Review
Culture
9 min read

Family dramas

It’s family ties that bind together a superhero story, a horror tale and a rom-com. Yaroslav Walker’s review sheds light on what these ties unexpectedly reflect, as he reviews Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania, Knock at the Cabin, and What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

Father and daughter super heroes stand and look to the left.
Kathryn Newton and Paul Rudd play Cassie Lang and her father Scott Lang - Ant-Man.
Marvel Studios

Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania is the latest release from the Marvel Empire (in whose shadow we all live). The Empire is very much faltering. The main (sensible) criticisms levelled at the Marvel franchise are formulaic films and over-complicated stories that require you to not only have watched all the relevant films in the series, but also now the various TV series pumped out by Disney Plus. Ant-Man doesn’t fix them. 

The plot sees Scott Lang enjoying a happy life: adored by a grateful public and with lots of time to spend with his partner Hope and his daughter Cassie. However, Cassie has grown up since ‘the snap’ and is now protesting injustice and getting arrested. Scott wonders how he can best re-connect with Cassie and make up for the five years he lost. This bonding is interrupted when all the heroes are sucked into the Quantum Realm by Kang who wishes to use the Ant-Man powers to retrieve a thing to escape the thing to do a bad thing… no sorry, it’s just ridiculous, I have no idea what is going on! 

I’m a nerd and a fan, but even I sat there and got depressed at how incomprehensible and inconsequential it all felt. A simple ‘hero must retrieve object to save loved-ones’ plot groans under the sheer amount of exposition and world-building and forced emotional plotting. The first fifteen minutes are a passable family drama, and then everything is just CGI and battles and quips – SO MANY QUIPS! 

Nothing is able to sit as a dramatic moment: immediately a joke, or a quip, or a gag has to be rammed down our throats.

The CGI is fine, but so great a surfeit gives the drama a weightlessness, making it impossible to invest in. The script…well…looking up Jeff Loveness’ previous writing credits was illuminating. He has written for pop-culture virus Rick & Morty and that influence is everywhere. Nothing is able to sit as a dramatic moment: immediately a joke, or a quip, or a gag has to be rammed down our throats, meaning weightless CGI is only compounded by a script that revels is cynicism rather than in character. This is the bloated Marvel writing formula: schoolboy humour must undercut every dramatic moment. 

Paul Rudd can do this in his sleep, and at times looks like he is. Evangeline Lily is meaningfully absent. Michael Douglas is enjoyable enough as a bumbling octogenarian ant-enthusiast. The real emotional weight of the film comes from Michelle Pfeiffer and Jonathan Majors. Pfeiffer’s Janet is a haunted and scarred heroine, lying to escape a past she cannot outrun. She brings genuine depth and tension to the film, especially in her scenes with Majors. He is masterful as Kang, bringing both a physical and emotional presence that is wonderfully intimidating. He takes the work seriously, giving us a Shakespearean villain who is neither hammy nor po-faced. I’m a little peeved that yet again Marvel is giving us a ‘conflicted villain’ (it would be nice to have a battle between good and evil, black and white, rather than just shades of grey) but Majors is so good he won me over. Overall, it’s a slog and not worth seeing unless one is a Marvel completist.  

2 stars. 

Knock at the Cabin

A close-up of a father holding his daughter close to his face.
Eric and Wen, played by Kristen Cui and Jonathan Groff.

Having sat through the literary assault of the Ant-Man script, I dreaded Knock at the Cabin. I have a soft-spot for M. Night Shyamalan, but his scripts are clanger-city. They’re exercises in verbiage (irony noted) that one endures to enjoy a good spook. I was pleasantly surprised, and silently grateful to co-writers Steve Desmon and Michael Sherman for reining in the worst of the ‘M.Night-isms’.  

It is an efficient chiller. Eric and Andrew have brought their adoptive daughter Wen to a secluded cabin for a holiday. This turns into a hostage situation when four seeming strangers with odd weapons take them hostage and demand the family sacrifice one of their own to stop the coming apocalypse. As the drama unfolds we learn the four home-invaders are just ordinary people who have put their faith in visions that have led them to this action. As time runs out and people die the family is left to weigh the dreadful moral problem before them. 

The film delivers its tension well – Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography elevating mundane conversations to new heights of the uncanny with shallow-focus and tilted cameras. The performances are solid. It’s nice to see Rupert Grint on the big-screen again, and Jonathan Groff brings a compassionate vulnerability to the character of Eric. The standout has to be David Bautista as the de facto leader of the attackers. He plays off his imposing physical presence perfectly, creating a shy and nebbish personality, unfailingly polite and apologetic. It heightens the tension throughout the entire film and the viewer wonders when or even if this hulking mass will lose violent control. 

The film departs from its sources conclusion (2018’s The Cabin at the End of the World) to strike a more obviously tragic but also optimistic and possibly even Christian tone. It’s worth a watch on a rainy afternoon.  

3.5 stars. 

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

A couple stand and smile at a Pakistani wedding celebration.
Shazad Latif and Lily James play Kazim and Cath.

From a dud-script, to a better-than-expected script, to a great rom-com script. What’s Love Got to Do With It? is the first screenplay by Jemima Khan, and it is a terrific debut. Khan presents the tale of Zoe, who tries to boost her career as a documentary film maker by documenting the arranged-marriage of her Pakistani childhood friend Kaz. From the first meeting with the matchmaker to the big day itself Zoe learns about a culture and a practice that is completely alien to her own understanding… but perhaps she’ll learn something about it, and about herself. Is ‘assisted-marriage’ as it is now called ("Oh, like assisted-suicide" Zoe quips) a regressive practice? Is the world of Western dating a freeing alternative? Is there something to learn from allowing commitment to come first, and romance and love to build over time? What lengths will one go to in an effort to please their family? 

It’s just lovely. Really lovely. A laugh-out-loud script that reminded me of Richard Curtis via Gurinder Chadha, a story that takes you from A to B with very few surprises (if you want intrigue don’t see a rom-com) but plenty of smiles, perfectly pitched performances, and a refreshing take on the notions of romance and marriage. All of this is tied together with a sublime turn by Emma Thompson. She steals every scene as Zoe’s politically incorrect and gaffe-prone mother. Every time she was on screen I was somewhere between guffawing and wetting myself with laughter. I’ve seen it twice now and loved it both times, but what’s more important, my wife loved it almost more than I did. If I had one complaint, it is that in a noble effort to conform to the great rom-com formula, Khan doesn’t quite seem to have the courage in her convictions. There is a fascinating, heart-warming, and genuinely positive portrayal of assisted marriage throughout the film…but the laws of rom-coms are such that romance must win out. It’s only a small quibble, and it doesn’t ruin the film; but I was left slightly deflated that this exploration felt incomplete. Still…a small criticism. It’s wonderful. Go and see it!  

4.5 stars. 

The family dynamic  

Three very different films – horror, superhero, rom-com – with a common theme: family. Each film has the family dynamic as a driving force for the narrative. In Knock at the Cabin we have an ‘alternative family’ struggling not only with the trolley-problem on steroids, but also with doubt and constant suspicion. Is this real or a homophobic attack? Is our family chosen because people don’t believe we are a family? What does it mean to be a family that is entirely ‘chosen’? In Ant-Man the supposed emotional drive is Scott’s desperate wish to be part of his daughter’s life and make-up for lost time. There is a wonderful opportunity for tension and conflict when Kang (master of time as well as dimensions) offers to reward Scott by sending him back to before the snap to live out his daughter’s teenage years…squandered by sloppy storytelling, but a fascinating thought. In What’s Love Got to Do with It? Kaz is driven to seeking assisted marriage out of a sense of loyalty to his family, and the wish to begin a new one. 

Each film posits the family structure and the family relationship as fundamental to human life, and the base motivation for human action: fight to reunite family, marry to please family, let the world burn to preserve family. For Christianity this is not a simple issue. Christianity has inherited a great deal from its Jewish roots, and fecundity and family-life is viewed as a good. Family life is presupposed by St Paul when writing advice on how a bishop ought to behave, and the family is often called the ‘aboriginal church’: the simplest unit through which the Christian faith is taught and practised. 

And yet… Jesus refuses to see His mother and brothers and calls those listening to His teachings His mother and brothers; Jesus says that we will not have husbands and wives in the new heaven and new earth; Jesus also says to follow Him rather than bury our father; St Paul consistently argues that a single life devoted to God is to be preferred to marriage; the visions of Revelation suggest our time will be rather taken up with the worship of God (leaving little time to play catch or have a Sunday roast or argue over a game of Monopoly). 

In seeking to heal their familial wounds Scott and Cassie nearly destroy the multiverse; and please don’t believe that it’s their love that saves it…Michael Douglas and his giant ants save the multiverse.

For the Christian, family life is not and cannot be the highest good, for to make anything other than God one’s ultimate good is dangerous folly. In seeking to heal their familial wounds Scott and Cassie nearly destroy the multiverse; and please don’t believe that it’s their love that saves it…Michael Douglas and his giant ants save the multiverse. On a smaller scale, Kaz nearly destines himself to a life of misery in an effort to please his family. M. Night departs from his literary source to give a hopeful ending: rather than sticking as a family in the face of an apocalypse they could avert, Groff’s Eric chooses to sacrifice himself. Like all good things, family ties and family loyalties and family loves can be just as destructive as they are life-giving. 

The truth about the family that Christianity teaches is that the family is a wonderful and holy gift from God insofar as it reflects the goodness of God. Marriage is good and holy because it reflects and symbolises the love that Jesus has for His Church. Procreation is good because it fulfils God’s command for humanity to be fruitful. Family life is good because it is a space in which Christian love is able to flourish.  

As soon as we forget that family life is a reflection of God, family life becomes a burden – and this is so easy to do. We can fetishise family life, demonise or diminish those who do not have a family, ignore those who are happily single; and all of this is wrong and hurtful and damaging. The epitome of the family in the Christian worldview is one where the completely self-giving love, which we see perfectly in Jesus Christ, is allowed to grow and flourish. Oddly enough, this is why Knock at the Cabin has the most Christian depiction of family life. In spite of it being a gay couple with an adopted child (not an uncontroversial idea in the modern Church) it is the one family that demonstrates the principle of sacrificing one’s self for the good of the other. That is what family is – a place where we learn to be willing to die for those we love, and even for those we have never met, and so modelling the Jesus who dies for the sins of the world. 

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen