Frozen 2: We’re Not in Arendelle Anymore

Like many other curious movie-goers, I saw Frozen in theaters only after being relentlessly pelted with hype. I found, despite its rather half-baked story line, it was thoroughly enjoyable. 

Idina Menzel’s soaring Broadway vocals were as genuinely as thrilling as Kristen Bell’s delicate melodies. The finale of true love saving the day being the familial bond between sisters subverted the dozens of Disney animated antecedents and was legitimately refreshing. 

However, even after my many, many sessions of trying my best to Let It Go as the soundtrack played in my car, I still could not get over the plot holes. Why did Elsa have magic? Why didn’t Anna? Why did their parents leave? Why did they go to the trolls only to completely ignore their advice and purposefully traumatize their own children?

Like any respectable sequel, Frozen 2 not only attempts answers some of these questions, but also expands on the world of Arendelle. We’re treated to more magical lore and a deepening of Arendelle history, and story lines with character development for our three favorite humans and singular magical snowman. We are witness as each of our main cast begins to experience growing pains as they travel through a literal forest of transformation. 

Elsa (Idina Menzel) is a ball of nerves, always trying to what is best for the kingdom, but ignoring what is best for her. She hears a call of magic and does everything she can to deny the pull. Anna (Kristen Bell) is so constantly worried for her sister and her powers she’s afraid to have her own life away from Elsa. Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is coming to the realization that his feelings for Anna are something more and he struggles to find the right way and time to propose marriage. Olaf (Jonathan Groff), the closest to any child character, begins to wonder about the permanence of things and if any of what he’s experiencing will make sense when he’s older. 

While many of the questions from Frozen are answered, Frozen 2 presents us with a new avalanche of questions and themes. What do you do when you find out your ancestors committed horrific acts of betrayal? How do you handle new, negative emotions in the confusion of growing up? How do you push through the grief after a devastating loss? How do you deal with the vulnerabilities of being in love and how can you be a good partner and model healthy behavior when your loved one needs help with a situation that doesn’t center you? These themes and questions are undoubtedly more mature than than those presented in Frozen, but in the six years since its release the audience has matured as well. And as I’m sure all parents are very aware of, there will be repeat viewings, during which these themes and answers will hopefully stick.

Much like the themes and characters, the music of Frozen 2 is more complex than that of its predecessor. These songs do far more with melody, lyric, humor, and heart. Elsa’s duet with the forest spirits on Into the Unknown, is nothing short of magical. Kristoff’s Lost in the Woods, a send up of 80’s rock ballads, complete with hair tossing and guitar riffs had the audience in stitches and The Next Right Thing will definitely make it on to more than a few adults’ playlists.  As a whole and as seperate pieces they’re all much stronger and more satisfying, but there isn’t one clear, immediate stand out that could dethrone Let It Go.

Frozen 2 a visual treat. The animated states of water, diamond like droplets, sharp shards of ice, giant crashing waves, and frost, are truly stunning. A hilarious and heart-filled sequel that surprises with the daring and complex themes it chooses to tackle. The music and writing have dramatically increased in quality, making Frozen 2 the rare sequel to surpass it’s predecessor.

Grade: A-

A Phoenix Darkly

This was not as wretched as I was lead to believe by many of the reviews I’ve read. The blogs about test audiences and re-shoots did not inspire confidence, but this is X-Men and wild horses couldn’t drag me away. In what should have been a slow burn leading to an explosion, blows out in ultimately forgettable poof of light. Is this the finale that X-Men by Fox deserves? Considering the bloat towards the end of the original trilogy and the disappointment that was Apocalypse, it could scarcely do better.

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Overly dour and incredibly stern, there are no highs and lows to ride in this film, just a solid tonal line of unrelenting grim. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) gets in one good joke and then is promptly out of action, as if punished, for most of the film. While the tale of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) realizing she was controlled and betrayed by Professor X (James Mcavoy) should be given its due weight, the lack of any levity robs the audience of the chance to process the soul sucking reality of what has happened to her. When the first major death occurs it is hard to care as we’ve never been given a chance to invest in that relationship.

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For a story about how Jean was manipulated without her consent and then with the help of a cosmic force begins to break those chains and expose her abuser, there are just too many men telling her story. From the writer/director to the overwhelming male cast taking up most of the speaking time, I cannot help but wonder how different and more much impact this story could have had if there been more women leading in front of and behind the camera. More than one review has remarked on a line shouted by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and how forced it feels, as if they’re checking a box for “feminism achieved”. Considering the lack of nuance and relationship development, the anger with Professor X feels slightly hollow, as if the movie isn’t convinced he did the wrong thing, and his apologies never truly satisfy.

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I enjoyed Turner, Mcavoy, and Michael Fassbender who are clearly committed to their characters and their journey, however, it’s equally as clear that others are phoning it in. The woodenness and lack of effort are to the point where they may as well stare directly into the camera and say,”I quit!” Storm is…present. Storm’s accent is definitely from some place I have never been to and you probably haven’t either. I’m still struggling to find it on any map. Perhaps it’s next to Wakanda?

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It’s not until the last act we finally hit an emotional wave and a genuinely thrilling fight scene. It’s here the CGI shines, making you forget these are actors on a sound stage grimacing really hard as they wave their hands around. Had more of the film been like the last act, Dark Phoenix could have been a splendid conclusion. The dough is there, but it needs more time in the oven.

Shaft & Sons

Samuel L. Jackson reprises his role as John Shaft II, the tough talking, ladies’ man and outlaw, but this time the bad mutha$@(K# is simply a bad father who must reconcile his relationship with his son to solve the case. There aren’t many franchises that focus on cast of black actors and Shaft is an pop culture phenomenon that spans generations.

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John Shaft II is still the too cool, turtle neck fitted, sharp shooter who abandoned the law and his son. His poorly wrapped, age inappropriate birthday and christmas presents–the only contact he has with his son–are played for laughs. John Shaft II reminded many of my fellow viewers of the beloved, problematic, older men in their lives who cling to outdated mores and doesn’t see much value in the upcoming generation’s ideas. He’s a bundle of toxic masculinity in slick packaging, not unlike the previous versions of the character, but the gay jokes and misogyny grate. I understand what they’re trying to illustrate and I felt that realistic familiarity of those of older black men we all know, but often times, just as in real life, it felt exhausting.

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John “JJ” Shaft Jr (Jessie Usher) is the foil for his father. JJ is a millennial with an affection for flannel button ups, has no game but plenty of anxiety and despite being in the FBI, harbors a strong aversion to guns. He has a desire to prove himself as an FBI agent in the field but is humiliated and denied. When his best friend (My fav, Avan Jogia) dies under mysterious circumstances he takes a chance and beings investigating his death.
The movie is strongest when it leans into its characters. Usher, Regina Hall, and Jackson bounce off each with undeniable chemistry. The humor always surprises and the lines are punched up to 11. The laughs rang through the theater going well past the intended stopping points. However, when it comes to the story things get blurry and the film goes for easy instead of innovative.

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Jogia’s character is Muslim, but dies early in the film and the only other Muslim character with significant lines is a portrayed as villainous.Women are given more agency than in past Shaft films, but they are still portrayed as incapable of defending themselves. The incredible Lauren Vélez just isn’t’ given much to do. Having Hall’s or Alexandra Shipp’s characters shoot side by side with their Shaft counter parts is truly a missed opportunity. Like Jackson’s Shaft, it appears the film can only think in a box black and white while eschewing and ridiculing the embrace of gray that Usher’s character is supposed to embody.

Win or Lose, It’s How You Play the Endgame

How do I say goodbye to what we had? The good times that made us laugh, well, I’ll just rewind them back! But seriously, how do you end an era like MCU’s first run? After 11 years of testing and perfect that secret sauce for the silver screen, your recipe for finale had better satisfy. Endgame will leave you savoring every morsel and crumb, full as a tick, and happy that you paid.

Endgame opens in unfamiliar territory for superhero films, the aftermath of disaster. We are presented with an intimate study of how every character left behind is experiencing the ripple effects of the Snapture. Some hold on to the tragedy, molding their life around it while others attempt to reach out and move on. Some are motivated by the fire of guilt while others find themselves incapacitated by their failure.

The film, like the franchise, save its best for last. As the final showdown commenced my theater roared with each surprise turn in the battle. Hands went up and down as if we were on a physical roller-coaster to match the hills, valleys, and loops of our emotions. Each minute of Endgame is used to maximum effect without a waste. This is absolutely the length needed to tell a story this big and with this many characters without confusion or giant plot holes.

Thanks to the extended run time these explorations are allowed time to breath, leading to more nuance than usually found in MCU films. These character studies combined with the previous eleven years/ films culminate into incredibly unexpected, heartbreaking, and fulfilling arcs. Sure, we all knew the general ending; death is never permanent in comic books; but the choices and sacrifices made along the way are what we’re here for.

It is almost impossible to talk about this film without spoiling it. Pay no attention to what they trailer showed you. I will save most of my critiques for my SPOILERFULL review. However, one of our favs gains weight as part of a PTSD response (thanks to a fat suit and CGI) and this is played for laughs throughout the entire film. As a fat person, who has been fat all of her life, I found this disheartening. It made me feel gross, insignificant, diseased—a joke. There other, better ways to do this, but you have to want to make those choices and Marvel did not.

Grade: A-

Can you appreciate Endgame without having seen previous Marvel films? I don’t think it’s entirely possible to properly appreciate what has been accomplished if you haven’t been familiar with the foundations, but I’m sure Marvel will welcome your movie ticket money.

“Best of Enemies” Surprising No One

There are shamefully few depictions of the Black women who participated in the struggle for Civil Rights. Beyond the celebrated names Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks (as it should be!), many struggle to think of the names of other Black women who raised their voices and put their lives on the line to have our equality enshrined in the letter of the law.
I’ve heard friends and audience goers say that they tire of Black struggle films, that Black people are more than the pain they’ve been forced to endure, and I agree. However, I also yearn for a diversity of representation within those stories. I dream of seeing the stories of Stagecoach Mary, Harriet Tubman, Maria Stewart, and Fannie Lou Hamer being told on screens of all sizes.
You can imagine my interest piqued when I saw Taraji P. Henson, covered in a sheen of sweat, ambling across the screen (breasts almost to her knees for some reason? Ann had good bras, y’all.) as the indomitable Ann Atwater. Intrigued, yes. Excited? No. Anxious? Hell, yes.
Please excuse my cynicism, but I still have a little ‘Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) teaching Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) how to eat fried chicken and introduces him to the music of Little Richard, even though Shirley is a multi-degreed, polished, and accomplished musician, this film is about his driver,’ stuck in my throat.
The trailers for Best of Enemies began appearing on my TV right around Oscars season and in the shadow of the Green Book win, BoE wasn’t looking so hot. It looked like another “Black person risks life and limb to fight for the humanity and equal rights due to them and future generations while a white racist becomes slightly less trash because he got to know a Black!” I was right.
BoE did nothing to push this dynamic or subvert these ideas. If I’m honest, I never anticipated that it would, however, the film found new ways to let me down. When looking at the trailers I thought that we might get some of Ann Atwater’s story. That with the powerhouse Taraji currently is, we’d have equal time between the two. However, once the film ended, none of the audience members I spoke with could even remember the name of Atwater’s daughter in the film. BoE isn’t really about Atwater, but about the redemption of C.P. Ellis.
We learn all about Ellis’ family. His struggles. His business. His leadership in the klan. Him being a dad. Ellis’ violent racism is treated as little more than quirk by his family. No one else is particularly interested and his wife is even described as always having gone her own way/having a independent streak. Girl, your husband is the leader of the klan and even won an award for being top racist in the state and I’m supposed to believe none of that touches you? That you’re not the least delighted at the benefits that could bring to you?
We never see Ann’s friends or extended family. We don’t spend much time examining the toll this fight for integration takes on her. We’re never told how she got into the movement. With the klan being so powerful in the town as to have direct connections with local government, I’m supposed to believe Ann fought unencumbered? That her safety was never threatened? Ann is shown as a leader, yes, but a leader alone. The film takes her fight for granted. This is what Ann is supposed to be doing, but it’s Ellis’ transformation that gets to be perceived as extraordinary.
The film ends with a few clips from An Unlikely Friendship, the documentary that inspired this fictionalized version. These clips are far more compelling and satisfying than what preceded them. We get to see more layers of Atwater and Ellis, but we also hear from some of other folks involved. We gain insight into the minds whose decisions may have puzzled us in the film.

While BoE is beautiful, utilizing natural lighting and authentic settings, and was definitely made for Green book fans. A prestige film designed to make white people feel better about themselves. While I appreciate it showed how Ellis’ life changed after he renounced his membership, it still took for granted the actual civil rights struggle and what Black life looked like then. A betraying bait & switch from the trailer with excellent acting.

Higher, Further, Faster, Better

Lining up for the screening, I was hesitant. I’ve been a fan of Brie Larson since Scott Pilgrim VS The World and United States of Tara and Lashana Lynch won me over as Rosaline Capulet in Still Star Crossed. My spirit was buoyed by Brie’s call to action for inclusion in casting and press coverage and the fans I knew were excited, but I was still uncertain.  

I had felt that same uncertainty when the trailers for Wonder Woman were released and how it seemed that Diana was a co-star in her own film. But there were so many effusive reviews for Wonder Woman with female critics writing about how seeing Diana, so independently powerful, brought tears to their eyes. I yearned for that same connection, but as the credits rolled my eyes, my interests, and the Sahara were all equally dry.

Everything that had given me pause in the Wonder Woman trailer came to pass in the film. She fell in love with the very first man she saw, men bossed her around for much of the film, there was a makeover montage, and connecting to the wonder in the story after she left Themyscira felt utterly impossible. It was altogether too predictable with far too much slow motion use, and a very tired usage of ableism.

Call me a bad womanist for comparing the two, but what Wonder Woman lacked, leaving me cold, Captain Marvel made up for in abundance with goosebumps. Carol is clearly the star of the film. Her companions are formidable, but they believe her and believe in her. Her competency is never doubted, and there isn’t any love story or flirtation wedged into the script. And when Carol discovers her powers, it is truly thrilling.

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Thanks to Danvers being a fish out of water, confused and unsure about who she truly is, we get to learn who Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), and Monica Rambeau (Akira Akbar) are. Danvers and Fury form a dynamic buddy cop team where the digitally youthend Fury is, for once, on the outs. He has to learn everything about aliens and super powered beings from Danvers. It is clear that she inspires him.

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Maria Rambeau, a fighter pilot, Danvers’ best friend, and mother to Monica is just as strong and determined as Danvers, but has a cooler head. Their reconnection livens up the film, as up until then Danvers is primarily interacting with men. Lynch’s performance also adds a delicious depths of emotion that we do not always get from the emotionally constricted and conflicted Danvers. We got more of Maria than I ever thought we would, but the pairing was so excellent, I’m hoping for more in the inevitable and deserved sequel.

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Akbar’s Monica is precocious, curious, and charming. Her zest for adventure and discovery are infectious for everyone on and off screen. With Monica, Danvers gets to be gentle, slightly less complicated, and fun.

I thoroughly enjoyed the 1995 setting and am fully prepared to stream the Captain Marvel soundtrack. While the nostalgia wasn’t substituted for story, like the intensely empty and reductive Ready Player One, at times it was a little too cute. Thankfully, it was mostly limited to scenes where the product placement made sense.

Larson’s Carol Danvers’ journey to become Captain Marvel does suffer from the usual tropey origin story plotting that drown all excitement in any film. The first act is rather quiet and the insights to Carol’s character are fairly understated, especially for a MCU film. The writers have previously worked on indie films and it shows. However, the characterization and strong relationships created a base that empowers an incredibly satisfying pay off. I am now far more excited for Avengers: Endgame than I was before.

Make sure you stay for the two post credit scenes!

 

Grade: A

The real star? Goose.

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“Second Act” Lacks A Clear Message

Pushed back three times, Second Act, is confusing and confused. The messages are mixed, the rules don’t make sense, and it is not a rom-com. I don’t usually trip over plot holes, but the ones I found in this film wouldn’t leave me alone.

Watching the trailer I figured if I could get some light analysis around the intersections of class, capitalism, and gender in a J-Lo package with a side of Leah Remini (as her BFF Joan) and the sheen of a rom-com, I’d take it.  While I wasn’t expecting anyone to stare into the camera and shout “EAT THE RICH! WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS!” I thought there might be some playful discussions and dramatic moments about how these intersections can trap some, while promoting others. However, I was underwhelmed and dismayed at the message the film chose to level on your head like an acme anvil, “The only reason you didn’t make it was because you didn’t believe in yourself.” Not only is this not true in real life, it doesn’t even hold true for the film.

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Joan encourages Maya

After 15 years at her Costco-esque employer, Maya (Jennifer Lopez) has a very important meeting with general manager. She’s finally in the running for the store manager position. Full of nerves, but also encouragement from her boyfriend Trey (Milo Ventimiglia), she impresses the GM with her intuitive and perceptive marketing skills. She’s created programs that not only customers love but have increased the store’s profits above all others in the area. She is clearly skilled, ambitious, and charming, but the job goes to an outsider because he has the college degree that she lacks. Maya was justifiably confident and still didn’t get what she deserved only because life did not afford her access to higher education.

After Joan’s son puffs up Maya’s resume with graduate degrees and creates a Facebook full of activities any successful ivy league alum is supposed to have done, she lands an interview with highly powered advertising agency.  Maya accepts the job and her life transforms in every way. Her clothes, her apartment, even her hair style is upgraded to the slick sophistication expected of someone in her position.  Maya struggles to balance the marketing jargon and new rivalries as the truth of the how she achieved her success and the secrets of her past haunt her ever step.

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Maya’s new team, Charlyne Yi, Alan Aisenberg as “Chase”, and Annaleigh Ashford as “Hildy”

One of Maya’s new rivals is the young and ambitious Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens) who can tell there isn’t something quite right about the new hire. However, Zoe only has her position because she is the CEO’s daughter. It’s not that Zoe isn’t sharp or capable, but she didn’t even have to entertain the process that Maya did to get there, fibbing besides the point. Did Zoe just really, super hard believe in herself and work really, super hard or did she get lucky with the privilege of having the CEO as a father? Dear movie, what is he truth?

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For some puzzling reason, Second Act is billed as rom-com even though the romance is, at best, the c-story. Maya’s romantic relationship with Trey simply isn’t the most important one in her life. Throughout the film Maya discusses her feelings about balancing motherhood and success while depending on the women in her life to support and motivate her through the mess she’s in. Naturally, these relationships are the strongest and when they are together there is real joy in each scene. Also, the racial diversity of the cast reflected a more realistic New York than that of say, Friends (a low bar to be sure).

Second Act could have been an interesting, funny, sincere film about what happens when classes collide and women find themselves the most successful person in the household. It could have explored the challenges and privileges different characters face and how it has impacted their lives without the moralizing and internalizing of perceived failures. The message of “The only way to success is if you have to believe in yourself and work hard,” might have been meant as something empowering, but in reality it’s dangerous and simply untrue.

Prejudice and privilege are real and have a tangible effects on every aspect of American life. Black homeowners’ property are devalued simply because of who they are and there isn’t any city in America where you can work a minimum wage job and afford a one bedroom apartment, no matter who you are. While acknowledging the systems we live in won’t relieve all of the pressures that come from them, you can’t hope to truly improve anything, dear movie, if you don’t address its existence.