-knuckle prize-fighter in the outer reaches of civilization. His old friend, Nicky Parsons (once his CIA handler), is on the run, in Iceland, hacking into government files and releasing them into the web, working with a Julian Assange-type character named Dassault (Vinzenz Kiefer). Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), CEO of a social media company (based on Mark Zuckerberg, maybe?) meets with Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), head of the CIA, who wants him to allow government access to everyone’s social media accounts, as part of the war on terror. Which Kalloor refuses. Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), meanwhile, is a high official at the CIA, and is trying to stop a hack by Nicky. And Asset (Vincent Kassel), a Treadstone assassin, is waiting for the call to kill Jason Bourne.

Spoiler alert: Nicky’s hack leads her to a file from the early days of Treadstone, in which she learns that Bourne’s father was the guy who came up with Treadstone in the first place. Treadstone, you’ll recall, is an US government program in which a few elite assassins are genetically modified, become stronger/faster/quicker/tougher. Only Bourne’s Dad had second thoughts, and met with Jason to express those qualms. But before he could talk, he was killed, by Asset, on Dewey’s orders. Nicky meets with Jason in Athens, where they meet in the middle of an anti-government riot. As Asset tries to kill them, Jason and Nicky try to escape in the first of the movie’s two spectacular chase scenes. Asset manages to kill Nicky, but she gets the file to Bourne first.

Bourne, you’ll recall, suffered from amnesia in the previous movies. He has recovered–he now remembers everything, including multiple assassinations he carried out under government orders. He’s haunted by those memories. He’s a deeply troubled man. Nicky’s files send him in a direction; he wants to know what really happened, why his father died and who killed him, who knew what and when. He doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do about any of it.

And that’s why I found this film so compelling. The other characters all have quite specific ideas for what they thing Jason Bourne should do. Nicky wants him to join her crusade; to expose Treadstone, to go all Julian Assange/Dassault. He doesn’t want to; he doesn’t trust Dassault. Director Dewey has an agenda too; Jason Bourne is a loose end, and so he wants him killed. That’s also Asset’s agenda. Heather, though, doesn’t want that; she thinks Jason Bourne is still ‘a patriot’ and can be rehabilitated as a government assassin. And Kallour has an agenda too; to save his company, even it means destroying it. Oh, and Dewey wants Kallour dead too. He wants all social media to be accessible to the government, to aid in the war on terror. And he’s made a deal with Kallour’s second-in-command. And he figures he’ll kill Heather too. She’s just too much of a loose cannon.

So there are all these characters with very strong objectives, working at cross-purposes. Jason Bourne, meanwhile, acting on instinct, is trying to save human life, basically. He wants to stop Asset, because Asset is a killer. He wants to save Heather, who he doesn’t trust at all, because her life is in danger. And he wants to meet with Dewey, talk to him, get the answers to his questions. But he might have to kill Dewey, to survive.

What’s fascinating about this is the contrast between Asset and Jason Bourne. Asset just kills anyone who gets in his way. Cops, security guards, innocent bystanders? If they’re in his way, he’s going to shoot them. And I realized; he’s the ultimate product of Treadstone. He’s a Jason Bourne. Asset’s who Heather wants him, Bourne, to become. Absolutely cold-blooded. Meanwhile, Jason Bourne has inconvenient people in his way too, but he can’t bring himself to kill them. (He does knock them out, but this is movie-land, where concussions don’t come with serious health consequences).

I loved the straightforward simplicity of it. All these agendas, and Bourne in the middle of them all, trying to clear his head.

Your enjoyment of the movie will probably depend on how well you do with hand-held camera work. My wife can’t stand shaky-cam, and didn’t like this movie as much as I did. I don’t mind shaky-cam, and thought the film’s two chase scenes quite spectacular. Shaky-cam is a distinguishing characteristic of Paul Greengrass’ directing style. It’s a style I enjoy. You may not.

Still, this is an excellent movie, a much better movie than what we might expect from action movies. A lot of it is the acting. Matt Damon has never been better. Veteran French tough guy Cassel is a wonderful foil as Asset. Tommy Lee Jones’ wonderful face has never been cragier, Riz Ahmed (so terrific in HBO’s The Night Of), is self-assured but vulnerable as the CEO, and Julia Stiles is outstanding, in much too short a role. And Alicia Vikander is a completely untrustworthy snake. We always know she has some kind of agenda going on, but we’re never quite sure how to read her, until the movie’s very last moments. Good movie, exciting and smart. So glad Bourne’s back.


Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party. Movie review

I just watched Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America film, so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

It’s a documentary, of the agit-prop variety, a ferocious assault on the Democratic party, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, and any semblance of civil political discourse. Essentially, it’s an assortment of anti-Hillary conspiracy theories, tied together by one overarching über false narrative of breathtakingly ludicrous audacity; that the Democratic party is not now and never has been a legitimate political organization, but is now and always has been a vast, all encompassing criminal conspiracy.

You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. It’s that bad.

The film’s master narrative goes like this. Dinesh D’Souza goes to prison, ostensibly for violating campaign finance laws, actually because the Obama administration is out to get him.

Which I love, by the way. The totalitarian, tyrannical, anti-Democratic Obama administration is out to get him! So what do they do? Sentence him to . . .  8 months in prison, plus he had to do some community service. Obama’s got to be the wimpiest tyrant in history. (Dinesh, some advice: if you don’t like prison, don’t commit crimes).

So: prison. A scary place, filled with scary people (though as we see him wending his way through general population, with all these plug-uglies glaring menacingly, you think ‘he’s going to be okay; the cameraman shooting all this is his employee, and should be able to protect him.’ Anyway, while in prison, he learns about how con men work. He finishes his sentence, and goes to Democratic headquarters somewhere. He scouts around, goes places he shouldn’t, opens ‘no admittance doors,’ (kept conveniently unlocked), where they keep all the hidden portraits of Andrew Jackson and copies of Birth of a Nation, and ‘learns’ the whole sordid history of the Democrats–all of which I knew when I was ten–which he then recites in the most obvious and insultingly simple-minded way. To wit:

Andrew Jackson was the founder of the Democratic party. And he was the author of the Trail of Tears, a slave owner, and a strong supporter of slavery. All true, and not remotely secret–I don’t know a single Democrat who doesn’t know all about Andy Jackson. Also, of course, irrelevant to the Democratic party today.

The Republican party was anti-slavery, and Republicans voted for the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, all opposed by Democrats. And Lincoln was a really good President, and (prepared to be shocked by this revelation), a Republican. The Ku Klux Klan was founded by Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was a southern general and a Democratic congressman. All absolutely true. No question; I’d have totally been a Republican back then.

Woodrow Wilson was a Democrat, a racist, and a big fan of the pro-Klan film, Birth of a Nation. Again, nothing new there. I’ve even showed Birth of a Nation in classes I taught. It’s a historically significant film, but D. W. Griffith was a Kentucky boy, and boy is it racist. Hard film to teach anymore; it’s just so comically racist.

The New Deal had racist provisions regarding some of the benefits it offered. Absolutely true. Southern Democrats generally opposed civil rights; the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was passed by a majority of Republicans.

All this stuff is presented as a secret history, as the kind of thing Democrats are ashamed of and try to cover up. And maybe that happens; I don’t know. Some Democrats may not know much history, like some Republicans don’t. But it’s irrelevant. There’s since been a major party realignment. There was a time when Democrats went out of their way to prevent black voters from voting. That ended. Now, it’s Republicans who pass bills restricting African-American voting. ‘Republican’ doesn’t mean the same thing that it meant 50 years ago, and neither does ‘Democrat’.

In 1960, there were essentially four major political groupings. There were conservative Republicans (like Barry Goldwater), and liberal Republicans (like Nelson Rockefeller). There were conservative Dixiecrat Democrats (like Richard Russell), and there were liberal Democrats, like Hubert Humphrey. I remember when I first was hired at BYU, talking to one of my new faculty friends, who surprised me when he said he was a Republican. Not that that mattered, but he seemed really liberal. Then he said he leaned Republican because of civil rights. Made perfect sense. As we continued to talk, it turned out we didn’t disagree politically at all. About anything. He didn’t even like Reagan, much.

To me, as a Democrat, reading about Andrew Jackson or Woodrow Wilson is somewhat akin to doing my genealogy, and discovering I have a pirate ancestor. It’s disreputable and more than a little embarrassing, but it doesn’t matter–it doesn’t reflect on me at all. The political issues of the 1830s or 1870s or 1920s or 1960s are not the political issues of today. I’m a Democrat because I generally prefer Democratic policies today. I don’t give a crap about what John C. Calhoun thought politically, except as a matter of historical interest.

There’s a biggish chunk of D’Souza’s film where he talks about the journalist Ida B. Wells, who he clearly admires. As well he should–she was a remarkable woman, and a courageous one. I admire her too. The fact that she was a Republican doesn’t matter; in her day, it would have been remarkable if she weren’t. The Republicans were the party of civil rights back then. So would I have been, back then. So why put Ida Wells in the movie?

Okay. The last quarter of the film switches gears, from a ridiculous ahistorical assault on the Democratic party to an even more ridiculous attack on Hillary Clinton. It’s all there; Whitewater, Benghazi, the White House travel office thing, and, of course, the email scandal. Also, the Clinton Foundation. D’Souza insists that the Clinton Global Initiative is a massive money-laundering scheme, with very few of the funds raised used to do anything good at all. He particularly attacks the Clinton’s for their involvement with Haiti, and shows anti-Clinton protesters outside the CGI headquarters in the New York.

It’s all nonsense, of course. Hillary Clinton has been lied about more than any other public figure in US history; D’Souza just repackages those lies. Case in point: Bill and Hillary didn’t skim off donations intended for Haiti: the CGI raised and spent 4 billion dollars for Haitian relief. They provided housing for 300,000 people, built hundreds of schools, built and staffed medical clinics all across the country. They’ve been extensively audited, and can prove exactly what was done with donations intended for Haiti. It’s an impressive list. Money laundering? Get real.

For a lot of people I know, the thing that makes them most uncomfortable with Hillary is the way she’s attacked the various women Bill is alleged to have had affairs with. D’Souza spends a lot of time on that issue. The most serious charge is that of Juanita Broaddrick, who accused Bill Clinton of having raped her. There are good reasons to believe her accusation, and equally good reasons to not believe her. I wasn’t there; I don’t have any idea. Bill Clinton did have multiple affairs, but they were always consensual. I don’t think there’s much doubt that Hillary chose not to believe rumors of his infidelity, and yes, she did trash the women making those accusations. I’m not willing to judge her too harshly for it. An adulterous spouse would tend to bring out the worst in any of us.

So maybe those attacks are a little bit relevant. None of the others have any credibility, at all. So she met Saul Alinsky. Big deal. So she once said nice things about Margaret Sanger (a fascinating historical figure, who did much more good than evil, though she did have her blind spots). Big deal. So Hillary got lucky with an investment one time. Good for her, and big deal. And yes, people pay absurd amounts of money to hear people give speeches. She’s made a lot less than Mike Eruzione does.

Anyway, the real question this film raises for me is this: what did Hillary Clinton ever do to Dinesh D’Souza?  What would cause a man to expend this impressive amount of pure vitriol and bile and hatred towards someone? I don’t get it. Why does Hillary have to be some combination of Lady Macbeth, Lucrezia Borgia and Livia Drusilla Caesar? Why does she have to be this monster? Can’t you just say ‘I disagree with her on matters of policy. Here are some specifics.’ Make a sensible argument, for heaven’s sake. This vilifying of a fellow patriot is unseemly, unnecessary, and, frankly, nonsensical. Dinesh, you were wrong about Obama, and you’re wrong about Hillary. Get over it.

I do regret one thing. I saw an early matinee, with about twenty other people. When the film ended, they all applauded. I booed. Very loudly–I’m a big guy with a big voice, and I really shouted out my ‘boo.’ I projected, you know? And they stopped applauding, and glared at me balefully as they left the theater (I was sitting in the front row). So I’m sorry, folks, if I ruined your movie. And shame on you for liking it.

Star Trek Beyond: Movie Review

Star Trek Beyond has a lot going for it, not least of which is the absence of J. J. Abrams as its director. No disrespect intended, but Star Trek Into Darkness, which Abrams directed, never really succeeded as a Star Trek movie at all.  Too noisy, too busy, too frenetic; it never settled down and let the Star Trek mythos breathe. Abrams is famous as a Spielberg protege, and Super 8 was a lovely Spielberg homage. But Abrams has since been handed the keys to not one, but two beloved franchises, both with the word ‘Star’ in the title, and so far has made a frightful hash of them both. It was dismaying to see that Justin Lin, the Taiwan-born director of the last few Fast and the Furious movies, was helming this new Star Trek, but pleasantly surprised to see the actual movie.

Lin gets it. He didn’t just make another paint-by-numbers action movie. He understands that Star Trek is built on an ensemble cast, that it’s built on fully drawn and interesting characters and the relationships between them. And he understands that the Star Trek universe is, in a real sense, joyful. It’s about Space as an actual, next frontier. It’s about exploring that space. It’s about the personal and family cost of that exploration. This is a much more human film than the previous two. And Lin knows how to direct an action sequence.

Best of all, this film has Idris Elba, playing an alien villain named Krall, who (SPOILER) turns out to be neither really alien nor all that villainous. And the film begins asking the kinds of pesky questions that Star Trek films should be asking, like what happens when exploration becomes routine and boring?

Obviously the Chris Pine/Zachary Quinto/Karl Urban/Simon Pegg cast of Enterprise shipmates doesn’t enjoy the relaxed camaraderie of classic Shatner/Nimoy/Doohan/Kelley.  But Quinto is a terrific Spock, bringing a genuine wit to the role. Chris Pine is a perfectly adequate Captain Kirk, and Urban has really grown into a fine Bones. And I loved some of the smaller touches. I loved seeing John Cho as Sulu, with his husband and their little daughter. That nod to marriage equality took up exactly as much space as it needed to, which is to say, very little, but it made for a lovely moment. And Zoe Saldana is a firecracker as Uhura.

It wouldn’t be Star Trek without the obligatory hot alien babe, in this case a martial arts wielding stripy alien named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who the movie introduces, who does some stunning stunt work, rescues the crew, and then spends the last third of the movie on its periphery, wondering she should do next.

I did mourn when the Enterprise is destroyed. That’s not a spoiler–it happens early on, and can be seen in the trailers–but come on. The Star Ship Enterprise is as much a character as of the crew, and she keeps getting wrecked in this reboot. The movies have not treated the ship kindly. And the ship is the point–one of the things we all loved about the series is the Enterprise. We love the holodecks and the Jeffries tubes and the voice of the computer, we loved the replicators and Bones’ sick bay, and engineering, and the various intricacies of transporting. Most of this film takes place on another ship entirely, an old one, wrecked on Jaylah’s planet and in need of repair, but, due to Scotty’s savvy, still spaceworthy. That was also a fun conceit, but still. We want the Enterprise to fly, and we want to live in her with the rest of the crew.

And the ending is laugh-out-loud funny.

This requires another SPOILER, but here you go. Krall’s an alien–or at least, he’s an evolved human–and he enjoys vastly superior technology. Kirk and the crew have to chase him down, and they no longer have the Enterprise to do it in; just this clunky old ship Scotty’s holding together with chewing gum and baling wire. Even if they catch Krall and his forces (who are heading towards what appears to be the space age equivalent of the Mall of America), how are they going to stop him?

But, see, Krall’s got all these little fighter jets, and their flight paths are coordinated via some kind of data stream. Which they disrupt, using ancient (our day) earth techonology. VHS, actually. If they broadcast sufficiently annoying music . . . And what could be better than the Beastie Boys, singing Sabotage.

I laughed out loud, right there in the theater. They rip off the original Independence Day! Except, instead of a virus on a Mac, they disrupt vastly superior alien technology with, of all bands, the Beastie Boys. Perfect.

This Star Trek movie isn’t perfect. It’s sort of clunky, and it spends a lot of time with various configurations of the bridge crew wandering around an alien landscape looking for each other. Also, it’s very coy about something that Captain Kirk should take much more seriously–casualties. Hundreds of crew die when the ship’s destroyed, and yet the movie takes those deaths much much too lightly. It’s a flawed Star Trek movie. It was still one of the more entertaining summer movies, and a movie that makes this particular series reboot worth watching. We enjoyed it a lot more than I was afraid I would.


The Legend of Tarzan: Movie Review

Let’s face it: the Tarzan tales, as created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, are fundamentally colonialist, ethnocentric, and racialist. They’re about a white man, an English aristocrat, who, though raised by apes, becomes an African leader, then eventually, a member of the House of Lords. Blue blood rules; blue blood, in fact, could be said to be divinely appointed to rule. Primitive African tribes survive thanks to his protection; animals, no matter what their genus or species, obey his commands. All of which make a modern movie treatment of Tarzan, uh, problematic.

The new Tarzan movie, The Legend of Tarzan, seems at least to have recognized that this is a problem, though its solutions are at best half-baked and at worst appalling. It tries three solutions. First, in structure and tone, this movie follows the template and structure of superhero movies. Second, Jane (Margot Robbie), Tarzan’s wife, isn’t so much an imperialist white woman, condescending in her treatment of natives. She’s an African–she was raised in an African village; the Africans she knows are dear friends, equals in every sense. And third, the movie puts Tarzan in a specific historical context. Every superhero needs a super villain, and we get a good one here, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), agent to loathsome Belgian King Leopold II.

In fact, the movie is set in the Belgian Congo, the private domain of Leopold, an area rich in minerals, including diamonds. It’s important to note that the Congo wasn’t colonized by Belgium, the nation. It was owned by Leopold, a private investment by a monarch. Anyway, in the movie’s version of events, in 1866, Leopold’s plans for the Congo have faltered, because he’s broke. So his henchman, Rom, works out an elaborate plan. Rom meets a Congolese chief, Mbonga (Djimoun Hounsou) who, he has learned, hates Tarzan. So Rom promises to capture Tarzan, and trade him for diamonds, which Mbonga’s tribe has in profusion. This will pay the salaries of the mercenary soldiers that Leopold has hired to serve as the Force Publique, his own private army. Thus allowing Leopold to control and exploit and enslave the native population.

But an American journalist, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) is suspicious of Leopold, and wants John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke (otherwise known as Tarzan, played here by Alexander Skarsgård) to bring him with him to Africa. And Jane, Tarzan’s wife, really wants them to go. She was raised in Africa, where her father taught English–her closest friends are African. She considers herself African. And, in the brief glimpses of Tarzan’s origin story the movie provides, we learn that she met Tarzan when she found him half-dead, nursed him back to health, and taught him English.

So Tarzan, Jane, and Williams return to her village, where Rom and his soldiers lie in wait. They nearly kidnap Tarzan, but do kidnap Jane. This works just as well for Rom’s purposes. His plan is to deliver Tarzan to Mbonga, and he knows that Tarzan will do anything to rescue his wife. So Rom and Jane (and many soldiers), sail down a river towards Mbonga’s camp, and Tarzan follows, making good time by swinging from tree vine to tree vine, and getting reacquainted with his ape family. And Williams follows along, with Jackson’s grumpy weariness providing comic relief.

Along the way, Williams learns all about Leopold’s plans. He’s built a series of forts in the Congo, and rail lines for transport, and he has recruited this fearsome private army of brutal mercenary thugs. Williams is able to document everything.

Mbongo and Tarzan finally do confront each other, in what I frankly thought was the best scene in the movie. Mbongo hates Tarzan, because he killed his teenaged son; Tarzan killed the kid, because the kid killed Tarzan’s beloved ape mother. The two men, as they fight, realize how similar they are, and how destructive and unworthy their enmity. And reconcile. The scene works because Hounsou is so terrific, and it plays to Skarsgård’s rather limited strengths as an actor. The movie could have ended then, and been quite satisfying, I think, if you could have included some way to rescue Jane.

But it’s a summer blockbuster. It’s a big budget superhero movie. It has to end in a big noisy fight. And so, we move on, to a big final set piece. Rom has to deliver a trunk full of diamonds to the mercenary captain, and Tarzan has to rescue Jane. And while we’re at it, the riverside town where the mercenaries are all going to land has to be destroyed. And so, Tarzan summons armies of lions, wildebeest, alligators and hippos which attack and destroy this Force Publique stronghold. Summoning animals to fight for him is Tarzan’s main superpower, you see. It’s a ridiculous scene, of course, though not badly staged or filmed or edited, and it culminates satisfactorily, with Jane getting rescued, Tarzan reunited with her, and Rom being eaten by alligators.

And finally, Williams issues his report of Leopold’s intended atrocities to the British authorities. I think we’re meant to see that report as putting an end to the worst of the King’s atrocities, though the British lords who receive the report seem, in the movie, to greet it with decided equivocation. Still, like any superhero movie, the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and moral justice prevails.

Except, of course, nothing like that occurred. First of all, Leon Rom wasn’t eaten by alligators in 1886; he decorated his house by Stanley Falls with the skulls of murdered Congolese, and died a wealthy man in Brussels in 1924. Williams did deliver a report of Force Publique atrocities, but it was widely ignored. And the nefarious plans for the brutal subjugation of the Congo that Williams discovers? The forts, the rail lines, the savagery of Leopold’s private army? All of that happened. Leopold grew fantastically wealthy (though mostly through rubber, not diamonds), while treating the native peoples in the region with unprecedented viciousness. Best estimate; 10 million murdered. Ten million people. That’s just an estimate; it might have been fifteen million.

(Things haven’t improved. The Congo has been, since 1998, the site of the bloodiest of civil wars, with millions dead. All unpleasant vestiges of colonialist exploitation and enslavement).

Tarzan, of course, is a fictional character, and this movie tells a fictional story. That’s fine, I don’t actually think Iron Man exists either. But this Tarzan ties itself into historical events, and employs historical characters; Leon Rom, George Washington Williams, King Leopold II. And it shows Tarzan defeating Rom, and Williams defeating Leopold. And those things never occurred. Which means I left the theater with a distinctly queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Tarzan is a problematic character nowadays. Making a straightforwardly Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan movie in 2016 would seem a bit like remaking one of those ’40s comedies in which husbands spanking their wives was treated as jolly fun. Uh, no, not anymore. But this movie strains at a colonialist gnat and swallows a genocide camel. It struck me as bizarrely ill conceived. It’s a movie that relies on its audience knowing absolutely nothing about African history. I found it insulting and infuriatingly obtuse. You can’t just do that, just sweep the wanton and brutal murder of fifteen million people under the carpet, because they get in the way of your big CGI movie climax.

It’s a shame, too, because it’s an attractive enough movie, and there are scenes that work well. Hounsou is terrific in too-small a role, and I can’t say enough about Margot Robbie’s sensational Jane. Robbie is the most open-hearted of actresses, absolute in her commitment to the role, and courageous in her acting choices. Sam Jackson does wonderful Sam Jackson things, and all the Tarzan stuff was well executed; the yell, the flying in trees, a scene where he rolls around felinely with lions. Through some combination of gym time, anabolic steroids and CGI, Skarsgård looks terrific, though his performance never quite grabbed me. And, as usual, Christoph Waltz was a sensational villain.

And I can understand the impulse to turn Tarzan into a superhero. But they placed him in a specific historical context, which they then got horribly, unforgivably wrong. As we left the theater, my wife and daughter gave it a B-minus. As a, you know, movie, I’d agree. But I’m not inclined to forgive it. F.


The Purge: Election Year

I’ll say this about the Purge movies; they’re getting better. In James DeMonaco’s futurist dystopia trilogy, positing a future United States of America in which the economy booms due to a nasty annual bloodletting, the storytelling and basic filmmaking chops have clearly improved, film by film. And this third film, Election Year, is the first film to really explore seriously the ramifications of the films’ premise. In broad outline, the idea behind the Purge movies have become increasingly plausible. In detail, of course, they’re silly action movies. So how well do they speak to our day?

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir had a lot of fun with this kind of analysis, writing that there are two versions of an election year available:

One of them is a ludicrous and idiotic narrative about race and class in America, full of unbelievable characters and implausible plot twists, anchored in the naïve belief that popular revolt through the ballot box can bring down a corrupt oligarchy. The other one is a movie.

Yes, very funny. I would put it this way: for the Purge movies to really work, we’d have to find the premise sufficiently plausible that it sends a little chill down our collective spines. Parallels to our reality would have to really resonate, so much that we’d nod a bit in recognition. So, here’s the basic Purge idea. What do you think?

At some point in the future, at a moment of national crisis, a conservative party called the New Founding Fathers of America (the NFFA), establishes a new holiday, the Purge. For twelve hours, during the Purge, everything goes, with no legal penalties for any act by anyone. Including murder. From 7-7 some night, roving gangs, wearing garish costumes and masks, just randomly go around killing people. During the Purge, no emergency services are available; no cops, no EMTs, no ambulances.

As a result of the Purge, the US economy has boomed. Unemployment is essentially non-existent; inflation unheard of, profits are high. This is, the movie suggests, because the government doesn’t have to spend much on welfare, or health care, or food stamps. There just aren’t any excess people. Welfare recipients are, uh, culled annually, like English football relegation, only lethal. Rich people, of course, can afford really tight security systems, and are tend not to be victims of the Purge. Poor people are on their own.

This whole thing has a racial component, especially in the third movie. We see various NFFA leadership meetings, concluding with a religious rite scene, set in a cathedral, in which a succession of poor victims are ritually sacrificed by NFFA leadership. The NFFA consists entirely of older white people. Meanwhile, a multi-ethnic coalition opposes the NFFA. Led by a Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a blonde white woman, who is running for President (and might win, if she can just take Florida). Hillary Clinton? Kinda sorta maybe?

There’s another group out there, an underground revolutionary group, that sets up an emergency ward for the wounded, and is led by a charismatic gangster, Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge). Only Bishop’s done with conventional politics and do-gooding. He’s got a plan, to assassinate the entire NFFA leadership. And Senator Roan wishes he wouldn’t. She thinks she can win the election fair and square.

Of course, that’s all just background. The actual plot of the movie has to do with Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), head of Roan’s security team, and his efforts to protect her from an assassination attempt by, essentially, the entire US government. They’re joined by a convenience store owner, Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), who is determined to protect his store from a nasty girl gang of murderous teens wearing prom dresses and Catholic school uniforms, armed with AR-15s. Joe, and his one employee, Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), an immigrant from Mexico (with, apparently, mad sniper skills), save Leo and Charlie when they’re set upon by a group of German tourists, Purging having apparently become Euro-chic. Joe and Marcos also have a friend, Laney (Betty Gabriel), who spends the Purge riding around in an armored van rescuing people in need. So Laney, Joe and Marcos join Leo and the Senator, and try to fend off mercenaries hired by American rich people conservatives. That’s the plot. It’s still basically an action movie.

So how plausible is it? Not very. I mean, come on. American conservatives, in my experience, tend to believe in a bootstraps narrative, in which America is defined as the place where anyone with sufficient gumption can be successful. Republicans want to lift poor people, not, you know, murder them.

But let’s suppose that high welfare rolls really were what was holding our economy back. Let’s suppose that high social spending on a parasite class really was a major drag on the economy. (Not true, actually, but for the sake of argument, let’s grant the premise). Could we really solve that problem by just shooting the bottom five percent every year? Or, you know, essentially deputizing all our sociopaths?

Probably not, no. And yet, here’s the paradox of this movie; it starts with this appalling premise. And the movie tells us, repeatedly, that the idea of the Purge is desperately immoral. And heroic Senator Roan campaigns on the idea that the Purge is violent and sick and needs to go away. And all the more sympathetic characters in the movie are all in agreement about how awful the Purge is.

And yet, the movie is also built on the idea that the Purge does, in fact, work. We see a debate between Senator Roan and her NFFA opponent, and when he asks her what she proposes (“more welfare spending?” he sneers), she doesn’t have an answer. In fact, the movie advances an even-more-contemptible idea–that poor people are nothing but a drag on the economy. A net minus for any advanced nation.

In a way, the Purge movies, when they’re not distracting us with firefights, are sort like Swift’s A Modest Proposal. An insane idea, presented tongue-in-cheek, to force us to confront our own prejudices. Only the Purge movies don’t just toss this awful, murderous idea out there. They build a narrative around the idea that the awful, murderous idea is also economically sound.

So, at first, I thought this series, for all the bloodshed it depicts, did at least have its heart in the right place. Now I’m less sure. I can at least say this. In our own time of scary, scary politics, we do have a blonde woman to vote for. At least there’s that.




Independence Day: Resurgence. Movie Review

My wife and daughter and I went to see the new Independence Day movie on the Fourth of July, sitting in air conditioned comfort while rockets were red glaring and bombs bursting away outside. Twenty years separate this Independence Day sequel from the original Independence Day film, and I say this with some confidence: the original film was at least 50% dumber than this one. And correspondingly at least 50% more enjoyable.

In both films, the Evil Aliens attack Earth with such advanced technology that our pathetic earth weapons are useless, at least initially. In both films, we Earthlings have to figure out how to overcome the aliens’ superior firepower. The pleasure of these films is watching human (read American) ingenuity come up with a solution. But in the original ID, what we came up with is so sublimely, wonderfully idiotic, I still laugh thinking about it. In this new one, the solution, the breakthrough is just not very exciting or original or cool, plus it requires help from other aliens who turn out to be on our side. Frankly, it’s kind of a confusing mess. The old one is clearer. And it’s much much sillier, which is a good thing.

Specifically, in the old film, the unbeatable alien energy shield is circumvented by a computer virus, which Jeff Goldblum uploads from his Macintosh. He’s able to sneak past the force field in the first place, because of an alien space ship found in Area 51 back in the ’40s, which Will Smith is able to fly all the way up to the alien mother ship. Also, Smith and Goldblum bring a nuclear warhead with them on their trip, which they’re able to launch, and then fly away from, and ultimately, survive the detonation of.

I love everything about this plot. It’s really kind of the perfect B-movie storyline, for a fun popcorn movie. And some version of most of that appears in this movie, plus too much else. Plus, Independence Day had Will Smith, kicking alien ass with palpable glee. Plus Bill Pullman’s hilariously rousing patriotic speech. Plus Brent Spiner’s mad scientist. Plus Randy Quaid’s crop-duster pilot saving the day. And Adam Baldwin awkwardly offering tough guy solace to a kid who just lost his father, after which the kid is totally fine. Great stuff.

The plot in Independence Day: Resurgence just isn’t as much fun. It starts with an alien ship, which doesn’t seem like an Evil Alien ship, but which we shoot down anyway, on the moon, just ’cause. Authorized by the new President, Sela Ward. (But President of what? They never quite answer that, but it appears that there’s a new one-world government, dominated by Americans, obviously, but with cabinet officers from all over). Anyway, without orders, tough guy Jake (Liam Hemsworth), stationed on the Moon, commandeers a space tug and retrieves the enemy ship, taking it to Area 51, where Dr. Brakish Okun (Brent Spiner again, having way more fun than actors should be allowed), who has been in a coma ever since the last movie, now leaps up from bed, improbably spry, and figures out that this round ball alien thing is benignly intentioned towards us, and that we can use it to our advantage.

Meanwhile, this really big scary Evil Alien ship shows up, and takes out all our space defenses, just swats them into oblivion. So up goes the Earth airforce; complete mismatch. As in the previous movie, we’re initially crushed. In fact, the aliens have this new weapon, which essentially allows them to scoop up Hong Kong and drop it on London. And they send a ginormous laser thing out to the ocean, where it digs a hole that should reach the Earth’s core, destroying our planet. (A sub full of underwater treasure hunter/pirates are in place to monitor their progress, and send reports to Earth HQ. The drunken buccaneers were a fun touch, I admit it.)

Jeff Goldblum is in this movie, though Will Smith isn’t, his character having died in the twenty years between movies. His son, Dylan (Jessie T. Usher) is frenemies with Jake (Liam Hemsworth), and a fighter pilot of fearsome renown, and limited charisma. Goldblum’s Dr. Levinson is apparently in charge of Earth’s space defenses, though he’s dogged by an accountant, Floyd (Nicolas Wright) presumably from some future version of the GAO. In my favorite character transformation in the movie, this nebbishy bean counter eventually picks up a weapon and becomes a major alien combatant, guided by an African war lord he befriends. (I don’t mean it’s not silly, just not silly enough).

So anyway, the good guys, all of them, work up this plan. They’ll fly a captured alien fighter into the massive alien mother ship, and detonate a neutron bomb. It’s a suicide mission, and President Whitmore volunteers. Yes, Bill Pullman from the first movie. Over the wishes of his daughter (remember the cute little daughter from the first movie? Her. Different actress, of course; Maika Monroe this time), who is in love with Liam Hemsworth.

So this varsity team of great flyers, including Jake, Jake’s BFY Charlie (Travis Tope), Dylan, and Chinese flyer Rain (Angelababy), all agree to clear the path for the President’s suicide mission. And they all get shot down and trapped inside the alien mother ship, which has, like, hydroponic gardens and stuff they can hide in. So they’re able to steal alien fighters, and escape. (Missed opportunity, IMHO. What if, instead, they’d figured out how to attack the alien ship from inside it? Improvise something cool.)

Anyway, Bill Pullman shoots off his nuke, and dies, and the All-star fighting team manages to escape the alien ship, which crashes. But the main alien, an all-but-unbeatable ginormous queen alien, escapes. And the fighters all attack it. And Jeff Goldblum lures the queen out to the desert, fools it into thinking that’s where the good-guy alien sphere thing was, covers it with a force field and sets off another neutron bomb. And still doesn’t quite kill it. But the All-star pilots attack the queen, and finally, at (of course) the last second, succeed in killing her. Yay for us.

You see what I mean? The earlier movie was a simple three part process. 1) set off the computer virus, 2) set off the nuke to destroy the mother ship, and 3) send Randy Quaid on a suicide mission to destroy the big (but not biggest) alien ship. This one involves a suicide mission, which doesn’t entirely work, plus an escape, plus various ways for the fighters to survive, plus this desert fake-out thing, plus a final battle.

Plus, Judd Hirsch is back, playing Jeff Goldblum’s Dad again, and the movie spends an inordinate amount of time on a subplot in which he bravely rescues a school bus full of kids who were already pretty safe and in no need of rescue. Plus, there were romances galore, between Jeff Goldblum and Charlotte Gainsbourg (playing Francois Truffaut in Spielberg’s Close Encounters), between Jake and Bill Pullman’s daughter, plus between Jake’s friend Charlie and the Chinese pilot. Also, I think, between Brent Spiner and his caregiver.

It was a bit of a wade, honestly, striding through a swamp of a too-convoluted plot and too many personalities. I mean, William Fichtner, one of my favorite actors, was in it, playing a major character, and I didn’t even mention him in my plot summary.

Plus, this has to be said, some of the actors were–how to say this?–not good. Most conspicuously, Jessie T. Usher, playing Will Smith’s boring son. Sorry, but it’s true; the actor just never was able to make the character exciting. Will Smith held the earlier movie together. Liam Hemsworth comes closest to that role here, but gets lost in all that plot.

I suppose it’s a little more realistic. I mean, defeating a malevolent alien entity wouldn’t be easy, I suppose, and probably would require multiple approaches. But we don’t see an alien invasion movie to model various scenarios for probability. It’s an escape; it’s meant to be fun. And this sequel just isn’t all that fun. I didn’t not enjoy it. It was hot out, and everything was closed for the Fourth, and there wasn’t much on TV. It passed the time agreeably enough. But it’s not a bad enough movie to be great entertainment. And it’s the sequel to a movie that was.