A Lot More -Er

2016’s original Deadpool was a wonderful surprise – an R-rated movie from the Marvel canon that still made almost $800 million worldwide. On top of that, it was a critical hit. The success of Deadpool was sweet revenge for star and producer Ryan Reynolds. He’d always loved the character, but when he got the chance to play him in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the movie turn the character into a bland, generic bad guy. (Really? The “Merc with a Mouth” with his mouth sealed shut? No one saw a problem with this?) However, there’s nothing that Hollywood likes more than a reboot, and Reynolds, assisted by first-time director Tim Miller, made a film that was faithful to the source material, including Deadpool’s 4th wall shattering dialogue. The film was essentially a Warner Brother’s cartoon with a stratospheric body count, but it also confirmed that an R rating wasn’t the kiss of box office death for a Marvel-sourced film, which was confirmed with last year’s Logan.

For almost a year and a half there have been teasers about the next film, so the anticipation built. What would Deadpool 2 be like? The answer turns out to be a lot more of everything in the first movie: funnier, cruder, wilder. If meta-ier was a word, the dictionary illustration would be a still from this film.

The directing duties for Deadpool 2 were handled by David Leitch, the former stuntman who gave a shot of adrenalin to the revenge flick with John Wick, then did the same for the Cold War spy film with Atomic Blonde. Here the action is just as well choreographed, though skewed to the side of black comedy. The central set piece of the film is in effect the live action version of a Roadrunner cartoon, though with lots of coyotes getting taken out along the way.

Reynolds’ Wade Wilson/Deadpool is not in a good place as the movie begins. An extended flashback shows what brings him to the point of despondency where he tries to blow himself into little pieces. Considering he can’t die, that doesn’t go as planned. Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) brings him to the Xavier School to recover. Once Wade’s somewhat fit again, Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) bring him along on an emergency call. Russell Collins (Julian Dennison), a young mutant at an orphanage that doubles as a mutant reeducation center, has a meltdown and tries to kill the headmaster. Wade’s help turns a bad situation worse, and Collins kills one of the attendants. Both Collins and Wade are taken into custody by the authorities, who fit them with collars that suppress their powers and ship them to a super-max prison for mutants. But as they are settling in, a half-human/half-machine mercenary from the future named Cable (Josh Brolin) appears, looking to kill Collins.

Brolin is having a stupendous summer, with Deadpool 2 on track to beat the first movie at the box office, plus his performance as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War which is currently in fourth place on the all-time box office list and will likely move up to 3, or possibly 2, before it’s done. His stoic visage is a beautiful counterfoil for Deadpool. While she doesn’t appear until midway through the film, Zazie Beetz, as the super-humanly lucky Domino, comes close to completely stealing the film.

If you enjoyed the original Deadpool, you’ll probably really like this new iteration. If you didn’t, you really won’t like this film’s extra-large helping of everything we got the first time around. I’m of the former category myself. But while the first movie expanded the possibilities for the superhero genre as a whole, Deadpool 2 shows the limitations of this series. This isn’t a character that will grow – his deep thoughts are usually cut off when he shoots someone. While the wider Marvel Universe has grown as its stories have deepened in resonance, Deadpool is a niche within that Universe. Reynolds and his collaborators have polished every surface until it shines, but if another film is made it will be more – probably a lot more – of the same. While it breaks the 4th wall, Deadpool 2 doesn’t break any of its boundaries.

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The Universe Expands

Ever since the first (now fourth) episode of Star Wars, the universe from that long time ago and far, far away story has expanded beyond the films. Novels based on it appeared even before The Empire Strikes Back, and they now number easily in the hundreds of volumes. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm, they green-lit the third trilogy originally planned by Lucas, but they also saw the potential to tap into the wider world of the series. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, was the first step in that direction, though it truly qualifies as a prequel to A New Hope rather than a stand-alone film. With Solo: A Star Wars Story, they still stand squarely on the source material, but they reach out further.

The production of Solo didn’t go smoothly, and that handicaps the movie. The original duo of directors got canned by producer Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter & executive producer Lawrence Kasdan even though they were months into the shoot. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were successful in both animated films (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie) as well as live action (both Jump Street movies). Sometimes it works well to pick directors whose previous work is nothing like a major film series. This year Ryan Coogler, who’d done Fruitvale Station and Creed, entered the Billion Dollar Club with Black Panther. Last year Patty Jenkins, known for getting Charlize Theron an Oscar for Monster, shattered the previous box office record for a female director with the success of Wonder Woman. The Russo brothers had directed comedies before they did Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They’re now approaching the Two-Billion Dollar Club with Avengers: Infinity War.

But it didn’t work with Solo. Face with a monumental task to reshape the film so it could be released, Kennedy recruited A-List director Ron Howard. The amount of reshooting Howard did isn’t fully known, but some estimates put it at 80% of the film. Star Thandie Newton (Val) has said most of her work was with Lord and Miller, but for Paul Bettany (Dryden Vos) nearly all of his scenes that made it in the movie were directed by Howard. Howard is a Star Wars fan and was reportedly under consideration to direct The Phantom Menace (though it was probably for the best that he stayed away from that mess). He’d of course worked with Lucas on American Graffiti, and the two visited on the set while Howard was working on Solo, allowing Howard to pick Lucas’s brain. The extensive rework pushed the budget to the $300 Million level, making it  one of the most expensive movie of all time. It neared the level of two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels (At World’s End and Stranger Tides, the most expensive film ever at $375 million) and Cleopatra, when adjusted for inflation.

Was it worth it? I’d say yes, with a caveat. The script by Kasdan (who wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens) in collaboration with his son, Jonathan, is the Star Wars equivalent of a superhero origin story, applied to the character of Han Solo. Alden Ehrenreich (Hail Caesar, Rules Don’t Apply) does an excellent job as a younger and less-jaded Han. We first see him as the teenaged indentured servant of a crime lord on a bleek, gray planet. He’s in love with a fellow servant, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), and the two try to make a break from their servitude and get away together. Han makes it, but Qi’ra’s caught. Han vows to get his own ship and come back for her.

After a few years that include a stint in the Imperial Fleet, Han hooks up with Becket (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Newton) on a heist of coaxium, the expensive fuel for star ships. The job goes sideways when a group of Cloud Rider ravagers try to take the coaxium for themselves. Becket had been hired for the job by Dryden Vos (Bettany) and he must make good on the crime lord’s investment. He tells Han to walk away since Vos doesn’t know of his involvement, but instead Han comes up with a heist that will both satisfy Vos and make them a handsome profit – but to do it they’ll need help.

The Kasdans have essentially crafted the science fiction equivalent of a heist movie in the Oceans 11 vein that establishes Han Solo’s outlaw character. Along the way he picks up the pieces that come together in the first trilogy: Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the Millennium Falcon, and more. Suotamo is a 7-foot Finish basketball player, taking over for the ailing Peter Mayhew. He does the role proud. With a sly smile and the swirl of his capes, Glover captures the essence of Lando. The Kasdans even take a shot at one of the elements of A New Hope that fans have debated for forty years.

Clarke, Harrelson, Newton and Bettany, as new characters, are all first-rate. The stand-out, though, is the droid L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. This is the first specifically female droid to appear, and Waller-Bridge makes her absolutely smashing and memorable.

My caveat with Solo is that the cinematography is often dark and dismal, so much so it interferes with the story. In several scenes you can’t see the faces of the actors clearly because of backlighting that puts them in shadows. Even the Millenium Falcon’s interior feels murky in comparison to its look in the other films. I was surprised by this, since the director of photography was Bradford Young. Young had recently shot A Most Violent Year, Selma, and Arrival, all excellent films I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s like he was going for the feel of natural lighting, but I like a movie where I can see what is happening.

The trilogy films have all be major box office events, and continue to be. There is space for other films, for other stories, in that universe. One hopes that the decent but modest box office of Solo, especially in light of the production costs, will not cause Disney to question their commitment to the Star Wars universe. I will always be ready to travel a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Prime Time

The “Fifty Shades” book trilogy could be called an embarrassment of riches. It sold like crazy, making a ton of money for author E.L. James and publisher Vintage Books (part of Random House), but they weren’t books most people displayed on their bookshelves. Likewise, the movie trilogy was savaged by critics, even as the series cumulatively grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. Now, though, we have the best “Fifty Shades” movie of them all: Book Club.

An unusual creative duo made the film. Bill Holderman got his start as an assistant to the producer on 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries, then moved up to producer with Lions for Lambs and The Conspirator. He’d co-written the screenplay for A Walk in The Woods, which starred Robert Redford. An associate producer on Woods, Erin Simms had mostly worked as an actress, though many of her roles are of the “Female Reporter” or “New York Hotel Clerk” ilk as listed on IMDb. She’d never written a screenplay before, and Holderman had never directed. But they came together to write and produce Book Club, with Holderman directing, and they’ve produce an assured and well-paced comedy.

They also recruited a truly stellar cast, beginning with their four leads: Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen. Between them they’ve won 4 Oscars and 6 Emmys on top of numerous nominations. However, they’d never worked together before in their long careers. After seeing how well they play off of each other here, it’s a crime to think it took this long for them to be matched together.

The quartet play life-long friends who’ve met monthly to discuss a book for decades. Now in their later years, each is faced with a challenge. Diane (Keaton) is newly widowed, and her two daughters want her to leave California and move closer to them in Arizona. Then her life takes an unusual twist when she meets a handsome pilot, Mitchell (Andy Garcia). Vivian (Fonda), the hard-charging owner of a luxury hotel, reconnects with an old flame staying in her establishment (Don Johnson, a wonderful bit of meta-casting since his daughter, Dakota, starred in the Fifty Shades trilogy). Sharon (Bergen) is a federal judge who son and long-divorced husband (Ed Begley Jr.) are both now engaged to be married to women in their twenties. Carol (Steenburgen) is married to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), but while they still love each other the flame of passion has died. Vivian lobs a grenade into their worlds when she chooses “Fifty Shades of Grey” as the next book for the club to read.

It is a pleasure to see fine actresses (and actors) dive into their roles with abandon. Bergen zings lines in a way that recalls the heyday of “Murphy Brown” while still carrying one of the more emotionally resonant moments of the film. She also ends up on two dates with diametrically-opposed actors – Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn. The other pairings are inspired, particularly Steenburgen and Nelson with a dance routine to a Meatloaf song. But the biggest pleasure is seeing fully fleshed-out roles written for mature women in contrast to the ageism usually seen in Hollywood. A 70 year-old guy could have a love live, but not a similarly-aged woman. Time for a reality check.

The showbiz maxim (ascribed to many though likely originating with actor Edmund Gwen) is, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Yet the cast of Book Club make it look natural, and Holderman and Simms have crafted a screenplay that is laugh-out-loud funny, so much so that you might miss some lines amidst the audience’s laughter. Kudos also to E.L. James for being a good sport to allow the film to use her book (she does get a thank you from the producers in the credits).

Even in a week dominated by Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, Book Club came in 3rd place in the box office, with a weekend gross of $13.6 million. Considering the budget was a lean $10 million, it’s already in the black. It’s not surprising that it’s received a middling response from critics – the film seeks to entertain and does a good job of it, but it’s the type of film that’s usually dismissed as lightweight. However, its CinemaScore among viewers is A-. Mixed in among the blockbusters of summer, there’s usually a couple films that either tug at your heartstrings or tickle your funny bone without a five-wide scroll of special effects credits that goes on for a minute or two. Book Club definitely is the one that tickles the funny bone.

To Infinity – And Beyond!

And so, after 18 movies over the course of 10 years, we come to the end of the current Marvel Universe. It’s all been leading up to Avengers: Infinity War, with teaser appearances by big bad Thanos (Josh Brolin) salted through several of the previous movies. There was a certain amount of peril inherent in this strategy. What if Thanos didn’t measure up on the big screen? What if the climax proved anticlimactic?

The good news is Infinity War truly adds an exclamation point to the previous films. While a Marvel film is a hugely collaborative endeavor with plenty of oversight from producer and Marvel president Kevin Feige, along with Marvel’s owner, the Walt Disney Company, they do balance involvement with allowing their directors and screenwriters to breathe. Infinity War benefits from having Anthony and Joe Russo in the director’s chair – well, chairs. The brothers had worked on TV shows like “Arrested Development,” “Happy Endings,” and “Community,” along with films like Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me, and Dupree, before helming one of the best Marvel movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and following it up with the equally exciting Captain America: Civil War. They’ve shown an ability to tap into emotional truth and convey complex plots while still making an exciting and engrossing film.

Infinity War boasts the full roster of Marvel movie superheroes with two exceptions – Antman and Hawkeye. The massive cast could have created a headache for anyone trying to follow the story. However, Marvel veterans Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who wrote all three Captain America movies, as well as created “Agent Carter” for TV) subdivide the cast and the action. The story shifts between several locations – some familiar, some new – with a contingent of the cast in each locale. Think of a large, succulent steak dinner sliced up into bite-size pieces, and you’ll get the idea.

I won’t go into any specifics of the plot, since there’s too great a chance for spoilers – that is, if you happen to be one of the few people who haven’t seen the movie yet. It blew up the records for opening weekend gross for both domestic and international box office. It has been mentioned in the past, though, that Infinity War represented the end of the series of movies over the past decade, meaning that no character had their future assured. Markus and McFeely underscore that in the very first scene.

There had been some criticism of Josh Brolin’s Thanos, based on his brief appearances in the other films. Some thought the embodiment was cartoonish (you could say). However, those concerns are squashed in the opening scene of Infinity War. What’s unexpected, though, is the fine performance Brolin gives, even beneath the CGI embodiment. While he’s an obsessed madman on a galactic scale, there are moments of aching sadness and signs of humanity – hopelessly twisted, but humanity all the same – deep within him.

The main characters are well-established now, but there are standouts in the movie. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man started the whole Marvel Universe, but he had his best turn as the character in Captain America: Civil War. The screenwriters build on that experience as he is faced with a devastating loss. Tom Holland is one of the newest members of the Universe, yet his Spiderman is a pivotal part of the story. Thor: Ragnarok was a huge success for Chris Hemsworth a few months ago, and that movie sets up a large part of the arc of Infinity War’s story as he goes through the classic heroic plot of recreating himself to face a greater threat than he’s ever faced before.

The trailer I’ve attached does feature one scene that doesn’t appear in the movie. That’s often a negative for films – think Twister – though in this case it was important to keep a plot point hidden. (When you see the movie, you’ll understand,) While you have to be aware to catch it, Markus and McFeely have also answered what happened to the Red Skull after the climax of Captain America: The First Avenger.

Marvel has turned tags at the end of their movies into an art form, and they usually feature two these days, though Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was greedy and included six. Some are just fun, such as the last tag of Spider-man: Homecoming, but others build toward the next film or films. Infinity War has only one tag at the very end of the credits, but it’s a doozey, and leads directly to two films next year: Captain Marvel, with Brie Larson as the titular hero, and the still-untitled Avengers 4.

The only problem is, now we must wait a year.

Virtue vs. Virtual

The 1980s was a great time for motivational posters. One said: “If you don’t like the world the way it is, change it.” Nowadays, besides passivity or advocacy, there’s a third option: ignore it. That’s what the world decides to do in Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s new film based on the bestselling novel by Ernest Cline. When you can escape into virtual reality for hours on end, why try to change what’s actually happening?

Cline co-wrote the film with Zac Penn, who’s done the story for several Marvel Universe films. Half of the film’s set in a dystopian Cleveland that’s become the fastest growing city in the world. Because of lack of space, part of the city has mobile homes, RVs, and old custom vans stacked on scaffolding five or six levels high – no surprise the area’s known as The Stacks. It’s a bleak world, but almost all the residents spend their days in “The Oasis,” a virtual reality universe where you can do anything or be anyone.

In the real world, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a teenaged orphan living with his aunt and her current loser boyfriend in the Stacks. His father had chosen his name because it sounded like a superhero’s name, like Peter Parker or Clark Kent. That hasn’t worked out in the real world, but when Wade enters the Oasis, he becomes Parzival, a variation on Percival, the Knight in Arthurian lore who recovers the Holy Grail. There is a holy grail built into the Oasis by its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). After Halliday passed away, a recording he made revealed that there were three challenges hidden in the Oasis that would lead to the biggest Easter egg ever – control of the Oasis and Halliday’s fortune of a half-trillion dollars. The first challenge has been found – an insane road race that includes wrecking balls, a tyrannosaurus, and King Kong – but no one has yet conquered it.

Along with the regular avatars competing, there’s a large contingent in every race from IOI Corporation, another virtual reality company that wants to take over the Oasis. The head of IOI, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), was an associate of Halliday’s early in his career and parlayed that connection to become IOI’s director. Many of the other players have formed groups, but Parzival has resisted. He does have three friends – the tech geek Aech (Lena Waithe) who can fix anything, and the brothers Daito and Shoto (Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao) – and he’s drawn to another player, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), whose skills match his. But Sorrento’s set two subordinates on Parzival’s trail: in the real world, F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen), head of IOI’s security, and in the Oasis, I-Rok (T.J. Miller), a bounty hunter whose chest is a huge skull.

Halliday, who grew up in the 1980s at the beginning of the electronic gaming, has filled the Oasis with 1980s cultural references, and there’s probably no better director today to bring that world to life than Spielberg. Interestingly, though, he eschewed any references to his impact on that era, so you see no bicycle flying across the moon – except at the beginning since Spielberg produced the film through Amblin’ Entertainment. The closest the references come to Spielberg is Parzival driving Doc Brown’s DeLorean from Back to the Future, a movie Spielberg executive produced. While another director might have dwelt on the nostalgia element, Spielberg keeps the focus on the story. Particularly outstanding is when Parzival and his group get to the second challenge, which is located in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. It both maintains the creepy horror of that movie but blends it with the challenge.

It’s particularly fun when the real person behind the avatar within Parzival’s team is revealed later in the movie. Rylance’s performance stands out as he makes Halliday an idiot savant in his game world, yet also imbues him with a deep and abiding humanity. Between his turn as Daggett, the businessman who works with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, and his performance as Orson Krennic in Rogue One, Ben Mendelsohn has become the go-to actor when you need a heavy. (He’s recently completed the new version of Robin Hood, playing the Sheriff of Nottingham.) His Sorrento is both ruthless but flawed, but dangerous all the way through. The film also features a small but important role for Simon Pegg.

Watching the trailers on a smaller screen, along with screen shots from the film, I was concerned some scenes in the Oasis wouldn’t be watchable because of the dark cinematography. However, Spielberg’s long-time director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, has created gorgeous imagery on the big screen. The computer graphics are outstanding, so you feel immersed in the Oasis. Spielberg balances this beautifully with the vision of the real world. The one complaint I have with the movie is it takes almost twenty minutes to wrap up the story, and the energy does lag at that time.

In the end, rather than the motivational phrase I noted at the beginning, Ready Player One embraces a stanza from Prince’s song Let’s Go Crazy: “If you don’t like the world you’re living in, take a look around you, at least you got friends.”

A Companion Piece for “Black Panther”

Marvel’s Black Panther has broken box office records, hanging onto the top spot for five straight weeks after its release. While it had a built-in pedigree with its place in the Marvel Universe, along with Chadwick Boseman’s impressive turn in Captain America: Civil War, writer-director Ryan Coogler’s film went far outside the normal lane for superhero movies to deal with social justice and posit what Africa could have developed into without the scourge of colonialism and the slave trade. Two years ago, more modest film dealt with that colonialism and its base in racism. As a companion piece to Black Panther, check out 2016’s A United Kingdom, now available through HBO.

The movie is based on the book “Colour Bar” by Susan Williams, which tells the true story of King Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland (later Botswana) and his English wife Ruth Williams, who was a clerk at Lloyd’s of London when they met in 1947. Julius Nyerere, a teacher at that time who later became President of Tanzania, called their romance “one of the great love stories of the world,” though the interracial couple had to overcome many obstacles before achieving a happy ending.

Director Amma Asante did Belle in 2013, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the mixed-race daughter of an English admiral being raised in 18th Century Georgian England. That film was also based on a true story, and sumptuously recreated the period while dealing with an all-too-contemporary problem. She applies the same vision to recreate drab-gray post-WWII England and sun-drenched Africa. It helps that she filmed much of the movie on location in Botswana. The screenplay by Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) is most faithful in how it presents the love story. With Seretse’s interactions with the British government, Hibbert has taken understandable liberties to present the basic details of an 18-year struggle within 111 minutes.

In A United Kingdom, Ruth (Rosamund Pike) accompanies her sister to a dance organized by the Missionary Society. There she meets Seretse (David Oyelowo), who’s studying law in London at the time. They bond over a love of jazz music – their favorite group was the Ink Spots – and their relationship develops from there. Seretse tells Ruth his story, how he is the grandson of Khama III, the first ruler of Bechuanaland. His grandfather had appealed to Queen Victoria to make the nation a British protectorate to counter the colonialism of South Africa and Rhodesia. Bechuanaland was one of the poorest countries in the world at that time, with only a hundred people holding the equivalency of a high school diploma, and less than a handful with a college education (including Seretse). His elderly father passed away when he was four, and his uncle Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene) both raised Seretse and served as regent. Now his schooling is finished and he must return to take up his duties as king, but he can’t imagine his life without Ruth. He proposes to her on the Embankment near Parliament.

Ruth’s parents refuse to accept the engagement, but that’s just the start of their problems. Ruth is visited at her work by Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the King’s representative for Southern Africa, who explains in the most paternalistic way that she can’t marry Seretse. The Archbishop of Canterbury refuses to sanction a church wedding, and Tshekedi makes clear his refusal to accept Ruth. But the couple wed at a register’s office and then set out for Africa. More trials, including exile, lie in store for the couple.

Canning is a made-up character; in a sense, the name has been changed to protect the guilty. The real Seretse described the scene when he was sent into exile by the British government. He said the official who did it was “as unfeeling as if he was asking me to give up smoking, or surrender old school (examination) papers that I had accumulated while at Oxford. I doubt that any man has been asked to give up his birthright in such cold, calculating tones.”

Part of what led the British Government to act as it did was the mineral wealth of South Africa. President Malan was enacting apartheid at the same time as Ruth and Seretse’s marriage, but the Brits allowed it because in the wake of the war they needed the income that access to South Africa’s gold and diamonds brought them. It goes deeper than that, though. Pike’s Ruth mentions that in England at that time you could see signs outside pubs and restaurants that said: “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs.” The film does an excellent job showing the casual paternalism of the whites who felt their “civilized” history gave them the right to dictate to the native people while they ignored the indigenous culture. The movie also identifies how the British played factions against each other to weaken both sides.

Ultimately, Seretse overcame the British. When the newly-named Botswana gained its independence in 1964, Seretse became its first president. He was knighted by Queen Elixabeth, becoming a member of the Order of the British Empire. Thanks to the discovery of mineral deposits, Botswana prospered, guided through the careful stewardship of Seretse. The problems with graft and promotion of the unqualified that handicapped democracy in other post-colonial countries were avoided by Botswana. For her part, Ruth adapted to Africa and was accepted as the mother of the nation.

Seretse remained president until 1980 when he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Ruth lived on in Botswana until she passed away in 2002, missing by only a few years their son becoming the fourth president of Botswana. While Seretse would have had the right to be angry at his treatment, he remained positive. “I myself,” he said on a 1967 visit to Malawi, “have never been very bitter at all. Bitterness does not pay. Certain things have happened to all of us in the past and it is for us to forget those and look to the future. It is not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of our children and children’s children that we ourselves should put this world right.”

The Silenced Jury

In 2003, Fox released the film Runaway Jury. Based on a John Grisham novel, the movie featured an excellent cast, including John Cusack, Rachel Weisz, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Bruce Davison, Bruce McGill, and Jeremy Priven, along with a coterie of easily-recognizable supporting actors.

Grisham had been a sensation in the publishing field since “The Firm” in 1991. That book sold over 7 million copies, and with his subsequent bestsellers he’s racked up over 275 million books sold. Hollywood had a major hit with Sidney Pollack’s adaptation of The Firm, and that was followed by excellent box office for both The Pelican Brief and The Client. The profitability fell off with subsequent movies such as A Time to Kill, The Rainmaker, and The Chamber. The adaptation of Runaway Jury was the last movie to attempt to recapture the magic Grisham spark of The Firm.

The story had major trouble in its journey to the screen from when it hit bookshelves in 1996. Fox bought the film rights and tried to set up a production, but multiple directors and actors attached to the film ended up dropping out. Joel Schumacher was supposed to direct, as he had The Client and A Time to Kill, and Edward Norton, Sean Connery, and Gwyneth Paltrow were to star, but that fell through. Other actors who were cast included Will Smith, Jennifer Connelly, and Naomi Watts, and both Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men) were given the director’s chair. But it never came together.

And then reality caught up with the novel. The story dealt with a tobacco lawsuit that finally found the tobacco companies liable for their cancer-causing product. But then two years after it came out, the four main tobacco companies reached the master settlement with 46 state attorneys general (the other four states had already reached settlements by then). So the central case in the story was now moot.

There was, however, another target on the horizon. Following the Tobacco settlement, lawyers turned their attention to gun manufacturers as the next major litigation battlefield. So Runaway Jury changed to deal with the aftermath of a mass shooting at a brokerage firm in New Orleans. In 1999, a day trader went on a shooting rampage at two such firms in Atlanta, killing 9 and injuring 12, after killing his wife and two other family members earlier in the day. So the movie had a new story.

Gary Fleder was brought in to direct and produce. He’d done the movie version of James Paterson’s novel Kiss The Girls and had also directed episodes of both “Homicide: Life On The Streets” and “The Shield.” Four screenwriters were credited with the script in the end, and principle photography began in the early fall of 2002 at several locations in New Orleans. In October 2003, Runaway Jury made its debut in theaters. But any hope that lightning would strike again was dashed in its first week. The $60 million dollar film made just $11 million, on its way to a USA gross of $49 million. That was the end of the adaptations of Grisham legal thrillers for the big screen. (One of his non-genre stories, “Skipping Christmas,” was later the basis for Christmas with the Kranks.)

It’s too bad, since it was a decent legal thriller, and it contains a special scene of Hoffman and Hackman arguing over the law in a courthouse bathroom. It wasn’t in the original script, but was added after a crewmember discovered the fact that the two actors, who were longtime friends and former roommates, had never done a scene together in their long careers. (When they were classmates at the Pasadena Playhouse, they were voted the actors “least likely to succeed.”)

The threat of lawsuits has for decades been the way manufacturers were reined in when their greed put the public at risk. You have the major decisions such as the cigarette master settlement and the asbestos settlement, and by the turn of the millennium gun manufacturers were taking heat rather than packing it. Smith and Wesson agreed to a federal settlement of multiple lawsuits in 2000, and HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo (now governor of New York) said that if the other manufacturers didn’t comply with regulation to their industry, they’d suffer “death by a thousand cuts” from lawsuits.

But the manufacturers and their lobbyists in the NRA moved to change the narrative. They had the “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act” put forward in Congress. It was approved by both houses and signed into law on October 26th, 2005 by George W. Bush. In effect, it prevents the gun companies from being held liable for how their product is used. There are a couple of exceptions in the bill for flagrant negligence, but in the years since the PLCAA came into effect there have only been three lawsuits that made it to court, while many others have been dismissed. (Of the three, one jury found for the defendant, one for the plaintiff, and one was settled before a verdict.)

There had been legislative action pushed by the NRA before, including the Dickey Amendment of 1996 that cut off any federal funding for the CDC to investigate gun violence. After the PLCAA, the gun lobby went on a tear of legislation, promoting their wish list of eliminating any restrictions on guns. Rather than do it federally, they concentrated on states, pushing conceal-carry, open carry, stand your ground, and other laws aiming to give the Second Amendment the broadest lack of restrictions possible. The NRA’s political action has been compared to a protection racket: they’ll keep funding politicians who do what they say and support their positions, but if a politician does something they don’t like then they’ll cut off the funding and mobilize their members to vote against the representative. The head of the NRA in Florida, where much of the state legislation was first rolled out, is often referred to as the actual governor of Florida. The NRA has also hamstrung the agency that has jurisdiction over guns, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. They advocated against the nominated directors of the ATF as well as had the agency’s funding cut. Currently the ATF is smaller than the Broward County PD in Florida, and the number of agents it has is less than the number of police in Washington, DC.

But as I write this, the March For Our Lives is winding down. The murder of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland (FL) on Valentine’s Day this year has proved to be a watershed moment of history. There was talk after the Sandy Hook massacre that it would be the moment that finally broke the NRA’s power, but that didn’t happen. Rather than advocating against the NRA, parents of children sought to cocoon them from their fears. With the Pulse Nightclub, the Orlando LGBTQ community was attacked, but they were not a cohesive group that could work together to organize opposition. The same with the victims in Las Vegas. But with Parkland you have a cohesive group – most of the students have been together for their entire academic lives – and they were old enough to present their positions thoughtfully and cogently. You also can’t underestimate the effect of social media. The students have been using it for years; it’s their playing field. (One of them Instagrammed hiding during the attack so people could experience what the students went through, including hearing the gunshots outside the room where they hunkered down.)

In the aftermath of past shootings, the NRA has effectively controlled the dialog – thoughts and prayers, lip service to change, and then strangle any actual action on the problem. But this time the students called BS on all of that. And it’s already had an impact, even if they are baby-steps. Florida enacted its first gun control legislation in 20 years, and thanks to a provision in the recent omnibus spending bill the CDC can now study gun violence. More telling is that politicians with A ratings by the NRA are now trying to cast themselves as gun control advocates. But that’s not enough for the Parkland students who want comprehensive gun legislation. Those A ratings by the NRA are becoming scarlet letters for many politicians.

Spoiler Alert: I’m about to talk about the end of Runaway Jury so if you haven’t seen the movie, stop here.

In a way, today’s rally is a vindication of Runaway Jury. At the end of the movie, there’s a scene between Hackman, who plays a jury consultant brought in to pack the jury to the benefit of the gun manufacturer on trial, and John Cusack, one of the jurors who, we learn towards the end of the film, lost his girlfriend years earlier in a school shooting. Since that event, Cusack’s character has pursued gun lawsuits with the assistance of Rachel Weiss, his girlfriend’s sister. The jury has come back with a huge award for the plaintiff. Hackman can’t understand how Cusack swung the jury to vote his way. Cusack responds, “I didn’t swing anything. I just stopped you from stealing the thing. We let ’em vote their hearts. That means you lose.”

Right now, in this country, there are a lot of people listening to their hearts. And they’ll be voting in November.