I took my son, 13, to see Chappie last night. I warned him that the reviews have not been good. I wanted to see it because I love the way director Neill Blomkamp thinks about images; there were moments in District 9 where I had to remember to blink. Based on the promotional materials, what I was expecting was a kind of heartwarming sci-fi fable about a robot with an innocent soul who teaches the world something about what it means to be human, a sort of slightly-more-adult version of Short Circuit. I’m also a fan of Die Antwoord, the bizarre rap duo who have supporting roles in the movie, and wanted to see if they were as interesting as actors as they are musical performers. The reviews had made it clear that Blomkamp had slighted his attention to story at the expense of something, and that the fable-like qualities of the narrative didn’t sit well next to the science-fiction and action qualities.
Well, the movie pretty much took the top of my son’s head off. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him more excited about a movie before. He couldn’t sit still afterward. He started using references to “termite art” and the limits of narrative and wanted to know all about Die Antwoord and life in Johannesburg. It was one of the most exciting moviegoing experiences of my life as a father.
Another weekend, another smash-hit movie that various guardians of culture have decided that no one should like because it’s “bad” — that is, wrong.
Last Tuesday, the reviews for Fifty Shades of Grey were at 76% “Fresh” at Rotten Tomatoes. It’s now Sunday and that percentage has dropped an astonishing 50 percentage points. What happened between Tuesday and Sunday? I have no idea, besides “more critics saw the movie,” but I get the feeling that the early reviews saw the movie for what it is, and the later ones felt a need to conform to a critical “consensus.” The consensus, in this case, is that a movie like Fifty Shades of Grey is “bad for us.” Most of the bad reviews I’ve read tell me nothing about the movie and everything about the reviewer. They worry that the movie is bad for women, bad for romance, bad for sex. They say that the movie doesn’t represent sex as they understand it, doesn’t represent their ideal of love, doesn’t represent their high-minded notions of what culture should represent. They sniff in disdain about the gutter origins of the project (it began as Twilight fan fiction), as though that had anything to do with its quality as a movie.
American Sniper dropped 27% in its fifth weekend for a gross of $64 million. For the sake of comparison, Selma dropped 37% and Into the Woods dropped 42%, also in their fifth weekends. (Birdman and The Theory of Everything got “Oscar bumps” and rose 24% and 33%, respectively.) American Sniper‘s gross is now $200 million, $60 million beyond Gran Torino, Eastwood’s previously highest-grossing movie.
What accounts for the success of American Sniper? The slender percentage drop indicates that some people are going to see it more than once, which astonishes me, because frankly it’s a tough sit. It’s brutal and tense and upsetting. And then there’s the plastic baby.
In the flash and tumult of American Sniper doing blockbuster business in the middle of January and becoming a big fake left/right political football, nobody has mentioned anything about the movie’s protagonist and the journey he goes on. The movie’s detractors are preoccupied with Chris Kyle’s real-life coarseness (racist, xenophobic, sociopathic, I’m told) and the movie’s supposed pro-war, pro-Bush, propagandistic agenda.
With Marvel movies being the new paradigm in Hollywood (for six years and counting), I’m surprised no one has yet mentioned the comic-book angle of the narrative.
I saw American Sniper back in December at a WGA screening. I wasn’t expecting anything at all; I hadn’t enjoyed a Clint Eastwood movie for quite some time (and he’s one of my very favorite directors). I found the movie to be an unusually gripping, intense, brutal and morally complex character study. I also found it to be Clint Eastwood’s best movie, by a wide margin, since Unforgiven. I had no idea how it would do; Eastwood hasn’t had a hit in a while, so I assumed it would come and go.
Now it’s a huge success. More than a huge success, it’s a runaway smash phenomenon. It will make more in its first week than Eastwood’s second-highest-grossing movie, Gran Torino, made in its entire run. I don’t know how to account for that, I’m greatly surprised. (I kind of assumed Selma would own this particular weekend.) There’s nothing in any of AS’s elements (Iraq war, Eastwood, its star, its length) that would indicate it becoming a hit of this magnitude. This is a serious war drama doing Marvel numbers. (Oddly enough, there is a Punisher angle to the story, but I seriously doubt anyone went to the movie expecting a Frank Castle story.)
I’m not sure why, but my Facebook and Twitter feed keep telling me it’s an evil movie, racist and jingoistic war-mongering, that it’s Triumph of the Will for the US. I’m told that the movie glorifies its central character (which I guess it does, insofar as it’s a movie about him) at the expense of the truth (I’m told he was a racist and a sociopath who gloried at killing Iraqi “savages”). Well, that may be true. Movies do that. Even “true story” movies do that. Especially “true story” movies. Every bio-pic now in theaters, or ever in theaters, leaves things out, glosses over events, compresses time, creates conflicts that never existed, combines characters and, if it needs to, makes shit up for the sake of telling its story. The Imitation Game does it, The Theory of Everything does it. Unbroken does it. Foxcatcher does it. I’ll bet even Mr. Turner does it.
It’s true that the movie doesn’t have much to say about the cause of the Iraq war, or the blundering, stupid politics of the Bush administration, or the ongoing tragedy of the entire US involvement in the region. All that is absolutely true, and I yield to no man in my outrage against the US’s misadventures in Iraq.
But why would a comprehensive history of the war be the concern of drama? All the President’s Men doesn’t take time to show Watergate from Nixon’s point of view; that isn’t the story it has to tell. American Sniper tells the story of this one character and his experiences. If that story doesn’t appeal to you, and I can certainly see why it would not, don’t go to see it, problem solved. If you’re angry about American foreign policy, great! I am too, I just don’t see why it’s necessarily the job of a movie to dissect it.
My attention has also been directed to a handful of tweets that show that some audience members took the movie to be an invitation to kill Arabs. That’s depressing and lamentable, but I keep seeing the same five tweets posted over and over again. If something is a nationwide phenomenon and you can only find five idiotic tweets about it, you’re not looking very hard. I sense the hand of rival studios promoting the hatred of a few to get the edge on a movie they see as Oscar competition.
I’ve also been informed that Clint Eastwood is racist, which, sorry, doesn’t wash. The director of Invictus, Gran Torino, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima and Bird a racist? No. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what Eastwood’s politics are. Sure, he gave that ridiculous speech at the RNC that time, but when I watch movies like The Outlaw Josey Wales or Bronco Billy I’m struck by the artist’s tolerance, inclusiveness and humanity.
Peter’s, Drax’s and Groots victory in the innards of the Dark Aster gets a narrative comeuppance as Ronan decides to show his strength. He wields his mighty hammer, like Thor one might say, and blows a hole in the Nova Corps defenses. At the same moment, Rocket’s Ravagers become overwhelmed by Ronan’s kamikaze fighters. Mint-sucking Nova Corps dude, and thousands more, are killed as his team’s chain-of-fighters strategy crumples under Ronan’s wrath. The “first chapter” of Act III is complete, we’ve established that the goofballs can really fight once they’ve admitted that they’re in love, and now the opposition makes its case for hate.
Act III of Guardians begins with an echo of the first shot of the movie: Peter, holding his Walkman, listening to his mother’s Awesome Mix. The director has changed the angle, but the camera is almost at the same height as it was in the opening. The earlier shot was softly lit, the new one is lit from behind. Everything is different, but everything is the same. Peter is grown up now, he can admit that he’s in love, and as he contemplates his mother’s gift, Joan Jett comes along to warm him up for his upcoming fight with the unambiguous “Cherry Bomb.” The operative line from this song would seem to be “Get down ladies, you’ve got nothing to lose.” What follows is a fairly routine battle-plan-explanation scene, not unlike the ones in Star Wars or Return of the Jedi, but cut together with a prep montage, giving us the best of both cliches and peppering them with humorous character beats, like Drax deciding which jacket not to wear and Groot doing the tree-equivalent of popping a zit. The prep-montage ends with a reference to Armageddon, or Reservoir Dogs, or The Wild Bunch, or any number of heroes-walking-toward-the-camera-in-slow-motion-looking-tough shots. In this case, the heroes include a yawning assassin and a raccoon adjusting his penis.
As the second half of Guardians gets underway, Ronan has the orb. Instead of getting it over to Thanos straight away though, he decides to keep it for himself — he did not know that it contained an infinity stone. Which begs the question, what on earth (so to speak) did Ronan think the orb was, if Thanos wanted it so badly? Did he think that Thanos had sent him across the galaxy to fetch the equivalent of his Awesome Mix? For that matter, if Thanos wanted it so badly, why didn’t he climb down off his floaty chair and get it himself? For that matter, why didn’t Ronan get it himself, instead of sending first Korath and then Gamora, both of whom were inadequate to the task? What is it with this galaxy’s megalomaniacs, that they won’t pursue the things they want more than anything? The answer, I think, is that, for them, power over others, respect, that is, is more important than the item itself. The fact that they’ve got dispensable minions means more to them than obtaining the tools of power themselves. In any case, Ronan’s interception of the orb gives him the golden opportunity to both destroy Xandar himself and, after that, kill Thanos himself. (This is another juncture where it’s made clear that the insertion of Thanos into the narrative of Guardians came late in the game; the story is much cleaner and more linear if Ronan knows from the beginning that the orb contains the stone and the stone will destroy the planet.)
Now that Drax has put the lives of everyone in the galaxy at risk, it’s a good time to ask: What does Drax want?
Drax’s cinematic goal is “to kill Ronan,” that’s easy enough. But when he’s face to face with his nemesis and the moment of his fate is at hand, what happens is a repeat of the opening set-piece: the nemesis has no idea who the protagonist is. Drax’s goal, like Peter’s, is “to be taken seriously.” Or perhaps Drax would say “to be taken literally.” This, of course, is also Ronan’s goal, and, in his own way, Rocket’s (his brash anarchism, his lack of respect, masks [masks! Raccoon!] a deep despair and need for respect. A lot of characters in Guardians are just looking for a little respect, and you could even draw lines through the narrative, separating the characters looking for respect and the characters refusing to grant it. Even Nova Prime is granted little respect in the movie — the Kree ambassador hangs up on her, and her own underling is surprisingly blase as he sucks a mint or something while he reports to her. That makes a character like Yondu stand out, because he appears to neither grant nor need respect from anyone. Instead, he sees life as a series of conflicts, and an underling (like Peter) and a superior (like the Broker) are both mere obstacles for him. Again, the characters’ need and desire for respect links them to the movie’s meta-theme: the dumbest things (the shallow space-dude, the smart-mouth raccoon, the walking thesaurus) contain deep truths, which is why we love them the most.
While Rocket, Groot and Drax drink and fight in the next room, Peter makes time with Gamora, seducing her with the power of cheap Earth pop music. The song he chooses is “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” his wish being, of course, that Gamora will let her guard down, “fool around,” so to speak, and “fall in love” with Peter (or at least fall in bed). I bring up these kind of obvious points to link this scene to the opening of the movie, where Peter protected himself from the harsh reality of his mother’s illness by listening to “I’m Not in Love.” Both songs, for Peter, are types of lies, used to distract, either himself from his pain or a woman (well, alien female) from his young-male shenanigans. In the first case, he’s trying to toughen himself up, tell himself he does not feel. In the second case, he’s trying to loosen Gamora’s defenses, get her to feel something before she has a reason. Gamora, for her part, is almost, but not quite, seduced by Peter’s strange Earth music and accompanying “pelvic sorcery.”