Won’t You Be My Neighbor? / *****

mv5bmjm1ndg1mjuznf5bml5banbnxkftztgwntaxnjizntm-_v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_The trailer for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has already become a bit notorious for its capability to choke up audience members, even those who didn’t expect to find themselves moved by a documentary about Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And so, it wasn’t like I wasn’t prepared for the chance that the room would get a bit dusty during my screenings; I remember growing up on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, even though I couldn’t remember much of anything about the show. And I knew the reputation of Fred Rogers as a fundamentally decent, caring man.

This brings me to two things.

  1. I didn’t remember much about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood until about 30 seconds into the documentary, when memories came flooding back to me – the voice of Daniel Tiger, the trips on the trolley, the way he’d take his shoes off, his calming voice, and so much more.
  2. This movie destroyed me at points. Absolutely wrecked me…but in a good way.

Because here’s the thing: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? isn’t a sad film in any way. If you’re worried that there’s some scandal about Fred Rogers, some sort of shadow that’s going to ruin this show for you or the memory of the man, rest assured, there’s nothing here. And it’s not as though the movie is skirting some unpleasant secret or anything; it’s just that Fred Rogers was who he appeared to be – every bit as decent and kind and warm as he seemed to be on television.

No, the reason Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is so tear-inducing is because of its genuine heart and kindness. In an age so drenched in irony, cruelty, anger, and misunderstandings, here is a portrait of a man who genuinely loved children and treated them with respect and kindness; who truly believed that every person was special and deserved to know that about themselves; who saw the importance of quiet and calm in the hectic nature of the modern world; who believed that we should spend as much time listening to other people as we do talking, if not more so; and who truly lived out a life not only of service to others, but a life in which he tried to be kind and respectful and warm to every single person. And there’s little way to watch all of this and not be moved by the earnest, true humanity on display.

Now, if that’s all there was to Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, that would be enough. But what elevates the film is the way it subtly but undeniably sets itself up as a response to our modern world – not just our hectic pace, but the tenor of the times. Only directly referencing the modern world in the last bit of the film, Neighbor nonetheless constantly reminds us of the importance of earnestness and kindness, especially in a world that never has much time for it. The film makes its case not by hammering home its points, but by showing us the impact that kindness can have on the world – the way that treating human beings with respect, listening to them, treating everyone with patience and earnestness, can lead to positive change in the world. And though the film shows Rogers himself struggling with that message at times (most heartbreakingly, in response to 9/11), the film nevertheless makes clear that this is something that the world would benefit from, if we could only learn from that example.

That’s no small message to teach, and one that’s maybe more important in our toxic times than ever. That director Morgan Neville does it while never letting the message overcome this portrait of a fundamentally good man is what makes Won’t You Be My Neighbor? not only so great, but also so necessary in our modern world. I defy you to watch it and not come away wanting to make the world a better place – and anything that can do that is worth seeing.

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On Dracula 3D, Solo, and the Power of Expectations

argentodracAbout a week ago, I endured the roughly 18-hour ordeal that was Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D. (IMDb says the movie is less than two hours, but I can tell you, it feels infinitely longer than that.) Bringing almost nothing new whatsoever to the classic Dracula story, and telling it without any sort of visual style, inventiveness, humor, new angle, or any sort of compelling performances, Argento brings Dracula 3D to the screen as if he was dared that he couldn’t strip every bit of life and originality out of Stoker’s tale. (There is, admittedly, a single moment that’s unexpected in the movie, but is so gloriously badly executed and bizarre that it inspired not joy but absolute bewilderment and some sustained laughter in the theater. Three words: giant praying mantis.)

Now, the thing is, Dracula 3D isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen. It’s not even the worst one I’ve seen in recent memory – it doesn’t compare to a low-budget freak show movie called Side Sho that I saw a few weeks ago, which couldn’t even light its shots correctly. And yet, Dracula 3D undeniably feels like the worst movie I’ve seen in years, and inspired more vitriol and anger from me than any number of demonstrably worse low-budget slashers I’ve seen. But why is that? Why did I hate this movie so much more than low-budget trash without any redeeming qualities whatsoever?

It all comes down, I think, to expectations. Dracula 3D was helmed by the legendary Dario Argento, responsible for any number of essential horror films, not least of which is the original Suspiria. Now, admittedly, I’m not a die-hard Argento fan – it’s only recently that I even came around on Suspiria. Nevertheless, even the Argento movies I disliked always had style and color to spare. Sure, they’d make no sense and have mediocre performances, but I could never deny just how gorgeous his movies were. Say what you would about Argento, but his motto so often seemed to be “style above substance,” and I could enjoy that at least on one level.

And so, I think much of my anger and frustration with Dracula 3D – and much of my hatred – came from the fact that I went in expecting, at the very least, something to look at. What I got wasn’t just dull and overlong and uninteresting – it was framed without any sense of style or visual acuity whatsoever. Shots featured the blandest backgrounds possible, weren’t even framed well, used almost no color, and just generally felt as lazy and weak as possible – and Argento, whatever his faults, should be better than that. In other words, sure, Side Sho sucked, but it seemed like everyone was doing more or less their best. This, however? This was a phoned-in film by someone who couldn’t care less about his audience or anyone who paid for it, and who could undeniably do something better. In other words, my expectations – even mild ones, like “this is what makes a typical Argento film” – shaped how I felt about the finished product, and inspired my hatred and anger.

soloThe opposite, though, could also be true – that a lack of interest and an assumption of awfulness can so often work in a film’s favor. Take, for example, the new standalone Star Wars film, Solo. Here’s a film I had basically no interest in seeing – was there anything we really had to know about Han Solo that we didn’t already know from the film’s and Harrison Ford’s performance? Add to that the middling to weak reviews that confirmed my worst fears, the behind the scenes drama that ejected the interesting directorial duo Chris Lord and Phil Miller for the bland, generic Ron Howard, and my general irritation at fan-service, and here was a movie that I couldn’t care less about seeing.

And yet, I have a son who’s getting older and older, and who loves Star Wars films, and I’m not going to miss chances to do something together that means something to him. So, off we went to see Solo today, and to my surprise, I found myself enjoying the movie more than I had any expectation of doing.

Now, that’s not to say that Solo is a great film, or even more than “not too bad/pretty good.” It’s a film that’s far too indebted to fan-service and to franchise-building, and in spending so much time belaboring every connection to the past and bludgeoning home every signpost for the future, the film so often forgets to ever exist in the here and now. Worse still are the brief glimpses here and there of the lighter, sillier version of the movie Lord and Miller would have given us; while there can’t be much of their footage left in the final cut, there are moments here and there that feel funny, deft, and enjoyable in a way the rest of the movie rarely does.

For all of that, though, I ended up enjoying Solo far more than I thought I would, and I think that’s due in no small part to the fact that I went in expecting a tedious chore that would never really work for me. Yes, what I got is the dictionary definition of “inessential,” and it feels a bit weak at more than a few points (most notably with the pointless, glossed-over death of a major character). But as the film opened with a fun chase across a grimy Star Wars city, and then gave me a spectacular train heist, before leading to another great heist effort that ends up leading to cries for revolution, well, I couldn’t deny that I was having fun, because I didn’t expect those parts. So much of what I expected about Solo was the stuff that fell flat for me – the ridiculous explanations for things we never cared about (how Han got his blaster! how Han got his last name! what the deal with the Kessel Run was!), or the absurd markers that might as well have come with giant blinking subtitles reading “THIS IS FOR THE SEQUEL”.

And so, every time the film came to life and gave me what I wanted originally – a fun, lighthearted space romp without much debt to the rest of the Star Wars universe – well, I enjoyed it a lot more than I would have going in cold, because I was coming out ahead of what I assumed I was getting. Does it change the overall quality of the film? No more than my knowledge of Argento’s filmography changes the quality of Dracula 3DSolo is still pretty fun, but inessential and weighed down by its inability to stand on its own; Dracula is still bland, awful, and completely turgid, so much so that even a late-film appearance by Rutger Hauer can’t save the film.

But all of this goes to show how subjective a medium film really is, and how silly these reviews I write really are. I can’t tell you what you’ll think of a film, and the idea that there’s some “objective” scale of quality is silly. All I can do is tell you how I reacted, and that includes the way my expectations affected the viewing experience. And the more you have invested in a film, the more able it is to let you down; just the same, the lower your expectations, the more it might surprise you.

(Dracula 3D still sucked, though. No matter what you expect, it’s going to be bad. Except for that praying mantis scene, which rules, although I couldn’t tell you if it does so ironically or unironically.)

IMDb: Dracula 3D | Solo

Incredibles 2 / ****

i2Pixar has, in recent years, been a victim of its own success, to no small degree. When your studio launches with a nearly uninterrupted streak of greatness, and then takes a break from some (pretty good but not great) sequels to release Inside Out…well, you’re not making things easy for yourself. And then Incredibles 2 makes things even harder, by being a very long-awaited (14 years!) sequel to one of Pixar’s most beloved films. In other words, there’s almost no way it could possibly live up to the expectations set for it.

And in some ways, Incredibles 2 definitely suffers from the comparison. From a plot perspective, Incredibles 2 is functional, but not much more, following Helen/Elastigirl as she gets the chance to fly solo as a hero for a bit, while dad Mr. Incredible has to take care of the kids. Are you thinking, “wait, did they really revisit one of the most hoary and painful tropes of an 80’s sitcom?” Oh yes, they did, and does it feel weirdly dated and out of touch with anything approaching modernity? Most definitely. (Yes, The Incredibles is clearly set in an alternate 60’s era, but that doesn’t make this plot thread any better.)

That’s a bit of a creaky foundation on which to build a movie, and while the rest of Incredibles 2 works and holds together, there’s just not much there. Incredibles 2 so often feels like a bunch of half-constructed threads and ideas tossed together to make something that works and delivers a movie, there’s no substance to grab onto. Every time the movie seems to be coming up on some central thesis, some universal theme, it gets distracted and wanders off. There’s a central villain called the ScreenSlaver who worries about people living through their devices and screens; there’s Bob and Helen’s marriage adjusting to the shifting roles they each have; there’s the change in society as supers fight for recognition; there’s Violet’s efforts to date…on and on, and none of it ever coalesces into something focused and trenchant.

But for all of that, you can see the rating I gave Incredibles 2, and that’s because as empty as it might be, none of that keeps it from being as much fun as it is. Oozing style in every frame (Bird’s embrace of the 60’s retro, mod style is a joy, and suffuses the whole movie), anchored by great vocal performances, and delivering action sequences to die for (more on those in a moment), Incredibles 2 is a popcorn movie done right; there’s not much to chew on, but there’s no big flaws, and style to spare.

And, oh man, are there those action sequences. Brad Bird has long had an eye for fluid, inventive action sequences that leave your jaw dropped – look, for instance, at his incredible (heh) work on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, especially that closing parking garage sequence. Bird’s mind incorporates all of the moving parts in a scene, all of the abilities, and weaves them together in dazzling, creative ways that are a joy to watch. In an era saturated by superhero movies that shoot every fight the exact same way, Incredibles 2 reminds you that superhero fights should never be the same, and can flow together in mind-bending, wild ways. (The best aspect may be Bird’s use of a minor superhero who can create dimensional portals, an ability that Bird finds new uses for constantly and inventively, leaving me in awe of how creatively he paired them against each new opponent.) More than that, there’s the way Bird helms them, giving us long, fluid, moving shots that follow the action seamlessly, allowing the audience to take it all in and just keep up with it.

Look, Incredibles 2 isn’t the original, and it’s not going to be in the top tier of Pixar films. It’s a bit empty, from any thematic perspective, and under the surface, it does its job and not much more. But as stylish summer spectacle, it’s a joy to watch, and reminds you of what a gifted director Brad Bird is when it comes to giving us that spectacle. Set your expectations right, and you’ll have a blast.

The short film: As per tradition, there’s a short film attached to Incredibles 2; this time, it’s the beautiful and heartfelt Bao, about a Chinese woman who’s surprised when one of her dumplings comes to life as a little baby. Bao is incredibly sweet and simple; without a line of dialogue, it tells a story of parenting and motherhood that both draws on Chinese tradition and taps into something universal and beautiful. There’s a sharp swerve about 2/3 of the way through the film, and one that hit me hard in the heart for a variety of reasons. I loved it; it’s sweet, funny, and gets at something that hits a bit close to home these days.

IMDb: Incredibles 2 | Bao

A Wrinkle in Time / *** ½

a-wrinkle-in-time-2It’s hard to review A Wrinkle in Time, a film that I deeply admired the weirdness and earnestness of, all while having to admit that it’s not always a very good movie. And yet, I’m glad it exists – there’s something wonderful about seeing something this idiosyncratic, this personal, and this earnest coming out of a studio system, and given this amount of free rein to go wild, visually and imaginatively. And if the results don’t always work, well, as always, I’d rather an ambitious failure than a boring success.

Let’s start with all the things that don’t work, because there are more than a few. Adapting the general outline of the book, Ava DuVernay and her team essentially turn A Wrinkle in Time into something wildly episodic and disconnected – essentially, a series of intriguing moments and scenes, but ones that don’t always fit together from a storytelling perspective. (They work better emotionally, but more on that in a minute.) Characters are told they can’t do things, but then immediately do them, without explanation; they drop in and out of the story for unclear reasons; worst of all, more than a few barely function as characters at all, just wandering around for…reasons, I guess. (The worst example of this is Levi Miller’s Calvin, who’s about one deep set of mouth-breathing moments from being the creepiest stalker alive.) The result undeniably feels like the Cliff’s Notes of something bigger and more sweeping – and something that probably makes a bit more coherent sense than the finished product does.

What that means is that so often, A Wrinkle in Time feels like nothing so much as wildly disconnected weirdness for its own sake. Why is Oprah’s Mrs. Which unable to figure out what size to be? Why does Mindy Kaling’s Mrs. Who only able to speak in quotations, until she’s not? Why does Zach Galifianakis’s oracle so fixated on balancing on things? Why isn’t there any life on most of the planets? What does one Earth girl’s missing dad have to do with a cosmic evil known only as IT? A Wrinkle in Time doesn’t really answer any of these, and instead gives you dazzling visions, style to spare…but also sometimes feels like it’s indulgent for the sake of being indulgent.

And yet, I can’t deny that I kind of loved that about it. I’d always rather see a film go for broke than play it safe, and it’s not possible to argue that DuVernay plays it safe here. From the incredibly lush costumes to the dazzling alien landscapes, from flying kale creatures to dark forests of living trees, DuVernay packs the film with incredible visuals; even if some of them are excessive, you’re never bored, and never less than knocked out by the sights she has to show you.

Nor does she play it safe with the emotional beats, turning the film into a pretty relentlessly optimistic paean to the power of love and self-confidence. That robs the film of anything approaching subtlety or complexity at times, turning what I remember as a pretty complex book into something a little more simplistic. But with the marvelous Storm Reid as our lead, Meg Murry, the film works on that front, investing us in her lack of self-confidence and her anxieties. Yes, sometimes her character feels like a few drafts thrown together – look at her random grasp of physics when the plot needs it – but her performance is so strong, so vulnerable and sweet, that it makes some of the emotional beats work even when they shouldn’t.

(While we’re talking performances, I can’t let this review end without talking about Deric McCabe as Meg’s idiosyncratic – to put it mildly – young adopted brother Charles Wallace, whose outsized personality is hard to make work as well as McCabe pulls off. But that goes doubly in the final act, when McCabe’s role shifts in a way that could easily become camp, but instead, he pulls off, creating something compulsively watchable and odd in a whole new way. He’s having a blast, and it’s hard not to love it in all of its over-the-top glory.)

Look: A Wrinkle in Time isn’t necessarily a great movie, and maybe not even a successful one at all. Indeed, the further I get from it, the more piecemeal and thrown together it feels at times, and the more jumbled the individual pieces often are. And yet, there’s something wonderful about the way it’s so clearly a labor of love. From its wild imagination to its earnest message, from its wide-eyed wonder to its loving embrace of the book’s sci-fi conceits, it’s undeniably a film made without irony and cynicism. And if it doesn’t all work, well, its heart and soul at least make it something enjoyable, rich, and deeply weird and unique, and that’s something I’m always glad for.

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Ryan Coogler filmography (Fruitvale Station / Creed / Black Panther)

I’ve been meaning to dive into the filmography of Ryan Coogler for a while now; from his interviews to his subject matter, he’s seemed like a filmmaker I need to watch, and one that I want to get into the ground floor on. So with the release and success of Black Panther, what better time than now to go through Coogler’s three films in order?


e2ba8ab17ed11729d3364ce93a1d0b6dCoogler started his career with Fruitvale Station, an account of the last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant III, who was shot and killed by police on New Year’s Day, 2009. Coogler has said that his goal here was to depoliticize Grant’s death, essentially attempting to do for this incident what Paul Greengrass’s United 93 did for that event – depict it honestly, calmly, and without sentiment, and without getting into the aftermath and the way the event was dealt with in the aftermath. On the whole, Coogler succeeds in this, I’d say  (here’s a good article about how accurate the film is and isn’t, but the short version is, it’s largely faithful to the reality). Even if occasionally he hits the dramatic ironies a little hard, and even if the scene where Oscar comforts a dying stray dog feels like a bit much, Coogler does his best to depict Oscar not as a saint, not as a sinner, but as someone more complicated – a troubled young man with anger problems and a lot of boiling rage, one who might be turning his life around, or might not. It’s not the hagiography you might assume, but Michael B. Jordan’s charisma and the knowledge of where this is all going (Coogler opens the film with cell phone footage of the actual event) can’t help but make you empathetic for this human life that’s about to be pointlessly lost.

But it’s in the depiction of the event that Coogler’s talent is undeniably most seen. From the escalation to the horrifying moment of the shooting to the panic and chaos afterward, Coogler captures every second of it with an eye that never lets you forget what’s happening. But while what’s depicted is horrible, Coogler remains focused not on the event, not on the larger issues, but on Oscar – a young man who’s in his last minutes on Earth. That, more than anything else, is what makes Fruitvale Station so powerful and effective – the way it takes Oscar Grant III out of the narrative and reminds us that first and foremost, before he was a victim, before he was a moment, he was a human being – a father, a son, a boyfriend, a friend – and that loss in of itself is tragic and horrible, no matter what deeper societal issues it exposed in the process. (That being said, the outcome of this case is legitimately, incredibly infuriating on every imaginable level, so  enjoy that.) And any refusal to admit that is removed by the film’s closing moments, which earns its final shot of Grant’s real-life daughter who’s growing up without a father. Sometimes, things deserve to be hit hard and shoved back into our faces, and the consequences of real-world news events forced back into our consciousness. Rating: **** ½

P.S. If you’ve seen The Wire, you should read David Simon’s very brief piece about the film, which is heartbreaking all over again in its final lines.


rocky-spinoff-creed-poster-600x889I’ve only ever seen the first Rocky film (which I really liked), so I can’t talk that much about how Creed stacks up against the rest of the sequels. What I can talk about is how much Coogler makes the film his own, taking what the original Rocky did – using a boxing story to explore a character, and delivering a character study with all the trappings of a boxing movie – and using it to follow his own interests. In this case, that’s the story of what it’s like to grow up as a young black man without a father, struggling to make his own identity. Once again uniting with Michael B. Jordan, Coogler follows the story of Adonis Creed, who’s attempting to grow up and make himself his own person, outside of the shadow of his late father. That leads him to seek out Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, of course), and ask him for training.

In taking on Creed, Coogler manages to somehow marry a mid-budget Hollywood tentpole film – an entry in a storied franchise – with all of his own passions and style, creating something far better than you would expect in the process. The relationship between Jordan and Stallone is beautifully handled, with nuance and depth, but also a rich humor that brings both men to life. Stallone, too, has rarely been better; it’s so easy to forget how great of an actor he can be, but even so, the way he plays Rocky here – lonely, older, feeling his age – is remarkable, bringing out the vulnerability in the character, but also his passion and pride. But his relationship with Jordan becomes more than the sum of their parts, with Coogler using it to play with the themes of father/son relationships and what they can mean – and what family can do for us. It gives the film a richness, thematically, investing us in each of these men and their arc. That the film does its best by Adonis’s love interest, a musician played by Tessa Thompson, is no small feat, nor what it does his mother, played by Phylicia Rashad; each woman is given a strength and motivation all her own, and even if they’re supporting characters, they’re handled far better than most films would even try to do.

But for the purpose of this review, I can’t help but discuss how much more assured and confident Coogler’s filmmaking is here, only one film later. The mid-film boxing sequence is incredible – a long, flowing single shot that weaves in and out of the action, gives us close-up shots, follows the action of the match, and gives it a tension and power all its own. It contrasts all the more with the final match, made up of reaction shots to the audience, as well as with each fighter, helping us understand that this match is less about the physical battle, and more about the emotional and mental stakes. That level of confidence goes throughout the film, as Coogler takes on montages, long shots, Steadicam shots, and more, truly stepping into his natural role as a filmmaker in a way that Fruitvale all but guaranteed.

I truly loved Creed, which I honestly didn’t expect; from its depiction of a weary Rocky Balboa to Jordan’s uncertain, questing fighter; from dazzling fight choreography to impactful, genuine emotional stakes; from strongly created relationships to thematic depth that explores real world stakes and issues; all of that and more turns Creed into a worthy successor to the original Rocky – a story of young men finding a way to prove themselves, and figure out who they are. I absolutely loved it, and was floored by Coogler’s growth and style as a director. Rating: *****


dws6uagu0ae4e77And now comes Black Panther, in which Marvel Studios finally cuts loose and generally lets a director make a Marvel product as personal as possible. I’ve long complained about the Marvel formula and the way it’s robbed movies of their individual flavor, and I won’t say that none of that applies to Black Panther. The big action climax of the film is overdone and bland – pretty much, it ends up feeling like it could come from half a dozen other comic book movies – and that goes doubly for the final showdown between our hero and the main villain, which becomes little more than a dull CGI whirl of action – a far cry from the intense, psychological battles of Creed, which married physical conflict with mental games. (That being said, there is a mid-film battle in a casino that unfolds in a dazzling long take that I enjoyed; it reminded me of what Coogler did in that mid-film bout in Creed, and to pretty great effect. It’s the one action set piece that really stands out in the film, and not coincidentally, the most engaging.)

But thankfully, moments like that are the exception in Black Panther, not the rule. Freed of almost any need to tie in to other Marvel movies (the mandatory end-credits scene aside, which can easily be ignored), Black Panther feels like no other Marvel movie to date, thanks in no small part to how deeply, truly African it is. Eschewing the usual generic cityscape of every other Marvel movie, Coogler fills the frame with colorful costumes, tribal fashions, and a rich tapestry of visuals that give the film a truly revolutionary feel. (I’m a straight white dude, so there’s no way I can speak to what this must feel like for so many other people, but to me, Black Panther felt truly like a film that got to celebrate black heritage and ancestry in a way that almost never happens.)

But as rich as the visual palette is, what really makes Black Panther work is the way that Coogler brings his wide, sprawling cast to life, filling his film with the sort of realistic, natural conversations that rang so true in his other movies. The result is that the film feels lived in in a way that Marvel rarely has for me; from the tribal priest, played by Forest Whitaker, to T’Challa’s sister Shuri (a scene-stealing, joyful performance by Letitia Wright), from Danai Gurira’s steely bodyguard to Winston Duke’s intimidating, surprisingly funny chieftain, Coogler takes the time to bring every character to life, letting them not just exist as plot points, but as characters and people.

But where that’s most evident, and most revolutionary, is in the film’s villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. (A side note: Andy Serkis’s portrayal of the secondary villain, Ulysses Klaue, is a blast – he’s chewing the scenery gloriously and having so much fun that it’s infectious.) Set aside the fact that Killmonger is portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, whose effortless and massive charisma (and, let’s be honest, physical attractiveness) instantly makes his Killmonger watchable and fascinating. black-panther What’s truly remarkable about Killmonger is how trenchant and valid his concerns are, and how obviously Coogler uses him as a way to smuggle in truly revolutionary and incendiary ideas.

After all, here is a character who is driven by the loss of a father who himself was infuriated by the treatment of black communities; who is angered by the way Wakanda has let black people around the world suffer while they’ve prospered; who wants justice and payback for centuries of racism and injustice. It’s hard to hear Jordan’s angry, violent rhetoric and not feel like he’s the voice of reason here…and what’s more remarkable is the way the film takes his concerns seriously, with characters acknowledging the truth of his ideas, even as they fear and deplore his methods. That debate gives Black Panther far more depth than you’d expect, and the way the movie ends up becoming a discussion about the responsibility of the well-off to care for the less fortunate, as well as a vicious commentary on how a history of racism has corrupted and angered a generation, is all the more incredible for what Coogler has managed to do within the framework of a Marvel movie, the most formulaic of genres. (Jordan’s final line of dialogue in the film is a nuclear bomb of defiance that sent shivers down my spine, and I can’t imagine what it felt like as an African-American.)

I’ve come all this way, and there’s more I could talk about – I haven’t even touched on Chadwick Boseman’s soulful performance, which finds him moving between royalty and grief, between a loving brother and a threatened head of state, nor the film’s glorious afrofuturism, which mixes so effortlessly and seamlessly with the rest. The short version is, yes, Black Panther is still a Marvel movie, but it’s the first one that has pushed back against the limits of the genre to any sort of success. And if it eventually falls back into some of the weakest elements, that only underlines all the more what Coogler got away with here – how many ways he got away with an uncompromised, unique vision and trenchant social points. It’s the sort of movie that, to me, actually represents what I loved about comic books growing up – not the battles, but the ideas, the intelligent voices, the rich characters, and just the incredible worlds of imagination. But best of all is the fact that Coogler does all of this while somehow still creating something that’s recognizably his. No small feat, that – and it bodes well for a long career that will give us interesting, thoughtful films both in and out of the studio system. Rating: **** ½

IMDb: Fruitvale Station | Creed | Black Panther

Mary and the Witch’s Flower / ****

36694One of the looming specters over the world of traditional animation is the eventual retirement of Hiyao Miyazaki, the undisputed legend of animation, and the mind responsible for films like My Neighbor TotoroSpirited AwayPrincess Mononoke, and more. Miyazaki’s plans to retirement has led to a lot of questions about the future of the iconic animation studio Studio Ghibli, and even with his determination to make another movie, it’s been a source of worry for many fans of animation.

So in many ways, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is incredibly reassuring that the spirit of Ghibli will stay alive. The first film from Studio Ponoc, a studio founded by Ghibli alumni, Mary and the Witch’s Flower feels very much in keeping with the Ghibli model: lush, fluid animation; a wondrous sense of adventure and fun; interesting female protagonists; an imaginative, dazzling mixture of reality and magic; the constant presence of nature as a background; and so much more. The story of a young girl who finds out that she’s a witch, only to find herself in the mix of some supernatural intrigue, Mary is a blast to watch, both visually and as a story. From the opening sequence, which follows another witch as she makes a dramatic escape, Mary is lushly animated and beautiful to watch unfold, especially for those of us who love traditional animation.

Mind you, the easy knock that’s been made about Mary is how derivative it is of Ghibli films, and that’s not an untrue point. From adorable cats and girls on brooms (a la Kiki’s Delivery Service) to creatures that feel like the entities from Spirited Away and Mononoke, down to general structure of the story, Mary definitely feels like a studio trying to show that it can fill the shoes of its predecessor. (In that way, it sometimes feels like Ponoc’s version of The Force Awakens, mixing and matching elements of its forebears while still making a propulsive, wonderful piece of entertainment.) And, yes, the story feels a bit thin at times, with some pacing that feels a little rushed and abbreviated at random points.

And yet, none of that took away from how much I enjoyed Mary beginning to end. It’s exciting, it’s beautiful to watch, and more than anything else, it’s absolutely joyous in a way that so few children’s movies manage. Does Mary and the Witch’s Flower pale a little comparison to the novelty of Ghibli movies? Sure, a bit. But did any of that matter while I watched it? Not in the least.

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I, Tonya / ***

i_tonyaLet me open this by saying that I have pretty profoundly mixed feelings on I, Tonya, a film that I sort of loved and hated in equal measure. A sort of meta-biopic of Tonya Harding that features duelling (and contradictory) narratives from various players, fourth-wall breaking, and a desire to look back at this story that was one of the foundations of the 24-hour news cycle we’re stuck with today, I, Tonya is undeniably ambitious, surprisingly funny, and never boring. And yet, at the same time, there’s often a sense that it’s a film on the verge of spinning out of control, with wildly clashing tones, constant (and grating) musical choices, and characters that are so over the top as to be cartoonish. And yet again, there’s an argument to be made (that I first heard articulated by Genevieve Koski of The Next Picture Show) that, in many ways, all of that is the perfect form for a movie about Tonya Harding: loud, brash, contradictory, a little grating, but technically ambitious and overachieving, and unafraid to be itself, no matter what.

That contradictory batch of feelings echoes for me all the way through the film, down to the performances. On the one hand, you have Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan as Harding and Gillooly, both playing older versions of themselves reflecting back through their own lives, and altering their performances to match the version of the story they’re in. When the film focuses on the two of them, it’s fantastic; the two of them bring out nuance and complexity in characters that have been so often reduced to caricature by the media, and the added dimension of having them reflect back lets us see how the incident and its aftermath impacted their lives. (And enough good can’t be said about both Robbie and Stan, who are phenomenal; the film demands a lot of them, and they rise to the occasion, playing their roles like chameleons that match whatever scene they’re in.) But then, on the flip side, you have Allison Janney and Paul Walter Hauser as Harding’s mother and Gillooly’s friend/Tonya’s bodyguard Shawn, respectively. Both are superb in their roles, but the film turns both into absurd cartoons, robbing them of anything except over the top dialogue and one-note writing that hammers away at the impression they’re supposed to make. Janney is awful and cruel and vicious; Hauser is idiotic and clueless and delusional. And both do a fantastic job in their roles, giving their all and making their scenes great, but there’s a sense that both roles are so absurd and one-dimensional that they grate, especially in contrast to how well the film handles Harding and Gillooly.

But couldn’t you argue, you could say, that the film is so clearly subjective – so clearly focused on the perspectives of Gillooly and Harding – that those roles should be cartoonish? In other words, what we’re seeing isn’t a caricature of these people; it’s how Harding and Gillooly saw them, since we don’t get their side of it? There’s an argument to be made there, I think (although it doesn’t take into account the way that Janney seems to occasionally enter into the film as a narrator herself); similarly, you could use some of that to deal with some of the film’s other excesses. Most notably, I’d say, is the film’s constant, incessant soundtrack of classic rock standards; it often comes across as a film without any confidence in its audience to get the emotional vibes it’s trying to convey. On the other hand, could you argue that they reflect the soundtrack that Tonya wants to put onto her own life, and the soundtrack of her memories? Maybe so.

But the more I think on I, Tonya, the more I think the film’s execution simply doesn’t work, no matter how much I feel like I love what it was trying to do. I love that the film digs into Harding’s working-class roots and makes it clear that the narrative of her being a white-trash thug comes from a media snobbery; at the same time, the film’s portrait of her roots is often every bit as condescending and sneering as that of the people it’s criticizing. I admire the way the film takes on Harding’s abusive life, often showing it brutally and unflinchingly; at the same time, it often jars horribly with the film’s glib tone, and sometimes feels as though it’s being played for laughs when it shouldn’t be (most notably with Janney’s horrific Mommy Dearest). And more than anything, the film feels smug and can’t let anything be left to subtlety. (A scene that reflects this in miniature: there’s a late film shot that finds Gillooly remembering the day the media moved on. In the background, you can just make out that his TV is showing the Nicole Simpson crime scene – a nice, subtle touch. Which the film then hammers home by shifting camera angles to make sure that you can’t miss it, all but foregrounding it.)

I can see why I, Tonya is so popular and well-received. It’s undeniably funny and entertaining, and its goals are fascinating. I love the meta-take on the biopic, and I love the way the film strives to match its content to the stories being told and the people telling them. But it’s a film that also gets exhausting, whose smugness is irritating, whose condescension gets wearying, and whose mashup of tones often doesn’t work and leads to uncomfortable clashes. And most of all, it’s a film that sometimes isn’t sure what it wants to be: a revisionist take on Tonya Harding, or a broad comedy? A fourth-wall-breaking piece of metafiction, or a cartoonishly absurd recapping of a famous incident? It’s a film that I can see why people like, and won’t begrudge them for their appreciation, but just ultimately didn’t work for me that well.

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