When the Game Stands Tall: Movie Review

When the Game Stands Tall is a pretty nifty example of the inspiring teacher/sports movie subgenre.  Inspiring teacher movies are all about how wonderful teachers change the lives of young people–Dead Poet’s Society, To Sir With Love, Stand and Deliver, you can probably think of twenty others.  Sports movies are generally about how a sports hero overcomes tremendous odds to win The Big Game–Rocky, Rush, Rudy.  So, an inspiring teacher/sports movie is about how a great coach teaches his/her young athletes to succeed, and to win The Big Game–Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights.  I used to be a teacher, and come from a family of teachers–I love inspiring teacher movies.  I’m also a sports nut–love sports movies.  It therefore follows that I’m a total sucker for ITSMs.  And When the Game Stands Tall is a first rate example of the genre.  If you like this kind of movie, you’ll like this one a lot; if you don’t, you probably won’t.

Jim Caviezel stars as Bob Ladouceur, football coach of the De La Salle High School Spartans, a team that over fifteen years, never lost.  151 in a row.  De La Salle was also a religious school, and Ladouceur teaches a kind of seminary class.  Bible studies. He was (and is) a devout Christian, and that’s why he’s stayed coaching at De La Salle, turning down much more lucrative college coaching offers. He thinks he can have his biggest positive impact on young men’s lives by coaching at the high school level, initially very much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife Bev (Laura Dern), who thinks it would be swell if he were home with his family occasionally, and also, gosh, more money sure would be nice.  That conflict (which could be huge, but in this film, isn’t), doesn’t take up much of the film, especially after Ladouceur has a heart attack and has to turn over spring practice to his best friend and assistant head coach, Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis).  When Ladouceur finally is able to return to coaching, the guys on the team are busy sniping at each other, and lack the unity that had previously been their legacy.  They lose; the streak ends at 151. They lose the next week as well.  This sets up The Big Game, a televised battle with a rival school from Long Beach, a much deeper and bigger squad, against whom they basically have no chance; Apollo Creed, to their Rocky Balboa.

So it’s pretty conventional stuff. There’s also a brush with tragedy–a star player is murdered sitting in his car, and the coach and community have to deal with the tricky theological implications of random acts of murder, the unfairness that strikes us all when young people die unnecessarily. There’s the ‘inspiring team-building field trip,’ like the trip the team takes to Gettysburg in Remember the Titans; in this film, they go to a local VA hospital and work with wounded soldiers. There are the obligatory ‘working hard in practice’ montages. The players gradually are distinguished from each other, individualized, and each gets a moment of triumph. It’s all very well done, well acted and filmed, and the football sequences are believable and well filmed, if, of course, a tad implausible. And, as usual with high school sports movies, the actors are consistently five years older than the kids they’re supposed to be playing. But let all that go. It’s all well done and effective.

When the Game Stands Tall departs from convention nicely, though, in that it does not end with the Big Game. After all, the Big Game for De La Salle was the third game of the season. There was an entire season to finish, and the movie takes another twenty minutes to finish it. But it’s not really a let down, because the focus shifts to the team’s star running back, Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig), and his story. Ryan is very close to state record for career touchdowns, a record his abusive father (the always dependable Clancy Brown) very much wants him to break. Ludwig is very convincing as a big, John Riggins-style running back, a bruiser with speed, and he’s a terrific young actor otherwise.  (All the kids in the movie are–really a fine collection of good young actors). So in the season’s final game, Ryan’s quest to break that record becomes the main storyline of the movie. No spoilers here, but I found it very satisfying, at least thematically.  The movie is not, after all, about a football team with a long winning streak, but about the values of teamwork and sacrifice and character that the best coaches always stress and embody.

I never had an inspirational high school coach, because I didn’t play sports in high school. But my high school drama teacher was a remarkable woman, a life-changingly inspirational coach to me and to hundreds of other kids in our high school. So I get the concept.  My guess is that if you’re someone who likes inspiring teacher movies but are personally indifferent to the game of football, you’ll probably like this movie a lot nonetheless.

It’s very easy, of course, to be cynical about a movie like this, a very Christian-centric movie about how sports build character and how life lessons are taught by brilliant teachers. But I didn’t find myself cynical in the least. I found it very powerful and moving.  But again, I’m a sucker for movies like this.

Robin Williams: requiescat in pace

The great Robin Williams died yesterday, an apparent suicide. And the rest of the day, FB was a place of mourning.  “Captain, my captain.”  The Dead Poet’s Society was a movie my wife and I both loved, and that iconic line seemed a fitting epitaph.

What’s remarkable to me about Williams’ death was this: he was one celebrity you never read about being a jerk.  With most celebrities, you read about them and you say ‘well, sure, s/he was a good actor, but there was that time. . . ‘  Not Williams.  Instead we heard literally hundreds of stories about his patience and kindness with fans.  When we heard negative stories about him, they were almost entirely self-inflicted–he had a substance abuse problem; he suffered from depression. But he did not seem infected by self-importance; quite the contrary.  I think he loved performing, but I always sensed some insecurity there too; he also wanted us to love him.

We need to recognize that depression is a real illness.  My oldest daughter is a remarkably bright and funny and delightful young woman who I love with all my heart.  She also suffers from depression, has for years.  Her comment on Williams’ death: ‘there but for the grace of God. . . .’  Let’s reach out to those in our own lives who suffer from this debilitating and life-threatening disease.  My parents are a good example of this.  When they learned of my daughter’s illness, they both made a point of articulating to her their unconditional love and support and prayers.

Depression is poorly understood by many in our culture, and from time to time we hear people say ‘they should just snap out of it,’ or ‘cheer up, life is good!’ or similar inanities.  Or they judge.  One so-called Christian blogger, who shall forever remain nameless here, demonstrated his own lack of charity with a blog post that disgraced the entire internet.  (I’m sure some of you know who I’m talking about; if not, he’s not worth your attention).   But on the same day that I learned of Williams’ death, I also learned that a close friend has been diagnosed with cancer.  I consider both diseases, cancer and depression, equally dangerous.  Blessedly, both can be treated more effectively today than in the past. Neither should be taken lightly.

But, Robin Williams!  Oh my goodness, what a loss.  People forget that Williams was trained as a classical actor at Juilliard, that he turned to stand-up as an alternative to acting, to pay some bills.  His stand-up routine was hyper-kinetic, full of impressions and voices and accents and riffs of popular culture, a rush of mayhem, with only the loosest transitions between subjects and topics.  We talk about how comedy is timing, and Williams had exquisite comic timing, but at a rapid-fire pace.  Compare him to someone like Stephen Wright, or Jim Gaffigan, two comedians with, again, extraordinary timing, but who work at a much slower pace, sometimes getting huge laughs from pauses.  Comic timing simply means this: telling the joke so that the punchline registers without distraction.  Comic timing really means comic clarity.  And I think there was probably never a better talk show host than Robin Williams, probably ever.  He was just so astonishingly on.

Of course, he was also a fine dramatic actor; a three-time Oscar nominee.  The roles he’s best known for are the inspirational ones: Good Will Hunting, The Dead Poets’ Society, Patch Adams, Good Morning Vietnam, where he played unconventional-but-heroic men who transform stodgy institutions through the power of irreverence. But we shouldn’t forget that he and Steve Martin did Samuel Becket, Waiting for Godot, on Broadway.

Here are five movie roles where Robin Williams really stretched himself, five unconventional movies in which all his gifts were on display.

Williams’ first feature film was Robert Altman’s Popeye. It received brutal reviews when it came out in 1980, but I loved the stylization of both Williams’ performance and Altman’s approach to the material.  It was a live-action cartoon, brought to cheerful life by Williams, by Shelley Duval as Olive Oyl, and by Paul Dooley’s Wimpy.  Note Williams extraordinary physicality in the role; the walk, the quickness on his feet.

In 1982, he played the title character, in the film adaptation of John Irving’s acclaimed novel, The World According to Garp. George Roy Hill directed, and found a way to navigate the novel’s blend of magical realism and genuine melancholy.  The film is mostly remembered now for John Lithgow’s Roberta Muldoon, a trans-gender former football star, who becomes Garp’s closest friend, but Williams holds the film together, gives it heart and passion.

I was never a huge fan of What Dreams May Come, a film that a lot of my friends and former students loved.  It’s about a man who searches the afterlife for his dead wife, intent on saving her.  Compelling story, but I was troubled by the theological implications of the film, the notion that people who commit suicide are forever damned.  Especially ironic, of course, given Williams’ own death.  But this scene got to me when I first saw it, and it still has the power to move.

Then, in 2002, after a series of critical and box office bombs, Williams had an amazing year creatively, refashioning himself as an actor, with three films: Insomnia, Death to Smoochy, and One Hour Photo.  Those films gave him the opportunity to explore the darker contours of his talent.  In One Hour Photo, he plays the employee of a photo lab who becomes obsessed with a family who frequents his store.  The Williams who always seemed, perhaps, a bit anxious to please disappears; he gives a creepily unforgettable performance.  In Death to Smoochy, a dark comedy about a TV children’s show host who loses his job, Williams captures a Mafiosa vibe, while retaining a child-like vulnerability.  This scene, with Jon Stewart, is brilliantly funny, in context. Finally, in Insomnia, an early Christopher Nolan film adapted from a Norwegian original, Al Pacino and Hilary Swank play detectives tracking a serial killer, in a northern location where the sun never sets, driving the detectives insane.  Williams is terrifying as the killer.  So check ‘em out.  I think you’ll be astounded by his range.

I feel fortunate to have lived during the Robin Williams era in American entertainment.  I am so grateful for the years he gave us, and so sorrowful for his passing.  Goodnight, Mork.  And thanks for all the years.

Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars

I saw Guardians of the Galaxy last night.  It’s very fun, a tremendously entertaining movie.  I liked it a lot, in case you’re on the fence about it.  Rather than review it, though, I thought I’d make this point: jt’s basically Star Wars.  So if you haven’t seen it, and don’t want the plot spoiled, stop reading right now.  Go see it, and then come back.  I’ll wait.

Okay: it’s Star Wars.  It’s basically about a mismatched crew of vagabonds, flying around the universe, who join together to destroy a round ball that has the power to destroy a planet, or lots of planets.  In Star Wars, it’s a very big round ball; the Death Star; in Guardians, it’s the Orb, small enough to fit into the palm of a bad guy’s hand. But they’re both metallic round balls. They even look a bit alike.

The main character has a mysterious past, involving an absent father and a dead Mom. In Star Wars, his last name is Skywalker; in Guardians, he’s Peter Quill, but wants people to call him Starlord.  Skywalker=Starlord, close enough?  I’ll admit, in Guardians, Starlord is more like Han Solo than Luke–a sort of vagabond outlaw type, who has in the past been hired by an evil businessman–Yondu Udonta in Guardians, Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars.  But there’s a mystery about his parentage in both cases, and the absent father figure has left him with a legacy involving some kind of mysterious power: the Force in Star Wars, the ability to sort of control the Orb thing in Guardians.

There’s also a sidekick character.  Peter/Luke makes friends with another vagabond, Rocket/Han Solo, who has a very large, very deadly sidekick with limited language skills: Groot/Chewbacca.  Rocket and Han are both very good with blaster-type rifle weapons.  Both Groot and Chewbacca moan to communicate, though Groot also can speak three words of English.  (And major props to Vin Diesel, who endows “I am Groot” with many many meanings).

There’s also a bad guy who is tall, wears black, and has a deep bass electronically enhanced voice: Ronan/Darth Vader.  But in both cases, he reports to another even more evil bad guy: Korath/the Emperor.  Who he communicates with on some kind of screen thing, and also sort of plots against.

In both movies, there’s (of course) a girl, attractive and a good fighter: Gamora/Leia.  Both seem to be of quasi-royal blood.  Gamora is the adopted daughter of Thanos, though lent to Ronan, who she hates and wants to destroy. Leia, of course, is a Princess.  Her exact connection to the Emperor is unclear, but the Star Wars universe clearly has a kind of monarchical governmental structure, which she’s part of, though she’s joined the Rebel Alliance.  Gamora has green skin; Leia has her easily mockable hair style, which looks as though she glued two Danish pastries to the sides of her head. They’re distinctive looking, in other words.

Both movies are built around big escape scenes.  In Guardians, our heroes have to fight their way out of a massive prison.  In Star Wars, they have to break Leia out of prison, then escape the Death Star.

Both movies have a big bar scene, involving a planet that can be accurately described as ‘a wretched hive of scum and villainy’: Knowhere in Guardians, Mos Eisley in Star Wars. Both planets have, of course, bars, and our heroes go there to relax, among a motley bunch of aliens. In the Knowhere bar, the entertainment seems to involve a version of cockfighting involving small dinosaurs; in Mos Eisley, it’s a jazz combo. Not quite equivalent, I suppose.  But our heroes do have a drink, though they get drunker in Guardians.

And, of course, in both movies, the threatened planet has some fairly memorable characters.  Nova Prime (Glenn Close) in Guardians, and General Dodonna in Star Wars.

This leaves out a few major characters.  The Guardians universe doesn’t seem to have equivalents to Obi-Wan, unless you count Yondu, an older mentor figure to Peter Quill, but not really very similar to Obi-Wan at all.  And no one on Star Wars strikes me as terribly equivalent to Drax.  My wife suggested C3PO–he shares Drax’s conversational literalism.  But Drax is a fearsome fighter, and C3PO way isn’t.  My wife also suggested R2D2 as similar in some respects to Rocket, which works a little better.  But I’ll stick with Peter/Luke and Rocket/Han for now.  There’s also one of the most compelling characters in Guardians, Gamora’s cyborg half-sister Nebula. Also known as the character that allows Guardians to pass the Bechdel test.

Of course, one of the most awesome elements in Guardian is the soundtrack, involving Peter Quill’s beloved early ’80s mix tape. When we see the five Guardians, in slow motion, heading off to battle, to the sound of the Runaways singing “Cherry Bomb,” I laughed out loud, it was so perfect. But the music in Star Wars is pretty distinctive and memorable too.  Suffice it to say that neither movie would be anywhere near as fun without its musical score.

The main point, though, is that both movies are space-opera-fun.  As the last three Star Wars movies trudged tediously on, the movies lost the sense of humor that made the first one so enjoyable.  Star Wars was never profound, never self-consciously ‘great’. It was a ball. It was the funnest B-movie ever made.  That’s what makes Guardians so remarkable, and so successful. It’s not afraid to make fun of itself.  It finds a remarkable comedic rhythm and never forgets to maintain it.  It’s a comic book, in the best sense of the word.  And so was the original Star Wars.

Film Review: Lucy

My wife and I watched Lucy last night, and I don’t know how many brain cells that cost me.  But it was a lot.  The irony of this movie is that the smarter the main character, Lucy, gets, the dumber the movie becomes.  I want to write a coherent, logical, thoughtful review of this movie, but I don’t think . . .  what I’m saying is, I’m not sure . . . I can actually . . .

1) It seems suggestive at least that the two biggest money-making directors working in Hollywood right now, Michael Bay and Luc Besson, are both really bad at it. The main difference is that Besson’s films tend be a lot shorter. This is a good thing.  And he is better at filming action sequences.  The fact that his films don’t make a lick of sense is part of their fun.  I will pretty much always go see a Besson film, honestly.  Even if it’s nuts.

2) The adjective usually attached to Luc Besson is ‘crazy.’  Google ‘Luc Besson crazy’ and you’ll get 480,000 results. This has clearly not prevented him from making a whole of really popular movies. There’s a formula here: equal parts family values sentimentality + preposterous plotting + over-the-top action sequences, especially car chases, which he loves.  Even when they don’t make sense.

3) The ‘family values/sentimental’ moments in Besson films are never even remotely believable, and are often the ickiest parts of the movies.  You’d think they were written by a life-long bachelor, but Besson has been married/divorced four times, and has five children.  Still, note Liam Neeson’s creepy stalker-ish obsession with his daughter’s dating life with her boyfriend in the Taken movies.  Note 3 Days to Kill, with Kevin Costner torturing a guy, but then stopping the torture to ask for parenting advice. Note The Family, where the family values on display are mostly about beating up and torturing French villagers.  In Lucy, it’s where 20%-smart Lucy can suddenly remember a cat her family owned when she was one, then tells her mother she can remember the taste of Mom’s breast-milk. I thought this was kind of an odd detail for her to remember.  I also thought that most Moms, when a daughter talks about her mind being connected to The Infinite, and how she can see into the structures of cells, and can now remember the taste of breast-milk, would have one immediate and obvious response: “honey, are you on drugs?” Like, all concerned, right? Not this Mom, though. Moms in Besson-ville are insane.

4) The premise of Lucy, BTW, is that Lucy, a college student in Taipei, played by Scarlett Johansson, gets caught up in a drug-running scheme.  She’s going to be a mule, transporting a kind of blue powder, which, it turns out, makes you way way smarter, able to use the parts of your brain you’re currently not using.  This drug gives Lucy super-powers.  Eventually, she becomes God.  Sorry about the spoiler; that’s what the plot is.  Four minutes in, I knew that was what the plot was going to be.  Besson is not a subtle filmmaker.

5) But okay, we Mormons sort of believe that, believe in something like it anyway, men possibly becoming God-like.  So we should embrace this movie, should consider it theologically sophisticated, a movie that embraces human divinization.  Except we don’t really believe in it like this. We don’t think, for example, that some kind of blue powder is involved.

6) Though I did kind of like the scene where Lucy, now pretty well God-like, meets Australopithecus Lucy, a hairy hominid, and they touch fingertips, just like God and Adam do in the Sistine Chapel painting. I also thought Besson’s T-Rex looked more like an Allosaurus.

7) Lucy should be able to fly.  Certainly, when she first takes the blue powder, her body is able to defy gravity.  There’s a scene where she needs to get to a lab to meet with Morgan Freeman, and she drives like a madwoman through the streets of Paris, leaving any amount of vehicular carnage behind her.  She’s got a French cop (Amr Waked) as a passenger in her car, but he seems completely untroubled by all the lethally crashed cop cars along her car’s path.  I understand that, for reasons of the plot, she needed to get to that lab really quickly.  But since 20%-smart-Lucy could fly, 60%-smart-Lucy should be able to as well, only probably way better.  I darkly suspect that the car chase scene is only in the movie because Luc Besson really likes car chases.

8) What’s with all the Nature channel cutaways?  Seriously, how much do you not trust your audience?  We see a gang of thugs slowly moving towards Lucy.  Cut to wildlife videos of cheetahs closing in on antelope. See, they’re predators!  Get it: predators!  Or, at one point, Morgan Freeman points out–big revelation here!–that most mammals choose to propagate their own species.  Cut to lots of shots of humping hippos and giraffes.  We get it, Luc!  We know that animals reproduce!  We’ve been to zoos!

9) It is not, in fact, true, that human beings use only 10% of their brains, and that we could become super-heroes if we used more of ours. I think it’s unlikely that if we could use more of our brains, we’d be able to levitate bad guys and stick them to ceilings. I don’t think we’d be able to do that.

10) And even supersmart-Lucy can only do stuff like that sometimes.  At the end of the film, when lots of good-guy French cops are in a firefight with lots of bad-guy Chinese gangsters, it certainly seems like super-smart-Lucy could do a bit more to help the good guys.  Like stick evil Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi) to the ceiling, maybe.  But she doesn’t.  Apparently becoming a God turns you into kind of a dick.

11) Mr. Jang is pretty obviously the devil.  At one point, Lucy stabs him in the hands with knives, but this doesn’t prevent him, later in the movie, from trying to kill her, plus all her French cop friends.  The bandaged hands are, I think, supposed to be his cloven hoofs, maybe.

12) But, as a bad guy, he makes all sorts of decisions that don’t make sense.  Okay, he’s a drug smuggler, with awesome blue powder to sell to American and European markets.  But the drug doesn’t make you high, it turns you way way way smarter.  Wouldn’t he want to try it?  Also, if Lucy’s supposed to be a drug mule, and has a packet of this drug surgically installed in her belly, wouldn’t Mr. Jang tell his henchmen to be super careful not to punch her in the belly?

13) I’ll say this, though; I was entertained.  It was an idiotic movie, but I did enjoy it.  Scarlett Johansson is very good in it, as is Choi, as is Waked.  No complaints about the acting.  The story is silly, but it’s a Luc Besson film; they’re always silly.  The dude’s written 56 feature films, produced over a hundred, directed 21. Fifth ElementThe TransporterBrick Mansions?  They’re pretty much always at least watchable, and even sort of fun, if you take the precaution of turning off your brain, along with your cell phone, upon entering the theater.

14) I think Lucy‘s supposed to be his masterpiece, though.  I think this is what passes for profound in Bessoniana. Ouch.

Gay mormons: two opportunities for conversation

When I was a kid, every Thanksgiving and Christmas and Fourth of July, we’d have a big family dinner, and, in addition to my folks and my brothers, we’d invite another man, Mr. Carl Fuerstner.  He was a musician friend of my Dad’s; a brilliant pianist, an accompanist and coach.  Whenever my Dad had a new opera role to learn, he’d call on Mr. Fuerstner to help him with it.  Mr. Fuerstner was short, balding, and very German, with a thick accent and abrupt manner.  He had small hands and short, stubby fingers, I remember, which amazed me because he was such an amazing pianist.  I would watch him and wonder at how he could move his fingers so quickly.  Anyway, I grew up thinking of Mr. Fuerstner as a kind of bad-tempered, generous, funny, Teutonic uncle.

He was also really bad at things like keeping up his house and lawn and car.  His car was always a wreck, and he never mowed his lawn.  He’d call my brother and I, and we’d get the gig of mowing it, but he waited until it was essentially a hay field, and took forever to mow properly.  But he did pay pretty well, as I recall.  It was just part of who he was; a brilliant musician, with a big lawn he never mowed.

And Mr. Fuerstner was also gay.  And we also knew that about him, that he was Dad’s gay musician friend.  He always had a guy living in his house with him (usually a much younger guy, and never anyone with lawn care skills), and that was also just part of who he was.  We didn’t think anything of it.  Mr. Fuerstner was German, a great pianist, bad at lawnmowing, and gay.

So when I was in high school, and my friends would engage in the thoughtless, routine homophobia of insecure adolescents in the mid-1970s, I was always pretty puzzled by their vehemence.  Gay people=Mr. Fuerstner.  A harmless old German guy.  Not a threat to anyone or anything.

I’m a Mormon, and for a long time, that same reflexive homophobia I remembered from high school has been part of mainstream Mormon culture.  I remember the seminary lessons: San Francisco was the latter-day Sodom, and God had only refrained from destroying it because of a handful of righteous Mormons.  That kind of nonsense. And I’ve also seen Mormon culture change, at least some, to, at least, a recognition that sexual orientation isn’t something people choose.  And I think that the change of attitudes we’re seeing is, in part, because more Mormons know more gay people.  If you’re a Mormon, and someone you love dearly is gay, it’s harder to cling to attitudes filled with hatred.

Dialogue’s a good thing.  Talking to people, in a respectful, non-judgmental way, is a good thing.  So I want to tell you about two opportunities to engage with a dialogue about and between Mormons and the LGTB community.

The first is a film, a documentary: Far Between. It’s being made by my friends Kendall Wilcox and Bianca Morrison Dillard, and it’s full of wonderful interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  Please check out their website.  They’re trying to raise money to finish the film via a Kickstarter campaign, and are close to making their goal.  From what I’ve seen of the film, it’s wonderful, honest and real and decent.  Please, if you can support Kendall and Bianca, there’s a link. Help them change the conversation.

At the heart of Kendall and Bianca’s film are interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  That’s also at the heart of Ben Abbott’s wonderful play Questions of the Heart.  I’d like to be able to say that Ben is a good friend of mine, or that I’ve seen his play and thought it was wonderful.  In fact, though, we’ve never met (except on Facebook), and I haven’t seen his play.  So why am I recommending it, why am I calling it ‘wonderful’?  Because many many many mutual friends, people I trust, have seen it, and not a single one hasn’t found it wonderful.  When an old friend from Indiana (and a person of taste, education, intelligence and sophistication) calls me out of the blue and talks for forty-five minutes about how great this play is that she just saw, I take that seriously.

Ben’s play, like Kendall and Bianca’s documentary, is built on a foundation of interviews.  Ben’s approach strikes me as similar to that of Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright/actress/activist who used interviews to create such marvelous works as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. In the latter play, she interviewed various people involved in the Rodney King riots, and created a play around those interviews, playing all the various characters herself.  (West Wing fans probably remember Smith best for her role as Nancy McNally, President Bartlett’s National Security Advisor).  Anyway, Ben does that too; plays the Interviewer, and then each of the characters.

Ben Abbott is touring Questions of the Heart this fall.  Here’s his website. He’s starting the tour in Laramie, Wyoming, but you can see from the itinerary where else he’s playing.  So far, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a Utah performance, but maybe we can find a date and venue for him here.

I applaud Kendall and Bianca, and I applaud Ben.  I think both of these projects are tremendous, and well worth supporting.  Anything that can advance this important conversation is worth doing.  I hope you can join me in giving your support to both.

Frozen: Movie Review (belated)

Back when our kids were little, my wife and I were constantly on the lookout for movies like Frozen: kid-friendly movies with some good songs and sorta funny comic bits.  We would have seen the movie in theaters the first week it was released, and we would have purchased the VHS tape of it, and the kids would have watched it over and over.  At that level, Frozen‘s not bad.

But we’re older, and our kids are moved out, mostly, and though this movie has been out for months, I hadn’t seen it until today, on Netflix.  I probably wouldn’t have reviewed it, except that I’d heard from lots of people that I ought to see it.  And I found it disappointing.

Let me start here: it does not compare with the best of the Disney animated musicals.  Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, different as they were in approach and style, were nonetheless movies with as much to offer adults as children.  They were movies we loved.  The songs were terrific, the animation beautiful, the comedic moments genuinely funny, the characters rich and compelling.  It’s at the ‘grown-up appeal’ level that Frozen fails.  It has essentially one character we care about, and basically one good song.  Most of the songs, in fact, don’t advance the story much at all, but are in the movie as filler.  It’s got fifty minutes worth of story, which it pads out to one hundred minutes.  Odder still, the protagonist of the story doesn’t get the one good song.  She has, I don’t remember, two, three, four songs, all of them forgettable.

In case you just arrived from Mars, it’s about two sisters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa is cursed with the power to turn things to ice.  Anna is happy and carefree and uncursed.  After a near-death experience, where Elsa accidentally zaps Anna, the parents decide to keep them apart forever, without ever once explaining why.  Despite a childhood of such dreadful deprivation, Anna grows up to be a delightful young woman, open and loving and kind.  Elsa grows up fearful.  On the occasion of Elsa’s coronation (the parents having died in a shipwreck, because this is Disney where all children are near-orphans), she zaps the entire kingdom, then, horrified, runs off into the mountains. She sings “Let it go,” a terrific song that you’ve probably heard a million times by now.  She builds herself an ice palace, and resolves to live there.  She’s also not the main character in the story.

The protagonist is Anna.  She falls in love with a handsome prince, then turns the kingdom over to him so she can look for and find and entreat her sister, to get her to de-ice-ify the kingdom.  That quest takes up most of the rest of the movie.

On the way, Anna meets another dude, Kristoff, playing the role of hypotenuse with her and her handsome-prince fiancee.  She meets Kristoff’s pet reindeer.  She meets a comic snowman, Olaf, who gets a “Once there was a snowman” hilarious song about how awesome heat would be.  She meets various rock people friends of his, who sing a ‘Matchmaker’ type song about her and him.  She fights off a snow monster. It’s all padding. Most of the songs in the show are like that; they’re in the movie as filler.  Instead of songs that drive the action forward, they’re songs that distract us from it.  We’re supposed to be thinking ‘ah, what a cute song by the snowman guy’ instead of ‘why aren’t you busy finding your sister?’

Again, for an audience of children, this probably all works fine.  The little snowman is cute.  His song is funny.  But the best Disney animated musicals work because they’re also good musicals (as any trip to Broadway today will confirm).  This show would close in Philadelphia.

I didn’t hate it.  I loved the Anna character.  She’s brave and she’s loving and she’s charmingly awkward about it all.  And if folks insist on a Disney show having a message, this one is all about how ‘true love involves sacrifice,’ which was lovely.  Nice to see a Disney film that mocks the ‘true love’s kiss’ tradition invented by, well, Disney.  It also, refreshingly, points out that ‘love at first sight’ is silly.  And that true love can be between sisters.  And while “Let it go” is a lovely song about female empowerment, that idea is promptly undercut by the rest of the plot, and is sung by a character that we otherwise don’t like very much, who isn’t even in most of the movie.  I just wish Frozen were a better, more memorable movie, more character-driven, more fun.  But, as I say, my kids would have liked it, and probably yours will too.

Snowpiercer: Movie Review

Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer is the most exciting summer action movie of the summer.  It’s also a excellent example of smart, inventive, science fiction.  It’s a profound and powerful film about poverty and social class and income inequality.  It’s a religious allegory of sophistication and intelligence.  It’s a cautionary tale and a meditation on leadership and power.  And the film itself is a metaphor for our lonely and desperate sojourn on this rickety craft we call planet earth. It’s also probably not playing at your local cineplex.  It certainly wasn’t playing at mine; I had to catch it at an art house in Salt Lake.

The producers of this film made the cheeky decision to release it the same weekend that Michael Bay’s fourth Transformer film came out, a movie that Snowpiercer is approximately 194,000 times a better movie than.  But Snowpiercer does not have the essential elements needed for a film to be embraced by the summer popcorn movie crowd: a pretty girl in shorts and skimpy top, and the smashed-up destruction of a major world city.  Nor does it feature trucks riding dinosaurs.  So it’s getting the slow, city-by-city art house release strategy.  Which means that so far, it’s made (approximately) 194,000 times less money than Bay’s movie has made, or is going to make. This is a situation you can personally make a small contribution towards rectifying: may I urge you to start this weekend.

Because Snowpiercer is just so, so good. Here’s the premise: earth has been rendered uninhabitable by a world-wide freeze.  Shot after shot of a world in icy desolation.  But eccentric billionaire Wilford somehow managed to build a train that could survive those conditions, and that could run a permanent looping course over rails covering the entire planet. The train’s engine is self-sustaining, and though ecologically a closed system, the engine can itself provide power, water and nourishment for a human population.  For seventeen years, a few thousand folks have survived on this train, the Snowpiercer. They are rigidly divided by class.  At the very front of the train, is the engine, tended by Wilford (who is, by now, essentially worshipped as a God).  At the very rear of the train are the poor people, crammed into tiny bunks, with just enough water to drink and to take care of sanitary needs, but not enough to wash up much. They’re fed on ‘protein bars,’ horrible gelatinous purple square things, strictly rationed.  Iron gates guard the other sections of the train, and initially we can only imagine how the people live in the rest of the train.  And from time to time, armed soldiers come back to the poor section and requisition people needed for some undescribed tasks elsewhere on the train. The astonishing Tilda Swinton plays Mason, the liaison between Wilford and the poor, and a ferociously comical propagandist for the social order.  Everyone has a place in the world, she insists.  You would not wear a shoe on your head; nor should the poor expect the benefits due to the wealthy. And so she culls them:  an elderly violinist is separated from his wife (who protests, and is savagely beaten).  Children are carefully measured and taken away.  And the poor folks seethe, and plot.

They’re led by Curtis, superbly played by Chris Evans, of Captain America fame. He’s organized, efficient, a natural leader, though he deflects any praise on that account. He also is haunted by secrets from his past (which, when eventually revealed, are a psychic punch in the guts).  He’s advised by the one-armed Gilliam (John Hurt), who may also have the ability to supplant Wilford and run the train. A friend, Tanya, (Octavia Spencer) brings her own maternal ferocity, when her son Tim (Marcanthonee Reis) is taken off by Mason.  And he has a younger assistant, Edgar (Jamie Bell, the kid from Billy Elliott). And from time to time, a capsule with a message inside shows up in their protein bars, and Curtis plans his revolution. He’s going to fight his way to the front of the train.  And he’s going to take over the engine.

The first step is to bypass the gates separating sections, and one of the cryptic capsule messages informs him that a security expert, someone able to open gates, can be found in the security detention area, which Curtis thinks he can reach.  And indeed, the first battle of the revolution does gain them that detention space, where detainees are stored in lockers.  And we meet Minsoo, played by the superb Korean actor Kang-ho Song.  Who tells them he requires a drug, Kronol, and wants two cubes of it every time he opens a gate.  And who also insists he won’t work without his 17-year-old girlfriend, Yona (Ah-sung Ko).

Kang-ho Song starred in Bong’s 2006 film, The Host, my favorite monster movie of all time.  He’s a tremendous presence in this film as well.  As Minsoo, he is soulful, intelligent, brave, untrustworthy and addicted, and deeply secretive.  Curtis needs him, but never quite trusts him, which turns out to be sensible.  Yona is similarly mysterious, in another terrific performance.

The heart of the film, then, is the journey through the train by Curtis and his increasingly depleted band of impoverished warriors.  And nothing that subsequently happens is in any way predictable.  Every time Minsoo opens another gate, we see another sub-stratum of Snowpiercer society, another world opens up, and they’re just astonishingly inventive and interesting.  And meanwhile, the train motors on, through a frozen wasteland, and from time to time we see icy barriers, results of an avalanche or snowfall, and we see Snowpiercer smash its way through, at times careening wildly on two wheels, nearly derailing, but always moving forward.

Early in the film, Bong describes the train as ‘an ark,’ and, watching it, I teased out one potential meaning.  The train seems all-powerful, self-sufficient, completely safe, a refuge and port-in-the-storm.  But it’s not safe at all.  It’s actually kind of ramshackle, an improvisation, not all that carefully designed or engineered.  And yet the people seem largely unaware of that reality (which we, in the audience, see all too well).  And the champagne pours and steak and seafood appears on wealthy folks’ plates.  Well, isn’t that our position here, now, on the Planet Earth?  Global catastrophe beckons, but we’d rather squabble over the politics of science?  And we don’t much trouble ourselves over it, as long as we’re well-fed, well-housed, well-clothed, and able to reproduce?  And we’re vaguely aware of people living lives of starvation and despair, and we may occasionally make some noise about helping them.  But we also send out Tilda Swinton to lecture about the inevitability of social classes and the destructiveness of threatening the existing social order.  We’re on top, and like it that way.  And if our craft frequently careens on the edge of disaster, it really always has righted itself, has it not?  So not to worry.

To explore other possible meanings and ideas in this film would require that I reveal details of the plot, which, for this film, I’d rather not divulge.  Ordinarily, I’m Mr. Spoiler, but this film isn’t in general release (yet), and I’d rather persuade you to see it than advance a critical conversation.

Suffice it to say that, an hour in, I made all sorts of predictions about what would happen, none of which turned out to be even a little bit true.  And I never failed to be astonished by the endless inventiveness of this wonderful director and his production team.  This is Bong’s first film with movie-star-like actors and American stars and, you know, a budget.  I’ve loved his earlier work–especially The Host and Mother–and this film fulfills and exceeds the promise he’s previously shown.

A couple of days ago, I raved (possibly even over-raved) the new Planet of the Apes movie.  I loved this film too, possibly even a little better.  I saw it with a friend, and we were both blown away by it; couldn’t talk about anything else all the way home.  See Snowpiercer.  Do not miss this film.  And then let’s talk, after you’ve seen it.

Dawn of the Planet of Apes: Movie Review

It’s a big blockbuster summer action movie.  About monkeys.  I went with fairly low expectations.  But Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the smartest, saddest, most deeply tragic film of the year, a soulful, brilliant movie, thoughtfully conceived and superbly rendered.  It feels like a Shakespearean tragedy, honestly, that kind of power and resonance.  Images linger.  My wife and I went home, and could hardly talk about it; it overwhelmed us both.  It’s just a remarkable film, an amazing meditation on leadership and the limits of leadership and on the inevitability of violence and the way peaceful intentions can become derailed.

If you saw the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with James Franco, this is the sequel.  In that earlier film, Franco played a scientist researching a cure for Alzheimer’s, desperate for a cure for his rapidly diminishing father.  He experiments on Caesar, his pet chimpanzee, and is astonished when Caesar develops human intelligence and emotional complexity.  But Caesar is taken from him, and placed in an ape sanctuary, where he becomes a leader to the other apes.  He acquires more of the drug developed by Franco, and he and the other apes escape to a forest sanctuary.  But the same drug, it turns out, is toxic to humans, and a massive pandemic threatens mankind.

As this film begins, most of the human race has died in the pandemic.  Some few survivors, however, had a genetic defense against it, and have gathered in San Francisco, where they have formed a community under the leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).  Also in that community, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his domestic partner, Ellie (Keri Russell), a doctor, and his teenaged son from before the pandemic, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The community’s energy reserves are badly depleted, and Malcolm has been tasked with repairing the electrical generators at a nearby dam.  But his route to that dam runs straight through Caesar’s forest home.

Caesar, meanwhile, has created a city, a refuge for apes, perfectly adapted to simian abilities and needs.  They have a highly sophisticated kind of sign language, but can also speak human English, though they have difficulty forming words.  They tend to use the human language for emphasis, but for conversations requiring subtlety and nuance, they prefer signing.  They’re mostly chimps, along with one gorilla and one elderly orangutan, Maurice, who serves as the teacher for their school.  And Caesar has given them a religious code of sorts, the first commandment of which is ‘ape not kill ape.’  Caesar’s ‘chief-of-security’ is a deeply damaged and angry ape named Koba.  Caesar is also married, with a son, and his wife has just given birth to a second boy.

As in the earlier film, Caesar is played, in an extraordinary physical performance (then animated via CGI), by Andy Serkis.  As in the earlier film, Maurice is played by Karin Konoval.  But the film’s antagonist, Koba, is now an actor named Toby Kebbell.  And he gives the performance of the film.

Okay, so, the first big cultural clash between human and ape comes when Malcolm’s team of humans, trying to fix the generators at this dam, cross ape territory, and are confronted by a security team led by Koba.  One of the humans shoots and wounds an ape, and it appears as though the confrontation is likely to turn violent.  But Caesar shows up, and by his sheer presence, forces Koba to back down.  Malcolm and his party retreat back to San Francisco.  The next day, Caesar and a large party of apes show up at the human colony and Caesar warns the humans not to return.  He’ll maintain the peace, as long as humans stay in their territory and don’t trespass into ape lands.  (All this is expressed in a few words, but it’s unmistakable).

The problem is, the human colony desperately needs energy, for heat and light and, above all, for communications, for attempts to contact other possible human enclaves.  And so Malcolm goes back, and negotiates a truce with Caesar.  He promises that humans will surrender their guns, if safe passage can be guaranteed to and from the dam.  And Caesar agrees to this, although it really puts his authority with his own people to the test.  Koba especially does not trust humans.  Koba was, in the earlier film, the subject of the most brutal kinds of animal testing–he’s a torture victim–and in a deeply moving scene, he points to his various scars and says ‘human work, human work, human work.’  (Which is one of the things I love about this film.  Koba is the ‘villain’ of the piece, but he’s a deeply wounded, damaged, sympathetic character, beautifully written and acted.)

So Malcolm and his men get the dam repaired (with considerable help from the apes), and suddenly, San Francisco has electricity.  And we see one of the characters, searching through a suddenly-aglow gas station, and he finds a CD player, and he puts in a CD, and we hear the strains of The Band playing The Weight.  And we see him dance.

But Koba, always mistrustful, leads a small team back to the city, and finds where the human weapons’ arsenal is.  And he sees a a group of human soldier-wannabes taking target practice.  And all his suspicions about the untrustworthiness of humans are confirmed.  And when the human ‘soldiers’ see him, they’re about to shoot, but he puts on a happy monkey act for them, what would be for apes a Stepin Fetchit act.  A Cheetah act; jivin’ and grinnin’; monkey blackface vaudeville.  It’s a tremendous scene, and an effective one, seeing Koba demean himself to survive.  And then Koba playfully grabs an AK-47.  And then he starts shooting humans.

And then, back at the ape town, Koba shoots Caesar, abandons him, and leads the rest of the apes back to San Francisco, on horseback, heavily armed.  And a battle scene commences, an ugly, violent horrific war between man and ape.  And then Koba commandeers a tank, and we see the battle unfold from his POV.  And the humans are defeated, and crowded into cages.  As are Caesar’s remaining allies among the apes, including Maurice.  And Caesar lingers, close to death.  And Caesar’s older son is torn, between his loyalty to his father, and his admiration for Koba and Koba’s courage and charisma and pain.

But Malcolm and Ellie find Caesar, and Ellie performs life-saving surgery.  And Caesar survives.  And heads back into San Francisco, again to lead his people.

I don’t want to give away the ending.  But what’s remarkable is this; it’s not triumphant.  Caesar and Malcolm remain close friends to the end, but this will not end peacefully.  The two real leaders have become impotent; peace eludes them, and will continue to elude them.  Foolishness and paranoia and fear and the enticing prospect of violence are too ingrained in both human and ape personalities; war must come, and it will not end well.

I kept thinking of historical parallels.  The first is to our own history, and the ugly warfare between whites and Indians that marred it.  Caesar could parallel some of the extraordinary Native American leaders of the past, men like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and Tecumseh and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. On the other hand, the people against whom Sitting Bull was pitted had not been decimated in a pandemic, while Native tribes certainly all were.  Or we might look to our day, to the inevitability of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, to the current battles fought between the Israeli army and Hamas.  Or we might look to other historical parallels.  Much of the power of this film is in its dissection of what inevitably happens when two peoples fight over limited resources.  This film manages to feel historically grounded, without recalling any one specific historical period or conflict.  But it’s completely convincing, especially in its depiction of genuine, great leadership (Caesar, and to a lesser extent, Malcolm), and suspicion and hatred and paranoid leadership (Dreyfus and Koba).  Leaders can only lead up to a point.  And then everything blows up.

I should add a word about the acting in this film.  Obviously, Serkis and Kebbell give extraordinary performances, given the extra detail of seamlessly integrated CGI.  But I can’t say enough about Jason Clarke.  He was terrific in Zero Dark Thirty, equally fine in The Great Gatsby.  This is his first big action movie lead, and I hope it really launches him.  He’s a tremendous actor, another of those Aussie acting marvels, and I’d love to see him have one of those Mark Ruffalo/Peter Sarsgaard careers, where he’s great in everything in he’s in, but is never quite an A-list superstar.  He’s certainly remarkable here, if a bit overshadowed by Serkis’ performance.

Anyway.  Wow.  Great movie.  See it.  I know; summer action movie.  Monkeys.  It doesn’t matter.  This is the best movie of the year, so far.  See it.

Much Ado about . . . zombies?

Once upon a time, there was a big theater in a medium sized town.  And the people who ran that theater thought that, in addition to Foreigner and Beach Boys concerts, and Miss Provo beauty pageants, it might be nice to perform some actual honest-to-goodness plays.  And so they did ask the general public what they would like to see, and some wag waggishly suggested that Shakespeare’s great comedy, Much Ado About Nothing might be improved by the addition of zombies. And the Halloween slot did beckon. And many many other people on-line saw this suggestion, and said to their own personal Siri-person things like ‘ooo’ and ‘ah,’ and ‘awesome.’  And then the theater management rubbed their chins thoughtfully, and said ‘hmm.’  And then some sensible person said, ‘wait!  Someone has to direct.  What directors do we know who are crazy enough to want to do this?’

And behold, my phone did ring.

I really dig zombies.  I think the very idea of zombies is creepy and scary and sick and funny, and those are all words I like very much.  I’ve liked zombies ever since I was in high school, and I read a column in the local newspaper by, I’m pretty sure, George F. Will (yes, he was bloviating even way back then), in which he described a movie, a film that had been released some years earlier but was now being re-released, called The Night of the Living Dead.  He said it was the kind of movie that signaled the end of civilization as we knew it, that it was so extreme, so horrific in its violence and so nihilistic in its attitude towards that violence that it simply should never have been made, and certainly never released, and absolutely never seen by teens or children.  I think I was fifteen or sixteen, and instantly knew this was a must-see movie, and went with a friend, and it was amazing.  Terrifying and funny and best of all, forbidden.  (A few years later, a talk in Church said similar things about The Exorcist, that under no circumstances whatever should LDS teens see this movie. Saw it the next night, and loved how scary it was. Walked home afterwards, and every tree was haunted, and every dog possessed.)

So, I love zombies.  Love the old George A. Romero Night of the Living Dead zombies, shambling and moaning and eating brains.  Love the newer zombies, the hard-to-kill Olympic sprinter zombies of 28 Days Later, the virus-hits-in-seconds wall-scrambling zombies of WW Z, the lonely and bewildered (and romantically inclined) zombies of Warm Bodies. I even liked the rotting Nazi zombies of Dead Snow, a fairly terrible Norwegian zombie movie of five years ago.  The movie wasn’t very good, but the zombies were very scary.  My niece, Marilyn, was even in a zombie movie a couple of years ago; titled (if memory serves) The Undeadening. It never got theatrically released, but hit the link–it’s got a trailer!

But sadly, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is lamentably deficient in references to zombies. Not just that play, but his entire oeuvre has hardly any actual zombie characters.  Ghosts, oh, heck yeah. Shakespeare never met a ghost he didn’t like. And I suppose you could always turn his ghosts into zombies.  But there aren’t even ghosts in Much Ado.

And I love Much Ado.  It’s a genuinely brilliant comedy, one of the best comedies ever written by anyone.  So why mess with it?  Why impose on a brilliant comedy some conceit like zombies?  Why take a timeless classic and reduce it to pop culture memes.  In other words, how do we avoid just doing a production of Much Ado with a bunch of zombies shambling pointlessly about on the periphery?

It’s no good saying ‘because this is what we do, because this is current and new, because this kind of updating is how people do Shakespeare nowadays.’  A bad idea doesn’t become a good idea just by being current.

No, this is only worth doing if adding zombies somehow clarifies and illuminates the text.  I’m not interested in just tossing zombies into a Shakespeare comedy because, hey, that’s the gig.  I respect Shakespeare too much, I respect Much Ado too much,  heck, I respect zombies too much, to do that.

Much Ado is a great love story, the story of two bright and lonely and wounded people, Beatrice and Benedick, both of whom have renounced love forever, who nonetheless find each other.  But it’s also about Claudio and Hero, two lovers poisoned by slander and gossip and the nasty political machinations of Keanu Reeves Don John.  It’s about life and romance and taking a chance on love again.  But death is a constant presence; Hero’s (faked) death and Claudio’s (threatened) death at Benedick’s hand.  And under all that is war.  The characters are soldiers, men who have seen death first-hand, and are now embracing the sweet celebration of life that love represents.

Zombies represent death.  In fact, zombies represent the ever-present human fear of death, a terror that follows when the dead rot in their graves, but still won’t quite stay dead.  And they crave . . . brains, the site and source of human personality, of consciousness itself, of what we call the soul.  If vampires are the undead, zombies are the unalive, the anti-alive.  They’re sheer malevolence, unreasoning evil.  They work really well for Don John.

So that’s what our production attempts, to explore that dynamic: love/life (Beatrice and Benedick), vs. hate/death (Don John/zombies).  And trapped in the middle are Claudio and Hero, the innocent victims, trapped between life and death, love and hatred.  We’re cutting down most of Claudio’s lines.  He’s been infected by the virus, is losing the ability to speak.  But he can fight it.  Hero makes him want to fight it.  Benedick is likewise torn, between killing the zombie and restoring the friend.

A terrific writer named Becky Baker has been doing the adaptation, having combed all of Shakespeare to find every even vaguely zombie-sounding line.  I love what she’s doing with the script.  She’s bright and talented and unafraid–everything I like in a writer.  And as we talked about a setting for this version of Much Ado, I kept thinking it might work if we set it in some version of Victorian society, a society absolutely saturated by the fear of death.  But it’s a fictional world, obviously, not Shakespeare’s Messina, but some approximation of reality.  (The ‘war’ they’re all returning from, for example, is a war against zombies).

So we’re going steam-punk with it.

The Covey Center designers are having a ball with it, and the design is going to be spectacular.  We have original music, being composed even as we speak, for Shakespeare’s poems.  (Balthazar, the minstrel, is the first zombie infected).  We haven’t cast yet, and won’t until September–actors, it’s going to be lots of fun, so brush up your monologues!

And tickets are already on sale; here’s the link.

I really think it’s going to be fun. And if you’re going to be in Provo around Halloween, come see us!  Zombies, and Much Ado!  What could possibly go wrong?

 

 

Movie Review: America, Imagine the World Without Her

Dinesh D’Souza’s new documentary, America: Imagine the World Without Her is, let’s admit it, a competently made piece of Tea Party propaganda.  I saw it at a matinee at 10:30 in the morning, and the place was packed.  I was also the youngest person in the audience by twenty years.  Leaving the theater afterwards, I heard audible sobs, saw genuine tears shed, saw people who had clearly been moved by it.  Part of me wanted to make a scene, but I didn’t. Internet trolls are bad enough; a movie troll is nothing to aspire to.

And I admit: it’s pretty well made.  Lots of costumed reenactments–Washington leading troops to battle, Lincoln giving speeches, Frederick Douglass likewise. Lots and lots of sweeping helicopter shots of American landmarks–Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge.  Lots of inspiring country rock patriotic music.  It sets a brisk pace, makes its points with clarity.  Even the ubiquity of D’Souza’s presence as interviewer is intentional and effective.  He’s from India; he’s dark-skinned and he’s conservative, One of Us, so we’re absolved from the charge of racism.

And he has some interesting interviews; gets some pretty prominent lefties to say suitably inflammatory things: Ward Churchill, Alan Dershowitz, Bono.  So it looks, you know, balanced and reasonable.  Fair.  It isn’t.

The stated premise of the film is intriguing; what would the world be like without America?  Would it be a better or a worse place?  Specifically; the movie starts off with a battle scene in which a British sniper kills George Washington.  Well, what if that had happened, what if we Americans had lost the Revolutionary war?  But D’Souza doesn’t pursue that question much, probably because the answer’s pretty mundane.  We don’t know what would have happened, but probably we’d have just ended up more or less like Canada.  Slavery would have ended sooner than it did, and our system of government would be parliamentary but still democratic.  No 2nd Amendment.  We’d be fine, in other words.

What really interests D’Souza, though, is Howard Zinn.  Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States tells our history from the perspective of marginalized people–Native Americans, slaves, poor immigrants, workers.  D’Souza clearly loathes Zinn and everything he stands for, and offers an alternative American history; that of Alexis de Tocqueville.  D’Souza thereby sets up a false dualism; the American narrative is either that of a 60s radical socialist historian, or that of an early 19th century French aristocrat who rode around Ohio and was impressed by this nation of farmer/inventor/entrepreneurs.  And those are our choices.  America is defined by one of those narratives; it’s either/or, Zinn or de Tocqueville.  Ignoring, oh, the work of maybe 20, 000 historians also defining America narratively.

And that’s what we get, this insultingly simplistic rendering of the American story. Zinn says that we robbed Native Americans, practiced genocide.  D’Souza says ‘no, we didn’t murder Native Americans!  They died of disease.  We made treaties!  We were civilized!’  And thereby reduces a complicated history to one that’s more comfortable to us today.  Or slavery; yeah, we practiced slavery.  But so did lots of countries!  Plus, we had white people slaves, people in indentured servitude!  Plus we fought an idealistic war to get rid of it!  So we’re not really to blame for anything.  At all.  America still gets to be good!

Of course, D’Souza has his villains.  Obviously.  Worst of all: Saul Alinsky.  In D’Souza’s unsubtle rendering, Alinsky is essentially a mobster, a commie agitator, a secretive operative intent on destroying America.  And he has two great allies today: Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton.  (Obama’s grandfather knew Alinsky slightly in Hawaii; Hillary wrote her senior thesis on Alinsky.)  See, Alinsky was trying to destroy America!  Because he was a communist!  And now Obama is trying to destroy America! Because he’s a communist, fundamentally hostile to American entrepreneurial capitalism.

That was one of the times I laughed out loud.  I couldn’t help it; it’s just too funny.  A pro-business moderate like Obama (or for heaven’s sake, Ms. Wall Street Hillary Clinton!) being portrayed as a communist!  Corporate profits were around 10 trillion last year; if Obama’s trying to destroy capitalism, he’s really bad at it.

The historical ignorance of this movie, the straw man arguments, the foolish knee-jerk anti-Obama assertions, the astonishing lack of nuance, ultimately it makes for a dispiriting experience.

I wondered how D’Souza would deal with the fact that he’s in jail: that he was arrested for violating campaign finance law.  It’s nicely done.  First, we see him sitting in a jail cell, in handcuffs.  He looks glum, and the voiceover says ‘I made a serious mistake.’  And then he goes on to talk about the IRS “scandal”, where the IRS supposedly targeted Tea Party groups seeking 501 (c) (4) status. See what he did there?  Sleight of hand: he can say ‘hey, I admitted my errors,’  but in the context of Obama persecuting critics of his administration. Like Dinesh? You can read it that way if you like. . .

At one point, the film shows a clip of Michael Moore at an Occupy Wall Street rally.  Earlier, D’Souza makes a big deal of the fact that his previous film, Obama’s America, was the second biggest money-making political documentary ever.  Well, what’s first?  Moore’s Farenheit 9/11.  And Moore’s the one filmmaker more than any other who D’Souza resembles.  They both make propaganda films, polemical films essentially defining the political divide.  They both make films that play to the confirmation bias of hard-core partisans, left and right.  They both make unsubtle, manipulative films.

And they both lost.  Moore’s film tried to win the 2004 election for John Kerry; D’Souza’s first film tried to win 2012 for Mitt Romney.  Both made tons of money-both failed to achieve their more important objective.  This film is aimed at Obama again, to be sure–conservatives can’t clear their throats nowadays without expressing their contempt for this President.  But it’s also aimed at Hillary.  It’s making sure that We all understand what a Threat she is.  That’s nonsense, of course, and I think it’s likely to fail again. A diet of pure bile is never all that nourishing.  And this guy has nothing to offer but bile.