Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the most anticipated movies of 2021, and it doesn’t disappoint. Outstanding performances by Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry To Bother You) ground the story of Bill O’Neal (Stanfield), an informant who infiltrated the Black Panther Party in Chicago and helped the FBI kill chairman Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) in 1969. 

As an alumnus of the Oklahoma educational system, I was never taught about the Black Panthers other than they were on the “wrong side” of the civil rights movement and were diametrically opposed to Martin Luther King Jr’s nonviolent approach. This, of course, not only neuters King, who was quite radical, but also ignores the complexities of the Black Panthers and erases the good they did.  

So I went into Judas and the Black Messiah knowing very little about anything. If you are more familiar and educated on this subject, you may find more things to take issue with, especially when it comes to Fred Hampton’s portrayal. As my first real introduction to the subject, though, I was riveted. The movie balances the politics and violence with tender moments which humanize Hampton to flesh out the story and create a three-dimensional look at this period in Hampton’s life and career. The story honors Hampton, but it does not completely heroize or villanize him and the Panthers. 

However, the film struggles between being a straight biopic of Hampton or an FBI crime movie, and caught in the middle is O’Neal, who as a result, is not fleshed out very well. O’Neal’s motivations as a character feel weak and under-baked, but Lakeith Stanfield mostly overcomes these problems with the script through his sheer charisma and expressiveness. And speaking of Stanfield, the best part of Judas and the Black Messiah are the performances, and all three leads are excellent. Daniel Kaluuya brings a feverish intensity and equal vulnerability to his role, and Jesse Plemons as an FBI agent continues to nail the role of creepy “nice” guy. Kaluuya and Stanfield have both been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, and I think either would be deserving of a win (although it makes more sense for Kaluuya to be in the Best Actor category). 

It’s hard not to speak of the film as being “timely” in light of the reignited national conversation about police brutality over last summer with the killing of George Floyd (and the upcoming trial of officer Derek Chauvin). Yet maybe the most effective part of the film is reminding us these events were not part of the distant past, a history we are repeating. Fred Hampton’s son and Hampton’s fiancée Deborah Johnson appear at the end of the movie. This was 52 years ago. It’s not the past, it’s the present that we continue to wrestle with. 


Judas and the Black Messiah is currently in theaters

-Madeleine D.

January and February Netflix Movies: The White Tiger, Malcolm & Marie, To All the Boys 3, and I Care a Lot

The White Tiger

The White Tiger, based on the 2008 book by Aravind Adiga, tells the story of Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a driver for a wealthy family in India who plots to escape his poverty and low-caste status. The White Tiger has been compared to Slumdog Millionaire, and it even references Slumdog Millionaire in the movie. The White Tiger poses itself as a corrective, a real look at India and the lower class, from a distinctly Indian gaze, not sanded down or whitewashed for Western audiences. Like 2019’s Best Picture winner Parasite, The White Tiger brings class politics and a story of poverty into sharp focus with a satirical bite. Balram wins our sympathy as we witness his abuse, yet his methods to free himself are deeply disturbing, but there are seemingly no other options for him. As he fashions himself into the kind of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” entrepreneur that we all but worship in America, the movie becomes deeply unsettling. While the film doesn’t always perfectly balance the tone, the politics, and the commentary, it mostly succeeds, especially with Gourav’s performance. It’s worth the watch, even when it’s hard to swallow.

Malcolm & Marie

In Malcolm & Marie, starring John David Washington and Zendaya as the titular couple, Malcolm, a film director, has two lengthy monologues about critics- pointedly, at liberal white critics who try to impose a racial reading onto all films created by Black filmmakers. Malcolm reads one of these reviews of his film and eviscerates it. This puts me, as a critic, in an awkward position. The review Malcolm reads is a lot like the stuff I have written on this very blog. Or, at least, what I’ve wanted to write here, in an effort to imitate other reviewers I find to be thoughtful and insightful. 

As an aspiring critic, I found it fascinating and humbling to watch Malcolm & Marie. As a viewer, though, I’m not quite as sure of its appeal. It’s two hours of straight arguing, where Malcolm and Marie don’t so much embody people as they do warring ideological stances. At one point Marie calls Malcolm an “emotional terrorist,” and honestly, I feel a little terrorized watching these two people try to destroy each other in hateful words. It’s incredibly sad, and I can’t say if there is anything really redemptive about watching these arguments. But that’s my perspective as a single person; it may play differently to people in relationships. 

Malcolm & Marie has similarities to Locked Down. Both were made in quarantine, are about a troubled couple, and are very theatrical through their use of monologues and limited staging. Malcolm & Marie is better made and acted, but both are wearying to watch. 

To All The Boys: Always and Forever

Netflix’s juggernaut young adult romance series To All the Boys I Loved Before comes to a close with the third installment, Always and Forever. In it, our high school sweethearts Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) are seniors looking towards college and the future, and whether the other has any place in it. 

After three installments, the conflicts between Lara Jean and Peter can feel contrived. Even in its most hokey moments, though, Condor and Centineo’s chemistry elevates the material. But it’s all of the story elements outside of the romance in Always and Forever that make the film interesting and real. One of the subplots has Lara Jean’s father getting remarried, and Lara Jean struggles to be happy for him while also sad at the disappearing traces of her mom. The struggle to choose a college is all very real for high school seniors, as is the struggle to determine what is worth holding onto and what you have to let go of. Peter feels like going to college means abandoning his family, and when his absent father wants back into his life, Peter must wrestle with his anger towards him. There are pieces of nuance here that cut through an otherwise slightly-overcooked melodrama of a relationship that feels one miscommunication away from ending. However, I think fans of the series, or people who love rom-coms, will enjoy To All the Boys. But no matter how hard it tries, it can’t beat the classic movie it’s obviously based on: High School Musical 3

I Care a Lot

Like White Tiger, I Care a Lot desires to deliver a scathing commentary on capitalism through its ruthless antihero. Here Rosamund Pike plays Marla Grayson, a legal guardian for senior citizens. Marla is running a powerful scheme: she bribes medical professionals to identify rich elderly clients, then falsely report that the client is sick or otherwise unable to take care of themselves. Marla then swoops in and takes legal custody of them by sending the victim to a care facility and seizing hold of all of their assets and making bank. 

Inspired by real-life cases of elder abuse, this compelling premise makes for an excellent first act, which shows Marla enact her plot on the seemingly meek Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Weist). I was physically sickened watching Marla’s crimes. This first act offers observations into how Marla is able to get away with her scheme by using her privileges as a white woman, with her self-styled “girlboss” business-savvy, and how she is able to exploit bureaucracy and the indifference of the legal system. 

All of this promise, packaged into a fast-paced, stylish film, is lost in the second and third acts, which devolve into a mob-movie that tries to paint Marla as sympathetic and is simply not as unique as the film’s initial premise. I Care a Lot is an entertaining watch, but it doesn’t add up to anything. When it was over, all I felt was numb and disgusted. 

-Madeleine D.

Netflix Bundle- Over the Moon, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and The Prom

Over the Moon

Over the Moon is a cute animated film about a young girl in China who believes in a traditional Chinese myth about a goddess who lives on the moon. When the girl’s father introduces her to her future stepmother, the girl builds a rocket to go to the moon goddess for help in breaking up the marriage. 

Over the Moon is best when it takes place on Earth, telling a tender story about grief and blended families. Once the characters get to the moon, the pacing becomes more frantic and the story more silly. Still, through it all, the animation is cartoonish but stylized, and the musical sequences are catchy. It’s the perfect choice for a family film, and I think will be entertaining for older viewers as well. 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a lot like 2016’s Fences,beyond both being adaptations of August Wilson plays. Both star Viola Davis in mesmerizing performances. Fences was directed by and starred Denzel Washington, and Ma Rainey is produced by him. Both films never utilize the film medium enough to ever feel like anything other than a play, yet both are so incredibly acted and written it doesn’t really matter. Like Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom delves deeply into the specifics of the Black American experience while still exploring universal emotions, even in a period piece. Here, it depicts the struggle of trailblazing Black musicians like Ma Rainey to gain respect and maintain power. The film is worth watching on multiple accounts, but it is especially resonant as Chadwick Boseman’s last film, and he doesn’t disappoint in his intense, soulful performance. 

The Prom

The Prom is based on the 2018 Tony-nominated musical about Broadway actors going to a small town in Indiana to advocate on behalf of a young lesbian, Emma, who is denied the ability to go to prom with her date. While the actors, played in the film by Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden, and Andrew Rannells, go for selfish reasons, over the course of their stay they become less self-absorbed and genuinely helpful in bringing about change in town. 

This Ryan Murphy-directed musical has received blowback for James Corden’s performance (I didn’t find it horrendous, but at best, it’s grating and tired), the lack of development for most of the characters, and leaning less into the satire of famous people and more into just focusing on famous people. The film has also been criticized for certain adaptational changes, which is what I find most revealing. One of the key adaptational changes is that Barry (Corden’s character) ends up reuniting with his mother, who kicked him out of the house as a teen. The film also has Kerry Washington’s character redeemed, accepting her gay daughter at the end of the film.

Neither of these story beats are in the musical and seem to me strange choices by Murphy. The LGBTQ+ community has a strong tradition of found families, yet The Prom prioritizes reunion with biological families, even families that treat their children terribly. The Prom is preaching to the choir but doesn’t really represent the diversity and core values of the LGBTQ+ community. In trying to be super palatable for straight people, it ends up feeling mushy and shapeless, like an overly-long musical number.

– Madeleine D.

Hillbilly Elegy

From its initial reviews to its Thanksgiving-week release on Netflix, Hillbilly Elegy, the film adaptation of the 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D Vance, has been a polarizing film. Critics widely panned it- some of them from Appalachia, many not. The film has been received better by audiences, but still remains divisive. The movie and memoir tell the story of Vance’s upbringing in Middletown, Ohio, his family’s struggles with alcoholism, abuse, and drug use, and his escape to go on to be a Yale graduate and successful venture capitalist. The memoir (which I haven’t read) goes into Vance’s thoughts on the strengths and failures of Appalachia culture and of poor working-class white Americans. 

Director Ron Howard’s movie strips away much of Vance’s commentary to focus on just the family drama. Since the backlash to the film, he and the rest of the cast have emphasized this point, that it’s not a political story, but a personal one (and how can you argue with the authenticity of one person’s life experiences?). Yet it’s hard to view the film as only a singular family’s drama, as the book was quickly lauded as a way to “understand Trump voters” and as a broader sociological study. The movie’s focus on Vance and him “pulling himself up by his bootstraps” means that it doesn’t quite do enough to divorce from that political narrative either.  

I can’t testify to whether the book and movie are “authentic” depictions or not. But I do know this: it is impossible to give a sympathetic or humane portrait of someone or a group of people if you only show their suffering. I know this movie is depicting a family in crisis, but there are no scenes of normalcy or relative peace that serves as a contrast to when there is a crisis. Instead, the constantly traumatic events of the movie feel to me, as a viewer, like I’m continually being pummeled, and I can’t get any sense of the characters outside of their worst moments and their worst mistakes. From my understanding, the book tries to paint Appalachia as a place still worth saving. But despite platitudes about the importance of family, hard work, and tradition, Hillbilly Elegy barely presents anything worth celebrating, because it’s always about the drama and horribleness, never about the potential, promise, or beauty in the rough. 

That is probably because screenwriter Vanesa Taylor and Howard are not interested in critiquing anything about J.D Vance or how he presents his narrative of how he got out and surpassed his relatives because of his hard work. It doesn’t help that Vance is unlikeable, not only in some of his politics but, mainly, because there is an infuriating lack of curiosity on his part about the women in his life. Sure, the movie focuses on his mother Bev (Amy Adams) and Mamaw (Glenn Close). But except for a few vague references to the trauma they’ve suffered, the film doesn’t actually dig into examining their pain, their choices, their generational traumas, and into the specific, systematic ways women suffer in this community. This is all wrapped up in the character of JD’s sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett), who remains in Middleton. She’s doing the brunt of the care-taking for Bev. She didn’t “get out” like J.D. All signs show that she’s headed to become just like Bev and Mawmaw- embittered, miserable older women. But she barely gets any sizable screen time, except to be plot exposition and to assure J.D that she’s fine, she’ll continue to sacrifice herself to take care of their destructive, needy mother, because he needs to live his dream! 

While watching, I kept thinking of 2017’s Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, as a solid comparison. This is a movie that, I… how do I put this delicately… really hated. Both Three Billboards and Hillbilly Elegy rely on characters screaming in every single scene to constitute Drama™. Of Frances McDormand’s performance in Three Billboards, I said “I never had to read [her] face to figure out what she was feeling, she was either saying it or destroying something.” The same can be said about Adam’s “look, I tried to look ugly because my character is real,” performance as well. (To be clear, this is not a knock to either actress, but instead to the writing, direction, and Oscar-bait-yness of the production). 

The Florida Project (2017) comes to mind as a much better example of a film that is able to depict poverty in a way that is 1) not primarily concerned with getting Oscars (and because of that humility, it didn’t) and 2) is not a non-stop pity party, but instead shows the humanity of its subject by having scenes that contrast difficulty with scenes of them finding joy, even in their circumstances. The Florida Project strikes a balance between recognizing that both personal choices and systemic failings have worked together to create the situation the characters are in, but that they aren’t to be looked at like bugs under a microscope or as New York Times profiles elites can read about to feel educated by, but instead as people who are as real and familiar as our family and friends. 

Hillbilly Elegy is not a terrible watch by any means, but it had the potential to be so much more. Instead of leaning into the convictions of the memoir, it has been neutered into something shapeless, and while becoming more personal, it does so without fully realizing the humanity of its subjects.

-Madeleine D.

6 Netflix-Originals Recommendations

With theaters still closed, I’m relying on my Netflix subscription more than ever. Luckily, the service keeps pumping out excellent original content. Here are six of my favorite movies, shows, and limited series they have. 

  1. Unorthodox

I don’t usually talk about something being “well-directed,” since good directing often doesn’t call attention to itself. But I can’t think of a better catch-all term for how excellent Unorthodox is. The four-episode series, adapted from the book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, follows 19-year old Esther as she flees her ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York City to Berlin, Germany. 

The series doesn’t coddle its audience, instead trusting that the storytelling, acting, and attention to detail will guide the audience through the probably unfamiliar world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. The story is well balanced in exploring both the beauty and horror of the world Esther leaves behind, and the realistic struggles she has as she tries to build a new life. It also provides fascinating commentary into what it is like for Jewish people in post-WW2 Germany, something I hadn’t really considered before. Actress Shira Haas as Esther and actor Amit Rahav as her husband Yanky are extraordinary. Watching Unorthodox was one of the best four hours I have spent this year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

2. Crash Landing On You

Don’t let the subtitles scare you! This cinematic South Korean melodrama is one of the most inventive, fun, and unabashedly weird tv shows I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. At an hour and a half per episode, it’s like getting sixteen movies that somehow are able to blend a handful of genres seamlessly: romance, comedy, action thriller, a political spy drama, fish-out-of-water shenanigans, and Succession-style family business power plays. Crash Landing on You tells the story of powerful-but-troubled South Korean businesswoman Yoon Se-Ri. A paragliding accident lands her in North Korea and into the arms of handsome soldier Ri Jung Hyuk, who tries to help her get back home. 

3. Our Planet

For a soothing, ethereal watch with a hint of existential crisis, look no further than Our Planet. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, the series has the features of all good nature documentaries- gorgeous cinematography, awe-inspiring looks at creation, and a beautiful score. But uniquely, each episode ends with a call to action that explains how humans have negatively impacted each natural habitat and what can be done about it (first by going to ourplanet.com). The inconvenient truths that end each episode are a bummer, but are also hopeful- in most cases, it’s not too late to turn things around. 

4. The Kindergarten Teacher

Based on a 2014 Israeli film of the same name, this American remake starring Maggie Gyllenhaal is an unsettling, excellently written and acted drama about a kindergarten teacher who realizes one of her students is a poetry prodigy. As a discontented artist herself, Gyllenhaal’s teacher decides to do whatever she can to foster her student’s talent, blurring the lines of appropriate behavior. It’s the kind of film that racks up the tension without you even realizing until you’re sitting on the edge of your seat in the final act.  

5. Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices

These short, 8-10 minute episodes feature Black celebrities, from Tiffany Haddish to Misty Copeland, reading children’s books that explore different parts of the Black experience. The series accomplishes several things: one, it features great books that any kid can enjoy, Black or otherwise. Two, the celebrities who read all do a great job, and it reminded me how wonderful it is to be read out loud to, at any age. And third, for white children and their families, it exposes them to Black authors and Black picture-books, which I know was sorely missing when I was growing up. I probably didn’t read a book by a Black author until I was in middle school, and none of my picture books ever had characters of color. If you are a white parent seeking to expose your child to more diversity and fight against racism early on, this is an easy and entertaining place to start. 

6. The Haunting of Hill House/ Haunting of Bly Manor

I am a wimp when it comes to horror films, but The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor (two different seasons of the same anthology series) are so well-made and more creepy than scary that even I can handle it. Hill House tells the story of the Crain family as the adult children remember their strange summer at Hill House and how it tore their family apart. Bly Manor takes place in the ‘80s and follows young Dani as she becomes a governess for two strange orphaned children in an even stranger manor. Great horror isn’t about making up scary situations, but how bravely it probes the already terrifying things in this life, and this show is a rumination on death and how we are haunted by other people and by our own previous selves and actions. In a time of extremes, both politically and socially, it is refreshing to experience a piece of entertainment that has a thoughtful, melancholic tone. Season 1’s Hill House is an epic, Genesis-style family tragedy, while season 2’s Bly Manor is a slow-burn gothic romance. 

– Madeleine D.

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

Mulan – Disney+

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

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

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

Boys State – Apple TV+

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

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

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

The Devil All The Time – Netflix

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

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

Enola Holmes – Netflix

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

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

-Madeleine D.

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

*Spoilers for I’m Thinking of Ending Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Madeleine D.

“No Bad Guys”: Clemency

clemency.jpg

“It’s my job.”

Chinonye Chukwu’s 2019 film Clemency, starring Alfre Woodard, examines the way this sentiment can be twisted to justify horrific behavior and unjust systems. Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, a prison warden who carries out executions. The film begins with a botched execution and follows Bernadine as she moves towards the next one, a highly public case where the man (Aldis Hodge) in question is largely thought to be innocent. As Bernadine faces public and private scrutiny, she continues to figuratively wash her hands of the issue- after all, she’s just doing her job.

It’s fascinating to compare Clemency to another 2019 movie, Just Mercy. There are plenty of differences between them of course- Clemency is fiction, Just Mercy is based on a true story and on the life of still-living attorney and advocate Bryan Stevenson. Clemency takes place in the present, Just Mercy in the past. Just Mercy speaks explicitly on race and interrogates a “justice” system that imprisons black men at a disproportionately high rate. Clemency, which stars a black woman as a warden and a black man as a prisoner, is full of interesting implications, but never explicitly talks about race. Yet they are both about the prison industrial complex, and specifically, capital punishment. Just Mercy is focused on the prisoner- in this case, wrongfully accused Walter McMillian- and his relentless, righteous lawyer Stevenson. In Just Mercy, little time is spent thinking about those working on the side of the system. Particularly since the film is about race and how racism played into McMillians’ wrongful conviction in 1980’s Alabama, there seems to be a clear right and wrong. The prosecutors, the prison guards- all presented as clear-cut representatives of a broken system, who are therefore complicit. 

But we are all complicit in all sorts of injustice. There is corruption and sin in every industry, no matter how seemingly neutral or even moral your job or workplace is. Most of us end up playing a game about the degree of separation; how close am I to the injustice? Surely if, say, I work at a retail store where I know the clothes we make use child labor overseas, I can take comfort in the fact that there is enough separation between me and the CEO or the foreman in the factory allowing that to happen. I’m alleviated of guilt.

Right?

The frustration and helplessness as we come to grips with the reality that everything we touch is stained and contaminated can feel overwhelming, so we dull ourselves to it. We turn a blind eye, we cope, we disassociate, we tell ourselves stories. And it is true, we can’t fix everything. But instead of allowing that to turn us towards lament, we turn to paralysis or detachment. 

Just Mercy is a great movie (and an even better book). But Clemency, the more understated spiritual sibling to Just Mercy, is a critical companion piece to getting a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the justice system and our state-sanctioned executions. Clemency is focused on the other side, those prosecutors and guards, as well as those people’s loved ones, who serve as instruments of the state. It suggests that those who work in the prison system have a form of PTSD and suffer alongside the prisoners in being a part of a system that dehumanizes everyone involved, a system that seems too big and unwieldy to ever fix. The film departs upon the viewer a wariness, a weight that you feel alongside Bernadine. From the nauseating first sequence to the chilling final one, the movie plunges you into the quickly dulling psyche and spirit of Woodard’s Bernadine as she desperately tries to cope and detach from her escalating guilt and ambivalence. 

Alfre Woodard carries the entire film effortlessly. She conveys a multitude of emotions with just a glance or a sigh. She strikes an intimidating figure, making it clear how Bernadine got to the position of warden, but she always leaves a vulnerable underbelly for the audience to see. Woodard is also able to establish, without the script ever drawing direct attention to it, that Bernadine is experiencing clear signs of trauma- nightmares, detachment, hypervigilance and sensitivity, avoidance, numbness. You can see her choosing to deaden her spirit, moment by moment, rather than fully comprehend all of the implications of what her job requires. In the final sequence, we see that spirit leave her altogether. 

“It’s my job” has been a justification for all sorts of horrific evil. But instead of self-righteous indignation towards Bernadine and the work she does, Clemency takes an observational, non-judgmental eye and instead focuses on the effect the work has on her soul. Clemency rises above feeling like an “issue” movie, yet whether it intends to or not, it offers a critical perspective needed for advocacy and greater awareness of the issue of capital punishment and criminal justice reform.  

– Madeleine D. 

P.S- 

I’m from Oklahoma, where we lead the country with the highest incarceration rate and rank #3 in executions. We also have the highest rate of female incarceration, which just keeps growing. If you’re interested in learning more about programs that offer support and counsel to female inmates, I highly recommend reading about the work of (and consider donating to) the following two Tulsa-based nonprofits. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to meet with some of the leadership of both nonprofits and see some of their operations, and I admire the outcome-driven, strategic work they are doing. 

Still She Rises– Provides comprehensive legal representation to indigent women in the criminal and civil legal system.

Women in Recovery – Intensive outpatient alternative for eligible women facing long prison sentences for non-violent drug-related offenses. The 18-month program focuses on each client’s holistic needs, including rehabilitation, therapy, legal counsel, family reunification, and job training/workplace readiness.

Thanks, I Hate It!: Exodus: Gods and Kings

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In her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, famed writer Madeleine L’Engle argues that “art that isn’t good is, by definition, not Christian art, while on the other hand art that’s good, true, and beautiful is Christian art, no matter what the artist believes.”* 

By that definition, Ridley Scott’s 2014 Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings is not Christian. It is also not art. 

As a Christian who loves movies, my relationship with “faith-based films” or movies based on Biblical stories is personal and sometimes more fraught. There is great variation in how Christians approach and view movies and culture, and lots of literature written on the subject of whether Biblical films should even be made. I’m not here to discuss those questions. Instead, I want to look at how definitely not to make a Biblical film, using this one as a case study.

Personally, I do not think that filmmakers who make movies based on the Bible are chained to the source material and must be completely faithful to it, nor do I think the filmmaker needs to be a Christian (see Darren Aronofsky’s excellent Noah). My only requirements are the following:

Madeleine’s Four Commandments for Biblical Movies

  1. Thou shalt have a basic respect for the material (this doesn’t mean you have to believe the Bible, but in the case of this movie about Moses, you do have to recognize the Torah – the Pentateuch/first five books of the Old Testament- is a foundational text for three major world religions, and is the most studied and influential document in history).
  2. Thou shalt make an effort to understand the context of the story, both historical and theological (again, you don’t have to ultimately stay faithful to it, but if you deviate, you need to have a purpose and reason). 
  3. Thou shalt have something interesting to say (don’t waste 200 million dollars and two hours of my time!).
  4. Thou shalt make a good movie (be well-made on a technical level, a tight script, dynamic performances, a memorable score, CGI that has been fully rendered, etc…).

Exodus: Gods and Kings violates all of those commandments. Egregiously. 

Exodus bombed at the box office and was critically panned, but its trouble began long before that, when its all-white main cast was introduced. Having more ethnically-appropriate actors wouldn’t have been able to salvage the script, but it certainly would have cut down on a lot of the *yikes* moments of racism. The casting choices become even more ridiculous once you see the film because none of these actors are 1) box office draws, which was the justification for casting them, and 2) good in these roles. Sigourney Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, and John Turturro barely register. Joel Edgerton as Ramses… tries, I’ll give him that. Aaron Paul also tries as Joshua in an absolutely thankless, mostly silent role, although the silence may be for the best, considering the British accent he attempts. I think the emphasis on Joshua means they genuinely thought they were going to get a sequel, which is actually a shame because I, for one, would have loved to see El Camino 2 Canaan. 

Outside of the acting and racism, though, the movie’s biggest problems boil down to the characterization of Moses, which violates every single one of my commandments. Moses is one of the most complicated, fleshed-out characters of the Bible, and this movie is a blatant bastardization of him (and how do you make Christian Bale boring?!). 

Who is Moses in the Bible? Moses is saved by his mother from the slaughtering of the Hebrew boys. He grows up in the Pharaoh’s household. He murders an Egyptian and flees to Midian. He encounters God in the form of the burning bush and is commanded by Him to go to the Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses has the gall to tell God that he can’t because people won’t believe him and because he’s a bad speaker, so God allows him to take his brother Aaron with him to do the speaking and give him the power to perform three miracles (Aaron and the miracles are not in the movie). Moses and Aaron go, Pharaoh says no, God sends the plagues, and that convinces Pharaoh. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, and he communes with God on Mount Sinai and delivers the moral law. 

Moses is not a charismatic speaker; his anger causes him to murder people and later keeps him from getting into the promised land. He is the bringer of the law and a great prophet, yet he often acts cowardly and with a lack of zeal for God’s covenants, such as when he refuses to circumcise his own son (Exodus 4:24-26). In other words: Moses is full of messy contradictions! He’s weak! And that’s why God chose him, because God would be glorified through choosing someone so weak. That’s what God does in the Bible. He makes a group of slaves His chosen people. He chooses leaders who are wretched sinners and calls them men after his own heart. He redeems shameful bloodlines and incarnated as a poor man in a backwater town so that he could live a difficult life and then die like a criminal in a dump to save the lives of those who killed him. God loves failures and underdogs; that’s why he chose Moses. 

Who is Moses in Exodus: Gods and King? A dope military leader. That’s his number one qualification according to this film. God/Malak calls him “General.” Our opening scene of Moses is him winning a battle. He trains the Israelites on how to build weapons and fight like he’s Harry Potter forming Dumbledore’s Army. Here, God chose Moses because Moses was a fighter, and Moses uses his tactical skills to free the Israelites. 

All of this can be encapsulated in a symbolic moment near the end of the film. The Israelites arrive at the Red Sea. Moses hears that Ramses is pursuing them. He gets mad (something actually in-character!) and throws the sword his Egyptian dad, John Turturro, gave him into the sea. A few minutes later, the sword floats to the top. Moses goes out and grabs it like he’s King Arthur. Suddenly, he has the “faith” to part the Red Sea and defeat Ramses. 

In the Bible, Moses carries not a sword, but a staff, a symbol of a shepherd (foreshadowing of Jesus!) that turns into a snake (symbolism!). The staff represents everything a sword does not. The staff is a sign of gentle leadership, the nurturing care of a lowly shepherd. It is God that can change the staff into a snake, a reminder of Moses and the Israelite’s dependency on him (and later, the snake becomes a symbol of their sin). Meanwhile, a sword is a symbol of destructive power, of self-sufficiency and independence, and of macho-leadership. It is a symbol of individualism, which pairs well with what the film offers as the thesis statement when Moses tells his wife that, instead of God, “isn’t it enough that we believe in ourselves?” Sorry, I didn’t realize that in Exodus 20:2 God actually says “Moses is the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because I was too busy or something.” (Oh, wait, that’s not what it says….)

Thanks, I hate it! 

Centering Moses as the “chosen one” hero means that there is suspiciously little God in a story about God. When God does appear in Exodus though, he appears in the form of an eleven-year-old-British boy, said to be a “messenger,” formally credited as Malak (Isaac Andrews). The idea here is that God acts like an emotional, entitled child who plays with people’s lives on a whim. The decision to portray God this way is the most forthcoming choice the film makes, and if it were executed correctly, is one I could begrudgingly respect, because it fulfills my commandment #3. But it isn’t executed correctly, and instead reveals the poor quality of the screenplay.

Near the end of the film, Moses has a conversation with “God”/Malak** where Moses is etching the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets and they say this:

Malak: What do you think of this [the commandments]?

Moses: I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t agree.

Malak: That’s true. I’ve noticed that about you. You don’t always agree with me… Yet here we are, still speaking. 

This scene is the primary problem with the film’s depiction of God. One of the most compelling aspects of the Moses story is the relationship between God and Moses. Moses argues with God. He negotiates with him, gets angry, tries to give up, and is constantly challenging God. Ridley Scott seems to understand this, so there are aspects of that relationship here. In the film, Moses quarrels with God/Malak. But why does Moses fight with God? Because Moses knows God is God, the ultimate, all-powerful authority in the situation. Moses negotiates with God because he knows God is the deciding vote, the one who will make things happen. Moses knows he himself is powerless, that’s why he makes appeals to God. His relationship to God is based on God’s mercy and sovereignty. 

Moses wouldn’t be negotiating and arguing and wrestling and having a relationship with God if he didn’t believe God was who He says He is, the omnipotent, omniscient, all-powerful I Am. If Moses thought he himself was the savior of the Israelites, and God was either not critical or a lesser-power, then Moses wouldn’t have to engage God at all. 

 But this line- “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t agree” portrays Moses as having some kind of equal say in God’s plans, in his moral law, as if God asked Moses, “Hey, do you think the world would work best if people didn’t commit adultery? I know that I’m the one who created the entire universe and formed every single person in their mother’s womb, but I figured you might have some insight that I just don’t have, bro.” It goes back to the rugged individualism the sword symbolizes, and how the film subscribes to the Great Man Theory of history, with Moses being the “chosen one” leader. 

But you can’t have it both ways! Either God is the Great Man of History, the hero of the story, and Moses engages him because Moses is simply a part of God’s plan, or Moses is the Great Man of History, who doesn’t have to. Either Moses wrestles with God because he knows God is God, or he doesn’t, because God isn’t who He says He is. Exodus: Gods and Kings wants it both ways. One minute Moses is coming fearfully before God to plead on his people’s behalf, and recognizing that it is God who is in control here, and the next minute, Moses is being portrayed as the real power behind the plagues and the leader of the Israelites, and God is some kind of annoying-but-supportive background character. 

This flimsy marriage of the two positions- most likely in an attempt not to offend anyone too much- makes the film’s portrayal of God and Moses uneven and muddled, making it impossible for Scott to present any original ideas on the story. If Scott wanted to make a movie where Moses is the hero and God is some back-up hype man, fine, he should have done it with hubris and gusto. But instead he falters, and paired with a boring reinterpretation of Moses as every-action-movie-hero-ever, Exodus ends up a dull, uninspired film that is a waste of time for those who want to gain a new perspective on Exodus or those who want to enjoy two and a half hours.

If you want to learn about the Moses story, watch this short musical recap that is more entertaining than the entire film. And if you want to watch a good Bible movie that is also just a good movie, watch Prince of Egypt instead.

-Madeleine D. 

* (From Adorning the Dark, by Andrew Peterson, page 84)

**If you watch the scene on Youtube through the link, you’ll see that near the end of the clip, Moses touches the Ark of the Covenant. Not to get too nitpicky, but “don’t touch the ark” is Old Testament 101. This film is very, very concerned with giving scientific explanations for the plagues and for the parting of the Red Sea (which I actually thought were interesting, I don’t see any reason that God wouldn’t use the natural laws he established) but apparently Scott and Co. didn’t put as much research into these other parts of the movie. Uzzah is rolling in his grave.

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

Da 5 Bloods

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

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

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

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

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

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

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

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

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

Athlete A

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

– Madeleine D.