Category Archives: Movies

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.

Brooklyn: Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jungle Book: Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth: Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what if. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Saturday’s Warrior: Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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