The independent student newspaper of Goucher College


Sam Stashower

Sam Stashower has 14 articles published.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is beautiful


“Hello neighbor.”

The first things we see and hear in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood should strike all the right pangs of familiarity. Set to the gentle, calming tinkles on a piano, we see the grainy film images of the red house, then the street, then the yellow blinking streetlight, then the door, and out the door comes…Mr. Rogers. Yes, he’s being played by another person––a different icon of American kindness––but somehow we know it’s HIM. It’s not just the mannerisms––the zipper that goes all the way up and then comes down a little, the bit with the shoe––but something more fundamental.

It’s not just Tom Hanks that has the tenor of the man down; it feels as though all of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood exists on the wavelength of Fred Rogers’ quiet heroism. It’s patient, calm, honest, and open. It’s tempting to describe these qualities as “saintly,” but, as we’re told, Mr. Rogers doesn’t like that word. It puts him on a level of unattainability, and that won’t do. We all have it within ourselves to be Mr. Rogers. We’re all human.

That’s the hard lesson Lloyd Vogel learns over the course of the movie, because this isn’t actually a story about Mr. Rogers. Rather, it’s about just one of the many, many people he saved. “Someone has hurt Lloyd,” Mr. Rogers tells us in the beginning, and we see that hurt has transformed him into a cynical man; not a monster, or an unrealistically cruel person, but a man who perhaps understandably scoffs at the idea that Fred Rogers and “Mr. Rogers” are actually one and the same.

But they are. They are, and soon Lloyd finds himself on the receiving end of Mr. Rogers pure, unfiltered empathy, and it’s almost too much for him to take. There’s some potential tension towards the beginning, especially in the early interview scenes, where Vogel’s hard-hitting interview style clashes with Rogers’ almost infuriating kindness. Matthew Rhys plays this tricky role with extraordinary precision, hitting all the right notes to ensure that we sympathize with him and long for his salvation (well, I say “extraordinary,” though anyone familiar with his stellar work on The Americans knew long ago just what he was capable of).

It sounds strange to say, considering that he’s widely considered to be one of the all-time great American actors, but Tom Hanks isn’t the man I would immediately think of when asked who should play Mr. Rogers. He’s very much of a type, and while it’s reductive to say that “he always plays Tom Hanks” – he doesn’t – it’s true that he does have a persona that usually shines through no matter what he’s doing. 

What Marielle Heller manages to do is channel Hanks’ inner goodness into a performance that evokes Fred Rogers more than it tries to imitate him. Heller, fresh off of another quietly affecting biopic (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) is directs the thing with clipped restraint, content to mostly stay out of the story’s way.

“You love broken people,” he says. “Like me.” You might remember that line from the trailer. What’s not included is Mr. Rogers’ response: “I don’t think you’re broken.” What follows is the definitive scene of the movie, where Mr. Rogers asks Lloyd to join him in thinking about the people who loved him into who he is today. Lloyd agrees, and the restaurant where they’re eating goes quiet. And as the camera slowly zooms in on Tom Hanks’ face, we realize that the movie is inviting us to do the same. So we stop. And we think.

Ford v Ferrari: Dawn of Racecars


“James Bond does not drive a Ford.”

“Well, that’s because he’s a degenerate.”

This just feels like a throwback, doesn’t it? There’s something about Ford v Ferrari that evokes the days of cinema gone by, even though its closest analog I can think of is Ron Howard’s criminally underseen masterstroke, Rush (there’s also Le Mans, a 1971 Steve McQueen picture, but I’ve not seen it). It is, for better or worse, and old-school racing picture about companies trying to one-up each other and cars that go really, really fast.

The film begins as such, with the Ford Motor Company being out-maneuvered by Enzo Ferrari. So incensed by this humiliation is Henry Ford II that he becomes obsessed with defeating Ferrari at Le Mans, the most prestigious – and dangerous – race in the world. To do so, he conscripts the only American to ever win Le Mans: Carroll Shelby, a cowboy hat wearing Matt Damon, who was once on top of the world, but had to retire from racing due to a heart condition.

A question might already have occurred to you; how in the world does Ford v Ferrari position Ford, which was one of the most powerful companies even back then, as the underdog? Quite simply, it doesn’t take their side. We’re with Ford only so far as we’re with Matt Damon, and he’s not always treated very well by them. For instance, he wants Christian Bale’s volatile Ken Miles to be the one to drive in Le Mans. Problem is, his hostile reputation puts him at odds with what the higher-up want a “Ford driver” to look like.

That’s only the beginning of Ford’s attempts to micromanage Damon (after, of course, promising him complete freedom to conduct himself however he wants). On the one hand, bravo to Ford v Ferrari for being very clear-eyed about how shamelessly and soullessly a big corporation would work to remorselessly screw over a group of people who are trying, for all intents and purposes, to give them the biggest win of their lives. 

On the other hand, this is a long, long movie, and a lot of it is a little meandering. A lot of the non-racing running time is committed to making the same point over and over again about how big companies are not Matt Damon’s friend, but he just can’t see it. James Mangold began his career with character-driven films like Cop Land and 3:10 to Yuma, and went on to make Logan, arguably the most character-driven superhero movie ever made. Here, there’s an element of that that’s missing. In something like Rush, the emotional core is the relationship is the constantly evolving rivalry between Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. Here, the Bale/Damon dynamic never really gets close to that level, nor does any other relationship, for that matter.

This would be more palatable, I think, if the script were just a bit better. Right at the beginning, we see a bunch of German investors who are interested in investing in Damon and Bale. They’re told, however, that Bale is “difficult.” One won race later, and the lead German investor has a moment to helpfully inform us that, “He’s difficult…but good.” Thanks, I needed that.

That’s not the last of the clunky lines Ford v Ferrari throws our way, and trust me, they all hurt just about as much as that wrench Bale throws at Damon. Fortunately, they’re all made worth it by the exemplary racing sequences. Those make it absolutely worth it to have seen the film on the big screen. I don’t know if it’s better than Rush in this regard – I’ll have to rewatch that film to see – but it’s bloody good all the same. Mangold accomplishes a great feat, in that he very effectively puts you in the car with Bale as he’s racing for his life, always inches away from death.

I’ve seen Ford v Ferrari described as a “dad movie.” Yeah, that’s accurate. It’s certainly a throwback to the era they’ll remember. Josh Lucas plays a great “you’ll love to hate him” villain who comes to embody the corporate side of racing. Caitriona Balfe is great, but she’s also more or less just playing “the wife.” Noah Jupe’s also great, but he’s also just playing “the son.” And for a movie called Ford v Ferrari, there is basically no input from Ferrari beyond the opening and closing minutes. Still, it is entertaining, and, for all its pacing and scripting issues, very cinematic.

Matt Damon and Christian Bale on the set of Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI.

Go go Jojo Rabbit


Jojo Rabbit is a movie that will confuse some, annoy more, and anger most. It’s an “anti-hate” satire that’s been accused by some of heinous bowdlerization; of being a “Heartwarming Holocaust feel-good flick” that ignores, or paves over, the atrocities of the time.

Interestingly, though, I’m not seeing that much in the way of controversy about this film. Sure, there were the expected “OMG THIS IS THE MOST DANGEROUS FILM SINCE JOKER” headlines from the increasingly desperate clickbait-based “news” sites, but I guess those were non-starters, because there haven’t been that many. If I had to guess, I’d say Jojo Rabbit is too good-hearted and pure to really get that worked up over, in spite of its tricky material.

Again, that sentence might seem very strange to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. A good-hearted and pure movie…about Nazis? Trust me, it works. I think that’s partially because this isn’t “really” about Nazis, or Nazism. The iconography is used, as well as some surface-level trappings, but really, it could be anything. What Jojo Rabbit is about is cliques. The Third Reich is portrayed as an elitist social club, and little Jojo is a lonely little kid who wants in with the big boys, to such an extent that he’s blind to the club’s rotten core.

Again, to many people, this will come across as wildly misguided. Writing it all out, I find myself amazed at what Taika Waititi has pulled off. From where I’m sitting, Jojo Rabbit is a perfectly judged film, a balancing act that spends nearly two hours riiiiiight on the edge of dipping into monstrously poor taste, without ever crossing the line. 

In a couple of ways, what Taika Waititi has done here reminds me of a sillier Spike Lee film. It’s thrillingly fearless, with a direct line to your emotional core. It has no need for such things like “subtlety,” nor should it. But whereas the films of Mr. Lee are usually vivaciously angry, Waititi is stubbornly feel-good, even in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

This isn’t exactly smiles and sunshine always. There is darkness creeping around the edges of the film, occasionally taking stabs at its heart. Don’t believe for a second that the horrors of living in Nazi Germany are glossed over, or made completely frivolous. This is a kind movie, but it’s not a facetious one.

You know how I’d describe this movie? Cathartic. I needed to see this movie, in a way that I’m still at a loss to explain. A special word must go to Roman Griffin Davis, making his acting debut as young Jojo. Think about that; this is his first movie. This is his first job, period. What he does in this movie is extraordinary. He took a character that could’ve gone so wrong, and made him one of the most brilliant original characters of 2019. I found myself completely engaged with the movie because I was invested in the fate of Jojo’s soul. 

Again, this won’t work for everyone. This is a wavelength movie if ever there was one; you gotta get on board with what it’s doing, or be completely lost at sea. I can imagine some out there will find themselves completely unsympathetic to Jojo’s plight. I can imagine some out there will find what Waititi does here completely wrongheaded. I can also easily imagine some out there feeling comfortable denouncing this movie without bothering to see it (I have absolutely no sympathy for that last group there). Regardless, as someone who actually saw the damn film, I found myself treated to a resonant, fully-realized film, one that knew exactly what it was doing, and did it with a smile.

Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in the film JOJO RABBIT. Photo by Kimberley French. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Parasite infects American cinema with its brilliance


Man, the new movie by the guy who directed Snowpiercer is really picking up steam!

…get it? Picking up steam? Because it’s from the same director who did Snowpiercer? The movie about the train that never stops? Get it? 

Ah, never mind…

If I had to guess, I’d say that Parasite is a very different kind of movie than what most ‘Murican audiences will be used to from Bong Joon-ho. While he’s done drama before – Barking Dogs Never Bite and Mother – over here, his most popular films are his genre pieces. Films like The Host, his take on Godzilla, Okja, which is more fantasy than anything, or the aforementioned Snowpiercer, which is all about a magical train that goes around and around the world, forever and ever…suffice it to say, I can easily imagine a scenario where someone goes into a movie called Parasite, knowing it’s by the guy who made all those films, expecting another dip into sci-fi and horror, and getting what appears to be a straight-up drama instead. There are parasites in this movie…but they’re all very human.

Parasite has to do with a downtrodden, out-of-work family of four. We see in the opening scene that they in such squalor that, when a fumigation crew starts dusting the street outside, they decide to leave the window open to get rid of their roach problem. For free! Things take an interesting turn, however, when a friend of Ki-woo – the son in the family – asks him to fill in as a tutor to the daughter of a rich family. Ki-woo obliges, but soon into his first day he senses an opening for his sister, Ki-jeong, to join him as an art tutor for the rich son. Never mind that she doesn’t know the first thing about art, and doesn’t have any credentials; nothing a bit of light forgery can’t fix. Once she’s there, though, she starts looking for positions for her parents. The other jobs around the household are already taken by other people, but if something were to happen to them…

Doesn’t sound much like Snowpiercer, does it? But make no mistake; Parasite comes from the same mind. For one thing, despite all appearances, it’s very fluid, genre-wise. It defies simple characterization, which I always like (I’m generally of the opinion that genre restrictions are stupid). It begins as a satire, before hardening into straight drama, then back into comedy, before elements of horror start to creep in, and then…I’d better not say. But Bong Joon-ho is always in complete control; I never felt that he was just throwing whatever he wanted at the wall, and seeing what stuck. There was a purpose to the tonal shifts, and the end result was a film experience that I couldn’t predict the end of, or even the next scene of.

But the main clue that this is a Bong Joon-ho picture is the recurring theme of class warfare. I’m bringing up Snowpiercer a lot in this review, and there’s a reason for that, beyond the fact that I love it. Snowpiercer isn’t just a movie about a train endlessly circling a desolate, frozen earth; it’s a movie about the way the train divides its passengers into different cars based on their wealth and social status, and the eventual armed revolution by the have-nots against the haves. 

Parasite isn’t as fantastical as Snowpiercer, or even Okja, but it absolutely deals with the same themes. Weirdly, Parasite serves as a kind of spiritual relative to Jordan Peele’s Us from earlier this year. They’re both comedy-drama-horror hybrids that start out as one thing, before slowly transitioning into a parable about the lengths the disenfranchised will go, not only to survive, but to get back what they think they’re owed. There’s something almost supernatural about the way the family systematically attaches themselves to the rich family; watching them at work, they almost could be seen as the tethered. 

It works, though, for two main reasons. The first, it’s never moralistic, or heavy-handed. The themes are right there, but you do have to work for them. The social satire of the movie mostly comes up through contrast; for instance, when there’s a downpour about midway through the movie, the poor family (I refer to them as such because we never get any last names) has to worry about their little hovel flooding. The rich family, by contrast, spend the whole day post-flood commenting on how lovely their wet grass looks, which irritates the poor family to no end. 

The second reason is much simpler; it’s just wildly entertaining. There are sequences so brilliantly put together, the audience I saw this with was simultaneously screaming and in stitches. This is a prime example of a film that deals with heady subjects dead on, while still maintaining a high entertainment value.

Harriet Tubman gets an origin story worthy of a superhero, but not a real person


Though the pendulum has been swinging for some time now, historical biopics about black women are rare. It must be said, though, that this one’s been coming for a while now. The story of Harriet Tubman – probably the most legendary “conductor” on the Underground railroad – is one that practically screams out for the silver screen treatment. A woman born into slavery, Tubman – born Araminta “Minty” Ross – managed to escape her bondage, traveling over a hundred miles to Philidelphia, and then more or less immediately turned right around, heading back into enemy territory to liberate as many slaves as possible.

I’ll say this; if you’re planning on seeing Harriet just to escape the recent deluge of comic book adaptations, save your money. Harriet goes out of its way to take this extraordinary, real-life hero, and strip her of every possible human frailty, until eventually turning her into a literal superhero. 

The first scene of the film begins this two-hour long lionization of Tubman. We see her as a young woman, still enslaved, in the throes of one of her “spells,” a kind of trance-like state she frequently enters throughout the movie, one which apparently allows her to see memories from the past and visions of the future. Tubman, a deeply religious woman, is convinced that the spells are caused by divine intervention, and for all intents and purposes the film agrees with her. What else are we to make of the scene where, when escaping through the woods with most of her family in tow, she enters a trance, and then somehow intuits that the path they’re on will lead them into a trap?

The film continues in this fashion, never passing up an opportunity to raise Tubman up on the highest of pedestals. The obvious question here is, so what? What’s the problem? If ever there was a historical figure that deserves lionization in the extreme, shouldn’t it be Harriet Tubman? 

My issues with Harriet aren’t so much that it plays up the heroic nature of her actions – a seemingly impossible task that the film somehow accomplishes anyway – but more that it systematically removes every single source of hardship from her life. Tubman never seems to encounter any real hardship, or at least any kind of hardship that poses any kind of an obstacle for her. The film pays lip service to the horrors of slavery, familial abandonment, and the perils of long travel, without immersing us in either. As such, it took what is to my mind a truly breathtaking real-life experience, and made it honestly pretty boring. Why should I care what happens to this woman when she’s never presented as being in any danger at any point in time?

This is a very poorly paced film. It’s just over two hours long, but it still feels improbably rushed, almost like it’s missing several reels. The editor, Wyatt Smiths, pieces Harriet together in a way that seems to actively thwart investment; we’re never in any one location for long enough to get invested, either in the place or the characters that occupy it. As such, the world of Harriet never comes to life in a satisfying way. I’ll say this; it never feels like a set, at least in terms of its visuals. Cinematographer John Toll has a knack for these kinds of sweeping visuals, having previously shot The Last Samurai and The Thin Red Line. The scene in which Harriet literally jumps over the Maryland state line to freedom, the sun shining down on her in a Heavenly aura, is appropriately awe-inspiring.

But while the thing looks grand, it never feels grand. All the pretty visuals in the world don’t mean jack if you’re not able to shoot them in an appropriately epic way. And it must be said that Harriet is directed in a way that feels unfortunately flat and uninspired. Cynthia Erivo is giving a good performance here, one that might have been a great performance if the film had just let it breathe a little before rushing off to the next thing.

That’s honestly my big takeaway from this film; a wealth of potential, wasted by the film’s insistence on being as crushingly conventional as possible. There’s a great life story here, one that absolutely deserves to be told on the big screen. But when you saddle the film with an uninspired script, a blandly repetitive score, and an almost pathological aversion to any actual tension, you end up wasting that potential.

Doctor Sleep damn near put me to sleep


It’s almost hard to believe that The Shining was only Stephen King’s third book. He wrote it in the throes of alcoholism, in part as a way to purge his darkest demons. A horror story about an alcoholic writer who is trapped with his family in a snowed-in hotel, and slowly overtaken by the malicious forces within its halls, King has described the novel as a “confession” of sorts, a way to come to terms with the real anger he occasionally felt towards his children. You can imagine his frustration, then, when Stanley Kubrick chose to jettison most of the alcoholic undertones – as well as damn near all the relatability of the alcoholic writer – in favor of making a more general parable about abuse.

King fucking HATES the Kubrick Shining, to an almost legendary extent. He’s made clear that he resents the fact that Kubrick took the main character, Jack Torrance – a twisted self-insert if ever there was one – and turned him from a flawed, but ultimately well-meaning family man into a psychotic murderer who seems perfectly willing and able to kill his whole family without any ghostly influence. Famously, he went so far as to commission an entire made-for-TV miniseries, just so that he could get the “true” version of his story onto a screen. This wasn’t enough, though, and in 2013 he wrote a whole-ass sequel to his book, one which went out of its way to ignore all the changes Kubrick made to the story in favor of following up on the book’s story threads.

I read Doctor Sleep pretty soon after it came out. It’s…not great, and I say this as a fan. King’s prose is evocative as always, and there are moments of real power here and there (the segment at the beginning where we see grown-up Danny Torrance hitting rock-bottom is powerful for how personal it is). But the thing is dramatically structureless, a victim of King’s late-career inability to plan his stories out properly. Sometimes, this never-plan-ahead strategy results in free-flowing brilliance. This was not one of those times. Doctor Sleep was a book full of things that just kind of happened, one after the other, until the end, at which point instead of climaxing they just sort of petered out. 

So I was dubious about the efficacy of a film adaptation of the novel, even before director Mike Flannigan revealed that he would be marrying his vision to Kubrick’s; in effect, that he’d be making a sequel to the book AND the film of The Shining. This was a dubious prospect at best, considering how many differences exist between the two. Even putting aside the more fundamental issue of Jack Torrance, there are a number of surface-level plot discrepancies that differentiate the adaptations; the book has hedge animals that come to life and try to kill you, the movie has a massive hedge maze. Kindly old cook Dick Halloran dies in the film adaptation, whereas he makes it in the book. And – and this is a pretty big one – the Overlook Hotel completely burns down in the climax of the novel, whereas the end of the movie sees it standing tall.

The fact is, The Shining is not the type of film you make a sequel to. It’s completely self-contained, as closed off from the outside world as the poor, doomed Torrance family. As directed by Kubrick, it’s a largely plot-free nightmare of a film, concerned mainly with the frighteningly unique experience and atmosphere of the thing. Doctor Sleep takes the bare-bones iconography of the film – the twins, the tricycle, the elevator of blood – and staples it onto a plot. The results are about what you’d expect.

What is the plot? Well, I’m sorry you asked. So, there’s this group of Shining Vampires, see? They call themselves the True Knot, and they have the ability to sense if someone has the Shining within them or not. So what they do is, they kidnap that person, eat them, and suck the Shining out of them while moaning orgastically with glowing eyes. It is, somehow, even more ridiculous than I just made it sound. The True Knot were pathetic villains in the book, and they’ve somehow been made even more cartoonish here.

See, as I always saw it, the Shining was kind of an allegorical thing. The beauty of the Kubrick movie was that it existed between the precipice of madness and supernatural; you were never sure of where you were, or what was really happening. It operated on pure nightmare logic. Here, not only is the Shining a tangible thing, but it’s represented via CGI smoke that comes out of people’s mouths. I’m serious. 

It’s not just that this film doesn’t capture the elusive, intangible fear of the film, or the more overtly allegorical and emotional – but no less effective – fear of the book. Doctor Sleep doesn’t capture any fear, ever. This isn’t a scary movie. The one time it comes close is this extended, gratuitious murder scene involving a small child. It goes on for too long, and feels genuinely exploitative. The fact is, the Kubrick film was too classy to sink to this. 

Even in its attempts to be a more conventional film, I thought it failed. I’ve already mentioned that the True Knot are a gaggle of absolute laughingstocks, but Abra Stone doesn’t fare much better. I remember liking this character back when I read the book; being able to see a character’s internal dialogue really does wonders for making them interesting. Here, she’s a nothing of a character, the latest in a long, long, long line of stock “kid with psychic powers” that King loves to write. Maybe Kyliegh Curran has it in her to be a great actress – in fairness to her, no one other than Ewan McGreggor really fares well in this – but as it stands, there are a ton of scenes where her character could be replaced by a cardboard cutout for all the difference it would make.

What sucks especially is that there are a handful of moments that hint at a really good idea at the heart of this film. Like I said, McGreggor is great in this; it’s through his acting that we come the closest to understanding what it would actually be like to live in the aftermath of a very specific trauma. And while so much of this film’s finale consists of, “Hey, remember this?” there is one scene – a conversation at a bar – that raises a number of fascinating possibilities. But it’s not enough. As a film that tries to exist at the intersection between two versions of The Shining, Doctor Sleep ends up honoring neither.

In spite of its title, Tel Aviv on Fire is as un-incendiary as they come


Considering how potentially incendiary the title of Tel Aviv on Fire is, I was surprised at how slight, well-intentioned, and wholesomely funny this movie turned out to be. The film’s plot directly grapples with heavy topics – the Israel/Palestine conflict being front and center – but in terms of actual execution, the whole thing comes off more like a breezy comedy of errors.

Kais Nashif stars as Salam, a thirty-year-old, slightly meek Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem, but has to cross the border each morning to get to his job. He works on a Ramallah-produced soap opera called “Tel Aviv on Fire,” a melodramatic romance about a Palestinian spy who seduces an Israeli general in service of her people’s cause. Salam serves as the show’s Hebrew consultant. One day, when passing through the checkpoint, he asks one of the officers about whether or not one of the phrases in the script is actually accurate, and is promptly dragged in front of the Israeli commander, Assi, on suspicion of being a spy. Salam quickly manages to prove he’s actually in the entertainment business, and to boost is cred, he plays himself up as the main screenwriter. Unfortunately, this backfires, as the commander’s actually seen the show (his wife is an enormous fan), and…he’s got notes.

A premise like that evokes Munich and Misery in equal measure. Yet Tel Aviv on Fire commits to its silly, good-natured take on what could’ve been a serious morality play. There are no bad guys in the movie, not really; Assi abuses his power, but he does so in order to become Salam’s writing partner so he can do something nice for his wife. Meanwhile, Salam’s new ideas for the show (as provided by the commander) get him promoted to a top screenwriting position, which puts him in a tricky spot; Assi wants the show to end with a wedding, whereas the Palestinian backers want the show to end with an assassination. On top of all that, the show’s two leads have egos that need to be assuaged, Salam wants to springboard his newfound success into a chance with Mariam, a girl he likes, and as it turns out, writing scripts is hard.

That’s a lot of stuff, and I’d be lying if I said Tel Aviv on Fire balanced it all. There’s frequently several subplots happening at once, and while it is praiseworthy how the film balances its Israeli/Palestine material, it must be said that it’s less successful at balancing much else. Mariam keeps disappearing from the movie, for one thing, and a late-movie plot complication – the lead actress of “Tel Aviv on Fire” seeming to develop feelings for Salam, and then attempting to throw a wrench into his relationship with Mariam – comes up in one scene, and then has no bearing on the rest of the film. The conflict with the show’s unseen backers similarly goes nowhere particularly interesting.

Still, what it lacks in narrative grace, it gains in a winning heart and a genuine sense of authenticity to its subject. This is a movie with a refreshingly warm heart, one which manages the great feat of being sincere without ever resorting to sappiness. In a world where it’s all too easy to get caught up in an “Everything’s getting worse!” mindset, here’s a movie that offers some actual, honest-to-goodness hope. That it does so with a healthy dose of satirical humor doesn’t hurt.


Avengers: Endgame Review


Avengers: Endgame is a wild, ungainly, imperfect mess of a movie. It’s a film that, in all likelihood, will be picked apart in the days and weeks to come. It’s way too long, for one thing, and there are certain plot points that are rushed and characters that are shafted and mistakes that were made.

But I don’t care, because I loved that beautiful mess. It made me feel. It made me gasp. It made me cry. It made me laugh, out loud, and often, and at full volume. It set out to do something, and by God, it actually mostly managed to accomplish just that. More than that, though, Avengers: Endgame was something I kind of wasn’t expecting: an ENDING. This is a movie that actually earns its title by clearly and definitively closing the chapter on a number of things that we’ve been watching for 11 years.

Actually, let’s start there, because that’s kind of this film’s greatest strength and its most glaring weakness. Because instead of spending its entire runtime teasing the future (as a few of these movies have been guilty of), the film spends most of its time celebrating the past. This is understandable, and at times, joyous (not to reveal anything, but the way this film uses older footage is downright inspired on a Forrest Gumpian level). However, it does mean that the film never truly eeks out its own identity, and at times can feel like a 3 hour exercise in, “Hey, remember this thing?” Now don’t get me wrong; it WORKS. I was having an absolute blast sitting there and going, “Why yes, I DO remember that thing!” And saying it could’ve or should’ve been more than what it is feels…ungrateful, somehow. But it could’ve/should’ve? Maybe?

I don’t know. But, for whatever else, this is it, and they DID it. There are callbacks ahoy, and almost every character who’s ever been in any of these damn movies pops up at one point or another (and I really do mean almost everyone; it has to be at least double the cast of Infinity War, which itself was stuffed to the brim), but miraculously enough, the film finds that balance that Thanos was so desperate for. Everyone feels like they get their moment to shine. More than that, the film frequently lets itself slow down, something Infinity War occasionally struggled with. There are quiet, contemplative scenes in this film, real character driven moments that have genuine heart to them. I can honestly say that certain things choked me up.

And the film is so damn fun. The quips are at their best: mostly non-distracting and hella funny. The situations are inventive and unpredictable, mostly. The visuals are frequently stunning (PLEAAAASE do not ruin this film by seeing it in 3D. It’s dark enough already, and 3D is generally awful. Trust me, the spectacle doesn’t need it). Not since Return of the King have we had a 3 hour film this shockingly economical. It’s genuinely tough to imagine when a good time for a bathroom break would be.

It’s been 11 years. 22 movies, the worst of which was “meh.” We are at the end of one of the grandest cinematic experiments of all time, the success of which has yet to be matched (weirdly, the only “cinematic universe” that’s come close is the Conjuring-verse, and even that’s pretty hit-or-miss). Maybe I’ll sour on this film, though I hope I don’t. Because right now, I’m very happy with where we are.

We’ll be back in the MCU soon enough. But for now, we can rest. It’s over. And it worked. I can’t believe it worked.

Captain Marvel Review


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I’m still in awe of what Marvel has managed to do over the last decade. When I was little, I used to ask my parents what it was like watching Star Wars for the first time, living through that historic moment in film. And now, I can say I’m living through something like that; a point after which everything will be different. This level of interconnected storytelling, while commonplace in comic books, is still an extraordinary novelty in movies. It shouldn’t have worked. That it did is a miracle.

Still, they can’t all be winners. Every once in a while, you’re going to slip up. Even so, I was very excited for Captain Marvel for a number of reasons. Marvel had gotten Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the team behind the wonderful Half Nelson and Sugar, to helm the project. They’d gotten an all-star cast, led by Oscar-winner Brie Larson. Old favorites Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg were returning! There was gonna be a war between two interstellar races from the comics! Shape shifting aliens! It was gonna be set in the 90s! What could go wrong?

Already, there are articles appearing comparing this film to its closest apparent DCEU counterpart, Wonder Woman. It’s a cheap and easy comparison to make (take the two recent female-led superhero movies and pit them against each other!), but a quick point that I think highlights my issues with Captain Marvel is this: Wonder Woman was a focused movie. It knew exactly what it wanted to say narratively and it did so. It used its period-piece trappings to make a broader, empathetic point about gender struggles both then and now. But, above all else, the main character was extraordinary: a complex, multi-dimensional person who was an absolute joy to spend time with for two hours. I believed in Wonder Woman because I believed in Wonder Woman.

Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is all over the fucking place. It’s a space opera-turned 90s throwback movie-turned buddy cop romp-turned immigrant parable-turned CGI slugfest. To be clear, there are good movies that have incorporated all of these elements before. This is not one of them. There’s no clear narrative through line whatsoever. These scenes never cohese into a whole, and as such, it feels like they’re actively working against each other.

Part of this is the almost overwhelming lack of visual style. Remember how in Thor: Ragnarok, or the Captain America movies, or the first two Avengers, or Black Panther, you could just tell instantly who was directing the films? That immediate, clear authorial voice? That is completely absent here, and it’s a damn shame. One of Marvel’s most admirable qualities is their willingness to hire indie directors and let them do their thing. Ragnarok’s Taika Waititi is the obvious example, but even Avengers’ Joss Whedon, in spite of him creating three of the greatest television shows ever made (also Dollhouse), had only helmed one feature film before Avengers — the good-but-unprofitable Serenity. Like I said, Half Nelson was wonderful, but it was very low-budget. It’s useless to speculate, but it feels like Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were chewed up and spat out by the “Marvel machine”; for how blandly competent it was, I was half convinced they’d ditched Boden and Fleck about halfway through and brought in the guy who made Thor: The Dark World. This is a product made by an assembly line. In that way, it more closely resembles the directorless, hacked-to-pieces disaster Justice League, and I truly can think of no worse insult.

And so we come to Brie Larson. Now, Larson is an incredible actress. I feel like this is a given. While the Academy Awards have a very well-deserved reputation for being wrong on an alarmingly consistent basis (hi, Crash, Green Book, etc.), Larson’s Oscar for Room was one of those rare instances where the Academy got it absolutely right, both for the actress and the role. She brought a level of nuance and passion to that film that blew me (and seemingly everyone else) away. But there’s just something wrong here. She feels disconnected from everything, like the movie’s happening around her and she’s just observing it. Captain Marvel is a multi-layered character, but it really felt like Larson got stuck on the “stoic, dispassionate soldier” layer and no one knew what to do about it.

Also, the action scenes just generally suck. Part of this is again Larson, who never really seems to be in any danger. Even the early fight where her powers are greatly restrained, she plows through henchmen with about as much ease as ever, and always with that one stoic facial expression. But mostly, it’s the camera work, and the return of the dreaded shaky-cam quick-cut combo. There’s a chase scene, where Nick Fury and Phil Coulson are trying to catch up to a moving train on which Captain Marvel is dueling a Kree, and it plays like The French Connection but shitty. The chase takes place in broad daylight, but it’s practically impossible to tell where anyone or anything is in relation to each other.

Speaking of fights, there’s one where Captain Marvel has to go up against her former comrades in arms. These people, we’re meant to understand, have been fighting alongside each other for six years, having each other’s backs, looking out for the other. A unit. And now they have to battle for the fate of their civilizations. This should be some grand, Shakespearean shit, but it’s all just brushed aside for an empty, dispassionate, poorly choreographed fight set to a really bad tune.

This isn’t a completely bad movie. There’s the occasional moment of real charm, the most obvious being Stan Lee’s very sweet cameo. Talking of Nick Fury and Phil Coulson, the de-aging special effects are genuinely awe-inspiring. Sam Jackson looks exactly like he did in The Negotiator, and after about a minute I forgot I was looking at a special effect. Jackson and Larson have good interplay, as they do with Ben Mendelsohn’s character. His Telos felt very well fleshed out, and he gets some of the best lines. And the cat was cute.

But at the end of the day, the film is a disappointment. The lack of worldbuilding cripples any sense of reality the other planets might’ve had, the overall message is confused and unclear, and there’s a real sense that the main character just isn’t interested in anything happening around her. I don’t know if it’s an actor thing or a director thing, but somewhere something went wrong. I’m still excited for Endgame — of course I am — but this could’ve been so much more.


Us review


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If there were any lingering doubts as to Jordan Peele’s skill behind the camera, the opening minutes to Us puts them firmly to bed. Set in 1986 Santa Cruz, we follow a young girl on vacation with her parents, wandering through a an amusement park-illuminated boardwalk. Said girl is separated from her parents, whereupon she wanders into a hall of mirrors, where she finds…let’s call her a bad reflection. As you may have seen in the trailer, she grows up, marries, has two children, and goes back to that same beach, where they are all menaced by a whole family of bad reflections.

But back to the carnival; that first sequence is masterful. The movement of the camera both accentuates the size and unfamiliarity of the girl’s surroundings, and pushes in, giving the place a tight, almost claustrophobic feel. The sound design is perfect, expertly capturing the disorienting nature of all amusement parks everywhere. We are right there with the girl, being pulled into that awful funhouse of mirrors, and like her, we don’t like what we see. But we can’t turn away.

For his sophomore feature, Jordan Peele creeps along, the film at times seeming to move at a deliberate snail’s pace, forcing us to wait for the fireworks factory. Whereas Get Out was a perfect slow-burn thriller (its screenplay win at the Oscars was very well deserved), Us occasionally feels scattershot, jumping around in fits and starts all while displaying a mastery of the craft. While the pacing isn’t always up to snuff, the individual scenes are never less than wonderful; anyone who saw the masterful 2015 psychological horror The Gift will remember how that film expertly took advantage of both the foreground and background, using little details to mine extra tension. Us does this brilliantly as well, crafting scenes with such skill that you’d swear he’s been making films forever.

Us is way more of a horror film that Get Out, which was itself more of a thriller (though genres are, obviously, stupid and reductive). Us is also probably less of a social commentary than Get Out, at least in terms of having a clear, easily-digestible message. I feel like I need to see it a second time in order to parse out what it all means. Also, I really, really want to see it a second time just anyways. This is a film made with such a passion for horror, someone with a deep love for the genre.

If Us isn’t quite as clear and groundbreaking as Get Out, it’s always entertaining in the moment. I’m very curious to see what others think the film “means”; I’ll confess that it’s not quite as clear to me as Get Out was, the meaning of which hit me like a punch in the gut. Here, it could be any number of things things, and it occurs to me that it might actually be more vague on purpose; while the film certainly offers up a couple of potential underlying themes (the title itself might be a big clue), I imagine that this is something that will be argued about and debated indefinitely. That’s not a bad thing.

As much as the directing stands out, this is definitely an actor’s movie. Lupita Nyong’o won the Oscar for 12 Years a Slave and provided the moral compass for Black Panther (lowkey, she’s the smartest person in that movie), and I was hyped beyond belief to see her tear up a horror flick. She does not disappoint. So good is she, in fact, that I feel comfortable in predicting that the Oscars will completely ignore her (it happened to Toni Collette, probably the best all-around performance in a movie last year). Winston Duke, her Black Panther co-star, captivates the screen with his charisma, creating the kind of dad I feel like we’ve all met. His comic timing is perfectly delivered and deployed. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex play their children, and they are both wonderful; one of the best scenes in the entire film has the four of them arguing at a dinner table, and through the dialogue and direction we are shown glimpses into their minds, their insecurities, their strengths.

There is some unforgettable imagery in this movie. As can be expected in a story about doppelgängers, the idea of doubles and mirrors is quite prevalent. Near the beginning of the film, we see a doomsday prophet with a cardboard sign with a quote from Jeremiah 11:11, Later, our attention is drawn to a digital clock where the time is 11:11. Soon after, the dad watches sports on TV, where the score is 11 to 11. When the Wilsons go to the beach, they meet up with another family, and it’s interesting to see them as even more of a broken mirror image than the doppelgängers. And I’ll just say this: there was a “Hands Across America” flyer in my old kindergarten classroom, the one where everyone’s holding hands and circling the globe. I will NEVER look at that the same way again.

I can definitely see being underwhelmed by Us. It’s an imperfect, confounding, at times frustrating film to get a handle on. But I really got into it, appreciating the crazy wavelength it operated on, as well as how Jordan Peele was taking deliberate steps to expand from his previous film. Whatever else, it’s a film I’ll be puzzling over for a long time coming.

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