Category Archives: Movie Reviews

A Defiance / A Reassurance — “In the Heights”

Many musicals seem shy about the fact they’re, you know, musicals. They’re tentative about people breaking into song, and even then the songs are intentional set-pieces compartmentalized from dialogue scenes. They don’t seem to believe that people would come to a musical to witness music, and they certainly don’t want to risk any plot happening during the songs. They want to shift you gently – even slyly – into the fact that the film you’re about to watch contains singing. “In the Heights” is the complete opposite.

Don’t get me wrong; there is dialogue if that’s what you want. You can see it out the window, way out in the distance, as you speed by from one song to the next. Dialogue regularly drifts into song as if characters are reminding each other: do you even remember what movie you’re in? There are sequences within “In the Heights” that shift between three songs and set-pieces that actively tell the story rather than put it on hold.

We follow Usnavi, a young man who runs a corner bodega in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York. He has dreams of moving to the Dominican Republic and running a bar there, but he has ties that anchor him in New York. He cares for his young cousin Sonny, he can’t leave without him or his Abuela Claudia, and he’s in love with Vanessa – a friend he hasn’t really asked out. A lot of this is what you’d expect in a musical, and we’ll get to that in a minute.

First off, is it a good movie? “In the Heights” is the best live-action musical since “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”. It isn’t just a spectacle, it isn’t just flash and song and dance. It’s all the heart that musicals have completely forgotten since well before I was born. It doesn’t enter screen scared that you might not appreciate a musical. It enters set on the idea that for these two-and-a-half hours, musicality is how the world works and speaks and feels.

And then it does so much more than that. Being Latino in the United States, I grew up with this seed of an idea in my head that I didn’t measure up. Everything in the entertainment media around me told me that if I worked hard and did everything right, at best I might one day be considered equal to white: if I deferred enough, if I kept quiet enough, if I passed well enough. The love and reassurance I had from my family only shields you so far in a culture set on wearing it away. My accomplishments were only ever catching up to where so many others started without accomplishing anything. I could get straight A’s, do taekwondo, band, 4-H, volunteer, be the tallest kid in class, be the one everyone wanted to be paired with on a project, the one everyone came to for answers – but the minute I stepped out of that class, that gym, that lab, I was one of the handful of Latine kids, who had to be tested, harassed, distrusted, confronted at every turn.

I heard at home I could be anything. I heard everywhere else that if I did everything right, maybe I could know the people who got to be anything, maybe I could hide the half of me that couldn’t be anything. Maybe I could perform and emulate the part of someone who got to be anything. I pushed the Mexican half of myself down throughout my childhood.

Author and activist bell hooks once wrote that “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem”.

Other forms of bigotry can work in similar ways. White supremacy, even in its polite suburban fashion, can ask a young Latino to carve away half of himself, to suppress a part of himself to act the part, to become white enough, in fear of the harassment, ostracizing, confrontation, and violence he faces.

As I became an adult, uncovering that half of myself I’d so buried, so disappeared, was like learning how to crawl, to walk, to run all over again. I’d denied half of myself real development, pride, trust, acknowledgment. That I made it far enough to do that is a testament to the support of my family and what community I did have, to lucking out and having one teacher who knew a school that allowed me to escape my town.

When I look at the impostor syndrome I struggle with, this is its root. It’s sunk into the foundations. I might know better now, I might’ve developed that other, buried half of myself and learned to love it and learn from it, but the training we get as kids is something we never fully leave behind. That sense that I am incapable of being good enough plagues nearly every task, effort, piece of writing. I have constant anxiety that I will lose the approval of anyone and everyone in my life. Why? Because I spent the first two decades of my life believing that about half of who I was, believing it so completely that I tried to erase it in myself. Do that to yourself through your entire childhood, believe that nothing you do will ever be good enough to get to the starting point, and even the perfect – the best job you can ever do – there’s a part of you that will always be convinced it only gets you to where everyone else starts before they even try.

At its heart, “In the Heights” is about a generation of Latines struggling with forms of impostor syndrome – not this form exactly, but one in which their humanity, their community, their legitimacy, their history is confronted with erasure and dismissal.

I think there’s a favorite character for everybody, but for me it was Nina, who comes home after having gone to Stanford, a prodigal daughter who bears the weight of everyone’s expectations. That burden is too much for her in a place that treats her as out of place; she’s dropped out.

Are there some issues with “In the Heights”? Sure. The focus on music and dance over dialogue means that the story can feel a bit loose, zooming out to a broad perspective and then focusing in on a much more personal one at the drop of a hat. The story is told in a way that can often mirror sensation. A scene doesn’t stop to have a musical number, it just progresses into one naturally. When this happens, the story can shift from precise dialogue to the feeling of how a conversation plays out. It requires some inference on the part of the audience. It’s as if we get the feelings and sensations a dialogue would create, without knowing exactly what the dialogue is.

In my book, that’s awesome. Others may not like that as much, or may prefer musicals with more compartmentalized set-pieces. Compartmentalization has been the go-to for the few big, modern musicals we get, so folks may not be as used to seeing this more expressionist approach. If you’re a fan of older musicals, particularly Gene Kelly ones that could shift a conversation into gigantic set-pieces or aching ballads where people dance into regionalist art and sing the feelings they dare not speak, that describes this approach better.

One major issue about representation has been brought up. Some Afro-Dominican critics and residents have said that the Washington Heights neighborhood isn’t represented in an accurate way. Pretty much everyone on-screen is Latine, but there are very few Afro-Latines. The approach may’ve been to represent a larger group of Latine communities – there’s one song that features multiple shout-outs to the ancestries that make up the community. At the same time, if that’s the goal, then it should be realized whose representation may have been sacrificed in reaching it.

I love “In the Heights”. It was a damn blurry movie cause I was crying the entire time. I hope it’s at the top of every awards list for pretty much any category you can name. But loving something this much does not mean it is magically free of problems. If Afro-Latine people were underrepresented in a story about a largely Afro-Latine community, that is a problem. And let’s be real – Afro-Latine people are regularly underrepresented in conversations about Latine communities and who composes them.

My representation is not worth the sacrifice of anyone else’s. I can still love this movie and argue for it, while also recognizing that there is a place it could have done better and that this is worth discussing and learning about. If I love this movie and what it does for representation, what it does for arguing about where home is and the value we do have, then it requires me to say it also could have done better representing this group of people. That doesn’t change the impact of this movie. It asks what’s next, what do we do better the next time, and how do we listen this time in order to achieve that, because I’ll be damned if a salve to my impostor syndrome is simply to shift it to someone else.

“In the Heights” is lovely and beautiful and brilliant. At the same time, this kind of representation is our starting point, and we do not treat that starting point as exclusive or dismissive of someone else. We know what that feels like, and we do not pass that on. It’s a brilliant, heartfelt movie that addresses a piece of me better than any other I’ve ever seen. It also could have done better in this one place. Both are true, and part of the same conversation.

“In the Heights” is available on HBO Max and in theaters.

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A-F*cking-Plus: “Those Who Wish Me Dead”

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is the action movie I want more action movies to be. It’s practical, it’s personal, and it builds tension from detail. It’s about how small, tactical decisions made by two opposing forces change the situation in ways neither expect. The script is smart as hell, and makes a familiar premise feel unique and refreshingly different.

Angelina Jolie plays Hannah, a smokejumper crew boss who makes a terrible mistake. Smokejumpers are firefighters who work against wildland fires. They parachute into remote areas in order to contain those fires before they grow larger and unmanageable. Hannah misreads the wind, and loses one of her crew and a family of hikers. There wasn’t really anything she could do, but the blame has to be pinned somewhere and she’s happy to heap it on herself.

Unable to pass the psych evaluation, she won’t be jumping out of planes anymore. Instead, she’ll be on firewatch in a remote tower. She keeps an eye out for any signs of fire and radios them in. The premise from here on is familiar. Assassins are after a kid named Connor, and an action hero stranded in the wilderness is the only one who can save him.

If the set-up is familiar, what makes “Those Who Wish Me Dead” special? The rest of it feels unique. The dialogue isn’t what we hear in a thousand Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or superhero movies. No one’s dropping one-liners.

The assassins are practical, smart, and efficient, but they’re hamstrung by their employers failing to provide a second team. Played by Aidan Gillen (“Game of Thrones”) and Nicholas Hoult (“Mad Max: Fury Road”), they make mistakes by trying to compensate and rush the job. The assassins aren’t some unbelievable cinematic team of unmatched evil. They’re not infallible in their choices. It’s their increasing desperation to finish the job and frustration with the situation that make them intimidating. They feel more human and that makes them more immediate and real.

One of the tensest moments involves the assassins instructing someone movement by movement how to throw his weapon away, kneel, fall forward, put his hands behind his back. It’s not played as a meeting of uber-badasses, or as a standoff where villains give someone 20 chances to growl about how they’ll rip their head off later. It’s not played with dramatic close-ups or emotional performances. It’s tense simply because it’s so practical, so matter-of-fact, because as viewers we understand how each step is a decreased chance of escape for the person being disarmed.

Hannah is creative, experienced, and trained to be decisive in life-or-death situations, but she doesn’t have the skills or equipment the assassins do. She knows the woods, but neither is she going full Rambo. She understands her environment and makes smart decisions in situations that soon involve lightning storms and a raging fire. She’s not making everything into a deadly weapon or doing anything superhuman. She’s mostly trying to hike out of the situation with Connor in tow, which is what any of us would do. This makes her feel more immediate and real, too.

It’s also easy to forget because she’s such an icon, but Angelina Jolie is one of the best actors in the medium’s history. She won an Oscar and Golden Globes three years in a row before most anyone knew her name. She’s delivered dramatic work as good as “Changeling”, and comedic work as capably as out-acting Brad Pitt in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. It’s also easy to forget because “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is only the fifth live-action film she’s acted in across the last decade. (She’s written three and directed four films in that same span, though.)

She does superb work in a film that doesn’t focus heavily on emotional performance. There are no monologues, and the dialogue is terse and to the point. Nonetheless, her performance nails a sense of someone who’s not just traumatized, but who’s good at covering it up.

The moments of dissociation she has, she shifts into a thousand yard stare. These aren’t tearjerking emotional moments. They’re part of her day, every day, an interruption to the performance Hannah puts on for others and for herself.

Jolie’s had intermittent Bell’s palsy, so I can’t say whether slack features on one side of her face in some moments was an intentional decision she chose, or an element of her as an actress they kept. Either way, including it goes a long way to deepening the reality of a character. Hannah has worked one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and palsy can result from head injury or emotional trauma, among other factors. While I do think Jolie’s smudged make-up looks a little too designed after fist-fighting in forest fires, keeping this element helps the character feel more real. My understanding is that disability depends on the severity of the condition, but it’s great that someone who’s dealt with it sees it incorporated in a film. A lot of filmmakers would have edited those takes out or “corrected” it in post (which is a bullshit mentality). The character is more authentic, human, and representative for its inclusion.

I also like that the movie doesn’t make Hannah into a great mother figure. There’s no Ripley and Newt dynamic here. Hannah is shit with kids, and has zero interest in becoming a parental figure to Connor. She takes care of him as he needs, and protects him not out of some amazing emotional connection, but because it’s what the situation requires. It’s insulting when movies need to create these kinds of bonds to increase the tension of protecting a child. People don’t protect children because they create a one-on-one parental bond through extended dialogue in a high-stakes situation; they protect children because it’s what you fucking do. If you’re parenting a kid because it gives you a redemption arc, you probably shouldn’t be parenting that child. Hannah doesn’t always like communicating with Connor, and she doesn’t need to be good at it to risk her life protecting him. I’m glad to see the sudden mother redemption trope left out of the movie completely.

Others intersect with the assassins and Hannah, but not in the thoroughly useless or sacrificial roles where movies like this usually shove side characters. Most of them play an important part to what happens.

In fact, the cast is exceptionally deep. Finn Little delivers an incredibly strong performance as Connor. The usual child-panicking-in-a-movie notes aren’t hit because those notes are ridiculous. Connor is smart, traumatized, untrusting, scared, determined. He shuts off in some moments, he’s a kid in others, and sometimes he does what’s in front of him because it keeps him going. He’s erratic because that’s what happens in the midst of coping with trauma.

I’ve mentioned Gillen and Hoult as the assassins, and they land an odd-couple working dynamic. Gillen is the superior and more forthright, but also more emotional. Hoult doesn’t see the big picture as well, but he’s more reserved and less prone to drastic decision-making.

Jon Bernthal (“The Punisher”) joins in a large role as a sheriff’s deputy, Ethan. Jake Weber (“Medium”) also shines in a supporting role. Yet its relative newcomer Medina Senghore who steals the show in several ways as Ethan’s resourceful, pregnant wife Allison. She’s one of the most awesome and unexpected characters I’ve seen in an action movie. As if that weren’t enough, even Tyler Perry, Tory Kittles, and James Jordan show up in bit parts.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is a 90s action movie in style and pace, though I’d say it’s far superior to most of what the 90s had to offer. For one, you don’t have to put up with John Travolta. This is a film where situation, dialogue, performance, and patience between action scenes pays off.

Characters aren’t tumbling from one escalating set-piece to the next. They pause, reassess, make smart decisions, reverse old ones based on new information. When both sides make smart decisions, and those decisions go haywire because the other side isn’t standing still, we get to see an asymmetric cat-and-mouse game. A favorable firing position in one scene can turn into characters falling behind as they descend from it the next, and the movie translates these changing elements of give-and-take without ever having to say them out loud.

Nothing feels rushed here. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” takes its sweet time establishing the plot and how characters connect. It’s never complicated, but it is constantly evolving.

Intelligence often gets in the way of visual effects-heavy action movies. Genius is treated as kooky and explaining your plan as quickly and patronizingly as possible. Action screenplays tend to take one scene to insist someone’s intelligent, and then spend the next two hours with that character’s ego telling us the exact opposite.

There’s a dearth of action movies that treat intelligence as knowing how to fuse experience, patience, resilience, emotional maturity, and creativity. Don’t get me wrong, I love movies that are constant colorful explosions featuring ever-quipping sides of human beef. At a certain point, I do want more personal action movies, with a more focused scope, featuring intelligent people facing intelligent people, where a character weighing a decision can be far more tense than whether our explosions out-explode their explosions.

That doesn’t mean “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is gritty – it’s not. That doesn’t mean it isn’t outlandish – it is. It’s just refreshing to have an action movie where the characters in it feel intelligent and experienced in ways that are actually useful and have real-world applications.

I loved this movie. Part of that is because it’s really good, and part of that is because it feeds a desire for action movies that possess a different mentality and respect the time its characters take to think and not just act. It’s what I want out of traditional (i.e. non-superhero) Western action movies. It’s practical, it focuses on performance without being overdramatic, and the situation and scope are personal rather than epic. Rescuing a single child can mean a lot more on-screen than saving the universe.

It also brings back the action hero we never fully got in Angelina Jolie. Hell, you want to be pissed, look up “Salt” where they rewrote the screenplay when she replaced a man because the studio didn’t think a woman could rescue her husband.

Sign me up for “Those Who Wish Me Deader”, “Those Who Wish Me Dead with a Vengeance”, “Live Free or Wish me Dead”, and “A Good Day to Wish Me Dead”. I’m in. I will forward you ticket money.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is available on HBO Max.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

Superb Horror, Rushed Actioner — “Shadow in the Cloud”

The first half of “Shadow in the Cloud” is one of the most perfect pieces of cinema I’ve seen. It nails an atmosphere of mounting dread with the precision of early Spielberg and an assured retrowave aesthetic. Chloe Grace Moretz plays Maude Garrett, a pilot in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force who boards a B-17 Flying Fortress as last second crew. It’s the middle of World War II, and her mission is to ferry a satchel across the Pacific. What’s inside that satchel is confidential.

She’s soon parted from her charge and locked in the plane’s bottom turret. The bomber had a crew of 10 and several turrets. One was on the belly, guarding the plane’s exposed underside. It overlooked thousands of feet of empty air. This is where the first half of the movie takes place.

On her radio, Maude overhears how the crew of men speak about her. They talk about fucking her, dismiss her concerns, challenge her mission, and refuse to believe her sighting of an enemy plane. Worse yet, there’s something climbing across the plane, a lurking shape that’s tearing out key parts piece by piece. When they won’t even believe the ordinary when she says it, when they charge her with hysteria simply for reporting what she sees, how can she report what seems impossible?

Moretz realizes a spectacularly written screenplay in what becomes a riveting one-woman show. Writer-director Roseanne Liang puts on a clinic of horror cinema. The sky is dark, full of shadows and lightning. Unsettling details mount: hydraulics hanging out under the plane, a hole in the turret’s glass, a shorn screw as thick around as your finger. What she hears on the radio with the crew, Maude imagines visually for us in deep reds and blacks.

The first half of “Shadow in the Cloud” is one of the best horror experiences I’ve had in my life. Then the second half happens. The second half feels rushed. There’s a reason the most effective moments in “Jaws” are the ones where we can’t see the shark. The moment that one-woman show changes into a more traditional action movie, it loses something key.

That rhythm of Liang’s dialogue, Moretz’s performance, the atmosphere of being trapped and disbelieved, and the awesome texture of Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper’s synthwave musical score combine to create something genre-defining, but it loses its magic when the film has to move on to resolutions. It’s still a solid film, but when you go from all-time great to OK, you can feel that swing as a viewer.

The second half of “Shadow in the Cloud” does hold onto that magic for a while, largely through Moretz’s performance. There’s also an audacious sequence under the plane that’s so driven and ambitious, and shot so creatively that I couldn’t have cared less if the seams of a low budget peaked out here and there.

The problem is more that the first half is so patient, exact, and grounded, and the second half accelerates without paying off on that pace. What was a mastercraft becomes a solid action B-movie, albeit one without enough rhythm or time. Many of the beats of the second half are good ideas, though your mileage on one particular twist may vary. The ending is just shoved into too short a time that makes it feel checklisted and predictable when the first half was anything but.

That truly unique, assured aesthetic that fuses war movie, “Twilight Zone”, “Amazing Stories”, 80s horror, Hitchcock, and social commentary together feels sidelined. The script shifts from nearly all-dialogue, expertly written, to very little, most of which we’ve heard before. It goes from Moretz absolutely living and breathing the rhythm of the movie, to the scenes rushing her and the other actors. There are times that the last half hints at a punkier, more meta, even cartoonish attitude that could’ve taken over, but it doesn’t have the time to make this shift fully enough.

That first half is so good that none of this stops “Shadow in the Cloud” from being a movie I like and recommend. It’s just that first half is a cinematic holy grail. It is magic. It’s what you sit down and hope every movie is as a critic. Forty minutes in, the thought was forming that this goes up there with “It Follows”, “Alien”, “The Orphanage”, “Ravenous”, “John Carpenter’s The Thing”. Almost nothing achieves the tension this can. I mean, look what it can do in two minutes:

And the second half is a sillier, often rushed action movie. It keeps the thread on its social commentary, but even this can feel rushed at points. It may have been more effective in a film that was able to sustain that early energy. Moretz carries the first 40 minutes of the film through the dialogue, and Liang through patient, stylized directing. If they’d found a way to carry it this way through the last 40 minutes (or extended it to 60 or so minutes to allow that same textured approach), I think it also could have capitalized on what it set up in other ways. This could’ve made that social commentary even more effective. I also think if they’d managed that, I’d be calling “Shadow in the Cloud” one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

Do half a film that’s utterly perfect and half a film that’s uneven and rushed equal a good film? Yeah, no question. Some films don’t start well, but come together in the end and we’re perfectly fine with calling them good. A movie that starts perfectly, but doesn’t bring all those strengths through in the end will be enjoyable in different ways. It may challenge our concepts of what in the storytelling makes it satisfying, but I’m deeply glad I watched it and got to see something as spellbinding as that first half. A lot of good, more consistent films never even approach 5 minutes like that, let alone 40.

I’d also point out that a 40-minute first half and 40-minute second half equal an hour-and-20 minute movie. Take that, kids who don’t think they’ll use math as adults. You’re not sacrificing a whole evening to take a chance on “Shadow in the Cloud”. The film as a whole is so wild, opinions on how well it carries through that initial energy and tone are going to vary a lot.

This is something I know I’ll go back and watch, even if the viewing experience does feel inverted. It is so unique, knowledgeable about the genre foundations on which it stands, and deeply ambitious and creative. Those first 40 minutes are one of the most rewarding movie experiences I’ve had. As I sit with it longer and longer, I like “Shadow in the Cloud” more and more. It’s just so much of what I want to see on screen, even if the conclusion doesn’t pull through.

I’ll certainly keep an eye out for Roseanne Liang. Anyone who can write and direct that singular a stretch can make a great film.

For her part, Moretz is proving she wasn’t just a child actor with an off-kilter taste in projects. Few actors can carry a project alone on-screen for this long, few actors can haul a film ahead regardless of whether it loses its footing, and few actors embody the social commentary of a project this effectively through their character.

“Shadow in the Cloud” is available on Hulu, or see where to rent it here.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

When Gimmicks Sabotage Fight Choreo — “Mortal Kombat”

“Mortal Kombat” is like a coffee table book, or a subreddit you burrow into out of boredom. It’s not really there for you to get incredibly involved and read it cover to cover. It might work better as something you glance at to prompt conversation. It’s amusing in bits and pieces, but too much of it at once and you’ll reflect afterwards on why you just spent hours leafing through pictures of door handles.

It doesn’t start out like this. The movie’s first half hour makes it feel like it’s a semi-serious, grittier, character-oriented take on the “Mortal Kombat” franchise. Thirty minutes in and I was thinking, you know what, it’s better than most Fast & Furious, Transformers, and James Bond movies.

Then the rest of the movie happens, and I found myself realizing it has a lot more in common with the 1980 “Flash Gordon” or an Arnold Schwarzenegger cult piece like “Running Man”. I like both those movies, and if you press me, I guess I like “Mortal Kombat” in a way, but too much of the charm in that first half hour disappears as the movie gets going.

Cage fighter Cole is one of Earthrealm’s champions, who are being assassinated so that the Outworld can win a fighting tournament that gives them control of Earth. Cole is played by the incredibly charming Lewis Tan – who you may recognize from “Wu Assassins” or “Into the Badlands”.

His story is a familiar set-up – a Chosen One who doesn’t know they’re a Chosen One, and encounters a universe he couldn’t have imagined days prior. There’s a reason this premise works so well: hand it to an actor this charismatic and they can do wonders with it. It’s a shame then that after the work of establishing Cole’s personal struggle and larger role in the plot, the film gives him almost nothing to work with in its last half.

If “Mortal Kombat” is impressive for one thing, it’s the consistent rate at which it gets worse and worse. The film never falls off a cliff so much as it takes a steady, well-mapped mule trip down a ridge trail. You end up at the bottom either way, but at a nice pace where you can look around and appreciate the consistent speed at which you’re going downhill.

It’s a movie about fight scenes, and it’s the fight scenes that exemplify what goes wrong. Early fight scenes in “Mortal Kombat” are isolated well. We get that fight, in whole, and it has an impact. Character and plot scenes are also isolated, allowing the film to really focus in on exactly what it wants to do in that scene.

There’s even a bit of establishing character in early scenes, such as a cage match for Cole. Yet even if most fights aren’t complex from a character or plot standpoint, they’re at least isolated well as set-pieces – at first.

The later fight scenes are cut together with other fights, plot exposition, and underwritten character moments that are really just about setting up the next fight scene that’s going to be chopped together with three other things like a spring salad. Much of this is due to the gimmicks involved – characters discover arcana, or special abilities that basically serve as superpowers. There’s a lot of time taken in characters finding theirs, which drags the middle of the movie out, but I kept hoping it would pay off in the end.

The problem becomes the film has no real idea how to involve many superpowers in the fight choreography. Sub-Zero has ice powers, and that’s done well. Kung Lao has a razor-rimmed hat that acts like Xena’s throwing chakram. This is done terribly. What’s the difference?

Sub-Zero’s ice powers generally serve the choreography itself. He freezes opponents joints so that they can’t defend themselves, creates an ice wall to throw an opponent through, or casts weapons out of ice. The ice powers are built into the choreography. An early scene has Sub-Zero freeze a character’s limbs and shatter them away. That’s brutal.

By the time we get to Kung Lao’s fight scene, we have a sawblade hat spinning lumbermill style as Kung Lao rides an opponent into it. It’s laughable – intentionally slapstick, but what was earlier a show-stopping moment of brutality is now a comic beat. More to the point, the hat prop seems to be so heavy that the fight choreography involving it is exceptionally slow.

This is the issue – they didn’t develop workable choreography for all the characters’ powers. With some, they know exactly what they want to do. Sub-Zero has his powers worked into fully-functional fight choreo. The powers serve the choreography. With Kung Lao and other characters, the choreography serves the powers – the choreo is really only there when the powers don’t get in the way of it. It feels like the choreography team needed longer to flesh out the fight design for certain characters, and to get more workable prop design in their hands.

Later fights need to incorporate all the superpowers – fireballs, the bladed hat, a laser eye, teleportation. The list goes on, but there isn’t the planning or directorial skill here to make these serve the choreography. Instead, the choreo becomes centered on each gimmick. You could name another series or movie that does each of these powers well – “Wu Assassins” has a deeply creative fireball fight scene, and “X-Men” movies have done laser eyes and teleportation fights with both frenzy and grace. Hell, we have 57 years of cinematic weaponized headgear technology since Oddjob in “Goldfinger”. Yet it feels like “Mortal Kombat” is trying to invent how to use each gimmick from scratch, and none of it communicates in a way that involves us in these scenes. Worse yet, each gimmick slows down the scenes in a noticeable way.

As the characters we’ve been following get their arcana, we see fewer fast-paced fight scenes and more clunky, slow scenes where the choreo stops and starts as the inclusion of powers demands. We should see these characters accelerating to meet each other late in the film. Instead, we see them slowing down.

The film is pretty smooth and fluid between fight, character, and plot in those first 30 or 40 minutes, with a couple of good scenes and even great moments. Then it starts losing the punch to its action. It starts relying on camp comedy, which I like and is often done well, but doesn’t feel consistent with its opening act. With the fight scenes becoming so much slower and more limited, it relies on quick-cutting those fight scenes with anything and everything else it can get its hands on.

This makes the film as a whole start to reflect that stop-and-start pace. A scene could work in isolation before because that scene itself had energy and speed. As they slow down, they’re spliced together so that the editing can try to make up for how slow things are. This makes some scenes feel out-of-order, or cut in awkwardly with other scenes.

This is not the fault of the actors. Hiroyuki Sanada and Joe Taslim are both martial arts legends, and their 12-minute prologue sings. Lewis Tan is getting there. It’s not the fault of the choreography team, either. They prove in the film’s opening stretch that they can choreograph and carry it out. It is a directorial and production issue – one of prizing the powers over the choreography itself. Perhaps it’s jealousy of Marvel and desire to get its own universe up and running, but “Mortal Kombat” becomes more interested in establishing a superhero franchise than a martial arts one. There’s enough there for a captivating martial arts franchise – there isn’t enough for a superhero one. That’s the core issue with what went wrong here.

There are other elements that stumble. Character-based scenes disappear later on, with early opportunities to highlight the charismatic Lewis Tan and Jessica McNamee as Sonya Blade turning into brief contests to see who can string the most cliches together. As entertaining as Josh Lawson is as the one-lining, sarcastic Kano, having the comedic sidekick take over the dialogue is a fine line to walk when it requires dropping everyone else’s screen time.

There are only three women who have more than bit fighting parts. Besides McNamee’s Sonya, we meet Cole’s wife Allison and daughter Emily – primarily there to serve as motivation. I will say they get some good moments and they aren’t presented as helpless, but more could’ve been done here.

What is refreshing is to see an event film that shows an Asian man married to a white woman. They obviously desire each other, care for each other, and have a healthy family that communicates with each other. Our entertainment industry has a long history of fetishizing Asian women while desexualizing Asian men. Bucking this bigoted stereotype may be the film’s strongest statement and most lasting success.

(Minor spoilers follow)

Where the film drops the ball plot-wise is the build-up to the Mortal Kombat tournament for control of Earth. The entire premise is that our Chosen Ones need to survive long enough to compete in the tournament. Then the movie ends without even needing to have the tournament. Everyone has their fight before it happens, in abandoned places with no cheering onlookers.

If you spend an entire film promising me a wacky, intergalactic tournament, and it never arrives, I’m going to be disappointed. I wanted to see “Bloodsport” by way of Mos Eisley Cantina from “Star Wars”. Give me the ending of “Karate Kid” taking place in the City of a Thousand Planets, “Enter the Dragon” put on by the Orion Syndicate. That seems like a gimme. By promising a tournament full of ridiculous aliens betting on other ridiculous aliens, and then never delivering, the film sabotages what could’ve been its biggest strength.

We live in a post “Thor: Ragnarok” world. In this, the year 4 T:R, if you’re going to build your plot around wacky alien tournament hijinks, deliver said hijinks.

(Minor spoilers conclude)

I must really hate “Mortal Kombat” then. Well, that coffee table book about x-rays of ingested and inserted objects serves a purpose. ATBGE is a popular subreddit. They’re both kind of hilarious. I don’t hate them. They’ll make you point and furrow your brow, which is what they’re there to do. It’s just that they’re five-minute visits, not two-hour ones.

In a lot of ways, watching “Mortal Kombat” echoes the feeling of watching the original “Mortal Kombat” in 1995. That’s a better movie, but neither one’s exactly good. What they are good at is being party movies, something on in the background for people to visit and talk about now and again. Unfortunately, the usefulness of that is limited during a pandemic. If I’ve got to watch this straight through again for some mysterious reason, I’ll feel disappointed to waste two hours of my time. In a post-pandemic world, if I walk into a party one day and this is on in the background, I’ll probably be really happy to see it.

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The ‘Animaniacs’ of Monster Movies — “Godzilla vs. Kong”

“Godzilla vs. Kong” basks in the ridiculous. It’s hell-bent on being as much of a good-bad movie as it is a good one. It’s smart enough to know exactly how to be a fun one.

This approach isn’t a given. The new Monsterverse, as it’s called, kicked off with 2014’s “Godzilla”. It wanted to present the mythic beast like a Cthulhian horror, a giant lurking in the darkness through most of the film. Those moments worked well, but it couldn’t really figure out anything else. It was undercut by inert writing and a near-complete lack of emotional connection to its lead characters.

“Kong: Skull Island” gave us our first glimpse of the new King Kong in 2017. It turned out to be a shockingly good anti-war film in monster movie clothing. There was immense life and tension to it, and it understood how to compose character-focused action sequences. It felt new and fresh, which is exceptionally rare in a big-budget action landscape that’s increasingly overfull.

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is a personal favorite. It’s big and unwieldy, the lead is lacking, and it loses grasp of whatever ecological point it wants to make very early on. Why do I like it? The supporting cast is diverse, surpasses the leads, and really bites into their roles. The universe feels genuinely inhabited. The film treats these movie monsters with a sense of awe and wonder. It often makes them beautiful, and it achieves a level of iconography that does as much to make them terrifying as any visual effect can. It’s savvy enough to show us the destruction of these giant monster fights at ground level, which helps us believe their sheer size and scale.

That gets us to “Godzilla vs. Kong”. It does almost none of this. It is easily the biggest piece of nonsense of the bunch. Why shouldn’t it be? I don’t think you can make a Godzilla vs. King Kong movie any other way. It’s inherently ridiculous, so you may as well swing for the fences.

This is why you go out and get a director like Adam Wingard – for his ability to blend genre to joke. The first film of his I saw was 2011’s “You’re Next”. It was a horror movie where a family gets attacked by masked assailants, seemingly for no reason. Unfortunately for their attackers, one of the guests was raised as an Australian survivalist; i.e. not the kind that breaks the minute they discover they can’t get haircuts. She goes a mix of MacGyver and John Wick on them.

“You’re Next” piled cleverness on cleverness. It was a deeply effective horror movie with chilling moments of suspense and suggestion. It was also a satire of horror movies that rarely missed an opportunity for a wry sight gag or incredulous one-liner. But wait, that’s not all! It was also a mumblecore take on “The Lion in Winter”, that ultra-Millennial indie-style where every actor talks over each other in a natural way and you only half-catch the best lines thinking, “Did I hear that right?” It threw together so many disparate elements into one pot, mixing the retro with the trendy in a way that understood our love for each deeply, without treating either as sacred. It is an overlooked cult horror classic, and if you like horror movies, it’s a better use of your time than “Godzilla vs. Kong”.

That said, I really enjoyed “Godzilla vs. Kong”. It is pure nonsense. It is also exceptionally clever. It packs in countless cinematic references, often in ways that are effective within genre and intentionally hilarious out of it. The fights can be both tense and ludicrous. In one, Godzilla and Kong square off over a fleet of ships. Godzilla swims up from beneath, while Kong hops from one to the other. At one point, Godzilla gets half a ship hooked on his tail. The next shot where he drags it down beneath the waves is a shout-out to the Great White in “Jaws” impossibly dragging three barrels underwater with him. It’s simultaneously an effective moment of tension in the fight, and a genuinely funny sight gag.

In another scene, Kong and some futuristic hovering ships are falling through the air in a place where gravity inverts itself. The shot becomes a direct callback to the famous paratrooper scene in 2014’s “Godzilla”, where paratroopers streak red smoke trails through the air as they descend through the gloom into a wrecked San Francisco.

These are just two examples, but “Godzilla vs. Kong” is overflowing with these references and sight gags. I generally don’t like this approach. I thought “Ready Player One” was the worst thing I’ve read in my life because its references often felt like checklists, came across as narcissistic, and made up the entire landscape of the book. The read felt self-serving to the author, which is fine – go do you. As a reader, it felt like being stuck in a room with someone who wants to explain the complete discography of Nickelback to you: if the topic doesn’t hook you initially, nothing subsequent about it will.

By complete contrast, I appreciated what was done with this approach in “Godzilla vs. Kong”. Those references aren’t the landscape here – they contribute to the moment they’re in. If one doesn’t hook you, it doesn’t really matter because the pace of references is so quick. It comes across more like “Animaniacs”. The sight gag is there, you laugh, you’re done with it, let’s move onto the next one. That pace can be fun and rewarding, and you don’t have to get every single one for it to be doing the work of contributing to the scene.

This is all obviously a departure from the previous Monsterverse movies. That sense of looming, incomprehensible yet inevitable, Cthulhian threat in the dark? After an initial attack, it’s out the window. The extraordinary tug-of-war between calm and tension? You catch a brief glimpse of it as you drive past it at 80 mph. That sense of iconic awe and wonder? We could have that, or we can give Kong a big, glowy axe. “Godzilla vs. Kong” has enough of each element to let you know it could do it if it wanted to, before rushing on to the series of dad-joke sight gags it would rather make.

That’s OK, because what Adam Wingard gives us instead is a big, nonsense, Roland Emmerich-style film reminiscent of “2012”, “Independence Day”, or “The Day After Tomorrow”. It’s a throwback that recognizes what it’s throwing back to should never be taken very seriously. Just like those films, there’s a C-plot that means almost nothing – it’s just unfortunate this is what “Stranger Things” actress Millie Bobby Brown, “Atlanta” actor Brian Tyree Henry, and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” actor Julian Dennison get stuck with. I don’t think that’s a meta Emmerich-reference; it’s just a factor of wanting to keep Brown and her fame involved without finding anything productive for her character to do in the story.

That doesn’t really feel out-of-place. The helpless Navy officers have to be reminded at one point by a civilian that they have depth charges. The ace pilot of a futuristic craft meant to defy gravity wells is a college professor who expressly states he’s never even seen the craft or knows its technology. High-tech labs are broken into with nothing but a can-do spirit. Yeah, it’s ridiculous, it just doesn’t feel strange if you’re a lover of older giant monster movies. There’s something in “Godzilla vs. Kong” to reward just about everybody – from fans of classic monster movies to fans of these new ones, and even those who’ve never seen one before. There’s also something to make each group roll their eyes – often intentionally, sometimes not.

There are a few really beautiful moments for Kong as an animal and the last of his species – they come out of nowhere and leave just as quickly. There are some great, thunderous Godzilla moments. The humans…well, they’re there, I guess.

The film adds up to enjoyable nonsense, which I know I’m supposed to look down at, but sometimes a film is just really good at sticking all that nonsense together in a way that’s undeniably fun. Take Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok” or James Wan’s “Aquaman” as solid comparisons. I don’t think this has the writing of “Ragnarok”, nor someone as skillfully self-effacing as Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, or Jason Momoa holding it all together. Its humor is more reliant on the director and the visuals, which can limit its breadth a bit. I don’t think it’s quite those films’ equal, and it has more failings than either, but it’s close enough to the same territory to offer a similar experience.

I’d still recommend last month’s “Pacific Rim: The Black” series (on Netflix) if you’re looking for something that’s character-focused and well-written. It delivers more faithfully on the intent, terror, and serious themes of a giant monster series. You ask me which project is better and I’m going to say it’s “Pacific Rim: The Black” without hesitation.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” is a fun distraction, especially if you’re a fan of giant monster movies. “Pacific Rim: The Black” carved out a lasting place in my soul as a storyteller.

You can watch “Godzilla vs. Kong” (as well as the previous Monsterverse movies) on HBO Max. I’d encourage you to watch it there as I did, and avoid the theater since we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.

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Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Godzilla vs. Kong” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Millie Bobby Brown plays Madison Russell, Rebecca Hall plays Dr. Ilene Andrews, Kaylee Hottle plays a child she’s effectively adopted named Jia, and Eiza Gonzalez plays henchwoman Maya.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. Ilene and Jia talk about each other. They also talk about Kong, as an animal under their care. Jia is Deaf, so she speaks with sign language. Ilene speaks to her using a mix of sign language and spoken dialogue, since Jia can lipread. Jia’s actress Kaylee Hottle is Deaf and comes from an all-Deaf family. I appreciated seeing that representation on film.

(As a note, Millie Bobby Brown is Deaf in one ear, but I’m unfamiliar with what kind of representation this holds in the Deaf community. It’s not mentioned as a facet of her character.)

Ilene and Maya share a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-them quips. Madison is essentially isolated from the rest of the plot with two male comic relief characters, so her plot doesn’t pass questions 2 or 3.

This is a weird one because most of the supporting cast is men, but two of the three whose perspectives we’re asked to engage and feel most alongside are Ilene (Rebecca Hall) and Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). That said, I don’t think “Godzilla vs. Kong” has much lasting interest in any of its characters. Dialogue is mostly plot set-up. Scenes are episodic without many interstitial “talking-while-we-get-there” moments. Characters are consistent, but their knowledge, qualifications, and who’s in charge of what seems to veer wildly from scene to scene.

I’d say it technically gets by because of Rebecca Hall’s scenes with Kaylee Hottle, but the most focus is put onto scenes with Rebecca Hall and Alexander Skarsgard, Millie Bobby Brown and her comic relief, and Skarsgard and the obvious villains.

“Moxie”, Anti-Racism, and the Millennial Gap

“Moxie” is a lot of things, including a generational letter of outrage from Gen X to Gen Z. It centers on 16 year-old Vivian. She’s shy and stays out of the limelight. Lucy is a new transfer to her school. She refuses to simply look the other way when boys at the school harass, abuse, and assault. Vivian is also increasingly aware of her mother’s history of 90s riot grrrl feminism. She decides to start anonymously publishing a zine that calls out the double-standards, hypocrisy, and very real danger posed to women at her school.

I’ll get the typical review stuff out of the way because I think “Moxie” is doing something complex that’s worth getting to – yes, it’s good. It’s funny, it’s moving, it’s pointed and poignant. It’s just about everything you want from the experience of watching a movie like this. It immediately fits right into any list of classic teen movies, and it’s more important than a good chunk of them.

I don’t think comparisons are all that useful, because what made films like “The Breakfast Club”, “Pump Up the Volume”, “10 Things I Hate About You”, “Mean Girls”, and “Lady Bird” so good is that they were all breaking new ground. Each of them was a film that wasn’t very comparable to what came before because they set the groundwork for what came after. Some are more recognizable as products of their time now, but each was incisive and confrontational to a set of norms at the time it came out.

You’ll notice that list is awfully white, because the films that also belong here – “Girlhood”, “The Half of It”, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”, “Pariah” – they usually get compartmentalized into subgenres or considered as the B-team on Greatest-Of lists so that they don’t take up the same space. I think “Moxie” recognizes that history and its responsibility not to repeat it to some extent. How it does so informs a lot of what the film’s trying to do.

Truly Intersectional or Just Diverse?

First off, I’m a guy. There are some boundaries I should recognize when it comes to assessing “Moxie”. Mine is not the most important voice when it comes to declaring whether it’s doing something well when it comes to feminism. Director Amy Poehler hardly needs my approval. I do think the film is successful in most things across the board, so understand that’s a bias I’m writing with. I’m going to focus on the intersectional aspect, and how I think “Moxie” acknowledges and backfills a significant gap in the 2000s when it comes to mainstream feminist and anti-racist teen movies.

I can discuss intersectionality to a good extent – “Moxie” is inclusive. I am beyond pleased that Alycia Pascual-Peña continues to find success after the surprisingly good 2020 “Saved by the Bell” continuation. There aren’t a lot of major roles where an Afro-Latina gets to play an Afro-Latina. Just witness all the different roles in major franchises where Zoe Saldana gets painted blue or green.

Josie Totah is another actress shared with “Saved by the Bell” (technically, “Moxie” filmed first). Her role here is significantly smaller than it is there, but she’s an exceptional comic actress. There aren’t a lot of Palestinian or Lebanese performers in the industry who get offered anything but the most deeply stereotypical roles. Totah is also trans and she continues spearheading roles in projects that embody the reality that she’s a woman without bullshit, equivocation, or a need to justify or explain it. I hope she never stops.

Lauren Tsai plays a larger role as Vivian’s no-nonsense foil Claudia. Nico Haraga is the skaterly love interest Seth who doubles as an example of a solid male ally. Sydney Park and Anjelika Washington enjoy supporting roles as Kiera and Amaya – members of the school’s overlooked women’s soccer team.

If there’s one piece of representation that deserved more focus, there’s a disabled character who I would have liked to have seen involved more. Meg, played by Emily Hopper, really has no story agency. It would have been so good to see her fit into the film as a whole. While there are cutaways where she’s shown enjoying time with the group, she always seems to be on the outside of it, or somewhat silent within it. Her role feels somewhat tokenized. Everyone else seems to get a moment or makes a major decision except her, and at the very least this feels like a missed opportunity.

A lot of what “Moxie” contends with in talking about how feminism steps forward is its past history as specifically white feminism. Hadley Robinson plays Vivian and Amy Poehler plays her mother Lisa – there’s a frank conversation between the two where Lisa describes the 90s riot grrrl movement as making mistakes when it came to inclusion. Vivian also makes her own oversight borne from privilege, and is called out for it later in the film.

“Moxie” gives a lot of focus to Lucy and Amaya as leaders of the school club that forms around Vivian’s anonymous zine. Vivian may be creating and publishing the magazine, but she doesn’t try to claim leadership. That works in some ways because it lets others lead. It doesn’t work in other ways because when the school and peers look to hold someone accountable, it’s the girls of color they punish first. There’s also an undercurrent where Lucy and Amaya push Kiera into a role she doesn’t want to take.

These elements breathed a lot of subtlety, texture, and reality into the film. They give it more complexity and acknowledge that activism is a messy process that constantly needs to look inward as well as out. At the same time, I wanted the film to do more with these aspects. They sometimes give flavor to the film’s story about Vivian, without becoming an equal focus. I’ve seen an ongoing conversation about whether the film is truly intersectional, or simply diverse. Both are good, both are steps forward on progress, both push the genre, but when you get a landmark film like “Moxie”, this is a conversation that needs to be had because it clarifies the next landmark that pushes further.

I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. It tackles intersectional concepts as a movie about activism, but it’s also a coming-of-age story that’s determined to keep its runtime under 2 hours. It’s a meld: one part intersectional film, one part coming-of-age film that’s diverse but doesn’t focus fully on those intersectional concepts. The crux of the matter is that the film is confrontational, celebratory, and critical when it comes to Vivian and her journey – it’s a three-dimensional portrayal. The intersectional elements don’t get the same dimensionality because it’s still ultimately a film about Vivian. They get more than a lot of films give them, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t more room for them to get the focus. It’s one part representing these fights themselves and discussing them on their own terms, and it’s one part these fights being repurposed to texture what is ultimately Vivian’s story.

The film’s wildly successful and moving, and I don’t think it’s a massive criticism to say this is how far it goes, and this is how much further we can go. “Moxie” deserves both praise at its inclusive elements and its consideration and criticism of white privilege and racism, and at the same time it’s such a fully realized film that I think it could have successfully explored other elements it brings up in greater depth.

Gen X to Gen Z and the Millennial Gap

I started this article by mentioning the film is something of a letter from Gen X to Gen Z. Why would there need to be a generational letter from Gen X to Gen Z? Because the 2000s dropped the ball. I’m a Millennial – look back at what was made for our consumption: shows like “Scrubs”, “That 70s Show”, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, “The IT Crowd”, the list goes on…they all feature horrendous levels of misogyny. I’m not saying we can’t like those shows, but there’s a reason the term “problematic fave” exists – so that we can still talk about where they fell so short.

Of course, they all utilized the trick of making us laugh at a misogynist or harasser instead of with them. They all utilized it so much that they lost what the difference was. It disarmed harassment – in the hands of Dr. Kelso on “Scrubs” it was framed as endearing, in the hands of Matt Berry’s Denholm Reynholm on “The IT Crowd”, it was posed as ultimately harmless. The Todd’s handsiness on “Scrubs” was chastised; J.D.’s handsiness on the same show was a constant running joke that every woman he was interested in laughed off. The message was that so long as you were a sad, sensitive manchild about it, groping was OK. There were no consequences; it was just a quirk. In 2000s comedy, harassment was consistently posed as something to laugh off. Since it was an antiquated norm we could be sure was evaporating, shows decided it was OK for it to continue ad nauseam.

The popular media we consumed in the 2000s was in many ways a step back from cultural progress that had been made in the 1990s. As a Millennial interested in screenwriting, the regular casual harassment on “Scrubs” and shows like it was positioned as a shining city on a hill of comedy writing. It wasn’t. It was shitty.

What happened on TV doesn’t even begin to tackle the treatment of women in other mediums, such as in music or film. Sirin Kale wrote “’I was worried Lindsay, Paris or Britney would die’: why the 00s were so toxic for women” just this Saturday in The Guardian. I highly recommend the article. It goes into detail on how the early internet transformed media coverage into an instrument to project abuse onto women. It’s not something the internet changed into; it’s a foundational element of it. Moreover, it influenced and licensed media both old and new to follow suit.

No generation makes the content that’s being fed to it as they become adults. These shows and this coverage wasn’t being produced and written by 18 year-olds; they were being produced and written by older generations. They still have an impact on that generation; they still do damage to it. The shit we got fed as we became adults did not make talking to us men about it any easier for women. Your job – hell, something that shouldn’t have been only your job in the first place – became much more difficult because of the obsessive cruelty of the 2000s.

Whatever progress we could make got delayed. Millennials eventually shifted content made for us toward intersectional feminism, but that was making up a huge amount of ground that had been lost rather than building on top of the foundations of 90s feminism, and a lot of it is due to Gen X taking over some media production from the Boomer generation.

Insofar as a single film can, “Moxie” makes a bridge where there wasn’t one in the mainstream. Gen X had access to popular culture that made advancements on this, and they were doing it uphill against some really Stone Age concepts. Gen Z is lighting the whole place on fire, thank whatever god got sacked with reality this week. Gen Y – Millennials – the mainstream that was introduced to us only advanced on this after taking a huge step back. Something like 2004’s “Mean Girls” wasn’t the norm in coming-of-age storytelling, it was the distant exception. Today, it would be much more of a norm. I think there’s an argument that feminism in our media and storytelling got delayed a decade because of the 2000s. How much more difficult has that made everything since?

“Moxie” makes that bridge we never got to have, initially between Vivian and her mother, but also as a theme of the film as a whole. That’s needed now and it was needed in a place and time where Millennials really didn’t get it. And to say Gen X is bridging to Gen Z, firstly that’s a generational translation that’s difficult to make. Screenwriters Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, Jennifer Mathieu who wrote the original novel, director Amy Poehler – they’re all translating something across multiple generations and I don’t know that they’re going to get the credit for just how tough a job that is.

Secondly, that doesn’t mean Millennials aren’t part of that translation. We can’t have access to that mainstream bridge if it doesn’t exist in the first place. We’re a generation that was often baited into fighting against itself to make up that ground rather than build something on it. Though “Moxie” might primarily center on Gen X and Gen Z realizations of feminism, the generation that might be most in need of seeing that bridge – of having access to it – is Millennials. At least when it comes to Millennial men and the mainstream dismantling of feminism that we were fed in media, there’s a developmental step that as a generation we skipped and have had to go back and make up, even as we take new steps forward.

Is “Moxie” too Idealized?

That brings us to one of the bigger criticisms about “Moxie”. I wouldn’t say any direct plot spoilers follow, but I will refer to the general tone of how the film concludes.

Reviews are generally positive, but many also highlight that the film is too neatly wrapped up. They have a point. They’re not wrong. It’s way too neatly wrapped up for a depiction of activism. I’m just not sure “Moxie” is only a depiction of activism. I think it’s also a fantasy representation of that – not a fantasy as in something that’s inaccurate, but the kind of cinematic fantasy that embodies the ideal of something, that lends the power of storytelling, of heroes overcoming something and celebrating that act, having things work out because they acted like heroes.

“Hero’s journey” is a term that’s problematic in and of itself. It’s too often applied reductively to a global history of indigenous stories that can’t be boiled down so simply. At the same time, there’s no denying that the concept is a major component of modern Western storytelling. There aren’t many heroes’ journeys when it comes to portrayals of feminism or activism. Conclusions often show protagonists suffering or hopelessly witnessing that the change they made is a drop in a wider sea. Those are absolutely necessary and real and legitimate presentations. They speak to a long history of women sacrificing to make any step of progress.

Yet no one complains when Han and Luke get medals around their neck while Vader and the Empire are still out there and more powerful. Why? They sacrificed, changed for the better, and completed one lap of the hero’s journey. They have a new community now, and they lead within it. As a culture, we reward that and want to see it rewarded. It’s an element of power fantasy.

Yet if a woman is successful at one step of activism – if she has a moment of progress, change for the better, is accepted by those she loves, forms a community, yet still faces a range of repercussions and even potential prosecution, that’s too saccharine for our norms? Really?

I could be missing something coming to it as a man, but I think that sort of mythic power of the heroes marking a space of progress and being acknowledged that it should be recognized and valued by society? We need that in some of these films, too. We’re fine with it when men engage in any kind of power fantasy in a movie, no matter how fantastical, and they’re rewarded. But when women reach that point as they’re fighting for their own agency, suddenly it’s a flaw in a movie?

Furthermore, not every movie about activism should end in everybody being broken and demoralized, because movies are supposed to be about aspirations sometimes. And certainly there are moments in activism where you celebrate, where you breathe a sigh of relief and recognize a community has coalesced where there wasn’t one before. It doesn’t mean that the job’s done or you’ve reached the end goal, or that you deserve a proverbial cookie. It doesn’t mean that activism has reached its apex and is no longer needed. But it absolutely means you take a breath and celebrate and inhabit that moment as one success – because otherwise, the next one is that much harder to reach.

As a guy who came of age in the 2000s, I needed to see this movie. We needed to see it in the form of multiple mainstream movies and shows every year. We didn’t get it. It’s important that it’s there. It’s important that it recognizes that gap and seeks to bridge it. It’s important that representations of activism can be realistic and messy and tragic and unfinished because the work obviously is, and that’s what activism is. And it’s important that representations of activism also get their heroes’ journeys and idealistic moments and cinematic stories where a success gets to be – even in that moment – a success.

“Moxie” is part of a larger movement that got delayed. “Moxie”, “Never Have I Ever”, “The Half of It”, the new “Saved by the Bell”, “Love, Victor”, the list goes on – the last few years have been revolutionary when it comes to mainstream teen and coming-of-age projects that focus on feminism, anti-racism, and LGBTQ equality, works that call out and educate about bigotry and even discuss how it can be disarmed.

That doesn’t mean this moment is perfect or that it’s come close to any kind of apex or what’s needed. What we needed was the moment that’s currently happening in coming-of-age film and TV to have happened 15 years ago. Part of me wonders how the U.S. as a whole might be different if we were getting these projects regularly in the mainstream then. I’m just happy that moment is finally here for the genre, and that there’s one more immediate, funny, and moving classic in it.

You can watch “Moxie” on Netflix.

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A Beautiful Walking Sim of a Film — “Nomadland”

“Nomadland” won’t be for everybody. For the people who enjoy films that act like witnesses, it can be beautiful. What do I mean by that?

“Nomadland” follows Fern, a woman in her 60s. Her husband has died. She’s lost her home and job in the Great Recession. She lives in her van, driving from place to place and job to job. She’s played by Frances McDormand in a cast that blends actors with real people who live this modern nomadic life.

It reflects on the collapse of empire we’re all living through, but only in a way that helps characters speak to other characters. Fern struggles, but her journey is never treated as a tragic or representative story. Instead, it’s simply her story, emotionally full, bittersweet at times, and eventful in the way anyone’s can be.

Let’s get back to the question. How does a movie act like a witness, or an observer? There are films that simply seem to watch what happens. What’s cinematic feels removed from them. That’s hard to accomplish when a film still includes everything that makes a movie: edits, dialogue shots, landscape, sets, music, acting, you name it. That’s all still there, but it fades as you watch until you’re just a witness along with it.

Go with me on a tangent here; it’ll wrap back around. Warren Spector is a video game designer. He once spoke about his dream game: “My ultimate dream is for someone to be foolish enough to give me the money to make what I call the One Block Role-Playing Game, where we simulate one building, one city block perfectly”.

The idea is to replicate one city block in all its details, foibles, in all its random objects that may mean nothing or that may collect into describing a person. People would go about their lives with no particular heed to the player as special or unique or as anything else but another person going about their life.

Critic Jim Rossignol once compared this to a game called “Gone Home”. It simulates as deeply as possible returning to a family home. Games like this are associated with a genre called walking simulators. They can become controversial because they pursue a meticulous realization of a place instead of prioritizing gameplay. Being able to inhabit that place as a player is what’s important, even if everything that usually makes a game feels removed. Many argue that this makes the genre cease to be games, and start to be a different kind of interactive art.

The agency that we enjoy in most video games is instead centered around a place feeling, looking, and acting real. For the audience, you can invest in the feeling that it is real. What traditionally makes a game a game – running, jumping, dodging, shooting, solving puzzles – in these games those elements fade away. You’re just a witness there. You’re just moving through the house, seeing what’s there, rifling through closets and dressers and drawing conclusions that ultimately only matter to you. In many of these games, like “Firewatch”, “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture”, or “Dear Esther”, there is a clear end-state for the player’s journey. In the most experimental forms of walking sim, such as those made by Connor Sherlock and Kitty Horrorshow, there’s often no win-state or conclusion. You just keep witnessing until you decide to stop playing.

This is what “Nomadland” is, and why it’s beautiful. What makes a film a film is deeply secondary to watching someone live. Whereas games are built around the agency of its audience, films are most often built around performance. So instead of gameplay being replaced by a location to explore, what’s cinematic is replaced by a life to learn.

In “Nomadland” there is no end-state or conclusion. There’s no wrap-up. Of course the film ends at some point, but what plot happens is secondary to feeling like you’re experiencing who Fern is. That doesn’t really conclude. As an audience, we move through, seeing what’s there, inhabiting these moments and places. We make inferences about these lives, and it all ultimately only matters to you.

It may seem strange to compare a film to a walking sim, but the internal space they both evoke is similar. There are things that move you, but again and again I found myself returning to thoughts about my own life and decisions. I’m three decades younger than Frances McDormand, but even in my 30s I have photos I enjoy remembering, a toy from my childhood I miss, loved ones who have passed, keepsakes, memories. I may be younger, but we all have our starter’s kits for nostalgia. “Nomadland” provides a uniquely safe space to think about those things, to evoke their memory in myself. And as sad as parts of the film may be, they never feel heartbreaking or aching. The sadness is simply there, alongside everything else.

Movies are very different from video games, but “Nomadland” accomplishes in the patient, seemingly undirected exploration of a character what walking sims often accomplish in the patient, seemingly undirected exploration of a space. Of course, both have to be directed near perfectly to obscure that sense of direction, but “Nomadland” is more similar to that experience than it is to most other films.

Obviously, cinema has a longer history as a medium – it’s more accepting of films like this. Yet the closest comparisons I might draw to it are still more consciously cinematic:

I think of the films of Byambasuren Davaa, Terrence Malick, Bela Tarr. These are movies that often rely on long takes. You inhabit their spaces through unbroken contact. It’s easier to feel like you inhabit a place alongside characters when edits are few and far between. It’s one way of removing something cinematic from the equation so that you feel more like a witness than a viewer.

For the most part, “Nomadland” edits quickly. This put me off at first. It’s much more difficult to feel close to characters, alongside them in that place, if we’re constantly changing shot and even locations. There’s something here that’s lyrical, though – sometimes visually, but that’s not what I mean. What’s remarkable about “Nomadland” is that it gets to a similar place without removing any of the obvious hallmarks of movie-ness.

In Davaa, Malick, and Tarr’s films, I can feel like I’m seated among the characters. I’m witnessing what’s happening as an unspoken character, as the proverbial fly on the wall. The magic of those films is that I become the camera, a kind of ghost observer who exists in the scene. It feels like I am in those rooms and landscapes, watching what’s happening.

In “Nomadland”, it feels like there is no camera. It’s much more akin to the feeling of watching a documentary, but without narration, questions, themed structure, or any of what typically forms a documentary. You don’t feel like you’re a fly on the wall in a place, you feel like a fly on the wall in a life. It doesn’t feel like you’ve become the camera here, it feels like you’ve become a memory seeing all the other memories alongside you. It feels like you’re one of the people Fern passingly meets, who shares some moment that they’ll both look back on as happy, or fraught, or interesting, but a moment you’ll remember.

It might not even be a special moment, but it becomes special because you remember it, because one day you’ll look back on it as a hallmark of that time, as an anchor point to feel what you did then, as a space with someone else that felt sheltered when so much else didn’t.

There are so many beautiful, meaningful films I want to one day re-watch and re-experience. I can sometimes know that a movie is one I’ll go back to again and again the moment the credits roll.

The highest compliment I can pay to “Nomadland” is that I might not ever revisit it – because it feels so completely a memory that I’d like to recall just as I recall memories – incomplete, fragmented, as much sensation as information, fading but still held onto.

It is a moment of witnessing before the moment’s gone again.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Nomadland” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Frances McDormand plays Fern. Melissa Smith plays Dolly. Linda May and Swankie play versions of themselves. A number of other women have one-scene speaking parts. Usually, I’d list these characters and their actors, but because so many are playing versions of themselves, names are often only mentioned once, and most aren’t professional actors with headshots or promo stills, it’s difficult to line up who was who in each scene.

Suffice to say that these are the major parts for women, but that many other feature and this is an incomplete list.

“Nomadland” is also written and directed by Chloe Zhao (as well as produced and edited by her). It’s based on a non-fiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. Occasionally they discuss men – Fern clearly holds trauma because of the loss of her husband and her own father, and a fellow vandweller named Dave is a friend who’s interested in her.

More often, however, they discuss how to change a tire, job openings, where they’re traveling to next. They tell their stories to each other, repeat their favorite memories, share crafts, take care of each other, describe how their vans got their names.

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Shame, Resistance, and the Abusive Messiah — “The Other Lamb”

Content Warning: the film depicts grooming, sexual assault

Selah is born into a cult. There are several wives and daughters, and the only man is their messiah. They work and feed and clothe their “Shepherd”. As daughters are groomed into wives, they are raped by him as a religious act. He tells them it’s an act of cleansing, earned after their first period.

Told it’s evidence of her impurity, Selah hides hers just as the cult is forced off their land. They search for a new home, the binds of belief she’s been sold cracking piece by piece.

“The Other Lamb” is a film at odds with how we watch film. It’s a horror film, but not in the way we understand horror films. Horror often defines a certain joy at being afraid. There’s a participatory thrill at subjecting ourselves to fear within a safe space. There’s none of that here. “The Other Lamb” can often have the look of a modern horror film, but it isn’t scary or frightening in its moments. Instead, it’s coldly and patiently horrifying in its concepts.

The film often feels obvious. Malgorzata Szumowska’s direction is full of obvious metaphors, obvious zoom-ins on intense characters, and shot after shot where those characters stare directly into the camera. It’s heavy-handed, but that’s not always a bad thing.

All those obvious pieces begin to swirl in a way I’ve rarely seen in film before. There’s so many of them that you lose track of which ones are literal. When everything’s hyperreal, what’s a metaphor and what’s an event we’re seeing? How much of an event that is taking place shifts into metaphor? The plot is never hard to track – it’s very straightforward. Whether a precise moment happens or even if it happens the way we see it is difficult to say.

Selah has an aimless anger and no direct mother to confide in. Her own mother died when she was a baby. She’s part of the cult and is deeply adherent to it. At the same time, she experiences it through just enough of a different angle that she doesn’t fit in as expected. She can’t see all of it at once, indoctrinated as she is, but she has a seed of doubt that may or may not be lurking in the others.

“The Other Lamb” takes a unique tack in providing us just a few too many metaphors, visions, meaningful stares, moments that might be literal or might not be – but it’s all presented so matter-of-factly, with such a deliberate pace, that it never feels overwhelming or badly assembled. It just feels contradictory.

As a viewer, it’s hard to take in everything at once. It’s a style that isn’t always natural. Most films try to hide their seams so that the experience of watching seems fluid. Here, those seams are a feature. The cracks of the movie’s moment-to-moment cogency are the cracks where Selah increasingly sees other versions of herself, other experiences, other possibilities.

It doesn’t matter what you’re able to assign literal value to, because you have a sense of seeing through enough of it. The metaphors and their meaning might be obvious, but when they’re taking place and what parts are real isn’t. In this way, the film echoes one experience of being gaslit. What’s happening is obvious, what’s real within it is blurred and fractured. The direction of things is clear. What to do about them in any given moment is an incapacitating thought. As a viewer, it reflects exactly the journey Selah is taking.

Raffey Cassidy’s performance as Selah isn’t showy. She’s mostly quiet, with moments of misdirected shame or rage. She takes everything in. She emulates what she should be, but there’s a semi-conscious recognition of the act that separates her. She tries being the follower, the bully, the dutiful acolyte, the problem child. She tests out different roles in a way the others wouldn’t try. It’s a performance that’s equal parts denial and processing what’s new to her.

The filmmaking is self-conscious and shoves too much at you in such an incredibly precise way. It’s a fine balance of pushing the viewer just far enough away from it to have you want to find your way back in. It feels just disjointed enough while being so deliberately paced that those moments of fragmentation become a part of the film’s visual language.

That might sound like excusing the film’s weaknesses, and some viewers will absolutely reject its storytelling sensibilities. It’s also a film that can trigger, not just by its subject matter but also through a presentation that reflects a cult member’s disjointed grappling with reality. When you have a main character who exists in a constant state of being gaslit, and an art film presentation that blends the real and unreal, the effect is experiential instead of academic.

In most films, we’re trying to plumb for meaning. The metaphors are complex and layered. We seek them out like archaeologists, dusting off bits and pieces and discussing whether this is a metaphor and what it means. “The Other Lamb” is obvious. The metaphors are in your face. They are clear and insistent. They are so numerous and alarming that it’s difficult to tell where illusion stops and reality begins. That is the life of Selah and all the women in the cult. The deliberate pace of her story is synonymous with a quiet rage, if only she learns it. The film’s tension is built on whether she legitimizes it, whether she recognizes it in herself before her “Shepherd” does.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “The Other Lamb” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Raffey Cassidy plays Selah. Denise Gough plays Sarah. Ailbhe Cowley plays Tamar in what’s probably one of the most overlooked performances last year. Eve Connolly plays Adriel, Isabelle Connolly plays Eloise, Jane Herbert plays Evelyn, and Aislin McGuckin plays Maria. Kelly Campbell, Eva Mullen, Esosa Ighodaro, Mallory Adams, Irene Kelleher, Grainne Good, Juliette Crosbie, Zara Devlin, and Phoebe Sheppard all play other named members of the cult.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. They talk about their pasts, daily events, and their chores. However, given that all of this is in service to a cult built around one man – their “Shepherd” – it’s difficult to separate what really isn’t about him. For older members to talk about their pasts is a way of talking about what he took away. Their chores are all to sustain the “normalcy” of the cult he’s built, and they’re all ultimately in service to him. Their religion is him, so to talk about their spiritual life is to talk about him.

It makes this question extremely difficult to answer. Technically, the answer is yes. In the spirit of the question, the answer is rarely. That is part of the point, though. Their reality is artificially built around a need for him.

The film’s both written (C.S. McMullen) and directed (Malgorzata Szumowska) by women, and it never takes his side, equivocates, or makes an icon of the “Shepherd”. This avoidance might seem like the apparent thing to do, but it’s often a risk in the hands of male filmmakers, who tend to take a figure like this and mix in elements of power fantasy, admiration, or empathy.

It’s especially notable here because the story isn’t being told by an outsider who brings perspective into it; it centers on women who believe this man is their messiah. To craft a film that utterly denies him this iconography even for a second, while still telling their story from their perspective is…well, maybe it’s difficult, maybe it’s not, but it is an opportunity that’s been blown by male filmmakers time and again.

It’s also worth noting that Szumowska is a Polish director. Poland has been struggling with becoming a radicalized Catholic theocracy for years, and it’s been particularly notable in its erasure of women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. Szumowska has previously engaged aspects of this in films like “In the Name Of”, which tells the story of a gay priest. There’s a lot being said in “The Other Lamb” about the nature of theocracy, savior narratives, and how both demand women serve men in the first place.

You can watch “The Other Lamb” on Hulu with a subscription, or see where to rent it.

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Does it Matter that “Wonder Woman 1984” is Meaningful, Unique, and Average?

“Wonder Woman 1984” is balanced on a fine line between nonsense and beauty. It opens with one of the best sequences in a superhero film. Then it has a mall fight that takes place much like it would in a 1980s movie. Choices like these make the film constantly hard to pin down.

Parts of it feel a lot more like a superhero movie from the 80s, particularly the Christopher Reeve-era “Superman” movies. These included both good moments and bad, and “Wonder Woman 1984” follows suit.

The plot is pretty simple. What if “The Secret” were true, everyone got their wish, and a Trumpian con-man was the only one who knew how to take advantage of it? “Wonder Woman 1984” never feels like a horror movie, except that its ideas and their consequences feel horrific because of the current events they speak to.

A lot of people don’t like this film. I do. I’ll cut the argument out of it right now – both views are right, depending on what you want out of a movie like this. “Wonder Woman 1984” triples down on its central theme and spends about as much time with Pedro Pascal’s villain Maxwell Lord and Kristen Wiig’s Dr. Barbara Minerva as it does with Wonder Woman and her alter-ego Dr. Diana Prince. If you buy into the central horror of the theme the movie’s running with, it can be an affecting experience you’ll want to see through. There’s also nothing wrong with slipping up on the film’s often generalized writing and thinking it’s all too uneven and directionless. Both are pretty accurate reads, and it’s one reason why the movie’s proving divisive.

This difference comes out of whether you want to see this film’s story or whether you want to see a Wonder Woman superhero movie. It’s strange that the movie has a really good idea what to do with Lord and his path, some idea what to do with Minerva’s, and almost no idea what it wants to do with Prince’s.

Lord has a direction that I’d argue makes him one of the best realized superhero villains we’ve seen. His writing is well thought out, entertaining, his performance is superb, and the character carries the movie’s extremely relevant central themes with direction and verve. Minerva’s path is increasingly generalized, but Wiig’s performance is deceptively good and overcomes that pretty easily. Prince’s path through the story is underwritten, often sappy, and takes shortcuts to bring her into plot alignment as the other two speed along. It’s a weird jolt after the first “Wonder Woman” followed her almost exclusively. This film gives her very little to do, and puts the most thought into Lord and how his journey carries the film’s themes.

If you’re ready to take the movie on its own terms and priorities, that may be fine. If you came specifically for a Wonder Woman movie focused on her as a superhero, it’s a big problem. Neither viewer’s preference is right or wrong, but you can see how each is going to have a wildly different experience watching the film.

On top of this, we spend more time with Prince the alter-ego than we do with Wonder Woman the superhero. Where it makes sense for Lord to develop the way he does and go from place to place the way he does, Wonder Woman seems to take advantage of some pretty big plot shortcutting. At one point, she steals a museum jet, and not only is it in working condition, it’s fueled up enough to take her halfway around the world.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this logic in this kind of movie. Superhero movies are often rife with shortcuts like these, but they usually explain it away with magic (or magical superscience) or they’re good enough at misdirection to help you overlook it. Not so here. The shortcuts are very visible and they’re badly written. I can forgive that in a superhero movie; not everyone will.

Are the action scenes good? They’re well done, but fairly sparse. They also risk something pretty refreshing for the genre – Wonder Woman is nigh untouchable. She is supposed to be both descended from gods and a godkiller. I’d say this makes the action veer close to cheesy. She swings from a glowing whip. She slides as much as she runs because otherwise her momentum would send her through walls – this can take some movements into Legolas shield-surfing territory. She runs faster than cars. Even when she’s severely weakened at points in the film, she uses an armored truck as a personal shield while running 70 miles per hour.

It’s refreshing because a lot of superhero movies right now have leaned into superheroics just being explosions vs. other explosions. Some of those explosions are very pretty, but at the end of the day, I don’t care who can explode more. If I wanted to see that I’d watch “Mythbusters” re-runs. If she’s akin to a god, then yeah, 99% of her combats should be breezes.

The last superhero movie that really tried doing that was Ang Lee’s “Hulk”. We know how that went. Unlike that film, though, the action isn’t a central point. Wait! What?!? Then what is a superhero movie where the action isn’t central? How can a superhero movie that prioritizes something other than action be the event movie experience we want?

I’d ask the opposite question. How have we tolerated so many superhero movies that only pose heroism as violence? Don’t get me wrong – I love my fight choreo. I’ve been trained, I’ve trained others, I’ve written on it extensively. But if all a superhero does is win by fighting, what’s their value? Superheroes are supposed to be a little more like…well, like “Star Trek”. They’re supposed to look for opportunities to communicate, to understand, to win the fight by not having to have it in the first place. How is this supposed to be a golden era of superhero movies when none of these superheroes remember that violence is only one of many tools they’re supposed to possess?

I remember the 1990s animated “Batman” series as most do: a high point in superhero storytelling (yeah, Batman’s not technically “super”, blah blah blah, I get it). That Batman got in plenty of fights, sure. And sometimes he gathered clues. Sometimes he went undercover and just talked to people for information. He saw many opportunities to talk to villains, to make them relent – sometimes because they still had a shred of humanity left, sometimes because all they’d wanted in the first place was someone to listen and understand. Some of the most exciting moments involved out-maneuvering a villain so well that the fight didn’t even have to take place. That’s a more capable and interesting hero than how we typically boil down the meaning of superheroes for movies.

I don’t see that very often in our superheroes anymore – every climax and set-piece is a fight. A lot of them are really awesome fights, but what about those battles that can’t be won with a fight? Those battles exist, and to never portray them means your storytelling is exceptionally limited. Those other stories used to exist in superhero adaptations. Where have they gone? “Wonder Woman 1984” remembers that superheroes are more than a pair of fists. Yes, she beats the pulp out of countless dudes, armored cars, deflects bullets, crushes dozens of guns in her hands. And she also finds other ways to solve a situation when appropriate.

That might strike some viewers as slow or anti-climactic. To me, it carries a lot of meaning. It makes the film more interesting because I know it’s willing to pose an unwinnable situation that might have to be solved in a way other than a fistfight we already know Wonder Woman will never lose. Figuring out how to outmaneuver unwinnable situations is interesting. Another fistfight or explosion-off can be entertaining, but if that’s all you have, if that’s the only way you know how to solve a situation in your movie, you start to lose a certain breadth in your storytelling.

“Wonder Woman 1984” is incredibly uneven, but it feels unique and valuable at least in this way. It sits relatively alone in modern superhero movies because the hero has more at their disposal than simply out-brutalizing someone else’s violence. That alone makes it a better superhero movie – specifically superhero movie – than a lot of the films featuring the best violence we can imagine through CGI. I don’t care about a 20 minute vignette about replacing a hammer with an axe, or who borrows what power, or if Iron Man has missiles that blow up 20% better than his previous ones. Give me a hero who sees more to their purpose than being an overzealous police officer, and you’ve won me over.

“Wonder Woman 1984” is not a great movie, but it’s one of a handful in the last decade that remembers a superhero is more about being an empathetic hero than being an impressive weapon. If it had spent a bit more time with that hero and given her more to do, it might be a better movie, but as is, I do think it’s a pointed one. Is that enough to make you like an uneven movie that badly needed a rewrite? That’s going to split viewership down the middle.

It’s an average movie that feels more original and less tiresome to me than many better movies in the genre that nonetheless make me feel pretty empty. I’ve said it before, I walked out of “Avengers: Endgame” both wildly impressed and also feeling like I’d just watched a pretty hollow, meaningless experience. “Wonder Woman 1984” didn’t impress me and it isn’t made nearly as well. But the experience is jam packed with meaning however unevenly it’s portrayed and discussed. Which is better? There are moods for each. Which are you looking for?

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of woman in film.

1. Does “Wonder Woman 1984” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Gal Gadot plays Dr. Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman. Kristen Wiig plays Dr. Barbara Minerva. Robin Wright plays Antiope. Connie Nielsen plays Hippolyta. Lilly Aspell plays Diana at a younger age. Gabriella Wilde plays Raquel. There are a few other brief roles with speaking parts.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. Primarily this is through Prince and Minerva, who speak extensively about history, artifacts, and research they do at the Smithsonian Institution.

The movie makes a point of showing how constantly harassed both are on a daily basis. Because the film is so focused on Lord, however, you might get less screen time for Prince as the lead role and Minerva in such an important supporting role than you’d expect.

This is also a good section to discuss broader diversity. Here, the film has some good and really bad moments. There’s an unspoken element to Pascal’s character Lord, where a Latino character bends over backwards trying to present himself visually and culturally as white as possible in order to be accepted in the business world. This is brought out later in the film through flashbacks. Even if it’s never outright discussed, it’s something I’ve struggled with in my life and it was a very recognizable and impactful character note to include.

At the same time, our heroes go to a Mayan descendant at one point in the film for mythological/historical information. First, I’m sick of Mayans being the excuse for any film to just stick whatever make-believe nonsense they want to shove into a film. That there’s such a massive hole of mythological and historical information is the direct result of colonialist violence, and is not an excuse to supplant and rewrite what’s missing with whatever your fiction needs. Yet it gets worse:

The character talks about being related to Mayans several generations back and uses the phrase “our people” to describe them. He is played by an Indian-American actor who in both my research and the research of other critics seems in no way to be Latino or indigenous. To simply take one person of color and assign him as another person of color is a disturbingly racist misappropriation of inclusion and representation, and is one of the most glaringly offensive moments I’ve seen in a film all year.

You can watch “Wonder Woman 1984” on HBO Max with a subscription.

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How to Sell Late-Stage Capitalism: A Comedy — “Buffaloed”

Some of the best comedies are also cultural horror pieces. They focus in on one absurd aspect of how we live, exploiting it for laughs while also making us recoil at the truth of it. This is the case with “Buffaloed”, where we follow a woman named Peg who’s hell-bent on taking hold of the Buffalo debt collection industry.

That may seem small potatoes, but Buffalo, New York, is one of the debt collecting capitals of the U.S. It houses a number of agencies that buy debt for pennies on the dollar, and then try to collect as much of it as possible. Often, they’ll collect more than they’re owed. They’ll make threats in order to collect. They’ll lie about the law and break it themselves. They’ll take advantage of older people who might not remember the debt’s already been settled.

Why would following someone who idolizes this industry be interesting or amusing? Peg is someone who’s idealistic about the cult of sales on which debt collection is based. She’ll willingly trade being able to make it day-to-day for a risky scam that has an outside shot of making her rich. She’s emblematic of a philosophy about money that plunges people into debt in the first place, a philosophy that tells us to invest rather than save, to hoard rather than share, to look out for ourselves rather than our communities.

There can be a certain fascination to watching bad guys who are so exceptionally precise at their manipulation that they run circles around the good guys. The prototype for this is Iago in “Othello”. The concept survives to this day in shows like “House of Cards” and its U.S. remake, or movies like “There Will Be Blood”. That plays differently after four years of Trump, though. Perhaps those we have to fear aren’t the cinematic genius masterminds, but the desperate hustlers who whip their followers into a fanatical frenzy.

Zoey Deutch’s Peg is no Iago. She’s desperate to escape her social class, to escape debt. She has schemes on schemes. She also has the gift of convincing herself, and her family and employees, and perhaps even us as the audience that she wants to do it the right way. She wants to reform the debt collection industry. She wants to make it work for the industry and for those in debt. We know that’s not possible, but if anyone can take a run at it, maybe it’s her – even as she erodes what is and isn’t legitimate.

She’s just good enough at it to ride the line between success and prison. She has just enough of a gift to shift in and out of each. There’s no middle ground for her. She grew up in a house with debt collectors breathing down her mother’s neck. Her mother (Judy Greer in a very overlooked role) runs a struggling, off-the-books business. Peg looks down on her for that, while having endless, misguided faith in the memory of a scam-artist father who passed away and passed his debts onto all the rest.

How is any of this funny, let alone one of the best comedies of the year? Brian Sacca’s screenplay and Tanya Wexler’s direction eviscerate one of the most predatory and loosely regulated industries in the country. Different debt collection agencies go to war like wannabe mafias over who’s buying what debt, at what cost. They raid, threaten, and SWAT each other. The movie educates about the industry even while building comedy off how pathetic and desperate it all is.

Peg herself might be a sociopath. Or she might be a good, caring person who has to act the part of sociopath to stand up against threats. Or she might be a sociopath who acts the part of good, caring person because it keeps her enablers where she needs them. She hires outsiders because she believes in them, identifies with them…or because she knows she can control them more easily. She doesn’t want to betray her lawyer boyfriend because she cares about him…or because she knows he’s a useful resource for her. We never know which, and Deutch’s performance balances on this line perfectly. We’re scared for her, worried for her, and rooting for her while we also legitimately distrust her. That Deutch can sell us on all of the above at once offers us a deceptively complex comedic performance – something that becomes more layered because it is so comedic in nature.

That’s more real and worrisome than an Iago. There will always be someone sensible who resists an Iago. His shortcoming is that he never believed his own lies – they were logical lies, not emotional ones. A Peg, though? She’s an icon. Who needs logic when emotion overrides it? Even as a viewer, I can say I empathize with her and may even believe in her. I want her to succeed because her panic, desperation, resolve, determination – they’re all so identifiable, even when her success is built on eroding the very lines of legitimacy she tells everyone she’s trying to reinforce.

Iago speaks to the audience and we know he’s evil. We follow him because his actions are happening outside of us, on a stage, or the page, or in a movie. We’re not necessarily legitimizing them by wanting to know what happens. Peg speaks to us and we’re confused about who she is even in that moment, but she sure seems to believe it so why wouldn’t we give her a chance? On some level, that legitimization is happening inside of us as the viewer. There’s a larger barrier to enabling Iago or the logical villains like him. There’s almost none to enabling villainy from someone you actually like and can identify with. “Buffaloed” can read us, and then take advantage of it while calling it out and making it plain as day to us.

It clarifies how this identification plays into the cult of sales, including debt collection, by making us buy into a movie that is using the same strategies to claim our emotional investment. Its comedy renders us empathetic, and its absurdity makes it both funnier and more horrific. It’s a rare film that can call out exactly how it’s getting you to emotionally invest in a toxic character, and in so doing further convince you to do exactly that. It convinces you to set aside your better judgment because this is someone you believe in and want to see succeed despite common sense and logic. It’s a movie that’s emblematic of the current culture of the United States.

“Buffaloed” is a clever comedy that kept me laughing across a very efficient hour and a half. It’s an utterly brilliant character study that resonates far longer than that – except I don’t know if the character it’s studying most is Peg, or me as the viewer.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Buffaloed” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Zoey Deutch plays Peg. Judy Greer plays her mother, Kathy. Lusia Strus plays Frances, Lorrie Odom plays Backer, Paulyne Wei plays Jin, Barbara Gordon plays Mrs. Cooney, and Jayne Eastwood plays Rhonda. Kate Moyer plays Peg as a child. There are a few other brief speaking roles.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. A lot of the conversation revolves around business decisions – debt collection, rent, sales strategies, ethics, theft. Peg’s conversations with her mother often revolve around her future, her dreams, and her mistakes. These include discussions of men – how she impacts her brother, her belief in her late father, her sort-of-boyfriend, but are usually more broadly around Peg’s life.

Some of the business conversation treads into talking about men because all of her competition in debt collection is run by men, but it usually leans more toward Frances and Backer talking to Peg about her business.

You can watch “Buffaloed” on Hulu with a subscription, or see where to rent it.

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