Saturday, February 15, 2020

2019: Some Odds and Bitter Ends

As we close out 2019, I take this brief moment to look at four categories that fall outside the Best & Worst of the Year. I hope you find them of some interest.


It's another year where a Christian film surprises me by being good. I've had many but many issues with the cinematic output of the Kendrick Brothers both in terms of film and theological outreach. They also have a very poor record on actually tackling social issues through Christianity, and their record on race leaves much to be desired. By no means should anyone think that I think or believe Alex and/or Stephen Kendrick are racists. They are just dumb and clumsy, living within their very hermetically-sealed bubble of a WASP worldview.

Having said that, Overcomer, for them, is another step forward both storywise and in the actual art of the motion picture. I've heard a good case about how Overcomer falls into a 'white savior' narrative, and I can see how someone could reach that conclusion. However, the film also has positive African-American portrayals and centers around a black family. Moreover, Overcomer, if ever so gently, shows a more complex view of marital struggles. It may not be perfect, but I give credit for making strides in a positive direction. I no longer cringe when I see a Kendrick Brothers Production.


I would have thought the biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of one of the greatest fantasy sagas in literature, would be more interested in the man himself than in endless shout-outs to his epic The Lord of the Rings. Sadly, Tolkien squandered a great opportunity to explore the man by drowning him in a film where we kept getting winks about his books but almost nothing about the man behind the hobbits. Despite the best efforts of Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins as Tolkien and Edith, the love of his life, Tolkien was a dead affair, slugging and respectable in a very dull manner.

Worse, Tolkien had almost no interest in touching or even giving cursory recognition to Tolkien's fervent and devout Catholic faith. His religious outlook shaped everything about the man both professionally and privately, but Tolkien seemed to want to run away from it or at best pretend it was a trifle versus a central part of Tolkien. We didn't need sermons in an Overcomer-like manner, but it would have helped the viewer get a better, stronger sense of Tolkien the man, which a biopic should at least try to do.

MOST OVERRATED: Blinded By the Light

There are quite a few films that would qualify for "Most Overrated": The Peanut Butter Falcon, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Hustlers. Especially Far From Home, but it's almost a given most Marvel Cinematic Universe films get praise that would make one think each one were a turning point in cinematic history. However, I don't think there was a bigger disconnect between what I heard about a film and what I actually saw in the film than Blinded by the Light.

It's not as if I didn't get what they were aiming for: an "inspirational" story of a young son of Pakistani immigrants who finds inspiration and liberation in the music of Bruce Springsteen. I know many fellow reviewers adored Blinded By the Light (the phrase "feel-good" almost being invented for it) and are puzzled as to why it essentially bombed. My answer is quite simple: it's not very good. I found the main character essentially a jerk: dismissive of anyone's views other than his own, arrogant, a bit smug, almost unbearable. It's a credit to actor Viviek Kalra that I found Javed remotely tolerable. More than once I wanted to smack Javed upside the head! As much as Blinded By the Light wanted me to think well of Javed, I kept siding with everyone else. That Javed is based on a real person only alarms me more.


As with most if not all of my Most Underrated selections, I make no case for the artistic or cinematic brilliance of Ma. It's a bit tawdry in its tale of revenge delayed, but even its detractors thought Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer elevated the material. She embraced its looniness and went all-in on the cray-cray. Moreover, I suppose it's a positive step to have an African-American woman in the lead role of a bonkers horror thriller like Ma.

Sure, the premise was insane. Sure, the younger cast gave almost universally bad performances, cast more for their perfect bodies than ability to create characters. However, Ma never cheated its audience that this was anything other than a somewhat trashy good time, and I can't fault a film for being true to itself. I unapologetically enjoyed Ma to where I wouldn't mind a sequel (she escapes the raging inferno!).  Truth be told, I thought Ma was a better "feel-good film" than the overtly cutesy Blinded By the Light.

I hope that this year of 2020, we have good films and that the bad ones die a quick and merciful death.

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