The Old Guard

The Old Guard': How Gina Prince-Bythewood Made Hit Action ...

Netflix is here to save the summer movie season. Or, at least, give us a little oasis in the midst of the current movie desert. Last Friday they dropped The Old Guard, which stars Charlize Theron as a leader of an immortal gang of warriors who receive a new recruit. I am happy to report that The Old Guard is an exceptional summer action film, and would be whether it was released during a pandemic or not. 

There are three components to The Old Guard that make it stand out.

First: Action sequences where you can actually make out what is happening! They are inventive, play around with setting, and reveal things about each character. The stunts are excellent, and if it wasn’t clear before, it is now that Charlize Theron is a credible action star, carrying herself with such gravitas that every time she cricks her long neck I know some serious business is going down. There’s an airplane fight brawl between Kiki Layne and Theron that is particularly fun. 

Second: Tropes, but good! Yes, tropes are not inherently bad- they’re tropes for a reason, people like them. And what is a trope for one group or demographic may not be a trope for another. For example, “grizzled professional who is too old for this shiz teaching a younger recruit” is a trope… for men. But having it between two women, here with Andy (Theron) and Nile (Layne), is rare, and The Old Guard makes good use of it in a way that is compelling for both characters. Likewise, the film’s central group of warriors is based in the found family trope (one of my personal favorites) which is when a group of characters who have no families of their own (or are estranged from them) come together to create their own family. A lot of superhero movies pay lip service to this trope (although some wrestle more honestly with it). But The Old Guard takes the time to build these relationships up so they are believable, and then complicates this family through love, betrayal, death, and conflicting philosophies. Because of the way the tropes are thoughtfully executed in service of the larger film, and because of who is enacting the tropes, the tropes here aren’t stagnant. 

Third: The script, written by Greg Rucka, based on his own comic book of the same name, takes the time to examine the conflicting philosophies of the various characters and ponder the existential questions that come along with immortality. I was continually shocked by the new problems brought up regarding immortality, and there are downright disturbing implications examined (Quynh’s fate? I got chills. The horror of having a body that acts autonomously from yourself? Fascinating!). All of this makes The Old Guard more concerned with consequences than your average action flick, which are too often rushed to get to the next set-piece. The Old Guard is fast-paced, but never rushed. 

There are some editing issues, questionable music choices, and a few story beats that miss the mark, but these issues hardly detract from the overall film. Kiki Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) makes a star turn here, and director Gina Prince Bythewood should be locked down for directing a sequel immediately. If you’re looking for a fun watch with a little more substance, I highly recommend this gem.

– Madeleine D. 

Netflix Triple Feature: Da 5 Bloods, Eurovision, and Athlete A

Da 5 Bloods

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Da 5 Bloods is about five men, but it also may as well be 5 different movies. You’ve got a Vietnam movie, heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now. Then there is a treasure hunt movie, paying homage to Spike Lee’s favorite movie, Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Then there is a father-son story about bitterness and fear. Then there’s a story about veterans and PTSD, particularly for black American soldiers. Then there is a little bit of Girls Trip and other vacation comedies. But like the Da that binds the 5 Bloods together, what binds all of these genres and storylines is Spike Lee, and since this is first and foremost a Spike Lee joint, that means that it is never boring. 

Da 5 Bloods is an epic, and like most epics, the scale means that it is much more unwieldy, and less consistent. It’s a mixed bag. It feels like Lee was trying to do too much, like he was afraid he wouldn’t have another chance to say everything he wants to say (which considering Hollywood’s track record towards black talent is possible, even with an acclaimed director). But with a running time of two and a half hours, with the last forty minutes feeling pretty irrelevant from the stronger first half, I wish he had a stronger editor.

It also, at times, feels like the cast was having too good a time filming on location in Vietnam and Thailand, and Lee let his actors do off-the cuff improv and he had too many good memories to cut scenes short when they needed to be shorter. But at the same time, the entire cast is terrific, with Jonathan Majors as a highlight (watch The Last Black Man in San Francisco)! Their chemistry is palpable and carries the film even in its weaker moments. These weaker moments, while they lower the movie’s overall quality, don’t hide the sharper moments of commentary and insight from Lee, making it still a worthwhile watch. It may not be Lee’s best work but it may be the most “Spike Lee” movie he’s made.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

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A quick story: I recently joined a book club that is reading White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White, by Daniel Hill (great book). The book is about the prevalence of white culture and understanding its impact, why whiteness is often considered the default and how to fight that, and how to celebrate your white culture without being racist. Our book club leader posed this question at the end of our first meeting: what are ways that you can enjoy white culture, unproblematically? 

After that book club meeting, I watched Eurovision, and realized it is the perfect way. So if you, dear reader, are a white American wanting to get back to your European roots, or you’re not either of those things but want to enjoy a cute comedy with over-the-top musical numbers, and find out what Americans have been missing out on, then Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, is your movie. 

The movie follows Lars (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) as two Icelandic singers who beat the odds to get into Eurovision, the yearly multi-national singing competition. The movie is not, as some feared, a satire or lampooning of the contest. Instead it is a sweetly earnest celebration of the event. 

Eurovision’s biggest weakness is simply that of most comedies- the script. The actors carry the movie with their energy, and the music is fun and the locations are lovely, but the script feels more like a series of scene ideas rather than a narrative with cohesion, pacing, and momentum. It also feels the need to add an emotional element to the film, hamfisting a disappointed father subplot with Pierce Brosnan’s character that is wholly unnecessary and distracting. I would have preferred they skipped this obligatory “moral,” especially since the film has other more genuine things to say about the importance of your hometown and not running away from shame. 

In the end, Eurovision is an enjoyable, if forgettable, watch, and I’m looking forward to post-Coronavirus when I can start watching the real song competition myself.

Athlete A

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Documentaries have become more experimental in recent years, but Athlete A is not experimental in style or even in content. However, despite not being flashy, it tells its story compellingly. It focuses on the survivors of the Larry Nassar USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal and centers their experiences while providing a larger context to how such an abusive environment was able to form- and hide a pedophile amongst its ranks. In this the film explores why the culture of an institution- whether it be one like USA Gymnastics or your workplace- matters so much, and what changes can be made to prevent abuse and silence. It also is a celebration of journalism as a force of accountability and balance, injecting the film with a bit of Spotlight feel. It’s one of the best of the media that has come out of the #MeToo era, and while it isn’t a comfortable watch (and while not graphic, should be carefully considered before being watched by sexual assault survivors) it’s an important and valuable one. 

– Madeleine D. 

The 10 Best Things of 2020 (So Far)

While 2020 is probably not going down in the history books as a great year overall, there have been some bright notes when it comes to movies, art, and pop culture. Here is a list of 10 things from different mediums from the first half of 2020 that I recommend!

MOVIES

Onward

I never got around to reviewing Onward, but if I had known at the time it was going to be the last movie I would get to see in theatres for a long time, I may have. Outside the strange nostalgia this movie now holds for me, it is a solid Pixar flick, full of the studio’s characteristic charm, creativity, and excellent writing. It’s got some of the best visual gags I’ve ever seen and is laugh-out-loud funny in parts. The film stylistically feels less like Pixar and more like Dreamworks, but the story- and the gut-wrenching twist ending- is very much in line with the studio that can always make us cry. And here, it’s earned, pivoting from a more conventional story about fathers to one that celebrates people who step into the place of our parents in their absence, like friends, mentors, helpful strangers, and siblings. 

Young Ahmed

Watch every movie by the Dardennes brothers. End review. 

I’m not kidding, but if you’ve never seen a brother by these Belgian filmmakers, Young Ahmed is as good an introduction as any into their style (The Unknown Girl is also a good start and my personal favorite.) The Dardenne’s stories are small, intimate affairs, usually only tracking one or two characters as they wrestle with a choice of some sort. In Young Ahmed, the titular Ahmed is a teenage boy who is embracing Islamic extremism, and who feels called to kill his teacher, who he sees as a traitor of the Quran. 

This premise has a lot of landmines in it, but if any filmmaker has an empathetic, nonjudgmental, and deft hand, it’s the Dardennes, who allow the internal journey of Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) to play out without making any moralizing or political statements. They do this by simply allowing the story to see Ahmed as who he truly is- a young man, trying to discover the truth and who to listen to, a search for identity and meaning that is universal. 

While the stakes of Young Ahmed are inherently high, the tension is ratcheted up by the stripped-down style of the Dardennes. For example, the movie has little-to-no music in it, which means there are no cues given to the audience that something terrible is about to happen. Scenes can turn on a dime, but because the style is so naturalistic and observational, you never know the direction the story is going, and there are no editing tricks to foreshadow was is about to happen. Young Ahmed is, therefore, challenging and ambiguous on many levels but is all the richer an experience for it. 

TV

Tiger King

Like the rest of the world, I spent the first few weeks of quarantine caught up in Netflix’s unmissable tragicomedy of hubris and dysfunction, Tiger King. As an Oklahoman, the series is devastating. It feels like every time we get in the news, it’s for something bad! Why do we have to become synonymous with a figure like Joe Exotic? When will Oklahoma get some good representation? It’s a great place! But admittedly, we do have our eccentricities, and it has been fun to hear stories from friends about how they’ve met Joe Exotic or gone to his zoo, like one of my professors who, during one of our classes over Zoom, apologetically told us: “I have a confession. I went to the Tiger King zoo. My son and I touched the baby tigers. I am so ashamed.”

While I was disappointed as an Oklahoman, as a consumer of entertainment, I was delighted. Each episode ramps up to an unbelievable degree, and the payoffs are incredibly satisfying. The drama is ridiculously juicy, and the cultural impact the series made was likewise entertaining and certainly needed during the first dark days of the pandemic (in the United States). Maybe that’s what Joe can truly be proud of. He never became president or governor but he has united us through our shared astonishment.

I was thoroughly enjoying the schadenfreude of the show, all the way up to the last episode until I learned that Joe was in jail. Then suddenly, I felt numb. Sad. Guilty. I was laughing at the pain of all of these people. Sure, Joe being in jail may feel like righteous irony. But what is he going to learn in jail? Probably nothing, so there’s no redemption here. Being in jail doesn’t change any of Joe’s past sins nor will it probably change him. It doesn’t restore his and Carol’s relationship. If Carol killed her husband, we’ll never know. Jeff Lowe and Doc Antle are still on the loose. And as the final captions tell us, tigers are still endangered and none of the people we saw in the show are doing anything to save them from captivity. We can gawk at this trainwreck all we want, but what has come out of our consumption of another’s misery? 

That question, of course, comes up in discussions of all types of movies, and Tiger King certainly can’t be pinned down as the one documentary out there that profits off of other people’s indignity. And, admittedly, none of my discomfort with the show means I’ll stop enjoying Here Kitty Kitty. 

Better Call Saul Season 5

The smartest choice Vince Gilligan and Co. made when creating Breaking Bad prequel series Better Call Saul was to… not make it like Breaking Bad. Sure, the shows share characters and setting and symbolism by design, but in structure and tone, Better Call Saul doesn’t try to re-do the elements that make Breaking Bad great. Instead, it confidently strides in its own restrained, small-scale way. The slower pace and subtle style of BCS can be frustrating, for sure, and it has made many viewers abandon the show in earlier seasons. But in season 5 things begin paying off big-time, and your patience is more than rewarded as we continue on this unstoppable train towards corruption. 

What makes season 5 stand out from the other season, besides some of its most stylistic episodes yet and spotlighting Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) as its newest charismatic villain, the series finally commits to one its most interesting twists yet- that this show is no longer about Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman. We already know how he ends up, and the psychological origins of his corruption has been explored enough. Instead, our question mark, the real antihero of the show, whose fate we don’t know and who remains a wildcard, is Kim Wexler. Actress Rhea Seehorn has worked deliberately and quietly the past few seasons, comfortably standing her ground beside Bob Odenkirk’s flashier Jimmy. But now the long-suffering intensity of Kim, and Seehorn’s performance, is breaking through and getting to shine as the tables flip and suddenly Jimmy is the one looking at Kim and wondering, who has this person become? With the sixth and final season on the horizon, that’s a question I’m invested in waiting for, along with the ever-present, “will there be any more Breaking Bad cameos???” 

BoJack Horseman Season 6

I’m ashamed to admit that for a long time, I have had a secret prejudice against adult animation. I have no bases for this bias, I’ve just never seen a commercial for an adult animated show and thought it would be something I would enjoy. However, I’m here to apologize and send a message to anyone who similarly has never given adult animation a try: watch Netflix’s BoJack Horseman. 

BoJack Horseman is a hard sell, and it takes about eight episodes into the first season to get going. It tells the story of fading ‘90’s sitcom star BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett), who is an anthropomorphic horse in a Hollywood filled with a colorful combination of human and animal characters voiced by dozens of celebrity cameos and grounded by the fantastic main cast of Arnett, Allison Brie, Amy Sedaris, Aaron Paul, and Paul F. Tompkins. If you get through the first few episodes and get acclimated to the world of the show, then the payoff is more than worth it. 

The writing and animation is witty and clever, but it’s also surprisingly heartbreaking. BoJack Horseman offers a nuanced portrait of what it looks like to live with depression, and it handles the difficulties of all types of human relationships with sensitivity and care, and without resolving anything easily. It holds its protagonist accountable for his actions without losing empathy. 

Much has been said about BoJack Horseman’s examination of celebrity, mental illness, trauma, #MeToo men, and death, and I feel that most everyone could find something or someone to relate to in the series. For me, what I was most drawn to is the way the show reminds us life is not like a sitcom or any other type of film or television narrative.

As someone who spends a lot of time invested in fictional stories, I can get caught up in believing that my life, too, must have the structure of a fictional story, with easy-to-understand motivations, conflicts that escalate into a singular climax, and problems that can be resolved with perfect closure. Like BoJack himself, I secretly wish life was more like a 22-minute sitcom, where people can get hurt but relationships are always are repaired by the end, and people can change (for the better) easily and quickly and permanently, and all loose ends are tied up by the credits. But Bojack Horseman refuses to conform to the standards of its own thirty-minute episodic format, and BoJack learns that his own life and his actions cannot move forward in a linear, progressive fashion. 

In this sixth and final season of the show, BoJack makes a genuine change in his life, with a mid-season penultimate episode offering what in most shows would be a satisfactory ending for our lovable antihero. But in BoJack Horseman, no sins go unremembered, and this happy ending is swiftly followed by a full reckoning of the previous five seasons of the pain and dysfunction BoJack has caused. Being held accountable for his past actions means that we have to watch the new, genuinely productive life BoJack builds for himself get taken away, which is difficult to watch, and what it leads to is not a happy ending. But it is a uniquely restorative ending, an ending that doesn’t offer platitudes or false consolation but remains resolutely grounded in hope. The hope that we can change, the hope that we can heal, the hope that life can get better, and the hope that undergoing painful transformations will be worth it in the end.

Other

“Why is Cats”

By Lindsay Ellis

Lindsay Ellis- film critic, video essayist, podcast host, and now published author- has been one of my favorite creators/thinkers for a while now, and I’ve referenced her work a few times on this blog. She tops herself again with this Youtube video essay breaking down 2019’s monstrosity Cats. The unique take here though is that beyond dunking on Cats (which there is still plenty of), she uses the film as an opportunity to break down the history of movie musical-adaptations, how director Tom Hooper’s “realistic” styling that Academy voters love just can’t jibe with musicals, and why we love ridiculing people and things on the internet. 

Heartwarming Penguins (that almost made me cry)

This picture of two penguins who lost their partners and came together to comfort one another is one of the most precious things I have ever seen. Wholesome animal content for the win!

The Great C.S Lewis Reread 

By Matt Mikalatos

Soon after our campus shut down and we were all sent back home, a few friends and I decided to keep in touch by doing a book club of C.S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. It had been a while since I had read the books, and suddenly escaping back into the fantasy world of my childhood sounded like a great idea. 

Tor.com publishes a lot of great content, but this series of essays going through the seven Narnia books are exceptionally good. Author Matt Mikalatos has clearly done his research and approaches Lewis’s work from a place of sincere respect, with an effort to understand where Lewis was coming from and the basis of his beliefs. This means Mikalato’s criticism is made in good faith and is much more thoughtful than some of the lazier Lewis criticism out there that doesn’t make an effort to understand the context in which he wrote. 

These essays are engaging and capture a vibrant conversation between Mikalatos, the text, C.S Lewis, and you. Even if you aren’t actively reading the books as you read the essays, there are still plenty of fun facts about Lewis, food for thought, and theology to be found. The three essays I recommend the most are this examination of Aslan and whether or not he is an allegorythe Green Lady and modern-day enchantment, and Sacraments in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The first two can be read without being familiar with the series. 

Kanopy & Hoopla

Since the 2020 summer blockbuster season has been steamrolled by Coronavirus, this is the perfect time to go back and watch older films! My favorite place to find free films are two services that can be accessed through your library card: Kanopy and Hoopla. 

Hoopla has a selection of mid-range films and smaller gems, including some where I’m not sure if they are student films or not, but are nevertheless delightful in their absurdity (see VelociPastor and Santa Jaws below). Hoopla also has e-books, comics, and music. 

Kanopy is a more curated streaming service where, depending on your library, you can borrow around 6 films a month. Kanopy has a wide variety of educational programs, documentaries, foreign films, and small indies. 

Both services are wonderful and it’s worth checking to see if your library offers either of them. People in Tulsa- the public library system offers Hoopla. Norman people- the Pioneer Library System offers Kanopy. Here are a few of the best films on each service to check out:

Great Films on Kanopy:

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (also on Hoopla)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

First Reformed (also on Hoopla)

Lady Bird

Eighth Grade

The Parts You Lose (Also on Hoopla)

Room (also on Hoopla)

What We Do In The Shadows (also on Hoopla)

Memento (also on Hoopla)

Great Films on Hoopla:

Adopt a Highway

Short Term 12

Ex Machina (also on Kanopy)

RBG

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Life, Animated

American Woman

The VelociPastor

Santa Jaws

 

-Madeleine D. 

 

10 Best Things of January – June 2019

10 Best Things of July – December 2019

4 Father’s Day Movies

Happy Father’s Day! This holiday is special to madeleinelovesmovies because, as you may have figured out, this is actually a joint venture between a daughter and father! My dad shared his love of movies with me and taught me how to watch them discerningly, and now we continue to share this love through seeing films, debating them, and writing and editing these reviews. To celebrate, here is a spotlight on four small, under-the-radar movies I haven’t reviewed before about complex fathers.

Infinitely Polar Bear

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Infinitely Polar Bear stars Mark Ruffalo as Cam, a father with bipolar disorder taking care of his two daughters when his wife (Zoe Saldana) goes away to attend graduate school. The film is semi-autobiographical for director Maya Forbes (The Polka King), based on her father and her experiences growing up. 

This is a tough film to watch at times. There is a lot of second-hand embarrassment that comes from Cam’s manic episodes that play out in public and humiliate his daughters. There are emotionally wrought moments, and if you have a parent that struggles with a mental illness, the film will especially hit home. Sometimes it feels a little simplistic, like Forbes is too close to the material to push against Cam’s more irresponsible moments that nearly endanger his children. I imagine the reality was a lot more difficult than Infinitely Polar Bear admits. But this isn’t enough to deter what is overall a wonderfully acted and compelling film that ultimately argues, convincingly, that being present is more important than being perfect, and that there is a lot of grace for parents who try.

Captain Fantastic

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Captain Fantastic tells the story of Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a father of six who has been raising his children in the wilderness as a form of extreme-homeschooling. When his wife dies, Ben is forced to take his family out of isolation and emerge into a society that they might not be ready for. 

Captain Fantastic is quirky, but despite the occasional weak point in the script, mostly steers clear of indie cliches. Mortensen holds the film together through his performance as Ben, a fiercely dedicated father but an arrogant, prideful, and boastful man who has to be brought down from his pedestal by his children. He wrestles with making difficult choices for his family, and when to compromise his values for his kids. While the film isn’t traditionally “faith-based” or Christian (the main characters actually make fun of Christians a few times), the questions wrestled with here are those of what many Christians who strive to “be in the world but not of it” face. It will certainly ring true for all parents who must navigate a rapidly changing culture they don’t always understand, in what feels like an increasingly hostile world for their children. But Captain Fantastic assures you that, no matter what, a parent’s love will help the kids be alright. 

The Parts You Lose

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The Parts You Lose is a cautionary tale about what will happen if a child doesn’t have a good father. In this case, the lack of love between him and his father is what drives young Wesley (newcomer Danny Murphy) to bond with the fugitive criminal (a particularly grizzly Aaron Paul) he’s hiding in his shed. 

Wesley is deaf, something his father Ronnie (Scoot McNairy) refuses to acknowledge. While it’s clear Wesley responds better to sign language, Roonie insists on Wesley reading his lips. Ronnie is a rough man; bitter and often absent from his family. It’s basically an act of rebellion against his father’s inattention that Wesley rescues the injured criminal and nurses him back to health. 

Paul’s unnamed criminal is not a good man, but his meager offering of attention and semi-paternal affirmation is enough for Wesley, who quickly becomes attached to him despite the unavoidable. As Wesley struggles between these two fathers, it becomes clear that no matter which influence prevails, Wesley will never fail to be disappointed. 

The Parts You Lose is a bleak, moody, slow burn, but never unengaging. The movie puts Paul’s natural chemistry with kids to good use and he and Murphy’s scenes are a delight. Most impressively, the movie sticks the landing, which is always difficult for any film, but especially for small character dramas. A good ending is surprising, yet inevitable, and I felt like this movie nailed that. It’s sad as hell, but properly haunting. 

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For our last pick, and the second film in the subgenre “convicts with parental instincts,” we have the lovely Adopt a Highway. Here at madeleinelovesmovies, we are big fans of all of these leading men, but Ethan Hawke has a special place in our hearts (watch First Reformed!!!) and Adopt A Highway simply reassures us of that fact. Hawke gives a soulful portrait of Russell, a man who spent 21 years in prison for possession of marijuana and emerges back into the world as a thoroughly institutionalized man. He struggles to reintegrate into society, assert his own identity, and make connections- that is, until he finds a baby named Ella in a dumpster outside of his work. 

Adopt A Highway is not Raising Arizona, in tone or plot. Instead, it follows Russell’s road to restoration as he makes his way through his new world. His time with Ella is sweet but- spoiler alert- is not the main focus of the film. Rather, what he learns from his time taking care of Ella sticks with him as he journeys to resolve his own father’s death. Baby Ella shocks Russell into action, making him aware of his own self-worth and potential to care for others. It’s a tender journey that shows what fatherhood- in its many forms- can positively awaken within a man.

-Madeleine D.

Demonic Eden: Vivarium

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*Spoilers

Can you imagine being trapped inside of your home for days on end, only being able to be with your housemates, unable to leave your house because nothing is open and there’s nothing to do and there is a looming threat of death?

Well most of us by now actually do know what that is like, thanks to shelter-in-place and quarantine orders. But in case you want to relive the claustrophobia, Vivarium, a small horror movie that got lost in the COVID shutdown of theaters, is here to give you just that, except this time with a lot more metaphor and existential wandering!

The movie tells the story of Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots), a young couple who go to look at houses in a suburb called Yonder. When they try to leave the neighborhood, they find themselves driving in circles. There is no exit in the empty, lifeless maze. Gemma and Tom return to the house to find a box of supplies at their doorstep and a baby boy, with only a note saying that they must raise the baby, and only then will they be released. 

Vivarium is full of interesting horror imagery and promising ideas, but is devoid of emotion. This is primarily because of our two leads. The film spends little time setting up the characters and their relationship. We only get the vaguest sense of how deep their bond is, or their individual personalities, and the moment the kid comes into their lives, they become stripped of all individual identity. This is because Tom and Gemma are not characters so much as they are archetypes.

They are archetypes for Man and Woman, Father and Mother, Husband and Wife, even Adam and Eve. Vivarium turns out to be a long extended metaphor for parenting, and, specifically, gender roles in parenting. And it’s a pretty bleak one, considering that the characters are stripped of individuality once they become parents and in what the movie shows their roles to be.

First, there is Tom. Tom never bonds with the boy. He goes through the motions of taking care of him, but he won’t even call the child “him;” he calls the child “it.” When he discovers that the grass outside can be dug into, he begins digging day in and day out, hoping it will lead to some kind of escape. It brings Tom a sense of purpose and is initially out of a noble desire to help him and Gemma, but soon it’s clear that nothing will come of it, and the work quickly devolves into an act of selfishness and avoidance. And this big hole he digs? Well, it turns out that Tom is literally digging his own grave. It brings to mind the curse given to Adam in the Garden of Eden: 

“‘Cursed is the ground because of you;  in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust,  and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17-19). 

Tom works the ground relentlessly for nothing, and he returns to the ground in death. Tom’s actions speak to the difficulties men struggled with for years- what it really means to be a provider for a family, and the temptations to use work as a self-centered escape from the stresses of family and domestic life. Tom’s desire to protect Gemma is twisted and beaten down until he’s a hollowed-out shell, and he bears the shame of not being able to defend his family from external forces. 

Then there is Gemma. While she refuses to call herself the boy’s mother, she quickly reveals a reluctant maternal instinct towards the boy. She protects the boy from Tom and tries to engage and teach him, but she is punished harshly for her efforts. This too echoes the curse upon Eve:

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). 

Like many women, Gemma’s relationship with the boy, her appointed child, is full of strife and suffering. Her well-being becomes codependent on his. She and Tom struggle for power and leadership in their relationship, and Gemma even suffers violence from Tom. The fractured relationship between the two allows for some Freudian implications for Gemma and the boy. At one point the boy spies on Tom and Gemma having sex and later, when Gemma lies down beside the boy one evening, he puts his arm around her in a suggestive manner, while Tom is asleep outside in the hole in the ground. Oedipus much? Again, representing womankind, Gemma carries the weight of the home’s brokenness. 

At the end of the film, Tom works himself to death, and Gemma is left alone. When the boy is completely raised, the boy kills her, her usefulness finished. While this is obviously extreme, it isn’t too far from what many women feel as they age and when their children leave the nest- older women are routinely rendered invisible, hit with the double whammy of ageism and sexism in the larger society. They are not seen as being sexually attractive, are no longer marriageable or able to bear and raise children, and are often professionally stunted. So in other words, they have none of the things that our society sees as making a woman worthwhile. 

All of this leaves the question that must come with stories that function primarily as allegories or metaphors: what’s the point? Vivarium says that life sucks, we’re stuck with generational sins, the genders will struggle forever for power and domination, you’ll either die from capitalism or social marginalization, and child-rearing is a trial. Oh, and the suburbs are evil. So what?

Simon Abrams expresses this frustration well in his review for the film, saying, “Understood, but who cares? If all you can show me is what you think isn’t genuine, you leave me with zero idea about what you think authenticity looks like, or why I should care.” Vivarium is an interesting watch, to be sure, but because the film doesn’t have any substance outside of its metaphor or anything to root for or offer up as an authentic alternative, then it accomplishes nothing but to reinforce despair. Like we need more of that. 

-Madeleine D. 

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

AAAABTYD-SCYoagq9Sb6nEZqvmHE-CeWndT9Mk2Z1poBirWgiObFrVKONEp6WBIPmD-WR8cNHNt_gih4tcbUqnqfDs36vKYM*Spoilers for El Camino, Breaking Bad, and Old Yeller

Imagine a new world with me for a moment: I’m Vince Gilligan. I’ve spent the last six years being asked by fans what happened to Jesse Pinkman at the end of Breaking Bad. I can’t sleep well at night knowing that the fate of this beloved character that I tortured for years is still up in the air. I convince Netflix to give me a couple million dollars, and I write El Camino. I set it five years in the future, and tell a lovely and painless story of how Jesse Pinkman moved to Alaska, became an artisan carpenter, adopted a dog, bonded with his neighbors, is crushing it in therapy, and is now a big-brother mentor at the local elementary school. Aaron Paul wins five Oscars for it. How is that even possible? It just is. 

But alas, I am not Vince Gilligan, and instead, El Camino starts mere seconds after where Breaking Bad left off, with Jesse driving into the night after escaping the Brotherhood’s compound. The movie covers roughly the three days afterward as Jesse gets the money he needs to start his new life in Alaska. 

The largest criticism leveled against El Camino were accusations that it is superfluous. Jesse ends Breaking Bad driving to an unknown future, and that’s exactly how El Camino ends, too. Nothing in El Camino changes or informs us of anything new about Breaking Bad. So the accusation that it is superfluous is true- if you’re thinking purely in terms of plot. But plot and story are different things. The plot of The Lord of the Rings is getting the ring to Mordor, and everything after is technically superfluous. But the story of The Lord of the Rings is that of Frodo Baggins (and company) leaving the Shire to do an extraordinary task and the personal sacrifice it takes, which makes it impossible for Frodo to return to things the way they were. It’s that story that makes the long ending of Return of the King necessary. 

The plot of Breaking Bad may be over, but the story of Jesse Pinkman is not. Jesse’s ending in “Felina” completes the plot, but it doesn’t complete Jesse’s arc, because “Felina” ends with Walt freeing him from the Nazis, and that’s Walt taking action, not Jesse. Instead, Jesse’s arc has to be about him taking action to free himself, which is exactly what El Camino does.

The vice of Jesse Pinkman throughout Breaking Bad, more than his addictions or recklessness, is his malleability. He’s a sponge to outside influences, always looking to others to help him find a sense of direction and identity. His loyalty to these influences- Jane, Mike, Gus, and of course, Walt, form mental imprisonments that lead to his physical imprisonment. El Camino is about liberating Jesse from both.

Part of the way the film explores Jesse’s liberation and reclamation of personal agency is by building upon a connection that formed in the latter half of season 5, which is the comparison of Jesse to a dog. The title of episode 12, “Rabid Dog,” is in reference to Jesse and is when the connection is made explicit. Jesse has become a loose cannon to Walt’s operation, and Saul Goodman suggests to Walt that he should see this as “an Old Yeller type situationwhere he might need to put Jesse down, like a rabid dog. Walt stalls, but eventually hires Jack’s gang to do the deed.

The connection isn’t random; Jesse has always been a bit like Walt’s dog, tragically loyal and always there to be kicked around whenever Walt is angry. In El Camino, this connection is taken to its extreme, particularly in the flashback scenes of captivity with Jesse’s interactions with his primary captor Todd (a fantastically creepy Jesse Plemmons). Now literally in a cage and on a chain leash on a dog cable run, Jesse has been dehumanized more than ever. Little actions from Todd- licking his hands and smoothing down Jesse’s hair, spraying Jesse with a water hose to clean him off, patting Jesse on the head as he sits crouched over in the car, his condescending words of positive reinforcement- all go to show that, as Plemmons says in The Road to El Camino: Behind the Scenes of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, “I think Jesse’s part [Todd’s] pet, and [Todd] thinks that what he’s doing is best for [Jesse], even if Jesse doesn’t realize it.” This is a sentiment similar to what Breaking Bad writer Gennifer Hutchison says of Walt, that “Walt does care about Jesse. The great thing about Walt is he kind of believes his own lies. He really does think he’s doing what’s best for Jesse.” In El Camino we finally see Jesse breaking free of these captors and regaining his humanity. Finally, it’s Jesse who is doing what is best for Jesse. 

All of this is conveyed through a truly captivating performance by Aaron Paul, whose work here is certainly cut out for him. He’s returning to a beloved character six years later, which alone brings plenty of skepticism. He has to play Jesse in five different time periods, and he has to overcome the sizable age difference between him and the character (Paul’s age works towards conveying that Jesse has been aged by his experiences, but can be distracting in flashbacks.) He has to track Jesse’s constant ups and downs, progresses and regresses, put well by Donna Bowman for the AV Club, “Gilligan’s camera won’t let us look away from [Jesse]: painfully infantilized by Todd in flashback, flinching and broken at Badger’s house, desperate in Todd’s apartment, regressing to petty defiance at the vacuum shop, and wearily dominant at Kandy Welding.”

Most impressively, Paul portrays Jesse as he is processing this deluge trauma in real-time, while also trying to fight it off, knowing that, as Brian Tallerico says for RogerEbert.com, “he does not have the luxury of time to grieve or heal [yet]… capturing the push-and-pull of trauma and need within Jesse.” Jesse has been in survival mode for so long that he can barely remember who he is outside of those basic instincts, making the moments where we see glimpses of “old Jesse,” precious glimmers of hope. Through the extensive flashbacks, Paul is able to weave together the different versions of Jesse to remind us of the person who is still there beneath the feral survivor. 

The only thing about El Camino that gives me pause is the climactic shoot-out. So much of Jesse’s character has been about his guilt over the violence he’s caused, and his quest to leave this violence behind him. To have the climax of the movie require Jesse to kill two men feels… wrong?

On the one hand, Breaking Bad has always been a western, and El Camino leans heavily into the genre’s tropes and aesthetics. I think incorporating the genre conventions are fun, and a shootout is classic Western. Also, Jesse doesn’t go into the situation with the intention of violence, and the duel is mutually agreed upon. It’s an “honorable” killing, as moral an act of violence ever gets in the world of Breaking Bad. And, as a cherry on top, the man Jesse duels is the man who built the rig-system that kept Jesse captive, so there’s a sense of righteous retribution. 

But. On the other hand, the rule of threes means that this shoot-out scene is thematically connected to two previous scenes in El Camino. The first is a flashback with Todd, when Jesse gets his hands on a gun while he and Todd are out in the desert burying the housekeeper. The second is when Jesse hands himself over to the fake cops, rather than kill them. As James Poniewozik says for the New York Times, Jesse “gets a ‘Coward of the County’ Western arc, twice surrendering his gun to bad men who break his will, then finally winning his freedom in a shootout. The beaten cur gets his mojo back by pulling the trigger. Walt would be proud.” The progression of these scenes, of Jesse suffering greatly twice before for not pulling the trigger, and gaining his freedom in the third, sends the message that Jesse had to enact violence. Pulling the trigger is part of his liberation. It was necessary, part of his character growth. In a way, it also implies that Jesse surrendering the gun twice earlier was a sign of weakness.

I hate this implication. What has always been most powerful about Jesse is his aversion to violence and his conscience. In the Breaking Bad ending, Jesse doesn’t kill Walt because Jesse has always been better than Walt. He doesn’t run from the consequences of his actions. He accepts them and endures them. Jesse isn’t like Walt, that’s why we love him, and his final actions in El Camino shouldn’t be about becoming more like Walt or doing something that Walt would approve of. 

So.. sorry Vince, the climax doesn’t do it for me. But that’s hardly enough for me to disregard the rest of the movie, which otherwise is the perfect mix of soul-crushing sadness and hopefulness that we’ve come to expect from the Gilligan-verse, and is a fitting ending for Jesse. But if, say, we’re looking at an El Camino Dos: A Breaking Bad Movie Sequel, Vince, I have the perfect pitch for you. 

-Madeleine D.

 

The Elder Brothers of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul

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*Spoilers for Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and El Camino below

For the past 9 weeks, my heart has been in Vince Gilligan’s Land of Enchantment. I have watched, for the first time, Breaking Bad, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, and Better Call Saul. I’m 12 years late to the party, but I’m here! Therefore, this is not a review about how amazing these shows and movie are, because by now that’s a pretty well-established fact. Instead, I want to examine an overarching theme of the Gilligan-verse.

In both TV shows, we see a reenactment of the biblical parable of the prodigal son, with a special emphasis placed on understanding the Elder Brother character. Walter White of Breaking Bad and Chuck McGill of Better Call Saul are archetypal elder brothers to Jesse Pinkman and Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman, respectively. These characters become case studies of the unique failings of both Elder Brothers and Younger Brothers, as depicted in the prodigal son parable. These allegorical connections are part of what makes Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul such rich examinations of morality.  

The Parable

The Prodigal Son narrative appears in Luke 15:11-32 when Jesus tells a series of parables to a group of Pharisees. In the story, there is a rich man with two sons. The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance (an extremely disrespectful action). The father gives it to him, and the son runs off. He squanders the money “in reckless living” (v. 13, ESV). When he runs out of money, there is a famine in the country he is in. The only work he can find is feeding pigs (which, when considering Jewish dietary laws, symbolizes a great spiritual deprivation). The son decides to go back to his father and to offer himself up as a hired servant in order to pay back his debt. He knows his father is a kind man, and he will be treated better as a servant for him than he is now.  But when the younger son returns home, his father runs to meet him and immediately embraces him back as his son and puts on a celebration, declaring that the son “was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found’” (v. 22). The son, despite his failings, has been forgiven and fully reconciled with the father. 

Meanwhile, when the elder brother, who has remained faithful to his father, hears about this, he becomes angry and refuses to join the celebration. His father comes out to try to bring him in, but the brother argues that it is unfair that while he has always served the father, it is his younger brother, who acted so shamefully, who is now being celebrated. The elder son has served his father out of duty and a desire to be recognized, not out of love. The father responds that “‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (v. 31). The parable ends without any reconciliation between the brothers or between the older brother and the father. 

Better Call Saul 

Better Call Saul is a more straightforward telling of the prodigal son story with the literal brothers of Chuck and Jimmy McGill. Chuck (Michael McKean) is the older brother who is a brilliant, respected, accomplished lawyer, and is nearly impossible to please. He casts a long shadow over his younger brother Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), who has a messy past and is more than willing to take a few shortcuts to get his way. Chuck operates in a completely black-and-white worldview. He is a staunch legalist who puts all of his trust in the law. He shows little capacity for mercy or grace. Because he sees Jimmy cut corners and get things without working as hard for them as he did, Chuck is full of self-righteous anger. 

Pastor Timothy Keller writes in his book The Prodigal God that “Elder brothers base their self-images on being hardworking, or moral, or members of an elite clan, or extremely smart and savvy” (61). Chuck does all of these things, and because he defines himself as being diametrically opposed to Jimmy, he refuses to recognize any of these characteristics in his brother. This means Jimmy, even at his best, can never earn Chuck’s love and approval. This is part of the reason he gives up on being good altogether and embraces the Saul Goodman moniker. 

Chuck’s resentment towards Jimmy is best reflected in the words of the older son to the father in the parable after he hears of the celebration for his brother:

“‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ [The father responds:] ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found’” (v. 29-32). 

The joy of the father’s inheritance has always been available to the older son. Being with the father is itself a gift. Likewise, a joyful relationship with his brother and personal satisfaction in his own accomplishments has always been possible for Chuck. But he self-sabotages both because he’s too preoccupied with the perceived unfairness of how he’s been treated compared to Jimmy. He sees any grace extended towards Jimmy as unfair, and isn’t unfairness the antithesis of the law? It is for a legalist who hasn’t experienced mercy. 

The tragedy of Chuck is that he is too focused on what he deems “fair” to see what is loving and kind. Even when Jimmy is at his humblest, Chuck continues to cut him down. Chuck did all the “right” things, but without the right heart, it leads to nothing. Chuck dies alone in his house, with nothing of value to show for himself. His story ends with alienation from joy and from his brother, just like the elder brother in the parable.

Amill Santiago writes in “Better Call Saul and the Ache for Approval” that, “The two broken brothers are trying to get essentially the same thing through very different ways: immorality and moralism… [But] In Christ we can be received and approved despite our moral failures (cf. 1 Tim. 1:15) and independently from our moral performance (cf. Eph. 2:8-9).” Chuck and Jimmy, like the Elder and Younger brother, are both trying to fill holes in their hearts for affirmation and reward, but simply in different ways. In this sense, Better Call Saul invites viewers to examine the ways in which they lean towards the younger brother or elder brother mindset, and the follies of both. The show understands, like the parable, that neither approach to life- duty and joyless obligation like Chuck, or self-centered rebelliousness like Jimmy, are satisfactory ways to have relationships with God or others. 

But, unfortunately for the McGill brothers, Better Call Saul is also a show about how seemingly minute choices put people on a path towards destruction from which they eventually find themselves unable to escape. There is no father/God figure in Better Call Saul who disrupts the road to destruction and redeems his wayward children, who stops Jimmy McGill from becoming the Saul Goodman we know in Breaking Bad. In this regard, Better Call Saul’s fatalism is at odds with the Prodigal Son parable. But despite this, there is still great value in the way the show prompts audience introspection, and how Better Call Saul shows other characters land in the middle of the extreme older brother-younger brother spectrum. Kim, Howard, Mike, Nacho, and others move around from one end of the spectrum to another, and this fleshes out how anyone can “break bad,” and the many incarnations this can take. This variation is what makes the show so compelling. 

Breaking Bad

In Better Call Saul, the older and younger brother dynamic is more straightforward because it plays out in the central sibling relationship between Chuck and Jimmy. But in Breaking Bad, Walt and Jesse are not brothers, nor is their relationship dynamic that of brothers. Instead, Walt and Jesse have a twisted father and son relationship (one of forced co-dependency). This means that the older/younger brother dynamic doesn’t play out so much in their interpersonal relationship as much as it does through their symbolic standings in society.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a quintessential elder brother in his world. When we meet him in the pilot, he’s a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who keeps his head down and is a steady father and husband. He is seen as the beta male to his DEA brother-in-law, Hank’s, alpha machismo. Walt feels emasculated by his wife Skyler. He feels underappreciated and underestimated. He is full of unrecognized genius, and therefore full of bitterness to those around him who do not recognize this genius. When he is diagnosed with lung cancer, he’s been dealt an undeniably crappy deal. But he chooses to let this be the reason why he indulges in self-pity and becomes unbelievably cruel. This is because, “The first sign [of] an elder-brother spirit is that when your life doesn’t go as you want, you aren’t just sorrowful but deeply angry and bitter. Elder brothers believe that if they live a good life they should get a good life” (Keller, 56). In El Camino, Walt tells Jesse in a flashback, “You’re lucky, you know that? You didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.” Walt wants the same thing as Jesse, but has spent his life trying to get it in a different way. Elder brothers try to gain what they want through loveless obedience, and become disillusioned when their efforts don’t pay off.  

Walt’s cancer diagnosis puts him in contrast to Hank when Hank is shot by the twins and loses his ability to walk. While Walt’s pain reveals pride, anger, bitterness, and entitlement, in the end, Hank uses his pain as a catalyst to become a better man, husband, and DEA agent. For Walt, “The good life is lived not for delight in good deeds themselves, but as calculated ways to control their environment” (Keller, 58). When he loses control of his environment, the Heisenberg that was always inside him does everything necessary to regain control, which means becoming a menace to everyone, especially to those in his own home. Walt feels that he’s earned the right to play Heisenberg, to live out this childish power fantasy because he has acted good and has been repressed for so long. He helps justify this with his mantra of doing it all “for his family,” a lie he holds onto until the very end, when he finally admits to Skyler in the episode “Felina” that he did it all for himself. In Walt, we see that the elder brother mindset is a ticking time bomb. When the elder brother feels cheated, or that his “good life” hasn’t paid off in the way he expected, he lashes out in self-righteous pride and anger. He is unable to relate to others with grace and mercy because he refuses to accept it himself, and nothing will ever be good enough for him. 

On the flip side, you have Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who (despite actually being an older brother in his biological family) is a classic younger brother. In the parable, “The [younger brother] humiliates his family and lives a self-indulgent, dissolute life. He is totally out of control” (Keller, 39). This is how we meet Jesse at the beginning of the show. He’s considered by his family and respectable society to be an embarrassment; a wayward junkie, too dumb and unruly to ever do anything of value. He’s seemingly squandered all potential and resources he has for a life of easy living and drugs. Literally the third sentence Walt says to Jesse in the pilot is, “Honestly, I never expected you to amount to much.” 

Throughout the series, Jesse has quite a few “eating with the pigs” moments, from S02E04 “Down” when he’s kicked out of his house and spends the night on the floor of the Krystal Ship, covered in portapotty sludge and wearing a facemask, to being a meth-cook slave to neo-nazis by the end of the series. And that’s just the physical desolation; Jesse is constantly haunted by guilt and remorse and keeps being pulled further and further in over his head into the life of crime he was never cut out for. Jesse, unlike Walt, is brought low enough to see his need for forgiveness and redemption. It’s easy to imagine him saying the words of the younger brother at his lowest points- “I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21). But because there is no God/father figure in Breaking Bad either, Jesse turns to all sorts of self-flagellation to try and replicate this forgiveness, from rehab and its philosophy of unconditional self-acceptance, to mind-numbing partying, to helping the DEA, to going through a personal hell in captivity. We see here that the younger brother’s life of gluttony and self-fulfillment leads to great personal consequences. If the younger brother doesn’t come to see the error of his ways, this self-destructiveness is a never-ending spiral. If the younger brother does see the error of his ways, then he needs forgiveness and reconciliation to be able to move past his failings. 

In El Camino, Jesse gets his happy ending (as happy as one can be in Breaking Bad), and the older brother/younger brother’s differences are further parsed out. When Jesse escapes captivity, he is able to rely on his friendships and connections to help get him to Alaska. He doesn’t have Walt’s pride and is able to use his relationships with Skinny Pete, Badger, Old Joe the junkyard guy, his parents, Ed, and the memories of Mike and Jane to guide him. In the end, Jesse is, in part, saved by his reliance on others and their prodigal mercy towards him, while Walt dies utterly alone, having severed all relationships because he saw them primarily as transactional. Jesse as the younger brother experiences a restoration. Walt refuses every chance given to him of restoration with himself, his family, and moral society. 

While Better Call Saul invites viewers to consider themselves and whether they are an older or younger brother and how such mindsets lead down equally dangerous roads, Breaking Bad is focused more on the ending of the parable. Better Call Saul’s lack of a father/God figure means neither Chuck nor Jimmy get redemption. Breaking Bad gives Jesse as the younger brother a reconciliation, but leaves the elder brother Walt’s ending as unresolved, just like the parable. This zeros-in on a key point of understanding the parable. Jesus was talking to a group of Pharisees, hyper-religious men who loved the law over God and enforcing the law over loving others. By leaving the elder brother unreconciled, Jesus sends a clear message to the Pharisees- you look down on the younger brother sinners of the word, but your fates will be much worse if you do not see the hatred in your own hearts.

Breaking Bad, too, seems to think that being an elder brother can be potentially worse than being a younger brother, conveying this through both the respective endings for Walt and Jesse and also through the show’s tight-rope balance of pushing the audience to align themselves with Walt, only to then remind you of Walt’s monstrosity. By doing this, the show puts up a mirror and makes you realize how easily you too are swayed into his self-serving, self-righteous, entitled mindset. Perhaps it is easier in our current society to be elder brothers- and much more dangerous as well. These shows focused on morality come to similar conclusions to that of Jesus’ parables- that bitterness, anger, resentment, a lack of mercy, and entitlement are all key roots of evil.

-Madeleine D.

Living In The Curse: Miss Americana

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Miss Americana is a 2020 Netflix documentary by Lana Wilson about superstar Taylor Swift. It gives an overview of Swift’s career through the years but focuses primarily on 2016 through the release of her newest album Lover from late last year. The movie depicts the 2016 election and a series of Swift’s personal and professional struggles as the catalyst for her newfound political voice, which she showcased during the 2018 midterm elections (coming out in support of a Tenessee Democratic candidate), the pro-LGBTQ+ song “You Need To Calm Down” from Lover, and her sexual assault trial that she won in 2017 against a radio DJ who groped her during a meet-and-greet. 

None of the events depicted in the documentary are particularly new, even for casual fans but especially for dedicated ones. Most of these events were highly publicized and Swift has already spoken or sung about them. The most interesting new stuff comes from discussions between Swift and her team about her political statements and genuinely thrilling footage of Swift at work recording. For the filmmaking itself, there is nothing groundbreaking here in the art of making documentaries about stars. But while the parts of Miss Americana may not be new, it is the most concise expression that I’ve seen of what all other pop-documentaries have been trying to say:

Fame is a curse. 

The first sequence after the opening scene shows Swift preparing for a show on her Reputation tour. She stands in the wings and puts on a glittery hoodie. She looks like a boxer. Then she comes out on stage, with all the showmanship of today’s WWE shows, and suddenly you realize that even for a woman who is at the height of her powers and is, arguably, the biggest titan in the music industry right now, she is still fighting every day. And that’s terribly sad. 

Swift and the film touch on a number of reasons why fame is a curse. The profound loneliness while being extremely visible, particularly when it comes to personal relationships. The pressure to always top yourself and to keep evolving and changing your image. The fact that once you’re famous,  you are not an individual, but a cultural archetype that can be used as a character to cast in myths and allegories of politics, identity, history, and explorations of greater systems than ourselves, as is well-explored in this Vox article, “How the Taylor Swift-Kanye West VMAs scandal became a perfect American morality tale”. 

Along with these general observations on fame, the film also explores Swift’s unique experience of fame, which is shaped by the brand she established for herself when she started at age 14. Swift has a distinct brand of vulnerable authenticity. Her songs are extremely personal and are most frequently compared to that of a diary. It’s distinct because Swift was one of the pioneers of the pop-star-as-your-friend movement, on top of seemingly every trend and perfectly suited to the social media age. If nothing else, she has carried this brand with the most consistency out of her contemporaries. 

Now is she really authentic? Hard to say. I’m of the mind that no one is truly authentic, and certainly not when they are commodifying themselves, as we all do online and in our work. Swift’s biggest critics disdain what they see as an overly-polished relatability. Making a documentary adds to Swift’s brand of vulnerability and openness, but it doesn’t reassure me that she isn’t fully in control of how she’s being portrayed all the time. 

But while we can question how authentic her personal image and actions are, I don’t think there is any question about the sincerity of her motives. You may wonder how much of a victim Swift was in, say, one of her breakups, but what Swift really wants you to see is that she is always truthful about what she feels, which is what comes across in her songs. Those feelings, if not the truth of the situation, are authentic. 

That comes across very clearly in Miss Americana and is one of the most compelling aspects of it. In the opening monologue, Swift talks succinctly about how she has always wanted to be good, and the documentary goes on to chart how what she has defined as “good” has changed over the years. She’s always acted out of a desire to be on the right side of things, for better or worse. As someone who is similarly motivated by the same desire to “be good” (unite, enneagram ones!), albeit defined differently than Swift, this is incredibly relatable and therefore feels authentic. It goes back to the theme of the authenticity of her motivations, which is why I think she remains such a big star and has an intimate parasocial connection with her fans.

Miss Americana is not a particularly revealing look at Swift, and can feel pretty milquetoast at times. But it is a good look at fame, and if you were already interested in the film or Swift, then it delivers on its promise to craft the bildungsroman of Taylor Swift, 30, coming of age by finding her political voice. 

-Madeleine D.

Happy 4th Birthday to the Blog!

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Today is the 4th birthday of madeleinelovesmovies.com! Our first post was April 16, 2016 with a double feature of Jeff Nichol’s Midnight Special and Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Don’t bother with going back and reading them. 

A very special thanks to all of our readers, old and new, who have read these reviews and have been so supportive! We are truly grateful. Continue to wash your hands, remain vigilant, stay safe, and watch good movies. Maybe eat a piece of cake in honor of this great occasion.

There Is Always Redemption At East High: The True Fantasy of High School Musical

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A wise woman once said that there are few things more well-suited to quarantine than rewatching the entire High School Musical Trilogy. That woman was my mother, and that’s what my family has been doing for the past week. 

The trilogy, starting with the first film released on the Disney Channel in 2006, was a generation-defining series, with each movie containing many instantly iconic moments. It was a huge hit for Disney, and it remains a nostalgic favorite for many, including myself. 

Rewatching the series, I was struck with several revelations. First, is that the series genuinely holds up. There are some dated elements, sure, particularly when it comes to early 2000’s fashion, but the series remains a refreshingly sweet teen story about growing up, first love, challenging the status quo, teamwork, and being proud of who you are and where you’re from

Beyond the messages, musical numbers, and the star-making performances though, the High School Musical trilogy embodies multiple fantasies, which is the real reason the series is universally appealing. 

Some of these fantasies are obvious. Troy and Gabriella’s relationship is a romantic fantasy. Being super talented at two things, like Troy is at basketball and music (getting a scholarship for basketball and being considered for a scholarship at Julliard?!), that’s another fantasy. Actually having a great high school experience? Fantasy. The fantasy of being able to run around your unlocked high school in the dead of night to scream out your emotions. These, and so many more, are the core appeal of the series. 

But one of the fantasies of High School Musical that I think flies under the radar has to do with the antagonist, Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale). Sharpay has gotten a sort of posthumous pardon in the past few years with a compelling “Sharpay was the real victim” discourse emerging on social media. This is fun in its own right, but let’s focus on Sharpay’s intended depiction in the series. 

Sharpay Evans is seen, in the viewpoint of the movie, to be a spoiled, ambitious, hard-working, but conniving and controlling theatre kid. She has worked her whole life to be in musicals, which is impressive, but she doesn’t have the sweet summer child innocence of first-timers Gabriella and Troy. In each of the three films, she is poised to be the star of whatever musical production is being put on, but Troy and Gabriella are picked instead, so Sharpay tries to get back into the spotlight. Her efforts to do so range from convincing the drama teacher to change the date of the callbacks all the way to having Troy kidnapped in the dead of night

But at the end of each movie, without fail, Sharpay’s plan is somehow foiled, Troy and Gabriella are restored back to the spotlight, and Sharpay realizes the error of her ways. And when the whole cast sings the final triumphant number, Sharpay is invited to sing with them and is welcomed back into the fold, where she becomes counted among our protagonists. Our protagonists never hold her failings against her. 

Your first thought might be that this is formulaic, that Sharpray having the exact same character arc each movie, never progressing in a linear fashion over the course of all three movies, is poor writing. I, too, thought this originally. But with more contemplation, I realized that this is not the case. In fact, the cyclical nature of Sharpay is actually quite profound. Everyone struggles with bad habits and destructive behaviors. In real life, we rarely progress linearly or in an efficient manner. We all have strongholds that keep us in vicious cycles. In this way, High School Musical continues to be very profound and observant about human nature. 

Even deeper, though, the ending Sharpay gets in each movie speaks to one of our deepest desires as humans. We all want to be forgiven unconditionally. We want our mistakes and failings and vices to be forgiven and forgotten about. We want our friends to continually receive us with open arms and always be ready to sing with us again. We want to be redeemed. We want salvation. 

That is the fantasy of High School Musical, because, in our daily lives, our relationships are full of bitterness and grudges and unforgiveness and anger. We do not ask for, or receive, forgiveness from everyone. We are not given unconditional love. We ruin our friendships and are not let back into the fold. We do not act as redeemed people. 

Oh, but this Easter, let us remember that this doesn’t have to be a fantasy! When we celebrate Easter, we remember that we have been given unconditional love and continual grace. We can live as Sharpay Evans does- in full confidence that no matter what we do, we can be forgiven, redeemed, and enter back into covenant fellowship. Over and over and over again.

Sharpay may want it all, but she should realize that the unearned mercy and reconciliation she’s been given by her peers is what is truly fabulous.