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Monday
Jul252016

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

The Trouble with Triples

One of my first thoughts after watching The Force Awakens last December was, "Now that Star Wars is relevant again, who the hell cares about Star Trek 3?"

Let's back up a bit. The Star Wars prequel trilogy has its defenders, I guess, but the general consensus is that George Lucas botched his return to the franchise that made him a gajillionaire and a pop culture deity. Encumbered by sleepy performances, recycled plots, and the perfunctory nature of prequel stories, fans came away from 2005's Revenge of the Sith feeling like they'd wasted six years enduring an egomaniac's brainstorming workshop, instead of embarking on a deliberate journey of imagination. Four years later, J.J. Abrams' Trek reboot divided an already shaky geek community by providing a Star Wars film wrapped in Star Trek accoutrements.

Some moviegoers loved the free-wheeling galactic-revenge plot, which was really just a frame on which to drape a colorful tapestry of characters who hadn't yet become their iconic space-adventurer selves. Others saw "Nu Trek" as Abrams' flashy, off-key audition for Star Wars Episode VII, and wished he'd just emailed his fan-film to Lucas instead of putting it in theatres. I'm in the former camp, and I accepted the parallel-universe plot device, which linked the old TV series and movies to a "next generation" of flag bearers.

Four years later, Star Trek Into Darkness soured me on the new direction entirely. It began with Abrams' gross, corporate-shill denial that Benedict Cumberbatch would play series-favorite-villain, Khan. It ended when "Nu Trek 2" turned out to be a watered-down remake of Star Trek II: The Wrath of...you guesed it, Khan.

A couple years later, I was ecstatic to hear that Abrams had landed the next Star Wars directing gig. Maybe playing in the galactic sandbox of his dreams would allow him to cut loose. The resulting film, The Force Awakens, was even more divisive than Star Trek 2009. Personally, I thought it was the perfect blend of homage and torch-passing, and it made me excited to see where these characters would go next. Episode VII also went on to be the highest-grossing film of the year, which prompted the question I posed at the head of this review, "Now that Star Wars is relevant again, who the hell cares about Star Trek 3?"

Having seen Star Trek Beyond, the answer does not include the word "me". Though the creative team is new, the ideas and direction are decidedly old. Some hail Beyond as a return to the fun, episodic spirit of the 1960s television series, but I’m not convinced that A) the filmmakers pull it off and B) this was a wise decision in the first place. Lets’ break it down:

1. Continuity, Schmontinuity. Star Trek Into Darkness was, no pun intended, a dark film, tonally and narratively. In it, the United Federation of Planets is revealed to have sanctioned a sinister Black Ops division that defrosted (and subsequently lost control of) the cryogenically frozen terrorist genius, Khan. The Enterprise crew races to stop Khan and unveil the powerful conspiracy that created him; in the process, they commit an act of war against the Klingon Empire and lose Captain Kirk (Chris Pine)—who is subsequently resurrected.

None of these events are commented on in Star Trek Beyond. Instead, director Justin Lin and writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung sidestep the first two films' nagging problem* by plopping us down in the middle of Year Three. We’re told that the crew is restless, homesick, and kind of lost. It seems they're exhausted by all the space adventures we never got to see.

2. To Boldly Go Where We’ve Already Gone Before. While visiting the remote Starbase Yorktown, Captain Kirk and company receive a distress call from a strange ship that’s come hurtling at them from a mysterious nebula. The Enterprise gang rushes to investigate (because, of course, they’re the only ones who can), and wind up stranded on a rock planet for most of the movie.

It turns out a terrorist genius named Krall (Idris Elba) has been using the planet as intergalactic flypaper, catching ships and taking prisoners in his decades-long search for the missing half of an ancient super-weapon—which he plans to use in exacting his vengeance against Starfleet.

If you’re worried that Krall’s motivations and machinations sound a little too close to those of Nero’s in Nu Trek and Khan’s in Into Darkness, fear not: when the villain’s space ship crash lands in the middle of the bustling city during the climax; when the bad guy disguises himself as a Federation member to blend in amidst the ensuing chaos; and when Kirk offers to sacrifice himself in order to stop the reality-destroying, black-hole mega-bomb, it’s totally different than when you watched these movies seven and three years ago.

Also, the mystery of Krall's identity bears absolutely no resemblance to the Big Reveal in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.

3. Caricature Development. Into Darkness plunged Abram’s Star Trek universe into bleak territory. Beyond swings way too far in the opposite direction. Besides a few scenes of faux gravitas, the characters in this outing are cartoons; Pegg and Jung are so focused on cranking up the snappy banter to 11 (hundred) that they forget to imbue Kirk, Bones (Karl Urban), Spock (Zachary Qunto), and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) with any recognizable human traits. The writers fall back on the Star Trek style guide: Bones is grumpy, Spock is logical beyond even the stiffness that series creator Gene Roddenberry had imagined, and Uhura—well, she and Spock have a tiff before she gets kidnapped.

The 2009 film balanced levity with drama. Star Trek Beyond sets the tone for its two hours with a scene in which Kirk wrestles a tiny CGI gremlin against one of the least convincing green screen backdrops this side of Birdemic. The writers shoehorn in some of the meditations on aging that helped elevate the early-80s Star Trek films above villain-of-the-week sci-fi, but none of it works.

The original cast were in their fifties by the time Wrath of Khan came out in 1982, and had already invested three years of television and one feature film into their characters. Pine and company are still in their twenties and thirties, and have two tonally inconsistent movies under their belts--so the “Woe is me, I’m old” laments come off as bullshit posturing. Though the creative team continues to milk connections to the old cast, the photograph we see late in the film of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and the rest is nothing but a sad reminder of how superfluous this new series is.

Sorry, I haven’t spent a lot of time remarking on Beyond’s particulars, mostly because it is an unremarkable film. There’s a new alien ally, the warrior Jaylah (Sofia Buetella), who mispronounces names and learns about Earth culture through rap music. She kicks a lot of bad-guy butt and looks like an albino Jessica Chastain cosplaying Darth Maul as the Road Warrior while doing it. Krall’s powers don’t make any sense and, after the Big Reveal, the fact that he even has powers makes even less sense.

Director Lin manages to make his attention-deficient Fast and the Furious directing sensibilities even more boring than usual (Hint: Cutting between images every five seconds and twirling the camera into abstract compositions every twenty minutes doesn’t make a movie exciting. In fact, when combined with two hours of weak characterization and cold script leftovers, it can make a film downright intolerable).

It was announced last week that this iteration of Star Trek will return with a fourth installment, and that Chris Hemsworth is set to reprise, in some fashion, as Captain Kirk’s deceased father, George. I can’t tell you how disheartening thist news is to me. The opening ten minutes of Star Trek 2009 comprise one of my favorite sequences from any film, ever. The new series has never touched the emotional or visceral impact of the USS Kelvin’s last stand, and now it seems the writing team is headed back to the graveyard with shovels in hand and bets in mind that no one will notice that, creatively, they’re still treading rapidly evaporating water. Hell, I'm amazed there hasn't been an uproar over Beyond's poster, which is a direct lift from the series' least popular entry.

On the bright side, CBS has also announced a new Star Trek TV series. I say, keep Trek on the small screen for now. Scrap Pine, Urban, Quinto, and the rest. The material hasn't been worth their talents in more than half a decade. Instead, give us a few solid seasons of new characters to believe in and new frontiers to conquer. Wait a few years, and bring Star Trek back to theatres. Maybe by then, audiences will have reason to follow.

*During two two-plus hour movies, the Enterprise crew never actually embarks on their five-year mission. Thematically, this is akin to Bruce Wayne still deciding on which animal to be at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises.

Friday
Jul222016

The Ratings Game (1984)

Little Boxes

Please forgive the redundancy if I’ve written about this before, but one of the hardest parts of being a film critic, for me, is realizing that a movie I’d praised for its originality was really the outgrowth of something I hadn’t yet seen. I know, I know. Everything’s based on something, right?

Earlier this year, I rediscovered Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend’s biting 1987 entertainment-industry satire. In it, Townsend plays Robert Taylor, a struggling actor whose journey up and down the success ladder is depicted by his own fantastical takes on popular movies and TV shows. In that review, I remarked on how “Weird” Al Yankovich’s 1989 film, UHF, was a wackier version of an identical concept, wherein a perpetually unemployed goofball lucks his way into creating offbeat programming for his own TV channel. As it turns out, there’s an antecedent to both movies, Danny DeVito’s 1984 comedy, The Ratings Game.

DeVito stars as Vic De Salvo, the wealthy co-owner of a national trucking company who lives with his brother, Goody (Louis Giambalvo), in Hollywood. Eager to shake off his humble New Jersey upbringing and make it big in entertainment, Vic spends his days knocking on doors at TV networks. Sadly, no one is interested in his Princeton-set, Three’s Company-style sitcom, Sittin’ Pretty—until one day, when the Head of Comedy Programming at MBC gets canned, and decides to greenlight Vic's pilot as a final “FU” to the executives.

The episode (which Vic not only writes and directs but also stars in) is terrible, but the higher-ups are contractually obligated to put it on the air. Smarmy head honcho Parker Braithwaite (Gerrit Graham) tells Vic that his creation will die a swift death when it airs opposite the World Series. Distraught, Vic turns to his new girlfriend, Francine (Rhea Perlman), who happens to work at the Computron Ratings Service. They hatch a plan to get the top 100 most influential families of the 1,500 nationwide ratings households to make Sittin’ Pretty’s debut a smash hit.

That plan comprises the bulk of The Ratings Game’s second and third acts, and I don’t want to spoil its silly and ingenious details. Suffice it to say the mafia figures heavily into things, and Vic’s wildest dreams come true--but at a cost. DeVito and writers Jim Mulholland and Michael Barrie create some wonderfully deranged commercials for Vic’s newly minted production company, Paisan Pictures, such as the pimp drama Nunzio’s Girls, and the cuddly calamari of Saturday morning cartoon sensation, The Goombas. The joke is, of course, that the bits we see of these shows are not dissimilar from MBC’s regular lineup, which includes the Charlie’s Angels rip-off H.O.T.B.O.D.S. and a Bosom Buddies-type army comedy called W.A.C.ked Out.

The parody elements are spot-on, but DeVito and Perlman make The Ratings Game work. I don’t want to play armchair relationships expert here, but the couple’s on-screen affection feels like an extension of their real-life romance. Vic and Francine bicker, make goo-goo eyes at one another, and casually talk about things that bother them with a relaxed intimacy that can’t simply be written into a script. Sure, sometimes the dialogue is a clunky and too cute by half, but the earnestness with which the actors deliver it is undeniably smooth.

Earnestness. That’s a word you don’t hear associated with a lot of modern comedies, which often play like cobbled-together improv sessions built on performers trying to out-gross or out-random on another. DeVito gets the most from his cast, which, for fans of 80s American cinema, is a character-actor cornucopia that includes Vincent Schiavelli, Robert Costanzo, Kenneth Kimmins, among others. Even Michael Richards and Kevin McCarthy pop up, in very similar roles to the ones they would play five years later in UHF. Though the parts are often painfully archetypal, I never once felt that the performers had run roughshod over Mulholland and Barrie’s tight screenplay.

The Ratings Game debuted as a Showtime movie in 1984. Two years later, Rodney Dangerfield starred in Back to School, playing a street-wise businessman who tries to rig an institution--in this case, college--that considers him below its notice.* Hollywood Shuffle came out a year later, and UHF two years after that.

Vic De Salvo is ultimately a corrupt figure, and in a different context, some of the things he does to realize his dreams could be considered downright monstrous. The Dangerfield character from Back to School filed down some of that edge; Hollywood Shuffle turns the tables on us by presenting Robert Taylor as a relatively noble protagonist whose greatest enemy is the temptation of a cruel and flashy town. By the time we get to UHF, our hero is a big-hearted clown, content to cobble together a mini-Hollywood with friends and a shoestring budget. Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind sort of brings things full circle with his tale of two video store clerks who reclaim the art in "Art and Commerce" by creating lo-fi versions of Hollywood blockbusters.

We'll never know if all roads really lead back to The Ratings Game, but these movies comprise a fascinating quintuple-feature of outsiders whose self-worth is wrapped up in the acclaim and respect of others, and whose big break reveals itself as a crossroads of integrity (Be Kind Rewind is the weakest example of this, but it's also, arguably, the weakest film). Watching DeVito's film, I wondered how Vic De Salvo would work in a contemporary setting.

Would he hustle the increasingly irrelevant TV networks, or try to find a niche in the billion-channel cable landscape? Would he be savvy enough to go for a Netflix deal? Or would he be the ultimate DIY King of YouTube, using all his unsavory connections to blast the Internet, day after day, with hours of outrageous clickbait? The Ratings Game is a time capsule of outdated media metrics, sure, but it's also a mirror to an ancient and insatiable appetite for affection, expressed through that perennial commodity called "art".

*And, like Vic, his best friend is a thuggish but lovable limo driver.

Tuesday
Jul192016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition (2016)

Holy Update, Bat-Fans!

Well, this is a first. I’ve never posted a review update, but the “Ultimate Edition” of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice makes a fine exception.* The film hits Blu-ray and DVD today, and for physical-media fans who avoided watching the three-hour extended cut when it debuted on streaming platforms last month, Warner Bros have put together a nice (if sloppily presented) package that’s worth picking up.

You read that right. No, I didn’t care for the theatrical version when it opened last March. No, I don’t think the extra thirty minutes make Zack Snyder’s DC Universe catch-up game a better film. But BvS has its admirers and, for them, the “Ultimate Edition” will likely be a very welcome addition to their home video library. For the detractors, the main draw is the slew of special features, which, collectively, paint a fascinating portrait of a Film That Might Have Been and a Franchise That Might Still Be.

Let’s start with the movie itself. Besides a few seconds of dialogue added here and there, which help clear up some of the theatrical cut’s more puzzling elements,** the additional footage doesn’t do much to enhance the story—despite providing more characters and “D”-plots to allegedly lend more heft to plots “A” through “C”. We see more of Kahina Ziri (Wunmi Mosaku), the grieving Nairomian woman whose testimony helps bolster the government’s case against Superman as a planetary threat. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) get to do some genuine reporting and detective work. And there’s a really nice tweak to the penultimate scene in which Batman (Ben Affleck) pays Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) a visit in jail. It’s an allusion to the kind of insanity I hope we’ll see in next month’s Suicide Squad.

Mostly, though, the additional material only underscores the weaknesses of Chris Terrio and David Goyer's entire screenplay. It’s still unclear how Superman and Batman (and their respective secret identities, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne) could have lived across the bay from one another for nearly two years and still never interacted—or at least have been so unaware of the other’s activities and intent as to be fueled by such distrust and misinformation. In the comics, sure, Bats and the Blue Boy Scout don’t get along, but that’s due to philosophical differences on how to approach the war on crime; not because they’re complete strangers.

We still don’t have a bead on why Lex Luthor hates Superman, or how he has the ability to run a multi-billion-dollar global tech company, when not ranting and mumbling in front of polite society is a problem. Doomsday still doesn’t work. Nor does "Martha!". And we're no closer to understanding why super-powered altruist Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), sat out much of the twenty-first century’s conflicts—including a threat to the planet’s very existence only a year-and-a-half earlier—yet decided to jump off a plane and into the climactic fray. On a cellular level, Dawn of Justice simply doesn’t work.

However…

The thing about physical media, which streaming providers are still catching up to, is the special place in film aficionados’ hearts that’s reserved for special features. When BvS came out last month, those eager to see the longer cut pounced, perhaps without thinking (or caring) that they were just getting the film. Today, Dawn of Justice is available in a variety of physical-media formats, including 4k Ultra HD, DVD, and Blu-ray, and they all carry a small library of bonus content that’s worth checking out.

Depending on the extent of your comics fandom, the supplements may be revelatory or passe. I haven’t read comics regularly in about seven years, and was, even back in the day, only a slightly-more-than-casual hobbyist--which made the micro-doc “The Warrior, The Myth, The Wonder” a very welcome surprise. This terrific history of Wonder Woman features several creators discussing the importance of comics’ first, and still most prominent, feminist icon in their personal and artistic development. It’s not just talking heads from the movie raving about Gadot’s “kick-ass female superhero”, either: “The Warrior, The Myth, The Wonder” walks through the characters' various incarnations, laying out how her costume, motivations, and role in the DC Universe evolved, devolved, and re-emerged during her seventy-five years on the page.

Combined with “Uniting the World’s Finest” and “Gods and Men: A Meeting of Giants”, this feature establishes the Dawn of Justice crew as passionate advocates for these characters, their mythological roots, and their ability to provide hope and inspiration through fantastical adventures. Up-from-the-trenches DC executive Geoff Johns speaks eloquently about the darkness-and-light dynamics of Batman and Superman, and co-producer Deborah Snyder gets fired up about the importance of Wonder Woman in opening up DC to a more diverse audience. It’s puzzling, then, that the end result of this love's labor is a movie in which the two main heroes are grumpy, cynical jerks and the female hero isn’t integral enough (yet) to the story to even be considered a “main hero”.

On this point, the supplements go to great lengths to tease future DC movies, such as the Wonder Woman solo film, Justice League, and Suicide Squad. I was more than a little bored (and slightly depressed) last week, after watching the BvS “Ultimate Edition”, but the passion with which everyone involved with these future projects (especially the “everyones” who are in charge and don't have the last name “Snyder”) perked me right up. Call me a sucker, but I suspect Patty Jenkins and David Ayer might just be able to sweep up (or, at the very least, sweep under the rug) the bleak mess created by Man of Steel and its sequel.

Speaking of perky, the BvS Blu-ray’s extra material is more of a four-color visual feast than anything in the movie they were ostensibly created to promote. On a high-definition display, the blown-up, motion-enhanced comics panels explode off the screen, and I loved the smooth transitions between the expansive Michigan green-screen sound stages and the effects-drenched final footage. A lot of that artistry gets lost in the movie’s chaotic editing and lackluster, overstuffed story, but the behind-the-scenes extras provide a nice reminder that craftspeople make blockbusters—not just a writing/directing team of questionable taste.

The disc contains several other featurettes you may or may not find interesting, but these three really stood out to me. So until there's another way to view the extras,*** I'd say physical media is the way to go.

I began this review by calling the packaging "sloppy". Indeed, whoever approved it has a lot to answer for. The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack has facing and inside-cover push-button hubs, but the set comes with three discs: the DVD is on the inside cover, and the two Blus are stacked on the facing hubs. A flipper would have been ideal in this...um, case, but that's not the most egregious problem.

Discerning the discs' contents is confusing. The DVD contains only the BvS theatrical cut--no extra features. The extended, "Ultimate Edition" of the film is on one of the Blu-rays, but it, too, is extras-free. For the supplements, you have to go to the Blu-ray of the theatrical cut, which is easy to miss because "Ultimate Edition" appears in small type on the other disc. Since this pertinent information appears on neither the packaging nor the discs, I found the supplemental material only after playing a shell game of loading and unloading my player.

These are minor gripes, but ones that may, on some level, speak to a general eagerness on Warner Bros' part to simply get the movie out there. They've got more films to make, more worlds to build, and, hopefully, more lessons to learn.

*You can read my more plot-centric review of the theatrical cut here

**Why, for example, didn’t Superman know he was in the same room as a bomb?

***I'm going to pretend we're all adults here, and that we've ruled out piracy as an option.

Tuesday
Jul192016

Flight of the Butterflies (2012)

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Migration

Let's begin with a confession: Until I began reviewing IMAX documentaries recently, I'd never really considered them films. They’d always seemed like giant-screen amusements—not gimmicks, per se, but reality-based thrill rides meant to make audiences dizzy, awestruck by sheer scale, or both. I get wobbly thinking about the high-wire scene from a circus movie I saw at Six Flags twenty-plus years ago, and recall fondly the otherworldly wonder James Cameron instilled in me with 2005’s Aliens of the Deep. Still, I’ve long thought of IMAX movies as part of a singular brand entity, and not as diverse movies in their own right that happen to share a novel format.

Flight of the Butterflies really turned things around for me. Unlike Journey to Space or Rocky Mountain Express (two films I enjoyed immensely, for different reasons) director/co-writer Mike Slee's film is a mini-docudrama about Dr. Fred Urquhart (Gordon Pinsent), a Toronto scientist who spent nearly five decades uncovering the secrets of Monarch butterfly migration. He and his wife, Norah (Patricia Phillips) formed the Insect Migration Association and recruited volunteers from all over North America to help tag and track Monarchs, and to make note of how various environmental conditions affect their lifecycle.

Running parallel to the Urquharts' story is that of "Dana" (short for Danaus Plexippus), a Monarch whom we meet in Texas. Over the course of her brief life, she will spawn two more generations, who will then complete the instinctual journey north into Canada and then back down south. For years, the Urquharts were baffled by what seemed to be a big disappearing act on the part of the Monarchs. None of their thousands of far-flung associates could determine where these millions of creatures went during the harshest winter months. 

Slee and co-writer Wendy Mackeigan tie the two stories together wonderfully, with the Urquhart's ups and downs serving as decades-spanning flashbacks to Dana's present-day journey. Both narratives are equally gripping: Fred and Norah hit a multi-year roadblock in their studies, and Dana's progeny struggle to evade crop dusters and predators, and to navigate various kinds of terrain (using evolutionary enhancements that scientists still marvel at today). The scene that best encapsulates man and Monarch's tumultuous relationship involves Dana narrowly escaping a thresher as it clears a field teeming with butterfly nurseries. It's right out of the opening of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which aliens casually wipe Earth off the galactic map to make room for a space highway.

It's here that I began to draw comparisons to Journey to Space. To the Monarch, there is no more to life than being born, developing into a creature capable of reproducing, and dying after the species has (hopefully) been given another boost. Butterflies have no concept of Texas or Toronto as places made of people, with cultures who interact with other cultures on the other side of a vast planet they'll never fully experience. Yet, there are members of this alien species (humans) who are hell-bent on understanding Monarchs, on tracking them and helping preserve their ability to exist--even though other members of the same species don't care about these pretty but inconvenient "bugs". In mankind's quest to learn more about the far reaches of space, is Mars our Toronto? If so, what would our Japan be? Will we ever find out?

The Monarchs' disappearance presents an existential challenge to the Urquharts' research. Flight of the Butterflies presents us with a quiet and truly heartbreaking scene of Fred, sitting down next to Norah in the middle of their small desert camp and realizing that he may have spent two-thirds of his life chasing an unsolvable mystery. This moment happened in the mid-seventies, so it's easy to look back on all the technological advances in the decades since and think, "We'd never have this problem today." But at the cusp of his greatest discovery, Fred found himself completely at a loss, without the benefit of sophisticated global networks or pocket databases with instant clues as to what his next steps should be.

I won't tell you how the Urquharts overcame this adversity, but the film's climactic scene is one of profound beauty. Like most of Flight of the Butterflies' nature scenes, Slee and DP Simon De Glanville deliver inconceivably rich and intimate detail of the Monarch's every developmental stage. Referring back to James Cameron again, watching Dana lay an egg on a leaf reminded me of the first time I'd seen the Xenomorph Queen in Aliens--only this was real and impossible to appreciate with the naked eye.

My one gripe with the film is the infrequent integration of CGI with the documentary footage. There's a scene towards the middle in which a highly detailed and mostly convincing Monarch flies over the country, flying at the camera so as to make every scale and hair a wondrously tactile temptation. It would not have been possible to capture this precise movement with traditional photography, so Slee and company rendered it with computers. The results are spectacular, but the model instantly caused me to question what else I'd seen (or was about to see) that might be the product of digital trickery. The answer doesn't truly matter, since the filmmakers serve their story and overall message admirably, but I lost an ounce of magic watching that big damned bug.

Like Dana and the Urquharts, I feel like I've reached a new stage in my development. Learning to appreciate IMAX movies as art and not monolithic escapism isn't a groundbreaking scientific discovery, but it represents an evolution in the way I think about film. These first steps are exciting, and I can't wait to find my Toronto.

Friday
Jul152016

Captain Fantastic (2016)

"Free" Isn't Freedom

In Captain Fantastic, Viggo Mortensen plays Ben Cash a smarmy, condescending know-it-all who forces his six children to live off the grid because the world, as he sees it, is full of distractions and doomed idiots. He’s loud, preachy, and, worse yet, hypocritical: years ago, he convinced his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), to leave behind her high-powered-attorney job; reject her obscenely wealthy parents; and join him in the woods for some good, old-fashioned rock-climbing, deer-skinning, and hand-to-hand combat training. He’s a back-to-nature survivalist who fuels the family’s reclaimed school bus with evil, corporate gasoline and instructs his brood on the best shoplifting techniques. He refuses to let anyone under his authority eat hot dogs and other “non-food”—but proudly offers up a stolen chocolate cake, in observance of “Noam Chomsky Day”.

Early in the film, Leslie dies and Ben must drive the family cross-country to keep her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) from ignoring her will and holding a funeral. Culture shock abounds as the kids experience highways, restaurants, and extended family for the first time. While her phone-obsessed pre-teen cousins half-heartedly explain the Bill of Rights as some kind of consumer protection plan, seven-year-old Zaja (Shree Crooks) gives her earnest, in-depth opinion on its practical social impacts. Later, eldest son, Bo (George MacKay), poorly feigns pop-culture awareness while trying to impress a girl he meets at an RV park.

It’s easy to confuse the trappings of writer/director Matt Ross’ film with its message. The Cashes are awkward and inconsiderate in ways we normally associate with people who don’t associate with people. When Ben marches his inappropriately dressed family into Leslie’s funeral, the statement is neither cute nor powerful; it’s Ben’s obnoxious declaration that his perceived right to grieve via protest outweighs the right of everyone else in that church to mourn in peace. Instead of letting Ben off the hook, Ross spends the last act putting him (and our perception of him) to the spiritual flames.

As Ben shakily deals with an outside world he can’t control, the cracks in his family’s artificial world widen and splinter until we see that the shepherd is just as lost as his flock. What little info we’re given of Ben and Leslie’s previous life suggests that instead of running toward the freedom of disconnectedness from big, wicked America, they were running away from intimate and far scarier problems. This extreme reactiveness caught up with both adults far too late, and may have led to an extreme (and extremely illusory) proactivity: admitting to themselves, and to their children, that they didn’t have all the answers likely crippled their already fragile self-worth.

Ross’ depicts America as something to be kept at arm’s length. The family bus traveling out of the lush forest and onto congested highways, through business-crowded towns, and ever-present noise, reminded me of R. Crumb’s illustration, “A Short History of America”, which depicts society’s triumph over nature and nature’s eventual reclaiming of itself. The physically and mentally fit Cash clan stand out like sore thumbs in a society of sheep-eyed, overweight consumers, and I began to see the appeal of hunting by day and reading great literature by campfire at night—instead of, say, spending decades staring at a variety of screens and driving the same assembly-line route to and from work.

Ben’s in-laws, Jack and Abigail, offer him (and us) an alternative point of view, a middle-ground between consumerism and societal rejection that, at first glance, looks like a trite, calculated power play. Until we see Jack at the end of the film, we only hear his voice in tense phone conversations with Ben. He’s angry, he’s mean, he never got over Ben “stealing” his daughter and turning her into a hippie. In his first few on-screen scenes, Ross and Langella keep this image alive for us. Jack tries to turn the kids against Ben and even pursues legal action to become their rightful guardian. He’s wealthy and connected, and Ben soon finds himself without recourse.

Jack is the hidden key to this story because he embodies the balance that Ben so desperately needs. He has the desire and the means to keep his grandchildren safe, and ensure they’re provided for, but he also has no interest in molding them into something they’re not. We see him playing with them, laughing and falling down on the ground, being silly. Whereas Ben and Leslie raised people equipped only to deal with the aftermath of civilization, Jack understands that the best way to deal with the world is to confront it, head-on, and use one’s light, knowledge, and influence to be the change one wants to see.

I recently interviewed Ross about Captain Fantastic, and spent twenty minutes beforehand talking with fellow critic Patrick McDonald about the film’s bizarre climax. I won’t spoil the bigger picture of what happens here, but the highlights (?) include a robbery, a bonfire, and a sweet but weird Partridge Family-style rendition of Guns ‘n Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine”. Pat made a convincing argument that this entire problematic stretch was a dream sequence; he even picked out the spot where it began, and with whom. To our joint dismay, Ross said (post-interview) that the events were, in fact, not imagined. These scenes didn’t sour me on the film, but they didn’t seem like the best way to connect two very important thematic components, either.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried a lot during Captain Fantastic. Ross touches some primal nerves here (for me, at least), offering up an unflattering, unflinching, and nightmarish portrait of parenthood. On some level, I think all mothers and fathers worry about whether or not they’re equipped to guide anyone through life—especially when we, ourselves, are constantly changing, succeeding, and stumbling. When I see news reports of terror attacks in France or people falling off cliffs while playing Pokemon Go, my first instinct is, “That’s it! We’re moving to the mountains!” But that’s no way to live.

The best we can do is the best we can do. Sometimes that means swallowing our pride and realizing that we are part of the problem, as well as the spark of every solution.