What If: A Feel Good Hidden Gem

“Love is dirty, baby, sometimes it’s downright filthy.”

Maybe it’s because wedding bells are drawing near for Jesse and because I’m currently living 461 miles away from my love but, whatever the reason, romantic comedies are getting featured here on Flimsy Film Critics this month. Actually the real answer is we are smooth, handsome, hopeless romantics who express their love with big romantic gestures on a daily basis but we don’t talk about it here because we don’t want our audience feeling bad about themselves. Yeah that’s it…

Either way, I was in the mood for a feel good movie about love and all its complications. I found just that in the hidden gem that is 2013’s What If (not to be confused with Netflix’s recent What/If series nor the comics-soon-to-be-Disney-show What If that asks daring questions like, “What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four”, the answer is, the Fantastic Four would finally get a good movie as long as Sony wasn’t producing it).

What If has a classic romantic comedy set up, a dude meets a girl at a party, there’s instant chemistry but the girl reveals she has a boyfriend, in the most ham-fisted, awkward manner possible of course.

What makes this movie stand out is the cast led by Daniel Radcliffe and his best friend Adam Driver (Harry Potter and Kylo Ren fanfics goin’ wild right now) alongside the so-hot-right-now Zoe Kazan with a great supporting performance from Mackenzie Davis (that girl from your favorite Black Mirror episode).

Daniel and Zoe, portraying Wallace and Chantry, have palpable chemistry, and as they settle into their friendship you feel like they’ve known each other forever with their quick banter and comfort to be their whole selves. Wallace, coming off a bad break up, and Chantry, living with her boyfriend, decide, over a handshake, they are going to give the ‘men and women can be friends’ thing a shot.

The other stand out in this movie is the dialogue, it is crisp, quick, and funny. Each word feels intentional and has meaning. Especially the scenes with Allan (Driver) and Nicole (Davis) as the head-over-heels couple that falls madly, and quickly, in love. The performances by Driver and Davis had me cackling with laughter bringing a much needed energy to Wallace’s downtrodden world view. Allan and Nicole, who meet the same night as Wallace and Chantry, in fact in front of the same fridge, are the foil to Wallace and Chantry. They fall for each other fast and they don’t stop to think or ask questions. They serve as opposition to Wallace’s nihilistic views on love as well as the comic relief. They drop nuggets of wisdom along the way and truly might be the #relationshipgoals couple of the movie.

Of course no relationship is perfect. As Allan pontificates after his first fight with Nicole, “All this love shit is complicated. And that’s good. Because if it’s too simple you’ve got no reason to try and if you’ve got no reason to try, you don’t”. It’s one of the seemingly cliché lines that is so well delivered by Driver that it sticks with you. It provides a sense of relief that a lot of romantic comedies don’t, life is messy and that’s okay.

Love and life is complicated. People fall in love with the wrong people at the right time and the right people at the wrong time. As much as we can focus on ourselves, our careers, our hobbies, we can’t control who or when we fall in love and we shouldn’t have to feel guilty about our feelings. This movie gives a sense of relief that life is nuanced and messy. No one knows what they’re doing, especially when feelings are involved. This film reminds you that love happens in unlikely ways but if something is good, hold onto it for as long as it stays that way.

The Farewell: Guilt Inducing Poetry

When telling people where I’m from, the typical question I get is, “Colorado? Why the fuck did you leave?” followed up by, “do you go back often?” My response actually sums me up well as a person, meaning it’s sensible, dark, and a tiny bit funny, “only for weddings, babies, and funerals” I say. And I wonder why I make friends slowly, I guess I’m an acquired taste.

As someone who has chosen to live away from my family, friends, and community, I have to deal with the weight of guilt on a daily basis. How do I maintain these connections while thousands of miles away? And as I miss birthdays, doctor appointments, and house warming parties the weight gets heavier.

The Farewell is a movie made for people like me, or really, for anyone who has dealt with the sudden news of the impending loss of a loved one. But it specifically hits home for those of us who are thousands of miles away from our homes. It’s a brutal reminder of the reality of our choices as well as showcase of the beauty of our bravery.

The Farewell directed and written by Lulu Wang and starring Awkwafina, follows a family of Chinese immigrants as they deal with the heart wrenching news that the beloved matriarch of the family, Nai Nai (grandmother), is at death’s door and only has a short time to live. The family decides to NOT disclose this information to Nai Nai herself, instead choosing to carry the emotional burden quietly amongst themselves.

Dealing with the news of an impending death is maddening enough. What exactly do you say to someone who is dying? Do you keep it light and discuss the weather or the news or other meaningless trivialities? Do you ask for stories of their past or ask them for wisdom as a dark reminder that the end is coming? Neither seem like an enjoyable path but neither does a loss without warning with no time for these conversations. For every person who has lost someone suddenly and wishes they had just a little more time to enjoy their company, there is someone who has been blessed with that time and has no idea how to handle the awkward blessing.

It’s even trickier for Billi, an aspiring writer living in New York perfectly portrayed by Awkwafina, who has to keep the family secret of her grandmother’s impending doom while visiting her under the false pretense of a fake wedding (so Nai Nai doesn’t get suspicious). Billi loves her Nai Nai dearly and desperately wants to tell her the truth and cry in her arms. But her family, and the cultural expectations surrounding it, will not allow even a single tear. The film follows Billi as she traverses through the societal differences between the culture she was born into and the culture she was raised as well as the guilt of living so far away.

The heart of this movie lies in the realism. Pay attention to the scenes of the family around the dinner table eating an endless amount of food, there’s a lot of them, and they serve the purpose of creating the familiar. Sure this is a Chinese family but the conversations they have around the table are recognizable for any culture. There is gossip, there is the constant pressure to “eat, eat, eat” from the matriarch, there is childhood stories told, as well as pointed, guilt-inducing, remarks made by elders.

It’s a heart wrenching reminder for those of us who have left of what we leave behind and of the moments we miss while apart. If this is you, the scenes of reunion around the dinner table or walking around the city with a random relative or watching your cousin get married will spark a grueling familiarity. It’ll throw you back to those times when you are forced to step back into your past life. The battle of dread and secret joy that is waged internally, followed by reminders of why you left and why you come back.

The Farewell, for those who have chosen a path away from their families, is a gut punch of guilt, laughter, and the familiar. It’s everything you hate and everything you love about going home to visit those you have abandoned physically but will never abandon emotionally. It’s pure poetry that will drive you to both immediately call your loved ones and refocus your reasons for leaving.

 

Ready or Not Brings the Cathartic Laughter

Ready or Not, a film directed by the relatively unknown Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, is a big foam middle finger to the wealthy and conservative elite that are running our country. It’s the kind of film that steadily, and humorously, builds to a cathartic release of anger and frustration in the form of violent comeuppance that will make you want to literally stand up and clap like a fool. It’s exactly the kind of movie you need after a hard, long news day (AKA every day).

The film follows Grace (played by the underrated…actually maybe ‘not yet rated’ is a better term, Samara Weaving) as she prepares to marry Alex Le Domas, he of the “richer than God” Le Domas family whose wealth is built around a board game monopoly (not the board game, Monopoly, but a monopoly OF board games). Oh and also funded by a dead spirit named Mr. Le Bail, minor detail.

Except it isn’t!  Because per the deal that great-grandad Le Domas made with Le Bail, the obscene wealth and success of the family will only continue to be passed down through the generations under one stipulation, anyone who marries into the family MUST have a game night with the family on the night of their wedding.

GASP! BUT THAT’S WHEN THE COUPLE IS SUPPOSED TO BE BANGING FOR THE “FIRST” TIME!

(Alas, those of us who are married know that’s not how it really works. I, for one, beat my wife at Mario Kart the night we tied the knot. That’s…that’s not a joke.)

Back to the plot! Not only does the newly married person have to play a game with their new family but there’s a slight chance that the person will have to be sacrificed to Satan if they draw the wrong card. The ‘hide and seek’ card to be exact. Talk about drawing a bad hand.

Of course Grace pulls the hide and seek card because otherwise the movie would be pretty dull if we just watched a rich family beat each other at checkers for two hours. And now she must deal with the consequences of drawing the worst hand (outside of a 2 and 7 off suit in hold ‘em of course) by hiding while the family loads up guns and crossbows.

Except there is one small detail, SHE DOESN’T KNOW THE CONSEQUENCES. That’s right, the dude she loves decided to buy a ring, pop the question, spend thousands of dollars on flowers, and decides it’s not important to inform his soon to be wife that she is soon to be dead! Men, am I right?

Grace is left to her own devices and has to learn to traverse the many hidden passages of the unfamiliar Le Domas mansion. Luckily for her the Le Domas’ incompetence is threatening to derail their home field advantage.

That’s right, there are four things that makes this movie worth giving up two hours of your life for: a simple and engaging premise that delivers numerous scenes of true terror and intensity and is balanced by a self-awareness of its own ridiculousness. But the best aspect is that the old white rich family is completely daft and hopeless.

Many horror movies build themselves around a villain that is unconquerable. And why not? What’s scarier than true hopelessness? What sets Ready or Not apart is the villains are truly terrible. Both morally and murder skills wise. You laugh as these numbskulls, born with silver spoons in their asses, bumble around the house possibly more terrified than the person being hunted. You laugh because it feels far more realistic that a rich person who doesn’t even do their own laundry or fill their own gas, can’t manage to hunt down a small, unarmed woman.

The wealthy family being ill-equipped at murder brings a sense of humor that connects directly with the endorphins in your brain. It allows the audience to point and laugh at the helpless rich people, it provides a rare sense of power over those who control our world if only for two brief hours. It’s dark humor, sure, but it’s also good humor. In an alternate universe without Get Out and Us, Ready or Not is the horror movie you would have thought was directed by Jordan Peele because it feels like an expanded Key and Peele skit mixed with the deeper meanings of Peele’s real work.

The beauty of Ready or Not is it brings a sense of relief to the audience. It doesn’t bother with subtext or allegories because it is glaringly obvious what the writers are trying to say: rich people don’t play by the same rules and they would rather sacrifice your life than lose their power. And this overt message mixed with the cathartic release of the climax provides EXACTLY what we as an audience need in this day and age, a good laugh and a giant middle finger to the man.

Welcome to New York: The Terrifying and Timeless Taxi Driver

It’s easy to get lost in the high opinion of our modern times. Sure, we might have a tendency to idolize the nostalgia of the past but we also have the tendency to view modern things as superior. We are, by nature, animals that love to make advancements in society. As much time as we spend thinking, “this world is madness and it’s only getting worse” we also spend using all the amenities of the modern world to better our lives. We rarely sit down to look back at the past to piece together how we got here. In avoiding doing so we end up overlooking that our past has dealt with the same exact things we are dealing with today, in the here and now.

I think my favorite thing, and also, greatest hesitation in watching an “old” movie is examining how it fits in our modern world. Will the cinematic experience hold up? Will my awareness of the age of the film impact my opinion? Are the character’s actions or opinions difficult to watch with modern eyes? Does the message even mean anything after all this time?

In addition to these thoughts running through my brain, as I sat down to finally watch Martin Scorsese’s classic 1976 film, Taxi Driver, there was quite a lot of events happening in both my personal life as well as the modern world of 2019.

Those events, first, I had just moved to New York City, alone (temporarily). Another step in an endless quest to understand this crazy world. Second, I decided to explore my new city on foot AND in the cinema. Sure, I can step outside and breathe the polluted air of Manhattan, walk the streets of Brooklyn, and eat halal food in Queens but how can I fully understand my new home without a cinematic history lesson? And finally, and most importantly, our world seemed to take another couple steps closer towards self-destruction.

I’m not someone to fear the world. I know bad things happen all the time but I also know they have always been happening. However, these horrific acts hit me hard. Having previously lived in Ohio, I have friends from Dayton and those friends have family in Dayton, and they also have friends who were hanging around bars that night, in Dayton. It hit close to home, or my adopted home. And as someone who grew up with Columbine as high school rivals, this has been an unsettling trend of my life.

It was probably poor timing to jump into Scorsese’s view of New York City because as I watched Travis Bickle (played by a young Robert De Niro) drive aimlessly down the streets of New York City in Taxi Driver, I found myself deeply unsettled. Not so much because he leans on the dirty and dark streets of NYC to craft Travis’ worldview. No, I’ve experienced those myself in my six weeks here and I can say, not much has changed, still dirty, still dark.

The unsettling feeling came from how modern this story about a young white man who is struggling to find his place in the world felt. The parallel lines between Travis and the, typically, young white males, that have done these horrific mass shootings are clear. He is socially isolated and psychologically disturbed. He detests people his age who engage in behavior that he does not approve of, i.e. drinking, smoking, dating, sex. He spends most of the film intentionally isolating himself. When he finally reaches out, he gets rejected.

This rejection leads to him being not only a disturbed, socially isolated, and angry young man but also one who will do anything to get revenge AND respect. By the end of the film he has attempted to assassinate a presidential candidate, has succeeded to murder every person exploiting a young prostitute named Iris, and has been praised a hero both by Iris’ family and the media.

Throughout the film Travis sees himself superior, above it all, and responsible to fix the issues he sees, even when he is not asked to. He doesn’t know how to interact with women. In fact, he doesn’t view them as self-sustaining individuals. Rather as something he needs to save and then be rewarded for. His world view is tied up in his ego and his misguided views of justice. These biases has been intentionally isolated from learning how the world truly works. His mind just continues spinning in circles about what is wrong with the world, with no push back from opposing views, just an endless negative feedback loop.

And whether or not the ending was real, whether Travis truly did live and earn praise or whether he died on the couch imagining the glory he believes his actions will earn him, it’s a brief view into the mind of a madman who believes his terrifying actions are an act of justice. It’s a haunting reminder that the monsters of the modern world typically feel no remorse but instead pride in their horrific acts.

That’s why a film from 1976 still resonates today. That’s why I found the character of Travis Bickle so terrifying. It’s foreboding of the future and people like Travis feel omnipresent today. But the most unsettling part of it all? The age of this film proves this has been going on for decades.

My fascination with this movie is eerily summed up by the late, great Roger Ebert who simply states, “Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film is a film that does not grow dated…” and I would argue one that is more relevant today than ever before.

Welcome to New York: Far from Home with an Old Friend

Growing up in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, I dreamed of one day moving to the great New York City.

There, I thought, I could be any one I wanted to be. A tough guy living in the Bronx, a hipster artist in Brooklyn, a wall street bro in Manhattan, a…uh…whatever Staten Island is known for, and of course a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man in Queens.

Okay so my obsession with the Big Apple started, and possible endured, because of Peter Parker and company. How could it not? I’ve watched, read, and even played along as Spider-Man web slings through the towering skyscrapers of the city, as he’s rested at the top of famous landmarks, and as he fought the bad guys and dodged the NYPD.

The city felt like a real character, a place as alive as any living thing. It was rough and filled with people with bad intentions. But it was also filled with friendly neighborhood Spider-Men and helpful citizens. The beauty of the city in the comics, movies, and video games is that it’s a part of Peter Parker’s DNA because it’s real and not hiding behind aliases like Gotham or Metropolis. It always felt so real and yet…oddly unobtainable.

Fast forward to this past 4th of July weekend and, in what you could call either an incredible coincidence or proof that the universe loves telling great stories, I found myself sitting in a theater in Queens, New York to watch the aptly named Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Yes I had just moved to the Big Apple a day prior and who else was there to welcome me? None other than Queens’ own Peter Parker and, yes I have to say it, we were both far from home.

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The Necessity and Justification of Toy Story 4

My feelings about Disney and Pixar going back to the toy chest for a fourth time around were not dissimilar to Jesse’s. I recall the first time I read that Toy Story 4 was in production. I, too, was filled with disbelief. I, too, believed Toy Story 3 concluded the trilogy with perfection and grace. I, too, didn’t want to cry at another movie about animated inanimate objects.

Eventually I came around. I started to rally behind the idea because I realized that, while any sequel is really just a cash grab, I trust the team behind Toy Story. They earned the trust with the exquisite Toy Story 3. However when I tried sharing this opinion with my many friends that were NOT behind the sequel, I continually got shot down. People really didn’t want this movie to exist.

Which means, I couldn’t help but go into Toy Story 4 with the need of it justifying it’s existence. I needed the film to prove everyone wrong. I needed the film to come through for me like Woody came through for Andy time and time again. Like a kid I needed my toys. And like any good toy, they pulled through and made me feel like a kid again.

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Us

Us, filmmaker Jordan Peele’s second feature film, is a well-crafted, modern thriller that hits all of the horror beats. The film starts off as a normal home-invasion story and then somehow seamlessly works in grand conspiracy theories without disconnecting from reality. Most importantly, it’s a film that demands an instant rewatch to fully grasp the story as well as catch all the little moments and the underlying metaphors.

If you were to strip this film of the unique and haunting story you would still have a masterclass of film making to watch. From the first moment Peele’s craft is instantly on display with the opening time-establishing shot of an old TV playing a Hands Across America ad. It’s a simple moment that ends up establishing more of the plot than seems possible.

It’s still 1986 and we jump to little Adelaide’s night at the Santa Cruz amusement park. Her father wins her a Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt and then her parents bicker and eventually become distracted. This leads to Adelaide wandering off by herself into the dark California beach. A wandering child in the dark is stressful enough but then Adelaide finds herself exploring a classic horror movie trope, a house of mirrors. And despite the classic setup, Peele finds a way to make these moments fresh, tense, and instantly memorable. An incident occurs. An incident I cannot spoil but one that is an instant classic and that sets the entire movie in motion.

And now that the entire audience is unsettled Peele doesn’t let off. The title sequence, seemingly simple, establishes the tension and the upcoming oddities with a purely haunting score and a mesmerizing visual aid. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie you are hooked and buckled up for the worst.

Unfortunately from there the film dips into standard thriller fodder. It fast forwards to modern day and presents a normal family, Adelaide, now played by Lupita Nyong’o, has grown up to be a nervous but loving mother and is married to a man that fully embraces his dad joke role in life. They have a preteen daughter, ears buds firmly entrenched, and a son that is still filled with imagination and has a belief in magic. They are staying in their summer vacation house in Santa Cruz, returning to the site of Adelaide’s “incident”. Only Adelaide’s family does not yet know what happened on the beach in 1986.

The family is enjoying their time before a group of four people show up unannounced in their driveway. Unfortunately that’s as deep into the story I can go without spoiling the good parts. Just know at this point the film goes into full thriller mode which is heart-pounding but filled with moments that are expected and not exactly memorable. Luckily even in the cliche and normal beats, the film is anchored by Lupita Nyong’o’s captivating performance of a woman who steps up to kick ass to, seemingly, protect her family.

(To illustrate just how much ass she kicks, at some point Adelaide gets out of the car to check on one of the many murderous attackers she is fighting. This is a classic, “WHY ARE YOU GETTING OUT OF THE CAR” moments that your brain loves to hate in horror movies. Except in this case your brain is like, “Actually no, Adelaide’s got this”.)

In between all the high tension thriller action, the film does bounce back and forth between 1986 and the modern day to fill some of the narrative gaps but still leaves a few frustrating questions at the end. By the end of the film I’m not confident that Adelaide’s character arc tracks completely and it feels like we were missing a few scenes that would have been connective tissue or further clues to explain our protagonist’s life. Although even as I write this I will admit this is a minor complaint and there is the possibility that a rewatch will satisfy my qualms.

And minor qualms is really all I can complain about because between this stylistic thriller hitting all of the established beats and a script that, much like Get Out, is tightly written and hardly contains a wasted moment, it’s difficult to determine if Jordan Peele is a more skilled director or writer. In fact that might be Peele’s biggest accomplishment in his short filmmaker career. It almost seems impossible for one guy to be so good so quickly.

Us is a film that you will want to come back to. It’s memorable and important just like Get Out, however it is more tense and it’s themes more understated than Peele’s first film. Get Out was in your face, screaming it’s themes at you to grab your attention. It had to be. And now that Peele has your attention, Us unequivocally proves he deserves it.