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This is an approximate transcription of a talk I gave in church today at the Memorial Park 1st ward in Houston, Texas.
My wife Katie and I met on Facebook in 2015. At the time, she lived in Alberta, Canada, and I lived in Provo, Utah. She was working as a social worker, and I was working first as a teacher and then as an entertainment reporter at the local newspaper there in Provo.
She eventually moved to Utah and we continued to date, and then on Canada Day in 2016, which is July 1, we got engaged. And then a few months later in October 2016 we got married.
We were living in Provo, and then last year, we got a call from my wife's sister who lives here in the Houston area, and she wanted to get another apartment for her teenage son, our nephew, so that he could transfer schools. So she called us up -- Katie had gotten into grad school in New York City, so she knew we were going to be going to New York City, but we had a year in between because Katie is Canadian and she was working on her immigration papers -- so we had this amount of time before we were going to be moving, and my sister-in-law called us up and said, 'How would you like to move to Houston and live with Carson for a year, so he's not alone in that apartment?'
And at first we thought, 'That's a wild idea,' but then we thought, 'Let's be wild!' So we decided to do that. We quit our jobs, and we packed up, and after we did all of that, we were looking at the weather report, and discovered it was raining a lot in Houston -- and then it was raining a lot in Houston, and then my sister-in-law's family was flooded out of their house, so they ended up moving into the apartment where we were going to live, but by this time, we had already made up our minds to come, so we decided to come anyway.
It's been an interesting year, or not quite a year, but it's been an interesting time, because we've been kind of living from place to place. We were in an Airbnb for a while, we were in different people's houses, and now, in a few weeks, we're going to finally be going to New York and having some stability again, but it's been an interesting year.
One thing that has been hard for me during this time is not having a really stable sense of community. I have felt displaced at times, and so this experience has really renewed my testimony of the importance of being part of a community, because I've kind of felt the lack of it, and that's kind of what I'm going to be talking about today.
Community: a 'complex connection'
I want to share a couple quotes from a poet named Wendell Berry, who's also a farmer and somebody I like a lot. He said this:
A proper community … is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members -- among them the need to need one another.
He also wrote at another time:
A healthy community is a form that includes all the local things that are connected by the larger, ultimately mysterious form of the Creation. In speaking of community, then, we are speaking of a complex connection not only among human beings or between humans and their homeland but also between human economy and nature, between forest or prairie and field or orchard, and between troublesome creatures and pleasant ones. All neighbors are included.
I really like that idea, thinking about the communities that we live in -- not just among humans, but just the broader community that we're a part of in nature.
The talk that I was asked to base my talk on is called "The Needs Before Us." It's by Bonnie L. Oscarson, who, when she gave this talk, was the Young Women general president. This was in October 2017.
She starts the talk by talking recent natural disasters around the world including Hurricane Harvey, which had been very recent when she gave her talk. And then she shifts to talking about how we can serve within our own communities. She said:
Today I want to mention an aspect of service that I feel is important for all -- no matter where we are located. For those of us who have watched news of recent events and have felt helpless to know what to do, the answer might actually be right before us.
One of the things she talks about in her talk is how we can go to church with an attitude of servce toward the people with whom we will worship. She said:
A(n) area of focus for our service can be in our ward families. Occasionally our children would ask us the question, 'Why do I have to go to Mutual? I just don’t get very much out of it.' If I was having a good parenting moment, I would reply, 'What makes you think you go to Mutual because of what you get out of it?' My young friends, I can guarantee that there will always be someone at every Church meeting you attend who is lonely, who is going through challenges and needs a friend, or who feels like he or she doesn’t belong. You have something important to contribute to every meeting or activity, and the Lord desires for you to look around at your peers and then minister as he would.
She was dropping the word "minister" before it became official.
She also quoted President Spencer W. Kimball who said, “God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs.”
'Think globally, act locally'
This talk reminded me of the phase, "Think globally, act locally," which happens to be something I have on a bumper sticker on my car. Sister Oscarson talked a lot about that idea. She said:
I also think that sometimes it’s easy to miss some of the greatest opportunities to serve others because we are distracted or because we are looking for ambitious ways to change the world and we don’t see that some of the most significant needs we can meet are within our own families, among our friends, in our wards, and in our communities. We are touched when we see the suffering and great needs of those halfway around the world, but we may fail to see there is a person who needs our friendship sitting right next to us in class.
This is a pretty interesting and complex idea.
Quoting again from Wendell Berry, the poet, he said something similar:
Properly speaking, global thinking is not possible. Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. The right local questions and answers will be the right global ones. The Amish question, 'What will this do to our community?' tends toward the right answer for the world.
So it's a really interesting idea to me that Sister Oscarson and Wendell Berry are getting at here. Acting locally and being aware of the needs of those immediately around us doesn't mean that we stop thinking about the broader, global questions and problems that are happening around the world. It doesn't mean that we isolate ourselves from the world's problems. Rather, it's an invitation to to refocus our efforts on the ways in which those global problems, those generalized problems, affect our local communities and our own families.
In Houston, there are a number of organizations that are concerned with local ramifications of global issues. We can join forces with some of those institutions, like Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston’s Refugee Services and Refugee Services of Texas and Human Rights First -- these are organizations that are based here in Houston. And also, our fast offerings go to local needs, so as we pay fast offerings, we're also contributing to local issues.
I was reading in the Houston Chronicle and I learned that "Harris County alone welcomes about 25 of every 1,000 refugees that the U.N. resettles anywhere in the world — more than any other American city, and more than most other nations. If Greater Houston were a country, it would rank fourth in the world for refugee resettlement."
I thought that was really interesting. And of course we know that Houston is a very diverse place, with people from all over.
Just yesterday, I read a news report (that was published yesterday) that an agency has signed a lease to loan a warehouse in Houston to the federal government for the housing of children that have been separated from their parents at the border.
So if we look around us, there are needs all over, right here in our homes, right here in our communities. And if we're looking and praying to see how we can notice those opportunities to help, and willing to act on those promptings, then we can really be a great help in our communities.
Displaced from a community of faith
Sometimes, people are displaced from their communities not from natural disasters or political disasters but spiritual disasters -- personal disasters -- or a crisis of faith.
I mentioned that Katie and I met on Facebook. We actually met in a Facebook group specifically for Mormons who sometimes struggle or have questions or problems with their faith, and so I have personal experience of how even online communities can be legitimate kinds of communities to help minister to each other and offer support. (But they also can't replace in-person communities and ward communities.)
It can often be hard to minister effectively to those who have had a crisis of faith or who have struggled with doubts unless the person ministering has personally gone through those doubts themselves -- however, everybody can help. Everybody can offer genuine help to those who have suffered in different ways than they have personally.
If we lead with love, if we are always humble, and if we listen more than we speak as we're ministering to people, I think we can help everybody, even if we haven't gone through exactly what they've gone through.
And I testify that Jesus Christ has gone through everything that we have gone through, and that everybody else has gone through, and so if we can direct people to that source of ultimate comfort, then, Jesus Christ can fill in the gaps where our personal experiences with whatever problems people are having fall short.
Service without ego
Another thing from Sister Oscarson's talk that jumped out to me is about service without ego, service without doing things for the sake of being seen by other people.
I saw a movie this week that reminded me of this talk. The movie is about Mr. Rogers. I don't know if any of you know about this, but there's a movie playing right now here in Houston that is a documentary about Mr. Rogers.
Mr. Rogers was an ordained minister. But he decided he would focus his efforts on this television program. And thematically appropriately enough, the program was called "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." He was really focused on helping -- in his case -- children, mostly. But I love the way that he really showed what is to me genuine Christlike love for other people. He saw the value of every person and every child.
I want to read the lyrics to one of his songs, because I think this attitude is the kind of thing that I want to exemplify. The song goes like this:
It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.
I love that song. I feel so much love when I hear that song and think of those words. And I think if we adopt that type of attitude, recognizing people wherever they are, and seeing the value that they have, no matter what they're going through, I think that will really help us in our efforts to minister to those around us.
A Father's Day example
I want to close with an example of ministering to our own communities and families with an example from the scriptures of this that also relates to Father's Day, which is today. In Luke 15, we learn of the story of the Prodigal Son. In verses 11 through 19 or so, we see the story of this father. It says, "A certain man had two sons."
One of these sons gave up all of his inheritance and opted for a short period of time of riotous living and disobedience, and then he ultimately had the consequences come of those bad choices, and he thought he was going to perish of hunger, and he lost everything, and he didn't think that he was a worthy person. Then it says, beginning in verse 20:
And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to be merry.
And then it goes on to say that his other son was a little bit jealous of this, or feeling like, "I've always been obedient, how come you're not throwing a party for me?" And it says in verse 31:
And he said unto him, 'Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.'
So to me, this is an example of a father who understood his role as a nurturer for both of his two sons.
With the second son, he knew how to communicate with him and make him feel reassured of his love. And I think it's very poignant that with the first son, when he came back, it makes a point to specify that the father was "still yet a great way off" when he went to enthusiastically greet his son and forgive him and just love him where he was.
Finally, I'll share this quote from President Uchtdorf. This actually comes from the talk right before Sister Oscarson gave her talk in that same General Conference session. He says this:
On your journey back to Heavenly Father you will soon realize that this journey isn’t just about focusing on your own life. No, this path inevitably leads you to become a blessing in the lives of God’s other children -- your brothers and sisters. And the interesting thing about the journey is that as you serve God, and as you care for and help your fellowmen, you will see great progress in your own life, in ways you could never imagine.
Perhaps you don’t consider yourself all that useful; perhaps you don’t consider yourself a blessing in somebody’s life. Often, when we look at ourselves, we see only our limitations and deficiencies. We might think we have to be 'more' of something for God to use us -- more intelligent, more wealthy, more charismatic, more talented, more spiritual. Blessings will come not so much because of your abilities but because of your choices. And the God of the universe will work within and through you, magnifying your humble efforts for His purposes. His work has always advanced on this important principle: 'Out of small things proceedeth that which is great.'
I testify that we are each capable of looking within ourselves at the experiences and the talents and the skills that we have been given -- the spiritual gifts that we have -- to then bless the lives of others. And also, if we pray to have our minds open and our eyes open to the suffering that is immediately around us, within our own families, within our own communities and wards, I testify that the spirit will put actions in our mind that if we follow them, will not only bless our own lives, but will bless the lives of other people in ways that only we can. And I bear this testimony in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
It’s exciting to see the words “written and directed by Brad Bird” onscreen at the end of “Incredibles 2.” The last time we saw those words on a film was on the 2005 short “Jack-Jack Attack,” and before that, “The Incredibles” in 2004.
His credit on 2007’s “Ratatouille” was similar (“screenplay and direction by Brad Bird”), but that was a film he picked up from another writer and director who was fired from the project. And while he directed the flawed but highly underrated 2015 live action film “Tomorrowland,” he co-wrote that script with Damon Lindelof.
Maybe I’m getting caught up in end credits minutia. And anyway, animated films are always highly collaborative. But there’s something special about the movies that were conceived in Bird’s mind and executed in his script and under his direction. His skills as a thoughtful writer and brilliant visual storyteller and stylist are unmatched in American animation.
Those skills are on full display in “Incredibles 2,” which is not only a challenger for Pixar’s best sequel (a category with an already high bar that includes at least one Best Picture Oscar nominee), but for one of Pixar’s best films.
It would be a stretch to think any sequel could be as good as the first “Incredibles” film from 2004. But fortunately for “Incredibles 2,” this time Elastigirl is the star — and stretching is kind of her thing.
After nearly 14 years, Bird has come up with a new story that reaches the intricate intelligence and fun of the first film.
That story picks up right where the last one ended off: a family of superheroes has just come together to defeat the villain Syndrome’s giant robot monster, and they’ve come closer together as a family in the process, but their problems aren’t over.
Being a superhero is still illegal, and Bob and Helen Parr (Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl) still have pretty fundamental differences on how to deal with that legal reality, and how to talk to their kids about it. I love their relationship so much: Their love is an amalgamation of passion, affection, frustration and even competition with each other. It’s real. It’s conflicted. It’s not perfect.
Things pick up when two siblings — a salesperson (voiced by Bob Odenkirk) and a scientist (voiced by Catherine Keener) — come to Bob, Helen and their friend Lucius (aka Frozone, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) with a plan to sway public opinion and make supers legal again.
The plan involves Elastigirl leaving home on a super mission, and whereas the first film focused on Mr. Incredible’s perspective, the new film’s shift toward Elastigirl’s point of view proves not only to be a perfect way to give more vocal work to the brilliant Holly Hunter, but also a great test for Bob and Helen, struggling to stay afloat in their relationship.
The villain this time around is a master of hypnosis known as the Screenslaver, fueled to do evil by a righteous anger with society (like all the best villains are). The righteous anger gives the film plenty of intellectual meat to chew on, and the hypnosis gives the film an amazing visual style. There is a fight sequence between the Screenslaver and Elastigirl that takes place in a room with hypnotic, animated, black-and-white walls that is one of the most exciting bits of beautiful artistry ever to come out of Pixar.
I cannot stress enough how smart this movie is, for all its action, humor and heart. The family dynamics are not at all flat, cardboard stereotypes, so when Bob is left at home with the kids, or when the teenage Violet has trouble with a crush at school, it never feels superficial or cheap. These characters are layered and feel completely real.
And the music is excellent. Michael Giacchino’s first feature film was “The Incredibles,” and in the many film scores he has done since, he has become a deeper, more complex composer. The soundtrack for “Incredibles 2” has a 1960s jazz influence and makes great use of a big orchestra.
By the way, not only is “Incredibles 2” a total delight, but it is preceded by what just might be Pixar’s best short, “Bao.” I didn’t know anything about it before it started, which is a good way to experience its delightful (and profound) twists. The story focuses on Chinese-Canadian characters and is another dialogue-free wonder of visual storytelling to come out of the studio.
I can feel my heart beating faster just thinking about the emotional experience it was for me to watch “Bao” and “Incredibles 2.” I don’t know what I did to deserve to live at a time and place where these two triumphs of American animation are available together at movie theaters just a few miles away from my house, but it is not my place to question such rewards, only to be incredibly grateful for them.
Director: Brad Bird
Vocal Cast: Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Jonathan Banks
Running time: 1 hour, 58 min
Rating: PG for action sequences and some brief mild language
Sequels and reboots can feel derivative, but occasionally, one will come around that feels more like a repeat-trip on your favorite theme park ride than a retread of a movie.
“Oceans 8” is that kind of sequel and reboot. It’s a movie whose form is familiar, but that’s precisely where its magic is: Its form — a light-hearted, complicated, surprising heist — is a blast to experience, even if you have experienced something similar before.
The truth is, I haven’t experienced this particular form as many times as I could have: I’ve seen the 2001 “Oceans Eleven” (which is itself a reboot of the 1960 version), but I haven’t seen either of its sequels, or even the original.
But “Oceans 8” is so good it has me wanting to pull those other entires out and see them. It left me hungry for more of this particular thing.
It takes a lot of craft to pull a good heist movie off. The screenwriting and direction have to be carefully constructed with the pizazz and misdirection of a good magic trick. Adding to the fun in this series is a ridiculously packed cast of all-stars and a jazzy score, which this time is by Daniel Pemberton.
The cast in this particular case is touted as “all female,” which does provide something new to think about with this series (there’s one line of dialogue that points out that women being overlooked in society can work to the advantage of career criminals), but mostly what is notable about this cast is not their gender but their collective amazingness: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, Sarah Paulson and Awkwafina all do extraordinary work here.
Nobody is playing simplified cardboard cut-outs. Sandra Bullock brings a depth to her performances as a career criminal, and each of the supporting players have distinct personalities and complexities. I especially noticed Helena Bonham Carter’s take on her character, who, as a world-renowned designer, is not as adept at the life of crime as the characters played by Bullock or Blanchett are, and Bonham Carter shows that hesitation without making her at all weak.
Mindy Kaling is a hilarious comic actress, and I was happy to see her get laugh lines in this film. Everybody is great in this thing.
The plot is simple (before it gets complex, that is): After a little over five years in prison, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) has had plenty of time to plan the perfect heist: to steal a diamond necklace valued at $150 million. To see the intricacies of that plan play out are the reason we go to the movies, and they are deliciously fun to watch here.
Superheroes may have a corner on the market of summer movies (and of sequels and reboots, for that matter), but “Oceans 8” is a perfect summer movie: It’s fun, light and smart. It doesn’t spend its money on big computer effects, because the only bombast it cares about is the kind that comes from watching big Hollywood stars do their thing all together.
It’s an absolute joy.
Director: Gary Ross
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, James Corden
Running time: 1 hour, 50 min
Rating: PG-13 for language, drug use, and some suggestive content
The forces working against “Solo: A Star Wars Story” seemed insurmountable even for a filmmaking group as rich in resources as the Empire, AKA The Walt Disney Corporation.
For one thing, the movie lost its talented and ambitious initial directing team, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, over “creative differences.” Then there were rumors of a struggling central performance, the hiring of the competent-but-safe Ron Howard as the new director, extensive late re-writes and reshoots, and we didn’t see a trailer for the thing until just a few months ago.
Plus, aren’t “Star Wars” sequels cursed?
But none of those hurdles compares to the scariest thing about a stand-alone Han Solo movie: the challenge of getting the character right.
To illustrate this challenge, I want to share something about Han that I learned recently. I wish I could remember the source of this observation and give proper credit — sorry, anonymous Twitter user — but it really did change how I saw the character.
The observation is that Han Solo is not a womanizer like James Bond. He may be a lot of things — a smooth-talking, scruffy-looking nerf-herder, perhaps — but he’s a monogamous nerf-herder.
Contrast Han with Peter Quill/Star-Lord from “Guardians of the Galaxy” and it becomes clear how the “Han Solo” archetype has been misapplied in the years since Harrison Ford and George Lucas created the iconic space pirate. Peter Quill has sex with an alien woman and then promptly forgets about her while she is still asleep in his spaceship.
Han Solo would never do that.
Throughout “The Empire Strikes Back,” Han pursues Leia, but at the end of “Return of the Jedi,” when he perceives that Leia has chosen Luke over him, he accepts her decision immediately. (“When he gets back, I won't get in the way,” he says.)
Peter Quill only wishes he were Han Solo.
But I’ll admit that when I first saw “Guardians of the Galaxy,” I thought of Peter as a Han Solo “type.” It’s easy to conflate Han’s brand of masculinity with a more toxic variety.
Such is the true danger posed in creating a new story about Han Solo. If it’s that easy to create new characters like Peter Quill in Han Solo’s misapplied image, how would a new movie — and a new actor, Alden Ehrenreich — approach Han himself?
Even loyal “Star Wars” fans seem to disagree about who Han Solo is. Just look at the infamous “Han shot first” debates, which spring from a scene in the original cut of “Star Wars” where Han shoots the alien Greedo in cold blood. Lucas later modified the scene in his “Special Edition” re-release of the film with computerized lasers nonsensically making it seem like Greedo shot at Han but missed — from three feet away — before Han fires back in self-defense and kills Greedo in one shot.
I’ve sometimes seen defenders of the original film argue that Han is cool because he kills people in cold blood, that that makes him really awesome. And that’s a little creepy.
There’s a line of dialogue in the new film that sums up nicely how this creative team positions themselves in the “Who is Han Solo?” question. The first half of the line is in the trailer, delivered by new character Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke):
“I might be the only person who knows what you really are,” she says.
I won’t spoil the punch line as it appears in the actual film — and I will also not claim it’s particularly subtle — but as a mission statement for who this version of the character is, the line proves that the team at Lucasfilm know what exactly what they are doing. It helps that the script was written by original trilogy writer Lawrence Kasdan, along with his son Jonathan.
The Han of the “Star Wars” original trilogy — and the Han in “Solo” — is cocky but not selfish, impulsive but exceptionally skilled. The new film even offers a clever origin story scene for the “Who shot first?” debate that underscores rather than undermines Han as a character.
Alden Ehrenreich does a fine job in the title role, capturing some of Harrison Ford’s mannerisms but in a way that doesn’t feel constrained by mimicry. I’m personally of the belief that re-casting parts is no sacrilege if done well. (In fact, I wish Leia would be recast for “Episode 9,” because I think that would be the most respectful way to send off that character, but I digress.)
The supporting cast delivers a lot of fun: Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian is expectedly perfect, as is Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca — a role he is returning to after “The Last Jedi.”
Clarke’s Qi’ra is the standout of the new characters, and honestly, I want to see the next spin-off movie be about her. While this movie gave me a satisfying and complete prelude to the Han Solo of the original trilogy (an impressive feat), there’s still plenty more for Qi’ra to do in upcoming adventures, and I’m holding on to my lucky dice that Lucasfilm will give them to me in cinematic form rather than some comic book I’ll want to but never read.
Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton and Paul Bettany are also all quite good as other new characters.
I was intrigued by one character — L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge — and her introduction of droids-rights activism into the “Star Wars” canon. I like the potential of that idea, but I was initially disappointed by the way she comes across as a flat stereotype of an activist with only vague cartoon versions of important real-life arguments.
But the film turns out to care more about her and her views than it let on at first, leading to a fun scene (that I must say, captured some of the anarchic joy reminiscent of the fired Lord and Miller).
Then, for a character whose primary concern is the emancipation of artificial intelligence from human and alien control, what ultimately comes of L3-37 is, I have to say, tragically ironic.
I have to mention the film’s score, which underwhelmed me. I’m eager to give the soundtrack its own listen, but aside from a new theme for Han (written by John Williams for the new film), the score left me with the overall impression of a “Star Wars” jukebox in a lightning storm — hopping from iconic track to iconic track without the individual mark of, say, what Michael Giacchino brought to “Rogue One.”
The best part about “Solo” for me is that it feels like a classic adventure movie. And it feels like “Star Wars,” not like “Star Wars: A Corporate Profit-Driven Story.” I loved the little touches like how the Falcon looks before it gets all characteristically banged up, and how Han and Chewie met.
“Solo” is a “Star Wars” prequel that put a smile on my face that has lasted for days since I saw it. It has surprises, heart, humor and fun action, and it kind of pulls of the impossible.
But that’s to be expected: Never tell Han Solo the odds.
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany
Running time: 2 hours, 15 min
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence
I was not a fan of the first “Deadpool” movie. If I’m interested in R-rated superhero cinema, I’d rather go for the bleak satire of James Gunn’s “Super” or the gritty realism of last year’s “Logan.”
And if it’s anarchic silliness I’m after, I’ll take a “Lego” movie any day of the week (or anything else from Lord and Miller, for that matter) over “Deadpool.”
The reason I’d take those things over the first “Deadpool” movie is that at the end of the day, that movie was a dumb superhero movie, with a derivative plot, dialed up with sophomoric raunchiness that no one would ever claim was for “mature audiences.”
But I have to admit, I kind of liked “Deadpool 2.” Its plot is fresher than the first movie, and this time, I really dug the movie’s wild, take-nothing-seriously, “meta” explosion of silliness.
The first film introduced Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) as both the victim and beneficiary of a bizarre experiment that leaves him with superhuman accelerated healing abilities, but also alters his Ryan Reynolds-fresh-faced handsomeness. So he wears a full body suit and, under the title name, goes around fighting bad guys.
Now that that’s all been established, the sequel is free to wander into less expected territory.
The big bad in this one is a time-traveling hunk played by Josh Brolin, and yes, if you’re expecting Wade to snarkily comment on the fact that Brolin is currently also playing the big bad in another Marvel movie the next theater over (albeit in a Marvel universe that is not officially connected to this one), you won’t be disappointed. When the joke came, though, I did wonder if it was a late ADR addition.
That’s what’s most fun about the Deadpool character: He’s not restrained by competing cinematic comic book universes — he can crack jokes about all of them. DC, Marvel, Fox, Disney, it’s all fair game to mock.
And this time around, I enjoyed it. As this is a Fox release, “Deadpool” is technically connected to the “X-Men” movies, and there are a few B-grade “X-Men” characters that show up in somewhat big roles this time. But being in the same universe doesn’t mean it takes it any more seriously: “Deadpool 2” sends up the somber finale of “Logan” in its very first moments.
If you were annoyed (as I was) by the pathetic characterization of Vanessa in the first movie’s script — she’s a paper-thin adolescent male fantasy woman, lacking anything resembling agency or complexity — you won’t find anything better in her treatment in “Deadpool 2.” But she’s also in the movie considerably less, so that’s one solution, I guess. I’d prefer they had just given actress Morena Baccarin a real part instead.
The sequel’s secret weapon is the young actor Julian Dennison, whom I loved watching in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” Here he plays Russell, a troubled teen with powers of his own to deal with, and with some similarities to his “Wilderpeople” role, actually. He’s a joy to watch, and he has great chemistry with Reynolds. I was glad to see that Russell is a major character. Everything about him really works.
Your mileage may vary on this movie, or its many jokes. But many of those jokes worked for me — including what may be my favorite end-credits sequence of any superhero movie — and Reynolds really is good at comedy.
But someone had to let some air in the room of superhero cinema. Everything is so important (and deadly) in this genre these days. Sometimes it can be nice to let loose. That’s Deadpool’s most heroic act: He’s the one who is brave enough to not take this stuff so seriously.
Director: David Leitch
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Julian Dennison
Running time: 1 hour, 59 min
Rating: R for strong violence and language throughout, sexual references and brief drug material
As a movie, "Avengers: Infinity War" is not good. It's a narrative mess, with far too many characters cannibalizing each other's screen time, draining any possibility for dramatic thrust.
As a grand experiment in ensemble blockbuster filmmaking, it's not really notable either. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has already produced two films involving giant team-ups of superhero all-stars, and both felt more fresh and innovative.
But as a dumb, fun, fantasy spectacle, "Avengers: Infinity War" is … also not good!
And that's the main problem.
There is the usual peppering of wry jokes usually found in a Marvel movie (often ones that wink at how big the universe is -- like when one character quips, "We have a Spider-Man and an Ant-Man?").
The problem is that this movie is not just weighed down by its characters, but by its truly downer of a tone. Between that requisite peppering of winking meta-jokes and friendly banter among heroes, this particular entry in the MCU has a striking interest in such lighthearted fare as genocide, characters tortured with the belief that they must kill someone they love, and an unusually believable threat of major character deaths.
I don't mean that these things are hinted at once or twice. All three are major elements of the plot, reoccurring many times from the film's somber cold open to its sudden and thoroughly unsatisfying end. (Because don't let the two-and-a-half-hour running time fool you: This is exactly one half of a movie.)
By the way, when I speak of two previous more successful team-up movies in the MCU, I'm not speaking of the two previous "Avengers" films. I'm talking about the first "Avengers" film and "Civil War." The former captured magic in a bottle, benefiting from Joss Whedon's snappy dialogue and a big ensemble cast. (Though, compared with "Infinity War," "The Avengers" seems like a small one-person play.)
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo directed the last good MCU ensemble film, "Civil War," but they have taken several steps back here, rather than forward. I thought their history doing great television like "Arrested Development" and "Community" would serve them well as Marvel directors, since the movies function like episodes of a larger series in many ways.
But especially coming off the heels of "Black Panther," it's clear that the best Marvel movies (like most movies, probably) are still the ones that are led by directors at the helm who want to bring something special and singular to each entry, as Ryan Coogler, Taika Waititi and James Gunn all have in this series.
The Russos have rushed past many of the good things about the MCU and have dialed up everything that has ever been wrong with it.
It's understandable that they struggled to find a focused narrative with so many characters, but I am less forgiving of their decision to drop the visual pizazz found in the last few Marvel movies to return to the bland, dark-blue tinge in most of the lighting. And if you were rejoicing that we had finally moved past the obsession with shiny magic rocks -- sorry, friends, this movie's got six of 'em.
There's a bigger, spiritual problem to this movie, though, too. It's just so soulless. I shuddered at the nonchalance at which the movie scrapes at the surface of the most recent really good Marvel films: The possibility-filled ending of "Thor: Ragnarok" is thrown out in about 5 seconds and a line of dialogue here.
Even more disappointingly, many of the provocative notions raised in "Black Panther," especially about how Wakanda would and would not interact with the outside world, and all of that film's timely cultural observations, are overlooked and undermined here. After breaking ground and standing out as truly great, differentiated characters in "Black Panther," citizens of Wakanda are just as sidelined and ineffectual as every other character in the film. What a letdown.
I do think the animation and performance-capture performance from Josh Brolin as Thanos is quite good. I liked the way he looked and moved.
But I didn't believe anything underneath it. There isn't anything underneath or inside the hollow, vapid, glorified YouTube compilation fan video that is "Avengers: Infinity War." For a movie about the potential end of half of the universe, this couldn't be more dull, because none of it means a darn thing.
And yet … I kind of can't stay mad at it. For all its faults, this is still miles ahead of "Justice League." It doesn't mark the end of the MCU's ability to deliver great superhero movies, it merely marks its lowest point. The end-credits stinger got me as excited as any of these silly things ever have. I'll be there in my seat when the next one comes out. This is still a good franchise.
But this is one lousy entry.
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Seemingly every person listed on IMDb.com
Running time: 2 hours, 29 min
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references
I'm pleased to announce that I'm starting a new podcast: MOSAIC.
That's the trailer, and if you listen to it, you'll get a sense of what the show is all about.
Visit mosaicpodcast.com to learn more and subscribe. The first episode drops May 1, 2018.
It’s easy to root for John Krasinski.
I think that’s because on “The Office,” Krasinski’s Jim was the cool one who was on our side, constantly making faces of recognition and inside jokes to the camera — us.
But as I settled in my seat for “A Quiet Place,” where Krasinski and Emily Blunt play scared and protective parents, I realized I didn’t actually know if Krasinski was a good actor. I thought, at least, he must pale in comparison next to Blunt — his real-life spouse — who consistently delivers performances filled with strength and emotion.
Turns out, he’s a perfectly capable actor. And the surprise twist: I didn’t realize until the end credits of “A Quiet Place” that Krasinski was actually the director of the film, too. He must know how to shoot his own best angles.
It’s not Krasinski’s first feature film directorial debut — that honor goes to “The Hollars” from 2016 — and he also is the credited director of three episodes of “The Office.”
Who knew you had it in you, Jim?
“A Quiet Place” is terrifying without being overly sensationalized. The premise is simple, clean and effective: There’s a monster out there, and its only sense it appears to be able to use is hearing, but it can hear the smallest sounds from really far away, so in order to survive, you have to be extremely quiet all the time.
I thought of one of my dear mentors from college, a biology professor, and wondered what he would say about the probability of a creature evolving with extremely attuned hearing but with no apparent sense of smell or sight. Then there’s the fact that in nature, some animals like bats already can effectively see using echolocation so if the monster wanted to see the family couldn’t it just listen for the sound waves to bounce off their bodies and find them that way even if they’re being quiet themselves — and then there was a loud bang in the theater and I was jolted back into the movie and wow it was really fun.
Because that’s the thing about “A Quiet Place.” The believability of the premise matters as much as it does in old-school monster movies. And anyway, it’s believable because the actors make it believable. And it is a ton of fun to watch.
The child leads, too, are well suited to the material. Millicent Simmonds plays Regan, the oldest daughter who has a strained relationship with her father, and Noah Jupe plays her brother Marcus. They both do a good job, especially Simmonds, who carries most of the emotional weight of the story.
Emily Blunt is, unsurprisingly, terrific. I already see her as Mary Poppins, so it was disappointing when she never pulls out a magic bag with just the right monster-fighting thing. She reminded me most of her performance in “Looper”: hardened, resilient, full of heart.
It’s simply a horror-film joy to see a family constantly try to be quiet when all they want to do is scream. It’s a premise of “Wait Until Dark” simplicity, and Krasinski milks the tension for all it’s worth.
But he also shows some restraint. This is not an ugly film, or a hateful film, as sometimes movies in this genre can accidentally become. I’m probably using the word “fun” a bit too much here — watching the movie is a little bit like holding back a thousand sneezes. But it’s more like watching other people hold back a thousand sneezes.
And of course, there are a few key moments where sound is, finally, released. And those bursts couldn’t be more satisfying.
Director: John Krasinski
Starring: John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe
Running time: 1 hour, 30 min
Rating: PG-13 for terror and some bloody images
Steven Spielberg’s new popcorn blockbuster, which is also really a statement about popcorn blockbusters, finds itself inadvertently confronting more than one topical conversations right now, and it handles them with different amounts of grace and insight.
At the forefront of this film’s problems is the way it may be considered a step backwards in the progress that seems to have rapidly taken hold with #MeToo and #TimesUp. It’s a movie that imagines white male nerds as underdogs, oblivious (as many movies have been over the decades) of their obvious privilege.
My biggest frustration with the story is that the protagonist, Wade, known as Parzival in the online multiplayer escapist universe called the Oasis, is, himself, quite boring compared to the supporting characters around him. The problem isn’t so much Tye Sheridan’s performance as it is the way the character is written: Wade is presented as the special hero without there being anything particularly special or heroic about him.
In other words, it simply assumed in this universe that Wade would be the hero, in the way that all privileged people assume themselves to be in their universes.
In contrast to Wade’s boringness is the young woman avatar known in the Oasis as Art3mis. Wade has a major crush on her, but the movie shows her to be more than just the object of Wade’s shallow affections (a shallowness, in fact, that she calls him out for at one point in the movie, a moment that would have been more meaningful and satisfying if Spielberg and company had followed through more deeply on that critique).
But Art3mis, herself, is smart, spunky, assertive and resourceful. It is truly baffling every time she repeated insists that Wade is the special one, rather than herself.
Another of Wade’s friends who is equally more interesting than him is H, played with great fun by Lena Waithe, who broke out as the writer and star of last year’s “Thanksgiving” episode of “Master of None.” She gives a great “best friend” performance here, and is another character who is smart, funny, and bafflingly supportive of Wade as the lead protagonist for no apparent reason.
I have to mention, too, that lately, Spielberg has been employing his secret weapon, the actor Mark Rylance. In “Ready Player One,” Rylance is assigned a role that surprised me, given the gentle dignity he showed in something like “Dunkirk” last year, or in Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” but he knocks it so far out of the park that it is one of my favorite performances of any kind that I have seen in years. It’s a strong comedic role, and his timing and delivery could not be more perfect in every line. Rylance is just terrific.
But as much as “Ready Player One” biffs it on one cultural moment (and I don’t mean that as a “Back to the Future” reference — this movie has plenty enough already), the film finds itself entering another topical conversation as well — and this time, it’s on the right side of the conversation. That would be the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which personal data was used without people’s consent for political purposes, and which is causing a reconsideration of the passive, blind acceptance so many of us have given a social network platform like Facebook.
The film presents a near future in which American society has become so complacent with social technologies, and so eager to enter the mind-numbing void of online fantasy, that it has allowed corporations to amass a scary amount of power. Advertising is everywhere, a shot of wilted carrots suggest an environment that has suffered escalating deterioration, drones are delivering pizzas, and the world has gone to waste while everyone is hypnotized by their electronic devices. A corporation is the big bad of the story, and it has managed to use massive consumer debt to imprison citizens in a “loyalty center” and force them to work for them.
Honestly, that’s a pretty edgy premise for a big-budget blockbuster movie. And it’s not too far off from reality.
In 2013, Spielberg predicted the “implosion” of the film industry from blockbuster culture becoming so huge and sugar-coated — in other words, he warned about the kinds of movies he himself made so popular. “Ready Player One” reads like the Trojan horse equivalent of that same warning call: It’s a critique of pop culture excess, delivered in a package of pure pop culture excess.
For as many socially valuable ideas as “Ready Player One” has on the topics of social media and pop culture obsession, I’m not sure it follows through all the way on its premises. It could have benefited from a darker ending than it gets, for example, but Steven Spielberg has certain impulses toward the pleasures of a happy ending. This is the man, after all, whose greatest regret in life appears to be making a movie in 1977 in which a man leaves his small children without a dad in order to explore the mysteries of space.
But speaking of Steven Spielberg’s impulses, I have to say that for as much political head-scratching as “Ready Player One” made me do, the movie is still a masterwork of visual storytelling. The director is gifted at framing and choreographing action for the camera. For me, the joys of watching “Ready Player One” came so fast and so often that the negatives didn’t have time to catch up and shake me out of my dumb grin.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, Ben Mendelsohn
Running time: 2 hours, 20 min
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language
I felt physically ill in the post-credits scene of “Tomb Raider.” Actually, it’s more like a pre-credits post-credits scene, because it exists as a standalone joke, apart from the rest of the movie, coming after the title “Tomb Raider” flashes on the screen, but before any credits actually roll.
This pre-credits bumper immediately follows the actual last scene of the movie — which, itself, actually isn’t a regular scene either, throwing away any attempt at cathartic resolution and instead upending previous scenes of the movie, functioning as a teaser trailer for what the next movie in this series may be.
But my physical illness didn’t come from the head-spinning about pre-credits, post-credits, franchise-teaser scenes. It came from the actual content of the bumper. Lara Croft, played by the talented Alicia Vikander, is seen spying, ogling and then purchasing large handguns.
Up until that bumper scene, the filmmakers had opted to emphasize Lara’s physical strength, cunning and skill with a bow and arrow rather than the original video game character’s iconic double-handgun look. I had welcomed that choice, given the cultural tension right now around glorifying firearms.
Until, that is, the final bumper, in which Vikander admires and casually poses with two handguns, saying cheerfully, “I’ll take two.” It’s a moment straight out of an NRA infomercial, and it it leaves a bad taste as the final note of the film.
Nearly everything that happens in the film before that moment, too, is garbage.
The thing about video game characters is that — in video games — they don’t have any agency unto themselves. They move when you want them to move, do what you direct them to do. In story-based games, narrative beats click into place after certain objectives are met or after you direct the characters into certain spots.
In that way, the latest “Tomb Raider” — which resets the movie franchise that originally starred Angelina Jolie — is very much a video game movie. Characters, including and especially Lara herself, seem to have no agency unto themselves, propelled in every scene by happenstance and coincidence. It’s like they’re being controlled, remotely, from a force outside of themselves. Perhaps that outside force is the current lack of creativity or daring in studio franchise filmmaking?
To illustrate this point with one example, there’s a scene in which a handful of characters find themselves at the brink of a massive chasm. Below, the bones of hundreds of previous adventurous souls. The gang, which includes both the film’s villains as well as Lara, cooperating here for very dubious reasons, lays down a shoddy ladder, at which point in time the villain nods — not even especially threateningly — for Lara to walk across. She acquiesces for no apparent reason and without any argument.
Simply put, there doesn’t need to be a reason why it happens: It’s simply the next level in the video game. It happens because it’s the thing that happens next.
Director Roar Uthaug borrows heavily from preexisting, superior material, especially the work of Steven Spielberg. Three quarters of the action borrows from “Indiana Jones” and the rest uses “Jurassic Park” island imagery.
But noticing the similarities to Spielberg while watching “Tomb Raider” distracted me into thinking about how much better his other film with “Raider” in the title was. The “Indiana Jones” films are iconic. They have intricate action choreography, daring stunts, a brilliant musical score. This “Raider” is not iconic.
And this is not a get-off-my-lawn nostalgia grump-fest. While I point to early Spielberg work as iconic, I will just as readily point to “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Baby Driver” and “Wonder Woman” as being recent movies with beating pulses of imagination that managed to break through in today’s cinematic climate.
“Tomb Raider” does have one good scene involving a tetanus-laced airplane and a waterfall, and the movie starts out promisingly enough with a half-decent scene involving a bike chase.
But the vast majority of “Tomb Raider” is uninspired, derivative, borderline offensive dreck. It has no imagination whatsoever. It encapsulates the worst tendencies in Hollywood, and I wish it didn’t exist.
Director: Roar Uthaug
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins
Running time: 1 hour, 58 min
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and for some language
Somewhere in another dimension, a version of David Lynch — with all his visual imagination and unique take on spirituality — is producing work exclusively for the Disney Channel. And this week, in some wrinkle of the space-time continuum, one of his works made its way into our world, in the form of Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time.”
To compare the new Disney fantasy film to something as gritty and inexplicable as something like Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return” runs the risk of giving the false impression that “A Wrinkle in Time” is a wildly original, weird or particularly bold film. It’s not.
One foundational element of “The Return” missing from “A Wrinkle in Time,” understandably, is the freedom to be literally anything it wants to be. “A Wrinkle in Time” feels constrained by a Disney leash to hit certain beats and deliver a certain message.
But there’s enough similarities between the two to warrant a comparison, and that’s to DuVernay’s credit. She has largely succeeded in making visual sense of the baffling world imagined by author Madeleine L’Engle in her 1962 novel about a young girl whose scientist father goes missing.
L’Engle’s book has great cinematic potential, because the wacky visuals she had in mind were difficult to describe with just words. The book reverts to illustrations at times to help visualize some of the more difficult concepts it tackles, but even the actual descriptions of planets or transportation methods often stop short of detailed articulation in the novel, relying heavily on the reader’s imagination.
That cinematic potential doesn’t mean it’s an easy adaptation, however — quite the opposite. And DuVernay has assembled a team that managed to invent and realize visual ideas for the adaptation that are appropriately baffling and beautiful to behold.
Unfortunately, the movie is coming out in 2018, when studio films rely so heavily on CGI that any sense of weighted realism evaporates into the digital cloud. So for every two concepts that get brought to life with creativity and splendor, there’s one that looks like every other blockbuster fantasy, sterile and lifeless in its realization.
But “A Wrinkle in Time” is not only difficult to adapt because of its visual enigmas — it also contains some character qualities and plot points that are just tricky to get right. Charles Wallace, especially, the 6-year-old little brother of the protagonist Meg, is such a strange character, I didn’t even think the version of him I had in my head while I read the novel was a very good actor.
The script by Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”) and Jeff Stockwell (“Bridge to Terabithia”) fails to navigate some of these character-level challenges of the source material. Charles Wallace’s special abilities — and even more crucially, his special relationship to Meg — fall flat in the film version.
Lee and Stockwell make some good changes to the novel, like changing friend/love interest Calvin’s troubled home life from simply having a mother who is always frazzled and unkempt to having a father who is demanding and verbally abusive. But they didn’t seem to crack all of the challenges presented by the novel.
Meg, however, is great. Played with winning charm by Storm Reid (“12 Years a Slave”), I found following that character to be a delightful experience. And for all its faults, “A Wrinkle in Time” boasts much more originality than most other films of its kind. I’ll take this over a “live-action” “Beauty and the Beast” every day of the week.
“A Wrinkle in Time” is a film that reaches high, hitting difficult barriers at every possible level. It clears enough of them to consider it a success, and it’s the kind of movie I want to see more of. Just as Meg discovers about herself in both the novel and the film, faults are not always a sign of weakness.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine
Running time: 1 hour, 49 min
Rating: PG for thematic elements and some peril
Jesse Plemons is so good in every moment he has in “Game Night,” I am almost left with no other choice but to recommend the film.
Unfortunately, Plemons’ small but perfect part is not enough to lift the rest of the movie happening around it, a movie that starts with a pretty good premise for an action comedy, but which quickly loses its grip on what works well in the material. The movie eventually spirals into plot contrivances and ridiculous silliness (but the unfunny kind of ridiculous silliness).
The premise, which I think does have some potential, asks the question, what if a murder mystery game night among friends became entangled with actual murder and mystery? Part of what makes that idea work is that as an audience member, you aren’t sure if the mayhem you are seeing onscreen is real.
Before seeing the movie, I had the misfortune of seeing a trailer for it, which spoils some of the fun by removing some of the ambiguity of the premise. The movie itself is quick to spoil the fun, too — after a rather delightful setup, the film immediately makes several attempts to remove any doubt about whether the threat is real or just a game, and as soon as it does that, it loses steam.
The film focuses on Max (Jason Bateman), whose strong bond with his wife, Annie (Rachel McAdams), is primarily based on their mutual love of games. Board games, trivia games, video games, if it has an objective and a list of rules, they are there for it.
Max’s competitive nature only becomes a problem as it relates to his relationship with his brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who has more money, power and clout than Max, and it’s affecting his health. It’s Brooks who sets up the murder mystery night, and from there, the story kicks off.
I believe movies should be judged within the confines of their genre, so I was trying to come up with movies like “Game Night” that work a lot better. The best example might be “Hot Fuzz,” which spends an excessive amount of creativity and craft on action scenes that it is supposedly parodying. It’s also a terrifically funny comedy, with a manic pace and excellent performances.
Another example of a better “Game Night” than “Game Night” would be “Keanu,” which features Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele and which also imagines great violence centering around something harmless and silly (in that case, an adorable kitten).
Those two films deliver what I want from a movie like this: high energy, intentional silliness, heart and great jokes. “Game Night” strains under the genuine difficulty that is inherent in making such light-hearted fare. Its attempt at having a heart — a subplot involving having children and what success in life truly means — feels forced.
Still though, let’s talk about how great that Jesse Plemons character is.
Plemons is often cast in roles that showcase his ability to be a polite, jovial creep, someone adept at masking wild, pure evil with a dumb smile. In “Game Night,” his role — Gary — introduces an inspired variant on the type: Rather than evil seething under Gary’s polite exterior, it’s an earnest desire to spend time with people who he considers to be his friends, but who consistently ignore him.
No opportunity for a joke is lost in Plemons’ performance. He nails every line, and the most satisfying moments of the film.
But having one strong player on the team is not enough to win the game — just ask anyone who has ever played Charades — and “Game Night” is the movie equivalent of having the world’s greatest mime act out clues for a team where the only other players are blind sloths.
Directors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemons
Running time: 1 hour, 40 min
Rating: R for language, sexual references and some violence
The cinematic reclaiming of characters who were originally written by oppressors as condescending objectifications of the oppressed continues in Marvel’s “Black Panther.”
It happened last year when a woman, Patty Jenkins, got to call the shots as the director of “Wonder Woman,” able to shape the depiction of a character who had originally been brought to life through the male lenses of William Moulton Marston and H. G. Peter.
Now, a black character that had been created by white men Stan Lee and Jack Kirby is shepherded to the screen with wisdom and care by a team of black filmmakers, and the result, like in “Wonder Woman,” is something that will be talked about as groundbreaking, and — most importantly — is also a thoughtful, effective piece of genre filmmaking.
It’s not that men cannot write about women or that white people cannot write about black people. But there’s an irreplaceable dynamic that comes when filmmakers bring the weight of their own experiences — or in another word, “perspective” — to a film.
My point may be illustrated by going through promotional material for “Black Panther” and seeing the comments of creator Stan Lee (who appears, to the great credit of his likability, as the gamest man in superhero movie-making, his cameos having been fun Easter eggs all throughout Marvel’s long cinematic history).
But in one interview on YouTube, for example, Lee talks about his enthusiasm for the Black Panther character and the new film by pointing out that “first off all, he's not the typical way you'd write about a black guy. He seems like a regular native in the jungle, but he's really the head of a nation which is hidden under the ground, and they're all geniuses, scientific geniuses, and this guy is a scientific genius, and nobody knows the story.”
A couple things strike me in that quotation. First is Lee’s obvious affection for his work, and for how his work was adapted in the new film. But I also can’t help but wonder what Lee thinks “the typical way you’d write about a black guy” would be, and I have a feeling it wouldn’t be the same way that director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, who is black himself, would do it.
In Coogler’s hands, as well as those of co-writer Joe Robert Cole, the full potential of the Black Panther character is unlocked, and the result is the most intelligent, thoughtful and nuanced Marvel movie to date.
The movie has important things to say about race, which one might expect from a movie called “Black Panther,” but which would not have necessarily been inevitable, considering that while both the character and the political party of the same name debuted in 1966, the character predated the party’s founding in Oakland by three months.
In other words, Kirby and Lee were not necessarily making a bold political point in 1966.
But Coogler isn’t afraid of the broader political context, and the new film opens in, of all places, Oakland. That can’t be a coincidence. The thematic interest in the commodification and objectification of black humans in America and throughout the West does not get buried deep in subtext or lightly hinted at in dialogue — it is a driving element of the plot, looked at from a variety of politically nuanced angles by heroic and antiheroic characters of varying views on the matter on both sides.
From Oakland, the story heads to the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a secret Utopia that colonizers throughout history never found, despite the fact that it is “hiding in plain sight,” as a line from the film says.
Wakanda is a paradise that has everything that oppressed black people in colonized nations have had stripped from them originally and then systematically kept from generation after generation: comfort, wealth, security and the freedom to advance their minds and create. This makes “Black Panther” a solid entry in the Afrofuturism genre, which utilizes science fiction to imagine worlds where the oppression of black people can be remedied.
The world of Wakanda, as it appears in the film, is as immersive and breathtaking as any planet in “Star Wars.” It is full of invention and creativity, and it is a joy to discover on the big screen.
The film’s imperfections mirror those of the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe: It has a few too many characters (though, they’re all great), and its story can feel a bit bloated as it is establishing itself. This problem would be tough to avoid, considering the story sort of kicked off already in “Captain America: Civil War,” where audiences first met Chadwick Boseman as the title character, a prince of Wakanda who succeeds his father after he is killed in the events of that film.
But after a surprising turn of the plot — which, let’s just say involves Andy Serkis in a villain role also set up in previous Marvel entires — the overstuffed story irons out, leading to a smooth ride to the finish.
Fortunately, despite being set up in previous films, “Black Panther” is totally successful as a standalone entity in and of itself, and it contains a coherent, subjective perspective that begins a thought and then has the miraculous accomplishment (for a Marvel film, at least) to be able to finish it.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Andy Serkis
Running time: 2 hours, 14 min
Rating: PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture
In the avalanche of stories to come from the American press about Donald Trump since he decided to run for president, it's hard to imagine what new angle a documentarian could come up with to explore the subject with fresh eyes.
But Russian filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin has found one in "Our New President," which is apparently composed entirely of media that either broadcast on Russian news channels during the 2016 election and first year of the Trump administration or online from Russian citizens, reacting in typically casual internet-video style.
The thing about Russian news is that it is controlled by the Russian government. Vladimir Putin is a recurring character in the film, popping up at events with journalists he has installed to never run material that questions the state, and to actively disseminate material that falls in line with government-created narratives.
I'm glad the film spends so much time at everyday Russian citizens, who cannot entirely be blamed for holding a distorted view of American politics, given the filtered lens of it that they are given.
And the film also explores how Russian-spun coverage of American politics was not only a product meant for internal distribution within a closed bubble, but has also been an export to the outside world. The film uses plenty of footage from the English-speaking Russian news channel RT, and dips into the story of Russian folks taking to social media to influence American voters online during the campaign.
Notably, the filtered and slanted material that has come into Russian homes is essentially identical to what Americans saw on Breitbart -- conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton's health, puff pieces on Trump making him look statesmanlike, etc. And while the brazen publication of (truly) "fake news" in America presents certain threats to democratic discourse, as misinformation gets spread across social media platforms, the film illuminates what happens when misinformation is the primary news product.
The film is frequently funny, in a darkly disturbing way, and one of the big takeaways is just how much the news we follow influences what we believe about the world -- a lesson worth considering even for those whose societies enjoy the freedom of the press.
I think it drags on a bit in parts -- even with a short running time of 77 minutes, it feels overlong -- but its topic is fascinating, and its approach is fresh, making it worth seeking out.
Trump says "fake news" is the enemy of the people, and I agree -- though not in the way he means. Eroding the trust in news sources chips away at the press' ability to hold power to account. The end result of that, at least in America, will not be restrictions to publish whatever journalists find, but the lessening of the impact of that journalism, with news consumers and citizens believing whatever sources they want, ignoring whatever others.
"Our New President" gives American viewers a glimpse into a society with a gutted press, and it's not a pretty picture. But it is a good film.
Director: Maxim Pozdorovkin
Running time: 1 hour, 17 min
Festival Program: World Cinema Documentary Competition
Gus Van Sant has a film at Sundance this year, a biographical film about cartoonist John Callahan. The film, which the director also wrote based on Callahan’s autobiography, explores the artist’s alcoholism that led to the car accident that left most of his body paralyzed.
“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot” features several notable performances, and one truly great one. As Callahan, Joaquin Phoenix demonstrates again his ability to immerse himself into a role and bring out the subtlest pieces of his characters’ humanity.
But the film also strikes a wrong chord after the igniting of the #MeToo and #TimesUp dialogue, which has brought light and attention not only to sexual assault and harassment, but to the invisibility of women in our patriarchal culture, and to the silence of their voices.
“Don’t Worry” has a nonchalance about making blunt sexual advances toward those in professional settings — at one point, a female therapist suggests that Callahan ask a nameless nurse to “sit on your face,” which he does, and she agrees, in a scene of sexuality played for laughs.
Later, two men (one gay), discuss a male lawn worker in a way that assumes his sexual availability.
These are not egregious examples — in the first case, the therapist suggests he merely ask the nurse to sit on his face, and see what she says. But it seems to me there are more polite ways of initiating a potentially sexual or romantic relationship (which is a generous description of Callahan’s exchange with the anonymous, mostly silent nurse).
To a larger point, more particularly relevant for this review, these examples get at illustrating the overall patriarchal assumptions of the film, the most apparent of which is the character of Annu, played by Rooney Mara.
Mara is a fine actress, someone who has filled performances with complexity and insight, and her talents are — this is a familiar complaint, isn’t it? — totally wasted by the material. Her character is written as a prop, someone whose first line is “you’re so handsome,” which sadly sums up her depth as a person apart from Callahan’s fantasies and hopes.
People in real life lambasted Callahan’s work as “thinly drawn” and “vulgar” (points I probably disagree with), but that’s exactly how I would describe Van Sant’s treatment of Annu, as well as other women in the film.
When people complain about more stories about white men, it is not just a political argument, it’s an artistic one. When a film’s perspective is so limited that it isn’t curious about or generous toward a variety of perspectives, even its strong primary perspective falls flat, because it seems to float in a world that doesn’t matter as much as the protagonist does.
Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black
Running time: 1 hour, 53 min
Festival Program: Premieres
"Blindspotting" is a film of many layers, recalling a hundred tracks on a single, highly produced piece of audio. Genres, cultural commentary, themes and characters combine like a complex stack of sound waves, mixing with each other to create something stunning.
An audio production simile might be especially apt here. Writers and co-stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal have collaborated before on multiple experimental, socially thoughtful hip hop albums, and they -- with director Carlos López Estrada -- playfully and powerfully weave the duo's musical sensibilities into the narrative of the film.
Characters even break into rap in pivotal moments in the story, making "Blindspotting" something of a hip hop musical -- which Diggs knows a thing or two about from that "other" project he's associated with (for which he won a Tony Award in 2016).
On top of the thrilling, beautiful sounds made from human vocal chords delivering inventive, provocative lyrics, the rest of the film's soundscape -- the sound design, music selections and score -- play a large part in the film's overall impact. It's no wonder part of the film's financing came from a special fellowship focusing primarily on its use of sound.
When we're first introduced to Collin (Diggs), he's about to begin a tenuous, stressful year of probation after serving time for a crime he wants to forget ever happened. 362 days later, he's in the final few days until freedom, when he will no longer have to deal with nightly curfews and geographic boundaries, and he is anxious about any interruption of plans that could jeopardize his impending freedom.
As a black man on the streets of Oakland, Collin's full-throated commitment to clean living is unfortunately not the only factor in his probation completing without incident. For one thing, his best friend, a white man named Miles, has a penchant for getting into trouble.
For another thing, when onlookers see Miles getting into trouble and Collin nearby, they might end up seeing reality in reverse. Flipping mental assumptions is tough work, a theme that plays out with beautiful sophistication in the film.
I love the way characters act the way they would act, getting things both wrong and right -- like people -- rather than giving the feeling that their actions are the puppets of drama-seeking screenwriters. The script doesn't rely on cheap ratcheting up of tension because it already has plenty to ratchet with the dramatic, powerful and suspenseful scenarios the writers carefully formed (over nearly a decade of working on the script together).
The film finds ways to pay things off that you don't expect it to. Its racially diverse cast at first plays as "color-blind," with white, black and brown characters at all levels of socio-economic status and who take on atypical cultural identities for the colors of their skin.
But such blindness has limitations, as the identities that are imposed upon us by default in a cruel, indifferent and racist culture can prove to be heavy burdens no matter who we are. Given such a cultural context, we not only have to do the difficult work of defining for ourselves who we are (a task that can be hard enough), we have to do it in the blinding spotlight -- like that of a police car late at night -- of an external world that is quick to judgment and prone to simplistic stereotype.
"Blindspotting" challenges that toxic cultural context with artistic flair and profound depth. Its characters -- like the film itself -- deserve to be really seen.
Director: Carlos López Estrada
Starring: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones
Running time: 1 hour, 38 min
Festival Program: U.S. Dramatic Competition