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The Failure of The Last Jedi.

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The Failure of The Last Jedi.

Here be spoilers.


Ever since the prequels wound up being at least a little bit inept, large swatches of Star Wars fandom have delighted in acting like they know more about the franchise than the people actually writing the stories within it. George Lucas might have thought that it was a cool idea to start his trilogy about the emotional downfall of one of the most iconic representations of evil and villainy in all of storytelling with a film centered around a complicated trade dispute, but the guy isn't a complete idiot. He was fully aware that he was telling the story of the Jedi failure, but fans can have a tendency to talk about this as though Lucas didn't realize exactly what he was doing. Again — Lucas might have misfired on a lot of ideas when it comes to the prequels, but the subtext of the Jedi Order's role in the birth of Darth Vader wasn't one of them.

Now that Star Wars has been soft-rebooted, so to speak, it's open to a new narrative paradigm that wasn't really possible before. Open for the first time to storytellers with a bit of distance from its initial conception and execution, the Star Wars franchise finds itself with some unprecedented potential for meta-commentary. Neither the prequels nor the original trilogy were capable of commenting on the legacy they were actively becoming part of, but a 30-year remove puts this new generation of storytellers in a very unique position: Star Wars stories can now be told in a way that thematically and sub-textually comments not only on the very franchise they are a part of, but on the extended legacy of that franchise, its cultural impacts, the nature of its relationship with its fans, and so on. For the first time, Star Wars movies can be about the cultural institution that is Star Wars movies.

Now I'm as staunch an Abrams apologist as they come, but at this point it's more or less apparent that JJ isn't interested in taking any real risks with this new potential. His is a deep love of homage, and thinking back to a story about his on-set mantra being "Is it delightful?" during the production of The Force Awakens points to a clear difference in his storytelling goals when compared with Rian Johnson's work on The Last Jedi. If Abrams' aim is to delight, Johnson's is to pick apart all that shit that you've been delighted by for the last thirty-some-odd years, thematically shoulder his way right past all your easy nostalgia buttons, and demand that you ask yourself why you were so delighted by all of it in the first place.

And all The Last Jedi needed to be was a rip-roaring Star Wars flick. Delightful would have been enough! Hell, it was fine for Force Awakens and Rogue One, so why not this one? It just wasn't enough for Rian Johnson. He seems to have set his goals a little higher, and his resultant work has elevated the franchise to heights it hasn't reached since Empire Strikes Back. Through a series of storytelling choices that elicit a deep understanding of the Star Wars franchise as well as its fandom's complex relationship with it, The Last Jedi doesn't just accomplish things that Star Wars had never done before, it accomplishes things that weren't even possible for Star Wars to do before in the first place.

 

The Jedi Failure

The Last Jedi made it no secret that Luke Skywalker has grown sick and tired of everyone's favorite order of magical laser-sword space-knights. Hell, they put it right there in the trailer. Luke is not down with the Jedi anymore, and he wants them to be donezo. Then, at a certain point, Luke explains to Rey that despite all the myth-making and galactic hero-worship, "The legacy of Jedi is failure...hypocrisy, hubris." He even goes so far as to point out that the Jedi basically let Palpatine rise to power when they were at their strongest. All things that any Star Wars fans will recognize as having come out of the mouths of people who think they understand Star Wars better than Lucas does.

To a degree, this is understandable: While the Jedi failure was clearly and intentionally played out in the action of the prequel films, its interpretation is more or less implicit, and has never — for lack of a better term — been "made canon" in a diegetic sense. Fans have been quick to assume that, since the Jedi have been treated with reverence by most all characters within the Star Wars universe itself, their failure was not rooted in Lucas' authorial intent. Thing is, most Star Wars stories don't center on characters who have actually been through all of the core films thus far. Given The Last Jedi's temporal setting, this makes Old Luke one of the only characters in the Star Wars universe who can actually offer up an authoritative analysis on the events of both the prequels and the original trilogy.

That analysis? To sharply rebuke the Galactic Good Guys for having been a failure and condemn them for having been driven by hubris and hypocrisy, essentially calling for an end to their existence.

Damn, Rian.

But by brilliantly deciding to make failure the thematic throughline of The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson canonizes the Jedi failure as being recognized thusly in the most poignant way possible, elevating it to a vital teaching role within the hero's journey. At the same time, the Jedi are humanized. De-deified. The Last Jedi shows us that the Jedi have always had their hearts in the right place, even though they sometimes fuck up the execution. At the end of the day, they were fallible. They had to learn from their mistakes and miscalculations, just like us regular, non-magic folk. Even Luke comes to learn that his criticisms don't need to be quite as sharp as they had been, because the Jedi were never supposed to be regarded as infallible gods in the first place. They were capable of misjudgment just like anyone else, and their true power lied in their ability to learn from these failures and integrate them into their journeys. So sayeth Yoda, in one of the film's most thematically important moments. The Jedi weren't perfect Chosen People...they were People.
 

The Rey of it all

And so it turns out that the Skywalker Saga isn't just about the Skywalkers. Up to now, it's been easy enough to interpret the core Star Wars saga as being about a single family around which the fate of the struggle between good and evil within the galaxy seems to hang. In The Last Jedi, however, Rian Johnson thumbs his nose directly at this idea, tossing all that destiny, chosen one nonsense right over his shoulder (remind you of anyone?).

Think about how intentional this decision must have been. There's no way Johnson wasn't acutely aware of the conversation surrounding Rey's origins; remember that this is one of the first Star Wars films produced in a way that actually allows for reflexive commentary. This type of storytelling wasn't even possible until now, and the reveal that Rey comes from outside the Skywalker lineage has implications that ripple back to the very DNA of the original trilogy itself.

The Last Jedi firmly and confidently asserts that Rey doesn't have to be the progeny of someone previously-established as being "special" in order to play a vital role in the struggle for good and evil. Rey isn't a hero because she was born a hero, she's a hero because she decided to use her gifts and abilities to actively become one. She doesn't have to be the secret spawn of some major player on the galactic stage the way Luke was. It's enough that she's someone who has the ability to make a difference, and is determined to do so in a positive way.

As such, Rey's call to adventure is entirely her own. It doesn't come attached to the legacy of some important dude who came before her; it's borne out of her own agency, and of her decision to use her gifts for good.
 

The Hero's Journey

Above all else, Rian Johnson remembered that Star Wars is a telling of the Hero's Journey. Lucas was famously fascinated with Campbell's contributions to the field of comparative mythology, and it's no secret that The Hero with a Thousand Faces informed a lot of the Star Wars blueprint. The Last Jedi has no shortage of heroes that emerge over the course of its movie-and-a-half runtime, but what's incredible about Johnson's screenplay is how much thematic depth emerges from a film that allows itself the time to comment on how those journeys actually start.

In its retroactive illumination of how Rey's hero's journey started, The Last Jedi strengthens itself with a valuable thematic insight on the very nature of Campbell's monomyth (and something a lot of ancillary Star Wars material seems to have forgotten) — heroism is universal. It's for everyone. The Hero of a Thousand Faces is fundamentally about the universality of the hero's journey, and The Last Jedi makes this idea literal by depicting the Rebellion's contagious spark as it makes its way across the galaxy.

We are all our own heroes, each of us on our own journeys. Background doesn't matter. Luke and Rey both stared up at the sky towards the start of their respective journeys with the same wistful look on their faces, a gesture that speaks to a truly universal desire to have our complex, complicated lives pared down to something as elemental and simple as "good versus evil."

And all this thematic legwork is what makes the oft-derided Canto Bight sequence not just an absolutely indispensable part of The Last Jedi, but also one of the sequences that clarifies Rian Johnson's deep understanding of the Star Wars mythos.

First of all, consider the fact that the Canto Bight mission fails. Finn and Rose touch down with the goal of finding someone who can help the Rebellion, and they fail. They find someone who does help them, but it's not exactly the help that they wanted, and it's not exactly delivered in the way they expected. Just like Rey's mission to find Luke and bring him back, their Hail Mary play doesn't go exactly as planned, showing us that failure is always part of the journey. This sequence also zooms out on the Star Wars universe a bit, showing us a larger context for and the impact of the galactic conflict we've been following along all these years. It's not just the Rebels who suffer at the hands of the Empire: both sides are engaged in a massive, churning war machine, and the Canto Bight sequence offers a valuable look at those left in its wake.

Most importantly, though? This sequence sows the seeds for another hero's journey. Remember, Luke was a conflict bystander who once stood in a shitty place and looked up at the sky wishing he could be part of something bigger. The Last Jedi ends with a poignant shot (perhaps the most meaningfully significant frame in the entire franchise) that shows a slave boy, having recently been inspired by Rose and her Rebels, looking up at the sky and holding his broomstick so it looks like a lightsaber.

The spark spreads. Yet another hero's journey begins. And not because of special parents, but because someone helped. The Rebel Alliance has started the fire of yet another Hero's Journey somewhere in the galaxy...even though the Canto Bight mission was technically a failure. It's all part of the journey.

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The Shaggy Feminism of Wonder Woman.

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The Shaggy Feminism of Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman is an amazing thing. It's fantastic that this movie exists, and it took entirely too long to get a female-led superhero film to the big screen from a major studio. Hell, the movie almost made it to release date without having a sexism-fueled controversy nipping at its heals. At least we didn't have to deal with Ghostbuster levels of unnecessary blowback. And now, here we are: Wonder Woman is out, and we're free to talk about all the things it does and doesn't do, for better or for worse. And on the whole? Wonder Woman is an enjoyable superhero movie, with a buoyancy and and sincerity that has been sorely missing from the DC film universe since it started back in 2013.

No matter what, Gal Gadot leading a solo Wonder Woman film is a huge moment for women, especially those who have been yearning to see themselves reflected in a powerful, ass-kicking demigod for as long as they can remember. Nothing can take that away, and nothing should. At the same time, it's worth taking a deeper look at Wonder Woman's gender politics, just like it's worth taking a deeper look at the subtext of just about any movie. So what's going to follow is going to be the most objective interrogation of Wonder Woman that I can possibly muster. I'm going to take a look at the movie's gender politics, which necessarily means I'm going to be taking a look at the film's feminism. I'm doing this as a guy, and as a guy who doesn't claim to know shit. As such, I'm going try to avoid offering any kind of prescriptive evaluation, suggesting that the film should have done such-and-such instead of whatever it did or didn't do. Instead, I'm going to try my best to objectively evaluate the film's depiction of its lead character, and by extension its feminism based on a rubric provided by another film that I think successfully imbues its narrative with a strong feminist subtext.

Also worth noting? This necessarily means I'm taking a critical look specifically at the movie's script. And while Patty Jenkins directed the absolute hell out of Wonder Woman (seriously, its action sequences are some of the most thrilling I've seen since John Wick: Chapter 2), the script was written by men, and was based on a story developed by men. And the more we get into it, the more I think that it'll become apparent that this was a story that should have been told by a woman at the script stage, too. But we'll get there.

For the most part, we're going to be taking a look at Diana and her trajectory throughout the movie, paying close attention to the way she's portrayed, the way the men in the film around her are portrayed, and the way the movie uses both to comment on the way men and women relate to one another.

In the film's second act, Diana makes her way off the Amazon-inhabited island of Themyscira and follows Chris Pine's Steve Trevor to London. Prior to this, everything is pretty much peachy-keen for Diana. She's part of the Amazons, a clan of warrior women who basically hang out on a beautiful island and practice fucking shit up in a combat kind of way forever and ever. Beyond a few (correct) mentions that the world of mankind doesn't deserve someone like Diana, there isn't much to unpack in terms of gender politics throughout the film's first act. It's when Diana arrives in England and gets to interact with society at large that the film really gets the opportunity to make any moves in terms of gender politics, and it's unfortunately here where the film starts to drop the ball.

There's no question about it: Diana is fucking gnarly. To use a term from Christina Cauterucci's fantastic article at Slate, she's hypercompetent. And while her hypercompetency should be the source of the film's most feminist undertones, it's instead...played as a joke. Over and over, throughout the film. I don't know that this would have been a problem, had it happened once; the film's temporal and social setting all but demands it. Women weren't treated particularly well during World War I (not that they are now, but this is a work in progress), so it only makes sense that many of the men in the film would respond to Diana's lack of concern with traditional gender roles and extreme levels of capability with a measure of surprise. In fact, this is pretty much expected in social settings. Where the film truly missteps — and this was well-discussed in Cauterucci's article — is in its commitment to having Diana's abilities played as the punchline to a bad joke, over and over again.

Each time Diana does something badass in front of one of the film's male leads, we get some combination of cartoonish surprise and awkward arousal. It happens repeatedly, and what this winds up doing is giving us a film that tacitly agrees with its main characters' surprise at Diana's competency, which undercuts said competency in the first place. Why show us a powerful character only to have the other characters surrounding her express their repeated doubt at her abilities. Frustratingly, this continues right up until the third act, when someone has to point out to Steve Trevor that Diana just got done knocking down a fucking building by jumping into it.

Having each male character respond to Diana's ability with googly eyes and a line amounting to "HOO BOY CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS WOMAN CAN DO SHIT?" while they scramble to cover up an erection seriously undercuts the fact that Diana's as powerful as she is in the first place. And again — this is a script issue. It's as though Wonder Woman was afraid to simply present a woman who can fuck shit up left and right without a second thought...the script had to wink at its audience, going "You sure didn't expect that, did you?!" every time it happens.

Consider a film that takes the exact opposite approach: Mad Max: Fury Road. Furiosa's competency is never really remarked-upon; it simply exists as fact in the world of that movie. Max and Furiosa are very much on equal footing, and they work together because they need each other and neither is afraid to recognize this fact. When every male character reacts with surprise at the fact that Diana can do stuff, it serves to narratively undercut the fact that Diana can actually do stuff, as opposed to an example wherein male characters aren't repeatedly surprised at the competency of female characters. Instead of playing Diana's ability as understood and par for the course, Wonder Woman repeatedly calls attention to how unexpected it is. And again — depicting this reaction once might not have been an issue...but the film's repeated depiction of male characters confounded at Diana's power (perhaps inadvertently) suggests that the audience shares this reaction, and even identifies with it.

Now, when this issue is coupled with the film's other main issue, the root of these problems become clear: this script was written by men. I'm referring, of course, to the male gaze that incessantly follows Diana throughout the film. Her appearance is remarked-upon constantly, with one character even going so far as to state that he is both "afraid and aroused" after watching her ruffle some manfeathers in a bar. Male characters are repeatedly reduced to being able to comment about little other than how fetching they find Diana's physical appearance, which brings us to what might very well be the film's biggest problem: Wonder Woman reeks of things that men think women might find empowering.

Diana is constantly and repeatedly reminded, by just about every male character with which she comes into contact, that she is the most beautiful thing they have ever seen. She's objectified repeatedly throughout the film, even if it's meant in an almost reverent way (massive eye roll). On top of this, her competency repeatedly confounds the male characters who innately doubted her. Look at this goofy man who didn't think that Diana could actually be strong or capable! How hilarious is it that he was proven wrong! It's in these ways that a mostly-fantastic script falls into the trap of exploring female empowerment through a distinctively male lens.

Despite all this, there are moments of successful, inspiring, fist-in-the-air feminism throughout the film, not to mention the fact that the film's existence in the first place (and its opening weekend box office performance) are huge steps in the right direction. The No Man's Land sequence is brilliantly setup and sublimely executed; and several moments where Diana, Trevor, and their group of wartime cohorts work as a team absolutely cook onscreen. For the most part, Wonder Woman succeeds at what it sets out to do: provide a fun superhero with a lady in the lead, and it's fun as all hell, to boot.

Maybe just next time let's get some ladies in the writers' room to tell these stories, yeah?

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Wonder Woman: Weapon of Mass Correction.

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Wonder Woman: Weapon of Mass Correction.

Here be spoilers.

And then there was one! It'd be great if there were some easy way to talk about Wonder Woman without making any kind of comment about the DC films that have come before it, but to do so would be to ignore one of the things that makes Wonder Woman the delight that it mostly is: DC has finally gotten it right. The earnest vibes and positive attitude on display perhaps wouldn't land the way they do if they hadn't been so sorely missing from the DC film properties that have come before this one, and Wonder Woman is a blast. It's a mostly-good romp through the DC Universe circa World War I, with bright blue brushstrokes of Themyscira smartly contrasted against the smeared and greasy greys of London. Patty Jenkins is a director who knows exactly how to work with her color palette, filling the frame with full-color comic book hues during act one, yanking them out from under us in the film's middle portion, only smash them both together during the third act in a way that makes it clear the film intends retroactively inject a much-needed splash of color into the DC cinematic world at large.

Wonder Woman is a film that understands exactly what it needs to be, and it hits its mark ably. The DC universe — both in comics and in film — distinguishes itself from the shaggy humanity of its Marvel counterpart in a number of ways, concerning itself instead with gods, an idea literalized in this movie. There are no alcoholic businessmen to mine for flawed humanity here, and we've already been shown that the wrong interpretation of this type of storytelling leads to a bunch of unduly self-serious nonsense, missing a crucial sense of sincerity. Jenkins' Wonder Woman is tonally spot-on, managing to blend the tutelary import of Themyscira and its Amazons with a very human sense of levity that keeps things breezy and brisk, for the most part.

Strengths and weaknesses often go hand in hand, though, and this film's biggest example of both comes from the fact that it doesn't necessarily aspire to much more than that which it winds up being: an enjoyable superhero flick. Diana doesn't learn anything that significantly changes who she is over the course of the film. We are, of course, shown her journey to the realization that men are good and worthy of her protection, but this was something that she had been insisting from the get-go. Her actions only led her to the realization that she was right to ignore the warnings of her mother, whose overprotectiveness and doublespeak about Diana's "true nature" are completely undone when they're revealed in the film's relatively rote finale.

Wonder Woman's structure necessitates a comparatively dull second act in which Diana a fish out of water, all of which would have been an opportunity for some deft social commentary and smart thematic development in the hands of a more skilled screenwriter. What we get instead is a good stretch of "you can't do that here!" type hijinx throughout which every single male character scrambles to hide the awkward erections they sport any and every time Diana is onscreen with them. Unfortunately Wonder Woman is the kind of film that thinks feminism is best exemplified when by rendering an endless string of smugly doubting male characters googly-eyed and speechless by Diana's extreme competency, instead of perhaps taking a cue from Mad Max: Fury Road and doing its female character the of needing to overcome baked-in doubt and lowered expectations in the first place. Instead of showing us a world where Diana's abilities are understood by other characters and competently dramatized within the script, Wonder Woman clumsily makes moves like having Chris Pine's Steve Trevor continue to doubt Diana and her abilities/origin/mission despite having seen her literally level a clock tower with her bare hands. (Don't worry, he tells her he loves her by the film's end, after they've basically spent a long weekend together.)

Wonder Woman succeeds on an action level and is tonally enjoyable even if it's dragged down by a shaggy structure, inflated running time, and lack of any real thematic depth. David Thewlis is pretty grossly miscast as god of war Ares, and the final showdown involves a shit load of blue lightning and a CGI-armor clad Thewlis shouting things like "THEN I WILL DESTROY YOU!!!" when his evil offer to join forces and rule the universe as brother and sister is, of course, rejected. (Seriously, I'd really love to see the script for the final showdown.) These mistakes are far from serious enough to break the film, though they do pull a fair bit of the air from its sails.

When it comes down to it, Wonder Woman is a success. Gal Gadot acquits herself nicely, turning in a perfectly serviceable performance and looking every bit the part (don't worry, we're treated to an incessant string of reminders that Gal Gadot is an Attractive Human Being™ throughout the film) as she splits her time between not understanding the way Man's World™ works (silly woman!) and positively tearing their shit apart ("I'm both frightened and aroused."). Wonder Woman isn't half as smart as it should have been, but its kinetic action and buoyant positivity lift it well above the fantastically low bar it had to clear.

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Problems with the Ending of The Discovery.

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Problems with the Ending of The Discovery.

Here be spoilers.

Charlie McDowell's The Discovery presents itself as a film about the afterlife, but it's more specifically a film about regret. As I touched upon in my review, The Discovery follows three main characters, each of them consumed in some way by regret over a past action they can no longer go back and change, and each of them taking actions that are almost singularly motivated by a desire (and ultimate inability) to cope with that regret.

In the end, the film's events are revealed to have taken place within a memory loop, part of an afterlife that central character Will Harber has graduated to after living his normal life to its fullest and then dying. In a "memory," a version of love interest Isla explains to Will that he has been living within the same loop, and that his ability to finally save Isla from suicide — thereby correcting the regret that most centrally dominated his life — has broken that loop and enabled the both of them to move on. The Discovery posits that the afterlife is an alternate version of our real lives, with the key difference being that we're given the chance to make different choices and correct our most troubling regrets in our do-overs. As such, the film reveals that its events have been one iteration in a continuous loop of Will's afterlife, replaying itself until he's able to save Isla and truly correct his life's biggest regret.

Conceptually, this is an interesting idea, but The Discovery seems fundamentally unaware of the fact that this third-act reveal raises some huge implications that it fails to address in any way whatsoever. One of the most fundamental issues is what happens to people who die without having any serious, towering regrets?

Everybody in The Discovery is miserable as fuck, which is in line with the film's choice to be a meditation on regret. For the most part, it succeeds in this goal, but the script fails to specify what happens to people who don't have this kind of towering sadness in their lives. Not everybody lives with the kind of wracking guilt that the characters in The Discovery all feel, but the film seems to imply that all of humanity trudges along wishing they had done things differently. The implication that the afterlife is a chance to do things differently is mostly presented as a chance to correct mistakes — only the small detail of the dead man's changed tattoo suggests that we might simply want to also try on new clothes. But this detail is the only one of its kind, and is overshadowed by the work the film does to show us that everyone who goes to the afterlife experiences the chance to correct their life's biggest regret when they do so.

Either way, The Discovery takes place well after Will Harber has died. In the film's final moments, he learns that he's been living in a memory loop, starting back at his meeting with Isla every time he fails to keep her from committing suicide. When he is finally able to save her, he is able to move on. The only problem with this is that there are two huge implications here, neither of which are expanded upon. The first implication is that the afterlife repeats itself until you figure out how to actually go about correcting your biggest regret. Doesn't that kind of make it some sort of shitty, torturous puzzle, as opposed to an uplifting second chance that allows you to experience and know what it would be like to have lived a different life? According to The Discovery, when we die, we go to some kind of fucked up Groundhog Day where we relive the same set period of time until we can figure out how to correct our life's biggest regret.

The second implication is that the afterlife is a series of alternate lives, none of them terribly different from the previous one, stretching on into infinity. When Will finally figures out how to correct his biggest regret and leave his Groundhog Day loop, Isla tells him that he will now be able to move on. Immediately following this, it turns out that "moving on" just means going to another alternate version of David's real life, this time one in which he manages to keep Isla's kid from drowning and correct not only his life's biggest regret, but also hers (too bad she didn't get to be responsible for this, I guess). Glossing over the fact that the whole point of this was so that he could reunite with her and fall in love again, but she's got a kid so we're just to assume that she's a single mom...this implies that the afterlife consists of just a repeating set of alternate lives, none of which are ever markedly different from your original life.

If Will's original life involved Isla committing suicide, his first afterlife involves him figuring out how to keep her from committing suicide — the alternate version of his life that allows him to erase his biggest regret. Once he experiences this, he goes to another alternate life, in which he meets Isla under different circumstances and keeps her son from drowning. So are we to assume that he will just continue to hop into a series of alternate versions of his normal life, each with slightly different details, for all of eternity? No way to tell.

Finally, the biggest problem of all is that we have no idea why Will was finally able to move on. This is supposed to be the film's emotional climax: Isla tells him that this time he was able to save her. This time, he was able to connect with Isla in a way that kept her from killing herself, but the problem is that we're not told what Will learned, changed, or did differently in order to enact this change, so we don't understand what will needed to learn to move on. Because Will doesn't really learn anything. In fact, the film implies that Will has already learned what he needed to learn in order to move on, and this last iteration of his loop appears to be the one in which he's finally given the chance to actually apply his knowledge. For the viewer, though, it's hugely unsatisfying to be told this without also learning what it was that Will was doing differently before that wouldn't let him save Isla. That's something I'd like to discover.

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The Discovery: Gray Matters.

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The Discovery: Gray Matters.

Regret is a powerful drug. It can push people to do fantastic or terrible things in seeming equal measure, and the opportunity to correct or even erase the things that led us to those regrets in the first place can send us down some dangerous paths. In Charlie McDowell's The Discovery, each of the three leads are driven almost purely by regret, all of them desperately searching for a way to easily pave over that one moment, which is something we all have. We're all familiar with that one confounding instance where a single different choice or action or direction or word would have resulted in something other than the symphony of pain that came afterwards, and our powerlessness to go back and make such a small adjustment can start as a psychic ingrown hair that grows into an infected boil.

The Discovery follows Jason Segel's Will Harber as he arrives at a Rhode Island estate where he hopes to convince his father (Robert Redford) to stop his scientific work, which has led to a discovery that more or less confirms existence of an afterlife, and whose implications have led to a staggering increase in the number of suicides the world over. Wracked with guilt over the deaths caused by work he helped his father start, Will arrives at his father's mansion — often photographed through gnarled tree branches or shown obscured by fog — and is immediately disturbed to see that Redford's Dr. Thomas Harber has staffed his grounds with colored-jumpsuit-wearing acolytes, all of whom seem to have been brought in after failed suicide attempts. Tagging along is Rooney Mara's Isla, whom Will met on the ferry to the island before intervening in her attempted suicide. Concerned, he brings her along to Thomas' estate, and as the two bond, they learn that Thomas has furthered his work. It turns out that his initially-revelatory Discovery has been supplemented with a new development that threatens to shake the very foundation of reality, as it's presently understood.

The Discovery explores life bound by regret, and the cyclical behavioral patterns that emerge when it fully takes hold. Thomas is almost singularly motivated by the regret he feels over destroying his family with his work, so he's constructed a new one based solely around his work.  The control he exhibits over the members of his community is decidedly cult-like, colored jumpsuits and strict rules representing the stranglehold Thomas has developed over his "family" members in the wake of his biological family's destruction at his own hand. He exerts that control by way of psychological manipulation, including a questionnaire that echoes — if a bit hollowly — the incredible auditing sequence from Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Thomas' tragic drive has ripped his family apart, destroyed his personal life, cracked his son's very existence, and rippled outwards to potentially destroy the lives of millions.

To say that Thomas is consumed by regret is an understatement: even though the script makes it clear in the opening scene that he lives in total denial, McDowell's direction constantly reminds us of the inescapability that Thomas' discovery represents by allowing technology to frequently creep into the frame, especially when it shouldn't. Wires and diodes and monitors and machine parts are a constant presence in The Discovery, their cold and metallic properties reinforced by the film's muted palette. Thick, oppressive grays are combined with swirling seafoam greens and blues, the resultant effect lending the film a dreamlike sense of fluidity.

Segel has acquitted himself fairly well in dramatic fare in the past, but his performance here relies too much on the same look of consternation. When Rooney Mara's Isla asks Segel's Will if he ever "leaves [his] own head, even for a second," I couldn't help but scoff a little bit in agreement. Will's downerism is understandable, but his chemistry and connection with Isla is not. His saving her occurs after their initial meeting, but seems motivated by little other than an altruistic regard for all human life. Conversely, Isla overtly resents being saved, nevertheless developing a romantic connection with Will for no apparent reason. She's a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl archetype (think Kate Winlset from Eternal Sunshine by way of...no, nevermind, just think of Kate Winslet from Eternal Sunshine) and he's a total Eeyore; his attraction to her seems to extend only as far as his stated observation of her physical attractiveness, and hers seems to stem from little more than some sort of sense of debt.

McDowell's direction is more than competent, and the photography by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen captures Rhode Island's oppressive fog banks and imposing seascapes, letting them hover over the film and its characters like Thomas Harber's past deeds. It's in his script, though, (co-authored with The One I Love writer Justin Lader), that the film's weakness lies. Will's true motivation is never effectively made clear, and when the film finally plays its last card — by way of an uncomfortable and very specific "I'm a part of your memory" character info-dump — it explicitly tells us that Will's arc has been completed, but utterly fails to depict exactly what it was he accomplished, changed, or learned to allow for that arc's completion. Similarly, the makes some deeply cynical and nihilistic implications about the very nature of reality and the afterlife (to get further into them would involve spoilers, so I'll post a separate article getting into that FOR ALL OF THE PEOPLE WHO I KNOW TOTALLY READ THIS BLOG), as well as human beings themselves, but fails to address or develop these implications in any meaningful way, instead just dropping them on the audience towards the end. In the end, The Discovery spends time pushing Will and Isla's romance at the expense of exploring the impact its late-stage plot developments have on its central themes and ideas.

With its first act hobbled by some seriously bruising of expository dialogue and its third hamstrung by an ending so rushed that it fails to address the number of narrative questions it winds up raising in its conclusion, The Discovery is most enjoyable in its middle section, when we get to watch Isla and Will connect and things take on a slightly more investigatory note. Unfortunately, the ending is an ultimately frustrating one, serving only to muddy the film's thematics and leave its message as muted as its color palette.

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Ghost in the Shell: Carbon-Based.

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Ghost in the Shell: Carbon-Based.

Information is a fascinating thing. By its very definition, it allows us to understand the world around us, as well as ourselves. But information gets tricky when you try and classify its various forms. And it gets even trickier when you try and set boundaries for what those various forms mean to us, in terms of everyday life. Ghost in the Shell, as a franchise, concerns itself with information most specifically insofar as it questions and discusses what kinds of information actually make us who we are.

Is it physical information that defines us, or is it a more nebulous type? Are we defined by the bodies that we live in, or are we defined by the memories that tell us where we've been, who we've known, and what we've experienced? 1995's groundbreaking Ghost in the Shell anime confronts these questions directly and without hesitation, specifically interrogating these ideas against a backdrop in which memory has been externalized and made physical. The importance of memory and its role in defining our humanity is central to Ghost in the Shell, which is what makes this year's live-action adaptation that much more of a bummer.

1995's deep-dive philosophical conversation about what it truly means to be human in an age where technology has not only permeated but fundamentally shifted the definition of humanity has finally made its way to the big screen in the form of a live-action adaptation. It would maybe be a surprise that this property hasn't made its way to the big screen yet, except that it has: piecemeal, in the form of moments, motifs, and ideas in a laundry list of science fiction movies that have come out since the original's release, from AI to The Matrix. So while this year's Ghost in the Shell certainly looks incredible, none of it looks new. In fact, the most visually engaging aspect of the film weren't its incredible colors or fantastic visual effects, but rather seeing iconic moments from the original anime recreated in loving high definition.

Problematically, though, none of those moments are attached to the original film's fascinating plot. 2017's Ghost in the Shell features a mostly-retooled storyline, involving the hunt for a serial killer instead of elite hacker the Puppet Master. ScarJo plays Mira Killian, a person whose soul (or "ghost" — unlike the original, in which context is necessary to understand the film's unique vernacular, 2017's update simply has characters awkwardly say "You soul...your ghost," pretty much any time the idea is brough up) lives in a completely cybernetic body. Having been saved when her brain was all that was left from a terrorist attack that killed her refuge family, Killian works with the government's Section 9 and devotes herself to fighting terrorists. In the meantime, she gets regular maintenance and exposition dumps from her handlers/developers at Anka robotics, the massive corporation responsible for developing her technology.

On the trail of said serial killer, Mira starts to realize that her origins are — surprise, surprise — not at all what they seem. Turns out she wasn't rescued from a terrorist attack, and the real answer is about what you'd expect, only with an added layer of shockingly tone-deaf racial insensitivity that will make ScarJo's casting controversy just pale in comparison. This is more procedural/origin story than it is anything else, with the franchise's deeper themes being paid lip service, but never being properly developed, or discussed in any kind of substantial way. Among the film's numerous missed opportunities is the one change that actually works for the better: rather than having them from the get-go, Ghost in the Shell shows us how Batou gets his iconic cybernetic eyes. The storytelling choice is a smart one, and feeds nicely into the film's themes...except the opportunity to make this happen or dramatize it onscreen is completely missed.

It's a small, but telling example of Ghost in the Shell's central problem: it's just a series of badly-missed opportunities.

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Progressivism vs. Plot: Optical Issues in Ghost in the Shell

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Progressivism vs. Plot: Optical Issues in Ghost in the Shell

If you've been on the Internet or alive in the world during the last calendar year, you're probably aware that there is a live-action Ghost in the Shell remake on the horizon. If you're paying only a little more attention, you've probably sniffed out the fact that the decision to cast Caucasian actor Scarlett Johansson in the lead role was a controversial one, with many believing that a Japanese actor should be heading the big-budget adaptation of one of Japan's most treasured animated films. From pretty much the moment it was announced, DreamWorks' decision to put ScarJo front and center of this movie was a landmine thoroughly stepped-on, and we won't even get started on the reports that the studio screen-tested a visual effect to make the actress appear more Asian.

The complaints leveled at DreamWorks and their casting decisions are deserving. As Iron Fist and Dr. Strange just recently highlighted, there is a dearth of leading Asian actors working in American cinema today, and every missed opportunity to put an Asian actor front and center is a new slap in the face the community first and foremost, but also to anyone who wants to see a little more representation in their storytelling.

Whenever a socially-motivated complaint picks up steam — especially online — refutation never fails to be in short supply. Inevitably, there will be a counterpoint, though they tend to from a more antagonistic place than in this particular example. This time, a rather surprising endorsement of Scarlett Johansson's casting came straight from a place of some pretty solid authority: In a recent interview with IGN, director of the original Ghost in the Shell anime Mamoru Oshii said he straight-up loves the casting of Scarlett Johansson. His full quote:

What issue could there possibly be with casting her? The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name "Motoko Kusanagi" and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply.

In the movies, John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, and Omar Sharif, an Arab, can play Doctor Zhivago, a Slav. It's all just cinematic conventions. If that's not allowed, then Darth Vader probably shouldn’t speak English, either. I believe having Scarlett play Motoko was the best possible casting for this movie. I can only sense a political motive from the people opposing it, and I believe artistic expression must be free from politics.

There's a lot to unpack here, but we'll start with the most relevant bits. The first thing Oshii points out is that the Major in Ghost in the Shell is not technically a Japanese character because she is not technically human. In fact, she is so not technically a human that they made the entire movie be about her not being human, and large parts of the film involve the Major just pretty much talking about how that makes her feel. In an inescapable way (and I'm frankly super curious to see how much of this makes it into Friday's apparent VFX-fest), Ghost in the Shell is about how the nature of humanity and consciousness has been made malleable by technological advances, and seeks to tease out what it even means to be human when the parameters surrounding humanity have been so fundamentally altered by our technical capabilities. So when Oshii points out that The Major is essentially a character who has literally transcended her humanity, he's right. Where he's wrong, though, is in his implicit assertion that this posthumanism a) applies to our current society, and b) negates the need for a push for racial representation right now

Another place in which Oshii is wrong is his apparent ignorance (and I use that word in the most literal sense — he is literally ignoring the issue) of the representation problems that plague Asian actors trying to work in the American entertainment industry. While I (maybe) can't speak with authority as to whether or not Mamoru Oshii has a working knowledge of how Asian actors are treated in the American film industry, it can certainly said that his comment widely misses the point of those upset with ScarJo's casting. In pointing out that Johanssen's casting preserves the artistic and thematic integrity of the original Ghost in the Shell, Oshii isn't wrong, but crucially misses the point that an Asian actor in the same role would still remain faithful to the film's thematic and artistic endeavors, while also remaining faithful to the film's place and culture of origin.

To address the second half of Oshii's quote involves a little more wading. First, his pointing out that White actors have played Asian roles in the past is an argument that simply begs the question: this kind of casting is exactly the problem that we're trying to move away from, and this comment supports my suggestion that Oshii is simply not familiar with how much of a problem the whitewashing of Asian actors has historically been for Hollywood.

And finally, should art be free of politics? This seems excessively strange coming from the director of such a political work. Maybe Ghost in the Shell doesn't directly concern itself with governmental politics — no wait, it absolutely does; international relations are central to the plot — but it most certainly concerns the politics of identity and self-actualization. To suggest that art should steer clear of politics is to suggest that art ignore a vast and vital aspect of the human experience, which is just about as bogus as it gets.

Still, Oshii's point is an interesting one, and is not at all without merit (except for the part about art needing to be free of politics; maybe that part is a little bit without merit). The point that he misses in making it, though, is the responsibility that storytelling has, especially on a level like PARAMOUNT PICTURES' GHOST INTHE SHELL STARRING SCARLETT JOHANSSON. Storytelling is a fundamentally important part of society and popular culture, and like it or not, the stories we tell and the way we tell them have an impact on the shape and health of our social body. Having too much White in our diet isn't going to help us be as socially healthy as possible, which is why the missed opportunity to put a Japanese actor at the heart of a fundamentally Japanese film far outweighs the fact that not doing so allows the film to still remain faithful to the original's thematic intent.

What Oshii might not realize is that Ghost in the Shell had the chance to be faithful to its source material and racially progressive at the very same time.

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Kong: Skull Island: Bee Plus Perfection.

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Kong: Skull Island: Bee Plus Perfection.

Sometimes, you get exactly what you hoped you were paying for. The ol' blockbuster can be kind of a mixed bag. Usually, critical consensus will tell you what you're going to get, but sometimes an embargo denies you the advantage of knowing very far in advance whether you're heading into Captain America: Civil War or Independence Day: Resurgence. Heading out to see the latest colon-supported summer tentpole flick can be something of a coin toss, but when these movies hit their marks, the results can be as joyful and fun as it gets (and sometimes even best picture material, if you're George Miller).

And here it is, not even summer yet, and we've already got our contender for Best Summer Movie of 2017 in Kong: Skull Island. Jonathan Vogt-Roberts first entry in — and second entry in total — the Legendary Pictures MonsterVerse (seriously) is one of those rare flicks that is exactly as good and exactly as bad as it sets out to be. I have to say, I laughed as many times during this film at things I was supposed to as I did at things I was not supposed to...and I kinda got the feeling that those latter moments were intentionally-constructed, as well. There is just no shortage of scenery-chewing, line-shouting, or thing-throwing for almost the entirety of the movie's runtime, and the viewing experience is all the better for it.

Set in the days just following the Vietnam War's wrap-up, Kong mines its temporal setting for some awesome visual cues and a few needle drops (ok, so many needle drops) and little else. But that's fine! I'm not cruising to the theater and knowingly buying a ticket to a movie called Kong: Skull Island because I want to be bathed in subtext or made to think long and hard about the human condition. While we get a bit of thematic lip service about how sometimes enemies don't exist until we create them (cough, cough, political undertones, cough), but just enough to let this movie be "about" something other than a giant monkey smashing the shit out of stuff. For the most part, though, Kong understands that it needs to be a movie about a giant monkey smashing the shit out of stuff, and it consciously makes the choice to be the best movie about a giant monkey smashing the shit out of stuff that it can possibly be. Its this clearly-made decision to simply embrace its genre and give us the most stylish and engaging version of what it is that ends up elevating the movie above its expected level of B-movie schlock. Sure, plenty of things made me laugh out loud when I don't think they were supposed to...but even more importantly, nothing made me groan, and I was absolutely never bored.

Plenty of this has to do with the cast, which is 90% fantastic. Corey Hawkins is neither convincing nor engaging as an improbably-young scientist, and his Chinese counterpart has all of five lines in the entire movie. John Goodman, Sam Jackson, Brie Larson, The Hids, and John C. Riley all acquit themselves nicely, with Shea Wigham (as usual) being the background player that I legit wished could have been the star of this movie. There's a moment after the film's "Kong vs. helicopters" setpiece wherein it's nearly demanded that Wigham's character offer some sort of comment on the "what the fuck just happened" nature of their day. In the middle of eating, Wigham just shrugs and goes, "There was no tactical precedent." The line is a great one, and Wigham's delivery makes it easy to understand why he's far and away one of the best character actors working today. Of course, so is John C. Reilly, whose presence only enlivens the movie as soon as it's introduced.

The only real complaint worth leveling at this movie is that it understands too well what it's doing right. Jonathan Vogt-Roberts is a stylish as fuck director, and he shoots Kong's action sequences with a verve and pizzaz that it's impossible not to get excited over...until you realize that too much stylization is definitely a thing. Same go for the film's love-letter needle drops: when the trick is repeated a fourth or fifth time, you start to notice it in a way that doesn't really help the experience. But these are minor complaints, and were far from my mind when I walked out of the movie theater.

Kong: Skull Island is just a fucking blast. It's loaded with references to 1970s war cinema, filled to the brim with toe-tapping needle drops, and at time overstuffed with stylistic direction and chewed scenery...but holy hot goddamn if the result isn't one of the most fun times I've had at the movies in a good long while.

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Logan: Giving Up the Ghost.

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Logan: Giving Up the Ghost.

Expectations can be devastating. Whether they're directed outward, inward, or are thrust upon you by someone else, the failure to live up to them can be one of the worst things in the world, and Logan makes it clear that it is a film with a wish to remind you of this early on in its runtime.

The latest entry in the X-Men franchise and the second of the Wolverine standalone films to be helmed serviceably by James Mangold, Logan finds itself set in a dystopian future Texas and revolving around a past-their-best-by-date Charles Xavier and Wolverine running from a cadre of corporate bads as they rush to get their charge, played with a shocking level of both emotion and feral rage by newcomer Dafne Keen, to a safe haven that may or may not be located in North Dakota. In terms of its structure and plot trajectory, Logan is fairly straightforward: get this person to that place and avoid all the bad motherfuckers who will try to kill us along the way. Its in the details surrounding this arc, though, that Logan manages to add some real shading and detail to the proceedings, filling in the blanks with a level of nuance and thought that is frankly absent a lot of superhero movies these days.

As an X-Men movie, Logan doesn't really work, but a lot of this can be chalked up to the fact that isn't necessarily trying to. Perhaps its shrewdest decision is the one Logan makes when it chooses to avoid making a movie about the world of the X-Men, and instead use the world of its X-Men and all of its trappings to tell a surprisingly human take about expectation, disappointment, responsibility, and family. And then also there are lots of people who get their faces and bodies fucked up super proper by claws. So many claws, you guys.

Speaking of claws, the newest set in the X-Men universe belongs to the hands and feet of young Laura—also known as X-23 (I don't recall whether this designation was used in the film; if it was, it was only once)—who rips, shreds, tears, and screams her way through this movie like nobody's devilish business. Dafne Keen is incredible in the role, and the character is so smartly realized it's almost a shame she isn't in a tamer movie, so as to allow for the possibility that more girls under 16 can see someone who looks like them just shredding the fuck out of a bunch of menacing, sweaty men who mean her harm. Each action sequence involving Laura is progressively intense, and the screams that just rip themselves out of her throat somehow never lose their impact. In fact, late-film developments that I won't spoil here make them even more powerful than they were before about two-thirds of the way into the movie. Keen is acrobatic, strong, and determined...and even though she's a child, she's far from a burden to Logan. In fact, even though he feels responsible for her, he clearly needs her over and over again throughout the film's run.

Finally unencumbered by a rating that doesn't fit the character and with a story that pushes him to new and interesting places, Logan finds Wolverine at his most fresh and his most daring. It should be a mark of accomplishment when it's pointed out that there's nothing left to say here, in terms of this universe. Logan functions as an incredible coda to — and perhaps meta-commentary on —the X-Men franchise as a whole, both remarking on the stories that have been told within it and reacting to them in the same breath. Logan explores its subject matter ably and with teeth, but make no mistake: while it's a great movie, it's still one with disappointment at its core.

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Get Out: Identity Theft.

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Get Out: Identity Theft.

One of the most readily-available defenses against accusations that a movie is "dumb" typically involves something along the line of, "Hey sometimes I want to just turn off my brain and enjoy something entertaining, alright?" There's this weird tension that seems to exist between the idea that a movie can simply be entertaining for the sake of spectacle and drama, and the idea that a movie can also use those two things to say something deeper and more meaningful about life and the experience of living it (as lots of art aims to do). In fact, it's almost like there is some tacit and unspoken cultural agreement that the two conditions are mutually exclusive: some movies are to be considered and thought about, some are to be enjoyed as simple entertainment. There are definitely movies that fit relatively squarely into one camp or the other, but the mark of a truly great movie is the ability to function wholly and with precision on both levels. Not only does Get Out accomplish this, but it does so in absolute homerun fashion.

The setup is simple: Chris is a Black guy going to meet his White girlfriend's parents for the first time as the two spend the weekend at their country estate. What starts out as a bit of overzealous "trust me, I totally love black people!" kinda bullshit slowly reveals itself to be something a bit more sinister, and this is where writer/director Jordan Peele really has his fun. The tantalization of what's really going on is the point where Get Out sinks its teeth into you, and every time you find yourself thinking to yourself "Ok so just what the fuck is actually going on here," that's Peele expertly working the film's jaws back and forth into your bones. With a script that is tighter than a drumline snare, surefooted direction, and fantastic performances on the part of pretty much the entire cast, Get Out is a film that straps you to your chair as you watch it, then demands that you think about it and turn it over in your head as you go about your routine the next day.

Rare is the thriller that works so well on so many levels. Taken at face value, Get Out is a tight and clever little genre piece; a sort of haunted house story with a truly unique set of villains and a truly mystifying mystery..but Peele has so much more that he wants to say, and he says it with absolute aplomb. Baked into the film's DNA is a perfectly timely allegory about race, identity politics, and the fetishization of Black culture and Black bodies...each element expertly woven into the script in a way that never commandeers the story. Instead, Peele's message simmers just under the surface: never present enough to hijack the viewing experience or make the audience feel finger-wagged, but unmistakeable upon further reflection to anybody with half a brain. It's subtext at its highest form, just like everything else in Get Out.

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John Wick Chapter 2: Devils and Demons.

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John Wick Chapter 2: Devils and Demons.

Action movies are a dime a dozen. Tons of them come out each year, many of them not even seeing a theatrical release and instead heading straight to the Internet and...Redbox, I guess? The point is, action cinema is a genre that hasn't needed a resurgence since its birth; as it advances with the production techniques and technology that made it possible in the first place — because if you think about it, action cinema is particularly dependent on technological developments and modernized production techniques — it continues to stay relevant vis-a-vis its ability to dazzle audiences. 

Mad Max: Fury Road simply couldn't have been made at the time that Mad Max: Road Warrior was made, as both films fully utilize the technical capabilities of their day to tell their stories to the fullest degree. Both films, though, are seminal entries in the action cinema pantheon. Most relevant to this conversation, Mad Max: Fury Road sets itself apart from the rest of its action movie brethren by being a movie that ties its action directly into the arc of both its characters and its narrative. This can be something of a rare find, because action cinema is one of the genres that is content to function on spectacle alone, and is often successful in doing so. Hell, as long as an action movie doesn't have a totally abysmal story, audiences usually aren't complaining, especially when the action itself is innovative and engaging.

Films that can work on both levels are a cut above their peers, though, and John Wick: Chapter 2 is absolutely one such film. The first entry in what is shaping up to be the John Wick trilogy was heavy on incredible action, without needing too badly to dive into subtext or character work. What John Wick accomplished was enough for its audience, which is why it's exciting to see the sequel take things a bit further in terms of both character development and subtext. The action helps us trace Wick's arc throughout the story, his violence becoming more and more unnecessarily brutal as he disappears into a role he seems forever destined to play.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is less a battle for the title character's soul in the way the first entry was, and more an exploration of that soul and why it will potentially (hell, probably) never know redemption or peace. The film is positively brimming with Classical-era imagery, fascinated with angels and demons and the scenes those figures tend to occupy. John Wick's physical trajectory through the film can even be easily read as a literal descent into hell, as the action follows him from Rome (arguably one of the world's holiest cities) to New York (often considered one of the world's preeminent ditches of inequity).

Characters frequently remark that John Wick clearly wants to be doing what he's doing, despite his increasingly surface-level protests. As expected, Wick lets out an anguished cry when he is "forced" to suit up again for the "last" time, but that brief moment of consternation is all we get before Wick settles into his familiar role as a relatively unstoppable killing machine, his fists, legs, and guns all working in tandem to fuck up the shit of as many dudes as possible. And once again, watching John Wick just mow everyone down is the most enjoyable aspect of this film, much of which is owed to the incredible photography of DP Dan Laustsen. Like its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 2 is an absolute visual delight, with small flourishes like the LED strips stuck to light poles and stop signs in its opening moments, bathing New York in a constant soft glow that throbs right along with John Wick's once-righteous sense of anger.

When it comes to action cinema, few films hit their marks the way John Wick: Chapter 2 does. I know I made the Fury Road comparison earlier on, but the two films share something deep within their DNA. Much like the most recent Mad Max entry, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a relatively pared-down journey into one character's personal hell, which (fortunately for us) actually seems like it's exactly where John Wick might belong.

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Loving: De-Dramatization.

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Loving: De-Dramatization.

Films tend to make stories bigger, more bombastic. The phrase "larger than life" comes to mind because we tend to enjoy our works of fiction from an escapist perspective. The stories we tell and consume, a lot of the time, offer us a chance to ditch the world as we know it and spend some amount of time in a version of the world that is more to our liking. When it comes to fiction, this almost intrinsic aspect of storytelling typically works in favor of the story being told. Details within a heightened version of our own reality often serve to highlight certain parts of a story, or might even just work to help hook the audience a little more firmly. To put it more simply, films tend to show us a version of reality as it might exist, and rarely as it actually does. Loving aspires to do almost the exact opposite: it strives to show us Richard and Mildred Loving exactly as they were, just two normal human beings seeking to be allowed to do the very normal things that everyone else is allowed to do.

Given that Loving tells the story of two individuals at the center of a landmark court case, one whose ruling changed the United States Constitution, the film spends remarkably little time inside an actual courtroom. Rather, the movie focuses squarely on Richard, Mildred, and their relationship, zooming in on the people that they are as opposed to the very immense and life-changing drama by which they find themselves almost perpetually surrounded. Richard and Mildred only want to have the things that every person is supposed to be able to have, and it's almost as is Loving aims to make the comment that we shouldn't have to find anything remarkable about their story in the first place. The quiet, day-to-day nature of the film's structure and pacing seems to suggest that their shouldn't be anything remarkable about the story of Richard and Mildred Loving because they never particularly wanted to be thought of as remarkable people. In fact, Richard repeatedly expresses his reluctance to pursue actions that would result in his case making its way up to the Supreme Court. The Lovings never asked to be remarkable, but they had to do remarkable things in order to have something nobody should ever be denied.

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga anchor the film with a pair of fantastic, ground portrayals even if it sounds like they're delivering lines with marbles in their mouths from time to time. Edgerton smartly plays Richard Loving without a trace of the righteous anger an audience member might expect from a male protagonist. Instead, Edgerton spends the majority of the movie with his head bowed in shame, his neck seeming to crane lower and lower each time he's told how wrong he is for pursuing his relationship with Mildred. And he'd this, a lot, throughout the course of the movie. As Richard bears the social punishment, he does so with the benefit of being a white man. As Richard is repeatedly told that he should "know better" as though the relationship's existence is entirely his responsibility, Mildred endures more physically-oriented punishments, being jailed while pregnant. She appears increasingly drawn and worn-out throughout the course of the film, and rightly so, as both Richard and Mildred endure a difficult journey that neither of them really ever signed up for in the first place.

After Richard and Mildred Loving are told they won't be allowed to live in their home state, their case makes its way to the ACLU, which assigns Nick Kroll's Bernie Cohen and Jon Bass' Phil Hirschkop to fight their way to the Supreme Court, so the Loving's case might change a constitutional law against mixed-race couples living together. Richard repeatedly expresses his reluctance to push the case forward, at one point frustratedly wondering why the issue can't just be talked out one-on-one with a jude. Though its motivations are hardly shown to be morally questionable, it eventually becomes clear that the Lovings are more or less letting the ACLU move forward with their case, as opposed to pushing forward themselves out of dogged determination.

And so, Loving forgoes the bombast and drama that might typically come with this kind of story. Outside a rural deputy who doesn't really hang around for longer than the film's first third, Loving lacks any clear villain, let alone a cartoonishly racist one. There is no dramatic courtroom scenes. In fact, the number of courtroom scenes totals about one and a half. There is no dramatic at-home argument where it looks as though the strains of their journey might tear the Lovings apart. Jeff Nichols has written and directed Loving free of unnecessary drama, melo- or otherwise. Instead, he focuses on how very regular Richard and Mildred were, as individuals. A moment where ACLU lawyer Bernie Cohen pretends to have a nice office so as to make a good first impression on the Loving's hammers home one of the film's most important ideas: you don't have to be a remarkable person or have remarkable things to accomplish something special and make a remarkable difference.

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The Founder: Minute Steak.

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The Founder: Minute Steak.

People throughout history have managed to become successful within a chosen profession, while still somehow managing to avoid being what you might call a successful human being even just a little bit. The Founder is a story about one of those people: Ray Kroc is a not-actually-all-that-down-on-his-luck milkshake machine salesman (seriously, he seems super frustrated about selling shitty milkshake machines but has a huge house and can afford to very literally drive all across the country throughout the entire film, presumably staying in hotels the entire time) who stumbles upon two brothers whose fast food restaurant in Southern California turns out tastier burgers at a faster rate than any other joint in the country. And Kroc knows, because his life on the road means he's been to them all. Initially, the McDonald brothers are hesitant, but Kroc pretty quickly convinces them to franchise their business and eventually cuts them right on out of the whole thing, effectively making them the Eduardo Saverins of their day.

Anchored by a breezy script, competent direction, and fantastic performances from Michael Keaton (Ray Crock), Nick Offerman, and John Carroll Lynch (Dick and Mac McDonald, respectively), The Founder is a pleasure to sit through. Moments like the McDonald brothers working out their Speedy System with an imaginary chalk kitchen on a tennis court are an absolute delight, and you'll more than likely leave the theater with a smile on your face. It'll only take about five minutes for the whole thing to fall apart, though, as the movie makes the critical mistake of not actually getting around to saying anything about the events it dramatizes.

Sure, it's fascinating to watch and learn about the ins and outs of building a franchise. Seeing how Ray Kroc went about stealing the McDonald's name and business right out from under them is certainly interesting, but the film ultimately fails to make a point about any of it all. So...stealing is bad? Authenticity will be swallowed up by consumerism/capitalism? Ray Kroc was two-faced as fuck? (He's certainly shot with mirrors nearby to make sure that we see several sides of him at once...get it?) These are the only thing that the movies manages to tell us, and none of these things seem particularly worth hearing. Wolf of Wall Street is the most immediate comparison that comes to mind: at least Belfort is shown bringing about the destruction of everything that he holds dear. Kroc literally upgrades his wife (in a shockingly tossed-off story note, just one of the many instances in which the film's huge editing problem rears its ugly head) and finishes out the movie in a Beverly Hills mansion. He literally finishes the film the way he started it — talking to the camera — only at the end he's doing it from what can only be described as an objectively improved situation.

The Founder could have easily been a timely — if pat, given the recent release and success of Wolf of Wall Street — cautionary tale, but instead winds up a swing and a miss. The three lead performances (the Dern is criminally underused; her scenes feel perfunctory at best) and a breezy script make this worth checking out if you don't feel like you'll get around to reading a book about the subject matter. The story, as it stands, is an interesting one, but don't expect this movie to give you anything further to chew on when you're done.

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