December Round-Up, Part Two

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

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

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

Bohemian Rhapsody

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

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

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

Roma

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

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

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

Mary Poppins Returns

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

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

Aquaman

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

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

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

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

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

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Madeleine D

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Feel-Good Isn’t Good Enough: Green Book

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Green Book tells the story of Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American tough guy, who is hired as a chauffeur and guard for Dr. Don Shirely (Mahershala Ali), a black musician embarking on a concert series in the deep south in 1962. Based on a true story, the odd-couple road-trip has the two characters overcoming their personal biases, as Tony’s eyes are opened to his own prejudice and Don Shirley realizes he needs to loosen up and eat fried chicken and play the blues. The dramedy is good, the mediation on race is not, and I think it is most telling that most of the scenes that discuss race are between white people, without Mahershala Ali or any other person of color in it. So…. we’re going to discuss that.

Now not every movie with black and white protagonists need to explicitly discuss race. But this one, by the necessity of the story and by choice, chooses to. That means there is an expectation in place to do it well, which it doesn’t.

The movie’s thoughts on race feel like they are straight out of the 1960s. And yes, that’s when the movie takes place, but this is a film made in 2018, and therefore needs to reflect our more nuanced conversations. So having a movie where the message boils down to, Just get along guys! If we were all friends, none of this would be this way, shows a serious lack of thoughtfulness on the part of the filmmakers. The idea that friendship will solve racism makes it seem, as Princess Weekes writes in her review of the film for The Mary Sue, “as if the centuries that black people spent enslaved on the fields and in the houses of white plantations wasn’t enough of a team-building exercise.”

I understand there are restrictions on the narrative because it’s a true story, but there are ways director Peter Farrelly could frame it without being so simplistic. I understand the desire to say, “Why can’t a movie about a black person and a white person becoming friends be good enough? Isn’t the only way to fight racism through individual relationships?” And that, to a degree, is true. But the film doesn’t even try to address how we start working on deconstructing institutional racism and it asks its black characters to do all of the work towards reconciliation. That is what the problem is. And further, it suggests that now that Tony has had this experience, by spending time with a special black person who is able to change his worldview, he is “cured.” But that isn’t the case. White people must be constantly assessing their own biases and working on changing the racism that has been ingrained into us, no matter how well we were raised or how subtle it seems. Having black friends won’t simply fix that, and thinking it does will make us complacent.

There have been many excellent films about race that came out this year, but I think the best ones are the ones who challenge our binary categories of “racist” or “not racist.” This movie and BlackKklansman are films where racism is either solved or easily relegated to the bad characters. In comparison, a movie like The Hate U Give shows that even the most well-meaning white characters still have a ways to go, and further, was not a movie that held the hand of those white characters, because it is not the job of black people to teach white people about racism. This is what Green Book does. Princess Weekes continues in her review,

Black people and white people should try to understand each other better, but why does that always have to be framed with Black people doing all the work? Let’s be clear: This has nothing to do with “wokeness” or needing [Green Book] to be “woke.” It’s about the fact that these movies are not for Black people, but utilize Black pain and black historical trauma to craft feel-good movies to make white people cry…A black or brown person “teaching” a white person to not be racist, in return for learning to enjoy fried chicken, is not a fair exchange.

I’m being extra hard on this movie because it’s pulling in front of the awards race. If the Academy truly cares about nominating and awarding movies from marginalized groups that actually furthers discussion in our country and exposes millions of people to new stories and worldviews, then they need to nominate movies other than Green Book. It’s a fun buddy movie, and Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen do an excellent job. But that isn’t enough.

My new rule of thumb is that if I, a white person, walk out of a movie that discusses race and I feel good about it, then something is wrong.

Unrest, Unfair, Unconvincing: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a story about angry, grief-stricken Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand). Her daughter Angela was murdered, and the police have seemingly dropped the case. The officers on the case are Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Willoughby is a well-meaning cop, dying of cancer, and Dixon is a dumb, racist, temperamental, corrupt cop. Mildred rents out three billboards that send a loud and clear message:

-Raped while dying

-And still no arrests?

-How come, Chief Willoughby?

This film has been getting critical acclaim and is leading the awards season, so I would like to raise three billboards of my own:

-7 Oscar Nominations.

-Best Screenplay and Picture?

-How come, Academy?

The biggest criticism of Three Billboards has been its treatment of race. Several people throughout the film explain that Dixon is racist and has a history of torturing the people of color in Ebbing. He uses the n-word, makes threats, and this is all used to establish him as a terrible man. Our (good?) police chief, Willoughby, explains not-so-helpfully why he keeps him on the force- “”You get rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings, you’d have three cops left and all of them would hate the f-gs.”

Once Dixon needs to be redeemed through, his racism, which he never shows remorse for or makes efforts to change, is completely forgotten about. It’s treated, as Insider’s Jacob Shamsian notes, as “a character quirk.”

I don’t doubt that there are cops who feel this way, and it’s not that a movie that is supposedly about redemption and empathy and human complexity can’t redeem a despicable person. That’s what I believe we have to do in real life. But the redemptive arc for Dixon is shallow, unfulfilled, and he never seems remorseful. Discussing institutional racism in your movie is an admirable thing to do if you’re going to treat it with weight and actually have thoughts about it. But British director McDonagh is much more interested in throwing sensitive topics around as coloring to his black-and-white sketch of what he believes is middle-America, and it’s utterly unconvincing and disgustingly manipulative.

Another example- Mildred’s black friend, Denise (Amanda Warren), is arrested by Dixon to spite Mildred, and she isn’t released until the end of the film, and this is… cool with everyone? Not talked about? That’s not a commentary on racism, that’s terrible writing and using black characters for the advancement of white ones.

In my screenwriting class, my teacher tells us to make sure every scene has conflict, but that doesn’t mean “every scene has to have a screaming match.” Three Billboards is very much ready to have a screaming match, or an explosion, torture, domestic abuse, burning someone alive, or horrific beating in every scene. Almost every single scene escalates to 100, leaving no room to breathe or think. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson do a fine job with their roles, but all of the things they are asked to do are so actor-y, so unnatural, and so over-the-top that I honestly don’t think they should have been nominated at all. I never had to read Frances McDormand’s face to figure out what she was feeling, she was either saying it or destroying something.

I recently watched Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It’s a masterpiece, and it also deals with the escalation of anger. It and Three Billboards are very different films, but what Do the Right Thing does that Three Billboards doesn’t do is spend the majority of the film building characters and setting up the tension, before making the violence climax and thus actually hurt. Watching the riot in that film feels like a gut punch. Three Billboards is constantly pummeling me, so nothing feels like anything after a while.

I never felt like any of the characters were real. I could not imagine any of the characters in situations beyond the ones they were in. I suppose that this could be interpreted as a hyper-reality, like the film is becoming what grief and anger feels like. But it’s not presented that way. This is portrayed as a story where someone really does all of these things.

It’s a film being billed as a movie for our divided times. But as I see it, it’s a harmful one. It tells you your anger is justified. And true, a lot of anger is, and Mildred’s certainly is. But there are no repercussions for the actions she or Dixon takes because of their anger. They suffer indirectly- Mildred is still miserable and Dixon gets burned because of Mildred’s attack on the police station, but they are never punished for their actions. They never see repercussions. They are the only ones that affect each other, even though their villainous acts affect everyone else.

Anger isn’t the problem, it’s what you do with it, and all the characters in the film act in an evil way with it, and those actions are excused. Telling people they can be angry and do whatever they want with that anger is a dangerous message. Three Billboards isn’t just a movie about mean people. It’s a mean movie, one that wants to say a lot of important things but doesn’t have the heart to actually finish the job.

-Madeleine D