Category Archives: Movies

The Legend of Tarzan: Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Purge: Election Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Independence Day: Resurgence. Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and Friendship: Movie Review

Love and Friendship is the perfect, unlikely, sublime artistic collaboration between the director of The Last Days of Disco, and the author of Pride and Prejudice. It’s a hoot. It’s a laugh-out-loud comedy, sharply satirical, as trenchant a commentary on the patriarchy as I can remember. It is, I finally decided, after much soul-searching and trepidation, a feminist film. Bear with me.

Love and Friendship is based on Lady Susan, a Jane Austen novella, written when Austen was a teenager. You know how Jane Austen novels include some pretty incisive social commentary, but structurally are also romances? We ultimately do want Elizabeth to marry Darcy, and would find Pride and Prejudice unbearable if that didn’t happen in the end, right?  Well, Love and Friendship is Jane Austen without the romance. That’s not to say that courtship isn’t a major plot point. It’s courtship entirely without romance, without love or affection or even genuine friendship. It’s a movie about courtship seen entirely as an economic necessity. Marriage, bluntly and unapologetically, as prostitution.

Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is a recent widow, and she’s dead broke. She is, in fact, homeless. She has a teenaged daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark) she needs to get married off, and she’s aware that she needs to marry too. But she has no home base–she, of necessity, spends her time on visits to the homes of people, friends and family who will put her up for a few weeks. She also has to find various homes in which to park Frederica; perhaps a school, if she can persuade it to waive tuition fees by the simple expedient of not paying them.

She has a wardrobe, and she’s beautiful. Those are her assets. But, above all that is one huge advantage; she’s clever. She’s immensely, terrifically smart, especially about men. She’s also completely unburdened by anything like a conscience or a sense of morality. She’s perfectly willing to manipulate anyone, male or female, to get what she wants. And if she destroys their marriages or family relations, well, what’s the adage about eggs and omelettes?

And we root for her. One of the rules of drama is that we will always root for the protagonist, even if she’s awful, even if her objectives are bad. We will still, always, root for the protagonist of any story to succeed. And it helps that Lady Susan is charming, and clever. She’s fun to root for, as she sorts out which wealthy male acquaintances she’ll cull from the herd, one for her and one for Frederica–though it takes her some time to decide who will get who.

One possibility is Reginald DeCoursey (Xavier Samuel), who is decent, honorable, but perhaps a trifle too trusting for his own good. One difficulty there is his parents, who utterly abhor Lady Susan, who they suspect of having had an affair with a married friend, Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearain). Which she did, but which, of course, she also denies.

Another possibility, though, is Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a very wealthy member of Lady Susan’s social circle. Sir James is amiable, kind-hearted, utterly without guile, a sweet and gentle soul, who, sadly, is also the most astonishing idiot. I don’t know Tom Bennett, though his name is wonderfully Austenian, but I take my hat off to this fine actor; Sir James is a remarkable comic creation. I rejoiced every time he appeared on screen, and laughed out loud at every one of his scenes. His delight at finding peas on his dinner plate is a triumph; he nearly walks off with the movie.

But his character is also central to the film’s social commentary. At first, Lady Susan seems to intend Sir James for Frederica, her daughter. But Frederica finds the idea appalling. She grants that Sir James has many good qualities, that he is a kind man, and a gentleman beyond reproach. But, she wails, he’s such an appalling blockhead. And we can see it. Marriage to Sir James would surely have its advantages; comfort, even luxury. But with whom would you converse? Frederica would rather teach school, she courageously declares.

But that’s not possible. It just isn’t; for a woman of Frederica’s class and upbringing, there simply is not a profession open to her. Her mother is right. In that particular iteration of the patriarchal society, women have exactly one career possibility–that of a wife, and presumably, a mother. Those are the facts; make the best of them.

And that’s why I consider this a feminist movie. It’s not that Lady Susan is a feminist heroine; frankly, she’s a bit of a monster. But if she’s a gold-digger, what else could she be? She’s the ultimate pragmatist, and if her actions hurt other women–which they unquestionably do, including the perpetually sobbing Lady Manwaring (Jenn Murray)–what of it?  The point is to survive.

The movie reflects Austen’s novella, as a remarkably clear-eyed dissection of patriarchy, and the harm it does to women. Is Lady Susan wicked? Her society has made her so. And above all else, she will survive. At the end of the movie, when we see her ingenious solution to all her family problems, it’s quite deliciously appalling. And that’s where the film emerges as a strongly proto-feminist text. Susan’s a horror show. But she does win. And we put up with it, because the protagonist is so clever, and the film itself so hilarious.

Couple of final notes; Kate Beckinsale dominates the film, and she’s amazing. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a performance that has caused me to reevaluate an actor more than this performance did for her. Do you think of her as ‘hot chick in action movies?’ No longer. To think that an actress with her comic timing and wit has had so few opportunities to shine the way she shines her–well, blame sexism. And Whit Stillman’s directing of this film is quite brilliant. Lady Susan is an epistolary novella–a story told through letters–and Stillman captures that, with constant shots of various butlers and footman passing on sealed missives, the contents of which are then shared with us through titles. It gave the film a bit of the meta-cinematic vibe of the BBC TV series Sherlock; a contemporary feel for a period story. Anyway, the result is a marvelous film, not the least bit staid or formal, a brilliant satire of manners, and an incomparably funny picture. See this movie.

The Nice Guys: Movie Review

I liked The Nice Guys better than I ought to have done. In its own shambly, loose-limbed, casually violent, off-beat funny sort of way, it has the look and feel of a ’70s drive-in movie, a Roger Corman special. It’s as though one of those young directors Corman nurtured back in the day got the idea of building an action comedy on the plot of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Chinatown was about corrupt business and government forces colluding over the issue of water rights, in LA, where those rights are particularly contested and volatile. In The Nice Guys, it’s about air quality. So, again, elemental forces. In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson’s bandaged nose was the omnipresent main-character-defining feature; in TNG, it’s the cast on Ryan Gosling’s broken left hand. And in both films, an abused daughter uncovers and reveals the ultimate conspiracy. Problem is, Chinatown is one of the great films; a brilliant piece of under-your-skin-for-life cinema. The Nice Guys is a yuck-it-up cheap Roger Corman knock-off.

Here’s the difference; the villain of Chinatown was the unforgettable Noah Cross, in the greatest performance of John Huston’s life. When he says, leveling with Nicholson, “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that in the right time and in the right place, they are capable of . . . anything,” it’s completely chilling.

There’s nothing like that here, in The Nice Guys. No character that unforgettable, no line so defining. The bad guy, US attorney Judith Kuttner, is played by Kim Basinger, and while Basinger’s a fine actress, her part had little resonance; she’s just a typical movie corrupt government official. Here’s this film’s MacGuffin, and I’m totally not kidding: it’s a porn film about the need for cars to have catalytic converters. That’s what everyone’s looking for.

Okay, see, Basinger’s daughter Amelia (Margaret Qualley), is missing. LA PI Holland March (Ryan Gosling) has been hired to find her. So has thuggish thumper Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). So they partner up, helped along by March’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), who seems a good deal smarter than her Dad, and more moral than his partner. It turns out that ‘Amelia’ does exist, and that she despises her corrupt and evil Mom. She’s also an environmental protester, part of a group concerned about LA air quality, which sucked back in the 70s. As part of her protest, she has contacted the LA porn industry, and made a dirty movie, to publicize the lengths to which the auto industry has gone to avoid having to put catalytic converters in cars.

So March and Healy, the two intrepid detectives, explore the seamy underside of the Los Angeles porn world, trying, first to find Amelia, and then, when she dies, to find and screen her movie. In every scene involving Amelia, she’s portrayed as completely nuts. And Kim Basinger, playing Amelia’s Mom, seems genuinely concerned about her daughter’s mental health. But it turns out Amelia was right about everything. And when her film does actually air (we don’t see much of it), it does kick-start a local conversation about air quality. A preachy, earnest, porno.

And see, this goes to the central problem of the entire film. How seriously should we take any of it? Granted, it’s a comedy. But it’s set in the ’70s, when LA’s air quality was truly at dangerous levels. Environmentalists raising awareness over a serious health issue is not, frankly, an inherently funny issue. You can make it funny, by making environmentalists seem loony, but that’s neither fair nor accurate, and even if you laugh at it, you’re left with a bad taste in your mouth. And when the genuinely committed environmental activist, Amelia, thinks the way to bring that issue to the general public is to make a preachy porn movie about it, she looks seriously unhinged.

This relates to the other central dynamic of the movie. It’s a comedy action movie. The conventions of action movies require that the good guys win, that they prevail in physical combat with the bad guys. But the bad guy, Basinger, has the resources of the government behind her, including a hit man, called John Boy (Matt Bomer), who is scary-capable with various weapons. And there are multiple other assassins at Basinger’s disposal. Our heros (and specifically, Our Hero, Gosling), have to beat them. Good guys have to defeat the bad guys in action movies. But this is a comedy, and part of what’s funny about it is the fact that Ryan Gosling’s character, March, is NOT good at fighting, or at violence, not at all. He’s a screw-up, and, of course, watching him screw up is funny.

So how does he win? Well, his partner, Crowe’s Jack Healy, is good at violence. But ultimately, that’s unsatisfying. The conventions of the genre require that Holland March, the film’s protagonist, played by Ryan Gosling, win his fight scenes.  His pal can’t just win them all for him. There are two ways for this to happen. He could get really lucky–and the comedy could come from our recognition of how preposterous is his good fortune. Or he could suddenly reveal previously unsuspected fighting skills. Which the movie also tries, again, not very plausibly.

Ryan Gosling is a terrific actor, and an adept comedic actor. Russell Crowe’s hitman is a fascinating character, actually; with a ragged integrity and some real regrets over the acts of violence circumstances require him to perform. So at the character level, the buddies work in this buddy-comedy. And some of their repartee together is genuinely humorous, without falling into set-up/set-up/payoff rhythms.

So, the movie was certainly amusing. I laughed aloud a couple of times, and enjoyed the 70s costumes, and the fine performances from Crowe, and Gosling, and Rice and Bomer. But the action sequences were too silly to build up much genuine suspense or excitement, and the central plot was not just ridiculous, it was built on a stupid take on an important actual issue. I liked the movie okay. But then, I always did like Roger Corman films.

Captain America: Civil War. Movie Review

Captain America: Civil War is generally being lauded as one of finest comic book movies, like, ever. It’s at 90% on Rottentomatoes.com, and not only have critics embraced it, but it’s become a big popular hit. Like the best of the Marvel movies, it combines humor and well executed action sequences. More than that, it’s smart. It’s not just escapist fare. Comic book characters can be ridiculous, of course, what with all the spandex and ridiculous names, but the fact is, they’re about violence, about warfare, about terror as a tactic; they have surprising contemporary relevance. And this movie deliberately plays on that awareness.

And that’s also why I found this movie so off-putting. It’s not that I’m opposed to comic book movies paralleling contemporary politics. I think that’s great. I just find the conclusions drawn by this movie to be facile and obvious. And I found the film unwilling to interrogate the darker implications of its own narrative.

All right. Let me explain where I’m coming from here. This Captain America picks up the Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) story thread from previous Avengers’ movies, and places that story at the center of a conflict between Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). It starts with a battle in Nigeria, between what appear to be terrorists and a team involving Captain America and several other Avengers–Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). As the battle progresses, a building explodes, killing a dozen civilians. Turns out, the UN and the US governments are both getting fed up with superhero battle collateral damage, as well they might. An international conference to decide what to do about it is convened, and is likewise attacked. A peace-making king is killed. And this attack appears to have been made by Captain America’s old friend Bucky.

At one level, it makes sense that Cap would be at odds with the other Avengers over Bucky. Captain America, remember, is really a character from the 1940s, as is Bucky. Somehow Cap was frozen, his body recovered and revived. By us, Americans, good guys. Bucky, though, was also saved, but by bad guys, Hydra. Cap and Bucky are childhood friends. Of course Cap feels a tremendous loyalty to Bucky.

But this isn’t the same Bucky that he remembers. Hydra gave him enhanced powers, and also a psychological trigger, a phrase which, when spoken, causes him to surrender his ability to make decisions. At one point, Tony Stark calls him the Manchurian candidate, and that’s dead-on. Bucky’s a decent, good guy. Also a time bomb. And the one thing Cap prizes the most–his freedom, his ability to choose–Bucky does not have.

So that’s one issue in the film: what do we do about Bucky? But it relates to another, more profound one. Oversight.

The Nigerian disaster clarifies how tired the world is getting of collateral damage caused by superheroes. So the United Nations decides to form a ‘superhero oversight committee.’ That committee will decide where and how the Avengers will be deployed, and to what end. It will hold them accountable for damage caused in battle. The committee will exercise some degree of political control over superhero actions.

Initially, it seemed odd to me that rugged libertarian individualist Tony Stark would agree to political oversight, and that supersoldier Captain America would not. But we need to remember Tony’s background. The United States of America has never experienced a military coup, and I think it’s unlikely we ever will. That’s how ingrained in our military culture the idea is of a civilian heading our chain of command. The President of the United States is an elected official, and also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Our military respects that.

Well, Tony Stark is a product of America’s military-industrial complex. That’s his background. And he’s a thoughtful and intelligent man. He recognizes how essential it is that the Avengers appear legitimate; that this issue of superhero collateral damage erodes that legitimacy. And so he signs on, and agrees to sell this oversight committee–the Tribunal– to the other Avengers.

Again, it seems initially strange that Steve Rogers, super-American-military-hero, a product of American military culture, would be the one who rejects the Tribunal. But here’s the thing; he’s Captain America. He is, quite literally, the embodiment of American exceptionalism. And Americans don’t take direction from international bodies.

We just don’t. Sure, we conduct diplomacy, and we make treaties, and try to live up to our international obligations. But allow a foreign body to dictate what our soldiers do? Never.

I think I can make a case for the idea that Steve Rogers, once he realizes just what his abilities can allow him to do, decides that he and only he can be allowed to decide what and who he’ll fight for. He’s only going to be morally accountable to himself, to his own conscience. But I think I can also make a case for Captain America, superhero, representing America, the world’s only superpower. And Americans don’t allow other nations to tell us what to do militarily. And that means that he will not surrender his autonomy to an international Tribunal.

Thinking about this movie, I was reminded that last Saturday, Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed by an American strike drone, in Pakistan. Mansour was unquestionably a bad guy. Still, that’s the world we live in, one in which an Afghani political leader can be killed by Americans, in Pakistan, and we Americans applaud. And President Obama announced the killing with some grim satisfaction for a job well done. We’re Americans. We get to do that; kill people in other countries without any accountability or oversight from anyone official. I don’t doubt that President Obama, if he was in fact involved in the decision, did not make it lightly. Still, we are America. We are exceptional, and we are the one nation on earth for whom killing a foreign leader in a foreign country is considered legitimate by much if not most of the rest of the world.

This film should, I suppose, be applauded for putting a political science debate, about oversight and accountability and violence and warfare and the legitimacy of the use of force at the center of a comic book action movie. I do not applaud it, though, for, in my mind, so unquestioningly putting American exceptionalism at the center of that debate. We’re Americans. We get to kill bad guys living in other countries. No due process, no trial, our President just gets to decide to do that; kill guys we designate as terrorists (no doubt legitimately), as worth killing. Yay for us. This movie took one of the most thoughtful and interesting characters in the Marvel universe, Steve Rogers, Cap, and use him to articulate a case for American exceptionalism–not just for America as exceptionally moral, but America as exceptionally empowered. Captain America is the living embodiment of American values. And this is a movie where Cap rejects oversight, and is applauded for it by the subsequent events of the movie.

I do think that the screenplay is trying for greater nuance and complexity than my admittedly simplistic explication allows it. Early in the movie, we see the way Hydra (who pretty much has to represent International Terrorism) mistreated Bucky and also five other enhanced baddies. The main bad guy, Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), looks like he’s about to free those five supergoons. I thought the movie was setting up a final confrontation between the Avengers and the five Hydra super-villains. But Zemo just kills them off, instead choosing to use Bucky to instigate a final fight between Iron Man and Captain America. That’s actually a more interesting dramatic choice than the obvious one–Avengers vs. Hydra Creations. I do think it’s a film that tries to deal with the contemporary and political complexities the creation of this oversight body suggest.

To me, though, the film fails,and to at least some degree ends up letting Cap off the hook. I’ll grant that it doesn’t quite go as triumphalist as I feared. No flag waving, no final pro-American jingoism. It still does, ultimately, defend American exceptionalism. Couldn’t it deconstruct our own tortured politics just that tiny bit more thoughtfully? Couldn’t we leave the theater feeling just that tiny bit more conflicted?

Death wish scenes: a review of A Walk in the Woods

Years ago, I noticed a phenomenon that, to my mind, spoiled otherwise fine films. I saw it first in The Other Side of Heaven, but I kept seeing examples of it, and I even wrote and presented a paper on the subject. I called it “the death wish scene.” A death wish scene is not just poorly written, or badly placed, or unnecessary. A death wish scene is a scene in a movie so poorly conceived that it ruins the picture. It’s a scene of such astounding idiocy that you wonder if the producers secretly wanted the movie to fail.

Over the years, I have developed a great fondness for death wish scenes. There aren’t many of them. Sure, lots of films have scenes that don’t work. That’s not a death wish scene. A DWS has to directly contradict everything else that you like about the film. It’s an act of deliberate, in-your-face narrative destruction.

And I saw one last night! A rare sighting, to be sure. In a major Hollywood film, a film starring big-name movie stars, a film with, like, a budget, a distribution deal in place, good craft services. That kind of film.

The film is A Walk in the Woods, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte and Emma Thompson. Directed by Ken Kwapis, written by Michael Arndt and Bill Holderman. It’s based on a book my wife and I love, Bill Bryson’s account of his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. We’re big Bill Bryson fans anyway, and looked forward to this film. Redford plays Bryson, and Nolte plays his old friend Stephen Katz, who hiked the AP with him. Thompson plays Bryson’s British wife, Catherine.

The book isn’t really about any issue of great import. It’s a gently humorous account of out-of-shape middle-aged men taking on a physical challenge that was probably a bit more than they were up for. It’s about the eccentric characters they met on the trail. And to some degree, it’s a book of self-discovery. It’s also about the AP itself, a two thousand mile hiking trail through some of the prettiest terrain on this continent. I figured that the movie would be like the book–a genial, reasonably low-stakes character-driven comedy. Robert Redford isn’t the first actor I would choose to play Bill Bryson, but he’s certainly a fine actor, and Nolte’s perfect as Katz, who, in the book, is Bryson’s grouchy, hard cussing comic foil.

But the movie makes some odd choices from the beginning. Bill Bryson is a professional travel writer. He’s also a fine historian, and a science writer of the first order, but he made his bones writing about his travels in Australia, and Europe, and the UK. Once he got the idea of writing about the Appalachian Trail, he contacted his agent and his publisher, and got an advance to pay for it. That’s all perfectly clear in the book. But the screenwriters, for some reason, decided that, in the movie, he wasn’t there to write a book. No, indeed. This was just something personal he had to do. His wife doesn’t think it’s remotely a good idea–she frankly thinks he’s gone mental–but she finally relents when Katz agrees to come along. And she loves him, and he loves her, and she’s willing to be supportive. And so, in the movie, Redford, as Bryson, consistently has to say ‘I’m not writing a book.’ Like, this hike isn’t about something as crass as mere commerce.

That’s not the death wish scene–we haven’t gotten there yet–but it is an odd choice. It’s as though the film’s producers decided that we wouldn’t care about this man’s spiritual journey of self-discovery if it were somehow sullied by him also carrying out his writerly obligations. Me, I like competent professional people trying to do a difficult job well. I think that makes for a fine conflict. If they also learn something about themselves, all the better.

But this bizarre decision makes Katz’ presence all the stranger. Stephen Katz is Bryson’s alcoholic friend, from his home town of Des Moines. He’s spent his life working a series of blue-collar jobs. In the book, it’s clear that Bryson pays Katz’s way. Bryson buys his backpack and tent, pays for the food and lodging, when they’re able to find lodging. No big deal–it all comes out of Bryson’s advance, and Katz knows from the outset that he’s going to be a character in the book. It’s perfectly clear in the movie that Katz can’t afford to be on this hike. But they sort of gloss over it. Again, we haven’t gotten to the death wish scene yet, but from the beginning, we sense how poorly the film’s director/producers/screenwriters had thought through the film’s most important character and story decisions.

But not entirely. Early in their hike, Bryson and Katz meet Mary Ellen, an astonishingly annoying woman who denigrates their equipment, appearance, and supplies, who chatters away at them incessantly. Kristen Schaal was perfectly cast as Mary Ellen, and her scenes with them are a treat. And other eccentric folks they meet on the way are equally vivid in their film incarnations.

So the film is plodding charmingly along, marching down the trail with confidence and aplomb. And then, for no reason whatsoever, it flings itself off a ledge into the waiting arms of a bear.

The AT (inevitably) crosses highways along its course, and at times, passes close to small towns, where hikers can find a restaurant, a motel, and (most important), a laundromat. Bryson and Katz arrive in such a town, and check into a motel. The motel’s proprietor is Jeannie, played by Mary Steenburgen. And the three of them make small talk. And we can see a budding, mutual attraction between Bryson and Jeannie.

Later that night, Bryson runs a shower, but before he can step in, he realizes the bathroom did not come with towels. Wearing a bathrobe, he goes into the motel office, and sees Jeannie. Wonderful Mary Steenburgen. She apologizes, and goes with him to an outdoor storage room where they keep the towels. She gets him a towel; they make small talk. And you can see, there’s a spark. And they look at each other, and they’re about to kiss. And then Katz interrupts them.

And the movie’s irretrievably ruined.

Later, Katz teasing him, asks Bryson if he’d ever cheated on Catherine. And Bryson says no, and we believe him. Katz, crass and cynical, doesn’t. He assumes, as a matter of course, that Bryson, world traveler, has had a few on the side. And this Bryson, the Bill Bryson of the towel scene, probably has. But the Bill Bryson established earlier in the movie, would never cheat. And thus is the movie ruined.

It’s not that the basic situation is implausible. Steenburgen’s Jeannie is an attractive, deeply lonely woman, stuck in a small town, running a motel. It’s not inconceivable that she would be attracted to a guy like Bryson, or that he would be attracted to her. But the whole first fifth of the movie establishes Bryson for us in terms of his family and his marriage. He and Catherine are exceptionally close. He’s a good Dad, and that’s important to him. In the book, Bill Bryson takes every possible opportunity to phone home, and those phone calls are immensely sustaining to him.

It’s as though the movie goes out of its way to establish Bryson as a decent family man. Every choice, in the early going, develops that characterization. And then, for no reason, the movie throws in, not an affair, but at least the potential for one. Even hired Mary Steenburgen to play the love interest. Nothing early in the movie sets it up, and nothing later in the movie justifies it.

It’s the very definition of a death wish scene. It’s as though someone went ‘you know what this character needs? A love interest. To attract women viewers, you know. Chicks love romance.’ I know, it’s unfair of me, to make that assumption, that the film’s director or producers are that moronically sexist. But really, it’s as though someone decided ‘this guy can’t go on a spiritual quest without being tempted by adultery.’ Whereas lots of hikers and campers go on perfectly satisfactory personal journeys without being remotely tempted to cheat.

I will say this; that scene, all by itself, ruined a movie my wife and I were enjoying up to that point. Robert Redford and Mary Steenburgen are fine actors, and attractive people. But the scene involving their characters was not just unnecessary. It was idiotic. They were making a movie about hiking the Appalachian Trail. Make that movie.

Green Room: Movie Review

As Green Room opens, we see a van in the middle of a corn field, everyone in it sound asleep. The camera pulls back, and we see the path the van followed as it swerved off the highway and into the field. A sleepy driver drove off the road; funny, though also scary. And a metaphor for the entire film, which is about a group of musicians that has veered off the road, and is trying to survive.

In the van, The Ain’t Rights, a punk band, traveling from gig to gig, siphoning gas to keep going, playing wherever they can. They’ve essentially decided to call it quits, at least short-term, but accept one more engagement, because it pays enough to get them home.

So they show up, to a log cabin-ish venue in the woods, a bar where most of the patrons are skinheads, on the walls neo-Nazi regalia for decorations. And so their lead singer, Pat (Anton Yelchin), picks what I think was a Dead Kennedys anti-skinhead song, ‘Nazi Punks F off’ to begin their set. Very punk rock; edgy and tense and real. The crowd reacts furiously, throwing things and spitting at the stage, but we don’t sense The Ain’t Rights are in actual trouble. Yet. But that will come.

When they finish their set, they’re escorted by security up some stairs to a green room. And on the floor, they can see a woman with a knife sticking out of her head. Dead.

Panicked, they pull out a cell phone and call 9-1-1, reporting ‘a stabbing’ and the address just before the phone is confiscated by security. The rest of the movie is about this punk band, fighting for survival, attacked by neo-Nazi skinheads working for the venue’s owner, Darcy, played by none other than Patrick Stewart.

Darcy’s basically trying to clean up a mess. The venue’s headline band’s lead singer, high on drugs, killed the girl, his ex-girlfriend, because she was planning to leave him, and the whole skin-head lifestyle, behind. (That mystery, about who killed the girl, isn’t particularly important, and gets resolved very quickly. This movie isn’t about who-dun-it, it’s more about who is likely to survive).

The result is a fascinating film, a horror thriller that manages to transcend the essential conventionality of its structure. The writer/director, Jeremy Saulnier, clearly knows his subject matter. The day to day interactions of the band is completely convincing. I don’t know Saulnier’s background, but the film felt like it was written by someone who toured once with a band, who then based a screenplay on the jokes they shared about some of the sketchier venues they played. ‘What if we went into the green room and there was a dead body on the floor?’ That kind of thing. And then Saulnier took it from there.

I don’t know much about the whole punk rock/skinhead death metal scene. I sense that it contains an almost infinite numbers of sub-genres, and that Saulnier knows intimately the differences between them. The details of the world of this film is so convincingly rendered, I was completely with it throughout, despite my own ignorance of the film’s background. It felt very Zola-esque, a perfectly realized simulacrum of the denizens of a demi-monde. I loved Alia Shawcat as Sam, their guitarist, her shoulders hunched over her instrument as she plays. I loved the way they started songs, with Yelchin suddenly shouting, very quickly, “2, 3, 4” and instantly a hard-driving punk beat starts up. I loved the camaraderie of the band, how quickly spats get resolved and decisions made.

Although it’s not remotely a political film–its a horror thriller, with punk rock/skinhead setting–I can’t help but see a tremendous political subtext. It’s a film, after all, about neo-Nazis terrorizing punk rockers. About skinhead death metal vs. punk–immensely political music worlds colliding lethally. All under the deceptively benevolent direction of Patrick Stewart.

Because Darcy, the film’s uber-villain, is also genial and sympathetic. We instinctively feel that we can trust him; that when he tells the band members that he wishes them no ill, that he means it. Of course, he’s lying. Of course, he’s using a gentle manner to mask an essential sociopathy. So what is that characterization intended to convey about skinheads generally?

Darcy gives orders, intending them to be obeyed, and at times his followers do just as they’re told. For example, knowing that a 9-1-1 calls has reported ‘a stabbing,’ he orders one of his followers to stab his brother. The cops show up, are given a stabbing victim and perp, and drive off, satisfied. Leaving Darcy to complete his clean-up. Including, of course, disposing of witnesses.

Those extra resonances, the film’s implicit politics and the intersection of politics and music in the genres it explores, are what moved this film from exciting and powerful to unforgettable. I don’t know what it all means, but I want to learn, and spent the morning listening to The Misfits and Fugazi, trying to understand. Green Room got under my skin, is what I’m saying, and I’m grateful. It’s very seriously R-rated, and some will find it an unpleasant viewing experience. But I loved it.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Movie Review

My wife and I wanted to see a movie last night, and the far more popular movie in town was completely sold out. So we went with The Huntsman: Winter’s War. And didn’t regret it, to be honest. It’s a lunatic movie, really, with a story that makes no sense at all, and above all, a movie where the biggest question is ‘why did this even get made?’ And in the middle of all it, there’s a sweet and tender love story, nicely acted and lovely.

Let’s see; where to start? This is the sequel to 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman. That one starred Kristen Stewart as Snow White, Chris Hemsworth as The Huntsman, and Charlize Theron as wicked Queen Ravena. It wasn’t bad, though why anyone thought we needed to see the extended backstory to the Snow White story escapes me.

Apparently, though, we didn’t just need to see the Snow White backstory, but a detailed and extensive narrative exploration of the whole other mythology on which Snow White rests. So this starts off as a sort of prequel to the earlier movie, but time passes, and we end up with a parallel story, which makes occasional passing reference to the events of SWATH. Most of which I’d forgotten. Like, didn’t Charlize Theron die in the other movie? And wasn’t it The Huntsman who killed her? Or him, with Kristen Stewart’s help? So why is Evil Queen Ravena here, in this movie? (She says she’s neither alive nor dead. Half-dead. Living in that mirror.) Getting killed, again, by Chris Hemsworth? But I thought that already happened. Or would happen, soon. These movies link how?

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. We begin with Queen Freya (Emily Blunt), Ravenna’s sister. She meets a guy, falls in love, gets pregnant, intends to marry him, has the baby. (Who? Snow White? The baby is a threat to Ravenna because she’s going to grow up to become Fairest of Them All. Snow White, right? Kristen Stewart, right? What’s going on?) But the fiancee guy sets the nursery on fire, killing the baby. Freya turns psychotic, leaves, goes into solitude, then raises an army and starts invading other neighboring ‘Northern’ kingdoms.

At which point, as my wife pointed out, the movie turns into a demented version of Frozen. I’m totally not kidding. Freya’s superpower involves ice. She can turn people into ice sculptures, and shoot ice spicules at them, and build ice walls, and she creates an entire castle made of ice. She’s Sociopath Elsa. Remember Olaf, the comic relief snowman? There’s an owl who serves the same purpose. Remember the rock people/dwarves? There are dwarfish equivalent characters in this. It’s Frozen, without Anna. Oh, wait, I forgot Jessica Chastain; there’s also a sort of Anna.

(Seriously? Frozen? Let it go.)

Freya is also, kind of, Daenarys Targaryen, building her own army by kidnapping children, who she raises to become soldiers. (And we see her army; all thirty of them). The best of her fighters she rewards, with the proviso that they never fall in love. All love is strictly forbidden. All love: Agape, Filio, Eros. Only, you know, kids will be kids, and her two favorites fall for each other: Eric (Chris Hemsworth), and Sara (Jessica Chastain). Get together in a really romantic hot spring. And Psycho Elsa/Freya finds out, and Eric is exiled. But before he leaves, both he and Sara are shown false visions; she sees him just leaving her, and he sees her dying. So they don’t look for each other much. For seven years.

But, it turns out, someone back in Snow White Land (where Snow White lives; remember? Kristen Stewart? Who is not in this movie, but whose character is constantly referred to?) has stolen the magic mirror. And Sara, now Freya’s main captain, has been tasked with finding it. As has Eric/Huntsman. And his two dwarf sidekicks, Nion and Gryff (Nick Frost and Rob Brydon).  Quest narrative! Sara and Eric are initially pretty hostile to each other, on account of their false visions, but they work through that pretty quickly. Though they do have seven years of separation issues to work through.

But it was really sweet, the developing love story between Sara and Eric. It really was the one thing in the movie that made emotional sense, and the one story element in the movie that wasn’t completely ludicrous. It didn’t hurt that it was Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain, two immensely engaging actors. Especially Hemsworth, who affects this Scottish-sounding brogue which renders a third of his lines incomprehensible, not that it ever matters. He’s charming, and self-deprecating, and he carries a ridiculous movie almost effortlessly. And Chastain is fierce and strong and Katniss-good with a bow and arrow. Wonderful physical performance.

You know that thing they always do in movies like this? They’re in a scene together, and talking, and suddenly their heads come together, and he’s about to kiss her. Only she pulls a knife, and holds it against his throat. Only he disarms her, and flings her around, so her back is against a wall. And they’re inches apart, breathing heavily. And then she breaks away. So romantic, even though it doesn’t make a particle of sense.

Anyway, in the diva-off between Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain, Jessica wins going away. She’s fierce, and intelligent, and she has Chris Hemsworth to act across from. Charlize chews the scenery in a most satisfying way, while Emily Blunt’s persona is too sane, frankly, and too bright to really work all that well in a part as hare-brained as Ice Princess/Freya/Elsa/Loony McLoonybins.

The last scene of the movie made me giggle aloud in the theater, and giggle again when I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about it. I mean, it’s standard confrontation-against-bad-guy stuff; Chris Hemsworth’s trying to whack Charlize with an axe, and she fights him off by shooting black tar things out of her, which he has to block with his axe. What made me laugh is imagining how they filmed it; in a sound studio, with Charlize Theron waving her arms around menacingly, with big two-armed spell-casting gestures throughout.

And yet, at the end of the battle scene, Eric and Sara, Chris and Jess, our heroes, get to hug and kiss, and that love story, the only thing in the movie worth watching really, gets the screen time. It’s a demented movie. But two good actors made one small part of it work. How hard we work for the smallest pleasures.

Baseball advanced analytics, and movies

If you’re a fan of American team sports, you will undoubtedly have come across something called advanced analytics. I just celebrated a birthday, and my son gave me my annual present, the new Baseball Prospectus. It’s a very large paperback book filled with the names of baseball players, and lots and lots of numbers. It does include such traditional statistical measures as batting average, or runs batted in. But most of the numbers are more esoteric: WAR, FIP, TAV. I am famously bad at math. But I devour this book, for one simple reason. The numbers in it help me understand the game of baseball better.

The point of advanced analytics is to look for market inefficiencies. Let’s suppose that your careful examination of baseball statistics leads you to conclude that some particular baseball skill is more valuable than other teams think it is. You may be able to acquire players with that particular skill at a discount. This gives you a competitive advantage. Like acquiring a catcher who is good at pitch-framing. You can get those guys on the cheap.

My son and I were talking today, and we wondered if this same dynamic might be applied to movies. Obviously movie producers have certain beliefs about what qualities audiences are looking for in movies. Number one, they like movie stars. They clearly believe that audiences are attracted to movies that star actors people have heard of and liked in previous roles. If Tom Cruise approaches a studio with the script for an action movie, it’s almost certain to get funded. But the star in question generally needs to be a male, and youngish. Tom Cruise isn’t actually young–he’s 53 years old–but he looks young, and can plausibly play young action stars. Demi Moore was born the same year Cruise was, but she isn’t a legitimate star anymore, because she’s a woman. (She’s also probably a better actor than he is, but that’s also not relevant).

But is that actually true? For example, Liam Neeson is 64 years old, but has reinvented himself as an action movie star in all those Taken movies. Heck, Colin Firth, hardly an exemplar of male studliness, starred in an action movie, and was great in it. Emily Blunt, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez and Scarlett Johansson have all starred in action movies within the last year. So has Helen Mirren.

Here’s what I think; audiences are attracted to good movies, and turned off by bad ones. Tom Cruise is still an action movie hero, not because audiences still clamor to see him in movies–most audience members think he’s kind of a weirdo–but because he has a good eye for scripts that showcase his skills.

Would you go see an action movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer? I sure would, if the script was good. Would you go see a buddy cop action/comedy starring Michelle Williams and Maggie Gyllenhaal? I would love to see that movie. Would you go see a sci-fi adventure movie starring Michelle Yeoh, with Michelle Rodriguez as second lead? Absolutely! What about a mainstream revenge action film with Amanda Peet? She’s a terrific actress, and that’s the kind of role she’d rock.

And such are the realities of Hollywood that you, Mr. or Ms. Producer, would save a lot of money in salaries. I mean, it totally stinks that Jake Gyllenhaal (a wonderful, charismatic actor) gets more per picture than his frankly more talented sister Maggie gets. But for the right, savvy producer, that particular brand of sexism could also mean money in the bank. It’s a market inefficiency, and one you could exploit.

Yes, there’s tremendous sexism in Hollywood. No question about it. And it reflects a larger sexism in society generally. But in the world of television, there’s one producer who regularly casts women in action/murder/suspense TV series. Her name is Shonda Rhimes and she’s doing pretty darn well.

Drew Barrymore, action star. Make it happen. Get a pitch-framing catcher, Hollywood. Sexism is, in addition to being reprehensible, a market inefficiency. Trade on the margins, Hollywood, and give some great actresses a chance.