The M&M Report: Spring Movie Roundup

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It’s been an unusually active year for major motion pictures. Looking at the box office receipts might not tell the whole story — many of this year’s most interesting movies have drawn low grosses, thanks to some combination of weak-willed marketing and ill-considered scheduling.

Money doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Allow The M&M Report to fill in the rest. We’ll walk you through a non-comprehensive list of 2018’s highlights. But first, Devin, let me throw it to you — any theories on why we’ve been so excited to head to the multiplex so far this year?

Devin: Good movies are coming out! People realize that it’s possible for a film released early in the year to be commercially and critically successful. Get Out, which came out February of last year, probably did a lot to shift expectations, but the early months have been underserved relative to the rest of the year for awhile. Maybe there was an outdated perception that good movies didn’t come out during Oscar season? But to some extent this is just speculation.

In any event, I think it’s a positive development, even if all of movies covered here didn’t land in the way Black Panther did. Mark, what do you think is going on? And is there any credence to the idea that the plethora of good films this spring has anything to do with middling television?

Mark: I think it’s always tough to make blanket assertions about The State of Film or The State of TV. But I myself feel more engaged in what’s happening on the big screen right now. As summer movie season has become increasingly engulfed by massive spectacles designed to attract international audiences, the weirder, smaller movies that tend to draw me to the theater get pushed to spring and fall (or to Netflix, but that’s a separate conversation). The increasing fragmentation of the TV landscape means it’s now far easier to be “caught up” on movies worth seeing than it is to be “caught up” on new television that might be worth watching. And you don’t need a plethora of cable subscriptions or passwords from your friends and relatives to go see a movie — it’s hard to beat the simplicity of walking up to a counter and purchasing an immediately redeemable ticket.

I’m pleased about the number of intriguing films from respected or interesting directors that have come out recently, because it’s a reminder to check yourself whenever you’re tempted to utter the phrase, “Movies are bad now.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and an entire medium doesn’t crumble in one either. Here are a few examples to prove the point.

Annihilation

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Mark: I found A Quiet Place scary, but I’m not sure I’ve been as scared at the movies this year as I was during this movie when Anya (Gina Rodriguez) ties her fellow scientist-explorers up and demands to know the truth. Something truly bone-chilling happens just moments later and exemplifies this movie’s chilly appeal — an awe-inspiring vision of nature gone awry, or at least astray. The movie keeps its story cards close to the vest (excepting a few clunky flashbacks), so the emotional impact at the end is derived from ambiguity and abstraction. Between this and Ex Machina, Alex Garland has become one of the most intriguing directors imagining the future we don’t want but might just get. Now I need to go read the book, which Garland read once before writing this screenplay.

 

A Wrinkle in Time

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Mark: Burdened by a lethal combination of massive hype and underwhelmed reviews, this movie faltered at the box office and hasn’t yet made back its $100 million budget (the largest ever for a black female director). I’m not hugely surprised the movie wasn’t universally beloved. It’s a strange creation — ruthlessly sincere, narratively slack and at times genuinely unsettling. Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey and Mindy Kaling didn’t entirely work for me despite the inspired casting decisions, and the story’s surreal overtones occasionally struggle to transcend the limitations of the children’s fantasy genre. But Ava DuVernay captures quite a bit of visual poetry and draws expressive performances from her child actors and the Internet’s fave Chris, Chris Pine. This movie is a bumpy ride that’s still worth taking.

Black Panther

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Devin: What more is there to say about the highest grossing film of the year? As Black Panther approached, I was expecting to be cool to the oncoming cultural phenomenon, as the ongoing hegemony of superhero stories isn’t my favorite trend. But Ryan Coogler subverted the genre to both pose questions about colonialism and the African diaspora’s relationship to the continent and tell an exciting story about a complex world. Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger was such a compelling villain. The whole cast was stacked, Ruth Carter’s costumes were designed with such care. The soundtrack! I won’t pretend to have perfectly tracked the plot or understand how it fits into the larger Marvel universe, but I don’t think you have to in order to enjoy the movie. It absolutely deserves the accolades it’s getting.

Chappaquiddick

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Devin: An effective if relatively straightforward deconstruction of a key chapter in the Kennedy mythology. Any historical dramatization necessarily must fills in gaps and take leaps not in the historical record, but Chappaquiddick was smart to zero in on Senator Ted Kennedy’s inexplicable behavior in the aftermath of Mary Jo Kopechne’s drowning and key inconsistencies in his official account of events. Kate Mara conveyed a fully realized person whose death was a tragedy on its own terms despite relatively little screen time, and Kopechne’s final moments were agonizing to watch. The portrayal of the crisis management effort that ramps up to preserve the political career of the last surviving Kennedy brother was notable for its ultimate success in that mission but also in stripping all involved in the episode of their humanity. The still-fresh aftermath of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and the Apollo 11 mission occurring in the background (along with Garth Stevenson’s haunting score) set the tone of unfulfilled expectations and crushing sadness from the start, which felt right for this story.

Game Night

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Mark: How rare to see a movie comedy that’s funny from beginning to end, doesn’t hate its characters or want you to hate them, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s also visually clever and full of rousing plot twists. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams make a dazzling onscreen team, and their characters’ affection for each other casts a warm glow over even the most outlandish onscreen happenings. Great supporting work from Kyle Chandler, Kylie Bunbury, Sharon Horgan, Billy Magnussen, Lamorne Morris and future Oscar nominee (?) Jesse Plemons elevates this surprise gem to one of 2018’s early highlights.

Ready Player One

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Devin: I was thinking about Facebook and the problems it has confronted lately (as its role in disseminating misinformation and sharing our personal data with Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 presidential campaign has been more closely examined) while watching Ready Player One. The movie is about a near future in which a virtual reality game called OASIS has flourished as actually reality has descended into crisis.

But as the movie goes on, it becomes hard to avoid the conclusion that OASIS (arguably like Facebook) is fundamentally bad, not just corruptible by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn) and IOI. It’s tough to pinpoint exactly how aware the film are about this and the problematic nostalgia of the never-ending 1980’s pop culture references. I haven’t read the book but the rendering of a dystopian future, undeniably lurking in our collective subconscious right now, was what excited me most about seeing this movie. Both the online and offline worlds depicted were spectacular. I just wish the rest of the movie could have matched that. The central romance was so bland and I was frustrated by the resistance to portray deceased OASIS creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) in any kind of critical light. The ending was deeply unsatisfying. As Alison Willmore wrote in her review, “The darkness is there, but it’s never there too long, as if Spielberg, who helped shape the modern-day blockbuster, were hesitant about losing his target audience with anything that might suggest there are any complications to their rollicking, nostalgia-fueled adventure.”

Unsane

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Mark and Devin: This movie is creepy. We recorded a podcast about it.

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