Movie Minute: Ant-Man and the Wasp, Leave No Trace, and Mamma Mia 2

July has been a hectic month, but nothing can stop me from seeing movies, so here is what you need to know about these three new releases.

Ant-Man and the Wasp

After Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp is somewhat of a palette cleanser. Not from any of the Marvel formula, but from even pretending to have stakes. It sheds the foreboding nature of Infinity War and relishes in simpler times, by redoing jokes from the first film and being just as pleasant. I had a great time watching it, but I struggle to remember much, and while things technically happen in the lives of the characters, there aren’t any far-reaching consequences for the MCU as a whole, nor is there anything thematically to take away.

It does make a few improvements on the first film. The villain, Ghost, played by Hannah John Kamen, is not only a visually arresting character but one with twisted motivations who gets a surprising ending for an antagonist. Evangeline Lilly and Paul Rudd continue to make a charming pair, and seeing them work together in a way no other pair of superheroes have in the MCU is exciting to behold. And Michael Peña continues to steal the screen and our hearts. But all of that isn’t enough to make it a necessary film. And while you may ask, are any of these movies actually necessary? within the story the Marvel brand is telling as a whole, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a pleasant romp but very forgettable, and when the other Marvel films are going in an exciting new direction, this feels like a step back.

Leave No Trace

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Leave No Trace struck me in a place I haven’t been struck since my favorite film of last year, The Unknown Girl. Both films tell small stories about people struggling with messy, complicated ethical decisions, who ultimately bring out the best in other people and themselves through conviction and will. This slow and enchanting Debra Granik film never goes where you think it will, and ends with a startling conclusion that works perfectly with its compassionate, melancholy, yet hopeful, story of a father and daughter struggling to keep out of a society they cannot rest in. Watching the coming-of-age of daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her realization that her desires might be different from her fathers is both heartbreaking and empowering, told with the nuance of experience by Granik. I won’t say more, because the less you know the better, but I would say it’s a must-see.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go AgainImage result for mamma mia 2

If you liked the first Mamma Mia, then you’ll like this one. Case closed.

It’s an accurate description though! Mamma Mia 2 is exactly like the first one, good and bad in all of the same ways. It has a flimsy story and weak characters, and everything is in paradise and beautiful and is the ultimate wish fulfillment (primarily for women. It is a film made for the female gaze, and honestly, it feels nice to be catered to in such a way, albeit superficially). It’s a joyful movie that celebrates family, friendship, and motherhood (and free love and deep pockets, but that’s beside the point). Abba’s music is infectious, and the cast, young and old, is having so much fun that it’ll wear down the sourest of souls. Fittingly, my feelings are as they sing in the film:

I tried to hold you back but you were stronger. Oh yeah! And now it seems my only chance is giving up the fight. And how could I ever refuse? I feel like I win when I lose!

-Madeleine D

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“Dancing Through (A) Life”: The Greatest Showman

Dancing through life/ skimming the surface/ gliding where turf is smooth/ Life’s more painless/ for the brainless – “Dancing Through Life” from the musical “Wicked.”

The Greatest Show

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus are closed down. Fact.

A lot of people enjoy the circus. Fact.

The circus has a long and troubled history of animal abuse allegations and other ethical violations. Fact.

P.T. Barnum was not the inventor of the circus but widely developed it and was a “self-made man.” Fact.

Barnum was a charming man who advocated for the rights of the downtrodden and outcast and was a progressive social thinker. Fa-hmmmmmmm. Time for a musical number! And a one, two, three, four-

The Greatest Showman is from first-time director Michael Gracey and the passion project of Hugh Jackman. It’s a full swing original pop-musical, so get with it or get out. It’s full of clever choreography, likeable actors with earnest performances, beautiful sets and costumes, and a story that hits all the beats of a tidy rags-to-riches. It’s here to entrance you with magic and wonder. If you want the real P.T. Barnum, you’ll get a glimpse of him, but some of his rougher edges are mysteriously scrubbed away. Here, Barnum is carried by the earnest Jackman, whose Barnum is a business-minded, occasionally dishonest but gold-hearted, family man who identifies with all the outcasts he’s using in his show.

But, even if you don’t know anything about Barnum, there is still a sense in the movie that a lot is being left out, which it is. For example, you aren’t going to see the story of P.T. Barnum’s first real act, which was to buy Joice Heth, an elderly slave, advertise her as the 161 year old nurse of George Washington, and perform a public autopsy on her. I guess Hugh Jackman wasn’t down for that?

The Greatest Showman says it’s telling the story of P.T. Barnum, but it really wants to tell the story of how the circus is a haven for outcasts and misfits, a place for them to find a family. It’s not historically accurate, but you probably knew that you aren’t here for a history lesson, you’re here for musical numbers with Zac Efron and Zendaya! And that is legitimate and a fine indicator of a good time.

The music, penned by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek from La La Land, is fun and light. The choreography is enchanting and creative, with the cast using the settings around them as musical instruments and props during the performances, and it is an unapologetic musical. People just pop into songs. Director Gracey has a background in music videos, and it shows.

If you want a musical, you’re going to get a fun musical. But if you’d like a musical with a bit of thematic depth, I don’t think you’ll get it.

The selling point of the movie, the big theme and the subject of its many anthems, is being an outcast and being yourself. Ignoring, probably, the real P.T. Barnum’s motives, here, everyone is an outcast in some way, trying to fit in. Barnum gives them the chance to be seen and loved. The film really wants to say interesting things and hit on tough subjects- racism, marital infidelity, the dangers of show business on families- but it only does that in a very shallow way. That includes its own theme.

The problem with saying that everyone faces adversity is that yes, the central problem is the sin that all humans have of categorizing people and hurting each other. But some oppression is systemic and institutional. So, Barnum’s desire to be respected by his wife’s wealthy parents can’t really be equated with the struggle of the black characters in the film. Barnum can escape the adversary facing him. They cannot.

Furthermore, you don’t get to know the “freaks” very well. Some of them are given little introductions, but the majority are not. Because we don’t get to know these “freaks,” they don’t get any humanity outside of, “they are rejected by society.” This reduces them to what the movie wants to say the circus freed them from being- nameless freaks.

I went in wanting an entertaining musical, and I got one. I had a blast watching it. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack. I’d probably see it again. If you want to see an original musical, this is the only one being offered up this year, so go have a great time!

But I really don’t think it is too much to ask for some themes in a movie, or at least a message or interesting thought to chew on. Especially with a story like this, that has multiple routes to take. But The Greatest Showman is not willing to give me something beyond what I can find from Katy Perry’s Roar.

And that’s the real shame, because this movie tries to encourage people to be honest and fearless, but can’t find any strength to do that itself.

-Madeleine D

City Of Stars: La La Land

For this review, I’m going to use the IO9 format for reviews, a Q&A Style.

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Oohh! La La Land! That movie I’ve been hearing a lot about!

Yep. The musical-romance starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as a down-on-his-luck jazz musician and wannabe actress in L.A. Directed by Damien Chazelle of Whiplash. It just won a ton of Golden Globes.

Do you think it was a masterpiece? Truly the best film of the year?

Maybe. It certainly is one of the best films of the year.

You’re not just going to praise it?

No, I think we should discuss it and explore the nuances of it. I don’t believe in blindly accepting a critic’s every word.

That’s what I do with your reviews.

I’m the exception. You can trust me.

Okay, so first off, how is the music? Can Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling really sing?

They both do nice jobs with their singing! It’s obvious they are not professionals, but at least they are doing their own singing. After the film I went home and listened to the soundtrack again. I’m sure an original song nomination will come during the Oscars.

For someone who likes musicals too, it was hard after the movie to not want to get up and sing.  Maybe I left the theater humming. Maybe I did a little dance with my sister in the lobby of the theater. You don’t know. You weren’t there.

(There’s your shout-out, Eliza, I hope you’re happy)

Is the acting good?

Absolutely- the hype is valid. Emma Stone in particular is able to show her entire range, and everyone does a good job. It truly is an actor’s film, and I’m sure the academy will reward it for that, along with other things it sets bait for.

Sets bait for… wait, are you saying this is an Oscar-bait movie?

Well, to be fair, most movies that come out around this time are looking for an Oscar, and it’s no secret that everybody in Hollywood wants one. Why not try for one? But in La La Land’s case, there are two trains of thoughts on this.

First, director Damien Chazelle wrote the script for La La Land in 2010, before he thought he would have a chance in the business and before Whiplash fame. He wrote it out of love for old movies. Therefore the use of Cinemascope, allusions to films like Singin’ in the Rain, Top Hat, Rebel Without a Cause, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the soft lighting, dusk-hour shots, and the underlying theme of sacrificing for your art, came from his heart. Those things came from his desire to make a film that is a modern masterpiece. And if he wrote and made the film because he truly loves it, then great!

But here is what bugged me as I watched it: First off, the Academy Awards love movies about movies and about working actors. The Academy loves to justify their own careers and flaunt their own success. And La La Land does that. Using the techniques that La La Land uses- obviously with the intention of replicating the masterpieces it is referring to- made me feel like I was being goaded at the whole time. The film seemed to keep on asking, Do you like me? Do you like me now? How about this? This is pretty cool. Look at this! Remember that old classic? We’re alluding to it here. Is it good? Do you like it?, knowing that the critical audience for this film- people who love old movies and musicals- couldn’t resist it.

So you don’t like that it tries to be a good movie? What’s wrong with you? Plus, it’s not just a celebration of old movies. It’s a romance between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and that appeals to the public.

Thinking back to other movies that I have liked this year, like Fences, Hidden Figures, Sing Street, Zootopia, and others, I think that all the stories of those films have an urgency and importance to them. They are fresh, have something to say, and have a message that can resonate on some level with everyone. La La Land lacks that. A story of two dreamers who are insecure about their dreams is something I’ve seen before. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have been in two other movies together before, although this problem has nothing to do with the characters- both Mia and Sebastian are flawed with full character arcs. But I’ve seen the crazy, tortured soul artist before, and a lot of movies take place in L.A. and romanticize it.

Now I should add, to be fair, maybe I didn’t “get” La La Land to its full extent because it’s a movie made to replicate the emotion of being in love, and to my parents’ enthusiasm, I’m young and have never been in love before. But the story seemed to service the technique and medium, instead of the other way around.

So, because you don’t love the ordinariness of the story, does that mean you didn’t like the movie?

Absolutely not! I said it was one of the best films of the year, and it makes my top ten list. With all that I’ve said critically, La La Land makes some of the best uses of the film medium I have ever seen. I would say the film almost shines more than its actors.

Something striking about the movie is how it uses the musical format to emphasize the main characters. Maybe it’s just me (although I sure hope not) but I sometimes have moments where I imagine there is a movie playing out around me, starring me. The spotlight goes on. Everything in the background fades out. There is a sweeping pan of my surroundings. La La Land replicates this feeling by actually doing it to the characters. It takes “being the hero of your own story” to a whole new level, in only a way a film can. By combining song, dance, acting, dialogue, camera angles, long takes, lighting, locations, and score, La La Land is an achievement in every meaning of the word.

Should I see it?

Absolutely. It’s a beautiful mix of many genres, so even if you aren’t a musical person, I think you would still enjoy it. The film is for the romantics, the cynics, and artists, the realists, and everyone in between.

It may not be the most thought-provoking or important of the films offered up this year. But its influence on film, particularly movie musicals, might be one of the most lasting, and the joy it conveys onscreen, along with the nuggets of truth and honesty, are too tempting to resist.

-Madeleine D

SING STREET

John Carney has a style. Every director does, but for John Carney, you just need to know the storyline to know it’s his. Two people, one a struggling/aspiring musician, the other a producer type or musician, both hurting, come together to repair their lives through music. Then they go their separate ways and/or remain just friends. That’s the formula to Carney’s biggest hits, Once and Begin Again. Once was magic, the little indie that could, while Begin Again, despite being enjoyable, was criticized for being over-produced (and in a little bit of karma, a movie that criticized musicians for selling out, was criticized for selling out to Hollywood). So Carney has returned to his roots, back to Ireland, down to the very school he went to as a kid. Sing Street is out to reclaim what was lost. So Carney has a style. But can he take that style and apply it to a different story.

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Sing Street begins in 1985’s Dublin with 14-year old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). His parents are on the verge of splitting up, there are money problems, and he’s sent to Synge Street, a Christian Brothers school where Conor is tormented. But one day, after he spies a beautiful girl (Lucy Boynton) who says she’s a model across the street, he decides to start a band so he can woo her. Thus begins Sing Street, the band he forms with classmates. The girl, Raphina, agrees to be in their 80’s-tastic videos, and the two start working out the various problems in their lives.

Sing Street has a lot of different stories in it, making it a messy film. There isn’t a lot of distinction between what is a side plot and the actual plot. Is it a coming of age story? A story about Conor’s family problems? A story about him and his brother (Jack Reynor)? A love story between him and Raphina? A story about him overcoming trying circumstances? It’s all of these. But it works in a way, because life is messy, too.

One thing I appreciated was that the circumstances Conor, Raphina, and their families find themselves in are never romanticized. In Begin Again, the struggles of the two main characters seem nicely packaged in a way that were easily solved by the end of the movie. Once is better, showng that music and friendship helps, but life struggles are not something that can be resolved in two hours. With a movie like Sing Street, which could have easily fallen into an 80’s nostalgia trap, the character’s hardships could have come across as rosy. They never are. It is painful to watch Conor’s parents fall apart, and him be bullied at school. However, the movie is still very hopeful. It is, like Conor once describes his music, happy-sad. Things are hard, but we’re going to power through it. I think that is a very commendable message.

As for the constant peril of falling into an 80’s nostalgia trap, it never does. My dad explained to me after the movie that the movie made him appreciate in a fresh way the chord changes and creativity shown during that decade of music. Sure, there was weird hair and bad fashion and terrible music, but there were some good things, too. Carney, being so close to the source material, made the depiction of the era and setting very grounded. The city seemed lived in, the settings seemed familiar to the camera in a way that they didn’t in Begin Again, but did in Once.

Regarding similarities with Once, Sing Street has a lot of them. There are a few direct scenes almost ripped from the screenplay of Once. Those aren’t quite welcome. What is welcomed is the naturalistic performances, especially by the two leads, and good music. While not as memorable as Once, I still went and listened to the soundtrack on Spotify- “Drive it Like You Stole It,” being a stand-out. These movies are consistent, if for no other reason than an original song Oscar nomination.

Going back to your roots seemed to have done the trick for John Carney. Sing Street, while not perfect, is an improvement from Begin Again. It reaches high and tickles the ceiling. It is extremely enjoyable, and feels very personal. Carney, with a little more work, can take a good style and apply it to a new story.

One last thing to think about, as we possibly draw a close on this musical trilogy. Once was about how music can bring redemption. Begin Again was about how music can bring transformation. And Sing Street is about how music can bring empowerment. Which, if you think about it, these themes go in order.

But I’m calling it now- the next Carney movie is going to be about a rock star and the relationship with her tour manager, and how they start using music to give to charities. How music can bring about change. Let’s see if I’m right.

-Madeleine D