John Cho is one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood. In a career that has spanned the likes of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and Star Trek (2009), he has proven he’s got the chops to fit in just about any project. This, of course, was highlighted in the 2016 viral social media hashtag campaign #StarringJohnCho which advocated for more Asian-American representation in films and media. Comedies, legendary franchises, big-budget Manga adaptations, contained thrillers, you name it Cho can do it. We shouldn’t be surprised that he shines in his next project, the deeply emotional family dramedy Don’t Make Me Go, a story that is absolutely made for our time.
No, Don’t Make Me Go, isn’t about the COVID-19 pandemic, but it does explore the existential territory of life and mortality that has been on the forefront of our minds as we continue into this global crisis. How much control do we have in our lives? Would you be prepared if catastrophe struck your family right now? Have you been living up to your passions, desires, and callings? This makes Don’t Make Me Go a timely story, but the decision not to include COVID makes it a timeless one.
Cho plays Max, a single father who, early in the film, receives a fatal health diagnosis. To ensure he has the chance to make a few more lasting memories with his daughter and begin to get his affairs in order, the two begin a journey for Max’s daughter, Wally, to meet her mother. This is a great time to sing the praises of newcomer Mia Isaac who plays Wally and steals most of the movie from the veteran Cho.
Here the classic movie trope of the road trip is used to perfection to explore the film’s larger questions about life. Max and Wally have very different goals for the trip and often exchange control of the reigns. There are lots of hiccups, twists, and turns as they go. These are characters, like all of us in the time of the Great Resignation, wondering where they are going, who’s driving, and will they ever really get there? However, as the story plays out, you just know that this moment in Max and Wally’s lives will be a turning point.
If you have reached such a turning point in your own life, as many of us have during the pandemic, you know that they usually only follow seasons of great trial and frustration. That is true of this story. Not much goes as planned on this road trip. Really, it’s the next installment in a lineage including A Goofy Movie and Little Miss Sunshine. Ultimately, Don’t Make Me Go is about what we do when things just don’t work out. How do we respond when we catch a terrible draw. Will we keep living and pursuing our passions or curl up like a potato bug and just survive?
Sometimes there actually is a logic to loss. In a fallen world, a world that has fallen from God’s original creation, a world that was supposed to be free of death, decay, and shame but is now shaken by them, loss is inevitable. It is interesting, then, that this story doesn’t spend the bulk of its runtime wondering why death is coming, but rather how will this family respond to the reality of loss. It is easy to spend our lives waiting for the other shoe to drop, but that time and energy could be spent with the people you love doing the things that give you life.
Don’t Make Me Go is just as interested in living as it is in dying. It might not be the most comforting movie. Some of the scenes, like those involving an accidental trip to a nude beach, are designed specifically to find the comedy in being uncomfortable. But there can be comfort in accepting what you cannot change, recognizing the fallen state of the world, finding gratitude in the blessings of God, and living somewhat in spite of loss. It can be the hardest thing in the world to keep going, but, with the right people and the right inspiration, it is possible.
Don’t Make Me Go is Rated Rand will be available on Amazon Prime on July 15th.
Somehow I missed the “Redeeming Love” bandwagon, which is remarkable considering I grew up reading Christian romance novels and attended a Christian college. So I should start by saying that I’ve always heard wonderful things about the novel, I know many women who have been deeply moved and blessed by the book. At this point I have not read the book or seen the recent movie, but I did a deep dive into Twitter and YouTube reactions and reviews/summaries, and listened to an interview with author Francine Rivers. So I want to start by readily admitting that my knowledge of the book is secondhand. However, I have an extensive knowledge of the book of Hosea and the prophets in general and I was shocked to learn that the storyline of the book varies so significantly from the Biblical text that it’s based upon. While Hosea contains elements of a love story, the book is fundamentally a call to repentance for a sinful nation. I don’t want to rob anyone if they have been blessed by the novel. I think we should also be clear about the ways that Hosea differs and the potential harmful impact these differences could have.
Hosea is not about surviving abuse
Hosea is a prophet and the role of the prophets was to deliver God’s Word to the people of Israel. This could come in the form of sermons; it could also come in the form of acting out metaphors to illustrate the realities of Israel’s covenant disobedience. (I have a piece about the prophets using performance art as commanded by God here.) The point of these dramatic embodiments was to make spiritual truths a visceral reality. Hosea is commanded by God to marry a promiscuous woman to symbolize Israel’s idolatry and spiritual infidelity to God. The woman Hosea marries, Gomer, is not described as a survivor of sexual violence or exploitation. It is actually crucial to God’s teaching that she is a woman who chooses to be promiscuous because that is what Israel was doing. The entire reason that God is confronting Israel is because He has given them everything and they are so consumed by greed and selfishness that they can’t even recognize God’s hand in their lives (Hos. 2:5-9). They are not reacting to trauma, they are motivated by their own sin.
Trauma is not the same as willful rebellion
This is an extremely important distinction because Gomer/Israel’s motivations are core to God’s indictment. It is my understanding that the book contains both deep trauma for “Angel” and periods of purposeful waywardness in her storyline. That makes sense for a trauma survivor, but that is not what Israel was experiencing. Israel was in a period of wealth and comfort which was leading to a disregard for the poor and a belief that they didn’t need God. It was their comfort, affluence and pride that was their downfall, not suffering or insecurity. Israel knew what is right, “she” knew God’s commands and God’s invitation to righteousness that leads to flourishing for their whole society. But Israel was convinced they could worship God on the side while pursuing other gods and security from other nations rather than the Lord (6:1-6, 7:11-12). They were spiritually cheating on God even though He had been fully faithful to them. This makes the contrast of God’s love and mercy so powerful. God is not taking pity on and rescuing a traumatized victim. Israel had slapped God in the face with her disobedience for centuries and yet God was willing to stay and take her back. It is much easier to forgive someone who is acting out in pain and fear, to forgive choices that are not necessarily a personal attack. It is quite another thing to forgive someone who deliberately wounds and humiliates us. If we portray Gomer as a trauma survivor, we end up diminishing the depth of God’s patience and compassion in the face of our repeated rejection.
God is not harsh and judgmental towards survivors of abuse
If Gomer and the metaphor for Israel was about someone acting out in response to profound trauma, that would make God extremely harsh and unfair. The language God uses in Hosea is both intense righteous anger and judgment. These reactions are in response to the violence and exploitation and inequity the Israelites have brought into the land. (And Hosea contains an assurance of love and mercy if the people will turn from their disobedience.) Hosea contains elements of a powerful love story, but it is fundamentally a call to repentance from a path of disobedience. If God was expressing that level of indictment and punishment towards a person and a nation that had been deeply and unfairly wounded, that would put God in the place of a yet another abuser. When we confuse trauma with rebellion, we unintentionally imply that victims need to repent over the situations they are in. We must be clear that God is not further punishing the suffering but is calling the oppressors to repentance and renewal (10:13).
Christian men are not Hosea, we are all Gomer
A frustrating consequence of turning Biblical stories into romantic fiction is that it often creates a dynamic where men take the place of God in relationships with women. It’s true that Hosea is representing God in his marriage to Gomer, but that is about God’s relationship to the community of faith, not about marriage in general. I think a lot of women have walked away from reading/watching Redeeming Love feeling wistful for the day that they’ll meet a man who will overlook all their sins and shortcomings and love them unconditionally. That’s a good thing to desire. The main problem is it creates a power dynamic where Christian men are held up as pure and merciful and women as untrustworthy and weak. This allows stereotypes of women as vixens and temptresses, or alternately sad damaged girls in need of rescue, to propagate. While also allowing men to see themselves as the God figure rather than rightly identifying with Gomer and the unfaithful woman. Israel was intended to read Hosea’s prophesy and see themselves, both men and women, as the promiscuous wife. That would likely have been confrontational for men at the time but an effective reminder to everyone what covenant faithfulness means to God. None of us are the hero when we read Hosea, we are all meant to see our need for God’s repentance and forgiveness. When we reduce Hosea to a human love story, men can escape that narrative while women remain defined by it.
The Bible cares about the abuse of women and children
Hosea is about covenant disobedience and the call to repent in response to the assurance of God’s mercy. While Hosea is not specifically about healing from sexual abuse/misuse, the Bible deals with those topics in plenty of other places. In 2 Kings 4:1-7 the prophet Elisha performs a miracle so a widow won’t need to sell her sons into slavery. This act of providing for them demonstrates God’s care for women who are without resources and God’s desire to protect children from exploitation. We see Jesus protecting the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) and speaking life to the woman at the well (John 4). Both are women who needed healing from sexual exploitation and pasts they regretted. These are experiences and realities that God cares very much about, and Jesus draws near to women who feel wounded in these areas. The Bible is wide enough that we can find many passages to help us engage themes of repentance and unconditional love, and healing from trauma and regret.
The Church needs to talk about these topics more often and more effectively
It is clear that Redeeming Love struck an important chord in the Church. As we think critically about this particular book’s use of scripture, we should not dismiss the meaningful ways it has ministered to women and girls. The Church has been woefully inadequate in addressing the abuse of women and children and has offered very few tools for understanding sexuality and healing from sexual trauma. As I was scanning Christian media for conversations about the movie, it was incredibly telling that the main concerns I saw raised were about the married adult sex scenes with no qualms about the depictions of child abuse and rape. That silence speaks volumes about our current unwillingness to have open and honest conversations about the state of sexuality and safety in the Church. Ultimately, Redeeming Love is not the problem and does not need to be vilified or dismissed. It may not be an accurate depiction of the book of Hosea. But it does offer a call to the Church to recognize the needs of women in our midst and to provide robust Biblical guidance for the issues we are navigating.
Early reviews of Marvel’s next release,Eternals, are starting to be posted and so far they are mixed (due at least in part to “review bombing“). Most reviewers are loving it, some are reporting feeling bored or uninvested in the film. I have not seen it yet, but I have been a fan of its director for the last few years. I would wager that when people aren’t resonating with this entry in her catalogue of work it may be because they had no idea what to expect from her style of storytelling. Zhao is hardly a blockbuster type and based on her previous work it is likely that Eternals will have a significantly different vibe from other Marvel movies. So in order to help Marvel fans get the most out of the film, here are some things you should know about Zhao before seeing Eternals.
Who is Chloe Zhao?
Zhao is a Chinese female writer/director/producer. She spent her early years in Beijing and then from high school onwards has lived in the US. She is a person who has experienced multiple cultures and perspectives and has a wide range of personal experiences. She directed 3 feature films prior to coming onboard with Marvel, and her most recent film,Nomadland, won Best Picture and made her the first woman of color to win Best Director. She had already signed on to direct Eternals well before these accolades, but they have been an added boost to her artist profile and directing credibility. This also makes her Marvel’s first Oscar winning director in this category (Waititi won a screenwriting Oscar for JoJo Rabbit after Thor: Ragnarok, and Coogler has a producing nomination for Best Picture for Judas and the Black Messiah post-Black Panther, but Zhao is the only director and Best Picture winner)
She loves naturalist performances
Zhao has often worked with untrained actors. Her 2017 film The Rider featured a cast of completely amateur actors and tells the semi-autobiographical story of its lead, Brady Jandreau, a young Native rodeo rider who suffers a traumatic brain injury after being thrown from a horse and must contend with who he is outside of riding. The supporting cast are Jandreau’s real life family and friends. Similarly, there are only a few trained actors in Nomadland and the majority of the cast are actual nomads and van-dwellers. Frances MacDormand won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance, an entirely unique form of acting that required her primarily to have largely unscripted conversations with the untrained cast members while herself remaining in character. The result is warm and authentic performances that at times reveal a lack of polish but also highlight the humanity of the films’ subjects.
While Eternals is much more star-driven, it is her reputation for artistry and representation that enticed multiple cast members of Eternals to sign on to the project. Stars like Salma Hayek who might have been overlooked in the past, and Jolie who did not previously share an artistic vision with Marvel, accepted their roles because they wanted to work with Zhao. We are accustomed to seeing young actors with a specific kind of attractiveness giving conventional performances helming Marvel stories. It could be a refreshing change of pace to see a much wider representation in this cast, artists that likely would not otherwise appear in this genre.
She raises questions about identity, memory and belonging
I highly recommend that you seek out Nomadland, it’s streaming on Hulu. If you do, you should know it’s a slow burn. Because Zhao creates such a naturalistic setting, at times it can feel like nothing in particular is happening. But that is also how real life feels. Many seemingly ordinary moments that build into an extraordinary moment of insight or understanding. The final scene of Nomadland crystalizes the entire film, pulling you into a deeper awareness of what it means to belong and how memory is kept. As mentioned above, The Rider also explores themes of identity and purpose, especially in response to loss. Her films feel very existential, rooting you in the experience of a unique individual which ultimately reveals to the viewer a universal theme that we all wrestle with. Getting to the payoff may require some patience and stillness, but it will be a worthwhile opportunity for introspection.
Her visual style is stunning
The pace of Zhao’s films may feel slow at times, but you always have something beautiful to look at! Part of her approach to rooting people in their stories is to highlight their surroundings and to draw out the beauty in what they are experiencing. All her films are visually stunning with sweeping landscapes and tranquil transitions. She has consistently worked with the same cinematographer, Joshua James Richards (although he did not work on Eternals). They have a rich artistic partnership that creates layers of storytelling both in the dialogue and direction as well as the visual context of the characters. It is not just what the characters do but where they are and what they see that shapes our understanding of them.
What we might expect from Eternals
While I obviously can’t say for sure, I would anticipate that Eternals will have a much more contemplative and existential vibe than most Marvel movies. Be ready for a slower pace and moments of naturalistic stillness in addition to the usual action sequences. Be attentive to ways that the setting and environments interplay with what the characters are experiencing. The story will likely be driven by at least some of the questions that are usually embedded in a Zhao film, so pay attention to themes and reflections. My guess is that the narrative will center heavily on the cosmic implications of “The snap” and what it means to be both powerful and limited. Be willing to sit with and reflect on what took place in the previous Marvel phase and how that has shaped the characters in this moment before we charge deeper into Phase IV. Keep yourself focused all the way until the end and remember that nothing will be wasted. Potentially the stylistic differences will feel boring to you at times because they might not be what we are used to. But let Zhao put her unique lens on the genre and stay present for what she wants to say. Some of our favorite films in the fandom have come from other auteurs (notably Waititi and Coogler). These filmmakers have a strong track record of pushing superhero films into new territory and expanding our understanding of what the genre can be. Give Zhao the benefit of an open mind and the flexibility to allow her to take us to new places.
There is a moment in the musical sensation Hamilton that has always made me laugh. During the song, “It’s Quiet Uptown,” which is one of the more profound moments in the play, as we are coming to realize that Hamilton and Eliza are reconciling, the chorus chimes in, “FORGIVENESS.” It is the lack of subtly in this lyric that cracks me up. In this quiet moment that converges these two central characters’ arcs, it is as if the choir turns to us to exclaim, “DO YOU GET IT? SHE IS FORGIVING HIM.” I wish forgiveness was so easy. I wish I could go to those who I’ve wronged and those who have wronged me and just sing, “FORGIVENESS,” and it would happen. The truth is, however, that in the human life few things are more difficult. That is what makes the new movie Mass so stunning. Just like that climactic tune in Hamilton, it captures forgiveness in the face of the unimaginable.
Mass, from actor turned first-time writer/director Fran Kranz, tells the story of two sets of parents meeting in a side room of a small rural church. The story that intersected the lives of these four people is one that is far too common in our society. The son of Linda and Richard acted as a gunman in a school shooting that took the life of the son of Gail and Jay. Now six years later they are coming together to find closure, to answer questions, and heal from the pain they all carry. There is only one salve that can heal this wound. It’s something Gail says in confidence to Jay she’s not sure if she can offer. Of course, it’s forgiveness.
It would be very easy for Mass to become an issue film. It could have made sweeping political statements about any number of hot button topics our world is facing. Certainly, those themes are present in their own way insomuch that they are mentioned quickly without resolution and then shelved. Richard and Jay briefly debate gun legislation. The group touches on how the media and legal system tossed them around and hurt them. Kranz work in telling this story, though, is keeping it focused not on a laundry list of external issues, but the issues in these parents’ hearts that prevent them from healing and moving on. Even how they get in this room in the first place could have been a distraction but that’s not the question Kranz is asking. He is more asking what if they did get in this room and were able to share their feelings. What could happen? In that regard it is a tight and focused film that allows the audience to focus on the performances and the deeper subject matter of repentance, humility, and forgiveness.
Mass, at times, feels like a stage play, and I’m not sure you could ask for better players. Apart from Jason Isaacs aka Lucius Malfoy for Harry Potter fans, none of these actors are traditionally leading women and men, but they all get moments to absolutely shine. The story sees each of them organically taking turns stepping to the plate to move the emotional depth forward. Martha Plimpton who is most known for her roles in sitcoms like Raising Hope and character actor Reed Birney really were able to go to some surprising places, but the clean-up hitter had to be Ann Dowd. The Handmaid’s Tale alum just kept hitting and hitting every time she stepped into the batter’s box. These characters all felt so authentic down to the well-meaning church employee who was tasked with setting up the room. She wasn’t there as window dressing. While she was setting up the space, she was creating the atmosphere for the entire film. Her anxiousness becomes our anxiousness.
Breeda Wool plays Judy and her small role struck me right to the heart. Having worked in churches for a while now I have known a bunch of Judys. In fact, I have been a Judy. She wants to believe in this level of reconciliation because that is who we hope God to be. Forgiveness is perhaps God’s greatest power, and when we offer it to our fellow human, we do get a chance to understand God in a new way. You can feel that Judy is hoping if she makes the room comfortable enough, if she gets the right refreshments, if the table is in the right location in the room, she is helping that effort to understand the character of God better. She is helping reconciliation happen.
That is what Christian hospitality looks like doesn’t it? We set up services, we offer resources, we put people in place so that if anyone were to need it, we’re there. I cheered for Judy in one moment when an overwhelmed Jay seeks out the bottles of water she provided and downs it in an instant. The space that Judy built is important and how it is staged throughout the film was masterful. It would be easy in a bottle movie like this to want the actors to move around and use the whole space, or at least overact to try and fill it with their presence. That’s not what happens. Kranz uses the space to supplement the story. It subtly evolves throughout the conversation. They begin in a very oppositional formation and, by the end, are in very different positions.
There is something so wonderfully human about Mass and the way its story is told. It was so engrossing to watch these very real people wrestle through their biggest doubts about themselves, their effectiveness as parents/people, the love they have for their children, and some of their deepest pain. I found myself so wrapped up in the performances I often got tunnel vision forgetting completely that I was watching a movie all together. The tunnel vision might have also been an optical illusion through the tears that were shed throughout. Forgiveness, can you imagine? Mass just might make it a little easier to.
How long would you think it would take to determine whether a person deserves to live or not? According to writer/director Edson Oda, it could be done in about Nine Days. In this feature length directorial debut, Oda creates a world between worlds where potential people are evaluated on their ability to participate well in this thing called life. It’s a smaller film that asks some pretty big questions about what makes life worth living and how, in a fallen world, even the best of us get torn down. It’s also about the teeny tiny moments and elements that make life what it is and how we can appreciate them more.
Leading these evaluations is Will, played with a still, stern resolve by Black Panther’s Winston Duke. In this universe, the evaluators have a select number of lives to watch over, and, when one expires, it is their job to find a replacement. The film begins with Will’s favorite life meeting an unceremonious end. He had thought maybe he has perfected the selection process, but now he’s not so sure. In comes a rogue gallery of trendy and familiar actors, all who bring a lot of their best to the roles.
Fighting to live are the likes of It’s Bill Skarsgard, Veep’s Tony Hale, and Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz. Helping Will in this task is a fellow in-betweener, Kyo, played by Doctor Strange’s Benedict Wong. It’s worth highlighting all of these players because it is in this cast that the film shines. Nine Days very much plays like a character-driven stage production. This same cast could easily bring some Shakespeare fare to life. With Oda’s material they all get to exhibit vulnerability, conceit, and whimsy as they wrestle with the prospect of living or, in most cases, not.
If the premise sounds slightly akin to Disney/Pixar’s Soul, you’d be right, but it also feels at times like a weird combination of Charlie Kauffman surrealism and a James Wan horror/thriller. Will is an imposing, enigmatic figure that might drive some mad with how little he reveals to the candidates. It isn’t just a test for the would-be humans, it’s also a test for us. You may like certain characters more, but are they better suited for the real world than others? If Will’s past selections haven’t panned out, what does it really take to survive in our fallen world? If you were in this godlike position, could you make the choice of who lives and who drifts into nothingness?
One of the most brilliant touches in this slower, methodical film comes when the burden of these questions becomes too heavy. This happens periodically throughout the rhythm of the film. As the candidates are being evaluated and the stress and mysteries of life are piling up, the movie slows down and switches gears into delight and whimsy. One of the main exercises in this contest is to choose aspects or moments of life that the candidates find most appealing. When they then are eliminated, Will and Kyo try their best with very few resources to deliver that moment to those moving on. It gives each candidate (and us) a chance to savor these snapshots of living before we dive back into the nitty gritty of what happens in the world outside of those moments.
Nine Days is a movie about a world before living but it’s really about life itself. It’s about this cast of characters being evaluated as a potential human life but it’s actually an opportunity for us to evaluate our own. It’s a good occasion to wonder just why each one of us individually were created. Why were we chosen to experience this world and the life in it? Oda’s kind of morality play isn’t so much about what we achieve in life, but more about the smaller moments that make up a life. The memories that bring flashes of joy. The decisions we make that cause ripples in our lives and the lives of others. If someone asked you what you appreciate about life, what would you say? Would you even have an answer right now? After watch Nine Days, you just might.
The Millennial and Gen Z generations do not trust you. That is what basically every poll conducted in the last five years has indicated. Forbes reports that the one of the most recent Deloitte Millennial Surveys indicated an over 20% drop in the trust these generations have in businesses and corporations. A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll showed that the majority of the people in these generations are fearful about the future of our country. Barna found in 2019 that 82% of young adults say society is in a leadership crisis. Our next generations have lost trust with nearly every institution and system we have to offer and, yes, that includes the institution of family and, more specifically, our parents. Looking at these numbers it’s hard not to feel the weight of this trust gap between younger and older generations. That is what made Netflix’s The Mitchells vs. The Machines such a welcome comfort.
Mitchells is largely about what family looks like in our modern context, but central to this story is the strained relationship between Rick Mitchell, a well-meaning but old fashioned and stubborn father, and his daughter Katie who challenges nearly every expectation Rick has had for his children. It is difficult to really define when the rift between Rick and Katie begins or why it’s happening. There isn’t a big traumatic family experience that splits them or, as many of us have experienced, some kind of deeply rooted ideological difference that is causing division. They are simply operating with the values systems and expectations of their respective generations. They just don’t get each other. Somewhere they stopped operating on the same, Rihanna-fueled wavelength and they stopped trusting each other.
Now, Katie is headed off to the college for the first time, but before she goes the tension between her and her dad bubbles all the way to the surface and pops. For this tight-knit, loving family, this feels like the apocalypse. Lucky for them, an actual apocalypse steps in and takes the Mitchells on an adventure that just might bridge the generational gap. While taking Katie to film school, the inevitable artificial intelligence uprising happens and the newest gadgets from a pseudo-Apple tech company starts capturing every human being on the planet to eradicate the human race. What a great time to bond as a family!
The Mitchells vs. The Machines comes to us from the producing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller who have been changing the game in animation since their surprising hit The Lego Movie and their Academy Award winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Both of those high-profile releases carried quite a bit of public skepticism going into them. Many thought The Lego Movie was going to be nothing more than an extended commercial for the brand. Sony’s film studio had been fumbling their big Marvel Comics property for years with a string of failed franchise-starting Spider-Man projects and were muddying the waters with an animated movie when it seemed like they were finally on track with a successful new Spidey in Tom Holland. Lord and Miller crushed those fears, though, and gave us two of the most compelling and heartfelt animated movies in recent memory. Mitchells is no different.
In terms of family entertainment, the big streamers haven’t exactly been churning out high-quality fare. They know parents will look for any brightly colored animated distraction to keep their child’s attention for any period of time. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is far from a mere distraction, though. It truly has something to say and shows that streamers can develop creative and thrilling animation on whatever budget is available. With Mitchells, there is the 3D animation we expect these days, but it’s used with thrilling expertise providing some really stunning sequences like a mall being torn apart by an army of Furbies. In, perhaps, an extension of the lessons learned on Spider-Verse, they combine that 3D animation with Katie’s 2D doodles over the entire story. It deepens her character and gives the movie a unique and fun visual style.
On top of the animation, Mitchells is just plain funny. Most of the jokes do hit especially since they are delivered by the likes of Maya Rudolph, Danny McBride, Olivia Coleman, Beck Bennett, Fred Armisen, and Eric Andre. In between the laughs, though, Mitchells really does do some thoughtful meaning making about that growing generational gap. Neither Katie nor Rick is let off the hook for not trusting the other. The film shows that they both have things to offer, and both have a lot to learn from the other. In that Barna study, one of the top reasons for our young adults seeing a leadership crisis in society is that the older generation aren’t actually allowing them to lead, and there are a lot of areas where our younger generations are ready to lead right now. At the same time, they need experience coupled with the guidance, support, resources, and consistency of our older generations.
It is true that our younger generations don’t trust their elders, but trust is a two-way street. The generational gap continues to grow when we fail to trust in our younger generations as well. Their total lack of loyalty in the systems and institutions we often cling to can feel apocalyptic. Like they just want to burn it all down, but what if we did trust that they are seeing something older generations haven’t. What if even a little bit of trust was extended? Wouldn’t younger generations be more likely to produce at least a little bit of trust in return. We may want to try it before the actual end of the world comes.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines is streaming now on Netflix.
Nina stands up from her old wooden bench in the middle of the park and presses against the chain link fence. She locks her fingers around the twisted metal and sighs, “Let me just listen to my block.” This is what Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda is inviting audiences into with his 2008 musical In the Heights, which has finally been released as a major motion picture (another one of those delayed 2020 releases). The musical centers around the Washington Heights neighborhood in Upper Manhattan where Miranda grew up and now most of us can return to theaters and listen to this vibrant and resilient block.
Miranda says that he began writing In the Heights because, as a Latino man, he didn’t feel seen on the stages he dreamed of working on. That is ultimately what Heights is about; dreams, what they’re made of, and the dreamers who dare to have them. “On these blocks, you can’t take two steps without bumping into someone’s big plans,” says Alejandro, a lawyer friend helping main character, Usnavi, accomplish one of his. As with many marginalized communities, though, dreams are sometimes easier dreamt than realized, and that is true of the leads in Heights.
Vanessa wants to open her own designer fashion boutique only to fall short on the impossibly high credit requirements needed to rent the space. Nina is incredibly gifted academically and has her family sacrificing everything so she can attend Stanford only to be met with debilitating isolation and constant microaggressions. Usnavi’s younger cousin Sonny can’t wait to contribute to the world, but actually is a Dreamer living in the Heights undocumented. Each character, and really the entire block, is on the string of a yo-yo bouncing back and forth between fighting for their dreams and then feeling their dignity stripped away pushing their dreams farther and farther into the future. Push and pull. Up and down.
There are times when you can see each character feel their inherent, human dignity. Vanessa wearing her power blazer and clutching her sketch book of designs as she finally has enough money saved for deposits on her rental space. Nina’s father, Kevin, with a goofy smile on his face seeing his college student daughter sitting across the lunch table. Then the yo-yo drops back down. It is hard to chase your dreams when you’ve lost your sense of dignity. That is why the great John Perkins would often say, “You don’t give people dignity. You affirm it!” That is exactly what community matriarch, Abuela Claudia, does for the young dreamers in her neighborhood.
“We had to assert our dignity in small ways,” Abuela tells Nina, “Little details that tell the world we are not invisible.” How do they do that in a neighborhood and a system that often feels like it’s holding them back? There is a palpable tension here between needing the community of the Heights to survive but looking at the sky and seeing a world far beyond the island that they’re on. Their grandparents, parents, and other family members left dire circumstances as outlined in the passionate ballad “Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith)” to bring them to this block, but many feel like the only way they’ll achieve their dreams is by leaving it.
How did Miranda find a way to affirm his dignity? Well it’s in the notes, the lyrics, and the moves of In the Heights. He felt like he was being ignored and so found a way to communicate his experiences so that others had to listen. There is so much life in the show itself, but then Warner Brothers combined Miranda’s vision with the direction of Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians). If you’re familiar with his previous film at all, In the Heights is like the visually stunning wedding scene in Crazy Rich Asians turned up even further.
Chu managed to make a movie musical that feels like a stage production while also feeling like you are in the middle of this neighborhood and the character’s lives. In a story about a place, the Heights really do come alive and act as a character in the film in so many ways. It will be hard for some to not compare Heights with legendary, groundbreaking productions like West Side Story. That film took home the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1962, and rightfully so, but here we are now in 2021 and Chu and his team have redefined what we can do with the movie musical going forward. I will say now having seen it twice, once on the big screen and once streamed at home on HBO Max, Heights begs to be seen at the theater with an unreasonably big screen, booming speakers, and a sticky floor to tap your feet on. If you are ready to safely return to theaters where you are, then this would be a great movie to do it with.
The success of In the Heights on Broadway no doubt paved the way for Miranda’s incredible success. Hamilton was next and then it was a line of Disney projects like Moana and Mary Poppins. It is safe to say that Miranda is a genius, he was a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2015 after all, but is that what it takes for people to listen to your story? The real genius of Miranda’s work is that he has been able to create roles for himself while also shining a light on the stories of others who may feel the way he does. Who knows who might feel heard and seen in this story and what they’ll create?
In the Heights has the opportunity to place you exactly where the title says. In some ways it’s a fantasy, like most movies are, of a place where dreams come true. It’s also a reality of hardships unique to people of color and the communities that weather those hardships together. It is a great addition to the American song book if we are willing to lean in and listen.
In the Heights is currently in theaters as well as streaming on HBO Max.
Director Tomm Moore knows the feeling of being otherized. “When I was a little kid, I was in a playground and I was playing with this little kid and his brother came over and asked if I was catholic or protestant and that’s how I found out I was catholic and how I found out that there was a problem with being one or the other.” Moore and his team have recently been nominated for their third Academy Award for Wolfwalkers, a delightful, animated feature steeped in Irish folklore and carrying themes that never seem to get less relevant. At its core, Wolfwalkers is about our connection to our past and to nature, but it is also a signpost for us all as we seek to tear down the many divisions in our society.
“I hate to say it, but I grew up in the 80’s and the tension going back to the English colonization was really present and I thought we moved past it but even today riots have started again. I feel like we need to talk about this,” says Moore as his film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2020, seems to be speaking even louder so many months later. Britain’s ongoing exit from the EU and the stress of a global pandemic have brought new unrest stemming from decades old divisions in Northern Ireland. Here comes Wolfwalkers, a story about a little English girl, Robyn, living in a British settlement in Ireland befriending a little Irish girl, Mebh, who lives in the woods and may have supernatural wolf powers.
Robyn lives with her father in a puritan village that she very desperately wants to escape from. She would love nothing more than to run through the woods hunting with her father, but, in his misguided attempts to keep her safe, she is, instead, relegated to the palace kitchen. Naturally, Robyn follows her father anyway and winds up on an adventure alongside the wild-haired Mebh and her wolfpack. Mebh isn’t what Robyn is used to. At first, she’s even more off putting than the wolves. Once Robyn has a chance to see the world through Mebh’s eyes, though, her awareness, her sense of self, and their friendship begins to grow. Moore says of what he hopes to convey in the film, “I think about little girls that can see this story playing out and see that they have some say in their voice because it’s still a bit of challenge I think for young women to go against the grain of what society says.”
There just aren’t that many stories focused primarily on female friendship and empowerment, but what is so encouraging about Wolfwalkers, is that it allows Robyn and Mebh to make mistakes as they navigate a world that says they shouldn’t be friends. This is especially true as Robyn tries to bring her dad along on her journey of enlightenment only to find new pressure and stress to conform and stay safe. The process of reconciling divisions in our world is incredibly messy. We see that all around as it often feels like we are taking one step forward and five or six steps back. As we finally have a police officer on trial for the murder of George Floyd, a few blocks away history repeats itself. As history is achieved with America electing a female Vice-President, the capital is stormed with violence and insurrection. As Robyn tries to embrace her wild side and help Mebh out, she ends up reflecting her own oppression onto Mebh.
It is a sophisticated film that makes these complicated themes very palatable for children. Afterall, it is when we’re young that we first start recognizing our differences. Just as Moore did on that playground as a kid, and as he describes when he first moved from Northern to Southern Ireland. “So when I came down I had to do a lot of adapting to try and fit in. I had to try and change my accent on purpose, play down how my parents would take me to mass every day, a lot of that stuff that wasn’t seen as ‘cool’ or ‘normal’ amongst kids in my school.” Moore and his filmmaking team hope to inspire our current younger generations to imagine something different. He says, “That’s who it’s for, really, that generation. Cause they’re the ones that have to deal with all the division that we have and maybe if they can see themselves in these characters, they can imagine a less divided way of relating to each other.”
The film also imagines a world where the safety of women is placed more firmly in their own hands, something that is rarely a given in our world plagued by continued oppression of and violence against women. Complete human flourishing is often hard to come by in our fallen world. Wolfwalkers allows us, through folklore and friendship, the opportunity to have a holy imagination and look towards something better. Can you envision a world where all women are allowed to run free into whatever adventure they choose without fear? Hopefully it won’t be long before that world is a lot less fictional and with only slightly fewer magical wolves.
What do Inglorious Basterds and The Blindside have in common? On the surface they would seem to be opposites but what connects them is how they make the audience feel at the end. Revenge fantasy exploitation films and overly simplistic heart-warmers both offer a sense of resolution and justice when the credits roll. The bad guys have been punished; the good guys won. The problem that caused the conflict has been solved. You the viewer can leave feeling like all is as it should be. Promising Young Woman is not this kind of film.
Because this is a spoiler review, I’m going to assume that if you are still reading right now then you have already seen the film so I’ll skip the recap. Perhaps the biggest reaction that has been coming from theaters and On Demand viewers is a wide polarity in how people feel about the ending. Some people hate the twist of Cassie being murdered and feel like it ruined the whole movie. It is an ending that leaves us feeling deeply unsettled and grieved. While it was not the ending I desired, I think the entire arc of the film is quite brilliant. Let me unpack some of the motifs and themes that director Emerald Fennell develops, and what her storytelling choices are meant to communicate.
Reversing the male gaze
From the opening shots of businessmen in khaki pants shimmying and gyrating on the dance floor, Fennell is signaling that a lot of movie tropes are about to be subverted. I immediately laughed out loud as the scene played out because it was such a satisfying parody of literally every music video club scene ever. Think about how many times you have seen women filmed in exactly the same manner, all butts and hips and crotches and thighs shot in slow motion close-up. The female body objectified and dismembered for the gratification of male viewers. PYW is a movie that turns an unwavering gaze squarely back onto men. Cassie torments men, not by physically terrorizing them, but simply by looking directly at their worst intentions and not looking away. From Cassie staring down the harassing construction workers, to confronting would-be assailants in the moments when they think they aren’t being monitored, to Ryan having to face his past attitudes and actions, the men freak out when their actions are exposed for what they truly are. The horror lies in having your true self revealed to you. It is incredibly telling how uncomfortable being watched makes the men in the movie and the men in the audience. It shows how much men are accustomed to being the watchers, not to being observed and seen. A huge point of the movie is to make men feel for a couple of hours the way women feel as we move through the world. The objects of unwanted attention, exposed, vulnerable, stressed.
Khakis and the “good guy” effect
I loved all of the set designs and costuming, there was so much wonderful attention to detail. Hopefully you specifically noticed the khaki pants motif and the casting choices. At some point all of the men are dressed in “normal guy” khaki pants and button-down shirts, appearing harmless and nice. All played by beloved male actors that we all think of with fondness and trust. Seth Cohen or Schmidtt or Dell or Bo Burnham could never do such terrible things. These are all men that we have been conditioned to believe the best of. As a result it is very hard to tell who the “bad” guys are and who the “nice” guys are. And that is because they don’t know either. They all think they are good guys. Studies show that when men are asked “Have you ever raped anyone?” they nearly all say no. But when questions are less direct, “Have you ever had sex with someone when they were drunk?” the answers start to change. No one wants to think they are the villain, and society has allowed so many other narratives to surround male toxicity. “We were just kids”, “Boys will be boys”, “She knew what this was.” PYW does a phenomenal job of showing how easy it is for men to spin narratives for each other so they can victimize others but continue feeling good about themselves. And women often get pulled into perpetuating these narratives with them. If we can blame the circumstances or the victim, then we feel good about ourselves as well. It makes us think something like that could never happen to us because we are better or smarter. So men are enabled in their predatory behavior and allowed to move on and achieve with their fragile psyches intact. While women are left trying to pick up the pieces in their wake, at times supporting and at times undermining each other.
Woman as disposable
Cassie’s death is profoundly disturbing, but it illustrates the ways that our patriarchal society treats women as disposable. It did not matter that two intelligent and capable women dropped out of medical school as long as the men were able to continue pursuing their careers. Especially when women are poor or engaging in any kind of behavior that is seen as unbecoming, their lives and mental health are valued far less than their male counterparts. Women will always be penalized harshly for any perceived mistakes, while men will be given countless benefits of the doubt. As soon as the reputation and livelihood of the male characters was threatened, it was incredibly easy for them to sacrifice women to protect themselves. They could be confident that they would be chosen over the women. The behavior of Al and Joe is so horrifying because they clearly think they will get away with it. It takes an excruciatingly long time for Al to kill Cassie (I had to mute my TV after the first few seconds), plenty of time for him to realize what he is doing and stop. But he doesn’t stop because deep down he believes that his future is more important and worthy than hers, and he believes that others will agree. The same can be said for Ryan as he blatantly lies to the detective. He can blame Cassie’s mental health knowing that people are quick to believe women to be unstable and that his status as a pediatrician will protect him with credibility and sympathy. So those “good guys” found out who they were as soon as they risked losing their status. They did not hesitate to choose themselves no matter what it cost the women around them.
The problem with catharsis
I had no idea what would happen when Cassie walked into that cabin. I think most people were expecting a violent bloodbath and were getting ready to cheer the demise of all those bad guys. But instead, we are left feeling sad and scared and on edge. And I think that is exactly the point. No revenge fantasy exploitation movie is going to tear down the patriarchy. Which is why PYW may actually be the most brilliant revenge movie ever. The revenge isn’t enacted on the villains, it’s enacted on the audience. We don’t get to walk away and forget and move on with our lives. Especially for any viewers who have knowingly or unknowingly participated in the degradation of women, you walk away reevaluating every interaction you’ve had and wondering if you really are a good guy (or girl) after all. Now we are the best friend who must keep going and try to make the world a more just and equitable place. We are not released and resolved; we are reminded of how much work we have to do. I wish Cassie didn’t die. I wish violence against women was a thing of the past. But that’s not going to happen until we start seeing ourselves and each other with unflinching honesty. Until we gaze directly at the systems and narratives that got us here, and sacrifice that which shields toxicity rather than those who are harmed by it.
Maybe I shouldn’t admit this publicly, but we watched over 220 movies this year. Most of them were older ones I’d never seen because it was a weird year for new releases. A lot of titles got pushed back to 2021, some have been on streaming for months but were just small features without much hype, some are available on VOD but cost $19.99 to rent which feels hefty. So nearly all of my top ten picks are smaller movies that you may or may not have heard of yet, because that’s what came out in 2020.
It was an also a phenomenal year for documentaries! I have a theory that the rise of reality television transformed documentary filmmaking. When I was a kid, docs were seen as pretentious snooze-fests about the migratory patterns of bees and whatnot. Things that most people could not access or find interesting. But the art form has developed by leaps and bounds, encompassing so many more topics and having far more intricate structures. No longer are they something you have to drag yourself through just so you can say you are informed, now they are engrossing and emotional and complex. So my list is heavier on documentaries than usual, but give them a chance. They might be some of the most moving content you’ll see this year.
10. Miss Juneteenth – I heard a lot about this movie during the summer when our country was talking about the holiday of Juneteenth, but we weren’t able to see it until December. This story is a much-needed makeover of the pageant genre. It follows some traditional tropes of a mother and daughter story where the mom won the pageant in the past and is pressuring her daughter to participate and win like she did. But the themes of Miss Juneteenth are far deeper and more nuanced. It is also a story about Black ownership and what it looks like to carve out something for yourself against the odds. It’s about the struggles and pressures that Black women face in trying to hold themselves and the people around them together. And it’s about generational failures and hopes and how we create and keep a legacy alive. The making of the film reflects these very themes with writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples who was given opportunities by Ava DuVernay. DuVernay (Selma, When They See Us) created a wonderful show called Queen Sugar and used that platform to give other women entrances into the film/TV industry. Many new and talented creators received a leg-up from directing and writing with DuVernay and what she carved out for herself and others. Miss Juneteenth is the product of what can happen when Women of Color are given the opportunities and support they deserve. Available to rent on demand.
9. Feels Good Man – Everything about this documentary was a mystery to me before watching. In the early 2000s cartoonist/artist Matt Furie created a chill character named Pepe the Frog. Pepe lived a normal existence on MySpace for a while, then became a huge meme on the blogging site 4Chan. Still pretty harmless. Then Pepe morphed into a major symbol for the Alt-right and Trumpism and was registered as an official hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. How did that happen?? The doc unpacks this progression with terrific detail and insight, exploring online culture and how and why it intersected with Trumpism. It also follows Matt and the impact it had on him personally and professionally, and how Pepe finally reclaimed his froggy identity. Even if you aren’t very interested in politics, this is a fascinating look at how things take on a life of their own online and how the internet shapes our lived reality. Available to rent for a small fee on demand.
8. All In: The Fight for Democracy – Like many of us, I was obsessed with the election this year. There were a couple of particularly good documentaries that unpacked big themes and factors of our political moment. This doc follows Stacy Abrams’ activism in the fall-out of the voter suppression that took place surrounding the gubernatorial race in Georgia in 2018. It also provides a succinct and helpful overview of the general history of voter suppression in America, specifically of Black and Brown voters. Available on Prime.
7. Mangrove – I really liked The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) this year and for a while it was on my top ten list. Then I saw Mangrove. Part of Steve McQueen’s film anthology on Prime, Small Axe, each tells a story about the context of his childhood which was West Indian-British communities in London in the 1970s-1980s. A very unique and personal project, they’re all free-standing stories, the only thing that connects them is the general context. Mangrove follows a true-life courtroom drama surrounding Black-British protestors who are being unjustly prosecuted over their protest. This story eloquently unpacks what it feels like to know the system is against you and to feel helpless rage in the face of it. Letitia Wright turns in an incredibly good lead performance that I believe should garner her a Best Actress nomination and shows her range outside of Marvel. (Pro tip: Turn on the English subtitles as you watch. The actors are speaking English but with thick accents and use of slang that may be hard to follow for some viewers.)
6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – I was nervous to watch this because Viola Davis’s makeup is so extreme and the pressure of it being Chadwick Boseman’s final performance made me wonder if it could live up to all our high hopes. I need not have worried. Deftly steered by Tony award-winning Broadway director George C. Wolfe the film feels like a play but still comes alive in an authentic way on screen. Based on the play by August Wilson (author of Fences), the story follows real-life Blues singer Ma Rainey as she records a few hits, including “Black Bottom.” The setting is a Chicago recording studio where Ma and her all-Black band try to work with each other and navigate the relationship between them and the all-White management. It is a powerful exploration of the power dynamics involved in creating Black art, and the impact it has on Black artists when those power dynamics are heavily unequal. With both Davis and Boseman turning in wonderful performances, I hope this will get significant awards attention. Available to stream on Netflix.
5. Dick Johnson is Dead – No movie has affected me so emotionally this year as this documentary. On the surface it’s a quirky doc made by a daughter whose father is dying and the family is trying to get used to the idea of him being gone by filming dramatic and humorous staged deaths. But more broadly it’s about memory and loss and how to say goodbye. It is also just the most heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of a loving and emotionally present father who would do anything for the daughter he loves. If you have lost someone close to you then be warned that this could be extremely emotional to watch. But emotions aren’t always bad. Available on Netflix.
4. Driveways – We almost missed this one, a very indie and small but beautiful film about a mother and her socially anxious 9-year-old son who come to clean out her older sister’s home after she dies. The sister had lived next door to an elderly man living alone after his wife died, played with a kind authenticity by Brian Dennehy in his final performance before his death this year. The synopsis sounds heavy and perhaps boring, but the film has a wonderfully gentle and sweet quality that winsomely draws you in. And the 9-year-old, played heartrendingly by newcomer Lucas Jaye will have you rooting for him every step of the way. Available on demand for a small rental fee.
3. Minari – Maybe it’s because we now live 20 minutes from the border of Arkansas, but this film about a Korean immigrant family living in rural Arkansas in the 1980s was resonant. A quiet and empathic look at family dynamics and the costs of chasing a dream. Ivan wrote more about the film and the themes of manhood and fatherhood. Unfortunately, it’s not slated for wide release until February (we saw it at the Indie Memphis Film Festival at the drive-in) so keep an eye out for it in early 2021.
2. The Assistant – This is one that unfortunately got lost for most people during the summer. Streaming on Hulu and led by the wonderful Julia Garner, this is a subtle story of being a young woman trying to work in an exploitative environment. There are plenty of stories about women being harassed in the workplace, but this was the first I’ve seen about the female bystanders who are co-opted into the oppression by their presence in the organization, and who must wrestle with their role in changing or engaging in the system. Not all abuse is direct, some happens by leveraging and pressuring you to maintain “how things are.” Garner perfectly captures confusion, powerlessness, anger, and tense observation. This is a thorough exploration of the ripple effects of harassment and exploitation without needing to depict the abuse itself.
1.The Sound of Metal – Available on Prime, this is a story of a musician who suddenly loses his hearing. Featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by Riz Ahmed, this movie immerses you in what this experience would be like. The sound design is incredibly creative without being dominant and weaves between the world of sound and hearing loss. This story also does a wonderful job of elevating and honoring the deaf community. It depicts the struggle and identity crisis that would accompany such an abrupt loss but does so in a way that highlights the dignity and autonomy of those who are deaf. It is emotional, powerful, compassionate, and informed.
Honorable Mention Documentaries
Athlete A – An incredibly important and well-told doc about USA Gymnastics and the abuses of Larry Nassar. This is essential viewing for anyone who has or works with kids. It is survivor-focused and uncovers his abuse without retraumatizing the viewers. You will be horrified by the system that protected him but inspired by the many women who stood against him to tell the truth together. Available on Netflix.
John Lewis: Good Trouble – We lost some greats this year, and John Lewis tops that list. He was a remarkable man who started out as a teenager but took every opportunity in front of him to advocate for justice and act in the hope that things could be better than they were. He became a giant through consistent acts of faith and bravery and was constantly motivated by his belief in God and the support of the community of faith. This will inspire you with everything that he accomplished and challenge you to see where you can follow his example. Now available on HBOMax.
The Painter and the Thief – A crazy and powerful story about the transforming power of compassion and love and choosing to see someone at their best even when they are at their worst. It has a very poignant and raw exploration of addiction that’s ultimately hopeful but emotional so be aware. See Ivan’s list for more info, available to stream on Hulu.
Boy’s State – At times scary and at times inspiring, this doc follows teenage boys in Texas as they create their own form of government. Ivan wrote about this here, and I also recommend it. Available on Apple+