ALADDIN and Watching Disney

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I made you look like a prince on the outside, but I didn’t change anything on the inside. Prince Ali got you to the door, but Aladdin has to open it.

I find it harder and harder to form an opinion about Disney movies. 

Personally, engaging in (amateur) film criticism means to go beyond my own emotional reactions to a movie, and instead ask three questions:

  1. “Did I enjoy this movie?” 
  2. “What did this movie want to say?” 
  3. “Did it say it well?” 

With recent Disney releases, and Aladdin (2019) in particular, I don’t think they are genuinely trying to say anything. They are vague platitudes of universal human values or platitudes of specifically American values. However, vague platitudes are not the reason these films get made. They are not projects created to “say something.”

They are created to make money. 

When I watched Aladdin (2019), conflicting thoughts ran through my head as the movie checked all of its plot boxes. I evaluated it on whether I liked it (I didn’t), then I thought: “What is this movie trying to say?” And I got stuck. Don’t get me wrong, the core theme from the original Aladdin “be yourself” is still there and it still resonates. Mostly. It’s harder to accept a movie telling you “it’s what on the inside that counts” when it itself has no soul at all.

Jasmine’s whole story arc is a ‘Girl Boss’ motivation shoehorned into the original. I got the distinct feeling that a corporate board room attempted to ‘fix’ a passive and quiet Princess from the original film. Except that problem doesn’t exist in the original; she was outspoken the whole movie. In the original, she objects when the three men of the film are bargaining over her, she stands up to Jafar consistently, and doesn’t take Aladdin’s shit just in general. In most Disney Princess movies, the sidelined princess trope needs fixing. This clock, however, wasn’t broken to begin with.

Which led me to think ‘well, why? Why are they fixing this?’ And before too long I was distracted by a parrot turning into a huge fucking eagle and chasing a magic carpet through a city. I can’t believe I typed that sentence and I didn’t get excited about it. It was boring as hell.

That was when I realized that this movie is meant to print money. Which is not a novel realization, in fact it came insanely late in the film for me. Though Aladdin (2019) is the best case study for this case.

Aladdin (2019) made over $1 Billion worldwide in box office gross sales, hardly a failure. I understand why it made that much money: Will Smith is a big draw and he was pretty good, Disney cast an ethnically representative cast for the story to appeal to a younger generation that is less white than any generation before it. They added some pep to the songs where they were a little slow. There are some diamonds in the rough (sorry), and so it made a billion dollars. 

Which makes it difficult for me to engage with Aladdin (2019) as a film because the film’s interest in the audience members ends when they buy the ticket or they stream it on Disney+. It needs to succeed just enough for your opinion to bring someone into the theater, or at very least not stop them from going in. Once you’re in there, Disney doesn’t really care what I think about the movie. The film will further succeed once a family leaves the theater with kids begging to buy Aladdin merchandise or see Princess Jasmine at Disney WorldLand. 

I will resist the urge to ramble on in an attempt to defend my numerous frustrations with the film. Not only because Lindsay Ellis says it better. Because adding my voice to the masses yelling about the flaws in Jasmine’s arc doesn’t contribute to the discussion. Nor does a few hundred words regarding Will Smith’s genie really change any minds.

Disney has won this round, again. They’ve announced a sequel movie. They have a $750 doll set for purchase alongside numerous $20 T-Shirts with vague, empowering slogans on them. And they have some guy in DC writing nearly 700 words about their movie. 

All hail Disney.

THE BACKLOG: Marriage Story

I fell in love with him two seconds after I saw him. And I’ll never stop loving him, even though it doesn’t make sense anymore.

I will say upfront: I am not a child of divorce, nor am I married, or ever gotten close. I don’t have personal experiences with that. That provided me little armor for this movie. It still cut me deep and unexpectedly like a certain pocket knife. It’s sneaky that way.

The scene in particular that did it for me was the Point-of-No-Return Fight. The type of fight that the characters needed. They scorched the Earth between them to such an extent that anything amicable seems lost. In this scene, one character says to the other: “I loved you more than you loved me.” 

I have had those words launched at me like an ICBM. They kept me up for nights afterwards. It is the most poisonous thing someone has ever said to me. To turn the love between two people into a scoreboard… it annihilated me. During this scene, that memory came flooding back to me. If I wasn’t with my family I am sure that I would have broken down sobbing. 

Which is all thanks to the acting. Of course this starts with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanssen. Driver delivers an award-winning lead performance that crystallizes his status as America’s Leading Man. It’s Charlie’s story in the film, and Driver was the perfect conduit for it. The way he commands a room yet portrays such vulnerability at the perfect moments is gut wrenching. 

Those facts also make Johanssen’s performance all the more challenging. In the end, this isn’t her story. It would be easy to make Nicole a villain in the film, given that she initiates the divorce and hires the lawyer that pushes the characters along the warpath. Yet Johanssen makes Nicole grounded and relatable. The choice didn’t emerge from nowhere. 

When Nicole is talking herself into the divorce in the lawyer’s office, she was also convincing me of the divorce. Which sets up a gut-wrenching emotional payoff when she finally realizes the Total War that she unleashed on her life. Marriage Story would not reach the highs that it does without her performance to counterweight Adam Driver’s. 

Performances that are buttressed by the supporting actors. Alan Alda’s grandfatherly lawyer who was walked into a gunfight unarmed, yet still gave us a glimpse into how the divorce could have gone. Juxtaposed violently with Ray Liotta’s bombast as he wheeled in the big guns to the fight that he immediately saw walk in with Charlie. Those guns are leveled at Laura Dern who absolutely killed it. The moment I knew she deserved that Oscar was the small “Mhm” in response to Nicole stating she didn’t want Charlie’s money. Killer stuff. Absolutely sensational. 

Then the final piece to the puzzle is Henry. Good lord that kid is adorable as hell, and if he wasn’t so damn cute I’m not sure the punches of the film would land as hard as they do. As Burt says in the movie “Divorce with a kid feels like death without a body.” 


And Marriage Story makes sure you feel that to your bones.

THE BACKLOG: Lady Macbeth

I’d rather stop you breathing than have you doubt how I feel.

Florence Pugh is definitely the young, rising actor to watch right now. This movie could be so boring and lifeless if not for the simmering anger and verve she brings to every scene. She packs heaps of emotion into a sharp intake of breath, an icy stare, a sip of tea; it’s captivating. Lady Macbeth succeeds because she carries it on her back. 

Speaking of breath, I’ve never encountered a movie that paid so much attention to it. You hear every sharp breath as Catherine jolts back awake, or the passionate breaths during the love scenes, whimpers when someone is hurt, the deep sobs of agony in the last half of the film. The sound team did an excellent job on that front.

Equal kudos goes to the design team because the impersonal sets create a chilly atmosphere that perfectly complements the film’s cold tone. Add to that the stationary observations of the camera: remaining steady when someone stands, their face leaving the frame at the moment they show emotion. The camera doesn’t leave the room with characters, the film has little interest in getting up close and personal because there is scant warmth or intimacy in Lady Macbeth. Only a harsh, cold story. 

Which makes it jarring when the director does switch to a shaky cam shot. William Oldroyd uses the shots well, but they don’t fit the whole scope of the movie. The choices didn’t match up enough with the emotions of the subject, or for the arc of the story. 

The other faults here rest primarily on the slow start to the film. It takes a while to find its feet and get off to a run. Also, it’s initial love scene was a bit problematic, in my eyes. Didn’t make too much sense in the long run. 

I’m always a sucker for stories about slow descents into villainy, and while the jump is a little bit implausible I found it great.

THE BACKLOG: Crazy, Stupid, Love

I believe Romantic Comedies like Crazy, stupid, Love are often responsible for the genre getting a bad rap. There are plenty of good things, but nothing is great, and there’s some troubling narrative choices. 

First, the good things. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have amazing chemistry on screen, though, unfortunately, we don’t get enough of them. The twenty minutes we do get are magic. Their banter is great right off the bat, as though they live on the same wavelengths. They take fairly pedestrian dialogue and turn it into entertaining scenes loaded with sexual tension. These actor pairings are what make romcoms wonderful. 

The notable portion of the film is the big backyard reveal scene. From Steve Carell taking Julianne Moore back to their first date, to discovering that Emma Stone is their daughter and dating Ryan Gosling, to the [troubling] babysitter reveal. They clashed together superbly, and it is one of the few things the script did well. No question it is the best scene of the film. 

Which brings us to what doesn’t work. 

Steve Carrell and Julianne Moore did not work for me. In a way, it makes sense that they don’t have any chemistry at all. It fits the story that they got married way too young and it wasn’t meant for that long term. That doesn’t entirely excuse their performances, though. The major issue with Carrell is that it doesn’t feel like it’s Cal in the movie. It feels like Michael Scott going by a different name, which describes his typecasting. Which is unfortunate. Carrell has some range and can act well. 

Though we come up to the inexcusable part of the movie: the entire babysitter storyline. Crazy, Stupid, Love is a prime example of why older man/young girl love plotlines are predatory, creepy, and gross. These stories teach young kids all the wrong lessons about love and normalize problematic ideas around mature dating. 

The kid chases after the babysitter the whole movie, glorifying her and putting her on a pedestal. He only professes his love and never gives her any reason to love him back. He doesn’t grow because of the rejection, in fact he doesn’t change at all.  Despite all that, he is rewarded by her in the end with her naked photos child pornography! That is the wildest way to conclude that plot. 

First, she didn’t learn she was doing something wrong by taking those photos. The film itself never even questions that what she did was inappropriate, nor does any character. Instead, she is repeatedly objectified and sexualized. I’m going to sit in my Psychology Armchair and guess that Dan Fogelman wanted to have his own babysitter give him nude photos, therefore in his movie the kid gets exactly that. 

That whole plot is disturbing, from its bankrupt morality to the bad writing. It’s a stain on the film, ruining what otherwise could have been a nice RomCom romp. 

THE BACKLOG: Heat

Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.

For a movie seriously built up for being Pacino vs De Niro, both on screen at the same time in the same scenes, this really rises to that challenge. It’s wonderful to watch a movie that holds up to expectations. 

Heat is a top tier heist movie, no doubts about it. Not for the actors. It’s for the actual heist and chase itself. There are no serious fuckups that are unbelievable. Both sides are total professionals in a chess game until the end, they slip a little bit a few times, though they recover. 

It is a fascinating watch primarily because of the backstories to each main character, too. Pacino devoting himself to the case while trying to hold together a family. His struggle to achieve that was refreshing because so often detective movies treat the cop as either the perfect school kid in his uniform or the other spectrum where they are a loose cannon or near a criminal themselves. 

Heat doesn’t do that. It portrays a more three-dimensional character. One who cares for a daughter, yet isn’t around enough to put in the leg work to love her every day. And even though it’s cut from the movie, he clearly has a cocaine problem. Not that I’m complaining, it makes the “Great Ass” scene so much more surreal and hilarious.  

In the other coroner is De Niro doing excellent work with the “one last job” cliche, and trying so hard to escape with the girl. And of course the turn when you know that he loses is when he breaks his own rule. He was 30 seconds away from freedom, and instead he turns back.  

This is not to say Heat is a perfect movie. It’s 20 minutes too long, or about 6 hours too short one way or another. Many of the subplots are undercooked, like Natalie Portman’s. Eady’s motivations for getting with Neal are shaky at best, I mean, the man had no furniture. Come on. 

It’s still a hell of a good movie. 

The Backlog: THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY

Welcome to the Backlog! A series where I post untimely reviews of movies.

I always figured it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.

I love movies that fill me with a deep yearning for traveling. After watching The Talented Mr. Ripley, I looked at tickets to visit Italy and pondered constructing a time machine to go back to 1950s Italy. It seems like a blast. The cars are amazing, the waters are pristine. The beaches are lively yet not overcrowded. Rome is busy yet not jammed up. 

Murder also appears to be the easiest fucking thing to get away. To be clear, I would not commit murder if I went to the 1950s. I’m merely pointing out that many of these murders seemed super easy to figure out and yet Tom escapes them. 

Tu Vuo’ Fa L’Americano / The Talented Mr. Ripley

With the fun comments done, we can move onto the magic of the film. The fun lies in the film’s glamorous veneer which, like it’s protagonist, is a mask to something entirely different. Instead of a dark, rotten core there is instead a fascinating contemplation of love.

Can an imposter truly love someone that sees only their mask? Can that person love an imposter’s mask? Peter sees all these wonderful qualities in Tom because he hasn’t seen behind the curtain to the dark core of Tom Ripley. And if he does, does it negate the loving parts of Tom Ripley? 

For me, anything built on a foundation of lies is destined to rot and eventually collapse. Unless, apparently, you kill the person. And so I wished for Tom’s world to collapse. Because he violated multiple moral codes and lied to his loved ones. Yet, it doesn’t collapse. 

Part of me was glad that he got away with it. That part of me that was enchanted by the mask and by the dazzle and charm of Tom Ripley. It’s nice to love the 2-dimensional mask put up by an imposter, because it’s so easy to hope that it’s true. 

And therein lies the danger.

The Backlog: AD ASTRA

Welcome to the Backlog! A series where I post untimely reviews of movies that I have seen over the past year or so.

The enemy up here is not a person or a thing. It’s the endless void.

There’s a famous line from Parks and Recreation that floated to my mind when I left the theatre after seeing James Gray’s new space saga Ad Astra, which captures the major issue with the film:

Never half ass two things. Whole ass one thing.

Throughout the two hour runtime, multiple threads get pulled out and abandoned for no reason. One plot thread is the spy thriller about Space Command (Donald Sutherland! Secret Chips on necklaces!), there’s a riveting space adventure story (FUCKING MOON PIRATES! RABID BABOONS!),and then there’s a deep, ponderous movie about deconstructing one man’s cold exterior as he moves to the outer limits of our solar system. There’s even a love story sprinkled in. 

That’s too many threads to pull out and not weave together. If Ad Astra focused on any one of those stories, this would have been a good movie. For instance, if this had been primarily about Roy’s Heart of Darkness voyage in space, that would have been great. A man lacking humanity becomes humanity’s savior as he takes the long journey out to the farthest reaches of our solar system. But we only got half of that movie. 

Space Pirates would have been a better movie.
If only we got more of this movie / Ad Astra, retrieved June 8, 2020 from screenrant.com

First, let’s start with the good. Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones put in excellent acting performances. The space cinematography is stellar. From the blue marble hanging above the moon, to the Sepheus moving across the stormy surface of Jupiter, to the Lima Project orbiting Neptune: all absolutely stunning. I loved looking at it. Space is fantastic. 

Even with all the beauty on screen, Ad Astra is dragged down by slow pacing and which is aggravated by the monotonous voiceover accompanying the film. 

For a movie clearing inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, it really took some of the wrong lessons from that movie. The good things about 2001 are not when Bowman is floating through space, breathing heavily as he drifts. Yet James Gray continually shows us Brad Pitt laboring through this world, everything a struggle for him. A slow swim through a sewer. A slow climb down an antennae, a slow climb up a rocket, a slow walk down a hallway before slowing walking down another hallway. There is only so much struggling I can watch before the movie itself becomes a struggle. 

Piling onto those pacing issues is the voice-over, which is the biggest sin in the movie. The story already has a device to get inside Roy’s thinking: the psych evaluations. Why have the psych evaluation in the entire movie at key intervals if you aren’t going to use it to reveal what is on Brad Pitt’s mind? One quick fix is to take 50% of the voice-over lines and instead reveal them during the pysch evals. Have the computer ask a follow up question that forces Pitt to open a window into his mind. Then there is some dramatic tension when we wonder how much is him posturing for the eval and how much of it is actually true.

Ad Astra is an odyssey, an ambitious attempt to become the next epic but, like its isolated daddy, is a failure. This movie drags so hard.

The Trouble With Rankings

I started off this blog with a ranking of my favorite movies from the 2010s. A sweeping ranking list allowed me to toss out my thoughts on 35 movies at once. It introduced my Tiered Ranking system. There are a few thoughts I have about this choice.

First,rankings teach me broader trends about my cinematic taste. It isn’t the most scientific method, but as I wrote, the flow of words became my guide for ranking the movies. As words poured out of me to celebrate Inside Out and Lady Bird, I knew where they would go. I knew as I sat and stared at my blinking cursor to write about Get Out and John Wick: Chapter 2 that they could only go so high. When I finished writing about M:I – Fallout and A Star is Born did I realize that there were four movies that I felt more strongly about. 
And in the end, I found a common theme in all the movies: personal change at the center of the story. Inception wasn’t only a heist movie, but a fable about finally facing grief. Lady Bird perfectly bottled up the angsts of senior year to knock me on the ground. Annihilation is a magnifying glass examining guilt and moving beyond it without self-destructing. And The Social Network focuses on an unlikeable protagonist who changes as the years go by, and as his power grows he becomes the harbinger of seismic cultural change.

Which says quite a bit about who I am, and how I view movies and how I digest them. 

But I also contributed to the destructive practice of assigning objective worth to pieces of art. 

Ranking art is of little inherent value. Declaring one film to be in another Tier than another doesn’t do much. I draw an arbitrary line in the sand for the qualifications of art and what makes it worthwhile as if I am the judge of that. Clearly, I am not, and should not be. 

Pretending to be places me in a crowd of white, middle-class, and heteronormative men who have dominated conversations around art for centuries. They’re an unnecessary class of gatekeepers that don’t promote beauty in the world, but limit it. To assign binary worth to art is to silence the creative voices of people considered less than for the most superficial and despicable of reasons. 

Piling on to that destruction, reading a ranking isn’t interesting. I see the list, get the gist of who the person is and probably get rankled or soothed by where they place my favorite movies. I may breeze through their writing, though I don’t truly care for it. 

And that likely happened with my own ranking series. What interesting things did I say in that entire piece? I joined the masses in declaring The Social Networkand masterpiece. I joined in the zeitgeist by slotting in three MCU films. I planted a flag on a culture way hill by placing The Last Jedi in the list. The same as many, many other people. 

I imagine there will be a Future Jay Dubs who looks back on all of these lists and rankings with distaste. I hope there is. I hope I grow enough to free myself of ranking and assigning value to things which are indefinable. 

For now, though, I find that rankings help. Not because they are sexy right now, but because I find value in defending and discussing and debating films. I do not fully buy into the Kumbaya feeling of avoiding rankings. I still find it more interesting to stir the pot a little bit, only enough to get discussions going. 

I recall writing a history paper in college, a final for a class, about United Fruit and the Guatemalan Coup of the 1950s. In it, I argue quite forcefully that United Fruit pushed the country into revolution. I argue that United Fruit was behind just about everything to do with the coup: from exploiting a country to enticing the CIA to intervene in a Communist coup. My history professor docked me a half grade because I put too much of the blame on United Fruit, and as a historian I should be careful about assigning so much responsibility to one party. 

The reaction I still have to this day about that is “Well, isn’t it more interesting that I did?” 

I firmly believe that planting a flag proudly on a hill is better than watering down the message to appease the academics, or the crowd, or whomever. Essays are meant to provoke, not to pander. Hopefully the essays provoke more thought and respectful discussion than emotions and fights, but nonetheless essays are about constructing an argument and arguments are provocations. 

Personally, I don’t fully believe everything I wrote in that paper. But I do believe that my paper was more interesting because I took an aggressive stance. In daily life I hold much more nuanced, and centrist thoughts about most things. When I write an essay, I am making an argument, and writing a centrist, middle of the pack argument isn’t evocative or interesting. 

And yet, that’s the genesis of my blog. Followed up by a self-indulgent post examining my own posts. Which, honestly, if you have gotten this far I truly appreciate you and how amazing you are. 

I look forward to watching each of these movies, writing about them, and looking at my past entries to see how I have changed. 

And I hope in many ways that I don’t agree with those original posts.

Featured Photo by Joshua Golde on Unsplash

Favorite Movies of the 2010s: Tier 1

Hail and well met! Thank you for reading my blog. This post concludes my Favorite Movies of the 2010s series. If you’re curious what else made it, you can read Tier 4, Tier 3, and Tier 2. If you have read them all, I genuinely appreciate you taking the time to read my sophomoric writings and ramblings.

Within each tier, the movies are not ranked because they are all equal to each other. Instead, the movies are listed alphabetically. Each movie will get a whole bunch of words followed by my favorite quote.


SOCIAL NETWORK

The greatest tragedy was this picture not sweeping every award at the Oscars1. It is undoubtedly the Movie of the Decade.

This movie could have been so boring. It could have been a mundane biopic, or a sleepy courtroom drama. As a case study into the man responsible for the biggest invention of the 21st Century, I expected something saccharine. Then the Social Network became so much more than that. 

Sorkin and Fincher put their fingers on the important attributes of Silicon Valley and the rise of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg is a lot of things, and Social Network focuses on his social anxiety, low-level misogyny, pettiness, anger, and insatiable ambition. And he became the archetype to follow for the Silicon Valley industry, which has dominated the 2010s. From ‘Fuck You’ Hoodies, to the new class of rich, awkward computer engineers beginning to dominate culture and the marketplace. The ripples of Facebook are everywhere. 

Simply from subject matter alone, this movie defines the decade. Though the dialogue surrounding the film mirrored the public’s shift about Facebook: we went from “wow, this movie is way too hard on Zuck” to “why doesn’t this film go harder on Zuck?”, succinctly becoming a helpful guide to understanding the 2010s. 

Many were enamoured with the wonderful new toy that Zuckerberg presented us, we loved it and therefore we loved him. Then, slowly, we saw how Facebook was corroding us, and became disillusioned with the man at the helm, who was exposed to be morally irresponsible (sorta) Much like Mark falls in love with Sean Parker, only to discover the costs of that love. How Sorkin was able to put his finger on all of that before anyone else is amazing.

Beside its cultural impact, The Social Network is a cinematic masterpiece. In this series, I have attempted to avoid gushing superlative praise. I can’t help it this time. 

From the astounding Sorkin script to the economy of David Fincher’s obsessive filming to every actor batting 1000% in every single scene, and being perfectly cast for their roles to boot. All backed by an exquisite Trent Reznor soundtrack that creates a sense of beauty and of portending doom.It’s rare that every single part of a film comes together in a perfect way, each piece on its own spectacular and amazing, fitting together exactly as it needs to with the rest of the puzzle. 

The Social Network takes my top spot not only because it has immense cultural significance these days, but because it’s highly rewatchable. Fincher’s attention to detail and perfection allows for repeat viewings to unearth something new every single time. On the first run you won’t catch all the semiotic brilliance, and you won’t catch the wonderful faces of Joseph Mazzello in the background. On the third viewing, the brilliance of the rowing analogues comes to the surface. Even after that, I notice more and more small details come to light. Which only ever propels me to restart the movie to watch even more closely this time.

In the midst of the worldwide fire, it’s nice to take refuge in the fact that we have a miracle like The Social Network. It’s truly worth celebrating.

Favorite Quote: 

You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.

If you’ve made it to the end, let me say again that I genuinely appreciate you. I’ve enjoyed writing this series because it’s honestly help me begin to define what I love about movies, what themes I am drawn to, and what I ultimately want to say about them.

If you have any constructive criticism or want to discuss anything, please do leave a comment below or email me at jaydubswrites@gmail.com

You can also find me on Letterboxd, as well as this list.


My Favorite Movies of the 2010s: Tier 2

Hail and well met! Welcome to my blog. This week is the penultimate post of my Favorite Movies of the 2010s series. Next week, we come to the end with my Tier 1 post. It’ll be a shorter read, I promise.

Within each tier, the movies are not ranked because they are all equal to each other. Instead, the movies are listed alphabetically. Each movie will get a whole bunch of words followed by my favorite quote.


ANNIHILATION

It is thanks to this movie that I am here writing all of this. 

My childhood was full of movies. My family watched them almost every week. My Dad would make the popcorn, and we would sit down to watch a movie that my sister and I had picked out. We saw the classics, some new movies, and some pretty weird ones. Midnight premieres were a regular occurrence. I remember how happy I was to see the midnight premiere of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix before my sister had seen it. It was the first time I beat my sister to the theatrical release of a movie we both were excited for. 

For 20 years, movies were entertainment that my family bonded over. Then, in 2018, Annihilation came out.

When I saw Annihilation for the first time, I was thrilled. I went home to immediately solve the puzzle in the movie. I sat and attempted to figure out what the Shimmer was, figure out what happened in there, trying to make sense of it.

A few hours deep into my research,  I found Film Crit Hulk’s article about the movie, and my view of movies was upended. I began thinking deeper about semiotics, I began assembling the tools to discuss cinematography:  why the camera is showing what it is showing, or critically what it is not showing. I learned enough to know that I knew so, so little about movies. After this deep dive, I saw the movie again and had an even stronger emotional reaction to it. 

Annihilation is functionally about a group of scientists investigating an alien phenomenon. Really, though, it’s about change, about self-destruction and the paths that both can lead you down. When the film cuts to black it doesn’t matter if it is the same Lena that entered the Shimmer or her Shimmer doppelganger. Her transformation and rebirth during her journey in the Shimmer, and how she shed her guilt enough to continue living, that is what matters. The Lena at the end of the film isn’t the same Lena, but I mean that in the emotional sense. Not the physical, literal one.

I will be the first to admit that the film isn’t perfect. The first 30 minutes are all awkward, clunky exposition and at times the dialogue is pretty pedestrian (Shepherd and Lena in the canoe, particularly). 

Through all of those flaws, I love it. The cinematography and art design is fantastic; the Shimmer is entrancing. Natalie Portman’s performance is compelling and heart-wrenching. The Nightmare Bear to this day terrifies me, and that scene is one of the most horrific scenes I have sat through in a long, long time. And at the end, I found it’s main thesis to be particularly poignant.

From then on movies became an obsession for me. With my MoviePass (RIP) I went on to watch over 50 new movies, and nearly double that in rewatches. In 2019, I saw nearly 90 movies in total and wrote some kind of review for 80 of them. I bought tomes of Pauline Kael reviews and her biography, I read books about editing and devoured Film Crit Hulk’s entire oeuvre.

All of this because I saw Annihilation on a rainy day with a friend. This film has lots of significance in my life and this list could never exist without it.

Favorite Quote: 

Then, as a psychologist, I think you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction. Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct. In some way, in some part of our lives. We drink, or we smoke, we destabilize the good job… and a happy marriage. But these aren’t decisions, they’re… they’re impulses. In fact … [i]sn’t the self-destruction coded into us? Programmed into each cell?

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Many people more eloquent than me have written about the MCU dominance of the 2010s The rise of Marvel is the story of the decade for my own life, too.I have seen every single Marvel movie that has been released to this day. I saw every movie opening weekend in theatres up until Spider-Man: Far From Home. I skipped on that one (for a few weeks, at least)because I’ve grown tired of the movies. After multiple rewatches of the MCU, the formula is too apparent for me to ignore. The flaws of the franchise as a whole are too much. Why doesn’t anyone fuck? I mean that half-flippantly, half-seriously. Now that the Infinity Saga is over, I see more clearly that these stories don’t focus on emotional storytelling, but reshuffling the cards to keep the machine rolling and audiences buying. They are very successful at that, and I am not devaluing that. It has a time and place. You bet that on lazy Sundays or when I am sick that I turn on Thor: Ragnarok or I replay Civil War.  

Walking out of Endgame was emotional for me on multiple counts. Ten years,24 movies, and over 3000 minutes of my life spent basking in the MCU and loving the characters. Now, I can look back on these movies with nostalgia and love. As I watched the movie, I could feel that building up inside me. It made everything so much more resonant as I began bawling alongside a hundred other people in that movie theater on opening night. 

These movies were hardly ever the perfect movies. Though for me, they were all special in their own way. 

Endgame is a watershed movie for me. A chapter of my life closed with Endgame, it feels like a rite of passage, in a way. I struggled through my teenage years with the help of Marvel movies, and now in the new decade I’m moving on. I’ll still put on Ragnarok when I vacuum, but I won’t be rushing out to see Guardians 3 on opening night. 

And that’s okay. 

Favorite Quote:

Avengers! Assemble. 


INCEPTION

Every time I watch this film I am amazed over and over again. Not only because of a super fun plot, but the exquisite craft that went into the writing. Few movies have ever made exposition so much fun and injected so much verve into each scene and each act without sacrificing the heart or emotion of the entire movie. 

It’s a joy watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy flirt the whole movie. It’s fun watching Ellen Paige mess with physics in the dream world. Joseph Gordon-Levitt fights in a rotating hallway! It’s awesome. 

Through all those good times, Christopher Nolan sneaks in a devastating movie about grief and emotional closure. Inception is a cautionary tale about ignoring your inner turmoil. When you don’t tie up your emotional loose ends you endanger everyone around you. It makes you think less clearly. You act guarded when you need to be vulnerable; it makes you build walls to keep people out when you most need to welcome them inside. 

Mixed in with this emotional resonance is the moral quandary of the film’s climax where Cillian Murphy learns that his father did love him, he simply despised that his son wasn’t making a name for himself. Which was all a lie. A man’s life changing moment was entirely orchestrated and set up to achieve one outcome. Which makes it all more emotionally devastating to watch. It makes me consider how many of my life-changing moments were ‘lies’, as it were. How many times did my life change because of an event I misunderstood? 

Then I watched it again and found an allegory for creating movies. You can find real-world parallels in each character, depicting the complex nature of how a movie comes together. 

And in the end, the creator (Cobb) vocalizes the tough lesson about movies: they never depict real life. A movie can be overflowing with rich characters that are complex to deal with. And no matter how much someone tries, they will never amount to more than a mirage of reality. You can do your best and it won’t be good enough to recreate the real world.

That is why Inception is rewatchable for me. There is a lot to unpack about the movie, throughlines that you can’t find the first time and themes that don’t surface until the third viewing. Which you’re gonna do, because above all of that it’s a hell of a good heist movie.

Favorite Quote: 

I can’t stay with her anymore because she doesn’t exist.

I’m the only thing you do believe in anymore.

I wish. I wish more than anything. But I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You are just a shade of my real wife. You’re the best I can do; but I’m sorry, you are just not good enough.

LADY BIRD

I’ll come out hot: Lady Bird is a perfect movie. 

Every single facet of this movie is top notch. Greta Gerwig’s direction is impeccable. Every scene is set up in the exact precise way to communicate the subtext needed for the story. I was never once bored or ever wondered why the hell a scene was there or what I was watching. Because every single scene was shot perfectly. Where characters were on the actual screen related to their importance in Lady Bird’s life at that moment. Or the bookend car scenes, where at the start Lady Bird and her mom are at the edges of the frame desperate to get out, complemented in the end by all three of them staring off into the sunlight as Lady Bird begins her next chapter.

Lastly, the movie is edited so wonderfully. Every cut lands on the exact moment that is indescribably the only place a perfect cut could have occurred. Right up until the end when Lady Bird takes a deep breath in and we cut to black, because when she breathes out it’s the start of a new story. It’s incredible. It’s a perfect movie. 

The common critique I heard about the movie is that Lady Bird isn’t likeable. Which is something I fundamentally disagree with on two fronts. First, in general protagonists do not need to be likeable for a film to be good, or for the film to be worthwhile. Often, the unlikable protagonist is more captivating than the likable one. Forgive the diversion outside of cinema, but take Breaking Bad for an example. We can understand and empathize with Walt and his journey. Though he is the villain, no doubt. As the film progresses, he does not become more likable. He hardly was likable at the start. Yet it is one of the greatest TV series of the decade, and perhaps all time.

Secondly, we come to this particular example. Lady Bird being a little prick of a teenager is exactly what makes the movie so incredible. Gerwig strikes at the essence of being a teenager who doesn’t like their hometown, who is aching to escape, and lashes out because all of that emotion is too big a burden. Then in the instant they leave, and they realize they’ve left home and can never go back… you realize how truly special it all is. 

Lady Bird captures senior year in ways few other movies do. It doesn’t glamorize the efforts of making the final year epic, nor does it glamorize the goodbyes (notably we don’t see her graduation ceremony. Lady Bird instead dives into the tumult of senior year at home, where the messiest of emotions are found.

It floored me. 

Favorite Quote:

I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.

What if this is the best version?


Thank you for making it to the end of this post! I appreciate you taking the time to read it.

If you have any constructive criticism or want to discuss any of the films, feel free to leave a comment or contact me at jaydubswrites@gmail.com