♫ HAAAA AHA AHA AHH AHHHH HAAAA AH♫ : A Star Is Born

A star is born

If you know what the title of this review is referring to, you’ve probably seen A Star is Born. Or you’ve seen the trailer, in which case, you’ve seen the film. This is going to be an in-depth review, with spoilers, so if you haven’t seen this new remake, go see it, and come back.

After seeing A Star is Born, I didn’t know what to think, so I began reading as many reviews and think pieces about the film as I could, to see if anyone else was feeling how I was and could articulate it. (So, I guess the cat’s out of the bag. I don’t just watch a film, retreat into a cave, and hope to make brilliant insights. I often talk to multiple people about the film, read other reviewers, and occasionally make blood sacrifices in order to write these reviews.)

In this case, research (and college) delayed this review because I want to be careful. I think in many ways A Star is Born is this year’s La La Land. An audience favorite, excellently made, has some conflicting messages, and is about Hollywood (this A Star is Born is about the music business but the original two films were about Hollywood, and that’s still what the heart of the film is about).

However, I think A Star is Born is a more interesting film than La La Land because I think it’s a film that, more than most, presents itself without much of a lens. You see, every film has a worldview. Every piece of art does. Being a discerning viewer is just the action of deciphering what the film’s worldview is, and not letting it sink in without some interrogation. But, what makes A Star is Born so interesting is that it is able to hide that worldview in a way that makes it more of a mirror- who the viewer is informs his or her interpretation of the piece.

Yet A Star is Born still does have a lens, no matter how well-hidden. To see what the filmmakers are saying about the material, we have to look at what the text says (the text being the substance of the film) and then the attitude in which it’s presented, which will reveal the ideologies of the filmmakers. And while film-making is a team effort, for the sake of simplicity I’m going to attribute ownership to director, co-writer, and star Bradley Cooper.

The original story of A Star is Born is about many things. It’s about fame and what it does to people. It’s about addiction. And it’s about the dynamics of male insecurity and female success. This is true in all previous versions of the film (Full disclosure: I have only seen the 1954 Judy Garland and James Mason version). Even in this latest version, which adds the poptimism vs rockist debate, it still has an element of gender, as rock is often coded as masculine, and pop as feminine, as these groups are the face of those respective genres. So in this version, the “male insecurity” is replaced with “authenticity” and “woman’s rise to fame” with “pop/selling out.” All of which makes this conversation a lot more difficult.

I think if you approach the film with the idea that Ally should be able to make the music she is comfortable with, and this does not at all excuse Jackson’s toxic behavior or addiction, then the text of the film seems to be saying that Jackson’s character is, no matter how well-intentioned, in the wrong. He starts drinking after Ally’s SNL performance, but that’s on him, not her. She never once shows regret for that performance or song. With all of Jackson’s talk about authenticity, he admits to “stealing” his brother’s voice, he later threatens to steal Ally’s song by performing it unless she sings with him, and before he commits suicide, he lays down his cowboy hat, as if taking off one final mask. These all read as Jackson having his own artifice, one he can’t bring himself to admit he has. His power over his career, and Ally, even if he won’t say it, is directly in proportion to her rise to fame. So he counteracts it with assuring himself of his own authenticity, and assuring himself that she is the pop sell-out who needs his protection and guidance, thus giving power back to him. Ally never sees it as a zero-sum game, but Jackson does.

This all makes it clear he’s insecure, holding onto a by-gone time, and his attitudes about authenticity and pop are misguided at best. Even if it isn’t as clear as previous incarnations, this has the same commentary on relationships and gender as the originals. But I don’t think that’s the message people will immediately walk out of the theater with, including myself, because the film has a visual language that goes straight for your heart, and the feeling the film evokes towards Jackson are tragedy and sympathy. Cooper is obsessed with making Jackson sympathetic, from his tragic backstory to his struggle with addiction being called “a disease,” and adding modern flourishes that are supposed to assure us that this cowboy-hat-wearing-country-boy isn’t like other cowboy-hat-wearing-country-boys (such as setting up this supposed authenticity-obsessed heterosexual love story in a drag bar, which shows this film doesn’t really understand the point of drag.) So while the film does admit that yes, Jackson is jealous and insecure but sees all of this as trying to protect Ally, it is presented as a tragic love story that could have been fixed if things had just gone differently. Richard Brody nails it on the head when he writes in his review of the film for The New Yorker, “The film is made in such a way as to spare Cooper any fear of jealousy: its vision of self-expression is, above all, the expression of one self.”

To be fair, this remake does go to some lengths to equalize the relationship between Jackson and Ally, so the remakes become less of a story about gender roles and more of one between the struggle of staying true to your artistic visions and what that looks like. But this is a story that has always been about gender, and it can’t pretend it’s not. It is in sidestepping this area of the story where Cooper weakens the film.

In order to ensure this sympathy and sidestep the troubling implications of the story, Cooper makes some storytelling cheats. Ally is sidelined for the second half of the film, so we don’t get to actually hear from her, which means the only true point of view we get is Jackson’s. As he spends the film feeling Ally is being inauthentic, this is what the audience is conditioned to think, too. When we do hear from Ally, after some reluctance at the start, she is positive about her success. Her new hair color, her producer notes, was her choice. She loves her success, and so does her audience. She doesn’t see herself as inauthentic, and anytime she becomes doubtful, it’s after Jackson makes a comment about it. And most importantly, it’s important to consider that you can do both. You can make bouncy pop songs and so-called “authentic” ballads. It shouldn’t be a binary choice, yet for Ally’s character, it is presented as such (and conveniently we don’t see how Jackson is able to support his career so independently without making any of the same concessions as she does).

I applaud the film for exploring the anxiety this man has about the changes in his life. Just because he does bad things doesn’t mean he’s a villain or should be one-dimensional, or shouldn’t be looked at with compassion. Exploring why he feels jealous and anxious and can’t let go of his ideas of what is authentic (i.e, him) is important, especially in a time where a lot of men feel unsure of their place in a rapidly changing culture.

The problem is that Cooper is uncomfortable with associating Jackson with any of these things. Cooper dodges these discussions, instead leaning into the romantic tragedy of the story, without really digging deep into all of the reasons this story keeps resonating. All of these elements are present in the film, and if you think about it you can find them. But the way the film is presented, not to mention its press tour, covers a lot of that up. In a movie that is obsessed with taking off Lady Gaga’s makeup as some kind of sign of a woman revealing her *true* self, it doesn’t quite let Jackson do the same, even when his character has seemingly vulnerable moments.

A Star is Born is an entertaining, extremely well-made film. It’s a fascinating start for Bradley Cooper’s directing career and Lady Gaga’s Hollywood takeover. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack on repeat. The screenplay sets up a complicated story that doesn’t take sides and instead lets its character struggle. It pays homage to the originals while still being its own entity. The only thing standing in its way is Cooper, who doesn’t feel comfortable allowing the film to explore its own depths. He seems, like his character, to be afraid of sharing too much of the spotlight, and instead shapes a superficial narrative that threatens to cast a shadow over the other excellent work done here. But it doesn’t have to. I have discussed the film with many people, and more than a lot of movies this year, everyone seems to have a unique interpretation, and any movie that can stir up so much thought is an accomplishment.

-Madeleine D

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The Best Christian Movie Of The Year: The Hate U Give

THE HATE U GIVE

The Hate U Give is based on the best-selling novel by Angie Thomas. It follows a young black girl named Starr Carter, (Amandla Stenberg) who struggles to live between the world of her black neighborhood and her white preparatory school. After her childhood friend is shot and killed by the police at a traffic stop, the divide between her world becomes bigger as she struggles with whether to step forward as a witness to the shooting.

So why is The Hate U Give the best Christian movie of the year? After all, it’s not from the Kendrick Brothers, it’s not the next God’s Not Dead film, and it doesn’t have any children coming back from heaven. It’s not been advertised as a Christian movie in any regard.

It’s the best Christian movie of the year because it is a film that sees its characters the way Jesus sees us. It takes a complicated situation and slowly unravels all of its layers with empathy, lament, hope, and a cry for reconciliation and justice. It is a movie that is pro-life. It advocates for protecting the oppressed and recognizes the value and dignity of every human life. It is an honest movie because it laments the hate in our world and recognizes that it comes from everyone. It sees all of its characters as complex people who are sinful. It confronts large-scale systematic injustice and small-scale prejudice, without ever turning into a movie about us versus them. Instead of running away from the characters who appear to be in the wrong, the movie moves towards them with compassion. It looks suffering and pain square in the face- although it is never gratuitous- and then looks up in hope. It doesn’t just ask questions, but suggests solutions, all without acting like it has all of the answers.

I don’t mean to make this sound like a pure message-film. I’m sure some viewers will approach the film with cynicism thinking, it’s just Oscar-bait because this is the next cause the liberals want to back. It’s going to be preachy and one-sided. This is not the case. The Hate U Give is an effective movie, but not because it is “trendy” or “topical.” It is the fact that it feels (unfortunately) timeless that makes it so strong. And yes, it does have a message (all films do) and there are moments in the film where this isn’t exactly subtle. But, the film is always centered on its characters. Everything else is secondary. It is about one girl’s life, and while her viewpoint touches on bigger issues, it’s about her. In fact, there are only one or two scenes in the film that don’t have Starr in them. This is what keeps the movie grounded, even as it deals with so many issues, and this is what will make you remember it once you leave the theater. You will remember Starr and her family.

The Hate U Give is also a must-see because it is just an excellently made film, which seems to be something a lot of Christian movies are afraid of being. The writing, directing, and cinematography, in particular, are excellent, and the actors are all spectacular. Not to be punny, but Amandla Stenberg is a Star. She carries The Hate U Give and ups the game of everyone around her. In fact, the only weak cast member is Anthony Mackie, whose charisma is clearly miscast in a role in which all he does is stand around and give the same I’m peeved and intimidating look.  

Another reason it is a must see is because the film equips white viewers with a guide on how to be an ally. It first asks you to look beyond stereotypes with compassion. Reading the book and seeing the movie made me think about if my friends of color felt like Starr. Did our majority white high school force them to be someone else? How did I contribute to that? Secondly, the film gives you examples of how to react if someone accuses you of doing something racist. Getting defensive does nothing- it just kills the relationship and any potential for learning. Instead, seeking to understand why you’ve been accused and how to make amends is what furthers and deepens a relationship. And third, the film shows you how to be an ally within a larger movement. How can white allies help Black Lives Matter? The movie’s advice is to listen to the people of color in charge and follow their instructions (as your conscience allows). Support them, learn from them, and amplify their voices over your own.

A small warning though: at over two hours, the film has cut a lot from the book, and most of the things it cut were the happier moments, which means the film is a non-stop gut punch, with very few moments of respite. The moments of peace given are extremely effective, but by the end of the film, you will feel as emotionally drained as Starr. That’s an excellent movie-going experience if you ask me, but do be prepared for a heavy two hours. When I was walking into the theater, I was nearly backed into by a car in the parking lot. When I walked out, I felt like I might as well have been hit by that car.

The Hate U Give is a challenging film because it refuses to be easy. It doesn’t let you walk away feeling smug or self-righteous. Instead, it gives more nuance than our polarized age wants to allow. It’s a film I hope Christian filmmakers and studios will pay attention to, and it’s one you should pay attention to, also. It’s one of the best films of the year.

If you’d like to think more about films that view their subjects in a Christ-like way without necessarily speaking directly about Christ, I highly recommend this article: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/christ-like-gaze-film/

-Madeleine D

Avengers: Infinity War (Spoiler-Free Review)

In preparing for this review, I took a look at other reviews and think-pieces. One in particular drew my attention. “Are Movies like Avengers: Infinity War Worth Taking Seriously?” asks Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post, which addresses critic A.O Scott’s “symphony… of resignation” in his New York Times review of the film that asks the titular question. Rosenberg comes to the conclusion in the article that yes, we should take Avengers: Infinity War seriously, although her reasoning is more that critics can teach the movie-going public how to be smarter and that critics are independent thinkers who can push and prod against “the Big Bad.” While I agree with a lot of Rosenberg’s article, the clear implication that she and other critics aren’t fans of this work can’t apply to me. I am a fan of Marvel and have invested in these movies. So when I approach these films, it’s with duality, because I want to embrace it. I’m not trying to push against the “Big Bad.” But I’m also trying to be a good reviewer. Can I do both? Or, like Thanos, who feels that destroying half of the world will make the other half better, do I have to destroy one of these sides of me to fully be the other?

This is a non-spoiler review, so here’s what I can tell you: Thanos, an intergalactic god, has to collect six infinity stone to have enough power to wipe out half of the universe. All of the Marvel superheroes you know and love and quite a few you probably forgot about form mini-teams and split off into different corners of the galaxy to prevent him from collecting them all.

Some critics have been comparing Avengers: Infinity War to The Empire Strikes Back. I would compare it more to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Both have the characters splitting off into their different quests (some that drag or seem unnecessary), a lot of mythology you have to know to understand anything, and great action scenes. Both are not as self-contained as Fellowship of the Ring, yet neither have the satisfactory feel of The Return of the King. But like The Two Towers, Infinity War is necessary for the future, and it has things to offer on its own.

However, like I would not recommend seeing The Two Towers without having seen Fellowship of the Ring, I would also not recommend seeing Infinity War if you, like my mom, asked before the film, “Is Wonder Woman going to be in this one?” If you are a casual movie-goer and can’t name at least 3/4ths of the heroes on the poster, I can imagine this two hours and forty minute esoteric season-finale of a 19-film melodrama series feeling… well maybe like 19 films.

If you are a fan, then you probably already have your ticket, and I suggest you use it. Infinity War is both everything you expect and none of it. It is the closest I’ve ever seen a movie embody an amusement park ride, and there are genuine delights for fans. But I don’t think your experience is going to be satisfactory.

There’s a scene at the end of the film that is a perfect representation of the Infinity War as a whole. I promise it’s not a spoiler. Thanos, our villain, has a vision of sorts. In his vision, he finds himself walking on top of water, surrounded by a red dusk. He approaches a vaguely Buddhist-inspired temple, where he sees a character we’ve learned he has a complicated relationship with. This character says a few cryptic words, end vision.

This scene made me feel something. First it’s visually striking with the color palette and the Jesus-imagery with Thanos walking on water. Then we see him talk with the character, and the heartstrings are pulled because I know the relationship between the two, the complexities and emotions behind it.

But when I take a step back and think about it, the scene rings a bit hollow. This vision accomplishes very little, and doesn’t tell us anything about Thanos that we didn’t already know. Did Thanos show any previous affinity to walking on water? No, there’s no reason to have him do that except that it’s cool and seems tantalizing because it’s a religious allusion, and makes the film seem smarter. The Buddhist temple? I think for a majority of American audiences, including me, the first reaction will be, “oooh, that’s mystical. This must mean this is spiritual and stuff.” But it means nothing other than that. It’s lazy, uninformed short-hand for, “this is a mystical scene.” And then for the character interaction itself? There’s no actual work put into the scene to make it emotional. It’s all shorthand that I have to know to infuse it with any meaning.

Infinity War is all of these things: visually striking, suggestive of deeper meaning but without actual invention, and completely made up of shorthand. This film actually brings very little to the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and there’s no character development. It only combines and uses what has been established before.

But… isn’t that also the point? Marvel has done something that has never been done before. Marvel created an interconnected cinematic universe, the equivalent of a television show with two to three two-hour long episodes a year, going on for ten years. As other reviews have pointed out, this is like the season finale. And it’s not bad to use a shorthand, that’s what all films do. Isn’t it then a narrative triumph that this movie has even been made, and audiences can understand and emotionally identify with it based on all the work done before? It’s indulgent, yes, but Marvel has certainly earned it with 10 years of consistent work.

Then why doesn’t it feel whole? While I’m still trying to unpack the film, I think there are a few reasons. 

One, the ending. This film was originally conceived as a two-parter, and it certainly feels that way.

Second, we know the future roster of movies, and that keeps some characters completely safe and the stakes not as high. To the film’s credit though, I think it does all it can to make you feel like everyone is at risk, and some of the character’s fates are genuinely shocking.

Finally, all of the previous movies ended with saving the world, and hope. Sometimes it rang hollow and felt false, but it wasn’t until this film, which has very little hope, that I realized how comforting that is.

Now there’s no doubt that hope is coming in future films. So, on one hand, I would applaud this movie for ending on a hopeless note, unlike, say Batman V. Superman which couldn’t bring itself to do hopeless in an honest way. But, on the other hand, because this film doesn’t actually add anything to any characters, quickly patches over old conflicts and plot threads with a throw-away line, it is neither a celebration of this beloved universe, nor is it a complete reboot. It suspends everything in midair, without even hope to tide us over. And aren’t superheroes about hope?

Infinity War isn’t satisfying as a critic because this is a movie with very little actual substance, and needs not only knowledge, but emotional ties, to the previous films to work. It’s not satisfying as a fan because while it’s a thrill ride, it’s both a relentless beating to your fan-heart and its delights are quick and often feel more like a checklist. If you blink you might miss your favorite two characters meeting, interacting, and then departing.  

But I’m still not taking the bait. I’m not killing my fan side, nor my critic side. I still believe you can be both, and even if Avengers: Infinity War isn’t complete, that doesn’t mean it is empty.

-Madeleine D

Yell it out: A Quiet Place is great!

quiet-place

One of the best parts of watching a horror movie is asking yourself, “Would I survive this? And if not, at what point would I die?”

I decided I would have probably died in A Quiet Place about halfway through. Emily Blunt’s character Evelyn lives in a post-apocalyptic world overrun with blind monsters with super hearing. She and her family live on a farm in constant fear of making noise. And she’s pregnant.

One night, with her family out, she hears the monsters come into the house. Then her water breaks. She goes down the stairs to hide, and steps on a previously upturned nail. It is at that point, I would scream and gladly let the monsters eat me.

But this scene, which my description gives no justice to, is one of the reasons A Quiet Place might be one of the most well-written films of all time. It does everything from a screenwriting perspective right. The stakes are constantly raised, all of the character have some kind of guilt, every scene has a purpose, every plant has multiple payoffs, and of course, it’s the epitome of “show, don’t tell.” And credit should go to director John Krasinski and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Fences, The Hunt) for letting the script “speak” for itself with practical, purposeful, and restrained directing and cinematography.

I was afraid going in that my movie-going experience was going to be ruined by the audience. But A Quiet Place shows what film has the power to do as a medium. The audience I ended up in was one of the most well-behaved ones I’ve ever seen. A minute in and everyone was dead silent. I heard someone struggling to eat popcorn as quietly as possible. There was not a peep during the whole film. A Quiet Place immediately sucks you into its mindset and plays with your every emotion. Each action is deliberate and every facet of the film- the acting, direction, set design, score, and sound editing- is used to engage the audience and force you into the place of the characters. Sound becomes the enemy and a character of its own.

It’s hard to talk about A Quiet Place, not only because it’s best to go in without any big spoilers, but the film is prime material to be a metaphor for something. But determining what that something is is all the more difficult without dialogue. Krasinski and Blunt have said it’s a film about parenting, which is clear by the end. However, it could also be about childbearing, our obsession with sound, or how we adapt and function when disabled.

Or, it could simply be an excellent film that uses all of the horror-genre conventions to its advantage, and will take your breath away. But once you see it, don’t be afraid to exclaim how good it is.

-Madeleine D

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tomb Raider

tomb-raider

*Mild Spoilers Ahead

In elementary and middle school, one of my favorite movie series was the Nicholas Cage National Treasure films. They were the perfect sleepover movies to watch with friends, to ooh and aww at the exciting chase sequences, and to laugh at the jokes. They weren’t great films, but they were fun, exciting, and tried to teach a little history and patriotism. I’m not familiar with the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider films, or the original video game this film is based on, so as I watched the new Tomb Raider (2018) it was not those images that came to mind, but National Treasure.

Now, this new film is fairly predictable. There were a few times that I found myself saying the next line of dialogue (“The tomb’s not trying to keep people out… it’s trying to keep people in!”), and a careful viewer can point out the twists a mile away. Yet, by the end I had decided that at my next sleepover, I was going to switch out National Treasure for Tomb Raider, because while it’s not necessarily a better film, it’s a smarter one, and I couldn’t help but fall a little in love with it.

Alicia Vikander makes a star turn as Lara Croft, who goes on a search for her missing adventurer father (Dominic West). She teams up with Lu (Daniel Wu) to travel to a secret island off the coast of Japan to find him. This is Lara Croft’s origin story, showing the younger, less experienced Croft come into her own as the Tomb Raider. The film screams “franchise,” even setting up a sequel at the end, but it knows its strength, which is not the plot but the character the plot is based around. Even when I didn’t much care for what was going on in the film, Vikander’s Lara Croft had me hooked.

It adds another level of engagement and excitement when you can relate to the person on screen so deeply. Sure, I will never be Lara Croft, as much as I would like to be. But Vikander made me believe perhaps one day I can at least meet a Lara Croft-esque person that I can be friends with. The film, different from the original Angelina Jolie ones, is shot through the female gaze. This term does not mean the men in the film are treated badly, or that it is a feminist manifesto (it was even directed by a man with the manliness of names, Roar Uthaug). It simply means the film appeals to the female audience by not sexualizing the female characters and providing complex portrayals of characters that can enact female fantasies and escapism. And this worked wonders for my viewing; it was impossible for my friend and me not to spend the entire movie talking (and by talking I mean sparse whispering, as I am a courteous theater attendee) to the screen as if Lara were one of our friends.
“No, Lara, don’t go in there!”
“Punch him in the adam’s apple! YESSSS- my mom told me about that move.”
“Don’t let him talk down to you like that, Lara! Okay good, you’re escaping. Good call pal, good call.”
“I want to borrow your leather jacket. Where did you get it?”
“How… how do you get biceps like that? I can’t even do one pull-up.”
“Now that’s a nice guy, be friends with him!”

Lara Croft is a video game action heroine for sure. She does impossible stunts, survives insane injuries, and is perfectly film-suave. She doesn’t change much over the course of the film- she starts out independent, adventurous, and smart, and ends that way as well. But, there are a few details thrown into an otherwise pretty conventional film that both point to what possibly could have been, but also elevate it significantly.

There is clear attention to detail regarding how Lara could realistically take down men twice as strong as her, and the movie makes it clear how challenging that is. And when she does have her first kill in self-defense, she sits by the body and cries. It’s a stunning moment of humanity in a genre that rarely ever treats the villain body count as something to care about.

The film also takes the father-daughter storyline and elevates it by swelling to the emotional reunion- and then creating sophisticated conflict between the two that isn’t really satisfyingly resolved. The rest of the film is spent with the two in unease and heartache, and watching Lara wrestle with forgiving her father, and vice-versa, added a level of emotional resonance and maturity, even as Walton Goggins yelled about mummies and curses during the finale.

I could talk more about Tomb Raider’s flaws and how it is indicative of the origin-story- video-game-adventure genre overall, but honestly, I had a great time watching this film. If you like movies like National Treasure and Raiders of the Lost Ark– and you know who you are- then I really think you’ll enjoy this Tomb Raider. It’s a step in the right direction for the franchise which I hope will get a sequel, and I’m excited for Alicia Vikander to get to play this character again and get more roles in the future. Sometimes, fun movies can be fun, and Tomb Raider is just that.

-Madeleine D

Annihilation for Kids: A Wrinkle in Time

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I read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle somewhere around third grade, after I had finished the Harry Potter series and a relative had said, “Hey, you should read this. You and the author have the same name!”

I don’t really remember anything about the book, except I found it too weird for my tastes. Anyone who knows the book well though will tell you it’s a difficult, near impossible story to translate to any other medium. It’s a strange mixture of L’Engle’s curiosity and imagination, religious inquiries and intellectual ponderings. It follows Meg Murry (in the film played by a formidable Storm Reid), a sullen, troubled thirteen year old, whose scientist father (Chris Pine, cementing his status as the best Chris in Hollywood) has been missing for four years. Three immortal beings- Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) come to Meg and her friend Calvin (Levi Miller) and little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) to travel dimensions to find Dr. Murry and bring him home.

What is most striking about A Wrinkle in Time is, even if you didn’t know there was a woman directing, you would likely still discern an intrinsically feminine quality to the film. To be clear, while there aren’t a lot of films directed by women, the majority I’ve seen do not play as obviously made by a woman, just like not every film made by a man is clearly so.

But it did feel like taking off blinders I didn’t even realize I had on to see a fantasy film from the female perspective. Sure, women are prolific in fantasy and science fiction literature, but this hasn’t translated to film yet. This is the first film I’ve seen with this “feminine fantasy” angle, and based on A Wrinkle in Time, I would characterize it as having a character-driven plot, the main arc coming from the protagonist finding inner strength (over, say, an external weapon or source of strength), emphasis on teamwork and collaboration, and women and people of color in leading, powerful roles.

Obviously these aren’t clear cut, and plenty of other fantasy stories driven by men do similar things, but here is what I see, and what I think will, as the genre hopefully grows, continue to develop.

See, A Wrinkle in Time is less concerned with adapting the novel and more concerned with giving the archetypal, mythological coming of age story to a young black girl. That is clearly the story Ava DuVernay is most interested in telling. That is the best story in the film, but unfortunately it is buried under the plot and visuals that have to be translated from the book. The best fantasy is always concerned with characters, but A Wrinkle in Time gives the hero’s journey to someone who doesn’t usually get it, and that’s an exciting development.

With that hero’s journey comes finding inner strength, which is usually a facet of fantasy. However, often the hero has to find an object that becomes his source of strength, or the strength within him is of a magical kind. Following in the steps of Moana and Frozen (also written by A Wrinkle in Time’s screenwriter Jennifer Lee) the climax is about Meg using the power of love for her brother to stop the It (the antagonist). She tells Charles Wallace about memories they have together, how much she loves him, and how he’s shown love to her.

I love this new alternative to the climactic battle. I hope other films starring guys will be able to start partaking in it too, because violence being the ending to all big blockbusters is… concerning. And particularly for a children’s movie, showing that compassion and love is stronger than violence is the message I would think we want to be taking away. So often good trumps evil is the theme of a story, but when that is only expressed through violence, then being good becomes aligned with being the better fighter. That’s not the message that creates compassionate, empathetic children.

Now with all of the praise for this film, I do need to say that despite all of the best intentions in the world, it is not a good film in the technical and story aspect. Thematically, it’s endearing. From a cohesive, well-paced and constructed filmmaking perspective? It’s a mess. The script seems like a rough draft, with character that say everything, never trusting the audience to understand its nuance. For example, in one of the opening scenes, a teacher character loudly tells another teacher something along the lines of: “Meg Murray’s father has been gone for four years. Meg is very troubled because of it. Her father was working on a science experiment to travel dimensions.”

And as kids around Meg say mean things, out pop Demi Lovato and DJ Khaled singing “Today I saw a rainbow in the rain, saying I could do anything, I believe in me” as if we didn’t get the message. I guess it was restraint that they didn’t along sing, “I better go save my father now, time to defeat some evil” in case someone didn’t understand what was about to happen. It’s a poorly made film, but can earnestness and good intentions save it?

I compare this film to Annihilation because both hit similar emotional beats. In both films, the protagonist is not particularly likeable, has lost a man close to her to the Science Thing, and goes on a mission to find him, discovering more about herself as she goes along. Both also have trippy visuals and an unusual climax that takes places in a cave with a clone.

Unlike Annihilation, though, this movie is not about self-destruction and its toll on people. It’s about our flaws, and how they can be our strengths, and the power of love. If personified, it would be a giant hug. In fact, I’ve never seen as much hugging in any movie as I’ve see in this one.

And that might cause some to scoff, or look down at the film for its childishness. And yes, it is childish in some sense. But its fascination with love is not, and I want more films like A Wrinkle in Time. Films that love unabashambly, have no cynicism or limits, and display feminine strength, something we still sorely lack, even in the age of #MeToo and girlpower. While more films are featuring women, rarely are those stories being told by women, and often those women are asked to be more masculine in order to be strong and worth the audience’s time. I want more protagonists like Meg, families like the Murrys, and the directors with the imagination and heart of Ava DuVernay.

And yes, I want films that are not terribly paced, oddly filmed and edited, sloppily scored, or badly written. I wish A Wrinkle in Time appealed to a broader audience, and showed the same deliberate, delicate filmmaking DuVernay has proven herself masterful of.

However, it is clear, and she has confirmed in interviews, that DuVernay made this film for children, and particularly girls of color. And I think this is the kind of film that should be supported. Hopefully movies like this will become better, but take your kids to see it, because this is a lot more hopeful, heartfelt, imaginative, and purposeful than 90% of kid entertainment available. And if you don’t want to sit through it yourself, sneak over to the next theater and watch Annihilation and get an adult-version of the experience.

Or, maybe not. Maybe A Wrinkle in Time will have a message and hug for you, too.

-Madeleine D

What Does It All Mean???? Annihilation

Annihilation

*Major spoilers ahead!

As the saying goes, behind every great movie is great behind-the-scenes drama, and it’s no different with the new mind-twisting, sci-fi thriller Annihilation. Alex Garland, the director (Ex Machina) made the film, then screened it for Skydance’s David Ellison and his other producers.

The producers had some notes. Um, Alex, maybe you could change some things to help the story, I don’t know, make sense?

Garland refused to change anything, citing his own creative genius. As a semi-punishment and a way to cut their losses, Ellison decided that outside of the US and Canada, Annihilation isn’t getting a theatrical release, instead going straight to Netflix. So, while you can decide which side you take- business-savvy execs or creative-genius Garland- anyone who has seen this film can probably pinpoint the exact moment the executives started thinking, this might be a problem.

Annihilation follows Lena (Natalie Portman) a biologist and former soldier, who joins a team to go into “The Shimmer,” an alien disaster zone in the swamps of Florida, where teams have gone in, and have never returned. The fim is a gorgeous, tense, slow burn of thoughtful pondering and, for the most part, a stellar use of science fiction imagery to convey a compelling human story. It has an incredible ensemble cast. I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes slow-burn science fiction. It is a film that is difficult to describe, and even more difficult to review without discussing the ending, so come back once you’ve seen the film, and let’s discuss what Annihilation may or may not be saying.

…..

OK, seen it? Good, let’s move on. It’s tempting to think at the end of the film that this is one of those pseudo-intellectual films where the director throws out a bunch of images and words and tries to see what sticks and if it would make an Intro to Philosophy student go hmmm, interesting. I can imagine Garland trying to explain his brilliance to Paramount producers, “IT’S SO DEEP, DUDE! It’s so deep, I don’t even know what it means. Deeper than deep, you feel me? But I don’t need answers, I’m here to ask questions, about the meaning of life and stuff. There’s so much thinking, but at the same time I have an alien mirror- dancing with Natalie Portman! And that’s what makes it deep! Why is my eye twitching?”

But here, I’ll bite, because I think there might actually be a compelling message here. So based on the final cliffhanger (is Lena a clone or not?) there are two options that relate to the recurring theme of the film.

Option One: Lena is not a clone. The clone died.

The recurring theme in the film is self-destruction. All of the team members self-destruct in some capacity, and volunteering for the trip is the ultimate act of self-destruction. This is the foil to the Shimmer itself, which annihilates, but then recreates. It is revealed that Lena is having an affair, a self-hating kind of self-destruction that is ruining her and her marriage, and her guilt is consuming her, causing her to go on the mission.

In the lighthouse, she hands the bomb to, supposedly, the clone, and the clone dies. The clone, as it burns up, touches her husband, someone else who self-destructed and the symbol of Lena’s self-destruction. When the clone dies, so does the Shimmer, the reason for the mission Lena went on to self-destruct. So Lena kills the dangerous, self-destructive part of her. And then she moves on. I like that interpretation, it’s straightforward and thematic.

Option Two: Lena is the clone, and real-Lena died.

This is the more problematic option for me, but here’s my hot take. While Lena at the end tells the interrogator (Benedict Wong) she doesn’t know why the aliens sent the Shimmer, it is implied it is because the aliens seek to annihilate humanity. They want to change it by destroying it. This aligns with Lena’s self-destruction and desire for change, so when she becomes an alien at the end, this is just a representation of what was in her all along.

This ending is the weakest part of Annihilation because science fiction and fantasy is at its best when it asks questions about humanity. Sci-fi, fantasy, genres in general, are supposed to use the unreal or exaggerated or hypothetical to answer real questions about human nature, and reveal truths about ourselves. The aliens are never really about aliens. The technology is never just about technology. The Shimmer should not actually just be about a rainbow-bubble-monster-zone.

But in the third act, the aliens and the Shimmer and the modern-dance metallic clone alien becomes the focus, not the humans. Even with my interpretations, they focus in on the sci-fi. Gimmick is a strong word, but basically I am too busy thinking about “What happened, what did the alien do?” and not enough about “What does the alien mean? What is this trying to reveal about humanity? About humans? Did I see truth reflected?”

So in that case, Annihilation does not use its premise to its strength. Instead, it feels self-indulgent at times, wanting to mull over its twists and turns, without using that to say anything. Yet I think any flaws in the ending are saved by the first two acts, which do focus in on the characters and their interactions, developments, and changes. It builds to say something about humanity. The sci-fi elements are an exciting bonus, but are not the point, and that is why Annihilation, on a whole, ends up working as a great film.

-Madeleine D