Rated R mainly for an exceptional amount of nudity and swearing. It's not like this is a raunchy comedy or anything like that, but it definitely safe for work. From an aging perspective, there are some things that are progressive and some things that are really regressive. R.
DIRECTOR: John Landis
It's hard to get started writing about this. When I watched it, I couldn't wait to write about it. But then I watched a bunch of Academy Award nominations and wrote about those movies and I...lost my will to write something heavy for Coming to America. I had to watch it before watching Coming 2 America, which was up for Makeup and Hairstyling at the Academy Awards. It's not like I hadn't seen Coming to America before. But I had only watched the cable version in snippets. When watching the movie unedited and in chronological order, there were moments where I remembered every detail and there were scenes that I never knew existed.
I can come at Coming to America in two ways. The film might have introduced Wakanda before Wakanda was ever a concept. Or I could look at it with the notion that the movie still treats the African as uncivilized. I don't think the movie overtly takes the second option. There are so many of these moments of Americans as misunderstanding the concept of civilization. Akeem acts as a commentary on the backwards attitude of most Americans. Zamunda is this land of great wealth. Although the notions of hunting and a monarchy hold influence over Zamunda, the people seem happier than the people of Queens. Mind you, we only see the world of Zamunda through the eyes of Akeem's royal family. For all we know, Zamunda has really big problems, but it doesn't really seem like that. It actually seems like Zamunda has its act together, even if things are a little simplified economically. Contrast this to the people of America, who tend to step over each other. Landis has this montage sequence of American women, each more unromantic than the last. The joke ending this sequence is a little transphobic, but that can probably be chalked up to 1988. The point is that Zamunda's only real weakness lies in the fact that it is a land that lacks drive.
In this way, Coming to America actually serves to be an appropriate love letter to America. I am always weirded out when people get really mad when a movie or other work of art criticizes America. Coming to America is patriotic in the sense that it recognizes what Americans find valuable, not in its perfection. Zamunda looks like a utopia compared to America. (When I say "America", I'm really talking about Queens. Let's establish that as shorthand.) But Akeem finds no value in the people there. When he is betrothed to Imani, because she is only there to serve the crown, she lacks any real personality. For all of Akeem's riches, he would gladly sacrifice them for a sense of purpose. But Landis and Murphy make it clear that the American Dream is one that is built on sacrifice. That's the reason that Queens is portrayed as so filthy. (Mind you, a lot of that is based on the real Queens of 1988.)
However, it is in Akeems reactions to the people of Queens that the movie solidifies its message. There are two ways to view one of the most quotable lines of the film. When Akeem is on the balcony, wishing the people of Queens a good morning, he is quickly cursed at. Inappropriate, with a wide smile, he joyfully exclaims, "F-- you too!" Now, this joke mostly reads as a cultural difference. Akeem, adorably ignorant of America, misreads a social cue and shouts out profanity in response. The story allows for this because Akeem has been sheltered from any confrontation for his entire life. He has a little bit of Princess Jasmine in him in respects to that. But I also like to think that Akeem finds this vulgarity charming. It might not be that he doesn't know what is being said to him, but he finds value in the free vulgarity flying through the air. This is a character who bemoans having to walk on roses anywhere he goes. He's longed for the rough edges of the American Dream. And he's not the first character in history to do so. Because he has been so pampered, he has this element of Charles Bukowski in him. He loves the gutter because it is real. It's why he finds value in Lisa and not Imani.
Lisa may be an idealized character for the story, but she represents the best of America. Lisa is the princess of America. She has worked hard. She has a voice of her own. She is surrounded by toxic masculinity and has still found her voice. And in contrast to the other female characters of the story, she has success. It's just that Lisa's success is almost comically small compared to the wealth and riches that Akeem and Semmi find commonplace. What attracts Akeem is the idea that she might be unobtainable. After all, Akeem --for the most part --does everything in the movie right and still almost loses her. Because the film needs risks, Akeem's secret is what almost splits them apart. But Akeem actually has a good point with his lies. If people only want to marry him because he's a prince, that defeats the purpose overall. And it's not wrong that Lisa finds his deception offensive. It's just that there is no other way to present these people from two different worlds, both geographically and economically.
But the romance of the story is only an excuse to look at the different cultures of 1988 New York. Yeah, it's the part we watch for because it is relatable. But all of the tangents that the movie makes are because the movie wants jokes and act as satire. There's no reason to really have a McDonald's knock-off in the story. Heck, the Soul Glo joke keeps popping up without really going anywhere. The same holds true for the best part of the film, the barber shop. These are all moments where the film is actively poking fun at Americans. For all of its tribal attitudes towards Africa, I think the real brunt of the movie is commenting on the vanity of Americans. Everything is about looking good and being rich, something that Akeem finds vulgar. Yet, he's charmed by these sophomoric attempts to separate from the pack. It's kind of fun in its own way.
But this is all a way for me to write paragraphs. Because what is Coming to America except for a fun excuse for Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall to play some truly awesome characters? Perhaps Coming to America has more in common with sketch and variety shows than a single narrative, but that's okay. A funny movie needs jokes in it and those jokes mostly land. Just because there's a love story in the middle of it doesn't mean that there can't be some diversions.
Rated R, mostly for pretty intense sex scenes. But there also is a weird drug trip that goes into some uncomfortable places. This is one of those movies that screams, "Of course this is R. Why wouldn't it be R?" So don't think that you should watch this without people looking at you. Either that, or develop safe places of trust with others.
DIRECTOR: Joachim Trier
It's going to get to this point eventually, so mind as well drop this comparison now. My wife keeps calling this the Norwegian Amelie. It's been long enough since I've seen Amelie that I can neither confirm nor deny that. I do remember Amelie being more twee than The Worst Person in the World. But I have to say...I loved it. I mean, I really loved it. I'm genuinely surprised that it was up for an Academy Award. But I almost have no faults with the movie.
I am interested in the title though. The title is something. Because it automatically infuses the audience with a sense of expectation that the film never really goes for. But when you watch this movie, there's a sense of irony in the title. Julie isn't a good person. There's no moment of altruism in the movie. But Julie's sins are fantastically social sins. There are moments where we absolutely should condemn Julie, The affair bit is absolutely unforgivable, despite the fact that the movie slightly romanticizes it. (I'll get to that in a second.) But the things that Julie does are what people do. It's what Hollywood tells us to do. Where the title of the film plays an important role is that it reminds us that we are the villains of our own narratives. Yeah, I think of myself as the hero in a lot of cases, but that's because I like to ride a pretty high horse. As much as I find myself the hero of my story, there are times where I overly condemn myself for the missteps in my life. Julie keeps making these mistakes, but that's because she is in that stage of arrested development where she keeps finding reasons to make bold choices that make no sense.
I love that the prologue of the piece is Julie finding new careers over and over. I have a hard time separating this from the main theme because it is part of the direct characterization of Julie. But it never really comes back into play beyond the prologue. But that choice to tell us this in the prologue has some weight. There is what Julie genuinely wants out of life and what she thinks will bring her the most prestige. Everything in Julie's life is what is slightly forbidden and resume building. It's funny that Julie is only in med school because it is this one-in-a-billion profession. But she loses a sense of value for the medical profession when everyone there is as qualified as she is. For the first time in her life, she isn't special. That's the issue I have with a lot of my life. I always want to be the center of attention. I have a blog with a drawing of my face plastered over each page, so keep that in mind. If someone I knew did the exact same thing I did, only better, I would slink away into the shadows because I wasn't the best at something. I consider myself to be an amazing teacher, yet I find myself horribly depressed that it is rarely acknowledged. And I'm aware that it makes me --wait for it --the worst person in the world.
That's maybe what I like about the movie so much. Is that Julie does make a lot of bad choices because she's not getting the attention she desperately craves. She only likes Aksel when he rejects her. She finds him unattractive when he becomes this safe success. He finds fulfillment in himself because Aksel has a stable relationship and a lucrative comic book. It's in this moment that she finds value in Eivind. I'm Team Aksel all the way, by the way. I think we're supposed to be, despite the romanticized adultery that the movie boasts. Eivind has nothing to offer. He's kind of goofy looking (sorry for being superficial). But moreover, he's a barista. When Aksel becomes more of a focus than she is, she is able to see her relationship in contrast to her own. She runs to a place where she can be the alpha in the relationship once more. It's appropriate that the one really big argument that Aksel and Julie have are over children with their friends. It's because people don't like her and scorn the fact that she doesn't have children. While I genuinely think that she finds children a burden, it is a vacation of people who have their lives together. They seem happy. It's only when she hears the rip-roaring row next door does she find value in Aksel. Adults with children don't necessarily have their lives together.
The miscarriage is an odd choice. There's a thread about children and Julia, contrasting the opinions of Aksel versus Eivind. Aksel wants children in the twilight of his youth. He knows that there is only so much time (which foreshadows his own bout with cancer) to have children and Julie is not prepared to have children. After all, that would mean a sense of permanency. Eivind, with his low-stakes life, also doesn't want children. But that's when she becomes pregnant. It's really using a child as a counter. I mean, the movie could have easily steered the story to one about abortion and I'm glad it didn't. Because what the child does for Julie is the idea that she can't continue doing what she's doing. That photography job is the one she wants for the rest of her life, despite the fact that it might be the (pun intended) least flashy. It's not her changing her mind about the value of children. It's viewing Aksel's mortality as a reminder of her own mortality. Honestly, as much as this is a story about relationships and adultery, it's about growing up and realizing that life is about making choices. Sometimes they are going to be things planned and sometimes they are accidental.
And that's probably the role of the miscarriage. If she had the baby, which I kind of wish that she had, there would have been that element of being trapped as opposed to sticking with a decision. When she sees Eivind with his own kid, I had to immediately Google the read on that. My takeaway is that Eivind more enjoyed the notion of freedom than he did love Julie. Julie represented this free spirit that allowed him to get away with his own immature garbage. He was always going to settle down with a woman that he was meh about and he was always going to have a kid. But Julie's miscarriage means that she doesn't have to move on with her life. She chooses to move on with her life. She doesn't have a different career. Instead, she's steadfast. Part of this is the realization that she probably actually learned to love Aksel, despite his flaws. Perhaps it is the guilt of knowing that she left a perfectly good guy to have a dumb affair and that guy died. His death wouldn't have been her fault. But had she not had the affair, she would have been with Aksel when he discovered his diagnosis.
Yeah, I like the movie. It's not amazing amazing. But it is also the romantic story that I kind of like. It's weird and a bit gross at times. It's overly sexual, but it doesn't really need to be. I just dug the format and the story was great.
Rated R for pretty intense nudity and sexuality. Like, there's nothing subtle about this movie. A man abuses his wife because he believes that she's sleeping around. The sex scene is something very uncomfortable. There's a pretty intense death scene. It's just got a lot. R.
DIRECTOR: Paolo Sorrentino
See, I really wanted to write about this one before the Academy Awards. This one was special. Maybe it was because it was such a surprise, but The Hand of God is, as my wife calls it, "A movie person's movie." She's right. The film is about the cinematic experience. We don't often just get movies for their visual quality. Yes, the film is fundamentally narrative. I could be forced to give you the plot of this story if I had to. But the experience is more of the lyrical nature. This is a movie about experiencing emotion through the beauty of Italy while experiencing aggressive, aggressive growing pains.
Fabietto summer is particularly a rough one. Sorrentino build's Fabietto's Italy almost with the Italian version of Rockwellian candor. This is the Italy that we all call home, even if your background is violently Eastern European. This is beyond the Olive Garden Italy. This is the Italy of Rosselini and de Sica. It is about sitting outside in a Tuscan villa as your large and overbearing grandmother masticates upon raw mozzarella, juices dripping down her stray beard hairs. If you think I'm being hyperbolic, I assure you that I'm just describing the scene that actually happens. It's visceral. Everything in the first half of the movie is visceral. We made the mistake of watching it in two shifts. (If we didn't split up movies, we wouldn't be able to watch as many of the movies as we did before the Oscars.) In splitting it up, we didn't realize that this movie would actually have a story to follow, let alone a protagonist. Rather, it seemed to be about Italy and Italians. Because one of the main characters is unhinged also through a wrench into the works. Honestly, I didn't realize that Patrizia wasn't the main character for a long time, let alone that everything we were experiencing from her perspective was a hallucination. I went around telling my in-laws about this weird little monk who made people fertile because Sorrentino pulled a fast one.
But what makes The Hand of God something next level is the tonal shift that happens about midway through the film. In this almost genre shift that the movie takes, it reminds me a bit of Parasite. Yeah, it never goes to horror. But it does go from a very whimsical look at the quirkiness of Italians to the roots of bildungsroman. When Fabietto's parents die, we realize how earnest this story really was. Because with the comedy, as much as I loved it, it wasn't vulnerable. Fabietto almost was Napoleon Dynamite played by an Italian Timothee Chalamet. But then, with the death of Fabietto's parents, he becomes this very real kid. He's not cool like other movies make teenagers out to be. This is a kid who has zero answers to life and he has to keep his head above water. And like the rest of us, he's really good at faking it. But the film quickly turns into this quest about the search for the self. In the case of The Hand of God, there's a little bit of a countdown to it. He's at this age where he could take care of himself, but he wasn't supposed to be thrown into adulthood so hard. We never see Fabietto find a career or purpose. But that future out there is hovering, stalking him as he deals with finding himself out. When the movie proves to be semi-autobiographical, it's the little things that end up demonstrating value.
Regardless of its verisimilitude, the cinema scenes would have worked. But there's something even more vulnerable about Fabietto discovering how movies are made. If we mentally stick Sorrentino in the role of Fabietto, which we absolutely should, these little moments take on value. Sorrentino, because he was there, gives us the complete experience of following around a mentor for an entire night and jumping into water. He allows me, a non-sports fan, to appreciate the signing of Maradona to a sports team that I have no affiliation to. Sorrentino makes this world larger than life, but also completely relatable. Tragedy can strike and yet, these little moments remind us that life is still worth living. It's odd because the major tragedy in the story is never balanced out with an equal major success. Someone out there is arguing with their screen with indignation.
I'll just address it. "What about when Fabietto loses his virginity to a significantly older lady who completes the act that borders on rape?" There's something very sad about the scene. While I ruminated on this film, I wondered what I would say about this scene. The scene isn't outright tragic. To call it that would be inviting my own prejudices and morality into a scene that might not necessarily be calling for that. Alternately, while Fabietto grins after the fact with his brother, it isn't an outright win for the boy either. Instead, this scene is meant to be conflicted. Sorrentino establishes that the woman is taking advantage of a grieving teenager. She knows that he is not over there for sexual reasons, but rather altruistic reasons. When she tells him to perform sexual acts upon her, I don't think that Fabietto ever appears to be more of an innocent. There's an automaton quality to him. He is at war with his hormones and the destruction of cultural norms. There is no relationship between the two. The woman tells him to imagine his most taboo relationship while performing the act, distancing the two. These two people are not getting the same effect out this scene. Yet, this is one of the moments that gets him out of his funk. It is almost like biting down on your tongue to break a cramp. It may not be what he wanted, but it forced him to refocus his trauma into something that he could deal with.
I love vulnerability, guys. This is a vulnerable movie. It is so uncomfortable, yet honest. Sure, some of the world is larger than life, but that could also be how Sorrentino viewed his adolescence. But even if you break down all of the psycho mumbo-jumbo, it's a gorgeous and heartfelt film. My wife is right. It is a movie person's movie. It's just so beautifully crafted and does the job that it was meant to do. This was one of the better pulls from the Oscars this year.
Rated R for more people being terrible with one another. There's a pretty aggressive on screen sex scene. Also, the language can be pretty rough at times. Also, A MURDER! But in terms of the film as a whole, it might be a mild R. It's not like the film is going for shocking so much as it is shooting for interesting. R.
DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott
Can I do three? That's a hat trick, right? I mean, I have the time right now. I'm not feeling all that great, so this is a lovely distraction and the Academy Awards are around the corner. Here's the poop: I was told that I wouldn't like this movie. If I'm not mistaken, the reviews for this movie were less than stellar. Maybe all of that combined meant that, of course I was going to like it. But I can kind of see what people are talking about. I mean, it's just The Godfather with less killing.
Now, while it may be The Godfather with less killing, I would like to point out that I'm not obsessed with The Godfather. It's a very impressive film that I never joined the fandom for. But in terms of structure, all of the beats of The Godfather are there. Only in this case, these are all based on real people who sell fancy clothing. It's weird how the story is laid out. The film is from the point of view of Patrizia. I loved Lady Gaga's performance as Patrizia and I practically have no notes, but it is interesting that we're not really watching for Patritizia. We're watching for Maurizio. Patritizia is fascinating because she goes from small time to impressive before her appropriate fall. Her motivations may be a little muddy, but I really like that. I kept on asking my wife whether she cared about Maurizio at all and I think I settled on that life is nuanced. She saw deep pockets with the name "Gucci" and saw that as opportunity. But I also think that she didn't hate Maurizio, despite the fact that he appeared to be somewhat on the spectrum at times. (I'm really not trying to be crass or insulting. It just seemed like Maurizio at the beginning of the film had issues dealing with basic social situations.)
But at one point, and I'm not quite sure when, Maurizio and Patrizia become this tag team. I'm reading Patrizia as this con artist, but she is very cool with Maurizio divorcing himself from his family and his wealth and now I'm confused. Again, life is about nuance. For all I know, she fell in love with him because she saw something we didn't. Maybe she found it remarkably romantic that he stripped himself of his fortune for her. Regardless, there's this new power couple and it is Michael Corleone in the form of nerdy Adam Driver. Like Michael, Maurizio almost fights his destiny tooth and nail. He knows how toxic the Gucci company is. He wants to be his own man. Yeah, that involves taking his parents' money so he can pay for law school, but you get where I'm going with this. But the same thing that keeps us watching for Michael's transformation is what makes Maurizio interesting to watch. He goes from being "awkward boat guy" to on the run from Giovanni Law because of questionable business practices. While he doesn't have hits made, he destroys people's livelihoods because he can. That's fascinating.
I mean, it's been a while since I could say this, but I think Ridley Scott made a good movie. Yeah, it's odd that he cast Jared Leto as Paolo Gucci. (Man, imagine being Paolo Gucci in real life and seeing this interpretation of you.) I'm not sure how I feel. Because I know that it is Jared Leto, I keep seeing a young guy acting like an older guy throughout. But Paolo, for as distanced from reality that performance probably was, happened to be the most interesting character of the entire thing. I love the idea of this corrupt loser who keeps making stupid mistakes because of his own hubris. To top it off, it made it even more enjoyable to watch this guy constantly get dunked on by his family, who all find him to be the worst. It creates a weird dynamic between character and audience. The word "pathetic" comes from the notion of "deserving pity." Paolo is absolutely pathetic. He keeps getting the short end of the straw with everything that passes his way. But never do you feel bad for the guy, despite the fact that his life is absolutely the worst. That comes from the idea that he's morally bankrupt coupled with the fact that he intellectually isn't smart. He keeps bringing about his own downfall, which is just darned satisfying to watch.
But yeah, I do have to complain about it. After all, this will never make a Top 10 list, no matter what the topic is. I mean, I like that Ridley Scott made a movie that I got on board for, but it is far from perfect. Like almost all the Academy Award movies, it is just a little too long. And it's not too long just for anything. It's just a little bit boring. There are all these moments where we kind of get that the dynamic is all screwed up and we have to accept it. Oddly enough, I would probably minimize the Al Pacino as Aldo stuff, despite the fact that I loved seeing him in that role. Aldo, for all the scenes he is in, doesn't actually tie to the main plot as much as I thought that he would. The fact that he can go to prison, get out, and his dynamic doesn't really change kind of illustrates the weakness of the character. But again, I'm being me and I kind of hate me.
But House of Gucci hits more than it misses. Yeah, it's The Godfather. That's fine. But I kind of enjoyed it, whether or not it actually deserved it.
Rated R for drug addiction, language, and implied sexuality. It's a pretty bleak film full of detoxing and horrible drug stuff. The movie is meant to both shock and inspire you, which may actually get a bit tedious at times. But this isn't the time to write about this. Know it has shocking content. R.
DIRECTOR: Rodrigo Garcia
Look at me! If I can get his thing done by the end of the day, I'll be so happy. It's weird that I think I can get three of these things knocked out in one day. Sure, it will affect the quality of my writing. Also, I'm setting my goals way too high for any good to come of it. But the Academy Awards are this weekend and I get such a kick out of knowing that my blog has been updated with the nominations.
My favorite time with my wife is the time between the Academy Award nominations and the actual Academy Awards. We've created a bit of a tradition of trying to watch as many as we can before the actual ceremony. It's given us a sense of investment when we watch the presentation because we actually have strong opinions on everything. But even I feel pushy when we watch an entire film for "Best Original Song." Sometimes, these movies are instrumental (pun intended) to the film as a whole. [See Encanto.] But, as if often the case, someone wrote a thematically appropriate song to go over the end credits. These are the movies that I feel bad for watching with my wife. But guess what? I'll watch it, especially if it is free on a streaming service. (Note: I understand that streaming services aren't free, but I don't think of the price per viewing.) For a hot second, I wondered why Four Good Days was only nominated for Best Original Song. But then about fifteen minutes in, I realized why.
There's something remarkably immature about Four Good Days. When I was in a playwriting class, I wrote what I thought was heavy and edgy. Man, I was going to change the world. But I learned that great writing and storytelling has an edginess that just happens. It isn't the point. It's a thing that manifests itself. Some of the greatest stories have absolutely no edginess. That's impressive. Four Good Days wants so much that comes across as sophomoric.
From the perspective of Glenn Close and Mila Kunis, I can see why this movie would seem appealing. It's borderline an opportunity for an acting class. And I'll say, both Glenn Close and Mila Kunis do a solid job with what they are doing. There's no complaints about their final performance. But it's all an acting exercise. The film mostly is a two-hander. Two characters who have a relationship need something very tangible from the other. The intentions are extremely clear. Heck, there's nothing abstract about that relationship. Molly needs her mother to save her. Deb needs Molly to give up drugs. Neither one should budge and that creates tension. Okay, that's honestly introduction to acting. Unfortunately, that also means that there is little left beneath the surface. The characters are always saying what they mean. Rather than let us interpret the performances, it's all spelled out. From an audience's perspective, it means that there is less for us to do. It's fun to unpack things and find the themes of a story. But when everything is right there on the surface, the audience is relegated to the role of spectator. Tell your addiction story, little movie and I'll applaud the performances. That's pretty unsatisfying.
But I keep going back to the notion of childishness. I get that this is based on a true story. There's nothing shocking about this because the addiction narrative has been told so many times. There's a reason why this kind of thing is used for acting classes. But the movie almost becomes about the addiction and not the characters. There's nothing that separates Four Good Days from other movies about the same thing. Everything in this is setting. Heck, the movie is actually named after the time span that this movie takes over. But addiction should be the starting point, not the ending point for the film. It's almost like someone wanted to make this drug film, researched what addiction looked like, and included every element of research. That's not storytelling. It's actively bad. It feels like an ABC Afterschool Special. This is coming from a straight edge guy who will never ever do drugs. It is just that preachy.
And the funny thing is that the song isn't that good. Sure, I'm not into country. But it's super forgettable. The one thing that brought attention to this film that should have fallen through the cracks is something that is mediocre. What you are left with is Mila Kunis and Glenn Close acting their faces off and that's it. This almost feels like it was fundraised by a Megachurch and then released on Hulu. Why is this a movie?
R for just an overall bleak and miserable tone. There's sex, violence, language, and drinking. Honestly, there's absolutely nothing wholesome in this film, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's just that Leda has some baggage to her that often touches on elements of The Awakening.
DIRECTOR: Maggie Gyllenhaal
I'm going to put myself out there and be vulnerable. I'm going to hate myself after writing this, but early 20s me had a real artistic crush on Maggie Gyllenhaal. Yeah, let that sink in. She was just so dark and moody. I would imagine her drinking coffee at a diner at 3:00 am, a little drunk and smoking a cigarette and yelling about me about how boring I was. In light of this revelation, I probably have more self-esteem issues that I have to analyze, but that's the truth. Now, I didn't know that Maggie Gyllenhaal had anything to do with this movie until it ended. But the first thing I thought was, "Of course! It all makes so much sense."
Yeah, I'm going to agree that it's probably not Best Picture worthy. I'll support the Academy when it comes to not giving it the nomination. But I do agree with the nominations that it did get. If I, Tonya is the gold standard for snubbed films, The Lost Daughter is no I, Tonya. But what it is fascinates me. It's the piece as a whole. Part of it is the ambiguity of the movie. Another part is the performance and the cynicism behind life as a whole. But maybe the most joyful thing, for me, is that I have no idea who I can recommend this movie for. It hits my buttons really hard, despite the fact that it didn't go places that I wanted it to go and that at times, it's a little boring. Maybe some of that comes from the idea that I really bond to unlikable characters. (This also supports the notion that I want to be friends with someone who humiliates me in a diner at 3:00 am.) But it has a whole vibe that is crushing. And the crazy thing --the absolute craziest thing --is that I hate The Awakening. I find it abhorrent, despite the fact that I'm constantly trying to be a better feminist. That book frustrates me and triggers me so hard. Yet this film? I'm all on board.
A good chunk of that feeling comes from the notion that The Lost Daughter never pretends that Leda has the answers. She never has her moment where she can justify her behavior because something. I mean, it's not to say that she's not relatable. I don't think I've ever bonded more with a movie than when young Leda is lying on the floor, allowing herself to be whacked in the head by her child, just so she could have a moment's rest. I don't know Gyllenhaal's background, but there are some aggressive parent vibes that people don't talk about that often. There's always the hilariously burned out parent in movies, but the real burned out parent is that scene. There's nothing funny about it, but I have also felt such an intense kinship with this moment. But because The Lost Daughter is so bleak and pushing boundaries, we have Leda handle that scene differently than I would. Leda has a lot shorter of a fuse than the rest of us do. While Gyllenhaal allows us to view Leda at her best and Leda at her worst, the film really focuses on those lows more than anything else.
And I keep coming back to The Awakening. I mean, the crux of the story is the notion that her spouse comes across as neglectful of her needs, so she abandons her family for a long period of time. Joe is kind of undefined for the film. While Kate Chopin definitely makes the Monsieur Pontellier the antagonist of the film, there's something kind of sympathetic about Joe. Yeah, he's missing some key cries for help, but they both seem so young and naive. It's never out of selfishness that he neglects Leda. It's just that he can't often see the forest through the trees. Leda's breakdown is almost to the point that she probably should never have been a mother. Gyllenhaal never really spells that out for us, but that's because Gyllenhaal is doing something really smart with the story. The film lets us read into moments with our own lenses. There are beats that can be read in multiple different ways and they are all right and they are all wrong.
Leda's selfishness manifests itself from basic human conditions. She wants to be valued as an adult with intellect. She wants to be considered sexy by celebrity, even small time celebrities like Hardy. This all encapsulates itself in the need for everyday being different, which is definitely not the case when you have a family with kids. There's a sense of sameness that becomes poison. Leda swears that she loves her kids, but resents them for stealing her life. The irony of this is that adult Leda embraces a sense of sameness. Colman's portrayal of the aging Leda is depressed with the sameness, yet she keeps returning to the same beach chair and the same location for her working vacation, which oddly seems devoid of any productive work. It's the notion that we tell ourselves that we are the victims of our own martyrdom. Leda keeps finding ways to inject drama into her life, which makes her seem more sympathetic than she is. She keeps this doll that would make the daughter be less dramatic. If Leda returned the doll quickly, it would sever her connection to this toxic family on the beach. Heck, they would probably even celebrate her more than they do for finding Nina's daughter.
But Leda needs that victimhood to a certain respect. She returns to the family after three years. Her nuclear moment of running away with Hardy loses its edge, causing her to make waves again. She creates this antagonism with this family by being intentionally caustic while simultaneously befriending them. There's a certain element of paradoxical behavior with Leda and Nina's family. She provokes them when it comes to the beach chair. Sure, Leda is in the right. She absolutely should keep that beach chair. But society understands that when someone asks for something, we probably should give it to them if we want to be accepted as a good person. And there is so much poking of the bear that Leda actually comes across as somewhat insane. Her caressing of the doll, polluted with sludge coming out of its mouth, seems terrifying. There are moments of what seem like lost time. The doll isn't where she remembers putting it. The fruit is rotting. Despite the fact that Leda isn't exactly the narrator, she has the traits of an unreliable narrator when it comes to solving the mystery of her.
It's a gorgeous film that graciously leaves me with more questions than answers. Sometimes I hate this. Sometimes I love this. If I had to rate it objectively, I would find it a well-performed piece that is incredible frustrating. But I also like incredibly frustrating sometimes, so a round of applause all around for The Lost Daughter.
Not rated, but the movie gets pretty graphic, especially when dealing with a factory that makes realistic sex dolls. It treats this subject matter as something casual and fundamentally un-sexy, which is more interesting than anything else with the factory. But I will say that I felt uncomfortable watching it.
DIRECTOR: Jessica Kingdon
Maybe today is the day that I feel motivated enough to write two blog entries? I mean, the Academy Awards are this weekend and my list is growing, especially considering that I had two days where I didn't even have access to a computer to write. I have to say that I'm a little nervous about writing this one. As a teacher who teaches a lot of exchange students from China, saying anything that even implies that China has room for improvement causes a lot of controversy. This is anecdotal evidence, but it is anecdotal evidence that just keeps happening over and over again. Director Jessica Kingdon made a movie that never preaches, so much as states the obvious in an important way.
I can safely say that I didn't learn anything about Chinese culture from this movie. That's almost not the point. But this movie, through its formatting, acts as a supercut of corporate greed. I'm giving Kingdon so many points for this. Because what Ascension does is connect what I treated as two paradoxical disperate thoughts and made me find a way to marry these two ideas. One thing, as Americans, we have a hard time understanding is the relationship between Communism as an economic system and Communism as a starting off point for a group of people. When I teach the fundamentals of Communism when we study the Russian Revolution and when we study McCarthyism, there's always that idea that group economics that gives power to the workers. But since the new millennium, China has been one of the fastest growing economies in history. It's not through the abandonment of capitalism. It's through its almost zealous embrace of extremist capitalism. It takes the mistakes that we make in America and doubles down on this notion. I'm surprised that I didn't quite make this connection when I wrote about American Factory, but it was all laid out here.
My wife said that "Ascension should be boring." (Sorry if I'm paraphrasing.) She's right. By all intentions, Ascension should be one of the most dull films ever. It's repetitive, but never obnoxious. There's no narrator. There's no interviews or talking heads. It's just footage of corporate life in China. Now, these snippets of locations range in levels of success. We see the bottom rung of society, piecing together sex dolls. We see barkers selling abysmal jobs while people clamor for more info on these substandard opportunities. There's butlers and CEOs and everything in-between. But all of these scenes are unified by one socio-economic horror: the company's success is the only thing that has value. I've crapped on America for having a fraction of this zealousness. There's something almost religious about the way that people worship financial success in China.
But because Kingdon never actually vocalizes an opinion --a point that I applaud her for --I'm forced to come to the conclusion that China's economic success comes at the expense of soul and art. It's so easy for me to criticize that. I'm a Catholic school teacher, for goodness' sake. The fact that I chose a profession where I'll never be paid well, but get to be passionate about what I do is almost distressing to the extreme capitalism of China. There's a scene which is potentially the most haunting of the entire film. Because the movie starts with these buskers advertising low pay and no sitting time, one would think that no one would jump for these jobs and that expectations would be through the toilet. That's not the case, as shown through the boot camp like indoctrination of this factory. These employees are dressed in military-styled garb and are forced to work out their arm muscles to do repetitive turning all day, every day. Watching these people lock arms together and turn a circle for hours, deadlifting a plastic ring was so degrading.
Now, in reference to the fear of my Chinese students finding fault in my reasoning, I have to say that I have my own cultural biases heavily coloring my viewing. These scenes look like torture to me. I'm sure that my students would view Kingdon's documentary, despite being free of actual commentary, anti-Chinese propaganda. And they actually might be right. I don't know enough outside of these docs about what happens. But I can attest that there is something haunting about the cold nature of how China views Americans. Heck, the fact that I'm writing this right now means that I 'm locked into my own cultural bias about China that I can't get around. But the complete lack of respect for the worker while simultaneously celebrating the worker is interesting. I mean, these workers are cogs in a machine. But they are proud of that. There's a pride that just doesn't make sense for me. There's no complaining. There is a guy who is proud that he wants to work himself to death. His words, not mine! That used to be the most depressing sentiment imaginable and that's something that's just applauded there.
I don't know if I'll ever get this kind of stuff. You can see where I'm coming from, right guys? I mean, I write a blog about absorbing arts. I teach the humanities. Fundamentally, money is something that corrupts and dehumanizes. I talk about storytelling and culture and those are the jobs that are actually disrespected over there. It's about challenging norms and Ascension is about a world that takes pride in the norms being protected. It's a really weird situation, but it is also a fascinating watch. In terms of what Jessica Kingdon presented, it's really interesting. The controversial take I'm going to give is that it is what Koyaanisqatsi wanted to be, but a bit more grounded.
Unrated, but it might be the most close-to-G rating that I've ever seen. I honestly can't think of a single thing that would get under someone's craw. Because the character has an emotional arc, he does treat tradition with a bit of scorn, but that is rectified by the end of the movie.
DIRECTOR: Pawo Choyning Dorji
Wait, how can this be up for an Academy Award if this was released in 2019? 1) I don't think I know exactly the rules of film distribution and 2) I don't know what the official Academy rules are regarding submission to the Academy Awards. But all of that is almost secondary because this might be a movie that exists in the story of its creation than the actual story itself.
It's going to make it hard to write about, I'll tell you that. Because, like CODA, I don't necessarily feel like it has Academy Award quality behind it. I mean, it's a fine movie. It does the job. It's feel goodery, which you guys know I tend to dislike. But the only thing that makes it special is that it is filmed in one of the remotest places in the world. That's really all that makes this movie special, the fact that it was hard to film. There was a movie a few years ago that I don't feel like Googling that was filmed secretly for years inside of Walt Disney World. (I think it was DisneyWorld, not DisneyLand.) I think the word "Tomorrow" was in the title, but that could be misremembering. I thought the movie was fine. But you were definitely watching it because of the gimmick. That movie didn't get any of the attention that Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is getting. I will say that Lunana is a better movie than the other one. But that being said, so much of the film is criminally predictable.
Predictability can be a good thing sometimes. Going into this movie, you knew that everything was going to be telegraphed. Ugyen was such an archetype that him being in the movie made the film a trope. (Note: I just discovered that Ugyen Dorji, the character in Lunana is also the name of a former Btutanese prime minister. That had to be a choice. It's like me naming a character "William Howard Taft.") The film starts off with him sitting in an office and he's being scolded for being without motivation. Of course, this tiny town in the middle of nowhere was going to change him. The cynic in me screams in reaction to this notion. The entire walk to Lunana is him complaining that he doesn't want to do this and that the walk is a burden on him. Okay, fine. Whatever. He offers to stay until the Sherpas are heading back. (I apologize that I'm probably using the wrong term for Sherpa, but it's what I have in my lexicon. If someone could help me with the proper terminology, I would be grateful.) But nothing much happens between his arrival and his change of heart. Did he think that the kids there wouldn't be kids? What made him rediscover his love for teaching?
The answer, of course, is that they needed him. This seems off topic, but its not. When my wife was in med school, she refused to watch House with me. Most medical shows drove her up the wall, despite the fact that she used to watch those kinds of shows before med school. I'm the same way with stories about teachers. Stories about teachers drive me nuts because it seems like it is all about this magic light switch that goes off both for the teacher and for the student. Yeah, there's something really appealing about going to teach in the middle of nowhere without any supervision. (Yeah, that would be way too much of a temptation, knowing that no one was supervising my curriculum.) But Ugyen didn't seem like he wanted to be a teacher to begin with. There's a very weird question about why Ugyen wanted to become a teacher in the first place. Don't get me wrong: there are a lot of teachers like Ugyen out them. I tend to kind of hate them. I don't really get what made Ugyen the way he was. He wanted to become this singer, so why did he become this teacher? Is it that odd idea that anyone can be a teacher, so he supplemented his music career with a stable job? But that's just building up the idea that anyone can become a teacher.
Watching him just become a guitar player kind of bummed me out. Also, there was no leveling of students. The teachers in this tiny village always treated teachers with a level of respect that I would kill for, but all of the students are at the same level of skill, which happens to be kindergarten? What happens is that the kids kind of stay in this static place while Ugyen is the one who becomes this dynamic force. Isn't teaching more about the students than the teacher? It's not like these kids had anything but respect for their educations. Heck, if anything, they were pleading for educations. So their transitions from the beginning of the movie was from good kids to good kids who had a kindergarten educations? The point is to get them to change each other, yet we only look at this very awkward understanding of what it means to be a human being.
I mean, the movie is cute and all. It's very Hallmark. But the one thing that I can't hold against the movie is how beautiful the movie is. Because the movie is shot in Lunana, Bhutan, it has this epic look to the film that is hard to match. Actually, I've only seen that kind of imagery in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty remake. Actually, I did this whole thing about the visual appreciation of the travel narrative for a grad school class (and have an interesting story behind it to boot). But that's what Lunana is, a great travel narrative. In a way, it holds something in common with Fitzcarraldo than it does most other films. You watch it because it is a story that uses nature as not only a setting, but a central conflict. That's cool.
But the movie isn't great in itself. It's cute and pretty. Is that worthy of an Academy Award? Probably not, but I am still glad I watched it. And part of me might be acting a little harshly because it was nominated for an Academy Award. It gets my dander up. But it's just another feel good teaching movie and that's okay.
Rated PG. This one is getting some controversy because of its subject matter. While the concept of turning into a big red panda is an allegory for puberty, Pixar doesn't shy away from straight up talking about menstruation. That's shouldn't be the controversial thing, despite the fact that it is getting attention. Because the film is about puberty, the protagonist lusts over a boy who works at a local shop. It's mild, but I can see that being uncomfortable for many audiences.
DIRECTOR: Domee Shi
At one point, I had the motivation to write two of these. Then that motivation...went away. Oh, the road to Hell and whatnot. But this is a movie that is making people mad. It's also a break from my Academy Award writing (despite the fact that it might be up for the 2023 Academy Awards...if there is a 2023.) And it's something that I get, despite the fact that I don't agree with it. Heck, my wife and I are on opposite sides of the debate. My lo-key obsession with virtue signaling makes me feel like I have to say that I loved it. But the thing is, I did love it. Oh my goodness, it was so good for me as a dad of a ten-year-old to have this to share with my daughter, who is probably now mortified while reading this. Sorry, kiddo. I know that you are the one member of the family who actually reads your dad's blog.
Turning Red is a lot. Like, I adore it, but I can't deny that it is a lot. In the past decade, there's been a far louder cry to normalize menstruation. That voice has always been out there, but I do appreciate that there's a real attempt to make it commonplace. Disney has been in the news a lot lately for playing it safe when it comes to upsetting its fanbase. For every news article about LGBTQ+ elements to Disney owned properties, there's another article stating that Disney is trying to have its cake and eat it too. So to see something like Turning Red, which I also hear was chopped to bits by Disney, is kind of spectacular. Art is meant to be risky. It's meant to change things. It's so odd because people believe that kids shouldn't be preached to. Yeah, I'm the worst right now and I have this weird self-hate for all of this. But usually, when people become adults, it's too late. If a kids' movie can't talk about puberty, something every kid is going to go through, when is that eventually going to be cool?
Listen, part of me wants to soapbox about normalizing menstruation for a long time, but that's ignoring the movie. The movie did what it was supposed to, so it's my job to write about it. And when I say that it is my job, it is no way my job and I just maintain goals to have a sense of normalcy about my life. If you keep in mind that this is an allegory about puberty, which I've clearly established, it also is a story about mothers and daughters. There's something about absolutely loving one's family and being completely angry about situations. There's the notion of generational abuse that happens. Mei absolutely loves her mother Ming. There's a scene before the whole red panda thing starts where she realizes that her mother is completely overbearing, but she loves the bond that the two of them have. And Ming seems like a fabulous mother. Perhaps her expectation on her daughter are too high, but she seems to be doing all that she does out of love. That relationship isn't different when Mei goes through her transformation. It is just shed in a new life. There's something toxic about both members behaviors that's compounded by the physical change of turning into a red panda.
It's kind of amazing that Ming becomes such a villainous character. Pixar has normalized that good people can become antagonists in a story because they are misguided. With Turning Red, it even goes beyond that, establishing that everything in this story is internal, despite the fact that one could point to the concert as an external conflict. Because the girls imbue that concert with gravitas, it becomes an interesting vehicle to talk about emotions and growing pains. But I got really mad at Ming, despite the fact that it was Mei that was misbehaving. It's an odd message because the film almost invites rebellion as a form of communication between parents and children. Ming has unreasonable expectations for her daughter. When she drags her daughter to the convenience store to yell at a boy, I almost didn't believe that happened. It was the stuff of nightmares, but it shows how disconnected and broken Ming actually was. Even though she had gone through her own rebellious crush with Mei's father, she had never really grown from that moment. It's why we see her as a child in the other panda world. While other people had the opportunities to become their own people, the anger she harbored when she went through puberty was made stagnant. It's something that she carried with her for her entire life.
And as much as I sympathize with Mei as a character, I feel more for Ming. Maybe it's because I'm almost 40 and I relate more to the adults in these stories, but it's also because she's trying her best and failing so miserably. She hurts her daughter trying to protect her. Everything that Ming does is trying to protect her little girl from a world that continually lets her down. She's kind of right about that. Mei is made fun of at school. She is socially awkward. She smiles when she's with Mom. Is there any reason that she shouldn't defend her daughter so ferociously? From an outside perspective, the answer is yes. It's quite obvious that Ming continues to take her parenting duties too seriously. But Ming is also someone who never really grew out of her own imposter syndrome. That child is doing what she thinks her mother would do best. That's why Grandma comes across so caustic. We see that everything that Ming does as a mother is a perversion of what Grandma did to her. Because there was this deep and cultural respect for elders, Ming never had an entourage to help her grown out of that stagnation.
But for all of this serious analysis, Turning Red is about growing up from awkward to something else. I don't know if Mei ever really becomes cool. To a certain extent, she does. She goes from being the pariah to the social epicenter of the school. But it is also for people wanting to use her for their own good. That's where the constant friendship keeps popping up. These are the people who saw Mei's beauty before the panda. It's appropriate that they are the ones who understand her after she receives her panda. It's cute and its funny.
I do wonder why the film is set in 2002. Part of me thinks that it is "The Boy Band Era". There are simple cell phones. But the other part of me thinks that the director and writers were all writing about their own childhoods. There is something very personal about the story here. While I don't know that the movie needed to be in 2002 because there is something universal about fandom, it is this fun nostalgia trip that gives the movie its own bit of flavor. I will admit that it is odd to see my nostalgic era fade away because I'm getting old, but I do respect the new nostalgia of the early 2000s.
It's a far better movie than people give it credit for. Yeah, I can see some people being awkward about the subject matter, but this might be a movie that people need their kids to see. Normalizing puberty and giving kids the heads up might be exactly the thing that will make them less afraid of hanging out with their parents. Pixar did a good thing. It might be my favorite Pixar film.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.