Category Archives: Movies

Movie Review: Room

When I walked into the theater to see Room, I couldn’t help but notice three older women sitting together two rows behind me. Hearing them chat before the movie began, I learned that they did this all the time; that they were part of a movie-going club with a few of their friends. They were excited; had heard great things about Room, and especially Brie Larson’s Oscar-nominated leading performance. When the movie was over, I sat in my chair, devastated and in tears. I managed to get up, and I looked back at the three women. They were dabbing away at their eyes with kleenex. One of them looked over at me. “Oh, my,” she said. “That was so. . . ” And then she couldn’t finish her sentence. I knew how she felt.

Room is based on Emma Donoghue’s novel; she also wrote this spare but finely crafted screenplay. Directed by the Irish director Lennie Abrahamson. Larson plays a young woman who was kidnapped years earlier, and confined in a tiny room, in a shed, in the back yard of her abductor and rapist. She has been there for seven years, and has a five-year old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who calls her Ma. Jack has never left this place. He calls it Room. As far as he knows, it’s the entire universe. He has also named their sparse possessions: Chair, Other Chair, Sink, Rug. The first half of the movie is entirely located there, in Room, with the two of them. At night, Ma puts Jack to bed in the closet, and shuts the door. She doesn’t want him to see her being violated by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), the vicious monster who feeds them, provides for them, has incarcerated them, and who alone knows the combination to the door lock.

In a sense, then, it’s a movie about Ma and Jack, and their escape from horror. But they do manage to escape, due to Ma’s careful plotting and Jack’s courage. They escape Room physically. But they have to escape Room mentally, psychologically, perhaps even, in a real sense, metaphysically. Room dominates them, infects them, swamps their senses and warps their perceptions. And five-year-old Jack has the resilience of youth going for him. Which Ma, a teen when captured, can no longer rely on.

So that’s part of the film, a psycho-drama. Perhaps it could even be seen as a case study for PTSD. But to say that is almost ludicrously reductive for a film as rich as Room. Room has not just destroyed Ma’s life. It has infected the lives of her parents, Nancy (Joan Allen), and Robert (William H. Macy).

Macy’s only in two scenes, and given only a couple of minutes of screen time. I’ve always believed that Macy is one of the world’s great character actors, and this film does not misuse him. It’s hard for language to capture how devastating his performance is, and how crucial Robert is to the film’s themes. But I’ll try. It’s because Robert has allowed Room to destroy him. He doesn’t even know it, but we can see it clearly; he will never recover from what Room has done to him. To him, not just to his daughter and newly discovered grandson. Room, in this case, is a metaphor for confinement, for rape and abuse and violence and deprivation. She lived it. He’s lived it to, in his mind, in his imagination, and it has turned him into a grotesque parody of humanity. Robert can only go through the motions of polite dinner conversation; he’s become incapable of actual human interaction. Macy, with those haunted eyes, pulls it off.

Nancy’s stronger than he is, and more capable of connecting to ‘her Strong.’ (Jack has never had a haircut, and tells his grandmother that his hair is where his Strong is. The scene where she finally cuts his hair is among the most powerful in the movie.) The more we get to know Robert and Nancy, the more inevitable their divorce strikes us. But she’s remarried, to Leo (Tom McCamus), shaggy and instinctively kind. And for Leo, Jack is . . . a kid. A bright, courageous, wonderful kid. And it’s through Leo (and Leo’s dog, Seamus), that the film performs its final miracle.

We saw it prefigured earlier on. After Jack escapes, he has to explain to a policewoman (Amanda Brugel) where his Ma is. And of course, he has no frame of reference from which to do that, and is anyway completely overwhelmed by the size, by the sheer reality of, well, reality. Remember, he’s never been out, and isn’t even quite sure there is anything outside Room. (He can’t even tell them Ma’s real name). But with immense patience and kindness, the policewoman talks to him, builds him up, gains his trust. Gets the information. Rescues Ma. That was the first time I cried.

Because, ultimately, Room isn’t about Room at all. It’s about courage, it’s about kindness, it’s about recovery and forgiveness, and it’s about love. That’s why I was so in tears at the end. It’s a film about horror and violence and evil, but it’s also about redemption. Abrahamson and Donoghue pull off something miraculous with this piece; without ever, at any time descending to sentimentality or mawkishness, they construct a film that revels in what’s best in humankind.

Room is shattering. But as I left, I didn’t feel shattered. It’s devastating, without devastating us. And Brie Larson’s final moment, her final line, captures the ultimate human victory over Room.

We are not the sum total of our traumas. We’re more than just victims. We’re Jack. We’re Ma. We can do this. What a tremendous film achievement.

Movie Review: Bridge of Spies

Stephen Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies was always the other movie in town. You know what I mean? When my wife and I wanted to see a movie, it was always ‘should we see Bridge of Spies, or should we see . . . ‘ It looked like a really good movie. It’s Spielberg on American history; always something he does well. It had a screenplay by the Coen brothers. It starred Tom Hanks. There was no reason not to see it. But somehow, we missed it, week after week.

I wish now we’d seen it. It’s a terrific film, a deserving Best Picture nominee.  And it occurred to me that it’s one of the few truly excellent films about the Cold War that I’ve seen. But there’s something about it that does feel rather ‘other film in town.’ It’s a structural issue in the film itself.

The film begins in 1957, with the capture of a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Tom Hanks plays Jim Donovan, a New York insurance attorney, but with a background as one of the attorneys at the Nuremberg trials. He’s asked to defend Abel, but it’s made clear to him by everyone–his law partners and the trial judge included–that his defense is meant to be perfunctory; that it’s not any part of his task to actually get the guy off. But Donovan’s the real deal, a terrific attorney, and a genuine true believer in what America’s supposed to stand for, including rule of law and due process. He can’t quite win the case, but he comes darn close, and he does argue successfully against the death penalty, saving his client’s life.

Cut ahead to 1960, and Francis Gary Powers, the American U2 pilot, shot down over the Soviet Union. Cut ahead two more years, to ’62, and as the Berlin wall is under construction, Donovan is asked to travel to East Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange: Abel for Powers. As he arrives, he learns of an American grad student, Fredric Prior (Will Rogers) caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and, preposterously, accused of espionage. And so Donovan decides to exceed his mandate and trade Abel for both guys. Who are held by different authorities–Soviet and East German. And all very much against the wishes of Donovan’s CIA handlers.

These are all terrific conflicts. The Cold War environment. The willingness of the CIA to let Prior freeze in an East German prison. The mysterious functionaries, Russian and German, Donovan has to deal with. It’s a great story, about a genuinely heroic American negotiating complicated moral terrain while keeping true to his own best sense of himself and his country. I liked the whole film. I loved the testy exchanges between Donovan and his various antagonists, US and Commie.

There isn’t anything not to like about the movie. It introduces us to a heroic American most people have never heard of–all to the good. It explores a history that we continue to find fascinating. It’s also an exceptionally well-made film–tautly paced and beautifully filmed.

I just can’t help but notice that the stakes aren’t actually all that high for Donovan, the protagonist. There’s a great scene early in the film where he meets with a CIA agent, who wants to know what he’s learning from Abel. Donovan says he can’t tell him: attorney-client privilege. The CIA guy says, ‘we’re in a war, if you’re a patriot, you have to tell me anything that might affect American interests.’ And Donovan asks him this: ‘your name is Hoffman, right? You’re of German ancestry? And I’m Irish, both sides. So what makes us both Americans? We both agree on the same set of rules. We call it the Constitution. So, no, I will not violate attorney-client privilege.’ It’s a terrific scene, and it tells us everything we need to know about Donovan.

But mostly, the stakes aren’t very high for him. As he walks to a meeting at the Soviet embassy in East Berlin, the ruined city seems dangerous and menacing. It’s beautifully acted and filmed. But he’s really not actually in much danger. He’s a remarkable man, and I applaud Spielberg for telling his story. But his task doesn’t really endanger him. Or at least, not much. In fact, throughout the East Berlin scenes, we’re told repeatedly that he’s suffering from a head cold. And that does complicate things for the poor guy. But that’s all.

So it’s a very interesting and engaging film, and I liked it very much indeed. And I couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s up for an Academy Award. But I don’t think it’s going to win. It’s an A-minus film, and one I’m glad we finally saw. Films don’t have to have a protagonist up against life-threatening odds. Sometimes a threat to his integrity can carry a film. That’s what happens here.

The lily-white Oscars

The Oscar nominations just came out, and as usual, were greeted with cries of outrage from everyone whose favorite movie got dissed. Or (I live in Provo), outrage because Spotlight, Room and Brooklyn haven’t come to town. (They have come to Salt Lake, forty miles away, but I’m old, sick, and the weather’s been lousy). But also because of how few people of color received nominations.

Which complaints seem to me completely justified. Let’s grant, first, that determining the ‘best’ actor’s performance of the year is entirely subjective. Eight films were nominated for Best Picture, but for all of us that list had some real head-scratchers. I liked Mad Max: Fury Road a lot, and was thrilled to see it get an Oscar nomination, but my wife thought that was a ludicrous selection. Comedies and action movies are routinely ignored by Oscar, despite the fact that they are essentially the movies that keep the film industry alive financially. One big complaint about the Oscars is that they honor films no one has heard of or seen. Like Spotlight, Room and Brooklyn. Film is both an industry and an art form, and profitability and respect don’t always walk hand-in-hand.

Complaints about color-blind Oscars do seem justified this year. If there were movies about the African-American experience, by African-American filmmakers, that were exceptionally well-done, and that were ignored by the Academy, then African-Americans in the industry could legitimately feel ill done by. And if those same films had some nominal white participation which was, actually, honored by the Academy, then the exclusion of Black filmmakers can seem particularly egregious.

And that happened. Straight Oughta Compton was an outstanding film about N.W.A., well-reviewed, a terrific film about an exceptionally crucial group in the history of rap, crucial chroniclers of the African-American experience. It was directed by F. Gary Gray, an important African-American director, and the cast was essentially all Black. Its two principal screenwriters were both white, Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff. And Herman and Berloff were the only two Oscar nominees from that film. Creed was another excellent film, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, another fine young Black director. It starred Michael B. Jordan, a wonderful young actor who gave a career-launching performance, after doing equally outstanding work in such films as Fruitvale Station and Red Tails. Again, it received one Oscar nomination; for Sylvester Stallone, for Best Supporting Actor.

Sorry, but that just seems like a deliberate snub, an intentional insult. Which, of course, it wasn’t. The Academy members who vote on these things are pretty much all Hollywood liberals, exactly the people who would be appalled and offended to be accused of racism. But they’re also, most of them, white. A recent study by the Los Angeles Times showed that of the 5, 765 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 94% were white, and 77% were male. Only 2% are Black, and fewer than that were Hispanic. And they’re old; average age 62.

I know people who get the mailers. They take the whole thing very seriously. But their votes are heavily influenced by sentiment and prejudice. The Creed vote makes sense. Creed was a Rocky movie; the final chapter, one presumes, in that endless saga. It’s about the boxing career of Apollo Creed’s kid. Rocky movies don’t win Oscars, not since the first Rocky did. But Sylvester Stallone is one of the giants of the industry. The political incorrectness of the second Rambo movie and jingoism of Rocky IV have long ago been forgiven. I can well imagine a kind of groundswell for his nomination. And while Creed was an outstanding movie, it is a Rocky movie.

And now Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee have announced their intention to boycott the Oscars. George Clooney and Lupita Nyong’o have voiced similar criticisms. Chris Rock, this year’s host, is being pressured to step down. The story has legs.

So, for example, why wasn’t Will Smith nominated for Concussion? Big star, important, issue-oriented movie? Why not a nod? Well, who should he replace? Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl? Terrific actor, former winner, in an exceptionally well-made movie about transgender people? Okay, then, why not Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, or Michael Fassbinder for Jobs?  Except that Hollywood loves biopics. And you’ve got a film about a victim of McCarthyism, or a film about the founder of Microsoft. It’s not an easy call.

What makes this issue so fascinating is the way it illuminates the way racism actually functions in our society. Here you have a group of people who would rather die than be regarded as racists. And with the very best of intentions, they try to honor particularly outstanding members of their group. And they end up belittling and insulting their Black colleagues, quite inadvertently. But the outrage of the Hollywood Black community is real, and justified. Racism’s insidious that way.

Benghazi, and Michael Bay’s Thirteen Hours

Say the word ‘Benghazi,’ and watch the fur fly. If you’re a conservative, Benghazi is a national disgrace, proof of the ineffectual and feckless foreign policy of Barack Obama and the rank dishonesty of Hillary Clinton. If you’re a liberal, Benghazi is a national tragedy unnecessarily politicized and trivialized by a right wing desperate for some actual scandal they can use to attack this President, and deny the Presidency to the woman who served as his Secretary of State.

My task today is to tell you about a film about Benghazi, directed by, of all people, Michael Bay. A film I expected to loathe, and ended up respecting and being moved by. Yes, that Michael Bay, known for mindless and idiotic action films about transforming robots, weighing in on the most tendentious political scandal of our age. Of course, I thought, the movie was going to suck; that went without saying. I was seeing it so you wouldn’t have to. You’re so very welcome.

I’m a liberal, and a Hillary Clinton supporter. I’m also a film guy. And so when I tell you that Thirteen Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is, for the most part, an honest, powerful and important film, and kind of interestingly revelatory, I suspect that most of you will worry that the old guy’s finally lost it. I knew perfectly well, going in, how I was supposed to react to it. But I make up my own mind. And yes, it’s  true that, to some extent, the film does perpetuate some conservative conspiracy theories. I just don’t think that’s very important.

Some background. September 11, 2012. Benghazi was the second largest city in Libya, a nation which, then, had recently, in 2011, been freed from the brutal and odious rule of Muammar Gaddafi. The United States supported the rebel faction that deposed Gaddafi, but the country began, almost immediately, to disintegrate, with some factions supporting the West, while others aligned with Isis, or Al Quada, or other Islamist extremists. The US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, supported Libyan independence, and the pro-Western factions in the country, and to show that support (and to meet with their leadership), he chose to spend a week in the mission compound in Benghazi, despite oft-expressed security concerns. And it was there that a large group of Libyan terrorists attacked.

In fact, there were two Benghazi attack centers. One was the consulate, where Stevens was in residence. The other was a CIA intelligence annex, tasked with monitoring Gaddafi-era weapons. Security at the consulate was provided by minimal personnel, plus a substantial Libyan militia presence (who turned out to be completely useless). Security at the CIA site, a mile away, was provided by civilian contractors, who reported to the CIA station chief. The contractors tried to save Stevens, but arrived too late. They returned to the CIA compound, followed by bad guys, and were attacked there. Of the four American casualties on that day, two were at the consulate, and two at the CIA facility. Most of the film is about the defense of the CIA compound.

The contractors were all former military Special forces. Those special forces are the heroes of this film. They all have beards, and cool tough guy names like Tig and Boon and Tanto and Oz. And the film’s protagonist, Jack (John Krasinski). They’re all married, all with families, and all with civilian jobs that they hate. And so, they take these security gigs, missing their families, but doing the job of warriors, because no one else will.

When terrorists attack the consulate, the contractors hear of it immediately, and want to drive to rescue Ambassador Stevens and his people. The CIA station chief, Bob, (played by David Costabile, a fine actor who often plays villains), refuses at first to allow it. The film therefore does support one conservative talking point: that the Ambassador could have been saved, but the guys who might have saved him were given a ‘stand-down order.’ An excellent Vox.com article on the film and the event points out that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation reached a different conclusion. (Still, given conflicting accounts, it’s hard to fault a screenwriter who chose to believe the one offering a stronger conflict).

The other major issue in the film has to do with their lack of air support. The contractors call repeatedly for some kind of military air support, which never comes. The reality, as found in both the Senate and House Intelligence Committee’s reports, is that the contractors didn’t receive air support because there weren’t any planes close by who could have provided it. So, in those two instances, the film does exactly what I was expecting it to do; support conservative talking points and conspiracy theories.

Here’s why, to me, none of that matters that much. Benghazi has not just become politicized, it’s also, perhaps inevitably, become trivialized. The current Republican talking points on the ‘scandal’ have to do with unimportant nonsense like who said what on Sunday morning talk shows a few days after the attack. The current Democratic response is a resounding ‘Hillary did nothing wrong!’ What both of these responses ignore, and what the film illustrates, is the complete failure of US foreign policy in Libya, and probably throughout the Middle East.

The US strongly supported one side in what became a Libyan Civil War. As a result, today, as the film both illustrates and points out, Libya is a failed state. It’s a surreal, violent, horror show of a country, and the movie gets that right. We see it over and over, what a dreadful, screwed-up, violent place Libya has become.

There’s one scene early in the film, as three of the contractors are running, weapons ready, towards a firefight. And as they run down a Benghazi street, they pass a bar, where a whole crowd of Libyans are watching a soccer game. This kind of thing happens throughout; the most bizarre juxtapositions of the brutal and the mundane. Another guy has set up a TV set in his backyard, and is watching the same game, while bullets fly past his head. It’s a country where the most horrific violence is so routine that people don’t pay it any heed.

It’s also a country where you really can’t tell the bad guys and good guys apart. There are Libyan characters who act heroically throughout, and of course, Libyan terrorists, led by this one, unnamed, long-haired guy. At one point, a car drives past the compound, and one of the contractors can’t decide whether to open fire or not. The car then turns around, and drives off. Was he lost? Was it reconnaissance? They don’t know, and neither do we, watching the film.

Of course, today, as Libya continues to collapse, as its two main factions and seven sub-factions all vie for power, the main response of the Libyan people has been to flee. There are half a million Libyan refugees in camps across Lebanon and flooding Italy. We think of the refugee crisis as involving Syrians, but it’s every bit as much a Libyan problem.

In American politics today, ‘Benghazi’ is the perfect illustration of what it means to strain for a gnat and swallow a camel. Conservatives shriek about how long it took Obama to call the attack an act of terrorism, while liberals shout just as robustly that Hillary was blameless. But Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama pursued a policy in Libya that could not have failed more catastrophically, with an unbelievable cost in lives lost and families scattered. And the reason conservatives haven’t called them on it, is because they fully supported the essence of that policy, still do, and are upset that Obama didn’t commit to it more fully. Libya has failed, and thousands of people died, and that fact gets ignored by politicians left and right.

But not, as it happens, by Michael Bay. And after the attacks fail, and the contractors head home, we see the main battlefield outside the compound, and the bodies laying there, and we see women, wearing burqas and weeping like their hearts are broken, going from body to body, mourning each one afresh. I honor Michael Bay for including that moment, and lingering on it, just as I honor him for capturing the nightmare landscape that modern Libya has become.

It’s not just a stupid action film. It’s a powerful film about the cost of war, on both sides. And it’s a film about how badly US foreign policy has failed that entire region.

There’s an early scene in the film where Ambassador Stevens talks to the contractors at the CIA compound. And he’s idealistic and inspirational, and we can see that he’s a decent, good, hard working man, who genuinely believes that Libya can transform, under US guidance, to become a safe, free, prosperous nation. And that possibility maybe did exist, briefly. And the contractors aren’t impressed. They’re veterans of Iraq, and Afghanistan. They’ve served multiple tours in ‘nation-building’ missions abroad. And they’ve seen the results. It doesn’t work. And they’re going to end up having to shoot themselves out of the mess that kind of idealism creates.

Benghazi doesn’t mean that Hillary Clinton lied and it doesn’t mean that Republicans hyperventilate over trivia. Benghazi is about an instance of horrible violence in a country that no longer exists, where violence has become routine. It’s about well-meaning idealism, left and right, and about the honest, superbly trained grunts who have to make policies work that have no chance of working. In short, it’s a tragedy. Made by Michael Bay. Watch it yourself. Make up your own mind.

A world that doesn’t exist

Watching last night’s Republican debate was a corrosive experience, depressing and infuriating. I didn’t watch it last night–there were basketball games to watch–but I did record it and watch it this morning. It’s not just the egos on display, not just the personal attacks, not just the usual politicians’ blather. I’m used to that. I usually think it’s pretty funny. It wasn’t until this morning when I read this article on Vox.com that I put my finger on it. The Republican candidates were describing a world that doesn’t exist.

Of course, I understand that that many Republicans believe that the seven years of the Obama Presidency have reduced the United States to a dystopic nightmare hellscape. The Oscar nominations just came out, and Mad Max: Fury Road is up for Best Picture. My impression is, that’s what they think the US is now, a bleak desert where water is money and Charlize Theron only has one arm, and is pursued by a bad guy in a mask. I mean, I get that the candidates are trying to replace Obama; of course they need to make the case that they will do a better job than he has. But they sounded like a bunch of dopes last night.

Let’s start with the absolutely obvious: the US economy was in free-fall when President Obama took office and it isn’t anymore. That’s reality. Not even a point worth debating. We all remember 2008. In case we forgot, The Big Short is also up for Best Picture. I’ll grant that Presidents don’t have all that much power to grow or contract the economy, but this President did ask for an $832 billion stimulus, which created or saved 1.2 million jobs every year for five years, and which prevented the great recession from turning into The Great Depression: The Sequel. Was some of the stimulus money misspent? Of course it was. It still worked; not as well as it might have worked, because it was never big enough. But well enough.

We can argue over whether a neo-Keynesian stimulus is an effective way to jump-start an economy trapped in a demand-side recession (hint: yes, it is), but what we can’t argue with is the simple fact that right now, in 2016, the economy is doing pretty darned well. The US GDP is up nearly nine percent since the first quarter of 2008. The US has added more jobs than the rest of the advanced world combined in that period. The deficit has declined; if current trends continue, the next President will be in a position to pay down the national debt. Are there still economic problems in the US? Of course there are. Labor participation is a concern, as is income inequality. But the Republicans, last night, were saying things like ‘the United States cannot survive eight more years like the last eight.” That’s just so much fatuous claptrap.

The Vox.com article looks at foreign policy, a major focus of last night’s debate. And again, the candidates kept describing things that are just not true.

“ISIS is stronger than ever, and poses an existential threat to the United States.”

ISIS has lost nearly half of the territory it once controlled, and much of its leadership. The San Bernandino terrorist event killed fourteen people. That’s a terrible tragedy. It’s also more or less the same number of kids killed annually in high school football games (12, last year). It’s fewer than the number of people killed by champagne corks (24 last year). It’s fewer than the number of people killed by blunt force trauma in incidents involving cows (20 last year). Falling off horses is a bigger threat to the American public than acts of domestic terrorism. Yes, ISIS is dangerous, and US foreign policy needs to continue to focus on reducing its power. Existential threat? Please.

“The recent capture of a Navy boat by Iran proves how bad the nuclear deal was.”

Okay, so a Navy boat ran out of gas and drifted into Iranian territorial waters. The 10 sailors aboard were captured by Iranian forces, and held for one day. Because of the diplomatic ties we established during the nuclear deal, we were able to retrieve them without further incident. Some of the photos the Iranians took were kind of embarrassing. That’s all. But, boy howdy, the Republican candidates couldn’t talk about it enough. See! Proof! Iran! Bad! They made themselves look ridiculous, but what is not ridiculous is this thought: if most of the Republicans running for President right now actually won, we would almost immediately find ourselves at war with Iran. For no legitimate reason.

Jeb Bush warned about China and Russia. “China, Russia [are] advancing their agenda at warp speed. And we pull back. As president of the united States I will be a commander-in-chief that have the back of the military. We will rebuild the military to make sure it is a solid force.”

Jeb! was supposed to be the smart one. Anyway, this is all nonsense. Russia is caught in a military quagmire in eastern Ukraine, and its economy is in freefall. Essentially, Russia right now is a gas station with an army; aside from selling carbon fuels, Russia has almost no industrial base. China’s biggest stock market keeps shutting down. China has some very hard choices to make, with unprofitable state-owned domestic industries that probably need to be shut down, at the risk of a major recession.

There is zero evidence that China poses a military threat to the US, though. Zero. In fact, China is a US trade partner and ally, a very good thing, because China is the one effective power on earth who can talk sense to Asia’s crazy nephew in North Korea. In the meantime, under Barack Obama, the US military continued to enjoy more funding than the next nine countries’ militaries on earth, combined. Can I also say that I enjoyed Ben Carson’s description of the dangers of an EMP attack. I’ve seen those movies too. Let’s also not forget how dangerous those aliens look in the previews for Independence Day II. Not sure a Macbook virus can slow ’em down this time!

What really worries me is not ‘American weakness under the feckless leadership of Barack Obama.’ They’re running for President; they have to say silly things, sometimes. I also have my differences with Obama’s foreign policy, but ‘weakening America’ doesn’t make the list. What really worries me is that this kind of alarmist hooey appeals to a significant percentage of the electorate. I know a lot of political talk is drivel. But it should, occasionally, involve something other than drivel; some sensible analysis of the actual state of our actual union.

At least, open a window and look around. You’ll see a country that’s doing pretty well. We’re still lucky that way, we Americans.

 

 

Joy: Movie review

Joy is another prestigious, well reviewed, Oscar nominated David O. Russell film starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro. I loved American Hustle, and liked Silver Linings Playbook very much. I looked forward to seeing Joy, and enjoyed it, too, though it’s an oddly, and I think deliberately off-putting film. The story, very loosely based on Joy Mangano’s invention of the miracle mop, which is one of the strange things about it; Mangano is listed as an executive producer for the film, but Joy, the character played by Jennifer Lawrence, is never referred to by her surname, even when it would make sense.

If you look at the film’s IMDB’s page, the first user comment says ‘it’s the uplifting tale of the lady who invented the Miracle Mop.’ At one level, that’s a straightforward description of the movie. It’s an uplifting story, certainly; a desperately broke single Mom invents a new mop, and becomes a bajillionaire. My wife’s response to it was ‘it could have been a much better film if they’d just made some different choices.’ This is completely accurate. But the choices Russell makes in the film are, I think, intentional. The result is a film I admired more than enjoyed. I actually it’s kind of brilliant and honest and good. Just not very ingratiating, or emotionally satisfying. It doesn’t have that triumphant feeling, for example, of the exhilarating-but-dorky dance contest in Silver Linings Playbook, even though it could, if it wanted to. Let me dig into it a little.

To repeat: It’s a film about a bright and talented lower-middle class woman who invents a better mop. She draws it up using her daughter’s crayon set. She applies for a patent, and builds a prototype. She gets it on QVC, sells it on that network, and makes a fortune. That’s a wonderful story, and it pretty much really happened; the basic outline of Mangano’s invention are all in the movie. And, as such, it’s a film about the American Dream. Anyone, no matter how poor or disadvantaged, can have a dream and achieve it, even a single Mom with a dysfunctional family. Joy’s breakthrough came when she persuaded the producers at QVC to let her sell her product personally, which hadn’t been their policy. That moment, Joy having her big breakthrough on TV, would be a great ending to an inspirational film.

But that’s not really what this film’s about. Early in the film, Joy talks to her father’s girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), who has some money inherited from her husband, about investing in the business. Trudy has four questions for her, about her qualifications and background; normal stuff. The fourth question, though, is this: ‘there’s a gun in a room, and you’re alone there with a business competitor. Do you pick up the gun?’ (I’m paraphrasing the line, sorry). And Lawrence, as Joy, says ‘I pick up the gun.’

And that’s what the movie is about. Picking up the gun. In other words, this isn’t really a film about the American Dream; it’s a film about the ruthlessness needed to make that dream come true. Having a vision for a new commercial product isn’t enough. Coming up with some improbable funding source isn’t enough. Getting a break isn’t enough. Working your butt off isn’t enough. You also have to be willing to pick up the gun. You have to act ferociously at times.

And that’s where the film goes. (Sorry, major spoiler coming). The QVC breakthrough isn’t the powerful, exciting ending of the film. It could have been, but Russell doesn’t go that direction. When she finishes selling her mops on TV, she learns that a supplier has raised prices on her. She’s now going to lose money on every mop she sells. She confronts that supplier, and it goes very badly. She’s close to bankruptcy. But there’s another, more shadowy figure behind that supplier, and that’s who she has to confront. And that’s when she picks up the gun. Not literally, of course, but, yeah, basically.

It’s not just the story choices Russell makes with the film script, it’s the way he films that script. The film is stylized, non-realistic. As she heads off on a plane, Joy looks at her sleeping children through the windows of a plane. Then the camera pulls back, and we’re on the plane. Her mother (wonderfully played by Virginia Madsen), spends all day, every day, in bed, watching soaps. But we see the soaps, not as they would be broadcast, but as they would be filmed, with actors posed for a three camera setup, not conversing, but talking past each other. When Joy goes to see her supplier, she asks to use the restroom. She discovers a sort of tunnel from the bathroom to the production floor. This is never explained, and in fact, makes no architectural sense at all. But we accept it, because the whole film’s like that. Not quite anti-realistic, but certainly pushed beyond realism.

And we are, in fact, as Brecht would suggest, alienated. The cost of that alienation is that we don’t end up caring much for most of the characters. The actors are, with one exception, somewhat stylized, too. It’s true of De Niro’s performance, and it’s true of Cooper’s. Not bad acting, not at all. One dimensional, not fully characterized. But intentionally, to serve the somewhat chilly demands of the film.

The one exception is Jennifer Lawrence, as Joy. As always, her complete connection to the role, her utter commitment to the emotional center of her characters, carries the movie. In fact, she’s probably ten years too young to play Joy. A divorced woman with two children (Langano had three), a checkered employment history, a seriously messed-up family; we’re basically describing someone in, at least, her mid-thirties. But Lawrence is terrific in the role; never less than totally enthralling. Her youth put me off for two seconds, and then I was captured.

I admire the film’s honesty, though. It’s wonderfully uncompromising. In fact, the film struck me as a point-by-point answer to the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. Obviously, that’s ridiculous; pre-production for this film had to have concluded well before Trump even began running. But still, it’s a film that says ‘the American Dream is too alive. It’s harder than it used to be, and that’s a shame. But you can’t just have a good idea and work hard. You have to pick up the gun.’

 

 

The Hateful Eight: Movie Review

I just left the theater, having seen Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, and I’m still trying to put it all together. My reaction, and what it all means, and what I think he’s doing this time. I’m not sure I can, not yet. It’s a strange and enigmatic film, a film that’s clearly trying to say something about our society, about race and gender and violence, and how they relate to our past. But its thinking seems muddled to me, unclear. It’s also a film that’s difficult to analyze without giving away plot points, and it’s also a film where spoilers are particularly to be avoided by critics. It’s essentially an Agatha Christie closed door mystery (though the bloodiest Agatha Christie ever), and if I say too much, you’ll want to hunt me down and shoot me. Which I’d rather avoid.

So this is going to be an impressionistic review, mostly, if that makes sense. A ‘thoughts that occurred to me while watching the thing’ kind of thing. If you’re on the fence as to whether or not you should see it, BTW, don’t. If you generally don’t like Quentin Tarantino films, you won’t like this one either, and if you’ve liked his earlier films, you’ll like this one a lot. Samuel L. Jackson was on Colbert the other night, and when asked why he enjoyed acting in Tarantino films, he said, essentially, ‘what’s not to like? He writes complex, interesting characters, wonderful dialogue, fascinating, thoughtful scripts. Plus, (and here Jackson got a naughty grin on his face), he uses the biggest blood bags anywhere. Huge blood bags. So cool.’ Yup.

  1. The opening shot in the film is of a snow-covered wooden crucifix carving. The camera holds on that shot forever, while we see a horse-drawn coach pushing through a snow storm. That same shot is repeated during the closing credits. The film is otherwise absent religious imagery, except that during a particularly awful murder, a character plays Silent Night on a piano.
  2. The cast includes several Tarantino favorites–Samuel Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Kurt Russell.  But the two strongest performances are by Jennifer Jason Leigh (who is remarkable), and Walton Goggins (Boyd Crowder, from Justified). Tarantino has always been brilliant with actors, and nowhere more so than here.
  3. Basically, the story: Kurt Russell plays John Ruth, aka The Hangman, a bounty hunter, who is bringing Daisy Domergue (Leigh) to justice. They’re on their way to a town called Red Rock, but a blizzard has forced them to take refuge in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a general store/saloon. Also there are a lawman, Chris Mannix (Goggins), a former southern General, Smithers (Bruce Dern), a farmhand, Joe Gage (Madsen), a British traveling hangman, Oswaldo Mowbray (Roth), another bounty hunter and Civil War officer, Major Marquis Warren (Jackson), and one of Minnie’s employees, Bob (Damien Bichir). Also there, the carriage driver, O.B. (James Parks). Ruth is convinced that one or more of the other men is in league with Daisy, and intends to kill him and rescue her. Which one? Why? That’s the mystery.
  4. As just a mystery, a who-intends-to-do-it kind of thing, it’s really terrific. I mean, genuinely compelling. I had no idea, and yet, the revelation of the plot was completely convincing.
  5. The language in the film makes an occasional nod to nineteenth century diction, but it was inconsistent, and at times the characters sound very contemporary.  I suppose it’s possible that the film’s linguistic anachronisms are the result of sloppy research or authorial indifference, but I don’t think so, any more than I think that Tarantino was unaware (in Inglourious Basterds) that Adolf Hitler did not die in a fire in a Paris movie theater. He’s a meticulous and careful writer. I think the anachronisms are deliberate, an attempt at Brechtian alienation, or metacinematic commentary, or something equally suggestive.
  6. For example, it’s astonishing how many details of the ‘old West’ it gets right. Like details regarding how one cares for exhausted horses in a barn. Or how one lays out a rope line in a blizzard. Great care taken here with research.
  7. I would just point out that there are four female characters in the film, and that all of them are subjected to horrific violence.
  8. The key to the entire story is clearly Daisy, and Leigh is, as I said, amazing in the role. She’s not just an abused woman (when we first see her, she has a black eye). She’s a provocateur, someone who is deliberately provocative. And the relationship between her and Ruth is fascinating. He beats her up, but it’s never personal; he needs to keep her in line. Horrible things happen to her over the course of the film, but she also controls a good bit of the action. I can’t say more without revealing too much, but it’s a terrific performance. A strong woman who nonetheless gets beaten badly?
  9. So, what thematic purpose does her abuse serve? Why are all the women in the show treated so brutally? Why is Zoe Bell (Tarantino’s favorite stuntwoman) in the film, and why is her character so fascinating? She plays Six-Horse Judy, the only woman capable of handling a six horse team. And why does she die so soon?
  10. By the same token, the film is clearly also about the violence of the Civil War, but also the reconciliation of North and South; about former enemies who actually form a relationship. And die? Fade into the past?
  11. Mythmaking is central to this film, and especially a letter from Abraham Lincoln. It’s a film where all the characters know each other by reputation. And where we’re never quite sure who is telling the truth about what.
  12. As always with Tarantino, the score is tremendous. Ennio Morricone’s music is simply extraordinary. And the film ends with Roy Orbison singing ‘There Won’t be Many Coming Home,’ a song I had never previously heard of, but perfect for this film.
  13. Of course, it’s unbelievably violent. It’s a bloody mess. For no other director on the planet is it more important to remember that portrayal does not equal advocacy. Quite the contrary, in fact. Always, always, ask this: what’s he trying to say?
  14. Taking a stab: it’s a portrayal of America and our history. Racism, brutal violence towards blacks and women, sexual violence, a vicious struggle, something approaching resolution. Two former soldiers, covered with blood, desperately wounded, reconciling.

There are scenes that feel like a punch in the gut. There are films that are gory, and also gruesomely funny. It’s a Quentin Tarantino film. It’s not like anything else. At all, ever.

The Big Short: Movie Review

There’s a popular kind of Hollywood film in which a David–a whistle-blower, an investigator, a journalist, a cop–takes on a Goliath, a big corporation, say, or the government, finding and exposing malfeasance and corruption. Concussion, and Spotlight, neither of which I’ve seen yet, are presumably examples of this kind of film. Erin Brockovich, The Insider, Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonThe Pelican BriefAll the President’s Men; like me, you can probably name twenty of them off the top of your head. They are filmic equivalents of this, from Ecclesiastes: “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” They encourage underdogs; they’re idealistic in a healthy way. Or, to put it cynically, they serve Hollywood’s favorite narrative; that movie stars can solve absolutely anything.

The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’ non-fiction best-seller and directed by Adam McKay, is essentially that kind of story. It’s about a small group of social misfits, most of whom did not know each other, who separately concluded that the most profitable and stable sector in the US economy was so criminally and foolishly mismanaged that it was likely to collapse. They were all investors and did what investors do; they invested. They shorted real estate. They made a few ineffectual attempts to go to the press, to inform relevant government regulators, to let people know, but their warning was so seen as so preposterous that they were almost uniformly laughed at and ignored. So they laid their money on the table and placed their bets. And became very very rich.

It’s an exuberant film, a film made with tremendous meta-cinematic confidence and elan; for most of the film, it’s a rolicking comedy. McKay sets himself the task of explaining highly technical financial instruments and concepts in a way that will both amuse and instruct. At times, actors face the camera and address the audience directly. At one point, we’re told that Margot Robbie will explain a difficult concept, from her bubble bath. Sure enough, there’s Robbie, in her bath, sipping champagne and explaining things.  Or Louis Jourdan, explaining CDO’s using chopped halibut. It’s a terrifically entertaining film, energetic and funny. Then it stops being funny. And when it was over, I felt angry. Furious, frustrated, and heartsick.

Christian Bale plays Dr.Michael Burry, an Asperger’s-afflicted neurologist-turned-financial analyst, founder of Scion Capital LLC, a hedge fund. Bale is quite brilliant in the role, capturing Burry’s obsessive insistence on insane amounts of research, leading him to conclude that the bundled mortgage bonds that were the hottest investments on earth were built on the shakiest of foundations. Burry works to a cacophany of heavy metal music, doesn’t wear shoes, and plays the drums for release. He can also barely stand to deal with other people, most especially including his many investors. When he approaches Wall Street bankers, asking if he can short real estate, he can barely bring himself to speak. They can barely contain their laughter. Oh, sure, we’ll let you short real estate. We’ll call the instruments ‘credit default swaps.’ Why not? What could go wrong. Heh heh heh.

Over the course of the film, Burry makes billions of dollars for his investors, investors who are busy suing him for using their money so irresponsibly. In the end, they’re wrong, and he’s right. It brings him no joy.

The film also depicts the relationship between Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who meet through a wrong number. Baum was also astonishingly eccentric; a kid that got kicked out of schul by his rabbi, not because he wouldn’t study Torah, but because he was only interested in disproving it. Carell’s amazing in the role. Baum initially can’t believe that the real estate markets could possibly be as unsound as Vennett presents them as being, and so, with his assistants, goes on a trip to Florida. At one point, they meet a stripper, who tells them that she owns five homes, plus a condo, all mortgaged to the hilt. Because how could that possibly go wrong? At one point, as Baum meets with two insanely clueless mortgage brokers, who are describing the felonious ways in which they’re selling houses, he turns to one of his assistants and says ‘I don’t get it. Why are they confessing?’ ‘They’re not confessing,’ says the assistant. ‘They’re bragging.’

The film’s third story involves two small garage-band investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who have one contact in the financial world, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former neighbor. Rickert doesn’t invest anymore–he’s become a healthy foods fanatic–but he’s willing to lend a hand. For the most part, people like Baum and Burry were buying default swaps on bonds rated B. Geller and Shipley can’t break in at that level. So they begin buying swaps on bonds rated AA. Those bonds, it turns out, are every bit as rotten as higher rated ones. They get rich too.

And they dance in celebration. They cavort, joyously. And Brad Pitt, as Rickert, stops them. (Brad Pitt’s doing this lot these days; producing and playing a small part in important films, to get them made).  Reminds them that they bet against the US economy.  Against the world’s economy. That their fortune is built on people losing their homes, their retirement plans, their pensions, their savings. That they are dancing on the grave of the American financial system. That their good cheer is, perhaps, a trifle unseemly.

And in the end, Gosling, as Vennett, tells us, we Americans gained in wisdom what we lost in money. Hundreds of investment bankers went to jail. Serious financial reforms were enacted by a Congress shocked into regulatory good sense. At least it will never happen again. Bad as it was, we learned our lesson. Whew.

JK.

No. None of that happened, as Vennett knows well, and as we all know. (Michael Burry is still around; he says it’s likely to happen again). As Gosling cashes a check for half a billion dollars, Vennett, rather defensively, tells us he’s not the bad guy here. It was everyone. It was mortgage brokers writing the paper for loans they knew their clients had no possibility of repaying. It was bonds rating agencies asleep at the wheel. It was SEC regulators seeing their job as a stepping-stone to a better paying one at Goldman Sachs. It was Goldman Sachs. Bear Stearns; Lehman. It was a system either crooked, or stupid, or both.

And that’s the central question, isn’t it? Was the financial system’s collapse the result of criminality or imbecility? Were they all crooks? Or morons? Not all banks and not all bankers. But enough. Also Republicans; they’re to blame–they oppose bank regulation. And Democrats–the repeal of Glass Steagal was signed into law by Bill Clinton. We all had skin in the game, and we all got skinned.

The Big Short is a brilliant film about the world-wide financial crisis. Its heroes are as morally implicated as its bad guys, and nothing good happens. David slays Goliath, and is crushed by his fall. And then both armies advance, and the slaughter is universal. Somehow, McKay captures that too.

Fixing Star Wars: A review of The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has made a billion dollars faster than any other film in history. It’s the hottest movie ticket in the world. And it’s an exciting, fast-paced movie. It’s fun. I enjoyed it. I’m not being a Star Grinch when I say that I don’t want to see it again. It’s a cool flick. It’s fine.

And I’m absolutely itching to fix everything that’s wrong with it.

Ordinarily, I don’t do this. Writers own their work, even if the ‘writer’ is a committee. But Star Wars is communal property, like the six pack of Diet Coke in the break room fridge. And nearly every conversation I have had with people about The Force Awakens has gone like this: ‘I liked it. But. . . .’ So let’s roll up our sleeves. (I’m going to assume that you’ve all seen the movie. But since some of you may not have, I’m not going to reveal The Big Spoiler. Just: there is one).

First of all, let’s acknowledge that The Force Awakens is a pastiche. Early in the film, when we first meet Rey (the incandescent Daisy Ridley; what a find, and so great to see a female protagonist), she’s scavenging in a crashed Star Destroyer, quite possibly the one we see at the beginning of Star Wars (Episode Four, the first movie. I won’t call it A New Hope). That’s how she makes her living; picking up bits and pieces from destroyed ships. My son pointed out that her profession provides the perfect metaphor for the whole movie; that’s J. J. Abrams. He’s Rey; he’s a scavenger. That’s the whole movie; bits and pieces (and plot points, and story elements) from the first three movies. I wish the story were a little more original. But Rian Johnson is directing (and writing) the next one. I’m content to look at The Force Awakens as a combination homage and extended trailer for the two much better films that will follow.

No, I don’t propose to redo the whole thing. I want to fix this movie. Reshooting and reediting wouldn’t cost more than ten million, tops. (Hey, it’s not my money).

Star Wars films always take place in both a political and a religious context. There’s the Empire v. Rebel Alliance story: politics. And there’s the Force: religion. This film is no exception. Except in this case, it’s the sinister First Order (which wouldn’t seem to be in power, right? Which presumably is a rebellion against the Galactic Republic?), and the good guys, the Resistance (which otherwise would seem to be . . . the government?) So the original films are about a scrappy insurgency against a tyrannical central government. In this film, it’s about a Hitleresque insurgency against . . . the Weimar Republic? Which, for a military force, relies on a Resistance? Mercenaries? Or legitimate soldiers on the side of the Senate? And where’s the Senate anyway? Disempowered, even assassinated?

The Senate, the Republic, are barely mentioned in this film. And we need more; the scroll isn’t enough by itself.

Meanwhile, we do see something of the First Order political structure. We see a ginormous holograph of The Supreme Leader (the great Andy Serkis). Under him is General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), who gets one big scene, a marvelously fascistic speech to an army of storm troopers; he stands for ‘order.’ (Of course he does). Also in the ruling triumverate is Kylo Ren, who represents the Dark Side, and hero-worships his grandfather, Darth Vader, but who is otherwise a bit of an adolescent weenie. He eventually is involved in The Big Spoiler, which I won’t reveal here. (I know he’s a controversial character, but I like everything about the actor, the performance, and his story thread. In fact, I think it needs to expand).

The Force, meanwhile, has been popularly relegated to myth and legend. Except maybe not; because this film’s MacGuffin is Luke Skywalker. The First Order wants him. So does the Resistance. But why? Because he’s the only Jedi Knight left? That’s more important than, oh, destroying an entire planet?

Here’s my suggestion. Tie the political and spiritual more closely together. Instead of the Force being mythical, how about instead if the Dark Side of the Force is the only Force people know? Maybe that’s the secret to the First Order; they have the Dark Side, having succeeded in shutting down all access to the Light Side. Luke has disappeared; they want to kill him. What if the world is just . . . meaner? What if the First Order is ascendent because the Dark Side infects everything, sours all interpersonal relationships? (We see a hint of it on Jokku; Rey doesn’t seem to have many friends, and the world seems driven entirely by self-interest).

The light side, meanwhile, like Luke, exists, but quietly and in hiding. When Finn (and John Boyega is terrific in the role) can’t bring himself to murder villagers, he says it’s because it was the right thing to do. Well, where does his conscience come from? Not his upbringing. The light side, obviously. What’s needed is more of an acknowledgment about how weird his little rebellion is. Poe Dameron needs to react to it; he takes it way too much in stride.

Rey’s initial skepticism about the Force would have more impact if her doubts were about the possibility of the Force having a good side, not the Force existing at all. Again, Han could sell that. He could talk about how there was a time when the Force was a positive thing.

Maybe even this: what if the poisoned atmosphere of a Dark Side-dominated world was, in part, what broke up his marriage to Leia. Because, come on, there needs to be some bitterness there, doesn’t there? Kylo brought the dark side into the midst of that family? And there’s some lingering nastiness? It would give Carrie Fisher something to do, at least.

A lot of this, both the political and spiritual elements in this film could be clarified by fixing the one great completely incomprehensible missed opportunity of the film. It amazes me that Abrams didn’t do more with Poe. I mean, Oscar Isaac is a terrific actor. Poe is an exciting and interesting and charismatic character. But he gets four minutes screentime early in the movie (where he’s terrifically compelling), and then disappears for ninety minutes. Then he comes back to destroy the Death Star-ish planet thing. “Where have you been?” asks Finn? He offers a brief, unsatisfying answer. Not. Good. Enough.

Of course, it’s possible that they’re making him deliberately mysterious, because they have plans for the character in the next two movies, probably involving an extended flashback. Maybe so. I still the film’s use of Finn as a massive missed opportunity. The Star Wars films don’t do well with flashbacks. They’re great at cross-cutting between multiple story lines. Here’s what you could do:

Show his TIE fighter crash, his survival, and his spectacular escape from Jokku. He’s a great pilot; maybe he steals some other crappy ship, or maybe he steals another TIE fighter. (It would lengthen the movie by, I don’t know, three minutes. Big deal). He meets Rey, is smitten. (Love triangle!) But he’s also skeptical of Finn. ‘Yeah, he rescued me, but why?’ Stormtroopers don’t just throw off their training and indoctrination like that. But then Leia (she has The Force, remember), says, ‘there’s something about this guy. I think he has the Force.’ Again, Poe’s skeptical, (the Force is all Dark Side, remember), but it’s Leia; she’s a legendary figure too. And Han could back him up, ‘I like this kid, he reminds me of . . . Luke.’

I wouldn’t recast Kylo Ren–I like Adam Driver in the role, and love the character. I loved The Big Spoiler. I’m willing to put up with all the echoes of the first three movies. I just think there are missed opportunities here. Let’s fix it. Back to your laptop, Mr. Abrams!

 

The politics of The Hunger Games: Movie review, kind of

Two events, on a similar theme: last night, my wife and I saw the most recent Hunger Games movie, or rather The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part Two. I know, a month after everyone else saw it. So I wondered; should I review it? Here’s the second thing: on Rachel Maddow’s show, she showed a flier that someone in Michigan put in the windshields of cars parked outside a movie theater where Mockingjay was playing. It began by asking Is American like Panem? It obviously concluded that America is in fact a great deal like Panem, and proposed, as a remedy, voting for Ted Cruz. And, of course, it’s hard not to notice that the Hunger Games novels and films are intensely political. They are, after all, about a revolution and a civil war. So political how? And does it have anything to do with our tangled politics here, now, in America?

Here’s the text of the flier:

In the Hunger Games, Michigan would be in District 800–and our job would be producing textiles. The Panem Capitol promises to give you free stuff–security, food, and a job. But what you really get is hunger, torture, and a lack of opportunity. America has wealthy rulers living in the Capitol just like Panem. The political elite think they are entitled to your hard earned money to support their extravagant lifestyle. You are left with: student loans you can’t repay, struggling to put food on the table, not being able to afford healthcare fines, knowing you were lied to by the political elite.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is time for something different: Freedom, Opportunity, Fairness under the law, Personal sustainability, Hope. Join the Rebel Underground! Ted Cruz: Catching Fire!

In fairness, the Ted Cruz campaign told Rachel Maddow that this flier wasn’t produced by the Cruz campaign. Still, the basic themes echo the Tea Party critique of today’s America. Lack of freedom, a faltering economy, Obamacare, arrogant elites wasting our substance. The need for a political revolution. And so on.

I’m going to assume that you all know these novels and movies. And my discussion of them will include many many spoilers. Because I do want to talk about them in the context of politics. So: the flier. Well, of course, Ted Cruz looks nothing whatsoever like Katniss Everdeen, though I do see a slight resemblance to Caesar Flickerman, nor does Barack Obama look even remotely like President Snow, though he is skinny, and getting grayer. Superficially, the comparison doesn’t work at all.

And if it did, it wouldn’t help Ted Cruz. The entire point of Mockingjay–Part II is, as the Who once put it, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Alma Coin, head of the revolution for which Katniss is such a powerful force, turns out to be even more brutal and dictatorial and manipulative as President Snow ever was. Which is why (oops, spoiler!) Katniss assassinates her. If we’re to compare this film with that candidate, we’re led inescapably to the conclusion that voting for Ted Cruz would be a very very bad idea indeed. If you don’t like Obama, Cruz (if he’s really Catching Fire) would, by the logic of the movies, be much worse. There’s a technical, political science-y term for the kind of thinking this flier represents: twaddle. The Hunger Games is about a dystopic future in which American politics is a brutal totalitarian nightmare. That is quite specifically and obviously not the America in which we currently reside. It is, in fact, its polar opposite.

Still, it’s a fascinating question. Suzanne Collins, who wrote the trilogy on which the movies are based, has created a powerful and compelling narrative and a beautifully realized world in which to set it. And they are political novels and movies, with echoes of ancient Rome, but also, of course, of histories and societies closer to our own day. The Ted Cruz flier may be ridiculous, but it gets at something that’s not; the ways in which Collins’ world resonates with our own. Libertarians, I’ve heard, have embraced the Hunger Games world, and with some justification. Panem is certainly a nightmarish society in which personal liberties are abridged routinely. But a Bernie Sanders fan might find the movie reflects her political views. Panem is also a society essentially defined by income inequality.

But I think these similarities are superficial. The specific thing about Panem that makes it so horrifying is the Hunger Games notion. Panem is a society where, annually, children battle to the death, for the amusement of adults. Panem isn’t just an unequal or unfree society; it’s a society where an entire entertainment complex is built around violence to and by kids. There really isn’t a contemporary analog.

My libertarian friends point to Panem as an illustration of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, his careful analysis of the steps by which a democratic society becomes less free. Hayek’s great book was based on his own experiences in Austria in the 30s, and on seeing Germany devolve into a dictatorship. But Hayek’s analysis has nothing to do with The Hunger Games. We don’t see President Snow gradually accrue power, step by step. When the books open, he’s already in power; his conquest a fait accompli. And we’re given to understand that he came to power following a terrible war. We might more properly see Panem as illustrating Hannah Arendt’s essay On Revolution, showing how President Coin will inevitably follow the path of President Snow; how the talents of a revolutionary aren’t particularly relevant to the task of governing, and how therefore so many revolutions lead only to tyranny.

The reason I like the Hunger Games books and (especially) movies so much is simply this: they deal honestly with that reality. These are YA novels, intended for a teen audience. But they’re not remotely triumphalist. They’re not about a notional good overcoming an intensely imagined evil. They’re about civil war and revolution, bloody and violent and morally appalling. Katniss only ‘triumphs’ by becoming an assassin. Her entire intention, in fact, is murder/suicide. In fact, for a big, expensive set of action movies, Mockingjay–part 2 avoids the pitfall of so many of these sorts of films, the big, final battle scene with spectacular stunts and CGI, in which Our Hero beats the bad guy once and for all (unless they need him for the sequel). Katniss’s final walk towards Snow’s palace looks like it’s going to be the set up for just such an ending. Instead, she gets to see her beloved sister die horribly. And then she’s wounded. No big victory. Just a lot of death.

In the world of The Hunger Games, revolution and civil are horror shows, in which a lot of people we care a lot about die painfully and unnecessarily. Katniss Everdeen volunteers to fight, to spare her sister. Ultimately, she can’t even manage that small task. I love that unsparing honesty.

So, no, I don’t see any particular, specific contemporary political parallels to The Hunger Games. But I do see books and movies I can respect, superbly acted and produced, ending with a moment of earned grace, but not remotely simple-minded or facile. That’s their achievement, and I honor them for it. They have nothing whatever to do with Ted Cruz.