REVIEW: Don’t Make Me Go

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.

JOHN CHO stars in DON’T MAKE ME GO Photo: GEOFFREY SHORT © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

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.

MIA ISAAC stars in DON’T MAKE ME GO Photo: GEOFFREY SHORT © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

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?

MIA ISAAC and JOHN CHO on the set of DON’T MAKE ME GO Photo: TAMAR MÜNCH © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

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 R and will be available on Amazon Prime on July 15th.

Everything You Should Know About Director Chloe Zhao Before Watching Eternals

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.

(Zhao and MacDormand on set)

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.

REVIEW: Mass

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.

Ann Down and Reed Birney in Mass (2021, Bleeker Street)

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.

Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, and Breeda Wool in Mass (2021, Bleeker Street)

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.

Mass (2021, Bleeker Street)

REVIEW: Nine Days

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.

Winston Duke and Bill Skarsgard in Nine Days (2021)

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.

Nine Days writer and director Edson Oda.

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.

Nine Days is available on VOD right now.

REVIEW: Boys State

How have you been feeling about politics lately? Fearful? Hopeful? Angry? Energetic? How many times in the last four years have you heard some version of, “America is more divided than it has ever been”? If this very common sentiment is true, and has been for a while, then perhaps the only way to fix it is to do something different. What do we do differently, though, and whose responsibility is it to be different? It’s all too easy to assume that the next generation will bring change, but if Apple’s new documentary Boys State is a signpost of what’s to come, we may want to create a little more urgency in the here and now.

Boys State Rob

Boys State, from filmmakers Amanda McBain and Jesse Moss, won the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and documents the 2018 Texas Boys State program. Every year in every state the American Legion runs a leadership development experience for male and female high school juniors. The goal of the program is to educate young people on civic engagement and often includes perks like college credit or valuable college scholarships. The film opens highlighting some of the program’s more infamous alumni like Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Rush Limbaugh. Each young person is sponsored by their local Legion and are usually the sole representative of their high school. Following the leaders of the youth of our nation, what an incredible opportunity to see what they stand for and how they will engage in the political process! The issue is, once this week at the Texas state capitol begins to unfold, it’s not that different from what we see on our national political stage.

Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the survivors of the Parkland shooting standing behind podiums or Greta Thunberg addressing the world’s leaders, but the displays at this Boys State more resembles the worst comment threads on Facebook. Are abortion and gun control the most pressing concerns on the average 17-year-old conservative Texan? The answer, from the subjects themselves, is no, but it’s what they think they’re supposed to talk about. They may not even be able to tell you why, but they definitely think it will make them successful, popular, and, more importantly, elected. One young man even goes as far to admit that he believes the exact opposite of what he said in a debate because he knows it’s what people want to hear. They’re all getting ready to enter college or the workforce. Many probably do think often about the world they’re inheriting. Some of them probably have challenging family lives rife with relational and economic obstacles. Other’s minds are filled with dreams of tricked-out pickup trucks and queries as to who among them can do the most pushups. But you ask them to talk about politics and the only place their mind can go is the 2nd Amendment.

Boys State Group

In this environment it’s hard not to notice the outliers. In the documentary, it is a young man named Steven who enters the narrative in his Beto t-shirt telling stories of his conversion to the political sphere by Bernie Sanders. Later we find out that Steven helped stage the “March For Our Lives” march in Houston. It’s not his progressivism that makes Steven different, though. He also knows in order to win the coveted highest office of Boys State Governor, he must reach across the aisle. When asked the primary role of a politician, Steven answers “public service.” He says again and again in his speeches, and during his quest to get the signatures needed to be on the ticket, that governing means he represents everyone, not just those who agree with him. The film spends a lot of time watching Steven go conversation to conversation, handshake to handshake, lunch to lunch, asking the same question, “What do you care about?” He’s not interested in changing his convictions to win, he wants to build a representative government.

The doc might look upon Steven with a tinge of partiality, but what if all of the other boys acted this way? What might be different about the platforms they produce or the races they run? The policies and campaigns end up looking all too familiar, though. There are guys who jump to impeachment at the slightest whiff of disagreement while others attempt a full-blown Texas secession just to be cool (the previous year’s Boys State voted to succeed and made headlines). There’s mudslinging, social media smear campaigns, and petty or goofy congressional resolutions.

Boys State Rene

If we are expecting the next generation to be different, then one Steven in a sea of 1,100 future politicians aren’t great odds. We may need to take some responsibility for what this next generation is absorbing. Think about someone like John Lewis who did have the burden of change thrust upon his shoulders at a young age, but he clung to his elders (though many weren’t much older) for an example. Now how many young people will vote for the first time in 2020 because they learned of his legacy as the world eulogized him? Lewis is encouraging more Americans from the grave than many who currently hold office. “My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution. By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation,” Lewis said in front of the crowd at the March on Washington in 1963. Boys State helps us see that we simply cannot wait to see what progress the next generation will bring or how they’ll be different. We have to be different right now or they never will be.

Ivan’s Top Ten 2019

Here we are at the beginning of a new year and at the beginning of a new decade. Before we enter the new ’20’s, let’s look back at the year that was in film. It was a year teaming with quality films but, also, a year that we spent some time visiting classics we hadn’t seen before. Most of these came from the often praised 1970’s watching movies like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Last Picture Show.” After padding my Letterboxd stats (follow me at ivansmoore), I’m probably of the mindset that with new techniques and technology, more distribution possibilities, and a more diverse community of storytellers, movies of our time keep getting better and better!

With that being said, I’d love to offer you the ten best experiences I had watching movies in 2019. Critics agree that this was an exceptional year. So first let me give you a couple more freebies in the form of some honorable mentions. You really can’t go wrong digging into the deeply spiritual A Hidden Life and The Two Popes or raising your blood pressure with Uncut Gems and Waves. We may also be in a Shia-ssance with the former Disney star offering his heart with The Peanut Butter Falcon and Honey Boy. I’d also invite you to add the female written and directed Booksmart and Queen & Slim to your watch lists. But there were ten movies that really hit me this year and here they are.

10.) The Dead Don’t Die (R – dir. Jim Jarmusch)

I walked out of the theater in absolute disbelief. What in the world had I just watched? I came to learn that this was pretty typical fare for director Jim Jarmusch. The Dead Don’t Die is a dead-pan social comedy zombie movie starring living legend, Bill Murray, and Kylo Ren himself, Adam Driver. When I say dead pan I really want you to understand there is nearly no emotion in this movie. The world is falling apart in front of the characters’ eyes while they go through the motions of life and that’s precisely the point. If an emotionless Bill Murray sighing through a zombie breakout isn’t enough for you, the movie sports an extensive supporting cast like Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Tilda Swinton, and one catchy tune by Sufjan Stevens. Sitting in my car in the parking lot after, I was so perplexed I knew I wanted to see it again and again.

The Dead Don't Die Ghouls GIF

9.) Rocketman (R – dir. Dexter Fletcher)

The award for most horribly marketed film of the year goes to Rocketman. Like many, I saw the ads for this Elton John biopic and felt the echoes of last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. That movie was a straight forward, semi-boring snoozefest that relied solely on a trendy actor and the timeless music of Queen. Rocketman is a full-blown Elton John musical! It’s framed with Elton in a rehab group therapy session and deconstructs his life through whimsical, brightly colored, surreal musical numbers. As much as Rami Malek inhabited Freddie Mercury’s giant teeth, Taron Egerton tackled singing every song while cutting many a rug through some incredible set pieces. Rhapsody felt like a string of youtube videos of Queen performances, but Rocketman was Elton John taking us on a journey towards some of the most important revelations of his life.

8.) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (PG – dir. Marielle Heller)

Do we really need a Mister Rogers movie? Like every kiddo my age growing up in Southwestern Pennsylvania watching our beloved mayor of make-believe hanging out with Lynn Swann and going to the crayon factory, I’m very protective of Fred. I was nervous about the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? but found it to be a delightful injection of common grace to everyone who saw it. Fred Rogers’ attitude and beliefs shined through as friends and family told his story alongside clips of the man himself. One of those friends was journalist Tom Junod. Beautiful Day is really his movie. Tom Hanks plays Fred in a supporting role. Junod wrote a now infamous profile of Mister Rogers for Esquire and it changed his life. He was known for cynical hit pieces and so came to Fred with a thirst for blood. Junod wasn’t ready for Fred’s hospitality or Joanne Rogers’ humility or Daniel Tiger’s hugs. We did need this movie and only Hanks could have done it. While you’re at it you can read Junod’s recent follow up where he talks about a life of being Fred’s friend.

A Beautiful Day GIF

7.) Marriage Story (R – dir. Noah Baumbach)

Marriage Story hands down features the best acting performances of the year while, at the same time, being one of the least enjoyable to watch. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play Nicole and Charlie a couple working through a divorce. Watching the American divorce system on display and feeling Nicole and Charlie’s marriage crumble is heart shattering. Writer and director Noah Baumbach, who I usually find to be off-putting and pretentious, has probably crafted his masterpiece here drawn from his real life journey through divorce and his leads deliver his script like a decadent buffet. It’s salty, it’s sweet, and sometimes it’s just too much but I can’t stop eating.

6.) Avengers: Endgame (PG-13 – dir. Anthony & Joe Russo)

Remember when the first footage dropped from Captain America: Civil War? Marvel fans rejoiced because there on their screens was a staple of cross-over, event comics come to life. Two big lines of characters charging at each other ready for battle. The comic book “splash page” was on film like never before, and we all thought, “Wow, they did it.” Directors Joe and Anthony Russo had reached peak nerdom by giving us a dozen heroes running in an empty airport. Little. Did. We. Know. That was just an appetizer. Avengers: Endgame marks the end of a film endeavor we may never see duplicated. I recently did a rewatch and still felt every single tingle as the ultimate superhero movie built to its splash page. The score hit perfectly, the portals opened, and every bit of investment I’ve given as a fan of these heroes for most of my life paid off.

Read my extensive thoughts on Avengers: Endgame here!

5.) The Farewell (PG – dir. Lulu Wang)

Is there anything kind of funny or weird about your family? I’m going to go out on a limb and say there probably is. Then you are going to relate deeply to this personal story Lulu Wang gives us from her own life. In The Farewell, Awkwafina steps in to represent Wang as Billi whose family is dealing with the grim cancer diagnosis of her grandmother. The thing is, as her family explains, it is customary not to tell their elders of such a diagnosis. So they concoct a family gathering for everyone to subtly say their goodbyes. I spent most of the movie holding my breath hoping Billi doesn’t let the cat out of the bag but then it would explode out when the movie turned wildly funny and again when pressure brings Billi to tears. She’s struggling as her whole family silently suffers shuffling around their matriarch with smiley facades. What does it mean to carry your family’s burdens? We probably all do it whether we want to or not. With The Farewell, Wang shows us that our load doesn’t always have to be so heavy.

4.) Little Women (PG – dir. Greta Gerwig)

There is so much life in this fourth feature adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s iconic novel. Sure I like Wynona Ryder and Christian Bale, but wow! Greta Gerwig built such chemistry and warmth in her adaptation that I wanted to jump through the screen. I wanted to have breakfast with the March sisters. I wanted to join the club along with Laurie. Gerwig’s lead is a familiar face to fans of her 2017 effort, Lady Bird. Saoirse Ronan is a great Jo and she might not even be the best performance in the movie! Florence Pugh caps off a career year making audiences love Amy for once in the character’s history. I might not be familiar enough with all of the adaptations to declare that this is the greatest of all time (though I still might), but I can say this was definitely one of the top five directed movies of the year.

Little Women Dancing GIF

3.) The Last Black Man in San Francisco (R – dir. Joe Talbot)

Just going by the title, you might think that this is some post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie like The Omega Man or I Am Legend. Movies about men standing alone in the world dealing with all that they’ve lost. So in a way, it might be. Last Black Man is a whimsical retelling of life story of the film’s lead Jimmie Fails. He’s wrestling to maintain both his family’s history and the eclectic culture of one of America’s most colorful cities. Jimmie is on the cusp of losing something dear to him and he fights for it with such innocence and poetry that you can’t help but root for him. He’s our guide through his family’s narrative and the narrative of the city he knows and can barely recognize. As Jimmie brings us along, we go through the layers of his life with him. It is about gentrification, but it’s also about family, friendship, masculinity, and so much more. It’s about life, what we fear to lose, and what we must hold on to.

Read Heather’s full review of Last Black Man here!

2.) Jojo Rabbit (PG-13 – dir. Taika Waititi)

The task was simple. Make a movie about a boy in the Hitler Youth who has a comically zany imaginary friend version of Adolph that he confides in. Never mind, that sounds impossible. So impossible, in fact, that maybe only one filmmaker could do it, Taika Waititi. What the director brings to this story set on the tail end of World War II, is his unique humor and heartfelt dramatic sensibilities we’ve seen before in films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows. He allows this context to be what it was. It’s ugly and scary. Jojo spews all the hate he’s been taught in his young life. But he is still young and so as you cringe there is still big hope and some big laughs. The movie is really about the tearing away of Jojo’s imaginary friend. How that happens is what makes Waititi one of the best filmmakers we have today.

Read my full review of Jojo Rabbit here!

1.) Parasite (R – dir. Bong Joon Ho)

I hesitate to say much about my number one movie of the year. I purposefully avoided reviews and trailers before watching. All I had heard was the buzz around the new film from the same filmmaker that brought us Snowpiercer, The Host, and Okja. So I went in blind and was so glad I did! The story is so interesting and thrilling. It kept me guessing throughout its runtime about where the story was going and even what genre the film falls into. It was the best experience I had in the theater this year. I’m hoping that is enough to get you to watch it but, for those who need a little more, I did a spoiler-free review you can read here that talks about the themes it shares with Downton Abbey.

Parasite Jessica Song GIF

REVIEW: A Hidden Life

There is a lot of flashy, star-studded content about World War II out there. Rightfully so. It was an era when the world stood up together against a very obvious and treacherous evil. The conflict begs to be adapted again and again. Just this year, Jojo Rabbit approached the time period with humor and heart and Amazon Prime’s sci-fi series Man in the High Castle, that depicts how the world might have been different if the Axis Powers won, entered its final season. Over the years, audiences have followed Patton, banded with brothers, and saved Private Ryan through tons of explosive battles and even more explosive Tom Hanks performances. Now, into the catalog of World War II fare, comes the quiet and contemplative A Hidden Life.

A Hidden Life Church

Director Terrence Malik has been to WWII before with the fondly remembered The Thin Red Line, but this time he avoids the traditional trenched and barb-wired battlefield. That often-used setting is traded in for the Sound of Music-esque Austrian countryside. Malik adapted this story from the personal letters between farmers Franz and Fani Jägerstätter. He uses his signature style of frenetic edits and wide-angle lenses to pull the audience into this family’s quiet opposition to Hitler’s regime.

As the story winds tighter and tighter, Fani and Franz share these letters that are so rich with faith and love. Austria has never looked so lush with deep greens and bright blues, but soon it becomes a frigid, isolating prison. All I could think of were those infamous sweeping shots of Julie Andrews spinning while taking in fresh air and music from the hills. In A Hidden Life, Fani claws with her bare hands screaming her suffering into those same blades of grass as their village ostracizes her. Franz, eventually, finds himself behind actual bars locked away from any color at all. The world has left them both pale, cold, and empty. Yet they reach out to each other with warm, comforting blankets of scripture. This is where they find their freedom.

A Hidden Life Scenery GIF

In order to do what Franz and Fani did, you would have to have a foundational belief that nothing on this Earth can take away the freedom we have in Christ. They deeply loved each other, their life in the rolling hills, and their beautifully precocious daughters, but, once their consciences flare in the face of true evil, they have to put their hope in an eternal good. Friends, neighbors, family, priests and lawyers tell them that they could compromise a little and be set free. To that Franz replies that he’s already free.

Another frequent appeal to get Franz and Fani to give in is that no one will ever know the stance they took. What they are doing won’t change the course of the war or send the population of Austria into revolt. If Franz doesn’t give in he will die just as he lived, quietly. What an interesting question for today. What makes a protest worth it?

What comes to mind for you when you think about modern social activism? Much of our social activism is criticized today because so much of it takes place online. On the surface, it often feels like the ability to post online or, as many call it, to hide behind a keyboard, doesn’t cost the tweeter anything. If only we could ask journalist Jamal Khashoggi if posting his opinions came with a cost. Even though the face of modern day social activism is a tiny blue bird on our phones, there are so many people behind those birds screaming to be heard and often dying silently in the dark. But they continue to tweet. Why?

A Hidden Life Franz Arrest

Franz Jägerstätter (played beautifully and stoically by August Diehl in the film) couldn’t compromise. His beliefs planted him and his family firmly into the ground where he made his stand. Fani Jägerstätter (played with intense strength by Valerie Pachner) couldn’t ask her husband to pledge allegiance to evil even if it would bring him home. Even if their protest came with a cost, the cost of their very souls was greater and, they believed, the reward on the other side of righteous suffering, on this plane of existence or the next, was even greater still.

It had to be a challenge to tell the story of a family stoically making a stance. World War II has a lot of flashy stories to tell, but this is a very bleak and colorless one. Yet, Malik tells it in vibrant colors with a style that gives this small protest a grand scale. There isn’t a beach to be stormed or a rousing high note to be sung, but there is an incredible internal battle taking place not just on this farm in Austria but in the hearts of every person confronted with how to respond to true evil. Malik gives you time between the breaths of levity and punches of grief to ask that question of yourself. What is the cost of making a stand and what is the cost of not?

REVIEW: Minding the Gap

Death defying kickflips from concrete ledges. Balance bending rail grinds that will leave you breathless. One of this year’s films in the running for the Academy Award for Best Documentary is “Minding the Gap,” a film that should have also been nominated for its cinematography. The film is about the skateboarding community in Rockford, Illinois and features camera work that could have only been honed in alleyways, empty swimming pools, and public stairwells trying to capture the sickest tricks. The film is about the sport it depicts so well, but as it unfolds is about something else entirely, generational patterns of sin and hardship.

As filmmaker Bing Liu follows his skater friends around, he allows the story to develop naturally. Digging deeper into their lives he begins to recognize the broken homes and abusive families they come from. These dark commonalities give Liu the open door to shed light on the unusually high rates of domestic violence in the city of Rockford. Unfortunately, this is a trend continuing in Liu’s friends as they enter young adulthood.

MTG 2

They have trouble keeping jobs, they drink excessively, and they abuse their significant others. Liu takes his evolving movie as an opportunity to unpack his own childhood with help from his mother. It’s heart-wrenching hearing his mother show deep remorse for the ways Liu was abused by his stepfather, while also documenting the disintegrating, unhealthy relationship of his friend Zack and the mother of Zack’s child. Two generations living out the same story.

This generational deja vu is something very human, and something God speaks into from the very beginning. In Genesis 20 we read,

“Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, ‘She is my sister.’”

Now stop me if you’ve heard this before. As Genesis continues in chapter 26,

“So Isaac stayed in Gerar. When the men of that place asked him about his wife, he said, ‘She is my sister,’ because he was afraid to say, ‘She is my wife.’”

You’re not going crazy. Here are father and son, Abraham and Isaac, their hearts filled with fear and insecurity, lying an identical lie. They didn’t trust God and took the protection of their wives into their own hands. In both cases, the lie backfires and they nearly lose everything. In families, in institutions, and in the hearts of man we are prone to these generational patterns. We are stuck dragging the heavy chains of the past, slaves to the sins of our parents. They are thick chains, but they are not unbreakable.

MTG 4

The book of Deuteronomy gives us a painful instruction manual. In chapter 12 we read, “Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling.”

The prior inhabitants of God’s chosen land left patterns behind, almost grooves in the land leading to the worship of their gods. These verses are warning God’s people that if they’re not careful as they enter the land, they could easily click into the grooves of the past. The only way to prevent this is to tear it all down. Patterns are comfortable, they’re easy. Sometimes clicking into the routines of the past even feels good. The process of tearing it down is always the opposite. Changing the direction of a generation always comes with pain.

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For Liu and his friends it involves bringing the generational patterns into the light with his film. Zack will see this film and come face to face with some of his worst moments. Liu sat behind his camera and watched tears stream down his mother’s face. Even as an outsider, it is heartbreaking to watch, but that feeling of lament is the feeling of chains of the past being broken. What you hear in the film isn’t just plastic wheels filled with ball bearings hitting pavement, it’s the sound of shackles falling off. It’s the sound of future generations being freed. “Minding the Gap” is about skateboarding in Rockford, Illinois, but it’s also about hope.

REVIEW: Shazam!

Lex Luthor stands before his arch nemesis, the fully human/fully Kryptonian savior of the masses, Superman. A showdown of fists awaits Superman over in Gotham City, but not before he must sit through Luthor’s attempt at an intro to philosophy class. Luthor contemplates how Superman could possibly be so powerful but also without corruption. Several decades prior, Wonder Woman enters a similar discussion. The god of war, Ares, is trying to convince her that war and suffering aren’t products of his evil scheming but are the natural yield of the depraved hearts of humanity. The DC Comics film and television world, dubbed the DC Extended Universe or DCEU, has been doing a delicate dance to the tunes of power, morality, and depravity for years and that dance continues in their latest effort, Shazam!.

Shazam Flossing GIF

Those philosophy exercises have left the DC fan base pretty mixed and has added more pressure on a franchise constantly trying to catch up to Marvel and their Avengers. Starting with Wonder Woman and then, a largely reshot, Justice League, DC has been trying to lighten things up. The result was Aquaman, a mindless, CGI adventure more on par with the recent Fast & Furious films than the engaging, blockbuster comic book movies always topping the charts. While it was fun, DC’s resident fish wrangler may have been an over correction. Shazam!, though, could be their new sweet spot.

If Batman v Superman was their exploration of God’s sovereignty, and Wonder Woman is their white paper on total depravity, Shazam! is DC’s doctrine of grace. The movie is about one ancient wizard’s quest to find a human who is pure of heart. Once this champion is tracked down, the wizard, Shazam, can pass on his incredible powers equipping this human to battle back against the seven deadly sins, actual embodied representations of greed, envy, and the like. All Shazam has to do is find the perfect human. Should be easy right? It is not. Turns out the perfect human doesn’t exist.

Shazam Powers GIF

Time’s running out for Shazam so he’s forced to settle for Billy Batson, an almost 15-yeard-old foster kid preoccupied with running away from group homes on a quest of his own to find his mother. Now this pre-teen that has a hard time avoiding police custody is imbued with the power of six Roman gods to become the new Shazam! The movie is about confronting Billy’s imperfections, healing from his wounds, opening his heart to forces outside himself, and finding something all the Roman gods in the world can’t provide. Shazam! is an interesting look at the nature of man, it’s a heartfelt story about wounded and broken people, and it is also hilarious!

Sure Shazam! evokes all the Hanks-ian charm of Big, a kid trapped in an adult body navigating the often absurd world of increased responsibility, but it just works. This is partly due to Zachary Levi (NBC’s Chuck) playing the child-like hero. They also fill out Billy’s foster home with cast mates that challenge the adolescent rosters of Stranger Things and It.  Now that might be an easy, crowd pleasing formula, but just try not buying in to the smile of This is Us’s Faithe Herman or the teddy bear wiles of The Walking Dead’s Cooper Andrews. Shazam! is impossible to resist.

Shazam Transform GIF

DC still has a long way to go in building trust with its fan base as well as average movie going audiences. Unfortunately, the news out of the DCEU doesn’t exactly instill confidence. There’s reportedly going to be several different Joker stories (one that’s already in production), a Suicide Squad sequel/reboot, a separate Harley Quinn movie, another Batman reboot, and maybe a Green Lantern Corps movie with the studio saying they’re scrapping the idea of a shared universe moving more towards isolated stories. Not to mention there’s also an entire league of heroes in developmental purgatory like Cyborg and The Flash. There is hope, though. Aquaman was fun, there is a new Wonder Woman movie next year, and Shazam! does take place in the interconnected Justice League universe. If DC wants to continue to build towards another team up movie, Shazam! could be the spark they need or it could be a bolt of lightning in otherwise dark and stormy sky. Either way, go enjoy DC’s new boy wonder!

REVIEW: Avengers: Endgame (Non-Spoiler)

C.S. Lewis is often quoted in A Grief Observed, “…pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” The last time fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe checked in with “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” The Avengers, they had taken the ultimate blow. In 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, their foe, Thanos, snapped his fingers turning half of the entire universe’s population to dust. Everyone on every planet in every galaxy lost someone.

 

Thanos Snap

 

If the Marvel franchise were reminiscent of the action/sports movies of the 1980’s, our remaining heroes (comprised mostly of the original 6 from 2012’s The Avengers) would engage in an exhilarating training montage, find Thanos, and punch him in the face even harder than ever before! So perhaps the biggest surprise in the much-anticipated Avengers: Endgame, is that the villain in about two thirds of the movie isn’t one you can punch at all. It’s grief.

 

In Infinity War, the Iron Man that started it all, Tony Stark, was forced to hold a teenaged Peter Parker, his budding mentee and pseudo-son, in his arms as he faded away. Black Widow, who had finally allowed a group of people to become her family, had to watch it all come crumbling down. The Mighty Thor worked tirelessly to forge a weapon to defeat Thanos only to come up torturously short instead getting a front row seat to the finger snap that caused the genocide. Captain America has always been a little different. He is all too familiar with the cost of war. What we walk into with this movie is an exploration of grief from many different angles.

 

Captain America Crying

 

Black Widow throws herself into her work, trying her best to keep a grasp on what was. Cap dives into helping others process their grief harking back of his visits to veteran support groups in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Thor, having had losses building up across several movies, had all of his hope for a brighter future riding on him being able to take out Thanos. He is coming completely unglued from the Avengers team, from his responsibilities as king, and his own health. Meanwhile, Stark, the team’s futurist, has embraced the present to build something new. Anyone who has felt a loss will likely relate to one of our heroes’ forms of coping. Grief works itself out in so many different ways, and there’s really no perfect script to handle it. 

 

Naturally, in the world of comics, the bad guys never triumph for long and evil is rarely afforded the final word. In the midst of their grief, a tiny light of hope comes along as the film launches into another wild Avengers adventure. Much like in Infinity War, we get to see new combinations of characters interacting and many memorable moments being created. Endgame is a gigantic movie with a runtime to match. Clocking in at a little over three hours, hardcore fans will be settled in for every second, but it will challenge the patience of fans on the peripheral. Hopefully, casual fans can hang in there, though, because the climax is nothing short of cinematic history unfolding. The final battle of this film redefines epic. 

 

Avengers Endgame

 

Yet pain insists on being attended to, and for those who have been following this franchise for the last 11 years across 22 films, there is going to be pain associated with Endgame. It very much is the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it. Of course, the film sets up plenty to be explored in the future with Disney’s streaming service already promising limited series starring some of our favorites, but until Comic Con or D-23 (Disney’s annual convention) later this year there are no current plans announced for a Phase 4. 

 

This is the end and it feels like it, but what an end it is! Endgameis filled to the brim with threads and references built across the entire franchise. For those who have spent the last year rewatching all the films, studying every frame, quoting every quip, there is a lot of pay off and closure. For casual fans of the franchise who have been empowered by Scarlett Johansson, endeared to Chris Evans, charmed by Robert Downey Jr., or infatuated with Chris Hemsworth, there are plenty of laughs and thrills. It has been an incredible ride, and Endgame is a fantastic finale, but don’t be thrown off if you feel a little grief after saying goodbye to such a history making franchise.