Movie review: “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2”

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” starts with a considerable handicap: the audience already knows what they’re in for. The first movie surprised because it wasn’t supposed to be good, and was; now, GOTG2 is supposed to be excellent, and mostly, is. The team is back, with the addition of a charmingly naïve empath named Mantis (Pom Klemantieff), who is stuck on a planet with only one inhabitant. That the inhabitant is named Ego should give you pause; that he is played by Kurt Russell, and appears not a jot over 50, should give you night terrors. I’ve seen bricks age worse. But Russell’s eerie youth is being leveraged for a purpose; he is immortal, and has the notches in his bedpost to prove it. One of them is Peter Quill’s mom. Chris Pratt once again brings an appealing, early-Ford-like insouciance to Peter—unfortunately, the movie gives him a fraction of the screen time he got in the first installment, and squanders half of that fraction on a forced romance with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) that seems to exist to service a “Cheers” reference. Thankfully, other relationships are sketched with a lighter hand: Mantis and Drax (Dave Bautista) develop a horrifying version of friendship based on their mutual lack of guile (and filters); Nebula (Karen Gillan, much improved from the first installment) gives her side of the troubled sibling relationship with Gamora, and develops a bit of sympathy along the way; Rocket (Bradley Cooper) pushes away the love of his found family in a way that feels 100% human, 0% CGI raccoon. But all these lively and delicate stories pale by comparison to the main event, which is a war of the father figures—in the left corner, Yondu (Michael Rooker, clearly aware that he is playing the game of a lifetime). In the right, Ego. Peter must choose between the father who kidnapped, bullied, threatened and manipulated him, and the father who wasn’t around to do any of that. The choice appears easy, until it’s not; Platt carefully treads the line between hope and wariness, and Saldana shows a careful tenderness that could easily have melted into romance in the third movie, if the filmmakers had been willing to wait that long. (Alas, it’s easier to talk about a slow burn than to take the time to actually build one. Maybe they should have gone back and watched “Cheers” again.) But who can begrudge anyone a hurried romance when the galaxy is, once again, at risk? It seems churlish to criticize the movie for not being note-perfect when so many of the notes are delightful: Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), tap-dancing his way through an epic space battle. A planet of self-regarding aliens who all resemble Paris Hilton, if she were spraypainted gold. An extended argument about Scotch tape, mid-climax. Exquisitely timed joke payoffs, coming to fruition a full two acts after their setup. A credit roll that will mercilessly test the limits of your bladder with multiple post-credit sequences, all worth waiting for. You will leave the theater bubbling over with glee and catchy pop songs and also pee; but as this movie so aptly demonstrates, two out of three ain’t bad.

Movie review: “The Magnificent Seven”

Why? Why did we need this? Did anyone ask for this? Did anyone really want this? Who ordered this, and can we possibly return it to the kitchen? I would gladly trade back the two hours and thirteen minutes of my life which I spent watching this movie in favor of something more productive—say, a good scrub of my kitchen floor, or some light gum maintenance. But my dismay at having lost enough time to descale every kettle I own really can’t compare with the distress which countless caterers, riggers, setbuilders, and gaffers must be feeling at the loss of weeks of labor to “The Magnificant Seven”, a retread as uninspired as it is interminable. By casting Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Haley Bennett, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Ethan Hawke, the filmmakers have managed to bury just enough corn nuggets in the turd that, from a distance, it might resemble a Payday bar. Don’t be fooled. This movie’s a turd, a flat, insipid, formulaic slog through territory so well-trod it’s paved. Nothing exists to surprise or delight you here; for over two hours, only the weariest Western clichés are presented in mechanical, plodding order, from the arrival of the imposing out-of-towner (through swinging doors, the tavern’s piano clinking to a halt), to the final, climactic gunfight (the shot villains clutching at their bellies and falling in a variety of melodramatic poses). I’ve seen cuckoo clocks with more narrative suspense. And the presence of multiple fine actors doesn’t relieve the boredom—instead, it brings the dullness into even more agonizing relief, as we all contemplate the good times we’ve had with Washington, Pratt, D’Onofrio, and Hawke, in better movies than this. The movie further hamstrings itself by casting Peter Sarsgaard, the “Free” square on the Bingo card of cinematic mediocrity, as the villainous robber baron opposing Denzel Washington’s hired gunslinger—Washington brings his usual gravitas to the role, but without a comparable weight on the other end of the dramatic seesaw, he’s stuck trying to lift the narrative all by himself. Similarly, Chris Pratt tries his best to bring humor and fun into the building, only to be foiled at every turn by the lumbering script and ponderous score, and finally [spoiler alert] by a death scene so ludicrously prolonged it earned groans in the theater. Not content with the resolution of the conflict, the movie tacks on almost ten minutes of self-congratulatory epigraph, as townspeople stream back into their reclaimed village, hearty backpats and thanks are exchanged by all, and Haley Bennett solemnly intones a voiceover summarizing the movie’s message, ending with the straight-faced statement that “It was…. magnificent.”

No it wasn’t.

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. 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 Dawn Brancheau, who was killed during a performance with Tilikum. 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 Brancheau’s body. In a particularly haunting interview, one of Brancheau’s coworkers remembers being informed of her death. After the news had sunk in, the SeaWorld representative added: “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.