Captain Marvel

I consider myself a lite version of a comic book/superhero fan. On a really basic level, I love the suspension of reality while watching supernatural forces battle each other. I love a storyline that focuses on a nerdy, underestimated kid finding strength within themselves, sometimes with the help of radioactive chemicals. And I think it’s wonderful that someone who feels like an outsider can watch these stories and feel like they belong when society is telling them otherwise. To prove my questionable commitment to comic book life, I even dressed up for Comic Con — as Harley Quinn before she went mainstream might I add (a phrase I will keep repeating until the day I die).

That all being said, I’m bit of a faux fan. I find it way too much work to actually keep up with all of the superheros (how are there SO MANY of them??) and my non-drawing self can’t quite appreciate the artistry in the comic books (or am I supposed to call them graphic novels now?). I don’t have a particular “fandom” I follow, and don’t have an opinion on the age-old Marvel vs. DC debate. It will surprise no one to hear that everyone hated me at Comic Con.

To put it mildly, I have very a basic, superficial knowledge of mainstream superheroes. I enjoy what they represent, without being able to critique the accuracy of adaptations on the silver screen.

That takes us to Captain Marvel. As with Wonder Woman, I was excited that there was a superhero movie with a female lead, and Avengers: Infinity War did a great job of piquing my interest in this character. I’m not a major Brie Larson fan for reasons that I really can’t explain; I know it’s frowned upon to call a woman unlikable, but sometimes the shoe just fits. Despite that, I enjoyed the Captain Marvel trailer and particularly liked the backstory of her being a pilot (was this in the comics? Again, faux fan over here).

The story opens with Captain Marvel (or as she’s known for the better part of the movie, Vers), on a futuristic planet called Kree. We learn that she’s part of an elite fighter squad that combats invading terrorists, and she struggles with controlling her emotions– women, amirite? We are also not supposed to question that Jude Law is inexplicably some kind of brilliant sensei when it comes fighting (there’s that suspension of reality again). Vers doesn’t remember a lot of her past, which only comes to her in bits and pieces through dreams of herself in a wreckage with another woman (the fabulous Annette Benning) before waking up.

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The fighter squad, led by Master Jude, embark on a mission to save a nearby planet from Skrulls – shapeshifting beings that have invaded and attacked the planet’s inhabitants. The mission goes awry and Vers gets captured by the Skrulls (thanks for nothing Jude). During her capture, Vers is implanted by fleeting memories of her past; she sees herself as a child, teenager and adult overcoming various obstacles in her journey to becoming a pilot. She also briefly sees the woman from her dreams, but can’t place her. For those who worry that this movie will have too much of a feminist slant, this is really the only scene where it comes out.

She escapes the Skrulls and lands in a Blockbuster on Earth. The Blockbuster is a great way to signify the time period we’re in (1995) but also creates a huge wave of nostalgia for us cool people who went to Blockbuster every Friday night to stock up on movies for the weekend (something tells me that the people who did that and the people who saw Captain Marvel are one and the same).

Decked out in her black and green Kree superhero outfit, it doesn’t take long before a security guard calls SHIELD on her (this is where my superhero ignorance comes in because I’m not quite sure what SHIELD is/does…some kind of Superhero FBI?). She meets Samuel L. Jackson, aka Fury, who is fabulously de-aged through the magic of movie technology. After initially disbelieving her story (fair enough), he comes around after he sees a Skrull for himself.  From there, the two unite to help Vers track down Dr. Wendy Lawson, the woman that appeared in Vers’ newly discovered memories.

Through this journey, Vers learns that she was born Carol Danvers and 6 years ago, had accompanied Dr. Lawson on her final ill-fated flight. Vers also discovers that during that flight, Dr. Lawson had told her the truth about the Kree: they invaded other plants and took people from their homes. Vers realizes the lesson that Lawson had learned too late — that by supporting the Kree, they were supporting the wrong team. During this flight, Dr. Lawson attempted to destroy a tesseract (some kind of magical orb thingy, from my technical understanding) to keep it out of Kree hands; Jude Law and the Kree show up and he shoots Lawson. Carol shoots the tesseract before Jude can get to it and in a short but truly stunning scene, becomes infused with the tesseract’s powers. She passes out from the blast, and Jude Law realizes the value that she could add to the Kree. He wipes her memory and takes her back to Kree for his extremely believable role as a master fighter (seriously, were there no other actors available for this part??).

Armed with the truth about the Kree and her own powers, Carol takes on the Kree in a fight to the tune of No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” — which feels a tad too on the nose. The battle eventually leads to a one on one with Jude Law, where he repeatedly tells her to prove to him that she’s a fighter and can take him on. I expected her to go along with the request, harness her powers and energy to deliver the predictable knockout punch.

But in a delightful twist, she delivers my favourite line of the movie by telling him “I have nothing to prove to you” and walks away. After being told repeatedly throughout the movie to control her emotions, fight harder and prove that she’s earned her place, this line was a breath of fresh air. It was a powerful scene that cemented my support for Captain Marvel and what she represents.  

Being a Faux Superhero Fan meant that I couldn’t really appreciate the nuances and Easter eggs that I’m sure were thrown in this movie. For example, a true Marvel fan might have been excited to see that other SHIELD guy alongside Samuel L Jackson’s character, but all I knew was that he was the guy from the TV show Agents of SHIELD.

I also still maintain that Brie Larson was a smidge unlikable in this role, and not overly charismatic. But I could give the same criticism of many others, including Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther or the entire cast of the cringeworthy Batman vs Superman. But I do love that Brie Larson delivered a strong, no-nonsense lead who uses her powers to become an even stronger version of herself. There was never an implication that Carol/Vers wasn’t always a force to be reckoned with, marking a pleasant departure from the “timid girl finds her voice” trope.

A huge bonus in this movie is the merciful absence of a love story, despite the obvious option to have Jude Law fill that role. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie without a romantic subplot, least of all in a female-led movie. The fact that Vers had a purely platonic friendship with Fury was further icing on the cake.

While the origin of Captain Marvel’s name wasn’t fully explained, we do learn that she inspired Fury to assemble a team of superheroes, naming them after Carol Danvers’ pilot callsign – Avenger. It’s a powerful message, particularly given the male-dominated world of Marvel (and its sometimes misogynistic fan base).

Overall, this is a fun superhero movie that has the basic elements you’d expect – an outlandish storyline, funny quips and good prevailing over evil. It’s not a cinematic masterpiece, but superhero movies rarely are. It’s groundbreaking for its message and what it represents, and I’m hopeful that it will pave the way for more female-led movies.

The Hate U Give

When a movie is repeatedly branded as being “powerful”, it’s hard not to be intrigued. But add to that a storyline about police brutality, racial profiling and a woman of colour as the lead, and you pretty much have my dream movie.

The Hate U Give, adapted from the novel of the same name, follows Starr Carter, a young black girl living dual lives. She spends her school days putting on a façade at Williamson Prep, a private school in the ‘good’ part of town, attended by predominantly rich white students. When school ends, she goes home to Garden Heights, a friendly but poor neighborhood where, as Starr put it, kids go to school to get jumped, high or pregnant. Her two worlds collide when she witnesses the shooting of her childhood friend Khalil by a police officer during a questionable traffic stop. The story of Khalil’s death makes national news and Starr grapples with whether she wants to publicly come forward as the sole witness. She fears reprisal from both within and outside of her community; worrying that her Williamson classmates will view her as a charity case from the wrong side of town, and concerned that the Garden Heights drug-dealing gang will target her and her family.

This story is as much a coming of age story as it is a commentary on police brutality. As viewers listen to Starr’s narration in the movie’s early scenes, we learn that she doesn’t quite fit into either of her two worlds; she doesn’t engage in the antics of her Garden Heights peers, nor can she truly be herself at school. At Williamson, she puts on an accommodating, agreeable façade to avoid being labelled a ghetto, angry black girl. She refrains from using slang or getting angry and constantly smiles at everyone so that her white classmates don’t see her as threatening. She outlines a truth known by the black community – she simply doesn’t have the same leeway to express anger or use slang as her white counterparts (setting the tone for further discussions about the leeway that people of colour don’t have in society). As Starr decides how to move forward with Khalil’s death, she also finds herself on a journey to find her own voice. 

The Hate U Give: a timely story that explores uncomfortable truths

The movie’s powerful opening scene shows a young Starr and her two brothers being given The Talk by their father, Maverick; not about the birds and the bees, but what to do when – not if, but when – they are stopped by a police officer. In painstaking detail, he goes through the importance of keeping their hands out in plain sight, not making any sudden movements, providing their ID calmly when requested, and politely answering with a respectful “yes, sir” and “no, sir”. Starr’s mother Lisa is visibly uncomfortable, not wanting her children to be exposed to these ugly realities at such a young age. But Maverick is resolute that his children know what they’re up against, and ends the conversation by giving them a list of their legal rights, directing them to memorize it carefully. Maverick’s insistence on having this conversation highlights an important truth known by black parents – these instructions can quite literally mean the difference between life and death for their children.  

For some viewers (including myself), this conversation is completely unrelatable; some may even find it fictionalized. But it’s a staple conversation in black households, with its importance underscored by the recent rash of shootings of unarmed black men. The very nature of this discussion highlights just how different the lived experiences of African-Americans are. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable on social issues and have faced certain microaggressions by virtue of being a woman of colour. But I can firmly say that I’ve never had to think about how I would act if I were stopped by police; I also feel confident that any sudden movements I make during a traffic stop likely wouldn’t result in a fatal shooting. This opening scene forces viewers to check their own privilege and come to terms with the disparity in how police exercise their power.

(On an interesting side note, the young actors playing Maverick’s children didn’t actually rehearse this scene. The director intentionally shot it unrehearsed to capture their genuine, raw emotions while being given The Talk. The scene turned out beautifully, capturing the innocence of children being slowly plucked away as they learn about the realities of the world they live in.)

The situation that Maverick warned Starr about indeed comes about during Khalil’s traffic stop. In a scene that’s powerful, heartbreaking and incredibly frustrating to watch, Starr and Khalil are driving home when a white officer pulls them over, demands to see Khalil’s ID and asks pointed questions about their whereabouts. As a viewer, it’s hard not to get angry as this scene unfolds; we know that the pair hadn’t been doing anything wrong and the officer seemed unnecessarily harsh as he spoke with them and made blatant inferences about why Starr was with Khalil. He demands that Khalil step outside and place his hands against the car while the officer goes to his cruiser to run his license.

Throughout the stop, Starr dutifully follows the instructions given to her by her father all those years ago, placing her hands out on the dashboard and urging Khalil to do the same. Khalil on the other hand, takes a far more laissez-faire approach and treats the stop as a joke, feeling (perhaps rightfully) that if he wasn’t doing anything wrong, there was no need to worry.

The tension mounts as Khalil jokes around and a visibly stressed Starr tells him to stand still and keep his hands out. Khalil ignores her pleading and reaches in for his hairbrush. The officer mistakes this fateful hairbrush for a weapon and fires three fatal shots.

The acting alone makes this scene an incredible cinematic moment, with Starr’s anguish tugging at your heartstrings as she realizes the gravity of the officer’s actions. But what makes this scene so compelling is the knowledge that its not simply a well-done fictionalized scene made for Hollywood. It’s a strong case of art imitating life, and the scores of similar police shootings lead to the uncomfortable realization that this is exactly how the shootings of unarmed black men happen. Whether it’s reaching for a hairbrush or walking in a neighborhood while wearing a hoodie, it’s the story that we’ve seen in the news countless times, and to see it come to life in theatres is unnerving.   

Following Khalil’s shooting, the movie explores the nuances of police shootings, the biases held by those in power and the uneven playing field that African-Americans face. Set against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter, we see subtle nods to the stories that inspired the movement; Starr’s repeated donning of her hoodie harkened back to the Trayvon Martin shooting, and later in the movie, Starr is heard saying “I can’t breathe”, the same last words uttered by Eric Garner (note: I have no actual proof that these were intentional references, but I refuse to believe they were coincidental).

As the sole witness, Starr is taken to the police station to provide a statement, where the unsympathetic investigators focused heavily on Khalil’s actions and involvement in drug dealing. It’s infuriating to watch but reflects yet another uncomfortable reality: it’s far easier to blame the victim rather than focus on the conduct of the man who pulled the trigger.

The story of Khalil’s shooting proves polarizing and brings out the best and worst in Starr’s friends. While her friend Maya and boyfriend Chris prove incredibly supportive, Starr sees the subtly racist side to her white friend Hailey. Hailey’s flippant comments about how “the officer’s life matters too” is a thought echoed by many who protest the BLM movement (and who often cite the comically ill-informed phrase “All Lives Matter”). Hailey later goes on to make unwarranted critiques of Khalil’s drug dealing, saying that he eventually would have died anyway. Her repeated justification of the officer’s actions reflects an important reality for Starr to learn: no matter how innocent a black victim may have been, and no matter how rash a white officer’s actions were, there will always be a contingent that will blame the victim.  

Starr’s discovery of Hailey’s true nature is a timely and relatable narrative given the divisive Trump era. With reports of deteriorating marriages and friendships sparked by diverging feelings over Trump, the truth that Starr must acknowledge about her own friend hits close to home. Politics and social justice have long been polarizing topics, but the events of recent years have brought out new sides to our acquaintances that we may not have previously realized existed. There is of course no need to only surround yourself with people who agree with everything you say — but when you’re no longer aligning on basic fundamental principles, it’s a sign that the friendship has run its course. Starr arrives at that conclusion with Hailey in a subplot that likely resonated with many.

The key point of this movie comes out in a short scene with Starr and her police officer uncle Carlos (played surprisingly well by Common). He explains to her the various factors that go through an officer’s mind when they’re conducting a stop — is it nighttime? Can he see? Is there a girl with a male? Does she look like she’s possibly been harmed? Is the officer working alone? Is the person they’re speaking to being argumentative? And most importantly, does it look like that person is suddenly reaching for a weapon?

This scene highlights an important reality faced by police officers: they simply don’t always know what they’re dealing with. With Carlos’ reasoning, it’s perfectly logical for an officer to use his gun — but Starr asks the question that can’t be ignored: if her uncle stopped a white man who was in a suit and a nice car, and that man made a sudden movement, would the officer shoot, or first tell him to put his hands up? Carlos doesn’t immediately answer and Starr presses him. He finally admits that he would ask a white man to raise his hands before resorting to firing his gun, adding that “we live in a complicated world”.

This is ultimately what the movie’s message boils down to. Yes, officers have to be careful. Yes, they need to be mindful of the risks and be on the lookout for weapons. But the protests against racial profiling and the BLM movement hinge on this one fact that can’t be ignored — police officers do not apply force equally. Plain and simple. Multiple studies confirm that police officers are far more likely to apply more force against black individuals compared to white individuals. (And for my Canadian readers, these findings aren’t limited to the US.) This translates to officers being quicker to fire their gun, quicker to subject black individuals to unnecessary (and sometimes unlawful) searches and apply more physical force than they would against a white person. As noted by a lawyer later on in the movie, even while unarmed, the colour of someone’s skin is seen as a weapon in and of itself, leading police to jump to an excessive amount of force.

I recommend that everyone see this movie for this scene alone, because it’s an important reality for many to be aware of. It’s often argued that if someone is breaking the law, it’s reasonable for police to take whatever measures are necessary. But this overly simple argument doesn’t take into account the nuances of how police decide when and how much force to use. And this line of thinking certainly glosses over the fact that a white person could be doing the exact same thing and receive vastly different treatment. Therein lies the message of Black Lives Matter. It doesn’t mean that only black lives matter — it simply means that black lives matter too, and police shouldn’t be so quick to treat them as disposable by firing a gun for every sudden movement.

Was this movie perfectly done? Certainly not. Being an adaptation from a book, it packed in a few too many storylines and progressed at a rushed pace. I personally would have preferred if the entire subplot about the drug lord had been taken out, and had the movie focus solely on the nuances of racial profiling and police brutality. The brief scene with Starr and Carlos needed a lot more unpacking, as that was the strongest message to convey to viewers who may not realize the discrepancies in how police exercise their powers. The riot scene also had hints of cheesiness, and the speech that Starr gave on the hood of the car wasn’t as powerful or moving as I expected given the intensity of the moment. And in a move that felt a bit too cliche, Starr debuts her natural hair at the end of the movie; a measure surely intended to signify her acceptance of her roots, but it felt just a little too trite and overdone.

But ultimately, these critiques stem from how the book was written, forcing the filmmakers to follow suit. Overall, it’s a fantastic movie with a strong message, great acting and uncomfortable truths. It’s a difficult story to tell, and unfortunate that there is a need to tell this story at all. But the movie explores complex issues with nuanced sensitivity and and leaves a strong impact long after the credits roll.

A Star is Born

*paragraphs with spoilers have been noted below

I was entranced by the trailer for A Star is Born, and the subsequent glowing reviews made me eager to watch Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga bring this story to life. Not having watched any of the previous iterations of this movie (or being aware of them, quite honestly), I was able to watch it with a blank slate and no comparisons.

As a preliminary matter, there was a nagging feeling of annoyance that I had to first shake – the fact that Bradley Cooper, a white, male actor with no directing experience, was basically handed a big-budget movie for his directorial debut. It’s a bitter pill to swallow knowing that he got an opportunity denied to so many struggling directors, many from marginalized groups. But that’s a whole other story for another article, and I pushed that aside, determined to enjoy the movie with an open mind.

Two hours later, I walked out feeling confused and torn. While I can’t deny that I was moved, the multiple concurrent storylines felt disjointed and I struggle to figure out what the movie’s overall message really was.

The story opens with Jackson Maine, an ageing singer privately battling addiction, who discovers the raw singing talents of Ally. After (literally) pushing her to perform during one of his concerts, she becomes an overnight sensation, and climbs a path to fame that soon eclipses Jackson’s. The movie’s parallel storyline follows Ally and Jackson’s tumultuous relationship, impacted by both Ally’s fame and Jackson’s addictions.

A Star is Born: a movie with fantastic acting, but ultimately lacking in focus and a message

The acting in this movie was undeniably fantastic. Cooper nails the nuances of a weathered rock star to perfection – the calm, chilled-out stage demeanour, the casual squinting at the crowd and the relaxed way he speaks to fans. His guttural southern accent and sunburnt face completed the look with effortless accuracy. Gaga is almost unrecognizable as a fresh-faced ingenue who quickly adapts to her success. The delightful surprise breakout of this movie was Ramon, Ally’s enthusiastic best friend who introduced her to Jackson.

Aspects of the story require a certain level of blind acceptance – is it really plausible that Jackson Maine could have just gone to a bar alone with no security, without being recognized? Why was Ally’s initial reaction upon meeting Jackson backstage so normal and blasé (no chance in hell I’d be that casual if I met a celebrity)? And why exactly did she get so angry and punch a drunk guy who wanted to take a photo with Jackson at the bar? Was that supposed to showcase her tough, edgy side? Admittedly, nothing turns on these minor gaps; but I couldn’t help but feel that the story didn’t quite flow at times.

And while I’m being nitpicky (*puts on Movie Nerd glasses*), certain scenes felt weirdly filmed and edited. Notable examples include when Ally woke up to find Jackson in her room (anyone else get major Twilight flashbacks with that scene?), and when Ally and Jackson visited Jackson’s childhood home only to discover that it had been sold. I suspect the editing was meant to have a raw, indie-movie feel, but it just came off badly done. A learning curve attributed to a first-time director? Probably. But what’s interesting is that Cooper hasn’t suffered much criticism for any aspect of his directing—proving the old adage that a *certain demographic* of society continues to benefit from a wide margin for error.

The love between Ally and Jackson was passionate and intense, but quickly turned toxic as Jackson sunk deeper into his addiction. We first saw glimpses of his unsupportive and self-destructive behaviour when Ally told him that Rez wanted to be her producer, and Jackson responded by smearing dessert on her face – an act that Ally, inexplicably, was able to laugh off. It was hard to watch her be so continually steadfast in her love and support for Jackson despite his screw-ups, with his drunken behaviour spoiling multiple career milestones for her.

Their relationship highlights important questions – how long should you stay with someone who is on a downward spiral? How many allowances should you make for the fact that they suffer from an addiction and as a result, might hurt you? How do you determine whether someone is simply using their addiction as an excuse to be awful? How do you walk away from someone who isn’t getting better – and more to the point, should you?

These questions seemed easy enough for Ally, who remained by Jackson’s side and gave new meaning to the notion that love is blind. But I was left with the uneasy feeling that this movie normalized an unhealthy, toxic relationship, with Ally continually giving and Jackson continually self-destructing.

[spoiler alert] As for *that ending* — I didn’t like it, plain and simple. Maybe it’s my own sensitivity, maybe it’s the fact that it’s not what Ally deserved, but it felt like the ending was just thrown in there for maximum dramatic impact. While it’s clear that Jackson is grappling with deep-rooted demons, the movie doesn’t do justice to the complex world of mental health. We don’t find out about Jackson’s prior suicide attempt until over halfway through the movie, and only through one brief scene. His subsequent decision to end his life, and so soon after leaving rehab, seemed like a sudden leap, and the grandma in me worries that this movie romanticizes a serious mental health issue rather than raise awareness to it.

Suicide is a heavy topic to explore, and it’s incumbent on a director to do so thoughtfully and with purpose. In my opinion, a few scattered scenes don’t cut it, and the progression of this storyline is at best rushed, and at worst, irresponsible.

[end of spoiler]

A secondary storyline that felt incomplete was Ally’s career path and her gradual shift to mainstream pop music. As her success grows, we see her change, literally and figuratively; she dyes her hair, follows through with her dance classes, changes her music style, and replaces her previously barefaced visage with makeup, even while lounging at home. Jackson takes issue with these changes, and first takes it out on her manager Rez. But following Ally’s pop-infused SNL performance, Jackson also lashes out at Ally in a particularly memorable scene. He berated and mocked her for no longer having something to say before finally hitting her when he knows it hurts by calling her ugly.

His contempt for the world of mainstream pop, while perhaps well-intentioned, didn’t exactly scream “supportive boyfriend”. Ally herself seemed quite happy with the way her career was progressing, and certainly didn’t indicate any concerns with the new direction her music had taken. It may not have been Jackson’s cup of tea, but his reaction was wildly disproportionate.

I suspect viewers were meant to believe that Ally was forced into the music industry’s Evil Pop Machine, and Jackson simply wanted her to stay true to herself. But it seemed to me that Ally was perfectly content to have “sold out” and embarked in a new direction. If Rez was to be believed, it was Ally herself who chose her new hair color, implying that she had at least some semblance of control over her career. If she happily chose to sing vapid songs, was that really so terrible?

Her excitement over hosting SNL and her overall success should have been enough for Jackson and it felt paternalistic and controlling of him to dictate what music was “worthy” and what wasn’t. If he did have concerns, he could have broached the topic far more effectively; having an addiction is not an excuse to act shitty. While he kept telling Ally to stay true to herself, it seems that in reality, he just wanted her to stay true to who *he* wanted her to be, making him no better than the music industry producers he was so disdainful of.

I walked away feeling that the film packed in too many storylines without fully fleshing out any – Ally’s rise to fame, Jackson’s mental health and addiction, and the tumultuous relationship between the two. Awkwardly shoehorned into this already overcrowded mix was Jackson’s family drama and hearing loss. Everything was inextricably linked – Ally’s success certainly aggravated Jackson’s downward spiral, which in turn caused relationship turmoil. But the stories felt incomplete, possibly because of an overly ambitious first-time director, and the movie on the whole felt like it had no message.

Was this a cautionary tale about fame? It didn’t feel like it, as Ally seemed to embrace it, and Jackson’s demons seemed to ultimately stem from his childhood, not his career. Was it to raise awareness about the evils of addiction and mental illness? Possibly — except it didn’t explore that story enough for it to be meaningful, and what it did show (addiction is Bad and mental illness is Very Bad) could hardly be said to be groundbreaking. Was it to demonstrate how artists have to trade authenticity for fame? Perhaps – but it’s a trite, overdone message and I had a hard time believing that Ally was unhappy with her career direction.

For a movie that continually mentioned “having something to say”, it doesn’t actually seem to nail down its own message. It’s not a bad movie by any stretch, and certainly left me with a lot to think about. But the hype and glowing reviews feel disproportionate – it’s a good movie but with some undeniably missing pieces.

 To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before

Netflix shows have developed a reputation for being fantastic – Stranger Things, The Crown, House of Cards, Making a Murderer… and of course, Riverdale. But Netflix movies? Not so much. They often look like a lineup of tacky Hallmark-style movies, with the ratings to match.

So when To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before started going viral, I was curious. What could it be about this movie that has everyone raving and talking about this Pete Kavinsky character? Out of curiosity more than anything else, I finally watched it for myself to see what the fuss was about. Unfortunately, I watched it weeks after everyone else, and I suspect that played into my overall feelings about this movie, which can be summed up in one word: Underwhelmed (don’t @ me).

I wanted to like this film, I really did. It stars a woman of color, which is always a plus in my books, and who doesn’t enjoy a nice heartwarming tale? But quite honestly, I just didn’t get this movie, and I certainly didn’t get why there was so much praise for it. I feel like the Grinch for even writing this review. However, I acknowledge that seeing this movie so late in the game may have unfairly increased my expectations.

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To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before: a well-intentioned film that missed the mark

The story follows Lara Jean Song Covey, a head-in-the-clouds high schooler who at the ripe age of 16, has never had a boyfriend (what a loser, amirite? Hahahah *cries into yearbook photos*). She’s the quintessential good-girl outcast; she’s mocked at school by the classic Hot Girl Bully, Gen, and has only a handful of friends. She wears funky clothes, marches to the beat of her drum, and spends her weekends watching Golden Girl marathons with her 11-year-old sister (who in one scene, points out that she had to cancel her own plans to hang out with Lara Jean).

Despite her lack of real-life romantic experiences, Lara Jean is mesmerized by romance novels and often daydreams about her sister’s boyfriend Josh. She describes having truly loved five boys in her lifetime, and wrote secret love letters to each of them that she safely tucked away, with no intention of ever mailing.

The letters mysteriously get mailed out one day to all five boys, including Josh and high school heartthrob Pete Kavinsky, who has recently broken up with Gen. Pete suggests to Lara Jean that they pretend to be a couple in the hopes that he will make Gen jealous enough to win her back; in turn, Lara Jean can use the fake relationship to avoid having a discussion with Josh about what her letter meant.

Here’s where the movie takes a problematic turn (though I concede that I seem to be the only person in the world who feels this way). I couldn’t wrap my head around what Lara Jean was truly getting out of this ruse and why a fairly grounded character like her would have agreed to this. The explanation that it would delay an awkward conversation with Josh seemed weak, even for a rom-com. And while yes I realize this is just a movie, I couldn’t get past this glaring gap in logic.

My next issue ties back to (don’t hate me) Pete Kavinsky himself, who seemed to be a less toxic version of the Classic Fuckboy – the guy who doesn’t want to commit to a girl but strings her along, makes her feel guilty and never gives a straight answer about his actions.

In similar movies, we often see the popular jock slowly fall in love with the geeky girl, and accordingly, he changes to become a better version of himself. I didn’t see that in Pete; he seemed to be the same self-serving character all throughout, and when he decided he wanted Lara Jean, he got her – without having to change a single thing about himself.

Do I think he’s the most awful male character we’ve seen in a movie? Of course not. But I certainly didn’t see particularly admirable or gentlemanly characteristics in him either. He seemed to be yet another confident male who casually flip-flopped between which girl he wanted, and had girls fighting for his attention in the meantime. And while we weren’t supposed to sympathize with the villainous Gen character, I couldn’t help but think it was cruel that Pete concocted this scheme solely to make her jealous and win her back – and when he was successful in making her jealous, he decided that he didn’t want her after all. This movie somehow romanticized the unhealthy game playing that real-life dating has become.

One particularly low point in the movie comes about when Lara Jean and Pete attend their first party together. From the beginning, I was put off by Pete’s insistence that Lara Jean attend and blow off her scheduled family plans, telling her that it was “in their contract” (editor’s note: no it was not. He stipulated in their contract that she go with him to the ski trip, not every party). And why did he care so much that Lara Jean attend? To spend time with her? No. It was all to make Gen jealous. When they show up at the party, he unties Lara Jean’s trademark ponytail and tells her she looks better with her hair down – another classic Fuckboy move (and throughout the rest of the movie, Lara Jean continued to wear her hair down, which irrationally bothered me).

After the party, the pair go to a diner and as per the Fuckboy rulebook, Pete gets butthurt when Lara Jean reminds him that they’re only in a pretend relationship. Let’s please note that back at the party, he had been telling Gen in the bathroom how good she looked, and let her keep Lara Jean’s favourite scrunchy. But as with all controlling boys, he had the nerve to act curt when Lara Jean reminded him that their pretend relationship was… well, pretend.

We see Lara Jean’s nervousness when Pete reacts coldly to this comment and unconvincingly tells her that everything is fine. In what was a far too relatable moment for most girls, she sends him a cutesy text afterwards, in an attempt to ensure that things are okay between them. His kissy-face emoji response is straight from the lazy Fuckboy playbook (why do I know so much about this?), and is effective in appeasing Lara Jean – despite him not having the courtesy to actually write something back to her. A great example of how men can get by doing the absolute bare minimum.

Later on in the movie, we see two attempts by Lara Jean to confront Pete about his secret conversations with Gen. Rather than give a straight answer, he dodges the questions and makes comments such as “we were together for a long time, those feelings don’t just go away”.

The whole thing reeked of manipulation – making one girl feel bad for not having feelings for him, while he himself wanted to be with another girl (and was open about this end goal). It left a bad taste in my mouth and I hated that not only did Lara Jean fall for it, but that Pete was seen as the Good Guy throughout the movie. Crazy as I know it may seem to say this, these behaviours are the early warning signs of a controlling man – mentioning preferences about her appearance, claiming her time, making her feel guilty about innocent and factual statements, refusing to communicate and ultimately using her as a pawn for his own end game.

The movie did have some highlights –Lara Jean’s hilarious little sister Kitty was as sassy as she was smart, and the overall bond between the three sisters was heartwarming to see. It’s rare to see movies or shows focus on healthy, encouraging family relationships, and this made a nice change. This theme was capped off by Lara Jean’s adorable dad (who will forever be Aidan Shaw in my eyes), and the scene with his failed safe-sex talk left me cringing and laughing in equal measure. Lara Jean herself was a great character, outside of her “relationship” with Pete – she was sarcastic, sharp and confident in who she was, and served as a great role model for younger viewers.

But on the whole, I just couldn’t get behind this movie. I imagine this story is appealing in the way that She’s All That was appealing to teenagers of the 90’s – the nerdy girl gets the cool guy and puts the mean girl in her place.

But given recent discussions in the news about problematic male behavior, I couldn’t shake my concerns. The entire plot felt like a euphemism for how the dating game is often played: guy gets his pick of women, pits women against each other, makes them feel paranoid and jealous, and ultimately chooses who he wants to be with—all the while coming off as a great guy. Call me cynical, but there’s enough of this story in real life – I feel no need to watch it onscreen as well.

Crazy Rich Asians

A couple disclaimers about Crazy Rich Asians. I haven’t read the book, and those who have will likely have a different take on this movie. I also don’t generally enjoy rom-coms (Bridget Jones’ Diary is not a rom-com and I will die on this hill).

All the same, I couldn’t wait to see this movie. As a woman of colour who rarely sees any representation in mainstream media, seeing a rom-com fronted by an all-Asian cast was a breath of fresh air. It’s the first Hollywood movie in 25 years with an Asian cast — but I was too young to have seen  its predecessor, The Joy Luck Club. For most movie-goers under 30, this is the first Hollywood movie with a cast of this composition — and for some, the first time they’re seeing a cast that they can finally identify with.

Crazy Rich Asians: a wonderfully fun, opulent ride.

I also can’t emphasize enough how important it is that this movie is a romantic comedy, a genre traditionally dominated by the Kate Hudsons and Matthew McConaugheys of the world. The beautiful blonde magazine editor would always fall in love with the handsome white sports writer, and if producers were really looking to push the envelope, they’d maybe cast a brunette Anne Hathaway-type. Any Asian characters, if they were cast at all, were quirky computer nerds with purple hair– often scrawny, never sexy.

And for all the trailblazing that The Joy Luck Club did, any fan of Amy Tan’s novels will tell you that her stories aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy, and The Joy Luck Club is no exception. Hollywood seems to have a particular fascination with ethnically diverse movies being depressing tales of human suffering (see also: Slumdog Millionaire, Memoirs of a Geisha). “The more suffering, the better” seemed to be the mantra of producers who cast people of colour (cue scene of a poor person walking in rural India/China/South America, ideally with a baby in their arms).

Enter Crazy Rich Asians, a fun, light-hearted movie that proves Asians can indeed be funny and sexy enough to lead a rom-com set in a cosmopolitan city. While some have critiqued the fluffy nature of its storyline, I think that’s exactly what makes this movie so groundbreaking. It reveals the little-known secret that people of colour are Normal People — they date, have kooky foibles and can pull off laugh-out-loud scenes just like white people! 

The movie follows Rachel Chu, a New York economics professor who is invited by her boyfriend, Nick Young, to a wedding in his homeland Singapore. En route, Rachel learns of his family’s immense wealth, and faces difficulties as she adjusts to rich-people politics and the steely family matriarch, Eleanor Young (played by the incredible Michelle Yeoh, who carried the Tiger Mom role to perfection).

The movie showcases incredible fashion, decadent homes and over-the-top parties. Nothing is too expensive or too flashy, and one of the opening scenes shows Nick’s cousin Astrid casually purchasing earrings priced at over $1 million.

The storyline itself has that slightly rushed pace that is so often seen in movies adapted from books, and leaps from one plot point to another without fully fleshing out the issues. One example is the cattiness towards Rachel during a bachelorette trip. A jilted ex-girlfriend of Nick’s effectively gets into Rachel’s head, and a comment made by Rachel about Nick being a “great catch” was twisted to make her seem like a gold digger. The scene with the dead fish in Rachel’s room, captioned with “Catch this, gold-digging bitch” is gut-wrenching to watch, but Rachel rises above the pettiness. While at the wedding,  we see her confidently walking past the same girls, who stare at her in captivation.

I assume we’re meant to revel in Rachel’s triumphant power move, but this subplot on the whole just felt rushed. The movie provided no context into why there was such animosity towards Rachel, and the Mean Girls-esque storyline felt too neatly wrapped up at the end.

Similarly, the dynamics between Rachel and Eleanor felt choppy and glossed over. This was the storyline I was personally most interested in — how would an ultra-rich, traditional Asian mother take to an average Chinese-American girl (albeit an accomplished one)? There was of course, the basic concern that Rachel wasn’t good enough for Nick. But we also see Eleanor quietly battling feelings of loneliness; the passing comments made about her husband imply that he’s a workaholic who’s constantly away on business, and his character never actually makes an appearance in this movie (something that I’m wondering will be explained in the follow-up movies).

The plan had always been for Nick to return home to Singapore to take over the company, allowing his father to take a step back. Nick’s decision to stay in New York because of Rachel simultaneously deprived Eleanor of having both her son and husband back in her life, a realization that couldn’t be easy for her. Further causing tension between Rachel and Eleanor is the cross-generational gap, with Eleanor disapproving of the American “follow your passion” way of life.

With all of these complex layers, the Rachel/Eleanor dynamic could have been a movie on its own, and I was eager to see how the movie tackled these issues. But I walked away feeling that things were too rushed and too conveniently settled between the two women. The pacing felt clunky, and showed Eleanor being seemingly friendly towards Rachel at their first meeting, hostile during dumpling-making and then outright vindictive during the wedding where she drops the bombshell about Rachel’s mother. After Rachel’s speech during their game of Mahjong, Eleanor has a slightly-too-abrupt change of heart, and gives Nick her blessing to marry Rachel.

Again, this quickened pacing is common in movies adapted from books. Even the most skilled director can’t effectively include every detail and nuance when condensing a novel into a two-hour film (and for that reason, I feel lucky that I don’t have the book to compare this movie to).

Despite the brevity of this subplot, it did give audiences what was probably the most powerful scene in the movie. After making dumplings together, Eleanor follows Rachel onto a staircase and gives a coldly impassioned speech before finally telling her “You will never be enough… you are not one of us”. It’s a chilling moment that feels all too realistic and relatable.

Overall, the movie does a wonderful job of telling a fun story, introducing us to hilarious and loveable characters (special shoutout to the delightful characters played by Ken Jeong and Awkwafina) and imparting general feel-good vibes.

The movie added depth and balanced its breezy tone with a few heavier scenes and storylines. We see Astrid ending her marriage with her disgruntled husband, who felt insecure about her breadwinner status and had an affair. I almost wanted to cheer when the normally soft-spoken Astrid tells her husband “It’s not my job to make you feel like a man. I can’t make you something you’re not”.

And in one poignant scene,  Astrid walks into the wedding with her grandmother, who rarely attended social functions but spared Astrid the embarrassment of attending alone. Astrid thanked her grandmother, who gently reminded her “family doesn’t say thank you”. It’s a beautiful moment that showcases the close relationships in ethnic families (in stark contrast to the white family stereotypes of forcing kids to move out at 18, and placing elderly relatives in group homes).

Close familial ties are also shown again in a tearjerking scene where Rachel’s mom visits  Rachel in Singapore, after hearing about the wedding fiasco. Rachel’s surprise and relief at seeing her mother is palpable and the teary embrace between the two can’t help but tug at your heartstrings.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a true rom-com without some element of cheesiness. In a far-too-drawn-out scene during the wedding, the bride walks down the aisle in slow-motion. Despite the attention-grabbing venue, complete with a waterfall aisle, Rachel and Nick tearfully stare at one another. The scene went on a titch too long, inciting an eye-roll from yours truly. Similarly, (spoiler alert), the airplane proposal lands squarely on cliche rom-com territory.

All that being said, this movie is truly so much more than a romantic comedy. It cleverly incorporates power dynamics, family relations, heartache and comedy to bring a story that’s an absolute joy to watch. The massive success of Crazy Rich Asians has hopefully laid the groundwork for better representation in mainstream media and has answered the age-old question of whether Asians can star in a successful Hollywood movie.