Movie review: “The Jungle Book”

“The Wolves are a free people,” said Father Wolf. “They take orders from the Head of the Pack, and not from any striped cattle-killer. The man’s cub is ours—to kill if we choose.”
“Ye choose and ye do not choose! What talk is this of choosing? By the bull that I killed, am I to stand nosing into your dog’s den for my fair dues? It is I, Shere Khan, who speak!”
The tiger’s roar filled the cave with thunder. Mother Wolf shook herself clear of the cubs and sprang forward, her eyes, like two green moons in the darkness, facing the blazing eyes of Shere Khan.
“And it is I, Raksha [The Demon], who answers. […]”

Yeah. Let that wash around in your brain-pan for a bit. Listen to the music of that, the gorgeous rhythym. Notice all the beautifully paired sounds, the internal clickity-clack rhythym of “cattle-killer” and “clear of the cubs” coaxing you to recite, rather than read. Go ahead, speak Mother Wolf’s line out loud and see if your spine doesn’t straighten out. The Demon. What a nickname for a mother to have.

This passage, taken from the opening of the first Jungle Book, is a perfect example of Rudyard Kipling’s heavyweight power, his astoundingly distinctive voice, his ability to summon a musical thunderstorm. That ability is precisely why he’s such a problem. Kipling was a racist and a colonialist and wrote, prolifically, in support of both systems. He can’t be separated from his era because he helped shape it: it was precisely his extraordinary skill that made “The White Man’s Burden” such a handy conceptual excuse for all the many personifications of scum who ruthlessly thieved, raped and murdered their way across the rest of the earth. When you create peerless art in defense of the indefensible, what should your legacy be?

Enter Walt Disney. Never one to pass up the chance to make racism kid-friendly, Uncle Walt gave us an animated “Jungle Book” that on surface inspection seems more innocent than Kipling’s text (there is no discussion, for example, of the rules governing carcass ownership), but in reality is almost infinitely nastier, a fact never clearer than during the musical number “I Wan’na Be Like You”, which is a song sung to a boy by an anthropomorphized ape named King Louie, a literal pretender to the throne of manhood. It is a wincingly painful scene, not least because the story provides camouflage that the more overt “Song of the South” did not: you will still find people today who claim not to understand the problem with the 1967 “The Jungle Book”. I’m surprised that Jon Favreau is among them, but here comes “The Jungle Book” again, freshly decked out in gorgeous CGI and featuring a star-studded cast of voice actors: Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Scarlett Johnanson as Kaa, Bill Murray as Baloo—and Christopher Walken as King Louie. The character is still here, hardly a jot changed: the song is the same, the joke still “Look. He thinks he’s people.” Why would Disney double down on this old, bad joke? Do they really think our cultural amnesia is so strong that we won’t remember any of the racial underpinnings that made this scene unacceptable in 1967?

Here’s the problem: they’re right. This movie has a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes right now, and while there are some honorable exceptions and notice-takers (Anthony Lane over at The New Yorker among them), most critics don’t seem to have a problem with this scene, focusing their few critical jabs instead at Neel Sethi’s unmemorable performance as Mowgli (fair) and the strange hollowness at the movie’s core, a hollowness most of them are pinning on the CGI used to create every detail of the world, from the mudslides to the leaves to the animals. But the problem isn’t the CGI, it’s the story: by shifting the emotional center away from Mowgli and onto the adult animals who raise him, the writers have robbed the character of agency and the audience of reasons to care about him. This Mowgli is cute, but he’s constantly passing out, being knocked or hypnotized unconscious, falling asleep and waking up elsewhere as the stronger animal characters quarrel over how he should be dealt with. Ironically, a closer adherence to Kipling would have actually helped with this problem—in the books, Mowgli is a moody and reactive teen, whose pride goads him to reject his wolf pack, even as leaving home breaks his heart. The moment when he seizes “man’s red flower” (fire) and beats his old family into cowering, doglike submission is an unparalleled moment in literature: it shows that for all Kipling’s willful blindness when it came to who was and wasn’t human, he still understood what it was to be human, and had a much firmer grasp on the intense sorrows and passions of that experience than anyone working on this film, most especially the cynical bean-counters who looked at a choice between a story about growing up, and a minor Disney trifle from the worst era of Disney, and chose wrong. Look at these sad, blinkered, corporate fucks, carefully calibrating just how racist they can be in 2016 without cutting into their profit margins. They think they’re people.

Movie review: “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”

Guys, it’s not Ben Affleck’s fault. In fact, he did everything he could to save us from the hot mess that is “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, turning in a masterfully calibrated, workmanlike performance that manages to—I’m gonna swallow hard, because I’m eating about six months’ worth of words right now—humanize Bruce Wayne, creating a likeable, cohesive, verging-on-interesting Batman. I can’t believe I just typed that. Hang on, I need to go smack myself in the face hard while staring at a mirror.

OK, I’m back. As I was saying, we all need to lay off Affleck because Jesus Christ, he tried. In a few years, when the toxic radiation has died down and wolves and deer are returning to graze amongst the twisted remnants of this trainwreck, Affleck will be remembered as the last man shoveling when the tidal wave of shit rolled in. And oh, what a wave it is: at once towering and completely featureless, both ponderous and pointless. There’s no message here: Batman and Superman are fighting, until they aren’t. The world is frightened of Superman, until they aren’t. Civilian casualties are a concern, until they’re not because it’s inconvenient. The movie lumbers on, until it is over—presumably, because the popcorn needs to be swept up, and Zack Snyder has run out of coke. And coke is almost certainly the fuel that stoked this nightmare’s engine: no other drug comes close to explaining the unchecked hubris on display here, the total lack of anything approaching a point. Characters in “Batman v Superman” are endlessly intoning strange, garbled aphorisms about gods and mortals and Prometheus and democracy, as stone-faced as if the lines were carved in marble and carried off a mountaintop—but they’ve missed something crucial in the translation, and the result is gibberish. “God is good… as dead.”
“Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be… or be none of it.”
“Do you know what the greatest lie ever told in America is? That power can be innocent.” (I must have missed that day in civics, because it’s not ringing a bell.)

As thuddingly awful as the dialogue is, it looks snappy compared to the visual storytelling. Dreams and flashbacks and symbolism are used, sometimes all at the same time—not because they are necessary, or explanatory, or illuminating, but because someone apparently told Snyder that Important and Serious Films used dreams, and flashbacks, and symbolism. The murder of the Wayne parents (replete with a faceclutching shot of Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace scattering on the pavement) is shown not once but twice, as if sheer repetition could imbue a hamfisted sequence with deep significance. Dream sequences occur with such regularity that we come to disbelieve even the things that are really happening (since the things that are “really happening” include the digestion of General Zod’s body by a squid, the confusion is understandable). Slow-motion is used, again and again and again, to signify profundity—even when all that is happening is a shot of Lex Luthor’s sneakers walking across a ramp. “Look at this,” the movie insists, zooming in on a painting of hell. “This is important,” it screams, repeating for the third time a shot of the Wayne family mausoleum. “Are you watching?” it blares, slowing down a shot of an empty rifle cartridge, used in a ceremonial salute, kicking up a plume of black dirt. “WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?” it howls, showing us a jar of pee. If “Batman v Superman” had any kind of a point, all this navel-gazing indulgence might be forgivable—as it is, this is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Movie review: “Zootopia”

I’ll admit it: I didn’t get “Frozen”. Sure, the soundtrack was charming, but if you’d cornered me on the way out of the theater and challenged me to summarize the plot in a brief sentence, I couldn’t have done it. Try it yourself at home sometime. “Well, see, there’s this girl named Elsa, and due to a childhood accident she feels unable to control her ice powers, and so she self-isolates from her warmer sister Anna, who therefore grows up without a strong female role model and falls in love with the first prince she meets, while meanwhile there’s this in-denial talking snowman who helps usher her up a mountain to meet a reindeer herder who casts doubt on her engagement, and they have to find her sister who at this point has isolated herself in a hermitlike ice castle—and that’s just the first half!” You get the idea. I was sure it was going to flop.

 

Of course, it was a monster hit, and now every Halloween I see little Annas and Elsas everywhere. (Shows you how much I know.) And for a while, I griped about this—a lot. It bothered me that a movie with a plot no four-year-old could coherently relate was apparently every four-year-old’s new favorite movie. “What the hell happened to ‘Bambi’?” I griped to anyone who would listen. “Deer is born, makes friends, loses mother, grows up! That’s it! ‘Cinderella’! Girl wants to go to the ball, gets locked in a tower, her mice friends help her escape!” Even the Disney movies of my own childhood weren’t much more complicated: The Little Mermaid wants to live above the ocean surface and must bargain with a duplicitous witch. Aladdin wishes himself rich and successful. Belle enters into a hostage situation with a Beast. To be clear: all these movies (“Bambi” being the honorable exception) were sexist, misogynist nightmares (“Aladdin” managed to be racist as well as sexist) but the one criticism you could not level at them was a lack of tight storyboarding. When Disney released their trilogy of “new princess” movies—“Tangled”, “Brave”, and “Frozen”—I was equally surprised by the right-on feminist messaging and the comparatively extreme complexity of the plots. Instead of long, meditative washes of nature and color (remember the waterfall-and-fireflies scene from “Robin Hood”? Remember Snow White leisurely hanging out by a wishing well? Remember “Fantasia”, for God’s sake?), we now had secondary, tertiary, even quaternary plotlines. Every character had a backstory; the scripts were dense, quippy, mile-a-minute; the plots wouldn’t fit on a tablecloth, much less a cocktail napkin. I was glad to see girls finally getting the heroines they deserved, but I worried that they were losing something else important: the chance to marvel at simple entertainment, on an uncrowded screen, at a Mister-Rogers’s-Neighborhood pace that didn’t much care if the parents in the audience were bored. David Denby over at “The New Yorker” said it best in his review of “Shrek”: “children [are] being entertained by derision before they’ve been ravished by awe.”

 

Well, now I get what Disney was aiming at. “Zootopia” is a staggering achievement, a movie that manages to summon up all the old-Disney awe and wonder—the urge to stand still and gape—while serving up a new-Disney story as dense and multilayered as any ostensibly grownup movie playing alongside it in the theater. Oh, and it’s about a bunny who must team up with a fox to solve a mystery. There. Cocktail napkin.

 

Of course, “Zootopia” isn’t just about that: it’s also about racism, and stereotyping, and all the ways well-intentioned, frightened, ill-informed people can do incredible amounts of evil. It’s about the way the powerful benefit most from racial inequity; it’s about drugs being used to manipulate the powerless; it’s about the glass ceiling and intersectionality. And it is managing to be all of these things at the moment when a dumpy, goggle-wearing sheep, gusseted into a dingy yellow Hazmat suit, looks up from his meth-lab-like setup because someone has knocked on the door. “Oh, Walter and Jesse are here,” he says, and the theater explodes. Forget double- or triple-entendres: this is entendre baklava, a referential delight of such density that I was ready to turn around, march right back into the theater, and plop myself down again the moment the credits rolled. It’s not just the dialogue I want to experience again, either—it’s the environment, a kaleidoscopic natural world that feels as enchanted as any of the hand-painted forests that Snow White or Robin Hood wandered through. Surfaces—the raindrop-squiggled glass of a bullet train, the bubbling lacquer on an aging wooden door, the t-shirt stretched over a rhino’s belly—are palpably rendered, in such tactile detail that it no longer even registers as animation, but rather film that someone has managed to hook up directly to their imagination. The fact that this is not the work of a single-minded genius but of three directors, four producers and ten (ten!!!) writers, points to a near-fanatical devotion to an idea of storytelling, a school of storytelling. It’s the new Disney way. It’s not my parents’ Disney. It’s not even my Disney.

 

It’s better.

 

I can admit that now.

Movie review: “Spotlight”

In keeping with my family’s longstanding tradition of guiltily dragging ourselves to see Oscar winners several months after their actual release, I saw “Spotlight” last night. And I’m placed in the odd position of having no idea what to say about it, because for long stretches of the movie, I forgot that I was not watching a documentary. “Spotlight” is the kind of movie where your forebrain dimly recognizes Stanley Tucci when he first appears onscreen (“Oh yeah… that guy…”) then immediately discards the knowledge that this is an actor until the credits roll, at which point you turn to your companion and say, “Did you realize that was Stanley Tucci?” Which, for a movie also starring Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery (“Hey, there’s Roger Sterling,” the brain pipes up before being promptly shushed), is particularly impressive. Part of this actor-amnesia is due to the movie’s deliberately downtrodden aesthetic, all dingy sets, horrible costumes, glamour-repellent hair and makeup—I’ve never seen Michael Keaton’s neck-skin look quite so pebbly, or Mark Ruffalo’s hair look quite so bad. And part of it is that when you are watching a movie about the Catholic Church’s deliberate, systematic, decades-long and ongoing concealment of a massive epidemic of child molestation, you’ll just be too goddamn mad to notice you’re watching famous actors in a movie.

And that rage is a problem, because righteous, impotent anger both robs critics of objectivity (“Spotlight”, while very good, had no business being awarded Best Picture in a year with “Mad Max” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) and also repels all but the most socially responsible viewers, the kind of sober, NPR-listening souls who can be counted on to obediently file into “Blackfish” and “Super Size Me” and “An Inconvenient Truth”. And this is the kind of movie that people beyond the Birkenstock crowd should see, because it’s well-acted and gripping, and because in this, the Year of Our Lord 2016, we could all use a reminder that the only appropriate attitude towards unquestioned authority is deep, baleful suspicion. The movie ends with a simple coda, white print on a black screen, telling viewers that since the Globe’s story broke, similar scandals have been unveiled in the following cities… In the pause between that frame and the next, I mentally braced myself for a scrolling list. Would it be ten? Twelve? Twenty-five cities?

It was a lot more than that.

Movie review: “Deadpool”

OK so “Deadpool”.

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Attention Ryan Reynolds: your debt is called off. For about ten years, We The People have been force-fed your generically handsome mug in a steady stream of abysmal romantic comedies, all predicated on the promise that One Day, We’d See It! You Were A Leading Man—Promise! You just needed the right script, the right character, the right opportunity, the right director, the right phase of the moon for whatever bloodletting/goat sacrifice ceremony you performed to get Blake Lively to look twice at your bland Canadian ass—wait, I’m getting sidetracked. Where was I? Oh right. So, ten years of awful movies later, we were getting pretty fed up. You weren’t delivering. Sure, you were delightful on late-night television, but no one pays ten bucks to sit with their shoes in a sticky puddle of Coke for late night television, Ryan. They do that for movies, and I am sorry to inform you that yours have pretty much sucked. Until now. You did good, kid. “Deadpool” is a delight. YOU were a delight in it. Tell the nice men at your door with baseball bats and brass knuckles that we say you’re all settled up. You enjoy your evening.

Everyone else: go see “Deadpool”, wouldja? I promise, it’ll wipe “The Proposal” clean out of your memory banks. “Deadpool” is a refreshing blast of hysterical, profane energy, a fire hydrant of action with no cap. Just trying to keep up with Reynolds’s motormouthed monologues is a challenge—in the audience I was sitting with, people were visibly shaking with laughter, rocking in their seats, but silently, because if they laughed out loud, they would miss the next joke. And with a script like this, no one wanted to risk it: two minutes after the credits rolled, I was ready to go back into another showing—with a notepad. (One never knows when the next chance to call someone a bag of dick tips will occur, but in an election year, it’s good to be prepared.)

It’s no coincidence that “Deadpool” referenced “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” multiple times: the two movies share more than just a transparent fourth wall. Watching “Ferris” for the first time around age thirteen, I remember being blown away by the novelty of a movie in which nothing much happened at all: the only point was to follow this cool, glib, quotable kid and his two best friends through their day. The movie was a hangout, and this one is too—it’s no more about Deadpool’s quest for revenge against his sadistic maker than “Ferris” was about evading an overzealous principal. So, sure, the villain is unmemorable and the theme is threadbare: they’re just the pretext for us to get in the car with the coolest kid in school. And his friends are all cool, too: a CGI’d Colossus who still comes off as loveable, like a gigantic Russian Groot. The tiny, owlish Brianna Hildebrand (she looks like a female, teenaged version of Adam Scott) as Negasonic Teenage Warhead, a superhero whose name I cannot pronounce but whose personality I grasped within fifteen seconds of her appearance onscreen. And best of all, here’s the chronically underutilized Morena Baccarin as Wade’s hooker girlfriend Vanessa, tart-tongued and crackling with fun, so engaging and clever that I didn’t even mind her placement as a damsel-in-distress at the end of the movie. She’d more than kept up with Wade throughout, and she never felt like a victim, even as she was being victimized. Such are the pleasures of this movie: the characters are so well-rounded and charming that the movie simply sidesteps the entirely valid criticisms that it is plotless, and profane, and kind of clichéd and thematically lacking. These crits are all true, but they’re not the point. Which is that I love all these characters, and I just met them. I can’t wait to hang out with them again in the parking lot instead of going to PE.

How long till Deadpool 2?

Movie review: “Jurassic World”

Here are two statements:

“Jurassic World” is a beautifully crafted, thrilling narrative.

It is a sexist movie.

Both of these things are true.

Jurassic World is a near-flawless action movie, a master class in pacing, foreshadowing, setup, worldbuilding. It has some of the most charming and talented actors currently working, a score by Michael Giacchino that borrows liberally from the immortal Williams score that stiffened the backbone of the first movie. Hell, it has the first movie to draw on, an embarrassment of riches that director Trevorrow dips into liberally, borrowing sets and props and even shots, all in a cool, meta tone that shows he knows we know what he’s doing. The callbacks are coy, flattering to the audience’s intelligence—when a park employee is scolded for wearing an vintage shirt branded with the logo of the first, disaster-struck park, he stoutly defends the purity and passion of the original park’s vision. (Hipsters. They liked dinosaur massacres before it was cool.) We all chuckle because we get that it’s a sequel talking about its own original, man, but Jurassic World never gets too cute—this is a dinosaur movie, and we are here to see some dinosaurs.

And, in short order, we meet mosasaurus, a sort of a blue whale from hell living in an arena tank the size of a football stadium. Mosasaurus’s lunch, a great white shark the size of a minivan, is cranked out to it on a straining steel hawser stretched across the tank. The audience waits. Suddenly, the creature erupts out of the sea, swallowing Jaws in a single gulp and sending a flume of splashback not just rows but decks deep into the stadium seating. The delighted audience wipes water from their bright plastic ponchos, tries to rescue soaked cell phones—it’s Sea World on steroids. And we’re meant to see a Sea World parallel really specifically, because no tourist destination better embodies the tension between Americans’ desire to see big predators behaving like house pets, and the fact that deep down, we know better. Sea World has recently fallen out of public favor (for reasons I’ll discuss below, but which you probably already know), and the currency of that scandal is one of the ways Jurassic Park reinvigorates a tired old theme: man versus nature.

And what a man, what a man, what a mighty fine man. Chris Pratt plays Owen, an ex-Navy commando who now plays Cesar Milan to a perky pack of Velociraptors: Delta, Charlie, Echo and Blue, the beta. When asked who the alpha of the pack is, Owen responds, “You’re looking at him.” And Owen is an alpha male in all the romance-novel senses of the word—while the raptors owe their DNA to reconstituted mosquito lunch, Owen owes most of his DNA to romantic action heroes like Michael Douglas’s Jack Colton (“Romancing the Stone”), Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, and Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee—endlessly competent roustabouts who could rustle up shelter and dinner in the wildest physical surroundings, pausing only briefly to conquer a foe lurking in the bushes. Typically, these kind of heroes get paired with ultra-feminine women, screeching scaredy-cats from the city who fear the nature these guys have tamed, who find the outdoors disgusting and dirty and all too gross for words. (Think about Kate Capshaw, screeching over her ruined manicure in “Temple of Doom”; of Linda Kozlowski’s endless terrified screaming in “Dundee.”) It’s no coincidence these romantic “back to nature” narratives were at a high-water mark in the 80s—women were moving into the workforce in unprecedented numbers, two-earner households were becoming the norm, and men were having to contend for the first time with the real possibility that their wives might make more money than they did. As a result, gender anxieties were at an all-time high. One way the culture soothed itself through this period of anxiety was through this “back to nature” narrative, in which a woman needs a man to protect and shelter her from the basic elements of the wilderness. If the woman is unwilling at first to accept the man’s help, she must be humiliated in a series of pratfalls—made to fall into a mud puddle, to stumble through the jungle wearing heels, to finally admit that she is hungry enough that the roasted lizard is starting to smell pretty good. By the end of the movie, fair lady has been won over by the glistening chest and valiant deeds of the alpha male, and has relaxed into a glowing acceptance of a little bit of dirt/nature in her life, and to a subservient role in this “natural” world where the alpha male’s knowledge and skills make him the unquestioned leader. Men feared they were becoming unnecessary—this narrative reassured them that if the world were returned to its “natural” state of untamed wilderness, they would once again find themselves in charge. But we got over that, and men adjusted to the idea of women in the workforce, and that gender-based insecurity doesn’t drive our national subconscious any more, right?

Wrong. “Jurassic World” broke box office records with exactly that narrative, played out exactly the same way as the retrograde fantasies of the 1980s. Here’s Bryce Dallas Howard as cold businesswoman Claire, costumed in pristine white and projecting a tamped-down, ice-queen demeanor. Even her hair is strand-perfect in place—right away, the audience is primed to see Claire get messy. We quickly learn that Claire isn’t comfortable with nature; she refers to her park’s dinosaurs as “assets”, scolds an employee for his chaotic desk, and freezes in terror when her visiting nephew Gray enthusiastically hugs her. But not to worry: wiser heads than Claire’s will prevail. Her sister, an emotional earth-mama who cries at the drop of a hat, tells Claire that “When you have kids, you’ll understand.”
“If,” says Claire.
“WHEN,” her sister roars. “They’re worth it.”

Unconvinced, Claire sends her nephews off to explore the park with a female assistant, Zara, who spends most of her time on the phone as she shepherds the increasingly bored pair through a dino petting zoo—noticing her distraction and spying an opportunity, the two boys run away from Zara to explore the park on their own. I’ll repeat that: the male children, who are around eight and fourteen, purposefully run away from Zara.

I’m repeating that because the narrative’s punishment for her momentary inattention to the boys’ behavior will be simply staggering.

Birthmoviesdeath.com wrote up an extraordinary article about Zara’s death, which I strongly suggest you read, but in which the most salient points are these:

1. Deaths in narrative always mean something. They raise stakes, they mete out justice to villains, they sometimes happen to good characters to increase the terror of the villainous threat—but they always, always, always mean something, because they are authored deaths. Death in real life is frequently random and meaningless. Deaths in narrative are never so.

2. Zara’s death, by cinematic standards, is the death that should be given to the very worst villain in the movie. Instead, it’s awarded to a young woman whose only visible on-screen crime is a lapse in maternal instinct for children not her own, to whom she is assigned temporary babysitter status by her employer, and who purposefully cause their own disappearance.

Back to Claire and Owen, who in their first meeting are already outlining the terms of their interaction: she denies liking him as he insists that “It’s all about control with you.” As evidence of Owen’s claim, we’re offered a glimpse into their first date, a disaster for which she apparently printed out a planned itinerary. When Claire refers to the dinosaurs as “assets”, Owen chides her: “You might have made them in a test tube, but they don’t know that. These animals are thinking, ‘I gotta eat, I gotta hunt, I gotta… [fist-pump gesture for sex]. You can relate to at least one of those things… right?” Not only is the movie making Claire’s need to loosen up explicitly sexual, it’s linking it to male anxiety on a deeper level. Test tube babies are the epitome of industrialized male insecurity—they tap into the fear that eventually, technology will make even sperm redundant, and that men will be rendered not only socially but biologically unnecessary.
Claire’s “assets”, the dinosaurs which she looks over more closely than the children who are related to her, were made in a test tube. Owen is going to act as the narrative’s corrective to this “unnatural” state of affairs, by pulling Claire along on a jungle adventure, one in which (you guessed it) she will be repeatedly splashed, shocked, hosed down and made messy by nature, until she grasps the error of her technological, artificial, man- and baby-eschewing ways.

All along the way, Owen helpfully reminds Claire (and the audience) of all the ways she isn’t well-suited for survival: “You’ll last two minutes in there. Less in those ridiculous shoes.” I lost count of how many times Owen told Claire to quiet down, to stay behind him, to do exactly as he said if she wanted to survive, but I know it was enough times to make me start to not like Chris Pratt (a very handsome and charming actor) as much as I did at the beginning of the movie. One of the problems with a “back to nature” misogynist narrative is that it’s difficult to write a likeable hero who is always, uninterruptedly, right about everything; and yet for one of these narratives to work, the alpha male hero must be the unerringly correct authority on survival in nature. Otherwise, the narrative collapses—because it’s predicated on the figure of the “necessary man”, without whom women and children will absolutely die. And so the hero is proven right, again and again, until the woman and children finally recognize his primacy and cede leadership to him. Once Owen and Claire find the missing boys, Gray asks: “Can we stay with you?”
“I am never leaving you again,” Claire reassures him.
“No, no, him! We mean him!!” both boys yell in unison, pointing to Owen, whom they met about five minutes ago. Such is the strength of Owen’s alpha-male competence: it impresses both velociraptors and adolescent males alike. But Claire can only see it once she has been adequately dirtied by nature: her hair mussed, her skin sheened with sweat, her clothing disheveled but—crucially—her high heels still on. Even at the climax of the movie, when dinosaurs are erupting through plate-glass windows and the Park is literally on fire, Claire is still wearing her heels. Even though they’ve hobbled her, she is as locked into symbolic femininity as Owen is trapped in symbolic masculinity. She can no more rid herself of her heels and her helplessness than Owen can abandon his penis or his ineffable aura of leadership—to this movie, heels are simply a woman’s feet. Claire is still wearing them when, at the end of the movie, the boys are safely returned to their beaming mother, who promptly bursts into tears. Watching this display of maternal emotion, Claire’s face flickers through sadness, jealousy, regret—then her gaze alights on Owen, and her face clears. She has found her alpha male, or more accurately her source of sperm, since the movie is all but holding up a sign announcing that Claire will be knocked up by morning. She saunters up to him.
“What do we do now?” she asks in her final line, signaling her newfound submission to his leadership.
“Probably stay together. For survival,” Owen responds. The “back to nature” plotline is complete—the alpha male has taken his rightful place as the leader and protector of a woman, soon to be the mother of his children.

There is an incredible documentary, “Blackfish”, about a real-life monster: the captive Sea World orca Tilikum, who has been involved in the deaths of three people. One of them was trainer Keltie Byrne, who was killed during a routine training exercise when she fell into a tank containing Tilikum and two pregnant female orcas. Tilikum pulled her underwater and away from the sides of the tank, drowning her slowly. For hours, the Sea World staff agonized over how to get Tilikum away from Byrne’s body. In a particularly haunting interview, one of Bryne’s closest friends remembers being called with the news of Byrne’s death. Shocked and sobbing, the friend offered to drive to the park and was told: “He still has her.”

We may be at a point where women are—legally, grudgingly—allowed to hold jobs, to defer motherhood, to choose a life not defined by service to men and children. But make no mistake. Zara’s gruesome death, and Claire’s return to traditional femininity, are not just narrative coincidences. They are morals, stern warnings of the terrible punishments that await women who refuse their “natural” role and the peace and serenity that await women who accept it. We sit in stands outside the tank, covered in mosasaurus splash, gasping for breath, thrilled with our popcorn.

But the monster still has her.

Movie review: “Joy”

Here is a partial list of the things you will see in “Joy”, that you won’t see in a lot of other movies:

Slush.
K-Mart parking lots full of slush.
Styrofoam, used the way Styrofoam was used in the 80’s–liberally and everywhere.
Brown velvet upholstery.
Thickly carpeted staircases, like the way all your friends’ houses used to be when you were growing up.
Ubiquitously cheap cars.
Stained clothing.
Home Shopping Network jewelry.
The Home Shopping Network, period.
Soap operas.
Sparse and unprofessional home decor.
Pleather.
Thick, powdery 90’s foundation makeup.
Telephone bills.

Getting the picture? Do you remember this stuff? Because David O. Russell does, and increasingly he is making this world–the world of two-to-three-decade-old consumer goods, used in middle-to-lower class houses everywhere between the coasts–his home court. To watch “American Hustle”, “Silver Linings Playbook”, and now “Joy”, is to watch Russell carving out a directorial turf–Woody Allen gets Manhattan and Paris, Michael Bay gets Los Angeles, but David O. Russell gets *everything in between*. And holy shit, does he get it: no other current screenwriter has such a strong homing instinct for the precise details of American middle-class family dynamics.

Consider the opening of the movie: Joy is surprised by her dad’s unexpected return to her house. She lets him move in–of course, he’s her dad–but he has to take space in the basement, because Joy’s grandmother has the guest room. The side room is out, because that’s where Joy’s mother, who never leaves the house, mainlines her soap operas 24/7. Unfortunately, the basement is very crowded. Because Joy’s ex-husband lives down there, too. None of this is presented as “cute” or “quirky”; Joy is stressed, already late, and trying her best to manage her father; on his way in, he dumps a pile of laundry in her arms, kisses her on the cheek and tells her she has the “magic touch” for whitening clothes, then picks a screaming fight with her mother and starts to pick one with her ex-husband until Joy must literally separate them with a boundary ribbon of toilet paper. As she climbs the stairs from the basement, already resigned to being late for work, you can hear their inevitable argument ramping back up.

Does any of this sound familiar? Just off the top of my head, I can think of about eight women whose family lives are minefields rivaling Joy’s: I bet you can, too. This round-the clock  balancing act is what’s meant, in feminist discourse, by “emotional labor”; in five exhausting minutes, we see Joy caring for a mother whose clear mental illness she can’t afford to treat, accommodating a father whose emotional age hovers around 19, taking a scolding from her half-sister for allowing their grandmother to leave the house in winter to drive Joy’s two children to an event. When she has the epiphany that leads to her invention, her family offers begrudging support, larded heavily with jealousy, passive-aggression, and bad legal advice. Watching Joy try to keep her head above water would be compelling enough viewing, but Joy doesn’t want to just tread water–she wants to succeed at the American Dream. Tall order.

Luckily for her, she is in a David O. Russell movie. And all these note-perfect details should not distract you from the fact that David O. Russell writes fairy tales, fantasies in which scrappy underdogs yank themselves, by their bootstraps, into the stratosphere. The nostalgia impelling us into this world is driven by real details–we who lived through the 80s and 90s recognize the currency of brown velvet sofas and black elastic hair ties and QVC. We can smell Joy’s living room. But the American Dream that Joy is chasing died well before she was born, if indeed it ever was true. The real engine driving this train–driving Joy–is our shared wish that somehow, if we work hard enough, if we spin enough plates, if we have the Next Big Idea, if we never give up, it might come true again.

Merry Christmas.