Becoming Moral People: The Character Arcs of Jesse Pinkman and Kim Wexler

Besides movies, my other favorite thing to write about on this blog are the tv shows Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. A prequel series to Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul follows Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) as he goes from an earnest-yet-crafty underdog to the thoroughly corrupt criminal lawyer Saul Goodman. Beside Jimmy is Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), his confidant-turned-wife and accomplished lawyer who discovers her own dark side as she assists Jimmy in his schemes. Better Call Saul also introduces characters like Mike Ehrmantraut, Gus Fring, and Hector Salamanca, expanding the world and setting the stage for Breaking Bad. 

Better Call Saul (BCS) wrapped on its sixth and final season in mid-August to critical and audience acclaim. Its finale cements the show’s legacy as equal to that of Breaking Bad (BB) and a tremendous achievement in its own right. But I’m not actually interested in analyzing the entire final season or finale here. Instead, I want to take a deeper look at both shows by focusing on the parallels between two characters: BCS’s Kim Wexler, and BB’s Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). I think the characters’ respective endings illuminate both shows’ ideas on guilt, atonement, and redemption. While neither show mentions God or has characters professing faith, BB and BCS are both deeply spiritual and obsessed with questions of morality. Despite them being firmly “secular”, there is much to gain from taking a Christian lens to both shows. 

I also just really, really love both of these characters and want to talk about them.

So why compare Kim to Jesse? Jesse and Kim are the most moral characters in both shows. Both characters wrestle with their guilt and seek redemption. If the central flaw of both Walter White and Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman is their self-deception, Jesse and Kim’s central characteristic is their honesty about themselves. As the secondary protagonists and moral centers of their respective shows, Jesse and Kim’s stories are in direct conversation with one another. And in the penultimate episode of BCS, they even share a scene, flashing back to an unseen moment early in the BB timeline (as seen in the image above). 

This scene is more than just fanservice, it serves to highlight these parallels that have been carefully built between the characters. At this moment, they pass by each other at a critical intersection: Kim is leaving Saul’s office after finalizing her divorce from Jimmy, on her way to leave Albuquerque for Florida. Meanwhile, Jesse is about to partner himself and Walt to Saul and take another definitive step down his Bad Choice Road, which will lead him by the end of the series to a place similar to Kim– leaving town for Alaska, a trail of destruction behind him, forever changed. But they are in very different places internally when each leaves Albuquerque. 

Let’s do an overview of Kim’s storyline. Kim starts as a by-the-books, noble lawyer who has worked hard to leave behind her working-class roots to become successful and respected. She becomes disillusioned while working for a corporate firm and decides to quit and go pro-bono. She, like Jimmy, identifies as an underdog, as someone underestimated by the legal establishment. But as the show goes on, she also is revealed to be just as capable as Jimmy at scheming, eventually working with him to disgrace and debar Howard Hamlin (a rival lawyer). When that scheme ends up with criminal Lalo Salamanca killing Howard, Kim realizes how far she has allowed herself to go. She discovers a streak of cruelty within her that allowed her to do this to Howard. And she realizes how enabled she is with Jimmy; they bring out the worst in each other. With this crisis of conscience, she gives up her law license, breaks up with Jimmy, and moves to Florida. 

In Florida, we see that Kim has committed herself to a self-imposed exile. She changes her appearance, losing her blonde power ponytail for a brunette dye job and shaggy haircut. She trades her power suits for jean skirts and t-shirts. Everything she says is reserved and unopinionated, never taking a stance or making a clear choice. She has muzzled herself. Her name is still Kim Wexler, but she’s only an echo of the person we once knew. The fate she tried to escape through her career she has now embraced as a form of self-punishment. 

She finally goes back to Albuquerque to confess to Howard’s widow about the nature of his death and give an affidavit of her testimony, leaving her fate up to the law. After she does that, we see her breakdown crying on a bus (in a moment reminiscent of Jesse’s screams as he flees the compound in the final moments of BB). It’s cathartic– she’s finally come clean in every way that she can. But it’s also sobering– even all of that is not enough. Nothing she does can ever free her of the guilt. It will always haunt her because there has not been any external judgment on her.

In this lies a deeply embedded moral paradox in all of us: we like to be our own judge. That way, we can let ourselves off the hook. When I do something wrong, my first instinct is to justify, minimize, and ignore it. I love to proclaim myself “not guilty.” 

Yet I think for each of us, there comes a time in our lives when we do something truly horrible, horrible enough that it forces us to finally see ourselves plainly; something we can’t justify, minimize, or ignore. And in these moments, being our own judge is the worst thing in the world. When we have to face how flawed we really are, we also must face how flawed our judgment really is. How can we forgive ourselves? We have no authority to do so. When faced with this, people tend to go one of two ways: harden their hearts and ignore the issue of conscience and guilt, or relentlessly self-condemn and self-hate as a sort of recompense. 

Kim does the latter. Kim’s self-exile in Florida and later confession is her doing everything she can to avail herself of her guilt. But in a moral universe without a merciful, forgiving God who has provided some way of atonement, she can never truly be free. She is stuck being her own judge, and she knows she doesn’t have the authority to grant herself mercy. 

Kim keeps her name, but loses her selfhood as penance. 

Meanwhile, Jesse loses his name, but keeps his selfhood. At the end of El Camino, he is given a new name: Mr. Driscoll. The name “Jesse Pinkman” is dead, a ghost. But unlike Kim in Florida, Jesse/Driscoll doesn’t have to change who he is, his selfhood. He is changed; the events of the series have deeply changed his personality and worldview. But his change was growth, maturation at a heavy cost. That’s different from Kim’s intentional reinvention of herself, the meek character she’s chosen to play because she’s too afraid of who she is.

Externally, Jesse has permanent scars on his face, an eternal reminder of his past. They physically embody the PTSD and suffering he carries. But internally, Jesse has grown past many of the flaws that caused the events of BB. No longer is he naive and passive, instead, he takes action to fight for a better future. He is no longer obsessed with earning approval through macho posturing. Instead, he has developed true strength that stems from his love for others. 

 In other words: physically, he carries his past, but internally, he has a form of freedom from it. Kim is the opposite: externally, she has used her appearance to create distance from her past. But internally, she is shackled by it. 

Why is this? Jesse feels the same remorse as Kim, so why is he able to leave Albuquerque in such a different state? Jesse objectively does much more harm throughout BB than Kim does in BCS (although we could argue about his agency vs Kim’s). But in both of them, we see the same desire to repent and change after coming to terms with what they’ve done. So how can Jesse go to Alaska and be at peace with himself? How can he allow himself a second start, while Kim languishes in a self-inflicted purgatory? 

It comes down to the consequences they face. In the final episodes of BB, Walt hands Jesse over to captivity by Todd Alquist and his neo-nazi gang. Jesse is forced to cook meth, watches Todd kill his girlfriend Andrea, and lives under the threat of Todd killing Andrea’s son Brock. Jesse endures this methslavement for six months. By the time he gets to Alaska, he has had an “eye for an eye” treatment of his sins, or at least as much as he could ever reasonably get in this world. This hellish experience was the direct consequence of Jesse trying to atone for everything by teaming up with Hank. By teaming up with Hank, Jesse chose to accept the consequences of his actions and go down the path of making things right, and it led to this.

But when it’s all over, Jesse is, in a way, suddenly free. He has experienced pain and suffering like the suffering he caused for other people. He will always carry scars, internally and externally, from these experiences, yet Jesse has been able to “do the time.” He’s served the sentence the universe gave him; now he can have a second chance. Even though he never faced legal judgment, he faced a sort of metaphysical/divine power’s judgment, lived through it, and now can walk free and anew. It’s a severe mercy, but it’s still a mercy. 

But Kim doesn’t get that severe mercy. She could have continued her life exactly as it was post-Howard. No one would have ever punished her. Yet Kim wants to be judged, because at least that way, she wouldn’t have to live with the guilt of having gotten away with something. One gets the sense that Kim hopes she would get caught, or something would happen to her.

In the essay “A Life Not Worth Living,” Jami L. Anderson summarizes Jesse’s arc, writing this: 

“Jesse insists on the acknowledgment of right and wrong. But in doing so, he must acknowledge, both to himself and others, that he committed acts that are profoundly wrong, acts that cannot be undone. Moreover, the guilt he will feel for what he has done will, in all likelihood, never abate. But in taking full responsibility for his actions he will gain a sense of self as a moral person, as someone who has not only committed profoundly immoral actions but also of someone capable of tender, loving relationships and doing good deeds… Jesse, despite being nothing more than a social deviant user, nonetheless demanded and obtained moral agency along with full moral accountability as well as the privilege to make moral judgments.”

Kim, like Jesse, is a moral person, who insists on the acknowledgment of right and wrong. The lack of punishment she receives for her role in Howard’s death is a direct assault on her soul, because it acts in opposition to what she knows should be true about the world. She should have been punished, she deserved it. But the lack of consequences, of judgment, also means the impossibility of mercy. Mercy is not the lack of having your sin found out, it’s forgiveness and freedom despite being found out. 

This is the same predicament Jesse finds himself in in BB. In the aftermath of killing Gale, he attends a recovery group, where the leader advocates for radical self-acceptance. Finally, Jesse explodes, confronting the leader and saying this:

Jesse knows there is some sort of objective right and wrong. So if Jesse knows, through his actions and guilt, that he is fundamentally wrong because has done wrong, then how can he accept himself? How can he be the judge of himself? He has no moral authority to be a judge, much less a judge with the authority to enact mercy. Being told he is the only person who can free himself, through self-acceptance, is therefore a horrific burden, a terrible trap. This is the exact position Kim is in when she leaves Albuquerque after Howard’s death.

Unlike Walt, who deludes himself to the very end; or Jimmy, who realizes who he is but doesn’t accept the weight of consequences until the very end (more on that in a minute); Kim and Jesse realize who they are and are ready to accept the consequences, because they want to change. If they accept the consequences, then they are acting in line with their identities as moral people, who live under a code of right and wrong. Jesse gets consequences for his actions, he accepts them, and then he can accept the grace to move on and allow himself a second chance. But in Kim’s case, the universe doesn’t give her any kind of punishment; and there is no one to atone for her. So she must do it herself. But she is an incapable judge, so she is incapable of real atonement and giving herself a real second chance. So she lives in this black-and-white world; a ghost of herself. 

Yet, there is an interesting twist to Kim’s story. Throughout both shows, Kim and Jesse’s goodness are like knives in Walt and Jimmy’s backs. Their mere presences convict Walt and Jimmy of their sin, yet they refuse to believe it and choose to keep going. In BB, Walt does everything he can to smoother Jesse’s goodness, as a way to protect himself and his delusions. It’s only in Walt’s final moments that something akin to pity allows him to free Jesse.

But while Kim breaking up with Jimmy helps push him over the edge into becoming the Saul we know in BB, in the actual final moments of BCS, in the post-BB timeline, Kim tells Jimmy to confess. And he does. When she shows up in the courtroom at his hearing, he sees her and confesses. Because he still loves her, and he’s willing to go to prison to have her love him back, or at least respect him again. And in their final moments, sharing a cigarette in his cell, there is an unspoken reconciliation. Two characters, completely stripped of all facade, who know the truth about themselves and each other completely, are at peace because they have nothing to hide. All their sins have been laid out and they’re both facing the consequences. And in that, they can finally love one another fully and honestly. 

Again, there is no God in the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul universe. In the absence of one, we see each character trying to figure out how to atone and forgive themselves in ways only a righteous God can. Only the characters that submit themselves to a larger, divine force of righteous judgment–and mercy– find any kind of freedom. Walter White never experiences this, but Jesse does. And Jimmy, in a small way, does get to experience this freedom, even when he’s behind bars; because of Kim and her example. And when Kim walks away at the very end of BCS, we can hope she is leaving her purgatory behind, ready to accept a new beginning for herself. 

– Madeleine D.

 

Anderson, Jami L. “A Life Not Worth Living.” 103-118. Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style, and Reception of the Television Series, edited by David P. Pierson, Lexington Books, 2014

Everything Everywhere All at Once & The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Two of the most talked about indie films of 2022 (so far) have hit streaming. Should you check them out?

Everything Everywhere All at Once

A24 has become the cinephile’s go-to studio, a studio with an impressive slate of films that reach critical, awards, and fan success. And now they have box office success, with Everything Everywhere becoming the studio’s highest-grossing film since Hereditary and nearing the 100 million dollar mark. Part of the film’s success has no doubt been how it has been marketed as a “multiverse” movie, even going up against Marvel’s Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. The film follows laundromat owner Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) as she and her sweet and meek husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) go to the IRS to undergo an audit. It is there that Evelyn is found by a variant of Waymond from another universe who tells Evelyn she is the chosen one and must defeat an evil force that has taken over the body of Evelyn and Waymond’s daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). The film jumps through several multiverses as Evelyn has to fight to save Joy, and more importantly, save her relationships with her husband and daughter and discover more about herself. 

While multiverse fatigue has set in for some people, it hasn’t for me. I was excited by the idea of taking the multiverse premise and using it on a small scale, stripping the superhero-level scale and stakes and instead making it about one family, with mundane yet universal problems like taxes, familial strife, and personal dissatisfaction. And the movie is at its best when it sticks to this premise, using the multiverse to bring out the drama in the small-scale problems of the characters. 

But the movie then tries to go bigger than that and incorporate magic, huge existential forces, and a bigger intergalactic scale, and that’s when the movie, to me, loses its spark. The middle section of the film is incredibly chaotic, with directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (known as “The Daniels”) seemingly throwing every visual and joke they can at the wall and seeing what sticks. This is how you get a movie that has a scene of people trying to stick things up their butt (it’s just as painful to watch as it sounds) right beside a touching scene of a daughter pleading with her mother just to take a moment to listen to her. Or a scene of people with hot dogs for fingers next to a scene with a husband telling his wife that her cynicism and bitterness is poisoning their marriage and he wants her to see kindness as a strength. Brilliant, intimate moments next to slapstick, gross-out shenanigans. 

There is a thematic reason for all the absurdity: the characters in the movie come to see that the world is chaotic, absurd, even meaningless. However, we have the power then to create our own meaning, and that meaning should be being kind and loving to the people around us, letting go of resentment, and finding meaning in the mundane parts of life (like laundry and taxes). But I think this message gets lost in the chaos and absurdity, and I think the movie revels in just how gross it can be, which undercuts its better moments. 

You’ll have to find your mileage. Some people love the more absurd, gross-out, wilder elements of the film. It’s not my cup of tea, but I appreciate the creativity and originality and boldness to try a lot of stuff, and while I think this chaos hides the best parts of the movie, the best parts of the movie are still there. 

Maybe we don’t need more multiverse movies, but if we are going to keep getting them, I’d rather them be more in this vein, with the multiverse concept being used to focus on character drama and a smaller scope but with higher emotional stakes. I could do without the dildos, nihilism, and everything bagels, but you do you, Daniels. 

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

In The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, actor Nick Cage (played by Nicolas Cage), needing some money, agrees to make an appearance at the birthday party of a billionaire superfan Javi (Pedro Pascal). Once Cage gets there and begins to bond with Javi, he learns Javi might be up to some criminal activity, the kind of activity only an accomplished actor like Nick Cage can thwart! 

Okay, you may be asking. So…. is this film just a big ego boost for Nicolas Cage? Or is it, like, a joke? Is it a fictionalized biopic? What is it?

Good question. It’s ultimately a celebration of actors like Nicolas Cage, actors who have ingrained themselves in the pop culture lexicon for their range of films, charisma, star power, likeability, and the sincere intensity and commitment they seem to bring to every role. Remember the scene of Keanu Reeves playing himself in Always Be My Maybe? It’s like a feature-length version of that, wrapped up in a buddy-comedy action movie. There’s talk of Nick’s real-life movies and career trajectory, but his personal life in the film is completely different from the real Cage. Cage himself says this movie-Cage is not much like him, but the film blurs the lines between Cage the real person, Cage the real actor, Cage the persona, and Cage the fictional actor in this movie, so much so that it’s hard to tell where each Cage stops and starts. And that’s kinda the point; you get to be swept up into this funny little fantasy about Nick Cage and the joy of making movies, while also watching an action flick. 

While it’s Nick Cage’s movie, Pedro Pascal steals the show. He matches Cage, even surpasses him, beat-for-beat in every scene, bringing a more-laid-back charm that matches Cage’s intensity in surprising and complementary ways. Without him, it wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does.

When the film begins to turn into Nicolas Cage: Action Star in the third act, like Everything Everything All at Once, I think it moves away from its best elements in order to be a bit more action-oriented and mainstream. But the chemistry between Cage and Pascal, beautiful locales, and laugh-out-loud funny moments make it a worthwhile watch. It’s a good-natured half meta spoof, half decent-but-generic action movie, all with a dose of heart. It may not live up to its hyperbolic title, but if you like Nick Cage at all, or like movies about movies, or already saw The Lost City and want something similar, then it’s worth checking out. 


– Madeleine D.  

Thor: Love and Thunder

*Spoilers!

With Thor: Love and Thunder, the MCU breaks tradition. Of the original Avengers, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the only one getting a fourth solo film, instead of just a trilogy. The reason? The character was completely reinvented with 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, helmed by director Taika Waititi. Thor went from a self-serious Shakespearian hero to a surfer bro with a band of eccentric new friends. But in Love and Thunder, Thor’s past comes to haunt him in the form of his ex-girlfriend Jane Foster who appears on the battlefield with his old hammer and his same powers. And if that’s not bad enough, there’s a new villain out there called Gorr the God Butcher who… well, his name is self-explanatory. 

What’s a god to do?

Love it or hate it, Thor: Ragnarok’s success came from its humor and breezy tone. I initially gave it a pretty tough review, complaining that the improv didn’t always translate well and made the film structure messy, and any attempts at sincerity in the film’s themes are undercut by the humorous tone. I’ve since softened on Ragnarok, and especially now, because compared to Love and Thunder, Ragnarok is a much tighter and neater film. I now look back at Ragnarok as the perfect balance of when Marvel lets an auteur director do their thing, with just enough oversight so things don’t go off the rails. With Ragnarok, Waititi was able to bring his signature style while still delivering a film that adds something to the MCU. But in Love and Thunder, I get the sense that Waititi is confident in his newfound mainstream success (which is very deserved!) but in a way that feels, frankly, a little phoned in, even self-indulgent. I imagine the on-set antics created an environment that was very fun for the cast, but again, that improv doesn’t always translate to the film. 

Not to say this movie isn’t funny–it is. But not funny enough to carry the whole thing. The movie swings very clearly from “this is a Marvel-mandated scene,” or even “this was a well-thought-out scripted scene,” to “this was clearly improved or only loosely scripted,” making the movie more disjointed than it should be. While not as tonally inconsistent as some other Marvel movies, Love and Thunder doesn’t have much sense of urgency, direction, or momentum. But this seems to be a phase 4 problem overall, with the lack of an overarching story or even a core group of Avengers moving us towards any goal. And while I don’t mind more stand-alone stories in theory, it does make various corners of the MCU seem like they’re spinning their wheels, waiting for something of consequence to happen.

Love and Thunder, despite its similarities to Ragnarok, isn’t a total retread. It has a few different elements, like Natalie Portman’s return as Jane and debut as The Mighty Thor (with the impressive biceps to show for it!). She has a few nice moments and brings weight to the dramatic scenes, and does her best with what she’s given. However, for much of the movie she feels like Mark Ruffalo did in Ragnarok: a decidedly not-comedic actor who seems out-of-place with the more freewheeling vibe of the rest of the cast. Maybe with another movie she would be able to grow more into the role, but for now, I don’t see much of a future with the character. 

The other big player here is Christian Bale as Gorr. People have been saying he is the best villain since Killmonger, who himself was the best villain since Ultron (from the best marvel movie of all time, Avengers: Age of Ultron!). And like Ultron, Gorr is the most spiritual/religious character we’ve gotten in a Marvel movie. After the death of his daughter and being mocked and rejected by his own god, Gorr takes up the task of confronting the gods of the MCU for their carelessness towards their followers, and killing them as justice/revenge. 

Because of this motivation, Love and Thunder finally lay out a somewhat-comprehensive look at what the MCU has been building towards when it comes to gods. This movie, and the MCU at large, basically says that in this universe, gods are like regional managers for certain groups of people. These gods can be good or bad, kind or cruel, powerful or incompetent, but they are in charge of the people who believe in them. Like the Greek pantheon, these gods are flawed and petty, and often use humans like pawns in their games (hence Gorr’s anger). Similarly, there is no one afterlife. Instead, people go to the afterlife based on their god or their cultural/ethnic background (Asgardians go to Valhalla, Wakandans go to the astral plane, in Moon Knight there’s the Egyptian afterlife of Aaru, the Field of Reeds, and so on). 

I think this is a fascinating picture of how religion is being more and more viewed in American pop culture, which Marvel is in many ways representative of. In an extremely individualized American culture, where there is no objective truth, it would make sense to say, “You can have your god based on your upbringing or your preferred cultural/ethnic group. Religion is a lifestyle choice or a cultural tradition.” It almost feels like saying that you’re religious is the equivalent of saying you’re vegan: people will be like “oh that’s great,” maybe even see you as being very noble or disciplined, but also, like, please don’t be so intense/serious about it that it makes us feel weird. Despite the seriousness Christian Bale brings to the role, I don’t think Taika Waititi brings much seriousness to this concept; it’s mostly played as a joke and a clever bit of worldbuilding. Thor never really challenges Gorr’s anger or is motivated to change himself, he just convinces Gorr to channel his desire for justice into resurrecting his daughter, not actually dealing justice to the gods. It’s the Kilmonger problem: the villain is right, he just goes too far in his mission.

I am not saying people should get up in arms about how gods and religion are treated in this film; this movie does not take that subject or itself seriously. I just think Love and Thunder provides an unexpectedly insightful picture of how a worldwide mega-conglomerate tries to depict religion: by not depicting any particular stance at all. 

Speaking of Gorr’s resurrected daughter, let’s talk about that ending. I think it’s interesting to see how in Phase 4 Marvel is quickly reorienting its demographic by bringing in younger and younger heroes (high school Peter Parker, higher schooler Kamala Khan, teenage America Chavez, young 20-something Kate Bishop, Wanda’s twins, Cassie Lang, Sprite from Eternals). Love and Thunder introduces Heimdall’s son and spends a lot of time with a group of Asgardian kids who bravely fight for their freedom from Gorr, and the film ends with Thor adopting Gorr’s daughter and becoming a single #girldad. While I thought this was an interesting twist at the end, to have the villain resurrect his daughter, just to die and give her into the custody of his enemy who he just tried to kill, I’m interested to see where this is going, as “protagonist man becomes father,” aka, the daddyfication of franchise characters, is becoming a go-to character arc, and is the most recent in a new trend of Marvel heroes getting some kind of family as a reward for finding themselves. This dynamic also falls into the trope of “man and a silent little girl.” Who knows? Maybe Gorr’s nameless daughter will talk one day. 

Alright, you may be saying at this point. Madeleine, you thought the humor and tone of this movie was underwhelming and didn’t always work, and it all feels too frivolous. Didn’t you also recently just praise Jurassic World Dominion for being lighthearted fun? How can you enjoy the frivolous fun of that movie and criticize Thor 4 for the same? 

Touché. Here is where I think the difference lies. Jurassic World Dominion had emotional payoffs for the older characters, and nicely wrapped up things for the newer characters. There was an equal emotional reward for the time invested in these characters (also, the Jurassic World movies are equal, if not more, about dinosaurs and spectacle than characters). But with Marvel, we get to know these characters for multiple movies for years. We’ve been seeing Chris Hemsworth’s Thor now for 11 years, in 8 films. The MCU, especially now with the Disney+ shows, requires such an extraordinary investment of time, yet I don’t feel like my time is being rewarded emotionally anymore.

 There’s enough in the MCU that still compels me that I stay invested (Moon Knight was an amazing surprise this year, and I loved the Black Widow). But weaker projects like Love and Thunder dilute the whole franchise. After this much time and investment, I want to be having more personal, emotionally satisfying, compelling, and interesting content with these long-term characters, and I don’t think this movie does that with Thor. 

A repeated theme of this movie is that it’s better to love someone, even if you get hurt, than not to love at all. Real heroes don’t hold people at arm’s length to protect themselves. But for a movie about being emotionally vulnerable and not holding people at arm’s length, I still feel like I’m being held at an arm’s length by Thor, by Marvel, and by Taika (who is capable of making very sweet, sincerely emotional movies!). Despite me investing what feels like a third of my life in these films, Marvel continues to hold its characters at an arm’s length. But like Thor and Gorr, I want to choose love. But if you can’t give me love, then feel my thunder!

– Madeleine D. 

Elvis

Director Baz Luhrmann, known for his big, bombastic, highly stylized films like Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet, and 2013’s The Great Gatsby, was first announced to be helming an Elvis biopic in 2014. He’s since had 8 years to work on the film, a film Warner Brothers is betting their entire summer slate on and is launching former Disney and Nickelodeon actor Austin Butler’s career into the mainstream. And it’s the first big biopic of one of the most popular musicians and icons of all time. 

So, did Baz get it right?

Elvis is right in line with Luhrmann’s other work. It’s epic in scope, long, sprawling, unevenly paced, energetic, inventively visual, and has a stellar soundtrack. With a movie as ambitious and messy as this one, there are plenty of things to critique. But there are also many moments where everything comes together, and Luhrmann’s style marries with the material perfectly, so that, all in all, the film has really stuck with me. 

A musical biopic has the tough task of portraying several facets: the historical facts of the artist’s life, the inner life of the artist, how the artist was perceived by his or her contemporary audiences, and the artist’s place in history. Not all biopics can or try to do all these things. But Elvis does, and of these four categories, Elvis is best at conveying how Elvis was perceived at the time. The movie viscerally captures people’s reactions to Elvis’s dancing, his politics, and his sound, and these are the sections of the film that are a perfect match of Lurhman’s delirious styling and editing. Watching these scenes, I got it. I understood Elvis Presley: icon. I understood why he was seen as such a threat and a seductive figure, his sex appeal, his musical uniqueness, his potential, and his raw star power. I felt it. 

Much of it also just comes down to a truly mesmerizing performance by Austin Butler as Elvis. Butler is completely deserving of all the praise he’s been getting. He melts into the role, never feeling like an impersonator. His star power is blinding, yet there is a depth of humanity and sincerity he brings that transcends the script. I hope the Academy doesn’t dismiss the hype and does, in fact, nominate him for best actor. 

But while Butler gives it his all, the script steers away from giving Elvis introspective moments that allow us to get more into his head. He is reactive to other people and situations, but we don’t get to really know Elvis, especially once he becomes the figure of Elvis Presley. We don’t really get to know the man suffering under the weight of the role he’s playing. This is where the film’s breakneck pace, the heavy focus on his early life and career, and the lack of time spent on his final years, become a problem. While the decision not to dwell on Elvis’s final days probably comes from a place of respect and not wanting to sensationalize his downward spiral, I think it contributes to the movie’s overall problem of robbing The King of complexity.

Part of this also comes from the framing device. The film is narrated by Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks. Hank’s performance has been very polarizing. Unlike some critics, I don’t think Hanks is inherently miscast. In moments, it really works, such as scenes where the Colonel is trying to proposition himself as a pseudo-father figure for Elvis, because on a meta-level it’s playing against Hank’s persona as a good-natured “America’s dad.” But in other parts of the film, it doesn’t work at all, with his exaggerated accent and prosthetics making him cartoonish. The performance is off-putting, but not in the way I’m sure Hanks intended. To me, it doesn’t ruin the movie, but it is one of its most erratic elements. 

Besides Hanks, the other big criticism of the film has been how the film tries to pay tribute to the Black musicians Elvis was influenced by (or, depending on how you see it, stole from). Despite the effort, these musicians are still relegated to the sidelines, mostly just to say encouraging things to Elvis. The movie flattens the issue to basically: “Elvis was a well-meaning appreciator of Black music and had personal ties to it, and he helped open a lot of doors and break down the color barrier.” Which, while that may be somewhat true, is not the whole truth, and the priority is clearly preserving Elvis’s likeability over all else. But in the film’s defense, this isn’t an academic discussion. This is an emotional rendering of Elvis’s life, not an objective perspective on his place in music history, and one that is not even told from Elvis’s perspective. In the same vein, the movie also sidesteps looking too closely at the relationship between Elvis and his wife Priscila (Olivia DeJonge), instead placing her in a very stereotypical wife role, barely giving her any lines or significant screen time. 

Because of these elements of Elvis’s story that are sidestepped or rushed through, when I left the theater I immediately began googling all sorts of things to fill in the blanks:  Elvis Presley’s death. Tom Parker. Elvis Priscilla relationship. B.B King. Original Hound Dog. Going in, I was pretty unfamiliar with Elvis’s story. But the movie was so compelling, even with its flaws, that I wanted to know more. In the end, while Elvis stumbles in telling the darker tragedy of Elvis Presley, it succeeds as a spectacle that captures the enduring power of the Elvis myth. 

–  Madeleine D.

Jurassic World Dominion

What is the appeal of the Jurassic Park franchise?

Is it the dinosaurs? If it is the dinosaurs, is it the action scenes of people being terrorized by these prehistoric beasts? Or is the appeal learning to sympathize with the dinosaurs, seeing them akin to wild animals or even pets, with specific species brought to life on the big screen?

Is the appeal nostalgia? A franchise built around a beloved movie from 1993 from one of our greatest directors and his signature style? Is it about trying to imitate that film’s original uniqueness and technological achievements?

Is the appeal the cast, either the original trio or the new, bloated World cast of familiar and unfamiliar faces, trying to find a new breakout star? And is Chris Pratt still the star and box-office draw he once was?

Or is the appeal the ethical and philosophical quandaries Jurassic Park offers? Questions of, is it ethical to resurrect an extinct species, and for profit? What about cloning? How should humans interact with these powerful, deadly creatures? What is our responsibility to them after bringing them back to life?

Jurassic World Dominion doesn’t know how to answer the question of what is most appealing, either. But it’s going to throw everything at the wall and surely, somewhere in the mess, there will be something that sticks.

Dominion picks up four years after the events of Fallen Kingdom. After being evacuated off the Jurassic World island and oops, let out into the wild, dinosaurs are now living amongst humans and doing what they do best: killing people, and causing a lot of property damage. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen (Chris Pratt), former workers of Jurassic World, are helping rescue and relocate dinosaurs, and are raising Maisie (Isabella Sermon), a human clone (just go with it). When Maisie is kidnapped by evil tech company Biosyn, Owen, Claire, and new assorted characters go to rescue her (DeWanda Wise and Mamoudou Athie do admirable jobs in their underserved, underwritten roles). At the same time, Alan Grant (Sam Neil), Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) are back to help figure out what Biosyn is up to. As the first Jurassic Park taught us, when you mess with mother nature, your biosins will find you out. 

I’m in the minority that actually liked the last film, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and its turn into very self-serious absurdity. I particularly enjoyed how the film (directed by J.A Bayona) made use of horror elements, and I was excited to see this movie’s payoff of Fallen Kingdom’s premise of dinosaurs interacting with us in the modern world. However, despite the promise of this movie being “the dinosaurs are out of the park and in society!”, the majority of the film still takes place in a park–or, excuse me, an enclosed wildlife sanctuary. While disappointing, the parts that take place out in the world are likewise absurd and goofy, like the Mission Impossible/Indiana Jones-esque chase sequence in Malta with dinos. That sequence, which takes place about an hour in, is when things really get going. The first act is bogged down by exposition and various character groups being in separate locations. In the second act, high-energy action sequences (particularly that scene and a solo dino-chase scene with Howard in the jungle) finally get all the characters together, and in the third act, things are very fun as our united fellowship makes a big escape from the park. 

As for this fellowship, Dallas Bryce Howard continues to be the Jurassic World’s franchise MVP and, to me, has deservedly overtaken Chris Pratt (who seems stilted here) as the star of this trilogy. She makes her character’s arc way more compelling than it probably meant to be, and she does a great job in the action sequences. But since she’s the only interesting Jurassic World character, she gets a major assist here from the OG Jurassic Park stars for a part nostalgia play, part desperately-needed bolt of energy. While I enjoy and respect the first Jurassic Park movie, I don’t personally feel any nostalgia for that film or these characters, so it’s more of just the pleasant delight to have some charismatic actors who look like they’re having a blast, and the three of them sell it, particularly Dern. In the final showdown, the original Park characters and new World characters get paired off various times together, leading to some fun little team-ups and interactions. 

In the end, I don’t care what cynical intentions may have been behind this film, I had a good time. It’s a popcorn summer blockbuster in the best way. Is this movie only doing, as Matt Zoller Seitz writes, the bare minimum? Sure. And if the appeal of this franchise to you is philosophical musings, groundbreaking effects, or inspired directing, you won’t be satisfied here. But to me, the appeal of Jurassic Park is the adrenaline rush of the dinosaurs and humans interacting and how the dinosaurs inhabit space, and Dominion does that well. 

-Madeleine D.

The Layman’s Guide to the Best Picture Nominees (Part 2/2)

Part two of my look at the ten best picture nominees, giving you insight into each film and predicting its award chances.

Belfast

Belfast is based on director Kenneth Branaugh’s life as a child growing up during the Irish Troubles. Filmed beautifully in black and white, the film shows from nine-year-old Buddy’s eyes the confusing political turmoil around him, his struggling but loving family, and the hallmarks of growing up, from first crushes to peer pressure and school troubles. In many ways, it reminded me of Jojo Rabbit. While not nearly as funny or satirical (or devastating) as Jojo Rabbit, Belfast has an overall hopeful tone and messages of resilience and family. 

The best part of the movie is its performances, which are all lovely, from Jude Hill as Buddy, to Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench (both nominated for best supporting!) as his grandparents, to Caitriona Balfe as his mother (I think she deserved to have been nominated) and Jamie Dornan as his father. 

When I saw the film, I walked away thinking it was a very sweet, well-made movie, if not one I could call the best of the year. While it’s valuable to see the Troubles being explored on screen, and the family drama feels universal yet deeply personal, I don’t know if Belfast really encompasses 2021 in filmmaking or breaks any new ground. 

But it was later that I came to reconsider Belfast in a new light. In early February, Dua Lipa asked Stephen Colbert on his talk show about how his comedy and Christian faith overlap. In his answer–which you absolutely should watch, it’s a fascinating response– he brought up Belfast and how he liked how the movie “is funny, and it’s sad, and it’s funny about being sad. In that same way sadness is a little bit like an emotional death, but not a defeat, if you can find a way to laugh about it, because that laughter helps keep you from having fear of it.” 

With that in mind, Belfast becomes a little more profound. It’s a tricky balance, to give sadness its full weight and still have humor and joy. Jojo Rabbit dilutes its sadness through snark and satire– to great effect. But Belfast is incredibly sincere, and in that way, pulls off a trickier feat. 

Belfast seems to be in the top running for best picture, alongside Power of the Dog and CODA. Besides that, its best award chances may be either best supporting for Hines, or original screenplay for Branaugh. 

Drive My Car

Also nominated for best international feature, adapted screenplay, and best director for ​​Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car snuck up on many as a heavy-hitter this year. The Japanese film will inevitably draw comparisons to 2019’s South Korean Oscar juggernaut Parasite, which won best picture, international feature, and best director for Bong Joon-Ho, along with original screenplay, editing, and production design. But beyond their nominations, the two films have little in common, and because of that, Drive My Car’s winning chances are much slimmer. 

At three hours, Drive My Car is a meditative character drama about a widowed actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who goes to Hiroshima to direct a play, and as part of his residency, he is given a chauffeur, which ends up being a young woman (Tōko Miura). The two slowly begin to become friends and through this friendship and the play they process their past. The movie reflects on the value of art, language barriers, intergenerational friendships, and the regret and burdens that block us from connection with one another. 

Like many of the nominees this year, it has a beautiful and cathartic ending that makes the whole movie better in retrospect, and there is much to admire and appreciate in the film. However, I couldn’t help but find it a bit tedious, never quite feeling like my patience was fully rewarded. But part of that may have been going in without any sense of what the movie was, so I think it might be the kind of film where it is better to go in having read some reviews or analysis of the film to better be able to appreciate what is carefully being built in the story and what literary references and allusions to be on the lookout for. 

While there are things the Academy usually likes to reward in Drive My Car (it’s a story about actors making art, after all!), there is still a big barrier to the Oscars awarding international films in non-international feature categories. Parasite was an anomaly that it was able to break through, not only because it is a truly outstanding, deserving film, but it was also mainstream enough, with a semi-recognizable director, to appeal to an American audience. 

Drive My Car then is a near lock for international feature, but probably nothing else, with maybe a sliver of a chance for adapted screenplay. But its inclusion shows progress in the academy recognizing and rewarding international films, which is an exciting step for Hollywood at large. 

Dune

Dune is this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Like Mad Max, Dune was a genre hit with both audiences and critics that was nominated for a slew of technical awards along with best picture (10 nominations in all!). And it has a fighting chance in many of those categories, especially Han Zimmer’s score, sound, and special effects. But unlike, say, Return of the King, which swept its ceremony and got best picture, Dune is a part one of two, and feels very incomplete, so its best picture chances are very slim (and we’ll see about part 2). 

Helmed by Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival) and featuring an all-star cast (Timothee Chalamet! Zendaya! Oscar Issac! Jason Mamoa! Javier Bardem!) the film admirably translates its dense source material into a sprawling epic that really does feel like it can both satisfy fans and general audiences alike. Along with West Side Story, it may be the best feat of adaptation and remake this year, and deserves to be nominated. The story of a young man discovering his destiny on a new planet is full of classic science fiction and literary tropes, so we’ll see if this timelessness appeals to academy voters, or if it’s ultimately snubbed. 

Don’t Look Up

Maybe the most broadly polarizing film on this list, Don’t Look Up is a Netflix release directed by Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice, Anchorman) and featuring an ensemble with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, Timothee Chalamet, and Ariana Grande. Don’t Look Up follows DiCaprio and Lawrence as an astronomy professor and his grad student, who discover a comet is on the fast-track to collide with Earth. In their efforts to warn the public they face opposition from everyone from the self-serving president (Meryl Streep) and her obstinate administration, to the media that refuses to alarm the public, to pop stars, activists, and tech billionaires who all want to co-op the comet to advance their own agenda. The comet serves as a clear metaphor for climate change, and the film satirizes the modern indifference to this threat. While I thought the movie fairly critiqued all sides of the political aisle, I have talked to many people who didn’t think the film was nearly as fair. 

If there’s a common theme with these best picture nominees, I think I would say that it’s sincerity.  Belfast and Licorice Pizza were both inspired by the director’s childhoods and fondly recreate their adolescent years. King Richard and CODA are both classic heartwarming stories about underdog families. Nightmare Alley, Dune, Drive My Car, West Side Story, and The Power of the Dog are all remakes or adaptations that lovingly breathe fresh air into their source material with clear respect for the originals, and tell stories of complex protagonists with clear empathy. But Don’t Look Up, is, to be frank, a mean movie about horrible people. And I say that as someone who actually liked it! But there’s no denying that Adam McKay, whose most recent work shows a general disdain for general audiences and no problem skewering everyone from the everyman to the most powerful politicians in the world, has made a movie that to many comes across as overly preachy and spiteful. 

Besides best picture, Don’t Look Up is nominated for original screenplay, film editing, and Nicholas Britell’s score. It may have a fighting chance at original screenplay. But for a movie that touted its all-star cast as its greatest strength, the lack of acting noms is an indicator of how little the academy voters may actually care about this film. There’s always a chance for a surprise, but I think all signs point to this, once again, not being Adam McKay’s big year. 

The Power of the Dog

Netflix’s Power of the Dog, directed by Jane Campion, has been a critical darling, but treated with ambivalence by audiences, following a trend of the Oscars showing favor to small movies that few have seen (or will remember). I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, smaller films are often the most groundbreaking and move filmmaking forward, and shouldn’t those be recognized in a ceremony that aims to celebrate the art of filmmaking? But on the other hand, I think the Oscars should strike a balance to also recognize movies that have defined and shaped the year, and will be remembered in public memory, which I don’t really think Power of the Dog will be.

Okay, but is Power of the Dog good? And to that I say…. yes. It’s a movie I have a lot of respect for. It’s a slow-burn, acting tour-de-force about Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) a spiteful cowboy who terrorizes his brother (Jesse Plemons) and his new wife and stepson (Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee). But as the film progresses, you begin to realize the power dynamics in play are not quite what they seem, and Phil’s aggression is what ends up blinding him to even more sinister forces.

Power of the Dog is an anti-western, a movie that turns the historically macho and violent western genre conventions on their head to instead be a quiet, psychological movie about sexual repression, grief, resentment, and familial strife. A main undercurrent of the film is that Phil is suggested to be gay, and is mourning the loss of his mentor/partner, and his cruelty is a symptom of his grief and repression. The four main characters are carefully drawn to be fascinating foils of each other, and Campion’s directing shows clear precision and restraint. 

My biggest problem with the film is that it’s sometimes so subtle you don’t know what’s going on or where the movie is going, and the twist at the end is so quiet that many people I know completely missed it (and I would have too if I hadn’t been spoiled beforehand). The ramifications of the ending cast the rest of the movie in a fascinating light when you really think about it, but I wish the film had found a way to build up to a more cathartic end, instead of tapering off like a whisper. 

While it was considered the frontrunner for much of the race, CODA and possibly Belfast have gained enough momentum to catch up to Power of the Dog, meaning the race might be way more surprising than expected. Interestingly enough, we may also have a situation where voters don’t vote for Power of the Dog because they assume it’s the frontrunner anyways, so they vote for another film, and no majority ends up voting for it in the end. If Power of the Dog won, it would be a huge win for streaming services.

I think besides best picture, out of its 11 other nominations, its other best chance for a win is Jane Campion as director (she deserves it). And while not the frontrunner, I think Kirsten Dunst could be a dark horse for the best-supporting actress. And while he definitely won’t win, I’m rooting for Jesse Plemons, who I genuinely think should have been nominated for best supporting in 2019’s El Camino. He’s good in this movie and deserves the nomination, but he’s building a fascinating career and I definitely don’t think this will be the last time we see him nominated. As for Benedict Cumberbatch, I don’t think he’ll win, but I think this too will set him up nicely for a future win one day. And maybe, if it doesn’t win best picture, that will be Power of the Dog’s biggest lasting legacy: setting up its actors and director for even greater future success, and a new opportunity for the Western genre to reinvent itself. 

Happy Oscars everyone!

– Madeleine D. 

The Layman’s Guide to the Best Picture Nominees (Part 1/2)

Hollywood’s biggest night is only a few days away, and with that, it’s time for all of us to place our bets and pick our favorites. But with 10 nominees for best picture, and the weird release schedules that COVID and streaming have created, it’s easy to have missed some of them. Never fear! I’m here to give you a little background on each movie and a look at its award chances, with a bit of my personal commentary, so you can win your Oscar ballot. 

King Richard

King Richard is probably the most “commercial” film on this list, in that it’s a feel-good sports movie with broad appeal with a big star. But being “commercial” is not a bad thing– in fact, I think it’s actually a positive thing when it comes to the Oscars because so few of the movies nominated have broad appeal and have actually been seen by a wide audience. King Richard stars Will Smith as Richard Williams, the father behind one of the greatest female tennis players of all time and two of the best athletes in the world- Venus and Serena Williams. King Richard is a role seemingly tailor-made for Will Smith. It makes perfect use of his charisma, his dramatic and comedic chops, and provides some interesting meta-commentary on his own personal family life and the kind of dad he’s been to his celebrity kids. But while I think he is deserving of best actor, the whole ensemble is excellent, from Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton who play Venus and Serena respectively to Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci. Aunjanue Ellis, who plays their mother Brandi, is nominated in the best supporting actress category. While Ellis has a very slim chance of winning, she was a standout and I’m so glad her work was recognized with a nomination.

The movie is a classic sports movie, but its focus on black athletes and a strong black family unit (and centering dad/daughter relationships), the focus on having integrity over winning, along with an eye towards the business savvy athletes must have, make it special. However, its chances of winning best picture look slim, although Will Smith looks like the best actor frontrunner (although it’s a competitive category!). While it may end up walking away with nothing, like the movie itself says, it’s not necessarily about winning, but how you play the game, and King Richard puts it all on the line. 

Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, starring Alana Haim (who I wish had been nominated for best actress) and Cooper Hoffman, is nominated for best director and original screenplay along with best picture. With Jane Campion looking like the frontrunner for director, Licorice Pizza’s best shot is probably screenplay. PTA is a famed auteur who has made a film with a lot to like, especially to Academy voters. Licorice Pizza is a nostalgic look at Los Angeles and Hollywood past, with a quirky love story (the ten-year age gap between the leads has led to some controversy, but not enough, I think, to dampen the film), and great performances. It is the quintessential “hang out” movie, with three hours of episodic storytelling, evoking the feeling of an anthology of shorts rather than a plot-driven movie (Bradley Cooper’s “episode,” where he plays real-life Jon Peters, a boyfriend of Barbara Streisand, is the best part of the film). It might remind voters of the similarly Hollywood-themed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s last film (although Licorice Pizza does not contain any gory shoot-outs). 

I enjoyed Licorice Pizza while I watched it, and I think it’s a must-see for fans of PTA and Hollywood history. I think a breezily-paced, episodic structure to a film is not necessarily a bad thing, but there were certainly times when I wished the movie had an editor who would curb PTA’s more self-indulgent moments. Overall, I think Licorice Pizza is certainly deserving of the nomination but won’t win. It doesn’t break any kind of filmmaking barriers, it doesn’t have any timely or important messages, and its award campaign has seemed a little weak. However, PTA has been nominated for an Oscar eight times before and never won, so perhaps that will make the Academy more favorable in giving him a win. 

Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley is a remake of a 1947 film, based on the 1946 novel. The film, directed and co-written by Guerillmo Del Toro, stars Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a mysterious down-on-his-luck man who begins working as a mentalist at a carny, and quickly spirals down into his own deceit. It co-stars Toni Collette, Cate Blanchett, and Rooney Mara. 

To be honest, I started watching Nightmare Alley on HBO Max, got through thirty minutes, then turned it off. Then it got nominated for Best Picture, so I begrudgingly went back and finished it after two more tries. At first, I didn’t find myself gripped by the achingly slow-paced noir. I didn’t know where the film was going or if it had any substance under all the style (and to be fair, it’s a gorgeous production). But, unfamiliar with the source material, I was completely caught off guard in the last act, and specifically, the very last scene. The last moments of the film are so perfectly executed, with such a wonderful marriage of Cooper’s performance and Del Toro’s directing, that I got literal chills. It’s the kind of gut punch of an ending that makes you reconsider the whole film. 

But, even with that scene, in retrospect the film is still weak as a whole, looking the part of a psychological thriller without delivering one. Critics and audience reception were all over the place, making its nomination a real surprise. Besides best picture, it is also nominated for cinematography, production design, and costuming, which seems to be evidence it won’t win anything (best picture winners usually also have nominations in other major categories like actor/actress, writing, and directing). I think if the movie had to have been nominated for anything, I would have nominated Bradley Cooper. But as it is, I’m not personally rooting for it to win anything. Del Toro won best picture and best director for 2017’s Shape of Water, so there’s no rush for the academy to reward him again anytime soon. 

CODA

CODA, on Apple TV+, is a coming-of-age story about Ruby (Emilia Jones), a high schooler who is caught between her desire to go off to college to pursue singing, and her family’s need for her to work for their fishing business. Why is that a problem? The rest of Ruby’s family is deaf, and need her to translate for their business, and can’t appreciate her singing. 

My roommate, who considers herself to be a “voice for the people” when it comes to movies (i.e, not a critical snob), said of CODA: “It’s the perfect balance of being chill and having something to say.” And I agree! CODA is progressive in that it is depicting a community not usually seen on screen, which is a great thing, and it’s also a broadly appealing, heartfelt family drama that is subversive and smart about its tropes to tell a new story (with excellent writing and performances to boot). While its status as a streaming movie made it an unlikely contender, in the past few weeks CODA seems to have become a dark horse that might just pull off a win for best picture, and I’ll certainly be rooting for it. 

Besides best picture, it’s also up for best supporting actor for Troy Kotsur and best adapted screenplay. While I don’t think it has a shot at either of these (Dune should win for best adapted screenplay, although The Lost Daughter will probably win), Kotsur is certainly deserving of the recognition. 

West Side Story

This Steven Spielberg-directed remake of the 1961 musical (an Oscar heavy-hitter itself), is up for seven nominations, including best picture, best director, and best supporting actress for Ariana DeBose as Anita (the role which won Rita Moreno her Oscar). The remake has been praised for the way it infuses modern sensibilities (including the casting of actual Puerto-Rican actors as the Sharks) with the emotionality and old-school feel of the original.

I was skeptical of this project when it was announced and was prepared to dislike it, having grown up with a great fondness for the 1961 film. However, having seen it, I now agree that it is an example of a great remake. I think Spielberg chooses the right things to change and lean into (like more attention paid to the class dynamics; not subtitling the Spanish) while retaining elements of the original. While not as colorful or theatrical as the 1961 version, I think the musical numbers retain their energy and are well-done. It’s a remake that hopefully will appeal to modern audiences while encouraging them to also check out the original. 

Despite all the ways I enjoyed the film, it didn’t personally grab me or register as one of the best films of the year, and I actually expect it’s not most Academy members’ best film either. But because of the ranked-choice voting system the Oscars use, the movies that win are usually everyone’s second or third choice. And that’s where West Side Story could win a lot of awards, if everyone thinks, “hmmm, I want Jane Campion or Paul Thomas Anderson to win for director this year, but I’ll put Steven Spielberg next because, well, he’s Steven Spielberg!”

West Side Story was a commercial flop, but it’s definitely one of the most audience-friendly films being nominated. While I don’t think it’s the best film of the year, I would like the best picture award to start going to movies people have actually heard of and seen, so I’m not opposed to a win. Out of its nominations though, I am rooting for the film to win for Ariana DeBose, and she’s currently the favorite. 

Coming soon: Part 2 of the nominees!

Should I See Lamb?: A Question-Based Review of a Strange Film

What is Lamb?

Lamb is a 2021 Icelandic film from A24 (the studio behind, among many others, Hereditary, Minari, Lady Bird, Eighth Grade, and Ex Machina). It is directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson and stars Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason. It is in Icelandic. It was released in October and is currently on premium video on demand.

What is Lamb about?

Lamb is about two farmers who discover a baby that is half-sheep, half-human. The couple begins to raise the creature as their own child, but strange occurrences threaten to tear the new family apart.

What genre is Lamb?

The film is a slow-paced drama with some horror elements. I’m a real wimp when it comes to horror movies, but I could handle Lamb, as it isn’t full of jump scares or gore. There are a few disturbing images, but the real horror comes from the tense atmosphere and disquieting premise. It’s quietly terrifying, leaving the bulk of the story’s implications up to the imagination. The anticipation of what could happen next is the scariest part. 

Does the movie have a good payoff?

I believe so. Now, this is a fable– this isn’t the kind of film to try to logically break down with “well how exactly did the sheep-baby come to be?” or “why don’t they act more surprised at discovering the sheep-baby?” It’s a metaphor and examination of grief. It’s fantasy-realism, so just go with it. I think the reveals in the film are 1) brilliantly understated so they’re even scarier, and 2) just enough to tease you into imagining something worse, and 3) never going the direction you imagine they’ll go, which makes them both satisfying and frustrating (in the best way). 

How’s the acting?

Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason are absolutely mesmerizing. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. With barely any words you believe their characters have had a long history together and you understand their bond. Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, who comes in in the middle of the film to shake things up as an unwanted visitor and audience surrogate character, is also excellent, bringing an unsettling dynamic to the film. 

Will this make me want to be a farmer?

After seeing all the gorgeous landscapes, yes. After seeing the evil sheep? No.

Evil sheep?

Yeah, you heard me.

Will this movie make me feel weird about sheep?

Probably. If possible, I recommend restraining from interacting with sheep until at least 30 days after seeing this film. By then you should be okay. 

The real thing I’m scared of is subtitles. Will I like Lamb?

There’s not much dialogue, so there’s not much subtitle-reading required! However, if you need something fast-paced or talkative, you might struggle with Lamb. I saw this in theatres and was engrossed, but I know that if I had been watching it at home, I would have probably picked up my phone multiple times. I think Lamb is a rewarding watch, but it will definitely take more discipline and effort than most other movies require. 

Should I watch this with my kids or relatives?

No. Kids definitely would not enjoy it and would probably be scared by it, and it’s rated R for a sex scene with some female nudity, along with brief violence.  

Are there any valid critiques of Lamb?

Some have said the film is not substantive, just atmospheric, without any actual deeper messages. I disagree; I think the grief the characters experience is conveyed through the melancholy atmosphere and the ambiguity allows you to work through your own interpretations. It’s not a movie that is going to tell you anything; it invites you into an emotional experience. But I can understand the frustration some will have with that style. 

So…should I see Lamb?

If you want to see one of the wildest, most original films of the year, be deeply unsettled but oddly touched, and meditate on nature and grief, then yes. 

– Madeleine D. 

Award Hopefuls: Last Night in Soho, Passing, King Richard, and Spencer

Hello, friends! I’ve been on a little hiatus due to a big move and a new job, but I’ve still been watching movies and I want to recommend a few to you. Today we’ll take a look at a few Oscar-hopefuls, movies which have begun to generate award buzz and you might be seeing on some best of the year lists. But do they make my list? 

Last Night in Soho

2021 has been a big year for director Edgar Wright. In the summer, he released a documentary The Sparks Brothers, which got critical acclaim. This fall he released his newest fictional film, which is following up his biggest and most mainstream hit yet, 2017’s Baby Driver. Last Night in Soho is a thriller with homages to the Giallo Italian horror genre. It stars Thomasin McKenzie (incredible here, go see her work in Leave No Trace) as Elle, a young country girl who moves to London to study fashion and begins having dreams about Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), the woman who once lived in her room. The lives of the two women become entangled as the line between Elle’s visions and reality blur. 

There’s so much to admire about this film. It has Edgar Wright’s characteristic energetic cinematography, a perfect soundtrack, and great performances from the whole cast. While he is a director who can come dangerously close to style over substance (see Wes Anderson), here he is still quite stylized, but it all serves the story. His directing draws attention to the story, not to himself. 

And it is the story that impressed me most. I think Last Night in Soho could appropriately be compared to the likes of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby or Jordan Peele’s Get Out as sociological horror. Like both of those films, Last Night uses conventions of the horror genre to explore real-life societal horrors. Get Out examined racism by putting a Black protagonist in a horror situation, and the story of Rosemary’s Baby explores abusive relationships, rape, the loss of bodily autonomy during pregnancy. Here, Last Night explores how young women can get trapped into sex work, and the broader rape culture we live in, seen through the eyes of its two female protagonists. The movie is also remarkable in the way it captures the feeling of being a young woman from a small town who has just moved into a seedy big city, and the paranoia that can come from this heightened danger. 

The ending is the only weak part of the film. I think to have a “gotcha!” ending, Wright sacrifices thematic consistency. I’ll speak broadly, as I don’t want to give anything away since I think it’s a movie best gone in without spoilers, but I think the ending undercuts both Sandie’s story and Elle. By trying to empower Sandie at the last minute, Elle’s agency is taken away and the tragedy of Sandie’s story is undercut. The film then ceases to be insightful about the way women are preyed on, and loses its critique of nostalgia, simply becoming a revenge story.

However, this ending doesn’t ruin the movie, and I still think it’s one of the best films of the year. I don’t think it will have a lot of award chances outside of costume design, original screenplay, and production design, but perhaps if it’s a weak year Wright might be able to snag a best director nod. 

Last Night in Soho is now on premium video on demand

Passing

Passing, adapted from the novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, is a gorgeous, measured piece of filmmaking, and an impressive directing debut by Rebecca Hall. The story centers on two Black women in 1920s New York City: Irene (Tessa Thompson), a demure and discontent mother and wife, and Clare (Ruth Negga), a mysterious and wild woman who has made her way through the world passing as white and is married to a white man who doesn’t know she’s Black. As Irene watches Clare leverage her ability to be both white and Black, Irene wrestles with feelings of jealousy, hatred, and repressed desires. 

I studied this novel extensively in college and loved it, so I was thrilled to see the way the film adapts the novel perfectly and teases out some of its subtexts. It is, most obviously, an insightful commentary on race and “whiteness.” It shows how race is a social creation– we assign meaning to each race and give it abundant shorthands to classify who does or does not belong to that group, regardless of actual heritage or skin color. But the novel is also about the burdens of motherhood, the limited options for women at the time, and class struggles, and it has enough implications to allow for a queer reading. The film doesn’t bring this queer subtext to the forefront or commit to it, but it allows it to be present and ambiguous, mostly through the work of the actors. 

Speaking of the actors, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are both excellent. Thompson gets to play a much more restrained character than she is often asked to play in her bigger films, and Negga is able to be both naively waifish and quietly sinister. 

At a tight 90 minutes, there’s not a wasted moment in this film. If you’re ready to enjoy a meditative drama and perfect performances, please watch Passing. While the Academy has a fraught relationship with Netflix films, I would love to see it get nominations for directing, supporting for Negga, and cinematography.  

Passing is now on Netflix

King Richard

King Richard, which tells the story of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams’ rise through the coaching of their father Richard (Will Smith), hits all the beats of a classic, feel-good sports film. But there are enough twists and unique angles to make it stand apart. 

First and foremost, this is a star vehicle for Will Smith. This is the perfect role for him, an amalgamation of all of his strengths as a star and a capstone on his career. The role requires his comedic chops, underrated dramatic skills, overflowing charisma, and ability to be unlikeable without ever actually being unlikeable. He’s going to get plenty of due awards praise, but this is also an excellent ensemble film, so don’t sleep on Aunjanue Ellis as mother Brandi Williams, who is excellent here, and both Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton (Venus and Serena, respectively). It’s a movie of powerhouse performances and everyone pulls his or her own weight. 

Critic Grace Randolph points out in her review of the film that King Richard can be seen as an inverse to 2009’s The Blind Side, which won Sandra Bullock a best actress Oscar and was nominated for Best Picture. The Blind Side has been criticized for upholding a white savior narrative, where the white Tuohy family saves and uplifts Michael Oher. In King Richard, the Williams family is celebrated for uplifting themselves. This narrative (awarding King Richard can help atone for the ignorance of the Academy in awarding The Blind Side) could help its award chances, but it is also simply a major appeal of the film. The Williams family is shown as a tight-knit family that loves one another and fights for dignity despite challenges thrown at them. It’s rightly inspiring and sweet (even though the reality is more complicated). In addition, it’s nice to see a movie focusing on the relationship between fathers and daughters. 

Because of the focus on fathers and daughters, while watching, I thought of the film Infinitely Polar Bear, based on director Maya Forbes’s own father Cam (played by Mark Ruffalo). Cam is much like Richard Williams- a charismatic, passionate, artistic man who wants to give his children the world but has a host of personal flaws and failings in the way. But throughout Infinitely Polar Bear there is the sense Forbes is holding back, and never quite telling the full truth about her father. Even in his worst moments, the movie seems to never fully acknowledge the pain his actions must have caused.

It is the same with King Richard. It is wonderful Venus and Serena, who executive produce here and were heavily involved with the filmmaking, clearly love and respect their dad and want to pay tribute to him. But their protection of him means that whenever the film is trying to be honest about the negative parts of Richard, it always pulls back from being too real. But this is a common issue in biopics, not at all original to King Richard. Perhaps it is unfair to judge a movie too harshly for what it doesn’t do, rather than what it does. And what it does do is give us a well-made, winning story about family, personal dignity, and triumph.

King Richard is in theaters and is streaming on HBO Max

Spencer

A warning: Spencer is not a biography of Princess Diana. Do not expect, like I did, to come out with new knowledge and insight into Diana or her life or the royal family. Instead, Spencer is a surreal dark fairy tale, with fable logic, which imagines the Christmas before Diana and Charles’s divorce. Spencer is primarily interested in exploring the possible emotional life of the Princess, often using elements of psychological horror and dreamlike sequences to capture her depression and mounting frustration.

Here, Diana is a tortured gothic heroine, roaming mansions and the moors in her nightgown, talking to ghosts and envisioning and predicting her own demise, her moments in the real world detached and unsteady, her body and mind falling apart at the seams. You spend the movie entrenched in Diana’s perspective of feeling trapped, like a mouse in a labyrinth, searching for a way out. I felt this acutely throughout the movie, and then even more so when I left the film and spent thirty minutes wandering lost in a parking garage. 

Kristen Stewart, as we have discovered in her post-Twilight days, is a talented actress in the right role, and this is the right role. Her portrayal of Princess Diana wouldn’t make sense if superimposed onto any other project about Diana, but here she carries the movie’s vision with her shuddered, nervous physicality, some of the best hand acting I’ve ever seen, and an undercurrent of fierce fortitude. 

I don’t think you will remember Spencer for its plot or the whole of the movie, but a few specific images and sequences have lingered in my mind. If you go in with the correct expectations and enjoy moody dramas, then I think you’ll appreciate Spencer. Overall, I don’t see the film having many Oscar chances outside of a best actress nomination and costume design, but depending on its award campaign it could be a dark horse contender for best picture. 

Spencer is in theaters and on premium video on demand

– Madeleine D.

August Round-Up: Jungle Cruise, The Suicide Squad, and CODA

Jungle Cruise

Linda Cook review: 'Jungle Cruise' is worth the trip | OurQuadCities

*Technically* this came out at the end of July but I’m roping it in here. I was unabashedly excited for Jungle Cruise. With my vaccine, mask, and uncrowded theater, I was ready to get back to the big screen and set to like this movie (the film is also on Disney+ with premier access). I love fun adventure movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure, and Tomb Raider. I’m as charmed by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt as the rest of America. I love Jesse Plemons playing unhinged weirdos. And I firmly believe the addition of a boat makes any movie better. 

Jungle Cruise delivers all of these elements. None of these elements are played up to their fullest potential, but they’re all there. The movie has a big, dumb, mad-libs-style plot that you don’t need to pay close attention to because, in the end, the real Amazonian magic healing flower is the friends we made along the way. The action sequences are exciting and make great use of the setting, even though there is an over-reliance on CGI. Johnson and Blunt are charismatic enough to make you believe their overdone, stale, bantering dynamic, and while I could always use more, Plemons does get to be weird and great in the role of the villainous Prince Joachim. The jungle cruise boat itself is well utilized and fully realized. 

Jungle Cruise gives you exactly what it promises, and absolutely nothing more. It’s not going to be remembered as being as inventive as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (when it first started), or as beloved as The Mummy, or as ridiculous fun as National Treasure. It’s like much of Dwayne Johnson’s career– sturdy, reliable, earnest, get the job done. It’s a fine time at the movies. But I can’t help but wish it had been a little more.

The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad movie review (2021) | Roger Ebert

The first Suicide Squad movie, directed by David Ayer and released in 2016, was almost universally disliked and critically panned. But the IP was too valuable to lose, and the film made $746 million at the box office, so how do you solve a problem like Suicide Squad? According to Warner Brothers and DC, you hire the recently fired (later rehired) Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, change up the casting, make it unclear whether this is a sequel? Prequel? Reboot? and you try again, letting Gunn run with an R rating and promise a level of naughtiness and provocation that would maybe be edgy for a fifteen-year-old boy. 

I did not like The Suicide Squad, but I will admit that is probably more due to taste than the film itself. The Suicide Squad is stylistic, visually inventive, and the screenplay is actually coherent, which is an improvement on the 2016 film. It’s the work of an auteur and I admire that Gunn’s distinct vision is realized. For people who enjoy Gunn’s work and other movies in this vein, I think The Suicide Squad is worth seeing, and I’m always a proponent of superhero movies being experimental. 

Ultimately, I just dislike Gunn’s sensibilities as a filmmaker on display here. I didn’t think the excessive gore added anything to the story. I found the characters flat, with all attempts to humanize them undercut by their irredeemable and unexamined actions. The jokes and dialogue are unfunny, often because of their over-reliance on crudeness and shock-value. It just wasn’t for me, but that’s okay. It’s for some people, which, again, is a step-up from the first film, which was for no one. 

The Suicide Squad is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

CODA

CODA Trailer: Sian Heder's Sundance Sensation on Apple TV Plus | IndieWire

CODA, streaming now on Apple+, is being heralded as one of the best films of the year. But what makes this coming-of-age story so special? 

The story follows many tried-and-true story beats as it follows Ruby, a high school senior who spends her days working for her family’s flailing fishing business and trying to make it through all the normal mortifications of high school– bullying, being unnoticed by her crush, and trying out for choir. When Ruby’s choir teacher recognizes she has talent, he encourages her to audition for the Berklee College of Music. But Ruby’s family needs her at home, and they don’t fully appreciate her talent. Ruby struggles with identity and forming her own path. It’s pretty standard stuff. 

But there’s a twist to all of this. The reason why her family doesn’t appreciate her talent is because both of her parents and brother are deaf. Ruby is a CODA- child of deaf adults- and that’s also why they need her to stay and help out the business by interpreting for them. Ruby must decide between sacrificing her own dreams and her family’s needs. 

What is so special about CODA is that Ruby’s deaf family is not presented as a twist. The representation of deaf people and the way they navigate the world feels natural and lived-in. Each character is complex and has their own motivations and interior life. They aren’t a plot device, they are central to the story and the emotional core of the film. The tropes of coming-of-age stories here are made fresh by both the unique angle of framing it with deaf characters, which is a rarity on screen, but also by just how well these story beats are executed and the way they all crescendo to an emotionally satisfying ending. These reasons make CODA the best kind of heartwarming drama, and a must-watch for this year. 

-Madeleine D.