Review – Game Night

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Though I’ve been looking forward to seeing this film, it was not my first choice for tonight.  My plan was to see Alex Garland’s Annihilation, but my local theater didn’t get it and I didn’t want to go way out of town for it on a weeknight.  I have a busy weekend ahead, so it will probably be next weekend before I get a chance to see that one, now.  That made Game Night my Plan B, though not one that I was upset about.  And, hey, at least it’s not The 15:17 to Paris, again, right?

Game Night seems like such a simple and obvious idea that I’m shocked it hasn’t been done, in some form, before now.  A friendly game night gone wrong is just ripe with possibilities and co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein along with screenwriter Mark Perez take full advantage of many of them.  Combined with an invigorated cast, the end result is a blast of a movie that succeeds in its efforts to be pure, joyful, escapist entertainment.

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Often, filmmakers behind comedies such as Game Night – in which there is an easy and appealing narrative hook – rely on the premise to carry them through and forget that comedies are truly made up of the little moments.  One of the keys to humor is surprise.  That can refer to an unexpected line or a twist in the story or potentially many other things but the truth remains that a gag isn’t funny if the audience can see it coming.  Once the initial set-up was complete, I saw very little of the rest of Game Night coming, both in terms of the big moments and, even more importantly, the small ones.

Once I had involuntarily laughed out loud approximately five or six times before the end of the opening scene, I felt confident that I was in for a good time.  Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams have excellent comedic chemistry together, which I’m not entirely sure I expected, though I have no good reason as to why that would be.  I suppose I’m just not accustomed to seeing McAdams in comedic roles (it’s been a while since Mean Girls), so I was subconsciously prepared for her to play more of a straight role while Bateman got all of the laughs.  Happily, that wasn’t the case, at all.  And as great as they are bouncing off of each other, they’re each just as good on their own, as well.  We knew that about Bateman, as he’s still the king of dry delivery (and, yes, he’s the same basic character in this film as he almost always is, but so what?  He’s the best there is at playing the exasperated, sarcastic, underachieving guy next door.), but McAdams’s timing and delivery is spot on, too, and they both look like they’re having a lot of fun.  And when an audience can pick up on that, it’s contagious.

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The entire cast does a great job, but it’s a good thing for McAdams and Bateman that they’re both so great because, were they even slightly lesser performers, they would have been in great danger of being overshadowed every time they shared the screen with Jesse Plemons’s neighbor cop, Gary.  Gary is as weird as any character I can recall from recent memory but he’s also charismatic and unequivocally entertaining.  Gary gets the most interesting character arc in the film, as well (yes, there are character arcs), and one never really knows what to expect from him, which makes him even more fun.  If the film hits it even moderately big, Gary will likely be the breakout character and it wouldn’t even surprise me to see a plethora of Gary memes popping up on all of our social media platforms.

As far as the rest of the film goes, it’s definitely a mix of action, suspense, and comedy, but I’d break it down as approximately twenty-five percent action and suspense and seventy-five percent comedy.  The funny stuff takes brief pauses here and there to allow for some plot advancement as well as so the very real stakes can breathe and set in.  But the film never forgets that it’s a comedy and, unlike so many movies that are marketed as comedies, it’s genuinely and consistently funny.  There’s a scene between Bateman and Adams that takes place in a parking lot, if I remember correctly, that is pure gold (I’ll just say it involves an impromptu medical procedure) and that is probably the highlight for me, personally.  But the entire film shines.  Whenever the cast shoots for comedy, it scores.  That’s rare and immeasurably refreshing.

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Game Night is everything that audiences love.  It’s a film that lives up to expectations and delivers what it promises.  The characters are relatable and just within the realm of believability, which allows for the humor in their situation and reactions to truly click.  I can tell you that I wasn’t the only one in my screening who was enjoying themselves; the rest of the audience was laughing constantly and one of the big reveals even got an emotional burst of excitement from the guy sitting two seats to my left, which was way too close to me considering the number of people that was there.  That last bit may have been irrelevant to you but what isn’t irrelevant is that Game Night is a winner in every aspect, so if it looks like something you think you might enjoy, I feel confident in saying that you will.

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Review – Game Night

#ThrowbackThursday – Bend it Like Beckham

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Original US release date: March 12, 2003
Production budget: $5,640,000
Worldwide gross: $76,583,333

I have scars that are still healing.  I’ve been a full-time teacher since essentially 2003.  Before I taught at the college where I am currently a professor, I worked at a boarding school for over seven years.  I left there in 2010 and it closed down exactly five years and two days after that, but in the time that it existed, those in charge controlled both the students and faculty through a system of fear, intimidation, and guilt.  Individualism was stifled.  Dissenting voices were quashed.  If someone proved to be gaining too much traction and began to present a problem for the efforts of the board to maintain their illusion and control – if doubt in their methods was firmly planted in the campus population – the guilty party was systematically discredited and often excommunicated.

Being there has left scars on many.  It has scarred a copious amount of the former students.  It has scarred many of the former employees.  I’m one of them.  I didn’t realize what was happening at the time, but the influence they attempted to exert still has a hold on me and affects me to this day.  As a result – in an effort to protect myself on numerous levels – I have put up walls in the years since leaving.  I do my current job the best I can but when I leave campus, I disengage.  I have trouble allowing myself to connect to others.  Because I remember.  And I don’t want to put myself in that situation again.

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There are many who were there who are feeling the lasting effects to a far greater degree than I am.  I got off relatively easily compared to others.  But I saw these very themes and ideas represented in Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham.  The movie is a bit of an odd duck and the themes are dealt with mostly through a lighthearted, comedic approach, and in a completely different context, but they’re definitely there.

In the film, Parminder Nagra plays “Jess” (short for Jesminder) the daughter of Indian Sikh parents.  Her family adheres very strictly to all Sikh traditions, yet Jess has grown up in a modern (2003) Britain, whose values and practices forcefully clash with those of her religion.  More than anything, Jess wants to play football (or “soccer” to us Americans.  I’ll be referring to it as “football” from here on out.).  In spite of her parents’ frustrations, Jess is a huge fan of David Beckham and is greatly inspired by him, to the point that she joins a local girls’ team at the behest of Keira Knightley’s Jules, her teammate.  Jess’s parents object so strongly that she must keep it a secret from them.  And her secrets don’t end there.

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Cosmetically, the film doesn’t feel like is has a budget of over $5 million.  In fact, I got a consistent vibe that I was watching something that was produced in the eighties, both in terms of the production value and the stylistic sensibilities.  I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but the entire production feels . . . well . . . cheap.  The contrast is blown out, the voice dubbing is poorly synced, the shots are too quick and close to give the performances room to breathe and, while the three main cast members are solid enough (Nagra, Knightley, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers), much of the supporting cast are genuinely weak actors, coming off as hammy and over-the-top.

But when one digs underneath the surface, what is uncovered is a film long ahead of its time.  Bend it Like Beckham addresses female empowerment, freedom in the face of religious oppression, and tolerance towards others of different upbringings, origins, and sexual orientations.  Long before these were all daily topics of conversation, this little British comedy was tackling all of them head-on.  And, on paper, creatively, the film does an excellent job with all of it.  Some may roll their eyes when Jess and Jules quarrel over the affections of Rhys Meyers’s Joe, but that issue ends up leading directly to conflict between Jess and her family over traditional relationships within their own religion and upbringing.  With the institution of marriage being such a pillar of Sikhism, I was fine with that particular point f contention between Jess and Jules as it does nothing to elevate Joe above the women and instead serves Jess’s quest for independence.

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Jess struggles with that quest, however, to the very end and most likely beyond.  She has essentially been indoctrinated by her family and her religion and taking a stance in direct opposition to either feels inherently wrong to her, even if she knows better in her head.  She actually feels like she owes them her loyalty, when in fact all she owes is to herself.  She owes herself the freedom to live her own life.  But she never truly gets those thoughts and feelings of guilt out of her head, and I can understand that.  I can’t understand it from the same perspective, or even to the same degree.  But there are still things that are fully acceptable that I feel are not, simply because I had it drilled into my head for so long by a controlling and insecure institution.  On some level, I feel her pain.  Nagra conveys this internal conflict perfectly and Chadha (along with his co-writers) shows a clear comprehension of the baby steps that are required to overcome that which has been ingrained so deeply.

If we’re looking at the film objectively, Bend it Like Beckham strives to be a better film than it formally is.  The more technical and cosmetic components of the filmmaking are certainly subpar and never allow the movie to present itself as the quality contender that it knows it can be.  But creatively and artistically, Chadha and company succeed on every level, with a thoughtful, insightful narrative that was ahead of the societal curve by nearly a full decade.  Ultimately, I can forgive the film’s glaring flaws in favor of its prescient cultural relevance and its willingness to speak to those who didn’t have too many people to talk to, even as recently as 2003.  As with most “sports” movies, the film isn’t truly about football, but rather about what the football brings out in Jess and, vicariously, the viewer.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Bend it Like Beckham

Review – The 15:17 to Paris

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Clint Eastwood has changed the course of his career in recent years.  He has stepped out of the spotlight and shifted to roles behind the camera, in particular producing and directing.  He has put out some fantastic work (Million Dollar BabyGran Torino – in both of which he still had starring roles) and some creative and artistic disasters (American Sniper, one of the worst films to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars).  One common theme in his recent work has been the military, as he almost always features current or former veterans as the main characters in his stories.

In the case of The 15:17 to Paris, he takes that idea one step further, actually casting the veterans in question as themselves in the film.  Air Force vet Spencer Stone, National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, and their childhood friend Anthony Sadler assume the roles of themselves as they play out actual events leading up to and including the day that they fund themselves confronted by a terrorist on a commuter train in Europe.  As I watched the film, one question kept repeating itself in my head: How did this get made?

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I want to state up front that the act of heroism portrayed in the film and that also occurred in real life is just that: an extraordinary moment of selfless bravery.  Understand that this review is not a review of the real-life event or the three guys as people.  This is a review of the film based on their memoir.  The real-life act was tremendous.  The film is atrocious.  I haven’t hated a film this much since The Neon Demon.  Going in, I thought to myself that this movie would at least be better than American Sniper, even with that film’s unclear message, selective representation of Chris Kyle, and laughable fake baby.  But this was worse.  It was so much worse.  At least Sniper still had Bradley Cooper’s excellent performance to brag about.  The 15:17 to Paris has nothing.

Okay, look, I can appreciate the thought behind casting the three real guys as themselves in the film.  But they aren’t actors.  And it shows.  Truthfully, their performances weren’t as bad as I was afraid they might be, but they were still very bad.  Wooden delivery, monotone voices, and a vocal decibel level that always hovered just below a moderate shout permeated all three of their performances.  They also often spoke too quickly out of nervousness, taking any semblance of authenticity out of their presentation.  (But, of course, we all know that Eastwood supports people who are unqualified for their positions, so maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised.)  The worst of the three is Spencer, so he naturally becomes the narrative center of the proceedings and receives the most screen time.  But, why wouldn’t he?  He’s the one most closely associated with the military, so he’s the most laudable of them all in Eastwood’s eyes.  Spencer even gets an extra boost when Eastwood fabricates an element of The Big Moment in order to make it seem as though Spencer bravely (stupidly?) charges right at an aimed gun from nearly the length of the train car.  This never happened.  Nobody else gets phony moments of bravery to falsely elevate their heroism.  Only the Air Force guy.  (By the way, there was a fourth man who also helped to detain the shooter on the train who gets almost no recognition in the film.)

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Despite Eastwood tossing the three leading men to the wolves and putting them way out of their element, I was still happy to see Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer pop up, because I love both of them.  They always have a sense of believability, sincerity, and relatability.  At least, they always did before The 15:17 to Paris, where they become a pair of unreasonable and delusional mothers who refuse to see their young middle school sons (during some flashbacks) for who they are.  The boys’ teacher calls them in to express concern at the boys’ behavior and offer some suggestions to help.  Both mothers become indignant, stubbornly refusing to accept the fact that their kids are troublemakers, and then verbally attack the person trying to help them.  And this is presented as something to be applauded.

Oh, and those flashbacks never really carry any significance.  One challenge facing Eastwood was taking a ten-minute story and stretching it into a 95-minute film.  He never overcomes that challenge.  Almost the entire film is a flashback before The Big Moment and exactly one scene builds to some sort of payoff during the climax.  The rest is just filler.  All the time spent showing us the three guys as a-hole middle-schoolers leads exactly nowhere.  I thought maybe it was building to them being some sort of representation of toxic masculinity throughout their adulthood, but that didn’t materialize, as they were presented as pretty decent guys, even aside from The Big Moment.  By this point in his career, Clint Eastwood should understand that one shouldn’t lay a foundation if they’re planning to build a houseboat.

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I wish that was all.  I really do.  But there’s more.  The script is the worst-written tripe I can recall assaulting my ears since I accidentally watched a Fifty Shades trailer.  My joy at seeing Fischer and Greer was quickly extinguished as soon as I heard the simple-minded words and “ideas” (a word I use extremely loosely, here) coming out of their mouths.  The guys themselves have to spew even more awful verbiage and, to make matters worse, their lack of acting abilities only highlight the absurdity of their speech.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that, on a scale of one to ten, this material was only a couple of levels above Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

I feel like I’ve been pretty clear, here, but let me be direct, just to be sure: I hated every moment of this moviegoing experience.  How much do I hate this movie?  I once had a dream that I was fighting with The Office‘s Jim and Roy over Jenna Fischer’s Pam character and I’m now glad that she didn’t choose me because I would never want to be permanently connected to this movie – even by marriage in the dream world.  The two elderly ladies near me occasionally talked and, for once, I didn’t mind because they had better dialogue.  I didn’t have to pay for this movie but Moviepass deserves their money back.  I hate this movie.

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If you think I’m being unfair, you’re wrong.  Simply put, Warner Brothers knew they had a stinker on their hands and that’s clear because they released the film in February.  If they thought it was even close to being decent, they would have released it before the end of 2017 because this type of film is usually prime Oscar bait.  But they knew.  And now, we all know.  Clint Eastwood appears to have quit caring about quality and now only puts effort into mobilizing his conservative fan base and getting them to the theaters.  Although even they aren’t turning out for this one, as the film is nowhere near making a profit and might not even break even.  I would like to think that the Clint Eastwood of old still exists, somewhere, but if this is what we can expect from him for the time being, I might just be waiting on the sidelines and hoping for somebody else to someday tell me that he’s back.

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Review – The 15:17 to Paris

Review – Early Man

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Nick Park, creator of Wallace & Gromit and the man behind the underrated Chicken Run, returns with Aardman Animation in their latest effort, the prehistoric comedy Early Man.  Park’s trademark character designs and stop-motion animation – his medium of choice – are back in full force as Park and his crew deign to stand tall against the modern animation styling of computer generated graphics.  At the same time, hopes are high that the attempt at counterprogramming against Marvel’s Black Panther results in some spillover business (“Dang, Black Panther is sold out.  Let’s go see Early Man, then.”) and a boost in ticket sales.

Set during the transition from the stone age into the bronze age, Early Man tells the story of caveman Dug (Eddie Redmayne), who works to unite his fellow caveperson brethren in order to save his home from the evil tyrannical leader of a more technologically advanced civilization responsible for propelling humanity forward and hoping to leave Dug and his friends in the distant past.  So, Dug sets out to win freedom for himself and his loved ones by . . . winning a game of soccer?

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Okay, so the narrative is a bit odd, but the first shot of the film shows dinosaurs and man cohabiting the earth, so reality is tossed right out the window from the very start.  And I’m not bothered by “odd”, anyway.  Unfortunately, said narrative is also a bit dull.  The idea is fine.  Any idea can work with the proper execution.  But, here, the execution is just a bit off.  The culprit is primarily the pacing, as it takes a long time to get to the hook, even though the film only runs a bit over ninety minutes long, including credits.  But the film is also largely uneventful until the big climax finally arrives, causing the film to feel as if the story contains a beginning and an ending but no middle.  To compound the issues, the humor almost entirely falls flat, mostly due to the fact that the majority of it is derivative, having been done before in a copious amount of other films.

It’s not a total loss, as the movie has its moments.  I’d be lying if I said that the film didn’t get a few chuckles out of me (there’s one particularly amusing gag involving a duck that I won’t elaborate on any further, and Nick Park’s Hognob is consistently amusing), but in a film that’s marketed as a comedy, “a few chuckles” just aren’t enough.  As has become common in recent years, the funniest films often tend to be those that aren’t advertised as such, whereas films such as this one, whose primary goal is to elicit laughter, struggle to find even minimal success.  I appreciated the few moments that I got, but I wanted more than just those few sprinkled amongst stereotypical slapstick and one-liners that originated decades ago.

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I will say that I enjoyed the characters as well as the voice actors who bring them to life.  Dug, Goona (Maisie Williams), Hognob and the others are endearing, charming, and even lovable, making it difficult to outright dislike the film.  Even when rolling one’s eyes at their jokes, their sweet smiles and sincere hearts are rather irresistible.  Kudos to Aardman for pulling that off.  But they didn’t do it alone.  The studio pulled out all the stops in procuring their cast, with Redmayne and Williams being joined by Tom Hiddleston.  I had to remind myself during my viewing that these huge stars were the voices I was hearing, as they were unrecognizable while still managing to fully invest in their roles.

I also found it quite refreshing to see some classic stop-motion animation again.  It’s not smooth.  It’s not sleek.  It’s not shiny.  It’s not sexy.  But it’s art.  And it’s beautiful in its own way.  While not quite up to the level of the recent efforts from Laika, the studio behind the instant classic Kubo and the Two Strings, stop-motion animation is still an impressive accomplishment, regardless of the perceived shortcomings.  It lends an old-school, palpable feel to the film and contributes a much-needed kick to the energy level in the face of a narrative that doesn’t quite get the job done.

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I think I’m more disappointed in the fact that I’m not wild about Early Man than I am in the film itself.  The movie is not without its charms, but it’s also lacking the wit and bite that I was hoping to find as I sat down at the theater.  Most people seem to enjoy it more than I did, though, and I’m happy about that.  I want the film to do well.  I didn’t outright hate it, and even if I had, there should still be room for more traditional forms of animation to succeed.  Even if the movie doesn’t fire on all cylinders for me, personally, it’s an earnest effort from the filmmakers and the love they poured into it shows.  So, even though I’m not totally crazy about the film, if you had an interest in it, I hope you still go and see it.  Maybe you’ll fall in line with the majority and thoroughly enjoy yourself.  For your sake, the film’s sake, and the medium’s sake, I truly hope you do.

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Review – Early Man

Review – Black Panther

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If one needed any further evidence that Marvel Studios has its fingers firmly on the pulse of modern audiences, look no further than the fervor surrounding the newest entry in the vaunted Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.  While the Black Panther has been well-known to comic fans for over fifty years after being created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for FANTASTIC FOUR #52 in 1966, he has remained a relatively unknown bit of trivia for the general public, much like the Guardians of the Galaxy once were.  Yet, there is practically every bit the excitement surrounding this film as there has been for any of Marvel’s other recent releases, with box office records expected to not only fall but be obliterated over the weekend.

Without question, Marvel and Disney know how to market their properties, but they’ve also built up good will with audiences and critics alike (every single MCU entry has garnered positive reviews, overall), so audiences feel safe in “risking” their money on a ticket to see the latest MCU effort.  But in addition to all of that, Black Panther is tapping into the same vein that both of last year’s hits Get Out and Wonder Woman tapped into.  The film is very appealing to an audience that has been underserved by the genre of comic book films.  There have been black superheroes before, but – as far as leading roles go – it’s been a while and little to none of them have been presented with the same sense of prestige and scale as the Black Panther is being presented.  Just as Wonder Woman was a superhero who happened to be a female, rather than a “female superhero” (“Look!  A superhero who keeps reminding you she’s female!  Yay!”), the Panther isn’t a “black superhero” but rather a superhero (and king) who is also black.  Don’t overlook the difference, because it’s all-important.

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So, after being introduced to audiences in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, we finally have the Black Panther’s formal debut.  I’ve had much about how the film isn’t a “typical Marvel movie”, and that would be true if there were such a thing.  But Marvel Studios has given us action films, comedies, espionage stories, heist films, mysteries, dramas, coming of age movies, space operas, period pieces, and virtually everything else (except for horror).  And now, in the form of Black Panther, Marvel and Coogler have given us a bombastic social commentary, though not necessarily of the kind one might presume.

What Coogler has delivered is a film about equality in all of its forms.  The goal is not to spread a message of “black power”.  In fact, the narrative goes out of its way to make the point that power should be wielded responsibly and benevolently.  Rather than being about any sort of “power”, the film preaches empathy, tolerance, and understanding.  Chadwick Boseman’s title character bears the birth name of T’Challa, with the Black Panther being a mantle that is passed down from one king to the next.  How that power is wielded is the primary focus of the story and is represented by multiple points of view, all with a component of validity.

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Many people in the past have drawn a comparison between the dichotomous dynamic of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X and that of the X-Men’s Professor X and Magneto due to their similar respective ideologies regarding discrimination and race relations, though a more direct comparison can now be made from the real-world civil rights-era figureheads to T’Challa and Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger.  Ultimately, the message in the film is that nothing should matter less than skin color.  For T’Challa, it’s completely irrelevant.  He won’t even entertain that discussion.  All that truly matters are ideals.  One can choose inclusion or exclusion.  It’s a choice we each make every day.  We make it in small ways and we make it in large ways.  But we all do it, without exception, every single day.  And that is the choice that truly defines us, both as individuals and as a culture.

Coogler and Marvel have assembled a stellar cast and crew to help them to tell this story.  In addition to Boseman’s T’Challa (who is complex, layered, and majestic) and Jordan’s Killmonger (who is technically a villain but will likely have many viewers wondering if his basic beliefs are really that off-kilter), audiences will enjoy a memorable supporting cast of authentically complicated characters portrayed by talented performers.  The biggest crowd-pleaser of the bunch will likely be Letitia Wright’s Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister.  We can’t know if her character will eventually follow the same path as her comic book counterpart (comic fans know what I’m talking about.  The rest of you can look it up if you want to risk being spoiled down the line.), but either way, she is a welcome addition to the proceedings and Wright plays her with unbridled joy and enthusiasm.

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I could nitpick.  The action is solid (with a grand finale) but not overly groundbreaking, though Shuri designs some extremely ingenious tech.  It’s guilty of one trope that the MCU is often guilty of in that the villain becomes a super-powered clone of the hero (we’ve seen it before in Iron ManThe Incredible HulkIron Man 2Captain America: The First AvengerAnt-Man, and Doctor Strange).  And, while it’s a good time, it’s not quite as much pure fun as many other recent spectacle films, both Marvel and otherwise.  But it doesn’t necessarily need to be as it offers a certain kind of substance that many of those other films did not.  The film breaks ground by taking the high road and refusing to indulge those who are waiting for it to in some way – any way – stick its foot in its mouth.  Using this film as a provocative conversation starter would have been easy.  But, instead, Coogler and Marvel take a much more difficult and admirable route: they deliver a film that is a poignant, powerful, and punctuated conversation ender.

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Review – Black Panther

#ThrowbackThursday – Alice in Wonderland (1951)

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Original US release date: July 28. 1951
Production budget: $3,000,000
Worldwide gross: $5,200,000

Remember Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?  The first feature-length animated film in movie history?  The one that grossed $185 million on a $1.5 million budget, simply by virtue of being the first of its kind?  Well, that was almost Alice in Wonderland.  Walt Disney had been a lifetime fan of Lewis Carroll’s works and had plans to make this film before Snow White.  He was initially unable to procure a treatment for the film that he was satisfied with and the project stalled, falling by the wayside in favor of Snow White.  It wasn’t until after World War II – over a decade later – that Disney finally found the approach that he liked and Alice in Wonderland was released, eventually becoming a legendary all-time classic in the world of animated cinema.

I’m just going to go ahead and tell you that this is going to be a positive review.  Disney’s adaptation of this story is still my favorite version and actually made me a fan of the Alice story, in general.  I have read Carroll’s original books (though it’s been a while) and seen many adaptations, both live action and animated, over the years.  And this one is still the best.

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Disney’s version adapts material from both of Carroll’s Alice books: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass.  Disney doesn’t squeeze everything from both books into their version but they manage to get a lot of it in there.  And with a very brisk running time of 75 minutes, they don’t waste any time getting right to it.  As Alice lounges around while being read to by her older sister, she desperately wishes to have a more exciting life.  As she begins to drift to sleep, her cat Dinah runs off, necessitating a chase by Alice.  As she follows Dinah, Alice falls down a rabbit hole, plunging an untold depth as she calmly shouts a goodbye to her beloved cat, sure that her wish for a more exciting existence is about to bear fruit.

The structure of the film results in the narrative playing out almost as if it’s designed as an anthology of short stories centering around Alice’s adventures, rather than one continuous tale.  In a way, that’s exactly what it is, as Alice bounces from one whimsical land to the next, meeting a cornucopia of colorful – both literally and figuratively – characters with each transition.  Each character she meets makes their mark and leaves a lasting impression on both Alice and the audience.  They either have their own minor adventure going on, a story to tell, or a song to sing.  Or, perhaps, they have a question.  There are lots of questions for Alice, ranging from the existential (“Whhhhhhhoooo r u?”) to the enigmatic (“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”).  Eventually, they are all brought together to form a singular, cohesive narrative.

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The story and characters are brought to life by Disney’s traditional and classic animation style.  As always, it’s smooth, clean, and extremely pleasing to the eye.  The character designs are brilliant as are the voice talents who bring them to life.  The vast majority of these characters have also withstood the test of time and gone on to become pillars of the Disney brand.  In addition to Alice herself, the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Dormouse, the Walrus and the Carpenter, and the Queen of Hearts have all had tremendous staying power within the pop culture zeitgeist and it’s all because of this Disney adaptation.  If only the Jabberwocky had been included, as well.

Thematically speaking, each challenge that Alice encounters requires her to look for the solution within herself.  Absolutely no one that she comes across is of any help to her.  She develops a resourcefulness and an ability to assert herself in order to survive and find her way home.  And eventually, that’s exactly what she wants, as she comes to the conclusion that she should have been careful what she wished for, because she certainly got it.  Boring isn’t always so bad.

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Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is a short, but supremely entertaining grass-is-greener story.  It prioritizes entertainment over education (and certainly does nothing to discourage children from eating wild mushrooms) but that’s okay.  The lessons are there as subtext and could invite a good conversation between children and their parents, should the parents desire to have one.  If not, it’s not a loss, because the film is an all-time classic from the days when hand-drawn animation was the height of cartoon technology, rather than being considered an archaic relic, as it is today.  These older films should still be appreciated by people of all ages and Alice in Wonderland makes that easy to do with its eclectic mix of art, music, eccentricity, and a timeless tale of one little girl who should have been out of her league but was strong enough to not only survive, but triumph and stand tall.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Alice in Wonderland (1951)

#ThrowbackThursday – Sixteen Candles

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Original US release date: May 4, 1984
Production budget: $6,500,000
Worldwide gross: $23,686,027

Not too long ago, I did a #ThrowbackThursday column for John Hughes’s classic film The Breakfast Club.  Though writer-director Hughes had a fairly versatile career within the realm of comedy, he is undoubtedly best known for his high school coming of age films. The Breakfast Club is probably his most highly-regarded, but that was his second film.  Before The Breakfast Club came Sixteen Candles.

This was another classic film that I had never found the time to watch until now.  I really like The Breakfast Club so I was expecting to enjoy Sixteen Candles to a similar degree.  Unfortunately, I didn’t.  Though the film is not without its charms, it’s also not without its flaws – including one particularly troubling narrative misstep that ultimately leaves a permanent sour taste on the tongue of any unsuspecting viewer just looking to have fun for ninety minutes.

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The film follows Samantha (Molly Ringwald) on her sixteenth birthday.  However, the significance of the day is overshadowed by her older sister’s impending wedding and her high school classmates’ general disinterest, causing Samantha to feel invisible and unimportant on the day which she believes should be her most memorable.  When she attends a party at the house belonging to her crush Jake (Michael Schoeffling), she finds herself in for an evening of unexpected surprises with equally unexpected consequences.  And so does the viewer.

So, yeah, this is a coming of age film.  But, as relatively common as coming of age films are today (with Lady Bird being the most recent example), and though this wasn’t the first, it was really Hughes who put the genre on the map with this movie.  So, in looking back on this progenitor after it’s been exerting its influence on the art form for nearly thirty-four years, it’s easy to think, “Well, I’ve seen most of this before.”  Of course, while that technically might be true, the films in which we’ve seen it have all borrowed from this one.  And while some might have done it better (I’m looking at you!), love Sixteen Candles or hate it (and most people still admittedly love it), that much can never be taken away from it.

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And there are aspects of the film deserving of that love.  Most obviously, there’s a reason that Molly Ringwald became a generational icon with only three performances (this one, the aforementioned The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink).  Ringwald did such an excellent job with defining and portraying the ultimate girl next door that her name still gets tossed around today by film and entertainment lovers, having never been forgotten due to only three movies (though many will also recall her from the television adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand).  She’s likable, she’s endearing, she’s charming, and perhaps most importantly, she’s genuine.  It’s easy to understand why so many teenagers in the eighties had a crush on her and how she became the face of a decade.

Also joining Ringwald in both this film and The Breakfast Club is Anthony Michael Hall.  Whereas Ringwald was Hughes’s go-to for the embodiment of a teenage dream girl, Hall was Hughes’s perpetual geek.  Hall also made a name for himself thanks to the two Hughes films, though not to same degree as Ringwald.  And, though Hall played this role well, his subplot is what nearly (and maybe entirely) brings the whole film crashing to the ground.

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Before I get into the major sticking point(s) of the film, I want to state that, when watching older films, one should always keep context in mind.  Times change.  Sensitivities change.  Social expectations change.  And Sixteen Candles is unquestionably a product of its time.  I can imagine that many modern viewers would have an issue with the portrayal of the Chinese exchange student, Long Duck Dong.  I can understand the initial urge to go in that direction, but outside of his ridiculous name (which is too out there to take as any sort of serious statement regarding the Chinese), he really isn’t all that stereotypical.  In fact, virtually every character in the film is a stereotype of some sort: the timid and virtuous girl next door, the geek with loads of unearned self-confidence, the oblivious parents, the meathead jock, the overzealous and out-of-touch grandparents, and on and on.  And all of them are exceedingly more stereotypical than Long Duck Dong.  The stereotypes are themselves mocked through satire and aren’t a big deal if fully understood.

(RARE SPOILER AHEAD!  It’s regrettable, but necessary!)  While some might get caught up in them, anyway, there’s really no cause for it.  However, a serious narrative issue rears its ugly head when Hall’s geek character meets up with Schoeffling’s Jake, the object of Samantha’s affections.  The geek is anxious to gain some sexual experience and Jake is equally anxious to unload his vapid, superficial girlfriend (another stereotype) Caroline onto anyone else.  Jake casually mentions that Caroline is currently passed out drunk and that the geek would be free to have his way with her and she’d never even know the difference, much less be aware enough of who she’s with to reject him.  Jake’s exact words are, “I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to.”  Yeah, the whole movie took a turn for me, right there.

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Did your jaw just drop?  Mine sure did!  The two of them then actively enact and carry out a plan for the geek to cart Caroline away in Jake’s dad’s car and date rape her.  Or, maybe just rape her, since they weren’t actually on a date.  I kept waiting for the moment that it would hit them – or at least one of them – that this wasn’t okay.  I thought that maybe this would be a coming of age moment for the two male leads, as well, and not only Samantha would grow within the narrative framework of the film.  But it never happens.  In fact, the plan works and then – to top it off – Caroline actually falls for the geek!  And she does so, knowing full well what happened.  I suppose the impact is slightly dulled by the fact that the geek also becomes inebriated and doesn’t remember the act, but only slightly.  He still planned to do it and never faltered.

I can’t chalk that one up to the film being a product of its time because, you know, rape was a thing in the eighties.  I’m not going to claim that Hughes was openly endorsing rape.  Society wasn’t quite as enlightened then as it is now.  But this should have still been a clear no-go as far as being included in a comedy as an acceptable attempted source of humor.  Even if the remainder of the film had been flawless (which it isn’t, but it’s mostly good.  The humor often falls a bit flat.), this alone is enough to spoil the fun of the proceedings.

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The success of Sixteen Candles led to the success of strong talents and better films, so I’m not going to say that I wish it hadn’t been successful.  But I’m glad that we have grown as a society to the point where something this atrociously conceived would never be produced in these times.  Ringwald is great and Hughes shows talent but also a severe lack of awareness and irresponsibility that damages the reputation of this esteemed classic.  I’m not one to jump at every perceived societal slight so, in order for me to be harping on this, it’s got to be big and it’s got to be obtuse.  The film has value as a historical work, but its severe sexist heartlessness can’t be ignored, forgotten, or forgiven.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Sixteen Candles