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.”

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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 10 Best Movie Themes By John Williams – With Biographical Notes

Midway through The Holiday (2006), Jack Black and Kate Winslet are roaming through a video store when Black begins grabbing movies and doing a running commentary on their themes. One DVD case he selects is Jaws. “BA-BAM! Two notes and you’ve got a villain. I don’t know what to say about it. Totally brill.”

John Williams has composed totally brill movie and television themes for 60 years – long enough that his original credits listed him as “Johnny Williams.” He’s done over 150 scores in those years, and it’s not surprising he has the second most Oscar nominations, and the most for anyone alive, with 50 nominations and 5 wins. (The most nominations belong to Walt Disney, with 59.) Along with the Oscars, Williams has collected 7 BAFTAs, 4 Golden Globes, 5 Emmys, 22 Grammys, plus numerous gold and platinum records. Now midway through his 80s, he continues to work with Steven Spielberg, a partnership that has made Williams’s themes the soundtracks of our lives.

As often happens, Williams worked for 20 years to become an overnight success. Born in Flushing, Queens, in 1932, his father was a percussionist for CBS radio who also played with a jazz quartet. Williams was drawn to a different type of percussion instrument – the piano – and by 15 he determined he’d be a concert pianist. In 1948, when Williams was 16, his family relocated to Southern California. Soon he was leading his own jazz band and trying his hand at arranging, in addition to composing original music. He wrote a piano sonata at age 19.

Williams trained at Los Angeles City College and UCLA along with private studies under Robert Van Epps, who’d begun his career in the music department at MGM working on the orchestrations for The Wizard of Oz. He was also tutored by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, an Italian who was the foremost composer of guitar pieces and who scored more than 200 films after coming to Hollywood just before WWII, including Gaslight and And Then There Were None. After a stint in the Air Force, Williams headed east to attend Julliard to study piano. He also worked as a jazz pianist in clubs and for recording sessions. After he completed his studies, Williams returned to California to work in the film and television industry.

In 1956, Williams composed his first theme for “Playhouse 90,” a popular anthology series, though most of his work in the 1950s was playing the piano for the theme music of TV shows. Williams played for “Peter Gunn” and “Mr. Lucky,” both scored by another great, Henry Mancini, and he even appeared as a piano player on the show “Johnny Staccato,’ a series about a jazz pianist/private detective that starred John Cassavetes.

At first his movie work was mostly uncredited, and included playing piano or orchestrating movies like Carousel, South Pacific, and Some Like It Hot. He worked with Mancini again on Charade and The Great Race. At the same time, he compose TV scores for “M Squad,” “Bachelor Father,” “Wagon Train,” “Kraft Theater,” and even “Lost In Space.” (He also did the music for Delbert Mann’s TV adaptation of “Heidi” that notoriously cut into a playoff football game just before Joe Namath staged a stunning comeback.)

By the mid-1960s, he’d worked his way up to scoring major pictures and adapting musicals for the screen, leading to his first Oscar nominations. Today there are only two musical Oscars, Best Original Theme and Best Original Song, but over the course of the Academy’s history there have been different breakdowns. In the 1960s there were two score Oscars, one of Original Theme, the other for Adaptation of the Score.  The long run of Oscar nominations and wins for Williams began in the Adaption category, first for adapting the score for Valley of the Dolls in 1968. His first win for adapting Fiddler on the Roof in 1971. More high-profile productions came his way in the 1970s, when he scored The Poseidon Adventure, Cinderella Liberty, The Paper Chase, The Towering Inferno, and The Eiger Sanction. But mixed in was the score he did for The Sugarland Express, Spielberg’s first feature film. That was the beginning of a partnership that’s lasted for forty years and made cinematic music history.

Following are my choices for the 10 best themes Williams has composed for the movies. Rather than make any quantitative judgment on which is best, they are listed simply in chronological order. Click on “Listen to the theme” to hear the music:

1) Jaws (1975)

It was a production-plagued by problems, most notably with Bruce, the animatronic shark that rarely worked. But you didn’t need to see the shark; all you needed was to hear those two notes…da-dum, da-dum, da-dum-da-dum. While the actual theme contained echoes of Aaron Copeland Americana, the string bass line was like a saw against the base of your skull. After the film’s explosive climax, Williams provides a glistening relief from the tension. You knew it was over, that you were safe – until Jaws 2 came out three years later. “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…” (Listen to the Theme)

2) Star Wars (1977)

Can you even imagine Star Wars without the music? Or more to the point, when you hear the music, do you see the film again in your mind? It has provided a point of cohesion even as the story has expanded, with the stirring main theme, the threat inherent in the Imperial march, and the gracefulness of the love theme. A particular favorite piece for me is the score for the lightsaber battle between Luke and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. When Luke realized Vader knows about Leia, he attacks with all his power until he beats Vader to the ground and lobs off his hand. For that scene Williams adds a choral element to the music that lifts it to a religious climax of good against evil. (Listen to the Theme)

3) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

This time it was 5 notes, but they became one of the most identifiable themes ever. Even 32 years later, the Dreamworks feature Monsters vs. Aliens could use the theme for a funny moment when the President (voiced by Stephen Colbert) plays the theme to make contact with an alien robot – and gets the last note wrong, as so many people did when they tried to plunk it out on a piano or keyboard. But it also leads to a thrilling scene at the base of Devil’s Tower as the alien mothership and the humans learn to communicate through a tone poem blitz. (Listen to the Theme)

NOTE: In 1980, Williams became the 19th music director for the Boston Pops Orchestra, succeeding the legendary Arthur Fielder. Williams held the baton for 14 seasons, until his retirement in 1993 when he became Laureate Conductor, a title he still holds.

4) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

When Spielberg and Lucas worked together, there could be no question who would score their collaboration. With its soaring horns laid over a breathless beat, Williams captured the thrill of a 1930s movie serial updated for the modern viewer. What was most effective, though, was how Williams held the theme back. During the opening sequence in South America, the music is somewhat muted while it conveys foreboding. It’s only when Indiana Jones swings on a vine out to the biplane on the river that you hear the iconic theme for the first time, and then only for a short time. It teases you, promising more to come – and you’re hooked. (Listen to the Theme) and check out a short documentary at the end of this post on Williams scoring Raiders.

5) E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)

It’s a theme that makes you feel you can fly, for a very specific reason. You only get to hear the full, joyous theme when E.T. makes Elliot’s bicycle fly in front of the moon (one of the most iconic shots in the history of cinema), and again when the five bikes go airborne at the roadblock. (Listen to the Theme)

6) Jurassic Park (1993)

For this box office record setter, Williams used three main themes. There’s the regal, sublime wonder of the main theme, heard when the visitors see the brontosauruses for the first time. Before that, as the helicopter brings them to the island, you hear the thrilling fanfare with brass. And then there’s the third, a menacing 4-note theme that’s similar to Jaws. It’s used with great effect when Dr. Grant, Ellie, and the two children are menaced by the raptors in the main building. Then the T-Rex arrives to fight the raptors and the music switches to the fanfare. Williams could have won the Oscar for the score – he was nominated – but 1993 was a very good year for him. (Listen to the Theme)

7) Schindler’s List (1993)

Williams won the Oscar instead for Spielberg’s other film that year. It was his last statue, though he’s continued to be nominated, including this year with The Post. The haunting Schindler’s List theme, featuring Itzhak Perlman’s plaintive violin, manages to be a requiem that also holds out hope for life in the midst of the Holocaust. When Spielberg first showed Williams a cut of the movie, Williams had to excuse himself after it finished and go outside for several minutes to compose himself. When he came back in, Williams told Spielberg that he deserved a better composer for the project. Spielberg responded, “I know, but they’re all dead.” (Listen to the Theme)

8) Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The director Sam Fuller, who was at Normandy during the invasion, was asked why he never made a movie about the attack. He response was, who’d want to see a beach covered in guts and blood? But Spielberg didn’t shy away from an accurate depiction of the battle that blew away all the cinema heroism that had enshrouded WWII movies since the actual war. Williams’s score layers a melancholic melody over an underlying martial beat. It underlines the cost of war in sacrificed lives, and drives home Captain Miller’s final line: “Earn this.” (Listen to the Theme)

9) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

While other composers would work on later entries in in the series, Williams set the theme for all the movies with his whimsical, twinkly music box waltz. It put a new generation under Williams’s spell and was featured in one form or another in all eight movies. To this day, you could say “Harry Potter” to someone under 25, and they would likely hear that music. (Listen to the Theme)

10) Catch Me If You Can (2002)

This theme is special to me because it’s a bit of a tribute to Williams’s old mentor, Henry Mancini. It has the quirky jazz feel that Mancini used, with syncopation that holds an echo of “Charade.” Yet it’s fully original and a perfect fit for the film. The theme music plays during the opening title sequence that is in itself a tribute to the iconic work of Saul Bass, who did the titles for movies such as Vertigo, The Man with The Golden Arm, and North by Northwest. (Listen to the Theme – and watch the credit sequence)

These are my choices, but if you have a particular Williams theme that you love that I haven’t mentioned, please feel free to note it in the comments.

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.

More Ludlum Than le Carre

Former CIA officer Jason Matthews’ first novel, “Red Sparrow,” had its movie rights purchased for a seven-figure amount before it was published. It blended basic tradecraft with steamy sex scenes, and was successful once published, winning both the Edgar and ITW Thriller awards for the best first novel. You could say it was an appetizing read as well, since Matthews mentioned a specific dish in each chapter and included a recipe for it at the end of the chapter. Matthews has since created a trilogy for the characters; the final book, “The Kremlin Candidate,” has them looking for a Russian agent about to be appointed to a high position in the US government. (Hmm)

Now the movie version of Red Sparrow is in theaters, with Jennifer Lawrence in the main role. Although heavily promoted, it couldn’t overcome the massive appeal of Black Panther even in its third week, ending up far below in second-place. That wouldn’t be horrible, but a major film needs to make at least half its budget in the first week to have a hope of breaking even. Red Sparrow made about a quarter of its estimated budget, which doesn’t include the substantial publicity costs. The movie has some strengths, including a first-rate cast and a topical subject. However, the script by Justin Haythe is like a paint-by-numbers picture – it’s got the colors but it doesn’t blend. Haythe’s last two screenplays were the Johnny Depp bomb The Lone Ranger and the terminally sick A Cure for Wellness – not a good track record.

The plot has ballerina Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) pulled into the world of espionage by her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) after a broken leg ends her career on stage. The uncle’s name is Vanya, which I hope was a purposeful nod to Anton Chekov, though I have my doubts. Dominika’s forced to become a Sparrow, an agent trained to use her body to manipulate and compromise men. While Vanya believes in her abilities, the matron of the school (Charlotte Rampling) and a military intelligence general (Jeremy Irons) have their doubts.

Contemporaneously, CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) has a meeting in a Moscow park with a highly-placed mole in the Kremlin, only to have it interrupted by the police patrolling for vice offenses. Nate blows his cover to save the mole and manages to make it to safety at the embassy, but he’s forced to leave the country. Several months later, the mole surfaces and signals he wants to meet Nate. Nate heads to Hungary, as close to Russia as he can get, to re-establish contact. But also coming to Budapest is Dominika, fresh from Sparrow School, assigned to get Nash to give her the name of the mole.

The movie wants to follow in the vein of John le Carre, but instead Haythe can only manage a Robert Ludlum potboiler. Not the Matt Damon Bourne Identity kind of Ludlum, since that movie took the first chapter of the book and then re-wrote everything else. I mean the real Ludlum who was to spy novels what Jacqueline Suzann was to literature. (If you really want to see the difference, watch the 1988 Bourne Identity two-part TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith, but you’d be better off just to trust me on this.)  Haythe is a blunt instrument when it comes to writing. You wonder why spying is so hard because the agents in this film figure out who’s on each side apparently just by looking at each other. Later in the movie, a stakeout is ruined by the most obvious mistake that no actual agent would ever make.

The movie is not helped by Boris and Natasha Russian accents on the part of some of the actors. At one point, Lawrence asks Edgerton how he knew she was Russian, and you expect Edgerton to say, “Well, duh.” For much of the movie, Lawrence the actress seems as confused about what’s going on as her character. The script eliminates one of the more interesting aspects of Dominika from the book: she sees people’s emotions as colors which allows her to discern their characters, a play on a real condition called synesthesia. It could have led to some interesting visuals and given Lawrence more to work with in the role.

Director Francis Lawrence had worked with Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) on the Hunger Games films after Gary Ross did the first. He was a music video director before switching to features with films like Constantine, I Am Legend, and Water for Elephants. Lawrence is strong on visuals and action, but his style is straightforward. The best-directed spy films, like Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American, or the granddaddy of them all, Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, create their tension through nuance and small moments that eventually loom large. Watching those movies is like slowly sipping a glass of exceptional wine that leaves you satisfied at the end. Red Sparrow is more like several shots of vodka that leave your senses dulled by the experience.

A caution: the film has a fair amount of nudity, sex, and violence. It can be justified given the material, but rather than use suggestion Red Sparrow dives in headlong, reveling in it. A torture scene with a skin graft slicer is particularly cringeworthy. Overall, Red Sparrow isn’t as bad as it could have been, but it’s no where near as good as it should have been.

We Have Met the Enemy

Alex Garland made a bold statement with his first direction credit. He’d been writing screenplays for fifteen years, beginning with the adaptation of his novel, “The Beach.” He’d followed that with the original screenplay for Danny Boyle’s revamp of the zombie genre, 28 Days Later, in 2002 – you could call it “The Running Dead.” He did another original screenplay for Boyle, 2007’s Sunshine, then adapted Kazou Ishiguro’s novel  Never Let Me Go and the illustrated series Dredd. But when he directed his original screenplay Ex Machina, he created a science fiction/mystery blend that stunned audiences. It was a three-person chess match where two of the characters didn’t realize that it was them who were being played. The film made Alicia Vikander an international star, while Domhnall Gleason and Oscar Isaacs went on to duel each other in Star Wars.

Now Garland is back with a much more ambitious meditation on humanity in the science fiction genre. Annihilation, an adaptation of the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, flips forward and backward in time as it tells the story of an expedition into a section of the planet that has, in effect, become an alien world. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist and teacher whose special forces husband, Kane (Oscar Isaacs), went off on a mission a year earlier and hasn’t been heard from since. Then he walks into their house, unable to explain what has happened or where he’s been. The reunion is short-lived as he soon collapses, coughing up blood. While racing to the hospital, their ambulance is cut off by the military. Lena and Kane are taken to an undisclosed lab.

There Lena meets psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who explains what has happened. A meteor hit a lighthouse in a state park area, and soon the structure was encircled by what observers termed “the Shimmer.” A park ranger went in to check on the lighthouse and never came back. Other expeditions have been sent into the Shimmer, but no one has come back, except for Kane, who’s now in a coma. As time has passed, the Shimmer has expanded. The government has kept the story quiet, but the Shimmer soon will expand to heavily populated areas and the story will be uncontainable. Ventress is leading a new expedition, made up of physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Cassie Shepherd (Tuva Novotny), and paramedic Anya Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez). Lena decides to join the expedition to discover some way to help her husband.

The story owes a debt to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The DNA of plants and animals within the Shimmer has blended with alien DNA, changing the landscape elementally. But as they travel deeper, the team finds what they’ve brought into the Shimmer inside themselves may be the most dangerous element. As the old Pogo comic put it, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Portman is a wonderfully cerebral actress who makes thinking an engrossing action, but she also began her career with the action flick Leon – The Professional. Here she has to call on her skill in both genres. While primarily an intellectual puzzle, action erupts often without warning. On the other hand, Gina Rodriguez is mostly known for her sympathetic lead role on “Jane the Virgin,” but here she turns into a bad ass who could give Schwarzenegger a run for his money. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is guarded and withdrawn even as she leads the group, though a reason for her behavior is later revealed. After playing Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, Thompson’s Josie is perhaps the most thoughtful of the team. Tuva Novotny has mostly worked in her native Sweden, amassing over 60 credits in twenty years. She’s rarely done Hollywood films – she had a role in the Julia Roberts film Eat, Pray, Love in 2010 – so she’s a fresh face here while also being an experienced and competent actress.

As in the book, the female makeup of the team passes without comment. While principal photography was done almost two years ago, coming out now was perfect timing. The old conventions have been blown apart, the stereotypes stripped away, and now there’s a chance for truly exciting films that eschew the formulae that have existed for decades.

Garland chose a different way of adapting the book. He’d read it when it came out, but rather than returning to the source material, he’s said he adapted it “like a dream of the book,” based on his memory of the story. Since the book is written as journal entries of one of the characters, the loose adaptation not only makes sense but likely improved the story on the screen.

The film is visually arresting as the familiar is twisted into an alien tableau that’s both beautiful and grotesque. In a similar way to what happens to the characters, the movie invades your brain and makes you consider this world from a very different perspective. You’ll be thinking about it long after you exit the theater.

 

A Role Model for Much of the World

After years of establishing a formula, the superhero genre is flexing its muscles. Arguably, The Dark Knight, with its plot twists and its twisted villains – especially Heath Ledger’s Joker – moved the genre to a higher level. For the Marvel Universe, Captain America: The Winter Soldier took a clear-cut hero and threw him into a world filled with shades of gray. Its sequel, Captain America: Civil War – the best Avengers movie so far – hit an even darker tone. On the other side of the scale, Thor: Raganok managed to find a completely fresh voice by looking at the genre with a decidedly cockeyed view. While the DC films following Nolan’s trilogy have been mostly pedestrian, last spring’s Wonder Woman was transcendent, and a healing tonic after the misogyny of both the genre and the previous year’s presidential campaign. Now, Marvel has rocked the genre again with Black Panther, fittingly released during Black History Month.

T’Challa, the king of Wakanda and protector of his people in his guise as Black Panther, was the first Black superhero, appearing with The Fantastic Four in 1966. Two years later he had his own comic book series. From the outset the character was different from others in the Marvel Universe. Rather than accidentally gaining his powers (from gamma radiation or a radio-active spider bite, for example), his power was inherited along with his kingship. Where most superheroes are lone wolfs, Black Panther is firmly planted in a community. His first appearance on screen, in Civil War, was captivating. Where most superheroes blaze hot, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther was a cool blue flame. He spoke softly, but when action was required he sprang into action like, well, like a black panther. But he was, essentially, on his own, except when aligned with Iron Man and others. Now with the stand-alone Black Panther, we see him in his element. The screenplay by director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) and Jon Robert Cole focuses not just on the hero but on the community that surrounds him, and empowers him.

The movie opens with the story of Wakanda and the Black Panther, related by a father to his son. Five tribes battled over land where a meteorite had deposited vibranium. A warrior ingested a heart-shaped plant that had mutated by exposure to the vibranium. He gained great power, but rather than wiping out the other tribes, he used his strength to unite four of them. One tribe went their own way, but they were allowed to exist peacefully in the land. Powered by the vibranium, the Wakandans developed marvelous technology far beyond the rest of the world. But they hid their advancement from outsiders as European colonizers fought wars against the natives while slavery tore apart the fabric of Africa. Wakanda was an island in a troubled sea. The country became a paradise, guarded from outsiders by an elaborate ruse as well as a far flung network of spies embedded in nations around the world.

Following the death of his father in Civil War, T’Challa is to be formally installed as king, but first he undertakes a mission with Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s his all-female imperial guard. They retrieve one of Wakanda’s spies, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), from her mission against modern-day slavers. They return to Wakanda where T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), wait for them. Shuri is like James Bond’s Q played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After the installation – and an unexpected challenge by the leader of the separatist tribe, M’Baku (Winston Duke) – T’Challa learns that a longtime enemy of Wakanda has surfaced. Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) had stolen a supply of vibranium from Wakanda years earlier and killed several Wakandas while making his escape. Now he’s surfaced after stealing an antiquity that was made from the metal, and is about to sell it in South Korea. T’Challa, Okoye, and Nakia head there to capture Klaue and recover the vibranium, but they’re unaware Klaue is working with an American mercenary. Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is a former US Special Forces warrior, but he also has a special connection both to Wakanda and to T’Challa.

You don’t usually get a superhero story that’s about responsibility, both personal and socially, but that’s what Black Panther revolves around. It also posits what might have happened if Africa had been spared the twin scourges of colonialism and the slave trade. Since Wakanda avoided both, the narrative of slavery or prejudice and injustice that underlies so much of the presentation of blacks on screen, is not the central focus. Think of the recent black stories in the cinema: 12 Years A Slave, The Help, Hidden Figures, Selma, or Chadwick Boseman’s first star turn as Jackie Robinson in 42. Instead of dwelling there, Black Panther asks what is require from the Wakandans who have been so favored. Is it enough to maintain their hidden world, or have they a responsibility to act to help those who’ve been oppressed?

An outstanding aspect of Black Panther is the number of strong female characters in the mix. Gurira is a bad ass of the first order, matched by the dozen warriors she leads. Nyong’o is James Bond cool while Wright is a delight, a wisecracking genius who can hold her own in a battle. Bassett is regal in her role, but you also see the steel spine within her.

The men fare just as well, with Boseman building on his embodiment of the character from Civil War. As with the 007 movies, the quality of the villain often controls the quality of the film, and Jordan’s Killmonger is one of the best ever. His backstory and performance moves Black Panther close to a Shakespearean level; think Henry V on the outside, Richard III inside. A delightful surprise is Duke, a six-foot-six mountain of a man who plays a much more grounded and multi-dimensional character than usually portrayed in the comics. In addition, you have Forest Whittaker, Sterling K. Brown, Martin Freeman, and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), each in important roles. The movie is overflowing with talent, and it uses that talent effectively.

Black Panther has already broken box office records for February and had the fifth biggest opening weekend in movie history. The wonderful aspect of this, though, is the success is more than deserved. The movie not only tells a great story – it gives a large swath of the world a role model for whom to root.