Thanks, Dad : The Glass Castle

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*Light spoilers ahead

I’m going to be honest. If there is one trope I don’t get tired of, it’s the crazy father trope. I love it in my books, I love it in my movies, and it’s nothing new in our culture. All the best villains and heroes have daddy issues (Luke, I am your father, anyone?). I’ve always found the trope fascinating. Maybe because of its insight into human psychology and how Freudian it can be. Maybe because it feels so removed from me personally, as I have a wonderful father who loves me enough to edit this review. Either way, it’s always been intriguing.

But this film with its eccentric father isn’t dealing with fiction. This is real life. Based on Jeannette Wall’s memoir of the same name about her tumultuous childhood under an alcoholic father and neglectful mother, The Glass Castle juggles tragedy wrapped up in childhood innocence. Hearing a story like that is a reminder that this archetype has roots in very real, dark places.

Something I admired when I read Wall’s memoir was the matter-of-factness the book had. When describing her childhood, Walls never indulged in sentimentality or despair. Instead, she told the events through the eyes of her childhood self. Traumatic events were sometimes viewed as exciting adventures when framed to her by her father. The realization of how abusive her situation was came later. Walls never diminished what happened, but instead put it into perspective. It was clear to me while reading that Walls never let her upbringing become excuses, which is very admirable.

There is that quality in this film, too, until the end. Up until then, the scenes of Walls’ childhood play out with a lack of exploitation. When her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) explains to Jeanette (played as a child by Ella Anderson and Chandler Head, played as an adult by Brie Larson) that sneaking out of a hospital is an exciting adventure, there is playful music because that is how child Jeanette is perceiving it. When an older Jeanette realizes her father stole her college money, the scene is darker and the music is gone, because Jeanette has matured enough to understand the true situation. Any reflections on the events take place in the adult-Jeanette scenes, which is how the memoir is written. I liked how the story, for the most part, let it speak for itself. It would be very tempting to do the opposite, especially in a story like this that deals with children.

All of this subtlety falters near the end, though, when director and co-screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton gets antsy and decides the audience can’t figure out the metaphors for themselves. Brie Larson is saddled with having to explain the glass castle metaphor from the title, the similarities between Jeanette and Rex, the strengths of the family, the power of forgiveness, the complexities of fatherhood, and so on. It’s a shame, because I think the movie does such a good job letting the story find its own significance and importance, without having to assert it in a preachy manner.

The performances elevate the script, though, and Brie Larson and the rest of the cast are up to the task of the more heavy-handed moments. I haven’t seen Room, so I finally got to see Ms. Larson and how good of an actress she is. I’m definitely ready for her to play Captain Marvel.

Woody Harrelson is the other star, though, and he is phenomenal. There are a lot of times he could have chewed scenery and done very Woody Harrelson-y things, but he never does. He dances between manic and sober, enlightening and pessimistic in every scene, but it never rings false. His unpredictability keeps the film and the audience on their toes, making the story feel even more real. The child actors also are all fantastic.

The ending aside, whether you learn the story of the Walls family through the excellent memoir or the good film, it’s still a story worth taking to heart. It is a discussion of nature versus nurture, the importance of parents and their influence, the resilience of children, and the ultimate power of hope and forgiveness. It is also a reminder that earthly fathers may fail, but there is one who does not.

-Madeleine D

Do Not See The Emoji Movie

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Like all well-intentioned people, I didn’t mean to see The Emoji Movie. But life happened, and I saw it.

For all the parents out there, I understand. You just need to get the kids to be quiet for an hour and a half. Non-parents, I’m sympathetic. You think it can’t be that bad.

If you want to get the experience of The Emoji Movie without seeing it, go outside when it is 110 degrees. Sit in a metal dumpster, then set the dumpster on fire. Bring all of your favorite books, movies, and music with you. As all of that creativity and inventiveness (because no matter your tastes, I’m sure it will be better than this) burns around you, you will understand The Emoji Movie. The amount of effort put in the title of this Sony flick is how much effort was put into the film.

If you are a parent and are looking at Fandango anxiously, your fingers inching towards the “buy ticket” button, because it’s Summer and you just need a break, please bring your child over to my house. I will personally babysit them for an hour and a half, just to spare their innocence, and increase the brainpower of the future generation.

To say anymore about this piece of 💩 would be to give it more thought than it got during its entire two years of production.

-Madeleine D

Revealing Humanity Without Humans: War for the Planet of the Apes

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*Spoilers ahead

“Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves, let us be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth” (Genesis 11: 4-9).

“And Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord. And he looked down towards Sodom and Gomorrah and towards all the land of the valley, and he looked and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace. So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley” (Genesis 19: 27-29).

These verses are here not just because I think the makers of War For the Planet Of The Apes would appreciate them, but also because they perfectly set up the atmosphere and morality explored in this last entry of the Planet of the Apes trilogy.

War for the Planet of the Apes begins where the second film left off. Caesar (the phenomenal Andy Serkis) is the leader of his band of enhanced apes. He is forced to fight a war that a crazy ape named Koba started before he died. Caesar tries to make peace with the humans he’s fighting against, led by a zealot Colonel (Woody Harrelson) but when his own family is murdered, he drops everything to carry out a revenge mission against the Colonel.

War FTPOTA is not only a visual feast, but uses its effects to serve its science fiction premise to the fullest. It does what science fiction is supposed to do: make us think about our world. This apocalyptic story about apes overtaking humans is simply a vehicle to ask bigger questions. What is the primary difference between humans and animals? Is it language? If so, what about people who can’t talk? If animals achieve human language, then what determines it? If there were a plague that infected your loved ones but put others at risk, what would you do? Is revenge ever justified? What makes a leader?

War FTPOTA asks big questions, and expresses itself through poignant imagery. It isn’t always subtle. There are strong Apocalypse Now parallels, to the point where some graffiti is shown that says “Ape-pocalypse Now.” It is the second film of the year to feature animals re-enacting a kind of holocaust (the first being Netflix’s Okja) and it loves religious imagery, too. Caesar is hung up on a cross and is pierced in his side. The Colonel, in explaining his backstory, says, “I sacrificed my only son to save humanity.”

It might not be subtle, but it’s interesting. War FTPOTA uses intertextuality to make this story bring in stories we already know to increase the emotional impact. It no longer seems as foreign, because we recognize the archetypes, just re-enacted with apes.

The film goes big with imagery, and it goes big in messages. War FTPOTA is political. All art is to some degree, because every creator has a worldview that impacts their work. But this film has a villain that is trying to build a border wall (I know the film was made before Trump became big, but still). It combines warfare and religious imagery, muses on how the ability to speak and use language defines us as human beings (consider the verses about the Tower of Babel above), and gives a compelling story about failed leadership. Caesar has been the leader of the apes for two movies now, and in this movie, he falls. Great leaders are ones that put aside their personal desires for the cause of the group. Here, Caesar lets himself get personal with the humans. When his vendetta becomes his focus, the entire group falls, and everyone suffers the consequences. While he is able to do the right thing in the end, he still dies.

With that storyline, it’s impossible not to see similarities to this year’s Logan, a film I loved. Both feature the patriarchs of a franchise showing wear and tear. They become father figures to young girls who don’t speak, fight military men to get across a border, take their charges to a safe Eden-esque place, and die. I don’t know quite what that pattern says about today’s culture, except that a maybe a lot of filmmakers are becoming parents and are trying to make blockbusters more prestigious, but again, I’m interested. I’m intrigued.

In the end though, if this movie proves anything, it is, say it with me:

Give!      Andy!       Serkis!      An!       Oscar!

Motion capture acting is real acting, and it’s about time the Academy at least acknowledges it. His performance as Caesar is emotional and intimate, yet stoic. The entire cast takes the project seriously, and it shows.

War for the Planet of the Apes exceeded all of my expectations. In the two weeks before seeing the film, I watched five war-themed films (Saving Private Ryan, Joyeux Noel, Their Finest, Hunt for Red October, and Dunkirk). I would easily count this new Apes film among those. War films should reveal something about humankind at large, and War FTPOTA does that and more.

-Madeleine D

Rockabye Baby: Baby Driver

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Every year there is a film that blows up at a film festival. There is tremendous hype for it as it moves from the festival circuit to wide release. There is a wave of rave reviews, Oscar predictions, and the main actors start signing major deals. Sometimes the film rides to the Oscars and lives up to its hype. But more times than not, it disappears a few months later and becomes lost.

This year, the breakout star of the SXSW (South by Southwest) film festival was Edgar Wright (The Cornetto Trilogy, Scott Pilgrim Versus the World) with Baby Driver. Can the film about a getaway driver survive in a summer of superheroes, transformers, and minions?

Baby Driver tells the story of Baby (Ansel Elgort) a young man paying off a debt to crime boss Doc (played by Kevin Spacey). He is a getaway driver who uses music on his iPod to drown out a ringing he has in his ears from a childhood accident. When Baby meets Debora (Lily James) he decides he wants to get out of his line of work and run away with her. And he will, Doc assures him. He just has one last job.

Edgar Wright is a director known for directing. That sounds weird to say, but it’s true. A lot of directors helm fine movies and are good at orchestrating the production of a film. But when Wright directs, he directs. The film is his breathing, living organism. And that applies to Baby Driver. Every scene is handmade, every detail significant. It simply isn’t a film that could be made by anybody else. Because of that, Baby Driver radiates passion, and I love when a movie does that. The more it seems like the filmmaker was dying to make the movie, the more I’m dying to see it.

For those who are here for a particular actor, I’m happy to inform you everyone turns in good performances here. It’s an ensemble film, though, so it’s the energy and personality of all the actors together that make the film tick along.

Speaking of ticking along, a major selling point of the film is the soundtrack. Almost every scene is set to rock n’ roll, making it like a musical where nobody sings. While it sometimes dances towards the line of being a gimmick, it mostly gives the film a surreal quality.  It ends up serving the film well, and makes the crazy climax feel more grounded.

The best compliment I can give Baby Driver is that it is unique, and in a summer where there are a lot of movies that are retreading old ground, unique is refreshing. Edgar Wright has created something that is a complete blast while still being smart and thought-provoking. It made me want to run out to my car and drive  around with my favorite playlist.  Did I? You’ll never know. But try and tell me you don’t feel the same way when you see it.

-Madeleine D

Well, That Was Intense: Dunkirk

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If you don’t know about the Miracle of Dunkirk, you’re in the majority (of Americans, at least). So here’s a little background, because the film jumps right into the action.

Dunkirk follows three different time lines, ‘cause Chris Nolan isn’t interested in your linear thinking. The evacuation of British soldiers from the French city of Dunkirk by military ships and civilian boats across the English channel takes places over a week. The story of one of those civilian boats takes place over a day, and the story of a British air force pilot happens in the span of an hour.

There is sparse dialogue, little exposition, and maybe two characters are named. It’s almost like a silent film, save for a menacing score by Hans Zimmer.

Nolan here presents a war film like no other in that it is a war film with very little heroics. It’s cold. Part of that is the characters (or lack thereof, see below), the other is that this is a survival situation, and becoming a soldier doesn’t just automatically make you a hero. Every man is there for himself, and in a sense, it is more of an evenhanded, empathetic film. There are very few real heroes presented here, and so there is no bad guy when everyone is just trying to live.

I go to the movies to meet people I would never meet in real life, and share in their experiences. I’m a character person. I’m excited for franchises when they’re built on dynamic characters. I love it when I walk out of the theater wanting to know that character’s favorite color and if they’d be my best friend.

Dunkirk is not a movie that cares about its characters. It’s a film about an event, and the character are more or less just pieces. And that’s a message in itself: Wars don’t view people as people.

I get it, not all movies are character-driven or need to have memorable characters. Dunkirk is an experience-film. The emotion you have watching the film comes from the basic human desire to survive. It doesn’t need compelling characters and backstories to make you want to scream, “RUN FOR YOUR LIVES.”

But as a character person, Dunkirk bothered me in that regard. I can’t tell you the name of a single character. In fact, if we did a line-up, if I couldn’t name the actor, then I probably couldn’t tell you what the character did. They all looked the same, too. It’s not just me either. I saw the film with about twenty other people, and most of them said similar things.

So if you go into Dunkirk knowing it’s an experience-movie, then you’ll have an even better time. Go big, treat yo self. Go see it in a theater that is showing it on film. See it with a crowd. See it in a claustrophobic room with no escape. See it on a sinking ship. Go big in getting the full experience, because this will probably be the only time you see it. Unless you like war movies as light bedtime watching, it doesn’t have much of a rewatchability factor.

That’s fine, because Christopher Nolan has achieved what he wanted. He created a film that pushes himself as a filmmaker, the war genre, and audiences to expand their definition of heroic. This isn’t Saving Private Ryan. This is Saving Private Me, and while everyone who went to war was heroic, Dunkirk demonstrates that living is its own kind of heroism. Who lives and who dies is often more left up to circumstances than to the quality of the people around you.

I don’t know if this film will finally win Nolan some Oscars, but it is a win for audiences. Dunkirk is a thought-provoking, adrenaline-rushing, minimalistic film, and it is clear that Dunkirk was a vision executed to its finest.

-Madeleine D

Comedy in the Real: The Big Sick

Warning: Some spoilers ahead.

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I’ve seen a fair number of romantic comedies in my life. Just a few days ago I watched Notting Hill. But then I saw The Big Sick. And boy does it make those other rom-coms look like lightweights.

The Big Sick, written by married couple Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and Emily V. Gordon, is a slightly fictionalized version of their first few months of dating. Did you think meeting your girlfriend’s parents was bad? Well move over Spider-Man: Homecoming, because imagine if you met your girlfriend’s parents while she was in a coma. And you were Muslim and Pakistani, and they were white. And your parents wanted you to be in an arranged marriage.

Yeah, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts have nothing on this.

The Big Sick boasts wonderful performances from not only Kumail Nanjiani as himself and Zoe Kazan as Emily, but also Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents Beth and Terry. Greater than their performances, though, is their mere presence. When was the last time you saw a movie where there were multiple sets of (alive) parents, who have their own storylines and problems, and whose presence is shown as ultimately a positive thing for their children? I can’t think of one.

The idea that you leave parents behind when you grow up is one of the few things Hollywood is holding on to from past generations. It’s true that just a few generations ago the relationship between parents and children were different. But these days parents and adult children are usually very connected, and parents remain significant and constant parts of their children’s lives.

The Big Sick is about romantic love, sure. But I would argue it is even more so about familial love. Kumail bonds with Emily’s parents. His relationship with her parents is vital to his relationship with Emily. They teach Kumail plenty of things without being faultless themselves. Watching them interact with Kumail made me think of all the parents of my friends who have taught me things through the years, who have been mentors to me.

Kumail also cares deeply for his family, even when they are at odds. His parents want him to marry a Pakistani woman, one they choose for him. And while his mother’s attempts at arranging a marriage are played for laughs, it is also made clear that arranged marriages have made many happy couples. There is a respect for the culture and people. So just because an arranged marriage would not work for Kumail does not mean that those in his family who are in arranged marriages are unhappy or less-married. This film is extraordinarily pro-family, and I have a great respect for that.

The Big Sick is also an honest look at modern relationships, and it’s not just because of the interracial and intercultural aspect. It offers a look at today’s style of dating and tries to observe modern sensibilities while paying homage to the past. Kumail and Emily hook up on the first date, but Emily doesn’t get re-dressed in front of Kumail because she’s “just not that kind of girl.” They continue with their relationship by sleeping together, but they also reveal intimate details about themselves and genuinely care for each other. Kumail tries to be chivalrous without being condescending, Emily tries to respect Kumail’s culture and is distraught when she realizes she might tear him and his family apart. They love each other, but their dating strategy is messy, and from a Christian perspective, immoral.

But, I appreciated it. Even though it was awkward watching the film with my apologetic parents beside me, I appreciated that The Big Sick shows that today’s dating culture isn’t clean cut. It’s harder to navigate without rules, and I think the film doesn’t try and hide that. It doesn’t glorify it.

I just applied to two colleges. But it doesn’t matter how private or how Christian they are. Nothing is going to shield me from the attitude of modern dating and its root of insecurity. Luckily, though, if The Big Sick tells us anything, it’s that messes like these can be redeemed. Terry and Beth work through difficult marital problems, Kumail and Emily get married mere months after Emily’s coma, and it is implied that Kumail’s family starts to reconcile with Kumail (in real life, they welcomed Emily into their family).

That is what makes The Big Sick one of the most redemptive films of the year. And one of the funniest. The best comedy comes from real life, because comedy must start with truth, and Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon have proved it here.

-Madeleine D

Coming of [Age] Avenger: Spider-Man: Homecoming

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*Spoilers Ahead!

Spider-Man has had it rough. Beyond his parents dying, Uncle Ben dying, getting spider powers, and being an outcast nerd at school, he’s had an abundance of movies that have left a bad taste in audience’s mouths. He’s been separated from his home studio, Marvel, for years. Who is going to save him?

Kevin Feige, head of Marvel Studios, that’s who. Feige has done the impossible, bringing the character home in a joint Marvel and Sony Studio film. It’s not an origin story, and it’s not related to the former Spider-Man movies. It’s got Iron Man/Tony Stark (a surprisingly subdued Robert Downey Jr.) as his mentor figure. It has Hot Aunt May™ (Marisa Tomei). It has a cast of rising young stars as Peter’s classmates.  And it has Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture (because you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain).

But none of this star power can save the film if it isn’t a return to what made people love Spider-Man to begin with: his relatability and heart.

That’s a lot to put on relative newcomer Tom Holland’s shoulders!

It was an exciting experience watching a superhero film about a teenager, as a teenager. I’m so used to watching ones about brooding, rich, genius thirty/forty year old men that I forgot super powers have no age range. And the filmmakers really do understand what being a teenager feels like. During the whole film, I was thinking things like:

Peter Parking was in the marching band? I was in the marching band! I wonder what he played.

He’s on an academic team? I was on an academic team!

I remember doing those crunches in P.E class too!

Zendaya’s character Michelle is wearing that dress to homecoming? I wore a dress sorta like that to my homecoming!

Aw man, that girl totally reminds me of someone at my school.

Most of the time when Hollywood tries to do modern teenagehood, it plays like a grandpa yelling “get off my lawn” made it. Kids are obnoxiously on their phones, they reference hip, cool things like Beyonce and fidget spinners without context, and are all played by adult-looking adults.

Here, though, it doesn’t play like that at all. There are phones, sure, but not beyond what you actually use a phone for. Most of the kids are likeable, if a little odd and awkward, which I can say from experience is true to form. And they are all played by either teenagers or really young adults! This film has gotten comparisons to classic John Hughes movies. And, while that isn’t an unwarranted comparison, I would say it’s deeper than that.

This year has constantly impressed me with great comic book movies, and the running theme between them is that they take another genre and apply comic book props to those genres. Logan was a western, with the main character having claws that came out of his fists.  Lego Batman was an animated parody and spoof movie, reminiscent of films like Airplane! Wonder Woman was a traditional superhero origin story with the quality and atmosphere of golden age Hollywood classics.

Spider-Man: Homecoming joins those ranks by being a coming-of-age story. But it works even better than expected, because the movie understands this about teenagers: everything, and every situation, feels like it is dialed up to an eleven.

So you think meeting your date’s dad is bad. What if he’s the criminal you’ve been fighting?

School competitions are tough. What if you’re also having to save your classmates from certain death?

Everyone has masks they protect themselves with. What if you have an actual mask and secret identity you have to hide?

By using the props and locations of a superhero movie, the drama of Peter Parker’s life is exaggerated and visually demonstrated in a heightened way.

What may have impressed me most about the movie, though, was the third act. Marvel, in general, has bad third acts. I think they have been getting better, but almost all of the comic book movies today struggle between, fight a giant blob of mayhem (ahem, Batman V. Superman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) and kill everyone (ahem, Man of Steel).

(stop here if you don’t want spoilers)

But Spider-Man: Homecoming has a third act that is different from all recent superhero movies I can think of. It comes down to just Peter in his pajama suit and Toomes. Toomes, who steals superhero equipment for a living, hijacks an Avenger plane.  Peter is able to crash the plane on a secluded beach, but by then Toomes is out to kill. The next few minutes is watching an adult brutalize a child. And it hurts.

Then the scene goes further. Toomes decides to abandon Peter and grabs a box from the plane wreckage. He starts to fly off with it, seemingly successful, but then it explodes. Peter sees Toomes go down, and without hesitation, runs off and saves him. He carries the man to safety on his back through the fiery landscape, ala Return of the King.

After this climax, we find out what happens to Toomes. He’s taken to trial, eventually going to jail. Peter has to face his daughter Liz, and see all the pain brought on her family. It’s not his fault, but it is still painful. This is a villain who is not a mindless robot, a powerful god-like entity, or an alien. He is a man with a family, who thinks he is doing what is right, who will forever suffer the consequences. And he’s played by an intimidating Michael Keaton. Toomes is a return to good villain form, because first and foremost, he isn’t easy to beat.

All throughout this climax and these dramatic scenes, there is not one quip, not a single one-liner, and no indication that we should take this any less than very seriously. The film never winks at itself. Because of that, I felt real emotions.

Recently, I came across a video essay (link below.) The main idea of the essay is about how films use bathos. Bathos is when a film climaxes dramatically, then has a lapse in mood, like telling a joke during an emotional scene. The essay shows an example from Doctor Strange, one of Marvel’s films last year. I liked Doctor Strange, but rethinking the film in terms of how it used bathos made me realize how, while I was entertained during the film, I never felt anything significant during it. Contrasting it to the intense feelings I had during this year’s Logan and Wonder Woman, I realized how insecure the film was in terms to its own emotions. It was afraid to be sincere.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is not afraid to be sincere. It is not afraid to have its protagonist be rendered helpless, then see his reflection in the water and an inspirational voiceover play overhead. Cheesy? Depends. I was greatly moved watching Peter cry out in pain, because I have been there. I’ve been there, and when I feel like screaming out in pain, I don’t feel like following it up with a joke.

What might be even more of a feat is that Homecoming is able to work on two levels. A sincere, stand-alone coming-of-age story on one hand, and a hilariously meta MCU movie on the other. The more you know about the Marvel films, the better the movie becomes. It has an abundance of Easter Eggs. Yet none of them get in the way of the story, which is what makes it stand out from the crowd. You could say that the sincere story level is Peter Parker, and the Easter Egg level is Spider-Man. As much as we all love Spider-Man, it’s Peter Parker that makes him someone worth remembering.

Just Write Video Essay:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-Q Qo 66o

-Madeleine D