I Would Probably Invest in a Ponzi Scheme If Jack Black Sang To Me: The Polka King


Netflix’s new movie The Polka King is a biopic of the real life Polka King of Pennsylvania, Jan Lewan. In 2004 he was arrested for running a Ponzi scheme to finance his various polka enterprises. The film is based off the documentary The Man Who Would be Polka King and notes the real Jan Lewan wrote about his life while in jail.

I knew this movie was about this scheme before I went in. The trailers and film summary tell you the movie is going to be about the scheme. Yet it wasn’t until halfway through the film I realized, with a start, Hold on, Lewan is scheming people out of their money!

Why did it take me so long to realize the film was portraying Lewan’s Ponzi scheme, when I knew that was what the film was about? How was I so surprised by what I knew before I pushed play?

What I saw while watching was a kind, hard-working family man who was just so… so genuine. Sure, part of it was that he was played by Jack Black, but his dreams and unabashed hope for America and love for his family and unyielding work ethic made me forget that what he was doing was technically illegal. People were giving him the money willingly! He was giving people generous interest on their money (at least for a while). What’s so wrong with that?

So in a way, Jan Lewan, and The Polka King, schemed me. I was duped in a film about people being duped. So what you should take away from this is that if Lewan asked me to invest with him, I probably would. I would be a tremendous sucker. Please don’t call me up for (my little bit of babysitting) money. But that also means, at least to this particular viewer, that the film not only pulled me in and made me sympathetic for the criminal protagonist, but also made me into one of the characters. It put me in the place of the investor who fell for his charm and earnestness.  

Now the film doesn’t get high marks exactly for how they make Lewan likeable. Patriotism, love for family, hard working, lovable goofiness, and an accent is the easiest and most black and white way to make a protagonist likeable. But the film does get high marks for using this as a way to make the morality of the situation grey. How can such a good man get punished so harshly? Should he even be imprisoned- did he really understand what he was doing? But he did, and now I’m angry that I’m defending him.

Ultimately, the film is able to stay pretty unbiased towards the material. It presents Lewan as a well-intentioned man who did wrong, which is how he was described in real life. The audience is the one that is left frustrated on how to respond.

Jack Black grounds the film with his Lewan being a wily, whimsical man with dreams and a dark ambition. He does most of the heavy lifting as his supporting cast get to ramble free with their own kooky stories. Jenny Slate and Jason Schwartzman are fun to watch, but are really there just to give stakes to the greater story. Their individual side plots do not have any thematic resonance on their own. Most of their contributions are true though, and the entire film is fairly accurate, which just goes to show how finding the right story is all you need for a compelling real-life movie. This movie is the true The Greatest Showman.

However, it’s the job of a film, a piece of art, to take a real-life story and find the thematic, universal message within it, and the failure of The Polka King to tie everything together and make each thread of the movie count, not just let it be filler distraction, makes it a weaker film.

This is director Maya Forbes’ second feature film, her directorial debut being 2015’s incredible Infinitely Polar Bear, a tender semi-autobiographical story about her own childhood. The Polka King is a less precise film, maybe because it is more of a comedy and doesn’t have Forbe’s own life and personal stakes in it. With a little more care, every scene and storyline in Polka King could have hit home perfectly. With a little more thought, the film could have relied less on Jack Black to pull the storylines of the other characters into his own.

That being said, The Polka King is a satisfying, whimsical real-life fable and cautionary tale that tells a story too crazy to be true. Just be warned- you might find yourself sympathizing with someone who would try to take all your money. Bleeding hearts (and get-rich-quick suckers) be warned.

-Madeleine D

Drama In Front Of and Behind the Camera: All the Money in the World


“That’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.” George Carlin

J. Paul Getty was not just the richest man who walked the earth in 1973, he was one of the richest man who had ever walked it. He found oil in Saudi Arabia and was an infamous penny pincher. He achieved the success we all dream of in one way or another.

But Getty, no matter how smart or savvy or wary he was, lacked the humanity we all hope we have. On July 10th of 1973, Getty’s grandson, Paul Getty Jr., was kidnapped in Rome by Italian gangsters. They asked for $17 million as ransom. Getty refused, and in the end, only paid $2 million, because that was what he could get as a tax credit.

It makes you wonder, was it the money that turned Getty Sr. into stone? Or was it in him all along? Or do you have to stay asleep to some things to keep the American dream? To believe it’s worth it?

With Getty Sr.  as an immovable force, it’s up to Getty Jr.’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) to fight for her son’s life, and Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to help negotiate Getty Jr.’s release. As they suffer loss after loss, with Getty Jr. slipping from their grip, they’ll wake up to some realities of their own.

To me, All the Money in the World  is as intense as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. While Dunkirk relies on the cold hand of time, All the Money in the World relies on the anticipation that something is going to happen, I was just not sure what. This might be because I didn’t know anything about the Getty story going in. I’m sure it will be different for everyone, but for me, watching a boy my age being kidnapped, tortured, with my own mother sitting beside me, watching the mother on screen do everything in her power, well, it got to me. I even nearly threw up during one scene (you’ll know it when you see it), and I had my eyes closed. The film leaves every scene with a cliffhanger, keeping the audience as frustrated as the characters, pulling us along and then making us lose hope over and over again, until the final scene where we can breathe a sigh of relief. It’s the kind of engrossing experience that only film can provide.

Christopher Plummer has been getting all the publicity for replacing Kevin Spacey mere weeks before the film’s release date, but this truly is an ensemble film. Plummer, though, does deserve all the credit he is getting. He makes nuance out of a role that would have just been stitched together with thematic lines. His and director Ridley Scott’s professionalism and talent are the real takeaway from the reshoots.

Michelle Williams gives a nomination-worthy performance as Abigail Getty Harris. She infuses grit and determination into the character, and she rejects every normal “hysterical mother” trope given to her, holding the screen in a fierce grip that puts her among the best female performances of the year.

Mark Wahlberg makes no impression here. I suppose his character is necessary, but… you know. Meh Wahlberg. Not a performance that, I dare say, is worth eight times more than Michelle Williams’. (http://www.vulture.com/2018/01/michelle-williams-paid-8-times-less-than-mark-wahlberg-for-all-the-money-in-the-world.html).

On the other side of the story, Romain Duris as Cinquanta, aka, “the nice kidnapper,” is incredibly charismatic and gives a tender performance. He and Charlie Plummer have the chemistry it takes to make the scenes of Paul’s imprisonment more compelling than they are written to be, and it’s a shame he is being overlooked in coverage of the film.

I like to say that a movie needs to justify its existence. Why is it a film I should spend money and time on? Particularly for live-action dramas.For example, I didn’t think last year’s Loving or this year’s Darkest Hour elevated their respective material to a cinematic level. Both of those films were high quality, but I didn’t gain something from watching them I couldn’t have gained from reading a Wikipedia article about their subjects.

All the Money in the World gives the audience multiple reasons for why it is a movie. The film is thrilling, and the adrenaline from watching it is not something you’ll get from a detached experience of reading it. And the film, no matter how bluntly, tries to say something about wealth, and create themes out of the historical events. Most of the time, it succeeds. And it’s an exciting ride nevertheless. It kept me engaged and left me with things to think about.

Ironically enough, a film that explores the selfishness and corruption of Paul Getty Sr., and his refusal to awaken to his family’s needs, has been a film that through behind-the-scenes drama has been a part of Hollywood’s own awakening to its corruption. Kevin Spacey’s sexual assault allegations were punished, and the revelations about the pay disparity between Williams and Wahlberg have pushed home the persistent gender pay gap. Let’s just hope Hollywood, unlike Getty, doesn’t try to fix things cheaply.

-Madeleine D

V for Victory: Darkest Hours

darkest hour

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” – Winston Churchill, speech given to the House of Commons, June 4th, 1940.

Great speech, huh? One of the best the world has ever heard. While you may assume you know about Winston Churchill, the prime minister of England during WWII, the man who guided the country through its “darkest hours,” Director Joe Wright and actor Gary Oldman want to take you through the first month of his term and try to reveal more about the man.

When I review a movie, I try to either put aside or state my personal preferences. There is no true objectivity in art, and so I try to judge both the technical achievement of a film and the thematic.

So, before I give my verdict on Darkest Hour, I should say that I have seen two other WWII films this year in Dunkirk and Their Finest. And within the last six months I have watched multiple WWI and WWII films (Empire of the Sun, The Wind Rises, Saving Private Ryan, Joyeux Noel, Lawrence of Arabia, Wonder Woman, Sophie’s Choice) and frankly, I’m just tuckered out. Also, British period dramas are not my cup of tea. Sorry. I can appreciate them, but there are only so many I can take. I would not make a good Academy member.

So Darkest Hour to me felt much longer than two hours. I was alert and engaged, but I was also not opposed to an abrupt exit.

Part of the reason is that I think films, to some degree, need to validate why they are films. If you are going to ask someone to pay money to see your film in a theater, there needs to be a compelling reason why. Darkest Hour is a lead-up to one of the most famous speeches in the world. That’s great, but besides “come see Gary Oldman’s great performance,” there isn’t anything here that I either haven’t experienced before, seen before, or could not have found out from a Wikipedia skim.

Moreso, 2017 has been a year characterized by out-of-the-box filmmaking. There have been the Justice Leagues and The Circle’s of course, but there have also been the Get Outs, Wonder Womans, Okjas and Logans and Lady Birds. Films that, even if they are not technically perfect, are ambitious and different. Films that spotlight new voices and talent.

Darkest Hours is classical. That’s not at all a bad thing. It is top-quality filmmaking. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis) makes each frame of the film mean something. Whether it is framing Churchill alone in a claustrophobic space as he tries to make a decision, or showing the ‘God’s eye view’ of the battlefield, nothing is wasted or unintentional. The script is tight. The score is haunting. All of the actors do a fine job, with Gary Oldman completely disappearing into his role. His makeup and prosthetics aren’t obvious or distracting. The entire film ticks like an intricate machine, and hits every beat.

I think, though, what makes filmmaking such a powerful medium, what keeps it culturally relevant, are the messy films that have something to say and push our expectations. My tastes are leaning towards those films, and they stay with me longer.

If you want to see a fantastic lead performance, and if you love history and admire perfect filmmaking, see Darkest Hour. Appreciate it. But I don’t think that if you miss it, you’ll be missing out on one of the best films of the year.

-Madeleine D

“Putting the Show Back in Chauvinist” : Battle of the Sexes


“You know, I remember when the actual match happened,” an older woman told me as we walked out of the theater together. I threw away my popcorn as she reminisced, “At the time, I just thought it was a big show.”

The famous 1973 match between women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King and retired champion Bobby Riggs was set up as an elaborate publicity stunt, with parades, dancers, costumes, and sponsorships. But Battle of the Sexes reveals the more sinister elements going on underneath. Infidelity, repressed sexuality, addiction, and, of course, sexism.

Battle of the Sexes’ main plot might be the lead up to the match, but the topic that obviously interests the filmmakers more is Billie Jean’s affair with hairdresser Marilyn, her sexual awakening. I think people should know what movie they are going to see, so just keep that in mind.

What I found most interesting about it was, while it’s tastefully done, the film hides the negative aspects of the relationships. We do see the toll the affair takes on Billie Jean emotionally, and her husband Larry is portrayed as a great guy. But the film leaves out of its ending credits what ended up happening to the relationship (Marilyn sued Billie for palimony, outed Billie through the lawsuits, and Billie lost her sponsorships).

Whether you agree with the choices Billie Jean King made or not, not telling the truth about something seems suspicious on the part of the filmmakers. However, it’s also Hollywood, and to be expected. It just sets up an odd tonal shift with Billie tearing herself up about it one minute, then the next throwing Larry out and seemingly confident with her decision in the next. It’s like the filmmakers wanted to realistically show what a situation like that is like, but not in a way that could be interpreted as negative or disheartening.

All that said, this is the best performance I’ve seen Emma Stone give. She’s always been talented, of course, but here her role just allows her to be even more transformative. She’s not the La La Land actress, fantasy girl. She’s a flesh and blood woman. Her Billie Jean King is driven, focused, conflicted, but when it comes to the tennis match, is always the bigger person. She faces her opposition with grace and humility, but doesn’t hesitate to speak out. She’s a role model to many for a reason.

Steve Carell plays Bobby Riggs with both over-the-top extravagance and subtle nuance. His Riggs is a showman, a con artist, and an actor. His brash and extremely sexist comments are almost laughable, and when you see how he really does seem to love his wife and family, he becomes likeable. His actions and comments are no longer as bad because he is so likable. He’s just doing publicity! Making headlines!

But that is what is just so sinister about it. When we like someone, we are less willing to critique them or call them out on something. Rigg’s sexism is so over-the-top and “playful” that it becomes normalized. It appears less harmful, although he’s preying on real attitudes. And the thing about sexism is that it isn’t just words. You don’t just hurt women’s feelings. Sexism is sinister because it is tangible. Words reflect thoughts, which is a person’s character, and eventual actions.

The things Riggs and some of the men in this movie say are scary because we almost don’t take them seriously. They are the “lovable misogynists,” and they validate men who want to do the same. There are many, many men in power who have used their lovableness and “cluelessness” to allow them to say, and then do, horrible things. It doesn’t matter that Bobby Riggs may not mean it, or his wife loves him or he’s a good dad or whatever. “Boys will be boys,” “It’s just locker room talk,” are excuses. It wasn’t appropriate then, and it doesn’t become less appropriate just because one representative woman “proved the worth” of all womankind.

There was one thing I felt missing as I walked away from Battle of the Sexes. I never got a strong establishment of the time period. Outside of tennis, what was sexism like in the wider American culture? How did people perceive the famous match? Did it really make any difference to women outside of sports? What did it mean to have one woman represent all women? Did Billie Jean King feel that burden going forwards? The film doesn’t answer any of those questions, leaving the impression that it isn’t nearly as interested in that subject as it is in its main protagonist and her love affair.

Making the main angle Billie Jean’s personal story is a good choice, though, because the typical sports story about overcoming adversity and winning has been done. That happens here, but it’s short and sweet at the end, and isn’t really the point. Winning the match for women is here, and it’s important, but by making the focus even narrower, a woman’s tumultuous time in her life, winning the match becomes bigger. It’s a matter of life and death for Billie Jean’s soul.

With those kind of stakes, it’s way more than just a show.

-Madeleine D

Thanks, Dad : The Glass Castle


*Light spoilers ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Madeleine D

Well, That Was Intense: Dunkirk


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Madeleine D

Movie Minute: Volume 2

Continue with me as I watch and review older movies!


Inkheart (2008)

Inkheart is in the tragic company of movies like Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Eragon, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Avatar: The Last Airbender. 2005-2010 was not a kind time for book to movie adaptations. But Inkheart, based on one of my favorite books of all time by German author Cornelia Funke, has something those other movies don’t have. A sense of fun.

Inkheart is unintentionally hilarious, and is my ultimate guilty-pleasure junk food movie. I have seen it a few times now, and I will continue to love it unabashedly. There is something otherworldly and magical about seeing prestigious actors in B-level fantasy roles that I will never grow tired of. Helen Mirren riding a unicorn, Jim Broadbent watching on as Andy Serkis is eaten by a mythical shadow-monster, and Paul Bettany talking to a ferret and breathing fire is the movie I never knew I wanted. While I love the better adaptations we’ve gotten, The Hunger Games still has nothing on this.


Rain Man (1988)

It’s interesting to watch the commentary on autism Rain Man presents in 2017. On one hand, it is clear we have come further in our understanding of autism in the last 29 years. However, our depiction of autism on screen really hasn’t, making Rain Man an even more outstanding film. When movies do show autism, the characters generally must either be extraordinary, as to justify their existence within the film, or they must be tiptoed around, a beacon of representation without the humanity it requires to be a successful one.

Rain Man takes the bolder route of letting Raymond be a fairly standard autistic man, and making the other characters around him change. Raymond acts how he wants to act, and we as an audience, through Tom Cruise’s’ Charlie, have to adjust our own perceptions, not the other way around. Raymond never has to become a comfortable presence for us. This makes Rain Man a very interactive experience. Not only am I watching a movie, I’m experiencing the frustration that can come with interacting with someone who is different than I am, and am also experiencing frustration at Charlie for not being more sympathetic to Reymond. This push and pull between characters and audience makes Rain Man feel more real than the occasionally uneven screenplay does. While the film is well made, very-well acted, and has a lovely score, the unique experience of the film was my main takeaway. It is a must-see.

miss potter

Miss Potter (2006)

To be honest, Victorian period dramas are not my cup of tea. I’m a little tired of the standard petticoat and British accent award bait films. While not every period piece that comes out is made with Oscar intentions, there is something about actresses getting stuffed into a corset and bemoaning pre-liberated society that makes the academy go wild. Because of this, I was not naturally inclined to like this film.

Miss Potter is about the life of Beatrix Potter, the author known for her Peter Rabbit stories. Throughout the course of the film, she gets published, falls in love, becomes a conservationist, and that is about it.  If that sounds dull to you, then you’re right, it is.

The most important thing the film does is give a wider audience knowledge about Beatrix Potter. And while her story is not particularly thrilling, she is someone people should know about. Beatrix Potter is a role model, and it is because she is ordinary enough to be relatable, but just courageous enough to look up to. She interacts with her world as I think we all do, yet she is able to go the extra mile to become a person whom we can admire.

However, not even a great heroine could sway me to really enjoy this film. My biggest problem with Miss Potter is that it just doesn’t seem to have a point. Now sure, there are some nice messages here. The importance of conservation, telling stories, doing what you love, and moving on after loss. And telling the story of any human life has intrinsic value. But the film didn’t feel like it was directed with urgency, or passion. It does not seem like someone was bursting with the desire to tell the story of Beatrix Potter. It seems like someone just decided they might as well make a movie about Beatrix Potter, and not a particularly interesting one at that.


The Godfather I&II

I don’t feel like I can say anything that hasn’t already been said about Francis Ford Coppola’s epic masterpiece, so I’ll just say this: it’s mandatory viewing for any cinephile. Or, anybody who just wants to see great art.


Okja (2017)

Okja, a new Netflix original movie, is a message movie. And being a message movie is hard, especially when the message is about food.

Okja argues against GMO foods and the modern food industry, taking aim at pork production in particular. Because it’s a message movie, it doesn’t take a look at all sides. The villains are some of the most over the top and cartoony I’ve ever seen, and there isn’t much room for debate when you bring in Holocaust imagery.

But the saving grace for Okja from being a very on-the-nose movie about heroic animal activists and super pigs, is its direction. Thanks to director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer) the film offers up much more.

The standout of Okja is newcomer actress Seo-Hyeon Ahn. She’s not only impressively able to act against a CGI pig with conviction, she’s also a force to be reckoned with against the adult actors and an action star in the making. She does some Tom Cruise level stunts in this film, and pulls them all off beautifully. The supporting cast all get time to shine, too. Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, and Lily Collins all have particularly good moments.

In the end, it’s the stylistic direction of Joon-ho that keeps you going through the movie. The film has some clunkier moments, and the message will be grating to some, but at least it has a position, purpose, and drive. It’s a quirky, whimsical and dark fairy tale that may be one of the most unique things you see all year. It is clear that Bong Joon-ho was bursting to make this film, and it shows. That is what makes any message movie work.

-Madeleine D

Movie Minute

Because I haven’t seen a new release in a couple weeks, I’m presenting for your consideration short reviews for a few films I have seen recently. These are not new releases, and vary in how old they are. Maybe one of these could be the perfect film for a sweltering hot summer day!

As you like it

As You Like It (2006) dir. Kenneth Branagh

As You Like It, an HBO movie from Hollywood’s favorite drama nerd director, has three things going for it. One, a marvelous ensemble cast, the majority of which is grossly underused. Two, a setting that distracts you from the oddly-paced story. And three, Bryce Dallas Howard, who has an energetic charm that keeps you from thinking too much about how terrible her disguise as a man is and how much of her role has been cut.

Those positives are about it. The biggest problem with As You Like It is that it doesn’t feel whole. Howard’s Rosalind does not seem to have the starring role she should have, and David Oyelowo does not get near his due with his Orlando. Branagh seems to try and make the minor characters have equal roles with Rosalind and Orlando, and in doing so creates a play that has no central storyline to hold on to. It is spread thin. Even similar plays like it, such as A Midsummer’s Night Dream, still have major and minor characters. This adaptation of As You Like It does not seem to have this distinction. And while the aesthetics of Japan are a unique addition, it is simply one more task the film cannot take. It buckles under the weight of its underdeveloped ambition and does not leave any strong impressions in its wake.


Bridge of Spies (2015) dir. Steven Spielberg

A Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Coen brothers collaboration is no joke, yet Bridge of Spies was relatively neglected when it came out. While this story of an American insurance lawyer negotiating the trade between two Americans and a Russian spy during the Cold War did win Mark Rylance an Academy Award for his supporting role, it is nowhere within anyone’s list of favorite Spielberg movies. That makes sense when you take into account Spielberg’s resume, but does not when you take in its fellow movies of that year. Bridge of Spies is small and mighty, and it succeeds not only because of the talent involved, but because of its message. It might be one of the most patriotic movies ever made, while also being incredibly sympathetic to our country’s enemies. The film’s message is about everyday men and women who work hard and do their jobs. While these jobs might not always be noble, human dignity and the work we do are inseparable to many, especially in the context of our western ideals. It shows that our justice system is dependent on the people who run it, and when those people fight for ideals, we become more of the nation we inspire to be. A well crafted story with thoughtful themes makes a film worth watching, and maybe makes it worth being on a favorite list of some kind.


The Wind Rises (2013) dir. Hayao Miyazaki

Set in the early beginnings of World War 2, The Wind Rises is the loosely biographical story of aerial engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a plane used by Imperial Japan during the war.

It goes without saying that the Studio Ghibli work, lead by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, is stunning. The film could be watched on mute, and the visual experience would be on par with its greatest contemporaries.

But don’t turn off the sound, because the story is just as worthwhile. There is something very disarming about being an American, watching the story of Japan’s entrance into World War 2 through the eyes of a civilian who just wants to make the world a more beautiful place. Jiro sees airplanes as one of the greatest achievements of mankind, and only wants to make them better. This intrinsic desire to make beautiful things is a message that should resonate with everyone. As a Christian, this desire is near the core of my belief, because it reflects on the nature of the greatest creator of them all.

More than what Jiro does, though, is who he is. Jiro is one of the best heroes I have ever met, despite what he creates being used in horrific ways. The love story between him and his wife, Nahoko, is a touching story of sacrifice and care, one of the best I’ve ever seen on film. Jiro is who we should aspire to be, and his personal integrity and strength defies all politics, all sides, and all situations we find ourselves in. If we all carried ourselves like Jiro, the world would be a better place.

-Madeleine D

Dumbfounded White Faces: Hidden Figures


Don’t you know that we’re able? Pharrell Williams sings in the soundtrack of Hidden Figures, based on the true story of the black women who worked at NASA leading up to John Glenn’s historic 1962 launch into orbit. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan all want to see their country win the space race as much as any other American, and they are prepared to use their skills to do it, no matter what roadblocks are put in their way.

Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) is a genius mathematician, allowed to work with the core group of engineers and scientists leading the mission. Mary (Janelle Monáe) is working to become the first female engineer, and is attempting to cross the color barrier at a white university to do so. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is empowering fellow black female computers (mathematicians), while trying to achieve the title of supervisor that she deserves.

Don’t you know that we’re able? Yes, but how long will it take for that to translate into respect? For these women, it looks further away than landing on the moon.

Hidden Figures is a woven tapestry of the experiences of these women, from their work, to their personal lives, to their cultural and social experiences at the height of the Civil Rights movement, demonstrating the balance these women had to achieve, and presenting the challenges they faced, without ever making it seem so hopeless that it wasn’t worth it. The realness of the main women (powered even further by the strong performances from all the main actresses), from their mannerisms, to their relationships, and their simple desire to do good work, is striking. Watching multiple scenes with three women- women of color no less- laughing with each other, going to church together, raising their children and going to work side by side is something I have rarely seen in movies, or entertainment in general. It reminds me that the normalities of my life are the same ones the women who have and will shape the world have.

With the recent explosion of experimental and powerfully subtle biographies and historical dramas (Selma, Lincoln, Jackie, The Theory of Everything, Suffragette, The Imitation Game, etc) Hidden Figure’s on-the-nose-iness and guileless inspiration sometimes is jarringly amateurish. Moments like Mary Jackson telling a judge, “Sometimes you just have to be the first. I want to be the first so others can come after me,” make the film seem more like a TV movie- one that has a message and is afraid you might not understand it unless it says it out loud.

But then there are moments that encapsulate abundances of truth that shock you by their authenticity. Kirsten Dunst’s Mrs. Michaels telling Dorothy Vaughn, “Despite what you might think, I really don’t have anything against you people,” and Dorothy responding with, “I know. I know you believe you don’t.” Moments like Katherine walking into a white man’s room and the quiet that settles over it, as people look at each other, trying to navigate their social norms into this seemingly earth-shattering moment. Moments like a police officer pulling up to the three women when their car is broken down, and they immediately start having to question their own innocence, and then having to prove it.

These moments prove that Hidden Figures isn’t ashamed of being a heartwarming, honest, earnest, and truly inspirational film. It isn’t here for bravo or self-congratulations. It isn’t here to woo the critics (not to say it isn’t award-worthy, it just isn’t showy). It is audience friendly because it’s here to speak to the Black girl sitting in the theater; the White, Latina, Indian, Native American, Asian, any girl, sitting in the theater. It’s here to reach the boys and the men and the women and everyone who has ever felt unappreciated, or who has ever been discouraged from pursuing his or her talents and dreams. It is for the people who love America and want to make it better, and aren’t afraid to examine its past for the good and the bad.

That is what makes Hidden Figures a fantastic movie. It restores history to a disenfranchised group, confronts the reasons why that group has been disenfranchised, and sets the story straight. It does that all while being incredibly timely to now, without sacrificing its warmth, humor, toe-tapping soundtrack, and flawless performances.

Hidden Figures is for everyone, and celebrates the achievements of everyone who has worked hard and fought for what was right. That’s an achievement, and if the movie tells us anything, it should be recognized as such.

-Madeleine D

Quiet People Doing Extraordinary Things: Loving


The climactic scene of Loving is divided between two locations. One is the Supreme Court, where the future of interracial marriage lies in the landmark case of Virginia vs Loving. The second location is a farm, where Mildred Loving, a black woman, watches her husband, Richard Loving, a white man, play with their two children in the yard. She gets a call from their lawyers. They won. Mildred nods, hangs up, and smiles at her husband. He nods, and goes back to playing with the kids.

And that’s all folks. They win. Interracial marriage is legal in the United States. The Loving family can continue their daily lives, just with less fear.

If that climax sounds less-than-exciting to you, keep in mind before you see Loving that that is how the whole movie plays. It is an unbelievably calm, restrained, and polite film. Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) never get angry with each other or their circumstances. They go through their entire ordeal with humility and quiet conviction. Director Jeff Nichols refuses to craft an Oscar drama. He creates one that reflects the nature of the Lovings themselves. Richard Loving states in the film, “Tell the judge I love my wife.” He doesn’t want to go to court. He doesn’t want to make a statement. He just loves his wife. Loving doesn’t make itself into a statement. It presents itself as just a slice of life, albeit with extraordinary implications.

There is a difference between restraint and boring though, and how Loving walks that line is still up for debate. I think one of the year’s best examples of restraint is this Fall’s Southside With You, about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. That was a film that could have easily gone for Oscar bait with huge speeches, big statements on politics and the state of America today, and unrealistically canny foreshadowing. Yet Southside With You chooses to serve its story rather than its makers.

So what does that make Loving? I think it depends. I personally don’t think this story is a good fit for a movie. It is certainly important, and everyone should know about the Lovings. But you could cover all the material given here with a podcast, a Wikipedia page read, or even the trailer for this film. There is very little meat here.

The lack of meat in the film is replaced with elements that may be very appealing to some. It’s an actor’s film through and through, with Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton giving Oscar-worthy performances. They don’t play particularly interesting people, but they play them with an admirable amount of naturalness.

Honestly though, there isn’t much else. The film has what we’ve come to expect- nice cinematography, a serving score, a feel of deep authenticity in its historical setting. But if you know the story, and don’t care to watch intense faces for two hours, Loving isn’t going to be your movie. Truthfully, it wasn’t mine. I appreciate the film for what it is, and for not falling into all the traps it could have. I just wished I had walked out of the theater, pumping my fist in the air, yelling “Yes! They did it!”

The film didn’t need to be cliched or loud to do that. It just needed to make sure the stakes were clear and to show the real injustices the Lovings (and couples like them) faced. But, when the worst punishment shown in the film is them being jailed for a few nights, I didn’t get the feeling of, “This is an unjust problem that needs to be solved right away.” I never felt anxious for them or their situation.

The film does a wonderful job of portraying who the Lovings were. But then it takes it a step too far and becomes the Lovings. It reminds me why not a lot of movies are made about introverts. It doesn’t matter how powerful those closeups of intense expressions are. It doesn’t matter how wonderful they are as role models, with Mildred Loving’s inner strength and determination and Richard Loving’s quiet conviction. Quiet people simply do not have the onscreen charisma we are used to to entertain us. And I say this all as an introvert. A movie about me would not be entertaining in the least.

So, do make movies about important people, introverted or not. But do not make an introverted movie if it doesn’t have more to say. Loving is sensitive and sweet, but isn’t able to transfer the love on screen to the audience.

-Madeleine D