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


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:

It’s Fine: Solo


I’m a casual Star Wars enjoyer. I like, but have no strong opinions or ties to, Star Wars. I enjoyed both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, and I thought Rogue One was ok.

I felt lukewarm about Han Solo as a character pre-Solo, and post-Solo I still feel lukewarm about him. That might be the biggest disappointment of this film: it didn’t convince me to feel any differently. It didn’t make me feel strongly about anything Star Wars related.

While I can’t promise that you, o moviegoer with more emotional ties and opinions about Star Wars, will come out feeling as unmoved as I will, I think the overwhelming safeness of Solo is a problem. There’s nothing wrong with a well-told, well-directed, well-acted movie. That is what director Ron Howard delivered. But if any franchise can take risks, it should be Star Wars, which is now owned by Disney. Disney and Star Wars are massive conglomerates that have generous fan and critic support, and are unparalleled in financial success. Every movie Disney makes now is a “tentpole” flick, aka a film that can be advertised as a must-see blockbuster. They can take some hits. They can also change the game, if they are willing.

But if they won’t, then Star Wars is not going to evolve. It has all of the advantages one could ask for, so if it won’t take risk, then why should any other franchise?

Walking out of the theater, my father and I discussed why the original trilogy was so powerful, particularly to those who grew up with it (outside of nostalgia). Why do those movies hold up so well, and why aren’t the new ones as impactful?

He basically said that it was because George Lucas knew how to tell a mythological story through use of archetypes and symbols. His original stories felt epic and deep and fresh. These new films don’t make much use of those same storytelling foundations, and when they do they mainly rehash the plot points of the originals (with The Force Awakens being a virtual remake of A New Hope).

So, the trap the Star Wars movies are in is one of its own making. The new films need to be fresh, despite being part of an established franchise, and they need to tell new stories while not abandoning the foundations and brand recognition.

That’s a tall order. I personally  don’t know how to create a Star Wars movie that everyone will like. But out of all the newest Star Wars films, I actually think Solo is the closest to making a film that, while not great cinema, does try to expand on the world of Star Wars, introduce new characters, and pay homage to the past. It isn’t a complete remake of A New Hope like The Force Awakens, but it isn’t as daring and therefore divisive as The Last Jedi. In theory, it should be a good new Star Wars film. This is ironic though because before its release Solo was already divise and hated by the fanbase. But if people would stop #BoycottSolo and give it a chance, I think they would find that:

  1. Alden Ehrenreich is actually a good Han, and
  2. Meh.

The story is fine, the extended worldbuilding is fine, and the nod, easter eggs, and add-ons to the Star Wars canon are fine. Everything is fine. It’s bland and solid, which after The Last Jedi, seems to be what hardcore Star Wars fans want. Personally, I would prefer a film like The Last Jedi, which made decisive creative choices and wasn’t afraid to alienate some of the audience. That is a movie that was made as a movie. Solo feels like an olive branch extension, an “I’m sorry for making a movie you didn’t like” on the part of the Star Wars franchise to the fans.

But to reiterate, Solo is fine. Just alright. Nothing to boycott or be upset about. It’s a pleasant romp. But is that fine? Should the movie equivalent of a shoulder-shrug be encouraged?

-Madeleine D

You Can’t Please Everyone: The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi

I’d just like to take this moment to say I liked The Force Awakens.

Look, I understand why some people don’t. Does it follow all the beats of A New Hope? Yes. Is A New Hope based on the archetypal Hero’s Journey? Yes. Were people going to be mad if the new Star Wars trilogy was wildly different from the original trilogy, like, say, the hated prequels? Yes. And do I have a bunch of nostalgia and fierce opinions about a movie made twenty two years before I was born? Actually, no.

This is a spoiler review, because you’ve probably already seen The Last Jedi and/or been on the internet.

One of the best things about this new trilogy are the characters, who have certain characteristics of the classic characters, but also have their differences. This movie defines these differences even more.

Rey is closest to Luke, but doesn’t have a royal legacy to live up to. She’s a nobody, and she has to grapple with that and what it means for The Force to have chosen her as the response to Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren wants to be like Darth Vader, but for wildly different reasons. And he’s not going to get the redemption arc many thought he was. He has to pay for his actions.

Poe is a blend of Han Solo and Leia, and Finn is not Lando Calrissian. I think The Force Awakens needed to be like A New Hope in order to establish these characters so they could work in this film.

The problem is that new characters are added, and as interesting as they are, they are spread too thin, making it so no one gets a fair shake, and people disappear for large chunks of the film. With three somewhat equal plots and a handful of mini-ones, The Last Jedi takes pains to expand the world of Star Wars. It is clear director Rian Johnson was bursting with ideas. However, I think there are also some weak parts. He tries to take on three plots, along with small mini-ones, and I think all he needed was an editor with a strong pen saying, “This is great, Rian, but let’s leave some of this for the next movie or the deleted scenes. This film is two and a half hours, and we really don’t need to see Luke milk a beached loch-ness monster just for a blue-milk callback.”

As for the plots, though, I like the messages of Rose and Finn’s Canto Bright casino adventure. Star Wars is clearly making a small effort to say something nuanced about politics- people profiteering off both sides of the war and animal cruelty is wrong- but I don’t know if taking away so much time from the rest of the characters was worth it. Rose and Finn are legitimate characters (not tokenism) but their plot could be eliminated. Same for Holdo and Poe. I love that Holdo is such an antithesis to what we would expect, middle-aged woman in a ballgown as a military leader, who gets an amazing payoff, but again, not sure if it was worth taking away attention from the film at large. Some consolidating could be made to keep the film from spreading itself so thin and having multiple endings.

The most interesting plot to me was the Kylo and Rey plot. Not only is The Force-head-texting thing new, but it seemed like Johnson read all the fan theories online about the characters and said, Nope! Yet it doesn’t feel like he’s checking boxes. It seems like he’s trying to set the characters on course for a continuation of their arcs, and with the characters literally struggling against each other, gives a visual metaphor to the thematic struggle presented here.

Things people have disliked about the film that I didn’t mind- I was fine with changes to Luke’s character, and I think the parallels to the original trilogy are needed to remind you it’s the same series, and the Star Wars movies have always been based in archetypes. These aren’t new.

For all that is packed into The Last Jedi, the film doesn’t actually end very far from where it started. The resistance fighters are still scrappy and in bad shape, Rey is still figuring out her powers, and another mentor figure is gone. This shows how the Star Wars movies are never going to die, though- if they can do so much while moving forward so little, they will live on for eternity.

You’re always going to have people who are unhappy with change, want complete change, or are unhappy with the particular way you brought change. That isn’t to say criticism isn’t good (that’s kind of my whole thing). But personally, I’m not a Star Wars baby. I have no nostalgia for the original or prequels. I’m just here for the ride and the cultural conversation. I like the new Stars Wars. I like how it has made an effort towards diversity and representation, giving women a bigger role in sci-fi then they’ve ever been allowed, changed franchise filmmaking, and the themes and ideas that are being presented. I also respect the original foundations, but I don’t think that means they are the golden standard.

I think the best path for Star Wars is to do the same. You can’t please everyone, so do what you want. The Last Jedi does what it wants, and I think with a little fine tuning, this is what makes it a strong film and a steady path for the future.

-Madeleine D

Movie Minute: Volume 2

Continue with me as I watch and review older movies!


Inkheart (2008)

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

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


Rain Man (1988)

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

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

miss potter

Miss Potter (2006)

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

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

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

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


The Godfather I&II

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


Okja (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

-Madeleine D

When We Go To War: Rogue One


***Huge spoilers below!

Why would the Death Star, the killing machine from Episode 4, A New Hope, have a fatal flaw? Fans for years have asked that question, as episode after episode of the Star Wars franchise came out. Some forgave, some let it go.

But real Star Wars fans never forget.

Rogue One, or Episode 3.9, tells the story of the rebels who stole the Death Star plans for Princess Leia. The team is led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who is not Rey’s mother, for all you conspiracy theorists out there. She is, though, the daughter of the man whom the Empire forced to build the Death Star, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Abandoned as a child and raised by a mad-man extremist, Jyn has resolved not to care about the Empire, the Rebellion, or anyone except herself.

Until the Empire, the Rebellion, and people with issues like her pull her back in.

There are half a dozen main characters in Rogue One, and none of them get the time they deserve, even though the whole cast is likable and obviously could do more with the roles if given the chance. Jyn seems pretty much personality-less, and falls into the sole-lady-of-the-team cliche. She’s Rebellious™, and Abandoned™. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is Morally Ambiguous Hero™ and Courageous™ and Handsome™ and… that’s it. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is Blind Wise Chinese Ninja Man™. Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) is Snarky Wing Man™. Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is Quirky Space Nerd™. K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) is Sarcastic Robot™. There are some other characters too, but you probably won’t remember their names. Just remember there is an Evil Dude in White™, Farmer Scientist Dad™, and Metal Forrest Whittaker.

If Rogue One deserves any praise in the area of character, it is that Rogue One is a better Suicide Squad movie than the actual Suicide Squad movie and a better Magnificent Seven movie than the actual Magnificent Seven movie we got this year. But those are low standards.

The first part of the film moves surprisingly slow compared to its exciting finale. Being slow is one thing, but having scenes that could easily be cut to make time for character development is a problem. However, as the team gathers and completes mini-missions leading to the actual stealing of the Death Star, director Gareth Edwards continues the breathtaking world-building of the Star Wars universe. Several planets are displayed, populated by new people and creatures. It feels less modern than some parts of The Force Awakens and the purposely low-tech look of some scenes adds to the feeling of it being pulled out between the prequels and originals.

The film shines the brightest in the end. The decision to kill all the main characters threw me off when I went in. I respect it, and am glad they did it for creative reasons and to stay with the continuity of the series, but in a Marvel/DC world, I had forgotten that was actually an option. The finals shots of all the characters, even though I had forgotten half of their names, did get to me. If you didn’t/don’t get shivers up your spine with the ending Darth Vader and Princess Leia scenes, you’re not enough of a nerd.

I want to make this comparison when thinking about the merits of the new generation of Star Wars movies. The Force Awakens was criticized for having a plot that basically copied A New Hope, but it was almost universally agreed that it had wonderful characters that have even more potential. As a character over plot person, I want to spend more time in the timeline of The Force Awakens. Not so with Rogue One. Maybe that’s because we all knew we’ll never see these characters again. This is a stand alone film. In cinematic universes nowadays, the characters have to last multiple movies (think Tony Stark- this summer’s Spiderman: Homecoming will be his 7th film appearance in 9 years). With this standalone movie, though, there are very few boxes to check (although there is shameless nostalgia and beloved character cameos). In the end, Rogue One has all the strengths and weaknesses of a standalone film in a great franchise.

The two main characters- Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor don’t really have emotional arcs at all. The fact that they are the rebels, and we know their fates, is the emotional hook for the audience. That’s a hook based on nostalgia, and I would make the case that it’s worse than any The Force Awakens nostalgia. At least with that film, the characters had emotional arcs for the hook. This film’s whole reason for existing and for us caring about the end is because of A New Hope.

While watching the end of the movie, in the company of 13 Jr. High girls and a couple beside me furiously making out (because what sets a romantic mood better than everyone dying on a screen in front of you, and 13 people dying beside you, but for very different reasons), I was trying to make sense of what about Rogue One didn’t engage me like I wish it had. The movie had a darker tone, and I liked that. There were a couple of moments that seriously sent shivers up my spine. The movie is well-crafted technically and from a story perspective (again, well-woven plot). The final battle is good. Just swell. I really did enjoy a lot of the film.

I wish I could hyperbolize and say, “This is the best movie ever,” or “This is the worst movie ever.” It’s much easier to say that. Instead, I’m a bit at a loss for words. There isn’t a specific thing about it that I didn’t like, except the lack of deep characterization. It just didn’t speak to me and the things I like to see in films. I also like, but am not an avid fan, of Star Wars.

So if you want to see Rogue One, go forth and spend your money in happiness. If not, that’s okay, too. If you like it great, if not, great. It’s the season of spreading joy and cheer, and the last thing we need is to get in debates whether this movie is good or not.

We’ll save that argument for some 2017 movies.

-Madeleine D

Magic is Not Enough: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them


I remember fondly my first Harry Potter experience. I was in third grade, and I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because I was bored and didn’t have a book to read during independent reading time. Within two pages I was hooked. My dad started reading them at the same time, so we raced to finish the series. I beat him (sorry, dad, for hiding your books) and I earned the right to watch the movies. My favorite characters were Sirius Black and Hermione Granger.

I think a lot of people have that feeling of nostalgia, excitement, and glee when they hear the words “Harry Potter.” Even the words “J.K Rowling” can whip up a firestorm of emotions for die-hard Harry Potter fans.

But this isn’t a Harry Potter movie. This is a movie about a young Magizoologist named Newt Scamander, and his adventures in the American magic world. Can he wiggle his way into our hearts the same way The Boy Who Lived did?

The answer is no.

The weakest part of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are the characters. Now I know, these characters are going to be around for four more movies. But even in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first movie/book, you already knew various things about each character. Harry was brave, rash, and kind, and curious. Hermione was not just smart but courageous, stuck-up, and loyal. Ron was funny, insecure, and refreshingly average. But these characters? I only know one or two trait for each. Newt (Eddie Redmayne) loves animals, and has hair that has more personality than he does. Tina (Katherine Waterston) is like Hermione… but more unappreciated? Queenie (Alison Sudol) is blonde. Jacob (Dan Fogler) is overweight. The orphanage lady (a wasted Samantha Morton) is secretly (and stereotypically) cruel.

That’s it. Those are all the endearing characteristics of the characters (some of whom) I have to spend four more movies with. Oh, and none of these characters develop. In fact, there is really no message or moral at all to the story, beside general goodness and please keep your animals in your cages. There is a background political message about fear and tolerance, but it doesn’t get the screen time it deserves and the message is what we’ve seen from the Harry Potter series.

The relationships don’t build at all- Newt takes to Jacob because he’s.. Dumb? And nice? And bakes stuff? And Queenie falls in love with Jacob because he’s dumb? And nice? And bakes stuff? And Tina and Newt become good pals because after Tina tries to arrest them he realizes she is actually nice? And pretty? And uses magic to bake stuff?

Those are too many questions to have for a two hour movie that has a middle section that feels like four. The film doesn’t feel long because there are a lot of good scenes, it feels long because all the long scenes are spent on dumb scenes. There is not a single full scene explaining Credence’s (Ezra Millers) backstory and connection to Graves (Colin Farrell), but there sure is one of Eddie Redmayne trying to seduce a Fantastic Beast and at that point I’m asking, Where do I find the exit?

If these characters are still appealing to you, though, there is hope. The plot is surprisingly well constructed, and I applaud J.K Rowling for taking to screenwriting so well. It isn’t easy to jump mediums. The different storylines weave together by the end to a finale I could enjoy, but still felt unsatisfied with because I never got to understand these characters. Only feeling superficial empathy for them, I didn’t feel any urgency with what was supposed to be dramatically high stakes.

One thing to note about Fantastic Beasts is that it has some darker elements that resemble the last few Harry Potter movies. Heads up for parents- young children might get scared at several parts. The magic here isn’t always light, with references to various subjects, including crazy religious fanatics, Salem witch hunts, child abuse, mental illness, and a magical form of the death penalty.

At first I was really excited that the film was going to take a dark turn. The last Harry Potter movies/books were able to take a darker tone and enhance the story. An entire quintet of dark magic movies sounded awesome. Then Fantastic Beasts let me down, because simply having those elements doesn’t make the film any more mature or thoughtful. To make those dark subjects work, you have to do an arc that explores the subject and gives it the weight and levity it deserves. Fantastic Beasts just throws them in there, making the film even more crowded and shallow.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them looks great on paper. There are inventive things on display here. But the whole film is weighed down with a feeling of lifelessness that it can’t escape. One of the film’s biggest selling points was its setting in the American Wizarding World. When I saw it, though, I never got the feeling of being in America. I got the impression it was London, trying to replicate America, by just adding American accents and the Statue of Liberty and a bald eagle. The sense of greater world-building that came from the Harry Potter movies, built from a firm novel foundation, is lost here. Fantastic Beasts is obsessed with trying to be magical and whimsy and fun, but by trying too hard, it loses it completely.

In the end, magic is not enough to make Fantastic Beasts a good film. Sure, it may be fun sometimes. If you love Harry Potter and understand its mythology deeply, I can understand how wonderful the potential for Fantastic Beasts is, and I wish I had that same enthusiasm. For someone who enjoyed Harry Potter in a more casual way, the experience of watching Fantastic Beasts was kind of like going to a party where you don’t know anyone. Go ahead and dance, but it’s nowhere near as fun as being with friends, or in this case, characters you care about.

-Madeleine D

The Fine Line Between Imaginative and Ridiculous: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

Warning: Light spoilers ahead.


Man, movie grandpas are amazing.

You know if you have a movie grandpa, you’re going on an adventure. He’ll read you a book when you’re sick. He might take you to a dinosaur playground. Maybe he’ll help you get a golden ticket. Or, in this case, he’ll send you on a journey to go defend a home run by a bird lady that houses children with odd and often useless powers who live in a time loop during World War II on a deserted island off the coast of Wales.

What, your grandpa hasn’t done that?

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, directed by Tim Burton, is based on a book of the same name by Ransom Riggs. The film starts just as said above. Teenager Jake (Asa Butterfield) suffers a tragedy related to his grandpa that sends him with his clueless dad to find an old orphanage that his grandpa claims to have lived in when he was younger. Jake finds it, meeting Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her charges. There’s Emma who controls air, Olive who controls fire, the twins with immeasurable strength, an invisible boy, a girl who can grow things, and the boy who has… bees in him? But this paradise for these peculiars is threatened when Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) hatches a plot for capturing Miss Peregrine. Luckily, only Jake can stop him.

The film starts off rocky, getting through the exposition and the setup simultaneously as quickly and as drudgingly boring as possible. When Jake actually gets to the home, things start to become steadier. Jake starts to explore the world of Miss Peregrine, and the audience does too. We’re right along with Jake. What’s behind this door? What just darted around the corner? How did that happen? It’s magical, and it is how the movie should have continued.

But then the plot kicks in. The movie lost me about 3/5th’s of the way through, during a “climactic” battle between (and I swear this is true) the skeleton ghosts from The Lord of the Rings, some invisible monsters covered in cotton candy, and some World War II X-men children- on a carnival boardwalk, with some DJ Khaled beats in the background. At this point, it’s not weird. It’s not peculiar. It’s not even likably bizarre. It’s ridiculous, in an unprofessional, uninspired sense. How many movies have we seen in recent years that include faceless, vague, monster enemies? Oh I can name a few. (Deep breath) Suicide Squad, Ghostbusters, Batman V. Superman… and those are just the ones in the past year that I’ve reviewed on this site.


Dear Hollywood,

I am so sick of these endings. I want compelling villains with motivations. I want villains who, if they create an army, they create an army where I know the weaknesses and strengths of these creatures. Stop making faceless things to destroy. Give me people to root for on both sides. Give me an understanding of the hero’s plan so I’m not just watching them fumble around, trying to accomplish something I don’t get. No more CGI murderfest to simply garner a PG-13 rating. We’re so desensitized to violence, it doesn’t even register. Make an ending count, not just something that has to be checked off the list. I can’t take this anymore!

Sincerely, Madeleine

PS: If you need someone to direct your upcoming live action Mulan, I am available.


Before you despair about Miss Peregrine, there are things to like. There are original notes in this movie. The special effects are well done and the atmospheric cinematography is gorgeous (see photo above). Asa Butterfield has also grown up well. While he doesn’t have quite the charisma his contemporaries (like Dylan O’Brien or Ansel Elgort for example) have for a leading man, Asa still has a distinguished quality that made me wish he had more to do in this film. Same with Eva Green. Her Miss Peregrine is so interesting and makes such a strong impression, it was a shame that her role also was very limited.

Now, big casts are hard. I don’t expect each character to have strong development. But even in giving each character one short scene (which the film does) you can still portray personality. None of the characters, save for Miss Peregrine and maybe Jake, get any. In the beginning of the film, Jake and Emma meet each other, and three minutes later every character is expecting them to get together. Because they have little to no personality or endearing qualities, I have no idea why they are attracted to each other. Watching them kiss is as interesting as smushing two pieces of blank copy paper together.

If there is a positive for this large, boring cast, it is that there are a ton of female characters! Choose any boring person you’d like to relate to. You’ll probably find one! Unless you’re a person of color, then you only have Samuel L. Jackson’s eye-eating villain. Take that as you will.

Speaking of Samuel L. Jackson… I don’t know if Sam Jackson took a bet, or was auditioning to replace Jared Leto as the Joker, but he is absolutely terrible in his role. I don’t understand (like with so much in this film) what Burton was going for. Whimsical? Scary? Edgy? Bizarre? Stupid? A puke-colored mixture of all of that?  If that was his goal, I guess Samuel L. was perfect.

I saw this film with a friend who had read the books, and her perspective was a conflicted one. She overall liked the film, but was puzzled at some of the changes. She assured me that the techno-monster-skeleton-carnival fight did not happen in the book. Another friend who had read the book but didn’t see the movie with me said that the book is written in a very film-friendly way. It doesn’t need a bunch of changes. Which makes me wonder, if you have a perfectly good book, that already hits the right tone between eerie and whimsical, and you put it with a director known for the same thing, how does this mess occur?

I have a few ideas. Lately, it has become clear that Tim Burton is becoming more of a parody of himself than the filmmaker he once was. While I liked his last film, Big Eyes, it was a significant departure from his style and the type of movie this is. The last movie that he did that was in this genre was Alice in Wonderland (2010). That movie was bland, this movie is silly. Maybe he was just uninspired and thought doing what he always does would work this time. It didn’t.

It could be that the source material really was challenging. If nothing else, Burton could have made it more of an “inspired by” the book than an adaptation. Take the elements you like, disregard the ones you don’t. Or, maybe it’s just a matter of not having a clear vision for the film. The mood goes from frighteningly dark, to hilariously campy, to whimsically silly, to outright incomprehensible.

In the end, when the opening credits are the best part of the movie, you might want to rethink your vision.