Category Archives: Movies

Mad Max, Fury Road: Movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Cokeville Miracle: movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like this, from Wikipedia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrowland: Movie Review and commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Andreas: Movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otherwise, we couldn’t bear it.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron, movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then? What happens next?

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

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

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

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

Freetown: Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Woman in Gold: Film review

Woman in Gold is a terrific movie, much better than I expected. It reminded my wife of The King’s Speech; it reminded me of Philomena, and it’s a movie that fits nicely with either of those equally terrific films. Only The King’s Speech won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor, and Philomena was nominated for both. Woman in Gold, meanwhile gets the obscurity of an April release, no Oscar buzz, a lower-than-deserved Rottentomatoes score, and gets to battle Furious 7 for audience share. Ah, the vagaries of Hollywood release strategies! Philomena, based on a true story, starred Judi Dench as an elderly woman coming to terms with her past, helped by an initially-reluctant-but-increasingly-engaged younger male cohort; Woman in Gold, likewise historically based, stars Helen Mirren as ditto, and Ryan Reynolds as ditto. They’re both approximately twelve billion times better movies than Furious 7. I repeat: ah, the vagaries!

Mirren plays Maria Altmann, an Austrian Jew who escaped Vienna in the midst of the Anschluss. From a well-to-do, well connected family; her aunt, Adele Bloch Bauer was the model for the Gustav Klimt painting, Woman in Gold. Another relation was the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Maria now lives in California, and runs a small dress shop. When her sister dies, she finds old letters that convince her that the Austrian ownership of the Klimt painting is of dubious legality. She asks a distant nephew, Randol Schoenberg (Reynolds), an attorney, to research the case. He becomes increasingly convinced that her case has merit, and pursues it, first to the US Supreme Court (which rules that the Austrian government can legitimately be sued in American courts), and then to Austria, where he and his client agree to binding arbitration.

The legal machinations are fascinating. No one questioned that the painting was owned by Adele Bloch Bauer, then retained after her death by the Bloch Bauer family, then subsequently stolen by the Nazis when they took over. The Austrian government claimed that Adele’s will bequeathed the painting to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. Schoenberg’s research discovered that the will was not legally valid, that the painting was actually left to her husband, and subsequently to the family.

But it’s an incredibly famous painting, the Austrian Mona Lisa, a painting featured on post cards and coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets. The Austrian Cultural Ministry, of course, wanted to return stolen Nazi art to its original owners. Up to a point. But come on. Not the Woman in Gold.

Mirren is tremendous as Altmann, at times peppery and opinionated, at times profoundly unwilling to confront her own tragic past. We also see why her past haunts her. At least a third of the movie is told in flashback, as we see her as a young married woman during the Nazi takeover. That takeover was hardly resisted at all, and as anti-Semitic brutality grew, it was generally cheered by the majority of Austrians. The young Maria is played by Tatiana Maslany, the wonderful Canadian actress who is so spectacular in the BBC America series Orphan Black. All the scenes involving her were riveting.

I thought the flashbacks were the best part of the picture. I was equally taken with a pivotal character, Hubertus Czernin (German actor Daniel Brühl). Czernin is an Austrian journalist who helps Maria and Randol in their fight against the Austrian cultural authorities. As he points out, Austria is still engaged in a battle to define itself culturally. Hitler was Austrian, raised in the anti-Semitic sinkhole that was Austrian society before the First World War. The Austrians hardly fought the Nazi takeover at all, and were willing participants in the lethal persecutions of Austria’s Jews. Obviously, post WWII Austrians would much prefer to forget that any of that was true. Not just older Austrians, but Czernin’s own generation resents having the past dredged up against.

Go to Paris, and you expect post cards to feature the Eiffel Tower; go to the Louvre, and post cards will feature Mona Lisa. In Austria, in the 1990s, the Woman in Gold had much of that same cultural allure and prominence. The idea that that painting had been stolen by Nazis, that it represented the most shameful part of Austria’s past, and that its rightful owner wanted it removed from the most important museum in Vienna and sold to Americans was a decidedly unwelcome one. No wonder they fought Maria so hard.

I’ve generally thought of Ryan Reynolds as something of a lightweight actor. Not in this film. Initially, a little bland, he becomes more and more engaged in the case, more and more invested in his own past. The fact that he’s a Schoenberg struck me as particularly apt. Arnold Schoenberg’s music is, of course, difficult to appreciate the first time you hear it. But the twelve tone approach he created rewards those listeners willing to put the time in. The more you listen to it, the more it affects you, and in the end, what initially seemed like an academic exercise becomes closer to an agonized lament, for a time he could see was ending in violence and death. At one point, Randol and Czernin go to a concert, and hear a Schoenberg piece; my one complaint about the movie is that we don’t get to hear more of it.

Anyway, don’t let this movie slip past you. It may not be in town for long; catch it while it is. It’s really powerful, really well done. Beautifully written and acted and photographed and edited; see it, please.

Cinderella: Film Review

When I first heard that Disney was doing a live-action film based on the old Cinderella animated feature, I had the same reaction I’m sure a lot of you did: Why? The 1950 film was a classic in its day, Golden Age Disney at its best. But we’ve outgrown that time and culture. I could imagine a satire of Disney princesses, a la Enchanted. Or a tougher, stronger Cinderella, like in Ever After. Or a feminist or Marxist deconstruction Cinderella. But just a live-action version of the cartoon, with retrograde classist and patriarchal assumptions left unchallenged? No.

And of course, this new Kenneth Branagh version isn’t that either. It is, however, gloriously and unapologetically romantic in its look and its storytelling. It’s a gorgeous film. (My number one reaction to it, walking out of the theater, was that Sandy Powell just earned her 11th nomination and 4th Oscar for Costume Design). If anything, it’s a humanist reconstruction of the story. Yes, it’s a Cinderella in which a handsome prince sees a beautiful princess at a ball and falls in love at first sight. Except they’ve met before. And he doesn’t know if she actually is a princess, and doesn’t care. And they spend their time at the fancy dress ball playing hooky from it and, you know, talking. Engaging in conversation. And he likes her because she’s vivacious and smart and funny, not just because she looks amazing in that blue dress. (Although she does look amazing in that dress).

A critic I really like, the Village Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek said that she liked the film precisely because it wasn’t full of ‘female empowerment’ messages, that it wasn’t a film that said to girls ‘you can become anything you want to!’ That isn’t actually true, of course. Instead, Ella’s mom, as she dies, tells her two things, to be brave, and to be kind. I love that. I can’t imagine better advice for my own daughters, and my sons too. Be brave and be kind.

Cinderella is played by Lily James, who you probably know from Downton Abbey. And when you look at Lily James in closeup, you realize that she’s hardly a classic beauty; her nose is a little big, her mouth a little wide, her teeth a bit oversized. And it couldn’t possibly matter less. Her smile lights up her face, and she’s got such vivacity and energy and is so open emotionally, she’s spectacular in the role. The prince, Richard Madden, Robb Stark from Game of Thrones, is of course an exceptionally good looking prince. But he’s also a little dorky, a little awkward. You can see that he doesn’t really know how to talk to girls–he’s a prince, an apprentice king, learning politics on the job–but he likes Ella because she’s easy to talk to, because of her open enthusiasm for, basically everything. The evil step-sisters, Drisella (Sophie McShera, Daisy on Downton Abbey), and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), aren’t physically unattractive (they’re not ugly step-sisters), but they’re unkind, mean, selfish and stupid. And the name ‘Cinderella’ is pejorative, an insult. Until Ella embraces it. She doesn’t want her Prince to have any illusions; she wants him to know her as she is, a servant girl. But she says it proudly, with a smile. She’s learned what it means to be brave, and kind.

Cate Blanchett is the evil step-mother, and again, it’s a smart and human portrayal. Blanchett plays her as a survivor, a tough-minded pragmatist who does what she needs to do to get by in a world dominated by men. She expects Cinderella to wait on her and for the household’s dwindling income to extend to fancy dresses, because keeping up appearances is the way to catch a man, and without a man to look after her, how is she to survive? Her scenes with the King’s evil advisor, the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgaard) are delicious, as we see two crafty practitioners of real-politikk sum each other up, and make common cause.

As we left the theater (I saw it with my wife and daughter, and a niece and her husband), we all laughed a bit, at the glorious preposterousness of Cinderella’s ball gown, at this imagined Mittel-European kingdom, on a picturesque coast, but also with Alps, and rosy-cheeked Scandanavian-looking peasants, but also, apparently, a thriving black community. Of course, it’s a fantasy; the whole thing’s a fantasy. But one with at least one foot in the reality of actual human experience. And a fantasy grounded in the notion that in a tough and brutal world, a world full of death and despair, we still have the capacity for courage. And kindness. It’s a terrific film.

 

The Sound of Music, Lady Gaga, and the Oscars

Last night was the annual Academy Awards broadcast, and as always, it was bloated and self-congratulatory and unfunny and often sort of weird. I liked it anyway. I always do. Neil Patrick Harris was a perfectly adequate host, a movie I liked a lot won Best Picture, lots of total strangers shared with the world the happiest moments of their professional careers, while the orchestra rudely played them off the stage, John Travolta seems to have thought that the way to apologize to Idina Menzel was to paw at her face disconcertingly, lots of people wore horrifically unflattering clothing, and Jennifer Lopez’s dress, heroically, managed, barely, to not fall off her. It was an Oscar night. As Bette Midler (bless her) once put it: ‘betcha didn’t think it was possible to overdress for this occasion.’

There were, as always, several musical numbers. Most of them were quite forgettable, but three in particular that stood out. First, the frenetically choreographed number for ‘Everything is Awesome,’ that fabulous song from The Legos Movie. The biggest Oscar travesty of the year is that TLM didn’t even get nominated in its category, Best Animated Feature. It was just too inventive and amazing and fun and funny and smart; can’t have that! Anyway, I liked the number; love Tegan and Sara. Second, I really liked the performance of ‘Glory,’ the song from Selma, John Legend and Common. One of the pre-Oscars’ narratives had to do with that movie, and how its director and star were both snubbed. The song and performance were powerful, as was John Legend’s comments after it won best song.

And then Lady Gaga performed a medley of songs from The Sound of Music. She sang very very well, and then introduced the still-radiant Julie Andrews. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of that film, and apparently it’s being re-released. And I said something rude about it on Facebook. And lots of friends told me, kindly and with great forbearance, that I am an idiot. I probably am. Still, let me explain myself.

The Sound of Music. It’s the most uplifting, triumph of the human spirit, relentlessly upbeat movie ever made. Fresh faced, incandescently talented young Julie Andrews and her mob of well-scrubbed adorable urchins. ‘Climb Every Mountain.’ Grouchy Captain van Trapp healed by the power of True Love. The heroic escape from evil Nazis. ‘Doe, a deer, a female deer.’ All those kindly nuns worrying about how to solve a problem like Maria. ‘The lonely goatherd.’ What kind of grinch wouldn’t like The Sound of Music? The great Pauline Kael was supposedly fired from McCall’s because she gave it a bad review. (Not true; she was fired because she gave every big popular movie a bad review.) Serves her right, you might think. (And apparently, most of my friends do think).

Let me be clear: I don’t think Art has to be a downer. I don’t think that Art shouldn’t be happy, cheerful and uplifting. I have no objection to art that is upbeat and positive. Art can be anything: gloomy, sad, tragic, funny, mean, crushing, and also buoyant, jaunty, merry, fun. I love ‘Anything is Awesome,’ a song so relentlessly cheery it burrows into your brain like a remora into a shark’s hide. I just think that there’s something strange about a movie musical being as upbeat as The Sound of Music when its subject matter is the German annexation of Austria, the Anschluss. I think the shadow of the Holocaust darkened everything about that time and place.  Don’t you think maybe Liesl’s Nazi boyfriend, Rolfe, could sing something a trifle darker than that condescending ‘sixteen going on seventeen’ number?

Other cheerful happy musicals managed it. Take the musical 1776. A fun show about our Founding Fathers and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Charming cute songs. But then there’s the song ‘Molasses to Rum to Slaves.’ The South Carolina delegate, Rutledge (otherwise a minor enough character), sings it, attacking the hypocrisy of the North over the slave trade, pointing out how they benefit from it too. The shadow of slavery darkened those deliberations, and although it’s a fun musical, an upbeat musical, that shadow is given a face and voice and point of view. Or South Pacific, with the song ‘They’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’. Or the dream ballet in Oklahoma, where Laurie imagines the death of her lover. You can do dark, amidst cheerful.

More to the point, the actual story of Maria von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers is essentially ignored in the stage musical and film. For example, Maria did not want to marry Georg von Trapp. She wasn’t in love with him, and she really, genuinely wanted to be a nun. She was ordered to marry him by her Mother Superior. She says she went through the entire wedding ceremony seething with resentment towards him, the Church, and God. ‘Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, ’til, you, find, your, dream!’ Not so much the case. More like ‘Do what you’re told girl, do as I say, ignore your real feelings, obey, obey, obey, o-bey!’

What bothers me about this isn’t the fictionalizing. I get that in the late fifties-early sixties, you couldn’t have authority figures be wrong. A Mother Superior had to be portrayed as kindly and wise; mainstream audiences of the time wouldn’t stand for any of that commie subversion-of-authority stuff. I get that. No, what bothers me is that the real story is so much better. It’s a much more compelling, honest, powerful, human conflict. By turning truth into uplift, they cheapened the power of actual human experience. Maria was raised an atheist. She was converted by the music of Bach. So include some Bach in the film!  Maria von Trapp became the powerful matriarch of a family choir (and the loving wife of the Captain) through sheer force of will. She made herself strong and independent. You could say that she obeyed, and was rewarded for her obedience. But I see it as the triumph of someone who made the best of terrible circumstances.

Like starting a family choir. Which she did out of sheer necessity. That lovely huge home in Austria where they all live in the movie? They lived in a much smaller house, and took in borders. Captain von Trapp lost his shirt in the great depression. They sang to put food on the table. They were not a wealthy family. And again, that’s a more interesting story. You couldn’t have all that in the early sixties either; fathers were all-wise patriarchs, not spend-thrift ne’er-do-wells.

Nor was Captain von Trapp a distant, brooding father. Nor was Maria a freespirited young woman. She was moody and a strict disciplinarian; he was charming and fun and very close to his children. He liked singing with them, but found the prospect of earning money from their music embarrassing.

They also didn’t sneak off with their musical instruments and suitcases in the middle of the night, hiding in a cemetery so the Nazis wouldn’t catch them. They carefully weighed the offers they got from the Nazis (which were more lucrative than the fees they earned initially in the US), and decided, on balance, it would be better for their kids if they left. They told everyone they were leaving, and left on a train, their papers in order and fares properly paid. And they didn’t sneak off to Switzerland. They went to Italy, and from there, to America, all arranged by their agent. That’s, again, a better story; not fake persecution, but adults, coolly and thoughtfully weighing their options, making the right decision for their kids.

Anyway. I really can’t stand The Sound of Music. It’s nothing but compromises, fake moral uplift, phony conflicts and ludicrous character depictions. And the von Trapps hated it too, especially the portrayal of stern and distant Captain von Trapp.

But there’s the music. Those songs are really famous and really pretty. And Gaga does have an impressive set of pipes. I get why she might want to sing those songs, and I thought Julie Andrews’ appearance last night was lovely. But it grated, it really did. I mean, I get why Elvis Costello made an album with Burt Bacharach. And Lady Gaga has recorded with Tony Bennett. And that’s fine. And Gaga’s career has stalled, and she’s getting married, and wanted, perhaps, to go back to her roots, in musical theatre. Still. It felt tone-deaf, after the Selma song.  It felt like a white girl celebrating whiteness. It felt . . . off. Someone as relentlessly avant-garde and post-modern and intentionally transgressive as Lady Gaga should probably use the Oscars to do, I don’t know, something radically transgressive. It felt like (and I hate this, I genuinely hate this), a sell-out.

And I’m sorry if I offended even more people. I just don’t like that musical very much.

Taken 3: Film review

Ah, yes, another chapter of ‘Eric reviews movies that have been out for a month.’ But, come on, it’s a Taken movie. Must-see stuff, but maybe not exactly opening weekend. But I finally saw it, and oh my gosh. Wow. I mean, seriously.

I love the Taken movies, as I love all things Luc Besson, but I let’s face it, cinematic masterpieces, they’re not. Liam Neeson is clearly having a ball in his new role as ‘elderly action hero,’ and if what you want from movies is lots of ‘splosions, lots of hand to hand combat action sequences, lots of scenes where bad guys fire hundreds of rounds from automatic weapons at Our Hero and somehow miss every time (in fact, where horrible bad guy marksmanship seems central to Our Hero’s plan, like something he’s planning on), lots of spectacular car crashes, all leavened with Family Values sentimentality, well then, the Taken movies are for you. They’re red meat for red staters. Or in that carefully hidden lizard brain red stater at the heart of most guys.

Of course, if you want the plot to make a lick of sense, then you might want to try something, you know, good. Narrative incoherence is part of the strategy. Or rather, they’re incoherent in any kind of real-world sense. I mean, Taken 1 requires that we believe that hundreds of teenaged upper-middle class American girls, vacationing in France, could just go missing, sold as sex slaves, with no reaction whatsoever from the US Embassy, or State Department, or Homeland Security, or CIA, FBI, ATF, Interpol, the girls’ parents (Liam Neeson excepted), or from CNN, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, Fox News, MSNBC, Politico, Vox. Facebook. Twitter . . . Nope. Nada from anyone. Except for Liam Neeson, on a one man killing spree of villainous Albanians. In France. Actually, in Paris. With also no reaction from the French police, except for covering it all up, because they’re in the pocket of Albanians. I’m totally not kidding, I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed myself more at a movie. Funniest thing ever.

Of course, Taken 2 upped the stakes. Moved it to Istanbul (not Constantinople). More Albanians, only this time we’re supposed to believe that Liam Neeson’s character’s daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) could just drop hand grenades off the tops of buildings, in Istanbul, blowing up peoples’ cars and stuff, with no reaction from Turkish police. Wow. Just, wow.

But, so, okay, Taken 3. (Besson didn’t direct this one BTW; he wrote and produced it, but it was directed by his long-time 2nd unit director, Olivier Megaton). So, Liam plays, as always, former Special Forces ace Bryan Mills. His ex-wife, Lenore, is married to rich douche-bag, Stuart St. John (Dougray Scott). Daughter Kim is in college, living with her boyfriend, and pregnant. Lenore is unhappy in her marriage, and kinda wants to get back together with Liam/Bryan, but he’s too noble to take her up on it; suggests she sort out her relationship with Stuart first. So, Liam/Bryan gets a text; Lenore wants to meet to talk over bagels, so Liam/Bryan gets the bagels, dashes home, sees her car parked there, goes in, and she’s dead. Murdered. He sees knife, picks it up, then cops pour in. So there he is, caught red-handed. Framed.

Okay, it turns out that what happens next is the turning point for the entire movie. Liam/Bryan could just get arrested, explain everything, trust in the cops to get it right. Main cop is Forest Whitaker, who is always a smart guy in these things, so that wouldn’t seem like a bad strategy. But Bryan/Liam decides to beat up all these cops instead and make his escape. Most of the rest of the movie is this big chase scene, with loads of cops chasing Liam/Bryan around, while he hacks into the police computer and figures out various clues as to who-dun-it (murdered Lenore and framed him for it). And Forest Whitaker basically follows him around, always a few minutes late. Eventually, it turns out that Stuart was behind the whole thing, trying to put together some money he can use to pay off the Russian mob. (The main Russki mobster, BTW, was played by the brilliant character actor Sam Spruell, also the main baddie in Snow White and the Huntsman. Skinny blonde guy? Anyway, always glad to see his work.)

So, anyway, finally, Bryan/Liam breaks into the Russian mob stronghold, kills a couple of dozen guards, gets shot at, hundreds of rounds worth, by various automatic weapons, never gets hit, and uncovers nasty Stuart’s whole plot.And the Russian bad guy dies. So Stuart takes Kim with him, and races off, to his private jet.

Leading to this: Liam/Bryan is driving the Porsche he took from the main Russian guy. He gets to Santa Monica airport just as Stuart’s jet is taking off. Now, remember, Liam/Bryan is mostly interested in protecting Kim. That’s all he cares about; protecting his daughter. The police, at that point, know Stuart’s the bad guy. Jets have to land somewhere, and wherever that one lands, Stuart will be arrested. So, knowing Kim’s in the jet, Liam/Bryan decides the best thing to do is to ram the jet with the Porsche. ‘Cause there’s just no way that could go wrong, plane crashes being notoriously safe for passengers.

Of course it works. It’s a movie, stupid crap like that always works in movies. But then comes the very next scene, a final conversation between Liam/Bryan and Main Cop/Forest Whitaker. And the cop admits that he’s known the whole time that Bryan’s innocent.

Which made me realize something crucial. What if, when he first found his wife dead, Liam/Bryan had just let himself be arrested. The cops, we learn, were suspicious of the crime scene. They were planning to investigate the murder. They’re always five minutes behind Liam/Bryan as he puts the clues together and works it out. They’re smart cops. If Liam/Bryan had just let them arrest him, the result would have been exactly the same. Minus all the dead people.

‘Cause there’s also this: all those chase scenes, with cops chasing Liam/Bryan around, they’re all massively costly. We see dozens of cars destroyed, at high speeds, on LA freeways. There’s no way someone didn’t die, though in fact it appears that no one did, in the movie. Lots of cops get hurt, beat up, concussed, kidney punched. But Forest and Liam have this nice chuckle together and go, ‘it’s all good, we’re fine.’ What? Seriously?

Here’s what I think: in real life, people who cause dozens of high speed traffic accidents for no purpose whatsoever generally are taken to account for it. People who beat up dozens of police officers aren’t allowed to go free.

Now, I’m not saying that it was irresponsible or immoral for Besson/Megaton to make a movie in which those specific crimes aren’t punished. I do think it makes for bad film making. I think it’s specifically bad film making when, in order to enjoy the happy ending, we have to forget everything that happened earlier in the movie.

I’ll grant you that the standard isn’t high. But Taken 3 is far and away the stupidest movie in that particular franchise. This one actually manages to be stupid enough to not be enjoyable. That wasn’t true of the last two, but it is true of this one. It took awhile, but I’ve finally been stupided out by a Luc Besson film.