Among the best compliments that can be paid to the filmmaking team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead is to say that their movies are more interesting when you know nothing about them. Leading with that statement raises the question of why anyone would read this review. Maybe you shouldn't; maybe you should just see their latest feature, "Synchronic."
This tale of enhanced perception, relativity, time, luck and fate is far from perfect. It takes a bit too long setting up its premise. It doesn't delve as deeply into the psyches of its two appealing lead characters (a couple of New Orleans paramedics played by Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan investigating a string of ghastly, drug-related deaths) as it keeps promising to. And its climactic act of heroism doesn't quite feel as grand as it should, because the relevant character's backstory has been explained to us without letting us really feel it, from the inside out.
But it's still far more stimulating than most of the films and TV series that call themselves science fiction. It puts thought into the science of its premise, and reveals how things work via the scientific method (literally; Mackie's former physics student-turned-paramedic does the same thing over and over again on purpose, with minor variations, taking notes as he goes). It never resorts to having characters explain how stuff works when it can visualize the process by having people perform actions. And while it offers some gripping and/or darkly beautiful images, it's ultimately more about ideas than spectacle, proving (like every previous film by this team) that you don't need tons of money to create an engrossing work of science fiction and/or fantasy.
I'm being vague here because I enjoyed having no idea where "Synchronic" was going, what motivated the two main characters, whether it would turn out be an action film, a horror film or some kind of metaphysical mystery (it's a bit of all three), even what the title meant (turns out it's an allusion to both drug slang and an aspect of one theory of time). Those who would rather experience the movie cold should duck out at the end of this paragraph and return later.
Benson and Moorhead's prior films (including "Spring" and "The Endless") were distinguished by how they improbably balanced two types of genre films that tend to draw very different audiences: the kind where you are allowed to understand everything that's happening, leaving no mystery unsolved by the end, and the kind that leave a certain amount of conceptual negative space that you have to fill in on your own. "Synchronic" is another tightrope walk. After establishing the properties of the title substance—a mind-altering designer drug in pill form, sold in single-dose packets that look like condoms from a distance—it lets Mackie's bitter, intellectual, self-negating main character, Steve, figure out what it does.
By the two-thirds mark in the story, we have a good idea of the gist: take a pill, a la Lewis Carroll's Alice, and you can enter a different time period while remaining in more or less the same geographical space, then stay there for seven minutes. But once the process has been established, the film concentrates on the physical experience of taking the drug, and the way it alters Steve's sense of time and existence and makes him feel new things. And that's where the lyricism and mystery come in, expressed in arresting shots (by Moorhead, the film's cinematographer) of starry night skies and galactic panoramas, and in unexplained flash-cuts that signal shifts in Steve's consciousness (including "Bringing Out the Dead"—style, upside-down cityscapes, lyrical slow-motion, and a "Tenet"-like image of an ambulance moving in reverse).
A scene where the drug's creator uses a vinyl record album to explain time as a series of concentric, parallel tracks rather than one long, straight line should be shown in poetry as well as physics classes. Apart from preparing us for the experiments that Steve is about to begin performing, it's just a lovely, hopeful image in a movie otherwise ruled by fear and dread. Evoking Kurt Vonnegut's classic "Slaughterhouse Five" (which Benson and Moorhead are uniquely suited to adapt), "Synchronic" turns into the story of man who chooses to become unstuck in time, partly because he needs to locate Dennis' daughter (Ally Ioannides' Brianna), who ingested the drug during a party and disappeared; but mainly because his tragic past, tied to Hurricane Katrina, transformed him into an emotionally closed-off, drug-abusing, hard-drinking womanizer. As played by Mackie, who's hardboiled without overdoing it, Steve's energy is reminiscent of all those war veterans that became detectives or gangsters in postwar crime fiction and film noir.
But to its credit, the script doesn't lean on that cliche. Instead, it suggests that Steve's experience as Black man in America—the former Confederate south specifically—is a big part of why he's a burnout case who resents his partner's married-with-kids domesticity and feels like he's marking time on earth. "Synchronic" keeps going right up to the edge of being scathingly political and anti-racist, only to stop short; but the present-tense references to Steve being unwelcome in certain city neighborhoods, and the various bigoted whites in the time-travel set-pieces—including hooded Klansmen, and a Confederate infantryman who thinks Steve is his slave—confirm that we're not reading too much into this aspect.
All that having been said, "Synchronic" is more comfortable exploring a generalized sort of alienation, linked to feeling as though life is never going to get any better after a life-altering personal trauma (Steve's problem, dating back to Katrina), or that the best has already happened and it's all downhill from here (Dennis' eventual viewpoint, after he loses his daughter and his marriage crumbles).
There's also a lyrical fascination with the experience of (and description of) what it feels like to move through time linearly, and how that gets amplified by the grief of losing a loved one, an opportunity, a period of one's life, or a sense of connection to a city or country. Are the dead-and-gone truly lost, taken away, decomposed, disappeared? Or have they jumped to a different track on the record album? Can we find them? Can they see us? Can we feel them even when they aren't there?
Steve and Dennis' long conversation about death and life is the film's intellectual as well as emotional high point, and a great argument against surrendering to morbid obsession. Statistically speaking, you know how you're going to die (in a bed after a period of physical decline, like 98% of people) but not how your life is going to unfold from one second to the next; which in turn means that life—specifically whatever moment you happen to be in—is where you ought to direct your attention, because it's so much more exciting and surprising than trying to imagine the end.
Steve's detailed quotation of Albert Einstein (who unpacked ideas of relativity without which this film would not exist) is the first scene in "Synchronic" that makes the character seem like something more than a passive audience surrogate. Einstein's letter to the surviving family of his friend and sometime work partner Michele Besso described Besso as having "preceded me a little in parting from this strange world." The mournful, resigned expression on Mackie's face as he recites this sentence and others from memory gives the character a bitter edge and intellectual gravity that deepen as the rest of the story unfolds. He is a man who has lifted the veil that shrouds all others' vision, and glimpsed the vastness of the cosmos.
The best thing I can say about Justin Simien’s Black hairstyle horror satire “Bad Hair” is that it made me want to put a killer weave on my head. I would look like Thulsa Doom from 1982’s “Conan the Barbarian,” but I’m fine with that. I’ve always wanted to shake my hair like Cab Calloway. Plus, I have scores to settle. Creature feature horror is one of my favorite genres, and I gauge them on whether I would want to own the monster. In that regard, this film is successful: Though it eventually doesn’t play by its established rules, the killer coif is pretty cool from a visual perspective. It thrives on blood and isn’t picky about where it comes from or who it has to kill to get it. Like “The Blob,” it has the ability to reshape itself as it hunts prey. It also makes the eyes of its owner, Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine) glow while giving her flashbacks that look like a Kwanzaa greeting card.
Where “Bad Hair” is not so successful, however, is in reckoning with the hornet’s nest it kicks regarding its subject matter. At almost two hours, Simien has time to interrogate the natural vs. processed hair argument instead of only hinting at it occasionally. It took Spike Lee just over six minutes to create such a dialogue in the “Straight and Nappy” number in “School Daze.” That film came out in 1988, one year before “Bad Hair” takes place. The lack of focus on this controversial issue is more a product of the screenplay biting off more than it can chew. We also have to deal with workplace sexism, racial micro- and macroaggressions, gentrification, the media’s need to catering to a White audience—and that’s just on the satire side. On the horror side, we’ve got witches, folktales, slavery and UltraPerms gone bad. The horror side works out better, even if it doesn’t live up to its promise of a weave-based Verzuz battle featuring Vanessa Williams.
Williams plays Zora, the new head of Culture TV, an MTV-ish channel in mid-pivot due to falling ratings. Zora with the “good hair” is replacing Anna’s old boss, Edna (Judith Scott). It’s implied that Edna’s reign was too Afrocentric, evidenced by the addition of Grant Madison (James van der Beek), a White man with ideas that will supposedly save the network. I was confused about Anna’s job. Was she even being paid by Edna for all her years of work? Her father Amos (Blair Underwood in a jarring grey beard) refers to his daughter’s job as an internship and Anna can barely pay her rent. Anna’s big dreams are to be a VJ, though the station already has its quota of one Black onscreen celebrity with natural hair, Sista Soul (Yaani King Mondschein). Anyone else whose hair is less than Dark ‘n Lovely is faced with unemployment. The most ominous moment in “Bad Hair” may be when Zora asks Anna “who does your hair?”
It’s a rare time anyone discusses hair in this movie, which is a problem because we never get a feel for what the women’s hair choices meant to them. Anna thinks straight hair will get her the coveted position, but why a weave? Simien offers a flashback of a traumatic experience Anna had with a no-lye relaxer that left her with permanent scarring. My aunt used to say they called it a no-lye relaxer because “it burned the hell out of your scalp and that’s no lie.” Still, it’s easier and cheaper than a weave. “Bad Hair” spends more plot time dealing with trifling-ass men like Anna’s thieving ex-boyfriend, Julius (Jay Pharaoh) than any of the female relationships that might shine a light on the hair-related issues.
Zora recommends a beauty salon run by Virgie (Laverne Cox). After Anna begs for an appointment, Virgie fits her in as her last customer. “Are you tender-headed?” asks Virgie, leaning on the word so hard that my now-bald kitchen had sense memories of my mother’s comb yanking itself through my hair. What follows is a gory scene of the killer weave being sewn into Anna’s hair. It’s ridiculously over the top, with a memorably sinister Cox and a suffering Lorraine cementing the scene's effectiveness. All the subsequent attacks by the monster are pitched at this level as well, which adds to the fun.
Simien populates this film with so many extra characters that it feels like a pilot for a TV series rather than a movie. This excess of characters worked for “Dear White People,” the director’s prior effort, because it took place on a college campus and had an episodic “day in the life” approach rather than a straightforward narrative. “Bad Hair” gives us underutilized characters like Anna’s co-worker Brook-Lynne (Lena Waithe) and Anna’s sister, Linda (Chanté Adams). Linda is potentially fascinating because she knows about the African folk tale that may have something to do with the modus operandi of Anna’s weave. The scenes with Anna’s family feel off-kilter when they should be essential to the story. We should be more concerned with the myth-making elements of the book of folklore Linda cites, rather than her relatives shaming Anna’s professional choices.
It takes almost an hour before the weave claims its first victim, though it provides Anna with more than a little warning of its impending intentions. As much as I enjoyed the murderous shenanigans, I’m still left with far too many questions. Movies like this need to move fast enough for us to not focus on its implausible elements, and I don’t mean any of the horror stuff. This material would have worked better either by directly and uncomfortably confronting the subject it’s satirizing, like Spike Lee does in “Bamboozled,” or by completely bypassing the message altogether in favor of pure grindhouse tactics. By playing coy with what the notion of good and bad hair means to its owners, “Bad Hair” fails at the kind of Black experience-related relevance Jordan Peele wrung out of “Get Out.” The hirsute creature almost saves the movie, but it misses by a hair.
Now playing on Hulu
When you read the words “Netflix limited drama series about addiction, obsession, trauma, and chess,” the first adjective which springs to mind is probably not “thrilling.” But here we are, and “The Queen’s Gambit,” Scott Frank’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’ coming-of-age novel of the same name, absolutely demands the use of “thrilling.” Anchored by a magnetic lead performance and bolstered by world-class acting, marvelous visual language, a teleplay that’s never less than gripping, and an admirable willingness to embrace contradiction and ambiguity, it’s one of the year’s best series. While not without flaws, it is, in short, a triumph. And it is satisfying not just as a compelling period drama, a character study, and a feast for the eyes. It’s also, at its heart, a sports movie wrapped up in the vestments of a prestige TV series. As yourself this: When is the last time you fist-pumped the air over chess? Isn’t that something you deserve?
Odds are that Beth Harmon (the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy) will earn quite a few fist-pumps as people discover Frank and co-creator Alan Scott’s excellent series. We meet Beth as an eight-year-old (Isla Johnson) when she’s left impossibly unharmed—physically, at least—by the car crash that kills her mother. Her father’s not in the picture, so Beth finds herself at a Christian school for orphans. While there, she develops three things: a friendship with Jolene (newcomer Moses Ingram, excellent), a passion for chess, and a physical and emotional dependence on the little green tranquilizers fed to the children until they’re outlawed by the state. When she finally leaves the school, she’s got those last two things packed in her suitcase alongside a bunch of chess books, a sizable ego, some unexplored trauma, and no small amount of self-loathing. But it’s the game that drives her, sending her both to the heights of the competitive chess world and, increasingly, to her hoard of pills and the oblivion offered by alcohol.
In short, Beth has a lot to handle. Luckily, Anya Taylor-Joy is more than up to the task. Playing Beth from 15 onward, Taylor-Joy gives the kind of performance that only becomes more riveting the longer you sit with it. It’s a turn of both intoxicating glamour and precious little vanity, internal without ever being closed-off, heartbreakingly vulnerable and sharply funny, often at once. Much of the story hinges on when and how Beth is alone—and sometimes she’s most alone when surrounded by people—and Taylor-Joy’s performance is particularly remarkable in these moments. Scenes of Beth alone in her home, in a stranger’s apartment, on a plane, in her bed at night—they all hum with the kind of energy that only arises when one is truly unobserved. In this case, however, she’s creating that energy in a room full of cameras and crew members. That kind of honesty and release is the stuff of acting legend, like Eleanora Duse’s blush. It’s yet another high watermark in a young career already full of them, and somehow she’s never better than when Beth is sitting silently behind a chess board.
We’ll come back to those scenes, but it would be a mistake to assume that Taylor-Joy’s only great scene partner is the camera, gazing from across the 64 squares of the board. Frank and casting director Ellen Lewis assembled an ensemble of heavy-hitters, including the great Bill Camp as the isolated janitor who introduces Beth to the game, Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Harry Melling as rivals and eventual allies in the chess world, the wonderful (if underused) Ingram, and director Marielle Heller, who gives a hypnotic performance as the fragile, damaged, compassionate woman who eventually welcomes Beth into her home. There’s not a dud in the bunch; even the actors who show up for a scene or two at most give performances that feel fully inhabited. It’s a stunner of an ensemble.
And here’s a bonus: they all look incredible. “The Crown” is rightly praised for its sumptuous, detailed production design and costuming, and “The Queen’s Gambit” will likely find itself compared to its Netflix predecessor with some frequency. But for all the strengths of “The Crown,” it rarely showcases the kind of imagination on display here. Costume designer Gabriele Binder, hair and makeup head Daniel Parker, and production designer Uli Hanisch (the latter of “Cloud Atlas,” “Sense8,” and “Babylon Berlin”) do much more than capture the look and feel of the 1960s in the United States and abroad. They use that aesthetic to illuminate Beth’s mindset. When does Beth embrace the wilder aspects of ‘60s makeup? Why, when she’s balancing precariously on the edge and her thick eyeliner serves to make her look even thinner and more fragile. That’s one example of many. It’s incredibly thoughtful and stylish. Consider it isolated breakdown chic.
The aesthetic of Beth’s inner world is also explored, though to detail what that looks like and what it means is to diminish some of the pleasure (and anxiety) it engenders. Just know that it lends Beth’s struggles a visceral energy that most stories of addiction tend to either take for granted or overplay. And for the most part, that care and thoughtfulness is found in all of the tropes present in “The Queen’s Gambit” (and there are plenty of tropes—this is a sports movie in disguise, after all). That said, Frank’s largely excellent teleplays do occasionally stumble, particularly when it comes to race (Jolene deserves better) and gender. The latter is a shortcoming shared with Frank’s “Godless”—both have their hearts in the right place, but are perhaps not as thoughtful or insightful when it comes to sex, love, and the realities of a patriarchal society than they believe themselves to be.
Frankly, it’s hard to get too worked up about those shortcomings thought, especially when the chess starts. The chess! My god, the chess. Like any good sports movie, this character-driven period drama lives and dies by its editing. Editor Michelle Tesoro should go ahead and buy a bookshelf for all the hardware she’s about to pick up for “The Queen’s Gambit” right now; the chess sequences are all electric, and each in its own way. One will make you hold your breath. Two will likely bring you to tears. Some are funny. Some are infuriating. Some are, somehow, very, very sexy. Each is electric, and Tesoro and Taylor-Joy make them so through skill, talent, and precision. (Some credit here is also due to chess consultants Bruce Pandolfini and Garry Kasparov. I know very little about chess, but somehow “The Queen’s Gambit” convinced me otherwise and dazzled me all at once.)
Every truly great sports story has not one, but two beating hearts. There’s the sport itself, a game or competition in which the viewer becomes undeniably invested. And then there’s the player or players, someone whose life is much bigger than the game, yet is nevertheless somewhat consumed by it. “The Queen’s Gambit” has both those hearts, and both are racing. Frank, Taylor-Joy, and company never stop telling both those stories at once, and the result is a fascinating portrait of a young woman fighting to become the person she wants to be, battling for victory and for peace. When her journey brings her to Paris, she remembers the words of a woman who loved her and spends some time wandering museums, feeding her soul with something more than chess. Yet there’s never any doubt that somewhere, in some corner of her mind, she’s got her eyes on the board. What a privilege it is to see that corner and see the world’s beauty, all at once.
Now available on Netflix
A knife slices through a short rib in the opening frames of “Coming Home Again,” a subdued gut-punch from director Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”) that adapts a personal essay by Korean-American author Chang-rae Lee. Delicate and precise, like the film itself, the cut doesn’t separate the flesh from the bone completely. The goal is for the richness of the latter to impregnate the marinated meat in a dish known as kalbi.
The culinary analogy, referencing an inextricable bond, rests at the center of this drama where a son puts his career on hold to look after his mother, who is suffering from terminal stomach cancer. Now the primary caretaker, Chang-rae (Justin Chon), a writer who had a job in New York and is back in San Francisco, quietly moves through the day tending to his frail Mom (Jackie Chung). A drab mood coats the house, as if the air of pain was trapped between its walls and no window had been opened to let it flow in months.
Their mother-son bond, fractured and mended over the years, has now reached its final form. One in which, ideally, time serves for them to cherish each other’s presence rather than reproaching past mistakes. But human as humans are, that’s easier in thought than in practice. Even as Mom’s self-sufficiency decreases by the day, arguments flare between her and Chang-rae over his instinct to help her and her fight to retain some autonomy. Other times the conflict stems from her openness to religious consolation and his distaste for it.
In Wang, a key figure in the history of Asian-American cinema par excellence, Lee’s words found the ideal interpreter. The director is deliberately austere in his choices, from the sparse spaces with muted colors to the absence of music except in instances when it’s diegetic and tied to a plot point involving Chang-rae’s father (John Lie). Rarely does the camera step into the room where Mom stays, instead it witnesses from outside the converted family room as some of the more charged conversations unfold inaudible to us. Chang-rae’s narration acts as the audience’s entryway.
Flashbacks to the early days of the illness and Chang-rae’s homecoming are painted with warmer light. Undoubtedly simple, Wang and cinematographer Richard Wong’s clear-cut distinction between a luminous recent past and the stark present nonetheless intensifies the realization that things will never be the same. In those memories, Chang-rae and Mom grapple with the invisible barriers he put into place to keep her away from his American life. Under the strenuous circumstances, food becomes Chang-rae’s bonding agent. The act of preparing labor-intensive delicacies to delight the others is also a tribute to her legacy, to what will endure.
Chon, a sensitive director in his own right behind features like “Gook” and “Ms. Purple,” is in optimal acting shape. Chang-rae is falling fast into a mental abyss; his emotions are in disarray. Impeccably, Chon plays him as a man trying to contain that storm that brews within. It’s only in the final stages of the heartbreaking ordeal that Chang-rae’s behavior, mourning while his mother is still alive, and the actor lose touch with film's understated grace. But even those small narrative diversions feel somewhat justified if not exactly subtle.
As great as Chon is on his own, including a moving and tonally intricate scene where Chang-rae meets an old friend, the movie is a two-hander. A devastating Chung dignifies a mother in physical agony, but who still questions herself and those around her. Hers is a double performance, one staring at the end of life and another, while still more lucid, taking stock of what she built in it and her shortcoming while doing it. Each confrontation with Chon’s character is utterly cathartic.
“My job is to be your son,” an angry Chang-rae tells her when she questions his decision to set aside his profession to come care for her. There are also tender exchanges of a child meeting his parent as an individual who had a life before being responsible for another person’s survival. Through all of these glimpses of a relationship trampled and perhaps accelerated by illness, the constant is an ambivalence about every decision that brought them here and the unspoken resentment that has to be relieved now or never.
“Coming Home Again” doesn’t sanctify the image of the mother, but instead aims to truly capture the full-bodied personhood of the woman Lee put on the page. Amid the trauma that the co-leads undergo, Wang examines the rips and repairs in the connecting tissue between us and the people who, through their action or inaction, mold us into who we are.
Now available in virtual and select cinemas
“Reality: What does it mean?” Curtis Mayfield asked in one of his most provocative songs. (Okay, it was just “Freddie’s Dead,” great tune but not THAT provocative.) The answer to the question is up for grabs every day.
The actor Mark Webber, who you may recall in ingratiating comic turns in movies such as “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and more intense dramatic portrayals in movies such as “The Hottest State,” has been directing films since 2008, and from his second feature, 2012’s “The End of Love,” has been working in a mode he calls “reality cinema.” Which may suggest this question: “'Reality cinema': What does it mean?”
Webber explained it to the site No Film School last year: “I thought, ‘Why don't I create an environment that's totally different, that allows us to completely inhabit these characters around real-life situations?’ And maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to really get real vérité on the screen. I wanted to show real emotions and real vulnerability. The type of movies that I respond to are the ones where I watch them and I'm like, ‘Something different is happening.’ I'm trying to do that by injecting a lot more truth into the storytelling process.”
What it means in practical terms has been that actors appear in his films as themselves, or at least playing characters whose names they share. And while the precipitating incident or situation that propels the narrative is fictional, their reactions and interactions are authentic, or “authentic.”
With 2014’s “The Ever After” and now this film, “The Place of No Words,” Webber centers the work around his family. That means wife Teresa Palmer, and in this film, their three-year-old son Bodhi Palmer. The situation being faced is a grave one.
This movie has a startling opening. It captures a young boy and an adult in a contemporary bedroom, having a conversation that features a good deal of nonsense words, and aside from the super-wide aspect ratio of the frame, looks pretty much exactly like any generic indie family drama you’d care to invoke. But there’s a sudden cut, to an epic view of a wide open sea, and a wide, long, rowboat. The man, played by Webber, now has a thick long beard (his hair and beard stylings in this movie are a lot, and I mean that literally) and is furiously hoisting oars as the child sits facing him while the sea roils noisily. Subsequent gorgeous shots suggest a Viking epic. (The cinematographer is Patrice Lucien Cochet, who contributes inspired work throughout.) As do the characters’ costumes: fur capes, elaborate leather boots, and swords. Soon as this pair reached land, they start climbing a mountain. Looks like maybe they’re headed to a photo shoot for a Led Zeppelin reunion album.
There are, we come to learn after this disorienting change of setting, two discrete narratives in this movie that intertwine the same theme. The one in which Bodhi and Mark trudge around in a fantasy realm, and meet fairies, and navigate a swamp that farts (really), is the fantasy world concocted by Bodhi. Hence the farting swamp, with mud, or “mud,” that’s actually chocolate, a concept befitting a three-year-old. In the real world, Mark is fatally ill, and not likely to live to see Bodhi’s next birthday. But the philosophical discussions about Mark’s condition are most fruitfully carried out within the fantasy realm.
In the everyday world of stiff-upper-lip social gatherings and hospital beds, things are a little more banal, and immediately painful. Philosophical considerations are difficult to articulate in the environment of pain the characters inhabit.
For a lot of viewers the premise will be a substantial turn-off. An artist imagining their own death is traditionally a sort of apex of indulgent self-involvement. While Webber’s depictions of illness are notably lacking in bathos, that won’t make the concept less of a deal-breaker for skeptics. But the movie’s imaginative energy is undeniable, and Bodhi himself is a winning screen presence. If Webber sticks to his creative guns, he could well become the John Cassavetes of attentive (albeit eccentric) parenting.
“After,” the adaptation of the first book in Anna Todd’s series of novels chronicling the ups-and-downs of a passionate romance between an innocent young woman and the smooth-chested bad boy who unexpectedly swept her off her feet (among other things), was one of last year’s very worst films—it took me no less than three attempts to get to the end when I finally caught up with it and watching terrible movies is a professional skill of mine. That said, at least its flaws were of the run-of-the-mill variety—dull characters, insipid plotting, and a complete lack of chemistry between the two leads—and it could have even been argued that part of the problem was that I was not exactly the target audience for a story that evidently began as One Direction fan-fiction. And yet, as bad as it was, it comes across as borderline competent in the memory when compared to the follow-up, “After We Collided,” a film so lazy and inane that it feels as contemptuous towards its audience as I am towards it.
For those of you who somehow managed to miss “After,” it recounted the story of Tessa Young (Josephine Langford), the bookish and repressed daughter of an overbearing mother (Selma Blair). At college, Tessa quickly found herself in the thrall of Hardin Scott (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), the campus Lothario whose bad-boy exterior masked a tortured soul that only she could properly nurture. Viewers watched the progression, for lack of a better word, of their relationship—with older ones quizzically noting the presence of such familiar faces as Blair, Peter Gallagher, and Jennifer Beals in brief throwaway roles along the way—before coming to the shocking climactic revelation that Hardin’s wooing of Tessa was the result of a dare. This caused her to dump him, sensibly enough, but the final moments of the film suggested that there might be a happy ending for them after all.
As it turns out, that optimistic conclusion was merely a figment of Hardin’s imagination and when we first see him, a month after the events of the first film, he is filling his days drinking, getting tattoos and pining for his lost love. As for Tessa, she has a slightly stronger rebound as she begins her new job as an intern reading manuscripts for a publishing company and manages to find the next mega-seller, is taken along by her boss for a wild night partying with investors (including a fancy new dress and hotel suite on the company dime) and makes goo-goo eyes with shy-but-hunky accountant Trevor (Dylan Sprouse), all within her first 24 hours of employment. Nevertheless, her feelings for Hardin are still there, and when his mother (Louise Lombard) arrives from England under the assumption that they are still together (don’t ask), she agrees to play along. This leads to an endless string of scenes that alternate between the two indulging in bouts of what a far wiser man once referred to as “rumpy-pumpy” and fighting over issues that could have easily been cleared up if they did not collectively possess the IQ of a crouton.
Along the way, Hardin’s Tortured Past comes back into play and rears its ugly head when he, along with Tessa and his mom, attends the fancy Christmas party thrown by his rich and estranged father (Rob Estes) and new stepmother (Karimah Westbrook), making a drunken spectacle of himself. The details of what transpires are forgettable (the film certainly has no real use for them) but those who saw the first film may be too distracted to notice because the roles of the father and stepmother were the ones played by Gallagher and Beals the first time around and who somehow managed to escape any involvement here—presumably by constructing and flying a homemade hot-air balloon to freedom. This is especially odd because Selma Blair is still around for a turn even briefer and more pointless than before. Her continued presence can only be explained in one of two ways—either her co-stars neglected to tell her of the balloon launch or she decided out of misguided loyalty towards director Roger Kumble, with whom she worked on the infinitely superior and thematically similar “Cruel Intentions” (1999).
So what is it about “After We Collided” that makes it bad? For starters, there is literally no story to be had in the screenplay (co-written by Todd), just a series of tedious incidents in a relationship, for lack of a better word, that somehow manage to come across as both startlingly toxic and completely innocuous. The two central characters are even duller and less appealing than before, and things are not helped by the complete lack of chemistry between them. Most hilariously, the film attempts to shake the original’s PG-13 origins by venturing into R-rated territory in the most inept ways possible—the script drops F-bombs with all the grace and subtlety of a 10-year-old boy who has just learned it, and the sex scenes are infused with the kind of heat that, if the movie were an oven, you would be checking the pilot light.
Too moronic to work as a serious romantic drama and too boring to work as straightforward sleaze, “After We Collided” is a film so dumb I fear that some may be tempted to look it up to see just how bad it really is. Instead of doing that, may I suggest that you instead seek out “The Souvenir” (2019), Joanna Hogg’s deeply felt depiction of a passionate-but-toxic relationship that was one of last year’s very best films and one that will stick with you long after it has ended. By comparison, all you will feel at the conclusion of this movie, besides a momentary burst of relief, is a sense of dread over the fact that this saga will apparently include two more installments before it concludes. Then again, maybe we will luck out and that will prove to be nothing more than a dream as well.
Sacha Baron Cohen's "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" is a deliciously unstable comedy. This new installment in the misadventures of Cohen's ignorant yet fearless Kazakhstani journalist Borat Sagdiyev is filled with risqué (and just plain risky) jokes. Some land. Others explode in the film's own face like a baggy-pants comedian's prop cigar. That's all true to the spirit of Borat, for better and worse. Even gags that leave a troubling afterimage fit the star's wise-ass, id-monster persona. You can't open a comedic Pandora's box and expect the results to be orderly and reassuring.
The story begins with Borat's release from prison, where he spent 14 years atoning for his shenanigans in the previous film, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of American to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." Borat is blamed for the country's political and financial collapse (file footage shows a stockbroker trying to kill himself by jumping from the country's tallest skyscraper, a second-floor office in a muddy village). Like a noncombatant pervert cousin of John Rambo, Borat is given a mission that will redeem and pardon him if it succeeds: he must journey to the United States in order to...
Actually, hold on. We shouldn't get into that, because the described mission is wild and ludicrous and (Rambo-style) is immediately compromised. Let's just say that it involves a monkey (actually a chimpanzee), and that when it doesn't work out, Borat tries to mend fences between Kazakhstan and the United States by offering his only daughter, Tutar (Irina Nowak), as a prize to "Vice Premiere" Mike Pence, whose aversion to spending unsupervised time alone with women is chalked up to his voracious sexual appetite. Tutar, who was raised in captivity on Borat's farm (like livestock, and Melania Trump, the movie insists), has a lot to learn about life, men, sex, and everything, because women aren't allowed to read, learn, drive, or do anything else in her country. Her most treasured possession is a child's bedtime book that depicts the vagina as a toothy maw that will, if touched, swallow the toucher's whole body. (Irina Nowak is an incredible find, if indeed she's a "find." The closing credits claim that the movie is "introducing" her, but media outlets speculate that she's really Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova.)
There are a couple of other layers to the plot, revealed in due time. But as always, the gags and riffs and characterizations and cultural observations are the point—and the high failure risk, which lends a veneer of excitement even to the dumbest bits. As directed by Jason Woliner ("Nathan for You," "Parks and Recreation"), and scripted by enough screenwriters to field the world's least threatening rugby team, "Borat" stays focused on its core mission: positioning its hero as a depraved, narcissistic fool whose flaws and excesses mirror his clueless targets' so closely that they don't realize they're being made fun of, even when Cohen stops just short of hauling out a sign that reads, "YOU ARE THE JOKE."
At the heart of the film is the belief that, for all its posturing as The Greatest Nation on Earth, the United States circa 2020 has more in common with a retrograde foreign backwater than its government or people like to admit. Borat's country is a kleptocracy that runs on fear, corruption, and theocratic pronouncements that never seem to apply to the people doing the pronouncing. The culture's boundaries are set by a dominant religious sect, but their declarations of the importance of morality, ethics and mutual respect are contradicted by their private embrace (or tolerance) of cruelty, depravity, anti-intellectualism, and superstition, at least when practiced by members of their own tribe.
The horrible belly laughs that are generated when we see how Borat's country treats women (as chattel conditioned to serve men from a young, even pedophilic age—one of Borat's sons even changed his name to Jeffrey Epstein) ring hollow in the memory once we see Borat trying to position his barely-adolescent daughter as a human bribe in the US. A FedEx employee is privy to a fax exchange establishing Tutar as an underage concubine, but he doesn't bat an eye; he might as well be overseeing the transfer of a deed to a 2015 Ford Fusion. A plastic surgery clinic doesn't question Borat's bringing in Tutar for Russ Meyer-scale breast implants, even though she's so young that she needs dad's permission; nor are they fazed when he tries to pay with a bag of cash. The subtext of a lot of the jokes is that the exploitation of women and girls, some below the legal age of consent, is an ingrained perk of being a financially comfortable adult man in the United States, as well as in countries that Americans like to paint as inferior.
The highlight, or low-light, of the movie finds former New York mayor turned Trump advisor Rudy Guiliani participating in a TV interview in a hotel suite with a woman who represents herself as being 15 years old. Guiliani—whose mouth is ringed by pink-and-purple discolorations that suggest either a makeup disaster or the recent removal of an oxygen mask—fails to practice social distancing; coughs on camera; touches the interviewer's hand and creepily flirts with her after learning she's interested in older men; then follows her into an adjoining bedroom with the singleminded eagerness of a dog expecting a biscuit. The Zapruder deconstruction of what follows will vary, probably along partisan lines. What's beyond dispute is that Giuliani's behavior is the maraschino cherry atop the movie's slime cake of male entitlement. His leer could be the film's logo.
Q-Anon comes in for special ridicule by the film, and it's quite pointed: the cult's followers (represented by a couple of survivalist-types that Borat briefly stays with when he's estranged from Tutar) agree with Borat that the Democrats are "demons" and the Clintons are "evil" exploiters, yet they gladly help Borat in his odyssey to deliver his daughter as a carnal prize to a member of the Trump administration. Borat's explanations of his own troubles are dismissed as "a conspiracy theory" by men who believe that a secret, quasi-vampiric cult (a modern gloss on the ancient blood libel) controls the levers of power. The threat of state-approved murder hangs over Borat throughout, thanks to his government's pledge to dismember him should his mission fail. But when Borat performs a song written by his two new buddies at a fair, the audience eagerly sings along with his lyrics about how Covid is "The Wuhan Flu" and the US should chop up journalists "like the Saudis do."
The movie's scripted fiction mirrors the reality that the star captures when interacting with nonprofessionals: there is no agreed-upon morality, ethical code, or national fellowship in America. There is only greed, tribal loyalty, and power dynamics. Maybe that's all there ever was. This is a dark, dark movie, invigorating in its bleakness.
Cohen "retired" Borat in 2007, saying that his disguise-driven brand of satire had become impossible due to his own fame and the instantaneous, identity-checking ability of search engines. And yet here he is fourteen years later, releasing a follow-up that was shot (mostly) under the radar during a pandemic. Some early scenes account for Cohen's inability to work incognito in public: Borat, aka Cohen-in-character, gets recognized by random pedestrians, but their chasing and pestering him for autographs is chalked up to Borat's infamy.
This launches a gallery of disguises that are like something Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau would've worn to fool the bad guys, only to arouse a different sort of suspicion. There's a Soggy Bottom Boys-looking "hillbilly" outfit; a Donald Trump disguise that involves a fat suit and a "Mission: Impossible"-caliber face mask and hairpiece; and a "Jew" costume (drawing on Borat's own country's history of antisemitism) with bat wings, talons, and a Pinocchio schnoz.
As you've gathered ("gathered"—like you'd be reading this if you weren't already a Borat fan!) much of the humor is deliberately provocative/offensive/filthy, and while the script has a theoretically progressive agenda (as in Cohen's TV series, and the last Borat film, the hero's misadventures are meant to expose latent American bigotry, depravity, bloodlust, and authoritarianism), the result risks accusations that the creators are trying to eat their cake and have it, too. Is Cohen wallowing in American dysfunction by giving it so much screen time, even as he's putting ironic quote-marks around Borat's in-character "agreement" with it? Is he inadvertently creating YouTube clips and memes that bigots can strip of irony and self-awareness, and fold into the same old rancid propaganda? How responsible is Cohen for unintended consequences?
These are the conundrums faced by comics who incarnate a phenomenon that they want to critique. Some (like Andrew Dice Clay in the nineties) get swallowed up by it, to the point where they become advertisements for the thing they originally dismantled. That's not the case here (yet). But Cohen's always on the edge and sometimes tips over before catching himself (more so in "Bruno," an often homophobic expose of homophobia).
On top of all of the movie's theoretical/political aspects, something more conventional is going on. Although much of the movie is goofy, surreal and scathing, all of the sections that concentrate on Borat's relationship with Tutar are heartwarming. It's that Will Ferrell kind of heartwarming, though, where the script is making fun of the idea of "heartwarming" while still being heartwarming. Imagine the classic road film "Paper Moon" with the father and daughter replaced by sketch-comedy degenerates.
It's fun to see contrary storytelling impulses layered on top of each other, even when (or maybe because) it's hard to tell how much you're supposed to accept at face value, and how much is a put-on. But even as Borat and Tutar become (comparatively) enlightened about culturally ingrained sexism in Kazakhstan and America, the film ties every element to a unifying idea: we think we're making fun of the view through a window, but it's a mirror.
With the good intentions of a Steven Soderbergh anti-capitalist thriller but the tepid execution of a mid-season-replacement CW teen drama, “Radium Girls” shines a light on a rarely discussed chapter of America’s labor history. Based on the true story of a group of young female factory workers in the 1920s who began developing mysterious, devastating illnesses, “Radium Girls” is bogged down by a trite script, inconsistent character motivations, and an over-reliance on historical footage that has little to do with the film itself. The anger inspired by what happened to these women is invigorating, but that fury is rarely felt from what “Radium Girls” offers as a cinematic experience.
In the early 20th century, the discovery of radium and polonium by Marie Curie led to a boom in commercial products that boasted of radioactivity as a phenomenon that was invigorating for the human body. Marjane Satrapi’s biopic of Curie, “Radioactive,” portrayed the scientist’s guilt later in life after countless workers around the world became sick from producing products laced with radium: nail polish, chocolate, face cream, toothpaste. Before the determination of their toxicity, though, these items were part of a bona fide craze, and provided valuable factory jobs to women increasingly joining the work force after the devastation of World War I.
“Radium Girls” transports us to that time: In Orange, New Jersey, in 1925, sisters Josephine (Abby Quinn) and Bessie (Joey King) work for the company American Radium (standing in for the real United States Radium Corporation, which operated from 1914 to 1970). Alongside dozens of other women cramped together in the same room, overseen by stern team leader Mrs. Butkiss (Carol Cadby) and distant factory manager Mr. Leech (Scott Shepherd), Josephine and Bessie paint the numbers on watch dials. The workers, in their teens and twenties, are given a tiny paint brush and a vial of Undark, a glow-in-the-dark paint made with radium, and encouraged to lick the brush in between each swipe to make their movements more precise. Lick, dip, paint; lick, dip, paint; all these young mothers and daughters and sisters and wives are desperate to keep their jobs, doing whatever their employers want.
Rule follower Josephine, who loyally licks her paint brush, is the factory’s best, producing more than 200 faces per day. At one cent per face, it’s still not much—but her take-home pay is certainly more than Bessie’s daily average of 40. In great chunks of exposition, Ginny Mohler and Brittany Shaw’s script reiterates how the sisters are different: The responsible, no-nonsense Josephine keeps their household running, stepping up after the deaths of their parents and older sister. Co-directors Mohler and Lydia Dean Pilcher emphasize her frowns at a radio their grandfather buys on credit, her frowns as she balances their finances, her frowns when Bessie suggests sneaking back into the factory for a séance. Bessie, meanwhile, is the wild and spontaneous one: She dreams of being an actress, she dares to talk back to Mr. Leech when he questions her work, and she catches the eye of photographer Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), a member of the local Communist Party chapter.
Still, the girls are committed to each other—with a shared interest in spiritualism and Egyptomania, captured by their constant consultation of “The Book of the Dead”—and when Josephine falls mysteriously ill, Bessie vows to take care of her. Their sister Mary died after working at American Radium; could their workplace be the culprit? The doctor American Radium sends to inspect Josephine says she’s “healthy as a horse,” but the bloody teeth falling out of her mouth say otherwise. When Walt suggests Bessie meet with a representative from the Consumers League, the sisters learn that radium is being reconsidered as an industrial toxin—and that American Radium might have been aware that Undark was poisonous. With that knowledge and with Josephine’s health in rapid decline, Bessie undergoes an incremental, but steady, radicalization that eventually leads to her facing off against American Radium in court.
The revelations at the center of “Radium Girls” are enraging reminders of high-risk labor conditions, our societal disregard for women in the workplace, and how corporations use the respect reflexively given to supposed authority figures—bosses, doctors, police officers—to protect their own misdeeds. But the scenes that underscore those realizations lack impact when “Radium Girls” buries them under bickering between the sisters, who seem to switch characterizations often during the film’s first hour; a listless romance between Bessie and Walt, whose sole responsibilities include wearing a red scarf to remind us of his Communist affiliations and popping up at random locations to offer Bessie a hug; and a misguided subplot focusing on the other Communists.
The Party members given the most screen time are Black Americans Etta (Susan Heyward) and Thomas (Brandon Gill), which is an acknowledgement of the work the Community Party USA did in Black communities and in support of the labor and civil rights movements, but the two have no personalities of their own. Everything they do is in service of Bessie’s development, and sloppily so. Thomas’ speech in support of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti helps her realize that people can be judged for their political beliefs, but that has no noticeable effect on her personality. Neither does Etta’s harrowing tale of escaping the 1921 Black Wall Street Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, told to Bessie after the former is arrested alongside the radium girl during a police raid. Those characters just fade into the background after they help Bessie rapidly transform into a revolutionary, replaced by the other radium girls who join Bessie in her lawsuit. Once “Radium Girls” shifts into that final third act, it too often slips into anachronistic vernacular and modern messaging, like urging people to vote, that feels out of step with what actually worked at the time. Collection action and labor organization were integral in emboldening workers’ rights in this country, but “Radium Girls” is more interested in a “Law and Order”-style format that relies on contentious cross examinations and dramatic reveals.
Admittedly, there’s some intermittent thrill to that; “Radium Girls” is at its best when it makes clear what the girls were up against. Men who refuse to identify themselves appearing unannounced on the sisters’ doorstep to offer them a payoff. Josephine and Bessie’s former coworkers, who haltingly say that their husbands told them to disregard the sisters’ claims. A doctor who blames “personal hygiene” on the girls’ failing health, weaponizing the conservativism of the time to cement their ostracization. King and Quinn don’t quite demonstrate the debilitating impacts of these attacks; they’re both out-acted by Colby Minifie as Doris, a family friend and former radium girl who joins their lawsuit (her cheeky “In a past life, I was a lawyer, but there was just so much shouting” is the film’s best line delivery).
When “Radium Girls” centers these young women, it has a clear focus—which makes Pilcher and Mohler’s constant insertion of historical B-roll a distracting interruption. The black-and-white scenes of cities teaming with people, women working in factories, and protests spilling into the streets lack context, and often feel like a wasted opportunity to further ground this film in the real events that inspired it. Is any of this actual archival footage related to the radium girls or their lawsuit? What about a picture of a group of women posing in a factory together? Are the letters that Bessie and the other radium girls receive and read out loud, with lines like “Thank you for standing up for us,” actually from that time? “Radium Girls” is on the right side of history in its championing of these women who fought back against an employer and an industry that was killing them, but the film’s missteps hint at a broader story left untold.
Now playing in select theaters and virtual cinemas
They say that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. That may be why our turbulent and divisive times are reflected in films set half a century ago, a time of large protest gatherings and marches, many about the same social justice issues that are still contentious today: rights of people of color, rights of women, rights of LGBTA+ people, rights of people with disabilities, police brutality, end to armed conflict, accountability of elected officials. And so, we have "The Glorias," "The Trial of the Chicago 7," and the upcoming films "A Night in Miami," and "Judas and the Black Messiah." Even Robert Zemeckis' remake of Roald Dahl's "The Witches" is set in 1968.
As powerful as these re-creations of the events, real and imagined, of the late '60s and early to mid-'70s are, the documentaries using archival footage of era's advocates are even more compelling. "Sisters of '77" documented the National Women’s Conference, with appearances by three first ladies, feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, and a young Maxine Waters. And William Greaves' "Nationtime" lets us see many of the luminaries at the 1972 meeting of the National Black Political Convention held in Gary, Indiana. Such a roster includes Reverend Jesse Jackson, Dick Gregory, Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, Mayor Richard Hatcher, Amiri Baraka, and Congressman Charles Diggs. "The Trial of the Chicago 7" eighth defendant, Bobby Seale, makes a stirring appearance emphasizing protest and voting.
This statement, adopted at the convention, sounds like it comes from a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest: "On every side, in every area of our lives, the American institutions in which we have placed our trust are unable to cope with the crises they have created by their single-minded dedication to profits for some and white supremacy above all."
"Nationtime" is a call to action, showing us how far we have come in some ways. Jackson notes in his electrifying speech that there were only 13 Black Members of Congress when proportionately "we are supposed to have 52." Today there are 56 Black Members of Congress (plus 42 Hispanic, 17 Asian, and 4 Native American). The speakers call on the US to play more of a role in ending apartheid in South Africa. No one in 1972 Gary even thinks to imagine a Black President or a Black/South Asian female Vice-Presidential candidate. Indeed, other than the two widows, and a mention of Angela Davis, there are very few women featured in the film and there is no discussion of the particular concerns of women of color or of other marginalized groups within the Black community.
By those measures—the number of Black elected officials, the end of apartheid, and the contemporary recognition that women's rights are human rights—we can take some satisfaction in our greater understanding and participation.
But for those very reasons, "Nationtime" is a sharper reminder of how little, even with those achievements, has been accomplished and how difficult, even with those opportunities, it continues to be. Indeed, it is fair to say that the Black family in the White House and the subsequent election of a President who has refused on more than one occasion to speak out against bigotry and white supremacy have exposed an increased backlash of overt racism. So many of the topics raised in 1972 are depressingly even more urgent today. The landmark civil rights legislation of the '60s created new opportunities for equality and progress but it did not deliver them.
The promise of those new opportunities is central to the convention. Jackson notes that almost half of Black citizens are not registered to vote. He and other speakers repeatedly call for Black people to take action to solve problems that affect everyone.
Jackson tells the group, "I don't want to be the gray shadow of one elephant of one party ... I want a Black party." He says if Black Americans were a nation, they would be the third largest Black nation in the world, and the richest. And he urges them to work together to make the most of that power. "The challenge is to transform ourselves from favor-seeking vassals and loud-talking, 'militant' pawns, and to take up the role that the organized masses of our people have attempted to play ever since we came to these shores. That of harbingers of true justice and humanity, leaders in the struggle for liberation." He takes the crowd to church with soaring rhetoric, punctuated with straight talk reminding the crowd not to "have the slum in you," and call and response: "What time is it?" "Nationtime!"
Throughout most of the convention, there is a balance between a call for unity and acceptance of differences. Mayor Hatcher welcomes inclusion of white people (especially young white people) to achieve common goals. The presentations are grounded and enriched by African-influenced music, drum-heavy with an electrified kalimba, and poems by Imamu Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes, beautifully recited for the film by Harry Belafonte.
Some of the language has changed. The speakers use the now-unfortunately pejorative term "agenda" to describe their list of goals. The film's biggest omission, which would be less likely today, is its near-sole focus on the speakers, with no coverage of the participants or the substance of their discussions. We see the Michigan delegation abruptly walk out (and are later told some members of the delegation decided to stay), but we are never told what the issue was that made them decide it was impossible to stay.
Dick Gregory tells the crowd that the convention can be summed up by what he overheard a boy tell his friends the day before: "When I grow up, I want to be in the Black caucus." Perhaps 10-year-old Barack Obama, then living on the other side of the world with his American mother and Indonesian step-father, or eight-year-old Kamala Harris, living in Oakland, California, were similarly inspired by this event. Now, thanks to this restored documentary, another generation can have new dreams of what they can do for Nationtime.
Now playing in virtual cinemas
Netflix’s “Over the Moon” is the story of a girl who goes to the lunar surface and finds a Disney castle, a Disney princess, and even an Olaf character. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. This is a film that so blatantly cribs from other popular works that it never develops a personality of its own. Parts of it are tender and heartfelt, but "Over the Moon" mistakes hyperactivity for action in ways that are distracting and noisy, when there's no reason for it to be so. Netflix has quietly developed some interesting animated projects in the last year like “Klaus” and “The Willoughbys,” but they’re clearly not immune to animated misfires too.
Perhaps the Disney connection feels so blatant here because “Over the Moon” was directed by a key part of the Disney legacy. Glen Keane's resume dates back to character work on “The Rescuers,” and he was on the team for the renaissance that included “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Aladdin.” (He also directed the Oscar-winning short “Dear Basketball”). He works here from a script by the late Audrey Wells (“The Hate U Give”), to whom the film is dedicated, and he brings a legacy of professional experience, but it almost feels like that history backfires on “Over the Moon.” Too much of this feels calculated to mimic something that worked before, lacking the spontaneity and artistry of great animation.
Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) is a girl who suffers the horrible grief of losing her mother at a young age. Four years later, her father (John Cho) has moved on and is considering marrying again, sending Fei Fei for a loop. She’s not yet processed the loss of her mother and now she’s being asked to welcome another woman into that role, along with an annoying potential stepbrother. Fei Fei panics and decides to basically explore her mother’s favorite legend about a moon goddess who is waiting there for the return of her lost love. She builds a rocket and takes off into the stars, sucked into a magical world of helpful dragons and bright creatures inspired by the Chinese tradition of the Moon or Mid-Autumn Festival. In visual terms, this is a space trip as imagined by someone on a bulk candy bender, splashed with more vibrant colors than we typically see on the gray orb.
When Fei Fei gets to the moon, she finds the legendary Chang’e (Phillipa Soo of “Hamilton” fame), but she’s not exactly welcoming. Insisting that Fei Fei must bring her a gift, our heroine is sent on a quest—find the mysterious gift, which will be exchanged for a photo to prove the existence of Chang'e. If Fei Fei can show that the legend of a woman who has waiting centuries for the return of her love is true than maybe dad wait a little bit longer to replace Fei Fei’s mother. A character named Gobi (Ken Jeong) ends up by Fei Fei’s side almost as if someone yelled “Give me an Olaf!” during a production meeting and this was the result.
For as long as children’s animation has existed, it has been used to confront how children process grief. It’s one of the greatest changes that a child can face, and the best family entertainment addresses it without talking down to young people. “Over the Moon” doesn’t exactly talk down, but it clutters its serious themes every chance it gets. The music is generally forgettable, though a song near the end that directly addresses loss is easily the most powerful in the film because it’s the first time the movie feels like it calms down and confronts what it should have been about instead of throwing flashy colors in pursuit of dull quest storytelling. There’s a tenderness in some of the beats near the conclusion that one wishes the rest of the movie leaned into instead of just hurtling itself through the stars.
It also doesn’t help that the visuals of “Over the Moon” are so polished and refined that it resembles a video game more than cinematic animation that stands the test of time. It’s rich with color but thin on actual detail. It's the vast difference between something that tries to numb kids with constant motion and something that trusts their young audience to meet them halfway. It’s naturally a little unfair to compare something to Studio Ghibli, but they’re a studio that has dealt with grief and princess mythology before, and have done so in a way that never disguises the humanity embedded in all of their work. That’s what’s missing here.
It can feel a bit curmudgeonly to come down on an animated musical about a girl grieving the loss her mother. Especially for families dealing with so much pain and grief in 2020, “Over the Moon” could be the kind of fable they need to help process what’s going unspoken in their lives. But the best fables linger in the heart and mind. This one never makes it past the eyes.
Now available on Netflix