Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost, But This Movie Is: Tolkien

Image result for tolkien movie

Tolkien is a new biopic about the life of J.R.R. Tolkien, best known as the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. Biopics are hard to do because they usually go one of two ways. The first is where they become about the lead actor trying to imitate a famous figure and thus they simplify and whitewash history so that the story can be inspirational. The second way is where the biopic is a reinvention of a personality that tries to imply certain things about the person, which also whitewashes and simplifies history, and makes the person an icon of a specific cause or identity. It is very hard to tell the story of a person that doesn’t play only into what people want that person to mean to them.

So, what about Tolkien? Tolkien the man (played here by Nicholas Hoult) isn’t a particularly well-known individual. His work lives on but, outside of academic circles, his life doesn’t have much influence on the common perception of his work. What is the purpose of telling his story?

During the film, one of Tolkien’s professors tells him, “People take a certain comfort in the past.” This is, unfortunately, the unintentional thesis of this biopic (and to be fair, of most biopics). Between all of the scenes of twentieth-century British boyhood, from dead mothers to boarding schools to uptight fathers to drinking tea with the chaps, gallivanting around the pastures, and reading old books under the guidance of professors, the antiquated anglophilia of the movie fails to do much beside remind me of better movies, particularly Dead Poet’s Society and The Imitation Game. The stories of men like Tolkien have been told many times before. That doesn’t mean Tolkien’s life is irrelevant by any means- he was a real person- but it means the film has to work harder to tell his story in a creative fashion, which it does not do. Therefore I feel like I’m watching a remix of other films, rather than a story personal to one man.

To its credit, Tolkien isn’t concerned with making everything in Tolkien’s life have a direct 1-1 correspondence to something from his books (unlike, say, 2017’s The Man Who Invented Christmas). While there are some brief direct allusions to his work (“it shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring”), overall the film is more interested in creating an atmosphere where Tolkien could find his stories.

The problem with building this atmosphere, however, is that the movie wants to focus on Tolkien’s fellowship with his friends, yet the movie spans half of his life. This means there are long portions without his friends, and since the movie is much less interested in showing how those parts of his life influenced his work, those scenes feel like filler and lack any interest or urgency that the friendship scenes have. This is worsened by the fact that each section of his life is shown as utterly independent from the other. Take, for example, his relationship with his wife Edith (Lily Collins). Except for one scene where she meets his friends, the groups are kept completely separate. The “fellowship” part of his life, which ends up being the heart and theme of the movie, is established with these mates and is never connected to Edith, who from her first appearance is framed not as a friend but solely as a love interest.

And that’s fine, but it means the film, which is more interested in how fellowship influenced Tolkien’s works than how romance did, could have omitted all of Edith’s part and very little harm would have been done. This is not only poor storytelling but is a truly missed opportunity to explore how Edith became the inspiration for all of Tolkien’s iconic female characters.

This is only part of Tolkien’s focus problem. The movie has a framing device where Tolkien is in WWI going to the front lines to find his friend. He passes out and has rapid-fire flashbacks through his childhood, mother’s death, boarding school years, and courtship with Edith. The pace slows down significantly to show his college years, before jumping back to the war scenes and the framing device. He finishes out his mission, and suddenly the movie is back in chronological order with no flashbacks as we finish out on him as a family man, which means we miss out on other things about Tolkien, like his Catholicism, friendship with C.S Lewis, and his other group of artistic friends, The Inklings. If the movie was truly going to be about friendship, then wouldn’t it make more sense to have the timeframe of the film start with Tolkien’s school friends, their war experiences, and then Tolkien recovering from the trauma of war and losing some of his friends by creating The Inklings? I guess that would make too much thematic sense.

The focus problems come with a pacing problem, which is a result of a screenplay that makes confounding choices on which scenes should be brief and which ones should be long. Most of Tolkien’s childhood flashback scenes are annoyingly brief, which means none of the relationships get to marinate and build. Meanwhile, there are several very long scenes, but these scenes are mostly of Tolkien talking about other people, which confuses us on who this movie is about. Hoult’s (and his eyebrows’) performance is competent, but he is so easily overshadowed by the other actors that it is disappointing to remember that he is the lead. I’ve seen good movies about quiet introverts (2017’s Paterson) and mediocre/boring ones (2016’s Loving). It’s possible to have charisma and still be a soft-spoken, introspective type, but Hoult and this movie just simply aren’t up to the task.

If you want to make a theatrical release, especially now in the age of streaming, there is a degree to which you have to justify your movie being in a theater. People only have so much time and money to spend at the movies, and so it has to be a movie worth seeing on a big screen. Tolkien never justifies itself in being a big-screen movie. Frankly, I don’t think it justifies itself being a movie. It simply doesn’t have enough insight into Tolkien and what makes his work still so beloved and relevant.

So what is the purpose of telling Tolkien’s story? I think it is to make me wish I had spent my time rewatching The Fellowship of the Rings instead.

-Madeleine D.


Avengers: Endgame Spoiler Review


The culmination of 22 movies. A cinematic universe built over the course of eleven years. One of the biggest franchises of all time. Some of the greatest actors ever. Avengers: Endgame is upon us.

I’m supposing you’ve seen the movie, so I’m not going to go over the story. I care as much about the technicalities and logic of the time-traveling plot elements as the film does, which is to say, not that much! I’m here for seeing what happens to my favorite characters. And boy did I get… some happenings.

There’s a lot of fanservice here. While I think most of it is deserving, there is also some fanservice that feels a little too self-congratulatory (no, Marvel, you are not the patron of feminism). It’s a delicate balance, one I think Endgame barely passes through.

Alas, even with all the fanservice, I didn’t get much of what I wanted, which makes this film a little more difficult to review. I think it ultimately boils down to the fact that I love Joss Whedon’s vision of the Avengers. I think his films contain the best characterizations for most of the characters, have the most interesting themes, and are the most dedicated to creating small, intimate, human moments.

However, for the past several years the Russo brothers have been in charge, and we’ve seen their vision come into view. There are some great things that they do; their action sequences are often excellent and they do an admirable job balancing the large casts they are given. But, as Richard Brody of The New Yorker put it, “The Russos have peculiarly little sense of visual pleasure, little sense of beauty, little sense of metaphor, little aptitude for texture or composition; their spectacular conceit is purely one of scale, which is why their finest moments are quiet and dramatic ones.” These weaknesses are particularly potent in Endgame. It struck me while watching just how ugly the film is visually. There are very few things happening under the surface for the characters. Everything they feel and think is shallow and plot-related, which strips the film of all the subtext and metaphorical layers the medium of film is so richly capable of. When it comes to the Russos’ vision, I can’t quite get on board.

Yet, as Cap says, we need to move on, and so I’m going to try to do so for the rest of this review. Because this is less of a movie and more of a ten-course meal where you keep getting things put on your plate that you aren’t sure you wanted but feel compelled to try, I’m going to list five of the things that worked, and five things that didn’t in Endgame.

The Good

  1. Tony

RDJ brought it home. A beautiful ending for a hero who has been growing and developing in complexity over the last ten years. Ever since Tony’s vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron, where he saw the threat of Thanos, he’s been trying to convince the other Avengers to believe him and to see the greater danger. It was beautiful to hear Pepper recognize that and tell Tony he could finally rest. He finally saved them, as he had always been trying to do.

  1. Avengers 2012

The first Avengers movie was a marvel. Despite that movie feeling small in comparison to these newer films, it still holds up and has a sweet place in my heart, so I loved the time traveling bits back to the Battle of New York. Everything in that scene could be interpreted as gratuitous, but I think it was a delightful and well-deserved recognition of just how much of a pop-culture milestone it was. And props to all of the actors who showed up to have miniscule cameos in these films. Thank you for recognizing the importance of this franchise and their impact, whether you ended on a bad note (Natalie Portman) or clearly have no clue what is going on (Robert Redford).

  1. Return of the King

This movie is not on the level of Return of the King, but when all the Avengers came into the final showdown with Thanos, I felt like I did when I first watched the Battle at the Black Gate of Mordor. And when Cap said, “Avengers, assemble,” I felt the same shiver go through the theater as when Aragorn said, “It is not this day.” The final battle, for all of its chaos, replicates reading a comic book perfectly.

  1. Sam Wilson as New Cap

Anthony Mackie has been grossly underused since his turn as Sam Wilson/Falcon in Winter Soldier, but I’m so glad he’s finally getting the attention he deserves. Sam has the bravery, leadership, and heart of Cap, but without the self-righteous hotheadedness and with a more nuanced sense of duty. And while I doubt the MCU will do too much with it, having a black man take up the mantle of Captain America does mean something (quite a lot, actually).

  1. Old Cap

I think Cap also got a nice ending. Poetic, sweet, a good sendoff.

What I Wish I Could Snap Away

  1. Natasha’s Ending

In Age of Ultron, there’s a scene near the end where Natasha is standing with Steve on the edge of the destroyed Sokovia. She says that if they were to die there, it wouldn’t be so bad, as “there are worse places to go.” This ties into Natasha’s overall development in the MCU. She has red in her ledger, a past full of sins and debts. Characters try to convince her to forgive herself. She herself encourages self-forgiveness in others. But she can never give it to herself. After being the only one to try and keep the Avengers together for so long, she sees the opportunity to die for the Soul Stone and takes it. Her death wish, her final sacrifice, her payment, is finally complete. It’s an active choice she makes after a life of being a pawn.

So unlike some of the hot takes out there saying this death was unjust, I actually think it was the logical conclusion to her arc. I wish she had gotten a more redemptive arc, but it makes sense from a storytelling perspective. My problem with all of this, though, is that 1) she died in the place of Hawkeye, the objectively worst Avenger, and 2) the death is barely acknowledged in the movie. She gets no funeral and only one scene of visible grief from the other Avengers. Excluding the Edward Norton Hulk movie, Black Widow was the second Avenger introduced into the MCU, yet she never gets that credit. It’s always Iron Man or Captain America. For all the crap Scarlett Johannson has had to put up with to pave the way for other female characters, her character deserved more of a recognized legacy.

  1. Use of a Biological Family as Shorthand for “Making It”

In the MCU, having a biological family is a sign of a character succeeding, being relatable, and having a greater purpose. It’s presented as an ideal life. This motif has been used to great effect when it is corrupted and shown as an idol that holds certain characters back from accepting themselves and their potential. But more often than not, it is used as a narrative shorthand that devalues the relationships between characters we actually know and care about.

This becomes clearly apparent in the choice to give Tony a child. Now sure, Morgan Stark is adorable. But we already know Pepper and Tony love each other- we don’t need offspring to confirm it. Second, Tony’s fatherhood arc has been happening through Peter Parker, and I would argue that arc is more compelling because he chooses Peter despite his fear that he may corrupt Peter and be like his own father. He looks at Peter as a younger version of himself and wants him to do better. This is active character growth. Having a young biological child takes away this arc because a non-superhero toddler doesn’t reflect Tony Stark like a superpowered young adult does. Having a biological child for Tony also shortchanges Peter’s return and his grief over Tony. This compelling relationship is cut short.

True, having a child does create high stakes. But in the case of Tony, the stakes are already incredibly high, and we know Tony acts out of a desire to protect everyone, not just his own family. So, really, introducing Morgan was intended to give the sense that Tony had finally “made it,” achieved peace, and had all he needed. This is a blow to the found-family dynamic the Avengers have always had. The whole situation also feels extra awkward when you consider that the other Avenger who died but didn’t have a funeral and is constantly taken for granted is…. a childless Natasha.

Besides Scott Lang’s family, the other main biological family is Hawkeye’s family. We know next to nothing about them, but when they are snapped away that is supposed to be an emotional moment, because they’re a family, and he’s teaching his daughter to shoot a bow and arrow, and his wife is making lunch. It’s the American dream! Maybe I’m just heartless, but this barely registers. The audience has to fill in the emotions. Why not use the relationships Hawkeye already has with other established characters to make his turn to depressed vigilante more compelling? Oh, wait, except for Black Widow he doesn’t have any other established relationships with any of the other characters. Which leads me to…

  1. Hawkeye Continues to Be a Drag on All Possible Levels

Hawkeye as a character continues to make less and less sense in this franchise. He has no ties with any of the other Avengers. He never quite proves why his skillset is needed; in fact, the film works hard to avoid showing him in the final battle because his abilities are useless. In the first Avengers, maybe the everyman character was endearing and there were only six other heroes so an archer could make sense. But now, when we have seemingly hundreds of heroes on screen in a battle, and several everyman characters and all much more unique? #ShouldHaveBeenClint

  1. Thor

Thor has been through a lot in these past few films. While I didn’t think his PTSD and trauma would be given a lot of heft, I did think the MCU was past making it into an unbearable fat joke. Thor’s depression weight gain/alcoholism being treated the way it was is distasteful, unfunny, and lame. This article by Sylas K. Barrett is an excellent look at the way the movie frames these symptoms.

And yes, I know it was also poking fun at Chris Hemsworth’s sex appeal and Marvel using it. But while I don’t think reverse-objectification is progress, the Thor movies (for several reasons) have been the most female-friendly corner of the MCU until Black Panther. So making fun of that just didn’t sit right with me. Thor has been getting more comedic as of late, but you can be comedic and still have your dignity, which this movie takes from Thor. And speaking of stripping a character of dignity…

  1. Professor Hulk

One of the most devastating moments for the MCU was when Taika Waiti (who I have a lot of respect for in all other areas) looked at three-time Oscar-nominated dramatic actor Mark Ruffalo and said, “Hey mate, do you want to do some comedic improv?” And Mark, not wanting to get fired and probably distracted by his various bromances with the other actors, said: “Sure why not?” Thus the downturn of a great character and performance.

In theory, bringing in Professor Hulk could have been a nice way to bring Bruce’s character arc full circle. We start in The Avengers with Bruce thinking he controls Hulk (“I’m always angry”). It is quickly revealed that no, Hulk still has a mind of his own and is making choices without Bruce (like flying away at the end of Ultron). The two are in conflict throughout Thor: Ragnarok and Infinity War, and finally, here the two are in sync in a way that embraces Bruce’s true superpower, which is his brain and heart.

The problem is then like Natasha’s: poor execution. Hulk looks so much like Ruffalo that it creates an uncanny valley effect, the movie continues with making him the comic relief without any of the character’s core melancholy, and it gives him no conclusion. Another example of so many missed opportunities.

If you are invested in the MCU, then you probably can view these movies as a timeline of milestones. I remember my intro being when I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier on a whim with my dad, never having seen any other Marvel movie. I was instantly intrigued. I got caught up on all of the other movies, and by May of 2015, I remember lying in bed and praying to God that whatever he ordains is good but please just don’t let me die before I see Avengers 2. Suffice it to say he accepted my proposal and I got to see the film with some new friends, which was a triumphant way to end a lonely and difficult school year.

I have reviewed all of the Marvel movies on this blog since 2016 with Civil War. With an average of two MCU films a year, a few months apart, these reviews can give me insights into my own growth as a writer. These are also where I have battled out my own inner struggle of figuring out how to be a critic and a fan. I may never find peace between these two, as I will never find complete peace with this movie or the MCU’s legacy as a whole. And that’s okay. I can reevaluate the past, but as Cap says, I have to move forward. And all in all, despite some disappointments, I think Endgame is the best conclusion we could have realistically gotten (without Joss Whedon’s and my creative input).

-Madeleine D

Movie Minute: Alita, Isn’t It Romantic, and How To Train Your Dragon 3

College is hard, but not as hard as finding good movies to watch between January and April! Here are some that I’ve seen during the beginning-of-the-year movie desert.

Alita: Battle Angel

Related image      Wow, I didn’t know Christoph Waltz was making a second Big Eyes movie!

If anyone was excited for Alita: Battle Angel, it was me. Sure, I’ve never read the comic, and I’m not into anime or manga. But as far as general audiences go, I was ready to love it, because I’m a sucker for a bunch of things promised in this film. A teenage heroine in a dystopian future? Check. Oscar-winning actors in crazy costumes saying hilarious sci-fi jargon? I admit it. Trope of a scientist who goes too far in playing God? Sign me up.

But now I’ve seen it, and now I’m grumpy.

Alita: Battle Angel takes place in a dystopian future where Dr. “father figure at the ready” Ido (Christoph Waltz), a doctor/scientist/scavenger/”hunter-warrior”/Sad Man with a Sad Past™ finds the still-alive brain of a cyborg girl. He puts that brain into the conveniently pre-made cyber body he has, and when the girl, Alita (Rosa Salazar), comes to, she has no memory of her previous life and goes on a series of adventures to discover who she is.

To put it delicately: the script is bad. Real bad. There are too many characters whose arcs go nowhere, the plot is mangled and disjointed, and there is no sense of time in this film. In the first twenty minutes, we know a day has passed, and then after that, there is no sense of a timeline. How long as Alita been with Ido? How long did it take her to become a Hunter-Warrior? Has she really been with romantic interest Hugo for only two days by the time she’s literally ripping out her heart for him? It’s the halfway point of the movie, and I still have no clue the direction of the film or what it is going to be focused on. We’ve been introduced to father/daughter drama, boyfriend drama, big bad guy in the sky drama, hunter-warrior bully drama, gotta find my new sexier body drama, and motorball drama. Which direction are we going in? Oh wait, all six? All six storylines are going to be treated with equal focus so that the main storyline is super unclear and without any sense of urgency?

Well okay then.

If I was to try and find a theme or coherent storyline in this mess, I would say that the film is about all of the characters trying to force identities upon Alita. Ido wants Alita to be his replacement daughter. Hugo wants her to be his girlfriend who he may eventually scrap for parts. Gina Rodriguez wants her to be a soldier. Mahershala Ali wants her to be dead. Jennifer Conelly wants her to be dead. Edward Norton wants her to be dead (seriously, this cast is insane.) 21st Century Fox wants her to be a massive box office hit. But Alita decides to become none of those things.

Yet while all of that is in the movie, it’s not presented as I just presented it, because I don’t think writer/producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez actually see anything wrong with the way the other characters treat Alita. I see the empowerment coming from her asserting her own identity and redefining her relationships with people on her own terms. They see the “empowerment” angle as coming from her beating people up. 

But hey, maybe this whole movie was worth it for the sheer spectacle of watching a scene where, and I’m not kidding, Christoph Waltz is cradling the decapitated, talking head of Alita, and walks past his character’s ex-wife, played Jennifer Connelly, who smirks and says, “you can’t bring our daughter back.” End of scene. I can never unsee it.

Isn’t It Romantic

Image result for isn't it romantic

Aspiring to be the Deadpool of romcoms, Isn’t It Romantic suffers from being very ill-timed. A film about a cynical, modern woman trapped in a romantic comedy, it delivers a meta-commentary of the genre as it was twenty-five years ago. The film’s loving critique comes only from films that were made between the 1990s and early 2000s. That would have been fine a few years ago, but we’re currently in a new, more diverse and inclusive romcom renaissance with the likes of The Big Sick, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Crazy Rich Asians. So while the throwbacks are fun, they don’t feel relevant, putting the entire movie’s premise on a bit of an outdated and uninspired note.

But for what this movie is, it is unabashedly fun. The musical numbers are delightful, the message is easy but sweet, and Rebel Wilson is a capable leading lady with this perfect supporting cast. It’s a rental, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it put a smile on my face… and made me want to go watch my favorite romcom.*

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Related image

The How To Train Your Dragon movies weren’t a pivot part of my childhood like some fans of the series. I saw the first one in theaters and liked it, but didn’t like the second one as much. I’ve always had great respect for the franchise and how revolutionary it was in the animation world, but never truly got why it is so beloved. 

But when I went to go see this film on a whim, with zero expectations, I suddenly understood why people were such hardcore fans of these films. Because they’re awesome.

The animation, score, action sequences, and the characters? Breathtaking, detailed, and compelling. This movie is able to have an epic scale but an intimate narrative. I was particularly surprised that the message of HTTYD3 basically boils down to: part of becoming a man means committing to your loved ones and settling down. I know the audience for this franchise has grown up alongside it, but there is a lot of nuanced (and funny) conversations about responsibility, marriage, and family here that are not only rare for a movie aimed at families but especially for a movie starring a male lead. Hiccup has always been a wonderful role model, but I was reminded just how revolutionary and inspiring his brand of compassionate and empathetic heroism is. He’s a true leader in a way that I think is still rare to find in blockbusters.

Even if you haven’t seen these movies in a while, or only saw the first one, I think you can still go into this movie cold and enjoy it, and I highly recommend you do.


*13 Going on 30. And if you disagree with me, a friendly reminder that this film stars Elektra, the Hulk, Captain Marvel, Ulysses Klaw, Ant-Man’s ex-wife Maggie, and Silver Fox from X-Men. It’s an MCU movie, confirmed.

It’s Just Okay! Captain Marvel

Capt Marvel

To the tune of “God Bless the U.S.A” by Lee Greenwood, starting at the second verse:

Brie Larson won an Oscar, and one of the directors is a girl

So all of the problematic lady stuff, from Marvel will become unfurled

From Natasha to Wanda, and Okoye and Shuri

There’s pride in every fangirl’s heart, and it’s time we stand and say

That I’m proud to be a woman, for at least I know I’m free

To punch a man in the face, Carol gave that right to me

And I’d gladly stand up next to her, to defend our right to say

Don’t tell me to smile, she paved the way

It’s International Women’s Day!

If you were singing something along those lines going into Captain Marvel this weekend, then you were exactly where Kevin Feige and Marvel studios wanted you to be. Promoted as the response to Wonder Woman and a form of self-flagellation for the fact that Marvel has made 21 movies, 11 of which star white guys named Chris, it’s still sad that the studio is only now is getting around to making one with a woman. However, it hasn’t been easy. Captain Marvel has been plagued by online trolls, misinterpreted statements by its outspoken lead actress, and a boycott, not to mention ridiculous expectations put on it by critics and fans alike.

So after all of this build up, how is Captain Marvel? Is it our new modern third-wave feminist The Feminine Mystique? Does it give me any clues to which superheroes will and won’t stay dead during Avengers: Endgame so I may finally find peace? Will seeing Carol Danvers fly finally inspire me to live my life to the fullest and/or hit the gym?

Well, I am here to report that Captain Marvel is: fine. Hooray!

Ok, let’s break this down. To begin with, the epidemic that I’ve been growing weary of for a while now is that all Marvel heroes have the same personality. They’re all cool, calm, collected, and witty. If you watch the first Avengers film, sure, all the characters could be funny, but they were funny in different ways. And their personalities and values were different. Now, if I read the script of Avengers: Infinity War with the character names missing, there would be too many times I would guess a line was said by a different character because everyone’s dialogue sounds the same.

Captain Marvel aka Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) here is witty, cool, collected, and calm. She is hyper-competent, which is now a requirement for all heroines, and her personality is so limited to what the plot requires of it that it’s hard to imagine what she would do on a free Saturday night. There are quiet moments in the film that give Larson something to play with, but they are too small and infrequent to make me feel that I’m not watching Captain America with a side of Tony Stark snark.

Counterbalancing this, though, is an excellent and vibrant supporting cast. Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson have excellent chemistry (this is their third film together), and I particularly liked Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau, Carol’s best friend. Their friendship was sweet on screen, and at one point in the movie, as Carol is having a moment of personal doubt, Maria reminds her who she is, affirms her, and then they hug. And I realized that this is the first time I’d seen this kind of female friendship in an action superhero movie before. Hugging my girlfriends and affirming them is something I, and many women do, every day, but I finally got to see it on screen. And it was just as awesome as seeing Carol burst into flames and save the world, which was also pretty cool.

On a more technical side, while I don’t usually point out editing, I have to talk about it here. Marvel movies, at least ones not directed by the Russos, generally have quick and choppy editing in the fight scenes. But here, it feels extra insulting, not just because the action scenes are poorly cut to the point where it feels like the directors just didn’t want to think of more action for the character to do, but because Brie Larson trained nine months for this role, is ripped, and did most of her own stunts, and you can barely tell here. #GiveUsGratituousShotsOfBrie’sRippedArms.

The plot is convoluted, which causes the movie to have whiplash pacing and become distracted from being a character study. For example, one of the darkest aspects of the film is the fact that Carol was, basically, abducted, gaslit, and brainwashed to be formed in her captor’s image. While addressed in the film, what could have been an intensely emotional moment and a defining trauma for Carol, her Uncle Ben if you will, is handled with such stoicism and almost casualness that the revelation barely qualifies as a turning point for Carol, and is a completely missed opportunity because instead we gotta spend time setting up alien characters for future movies.

Ultimately, the most disorienting thing about Captain Marvel is that it tries to go two different directions, and ultimately does neither. The first is that it wants to be a very obvious “girl-power” movie, but it contains very little of the female experience. It tries to have some, like Carol being asked by a random man to smile, (a ridiculously perfect foreshadowing of  what was to come) and her being told she’s too emotional. But these things feel much more like Womanhood 101, and not very deep. The second is that it is a very standard Marvel movie that doesn’t drift from formula. If it had committed to being a Marvel movie that could, in theory, have been played by a man and been exactly the same, then that could have been an interesting statement on why we put emphasis on female superheroes at all. It would have answered the immortal question of, “Hey, why shouldn’t women have a mediocre superhero movie to call their own?”

In the end, we have a movie that is neither an interesting examination on how being a woman would make one a different kind of a superhero from a male one, nor do we get a superhero movie that could be led by any of, say, the Marvel Chrises. We get something that’s pretty mediocre. So to be honest, I’m disappointed. There were plenty of scenes and things I liked, but it adds up to a movie I probably won’t remember the majority of in a few weeks. But despite that, I still think it’s worth seeing if you keep up with the Marvel movies, or even if you have already decided you want to see it. It stands alone well enough that you can enjoy it without needing to have any previous Marvel backstory. I want it to do well at the box office, mostly just to spite trolls.

Near the end of the film, Carol says to an antagonist, “I have nothing to prove to you,” which may ultimately be the best way to think of the movie. It doesn’t need to be a roaring success to justify its existence. Carol Danvers has nothing to prove, and neither do female-led superhero movies. So let’s raise the bar for everyone, without using it to keep others down.

-Madeleine D

Best of 2018

Image result for 2018 movies

This year, I found myself being drawn to films that presented an empathetic worldview. What I mean by this is that in many movies how the filmmakers treat the characters through the plot, dialogue, cinematography, or framing, can be quite cruel. Many filmmakers seem to hate their own characters or prioritize utilitarian filmmaking techniques over presenting human dignity. These can result in aesthetically beautiful movies that may be philosophical but have cold centers. I looked for movies this year that were both intellectually fulfilling and empathetically warm and hopeful. Not a Pollyanna type of optimism, but grounded, true hope. So here are some of the best films of 2018 that I felt did this. 

10. Black Panther

One of Marvel’s most sophisticated offerings to date and a wakeup call for Hollywood, Black Panther ushers in a more socially-aware blockbuster era while still being loads of fun.  

9. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

This documentary about Fred Rogers dives deep into his philosophy of teaching and using media wisely. It refuses to look too closely at Mister Roger’s flaws, but ultimately, it isn’t about one man. It’s about you, and what you will do to honor his legacy and vision.

  1. Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace uses the story of a girl and her father living on the outskirts of society to ask questions about the necessity of organized society for human fulfillment and development. But Leave No Trace is so unassuming you may not even realize it’s prompted you to think about its ideas for months after you see the film. 

  1. The Hate U Give

The young-adult version of Blindspotting, The Hate U Give balances heavy material with the personal life of protagonist Starr, giving the movie a powerful ability to feel both timely and archetypal. Amandla Stenberg carries the entire movie with ease and confidence that makes her an actress to watch.

  1. First Reformed

While billed as a drama, this story about a pastor’s crisis of faith is really a kind of horror story. A deeply uncomfortable but moving film, I am thankful director Paul Schrader is willing to tackle an area the rest of Hollywood refuses to touch, and does so in an unabashed and courageous manner.

  1. Eighth Grade

Elsie Fisher is a revelation in this humane and insightful look at tweenhood. A must-see for parents, middle-schoolers, or anyone who just wants to understand the new world young people are navigating today.

  1. Shoplifters

Shoplifters is a Japanese film about a poor “family” that must navigate the line where personal morality is more just than the law. It’s an engaging and constantly surprising drama that I would recommend watching as a double feature with Leave No Trace.

  1. Blindspotting

Blindspotting portrays a black and white friendship that, like Green Book, is easy to root for. But where Green Book fails Blindspotting succeed by not shying away from the complexities of how race affects interpersonal relationships. By holding both its white and black characters accountable, it gives a nuanced view of how racism works in the modern world. Its ending scene is also one of the best of the year, holding the audience hostage for a breathtaking scene of catharsis that films like BlackKklansman failed to deliver.

  1. Sorry to Bother You

Surreal, inventive, and wholly unique. Like I said in my review of the film, Sorry to Bother You captures the feeling of 2018.

  1. Annihilation

Eleven months later and I still vividly remember how I felt watching Annihilation for the first time, and it gets better with every rewatch.  It is one of the best science fiction movies of the last few years, and a poignant exploration of pain and self-destruction.


Honorable Mentions: A Quiet Place RBG, Venom, Roma, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, Vice, Mary Poppins Returns, Tomb Raider, The Kindergarten Teacher, Christopher Robin, and not a movie but some of the year’s most affecting storytelling, Serial Podcast season 3.

Dishonorable Mentions: How it Ends, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, Ready Player One, Mary Queen of Scots.

-Madeleine D.


This is the 100th post of madeleinelovesmovies! Thank you for your readership and support. I hope you had a wonderful 2018, and I look forward to seeing what 2019 has in store!

The Book of Ecclesiastes and A Series of Unfortunate Events

Image result for a series of unfortunate events books series

Tomorrow, the third and last season of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events will premiere. I plan to binge it starting the minute I wake up and weep until the moment I fall asleep. Based on the thirteen book series of the same name by Daniel Handler, (using the pseudonym Lemony Snicket) the Netflix series has been a beautiful adaptation that wonderfully captures the quirky and rich tone of the books.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, or ASOUE as I will refer to it from here on out, is technically considered children’s literature, and indeed I read it for the first time as a child. But, as with the best books, with every reread (I think I’m on number 5) the series becomes richer, and I truly believe it is for adults as much as it is for children.

In the summer of 2018, I began to reread the last few books of the series to prepare for the new season. About this time, Ricky Jones, minister at RiverOaks Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, began a series on the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. As I was listening to these sermons and reading these books, I came to a realization: ASOUE embodies the lessons of Ecclesiastes, and it does so better than any other book I’ve read.

So with that claim, I’d like to show you how this children’s series teaches the book of Ecclesiastes, and why you should read it to your children and/or to yourself.

What Are These Unfortunate Events?

ASOUE follows the lives of the three Baudelaire children: Violet, 14 years old and a gifted inventor, Klaus, 12, who is an avid reader and researcher, and Sunny, a baby (although “baby” is a loose term in this universe) who has sharp teeth useful for biting things and later becomes a chef. The series is a mishmash of all sorts of genre, but “gothic absurdism” is probably the best term for it. The TV show has been described as Wes Anderson meets Tim Burton, which is certainly a start, but that is not enough to fully encapsulate the stylism (and heart) of the series.

In the first book, The Bad Beginning, the children are orphaned by a terrible fire that also destroys their home. They are sent to live with a relative they didn’t know existed, Count Olaf. They find that Olaf is an evil man who only adopted them in order to steal their fortune, and was the one who murdered their parents for that sole reason. In the first book alone, he slaps Klaus, locks Sunny in a cage and suspends her on top of a tower, and his plan to get the Baudelaire fortune is to try to marry Violet.

(On a side note, I can’t believe a publisher read this and thought, yes, this is a good investment. And then some movie and TV executives were like, yes, this is a good investment.)

If that sounds all very questionable, hold in your outrage and keep reading. We’re going to put a pin in that.

Anyway, the Baudelaires succeed in foiling Olaf’s plan and reveal him to the authorities, but Olaf escapes capture. After this, the next six books appear to follow a formula. The Baudelaires are taken to another relative’s home, the relative either seems mean and incompetent or is kind and then quickly killed, and Count Olaf shows up in a disguise to try and take the Baudelaire fortune. He always manages to escape arrest because no adults believe the Baudelaires when they try to reveal Olaf under his disguise.

By the eighth book, the Baudelaires are on their own, on the run after being framed for murder, but Count Olaf still manages to find them wherever they go. As the series goes on, the Baudelaires find themselves doing more and more of the villainous things Count Olaf has done, like wear disguises, lie, and burn things down. They realize that maybe they were not as heroic as they thought and that anyone if pushed could commit evil deeds. The series ends at a point where the Baudelaires and Count Olaf are uncomfortably similar, have both committed the same evil deeds, and on the same (literal and figurative) boat. The heart of the story is the classic question of is there any such thing as purely good or bad people?

This is a coming of age narrative, as most children’s books are. Most children’s books tell children they are going to face hard times and will need to rely on love and friendship to overcome it. A powerful example of this is the Harry Potter series.*

But ASOUE, I believe, goes a step further by showing its protagonists doing really terrible things, which makes the story not about children overcoming evil with good, but about children coming to terms with the way evil is in all of us, and how that should shape our worldview and the way we deal with others. The series’s thesis, if you will, can be summed up in this quote that is repeated in several books:

“People aren’t either wicked or noble. They’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.”

The series, while sometimes fantastical, are grounded enough in reality that the villainy of the various characters feels very different from other children’s books. Harry Potter, for example, has its villains kill other characters through magic. The magic element creates some distance between the reader and the action because we know magic doesn’t exist in our world.  

ASOUE is whimsical, subversive, and dead-pan in enough areas that the villainy displayed is not gratuitous or sensational, or even clearly recognized as the following things, but technically, ASOUE includes characters (both good and evil) kidnapping, physically abusing, abandoning, and attempting to perform non-consensual surgery on children. Characters also fake suicide, murder others, are shipwrecked, join cults, experience mob violence, and die giving birth.

At this point you may be saying, “Hold up. I am a good parent who doesn’t want my child to read about people, including the child protagonists, lying, stealing, and committing arson! And I don’t want a series that illustrates teachers, guardians, and other trusted authority figures doing all of those terrible things and other adults turning a blind eye.”

Put a pin in that too, we’ll return to that.

In ASOUE Lemony Snicket is the author and narrator. He is a character within the story, recording the events of the series. He constantly interrupts the story to say how he obtained this evidence, how he is related to different characters in the story, and offers advice to the reader. He is the Sarah Koenig of the fictional universe in ASOUE, recording the story of these children whose parents he knew. Sometimes his commentary is funny (“The children were not born yesterday… Neither were you, unless of course I am wrong, in which case welcome to the world, little baby, and congratulations on learning to read so early in life”). But usually, his commentary is melancholy and used to reflect on the themes of the series (“The sad truth is that the truth is sad”). He acts like the narrator, the preacher, in Ecclesiastes.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, Briefly Explained.

In “The Bittersweet Symphony,” Pastor Ricky introduces Ecclesiastes by telling us what the author (most likely King Solomon) is trying to say. Ricky says,

“The author of Ecclesiastes… wants to explain life to us. He wants to tell us how to avoid the potholes he himself has fallen into. It’s a hard lesson, a hard message. Grown-up messages usually are… He has to show us the emptiness of every ambition. The ambition for knowledge, for wisdom… for success, for money, for power. He forces us to face the bitter folly of chasing after those things. He teaches us the very simple truth: enjoy the life you have, it’s a gift from God, and wait upon the judge to make things right.”

Ricky goes on to use an illustration of a man who takes his kids to a junkyard. The man pulls his kids aside and points out the cars that are all rusted and broken up, and says to them, “You see those rusted out, junk cars? Those all made someone really happy one day.” He keeps pointing out items and saying, “All those things you think are so important? They’re all going to end up here.”

In the last book, aptly titled The End, the Baudelaires wash up onto an island, and the people on the island repeat several times that “everything washes up on these shores.” The children find all sorts of items, both from their own lives and not, have washed up on the island into a literal junkpile. The book takes a lot of time to express both sadness and relief that everything ends up such. In the worldview of ASOUE, like Ecclesiastes, there is comfort in the fact that nothing is new under the sun, and everything will be equal in the end.

Ricky goes on to talk about why Christians often hate Ecclesiastes, and it’s because most books of the Bible are studied by going through them verse-by-verse, which is great for other books but terrible for Ecclesiastes. If you only look at verses two through four, you get:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.”

Wow, what a bummer. Might as well stop writing right now, as what’s the point?

Similarly, reading the first few books of ASOUE, which appear to be really repetitive, might equally frustrate you. But once you read the whole series, like the entire book of Ecclesiastes, things start to come into focus.

The repetition is purposeful. Ricky says that Ecclesiastes teaches that “life is a circle. Ignore that to your frustration, or embrace it and find peace…. Those circles frustrate people who are trying to get somewhere.” But circles are comforting for those who understand them. Circles and patterns of life help us know we’re not alone.  

The repetition of ASOUE, then, makes sense. Not just from a narrative standpoint but a thematic one. And yes, it is frustrating. When I was younger my dad read me dozens of books and series out loud before bed. He read the entirety of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, but it was ASOUE that nearly broke him, because of the repetitive nature of the beginning of the series.

Yet this is used to great effect. In the series, after the first few repetitions, the Baudelaires learn that no one is going to save them from Count Olaf, so they begin to proactively work to protect themselves. After a few more repetitions, they realize they are becoming more like the flawed adults in their lives, and so they begin to forgive those adults and ask for forgiveness themselves. And by the end of the series, they finally are able to find it in themselves to admit that they know their parents aren’t coming back, and are able to give up waiting for them and instead focus on parenting a child whose mother has just died, becoming parents themselves.

The book of Ecclesiastes teaches that, in Ricky’s words, “Meaning cannot be found under the sun. If you’re trying to justify yourself through your job, by your money, by your pleasure, by your family, by your wisdom, you will fail… by helping the poor, overturning oppression, you will fail. Wrong will only be made right when everyone stands before the judgment, and on that day, you will have meaning. You’ll understand why you are here and what this life was for…. On that day we will be comforted… But until that day, remember the Lord.”

In ASOUE, all of the above justifications are embodied by different characters, and all of those characters end up dead, sad, and with many regrets. Olaf is clearly driven by greed, pleasure, and ambition. Justice Strauss tried to help the poor and overturn oppression. Even Kit Snicket tried to live a noble life, but her ideals of bravery and family and goodness did not lead to satisfaction because she put her faith in a human- therefore flawed- organization. Through these failings of others, the Baudelaires see all the ways they cannot define their life.

A Misrepresentation

A shallow reading of ASOUE has caused some readers to come to the conclusion that this series, because of the multiple adult characters who fail to see a villain in disguise, is about adults being stupid and kids being smart.

That is not what this series is about.

It is made clear in each book that every adult who doesn’t help the Baudelaires or seems inept chooses to be so because of self-preservation, or it is inconvenient for them to intervene, or it doesn’t fit into their worldview. Many of the adults in the series are good and do try to help the Baudelaire, and many who fail them are later forgiven and do the right thing when given another shot. All of this is used to illustrate the series’s point that children see the world in black and white, and when they grow up, they realize how much more complicated it is, and that they will eventually be more like those people then they wanted to be.

In the climax of the series, Snicket summarizes this theme by saying, “Each story had its story, and each story’s story was unfathomable in the Baudelaire orphans short journey” (The Penultimate Peril). The series takes the, “you become your parents” saying quite literally. It is a not a ‘kids rule, adults drool’ tale. It is a tale about giving children the tool they need to have empathy and forgiveness for the adults who will let them down, and gently tells them that they will do the same to others.

The series, as a coming of age narrative, boils down to this:

Children, you are so bright and talented, and the world needs you. Your thoughts, your skills, and your experiences are all important and should be paid attention to.

As you grow up, you are going to see adults who are supposed to protect you, let you down. Many times, they don’t mean to. But as you grow into an adult yourself, you’ll realize that the world is very complicated. It is full of secrets and full of people not knowing what to do, and being forced to make very difficult choices. Everyone comes from different places and has limitations. You don’t know everyone’s story.

Join with people who, even when they make mistakes, never give up trying to learn more about other people and the world. Forgive everyone, because you need forgiveness, too. Sometimes you’ll do things you swore you’d never do, and that will help you realize that everyone needs a second chance. But sometimes people are never going to be healthy or safe to be around, and that’s when you need to cut them out of your life.

Everyone is full of good and evil inside of them. It is your job to try and bring out the best in others and yourself, and make the world a more peaceful place. That doesn’t mean hiding out in places where you feel secure. That means going out into the world, into the brokenness and danger, and loving it the best you can. Even if you never see it come on this earth, long for justice and peace. Sometimes your life will feel like a big mystery itself, and you will wish for answers. One day, you will get them. For now, love the life you have. It is a gift.

You may have noticed in that some similarities to Ecclesiastes. The mystery of our existence. The desire for a judgment day and comfort. Honesty about the state of the world.

Like Ecclesiastes, this is a very grown-up message, particularly for children, but I can’t think of a better one to impart (to people of all ages) in order to begin to sow the seeds of wisdom, empathy, resilience, and hope.

Nothing is Unproblematic

ASOUE is not a perfect allegory by any means. Daniel Handler is a self-described “secular humanist,” and that certainly comes through. The series is a cry for justice, but it ultimately comes to the conclusion that such a thing doesn’t actually exist, because humans can never be truly just, and the series offers no higher power. 

The books bravely explore the depravity of man but offer no hope except that people can just try to be the best they can and sometimes that will end up being enough. The books advocate forgiveness, hospitality, and sometimes, absolute truth, but there are no reasons behind those things except that it’s the moral thing to do. The themes of generational sin and breaking from it are all framed through the lenses of characters realizing their own capacity for evil, but ultimately choosing to do good, assuring readers that you are ultimately in control of your ability to be righteous. The Bible instead teaches that humans are completely depraved and are slaves to sin, and are only freed from that when saved.

These contradictions are most present in The End, which borrows imagery from Genesis’s temptation in the garden in a way that reinterprets God and/or religion as a strict and abusive parent that only serves as the opium of the people, Karl Marx style. Yet in the same book the Christmas story- God coming from a holy and perfect place to dwell among sinners- is beautifully illustrated.

Oh, and of course, the previously mentioned violence, which is very tastefully handled and not nearly as shocking in the context of the books as it is me putting it in a list, but can still be very grim for the target audience (although most of those things can be found in the Bible, and often in the stories that frequent children’s church and VBS).

And finally, there have been multiple allegations of Handler making inappropriate comments to women, and there was the infamous watermelon “joke” he made while presenting an award to Jacqueline Woodson 2014. I’m not going to go further into it, but this history does, for me, put Handler firmly in the category of “creative person I greatly admire but would never actually want to meet in real life.”

Yet I don’t think any of that should dissuade you from reading ASOUE, and here’s why.

Everything Can Be Holy

Pastor Timothy Keller writes that,

“The Bible consistently teaches what theologians have come to call ‘common grace,’ a non-saving grace that is at work in the broader reaches of human cultural interaction. This gift of God’s grace to humanity, in general, demonstrates a desire on God’s part to bestow certain blessings on all human beings, believer and non-believer alike…. God also shows common grace by revealing knowledge of himself through human culture, for human culture is simply a wise recognition and cultivation of nature… All artistic expressions, skillful farming, scientific discoveries, medical and technological advances are expressions of God’s grace.”

Boiled down, common grace is the idea that every human, no matter what belief system he/she ascribes to, reflects the image of God and that all human civilizations carry truths about God and his creation. Christians have much to learn from the art, teachings, and stories of non-Christians. ASOUE then is worth reading because of the truths it carries. I have just illustrated some of the wisdom that can be found from its pages.

Of course, as with consuming any type of media, everyone must determine for themselves how discerning they must be. Some children are not ready for the dark turns the series can take. Some adults may not have a firm enough handle on their faith yet to consider the philosophical attacks the series poses on Christianity. Some children are not able to understand the bad actions of the characters within their larger meaning and consequences. These questions ought to be thoughtfully considered.

But for those who are now intrigued and feel confident that they can read the series, here is what I think will be gained.

The Concluding Case

I rank ASOUE alongside The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings with books that, as an elementary/middle schooler, gave me the metaphors I needed to understand the world around me. These books helped me reconcile what I was experiencing in the world with the lessons I was learning in church. They showed me that the biblical lessons I was being taught contained answers that people, whether people in my life or these fictional characters, were looking for.

ASOUE, unlike Narnia, is not a straight allegory, and certainly not an intentionally Christian one at that, so when it asks questions, it doesn’t have an answer. In that way, the series is comforting to those of us who need to know its okay not to have answers, or need to be comfortable wrestling with doubt and pain. ASOUE is a lamentation for all sorts of things. In fact, at almost the very end of the last book, our main characters just sit together and cry, lamenting for all of the tragedies the series describes. It reads,

“There is a kind of crying I hope you have not experienced, and it is not just crying about something terrible that has happened, but a crying for all of the terrible things that have happened, and not just to you but to everyone you know and to everyone you don’t know and even people you don’t want to know, a crying that cannot be diluted by a brave deed or a kind word, but only by someone holding you as your shoulders shake and your tears run down your face” (The End).

Beat that, Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

I kid, I kid. But the resoluteness of ASOUE to face pain, hardships, and unknowns, and to not give superficial answers to children, strikes me as extremely admirable.

Now, as a young adult, not only does re-reading ASOUE give me a greater appreciation for Handler’s writing and the allusions and sophisticated jokes and puns that went over my head as a kid, but it also helps me in a different way. In this world of both overwhelming depressing news coverage and overwhelming distraction, it can be very hard to meditate on the role of pain in one’s life, and I find this series helping me do that very thing. I can also realize with greater clarity now that ASOUE isn’t complete.

If we take the four pillars of the gospel- creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, ASOUE only offers reasons for creation and fall. The whole series circles around a big question mark, a big question mark that we know is a savior, a redeemer. ASOUE, admirably, doesn’t lie about what that question mark is, but shrugs its shoulders and admits that it doesn’t know. To make up for not knowing, it offers some suggestions on how to make a better, more tolerable world, and how to do so in a kind and gentle manner that is beneficial to others. It certainly provides moralistic messages. However, that isn’t a sufficient answer. ASOUE’s version of morality is sophisticated and wise. But it is still vanity.

Let’s put it like this: ASOUE is the beginning of Ecclesiastes. It is the Ecclesiastes without the hope. And for a time, we need that. We need to acknowledge, reflect, and mourn on our own brokenness and that of the world. Revisiting that at any age is incredibly important as Christians. That’s why you should read this series.

Then after that, we need to find the rest of the story. And that’s where Jesus comes in.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

-Madeleine D.


There are many, many more things I could say on this subject, and would be happy to drop everything and talk about it at literally any time! Come talk to me about the symbolism of the VFD eye, or how Sunny’s specialty of cooking furthers the theme of safe places. I’d love to discuss how underrated Daniel Handler is in his consistently good female representation, or how terrible Daniel Handler’s books for adults are compared to his ones for children. Or ask me about how I feel about the adaptational differences between the book and show (but do not ask me about the 2004 movie. We don’t talk about that one.)

*No intended disrespect to Harry Potter. I’m oversimplifying. He shares a lot in common with ASOUE.

December Round-Up, Part Two

To the tune of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”

Don’t cry for me, my dear readers
The truth is, I never left you
All through my college days, my mad semester
I kept my promise
Returned with vigor

Here are five of the biggest movies, box-office and awards-wise, that have recently come out.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Related image

I didn’t know much about Freddy Mercury before seeing the film, so for the first half, I spent it thinking, “Rami Malek sure is overacting. I don’t know why he’s being nominated for so many awards.” And then I realized this was just the character, and then it got better.

Bohemian Rhapsody is ambitious in recreating famous Queen performances but never decides if it is a character study of Mercury or a celebration of the band and its music. It ends up trying to do a bit of both, and therefore doesn’t do either full justice. It’s a competently made, standard biopic, but there are enough glimmers of greatness here that makes its by-the-book approach feel like a big let-down.

For someone like me, who didn’t know much about Queen beforehand, I was disappointed that the film didn’t change this fact. It is so focused on Mercury that it 1) pushes the other band members aside, and 2) doesn’t tell me why Queen was so revolutionary in its day. It never explains how this band appeared and delighted the wider public. In that way, the film is claustrophobic and doesn’t have much of an outside perspective. But if you like Queen, it sure wouldn’t hurt, and it does do a good job recreating the feeling of seeing a great concert.


Image result for roma movie2018

A black and white foreign language film about a maid in Mexico City in the 70’s is, frankly, not what I usually want to watch. It was a bit of a chore psyching myself up for it. And it might be the same for you, too, but I think you should watch Roma anyway, even if you don’t love it.

For one, it’s a masterclass in filmmaking. Every beautiful shot is deliberate, and every scene breathes. The movie is excellently paced, in a way that tests the audience’s patience but with purpose. There’s not really a plot, but the stakes are raised so excellently that it never feels aimless.

It’s not a film I would want to rewatch, but I marvel at its craftsmanship. And further, it makes a movie star out of someone who represents a group that is never considered worthy to be a movie star, and there is something precious within that itself. It makes the trials and trivial of life feel epic in scope and worthy of attention, which it is. Life, and every life, is worth paying attention too, and that humanity makes Roma a special film, even if it isn’t the most entertaining or poignant film of the year. And it’s on Netflix! There are no excuses.

Mary Poppins Returns

Image result for mary poppins returns 2018

Mary Poppins Returns is technically a sequel, but it certainly feels like a remake. It hits the original movie beat-for-beat with most of the songs carefully crafted to be one-to-one remixes of songs from the original. I want to fight against the chronic “safeness” of most of the recent Disney movies, but for this film, I can’t. I fell for Mary Poppins Returns.

It probably helps that I don’t have any nostalgia or feelings towards the original. I’ve seen it, but it was never a favorite of mine or a part of my childhood. For those who do love the original, this movie will either be heresy or a delightful reworking. For me, it was a lovely film that was truly able to be a magical way to end the year. It’s not revolutionary, but it plays to its strengths and is propelled by excellent performances all around. It’s the perfect family film.


Image result for aquaman 2018 scenes

Aquaman can be best described through a scene near the end of the film, so mild spoilers. Arthur Curry/Aquaman goes into the den of a monster to retrieve an important trident. He approaches the monster and begins to talk to her.

Before this moment, Arthur tells another character how he grew up only using his fists and hiding his feelings. So when he began to talk to the monster, I started to get excited. Is this going to buck the trend of superhero movies ending with a big battle? Is the day going to be saved through communication and empathy? Is Arthur Curry going to be an example to young men that coming of age doesn’t have to be tied to acts of violence? Are they doing the same ending as Moana?

Arthur begins saying he is Arthur Curry, son of a lighthouse keeper and Queen Atlanna of Atlantis. He’s a nobody, and that’s what makes him the rightful ruler. I started getting more excited. Wow, the story is going to be about our worth coming from our identity, which empowers us! I looked over at my dad next to me. This could be a sermon illustration or something!

Then Arthur finishes his speech by saying to the monster: “and if you don’t like it, then screw you.” And then he grabs the trident and goes to fight in the big battle that ends the movie. So much for diplomacy and empathy.

I applaud the ambition and complete sincerity that director James Wan and the rest of the cast and crew go about making this movie. They go for it. I never felt a single emotion in the entire film, except for disappointment and lethargy, but they go for it. Perhaps I’m just not the right audience. I don’t care for Aquaman, I don’t know the mythology, and the worldbuilding (which is done with excellent special effects) didn’t interest me. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be fun for someone who is invested in the character. It’s just a shame it didn’t hook a new fan.

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse

Image result for peter parker into the spiderverse 2018 scenes

Into the Spiderverse feels very much like Incredibles 2, except with a completely different moral to the story. Both are beautifully animated films, appeal to both children and adults, and are about superheroes. Both build off previous films, and both came out opposite another superhero movie. And both are the only real competitors for animated movies for this year.

From a story perspective, both get bogged down with plot details and villains who are underbaked and feel more like obligations than actual additions to the story. Particularly in Spiderverse, there are scenes that can feel extremely tedious. The real strength lies in the character interactions. Incredibles 2 makes the most of the family dynamic, while Into the Spiderverse gives a delightful deconstruction of Peter Parker and introduces us to a fantastic new hero in Miles Morales. The scenes that highlight their mentor/mentee relationship are some of the best of the year.

Thematically, the two films are opposite. Incredibles 2 tries to say that every person is responsible for being their own superhero, but undercuts its own message by not having any regular people do anything super. In that way, it feels more of a story about exceptionalism, and how to handle being the exception.

Into the Spiderverse, on the other hand, is all about inclusivity. Everyone can wear a mask.  Everyone can be a superhero. Every race, gender, nationality, and age can be Spiderman. Just check out the #spidersona on twitter to see how this is already inspiring people to imagine themselves as heroes.

Musing on this, I came to an epiphany. It’s no secret I love Marvel films. But by this point, those movies have zero interest in inspiring heroism in the audience. MCU movies are melodramas, fueled by the storylines of the characters. The entire franchise is a big soap opera with lots of episodes. You aren’t supposed to see yourself in Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, you’re supposed to see them interacting with each other and reckoning with their own powers. And that’s great, I love watching superhero drama.

But Into the Spiderverse refocuses the genre. It brings the attention back to the audience. In this way, it is the best tribute to Stan Lee, who created these characters to inspire and teach readers. It’s an excellent film with groundbreaking animation that I would highly recommend if you aren’t completely fatigued with superhero faire. It shows there are still new places to go with comic book stories.

-Madeleine D