Movies I've watched recently

Some SPOILERS in each discussion, so skip ahead as you please.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

More thematically rich than the previous installment, though the rhythm of the jokes is now familiar; many punchlines seem to land a beat late because we've seen around the corner. In this sequel, Peter Quill finally finds his absent father who's played by Kurt Russell (channeling peak 80's Kurt Russell, he's just missing an eyepatch). His father is named...Ego. It's rare that a movie telegraphs its theme with such blinking neon signage but less surprising when it's doing so in a pop movie franchise like the Marvel Comics Universe, especially one whose color palette is all digital day-glo colors from the 80's.

Not only is his father named Ego (though when Quill asks if he's a God Russell, he replies with a smirk, "God with a lowercase g."), it turns out his goal is to transform all life in the universe into himself. To do so, he's been planting his seed throughout the universe for millions of years. Literally. First he impregnates each planet he visits with a glowing blue seed, and then he impregnates various women throughout the universe in the hopes of bearing progeny who can join with him to power his galactic takeover. The only one of his children who can do this, it turns out, is his son Peter.

If this allegory of the biological impulse to spread one's genetic material far and wide sounds heavy, it is lighter in the handling. At one point, Ego teaches his son Peter to summon this life force from Ego's planet (also named Ego, of course), and it manifests as a glowing blue substance which they start to toss back and forth like Ray Kinsella and his father in Field of Dreams. Later, when we see that this blue substance sprouts from the seeds Ego has planted all over the universe and threatens to overrun planets like some tsunami wave, we realize Peter and his father were essentially tossing a ball of their metaphoric semen back and forth like a baseball. Boys really do just want to spread their jizz on everything in the universe.

Thankfully, being raised largely by a single mother, and having found the fulfillment of caring for others in his travels with his surrogate (and diverse, not just racially, but in the sense of species) family, Peter forges a path out from the destructive, self-replicating nature of the white male patriarchy (see my notes on Fate of the Furious below).

The movie is overstuffed. It has five end credits easter egg scenes. Five. It's as if Disney and Marvel are dangling potential sequels and spinoffs in front of an audience to market test which to make. Every character needs some story arc, which means a lot of plot mechanics to jam into the run time, and it's exacerbated by a script which splits up the characters, requiring plot scaffolding be built separately for each of them. Even at nearly 2.5 hours the movie feels too dense by half.

In addition, this is not an indictment of just this film, but most special effects heavy movies of this age: everything looks so cartoonish. We may look back on this decade as one long uncanny valley where very few stakes felt real since almost the entire environment around the actors felt like some bad simulation.

Still, it's refreshing to have a comic book movie that isn't so self-serious, even if this installment steers towards the more melancholy territory of family reconciliation. This is one comic book franchise which remembers to try to make you laugh every few bars, and it does so with the earnestness of Chris Pratt's Parks and Rec character and the classic rock mixtape blaring behind most scenes. One good joke rescues you from every one that makes your eyes roll.

The Lost City of Z

A movie for entrepreneurs. Tyler Cowen might have something to say about this movie and what it says about finding a way out of complacency.

Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is locked into an unremarkable future. His father's drunken misbehavior tarnished the family name, so the ceiling is the roof, as Michael Jordan recently said. He is not a born entrepreneur, but he wants a better future than English society of that time will offer someone of his lineage. When the Royal Geographic Society offers him the chance to lead an expedition into the jungle to map an unknown territory in the Amazon jungle, Fawcett leaves his pregnant wife (Sienna Miller) and child behind to forge a new destiny.

What he undergoes in the jungle is apt metaphor for what entrepreneurs often encounter in their search for product-market fit: trying to manage the morale of a staff who don't share his conviction (and to whom he can't really articulate what it is they're searching for at first) fending off arrows from incumbents (the Amazonian natives), fleeing the voracious appetites of flesh-eating fish, coughing up black substance from unknown jungle diseases.

Just as successful companies often emerge from startups who pivot more than once along the journey, Fawcett only lands upon the quest that will consume his life at the end of his first expedition. He hears of a magnificent city of gold out in the jungle and later finds some shattered pottery and tree carvings that seem to confirm its existence. Is it conclusive? No, but like an entrepreneur following some ill-defined conviction, Fawcett is hooked.

The cost of leaving one's complacency behind ripples out beyond him. His wife Nina has to raise their children largely on her own for years at a time, and his eldest son Jack (played at his oldest by the next Spider Man Tom Holland) resents the father he hardly knows. Many of the Royal Geographic Society question his belief in the existence of this lost city of Z, as he dubs it, plenty familiar to any entrepreneur who's had everyone from investors to press and everyone else in the peanut gallery cast doubt on their business plans.

Other parallels to Silicon Valley bubble up, perhaps more so to this current resident of the Bay Area. Nina helps find some documentation which supports Percy's case, and later asks to accompany him on one of his expeditions. She's not physically fit enough for the journey, he says, and besides, she has to stay with their children. The members of the Royal Geographic Society are all white males who scream and shout at each other. The expeditions make use of enslaved natives. Percy argues that the his lost city may be a more advanced society than his peers believe possible of the natives of South America, but he's not free of his own blind spots to his own privilege.

Though one might wonder why one would venture into hostile, disease infested jungles, the film also illustrates the structured, institutional complacency that is alternative. The film opens with a highly structured hunt in the English countryside, a sort of artificially constrained outlet for the adventurer's spirit, and flows soon thereafter into a society dance in which Percey and Nina and other society goers twirl in perfectly learned routines. If staid English society is to expand its horizons, it needs people like Percy to bear the cost of these dangerous expeditions into the unknown.

Young male ambition needs an outlet, and soon enough Jack pushes his father to take him on the next expedition to try and find Z once and for all. This last stretch of the film is the strongest, evoking something that is less the fever dream of the last chapter of Apocalypse Now and more a transcendental vision. The last lines Percy speaks in the movie, to his son Jack, are a sort of meditation on the consolations of the entrepreneur's journey, and the final shot of the movie, like that in James Gray's previous film, The Immigrant, will haunt you like a realization slipping out of the grasp of your memory into the void.

The Fate of the Furious

The eighth installment of what is now one of the more enduring, profitable film franchises of our time, though the series has always been bucketed in the category of dumb fun, cinematic cotton candy. Critical praise for various installments is qualified, at best.

And yet it is massively appealing to a male and female youth audience globally, and I suspect there's more to its resonance than just high end cars that go fast and girls in much-too-cutoff jean shorts.

  • The Fast and the Furious franchise is one of the most effortless post-racial works of pop culture anywhere. The gang of street racers at the heart of the series are as racially diverse as any set of protagonists in entertainment today, but it's never with a wink nor a congratulatory back slap. Their camaraderie feels genuine and casual despite checking just about every box on the ethnicity survey; it's as close to a vision of post-racial harmony as exists. When Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) speaks to the importance of family, he's talking about his extended family, which reaches far beyond his blood relatives, and what their group has hints at the promise of broader social harmony which liberals speak of but so rarely embody in any believable manner.
  • Relationships cross racial lines. In the romance of Han (Sung Kang) and Gisele (Gal Gadot) the series offered perhaps the most appealing depiction of an Asian male romantic lead on screen in a major Hollywood movie. Granted, Hollywood has a terrible track record on this front, but with the looming importance of the Chinese market to global box office, perhaps this won't remain such a glaring exception.
  • The diversity of the franchise reflects itself even in the selection of vehicles, which comprises Japanese rice rockets, American muscle cars, and Italian supercars, all of which seem to echo some aspect of the gang's varied personalities.
  • More notably, the diversity extends to equality of the sexes. The gang has always had a mix of women and men, all of equal competence, and on the road the women are assigned the same levels of jobs and accorded equal levels of trust and respect. It's a good looking bunch, to be sure, but the one actual real life model in the group, Tyrese Gibson, is constantly ribbed for his incompetence at various tasks. 
  • Vin Diesel always seems to be in some American muscle car, beginning his father's 1970 Dodge Charger in the first film. It's a symbol of a less complacent, more dynamic age for America, when we made and drove cars with manual transmission. Many of the films show them all working together to modify and improve on their vehicles. Contrast that to today, when we sit in the back of ride sharing vehicles scrolling through social media on our smartphones, or the future, when we may be doing the same in the back of self-driving vehicles.
  • Throughout the series, the gang has assimilated people who started out trying to take them down, from Paul Walker in the first installment to The Rock and most recently Jason Statham. All of those began as foes who were won over by the values and mission of Dom and his team. In doing so they illustrate a path out of the cycle of violence and conflict to something more like a pluralist, race-blind community unified by shared meritocratic norms. In The Fate of the Furious, Dom does this explicitly in the opening segment. On behalf of his cousin, he beats a competitor in a street race in Cuba to erase a debt. Rather than call the bet and take ownership of his defeated foe's vehicle, Dom is content with having earned his competitor's respect. Later in the movie, that grateful Cuban helps him pull off a gambit against Charlize Theron's terrorist organization. Dom essentially flipped a cycle of violence into one of cooperation (see notes below on John Wick 2). 
  • It's a set of values that sits above any nationalist loyalties, and the team seems to be living in a different country every other movie or so.
  • Many believe the future belongs to the synthesis of human and machine intelligence, and the Fast and the Furious franchise has always appreciated that merger. “You know it doesn’t matter what’s under the hood. The only thing that matters is who’s behind the wheel,” says Dom before the Cuban street race. However, even he knows he can't beat the fastest car in Cuba in his cousin's beater. Having not fallen prey to the modern worker's abstraction from the tools of the trade, he and Letty quickly strip down his cousin's beater to lessen the weight and rig up a makeshift NOS.
  • Car racing is shown to be a universal sport, with a common language that unified kids across all continents, the franchise having now visited North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Despite the quality of signal provided by overly expensive sports cars, street racing is still, ultimately about the fastest guy to the quarter mile. It has meritocratic underpinnings. "For those 10 seconds, I'm free," says Dom about the quarter mile race. Free from the cares of the world, yes, but also free from race, money, gender, and anything that matters other than who crosses the finish line first.

By now, this franchise is either for you or not. I've enjoyed some installments more than others, but for something considered lowbrow the franchise is more breezily post-modern in its ideology than it might seem at a casual glance.

John Wick: Chapter 2

It's been quite some time since I saw this, and much of it has faded from my memory. At some point the novelty of a hitman twirling like a ballet dancer with handguns and shooting each of seemingly hundred of foes with two shots, always one finishing shot to the head, wore a bit thin for this viewer.

What lingers, though, is the film's conceptual construct of its assassin society. What it becomes is an allegory of how easily the peace between nations breaks and ripples down through history as a series of debts to be repaid. Everything in this assassin universe is seemingly paid off with a single coin, whether it's a drink at the bar or a high level hit. This makes no sense economically but speaks to how difficult it is for various entities like nation-states or mob bosses to see their grievances as anything less than equal to those of others, and how a complex web of rules can perpetuate a cycle of violence.

John Wick is wronged at the start of each of the movies in this franchise. In the first film, they kill his dog and steal his car. In America, those are two crimes about as equally grave as anything short of murder. Recall this conversation from Pulp Fiction:

Lance: Still got your Malibu?
Vincent: Aw, man. You know what some fucker did the other day?
Lance: What?
Vincent: Fucking keyed it.
Lance: Oh, man, that's fucked up.
Vincent: Tell me about it. I had it in storage for three years, it was out for five days and some dickless piece of shit fucked with it.
Lance: They should be fucking killed. No trial, no jury, straight to execution.
Vincent: Boy, I wish I could've caught him doing it. I'd have given anything to catch that asshole doing it. It'd been worth him doing it just so I could've caught him doing it.
Lance: What a fucker!
Vincent: What's more chickenshit than fucking with a man's automobile? I mean, don't fuck with another man's vehicle.
Lance: You don't do it.
Vincent: It's just against the rules.

So of course, Wick takes righteous vengeance and kills the guilty parties. This initiates a cycle of revenge which concludes at the start of the sequel, but as just as Wick seems to have cleared his ledger, someone comes calling with a Marker. He now must repay the favor that allowed him to settle down to a peaceful domestic marriage.

There is no retiring from the assassin's life to domestic bliss. Once caught up in the cycle of violence, which has only two simple rules (1. No killing on Continental grounds. 2. All Markers must be honored.), it's unclear how one can break out if someone along the line does not voluntarily forgive and break the ping pong volley of revenge (see note on the Cuban drag race in the Fate of the Furious, above).

Wick is sent to assassinate by Santino D'Antonio to assassinate Gianna D'Antonio to settle his Marker. Santino wants Gianna's seat on the High Table, some sort of United Nations of crime lords. When Wick finds his way to her, Gianna chooses to kill herself, in theory offering Wick a clean slate. But no, Gianna's bodyguard Cassian now feels obligated to avenge her, and Santino places a global bounty on Wick for the supposed assassination, to cover his own complicity in the plot.

And so on and so forth, the plot escalates. Wick can't find a way out of this complex web of rules, as artificial as they are. In the end, he shoots Santino at the Continental hotel, rejecting the whole game and its silly rules. But he cannot become Switzerland. The High Table puts a huge global bounty on his head, and as the movie concludes he is given a one hour head start before assassins the world over come after him.

How little it takes to transform finite into infinite games that pit one generation of players against the next ad infinitum. I'm hopeful the franchise explores possible answers to this cycle in Chapter 3 though all movie franchises now are subject to their own high commandments. Chief among them is this: whatever you do, preserve the cycle of revenue at all costs, and when you can no longer do so, you'll get a bullet in the head and a reboot will take your place.