Documentary Double: Three Identical Strangers & Whitney

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It is the summer of documentaries, and after RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I’m happy to report there are two more excellent films to add to your list. They are very different, but both tell some of the most compelling stories of the year.

It’s difficult to review documentaries because you can’t very well review their subject matter. I can’t review and critique Whitney Houston and her life, so with Whitney I have to think about how the film presents the information it has. How does it tell her story? What kind of bias is introduced? What does the audience take away from the film? In Whitney, we see her entire life, from childhood to rising star, to troubled singer to her tragic death.

Director Kevin MacDonald stays mostly mute during the film, letting the interview subjects- close family and business associates of Whitney- speak, squabble, and accuse. Whenever one person accuses another of something, the accused gets to speak. I don’t want to reveal the biggest revelation the film digs up, but it turns the already somber film into a different piece of work about the artist’s life. It not only searches for answers to Whitney’s pain, but in all of the right moments, simply lets us live in it. Some things don’t have explanations, and I appreciated that the film just lets Whitney speak for herself in some cases, and doesn’t try to connect everything that happened with a reason. That said, as someone who didn’t know much about Whitney Houston before seeing the film, I learned a lot from not only hearing about the events in her life, but also from the various viewpoints on how those events occurred, the responses to them, and the effects on Whitney. The film balanced those two elements thoughtfully.

Walking away from the film, I am left with feeling like I just heard an Old Testament tragedy. A family, broken by addiction and greed and misplaced love, and at the center of it, a girl without a foundational identity and sense of purpose. The film is compassionate to its subjects, but unblinking in its depiction.

Three Identical Strangers is not as fair or compassionate as Whitney to the “enemies” of its subjects, but is one of the best thrillers of the year. What starts out as the lighthearted, human-interest story of three 19-year-olds finding out they are identical triplets, separated at birth, becomes a dark and uncomfortable tale as revelations are made about the circumstances surrounding their separation. The less you know going in, the better, but let’s just say that if you were born in the 1960s and adopted through a Jewish agency, you might come out thinking that you just might have a long-lost twin somewhere out there. It’s a story about nature vs nurture, the lies we tell ourselves to cope, and experimental ethics. The film ends with an angry plea for justice, which means the story of these three identical strangers, if the film becomes influential enough, may not be done quite yet.

Aesthetically, both films make use of talking heads (people looking at the camera as they are being interviewed) and footage from different media sources. Three Identical Strangers also makes use of reenactments in the beginning of the piece, and clips along at a nice pace. It’s not flashy, but it gets the job done. Whitney, while a little too long, is excellently edited. It mixes famous public footage (MTV and talk shows) with home-videos that capture Whitney unfiltered. It includes three montages of Whitney singing, intercut with clips of cultural touchstones that depict rapidly the environment Whitney was in and what the world was using her music to help them face. While neither film tries any cutting-edge documentary techniques (like the rotoscope animation used in 2016’s Tower or the animation from 2016’s Life, Animated) they still get their stories effectively and engrossingly across.

I don’t know why documentaries are having a box-office moment this summer. Perhaps the normal fare is weaker this year. Maybe MoviePass is encouraging people to see films they wouldn’t have considered otherwise. Perhaps, hearing true stories is a cathartic way to remind ourselves that nothing new is under the sun. Real life is crazy and bizarre and sad and beautiful, and we may find more security after we’ve made peace with that than if we only ask art to provide us an escape. Both of these films make the audience have an experience, an experience that draws us closer to fellow human beings, living and deceased. If that’s not worth the price of admission, I’m not sure what is.

-Madeleine D.

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Movie Minute: Ant-Man and the Wasp, Leave No Trace, and Mamma Mia 2

July has been a hectic month, but nothing can stop me from seeing movies, so here is what you need to know about these three new releases.

Ant-Man and the Wasp

After Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp is somewhat of a palette cleanser. Not from any of the Marvel formula, but from even pretending to have stakes. It sheds the foreboding nature of Infinity War and relishes in simpler times, by redoing jokes from the first film and being just as pleasant. I had a great time watching it, but I struggle to remember much, and while things technically happen in the lives of the characters, there aren’t any far-reaching consequences for the MCU as a whole, nor is there anything thematically to take away.

It does make a few improvements on the first film. The villain, Ghost, played by Hannah John Kamen, is not only a visually arresting character but one with twisted motivations who gets a surprising ending for an antagonist. Evangeline Lilly and Paul Rudd continue to make a charming pair, and seeing them work together in a way no other pair of superheroes have in the MCU is exciting to behold. And Michael Peña continues to steal the screen and our hearts. But all of that isn’t enough to make it a necessary film. And while you may ask, are any of these movies actually necessary? within the story the Marvel brand is telling as a whole, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a pleasant romp but very forgettable, and when the other Marvel films are going in an exciting new direction, this feels like a step back.

Leave No Trace

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Leave No Trace struck me in a place I haven’t been struck since my favorite film of last year, The Unknown Girl. Both films tell small stories about people struggling with messy, complicated ethical decisions, who ultimately bring out the best in other people and themselves through conviction and will. This slow and enchanting Debra Granik film never goes where you think it will, and ends with a startling conclusion that works perfectly with its compassionate, melancholy, yet hopeful, story of a father and daughter struggling to keep out of a society they cannot rest in. Watching the coming-of-age of daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her realization that her desires might be different from her fathers is both heartbreaking and empowering, told with the nuance of experience by Granik. I won’t say more, because the less you know the better, but I would say it’s a must-see.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

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If you liked the first Mamma Mia, then you’ll like this one. Case closed.

It’s an accurate description though! Mamma Mia 2 is exactly like the first one, good and bad in all of the same ways. It has a flimsy story and weak characters, and everything is in paradise and beautiful and is the ultimate wish fulfillment (primarily for women. It is a film made for the female gaze, and honestly, it feels nice to be catered to in such a way, albeit superficially). It’s a joyful movie that celebrates family, friendship, and motherhood (and free love and deep pockets, but that’s beside the point). Abba’s music is infectious, and the cast, young and old, is having so much fun that it’ll wear down the sourest of souls. Fittingly, my feelings are as they sing in the film:

I tried to hold you back but you were stronger. Oh yeah! And now it seems my only chance is giving up the fight. And how could I ever refuse? I feel like I win when I lose!

-Madeleine D

Off The Deep-End Fun: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Related image*Massive spoilers!
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is the second installment in the reboot of the Jurassic Park franchise. I found the first Jurassic World (2015) dumb and boring. This movie is a major improvement in that it is dumb and off its rocker, which if your movie isn’t good, is the second-best-thing.

Fallen Kingdom takes the franchise out of the park, finally justifying the “Jurassic World” title and taking the series in a different direction. Director J.A Bayona has a horror background and puts it to good use here. The lighting and cinematography, along with setups and suspense, flip-flop between being unique and almost shot-for-shot copies of the original Jurassic Park, but are all used well within the story. It’s a monster movie, with visual allusions to Godzilla, King Kong, and werewolves. While it doesn’t always succeed, Fallen Kingdom is an ambitious next step, and I find that very admirable for a franchise.

Of course, it doesn’t experiment with everything. We’ve still got our two leads from the first film. Chris Pratt is Owen, aka Chris Pratt, which I’m pretty tired of right now, but hey, he does leading man well. But it’s really Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire who really gets to shine here, taking her character development from the first film even further, and giving a terrific balanced performance of action-hero competence and raw emotion. The movie also tries to, like its predecessor, attempt some winking-topical “humor”. The first used its corporate focus and egregious brand-promotion to say… something meta. I don’t think it succeeded. Fallen Kingdom has a military character call a character a “nasty woman” and has the rich billionaire villain have a Trump-style hairdo. Oooh, back up everyone. This is a topical film, not here to mess around. These attempt at relevancy are shallow, meaningless, and fall flat. It’s okay Jurassic World, you don’t need to do anything like that. You know what you’re about.

The ultimate argument of the film is that since humans brought dinosaurs back to life, it’s our duty to give that life as much freedom as we give other living things. This is encapsulated by a child named Maisie, a human clone (yes, you’re reading that right) releasing the dinosaurs into the world  and saying they’re “alive like I am.” Which might be a more convincing argument if human clones were real, but… they aren’t. Yet. This film does not dive into human cloning and this revelation, which is probably just a set-up for the third movie, feels a little cheap. Furthermore, these dinosaurs were brought to life by a tiny group of powerful people who promised to keep the dinosaurs safely away from human civilization. Their malpractice should not mean a more dangerous world for everyone else. As my vegetarian sister counter-argued against the dinosaurs-should-be-free-despite-being-a-danger-to-humans argument: “I try not to eat chicken, but if a giant chicken was going to eat you, I would eat it.” In other words, unless we believe dinosaur life is of completely equal value to human life, then we should prioritize the safety of humanity.

To its credit though, the film does do an excellent job setting up its thesis. It shows how similar humans and these dinosaurs can be. Both kill each other and both are capable of love, protection, and emotion. The dinosaurs have emotional range! It sure sets up an interesting debate on the sanctity of dinosaur life and freedom. And having the “parents” of Jurassic World (as a character in the film labels Owen and Claire) make the mess, and then the new generation (represented by child Maisie) take on that responsibility, is surprisingly touching.  

All that doesn’t mean the film isn’t silly and derivative at times- it is- but I’d rather watch a film taking a running dive off the deep end than shrug in mediocracy.

(P.S, While I will not be reviewing them, I highly recommend the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Incredibles 2, both in theaters now. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a touching tribute to Fred Rogers and a peaceful protest/plea against the anger and divisiveness that is depicted in our media and politics. It is also a positive (but also honest) view of a Christian who used media to teach everyone that they are loved and worthy of love and dignity as a creation of God. Meanwhile, Incredibles 2 is just as fun and smart as the first, with laugh-out-loud humor, sweet family lessons, and incredible action. It’s a truly deserving sequel worth waiting 14 years for.)

-Madeleine D

Spiritual Brothers 55 Years Apart: Winter Light and First Reformed

Guest review by Jonathan Dorst

Image result for winter light 1963Related imageGunnar Björnstrand in Winter Light, Ethan Hawke in First Reformed

Warning: Light Spoilers

If you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from the best. In Paul Schrader’s new film, First Reformed (2018), he doesn’t even try to pretend he’s not stealing from Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 film, Winter Light.

Consider the story written by the director of the film who grew up in a strict religious environment: a minister who has a foreboding cough and has lost his ability to pray serves communion in his traditional church with just a handful of people. After the service, a pregnant woman asks if he will talk with her husband who is very distressed about the future of the world. After the husband and the minister talk, the husband goes out and shoots himself in the head with a rifle, after which the minister has to tell the widow about her husband’s death (and she is sad but holds it together). Soon, we meet another woman who is clearly in love with the minister, who was married once but does not think he’s in a position to get married again, and so he eventually has to tell this woman in no uncertain terms that she repulses him and she needs to leave him alone.

I’ve just described both movies in their first hour or so, and I’m surprised no one is talking about First Reformed as a remake of Winter Light (although Schrader, in interviews, definitely cites Bergman as an influence for this film). Both films wrestle with the intersection of hope and despair, but eventually Schrader goes his own way. Where Bergman focuses on the predicament of a tired man who seems to have to speak for God even while believing God is silent and uncaring, Schrader focuses on the ways that God might be speaking in a new way to someone who’s become lost in his own anger and despair.

Bergman’s film is a classic Bergman drama, with a cast of his usual actors- Gunnar Bjornstrand, Max von Sydow, and Ingrid Thulin. Schrader’s film, with actors- Ethan Hawke, Cedric Kyles, and Amanda Seyfried- he’s never worked with before, is a different kind of film for him, more European than American, although most viewers will see some resemblances to Taxi Driver, the film that Schrader is most closely identified with as a writer. Bergman’s film is straight realism while Schrader’s film employs magical realism.

I would recommend both movies to anyone wanting to watch a serious examination of faith and calling, although I imagine many people will be mystified by the ending to First Reformed. I confess I’m a much bigger Bergman fan than Schrader, yet I identify with First Reformed a bit more. As a Reformed pastor myself (and someone who has been told he looks a lot like Ethan Hawke) I identified with many emotions of Hawke’s Pastor Toller, from the desire to say just the right thing in a counseling situation to the frustration with arrogant businessmen who don’t think pastors live in the real world. I’ve never lost faith in God, as Winter Light’s Pastor Ericsson, but I’ve certainly wrestled with doubt and felt myself going through the motions of ministry.

Some will see criticism of the church and Christianity in one or both of these films. There is certainly criticism of hypocritical religion in both films, but I believe an honest attempt to look into what it is like to be a minister of God in the modern world.

-Jonathan D

Check out more of Jonathan’s reviews at:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/chorusinthechaos/author/jonathandorst/

 

Is It Really Stealing If It’s Fun?: Ocean’s 8

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Ocean’s 8 follows a simple premise, tried and true from the previous entries in the Ocean’s franchise (which disclaimer, I have not seen): head con gets crew of other cons, does dope stuff while being ridiculously cool and glamorous, gets away with it, everything is awesome.

This the perfect so-called “summer movie.” Was I surprised? No. Was I entertained? Yes. Did I assign the roles in the film to my real-life friends and begin imagining a heist of our own? I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.

If you are reading this review, I have a feeling you have some interest in seeing Ocean’s 8, and if the above sounds like what you want, then I say go see it. All of the actresses are amazing, director Gary Ross is competent, and if you don’t see it soon, the handful of celebrity cameos and pop-culture references are already going to be outdated. This movie is about seeing Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett blow bubbles outside of a window where Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway are talking about Met Gala dresses (true scene) and that’s almost exactly what I expected and got.

But is Ocean’s 8 more than that? Watching the film, I tried to scour it for messages and hidden depth besides “crime is fun and kinda easy” and “if you use stolen money for personal satisfaction, and you’re a likable person, all is well.” Here’s what I found:

One of the reoccurring themes in the film is that of women being invisible- and how in this game, it’s an advantage. At one point, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) and her partner Lou (Cate Blanchett) discuss candidates for their crew and when Lou suggests a man, Deb says no because he’s “a him, and a ‘him’ get interest. A ‘her’ gets ignored.” Then throughout the film, the ladies show how their invisibility helps them, whether it’s using their bodies as a distraction, acting dumb and ditsy, or using the power of women’s bathrooms to hide. These women know how to use being ignored and silenced against others.

The film’s point is obviously to show that the joke’s on everyone who underestimates these women, including the moviegoer. You want to underestimate women? Okay, but now you’re 150 million dollars short and in jail. Take that, patriarchy.

Now that’s a serviceable message, but right now culturally we’re finally moving towards women being encouraged not to be silent. We’re are getting attention for all sort of things, getting interest for what we say and do. Leading up to its release, Ocean’s 8 had created a media narrative about being a part of this change, which is a good thing. Except, despite the fact that the film is about women who expect to be silent and ignored, and who use that to make a big statement (in the form of their successful heist), this film actually has nothing besides that to say. It’s thematically silent, pretty, and very shallow. So… you know…. like a stereotype of a woman?

Now to be fair, the Ocean’s franchise has always been a vanity project, first for Frank Sinatra and his buddies, then George Clooney and his buddies, and now Sandra Bullock and all these other famous ladies. There’s nothing wrong with making a sleek, fun, completely fantastical and glamorous film to make the rest of us feel inadequate.

So it’s wrong for me to ask this film to be extra, because as Ani Bundel says for NBC in her review of the film, “A women’s movie must be outstanding to get attention — especially if it’s funny. It cannot be a ‘Dante’s Peak’ style film; it must be ‘Bridesmaids’ or ‘Steel Magnolias.’” I don’t want to add to the pressure that films starring women must be extraordinary (and make millions at the box office) to be noticed.

But, as I try to do with all of my reviews, I assert that films should have something to say. And here the message goes no further than, “we can do it like the boys.” And that’s kind of disappointing, particularly since I think we’ve gotten past that as a culture. Women being “bad” is already chic right now.

I don’t love these full gender-swapped films because it causes the pendulum effect. Hollywood is high on girl-power right now, to right the wrongs of #MeToo, and so it’s going from the standard extreme all-male films to all-female films. Soon, it will hopefully settle in the middle, where everyone can be represented in media. But for now, this is what we’ve got, and while I wish it was a little more, it’s a fun ride and even has the potential to bring people together, as exemplified when my sister walked out of theater, turned to me, and said, “I would rob the Met Gala with you.”

As if I wouldn’t have been able to convince her otherwise.

-Madeleine D

It’s Fine: Solo

solo

I’m a casual Star Wars enjoyer. I like, but have no strong opinions or ties to, Star Wars. I enjoyed both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, and I thought Rogue One was ok.

I felt lukewarm about Han Solo as a character pre-Solo, and post-Solo I still feel lukewarm about him. That might be the biggest disappointment of this film: it didn’t convince me to feel any differently. It didn’t make me feel strongly about anything Star Wars related.

While I can’t promise that you, o moviegoer with more emotional ties and opinions about Star Wars, will come out feeling as unmoved as I will, I think the overwhelming safeness of Solo is a problem. There’s nothing wrong with a well-told, well-directed, well-acted movie. That is what director Ron Howard delivered. But if any franchise can take risks, it should be Star Wars, which is now owned by Disney. Disney and Star Wars are massive conglomerates that have generous fan and critic support, and are unparalleled in financial success. Every movie Disney makes now is a “tentpole” flick, aka a film that can be advertised as a must-see blockbuster. They can take some hits. They can also change the game, if they are willing.

But if they won’t, then Star Wars is not going to evolve. It has all of the advantages one could ask for, so if it won’t take risk, then why should any other franchise?

Walking out of the theater, my father and I discussed why the original trilogy was so powerful, particularly to those who grew up with it (outside of nostalgia). Why do those movies hold up so well, and why aren’t the new ones as impactful?

He basically said that it was because George Lucas knew how to tell a mythological story through use of archetypes and symbols. His original stories felt epic and deep and fresh. These new films don’t make much use of those same storytelling foundations, and when they do they mainly rehash the plot points of the originals (with The Force Awakens being a virtual remake of A New Hope).

So, the trap the Star Wars movies are in is one of its own making. The new films need to be fresh, despite being part of an established franchise, and they need to tell new stories while not abandoning the foundations and brand recognition.

That’s a tall order. I personally  don’t know how to create a Star Wars movie that everyone will like. But out of all the newest Star Wars films, I actually think Solo is the closest to making a film that, while not great cinema, does try to expand on the world of Star Wars, introduce new characters, and pay homage to the past. It isn’t a complete remake of A New Hope like The Force Awakens, but it isn’t as daring and therefore divisive as The Last Jedi. In theory, it should be a good new Star Wars film. This is ironic though because before its release Solo was already divise and hated by the fanbase. But if people would stop #BoycottSolo and give it a chance, I think they would find that:

  1. Alden Ehrenreich is actually a good Han, and
  2. Meh.

The story is fine, the extended worldbuilding is fine, and the nod, easter eggs, and add-ons to the Star Wars canon are fine. Everything is fine. It’s bland and solid, which after The Last Jedi, seems to be what hardcore Star Wars fans want. Personally, I would prefer a film like The Last Jedi, which made decisive creative choices and wasn’t afraid to alienate some of the audience. That is a movie that was made as a movie. Solo feels like an olive branch extension, an “I’m sorry for making a movie you didn’t like” on the part of the Star Wars franchise to the fans.

But to reiterate, Solo is fine. Just alright. Nothing to boycott or be upset about. It’s a pleasant romp. But is that fine? Should the movie equivalent of a shoulder-shrug be encouraged?

-Madeleine D

The Best Superhero Movie of the Summer: RBG

Meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice and internet meme:
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Many in the larger public can recognize her face, but not the extent and influence of her work. The documentary RBG is here to change that. This sleek doc has interviews with Ginsburg’s friends, children, fellow lawyers, President Clinton, and Ruth herself. It also has plenty of promo-ready clips of her watching Kate McKinnon’s impression of her on SNL (she likes it), working out (I wish I could do 25 pushups), and admiring her own nickname, “Notorious RBG.”

It’s an entertaining look at the life of a powerhouse who is more known for keeping quiet and thinking than yelling. It also makes good use of its interview subjects in illuminating the legal genius behind her strategy in the 1970s to make a legal and moral foundation for ending sex discrimination. This film gives a mini-class in legal activism, and how long-term vision and strategy is necessary to change minds and hearts. So while watching Ginsburg is fun, hearing her speak is even more powerful. The sheer force and precision behind her words remind us all that screaming matches can never stand up to the power of well-wielded language.

The documentary also touches on Ginsburg’s personal life, particularly her beautiful romance to her husband Martin. Martin Ginsburg was a man ahead of his time, supporting his wife completely in her work and unashamed to take on roles typically associated with housewives. It was a mutual partnership that led both to have successful careers and make a mark on American history.

One thing I also really enjoyed in the film was the discussion about the friendship between Ginsburg and Justice Scalia. They were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and would consistently vote against one another, yet had a sweet friendship. This example of personal relationships across political lines shows they are possible and necessary. While the film tries to speak to the Trump presidency, this seems like the most timely thing about it, showing the need to make relationships outside of one’s bubble.

If you know much at all about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then this documentary will not reveal much of anything new except give you more time with the icon. It provides a summary, not a revelation, about her life. It is a little repetitive in the points it hits and refuses to criticise its subject in any way.

But for someone who did not know much about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, this was the perfect introduction to her and her enormous body of work and influence. I walked out not only wanting a “Notorious RBG” mug, but also with hope. Hope that individuals can change the world. Hope that institutions can be changed by smart people with vision. Hope that people across political lines can put aside their differences and have relationships. Hope that one day I will find a man as good as Martin D. Ginsburg. So not only is it a film that depicts a real-life superhero, but it leaves its viewers with the feeling a superhero film should give you.

-Madeleine D