Author Archives: Andy Wilson

Movie Review: Hustlers

Hustlers movie poster

Who would have thought a movie about grift and strip clubs could be so boring? And yet here we are with Hustlers. Despite some hard work in the performances by Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, despite a feminist sensibility brought to the film’s cinematography and feel thanks to writer and director Lorene Scafaria, the end result is just boring.

The film is “based on a true story,” specifically, an article published by New York Magazine entitled “The Hustlers at Scores” written by Jessica Pressler. As the story goes, prior to the financial crisis of 2008, everything was hunky-dory in New York strip clubs. Idiot bankers were loose with their cash and made it rain.

But as with all things in the financial crisis, when Bear Stearns and Countrywide went down, it was the little people who got hurt– like the strippers. Suggesting that they are now like modern-day Robin Hoods taking advantage of the people who got bailouts, a group of former strippers begin a scam to start running up massive bills for bankers and brokers.

There’s a strong element of sisterhood and feminism as these girls stick together. Indeed, the film opens with Janet Jackson’s “Control,” providing a sort of thematic layout for the film. Lopez and Wu are always, in fact, in control of the situation, not the horny bankers who want to get rubbed on in a champagne room. So, good on you, girls!

While this isn’t saying much given her cinematic history, Hustlers might be the best performance by Lopez in a film ever. She’s the center of the story and is extremely compelling. Wu is also extremely good– at least on par with her star-making performance in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians or on Fresh Off the Boat, and certainly gives her more opportunities to stretch her dramatic acting chops. It just isn’t enough to save this film.

For those who might be interested in this film because of advertised cameos by Lizzo and Cardi B, those are literally little more than cameos. Blink and you’ll miss them. You will be disappointed. You will see more of them by watching one of their music videos on YouTube. However, Julia Stiles does show up as the journalist writing this story, which always sort of puts the brakes on the story– one of the many flaws in this film’s storytelling.

And for those coming to this film hoping for a little bit of sin and nudity, you are also going to be mostly out of luck. Please remember that there is free pornography on the internet, and you shouldn’t come to this film looking for cheap thrills. You won’t find it.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating things about this film is the feminist filmography. While there are some shots of nudity, most of it is actually not very sexual and presented almost in a businesslike fashion. The longest portion of nudity that you get is actually a naked man seen from the waist down as he is being taken to a hospital. Yup, there’s equal-opportunity nudity in this film. But that really isn’t what this movie is about. Again, if that’s what you’re looking for, there is porn on the internet.

But mostly this film is just plain boring. It feels much longer than its two hour run time and despite good character work by Wu and J-Lo, there really isn’t much more to see here. However, this film was definitely not made for me. Others may find a sense of enjoyment out of it even though I did not.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Kitchen

The Kitchen

The Kitchen is a great late-summer surprise. It’s that perfect blend of familiar formula (gangland drama in 1970’s New York City) with a new twist (a feminist anthem about the women taking over.) Oh, and it’s an adaption of a Vertigo comic from writer and director Andrea Berloff, who previously scripted Strait Outta Compton. Add in a trifecta of some of today’s most interesting working actresses– Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elizabeth Moss— and you have my full attention. Summer 2019 has been a deluge of franchises, sequels, reboots, and remakes. The Kitchen breaks that mold by being something new and original.

And, folks, I am sick and tired of hearing people complain, “Hollywood never makes anything original!” “There aren’t enough female directors!” Well, here’s a chance for you to put your money where your mouth is. The only way to send a signal that you want more of this is to support it with your dollars. Support this with your dollars.

McCarthy plays Kathy, a streetsmart wife of a ne’er-do-well member of the local Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen. Haddish is Ruby, who married a real piece of work but who is a member of the top Irish family in the neighborhood. And Moss is Claire, abused and cowed by her husband. When their husbands get sent up the river for a botched liquor store robbery, they band together, and then take over and show the lowlifes running their neighborhood how it’s really done.

Moss has the most interesting character arc as she learns to take her agency back — by force if necessary — and also forms a really beautiful Bonnie and Clyde type romance with Domnhall Gleeson, a messed up Vietnam vet who is important as the muscle of their nascent gang.

Haddish brings great energy to the mix, bringing to light her outsider status because of her skin color even though she married into a powerful mob family. As she begins to take her own power, she is a great character study in both what to do and what not to do to take your power back.

McCarthy is one of the most versatile and talented actors working today. Comedy, drama, action, sweet, spicy, salty, dirty, or squeaky clean, she can play anything. As in the best of her roles, she is a giving performer who pushes her costars to shine, even as she shines herself. Berloff’s direction and writing are the right touches here, forging and melding both a textual and metatextual message through McCarthy’s giving performance and the story itself into a powerful, feminist message about how patriarchy tries to divide women and make them compete with each other, but the better way is a femme-forward cooperation that makes everyone profit. McCarthy could’ve hogged the spotlight. Instead, she shares the bill perfectly with Haddish and Moss. Way to go, sisters.

It’s also a smart, cool gangland story that lets these three be badasses. As I09 founder Charlie Jane Anders wrote a few months back, we don’t just need “strong” female characters– we need complex characters “who make mistakes, and screw up, and hurt people, and learn from their disasters.” McCarthy’s portrayal of Kathy is motherly, but she’s also as complex and flawed as Al Pacino in The Godfather, Robert DeNiro in The Godfather II, Denzel Washington in American Gangster.  She gives that same nuanced performance here–although running off a very different kind of energy–and it’s dynamite.

Haddish and Moss do as much wrong as they do right. They’re strong and they’re weak. They are working for something bigger and better, and they also fall prey to their own humanity. These are the complex, strong female characters we need.

And perhaps in a refreshing turn, the only character who feels a little thin is Gleeson’s, whose character is really only motivated as an accessory to the women in the story. Does that make you uncomfortable? It might be a signal for all of these generally underwritten female characters in these male-driven gangland dramas.

All of this adds up to a refreshing late-summer cocktail that’s the perfect blend of sweet, sour, and strong like a spicy frozen margarita.

Some critics have compared this to last year’s Widows, and while that’s not a terrible comparison, it’s also a relatively facile one. The only real comparison is they’re both female-cast-forward films, but Widows is a heist film. The Kitchen is a gangland movie. It’s like comparing Godfather Part II and Heat just because they both have Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in them. But they’re fundamentally different kinds of movies. Widows never felt quite as explicitly feminist, but it did have a more subversive political message about Chicago racial politics. The Kitchen is also far more gritty, thanks to its 1978 Hell’s Kitchen setting compared to 2018 Chicago. Also, I’m not sure on what planet comparing a movie to another good movie is in any way a put-down. “It’s a lot like Goodfellas.” “Oh, ok, then I’ll definitely pass.” What?

August is normally a dumping ground for films studios don’t quite know what to do with or how to market. The only reason people might be concerned about the film is discomfort with its Gloria-Steinem era second-wave feminist ethos, which almost seems quaint 40 years later. Don’t be fooled by the lack of buzz, The Kitchen is worth getting back into.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw

David Leitch is one of the most kinetic directors working today. From his background in stunts and parlaying that into the masterwork that was the first John Wick, he catapulted into being one of Hollywood’s most visually interesting directors by following it up with Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2. And now with Hobbs and Shaw hitting theaters, you may wonder if we’re getting a watered-down- by-franchise Leitch, or if we’re getting more of the same of his brilliance. It is decidedly the latter, as Letch takes the mismatched buddy cop action comedy and destroys it in a giant explosion. This is a comic book movie that isn’t based on a comic book.

It’s not high art, but it’s a lot of fun.

The film begins with one of its most interesting visual flourishes, showing our two protagonists played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham as they go about their days and tracking down, unbeknownst to them, the same bad guys. Their settings and methods are different, and therefore Leitch lights them in very different ways but often splits the screen between the two to show a stylistic contrast.

This is classic Leitch, and especially some of the Shaw moments feel right out of John Wick or Atomic Blonde. It’s almost like the rule that dialogue should come from character, but as a visual medium, film has the ability to develop their characters based on their movement, lighting, and editing.

Leitch just shoots The Rock differently– like he’s this giant wall, a force of nature. But a final sequence set in Samoa is something that none of Leitch’s previous films felt: personal, important. Placing native Pacific Islanders and showcasing them in a way that highlights what is special about one of the most overlooked groups in popular media (indigenous/native people of any type, really).

While we have Executive Produce Dwayne Johnson to thank for insisting as part of doing this film that it include representation for Pacific Islanders, Leitch is able to make this come alive and feel special and, dare I say, cool. It’s sort of a mini-Black Panther moment for Samoans, and that’s unique and a great example of using your privilege to uplift others.

But the best performance here is Idris Elba as Brixton, the bad guy. Also, his motorcycle, which leads me to ask, “Should David Leitch do a Transformers movie?” But, as the leader of a cult of technology-obsessed-and-enhanced bad guys, he’s not really that different from most action movie bad guys. But his keniciticsm is unsurpassed by anyone else. Essentially, his cybernetics and AI upgrades allow him to analyze and dodge almost all attacks. It’s the 21st-century version of what Sherlock Holmes/Robert Downey Jr is able to do in the Guy Ritchie films.

We also have Vanessa Kirby as Hattie, an MI-6 agent who is the third wheel to the Hobbs and Shaw axle this film is built around. Similar to the way Leitch has been able to elevate his femme fatales in Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2 as major asskickers, so too is Hattie incredibly capable– easily able to square off against The Rock and Statham.

Leitch is a gifted comedic director (as showcased by his work on Deadpool 2), and this comes through in Hobbs and Shaw, where he even has his Deadpool 2 stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob Delaney cameo. In many ways, Deadpool 2 is the most similar of Leitch’s films to Hobbs and Shaw: they’re both the least visually experimental and groundbreaking, but they take the successful formula and kinetic action and place them in the bounds of a franchise. And fans eat it up.

However, as I said, this film is pretty braindead and expects viewers to completely ignore the laws of space, time, and geography. Jaunts from Moscow to Samoa seem to take mere minutes, and London to Moscow is an overnight red-eye flight. Also, apparently Moscow and Ukraine are really, really close to each other.

But perhaps the most egregious is a final climactic action sequence with a literal ticking clock running that expects us to believe that in the space of a half-hour we go from complete darkness before dawn, to golden-bathed morning on a clear summer morning to a torrential downpour. Time and weather do not work that way. Oh well. At least it all looked cool. Just don’t think about it too hard because its ridiculousness strains all credulity.

All this makes me think how absolutely spoiled we were by last summer’s Mission Impossible: Fallout. It’s instructive that director Christopher McQuarrie started in scriptwriting and Leitch started in stunts. Both of these films are the culmination of decades of their work in Hollywood– and it’s sort of a “two roads diverged in a wood” parable. McQuarrie brought the tight storytelling aesthetics of his early masterwork scripts like The Usual Suspects to become Fallout, and Leitch brought the kinetic popcorn sensibilities of his early stunt work and stunt directing to make Hobbs and Shaw feel all killer, no filler. But not everything needs to be so cerebral.

Still, I was not expecting to like Hobbs and Shaw as much as I did. It’s braindead, but it’s fun and lets Leitch paint on a much bigger canvas than before. Whether or not you have any investment in the Fast and Furious franchise, you could walk in and be entertained. Oh, and make sure you stay through the credits — all the way through — because the guy who made Deadpool 2 isn’t going to leave you without a tease for what’s next, would he?

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Yesterday

Yesterday

At first glance, Yesterday might seem like a fresh, almost subversive take on updating the classic catalog of The Beatles. By taking the music of four working-class lads from Liverpool and putting it in the mouth of a working class son of Indian immigrants in Sheffield (and not making any mention of his ethnicity whatsoever), director Danny Boyle could be making a strong case for inclusion and racial equity. But on second glance the film is mostly just a basic romantic comedy (albeit one with a great soundtrack) and one which sort of falls apart in its third act.

But the journey, not the destination, is what is fun here. Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) has never made it in music and is ready to give up when a worldwide simultaneous blackout leads to him being hit by a truck (set to the orchestral hit from “A Day in the Life”). And when he wakes up, no one remembers The Beatles except for him. As he begins performing their music, fame and fortune begin to find him, even as it pulls him apart from a potential romantic connection with his best friend since grade school/manager Ellie (Lily James). Along the way, Jack is mentored by Ed Sheeran (as himself) and an incredibly abrasive record executive played to the hilt by Kate McKinnon. And while Patel and James’s will they/won’t they rom com vibe is what holds the movie together, it’s McKinnon’s scene-stealing that is the real reason to see this movie.

But the rom-com skeleton wears somewhat thin, so the real determining factor in how much you will enjoy this film is how much you like the basic conceit of re-exploring the music of The Beatles through the lens of Jack covering their greatest hits. Yes, it’s good, though a few performances wear a little thin. An almost screaming version of “Help” owes almost as much to the vocal stylings of Kurt Cobain as John Lennon, but an extremely tender and stripped down “The Long and Winding Road” will floor you almost as much as it does Ed Sheeran.

The film also contains performances of Yesterday, In My Life, Something, Carry That Weight, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Elanor Rigby, Here Comes the Sun, Back in the USSR, Hey Jude, I Saw Her Standing There, and All You Need is Love, while at least name-checking a half dozen other songs like Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever. It’s nice, but at least for this fan, felt like a very cursory look at the most basic of The Beatles. Pulling out some deep cuts, and focusing less on the Lennon/McCartney songs would have been nice. Would it have killed them to include a Ringo song in there? “With a Little Help From My Friends” is right. there.

But that’s where this ode to the Beatles sort of breaks down. Since it focuses all on Jack as this genius solo artist, it belies what The Beatles were really all about, which was four incredibly talented people working together. George and Ringo were just as important as John and Paul in the alchemy that was their songwriting and performing. And this film and its performances lose all the depth in that signature Beatle harmony, and the call and response sections of songs like With a Little Help From My Friends. Missing those harmonies is another reason why the version of “Help” in the film is so unsatisfying.

In another film that very much drew inspiration from The Beatles, 2001’s I am Sam starring Sean Penn, there’s a line about what was special about The Beatles was when Paul McCartney wrote the first part of the song “Michelle” and then John Lennon wrote the “I love you, I love you, I love you” part, that was the essence of what The Beatles were about. Yesterday misses that dynamic completely.

And then the film ends in a completely whiffed third act that couldn’t be more by the numbers if it tried. And for a film so full of vibrancy and fun, the end leaves you feeling a little cold and unsatisfied.

As a rom-com, it’s a B-minus. As a celebration and nostalgic take on the music of the most influential music group of the 20th century, it’s an A. How much you enjoy this film will likely depend largely on how much you like The Beatles. But since many people do like them, that’s not a bad bet.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Aladdin

Aladdin 2019

“I can show you the world…” In a world where such classic animated films exist, it’s a relevant question to ask what you get from simply remaking something as beloved and classic and Disney’s 1992 Aladdin. With Director Guy Ritchie on board and Will Smith taking the place as the iconic blue genie, can they deliver something worthwhile?

Yes. Yes they can.

The remake updates the not-so-old film in a lot of ways. In fact, this film is so not-so-old that I can remember seeing it opening weekend at the old Scera Theater in Orem, Utah amid a massive throng of children and hearing those opening words of “Arabian Nights” describing its setting as “where they cut off your ears if they don’t like your face– it’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home.” This line was almost immediately redubbed and scrubbed from future soundtrack and home video releases to something that didn’t imply that Arabs are barbaric, so it’s not like Aladdin hasn’t needed some brushing up from day 1.

But perhaps what is most refreshing is its elevation of Princess Jasmine to, arguably, the main character of the film. While Aladdin still goes through his growth and character journey, so too does Jasmine grapple with her place in a patriarchal kingdom where she feels she is actually the most qualified person to rule. She’s not wrong, and Jasmine basically is coming for Elsa as the most overtly feminist member of the Disney pantheon. A new song added for the film, “Speechless,” is performed to perfection by Naomi Scott. If this song isn’t nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars, I’ll eat a DVD of Aladdin.

[Minor spoiler ahead, skip to next paragraph if you don’t want to know] One of the most interesting ways they updated this and cranked the feminism up to 11 is a single line delivered by Aladdin in a new scene immediately post the “A Whole New World” magic carpet ride. Looking down at Agrabah, Jasmine talks about wanting to help all of the city’s residents. She wants to be listened to and help rule because she knows she can do a better job than anyone else. She turns to Prince Ali for his opinion, and he delivers one of the most astounding and wonderful lines of any film this year: “Why does it matter what I think?” Her self worth isn’t bound up in his approval, and he knows it. Aladdin: secret feminist ally? You read it here first.

But what so many people actually want to talk about is Genie and Will Smith. He’s actually pretty good, especially when they let him be charming and do his own thing. When he’s going through the motions of trying to deliver on the beloved performance of Robin Williams, it’s just really hard to do that. Smith does his best, and the results are decent. But most of Smith’s best moments are when he is in a human-esque form incognito in the palace. He has (limited) agency, desires, and even a romantic subplot to himself? (With the incredibly charming Nasim Pedrad from SNL who plays one of Jasmine’s handmaids and is almost worth the price of admission herself.)

Ritchie’s directing here is crisp and workmanlike, but eschews so much of the visual style and kineticism some of his other films have. That means “One Jump” becomes a parkour-inspired mini-heist of sorts, but most of the musical numbers can’t quite compete with the originals. The direction is similar to Ritchie’s recent The Man from UNCLE in that he doesn’t leave a lot of fingerprints, but the end result is pretty fun. An added dance scene that is straight out of Bollywood is particularly fun and a great bonus.

Still, there are a few moments that land a little poorly. This seems largely due to wanting to keep Smith caged and closely working on aping Williams. The genius of Robin Williams was they just let him riff in the sound booth and then animated around the fun he brought to the script. So some of the things are a little cringey, but it’s likely to make parents roll their eyes as they fondly remember The Fresh Prince and the animated original Aladdin, but that kids will enjoy.

So why remake a classic? This brings a fresh feminist take to a movie that didn’t need a ton of updating, so it’s just the right touch. And while Will Smith isn’t Robin Williams, he’s still immensely watchable but is outshined by the excellent leads playing Aladdin and especially Jasmine. Take your family and experience a whole new world of what Aladdin can be.

Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Detective Pikachu – Classic Noir Meets Video Game Fun

Detective Pikachu

Pokemon has been a major cultural force for over two decades now, but other than a few animated films, it has never really broken into the cinematic realm. And then there’s the “video game curse” which has turned even the best video games into cinematic dog crap. But Detective Pikachu defies all the odds and is really good. Focusing on character and plot– borrowing its best bits from detective noir classics of the past– and letting the video game content play as the setting was the smartest choice writer and director Rob Letterman. He seems happy to borrow liberally from the video game but then also makes the film very much its own thing that everyone can enjoy.

Why is it that so many video game movies are cursed to be terrible. It’s the medium that often makes it hard (though not impossible) to adapt to film. A good movie needs great characters, and especially needs a lead “POV” character that is the audience’s “way in” to the world of the film. We see the events unfold more or less through their eyes, and these characters usually have the most depth, development, and the best character arcs.

In a video game, the POV character is. . . you. Video games not only get away with, but encourage, more bland player characters– because they’re supposed to be bland aka “universal” so everyone who is playing the game can feel like they are actually taking the place of Mario or Sonic or even more developed player characters like a Cloud Strife or Leon Kennedy. Even if the point is playing through that player character’s story, like as Shepherd in Mass Effect or Revan in Knights of the Old Republic, or any of the characters in Detroit: Become Human, it’s more like you’re playing an interactive movie than a standard video game. Even Lara Croft didn’t really become an interesting “character” per se until her most recent games, which then became very literally adapted on the screen– which is what made last year’s Tomb Raider work and break the video game curse.

As I noted in that review, the question is always, “Would I have rather watched this movie or spent two hours playing the game?” In the case of Detective Pikachu, you definitely want to watch the movie.

A lot of that comes from the performances of its leads, which includes Ryan Reynolds as the eponymous talking gumshoe pokemon mascot and Justice Smith as Tim Goodman. Goodman in the game was literally just your avatar (Good-man, get it?) but Smith does a great job imbuing him with pathos and having fun. A scene in the middle of the film where he has to interrogate a Mr. Mime by using pantomime is incredibly funny, but mostly he does his job of being our POV character and leading us through this new world of Ryme City.

The city is brainchild of billionaire Howard Clifford (an incredibly fun Bill Nighy), it’s a city where humans and pokemon exist side by side. Visually and aesthetically it seems to smash together the best parts of New York, Tokyo, and maybe a little bit of Bladerunner‘s Los Angeles and Tim Burton’s version of Gotham City in his 1989 Batman. But what’s most fun about it are all of the Pokemon easter eggs hidden in almost every scene. You could play a “Gotta catch ’em all” type game where you name off every type that you see and that would be fun enough in and of itself.

But this movie also has a plot, and it’s also quite engaging. Tim Goodman comes to the city upon learning of his estranged father’s death from his former partner, Lieutenant Hide Yoshida (Ken Watanabe). Tim goes to clean out his father’s old apartment and finds an overly caffeinated talking Pikachu with a case of amnesia but a nose for a mystery. You know he’s a detective because of his hat! The Pikachu is convinced Tim’s father is still alive and they need to track him down. Along the way, they discover a conspiracy involving illegal drugs, underground Pokemon fighting rings, and a mysterious MewTwo who we see briefly in the opening of the film who may be the key to all of it.

It’s a pretty great mystery. And while it moves along quickly enough for little kids, it will still be engaging for adults. Also engaging for adults? Some of the dirtier jokes that might fly over kids’ heads. In this way, the film that this most reminds me of is Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Film noir type detective story? Check. Frenetic jokes and a high energy lead? Check. Corporate intrigue and conspiracies? Check. Betrayals, twists, turns? Check. Strategic cameos and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it placement of beloved cartoon characters? Check!

The only thing missing here is the more perfected animation style of Roger Rabbit. One minor complaint is that some of the pokemon may not look exactly like either their video game or animated versions– the charizard and gyarados models specifically are a little off– but most of this is spot on and lots of fun. My Pokemon-obsessed ten year old son (the target audience for this) freaked out when they went into Clifford’s office and he had giant wooden statues of Dialga, Palkia, and Giratina. If you know who those are, this movie is going to make you very happy.

This is the perfect dessert sorbet to clear your palate after the heaviness of Avengers: Endgame. It’s light and fun but also has some deeper elements. If you took classics like Double Indemnity and The Third Man and added a billion cute little pocket monsters into it, you’d have this. And it is delightful. Even if you are meh on Pokemon and have never played a game, this is a lot of fun.

4 out of 5 stars

Stay Through the Credits of Avengers: Endgame, You Monsters

What the hell, people? I feel like I’ve been saying for a decade, “True fans stay through the credits.” Not just because we want to see The Avengers eating shawarma or watch “that Ayesha chick” talk about Adam Warlock, but because now that’s just something we do! And now someone said “There’s no extra scene at the end of Avengers: Endgame” and you’re like, “Welp, that’s it, then!”

No no no no no no no no no.

First of all, it’s totally misleading to say “There’s no extra scene at the end.” It’s also patently false to say (as numerous sites have reported), “There’s nothing at the end of the credits.”

There’s something. I won’t say what, but stick around for it.

Why? Because. . . True Fans Stay Through the Credits.

Think about it. 11 years. 22 movies. I know you have to pee because it’s been 3 hours of excitement and you ordered that giant movie-sized Dr. Pepper, so go and then come back. But stick around. Because True Fans Stay Through the Credits.

Not only is it a great way to pay respect to the literally thousands of people who worked on this movie, but you might learn something. Like, wow. . . lots of people have assistants. Or, oh, I didn’t know the name of that song that they used and now I do. Or ask, “What’s a key grip?”

And here’s the best part– you know where literally the only place in public where it’s ok for you to discuss what just happened in this movie is? In that theater. Right there. Not in a restaurant or coffee shop afterward. Not in the bathroom or on your walk out of the theater.

Keep your butt in that seat and use those credits to process what you just saw. You’re going to have feelings. People die. People don’t die. Torches get passed. Evil and good are in the balance. Things get blown up!

And? Think about this for one second, True Believers– this is the last Stan Lee cameo we have.

This movie leaves you with so much to process, so much to talk about– and talk you should and talk we must. So do it there in your theater seat!

Because you’re going to have to shut up about it until you get someplace private. It is literally the perfect place! Because you know with 100% surety that everyone in earshot of you just saw what you just saw.

And? Because True Fans Stay Through the Credits.

Stay through the credits and pay very close attention to the end. Then go speculate about what the heck that meant.

Nuff said.

Avengers: Endgame [Spoiler-Free Review]

I’m not going to tell you a thing about the plot of Avengers: Endgame that isn’t in the trailers. And anyone who spoils the secrets of this film — the true culmination of every single one of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — deserves a punch in the throat from Thanos himself.

Yes, it clocks in at over three hours (3 hrs 02 minutes to be precise). Yes it’s overstuffed. Yes it’s worth it. Yes it’s everything fans are hoping it will be. Yes it has lots of surprises.

But that isn’t what’s truly amazing about Avengers: Endgame. What’s amazing is how personal it is. All of this really started with the Holy Trinity of Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America. And each of them has a truly amazing journey.

Tony Stark started this all with a movie in the summer of 2008. And he has had more ups and downs than anyone. We see him at his worst. We see him at his best. We’ve seen his daddy issues. We’ve seen him try to be a mentor and a father figure himself. And we’ve seen him fail. Over and over and over and over. But perhaps Tony Stark’s superpower in all of this is not his intellect, or his wealth and privilege, but his resilience. Despite all his failings, he comes back.

Which brings us to Steve Rogers, whose journey in this film is also intensely personal. While Tony overcomes failure, Steve Rogers seems to seek martyrdom. He’s always fighting the good fight because he can take it, perhaps better than anyone can. But inside he’s still that skinny kid from Brooklyn and he’s been carrying a lot of guilt and desires around the road not taken from 1945.

And then there’s Thor, who simply doesn’t know how to fail. He literally doesn’t, and his guilt over Thanos and the death of nearly all of his people take a heavy toll. He also has regrets about the past, and perhaps there’s a way to fix what is broken. And talk about daddy issues– Thor’s guilt over what happened to his family looms large over everything.

These three broken people are the keys to unwinding what Thanos has done. And their journeys are as much personal as they are cosmic and fantastic.

It’s in the quieter moments that this film especially shines. While a bombastic third act that is unlike anything you’ve quite seen in the MCU, there are tiny, stolen moments that mean so much for each of the main characters.

So much of Avengers: Endgame is about generational trust and angst. So many of our characters are motivated by loss– especially loss of family — it would be hard not to. But the families of the MCU, from Thanos and his children to the found families of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers to the actual families of Tony Stark, Thor Odinson, Steve Rogers, Clint Barton, Scott Lang. . . the ties that bind us together are what matter, what ground us, what give us our values. They’re the people we fight with (what was Cap: Civil War but a family squabble gone wrong?), but they’re also the people we will fight beside.

Beyond the beautiful meaning of the film, what is most amazing is how it ties up the entire history of the MCU is a beautiful bow. Everything you wanted to see? I hate to be so grandiose but most of it is in there. No matter what your favorite film or franchise is, you will get a moment that directly ties back or references something from that movie, and perhaps several.

There are a couple of “problems” with Endgame, but they are few. This is a weird gripe, but as amazing as the final act is, it makes the preceding two hours a little less good by comparison. But, we needed that setup.

The film is a little padded, but this is not the movie to hold back on. And I daresay on repeat viewings it will be incredibly hard to identify anything that could or should have been cut.

It also starts incredibly abruptly, sort of out of nowhere with no fanfare, no Marvel page-flip animation. But it works because we are meant to be taken aback by it. It’s meant to be disruptive and raw. We are talking about the aftermath of Thanos’s snap, right?

There are a couple of characters who get short shrift, but not many. And there is a surprising lack of Captain Marvel in the movie. However, this makes a lot of sense. With her Omega-Level powerset, her presence makes so many of the other characters superfluous, and you would simply get a Danvers Ex Machina to get out of so many situations.

Plus, as she explains, there are thousands of other planets out there dealing with the aftermath of Thanos’s snap, and the others don’t have The Avengers to help. But, don’t cry, Carol Corps. She gets her time(s) to shine. But I could’ve done with a little more Carol Danvers.

This film also features a scene nestled in the middle of the climax that teases for a tiny moment what a thing to behold an A-Force movie could be. It was one of several moments where I cheered through tears of joy.

There were no less than five times when tears welled up in my eyes. Sometimes in joy, sometimes in sadness. It’s not perfect, but it is perfect in that it ties up everything from the last 11 years and delivers on fans’ wildest dreams. For their next act, the Russo Brothers should audition to take over for Santa Claus in terms of their ability to consistently deliver the magic. Avengers: Endgame is an emotional thrillride. Don’t let anyone spoil it for it. And don’t spoil it for others.

4.75 out of 5 stars

“The Best of Enemies” Movie Review and the Rise of the “Cozy Racism Story”

If you loved Green Book, think mayonnaise is too spicy, and think Beto O’Rourke might be “too ethnic” to vote for, then do we have a movie for you. The Best of Enemies tells the based-on-a-true-story of the integration of Durham, NC public schools in 1971, focusing on the two heads of a citizen task force, civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and local KKK leader C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) and the friendship they develop while learning to overcome prejudice and. . . barf.

It’s 2019 and we have a movie where we’re being asked to root for the Klansman. Look, you can make this movie. But you just can’t make it this way. This is the powerful story of a strong black woman and the community she advocated for. But their story of liberation should not be told with the point of view of an avowed racist. This is not only a problem of storytelling, but of fact.

And that fact is this: racism is not some character flaw. It’s not something that backwards, hateful people learn that can be just un-learned if the objects of their oppression are just nicer to them, putting the burden of solving racism on the backs of the oppressed rather than the oppressors. Racism is a system, not a personal flaw. Racism is the system that made “separate but equal” the law. And racism is the system which allows a story of black liberation to be told from a white point of view by white filmmakers.

Cozy Racism Stories

This film is another in a growing subgenre I like to call “Cozy Racism Stories.” Taken from the idea of the “cozy mystery” subgenre, cozy racism stories are similar in that they are both sanitized of the gory details to spare the sensibilities of the viewing audience. A cozy racism story also will also usually include one or more of the following:

  • Focus on a white character and their journey learning to be less racist or learning about racism (especially if the main character is a “white savior”)
  • Set in the past, especially in the Civil Rights Era
  • Set in the South
  • Written / directed by white people

By setting the cozy racism story in the past, and only in the South, we lie about the insidious nature of racism. It lets us pretend everything is ok today. Films that tackle racial issues but aren’t cozy racism stories (eg, they’re doing it right) include films like Fruitvale Station, BlackKklansman, The Hate U Give, and Black Panther.

Does your movie show racism but then show how racism affects white people? Then you might have a cozy racism story. Throughout our story we see how burdened white people are when dealing with racism– a white woman’s home gets shot up because she has a black boyfriend, a white business owner is hassled because he has black employees, another white woman is harassed by the KKK, Mr. Ellis’s business loses customers for siding with the black community. And yet almost never do we actually see the impacts of racism on the black community. You hear it described– but you never see it or experience it in the way film can make you experience it.

I’m glad Mr. Ellis saw the light and gave up his Klan leadership to help Durham schools. But, as archival footage shown during the credits illustrate, it did not stop him being racist.

This is a textbook cozy racism story, and Hollywood needs to stop with this. Movies like this only exist for one reason: to assuage white guilt and make white audiences feel better about racism and “how far we’ve come.” When we have Klansmen marching in the streets and the President of the United States calling them “very fine people on both sides,” when we have an explosion of white supremacist groups, when we have white supremacists stockpiling weapons and planning attacks on the media and members of Congress for their skin color, we have not come far enough.

Even if it didn’t have all of that problematic material, it’s also just not a great film. It clocks in at 133 minutes and feels a half hour longer. It is padded and it is boring. No doubt, Avengers: Endgame will feel much easier to sit through.

Perhaps the biggest shame is how it wastes the talents of its incredible cast. Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson deserve better. So do supporting cast members like John Gallagher, Jr and Anne Heche. Everyone is trying so hard, but this material is just terrible.

This story deserves to be told. There is an important lesson here about how a vile racist learned that “if you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” But his journey should be secondary to black activists charting their own liberation and taking back their power to get what’s rightfully theirs. I’m glad to have learned about what a force of nature Annie Atwater was. I hope someday soon she can get a film more worthy of the work she did, and not just the “I was once nice to a racist” part.

1 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Dumbo

Dumbo

You’ve seen a housefly, you’ve seen a dragonfly, but have you ever seen a live-action remake flop? Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages (and shout out to all the gender non-binary/non-conforming people, too!), prepare yourselves for disappointment and to leave theaters scratching your heads wondering exactly what you just watched. It’s Tim Burton‘s remake of the Disney animated classic Dumbo!

The weakest part of this film is that it is trying to update and remake Dumbo, a beautiful but problematic animated film whose running time is a scant 64 minutes, and probably only 40 minutes or so once you remove all of the objectionable elements. And so Burton’s updated version here actually zooms through most of what we think of as the Dumbo story in the first hour of the film, leaving room for an additional story where our baby flying elephant goes to work for a big city circus led by Michael Keaton. Here he’s paired with a French acrobat Colette (Eva Green) and expected to make big bucks for the big circus, which transforms into a messy third act that seems to simultaneously indict capitalism and the circus as an institution as Dumbo’s human friends (of course led by two plucky children!) and a team of circus folk plot a rescue for Dumbo and his mother to set them free.

Blame screenwriter Ehren Kruger for this mess, as he is also responsible for the travesties of the worst of the Transformer movies (Revenge of the Fallen, Dark of the Moon, and Age of Extinction) Yes, the guy who gave us problematic racist sterotype robots was asked to reshape Dumbo and its problematic racist stereotype crows. PS- the film just skips over the crows.

But in skipping over some of the glaring imperfections, we’re also left with an incredibly hollow and predictable story. All of the parts of this film that are uniquely Dumbo were better done in the animated film. Pink Elephants on Parade gets a Circue de Soleil type reimagining with acrobats and giant bubble machines and pink lights put on for a cheering audience. But gone is the charm and menace of this being a hallucination brought on by a baby elephant getting drunk on champagne. Baby Mine is still sad and heartbreaking, but isn’t adding anything that the original didn’t already have.

Despite all those negatives, there are some nice spots in the film. The central idea of the precocious misfit kids (the girl wants to be a scientist like Marie Curie! How progressive!) and their bond with the misfit baby elephant is still charming. The actors’ performances are doing all they can with this lackluster script. Eva Green is as captivating as always, even if her part is woefully underwritten. And then into the third act saunters Alan Arkin as a rich investor and steals every moment he’s on screen.

Some of the best moments come from the on-screen chemistry between rival and then partner circus ringmasters Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton. They’re both a joy to watch, even if they occasionally take me out of the film reminding me this isn’t the first time I’ve seen them paired up against one another in a Tim Burton film.

And therin lies part of the crux of the problem with Dumbo. As I’ve said, the parts that are uniquely Dumbo are simply better done in the original animated film. And what’s left? Well, perhaps it would have been better as an original Tim Burton movie about a creepy circus and an attempt to free the animals from subjugation. It’s where the movie actually really shines and the only place where it feels like a Tim Burton film as we get into the cool art deco design of the (intentionally/subversively?) Disneyland-esque “Dreamland” park, and especially “Nightmare Island” where the “dangerous creatures” are kept.

Any resemblance to actual Disney theme parks, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.

There are even two long, lingering shots of Dreamland selling Dumbo plush toys, as though Burton is trying to send us a coded message that he knows this is all a pretense to sell merchandise. There are also a couple of waaaaaay inside jokes aimed at people with an intimate knowledge of the Disneyland parks of yesteryear. That’s where this movie shines, where it feels subversive and like Burton is poking fun at the cashgrab nature of his enterprise. I’m here for that Tim Burton for days. But then he intersperses it with cringeworthy moments like a cameo from Michael Buffer, and if you are familiar with his work. . . you know what’s coming. And it’s terrible.

No no. . . Dreamland isn’t at all like Disneyland. . .

And also, for god’s sake, don’t waste Danny Elfman‘s talents asking him to redo the 1941 score. It’s the most underwhelming waste of his talents since his Age of Ultron score, which he famously complained about being so limited because he was just asked to ape a temp track. It feels very much the same here.

And so, unfortunately, all I’m left with is a weird feeling that I wish I’d just watched Big Fish and the original Dumbo instead. Those are great movies: even despite Dumbo‘s problematic elements, it’s still a classic. This. . . this is just not.

I’ve been fine with most of the previous Disney live-action remakes. Each of them, up to now, at least brought something new or different to the party. Despite occasional flashes of brilliance, this does not. As so we’re left to ask, who exactly is this movie for? Fans aren’t going to get what they want, and this is by no means new or innovative or interesting enough to warrant your hard-earned money (reminder that taking a family of four to a full-price movie plus snacks can cost almost as much as a single Disneyland ticket). Stay home and pop in your copy of the original or Big Fish and enjoy yourself.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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