December 31, 2016

13th (2016)

Ava DuVernay

Documentary filmmakers don't get the exposure they deserve. Probably because the majority of the general population internally cringes at the thought of having to learn something from a movie. (I'm not exempting myself from this category.)

But there are different kinds of documentaries. Some focus on a particular person's life. Others chronicle particular points in time. 13th is unique in that it spans both a huge swath of time and individual experiences while tying it all back to its main theme: the mass incarceration of African-Americans in the US. 

It's shocking. Even as someone who used to teach history, it's still shocking to watch all of it, laid out from the end of the Civil War to today. You can know every single incident covered in the film and still be shocked--it never goes away.

But this film wasn't put together with the intention of shocking the viewers. Sure, it shows photos of lynchings and videos of police shootings which are always difficult to watch, but really, this aims to educate people; educate anyone not intimately familiar with what it means to be black in America on the sobering fact that black men have a 1 in 3 chance of being incarcerated at some point in their life. 1 in 3. I'm going to repeat that again. 1 in 3.

There have been other avenues that have exposed the inner workings of the prison system and how dysfunctional it is. Lisa Ling, one of my favorite journalists, recently devoted an entire episode of This is Life to it. 13th, on the other hand, delves into the history of incarceration and the systemic biases built into the system and perpetuated throughout generations. Because as one interviewee in the film says, you can't understand why we have 2+ million people incarcerated and militarized police forces that kill nearly 1,000 people a year without learning the nuanced history of race relations and politics in America.

Lest anyone believe this is a "leftist piece of propaganda" (or whatever insult the internet trolls are using these days), it's worth mentioning DuVernay does give a voice to the dissenters--those who deny that mandatory minimums were racially motivated or that private prisons lobby for the incarceration of citizens for profit. It's not a large voice, but they are shown in the film. The film attacks politicians from both sides of the aisle and even black people themselves, for perpetuating this deep-seated belief that African-Americans are criminals. It leaves no angle untouched.

This is a learning movie. But a deeply important one and I hope the prospect of being educated on an uncomfortable and depressing subject doesn't deter people from hearing this message.

Final word: If I were still teaching Social Studies, this would absolutely be shown to every one of my students.

December 27, 2016

Moana (2016)

Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson

[I'm not going to lead with how hot The Rock is. I'm not going to lead with how hot The Rock is.]

The Rock is so hot.

People's Sexiest Man Alive, in fact.

So it is slightly disappointing to see his on-screen persona so unattractive (see below), but that's probably my biggest complaint about the movie. At least Maui has the cool tattoos like The Rock.

Moana is a beautiful story, told with a real sense of authenticity to the Polynesian people. The characters look accurate, the music throughout has the island feel, the story references both folklore and the actual history of the Polynesian people, and the main characters are actually voiced by islanders. So even before we delve into the specifics of the movie, it gets an A for effort. One of the favorite things about the movie is being able to hear hear the slight accent of Auli'i Cravalho come through when she pronounces certain words. It's the the little things.

Don't worry, I'm not going to turn this post into a dissertation on the importance of representation in media, but I will just say I teared up a bit thinking about how excited children of Pacific Island descent must have felt seeing their heritage shown accurately and positively for such a wide audience. I certainly remember the impact on my life as a kid just seeing the trailer for Mulan before it was released.

A lot was made about Moana lacking a romantic storyline and a Prince Charming, so to speak, to which I say, doesn't anyone remember Brave? But Moana takes the strong, female independent spirit a step further by focusing not on familial relationships, but solely within herself--her confidence, ability, and resolve to complete a mission she believes vital to save her people. To me, it's this generation's Mulan. Or a female Percy Jackson, but without all the extra characters.

It's difficult not to go on and on about all the details Disney got right about this movie because it is so important considering their history of being a bit insensitive about these things, but I also don't want to give anyone the impression that this movie is one big hyped-up PC fest. The story itself is very good, as is the music. It starts out a bit slow, with the unfolding of folklore tales and setting the stage for a young Moana who yearns for a bigger life (not unlike many of her Disney princess counterparts), but quickly picks up with more catchy songs and a lot of humor, courtesy of her very, very stupid chicken Heihei and Maui (the Rock), who sings my favorite song of the movie. The format is very reminiscent of the "classic" Disney movies with its soft animation, female heroine, and catchy soundtrack. I hope it signals a return to these types of movies from Disney in the future.

In a way, the entire thing feels less like an actual movie and more like the beautiful manifestation of a storybook. There's a sort of enveloping warmth created that makes you feel as though you are watching the legacy unfold in front of your eyes as someone tells you a story. It's quite magical.

The only lingering question I had at the end was...

Final word: Will Moana or Zootopia take home the Oscar?

But seriously, all that money spent on marketing this movie and they couldn't find a distributor who could create a better likeness of her? I personally took this photo at Target.

December 19, 2016

How To Be Single (2016)

Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Alison Brie, Leslie Mann

This movie is bad. And by bad, I mean terrible. And by terrible, I mean atrocious.

I understand all those words basically mean the same thing, but I'm searching for the exact right word to describe just how stupid this movie is.

I'll start with Rebel Wilson.

Rebel Wilson is the Napoleon Dynamite of actors: some people think she's hilarious, while the rest of us hate everyone who thinks she's hilarious because it means she keeps getting cast in movies.

So...she's in the movie. Does she single-handedly ruin it? No, because that would mean there was a meaningful plot to destroy. Instead, it's a Coke Zero version of He's Just Not That Into You with less famous, less attractive people. No offense to Alison Brie, whom I recently praised in the very watchable Sleeping With Other People, but she's just no Gennifer Goodwin. Nor is Fifty Shades actress Dakota Johnson, though this movie at least convinced me she does actually know how to act.

As it turns out, this movie is so reminiscent of He's Just Not That Into You because it's written by the same person, former Sex and the City writer Liz Tuccillo. Except that in this movie, not all storylines are equally interesting. Leslie Mann does her crazy lady thing, which is always entertaining, even if she's played it a million times before. And when Leslie Mann playing a stereotypical hormonal pregnant woman is the best part of the movie, well...

The best thing I can say about it is that I don't hate myself for watching it.

Final word: See the bolded statement above.

December 16, 2016

10 More Things I've Learned About The Hallmark Christmas Movie Universe

I'm deep into my fifth year of watching every Hallmark Channel #CountdowntoChristmas movie (and tweeting about them! Follow me!) and even after 2 articles on the subject, I'm still finding new things to mock. At this point, I can't even be sure I enjoy these movies or if I am hate-watching them. I eagerly look forward to watching them each week, only to talk trash about them all the way through. Needless to say, my husband avoids coming home until late on Saturday and Sunday nights.

By branching out and also watching all the original programming on the Ion and UP Channels, I get some additional diversity (both in plot and actual diverse actors), but I also risk sitting through a lot more sludge. But with the exception of slightly racier fare on non-Hallmark channels (people make out!), they're all basically same.

Here are some more ridiculous things I've noticed this year:

1. Old people have nothing better to do than fix up any younger single people they come across. (On second thought, this might reflect real life.)

2. Big-city dwellers are obnoxious eaters, always unaware of their surroundings, and go into a small diner to order egg white omelettes with gluten-free toast and low fat, no foam lattes or whatever.

You can almost believe
it's Christine Taylor!
3. And the main character, luckily, always loves kids! How could anyone possibly be annoyed by a small human following you around and pouting when you can't make their Christmas play/concert/talent show, even if you're not related to them? Everyone loves watching untalented children act and sing in excruciatingly long school productions!

4. Everyone looks vaguely like someone else. Couldn't get a legitimate B- or even C-List star? No worries! There's a knock-off version of hm/her out there who needs a paycheck.
I was really excited about this duo
until I remembered
Danica McKellar isn't Asian

5. Minorities are generally limited to the following quotas:
  • 1 minority assistant to the main character
  • 1 minority in a vague position of power, who may or may not have any actual lines, but will appear just so you know they exist (This movie is diverse! The Board chairman is black!)
  • No more than 3 minority extras, often scanned past in the background, such as carolers on a street (who are always dressed in Dickens-era clothing)
Nope. Not her kid.
6. All kids are sweet, polite, and generally yearning for an additional parental figure.

7. Small towns are like cults, trying to ensnare any newcomer into staying there forever. (This one might be true too. I wouldn't know, small towns freak me out.)

8. Women are always choosing between their careers and love because there is no compromise in a Hallmark movie, so she usually passes up the big promotion and/or quits her job to stay with the small town guy she met 3 days ago. Yay love?

9. Emotional affairs: OK. Physical affairs: OMG NEVER.

10. Every family has a secret recipe for something because people in Hallmark movies are better cooks than the common folk who just use recipe books.

**I can't possibly let this article end without mentioning the highlight of this year's lineup: a Center Stage ripoff called A Nutcracker Christmas, featuring "Charlie from Seattle" aka Sascha Radetsky. It wasn't good, and more importantly, didn't have Cooper Nielsen, but it was still exciting.**

December 5, 2016

The Nice Guys (2016)

Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe

This movie was odd. Like, Big Lewbowski odd.

Ok, not quite this weird
First of all, it's a comedy, but also a serious mystery. It's complicated enough that you can't even guess the full plot or who's behind it all until at least halfway through, which is sort of impressive because I can always guess the end. It makes me really annoying to watch movies with. (I suppose I could just keep my predictions to myself, but what fun would that be??)

This movie was marketed really badly. I remember watching the trailer and having no idea at the end of it what the hell the movie was about. Maybe the producers thought they could sell the movie on the backs of Gosling and Crowe's names alone? It's too bad, because the movie is quite clever and I'm sure I'm not the only one who skipped it in the theaters because of the way it was promoted.

Seriously. I'm semi-concerned.
Gosling, as a single father and alcoholic PI, does a brilliant job of being both a lovable drunk and a scuzzy businessman and father. Though maybe he's just lovable because you know, Ryan Gosling. It's impossible to dislike him. Even when he's ugly and in horrible movies like this one. Crowe, on the other hand, despite having put on a distracting amount of weight, plays an even-tempered muscle man who beats people up for a living. The combination of the erratic Gosling and the deep-voiced Crowe is perfect.

Fake Anna Chlumsky, aka Gosling's daughter in the movie, also does a fantastic job and deserves a shout-out because believable child acting is such a rarity. She adds an extra element of absurdity to the events and keeps the plot lighthearted even throughout intense action sequences.

With movies becoming seemingly more and more dumbed down with sequel upon sequel, let's all take a moment and recognize some appreciation for a movie that manages to craft a cagey little plot that uses its action to further and enhance the plot, not cover up the lack of one.

Final word: Entertaining. Surprisingly so.