Category Archives: Movies

Sharknado, the first three: review

I think the success of the first Sharknado movie took the programmers at the Syfy network sort of by surprise. Of course it was a preposterously bad movie, based on a ridiculous premise. One of the enchanting pleasures of Syfy is their glorious revival of the tradition of the B-movie. No, not just of B-movies, of entertainingly terrible movies, the whole grindhouse/drive-in/American International/Roger Corman movie tradition. When I was a teenager, my friends and I loved to go to the Starlight Drive-in and watch abysmal (but fun) movies. Or, on nights when my parents weren’t home, we’d watch Sammy Terry’s Nightmare Theater on WTTV, the Indianapolis station that also showed IU and Indiana Pacers’ basketball games. I grew up watching awful sci-fi/horror movies. I think they’re awesome. Sharknado proudly partakes of, and contributes to, that tradition. Which is why my wife and daughter and I recently watched the last two.

But really, was Sharknado that much more ridiculous than other Syfy offerings? Was it worse than Scream of the Banshee, say, or Dinocroc? Or Dinocroc vs. Supergator? Or Dinoshark? Or Frankenfish, Pteracuda, Piranhaconda, Lavalantula, or The Man with the Screaming Brain? Yep, they’re all for real, and have all been broadcast in the last five years on Syfy network. So once you’ve committed to a movie on the premise of an anaconda/piranha crossbreeding, why not follow it up with one about tarantulas made of lava? Or, for that matter, a movie about a tornado that sucks sharks out of the sea and drops them on big cities?

But Sharknado took off. One main reason is Twitter. The actual viewing audience for the initial broadcast was actually not all that impressive. But enough people live-tweeted it, and those who did were sufficiently snarky, Syfy decided to re-broadcast the next night, but include the more amusing tweets. Let’s not pretend for a second that Syfy isn’t in on the joke.

But what about the actors? And there you have it, the secret to the success of these movies. Let’s not kid ourselves, acting in Sharknado requires a certain skill set that’s not quite, but is related to, acting. Ian Ziering has starred in all three Sharknados, and, you know, he does just fine. He treats the character Fin (yes, the character is named Fin) seriously, and commits physically to all the action requirements, most of which would seem to require a chain saw. You don’t ever not believe him. In the third movie, when he announces that he plans to name his infant son Gill, the joke landed precisely because he committed to it. After Beverly Hills 90210, his career pretty much flat-lined, which makes him just the right kind of star for a Sharknado-type movie. Famous enough to carry the picture, desperate enough to accept the role. (John Heard was in the first one, a better known, and probably even more desperate actor–he slept-walked through the first third of the movie, then became shark bait without anyone missing him).

The first movie also featured two main actresses: Tara Reid and Cassie Scerbo.  Tara Reid, you probably know. It’s not like she doesn’t have some impressive film credits: The Big Lebowski, American Pie. But she never could act, and after some forays into reality TV (and a famously botched boob job), she needed a hit. But she’s dreadful in all three Sharknados. Part of it’s the writing. Thunder Levin, the writer, has yet to give April, her character, anything to do except stand on the periphery of scenes and bite her lip in anxiety. Plus, Fin and April, for some reason, use a shark attack crisis as a perfect opportunity to work out their relationship issues. But whatever the challenges of the character, Reid conspicuously fails to meet them. In the perfect marriage of actress and character, April and the actress who plays her both manage to do nothing but annoy. (Bo Derek (!) plays her Mom in the third movie, and manages to out-bad-act even her.)

Cassie Scerbo, though, is something else again. Again, it may be the writing; her character, Nova, is a badass. She isn’t given much to do; shoot a semi-automatic weapon, throw hand grenades, look good in a bikini. But she more than meets all three challenges. More to the point, she has some energy. She’s forceful; she’s fun to watch. She’s only in the first and third movies, and the second movie is poorer for it. She’s the one actor in this thing that I think could have a subsequent actual career. Fin is a bit torn between the two great loves of his life, April and Nova, and Syfy obligingly sent a piece of debris hurtling towards April at the end of the third movie. Now we all get to vote on-line on whether April dies or not, in the fourth movie. Guess how I voted.

I appreciate watching a good actor meet an acting challenge, though. And in the third movie, they bring in the perfect Sharknado actor, for a far-too-brief appearance near the end. David Hasselhoff. And, I’m sorry to say this, but he’s brilliant. Genuinely good. Just tongue-in-cheek enough to play up the ridiculousness of the movie’s premise, but also charismatic. I mean, Hasselhoff’s career was built on joke-TV–Baywatch. His job was to be the one actual dramatic character in a show that was otherwise all about the bikinis. Well, this one’s about sharks. He knows how to handle this kind of material. (Frankie Muniz was also pretty great).

I mean, watching Sharknado movies does require a good deal more suspension-of-disbelief than is usually the case. If, in fact, tornados could suck sharks out of the ocean, they’d just die. If, miraculously, sharks didn’t die up in the air, they’d die when they hit the earth. Even if, somehow, they survived the fall, they’d die anyway, because they’re fish; they can’t live out of water. Even when (in all three movies) they land in commercial swimming pools, they’d die; fresh water with chlorine? Lethal to salt water sharks. Certainly, sharks wouldn’t be biting people much. But the silliness of the premise is most of the fun.

But in addition to the, you know, actual actors in these things, there are also many many cameos. In the third movie, Mark Cuban plays POTUS, and is impressive; at least, he looked like he was having fun. Ann Coulter plays VPOTUS. (Never have I so rooted for sharks to eat someone. But alas).  Matt Lauer and Al Roker play themselves in the last two movies, until they both become shark lunch. We get to see Lou Ferrigno, Bill Engvall, Jackie Collins, Lorenzo Lamas. Will Wheaton was in the second one. Of course, they all get shark-chomped pretty quickly, but that’s the gig; you get ten seconds of screen time, and then the actual stars of the movie–the sharks–take over.

And the sharks are, well, dreadful. Bad CGI is half the charm. The action isn’t really ever terribly convincing, and the effects are, well, low budget. And quite apart from the general absurdity of a sharknado, the movie’s plots are preposterous. But that’s why and how Syfy makes them. They don’t cost much, and they deliver. Movies are supposed to be fun. It’s nice when they’re also not poo. But when the movie is called Sharknado, I’ll settle for fun.

 

Once I was a Beehive: Movie Review

Let me start with the easy stuff: Once I was a Beehive is terrific fun. Within the sub-genre of ‘Mormon films,’ we’ve seen plenty of excellent serious films, many of them about missionaries. Maclain Nelson, who co-wrote and directed Beehive, even starred in one: The Saratov Approach. But the comedies haven’t been much good, ranging from the mediocre The Singles Ward to the execrable The Home Teachers. What we haven’t had up to now is a comedy made with intelligence, insight, humanity and good-hearted affection for the quirks and oddities of Mormon culture. I know that comedy’s hard. Still, I can’t begin to describe how good it feels to see Once I was a Beehive, a genuinely funny movie that avoids every potential misstep and creates believable human characters and derives its humor from carefully observed and beautifully realized actual people; a comedy, in short, that just plain works.

The movie begins with Lane Speer (Paris Warner), on her way to a camping trip with her Mom (Amy Biedel) and Dad (Adam Johnson). She’s fifteen, there’s a party she wants to go to, and she doesn’t particularly want to go camping. But her good-natured Dad teases her out of her bad mood, and we see the bond between them, and when they get into their canoe and head for the wild, what we see is a real family, outdoorsy and close-knit.

Cut to Dad’s funeral. Cancer. And Lane is quietly devastated.

Cut ahead a year. And Mom Speer is engaged to remarry, to a Mormon guy, Tristan Samuelson (Brett Merritt). And they’re going on a three week honeymoon, and they have arranged for Lane to spend those weeks with Tristan’s sister, Holly (Hailey Smith). And Holly’s daughter, Phoebe (Mila Smith), is sort of a brilliant mess, with a serious anxiety disorder, a therapy dog she can’t be parted from, and a sort of needy nerdiness. Enter Sister Carrington (Lisa Clark), an obnoxiously enthusiastic Young Women’s President, who pressures both Phoebe and resolutely non-LDS Lane to come to Girls’ Camp.

Clark is initially very funny in the role, but in her characterization, I thought I identified the film’s first major pitfall; that kind of cartoonish caricature wears pretty thin pretty quickly. I needn’t have worried. As Carrington’s exquisitely planned (and scrapbooked) schedule falls apart, so does the character, and Clark’s performance shifts, turns Carrington into a real person, vulnerable and snappish. Hailey Smith gives a quieter, still funny, but equally nuanced performance as Holly. And then they arrive at their campsite, and Barta Heiner rides up in a motorcycle.

In a rational universe, Barta Heiner would be recognized as the national treasure she really is; both the best acting teacher in the country, and an actress at the level of Meryl Streep and Judi Dench. That’s not hyperbole, though I also admit to a certain prejudice; she has been my revered friend and colleague for nigh on thirty years. In Beehive, she plays Nedra, the Girls’ Camp director and a tough and crusty outdoorswoman. Poor Lane, who by now is totally weirded out by the whole Mormon-centric Girls’ Camp experience, immediately recognizes a kindred spirit, and decides to stick around.

And a good thing she does. Because of her father, Lane has skills the other girls lack–she can set up a tent, read a map, cook a tasty meal over a campfire. And we also see her basic, essential kindness, also learned from her father, we presume. She befriends odd little Phoebe, helps her come out of her shell, helps hide, and protect, her therapy dog.

There are ten girls at this camp, and all are fully realized characters, both in the screenplay and through their performances. Clare Niederpruem is particularly strong, as Bree, Sister Carrington’s daughter, whose immediate, instinctive reaction to self-reliant Lane is essentially that of Elphaba to Galinda. And vice-versa. (Everybody sing along: “Loathing, unadulterated loathing, for your face, your voice, your clothing!”) But the movie really works based on the performances of Paris Warner and Mila Smith, as Lane and Phoebe. Both girls are tremendous. At times, Smith comes across as a precocious little female version of Sheldon Cooper; at times, she’s a frightened child with an anxiety disorder who just wants her doggie. These two performances make the movie–the grown-up actors, all of whom are terrific, are really there in support the two girls.

And it’s all pretty funny. There’s a scene where the girls, challenged to pair up and create, with a partner, a ‘spirit animal’ that defines something about themselves, give us a pretty hilarious menage of lions and dogs and (in the case of Lane and Phoebe) Galapagos tortoises. A little later, Sister Carrington reveals her ‘spirit animal.’ When Lisa Clark said ‘cougar,’ I laughed out loud. It was just a little throwaway joke, without the set-up-payoff-reaction shot structure of most movie jokes, but it nailed me. You know that obnoxious faux-profound line ‘I never told you it would be easy. I said it would be worth it?’ In this movie, it’s a punch-line, and a funny one. But also not in a mean-spirited sort of way.

I have a feeling that people who have been to Girls’ Camp would find the movie funnier than I did. And, let’s face it, Girls’ Camp is, in our culture, as much an exercise in indoctrination as it is a fun camping experience for teenaged girls. This movie faces that reality, finds a way to make it funny, but it does so with some real affection, and with this perspective: Girls’ Camp is about a lot more than just Mormon-centric preachifying.

That’s a fine edge. Does this movie make fun of Young Women’s programs, and especially, of Girls’ Camp? Yes. Does it recognize how relentlessly didactic Girls’ Camp can get, with every hike an object lesson and every task a sermon? Yes. Those are all fine subjects for satirical comedy, and the movie realizes the comedic potential inherent in each. But does the movie ultimately suggest that Girls’ Camp can provide a genuinely empowering experience for young women? That it’s about friendship and fellowship and kindness as much as it’s about ‘Trial of Faith’ scavenger hunts? Yes. That’s a thin line for a movie to tread, and I applaud Nelson and his whole team for treading it so dextrously.

(I don’t want to give away too much, but there’s one choice the movie might have made that would have ruined it, I think, and which, gratefully, it decided not to make. Comment for further enlightenment).

There’s one final issue I’d like to raise. Is this a feminist movie? Is this a movie likely to be applauded by Mormon feminists, or should it be? It is, after all, a movie with an almost entirely female cast. (There’s one guy at camp with them, the bishop, who apparently spends the entire week in his tent listening to an audiobook version of The Hunger Games; a pretty good joke right there.) It’s a movie about female leaders, about a Young Women’s President, and also about Bree, a Laurel President, who learn how to be real leaders over the course of Girls’ Camp. It’s about women with genuine leadership skills, about strong, independent, powerful women. It’s about Nedra, the older woman played by Barta, with a military background and wonderful compassion and friendship for young Lane. It’s about teenaged girls who overcome cattiness and cliqueish-ness and selfishness and grow, as friends, as women, as Christians. (It’s also, in one of its funnier scenes, about women pretty shamelessly objectifying hot young male forest rangers). Best of all, not one modesty lecture. Never once.

I consider myself a Mormon feminist, to the extent that I can be, given my gender. But, sure, yeah. It’s a movie about one official LDS program that really does try to empower young women. I’d say, sure, it’s a feminist film, maybe not with a capital F, but in its own quietly effective way.

Two final, personal notes. Full disclosure: I know and consider myself friends with many, if not most of the people in this movie. Not the kids; most of the grown-ups. Yes, that absolutely means that I was prejudiced for it to be good. Get over it.

Also this: there’s a testimony scene at the end of the movie. And I mostly dislike testimony scenes in LDS movies. And see, here’s the thing: I have this weird medical thing, a product of my chemo-therapy, where the tear duct in my right eye is damaged. I tend to cry a lot, even when I’m not remotely sad. So, in that testimony scene, I noticed my right eye was leaking a lot. And I thought, ‘well, that’s annoying.’ And then I noticed my left eye was leaking just as much. And my left eye isn’t damaged at all. So that happened too. Seriously, people, go see this.

 

Rickie and the Flash: Movie Review

Rickie and the Flash is a big hearted, excessive wreck of a movie, as vital and messy as rock and roll music itself. It features a powerhouse performance by Meryl Streep, wonderful acting from an ensemble cast, playing sharply written characters in a wonderful Diablo Cody screenplay, in which nothing really is resolved at the end, because that’s just how life works sometimes. My wife and I both loved it. Sure, it’s flawed, and maybe a trifle sentimental, and a lot of critics haven’t liked it. Ignore them. When Meryl Streep and Rick Springfield rock out to Bruce Springsteen’s My Love Will Not Let You Down, the movie comes together perfectly.

Streep plays Rickie, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for a California bar band by night, and a grocery store cashier by day. Her life is a mess. She’s broke. She has an on-again, off-again thing with her lead guitarist, Greg, a wonderfully grizzled Rick Springfield. The rest of her band consists of elderly rock and roll wrecks: Rick Rosas, Joe Vitale, Bernie Worrell (real life session musicians, all of them terrific). Streep learned guitar for the movie, and Springfield only agreed to act in it if the Flash got to really play; if they could plausibly play a rockin’ set in a real venue. The bar scenes are alive and electric. You sense how much the crowd there, in the bar, loves these guys; how much it means to them, to come every night and have a beer and listen to great old-time rock and roll. And their song list was terrific: from Tom Petty’s American Girl to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, from U2’s I still Haven’t Found What I’m Lookin’ For, to Sam and Sham’s Wooly Bully.

(In fact, I found myself wondering if the Flash are too good; if it was plausible that a band this solid would never have broken out of the bar/cover band ghetto. I don’t think so, though. I think there are a lot of terrific bands out there like this; not quite able to give up the music that is life itself to them, but also never quite famous or successful).

In the meantime, Rickie’s children despise her, and her daughter has attempted suicide. Years before, she left her husband, Pete (Kevin Kline) and their three children to pursue the life of a rocker. She put out an album, then her career receded into obscurity. Pete’s now a successful businessman, living in Indianapolis, and his second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald), has raised the children. The two sons, Josh (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate), have become successful young professionals. Josh is engaged, to Emily (Hailey Gates) who spends much of the movie looking horrified at the prospect of a life with this aging gargoyle of a mother-in-law. Adam is gay. In an interesting twist on expectations, Rickie, the Californian, is a die-hard Tea Party Republican; the rest of her family is vegan Democratic. Adam particularly loathes his mother, for what he perceives as her homophobia; Josh is more willing to forgive, as long as it doesn’t involve actually, you know, inviting her to his wedding.

And Julie, the oldest child and only girl, is a suicidal mess. With cause; her husband has left her for another woman. And Julie is played, superbly, by Meryl Streep’s daughter, Mamie Gummer.

Ordinarily, Julie’s crisis is the kind of thing Maureen would cope with. But her father is dying, and Pete, feeling out of his depth, calls on Rickie. Who does, in fact, fly home, and tries, awkwardly, to help. And there are a lot of wonderful cultural crisis scenes. Rickie’s a rocker; she wears more eye makeup than Alice Cooper, more leather than Joan Jett, and more bling than Mr. T. Meanwhile, her family–the Brummels–have become tastefully upper-middle-class, live in a McMansion, adorn the family kitchen with uplifting/humorous little posters. The first time we see Julie, she’s a total wreck; hasn’t showered in days, hair tangled, wears pajamas, flies off the handle. In fact, Rickie does help her, a little. They go out together (on Julie’s husband’s credit card), have a manicure and pedicure and eat food that’s bad for them and do Mom/daughter things. But Julie also blows off a therapy appointment, and then the three of them, Rickie, Julie, Pete, smoke some weed together, so when Maureen comes home, she hits the ceiling. And sends Rickie packing.

And that’s one of the best scenes in the movie. I’ll grant that it’s a bit odd for a movie musical, starring Audra McDonald, to have Meryl Streep do all the singing. But McDonald is tremendous in this movie, a beautifully controlled and calibrated performance, balancing righteous indignation with genuine compassion. It would be so easy for Maureen to be the villain in this movie; the cold-hearted bitch keeping Saint Meryl from her children. It would be equally easy to make this a movie about selfish Meryl, heedlessly ruining her children’s lives to pursue a hopeless and foolish dream. But the movie doesn’t go either of those directions. Maureen comes across as, well, a really really good Mom. She’s the step-mother, obviously, but she put in the time; she raised the kids, and did a darned good job of it, and will cope with Julie’s illness, as she copes with everything, and we see, clearly, that she loves Julie every bit as much as Rickie does, only probably more effectively. And while Rickie’s clearly a woman who made some choices she regrets, we also see her in those bar scenes. We can see just how brilliantly good The Flash are, and how playing with that band, with those guys, is about as much joy as she ever gets to experience in life.

Jonathan Demme directed Rickie and the Flash with his usual humanity and compassion and intelligence. Demme’s 70 now; this might be his last movie. But as always, the acting is marvelous. Streep is as terrific as always, as is Kline, and as are both the young actors who play her sons. Mamie Gummer is brilliant. But the real revelation here is Rick Springfield, who almost walks away with the movie.

I’m not going to spoil the ending. Suffice it to say that nothing is particularly resolved, but that the characters all resolve to be grownups, set aside their pain and resentment, and acknowledge the essential messiness of love. And then the Flash play, and rock and roll works its magic. I loved this movie. If you don’t love good rock and roll, well performed, don’t bother with it. If you do, it probably won’t be in the cineplexes for long. Catch it soon; you won’t regret it.

Movies best seen with other people

For the last few days, I’ve been watching, in bits and pieces, the Rocky Horror Picture Show. There’s a reason I didn’t just sit down and watch the whole thing from beginning to end; it’s terrible. It’s astonishing, how bad it is. Tim Curry’s performance isn’t even all that great; his initial entrance, singing ‘I’m a sweet transvestite’ is extraordinary, but he spends most of the rest of the film flouncing around throwing hissy fits. (His reading of the line ‘Oh, Rocky!’ is pretty great too, I admit.) The story is completely incoherent, the choreography is beyond execrable, both in conception and (OMG) execution. There are some catchy songs. That’s about it.

But here’s the thing, the first time I saw it (winter of ’78), it was at the old Blue Mouse Theater in Salt Lake, a midnight show. And I absolutely loved it. Most of the audience was in costume, and there was an entire meta-theatrical/cinematic ritual at play; people shouting things at the screen, with rice throwing, squirt guns, newspapers to hold over your head. I went in the attitude of pith-helmeted anthropologist, and I had a ball. And so did everyone else in the theater that night, as far as I could tell.

It got me wondering if there were other films like this, films that are best seen with a crowd of people, shared experience films. I suppose another word for them is ‘cult films,’ but that phrase doesn’t quite capture the experience I’m describing. I don’t mean bad films, I mean films that are particularly enjoyable in some kind of group setting. To extend that thought a bit, can we say that certain films are enjoyable precisely because they affirm group identity. They’re insider films, beloved precisely, perhaps, because in some way they are incomprehensible to people not in the group.

Family films fit this category, for example. My wife and her family are all particularly fond of the old Danny Kaye classic, The Court Jester. And with good reason; it’s a terrifically funny film, superbly acted, a delicious parody of Hollywood swashbuckling action/adventure. When we watch it as a family, we repeat lines, we laugh together, we repeat favorite sequences. We can riff off the phrase ‘the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true,’ ad infinitum. Our family does the same for Galaxy Quest; another tremendously entertaining comedy that we enjoy together.  And whenever we see an actor who was in that film–especially the otherwise anonymous folks who played Thurmians, we all go ‘hey, it’s a Thurmian!’ Cross to bear for those actors, but hey, that’s the gig.

It’s not a movie, but a TV series, but the fourteen iconic episodes of Firefly have that in-group vibe. Of course, years after that show was cancelled (for lack of ratings), it’s a Comic-con staple. But don’t you know people who can quote it endlessly? I do. And am one.

Get a bunch of theatre people together at a party, and it’s not unusual for someone to haul out Waiting for Guffman. A funny, inside jokey kind of film, particularly suited for anyone who has done community theatre.

What are some other group identity films? I’d love to hear your faves.

 

Mad Max, Fury Road: Movie review

Finally saw it. Took me a month, saw, like, ten other movies in the meantime. Despite rapturous reviews, both from professionals and from friends, it took me forever. Nothing against the movie; I liked it just fine. Just this: based on the previews, I thought I might find its admittedly state-of-the-art Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Cirque du Soleil aethestic a bit tiresome. That happened, but much less than I was afraid of. As a triumph of stunts, CGI, design, cinematography, editing, and just pure imagination, it’s really quite astounding.

It’s basically Buster Keaton’s The General, with slightly less amazing stunt work, but with updated sexual politics. In Keaton’s day, of course, they couldn’t cut around anything; any action sequences were entirely designed and performed by Keaton himself, and he treated that old civil war locomotive as his own private playground. But the two films are structured identically. It involves a chase, a decision, leading to another chase. Our Hero (and companion) is badly unnumbered in both films, and the bad guys have every advantage. But pluck, determination, and an astonishing ability to scramble up and around vast pieces of machinery allow Our Hero to save the day.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Go watch The General. I’ll wait.

Finished? Great, wasn’t it? Let’s move on.

Here’s the biggest similarity between the two films. The General is set in the middle of the American Civil War, with photography specifically inspired by Matthew Brady. This new Mad Max is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where deformed and motley brigades of macho dudes fight over the most basic liquid elements of life; water, gasoline, mothers’ milk. Women are completely subordinate; we see a room full of nursing mothers hooked up like cattle to milk extractors. The most attractive women are the exclusive property of grotesque warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who also preaches a post-mortality in which he will choose his fellow Valhalla immortals, incentivizing his War Boy followers to feats of the most astounding derring-do at his behest.

But neither film actually feels particularly tragic. The General is a romp; Keaton turns the Civil War into slapstick. Death itself becomes a set up for a sight gag. And Mad Max never gives us time to consider the implications of this post-global warming/post nuclear holocaust slayground. The stunts in both films are spectacular, and we respond viscerally; we’re in awe. They’re not just the same film in terms of plot structure; they’re tonally similar. Only the gender politics are different.

So: gender. In Mad Max, the women of this horrific community have a savior, Furioso (Charlize Theron). And she has embarked on a daring plan to rescue women from Joe’s harem, and take them to her home, a Green Place. It involves a huge semi-truck, a war truck, a beast of a machine that can all kinds of punishment, and has to. But Joe sends his boys to chase it down. Over the course of that chase, Max (Tom Hardy) joins forces with her (after an obligatory ‘getting to know you’ slugfest between them), and they’re also joined by a renegade War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), converted, I think, by the power of Troo Luv (he falls for one of the women).  The most important decisions in the film are generally made by Furiosa (though advised by Max), and she gets a lot more screen time. She can shoot, she can steer a truck through the most impassable obstacles, she can beat up bad guys; she’s an action movie star. And she shows remarkable leadership skills, including occasional moments of compassion and tenderness.

So she’s a feminist heroine, right? And that’s one way the film has been marketed and sold–it’s a strong feminist triumph story. And I suppose you could argue that the Hollywood model which this film follows so closely is inherently anti-feminine. But she’s not a terribly feminine feminist, if that makes sense. She has the central characteristic of male action figures. She’s good at violence.

Again, in contrast to The General, it’s refreshing. Keaton riffed on gender roles throughout, but of course it’s gender as understood in 1926. Marion Mack is his comic foil. He rescues her repeatedly, but without much tenderness–a lot of the comedy comes from Mack’s game willingness to be stuffed into sacks, tossed onto boxes, stepped on and trapped in a bear trap and otherwise mistreated. Not that Buster’s ever violent towards her; it’s all slapstick violence. They’re on the run, and Keaton’s character doesn’t have time for chivalrous delicacy. Marion Mack’s character is courageous, plucky and patriotic; you could make a case for her feminism too, if you wanted to and were willing to overlook a 1920s culture’s construction of gender.

Both films are awesome; The General because it’s so funny, Mad Max because the stunts and the design are so spectacular. We’re more blown away by them than we are moved or thoughtfully provoked. It is a little strange to have nuclear destruction and global warming (or for that matter, the Civil War), treated as throwaway background for otherwise frenetically active movies. In the case of Max Max, I kept thinking of another, far better (and infinitely less successful financially) film, John Hillcoat’s 2009 version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which also starred Theron. Another road movie, another despairing future, another trip through hell. But The Road was relentless in its despair. To the extent that there are things we could do to prevent global warming or nuclear war, it’s a lot more responsible film. But almost nobody saw it, and everyone saw Max Max.

I mean, seriously, Mad Max showed the War Boys riding into battle with a soundtrack, provided by one vehicle carrying four kettle drums, and by another with a guitarist hanging from bungee cords, playing his axe while bouncing around in front of a moving vehicle. A flame throwing guitar, I should add. And sure, Custer rode into battle with a regimental band playing Garry Owens, and for Apocalypse Now‘s helicopters, it was Wagner, so war can certainly have a sound track. But the guitarist was just pure amazing. It was the kind of throwaway detail that made the viewing experience so viscerally rewarding.

So Max is certainly one of the most exciting action films in years. It was a triumph of design and of film craftsmanship. I enjoyed it; don’t think I didn’t. If I felt a trifle cheated at the end, it’s maybe because the movie fed the gut much more than it fed the mind. That’s okay. But the pieces were in place for a full meal; not just dessert.

 

The Cokeville Miracle: movie review

The Cokeville Miracle is unquestionably a powerful and affecting film about a terrible, traumatic event. It was ably filmed and directed by T. C. Christensen, nicely edited by Tanner Christensen, features a lovely musical score by Christian Davis and Rob Gardner, and was beautifully acted by an exceptional cast. It’s a film about faith, the efficacy of prayer, and, as the title suggests, about the possibility of miracles. I saw it on a weekday, a late morning screening, and was surprised to see the theater half full. Listening to the comments of the rest of the audience as they left, they clearly found the film inspiring and testimony-affirming. In most respects, it has to be seen as one of the strongest LDS films since God’s Army in 1999.

And yet, and yet, and yet . . . . But give me a moment to think it through.

In 1986, in the small ranching community of Cokeville, Wyoming, children at the town’s elementary school were taken hostage by a heavily armed, bomb wielding fanatic named David Young (Nathan Stevens), and by his wife, Doris Young (Kym Mellon). The film tells us that there were 99 child hostages–other sources say it was 136 children, and 18 adults. (I don’t know what purpose was served by changing the number of hostages). After a standoff lasting two and a half hours, the bomb detonated. Both Youngs died, and the explosion injured, but did not kill, the children or their teachers. The scenes involving the capture of the school, the taking of hostages, and David Young’s gradual mental breakdown, were as riveting as you might imagine. All the child actors were excellent in those scenes, as were the actors playing the teachers.

After the crisis was over, some of the children began to claim that they had seen personages dressed in white protecting them. Many of the children identified the angels from old family photos as deceased family members. A sheriff’s deputy, Ron Hartley (Jasen Wade), charged with investigating the event, becomes the lens through which we see its aftermath, as he puts together the various angel stories, and also the forensic analysis of Young’s bomb, and why it was so much less destructive than it ought to have been. Hartley, who seems to be suffering from some kind of job-related PTSD, is going through a crisis of faith, which the testimony of his children (both of whom were in the school), help him resolve.

And it’s at that point, in the film’s depiction of Hartley’s difficulties with his testimony, that I began to feel uneasy. First of all, it seems strange to me that the screenplay would make Hartley its protagonist, when he had essentially nothing to do with the event. He was out of town when the Youngs showed up at the school, and didn’t arrive on the scene until after the bomb exploded. Wade gives a fine performance, but it seems like an odd choice. What it suggests is that the main purpose of the film is not actually to tell the story of this terrible event, but to guide and direct our response to it. No, not guide and direct: mandate. It’s a film about a miracle, period. There are no ambiguities here, no other permissible reactions. Angels saved those kids. End of story.

But human nature, cross-grained and rebellious, recoils from this narrative approach. It brought out my inner cynic, not my inner believer. And so, I dig in my heels. I thought the film was very powerful, right up to the third act. It was nicely made up to that point. But the film’s Mormon-centric didacticism amplified more contrary responses.

Like this, from Wikipedia:

After a two-and-a-half hour standoff, the children were becoming restless, so the teachers led them in prayer. The praying appeared to make David Young agitated and he decided to leave the room. Before leaving the room, David Young attached the bomb’s detonation device to his wife’s wrist. When the children became increasingly loud, Doris Young began begging the teachers to settle the group down. At one point she lifted her arm sharply and the bomb went off prematurely.

In the film, the children decide to pray on their own, unprompted by their teachers. In the film, the teachers also pray, but quietly, to themselves. In the film, David doesn’t become agitated by their prayers; he becomes agitated, frankly, because, as portrayed by Stevens, he was bughouse nuts. And there’s not much doubt that David Young was crazy. But the actual guy was Unabomber-style-crazy; he showed up at the school with a long, rambling manifesto. In the film, he mentions ‘Brave New World.’ One of the teachers tells us it’s a reference to reincarnation. Uh, not the Aldous Huxley novel everyone had to read in high school? Reincarnation? In fact, though, the teacher wouldn’t have known that, but authorities did; it was the central idea in his manifesto. He thought he would rule the dead children after they died and were reincarnated. But if the Wikipedia account of the event is true (and I tend to believe it, because of other corroborating details from other sources), then the children’s prayer was an act of aggressive resistance. Good for them, too. But perhaps not quite as . . .pious.

And, in its best moments, the film went there too; depicted little kid brattiness. And I loved it for that. One obnoxious little girl, for example, kept correcting Doris Young’s syntax, pretty much every time she spoke. I adored that little girl. When one teacher created a ‘magic box’ around David Young, a taped-off space kids were not supposed to enter, we see two little boys doing exactly what little boys have done from time immemorial–crossed the line, broke the rule, pushed the boundaries. I loved those little boys. I loved it when the film got the human stuff right.

Other difficulties: the film says only 2 of the bomb’s blasting caps went off, because the leads to the other 14 had been severed. Who severed the leads? We’re meant to conclude that angels did it. But most other sources say there only 5 blasting caps, 4 of them with severed leads. (A minor detail, but details are what convince us). So did angels sever 4 leads? Isn’t it more likely that Doris Young (who was surely deluded and abused and not all there, but who was at least more humane and well-intentioned than her husband) did the other ones? As portrayed in the film by Mellon, Doris is far and away the most interesting character in the film, and far more sympathetic than her husband, but that also fits other accounts of her. In fact, the bomb didn’t even kill her–David Young shot her after it exploded, before ending his own life. Did she sabotage it? Isn’t that at least a possibility? In fact, was she busy cutting wires when the children’s loud prayers distracted her? Wo, could the kids’ praying have been a proximate cause for the explosion? How much more intriguing would the film have been if it had gone there?

Also, the blast was ineffectually defuse, in part because the teachers had opened the windows in the classroom, giving the fireball a path out. So here’s my question: if the children were spared at least in part due to specific actions, specific, human, non-divine choices made by the teachers and by Doris Young, shouldn’t that possibility have been presented in the film? And wouldn’t that alternate explanation also be faith-affirming, but just in a different way?

Because for me, cynical secular humanist that I undoubtedly am, the film was genuinely inspiring, and became increasingly less so the harder it worked, in the end, to force me down one specific understanding of the event. What I found inspiring were those teachers. One teacher (and I’m sorry that I didn’t catch the character’s name, but she was played by Barta Heiner), was the last person out of the room. She stayed behind to get the last child out, despite bullets flying, from cartridges Young placed in the bomb. Earlier, she volunteered, to Young, to give up her life for the lives of the children, and she lived up to that same principle after the bomb exploded. And I totally believe it. Teachers would. In that situation, with a few teachers and 136 children, teachers would do whatever it took to save them. And we see those teachers, in that classroom behave heroically.

My gosh, that’s inspiring. At Sandy Hook, Sandy Hochsprung and Mary Shurloch were the first two victims in the school. Both teachers. A third teacher, Natalie Hammond, was badly wounded, but survived. Another teacher, Lauren Rousseau, was killed trying to keep the killer out of her classroom, as was Rachel D’Avino, a behavioral therapist. A school custodian was also shot, but survived. These teachers were, absolutely and unequivocally, heroes. But any other teacher, in any other school in America, would do what they did. And that’s what inspires me.

I don’t know whether real angels really intervened in Cokeville, Wyoming. Some children said they saw angels; most did not. Adults did not. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the men and women charged with the education of the children at that school were heroes. Could angels have been there? Sure. And I think it would be swell if angels intervened in school shootings. I wish Heavenly Father tasked them to do just that; sent angels to Nigeria to protect the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, for example, sent heavenly beings to Sandy Hook and to Columbine and to Utóya Island in Norway. I believe in God, and I humble myself before Him, and the infinite mystery of why and where He chooses to intervene, when evil encroaches.

But I do believe this; that on those blessedly rare occasions when some deranged individual chooses a school to act out some fantasy of absolute evil, our response should be national, legal, and political, aimed at doing whatever we can to not let deranged individuals have access to weaponry. And the Second Amendment be hanged–it’s about militias, not individuals, and who cares anyway. Let bad guys have as much access to non-rifled muzzle-loading muskets as they want. But that’s a subject for another day, and another soapbox.

Anyway, in many respects, this is an awfully good film. I wish it were a better one. If it had preached a bit less zealously, it might have been exceptional. As it was, the best I can say is that it was ultimately unconvincing. Tell the story; let us figure it out. Don’t force a response. As Sgt. Friday was fond of saying, ‘just the facts.’

Tomorrowland: Movie Review and commentary

Finally catching up on movies that have been out forever, we saw Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland last night. I think it’s the ‘lost in the shuffle’ big summer movie, the one that just didn’t generate enough buzz to really take off, which is a shame. It’s an energetic and enjoyable flick, and also a seriously intended commentary on contemporary society and politics. In fact, that’s its biggest problem, I think. Bird has something significant to say in this movie, but the vehicle for his message is so pretty and funny and light that the message doesn’t penetrate. Except when it did.

The movie first. A kid, Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), brings an invention to the 1964 World’s Fair, a jet pack, an awesome piece of James Bond-ish technology that has the solitary defect of not working very well. Queried about it by an enigmatic judge figure, Nix (Hugh Laurie), young Frank admits that it’s not a practical invention. It could, however, inspire young people, he insists. Not good enough, says Nix, and leaves, his nine-year-old daughter, Athena (Raffey Cassidy) accompanying him. But Athena gestures for Frank to join them, and he does, ending up in Tomorrowland, a magic world of amazing technology, like Epcot Center on steroids.

Cut to the future, and we meet a teenaged girl, Casey (Britt Robertson), about to commit an act of sabotage. It’s the future (or our present?), and the NASA launch pad at Cape Canaveral is scheduled for demolition. Casey, a plucky optimist and science freak, thinks this is unconscionable, and zips around on her motorcycle, frying the controls of the demolition equipment. This leads to fights with her father (Tim McGraw), a soon-to-be-unemployed NASA engineer. But we sense how much father and daughter (and also her younger brother (Pierce Gagnon) care about each other. And in their conversation, the ruling metaphor of the film finds its first expression. The human spirit is likened to two wolves: one, positive, optimistic, kind, the other selfish, fearful, negative. Which one will survive? The one we feed.

Okay, so Casey is caught and arrested, and Dad makes bail, but in her effects, she finds something that’s not hers; a pin with a T on it. And she discovers that when she touches the pin, she’s transported to a wheat field outside a magical city, the same techno-paradise that young Frank saw in the earlier scenes. But the pin has a time limit, and when hers expires, she returns to her reality. Obviously, the next step is an internet search for that pin, which leads her to a curios shop in Texas, run by the amusingly menacing couple, Ursula (Kathryn Hahn) and Hugo (Keegan-Michael Key). When Casey won’t tell them where she got the pin, they pull out space age blasters, and start shooting. She’s rescued, however, by little Athena, aged not a day from her earlier iteration, but now with mad martial arts skills. Athena then sends Casey to the home of a world-weary recluse, Frank, now played by George Clooney.

The world, it seems, is on the brink of destruction. Climate change, political instability, ethnic hatreds, all are leading us to destruction. We have about two months left. But old Frank sees something on his various monitors that tell him that the world might still be salvageable, because of this girl, Casey, because of her optimism and courage. And so he takes her with him to Tomorrowland. He takes her to, in other words, a technologically advanced society living in a parallel universe to earth, run by, yes, Nix, Athena’s putative father (who also hasn’t aged).

And amidst their various struggles, Nix gives a speech. Seeing the end of the world rapidly approaching, he decided to send a signal from his world to ours, showing precisely what would happen if we all continued in our current course. He thought the warning would wake us up. He thought we’d change our ways. He thought we’d all figure out what we were doing wrong and make the political and cultural changes that would hold destruction at bay. He thought the human capacity for innovation and invention would prevail, that we’d allow it to prevail. But in fact, he ‘fed the wrong wolf.’ We embraced nihilism. We embraced various visions of dystopia. We fetishized it, in pop culture, in movies and television and video games. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss: we’ve accelerated our headlong rush to oblivion. And he doesn’t see a lot of reason to stop sending that signal. He warned us. We don’t seem to care. Let us blow ourselves up.

What can we do? Well, we can blow up that signal, and Clooney and Laurie can scrap a bit, finally Casey wins, and with Frank’s aid, she createss a whole bunch more Tomorrowland pins, which she distributes, which I read as ‘recruit forward-thinking optimists and get things solved.’ The ending of the movie really was genuinely moving and inspiring. I mean, yes, in part, the movie is arguing for a Disney-esque vision for mankind, and asks us to reject the values of the other big box office movie released the same week, the new Mad Max. It’s Disney asking us all to adopt Disney values. (And reject worldly nihilistic values). It’s Disney Corp. saying only Disney can save us. See what I did there? Used a positive family-values movie to feed my inner cynic?

But in fact, Nix is right. I know, he gives a pretentious and didactic bad-guy-monologuing nihilist speech at the end of a fun fantasy adventure movie, and I’m probably taking that speech way too seriously. But he is right. He accuses mankind of short-sightedness, laziness, selfishness and complacency, and he basically gets us right. Doesn’t he?

I mean, I live in Provo, Utah. A nice little town, maybe 100, 000 contented souls. And it’s a town built on the suburban model. It’s all single-residence homes, grass yards, transportation needs filled by cars. It’s an ecological disaster. Hardly any mass transit, which one of the most contentious local political issues involves expanding. If global warming is raised as an issue at all, it’s in the context of disputing whether or not the science can be trusted.

We should probably change. We should increase buses, add more rail options, move into apartments, retire our cars. (I live with my wife and daughter–we own three cars between us). We should make massive cultural and lifestyle changes in an effort to stave off global warming. And we’re not going to. We don’t want to. I don’t want to. Run for public office on a ‘radically downsize society, or we’re doomed’ platform. You’d get, what, 1% of the vote? Less?

It’s easier to amuse ourselves with dystopias. It’s easier to comfortably embrace nihilism. Yes, global warming, how very dreadful. Gonna be tough on our grandkids. But, hey, they’ll figure something out.

I found Tomorrowland . . . unsettling, in a way that’s peculiarly at odds with its colorful and fast-paced fantasy storytelling. I liked Clooney, liked the child actress Cassidy, really liked Robertson. But Hugh Laurie ended up costing me sleep. Brad Bird is a visual stylist of the first order. But he’s also a bright guy, with something to say. We should probably all pay more attention.

But we’re not going to. It’s too much trouble.

San Andreas: Movie review

I love big stupid disaster movies. I’ve been a fan of them ever since the ’70’s, when Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake marked the high points in what was something of a golden age of disaster. All these movies were about terrible events, with lots of death and destruction and very high death counts, which we weren’t supposed to worry about much because, after all, characters played by movie stars are the only human beings that matter. Really, though, the movies were about showcasing whatever passed for state-of-the-art special effects.

Earthquake, for example, featured sensurround. It made it feel like that theater was actually shaking, accomplished by using low level bass, low enough that you couldn’t hear it, but only feel it. It was awesome, but impractical; there weren’t enough movies that used it, and it was expensive to install in theaters. It was used, I remember, in the 1979 Battlestar Gallactica movie. I remember how cool it was, to feel like your seat was shaking.

No sensurround, alas, for San Andreas, though there was tons of CGI. They had to plausibly film the destruction of Hoover Dam, downtown Los Angeles, and all of San Francisco, after all. That’s a lot of destruction, and a lot of people killed. But all those dead people don’t matter, because Dwayne Johnson’s family is in danger, and has to be saved. And that becomes the only thing we’re supposed to care about.

I have many many friends in LA. I love San Francisco, and have enjoyed my fair share of ballgames out there in China Basin. I would care a lot if both cities got clobbered. So would you; so would everyone.  There are millions of people in those cities–strangers to me, but fellow sojourners on this rock. Obviously a real life 9.6 clobbering both places would be an unimaginable catastrophe. Unimaginable, except, of course, we do get to imagine it; we have to imagine it, after we’ve laid down our eight bucks for tickets and taken our seats.

To deal with the story as quickly as possible, Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, a firefighter/helicopter rescue specialist. His wife, Emma (Carla Gugino) has filed for divorce, and has moved in with her new squeeze, Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), while daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) heads off to college. An opening scene shows Ray helping a young woman who has managed to drive her car off a cliff and onto a mountain ledge–Ray, of course, manages a last-second rescue. But life on the home front is nothing but one long humiliation, though he manages to be civil to oily architect Daniel.

Meanwhile, a seismologist named Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) has figured out how to predict big earthquakes, and is being interviewed by a TV reporter, Serena (Archie Punjabi) about it. That’s the big subplot. I can only hope that Giamatti got paid a lot of money.

Anyway, the big one hits. And it destroys Hoover Dam (without killing Lawrence, because he’s a seismologist, and therefore able to know exactly how close to the dam he can safely stand as it collapses). And his magic predicting system tells him that first LA and then San Francisco are going to get clobbered. Which he has to figure out how to tell everyone, so the authorities can evacuate both towns.

I imagine the producers’ thinking here was; why wipe out one iconic American city when we can have double the fun by wiping out two? In any event, Ray, flying around on his helicopter, is able to find the LA building where Emma is having lunch with, I think, Daniel’s horrendously bitchy ex (Kylie Minogue, having way too much fun). So Ray snatches Emma off the top of a skyscraper just before it collapses. And they’re back together.

Awkwardly. See, Ray’s problem is that he can’t express his feelings. That’s why Emma’s divorcing him; he’s uncommunicative. Because their other daughter died, and he blames himself. So when he breaks through and cries a little, Emma feels so much better about him. That was the first time I laughed out loud in the movie. See, in a movie in which Los Angeles California has been reduced to rubble (with how many millions dead?), what we really care about is Dwayne Johnson weeping for us, over a previous dead daughter.

But, see, they still have a living daughter, and Ray and Emma, now united, have to rescue her too. But San Francisco is a ways off. So they ditch the helicopter, steal a truck, ditch it, steal an airplane, and finally ditch it too and parachute onto the field at AT%T Park. That enables them to steal a boat, and drive around the waterfront looking for their daughter, who really, genuinely, could be anywhere in the city.

It turns out, though, that Dastardly Daniel has ditched her. She was in his limo, it got smushed, and rather than get her out, he scarpers. But never mind, two cute British brothers, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson) get her out of the car, and off the three of them go, looking for Mom and Dad, and also dodging various collapsing buildings.

But what brings them all together, Mom, Dad, Blake and Brits, is a tsunami. Never mind that tsunamis only happen at subduction faults, which San Andreas is not. San Francisco gets a big one. In fact, that’s what destroys the Golden Gate Bridge–not the earthquake, but a cargo ship which the tsunami smacks the bridge with (incidentally, also crushing Dungbeetle Daniel). Meanwhile, Ray and Emma are in their boat, driving around flooded streets, where they just happen to see the one big building in which their daughter has taken refuge.

We’re close to the end of the movie now, so BELATED SPOILER ALERT. But when Ray rescues Blake, it’s too late. She’s already died. Drowned. No big deal, as it turns out; death in these movies is more an annoyance than, you know, The End. He CPRs her back to life, and she’s fine. And all ready to hook up with Ben the Cute Brit.

But that’s not the ending. No, the ending was the final time I laughed out loud in this ridiculous movie. Dwayne Johnson stands on a hill overlooking the Bay. We see an American flag wave (hanging from the Golden Gate wreckage). And Carla Gugino says “What do we do now?” And he says, solemnly, “We rebuild.” And the camera flies upward, and we see destroyed San Francisco from, yes, God’s POV.  ‘Cause, see, He approves of optimistic American pluckiness in the face of disaster. (Which, sorry, He sort of caused. Isn’t He in charge of earthquakes?)

It’s a ludicrously terrible movie, even before its final moment of blasphemy, and that’s why my wife and I went to see it; we were in the mood for craptacular. San Andreas did not disappoint, really at any level.  It’s a movie about the wholesale deaths of millions of people, that manages to leave us completely unmoved, because Dwayne Johnson’s character’s daughter survived (and even acquires a new boyfriend. Yay!) But that’s what we expected. It’s a good thing that these movies are so cheesy. Better movies would leave us utterly devastated. These things have to be formulaic and stupid. The acting has to be mediocre, the stories preposterous, the dialogue, comically idiotic.

Otherwise, we couldn’t bear it.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron, movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then? What happens next?

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

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

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

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

Freetown: Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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