The marketing team for this movie uses the words “decadent” and “frothy” quite a lot, words which generally haven’t been associated with romantic comedies since the last time Esther Williams unpeeled herself from the edge of a swimming pool. That’s fitting, because “Crazy Rich Asians” hearkens back to an earlier era of romantic spectacular, the kind where impeccably attired ladies and gentlemen teetered endlessly on the verge of tipping into song, or dance, or both. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is about to fly home to meet her boyfriend Nick Young’s (Henry Wu) family. Unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick is hiding a secret. Not the kind of secret you or I or anyone on Tindr is used to—Nick is neither closeted, nor married, nor a hidden Republican. No, Nick is rich. Like, seriously rich. Like… the kind of rich that uses the word “comfortable”. Into these unfamiliar but invitingly warm waters, Rachel is thrown. The movie hinges upon her attempts to win over Nick’s mother, the imposingly regal Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). As such, the “romance” half of the romantic comedy fades into the background; we see Nick, and his washboard abs, but we don’t necessarily feel him as a full agent in the movie. This is between Rachel and Eleanor. Thankfully, Rachel has brought reinforcements—her colorfully brusque college roommate, Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), plus a healthy dose of good sense from her own mother, Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua). When the two mothers are brought into the same room, it feels like the undercard has ceded way to the title fight. Thankfully, in the world of “Crazy Rich Asians”, there is room for more than one kind of mother, or one kind of family—Nick’s nest of vipers untangles to reveal a braid of complex women, doing the best they can against difficult odds, and Rachel herself discovers a few secrets about her own maternal legacy. It’s not exactly Boy Meets Girl, but it is a story just as old: Girl Meets Mother-In-Law; Recognizes Self. Slipped between the chapters, there is a bachelor party on a barge, a bachelorette party on an island, and an entire wedding party balanced, in an improbably Jesus-like fashion, atop the surface of a thin and rippling brook. “Crazy Rich Asians” is indeed very frothy. Esther Williams would be proud.
I have a memory from childhood. I don’t know if it’s real. I remember a fire, briefly glimpsed from a car window, while driving home through the steep and winding landscape of West Virginia. We’re talking about a one, two-second glimpse, at most, of a fire far away, seen through trees. I was an anxious child, prone to attention-getting exaggeration, and deeply obsessed with evil: as a Jewish child growing up deep in Appalachia, I was sure that Nazis were everywhere around us, laying dormant like locusts underground, waiting for their hibernation to end so they could re-emerge and lay waste to my family, to me. I was equally afraid of the Klan, and convinced of their ubiquity; and for all these reasons it’s impossible to say whether I saw a burning cross that night, or a lightning-struck tree, or just a tall bonfire that I eagerly interpreted as evidence that real live racists were all around me, just like in my nightmares.
I have another memory, too. This one is real. I remember belonging to a local 4-H chapter when I was about eleven or twelve. I didn’t do much; sewed a felt flag and entered a photography project that was more my dad’s work than my own into a fair, but didn’t go on any camping trips or raise any livestock. In fact, of all the 4-H meetings I attended, only one sticks out in my mind. It was the first one of the year, where the officials of the chapter were elected. That meeting was also the first time I ever met a black child, a girl my own age. I regret that I do not remember her name, nor anything about her other than her blackness. I regret much more what I did next. We were each volunteering for the various roles we wanted to play. (4-H meetings run on a sort of parliamentary procedure, with a secretary to keep minutes and a president, vice president, etc.) And when it came my turn to volunteer the role I wanted to play, I looked right at her and said that I wanted to be treasurer, so I could make sure that nobody was stealing anything.
Of the many sickening aspects of this memory, one especially galls me: I enacted this jaw-dropping racism without ever questioning why I was doing it. With my motive practically hanging above my head in glowing neon, I was filled only with the smug zeal of the teacher’s pet—certain I was enforcing a common good.
It took me a very long time to write out this memory. Over two decades later, it still fills me with intense and lasting shame—as it should. But, over two decades later, I am much less worried by that foggy memory of a burning cross, and much more worried by that memory of myself. I am convinced that the unexamined racism of ordinary white girls and boys, lying dormant like locusts in our brains, is what’s been laying waste to this country. For every cross-burning Klansman, there are one thousand Permit Patties who, certain they are enforcing a common good, will call the police because a black person was “out of place”. Racism has gone through several successful mutations in the past century, but perhaps its most cunning strategy is convincing white people that being A Racist is a full-time job requiring a membership card and uniform, not a temp gig that we all do on the side. If A Racist is something you have to burn a cross to be, then you are forever exempted from the charge. The mere suggestion is cause for offense. (Go ahead, ask a white person if they’ve ever been racist and watch them explode in self-righteous, defensive indignation.) That’s why the KKK make such popular villains in TV and movies—they serve not as warnings, but as reassurances to white Americans. You’re not a real racist. You’ve never used that word. You’ve never burned a cross. You’re one of the good guys. Your own motives remain above reproach or question, even by yourself.
Which meant that I sat in the theater to see “BlacKkKlansman”, Spike Lee’s newest movie, in a fairly complicated headspace. As I absorbed the mindbending predicament of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the black detective who, in the late 1970s, successfully infiltrated a Colorado Springs-area chapter of the KKK, I noticed the mainly-white audience around me giggling as a Klansman (Paul Walter Hauser) scratches his head with the barrel of a handgun, then subsiding into shocked silence as Harry Belafonte (playing a witness) describes the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington. All the beats land in the right places in this movie: dark humor buckles like rotten wood under your feet, plunging you into horror, before a sly and ticklish joke hauls you right back out again and resets the rollercoaster. That’s fitting for Stallworth’s experience, in which the actual inner workings of the Klan were weirdly mundane—replete with paperwork and snack breaks at meetings—right up until the moment they weren’t. (In one of the movie’s most haunting moments, Washington wanders through an abandoned shooting range used by the Klan, letting his fingers drift over punctured targets as the camera shows only his face. After he departs, the camera turns to let us see the targets: black minstrel figures, which director Spike Lee purchased directly from the Internet, bypassing the props room entirely. Washington was informed of this fact the moment before the cameras began rolling.)
The movie’s most successful moments are all ones of quiet contemplation, as characters stop to consider their place in the world. In one such scene, Adam Driver, playing the white police officer who pretended to be Stallworth at meetings, sits inspecting Stallworth’s new Klan membership card. Reflecting on his non-observant Jewish identity, he wonders out loud if he has been “passing”; wisely, the movie lets the question stand. Similarly, the movie lets Stallworth stand as an uneasy example of “double consciousness”, the schizophrenic view of self that results from living as a black man in a society which hates blank men.
Less successful is the movie’s attempt to put a bow on Stallworth’s own undercover experience by having him bag a racist cop: the incident didn’t happen, but most white audience members, eager to accept the idea of a self-cleaning police department, will miss the hints that the movie has entered the realm of purest fantasy. Ditto the scenes with earnest undergraduate activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), whose efforts at consciousness-raising all sound as if they were written by a focus group whose only access to black culture is a single mis-remembered episode of “Shaft”. At one point, Dumas must call Stallworth a “jive turkey”; Harrier pronounces the phrase as though she holds it, pinched between two fingers, at arm’s length. Who is that moment for? Thankfully, more jabs land than don’t, including the moment when a detective explains that David Duke genuinely thinks he will pave the way for an eventual white supremacist president, and all the cops guffaw in incredulous, disbelieving laughter. The theater groaned in unison here, and a number of people in my row made sad, wry eye contact with each other. And in the final moments, Lee floors the gas, taking us up to the present day in a sickening lurch to real footage of the racist marchers in Charlottesville, overlaid by our current president’s assertion that he saw “very fine people” among their numbers. The movie, for me, perfectly captured the horror-movie disorientation of 2016, as my darkest childhood suspicions about the Nazis hiding behind every rock and tree were vindicated. But that sense of vindication is hollow. “BlacKkKlansman” lays the blame for our country’s ugly predicament squarely in a spot which I suspect many of my fellow white Americans will be all too happy to lay it: at the feet of other, more obviously racist white people, people equipped with torches and uniforms, marching in the South. But 58% of us, 58% of white Americans, voted for Donald Trump in 2016. It’s always been us. The calls have always been coming from inside the house.
I didn’t realize quite how much I needed “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” until, watching several hundred people on a dock greet another several hundred people on a boat by singing “Dancing Queen” at them, I burst into tears. Such is the weird magic of the “Mamma Mia” franchise: by circumventing entirely such concepts as “taste” and “restraint”, it plugs directly into the part of your brain that wants to be reassured and comforted and surrounded by bright colors and soft textiles. (In other words, mamma’d.) You leave the theater feeling as though you have had six months’ worth of intensive therapy, coupled with a vacation to a particularly thorough spa: both your spirit and your cheeks exfoliated. Just as with spas (or therapy), your openness to the “Mamma Mia” experience depends on your comfort level with vulnerability; with uncoolness; with feelings about your mother. There is also singing. “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is not for cowards. But the bravery of the audience, who must be prepared to sit in public for nearly two hours being sung at, pales in comparison to the courage of actors like Pierce Brosnan (65), Christine Baranski (66), Stellan Skarsgård (67), Julie Walters (68), Meryl Streep (69), and Cher (72), all of whom face being belted into skintight lamé and platformsbefore gingerly negotiating docks, stairs, and high barstools—while singing. (Colin Firth, at 57, is here to capture the youth audience.) The first “Mamma Mia” movie was released ten years to the day before the sequel, and it shows: both in the limited choreography on display, and in the scripted moments where the actors simply bend over and wheeze. I suspect that how you feel about these interludes will mirror how you feel about aging. Those who fear the process will find the spectacle pretty grim, while those who rush forward to embrace it will be heartened to see aging characters treated like physical, carnal beings, in need of a smoke, a drink, a flirtation, and finally a fucking break at the top of the stairs.
The characters in “Mamma Mia” deserve a moment of sustained admiration, as well. I’ve seen the first movie six or eight times, and each time I’m impressed not by the indestructibility of ABBA’s songs (thoroughly tested by Pierce Brosnan) but by the strength of its characters. Within thirty seconds of meeting Julie Walters’s Rosie or Christine Baranski’s Tanya, you can easily imagine the interior of their homes—or their diaries. Similarly, to watch five seconds of Colin Firth’s shy banker Harry dithering about ferry times is to instinctively know, on a gut level, what he craves in bed. (The first movie coyly confirmed the basics, but the second delves into kink: the moment lands as a relief that an old friend has gotten so comfortable with himself.) For the most part, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” honors that rich characterization—the surprise is that instead of moving the focus forward to the next generation, the movie travels backwards in time, introducing actors to play younger versions of the principle grownups in a decade loosely inspired by the 70s, but lacking any actionable resemblance to a real decade, living or dead. The sparkling turquoise world of “Mamma Mia” is innocent of borders, war, or politics beyond those expressed within the ecosystem of a family. Interestingly, this has caused nearly every major movie critic to identify both movies as fluffy, enjoyable distractions from the real, serious concerns of mankind. But both movies hinge entirely on a gutting conversation in the first installment when Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) asks her mother Donna (Streep) how she managed to raise her alone. Streep replies, “Well, honey, I didn’t have a choice […] When I got pregnant, my mother told me not to bother coming back.” That harrowingly lonely situation, and the blast radius it cast across three generations, is a mortar explosion that only fifty percent of an audience, and apparently zero percent of major movie critics, could feel. Maybe there needed to be more tanks.
If “Mamma Mia” is a world devoid of the concerns of mankind, then it follows that perhaps what is being explored are the concerns of womankind. Love. Desire, and what happens when it is thwarted. Family, and what happens when a piece of it is suddenly gone. As it turns out, in the void left by a loved one, the layered harmonies of an old pop song can suddenly matter very, very much. Nearly every major musical number in “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” accentuates a loss: of youth, of a parent, of a partner, of a potential future. The end of the movie has been roundly criticized for throwing the living and the dead together in joyful chaos, as all the characters dance with the youthful versions of themselves. But what else is music for, if not to bridge the gaps between worlds? As long as your record player still works, bye bye doesn’t mean forever.
“Ant Man and the Wasp” is a rare insect: a sequel that is dramatically better than the original. Granted, 2015’s forgettable “Ant Man” set a low bar, but “Ant Man and the Wasp” clears it with lots of room to spare, delivering a fun and functional summer flick that feels like it was made with good intentions by people who genuinely cared about producing a decent movie. That “functionality” and “good intentions” are now noteworthy in a movie is sad, but here we are and here “Ant Man and the Wasp” is, and let’s talk about what it did right.
First, the movie fully capitalizes on the simple superpower of Ant Man: a nifty bit of technology he can use to resize any object, including himself, into gigantism, sub-microscopy, or anything in between. (The first movie focused this power on ants, arguably the one member of the insect kingdom who leastneed such an enhancement to be awesome.) With this power, the moviemakers transform fight scenes, which now contract and expand as combatants shrink from grapples and expand back into kicks, as well as car chases, which now feature an exciting new leapfrog element as miniaturized cars sneak beneath their regular-sized counterparts. A building, too, gets the shrink-ray treatment, popping up in abandoned parking lots and empty strip malls and once, charmingly, the Muir Woods. One can only imagine the frustration of the postal service.
Second, the additions of Hannah John-Kamen and Michelle Pfeiffer. You haven’t heard of the first one yet, but she possesses an uncanny quality in common with the second: a riveting physicality that borders on telepathy. Neither has many lines, and neither needs them—both can communicate volumes by gait alone, and do, walking away with all their scenes.
Third the five-man writing team responsible for the script (Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari) have taken two great flavors and realized that they tasted great together: Tarantino and the Coen brothers. As in Tarantino, tense conversations frequently meander down banal pathways, the threat of violence looming while the characters hash out a minor quibble (in one particularly memorable scene, whether truth serum actually exists outside of Hollywood). Unlike Tarantino, no one sounds cool while they’re riffing: all “Ant Man” characters remain as resolutely earnest as “Fargo” cops. It’s a baffling combination that shouldn’t work as well as it does.
Speaking of things that shouldn’t work as well as they do, Paul Rudd! Hey, buddy! I will admit to many years of Paul Rudd apostasy. For decades following “Clueless”, I thought he was the human equivalent of “Friends”: a banal, medium-salsa Ken doll just good-looking enough to carry a weak comedy, and just funny enough to bolster a weak romance. I was wrong. “Ant Man and the Wasp” puts Rudd firmly in the same boat as Jack Lemmon and Bob Newhart: mild-looking men whose humor rests entirely in your choice to notice them. Rudd’s performance as Scott Lang/Ant Man is quintessentially Midwestern: blink and you’ll miss a quiet moment of pathos. You are invited to laugh, but not prodded to. It’s a rare quality in a summer blockbuster, but altogether apt. If you want to see Ant Man, you’ll need to look closer.
At about three-quarters of the way through “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, the new Fred Rogers biopic, I realized that I had been weeping for the last fifteen minutes straight. I snuck a look over at my companion. “I’m not crying, you’re crying,” he said thickly. “Shut up.”
Such is the hold Fred Rogers had over my, and many other, generations. There is a scene in this documentary of an event, held very early in his television career, where parents could bring their children to meet him. The line spanned multiple city blocks. With a subject this sacred to so many people, what can a movie add to the discussion?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. Morgan Neville, the genius behind “20 Feet From Stardom”, finds footage of Fred Rogers philosophizing, scatting at the piano, pulling together half-formed and wooly thoughts that would eventually become the kernel of his decades-long effort to lovingly raise children through a television screen. The footage of his Senate hearing, when the funding for public television was threatened, is particularly illustrative. Faced with a panel of bored representatives, Rogers stammers and stumbles, finally resorting to a tactic I suspect many of us would consider suicide before attempting: reciting the lyrics of one of his own songs, in a quivering voice, out loud. It is riveting between-the-fingers watching, so painful that you almost don’t notice the moment the power dynamic of the room flips, placing a dozen senators at the mercy of a man in a sweater vest.
That Rogers succeeded in his quixotic crusade to love us into making better choices is evident in the faces of everyone who speaks about him, or even sits in silence while thinking about him (in an odd, and memorable, sequence). Trying to talk about Fred Rogers, it seems, is like trying to dig a hole in the beach—scrape even a little below the surface, and the salt water comes welling up.
OK so “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”.
Alert viewers of this now five-movie franchise will note that the previous installment ended as a T-rex stepped onto the rooftop of the defunct Park, signaling that the inmates had finally taken over the prison. The ad campaign for the fifth movie—not to mention the title—promised one thing: a world gone Jurassic, with uncontrolled and uncontained dinosaurs gleefully increasing across the planet.
Would that they had made that movie. Instead, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” dicks around for over two hours in the interstitial space before that premise, recycling the stakes of the fourth movie (moneyed bad guys want to weaponize dinosaurs) only to end up in the exact spot that should have been the movie’s starting point: a raptor, overlooking a quiet suburb, flexes its claws in anticipation. A trio of pterodactyls soars above the California coastal highway, while, concealed in the surf, a megalodon considers a farm-grown array of surfers. The imaginative possibilities of this situation are tantalizing. Why, then, did Derek Connelly and Colin Trevorrow settle for such a dull retread? It’s clear that scads of money were spent inventing reasons for the dinosaurs to escape the island (a volcano), a means for them to do so (a military evacuation with a corrupt profit motive) and a big, expensive destination for them to escape to (a weirdly Hogwartsian mansion in the Pacific Northwest). What’s less clear is why scads of money were spent, when you could have gotten a more genuine, Spielbergian thrill from watching a velociraptor stalk a pack of teenagers through a suburban cul-de-sac. The most memorable chase of the original “Jurassic Park” happened in a commercial kitchen, with props including a stainless steel table and some quivering Jell-O. It was terrifying precisely because it was quotidian: you could imagine the dinosaurs coming to your own high school cafeteria. I doubt many viewers experienced the same thrill of familiarity watching “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”, but if you did, I’d love to know what it was like growing up in a house with a dumbwaiter and several basements accessible only by keypad-controlled elevator.
Not all the news is bad—Isabella Sermon, a strong child actor, does a lot with a thin script; her character reads as both precocious and genuinely young. Danielle Pinenda takes about three minutes from the introduction of the word “paleo-veterinarian” to convince us that she is the world’s most competent paleo-veterinarian. Bryce Dallas Howard has shed her infamous heels for a comfy set of boots, and, cheeringly, a raptor-sized gun. Bafflingly, she is still bothering with Chris Pratt’s humorless action stud Owen Grady, who, two movies in, still shows no signs of the charm we know Chris Pratt can provide. And that brings me to another point that would have been good to lift from the original “Jurassic Park”: didn’t all those dinosaurs get along just fine without men?
OK so “Solo”.
So I went and spent real American dollars to see “Solo: A Star Wars Story”, which, if you know how to read between the lines of movie marketing campaigns, is a bit like sticking to the order of lamb cutlet after the waiter has very carefully and deliberately raised their eyebrow at you. I knew what I was asking for, and I got it: an overcooked and uninspiring meal, “Solo” boasts only a few flashes of genuine flavor. And no wonder, with all the cooks racing through the kitchen: directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired and replaced by Ron Howard after 75% of principal photography was completed, accepting producers’ credits as payout. Whatever their contributions amounted to versus Howard’s, and how much was cobbled together in editing, is impossible to determine, but what has arrived in theaters is a dull-to-passable heist movie punctuated by a checklist of references:
Kessel Run, check.
A bad feeling about this, check.
Wookies ripping arms, check.
Spice mines, check; card game, check; Han shot first, check. One can only wonder how freely and joyfully the story might have flowed, had it not been obliged to hit all these artificial marks.
That better story would almost certainly have featured a larger role for Donald Glover, whose Lando Calrissian is note-perfect: charismatic and mysterious and projecting a riveting blend of charm and weltschmerz, and wrapped in a dazzling variety of stylish capes. He’s accompanied the new droid L3 (spectacularly voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who brings a level of exasperating humanity to her character that will either entertain, or annoy, the hell out of you. Like any well-founded character, you’ll be able to predict what L3 would do within about twenty minutes of having met her—in another good sign, you’ll have strong feelings about it. Every time this pair was on the screen, I felt the movie achieve liftoff; sadly, every time it was brought crashing back down by another obligatory hit of nostalgia. Want the origin for Chewie’s bandolier? No? Here it is! And why do we need a scene establishing where Han got his name, anyway? “Han Solo” is one of the all-time great fictional names; in three syllables, it imparts a wallop of information, wreathed in a whiff of romance. It needs no introduction; it is an introduction. In carefully cataloging the origins of nearly every iconic moment, phrase, and prop from the original trilogy, “Solo” feels like a movie not for the people who grew up playing with Star Wars toys, but for rather for the grown-ass people who collect them—only those with a hefty investment in humidity-controlled display cases could possibly have been waiting for the origin story of Han’s blaster. Hence the widespread response to this movie: “Who asked for this?” I saw variations of this cry everywhere, from friends and acquaintances and in the first sentences of reviews. Even a cursory advance focus group should have cued Disney to re-evaluate the need for a painstakingly explanatory origin story for one of the most indelible characters of all time. The filmmakers—all of them—should have trusted the essential sturdiness of Han Solo; the willingness of their audience to follow him on a truly new adventure; our ability to enjoy a character who simply is. Their lack of faith disturbs me.