Brian’s Exploratory Christmas Endeavor ’18: The Christmas Chronicles

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The Christmas Chronicles, one of Netflix’s barrage of original Christmas flicks for 2018, is not good. Directed by Clay Kaytis of The Angry Birds Movie, it is a mostly joyless, sometimes crass, often formulaic, persistently ugly movie with nearly no redeeming qualities. Its creators seemed to have had a hard time deciding between whether it was a kids’ film or something edgier–and it has none of the charm or personality to pull off either.

What is most offensive about it, however, and ironic to boot, is its near-total lack of Christmas Spirit; offensive because a Christmas film without Christmas Spirit is a cynical, uncomfortable way to spend 90 minutes, and ironic because a lack of Christmas Spirit is actually the driving motivation for much of the film’s plot.

The story, written by a fellow named Matt Lieberman (who is apparently in the process of fucking up several other franchise favorites like Scooby and The Addams Family) focuses on three main characters: Christmas Boy, Christmas Girl, and Santa Claus.

The children live with their stressed-out mother following the death of their father who, according to home video recorded on the ancient technology of MiniDV cassettes, was a great guy. The kids are dealing with their lives without Dad in different ways: Christmas Boy, played well enough by Male Teen Actor, is stealing cars. Christmas Girl, played in ways for which I don’t think we can entirely blame the actress, is played by Female Child Actor, and is mostly just hanging around, believing in Santa.

When the children disappoint their mother by being shitty, she leaves them with one simple task while she’s out for the evening: fix up the tree and decorations like the two of you have brains in your heads and give even a little bit of a shit about my mental well-being.

Instead, the children accidentally get caught up in Santa’s sleigh as he zips around the world accumulating gross dirt on the front of him, and spend the evening learning lessons about why one oughtn’t steal cars.

Santa Claus is played by the only big-name actor who would deign to be in this picture, Kurt Russell, but even he cannot elevate this material. In fact, paradoxically, the viewer is left to chew on how his presence could fail to do so, and this creates a sort of ugly blame spiral where one starts to resent Russell and suppose that some of this is his fault.

For reasons I can no longer recall, Santa’s PDA is tallying up a dwindling amount of Christmas Spirit, and he’s got to get back to delivering presents pronto or else World War III might break out, and no, I didn’t make that up just to be a smartass. The film asserts that when Christmas Spirit gets low, people–even people who don’t celebrate Christmas, presumably–get grouchy to the point they’re willing to kill one another.

Indeed, the thing people will tell you about this film is that at one point Santa dismisses the notion of his saying “ho ho ho” as fake news. This is meant to convey to you the sort of lame, phoned-in, self-dating comedy on offer here. And people are right to share that with you because that really is about as funny as this film gets.

You see, the movie is dark. Literally–it’s ugly, taking place exclusively at night and in dimly-lit locales like a restaurant, a police station, and a local gang murder warehouse–but also figuratively, featuring prostitutes, drug addicts, and a guy who pretty confidently tries to burn a little girl to death in a convenient, giant oven, as well as have her brother taken outside to be placed in a couple different trash cans.

There are good, dark Christmas films. Bad Santa is one, and I watched it the night after watching The Christmas Chronicles to cleanse my palette. But what is needed to make such a counter-intuitive thing as a dark Christmas film work is some amount of endearing personality. Likable characters are a good place to start, or at least characters that are easy to relate to. Maybe you don’t like Willy in Bad Santa, but if you have ever been a self-hating individual, you can at least understand him. Another thing that makes a dark Christmas film work is good humor, which Bad Santa has in spades, but The Christmas Chronicles completely lacks. 

Part of the trouble is that no one in Chronicles feels like a real person. Christmas Girl? Real-life children do not speak the way she does, in words or in tone. Christmas Boy? He (and she, for that matter) is awfully fucking ready to acknowledge that not only is Santa real, and not only are they going on an adventure with him, but also that it’s kind of an inconvenient way to spend the evening.

Then, there’s Santa himself. He is like a Marvel superhero whose only super-powers are to surprise people during confrontations by knowing their names and using the toys they wanted as children to try and bribe them. This is pretty standard Christmas film stuff, but Chronicles will use these two Santa tricks in scene after scene. It never gets Santa very far, but he keeps pulling it out, as if it’s a real crowd-pleaser for the audience. There’s really nothing else to his character. He’s just an impatient know-it-all who’s trying to stop the end of the world by raising the Christmas Spirit levels above the threshold of acceptability.

And that’s what I mean when I say this film has no Christmas Spirit. On the podcast in the past I have been stuck defending my position that Die Hard is not a Christmas film, and my greatest argument is that it has no Christmas Spirit. I must here echo Justice Potter Stewart (who was talking about porn) and say that while I cannot necessarily offer a satisfactory definition of what Christmas Spirit is, I know it when I see it.

If, however, I must attempt such a definition (and mustn’t I?), it would go something like this: Christmas Spirit is an attitude captured in a moment, or moments, throughout a piece of media, or in one’s life, which exemplify wholesome, moral human goodness for its own sake, often in the name of Christmas, whether implicitly or explicitly.

Christmas Spirit is the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life when the townspeople who’ve turned their backs on George Bailey arrive to contribute what each of them can to saving his Savings And Loan.

It’s the scene in A Christmas Story when Ralphie’s father, the old hardass, surprises him–and his mother!–with the one and only gift Ralphie really wanted (consequences be damned!).

It’s when the Little Drummer Boy, just a straight-up-and-down victim of life, joins kings to stand before the baby son of God Himself and offer the one and only thing he has, humble and yet somehow better than gold, frankincense or myrrh: a sincere offering of music.

It’s when Linus reminds Charlie Brown that Christmas isn’t about plays or trees; it’s about a simple message of goodness.

It’s when the Grinch witnesses the unbreakable Who (read: human) spirit of togetherness and love that is the cause of, and not caused by, the exchange of gifts, and his heart explodes in size, and he reverses his awful plans to try and destroy the best holiday we have, embracing it and embracing love.

It’s when Ebeneezer Scrooge realizes that life is only worth living if it is truly lived and shared with others, rather than measured in coin and hoarded away to one’s self at the expense of the world around, and he showers his abused employee and that employee’s family with gifts and warm food.

Christmas Spirit is the reason Love Actually and The Holiday are perfectly decent holiday movies, even if they are not themselves good movies.

When I speak against Die Hard as a Christmas film, I do so because it has none of that. And it’s not trying to. It’s just a regular fucking action film, and that’s okay! It excels at being an action film.

The Christmas Chronicles doesn’t excel at being any kind of film. Because I cannot say it any better, even as I have masturbated my own opinion here to exhaustion, I’ll quote RogerEbert.com’s Nell Minow at length, because she hit the nail on the head in her review of this same film:

You don’t have to do much to make a Christmas movie work—just ask the lovely folks at Hallmark who start their all-Christmas movie playlist before Halloween. The themes of family, giving, music, food and joy are already there and all that needs to be added are a couple of characters who need to be reminded of how it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Some mistletoe, cookies, and reconciliation, maybe a reminder that family is more important than ambition, maybe a sentimental relic of the past, and audiences are more than happy to smile through their tears of nostalgia and warmth. But “The Christmas Chronicles” keeps getting in its own way with a patched-together story, raggedy tone, thinly imagined characters, and weak humor

Ho-ho-ho. This movie is Bad.
★★☆☆☆

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Brian’s Exploratory Christmas Endeavor ’18: A Christmas Prince: Royal Wedding

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I reviewed A Christmas Prince when it first came out, and while I thought it was just the worst, I could have imagined things still worse and let it pass mostly on its good looks. A Christmas Prince, if you don’t remember, is the schmaltzy ABC Family-style nothing-movie that 53 people watched every day for a while.

The film was vapid, trite, predictably-scripted, poorly-acted, and unsurprisingly, precisely what the average Netflix viewer was looking for. Given that this must have been made on a shoestring budget, it’s hard to deny Netflix their well-deserved win. They gambled on a sure-thing and it paid off.

A Christmas Prince: Royal Wedding is more of the same. More bad acting, more babby’s-first-romcom writing, more shot-reverse-shot conversations, more passive-aggressive villains drifting about the background.

One thing I hadn’t expected was the liberal usage of George Lucas / iMovie-style scene transitions. They use circle-out, clock-wipe, push-up, and spin-in-from-a-distance transitions back-to-back in the span of about 10 seconds in the opening catch-up montage, and it’s truly something to behold. This film, like its predecessor, teeters at all times on the verge of laughable incompetence, without ever falling over the cliff into Tommy Wisseau territory.

I want to take a break here from dumping on the film to remark on the young Honor Kneafsey, who may be the best actor in the film. That she is still playing the ridiculous wheelchair-bound cutesy-little-sister character is unfortunate, but she’s got the chops to break away from this sort of schlock and move on to proper roles down the line.

The scene where Simon makes his entrance is amazing, by the by.

The next best actor is the Harlequin Romance model who plays Prince Richard. Is that his name? I think it’s Richard. And he’s not good. Not even a little bit. But whatever character he’s trying to affect here, he’s certainly…trying.

There is also a horrible wedding designer character who is offensive as a gay stereotype and an Indian stereotype all at the same time. He rocks the same sort of accent for which Hank Azaria got in so much trouble for applying to The Simpsons’ Apu, and while this fellow is actually Indian, it’s hard to give him a pass knowing that there are Indian actors who are trying to get out from under this stereotype even as Hollywood keeps demanding it.

It’s also worth pointing out that the protagonist–I’m sorry, I won’t learn her name–has a father character who was introduced at the tail end of the first film, a humble New York diner owner, and he is played like he’s trying out for Goodfellas or The Sopranos. He manages to be likable, like the Prince, for how hard his actor seems to be trying.

And that’s something I was once criticized for on the show. I can enjoy an actor who is giving it their damnedest, even if the performance isn’t great. The actor playing A Christmas Prince‘s queen-to-be protagonist is not trying especially hard. She’s bad, like the Prince and father, but unlike them, she also isn’t trying very hard. She’s flat, like the movie. These other actors, as well as Honor Kneafsey, are trying, and provide the only bits of charm this movie has.

Look, it’s the same as the first one. So it gets the same Christmas-adjusted rating: ★★☆☆☆ and Bad.

Also, the evil cousin character is fine.

This movie is for children and people who don’t demand more of their films than children do. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. I like Billy Madison. If you like A Christmas Prince: Royal Wedding, then good on you.

Ralph Breaks The Internet

I loved Wreck-It Ralph. It was original, funny, and most importantly very sweet and genuine. It held up on repeat viewings back then, and I watched it again after watching Ralph Breaks The Internet to check that my memories weren’t wrong. They weren’t.

But the fact I had to check at all isn’t a great indicator of Ralph Breaks The Internet‘s quality. And before we go any further, I have to get out ahead of myself and say this is not going to be a negative review.

But I was hoping it would be a glowing review, and it’s not going to be that, either.

When I first saw the reveal trailer for Ralph Breaks the Internet, I was worried.

Without any context for why it’s happening, we see Ralph and Vanellope thrust into the internet, and we are quickly bombarded with real-world brands and imagery. After a joke about autofill that works better in the film, there is a dub-over trailer fake-out that connects the scene to a metatextual Disney site where we spend the latter half of the trailer on one overexposed gag about Vanellope meeting her fellow Disney princesses. The scene is too on-the-nose in its critique of Disney’s own properties, and feels like the company trying to afford itself a get-out-of-jail-free card for its decades of (arguably excusable?) sexism, as if a quick riff will undo any future responsibility they have for the men-save-women image they’ve cultivated and made their billions on.

I was worried. Then, eventually, the second trailer. Which was better, but…not really.

The bad Sour Bill joke that’s good for kids and few others. The badly spliced trailer-dub vocals that sounded insincere and cheap. The tonally try-hard family-friendly rap. The lack of any mystique about the plot as they come right out and hit you over the head with many of the movie’s internet-themed jokes (like, “click here to get rid of belly fat!”). The fact that immediately after feeling like the trailer is showing too much, it dives, without explanation, into Slaughter Race and a quick shark-gobbling-a-dog gag that gives the impression that now we’re not being shown enough to understand what’s going on. The further unexplained focus on the trailer-unnamed racer character Shank (played by Gal Gadot) leads into a flossing gag, a darknet reference, and not much else.

I was still worried.

And a week ago, I finally saw it. Would’ve written sooner, but since zero people read this, I didn’t think it was a huge priority.

I spent the first hour of Ralph Breaks the Internet feeling terribly disappointed. For the most part, none of the gags were landing. Because the film didn’t have to introduce the audience to its main characters beyond some exceptionally blunt exposition, it didn’t bother to endear us to them, or even remind us why we might have been endeared from the last film.

The setup is simple enough: Vanellope’s machine might be removed because a child has broken the steering wheel due, somehow, to Ralph’s meddling. Coincidentally, the arcade owner has just installed a WiFi router, and Ralph has picked up that a new wheel can be acquired on eBay. Mediocre comedy ensues.

Without giving too much away, the film’s plot eventually comes to move around the issue of Vanellope wanting to expand her horizons, and Ralph, having found his happiness in her company as a friend over the last six years, wanting things to stay the same. This is a beautiful, true-to-life, well-observed emotional conflict to drive the plot, and it’s the sort of thing for which I often praise children’s entertainment these days. Children’s productions have gone up and up in quality as generations have been spurred to creative heights by their predecessors. No longer content to sell toys, ’90s animators sought to tell stories and create proper characters. In the aughts and now teens of the 21st century, the animators who grew up watching ’90s shows have sought to use well-developed characters and funny, creative storytelling to teach children better life lessons than “don’t litter” and “don’t talk to strangers”. Children are now being taught more complex matters by media geared toward them, and Disney has often been at the front of that with endeavors like Inside Out and Zootopia. And kudos to them for those, and for the message behind Ralph 1 and 2.

The problem for me with Ralph Breaks the Internet is that I couldn’t tell until sometime in the second half (of this long, 2-hour film) that the film had any heart at all. Until the point where they came out and said what the conflict was, it may as well have been any modern cartoon, just trying to pack in lots of gags (almost none of which worked for me).

Once it found its heart though, things got better. And by the end, I choked up a few times. By the end, the characters I loved were still in tact, and due in no small part to Sarah Silverman’s fantastic voice acting, its emotion resonated with me in a meaningful way. When the credits rolled I was more than ready to leave the theater, but by that time I had also decided that when the film eventually releases on Blu-Ray, I will probably be willing to watch it with a less judgmental attitude.

The popular consensus among critics was that it was as good as, but not better than, its predecessor. And having watched the both of them within 72 hours of one another, I have to say I don’t agree. But that’s because the things that matter to me in animation–sincerity, creativity, emotion, laughter–aren’t here the way I want them to be. However, for someone who just sees these as dumb, fun, colorful cartoons to gawk at four two hours and be rewarded for their casual understanding of things like the Twitter bird and “one weird trick” banner ads, I could see this being as enjoyable an affair as Wreck-It Ralph was, rewarding their casual knowledge of Pac-Man and Zangief from Street-Fighter II.

It’s also worth pointing out that while I was worried the Disney Princess scene from the first trailer was foreboding something terrible, that running gag turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the film, and I rather wish they’d have just made a movie about Ralph, Vanellope, and the Disney Princesses. Incidentally, today I was watching I Hate Everything’s “I HATE ‘LIVE ACTION’ DISNEY REMAKES” video, and he pointed out, rightly, that rather than all these so-called live-action remakes Disney has been farting out, they’d do much better by their brand and by the audience to just bring these classic cartoons into the modern CG cartoon style of films like Ralph. The princesses in this film prove it can be done, and well.

Ralph Breaks The Internet wasn’t the movie I wanted it to be, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared either. It will please children. It may please many adults. It probably won’t make you cry.

The best kid’s films should make a grown man cry. Fight me.

I’ll call it Good and give it ★★★☆☆

GBU Returns With GBU Classic

Not to spoil the fun, but I’ve gotten a new RSS for the podcast, which you’ll find searchable on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts, and I’m fairly sure any podcatcher that indexes with Libsyn. Because I’m not made of money, it’s going to take some time to add a few of the classic episodes month by month until the feed is all caught up.

Subscribe now, rate if you want to help, and stay tuned for more.

Venom

I saw the above poster for Venom at my local theater months ago, and I thought, “oh, God, no.” I nudged my room mate and said, “look, there’s nothing on the poster because this thing is in production Hell, they have nothing to show.” He grunted.

I repeated the same thing to him after the first Venom teaser trailer played. As I recall, it was in the same showing that the Upgrade trailer played. Maybe this was Pacific Rim: Uprising? Anyway, if you like, I’ve gotten you two trailers to watch back-to-back, as I did in the theater, and compare.

And…

I’m not the first person to make this comparison, but it’s worth pointing out, because so rarely do we get to draw direct comparisons like these. These films began their marketing at roughly the same time, and have roughly the same premise. Upgrade, a Blumhouse film, naturally has a much smaller budget. Venom, a Sony movie using Marvel characters, has not only a greater budget, but a greater historical and political context (that is, Sony’s Marvel movies are almost exclusively bad and their ambitions for their Marvel properties have been infamously cringy).  How would Blumhouse’s scrappy, low-budget Upgrade fare in comparison with apparently bumbling Sony’s next floundering attempt at making a decent movie from the Spider-Man universe?

I kinda liked them both, and they were both kinda shitty.

Before we proceed, I have to point out that there has been and will be no better, funnier breakdown of this film than the one made by the Chapo Traphouse fellas, and you can listen here:

Now, as for what I think: it was not as bad as I thought it was going to be.

It is not as boring as The Amazing Spider-Man. It is not as bombastically, deliciously bad as The Amazing Spider-Man 2. And while it is sometimes charming in its badness, it doesn’t get all those bonus points that underdog Upgrade gets for its humble roots.

Blumhouse is a fascinating company to me, and I think they may be the new Canon Films. And Canon Films didn’t exclusively produce garbage. They had a few good films. But their mindset was not to lose sleep over expensive, ambitious productions, when you could put more films out on shoestring budgets and have a better chance at striking gold.

Blumhouse puts out a lot of garbage. And every now and then they put out a good one. We never did a podcast about it, but I really enjoyed Happy Death Day. Indeed, I also enjoyed Upgrade, even though the acting was spotty, the ideas unoriginal, and the script a little hokey and a lot predictable. I’ll say this, at least: in an age of franchises and cinematic universes, I’m glad to have a Blumhouse out there throwing a good-enough budget at everything they can and seeing what works.

Venom is the weird, nega-Upgrade. It had all the budget, and big name stars, including Tom Hardy, one of our best living actors. It had state-of-the-art CG (and still managed to just make its hero and villain into big, black goops of Nickelodeon Gak). And yet, while I won’t say it was necessarily a whole lot worse, it certainly didn’t manage to be any better than Upgrade.

There are worse ways to spend 112 minutes than with Venom, but the whole thing is such a joke, isn’t it? One doesn’t know how to feel about it. It’s not painfully bad, so one can’t get a healthy dose of “so bad it’s good” entertainment out of it. It’s also not good enough to say, “well, you know, it deserves its due credit.” Really, the best thing this film does is to walk the tightrope of quality admirably. It manages to make it from one end to the other without falling on either the so bad it’s good or so bad it’s bad side.

I want to give this a light recommendation. But not without first pointing out what kind of movie this is:

This is the kind of film where someone asks Eddie Brock, “hey, aren’t you Eddie Brock?” and he responds, “I used to be.”

This is the kind of film where the goop living in Eddie Brock’s head encourages him to kiss the girlfriend from whom he is estranged.

This is the kind of film where the villain, also with a goop up his ass, is prepping a thing for villainy, and a subordinate says, “you can’t [do that villainy] alone,” and the villain, nearly mugging the camera, says, “I’m not alone.”

This is not Suicide Squad or Justice League bad. It’s not Batman v. Superman boring, either. It’s entirely palatable. It’s also not good.

It makes it fairly easy to overlook the film’s detachment of Venom from Spider-Man, which was a big concern for me. It manages to make the idea of Venom as a generic anti-hero character something you shruggingly approve of. But it is also really, laughably bad.

So go and enjoy it for what it is. Or don’t. You’ll be fine, either way. Honestly, I think I can live with this film in the world. If I could flip a switch and erase it from existence, I don’t think I would. And that’s got to count for something, right?

★★☆☆☆ It’s clearly Bad, but you might not regret watching it.

Ranma ½, The Movie: Big Trouble in Nekonron, China

I’ve wanted to see this film for at least twenty years. It’s horrible.

As I recounted in my review of the Ranma ½ Christmas special, Tendo Family Christmas Scramble, when I was little, our Blockbuster’s limited selection of anime was nearly all the anime I had access to, and among those, I could only take home the ones that didn’t warn my parents about explicit content. Ranma pushed the limits with occasional exposed breasts in the TV show and OVA, but I watched when my parents weren’t around.

Anyway, the tapes advertised two of the Ranma films, this and another called Nihao, My Concubine. I’ve gotten ahold of both of them, and finally put this one on, and now I no longer look forward to watching the other.

Look at the poster for this movie. There’s a villain. Ranma appears (at first glance, although it’s more of a Mandala effect) to have a new female character in his protective embrace. Akane is in the background, looking panicked, and we may draw the conclusion that she’s reacting to Ranma and this new girl. Were this set-up a reflection of the film, it might have been more interesting.

But it’s not. It’s consistently boring. And cheap. And, even for a series that’s not famous for its feminist sensibilities, it’s very misogynistic.

There’s a long, Happosai-panty-raiding setup, followed by the introduction of two new Chinese characters from a place in China called Nekonron. One is Lychee, the woman on the cover. The other is Kirin, a prince or something, and head of the 7 Gods of Something Or Other school of martial arts. There’s a big, dumb, anime whoopsee-daisy and Kirin abducts Akane, to force her to marry him, and the whole Ranma cast, as well as Lychee and her elephant, go in pursuit.

This, even, sounds like a decent enough setup. But it’s boring. And cheap.

And also, very drab to look at. This “movie”, which is about three episodes long, has a very dark and dour color palette. It looks as though everything’s recently been rained on. And the action, which doesn’t really start until well after the half-way point, is no more impressive than any episode of the anime.

I know I’m bouncing around here, but all I’ve got is a list of complaints, so it hardly matters how they’re all curated. The foley work is absolutely horrible. One scene comes to mind where Ranma is fighting the Final Boss character, and there’s just…hardly any sound. Punches are being thrown and deflected. Ranma is reflecting to himself about how his attacks seem to be hitting a force field. And it just sounds like…nothing much at all.

And on the subject of sound, I watched this in English, because, as an artifact of my childhood, I wouldn’t have Ranma any other way. And I’m aware that there’s some strong opinions about the various people who’ve worked on the English cast, regarding who’s better than whom. This movie is made up of my preferred English dub cast, but it’s almost sad to hear them all stretching their limited ranges to fill in all these new characters. It just reminds you that there was no budget for the dub, even though this is supposed to have all this big “motion picture” flare to it.

The action is scarce and boring. Ranma does some dragon-made-out-of-water uppercut that is so powerful he destroys a towering castle, and I the viewer could not have cared less.  The whole show’s cast of characters tags along for the ride, but they’re only there occasionally, when a plot device is needed.

Oh, and now that I’m thinking about Shampoo, let’s take a moment to point out the inconsistency in the English script and voice acting: Lychee and Kirin both do the weird third person me-so-solly take on Chinese that Shampoo does. And when it’s just Shampoo, you can take it with a grain of salt. Oh, it’s the time it came from. Oh, there’s cultural translation happening in this English interpretation of the Japanese interpreting the Chinese. Mousse and Cologne don’t talk that way so it’s not all bad. Etc.

Here though, these two new characters both do the annoying Shampoo speak, and the five other Chinese characters either speak normally, or in the case of two weird ones, in rhyme. It manages to be annoying and inconsistent.

My last complaint though is the one that bugged me the most. Akane is entirely out of character in this film. She’s written, usually, as a tomboy. Still a woman with feelings, but a fiery, defiant, frankly angry young woman who doesn’t take shit from anybody. Not her dad. Not her supposed fiancee Ranma. Not any of the women who are usually trying to kill her. Not the squad of dudes who try to beat her up every morning on her way into school.

In this movie, she gets abducted, stands around putting up with it, cooks for the dude who abducted her, and then when her cooking makes him sick, she puts a wet rag on his forehead…

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…and then fucking apologizes for getting him sick.

I hate this movie. Unwatchable.
★☆☆☆☆

The Hate U Give

hateugiveThe Hate U Give drew tears out of me three times. It also startled me into flailing my hands in the air and jumping around in my seat twice. I don’t think I’ve ever hyperventilated, but the closest I may have come as an adult was during a scene in The Hate U Give when tears were spilling down my face because I was positive the movie was about to portray something horrifying.

And the reason I was breathing heavily through my mouth, tears gushing forth, feeling hot behind my ears (a sensation I can’t say I’ve ever felt before), was that the movie effectively convinces you that what may happen next is practically guaranteed to. It does this effectively because it is an honest reflection of reality. In reality, the thing I was afraid of seeing on-screen happens. It famously happened here in Ohio a few years ago. It will happen again. Maybe it happened somewhere in America today. I haven’t looked in the news.

I first saw the trailer for The Hate U Give months ago. I think I was seeing Sorry To Bother You (which was excellent by the way), which was what I’ll refer to as an African American film. Its director, its stars, and much of its messaging, were African American. So, too, were the trailers. The other ones played were for Blindspotting, White Boy Rick, and Night School. I wanted to see the first and third on that list, and I felt like I’d been waiting to see Night School for an entire year. When it finally came out, I hardly cared anymore, but that’s neither here, nor there.

The trailer for The Hate U Give said, “this is important. This is not just pretending to be important. This. Is. Important. And it is honest.”

I heard rumblings between then and now that the film was adapted from a book of the same name, which is being read in schools across the country. And to that, I say, “good.”

But what does it matter what I say? I’ve been trying to work through my feelings about that since I stepped into the theater this evening. And it was the cheapo theater, by the by, because this movie didn’t do well financially, and is already showing for $3 at the second-run multiplex. On a 23 million dollar budget, this film made 29, and that’s an absolute crime.

I digress, though. As I say, I sat down into my uncomfortable cheapo theater seat and became immediately aware of my position as a privileged white, male suburbanite and genuinely ignorant and pretentious movie snob wannabe. I had neither the cultural nor film bona fides to criticize this movie. But I had paid my $3 and knew it was going to happen.

It opens up, and after an impactful scene of a black father, who appears to have done time, giving his two black children “the talk” about how to behave at a traffic stop (hands on the dash, don’t argue with the officer, say “yes sir”, etc.). After that, we move to the present and for a while, things are a little hokey. The protagonist, Starr, narrates us through her code-switching double life, living in the ‘hood and attending school at a prestigious, mostly-white academy. Her parents, she informs us, put her brother and her there to try and keep them safe from the reality of her home neighborhood’s public school. Her stepmother is petitioning her father to move out and away from the ghetto, while he wants to stay and contribute to the growing and strengthening of the character of their home.

It’s a compelling setup, but it’s not the meat of the plot, and we know that from the marketing. So it feels a little stiff, a little formal as the opening minutes tick by. I wonder about some of the lines being delivered by this picturesque family. I wonder about the way they’re delivered. Is this a little over-the-top? A little prime-time-sitcom-esque? If it is, is it reflective of African American film-making? Of course not, I remind myself, there are about a dozen layers of bias to such an assumption, and it would be exhausting to list them all here. I assure myself that I’m either reading too much into it, or that if I’m noticing little quibbles, they are only that, and most people wouldn’t bother even looking for such things.

I try to enjoy the movie and push out of my head all the critical thoughts I’m having because, again, I know I’m in no position to nit-pick. I’m some white asshole who didn’t even see this in a first-run theater and support it with a full ticket price.

It doesn’t take long to notice that the lead actress, Amandla Stenberg has more skill in her than I first thought. I think I recognize her. Was she in that movie about teenagers having powers? Yeah, I think she was the little girl in The Hunger Games. How long ago was that? You know what? I saw her in some romance called Everything, Everything when they were playing it in at work. Oh, I’m getting side-tracked.

THE HATE U GIVE

But it’s worth noting. The little girl from The Hunger Games has been putting in her work, getting her practice, even if it was in films like The Darkest Minds where no one was looking. And let’s be honest, that film looked like garbage. But she’s got something to show for it. What I come to find out again and again over the course of the film is that she is a fantastic actor. The word that kept springing up in my mind was “force”. She is a force.

The brilliance in her performance here, and I suppose due credit goes to director George Tillman Jr., is that it is paced, balanced, and allowed to span a massive range of emotion. We see her playing both the role of prep school girl of color, carefully watching her every own word and move to cater to the white people around her, even as it means suppressing her responses to their appropriation of her culture. We see her cutting loose–but not too loose–at a party with people in the ‘hood. We see her in terror, and in grief. We see her in trauma, and in quiet suffering. In fear, indecision, relief, rage, panic, and righteous, passionate indignation.

She plays it all in a way that I can only describe as stunning. Stenberg stuns with her performance.

Russell Hornsby, who you may recall from Denzel Washington’s adaptation of Fences, also deserves a shout-out for his portrayal of Starr’s (Stenberg’s) father, Maverick Carter. He is an imposing, world-weary, yet defiant and strong father. A former victim of the ghetto and courageous defender of it. Hornsby is believable throughout the entire film. He makes you believe in Maverick Carter’s bravery.

The other actors, from the lesser roles to the more significant, are all pretty great too. Regina Hall plays the loving stepmother perfectly, and I loved seeing Anthony Mackie play something besides a comedic or superhero role. I’m sure he does all the time, but I’ve never seen it, so that was a treat. The child actors are also impressive as well.

Also, the white people were fine.

And I’m not being flippant about that. They’re an afterthought here because I really thought of them last. This is not a movie for white people, although it ought to be mandatory viewing. This is one of those films that flips the typical Hollywood structure and uses white people to fill the roles of lesser characters, and I am always fascinated to feel, even in this touristic way, what that is like. Other, similar example that comes to mind is what a cow men had when Wonder Woman and Black Panther came out. In both, white men were either lackey side characters, villains, or disposable.

There is more to this film than the trailer lets on, and several times throughout, I felt that the gang violence subplot wasn’t a great asset. But, again, I’m a white suburbanite. I’ve been fortunate enough never to have to live in a neighborhood where the threat of gang authority looms large. What does my opinion matter if I don’t feel like every Anthony Mackie component is integral? Doubtless there are people from the ‘hood in the audience who can appreciate that character and relate it to their lives. Not everything in this movie is for me.

And on the subject of its white characters, it seems to have two main types to portray: MLK’s White Moderate, in the form of Starr’s shitty classmate friend, and the White Ally who, in this case, isn’t especially woke but seems to want to work on it.

I definitely have feelings about these, and they’re complicated, and I think that’s okay because so are the things being portrayed here.

The shitty White Moderate friend is a Blue Lives Matter sort of too-subtle-a-racist-to-realize-she-is-a-racist type. But there is also a scene in the film where a black police officer gives the police officer’s point of view on the danger of a traffic stop and the bias inherent in pulling over a well-to-do white man versus a black man in the ‘hood. He goes down an exhaustive list of variables and pieces of protocol used in the decision-making that leads up to an accidental murder of an unarmed man, and you drift in and out of appreciating where he’s coming from. That’s what makes the white friend who is also a piece of shit into a character with some nuance. She’s not a cartoon villain. The view she’s expressing, while wrong, is one that is very easy to hold.

The White Ally comes in the form of Starr’s boyfriend, and I worried here and there about the direction this character might go. Initially, I expected him to be what the best friend character turned out to: a fake fan of black people who isn’t willing to learn about or appreciate the black experience and probably leaves Starr somewhere down the line. Later, I was worried that he would turn out to be some lesser form of the White Savior. And the white assimilationist inside of me who knows that the end goal, on paper, if there were no such things as history or context, would be that we’re all completely equal in all ways–the same way “I don’t see color” people pretend we already are or can be–wanted him not to turn out to be a flake or a villain.

I won’t spoil what goes on with his character, suffice it to say that while I didn’t find the end result especially satisfying from a narrative or political angle, I did appreciate it from a humanist and brow-wiping relief sort of angle.

This film is effective in everything it sets out to do. It is moving, heartbreaking, inspiring, and even daring–specifically, daring you, the audience member, to fucking do something. Anything. But not to conflate slacktivism with activism. Rather, to be willing to risk life and limb for what is right, just the way black people are forced to do every day simply for their own existence in this country.

As for the film making, since I must discuss it, it is above-average. The shots are sometimes more than competent, with some nice creativity. But it doesn’t have a distinct visual style. And that’s fine. A film this loaded with heavy themes doesn’t need to strike a visual pose. It would only distract from itself.

But one thing I really did like, and I noticed about a half-hour in, relates to the cinematography. I think some of it was done in post, but much of it was to do with the sets, which is very impressive: whenever something is happening in the White Man’s world, things are plain, largely white, and the colors are very muted. It’s as if Starr and that slice of her world are desaturated. When she is in the ‘hood, or near to it either geographically or thematically, the colors saturate and the palette of the movie becomes very fleshy and robust. I loved this choice. It is subtle, yet effective.

I’ll say again that it’s a crime this film didn’t perform better at the box office. I don’t watch TV and I pay for ad-free versions of all my internet services like YouTube, Hulu and Spotify so I don’t know how heavily this film was marketed. I usually realize a movie has released when I see YMS or Chris Stuckmann review it, but neither one of them have turned their eye toward it and I don’t know why. Double Toasted did a review, but YouTube’s algorithm has sorted them out of my subscription feed.

Given that it’s being read in high schools, I simply assumed it would be a runaway success and household talking point.

But it doesn’t seem to have been.

It’s a crime.

It’s not an artsy movie. But it is art. It is a wonderfully refined encapsulation of a hugely important message for our times. It is a bellowing sob and a rallying cry that should speak to anyone with a heartbeat and a decent moral compass. It is a well-intentioned and wholesome gift to an American public that seems in 2018 to often be morally bankrupt. And, unsurprisingly, America got word of what was in the gift and decided not to show up and open it.

But you should. I encourage you to accept this gift. And show up at the next rally in your town square for BLM. Don’t mark it as “Interested” on Facebook and then sleep in late that Saturday. Don’t just tell your friends, “oh, I almost went to that protest, I really wanted to be there, but I had a few too many the night before and I was just dead Saturday.” Go to the next protest at the site of the murder of the next unarmed black person who dies in your town. Cry if you need to at the certainty that there will be a next one.

The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody

Good
★★★★☆