You Can’t Please Everyone: The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi

I’d just like to take this moment to say I liked The Force Awakens.

Look, I understand why some people don’t. Does it follow all the beats of A New Hope? Yes. Is A New Hope based on the archetypal Hero’s Journey? Yes. Were people going to be mad if the new Star Wars trilogy was wildly different from the original trilogy, like, say, the hated prequels? Yes. And do I have a bunch of nostalgia and fierce opinions about a movie made twenty two years before I was born? Actually, no.

This is a spoiler review, because you’ve probably already seen The Last Jedi and/or been on the internet.

One of the best things about this new trilogy are the characters, who have certain characteristics of the classic characters, but also have their differences. This movie defines these differences even more.

Rey is closest to Luke, but doesn’t have a royal legacy to live up to. She’s a nobody, and she has to grapple with that and what it means for The Force to have chosen her as the response to Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren wants to be like Darth Vader, but for wildly different reasons. And he’s not going to get the redemption arc many thought he was. He has to pay for his actions.

Poe is a blend of Han Solo and Leia, and Finn is not Lando Calrissian. I think The Force Awakens needed to be like A New Hope in order to establish these characters so they could work in this film.

The problem is that new characters are added, and as interesting as they are, they are spread too thin, making it so no one gets a fair shake, and people disappear for large chunks of the film. With three somewhat equal plots and a handful of mini-ones, The Last Jedi takes pains to expand the world of Star Wars. It is clear director Rian Johnson was bursting with ideas. However, I think there are also some weak parts. He tries to take on three plots, along with small mini-ones, and I think all he needed was an editor with a strong pen saying, “This is great, Rian, but let’s leave some of this for the next movie or the deleted scenes. This film is two and a half hours, and we really don’t need to see Luke milk a beached loch-ness monster just for a blue-milk callback.”

As for the plots, though, I like the messages of Rose and Finn’s Canto Bright casino adventure. Star Wars is clearly making a small effort to say something nuanced about politics- people profiteering off both sides of the war and animal cruelty is wrong- but I don’t know if taking away so much time from the rest of the characters was worth it. Rose and Finn are legitimate characters (not tokenism) but their plot could be eliminated. Same for Holdo and Poe. I love that Holdo is such an antithesis to what we would expect, middle-aged woman in a ballgown as a military leader, who gets an amazing payoff, but again, not sure if it was worth taking away attention from the film at large. Some consolidating could be made to keep the film from spreading itself so thin and having multiple endings.

The most interesting plot to me was the Kylo and Rey plot. Not only is The Force-head-texting thing new, but it seemed like Johnson read all the fan theories online about the characters and said, Nope! Yet it doesn’t feel like he’s checking boxes. It seems like he’s trying to set the characters on course for a continuation of their arcs, and with the characters literally struggling against each other, gives a visual metaphor to the thematic struggle presented here.

Things people have disliked about the film that I didn’t mind- I was fine with changes to Luke’s character, and I think the parallels to the original trilogy are needed to remind you it’s the same series, and the Star Wars movies have always been based in archetypes. These aren’t new.

For all that is packed into The Last Jedi, the film doesn’t actually end very far from where it started. The resistance fighters are still scrappy and in bad shape, Rey is still figuring out her powers, and another mentor figure is gone. This shows how the Star Wars movies are never going to die, though- if they can do so much while moving forward so little, they will live on for eternity.

You’re always going to have people who are unhappy with change, want complete change, or are unhappy with the particular way you brought change. That isn’t to say criticism isn’t good (that’s kind of my whole thing). But personally, I’m not a Star Wars baby. I have no nostalgia for the original or prequels. I’m just here for the ride and the cultural conversation. I like the new Stars Wars. I like how it has made an effort towards diversity and representation, giving women a bigger role in sci-fi then they’ve ever been allowed, changed franchise filmmaking, and the themes and ideas that are being presented. I also respect the original foundations, but I don’t think that means they are the golden standard.

I think the best path for Star Wars is to do the same. You can’t please everyone, so do what you want. The Last Jedi does what it wants, and I think with a little fine tuning, this is what makes it a strong film and a steady path for the future.

-Madeleine D

“Dancing Through (A) Life”: The Greatest Showman

Dancing through life/ skimming the surface/ gliding where turf is smooth/ Life’s more painless/ for the brainless – “Dancing Through Life” from the musical “Wicked.”

The Greatest Show

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus are closed down. Fact.

A lot of people enjoy the circus. Fact.

The circus has a long and troubled history of animal abuse allegations and other ethical violations. Fact.

P.T. Barnum was not the inventor of the circus but widely developed it and was a “self-made man.” Fact.

Barnum was a charming man who advocated for the rights of the downtrodden and outcast and was a progressive social thinker. Fa-hmmmmmmm. Time for a musical number! And a one, two, three, four-

The Greatest Showman is from first-time director Michael Gracey and the passion project of Hugh Jackman. It’s a full swing original pop-musical, so get with it or get out. It’s full of clever choreography, likeable actors with earnest performances, beautiful sets and costumes, and a story that hits all the beats of a tidy rags-to-riches. It’s here to entrance you with magic and wonder. If you want the real P.T. Barnum, you’ll get a glimpse of him, but some of his rougher edges are mysteriously scrubbed away. Here, Barnum is carried by the earnest Jackman, whose Barnum is a business-minded, occasionally dishonest but gold-hearted, family man who identifies with all the outcasts he’s using in his show.

But, even if you don’t know anything about Barnum, there is still a sense in the movie that a lot is being left out, which it is. For example, you aren’t going to see the story of P.T. Barnum’s first real act, which was to buy Joice Heth, an elderly slave, advertise her as the 161 year old nurse of George Washington, and perform a public autopsy on her. I guess Hugh Jackman wasn’t down for that?

The Greatest Showman says it’s telling the story of P.T. Barnum, but it really wants to tell the story of how the circus is a haven for outcasts and misfits, a place for them to find a family. It’s not historically accurate, but you probably knew that you aren’t here for a history lesson, you’re here for musical numbers with Zac Efron and Zendaya! And that is legitimate and a fine indicator of a good time.

The music, penned by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek from La La Land, is fun and light. The choreography is enchanting and creative, with the cast using the settings around them as musical instruments and props during the performances, and it is an unapologetic musical. People just pop into songs. Director Gracey has a background in music videos, and it shows.

If you want a musical, you’re going to get a fun musical. But if you’d like a musical with a bit of thematic depth, I don’t think you’ll get it.

The selling point of the movie, the big theme and the subject of its many anthems, is being an outcast and being yourself. Ignoring, probably, the real P.T. Barnum’s motives, here, everyone is an outcast in some way, trying to fit in. Barnum gives them the chance to be seen and loved. The film really wants to say interesting things and hit on tough subjects- racism, marital infidelity, the dangers of show business on families- but it only does that in a very shallow way. That includes its own theme.

The problem with saying that everyone faces adversity is that yes, the central problem is the sin that all humans have of categorizing people and hurting each other. But some oppression is systemic and institutional. So, Barnum’s desire to be respected by his wife’s wealthy parents can’t really be equated with the struggle of the black characters in the film. Barnum can escape the adversary facing him. They cannot.

Furthermore, you don’t get to know the “freaks” very well. Some of them are given little introductions, but the majority are not. Because we don’t get to know these “freaks,” they don’t get any humanity outside of, “they are rejected by society.” This reduces them to what the movie wants to say the circus freed them from being- nameless freaks.

I went in wanting an entertaining musical, and I got one. I had a blast watching it. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack. I’d probably see it again. If you want to see an original musical, this is the only one being offered up this year, so go have a great time!

But I really don’t think it is too much to ask for some themes in a movie, or at least a message or interesting thought to chew on. Especially with a story like this, that has multiple routes to take. But The Greatest Showman is not willing to give me something beyond what I can find from Katy Perry’s Roar.

And that’s the real shame, because this movie tries to encourage people to be honest and fearless, but can’t find any strength to do that itself.

-Madeleine D

V for Victory: Darkest Hours

darkest hour

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” – Winston Churchill, speech given to the House of Commons, June 4th, 1940.

Great speech, huh? One of the best the world has ever heard. While you may assume you know about Winston Churchill, the prime minister of England during WWII, the man who guided the country through its “darkest hours,” Director Joe Wright and actor Gary Oldman want to take you through the first month of his term and try to reveal more about the man.

When I review a movie, I try to either put aside or state my personal preferences. There is no true objectivity in art, and so I try to judge both the technical achievement of a film and the thematic.

So, before I give my verdict on Darkest Hour, I should say that I have seen two other WWII films this year in Dunkirk and Their Finest. And within the last six months I have watched multiple WWI and WWII films (Empire of the Sun, The Wind Rises, Saving Private Ryan, Joyeux Noel, Lawrence of Arabia, Wonder Woman, Sophie’s Choice) and frankly, I’m just tuckered out. Also, British period dramas are not my cup of tea. Sorry. I can appreciate them, but there are only so many I can take. I would not make a good Academy member.

So Darkest Hour to me felt much longer than two hours. I was alert and engaged, but I was also not opposed to an abrupt exit.

Part of the reason is that I think films, to some degree, need to validate why they are films. If you are going to ask someone to pay money to see your film in a theater, there needs to be a compelling reason why. Darkest Hour is a lead-up to one of the most famous speeches in the world. That’s great, but besides “come see Gary Oldman’s great performance,” there isn’t anything here that I either haven’t experienced before, seen before, or could not have found out from a Wikipedia skim.

Moreso, 2017 has been a year characterized by out-of-the-box filmmaking. There have been the Justice Leagues and The Circle’s of course, but there have also been the Get Outs, Wonder Womans, Okjas and Logans and Lady Birds. Films that, even if they are not technically perfect, are ambitious and different. Films that spotlight new voices and talent.

Darkest Hours is classical. That’s not at all a bad thing. It is top-quality filmmaking. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis) makes each frame of the film mean something. Whether it is framing Churchill alone in a claustrophobic space as he tries to make a decision, or showing the ‘God’s eye view’ of the battlefield, nothing is wasted or unintentional. The script is tight. The score is haunting. All of the actors do a fine job, with Gary Oldman completely disappearing into his role. His makeup and prosthetics aren’t obvious or distracting. The entire film ticks like an intricate machine, and hits every beat.

I think, though, what makes filmmaking such a powerful medium, what keeps it culturally relevant, are the messy films that have something to say and push our expectations. My tastes are leaning towards those films, and they stay with me longer.

If you want to see a fantastic lead performance, and if you love history and admire perfect filmmaking, see Darkest Hour. Appreciate it. But I don’t think that if you miss it, you’ll be missing out on one of the best films of the year.

-Madeleine D

A “Fun” Movie: Justice League

justice league

Why do I keep seeing superhero movies?

This year alone I saw six (including Justice League). That’s a lot of money going into the Hollywood machine! And yes, I liked three of them a lot. Two, I probably could have skipped. This one? Well…

Why am I not boycotting them? After all, a lot of them are just rehashes of other ones. Am I getting desensitized to the action blow-’em-up violence? Am I becoming more satisfied with the loose plots and broad, undefined characters?

My act of resistance was not seeing Justice League on its opening weekend. I didn’t really want to see it. It got blasted by critics, mixed reception from fans, and the most hopeful thing anyone could say to me about it was that it “was fun.”

Being “fun.” Hmmm. That can’t be a bad thing. I think “fun” can be an acceptable thing for a movie to be. So I went, and decided to gauge the film by if I had a “fun” time.

I did not have a fun time.

Justice League takes place where Batman v. Superman leaves off, but has amnesia about half of that film. Batman v. Superman was all about the world rejecting Superman, and Batman fighting him. Then Superman dies. Justice League begins with a mopey montage about the world and Batman suddenly loving Superman and mourning his death.

The film has a “plot,” but it goes through the obligatory motions with as much enthusiasm as I have about explaining it, so let’s just say that the plot’s main purpose is to get the team together and fight a CGI monster-dude. There’s Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), a newly-resurrected Superman (not a spoiler- Henry Cavill’s name was on the poster), and three new characters- the Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and Aquaman (Jason Momoa). Flash is the energetic comic relief, Cyborg is the moody anti-hero, and Aquaman is just there to have a good time and speak to fish. All of the actors here try their best, but Fisher seems lost within all the CGI, and Miller and Momoa both seem like they are in a much more exciting movie in their heads.

Before I continue, I  know there was a lot of drama and tragedy behind the scenes of the film, and I sympathize. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t criticize it when I’ve been asked to pay to watch it. What was put in theaters is what Warner Brothers decided was a film, and a finished product.

Justice League comes across as a deeply uncomfortable movie. Not for the audience- it requires so little audience engagement that I wrote up the majority of this review in my head during it- but a movie uncomfortable within itself. The actors don’t seem like they fit with the world, the story doesn’t seem like it fits within the previous films, and each scene seems like a patchwork of lackluster efforts and organizational chaos. No scene sits and breathes easily.

For example, I rarely mention CGI and editing in my reviews. Not because they aren’t important, but because most films have professionals working on them and these are areas that are usually competently done. But Justice League can’t even do those things competently. Shots jump awkwardly from one to another, some shots are headscratchers (why do you need a shot at eye level with Wonder Woman’s rear in leather pants? Oh wait…) and some of the CGI is on the level of a video-game.

There is no point in Justice League where there was something that made me think- that looks like a distinct creative decision made by a director with a vision. Which is interesting, because the film is made by the same team behind Batman V. Superman, a film people hated much more than this film, but I think is a better film by the sheer value of having direction. It’s not a great movie by any means, but at least there Zack Snyder tried something. He made interesting casting choices and tried to say something thematically. Justice League says some things about friendship and truth and justice, but… what it actually says beyond the idea that  “those things are good!” I couldn’t tell you.

This is a superhero casserole, stuffed with things people liked from other films- jokes, colors, team-ups, and is crammed in here without thought to what made them work in other films. It’s hollow, but supposedly fun. And I guess if you compare it to previous Snyder-fare it’s fun. There were a few times where a character said something on screen and a part of me went, “Oh, that was a joke.”

But have we really lowered our expectations of “fun” so low that this counts? Can’t a “fun” movie be a movie with direction and effort? Since when are metal things hitting other metal things and a stale script with a by-the-numbers villain “fun?” Why does fun have to be mindless?

So why do I keep seeing superhero movies? Because I believe in their potential. Comic book and superheros are our modern-day Greek mythology and fairy tales. They can be used as lenses in which to view our society’s fears and dreams. They can be easily paired with another genre. Just this year, Logan and Wonder Woman were landmark films and used the conventions of the genre in interesting ways.

Justice League does not push in any category. It stalls progress, and I hope that doesn’t make other movies as lazy- or “fun”- as this one.

-Madeleine D

The Perfect Thanksgiving Movie: Coco


Dia de los Muertos is a hard sell in America.

In general, all movies about other cultures and countries are. We’ve westernized the world through Hollywood, and we don’t really care for anyone else’s films.

On a deeper level, though, Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday about death that coincides with our date for Halloween. It’s about celebrating and remembering those who have died. And here in America we prefer not to think or talk about death, thank you very much. We don’t die, we “pass on,” and to where? Who knows! But please don’t speak about it too loudly, lest the Grim Reaper come for me before my preferred time.

But, if there is any movie studio able to tackle this holiday and present it to an American audience, it is Pixar. There is nothing the studio behind Finding Nemo, Inside Out, Toy Story, and Up can’t do. Add a big-eyed boy with a guitar and some musical numbers, and maybe Coco will manage to sneak into your heart, and family viewing rotation, after all.

Coco tells the story of Miguel, the youngest of the Rivera family, who wants to be a musician. He wants to be like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz. The only problem? The Rivera family does not do music. A guitar cannot even be in their line of sight. So on the Day of the Dead, Miguel skips his family’s celebration to compete in a talent competition to show off his skills, and through a series of mishaps, finds himself in the Land of the Dead.

The first act, and probably the weakest part, of Coco is the only area that isn’t highly original. The son-who-wants-to-be-a-musician-but-his-family-doesn’t-want-him-to is not only a trope, but was the plot of 2014’s The Book of Life, an animated movie also about the Day of the Dead.

On a side note, the 2014 animated film The Book of Life is an enjoyable film for kids, but if you have to choose between it and Coco, Coco is the Target brand, Book of Life is the Walmart brand (and Book of Life also includes a mariachi version of Mumford and Sons “I Will Wait,” so decipher from that what you will).

Once the “nobody understands my sensitive musician soul” storyline is established, everything else in Coco shines. It builds up to a well-earned, intense, emotional conclusion that I didn’t see coming. And while there are a few tear-jerker moments, the film doesn’t pry open your tear ducts in the way Pixar usually does. They’ve been accused of being emotionally manipulative, which I think is true in some cases, but here, it doesn’t feel pushed.

I don’t want to say much more about the story or characters, because I think the less you know the better for this film. But, I will say that the voice acting is top-notch, and the adventure the characters go on is full of twists and turns. There are some serious moments, but nothing truly scary, so consider looking at a content review of the film before taking a young child to see it. The toddler I took to see the film was fully engaged the whole time.

What struck me while watching the film is that Coco, even though it starts on October 31st and the skull motif fits for Halloween, is actually the perfect Thanksgiving movie, a genre that is severely lacking. Thanksgiving as a holiday is about family, being thankful, remembering your past, and appreciating your life and culture. Coco does all of that.

In America, we take two distinct views on death. Either we ignore it and don’t talk about it, or we say it’s natural and a part of life. As a Christian, I don’t think either of these are healthy. Ignoring death, not talking to children about it, and refusing to acknowledge or prepare for it is not only an act of fear, but simply unreasonable. We can’t protect anyone from death. Christianity is all about death- the death of Jesus, the death of our sins on a cross, death of our former selves when we come to Christ, and our eventual death so we can go to a new heavens and new earth.

As for saying it’s a natural part of life, ala the Lion King, that also doesn’t seem right either, because we weren’t made to die. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were made to be eternal with God forever. Sin is the unnatural thing brought to mankind. For those who are not Christians, death is something to be afraid of, and as Christians, we should mourn for them.

So Dia de los Muertos- a holiday that acknowledges death, believes that there is an afterlife, teaches children that death isn’t something to be afraid of, and celebrates family- is a great thing. It’s a very Christian thing, I believe.

The only thing that makes this particular Presbyterian pause is that Coco sometimes leans a little too close to ancestral worship. Also, the afterlife presented here isn’t really a heaven. In the film, it explains that if you aren’t remembered by people on earth, then you have a “final death,” where you are gone forever, which isn’t what Heaven is.  

I think these issues can be talked through with children if you go as a family to see Coco, which I highly recommend you do. It is not only a lovely film that shows off Pixar’s storytelling and artistry, but it also has another message that is ripe for discussion. Coco explains how we are responsible for each other. Miguel is responsible for his family members being remembered, and his family members are responsible for him and helping his future, and they all create a tight net that will never let the others fall. We are responsible for each other, whether in death or life, and through those loving bonds, nothing can really separate us, because one day, I hope, we will all be united together again.

-Madeleine D

My Best Self: Lady Bird


It’s 2002, Sacramento, and Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is up to trouble again.

She’s not a bad teen by any means. She tries very hard to be good. She just wants what… what she is supposed to have. This is her senior year of high school. Can’t she have a boyfriend, a job, a role in the school play, a little popularity, and a chance to get into the college of her dreams and escape California without her mother (Laurie MetCalf) giving her the silent treatment or commenting on every little thing?

Is that too much to ask?

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is a terrifically acted, charming meditation on the leap between teenagehood and adulthood. It’s about who and what shapes you, and loving where you come from. It’s a love letter to suburbia and awkward moments and mistakes and families.

It hits all the beats of a coming of age story, but in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be “quirky” and “cute.” It feels honest, and I think a lot of people will see shadows of their lives in this film, to a bigger degree than a lot of films that try so hard to be realistic and cool and end up missing the point.

Lady Bird is not a story where bad things rain down upon the protagonist. It’s not an endless parade of drama and despair. There are serious moments, but I think the life Lady Bird leads is common and unextraordinary. In other words, it’s not a movie where you describe the plot, because Lady Bird isn’t really interested in that. It’s interested in making you laugh, cringe, nod in understanding, and reflect.

A lot has been written about Lady Bird- the splendor of Ronan’s performance, Gerwig’s confident directing, the commentary on wealth and Bush-era America. Those are all important aspects of the film, but here is what I primarily took away.

Lady Bird is an optimistic movie in the way another one of my favorite films of the year, The Unknown Girl, is. Both are films about characters figuring out how to interact with the people around them. Lady Bird navigates strained relationships with her mother, father, boyfriend, siblings, friends, teachers, and strangers. Throughout the film, she messes up and tries again, each time getting better and better at empathizing, understanding, and supporting those people. She learns about how complex the lives of others are. She matures by deciding the world is not just about her.

That’s what coming of age is, yet the irony is that most films like this are about individuals becoming more selfish. They decide they deserve more, that life isn’t fair, and that they have a special place in the world to do something only they can fill.

But Lady Bird is about realizing that maybe you don’t contribute all that much, and maybe we need to treat each other with a little more kindness as we realize that sobering fact.

Lady Bird isn’t strikingly unique in many aspects, yet people love it (it has set a record on Rotten Tomatoes by having no negative reviews and just today was named Best Picture by The New York Film Critics Circle). I think that’s because it is difficult to convey such a nuanced message. That is what makes it one of the best films of the year.

-Madeleine D