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.

Top Twenty Movies About Oklahoma

A guest review by Jonathan Dorst

With the recent news of the Matt Damon film Stillwater (filmed in and around Stillwater, OK) getting a July release date, and the news that Martin Scorsese has begun filming Killers of the Flower Moon in the Pawhuska/Bartlesville area with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro, it got me thinking about movies that are about my adopted home state of Oklahoma. Oklahoma has had its share of well-known actors– including Alfre Woodard, Kristin Chenoweth, Megan Mullaly, James Marsden, James Garner, Jennifer Jones, Vera Miles, Van Heflin, Ron Howard, Bill Hader, Tim Blake Nelson, Tracy Letts, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Gary Busey, Wes Studi, and Will Rogers– but it has not had a plethora of movies made about it. The ones that have been made, however, include several that are fairly iconic, so it seems like a good time to rank the 20 best Oklahoma movies made so far. 

For starters, we’ll just consider feature films, not documentaries– apologies to Okie Noodling, Unlikely Family, and Tiger King. Also, movies simply filmed in Oklahoma (like UHF) or tangentially related (think Ruprecht yelling “Oh boy, Oklahoma, Oklahoma” in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) don’t count if they’re not essentially about Oklahoma. There are still a number of stories that could, and should, be told on screen about Oklahoma, including Clara Luper and the Katz Department store lunch sit-ins, Stanley Draper and the expansion of Oklahoma City, Stillwater’s Farm and the birth of Red Dirt Music, and the 2012 OKC Thunder. But for now, check out the stories that have made it to the big screen.

20. Home, James (2014)Native Oklahoman Jonathan Rossetti directs and stars in this story of 20-somethings in Tulsa (filmed in Tulsa) trying to figure out life together and by themselves. 

19. Mekko (2015)- Sterlin Harjo’s picture of homeless and vulnerable Native Americans. Much of it was shot in the block surrounding Tulsa’s historic Circle Cinema in the Kendall-Whittier district.

18. To the Stars (2019)- A thoughtful picture of 1960’s Oklahoma and outcast teenagers (and adults) trying to survive. Filmed in and around Oklahoma.

17. The Oklahoma Kid (1939)James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart star in this story about the 1889 Land Run, outlaws, family, and the establishment of cities and order in the West. Shot in California.

16. Oklahoma (1965)- Probably the first thing people think about, after country music, when they think about entertainment coming from the 46th state. Catchy songs but very strange in places. Shot in Arizona (why?).

15. Silkwood (1983)- Meryl Streep won an Oscar for her portrayal of Karen Silkwood in this true story. Filmed in Texas and New Mexico.

14. Where the Red Fern Grows (1974 & 2003)- The classic coming-of-age story of a boy who hunts raccoons better than anyone in Oklahoma, or Arkansas for that matter. The original (filmed in Vian and Talequah, OK) has a lot of country charm, the remake has Dave Matthews and a much bigger budget. 

13. Cimarron (1931 & 1960)- A Best Picture winner, this is the seminal movie about the Land Run. The 1960 remake might be an improvement, but it didn’t win Best Picture, so we’ll stick with the original (although neither was filmed in Oklahoma).

12. Far and Away (1992)- Ron Howard’s epic saga of Irish immigrants surviving the land rush has abundant Irish clichés and all the charisma of (then married) Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Most of the film was filmed in Ireland, with the land rush scenes filmed in Montana.

11. Twister (1996)Filmed in Wakita and lots of other parts of Oklahoma, this 1996 movie is still a top-tier disaster movie with a great cast.

10. Rumble Fish (1983)- Coppola’s follow-up to The Outsiders, a grittier version of young adult life in Tulsa in the mid-20th century based on the novel by SE Hinton. Filmed in, with tons of great footage of, Tulsa.

9. In Old Oklahoma (aka War of the Wildcats) (1943)- With John Wayne in a comedic role, this 1943 film imagined the feuds over oil, with a dash of romance. Filmed everywhere but Oklahoma.

8. Leaves of Grass (2009)- An hilarious tale written by Tulsa native Tim Blake Nelson about twin brothers from Oklahoma (both played by Edward Norton) who have taken very different paths in life but are brought back together near Tulsa for nefarious purposes. Filmed in Louisiana.

7. Hang ‘Em High (1968) One of Clint Eastwood’s best Westerns, this is a meditation on revenge and the development of the justice system in the American West. Filmed in New Mexico and Arizona.

6. Oklahoma Crude (1973)- A similar premise to the Susan Hayward film Tulsa, but a more realistic (and cruder) vision of an independent woman, played by Faye Dunaway, trying to take on the big oil companies. Like many older films, this one was all filmed in California.

5. To the Wonder (2012)- Terrence Malick’s vision of cross-cultural romance, with Bartlesville, OK playing as big a role in Ben Affleck’s character’s love life as Paris, France. Some scenes were also shot in Pawhuska and Tulsa.

4. True Grit (1969 & 2010)- A classic Western about doing what’s right, no matter how hard. I prefer the Coen brothers version with Jeff Bridges (and the excellent Hailee Steinfeld) over the John Wayne version, even though none of it was filmed in Oklahoma.

3. August, Osage County (2013)- An all-star cast, including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, and Margo Martindale (and Ewan McGregor, and Benedict Cumberbatch, and Juliette Lewis…), anchors this funny and heartbreaking story that reminds us that we can’t choose our family, only how we treat them. Shot on location in Osage County, OK.

2. Grapes of Wrath (1940)- John Steinbeck’s iconic novel about the Dust Bowl and the Okie migration to California adapted in gorgeous black-and-white by John Ford with Henry Fonda. Some scenes were filmed in McAlester and Sayre, OK, but most of it was filmed in California.

1. The Outsiders (1983)- Francis Ford Coppola’s classic adaptation of Tulsan SE Hinton’s novel of greasers and socs. Filmed in Tulsa, it was a launching pad for a bunch of great young actors.

Honorable Mentions: Tex, Come Sunday, Return of the Bad Men, Four Sheets to the Wind, Where the Heart Is, Tulsa.

Others: Oklahoma Territory, Into the Storm, Thunderstruck, Home in Oklahoma, The Oklahoma Cyclone, Bringing Up Bobby, Barking Water, Keys to Tulsa (awful), Terror at Tenkiller (worse than awful).

Triple Feature: Raya and the Last Dragon, Justice League, and Godzilla vs Kong

I’m back!

April was a hectic month, but never fear! I did watch movies, and I’ve got some thoughts on these recent blockbusters and streaming hits to help you navigate what you should watch next, from the latest Disney family fare to the mythical 4-hour superhero epic to the monster mash that helped re-open the box-office.

Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon, which did a simultaneous theatrical and Disney+ premium access release, follows young Raya on a search to find the last dragon in her fantasy world of Kumandra in order to save her father and the world from monstrous creatures called the Drunn.

Out of recent Disney movies, Raya has the most in common to Moana, with a weak pseudo-villain who later becomes a friend, lovable misfits accompanying the protagonist, and rejection of former Disney princess tropes like a romantic interest or ballgowns (and unlike Moana, Raya doesn’t even have musical numbers!). Both films are also set in an amalgamation of vast non-Western regions- Moana of Pacific Islander cultures, Raya of South Asian countries. There is an epic fantasy feel and scope to Raya that is ambitious for Disney (I’d say on par with or exceeding Frozen 2), although as many have pointed out, the world-building is similar to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which has been an influence on the fantasy genre across the board (such as the recent Netflix series adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone).

All of those other pieces of media- Moana, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Frozen 2, and Shadow and Bone– are hits with audiences, and Raya is just as likeable as those other films. However, I think it’s more unmemorable, for a simple reason. Because the film tries to cover a lot of ground in complex world-building, it’s so fast-paced that in order to get its numerous messages across- admirable ones about trust and cooperation and forgiveness- these themes must be talked about, rather than shown. Characters talk about the importance of trusting, cooperating, and forgiving one another, but the examples of that happening in the story are rushed. We are told emotions without seeing the characters fully feel them, which means we can’t feel them deeply either. The animation is beautiful and the voicework is strong, but they don’t service a story that can stand up on its own without being overly explained to the audience. This makes Raya feel like it was made for a younger audience than that for which it really was made.

The Snyder Cut

Mamma Mia! Here we go again!

That’s right, 2017’s Justice League is back, and I sat down and watched all of the new 4 hours of it. And I’m here to report that…. It’s fine! It’s better than the original Joss Whedon version (“Josstice League”).

If you like Zack Snyder’s work and his aesthetics, you will love this. This is an auteur completely unbridled, and it means the film has a distinct flavor that differentiates itself from other DC movies, even Snyder’s own. Snyder is not my personal cup of tea, but I see the appeal. He excels at grandeur, using the camera to worships its subject. His visual style is a perfect fit with comic book panel styling, which similarly venerates its god-like subjects. And he puts the extra time to good use giving more story to Cyborg, who becomes the emotional core of the movie, removing the sexism towards Wonder Woman present in Josstice League, and expanding the story so it’s not as rushed or slapped together as it previously was. Most of my issues with the original film– that everything felt hasty and half-baked, unfinished CGI, lame humor– are all fixed. But those problems being fixed doesn’t mean this is an enjoyable four hours.

In case you haven’t been keeping up with the saga of why this “Snyder Cut” came about, I’ll give you the short version. During the production of Justice League, Zack Snyder’s family suffered a terrible tragedy that caused him to leave the film. Joss Whedon, hot off of the newest Avengers movie (my beloved Age of Ultron), was brought in to finish the film. When it was released with negative reviews, the legend of a “Snyder Cut,” a cut of the film that was solely Zack Snyder’s creative vision, unsullied by the studio or Whedon, became to emerge online in fan communities. It continued to grow as more details of both Snyder’s original film came to light, along with more and more ugly allegations against Warner Brother executives and Joss Whedon on the set, primarily from Ray Fischer (who plays Cyborg). In late 2019 the actors took to social media to voice their support for Zack and the cut. This coincided with the development of HBO Max streaming service, which needed original content to entice subscribers. Why not bring back Zack and give him money to complete his original film and serve the fanbase and distract from the Joss Whedon allegations and build up HBO Max? So that’s why we have the Snyder Cut. It’s a juicy Hollywood story, it does make it feel some justice has been served, and it means we will never hear the end of “Release the ___ cut of ___ Movie!”. 

Ultimately, the story about this film is more interesting than the film itself. For fans of DC comics and Snyder, The Snyder Cut is a worthy reward, but I can’t recommend it for anyone else.

Godzilla vs Kong

Is Godzilla vs Kong the best movie of 2021? Ok, maybe that’s hyperbolic (although hyperbole is in line with a movie like this!). But, I’ll argue that it’s the most fun movie of 2021 so far. I’m not usually a fan of monster action movies, and I haven’t seen the other Godzilla or Kong movies. But there are two reasons why I think Godzilla vs Kong worked for me. 

First, we came here to see two CGI monsters duke it out, and director Adam Wingard understood the assignment. We get three epic fights, the first of which could be studied in film school. We have Kong chained down on the boat, unable to fight Godzilla, who’s already at an advantage in the water. Their ancient rivalry has been established; there can only be one winner. The stakes have been set. Our human characters are helpless until, in the eleventh hour, they’re able to help turn the tables of the fight. There’s character development, tension, and suspense. Poetic cinema.

Speaking of the humans, they aren’t annoying! Okay, some of them are. But while such a large cast of characters means no one is well fleshed-out, it also does mean we don’t have to spend too long with any one group of them, so you won’t get bored as the movie jumps between them. Everybody knows what kind of movie they are in and thay all do an excellent job. Rebeca Hall, Kaylee Hottle (joining the proud cinematic tradition of silent young girls), and Brian Tyree Henry are standouts. 

Godzilla vs Kong is fun and silly without feeling phoned in. It’s a love letter to monster movies and good! We need it. While the pandemic continues to rage on worldwide, there is no better time to see a movie that is both escapist fun and reminds us of what the pandemic has taught us- which is that history shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men.

-Madeleine D

Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the most anticipated movies of 2021, and it doesn’t disappoint. Outstanding performances by Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry To Bother You) ground the story of Bill O’Neal (Stanfield), an informant who infiltrated the Black Panther Party in Chicago and helped the FBI kill chairman Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) in 1969. 

As an alumnus of the Oklahoma educational system, I was never taught about the Black Panthers other than they were on the “wrong side” of the civil rights movement and were diametrically opposed to Martin Luther King Jr’s nonviolent approach. This, of course, not only neuters King, who was quite radical, but also ignores the complexities of the Black Panthers and erases the good they did.  

So I went into Judas and the Black Messiah knowing very little about anything. If you are more familiar and educated on this subject, you may find more things to take issue with, especially when it comes to Fred Hampton’s portrayal. As my first real introduction to the subject, though, I was riveted. The movie balances the politics and violence with tender moments which humanize Hampton to flesh out the story and create a three-dimensional look at this period in Hampton’s life and career. The story honors Hampton, but it does not completely heroize or villanize him and the Panthers. 

However, the film struggles between being a straight biopic of Hampton or an FBI crime movie, and caught in the middle is O’Neal, who as a result, is not fleshed out very well. O’Neal’s motivations as a character feel weak and under-baked, but Lakeith Stanfield mostly overcomes these problems with the script through his sheer charisma and expressiveness. And speaking of Stanfield, the best part of Judas and the Black Messiah are the performances, and all three leads are excellent. Daniel Kaluuya brings a feverish intensity and equal vulnerability to his role, and Jesse Plemons as an FBI agent continues to nail the role of creepy “nice” guy. Kaluuya and Stanfield have both been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, and I think either would be deserving of a win (although it makes more sense for Kaluuya to be in the Best Actor category). 

It’s hard not to speak of the film as being “timely” in light of the reignited national conversation about police brutality over last summer with the killing of George Floyd (and the upcoming trial of officer Derek Chauvin). Yet maybe the most effective part of the film is reminding us these events were not part of the distant past, a history we are repeating. Fred Hampton’s son and Hampton’s fiancée Deborah Johnson appear at the end of the movie. This was 52 years ago. It’s not the past, it’s the present that we continue to wrestle with. 


Judas and the Black Messiah is currently in theaters

-Madeleine D.

Top 10 Movies of 2020

Three months into 2021, and despite some good news (Covid vaccines!), there has already been plenty of evidence that 2021 will continue to be just as strange as 2020. However, while we hope 2021 will be different when it comes to movies and theaters, let us also look back and celebrate the movies that helped 2020 suck less. As always, my criteria for this top 10 list:

  1. How much I enjoyed the film and how much it stuck with me.
  2. How “good” of a film it is, in terms of craft and use of the medium.
  3. Cultural significance and relevance

I have not yet seen: The Father and Promising Young Woman. And as a note: while the Oscars have widened their eligibility window to includes some films released in 2021, I will be keeping my list to films that were released during the 2020 calendar year in the United States.

Honorable Mentions: The Trial of the Chicago 7, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Sound of Metal, News of the World, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Athlete A, Time, Bad Education, Run, The Old Guard, Nomadland, and One Night in Miami 

10. Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson is Dead is a strange little documentary. The premise is wonderfully morbid: a filmmaker has her aging father stage a bunch of ways he could die as a way for both of them to process the end of his life. Along with being an honest look at dementia and a celebration of a man’s life, Dick Johnson is Dead looks death straight in the face in a way that we so rarely do in American culture. Memento mori. 

9. Minari

While I have never been apart of a Korean family in the 1980s that moved to Arkansas to start a farm, Minari feels both so intimate and universal that I feel like I have. While the film fails to have a satisfying ending, the superb ensemble cast and excellent directing makes Minari a highlight of the year.

8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t do much to transform August Wilson’s play into a film, but despite the lacking direction, the performances (including Chadwick Boseman’s last) and the writing are just too good to overlook. It has several things in common with Regina King’s directorial debut One Night in Miami, which I also debated putting here. One Night transforms its theater/play roots into something more cinematic, but it too has its historical characters embodying warring ideologies about Black uplift, performance, artistry, and autonomy. Both are excellent, but in the end, I simply enjoyed Ma Rainey and its stylishness a bit more.

7. Herself

Like Driveways (which is further down on my list) Herself is about neighborliness and community. It follows Sandra (Clare Dunne), a woman who escapes her abusive husband with her two daughters to start a new life. Sandra decides to build her own house, and must rely on the help of strangers and estranged friends to get the job done. Commentary on well-meaning but often restricting social services simmer under the more-important emotional story of a woman rebuilding her life with the support of others.

6. The Invisible Man

I debated between putting The Invisible Man or Run here, as I loved both of these female-led thrillers. In the end, I chose The Invisible Man because I was just so impressed with the creativity of this retelling of the H.G Wells story and how it becomes an examination of domestic abuse, gaslighting, and the psychology of victimhood. Elizabeth Moss and her agony carry the whole film.

5. Ordinary Love

Ordinary Love is a masterclass in acting by Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville. Neeson and Manville play an older married couple who get a breast cancer diagnosis. The film follows treatment and the stresses it puts on their relationship. Ordinary Love is an intimate look at a relationship between two characters you desperately want to protect, which makes every little blow devastating. It made me feel multitudes. 

4. The Personal History of David Copperfield

This was easily the best movie-going experience I’ve had this year (in part because I actually got to see this in theaters, just a few weeks before my town’s Regal Theater closed indefinitely). A quirky and whimsical adaptation that does right by the source material, The Personal History of David Copperfield was an unexpected delight.

3. The Assistant

The Assistant follows a young assistant (Julia Gardner) to a film producer as she struggles with what to do when she realizes her boss is sexually assaulting other women. We see our protagonist in an ethical dilemma where there is no way to do the right thing without being punished. It and Athlete A are the best films, I think, to have come out of the #MeToo movement, with The Assistant giving a clear-eyed view of the complex power dynamics within the film industry in a subtle, unflinching way.

2. Sorry We Missed You

Sorry We Missed You reminds me of 2019’s Uncut Gems, in that both are equally stressful films to watch. However, while Uncut Gems is about a man ruining his own life through terrible decisions, Sorry We Missed You sees an English family make every right decision they can, yet continually be pummeled by circumstance and external forces, never able to get ahead no matter how hard they try. The film is not explicitly political, but I still think it is the most political film of the year by showing the plight of the working class and the traps of the gig economy. It probably won’t get the same awards attention as Parasite, last year’s Oscar-winning class-conscious film, but it certainly deserves your attention. 

1. Driveways

Like Ordinary Love and Herself, Driveways is a drama with a small cast of characters, and here, the stakes are even smaller. Following a single mother and her son as they try to clean out her dead sister’s house to sell, Driveways is a meditation on neighborliness, loneliness, and intergenerational connection. It’s a gentle, sweet parable that encourages us to set aside our fear of strangers and pursue relationships with them. In a year where we were divided not only ideologically, but physically, Driveways felt exceptionally poignant. 

-Madeleine D.

January and February Netflix Movies: The White Tiger, Malcolm & Marie, To All the Boys 3, and I Care a Lot

The White Tiger

The White Tiger, based on the 2008 book by Aravind Adiga, tells the story of Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a driver for a wealthy family in India who plots to escape his poverty and low-caste status. The White Tiger has been compared to Slumdog Millionaire, and it even references Slumdog Millionaire in the movie. The White Tiger poses itself as a corrective, a real look at India and the lower class, from a distinctly Indian gaze, not sanded down or whitewashed for Western audiences. Like 2019’s Best Picture winner Parasite, The White Tiger brings class politics and a story of poverty into sharp focus with a satirical bite. Balram wins our sympathy as we witness his abuse, yet his methods to free himself are deeply disturbing, but there are seemingly no other options for him. As he fashions himself into the kind of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” entrepreneur that we all but worship in America, the movie becomes deeply unsettling. While the film doesn’t always perfectly balance the tone, the politics, and the commentary, it mostly succeeds, especially with Gourav’s performance. It’s worth the watch, even when it’s hard to swallow.

Malcolm & Marie

In Malcolm & Marie, starring John David Washington and Zendaya as the titular couple, Malcolm, a film director, has two lengthy monologues about critics- pointedly, at liberal white critics who try to impose a racial reading onto all films created by Black filmmakers. Malcolm reads one of these reviews of his film and eviscerates it. This puts me, as a critic, in an awkward position. The review Malcolm reads is a lot like the stuff I have written on this very blog. Or, at least, what I’ve wanted to write here, in an effort to imitate other reviewers I find to be thoughtful and insightful. 

As an aspiring critic, I found it fascinating and humbling to watch Malcolm & Marie. As a viewer, though, I’m not quite as sure of its appeal. It’s two hours of straight arguing, where Malcolm and Marie don’t so much embody people as they do warring ideological stances. At one point Marie calls Malcolm an “emotional terrorist,” and honestly, I feel a little terrorized watching these two people try to destroy each other in hateful words. It’s incredibly sad, and I can’t say if there is anything really redemptive about watching these arguments. But that’s my perspective as a single person; it may play differently to people in relationships. 

Malcolm & Marie has similarities to Locked Down. Both were made in quarantine, are about a troubled couple, and are very theatrical through their use of monologues and limited staging. Malcolm & Marie is better made and acted, but both are wearying to watch. 

To All The Boys: Always and Forever

Netflix’s juggernaut young adult romance series To All the Boys I Loved Before comes to a close with the third installment, Always and Forever. In it, our high school sweethearts Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) are seniors looking towards college and the future, and whether the other has any place in it. 

After three installments, the conflicts between Lara Jean and Peter can feel contrived. Even in its most hokey moments, though, Condor and Centineo’s chemistry elevates the material. But it’s all of the story elements outside of the romance in Always and Forever that make the film interesting and real. One of the subplots has Lara Jean’s father getting remarried, and Lara Jean struggles to be happy for him while also sad at the disappearing traces of her mom. The struggle to choose a college is all very real for high school seniors, as is the struggle to determine what is worth holding onto and what you have to let go of. Peter feels like going to college means abandoning his family, and when his absent father wants back into his life, Peter must wrestle with his anger towards him. There are pieces of nuance here that cut through an otherwise slightly-overcooked melodrama of a relationship that feels one miscommunication away from ending. However, I think fans of the series, or people who love rom-coms, will enjoy To All the Boys. But no matter how hard it tries, it can’t beat the classic movie it’s obviously based on: High School Musical 3

I Care a Lot

Like White Tiger, I Care a Lot desires to deliver a scathing commentary on capitalism through its ruthless antihero. Here Rosamund Pike plays Marla Grayson, a legal guardian for senior citizens. Marla is running a powerful scheme: she bribes medical professionals to identify rich elderly clients, then falsely report that the client is sick or otherwise unable to take care of themselves. Marla then swoops in and takes legal custody of them by sending the victim to a care facility and seizing hold of all of their assets and making bank. 

Inspired by real-life cases of elder abuse, this compelling premise makes for an excellent first act, which shows Marla enact her plot on the seemingly meek Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Weist). I was physically sickened watching Marla’s crimes. This first act offers observations into how Marla is able to get away with her scheme by using her privileges as a white woman, with her self-styled “girlboss” business-savvy, and how she is able to exploit bureaucracy and the indifference of the legal system. 

All of this promise, packaged into a fast-paced, stylish film, is lost in the second and third acts, which devolve into a mob-movie that tries to paint Marla as sympathetic and is simply not as unique as the film’s initial premise. I Care a Lot is an entertaining watch, but it doesn’t add up to anything. When it was over, all I felt was numb and disgusted. 

-Madeleine D.

Locked Down

Locked Down is the newest of the slowly emerging Coronavirus pandemic movie genre. This one is about Linda (Anne Hathaway) and Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a couple who want to split up but must live together when the pandemic puts London under lockdown order. The movie follows their struggles to live together and their eventual heist to steal a three-million-dollar diamond. 

The “heist” in question is barely a heist, more like two characters calmly executing a low-key plan without any resistance during the last thirty minutes of the film. This leaves the bulk of the movie to be a so-called romantic comedy. Except it’s not funny or romantic. Because Paxton and Linda spend the whole movie disdaining one another, and we never get a sense of their relationship pre-breakup, we have no reason to want these two miserable, unlikeable people to get back together. 

Hathaway and Ejiofor both give manic, oddly absurd performances. Both are talented actors, so it must be due to the script (with its hammy, theatrical monologues), the direction, and their lack of chemistry. The other actors literally phone it in for video-chat cameos that add nothing. 

The screenplay was written over a couple of weeks and filmed over 18 days, and it shows. Every scene is over-written, a first draft that was never edited. I read beforehand that the script was still being written during filming, so Hathaway and Ejiofor had to tape their lines onto each other’s arms as cue cards as they filmed. Knowing this, I was able to spot a few times where it was obvious. Every scene feels like a run-through. 

I admire the desire to create art out of the present, as a way to process, cope, and memorialize, as we have come to say, an unprecedented time. Perhaps Locked Down would have felt novel on April 1st, 2020, but even though we are still in the throes of the pandemic, it already feels dated. This is because Locked Down touches on all of the already-tired touchpoints of the pandemic– toilet paper hoarding, breadmaking, day drinking, angsty walks around the neighborhood, relationships stressed by proximity, and the torture of zoom calls. All of these activities did happen to many people, and that’s why they became jokes and memes. These jokes and memes are based on truth, but have watered down the experiences so much that they don’t feel like authentic expressions anymore. And that’s what Locked Down is: some realities of the spring-2020 experience, distorted by a lack of reflection and time, that in an effort to be timely, offers nothing timeless.

Locked Down is streaming on HBO Max.

– Madeleine D.

A Man and His Silent Little Girl: The Midnight Sky and News of the World

*Spoilers for The Midnight Sky

During every awards cycle, there are what I like to call the “A-list” and the “B-list” of awards movies. The A-list award movies are the movies which are most certainly going to get nominated. This year, some of those films will probably include the likes of Nomadland, Minari, One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, and others. Then there is the B-list, which are movies that have all the makings of award films and were clearly made with an eye towards awards, but are not going to get any major recognition. 

I believe The Midnight Sky and News of the World to be B-list award films. Neither has gotten quite the traction or critical reception they need to be top award contenders and while they may get nominated in smaller categories, I don’t see either as having a chance as top contenders. This is not to say they aren’t good, they’re just not quite as good as they think they are.

Along with being both B-list award films, they also have something else in common which I’d like to explore a little deeper. Both films feature older men who are accompanied on a journey by a young girl, who is either completely mute or speaks very little (or speaks a different language). This setup has become a trope, and one I think has fascinating implications. We’ll flesh that out further, but for now, let’s look at each film individually.

The Midnight Sky was released on Netflix in December. It is directed by and stars George Clooney, who plays Augustine, the last man on Earth. Augustine is trying to make contact with a group of astronauts on their way home who have no idea of the catastrophe that has wiped out civilization. Augustine discovers a mute young girl (Caoilinn Springall) to be left on Earth with him, and she joins him on the journey to warn the astronauts.  

The Midnight Sky looks beautiful, and Netflix obviously spared no expense in making it compete with the technical achievements of other recent space films, of which there have been many (Gravity, First Man, The Martian, Interstellar…). The setup of the film is intriguing as well, and there are a couple of exciting setpieces with Clooney and Springall fighting against the arctic wilderness. However, The Midnight Sky promises a meditation on grief and loneliness which never really lands. There are too many characters and none of them get their due, and there is too much vagueness about the catastrophes of Earth to feel real or unnerving. The cinematography is the most beautiful and interesting thing about it. 

Meanwhile, News of the World reunites director Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks after they worked together on Captain Phillips. Here, Hanks plays another captain, Captain Kidd, a man who makes his living going from town to town reading newspapers. When he comes across an orphaned young girl (Helena Zengel), he decides to take her on an arduous journey to get her to her relatives. The use of the immediate post-Civil War setting and its atmosphere of paranoia and distrust, along with the film’s emphasis on stories and the role of journalism (which brings to mind Hank’s role in 2017’s The Post) make News of the World feel timely without being too preachy (save for a few scenes). However, the relationship between Kidd and the kid is clearly the film’s emotional core, and most of that comes from Hanks. The screenplay does very little to establish why Kidd makes the sacrifices he does for the girl. Instead, the film relies on Hank’s casting. Why does Kidd drop everything to go on this journey for the girl’s sake? Because he’s Tom Hanks! Do you think Tom Hanks is going to let anything happen to a child? No! Because he’s Tom Hanks, and Tom Hanks always does the right thing, and that is that. From this foundation, Hanks and Zengel are able to build a more fleshed out, interesting relationship which carries the film. 

Both films are fine, with News of the World edging out as the better one. Yet what I find interesting is how they embody this emerging trope of a gruff older man + near-silent young girl. I first noticed this dynamic in 2017’s Logan, with Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine and Dafne Keen as Laura/X23, but other examples can be seen in War For the Planet of the Apes, Eleven in Stranger Things, Boo from Monsters Inc, along with many other variations. Vulture, upon the release of Logan, published an article about this phenomenon (with a focus on violent little girl characters), which includes the key observation that the girls in these roles “[exist] to be observed as an object of contemplation.” No matter how much agency she has in the story, her presence is something that causes the leading man to reflect upon himself, usually about his failings as a father, or what could have been. This is most explicit in The Midnight Sky, where it is revealed the little girl is not even real, but is George Clooney’s character imagining his daughter, who is actually Felicity Jones’s astronaut character. 

Now I am actually quite fond of this trope, and it’s easy to see its appeal. What is the similarity between the apocalypse of The Midnight Sky and the wild frontier of News of the World, or the world of the X-Men, or a science-fiction dystopia? Parenthood! Men embracing their paternal instinct! Drama is created through differences and contrasts, and since an older man and a young girl are seen as opposites, characters with this dynamic automatically have great cinematic potential.  

Yet, while emotionally this is an engaging trope, it comes at a cost. It is great to see these movies and genres- science fiction, western, superhero, etc.- that have traditionally been unwelcoming to women, now include them and allow young girls to see themselves in the picture through this trope. But the silence of these young girls, and how they rarely have personalities beyond being objects of observation, means they are not really characters. They could be replaced with a dog the male characters loves, and nothing would change. I wonder what it would be like to replace many of these little girls with grown women who come alongside the protagonist and join them as equals (maybe even without an obligatory romance!). Or, at least, if these young girls are allowed to speak, and take action in these stories. 

Consider that there is no equivalent trope for young boy characters. You don’t see many movies where older women are taking young boys under their wing. Firstly, because older women don’t exist in film. Secondly, if a young boy is in a film, they’re usually going on their own adventure. They’re not there as prompts for other characters to discover more about themselves. These boys are active agents of their own adventure. They are being prepped to be the next Tom Hanks or George Clooney, and maybe one day will be old enough to have their own silent surrogate daughter. 

– Madeleine D