Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Secret Life of Pets: Movie review

We finally got around to seeing The Secret Life of Pets, which has been out for a month. But it seems to be doing well enough; the theater last night was packed. It’s a funny, goofy movie, anarchic and chaotic. Really, it’s essentially a Keystone Kops movie; built on multiple chase scenes, making no sense whatsoever. It’s the kind of froth that had darn well better be funny, because it doesn’t have a lot more to offer than yucks. I mean, it does built on the genuine affection people have for their housepets, so there’s that. But the pets here do all sorts of things pets don’t/won’t/can’t do, so our enjoyment of it depends on how bothered we are by absurd implausibility.

Max (voiced by Louie CK), is a terrier, and his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), a single young woman and dog lover. Their life together seems idyllic, and during the day, when she’s at work, he hangs out with the other dogs and cats and birds owned by her neighbors. It’s a nice little dog/cat/bird community. Then Katie brings in a shaggy brown mutt, Duke, declaring him Max’s brother. And initially, they don’t get along. Duke eats Max’s food, sleeps in his pet bed, and is generally good-heartedly rambunctious in ways Max can’t relate to. So, we think, that’s going to be the movie–Duke and Max learning to get along.

Then an overburdened dog walker misplaces Duke and Max, and they’re unsupervised in a threatening urban environment, first attacked by a street gang of feral cats, then a group of sewer-dwelling ‘flushed pets,’ led by Snowball (Kevin Hart), a fluffy, cute, white bunny, who is also a psychopath. So there’s a chase scene involving the cats, then several other chase scenes, involving Max and Duke and Snowball’s troops. Meanwhile, Max’s friend Gidget (Jenny Slate), a poodle, gets worried about Max and mobilizes the other pets in Katie’s apartment building, and they head off on a search for their friend. Leading to further chaos and more chase scenes.

In the best Keystone Kops tradition, the chases that constitute 80% of this movie’s playing time are imaginatively conceived, and pretty amusing, if you’re able to suspend your disbelief sufficiently to remain untroubled by the spectacle of a teeny white fluffy bunny driving a city bus. And crashing animal control vans. And various other stunts and dodges. Eventually, we discover that terriers can use keys to open cages, which thing I had not previously supposed possible.

The movie is cleverly done, which means that it’s appeal depends on how willing you are to entertain its essential absurdity. I went back and forth. I’d think ‘oh, please, that’s preposterous.’ And then I’d think, ‘why is that more ridiculous than the rest of the movie?’ And give myself to the next silly chase scene. Overall, I’d say that I enjoyed it. The cartoon short, in which Minions try to do yardwork, was more fun than the main movie.

But I want to go back to the film’s title: The Secret Lives of Pets. When we leave for the day, and our pets remain behind, well, what do they do? And I’m sure we’ve all experienced those moments when we come home from work and discover that our pets have been up to all kind of mayhem. If comedy is built on truth, then this is a promising premise.

So for me, the funnier gags in the movie were not those precipitated by chase scenes, but those that felt more truthful. The well-coiffed dog who contentedly listens to Vivaldi while the master is home, then flips the stereo to death metal the second the master leaves. That’s funny. The cat overcome by temptation for the turkey in the fridge–funny. The more overtly comical moments in the film, for me, worked less well.

Still, it’s an amusing movie, a slight but agreeable confection, and, as it happened, just what my wife and I were in the mood for. At least the children in the theater last night seemed to like it, if that recommendation helps you decide.


The coolness of Alt-Right

Hillary Clinton gave a big speech last week, about the connections between the Donald Trump campaign and a movement known as Alt-Right. Alt-Right is a complicated phenomenon, a toxic blend of nativism, nationalism, and white supremecy. It’s mostly found on-line, in reddit threads, and various websites, most prominently on the conservative site One key belief is authoritarianism, a belief that democracy has failed, and that a strong man figure is needed to restore order.

It sounds dangerous, right? But that description misses something crucial–tone. At least on Breitbart, they don’t always sound entirely serious. They actually remind me of the Futurists a hundred years ago, “young artillerymen on a toot.” Of course, futurists essentially grew up to become fascists, so that historical parallel does give pause. Anyway, perhaps they’re just jester-provocateurs, tweaking the establishment, saying deliberately shocking things to get a rise out of old fogey squares. They shouldn’t be taken seriously anymore than parents should have worried, back in the 70s, that their KISS fan kids were really turning into Satan-worshippers.

Maybe that’s true. It’s always difficult to assess tone when reading material coming out of a foreign belief system–and I do see Breitbart as foreign, as opposed to mainstream American values. But, of course, they’re not trying to be mainstream. They are deliberately transgressive and provocative. And their ferociously anti-immigrant stance does read as racist. Of course, in saying that, I may only be restating the values of current American political correctness. If the point is to epater la bourgeoisie, well, I’m pretty bourgeois, I suppose.

Still, the editor-in-chief of Breitbart is CEO of the Donald Trump campaign. Trump is the Republican candidate for President. His campaign is certainly built on anti-immigration sentiment, and racial insensitivity. Hillary was right to challenge him on the not-terribly-subtle ways in which an Alt-Right ideology has found expression in Trump’s campaign.

Or, maybe not. A conservative friend of mine was talking to the young guys he works with, who he describes as libertarians. And they found Hillary’s speech condemning the Alt-Right hilarious. And they said (apparently unanimously), that her speech would prove to be the turning point in this election. She took seriously a movement that is intentionally tongue-in-cheek. She gave them free publicity, and she came across as a nagging schoolmarm. She lost, in short, the coolness battle.

My friend said that he thought the turning point in the 2012 race came when Mitt Romney talked about ‘binders full of women.’ That awkward formulation marked him as terminally uncool. Obama, on the other hand, was cool. He’s hip to pop culture, he’s quick on his feet, he’s funny, he can turn a phrase. In that race, Romney came across as clumsy, square, old-fashioned and uncool. Trump, by embracing Alt-Right, has become cool. He gets it. That’s one reason why his most politically incorrect comments always seem to increase his popularity, not diminish it.

According to my friend, in her Alt-Right speech, Hillary came across as terminally uncool, a hectoring old bat. She doesn’t get it. She took seriously deliberately and intentionally tongue-in-cheek transgressive humor. Said my friend, quoting this group of guys, “she fed the trolls. Stick a fork in her. She’s done.”

Polling data since her speech could be seen as supporting this a little. I mean, it’s not serious, but she has lost 2% in the polls since this time last week. She did have a bad week, what with an AP story attacking the Clinton Foundation. I thought that story was rubbish, but it did make her look bad. Certainly, if the Alt-Right speech was supposed to make a positive difference, that difference isn’t discernible in polling data.

Here are the main two reasons, though, why I think my friend’s co-workers are wrong.

First of all, the coolness train left the depot months ago. Of all the candidates who ran for President in this election cycle, one, and only one consistently spoke to young people, consistently and constantly drew massive crowds to his rallies, consistently articulated a vision that spoke to the dreams and aspirations of millennials. That candidate was Bernie Sanders. His message wasn’t Alt-Right–it was thoroughly, unabashedly and unapologetically progressive. It was his ideas that matter, his policies, his views. Honestly, one of the most astonishing and encouraging aspects of this election is this fact: the coolest candidate in this election was a 74-year-old socialist from Vermont.

Why was he cool? Because he was himself. Because he was authentic. Because the views he articulating on the campaign trail are the same ideals he’s fought for his entire political life. Health care for everyone, as a right. Higher education, as a right. He didn’t quite win, but he came awfully close, and his ideas will continue to animate American policy discussions.

Hillary is not and never will be as cool as Bernie. It doesn’t matter. Trump isn’t cool either, and he’s not going to get cooler by preaching racism and nativism and a hostility to immigration.

But there’s another, incredibly important factor that needs to be taken into account. My friend’s co-workers are all male. And Breitbart is not just home to the most appalling ideas regarding race and immigration. (And Breitbart’s editor, once again, is Trump’s campaign CEO). Breitbart is also home to Milo Yiannopoulos. It’s home to the men’s rights movement.

Yiannopoulos recently made headlines because he was permanently banned from Twitter. He was banned because of utterly disgusting attacks he made on the actress Leslie Jones. Jones committed the following crimes against humanity: she’s African-American, and she starred in a movie. Imagine.

Yiannopoulos is an editor at Breitbart, and probably the site’s most popular writer. And his views are noxious. He’s a blatant and open misogynist. He has written that the two inventions that hurt women the most were the pill and the washing machine, because they both freed women to pursue careers. Birth control, he says, makes women unattractive and crazy. Is that supposed to be funny?

He is, in short, a humorless crank, a deeply disturbed young man with serious woman issues, who speaks to an audience of similarly damaged young men. He’s a gamer-gate bigwig. He’s not smart enough to engage with, not clever enough to read, and not kind enough to qualify as fully human.

And young women vote too.

I have no idea what the demographics say about any of this. I can’t imagine people of color reading Breitbart, for example, though I suppose it’s possible a tiny handful do. I haven’t been able to find any research on Alt-Right demographics, but my guess is that the movement includes essentially no women.

People support Trump for a variety of reasons, most of them undoubtedly benign. I’m not saying that supporting Trump automatically makes someone a sexist white nationalist. But it is true that Trump has a problem with female voters, and especially, educated single women. And that’s a group that Bernie really did resonate with. At any rate, as long as poisonous slugs like Milo Yiannopoulos infest the Alt-Right, and Trump retains his ties to that movement, I’m not much worried about the coolness factor.


Big Game: Movie Review

It showed up in our mailbox, via Netflix/DVD. (Yes, we still do that). An action movie starring Samuel L. Jackson, set in Finland. Some good actors in the cast: Felicity Huffman, Jim Broadbent, Victor Garber. We wondered why we’d never heard of it; an action movie, with Sam Jackson, surely it deserved some marketing muscle behind it. Worth giving a try, anyway. So we watched it.

And we discovered the Finnish Luc Besson.

This is very exciting for me. If you’ve followed my reviews, you know how much I love all things Luc Besson, the auteur responsible for the Taken movies, plus Lucy, plus The Fifth Element, plus the Transporter movies, plus a whole passel of crappy action flicks. Besson films always have three elements: terrific chase and fight scenes, moments of family values sentimentality, plus plots that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. As Pauline Kael used to say, if movies can’t be great art, they can at least be great trash, and Besson has made it his life’s mission to keep the B-movie tradition alive.

And now, there’s another one. Meet Jalmari Helander. Meet Big Game.

Samuel L. Jackson plays the President of the United States. He’s in Air Force One, en route to a summit in Helsinki. Meanwhile, a kid named Onni Tommila, plays Oskari, a twelve-year old going through what seems to be a rural Finnish rite of passage. He’s supposed to go out alone in the woods, with a tractor and some supplies, but armed only with a bow and arrow, which he’s not physically strong enough to use very well, and bring back some ‘big game.’ A deer, a bear, a moose, something.

Meanwhile, though, the head of the President’s Secret Service detail, Morris (Ray Stevenson), has turned traitor, apparently because he has no respect for the President’s level of physical fitness. (“He can’t even manage a push-up,” Morris sneers to a fellow terrorist). So he’s giving POTUS up, to a terrorist named Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus). Hazar has several fellow terrorist mooks working for him, who Morris just randomly shoots occasionally, without warning or, as far as I can tell, a reason. Anyway, Hazar doesn’t have any particular ideological point to make by kidnapping/killing the President. (He goes back and forth on which he intends). He wants to stuff him and mount him, and put him on display. Yes, a terrorist plot involving Presidential taxidermy.

So, Air Force One gets shot down, the President escapes in his escape pod, ends up in the deep Finnish forest, where young Oskari finds and rescues him. The rest of the movie is about the relationship between POTUS and this young Finnish kid (who speaks darn good English, turns out), as the kid rescues Sam Jackson repeatedly and increasingly implausibly, from terrorists.

If I’m making it sound good, I’m not describing it well. Everything about the premise of the movie screams implausibility, which then gets ratcheted upwards. Meanwhile, back in a Washington situation room (the design based on Dr. Strangelove, I think), Victor Garber, playing the Vice-President, emotes unconvincingly over this terrible thing that’s happened to our poor country, and Felicity Huffman (an advisor of some kind), brings in Jim Broadbent, a CIA analyst, who instantly figures out exactly what’s going on and what should be done about it. Which involves scrambling a SEAL team to Finland. Which would seem to render the Finnish kid a trifle unnecessary. But the movie isn’t worried about illogic. In fact, that’s mostly what it’s selling.

Okay, this is a SPOILER, so don’t read this paragraph if you don’t want to know, but it’s just so wonderful, I have to tell you about it. At a climactic moment near the end of the movie, Morris is in a helicopter. Morris saved the President years ago, took a bullet for him, but the doctors couldn’t remove a shard next to his heart. The President and the kid are dangling from a parachute, also up in the sky. (Don’t ask). The kid pulls out his bow and arrow, and shoots at Morris. The arrow flies true. It hits Morris in the chest. It doinks off and falls harmlessly away–the kid just isn’t strong enough to do much damage with his bow. Morris smiles evilly and pulls out his automatic weapon. And grabs his chest. The arrow gave him a heart attack! It doinked off, and dislodged, the bullet shard! I’m watching with my wife and daughter, and all three of us were in stitches.

And that’s the thing about movies like Big Game.  Bad movies can be fun. A certain kind of clunker can actually entertain. And this is exactly that kind of crap. It’s ridiculous, of course, and completely implausible, but it’s also sort of fun. It’s not Taken-level trash, of course, but this is also Jalmari Helander’s first feature film. I expect great things from his future.

The acting . . . I don’t know Ray Stevenson at all–just not familiar with the man’s work–but based on this, I’d say he’s a scenery-chewer of the first order. He also postures nicely. But then, it’s not like the character he’s playing makes a lick of sense. Sam Jackson does Sam Jackson things, including almost, but not quite, getting to say the ‘Sam Jackson word.’ The kid, Onni Tommila, was actually quite good. Victor Garber, I think, was directed to over-act–he’s a solid pro, and is usually better than this. Jim Broadbent clearly figured out early on what kind of movie this is, and fitted his performance to that reality. I hope the check cleared. For all of them, really.

Oh, my goodness. It’s truly terrible. And also, truly entertaining. Funny how that can happen with certain kinds of movies. And if you do check it out, Finland looks lovely. So there’s always something to look at. Movies don’t always give us even that amount of pleasure.


Ben-Hur: Movie Review

There are essentially two ways a movie could be called a success. First, it could be a popular success, as measured by box office receipts.  Or it can be a critical success, the kind of movie people like me love, but that have a hard time finding their market. Well, the new Ben-Hur, directed by Timur Bekmambetov and starring Jack Huston, is neither a financial nor a critical success. It cost a hundred million dollars to make, and so far, has made around twelve million in box office, a dismal enough figure that it’s closing all across the country. Critics haven’t liked it. It’s around 29% on By those criteria, it’s not a successful film.

And you can’t help but wonder why it was even made. The 1959 William Wyler film, with Charlton Heston, won eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (to Heston), and Best Director. I’m not sure how well it holds up anymore, but it’s certainly a classic, an important and memorable film. Why remake it? Why make a new version, directed by the guy who directed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and starring John Huston’s grandson? Why greenlight it, why fund this production, why market and distribute it? It’s seems like a peculiarly unnecessary venture.

I’m also aware that I have this fault as a critic; I like pretty much everything. I like movies; I like the experience of seeing movies, and my son teases me by saying that my one superpower is finding something positive in even quite wretched movies. So my positive comments here are easy to discount. I get that. I do.

The fact is, though, the new Ben-Hur isn’t terrible, and at times, it’s quite gripping. My wife and I were pleasantly surprised by it. Jack Huston’s not Charlton Heston, but he’s a fine actor, and makes a creditable Ben-Hur. The acting is generally just fine, and the story unfolds at a brisk pace (which can’t really be said about the four-hour-long ’59 classic).  And I don’t have much hesitation recommending it.

I’m sure you remember the essential story. Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince living in Jerusalem, has an adopted brother, Masala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman orphan his family took in.  The men grow up as brothers, and are inseparable. But Masala wants to advance in the Empire, and becomes a centurion. Eventually, he’s posted to Judea, working for the prefect, Pontius Pilate. When a Zealot assassin Ben-Hur has been protecting tries to kill Pilate, Masala has his brother arrested, and condemned to the slow, horrific death of a galley slave. But in a sea battle, Ben-Hur’s ship sinks, and he makes it safely to shore. He is rescued by Ildurim (Morgan Freeman), who trains horses and riders for chariot racing, a popular Roman sport. He trains Ben-Hur, setting up a big climactic chariot race between Masala and Ben-Hur.

In some respects, this new movie is kind of a Cliff Notes version of the ’59 classic. The movie is built around two big action set pieces–the sea battle between galley ships, and the chariot race. Both take up a lot of screen time, and both were well staged and filmed. I already knew perfectly well who was going to win the chariot race, but I still found it exciting and suspenseful.

The interstitial stuff between the big action scenes were less well handled. When Ben-Hur is arrested, his mother and sister are arrested too. He agonizes over that fact, assumes they’re dead, and wants, at least, to see them properly buried. Turns out they didn’t die, but the resolution of that plot point was perfunctory and unconvincing. Likewise, Ben-Hur’s marriage to Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) was rushed through, as were subsequent scenes showing their reunion, quarrel, and reconciliation.

But the film’s biggest failure, in my opinion, has to do with its handling of Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro). The Civil War General Lew Wallace, who wrote the novel all this is based on, titled it Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Ben-Hur meets Jesus periodically throughout the movie, but is unpersuaded by His message. But (SPOILER ALERT), not entirely. Esther becomes a Christian, and Ben-Hur himself eventually comes around. The point of the movie, I think, is this; both Ben-Hur and Masala are men who are consumed with hatred and pain and anger and an insensate desire for revenge. Christ’s message is that those emotions are false, are temptations of the Adversary, and that instead, we need to embrace love and forgiveness. After seeing his brother badly injured in the chariot race, Ben-Hur, touched by Jesus’ teachings, reconciles with his brother, and the men embrace and forgive. Yay for them; closing credits.

It doesn’t really work, though. The resolution is much too perfunctory, and the scenes with Jesus were hampered, in my opinion, by Santoro’s limitations as an actor. And by Huston’s limitations as well; his ‘consumed with anger’ looks very much like his ‘desperate to forgive.’

(And I’m hardly an expert on this historical period, and would love to be corrected if it turns out I’m wrong, but I do not believe that Pilate’s Jerusalem ever featured a big Cirkus for chariot races. Also, I don’t think a Roman Centurion would have been a big name chariot racer. Wrong social class. Also, I’m not sure what caste Ben-Hur belonged to. A ‘Jewish Prince’ who is really wealthy and nonetheless charitable and kind and beloved in Jerusalem? A Herodian? Not sure that guy could have existed. But if I’m wrong, let me know).

If you want to see an exceptionally well-made and well acted movie, set in Palestine during Jesus’ ministry, see Risen, with Joseph Fiennes, a much better movie on the same subject, only without chariot races. Meanwhile, Ben-Hur really can’t be said to have succeeded, exactly. But it’s not half bad, and parts of it are very well done indeed. So I recommend it. And you’ll have to hurry; it’s leaving town soon.

The Olympics

We’ve had Olympic fever big time here at chez Samuelsen. It’s really an extraordinary thing, watching all these young people leap and run and swim and compete. For awhile. Actually, it can get a bit tedious, to be honest. Every athlete is remarkable, every performance amazing, but they can’t all win, and the ones who don’t win outnumber the ones who do by a very large margin. And there are great human stories beyond Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles and Usain Bolt and Ashton Eaton. (Favorite memory; Ledecky smoking the field in the 800 free).

So what we watch isn’t really the Olympics. What we watch is an artfully produced television program, with suits at NBC deciding which sports we really want to see and which athletes we really want to follow. It has to be this way of course. There was Olympic coverage on NBC and NBC Sports and Bravo and CNBC and MSNBC and USA and I think about five other networks. I set my DVR to record all of them, with the intention of watching, you know, the whole Olympics. It took me about half a day to realize how foolish that was. I may like track and field, but that doesn’t mean I want to watch every qualifying heat of every distance, or every throw of the discus, or jump by any high jumper. There aren’t enough hours in the day. And, not to knock men’s field hockey, or judo, or fencing, but I don’t know enough about them to follow them meaningfully. I am, after all, a comparative expert in women’s gymnastics, because I watched it for a couple of hours four years ago. I did get into team handball, which is wicked fun, and water polo, because how long can you tread water? Rhythmic gymnastics is beautiful–essentially modern dance, with sillier costumes. Kayaking looks awesome, as long as you didn’t think too hard about Rio’s water purification issues. And I became a huge fan of the Fiji rugby team. I know nothing about rugby, but I recognize domination when I see it. Seriously, NFL, start scouting Fiji.

Still. Even mentioning the sports I did watch points up the difficulties with which NBC has to contend. The Olympic Games consist of many many many events, and they all require a certain level of expertise to follow meaningfully. There are some sports that basically everyone has played at some point in their lives–table tennis, badminton, trampoline–which are amazing at Olympic levels because the athletes competing there are so much better than any of us will ever be at them. I’ve played ping pong a time or two, but I seriously wasn’t playing the same sport those guys played. I even fenced a little in college, but Olympic fencing is so fast, so quick, it was difficult to even tell what was going on. But can I tell which divers deserve higher scores than which other divers? (Big splashes=bad, I guess).

So NBC has to provide expert commentary so we know what we’re watching, and also provide some personal background into the athletes competing, so we can care who wins. For 316 events, in 28 different sports. And with 11, 544 athletes competing. Covering all that adequately is completely impossible. And NBC did their darndest. With basic cable and a good DVR I was able to watch at least a few minutes worth of 27 of those sports, exempting dressage, because horses.

And then, evenings, we got to see a highlights show (on tape delay), featuring what NBC thought American audiences mostly wanted to see: Americans winning, human interest stories involving athletes from other countries, and beach volleyball. And even a sports nut like me was pretty sated by the end.

Happiness, and Mormonism

My wife and I went out to dinner recently with some old friends. And we caught each other up on our lives and the lives of our children. And we talked about the Church lessons we remembered from MIA. Our teachers were good people, earnest and kind, and I know they wanted nothing for us but the best. And, because we’re Mormons, what they talked about were ideals. Serve a full-time mission, marry in the temple, raise your children with family prayer and family home evening and family scripture study. That was the way to achieve happiness.

Think of General Conference. Even the most cursory search through recent Conference talks shows how central ideals are to Mormonism. Richard G. Scott: “Do the best you can while on earth to have an ideal family” (achieved by studying and applying the Proclamation on the Family). David O. McKay: “I picture heaven as a continuation of the ideal family life.” Neil Anderson: “In this continuing spiritual commotion, the restored gospel will continue to carry the standard, the ideal.”

And we talked about that at dinner, my friends and I, how far actuality can stray from the ideal. My wife and I are happy together, and have been for 35 years, but our lives are hardly ideal. Though I’m still young enough that I should still be working, my health makes that impossible, vastly increasing the burden on her. There are surely people whose lives do fit a Church cultural ideal. But I don’t know very many. Mostly, I know people who are struggling. And I think of Sophocles, who had a favorite line that appears in many, if not most of his plays: “count no man happy until he dies, free of pain at last.” Pain, disappointment, heartache, sorrow are all constants of our lives here.

And they’re supposed to be. Our understanding of the plan of salvation–what we’re now supposed to call the ‘Plan of Happiness’–is that coming to earth would be difficult and painful and sorrowful. Listening to conference talks, it can seem as though we conceive of happiness with a paint-by-numbers literalism. Do these things, follow this path with exactness, and the result will be happiness. On the other hand, the story of Adam and Eve is, according to our own scripture, a metaphor for the necessity of agony and heartache and loss.

I don’t mean to suggest that Mormonism hasn’t come to grips with, for example, that horrific and lethal disease we call clinical depression. There have been many poignant talks on that grim subject in recent years. But too many friends and family members suffer from it for me to ignore it in any discussion of personal happiness. It doesn’t matter what gospel living boxes we check off. For some people, everyday life is agony. It’s not happy at all. And that doesn’t always end well. What depressed people need is help, lots of it, constant help and care and medical attention.

Mormonism is a religion of paradoxes. We believe in personal revelation; we also believe in revelation through prophets, operating within an organization. We believe in personal responsibility; we also have the strongest possible attachment to the importance of communities. We believe in salvation by grace; also the central importance of works. We believe in both sides of the justice/mercy paradox. But we still insist that there are rules to actual life, that doing certain things in a certain order will lead to earthly happiness. And that’s not always true.

And so when we hear sermons emphasizing ideals–ideal families, ideal commitments, ideal service, ideal lives–it can feel like we’re neglecting, you know, reality. I wish the advice we received were more practical, more rooted in reality. How do we keep from beating ourselves up when we don’t reach the ideal? How can we stop ourselves from spiraling downward into depression? How can we keep on keepin’ on, when times become difficult and burdens hard to bear? How can we forgive ourselves more, hold each other up, stop pretending everything’s great when its not?

Because, let’s face it, an insistence on ideals can be immensely damaging. We do get down on ourselves. We do feel inadequate, and inadequacy can depress. I have a relative, a wonderful young man, who recently suffered a professional setback. He’s absolutely distraught over it. He feels like a failure. He’s punishing himself, because he didn’t, he thinks, live up to the ideal of husband=provider.

I wish I could fold him in my arms and tell him that he doesn’t need to beat himself up, that he is loved and worthy of love, that we recognize the goodness of his heart, and his devotion to his children and his wife, that he isn’t a failure, or anything like it. But it doesn’t seem to help.

I’m a pretty happy person, I think. I love my family deeply, and we have a good time together, mostly. I’m happy because I met the right woman at the right time in my life. I’m happy because I figured out what I wanted to do with my life at an early age, and then got lucky professionally and was able to actually do it. I’m happy because the chemicals in my head are conducive to happiness. I do appreciate having a religious community I can call my own. That’s a lovely blessing. But I’m blessed in other ways too.

Rather than focus on ideals, shouldn’t we instead talk about getting by, muddling along, doing what we can? I wish our cultural conversation were more honest, more accurate, more forgiving. As a culture, we seem to be capable of navigating a whole map full of complicated terrains and ecosystems. We are a culture of contradictions; a religion of paradoxes. And some, we cope with nimbly, with grace and elegance. We’re all going to fall short of our ideals. But let’s keep trying. When we fall short, let’s not mourn having missed an ideal. But get up, brush ourselves off, keep trying. And know that there are many others in the same situation who can help.

Two lovely movies for families and children: Movie Reviews

I saw The BFG a few weeks ago, but did not review it–it happened at a time when I was without computer access. I saw Pete’s Dragon this morning. Narratively, the two movies are very similar. They’re both about orphans who become friends with very very large magical creatures. Both the Giant in The BFG and the Dragon in Pete’s Dragon are generous and kind, but both are badly mistreated by gangs of dolts, and both need help from grown-ups–either the Queen of England, or Robert Redford. And both films are beautiful. They’re both paced a little slowly for children’s movies, but only by the frenetic standard of so many noisy, busy ‘family’ films. They both take the time to appreciate loveliness. But they’re both playful when needs be, too. They’re both beautifully designed and lighted and shot. And both films feature terrific child actors.

BFG stands for Big Friendly Giant, played by Mark Rylance, who seems to have become Steven Spielberg’s new favorite actor. Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), lives in an orphanage, a lively place, but a desperately lonely one. The Giant sees her see him, and can’t bear it; Giants have to remain invisible. (Invisibility is a trait of Pete’s Dragon as well). He collects dreams, and that requires trips to the city, but only if he can stay unspotted. His home is absolutely splendid, with a Rube Goldberg ingenuity to it, and all sorts of odd pieces of equipment that enable his life’s work. He also has a wondrous way of talking, employing, not the right word, but its second cousin.

The Giant would never hurt little Sophie, and protects her as best he can. Because, you see, he’s a very big Giant by her standards, but an absolute runt by Giant standards. And his fellow Giants are loutish, stupid brutes. Ruby decides she needs to protect her big friend, and needs help to accomplish it. Well, where would an orphaned English girl turn for help? To the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton), of course. (When the Giant meets the Queen, he says “your madjester, I am your most humbug servant.” She’s charmed).

I think for some smaller children, The BFG might be a little hard to follow, not because the story’s all that complicated, but just because it’s an unfamiliar sort of tale. We’re used to wisecracking anthropomorphic animals–we expect to see chase scenes. This has neither. You have to pay attention. But it’s so eccentrically lovely, so lyrical and sweet-tempered, it’s worth the effort.

Pete’s Dragon did not interest me at all, until too many friends told me how good it was. I saw it today, and was entranced. Pete, as a precociously reading three-year-old, sits in back as his father navigates a narrow forest road. Pete reads his favorite book, Elliott Gets Lost, about a wayward puppy. He sees the word ‘brave,’ and asks his mother about it, and she tells him she thinks he’s the bravest boy in the world. And then, swerving to avoid a deer, their car overturns, and Pete’s Mom and Dad are killed. (That scene, so awful, was beautifully but heartbreakingly filmed–not violent, but lyrical, and all the more affecting for it). Pete wanders into the woods. Wolves gather. And then are frightened away. By a massive green dragon. Who befriends, and saves, and raises young Pete.

Six years later, Pete (Oakes Fegley), is a wild child, blissfully happy and well cared for by Elliot, the Dragon. (Of course, he named it Elliot). And we get the most beautiful montage, showing Pete running through the forest, leaping from trees, completely confident that Elliot will catch him. It was my favorite scene in the movie, and one that did not advance the plot in any way, but was just purely joyful. Then we cut to Robert Redford, playing a woodworking codger named Meacham, who entertains children with his stories about an encounter he had in the woods with a big green dragon. His daughter, Grace, it turns out, is a forest ranger. She’s played by Bryce Dallas Howard, and she’s in constant conflict with a company of loggers, who ignore her proscriptions over which parts of the forest can be clear-cut. And that gets tricky, because her fiancee, Jack (Wes Bentley), runs the logging firm, and his main foreman is his brother, Gavin (Karl Urban). Jack’s daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), is an adventurous nine-year old. And she’s the one who spots Pete.

So Pete is brought back to civilization, his history explored, and plans are made to turn him over to Social Services. And Pete’s miserable. He misses Elliot. He can’t figure out why he can’t just keep living in the forest with his dragon.

Gavin is the villain of the piece, I suppose, and his loggers serve as his gang. But there’s never a moment in the film when we don’t completely understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s not malevolent, just a normal human–a little selfish, a little uncaring. Not a bad person, though, of course, Pete hates him.

The movie does turn, in its last twenty minutes or so, rather Disney. There’s a comic car chase. There are moments of sentimentality, not unearned, but a trifle saccharine. But most of the movie is exquisite. Elliot’s forest is just a normal Northwestern US forest (though in fact, it was filmed in New Zealand). But director David Lowery has an eye; he lets us see the forest the way Pete sees it. He takes the time, to linger on a forest stream, to let Elliot play with a butterfly.

I’m an old guy; my children are in their twenties and thirties, and we have no grandchildren. But I’m so grateful for movies like these two, for family-oriented movies with some lyricism and sense of magic. I know that The BFG is considered kind of a flop, but it’s a Spielberg film; it will be remembered, and reevaluated in time. Pete’s Dragon is in theaters now, and is doing well. I well remember how difficult it could be to find good, appropriate films for children. Here are two excellent ones.


Suicide Squad: Movie Review

Suicide Squad is one of those movies that audiences like a lot more than critics do. It’s gotten terrible reviews–its score is 26, and even the positive reviews have tended to be of the ‘ah, it’s not so terrible’ variety. I guess I’m in a critical minority; I rather liked it, and certainly thought it was an interestingly political movie, and not in some metaphorical sense.  It’s quite specifically and directly about the War on Terror, and about the American prison system, and the moral ambiguities of our age. It’s a zeitgeist movie, a movie that captures something about our age. Superhero movies often are.

It’s basically The Dirty Dozen. Remember that one? Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes? The government recruits an army of bad guys to fight a particularly dangerous enemy? Well, that’s Suicide Squad, except the bad guys are superheroes.  Or, you know, people with enhanced powers.

We’re introduced to each of the characters’ backstories in a series of opening vignettes. Deadshot (Will Smith) is a professional assassin, deadly with any firearm. When we meet him, he’s got a bead on a target, but refuses to pull the trigger until his client ups the pay. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is a former psychiatrist who grows infatuated with The Joker (Jared Leto), who then tortures her out of love, leading to her Stockholm Syndrome-type reciprocal love for him. Diablo (Jay Hernandez) has the ability to set things on fire, which he doesn’t control very well–he accidentally killed his family, and now refuses to use his powers. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Adbaje), appears to be half-human, half crocodile. Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is an expert with blades. Katana (Karen Fukuhara) has a sword that stores the souls of the people she kills. There were a few others, less well defined. They’re all deeply damaged, deeply troubled people, hostile to authority and with agendas of their own.

The US government is represented by a bureaucrat and a soldier. Viola Davis plays Amanda Waller, who brings the Suicide Squad together as an elite anti-terrorist unit because she’s afraid of what might happen if America’s enemies should find gifted/troubled superhero types of their own. She has recruited Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinneman) to lead her motley force. He’s got his own demons. He is in love with an archeologist, June Moone (Cara Delevigne), who is possessed by an evil witch spirit. But no worries–Waller has her heart–literally, she found it in the cave–and therefore controls her.

A number of critics disliked the movie because, as several of them put it, its plot is incoherent. But it’s not. The plot is perfectly coherent, just a trifle busy. Ordinarily, in a superhero movie, you’ve got your good guys and your bad guys; it’s all pretty clear. It isn’t here. Col. Flagg is one of the good guys, but he’s also in love with the main bad guy–the witch who has possessed his girlfriend. And that character, that evil spirit witch thing, wants to conquer the world, and may have the power to accomplish it. Among her skills is the ability to capture people and turn them into mindless killing monsters. That ability forms the basis for the first army the Suicide Squad has to contend with. Meanwhile, The Joker has allied himself with the Witch, and keeps texting Harley Quinn to join him/them. And Waller is hardly on the side of the angels. Davis plays her as an amoral pragmatist, perfectly willing to murder innocent people if it will advance her interests. Granted, she’s trying to protect the United States, but she also has a career to look out for. And the only reason the Suicide Squadders agree to help her is because she has bombs implanted in their heads. And she controls the phone app that will set them off.

Well, doesn’t all that seem familiar? In order to defeat the forces of terrorism, the US uses unmanned drones, and can kill bad guys remotely–though we do try to keep collateral damage down. And one of the two major party Presidential candidates currently running thinks this isn’t close to enough. He wants to bring back torture. Viola Davis’s brutal amorality in this doesn’t seem remotely overstated.

All these characters are damaged goods. All are traumatized and violent. The most extraordinary among them is Harley Quinn. Margot Robbie’s performance dominates the movie. She’s constantly smiling, but we never trust it; this is a violent woman, not the sexpot cutie-pie she affects. And under that is abuse, horrific abuse. And under that, some kind of deep seated insecurity. Check out Robbie’s IMDB page, and you’ll see a series of extraordinary characterizations. She was the best thing in Tarzan, the best thing in Focus, the best thing about Whisky Tango Foxtrot, the best thing in The Wolf of Wall Street. She even pulls off a feat that seems quite impossible. She convinces us that her character is genuinely in love with Jared Leto’s Joker. Leto’s a fine actor, but he’s just unwatchably bad in this movie. (There’s a moment where we think The Joker has died, and I realized how much I hoped it was true).

But everyone else was excellent. Will Smith brought the film some gravity, and Jay Hernandez, a conscience and some heart. Even Delevigne is good, in an impossible part–the archeologist/Witch character never really does make a lick of sense. And Viola Davis scared the wee out of me. Superheroes don’t actually exist. Bureaucrats willing to murder in order to combat terrorism? I wish I didn’t think they do.

The Underground Railroad: Book Review

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is one of those novels that you don’t want to read too quickly, lest you deprive yourself of any of its pleasures, lest it break your heart. It’s beautiful, lyrical, as intellectually engaging as it is powerful emotionally. I don’t know anything else like it. The cliché here would be that I ‘couldn’t put it down.’ In fact, I frequently put it down, because it so often overwhelmed me.

Its subject, is, obviously, slavery and the Underground Railroad that conveyed escaped slaves north to freedom. It’s an historical novel, with the most resolute of protagonists–an escaped slave named Cora. But I can’t help myself from calling it a kind of science fiction, or at least speculative fiction. It’s built on two conceits; that the Underground Railroad really was a railroad, a subterreanean network of tunnels and tracks, with trains that take desperate fugitives from state to state. And second, that the experience of African-Americans differed radically from state to state, with each place exploring a different American possibility. It’s somehow a fabulist novel that doesn’t feel fabricated, an alternate history that feels like the most exacting and ruthlessly honest commentary on the actual history of America and race.

Cora begins in Georgia, living on a plantation owned by the Randalls, ferocious and brutal and corrupt, the worst plantation owners imaginable. Cora’s mother, Mabel, escaped, when Cora was just a child, and she resents it, being abandoned  like that. But what’s remarkable is that Mabel really did escape; she wasn’t brought back in chains by the ruthless and brilliant slave catcher, Ridgeway, to be tormented and brutalized and murdered like all other Randall escapees. (Eventually, we learn Mabel’s story, and it’s heart-breaking).

And so, Cora grows up a loner, a watcher, a fierce defender of her meagre belongings, but friendless and gossiped-about in slavery’s traumatized and treacherous culture. Then one night, Caesar, newly arrived at the Randall plantation, approaches Cora, the only slave he can trust, he says, and tells her he intends to escape, and wants her to come with him. He knows, you see, a station master. He can find his way to the Railroad.

And so, to South Carolina, a bastion of racial enlightenment, a place where blacks are allowed jobs and wages and an education, and even something resembling freedom. A real home. A paradise, pretty much. Until Cora learns the truth behind the benevolence and the real purpose behind the free medical exams she’s treated to.

The reality of slavery is, of course, economic. In King Cotton, the South had the perfect cash crop, the key to ever-increasing prosperity. Cotten needs tending and picking, and profit margins are greater if you don’t intend to pay your workers. But they came to understand that while African blacks make good workers–and can always be bred, increasing the labor market supply–they couldn’t really be trusted, could they? To remain placid and pliable. And in some areas, they had begun to increase in numbers; to outnumber whites. This wouldn’t do. Steps needed to be taken. South Carolina, priding itself in its sophistication and erudition, made the scientific choice. Forced sterilization. And other medical experimentation, to learn about infectious diseases and further deplete black numbers.

And as Cora contemplates her situation in oh-so-benevolent South Carolina, the implacable Ridgeway shows up, captures Caesar. Cora barely escapes alive. And she’s not expected on the train, and has to go wherever it’s heading. And that, it turns out, is North Carolina.

North Carolina is cruder, more direct. Reluctantly, its white citizenry has decided to bite the bullet, and pay its cotton pickers; not the black ones, of course, but impoverished European imports. That, again, leads to a superfluity of blacks, and a final solution. Cora barely survives, hidden, like Anne Frank, in an abolitionist’s attic.

And so on. Each state confronts the same demographic/economic problem, and each state deals with it differently. South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana. Yes, even a Northern state like Indiana. And each solution, in each state, is horrifying. At one point, Cora discovers books, and sees her own situation as analogous to Gulliver, and I buy that; the places Gulliver visits are grotesque, but illustrative.

And Cora is extraordinary. She’s a practical young woman, a farmgirl, hard working and determined and strong. She loves to read, especially loving Farmer’s Almanacs, for their pragmatism. She’s not terrifically romantic, but does fall in love, twice, with both relationships ending in horror. She’s a survivor. She’s also completely unimpressed with white society, and its protestations of civilized sophistication. She learns the Declaration of Independence, and considers it vicious nonsense. She’s an astonishing creation, and when the book ended, I did cry out, vocally: ‘no!’ I so wanted to spend more time in her company.

And the book’s ferocious and philosophical villain, Ridgeway, the slave catcher, is an equally astonishing creation. He’s a murderer, of course, many times over. But he’s also, in his own way, a thoughtful man, a man who sees his society clearly, and sees as well the necessary function of someone like him. He holds the Randalls in utter contempt, but is content to work for them, because the pay is good, and the work essential. Slavery is the key to Southern society. Not allowing slaves their freedom is the key to making the peculiar institution work. He is the face of white slavery, with all its intellectual pretensions, and quite possibly the scariest character in any novel I’ve read, because he’s also rounded, nuanced, complex. Smart. Evil? Well, obviously, but then this book redefines evil. Slavery isn’t just one evil though. It’s manifestations are legion; it infests American history and promise like demons infesting the Gadarene swine.

I haven’t read Colson Whitehead before now, and now intend to buy all his books and read them straight through. What a remarkable talent. What a story! What a rich and powerful and strangely compelling novel.


Florence Foster Jenkins: Movie Review

The difficulty in writing a screenplay about any famous eccentric, is battling the temptation to make fun of them. You know, in a funny, but also kind of mean way. Florence Foster Jenkins’ life was eminently mockworthy–she’s mostly famous for being the most atrocious opera singer to ever perform in public. Which is why I was so delighted to see that Stephen Frears’ new film about her is so splendidly generous and open-hearted and kind.

It helps that Jenkins is played by Meryl Streep, who brings a remarkable combination of confidence and vulnerability to the role. And yes, when she sings, it’s incredibly funny–my wife, my daughter and I were doubled over. But there’s more to her than bad singing. Her husband, St Clair Bayfield, could well have been played as the smarmiest sort of git, especially since that’s a characterization easily in Hugh Grant’s wheelhouse. Instead, he gives the most sensitive and complex performance of his career. And Simon Helberg, from Big Bang Theory, could have made Jenkins’ accompanist, Cosme McMoon into a comic caricature. Instead, Helberg imbues McMoon with an undercurrent of loneliness that became deeply touching. (That name, Cosme McMoon, is, astonishingly, historical–that was the actual name of her actual accompanist).

The film is set in 1944, when Jenkins presided over The Verdi Club, a society of wealthy patrons of the musical arts, mostly all women. They enjoyed evenings of dramatic recitations (by Bayfield, who had been an actor), and tableaux vivants, in which Madame Florence would dress up as a muse or something and be lowered into a scene by ropes. This was what passed for entertainment back in the day before we invented fun.

St Clair and Florence had, um, an unusual relationship. Her house was where she socialized, featuring her collection of chairs-in-which-famous-people-had-died, which no guests were allowed to sit in. There was also a bathtub kept full of potato salad for parties. At night, they have a routine; he recites, to help her sleep, then replaces her wig with a turban, kisses her gently, then heads off to his apartment. Which she pays for. Which he shares with his girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson).

But Miss Florence had a yen to sing again. So St Clair hires a voice teacher, the associate conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, Carlo Edwards (David Haig), whose job it is to keep reassuring Florence how splendidly she’s singing. And St Clair begins auditioning accompanists. Cosme gets the gig because he plays softly–Miss Florence abhors bombast.

And that’s one of the directions this film’s narrative could have chosen. It’s Florence as victim, and St Clair as a hustler. As long as he indulges her every whim, he has everything he could ask for–a pretty girlfriend, a nice apartment, plenty of money. But he has to keep scrambling. When Florence gives small subscription recitals for her club, St Clair has to keep unsympathetic newspaper critics at bay. He has to hand-pick every invitee. Nothing can be allowed to intrude on her serene self-confidence. Toscanini stops by–he wants to feature a young coloratura in a recital, but needs another thousand bucks, which Florence happily forks over. After all, she’s supporting the musical arts–nothing makes her happier. Cosme’s in on the hustle–he is being overpaid for his services and knows it, and if that means offering no criticism of Florence’s ambitions, so be it.

So that is a story the movie tells. But there’s more than that going on. St Clair is well-compensated, sure. But he also does genuinely love Florence. He protects her from bad reviews, because he has to–the con depends on her being happy. But he also wants to protect her out of affection, out of love and loyalty. Cosme doesn’t want to perform in public as her accompanist; he has a musical reputation to preserve. But when she comes over to his tiny, crummy apartment, scolds him for its untidiness, and sets about doing his dishes, and he’s touched by it. He likes her. He even admires her, for her persistence. And they play a Chopin prelude together. And it’s lovely.

So that’s another story; a story of love and friendship and mutual respect. And yes, Florence thinks she’s a marvelous singer, and she’s atrocious, and it’s really funny when she sings. The film is a comedy, and a richly humorous one. But she’s also worthy of our respect.

There’s one character, I think, who personally embodies the journey we go on with Florence. One of her Verdi Society acolytes is a wealthy older man named Phineas Stark. As has been known to happen with old rich bald guys, he has remarried, to Agnes (Nina Arianda), a cutie-patootie forty years his junior. Bad blonde dye job, gum-chewing, Brooklyn accent. (Arianda is spectacularly funny in the role). Anyway, her husband drags her to one of her subscription recitals. She’s reluctant, but goes, expecting to be bored. And when Florence begins singing, Agnes perks right up. She loves it. It’s the funniest thing ever! Overcome with laughter, she has to be physically hauled out of the recital hall.

Spoiler paragraph:  Florence’s life ambition is to sing at Carnegie Hall. She has enough money to make that happen, and does. And when a recording she’s made begins playing on local radio stations, her Carnegie appearance gets some buzz. She’s becoming famous, as the worst singer anyone’s ever heard. She decides, patriotically, to give a thousand tickets to the concert to Our Boys in Uniform; a thousand tough marines descend on Carnegie Hall, primed to laugh. And when they do laugh, it’s Agnes, converted by Florence’s courage and grit, who shouts them down, gets them applauding, and gives Florence, already faltering because of the laughter, to continue.

Is it admirable to pursue one’s dreams no matter how unrealistic they are? Is there power in perseverance, even when it’s preposterous? Is it better to have sung really badly, than to never sing at all? Florence Foster Jenkins, the movie, insists that the answer must be yes.

It’s a wonderful movie. Prediction time: Meryl Streep will receive her twentieth (20th!) Oscar nomination for this movie, and will win again for it. Hugh Grant will win his first, for Best Supporting Actor. (Although actually, St Clair is the movie’s protagonist, now that I think about it). And when you go see it–and you must–you will laugh a lot too, and be moved by the end. It’s a lovely movie.