Captain America: The Winter Soldier: a Review

I really like what Marvel is doing with their treasure trove of cartoon heroes and villains and story lines.  We’re heading towards another Avengers, obviously, but meanwhile it’s possible to make several Iron Man movies, a few Thors, now a second Captain America. Of course, they’re all disposable, cultural fast food. But they’re fun, exciting flicks.  I’ve seem pretty much all of them, and haven’t really had a bad time yet.

One of the things I like best about them is that they’ve recognized that the star of a Captain America is the fact that it’s a movie about Captain America; you don’t need an established movie star to play the character. You just need a good actor.  That’s what they’ve got in Chris Evans (it’s also what they’ve got in Chris Hemsworth, in the Thor movies).   Evans faces a terrific challenge when playing Cap.  Captain America is a square.  He’s not an angsty teen, like Spiderman, or darkly conflicted, like Batman, or a womanizer playboy, like Iron Man, or just flat preposterous, like Superman.  Cap’s an All-American kid, a Boy Scout.  Captain America is decent, patriotic, idealistic, fundamentally good.  He’s a square. And it’s a very small step from ‘square’ to ‘drip.’  He could be a figure of fun; he could be a blockhead.  But as Evans plays him, Cap is all that, trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly etc., but he’s also dramatically compelling. Partly that’s the writing, of course, but a lot of it’s Evans; he’s very good in the role.  Basically Captain America is a decent, honorable soldier, who finds himself mired in the ugly realities of the war on terror.  And he hates it, and hates how hard it is to fight it honorably, decently.  The rest of the movie is Captain America’s quest to live up to his (and our) own highest ideals, to, in the best sense of the word, lead.

That’s not to say that these movies don’t have real movie stars.  Samuel L. Jackson brings his unique brand of American hip cool to Nick Fury, the leader of SHIELD.  Robert Redford’s in this too, so good to see him again, though time has not been kind to his movie star good looks.  Plus, of course, Scarlett Johansson, but only as a second lead. But she’s great at action sequences, and she can act; I’m glad she’s in it.

SHIELD, we assume, is on the side of good.  My wife and I have become quasi-fans of the ABC TV show, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. It’s sort of a strange show, definitely in the same world as the Avengers, but lower key, without superheroes, though in a fictional wilderness in which superheroes exist.  It’s about six SHIELD agents, led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who was in the Avengers movie, and featuring a computer hacker, two scientists, and two fighters.  And they fly around in an airplane and have adventures and fight bad guys.  It’s not a great show, but it’s all right, and I’m kind of a Clark Gregg fan.  But it’s basically about SHIELD, this massive, international terror-fighting organization that doesn’t seem to have any oversight or supervision and basically can do whatever it wants to.

That’s a recipe for tyranny, and so kudos to this new Captain America movie for recognizing that fact, and putting it in the center of the movie.  Basically, having created a fictional world protected entirely by this big SHIELD organization, Marvel uses this movie to deconstruct it.

It’s really nicely done.  And I don’t mean to suggest that an action movie about a guy who wears a costume and beats bad guys with his amazing round shield thing is, you know, profound.  But I like it. I liked the way this disposable entertainment ended up at least asking some interesting questions, about the ever-present tension between security and liberty, and the balance we have to strike between them.


Robert Redford’s the bad guy in this movie.

Redford plays Alexander Pierce, who seems to be the managing partner of SHIELD, one of a group of five people who give the organization what supervision it actually has.  And he has a plan.  He wants to build a death star.

Well, not really, more like three huge flying killing helicopter platform things which, when coordinated, can kill 20 million people pretty much immediately, and be sort of surgical about it.  And SHIELD also enjoys using an NSA 2.0 sort of surveillance apparatus, that can literally listen to any phone conversation and read every email, and figure out who in the world is either a bad guy, or inclined to become one.  So there’s the question.  Let’s suppose there are 20 million such people on the planet.  We can instantly kill all of them, and massively reduce any kind of terrorist threat to the world.  That’s what Pierce wants to do, and he has the means to do it.  Should we let him?

Well, Captain America can’t allow that to happen, and that’s basically the movie; Cap trying to blow up the Death Star destroy these big heli-killers.  And it’s all very exciting, because of course all he has as a weapon is his shield, plus super strength, speed and endurance.  And Scarlett Johansson, as the Black Widow.  And Anthony Mackie as Falcoln, a soldier with wings that allow him to fly really fast (and dodge anti-aircraft fire).  And it’s all very CGI and exciting and fun, although the action sequences are a bit too Michael Bay for my taste.  Too much shaky-cam, too quickly edited, so we’re never quite oriented in time and space, and frankly can’t always tell what the heck is going on.

Also, I have no idea how Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is going to deal with suddenly-evil-SHIELD.  But I’m really glad this movie went there.  Of all the superhero characters in the Marvel fictional universe, Captain America is the right one to question the civil liberties implications of SHIELD’s very existence.  And the right one to send a message to everyone in SHIELD inviting them all to join him in rebellion against the organization’s worst impulses.

And the cause of moral ambiguity is also well served by the ‘Winter Soldier’ of the film’s title.  Sebastian Stan (another talented no-name actor), plays him, a super bad guy, terrifyingly good at violence and single-minded in his devotion to the twisted duty to which he’s been assigned.  But (SPOILER ALERT), he’s also Bucky Barnes.  He’s Steve Rogers/Captain America’s best friend from the last movie, cryogenically preserved, genetically enhanced, and now an evil killing machine.  He is, in short, Darth Vader.  And Cap (Luke?) can’t bring himself to kill him.

Sam Jackson gets a terrific Pulp Fiction joke near the end of the movie, and of course Marvel creator Stan Lee gets a cameo. Long live pop culture po-mo self-referentiality!  And I’m willing to overlook how infinitely negotiable death seems to be in this universe, as well as how quickly characters seem able to recover from near-fatal gunshot wounds. It’s a movie about Captain America. I’m glad it took itself seriously, and I’m just as glad that it didn’t take itself too seriously.

The power of bad reviews

I’ve had a play running in Salt Lake City for a couple of weeks now, and we’ve gotten lots of reviews.  Really really really positive reviews.  It’s really gratifying, to get good reviews, and especially when they’re from people I respect and think of as particularly astute.  I’ve had a season of my work in production in Salt Lake this year, and all the shows got great reviews.  I’m like anyone else; I enjoy being praised for my work.  I like it a lot.

But I got to thinking about reviews, and what they mean in terms of box office.  And I think that while a good review may help sell tickets, they’re probably a fairly negligible factor.  I think bad reviews can hurt ticket sales.  What happens to me occasionally is that I’ll see a preview for a movie and think ‘that looks interesting.  I’d like to see that.’  And I’ll talk it up to my wife, and we’ll make plans to see it.  And then I’ll check, and see that it’s gotten a 20% positive rating.  And I’ll read a few reviews.  And rethink my plans.  By the same token, if there’s a movie I never would have imagined liking, but it gets tremendous reviews, I may change my mind.  That happened recently, for example, with The Lego Movie.  I would never in a million years go to see something called The Lego Movie, but it got fabulous reviews, great word-of-mouth from friends, and we finally saw it and loved it.  So that happens.

But there’s a certain kind of bad review that’s probably better for box office than any good review ever could be.  I was thinking about this recently in relation to Ibsen.  My Dad asked me to write something up about Ibsen for the Sons of Norway, and I did, but I got to thinking about Ibsen’s play Ghosts (which I have translated and directed, and which I absolutely love).  When the Independent Theatre in London produced the play in 1890, it got gloriously awful reviews.  George Bernard Shaw, who was involved with the production, later gathered some of the worst reviews and published them in his Quintessence of Ibsenism. The play was  “an open drain”; “a dirty act done publically”; “a loathesome sore unbandaged”; a “mass of vulgarity, egotism, coarseness and absurdity.”  Ibsen himself was described as “a crazy fanatic”; “Ugly, nasty and dull”;  “A gloomy sort of ghoul, bend on groping for horrors by night, and blinking like a stupid old own when the warm sunlight of the best of life dances into his wrinkled eyes.” And Ibsen’s admirers were described as “lovers of prurience and dabblers in impropriety, eager to gratify their illicit tastes under the pretense of art.”  “Effeminate men and male women.”  “Muck-ferreting dogs”.  And (this is my personal favorite), “ninety-seven percent of the people who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste in exact proportion to their nastiness.”  Of course, all those negative reviews did nothing except make Ghosts the hottest ticket in town.  And people who saw the play saw a powerful, somber tragedy, and a magnificent portrayal of one of the great female characters in theatre history, Mrs. Alving.

Those Ghosts reviews were so extreme, so over-the-top, that people correctly recognized that something else was going on with that show.  It was a cultural event.  Every critic in London had to go see it, and had to condemn it in the strongest possible terms, because otherwise they might be thought of as ‘not up-to-date,’ but also as ‘not moral.’  You had to see it, and you had to blast it; it was just essential to do both.  And of course, now, looked at through the lens of history, all those earnest critics look ridiculous.  ‘Please.  It’s Ghosts.  What’s your deal?’ 

I think the same dynamic is at play with Obamacare.  Conservatives hate the Affordable Care Act. Hate it. The House has voted to repeal it, like, forty times.  And it’s like they’ve been competing to see who can denounce Obamacare in the strongest terms. A future Shaw is going to have a jolly old time assembling a compilation album.  ‘Worse than the Holocaust.’  ‘Calculated to destroy America.’  ‘Worse than slavery.’   It’s pretty hilarious.

Meanwhile, over seven million people have enrolled in the ACA exchanges, and many more have signed up for the Medicaid expansion.  And I have to think a lot of younger people looked at the overblown rhetoric opposing Obamacare and thought ‘okay, that’s nuts.  What’s going on?  I’m going to find out for myself.’

I thought about this, as well, in relation to conservative reviews I’ve read of Darren Aronovsky’s Noah film.  ‘A gratuitous insult to Christianity!’  Well, no, it’s not.  It’s a film, and a darn good one.  I think the negative reviews were, again, so extreme, all they did was make people want to see it.

So this weekend, Ordain Women is planning to go to Temple Square, and politely request tickets for the Priesthood session. Their requests will be refused, and they will calmly and reasonably step away.  It’s a protest, of course, but a very mild one.

But I’ve seen the response on social media to Ordain Women.  Ferocious.  Even violent.  A lot of it has a ‘what do those dizzy dames want?’ kind of vibe, only in many cases much more strongly expressed.

And I think it’s going to backfire.  I think that when people actually meet the women involved in OW, they’ll be shocked to see that they’re reasonable, thoughtful, smart, funny women.  I know quite a few OW members, and I’ve never met one I didn’t like, immensely.  I think it’s pretty obvious that the letter from the Church’s PR department, essentially inviting OW members to quietly sit themselves in the back of the bus (or more accurately, actually outside the bus on the pavement), was, uh, tactically unsound.  I think that when people meet Ordain Women women, they’ll like ‘em.  And when they listen to what they have to say, they’ll be even more impressed.

I think so far that OW have gotten some over-the-top bad reviews.  And, historically, that tactic really doesn’t work very well.


Noah: A Review

Let’s start here: Darren Aronofsky, as a filmmaker, is not just a gorgeous visual stylist, he is the one major director I know of who is genuinely immersed in the power of myth and in the power of tragedy.  Lots of directors today appropriate myth as material for otherwise conventional Hollywood melodramatic narratives: The 300, Clash of the Titans, Thor, the upcoming Hercules.  But the mythical trappings of these films are essentially just production design, and we leave them essentially unmoved. We think ‘that was awesome’, without ever having experienced awe.  Aronofsky explores myth creatively, even uses contemporary subjects matter to reimagine myth.  In Black Swan, he uses backstage ballet company squabbling to retell the myth of Odette and Odile; in The Wrestler, the wreckage of a life spent professionally wrestling is given the weight and depth of tragedy; Mickie Rourke’s Randy the Ram becomes a Hector, an Achilles, an Agamemnon.  The seeds of Aronofsky’s new Noah film are found in his 2006 film The Fountain, an extraordinary, complex multi-layered meditation on the Tree of Life, and (possibly), the redemptive power of love.  Ignore critics who scoff about the ‘Biblical accuracy’ of this Noah; this is not a Sunday School lesson, it’s a Darren Aronofsky film, and a great one.

There were giants in the earth in those days. . . . (Genesis 6: 4)

The operative OT word is Nephilim; ‘giants’ is a common translation.  Aronofsky calls them ‘Watchers’, and imagines them as fallen angels, sent to earth to help mankind, but cursed with bodies of stone. They’re ponderous creatures, and move as though every step is agony.  But they’re huge and powerful, and now, having helped mankind accomplish the ruination of the planet, they help Noah build (and they later defend) the Ark. When they die (and they can die, humans can kill them), they again become creatures of light, and are released, gloriously, to heaven.

And Zillah, she also bare Tubal-cain, an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron. . . (Genesis 4: 22)

Tubal-cain is a central character in the film, superbly played by Ray Winstone.  After the slaughter of Abel, Cain’s offspring multiplied.  There are essentially two branches of humanity; the children of Cain and the children of Seth.  The Cainites have destroyed the planet; Sethites have been reduced to one family, Noah’s.  After a vision, Noah takes his family on a journey to find his grandfather, Methusaleh, and we see a ruined world; sludge ponds, tree stump deserts, abandoned mines and factories.  Having instilled in humankind an insensate greed for tools, Tubal-cain is king of what’s left.

Russell Crowe creates an essentially kind and loving Noah.  He knows The Creator (the word ‘God’ is never used) intends to drown the world, and that he’s to build an ark so that ‘the innocent’ (by which he means animals) can survive it, and initially, he believes that The Creator also intends his family to be spared, and his family to mark a new beginning for humanity. The difficulty is that he has three sons, and only one daughter-in-law.  And she, Ila (the magnificent Emma Watson) is barren; married to Seth, but unable to conceive.  His wife, Naameh (the equally magnificent Jennifer Connelly), is also past the years of child-bearing.  So how can mankind survive?

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.  And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me, for the earth is filled with violence. . . . (Genesis 6: 11-13).

Noah goes to Tubal-cain’s encampment to look for wives for his sons.  And what he sees is a nightmare world, a world of brutality and sexual violence, a world of cruelty to animals, a world of murder, and above all, a world of rape.  We hear it more than see it; hear the cries of women subjected to violence, echoing everywhere in the camp.  And Noah feels, in his heart, his own capacity for violence.  He has killed in the past, defending his family.  He is a gentle man, and a kind hearted man, but he is a man, and he is shaken by the camp, but not just by its reality.  He’s also devastated by self-knowledge; by his own capacity to become that evil. He is, perhaps, titillated by it.  And that realization drives him mad.

And he kills, again he kills, not by design or intent, but by neglect and cowardice, he kills.  He kills a young woman that his son Ham has saved, a woman who is, in Ham’s words, ‘innocent.’  And Ham (Logan Lerman, also magnificent) cannot forgive it.

I will cause it to rain upon the earth . . . and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth. (Genesis 7: 4)

And we see it. And again, more than what we can see, we can also hear, and we see Noah’s family, in agony as they hear human beings, clinging to their Ark, drowning in despair, beating on the wood with their hands, shrieking in desperation.  And it goes on and on.  And they are devastated.

And, so, on the Ark, Noah gathers his family, and he tells them the story, of Adam and Eve and Creation.  Innocence and joy, purity and the love of the Creator.  And the serpent, and Cain’s violence to his brother.  And he tells his family that humankind must end with them.  They will save the animals, they will make possible re-Creation.  And then, one at a time, they will die.  And the youngest son, Japheth, will bury the last of his brothers, and then he too will die.  That is the vision the Creator has shown him.

Here’s what Aronofsky has done with the myth of Noah; he has imagined for us a prophet who is wrong.  He has created a titanic figure in Noah, but also a madman, a good man driven insane by visions of violence and death.  And the heart of the movie is there, on the ark, as a three-way debate takes shape and defines the intellectual contours of the movie.

In fairness, let me urge you to stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie and want to.  Spoilers to follow; and I think they can’t be avoided.  Because this film is also a moral argument, and an argument that is worth describing fully and honestly.

What Noah does not know is that Ila, his daughter-in-law, is no longer barren. Naameh, in compassion and love, has taken her to Methusalah for a blessing, and she is now with child.  Shem is to be a father, and Noah, a grandfather.  And when Noah finds out, his madness intensifies, and he declares that if the child is female (and if, therefore, she represents a possible future for humanity), he will kill her.  And Naameh pleads with him, and their children avoid him.  He has gone insane.

Or has he?  Because the film is now defined by an argument, and one side of that argument is that mankind does not deserve to live.  I’m reminded of Matthew McConnaughey’s character in True Detective, arguing that human consciousness was an evolutionary error, and that at some point, nature will simply fix the mistake.  Eradicate us.  And we’ve seen a world defined by violence.  We see in Tubal-cain’s camp; we see it today, in the Congo, or North Korea, or Darfur.

What Noah does not know is that his Ark has a stowaway; that Tubal-cain was able to climb aboard. And Ham knows it too, and is angry enough at his father to keep Tubal-cain’s secret.  And the king is a tough old bird, but he’s not stupid and he has something else going for him; he loves mankind.  He thinks we’re supposed to rule, we’re supposed to exercise dominion over the earth. Maybe at times we exercise dominion foolishly, but we can fix that too; we’re smart enough to shape our environment, to use tools to manipulate our world, and incidentally benefit ourselves.  Violence is our heritage and our legacy.  We were meant for power.

But there’s a third point of view.  And it does not come from divine revelation, as both Noah and Tubal-cain (both of whom pray, and to the same Creator), think their philosophies come from.  It comes from the human heart, from what we Mormons would call the ‘light of Christ within.’  It’s Naameh’s opinion, and it’s based on love.  She believes in, and forcefully articulates, the power of human love. She believes that we can choose good over evil, that we can choose to serve something greater than ourselves, because she’s done it; she’s given her life for her family.

So: obvious.  Except it isn’t.  As Noah points out to her; she’d kill for her family.  Her love has an undercurrent of violence, or at least the capacity for violence, the possibility of it.  We love, and perhaps that does ennoble us, but we’re tribal beings, and we can and will kill for those we most care for. And maybe love is a powerful force, but those words, ‘power’ and ‘force’ are rooted in a capacity for violence, are they not?  And yes, Tubal-cain is disgusting as he kills for food, and when he tells Noah that he intends to take from him his women.  But don’t human beings share with other creatures an innate instinct for survival?  And isn’t the world of ‘innocence’, the world of nature, a violent one?

And when Tubal-cain is finally defeated (by Ham, the son whose filial devotion is most equivocal, the boy who has cause to hate his father), Ila goes into labor, and is delivered of twins. Twin girls.  And Noah, as promised, takes up his knife to kill.  And Ila begs of him one last favor.  The babies are crying.  Can’t she, at least, calm them, quiet them, allow them to die while peaceful?  And he allows it.  And when he realizes that he can’t do it, he can’t obey his Creator to that final extremity, he cannot, finally, kill again, that realization does not heal his madness.

And Noah . . . planted a vineyard:

And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. (Genesis 9: 2o-21).

And he drinks, and it’s not comic; it feels like a punch in the guts, because we see it as more madness, as PTSD made manifest on the earth.  It’s only when Ham ‘uncovers his father’s nakedness’ (in the film, it’s translated as ‘leaves on a self-imposed exile, rather than cope with his father’s insanity’), that Noah begins to heal.  And the family begins to heal, and his marriage begins to heal, and we see, in the heavens, an image of hope.

I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

 And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud. (Genesis 9: 13, 14).

I am a believing, practicing Mormon, which means a believing and practicing Christian.  A Bible reader and a Bible lover.  And this painful and tragic and wonderful film does the Bible the courtesy of taking it seriously.  It honors the text by creatively re-imagining it, by giving myth a personal gloss. It’s not a slavishly literal retelling of the story, and it does not provide comforting platitudes.  It honors the horror of the Flood, or of all floods, it honors the painful reality of God’s plan; that we’ve been sent here to a world of volcanoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis.  And war.  And murder.  And with an innate human capacity for violence.  I left the theater edified, discomfited, uplifted, disturbed. Shaken.  Moved.  It’s a great film.


Two movie reviews

Everyone knows that February movies are terrible. Studios load all their Oscar-worthy films into November and December, and all their big budget popcorn flicks into the May-August summer movie season. But post-New Year movies tend to be things like Monuments Men, an issue movie intended to generate Oscar buzz, but which just wasn’t good enough to make the cut, or movies primarily intended for foreign distribution, like the new 300 movie, or Pompeii.  February is for flotsom, or on occasion, jetsom.  Which is why it was so nice to see two really pretty fun movies released last month. I had a busy February, as it happens, and only just got to see them, but they’re both really pretty good, and I recommend them with great pleasure.

First was The Lego Movie.  If you had told me six months ago that I would spend my hard-earned cash to see something called The Lego Movie, and not only that, enjoy it, I would have laughed in your face. Or that Tegan and Sara would write the catchiest pop song of the year, especially for that movie?  No way.  Well, take that, six-months-ago-me!  What a tool that guy was!  In fact, The Lego Movie is awesome. Of course, everything is awesome, as the movie’s one song reminds us over and over and over.  But so is the movie.

Basically, there are two ways of playing with Legos.  One way is to follow the instructions carefully, and build the stuff that’s on the cover of the box.  The second way is to ignore the cover of the box, and build whatever awesome thing your imagination can come up with, limited only by the Legos at hand.  That Legos insight somehow becomes a premise, and eventually a story, and eventually an animated movie.  Lord Business (or President Business; the titles are interchangeable) voiced by (and eventually played by) Will Ferrell, wants conformity.  He wants everyone to obey the rules.  And so, in his world, there’s one song that everyone builds stuff to: the aforementioned “Everything is Awesome.”  There’s one TV show that everyone watches, a sitcom called “Where are my pants?”  It features one character, and one joke; dude can’t find his pants.  And everything is about to be locked in, set in stone.  Glued firmly in place.

Opposing Business, is a fierce female ninja warrior, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), her boyfriend Batman (Will Arnett), a prophet figure (Morgan Freeman, natch), and a perfectly (and I mean perfectly) ordinary Lego figure named Emmet.  Also a team of Master Builders, which is to say people with the ability to use Legos to build anything.  Master Builders include Gandalf, Abraham Lincoln, a Pirate, Han Solo–oh, there are a ton of them.

All I can say is, the movie comes down on the side of childish imagination, that it’s the most pleasurable pop culture pastiche, that it moves at a giddy pace and that every second of it was a pure delight.  It’s the funnest, awesomest, most wildly inventive movie I’ve seen in awhile. Let me add that the strongest bad word any character ever uses in the movie is ‘heck’ or ‘darn,’ and that that ends up making perfect character sense by the movie’s end.

Second movie is nowhere near as fun, but it was plenty exciting: Liam Neeson in Non-Stop.  It’s a terrific action movie, and one which I really seriously doubt will be shown on the airplane next time you fly.  That’s assuming that you ever fly ever again after seeing it.  I know I won’t.

Neeson has reinvented himself as an action movie star now, in his 60s, and somehow it works.  He’s a big guy, his face looks like it’s seen better days, and he makes a kind of exhausted physicality work for him; first in the two Taken movies, and now in this.  In Non-Stop, he plays Bill Marks, a federal air marshal, who hates flying, and yet has a job in which he basically does nothing but fly.  On a New York to London flight, he gets a text message. Someone on the plane is going to kill a passenger every twenty minutes unless Marks can get his bosses–the federal government–to wire transfer 150 million dollars.

He figures he can trust two people on the plane.  One is Julianne Moore, who was sitting next to him when he got the text message–he figures therefore she can’t be the person who sent it.  The other is Lady Mary Crawley.  Oops, sorry, Michele Dockery, playing a flight attendant.  And, one by one, people on the plane die.  Second to go is the plane’s captain.  Which means the co-pilot is both a suspect, and the only guy who can fly the plane.

One of the things I liked about the movie is that Bill Marks is a very flawed hero.  He’s an alcoholic; he’s about to lose his job.  He sneaks into the lavatory, tapes over the smoke detector, and has a smoke.  And as the emergency progresses, he handles it badly at first, bumbling about, essentially running all the plays in  the bad guy’s playbook.  And the passengers become increasingly convinced that Marks is the bad guy, that he’s hijacked the plane.  And–the power of smart phones!– so does the rest of the world media.

Including me.  I’ll be honest, half-way through the film, I wasn’t sure who the good guy really was.  Could it be that Liam Neeson’s character is, in fact, the bad guy, that we’re seeing the film from his p.o.v., but, a la Roger Ackroyd, he’s also the killer? Very nice misdirection from the director, Jaume Collet-Serra, the Spanish director who also directed Neeson in Unknown, another pretty good thriller.

I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that when we do learn the whys and wherefores of the actual plot, the movie suddenly gets a whole lot dumber.  That the ending, though unquestionably exciting, doesn’t make a lick of sense.  And also, if you’re an iffy flyer like me, this film may well convince you never to fly again.  Funny how that didn’t happen after Snakes on a Plane. But in the case of Non-Stop, a more plausible scenario made for a very exciting action movie.  It won’t increase your understanding of life or the universe or anything.  But it’ll pass a couple of hours agreeably enough.

So, you see, there are good movies released every month. Including February.  And The Legos Movie is weird and fun and bizarre and really really awesome.  And Non-Stop is a darn good thriller, not remotely paint-by-numbers.  They’re both worth your time, I think.




Movie review: Short Term 12

Sometimes, you just need a good movie.

It’s true.  Sometimes, just watching a really good movie can help.

Short Term 12 is the ultimate low budget independent movie.  It won all sorts of awards at SxSW, the great independent festival in Austin.  It can’t have cost much to make.  The acting is tremendous, but I’ll bet you’ve not heard of most of the actors.  But it’s such a lovely movie, smart and kind and compassionate and real and true. It’s at 99% positive on, and deserves it. It’s on Netflix; check it out.

Brie Larson stars as Grace, who runs a short term facility for really troubled kids.  One co-worker there is Mason, played by John Gallagher Jr., who plays Emily Watson’s assistant on The Newsroom.  Grace is astonishingly good at her job, incredibly empathetic and caring.  She seems to know when kids need discipline and when they need to be left alone, to work things out.  She’s funny and smart and kind, and Mason is very nearly her equal.  Together, you know they’re making an incredible difference in the lives of the 12-15 kids who live in their facility. It’s a real home, a refuge, with rules and expectations that the kids (mostly) live up to.

Grace is also a seriously messed up young lady.  When a very troubled teenage girl, Jayden, shows up, Grace takes a particular interest in her, because she recognizes a lot of her own life in Jayden.  (Jayden, by the way, is played by the amazing Kaitlyn Dever, who was so great as runaway teen on Justified).  And as Grace works with Jayden, we get glimpses into her own troubled past, which includes sexual abuse from her father.  We learn that Grace testified against her Dad, that he’s now in prison for it, but that he’s soon eligible for parole, and that knowledge throws her into a real tailspin.

Mason and Grace are also lovers, and Grace learns early in the movie that she’s pregnant.  When Mason learns of this, he’s great with it, proposes marriage, insists that the two of them are going to be terrific parents.  But the combination of Jayden’s problems, Grace’s own past, her father’s impending prison release all cause her to start to lose it.

I’m not going to give away the ending, except to say that it’s wonderfully life-affirming and yet utterly grounded in the reality of the characters.  At the movie’s end, I was just stunned.  Took a deep breath, wiped away a few tears.  And tried to think of something nice I could do for other people.

Okay, I suppose I should give a content warning.  The movie’s rated R, because messed up teenagers use messed up language; it’s a trifle F-bomb intensive.  And it’s disturbing to see great looking kids, kids we care about and wish well, coping with really serious issues and problems.  Kids should get to be kids.  Kids shouldn’t have to deal with the kinds of abuse that kids, in the real world, regularly have to deal with.  But it’s also a movie that says that help is available.  It’s a movie that says that genuinely kind, but badly overworked, flawed and imperfect people are out there, fighting every day, making a difference.  Human goodness is possible.

So at the end of a day that was actually kind of discouraging, this was the movie to see.  This was the right one.  I know the title’s not good, and I know that you’ve never heard of the actors, and I know there’s bad language.  But this is a genuinely great movie, a work of art that also manages to be a mitzvah, a virtuous act.  Sometimes this happens,for art to become testimony, for testimony to be life-changing. Short Term 12, made for pennies, pulls of that miracle.

The meaning of this year’s Oscars

I watched the Oscars, as I do every year, and, as happens every year, was bored to tears by the parts of the broadcast intended to entertain me and entertained by happenstance, accident and humiliating failures.  The ‘theme’ this year was ‘heroes’ or something, which meant we were subjected to 418 looonnnngggg montages about heroism. I’ve seen all those movies, and mostly enjoyed them; seeing 2 seconds each from 50 of them is dull. Idina Menzel sang the winning song from Frozen, but her performance, though perfectly fine, was much less entertaining than John Travolta’s butchering of her name in her introduction.  Matthew McConaughey is an amazing story, a lightweight actor in movies like Failure to Launch and We Are Marshall and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days who like three years ago decided to completely reinvent himself as an actor.  He’s terrific, he earned his Oscar, and boy does he know it; his self-aggrandizing acceptance speech was a comic highlight.

But there is an interesting message that emerged from this Oscar season, and it has to do with the films that didn’t win as much as the films that won.  Gravity won, and deserved to win, a boatload of Oscars for things like Sound Mixing and Special Effects–it’s a technological achievement of the first order, plus an immensely exciting and entertaining film.  12 Years a Slave is a deserving Best Picture winner–a powerful, issue oriented film.  Her had one great strength as a film–its innovative, imaginative screenplay, and Spike Jonze won in that category.

But two films had to have been considered the biggest losers of the night: American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street.  Multiple nominations, critically acclaimed, and between them, they won bupkus.

American Hustle is a comedy; I think that hurt it. But it’s also a specific kind of comedy; a comedy about dreadful people who do dreadful things.  And it’s also a film about unattractive dreadful people. Christian Bale was great as a two-bit conman turned government informant, but he was hardly playing Batman; Bale got a pot belly and a spectacularly awful combover, plus ghastly 70′s costumes.  Amy Adams gave a tremendous performance, I thought, easily deserving of a Best Actress Oscar (though frankly the same could be said of all the women nominated in that category), but her costumes were, again, horrid looking (intentionally and comically).  Best of all, her British accent came and went–sometimes it sounded sort of authentic, and other times it went away completely.  Which was, again, intentional.  Adams’ character, Sydney, is a conwoman, and not a very good one–her schtick is to pretend to be an upper class British woman, but it’s all fake. Adams, the actress, created an inconsistent and inauthentic British dialect for a character who is only pretending (unconvincingly) to be British.  It’s a great choice, and a great comedic choice.  But it could also look like bad acting.  So a great actress created a character who is a bad actress, and I think it’s quite possible she fooled at least some Academy voters in the process.  Because the Academy voters do still tend elderly, and conservative; not politically conservative, but aesthetically.

But The Wolf of Wall Street was the real surprise. Martin Scorsese is 72 now, but he’s still the youngest director out there, and though his filmography is astonishing, Wolf could well be his masterpiece.  But it’s a good deal uglier than Hustle. It’s a film about morally repugnant human beings behaving badly, and enjoying it, and profiting from it.  And it’s a film that never redeems them or anyone else.  There’s no character or moment in the film where a sympathetic character says ‘you’re bad people, and you deserve your comeuppance.’  The moral center of the film resides outside the film itself, in the collective conscience and judgment of the audience.  We’re sickened by the characters’ choices, and worse, we’re titillated by them, implicated in them.  It’s a film that condemns the American financial industry, shows how it destroyed America, shows how much fun everyone in that industry had while they were doing it, and reveals their utter contempt for average Americans, their utter misanthropy.

It is, in short, the perfect example of new American naturalism.  It’s the heir to the theatrical tradition of Neil Labute and David Mamet; it’s Glengarry Glen Ross with a lot more cocaine and much higher class hookers. And as such, it’s a deeply disturbing, deeply moral, powerfully redemptive film.  Redemptive?  Yes.  Because we need to see this; we need to recognize its essential truth. Examining our consciences as a prelude to confession.  It’s an Occupy film, really, only it focuses and channels the moral passion of the Occupy movement and gives it a name and an identity; Jordan Belfort.  Leonardo DiCaprio.  Gatsby without Daisy.  Richard Roma with a sales staff and motivational speeches.

It’s a terrifying film, in part because it’s so hypnotically addicting.  The Oscars had to ignore it, I think.  And it’s not like 12 Years a Slave let us off easy.

Oscar predictions! Sort of.

Yes I know the Oscars are a fraud, a self-congratulatory orgy of narcissism.  An industry pretending it represents an art form. All that.  I still like it, and I still watch.  I care about film, about the art form, and I do think there’s a genuine core to the Academy Awards, a real attempt to identify and reward excellence.  They don’t matter, but they also matter a great deal, an accolade given to artists by their peers.  So we watch.

And half the fun, of course, is predicting who might win, who will win, all that.  But I’m not going to play their game by their rules!  Not me.  So these are not so much my Oscar predictions, as much as the films I’ve decided have already won.  I know stuff; I’m smart.  If the actual Oscar voters disagree with me, they’re obviously wrong.  Just as I will go to the grave insisting that Forest Gump did NOT beat Pulp Fiction for Best Picture in 1995, the voters’ actual votes notwithstanding.

I’m using’s website, and I’m going to start at the bottom of their page.  So first up:

Visual Effects:  Gravity. Has to be Gravity.  It’s going to clean up in the technical categories.

Best Screenplay (Adapted): Tough category.  I think John Ridley will win for 12 Years a Slave. But all five films nominated were wonderfully written.

Best Screenplay (Original): I can’t see the Academy ignoring David O. Russell’s smart, funny, human screenplay for American Hustle. Though I really loved Spike Jonze Her screenplay, and Bob Nelson’s taut, powerful Nebraska.

This year, I didn’t see any of the films up for Short Film (Live Action).  They’re available on-line too; shame on me.

Sound Editing and Sound Mixing: both will go to Gravity.

Best Song: “Happy” from Despicable Me 2.  Pharrell Williams song is amazing; his video‘s even better.  But I’m also sort of rooting for “Let it Go” from Frozen, as an Oscar ‘in your face’ to the crazy lady who thinks Frozen is about gay rights.

Production Design: Gravity wins again, in a tough category.  I’m sort of rooting for The Great Gatsby, though.

Short Film animated: Didn’t see them; my bad.

Foreign Language Film: The Hunt. With a stellar performance by Mads Mikkelson; I think it’s a shattering film.

Makeup and Hairstyling: The Dallas Buyers Club.  This is the category in which Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is nominated.  Blarg.

Music Original Score: Alexander Desplat, for Philomena.

Documentary Feature: 20 Feet From Stardom. Wonderful film about rock’s legendary back-up singers.  Loved this film, loved it.  See it!

Documentary Short Subject: Didn’t see any of them; wish I had.  No opinion.

Film Editing: Gravity. The film’s an extraordinary technical achievement, if not much else.

Cinematography: Phedon Pappamichael for Nebraska. A lot of the power of this wonderful film was in the starkness of the black and white photography.  Plus, the guy’s name is Phedon Pappamichael.

Costume Design: Michael Wilkinson for American Hustle. The tackiness of the 70s has never been on more continuously amusing display, but the costumes aren’t parodies; they’re lived in, real.

Best Director:  Alphonso Cuaron, for Gravity.

Animated Feature: Despicable Me 2.  Consistently inventive and funny and warm; loved this film.  Frozen was great too, though.

Actress in a Supporting Role: Jennifer Lawrence won the Golden Globe in this category, but has since asked her publicist and agent to quietly ask people not to vote for her here, which makes me like her all the more.  Lupita Nyong-o will win, I think, for 12 Years a Slave.  And she’ll deserve to.  But my heart is still rooting for June Squibb for Nebraska.  She’s tremendous in the film, and I’m sure, at the age of 84, she’s thrilled just to have been nominated.  But she also genuinely deserves it; her performance is a marvel.

Actor in a Supporting Role: I’m going way out on a limb here, but Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips. As a Somalia pirate, he brought extraordinary gravity, intelligence and tragic power to the role, all the more amazing considering that he’s never acted before.  I thought all five actors were great, but that was the performance that stood out for me.   Jared Leto’s probably going to win, though, for Dallas Buyer’s Club.

Actress in a Leading Role: Amy Adams, American Hustle.  A tremendous category, with stellar performances all the way down the line.  I know that Cate Blanchett is the favorite, her performance in Blue Jasmine was terrific.  But I hate it when an actor wins for a great performance in a less-than-great movie, a la Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, a mediocre Maggie Thatcher biopic.  And I didn’t think Blue Jasmine was a very good film. It’s Woody Allen’s homage to A Streetcar Named Desire, but one with no Stanley Kowalski, no menace, no danger, and no real conflict. Blanche Dubois is damaged, but she’s not crazy.  Cate Blanchett’s character is just nuts.  And I didn’t care. And how do you choose between Judi Dench and Meryl Streep, both at the top of their game?  You don’t.  You give it to the only actress in the category never to have won before.  Who also, incidentally, was incandescently great in American Hustle–vulnerable, intelligent, tough, damaged.

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Bruce Dern, Nebraska.  Another incredibly tough category.  In this case, it features five wonderful actors who have never won before, and who give career performances.  Really, I’m rooting for a five-way tie.  But as much as I admire and respect Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Leonardo DiCaprio, I want the Oscar to go to Dern, a magnificent actor who has never been recognized before, and won’t again, at his age (77).  What I love about Dern’s performance is it’s complete lack of sentimentality. Every chance he has to tug at our heartstrings, he resists.  And we don’t really fall in love with his cantankerous old coot of a character.  Better: we understand him.  The other actors will have many more opportunities.  It’s Dern’s turn.

Best Picture: I honestly think it’s between three films: American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.  So here’s my reasoning:

American Hustle is a comedy.  It’s smart, it’s world-wise, it’s human and real and tough-minded, but it’s still a comedy.  Oscar doesn’t often award comedies.

Gravity is a technical marvel. And it’s as engrossing and exciting a picture as I have ever seen.  Edge of your seat doesn’t even begin to describe it.  But it’s a sci-fi film, and Oscar has never given Best Picture to sci-fi. Maybe it’s time, but the film also suffers from a kind of weightlessness, a lack of, well, gravity.  It’s contentless; it doesn’t mean anything, or stand for much.  It’s just a tremendously entertaining movie.

12 Years a Slave will win, I think.  Has won, in my book.  And deserved to.





Pompeii: a review

Spoiler alert: everyone dies.

You don’t go to see something like Pompeii because you think you’re going to see a cinematic masterwork.  You go because you’re looking forward to two hours of escapist fun.  Pauline Kael once wrote: “Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.”  Well, Pompeii isn’t great trash, but it’s fairly enjoyable trash; my wife, my daughter and I had a good time at the movie, and a better time making fun of it on the way home.

(And yet, somehow, sitting there in the dark, whispering snarky comments back and forth, isn’t it possible also to feel somehow diminished, to feel some regret over the fact that we’re treating this immense human tragedy as fodder for laughs?)

A lot of the fun is seeing actors in unaccustomed roles.  Kiefer Sutherland plays Corvus, a Roman centurion turned Senator; my daughter called his character ‘Evil Jack Bauer’ and he was certainly a wonderfully disagreeable character, a genuine villain, with his bleached hair and Peter Lorre lisp.  His BFF was Sasha Roiz, the Captain on Grimm, playing a character named Proctologist (checking IMDB) Proculus.  And Kit Herington (John Snow in Game of Thrones) was the hero, a gladiator named The Celt, actual name: Milo.  ‘Milo’ we hooted!  And his best friend gladiator was Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, a marvelous, dignified, powerful presence who sort of dominated the movie.  His character was called Atticus (‘Finch!’ we hooted), but I couldn’t help but think of him as Otis.  Milo and Otis; get it!  Hilarious. And yet all four main actors were really quite good.  Of course, there was also a girl, Cassia, played by the lovely Mireille Enos look-alike Emily Browning.  Cassia is daughter of Pompeii’s leading citizen, the sort-of-mayor, Severus (Jared Harris), and she’s in love with a gladiator, and he with her.  Which totally could happen.  Not.

But, this:

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore. (Pliny the Younger).


‘Cause here’s the thing: we can treat the tragedy of Pompeii in several ways. Divine retribution for the wickedness of Pompeii is a popular one. I remember visiting Pompeii–one abiding memory is of, uh, nasty statuary.  Plus, you know, their popular amusements involved watching people kill people. It makes for a handy sermon topic: the wickedness of Pompeii led to the city’s destruction by a vengeful God.

And this very question gets asked in the film itself.  Sweet little Cassia asks it of her gladiator boyfriend, and Milo confirms it; to his way of thinking, the destruction of Pompeii is divine retribution for the brutality of the Roman conquest of Britain, which he personally witnessed and where he saw the deaths of his parents.  It’s vengeance by the Celtic Gods.  Which ends up being more or less the point of view of the movie.

Except.  In point of fact, of course, God didn’t have a darn thing to do with it. Pompeii was destroyed by an active volcano.  The people of Pompeii died, not because they built a society on the shaky foundation of routine violations of (at least) the sixth and seventh commandments, but because their town was foolishly situated.  Vesuvius is answer enough; let’s not wrest scripture.

But this is a movie, a popular entertainment.  It has to have a plot; it has to tell a story.  And the story it tells is the most hackneyed of melodramas.  Evil Jack Bauer/Corvus has killed young Milo’s parents back in Britain, then risen off that triumph to a seat in the Roman Senate.  He’s a proto-typical corrupt politician.  And, like all villains in all melodramas, he has malign intentions directed at the lovely person of innocent Cassia.  He wants to marry her; he makes it clear, he wants to dominate her, break her. He’s an abusive jerk/corrupt politician.  And he lisps.  Kiefer Sutherland’s quite terrific in the role, though I have to say, it involved a lot of horseback riding for an aging actor with a bad back.

Because you think that; the film gives you leisure to think things like that.  You see Carrie-Ann Moss in the thankless role of Cassia’s mother, and you think, ‘you’re Trinity, we’ve seen you do martial arts, kick Evil Jack Bauer in the bejoobies!’  But she doesn’t; she just looks kind of stricken.

Another problem: the film has all these combat set pieces; gladiatorial fights, carefully choreographed and actually pretty cool.  And Milo and Otis get to fight an entire Roman cohort; not quite a centurio, but a buncha soldiers.  And it’s all very cool.  But what’s the point?  We see gladiators die, but Vesuvius has already started burping fireballs; they’re all going to die anyway. We see Milo and Otis pull of some nifty battlefield tactics, fight two on 50, and win.  And so we get to see . . . how cool gladiatorial combats must have been as a spectator sport?

And so does this implicate us as an audience?  Does it make us complicit in watching scenes of enacted violence?  Well, maybe some, but it’s blunted; it seems normal.  We’ve seen movie stars dispatch stunt men in so many movies by now, it’s become old hat.  And because we never actually see actual people actually dying, we’re not actually complicit, are we?  What we like is kinetic sport, action movie stunts as an art form. We’re not ancient Rome (or Pompeii); we know those same stunt men will move on to the next film, and whack and slice and stab and fall down all over again.  The Hunger Games is many times more effective at implicating us, in causing us to at least consider the moral dimensions of being entertained by violence than something like Pompeii can manage.  This thing is hackneyed: another bad guy/good guy/pretty heroine/sidekicks extravaganza. But check it out; cool CGI!

I did laugh when Graecus bought it.  Joe Pingue played Graecus, a slimy fat Roman leech with pasted on forehead curls (a first century combover!) who buys and sells gladiators (and choreographs their combats) for a living.  When Vesuvius blows, he hops in a litter and has his slaves haul his butt to the harbor, where he bribes a ship captain into letting him aboard.  The ship pulls out of the harbor, and it looks like it’s going to escape, but Vesuvius is lobbing molten rocks towards the harbor, and after one near-miss washes away the curls, another nails Graecus dead center. And I laughed.  He wasn’t a character, he was a caricature-of-evil, and Pingue played him as such; we’re meant to cheer when he goes down.

But that’s this movie’s sensibility.  The director, Paul W. S. Anderson is a hack.  No, he’s not Paul Thomas Anderson, and he’s not Wes Anderson; not one of the good directors named Anderson.  This is the guy who directed that loathsome Three Musketeers a few years ago.  Remember that one, with Logan Lerman as D’Artagnan and Milla Jovanovich as Milady and some flying boat contraption?  Shudder.  You know the guy?  Directed three (3) Resident Evils?  Alien vs. PredatorDeath Race?

For some reason, someone keeps giving this guy a hundred million dollars to make bad movies.  And while Pompeii isn’t good, it’s probably going to go down in history as his masterpiece. I’ll give him this.  Some of the actors are good, none are awful, and one, Akinnouye-Agbaje, is really good. The effects are convincing, and while the scenes in which we see Pompeiians die have no (none, zero) emotional impact, that’s more about us being jaded than anything else.

And at least he has the courage to let everyone die.  There’s a tiny ‘but their love will live forever’ coda at the end, but still; everyone does die.  And that’s ultimately the truth about Pompeii. Everyone died.  And the reason has nothing to do with God.  The reason really was just this: Vesuvius.


Kristen Stewart writes a poem

Kristen Stewart is a movie star. She is an accomplished professional actress.   She stars as Bella in the Twilight movies.  For some people, those movies epitomize vapidness.  Teen romances about a young girl caught in a love triangle, torn by feelings of attraction between a vampire and a werewolf, clearly intended primarily for audiences of teen-aged girls.  I’ve only seen one of them; it was okay.  I rather think that I’m not the demographic for which these movies are intended to appeal.

But I’ve seen her in other movies in which I thought she was terrific.  I liked her as a troubled teen in In the Land of Women, as rocker Joan Jett in The Runaways, as a self-destructive young woman in Adventureland, as a seriously messed up girl in On the Road.  That’s what she’s been good at, at playing young women who don’t know who they are or what they want, and who engage in self-destructive behavior as a result. Is she a ‘good actress?’  I would say that she’s a very good actress with a rather limited range, but very effective within that range.

And now, she’s written a poem. She read it aloud on the Marie Claire website, and it was published in the magazine. Here it is.  Or, if you don’t want to link, here:

My Heart Is A Wiffle Ball/Freedom Pole

I reared digital moonlight
You read its clock, scrawled neon across that black
Kismetly … ubiquitously crest fallen
Thrown down to strafe your foothills
…I’ll suck the bones pretty.
Your nature perforated the abrasive organ pumps
Spray painted everything known to man,
Stream rushed through and all out into
Something Whilst the crackling stare down sun snuck
Through our windows boarded up
He hit your flint face and it sparked.

And I bellowed and you parked
We reached Marfa.
One honest day up on this freedom pole
Devils not done digging
He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle
And this pining erosion is getting dust in
My eyes
And I’m drunk on your morsels
And so I look down the line
Your every twitch hand drum salute
Salutes mine …


And the response has been snarky, funny, mean, and very very negative.  It’s been called, for example, the worst poem of all time. I think you’d be hard-pressed to write a more negative review than that one.

Well: I like it. I like Kristen Stewart’s “My Heart is a Whiffle Ball/Freedom Pole.”  I think she should just pick one image for her title, and not crowd two in there.  But the poem itself is intriguing, and by no means terrible.  I think it’s inventive and free and playful. And bizarre, but that’s okay, poems can be bizarre.

I really think that a lot of the negativity comes from the fact that Kristen Stewart wrote it.  I think the logic goes like this: Kristen Stewart is a rubbish actress who does rubbish movies, and that means she has to be vapid and stupid, and how dare she, of all people, write a poem, so it’s rubbish.

What constitutes a good poem, or a great poem, or a bad poem?  If our standard is notoriety/fame/reputation, then all poems by Emily Dickinson are, by definition, masterworks, and all poems by Kristen Stewart are, by definition, terrible.  What if this were the first stanza of Stewart’s poem?

Wild Nights. Wild Nights!

Were I with thee,

Wild Nights should be

Our luxury!

Rowing in Eden.

Ah, the sea.

Might I but moor

Tonight with thee!

Imagine the uproar! The snark! Imagine the roars of laughter!  She’s writing about Robert Pattinson!  She wants to ‘moor’ with him!  Hardy har har har.

Except that’s Emily Dickinson.

I recently helped judge a poetry contest.  I can’t, for reasons of confidentiality, say any more about it than that.  What I can tell you, with 100% confidence and assurance, is that Kristen Stewart’s poem is NOT the worst play ever written.  That I have, quite recently, read literally dozens of poems much much worse than hers. Wish I could quote you some.  Really, I do.

Of course, poetry is subjective, and of course, there’s no good way to tell people who love them that “The Touch of the Masters Hand” or “It takes a Heap of Livin’ in a House to Make it Home” are just flat out not good poems. Some people love them, are moved by them, like hearing them read aloud.  They’re recitation poems, intended for public performance, like “The Cremation of Sam McGee” or “Casey at the Bat.”  That’s also true of cowboy poetry, which I read for pleasure and think is wonderful.  People used to memorize those rhyming story poems, and some still use them in talks, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I may feel like Yeats’ poetry, or Phillip Larkin’s, or Auden’s, or Lance Larsen’s are all, in some real sense, ‘better.’  But that involves the kind of judgment that generally makes me uncomfortable–judging my brothers and sisters on this planet for a supposed lack of sophistication or a failure in taste.

In fact, Kristen Stewart loves beatnik poetry, loves the generation of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder.  She’s expressed a love for the poetry of Richard Brautigan. There’s some Sylvia Plath going on there too. Her imagery is wild, her use of language idiosyncratic, like you’d find in the best work of the beats.  A line like Kismetly … ubiquitously crest fallen, Thrown down to strafe your foothills …I’ll suck the bones pretty could come straight from Ginsberg.

It’s a scary thing, to publish a poem, to lay it out there for the public to rip apart or embrace.  I applaud her courage, both in writing poetry and in sharing it.  She’s young, and the poem is unpolished.  But there’s some real talent there, some real energy and love for language.  She reads good poets, and she responds to the energy in their work.  I hope she keeps going.

As for all the people who hate it, hey, it’s a free country.  But are people really responding to the work itself, or to the fact that a movie star (by definition idiots all) wrote it?  Haters gotta hate, and I say, shame on you.





The Monuments Men: Review

Nazis bad.  Art good.

That didn’t take long.

George Clooney’s new film, The Monuments Film is one of those movies that critics tend to dislike, with a low Rotten Tomatoes score and a December “Oscar buzz!” release date pushed back to the doldrums of January.  I thought it didn’t deserve so glib a dismissal. It’s certainly not a great film.  It’s an agreeable enough stroll through art and history and the last months of World War II.  Leisurely paced, with familiar actors doing familiar schtick, I felt like I was visiting some old friends, had a nice dinner and some pleasant conversation, and was happy enough to sit through their slide show of vacation photos of all the museums they visited last time they were in Europe.

Written and directed (and starring) George Clooney, The Monuments Men is about a group of art historians who were drafted into the US Army at the tail end of the Second World War, and tasked with finding, saving, and if possible returning works of art stolen by the Nazis.  An opening credit reads ‘based on a true story,’ and in this case, I rather think it was.  The film is loosely plotted and episodic enough to make me think that it was in fact based on an actual memoir.  I would call it “Stuff that happened to me and my friends while we were looking for all the art Hitler stole.”  Most of the incidents of the film don’t really advance any particular plot.  The historians find a German map, realize that the cities marked on it are all close to mineral mines, and figure out that the Nazis are hiding the art in those mines.  That takes up maybe five minutes of the movie.

The rest of the movie is about other events basically unconnected to that story.  So Bob Balaban wanders off from camp, taking a pee break, and an armed German soldier holds him up.  Bill Murray sees them, and a standoff ensues.  The soldier speaks no English–they speak no German.  Bill Murray offers the kid a cigarette.  Everyone relaxes. The kid wanders away. Or, another scene, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin are pinned down by a sniper.  They’re not soldiers, but sort of improvise a way to capture him; when they do, it’s a twelve year old kid.  Or, another scene, Matt Damon has sort of a romantic-ish date with art curator Cate Blanchett, at the end of which she gives him her meticulous records of the art that was in the museum she ran, and who it all belonged to.  Or, another scene, Goodman and Dujardin, hopelessly lost, see a beautiful horse grazing in a meadow.  They stop to admire it, and then notice German and American soldiers hiding in the woods.  They make it back to their jeep, but not before getting caught in a cross-fire.  Dujardin is wounded, and bleeds out, dies, because Goodman, lost, can’t find a field hospital.

That’s most of the movie, those sorts of ‘stuff that happens when art historians pretend to be soldiers’ scenes.  Hugh Bonneville is ‘Donald Jeffries,’ one of the historians, a disgraced alcoholic Brit who sees this assignment as offering him some personal redemption.  But he never seems like a disgraced alcoholic; he’s Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey, and nothing in his performance suggests anything else.  And when he’s killed, it’s a fumbly, awkward kind of death; the kind of death you’d expect when an art historian trades shots with a professional soldier.  Or if Lord Grantham opened fire on an SS officer.

It also isn’t true. Donald Jeffries is a fictional character, but the real Army unit tasked with saving Europe’s art did include a British art historian, who was one of the two of the unit who was killed.  The real bloke, Ronald Balfour, isn’t mentioned in the film, and our British friends aren’t happy about it.  Balfour was an interesting guy; a member of the Cambridge club, The Apostles, part of the Bloomsbury circle, friends with E.M. Forster and John Maynard Keynes.  And, quite probably, gay.  It’s hard for me to imagine that George Clooney would have deliberately omitted Balfour from his screenplay for that reason.  Balfour was killed by a shell fragment–more likely, Clooney wanted a more dramatic death for his British member of the team.

But if so, it was miscalculated.  ‘Donald Jeffries’ isn’t a very interesting character in the film, and although I adore Hugh Bonneville, he doesn’t bring much pizazz to the party.  But then, no one does.  Matt Damon’s one of my favorite actors, but mostly in this film he sort does-and-doesn’t romance Cate Blanchett, then steps on a landmine, which sort of fizzles instead of explode. (Like the rest of the movie). Jean Dujardin plays probably the most charismatic character in the movie. Can’t have that: his character dies half-way through.  In fact, the only non-movie-star in the movie was, I thought, the most interesting character in it: Dimitri Leonidas plays Sam Epstein, a kid from New Jersey who was raised in Germany, speaks fluent German, and is the translator for the group.  He was terrific in the part, and his character makes most of the major discoveries in the film, despite having way fewer lines and much less screen time than all his co-stars.

It’s a movie that wants to make some profound statements about art, and the value of art, and what art says about human beings as a species, and why we need to save and preserve the greatest artifacts of our culture.  Would you die to save the Mona Lisa?  Would you, personally, die, to save Michelangelo’s David?  And I think, no, I wouldn’t.  But to save the only surviving print of Guernica?  To save the last copy ever of Hamlet?  To save the Beatles Abbey Road from extinction?  Maybe.  Except . . . are any of those works actually in danger of extinction? I don’t need to fly to Florence to see the Pieta; not anymore.  And wasn’t Picasso used recently to sell cars?

Honestly, I think this movie exists because George Clooney read about this crew of art historians, thought the story was fascinating, and figured that he may as well make a movie about them, since no one else seemed to be stepping up to do it. And movies mean publicity, and now more people have heard of their work than would have otherwise.  So that’s all good.  As I say, I quite enjoyed The Monuments Men.  While fervently wishing it were better than it is.  But isn’t what we usually think when we leave a museum?