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Hostiles: Movie review

A cast, a crew, a director all work unfathomable hours on a film project. They believe in it, or come to believe in it; they think the story and the script are first-rate, and that the film they’re making is going to be excellent. Post-production finishes, and the cast and crew gather in a theater and see it for the first time. And it’s great; austere, deeply tragic, haunting, powerful. And then the studio looks at it, has no idea how to market it, and it gets dumped into theaters in January, when everyone in the world is watching the Oscar films that were released in two theaters in late December. No buzz, no hype, and the terrific film you were working on gets no buzz, and little audience.

That’s the story of Hostiles. It’s a wonderful film. It’s sad and haunting and beautiful, and features absolutely stunning acting performances in all the major roles. Based on seeing it, I would vote for Rosamund Pike for Best Actress and Christian Bale for Best Actor and Wes Studi for Best Supporting Actor in a heartbeat. And when I saw it, the theater was all but empty, and when I told my son about it, his response was “that Western? That was good?”

As the film begins, a frontier woman, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), is teaching grammar to her young daughters. Her husband is outside their home, doing chores. A rampaging Comanche war party attacks, kills her husband and daughters. Holding her baby to her chest, she runs into a nearby woods, as the Comanche shoot at her. She barely makes it, finds a hiding place, tries to stay quiet. They miss her; she’s alive. Then she looks down at the infant, and realizes that a spare bullet has killed it. And she falls apart.

Cut to US cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), on patrol. He’s rounded up an Apache, and takes him back to the fort, mistreating him all the way. While there, his commanding officer, Colonel Biggs (Stephen Lang) give him new orders. A Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has been imprisoned in New Mexico for seven years. He’s dying of cancer, and wants to go home to Montana, and the President of the United States has granted him clemency for that purpose. Blocker is to take a small company of men and escort Yellow Hawk home.

Blocker doesn’t want to do it. He is a seasoned Indian fighter, close to retirement, and loathes those he calls, indiscriminately, ‘savages.’ He’s lost too many friends, fought too many battles, taken too many lives. No. But Biggs is adament, and tells him that refusing this order will cost him his pension. And so Blocker reluctantly obeys his orders, and agrees to go.

Bale’s performance as Blocker is just riveting. He’s a complex, troubled, haunted man. He despises the Cheyenne, yet speaks their language fluently. He reads by the campfire every night; Caesar on the conquest of Gaul, in Latin. He is a brilliant cavalry commander, and a man of faith, however battered. And so he puts together a small team of soldiers, a mix of men he respects and has fought with–Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane), even more damaged and war-weary than Blocker, and Cpl. Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), an African-American with whom Blocker has fought and who he respects immensely. They’re joined by Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons), a newby straight from West Point, and Phillipe DeJardin (Timothee Chalamet), not only new to the service, but a Frenchman new to America entirely. Along with Yellow Hawk, they’re accompanied by Black Hawk (Adam Beach), his son, Elk Woman (Q’Orianka Kilcher), Black Hawk”s wife, and two younger female family members.

And so they set off, and quickly discover the burned out Quaid farm, and in the charred interior of the house, Rosalie, driven half-mad from grief. She has somehow retrieved her dead children, and dressed them, but she insists that they’re alive, that the soldiers keep quiet so as not to wake them. When the soldiers attempt to dig graves, she fights them, insisting that she will dig all the graves for her family, and tries to until her strength gives out entirely. And Blocker is able to treat her respectfully, kindly and solicitously. Pike’s performance is completely convincing and completely heart-breaking. She brought me to tears more than once. And so the soldiers take her with them on their journey.

One of the many things I loved about this movie is that this group of disparate characters were all superbly rendered, completely realized individuals. Rory Cochrane’s depiction of a brave man ravaged by untreated PTSD was stunning, as was Majors as a man determined to maintain absolute professionalism despite the weight of his own loaded history.

The Comanche return, and casualties are suffered, and Blocker comes to respect Yellow Hawk and Black Hawk, and their insight and expertise. And Elk Woman befriends Rosalie. Alliances are formed, friendships tentatively embarked upon. But Sgt. Metz’s problems run too deep for any of them to cope with, and we sense how precarious is his hold on his sanity. Plemons is excellent too, as a man in over his head, but trying desperately to cling to some humanity.

And I can’t say enough about Wes Studi. He’s honestly one of the great American actors, one of those actors who the camera loves. I first fell in love with him as Magua, in Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans, and have followed his career ever since. His performance as Yellow Hawk is utterly compelling; you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s dying, but he retains his dignity and authority. He’s imprisoned, but still a wily tactician. And he’s capable of tremendous empathy. It’s a special performance by a marvelous actor.

And that story, the marvelous cinematography and haunting music and superb performances are all in the service of a history lesson of the first order. This is a film that helps us feel, not just witness but deeply and powerfully feel the savagery and violence and tragedy and deeply distressing brutality of the history of the American West, and the ill-treatment to which our forebearing Americans subjected those native to these shores. It’s a film about the cost of colonialism, about the cruel inhumanity of the American pursuit and acquisition of the wealth of our beautiful continent. Blocker, as created by Bale, represents the American propensity for viciousness required for the kind of conquest we felt entitled to pursue. It’s not just a marvelous film, it’s an essential one. And I, for one, was grateful to have seen it.

The Republican tax cut

Last week, on This Week with George Stephanopoul0s, this exchange took place. One of the guests was Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax; another was Megan Murphy, a financial reporter from Bloomberg News, and another was a columnist named Charles Blow. Stephanopoulos describes the passage of the Senate tax reform bill as a legislative victory. Here was the response:

Murphy: Let’s contest the first point of this, whether this is a legislative victory, ’cause it is a deeply unpopular bill, and I want to bring up something the Senate Majority leader said; their own economic analysis says that this will not do much for economic growth, less than one percent over the next ten years, not only their model, but top economists surveyed by the University of Chicago, there is no survey that shows that this will generate the kind of economic growth that they need to make it pay for itself, it just doesn’t exist. So where does this leave them? With faith, that tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest members of society will actually be the juggernaut that drives manufacturing job growth, and more specifically, wage growth in this country. . . there’s no factual basis for that assumption. In fact, when we talk to CEOs, they say exactly the opposite. They say they’re going to use that money for M&A (mergers and acquisitions), to pay down debt, and for share buy-backs, and to give more incentives to wealthy executives. 

Ruddy: I’m not sure if you’re all living in a bubble. . . This tax bill, this is actually going to be a watershed. Three trillion dollars in off-shore money–forget about the individual and corporate tax rates, three trillion dollars is coming back into the economy, three times the Obama stimulus. It will propel Trump’s re-election; it will drive the economy for the next ten years.

Blow: This idea of this tax break is just fascinating to me, because basically, it’s an article of faith. Basically it’s saying, we’re going to make rich people richer, and we’re going to hope that that makes them happy, and if they’re happy, maybe they’ll create jobs. And there’s no fallback position, and we have no way of absorbing the trillion and half dollars debt we’re creating.

Later on the show, Alex Castellanos suggests that the tax bill will result on 3 to 4 percent economic growth, and Murphy just explodes: ‘there’s no evidence for that.’

I’m not an economist. I’m just a playwright with wifi. I did study economics for a play I once wrote. But based on what real economists say, here’s what I think, assuming the Senate bill becomes the basis for a conference committee bill that ends up passing the House and Senate (which seems likely, though not necessarily inevitable, thank heavens).

I think the tax cut will provide a small stimulus. I think the idea that three trillion dollars of money stored by American corporations offshore, as a tax dodge, that this bill will cause all that dough magically to return to the US and stimulate our economy is a fantasy. The whole idea of this tax return was to lower the corporate tax rate, but simultaneously close tax loopholes, so that the actual amount of money collected goes up. I wouldn’t necessarily oppose that, but I also don’t believe it. This tax bill is so slapdash and haphazard, it will inevitably open a new tax loophole for every one it closes. And it didn’t close every loophole; just some of the less popular ones.

Besides, the whole idea of supply-side economics is that if you increase supply, you increase economic growth. That’s just not true. Increasing supply will lower prices, but that doesn’t automatically increase demand. It doesn’t matter how many Edsels you build; if people don’t want them, they won’t sell. What matters is demand.

Pumping more money into corporations through cutting their taxes may result in some economic growth. Tax cuts don’t always generate growth. Tax cuts can have a modest stimulative effect if and only if the biggest problem facing the economy is a lack of investment capital. That is absolutely not the problem with the US economy today. There’s plenty of investment money sitting on the sidelines. Why? Because businesses are leery of expanding right now. Why? Because demand is low. Too many people just don’t have enough money. But this bill is massive; maybe it will facilitate some companies to expand. Could happen.

More likely, it will make things worse. The US economy has been in recovery since the Obama stimulus in 2008, but it’s not a robust recovery. We’ve averaged about one percent growth, and for the most part, that hasn’t gone to lower class, lower-middle class, or middle class people. Wages remain fairly stagnant, job growth, relatively anemic. And there’s a important reason for this. It’s called income inequality.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century has been called the most important economics book of the last decade. Essentially, he lays out the case. Income inequality leads to economic stagnation. It’s not just that income inequality is immoral, or destructive of social norms. It is those things too, but the big problem is that it doesn’t work. It’s bad economics. Laissez faire, libertarian economics aren’t just brutal, and violent; they’re ineffective. Whenever conservatives talk about economic freedom–and that’s such a fine word, freedom–they mean, let the rich do what the rich do. And maybe they’ll build a factory and hire people to run it; that can happen. But the problem isn’t a lack of factories. The problem is, people don’t have enough money to buy what factories produce. Demand creates supply. Supply does not create demand.

So, part of the Senate plan–the only part Mitch McConnell wants to talk about–is a small middle-class tax cut. And that’s real, that is part of the plan. And it will have a mild stimulative effect. Not three percent. More like .3 percent; a fraction. And that will go away almost immediately. And then we’ll see how long it takes the massive deficit this will create to drive inflation up, leading to another recession.

One of the Democrat talking point about the tax cut is that the Republicans are acting on the behest of their big money donors. I don’t question that rich Republicans like the idea of getting their taxes lowered. But I’m not that cynical. Nor should we oppose this because rich corporations are evil or anything like that. No, we should oppose this bill on economic grounds.

I think Republicans genuinely believe in the power of tax cuts. I think it’s probably the one thing Republicans still believe. But as Blow put it on This Week; it’s akin to religious faith. Certainly there’s no economic analysis that supports the preposterous notion that this tax cut will pay for itself by stimulating the economy to massive growth. There’s just no evidence that that’s true. All the evidence is on the other side. This is a bad idea.

As I write this, the bill is not yet in its final version, and still hasn’t passed. All that is expected to happen within the next couple of weeks, and there are political considerations that could derail it. Let’s hope it fails. Because this is the exact opposite of what the US economy needs.


Personal update

It’s been over a month since I posted, and I thought an update might be warranted. I have been ill. I don’t see much need to get into details; suffice it to say that I haven’t been able to do a lot of things I enjoy doing. I’m now back; thanks for your patience with me.

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.



“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.