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Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2: Movie Review

Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2 was one of the summer movies this year I was most looking forward to. I hoped that I could catch it in its opening weekend, but other family members wanted to see it too, and coordinating schedules proved a challenge. But last night, we finally gathered at the cineplex. And we had a good time. It’s a surpassingly strange film, far more interesting in terms of its theology–I’m not kidding–than as the goofy comedy action movie it purports to be. But it’s entertaining; I’ll give it that.

Let’s start by talking about dramatic structure. Hollywood action movies follow the basic structure of late nineteenth century melodrama. All of them, without exception. Hero, heroine, comic sidekick, villains and their sidekicks, bad guys doing dastardly deeds, ultimately defeated by good guys, usually involving a fight, with awesome stunts. The plots are often rather baroque, with multiple subplots all racing towards a satisfying and exciting final confrontation. Still, there’s always a discernible hero, with a strong objective. Often it involves some kind of quest. The hero is trying to blow up the Death Star, or steal the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, or steal a magical orb from one bad guy, and using it to activate an ‘infinity stone,’ or something. That last bit was, as far as I can remember, Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) quest in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. In order to accomplish that, Quill assembles the team known as the Guardians of the Galaxy–Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (a raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (a tree, voiced by Vin Diesel). Comic sidekicks, in other words. It was an amusing, but frankly pretty conventional superhero action movie plot.

This sequel is very different in structure. For most of the movie, Quill and his pals are just trying to stay alive. As the movie begins, they have been hired by a gold-skinned, genetically perfect species called The Sovereigns, to protect Anulex batteries from destruction. A massive beastie attacks; they fight it, and win. But Rocket, the scamp, steals some of the batteries they were hired to protect. So the Sovereigns come after them, and destroy their ship. So there’s no noble objective, no quest. They’re just trying to stay alive, because they’ve infuriated an entire civilization for no good reason.

In my review of the first Guardians movie, I compared it to Star Wars. That would make this one The Empire Strikes Back, and sure enough, we get a “Luke, I am your father.” moment. (It’s not anything like Empire in any other sense). The father, in this case, is Ego (Kurt Russell), who we earlier saw, in a flashback, with Peter’s Mom, looking absurdly like Kurt Russell, age twenty. (I don’t know how they did that, but it’s a very cool effect). But the Ego who shows up and declares himself has aged, and says he has been searching for Peter for years. And so, Ego takes Peter, Gamora and Drax with him to his planet, leaving Rocket and Groot (now, baby Groot), behind to repair their badly damaged ship. Where they are captured by another group, the Ravagers, under the putative command of Yondu (Michael Rooker). They’re professional thieves, and Yondu essentially raised young Peter. But they’re on the outs from other Ravagers, who have rejected them because Yondu broke the Ravagers’ code, by selling children into slavery.

At this point, the movie gets very weird. We’re a third of the way in, and nothing like a plot has managed to reveal itself–no quest, no objective, other than just staying alive. And Ego is a generous and welcoming host, and his planet is beautiful, considering that he lives on it by himself, with one aid, the empath Mantis (Pom Klementiev). At which point, the movie becomes an exploration of the doctrine and theology of apotheosis.

Apotheosis: the process by which men become deified. Ego, turns out, is a God. He became a God over millions of years, during which time he constructed this planet to glorify, well, him. Peter’s his son, and Peter is divine. He has a share of Ego’s creative power. He can create worlds of his own, if he wants to. And he’s immortal. Human Mom, Divine Father. The music set it up beautifully. The songs are the best parts of this movie, as they were in the previous one, and as Ego’s ship descends to his planet, we hear George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”

As a Mormon, I found this unexpected twist fascinating, because apotheosis is, sort of, a Mormon doctrine. “As Man is, God once was; as God is, Man may become.” Right. But the more Peter (and his friends) dig into it, the more we learn about Ego’s divine reign. He’s awful. He’s kind of a monster. Peter is not his Only Begotten–Ego’s fathered lots of children, who he then executed when he finds that they lack the divine spark that Peter has. Anyway, it looks like Ego’s kind of bored, and wants his divine son to hang around, for company. There’s also a bit of a ‘we can rule the universe’ vibe to it.

It turns out that his spark of divinity resides at the planet’s core, where it can be gotten to and blown up. Since Ego’s plan for ruling the universe involves mass slaughter, killing him seems like a good idea. He’s a God, and he’s immortal, but apparently, he can also be killed. So that becomes the big quest thing, the movie’s plot. But it comes very late in the movie. And has almost nothing to do with Peter, our protagonist, who does very little to accomplish it. Mostly, it’s pulled-off by Groot and Rocket, who escaped from the Ravagers (with help from Yondu, and also Gamora’s ferocious sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), who wants to kill Gamora, because of how their father pitted them against each other as children.

And that’s another theme of the movie, isn’t it? The abuse and murder of children. Yondu’s great sin, the thing that got him excommunicated as a Ravager, is his sale of children into slavery. He loved his adopted son, Peter, but Peter’s childhood was grim; a series of petty crimes. And, of course, that’s Ego’s great sin, too; the murder of his own children. Although almost nothing in the movie establishes Peter Quill as a Christ figure, he’s torn between two fathers; the brutality of Ego, his biological/divine father, and Yondu, the Dad who raised him, a Joseph the Carpenter figure.

So this is a movie about apotheosis, about men becoming Gods, about the most profound ideas of divinity, and divine responsibility, and the endless challenge of eternal life: boredom. Eternal life without eternal progression, really: the Mormon conception of hell. And it’s a movie about child abuse, about fathers abusing their children, and even murdering them.

And absolutely nothing in the tone of the movie, the approach of it, suggests either profundity or tragedy. It’s a clever, fun, post-modern comedy action flick, stylistically. Self-referential, with lots of jokes and deadpan insults splendidly delivered by Chris Pratt. Peter imagined, as a child, that Nightrider-era David Hasselhoff was his father, and sure enough, Hasselhoff himself gets a cameo. The Looking Glass hit, Brandy, is solemnly declared, by Ego, the greatest piece of music ever written. I love this exchange: “We’re friends!” “You’re not friends! You do nothing but fight!” “You’re right. We’re not friends. We’re a family!” (And, of course, the music’s perfect yet again: Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain). It’s a clever, funny, self-consciously self-referential movie, with jokes based on the characters, yes, but on ’70s and ’80s pop music, and other tropes drawn from superhero movies.

It’s an odd combination: theology, and post-modern jokiness. It’s too genial a movie to dislike. But what do we say about it? That it’s reaching for a profundity it doesn’t ever earn? That it’s fun but plotless, and let’s just ignore the theology stuff? Or this: that the Divine can be approached many ways, reverentially, yes, but also through jokes and fight scenes and goofiness? Ambitious failure? Or better, deeper, more interesting than it needs to be, given its origins as a summer superhero movie? And do we even have to choose?

Mormon Doctrines? House of Israel

People are naturally tribal. We evolved on the steppes and in the forests, chased by ill-disposed creatures of four and two legged varieties, in constant peril. But we could find safety in numbers. And so we gathered. And trusted our people, our friends and neighbors, and were darn suspicious of goldurn outsiders. And when we began to contemplate the possibility of transcendence, a life after this one, a higher power blessing or punishing us, a God, we assumed that S/He, whoever S/He was or however we imagined Him/Her, anyway, God, liked us best.

I’m not saying anything new here. We all acknowledge this, even as we gather ourselves into tribes. I’m a theatre person; they’re my people. I’m a Norwegian-American; that’s another grouping. Probably the most hysterically arbitrary tribal designations in our culture have to do with professional sports teams. I am a fan of the San Francisco Giants, which means I am obligated to look askance at those misguided souls who root for the Los Angeles Dodgers, despite the fact that the best players from both teams are likely from The Dominican Republic or Venezuela, if not Georgia, and that I’m literally rooting for laundry. But I’m also a baseball fan, which means I make common cause with other baseball fans, including those odious kitten-torturers who root for the Dodgers.

Anyway, Mormons are a tribe. I tend to behave tribally in regards to my fellow Mormons. I pay more attention to Mormon politicians than I do politicians from other faith traditions. I root for Mormon athletes. I will buy an album by an LDS musician when I might not for other musicians.

And I love my ward. I go to church every Sunday, and enjoy it. I look forward to it. I try to listen intently to the talks, and I sing the hymns with enthusiasm (though I have been known to, ahem, improve the lyrics a bit).

And I am pretty well indifferent towards the ‘House of Israel’ bits of our theology. And I can’t help but notice that those doctrines hardly ever get mentioned in General Conference anymore.

When I was younger, talks about the Abrahamic covenant or our place in the House of Israel were fairly common. Preparing for this blog, I went back and re-read some of those older talks. It struck me that every one of those talks (and every lesson on this subject in Sunday School, as I now recall them), began by saying something like ‘this is an immensely important part of our doctrine.’ And I wondered then, and I wonder now, why is this important? What does this have to do with anything? What on earth does it have to do with trying to be a good person?

And I think I can say this with some confidence; those talks have disappeared, leaving behind nothing but vestiges. Nowadays, talks are far more likely to suggest a universal God, who loves all of His children equally. I mean, the Bible (especially the Old Testament) refers constantly to a ‘chosen people.’ That is to say, God’s chosen people; the people of Israel. But we can’t have it both ways. Either God has a chosen people, or He doesn’t. If He genuinely loves all His people equally, all over the world, everybody, all the people on Earth, then He can’t simultaneously promise special blessings to one group of them.

The official stance of the Church is, I think, that we Mormons, when we’re baptized, are thereby adopted into one of the tribes of Israel, so we can participate in the Abrahamic covenant. We can even find out, through revelation to a patriarch, which tribe we ‘belong’ to. Remember the Twelve Tribes?

So once upon a time, the Children of Israel had Twelve Tribes. Ten of them lived in the northern part of Canaan, and one (Judah), lived in the south. (Levites were priests, and lived wherever). Then the Assyrians invaded and carried off the Ten Tribes; they’re gone. From time to time, you’d hear something very sci-fi about how they’re still together, a discrete culture, living in a cave under the Arctic icecap or something. Nobody believes that anymore, but it was a fun folk doctrine back in the day. Anyway, the tribe of Joseph is sort of mysteriously described in the OT (“Joseph is a fruitful vine, whose branches climb over a wall”) and that’s where we come in. That’s us, it’s about us, we Mormons; we’re adopted into Joseph. That’s why Mormon kids, usually in their late teens, get a Patriarchal blessing; a special vision just for us, with guidance into our lives subsequently. And which tribe we belong to.

I did. I got a Patriarchal blessing when I was eighteen. I went to the home of this kindly elderly man, and he laid his hands on my head, started a tape recorder (so I could get an accurate typed transcript), and gave me a two page blessing. I loved it, and still do. It said that I would be able to successfully pursue a career in arts. And I have. It said I would be a teacher, and that I would make a difference in the lives of my students. I think that became at least partially true. And it said I would marry, have kids, and that my family would be a great joy to me. All true. It was a beautiful blessing.

The only thing it didn’t do is tell me my lineage.

See, for most Patriarchal Blessings, the main point is to tell you which of the twelve tribes you belong to. Literally, I suppose, it means which tribe you were adopted into–we believe that when we’re baptized, we’re adopted into one of the tribes. And for 99.99% of Mormons, the tribe is Ephraim. (One of the two sons of Joseph). We’re pretty much all of us Ephraim. I suppose, I probably am too. But the main point of the Patriarchal blessing is to tell you your tribal allegiance. The ‘here’s your future’ stuff is frosting. But for me, all I got was frosting. And I also don’t care. I love my Patriarchal blessing exactly as is. I’ve been told I could go and get a supplementary blessing. Have no interest; none. My blessing is awesome, as is.

I think that getting a Patriarchal blessing is a great exercise for teenagers. Gives the kid some direction in life at a time when he or she needs it. The lineage stuff is just vestigial. It doesn’t matter what tribe we’re from. We no longer need to believe in a tribal god, with a chosen people. We need to believe in God, a universal God, who loves everyone and wants us to treat each other with respect and dignity and compassion.

It’s been years since I heard a sermon on the Abrahamic Covenant, or the Twelve Tribes of Israel. And I honestly don’t miss those talks. It just isn’t a significant part of our faith anymore.

 

Russia

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” Marx. That is to say: Groucho.

Russia has lousy weather. The one time I was there, in the summer, it rained a lot, and of course, Napolean and Hitler can tell you all about the impact Russian winters can have on military invasions. But, you know, you cope. That’s life as a Russian: coping. You carry an umbrella, wear warm shoes, keep a jacket around. Moscow has a fabulous subway system, so you can get around. And when I was there, years before Uber, amateur cab drivers would drive you anywhere, especially if you had American currency.

When I was there, Boris Yeltsin was President, and he was struggling. He was a democracy warrior, but the Russian economy was in a bad way, and Yeltsin’s health was poor, not least because the man enjoyed his vodka. But Russia was a free country. They were proud of that fact, though they didn’t seem to know what it meant. Free press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. It was a heady time. For us American visitors too. We thought that having a MacDonald’s across the street from the Moscow Art Theater was impossibly cool.

And I was impressed by their kids. I worked with some of their theatre students, and they were all terrific; energetic, bright, optimistic. Russians are resilient, with a do-it-yourself inventiveness. I was there with an international theatre conference, and they were all excited because the KGB had been forced to open up their files. The week I arrived, there was particular excitement because they had just discovered the KGB files for Meyerhold. Vsevelod Meyerhold, one of the great director/theorists in the history of theatre, murdered by Stalin in 1940. It was incredibly exciting, seeing KGB secret stuff about him, including rehearsals that the police had secretly taped. Reprehensible, of course, but you also got to see this grainy old footage of Meyerhold conducting a rehearsal. It seemed full of portents. Russia: free!

Under Putin, that’s not so much true anymore. No more freedom of the press, not really. No satire TV shows, like The Daily Show or the Samantha Bee/John Oliver shows. They still have satire, of course; they’re Russians, their greatest national play is Gogol’s The Inspector General. But dissent, again, is all underground. There is an emerging 21st century samizdat (that wonderful Soviet term for clandestine publications), critical of Putin and harshly repressed, but circulating nonetheless, especially on social media.

As I understand it, this is Russia now (and I’m certainly no Russian expert, so if I’m wrong, let me know!). Russians today don’t enjoy the political freedoms we Americans took for granted a week ago. Russians can vote, for representatives in the Duma, but their votes don’t really mean anything. You can criticize the government, but you have to be quiet about it, and only talk to people you know you can trust.

Religious freedom does exist, and the Russian Orthodox Church has made a comeback. You can worship, if you belong to the right, officially-approved-of faiths, but not if you’re Muslim or Jewish. And this new Orthodoxy has a distinct downside. Russia has become insanely homophobic. Legally homophobic, culturally hate-filled. Just a horrible place to be gay. And yes, you can listen to the music of their most famous punk band, Pussy Riot, but you risk arrest if you try to see them live.

The economy’s tanking. The Russian stock market crashed recently. But oil prices are rising again, and the economy is bouncing back. Long-term, of course, Russia’s doomed economically. Their continued prosperity, such as it is, depends too much on their oil reserves, and the world is moving towards electric cars. And because they don’t have the political freedom to be open to new ideas. That’s one problem with crony capitalism, corruption and dictatorship. Those aren’t good recipes for growth. They have dazzling computer engineers, and they waste their time working as hackers.

Their housing is undisputably improving. When I was there, everyone crowded into these insanely depressing identical high-rise apartment buildings, made of crappy commie concrete and ugly as sin. Now St. Petersburg is seeing a housing boom, as is Moscow. So if you’re an upwardly mobile urban dweller with some money, you probably have more living space than your parents ever did.

So that’s the point. If you have a job, if you have training, if you have some savings, you can survive in Russia. If you’re straight, and orthodox in your religious beliefs, and willing to keep your mouth shut about politics, you’d be able to handle living there. Consumer goods are available. The long-term outlook isn’t very good, and you’re not really free, not in the way we Americans are used to. And I’m certainly not suggesting anyone should move there. But it’s not a terrible place.

Because I’m very much afraid that’s what we have to look forward to here, in the US. With the Presidency of Donald Trump, that’s what our next four years are likely to look like. Russia. Until the economy tanks; then it’ll get worse. So, for now: Russia. Putin got the President he wanted and worked for: and we get to lose our country, at least for a few years.

Hope we get it back soon.

Mascots: Movie review

It’s always a glorious day in the Samuelsen home when we learn that Christopher Guest has released a new mockumentary. Starting with This is Spinal Tap (1984), in which he acted but did not direct, and continuing with the films he both wrote, directed and starred in: Waiting For Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003), For Your Consideration (2006), Guest has created a bitter-sweet comedic body of work that stands up to the test of time, as funny and human as anything done anywhere by anybody.  I mustn’t neglect the TV series Family Tree (2013), which I loved, but which wasn’t quite as laugh-out-loud funny as the movies have been. Now comes Mascots, just released on Netflix. I’d say it’s B+ Guest, funny and heartbreaking, but perhaps not quite as profound as the very best of his work: Guffman, Show, and Wind.

The Guest method has been refined to perfection. He starts off with a setting–a community musical, a dog show, a folk music revival concert. We meet dozens of brilliantly rendered and eccentric characters attached in some way to that event, drawn, usually, from the same extraordinary pool of actors. They improvise scenes and monologues while the camera rolls, and then Guest and his editors put it all together. In the case of Mascots, it’s an international sports mascot competition.

I missed Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean and Eugene Levy, Guest regulars. But Guest made up for it by reprising his role as Corky St. Clair, the sublimely inept director/playwright/actor from Waiting for Guffman. He’s back, mentoring Parker Posey’s Cindi Babineaux, a superbly avant-garde Alvin the Armadillo mascot, with tire tracks all over her costume, and a cheerleader-overcome-by-l’ennui affected cheering pose. She’s just a spectacular creation, exactly what we can imagine Libby Mae Brown (Posey’s character from Guffman) becoming under Corky’s tutelage. And she partners with her half-sister, Laci (Susan Yeagley), who chews gum incessantly, even when seducing fellow mascots in elevators.

I was also entranced by Zach Woods and Sarah Baker, playing Michael and Mindy Murray, Ollie the Octopus and Tammy the Turtle, baseball playing mascots, whose act, at times, reveals a deeply seated mutual hostility as their otherwise cheery marriage unravels. Both Woods and Baker were brilliant–an oh-so-happy couple, with, uh, issues. And it was thrilling to see Tom Bennett again, who was so wonderful as a dopey aristocrat in Love and Friendship. Here, he’s Owen Golly (pronounced Jolly), a soccer loving Hedgehog mascot, a role he inherited from his Dad and Granddad. Bennett gets less funny things to do and say than some of the other characters, and makes more of them–I fell in love with the whole Golly clan. There’s also Christopher Moynihan, as Phil, a Plumber mascot, who comes complete with a prop toilet, and a Turd sidekick. And finally Chris O’Dowd as Tommy, a massively aggressive mascot called The Fist. He’s just a big Fist. His sport is hockey, and he proudly declares he’s been banned from six different venues.

Also included are Jane Lynch and Ed Begley Jr. as judges–winners get a Fluffy; that’s what they call the main prize. And Jennifer Coolidge and Bob Balaban as the wealthy couple, the Lumpkins, who underwrite the event. And John Michael Higgins as a representative from the Gluten Free Network, TV producers who might be willing to broadcast future Fluffys. And finally, the immortal Fred Willard, who brings his astounding cluelessness to bear as a mascot coach fascinated by little people. (“Did they make you this size so you could fit in the worm costume?”)

Is it as good a movie as Waiting for Guffman? No. Is it better–certainly funnier–than any other movie playing in town right now? Absolutely. Netflix streaming, folks. Christopher Guest is back.

Sully: Movie Review

I was astounded by Sully, by how intense and exciting it was. We all know the story. We all know about the ‘miracle on the Hudson,’ when pilot Chesley Sullenberger brought his disabled airplane down for a water landing, and all 155 passengers were saved. ‘Sully,’ as Sullenberger was known to friends and family, became an American hero. He was on Letterman. He was on Leno. We all knew who he was–this tall, white haired guy with a prominent moustache. How do you tell a story that familiar and that recent?

Clint Eastwood directed, from a screenplay by Tom Komarnicki. And dramatically, the focus was on a hearing by the National Transportation Safety Board, determining if the plane’s destruction could be attributed to pilot error, an engineering or construction flaw, or just plain bad luck. That is a part of the story we don’t know much about, but we do know how it turned out; if Sully had lost his pilot’s wings, it would have been a national story and something of a scandal. We know what happened (in broad outline), and we know how it turned out. Where’s the dramatic tension?

Turns out, there’s plenty of drama; the movie is terrifically exciting and intense. There are two reasons, I think. For one, Tom Hanks plays Sully. And through Hanks, the movie ties the NTSB hearing to Sully’s own struggles with the emotional aftermath of his emergency landing. Not just that; the film ties Sully’s ordeal, and the trauma of PTSD, to our own American national nightmare; to 9/11. It does this quite explicitly; the film begins with a nightmare. Sully, piloting his plane, trying to make it to an airport, smashing it into a New York skyscraper. Then waking from his dream in a panic.

Those images haunt the movie, just as our own collective memory continues to haunt our nation. In fact, we see Sully’s plane hit a building three times in the movie. (Nightmares, and also in flight simulations). It brings home to us how desperate the situation was. US Airways flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009. No more than a minute into the flight, the plane flew through a flock of geese, which destroyed both engines. Sully’s first impulse was to return to LaGuardia. He soon realized that he did not have the altitude or velocity to turn and make it back. But in the multiple times Eastwood shows us the incident, we see what we also know; that Sully’s plane was flying over one of the most populated areas on the planet. Any wrong choice would not only impact the flight 1549 passengers, but untold other victims. We see him narrowly avoid a bridge. And finally, with no other options available to him, he opted for a controlled water landing in the Hudson River. And everyone survived.

Hanks is terrific in this, though that’s hardly surprising. Tom Hanks has an astonishing ability to play command. I first saw it in Apollo Thirteen; he’s one of those rare actors who can play a leader and make it look effortless. I’ve known a few military officers in my day, and the best of them have that quality; a way of projecting authority. When we see the real-life Sully on talk shows and the like, he comes across as a pleasant, self-effacing sort of chap. But that’s not how Hanks plays him. At a crucial part of the NTSB hearings, it looks bad for him; it looks like he might really lose his pilot’s license. And then he just . . . takes charge. It’s a terrific moment, and I don’t know many other actors who could play it so convincingly. Hanks’ Sully is, yes, struggling with self-doubt and unable to stop reliving a terrible experience. But he’s also a leader, a pilot. His strength carries the movie.

All the actors are great in this, though. Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn play head investigators for the NTSB, and they’re both given the thankless challenge of making government bureaucrats (persecuting a guy we like), seem human and real and sympathetic. Laura Linney plays Sully’s wife, Lorraine, and she’s got an equally thankless task, playing the ‘loyal and supportive wife.’ But Linney gives us a sense of some genuine tensions in their marriage, and her scenes sparkled. I also loved Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles, Sully’s co-pilot. He’s exceptional in, again, a pretty underwritten role.

But it’s not just the leads. This is a movie with many smaller parts, from the passengers on the plane, to the flight attendants, to the air traffic controller, to the ferry boat captains and crew and the helicopter rescue divers and the medical personnel.

Flight 1549 went down on a freezing day in January. Even after its water landing, the passengers were at serious risk. They survived because a whole bunch of people did their jobs. They survived because Sully, faced with a myriad of impossible choices, made the least bad one available to him. They survived because Skiles did his job just as well. They survived because the plane’s flight attendants performed superbly, as the well-trained professionals they are. They survived because a whole bunch of ferry pilots hustled their ships out to the plane. The point is made explicitly by Sully; he tells Skiles ‘we did our jobs.’

For that matter, the plane also makes it clear that the NTSB investigators, who we initially think of as the film’s bad guys, were also competent professionals doing their jobs well.

It’s easy to see why Clint Eastwood, at 86, was attracted to this story. Eastwood is, above all, a craftsman. His films are meticulously assembled, exquisitely edited. He’s worked with the same crew for years, or when they retire, their offspring. He’s famous, of course, for being Hollywood’s most notorious political conservative. But I sense sometimes that he’s not conservative because he hates government, but because he’s fed up with big government’s incompetence and inefficiency and corruption. I get that. And I find his films a pleasure to watch.

Anyway, Sully is far more engaging than I ever suspected. It’s a wonderful combination; Clint Eastwood at his best, Tom Hanks at his best. And finally, it makes the case that Sully is miscast as a hero. He’s just a guy who did his job. That’s enough, and that’s plenty.

The Shallows: Movie review

In The Shallows, Blake Lively plays Nancy, an American med student on a surfing vacation to a remote beach in Mexico. While surfing, she is attacked by a shark, and injured. Somehow, she has to get back to shore in one already-munched-on piece. It’s a woman-in-peril movie, a movie about surviving a desperately hostile situation. It’s pretty well-done; kinda exciting. I know, tepid praise. And I’m not sure why I can’t recommend it with more enthusiasm. Lively’s a fine actress, she does good work here, and we do genuinely worry that she may not survive. It’s not that we’re indifferent to her plight.

This is going to sound weird, but the movie it really reminded me of was Gravity. That was in outer space, while this is a shark-infested lagoon, but otherwise, they’re basically the same movie. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock is stranded, and in danger, but she also has a series of steps she can take. She has to get from the space station to another space station to a satellite array to another facility; that’s what drove the plot. She has to get from damaged space haven A to damaged space facility B, to C and D and E and eventually back to Earth. Same thing here. Lively sees a dead whale in the lagoon–presumably, the whale is what attracted the shark. So Lively climbs up on the whale, and that keeps her safe for awhile. But not for long; sharks apparently can ram dead whales, to knock people off them. So Lively has to escape to a coral reef. And from there to another one. And from there to a buoy. It’s the same plot. “I’m safe for now, here, but that won’t last. I have to get to there. And from there to that other place.” And so on.

Of course, throughout the whole awful ordeal, Nancy’s resourcefulness, imagination, and courage pull her through. She doesn’t have much to work with, and she has a nasty, deep shark-bite wound on her thigh. But she’s a medical student; she does know how to suture a wound, for example. Of course, all she has to work with are her own earrings, but in a pinch, they hold up adequately. She turns her wetsuit jacket into a compression bandage, and uses what’s left of her surfboard for shade from the brutal tropical sun. All those scenes are fascinating, well acted; they’re the best things in the movie.

I compared The Shallows to Gravity, which it very closely resembles. But the biggest difference is that Gravity was tremendously exciting, absolutely riveting every second of the way. I found The Shallows kind of meh. I’m trying to figure out why. It’s not the star–Blake Lively is terrific in this, every bit as interesting as Sandra Bullock was in her movie.

I think there are two reasons. The first is just the setting. We don’t know much about space, but we do know it’s plenty dangerous. And we find Sandra Bullock’s resourcefulness convincing, because we don’t know better–we don’t know anything about outer-space survival. But we’ve all seen how many scary shark movies? And how many hours of Shark Week on TV? Ultimately, I think, the last third of The Shallows doesn’t work very well because we think we know how actual sharks actually behave, and it’s not the way this shark behaves. If real sharks can’t do what this shark does, then her duel of wits with it is substantially diminished.

I think there’s another reason too. In Gravity, George Clooney’s character dies pretty early on. That heightens the stakes; we think that Sandra Bullock’s character might actually die. Of course, she’s not going to die; Hollywood doesn’t do that to protagonists–only second leads. But in this movie, Blake Lively plays essentially the only character that matters. There are two Mexican dude surfers in it, and they do get shark-eaten, but they don’t matter as characters–we never even learn their names. So their deaths don’t have much resonance. And that means, we never really do believe that Nancy might not make it.

My all-time favorite shark movie, Open Water, a wonderfully terrifying small indie movie works precisely because we don’t really have any reassurance that the characters are going to survive. As we watch, we think that they’re as likely to die as to live; it generated terrific suspense throughout for that very reason. I wonder how much of the difference is due to casting. Open Water starred Who? and Whosat? (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis, actually). While this is clearly a Blake Lively vehicle. She’s probably going to survive it.

Anyway, if you’re in the mood for a pretty well made, moderately suspenseful, fairly exciting woman-in-peril movie, The Shallows does deliver. There’s a lot to like here; I can’t point to any part of the filmmaking that didn’t work. It’s just a little too easy to compare it to other really similar movies that are just that much better.

 

Free State of Jones: Movie Review

Free State of Jones is kind of a mess of a movie, the kind of film that never seems to have quite decided what it wanted to be. At times, it felt like a docu-drama. At times it was more like a melodrama; at times it felt like classical tragedy. It employs a framing story set 80 years after the main story it tells, but it uses that frame very oddly, and starts it much too late for it to be terribly effective. I saw it with my wife, my daughter, and a sister-in-law, and afterwards, we went to lunch, and spent an enjoyable half hour tearing the movie apart. While also agreeing that, with all its flaws, it had affected us deeply. We found the history the film described completely fascinating. But we also weren’t sure how much of the movie’s version of that history could be trusted.

Newton Knight was certainly a real guy, and as played by Matthew McConaughey, a charismatic and fascinating character. He was a farmer from Jones County Mississippi, conscripted to fight in the American Civil War. He served as a nurse, apparently because he was strong enough to carry wounded soldiers from the battlefield to those horrific civil war surgical tents. The movie begins with a line of southern soldiers marching stolidly to their deaths. A union skirmish line cuts them down. The bloody battle scenes are graphic and ferocious, and set up the rest of the movie; we wouldn’t want to fight back then either, and would do whatever we could to get out of it. And so does Newton, especially after a young family member dies in his arms. He deserts. And helps neighbors fight off Confederate teams who go from farm to farm, stealing crops for the war effort.

Eventually, Newton is sufficiently notorious an outlaw that he has to go into hiding, in the swampland of the Mississippi delta. Also on the lam, a number of escaped slaves. And Newton, already disposed to treat his black neighbors with courtesy and respect, makes friends, especially with an educated slave, Moses (Mahershala Ali), who becomes his close friend. He also becomes ever closer to a black woman healer, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who he eventually marries, his first (white) wife, Serena (Keri Russell), having left him.

We also cut back and forth to a modern (1940s) Mississippi trial, in which a Knight descendant, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) is tried for having entered into an illegal marriage to a white girl. Davis is accused of being one eighth black, and thus a Negro ineligible to marry anyone white. We cut back to the incidents of that trial on, perhaps, three other occasions.

Back to the civil war past, however, Knight eventually organizes his neighbors (many of whom have also deserted), and escaped slaves into an army. And they secede from the secession; declare themselves the Free State of Jones, with by-laws prohibiting rich men from profiting from the labor of the poor, and also outlawing slavery. (This is, ultimately, a film about the history of Southern race relations, but almost as much, it’s a film about social class. Knight was more a class warrior than a racial provocateur). Knight proves himself an effective guerilla leader, until finally he raises enough fuss that the Mississippi and Confederate authorities have to send a full regiment to deal with him. At which point, he and his men melt back into the swamp, where cavalry can’t follow them and infantry won’t. A few of his men are caught and hanged; most get away scott-free.

Those incidents make up perhaps the first two thirds of the movie; maybe a little less. The rest of the movie covers the end of the war, Reconstruction, the fight for voting rights, and the return of Knight’s first wife. (He welcomes her home, and builds her a cabin on his property, while his beloved Rachel remains with him in the main house). All this is handled episodically, with the story continuity provided in titles.

In short, we have essentially three movies. One is an exciting action movie, about Knight and his rebellion against the confederacy. The second is a story closer to our age, about a trial, in which a Knight descendent has to prove he has the mettle of his grandpappy. The third is a docudrama, in which we dramatize a few random incidents after the civil war; interesting incidents, to be sure, and tragic ones, as the history of the state of Mississippi is inherently tragic and dreadful.

I liked all three movies a lot. I found them all fascinating. They don’t mesh together very effectively, but that didn’t matter much to me. But it might to other viewers. It’s a terrific history lesson, even if the history can’t be entirely trusted. Who was Newton Knight actually?

The first thing I did when I got home from the movie was look up the Wikipedia article for Newton Knight. If that source can be trusted, then yes, the movie took some liberties with the story. It made his army bigger than it probably already was, and showed them as being more militarily successful. And, of course, Newton Knight is a contested figure in American history and Confederate history. Apparently, there’s a good, scholarly book about Knight by historian Victoria Bynum. I’ve ordered it on Amazon, and intend to read it when it arrives.

And I think that captures the impact of this movie more than anything. The story is fascinating. The acting is beyond superb. The filmmaking is stylistically inconsistent, but I also didn’t much care. But the history! My goodness! It’s a very interesting movie, and one I’m very glad to have seen. It’s also not a cinematic masterpiece. Let that be my recommendation.

Orlando, and guns.

It was completely horrifying. It was also terribly, horribly familiar. Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, specializes in nightly themed performances. Saturday night was ‘Latin night.’ Estimates suggest there were a bit more than 300 people there. Omar Mateen, an American-born citizen of Afghani-American heritage, opened fire in the club. He was carrying a handgun, and an AR-15 assault rifle. Mateen killed forty nine people, and wounded fifty three.

Mateen had been under investigation by the FBI for possible ties to terrorist groups. He had a history of domestic violence, and of anti-gay sentiments publicly expressed. He was also a concealed weapon permit holder. He was, in short, a dangerous man, with a history of violence, an adherent to a radical ideology, and known to be homophobic. He does not appear to have violated federal gun laws or the risibly lenient Florida statutes.

Of course, our initial response to this kind of violence is emotional, and personal. We hug our kids close. We weep. We call friends, and we post on social media. We want to do something. Perhaps we give blood. We feel impotent and helpless, and we’re angry about not being able to act. And we gravitate to those voices that seem particularly eloquent and compassionate–Lin-Manuel Miranda, Frank Langella, at the Tonys, for example.

But our response is ineffectual. We know that too. As my wife put it this morning, if the Sandy Hook shooting couldn’t lead to effective gun control measures, nothing will. Newtown involved kindergartners. If that doesn’t galvanize the public, nothing will. And in fact, after each major US shooting event, the public does become galvanized, or at least outraged. Our first reaction is straightforward: ‘we need to do something about this.’ But even the worst school shootings don’t tend to lead to meaningful reform. The gun lobby is incredibly adept at fighting off impulse-prompted legislation. The NRA recognizes that the emotional attachment to gun control is transitory. Those emotions fade in time. And in the meantime, little of substance has happened legislatively.

What we have to do is, simply put, to work harder. We have to decide what we want our society to become, and fight for it. And we have to agree that we’re in for the long game. I do not want to live in a society where military weaponry is readily available for private purchase. I do not want to live in a society where essentially everyone is armed. I also don’t want to live in a society with radical income inequality, where public education is underfunded, or where people suffering from mental health issues cannot get adequate treatment. But today, it’s time to talk about guns.

Here’s what we want. A federal assault weapon ban. Mandatory waiting periods for firearms purchases, and a federal registry of people who really shouldn’t be allowed to buy or own guns. I would love to see major restrictions on ammunition; if we can’t ban guns, let’s ban bullets. And I would love a national gun buy-back program. But really, any measure that would limit the numbers of guns in private ownership, I would favor.

Second Amendment? I’m completely in favor of well-regulated militias.

How do we accomplish any of this? First of all, let’s stop railing at the NRA. Many of the milder measures I’m describing are in fact supported by rank-and-file NRA members. In any event, the NRA is a lobbying organization, and an effective one. Fine; learn from them, beat them at their own game.

Here’s where we start, though. Vote. Vote in every election. Vote for state legislators, county commissioners, judges. Vote in every off-year election, vote in every primary. We’re in a Presidential year, and those elections are highly publicized. But there will be another national election in 2018, and it’s just as essential that you vote then. As Samantha Bee reminded us, the most consequential election in your lifetime was the election of 2010. The one you may not have voted in. The one where the progressive gains of Obama’s first two years vanished. Vow now: that will never happen again.

Don’t just vote, but nag your friends into voting. Be a pest about it. Bug them about it. The NRA has blood on its hands right now. The NRA leadership is partly to blame for this horrible shooting. But, I don’t mean to be rude, but if you didn’t vote, if you didn’t do that minimal civic act to oppose NRA-approved candidates, then blood is on your hands as well. Vote. Always vote. And make sure your friends and family understand how important their vote is too.

And that’s just the start. Volunteer. Donate. Make phone calls; drive shut-in voters to the polls. Your vote does count. Your contribution does matter.

Elections are won by the people who show up to vote in them. What we cannot afford is apathy. What we cannot afford is indifference. What we absolutely cannot afford is the luxury of easy cynicism.

We can change our society. But we have to work harder than we have, up to now. After Orlando, I’m fed up with excuses. We can turn this around. But we all of us have to work together. Vow now. Orlando is the turning point. Orlando is where we decided to change.

Searching for the meaning of life, Donald Trump edition

I feel for anyone trying to write political satire these days. Reality, man. Add me to the list of former Trump skeptics forced to eat crow; I’ll have mine with a side of snark, garnished with whatever the opposite of relish might be. Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. This is really happening.

For me, this simplifies everything. I’m a liberal. I probably wasn’t going to vote for the Republican this year anyway. The Democrats are almost certainly going to run Hillary Clinton, an outstandingly well-credentialed candidate, and someone I’ve liked for years. Is she untrustworthy? According to Politifact, she is, in fact, the most honest candidate running. I am going to support, with time and money, the candidate I’ve favored all long. Easy-peasy.

But Republicans are in disarray. Trump’s going to be the nominee. And so Republican pols have to decide if they can support him, or whether they should find some poor schmuck to run as a third-party conservative alternative. Or, they might decide to blow this year off, and vote for Hillary. Amazing.

The stark choices top Republicans face came into clear focus the day after Cruz’s withdrawal, in the person of Paul Ryan. Right now, Ryan is, as Speaker of the House, the most powerful Republican around. Except that, normally, the presumptive nominee becomes the notional ‘head of the party.’ If the two men were in lock-step ideologically, this wouldn’t be a problem; they’d just work together. Hah.

Vox.com covered the resulting spat nicely. In an interview with Jake Tapper, Ryan said  “I think conservatives want to know, does he share our values and our principles on limited government, the proper role of the executive, adherence to the Constitution?” That’s fair enough; Ryan does need to know the answer to those questions. The difficulty is that Trump’s been running against the Republican agenda the whole time.

Let’s unpack that a little. That core–a belief in limited government and adherence to the Constitution–seems like something that would be easy enough for Trump to agree to, because it doesn’t mean anything. (Or, at least, it means different things to different conservatives). All Republicans call themselves conservatives, and say they believe in limited government and Constitutional principles. The problem is, conducting your affairs based on empty, meaningless rhetoric is essentially what Trump seems to mean by ‘political correctness.’ It’s the main thing his entire campaign has been about opposing. Trump’s attacks on political correctness are sometimes portrayed on the left as simply him declaring a license to insult people. But it’s more than that. Ask any Trump fan, and they’ll say ‘he tells it like it is.’ That’s what they like about him.

Let’s get specific, show how this works in relation to a single issue; the development of a single aircraft: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Building that jet is part of the Republican legislative agenda. It’s something Paul Ryan supports. Trump opposes it.

The F-35 is a little faster than the F-15 or A-10, which it would supplant, and it has a little bigger gun. Plus, it would keep defense contractors happy. It’s very expensive–building and deploying it will cost over $1.5 trillion dollars. Seems to me that spending huge amounts of money on an aircraft that’s not needed expands the size and reach of government. It’s difficult for me to see how building a very expensive new plane just because it’s a little cooler than the perfectly adequate planes we already deploy is consistent with principles of ‘limited government.’ But, Paul Ryan’s version of conservativism is sufficiently flexible to allow him to support that plane, and to not worry overmuch about how it’s going to be paid for.

But Trump doesn’t care. It’s expensive and we don’t need it. Get rid of it.

The spat continues, and on some issues, Ryan seems right, and Trump wrong. Paul Ryan’s version of conservatism also includes “a message that would appeal to all Americans in every walk of life, every background. . . .” It’s not hard to decode that: he’s asking Trump to tone down the anti-immigrant demagoguery. This isn’t just political calculation. I mean, sure, Republicans know they have to broaden their appeal to minority voters. Trump’s anti-Hispanic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Chinese nastiness is genuinely troubling to us all. Ryan’s right on that point. But I don’t think it’s likely that Trump’s going to back away from any of that. His line about how Mexico is going to pay for ‘that wall,’ (the one he wants to build on the Mexican border) is the biggest hit of his stump speech. From Trump’s perspective, Ryan is asking him, Donald Trump, to give in to political correctness. Ain’t gonna happen.

The differences between Ryan and Trump are more than stylistic, in other words. They’re substantive. Paul Ryan is an ideological conservative. Conservatism is core, even when it doesn’t make sense. As an outsider, I think conservatism’s weird. I understand conservatism as a tendency, but not as a movement. In other words, saying ‘I want to carefully vet any piece of legislation, to make sure it’s fully funded’ makes sense to me. Saying ‘in general, I’d rather not raise taxes, though of course there are times you have to’ makes sense. To say ‘as a matter of constitutional principle, the government shouldn’t do much, should never raise taxes, and above all, shouldn’t do anything that might make the lives of citizens better, because it would expand government and that’s always bad’ seems very weird to me. (I also don’t mean to misrepresent conservatism. Please let me know if I just did.)

Conservatives don’t think Trump is a conservative. They don’t count his paleo-conservative nativism as, you know, actually conservative. They believe that conservatism is a set of principles, the first of which is a small, limited government. Trump isn’t that kind of conservative. His policy proposals tend to be poorly thought-through, and he changes his mind every ten minutes, while ferociously denying he’s doing anything of the kind (has there ever been a candidate for high office this thin-skinned?). But there doesn’t seem to be much ideology behind them.

But if what drives him isn’t ideology, what is it? It’s essentially his life-experience as a businessman. He sees foreign policy as essentially deal-making. He can’t see how destabilizing his proposals are, because in the business world, you can always renegotiate any deal. It’s not that Trump opposes multi-national trade agreements out of principle, the way Bernie Sanders seems to. Nor does he embrace them the way Paul Ryan might; free trade as an extension of conservatism. No, Trump looks at any trade deal in isolation; did we get a good deal here? Does it massively favor the United States? If not, we’ll renegotiate. Don’t worry, Europe. It’ll be great. It’ll be huge.

And so, this week, as part of his spat with Ryan, Trump actually said something remarkable, not that anyone noticed. He changed his mind about supporting a big tax cut. Said ‘I’m not necessarily a big fan of that.’

Tax cuts for the top 1% is as close to Republican orthodoxy as any issue could be. Every Republican candidate in this race favored tax cuts. When Republicans talk about a ‘pro-growth economic program,’ that’s what they mean; tax cuts, and trickle-down economics. Kasich favored a tax cut. So did Jeb!, so did Rubio, so did Cruz. Tax cuts transfer money from the public sector (bad!) to the private sector (good!). Tax cuts automatically make government smaller (yay!). There’s not a single issue that unites conservatives like tax cuts. Trump proposed one too–the biggest tax cut of any of them. (The fact that tax cuts don’t trickle-down, that they’re fiscally ruinous, and fraudulent and terrible public policy, we’re not supposed to notice. Hillary Clinton, by the way, is the one fiscally responsible candidate in this race).

Now, having just won the nomination, Trump is backing off from them. He’s saying “I’m not necessarily a big fan” of tax cuts. And nobody noticed. Really, it blows my mind how little attention mainstream media pays to policy.

If Trump actually runs on this issue? If he actually make opposing tax cuts a centerpiece of his campaign? I think it’s the one thing he might do that gives him a chance against Hillary Clinton. And it destroys the Republican party. Wow, do we live in wacky times.