“I’ve Been Standing With You”: Fences

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Troy Maxson can’t accept who he is and where he is in life.

After overcoming a troubled childhood and young adulthood and a stint in prison, he’s a settled family man in Pittsburgh. It’s the 1950s, and he’s a black man, but he’s doing his best. He gets a promotion at his sanitation job. He has his wonderful wife, Rose (Viola Davis), of eighteen years.

But he can’t be satisfied.

His 17 year old son is wanting to go into sports, something he could never pursue himself because he was black. Sports will let his son down like they let him down, Troy rationalizes. So he puts a stop to it. Like a good father would.

His wife isn’t giving him everything that he wants, either. You can’t fault a man for wanting to feel full, Troy rationalizes. So he finds another woman. Rose should be able to understand.

Life hasn’t given Troy what he wants, and it keeps giving him things he can’t accept. Things that remind him of his past failures. Things that leave him bitter.

So what do you do with things you can’t accept? You lock them out. You lock the things you want in. Maybe you build a fence around them.

Accepting circumstances and people is one of the many themes reflected on in Fences, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson. Going into the film, I only knew that Fences was a famous play, and both Viola Davis and Denzel Washington had played the parts on Broadway. I didn’t know the story, and that made the experience much better. I wasn’t focused on how the play translates to screen. I was completely engaged in the tumultuous story playing out before me.

Fences is one of the deepest character studies I have ever seen. Troy and Rose Maxson became as real to me as my family beside me. The slow reveal of Troy’s conflicted personality and motivations made me jump from sympathy to rage to sadness- sometimes all in the same scene. Rose’s sentiments were real and her journey was one that is universal for so many, yet equally as complex and conflicting. Confronting her husband and his selfishness- “I’ve been standing with you. I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot as you!… What about my life?” will stay with me more than any line I’ve heard from a film all year. All the side characters feel lived in and dynamic. That’s purely from the writing, not to mention the acting (which we’ll get to later).

Simply put, there is a reason this play won a Pulitzer. Don’t just take my word for it. See it yourself.

Denzel’s directing here is never flashy. The film, honestly, doesn’t take full advantage of its cinematic medium. This was a story made for the stage, and the film simply cannot shake that. Yes, the close-ups on the actors do make the story more intimate. But the film still takes place in no more than four locations, and if you aren’t prepared to basically watch a play when you sit down in the theater, it might surprise you how theatrical the film plays. So while there might not be a real justification for putting this story to screen, it does mean the story is being exposed to more people, which makes it worth it. I, for one, am grateful.

Saying Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are fine actors is kind of like saying the sun will rise today, but great work should be recognized, and they do great work here. They have both had the advantage of playing these characters before on the stage, so I’ll let the Academy decide if that is grounds for denying them Oscar nominations. If you only consider their performances, though, Oscars for both.

Watching their performances, each time a new revelation was made (and trust me, there are plenty), I waited in tense anticipation for what the character’s reactions would be. Each time, they were realistic, one I could imagine myself having, and yet astonishing to me at the same time. The sheer volume of their emotions carried me to the finale that is a poignant reflection on legacy.

I can’t say enough good things about Fences. I can’t stop thinking about it either. I urge everyone to see it. It is a tour de force on numerous levels, and one of the most human stories put to screen this year.

-Madeleine D

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Let’s Put on a Show: Sing

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Buster Moon. Showman. Owner of the grandest theater in town. Suave businessman. Charmer. Koala Bear, in this land of anthropomorphic animals.

Also, broke.

After a string of misfires and bad shows, Buster Moon (voiced by an admirably passionate Matthew McConaughey) only has one more chance to save his theater. He’ll do anything necessary to pull off his wild, crazy, totally unique idea.

A singing competition! You aren’t sick of those yet, are you? I didn’t think I would be when I sat down to watch Sing. Okay, maybe a little. I stopped watching “American Idol” and “The Voice” long ago. But I’m a fan of Illumination Entertainment, the studio behind Despicable Me and this year’s earlier The Secret Life of Pets. The trailers looked cute, the cast looked promising, and I was sure a good studio like this one could elevate the concept.

Sing, in its defense, is heartfelt. As heartfelt as a movie that pushes every successful, money-making kids movie button it could press can be. The cast (a lot of them unrecognizable in their voice roles) especially put a lot of effort into it, and I have no doubt director Garth Jennings poured his heart into the film. It simply cannot escape one thing: it always stoops to the lowest common denominator.

When discussing pop music on the radio once, my mom told me that most songs talk about love and sex and romance because they are the things everyone has in common. Mass appeal.  A good artist can elevate those concepts. Bad artists just talk about them in unoriginal, common ways.

Sing is like its unoriginal soundtrack, full of the most over-used and basic songs you could possibly choose for its audience. It always chooses the least original way out. Need a gag for not really any reason? Fart joke. Need to make it obvious who is a girl and who is a boy in these animal animated movies? Sexualization of cartoon animals, check. Need to pack as many songs in for promotional appeal? Skim through that playlist like you’re David Ayer editing Suicide Squad. Need rational explanation for events? Don’t bother! It never reaches for anything higher, and never pushes itself to be funnier or nicer or more well animated or better in anything.

Sing is not the first movie to do this, of course. Some of my favorite animated movies have some of these problems. But this one especially disappoints, because I hoped this film would be better, and it includes all of these elements without much to redeem it.

That said, it isn’t devoid of funny moments. It has nice messages about working hard and enjoying being a performer because you love it, not for the glory or fame. If you take little kids to see it (and that’s about the only audience who will really love it, unless you’re raising young movie reviewers, in which case, congratulations! And they’ll probably be unimpressed too), they could learn some good things. Having a conversation afterwards about talent and doing things that scare you would be a good use of time.

“You know the great thing about hitting rock bottom?” Buster Moon asks his assistant, Miss Crawley (director Garth Jennings), during the film. He stands on a stage prop- a big crescent moon- and it ascends upwards. “The only place to go… is up!”

Sing however, never lifts off the ground

-Madeleine D

When We Go To War: Rogue One

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***Huge spoilers below!

Why would the Death Star, the killing machine from Episode 4, A New Hope, have a fatal flaw? Fans for years have asked that question, as episode after episode of the Star Wars franchise came out. Some forgave, some let it go.

But real Star Wars fans never forget.

Rogue One, or Episode 3.9, tells the story of the rebels who stole the Death Star plans for Princess Leia. The team is led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who is not Rey’s mother, for all you conspiracy theorists out there. She is, though, the daughter of the man whom the Empire forced to build the Death Star, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Abandoned as a child and raised by a mad-man extremist, Jyn has resolved not to care about the Empire, the Rebellion, or anyone except herself.

Until the Empire, the Rebellion, and people with issues like her pull her back in.

There are half a dozen main characters in Rogue One, and none of them get the time they deserve, even though the whole cast is likable and obviously could do more with the roles if given the chance. Jyn seems pretty much personality-less, and falls into the sole-lady-of-the-team cliche. She’s Rebellious™, and Abandoned™. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is Morally Ambiguous Hero™ and Courageous™ and Handsome™ and… that’s it. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is Blind Wise Chinese Ninja Man™. Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) is Snarky Wing Man™. Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is Quirky Space Nerd™. K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) is Sarcastic Robot™. There are some other characters too, but you probably won’t remember their names. Just remember there is an Evil Dude in White™, Farmer Scientist Dad™, and Metal Forrest Whittaker.

If Rogue One deserves any praise in the area of character, it is that Rogue One is a better Suicide Squad movie than the actual Suicide Squad movie and a better Magnificent Seven movie than the actual Magnificent Seven movie we got this year. But those are low standards.

The first part of the film moves surprisingly slow compared to its exciting finale. Being slow is one thing, but having scenes that could easily be cut to make time for character development is a problem. However, as the team gathers and completes mini-missions leading to the actual stealing of the Death Star, director Gareth Edwards continues the breathtaking world-building of the Star Wars universe. Several planets are displayed, populated by new people and creatures. It feels less modern than some parts of The Force Awakens and the purposely low-tech look of some scenes adds to the feeling of it being pulled out between the prequels and originals.

The film shines the brightest in the end. The decision to kill all the main characters threw me off when I went in. I respect it, and am glad they did it for creative reasons and to stay with the continuity of the series, but in a Marvel/DC world, I had forgotten that was actually an option. The finals shots of all the characters, even though I had forgotten half of their names, did get to me. If you didn’t/don’t get shivers up your spine with the ending Darth Vader and Princess Leia scenes, you’re not enough of a nerd.

I want to make this comparison when thinking about the merits of the new generation of Star Wars movies. The Force Awakens was criticized for having a plot that basically copied A New Hope, but it was almost universally agreed that it had wonderful characters that have even more potential. As a character over plot person, I want to spend more time in the timeline of The Force Awakens. Not so with Rogue One. Maybe that’s because we all knew we’ll never see these characters again. This is a stand alone film. In cinematic universes nowadays, the characters have to last multiple movies (think Tony Stark- this summer’s Spiderman: Homecoming will be his 7th film appearance in 9 years). With this standalone movie, though, there are very few boxes to check (although there is shameless nostalgia and beloved character cameos). In the end, Rogue One has all the strengths and weaknesses of a standalone film in a great franchise.

The two main characters- Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor don’t really have emotional arcs at all. The fact that they are the rebels, and we know their fates, is the emotional hook for the audience. That’s a hook based on nostalgia, and I would make the case that it’s worse than any The Force Awakens nostalgia. At least with that film, the characters had emotional arcs for the hook. This film’s whole reason for existing and for us caring about the end is because of A New Hope.

While watching the end of the movie, in the company of 13 Jr. High girls and a couple beside me furiously making out (because what sets a romantic mood better than everyone dying on a screen in front of you, and 13 people dying beside you, but for very different reasons), I was trying to make sense of what about Rogue One didn’t engage me like I wish it had. The movie had a darker tone, and I liked that. There were a couple of moments that seriously sent shivers up my spine. The movie is well-crafted technically and from a story perspective (again, well-woven plot). The final battle is good. Just swell. I really did enjoy a lot of the film.

I wish I could hyperbolize and say, “This is the best movie ever,” or “This is the worst movie ever.” It’s much easier to say that. Instead, I’m a bit at a loss for words. There isn’t a specific thing about it that I didn’t like, except the lack of deep characterization. It just didn’t speak to me and the things I like to see in films. I also like, but am not an avid fan, of Star Wars.

So if you want to see Rogue One, go forth and spend your money in happiness. If not, that’s okay, too. If you like it great, if not, great. It’s the season of spreading joy and cheer, and the last thing we need is to get in debates whether this movie is good or not.

We’ll save that argument for some 2017 movies.

-Madeleine D

Not a Revolution, but Maybe a Revelation: Moana

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What makes the perfect Disney movie?

Disney is probably the most mainstream of corporate media companies, and their films represent the times perfectly. So what do the great Disney films of each generation say about that generation? And what makes them great?

If it’s the animation, Moana is certainly at the forefront. The hair animation alone is breathtaking. The technical achievement is obvious from even the trailers.

So is it the music? Disney is known for its songs. Well, have no fear. While there might not be any Let It Go’s in the Moana soundtrack with Lin Manuel Miranda (disclaimer, I’m a huge Hamilton fan), the music hits the right beats and leaves a few memorable tunes in your head. (Although, side note- Moana not rapping in this movie, with music by Broadway’s rap king, is one of the biggest let-down of the years. And this is 2016. That’s a low bar.)

The plot? Moana does boast a fun adventure movie about a girl and a demigod teaming up to save the girl’s people from famine and destruction of their land. There are battles, heartfelt Life of Pi-esque moments on a boat, and an uplifting coming of age story. The finale is even really unique. Then again, other Disney movies have had great plots, too.

So those are staples of a Disney movie. But what makes it iconic? A classic? The originality?

Going into Moana, I had heard all sorts of things. Most were positive, and along the lines of, Moana is the most unique Disney princess movie I’ve seen. I’ve never seen the “earnest girl teams up with a scoundrel with a heart of gold” before.

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Moana looks so different from the other Disney princesses!

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Well, I guess unique is a strong word.

I really don’t want to rag on Moana. There are a lot of good things about her. My problem is when I see other reviews with titles like, “Moana is the anti-princess,” or “Moana is not like anything I’ve ever seen!” Disney cannot physically make the anti-princess. They have created our idea of what a princess is, and furthermore, they aren’t going to radically change what a princess is. Moana isn’t even really a princess-princess, but because they need to market her as a princess, they have a character in the movie call her a princess, to remind us that she is one, so go buy her Halloween costume already. To make an anti-princess would mean to not make a female character a princess, and heaven forbid we not have an animated leading lady that isn’t a princess.

So Moana isn’t an anti-princess. She fits into the Disney Princess spunk like a glove. She’s got the big eyes, flawless hair, and perfect physique (that’s right, nice try Disney, but I’m not going to congratulate you just for making her waist bigger than her neck. I don’t applaud fish for swimming.) She has an earnest heart, a sense of adventure, and courage.

Even though I don’t think Moana’s personality is drastically different from other princesses, she is undeniably likable. She’s more flawed than just being clumsy like Anna from Frozen, and she’s more three-dimensional than Elsa. She has a relationship with her family (both parents live! yeah!) and we get to see her do something no other Disney princess has ever done- actually rule her kingdom and interact with her subjects. That’s right, being in a leadership position actually requires something out of you. Who knew?

Moana is voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, who deserves all the credit for making Moana likable and complex. Moana’s coming of age story is made powerful by Cravalho’s emotions, and I hope she does a lot more work in the future.

Now we can’t have a movie without a macho dude character to bring in the boy audience. We get that macho dude in Maui, a shapeshifting demigod, voiced by the closest thing we have to a real demigod on earth- Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Maui, like Moana, isn’t a character we haven’t seen before, but Johnson brings warmth to the role, and while I hope one day I can see a movie with the roles reversed, Johnson and Cravalho do a great job with their chemistry and banter.

Moana is a fun movie. It will scratch a Disney itch. It would even be fair to call it a great movie. But I would hesitate to say it is groundbreaking. It is a step in the right direction though, and I think it has the Frozen-effect. With Frozen (in my humble opinion), so many people fell in love with what the movie was supposed to be, what it stood for, rather than the actual film. I think Moana is much better than Frozen, even though they both stand for the same ideal. I think one day there will be a movie that will achieve what a lot of people are looking for- a thoroughly modern, feminist, game-changing fairy tale. So no, Moana is not a revolution, but it is a revelation.

One last note- I went to see this with my sister and a friend. As the movie closed, I looked over and saw that my friend was teary-eyed. She told me it was because Moana was her. No, my friend isn’t a pacific islander, nor does she really have much else in common with Moana, although they both have long, crazy hair. But Moana has that adventurous spirit, that drive, that sense of purpose that my friend has and felt she had never seen on screen in a relatable way. Moana was the Disney Princess she had been waiting for.

So, while Moana is not the Disney Princess I’ve been waiting for, she may be the one you’re waiting for, and that’s awesome. She’s accompanied by a great movie.That is something Disney can pat themselves on the back for.

Okay, okay, that’s enough, Disney. Get back to work. You’re not out of the woods yet.

-Madeleine D

 

Magic is Not Enough: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

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I remember fondly my first Harry Potter experience. I was in third grade, and I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because I was bored and didn’t have a book to read during independent reading time. Within two pages I was hooked. My dad started reading them at the same time, so we raced to finish the series. I beat him (sorry, dad, for hiding your books) and I earned the right to watch the movies. My favorite characters were Sirius Black and Hermione Granger.

I think a lot of people have that feeling of nostalgia, excitement, and glee when they hear the words “Harry Potter.” Even the words “J.K Rowling” can whip up a firestorm of emotions for die-hard Harry Potter fans.

But this isn’t a Harry Potter movie. This is a movie about a young Magizoologist named Newt Scamander, and his adventures in the American magic world. Can he wiggle his way into our hearts the same way The Boy Who Lived did?

The answer is no.

The weakest part of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are the characters. Now I know, these characters are going to be around for four more movies. But even in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first movie/book, you already knew various things about each character. Harry was brave, rash, and kind, and curious. Hermione was not just smart but courageous, stuck-up, and loyal. Ron was funny, insecure, and refreshingly average. But these characters? I only know one or two trait for each. Newt (Eddie Redmayne) loves animals, and has hair that has more personality than he does. Tina (Katherine Waterston) is like Hermione… but more unappreciated? Queenie (Alison Sudol) is blonde. Jacob (Dan Fogler) is overweight. The orphanage lady (a wasted Samantha Morton) is secretly (and stereotypically) cruel.

That’s it. Those are all the endearing characteristics of the characters (some of whom) I have to spend four more movies with. Oh, and none of these characters develop. In fact, there is really no message or moral at all to the story, beside general goodness and please keep your animals in your cages. There is a background political message about fear and tolerance, but it doesn’t get the screen time it deserves and the message is what we’ve seen from the Harry Potter series.

The relationships don’t build at all- Newt takes to Jacob because he’s.. Dumb? And nice? And bakes stuff? And Queenie falls in love with Jacob because he’s dumb? And nice? And bakes stuff? And Tina and Newt become good pals because after Tina tries to arrest them he realizes she is actually nice? And pretty? And uses magic to bake stuff?

Those are too many questions to have for a two hour movie that has a middle section that feels like four. The film doesn’t feel long because there are a lot of good scenes, it feels long because all the long scenes are spent on dumb scenes. There is not a single full scene explaining Credence’s (Ezra Millers) backstory and connection to Graves (Colin Farrell), but there sure is one of Eddie Redmayne trying to seduce a Fantastic Beast and at that point I’m asking, Where do I find the exit?

If these characters are still appealing to you, though, there is hope. The plot is surprisingly well constructed, and I applaud J.K Rowling for taking to screenwriting so well. It isn’t easy to jump mediums. The different storylines weave together by the end to a finale I could enjoy, but still felt unsatisfied with because I never got to understand these characters. Only feeling superficial empathy for them, I didn’t feel any urgency with what was supposed to be dramatically high stakes.

One thing to note about Fantastic Beasts is that it has some darker elements that resemble the last few Harry Potter movies. Heads up for parents- young children might get scared at several parts. The magic here isn’t always light, with references to various subjects, including crazy religious fanatics, Salem witch hunts, child abuse, mental illness, and a magical form of the death penalty.

At first I was really excited that the film was going to take a dark turn. The last Harry Potter movies/books were able to take a darker tone and enhance the story. An entire quintet of dark magic movies sounded awesome. Then Fantastic Beasts let me down, because simply having those elements doesn’t make the film any more mature or thoughtful. To make those dark subjects work, you have to do an arc that explores the subject and gives it the weight and levity it deserves. Fantastic Beasts just throws them in there, making the film even more crowded and shallow.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them looks great on paper. There are inventive things on display here. But the whole film is weighed down with a feeling of lifelessness that it can’t escape. One of the film’s biggest selling points was its setting in the American Wizarding World. When I saw it, though, I never got the feeling of being in America. I got the impression it was London, trying to replicate America, by just adding American accents and the Statue of Liberty and a bald eagle. The sense of greater world-building that came from the Harry Potter movies, built from a firm novel foundation, is lost here. Fantastic Beasts is obsessed with trying to be magical and whimsy and fun, but by trying too hard, it loses it completely.

In the end, magic is not enough to make Fantastic Beasts a good film. Sure, it may be fun sometimes. If you love Harry Potter and understand its mythology deeply, I can understand how wonderful the potential for Fantastic Beasts is, and I wish I had that same enthusiasm. For someone who enjoyed Harry Potter in a more casual way, the experience of watching Fantastic Beasts was kind of like going to a party where you don’t know anyone. Go ahead and dance, but it’s nowhere near as fun as being with friends, or in this case, characters you care about.

-Madeleine D

Quiet People Doing Extraordinary Things: Loving

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The climactic scene of Loving is divided between two locations. One is the Supreme Court, where the future of interracial marriage lies in the landmark case of Virginia vs Loving. The second location is a farm, where Mildred Loving, a black woman, watches her husband, Richard Loving, a white man, play with their two children in the yard. She gets a call from their lawyers. They won. Mildred nods, hangs up, and smiles at her husband. He nods, and goes back to playing with the kids.

And that’s all folks. They win. Interracial marriage is legal in the United States. The Loving family can continue their daily lives, just with less fear.

If that climax sounds less-than-exciting to you, keep in mind before you see Loving that that is how the whole movie plays. It is an unbelievably calm, restrained, and polite film. Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) never get angry with each other or their circumstances. They go through their entire ordeal with humility and quiet conviction. Director Jeff Nichols refuses to craft an Oscar drama. He creates one that reflects the nature of the Lovings themselves. Richard Loving states in the film, “Tell the judge I love my wife.” He doesn’t want to go to court. He doesn’t want to make a statement. He just loves his wife. Loving doesn’t make itself into a statement. It presents itself as just a slice of life, albeit with extraordinary implications.

There is a difference between restraint and boring though, and how Loving walks that line is still up for debate. I think one of the year’s best examples of restraint is this Fall’s Southside With You, about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. That was a film that could have easily gone for Oscar bait with huge speeches, big statements on politics and the state of America today, and unrealistically canny foreshadowing. Yet Southside With You chooses to serve its story rather than its makers.

So what does that make Loving? I think it depends. I personally don’t think this story is a good fit for a movie. It is certainly important, and everyone should know about the Lovings. But you could cover all the material given here with a podcast, a Wikipedia page read, or even the trailer for this film. There is very little meat here.

The lack of meat in the film is replaced with elements that may be very appealing to some. It’s an actor’s film through and through, with Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton giving Oscar-worthy performances. They don’t play particularly interesting people, but they play them with an admirable amount of naturalness.

Honestly though, there isn’t much else. The film has what we’ve come to expect- nice cinematography, a serving score, a feel of deep authenticity in its historical setting. But if you know the story, and don’t care to watch intense faces for two hours, Loving isn’t going to be your movie. Truthfully, it wasn’t mine. I appreciate the film for what it is, and for not falling into all the traps it could have. I just wished I had walked out of the theater, pumping my fist in the air, yelling “Yes! They did it!”

The film didn’t need to be cliched or loud to do that. It just needed to make sure the stakes were clear and to show the real injustices the Lovings (and couples like them) faced. But, when the worst punishment shown in the film is them being jailed for a few nights, I didn’t get the feeling of, “This is an unjust problem that needs to be solved right away.” I never felt anxious for them or their situation.

The film does a wonderful job of portraying who the Lovings were. But then it takes it a step too far and becomes the Lovings. It reminds me why not a lot of movies are made about introverts. It doesn’t matter how powerful those closeups of intense expressions are. It doesn’t matter how wonderful they are as role models, with Mildred Loving’s inner strength and determination and Richard Loving’s quiet conviction. Quiet people simply do not have the onscreen charisma we are used to to entertain us. And I say this all as an introvert. A movie about me would not be entertaining in the least.

So, do make movies about important people, introverted or not. But do not make an introverted movie if it doesn’t have more to say. Loving is sensitive and sweet, but isn’t able to transfer the love on screen to the audience.

-Madeleine D