Vice (2018)

Adam McKay’s Vice opens with a disclaimer: The following is a true story, but note that it’s based on an infamously secretive man, former Vice President Dick Cheney. Working with limited information, “we did our f***ing best.”

This half-assed attitude sets a surprisingly consistent tone throughout the whole film. Vice feels like a movie where they tried, but not very hard. Early on, Cheney (Christian Bale) as a young upstart White House intern falls under the wing of then-economic adviser Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). Rumsfeld explains the rules of engagement to Cheney and how to navigate the river rapids of D.C. politics, told with a devilish glee and cynicism. Cheney asks, “What do we believe?” which cracks up Rumsfeld. “What do we believe.. that’s a good one!” he howls with laughter.

Writer-director Adam McKay goes out on a limb that Rumsfeld, and the political machine he’s a cog in, has no beliefs, and I guess we’re supposed to go along with that. Love him or hate him, he’s a power-hungry monster with no driving force beyond that. Even Cheney, as he rises in second-place prominence as the right-hand man of countless Republican figures, speaks only of power and how to best wield it. But power for what exactly?

The script strips these figures, despicable as they may be, of any depth or content to unpack and explore, which begs the question of why McKay made a film about them at all. If he’s not going to make an effort to understand (or at least explain) them, it’s unclear why he, and we, are undergoing a two-hour film rolling through such vacuousness.

I checked out of this live-action cartoon pretty early on, but couldn’t stop giggling as some of the sinister plot points unfolded: Cheney placing friends and colleagues throughout the executive branch, a PR firm researching and executing talking points that best resonate with the electorate, all while sinister music warns us of the impending doom.

The Bush-Cheney administration was apparently the first ever to exercise these tactics, and I wonder if McKay knows that subsequent administrations did the same. Another mystery is the script’s frequent bubbling up of the unitary executive theory: the idea that the president has sole power to control the executive branch, without any checks to stop him/her. Yes, this is a theory, but it’s all pinned as starting with Nixon, nor does McKay acknowledge another (better-known?) theory called the Imperial Presidency, which argues that as early as Lincoln, and certainly ramping up with Teddy Roosevelt, that the power of the executive has gradually increased throughout history, and those powers have never gone back to the legislature or other branches of government.

I don’t mean to sound hung up on this, but Vice overall is a pretty surface-level take on a very complicated, though understandably contentious figure. If we’re supposed to engage with a very negative telling of a much-hated politician, they should at least have made a better effort to contextualize his place in history, or make an effort to unpack what makes him tick beyond “power.” But I guess they tried their f***ing best.

2019 Oscar Nominations

Live-blogging the nominees for the 91st Academy Awards:

  • Best Picture
    • Black Panther
    • BlacKkKlansman
    • Bohemian Rhapsody
    • The Favourite
    • Green Book
    • Roma
    • A Star is Born
    • Vice
    • Snubs: If Beale Street Could Talk, Mary Poppins Returns
    • Surprise: Vice, which has been polarizing – hard to picture it had enough #1 votes to make it in here.
  • Best Director
    • Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)
    • Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War)
    • Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite)
    • Alfonso Cuaron (Roma)
    • Adam McKay (Vice)
    • Snub: Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born)
  • Best Actor
    • Christian Bale (Vice)
    • Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born)
    • Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate)
    • Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
    • Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)
    • Snub: John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman)
    • Surprise: Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate)
  • Best Actress
    • Yalitza Aparicio (Roma)
    • Glenn Close (The Wife)
    • Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
    • Lady Gaga (A Star is Born)
    • Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
    • Snub: Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins Returns). I was worried other aspects of the film would be taken for granted for how spot-on they embody the spirit of the original, and unfortunately this applied to its star as well, whose impeccable and lively portrayal of the superhero nanny deserves to be in the mix.
  • Best Supporting Actor
    • Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
    • Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman)
    • Sam Elliott (A Star is Born)
    • Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
    • Sam Rockwell (Vice)
    • Snub: Timothee Chalamet (Beautiful Boy)
  • Best Supporting Actress
    • Amy Adams (Vice)
    • Marina de Tavira (Roma)
    • Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
    • Emma Stone (The Favourite)
    • Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)
    • Surprise: Marina de Tavira (Roma)
  • Best Original Screenplay
    • The Favourite
    • First Reformed
    • Green Book
    • Roma
    • Vice
    • Surprise: First Reformed, which has been a hit critically but hadn’t made a big awards splash yet.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay
    • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
    • BlacKkKlansman
    • Can You Ever Forgive Me?
    • If Beale Street Could Talk
    • A Star is Born
    • Surprise: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which hasn’t come up much in the awards conversation this year – great to see it recognized in a major category.
  • Best Animated Feature Film
    • Incredibles 2
    • Isle of Dogs
    • Mirai
    • Ralph Breaks the Internet
    • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
  • Best Foreign Language Film
    • Capernaum
    • Cold War
    • Never Look Away
    • Roma
    • Shoplifters
  • Best Documentary – Feature
    • Free Solo
    • Hale County This Morning, This Evening
    • Minding the Gap
    • Of Fathers and Sons
    • RBG
    • Snubs: Three Identical Strangers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
  • Best Documentary – Short Subject
    • Black Sheep
    • End Game
    • Lifeboat
    • A Night at the Garden
    • Period. End of Sentence.
  • Best Live Action Short Film
    • Detainment
    • Fauve
    • Marguerite
    • Mother
    • Skin
  • Best Animated Short Film
    • Animal Behaviour
    • Bao
    • Late Afternoon
    • One Small Step
    • Weekends
  • Best Original Score
    • Black Panther
    • BlacKkKlansman
    • If Beale Street Could Talk
    • Isle of Dogs
    • Mary Poppins Returns
  • Best Original Song
    • “All the Stars” (Black Panther)
    • “I’ll Fight” (RBG)
    • “The Place Where Lost Things Go” (Mary Poppins Returns)
    • “Shallow” (A Star is Born)
    • “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs)
  • Best Sound Editing
    • Black Panther
    • Bohemian Rhapsody
    • First Man
    • A Quiet Place
    • Roma
  • Best Sound Mixing
    • Black Panther
    • Bohemian Rhapsody
    • First Man
    • Roma
    • A Star is Born
  • Best Production Design
    • Black Panther
    • The Favourite
    • First Man
    • Mary Poppins Returns
    • Roma
  • Best Cinematography
    • Cold War
    • The Favourite
    • Never Look Away
    • Roma
    • A Star is Born
    • Surprise: Never Look Away, which also hasn’t been part of the awards buzz machine.
  • Best Makeup and Hairstyling
    • Border
    • Mary Queen of Scots
    • Vice
  • Best Costume Design
    • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
    • Black Panther
    • The Favourite
    • Mary Poppins Returns
    • Mary Queen of Scots
  • Best Film Editing
    • BlacKkKlansman
    • Bohemian Rhapsody
    • The Favourite
    • Green Book
    • Vice
    • Snubs: RomaA Star is Born
    • Surprises: Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice. The Best Picture winner almost always comes out of this category, so it’s surprising (and not looking good) that two of the front-runners didn’t make it in here.
  • Best Visual Effects
    • Avengers: Infinity War
    • Christopher Robin
    • First Man
    • Ready Player One
    • Solo: A Star Wars Story
    • Snub: Mary Poppins Returns, for its dazzling blend of animation with live-action plus practical effects over CGI.
    • Surprises: Christopher Robin and Solo: A Star Wars Story, since these movies weren’t super critically acclaimed, but it’s neat to see the Academy still recognize the visual achievements.

What movies are you rooting for? Who was shut out this year? Reply below in the comments!

Two Dantes: The Marigold Bridge Between Coco and the Inferno

Death is one of the great mysteries of life. Faiths, cultures, and individuals around the world, across all time, have pondered and theorized about what awaits beyond our final breath. This challenging, mystifying concept is not only addressed, but also actively engaged with through Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Inferno and the Lee Unkich film Coco, both of which ease their audiences into the other realm through a narrative guide, bringing the hero from the mortal world into the hitherto unknown.

In the Inferno, Dante (as the narrator) is guided through Hell by the ancient poet Virgil. The appearance of three beasts forces Dante, a mortal, into a “lower place,” where he encounters the spirit of Virgil, who accompanies him through the underworld as his guide. The pair go through all the circles of hell, bearing witness to eternal punishment of sins from the least offensive to the most despicable. Compared to Virgil, who knows Hell well and has seen it all before, Dante is initially sympathetic and is filled with anguish for what he sees, but as they journey on, he comes to understand the sense of order and just punishment taking place, and feels no sorrow for the sinners he encounters. Dante’s Inferno, as a work, is also notable for the concept that the actions taken in one’s mortal life are proportional to what awaits in the next world. Dante is an outsider at first, but comes to know and accept the fantastical world he encounters.

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Dante and Virgil.

In Unkrich’s film Coco, the role of Dante is flipped to that of guide, driving the action and pulling the protagonist through the different spaces of the afterlife. It is Dante who sets the plot into motion; he inspires Miguel to “seize [his] moment” when he helps himself to some mole from the Rivera family ofrenda, inadvertently knocking down the photo of Rivera family matriarch Mama Imelda, which triggers the living Mama Coco’s memory of her father (allegedly famed musician Ernesto de la Cruz), which Miguel takes as a sign to become a musician himself, and claim his great-great-grandfather’s guitar. The resulting magic causes Miguel to find himself transported to the realm of the dead, where it is Dante who pulls him from place to place, such as bringing together Miguel and Héctor, who also takes on the role of guide to Miguel. Between both worlds, living and dead, Dante is the alebrije spirit guide accompanying Miguel to pursue his destiny.

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Crossing the marigold bridge.

Both visions of the underworld reflect what took place prior to the afterlife. Dante’s Inferno inflicts punishment proportional to the sins committed on earth, from minor offenses to more serious, sacrilegious crimes. The nine circles of hell are cleanly divided to organize sinners to the right spheres they belong to. There is also a clearly defined order to the Land of the Dead in Coco, where one’s well-being in the afterlife is impacted by the living and the relationships fostered in the mortal life. The muertos bring back food, gifts, and other material objects from the world of the living, provided their loved ones dedicate any for them; this of course is dependent on how the living feel about the dead in question, and whether theirs is a memory worth honoring. Héctor finds himself coming short in this structure, with few belongings to his name and his memory fading fast from those still alive. The choices he made in life, for better or worse, impact the death that awaits him.

A humorous early moment in Coco features Mama Elena, Miguel’s grandmother, shooing away Dante and trying to teach her grandson a lesson: “Never name a street dog. They’ll follow you forever.” The Dante of the Inferno is certainly a follower, clinging to Virgil as they journey through Hell, while the Dante dog she throws her chancla (sandal) at turns out to be the guide to Miguel’s follower. In some ways, Coco could be a 21st century take on the Inferno; in both, the sins and actions taken in life have consequences that last well beyond the grave, but the emphasis in Coco are the implications for the family, beyond the individual. Dante’s Inferno paints a picture of the underworld full of miserable lost souls, without regard or understanding of others around them. What is committed in life is one’s own business, and whether or not someone ends up at the same place as a loved one is hardly addressed. In Coco‘s Land of the Dead, family is everything, and the greatest punishment over anything is an existence without family.

Both are fascinating texts, each with so much to offer and provoke around what comes after this life. As much as they are works to ease us into these unknown worlds through concrete, tangible means, they also reflect the values and priorities of the author guides who take us there.

Love, 2018

2018 may be the year studios caught up with indie filmmakers.

We saw the first major studio film featuring an LGBT protagonist as the lead in Love, Simon. The popcorn-friendly MCU brought themes of structural inequality and national guilt to the masses in the global phenomenon Black Panther. Big budget sci-fi went existential horror with Annihilation.

And best of all, these were great movies. In the past few years, it felt like the balance of quality had tipped largely to the independent side (where, to be sure, filmmakers often have a larger degree of creative freedom) but these gutsier, more artistic sensibilities made their way into the studio system as the big players took “risks” on inclusion, social awareness, and complicated themes, and managed to turn out some terrific films.

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“When the sun goes down and the band won’t play, I’ll always remember us this way.”

As much as I’ve enjoyed my time in movie theaters this year, I’m a little sad why I have more time to go there – 2018 also saw the end of FilmStruck, the (now, apparently) too-good-to-be-true streaming service offered by the Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies. It was a tremendous digital cinema resource, enabling me to plow through many of the Italian films from Criterion (a personal goal of mine) as well as explore their proactive curation of films. I particularly enjoyed their selections for June 2018 (LGBTQ Pride Month), and discovered some great titles I hadn’t seen like The Watermelon Woman, The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant, and introduced me to the wacky world of Derek Jarman. It was a great product while it lasted, and I look forward to the return of the Criterion Channel soon. If it’s anything like FilmStruck was, there’s a lot to look forward to!

Anyway, without further ado, here’s a look back at my 2018 in film:

  • 212 movies seen (0.58 per day, up from last year’s run rate of 0.52 per day)
  • First movie seen: The Big Sick (2017)
  • Last movie seen: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

TOP 10 LIST:

  1. A Star is Born – It’s funny that a movie concerning a veteran rocker and a rising pop singer is less about fame and celebrity than it is about love. I saw it three times in seven days, and each time was fully transported and engrossed in this intimate epic. No other movie this year followed the open road of love, in all its beauty and ugliness, quite as poignantly as this one.
  2. Love, SimonLove, Simon is not showy, flashy, or attention-grabbing. It is a well-crafted, heartfelt high school comedy that is extraordinary in its ordinariness. Weepy coming-out movies are a dime a dozen, but a quality teen studio movie featuring a gay lead is literally a “first” in 2018. Long after its trailblazing status is an asterisk in history, Love, Simon will continue to be a warm, reassuring movie to visit again and again.
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  3. Avengers: Infinity War – It may be surprising to place this above another MCU entry (which I also love), but Infinity War truly hit all the right notes for me, as both a stand-alone film and elevating established  MCU heroes to their highest stakes and best moments to date. I’m moved to tears by the sacrifices by the Guardians of the Galaxy, feel the lightning adrenaline of Thor brandishing his shiny new ax, and am horrified by the gut-punch ending. This was a massive movie with dozens of stars and sky-high expectations, and they still pulled it off.
  4. Annihilation – I ended up in this cerebral sci-fi as the “plan B” movie of the night, and I’m so glad I did. Possibly the scariest movie of the year, this wholly unsettling journey pits a team of soldiers against alien elements in a battle against time and an unknowable enemy. Alex Garland’s latest is haunting and unforgettable.Annihilation-Movie-2018-Extended-Tv-Spot-Natalie-Portman
  5. Incredibles 2 – Our favorite superhero family is back, in all their mid-century modern glory. The plot and new characters are twisty and occasionally hard to follow, but the ride is a ton of fun and Brad Bird’s intelligent script is endlessly entertaining and quotable. “Done properly, parenting can be a heroic act.”
  6. Black Panther – This cultural phenomenon is possibly the most surprising, though deserving, hit of the year. Its uncomfortable themes of imperialist guilt and the obligations of those more fortunate are captured powerfully by Michael B. Jordan’s ruthless Killmonger, a villain both tragic and despicable. What’s also striking is how comparatively little T’Challa / Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) himself is in it, compared to the impact by Killmonger and the delightful leading ladies of Wakanda: Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira, who also steals her scenes in Infinity War), and Shuri (Leticia Wright).
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  7. Hereditary – Another spooky favorite, this (also genuinely horrifying) pick crawls under your skin, lays eggs, and tears you open when you least expect it. Toni Colette is deservedly earning praise for her knockout performance, and Alex Wolff is also noteworthy for his portrayal of her troubled son in this demented family drama.
  8. Mary Poppins Returns – This delightful musical is one of those films where every element, from art direction, costume design, music, all the way to acting and performance, come together so harmoniously it’s easy to take for granted. Arguably more than the original, Mary Poppins Returns sets a clear through-line and each segment cleanly follows that trajectory, delivering memorable moments every step of the way. The finale is a warm reminder of just how magical the movies can be.
  9. Suspiria – The third arthouse horror on the list (can you tell I’m a genre guy?), Suspiria is a big, gutsy, bloody bite into an iconic classic, but spits out an entirely new demon entirely. For its entire two-and-a-half-hour runtime, director Luca Guadagnino casts an unsettling, though surprisingly moving, spell with themes of motherhood, survivor’s guilt, and forgiveness all while trapping us in a Berlin dance academy run by witches. It’s insane on paper, it’s insane to watch, and it’s one of the year’s best.suspiria-dakota-e1538244414570
  10. The Nun – This feels a little goofy to include, but I’ve made my list and checked it twice, and can’t deny how much fun this fifth (!) Conjuring movie is. It’s not particularly scary, but it’s delightfully atmospheric, with more fog, candles, and shadows than you’ll know what to do with. Taissa Farmiga also shines playing against type as a likable character.

Note: There’s a handful of 2018 films still on my watch list, including Roma, Eighth Grade, Green Book, and Vice.

  • Notable Discoveries in 2018:
    • Forty Guns
    • The Gospel According to St. Matthew
    • The Lodger
    • A Matter of Life and Death
    • Maurice
    • Paisan
    • Seduced and Abandoned
    • The Seventh Seal
    • The Young Girls of Rochefort
    • Women in Love
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The Young Girls of Rochefort are also Women in Love!
  • MOST-WATCHED:
    • Coco (4x)
    • Love, Simon (4x)
    • Call Me By Your Name (3x)
    • A Star is Born (2018) (3x)

What were your favorite films & discoveries from 2018? Any special movie memories? Reply below in the comments!

Vox Lux (2018)

This holiday season, as you and your loved ones decide which holiday classic, or new release, to experience together, the right choice may not be Vox Lux. It is deeply troubling, abrasive, and polarizing. It is also (unfortunately) very timely, haunting, and profoundly thought-provoking.

One foggy morning in 1999, tragedy strikes at a suburban middle school. A teen boy commits a horrific mass shooting. Music student Celeste survives, through painful physical therapy and a bullet permanently lodged in her spine. She and her older sister Ellie express their mourning through song, capturing the hearts, and attention, of their community and the nation. Celeste is snatched away and groomed for a life of pop stardom, plunging her into an adult world of drug use, physical intimacy, and a bitter cynicism beyond her teen years.

Her innocence and light is extinguished that horrible day, and she’s left bearing the scars the rest of her life. As the years pass, the sweet, artistic girl in music class is unrecognizable in the cruel, arrogant demeanor of adult Celeste (played to outrageous perfection by Natalie Portman). Closer to the present era, another tragedy strikes, and all eyes are on Celeste as to what her next move will be: cancel her hometown concert, speak out, or conduct business as usual. Her management asks her whether she’s going to perform tonight as planned, and Celeste shrugs it off, asserting that pop music makes people happy and keeps their mind away from reality.

Light and dark are presented both as a dichotomy, though invariably linked concepts throughout Vox Lux. At its narrative core, a traumatic act of evil is what spurs the initial artistic expression, or at least its introduction to the world. If the attack hadn’t taken place, would Celeste and Ellie have written such a beautiful song? And if they had, would they have had the world’s attention, and been catapulted to stardom?

The darkness is the fuel powering and driving the light, which is senselessly snuffed out by acts of cruelty and evil. Even in the present-day, Celeste is snappy with her daughter Albertine, practically a reincarnation of the optimistic girl Celeste once was. She is the result of an early encounter by young Celeste with a male rock star, itself a meeting that would never have taken place without the tragedy, or the access and platform it brought Celeste. Like a phoenix, from the darkness comes a new light, itself in danger of having its innocence destroyed by the adult world.

At first glance, Vox Lux feels so timely due to its disturbing content, not a stretch from what’s in the newspapers more and more often. But deeper to its core, it asks how we respond to such horrific acts of evil, and the imprint it can leave on the human spirit. We can let it consume us and allow it to spread, or we can confront it head-on, shining a light in the darkness.

A Star is Born (2018)

When Lady Gaga’s The Monster Ball concert tour first hit amphitheaters in late 2009, it was hailed as transcending the traditional live music experience. While formally a rock concert, her breakout tour had equal components of underground dance rave (first-pumping fury with pulsating trance beats), experimental avant-garde filmmaking (projected as thought-provoking interludes between sets), and musical theater (complete with a story, characters, and recurring thematic elements). It expanded so far beyond the definition of a typical concert, it grew into a bedazzled, indescribable gem beyond classification.

The same, astoundingly, can be said for A Star is Born. Yes, it is a movie, and within the frame displays raw, adrenaline-fueled concert footage, behind the camera some excellent directorial finesse by first-timer Bradley Cooper, and on the soundtrack is some of the finest music Lady Gaga has ever recorded. This is more than a film triumph, but also a musical breakout (having flown to the top of the album charts and six of the top ten songs on iTunes), and showcases incredibly talented artists working at the top of their crafts.

The editing is both powerful and purposeful: coasting through plot formalities and allowing breathing room so intimate moments can play out organically. The acting is natural and authentic, with uncomfortably long beats as the characters struggle to articulate themselves, or swallow their tongues in the midst of an emotional exchange. The cinematography is inspired, often keeping us medium length from the action but always focused on a character; we are on this road tour with them and see the world through their eyes.

And what a journey it is. It doesn’t take long for rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) to discover Ally (Lady Gaga) as the lone female singer in a drag bar. From then on, she becomes his muse, collaborator, and even eclipses his fame as his star beings to fade. Through all its ups and downs, Cooper and Gaga are equals for the entire ride. It is an exciting meta journey to watch these two work together, as fictional characters, knowing (in real life) how both are stretching their creative chops into new territory: Cooper as a first-time director, and not known for being a singer, and Gaga in her first starring role in a feature film.

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Though even more than seeing two exceptionally talented people command the screen (and what happens behind the camera), A Star is Born is an emotionally involving, wonderfully intimate love story. As painful and trying as love can be, this is a film that asks us how much we can put up with, and how far we will go, to defend the honor of those we care for. Two individuals who share one heart are together for the ride, no matter where the road might take them. That’s the challenge, the threat, and the exciting possibility of love. A Star is Born shows us all the bumps in the road, but reminds us how worthwhile the journey still is.

I’m off the deep end
Watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground

Crash through the surface
Where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

“The stars turn and a time presents itself.”

– Twin Peaks (2017)

A collection of foreigners, scattered across the globe, gather together on a remote island. The accusation of a love affair between professor and pupil. Free love is a bargaining tool to get from one place to another. Is this challenging, arthouse cinema? No, it’s friggin’ Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

This sequel has been on my radar for a while; I really enjoyed the stage musical and I saw the first film twice in its opening weekend ten years ago. But time and space matter not in the Mamma Mia!-verse, as I have come to learn since seeing the sequel less than one day ago.

I was first intrigued by the device of time by the “payoff” poster revealed a few weeks prior to the movie’s release: a dock featuring the entire cast, including “doubles” of characters in their past and present iterations. I was, admittedly, bothered and a little confused that two Donnas, two Tanyas, two Rosies, and two of all the guys were somehow gathered together, somehow transcended time and space to gather together for this group photo.

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Two Donnas, two Rosies, but only one Cher.

As I reflect on this cinematic journey though, my frustration may have been unfair and unfounded. I thought it a silly oversight somehow – maybe the graphic designer didn’t know they were two separate generations of the same characters, and why would they be together all at once. I never once considered it was deliberate, perhaps even foreshadowing.

You see, timelines in the Mamma Mia!-verse are more fluid than the lovely vocals of ABBA. The sequel Here We Go Again is both prequel and sequel, following Sophie as a young married woman, and also flashing back to her mom Donna after she graduates from college and underwent an international sexual awakening. We’re supposed to see parallels between the two narratives, and this is reiterated many times visually: a camera panning up to the sun-kissed sky in one time line, then scrolling back down in another place and time altogether; sliding down a staircase with the carefree young Donna, decades before Sophie descends down the very same steps; and, very memorably, one of them throws up into the toilet, and the camera pans out to reveal the other. Like mother, like daughter indeed!

Time is completely shattered, however, come the polyester-drenched finale number “Super Trooper,” featuring young Donna, Tanya, Rosie; adult Donna, Tanya, Rosie; young Sam, Bill, Harry; adult Sam, Bill, Harry; and of course Sophie and Cher are there too. The youthful and more senior Tanyas even slither back-to-back, sing in the other’s face, and look one another in the eyes. Even more astounding is their sheer coolness about it; they are neither surprised nor confused about seeing the younger/older version of themselves, as if crossing time to be with oneself at another age were perfectly natural.

Making the unnatural natural may be the underlying conceit, or perhaps message, of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Just as the plot is wrapping up with a bow at the end, a cameo by Cher (in an insane wig) helps launch the film back into the stratosphere, complete with artificial backdrops and even CGI fireworks to top it all off. The levels of artifice skyrocket and keep elevating to otherworldly levels, so perhaps the bending of time is simply the next natural phase of this inter-dimensional phenomenon.

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Straight out of the helicopter and onto the green screen

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again doesn’t offer the horrors of other recent sci-fi like Annihilation, though its visual workings and time leaps are truly something out of this world. I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed it, but I admire its sheer audacity and how it challenges (or maybe just disregards) standards of continuity and logic in the service of ABBA. I know I sure would.

2018 Mid-Year Review

We’ve just reached the halfway mark of 2018, and already box office records have been broken, franchise fatigues shattered, and even gotten some extraordinary movies in the process. There’s no way to know how many of these will stick out as memorable features this time six months from now, but the front half of 2018 has certainly set a high bar for what’s to come later in the year.

So without further ado, let’s count down the best (and worst) of 2018 – so far…

The Worst

5. Insidious: The Last Key – This saga has trended in a logarithmic downward spiral and the latest entry is no real exception. Lynne Ramsey is strong (as always) as a medium battling inner and outer demons alike, but this uneven jump scare-fest abruptly wobbles between supernatural absurdity, real-world domestic abuse, and ambiguously creepy guys. It never makes up its mind around what tone it’s aiming for, so seems to strive for everything while achieving nothing.

4. Fifty Shades Freed – While not offensively bad, this *ahem* climax of another Universal property was a let down after the outrageously silly ride of the previous two Shades. The sex scenes weren’t as giggle-inducing, but the ending scene was surprisingly sweet and met expectations for how to tie this whole thing up.

3. Tomb Raider – More bland than anything else, this wannabe-blockbuster is a waste of gift from God Alicia Vikander, who we see race boxers on a motorcycle (!), solve cryptic puzzles without a sweat (her dad taught her, we’re told), and come face to face with an ancient witch’s curse. Action set pieces transpire before us, but the stakes never quite hammer home and nothing seems to matter. If any good comes of this, Ms. Vikander will be available to stick to the art house fare that made her a star!

2. Truth or Dare – On principle I see every horror movie, especially if it’s set in college, and Truth or Dare is both of those things. It’s a big mess though, filled with questionable decision making by its young heroes and a convoluted plot (and another age-old curse!) that’s both frustrating and 100% what you expect. A good takeaway though is a character referred to as “Day-Drinking Penelope” and a preposterous scene where she’s Dared to do shots and walk on the roof…or she dies!

1. A Quiet Place – I’m more alone than the lead isolated family on this one, but I found this movie endlessly silly and giggle-inducing. I appreciate the inclusive nature of A Quiet Place being told through ASL, but couldn’t keep it together through goofy set pieces like a camera panning over mega-pregnant Emily Blunt scared in a bathtub as tense music plays, or a revelatory moment highlighting John Krasinski’s exposition whiteboard: “What is the weakness?” when it all comes together. Bonus points for every moment a character turns around and “Shh”s another, just in case you forgot you have to be quiet or else an alien brutally kills you. This is a good one to watch in a high chair, while it’s all spoon-fed to you.

The Best

5. Black Panther – Not unlike Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the newest superhero entry in the Marvel-verse fires on all cylinders with its tremendous world-building and wide spectrum of instantly memorable and iconic characters. The fierce lineup of female leads and the terrifically unsettling villain are all so strong, you almost forget about His Panthersty (who’s also great in his own right).

4. Incredibles 2 – The story continues for everyone’s favorite animated super-family, as Elastigirl picks up superhero duties and Mr. Incredible stays home to watch the kids. It’s hard to compare it to the original (one of the great movies of the 21st century), but this one is loaded with more action, feels more timely, and is even more non-stop.

3. Avengers: Infinity War – Even months later, this one still looks like a Thanos-sized behemoth in the distance. This movie arrived with the highest of expectations and shattered even those, delivering a kaleidoscopic joyride across planets and franchises before delivering one final, devastating blow. More Rogue One than Guardians of the Galaxy, this challenging film proves that there’s no such thing as the Marvel formula and (hopefully) cracks open the creative possibilities for Phase Four.

2. Love, Simon – This is certainly the “smallest” movie in my top 5, which in some ways makes it the biggest of all. This is a story that has probably happen, and continue to happen, until we reach a post-orientation society where nervous young adults coming out is a thing of the past. Until then, we have a wonderfully sweet and reassuring story (from a major studio, no less) of one teen doing just that, and how he finds support (or otherwise) from those around him.

1. Annihilation – Alex Garland’s utterly terrifying follow-up to Ex Machina is an unforgivably intense journey to hell and back. A mysterious presence is spreading through the coast of Florida, and a team of scientists venture into this “Shimmer” to collect DNA samples and get out. This classic “adventure gone wrong” tale is inverted like a Möbius strip, as the women face monsters unknown and forces beyond their understanding at play. At the surface it’s a monster movie, but at its twisted core it’s a tale of identity and exchange, and what happens when that transformation unfolds unwillingly.

How Does Life Weigh? The Underlying Question of “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (2018)

For those of you keeping track, I wasn’t a fan of the first Jurassic World. I found it a silly pastiche of CGI garbage, though an oddly charming one in its naïveté.

With the follow-up, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, I was also taken on a somewhat mindless adventure, but can’t shake off some of the underlying questions it raises. Yeah yeah, “life finds a way” alright, but whose lives matter? Do some lives matter more than others?

Fallen Kingdom seems to suggest that yes, some do, but I’m not sure the logic follows a clear through-line. The central conflict (before something “else” goes wrong, anyways) is that Isla Nublar, the site of the now-abandoned Jurassic World, is also host to an active volcano and all the dinosaurs left behind are in danger. Swept up in the movement to protect an endangered species, Claire (theme park operations lead turned environmental activist) advocates to save them. When she’s recruited to return to the island for this cause, she doesn’t hesitate to join in.

So do the lives of artificially cloned dinosaurs matter? Yes.

Now, of the dinosaurs they find on the island, only a handful of species are saved – namely the carnivorous ones, such as the T-Rex and velociraptor, and hauled back to the mainland in massive carriers. Boring herbivores like the brachiosaurus are left behind (in a surprisingly touching scene for this kind of movie). They are abandoned to perish horrifically amidst the lava and flame of an erupting volcano, while T-Rexes and the like can nap on their cruise back to safety.

So do the lives of artificially cloned dinosaurs matter? Well, more if they’re carnivorous and “cool” and I guess action-packed.

But then, back on land at Lockwood Estate, the dino version of De Vil Manor, a lengthy action set piece ensues where the Indoraptor (a man-made hybrid of Indominus Rex and a Velociraptor, because sure) becomes free and roams the estate, terrorizing humans and dinosaurs alike. As artificially cloned animals go, the Indoraptor is basically doomed to fail in its moral space; this hybrid is literally built to be a killing machine, but it’s doing what it does best. Who can blame it!

Anyway, I guess the humans can, because the climax ends with the Indoraptor triumphantly punctured by the skull of a triceratops. So “life finds a way” via a relic of a deceased (but real, organic) dinosaur, mortally wounding a recently-alive but 100% man-made dinosaur.

So do the lives of artificially cloned dinosaurs matter? Not if they are a man-made species.

What’s bothersome about this (and I can’t believe I even care) is that the Indoraptor doesn’t matter in this ethical void, and the its death is somehow a victory. Alright, but how is the Indoraptor’s right to live any different or lesser than that of another man-made organism (if not man-made species) like the cloned “real” dinosaurs? Regardless of origin, they’re all living, breathing things. Wouldn’t an advocate for endangered species (I’m looking at you, Claire) be open to, if not enthusiastic about, protecting an animal that’s literally one of a kind?

What’s your take on this whole thing? Am I as crazy as Claire for caring about these man-made dinos? Let me know your thoughts!