That’s What the Money is For!

In the almost-bottle episode ‘The Suitcase,” perhaps the-triumph-known-as-Mad Men’s greatest triumph – the hour that will likely be mentioned first in Jon Hamm obituaries when he passes away hopefully many decades from now – Don Draper shouts the now infamous put-down to his subordinate, Peggy Olsen, who pleads for some gratitude for the hard work she does. Maybe a thank you, maybe some genuine kindness.

“That’s what the money is for!”

Imagine the incongruity, then, of seeing the actor behind one of television’s most famous (and dismissive) lines starring in the second underdog sports movie of the year – Million Dollar Arm, with the business concerns right there in the title, following Kevin Costner’s Draft Day – that focuses on sports’ least likely underdogs: the money men.

This is a particularly intriguing trend to track in the weeks preceding and following the revelation that, all this time, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers has an been eerily human-looking reptile who holds an updated plantation manor mentality. (And make no mistake: post Moneyball, it’s a certifiable trend; you may site 42 as a counterexample, but that film is, looked upon unkindly but logically, the story of Branch Rickey’s benevolence, brought on by white guilt, enabling the strong-willed Robinson.) Essentially, a man sitting in the front office of one of the most incompetent franchises ever was revealed not just to be an incompetent manager but also to be a man who believes that the millions he pays basketball players entitle him carte blanche to humiliate them in the locker room and treat their race like lesser beings. In short, to be an incompetent man.

So, yeah… a movie about a kindly, doddering General Manager of a long-floundering franchise risking his entire draft to give a disenfranchised black athlete a huge payday in spite of every business and football bone in his body yelling “Not wise!” seems like a preemptive PR amelioration from a class of now embattled sports figures – the rich white men who determine the fate of athletes in negotiations and board meetings – that couldn’t have had any idea that Donald Sterling would be kneecapping their not-exactly sterling reputations, but had a contingency plan ready anyway. A feeling not helped at all by the fact that Draft Day is made with the NFL’s complete cooperation (and presumably, its right to say no to certain details that might tarnish its image); the film even features a cameo from the commish himself.

It used to be that it was the athletes in sports films who had the chutzpah to go out there and make things happen. Remember Rudy? Remember Rocky? If it wasn’t an athlete, it was a coach. Remember Remember the Titans and Hoosiers? At least it was somebody whose shoes touched the grass on the field, or squeaked on the hardwood. That – in the midst of a unionization struggle that is rocking college athletics, and in the very month that the NBA forcibly removed an owner for making comments that revealed a remarkable streak of racial hatred which went unchecked for decades until it became untenable to ignore anymore – nothing seems more en vogue right now than the idea of the businessman as sports movie protagonist is nothing short of the deepest 20,000 Leagues irony possible.

When it comes to the fairly daffy (and yet still bland) Draft Day, I like to imagine what the press conference must have been like for Browns’ GM Sonny Weaver Jr. after doing the following in one bonkers day:

  • Trading away the seventh pick (which Sonny secretly plans to spend on fierce sack-monster Vontae Mack, who everyone else values as a mid-first rounder) as well as his first round picks in the next two drafts to Seattle for a chance to draft Totes-Not-Johnny-Manzeil with the first pick.
  • Turning his franchise quarterback Brian Drew into a panicky flight risk, essentially admitting to the world he’ll give up on a quality veteran performer after one non-career ending injury.
  • Drafting Mack, who he could have grabbed with the 15th pick, with the 1st freaking pick because his gut says Not-Johnny, who might have maybe kind of sort of vaguely but maybe not had some ego issues at Wisconsin, won’t work for him and Mack, who has heart and two adorable nephews to raise, will.
  • Inadvertently scaring the whole league – which was enamored with Not-Johnny only five minutes prior to Weaver’s insane decision – off of Not-Johnny, allowing Weaver to bamboozle a first-time Jaguars GM (oh the Jaguars…) into trading their sixth overall pick for some second round scraps.
  • While mirthful laughter rings out from the war room, using the sixth pick as a bluff (“I’m gonna take Not-Johnny, I swear I will!”) that Seattle, who now desperately wants Not-Johnny because he costs less (yeah… no…), calls, trading back all of the picks they got earlier, plus a talented kick returner, and all their dignity to the triumphant Sonny Weaver Jr.!

REPORTER: Sonny, you’re the talk of the league! You went from looking like a madman to a mad genius in one roller coaster hour! We have to know, what was going on behind the scenes?

SONNY: I spread the ashes of my father, Browns legend Sonny Weaver, around the practice field named after him. I had many heart-to-hearts about a surprise pregnancy with my girlfriend Ali in a utility closet. I apologized to my new intern Whatsisname for throwing his computer, which I feel was very nice of me to do. Oh and I saw my ex-wife for a bit. Not sure why she stopped by…

REPORTER: None of what you said had anything to do with football, Mr. Weaver.

SONNY: Football? Oh right! The draft was today! I kept forgetting that. I was dealing with a lot and didn’t have a lot of time to think about the draft – it would have been easier if I’d just gone with what I scrawled to myself on a scrap of paper this morning while my girlfriend Ali was trying awkwardly to discuss our incumbent child: “Vontae Mack no matter what.” And I wrote next to that in invisible ink “Even if you have the first pick and could acquire countless valuable pieces in exchange for that pick while still taking Mack fourteen picks later.” So that was my plan, but then these other GMs would call me about wanting to trade and stuff, which is so annoying, because I really just wanted to have a pretty calm day free of football talk.

REPORTER: You mention wanting to pick Vontae with the seventh pick. What made you change your mind and trade away future picks to enter the Bo Callahan sweepstakes?

SONNY: Everyone yelled at me a whole lot! I thought being GM in Cleveland would be easy, but it turns out the fans here really like sports and feel really let down by them at the same time, for some reason. When the Seattle GM made me feel bad about myself, and then sports talk radio made me feel bad about myself, and then the owner of the team really made me feel bad about myself, I did what anyone would do: I threw myself a pity party and said “screw it,” dealing away three drafts worth of players for the chance to take a guy that only I, of all the football executives in all of the world, had no desire to draft.

REPORTER: Sounds illogical. How’d the guys in your war room react?

SONNY: Well our new coach Vince Penn was none too happy. He yelled a lot, and everything he said actually made a lot of football sense, but he said it in such a smug way, so all you wanted to do was shove his Super Bowl ring down his gullet. Which must mean he’s wrong and I’m right. Right?

REPORTER: I’m not so sure anymore. What about the rest of the guys on your staff?

SONNY: First of all I’d like to correct your terminology. They are not all “guys.” We have one lady, my girlfriend Ali, and she knows tons about football. When I tried to relate to her how I wished I could make a decision like Joe Montana made that decision that one time, she filled in all the football facts in my inspirational speech like she was Google Search. Funnily enough though, in spite of being a front office executive, my girlfriend Ali never actually got any football related assignments to do… She mostly just said she wouldn’t get people coffee because getting coffee would be gender stereotyping. Hrm… I’ll look into that. As for the guys who actually look at football stuff, well, I set them to work right away! We had to scout Bo Callahan if we were going to pick him! We would’ve done that earlier, but you don’t scout the best prospect in the draft seriously if you don’t think you’re going to land him… Why are you all looking at me like that? Is that not a thing? Anyway, the guys mostly goofed off all day, looking at pictures of Bo chilling with foxy ladies.

REPORTER: Before we get to Bo… Can I ask? You keep referring to Browns executive Ali Parker as “my girlfriend.” Are you contractually obligated to say that?

SONNY: Actually, the biggest deal I made today was agreeing with my formerly secret girlfriend Ali that now that she’s with child I should admit to our little illicit office romance. That’s really all she wanted me to say, and why she was mad at me all day. So I’m being more public about my relationships with people. I should also point out, if I’m being honest, that I’ve kept it a secret that I fired my legendary father to save his life, but didn’t tell y’all in the press because I hate it when people understand my motives and I like being a martyr for lost causes. Also, Coach Penn and I are on better terms, but I’m very insulted to hear that Vince spoke down to my girlfriend Ali, a respected member of our organization and the future mother of my child, in such a demeaning manner throughout this day. We in the Browns organization are proud to have such a knowledgeable female on the staff because if we didn’t we would seem very sexist.

REPORTER: Do you admit that your girlfriend would probably make a better GM than you?

SONNY: Yes, absolutely. But she can’t be GM because girls aren’t allowed to run a football team… They can only date the guys who run football teams. And not in public if they know what’s good for them.

REPORTER: True. So let’s circle back to Bo. You had a chance to pull down a strong defensive player and the greatest draft prospect in years, but you passed on Bo and chose Vontae instead. I know many a GM has probably asked you this already, but what did you see that everyone else missed? Was it something in the pictures with the foxy ladies?

SONNY: Well, in our culture, you’ve got to be hesitant around any guy who displays anything other than the utmost deference for the game. Touchdown dances and selfies at parties are a slap in the face to the sanctity of everything that defines this great pastime. So, as a stalwart member of the old guard, I was suspicious. Outside of that, we… ummm… My security guy, who seems to be the only guy on the Browns staff who can find things out, told me Bo’s teammates may or may not have gone to his 21st birthday party. And Bo lied about reading a playbook once. And also, he got sacked a bunch by Vontae in one game and seemed a little scared of him. Erm… Look, the reason I didn’t tell the other GMs about this isn’t because I’m being coy; it’s because I’m afraid they’ll think I’m crazy for passing on the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck because of a story I heard for the first time on Draft Day that I didn’t actually have time to corroborate!. It’s much easier to go with the guy I already believe in for vague reasons, especially when I find out on Draft Day that he’s raising the adorable children of his dead sister and could use the extra cash.

REPORTER: You realize if he’d been picked seventh, where you originally planned to take him, or fifteenth where he was projected to go, he still would have stood to net a contract worth at least $8 million? It would have been a significant dock in pay from the over-$20 mil a first pick gets, but his nephews would not have become sad street urchins.

SONNY: What are you talking about? I saved a black family from living on the street. I did that! I’m sure the Browns organization is fine with it. I’m actually going to talk to them about opening an Adorable Nephews Charitable Fund, meant to benefit guys with good character who will show the proper amount of gratitude when I draft them first! I think they’ll go for it…

REPORTER: It’s interesting you bring up character, Sonny. A running back hasn’t been selected in the 1st round of the NFL draft in the past two drafts; the idea of picking up a star running back with a top pick is as passé as picking up a sarsaparilla at a malt shop. Your victory lap move was selecting a running back with a recent arrest on his record with the 7th pick after passing on Bo Callahan, whose teammates didn’t go to his birthday party, with the 6th pick. Are you aware the last three running backs selected in the first 10 picks (Trent Richardson, C.J. Spiller, and Darren McFadden) had immense, sometimes comical struggles during the 2013 season? Is this kid secretly related to Adrian Peterson?

SONNY: No, but since you bring up nepotism, Ray Jennings is the son of Browns great Earl Jennings. They both called me today since I hadn’t been in touch after the arrest (I never actually scout anyone until Draft Day), and they sounded really desperate on the phone. I like it when prospects sound desperate, and I like it even more when I can make them cry tears of happiness because of family-related issues that have nothing to do with carrying a football. So it was an easy call to make.

REPORTER: Getting the Seahawks to trade all of the assets they incredibly managed to steal from you earlier in the day back to you with interest (a quality return man) must not have been easy. Could you believe you managed to convince them to trade three first rounders and a starter for the chance to move up one spot?

SONNY: Ha. No. I made a lot of dumb moves today. Actually there are about ten different times today I would have fired me, and incredibly a guy who started the day really wanting to fire me never managed to pull the trigger. I guess it’s because a gas leak in the Seahawks’ war room must have caused them to make an even sillier trade than any trade I could have dreamed up and now I look like a really smart guy with a mom who loves me again, and a girlfriend who loves me again, and an owner and coach who love me again, and a city who loves me again. My dear departed father and Jesus are probably throwing a party for me in heaven right now. It’s been a good day.

REPORTER: Is it true that your star quarterback destroyed your office after finding out you were looking to draft his replacement? Might that not be an issue?

SONNY: I hear he watched the draft at home with his family and they all teared up when I didn’t draft Bo number one. They were so satisfied, they didn’t even have a reaction when I had a chance to draft Bo again at number six. So, as with everything in my life, I feel I navigated that complex situation with miraculous aplomb. Thank you, that’s all for today. (Mic drop.)

Needless to say, I left Draft Day unsatisfied with the football aspects of the story and only marginally satisfied with the Sorkinessque workplace drama that frequently completely pushed football out of the picture (if not out of the frame, because there is almost always an NFL or Browns logo in the frame). Actually, I left Draft Day feeling like I hadn’t seen the end of a story at all; it felt like I’d seen the first chapter of a story. Draft Day plays like the rousing pilot (with a “back on track!” finale that would make the Glee kids sing a rousing encore of “Don’t Stop Believing”) for a much longer series about how everything that seemed so promising in that tunnel on Opening Day went horribly awry. By Episode 3, Brian Drew’s knees would go again, on Brian Drew Bobblehead Day of all days! In Episode 5, Bo Callahan’s Bills would shellac the Browns and Vontae would say something inadvisable to the press, causing a media firestorm. By Episode 7, the egomaniacal Vince Penn would be bad-mouthing Weaver publicly. In Episode 10, the true story of Weaver’s firing of his own father to save the old man’s life would be leaked by the team as a PR move and Weaver would be the reluctant subject of a heartfelt SportsCenter profile conducted by Dick Schaap. And in the season’s climactic moment, owner Anthony Molina would hand Weaver his walking papers, forcing Weaver’s girlfriend, and new mother, Ali Parker to make a call – stick with the team that dumped her boyfriend, causing a strain in their relationship, or walk out with him. (She’d stay, and she should.) Heck, I’d watch that show! Give it to Sorkin. Put it on Netflix. I could even stand to see these characters again – they’re not bad characters (and the actors playing them, especially Jennifer Garner and Dennis Leary in the thankless roles of girlfriend and aggressor, are doing good work) if you let go of the insisted-upon notion that they are, hiccups aside, the best at their jobs. Especially in the case of Sonny, who may very well be the worst GM for a struggling franchise like the Browns – since the movie never commits to making Bo Callahan any sort of actually menacing figure, and goes out of its way to make sure Vontae looks like a great kid, Sonny appears to be making his decisions based on who needs his help and will appreciate his power more. That’s not reading against the grain of the movie one bit; the film’s argument seems to be that sometimes Sonny let’s his desire to be a good man and a good son get in the way of him being a good manager. Which is sweet. But all of Cleveland would be in tears. And not for the reasons the filmmakers think.

**Million Dollar Arm is a markedly better film***, though within this markedly better film, there’s an even better film wanting to break out and get told that, naturally, gets largely ignored; this is meant, after all, to be the inspiring tale of J.B. Bernstein, a real-life Jerry Maguire whom Jon Hamm – our beloved Don Draper, Man of Mystery – plays as Don Draper-Lite, Man of Business Meetings He Has To Get To.

Bernstein’s story of trying to save his fledgling agency (which has, three years after opening up, precisely zero clients and apparently only one potential client) by getting a wealthy investor to fund a massive reality television program meant to unlock the undiscovered baseball potential of millions of Indian cricket players is fascinating from so many perspectives; actually just about every perspective other than Bernstein’s. From the perspective of his investor, to whom Bernstein’s tiny agency is one chip in a high-stakes poker game of international sports marketing, this is a film about the economics that drive the push of American sports into the international arena; from the perspective of Bernstein’s Indian partner, who has grown so far from his roots that he cannot communicate with the ballplayers he’s recruiting and cannot comprehend they, or any Indian, might not like cricket, it’s a fascinating culture shock drama for the second-generation assimilated American; from the perspective of the coach and scout, old baseball hands, who discover and train the ballplayers, it’s a fascinating look at the corruption media influence (I mean, a reality television competition, really?) unleashes upon a game they see as pure; and, of course, form the perspective of any Indian character it’s a meditation on whether aspiring youngsters with big dreams can trust the white man who talks a big game and fluctuates between reluctant father figure and callous exploitative prick. The film gives us one moment where two Indian newscasters look at each other with WTF expressions as they report that an American is offering $100,000 to the best cricket bowler in India, but they have to appear on a franchisable reality TV show to get it; they seem more bemused than anything, but that sort of questioning, and any sort of assumption that India might be reluctant to be recolonized by Western TV and sports, could have fueled an entire film.

In real life, Bernstein is just as much a marketer as he is an agent. He is famous for turning the milestone achievements of athletes like Emmitt Smith and Barry Bonds into something Pepsi and Wheaties could monetize. Desperate to save his agency after he is spurned by the only star athlete he was pursuing, the fictional avatar for J.B. is doing what he appears to do every night – drinking and sitting in front of his television with glazed eyes – when the proximity of a late night cricket broadcast and the 2009-defining moment when Susan Boyle shocked Simon Cowell with her rendition “I Dreamed a Dream” makes everything click into place; not only can he open an untapped fount of potential baseball talent, he can also unlock the world’s largest market by exploiting their desire to see a ragtag normal person impress a haughty producer on television. That this works, and that Bernstein gets not just emotional but also immense monetary fulfillment from his outreach to India means that the story, told from Bernstein’s perspective, can’t help but sound like the kind of dull affirmation someone shares at a cocktail party or puts in a Facebook status with trip photos: “I immersed myself in another culture and it totally changed the way I see the world. I wouldn’t have met my wife if not for those poor Indian kids who stayed in my house while they tried to achieve their dream and inspired a nation of billions.”

It seems that the most interesting thing Million Dollar Arm has to say about India, other than tired ideas like “Oh, much of it is very poor and therefore most of the bureaucracy operates on subtle bribes,” is that not everyone in India plays or loves cricket and to say otherwise is racist. And it’s fascinating to watch an actor of Hamm’s caliber wrestle with the inadequacy of that thin premise.

It’s clear that the character of Bernstein, so that we can see him transformed by his happy ending into a kindly dolphin, should open the film as a ruthless shark. He’s not. He’s sort of pathetic, a simpering people-pleaser to those he needs, a politely dismissive cad to those he doesn’t, a pitchman who sounds deeply in need of a throat lozenge regardless of who he is with. Without the poetic writing that fills Don Draper’s pitches and his fits of rage with so much ennui and haunting revelation, Hamm, forced to utter “Show me the money!” sports platitude, seems like nothing more than a huckster. The film, to fill in for the empty menace in his greedy character, makes statements about Bernstein’s potential goodness – he struck out on his own, leaving a Death Star megaconglomerate to create the agency he and his partner could believe in – and overwhelming vacuousness – he is known to only date models, and won’t give his tenant Brenda, a med student played by the quirky and wonderful Lake Bell (who makes endearing KEEER-CHUG sounds to convey her dismay that her washing machine is broken pretty much immediately) the time of day, which is not only not sympathetic but not especially believable – that Hamm doesn’t (can’t) really back up in his performance. As the trappings of what made J.B.’s Hollywood life sparkly and fun crumble around him, he seems like a man who needs a hug much more than he needs a life lesson.

Accordingly, the film seems like it should be over once Bernstein’s fruitful trip to India has given him a marginally new perspective on life, a Skype-forged foothold with his beautiful tenant Brenda, and the two Indian teenagers – Rinku and Dinesh, neither of whom plays or even likes cricket, to everyone’s surprise and dismay – he needs to kickstart his professional life. (He even gets a full-time translator to help him understand his charges, and this guy, Amit, is more than happy just to work for the privilege of being in J.B.’s presence!)

It is only once J.B. returns from India (where he was celebrated by the people as a hero, complete with farewell ceremony) with all his dreams within his reach, and is housing a group of foreigners so astounded by American elevators and fire alarms that they must stay with him in his bachelor pad, munching on his delivered pizza, that the Jekyll and Hyde routine takes hold. The realization that J.B. might have an actual sports agency – and not just a struggling sports agency – on his hands, transforms him, whenever a fruitful business prospect is in his midst, into that beast within. There he’ll be, casually flirting with Brenda when suddenly, a cut on the pitching hand on one of his investments, or a chance to land the football player that got away at the star’s stereotypical L.A. house party, or, climactically, the threat of having his funding pulled if he doesn’t rush the boys to a major league tryout before they’re ready… these stimuli will erase all human emotions and turn J.B. into Business-Bot.

Rinku and Dinesh, J.B.’s two Indian fireballers, are utterly destroyed by their failure in that tryout, so impromptu it takes place in a parking lot in front of an Ashley’s Furniture and, appropriately enough, a Mattress U.S.A.. a nice bit of symbolism. After weeks of high-pressure training with pitching coach Tom House (a great and sorely underused Bill Paxton, emanating an uncommon kindness for boys whom he sees merely as boys no matter where they’re from), the absence of comfort on the mound and of any discernible warmth from their overseas father figure causes the two men to crumble. But it would have been fascinating to see their psychology tied to more than just the tempestuous moods of their wary investor, who finally grows his heart three sizes when his own wary investor, a cold businessman named Chang, promises another season of Million Dollar Arm but orders J.B. to give up on the boys. At that point, we follow J.B. to Chang’s office and to Arizona, where he lays out a plan to get at least one scout to a second tryout even if it means losing Chang’s backing. His ploy works in the end, but as always, I wanted to follow the boys and see if, in that moment, they felt betrayed or exploited, if they called their mothers and fathers for solace or to calm their fury, what they thought they might say to the Indian press.

The real Rinku and Dinesh have lived more in their 25 years than I have in mine: both grew up in abject poverty, with Dinesh Patel being raised by his maternal grandmother because his parents could not afford to keep him; both were raised to believe sports were a way to something better, and it would have been intriguing to see even a little bit of how India views sports, and how it compares to the ways we give hope to young men (especially young African-American men) and all too often, turn that hope into something dark (See: Hoop Dreams); and both did not cease to exist once the Pirates gave them contracts (just as much because of the potential to gain a billion fans in one signing as because these pitchers could help them win) – Rinku and Dinesh both pitched some games in the pros, but Dinesh Patel is already retired and back in India and Rinku Singh is getting Tommy John surgery this season to try and keep his fledgling career, most of which has been spent in the minors, going. None of that is the movie Disney wanted to make, of course, but it’s better material than the material Disney did use, which gives the Indian characters more to do than you’d expect but still fails to realize that their story is unfairly being seen through someone else’s cold, calculating eyes.

Those eyes have softened by the time J.B. returns from Arizona with good news. He returns to find an elaborate Indian feast prepared by Dinesh, Rinku, and Amit, who apologize profusely for letting him down. J.B. does the first right thing he’s done in a while by asking reverently “For what?”, in disbelief that his charges could still be so humble when faced with the man who might have ruined their chances if only to advance his own interests. But that “For What?” wasn’t enough for me. I was upset that the film’s Indian characters never took their chance to set their angry despot straight. In the moment they should lash out, they make him dinner and are embarrassed to sit at the table with him.

I guess most of the time, I just wanted this film to be a long string of everyone yelling at the stupid white man for being a stupid white man, which isn’t exactly your typical Disney fare – I was, to be kind, reading against the grain. But not too much. Million Dollar Arm understands that J.B. is just that – ignorant, unkind, privileged beyond all reason – some of the time and it is not unwilling as a text to shame him when he goes into marketing mode. When it is done though, it is done through Bell’s Brenda, who steps into the “cut the B.S.” role when Rinku, Dinesh, and Amit are all too happy to acquiesce quietly. Bell is, I need to restate, fantastic in this role, earning our trust with her earthy charm, lashing out at J.B. with the right amount of sensitivity. She saves this film, because if she feels she can trust J.B. only days after calling him a “class-A jerk,” then maybe we can trust him again too. (As the culled-from-real-life videos and photos that make up the credits are sure to point out, J.B. and Brenda ended up married. Nice to know, but I wish more “based on True Story” sports movies would be brave enough to wrap up with their own images and actors and not feel so beholden to loop in the veracity of grainy clips and iPhone selfies.)

J.B. takes a huge step forward when, seeing the need to pump up Rinku and Dinesh before their second tryout, he cedes the floor to the only man on the field who understands them – Amit, who, unbeknownst to the largely absent J.B., has turned into quite the coach. It’s a great speech, and the performance by Bollywood comedian Pitobash, and the reactions of Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) and Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire) make the film a rocky journey that finds the right destination.

It takes J.B. Bernstein the whole film to realize “This is not my speech to give.” It’s a truly startling moment, one that caps off a mediocre movie with a moment that approaches a true understanding of what movie’s might need more of: more of an ability for moviemakers to say of their straight, white, male characters, “You know what, this isn’t their story to tell.”

But in real life, the J.B. Bernstein not realized by Jon Hamm, the J.B. Bernstein who turned milestones for Barry Sanders and Barry Bonds and, yes, the entire Indian subcontinent, into investment opportunities, did sell this story – or acquiesced to having this story told – as his own story: the story of a wayward white man finding something approaching open-mindedness. It’s marginally remarkable that the film has the sense to realize that the climactic speech is not the white star’s to give, but it would have been more remarkable for it to actualize another fact: it was never J.B.’s story to begin with, and to frame it as such, regardless of the revelation at the end, only serves to highlight one thing. J.B. Bernstein made a savvy investment in the Indian subcontinent, and not only did he get a reality television show, a loving wife, and his professional mojo back; he got a Disney movie made from his life story. J.B. Bernstein may tell himself exposure to another culture transformed his way of thinking at cocktail parties and script meetings, but, while Rinku and Dinesh flounder professionally, he’s still a man making bank off his investments.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

In his wonderful debut novel published just this year, Pierce Brown introduces us to the world of young Darrow, a resident of Mars. I know! We’re off to good start, and all I said was “Mars.”

Darrow is a Helldiver, the most dangerous job a helium-3 miner can have. How’d our hero draw the short straw? He is a Red, the lowest caste in the color-coded society of his futuristic world; it’s the Red’s job to toil in the mines for the helium-3 necessary to terraform Mars for future colonization on the planet’s surface.

At 16, Darrow is married to his beloved wife Eo. They live under the surface of Mars doing harrowing work, making barely enough to survive. The Golds, the highest caste, control the rations, allocating them based on how much helium-3 is produced. They also allocate justice, if it can be called that: when a Red breaks the Gold’s laws, like Darrow’s father did when he sang the forbidden song, they are hanged. Heartbreakingly, the gravity on Mars is not strong enough to break the neck during hanging, so the Gold’s allow a loved one to pull on the feet of the victim to make death come quicker.

This is the world Darrow knows. He believes his cause, toiling away, is a noble one. Once the planet is livable it will he inhabited by the rest of civilization, and it will have been worth the turmoil to make that happen. So he strives to be the best at what he does and win the Laurel’s bestowed by the Gold’s to the best group of miners. Outside of this ambition, he lives for his wife and nothing but her.

This creates conflict, since his beloved disagrees with his enthusiastic acquiescence. Eo tries to convince her husband to fight for her dream, the same dream that got his father killed: overthrowing the Society and destroying the Golds. Darrow is unwavering, but when Eo makes the decision for him, making a tragic choice, well… his life will never be the same.

Red Rising is, as you can gather from my description of the engrossing particulars, a very exciting read; I was reluctant to put it down until it had told me every last detail about Darrow and his Martian Society. One reason could be Darrow’s exceptional character arc. At first Darrow does not fit the trope of the typical dystopian novel protagonist. We are quite used to seeing young adults who are fed up with the controlling power and who are more than willing to seek a way to change the world while adults hold them back. But Darrow has Eo to care for and a job he’s good at and he makes just enough to scrape by; in general he’s content with his life, hard as it is, and really, he hasn’t a revolutionary inkling in him. It takes a shove from his wife to force his development from naïve boy to resolute man, filled, as he is, with unceasing rage. This man quickly accepts his new goal and does not resist his role in the rebellion. There is personal struggle aplenty, but when that struggle forces him to make hard decisions, the hardened Darrow does not falter. His ambition and intelligence, redirected towards different goals, help him countless times to get out of hot water. Always a driven individual, the rage he feels towards the Golds because of the pain they have caused him drives him forward.

Darrow is a very untrusting fellow, but a few friends – Cassius and Mustang – slip under his hard shell. Still, he doesn’t wholly put his faith in any of them. He keeps a huge secret from his classmates at the Institute and switches loyalties when it’s necessary. Even Mustang, whom he goes out of his way to nurse back to health, proves too easy to ditrust; certain she will betray him, he meets her for the final time prepared to destroy her. The most important thing for Darrow is winning, as it was when he was a simple miner seeking awards; he has to be the best and he has to topple the Golds and the Society. It’s not just revenge for his friends and family that drives him, it’s extremely personal, an internal fire within him which keeps him focused and, truthfully, really pissed off.

So who’s he so darn pissed at? The Golds of Luna rebelled against the tyranny of Earth and freed themselves from the constraints of Democracy and the ‘Noble Lie’ that all men are created equal. Thus began the Society, a system of castes where some men rule while others serve and each person is defined by their color. The highest ranked among the Golds are the Peerless Scarred, those who have gone through the Institute and come out on top of their class. At one point, we hear the Arch Governor Augustus talk about the Society, describing it s having “three stages: Savagery, Ascendance, and Decadence.” The Golds took their freedom with savagery, they ruled in ascension, and now they are doing everything in their power to avoid falling into decadence. In this, we can easily see the arc of some of history’s great (read; fallen) empires: Brown does not just ignore history; instead he weaves it intricately into his tale. The ruling class is very aware of why Empires like Rome fell and uses that history as propaganda meant to prevent a similar fall brought on by comfort. The irony is that, in the society create, anything is decadent compared to the life of a red; the lives of the ruling class passing down edicts on comfort most of all.

Brown does not leave his references to the Roman empire vague. The Roman gods play a large part throughout the novel. Darrow is assigned a persona aligned with the god Mars, the embodiment of masculine aggression and the force that drives war. All of this is very suiting for rage-filled Darrow. Several times in the novel, Darrow is compared to a flame that burns too brightly and burns out quickly. He knows that his mission is a long trek and he must, in spite of his nature, sustain his flame with all the ability he has. Some other prominent gods utilized are Minerva, Pluto, Jupiter, and Ceres. Each other character is assigned one of these gods, giving more insight into that character’s persona. It’s a familiar device, an Olympian sorting hat, if you will. (Each house even has a proctor that acts as the embodiment of that god, and they can bestow gifts or punishment as they see fit.) This sorting helps Darrow understand the other teams and develop strategies that could work to defeat them.

As far as dystopian novels go, this has easily one of my favorites in my favored genre. It is reminiscent of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, but I’d venture to say I enjoyed my time with Darrow more than,my corresponding time with Katniss. That at first he just abides by the rules set up for him, and that he makes a bunch of mistakes along the way but uses these foibles to become something completely different by the end of the novel, these traits make him an extraordinarily realistic protagonist. It matters not that his adventures take place on far away Mars; he is able to accept circumstances that are terrible over and over again and remain focused on his ultimate goals, and that sort of determination will always hit close to home. Overall, we are looking at a great first book by someone who appears to be, from the look of Red Rising, an extremely promising young author. I anxiously await January 2015, which is when the second book in this trilogy, Golden Son, will be released.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Future. Past.

So odd to see those strange bedfellows sitting incongruously next to each other, engaged in a playground shoving match for supremacy.

In the comic book storyline from which this seventh X-Men film is liberally adapted (between this and “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” we’ve seen two of comics’ most beloved storylines come to the big screen this year, to middling fanfare), there’s an implied comma between the Future and the Past: “Days of Future, Past.” The apocalyptic future, the title insinuates, is potentially averted, placed in the rearview mirror.

But in the movie, the contradiction is embraced; no comma needed. Let the intriguing future – in the form of Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender – and the stalwart past – in the form of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and… Ellen Page? – fight it out. Hugh Jackman’s bulging bicep muscles, the true logo of any X-Men film, will moderate. And go!

X-Men: Days of Future Past can be very bad. The first ten minutes, thrilling action sequence aside, are a mush pile of shoddy exposition and baffling continuity tinkering, a startling smack in the face to anyone who might have cared about Xavier being torn molecule from molecule in X-Men: The Last Stand.

X-Men Days of Future Past can be extraordinarily good. The last ten minutes are so affecting, so moving, that one unexpected shot (yeah, I’m a sucker) actually brought me to tears. A hearty slap on the back for “true believers,” these ten minutes honored fourteen years of pent-up goodwill for these characters. “We may have let the timeline get a little screwy, friend,” they seemed to say, “but we still know how to make you feel the weight of time.”


The year 2000. How many did I love in that far off time (when I was trading Pokémon cards and voraciously reading Animorphs) that I still love today (know where those Pokémon cards and Animorphs books are? Boxes…)? I can count four.

  1. My family: Duh.
  2. Harry Potter: The year 2000 is when I first discovered the books, and fourteen years later I want to see an animatronic Gringotts goblin so bad it hurts.
  3. Survivor: This reality television pioneer just wrapped its 28th season. One of its best yet. I hear your “is that show still on?” jibes. I refuse to acknowledge them as anything other than the faddish thinking they are.
  4. X-Men films: The original two Singer films – once considered pretty untouchable (especially the much better X2) – have come in for a shellacking over the past few years. Why? Maybe because so many other superhero films, from The Incredibles to Iron Man to the Dark Knight, have rendered them sort of passé by comparison. But never underestimate the power these films held as gateway drugs for impressionable youths (such as myself), existing not just as films but as an inviting open door that led to a world filled with Brotherhoods of Evil Mutants and freaky powers and thinly veiled Civil Rights/closet allegories.

The X-Men films always got three characters right – Charles, Erik, and Logan. By association, Logan made other character’s work too; if the love triangle between Logan, Jean and Scott always felt stifled by James Marsden’s and Famke Jannsen’s stiff performances, we couldn’t help but love Jean because Hugh Jackman made clear how much otherwise grouchy Wolvie loved her. This meant her death, even in a subpar film, carried legitimate weight, especially for someone who cared as much about the X-Films as I did/still do. That weight carried the X-Franchise through its “wandering through the desert years,” and now (after a kicky but potentially irrelevant stop at a Mad Men inspired oasis overrun with ascots) we have made it to the other side, safely through the parched plains and back in the lush and verdant forest of high adventure and romance.

As of right now – at least until Guardians of the Galaxy changes the game come August (as I believe it will) – the saga of Logan and Erik (the progression of the X-Men films, and especially the focus of this latest film, back up that focused reading, rendering pretty much everyone else as a side character, with Raven ascendant if only because she’s played by the literal Girl on Fire, Jennifer Lawrence) has completely bookended the cinematic Superhero Age, forming both its definitive starting point (discounting the marginal success of the first Blade) and its current ending point.

The variable quality of the X-Films aside, there is something – something very complimentary! – to be said for this film’s remarkable, nigh mutant, ability to – long after it seemed possible to loop Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen back in for another go in the chair and helmet, respectively – keep the entire saga afloat, honoring the love that exists out there for the original films, while also getting ready to tackle another decade with a set of vibrant, glitzy young actors. It would have been easy and probably sane, considering all that new talent on-board, to ignore the old films (damaged by the reputation of Last Stand and decimated by the reputation of X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and start completely from scratch, as the decision-makers at Sony opted to do with their wallcrawler.

While that Spider-Reboot has been disparaged and is starting to look like a costly disaster in spite of universal adoration for the actors involved, 20th Century Fox has found a way to render all but the most continuity-hungry satiated by putting the series’ original scion – Bryan Singer – in charge of an insane-sounding, mind-bending adaptation of the X-Men’s most famous storyline, which everyone and their mother knew would also serve as an in-continuity reboot in the style of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. But X-Men Days of Future Past, if not quite the film that Star Trek reboot was, one-ups the now-famous reboot maneuver (let’s call it the Kobiyashi Ma-reboot) by actually putting every single relevant actor from the franchise on the screen and giving them something (not a whole lot in most cases, but something) to do.

I’ll allow Darren Franich to speak to most of the flaws (and highlights!) of the X-Films here, in his brilliant manifesto that looks back at all six, but I’ll highlight one as it applies directly to this seventh film: The X-Films had a remarkable capacity for squandering the talents of talented people. Overstuffed as they were with characters brought in mostly for their powersets, they wasted name actors like nobody’s business, and while DoFP still wastes those same actors, back for cameos, it wisely casts largely unknown talents in the roles of its new mutants – Sunspot, Blink, Bishop, Warpath, and a wonderfully conceived Quiksilver who gets the best showcase scene since Nightcrawler BAMF!d the Oval Office – showing off some neat-o mutant abilities while not sweating it too much if they don’t give a full character arc to a walking Portal sim.

Don’t outline Blink’s backstory for me, well I’ll survive; but past X-Films floundered when they gave the same treatment to more prominent team members. Halle Berry, after enough time onscreen to create her own feature-length Storm film in which she would appear in every scene, never found her footing as the African weather goddess. That’s an understatement. (Who’s to say African royalty is even what her cinematic take on the character was supposed to be? The X-Films remarkable capacity for de-ethnicizing fascinating foreign characters – from Storm to Russian Colossus to Irish Banshee – is maybe their most unforgivable misstep.)

After a remarkable opening stretch of X-Men in which she formed an unbreakable bond with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Oscar winner (and Soookie) Anna Paquin largely faded into the background and broke all bonds, getting less and less to do in each film, to the absurd point where she is billed above half the cast, including Ellen Page, for DoFP and appears for approximately one second. Speaking of Ellen Page, it’s probably not the fault of America’s favorite coming-of-ager that the X-Men’s greatest teen identification character, and perhaps the most well-rounded female comic book character ever, was given only one definable characteristic across two films – she has quite the foul mouth.

That the Kitty Pryde game isn’t upped in a story that has been, for its three decades basting in the public imagination, Kitty Pryde’s to own will offend many, and, to be sure, it isn’t promising that a franchise adapting the superhero team most associated with female characters who have something to do (almost all defined by Chris Claremont) just got called on the mat in the above paragraph for three of its most prominent female characters. It may make logical sense (or as much logical sense as these films ever care to make, considering Kitty has, off camera and without explanation, manifested the non-canon power to… phase people’s consciousness through the walls of time?!?) to send Logan back to his 1973 body since that body is identical, minus some gray streaks on the temples; the film truly finds its footing when Logan, a character we know all too well, wakes up on a day he can’t remember and begins to piece together his rag-tag team of proto-X-Men in the days of lava lamps and waterbeds and Roberta Flack. And it definitely makes monetary sense since Hugh Jackman is this franchise’s golden goose. Alas, it is disheartening all the same to watch Ellen Page do nothing more than sob at Wolverine’s temples, trying to convey strength and determination while her boyfriend, Iceman, frets at her side.


Faring better is Jennifer Lawrence, who, since turning into a media supernova from the marketing of First Class to the marketing of Days of Future Past, has been awarded a prime piece of real estate as the shape-shifting Mystique… Which, in a superhero movie, for a female character, is unfortunately the spot directly between two men with more to do. In this case, these men are her feuding mentors-cum-love interests, the drug-addled Charles Xavier, walking but otherwise powerless, and the imprisoned Magneto, locked away for a certain “bent bullet.”

Yet the film goes through great pains to grant Mystique her own agency, forcing her to become neither messiah’s faithful disciple. (Spoilers from here on out.) Through the whole film she has one mission, a mission that, if she succeeds, will cause the dark future we glimpse in the opening, and she gives up on that mission not because she is ordered to do so by the men in her life but because Charles finally realizes he needs to stop treating Raven like his misguided lackey and start treating her like the fragile but strong-willed badass protector of mutantkind she has become in the decade since they last crossed paths.

(He still does this by mansplaining, but it’s powerful all the same. McAvoy is fantastic by the way, finally giving Charles something the dignified Patrick Stewart never could: vulnerability. Evoking the pain a telepath must feel hearing the anguish of others, he’s not as trendy as his 1973 co-stars, but [unpopular opinion alert] he outpaces them, maybe because Lawrence and Fassbender get caught in weird and nonsensical game of “I’m going to kill you first!”)

This film also carries over a dangling thread from the first movie: An ongoing battle over body-image (you like allegory, here’s more allegory) waged between Mystique – who only keeps her true blue form under a Jennifer Lawrence façade when she’s trying to stay under the radar but isn’t afraid to flaunt it when it’s time for an ass-kicking and a droll one-liner – and Beast – who now uses drugs to normalize his appearance, though intense emotion causes this Jekyll to Hyde out. First Class ended with Mystique telling her former paramour – deeply unhappy, as he was, with his furry visage – to be “mutant and proud.” Beast rolled his eyes in response.

In this film, shortly after reuniting, both Mystique and Beast are thrown out into a Paris street in their true forms, and spectator footage captured on an 8-mm camera beautifully shows what it would be like to actually witness two unknown creatures fight a magnetic man in front of a regal fountain. The distance and the historical veracity lends the moment a resonance typical blockbuster filmmaking may not have in that moment. Nicolas Hoult is heartbreaking in that scene, caught in the iron bars of the fountain, captured on all the world’s newscasts in a form he hates. He doesn’t get too much to do outside of that intense instant of body shame – the film really keeps the cast tight for the scenes set in 1973, though it could have been tighter since Hoult’s Hank McCoy is pretty expendable – but he’s worth it for that feeling of melancholy and the way it ties into the film’s climactic image: Mystique, mutant and proud, saving President Nixon and abandoning her quest to assassinate the inventor of the Sentinels. She shows the rapt audience at home what good mutants, no matter how they look, can do – the audience need not know that she may not be quite the hero the American viewer assumes her to be.

The mutants of the future are given a temporary stay of execution because humanity, now aware of the mutant menace decades in advance, might be willing to work something out. (Or work something out with everyone but the debonair sociopath in the helmet who dropped a baseball stadium on the White House lawn and aimed a gun at the President.)


And so a dire future is averted, and with it the continuity nightmares brought on by five X-Films that nobody at the studio expected would be analyzed under a microscope in the Marvel Studios Age of Intensely Planned Tie-In Films. In the back of our mind we’ll still wonder about characters fluid birth dates and ethnicities going forward, but these will be minor concerns as the X-Men franchise forges its own path into completely unexplored waters. Only two potentially interesting characters have had their flames extinguished before their time (Banshee and Emma are supposedly dead, which I guess means no ‘90s-set take on Generation X…) How did Cyclops and Jean meet I wonder? My wish may very well be their command. This time, they might actually remember to make that pairing one to root for, and not one to root against.

And so it is that James Marsden’s very presence is a punchline, stifling Wolverine’s ardor in the moment that brought me to tears – the end of a pan through a golden, flawlessly-executed Lost-like afterlife in the X-Mansion that is actually a time-shifted reality. The payoff is similar to the one that concluded six seasons of Lost – it honors the dedication of long-time viewers by tying up emotional loose ends and investing in characters while ignoring lingering questions about the technical stuff like mutant cures and their permanence. And just as certain character reunions in the Sideways world meant more than a treatise on the importance of Libby or Walt ever could, a single shot of that fiery hair is all it took to utterly destroy me. That shot, and Jackman’s subsequent reaction to seeing his Jean alive and well, could have made an execrable film worthwhile. In this case, it makes a perfectly adequate film (which, devoid of all its franchise tie-in pieces, it is: a nifty summer blockbuster with some period comedy elements and an affecting addiction drama subplot) into a once-in-a-lifetime experience: you only get to see the treasured artifacts of your adolescence tied up in a graceful package so many times in your life. That X-Men: Days of Future has done this while seamlessly (okay, maybe not without any seams) transitioning into its new age bodes well for the oldest and less-venerated cinematic superhero continuity.

20 Best Songs of 2014 (So Far)

Why not 14 songs again? Because 14 songs is never enough when you’re trying to capture the best music bringing sonic joy to the people! And that 20 sitting next to the 14 looked way to appetizing. Bear with me: Contained within this slightly longer list is more musical pleasure than you can probably handle in one sitting, let alone the first quarter of a year.

“Completely Not Me” Jenny Lewis

“We Belong” by RAC ft. Katie Herzig

“Hundreds of Ways” by Conor Oberst

“My Silver Lining” by First Aid Kit

“Truck Stop Gospel” by Parker Millsap

“Coffee” by Sylvan Esso

“Water Fountain” by tUnE-yArDs

“Before” by Wye Oak

“Take Me To Church” by Hozier

“Seasons (Waiting On You)” by Future Islands

“Iota” by Angel Olsen

“Your Love Is Killing Me” by Sharon Van Etten

“Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It!” by Kishi Bashi

“Unconditional Love” by Against Me!

“Leave Your Lover” by Sam Smith

This is it: your last possible chance to jump on the Sam Smith bandwagon before saying “I’m a fan of Sam Smith” is the same as saying “I’m a fan of puppies” or “I’m a fan of cake.” Today, Sam Smith is still our little secret. Tomorroe he’ll be… Well have you heard of Adele? (Stop answering! There’s never been a more rhetorical question.)

“I’m Torn Up” by St. Paul and the Broken Bones

“I know that you love me/ And I can love you too/ You just gotta step on up, step on up/ You just got to pull it through/ I’m torn up/ You know that I’m torn up”

The phone rings. You pick it up. It’s your grandfather. He died when you were a kid, twenty some-odd years ago. “Grandpa,” you whimper, “how?”

That’s what it feels like to hear the primordial wail of Paul Janeway, the sort of banshee scream that comes out of nowhere – both in the context of this slow jam and in the context of MAN this is the whitest kid in town! That wail shatters the relative calm of this plea that seems like a docile pond, maybe a ripple here or there, until the tidal wave is unleashed. This song gets down on it’s knees and begs for a second chance. When it drops to it’s knees, you feel the thud.

Janeway appears to be a young master – of shouts and grunts, and also, as if he weren’t a lucky enough bastard already, of soft entreaties and of subtlety. His opening “Hello sweetheart,” is an opiate. Are there still Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in this world? Otis Reddings? Sam Cookes? If there are, would they merely be legacy acts? Judging from the rapture you see in videos of live performances (like the one above) of St. Paul and the Broken Bones (whose horn section look like they just got pulled in from a high school jazz band festival and sound like they just time traveled from a Motown recording session), the answer is “Ha!” This band feels vital. Not to 1965. To 2014.

“Really Wanna See You” by Lydia Loveless

“So I went to a party someone gave me some blow/ Tears came right to my eyes and the phone was right there/ So I just thought I would call”

For those of you who don’t think you like country (I thought I was one of you): this totally isn’t a country song! This is a headbanger, a sick punk song with a mild twang. Country could never kick this much drum-filling, guitar-thrashin’ ass. Right?!? Right. Move on to the next song…

For those of you who love country: this is absolutely country! Country at its dagger-through-your-heart best. Our protagonist has realized she wasn’t exactly the best girlfriend in her previous relationship, and now that the guy is married, she wants to atone. And maybe rekindle something (“I was cleaning up my room, found a magic 8 ball/ asked if I’d ever get to kiss your lips again/ it said ‘I better not tell you right now.’/ So I had to call.“). Oh, and she just did some blow. It’s incredibly sad. But it doesn’t sound sad. It sounds like the party she went to. And if this is the music that was playing when she took that blow, it must have been an incredible party. Blow notwithstanding.

“You Go Down Smooth” by Lake Street Drive

“And I am too sober not to know/ That you may be my problem, not my love/ ‘Cause you go down smooth”

This rollicking track calls to mind most easily that moment in the Disney classic-only-to-those-of-a-certain-age, Oliver and Company, when Dodger, effortlessly cool in his sunglasses, rockets away from young Oliver on a piano, wondering why he, the ultimate charmer of all people, should ever worry. Imagine the dog that might be fortunate/unfortunate enough to fall for a slick animal like that responsing in kind (meaning over a shuffling beat that was built for swing dancing [or, short of that, shaking your butt in a jaunty fashion]): here’s why I should worry! You are way too easy to fall for, you scaliwag, and this infatuation might turn out to be an issue!

In December, I watched the HBO concert special that accompanied the Coen Brothers folk music movie Inside Llewyn Davis (yeah, I’m that kind of nerd; I’d reccomend it if you can find it, truthfully), and while I admired the collection of artists (including Marcus Mumford) doing their thing, it frequently felt like a museum piece. One moment woke me from my reverie: Rachael Price, flanked by an upright bassist and a drummer, broke into an incredibly fun, jazzy number with airtight harmonies that couldn’t have seemed farther from the Greenwich Village Americana the night was supposed to celebrate. I looked up Lake Street Drive immediately afterwards and am happy to report that their 2014 LP debut is a must-listen, just as fun all the way through as that first song I heard, the one that made me think of Dodger getting the whole New York canine scene to dance along.

  1. “Q&A” by Kishi Bashi

“You are the answer to my question/ You are my accomplice in a crime/ You are my wing woman and did I mention/ We were together in a life/ In that dreaming you probably were my wife”

Another Kishi Bashi song in the Top 10?!? How much more clear can I be: I love what Kaoru Ishibahi is doing with his music and couldn’t recommend any single record from 2014 more highly. It’s shimmering, psychadelic pop, looped so that it is saturated to the point of delirium with incredible violin licks, fascinating compositional ideas, and, of course, Kishibashi’s indelible falsetto. But for one song on Ligght, Kishibashi puts all that away – the loop pedals and virtuosic violin playing and high register cooing – pulling out a ukelele and a calming chest voice with a warmth and lilt that calls to mind nothing less than balladeer supreme Paul McCartney.

In the wrong frame of mind, you could totally dismiss this song as a twee trifle, an uncomplicated love song with nonsense words for a chorus. And because of that easy-listening quality, yes, you’re going to hear this song in commercials from here to eternity. But those nonsense choruses aren’t nonsense at all; they’re Japanese, and they (“with a pinch we’ll be awoken from the night of fireflies”), as well as later verses, hint at something a little more uneasy about the dreaming that seems so pleasant in the opening verse. Modern angels broke their wings, man and time flayed their minds, and they prayed for pain. How many love songs this gorgeous also bring up flaying? Very few.

  1. “Don’t Wait” by Mapei

“A friend indeed/ come build me up/ come share your light/ it makes me shine”

Click that play button above and imagine an alternate reality with me.

Instead of being dropped on Soundcloud in October of 2013 by Mapei (you don’t know who Mapei is, which is okay, no one outside Sweden does), imagine this song was released, with those 14 other Beyonce songs, on that random December night. The world would have lost its Bey-loving mind! I mean, it did anyway, but, with all the weight that a Queen Bey release carries, this song would absolutely conquer the world. (“Who run the world? ‘Don’t Wait'”) It would redefine how we think about the pop superstar. A song this perfectly conceived could redefine how we think about the career of any artist – it just so happened that it was the opening salvo in the burgeoning career of a young hip-hop artist, so it’s had a lower profile than it deserves.

There’s a line in here that gets me every time, “I respect you with my all.” In these days where every Jason Derulo song is about the mythic proportions of the butt of an anonymous woman-as-object, and every song like that is a certain Top 10 hit, it reassures me each time I listen to this song (which has easily been hundreds of times) that it is so sweetly sentimental about what it is that staves off loneliness, keeping us connected to those we love and care for. As elementally simple, as quietly (to the point of being almost melancholy) and resolutely strong, as powerful, and as singable as James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” Mapei’s “Don’t Wait” is a friendship anthem for the ages, the one song making the rounds this year that I’d happily preserve in a time capsule so future music listeners could listen in and hear, autotuned backing vocals and all, “Oh, they really did know what they were doing in 2014.”

14 HONORABLE MENTIONS

What?!? (Heh. Heh.)

“Real Estate” by Atlas

“Better Than It Could Ever Be” by The Preatures

“Stranger To My Happiness” by Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings

“Turtles All The Way Down” by Sturgill Simpson

“Every Girl” by Allah-Las

“Morning” by Beck

“Collard Greens” by Schoolboy Q ft. Kendrick Lamar

“Love’s On Fire” by Nikki Lane

“Love Never Felt So Good” by Michael Jackson ft. Justin Timberlake

“Banks of the Ohio” by Dolly Parton

“Gone” by Supreme Cuts ft. Mahaut Mondino

“Divisionary (Do The Right Thing)” by Ages and Ages

“Thunder Clatter” by Wild Club

Godzilla

Director Gareth Edwards, whose second feature film, Godzilla (boy, he got handed the keys to the kingdom pretty fast, yeah?), evokes man vs. nature classics like Jaws and Jurassic Park in most of the best ways, is arguing in his interviews for something he’s calling “cinematic foreplay.”

Watching his first feature, a political allegory called Monsters, one might have attributed his avoidance of on-screen portrayals of his titular monsters for much of the film’s runtime to a mythically low budget. But with all the money Warner Brothers can throw at the world’s most famous giant beast (give or take a Kong) at his disposal, Edwards sticks to his guns.

No one expected Godzilla to be an extended dramatic soliloquy delivered by the creature from the depths, to be sure. But even your lowest estimations of screen time for the mythic Gojira will be stymied by Edwards, who teases us repeatedly with archival footage, glimpses of dramatically oversized body parts, a brilliant cut to news footage that will either make you chuckle or shout in sheer frustration, and an utterly bonkers birth scene that proves to be the origin of decidedly not the creature you’d expect it to be considering the title of the film.

Cinematic foreplay could be what saves our relationship with summer blockbusters in the wake of so many years of filmmakers who are so darn proud of their CGI creations that they take them out of their pants right away and fling them about going “Look! Cool, huh?” (Oh please, every person helming a tentpole franchise is a man. Because Hollywood sucks. So my “compensating much?” implication totally flies!)

Or it could prove too coy for audiences, who’ll pack up and lay down with someone who’ll give them their CGI spectacle without all the withholding. Michael Bay’s always looking for new partners. Either way, props to Edwards for suggesting and bringing to fruition the notion. He’s got balls. (And he won’t show them to you for a reasonable amount of time. Alright, last one.)

Since Edwards leverages his own version of foreplay so effectively in Godzilla, getting his audience so riled up they are fit to burst at the thought of Godzilla-wreaked carnage by the film’s astounding climax (sorry I lied, but hey, Edwards brought the double entendres into play, not me), let’s engage in our own form of critical foreplay.

I know you want me to talk about the monster (or, just as likely, about Bryan Cranston), but if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to spend some time considering something that truly sets this film apart: glass.

Glass?

Stick with me my flabbergasted friend, I’ll tie it in with both the film’s star and the “film’s star.” (Godzilla and Cranston, respectively, if you’re curious.)

There’s one obvious reason why Edwards has such an outsized obsession with shooting through glass: by framing his monsters (when he chooses to show them, which ain’t often) through windows, gas mask and skydiving goggles, even an entire glass-paneled Oahu airport, Edwards lends them immense, practically incomprehensible scale – they dwarf every damn thing we have! But by mediating our image of the monsters through frames within the frame, frames that we can understand like a rainy windshield, we are also able to comprehend, and bow down in awe of, the truly gargantuan proportions of the creatures humanity faces – essentially, Edwards work with scale grants us the ability to grasp just how screwed our tiny, squishy species is.

But as much as Edwards loves using glass – especially the frame of a television screen playing news footage that can’t even come close to capturing the grandeur of what actually stands before the camera, that in fact makes the monsters appear petite and action figure-like until they come crashing through the ceiling to much shrieking – to mediate his monsters and put them in perspective, he is absolutely obsessed with the ways glass keeps puny humans, namely families, apart in times of disaster. And that’s where things really start to get interesting for the idle Godzilla viewer.

In 2012, Juan Antonio Bayona directed a beautifully acted, beautifully shot drama called The Impossible, which fictionalized the true story of a Spanish family that, against all odds, reunited in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami that ravaged the South Pacific in 2004. It was aptly described as a Saw movie if Jigsaw were Poseidon, with the film taking an uncompromising view of a country, and a family, torn apart by nature’s fickle will. And yet, the movie loses much of its teeth as it contrives countless ways for members of the family to keep missing each other by absurdly small margins only to inevitably reunite (true to advertising) and fly out of the disaster zone, returning to their privileged Continental lives, literally rising above the recovery that persists to this day.

It’s not that Edwards, in similarly evoking the specter of not just that catastrophic tsunami but also of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster in Japan, does a better job than Bayona of capturing the human cost of a disaster. Bayona’s eye for devastation was poetic and keen, and he was only truly handicapped by the tidiness of the reality his film was tied to; and, all too often, human anything – loss, emotion, relief – is only a secondary concern for the man tasked with making Gojira a viable franchise anchor after Roland Emmerich ruined him for errybody.

And yet it speaks to the power of filmmaking that the recurrence of a visual motif can drill straight to the heart of the matter in ways that make some of Bayona’s family separation tactics seem clumsy by comparison. Edwards only has a fraction of the time Bayona did to deal with the tragedy of the Brody clan (and you better believe that Jaws callout to Chief Brody is intentional, since Spielberg’s touch with spectacle, with family dynamics in the time of crisis, and with cute kids looking at dangerous things with wide eyes is ALL OVER this film), but by simply using glass to the fullest of its potential for tragedy, he says so very much about his human characters, no matter how little they actually say.

Which brings us to Cranston, who is widely considered one of our finest actors thanks to his work on television and who has never headlined a movie. Until now. Except not really.

Suffice it to say that no human star can eclipse the power of Gareth Edward’s kaiju, but if the film has a lead character that isn’t green, it’s not Cranston’s. It’s Aaron Taylor-Jonson’s Ford Brody, the son of nuclear engineers played by Cranston and Juliette Binoche. It’s not spoiling anything (since it appears in trailers) to say that early on, Binoche and Cranston get separated by a door that cannot be opened. They mourn an imminent loss from opposite sides of a pane of glass that only remains transparent for a painfully short few seconds. Where is their son Ford when this happens? At school, where, out the windows of his classroom, he sees the power plant where his parents work crumble to the ground, unable to do anything but wonder if he is orphaned.

He is not, but the film continually echoes the powerlessness felt in those early moments by the Brodys, and in many ways, we feel like he always was abandoned from that disaster forward. Will the same thing happen to Ford’s own adorable child who hasn’t seen his dearly deployed Daddy in 14 months and immediately sees him depart for monster-infected waters after one happy night at home. (I would love this film if only for the line “Daddy’s home equals cake every day,” and the way Johnson delivers it and Edwards films this family unit at blissful rest.)

Cranston, the absent grandfather, is continually framed behind glass, a constant reminder of his wife’s face framed in that closing window. Ford Brody goes to Japan to retrieve his estranged father and sees him for the first time through reinforced glass at a police station. Later, a captured Cranston delivers his showstopping monologue, the one that punctuated this film’s outstanding trailers, while being held in what he calls a fish tank – he calls to the people on the other side of the two-way glass, begging to be released so he can see his son. Most evocatively of all, as he recalls the film’s inciting disaster, his back is turned to us, and we only see his face in haunting reflection, a ghostly presence, framed exactly as his wife’s face was.

In a time of disaster, nothing could be more tragic than a glass partition. You can see through it, is the thing. Even if you, with your frail human body, do not have the power to crash through that reinforced glass and get to the one you love on the other side, you know they are there. Suffering. As Brody moves forward in his mission to reunite with his loving wife (a teary-eyed Elizabeth Olsen who makes what little she has truly sing) and child in San Francisco, he encounters another double for his own tragic past and tries to push through those glass partitions: a young Japanese boy is separated from his family when he walks onto Ford’s airport tram and gets caught inside the doors, crying as his mother and father pound desperately on the glass. Ford can’t wedge that tram door open or break that glass, but through sheer persistence, he gives that little boy the happy ending he didn’t get as a child. Brody, a loyal soldier in a military portrayed as competent but dumbfounded in the face of stuff that isn’t exactly in the handbook, is all persistence and know-how. We never for a second think he could take on a kaiju, but we imagine he might be able to run away from them for long enough to return to his wife’s loving embrace.

Back in San Francisco, Olsen’s Elle Brody, a nurse, waits for her husband’s return as the city is evacuated in preparation for the arrival of the monsters. She puts her son in the care of a fellow nurse, and for a final time, we are reminded of the glass partition: as she says goodbye to her son, the bus doors close, and her smile falters as she disappears from the frame, the view through the glass doors becoming a gray whir.

What is immovable and painful for a human is mere window dressing (literally) for a monster the size of a skyscraper. At various times during the film, we fully expect glass partitions to shatter. During a tsunami, a fleeing family ducks inside a storefront, and the glass cracks, but we cut away before we see the deluge break through. Later, a monster rushes by skyscraper windows, and they too crack but the glass remains intact. And then, in one, glorious moment, glass shards go flying everywhere and Edwards frees himself from his self-enforced glass prison, no longer containing his monsters within frames within frames. Now that he has shown us repeatedly how infinitesimally small man is when confronted with a true force of nature, he soars above the San Francisco skyline and looks down on gods thrashing from a God’s eye view

So yes, glass, gets a character arc in this movie. Maybe a more sufficient one than any actual character in the film. If the way Edwards uses glass to keep human’s apart and the way he uses it to frame monsters don’t quite lend themselves to one fluid reading of the movie, it could be because Edwards hasn’t created a very fluid movie.

The plot will be slightly baffling to viewers in the early going, especially those expecting (as I was) a Godzilla origin story. Exposition comes eventually but it comes after an entire act of guesswork and sleight of hand. On a second viewing (yes, I’ve already had a second viewing), with certain mysteries pre-unraveled, the film plays better as a cohesive whole and it becomes clear that, if Godzilla can’t talk the talk, it can certainly walk the walk. It’s a master class in tone. It makes a call about what version of Godzilla it would like to portray – the kind that neutralizes threats and engenders sympathy from an overwhelmed populace – and it makes that work in a world that convincingly seems parallel to our own. Some will be put off by the way Edwards has decided to portray a marginally benevolent Godzilla, but, considering both humankind and Godzilla-kind are faced with a menace as fearsome as the twin M.U.T.O, terrifying creatures with molten orange eyes and eggsacks, it seems fair that a temporary alliance should form. Mothra-like creatures bathed in twilight black, these marvelous designs steal much of the show from Godzilla. Until Godzilla decides to reclaim his throne as the King of Beasts. When he does, he caps it all off with the greatest mic drop in cinema history, a shot, wreathed in atomic white, that I’ll be thinking about all year, if not all my life. So the tone of the film is perfect even when the plot machinations falter. Ken Watenabe’s character might be the sole exception to this. He is to the tone of this movie what Godzooky is to the Godzilla mythology: a hiccup, to say the least.

Ford Brody, who can leap into any military squadron by announcing that he is an EOD, meaning he can diffuse the nuclear devices put in play by the monsters, earns a permanent spot in front of the camera as the film’s beating heart; its head is Dr. Serizawa, played with quiet, shell-shocked deference by Watenabe, here to remind us that no matter how much we may fall for this monster, he is and always will be a Japanese bogeyman/hero.

A Godzilla movie wouldn’t be complete without its military characters and its scientific characters at odds about how to handle the monster. Here both David Strathairn, as the man in charge of the military option, and Watanabe, as the scientist who is the foremost expert on the prehistoric beasts that lie in wait, underplay this conflict – to nuke or not to nuke — to the point of absurdity. They practically whisper their expert opinions to each other.

Refreshingly, neither is a villain, neither callously makes the call that puts millions in danger for no reason. This is a film free of naysayers and greedy corporate types. No soldiers turn tail. No civilians horde resources. Humanity is shown in its best light in Godzilla, no matter what uniform it wears. And yet, three cities still get leveled. Are we being punished? The point seems to be that it doesn’t matter whether the humans involved are generally kind or whether they are the Destroyers of Worlds Robert Oppenheimer thought himself to be when he saw the bomb; regardless of causality, humans lie prostrate before nature, not the other way around. In Japan, Godzilla has always been a product of humanity’s darkest nature. In Edwards’ film, Godzilla’s pursuit of the M.U.T.O is as inevitable and destructive as a change in the weather or a tectonic shift, and the film speaks of the monsters in the language of natural disasters, complete with projection maps and spheres of influence. There’s a sense that our reliance on nuclear power fed this menace (the monsters eat nukes for breakfast, literally), which makes for a fair global warming allegory. But truthfully, the dumbest thing humans do in the film is think they can alter what is natural in any way, almost causing more damage attempting to avert disaster than the disaster itself caused.

Serizawa is the mouthpiece for the point of view that nature, with or without human interference, will right itself, but it’s safe to say Watanabe’s performance lacks the charisma of a similar truth-teller role given to Jeff Golblum oh some twenty years ago. If Serizawa is no Ian Malcolm, it’s no matter. But pretty much everything he says after a certain point in the film seems to wrench the audience out of the carefully crafted reality of the film, bringing on fits of giggles, and that does matter. You see, Serizawa is us. The audience. Like us, he wants to see Gojira (when he says it for the first time after a dramatic pause, rushing the name like he’s pointing at the man-in-a-suit monster, he may as well wink, and to most of the audience, he essentially does), he believes in him, and he wants to see him fight. A fine position for us to hold in the cushy velvet seats, but a strange obsession for a respected scientist to have. He is convinced that Godzilla is here to keep us safe, but lacks any real evidence to prove that the world’s greatest alpha predator has any particular care for humanity outside of “snack!” His findings may be a touch outside the realm of the scientific method. His determination that Godzilla is, if not good, maybe not horrible, is a hunch more than anything, but Serizawa acts on it.

It’s a tough call. Ask Honolulu what it feels like to be kept safe by Godzilla. It’s wet. It’s not as if Godzilla is leaping to save falling children. He just isn’t that kind of savior. An ambivalent God, he takes care of his business (kill the threats to his territory, and no “predator” does not mean he wants to eat his prey) and returns to the sea. One shot in the film gives us a sense that there is something behind those eyes: Brody turns a corner and sees Godzilla, laid low by a skyscraper, struggling to keep on trucking. But for the most part, Godzilla seems completely unaware that there are humans underfoot. Killing other beasts is instinct, not an act of heroism.

There’s something awe-inspiring about that – about humanity facing a void and the void shrugging back. Last year I praised Pacific Rim an outlandish amount for having startlingly good visuals and excused, perhaps beyond reason, its wooden performances. As Edwards’ own vision of kaiju eclipses that of avowed kaiju lover Guillermo del Toro, it’s clear that what Pacific Rim earned through splendid production design and cinematography (no cinematic foreplay in that movie!), it squandered by forcing all of that into a story that repeatedly forced broken humans into relationships that seemed untenable. Worse, all that splendor seemed only to exist, once the leads kissed, to enforce that status quo that movies have relationships in which people kiss. It was monster invasion as therapy. It’s refreshing then to see Edwards view humanity as a species that generally has its ducks in a row – no therapy needed – but that is ultimately powerless to do anything if a crocodile eats all those ducks.

The Forging of Species

Since the biggest problem with Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a bully, and since I do not want to be accused of being one myself, I’m going to start this review out by saying something nice about the newest DreamWorks film:

What had appeared, in the marketing, to be a cheap and stilted-looking animated cash-in is actually, blown out to feature-length, visually limber, with an agile camera that explores the stylized corners of its Saturday Morning cartoon-inspired universe from the most intriguing angles, using the most daring camera acrobatics.

This is easier when your camera isn’t a real camera, of course, but credit where credit is due – packed with visual wit and cinematography that is unafraid to liven up any time-displaced scenario, Mr. Peabody and Sherman is impressive to behold as it shakes along with Mr. Peabody’s cocktail mixer, or as it fixes in one location as Peabody accepts his guest’s challenge to play an extraordinary variety of instruments both ordinary and obscure, the instruments appearing before the camera in a cloned one-dog band, and as it soars along with Sherman and his bully-turned-crush over Renaissance Italy.

Occasionally, the script matches the visuals punch-for-punch in the wit department. Its co-lead Mr. Sherman (voiced by Ty Burrell) is an inveterate punster (“You can’t have your cake and edict too!” he cracks about Marie Antoinette) who, as the world’s smartest dog, and perhaps the world’s most accomplished living creature (he has mastered, in addition to every instrument imaginable, the art of mixology, fencing, cooking, and, of course, time travel, and on and on) has had a detached view on reality ever since, as a puppy, he refused to play fetch because it would be an “exercise in futility.”

The boy who no longer wants to adopt Mr. Peabody, in response: “I don’t want this one, he’s sarcastic.”

That tyke is the first of many youngsters to not get Mr. Peabody’s erudite comedic stylings – “I don’t get it” is a frequent refrain from the kids who surround him – and it’s not hard to imagine a similar sentiment emanating out into the audience, where adults might find the film’s historically-informed jokes mildly amusing, but kids are unlikely to find anything beyond Mr. Peabody’s appearance (a puppy in glasses!) particularly riveting. Which means the rest of the film has to do everything it can to cater to its young audience whenever Mr. Peabody isn’t showing off for the grown-ups. (Which is why our heroes are shot, at one point, out of the Sphinx’s butt…)

This brings us to Sherman, a child who was abandoned as a baby and taken in by Mr. Peabody, likely still feeling the sting of his own adoption rejection, though the film never comes out and says it. So Mr. Peabody and Sherman are two unwanted misfits cast out by society who form their own unconventional bond (a wordless montage, even more stylized than the rest of the film, rather evocatively rewinds the clock and shows us their relationship from its beginnings). The wedge driven between them comes in the form of a society that holds Sherman at arm’s length for having been raised by a parent whom people do not understand. A cruel social worker is adamant that a dog cannot raise a boy (she just is, no reason is given, she is kind of a horrible villain) and a fellow student put out by Sherman’s knowledge of history bullies Sherman in the lunchroom, calling him a dog – an obedient, stupid animal.

Everything that is subpar about this film stems from the relationships described above. From Sherman’s end, we get most of the film’s clichéd, tired humor. (Though plenty of clichés find their way to the canine lead: in a fencing duel, he exposes a Frenchman’s underpants, and responds to an entreaty about whether something is clear with “Crystal,” which, come on?) Fluctuating frenetically from the basest humor to wildly whimsical and intelligent gags (a recurring gag involving Da Vinci’s creepy automaton baby pays off big every time), the film feels like it was written by Dexter and DeeDee of Dexter’s Laboratory, with each of them tackling half the script and refusing to collaborate on the other’s half. (“Nooo DEEDEE, you can not see my genius puns because you will RUIN them!”)

Make no mistake; while Burrell’s Sahari dry performance as Peabody elevates the film’s humor bona fides, he is by no means a great animated character: he is written as far to cocksure and divinely perfect to engender enough sympathy for that. But he is the Renaissance compared to his co-leads Dark Age; Sherman is fine on his own, a typical sitcom kid, curious and a little sassy, but, asked to fall head-over-heals for his oppressor, a monstrous kindergarten Angelica Pickles, he becomes a sort of grotesque in the hands of writers who take the “Kids bully each other because they secretly like each other” maxim to absurd, space-time continuum- destroying lengths. Peabody and Sherman get lost in time (and bring the past into the present) because Sherman tries to prove to his aggressor-cum-lady-love Penny that he is not, like his father, “a dog,”, something that is implied as, and that he takes as an insult. In softening the edges off Penny once she gets to know Sherman, the filmmakers attempt a character resurrection akin to the one Glee’s producers’ sorta-kinda pulled off with snark monster’s Santana and (especially) Kitty, and… it falls short. It’s not simply unsatisfying to see everyone in the cast take her initial insult of being a dog on as a positive credo which affirms loyalty and dedication – “I’m a dog!” – while Sherman gets a chaste elementary school kiss planted on him; it’s morally murky and has the potential to instill negative ideas about bullying.

Maybe I’d be kinder to this film’s affirmation of proud doghood if Mr. Peabody actually were, in any way, a dog. Aside from one heartened tail wag and the implication that he bites and could be put down, it is clear that Peabody is a genius first, adventurer second, dedicated father third, and anything resembling a dog somewhere around last. It would seem that the only reason Mr. Peabody is a dog, and the only reason his canine nature is incorporated into the story, is because in the animated series that inspired this film, Mr. Peabody is a dog. Which works fine for three minute chunks of historical absurdity and fits this feature-length production like a fur coat that shrank in the wash. (Didn’t know there was a Rocky and Bullwinkle segment featuring these characters? Congratulations, you are most of this film’s audience!) The filmmakers do not have anything truly artistically interesting to say about Mr. Peabody being a dog who is also a genius and father, trapped in a world of humans who do not understand him. Likewise, it is hard to imagine there was huge audience demand to see these characters brought to life by the animators at DreamWorks. (“Still no Mr. Peabody! For shame!”)

Mr. Peabody and Sherman has made a quite a large amount of money, and yet the cash in the coffers feels empty, the expense of harried parents looking for a sitter that happens to span all of time. In an age where animated films are experiencing something of an Enlightenment (even with Pixar in its downturn phase) shutting up kids for two hours does not need to be the bar we set for animated film tolerability circa 2014.

If this is the Animation Enlightenment, is Ernest & Celestine the apple falling on our collective head, illustrating to us what gravity truly is? (“Apocryphal,” Sherman might shout! Shut up Sherman!) What is it that sets this little French production — like Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a film about two misfits from different species forging an unlikely familial bond much to the chagrin of “the system” — apart from DreamWorks latest uninspiring hit?

In lieu of saying “everything; every single thing that matters to me as a filmgoer,” let’s dive in to what makes Ernest & Celestine my most adored film of the year thus far.

Infused with a sense of whimsy that appeals to children and the children within us all alike – our ability to accept and appreciate storybook flights of fancy (mice maintain a dental-obsessed society that must steal bear teeth from the above-ground bear world, which makes no sense and perfect sense at the same time) as well as the impressionistic storybook visuals that so wonderfully inform the watercolor-tinged animation is imprinted so deeply in our consciousness that it cannot be divorced from the very thing that makes us human – Ernest & Celestine is a film that doesn’t even twitch toward adult-audience friendliness. There are no savvy pop culture gags or mature references that will fly over kids heads here. It’s the kind of film that would leave even the most child-averse spectator wishing they had a progeny of their own to share the film with; watching it, you wonder, “Why don’t I have children to show this to?!”

In lieu of references to Zumba, the film ingratiates its co-leads (Ernest the bohemian bear and Celestine the orphaned mouse) to us by making them dreamers and outcasts in the classic mold. Ernest abandoned his family’s long legacy of taking on judgeships in the capitalist bear world in hopes of becoming an entertainer, and all it has left this fantastic instrumentalist is the opportunity to beg, in song, for food in the street. Celestine lives out her days below ground in the militaristic mouse society as an indentured servant tasked with retrieving bear teeth, needed to push the great mouse empire to greater heights. Taught to fear bears unquestioningly, Celestine secretly finds the notion of them romantic and wants only to sketch the nearly-mythic creatures.

After forming a temporary alliance – the kind a shark would form with a lamprey – that allows both to get something society has forced them to need (food for the destitute bear, teeth for the reprimanded mouse), Ernest and Celestine have their cover blown and the misfits are truly cast out from society, convicts on the run. But this exile allows them to explore for once not what they need but what they want — companionship and someone with whom they feel comfortable sharing their art.

The two hole up in Ernest’s drafty mountain shack, at first wary of each other’s presence. But Celestine, all pluck and curiosity, wears down her grouchy roommate, teasing him that she will be impossible to kill (she poo-poos the effectiveness of mousetraps and scolds bears for using inhumane glue to kill mice), refusing to leave his side until he acknowledges that the reason he is wary to allow a mouse to stay with him is outright prejudice. Even as a rebel, he can’t shake the edict that society has passed down to him: mice and bears should not be allies, let alone friends.

The divinely pleasant second act, a slice of animated heaven, sets out to prove Ernest wrong. In Celestine, Ernest sees immense artistic potential, and after revealing his own artistic soul to his new friend, he goes out of his way to foster hers, providing Celestine with canvas and an always willing living model. Celestine sees in Ernest a gentle soul who has grown ornery through lack of care, and she sets out to look after her new father figure, even holding an umbrella over his head at night so he will not sneeze as snow falls on his nose. When Celestine gets cabin fever (she, unlike her bear companion, is not a fan of winter hibernation) Ernest builds a peephole for her so she can paint the winter landscape outside; what follows is a minute-long sequence for the ages.

A wintery blue line Celestine paints comes to life, rising and falling to the violin-playing of an inspired Ernest. As Ernest’s song grows more jocular, the line becomes a leafless tree, and from that tree, green Spring emanates. It is all meant to be a simple transition that shows us Ernest and Celestine have made it through the winter and can now head outside into the Springtime sunshine, but it also proves that, though artistic collaboration, Ernest and Celestine make each other better, more complete. Once they understand this, they must prove it to the societies that spurn them.

It’s appropriate that our characters dream of lives where they are accepted for their artistic talent in societies that prize military might (mice children are expected to do calisthenics consisting of pushups with mousetraps) or capitalist fervor (the bear family that ends up the brunt of all the jokes runs a candy shop and the dental office across the street, doubling down on the popularity of candy), since Ernest & Celestine combines art and music like so few animated films before it have. The animation is scruffy and imperfect, intentionally calling to mind the pastel simplicity of a children’s book; it evokes more with the three or four sketchy lines that make up Ernest’s fluffy face than the sleek and slick character animation of DreamWorks can usually muster. The score is a marvel, with violin and piano representing Ernest and a virtuosic clarinet scampering up and down the scale playing the role of tiny Celestine. Thanks to Ernest’s own playing, diagetic music becomes an integral part of the film. Early in their friendship, Celestine hears Ernest passionately playing a moving ballad which is punctuated at random intervals by emphatic bangs that shake the foundation of the entire house; it is revealed as we move upstairs that Ernest is smashing the keys of the piano so that marshmallows sitting atop the piano will be thrown forcefully into his gaping maw.

Inevitably, our dreamers are thrown just as mirthlessly back into the horrors of the world in which they live, their pastoral reverie in the wilderness brought crashing to an end when a rainstorm reveals their location to both the mouse and bear police forces on the hunt for the pair. Celestine is captured by the bears, Ernest is hilariously stuffed into cells far too small for him by the mice, and through threat of execution (Celestine is to be executed by mousetrap, and we wonder what might befall Ernest [a bear trap perhaps?] until, hilariously, we see that the mice, always dealing with their inferiority complex, have rigged a bear-sized mousetrap which they test on a stuffed bear), neither will give up on their friend.

Both Ernest and Celestine are put on trial for their crimes as judges shout from their places of power that the mouse and bear worlds must remain separate. The judges are so fervent in their refusal to hear out any plea for love or compassion that neither judge notices that they have become engulfed in flames — flames which started in the mouse world and made their way into the bear world, an outright refusal of their insistence that separation is possible. In a visual feast sure to frighten and delight kids in equal measure, both Ernest and Celestine save their aggressors from certain death by fire even as the judges shout monstrously. When each judge realizes that they have been saved by someone who had no cause to save them, they ask their captive what they would like. Each responds quickly that they would like to be reunited with their friend. Accordingly, the film — perhaps the superior of even recent first ballot Hall of Fame inductees like Frozen and The Lego Movie — could not end on a more perfect note than the one it gives us: everything melts away – buildings, spectators – as Ernest and Celestine embrace, two sketched figures over a blank white screen. There is nothing in all the world but their friendship. The two return to their mountain cabin and begin an artistic collaboration on the best story they know: the story of how they became friends. And it is a great story indeed.

The Queen of Air and Darkness

Just like my prior sermon on The Sword in the Stone, I’m going to begin this one on The Queen of Air and Darkness with a cruel, vital critique.

The title character doesn’t speak a single line!

… and…

… er… that turns out to be a very effective strut in T.H. White’s storytelling structure.

Look, I don’t have a good, general, hard-hitting criticism to open with. And maybe I don’t even have any stern pronouncements to sustain my disapproval through to a cold, rueful conclusion. Maybe someday I’ll grow up to be big and strong like the adult book critics, but not today. Today, I just like this book too damn much.

Act One

In 1939, The Witch in the Wood was published as the second book in T.H. White’s Arthurian series following The Sword in the Stone. It would later be substantially rewritten and renamed The Queen of Air and Darkness for the 1958 series compilation, The Once and Future King.

Why, you ask, does that heading up there say Act One, when this is clearly book two? It’s because this book is tremendously different from book one. Through the modern lens of the three-act structure, this book appears to be laying the foundation, and it’s laying the foundation for something much different than The Sword in the Stone was preparing us for. It is true, the first book did establish themes we get a glimpse of in this one. Merlyn employed some unforgettable, unconventional teaching devices to teach the Wart—or to let him teach himself—the things Kings must know. The Wart learned about war, he learned about human struggle, and he learned about politics. And now that he is King Arthur, he does have an opportunity to channel those lessons.

But King Lot isn’t the real villain. He’s just a patsy. He’s just a pawn, or at most a knight, on this board.

So this is Act One. And it’s the Act One for a far different Act Two than the one that might have otherwise followed The Sword in the Stone.

Saxons, Normans, and Gaels, Oh My

The black cat lay on its side in the firelight as if it were dead. This was because its legs were tied together, like the legs of a roe deer which is to be carried home from the hunt. It had given up struggling and now lay gazing into the fire with slit eyes and heaving sides, curiously resigned.

The cat ends up in a boiling cauldron by the end of the scene, and that’s the side story of this chapter. The first chapter. This was quite the surprise coming off the indelibly cheery Sword in the Stone. Anyway, the main strand is upstairs, where Queen Morgause’s four children (Gareth, Gawaine, Agravaine, and Gaheris) whisper to each other about the Normans’ past wrongs to their family. And, alright, maybe I do have a complaint: I can’t keep these characters straight. They’re all redhead Gaelic kids with confused moral compasses, they’re never apart from each other, and, of course, their names all sound the same. I’m sure a very careful reading—with notes, and flowcharts—will reveal more about their characters and their individual differences. But aside from a very interesting scene involving a unicorn and their mother’s transient love, we’re going to need to wait until their arcs interact with Arthur’s to know what they stand for in this story. That’s disappointing, given the amount of pages dedicated to them in this book, but I have high hopes that it’ll pay off shortly.

My high hopes are mostly founded on the circumstances of their upbringing, as Gaels and as family enemies to the Pendragons.

You see, Arthur’s central conflict in this book is with their father, King Lot. As the children recite to each other the story of their family’s bad blood with the Pendragons (Uther the Conqueror slew their grandfather and took their widowed grandmother as wife), King Lot marches to war. “Revenge!” exclaims Gawaine. But Merlyn takes a different view. The point he drives at with Arthur is that King Lot seeks no redress for any particular wrongs, nor is he raising his banner for any moral or legal cause. Lot and his league of Celtic lords are marching on England because they can. The throne appears weak to them, inherited by a boy king with an unusual legal basis for his claim. The risk to their persons is minimal, because the chivalric code of the High Middle Ages demands it, above all else1. All that’s left is to stir the passions of their subjects by condemning Norman oppression and the Pendragon legacy.

This conflict foments so many cool things.

First, Merlyn’s purpose in the story comes into sharp focus. Sure, we know that he’s Arthur’s mentor. But now we know why Arthur’s mentor had to be a crazy old coot from the future. Arthur needs someone capable of telling him about the evils of war, and there is nobody better for that than someone who has lived through World War II. Arthur needs someone who can study the long arc of history like we can, knows a flimsy casus belli when he sees one, and knows how “racial histories” can be at once meaningless and critically important. Arthur needs someone who knows that King Lot is not truly a superior man to the peasants he commands. A man born and raised in the High Middle Ages is unlikely to share our (the audience’s) perspective on such matters, but a man born and raised in the 20th century just might. This is cool enough for me to forgive (but not entirely forget) much of the silliness of the first book.

Arthur also comes to the foreground and begins earnest development as a man and as a King. I’m not necessarily upset that he was an innocent sponge for the incredible world around him in The Sword in the Stone, but this is far more interesting. I have three favorite Arthur scenes throughout the story. The first is atop the battlements:

Arthur, who had been playing with a loose stone which he had dislodged from one of the machicolations, got tired of thinking and leaned over with the stone in his hand.
“How small Curselaine looks.”
“He is tiny.”
“I wonder what would happen if I dropped this stone on his head?”
Merlyn measured the distance.
“At thirty-two feet per second,” he said, “I think it would kill him dead. Four hundred g is enough to shatter the skull.”
“I have never killed anybody like that,” said the boy, in an inquisitive tone.
Merlyn was watching.
“You are the King,” he said.
Then he added, “Nobody can say anything to you if you try.”
Arthur stayed motionless, leaning out with the stone in his hand. Then, without his body moving, his eyes slid sideways to meet his tutor’s.
The stone knocked Merlyn’s hat off as clean as a whistle, and the old gentleman chased him featly down the stairs, waving his wand of lignum vitae.
And he was happy.

This scene is so laden with both characterization and metaphor it’s impossible not to completely love. The obvious focus is Arthur’s refusal to exercise his absolute sovereignty as King in such a manner. But also: Arthur regards the workman from such height and distance, and yet he knows his name! Meanwhile, allow me to gush over the line: “Merlyn was watching.” It’s a beautiful sort of understatement, where White conveys the crushing gravity of the situation by refusing to employ any sort of adjective or adverb. Instead, he drains all detail from the scene except for Arthur and his stone, and takes three words to tell us that Merlyn finds those two objects the most important things in the world in this moment.

Arthur not only passes the test, he makes us wonder if we should ever have been worried in the first place.

Later in the story, Arthur comes of age in the full view of his war council. He delivers a speech to Kay, Merlyn, and the assembled nobility that beings hesitantly and haltingly, but gathers steam as his future comes into vision. Merlyn continues to employ his finest technique: refusing to help Arthur pass the most important tests of his youth, so that he may be truly ready to face those later in his life. The speech itself contains Arthur’s central thesis in this story, and presumably his thesis in the two stories to come: Might does not make right. His adversary, King Lot, may believe that his power entitles him to make war like it’s a grand afternoon fox hunt (a potent simile White returns to again and again), but Arthur sees how wrong that is for the conscripts sent to the war, the villages burned, and the people terrorized. King Arthur proposes a new order of chivalry, one built around truer notions of fairness and kindness to all people—not just the “noble” ones.

But to bring this new chivalry to life, Arthur needs to take some lessons from his father2.

At Bedegraine, Arthur begins the battle by falling upon Lot’s camps in the darkness of the night, explicitly ignoring the knightly convention of pitching the battle in the morning after breakfast. Not only that, but he orders his cavalry to run down nobleman and conscript alike—even ordering his knights to avoid the commoners, as the lords are the true perpetrators of the rebellion. And when Lot’s retinue is in dire straits, French cavalry spring from hiding in the forest to deal the last crushing blow of the first day. So as to show his opponents—and his allies—what it meant to be at war, Arthur had intended that “they were to press the war home to its real lords—until they themselves were ready to restrain from warfare, being confronted with its reality.” That line may be somewhat reserved, but put into the context of the actual battle—described vividly with the sounds of thundering hoofbeats of the warhorses, the quaking of the earth beneath them, and the immense shattering of arms—I think it’s pretty clear that what Arthur is doing is crushing a rebellion. Ruthlessly. Daddy would be proud.

The second day of battle ends with King Arthur accepting Lot’s surrender. King Arthur’s ferocity wins the day, but as for its real goal—showing the barons and dukes real war, so that they may refrain from making a hobby of it—its success has yet to be proven.

Questing

The book isn’t without its levity.

King Pellinore, Sir Grummore Grummursum, and Sir Palomides (a newly-introduced Saracen knight) are out questing, and they deliver to us some truly weird scenes. Including their very first scene, where they arrive by barge in the Orkney Isles (Scotland), humorously unaware that their political affiliations place them technically at war with the locals. The locals draw up in a circle, astounded by the wealth on display in the knights’ armor, and then “in the minds of both women and men, irrespective of age or circumstance, there began to grow, almost visibly, almost tangibly, the enormous, the incalculable miasma which is the leading feature of the Gaelic brain.”

Huh.

So far, The Once and Future King has done some strange things with “racial” concepts. It must be said that ethnic groupings in the middle ages were important. Identifying with one’s “nation” didn’t become exceedingly important until the 18th century, so if you were going to identify with anything on that scale, it would be with the people whose language you spoke. In high medieval England, the Anglo-Saxons spoke the west Germanic language that, by this time, would probably be called English. The Scots (often “Gaels” in this tale) would have mostly spoken Scottish Gaelic, the Irish had their own brand of Gaelic, and the Normans spoke French. There are accounts of Anglo-Saxons displeased with the Norman ruling class, and there are accounts of hostility between the Scots as a people and England as a ruling entity. So a certain enmity between peoples seems like an appropriate thing to include in medieval fantasy, and indeed, it’s an important part of Arthur’s place in the world (even if nowadays serious anthropologists avoid the word “race” because it makes all sorts of crude and flat-out incorrect implications). White takes care to distance Arthur from this enmity in some ways: at Bedegraine, Arthur sends his peasant levies to engage and occupy Lot’s levies, and part of Arthur’s justification for it is that the peasants’ “racial struggle” had a “certain reality even if it was a wicked one.” So while Arthur is willing to let his subjects settle their differences, it seems he does not see those differences to be worth fighting over, if he even sees the differences at all. But then you get scenes like the knights’ landing in Orkney, where White makes frustratingly vague declarations about the Gaelic people, and he tends to cast Scots and Irishmen as all of his drunks and cheats and wicked children. I’m inclined to be charitable given that he gave Arthur’s character a feeling of brotherhood for men of all cultures and tongues, but I have my eye on you, White.

Anyway, the knights go on to (continue to) produce some enjoyable, if a little confused, satire of knightly romance. King Pellinore pines for an unattainable lady in a tower—though really, in the end, it was just that their letters to each other weren’t getting delivered—while Sir Grummursum and Sir Palomides fuss over his cessation of the hunt for Glatisant, the Questing Beast. By the end of the story, they stitch together and dress in a tandem beast costume to try to reignite Pellinore’s passion for the hunt, and for their troubles they only succeed in kindling a different sort of passion in Glatisant herself. It reads quite a bit like a Bugs Bunny cartoon acted by the Monty Python crew. And as satire, it functions a little bit like that, too: it’s worth some giggles, but maybe it’s taking the absurdism a little further than my unsophisticated American sense of humor can put in context.

The three knights serve another purpose in that they’re geographically close to Queen Morgause and her children, so there are a handful of opportunities to juxtapose the Norman (and Saracen) knights with the Gaelic nobility. Queen Morgause makes a pass at the knights, for reasons we are unsure of. The attempt is implied to be unsuccessful, and I wager it’s because of the knights’ delightful obliviousness. The Unicorn hunt, where the four children rope a frightened scullery maid into being the bait so that they may ultimately slay a graceful and peaceful creature, might be some sort of horrible inversion on the pointless but completely charming hunt for the Questing Beast. The children are filled with the fecklessness and occasionally wicked impulses of youth, where the knights seem to be youthfully earnest and innocent. I do so ever hope that this is meant to be characterization for the coming stories, because it could be very cool to see these characters all grown up—and even sitting at the same Round Table, judging by some of their names.

Air and Darkness

The book ends with the King and Queen Pellinore’s wedding. Given the characters involved, we’re not terribly surprised to find it delightful and a little bit silly. But the very last page of the book casts a tremendous shadow over the entire story: Arthur, alone in his throne room, is visited by Queen Morgause. She’s still chasing Normans, it seems, but this time, she brought a Spancel—a long tape of human skin, taken from the silhouette of a dead man—and used it as part of a foul spell to enchant and seduce Arthur.

In this book, as in many tellings of the Arthurian legends, Morgause is Arthur’s half-sister: born of Arthur’s mother (Igraine) and the Earl of Cornwall. The narrator has this to say3:

It is why Sir Thomas Malory called his very long book the Death of Arthur. Although nine tenths of the story seems to be about knights jousting and quests for the holy grail and things of that sort, the narrative is a whole, and it deals with the reasons why the young man came to grief at the end. It is the tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy, of sin coming home to roost.

And it seems The Once and Future King, too, is destined to end in tragedy.

The Queen of Air and Darkness is a wonderful story, peppered with humor and horror. I’d say it’s got just the right amounts of both, though the humor was a bit silly for my taste. But, like The Sword in the Stone, its greatest achievements are the ones it promises to set up for future stories. Arthur’s next task is going to be, presumably, to establish his Round Table and to get the knights of the realm to actually sit at it. He’s going to have lots of different backgrounds and personalities to grapple with as well as a leaden political climate, and they’re going to test his nascent leadership capabilities.

Hopefully, some of those personalities include the redhead children. I’ll be a little angry if I spent chapters puzzling at the purpose of their ambiguously racist antics for nothing.


  1. And their social standing means that they’re worth far more captured alive and ransomed than they are if killed. 
  2. Remember how excited I was to learn about Uther Pendragon’s legacy? We get glimpses of it throughout the story, and it makes me hunger for more. The most memorable moment is Arthur’s first scene in the book, where he wears a velvet robe that Uther had commissioned to be trimmed with the beards of his vanquished foes. Whoa. 
  3. This is an explicit nod to an old chivalric romance, Le Morte d’Arthur, written by Sir Thomas Malory during the War of the Roses. It’s considered something of a canonical telling of the legends and was apparently White’s source for much of this story. 

2013 Year in Review: Films #11-25

2013 Film Ranking, Part IV

I only half-apologize for splitting these last twenty-five movies into two posts. I really did need the extra room to talk about some of these films.

25. Last Vegas
24. Delivery Man
23. World War Z
22. Rush
21. Short Term 12

I think World War Z is the runner-up for most deceptive trailer. I was quite worried about this movie. That they were going to take a movie about the Zombie apocalypse and make it a love story instead (already saw Warm Bodies and it didn’t go over particularly well). Fortunately, the trailer shows all the awful longing in the entire film. Instead I get a very good movie with Brad Pitt visiting various human strongholds in search of the source of the disease and any potential cure. The imagery and plot keep this film moving at a good pace with few lulls. This is certainly one of the better zombie films I’ve seen, a good thriller that’s not too focused on the horror aspects. While it doesn’t follow the book it take it’s title from, I feel it provides a different look at societal shortcomings and cooperation in an apocalyptic scenario.

20. Elysium
19. Iron Man 3
18. Now You See Me
17. Redemption
16. Lone Survivor

Now You See Me is a film that has some flaws and yet I enjoyed it from beginning to end. Sure some of the twists didn’t make so much sense. Also some of the cool concepts introduced as narrative devices were woefully underused. A secret magic society?! Sign. Me. Up. Each actor played their roles well even if some of the magic tricks weren’t top shelf. This movie isn’t deserving of any awards but it was a fun summer romp that I’d see again.

Redemption is the story of a war veteran, played by Jason Statham, who’s done a lot wrong in his life. The film follows him as he starts to pull himself out of poverty and a drunken stupor by beating people up for a gang. Statham is absolutely awesome in this movie. While he’s still a rough-and-tumble not-so-nice-guy, he’s a guy you’re clearly rooting for to get on the right track. Also he actually has some acting chops on display. I’m really hopeful we’ll get to see more of this side of Jason Statham in the future.

15. Fast and Furious 6
14. Star Trek Into Darkness
13. Philomena
12. Thor: The Dark World
11. Europa Report

In Europa Report, we listen and watch the story of a mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa, through found footage and narration by the Chief Executive of Europa Ventures, played by Embeth Davidtz. I’ve never been a fan of found footage films, the camera shaking generally makes me nauseous. Fortunately, the film makers skipped that trope when making this film. It’s still a suspense thriller set in the near-future. A group of astronauts have left the safety of Earth to explore Europa. At somepoint, their communications array fails and this starts the found footage portions. The discoveries and trials this group faces as they explore far from home is interesting and still in the realm of possibility. It’s a great little film that deserves far more attention than it received.

One more post to wrap up my Year in Review Films series, I finally get to my Top 10 Films of 2013.