Boldness in Storytelling: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Jojo Rabbit, and Cats

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*Spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker 

I’ve said before that I’d rather have a movie that takes risks and sticks to a bold vision than one that plays it safe and is dull. When I say bold vision, that doesn’t mean the movie has to be big or flashy. Avengers: Endgame is a big, flashy film, but doesn’t have as bold a vision as, say, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, which is a much quieter film but sticks to its guns and has fascinating ideas. 

But after seeing the wild trio of WWII satire comedy Jojo Rabbit, the final movie of the newest Star Wars trilogy, and Cats, I have been forced to ask myself if I really, really do prefer boldness. 

Star Wars

You’re probably here for a review of The Rise of Skywalker, and you’ve probably already seen it and have a lot of thoughts. 

I like Star Wars, but would not call myself an invested fan. I enjoyed The Force Awakens, primarily for the promising new characters, and I really liked The Last Jedi, because it tried to move the franchise away from nostalgia and tired patterns towards a new future. It challenges Star Wars fans to imagine a more inclusive Star Wars, and it made the franchise less escapist.  

Unsurprisingly, it’s now one of the most divisive films in recent history. Not that director Rian Johnson couldn’t have gone about his radical reimaginings with more grace towards the original fanbase, but I can never forgive The Rise of Skywalker for doing him dirty and almost entirely retconning everything he tried to do. There are ways director JJ Abrams could have tried to unite the fanbase without erasing or ignoring everything Johnson introduced. The way it was handled reeks of desperation and cowardice. 

I usually see movies knowing most of the spoilers, but I didn’t for Rise of Skywalker, so there ended up being three moments I involuntarily threw up my hands and sighed. 

  1. Rey is a Palpatine- I’ve never been punched in the face, and I don’t know if Rian Johnson has either, but now we both know how it would feel. 
  2. Han and Ben/Kylo moment- I know Harrison Ford hasn’t cared about Star Wars for a while now, but after seeing this, I question if he’s ever had any genuine enthusiasm for anything in his entire life. 
  3. When Rey and Ben kiss- Writer/director Joss Whedon once said, “Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” This choice gives people neither of these things, which in a fandom as divided as Star Wars, with a movie as fanservice-y as this, is actually quite an accomplishment, I guess. 

There is a distinct lack of identity to ROS, despite the film trying to namecheck and cameo every part of the Star Wars legacy. It shows, more than anything, that Star Wars has to change. It can’t continue like this, and it’s going to take a very strong creative force (not a Dollar Tree-Spielberg) to move the franchise into new territory. Not everyone will like it, but that’s what bold vision takes. 

One of the worst parts of ROS is the hastily completed redemption arc of Ben Solo. We all knew it was coming, but that doesn’t excuse that there is absolutely no attention paid to the fact that he’s been, in effect, a fascist. In a world with a rising number of actual fascists, extreme alt-righters, and incels (these three things are not all the same, but there is a heavy overlap), Kylo Ren being one of them can’t be treated lightly. 

So if Star Wars isn’t going to teach you how to redeem a fascist, then Taika Waititi will. 

How to Redeem a Fascist: Jojo Rabbit vs Rise of Skywalker

Jojo Rabbit is a dark comedy about WWII and Hitler that tears apart the ideology of the Nazis. With the rise of neo-nazism today, a movie that is both critical of nazism but also has compassion for those who have been taken in by it is critical. 

The film tells the story of a 10-year old boy (a fantastic Roman Griffin Davis) living in Nazi Germany near the end of WWII who is one of Hitler Youth and discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) a Jewish girl his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in their house. His interactions with Elsa challenge all that he’s been told about the Jews and the war, and he comes to terms with the lies he’s believed. 

The film is able to show how those with hateful ideology prey on vulnerable young people by promising things that all people universally want- to be loved, accepted, and made to feel important and powerful in a world where so much is out of our control. By emphasizing throughout just how young Jojo is, the audience is reminded just how vulnerable and easily persuaded children are, which helps us root for Jojo’s redemption, even as he says and does terrible things. It reminds us to be compassionate for the scared child within all of us. 

Jojo is redeemed by the end of the film by realizing what he’s been taught is wrong, and then, with the help of others, finding love, identity, and community outside of this ideology. The people who help him don’t ever condone or excuse his bad actions, but they don’t give up on him. Most importantly, they offer Jojo alternatives. In our age of calling people out on social media and “canceling” people, it is very easy to say someone is doing something bad, but there’s very little offering of something better. That’s where the hope is in Jojo Rabbit. 

Meanwhile, in Star Wars, Ben Solo is a mass murderer and a father-killer who says he’s drawn to the light side every few scenes, but only changes when he’s healed by Rey, to whom he already has a force-connection with. Then he has a quick exchange with his dead-dad, and then he helps out Rey and then dies. 

Now there is no explicit outlining of the First Order’s ideology, but from context, visual cues, and the history of Star Wars, it’s clear they are supposed to be like the Nazis.* That makes Ben Solo, a young man who was taken in by Snoke/the First Order, fit to compare to Jojo. 

When Ben goes to the light side, he doesn’t have to reckon with his ideologies and past (besides being forgiven by dead dad.) There’s no conscious uncoupling with the systems that were approving and supporting his vile behavior. There is no real alternative he joins with, except Rey. Because in the Star Wars universe you can just switch to the “light side,” Ben never has to unlearn all of his behaviors and hateful thoughts like Jojo does. And Ben dies heroically, which, ironically enough, is a key component of fascism, the cult of death. When it comes to Ben vs Jojo, this lyric from Hamilton sums it up well- “dying is easy, young man, living is harder.” Jojo has to live with the continued consequences of having been a part of an evil institution. Ben does not. 

Even worse is that Rise of Skywalker implies Emporer Palpatine created Snoke to manipulate Ben, because then it’s like Ben was somehow mind-controlled and manipulated into becoming a neo-nazi, which makes it easier to excuse his behavior and it reduces the systematic and structural ways youths are pulled into ur-fascism to one individual bad apple. 

Jojo Rabbit never does this, instead showing the systemic and structural ways youths are pulled into ur-fascism/nazism while also not negating personal responsibility and choice. These complex choices make Jojo Rabbit a bold movie that doesn’t run from controversy or relevant commentary. But it isn’t controversial because it’s trying to be provocative or just rile people up. It’s for good reason. And it’s an overall excellent film. 

And then there’s Cats

Cats

There’s been a lot of great memes about Cats. Reviews for the film have basically become a genre within themselves. It’s a movie so inexplicable that it makes it hard to talk about, and you’ve probably already decided whether you’re going to see it or not.

But while making a movie of the musical “Cats” was probably a fundamentally bad idea, this film is bold through the level of seriousness and commitment everyone, from the actors to the director, takes with this movie. It’s ridiculous and nonsensical and contains the eternal sin of somehow being able to make beautiful-human Idris Elba look like a naked mole-rat, but once you surrender to it, at least it tried. Honestly, I’d rather have something like this, with its breathless enthusiasm and wild disregard for things like “decency” and “respectability” than something that feels soulless and engineered. It’s unhinged, but isn’t it kinda beautiful that it can all bring us together in utter dismay? 

There’s this great story about Harold Prince, a legendary theater producer, who met with Andrew Lloyd Webber about his musical “Cats” and was insistent that there must be some kind of deeper analogy and theme behind the story (sounds like a man after my own heart) but simply could not figure out what they must be. He said to Webber, “‘I don’t understand. Is this about English politics? (Are) those cats Queen Victoria, Gladstone, and Disraeli?’ He looked at me like I’d lost my mind, and after the longest pause said, ‘Hal, this is just about cats.’” 

Sometimes, you have to surrender and realize that this is just about Cats. 

-Madeleine D. 
*Video essayist Lindsay Ellis has an excellent video on this subject of Star Wars, the First Order, and Fascism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAVeyXwy3BE

A Passover Story: A Guide to the Symbolism of “Uncut Gems”

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By Jonathan Dorst

The book of Exodus in the Old Testament is a story of two types of people and two ways of living. The first type of person and lifestyle is represented by Pharaoh in his drive to build bigger and bigger buildings and work his (Jewish) slaves seven days a week (Exodus 1:14) to produce the marvels of Egypt. The other type of person and lifestyle is represented by Yahweh God in His desire to have a (Jewish) people who are defined by their just and loving relationships to one another and their ability to rest (Exodus 20:10).

The dramatic highlight of the book is when God brings about a series of ten plagues upon Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let His people out of their slavery. When, nine plagues in, Pharaoh is still resolute in not allowing the Israelites to leave, God finally unleashes His angel of death to kill every firstborn son in Egypt. While the Egyptian families are devastated, the Israelite families are spared by spreading blood over the doorways of their homes, signaling to the angel to pass over their homes.

In Uncut Gems, the new film from (Jewish) filmmakers Josh & Benny Safdie, we see a man torn between these two ways of living and unsure of what type of person he wants to be. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a (Jewish) jewelry store owner who, from the beginning of the film, is working overtime to pay off his gambling debts at the same time that he’s trying to find the money to place his next big bet. As we follow him through a series of failures and new ideas, we find ourselves exhausted at the energy Howard must put forth to build his empire, try to satisfy both his family and his mistress, and keep ahead of his creditors and their goons. The Safdies do a great job of keeping the tension ratcheted up at an almost unsustainable pace.

In the middle of the film, however, we are treated to a peaceful scene that happens in the home of Howard’s father-in-law. His extended family is celebrating Passover together and we watch as they go through the motions of the traditional meal, at one point having Howard name each of the plagues- blood, frogs, gnats, locusts, etc…- while dipping a finger in their wine and throwing it on their plates. This Passover ceremony is a snapshot of the film as a whole, as we follow Howard, the materialist who can’t stop working to achieve, through close call after close call (plague after plague), hoping that he’ll finally stop making bad decisions and begin valuing relationships over money before he gets to his own final plague. While the film doesn’t go as literal as the 1999 film Magnolia, with its frogs raining from the sky, it does still clearly give us visual hints of the plagues, as when a character pours red Gatorade into Howard’s fish tank (Exodus 7:20-21).

One of the key images in the film is the door to Howard’s jewelry shop. This door, with bulletproof glass windows, automatically locks so that people can only get in after someone inside the shop buzzes them in. Halfway through the film, however, the door starts to get stuck, and after using a hammer to try to jolt it into working, Howard uses some metal shavings above the door to get it to open. Without giving away spoilers, the dramatic highlight of the movie comes when the shavings above the door are swept away and a literal bringer of death is summoned through the door.

Whereas Moses, the human protagonist of Exodus, “[chose] rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:24-25), Howard simply has to choose to slow down and live the rich life he already has. At certain moments, as when he is talking to his wife and daughter, Howard gets close to giving up his greedy schemes and settling in to a restful contentment with the good life he already has. But, ultimately, he is seduced by the way of empire, the way of Pharaoh and every other world builder whose avarice is unlimited, believing that that way of life is the best way to be truly alive. And we know, as we watch his folly, that there must be a better way of living- that our hearts were made for relationship, and the God who wants our hearts also gives us the rest that we need.

Check out more of Jonathan’s reviews at:

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/chorusinthechaos/author/jonathandorst/

Holiday Roundup: Last Christmas, Peanut Butter Falcon, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Marriage Story, and Bombshell

Last Christmas

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*Spoilers

In a possible attempt to be the anti-Hallmark Christmas movie, Last Christmas tries to be five different movies in one, with each storyline being just off-kilter enough to not be formulaic or guessable. 

Once you think you’re watching a quirky romance, you’re actually watching the psychotic breakdown of a woman who is falling in love with the ghost of the man who gave her a heart transplant last Christmas (“Last Christmas, I gave you my heart”- get it? GET IT?!). Once you’ve adjusted to the ghostmance, you’re actually watching a workplace rom-com. Then, wait- this movie is actually about the rise of xenophobia with Brexit and rising politicals fears. Then you’ve got a subplot about a woman who’s scared to come out as gay to her family. But wait again! This movie is actually about the holiday spirit as a woman is faced with the realities of being homeless. But it’s all cutesy enough not to feel, you know, uncheerful. 

I can’t say the film does any of these stories or tonal shifts well. It’s too busy trying to tie all these half-baked ideas together that it never gets around to saying anything. 

Yet… it charmed me?

Stars Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding really do have nice chemistry, and Clarke is immensely charismatic. The holiday cheer is undeniable throughout the film, yet there’s also a refreshing amount of admission that for many people, Christmas is still wrought with real problems.

At most, Last Christmas is a rental. I doubt it will be remembered as a Christmas classic. But it might just be remembered like the WHAM! song it’s based on- often irritating, but sometimes it hits you just right. 

Peanut Butter Falcon

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Like many critics have already pointed out, Peanut Butter Falcon is reminiscent of the works of Mark Twain, particularly The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The story of a young man with down syndrome (Zack Gottsagan) escaping from his care facility and joining an outlaw (Shia LaBeouf) on the run is the best kind of a feel-good buddy dramedy. It has both the heart and the smarts, and great performances all around. 

It also captures the deep South authentically. It’s able to portray some of the worst aspects of the region without feeling condescending or patronizing (unlike some films, *cough* Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri *cough*). 

The only weak spot is the ending, which feels hastily wrapped up in a way that suggests the screenwriters didn’t know how to end the story. But it doesn’t ruin the film and, in a way, keeps the overall fable-like tone. Peanut Butter Falcon is a great choice for an almost all-ages movie night and is, as the kids say, truly wholesome. 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood plays like an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, but for adults. Because of that, Mr. Rogers (played by Hollywood’s Mr. Rogers, Tom Hanks), isn’t really the lead. This film isn’t going to give you more insights into Rogers, like last year’s excellent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will. But if you want to understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of Roger’s gentle teaching and affirmations, and maybe think through some anger or bitterness you’ve been holding onto, this movie is the perfect way to do it. It’s an ideal holiday movie in this regard, and a great watch. If the documentary answers the question of who Mr. Rogers was, then this film answers the question, “How was his show and teaching style effective?” Just keep in mind that this film is for teens and adults- there won’t be much for kids. 

Marriage Story

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A lot of praise has already been heaped on Marriage Story, and with good reason. It truly is a great film, full of raw emotion, layered performances, and a lot of truth. 

I don’t usually let distance from a film’s subject matter keep me from commenting upon it. But as someone who doesn’t have any experience with the deeply complicated and personal topics of the film, I feel particularly ill-equipped to say much about Marriage Story. I think it will speak to everyone in a different way. All I’ll say is that I highly recommend it. 

Bombshell

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Bomshell is this year’s Vice or The Big Short, using an Adam McKay-lite style to tell the story of the women who brought down Fox News’s Roger Ailes and broke some of the first ground of what would become the #MeToo era of exposing sexual harassment and assault.

When talking to a friend of mine who was interested in seeing the film, he admitted that he was reluctant because he felt the trailers had made the film seem like it was going to be saying all men are evil. He is also conservative and didn’t want to sit through two hours of bashing Fox News. I was able to tell him that while this film isn’t pro-Fox News or its particular brand of conservatism, Bombshell is less concerned with liberals vs. conservatives and more concerned with right vs. wrong, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on. There are jabs at both liberals and conservatives, and there are voices in the film that speak to the positives of Fox News. It’s a much more balanced film than either of McKay’s works. 

The point of Bombshell is not to say “men are trash” or to condemn all conservative news outlets. Instead, it is to show how a system of power and predators can be built, how it’s controlled, and why so many are victims to it. This system is not just a Republican thing- it’s a human thing. The film makes it clear the paranoia this system feeds and how high the stakes are for the women who come forward with allegations. It shows that changing any social ill takes both individual leadership and institutional change. 

Bombshell isn’t content with just exposing Roger Ailes. Instead, it goes beyond one bad man and interrogates many of the elements that go into making a workplace toxic. By examining these systems, the film engages in a form of sociological storytelling. That makes it a film that goes beyond being timely into being important.

-Madeleine D.

Family and Falsehoods: The Farewell

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In Lulu Wang’s film The Farewell, Billi (Awkwafina), a woman whose family moved to America from China when she was young, learns that her grandmother Nai-Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has terminal cancer, and the whole family is going to China to say goodbye. The catch? The family is reuniting under the guise of a fake wedding, and Nai-Nai doesn’t know she has cancer. The family has decided not to tell her, per Chinese tradition. Billi goes and wrestles with returning to her home country and the grief that she must repress. 

The Farewell is a slow, contemplative film that is occasionally funny but mostly content with simply watching its characters. There is very little story, very little change within the characters, and no clear judgments on the central ethical question of whether it is wrong to lie to Nai-Nai about her condition.

Initially, this bothered me. My American sensibilities were frustrated with Billi’s lack of a character arc, the way the central problem isn’t “solved,” and how the film seems to emphasize all the wrong points. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to appreciate the film for what it is, which is two things: First, it is a film about grief, and grief is not something that is convenient, timely, concise, or narratively satisfying. Second, The Farewell is a movie less about its characters and more about its environment and sense of place. 

The first point. Billi is our protagonist in the loosest sense. We follow her around and she makes choices that change the course of the story, which makes her the main character. But she also doesn’t feel much like a protagonist because we don’t know much about her outside of her grief, and she doesn’t change (at least externally) over the course of the film. She is our point of view character, but less so as an individual and more so as a representative of her family. This, in and of itself, explores the theme of the American Individual vs. the Chinese Collective cultural mindset and, with that in mind, it is a less frustrating choice. 

Awkwafina does nice work here, but she doesn’t have a lot to do and doesn’t quite get across any indication that Billi has a rich inner life that we simply aren’t privy to. Because we know so little about Billi outside of her grief, it is hard to get a sense of her character or relate to her. But isn’t that the thing about grief? It can be so consuming that the grief feels like our whole identity and the only thing people can see in us. It is so overwhelming that our natural selves feel lost within it. Again, with that in mind, Billi’s character, and the film’s tone overall, is a less frustrating choice. 

What may have helped the film have higher stakes and have a more dynamic protagonist would have been to make Billi the one being coerced into the fake marriage. We would still have the outsider status and the central set-up, but there would have been more of a plot and more for Billi to proactively do than wander around the film and talk to various characters. 

But maybe that would have been too much like Crazy Rich Asians and too easy of a set-up. It would have also weakened the film’s focus on grief. And, after all, The Farewell is invested in its sense of place, and having wedding hijinks would distract from that. 

This sense of place, the atmosphere, is not only investigated in the physical environment of China, but also in the domestic settings. This film captures, scarily so, what it feels like to be at a family reunion. Maybe not for every family, but I had a family reunion about a month ago, and throughout the film I kept being reminded of it. The joy of the grandmother to have everyone under the same roof. The sitting around the table for hours. Various family members sneaking off to seek privacy and talk in hushed whispers. Taking pictures. Reading through old letters and visiting graves and collectively remembering those we’ve lost along the way. Looking around and wondering what it means that these people are tied into your DNA, yet you may know little to nothing about them. 

Ultimately, The Farewell is not interested in debating the ethics of such a lie. This is not a movie about mind-games and philosophical puzzles. It’s about presence, and it’s a clear reminder that every family, no matter cultural differences, is a family, and I think anyone will be able to see themselves in Billi’s family. So despite some small complaints, I think The Farewell is a beautiful film that is the perfect alternative to, say, Hobbs and Shaw, for your summer movie-watching.

The Gospel of Place: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

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“In the Christian imagination, where you live gets equal billing with what you believe. Geography and theology are biblical bedfellows…Biblical religion has a low tolerance for ‘great ideas’ or ‘sublime truths’ or ‘inspirational thoughts’ apart from the places in which they occur. God’s great love and purposes for us are worked out in the messes in our kitchens and backyards, in storms and sins, blue skies, daily work, working with us…where we are…and not where we would like to be.” 

-Eugene Peterson, in the forward to Sidewalks in the Kingdom by Eric O. Jacobsen 

“If we learn to see and even love these urban features, we will begin to cheer when our cities and neighborhoods are preserved, and we will begin to weep when they are destroyed” 

      -Jacobsen, 73 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, despite its provocative and apocalyptic title, is a meandering and tender eulogy about a number of things. The film follows a man named Jimmie Fails (played by the man of the same name, on whose life story the film is based on) as he squats in the home he lived in as a kid and tries to find a way to buy it back for himself. Jimmie’s love for the house (and San Francisco at large) is of the purest form and is possibly only rivaled by the love of his friend Monty (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring playwright who supports Jimmie until he discovers the truth about the house. The film watches the characters navigate this increasingly strange and hostile city that they love but are being priced out of. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a movie unlike any other movie that has come out this year, and I’d like to look at a few more reasons why.

In American filmmaking, time is treated like it is in our society- something to be hastened and exploited and used to its very last drop. Time efficiency is considered great storytelling, and sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn’t, and there becomes a point where efficiency in storytelling means the filmmaker may use her characters more as tools than as reflections of humans. In TLBMISF, the camera gazes upon human faces and human bodies in a way that aims to cut straight to the character’s humanity, and it does not hasten to do this or have an agenda. At one point Monty, after being berated by some men on the street, says to Jimmie, “I shouldn’t get to appreciate them because they’re mean to me? That’s silly.” This is the attitude the film takes. Some characters that seem to have no narrative function turn out to be of great importance. Some characters really do not have any greater plot function, but all are treated with care and dignity by the camera. I’ve talked a few times before about having an empathetic camera, but TLBMISF exemplifies the concept more fully than any other film I’ve seen. This is true visual storytelling and a better form of storytelling efficiency.  

An unexpected consequence of this narrative empathy was that this became a stressful viewing experience for me because there was no one to really root against, so there was no sense of, “Of course this bad guy will be defeated, good conquers evil!” I was constantly in suspense about what was going to happen, and the film continued to go in unexpected directions. I felt this anxiety early on because Jimmie and Monty are so dang likable, even when they’re not doing likable things. It’s impossible not to want them to succeed, and panic at all of the clear obstacles in their ways. 

Speaking of Monty and Jimmie, in films with friendship in the middle, one character often takes an extreme comedic relief role and the other plays the straight man. They have to be extremes to keep things interesting, and their quippy rapport is a shorthand to express their closeness. Monty and Jimmie don’t fit into these categories in any fashion. They have their differences, but the performances are so lived-in and organic, the chemistry between the leads so effortless, and the physical closeness they often share is so comfortable that there is no need to have any kind of shorthand or tropes to establish the relationship. And refreshingly, the film feels no need to “no homo” the character’s bond at any point, further exuding the confidence the film feels about its own presence. 

~

The quotes at the beginning of this review are from Sidewalks in the Kingdom, a book about Christianity and new urbanism. In it, author Eric O. Jacobsen argues what the Bible argues- that Christianity is not solely the realm of the head and heart, but has to be enacted on the streets of where we live, and increasingly, that place is a city. The Bible begins in the Garden of Eden but ends in the Kingdom of God, pointedly shown to be a city. 

TLBMISF sees the city, in this case, San Francisco, as the Bible sees cities. And as already discussed, it also sees people in the same way. As Jimmie tells some newcomers who already dislike San Francisco, “You can’t hate it unless you love it.” As Christians, we cannot recognize the problems in the world and in our cities until we at first truly, truly love it. 

I am writing this review and including these quotes because I encourage you to watch this film, and I think watching it in this framework will be helpful, thought-provoking, and hopefully, rewarding. It was impossible for me not to consider these things when I saw it. TLBMISF is not pointedly a spiritual film, but like all good movies, it illuminates truth. Christians are called to love the earth we are on, and work for its benefit and glory. If only we all saw the spaces we occupy and the communities we are a part of in the way Jimmie and Monty see San Francisco. If only we advocated for the restoration of the historical homes of our cities, called for walkable streets and sidewalks, for justice in our legal systems and in our economic policies, and for thoughtfulness and care put into the urban renewal that is not only gentrifying San Francisco but all of the United States. 

In other words, we can and should get to a point where we will begin to cheer when our cities and neighborhoods are preserved, and we will begin to weep when they are destroyed.

Brie Larson Trifecta: Short Term 12, Room, and Unicorn Store

Recently, I found myself with a to-watch list that contained three Brie Larson films. So, in a very late celebration of her film Captain Marvel reaching the billion dollar mark at the box office and Avengers: Endgame taking all the rest of the world’s money, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of Larson’s filmography. 

Short Term 12Image result for short term 12

Short Term 12 is about Grace (Brie Larson), a young counselor at a care unit for at-risk teens. Grace herself was once one of those teens, but now is a model for the kids as she cares for them in a calm, firm, and compassionate manner. The slice-of-life drama follows Grace and her boyfriend/ fellow counselor Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) as they face new challenges at the center and in their relationship. 

There’s not a single weak performer in the cast. While Larson got deserved praise for her performance, John Gallagher Jr. is equally perfect. He does most of the comedic lifting, but he has a number of small dramatic moments that make the film work so well, and he and Larson have perfect chemistry. The supporting cast, including rising stars Rami Malek and Lakeith Stanfield (go see Sorry to Bother You!), are equally great in their roles. 

The film is so authentic and realistic it feels like a documentary, but it never once lost my attention. It is, simply put, riveting. Short Term 12 never shies away from the flaws of its characters, but it also never forgets their dignity and beauty either. It is the kind of film that pulls you completely into the story, and makes you feel the pain of each character, yet also makes you feel stronger and more ready to take on life when you leave the theater. I believe it is a must-see. 

RoomImage result for room movie

Like Short Term 12, this is another realistic, serious film that is almost documentary-like in parts as it tells the story of Joy (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) as they escape their kidnapper and restart life in the real world.

I resisted seeing Room for a while, knowing it was going to be a hard watch. Thankfully, it’s not a shocking or gratuitous film, but it is still emotionally heavy. This story is about a crime but that’s not its focus; the focus is on the human soul. 

Every time Room could fall into a cliche about the inspiring strength of the human spirit or the resilience of kids, it sidesteps the cliche gracefully and tells a fuller story. It is a reminder of the strength of the human spirit and the resilience of kids, but the movie doesn’t end on a victorious or inspirational note. Instead, it embodies an honest view of the evils of the world but with a persistent attitude of hope. Another must-see, if only for Larson and Tremblay’s incredible work.

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A lighthearted departure from her other films, Unicorn Store is Larson’s directorial debut. She stars as Kit, a young adult who refuses to grow up. She meets a man called The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson), who promises to give her her heart’s desire- a unicorn- if she prepares a home for it. Kit accepts the challenge and must learn how to take care of the creature, and maybe along the way learn to care for herself. 

Kit as a character is very uneven, like the film, but I did like that she offers up a fresh breath of air as a heroine. A lot of female characters are getting the “strong” treatment, in which the description of “strong” ceases to have any actual meaning and instead becomes code for, “just like the ideal male hero,” which means completely competent and physically tough with a lack of or at least a comfortably low count of any feminine qualities. (Obviously, there is a discussion to be had if being “strong” should be thought of as a firstly masculine trope and narrative at all, but that’s a different discussion). Anyway, here Kit is not strong in any of the ways the word is used. She’s not physically strong, she’s not particularly mentally strong or tough, and is not someone to look up to. She is *gasp* flawed and must grow. 

Kit is silly and immature and unsure of herself, and yet that is never equated with her femininity, which itself is never taken from her, even as she matures. The problem with Kit is never presented that she likes glitter and unicorns and pink- an over-the-top feminine aesthetic- the problem is that she is resistant to change and unprepared for adult life. I found that refreshing and know the character of Kit will resonate with a lot of women. 

Unfortunately, Unicorn Store really wants to be quirky and unique, which is usually the mindset that makes a film fail to be either quirky or unique or good. The forced whimsy of the film, combined with an all-too-obvious metaphor, keeps it from being much of a meditation on the difference between being childish and being like a child. This is furthered by the uneven tone that fluctuates between child-like wonder and childishness, which might have been an interesting way to reflect Kit’s character but is clearly out of bad filmmaking instead. 

As for her directing, Larson is fine but is bettered by the cinematography by Brett Pawlak and is weakened by Samantha Montgomery McIntyre’s script. There’s still potential here for Larson’s next directorial effort- and I do hope she does another film- but I think it would be better for her to focus on a more minimalistic story.

Is there a common thread between these projects? I would say so. Both Room and Short Term 12 are about people in crisis that are trying to regain an identity outside of being in crisis. Unicorn Store is also about identity, but the crisis has much lower stakes and comes more from personal failure and dissatisfaction than the outward influences that plague the characters of Short Term 12 and Room

Unicorn Store relies on Larson to play a bold, quirky, and altogether more performative character, while her other work has her do the opposite in extremely subdued, naturalistic characterizations. Her performance in Unicorn Store is not bad, but it doesn’t play to her strengths, which makes it comparable to her work as Captain Marvel. Her uniqueness as an actress lies in how she makes each character feel lived in, to such a degree that I feel, watching them, that I could sit down with Joy of Room or Grace of Short Term 12 and ask them about their pasts and they could tell me all sorts of things. Both Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel and Kit from Unicorn Store are big personalities that make it seems like Larson is impersonating other actors who would fit those roles better (although I truly think Larson will come more into her own as Captain Marvel by her next appearance and under better directors).

Watching a selection of films from an actor’s filmography is a helpful way to not only understand the actor better but the craft of acting. And I think this experiment not only gave me two excellent films to enjoy but also should serve as a reminder that Brie Larson does not deserve all the online trolling and hate she is getting. So, if you’re a Marvel fan harassing Brie Larson online- quit it! I would say I will find you myself, but after seeing how ripped Larson got to play Captain Marvel, I think she can take care of herself. 

-Madeleine D. 

December Round-Up, Part Two

To the tune of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”

Don’t cry for me, my dear readers
The truth is, I never left you
All through my college days, my mad semester
I kept my promise
Returned with vigor

Here are five of the biggest movies, box-office and awards-wise, that have recently come out.

Bohemian Rhapsody

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I didn’t know much about Freddy Mercury before seeing the film, so for the first half, I spent it thinking, “Rami Malek sure is overacting. I don’t know why he’s being nominated for so many awards.” And then I realized this was just the character, and then it got better.

Bohemian Rhapsody is ambitious in recreating famous Queen performances but never decides if it is a character study of Mercury or a celebration of the band and its music. It ends up trying to do a bit of both, and therefore doesn’t do either full justice. It’s a competently made, standard biopic, but there are enough glimmers of greatness here that makes its by-the-book approach feel like a big let-down.

For someone like me, who didn’t know much about Queen beforehand, I was disappointed that the film didn’t change this fact. It is so focused on Mercury that it 1) pushes the other band members aside, and 2) doesn’t tell me why Queen was so revolutionary in its day. It never explains how this band appeared and delighted the wider public. In that way, the film is claustrophobic and doesn’t have much of an outside perspective. But if you like Queen, it sure wouldn’t hurt, and it does do a good job recreating the feeling of seeing a great concert.

Roma

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A black and white foreign language film about a maid in Mexico City in the 70’s is, frankly, not what I usually want to watch. It was a bit of a chore psyching myself up for it. And it might be the same for you, too, but I think you should watch Roma anyway, even if you don’t love it.

For one, it’s a masterclass in filmmaking. Every beautiful shot is deliberate, and every scene breathes. The movie is excellently paced, in a way that tests the audience’s patience but with purpose. There’s not really a plot, but the stakes are raised so excellently that it never feels aimless.

It’s not a film I would want to rewatch, but I marvel at its craftsmanship. And further, it makes a movie star out of someone who represents a group that is never considered worthy to be a movie star, and there is something precious within that itself. It makes the trials and trivial of life feel epic in scope and worthy of attention, which it is. Life, and every life, is worth paying attention too, and that humanity makes Roma a special film, even if it isn’t the most entertaining or poignant film of the year. And it’s on Netflix! There are no excuses.

Mary Poppins Returns

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Mary Poppins Returns is technically a sequel, but it certainly feels like a remake. It hits the original movie beat-for-beat with most of the songs carefully crafted to be one-to-one remixes of songs from the original. I want to fight against the chronic “safeness” of most of the recent Disney movies, but for this film, I can’t. I fell for Mary Poppins Returns.

It probably helps that I don’t have any nostalgia or feelings towards the original. I’ve seen it, but it was never a favorite of mine or a part of my childhood. For those who do love the original, this movie will either be heresy or a delightful reworking. For me, it was a lovely film that was truly able to be a magical way to end the year. It’s not revolutionary, but it plays to its strengths and is propelled by excellent performances all around. It’s the perfect family film.

Aquaman

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Aquaman can be best described through a scene near the end of the film, so mild spoilers. Arthur Curry/Aquaman goes into the den of a monster to retrieve an important trident. He approaches the monster and begins to talk to her.

Before this moment, Arthur tells another character how he grew up only using his fists and hiding his feelings. So when he began to talk to the monster, I started to get excited. Is this going to buck the trend of superhero movies ending with a big battle? Is the day going to be saved through communication and empathy? Is Arthur Curry going to be an example to young men that coming of age doesn’t have to be tied to acts of violence? Are they doing the same ending as Moana?

Arthur begins saying he is Arthur Curry, son of a lighthouse keeper and Queen Atlanna of Atlantis. He’s a nobody, and that’s what makes him the rightful ruler. I started getting more excited. Wow, the story is going to be about our worth coming from our identity, which empowers us! I looked over at my dad next to me. This could be a sermon illustration or something!

Then Arthur finishes his speech by saying to the monster: “and if you don’t like it, then screw you.” And then he grabs the trident and goes to fight in the big battle that ends the movie. So much for diplomacy and empathy.

I applaud the ambition and complete sincerity that director James Wan and the rest of the cast and crew go about making this movie. They go for it. I never felt a single emotion in the entire film, except for disappointment and lethargy, but they go for it. Perhaps I’m just not the right audience. I don’t care for Aquaman, I don’t know the mythology, and the worldbuilding (which is done with excellent special effects) didn’t interest me. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be fun for someone who is invested in the character. It’s just a shame it didn’t hook a new fan.

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse

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Into the Spiderverse feels very much like Incredibles 2, except with a completely different moral to the story. Both are beautifully animated films, appeal to both children and adults, and are about superheroes. Both build off previous films, and both came out opposite another superhero movie. And both are the only real competitors for animated movies for this year.

From a story perspective, both get bogged down with plot details and villains who are underbaked and feel more like obligations than actual additions to the story. Particularly in Spiderverse, there are scenes that can feel extremely tedious. The real strength lies in the character interactions. Incredibles 2 makes the most of the family dynamic, while Into the Spiderverse gives a delightful deconstruction of Peter Parker and introduces us to a fantastic new hero in Miles Morales. The scenes that highlight their mentor/mentee relationship are some of the best of the year.

Thematically, the two films are opposite. Incredibles 2 tries to say that every person is responsible for being their own superhero, but undercuts its own message by not having any regular people do anything super. In that way, it feels more of a story about exceptionalism, and how to handle being the exception.

Into the Spiderverse, on the other hand, is all about inclusivity. Everyone can wear a mask.  Everyone can be a superhero. Every race, gender, nationality, and age can be Spiderman. Just check out the #spidersona on twitter to see how this is already inspiring people to imagine themselves as heroes.

Musing on this, I came to an epiphany. It’s no secret I love Marvel films. But by this point, those movies have zero interest in inspiring heroism in the audience. MCU movies are melodramas, fueled by the storylines of the characters. The entire franchise is a big soap opera with lots of episodes. You aren’t supposed to see yourself in Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, you’re supposed to see them interacting with each other and reckoning with their own powers. And that’s great, I love watching superhero drama.

But Into the Spiderverse refocuses the genre. It brings the attention back to the audience. In this way, it is the best tribute to Stan Lee, who created these characters to inspire and teach readers. It’s an excellent film with groundbreaking animation that I would highly recommend if you aren’t completely fatigued with superhero faire. It shows there are still new places to go with comic book stories.

-Madeleine D