Movie Minute: Volume 2

Continue with me as I watch and review older movies!

Inkheart

Inkheart (2008)

Inkheart is in the tragic company of movies like Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Eragon, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Avatar: The Last Airbender. 2005-2010 was not a kind time for book to movie adaptations. But Inkheart, based on one of my favorite books of all time by German author Cornelia Funke, has something those other movies don’t have. A sense of fun.

Inkheart is unintentionally hilarious, and is my ultimate guilty-pleasure junk food movie. I have seen it a few times now, and I will continue to love it unabashedly. There is something otherworldly and magical about seeing prestigious actors in B-level fantasy roles that I will never grow tired of. Helen Mirren riding a unicorn, Jim Broadbent watching on as Andy Serkis is eaten by a mythical shadow-monster, and Paul Bettany talking to a ferret and breathing fire is the movie I never knew I wanted. While I love the better adaptations we’ve gotten, The Hunger Games still has nothing on this.

RAIN MAN

Rain Man (1988)

It’s interesting to watch the commentary on autism Rain Man presents in 2017. On one hand, it is clear we have come further in our understanding of autism in the last 29 years. However, our depiction of autism on screen really hasn’t, making Rain Man an even more outstanding film. When movies do show autism, the characters generally must either be extraordinary, as to justify their existence within the film, or they must be tiptoed around, a beacon of representation without the humanity it requires to be a successful one.

Rain Man takes the bolder route of letting Raymond be a fairly standard autistic man, and making the other characters around him change. Raymond acts how he wants to act, and we as an audience, through Tom Cruise’s’ Charlie, have to adjust our own perceptions, not the other way around. Raymond never has to become a comfortable presence for us. This makes Rain Man a very interactive experience. Not only am I watching a movie, I’m experiencing the frustration that can come with interacting with someone who is different than I am, and am also experiencing frustration at Charlie for not being more sympathetic to Reymond. This push and pull between characters and audience makes Rain Man feel more real than the occasionally uneven screenplay does. While the film is well made, very-well acted, and has a lovely score, the unique experience of the film was my main takeaway. It is a must-see.

miss potter

Miss Potter (2006)

To be honest, Victorian period dramas are not my cup of tea. I’m a little tired of the standard petticoat and British accent award bait films. While not every period piece that comes out is made with Oscar intentions, there is something about actresses getting stuffed into a corset and bemoaning pre-liberated society that makes the academy go wild. Because of this, I was not naturally inclined to like this film.

Miss Potter is about the life of Beatrix Potter, the author known for her Peter Rabbit stories. Throughout the course of the film, she gets published, falls in love, becomes a conservationist, and that is about it.  If that sounds dull to you, then you’re right, it is.

The most important thing the film does is give a wider audience knowledge about Beatrix Potter. And while her story is not particularly thrilling, she is someone people should know about. Beatrix Potter is a role model, and it is because she is ordinary enough to be relatable, but just courageous enough to look up to. She interacts with her world as I think we all do, yet she is able to go the extra mile to become a person whom we can admire.

However, not even a great heroine could sway me to really enjoy this film. My biggest problem with Miss Potter is that it just doesn’t seem to have a point. Now sure, there are some nice messages here. The importance of conservation, telling stories, doing what you love, and moving on after loss. And telling the story of any human life has intrinsic value. But the film didn’t feel like it was directed with urgency, or passion. It does not seem like someone was bursting with the desire to tell the story of Beatrix Potter. It seems like someone just decided they might as well make a movie about Beatrix Potter, and not a particularly interesting one at that.

The-Godfather

The Godfather I&II

I don’t feel like I can say anything that hasn’t already been said about Francis Ford Coppola’s epic masterpiece, so I’ll just say this: it’s mandatory viewing for any cinephile. Or, anybody who just wants to see great art.

okja

Okja (2017)

Okja, a new Netflix original movie, is a message movie. And being a message movie is hard, especially when the message is about food.

Okja argues against GMO foods and the modern food industry, taking aim at pork production in particular. Because it’s a message movie, it doesn’t take a look at all sides. The villains are some of the most over the top and cartoony I’ve ever seen, and there isn’t much room for debate when you bring in Holocaust imagery.

But the saving grace for Okja from being a very on-the-nose movie about heroic animal activists and super pigs, is its direction. Thanks to director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer) the film offers up much more.

The standout of Okja is newcomer actress Seo-Hyeon Ahn. She’s not only impressively able to act against a CGI pig with conviction, she’s also a force to be reckoned with against the adult actors and an action star in the making. She does some Tom Cruise level stunts in this film, and pulls them all off beautifully. The supporting cast all get time to shine, too. Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, and Lily Collins all have particularly good moments.

In the end, it’s the stylistic direction of Joon-ho that keeps you going through the movie. The film has some clunkier moments, and the message will be grating to some, but at least it has a position, purpose, and drive. It’s a quirky, whimsical and dark fairy tale that may be one of the most unique things you see all year. It is clear that Bong Joon-ho was bursting to make this film, and it shows. That is what makes any message movie work.

-Madeleine D

Gru Isn’t The Only One Not Living Up To His Potential: Despicable Me 3

despicable-me-3

Despicable Me still stands as one of the most innovative, unique, and heartfelt animated movies ever made.  It took a creative premise- bad guy adopts three little girls to help out with his villainy- and added even more creativity through layered storytelling and stylistic touches.

Despicable Me 2 was a forgettable sequel, but it still showcased the very specific style that Illumination animation has.

Then there was Minions. We don’t talk about that film.

But I still had faith. Despicable Me 3 could be a return to form. Never mind that it was going to do the lazy move (in my opinion) of introducing a surprise twin brother. There was still a chance!

Or so I hoped.

Despicable Me 3 operates more as a series of vignettes than a singular story. Each of the characters go off on little solo missions. If you were to choose an A-plot, though, it would be the newly married Gru, Lucy, and daughters Margo, Edith, and Agnes going off to meet Gru’s newly discovered twin brother Dru. In a nice change of pace, Dru isn’t an evil twin. Sure, he wants to be evil, but he isn’t the exact opposite of Gru. He’s more of a whiny, please release Steve Carell from the recording studio version of Gru. As the brothers learn to get along, Lucy tries to bond with her stepdaughters. The family reunion goes south when they are threatened by rejected ‘80s child star villain, Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker).

The signature Illumination animation is still breathtaking after three movies. Each location is gorgeously animated. The action sequences have a rube goldberg-like quality, and there are small, clever details in each piece of weaponry the villains and agents in the movie use. The exaggerated style of the character designs are similar to that of a quirky children’s book. Also, along with this film and Hidden Figures, Pharrell  proves that he should be in charge of all movie soundtracks.

But the children’s book analogy works against the film, too. It has style, and a cute factor, but very little substance. The film’s message about family goes only so far as the previous films have gone. The brotherhood angle is used much more as a vehicle for visual jokes than any meaningful commentary. Even Gru’s existential questions about not living up to his potential and his family’s legacy is quickly forgotten by the next fart joke. The movie tries to appeal to adults through ‘80s nostalgia and scenes with Gru and Lucy trying to parent, but there is really no point to the scenes except to exist. Since they are so disjointed from the film, they don’t even serve the plot. They are cute, but that certainly won’t keep an adult entertained, and little kids won’t find it exciting.

Overall, the film is a missed opportunity, and lacks the stronger direction of certainly the first film, but even the second. It’s sloppy, when it has every advantage not to be.

I have to admit, I felt a little sentimental watching Despicable Me 3. I’ve seen all the movies in theaters, from little ten year old me in 2010 for the first film, to the second one in 2013. Now I’m 17 years old, driving my sister and friend to the movie theater in my own car, and we’re the only teenagers in the audience; but who cares, because supervillain family.

Unfortunately, this kid’s movie may have pushed me closer towards being a cynical adult. I’ve never automatically been skeptical about sequels and trilogies and so on. I’m the person who has advanced tickets for the 16th Marvel movie next week. However, this is certainly not the first time I’ve been disappointed by a franchise. It just hurt a little more. There is too much talent involved for this level of sloppiness, and kids deserve the same quality entertainment everyone does. Don’t we want them to love good films, too?

-Madeleine D

Movie Minute

Because I haven’t seen a new release in a couple weeks, I’m presenting for your consideration short reviews for a few films I have seen recently. These are not new releases, and vary in how old they are. Maybe one of these could be the perfect film for a sweltering hot summer day!

As you like it

As You Like It (2006) dir. Kenneth Branagh

As You Like It, an HBO movie from Hollywood’s favorite drama nerd director, has three things going for it. One, a marvelous ensemble cast, the majority of which is grossly underused. Two, a setting that distracts you from the oddly-paced story. And three, Bryce Dallas Howard, who has an energetic charm that keeps you from thinking too much about how terrible her disguise as a man is and how much of her role has been cut.

Those positives are about it. The biggest problem with As You Like It is that it doesn’t feel whole. Howard’s Rosalind does not seem to have the starring role she should have, and David Oyelowo does not get near his due with his Orlando. Branagh seems to try and make the minor characters have equal roles with Rosalind and Orlando, and in doing so creates a play that has no central storyline to hold on to. It is spread thin. Even similar plays like it, such as A Midsummer’s Night Dream, still have major and minor characters. This adaptation of As You Like It does not seem to have this distinction. And while the aesthetics of Japan are a unique addition, it is simply one more task the film cannot take. It buckles under the weight of its underdeveloped ambition and does not leave any strong impressions in its wake.

Bridge-of-Spies

Bridge of Spies (2015) dir. Steven Spielberg

A Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Coen brothers collaboration is no joke, yet Bridge of Spies was relatively neglected when it came out. While this story of an American insurance lawyer negotiating the trade between two Americans and a Russian spy during the Cold War did win Mark Rylance an Academy Award for his supporting role, it is nowhere within anyone’s list of favorite Spielberg movies. That makes sense when you take into account Spielberg’s resume, but does not when you take in its fellow movies of that year. Bridge of Spies is small and mighty, and it succeeds not only because of the talent involved, but because of its message. It might be one of the most patriotic movies ever made, while also being incredibly sympathetic to our country’s enemies. The film’s message is about everyday men and women who work hard and do their jobs. While these jobs might not always be noble, human dignity and the work we do are inseparable to many, especially in the context of our western ideals. It shows that our justice system is dependent on the people who run it, and when those people fight for ideals, we become more of the nation we inspire to be. A well crafted story with thoughtful themes makes a film worth watching, and maybe makes it worth being on a favorite list of some kind.

yoko_out

The Wind Rises (2013) dir. Hayao Miyazaki

Set in the early beginnings of World War 2, The Wind Rises is the loosely biographical story of aerial engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a plane used by Imperial Japan during the war.

It goes without saying that the Studio Ghibli work, lead by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, is stunning. The film could be watched on mute, and the visual experience would be on par with its greatest contemporaries.

But don’t turn off the sound, because the story is just as worthwhile. There is something very disarming about being an American, watching the story of Japan’s entrance into World War 2 through the eyes of a civilian who just wants to make the world a more beautiful place. Jiro sees airplanes as one of the greatest achievements of mankind, and only wants to make them better. This intrinsic desire to make beautiful things is a message that should resonate with everyone. As a Christian, this desire is near the core of my belief, because it reflects on the nature of the greatest creator of them all.

More than what Jiro does, though, is who he is. Jiro is one of the best heroes I have ever met, despite what he creates being used in horrific ways. The love story between him and his wife, Nahoko, is a touching story of sacrifice and care, one of the best I’ve ever seen on film. Jiro is who we should aspire to be, and his personal integrity and strength defies all politics, all sides, and all situations we find ourselves in. If we all carried ourselves like Jiro, the world would be a better place.

-Madeleine D

Some Kind of Wonderful: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman

As Evangeline Lilly’s Hope Van Dyne says in Ant-Man, staring at her own super suit: “It’s about time.”

Wonder Woman has been around for 75 years. There are multiple reasons a movie hasn’t been made about one of the most famous superheroes of all time, including:

  1. Wonder Woman’s origins have changed over the years, making a definitive version of the character hard to find.
  2. Her brand of pantless feminism has been controversial and ever-changing.
  3. Good old-fashioned movie sexism. The reasoning being, if two female-led superhero films from 2005 (Elektra and Catwoman) don’t do well, than no one can succeed. (Never mind that if we used that logic, Batman would never have a film after Batman and Robin, and Batman V. Superman would be where the DCEU stopped.)

Luckily, this Wonder Woman ends all of those debates once and for all. First, Diana Prince now has a definitive origin and personality. We have seen her start, we’ve seen her years later in Batman V. Superman, and hopefully we’ll keep seeing her grow.

Second, Wonder Woman feminism is just that- feminism. Men and women are equal, and should be partners. If you’re a superheroine god who can throw a tank over your head and have a sword that can literally end wars, then you should probably go into battle in front of all the other soldiers. It’s just common sense. And if she doesn’t want to wear pants because she’s been living on an island where everyone wears Victoria Secret Greco-Roman armor, then you let her do that. You don’t want that tank thrown at you.

And third, that double standard for female-led movies versus male-led movies shouldn’t exist, period. But if the critics and box office say anything, it’s that execs can’t use those old movies as excuses anymore.

Wonder Woman begins with young Diana (Gal Gadot), the only child to ever be born on an island of all Amazonian women, called the Themyscira. These warrior women were given the paradise after fighting against their creators, the Greek gods. They were created to protect humanity, but instead decide to spend their days training to fight, should anyone ever find them.

When an American spy, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), wrecks on their shore and tells them about World War I, Diana decides she must go as her people’s champion to end the war. To end the war, she must defeat Ares, god of War. Steve, eager to return to his commanding officers to deliver important intel and continue fighting, isn’t one to dissuade Diana. Any help is good help. But little does he know the full extent of Diana’s powers. In fact, she doesn’t know them either.

So now that we have the plot and the externals out of the way, let’s get into what makes this a great superhero movie. First, is its pacing. At two hours and nineteen minutes, it’s a little long, and a little slow. However, that slower pace, with only three action sequences to its name, is different. There is a distinct focus on quieter, emotional moments in the film, which is a breath of fresh air from other films of its kind. While there may be a few too many turns the movies takes that add to its run time, the plot and the mission of the movie’s characters are clear and precise, which is a relief for a genre known for its plot holes and muddled motivations.

But what steals the show more than an exciting story, the WWI setting, an overabundance of slo-mo, fish out of water humor, and naked Chris Pine? It’s clothed Chris Pine and Gal Gadot! Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. She owns the character arc. She takes Diana from a place of idealistic naivete, to a more grounded, still optimistic and persistent heroine. Little details in her portrayal add to the groundedness of the character. She embraces Wonder Woman’s femininity, from shyly accepting a compliment on her clothes to excitedly seeing a baby, but also embraces in the same hug Wonder Woman’s boldness and courage, her righteous anger and her romantic passion, and her empathy towards all of the people around her. Because, who knew, you can be all of those things! She is one of the most sincere heroes I’ve ever seen in an age of angsty brooding, and it is fantastic.

The moment I best understood what Wonder Woman stood for was in the middle of the film. Diana is in the trenches, following Steve to their next location, when a woman with her baby cries out to her. Diana sits down and listens to the woman tell her about a village overtaken by German soldiers across the enemy lines. Diana then shrugs off her coat, revealing her armor. Steve tells her it’s too dangerous. But Diana, surging with passion, climbs up onto the field, and starts running across. Steve and his fellow soldiers watch. Then, they follow too.

Wonder Woman is not a Batman-esque hero that fights her own fights. As she says, she fights for those who cannot fight for themselves. And more importantly, she inspires others to find the courage within themselves to do the same. That is what a real hero does, and that is why the character has been around for so long.

And, as much as Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins nail Diana, they also nail Steve Trevor equally. Chris Pine oozes charisma and charm, but in a much more genuine way than would be expected for his kind of character. And what is ultimately most impressive about his role, besides sharing equal heroism with Wonder Woman, is that it redeems the romantic interest character as it is known to film.

How so? See, the role of romantic interest has been under attack. It has always been classically filled by women. So recently, moviegoers and critics, working to become more conscious about gender portrayal in film, have begun crucifying it. Some of that criticism and anger is necessary. There are a lot of cliches, tropes, and toxic examples of romantic interests in films.

But romance in a film is not necessarily a bad thing on its own. What we really want when we criticize romantic interests is for them to be their own character. Not just a crutch for the main hero. Not just there, waiting to be kissed in the corner. We want them to have their own storylines, or be involved with the action. And Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor is just that. He has his own motivations, missions, friends, background, and desires. He teaches and encourages Diana, but he also accepts teaching and grows and changes himself. He is what a romantic interest character should be- a partner. Just like in real life.

The greatest thing about Wonder Woman is that it is a good movie. It defies tropes of the genre, it tells a compelling origin story about a hero that everyone should aspire to, and leaves a departing viewer with some things to consider. Are people inherently good or bad? What would we sacrifice our lives for? How can we protect the people around us? Where is the line between fighting for protection and bloodlust?

These are things all good movies do. And that is all Wonder Woman had to be. It didn’t need to be a feminist Citizen Kane that had the complexities of The Dark Knight and the genre upheaval of Logan. It just needed to be a movie everyone could get behind. And just like its heroine, it is. I left the theater content, and wanting to be like Diana Prince and Steve Trevor. Compassionate, bold, thoughtful, idealistic, brave, sacrificial, principled, wise, and full of wonder

-Madeleine D

Repetition is Catchy: Everything, Everything

*Big Spoilers!

Everything-Everything-movie

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

http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/23/opinions/manchester-bombing-ariana-grande-kayyem/index.htm

http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/23/opinions/manchester-attack-terrorism-hellyer-opinion/index.html

http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/23/opinions/teen-girl-culture-rocks-filipovic-opinion/index.html

Bright Colors and Nostalgic Music: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians 2

Spoiler-free review

I didn’t like the first Guardians of the Galaxy.

Sorry! Almost everyone loved it. People who hate Marvel loved it. People who hate studio films loved it. People who hate puppies loved it. It was loved.

Now I don’t say that to be a special snowflake. Just to say that this movie had to earn my trust back. It had to convince me that these characters were different, worth watching, not total heathens (that’s right, I didn’t find any of the characters likeable, even Chris Pratt) and this franchise wasn’t, in the words of Drax, a giant turd (with good tunes).

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 picks up where the 2014 one left off, with the team being heroes of the galaxy, now mercenaries for hire. You’ve got Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a deadly assassin who, previously, only had two emotions- screaming and annoyed. You’ve got Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), who is lashing out against his team because he is afraid of caring too much. There’s Drax (Dave Bautista), who is either really sweet or really mean or making a poop joke, so don’t expect much nuance there. There’s Baby Groot, the miniature version of the one-phrase talking tree voiced by Vin Diesel (yeah you work those acting muscles bud). And then you have Star-Lord aka Peter Quill aka Chris Pratt, who takes a bit of a charisma backseat in this film despite it being all about him.

You see, Peter’s mom is human, but Peter is half… something. You’ve gotta be half something awesome to be able to win a dance battle with an alien and then hold an infinity stone in your hand.

Turns out, Peter’s dad is Ego (Kurt Russell) the living planet. A god. And dear old dad has a few tricks up his sleeve to show his prodigal son.

There is a trend happening in movies these days that I have mixed feelings about. These days, corporate America is trying to be your friend. Not just your friend, but your community. Not just your community, but your family. You’re family if you are a rewards customer. You’re family if you come into our store. Come on into our Family Sale. We are flesh and blood, the automated coupon email that spells my name wrong says.

The same thing is happening in movies. You start hearing more and more in trailers and promos and actor interviews the words, “we’re family.” The characters are family. The team is a family. The Fast and The Furious is best known for this, and after eight movies, I’m going to give them a pass. I can imagine sixteen years would result in strong ties.

I’m a big sucker for the family dynamic in films, too. If, by the end of a film, the characters seem to be family-like I’ll be into it (see Now You See Me 2 review). I’m really relaxed about this cliche. However, there are movies that I just cannot get behind. No, Transformers, you can’t be family with some pieces of scrap metal. No, Justice League, you’re not a family. “Martha” is not a strong enough foundation. Avengers, I get you, and I sympathize, but you’ve got some stuff to figure out. Pitch Perfect, stop it.

Guardians of the Galaxy tries to go this family route. The characters call themselves a family. They use the word. They bicker and fight and hug and date each other. Peter goes through his daddy issues and comes back, saying he already found his real family.

Hmmmmm.

There were a lot of good parts in the film, where the script, directing, and acting came together to create something a little magical. The chemistry between the cast is good. They look like they’re having a blast, which makes me want to have a blast, too. So sometimes I could buy that they were a family. Maybe not the likeable family next door. Maybe the one in the sketchy house at the end of the street. But nonetheless.

However, the biggest problem with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is its inconsistency. In one scene magic is being created, and in the next scene my entire row and I are cringing. And there are some really, really bad scenes in here. Some of it has to do with director James Gunn’s cocky script. Nothing wrong with being secure in your work, but sometimes Gunn writes something that you wonder, how did the suits let him get away with something so bad and  distasteful? Then you realize, he probably did get notes. He just tore them up and did what he wanted, then stopped the suits from retaliating by throwing all the cash the first Galaxy movie made at them.

Then some of it is the acting. Now, I don’t think it is too much to expect that my Marvel movies be well acted. This is the same studio that has Robert Downey Jr, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, and Mark Ruffalo in leading roles. This is the same studio that has had Robert Redford, Michael Douglas, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and numerous other celebrated actors join their ranks.

But boy, there are some weak performances here. Maybe the worst offender is Gamora. As I said before, Zoe Saldana does nothing but scream or be a frustrated party-pooper. While the script doesn’t do her any favors, her “emotional” scenes are hard to get through. And most of those scenes are shared with the other worst performer of the group, Karen Gillan as Gamora’s sister Nebula. Her entire performance is basically the following lines, and I encourage you to read them as she does, in a huffy, grunting, teeth-gritted fashion, “I (grrrr) already told you (spit) GAMORA, SISTER OF MINE (pulls out gun) I HATE YOU (does a sexy pose with gun) and I am evil! FEAR ME!” (does not shoot gun. Walks away, but like, in a super cool leather-bound fashion.) (While watching these scenes of sisterly bonding, I had the sobering realization that this is the first Marvel movie, out of 15, where two women have had any lengthy screen time together that passes the Bechdel test. This is why we can’t have nice things)

On a positive note though, this film feels different, at least in structure, from other Marvel movies. In the second act, the characters split off into three mini-missions, and by the end, reunite for a truly unique battle. This is the fourth in a series of Marvel movies that have had unique endings, starting, I think, with 2015’s Ant Man. That is a positive trend. While this film did have the galaxy at stake, it showed the battle more small scale size-wise, and more large scale emotion-wise.

Overall,  the film is uneven. It succeeded in some parts, not in others. It makes up for the first movie for me, but isn’t able to springboard me into a pile of superfans. By the end, I was satisfied. But not hungry for more, thanks. I have my fill. It’s been a meal full of meat seared in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and microwaved potatoes and something I can’t quite identify, covered in Sweet’n Low, but for the most part, it works.

Oh, and it’s family-style, of course.

-Madeleine D

Ambiguity Does Not Equal Compelling : The Circle

the circle

The Circle, with its constant surveillance, data storage, and knowledge of your every move and secret, is not about the technology of the future. It’s about the technology of now.

Oversharing, the need to tell everyone of your every action, the ability to find anyone if you have the right resources, a camera with you at all times- that’s how technology works for many people now. If not now, maybe in a few years.

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) plunges into the world of that technology when she lands a job at The Circle, a Google-meets-Facebook mega company led by Steve Jobs-y Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). When a series of events makes Mae decide to go “transparent” (wearing a camera on her at all times) she learns firsthand the consequences of being watched and analyzed with every move.

60% of The Circle is either Tom Hanks or Emma Watson giving Ted Talks about the future of technology. They stand on stage and talk about what The Circle will be doing next. If that sounds like fun to you, this may be your movie. If this sounds a little less like the exciting, thought-provoking drama you were hoping for, then you’re right. While both of these actors have the charisma to pull it off, getting long-winded explanations of exposition can be tedious, and sometimes they can’t even overcome the thesis-like script.

Now speaking of the actors, Emma Watson is the foundation of this film. She leads and keeps it, and for the most part, does an excellent job. She is very natural and is able to hold our attention. If you’re here for any other actor, though, you’ll be disappointed. John Boyega, Tom Hanks, Patton Oswalt, and Karen Gillian are all very, very supporting. Which is a shame, because they all do a great job. One small thing though- let John Boyega speak in his natural British accent. Please. He’s been forced to do an American one, and it sounds like Benedict Cumberbatch’s accent in Doctor Strange. And I don’t mean it in a good way. He sounds like he has a cold. Give him a tissue. And more lines.

On the technical side, we are used to studio movies being competently filmed and edited. It’s just a given that the cinematography, score, technical aspects of the film will be good. And for the most part, The Circle is a slick film. But the editing here is really odd in parts. The camera breaks the 180 degree camera rule. There is a scene where two characters, side by side in separate bathroom stalls, are filmed at the exact same angle, so when it switches back and forth, it just looks like the actresses are teleporting and/or the editor is making extreme jump cuts. It takes you out of the film, and makes it look amateurish.

Emma Watson’s Mae seems to represent the biggest failing of the script. She is a very reactive protagonist, one that simply reacts to the incidents around her, and then goes back to her natural disposition. That makes her turn to “the dark side,” not a surprising one, and not one that seems earned. If at the beginning of the film, she had been presented the opportunity to turn, considering her lack of development, I would assume she would have. Therefore, there is no conflict. There is no real antagonist, or resistance by anyone or anything. This film just presents the spiral into complacency as a natural one. While it shows the horrors of a future like the one presented here, if our likeable protagonist can get behind it, and nobody else seems to have a problem with it, then is it really bad? The film doesn’t have a stance on it.

So are we, the audience members, supposed to be the protagonist? Are we supposed to see this cautionary tale and the characters within it and decide whether it is right or wrong? Maybe. The pros and cons of each side are listed out, in essay fashion. But with no strong emotions in play here, the story, despite its relevance, feels unimportant. Lackluster. Not something to worry about dwelling on. It is almost like director and co-screenwriter James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) thought, hmm, maybe if I make the end ambiguous and all the characters flat, and I don’t make a compelling case for or against either side, they’ll assume I’m really smart!

So, there is where it ultimately fails. I can forgive it for its odd editing, poor use of Tom Hanks and John Boyega, and sloppy character development and exposition. But I cannot forgive it for being dull about its interesting premise. How did you mess this up? Everything was in your favor!

-Madeleine D