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Honey Boy

Posted December 2, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

At this point, what’s left to say about Shia LeBeouf?

He got his big break at the age of 14 and he’s been in the public eye for all of the two decades since. He’s made big-budget blockbusters and prestige awards-bait movies (none of which really took off), he’s made kids’ films and borderline X-rated films, he’s embraced his fame and actively rejected it, and everything in between. And as with many of his projects, his career as a whole has been virtually impossible to pin down or define.

But here’s a thought: What if that’s because LaBeouf himself doesn’t even know who he is? You see it all the time with child stars — they spend so many years growing up in the spotlight, taking so many different roles and hustling for so many promos, they don’t really have the time to learn about themselves outside the tabloids and commercials.

So here’s Honey Boy, directed by Alma Har’el after a respectable career in documentaries and music videos. But screenwriter LaBeouf is the real star here, crafting a semi-autobiographical film that dramatizes his early years and his relationship with his dad. Perhaps not surprisingly, LaBeouf himself plays James Lort, the father character. And fittingly, the movie opens with Lucas Hedges on the set of a paper-thin Transformers parody in 2005, yelling “Nonononono–!” before getting catapulted backwards on a wire.

Hedges plays Otis Lort, an actor with a lifetime of experience on the screen and a crippling alcohol problem. After an especially destructive incident, Otis is sent to rehab, where he has to learn how to make peace with himself and his past. Thus we have our framing device.

Flashback to 1995, when Otis is a preteen played by Noah Jupe. Even at this young age, Otis is a regular on some kid’s show and putting his comedic chops to good use. It’d be a pretty good gig, if only he was under the care of anyone except his father.

James is an army veteran, and it’s heavily implied that he’s got some PTSD to go with his explosive anger management issues. (He’s also a recovering alcoholic.) He’s a former rodeo clown who coaches his son to be a comedian even as he resents Otis’ success. Last but not least, he’s got a felony record that includes at least one sexual assault. Put it all together and you’ve got a man who’s completely unemployable, much less fit to be a parent.

In many ways, the film is about Otis’ lifelong search for a loving and nurturing parent figure, and that’s in large part because James immediately and violently reacted against the notion of anyone else taking an interest in Otis’ development. Is he being overprotective or possessive? Does he want to be the only one responsible for making Otis happy or miserable? Who knows?

It’s not entirely clear where Otis’ mom is in all of this, but it’s perfectly clear she’s not able to help him and this family is hopelessly broken. There’s one especially heartwrenching scene in which James refuses to talk with Otis’ mom over the phone, so James has to relay messages between them while he’s on the headset. It’s actually kind of funny in a pathetic and abusive way.

James is an egomaniacal whirlwind of misdirected energy and contradicting desires. He’s the product of a broken childhood, with nothing better to offer his son. He demands responsibility for anything good that ever happened to Otis, and he doesn’t even want to hear about the bad things.

In summary, he’s a toxic and self-destructive jackass. Yet James and Otis have to stay together because they’re all they’ve got. All of that leads to daddy issues that cripple Otis later on in life, and yet he can’t bring himself to let go of them. As Otis himself observed, that pain is the only thing of any value that his dad ever gave him, so how can he give that up?

If it sounds like I’m being too hard on James, that’s primarily because I can’t portray him with an ounce of the humanity and sympathy that Shia LeBeouf brings to this fictionalized portrayal of his father. Kudos are also due to Noah Jupe, who admirably takes on this leading role with aplomb and dives headlong into some pitch-black territory. And Lucas Hedges? Shit, this is so far into his wheelhouse, he knocks it out of the park and doesn’t even look like he’s trying.

Moving on to the supporting cast, the MVP is indisputably FKA Twigs, here playing an unnamed girl who may or may not be a prostitute. She’s a neighbor to young Otis, and also… well, she’s something more, but damned if I could tell you exactly what.

It’s not quite motherly and not quite sisterly, but something more than friendly. It’s definitely affectionate and highly intimate, but not quite sexual. Otis gives her money, but it seems like more of a formality. Really, the important thing is that the two of them have a deeply personal and emotional connection that both are obviously lacking at home. What’s even more important is that she’s there when James isn’t, so who the hell is he to complain?

There’s one point when Otis says that he loves her. You might think that James was right to scoff at that, but I don’t think Otis was referring to the kind of love James was thinking of. Then again, I don’t think James is mentally or emotionally capable of understanding the kind of love Otis is talking about.

There are some tragically underappreciated talents in the supporting cast and I’m genuinely disappointed they didn’t get more to do. Clifton Collins Jr. makes a welcome appearance, but his character is far more prominent as an offscreen presence and he’s only physically present for one brief scene. Natasha Lyonne lends her voice to one scene as Otis’ mother, and she’s barely even audible. Maika Monroe is supposedly in the cast somewhere — I assume she was the unnamed girl Otis spent that wild night with in the opening before everything went sideways. Blink and you’ll miss her.

The film looks perfectly fine. There are some neat choices in the editing, and a few moments when the two timelines are spliced together in clever little ways. The handheld camerawork is nicely immersive, and there are some powerful shots in extreme close-up. The recurring use of chickens made for a quirky little motif — in context, it’s something ubiquitous and mundane that nobody else but Otis could possibly associate with his father.

Honey Boy packs a lot into its 94-minute runtime. The central Otis/James relationship is so dense with layers and complexities that there’s simply no substitute for watching all of it played out onscreen. Of course a lot of that is due to wonderful performances from Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges, and a career-redefining turn from Shia LaBeouf. Between LaBeouf’s overwhelming passion and intimate knowledge of the subject, and Alma Har’el’s deft touch at keeping everything just heightened enough without going completely off the rails, the two of them put together a damned fine movie.

Definitely check this out if you get a chance.

Queen and Slim

Posted December 2, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

You probably didn’t see The Hate U Give or Blindspotting last year. And that’s a damn shame because the both of them were easily the most powerful, modern, thought-provoking films about institutional racism to come out in the past several years. They both excelled for multiple reasons, but it’s worth noting that the both of them deal heavily with police brutality, with a specific focus on traffic stops gone horribly wrong.

It’s a tragic and deeply uncomfortable truth that too many people of color have been gunned down by police for little reason if any, and the offending cops typically face little in the way of consequence. It’s a horrifying world in which black people can be executed without trial for something as inoffensive as selling loose cigarettes. In the absolute worst-case scenario, a racist — he wouldn’t even need a badge, as George Zimmerman proved! — could straight-up murder a black person for no reason at all and let the lawyers make up some justification after the fact.

Yes, cops are overworked and burned out, dealing with a stressful, complex, and highly important job. They’re doing exceedingly dangerous work and they need a system to protect them. Moreover, it makes perfect sense that cops would stand up for each other, especially when nobody else will. The problem is that the system that keeps good and honest officers safe is the same system that protects violent bullies with no business carrying a badge or a gun.

When cops gun down innocent civilians, and the system protects corrupt officers against the people they’re sworn to protect and serve, what can we do? When people of color are far and away more likely to be arrested or outright killed just for drawing the attention of a police officer, who or what are they supposed to turn to if justice needs serving?

This is where we are, folks. This is where the bar has to be set. This is what racism looks like in America today. This is the system that directly targets people of color, disenfranchising them, enslaving them, and even outright killing them. If a movie is going to try and talk about racism without talking about it in these terms, it’s nothing more than useless pandering.

And I haven’t even gotten to the movie yet. Rent a U-Haul and order some pizza, folks — we’ve got a lot to unpack here.

Queen and Slim tells the story of Angela Johnson and Earnest Hines, respectively played by Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya. I don’t recall if they’re ever actually called “Queen” or “Slim” at any point in the story — in fact, I don’t think they’re mentioned by name at all until the last few minutes — but let’s call them Queen and Slim for simplicity’s sake.

Anyway, Queen is a defense attorney whose client just got sentenced to execution. Naturally quite upset, she decides to vent by going on a random Tinder date with Slim. Things are going okay until Slim starts driving Queen home and the both of them are pulled over on some minor technicality.

The transparently racist white cop (played by Sturgill Simpson) escalates a minor swerve to a missed traffic signal, then to a suspected DUI, then goes rooting around looking for illicit substances until he finds some errant comment as an excuse to pull a gun, then comes the excessive force… it’s all exactly as we’ve seen on the news far too many tragic times. In fact, we eventually learn that this same officer previously got acquitted after gunning down a totally different innocent black person in an unrelated incident.

But here’s the twist: Slim doesn’t die. Neither does Queen, in fact. Instead, Slim was lucky enough to get the officer’s gun and shoot him in self-defense, killing him instantly. So now Queen and Slim are both fugitives from the law, forced to run throughout the country without phones or credit cards in search of safe harbor.

Obviously, we’ve got white people who’ve branded our protagonists as hardened bloodthirsty murderers, ditto for law enforcement officers of every stripe at every level of government. But of course we also have people of every color who think that the cop killing was totally justified. Yet the movie doesn’t stop there.

We see people who don’t know or don’t care about the ongoing manhunt, but they’re very interested in saving their own skin and/or getting the bounty. We also see cops of every color who are sick of the corruption in their ranks, and willing to look the other way. We see black people who think that Queen and Slim should’ve kept their heads down and taken their lumps from that cop. On the extreme other end of the spectrum, we’ve got the revolutionaries looking for any excuse to pick a fight with crooked cops, using Queen and Slim as rallying figures.

It’s a matter of escalation. Cops get away with murdering black people, so other racist cops figure they can get away with it too. So what happens when black people get away with murdering cops? And what will the cops do about it when they’re already paranoid and racially prejudiced as it is?

There’s an especially powerful moment involving a black police officer (played by Lucky Johnson) placed in mortal peril, and it’s pretty clear he only wants to do his job and go home. In that moment, he wasn’t really all that different from Queen and Slim themselves: Decent and well-meaning people swept up by circumstance and painted in broad strokes by society at large. In the case of the police officer, he got caught up in the image of law enforcement as this monolithic terror maintaining the white capitalist patriarchal status quo at the point of a gun (ie. “All Cops Are Bastards”). In the case of Queen and Slim, they got caught up in their greater cultural image as folk heroes who fought the unjust law and won to run away from greater injustice. In both cases, there’s an inherent humanity that’s lost.

Tales and iconography are prominent in the film. They give us something to believe in, and something to aspire to. Yet they also do a grave disservice to their subjects by elevating them into something larger than life — flawless and pure as no human ever is. Yet these stories, these pictures of us are all that’s left of us after we’re dead, and so many don’t even get that much.

Lin-Manuel Miranda famously wrote that nobody has any control who lives, who dies, and who tells whose story. This movie goes a step further and asks who — or what — really does get to make those decisions. Is it God, fate, destiny, or something else? Why was it the cop who died that night, and not Queen or Slim? Why do these unassuming and unremarkable people get nationwide infamy and their story told everywhere?

Alas, the same questions could be asked of Trayvon Martin, Stephon Clark, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and too many others. Such are the times we live in.

Yet while the movie is focused on death, there’s a lot of life to this movie as well. The filmmakers aren’t afraid to take detours to show the characters having fun and trying something new together. These scenes don’t really add anything to the plot, yet there’s always an underlying tension by virtue of the fact that they’re on the run and wasting time they don’t have. Then again, when either or both of them could die at any minute, what better time to cut loose and live a little? Hell, it’s almost like an act of defiance, to enjoy life without fear for even a minute while the Powers That Be want them cowering afraid in the shadows. It’s love and laughter that make life worth living, and they ain’t dead yet.

It’s also worth noting that their most reliable sympathizers are black people, and they’re most likely to be spotted on freeways and heavily populated areas. As a direct result, the film works beautifully as a celebration of African-American culture, businesses, and neighborhoods that don’t typically get a lot of love or attention in mainstream media. That said, one unfortunate example includes Queen’s uncle (Earl, played by Bokeem Woodbine), a pimp with his own posse of hookers (the primary ones are played by Indya Moore and Melanie Halfkenny). I’ve certainly seen worse depictions of sex workers, but it still grated me to see legitimate black-owned restaurants and auto shops depicted alongside a pimp who treats his workers as property. (His words, not mine.)

That said, Bokeem Woodbine has charisma to burn, and he’s playing this role for all it’s worth. The same cannot be said for Chloe Sevigny — she’s given so little to do and she’s putting in so little effort, I have to wonder why she showed up at all. I was, however, shocked to learn that her husband was played by Flea — I never would’ve recognized him!

We’ve got all manner of other supporting players stepping in and out of the movie, but of course this show is all about Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya. The both of them are sensational, bringing heavily dynamic performances with sizzling chemistry. I never got tired of watching the both of them work off each other, playing strangers so different that they shouldn’t stand each other — and often don’t — and yet complement each other perfectly.

Kudos are also due to Melina Matsoukas, a prominent music video director who recently made the jump to TV and here makes her feature debut. She crafted a good-looking movie here, with nicely immersive hand-held camerawork and some inspired editing choices. My personal favorite example is the race riot intercut with the sex scene — that was a bold choice and it works surprisingly well. We also get a fair bit of voiceover, delivered in a way that makes more emotional sense than literal sense — I’m sincerely glad that Moonlight primed the pump for that kind of effect.

Queen and Slim is everything you could hope a race-centric movie to be. It’s timely and bold, it’s heartrending and intelligent, it’s angry and incendiary without losing track of hope. It goes to a lot of places precious few other filmmakers would dare, and uses the premise as a springboard to talk about more universal and existential topics.

On top of all that, it’s superbly acted and beautifully shot, with inspired editing choices. This is often a tough film to watch, but definitely not one to miss.

Knives Out

Posted November 28, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

I was on hiatus when Star Wars: The Last Jedi first saw wide release. In fact, Star Wars: The Last Jedi was very specifically stated as a minor reason why I went on hiatus. Even before the film had been released, I knew that it was a critic-proof movie that I had nothing to gain from reviewing. And dear sweet gods above, did I dodge a bullet — even I could never have predicted the overwhelmingly toxic ongoing shitstorm kicked up by that movie. It’s become utterly impossible to voice any kind of opinion on Star Wars: Episode VIII, and luckily, I won’t have to go kicking up that particular hornet’s nest for another month.

Still, the subject is worth bringing up for one Rian Johnson, the writer/director of TLJ. As with the movie itself, separating fact from fiction with regards to Johnson has become nigh-impossible over the past two years. I’ve heard from reliable sources that he’s a misogynist egomaniac, and I’ve heard from reputable filmmakers that he’s a really sweet guy.

But regardless of all the rumors and hearsay, regardless of how I or anybody else feels about Rian Johnson, there’s one undeniable fact that remains true: Brick is fucking awesome. The Brothers Bloom is also really great, and Looper is pretty solid too. Say what you will about him, but there can be little doubt that Johnson is one hell of a filmmaker. I just don’t know if big-budget tentpoles are really his thing.

So here we are with Knives Out, in which Johnson goes back to his roots and gives us a straightforward whodunit potboiler. A murder mystery from the writer/director of Brick, with an additional fifteen years of experience and star power. Thus he’s able to assemble a phenomenal cast, comprised of such talents as Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Jaeden Martell nee Lieberher, Riki Lindhome, Katherine Langford, and motherfucking Frank Oz. Also, I’m pretty sure Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a voice-over cameo in there somewhere.

The premise is a tangled web and it’s gonna get messy, so get your scorecards ready and buckle up.

The Victim: Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer. He’s a massively successful mystery thriller author with millions of books sold in dozens of different languages all over the world. He’s amassed a fortune worth several millions of dollars, he lives in a remote and extravagant mansion, and he invited his massive family over for his 85th birthday party. And at some point in the hours immediately following the party, he died under mysterious circumstances.

Suspects (Group 1): Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) is Harlan’s eldest child. She and her husband (Richard Drysdale, played by Don Johnson) are real estate moguls who’ve built up their own massive enterprise, though possible marital problems may be placing that business in jeopardy. It certainly doesn’t help that their son (inexplicably named Hugh Ransom Drysdale, played by Chris Evans) is the jackass playboy black sheep of the family.

Suspects (Group 2): The middle child of the family has been dead for several years, so we never meet him and he isn’t technically a suspect. He is survived by his wife (Joni Thrombey, played by Toni Collette), a vapid spoiled socialite with her own failing beauty treatment company. There’s also her daughter (Meg Thrombey, played by Katherine Langford), who’s going to college on Grandpa Harlan’s dime.

Suspects (Group 3): Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) is the youngest of Harlan’s children, married to the dim-witted Donna Thrombey (Riki Lindhome). They have a son (Jacob Thrombey, played by Jaeden Martell nee Lieberher), who doesn’t say much in person, but apparently spends all his time online as an incendiary alt-right troll. More importantly, Walt is responsible maintaining the rights, licenses, and published editions of his father’s written works. And much to Walt’s continuous chagrin, Harlan has repeatedly insisted on refusing all film and TV adaptations, thereby passing up potential billions of dollars.

(Side note: It’s amusing to note that this is the second time Michael Shannon has played father to Jaeden Lieberher, after the woefully underrated Midnight Special in 2016.)

The Detectives: LaKeith Stanfield is on hand as Lieutenant Elliott, a local detective who continues to insist that Harlan Thrombey’s death was a suicide. He’s assisted by Noah Segan in the role of Trooper Wagner, an obsessive fan of Harlan Thrombey and other murder mystery authors. But our main detective for the evening is Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig with a comically thick southern accent. Blanc is a world-renowned private detective who’s been hired by some unknown client (Unknown even to Blanc himself!) to investigate the death of Harlan Thrombey.

The Nurse: Our de facto protagonist is none of the above-named characters, but Marta, played by Ana de Armas. In his waning years, Harlan hired Marta to be his caregiver and loyal confidante. She’s a young woman from some unspecified country south of the border, working hard to support her undocumented mother (played by Marlene Forte).

It’s worth noting that with the exception of the detectives, Marta is the only one in the entire cast who’d have nothing to gain from Harlan’s death. Perhaps more importantly, Marta has some strange nervous gastrointestinal condition that makes it utterly impossible for her to lie. (Mystery Thriller 101: Every suspect is a liar.)

So you’d think Marta couldn’t possibly be a suspect and she’d have nothing to hide, right? Well, don’t bet on it.

For those keeping track, Frank Oz turns in a brief yet noteworthy performance as Harlan’s personal lawyer. We’ve also got K Callan as Harlan’s invalid mother, providing a bit of slightly ageist yet nonetheless welcome comic relief. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Edi Patterson as the housekeeper who may or may not know more than she’s letting on.

(Side note: In case you’re wondering, there is no butler.)

Am I missing anything? Did you get all that? Good.

Obviously, spoilers prevent me from going too much further into the plot and premise. Suffice to say that everything about this from a filmmaking perspective is positively golden. The camerawork is phenomenal, the editing is a master class, and the whole production design is bursting with character. The setups are devilishly intricate and the payoffs are deceptively simple. Hell, even the red herrings and throwaway gags pay off in satisfying and unexpected ways.

But for me, the true stroke of genius was in solving the death an hour in. There’s a flashback scene that clearly and unmistakably shows Harlan Thrombey’s death, shown in vivid detail before our very eyes. With half the movie left to go. Thus the family drama takes center stage, with the secrets and politics that arise from the direct aftermath of Harlan Thrombey’s demise. And as the ensuing drama unfolds, more loose ends start to unravel, leading to the question of whether there just might be more that we don’t know, and how any additional details could possibly square with what we’ve already seen.

Which brings us back to Marta. Without going too deeply into spoilers, it should be obvious that Harlan’s loyal caregiver plays a vital role in these proceedings, and the whole family is happy to treat her as one of their own. Even though none of them can seem to keep it straight which country she’s actually from.

They’re all too perfectly happy to take good care of her, but they’re utterly terrified at the possibility that any one of them may have to depend on her grace and compassion as their patriarch did. They’re all want to keep her around as their Token Colored Friend, just so long as she knows her place. As soon as they don’t have a use for her, she’s just another illegal immigrant.

There’s one noteworthy scene in which the family gets into a heated argument along political lines. And though he’s never mentioned by name, the terminology makes it perfectly clear that they’re bickering about our 45th president and his *ahem* immigration policy. Thus the filmmakers send the clear point that it’s not about Republicans or Democrats, red versus blue. When the chips are down, the white and wealthy of both political parties will unite to protect their property and keep the poor POC in their place.

It’s also worth noting that all of Harlan’s children and in-laws have their own businesses and call themselves self-made successes. This despite the fact that their father was fabulously wealthy and all of them would be dead broke without his ongoing support. It’s a flagrant hypocrisy that the movie explicitly calls them out on, thus serving as a huge thematic point and a prominent motive for any of them to commit murder. Genius.

Alas, with such a massive cast in such a convoluted plot, some actors are going to fall through the cracks. Case in point, Jaeden Martell nee Lieberher is already such a battle-tested talent at such a young age, I was genuinely disappointed to see how little he got here. Riki Lindhome is barely present, but of course a comic actor of Lindhome’s caliber can make a memorable performance with less. Edi Patterson blends into the wallpaper when she needs to, but she totally fails to make an impression the one time it matters.

The standout of the cast is unquestionably Ana de Armas, here shouldering a far more prominent and dynamic role than I’ve ever seen from her. I’ve seen some great supporting roles from her in the past (see: War Dogs and Blade Runner 2049), but this film is proof that she deserves to be a leading lady and pronto. Her development arc throughout the film was a joy to behold, and I love how the film incorporates race in a meaningful way without getting too preachy or slowing the film down. Marvelous work.

Everyone else in the cast is varying shades of camp. The actors all know exactly what movie they’re in, and they know they’re all playing characters who could potentially kill or be killed at any moment. They’re having a blast and they’re appropriately fun to watch. Easily the most prominent case in point is Daniel Craig, a thoroughly and unmistakably British man wielding a Kentucky-fried southern charm. The anachronism is inherently off-putting, and it leads the audience to wonder exactly how full of shit this detective really is. Kudos are also due to LaKeith Stanfield, who brings a welcome bit of calm and decorum to keep his character from being a cartoonishly bumbling stereotype. Instead, it’s Noah Segan playing the bumbling oaf, and the two play well off each other.

Knives Out is an old-fashioned whodunit with a distinctly modern style. The film has a lot to say about social inequalities in race and wealth, delivered in a boldly topical style that gives the film a timely thematic punch. The highly relevant themes, the stellar cast, the precision plotting, and the crackerjack editing all help to flavor a deeply satisfying mystery thriller.

Of course there are a few niggling plot holes and I can’t speak to how well it’ll hold up on repeat viewings. But it’s absolutely a movie you should see at least once, as quickly as possible.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Posted November 24, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

It’s Tom Hanks playing Mister Rogers.

Yes, there’s a lot more to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, but that really should be the only selling point you need. This is no-brainer, slam-dunk, grand-slam, note-perfect casting on a level that we haven’t been lucky enough to see since… well, since Hanks played Walt Disney, come to think of it.

Of course Hanks is every bit as brilliant as you’d expect. It’s a transformative and uncanny performance that perfectly captures the endless curiosity, compassion, patience, and childlike joy that we’ve all come to expect from Fred Rogers and his TV persona.

(Side note: It was recently discovered — after the film had been shot — that Tom Hanks and Fred Rogers are in fact sixth cousins. That’s about as far apart as two cousins can reasonably call themselves, but still.)

Yet Hanks is such a supreme acting talent that with only the faintest squint of his eye, he hints at something else going on under the surface — it could be the burden of carrying so many others’ pain, it could be the knowledge of his own encroaching age and approaching mortality, or it could be anything else. In any case, it’s something that Rogers is working through by doing his best to leave a positive impact in the world.

In a recent interview, Chris Cooper (more on him later) talked about working with Hanks in this movie, and he described it as “looking into the eyes of God.” I couldn’t put it better myself.

Even so, Hanks is only a prominent supporting player here. This is absolutely a movie about Mister Rogers, but it’s not his story or his biopic. So if you somehow still need more reasons to go see the movie, read on.

The film is loosely inspired by an Esquire article about Mister Rogers titled “Can You Say… Hero?”, written by Tom Junod. In this heavily fictionalized account of the article’s development, our protagonist is an Esquire correspondent named Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys. He’s got a reputation as a hard-hitting investigative journalist, with at least one industry award to his name. So naturally, it comes as a blow to his ego when he’s assigned to write a 400-word puff piece on a PBS kids’ show host in Pittsburgh.

It bears remembering that Lloyd is an investigative journalist by trade — while he’s a man of integrity with a strong sense of justice, he’s also got the scars to show for his years in covering wars and politicians and whatnot. There’s also the recent development that his wife (Andrea, played by Susan Kelechi Watson) recently gave birth, so now Lloyd has to figure out how to be a father. It certainly doesn’t help that Lloyd has his own metric ton of unresolved daddy issues and childhood trauma, all of which blows up in a big way when his father (Jerry, played by Chris Cooper) suddenly comes in and tries to reconnect.

Put simply, the man is a wreck. He’s jaded, he’s cynical, he’s a pathological workaholic, and he refuses to forgive his fuck-up father. What’s worse, he’s internalized all of this to an unhealthy degree and it’s clearly destroying him. He’s utterly miserable and it looks like spite is all that’s keeping him going.

And then he meets Mister Rogers.

Of course — as with so many people who’ve ever seen or heard of Mister Rogers — Lloyd’s first instinct is to think that this guy is way too good to be true. So he interviews Mister Rogers with an eye toward getting under his skin, trying to see what makes him tick. Surely, there has to be some underlying trauma, some inner demon, to balance all this out. How can there possibly be this much light without any darkness?

That’s about the time when Mister Rogers brings out his puppets. Of course Lloyd doesn’t want to talk with Daniel Striped Tiger, he wants to keep asking Mister Rogers how he deals with the stress of his job. In response, I wanted to scream “Dude! You’ve got your answer! He’s showing you right now!

To make it perfectly clear, Mister Rogers quickly appoints himself as a kind of spiritual guide for Lloyd. As he did with so many kids and adults, Mister Rogers approaches Lloyd with a sympathetic ear, endless humility and patience, and an uncanny gift for silence. As busy as Mister Rogers clearly is, he takes the time and pays the attention to make it clear that Lloyd Vogel’s well-being is the single most important thing to him in the whole world at that exact moment.

In short, Lloyd Vogel is a case study for Mister Rogers. He’s a textbook example of the lives that Mister Rogers changed for the better. Yet Vogel isn’t some supporting character with a minor subplot, he’s the protagonist and his redemptive arc is the driving force of the plot. Vogel isn’t there to hold up Mister Rogers, it’s the other way around. That was a bold and deeply inspired move.

At one point in the film (to paraphrase), Mister Rogers states that fame isn’t merely an end in itself, and what’s done with that fame is far more important. There’s another point when Joanne Rogers (played in a brief yet rock-solid supporting turn by Maryann Plunkett) says they don’t really appreciate Mister Rogers being called a saint, because that implies he’s something greater that no mortal man could ever aspire to.

Nobody else could ever be Mister Rogers, and that’s okay — a core part of his ethos is the notion that we all matter and we’re all important precisely because every single one of us is wholly unique. Yet we can all learn from his example in making the world a kinder and more understanding place. Through his TV show, Mister Rogers showed us how. And through the example of Lloyd Vogel, the filmmakers show us how.

I’ve already heaped a ton of well-deserved praise on Tom Hanks, but it’s worth coming back to him to note the subtle ways in which we get to see Mister Rogers dealing with his own stress and anger. On occasion, the film will cut to Mister Rogers swimming laps or praying for people by name, and those moments are so much more powerful precisely because we’ve been told in advance that it’s how he deals with stress. My personal favorite example comes when he hits the lowest notes on a piano as hard as he can — you’ll know it when you see it. All of this serves to humanize Mister Rogers in a subtle and elegant way without detracting from his persona or distracting from the main plot. Magnificent.

Matthew Rhys deserves a great deal of credit as the film’s anchor. He makes it clear that Lloyd is toxic and self-destructive, but he’s not a cartoonish grump. The character nicely develops into a better human being and a more devoted father, but the development arc doesn’t feel overly cloying or anodyne. He strikes an ideal middle ground that will feel immediately relatable to anyone living with the stresses of modern adult life. Beautifully done.

Yet the film’s true unsung hero here is Chris Cooper. He’s spent the past several years playing so many different kinds of assholes, and all of that experience pays off in a big way here. He elegantly plays Jerry as a man with a long history of deeply hurtful behavior, and he doesn’t want to be that person anymore, but it’s still an open question as to whether he can change or make amends. There are so many shades of grey here that a lesser actor could never have delivered. It’s extraordinary work.

The rest of the supporting cast is perfectly solid, but it’s the restaurant scene in the third act that I really want to talk about. If you’ve seen the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — and if you haven’t, you should absolutely get on that because it’s amazing — you will recognize a lot of faces in that restaurant scene. It’s almost like the filmmakers reached out to anyone with any living memory of Fred Rogers and gave them a cameo in that scene. Beautiful.

All that’s left is to talk about the more stylistic touches. Most notably, all the exterior shots are presented as moving dioramas in the style of Mister Rogers’ television show. It’s a cute touch, but I don’t think it necessarily works as a “one size fits all” approach. There are some emotionally heightened moments when it works beautifully, and there are some less remarkable moments when a photo-real establishing shot might have been preferable.

And then there’s the dream sequence. I’m sorry, but for me, that was going a step too far. For one thing, it involves Mister Rogers himself appearing in the Land of Make-Believe, a line that the real Fred Rogers insisted on never crossing in the actual show. More importantly, the rest of the film was extremely careful in maintaining a perfect balance between the whimsical and the authentic. I know a dream sequence can get away with shooting that balance straight to hell, but I still found the tonal shift extremely jarring. Moreover, while the protagonist certainly needed to be taken down a peg or two, making him an outright punchline like that was an unwise move.

That said, the dream sequence does end with a beautifully moving scene between Lloyd and his late mother (played by Jessica Hecht). That was a tearjerking and indispensable scene, I just wish there was a better way of incorporating it into the plot.

Yet any points I take away for the film’s extremely minor flaws, I have to give right back tenfold because of two simple letters: PG. Yes, this is very clearly a PG-rated film. It’s a movie that deals with mortality, parenthood, marital infidelity, alcoholism, and other heavy themes in an uncompromising way that might have fit right at home in a PG-13 film. It’s a movie very clearly built for adults, about learning from a kids’ show host and applying his lessons to a cruel and chaotic grown-up world. And the filmmakers deliver all of this in a movie that parents can watch and enjoy with their kids. That in itself is a tremendous accomplishment.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a delightful companion piece to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and a marvelous film in its own right. The performances are incredible across the board, anchored by Tom Hanks in the role of a lifetime (which is really saying something, in the case of Tom Hanks). The whole movie is a beautiful celebration of Mister Rogers, exemplifying what made him such a hugely important figure and how we can all learn from his example to make the world a better place.

Yes, it might easily come off as saccharine, but if you’re the type to complain about a Mister Rogers movie being saccharine, you’re probably the type who needs this movie most of all. This one gets a strong recommendation. Definitely check it out.

Though seriously, if you haven’t seen Won’t You Be My Neighbor? yet, do yourself a favor and get on that ASAP.

Frozen II

Posted November 23, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Somewhere out there, in all the different planes of the multiverse, there is a universe in which “The Snow Queen” made history as the first animated feature-length film ever made. Yes, Disney had been toying with an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale since before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For literally as long as the company has been in existence, Disney had been trying on again and off again to crack this story. For over seven decades, through the wartime propaganda phase to the post-Walt era to the ’90s Renaissance and the rise of Pixar and the CGI resurgence of Disney animation, the best and brightest at the House of Mouse simply could not figure out how to adapt this story to cinema, or how to wrap their heads around the titular queen.

The film was put back into development hell for the last time in 2010. They were rewriting the damn thing right up through June 2013. Remember, that’s five months before the film was finally released.

In hindsight, it’s little wonder the promotion for the film was such a pitiable clusterfuck. The trailers were outrageously bad, and the posters barely even showed the characters. Even the title was hastily changed to Frozen, very likely to distance the film from their precious Disney Princess lineup, thereby preserving their preteen girl fanbase while hopefully courting any preteen boys who might otherwise be turned away by a movie about princesses.

Frozen was a fluke. It was a happy little miracle that somehow came together into a world-conquering smash hit franchise. Of course a sequel was inevitable, and now Disney finally knew and appreciated what they had. Or did they?

On the one hand, Disney immediately threw the full weight of its unstoppable vertically integrated media machine behind the franchise. Anna and Elsa were quickly inducted as centerpieces of the Disney Princess lineup, and Olaf practically became Disney’s answer to the Minions. We got theatrically released short films, the Disney theme park rides, “Let it Go” on a ubiquitous infinite loop, endless oceans of merchandise, and even other Disney franchises destroyed for the sake of crossover cameos. (Pour one out for Wreck-it-Ralph.) The Mouse spared no expense whatsoever toward keeping Frozen in the pop-culture zeitgeist, getting us good and ready for a sequel that would inevitably be made with the full financial and creative support of the studio.

But on the other hand, while the notion of a sequel was of course inevitable, it raises an inherent conundrum: How to replicate the success of a film that succeeded purely by accident. How do you create the illusion that a second film had been planned all along when the first film barely had any planning to begin with? Looking back at the 75-year shitshow that was this movie’s development, and looking at the multibillion-dollar goliath the film has become, how in the Nine Hells did we even get here from there?

The easiest answer is in pointing to the Disney Princess trope subversion, delivering a princess who didn’t necessarily need a romantic interest and didn’t fall instantly in love with the first handsome man she met. In fact, it was such a radical and lucrative notion that Disney proceeded to use it over and over again in the subsequent five years. Hell, they practically made selective and strategic self-subversion the raison d’etre for their ongoing “live-action remake” phase. With their one great novelty (which wasn’t even all that new to begin with — Enchanted and Tangled had both primed the pump for it) more or less reduced to a cliche and thus rendered unusable, what else could Frozen II capitalize on?

Honestly, I don’t think the filmmakers could figure that out. Nobody had any idea what made the last film so effective, so they instead chose to focus on what made the last film marketable.

Obviously, that means bringing back Idina Menzel as Elsa. Of course we also need Kristen Bell at her right hand, reprising the optimistic effervescence of Anna and getting some songs of her own. Josh Gad is a given — hell, it feels like half the sequel mostly consists of Olaf clowning around and spouting non-sequiturs. He also gets a shit-ton of slapstick physical humor, as if to rub in our faces that the character is literally indestructible and we’re stuck with him forever regardless of whether we like it or not.

Oh, and let’s bring back Jonathan Groff to play Kristoff while we’re at it. It’d just be weird not to at this point. What’s that? Ciaran Hinds wants to come back and phone in another exposition dump? Sure, why not? It’s maybe two minutes of voice-over and the money’s there.

Is there a plot? Does it even matter? *heavy sigh* Okay, I’ll try my best to make this quick.

The film opens with an extended prologue, detailing a time long before Anna and Elsa were even born, back when their father (Agnarr, gamely voiced by Alfred Molina) was barely much more than a boy himself. Their grandfather (King Runeard, voiced by Jeremy Sisto) brokered a peace deal with an enchanted forest far to the north. This particular forest was populated by the tribe of Northuldra, gifted with the ability to work in magical harmony with the elemental spirits of the forest.

Things were going great until the peace deal broke down for unclear reasons. Runeard was killed, Agnarr was spirited home through unknown means, and the entire forest was covered in impenetrable mist. In all the years since, nobody’s ever gone in and nothing has ever come out.

Flash forward to about three years after the previous film. Elsa starts hearing a mysterious singing voice from the north, just before weird magical shenanigans force the entire kingdom of Arendelle to evacuate. Our heroes deduce that something strange is happening in the forest up north, so they set out to investigate and hopefully save both kingdoms.

To be entirely honest, it’s not really a plot or a movie so much as it’s a concept album. I know that may sound like a petty criticism, like I’m bagging on the musical for being a musical, but it’s so patently obvious that the filmmakers are more interested in selling soundtracks and trying to recapture the last movie’s lightning in a bottle. And they never really do.

Take, for example, Josh Gad’s big number. “When I Am Older” is set against a series of weird paranormal shenanigans happening all around Olaf in this strange forest he knows nothing about, and how he’ll presumably be a lot less scared of everything when he’s older and wiser and knows everything. The comical irony is in Olaf’s assumption that the whole world makes sense when you’re grown up. Compare that to the comical irony of “In Summer” from the last film, in which a snowman yearns for summer while blissfully ignorant of the fact that he’ll melt. That’s a strangely endearing kind of dark comedy the sequel never even aspires to.

Elsa gets a couple of huge numbers. “Into the Unknown” is a fun little number, but it only works if we assume that Elsa is going stir-crazy in Arendelle. After the prologue, Kristoff’s abortive attempts at proposing to Anna, and that massive Arendelle festival number, there’s no time at all in the first act to show the audience that Elsa is doubting her own abilities as the queen of Arendelle, and thus the whole angle falls flat.

The other big one is “Show Yourself”, which other critics have already singled out as a subtle kind of queer-coding for Elsa.

(Side note: Gay marriage is still illegal in China, and issues of LGBTQ equality are still a massively controversial hot-button topic over there. So as long as Hollywood keeps courting that lucrative Chinese box office, don’t expect to see any kind of substantial gay representation in blockbuster media anytime soon.)

Both of these songs are okay, primarily due to the phenomenal production and Idina Menzel’s powerhouse vocals. The big problem is that they’re so obviously trying to be “Let it Go”, directly inviting doomed comparisons. To start with, “Let it Go” is a landmark transformative moment for the character, a liberating payoff to half a movie’s worth of captive setup. Elsa doesn’t really have any huge threshold-breaking moments like that in the sequel, in large part because all the musical numbers leave so little time for setup, which in turn leads to weak payoffs.

Moreover, “Let it Go” — the chorus, anyway — works as a standalone anthem of empowerment. Anyone (most especially the target audience of preteen girls) can listen to it or sing along with it and feel like they’re breaking free of all constraints and chasing their full potential. By comparison, both of Elsa’s songs are so specifically tailored to her exact situation in those exact moments that they can’t possibly work the same way. Can you picture anyone bolstering their confidence with a chorus of “Into the Unknown” or reaching out to someone with a few bars of “Show Yourself”? I mean, if they can, more power to them, but I find it a bit of a stretch.

Funny enough, the closest thing this movie has to a “Let it Go” spiritual successor is probably “The Next Right Thing”. It’s a huge leap forward for Anna as a character, a song all about finding the courage to pick herself up and keep moving forward. Yet even that song falls way, WAY short of the mark because it never really kicks into gear or reaches the appropriate level of bombast. Also, with all respect to Kristen Bell, she’s no Idina Menzel.

Oh, and Kristoff gets an honest-to-God ’80s power ballad. Seriously, what the fuck?

Stepping away from the soundtrack and back to the film itself, I want to give the filmmakers credit for expanding the world beyond Arendelle. The Northuldra forest introduces all sorts of neat possibilities for the franchise moving forward, and I appreciated a bit more elaboration as to why everyone was so skittish about magic in the previous film.

Yet I have to take that credit right back for some transparently awful choices in the world-building. The elemental spirits were all clearly designed with merchandising in mind, but Disney would’ve made toys out of them anyway, so I can let that slide. What really gets stuck in my craw is the recurring plot device about how water has memory.

I’ll repeat that: Water has memory.

Which means that Elsa can summon the water particles that have apparently been sitting around after however many years, charge them with her ice magic, and they’ll automatically freeze into ice sculptures of specific moments in time. This is how the plot dispenses certain valuable clues at the prescribed moments in time.

Do I even need to explain why this could be the dumbest and laziest storytelling hand-wave ever committed to film? Even allowing for the fact that we’re dealing with magic here, this whole plot device immediately falls apart with even the most basic and cursory logic. Why is it this particular memory that crystallizes? Why don’t different water particles freeze into different memories? Why is that same water still there after so many years? How can water even remember anything or think of anything when IT’S JUST FUCKING WATER?!

The filmmakers also provide us with more details about Anna and Elsa’s parents and what they were doing out at sea to begin with, all without coming off as a cheap retcon. Impressive. Alas, it would be far more impressive if these huge discoveries were given enough time to breathe.

We are, after all, talking about the reason why Elsa has her powers. You’d think that revelation would be a colossal game-changing development for the franchise as a whole, and for Elsa in particular. But the filmmakers more or less sweep it under the rug in their rush to get to the next set piece. FAIL.

I could keep going, but I feel like pretty much everything else about this film — for better or worse — can be boiled down to the climax. I promise I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers.

Long story short, events unfold in such a way that Anna is on her own. She’s more or less back to where she was in the first movie, out on a dangerous mission with no one else to help her and no powers of her own. Once again, Anna has to prove to herself (and to the audience) that she’s not just Elsa’s sidekick, but a strong and capable hero in her own right. All well and good.

Moreover, the climax does technically hold the fate of both kingdoms at stake. There are giant monsters involved, there’s a huge set piece, and Anna puts herself at risk of mortal danger. Even on a technical level, the animation is great, the editing is fine, the camera angles and score are on point… It looks and feels like a huge blockbuster climax.

All that’s missing is tension.

For one thing, there’s simply no way to look at the film separately from its parent company. Disney made this film to sell merchandise, they made it to sell the main characters, we know perfectly well that none of them are getting killed off or altered in any serious way. Even Marvel and Star Wars are demonstrably less protective of their characters and status quo than Disney Animation.

Right at the very start of the film, Arendelle is subject to a massive natural disaster in which everyone survives and the kingdom is somehow still completely intact. There was a lot of noise, a lot of scary things happened, and no harm was ultimately done. In the opening minutes, the film sent the crystal-clear message that no substantial harm would come to anyone at any time.

But more than that, Anna is met with virtually no resistance throughout the entire climax. There is nothing of any substance between her and her goal. Even when the movie thinks about floating a potential obstacle in her way, it’s visibly tiny to the point of nonexistent and it crumbles away pretty much instantly with no time or effort.

Speaking of which, there’s the matter of the elemental spirits that started all of this. Obviously, I’m limited by spoilers here, but suffice to say that the spirits are pretty much completely in full control from start to finish. Everything happens exactly according to their plan. Not only does this seriously damage the agency of our main characters, but again, it completely robs the story of all tension. We’re never given any kind of an explanation as to why these spirits even needed our main characters or what could’ve possibly challenged these spirits in any way.

That’s not even getting started on the various plot holes that get introduced when we learn more about what these spirits are, what that mysterious voice is, or why it summoned Elsa up north. Hell, we never even learn why these spirits waited until this exact moment in time to bring Elsa up north, which means that the catalyst for this whole freaking movie goes completely unexamined.

Frozen II is all flash and no substance. The voice acting is all aces, the animation is jaw-dropping, and the songs are all immaculately produced. It looks amazing and it sounds amazing, but it all falls apart with even the most superficial examination. The plot is fundamentally broken and the filmmakers are in too big a hurry to rush to the next action scene and/or musical number, resulting in too much lazy world-building and too many botched payoffs.

Yet even as I see this film in theaters, I look at Playing with Fire and Arctic Dogs playing just next door. Given those choices, I would so much rather families take their kids to see a movie with genuine effort and heart put into it. A film that genuinely tries to be bigger and more ambitious, a sequel that takes its characters into a totally new journey in a markedly different setting, even if it’s hamstrung by the needs of franchising and merchandising.

In the final analysis, I’d say that the entire Frozen franchise has gotten too big for its own good. The first movie was clearly never designed to be a franchise on the scale that Disney built it up to be, and the sequel is the unfortunate victim of those over-inflated expectations. Still, the sequel is enjoyable enough in its own shallow way and (for better or worse) it doesn’t do anything to significantly injure the franchise.

I still don’t know how we got here from there, and I don’t know if anyone can say for sure. But while we’re here, let’s see where it goes.


Posted November 23, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

I’ll be honest, I was terrified just walking into this one.

The trailer for Parasite teased a premise about a dirt-poor family lying their way into the service of a wealthy family. That’s a fairly straightforward premise, with obvious possibilities for commentary about wealth disparity. But there had to be more than that, and I was more than a little anxious to find out what more there could possibly be.

To start with, there’s the title. The very word “parasite” conjures images of body horror, of one living being slowly and painfully killed for the sustenance of some terrible monster. Now multiply that by the level of bugfuck insanity one would expect from Korean cinema. And not just any Korean cinema, but the filmography of auteur Bong Joon-ho, he of Snowpiercer and Okja fame.

Put it all together and you get a film overflowing with critical acclaim. Seriously, the praise for this one is practically unanimous, with a Tomatometer at 99 percent as of this writing. Hell, this was the first movie to win the Palme d’Or by unanimous vote since Blue is the Warmest Color back in 2013!

So what exactly is it that we’ve got here? Well, let’s start over and see how much I can tell you.

Our story revolves around two families, each a standard Father/Mother/Son/Daughter nuclear family. The Kim Family is dirt-poor after a long streak of bad luck, unable to find any work aside from folding pizza boxes. (Yes, seriously.) The Park family patriarch is the head of some tech company, so the whole family is living in luxury with their every need immediately tended to.

Long story short, the late-teens Kim son (played by Choi Woo-Shik) gets hired as a new English tutor for the flighty adolescent Park daughter (played by Jung Ji-so). The catch is that to get this job, he has to devise a wholly new identity, complete with a fake backstory and phony documents. But why stop there?

The early-twenties Kim daughter (played by Park So-dam) is a preternatural liar with a knack for document forgery, and the Parks’ toddler son (played by Jung Hyun-joon) is a hyperactive terror who likes to make horrifying crayon drawings. So of course the Park parents (played by Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yeo-jeong) think their son is an artistic prodigy and hires the Kim daughter as his art tutor. After she comes up with another fake identity and more fake credentials, of course.

But do you really think it stops there? Who do you think we’re dealing with?

This whole scheme escalates in a huge way when the two kids conspire to get the Park family chauffeur and housekeeper (respectively played by Jung Hyun-joon and Lee Jung-eun) fired. Through more lies and manipulations, the Kim father (played by Song Kang-ho) is brought on as the new driver and the Kim mother (played by Jung Hyun-joon) takes her place as the new housekeeper.

Got all that? Good.

At this point, you might be wondering how the Park family could possibly be so gullible. Well, it might be more accurate to say that they’re used to living in comfort. They want everything to be easy and painless. They don’t like confrontation and they expect everything to be handed to them with no trouble. They don’t want to bother with interviewing people or sorting through candidates when they could simply hire someone who comes strongly recommended by someone they know and trust.

Moreover, the Parks are so secure in their wealth that it never occurs to them anything could possibly go wrong. Nobody could ever be stupid enough to try and rip them off, and they’re far too smart to fall for any con. So they see what they want to see, believe what they want to believe, and sweep any unpleasantries under the rug. Anything that doesn’t fit their happy and ordered little worldview simply doesn’t exist. So all the Kims need to do is feed into those delusional vanities and the Parks are theirs for the taking.

To be clear, the Parks are never portrayed as cartoonish capitalist stereotypes, but merely as products of their world. For instance, there’s one point in the back half when the whole city is deluged in what appears to be a freaking monsoon. The Kim family is forced to spend the night sleeping in communal housing, along with so many hundreds of others who got displaced or separated from their families in the floods. The Park family, meanwhile, merely sleeps through the bad weather without even thinking or knowing about all those affected. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s easy to understand where both families are coming from, most especially where grifting the wealthier family for shelter and sustenance is concerned.

And what of the Kims themselves? Well, of course they have a looming identity crisis, with the standing question of how long they can keep this charade going. How greedy they can truly afford to get before they reach too far. It’s too easy and too tempting to throw themselves into the lap of luxury, willfully forgetting that none of this is theirs and they got it through dishonest means. Of course this gets even more complicated when the Kim boy starts developing *ahem* unprofessional feelings for his pupil, and the Park boy acts creepy in a way that suggests he may not be your typical hyperactive kid.

Moreover, the Kims have to reckon with the fact that theirs is not a victimless crime. Two people have lost their jobs as a direct result of this con job. Two unsuspecting casualties, thrown to the same wasteland of poverty and unemployment that the Kims clawed their way out of. Employees who not only depended on the Park family, but knew the Parks and their household better than the Kims ever could.

Which brings us to the Big Twist. Of course there had to be some plot twist to kick the film into a higher gear, and whoo boy is it a doozy. How do I put this as spoiler-free as I can?

Somebody wiser than I once said that one of the most central jobs of a storyteller is to give the audience what they want, but not in the way that they expect. In this case, I’m referring to the moment when the charade finally comes apart and all the Kims’ lies catch up with them. If you think you know how that happens, I can guaran-goddamn-tee you that you’re wrong.

The entire back half of a film is one stupefying sucker punch after another. There are plot twists to break your heart, plot twists to blow your mind, and plot twists to churn your stomach. Through the spectacularly bloody climax and right up until the very last frame, the filmmakers show an uncanny knack for knowing exactly when and how to pull the rug out from under the audience.

Alas, while the vast majority of twists work surprisingly well at delivering surprises while keeping a coherent internal logic, there are a few turns and plotlines that fall flat. I’m specifically referring to one character who survives the climax even after what should have been a fatal blow. There’s also a Morse Code subplot with the Park boy that goes nowhere, though it’s nicely appropriated by the Kims later on. Also, while the tutor/student romance arc admittedly has its use, I still feel like I should object to the sleazy cliche on principle.

That aside, this is an extraordinary ensemble cast of compelling and fleshed-out characters. Even more than most, this is a film that lives and dies on the strength of the cast and their interplay. The inter-family maneuverings and manipulations have to be engaging, or the social satire and the whole damn plot fall apart. Just as importantly, the intra-family bonding has to be rock-solid if the characters are going to have any sympathy at all.

Pretty much all of the characters in this movie do awful things as the plot unfolds, and often their only justification is in the welfare of their families. The Kims’ love for each other is their reason for moving the plot forward, and the Park parents’ love for their kids is often the only sympathetic thing about them. This is the beating heart of the story. It’s what makes the first half such an endearing comedy and the second half… well, the second half.

What should you expect from Parasite? You should expect to go into a pitch-black comedy and come out with whiplash. The film perfectly rides the line between funny and horrifying, with the result that there’s no telling which way the filmmakers will go next. It’s a wickedly intelligent film with sharp yet subtle barbs for the bourgeoisie, yet it’s also a deeply poignant film about family. (NOT to be confused with a family film, that’s a crucial distinction.)

This one comes strongly recommended. Definitely check it out when you can.

My Summer as a Goth

Posted November 18, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

I’m still so far behind on my watch list that it’s insanely daunting, but tonight afforded me an opportunity for something I dearly wish I could cover more often: A true independent film. A movie without any big-name stars or even middle-tier stars. A film with no distributor, not even a perennial indie safe haven like A24 or Annapurna. A film with a budget that didn’t even crack a million dollars — post-production was funded through a crowdfunding campaign that raised all of $10,000.

Oh, and the film was set and shot in Portland. Always a surefire way to my heart.

My Summer as a Goth comes to us from director Tara Johnson-Medinger, she who took over and re-launched the Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival (the POW Film Fest, for short) in 2008. The following year, she co-founded the Portland chapter of Women in Film. Put simply, this is a professional who’s built her career on getting more women involved in cinema, and this project was very clearly built toward that end.

Johnson-Medinger also co-wrote the script, alongside childhood friend Brandon Lee Roberts. The film is semi-autobiographical, a fictionalized portrayal of their own coming of age in Salem. (Like the boring state capitol of Oregon, not the barbaric witch trials.) Let’s take it from the top, shall we?

This is the story of Joey, played by Natalie Shershow. She just wrapped up tenth grade, her father recently passed away, and her mother (Carissa, played by Sarah Overman) is going on a book tour. Thus Joey is heading out to spend the summer with her grandparents, played by Fayra Teeters and Jonas Israel. (Full disclosure: I’ve had the pleasure to meet Jonas multiple times in the local Portland theatre scene. He’s a gifted comic actor and a really sweet guy.)

Let’s pause for a moment. Joey is a teenage girl between school grades, and she just lost her father. That’s at least three massive life transitions right there. And at this exact moment in time, when she needs stability the most, she’s spending the summer away from her home, away from her friends, and her mom is off touring the country. Yes, it helps that Joey’s grandparents are more permissive and hip than your typical boomers, but they’re still not what she really needs right now.

Enter Victor (Jack Levis), the goth boy living next door. Joey is pretty much immediately swept away by this handsome and charming iconoclast, and Victor graciously agrees to introduce her to the goth lifestyle and all his kooky friends. All she has to do is dress like he tells her to, fix her makeup when he tells her to, go where he tells her to go, implicitly demanding complete obedience even when he ghosts her…

…I’m sorry, could you hear me over all those alarm bells going off? Just checking.

Yeah, there’s only one way this could possibly end, and that predictability drags the film down a bit. On the other hand, that’s kind of the point. Joey is a teenage girl in a bad place, and she’s looking for something new and exciting to raise her spirits. So she throws herself into an ill-advised fling that’s destined to end in heartbreak, no matter how many glaringly obvious warning signs come her way. We’ve all been there, especially at that age.

It certainly helps that Victor is perfectly, beautifully played as a charismatic and manipulative asshole. He’s more than smart enough and composed enough to give the impression that there might be something going on aside from the clothes and makeup, which makes it all the more heartbreaking to discover that no, his personality really is only skin-deep. It’s an extremely delicate balance, and Levis has it nailed.

It’s entirely understandable why Joey would fall for this guy, but perhaps more importantly, it’s understandable why she’d try her hand at a goth phase. From the very first scene, we see that Joey is preoccupied with death (specifically her father’s death), she’s a typical teenage girl in the process of trying to figure out who she is, and she keeps everyone at arm’s length with a snarky sense of humor. On paper, she sounds like perfect goth material.

With all of that said, I want to make it perfectly clear that the filmmakers obviously knew what they were doing with regards to portraying goths on film. It’s important to note that while other characters make fun of our characters for how they act and dress (Seriously, how could they not?) the goth aesthetic and lifestyle are never treated as jokes in themselves. For all the heartbreak and disappointment that Joey is destined for, the filmmakers are very clear in showing the poetry, the beauty, and the creativity inherent in goth culture. It’s a means for Joey to break the mold and discover her own unique aesthetic and identity, making her summer phase a net positive.

Even so, there comes a point when Joey is harshly reminded that there are many goths who take this whole thing extremely seriously. Vincent and his crew routinely hobknob with committed lifelong goths who’ve built their identities and lives around the goth lifestyle. The kind of hardcore goths who would look at Joey — who’s only been in the lifestyle for a couple of months — and brush her off as a poser. But even if Joey is relatively new to all of this, does that make her a poser? This brings us back to the central question: Who are you, Joey? What are you?

Put simply, the filmmakers portray goths in an authentic and human way, helping the audience understand the appeal without turning a blind eye to the drawbacks. Nicely done.

Of course all due credit must be given to Natalie Shershow, here delivering a perfectly charming lead performance. Major kudos are due for playing a moody and rebellious teenager without ever once grating the nerves or losing audience sympathy. Her comic timing is marvelous, but she also delivers the necessary pathos.

This is most especially visible in Joey’s relationship with her mother. It’s perfectly clear that Joey feels betrayed and neglected by her mom, who’s off on her book tour while Joey needs her most. The two of them are constantly stuck playing phone tag, such that they’re never available when they need each other. As a direct result, Joey ends up taking a lot of her grief out on her mother. It’s harsh, but understandable.

On the other hand, Joey never once stops to think about how her mom must be feeling. As if she isn’t mourning her husband every bit as much as Joey is mourning her father. As if she doesn’t have to work twice as hard now that they’ve gone from a double-income household to a single-income. The whole time Joey is throwing herself into a summer fling and a goth phase to distract from her pain, she never once stops to think that maybe her mom is immersing herself in her work for the same reason.

Of course, none of this necessarily makes Joey or her mom unsympathetic. They’re just stubborn and incapable of communicating with each other, not uncommon between mothers and teenage daughters. And again, they’re both so deep in mourning and dealing with so many emotions that they don’t know what to do with themselves or each other.

Then we have Joey’s grandparents. These two strike a fine balance in which they’re constantly struggling with the question of how much freedom to give Joey. On the one hand, they understand that Joey is going to experiment. They know she’s going to stay out late, go partying, have some alcohol, all that stuff. On the other hand, they clearly see where things are going with Victor. They know that things are going to go badly, and they want to make sure she stays safe.

(Side note: I was nicely impressed with how sex-positive the film is. Never once do we ever hear “Don’t have sex” from Joey’s mom or grandparents, it’s always “use protection”. Hell, even as skeevy and manipulative as Victor is, he’s very clearly good enough to take “no” for an answer.)

And lest we forget, Joey’s grandparents are presumably mourning for their son-in-law as well. They want to spend time with their granddaughter, and they want to be there for her in this fragile and emotional time. They might not be entirely fluent in her language, granted, but they’re very clearly putting in all the effort they possibly can.

It’s deeply heartwarming, and actually quite funny. Jonas has a finely honed dry wit that pays all sorts of dividends here, and his comic interplay with Fayra Teeters is adorable.

Oh, and as you might expect from a film about goths, the soundtrack kicks ass. Can’t forget about that part.

With all of that said, this movie’s got problems. Wow, does this movie have problems.

First and foremost is Antonio, a random teenaged punk played by Eduardo Reyes. I’m sorry to say that Reyes’ acting is comparatively wooden and his chemistry with Shershow is nowhere near where it needed to be. Even worse than that, Antonio had a nasty habit of appearing exactly where the plot needed him to be, even when he had no business being there. Granted, the filmmakers try to hand-wave that away, but it’s not enough — his appearances are still flimsy and contrived as all hell. As a direct result, he doesn’t really register as an actual person so much as he resembles a plot device.

Speaking of which, there’s the matter of Pen and Cob, respectively played by Jenny White and Carter Allen. These two lovers are goths eternally bound by blood oath, always looking for cutesy goth names for their band. That’s as much as these characters get. Beyond that, they’re very clearly not as hardcore goth as Victor and yet they’re more goth than Joey, falling into this nondescript middle ground between them. The end result is that they work well enough as comic relief and not so much as actual people.

Molly (Rachelle Henry) doesn’t even get that much. She’s Joey’s best friend, she shows up in the back half to warn Joey that Victor is bad news, and that’s basically it. She’s a two-dimensional character with a one-dimensional love interest, and that’s nowhere near enough to make for anything memorable.

Then we have the matter of Pandora, played by Sophie Giberson. She’s the beautiful full-fledged goth that Joey can only pretend to be. She’s not developed any further than that, but she doesn’t really need to be either, so that works out okay.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fight scene roughly half an hour in. To be perfectly blunt, it’s pathetic. The camera is moving every which way, the editing is all over the place, and it’s over in five seconds before anyone can figure out what happened. What a mess.

Last but not least, the film suffers for lack of a clear climax. There’s no one moment that feels like all or even most of the plotlines all coming to a head. This is especially frustrating because — without getting too deep into spoilers — there are a few moments that feel like they could’ve fit the bill. Joey gets her final confrontation with Victor, and she does inevitably get a shouting match with her mother, but neither of those feel appropriately painful enough, huge enough, or satisfying enough to be a worthy climax. And if the filmmakers had gone just a little bit further, they easily could have been. Damn shame.

Yet even with all of these glaring flaws, I still had a good time with My Summer as a Goth. It’s an exceedingly charming film, more than heartfelt enough to make for a compelling coming-of-age tale. The leading performances are more than solid enough to carry the weaker supporting turns, and the filmmakers’ sense of humor is sharp enough to balance out the weaker moments of storytelling. While some of the characters aren’t very well-developed, the film rings beautifully authentic with regards to Joey’s central development arc, where it really counts.

Keep an eye on the website and social media pages for further news. If it comes to a theater or a streaming service near you, check it out.

Doctor Sleep

Posted November 17, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Familiarity breeds complacency, and precious little kills horror faster than a sense of complacency. This is a huge problem in a genre so thoroughly dominated by James Wan and Steven Blum, or derivatives and knockoffs thereof. We need horror filmmakers who play by different rules. This is one of many reasons why Mike Flanagan is so terribly underrated.

This is the man who previously gave us Ouija: Origin of Evil, a prequel nobody asked for to a movie nobody wanted. Yet Flanagan somehow turned that into one of the best horror films of that year. And this was after he had already given us Oculus, a wildly creative and thoroughly discombobulating mindfuck of terror.

So here’s Doctor Sleep, in which Flanagan adapts Stephen King’s sequel to “The Shining”. This is a dicey proposition for a few reasons, not least of which is that King quite famously hated the iconic Kubrick adaptation of “The Shining” and its radically different ending. So of course King wrote a sequel to the novel iteration, flying in the face of the better-known film iteration.

In the end, what exactly do we have here? A sequel to the novel, a sequel to the film, or something that tries to find common ground between them? Well, let’s take a look.

For those just tuning in, Doctor Sleep (both the book and the film adaptation) catches up with Danny Torrance (now played by Ewan McGregor) a good 40 years after the events of “The Shining”. That’s more than enough time for all of the other surviving characters to have died off in the interim, so it doesn’t really make a difference to this story with regards to who died and when.

That said, the movie includes several visual flourishes in the opening credits, making it perfectly clear that this was built to follow the Kubrick film. This is most especially obvious in the flashback scenes that feature Roger Dale Floyd, Alex Essoe, Carl Lumbly, and Henry Thomas, all deliberately cast and directed to impersonate the leads from the previous movie. That’s a tall and intimidating order by any metric, and I salute the actors for taking it on so gamely. I feel I should also commend the filmmakers for going this route instead of putting CGI masks on them with the Deepfake technology that’s so in vogue right now — that would’ve been too easy and probably more than a little emotionally distancing.

(Side note: Speaking of the original actors, keep an eye out for Danny Lloyd himself, who graciously appears for a brief speaking cameo.)

But of course that leads to the big question: What happened to the Overlook Hotel? Well, because we’re following the film version of events, the hotel did not blow up like it did in the book. Instead, it’s been sitting boarded up and abandoned since the events of 40 years ago.

In the novels’ version of events, the climax of “Doctor Sleep” takes place on the grounds where the Overlook used to sit. Without getting too heavy into spoilers, the climax of Doctor Sleep takes place in the actual Overlook Hotel. Obviously, this carries a lot more emotional heft, as our nostalgia for the film dovetails beautifully with Danny’s own childhood nostalgia and trauma. Even better (or possibly worse, depending on your perspective with regards to the ending of the Kubrick film), this allows the filmmakers to neatly and respectfully tie up the loose ends left over from the Kubrick film. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Getting to the plot, Danny has spent the past few decades trying to keep his psychic Shine in check. The bad news is, this involves a whole lotta drugs and alcohol. The good news is that with the help of a kind stranger (Billy Freeman, played by Cliff Curtis), Danny is eventually able to get his life back on straight and set himself up in a small New England town. The even better news is that working so hard to suppress his Shine very probably saved his life.

Our chief antagonist calls herself “Rose the Hat”, played by Rebecca Ferguson. She’s one of several Shining people in a group called the True Knot, whose powers and quasi-eternal youth are powered by hunting and consuming the souls of others who Shine. Unfortunately for them — for unknown reasons — quality souls have been getting much fewer and further between over the past few decades.

Enter Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl with a prodigious Shine like nothing that’s been seen in the past hundred years or more. Naturally, she attracts the attention of the True Knot, who quickly decides that she’s too attractive a target and too powerful to live. Of course Abra quickly proves herself more than powerful enough to repel the True Knot one at a time, but she can’t defend herself against all of them at once. Thus Danny has to reluctantly come out of retirement and dust off his powers to come help her out.

Of course I want to give all due credit to the cast. In particular, Ewan McGregor is so far into this wheelhouse with this role, he performs admirably and makes it look effortless. Recognition is also due to Rebecca Ferguson, who continues to steal all the scenes and chew all the set pieces as a beguiling bitch (see also: The Greatest Showman, The Kid Who Would Be King, and MIB: International).

We also get a pretty solid performance out of Kyliegh Curran, though of course Flanagan’s uncanny skill with child actors has long been a trademark of his. Honorable mentions are due to Cliff Curtis and Emily Alyn Lind in thoroughly impressive supporting turns. And again, I sincerely commend Roger Dale Floyd, Alex Essoe, Carl Lumbly, and Henry Thomas just for throwing themselves into such instantly recognizable characters. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jacob Tremblay or Bruce Greenwood, both rock-solid talents whose appearances here are memorable yet all too brief.

But of course the real star here is Mike Flanagan.

Once again, Flanagan excels at creating mind-blowing reversals and fantastic psychological horror, all with virtually zero jump scares. The creepy instrumentation in the score helps a lot (the percussive heartbeat motif is my personal favorite example), ditto for the sound design in general. (Check out the subtle reverb when the dead characters talk.) And then of course we have the visuals — from the psychedelic use of Shine to the painstaking recreation of the Overlook, the visuals in this film are at once gleaming with polish and creepy as fuck. Hell, that’s not even getting started on all the beautifully creative touches in the camera movements or the editing.

But above all else, what really powers the horror in this movie is everything else happening around it. There’s a lot about fathers and sons, here carried over and continued from the previous film in a powerful and heartbreaking way. Mortality is another prominent theme explored in multiple poignant and creative ways. And then of course we have King’s recurring themes about alcoholism, along with statements about courage and individuality that come packaged with the whole central concept of the Shine.

Throughout the whole movie, you’ve got the themes, the visuals, the world-building, the character development, and so many other elements working together in perfect harmony to build on top of each other. This makes for an experience so wildly immersive that of course the scarier elements are going to work perfectly.

Unfortunately, this comes with the drawback of a 150-minute runtime. And sweet mercy, I could feel every minute ticking by.

The excessive runtime is definitely a problem, as it was a problem with It: Chapter Two earlier this year. But (again, as with both chapters of It), I have to marvel that the running time was kept even that low, considering how much extraneous crap got cut from the source material. Furthermore, looking back at how much I enjoyed the film, how much I got out of it, and how many scenes were the setup to some great payoff, I’m not entirely sure what I’d cut. Even the most extraneous scenes in this film provided invaluable world-building, helping to establish the rules and the stakes at play. Hell, Danny’s whole tour of the Overlook is objectively too long and uneventful, but it’s so deeply compelling to watch all the thoughts and emotions going through his head that I didn’t want to miss a single frame of it.

It’s really quite a miracle that Doctor Sleep works as well as it does, and that it works at all should be proof enough that Mike Flanagan needs more work immediately. While the runtime is undeniably long, I was so taken in by the actors, the character development, the visuals, and the themes at play that I found myself thoroughly entertained from start to finish. Major kudos are especially due for acting as a sequel to the Kubrick film in a way that’s at once respectful to the film and the source material.

If you’ve got the constitution to sit through a two-and-a-half hour movie, definitely see it now. Otherwise, don’t miss out on this one when it hits home video.

Jojo Rabbit

Posted November 13, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

How do you solve a problem like the Nazis?

Our first solution was to kill their ideological leader and crush their dreams of world domination in WWII. That didn’t exactly work. Granted, the Nazis have never regained the political power or military might of the Third Reich, but various pockets of Nazis and white supremacists have continued to crop up all over the world throughout the decades and into the present day. Even in the USA and Russia — the two nations most directly responsible for Hitler’s downfall — there are prominent neo-Nazi sects. Hell, neo-Nazis have even seen a recent uptick in Germany, the nation that literally outlawed the Nazi Party!

But let’s go back to WWII for a second. In the early ’40s, Frank Capra (yes, the same director who would later make It’s a Wonderful Life) came up with the game-changing idea of taking Nazi propaganda films and morally inverting them. Where the Nazis presented a bold and inspiring show of force, Capra took the same footage and used it to present Nazis as an all-encompassing empire of terror. What better way to send home the point that the Nazis are an existential threat that needs to be wiped out before millions of people are killed?

The unfortunate drawback is that the blade cuts both ways. Anything created to make Nazis look horrifying and destructive can be co-opted by Nazis to make them look strong and triumphant. American History X and Cabaret (specifically the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”) are both prominent examples of anti-fascist works that have been widely adopted and unironically used in neo-Nazi propaganda.

But you know what the neo-Nazis haven’t touched? Goddamn “Springtime for Hitler.”

If Nazis draw their power from fear, what better way to rob them of that power than by ridicule? Through mockery and laughter, not only can we demoralize the fascists, but we can also remind ourselves that Nazis are in fact simply fallible and small-minded bigots who can be crushed like anyone else. But even then, there are significant dangers. Taken too far, parody can make the Nazis look small to the point where we stop taking them seriously as an existential threat. That’s not even getting started on those the Nazis killed in WWII and the Holocaust — the millions of dead and their surviving relatives would certainly have a few choice words about all that bloodshed being treated lightly.

Flash forward to today, when we have white supremacists and Antifa brawling in the streets and on social media. One side proclaims that Nazis are pure evil, we had a goddamn World War to settle that, and punching Nazis is always okay. The other side calls for civility, stating that violence won’t prove anything and may in fact lead fascists to further entrench themselves. How can we hope to convert white supremacists back to the right side of history if we don’t meet them in the middle and at least try to understand them as human beings?

To recap, we have to portray the Nazis as an existential threat without playing into the fear that makes them powerful. Demean and ridicule the Nazis without making light of the blood they’ve spilled or reducing the need for vigilance. Find empathy for fascists without condoning their wicked beliefs. How is it even possible to walk so many razor-sharp lines at once?

Enter Jojo Rabbit, the story of young Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten-year-old Hitler Youth coming of age in the closing months of WWII.

The movie comes to us from writer/director Taika Waititi, who first made his name through the gleefully subversive comedy of What We Do in the Shadows. He then made Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a transgressive, satirical, deeply funny and heartfelt coming-of-age story. But of course mainstream audiences know him best for Thor: Ragnarok, which earned him no shortage of box office clout. Put them all together, and you’ve got the perfect CV for this movie. There’s no possible way any other filmmaker would have the proven experience or the studio leverage to even conceive of this movie, much less to get it made or to make it so well.

Waititi is also on hand to play Adolf Hitler himself, which is inherently funny to begin with. After all, Waititi is a curly-haired and dark-skinned man who looks absolutely nothing like Hitler. He’s also quite famously a native of New Zealand, which is about as far removed from Germany as anyone could possibly get without a freaking space shuttle.

More importantly, Hitler is only ever present as the imaginary friend of our titular Jojo. This means… well, it means a lot of things. But what it boils down to is that this is Adolf Hitler as seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old kid. It’s sort of like comparing an actual T-Rex to Barney the Dinosaur. Thus Waititi plays Hitler as something like a kid in a grown man’s body.

This is something the film keeps coming back to: Portraying the Third Reich in juvenile terms. The simplistic and reductive worldview, the portrayal of others (read: Jews) as subhuman, the fantasy of slaying monsters and becoming a superhero, always getting your way, being special, being strong and brave, looking like a badass… these are all common and perfectly normal fantasies among children (especially young boys). And they also just happen to overlap in many chilling ways with white supremacy.

In short, the film states that fascism is simply an adolescent power fantasy taken to psychotic extremes. White supremacists are basically children who never grew out of pretending to be superheroes, and never accepted that supervillains don’t exist. And that would be fine, except that these particular overgrown children shouldn’t even be trusted with a soapbox, much less live ammunition or an entire nation. This is the dark satirical genius of the film, how the movie successfully portrays Nazis as pathetic and ridiculous without neglecting how alluring and dangerous white supremacy is.

Furthermore, while this version of Hitler may be the purely imaginary construct of a ten-year-old boy, he’s still Adolf Goddamn Hitler. He still demands unconditional loyalty, he’s still relentlessly xenophobic, and he still glorifies dying and killing for the Third Reich. He may express all of this like a spoiled child desperate for attention, but the underlying terror is still there. The same basic principle is in play when we see preteens dressed up like fascist Boy Scouts, practicing with real blades and lethal weaponry before charging into a literal war zone. The psychotic spectacle of it perfectly rides the line between funny and horrifying.

Speaking of horrifying, let’s take it back to Mel Brooks for a moment. To paraphrase, he once said that a lynching can be funny if — and ONLY if — the intended victim gets away. In Blazing Saddles, the intended victim got away and it was hilarious. In this movie, they don’t and it isn’t. On no less than two occasions, the movie shows us a line of people dangling from nooses. It’s not in the background, there are no cutaways, and there’s nothing else happening in the scene.

The movie deliberately forces us to witness the aftermath of a mass lynching, and the filmmakers are stone-cold somber about it. While the movie has several moments of pure levity (pretty much anytime the characters are dancing, for example), it also has these heavy and heart-wrenching moments in which Jojo is forced to reckon with the ruthlessly violent nature of the country he loves so much. With the barbaric acts of destruction that he may have to enact or even fall victim to, all in the name of patriotism.

The film never lets us forget that actual lives are at stake here, and these kids are being brainwashed to be soldiers. Even in the best case scenario, they’ll be made into ruthless killing machines with no value for life and no inclination to question orders. In the worst case scenario, they’ll be sent to some battlefield a world away and get blown to pieces.

This is the intended destiny of all German children, even those with no inclination for violence. Some people shouldn’t be trusted with firearms, some people can only talk a big game, and some people are fundamentally incapable of cruelty or violence. Some people simply aren’t cut out to be heroes or warriors, and that’s okay. But it’s hard to tell which is which until the chips are down and it’s finally time to kill or be killed. Moreover, how can kindness survive in a culture built from the ground up for violence? Even in the case of the kids who successfully grow up to be soldiers, what the hell could they possibly hope to do when the war is over?

This brings me to another point: The war is winding down. We already know how this is going to end. Our characters are fanatics living in the safety of Berlin, so they’re relatively insulated from current events at the frontlines, but there are still clear signs that Germany is losing the war. They can deny it all they want, but the Allies are coming and the Third Reich will fall. What do you suppose will be left of the characters when that happens? Bad enough that their government will effectively cease to exist, we’re talking about characters who have built their entire identities around Hitler’s dream. In a nation without free speech, living under the oppressive boot of the Gestapo and the SS, where anyone and their families could disappear if any new ideas were whispered, fascism is all these people know. Jojo himself is young enough that he’s never known a world outside the Third Reich.

Finally getting around to our protagonist, it’s made perfectly clear that Jojo’s not a bad kid and he genuinely wants to do the right thing, he’s just a product of his time and place. He’s lonely, he’s small, he’s awkward, and he can’t even tie his own shoes. His father ran out (that’s a long story), his mother is always busy (no way am I getting into that here), virtually nobody his age wants anything to do with him, and everybody is paranoid about getting reported for something or other. Jojo is desperate for approval, for accomplishment, to feel like he can really do something and belong somewhere. And in the absence of all else, he’s got the Third Reich as personified by his imaginary friend Hitler.

Something else that’s interesting to note is how Jojo and his peers were brought up to be utterly terrified of the Jews. The children’s wildest imaginations are indulged, speaking of Jews with wings and scales and horns and all sorts of ridiculous nonsense. Then Jojo meets the actual Jewish girl hiding in his house (No way do I have the time to get into that here.) and this turns out to be totally self-defeating.

None of the adults will believe his tall tales, and Jojo himself is so utterly paralyzed that he’s powerless to confront her. Granted, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) is an attractive teenaged girl maybe five or six years older than Jojo and twice his size, but she doesn’t even need to pin him down. All she has to do is play into his fears, making up whatever monstrous bullshit plays into his spoon-fed nightmares, and he’s wrapped around her finger. The boy embraced fear of The Other, and it only made him a victim.

Waititi’s phenomenal writing and direction aside, I can’t possibly overstate how great this cast is. Every single actor came ready to play, fully and totally committed to this outlandish premise, and that’s probably the most important reason why the premise works as well as it does. Of course, Rebel Wilson never does anything less than full throttle, that’s pretty much her whole schtick, so she fits right in here.

Likewise, Sam Rockwell has keenly developed the art of acting like a preening douchebag without quite losing all audience sympathy (see also: The Way Way Back and Moon), so he’s perfectly in his wheelhouse as Jojo’s de facto teacher. Of course, it helps that he’s got Alfie Allen to work with, capably playing an ambiguously gay sidekick and sounding board for Rockwell’s character. And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Stephen Merchant, here briefly yet gamely demonstrating the banality of evil.

Much as I’ve come to dislike Scarlett Johansson on a personal level in recent years, there’s no denying she’s on fire here. Playing Jojo’s mother, she’s playing an extremely dynamic role and her chemistry with Davis pops right off the screen. She was an absolute joy to watch from start to finish.

Speaking of female leads, Thomasin McKenzie. God damn, is it good to see her on the screen again. I expected great things from this girl after Leave No Trace, and she did not disappoint. In her interplay with Davis, and in her all-important role as an external grounding influence, she totally crushed it.

And then of course we have Roman Griffin Davis, here beautifully anchoring the film. His comic interplay with the other characters is adorable, his pathetic attempts at courage and strength are endearing, and his moments of vulnerability are sincerely heart-wrenching. I haven’t seen such a powerful lead performance in a coming-of-age film since Mud, and I mean that as a huge compliment.

With only 110 minutes of screen time, Jojo Rabbit packs in enough layers to fuel hours and hours of discussion. Portraying fascism in such a childish terms was a stroke of genius, framing Nazis with all the absurdity and psychosis they deserve. By examining white supremacy in terms that can be immediately understood by anyone who was ever a child, and juxtaposing the reality of war and genocide against the immature White Knight pipe dream of wannabe Nazi superheroes, the film helps us to better understand why white supremacy exists and why it must be destroyed.

The cast is extraordinary, the writing and direction are inspired, and it’s mind-blowing to think of all the tightropes this film perfectly navigates. It’s hilarious and intelligent, deeply moving and utterly heartbreaking. This is must-see material, folks. Don’t miss out.

But DO NOT bring your kids. Seriously. My audience learned that the hard way.


Posted November 11, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

It’s another of those times when I’m so far behind, there’s nothing to do but show up at the multiplex and see what’s playing at that exact moment. Today’s Cinema Grab Bag winner is Harriet, a biopic of Harriet Tubman. With the proliferation of black-centric cinema — especially with regards to Oscar vehicles — there’s no doubt whatsoever that this film was overdue.

Tubman herself is here immortalized by Cynthia Erivo, with Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monae in supporting roles. The film was directed and co-written by Kasi Lemmons, who previously directed Talk to Me, and… uh… a handful of movies nobody would remember. Still, we’ve got a cast anchored by meteoric up-and-comers, the director is a black woman who’s previously shown tremendous potential (though her slim output has been uneven so far), and the timely subject is thoroughly fascinating.

Such a damn shame the end result falls so far short, compared to the sum of its parts.

To be entirely clear, there is a fair bit to like here. First and foremost is Cynthia Erivo, here making an awards play with gusto. She’s already earned a place on the A-list in record time, and her fearless, dynamic performance here should prove beyond a doubt that she’s the real deal. As for Odom and Monae, I’m sorry to say that they don’t have much to do, but they’re still performers of astonishing charisma and it’s always a treat to see them onscreen.

A particular highlight comes when Tubman — a year after her astonishing escape from slavery — goes back to try and free her husband (John, played by Zackary Momoh), only to find that he married someone else in the interim. On the one hand, of course Harriet is upset. Bad enough that her husband took another wife, she only found that out after risking life and limb over 100 miles of swamp and wilderness to see him again and try to get him out of slavery. On the other hand, she was legally declared dead (it’s a long story) and he had no reliable way of knowing she wasn’t. And as John himself points out, she was the first one to leave him.

It’s a beautifully nuanced moment that humanizes both characters to heartbreaking results. The unfortunate downside is that there are few such moments in the movie.

At every turn, the film shows a strictly bipolar morality on the issue of slavery. This is most especially obvious when we arrive at Philadelphia, here portrayed as a city in which black people are free to walk the streets as they please, commingling with white folk in peace. Like the New England city is some kind of abolitionist paradise, totally free of the racial prejudice consuming the rest of the nation. BITCH, PLEASE.

Then we have the matter of Walter and Bigger Long (respectively played by Henry Hunter Hall and Omar Dorsey), a couple of black men working as freelance slave trackers. First of all, there’s no evidence whatsoever that either of these men actually existed, which means that they must have been invented by the filmmakers to comment on the (uncommon but certainly not fictional) existence of black men selling out their own race. Why would any black men do this? I submit the possibility that it would be exceedingly hard for a free black man to find honest paying work, especially in the Deep South. If any such free black men were desperate, greedy, or conniving enough to take on an “us or them” mentality, I could totally understand why they’d take any money and put food on the table by any means necessary, even if it meant sending a black runaway back to the plantation.

I submit this possibility because the film never does. Indeed, both characters are quickly reduced to cardboard cutouts without any further examination of the larger issue. In point of fact, they contribute so little to the plot or the larger discussion of racist subjugation that they would’ve done more good on the cutting room floor.

Speaking of which, there’s a point in which the newly-minted runaway Harriet Tubman goes to an anti-slavery headquarters in Philadelphia, which is where the characters played by Odom and Monae come in. Having received advance notice of Tubman’s arrival, they’re ready with a paying job and an apartment all ready for her. Think about that.

With all recognition to the cruel and inhumane conditions that Tubman grew up in as a slave in the Deep South, she never had to worry about where her next meal was coming from. She never had to choose her own clothes, buy her own food, pay her own bills, or get her own job. She was born into slavery (ditto for pretty much all of the slaves that she rescued), and never had any of the responsibilities that come with freedom. Learning how to adapt to that could have made for some fantastic drama, but the film glosses over all of that to the point where it practically doesn’t exist.

Then we have our white slaveowners. From the moment when Gideon and Eliza Brodess are first introduced (respectively played by Joe Alwyn and Jennifer Nettles), it’s perfectly clear that the filmmakers are not interested in portraying these characters as actual people. From start to finish, the slaveholders are all cartoonishly evil, chewing the scenery as they bring us exactly the same stereotypically irredeemable racists we’ve seen a million times before. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem here.

In one of many powerful Oscar Moments for Erivo (it literally ends with applause from the other characters), Harriet Tubman chews out a few dozen abolitionists because many of them haven’t seen or experienced slavery firsthand. Either that or many of them are runaway slaves who’ve been free for so long that they’ve forgotten what living in bondage is really like. On a meta level, it’s a powerful message for an audience many generations removed from institutional slavery, that never knew and could never imagine (or perhaps have selectively forgotten) the horrors inflicted upon the earliest African-Americans.

The first problem is that in overtly making that statement, the filmmakers are trying to position this movie as a reminder of the horrors that slaves witnessed firsthand. I’m sorry, but if 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Free State of Jones, The Birth of a Nation, and so many countless other films in that vein couldn’t do the job, what the hell kind of chance does this PG-13 movie have? Bad enough that the movie proclaims itself as an authentic portrayal of the evils of slavery when so many liberties have been taken in the adaptation, how could a polished mainstream Hollywood feature film accurately convey the grit and pain of the barbaric torture that was life as an American black slave? Even on the most basic technical level, how could an audio/visual medium like film successfully replicate the chronic visceral pain of work in the cotton fields and life under the whip?

And shit, you want to talk about how nobody in this day and age could understand the terrors of slavery firsthand? Tell that to the millions of people living in slavery right now, all over the world. Tell that to the victims and survivors of human trafficking. Tell that to the surviving protesters of the Civil Rights Movement. Tell that to anyone in this day and age who ever lost a job, lived through sexual assault/harassment, were unfairly arrested or even killed, or suffered through any number of ways in which people are routinely discriminated against because of their color.

This brings me to the single biggest problem of the movie, and it’s a problem the genre of race-oriented period films should have outgrown by now: It treats racism as a thing of the past. Everything pertaining to race in this movie extends to the 13th Amendment and the end of slavery in America, no further. Of course we know that’s bullshit.

Unarmed and innocent black people getting gunned down with impunity by white police officers is a problem. People getting kidnapped and sold into sex slavery is a problem. Immigrant children getting separated from their parents and forced into adoption by white families is a problem. White supremacists continuing to glorify fascism and institutional racism is a problem. Gerrymandering and vote suppression to effectively disenfranchise people of color is a problem.

Black slavery as it existed in the antebellum South is not a problem anymore (and hopefully never will be), but that’s where we started and this is where we are now. If the filmmakers weren’t going to try and make that connection, using the past to illuminate the present and figure out how we got here, then why did they even fucking bother?

But then we have the other side of the coin. See, it’s not enough to portray the slaveowners as two-dimensionally evil, the filmmakers had to portray Harriet Tubman as a literal saint. I’m not even remotely kidding. One character (A rabid slaveowner, no less!) even goes so far as to directly and explicitly compare her to freaking Joan of Arc.

It’s a matter of historical record that ever since her head wound as a child, Harriet Tubman often experienced visions and hallucinations. Tubman herself was deeply religious and claimed that these were messages from God. Incidentally, it’s perhaps worth noting that in some cultures (Hmong, for example), this is a common attitude toward epileptics, narcoleptics, and so on.

This movie runs with that and takes it to absurd lengths. Other critics have called it her “Spider-Sense”, and that really is more or less how it’s treated here. This portrayal of Tubman sees visions of things she couldn’t possibly know, averting threats through unlikely solutions like a literal deus ex machina. Nobody even questions it, except for one character who quickly shuts up when he witnesses one of her miracles.

Harriet is far too blunt and too self-important for its own good. There’s none of the nuance that might have humanized any of these fascinating historical figures, no subtlety or thoughtfulness that might have made the story relevant to a modern audience. Instead, the filmmakers took the most basic and cliched route, deifying Harriet Tubman while proclaiming “Black slavery was evil!” like they discovered the concept. Then they pat themselves on the back with one hand while grabbing for Oscar gold with the other. I know Green Book lowered the bar, but we seriously need Hollywood to try harder than this.

I can’t even recommend the film for Erivo, Odom, or Monae. Yes, all of them are wonderful here, but they’ve turned in better work elsewhere and I’m sure they’ve got so many better performances left in them for years to come. Only die-hard awards completionists need apply for this one.