Jurassic World Dominion

What is the appeal of the Jurassic Park franchise?

Is it the dinosaurs? If it is the dinosaurs, is it the action scenes of people being terrorized by these prehistoric beasts? Or is the appeal learning to sympathize with the dinosaurs, seeing them akin to wild animals or even pets, with specific species brought to life on the big screen?

Is the appeal nostalgia? A franchise built around a beloved movie from 1993 from one of our greatest directors and his signature style? Is it about trying to imitate that film’s original uniqueness and technological achievements?

Is the appeal the cast, either the original trio or the new, bloated World cast of familiar and unfamiliar faces, trying to find a new breakout star? And is Chris Pratt still the star and box-office draw he once was?

Or is the appeal the ethical and philosophical quandaries Jurassic Park offers? Questions of, is it ethical to resurrect an extinct species, and for profit? What about cloning? How should humans interact with these powerful, deadly creatures? What is our responsibility to them after bringing them back to life?

Jurassic World Dominion doesn’t know how to answer the question of what is most appealing, either. But it’s going to throw everything at the wall and surely, somewhere in the mess, there will be something that sticks.

Dominion picks up four years after the events of Fallen Kingdom. After being evacuated off the Jurassic World island and oops, let out into the wild, dinosaurs are now living amongst humans and doing what they do best: killing people, and causing a lot of property damage. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen (Chris Pratt), former workers of Jurassic World, are helping rescue and relocate dinosaurs, and are raising Maisie (Isabella Sermon), a human clone (just go with it). When Maisie is kidnapped by evil tech company Biosyn, Owen, Claire, and new assorted characters go to rescue her (DeWanda Wise and Mamoudou Athie do admirable jobs in their underserved, underwritten roles). At the same time, Alan Grant (Sam Neil), Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) are back to help figure out what Biosyn is up to. As the first Jurassic Park taught us, when you mess with mother nature, your biosins will find you out. 

I’m in the minority that actually liked the last film, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and its turn into very self-serious absurdity. I particularly enjoyed how the film (directed by J.A Bayona) made use of horror elements, and I was excited to see this movie’s payoff of Fallen Kingdom’s premise of dinosaurs interacting with us in the modern world. However, despite the promise of this movie being “the dinosaurs are out of the park and in society!”, the majority of the film still takes place in a park–or, excuse me, an enclosed wildlife sanctuary. While disappointing, the parts that take place out in the world are likewise absurd and goofy, like the Mission Impossible/Indiana Jones-esque chase sequence in Malta with dinos. That sequence, which takes place about an hour in, is when things really get going. The first act is bogged down by exposition and various character groups being in separate locations. In the second act, high-energy action sequences (particularly that scene and a solo dino-chase scene with Howard in the jungle) finally get all the characters together, and in the third act, things are very fun as our united fellowship makes a big escape from the park. 

As for this fellowship, Dallas Bryce Howard continues to be the Jurassic World’s franchise MVP and, to me, has deservedly overtaken Chris Pratt (who seems stilted here) as the star of this trilogy. She makes her character’s arc way more compelling than it probably meant to be, and she does a great job in the action sequences. But since she’s the only interesting Jurassic World character, she gets a major assist here from the OG Jurassic Park stars for a part nostalgia play, part desperately-needed bolt of energy. While I enjoy and respect the first Jurassic Park movie, I don’t personally feel any nostalgia for that film or these characters, so it’s more of just the pleasant delight to have some charismatic actors who look like they’re having a blast, and the three of them sell it, particularly Dern. In the final showdown, the original Park characters and new World characters get paired off various times together, leading to some fun little team-ups and interactions. 

In the end, I don’t care what cynical intentions may have been behind this film, I had a good time. It’s a popcorn summer blockbuster in the best way. Is this movie only doing, as Matt Zoller Seitz writes, the bare minimum? Sure. And if the appeal of this franchise to you is philosophical musings, groundbreaking effects, or inspired directing, you won’t be satisfied here. But to me, the appeal of Jurassic Park is the adrenaline rush of the dinosaurs and humans interacting and how the dinosaurs inhabit space, and Dominion does that well. 

-Madeleine D.

The Layman’s Guide to the Best Picture Nominees (Part 2/2)

Part two of my look at the ten best picture nominees, giving you insight into each film and predicting its award chances.

Belfast

Belfast is based on director Kenneth Branaugh’s life as a child growing up during the Irish Troubles. Filmed beautifully in black and white, the film shows from nine-year-old Buddy’s eyes the confusing political turmoil around him, his struggling but loving family, and the hallmarks of growing up, from first crushes to peer pressure and school troubles. In many ways, it reminded me of Jojo Rabbit. While not nearly as funny or satirical (or devastating) as Jojo Rabbit, Belfast has an overall hopeful tone and messages of resilience and family. 

The best part of the movie is its performances, which are all lovely, from Jude Hill as Buddy, to Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench (both nominated for best supporting!) as his grandparents, to Caitriona Balfe as his mother (I think she deserved to have been nominated) and Jamie Dornan as his father. 

When I saw the film, I walked away thinking it was a very sweet, well-made movie, if not one I could call the best of the year. While it’s valuable to see the Troubles being explored on screen, and the family drama feels universal yet deeply personal, I don’t know if Belfast really encompasses 2021 in filmmaking or breaks any new ground. 

But it was later that I came to reconsider Belfast in a new light. In early February, Dua Lipa asked Stephen Colbert on his talk show about how his comedy and Christian faith overlap. In his answer–which you absolutely should watch, it’s a fascinating response– he brought up Belfast and how he liked how the movie “is funny, and it’s sad, and it’s funny about being sad. In that same way sadness is a little bit like an emotional death, but not a defeat, if you can find a way to laugh about it, because that laughter helps keep you from having fear of it.” 

With that in mind, Belfast becomes a little more profound. It’s a tricky balance, to give sadness its full weight and still have humor and joy. Jojo Rabbit dilutes its sadness through snark and satire– to great effect. But Belfast is incredibly sincere, and in that way, pulls off a trickier feat. 

Belfast seems to be in the top running for best picture, alongside Power of the Dog and CODA. Besides that, its best award chances may be either best supporting for Hines, or original screenplay for Branaugh. 

Drive My Car

Also nominated for best international feature, adapted screenplay, and best director for ​​Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car snuck up on many as a heavy-hitter this year. The Japanese film will inevitably draw comparisons to 2019’s South Korean Oscar juggernaut Parasite, which won best picture, international feature, and best director for Bong Joon-Ho, along with original screenplay, editing, and production design. But beyond their nominations, the two films have little in common, and because of that, Drive My Car’s winning chances are much slimmer. 

At three hours, Drive My Car is a meditative character drama about a widowed actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who goes to Hiroshima to direct a play, and as part of his residency, he is given a chauffeur, which ends up being a young woman (Tōko Miura). The two slowly begin to become friends and through this friendship and the play they process their past. The movie reflects on the value of art, language barriers, intergenerational friendships, and the regret and burdens that block us from connection with one another. 

Like many of the nominees this year, it has a beautiful and cathartic ending that makes the whole movie better in retrospect, and there is much to admire and appreciate in the film. However, I couldn’t help but find it a bit tedious, never quite feeling like my patience was fully rewarded. But part of that may have been going in without any sense of what the movie was, so I think it might be the kind of film where it is better to go in having read some reviews or analysis of the film to better be able to appreciate what is carefully being built in the story and what literary references and allusions to be on the lookout for. 

While there are things the Academy usually likes to reward in Drive My Car (it’s a story about actors making art, after all!), there is still a big barrier to the Oscars awarding international films in non-international feature categories. Parasite was an anomaly that it was able to break through, not only because it is a truly outstanding, deserving film, but it was also mainstream enough, with a semi-recognizable director, to appeal to an American audience. 

Drive My Car then is a near lock for international feature, but probably nothing else, with maybe a sliver of a chance for adapted screenplay. But its inclusion shows progress in the academy recognizing and rewarding international films, which is an exciting step for Hollywood at large. 

Dune

Dune is this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Like Mad Max, Dune was a genre hit with both audiences and critics that was nominated for a slew of technical awards along with best picture (10 nominations in all!). And it has a fighting chance in many of those categories, especially Han Zimmer’s score, sound, and special effects. But unlike, say, Return of the King, which swept its ceremony and got best picture, Dune is a part one of two, and feels very incomplete, so its best picture chances are very slim (and we’ll see about part 2). 

Helmed by Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival) and featuring an all-star cast (Timothee Chalamet! Zendaya! Oscar Issac! Jason Mamoa! Javier Bardem!) the film admirably translates its dense source material into a sprawling epic that really does feel like it can both satisfy fans and general audiences alike. Along with West Side Story, it may be the best feat of adaptation and remake this year, and deserves to be nominated. The story of a young man discovering his destiny on a new planet is full of classic science fiction and literary tropes, so we’ll see if this timelessness appeals to academy voters, or if it’s ultimately snubbed. 

Don’t Look Up

Maybe the most broadly polarizing film on this list, Don’t Look Up is a Netflix release directed by Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice, Anchorman) and featuring an ensemble with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, Timothee Chalamet, and Ariana Grande. Don’t Look Up follows DiCaprio and Lawrence as an astronomy professor and his grad student, who discover a comet is on the fast-track to collide with Earth. In their efforts to warn the public they face opposition from everyone from the self-serving president (Meryl Streep) and her obstinate administration, to the media that refuses to alarm the public, to pop stars, activists, and tech billionaires who all want to co-op the comet to advance their own agenda. The comet serves as a clear metaphor for climate change, and the film satirizes the modern indifference to this threat. While I thought the movie fairly critiqued all sides of the political aisle, I have talked to many people who didn’t think the film was nearly as fair. 

If there’s a common theme with these best picture nominees, I think I would say that it’s sincerity.  Belfast and Licorice Pizza were both inspired by the director’s childhoods and fondly recreate their adolescent years. King Richard and CODA are both classic heartwarming stories about underdog families. Nightmare Alley, Dune, Drive My Car, West Side Story, and The Power of the Dog are all remakes or adaptations that lovingly breathe fresh air into their source material with clear respect for the originals, and tell stories of complex protagonists with clear empathy. But Don’t Look Up, is, to be frank, a mean movie about horrible people. And I say that as someone who actually liked it! But there’s no denying that Adam McKay, whose most recent work shows a general disdain for general audiences and no problem skewering everyone from the everyman to the most powerful politicians in the world, has made a movie that to many comes across as overly preachy and spiteful. 

Besides best picture, Don’t Look Up is nominated for original screenplay, film editing, and Nicholas Britell’s score. It may have a fighting chance at original screenplay. But for a movie that touted its all-star cast as its greatest strength, the lack of acting noms is an indicator of how little the academy voters may actually care about this film. There’s always a chance for a surprise, but I think all signs point to this, once again, not being Adam McKay’s big year. 

The Power of the Dog

Netflix’s Power of the Dog, directed by Jane Campion, has been a critical darling, but treated with ambivalence by audiences, following a trend of the Oscars showing favor to small movies that few have seen (or will remember). I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, smaller films are often the most groundbreaking and move filmmaking forward, and shouldn’t those be recognized in a ceremony that aims to celebrate the art of filmmaking? But on the other hand, I think the Oscars should strike a balance to also recognize movies that have defined and shaped the year, and will be remembered in public memory, which I don’t really think Power of the Dog will be.

Okay, but is Power of the Dog good? And to that I say…. yes. It’s a movie I have a lot of respect for. It’s a slow-burn, acting tour-de-force about Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) a spiteful cowboy who terrorizes his brother (Jesse Plemons) and his new wife and stepson (Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee). But as the film progresses, you begin to realize the power dynamics in play are not quite what they seem, and Phil’s aggression is what ends up blinding him to even more sinister forces.

Power of the Dog is an anti-western, a movie that turns the historically macho and violent western genre conventions on their head to instead be a quiet, psychological movie about sexual repression, grief, resentment, and familial strife. A main undercurrent of the film is that Phil is suggested to be gay, and is mourning the loss of his mentor/partner, and his cruelty is a symptom of his grief and repression. The four main characters are carefully drawn to be fascinating foils of each other, and Campion’s directing shows clear precision and restraint. 

My biggest problem with the film is that it’s sometimes so subtle you don’t know what’s going on or where the movie is going, and the twist at the end is so quiet that many people I know completely missed it (and I would have too if I hadn’t been spoiled beforehand). The ramifications of the ending cast the rest of the movie in a fascinating light when you really think about it, but I wish the film had found a way to build up to a more cathartic end, instead of tapering off like a whisper. 

While it was considered the frontrunner for much of the race, CODA and possibly Belfast have gained enough momentum to catch up to Power of the Dog, meaning the race might be way more surprising than expected. Interestingly enough, we may also have a situation where voters don’t vote for Power of the Dog because they assume it’s the frontrunner anyways, so they vote for another film, and no majority ends up voting for it in the end. If Power of the Dog won, it would be a huge win for streaming services.

I think besides best picture, out of its 11 other nominations, its other best chance for a win is Jane Campion as director (she deserves it). And while not the frontrunner, I think Kirsten Dunst could be a dark horse for the best-supporting actress. And while he definitely won’t win, I’m rooting for Jesse Plemons, who I genuinely think should have been nominated for best supporting in 2019’s El Camino. He’s good in this movie and deserves the nomination, but he’s building a fascinating career and I definitely don’t think this will be the last time we see him nominated. As for Benedict Cumberbatch, I don’t think he’ll win, but I think this too will set him up nicely for a future win one day. And maybe, if it doesn’t win best picture, that will be Power of the Dog’s biggest lasting legacy: setting up its actors and director for even greater future success, and a new opportunity for the Western genre to reinvent itself. 

Happy Oscars everyone!

– Madeleine D. 

The Layman’s Guide to the Best Picture Nominees (Part 1/2)

Hollywood’s biggest night is only a few days away, and with that, it’s time for all of us to place our bets and pick our favorites. But with 10 nominees for best picture, and the weird release schedules that COVID and streaming have created, it’s easy to have missed some of them. Never fear! I’m here to give you a little background on each movie and a look at its award chances, with a bit of my personal commentary, so you can win your Oscar ballot. 

King Richard

King Richard is probably the most “commercial” film on this list, in that it’s a feel-good sports movie with broad appeal with a big star. But being “commercial” is not a bad thing– in fact, I think it’s actually a positive thing when it comes to the Oscars because so few of the movies nominated have broad appeal and have actually been seen by a wide audience. King Richard stars Will Smith as Richard Williams, the father behind one of the greatest female tennis players of all time and two of the best athletes in the world- Venus and Serena Williams. King Richard is a role seemingly tailor-made for Will Smith. It makes perfect use of his charisma, his dramatic and comedic chops, and provides some interesting meta-commentary on his own personal family life and the kind of dad he’s been to his celebrity kids. But while I think he is deserving of best actor, the whole ensemble is excellent, from Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton who play Venus and Serena respectively to Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci. Aunjanue Ellis, who plays their mother Brandi, is nominated in the best supporting actress category. While Ellis has a very slim chance of winning, she was a standout and I’m so glad her work was recognized with a nomination.

The movie is a classic sports movie, but its focus on black athletes and a strong black family unit (and centering dad/daughter relationships), the focus on having integrity over winning, along with an eye towards the business savvy athletes must have, make it special. However, its chances of winning best picture look slim, although Will Smith looks like the best actor frontrunner (although it’s a competitive category!). While it may end up walking away with nothing, like the movie itself says, it’s not necessarily about winning, but how you play the game, and King Richard puts it all on the line. 

Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, starring Alana Haim (who I wish had been nominated for best actress) and Cooper Hoffman, is nominated for best director and original screenplay along with best picture. With Jane Campion looking like the frontrunner for director, Licorice Pizza’s best shot is probably screenplay. PTA is a famed auteur who has made a film with a lot to like, especially to Academy voters. Licorice Pizza is a nostalgic look at Los Angeles and Hollywood past, with a quirky love story (the ten-year age gap between the leads has led to some controversy, but not enough, I think, to dampen the film), and great performances. It is the quintessential “hang out” movie, with three hours of episodic storytelling, evoking the feeling of an anthology of shorts rather than a plot-driven movie (Bradley Cooper’s “episode,” where he plays real-life Jon Peters, a boyfriend of Barbara Streisand, is the best part of the film). It might remind voters of the similarly Hollywood-themed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s last film (although Licorice Pizza does not contain any gory shoot-outs). 

I enjoyed Licorice Pizza while I watched it, and I think it’s a must-see for fans of PTA and Hollywood history. I think a breezily-paced, episodic structure to a film is not necessarily a bad thing, but there were certainly times when I wished the movie had an editor who would curb PTA’s more self-indulgent moments. Overall, I think Licorice Pizza is certainly deserving of the nomination but won’t win. It doesn’t break any kind of filmmaking barriers, it doesn’t have any timely or important messages, and its award campaign has seemed a little weak. However, PTA has been nominated for an Oscar eight times before and never won, so perhaps that will make the Academy more favorable in giving him a win. 

Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley is a remake of a 1947 film, based on the 1946 novel. The film, directed and co-written by Guerillmo Del Toro, stars Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a mysterious down-on-his-luck man who begins working as a mentalist at a carny, and quickly spirals down into his own deceit. It co-stars Toni Collette, Cate Blanchett, and Rooney Mara. 

To be honest, I started watching Nightmare Alley on HBO Max, got through thirty minutes, then turned it off. Then it got nominated for Best Picture, so I begrudgingly went back and finished it after two more tries. At first, I didn’t find myself gripped by the achingly slow-paced noir. I didn’t know where the film was going or if it had any substance under all the style (and to be fair, it’s a gorgeous production). But, unfamiliar with the source material, I was completely caught off guard in the last act, and specifically, the very last scene. The last moments of the film are so perfectly executed, with such a wonderful marriage of Cooper’s performance and Del Toro’s directing, that I got literal chills. It’s the kind of gut punch of an ending that makes you reconsider the whole film. 

But, even with that scene, in retrospect the film is still weak as a whole, looking the part of a psychological thriller without delivering one. Critics and audience reception were all over the place, making its nomination a real surprise. Besides best picture, it is also nominated for cinematography, production design, and costuming, which seems to be evidence it won’t win anything (best picture winners usually also have nominations in other major categories like actor/actress, writing, and directing). I think if the movie had to have been nominated for anything, I would have nominated Bradley Cooper. But as it is, I’m not personally rooting for it to win anything. Del Toro won best picture and best director for 2017’s Shape of Water, so there’s no rush for the academy to reward him again anytime soon. 

CODA

CODA, on Apple TV+, is a coming-of-age story about Ruby (Emilia Jones), a high schooler who is caught between her desire to go off to college to pursue singing, and her family’s need for her to work for their fishing business. Why is that a problem? The rest of Ruby’s family is deaf, and need her to translate for their business, and can’t appreciate her singing. 

My roommate, who considers herself to be a “voice for the people” when it comes to movies (i.e, not a critical snob), said of CODA: “It’s the perfect balance of being chill and having something to say.” And I agree! CODA is progressive in that it is depicting a community not usually seen on screen, which is a great thing, and it’s also a broadly appealing, heartfelt family drama that is subversive and smart about its tropes to tell a new story (with excellent writing and performances to boot). While its status as a streaming movie made it an unlikely contender, in the past few weeks CODA seems to have become a dark horse that might just pull off a win for best picture, and I’ll certainly be rooting for it. 

Besides best picture, it’s also up for best supporting actor for Troy Kotsur and best adapted screenplay. While I don’t think it has a shot at either of these (Dune should win for best adapted screenplay, although The Lost Daughter will probably win), Kotsur is certainly deserving of the recognition. 

West Side Story

This Steven Spielberg-directed remake of the 1961 musical (an Oscar heavy-hitter itself), is up for seven nominations, including best picture, best director, and best supporting actress for Ariana DeBose as Anita (the role which won Rita Moreno her Oscar). The remake has been praised for the way it infuses modern sensibilities (including the casting of actual Puerto-Rican actors as the Sharks) with the emotionality and old-school feel of the original.

I was skeptical of this project when it was announced and was prepared to dislike it, having grown up with a great fondness for the 1961 film. However, having seen it, I now agree that it is an example of a great remake. I think Spielberg chooses the right things to change and lean into (like more attention paid to the class dynamics; not subtitling the Spanish) while retaining elements of the original. While not as colorful or theatrical as the 1961 version, I think the musical numbers retain their energy and are well-done. It’s a remake that hopefully will appeal to modern audiences while encouraging them to also check out the original. 

Despite all the ways I enjoyed the film, it didn’t personally grab me or register as one of the best films of the year, and I actually expect it’s not most Academy members’ best film either. But because of the ranked-choice voting system the Oscars use, the movies that win are usually everyone’s second or third choice. And that’s where West Side Story could win a lot of awards, if everyone thinks, “hmmm, I want Jane Campion or Paul Thomas Anderson to win for director this year, but I’ll put Steven Spielberg next because, well, he’s Steven Spielberg!”

West Side Story was a commercial flop, but it’s definitely one of the most audience-friendly films being nominated. While I don’t think it’s the best film of the year, I would like the best picture award to start going to movies people have actually heard of and seen, so I’m not opposed to a win. Out of its nominations though, I am rooting for the film to win for Ariana DeBose, and she’s currently the favorite. 

Coming soon: Part 2 of the nominees!

Award Hopefuls: Last Night in Soho, Passing, King Richard, and Spencer

Hello, friends! I’ve been on a little hiatus due to a big move and a new job, but I’ve still been watching movies and I want to recommend a few to you. Today we’ll take a look at a few Oscar-hopefuls, movies which have begun to generate award buzz and you might be seeing on some best of the year lists. But do they make my list? 

Last Night in Soho

2021 has been a big year for director Edgar Wright. In the summer, he released a documentary The Sparks Brothers, which got critical acclaim. This fall he released his newest fictional film, which is following up his biggest and most mainstream hit yet, 2017’s Baby Driver. Last Night in Soho is a thriller with homages to the Giallo Italian horror genre. It stars Thomasin McKenzie (incredible here, go see her work in Leave No Trace) as Elle, a young country girl who moves to London to study fashion and begins having dreams about Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), the woman who once lived in her room. The lives of the two women become entangled as the line between Elle’s visions and reality blur. 

There’s so much to admire about this film. It has Edgar Wright’s characteristic energetic cinematography, a perfect soundtrack, and great performances from the whole cast. While he is a director who can come dangerously close to style over substance (see Wes Anderson), here he is still quite stylized, but it all serves the story. His directing draws attention to the story, not to himself. 

And it is the story that impressed me most. I think Last Night in Soho could appropriately be compared to the likes of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby or Jordan Peele’s Get Out as sociological horror. Like both of those films, Last Night uses conventions of the horror genre to explore real-life societal horrors. Get Out examined racism by putting a Black protagonist in a horror situation, and the story of Rosemary’s Baby explores abusive relationships, rape, the loss of bodily autonomy during pregnancy. Here, Last Night explores how young women can get trapped into sex work, and the broader rape culture we live in, seen through the eyes of its two female protagonists. The movie is also remarkable in the way it captures the feeling of being a young woman from a small town who has just moved into a seedy big city, and the paranoia that can come from this heightened danger. 

The ending is the only weak part of the film. I think to have a “gotcha!” ending, Wright sacrifices thematic consistency. I’ll speak broadly, as I don’t want to give anything away since I think it’s a movie best gone in without spoilers, but I think the ending undercuts both Sandie’s story and Elle. By trying to empower Sandie at the last minute, Elle’s agency is taken away and the tragedy of Sandie’s story is undercut. The film then ceases to be insightful about the way women are preyed on, and loses its critique of nostalgia, simply becoming a revenge story.

However, this ending doesn’t ruin the movie, and I still think it’s one of the best films of the year. I don’t think it will have a lot of award chances outside of costume design, original screenplay, and production design, but perhaps if it’s a weak year Wright might be able to snag a best director nod. 

Last Night in Soho is now on premium video on demand

Passing

Passing, adapted from the novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, is a gorgeous, measured piece of filmmaking, and an impressive directing debut by Rebecca Hall. The story centers on two Black women in 1920s New York City: Irene (Tessa Thompson), a demure and discontent mother and wife, and Clare (Ruth Negga), a mysterious and wild woman who has made her way through the world passing as white and is married to a white man who doesn’t know she’s Black. As Irene watches Clare leverage her ability to be both white and Black, Irene wrestles with feelings of jealousy, hatred, and repressed desires. 

I studied this novel extensively in college and loved it, so I was thrilled to see the way the film adapts the novel perfectly and teases out some of its subtexts. It is, most obviously, an insightful commentary on race and “whiteness.” It shows how race is a social creation– we assign meaning to each race and give it abundant shorthands to classify who does or does not belong to that group, regardless of actual heritage or skin color. But the novel is also about the burdens of motherhood, the limited options for women at the time, and class struggles, and it has enough implications to allow for a queer reading. The film doesn’t bring this queer subtext to the forefront or commit to it, but it allows it to be present and ambiguous, mostly through the work of the actors. 

Speaking of the actors, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are both excellent. Thompson gets to play a much more restrained character than she is often asked to play in her bigger films, and Negga is able to be both naively waifish and quietly sinister. 

At a tight 90 minutes, there’s not a wasted moment in this film. If you’re ready to enjoy a meditative drama and perfect performances, please watch Passing. While the Academy has a fraught relationship with Netflix films, I would love to see it get nominations for directing, supporting for Negga, and cinematography.  

Passing is now on Netflix

King Richard

King Richard, which tells the story of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams’ rise through the coaching of their father Richard (Will Smith), hits all the beats of a classic, feel-good sports film. But there are enough twists and unique angles to make it stand apart. 

First and foremost, this is a star vehicle for Will Smith. This is the perfect role for him, an amalgamation of all of his strengths as a star and a capstone on his career. The role requires his comedic chops, underrated dramatic skills, overflowing charisma, and ability to be unlikeable without ever actually being unlikeable. He’s going to get plenty of due awards praise, but this is also an excellent ensemble film, so don’t sleep on Aunjanue Ellis as mother Brandi Williams, who is excellent here, and both Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton (Venus and Serena, respectively). It’s a movie of powerhouse performances and everyone pulls his or her own weight. 

Critic Grace Randolph points out in her review of the film that King Richard can be seen as an inverse to 2009’s The Blind Side, which won Sandra Bullock a best actress Oscar and was nominated for Best Picture. The Blind Side has been criticized for upholding a white savior narrative, where the white Tuohy family saves and uplifts Michael Oher. In King Richard, the Williams family is celebrated for uplifting themselves. This narrative (awarding King Richard can help atone for the ignorance of the Academy in awarding The Blind Side) could help its award chances, but it is also simply a major appeal of the film. The Williams family is shown as a tight-knit family that loves one another and fights for dignity despite challenges thrown at them. It’s rightly inspiring and sweet (even though the reality is more complicated). In addition, it’s nice to see a movie focusing on the relationship between fathers and daughters. 

Because of the focus on fathers and daughters, while watching, I thought of the film Infinitely Polar Bear, based on director Maya Forbes’s own father Cam (played by Mark Ruffalo). Cam is much like Richard Williams- a charismatic, passionate, artistic man who wants to give his children the world but has a host of personal flaws and failings in the way. But throughout Infinitely Polar Bear there is the sense Forbes is holding back, and never quite telling the full truth about her father. Even in his worst moments, the movie seems to never fully acknowledge the pain his actions must have caused.

It is the same with King Richard. It is wonderful Venus and Serena, who executive produce here and were heavily involved with the filmmaking, clearly love and respect their dad and want to pay tribute to him. But their protection of him means that whenever the film is trying to be honest about the negative parts of Richard, it always pulls back from being too real. But this is a common issue in biopics, not at all original to King Richard. Perhaps it is unfair to judge a movie too harshly for what it doesn’t do, rather than what it does. And what it does do is give us a well-made, winning story about family, personal dignity, and triumph.

King Richard is in theaters and is streaming on HBO Max

Spencer

A warning: Spencer is not a biography of Princess Diana. Do not expect, like I did, to come out with new knowledge and insight into Diana or her life or the royal family. Instead, Spencer is a surreal dark fairy tale, with fable logic, which imagines the Christmas before Diana and Charles’s divorce. Spencer is primarily interested in exploring the possible emotional life of the Princess, often using elements of psychological horror and dreamlike sequences to capture her depression and mounting frustration.

Here, Diana is a tortured gothic heroine, roaming mansions and the moors in her nightgown, talking to ghosts and envisioning and predicting her own demise, her moments in the real world detached and unsteady, her body and mind falling apart at the seams. You spend the movie entrenched in Diana’s perspective of feeling trapped, like a mouse in a labyrinth, searching for a way out. I felt this acutely throughout the movie, and then even more so when I left the film and spent thirty minutes wandering lost in a parking garage. 

Kristen Stewart, as we have discovered in her post-Twilight days, is a talented actress in the right role, and this is the right role. Her portrayal of Princess Diana wouldn’t make sense if superimposed onto any other project about Diana, but here she carries the movie’s vision with her shuddered, nervous physicality, some of the best hand acting I’ve ever seen, and an undercurrent of fierce fortitude. 

I don’t think you will remember Spencer for its plot or the whole of the movie, but a few specific images and sequences have lingered in my mind. If you go in with the correct expectations and enjoy moody dramas, then I think you’ll appreciate Spencer. Overall, I don’t see the film having many Oscar chances outside of a best actress nomination and costume design, but depending on its award campaign it could be a dark horse contender for best picture. 

Spencer is in theaters and on premium video on demand

– Madeleine D.

August Round-Up: Jungle Cruise, The Suicide Squad, and CODA

Jungle Cruise

Linda Cook review: 'Jungle Cruise' is worth the trip | OurQuadCities

*Technically* this came out at the end of July but I’m roping it in here. I was unabashedly excited for Jungle Cruise. With my vaccine, mask, and uncrowded theater, I was ready to get back to the big screen and set to like this movie (the film is also on Disney+ with premier access). I love fun adventure movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure, and Tomb Raider. I’m as charmed by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt as the rest of America. I love Jesse Plemons playing unhinged weirdos. And I firmly believe the addition of a boat makes any movie better. 

Jungle Cruise delivers all of these elements. None of these elements are played up to their fullest potential, but they’re all there. The movie has a big, dumb, mad-libs-style plot that you don’t need to pay close attention to because, in the end, the real Amazonian magic healing flower is the friends we made along the way. The action sequences are exciting and make great use of the setting, even though there is an over-reliance on CGI. Johnson and Blunt are charismatic enough to make you believe their overdone, stale, bantering dynamic, and while I could always use more, Plemons does get to be weird and great in the role of the villainous Prince Joachim. The jungle cruise boat itself is well utilized and fully realized. 

Jungle Cruise gives you exactly what it promises, and absolutely nothing more. It’s not going to be remembered as being as inventive as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (when it first started), or as beloved as The Mummy, or as ridiculous fun as National Treasure. It’s like much of Dwayne Johnson’s career– sturdy, reliable, earnest, get the job done. It’s a fine time at the movies. But I can’t help but wish it had been a little more.

The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad movie review (2021) | Roger Ebert

The first Suicide Squad movie, directed by David Ayer and released in 2016, was almost universally disliked and critically panned. But the IP was too valuable to lose, and the film made $746 million at the box office, so how do you solve a problem like Suicide Squad? According to Warner Brothers and DC, you hire the recently fired (later rehired) Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, change up the casting, make it unclear whether this is a sequel? Prequel? Reboot? and you try again, letting Gunn run with an R rating and promise a level of naughtiness and provocation that would maybe be edgy for a fifteen-year-old boy. 

I did not like The Suicide Squad, but I will admit that is probably more due to taste than the film itself. The Suicide Squad is stylistic, visually inventive, and the screenplay is actually coherent, which is an improvement on the 2016 film. It’s the work of an auteur and I admire that Gunn’s distinct vision is realized. For people who enjoy Gunn’s work and other movies in this vein, I think The Suicide Squad is worth seeing, and I’m always a proponent of superhero movies being experimental. 

Ultimately, I just dislike Gunn’s sensibilities as a filmmaker on display here. I didn’t think the excessive gore added anything to the story. I found the characters flat, with all attempts to humanize them undercut by their irredeemable and unexamined actions. The jokes and dialogue are unfunny, often because of their over-reliance on crudeness and shock-value. It just wasn’t for me, but that’s okay. It’s for some people, which, again, is a step-up from the first film, which was for no one. 

The Suicide Squad is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

CODA

CODA Trailer: Sian Heder's Sundance Sensation on Apple TV Plus | IndieWire

CODA, streaming now on Apple+, is being heralded as one of the best films of the year. But what makes this coming-of-age story so special? 

The story follows many tried-and-true story beats as it follows Ruby, a high school senior who spends her days working for her family’s flailing fishing business and trying to make it through all the normal mortifications of high school– bullying, being unnoticed by her crush, and trying out for choir. When Ruby’s choir teacher recognizes she has talent, he encourages her to audition for the Berklee College of Music. But Ruby’s family needs her at home, and they don’t fully appreciate her talent. Ruby struggles with identity and forming her own path. It’s pretty standard stuff. 

But there’s a twist to all of this. The reason why her family doesn’t appreciate her talent is because both of her parents and brother are deaf. Ruby is a CODA- child of deaf adults- and that’s also why they need her to stay and help out the business by interpreting for them. Ruby must decide between sacrificing her own dreams and her family’s needs. 

What is so special about CODA is that Ruby’s deaf family is not presented as a twist. The representation of deaf people and the way they navigate the world feels natural and lived-in. Each character is complex and has their own motivations and interior life. They aren’t a plot device, they are central to the story and the emotional core of the film. The tropes of coming-of-age stories here are made fresh by both the unique angle of framing it with deaf characters, which is a rarity on screen, but also by just how well these story beats are executed and the way they all crescendo to an emotionally satisfying ending. These reasons make CODA the best kind of heartwarming drama, and a must-watch for this year. 

-Madeleine D.

My Top 5 Horror Movies

A guest review by Eliza Dorst

*Includes spoilers!!!

What makes a good horror movie? I think a successful horror movie traps its audience into a fantastical scenario that feels scarily intimate, something a little too close for comfort. Good horror displays uncensored human instinct–both good and bad. Personally, horror is my favorite genre of movie because I enjoy how my adrenaline starts to pump and my brain somehow forgets I’m watching a screen. I believe good horror movies make you forget you’re watching a production and instead cause you to feel as if you are in a high-stakes situation along with the characters because you’re so entrenched. My top five horror movies all accomplish these goals.

5. Scream (1996)

Twist endings are my favorite endings. When they are done right, plot twists can make a movie more exciting, along with more meaningful. A lot of the movies on my list have twist endings and they’re all done magnificently. Scream is included on my list for many reasons, but it mostly stands out due to the beginning and ending sequences. With Drew Barrymore getting murdered right off the bat (at the height of her fame), the entire movie is set up to defy audience expectations. The dialogue shows how ironic the film is by discussing horror movie tropes. The movie also makes constant references to other horror films, not in a cheesy way, but to pay homage to them. And the last sequence is when the audience finds out who the killer… or killers– are. It’s truly terrifying because it makes you think about the people you surround yourself with, their secret lives, and the fact that most serial killers blend into society pretty well. 

I love the use of “rules” in the movie. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, there is a character in Scream who relays certain unspoken “rules” of the horror movie genre and these rules are what keep the characters alive or cause them to die. Then, throughout the actual film, the audience notices that almost all of these rules get broken. Scream is self-aware, as many horror movies are, yet is a breath of fresh air as it understands the sad, demoralizing history of female characters in the genre and other similar cliches. Scream doesn’t just reference and recreate tropes; it breathes life into the genre and its tropes by giving us new refreshing characters, along with amazing acting and creative dialogue. It’s can hard for a horror movie to strike a perfect balance of humor and horror, but Scream does it. And it’s not as if there is just one character to rely on for comedic relief, but rather multiple truly humorous characters that take the edge off. Scream is a re-watchable classic that opened up a whole new opportunity for horror movies.

4. Psycho (1960)

This classic Hitchcock thriller makes number 4 on my list for the way it changed cinema forever… More than 60 years ago Psycho was released and immediately gained traction for its outbursts of violence, sensuality, and twist ending. Adam Rosenberg writes, “On June 16, 1960, Psycho premiered in New York City. On that night, the world saw the birth of the slasher genre and one of the earliest examples of graphic violence in a film… There are many works of ‘classic cinema’ which, while important, seem unimpressive by today’s standards. Hitchcock stands apart; his work endures and his influence is still felt whenever a movie pushes you to the edge of your seat with tension.” Hitchcock’s stylistic choices and the dynamic characters helped create a phenomenal thriller that digs under the surface and reflects on mental illness.

3. Get Out (2017)

Can we take a moment to appreciate Jordan Peele? He came from a background in comedy acting, and then directed and released two fantastic horror movies in a span of two years. Comedy and horror have plenty of overlapping qualities, but it still always surprises me when someone can do both. His other film, Us, is one of my honorable mentions. But Get Out made it onto my top five for a couple of specific reasons. 

First, it shows the audience aspects of the Black experience, specifically the anxiety in an interracial relationship. I’ll give a summary of the movie: Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) are dating and Chris is going to meet Allison’s family for the first time. Allison’s family first welcomes Chris, who is Black. But as the visit progresses, the situation gets increasingly disturbing as truths are unveiled.As a white person, I come into this movie with a certain amount of ignorance to the fear a person of color would feel in situations such as this (meeting their white potential in-laws), but Jordan Peele makes it so easy for someone outside of the community to understand that terror. The brilliant twist ending causes us all to reflect on internal racism and microaggressions we may be participating in. Compared to Us, Get Out is less gory and is mostly a psychological terror. It’s a slow burn, and therefore I felt that the ending was more satisfying than in a typical horror movie where the thrills are scattered all over. Get Out is a lot more than just a horror movie; there’s social commentary and a focused narrative that gives the audience something more than just jump-scares. The film also has a structure and vibe similar to an episode of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror due to its slow buildup and then extreme climax and “resolution.” This structure was brilliant and perfect for the story Peele wanted to tell.

2. The Shining (1980)

There is no doubt that The Shining is one of the greatest horror movies of all time. While the film received mixed reviews when it was released in 1980, it has since been reevaluated and is now critically acclaimed. Filmmakers such as Jordan Peele, Tim Burton, and David Lynch refer to this film as an inspiration for their work. Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous attention to detail, the score, and Jack Nicholson’s performance make this horror film the masterpiece it is and number two on my list.    

Every actor in this film does an amazing job. from Shelly Duvall playing a completely hysterical mother and wife to Danny Lloyd’s eight-year-old performance as an abused child with a strange sixth sense. But, for me, Jack Torrance is one of the scariest movie antagonists of all time. As the movie unfolds, the audience finds out that Mr. Torrance has had a past of alcoholism. I was rooting for Jack from the beginning, hoping that he would continue as a sober man and loving father and husband. My hope was in vain, as the Outlook Hotel slowly turns Jack into an evil murderer who hunts his own family. Jack Nicholson was perfect for this role and truly gave us a performance horror history will never forget. 

One thing that has always stood out to me about this film is the psychological terror. It’s slow-paced but perfectly executed through an eerie plot and character development. It doesn’t just outright surprise the audience, it takes its time building suspense, creating high stakes, and showing Jack’s loss of sanity over time. 

Stanley Kubrick is quoted saying, “The manuscript of the novel was sent to me by John Calley, of Warner Bros. I thought it was one of the most ingenious and exciting stories of the genre I had read. It seemed to strike an extraordinary balance between the psychological and the supernatural in such a way as to lead you to think that the supernatural would eventually be explained by the psychological: ‘Jack must be imagining these things because he’s crazy.’ This allowed you to suspend your doubt of the supernatural until you were so thoroughly into the story that you could accept it almost without noticing.” 

Although the movie is noticeably different from the original novel, Stanley Kubrick used his own vision to take a challenging manuscript and make it into something new.

1. Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary is my all-time favorite film, I’ve watched it about 6 times and it never fails to surprise me. I will try to summarize the film without giving away too much for those who need a bit of a refresher. Hereditary is about a family that has just lost their grandmother. Through her death, the family has unknowingly been sacrificed to a sinister cult the grandmother was a part of (although this fact is not apparent, or even very relevant until the last 15 minutes). The movie mostly focuses on the family, specifically the mother Annie (Toni Collette), after the tragic death of her daughter. As blame is shifted to different family members and parental trauma unfolds, all while a spiritual awakening is bubbling over, Hereditary is straight out of a terrible nightmare.

One great thing about this Ari Aster movie is that it doesn’t need gore or actual horror tactics to be a scary movie. It perfectly embodies realism, surrealism, and fantasy. The family dynamic alone is suspenseful enough. The plot is completely plausible, every character’s personality and response to each situation is completely believable. Honestly, up until the end, this movie could easily just be somebody’s unfortunate life. Aster said of the film: “I enjoy turning things on the audience. I like working in genre because people come into films with certain expectations. They know the tropes so well that, when you turn on those, it can be shocking because there’s a complacency that comes with watching those films.” He accomplished exactly this with Hereditary. I went into the movie expecting the cliche horror movie tropes, and he completely defied those expectations. Another aspect that gives this movie my number one spot is Toni Collette’s acting. Don’t get me wrong, I loved her in Muriel’s Wedding, but she gives a phenomenal performance in Hereditary that shows her true acting talent and range. All the acting is terrific, but for me, Toni Collette deserved an Oscar, no question. She plays a believable mother trying to cope with the traumatic death of her daughter, right after the death of her mother. As Annie, Collette perfectly encompasses the emotions a person in her shoes would be experiencing, and the movie just throws in a couple of supernatural experiences to push her over the edge. 

Honorary Mentions (not in any specific order): 

A Quiet Place 1&2 (2018 & 2021)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) 

Saw (2004)

Us (2019)

The Haunting of Hill House (Season 1, 2018) -This is a Netflix series, but definitely worth the watch!!

Top 10 things of 2021 (So Far)

Twice a year- once in June and once in December- I make a list of ten things I liked this year. While the lists sometimes include movies I haven’t otherwise reviewed, it’s mostly a chance to talk about the television, music, podcasts, and books I recommend anyone check out. 

TV

Cobra Kai, Season 3 (Netflix)

Cobra Kai is the kind of show I would have never expected I would like. I’ve only seen The Karate Kid once, I haven’t seen any of the sequels, and I don’t have any nostalgia for the ‘80s (I wasn’t there!). But Cobra Kai, which follows the karate shenanigans of the now-middle age characters of Karate Kid and their children, is a delight. It’s a ridiculously fun soap-opera drama, full of ridiculous and cheesy ‘80s references that somehow aren’t obnoxious. How is that? The show purposefully explores how these characters are stuck in the past. The references and obsession about their past are fun for the audience, but the show itself uses them to show how pitiful Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Danny LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) can be, and how their refusal to move on from their past manifests in their children. 

An exploration of generational trauma sounds like a weighty topic for such a light show, yet the show pulls it off, balancing serious drama with amazing stunt work and comedy. The whole ensemble is excellent, with the young cast, led by Mary Mouser and Xolo Marideuna, being especially strong (and Courtney Henggeler is a scene-stealer). Season 3 spends too much time setting up the next season, and the show’s attempts to counteract criticisms of cultural appropriation by having Danny taking a trip to Japan ends up weighing down the season, but the series is so strong that even a weaker season is worth recommending.

Shadow and Bone (Netflix)

The common theme in this list is fun surprises. Just like I had no real background knowledge or expectations for Cobra Kai, I had never read Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone books before deciding to tune into the first season of the eight-episode Netflix show. The young adult fantasy series is about Alina (Jessie Mei Li), an orphan who realizes she is actually a Grisha, a magical being with elemental powers. She is whisked away from everything she’s ever known to be trained by the mysterious General Kirigan (Ben Barnes). Meanwhile, a trio of criminals set off to find Alina for their own purposes.

Besides the big budget, which allows for stunning fantasy sequences, the best thing about Shadow and Bone is the cast. There’s not a weak link here, but Ben Barnes as Captain Kirigan may be the best surprise. I’m tired of men in young adult franchises (which are usually female-oriented) who ridicule the property and their roles (looking at you, Robert Pattinson in Twilight). In contrast, Ben Barnes plays his role with total seriousness and sincerity, and it’s clear he and the rest of the cast are having a blast, which in turn makes it more enjoyable for the audience. Kit Young and Amita Suman are also standouts. If you’re looking for a binge-worthy fantasy epic with some confusing worldbuilding but big emotions, complex relationships, and thrills, Shadow and Bone will certainly scratch that itch. 

Mare of Easttown (HBO Max)

Like many great detective stories, HBO’s Mare of Easttown stars a grizzled and weary defender of good in a small town full of secrets and hidden darkness. And like the town she protects, Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) has some secrets and darkness of her own. As she investigates the murder of a young woman and the disappearance of two others girls, Mare constantly wrestles with pursuing the truth, even when it comes at the expense of her friends and family. Her attempts to love those same people are what make the show incredibly moving. There are uneven parts of the series– Evan Peters is a little underwhelming, Guy Pearce feels out of place at times, and sometimes the show takes detours that don’t pay off for a while. But attention to detail and a strong spiritual undercurrent, as well as an astounding finale, make it a rewarding must-watch.

WandaVision (Disney +)

The great Marvel-Disney+ show experiment officially kicked off in January of this year with the release of WandaVision, starring Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany reprising their big-screen roles as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch and Vision. Even those of us who were familiar with the comic book inspiration the show was drawing from and knew the conceit of the show–Wanda creates an alternative reality that plays out her and Vision’s life in the style of different American sitcoms– were shocked by how weird the show is. It leans fully into the premise and does not coddle the audience until late in the game. Unfortunately, the show loses its nerve at the end and opts for a big Marvel CGI-battle instead of sticking to its guns, and the whole series suffers for it. But even though the ending is a bit of a dud, there is much to like here. Olsen is marvelous, effortlessly slipping into each decade of acting styles. Bettany, who has been underrated for a long time, gets a few moments to shine. Kathryn Hahn (who is now Emmy-nominated for her role here!) is the ace up the show’s sleeve. WandaVision isn’t able to totally reinvent the wheel, but it is a charming oddity in the ever-expanding world of Marvel and a promise of the potential of the Marvel-Disney+ experiment.

Books

The Echo Wife, by Sarah Gailey

I can’t stop thinking about The Echo Wife. It’s a small, tightly written story with a limited cast of characters, but enormous ideas regarding medical ethics, artificial life, femininity, marriage, and recovering from abuse. The book is about Evelyn, a scientist who discovers that her husband Nathan made a clone of her and then had an affair with this clone (named Martine). The clone is a more docile, gentle, nurturing and submissive version of Evelyn. When something happens to Nathan, Evelyn and Martine must work together. They must confront the differences, and similarities, between them as they untangle their connection to Nathan and their own senses of self. If you want an uneasy, twisty, character-driven science fiction story, in the vein of a movie like Ex Machina, I highly recommend checking out The Echo Wife.

Who is Maud Dixon?, by Alexandra Andrews

In Who is Maud Dixon?, the trope of the “genius eccentric loner asshole artist” is put on trial. Florence, an aspiring writer, takes a job being the assistant of a mysterious author who writes under the pseudonym Maud Dixon. This author is the classic egotistical, tempestuous writer. But it turns out, so is Florence. As these two women fight over the mantle of Maud Dixon, in a beautiful Moroccan setting, author Alexandra Andrews slyly examines the myth of the author and the real price of creativity and ambition. A fast-paced, easy read, this is a “beach read” in the best sense of the term.

Raft of Stars, by Andrew J. Graff

Following in the tradition of boyhood adventure novels like Huckleberry Finn or Hatchet, Raft of Stars follows two young boys- Fish and Bread- as they escape into the woods after they think Bread’s father has been murdered. At first, the book’s attempt to pay homage to its literary influences feels overdone, but slowly the novel hits own stride, especially as it shifts its focus onto the winsome adult ensemble who are chasing the boys– Tiffany, the self-reliant gas station clerk and secret romantic; the haunted Sheriff Cal; Fish’s tough-as-nails grandfather Teddy; and Fish’s gallant mother Miranda. Author Andrew Gaff plays with genre tropes to fashion a story that, while sweetly-old fashioned in some ways, also gives a more inclusive, thoughtful update to the classic adventure novel. It’s literary but also very cinematic, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was adapted to the big screen soon, so check it out before then!

Podcasts

The Improvement Association, from Serial 

From Serial, the hit true-crime podcast that helped launch the age of true-crime podcasts, comes this more modest, intimate story of election fraud and small-town politics. Hosted by Zoe Chance, the series follows the allegations of election fraud in Bladen County, North Carolina, where a Black political activist group is the subject of suspicion and disdain by white citizens, and trust is broken across races and political parties. The Improvement Association refuses to be sensational or to manipulate viewers with explosive twists and accusations. Chance carefully looks into every lead and logically breaks it down. She’s not the most exciting narrator or storyteller, but she is a trustworthy one that feels steady and reliable, and she clearly cares for the people she encounters, even at their most irritable or eccentric. These five episodes are perfect if you want a better understanding of the mess American politics is in, told in a measured, methodical yet personal way, on a small-scale.

In God We Lust, from Wondery

In God We Lust, meanwhile, is the exact opposite of The Improvement Society when it comes to reporting. While TIS strove to provide a factual, balanced, restrained narrative, In God We Lust is like sitting by the pool with your friend after having one too many margaritas as she recalls a scandalous story she heard second-hand. Hosts Brooke Siffrinn and Aricia Skidmore-Williams are fabulous guides who add plenty of color commentary to the central story: the story of Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife Becky Falwell’s affair with Giancarlo Granda, a young pool attendant they met on vacation. What unfolds is a murky, juicy story at the intersection of all sorts of hot-button issues: #MeToo and sexual harassment, Christian institutions, Donald Trump, Christian leaders and wealth, and purity culture. There’s a lot here to think about, especially if you’re a serious Christian who cares about these issues. But the hosts don’t do much to prompt thoughtful discussion or questions; they’re more prone to laugh at the scandal than lament it. So if you do listen, enjoy it at face-value, but dig deeper into what this story really can be mined for.

Movies

Inside, (Netflix)

Comedian and writer/director Bo Burnham’s Netflix special Inside has been called a lot of things. A genre-bending meta-examination of comedy (true). Auteur achievement (true). A catchy musical (true). Inside is a fascinating examination of the internet and internet culture, and there are many reviews out there that break down its layers that I would recommend checking out. But there is something I haven’t seen discussed yet, so I want to bring it up here, which is the theme of “humiliation” throughout the film. 

I’m going to define humiliation here on more spiritual terms: humiliation is not just feeling embarrassed or having your ego bruised, it is the feeling of the gap between how you are being treated, and what you deserve. Humiliation is a betrayal of dignity. If we believe all humans have inherent worth and dignity, then humiliation is when someone is treated with less-than that deserved dignity, either by having to treat themselves poorly or by being treated that way by others.

The special starts with Bo Burnham (or, his protagonist character) making fun of comedians who are white guys with a lot to say (like him). It starts as typical form of self-deprecation, the kind we as the audience usually appreciate, with our love of self-awareness. Then the special moves deeper into Bo’s conflicted feelings about the internet. He started his comedy career making internet videos, and now he’s having to examine himself and his complicity in the space he is now ambivalent about. There’s the humiliation of examining yourself and realizing, Oh no, I’m embarrassed with how I have made my living and how it’s contributed to something bad and shallow. This self-examination creates doubt and begs the question: Can I ever be truly authentic?

Then the special digs into Bo’s mental illness and how his panic attacks made him quit performing comedy, and there’s that gap again, the gap of my body and mind has betrayed me, this is not how it should be, I deserve better. There is humiliation in being impaired in this way, and even more humiliation in wanting to tell people the truth of your experiences, but not wanting to be pitied. Then at the end of the show, Bo sings a song about how next time, he should watch the audience, instead of the audience only watching him. Shortly after, Bo appears naked under a spotlight. Being on the internet and performing on stage means you are always vulnerable and naked to the audience. Humiliation abounds. 

There are little parts of the special that strive to show that on the internet we reduce ourselves to one-dimensional caricatures, because that’s how these platforms work. The song “White Woman’s Instagram,” is a funny takedown of stereotypical white woman Instagram accounts, but halfway through the song Bo sings of a post where this hypothetical woman writes about her deceased mom, a touching, humanizing moment. But there’s discomfort here as well: this woman can only have an authentic, genuine expression of humanity in a space otherwise full of pictures of pumpkins and lattes. How could an Instagram page ever convey the complexity and three-dimensionality of someone? It can’t! We’re made for so much more than this! But this is all we have, so we have to settle for this lesser form of self-expression. This is a division of self, and that’s humiliation.

The last scene has Bo walking out of his house, then immediately trying to go back inside the house, but it’s locked. While he struggles to get back inside, a laugh track plays. This is the humiliation of being exposed to people, the humiliation of a parasocial relationship where you both desperately need the audience, and you also despise them. Inside is the best film to come out of the pandemic so far, and I think everyone will take something very different away from it.

– Madeleine D.

Luca

Pixar’s new film Luca is what you would get if Finding Nemo and The Little Mermaid had a beautiful Italian child. While Luca is as richly animated as those films, does it have the same emotional depth and timeless quality they do?

Luca follows two sea monsters living on the coast of Italy. Luca (Jacob Tremblay) is shy and curious, fascinated with the human world but forbidden from exploring it by his parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan). He befriends Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who has been living on land in his human form for a while. Alberto helps Luca get the courage to run away from home and visit the nearby village, where they meet Giulia, a spunky young girl preparing to enter a local race. The boys join her racing team to make money to buy a Vespa, but their plans are threatened by the town bully and Luca’s parents, who come on land to find their son.

I’m sad to say that Luca is one of Pixar’s slightest, most underwhelming offerings. While last year’s Soul was ambitious but fell short of reaching its full potential, Luca doesn’t falter in telling its story because there’s not much story here at all. The simple tale about two boys, literally fishes out of the water, gaining acceptance from others and learning not to hide works well as a fable. I’m not saying it needed a more complex plot. But Pixar movies always have multiple layers of meaning, with a narrative aimed at kids and then deeper themes for adults. For example, Finding Nemo, like Luca, is about overprotective parents. In Finding Nemo however, Marlin’s fears are thoughtfully explored in a compelling way for adults, while Nemo’s storyline tells a story for kids about gaining independence. In Luca, Luca’s parents are mostly played for a joke.

Disappointingly, Luca is one-note, never able to balance more than one theme at a time. The first part of the movie is about Luca’s conflicted desire between obeying his parents and discovering more about the human world. Once he decides to explore the human world, this conflicting emotion is never revisited. Once he and Alberto explore the human world and Alberto becomes worried Luca will abandon him, they have one fight. Luca makes it up to Alberto by proving that he won’t abandon him, and all is resolved. The sea monsters are worried throughout the film that the humans will reject them, but after the only encounter where Alberto and Luca’s true identities are revealed, the humans accept them, and it’s completely resolved. A story can be simple while still having depth. But Luca feels like a story of bullet points, rather than a narrative woven together. 

Despite these issues, what keeps the film together is the atmosphere. After last summer, which didn’t feel like much of a summer at all due to COVID restrictions, there is something truly refreshing about seeing a movie that is rich with sensory details. You can feel the warmth of the sun beating down on the Italian Riviera! You can feel the cobblestones beneath your feet. You can almost taste the gelato! (Side note- I had pasta and gelato before watching, and I highly recommend it to get you into the mood to watch). This film made me really, really want to ride a Vespa and feel the wind in my hair as I roll down the Italian countryside. While I can’t see Luca being a timeless, rewatchable film, it is a pleasurable experience. If you have young children, or enjoy animated movies and want to celebrate summer, Luca is a charming way to pass the time. But raise an Italian soda with me: here’s to hoping Pixar gets its groove back soon.

-Madeleine D.

In The Heights

*Spoilers

“Immigrants, we get the job done!”

This line, from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway juggernaut Hamilton, could just as easily come from In The Heights. In The Heights, the film adaptation of Miranda’s first musical (Hamilton is his second), chronicles the lives of several young people pursuing big dreams while living in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights. 

Because of COVID, In The Heights’s theatrical release was pushed back a year, and now the film has unexpectedly found itself being released after Hamilton, which was released on Disney+ last summer. Hamilton’s movie release brought in a wave of new critique and examination on the musical about the American founding fathers. Even if you haven’t watched Hamilton (which I highly recommend!) you’ve probably heard about how it uses hip-hop and rap, and the cast is made up almost entirely of actors of color. One of the most interesting things about watching In The Heights is comparing the two works and seeing Miranda’s underlying interests and philosophies as an artist. Some observations:

  • Miranda’s love of the archetypal immigrant tale. In Hamilton, he presents Alexander Hamilton’s story of coming to America from Nevis as an immigrant story, highlighting how all Americans were originally immigrants from Britain/British colonies. In In The Heights, many characters are either first or second-generation Hispanic and Latino immigrants. The emotional show-stopping number “Paciencia Y Fe” is sung by Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who tells the story of her mother bringing her to New York City from Cuba and their struggles. Miranda, born in New York City, is a second-generation immigrant; his parents are originally from Puerto Rico. 
  • The struggle between individual dreams vs looking out for the community. In The Heights has Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) desiring to go back to the Dominican Republic, but eventually he decides to stay in Washington Heights to maintain his father’s bodega, to be a role model to young Sonny, and to care for the neighborhood. In Hamilton, Alexander works tirelessly to build up America, but essentially abandons his wife and family and betrays many of his principles. It’s only his wife Eliza’s forgiveness and mercy towards him which allows for reconciliation with them before his death, and the play presents Alexander’s dreams for personal glory as only worthwhile if they’re in step with uplifting those around him. The play’s focus on the rest of the ensemble subtly subverts the “one great man of history” trope (although the focus on the founding fathers could be seen as actually enforcing that, but that’s another conversation). 
  • While there are certainly motifs and lyrics that are similar between the two, In The Height’s music is distinct from Hamilton’s through its use of Spanish and Latin-inspired music. While the Hamilton film is just a recording of the Broadway play, In The Heights makes the most of its film format with exciting cinematography and directorial choices. 

It’s the excellent directing and beautifully composed musical numbers that sold me on the film. There were times watching In The Heights that my mouth was open in awe. I was having a blast. If you are at all a fan of movie musicals, I think you’ll love In The Heights. And if you don’t like movie musicals… I feel sorry for you.

Since I’m writing this review a few weeks after its release, I can’t talk about the film without addressing the controversy that has soured the film’s run. The film has been accused of colorism because most of the cast are light-skinned actors, while the real neighborhood of Washington Heights has a high population of African American and Afro-Latinx people. Having lighter-skinned actors instead of darker-skinned actors is certainly not original to In The Heights– it’s a widespread Hollywood issue. But In The Heights is seeing more heat for it than most films do. I think partly it’s because movies that are centered on people of color are so rare, they’re more heavily criticized than movies with primarily white casts. In white-ensemble movies, it’s seen as a success just to get a few people of color in there, there’s not even space to consider colorism. This is becoming less true though, so perhaps one positive aspect of this controversy is that going forward movies will be more proactive against colorism. 

Another factor at play is the Lin-Manuel Miranda backlash which has built since the Hamilton movie release. Hamilton was genuinely groundbreaking in its mainstream success, and because of that success, it launched Miranda as the face of progressive politics in the mainstream’s perception of theater, and it was a role he embraced. But now he’s not progressive enough for progressives, and since In The Heights is an earlier work of his, there’s more to criticize (I feel this. Don’t go back and read any of my reviews pre-2018!).

While I do think the criticism is warranted (and Miranda has apologized) I also hate to see this movie taken down and all of its positive attributes forgotten. I think many people’s hopes and dreams were pinned on In The Heights, and it is impossible for a single film to carry an entire political agenda on its back. What is possible is for us as audience members to discerningly watch a film and hold in tension both its strengths and shortcomings.

As for In The Height’s strengths, outside of its direction, music, and the sheer joy and energy I felt watching it, there was a specific theme in the film I loved. The residents of Washington Heights face a variety of threats: gentrification, racism, anti-immigration sentiment, poverty. When they face a blackout, characters sing, “We are powerless,” referring not only to the blackout but to the powerlessness they feel in their lives from all of these issues. But Abuela Claudia stirs her family with these words: “[We] assert our dignity in small ways.” Abuela Claudia does this by telling the audience her story in “Paciencia Y Fe.” Daniela does this by encouraging the neighborhood to dance through the blackout in “Carnaval Del Barrio.” And the movie itself is asserting dignity to the characters, the cultures on display, and the neighborhood of Washington Heights by presenting it lovingly in every frame, in every line, in every verse. 

It reminded me of the Christian theological term Imago Dei, which is Latin for “Image of God.” It refers to Genesis 1:27, where we are told God created humans “in his image”. All humans are image-bearers of God, and that gives everyone inherent value and dignity. Movies like In The Heights are explicit exercises in seeing the Imago Dei in everyone, especially people who aren’t usually treated with dignity on the big screen. 

That’s something worth singing about.

-Madeleine D.

Cruella

Cruella, starring Emma Stone as the dog-killing Disney villainess, is the newest addition to Disney’s new live-action remake series. It reimagines Cruella de Vil into a young orphan named Estella, who loses her mother in a tragic Dalmatian-related accident and rises to the top of the 1970s London fashion scene. Estella creates the alter ego Cruella to face off against the formidable Baroness (Emma Thompson), the last person standing in Estella’s way to greatness.

Cruella is at its best when it is not trying to be a Cruella de Vil origin story. The movie excels when it’s a fashion heist movie and an exercise in opulent, campy drama. The shoehorned inclusion of Dalmatians, random references to the 101 Dalmatian film, awkwardly forced backstory of minor characters, and an attempt to set up a sequel derail what otherwise could be a quirky The Devil Wears Prada meets action-adventure heist movie.

Of course, we probably wouldn’t get a movie like Cruella without it being attached to a Disney IP. The Disney live-action remakes have been frustrating across the board because they have, at times, given opportunities to great filmmakers and actors and allowed for tremendous creativity and talent, but because they are attached to Disney and must have quadrant, mass-appeal, they can never really take risks. Cruella tiptoes the line of being edgy and weird, but can never really go for it because it’s a Disney film, so it ends up being as punk and revolutionary as a Hot Topic Store. And I enjoy a good trip to Hot Topic every now and then! There’s an audience for it. But I couldn’t watch Cruella without the nagging sensation that there was a stronger film within it.

That being said, there are good things in the film. Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are both excellent, chewing scenery and taking the lacking screenplay and using sheer charisma to make the dialogue halfway compelling. The costumes really are marvelous. Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser as Jasper and Houser are the hearts of the film. It’s an energetic and fast-paced movie that is a lot of fun to watch, no matter how unsatisfying it ultimately is. 

The big question though: does Cruella redeem the infamous villain? How evil does Cruella allow Cruella to be? Does it have anything interesting to say about Cruella and her wickedness?

The friend I saw the film with had an interesting remark. She said that it was “post-modern”, because the movie is all about Estella shedding her identity to create a whole new one. She uses fashion to create and embody this new persona, and then– spoiler!– literally kills off her old self. One postmodern view of identity posits that there isn’t one true, solid self. We aren’t defined by how we were made. We’re defined by how we make and present ourselves. We’re always changing; we’re a product of circumstance, and therefore can design ourselves however we like. True authenticity is actually a type of performance, the performance of what you want and believe yourself to really be. 

So it’s fitting that all of these pieces- fashion, self-creation, individual moral relativism, and an origin story– all come together in Cruella. Here, Cruella gets to be sympathetic and embrace her fabulously evil side. She gets to create a new identity for herself and still be loved by her old friends, no matter how poorly she treats them. She gets to be an inspirational girlboss and trample on others for her own career success. She gets to be known as the villain who kills puppies and this movie completely cuts out her hurting any animals. She gets to have revenge on those who wrong her and never receive any lasting consequences for her own evil actions. In these contradictions, Cruella presents a fantasy for the audience, since most of us also want to be able to behave “brilliant, bad, and a little mad,” and still imagine ourselves to be a redeemable antihero. And Disney gets to make a movie about a villain and make her decent enough to sell merchandise!

-Madeleine D.