Category Archives: Movies

Pitch Perfect 3: Movie Review

The first Pitch Perfect movie was a delightful surprise, a genuinely engaging comedy about the world of competitive a cappella performance, which I didn’t even know was a thing. My wife and I met singing in a choir; love vocal music, love Pentatonix and other similar groups, don’t mind hearing well done pop covers. The Bellas were an all-girl group of singers, with a lively sound and appealing characters. Plus, Anna Kendrick was in the movie. What’s not to enjoy?

Then the second PP movie came out, and it was even better. The obligatory (and irrelevant) romcom trappings that marred the first movie were gone, as the Bellas moved out of the college competitive circuit and competed for a notional world a cappella championship. Elizabeth Banks directed the second film, and turned it into a sprightly feminist comedy, a fun, funny, flick about bright, talented, dedicated young women who liked, and were very good at, singing together. Plus, their foil, the film’s antagonists, were the superbly funny paean to continental pretentiousness, Das Sound Machine, all Teutonic arrogant hipsters. Their big music numbers proved a perfect foil for the Bellas, making our spunky heroines’ ultimate victory all the more satisfying.

Sadly, Pitch Perfect 3 feels more like a cash grab than a satisfying continuation (or resolution) of the Bellas’ story. While it has the elements of the two previous movies–competing ensembles, riff-offs, well-produced musical numbers for all occasions–it feels self conscious, annoyingly (as opposed to instructively) meta. Case in point: the previous movies cut repeatedly to two unnecessarily dismissive commentators, Gail (Elizabeth Banks) and John (John Michael Higgins), covering the Bellas’ competitions for some media outlet or another. They’re back in this movie, and we’re told they’re making a Bellas documentary. But this time, they’re intrusive, unnecessary, and worst of all, sort of aggressively unfunny. Banks directed PP2, the best film of the series; it was sad to see her in this throw-away role.

In the previous movies, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), added her own hair-brained comedic emphasis to the movies, though really, we wondered if she was a good enough singer to add much to a group of musicians. This movie, she was given much more to do, to the detriment of the movie. And so, we’re treated to a kidnapping plot involving her estranged father (John Lithgow), which makes no sense, and felt like padding, some silly farcical elements added to push the movie’s length to an acceptable 90 minutes.

The movie did give a bit more emphasis to other Bellas, to Chloe (Brittany Snow), Aubrey (Anna Camp), Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), and especially, to splendidly spooky Lily (Hana Mae Lee). As the movie opens, they’re all post-graduation, unhappy in their jobs and lives and desperate to reunite, doing the one thing they loved most. That’s a nice idea, and the movie could have done something with it; show the tension between the difficult disciplines they’re trying to master professionally, and the need to rehearse and perform. It could have been a movie about young people maturing, making adult choices in life, how tough it can be to move past youthful passions to more grown-up life decisions. Chloe wants to be a veterinarian; couldn’t we have seen her stealing a moment from a much-needed rehearsal to review for her vets exam?

But no. In fact, the Bellas never rehearse at all in this iteration of their story. Which reminds us, sadly, of the power and importance of their rehearsal scenes in the previous movies.

Part of their rehearsal involves their riff-offs, scenes in which they have to improvise arrangements and sharpen their repertoire competing with other a cappella musicians. Those scenes were the highlights of the previous two movies; lively and fun and creative.

In this movie, they’re competing for a slot on a USO tour featuring DJ Khaled. Three bands are likewise seeking a performing slot, a country band, a rapper, and a girl-group who call themselves EverMoist. Presumably, EverMoist is meant to be the Bellas’ main competition, this film’s equivalent to Das Sound Machine. Whoever made that decision, it was a big fail. EverMoist isn’t just musically mediocre, they’re unamusingly mediocre. They don’t mean anything, or stand for anything, except the mean girl poses favored by their singers.  And why would these three bands, representing, one presumes, different musical styles, all be good at riff-offs? It makes no sense, and this film’s riff-off scene is among its most flaccid.

And yet. The film does have Anna Kendrick, and she’s so charming as a performer, she nearly makes up for how disappointing the script is generally. Her scenes with putative love interest Theo (Guy Burnett) are so sharply fun, they help us forget how obnoxious an un-reigned-in Rebel Wilson can be. At the end of the film, DJ Khaled decides that Beca is the only Bella worth touring with, and gives her the prized slot opening for him. Her, but not the Bellas. And the other Bellas are sweet about it, and decide they’re all perfectly happy with the lives they had previously found so unsatisfying; she can go ahead and be a star, and they’re cool with it. (Ha!). But then, Beca sings a lovely arrangement of the great George Michael song, Freedom. And, of course, the Bellas join her onstage. And while their performance wasn’t great–as my wife correctly suggested, the point isn’t for performers to have a good time, it’s for the audience to be entertained–still, it was solid. That final song was well enough done to make up for the flabby, disappointing movie that proceeded it. So there’s that.

Pitch Perfect 3 has some okay music, some poorly executed farce, and a final performance that somewhat redeems a sadly flabby movie. I don’t regret seeing it; I’m sorry it wasn’t better.

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, movie review

Last night, we finally saw the new Star Wars movie. There was never a possibility of us not seeing it, of course; keeping up with Star Wars is mandated by federal law, and we’re nothing if not law-abiding, but this one struck me as particularly worth catching. FB responses to it were so polarized, it was obviously a must-see.

I’m in the ‘it’s really good’ camp. Although writer/director Rian Johnson didn’t exactly re-invent the wheel, he did toss on some new tires and a realignment. He brought some fascinating nuances to well-worn plot elements that made it seem quite fresh, and even borderline original.

For one thing, it is apparently de rigueur for the top apprentice of Jedi masters to be  severely tempted by the dark side of the force. This seems weird to me. It’s as though, if you decided to study meditation with the Dalai Lama, you were told ‘there’s one slight pitfall; this discipline might turn you into Hitler.’ Still, in Star Wars, apprentices regularly become monsters, though they, in turn, become masters to new apprentices who think they can turn them from the dark side. Anniken/Obi Wan, Luke/Vader, Kylo Ren/Luke; the pattern just keeps continuing. So when Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) begins communicating through the force with young Rey (Daisy Ridley), it could have felt really tired and lame. Geez, that again?

But, for me at least, that didn’t happen, and I found the Kylo/Rey scenes completely compelling. Part of that may be because Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley have the acting chops to make those scenes really sizzle. They’re both terrific. But part of is in the writing. Kylo may hero-worship Darth Vader, but he’s not really like Vader at all. Darth Vader was a subordinate to the Emperor, and apparently, a loyal one. Kylo has the same role in relation to Snoke (a marvelous Andy Serkis). But what he wants from Rey is not really that she come over to the dark side, join him as a Sith lord, or anything like that. He wants out of it. He wants to get rid of the emperor, forget being a Jedi or a Sith, have her rule with him. He’s sick of the whole dark side/light side dynamic, sick of what it’s done to him and what he’s done in its service. He murdered his father, for goodness sake. He’s a generational Jedi; inherited the Force from his Mom, studied with his uncle Luke. Rey isn’t. She has the Force in abundance, and the movie (like Empire Strikes Back, which this movie echoes), the issue of her parentage is raised repeatedly. But we learn who her parents really were, and they were nobodies. And that’s okay.

This film, in other words, democratizes the Force, removes it from the preserve of a certain lineage. Anyone can have the Force, anyone can practice it, anyone can develop mad light sabre skills. At the end of the movie, we see a poor kid in a rustic outpost shadowed by it. That’s awesome. The movie is called The Last Jedi, and we assume that means Luke, but Rey emerges as another Jedi over the course of the film, and it rather looks like there will be other, non-Skywalker folks, possibly not Jedi, but certainly Force wielders. I loved all that. I loved the scenes where Luke (Mark Hamill) interacts (I won’t say trains) Rey. Hamill looks ravaged, and we can see what a fine actor he’s always been. And best of all, we get a marvelous explanation for the Force from Luke that never once references midichlorians. If, as I fervently believe, the three prequel films were nothing but huge, expensive mistakes, the reduction of the Force to a virus was as big a mistake as those films ever made.

Of course this movie recycles old Star Wars memes. For example, there are always these big complicated plans the characters make. You guys blow up this, and that will allow us over here to do this super important thing. In Return of the Jedi, for example, Han and Leia are tasked with blowing up a power station or something on one planet, so that a bunch of fighters led by Lando can blow up the Emperor’s ship. (I may have some of those details wrong). Well, in this film, Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) come up with one of those plans. Finn and Rose will blow up a tracking device, so that the Rebel fleet (the good guys, the Republic), can book it at warp speed, and thus evade the First Order (the Empire, basically), which has a honkin’ big fleet they can wipe them out with. So Finn and Rose have to go to this planet, get this guy, DJ (Benicio Del Toro) who can get them to the tracking device, which they will destroy in time for Poe to save the Rebel fleet. Got it? Like Obi-Wan destroying the tractor beam, like Han destroying the power station. We’ve seen this before. And of course, it’s going to work. At the last second, sure, but it will work. These plans always work.

Except, in this film, it doesn’t work at all. It’s a disaster, and it messes with the perfectly good plans developed by Leia (and it was so lovely to see Carrie Fisher for the last time), and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). A complicated Star Wars plan not working? That actually is kind of new, and it was awesome.

Which leads me to what I liked best about this film. It’s tragic. It’s sad. Plans don’t work out very well, and the entire rebellion is nearly wiped out. The triumphant ending of this involves, like, 20 people escaping death in the Millennium Falcon. (I love, btw, that the Millennium Falcon still works, can still outfly any bad guy ship they make, is still really fast and awesome. Forty years have passed, after all; how many battles does our Air Force fight using a WWII era P-51 Mustang? Sure it still uses, like, propellers, but it can still out run a F-16 jet! Not likely. I like to imagine that Chewbacca has been tinkering on it. Upgrading and modifying.

We always want to rank the Star Wars films; I do it too. But mostly just the canonical films, the ones with numbers, from Phantom Menace to, now, Last Jedi. But now there’s a non-canonical Star Wars film, Rogue One. Which is deeply tragic. A film about a bunch of brave rebels who die for the rebel cause (which is, we think, the cause of social justice), who succeed in doing exactly one important thing, but who die in the attempt. I don’t know where it ranks, but I thought it was a powerful and well-made film.

Well, The Last Jedi demonstrated a very similar sensibility. It’s not terribly triumphant. Essentially, it’s about the bad guys’ mopping-up exercise. The rebels have been defeated, and are down to one cruiser, and a few unarmed, unshielded transports. Then the cruiser is lost. And one by one, General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) starts picking off transports. It’s over. The rebellion has lost. But a few do escape. That’s the triumph. My mind went back to 1778. Howe drove Washington out of New York, out of Philadelphia, American defeat after defeat, to retreat to the misery of Valley Force. But still, Washington survived, as did the tattered remnants of his army. That’s where we are in Star Wars.

So: two questions. First, does this cast, Ridley, Isaac, Boyega, Tran, have the charisma to carry the franchise for the next few years? At least through one more film, and possibly four more? Answer: absolutely. They’re terrific. And there’s no way they’re going to let Del Toro disappear. And Adam Driver’s a wonderful, complicated, fascinating villain.

Second question: how does this film rank among all the Star Wars films?  I choose to grade them: A New Hope: A. Empire Strikes Back: A. Return of the Jedi: B-minus. Rogue One: A-minus. Last Jedi: B-plus. The Force Awakens: D-plus. The Phantom Menace: F-minus. Attack of the Clones: F. Revenge of the Sith: D-minus. Love to hear what you think.

Anyway, I found Last Jedi very satisfying indeed. It’s a beautiful film. The battle scenes on the mineral planet on which they all take refuge were lovely, taking place on a plain on which a layer of salt covers a fine red clay. The red and white dust of the battle was astonishing; beautiful, unsettling. I loved Kelly Marie Tran, the newest cast addition, with her wonderfully expressive face and complete commitment to every scene. I loved Benicio Del Toro’s stutter. I loved the moment when Chewie roasts, but can’t bring himself to actually eat, a porg. So many details the film got right. Now let’s hope J. J. Abrams doesn’t screw the next one up.

Two movies about bad rich people

The day after Christmas, my son and i went to the movies; the following day, my wife and I did. The movies we saw were not in the ‘big blockbuster’ category–no Star Wars, no Jumanji, though we will see both eventually–but we enjoyed them both very much. The first was All the Money in the World, directed by Ridley Scott. The second was Downsizing, directed by Alexander Payne. Good directors both, and interesting stories told, both, serendipitously about how much rich people suck.

All the Money was about the 1973 kidnapping of Paul Getty (Charlie Plummer), grandson of J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), who was then the richest man in the world. (As I understand it, the two Plummers are not related). This movie gained some pre-release notoriety, as Kevin Spacey, initially cast as the elder Getty, was fired a month before the film opened, and all his scenes reshot with the elder Plummer in the role. That may have effected box office; I doubt it did much harm to the film. Christopher Plummer is superbly repellent as Getty.

The film depicts Getty as a monster, as a miserable miser, more interested in his art collection than in the lives of his family members. Actually, that’s not entirely true. In an early flashback, after many years of estrangement, we see him offering his son (Andrew Buchan), a high-paying executive job with Getty Oil, which opportunity the alcohol-and-drug saturated Getty makes nothing of. The old man doesn’t seem much surprised. But he does show an interest in his grandson, depicted as a bright, if somewhat lost young man. The one Getty who he does respect is Gail (Michelle Williams), his daughter-in-law. After the young Getty is kidnapped, the film turns into an extended duel (perhaps ‘negotiation’ is better), between Gail and J. Paul, with her insisting that ransom be paid, and the boy freed, with the old man insisting that paying one ransom will simply encourage other kidnappers. A fair point, we initially concede, but we soon realize that old Getty is simply staking out a negotiating position. He’ll pay the ransom, eventually, but first the asking price needs to move.

Doing the actual price negotiating is Getty’s top man, a former CIA agent named Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg). So the negotiations have a third party; Chase working with the kidnappers to get their price down, and with Getty Senior to get the money. The moment we realize what a consummate bastard the old man is is when we realize that he’ll only pay that amount of the ransom he can deduct from his American income taxes. Plus ςa change, plus c’est la mēme chose: Man, rich people hate paying taxes. Paul Ryan, meet Paul Getty.

Gail is the film’s most (only?) sympathetic character. The media were convinced that she was secretly wealthy, and that she was the one refusing to pay up. And her every public movement is followed by what appears to be a ravening pack of paparazzi. By the end of the movie, you may find yourself wishing someone would run the dang photographers over with a truck. Celebrity millionaires have to face that kind of thing, I suppose, but by the end of the film, we genuinely have lost all sympathy for the rich. It’s a stark, bleak movie, ultimately, though beautifully shot in all-natural light by Dariusz Wolski. Christopher Plummer’s face is always in shadow, emphasizing the character’s essential coldness. It’s a film I respected immensely, but did not much enjoy. That’s okay; it’s a powerful film.  I’ll let James, brother of Jesus have the final word:  “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl . . . Your riches are corrupted, and your garments motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you.” (james 5:1-3) 

The second film is surely one of the oddest movies of the year, and one that suffers, I think, by the misguided way in which it was marketed. Downsizing posits a future in which it’s possible to reduce human beings, on the molecular level (we’re told), to about five inches in height. You’re still yourself; there’s just a lot less of you. Personality and appearance untouched. And there are some advantages to it. Tiny people, obviously, leave a much smaller carbon footprint than larger folks do. So going small has some advantages from a ‘save the planet’ standpoint. But economically, it’s all win-win. You’re consuming less, so your consumer dollars stretch way further. So an average middle-class couple, liquidating all their assets–selling home and car, cashing in pensions–end up with the perquisites of comparative wealth. Our hero, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), end up in a mansion, millionaires, in a luxury resort for the tiny, Leisureland. The concept is a fun one, and the trailers suggest a satirical Matt Damon/Kristen Wiig romp. The film’s marketing team had a tough challenge, I expect, but the ads are misleading and it may hurt the film’s prospects.

What we’re left with is a genuine oddball, a Christian socialist parable, about inevitable environmental apocalypse, in which the world is saved (if it’s to be saved at all), by a colony of Norwegian hippies. (I always suspect that!) It never went anywhere anyone would expect, and yet my wife and I both liked it quite a bit.

One quibble; the economics don’t quite add up. I understand that the tiny eat less. But the film imagines an entire infrastructure in which everything we’re accustomed to using in our modern gadget-intensive lives has a tiny equivalent. Every gizmo, every do-dad; tea spoons and spatulas and scalpels, shoes and socks and shirts and slacks, everything. Plus, when Leisureland is explained to us, I thought ‘that mansion’s going to suck if you can’t hire someone else to clean it.’ Turns out, there is an underclass. And most of Leisureland’s cleaning and cooking is done by people with brown-hued skin, speaking, as their first language, Spanish. (Also, of course, Leisureland would be wiped out by your average housecat. They’re worried about birds? How about a puppy? Or raccoon?

Once Paul gets to Leisureland, the tone of the film turns bleaker. He does make a new friend; his neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz), an aging Eurotrash party animal, who seems to have mysterious connections to the original Norwegian scientist who developed downsizing, and the original colony of Norwegian adventurers who were first to go through the procedure.

Paul also meets the film’s most compelling character, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese environmental activist who was forcibly downsized and put on a boat with 15 fellow troublemakers, only one of which, Ngoc, survived the trip. She lost a foot in that misadventure, and Paul, an occupational therapist, thinks he can help her. She works as a housecleaner, but spends her every waking hour scaring up food and meds for the most desperate members of the tiny people underclass. She’s also a committed Christian, with a Vietnamese Bible as her most cherished tradition–her ecstatic church services are the most exuberant scenes in the movie.

The film finally concludes this: if the world is going to end, well, meantime it’s our job to ease the suffering of the least fortunate among us. That’s also our obligation if the world isn’t going to end. It’s a maddening, inspiring film. Also, rich people suck. Also, ordinary people, if they suddenly become rich. “The love of money is the root of all evil,” said Paul of Tarsus to his disciple Timothy. So it turns out this movie has a Biblical moral to it as well.

 

 

Watching All the President’s Men in 2017

This afternoon, I was home alone, and happened to notice that HBO was screening All the President’s Men. Great film, with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman at the top of their game as Woodward and Bernstein. Screenplay by William Goldman. Beautifully directed by Alan J. Pakula, and shot by the great Gordon Willis, the cinematographer known as ‘the prince of darkness’ for his wonderful use of shadows and unlit corners. The film holds up beautifully.

Obviously, though, that’s not why I watched it. John Oliver has called the Russian collusion scandal “stupid Watergate,” which is to say, it’s a scandal as consequential as Watergate, but carried out by dumber people. I was in high school during Watergate, and I remember vividly coming home from school every day and watching the Congressional hearings on TV. I was a news junkie back then, and I knew all the players, not just Nixon and Haldeman and Dean, but bit players too: Kalmbach, Magruder, Segretti, Hugh Sloan.

Richard Nixon was an intelligent and capable man. He certainly had his character failings, one of which, his thin-skinned sensitivity to criticism and his paranoid creation of enemy lists seem rather Trumpian. Nixon also seemed more ruthless. In All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein were told that their lives were in danger, and in the movie, we believe them. They thought, and people generally thought, that Nixon could have his enemies killed. That turned out to be groundless. But everyone around Nixon seemed to be, at least, good at their jobs. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, both men were noted for their intelligence and competence. The analogous folks in Trump’s White House would be John Kelly, chief of staff (like Haldeman), and senior counselor Jared Kushner, special councilor to the President, similar to Ehrlichman. The one apt comparison would be the comically inept Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler, and the ghastly Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose job seems to be to reinforce whatever the lie of the day is coming from the President.

That’s the biggest difference, though, between Nixon and Trump. Nixon was smart, a genuine expert on foreign policy, a real diplomat, but also amoral and vindictive. Nixon lied, but it wasn’t always easy to see through his lies. Whereas Trump is willfully, intentionally, insistently ignorant. You wondered, with Nixon, what he believed, and how it informed his governing. With Trump, you just assume he’s what he appears to be; a not-very-bright braggart narcissist.

Trump just lies all the time, about matters of importance and more trivial matters. He lies reflexively; telling a lie seems to be his default position. He drives the press corps crazy, not because he tries to mislead them, but because he’s so brazen about it. He lies when he doesn’t have to, lies when the truth is perfectly obvious to everyone. When he’s not lying, he’s bragging. And then, when it would do him the most damage, seemingly, that’s when Trump tells the truth, just blurts it out.  That really wasn’t Nixonian.

Both Nixon and Trump have been accused of obstruction of justice, for example. One of the reasons All the President’s Men is such a great film is Gordon Willis’ cinematography. So shadowy, so mysterious. That’s the feel of Watergate. No wonder the key figure in the film is Deep Throat, this guy meeting Woodward in parking garages. That’s not Trump. He’s all bluster. Did you ask James Comey to shut down the Russian investigation? Nixon would have obfuscated, offer some legalistic defense. Trump says ‘yes, I did, because I was trying to shut down the Russian thing.’ Nixon would never have done that.

But, then, Nixon couldn’t. Yes, he was head of the Republican party. But the Republicans were a different party then. For one thing, the party wasn’t consistently conservative. It was home to both Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, two men who couldn’t agree about anything. Nixon himself self-identified as a conservative, but he in domestic policy, he would be a moderate Democrat today. And in both parties, there were politicians of integrity, people who were appalled by Watergate as the drip drip drip of new information about the coverup became known.

That’s not true anymore. The Republican party is the conservative party; a Rockefeller or a Charles Percy (liberal Republican Senator from Illinois) wouldn’t be welcome in it anymore. And politics had norms and standards and traditions Nixon had to at least pretend to follow. Trump sees all that nonsense as so much political correctness.

Trump’s lies are open and obvious. It should be much easier to catch him. It won’t be, because the Republicans seem unwilling to investigate even his most egregious statements and actions.

Nixon had to pretend not to be a crook. Trump, far more obviously, is a crook. So what? say his followers. A crook? A colluder? Possibly even a traitor? Who cares. He’s going to make American great again. And that’s all that matters.

The Foreigner: Movie Review

The Foreigner is one of the stranger action movies you’re likely to see; a big budget, movie star vehicle action movie without a single likable or relatable character.  And considering that it stars Jackie Chan, that’s kind of amazing.

Because Jackie Chan, in addition to being one of the two greatest physical comedians who ever lived (his only rival, Buster Keaton), specializes in playing nice guys. He’s got that big grin, and all that energy; he’s charming. He specializes in playing good guys who find themselves in circumstances where the only possible way out is through advanced martial arts. That’s the combination that makes Jackie Chan movies such a delight; astonishing action sequences, and preposterous plots. He’s a rescuer of innocents, an inadvertent foiler of dastardly schemes. Even Jackie’s occasional struggles with English are appealing. He’s sixty three, now, and not as quick with a punch or a fall, but this is a movie I marked on my calendar. A new Jackie Chan movie is not to be missed.

And he really can act. In The Foreigner, he plays Quan, a London restauranteur, and father of the lovely Fan (Katie Leung: Cho in the Harry Potter movies), a teenaged girl with a British boyfriend. She pops into a shop to buy a dress for a Big Date, which is promptly destroyed by a terrorist bomb. Quan is devastated. And for the rest of the movie, Chan plays this guy as someone who has essentially been destroyed emotionally, turning him completely single-minded. He is going to find and kill whoever killed his daughter. Nothing else matters; no power on earth can stop him. Beyond that one desire, he seems completely numb. It’s a tragic and moving performance. But not likable. His single-mindedness turns him into a end-justifies-the-means kind of guy; essentially, he becomes something of a terrorist too.

And he’s not much interested in doing detective work. The bombing was carried out by a newly-minted IRA splinter group. Quan sees on the news that a former IRA member, who has settled into a role as a British minister to Ireland, Liam Hennessey (Pierce Brosnan), is trying to head up the effort to discover who bombed the store. So Quan focuses on Hennessey. Who, we discover, does in fact know a lot more than he’s saying to the Press. The movie becomes a cat-and-mouse duel between the two men, with Quan terrorizing Hennessey’s family to force Hennessey to tell him what he knows.

Hennessey’s no prize. It turns out, he has a mistress, Maggie, or Sarah, or something, superbly played by a fine actress named Charlie Murphy who I’d never heard of before. But Maggie/Sarah is one of the terrorists, and she sleeps with various men to further the nefarious terrorist plans, which also involve blowing up an airplane. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of political machinations involving Hennessey, his uneasy relationship with the British crown, represented by a cabinet minister, Katherine Davies (Lia Williams), with other Irish crime bosses, and his own wife, Mary (Orla Brady), who despises him and may well betray him. I’m oversimplifying–the plot is more convoluted even than I’ve described it, but it’s all made clear in the picture.

Problem is, we don’t like any of them. The battle of wits between Quan and Hennessey is what carries the picture, and it’s edge-of-the-seat compelling. But we don’t actually care who wins, ultimately, because they’re all pretty awful people.

When I taught dramatic structure, I used to introduce students to two kinds of theatrical naturalism, which I called Naturalism A and Naturalism B. This is a Naturalism A structure, but it’s also an action movie, a melodrama. Melodramas have good guys and bad guys; heroes and villains. Naturalist pieces have no heroes, nor really any villains. Everyone’s just trying to survive.  We’re to watch it dispassionately, with much attachment to any characters. That’s what this is. A cold-blooded, well-made, superbly acted exercise in pure detachment, with utterly amoral characters pursuing a fairly loathesome objective. I mean, is Quan seeking justice? Or just revenge? And what is the difference?

I found it fascinating, and riveting, and not remotely ingratiating. My wife was as fascinated as I was by it, but ultimately found it quite disappointing. If you’re expecting a Jackie Chan vehicle, a fun action/comedy, you’ll be disappointed too. If you don’t mind a pretty well made formalist exercise, and a chance for Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan to show off their acting chops, you’re more likely to find it to your taste.

“Guys.”

I’ve been reading Katy Tur’s new book, Unbelievable, about her time as an NBC correspondent covering the Trump campaign. Tur’s a tough-minded and tenacious reporter, and her book is riveting. She’s also, incidentally, an attractive woman. And she has one chapter about the incredibly inappropriate sexual things men have said to her under the most ludicrous circumstances. Including the time when Candidate Trump, the guy who wanted to be President, who she happened to be covering, came up to her, apropos nothing, and kissed her.  When she describes these incidents, she dismisses them with a single, contemptuous word: “guys.” Just “guys.”

I hate that. I know what she means, and she’s right, and I’m glad she put it in her book, but I also hate it, what it says about men. Speaking as a dude, a fella, a ‘guy’, I don’t know what’s wrong with these people. Katy Tur had the most important political story of my lifetime, and she reported it with intelligence, nuance, integrity and unrelenting courage. Why can’t that be enough? Why can’t that be all?

When I heard about the current Harvey Weinstein news story, about the sordid and disgusting sexual history of the legendary Hollywood producer, my first thought was, sad to say, “so?” I mean, isn’t that the oldest of American pickup lines: “I’m making a movie, and there may be a part in it for you?” Film producer is also a sleaze? Also, NBA player is tall.

I taught theatre at the university level for twenty years. I’ve also directed maybe 50 plays, in college settings and professionally. I’ve also pulled down a few checks as a script consultant. That puts me in the very very furthest, Pluto-adjacent, outer edges of show-biz, I suppose. And the school I taught at was a religious school, and we always had to warn about students about, you know, professional realities. Some directors/producers/casting directors are honorable and competent and professional. Many are not. Watch out. Be careful. Carry pepper spray. All that.

But, you know, even as an outsider, it’s not hard to see how the sexual objectification of women is built into the very fabric of Hollywood. It’s not just who might proposition you in exchange for an audition. How many movies have roles for the male lead, and the female love interest? How often is the actor in his 50’s or 60’s, and the actress in her mid-20’s? How many movies or TV shows include gratuitous, not just nude scenes, but underwear scenes, bikini scenes, naked-from-behind scenes? How often are women depicted either as objects for male sexual interest, or as loyal and supportive and dull?

Everything about Hollywood seems sexually charged. Isn’t ‘glamour’ synonymous with ‘alluring?’

I thought of Dory Previn, the first wife of legendary Hollywood composer Andre Previn. You probably don’t know her work, but she was a terrific singer/songwriter, a cutey-pie voice singing lyrics of unmatched savagery, and a ferocious critic of Hollywood morés, such as they were. Here’s a lyric from her song Hooray for Hollywood.

They lead you like an animal to slaughter; you’re inspected, you’re rated, you’re stamped, standard or prime. They hang you on a meathook when you age, but female meat does not improve with time. They cut you up, and take the part that’s tender, and when they’re through, all that’s left of you is tough, tough, tough. The flesh is willing, but the spirit’s growing weaker. Enough, enough, enough, enough, enough.

Then straight to the chorus: “Who do you have to f*** to get into the movies? Who do you have to lay to make your way? Hooray for Hollywood!” (Dory Previn was outraged when her husband had an affair with an actress, Mia Farrow, 17 years his junior. When she objected, he had her committed to a mental institution, where she was subjected to electro-shock therapy).

Here’s what’s really horrible: Harvey Weinstein was one of the good guys, if by ‘good guy’ you mean talented, with an eye for a good script. How many genuinely great movies did he produce? Pulp Fiction, Ciderhouse Rules, Jane Eyre, The Englishman Who Fell Down a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, Emma, The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Mansfield Park, Chocolat, Gangs of New York, maybe 50 others, first for Miramax, then for his own company. Everyone knew he was a sexual predator. Everyone protected him, I think, in part, because he made great movies. Disgusting human being. Gifted artist. Like Roman Polanski. Woody Allen. Mel Gibson. Cosby. Michael Bay, Oliver Stone, Lars von Trier. How many people in Hollywood does that describe? I’ve seen lots of films by all those guys, and enjoyed them. I also voted for Bill Clinton, twice. Am I complicit? Am I responsible?

Here’s what else I know, though. Whenever an actress auditions for a movie, TV series, or play, she accurately perceives herself as a professional, as a hard-working, talented, skilled artist, looking for an opportunity to show what she’s capable of. That’s how she sees herself, because that’s who she is. She is fully aware that there are dozens, or hundreds of other women auditioning, all of them capable and talented. She also knows that getting cast is a long shot, and that sheer dumb luck will play into it. She wants to read well. She wants to act well. What I absolutely guarantee is this: she isn’t thinking “wow, this is my chance to have sex with a disgusting overweight unattractive man 40 years older than I am! Lucky me!” She did not show up to that audition to be sexually harassed. She was not signalling a desire to be sexually assaulted. She does not want to see the film’s producer naked. She’s applying for a job, seeking a professional opportunity. And deserves to be treated as such.

I’ve auditioned hundreds of actors, and cast many shows. What am I looking for? The “right” actor for the role. What does that mean? Can’t tell you. It’s a matter of feel, a question of instinct and experience. When will I know any particular actor is “right?” You just sort of do.

But yes, of course, to a limited extent, appearance enters into it. If I’m casting Romeo and Juliet, I need young actors in those two roles. And Juliet should be, well, pretty. Her physical appearance is one factor I need to take into consideration. But what you have to think (what you inevitably do think) is this: ‘is she pretty enough to be plausible in the role?’ What you can’t ever think (and I can truly say, I never have thought, not once, not ever), is this: ‘gosh, she’s cute; I wonder if she’d like to date me?’ I mean, why would you even think that? You have X amount of time to get the show up, and Y amount of things that have to be done and rehearsed and polished first. And Y>X, always, forever. And you’re going to waste your time making a fool out of yourself, and btw, an enemy of someone you still have to work with? While also wasting everyone’s time? How dumb can you be?

One thing would help: too high a percentage of producers and directors and writers are male. Hiring more women isn’t tokenism. It’s called ‘increasing the talent pool.’ When the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, they didn’t sign ‘a black guy.’ They signed ‘a superstar.’ More female writers and directors will result, ipso facto, in more great movies. Which, frankly, I want to see.

So many women I know, so many former students, so many colleagues, so many talented artists I have worked with in the past have come forward lately, post-Weinstein, and said, quietly, honestly, eloquently, “Me too.” It breaks my heart. It disgusts me as well. The Harvey Weinsteins of the world disgrace my entire gender, and my entire life-long profession. Yes, as a matter of fact, directors and producers are in a position of power. But you’re also doing something important and valuable and beautiful. You’re creating works of art, collectively, everyone working together. Why would someone want to profane that, turn it ludicrous and disgusting, for no reason? Katy Tur knows. “Guys.”

To all of you, let me say this. I am so sorry. I am horrified, I am appalled, I am sickened. Thank you for coming forward. Thank you for telling the truth. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, so let’s start disinfected, root these attitudes and approaches out and destroy that entire power-mad mindset. Because this is about the abuse of power. And it’s repugnant.

War for the Planet of the Apes: Movie Review

War for the Planet of the Apes is, among other things, about an authoritarian American leader who is bound and determined to build a wall between him and his perceived enemies, and also wants the Apes to pay for it. It’s also about Native American genocide, and the persecution of Christianity by ancient Rome, and other incidents of needless brutality perpetrated by the strong over the weak. It’s about a tragic class of cultures. It’s about leadership and suffering. It’s just an extraordinary movie.

This is the third movie, and I think probably the last movie, in the Planet of the Apes reboot that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, and continued with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014. All three movies have starred the remarkable Andy Serkis as Caesar, a preternaturally intelligent Ape, and a born leader. In the world of these films, a search for a cure for Alzheimers resulted in two unintended consequences. First, Apes, given a drug as part of the research, grew vastly more intelligent. Second, the drug created a pandemic that wiped out most of humanity. The Apes escaped to the forests; mankind retreated to various military compounds. An Ape vs. Human war ensued, driven in part by human paranoia and xenophobia, but also in part by a terribly mistreated Ape, Koba, who sought revenge against his human tormentors.

As this film begins, Koba is dead, killed by Caesar in the previous film. But a well-armed, well led army has begun a war of extermination against the Apes. Caesar continuous insists that he has no interest in killing humans. He realizes that humans and Apes probably can’t co-exist peacefully, but sends the message; leave him the forest, and leave him alone, and he won’t attack humans. That’s not good enough for The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). He intends to wipe Apes off the planet. In one attack, he kills Caesar’s wife and oldest son. Caesar sends the rest of his people away, and heads out, looking for The Colonel, with a small group of close followers. He thinks that killing the Colonel might be enough to get humans to leave him alone. That’s his object.

Caesar is a born leader, tactically advanced and with a sophisticated sense of what humans want and how to defeat them. But he’s stuck on horseback, without more advanced transportation or communication technology. Apes can use human weapons, but have limited ammo. Much of this movie is about Caesar’s journey to find The Colonel, and the discoveries he makes along the way. One discovery involves men who have either been murdered or buried alive. They seem to suffer from a disease that robs of the power of speech. Caesar also meets a young girl, Nova (Amiah Miller), similarly afflicted. She can’t talk, but she is an intelligent young woman, capable of sign-language communication (which is also the main way the Apes communicate), and courageous and loyal. Caesar takes her with him, lacking any better idea what to do with her, and she proves a valuable ally.

The initial plan was for Caesar to go questing after the Colonel, while the rest of his people sought refuge in a desert south of their woods stronghold. But the Colonel’s technological advantages have defeated Caesar’s plan, and Caesar’s people have been captured and taken to a fort The Colonel is building by an old army supply depot. The fort needs a wall. The Apes are set to the task of building it. And Caesar is captured as well, though his Nova and his two ape comrades are free.

Not all Apes, however, are on Caesar’s side. The army has coopted quisling apes, which they call ‘donkeys,’ And, like black overseers during slavery, the ‘donkeys’ prove more vicious and brutal than their human bosses. They also have devised a unique punishment for recalcitrant apes (and for Caesar, eventually). They crucify them.

It turns out that the Colonel has essentially seceded from white society, because of this odd muteness disease. It’s a mutation from the initial Alzheimer’s disease that proved so devastating for humans, and so beneficial to Apes. The Colonel quite ruthlessly executes anyone with the disease. Another army, from ‘up north,’ is on its way to bring him to justice. The wall is protection against another human army. Meanwhile, Caesar only wants to rescue his people. The last thing in the world he wants to is for Ape society to get caught in a crossfire. He just wants them to be free. And, like Moses, he’s willing to bring them to a Promised land he himself will be unable to enter.

Harrelson is wonderfully psychopathic as The Colonel. Serkis, is, of course, utterly brilliant as Caesar. CGI acting is simply acting; his performance is simply that of a superb actor at the top of his craft. The CGI just builds off the performance.

The whole film is rich and powerful. So many historical resonances; so much to take in. I was deeply moved by the entire film, as I was with the previous films. It’s a wonderful movie. It got a little lost in the shuffle of summer movies, but it’s certainly as moving as any. See it on the big screen, if you can, and bask.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Movie Review

Coming into this summer movie season, one of the films I was most excited to see was this one: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Written, produced and directed by Luc Besson. Regular readers of this blog know how much I love me some Luc Besson. There’s no one else like him. He’s known particularly for two kinds of films; really dumb action movies (like Taken), and equally stupid sci-fi (like Lucy). The Fifth Element is his; one of the most over-the-top, insane, incomprehensible, over-designed, thoroughly entertaining sci-fi epics ever made. Valerian promised to match it.

Boy, did it ever. Essentially, the City of a Thousand Planets refers to this massive, planet-sized space station, where representatives from every inhabited world in the galaxy/universe/multiverse gather for purposes both commercial and diplomatic. They call the place Alpha. That’s where the movie is set, on Alpha, combination Mall-of-the-Galaxy, entertainment complex, and UN. It’s an exceptionally cool place to set a film in.  Imagine the bar scene in Star Wars, multiply it by a million, and give the filmmaker state-of-the-art CGI and an endless design budget, and you have the look of this movie. It’s absolutely dazzling. Incredibly silly. It features all these chase scenes where Valerian (Dane DeHaan) zips rapidly through dozens of world venues, and you realize the filmmakers spent immense amounts of time creating fascinating worlds that would get maybe two seconds of screen time; spectacular backgrounds for the actors to basically zip through. It’s just astounding. It even has a scene where Valerian gets stuck with his arm in a different dimension than the rest of him. Don’t you just hate when that happens?

It has to be that visually sumptuous, because the plot doesn’t really hold our interest. The movie starts on sort of a beach planet, where shaved-head gorgeous skinny aliens enjoy the most leisurely of life styles. They have a pet critter, which sort of looks like a cross between an armadillo, a mole and an iguana, which has this neat trick. If you feed it something, a pearl, say, it poops out tons of them, perfect replicas. So the skinny beach bum aliens have all these pearls, each one releasing massive amounts of energy, and when they need more, they get their pet to poop them some.

Then, some kind of war wipes out their planet and their civilization.

Jumping ahead 30 years, and Major Valerian and his sidekick, Sergeant Laureline (Cara DeLevingne), are part of the security forces for Alpha. Oh, and he’s in love with her, and wants her to marry him, an idea with which she is unimpressed. So there’s that romantic intrigue underlying the whole story, infusing their every scene with immense amounts of sexual tension, theoretically. In practice, DeHaan and DeLevingne have as little chemistry as they have charisma, so interpersonally, the Valerian/Laureline pairing’s a bit of a fizzle.

Anyway. Earth, for some reason, provides security for Alpha, and V and L are the main agents of that security, and for some reason, they’ve come across one of those pearl-pooping critters. And Laureline even knows details of how to feed and care for it. (Bathing it in massive amounts of radiation, apparently). And they’re tasked with getting the critter to someone, with some baddies trying to stop them. That’s the plot, I think.  I don’t remember who wants it, or why. Oky, I may have missed some narrative nuances. The movie’s pace is frenetic, and the images are distracting. I’ll admit it, I spent a lot of the movie wondering what the heck was going on. This did not detract from my enjoyment of it. It’s a Luc Besson film. They’re not supposed to make sense.

Anyway. For some reason, Valerian and Laureline keep getting separated. Once, for example, Laureline finds herself working as one of many waiters, providing food for a vicious tyrant lizard creature. The waiters line up, and one at a time they approach this Lord-thing, tray of food on their heads, and he takes a bite, then spits it out, snarling at them. Laureline shows up, wearing, for some reason, a wedding dress and a big hat, and the Lord-creature assumes that he’s to cut off the top of her skull and scoop out her brains, the first food-offering that appeals to him. She resists, fights back, and mayhem results.

Valerian also gets lost, and for some reason, finds himself in the nightclub of Jolly The Pimp (Ethan Hawke), who manages Bubble, the world/galaxy/universe’s greatest stripper. Bubble is played by Rihanna, and she’s a shape shifter, and does this entire pole dance routine as a series of stripper icons (cowgirl, school girl, dominatrix etc). Rihanna is completely brilliant in the role, and although her scenes make no narrative sense at all, she’s the best thing in the picture, for the fifteen minutes or so before (SPOILER ALERT) her character tragically dies.

Eventually, it turns out that the beach bum planet people didn’t all die. Some of them have been hiding on Alpha. And they want their pearl-pooper back, which Valerian initially resists, because, regulations. Which Laureline persuades him to ignore. And so the aliens zip off to settle another beach-y planet they’ve found. And the film’s bad guy, Arun Filitt (Clive Owen), who has been tracking and trying to kill Valerian all the while for some unaccountable reason, is defeated and arrested, a foreordained result, again, completely devoid any dramatic tension at all.  It’s a Luc Besson film, so of course there’s also a big Family Values speech, after which Laureline decides to marry Valerian after all, obviously. I mean, of course she does, though DeLevingne’s acting of her big moment couldn’t have been more perfunctory.

Is the movie any good at all? Of course not. It’s a Luc Besson film; of course it’s idiotic. But it looks great, and, like all the man’s oeuvre, it’s a fun kind of dumb. The two leads are very attractive plus they can’t either of them act at all, but they pull off their stunts well enough, and are surrounded by other actors who can act, and so the movie limps along without much in the way of character development or humanity. It’s such a great looking film, it races along appealingly, and the people I saw it with expressed themselves perfectly satisfied by it.

It’s everything I was hoping for. It’s a Luc Besson sci-fi epic. It’s visually amazing. It won’t bore you. It also has a message. It takes a strong, resolute stance against genocide. And it has a lizard that poops pearls. I’m not sure what more you want from a movie.

Wonder Woman: Movie Review

I wouldn’t necessarily say that Wonder Woman is a great superhero movie. I’d say it’s just a really good movie. It’s exciting, and, best of all, it’s morally rigorous. At its heart, it’s a movie about an extraordinarily gifted and powerful young woman who is convinced she knows how to save the world. Her weakness, as a protagonist, is naiveté, innocence, based on a childhood in which she was raised on myth, not history. Ultimately, she has to cope with disillusionment and confusion. She has to make a crucial decision; given humanity’s propensity for war, are we worth saving? I know, that’s a familiar sci-fi trope. But it’s still compelling.

Gal Gadot plays Diana, who is pretty much a goddess, immortal, raised by Amazon warriors. She’s superbly trained in the ways of combat, which is weird, because the Amazons live on a remote island, guarded by mists, where no one ever comes with whom they might fight. They’re anti-war, like most great warriors, but war, for them, is at best a faded cultural memory. Still, they spend their days training. They’re in incredible shape, and they are amazing with bow, arrow, spear and hand-to-hand combat. But why? Who are they preparing to fight?

And then World War I intrudes. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) comes flying in, his plane shot to pieces, and crash-lands in the Amazon’s lagoon. Diana dives in and saves him. A German flotilla sees him land, charges in after him, and Diana, and her Mom, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and her BFF, Antiope (Robin Wright; so good to see Buttercup again!), fight them off. And Antiope dies, but only after executing the most spectacular stunt in action movie history. Movie’s worth seeing just for that one stunt. And also the scene where Diana takes out a German machine gun nest. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Diana (never once, in the entire movie, called Wonder Woman, BTW), decides that Ares, God of War, has to be the instigator of WWI. I mean, a massive war, tens of millions of casualties, fought for the most idiotic reasons; of course, it has to have had malevolent and superhuman origins. The God of War done it. Has to be.

Except he didn’t. Didn’t need to. We see, briefly, Field Marshall Douglas Haig (James Cosmo), head of the British Expeditionary Force, and he expresses typically Haigian indifference to his own soldiers’ high casualty rates. It’s hard to imagine the combination of pig-headedness, callousness and sheer imbecility of the British (and French and German) High Commands, but the completely insane way in which WWI was prosecuted, on all sides, is a matter of historical fact. No wonder Diana is misled, and goes on a search for Ares, who, she’s been told, she can kill with her special sword.

I’m delighted that the movie is set in the First World War, and not the Second. WWII might tend to support the ‘some enemy hath done this’ school of thought about warfare origins. I mean, Hitler, right? But no. No enemy hath done this. We’re perfectly capable of doing it to ourselves.

Finally, of course, Diana meets Ares, played by Professor Lupin, otherwise known as David Thewlis. And he tells her the truth. And initially, she can’t handle it. And finally, she does.

At the time I watched the movie, it didn’t occur to me how cliched that final confrontation between Diana and Ares really was. My son pointed it out to me. Final fight scenes between superheroes (good v evil, of course), are inherently undramatic; guys flinging other guys into buildings, doing massive amounts of property damage, but not actually hurting anyone. When you’re impervious to being damaged by ginormous collisions with big steel-and-concrete structures, then why do you insist on flinging your opponent around the way they all do. What are you accomplishing? It’s boring, honestly; nothing’s at stake. Diana and Ares are having a deep and profound conversation about the nature of evil, and why Men (feminist, right?) fight wars. They didn’t need to bash up buildings to have that convo. Also, spoiler, but the movie suggests that she decides for humankind because she’s learned about love by falling for Steve Trevor. It’d be more interesting if she fell in love with human beings, more broadly understood. For women, and their children, since this is a feminist superhero movie. Not just some dude, making this a romantic melodrama.

So it’s not as feminist as it imagines itself being, and the ending isn’t anything innovative. It’s still a fine film, beautifully conceived and superbly acted. And it stars Gal Gadot, who is a miracle as Diana. The whole cast is terrific, in fact, including Chris Pine, who gives depth and relevance to a pretty thankless pretty boy role.

It’s really good. If it could have been a bit stronger, so what? It’s the best summer action movie so far this year. It’s so good, in fact, that for a second I forgot who the President was. That’s my new benchmark.

 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2: Movie Review

Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2 was one of the summer movies this year I was most looking forward to. I hoped that I could catch it in its opening weekend, but other family members wanted to see it too, and coordinating schedules proved a challenge. But last night, we finally gathered at the cineplex. And we had a good time. It’s a surpassingly strange film, far more interesting in terms of its theology–I’m not kidding–than as the goofy comedy action movie it purports to be. But it’s entertaining; I’ll give it that.

Let’s start by talking about dramatic structure. Hollywood action movies follow the basic structure of late nineteenth century melodrama. All of them, without exception. Hero, heroine, comic sidekick, villains and their sidekicks, bad guys doing dastardly deeds, ultimately defeated by good guys, usually involving a fight, with awesome stunts. The plots are often rather baroque, with multiple subplots all racing towards a satisfying and exciting final confrontation. Still, there’s always a discernible hero, with a strong objective. Often it involves some kind of quest. The hero is trying to blow up the Death Star, or steal the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, or steal a magical orb from one bad guy, and using it to activate an ‘infinity stone,’ or something. That last bit was, as far as I can remember, Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) quest in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. In order to accomplish that, Quill assembles the team known as the Guardians of the Galaxy–Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (a raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (a tree, voiced by Vin Diesel). Comic sidekicks, in other words. It was an amusing, but frankly pretty conventional superhero action movie plot.

This sequel is very different in structure. For most of the movie, Quill and his pals are just trying to stay alive. As the movie begins, they have been hired by a gold-skinned, genetically perfect species called The Sovereigns, to protect Anulex batteries from destruction. A massive beastie attacks; they fight it, and win. But Rocket, the scamp, steals some of the batteries they were hired to protect. So the Sovereigns come after them, and destroy their ship. So there’s no noble objective, no quest. They’re just trying to stay alive, because they’ve infuriated an entire civilization for no good reason.

In my review of the first Guardians movie, I compared it to Star Wars. That would make this one The Empire Strikes Back, and sure enough, we get a “Luke, I am your father.” moment. (It’s not anything like Empire in any other sense). The father, in this case, is Ego (Kurt Russell), who we earlier saw, in a flashback, with Peter’s Mom, looking absurdly like Kurt Russell, age twenty. (I don’t know how they did that, but it’s a very cool effect). But the Ego who shows up and declares himself has aged, and says he has been searching for Peter for years. And so, Ego takes Peter, Gamora and Drax with him to his planet, leaving Rocket and Groot (now, baby Groot), behind to repair their badly damaged ship. Where they are captured by another group, the Ravagers, under the putative command of Yondu (Michael Rooker). They’re professional thieves, and Yondu essentially raised young Peter. But they’re on the outs from other Ravagers, who have rejected them because Yondu broke the Ravagers’ code, by selling children into slavery.

At this point, the movie gets very weird. We’re a third of the way in, and nothing like a plot has managed to reveal itself–no quest, no objective, other than just staying alive. And Ego is a generous and welcoming host, and his planet is beautiful, considering that he lives on it by himself, with one aid, the empath Mantis (Pom Klementiev). At which point, the movie becomes an exploration of the doctrine and theology of apotheosis.

Apotheosis: the process by which men become deified. Ego, turns out, is a God. He became a God over millions of years, during which time he constructed this planet to glorify, well, him. Peter’s his son, and Peter is divine. He has a share of Ego’s creative power. He can create worlds of his own, if he wants to. And he’s immortal. Human Mom, Divine Father. The music set it up beautifully. The songs are the best parts of this movie, as they were in the previous one, and as Ego’s ship descends to his planet, we hear George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”

As a Mormon, I found this unexpected twist fascinating, because apotheosis is, sort of, a Mormon doctrine. “As Man is, God once was; as God is, Man may become.” Right. But the more Peter (and his friends) dig into it, the more we learn about Ego’s divine reign. He’s awful. He’s kind of a monster. Peter is not his Only Begotten–Ego’s fathered lots of children, who he then executed when he finds that they lack the divine spark that Peter has. Anyway, it looks like Ego’s kind of bored, and wants his divine son to hang around, for company. There’s also a bit of a ‘we can rule the universe’ vibe to it.

It turns out that his spark of divinity resides at the planet’s core, where it can be gotten to and blown up. Since Ego’s plan for ruling the universe involves mass slaughter, killing him seems like a good idea. He’s a God, and he’s immortal, but apparently, he can also be killed. So that becomes the big quest thing, the movie’s plot. But it comes very late in the movie. And has almost nothing to do with Peter, our protagonist, who does very little to accomplish it. Mostly, it’s pulled-off by Groot and Rocket, who escaped from the Ravagers (with help from Yondu, and also Gamora’s ferocious sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), who wants to kill Gamora, because of how their father pitted them against each other as children.

And that’s another theme of the movie, isn’t it? The abuse and murder of children. Yondu’s great sin, the thing that got him excommunicated as a Ravager, is his sale of children into slavery. He loved his adopted son, Peter, but Peter’s childhood was grim; a series of petty crimes. And, of course, that’s Ego’s great sin, too; the murder of his own children. Although almost nothing in the movie establishes Peter Quill as a Christ figure, he’s torn between two fathers; the brutality of Ego, his biological/divine father, and Yondu, the Dad who raised him, a Joseph the Carpenter figure.

So this is a movie about apotheosis, about men becoming Gods, about the most profound ideas of divinity, and divine responsibility, and the endless challenge of eternal life: boredom. Eternal life without eternal progression, really: the Mormon conception of hell. And it’s a movie about child abuse, about fathers abusing their children, and even murdering them.

And absolutely nothing in the tone of the movie, the approach of it, suggests either profundity or tragedy. It’s a clever, fun, post-modern comedy action flick, stylistically. Self-referential, with lots of jokes and deadpan insults splendidly delivered by Chris Pratt. Peter imagined, as a child, that Nightrider-era David Hasselhoff was his father, and sure enough, Hasselhoff himself gets a cameo. The Looking Glass hit, Brandy, is solemnly declared, by Ego, the greatest piece of music ever written. I love this exchange: “We’re friends!” “You’re not friends! You do nothing but fight!” “You’re right. We’re not friends. We’re a family!” (And, of course, the music’s perfect yet again: Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain). It’s a clever, funny, self-consciously self-referential movie, with jokes based on the characters, yes, but on ’70s and ’80s pop music, and other tropes drawn from superhero movies.

It’s an odd combination: theology, and post-modern jokiness. It’s too genial a movie to dislike. But what do we say about it? That it’s reaching for a profundity it doesn’t ever earn? That it’s fun but plotless, and let’s just ignore the theology stuff? Or this: that the Divine can be approached many ways, reverentially, yes, but also through jokes and fight scenes and goofiness? Ambitious failure? Or better, deeper, more interesting than it needs to be, given its origins as a summer superhero movie? And do we even have to choose?