Category Archives: Movies

Brooklyn: Movie Review

I know that it’s weird to review movies months after they opened. But that’s how people watch movies nowadays. Professional critics get their reviews out in time for the movie’s opening weekend. But I don’t care about Hollywood’s hit-or-bust mentality. I watch movies when I’m able to watch them, and I’m pretty sure you do the same. And Brooklyn is an interestingly flawed film; well worth discussing.

Let me begin by saying that I liked Brooklyn a great deal, and am confident you will too. It’s beautifully filmed and acted, a treat to watch. It’s a sweet-tempered romantic comedy, in many respects almost conflict-less, if that appeals. It was, as you probably know, nominated for Best Picture in 2015, and while I’m glad it didn’t win, I also don’t mind that it was nominated.

Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, a quiet, unprepossessing, but exceptionally bright young Irish woman. As the film begins, she is about to sail to America, to Brooklyn. Arrangements for her trip were made by her beloved older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), and a priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), who had earlier made the move to Brooklyn. When Eilis arrives, she has a room waiting for her, in a women’s boarding house, run by the tart-tongued-but-kindly Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters). She has a good job, in an upscale department store. Her boss there (Jessica Pare), is patient with her, and gentle. Father Flood has enrolled her in night school, at Brooklyn College, classes in accounting, which she aces. She has to cope with seasickness on the boat, and homesickness once she’s arrived, but honestly, she’s not badly off.

We root for Eilis, in part because of Ronan’s wonderfully expressive performance. But I found myself wondering what the film’s main conflict would be. First third of the film, there honestly isn’t much of one. It’s a film about a very nice girl, bright and kind, and we root for her life to go well. Mostly, it is.

She goes to a parish dance, and meets a young Italian guy, Tony (Emory Cohen). He’s got a lovely smile and a real sweetness of character–we see that immediately. And he’s clearly as immediately smitten with her as she is with him. So they begin dating, two really nice kids falling for each other. He invites her to dinner to meet his parents; her flatmates boil up some spaghetti, and she has an ‘eating pasta’ lesson.

Okay, so that’s the second third of the film, about the courtship of this agreeable young couple. And again, it’s lovely. They’re nice kids, and they’re nuts about each other, and everything goes beautifully. The ‘conflicts,’ such as they are, deal with such matters as her getting a new (for her, daring) American swimsuit for a trip to the beach at Coney Island. Cohen, who I hadn’t seen before, is really delightfully charming as Tony. Oh, his bratty younger brother says something about how Italians don’t like the Irish, but his parents shut that down pretty quickly. Besides, Tony’s a Dodgers’ fan. The 1951 Dodgers. The Jackie Robinson Dodgers. That’s his favorite team. Of course he doesn’t take ethnic divisions at all seriously.

Okay, two thirds of the way into the film, Eilis gets word that her sister Rose has died. She decides she needs to go back to Ireland, to make what arrangements she can for her mother, Jane Brennan. Before she leaves, though, she and Tony decide to marry, and to consummate their marriage (though not quite in that order).

At this point, I’m afraid I need to spoil the plot a bit, in order to make the point I want to make. So skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens. Eilis arrives home, only to learn that her mother has made a number of arrangements for her. Rose had a job as a bookkeeper; the company she worked for hasn’t been able to find an adequate replacement, and are counting on Eilis to step in. And Eilis’ best friend, Nancy, has become engaged, so obviously Eilis needs to stay longer than she’d planned to, so she can attend the wedding. And when Nancy and her fiancee invite Eilis to join them, they’ve brought a fella for her, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). And Jim’s very nice, and, it turns out, fairly well off. And they see each other socially, the two couples do, and it becomes increasingly obvious that Jim is very taken with her. And she’s not entirely indifferent to him. With Eilis’ Mom quietly pushing all of it along–the job, the guy, the Irish life. And Eilis has to face a decision.

And I honestly found myself wondering if she would in fact stay in Ireland. Ignore her marriage, forget Tony, quit her Brooklyn job and schooling, and stay in Ireland. And, of course, we’re all rooting like crazy for her to not do any of that. We like Tony a lot. We don’t dislike Jim. But she’s married. And Tony’s a sweetheart. And. . . .

When I used to teach dramatic structure, I used to talk a lot about something called the volitional protagonist. We want the story’s main character to make the most important decisions regarding what he/she is going to do. In Brooklyn (a lovely film, and one I enjoyed very much), I wanted Eilis to actually make a decision, take control of her life. Eilis is an agreeable character, and the actress playing her couldn’t possibly be more engaging. It made for a likable film, one that was pleasant to watch, but a film that ultimately was not all that compelling. That’s why. The protagonist couldn’t be less volitional.

And because she’s not been terribly volitional up to that point, the scenes in Ireland, with Eilis and her Mom and this charming Jim guy filled me with a kind of dread. I wanted her to go back to Tony. I wanted that for her, because everything in the first two thirds of the film made that life, with Tony, in Brooklyn, seem impossibly idyllic. I spent the last twenty minutes of the film muttering under my breath about her choices, or lack thereof.

I’m not going to tell you how it ends. I do recommend the film, and I hope you’ll check it out, and I’m pretty certainly you’ll like it too. It did make for an interesting exercise. Create a non-volitional protagonist, and then put her in a position where she seems almost certain to continue not deciding things, but just allow other folks to make them for her, thus mucking up the rest of her life. We’ll be rooting like crazy for her to finally take charge of her life.

The Jungle Book: Movie Review

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. In fact, I loved both Jungle Book story collections. When I was eleven, Disney’s animated Jungle Book movie came out, and I remember my reaction: ‘not as good as the books.’ Even as a child, I understood what ‘the Disney’ version of something meant: sugary sweet, and off-puttingly comedic. I remember being particularly turned off by Baloo, who went from Mowgli’s brave and wise teacher to a bumbling goofball. Still, I only had to sit through the movie once, and afterwards, I still had the books.

So when I saw the trailers for the new Disney Jungle Book, I was genuinely thrilled. Through the miracle of CGI, we had a jungle that looked like a jungle, a tiger that looked like a tiger, all surrounding a single human child actor. It looked fantastic. And I hoped, desperately hoped, that the story would return to the Kipling source. That this would be an unforgettable Jungle Book.

It’s not. It looks great. The voice actors were superbly cast, and the animal characters’ CGI popped. The action sequences, if too frequent, were at least genuinely exciting, and the jungle locations were superbly rendered. The child actor, Neel Sethi, was suitably intrepid as Mowgli, and the biggest threats to him, the tiger Shere Kahn and the snake, Kaa, were both terrifying creations. I especially appreciated how smoothly the movie handled the transitions between animal characters talking anthropomorphically and then, those same animals growling and howling and snarling.

It’s still disappointing. The images compel; the story does not. It’s just another Disney bowlderization of a classic tale. And it got worse the longer the movie went, finishing with an ending that was just a complete mess.

In fact, I found the film all the more disappointing precisely because it looks so great. For the first third of the movie, the images distract us from the weakness of the storytelling. And then Baloo shows up (wonderfully voiced by Bill Murray, to be fair), and sings “Bare Necessities” and I threw up my hands. It wasn’t going to be special after all. It really was just going to be a remake of a mediocre late-60s Disney exercise in cultural appropriation. It looks so terrific, I expected more. All I got was ‘Bare Necessities’ and King Louie (Christopher Walken voicing that annoying monkey like a half-Mafiosa/half-African warlord).

The turning point, I think, is Kaa. Scarlett Johansson gives every sibilant full value, creating a mock-sympathetic, utterly hypnotic python sociopath. Kaa’s only in one scene, but it’s terrifying and creepy and fun in equal measure. That scene, with Mowgli in Kaa’s clutches, was the high point of the movie. And then Baloo showed up and sings that dumb song, and the movie went straight to heck. Nothing after the Kaa scene really worked at all.

And it could have. With that cast, and that technological magic, and that director, and that story, this could have been lovely. I wanted it to be lovely. I cheered when it was lovely. And then the studio . . . stopped trusting the material. And it turned into just another movie. Basic Disney template.

I’m being too harsh, I think. My wife and I showed up way early, and saw at least ten trailers for other movies, all of them kids’ movies. And they all looked dopey and bad. There’s an Angry Birds movie for example that, based on the trailer, I would sooner face the electric chair than sit through. There’s a Robinson Caruso thing, told from the perspective of the animals on his island. Stunts and falls and fart jokes. Jungle Book, of course, also has anthropomorphic animals. But, as weak as I found it, it’s still way better than the movies with which it seems to be competing. That’s worth remembering.

But that doesn’t make The Jungle Book any less disappointing. It’s a movie that does some things so spectacularly well, it’s all the more discouraging that all that beauty, all that skill, is in the service of a story that’s so pedestrian. Especially since the original tale, the one Kipling wrote (probably for his dying six-year old daughter), is so magical and wise and good. What a shame.

Truth: Movie Review

This movie flew under my radar. I saw it on my Netflix DVD queue, thought I’d give it a whirl, despite the fact that it was basically a flop. And I understand why it flopped. It deals with a news story from 2004, one that I think the American public never understood all that well, and has basically stopped caring about. That issue is now called “The Killian documents scandal,” an inelegant sobriquet. And although the film deals with that scandal intelligently and with conviction, and explains everything pretty clearly, it also has a discernible point of view which it hopes we’ll agree with at the end. I did. So did my wife. Not sure how much it matters.

In the fall of 2004, Mary Mapes (beautifully played here by Cate Blanchett), a producer with CBS News, again picked up the thread of a news story she had been looking at in 2000. It had to do with the military service of George W. Bush with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war. Together with a retired Marine Lt. Colonel, Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), and two reporters, Mike Smith (Topher Grace) and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), Mapes tracked down those few documents regarding the President’s service that the Bush camp was able to produce.

Mapes was one of Dan Rather’s (Robert Redford’s) producers. In the news business, the producer writes the story, works with the on-air talent to conduct the interviews, and edits what airs. Mapes was convinced that Bush had essentially been AWOL for a substantial part of his military commitment, and that his superiors hadn’t pursued it, because Bush was the son of a Congressman. She also believed that highly placed Texas politicians had pulled strings to get Bush a cushy National Guard assignment. Most of the other National Guard recruits were, like Bush, sons of political power brokers; also in the Guard were several star players for the Dallas Cowboys football team. Some National Guard companies did serve with distinction in Vietnam. But the Texas Air National Guard never did serve overseas, and was unlikely ever to have done so. It was a cozy sinecure. And the film does a nice job of explaining all that.

While working on the story, Mapes came into the possession of photocopies of a number of memos written by Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian, since deceased. Killian was Bush’s commanding officer during his Guard service. They were given to her by an elderly retired military officer named Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach). Because they were photocopies, and because the language of the memos suggested a familiarity with the period and with military protocols from the early 70s, Mapes decided to use them. She did send them to four separate document authenticators, two of whom declared them authentic, and two of whom said they couldn’t without seeing the originals. The documents made up a small part of the overall story, and Mapes used them without hesitation.

After the story aired on Sixty Minutes, however, a number of bloggers with an expertise in the documents field questioned the documents’ authenticity. Many people suggested that the Killian documents were the clumsiest of forgeries, using proportional spacing, a feature not generally available on typewriters in 1972. The documents, they said, had probably been created on Microsoft Word. Eventually, the Killian documents, which were not really an important part of the original news story, dominated coverage of it. Eventually, Mapes was asked to resign, along with several other CBS News employees. Including, of course, Dan Rather.

This movie argues, with great clarity and passion, that the documents could have been genuine, and that the larger story, about the President’s military service, had been ignored. To the extent that anyone today cares about the Killian documents, I think it’s fair to say that the consensus opinion is that the documents were forgeries. Burkett admitted to having lied to Mapes about where he obtained them (a painful scene, with Keach splendidly elderly and humiliated).

What I suspect is that the only people who really care about this are hard-core conservatives, who see it as confirming the ‘liberal-media-out-to-get-conservatives’ narrative. I think that most folks have forgotten this was ever a thing. If we see Dan Rather on Rachel Maddow’s show, we may remember ‘wasn’t there a controversy involving him?’ And when we saw that there was a film about ‘the Dan Rather thing,’ we gave it a pass.

I liked it better than that. Not that everything in the movie works. There’s an awkward, earnest scene late in the film in which Topher Grace (who’s great in this) gives a speech outlining a conspiracy theory in which Viacom (in need of legislative support), pressured CBS to fire Mapes and Rather. That’s all possible, of course. Likewise, the chance that, upon seeing the 60 Minutes piece, that Karl Rove orchestrated a campaign to discredit the one part of the story that could most effectively be discredited, the documents. (Karl Rove! Surely not!).

In the TV miniseries, The People vs. OJ Simpson, which my daughter and I have been watching, there’s a scene where Sarah Paulson, playing Marcia Clark (the main OJ prosecutor) goes into a bar and is challenged by one patron, who says ‘the police framed OJ.’ Clark goes ‘okay, let’s talk about that,’ and then goes through all the evidence to show exactly the convolutions the cops would have had to go through to frame OJ, just how extraordinarily baroque that theory is. And the bar patrons just sit there, astonished and persuaded. There’s a similar scene in Truth, in which Mapes demonstrates just how far-fetched the idea of creating a forgery was.  I found it similarly convincing. But I cared a lot less.

And that’s weird. The one show is about a murder trial; the stakes high enough for the families of the victims, but the whole thing didn’t really affect us at all. And the situation in Truth involves the election of a President, a much more consequential thing. But I cared about the OJ scene a lot more than I cared about the analogous scene involving Bush’s military service. The one feels like political/historical esoterica. The other feels more personal. Same scene, different impact.

Bush is gone, out of office. We’re in a new political season, a much stranger one. Watch Truth, then watch the news. It’ll shock you how much things have changed. And how very little.

Loretta Lynn, and a feminist fix for Saturday’s Warrior

Last week, I reviewed the new movie based on the popular LDS musical, Saturday’s Warrior. It was a very personal review, one in which I genuinely tried to be honest and also balanced, judicious. And I blew it. My review missed the single most significant problem with Warrior, and one that the movie made no attempt to fix: patriarchal gaze. I’ll explain what I mean in a second. But first, let me talk about Loretta Lynn.

In the film, we’re meant to believe that the song Zero Population, sung by Jimmy Flinders and his pals, rose up the Billboard charts in 1974, reaching number one. As one friend put it, “Uh, Zero Population, one, Clapton’s Layla number two?” And in my review, I ridiculed the idea that a song about limiting family size could chart. I was wrong. I’d forgotten that there was, in the mid-seventies, a song about choosing to limit the number of children in a family. It was a big hit. It reached number one. It remains today one of the most important songs ever by a massively important artist.

It’s just that it was on the country charts, not pop charts, and it was by a woman, Loretta Lynn. It was her song, The Pill. Enjoy:

It’s a breezy little number, comically defiant in tone. And it’s by Loretta Lynn, the Coal Miner’s Daughter, the most decorated woman in the history of country music. Married at 15, a grandmother at 34, a champion of blue-collar women’s issues. Released in 1975, the song unleashed a firestorm. A lot of country stations wouldn’t even play it. But Lynn also received dozens of letters from rural doctors, thanking her for doing more to educate poor women about basic contraception than anything they’d ever done; their classes, pamphlets, visits. The song accomplished what they couldn’t.

What’s wonderful about The Pill is how triumphant it is. It reminds us how liberating having affordable, reliable, medically safe birth control has been for millions, heck, billions of women. It’s one of the greatest unsung advancements in human history. But of course, there’s also been cultural pushback against the idea of women taking charge of their own fertility, including, astoundingly, today. In the seventies, The Pill was a big deal, and it was very much an issue in the LDS Church. It isn’t at all difficult to find talks, from the pulpit, in General Conference, in which men told women they were to have as many children as they could possibly manage. I knew a woman who, back in the day, was denied a temple recommend because she told her bishop she’d gone on the pill. (I also knew an LDS couple who went on the pill, got pregnant, went to their doctor, and asked how this could happen, the husband hadn’t missed a day taking that pill. True story). That wouldn’t happen now, thank heavens. Those talks now read like the relics they are. And I’m delighted for it.

But back to Saturday’s Warrior. I’m a dude, I’m a guy, I’m an inadvertent avatar of Mormon patriarchy. And in my review of the movie, I missed what should have seemed obvious; all the talk about limiting the size of one’s family takes place in conversations between men. It’s Jimmy who’s the protagonist, who writes the Zero Population song and performs it, it’s Jimmy who rejects his father’s values, it’s Jimmy who has to recant and repent and reject his big popular successful song. And yet the issue at hand, the central issue of the entire play is a women’s issue. It’s not ‘is the position Jimmy takes on the abstract political issue of zero population growth viable.’ It’s ‘should women have the right to choose to limit how many children they will bring to term and bear.’

And raise. That’s in there too. Too often, it’s women, mothers, who feel like they’re in a boxing ring, pummeled daily by the pugilists ‘Too Much To Do’ and ‘Not Enough Time’ and ‘Not Enough Money’ and ‘Physical and Mental and Emotional Exhaustion.’ And of course men are in the equation. Men can and should be actively involved in child-rearing. In some families, that’s his primary role, leaving her to advance professionally. Certainly, if a married woman wants to take steps to prevent pregnancy, she should probably inform her husband, or even, if she wants to, consult with him, counsel with him, maybe. Up to her. There are surely as many ways for families to organize themselves effectively as there are families in the world (or Church, if we want to limit the conversation).

But it’s women, uniquely women, who grow another human being inside their bodies. It’s women, uniquely women, who give birth, who descend into the valley of death and struggle heroically out again with babies in their arms. I’m a guy. My understanding of what pregnancy and childbirth, those human experiences are like, my sympathetic feeling, remains one that’s essentially abstract.

It’s so weird to me, in retrospect, that Saturday’s Warrior, a play that’s fundamentally about pregnancy and birth and family is so cluelessly patriarchal. Or that it took me so long to notice.

In the spirit of Loretta Lynn and The Pill (and One’s on the Way, and Rated X; she talked about sexuality and childbirth in a lot of her songs), all that hardcore, grounded in life, hardscrabble, lived-experience, down and gritty feminism, let’s fix Warrior. And let me add; this is completely inappropriate, for any writer to offer to fix another writer’s work. I should be ashamed of myself. I am ashamed of myself. Call it a thought experiment, call it a writing exercise. Call it me being a jerk. I still think (or have convinced myself) it’s worth doing.

The protagonist pretty much has to be either Jimmy’s Mom or his younger sister, Julie. I’m voting for Julie.

So what if. . .

Julie promises Elder Kestler she’ll faithfully wait for him, then immediately starts dating other guys. There’s a wonderful little scene in the movie between Julie and her Mom where she tells her Mom she’s gotten engaged, only she approaches it clumsily, and Mom thinks Julie’s telling her she’s pregnant. Well, okay, what if she is?

Immediately, she has a decision to make. Could be a nice song there; she wants to go to college, she has some career plans, and she’s not in love with the baby’s father, who has nonetheless offered to Do The Right Thing By Her. Can she even consider terminating the pregnancy? Given her upbringing, probably not. Should she go ahead and marry the guy? The thought fills her with dread. What should she do?

What if she decides to go all Juno, carry the baby to term, give birth, and then give the baby up for adoption? I think, given her family and given what we know of her character, that would be the most plausible scenario for her. And then we get the scene in the pre-existence, where little Emily is waiting to come to earth a Flinders, and Alex Boye has to tell her there’s another loving family who wants her, and who will raise her, who she will love as deeply as she would love her parents-by-biology. That is, of course, entirely true, the power of adoption, plus it undercuts the play’s theological squeeginess nicely. Unneatens it. Messifies it. (For some reason, I’m in coinage mode today).

Probably, to make it work, you’d have to create another subplot, with this couple, nice folks, in the preexistence, imagining a huge family (‘ten children, no, fifteen, no, twenty!’). And then they come here, and meet, and nothing. Wham; infertility. And we see them cope with that struggle. And then . . . baby Emily. Handed to them, by the play’s protagonist, Julie. Who says goodbye. And then resolutely gets on with her life. Which means her relationship with Tod, I guess, but she comes to him as an older and wiser and sadder and stronger repentant new woman.

(You probably would have to cut some of the Jimmy subplot, like maybe the whole Zero Population song, to fit all that in. Gosh, what a shame that would be.)

I think it would all work. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as popular, of course, and wouldn’t make any money, and I should probably be shot for even doing this. But it does seem to me that any text about pregnancy, or family size, or birth control needs to be from a woman’s perspective. Not mandates from the patriarchy. Insights, from actual women warriors.



Saturday’s Warrior: Movie Review

I saw the new Saturday’s Warrior yesterday. Saw an 11:30 am screening, on a weekday, and the theater was mostly full. The Warrior phenomenon continues; 42 years, and it still packs ’em in. The movie is attractively shot and energetically acted, under the able direction of Michael Buster. There are a few new songs, mostly pretty good ones, and if older songs from the stage version have been cut, I didn’t miss them. The screenplay, by Buster and Heather Ravarino, has taken the original book, and with a few nips and tucks, trimmed and humanized it. Some characters are a bit more dimensional and interesting, and the Flinders’ family dynamic borders on believable. In other words, the inevitable changes needed to turn a stage musical into a movie were well conceived and executed, the music was generally well performed, and to the extent that Warrior works on stage, the movie worked better.

I know; this is all pretty grudging praise. I went to the theater expecting to enjoy myself, wanting to enjoy myself, thinking that after 42 years, my issues with the text would have dissipated. This turned out not to be the case. I found it a depressing, dispiriting experience. I left the theater feeling, as I have felt previously, the profoundest alienation from my own culture. It’s a musical about a Mormon family, about Mormon theology (or at least, Mormon folk theology), about Mormon culture. I’m a Mormon. I live in Provo, Utah; I taught for twenty years at BYU. And I recognized the familiarity of the conventions and constructs the text utilized. (Heck, I could sing, without prompting, every song in the show, except the new ones. Every P-Day on my mission, every single P-day. . .)

I’m a Mormon,. And nothing in that show is me.

(Crap. I’m doing it again. In 1974, my freshman year at BYU, my family home evening group went to Spanish Fork High School, and saw Warrior, then in its first professional run. And I was such an obnoxious jerk about it in the car home, I was never invited to another FHE activity the rest of the year. Dang. I don’t, I really don’t, want to be that guy.)

All right. Saturday’s Warrior begins in the pre-existence, with a terrific gospel song sung by Alex Boye. Boye is, as always, effervescent and charming, and while I missed the ‘who are these children coming down’ opening, I thought the new opening worked fine. And the various characters, pre-earth spirits, excitedly guess where they’re going and what it’s going to be like, and they make commitments to each other: ‘we’re going to meet and fall in love,’ and ‘I will be your big brother and look out for you.’ Okay, that’s popular Mormon folk doctrine (not the pre-earth existence stuff, which is canonical, but the ‘we met and fell in love there’ romantic version), and I don’t personally happen to believe it. It strikes me as predestinate. I especially loathe the notion that our decisions in the preexistence directly and specifically impact our mortal probations, and I especially dislike it in a text set in 1974. Although this is in no way implied in Warrior, it strikes me as a tiny baby step away from the fence-sitters heresy (which must itself be the subject of a much longer post). Still, I don’t mind a Mormon text that’s, let’s say, theologically adventurous. I’ve written a few myself (though that approach works better if employed transgressively).

In other words, my response to the ‘does Warrior preach false doctrine’ question would be ‘I don’t care.’ It’s built on a foundation of popular folk doctrine. That’s fine; it’s a work of imaginative fiction. I don’t actually believe in Hogwarts either, though I’d kill to teach there.

Now, I could take issue with this: Tod (Mason Davis), and Julie (Monica Moore Smith) pre-existently commit to find each other over on this side of the veil, and be together forever. Except Tod’s born in California, and isn’t LDS, while Julie is a Flinders, living in Colorado, and über-Mormon. Theirs’s the main romance in the piece. Okay, so Elders Kestler and Greene (Clint Pulver and Morgan Gunter, respectively, and as annoying in the movie as they were in the play) meet and teach Tod in San Francisco, and it turns out Julie is Kestler’s old girlfriend, so she meets him at the airport, and Tod comes with him (I mean, why would he?) for some unaccountable reason, so then they meet. And it’s all happily happily. My only problem with it is that Tod was this very cool hippie/guru/painter dude, who gets my favorite song in the show, a big age-of-Aquarius number set (I think), in Golden Gate Park. With the Piano guys! So what on earth would an awesome flower child like Tod see in a drip like Julie? I can’t see that they would have anything at all in common. But that’s a minor quibble. Plus: romantic attraction, who knows?

But, of course, that’s not the main conflict in the play or in the film. The protagonist is Jimmy Flinders (Kenny Holland), the oldest son in the Flinders clan. It’s a prodigal son story.

In the movie (and I applaud this change), the Flinderses are musicians. Adam Flinders (Brian Neal Clark) is the paterfamilias. The family has a kind of Partridge Family-like act they perform around town, and Dad also gives music lessons. We sense how non-lucrative all that is; the family home is smallish, and Jimmy shares a bedroom with multiple siblings. Terri, the Mom (Alison Akin Clark) is expecting their eighth child. Of course they all love each other, but we also see family tensions, child brattiness, too many people in too tight a space without enough money. What holds them together is music. And Mormonism. And by ‘Mormonism’ I don’t just mean religion; I mean a series of cultural considerations. One of which is, frankly, the expectation that we have large families; lots of children. Because there’s always one more waiting in the pre-existence. (Folk doctrine, folks. Not canonical).

So it makes sense that Jimmy not only is the star of the family band, he’s got his own side project too, a band called Warrior, with his best friend Mack (Carlton Bluford). Mack’s been reading Paul Ehrlich, about population growth, and Jimmy and Mack write a song together, Zero Population. Which they perform in public (desperately offending Ma and Pa Flinders). But which also gets them a record deal, with Capitol. And a west coast tour. It’s their big hit. And Jimmy, as good-looking lead singer/lead guitarists for popular rock bands who suddenly come into money tend to do, gets into drugs. Also groupies. Including, it seems, Mack’s girlfriend. Which Mack is surprisingly chill about.

So that’s all plausible, I suppose, and it makes for a strong central conflict, especially the drug stuff. His one connection to his family is phone calls with his crippled twin sister Pam (Anna Daines, probably the strongest actor in the cast). And yet, simultaneously, it’s not remotely credible. Because ‘Zero Population’ is such a ridiculous song.

Think about it. An earnest, preachy, on-the-nose song about a political issue like zero population growth becomes this massive Top 40 hit. (We even see a That Thing You Do montage, showing it climbing the charts). It’s not that rock can’t be political; see, for example, Muse, or Rage Against the Machine. Or Bob Dylan, or CCR. Many many many protest songs about Vietnam. Or something like Neil Young’s Ohio. Zero Population just isn’t the right kind of political song to be a big hit. It’s about a limited, fringe issue. It’s obnoxiously sermonizing. And it’s bad poetry. And it’s. . . .

I’ll tell you what it is. Zero Population is one of those issues conservatives imagine liberals embrace. Ehrlich’s Population Bomb is the kind of book that conservatives like hating. And I suppose it’s possible that, in 1974, some liberals somewhere quoted it positively–though I was an insanely political aware 18 year old in 1974, and I never heard of it until P. J. O’Rourke made fun of it in the ’80s. Ask me, though, as a card-carrying liberal, if I think the planet is over-populated, and I’d probably say ‘yes.’ Ask me what we should do about it, and I have no idea. I do have four children. Because that’s the number of children my wife and I decided to have.

It’s such a bad song, and it’s so central to the plot, that it warps the whole text. And there’s no middle ground possible in this story. The turning point in the film is Jimmy’s refusal to sing his one big hit, at which point he returns to his family. That’s the implication: to repent, he has to embrace everything his family stands for, including their politics. The notion that he and his father might agree to disagree–“Look, this is what I believe about population growth, but I still love all my siblings, and also thanks for helping me kick my drug habit, Dad”–is just impossible in the world of this text.

I was glad that the film chose to depict Mack as a decent guy, instead of pure villainy. I’m glad that Jimmy’s conflict included something real, like drug abuse. By trimming around the edges, Buster made the film stronger than the play. Some of the songs are pretty, if you don’t mind Carpenters/Bread/Harry Chapin soft rock. I went to the movie hoping to come to terms with a piece of Mormon culture that I’ve struggled with. As you can see, that didn’t happen.

Here’s what I do believe: you can be a good, active, believing, practicing Latter-day Saint, and still be a liberal, still like hard rock and gangsta rap, love R-rated movies and television, and still support such political causes as, I suppose, zero population growth or gay rights or a woman’s right to choose. Or global warming. And not believe in any of a variety of pre-existence folk doctrines. That’s where I stand. And, sadly, that seems to place me in opposition to a well-intentioned piece of popular Mormon culture like Warrior. But I’d rather not think that way. Michael Buster is a friend of mine, and so is Doug Stewart. (So, for that matter, is Carlton Bluford). I wish the movie well. I was glad to see the house so full. I’m just not part of its audience. And that’s okay too.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Movie Review

I wasn’t going to see Batman v Superman, and I especially didn’t want to see it when the reviews starting pouring in. It’s at 29% on Rotten Tomatoes, and while that’s surely a flawed measure, it does not suggest a happy time at the movies. But a bunch of friends I trust liked it, and so my best friend, Wayne, and I decided we’d give it a whirl. We were both glad we did, and found it a powerful and thoughtful movie. My son told me recently that the ability to say something nice about rubbish movies is my superpower, and it is true that I tend to look more for reasons to like something than to dislike it. But I liked Batman v. Superman.

Looking at all those negative reviews, I was struck by how many critics disliked the movie because it was dark in tone, because it was ‘brooding,’ because it was ‘humorless,’ even ‘portentous.’ Well, it was dark in tone, brooding, gloomy even, humorless, and it was a bit portentous, even pretentious. That’s the kind of movie Zack Snyder was trying to make. It wasn’t a Marvel superhero movie, sort of fun and clever, and meta. This is a DC comic book movie, and clearly, DC is aiming for a different tone. That’s okay. Don’t judge a movie, even a superhero movie, by some artificial standard. Judge it by what it’s trying to accomplish.

And what is this movie trying to accomplish? Something very interesting; create a debate over the nature of justice, and place that debate within a theological context.

For starters, it’s a film about collateral damage. In Man of Steel, three years ago, Superman (Henry Cavill) fights off General Zod in a climactic battle scene that destroys much of Metropolis. This film begins with that same battle, only this time from Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck’s) point of view. He owns one of those destroyed buildings, and sees his own employees killed. Thousands of citizens die. He also sees one employee, Wallace Keefe (the always terrific Scoot McNairy) get his legs crushed. The experience sours Batman on the whole Superman universe. Not that any of it was Superman’s fault; he’s fighting a bad guy intent on massive destruction. But Superman is an alien; he’s not from around here. Can he be trusted?

And that’s an interesting question, is it not? Once we grant the premise that a powerful extraterrestrial being, one that our technology is incapable of destroying, has come to earth, insisting on his (His?) essential benevolence, and rescuing folks from burning buildings, I think we would be justified in regarding him with at least a certain skepticism. And a Senate subcommittee (chaired by Holly Hunter) on Dealing With Superman would seem, at least, prudent.

Meanwhile, Superman’s in love. With, of course, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), intrepid reporter, who seems prone to stunts like flying to see an African warlord so she can ask him if he’s a terrorist. That whole scenario goes south in a big hurry, and amidst random gunfire (from whom? Shooting whom?), she’s rescued by the big blue guy. And again, there’s considerable collateral damage.

Here’s the thing; a movie about a battle between Superman and Batman seems stupid. Superman can’t be defeated, except by an extra terrestrial poison. Can Batman beat him? Of course not, unless the Bat has kryptonite, in which case, of course he can. Either way, it’s an uninteresting premise.

But in this movie, Superman’s flaw is not, actually, kryptonite. It’s love, human love. He has every opportunity to take out Lex Luthor (a terrific Jesse Eisenberg). But Lex has kidnapped, first Lois, then second, Martha Kent (Diane Lane), Clark’s mom. Superman’s love for humanity is abstract, generalized. His love for his Mom and for his girlfriend is specific, sharp, detailed. He’ll do what he has to to save the women he loves. Even if it places mankind in jeopardy. (Which I get. I’d be like that too.)

And yes, there’s also kryptonite. He can be killed by stuff from his home planet. On earth, he’s invulnerable. But if he can’t be killed, he can be distracted. And when he places Lois (or Mom) ahead of humankind, he risks losing, well, us. He can’t really function as Superman if he can’t win our hearts and minds. He actually does need us to love him. And he’ll always try to do the right thing. But not if it places those he loves the most in danger. So in a way, he’s Christ, but a compromised Christ, a Christ that puts Mary and Martha ahead of all the rest of us. Yeah, he ‘loves’ us. But he’s in love with Lois Lane.

Batman, meanwhile, isn’t interested in our love, or even in our regard. He slinks around at night, like a criminal, and he catches bad guys. And tortures them, trying to find bigger bad guys. He’s working for the greater good, but he finds the task Sisyphean; take out any bad guy, and five more crawl out from under the floorboards. His pursuit of justice is equivocal; the ends, to Batman, really do justify the means. And he gets things wrong. He’s a very human ‘hero,’ flawed and powerful and as much a danger to himself as to other criminals. Affleck’s terrific in the role, I thought; captures all the complexities of that oh-so-close-to-anti hero.

So we have a human hero, and we have a Christ figure. Obviously, we also need the Devil, and we get him, with Lex Luthor. (Ever notice how much Lex Luthor sounds like Lucifer?) Eisenberg plays him as a sly manipulator, brilliant and weird and filled with bile. He’s the reason Batman and Superman fight, and as they fight, they become increasingly dismayed to realize how much their enmity is based on misconceptions and deception.

And then, a disruptive third hero joins the fray, as Gotham is about to be destroyed. I don’t know what to make of Wonder Woman (Gal Gabot), except that she’s awesome. She doesn’t really fit into this neat God/Devil/Hero formulation. Is she Pallas Athena? Goddess of Justice? Whatever; she’s amazing. She’s in the movie for five minutes (probably a bit longer), and steals the show. Can’t wait for her to get her own movie.

But she’s also needed, because the combined forces of God and Hero are about to be defeated by a golem, a big one. Defined as an ‘anthropomorphic being, magically created from inanimate matter.’ Or in this case, foreign matter; he, like Superman, can only be destroyed by kryptonite. He is, of course, a powerful manifestation of Lex Luthor. He is, anyway, Hulk-like and Hulk strong, only he absorbs and is strengthened by effusions of earthly energy. Like, we Americans nuke him, and it just makes him more formidable.

Yes, the movie is darkish in tone. I still found it endlessly fascinating. Of course, it’s still a superhero movie. I’m imputing to it a profundity it honestly does lack. But it’s still trying for something beyond your standard ‘superheroes save the world’ kind of movie. It counts the costs and finds them close to unacceptable. It’s a superhero movie made with intelligence and insight. If it’s not cute and funny, well, I loved Deadpool too. There’s room for both kind of movies, isn’t there?

Deadpool: Movie Review

Stephen Greenblatt, in one of the seminal essays of new historicism, “Invisible Bullets,” argued that Shakespeare’s The Tempest engaged in a pattern of ‘subversion/containment’ regarding colonialism, both deconstructing its cultural imperatives and simultaneously re-constructing them. The play teases us with its transgressive possibilities, but ultimately affirms the status quo.  If poststructuralism expresses, as Jean-Francois Lyotard put it, ‘an incredulity toward metanarratives,’ those same metanarratives nonetheless reemerge, if now tempered by irony. That incredulity itself may be healthy, can lead to reexamination and change, but it can also spend itself in ironic self-reflection. Or put another way, Deadpool may be the coolest, funniest superhero movie ever made. Deadpool himself may even be the first super-anti-hero. It makes fun of every narrative trope common to movies of its genre. It’s self-referentially meta whenever possible, and it’s nicely subversive.  An apt movie for a political season characterized by the complete deconstruction of a major political party’s ruling metanarrative.

It’s still just a superhero movie.

The tone is set during the cheeky opening credits, in which the film is listed as starring ‘some douchebag,’ ‘a hot chick,’ ‘a British villain,’ ‘a CGI character,’ and so on. The director is ‘overpaid tool,’ while the writers are ‘the real heroes.’ I laughed out loud for that one. Of course, Deadpool himself offers metacinematic commentary on the fact that he, the character, is in a movie, and Ryan Reynolds jokes abound. Deadpool is played by Ryan Reynolds.

And it’s all R-rated. Very very definitely R-rated. R-rated for violence, for sexuality, for nudity, and for language. It’s not just that the characters cuss a lot; the movie feels R-rated. It’s grim, dark, grubby looking and cynical. Very un-Marvel in tone, with Stan Lee’s inevitable cameo in a strip club scene.

It’s also a superhero/origin story movie. Wade Wilson is a kind of vigilante/mercenary. He’s a bad guy who makes a living ripping off even worse guys. He’s got advanced military training, and he spends his free time in a bar run by his one friend, Weasel (T.J. Wilson), the bartender. The entire bar caters primarily to other purveyors of violence; hence a betting ‘dead pool,’ where you can gamble on who is going to die next. Wade meets a hooker, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), and they fall madly in love. They plan to marry. And then Wade is diagnosed with cancer. Terminal. No treatment possible.

Except maybe not. A Recruiter (Jed Rees, whose face you will remember from Galaxy Quest–just how intentionally meta is the casting?), says he can offer a medical procedure that will cure Wade’s cancer, make him invincible, and give him super powers. Wade bites. And meets the British Bad Guy, played by Ed Skrein, who asks to be called Ajax, but whose name is in fact Francis. (Being called that, turns out, enrages him). And Francis does indeed have a life saving/superpowers transforming medical procedure. It involves an injection, followed by a lengthy course of torture, to force a genetic transformation. If he survives.

See what I’m saying? It’s a normal superhero backstory movie, an origin story movie. But it’s also brutal and ugly and chock-fulla swears. And, in a sick kind of way, it’s funny. In fact, I laughed out loud, often, and so did the other dudes in the theater when I saw it. (Dudes only, btw; the male/female ratio in the house was 18-0).

When Wade’s medical treatment is over, he’s got the ability to heal from any wound, no matter how severe. He’s also hideous; his face and body look like he survived the worst house fire ever. A walking burn wound. So he thinks that Vanessa can never love him again; that no one can. Weasel helpfully suggests that he star in a series of horror movies. His other best friend, Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), an elderly blind women he moves in with, has never actually seen him, so he doesn’t believe her assertion that true love can overcome even the most hideous countenance.

So, now as Deadpool, he searches for Francis. He thinks that perhaps Francis (a medical genius, though of course, also a sociopath), can fix his face. He also wants to kill him. In other words, he’s conflicted.

The film is also a Marvel movie, and as such has to somehow connect to the larger Marvel metanarrative, which it does in the most unlikely and contrived possible way. See, two of the X-men, Russian accented Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapacic), and his emo teen sidekick, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) assign themselves to serve as his conscience, and also try to recruit him to join the other X-men. They’re both kind of ridiculous superheroes, which fits a movie in which Deadpool certainly has super powers, but tends not to use them heroically.

And yet, every element is there. Hero/Heroine/Comic Sidekick. A really bad bad guy villain, who has a sidekick of his own. Troo Luv. A mixture of comedy and seriousness. An origin story, combined with a ‘save the day’ climax. It makes fun of superhero movies. And it also is one. Subversion/containment. Deconstruction/reconstruction. Just like that other superhero narrative, The Tempest, by the Stan Lee of the 1600s, dude name of Shakespeare. Which is also, come to think of it, a pretty cool superhero handle.

If you want cartoon violence, PG-13 humor, and a redemptive hero, you probably should give Deadpool a pass. But if you want a funny and endlessly inventive movie infused with a darkly satirical, sexy and violent energy, Deadpool is amazing. Just don’t expect it to actually, you know, change anything.

10 Cloverfield Lane: Movie Review

10 Cloverfield Lane is generally listed as a horror movie, and described as a sequel to Matt Reeves 2008 found-footage fright-fest Cloverfield. In fact, it’s neither. It’s not really a horror film, and it’s not remotely a sequel. Cloverfield had an urban setting, a young cast of terrified-out-of-their-minds millennials, and used the found-footage gimmick to build scares and thrills. This new film is something else entirely. It’s a powerfully suspenseful psychological drama, with a sci-fi twist at the end. Imagine Room set in the world of Independence Day, and you’ve just about got it.

Which leaves us with a powerfully engaging film with an essential weirdness that you don’t really notice until you leave the theater. It’s awfully well-acted though. And well enough written, aside from the fact that it doesn’t make a lick of sense.

The movie begins with a woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), packing her stuff in a box, very emotional, leaving an apartment in a city. She finally walks out, leaving behind her room key and an engagement ring. All this is handled quickly, a fast-paced montage, no dialogue. She drives along lonely highways, and her phone keeps buzzing. She answers, and a male voice begs her to give him another chance. She disconnects the call without responding. Just about at the point when I thought ‘she’s paying too much attention to that phone to be able to drive safely,’ a truck smashes into her car, which careens off the highway. Blackout.

When she wakes up, she’s chained to a bed in a featureless concrete room, with an IV in her arm. Enter Howard (John Goodman). He’s not terribly communicative, but does explain that he saved her life, that she was in an accident, that he found her and brought her to his, well, shelter. Which she can never leave. Because something terrible has happened.

Howard is, we learn, a survivalist, and this shelter is his refuge from a disaster that he always anticipated, and which now has come. He’s not sure what the nature of that disaster might have been. He’s the kind of person who always anticipated catastrophe, and is a little jazzed now that one’s taken place. But what exactly is the problem? He doesn’t know, if the air outside is poisoned by chemicals or biological agents or aliens or radioactivity. But he’s sure that the area outside is uninhabitable. He shows Michelle the front door, up some stairs, and she can just barely see his livestock in a pen, two pigs, dead now of some dreadful skin disease. A woman comes to the door, her face ravaged as well, screaming to be allowed in, raw with disease, and then dies just outside.

There’s also a third person down there, a local guy, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who helped Howard build the shelter, and was similarly rescued, though he did sustain what appears to be a major burn on his arm. Emmett’s clearly a few sandwiches shy of a picnic, but he’s the only potential ally Michelle might have. Assuming that Howard’s wrong, and they can actually escape. But who knows?

Because, of course, the central dramatic question in this film is ‘which is more dangerous, the world outside this shelter, or Howard.’ Because Howard is clearly crazy. And potentially lethal. And weird and creepy.

I mean, the shelter’s actually kind of nice. There’s a TV, not hooked up to any cable system or anything, but available for DVD and VHS movies, of which Howard has quite a collection (mostly of the John Hughes variety). There’s even a jukebox. There’s a kitchen, with electric stove, and plenty of victuals. And there’s plumbing, but that belongs more in the weird category.

Each of them has a personal space; Michelle has her featureless concrete room, Howard has a nice bedroom, and Emmett sleeps in the corner of a storage room. But the only bathroom facilities are in Howard’s room, and he insists on being present when Michelle uses those facilities. She does get a shower curtain to draw, for privacy. But she knows he’s right there. Which frankly creeps her out, and who can blame her? It is creepy.

So every plot twist has to do with Howard, some new revelation about him and what he stands for and what he intends. And, of course, there are twists and turns, moments when he seems genuine and decent, moments when he seems dangerously nuts. The entire film is a battle of wits, Michelle vs. Howard, with Emmett in the middle. In fact, I kept wondering if it wouldn’t make a better play than film.

You’d need three great actors; this film has them. John Goodman is genuinely one of the legendary American character actors ever, is he not? John Gallagher retains an air of mystery, and just a hint that this character may be brighter than he appears, that he’s hiding behind a clueless rube facade. And Mary Elizabeth Winstead is tremendous. I love the character’s intelligence, her wary vulnerability, the way the character plots and schemes and hides and thinks her way through problems. It’s a fine, nuanced performance. In an action thriller.

Why is Mary Elizabeth Winstead not a bigger star? She’s so good in Mercy Street, on PBS.  She was marvelous in Smashed, and in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Those are great movies, and she shines in them, but she’s also been charismatic and fun in crappy movies; a splendid Mary Todd Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. That’s a ridiculous film, of course, but she was honestly the best thing in it.

This is, of course, also kind of a ridiculous film, especially the last ten minutes, when something suggested by the ‘Cloverfield’ of its title happens. But it’s an acting tour-de-force, genuinely suspenseful and nicely directed, by first-timer, Dan Trachtenburg. It was such a pleasure to see a film that didn’t rely on gross-out bloodiness or cheap shocks, that instead just relied on two dangerous human beings, trying to figure each other out.

Zootopia: Movie review

I wasn’t going to see Zootopia. The trailer I saw featured a colorful world of anthropomorphic bipedal animals, mammals all, walking around on their hind legs in an urban environment, chatting on their cell phones and sharing apps and riding around in trains. It looked cute, a fun kids’ movie, but probably a bit one-joke, maybe a little content-free. And then my son saw it, and called it a ‘must-see’ and my wife and I figured we’d give it a shot.

What I did not expect to see was a thoughtful, intelligent allegory about racism and exclusion and prejudice and politics and how fear can lead to a mob mentality. What I did not expect to see was a movie about bullying and violence and how scarring childhood violence can be, even years afterwards.

What we did not expect to see is a movie in which the main character, one of the most plucky, smart, courageous, undaunted female characters I’ve seen in any movie ever, would nonetheless succumb to culturally inherited racism and do tremendous damage to her own society.

It’s a wonderful movie. What it isn’t is a cute Disney kids’ comedy.

Okay, so, Zootopia is set in an idyllic possibly-even-millennial future, where carnivores have overcome their hunting instincts and embrace herbivore lifestyles, where accommodations are made for mammals of every shape and size–very tall drink stands for giraffes, trains with different sized doors–and predators and prey co-exist happily enough.

Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a country bunny, a cute (only ‘cute’ has become racially problematic–rabbits can call each other ‘cute,’ but non-rabbits? Better not.) little rabbit with a winsomely twitching nose, and with the unrealistic dream of becoming a cop. A police officer. Except cops are all predators, or at least very large veggiephiles; chief of police Bogo (Idris Elba) seems to be a cape buffalo. Judy was first in her police academy class, but no one really takes her seriously. But she does land an assignment no one else wants, to find a missing, possibly kidnapped, otter.

To which end, she meets Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox, a street smart, world-weary hustler and con man. Although he exists on the fringes of the law, he considers himself unprosecutable–but Judy goes the Al Capone route with him, nails him for tax evasion, a charge she promises not to pursue if he helps her find the otter. And so, a cop-buddy comedy ensues, a mismatched pair of underfoxbunnies sorting through clues and solving a crime that turns out to be bigger and more widely spread than they first imagined. And becoming ever more unlikely friends.

As they search, we join them in visits to the various Zootopia ecosystems, from tundra to rain forest to savannah. All beautifully realized. And, along the way, we meet Mr. Big, a mafioso vole (wonderfully voiced by Maurice LeMarche), a sheep-run meth lab (where we hear that they have to hurry, as ‘Walter and Jesse’ are on their way), and in my favorite conceit, a DMV office entirely staffed by three-toed sloths. I should also mention the recurring character of Gazelle, a pop star voiced by Shakira, who also sells an app where you can replace her head on your own, as she sings her one big hit, “Try Everything.” Not to mention a bug-infested hippie yak, voiced by Tommy Chong, a chubby feline desk clerk, Clawhouser (Nate Torrance), and assistant mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate), a peculiarly obsequious sheep civil servant, with, it turns out, larger political ambitions of her own.

So, yes, it’s a brightly colored Disney confection, lots of fun. But underneath all of that is the ubiquitous issue of race. And in this film, race is, initially, more about difference than about class or oppression or post-colonialism. Animals have evolved. Predators no longer predate; prey are no longer eaten. Animals live in harmony, and cities clearly take measures to accommodate essentially any mammal, tiny or massive or anything in between.

I don’t want to give away the film’s biggest plot point. But our own culture’s falsest notions about race make an ugly appearance in this film, brought into the narrative by the unlikeliest of characters. By Judy, our plucky, brave, bright-eyed bunny heroine. The film actually raises the idea of biological determinism. Some creatures can’t help themselves, posits Judy (falsely, it turns out). Just as contemporary racists insist that certain racialist characteristics are inborn and fundamental, this film raises the possibility that change, ultimately, is impossible.

Nick, the fox, street-wise and damaged, sees right through it. He knows better–he knows that diversity is strength, or can be, or should be. Not because he’s some kind of liberal weenie idealist, but because that’s what the world has taught him. And eventually Judy figures it out too, and the film has an appropriately happy ending. Still. This is a Disney animated film, for children. And yet, amazingly, also a film about how damaging racism is to us all. And a film in which every character, at some level, is both victim of racism and perpetrator of it.

It’s fun and funny and smart, and of course, it’s Disney; it’s a great looking film. More than that, though, it has intelligent things to contribute to our society’s continuing conversation about race. I was amazed. You will be too.

Risen: Movie Review

Boy, this one took me by surprise. Risen is shockingly good, a low-key, grim and dusty Easter movie, a film that deals with the subject of Christ’s resurrection quietly, unsentimentally, and is all the more effective for doing so. It’s a film that confidently strides a line between naturalism and transcendence, a film where the miracles of early Christianity are treated matter-of-factly, without fanfare. It’s a Christian film, intended for an audience of Christians. As a (I hope) practicing Christian, I found it powerfully inspiring. I also respected its craftsmanship, the meticulous research into the first century of the Christian era, and the powerful acting of its outstanding cast.

Joseph Fiennes stars as Clavius, a Roman military tribune (the rank between centurion and legate), assigned to Palestine, 33 CE. He’s an efficient and effective military leader; respected by his soldiers, intelligent, organized, unsentimental and tough. He’s also sick unto death of death. His business is death, whether putting down a zealot uprising or supervising a crucifixion, and we sense his disgust with it, how the stench of dead bodies fills his nostrils. In one conversation with his immediate supervisor, the prefect Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), he is prodded to speak of his dreams for the future; a farm outside Rome, marriage, a family: peace. But all that seems like the most distant pipe dream. He does pray, he tells Pilate, but only to Mars. Why bother with any more distracting beliefs?

Every day, it seems, he’s summoned to headquarters, so Pilate can give him another assignment. Secure the body of this crucified Nazarene. Place a guard over the tomb. And then, of course, find out how on earth that body managed to disappear. It plays like a police procedural, with Clavius doggedly tracking down every clue, every hint, every possible witness. And he’s assisted by a younger subordinate, a second-in-command-in-training, Lucius (Tom Felton. Yes, Draco Malfoy’s in the movie, using his father’s name).

And then, his investigation leads him to Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto). And from there, to a room in which the Twelve are gathered. And with them, of course, is Yeshua  (Cliff Curtis).

And Clavius remembers crucifying him. He remembers every detail of his face; he knows its the same man. Now, impossibly, alive. Alive, not even badly hurt. Scars, perfectly healed, in the right places. And he can barely process it. He knows that what he’s experiencing is impossible; he also knows it is, in fact, actually happening. Yeshua is risen. How can that be?

I love that Jesus is called, accurately, Yeshua in this film. And I love that he’s played by Curtis, a wonderful, veteran actor, who has spent his career playing various ambiguous ethnicities–a Colombian, an Arab, a Latino, the Dad in Whale Rider. In fact, he’s Maori, from New Zealand. He’s not Jewish, but his look works in this film. At least, he’s not the blonde-haired Scandinavian Jesus image my own Church so overuses. Curtis’ Yeshua has a wonderful, welcoming smile, an openness to and insight into all his disciples. In his encounter with Doubting Thomas, for example, he doesn’t so much scold him as tease him; a lovely choice. And Clavius, still unravelling a mystery, but now one with greatly expanded elements, essentially, unimaginably, goes awol. Doggedly tracked by the ever-loyal and efficient, but now seriously baffled Lucius.

It’s a film that describes the most familiar events in the Christian world. It tells a story I’ve heard since early childhood. And yet it’s also a film I found constantly, shockingly surprising. The emphasis on Clavius, this outsider, this tough, cynical professional soldier, is what holds our interest. It becomes more than just a faith-promoting story; it’s also rather a nifty mystery. Either way, though, it works.

In part, this is due to the actors; Fiennes has never been better, giving Clavius a wonderful combination of command and vulnerability. Felton and Firth are also both terrific. (As my wife said, leaving, she didn’t much like Pilate, but she felt that she understood him at every turn). I also loved Stewart Scudamore’s generous, impetuous Peter. And I loved the no-nonsense, straightforward direction of Hollywood veteran Kevin McCarthy (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Waterworld, The Count of Monte Cristo), who gives the film a consistently gritty look, and just the right, unfussy pace and rhythm, and manages to tell that familiar story without needless sanctimoniousness or adornment.

I’ll grant you that I loved this film in large measure because it confirms my own beliefs. You may react differently. Still, I’m also a film guy, and this is a wonderful film. As Christian films go, in its own quietly effective way, this is a far better film than, say, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, or those old sword-and-sandal epics from the 50s; The Robe, for example. I liked it a lot as a movie. I loved it as an affirmation of my faith.