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.

I Kind of Believe In: Yesterday


Caution: spoilers

Yesterday is based on this intriguing premise: What if the whole world forgot about the Beatles, except for one guy? Like most movies with an intriguing premise, the challenge becomes making the premise stretch the length of a feature film and have something to say besides, “Isn’t this premise cool?” 

The final product is something that has, outside of its premise, three things going for it, and three major problems. 

The Good:

1. Winning performances. Himesh Patel as Jack and Lily James as Ellie are both charming in their roles and have the chemistry to sell their romance. The supporting cast is quirky and adds to the hyper-reality of the film. Even Ed Sheeran, I have decided after much thought, does a good job at portraying the worst version of Ed Sheeran. 

2. There is occasionally great directing from Danny Boyle. A few sequences have a perfect balance of humor and heart and creative cinematography. And this is more to the credit of the screenplay then the director, but the film goes out of its way to give Jack a well-rounded, fleshed out adult life that feels more substantial than most protagonists get. In other words, I believe that Jack has a real job he goes to and friends he has long histories with and neighbors he sees on the regular. It goes a great distance in making him likable and making the world of the story feel familiar, even when it strays into magical-realism. 

3. The Beatles’ music is great. It’s hard to mess that up. 

The Bad:

1. That said, the film kinda messes it up. Not the music itself, but everything else that was significant about the Beatles. By focusing solely on the music and not the context of how and when the music was made, or the lives of the men who made it, the film never comes to a clear consensus on why the Beatles are legendary. 

The Beatles made history because they interacted with history. They were controversial and activists and innovators. Some people argue that art isn’t inherently political, and good music should be timeless. Perhaps that is true for some musicians, but it’s not for the Beatles. So yes, while the movie is right in that music brings us together, the narrative surrounding that music does just as much work in bringing people together (or driving them apart). 

2. The commentary on the music business is broad and outdated. The comedy goes from witty satire to zany comedy in seconds, and the inconsistency doesn’t work, ultimately not saying anything of substance. Kate McKinnon gets a few good zingers in as a music producer, but even she can’t save the underbaked sell-out side plot. 

3. The love story is cute but weak. Ellie is a perfect example of a very real phenomenon where (typically) a woman becomes a guy’s girlfriend or wife in all the ways except the title, and he benefits from her love and affection (and service) without committing to her in return or giving anything up. She waits for him to define the relationship and move forward, but he never does because why should he? He can just keep her in perpetual relationship limbo. 

Ideally, Ellie is a character that women in a similar situation could watch and say, “wow, I’m in a relationship that is likewise very one-sided and I should treat myself with more respect and expect more from him.” But I don’t see this happening. Why? Because there aren’t any consequences for Jack for treating Ellie this way. After he realizes the errors of his way (which only comes after she goes through a lot of pain to finally confront him about it) he announces his love for her in a big, grand, public gesture that puts her on the spot (which you should never do without permission). She accepts it, and so he doesn’t have to do any work of rebuilding trust. In the end, he gets everything he wanted, including a relationship with her that is built off of years of her following him around, catering to his every need, being constantly-available emotional support, being his biggest fan, and waiting for him to make a move. Her character is not made for women to relate to, because she is framed solely through the male gaze. She’s the perfect girlfriend, a prize for Jack to finally accept after he’s done one good deed (tell the world he was lying about the Beatles). 

At one point in the film, Kate McKinnon’s music producer character says of a song: “I hated it but wasn’t interested enough to listen to it again to find out why.” That’s brutal. And it’s kinda true of this movie. I didn’t hate Yesterday, not by a long shot. But Yesterday loves the Beatles and romantic relationships without knowing why, and until it goes back and finds out, there’s not much there, and it’s not interesting enough for me to revisit. 


Movie Minute: Alita, Isn’t It Romantic, and How To Train Your Dragon 3

College is hard, but not as hard as finding good movies to watch between January and April! Here are some that I’ve seen during the beginning-of-the-year movie desert.

Alita: Battle Angel

Related image      Wow, I didn’t know Christoph Waltz was making a second Big Eyes movie!

If anyone was excited for Alita: Battle Angel, it was me. Sure, I’ve never read the comic, and I’m not into anime or manga. But as far as general audiences go, I was ready to love it, because I’m a sucker for a bunch of things promised in this film. A teenage heroine in a dystopian future? Check. Oscar-winning actors in crazy costumes saying hilarious sci-fi jargon? I admit it. Trope of a scientist who goes too far in playing God? Sign me up.

But now I’ve seen it, and now I’m grumpy.

Alita: Battle Angel takes place in a dystopian future where Dr. “father figure at the ready” Ido (Christoph Waltz), a doctor/scientist/scavenger/”hunter-warrior”/Sad Man with a Sad Past™ finds the still-alive brain of a cyborg girl. He puts that brain into the conveniently pre-made cyber body he has, and when the girl, Alita (Rosa Salazar), comes to, she has no memory of her previous life and goes on a series of adventures to discover who she is.

To put it delicately: the script is bad. Real bad. There are too many characters whose arcs go nowhere, the plot is mangled and disjointed, and there is no sense of time in this film. In the first twenty minutes, we know a day has passed, and then after that, there is no sense of a timeline. How long as Alita been with Ido? How long did it take her to become a Hunter-Warrior? Has she really been with romantic interest Hugo for only two days by the time she’s literally ripping out her heart for him? It’s the halfway point of the movie, and I still have no clue the direction of the film or what it is going to be focused on. We’ve been introduced to father/daughter drama, boyfriend drama, big bad guy in the sky drama, hunter-warrior bully drama, gotta find my new sexier body drama, and motorball drama. Which direction are we going in? Oh wait, all six? All six storylines are going to be treated with equal focus so that the main storyline is super unclear and without any sense of urgency?

Well okay then.

If I was to try and find a theme or coherent storyline in this mess, I would say that the film is about all of the characters trying to force identities upon Alita. Ido wants Alita to be his replacement daughter. Hugo wants her to be his girlfriend who he may eventually scrap for parts. Gina Rodriguez wants her to be a soldier. Mahershala Ali wants her to be dead. Jennifer Conelly wants her to be dead. Edward Norton wants her to be dead (seriously, this cast is insane.) 21st Century Fox wants her to be a massive box office hit. But Alita decides to become none of those things.

Yet while all of that is in the movie, it’s not presented as I just presented it, because I don’t think writer/producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez actually see anything wrong with the way the other characters treat Alita. I see the empowerment coming from her asserting her own identity and redefining her relationships with people on her own terms. They see the “empowerment” angle as coming from her beating people up. 

But hey, maybe this whole movie was worth it for the sheer spectacle of watching a scene where, and I’m not kidding, Christoph Waltz is cradling the decapitated, talking head of Alita, and walks past his character’s ex-wife, played Jennifer Connelly, who smirks and says, “you can’t bring our daughter back.” End of scene. I can never unsee it.

Isn’t It Romantic

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Aspiring to be the Deadpool of romcoms, Isn’t It Romantic suffers from being very ill-timed. A film about a cynical, modern woman trapped in a romantic comedy, it delivers a meta-commentary of the genre as it was twenty-five years ago. The film’s loving critique comes only from films that were made between the 1990s and early 2000s. That would have been fine a few years ago, but we’re currently in a new, more diverse and inclusive romcom renaissance with the likes of The Big Sick, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Crazy Rich Asians. So while the throwbacks are fun, they don’t feel relevant, putting the entire movie’s premise on a bit of an outdated and uninspired note.

But for what this movie is, it is unabashedly fun. The musical numbers are delightful, the message is easy but sweet, and Rebel Wilson is a capable leading lady with this perfect supporting cast. It’s a rental, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it put a smile on my face… and made me want to go watch my favorite romcom.*

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

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The How To Train Your Dragon movies weren’t a pivot part of my childhood like some fans of the series. I saw the first one in theaters and liked it, but didn’t like the second one as much. I’ve always had great respect for the franchise and how revolutionary it was in the animation world, but never truly got why it is so beloved. 

But when I went to go see this film on a whim, with zero expectations, I suddenly understood why people were such hardcore fans of these films. Because they’re awesome.

The animation, score, action sequences, and the characters? Breathtaking, detailed, and compelling. This movie is able to have an epic scale but an intimate narrative. I was particularly surprised that the message of HTTYD3 basically boils down to: part of becoming a man means committing to your loved ones and settling down. I know the audience for this franchise has grown up alongside it, but there is a lot of nuanced (and funny) conversations about responsibility, marriage, and family here that are not only rare for a movie aimed at families but especially for a movie starring a male lead. Hiccup has always been a wonderful role model, but I was reminded just how revolutionary and inspiring his brand of compassionate and empathetic heroism is. He’s a true leader in a way that I think is still rare to find in blockbusters.

Even if you haven’t seen these movies in a while, or only saw the first one, I think you can still go into this movie cold and enjoy it, and I highly recommend you do.


*13 Going on 30. And if you disagree with me, a friendly reminder that this film stars Elektra, the Hulk, Captain Marvel, Ulysses Klaw, Ant-Man’s ex-wife Maggie, and Silver Fox from X-Men. It’s an MCU movie, confirmed.


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

Triple Feature: Crazy Rich Asians, The Meg, and The Fundamentals of Caring

I emerge from the abyss of college, with darker rings under my eyes and a smaller bank account, to bring you hot takes on a couple films that have been in theaters for a while now.

Crazy Rich Asians

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Overall? It’s charming, but forgettable. However, this is only the second film with an all-Asian cast ever made in Hollywood, and to hold it to a ridiculous standard of perfection in order to justify its existence is…ridiculous. If you like romantic movies that make you believe in love again, then go see it. It’s a visually stunning film with a talented cast. It’s not particularly funny, even though it was billed as a rom-com, but it’s very sweet. If you had plans to see it, see it, but otherwise, I recommend a rental.  

On a side note, a personal shout-out to director Jon Chu, who is only mediocre here, but directed one of my favorite bad-movies of all time, Now You See Me 2. Keep having a wildly varied career, Jon.

The Meg

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It’s like the last twenty minutes of Jaws, but without any of the good directing, writing, or constraint. But if you just want to enjoy the thrill, The Meg delivers. It tries very hard to make you care about every one of its 10+ character cast, but so much happens that you forget which characters are alive and which are dead. While I appreciate trying to put human emotions into this film, none of it comes across as very genuine or earned. Truly, the movie’s best parts are Jason Statham being used as live shark bait, and if it had stuck to its strengths, the movie wouldn’t feel as long as it does, and have as many fake-out endings as Return of the King.

The Fundamentals of Caring

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This is actually a 2016 Netflix movie, but I’m reviewing it anyway. This is what happens when Moviepass fails me.

The Fundamentals of Caring, based on the book The Revised Fundamentals of Caring by Jonathan Evison, tells the story of Ben (Paul Rudd), a new caregiver, who is assigned to Trevor (Craig Roberts) a teen with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. The film falls into the likes of other cutsie road-trip indies (which I adore but can constructively criticize) such as Little Miss Sunshine. It has quite a few indie-movie pitfalls, most notably characters defined by one or two extreme quirks (She curses and smokes but has a heart of gold! So edgy! The other woman is super pregnant and… not much else! The disabled kid makes crass jokes and pulls mean pranks! Wow! No stereotypes here. The other guy literally runs away from lawyers! This is three-dimensional). Paul Rudd is precious though, and makes the more hamfisted moments feel light and natural.

It’s a message movie, one that is two-fold. One of these messages is questionable, and the other works quite well. The first: Ben is struggling with the loss of his son, and, though he denies it, it is clear Trevor becomes a son-like figure to him. Trevor calls him out on this, but the movie does not, ultimately saying that while Ben and Trevor eventually can move from one-sided father/son to friends, that Ben needs this to come to terms with the loss of his son, and Trevor wouldn’t have left his house if Ben hadn’t pushed him paternally.  

The problem is, that Ben’s son was a toddler. And so having Trevor, an 18-year-old, replace a toddler in Ben’s mind, is problematic. This dynamic becomes more complicated when you consider that these bonding moments are often framed around Ben and Trevor interactions while Ben is helping Trevor use the toilet (and if you haven’t seen the movie, then believe me. It isn’t just a one-off scene. This is a continuous thread throughout the film. It is the climax.)

Now I appreciate that the movie doesn’t shy away from the more squeamish parts of caretaking (unlike, say, Me Before You). But Trevor’s need for help here is not because he is a toddler, but simply because of his disease. He is still an adult. By using these interactions, which, when put through this parental lens, have an obvious connection to taking care of a toddler, the film infantilizes Trevor, for the sole purpose of giving Ben an emotional arc. Trevor’s character development is over halfway through the film, which means he spends at least half of the film only contributing to an abled-persons growth. For a story that tries very hard to keep its disabled character from being the stereotypical “inspirational” figure, it’s an uneasy commentary.

However, the film gets the other theme right. Ben is told at the beginning of the film that there must be a distance between caretaker and patient. But Ben can’t keep that distance. He can’t just take care of Trevor’s physical needs; after he learns about Trevor’s emotional ones, he seeks to help fulfill those too. Caretaking, the film argues, must be holistic. You can’t care for someone without entering into their pain; body, mind, and soul.

But the film also has a nice touch at the end by saying that Ben resigned as Trevor’s caretaker but kept being his friend. Because it’s true that real-life professional caretakers, not movie characters, must keep some professional distance. In fact, I watched this film with my roommate, who is a certified nurse’s aide. Throughout the film, I occasionally turned to her and asked, “would you be allowed to do this?” She regularly said no.

So despite the cliches, the heart of the story- that we should take responsibility for the people around us- shines through.

-Madeleine D

Repetition is Catchy: Everything, Everything

*Big Spoilers!


This Memorial Day weekend, I wanted to go to the movies, and I had several options.

  1. Go see Pirates of the Caribbean.
  2. Convince my parents of the merits of R-rated Baywatch or Alien: Covenant.
  3. Stay home and watch Netflix’s War Machine, and be sad about current events.
  4. Pay 8 dollars to take a nap (I’m sorry if you liked King Arthur: Legend of the Sword).
  5. Go see teen romance Everything, Everything, because sometimes it’s finals week, and why not?

Everything, Everything follows in the path of recent romances where one (or both) of the members have a terrible sickness. Fault in Our Stars in 2014 dealt with cancer. 2015’s Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl also dealt with cancer. And last year’s Me Before You was about love being nice but not as nice as physician-assisted suicide. The appeal of these movies? Apparently terminal illness romances are the ultimate fling. You love and sexily take care of someone for a few weeks, then, instead of having to commit to them, they die, and you learn an Important Life Lesson.

Everything, Everything stars Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games) as Madeline (same here!) a.k.a “Maddy” Whittier. She’s 18 years old, and she’s never left her house due to her Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (SCID), a rare immunodeficiency disorder that requires her to stay in her sterilized glass smart-house, under the care of her mother (Anika Noni Rose) and nurse (Ana de la Reguera). Maddy is an aspiring engineer who also writes book reviews for a blog. But she wants more.

She finds that “more,” her new everything, in Olly (Nick Robinson) the new boy next door. With all black clothes, a shaggy haircut, a tragic backstory, and the ability to satisfy her every need, he’s like the subject of a Taylor Swift song. As she and Olly get closer, Maddy decides that she can’t live in her glass tower any longer. Olly is her way out.

Everything, Everything gets a lot of leeway because of the chemistry between the two leads. Stenberg and Robinson not only seem into each other, but are also able to sell the far-fetched premise. They also are champs when delivering some pretty terrible dialogue. Just as a sample:

Olly: You’re like a princess up in this glass tower

Maddie: I’m not a princess.

Olly: Good, ‘cause I’m not a prince.

Ah, the nuance of young love. Everything, Everything also gets a headstart because of its direction. Director Stella Meghie makes some creative choices that turn standard texting back and forth scenes into the realm of fantasy. It conveys the information and works. These little strokes of genius push the film through some not-so creative territory.

But, the rest of Everything, Everything is not strong enough to be saved by those positives. The script is lackluster at best, with no scenes having any bite or depth to them, including one with a supposedly gut-punching twist. The movie is highly enjoyable to watch, but only if you were already willing to pay the ticket price and were interested in seeing it anyways. While it is much more life-affirming than Me Before You, it does fall into the trap that that movie and The Fault in Our Stars falls into- expensive vacations totally make sicknesses better and love stronger.

There is something else, though. While watching Everything, Everything, I couldn’t help but think about the recent Manchester tragedy. There are two interesting CNN articles I read that made me think about this movie in light of the tragedy (article links below).

The first article is about how the idea of raising fearless kids is threatened by attacks like this. In Everything, Everything, when Maddie’s brother and father die in an accident, Maddie’s mom goes above and beyond protecting Maddie, to the point of convincing herself that Maddie has SCID. It is her psychotic way of keeping Maddie to herself, never letting her leave their house, and thus never letting Maddie leave her.

The second article discussed how this attack was on a symbol of teen girl culture, a culture that has been repeatedly mocked. This attack was on a concert, featuring a star on a tour called “Dangerous Woman.”  It was marketing towards the tween/teen audience. It features songs about sexual freedom and empowerment (not the same thing, but marketed as such). This concert was a first for many girls, looking for a place to come together and celebrate what they love.

Everything, Everything is a teen-girl culture movie. It features a young, black, female lead, a new occurrence in entertainment. That lead became known through The Hunger Games, a cultural phenomenon that was aimed at teen girls.  It has characters texting and using social media. It features new hits by new young pop stars. It is marketed to teen girls like me.

So what does Everything Everything say about teen-girl culture? It seems to say this:

  1. We (the target demographic) desire deeper connections, and are willing to risk anything to explore life.
  2. There comes a point where we cannot trust authority any longer.
  3. We think sex is the best way to tell someone we love them.
  4. Our lives are ours alone, and it is our right to put ourselves in harm’s way or damage ourselves if we believe it is right.

Those aren’t all good. Those aren’t all bad. They are varied and complex. I can admire Maddie’s search for the truth, no matter the pain it causes her. I can admire Olly’s faithfulness and care for Maddie, and how he has that same faithfulness and care for his mom and sister. I can admire how even though she is misled, Maddie’s mom sacrifices a great deal to protect her daughter from illness. These are truths, according to the Christian faith, and the doctrine of common grace shows me that I can find truth in all places, even movies that I can’t fully agree with.

So to all the girls who were going to that Ariana Grande concert, maybe with plans to see Everything, Everything over the weekend: It’s a decent movie. We are lucky to be living in a time where movies that talk about problems we’re facing are more common than ever. We should make them better, though.

Our prayers are with you.

-Madeleine D




A Cynical Modern Day Fairytale- Cafe Society

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

Warning: Spoilers!


So… how was it?

Oh you know, typical Woody Allen movie. Depressing, melancholy, but still engaging.

Wait, so did you like it?


That’s not helpful.

I know. I did enjoy watching it. I liked a lot of it. There are just a few things that didn’t click with me that make me hesitant on giving the film two thumbs up. Maybe just one thumb up.

First off, what is the film about? Then you can rant.

I’m not going to rant! Well, maybe. Anyway, the film is about Bobby, played by Jesse Eisenberg. He’s a young Jewish man in the 1930s moving to Hollywood. He doesn’t know what he wants to do, he just wants to get out of New York. He meets up with his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) in Tinseltown, where Phil is a big shot producer. Phil gets him some work, and there Bobby meets Phil’s assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart.) He falls, and she likes him, but there’s one problem. Vonnie is having an affair with Phil, who is married.

Did you see this film with your parents?

Hahaha, nope. I saw it with a woman whose children I babysit for. My employer. The irony was rich.

I am so sorry.

Thanks interviewer-me. But shout out to the person I saw it with. You’re awesome, and I had a great time, especially discussing it with you afterwards.

So what did you like about the film?

I really liked the performances. Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg both shine as the leads. I happen to like both of them as people and particularly Eisenberg as an actor. Some people say Eisenberg has little range, which may be true, but not many actors can do what he does. In the right role, he’s great. They have undeniable chemistry, which makes Kristen’s scenes with Steve Carell feel really awkward. He seems a little miscast in my opinion, but then again, I had my face in my hands during a lot of their scenes together, so I might be misjudging him.

I also appreciated the little touches in the film. There is a morbidly funny subplot that is quirky and clever in its own right. The stylized touches adding to the setting of the 1930s are enchanting. The visual aesthetic of the film is breathtaking. And there are some nice lines.


You got me. I just can’t get behind the message of this movie. Now I can appreciate other people’s worldviews, and I definitely don’t believe in censoring or ignoring things I don’t agree with. I know Allen’s atheistic worldview from his movies: most things will eventually fail you; the world goes on. It’s depressing, but at least Allen is honest. One of the messages in this film is that people you love and know probably aren’t the people you think they are and/or will become what you dislike. Even though I don’t go to the movies to escape reality, I wish there had been some kind of positive alternative presented. The movie would have worked as a cautionary tale if there had been a standard to compare people’s downfalls to, but there wasn’t.

While I was watching Cafe Society and seeing this older man/boss court this young woman, I was struck with the thought that Allen may be trying to defend himself. There is talk about the feeling of love being the same as loving someone.  Other characters validate the affair between Phil and Vonnie, and there is a somewhat happy ending for the couple in question.

Sophie Gilbert pointed out in Variety the connection to Allen’s personal life: “In 1996, at the age of 61, he (Woody Allen) successfully wooed the 29-year-old Julia Roberts in Everyone Says I Love You, the year after he had an affair with Mira Sorvino’s 20-something prostitute in Mighty Aphrodite. In 1979’s Manhattan, Allen’s 40-something character, Isaac, dates a 17-year-old schoolgirl played by Mariel Hemingway (the film is believed to be based on Allen’s real-life experiences dating 16-year-old Stacey Nelkin, whom he met on the set of Annie Hall and dated while she was attending Stuyvesant High School).”

With the whole Soon-Yi Previn situation and the allegations against Allen, it is hard not to consider that when watching one of his films. I’m not sure how to feel about a filmmaker who may be using his films to validate himself in some kind of self-insert (which is what Allen is actually famous for, but Cafe Society just seems to take it too far). An age difference is one thing, but when it veers into the territory of someone in a position of power with someone they could use their power against, it becomes tricky.

That’s great and all, but, um, do you want to, uh, stop talking about this? This is uncomfortable to talk about.

You’re probably right. I need to save the reputation of this site.

Okay good.


(awkward pause.) Anyway….

Right. So another thing. Cafe Society acts less like a movie with a message and more like a memory. For someone who doesn’t like nostalgia, Allen doesn’t seem to cut back on any gloss. The movie doesn’t gel because it doesn’t seem like something meant to mean anything to someone other than Allen. He even narrates the film while still having his character stand-in, just emphasizing the fact that this is his Hollywood story. That narration feels like one more boundary keeping the film from connecting with the audience.

Should people see it?

If you like Woody Allen, see it. If you like the golden age of Hollywood, see it. If you like these actors, see it. Just consider wisely whom you see it with.

Hey, I went this whole review without ranting!


Thanks. Now the next movie I’ll be reviewing is Mr. Church.

Oh boy.

-Madeleine D

It’s Just a First Date: Southside With You


Michelle Robinson is about to not go on a date. It’s strictly a meeting with an associate at her work firm. Nobody believes her, but Michelle is resolute. She gets picked up, ready to go the meeting, and is thrown a curveball. “The meeting starts at 4,” her date, Barack, says. “We’ve got a few hours. Let’s go to a museum and get something to eat.”

And so begins the meet-cute for Michelle and Barack. They go to a museum, the park, lunch, the meeting, and the movies. “You’re a good speaker,” Michelle tells Barack as they walk after he speaks at the meeting. “Ever considered going into politics?”

“Maybe,” Barack Obama laughs. Southside With You is a respectful, romantic look at the President and First Lady’s first date. It is mostly true, with a few events that happened later in real life brought in. With a film that is mostly walking and talking, three things must be on-point to succeed: performances, dialogue, and atmosphere.

Tika Sumpter as Michelle and Parker Sawyers as Barack both do a fantastic job playing the famous couple. It never feels like an imitation, but more of an organic interpretation of both of them. Their discussions about forgiveness, change, hopes, dreams, and the issues of their communities and lives are effortless and engaging. The script, while it has to repeat some things to stretch out the run time, is fluid.

While I have never been to the South side of Chicago, the film sets up the atmosphere of the area well. It feels worn-in and lived-in. Cultural references that are brought in just amplify the authenticity of the environment. Each setting serves a purpose.

After the film ended, I had decided I liked it. There were just a few things that bothered me. “The characters refer to issues, but they never speak too passionately about them,” I told my family as we discussed the movie afterwards. “It seemed like it had a lot of views, but played it safe. It was too tame.” I cited a part of the film where Barack and Michelle see Do the Right Thing and see their boss coming out of the theater. The (white) boss talks to them, and has an issue with the ending. Barack explains it to him, explaining the logic behind the ending. The boss is thankful and praises Barack. Afterwards, Barack tells Michelle he didn’t tell the boss that the real answer to the boss’s question was that the black characters acted in the movie because they were angry.

“Maybe it was tame so white audiences would be comfortable with it,” I suggested. “Besides, in the film, Barack gives a big speech to encourage members of his community. Yet when we see the city and community, it always looks great. The streets are clean, the children are laughing and playing. I don’t see the struggle that Barack talks about. If the film wanted to go for it, then it missed its chance. It also is an extremely flattering portrayal of the Obamas. The whole film is filmed with a rosy nostalgia.”

“But you always remember your first date with nostalgia,” my dad said. “It’s a first date.”

That’s when I understood the movie better. I was expecting the film to be edgy. It’s about a controversial president. It’s about him as a person. He has some unpopular policies. Why aren’t those explored, I thought as I watched the film. Why is this movie so… romantic? Where is the thing that made America attracted to Barack Obama? Where is the radicalism?

However, maybe the radical thing is that it is just a first date movie about a black couple. As a white movie-goer who doesn’t see many “black films,” I rarely see a positive portrayal of a black couple. It says something about our culture that I immediately thought that since it was a movie about black people, it had to be political. With so much of culture portraying blacks as always being angry, to see a movie where a couple is given a nostalgic, rose-colored date, is what is truly remarkable about the film. There is a quiet restraint, whether it be from not being 80’s-tastic, to not making too many references to the future of the Obamas, to not being too political, Southside With You is content with being a first-date movie. It doesn’t have an agenda.

This isn’t a film about what attracted America to the Obamas. It’s about what attracted the Obamas to each other.

-Madeleine D


When a movie advertises itself as a “tearjerker,” I quickly become cynical and determined not to cry. I rarely cry at the movies. I cried twice at Inside Out, and of course, like everyone, teared up at Avengers: Age of Ultron (curse you hulkbuster scene, playing with my emotions like that!).

I didn’t mean to go see Me Before You, but sometimes you just gotta go to the movies with a friend and see what the hubbub is about. So I saw it.  (Paging all studio execs reading this review- I’m a girl who goes to big blockbusters, too. There were men in the theater. Please stop it with the obsession about making a lady-movie genre and excluding us from everything else.)

Anyway, I did not cry. I did, however, smash my water cup between my fingers and get very, very angry.

Me Before You


Me Before You stars your favorite quirky neighbor girlfriend Louisa “Lou” Clark (Emilia Clarke), who lives in the most Englishy-place to ever be English. After she loses her job, she and her eccentric wardrobe of character development tries to find a new job so she can support her family. Luckily, the family who owns the castle next door needs someone to be a companion for their very beautiful and very rich son, Will (Sam Claflin), who is a quadriplegic.

Luckily for Lou, she doesn’t have to do any of the “heavy lifting” when it comes to Will (which would make this romance less glamorous) and instead is supposed to be a ray of sunshine. This is difficult though, when your patient is prepared to have physician-assisted suicide in a few months.

So obviously, Lou decides she’s going to make Will change his mind through expensive vacations, which obviously will work because how else do you find the meaning in life besides going on short, frivolous vacations that your rich family can easily bankroll? Will decides, however, that he must go through with the plan. His identity is too tied up in who he “used to be,” and at the age of 29, and 2 ½ years into being a quadriplegic, he obviously has the perspective to understand his life has absolutely no meaning now and no potential. So he tells Lou that even though he led her on, he is still going to die. But it’s actually super noble, because now she won’t be tethered down to him and he’s going to give her money to travel.


So after a cry, Louisa and his parents decide to be supportive of him, because it’s “his choice.” “His choice” to play God, “his choice” to throw away all the good things life has given him, “his choice” to give a big middle finger to caretakers who spend their lives nobly.

Now I’m going to defend the movie for one second. The film makes it clear that this character, Will, is making this decision because his whole rich, playboy lifestyle was based on his image. It was his idol, his everything. He couldn’t imagine a life without it. The movie does not condemn all people with disabilities as burdens.

But, a lot of people with disabilities feel the same way Will does, but they are braver than him and power on. They live their lives because they know their value. Will is portrayed as a tragic figure. Real life disabled people are not tragic figures, there to make you inspired to run that marathon. They are just real people.

When I go to the movies, I look for examples of hope. Will showed no hope. And as someone who believes life is valuable and should be protected, the fact that the movie just shrugged and said, “hey, if you’re in pain or have it rough, just forget moral fiber and do what you want,” made me angry.

But let’s forget that glaring problem for a second and focus on some positives. The film is incredibly well-acted. Emilia Clarke takes what could be an insufferable role and makes Louisa very likable. I liked the emphasis on parents, and what they do for their children with disabilities. Besides the CGI leaves representing time, haircuts representing change, and overbearing vocals of Ed Sheeran singing “loving can hurt” while characters look glumly out of windows, the film is pleasant to watch. Solid cinematography and production design contribute to a film that is very well directed technically by Thea Sharrock.

But I can’t get the ending of the film out of my mind. The film does not glorify Will’s decision. But it is okay with it. And that’s wrong. I find it fascinating that the twitter hashtag for this movie was #LiveBoldy. Maybe, taking the actual movie into account, the hashtag should be #LiveBoldyIfYoureAbleBodied. In fact the title, Me Before You, is the epiphany of the selfishness in this movie, which misses the point of romance and relationships completely.

-Madeleine D