Streaming Quadruple Feature: Mulan, Boys State, The Devil All the Time, & Enola Holmes

Mulan – Disney+

This live-action remake of the animated classic from 1998 follows the same formula of “reinvention” as the other live-action remakes (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Cinderella, etc.). This includes making a poorer version of (or cutting out entirely) the musical numbers, a half-hearted attempt at retconning the things that were critiqued in the original while getting a whole host of new problems, making the female protagonists more “empowered” with a new Girl Boss paint job, and just overall becoming a duller film. 

This new Mulan isn’t a complete waste of time, though. The movie infuses some classic wuxia/ fantasy martial arts styling here that not only pays tribute to Chinese cinema, but makes this Mulan retelling feel more like a myth, which gets back at the story’s roots as folklore. The sets and costumes are beautiful. Mulan is given a sister who, while extremely underdeveloped, chooses a more traditionally feminine route and isn’t shamed for it, driving home the message that just because Mulan bucked traditional roles doesn’t mean she or her path is better, it just means feminism is about widening women’s choices. 

This live-action remake simply just does not use its new format to be the cool war movie we wanted (although Mulan herself does have a surprisingly high body count), and it’s hard to overcome that disappointment and not compare it to the original. But I do have to say this: I watched this with one of my best friends, who is Chinese-American (was born and raised in China until she immigrated to the US). While she had some problems with the depiction of China, she spoke to me at length about how good it made her feel to see a girl like her on-screen, in her home country, with such a powerful story. That’s not something I take lightly. Representation matters, even if there are some missteps or missed opportunities while striving for it. 

Boys State – Apple TV+

This documentary follows the 2019 Texas Boys State, an annual convention where boys (there’s a separate Girls State) from across the state are chosen to participate in an educational week where they form political parties and hold elections to learn about democracy. 

Personally, this is one of the most stressful environments I could ever imagine being in, and the documentary is at its best when it is able to catch a glimpse of the true wariness and vulnerability of the subjects. Sometimes the self-awareness of the documentary is a little too noticeable, like you can tell when the filmmakers are thinking, “This is going to draw a parallel to the 2016 election! We’re telling an important story here that reveals the declining state of American politics!” But, despite the self-awareness sometimes getting in the way, it’s true- there are parallels to both the 2016 election but also to all sorts of political discourses we continue to have about tribalism, slander, fake news, the values of a trained politician vs. a non-politician “draining the swamp,” and the intersections of race, class, and gender.

So like the discourse around those topics, the film can feel just as tiring, emotional, cyclical, and repetitive, and, at least to me, discouraging. Yet it’s insightful, and there are kids to root for, and entertaining, so I certainly recommend watching it. But, Boys State also reminds you that nothing is new under the sun, and politics and policies are not the ultimate avenue for change we should put our hopes in. 

The Devil All The Time – Netflix

The Devil All the Time, based on the book of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock (who narrates the film), has the midwest gothic aesthetic down to a T. Haunting landscape? Check. Evil religion and charismatic, wicked preachers? Check. Flat, midwest landscapes that grow more sinister as the sun goes down? Tortured women cast in a soft glow? Check and check. 

Atmosphere and aesthetics can only go so far, though, and unfortunately The Devil All The Time doesn’t have anything deeper to offer. Everyone in the all-star cast is game, but there is only so much that nice cinematography, shocking plot twists, and star power can give a movie. It can’t sustain it. The whole film ends up feeling bloated, repetitive, and less serious and important than it thinks it is. I agree with Justin Chang for NPR when he writes, “I also found the movie ultimately repetitive in its grisliness, and simplistic in some of the ways that it accuses religion of being.” Now I am fascinated by movies about religion and the way it can be corrupted, and complicated ministers. But, The Devil All The Time’s depiction of small-town faith is so repetitive and cartoonish that it never tries to dig below the surface as to why religion can breed such vileness and destructive patterns. The movie is similarly uninterested in digging deeper into the depictions of generational trauma and violence. We get it- evil is mundane. But why? The Devil shrugs. 

Enola Holmes – Netflix

Enola Holmes is mostly a star vehicle for Millie Bobby Brown (who also produces here), and it works- she’s truly a movie star. Charismatic, expressive, and immensely talented, she carries the movie effortlessly. She has some nice help from Louis Partridge, and some star power backup from the most uncharitable and unlikeable portrayals of Sherlock (a dull Henry Cavill) and Mycroft Holmes (Sam Claflin) I’ve ever seen- and I’ve watched Sherlock! So like Enola Holmes herself, Brown is mostly on her own as she goes from one unexpectedly brutal action scene to the next, offering a promising career in action for Brown if she wants to go down the Milla Jovovich or Charlize Theron route.  

Enola Holmes reminded me, more than anything else, of an American Girl Doll movie. Remember those movies, with the likes of Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (a formative influence on me)? Unlike those movies, with sweet early-2000s optimism, this 2020 Enola Holmes has a little more bite, with rough action, some political commentary (don’t interrogate that too much), and a historical narrative jazzed up with modern features. But, while the film feels episodic (like a future Netflix streaming series???) it’s still charming and doesn’t feel like a television movie, but like big-screen fare, which we’re all a little desperate for. 

-Madeleine D.

Exploring Time in “Tenet” and “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

*Spoilers for I’m Thinking of Ending Things

On the first weekend of September, Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited Tenet arrived to challenge the pandemic and (hopefully) save movie theaters. Meanwhile, writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things arrived on Netflix. Tenet is a sleek, imaginative, action-packed blockbuster thrill ride that has all of Nolan’s quirks: technical perfection, stiff dialogue, ponderings about reality, and Michael Caine. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is equally full of its director’s quirks: a focus on relationships, abstract, melancholy, arthouse. Both films, outside of their auteur-ness, share something in common: they are both about time, and much can be learned by comparing how the two directors approach their exploration of the subject. 

In Tenet, a character ends her explanation about the central premise of the movie (objects moving through time backward) by saying, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” Despite that instruction, Tenet is all about thinking. The entire film is completely plot-driven. Every single line of dialogue is plot-related. Every scene moves forward relentlessly. The momentum of the film is exciting, but there is no room for beauty or feeling. Tenet wants you to think about the possibility of going backward in time and it wants you to experience such a disorienting thrill (sometimes too disorienting, I spent an hour standing outside of the theater after the movie with my companions trying to parse the story out, and I’m still not sure I understand everything). 

Meanwhile, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is all about feeling. There is also a lot of talking, however, it’s less about what is said (which are often long monologues about art) and more about how things are said, or why. By the time the ending rolls around and there’s a ballet dance break and Jesse Plemmons sings an entire song from Oklahoma!, you’re either on board or are probably very annoyed. 

Time is warped in several ways during I’m Thinking of Ending Things. When Lucy (Jessie Buckley) gets to Jake’s (Jesse Plemmons) parents’ house, she and Jake stay the same age, but his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) begin aging backward in forward. Every time Lucy steps into a new room, both parents are at different ages. Later, Lucy notes that instead of people being stationary points that move through time, time moves through people and she watches time move through Jake’s parents. 

The scenes in the car between Jake and Lucy likewise play with continuity and time. Jake calls Lucy by several different names, she talks about being in different occupations, and her story of how she and Jake met changes multiple times. And in the ending sequence, it is revealed that Lucy wasn’t real at all, but that Jake was imagining falling in love. 

Maybe. That might be one possible interpretation. But nothing about I’m Thinking of Ending Things encourages you to “solve” the movie. It is not a logical puzzle, and there’s nothing you gain from being able to pin down the movie’s timeline or narrative tricks. What you need to know about Lucy and Jake, or their feelings and relationship, are all conveyed through the acting and visuals. The confusing, metaphysical nature of the visuals and story are supposed to only teach you one thing about time: it is our absurd enemy. Our perception of time is changed by our emotions, and the only way out is through. 

I’m Thinking of Ending Things treats time as a character within itself, as malleable as any of the other characters. Tenet treats time as a tool to play with. Neither approach- thinking or feeling- are inherently better or worse, of course. Both films have numerous explainer videos and articles on the internet to help people figure the films out, and both films prompt rich discussion through their ambiguous nature. I think, though, that the spectacle of Tenet (the big screen really is the only way to see it) will mean that the film won’t have much longevity. Some of Nolan’s other twisty puzzle-box movies have stood the test of time and remained in the cultural memory- I’m thinking of Inception and Memento– but those had stronger emotional cores than Tenet. Meanwhile, I’m Thinking of Ending Things will probably also be forgotten, but less because of the film itself and more from how few people will see it and how even less will submit themselves to its oddity. Yet I think that if you do give I’m Thinking of Ending Things a chance and embrace it on its own terms, you will find it worthwhile, even if you don’t enjoy it.

-Madeleine D.

Indigenous Filmmaking, Satire, and Horror in “Blood Quantum”

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A guest review by John Truden

Editorial Note: Blood Quantum is a 2019 Canadian zombie horror film directed by Jeff Barnaby, a Canadian Mi’kmaq filmmaker. Barnaby’s film is rooted in an Indigenous perspective. It stars Indigenous actors and is a love letter to both classic zombie horror films and to “indignerds,” the self-proclaimed title of Indigenous people who love pop culture. Blood Quantum holds to many of the conventions of the zombie movie genre, along with influence from filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, but its main premise and some of the stylistic choices draw on Jeff Barnaby’s Mi’kmaq context. The following was written by my friend John Truden, who is currently getting his Ph.D. in Indigenous history, to give some context and history, so the film can be more enjoyable and understandable to a non-Indigenous audience. 

Blood Quantum follows the residents of the Red Crow Indian Reservation (a fictional reserve that stands in for many Indigenous communities in North America) who are overtaken by a zombie outbreak. The residents quickly discover that they are immune, but the surrounding white settlers and wildlife are vulnerable to infection.

The 1970 saw the beginning of a renaissance of Indigenous films, or films rooted in the perspectives of Indigenous peoples. That renaissance reached full bloom in the 1990s and has not stopped since. Smoke Signals, a 1998 film that followed the journey of three young people from the Coeur D’alene Reservation in Idaho, became a marker of this growth. Barnaby created Blood Quantum in this context. The film emphasizes community, ties to the land, and grounding in a specific time and place, reflecting precedents set by Indigenous filmmakers.

The film plays with themes of blood and colonialism. It takes the history of settlers who are a threat to Indigenous populations, and puts it within the genre, casting those settlers as zombies who pose the threat to the immune Indigenous population. It’s a theatrical reimagining of very real history (and recent divisions, colonization is not simply a thing of the past). It’s a reversal of what’s called “Settler Colonialism,” a process where people come to a region and re-shape it. In Blood Quantum, instead of settlers coming in and re-shaping the reservation, the Indigenous population is cleansing it. 

Blood quantum itself was a system devised by the United States and Canadian government to slowly eliminate Indigenous populations by essentially assimilating them out of existence. They did this by measuring Indigenous blood and then making it difficult for Indigenous people to marry one another. According to the blood quantum system, if you don’t have a certain amount of Indigenous blood and ancestry you’re not Indigenous, and if you marry a white person, your kid’s blood quantum goes down, making them even more removed from the Indigenous identity. Slowly but surely, entire indigenous bloodlines are erased. The irony of this film then is that these people who are fighting the zombies that have Indigenous ancestry, and that’s what keeps them safe.

The concept of the zombie came to the United States through an effort to explain Haitian independence. In the 1920s the United States occupied the country of Haiti. At this time the United State is in Jim Crow; it’s a white supremacist nation. But in Haiti, the Haitian are resisting and asserting their independence. In order to make sure no Black Americans got any ideas of revolution, journalists and politicians took the Haitian mythology of the zombie and used it to “explain” why the Black people in Haiti are asserting their independence. They depicted Haitians as being brainless and murderous, stupid and violent. This appropriation the zombie erases an important part of Haitian folklore, where the zombie originated somewhere between 1625 to 1800, and “was a projection of the African slaves’ relentless misery and subjugation. Haitian slaves believed that dying would release them back to lan guinée, literally Guinea, or Africa in general, a kind of afterlife where they could be free. Though suicide was common among slaves, those who took their own lives wouldn’t be allowed to return to lan guinée. Instead, they’d be condemned to skulk the Hispaniola plantations for eternity, an undead slave at once denied their own bodies and yet trapped inside them—a soulless zombie” (Mariani). 

In the 1960s, American director George Romero re-used the concept of zombies and turned them into the “undead,” through his films. He turns them into flesh-eating cannibalistic zombies as a stand-in for things. Night of the Living Dead is a critique of American race relations, in a lot of ways. Day of the Dead is a critique of the military-industrial complex. He starts a tradition where the dialogue between the characters is more important than the actual zombies themselves, which is true of this movie. He also sets the precedent of using zombies as other problems. The format is flexible, there’s a lot of different things you can do with a zombie movie. So there is a long canon that Blood Quantum is joining where the zombies stand for thing, usually various social anxieties. Here, the zombies are used to stand in for white settlers, and in this tells a uniquely Indigenous story. 

Blood Quantum is available on Shudder

Sources:

Zombies and Haiti: https://open.spotify.com/episode/0AF1qPSmvhPEjmSE3vEwu7?si=mPNsSf05Qf2kPZeXlSS20A

Mike Mariani: “The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies,” for The Atlantic

John Truden is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Oklahoma. His dissertation explores Indigenous-settler relationships in a settler-dominated Oklahoma. Upon graduation he would like to take on a full-time collaborative role by teaching at a tribal college. In his free time he enjoys historical research, working alongside marginalized communities, and investing in friendships. 

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. 

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. 

As Filling As A Twinkie: Zombieland: Double Tap

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Zombieland: Double Tap, the sequel to 2009’s Zombieland, takes place ten years after the events of the first movie. As a voiceover from Columbus tells us, the crew- Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin)- have become a close-knit family and expert zombie killers. But when Little Rock runs off and new, more dangerous zombie types emerge, Wichita, Tallahassee, and Columbus go on a road trip to rescue Little Rock and find a new safe haven. 

The most important thing to know about Double Tap is that it is remarkably similar to Zombieland, which is a feat for two movies that have a ten-year difference. Both are goofy, poorly paced, self-indulgent, charming in small doses, and have inconsistent characters. If you liked the first one, you’ll like this one, because it feels like such a natural extension of the first, from the atmosphere, internal logic, comedy style, and gross-out violence, to the resolute refusal to use the zombies and apocalyptic setting for any kind of social commentary. It’s a straightforward movie about killing zombies. That’s what you get. 

Propelling this straightforward story is the exceptional cast, which continues to be the most compelling part of these movies. The only thing that would help would be if their characters were written with any consistency, but the movie gets to cheat by relying on the actor’s personas and outside affiliations. For example, Harrelson and Eisenburg have great chemistry, but the relationship dynamic between Tallahassee and Columbus fluctuates wildly throughout the two movies. However, the actors have a similar, but more concrete, relationship dynamic between their characters in the Now You See Me movies, and so my love for those movies and my liking of their dynamic there just carries over. Similar things could be said about Emma Stone and Rosario Dawson’s characters, which both borrow heavily from their respective actor’s typecasts. 

Abigail Breslin is, unfortunately, the weakest link. The movie doesn’t know what to do with her, so she ends up being a plot device more than a person. This was disappointing, as she is a great actress and I have a personal fondness for her (I looked a lot like her when I was 9 or 10, and my film preferences and personal aspirations were heavily shaped by her roles in Nim’s Island and Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. Those movies rock). 

After I saw Double Tap, I asked the group I was with if this movie was for or against the second amendment, as it talks a lot about guns and much of the plot focused on when our heroes are armed or disarmed. While our heroes love guns, the climax cleverly removes them from the characters and forces them to defeat the zombie in another way (this makes the climax a lot better than that of the first Zombieland, and is also similar to the ending of The Three Amigos). After this philosophizing, my friends looked at me blankly, and then one, with insight I can only aspire too, said: “I think the zombies change things.” And she was right, and I realized the movie probably didn’t put that much thought into it. 

Double Tap doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel or build upon the first one. And while I generally prefer more ambition in movies and more effort, I saw this after a rough week and it was exactly what I needed. It truly is escapism with the flimsiest excuse for existing, and that, in moderation, is perfectly okay. Just like this film. 

-Madeleine D.

The Horror of Following up a Massive Sucess: IT Chapter Two

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The first IT movie is the highest-grossing R-rated horror film with $700.4 million at the worldwide box office. Based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel, the movie became a critical and commercial success. The search for an adult cast to play the main characters- aka “the Losers”- was highly publicized and scrutinized. With a cast evenly divided between marquee stars and unknowns, IT Chapter Two has a lot riding on its shoulders. 

Did it succeed in bringing this grand epic to a satisfying conclusion? 

Yes and no. 

IT Chapter Two has more scares (in part because of its nearly three-hour running time) but they’re different than the first. For one, there is less Pennywise, and instead, IT takes different forms. The different forms are usually grotesque, vaguely-human forms that do gross things. The body horror element freaked me out, but some of the people I went with found it funny, so it just depends on your sense of humor. They’re creative, but not as psychologically disturbing as the first film. 

Besides the scares, there’s not much else that this second movie does that’s different than the first. When it comes to the character arcs, plot, and tone of the movie, everything is just about the same. In the first film, we meet the characters individually, then the team comes together, they split up for individual sequences where IT reveal more about their characters, and then they come together in the sewers to try to kill Pennywise. That’s exactly what happens in this film too. Add in all the flashbacks and callbacks to the first film, and this second feels like it’s just an expensive remake with an older cast. 

Readers of the book will no doubt be disappointed. The book spends time establishing the Losers in their adult lives, something the film doesn’t have time to do well. The book also develops the theme of the adult Losers losing their memories and having to re-learn about Derry and Pennywise (the film only tangentially explores this theme). By doing this, the reader understands how the Loser’s childhood traumas influenced their adult selves and how that changes their relationship to IT and to each other. To not have that in this second film creates a barrier between the audience and characters, and weakens the message the filmmakers are going for. 

Leah Schnelback writes in her excellent review of the film for Tor, “Your real life can turn into a horror story any time—the check didn’t clear, the doctor needs to speak with you in person… You remember again that your carefully constructed life is an illusion that can crack apart without warning. When we go to a horror movie we pay to have this experience…Part of the contract is that the nightmare moments might slip the bounds of reality—that we’ll become children again, in thrall to a fairy tale full of monsters and things that can’t possibly happen. This is what IT is about… The opening half-hour of the film is almost completely taken up with human monsters—psychotic homophobes, abusive husbands… This group of adults who have all experienced real-life horrors have to learn to be kids again so they can defeat a mythological monster.”

That opening half-hour is not enough time to explore these adult lives, and that blunder plagues the entire film. The “real-life horrors” feel inconsequential because we barely get to see them before we get to Pennywise.

It sure doesn’t help also that while the adult cast is incredibly well-matched with their teenage counterparts in terms of looks and mannerisms, they lack the same chemistry as the younger group. This is in part because they don’t spend that much time together in the movie. The plot keeps separating them, making the scenes when they are together and are talking about their close bond ring false. 

Also ringing false is the film’s explanations of Pennywise. Instead of letting him be terrifying because he’s mysterious and unknowable, the film tries to explain the mythology behind Pennywise and the demon-alien thing it comes from, the IT. It makes the plot more convoluted and the film fails to justify why we even need to understand his origins in the first place. In some cases it’s okay not to explain “the why”.  

~

IT Chapter Two starts out with a voiceover from Mike talking about how memory is selective and we are often just as much the things we make ourselves forget as we are the things we choose to remember. The whole film ruminates on the idea of memory, with the adult Losers spending the majority of the running time trying to reconnect and remember their childhood selves. 

There’s something interesting here about how it takes courage to confront the memories we’d rather forget, and how we aren’t fully ourselves until we can see all of ourselves. It’s only then when we can truly connect to other people. But because we don’t get a sense of how the Losers forgot their childhoods in the first place, or what they do with themselves after they kill Pennywise for good, and they spend little time connecting to each other in meaningful ways, this entire theme falls flat. Instead, we just get some new scares and scenes meant to remind us of the first movie. There’s very little substance. 

It seems like the knowledge that the first film was a success is what has kept this film from succeeding. The unassuming innocence of the first is lost, and this second entry feels like it’s trying too hard and won’t stray far enough to be unique. 

Yet, I have to admit, I had a great time watching it. It was the perfect escapist adrenaline kick for me with scares that were scary but not too scary, and not disturbing enough to stick with me late at night. But that also means nothing from the film is going to stick with me, and that’s a shame.

-Madeleine D.

Hobbs and Shaw ft. Clifton Raphael

IMG_4353.jpegFrom left to right: Hobbs, Idris Elba’s White Doppelgänger, and Shaw

I am excited to be joined for this review by my former six-time teacher, Clifton Raphael. Mr. Raphael teaches screenwriting and filmmaking and film studies at Jenks High School. He has 24 years of experience in TV broadcasting and an MFA in screenwriting and film studies from Hollins University. His students have won two $5,000 grand prizes in the C-Span StudentCam documentary competition (the only school to have repeat grand prize winners), a regional Emmy, and thousands of dollars in other C-SPAN, YoungArts and Scholastic Arts awards. His class also has the first high-school produced program on OETA (Oklahoma’s PBS affiliate). Mr. Raphael has been a judge for numerous film festivals and competitions, has been interviewed on C-SPAN, and sits on the Board of Directors at Circle Cinema. You can watch his students’ films here.

He has been a great influence in my life and has always championed my work with his brand of tough-love, sacrificial dedication, earnest support, and occasional mockery. It’s about time he got to be featured here. 

Full disclosure: Neither of us have seen any of The Fast and the Furious films, but we believe this makes us uniquely suited to reviewing its spinoff, Hobbs and Shaw. He, as a film connoisseur, and me, as someone who likes things that go vroom vroom. 

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Madeleine: Can you describe the events of this film in two sentences or less?

Clifton Raphael: Two guys learn to love each other in order to save the world. 

Perfect. But that’s only one sentence. 

Okay, so there’s a virus that could kill supposedly all the weakest people in the world, and there’s some benevolent force that wants this done. So Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham) have to get together to find this woman, Shaw’s sister (played by Vanessa Kirby), and they have to get this virus that is implanted in her out and save her and save the world. 

Beautiful. 

It’s my understanding that you took a screenwriting class in high school. [He is, of course, referring to the class that Madeleine took with him.]

Why yes I did. 

And I understand there’s a thing called a character arc, where a character changes throughout the course of the story. How did these characters change? What character arcs did they go through in this movie?

Okay so first they didn’t like each other, right? ‘Cause Hobbs and Shaw have clashing egos and insecurities. 

Right. 

And then in the middle they don’t like each other, because they’re working together but they just… still, don’t, because of the previously mentioned issues. And then at the end, they still don’t really like each other and then in the last five minutes they realize that if they work together they can punch the living daylights out of the villain, and then the movie will end, so then they like each other. 

But then they sort of… don’t like each other. 

Right, they still don’t like each other. They like to neg one another. It’s their love language. 

What else did this movie do really well screenwriting wise?

You know it sets up a very clear “want” and “need.” The characters want to not need each other. 

But then they need to need each other!

Exactly! The film and screenplay also makes great use of character motivations that tie into the theme. Cause the theme is that tech- no, actually the first theme is family, because everyone needs a family. Second, the theme is that humans always beat technology. 

Yes, and actually I’m going to quote the movie. I wrote it down because [pulls out phone] it was such an amazing line [he says with the utmost sarcasm]. 

You were on your phone during the movie?!

Whoops, please don’t tell anyone.

That line is the thesis of the film. 

It’s delivered by the Rock. This is up there with Dorothy’s “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” and “Here’s looking at you, kid.” This will go into the immortal words of great lines.

And his Oscar reel. 

So he says, “You may believe in machines, but we believe in people.”

Boom!

Boom.

Idris Elba’s villain character lets go of his humanity for the pursuit of human evolution through technology, and Hobbs and Shaw use technology throughout the film but the thing is, underneath all of that technology, they’re still just guys who want to get down to their roots and just, [slams hands together] beat the living crap out of each other with their fists. 

That’s right. 

They don’t like the guns, they just use the guns, so that’s why they can say that.

 Let’s talk about Vanessa Kirby’s character. 

Right. What has she been in?

Mission Impossible franchise. And The Crown TV show. 

I was encouraged to see- and I think we’re seeing more and more of this in movies-  that she could hold her own with the men, in terms of the absolutely ridiculous things she was capable of doing. And it’s interesting to me, there’s this whole new trend of women in movies being in these positions of pulling off what would normally be considered “tough guy” roles or missions. So that’s pretty encouraging.

I agree that it is nice that she gets fight sequences and gets the same “cool” treatment as the guys. But what I really want to get to is the agency of her character. It looks like, from the surface, she has a big role. She’s in it a lot, and she has the main plot-

I see where you’re going with this, it’s that the guys still need to take care of her and save her because the woman has the virus injected into her.

Yes, but it’s more than that if you look at what she contributes to the film. Okay so first, she’s a Mcguffin. She literally has the MacGuffin virus in her. But there are only two scenes- I was keeping track- where she does something that advances the plot and changes the events of the film. In all of the other scenes, she either puts up a fight but the result is still the same as if she was, like, a lamp, or she contributes but they would have gotten to that place without her. Or, she’s literally picked up and carried to the next plot point. 

She doesn’t have the same level of narrative agency as the other leads, which is still a huge flaw if you’re really breaking the film down. I think that is something to consider because on the surface it looks like the movie is all, [does jazz hands] Oh yeah! Women! It’s important to interrogate these films that are so self-congratulatory about their “progress.”  I’m concerned that if we don’t, movies will keep barreling forward towards this faux-empowerment direction without any real substance, not changing the basic ingredients of these films in this genre. 

Yeah…baby steps? I don’t know. 

The fact that she’s in it is positive because she has cool fight sequences and she’s pulling her weight, but there’s a way to go, and I don’t want the film to pat itself on the back for, you know,  advancing that feminist agenda. 

[Contemplative silence is briefly kept]

You know, one of the criticisms of the latest Tarantino movie (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), and a criticism in his other movies too, is that some of his violence is so exaggerated that you end up laughing at it. So are you then diminishing the impact of violence by doing that? Now this film isn’t as explicitly violent. People get hit a lot but you don’t see them necessarily die.

That’s the thing. We know they die. In real life, they would die, so it sure does undercut the idea of “you believe in technology but we believe in people,” when from the first scene, which is to establish how cool they are, to the last scene, Hobbs and Shaw are absolutely brutalizing people. Everyone who’s not a main character is completely dehumanized, they are props. And you’re supposed to laugh and enjoy these guys completely destroying people and yet at the very end, switcheroo because Dwayne Johnson has a daughter and Jason Statham has a sister, which kinda dehumanizes them as props too. They use the shorthand of, “he has a daughter, he’s human,” so they have to put no effort into anything.

You’re right. But you know, this is a trope of these kinds of movies. I remember this very well from Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, that the movie established very early on that Tom Cruise is divorced and he’s got a daughter he has to take care of. Movies always have something that is trying to humanize them-

To make these protagonists relatable to the audience.

Even though you don’t have to do that to me for a movie like this, because I already relate to the idea of running cars off bridges and pulling helicopters out of the sky with my bare hands, these are the things I do on a daily basis [both laugh]. But I can understand for most people you would need to have a humanizing moment. Yet it makes it so that it’s not the pulling helicopter out of the sky moments that are hard to believe; it’s the human moments that are hard to believe. 

I don’t like to think that blockbuster filmmaking is useless, or it doesn’t mean anything, because I think it taps into the cultural zeitgeist, and what people expect of themselves and media more than any other genre. I want there to be a redeeming quality to Hobbs and Shaw that reflects our society, or humanity, or Hollywood. Do you think there’s any of that there? A redeeming quality for why people should go see it?

I suppose redeeming quality is that whole, “I have stresses and problems in my life, but they aren’t the problems of having to face ten guys with really, really tough weapons and 18 cars coming at me, and ‘look out, the bridge is out!’”

Wait, you’re saying this is an exercise in gratitude? 

[Laughs] Gratitude? Well, that’s not what I meant, but that whole escapism thing and wanting to go to something mindless. But seriously, we’re Americans, do we really put our minds to things that much? Are we really overstressing ourselves with the intelligence needed for our regular lives? But still, I can understand the desire to see something mindless. I’m the first person to go see any new monster movie that comes out- and I’m not talking about horror, I’m talking about like Godzilla or like Kong: Skull Island– because I grew up fascinated by those monsters. And then I’m one of the first people disappointed, wondering why I went to go see it, yet I will see the very next one. 

Is there anything you would want to tell the makers of Fast and Furious that they should do differently?

Well, I would definitely go if Godzilla is in the next one. 

The most ambitious crossover event of all time! Is there another movie that you would recommend that is less taxing on the brain but smarter than this one that’s out right now?

I liked Booksmart, and Long Shot, that’s a bit of a guilty pleasure. Probably just those two. You?

I can’t just give that information away, people have to read my review to find out! So we’re giving Hobbs and Shaw a free pass?

I’m giving it a free pass.

Nooo, we’re just giving it a free pass. 

It’s true.

The low expectations have gotten to us.

But seriously what they could do differently? Just, cleverer stuff? But I think they’re wearing out on that.

There’s only so far a car can go. 

I don’t know if we can improve the franchise in this discussion. I guess we’ll have to do that after we see the next one!

The next one? There’s going to be a sequel to this review? 

There’s always a sequel. 

 

-Madeleine D. 

December Round-Up, Part One

If you’re anything like me, December, with the holidays, relatives, and breaks from school/work, becomes the perfect month to catch up on all of your movie watching before Oscar season and a new year. In my case, this is also the month where I have the time and mind to catch up on some reviews, so let me offer some suggestions for what movies should be on your “nice” list. Here are six smaller films, some of which were released earlier in the year.

Sorry to Bother You

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It’s useless to try to describe this film to anyone who hasn’t seen it, so I’m just going to say this: if you want to see one of the most bizarre, memorable, and radical pieces of art this year, see Sorry to Bother You. A defiant and explosive mix of satire, parable, and horror, it embodies the chaos our nation felt this year. It feels like 2018 in movie form, and it does so while feeling completely fresh and wholly unique.

A Simple Favor

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The movie equivalent of a twinkie, A Simple Favor is ridiculous and completely over-the-top but is well anchored by a great performance by Anna Kendrick and twists that never stop coming. Its mysteries are not ones the audience is supposed to be able to solve alongside the protagonists, so the fun comes from the absurd escalation of stakes. It’s not a good movie, and but it’s a perfect addition to the emerging Gone Girl knockoff genre. I think it has been well-established by now that yes, women can be crazy, but if you need more evidence, this film will suffice.

The Spy Who Dumped Me

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There have been lots of great films starring women this year, but less starring multiple women and close female friendships (no, Oceans 8 is not enough). The Spy Who Dumped Me then is a fun surprise for its likable and hilarious center of best friends played by Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. Sure, not every joke in this action caper comedy lands, and it doesn’t quite pay off in the end, but it’s hard for me to dislike a film that made me think of me and my best friend. It’s a solid perfect rental for a light movie night and despite some crudity and gory violence, it ends up being a sweet celebration of friendship.

The Grinch

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Dull. I’ve forgotten most of what happens in it. There is absolutely no reason to watch this instead of the original animated film.

Mowgli

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Thrown onto Netflix after seeing they wouldn’t be able to compete with Disney’s live-action remake, Andy Serkis’s version of the live-action Jungle Book is sadly in the right place, not on the big screen. I applaud the more mature tone and ambition of the film, but it ends up feeling like a joyless slog. Serkis’s effort to differentiate his version from the Disney versions means all of the characters are mean and without any strong characterization, making you wonder why Mowgli likes these unpleasant companions at all. The questionable choice of putting human faces on animals works against the film’s interest, actually keeping most of the actors from being able to get through, with the exception of Christian Bale as Bagheera, who is able to put in the strongest and tenderest performance. Mowgli is never able to give a spin on the story that justifies its existence.

Instant Family

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Instant Family, a movie about a couple (played by an extremely good Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg) who take in three foster children, isn’t a revolutionary family dramedy, but it gets the job done. It tells a sweet story that, while sanitized, is still able to get across many of the difficulties and complexities of its subject matter. I’ve been told by at least one family who fosters that the film is very realistic.

For what it’s worth, I cried at the end. True, I watched this right after finals, and its tear-jerker ending was the perfect outlet for my catharsis. But I also think it is just a good film without so much as a drop of cynicism, and I hope it is truly able to do some good and inspire people to accept the noble calling of being a foster parent.

 

-Madeleine D

Is It Really Stealing If It’s Fun?: Ocean’s 8

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Ocean’s 8 follows a simple premise, tried and true from the previous entries in the Ocean’s franchise (which disclaimer, I have not seen): head con gets crew of other cons, does dope stuff while being ridiculously cool and glamorous, gets away with it, everything is awesome.

This the perfect so-called “summer movie.” Was I surprised? No. Was I entertained? Yes. Did I assign the roles in the film to my real-life friends and begin imagining a heist of our own? I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.

If you are reading this review, I have a feeling you have some interest in seeing Ocean’s 8, and if the above sounds like what you want, then I say go see it. All of the actresses are amazing, director Gary Ross is competent, and if you don’t see it soon, the handful of celebrity cameos and pop-culture references are already going to be outdated. This movie is about seeing Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett blow bubbles outside of a window where Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway are talking about Met Gala dresses (true scene) and that’s almost exactly what I expected and got.

But is Ocean’s 8 more than that? Watching the film, I tried to scour it for messages and hidden depth besides “crime is fun and kinda easy” and “if you use stolen money for personal satisfaction, and you’re a likable person, all is well.” Here’s what I found:

One of the reoccurring themes in the film is that of women being invisible- and how in this game, it’s an advantage. At one point, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) and her partner Lou (Cate Blanchett) discuss candidates for their crew and when Lou suggests a man, Deb says no because he’s “a him, and a ‘him’ get interest. A ‘her’ gets ignored.” Then throughout the film, the ladies show how their invisibility helps them, whether it’s using their bodies as a distraction, acting dumb and ditsy, or using the power of women’s bathrooms to hide. These women know how to use being ignored and silenced against others.

The film’s point is obviously to show that the joke’s on everyone who underestimates these women, including the moviegoer. You want to underestimate women? Okay, but now you’re 150 million dollars short and in jail. Take that, patriarchy.

Now that’s a serviceable message, but right now culturally we’re finally moving towards women being encouraged not to be silent. We’re are getting attention for all sort of things, getting interest for what we say and do. Leading up to its release, Ocean’s 8 had created a media narrative about being a part of this change, which is a good thing. Except, despite the fact that the film is about women who expect to be silent and ignored, and who use that to make a big statement (in the form of their successful heist), this film actually has nothing besides that to say. It’s thematically silent, pretty, and very shallow. So… you know…. like a stereotype of a woman?

Now to be fair, the Ocean’s franchise has always been a vanity project, first for Frank Sinatra and his buddies, then George Clooney and his buddies, and now Sandra Bullock and all these other famous ladies. There’s nothing wrong with making a sleek, fun, completely fantastical and glamorous film to make the rest of us feel inadequate.

So it’s wrong for me to ask this film to be extra, because as Ani Bundel says for NBC in her review of the film, “A women’s movie must be outstanding to get attention — especially if it’s funny. It cannot be a ‘Dante’s Peak’ style film; it must be ‘Bridesmaids’ or ‘Steel Magnolias.’” I don’t want to add to the pressure that films starring women must be extraordinary (and make millions at the box office) to be noticed.

But, as I try to do with all of my reviews, I assert that films should have something to say. And here the message goes no further than, “we can do it like the boys.” And that’s kind of disappointing, particularly since I think we’ve gotten past that as a culture. Women being “bad” is already chic right now.

I don’t love these full gender-swapped films because it causes the pendulum effect. Hollywood is high on girl-power right now, to right the wrongs of #MeToo, and so it’s going from the standard extreme all-male films to all-female films. Soon, it will hopefully settle in the middle, where everyone can be represented in media. But for now, this is what we’ve got, and while I wish it was a little more, it’s a fun ride and even has the potential to bring people together, as exemplified when my sister walked out of theater, turned to me, and said, “I would rob the Met Gala with you.”

As if I wouldn’t have been able to convince her otherwise.

-Madeleine D