October 30, 2018

Ready Player One (2018)

Tye Sheridan (aka fake Miles Teller), Olivia Cooke, et al

When I read this book, all I could think the entire time was this would make a much better movie than a book. I don't want to be that person, but I think it's sort of impossible to discuss this movie without discussing the book, so...

The book is basically a tome of 80's references blanketed over a straightforward plot. And when I say tome, I mean tome. No movie, TV show, video game, or song was off limits. Having been born partway through the decade, I appreciated, but didn't understand most of the references in the book. I thought a movie would be able to incorporate them in a more meaningful way that didn't require me to pull myself out of the story to wrack my brain to figure out if I'd played a particular game or heard a particular song.


The movie is entertaining. It would difficult not to be. It's an action story, after all, and one that exists almost entirely within a virtual reality, so the filmmakers were not bound by the laws of physics or reality so they could really go wild--and did.


The movie bears little actual resemblance to the book. So much of the world building and even many of the game references have been stripped out in favor of flashy action sequences and moving the plot forward. I understand that movies will never be able to dive into the amount of detail that books can, but by simplifying the story to extent that it does, it also takes away what makes this story special and different from any other quest-type story. So what if it's set in virtual reality? It's the details that make the story memorable!

Gone is nearly any reference to Wade's real life. Gone is the layered complexity of each challenge, including making up two entirely new challenges that didn't even exist in the book. Gone is the build up to meeting his virtual friends, who they are, and even how they meet. Gone is the ending, the beginning, and pretty much everything in between. Like the movie adaptation of Ender's Game, this movie is fine on it's own--it's just not the story the book tells.

It's hard to separate my feelings of disappointment watching this movie from what it actually was, so I asked my husband to weigh in with his unbiased opinion. "It was okay," he said. "Nothing special." I can't summarize it any better myself.

Final word: This should have been a lot better than it was. Maybe someone will re-do it properly one day.

October 17, 2018

Smallfoot (2018)

Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, Common

First, let me just say how far Channing Tatum has come. No, this isn't a reference to his stripper days (though let's be honest, those are fun to reference too), but his acting ability. Like, not once was I pulled out of the movie by some vocal tic of his or anything that reminded me that it was Channing Tatum's voice and not simply the voice of the character. And any reader of this blog knows what a big deal that is to me. So kudos, Channing.

Ok, onto the meat of it. This movie is so surprisingly clever. I know that sounds like an insult, but I mean it. I've sat through so many mediocre or even terrible kid's movies that I'm honestly surprised when anyone other than Disney puts out something of quality. (And even Disney mucks it up sometimes. See: The Good Dinosaur.) This is one of those stories that has two levels: one superficial, cute level with a nice moral for the kids, and another, higher level that parallels adult topics so we enjoy it more than just nodding along to cute animation. In a weird way, the overall theme of the movie reminded me a little of Sausage Party, except you know, all the dick jokes.

What threw me in the movie was the fact that it had musical numbers. It's just so rare these days, and even more rarely done well. (Thank you, Common!) The whole movie just kept surprising me for the better.

In the end, I'm not certain whether the movie was as good as I thought it was, or if it was just a result of having such low expectations, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Final word: It's still not Disney, but it's worth watching.

October 9, 2018

Ocean's 8 (2018)

Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, et al

I wanted to like this. I really did. For one thing, I like heist movies. For another, I live for Cate Blanchett. (She does not disappoint in this movie. Her whole look is a mood.) But making this movie as part of the Ocean's franchise was a mistake.

For one thing, isn't everyone sick of the Ocean's movies? I know I am. 11 was great. 12 was terrible. 13 was tolerable. Let it die already! Instead, this movie decides it's important to keep paying tribute to the franchise by way of cameos and constant references to George Clooney. It's maddening. Just let it be a heist movie on its own! It literally adds nothing to the story to make it related to the other movies. I argue it makes it weaker.

Secondly, the movie just isn't very good. Like, it tries, but it lacks the both playfulness and drama, leaving the movie rather...bland. Everything just sort of happens. I didn't turn the movie off or anything, but at no point did I feel fully engaged with the story or literally any of the characters. In fact, the best person in the entire story was probably Anne Hathaway, who was the only person to show any depth of character. Everyone else was very one-note. Very. I will add that's probably not the fault of the actors themselves, but the writing. I mean, since when does Helena Bonham Carter struggle to be interesting?!?

Anyway, I was hoping for a successful female spin-off/remake/whatever you want to call it to prove the haters wrong, but sadly, this wasn't it. On the other hand, I'm not terribly disappointed at the prospect of letting this "franchise" die a quick death. Try it again, but with a better script.

Final word: Totally forgettable.

October 4, 2018

Nanette (2018)

Hannah Gadsby

I've watched and reviewed a lot of things over my past 6+ years as a blogger. Hundreds of movies, documentaries, TV movies, and even the occasional book. But this is the first stand-up comedy routine I've written and I'm doing it because it really is as good as everyone says it is.

Comedy is a tricky thing, most obviously because not everyone has the same sense of humor. But even within people who like more cerebral jokes (which this absolutely is), there is a question of format. Nanette sits at the generally unpopular intersection of being super smart, super gay, and told in story format. Here's what I mean by that:

1. Gadsby's jokes rely on a certain amount of knowledge from the audience. For one thing, a not-insignificant portion of her set is devoted to jokes around art history and Impressionist painters. Another long joke centers on the multi-layered perspectives of Picasso. This isn't "forget your problems and laugh" comedy. It's comedy that makes you think and I am here for it.

2. If you didn't already know Gadsby is gay, well, she tells you. Repeatedly. In fact, it's the crux of the entire show. And if that turns you off right there, well, this isn't your brand of comedy. But that's too bad because anyone who doesn't want to watch it because she talks about being gay is exactly the kind of person who should be watching it in the first place.

3. Hannah Gadsby is not a comedian. I mean, of course she is, but not in the way you'd expect. The "traditional" way. She doesn't stand up there and tell jokes. Instead, she weaves personal a personal narrative that's both uncomfortable and sprinkled with jokes, much like Hassan Minaj in his brilliant stand-up special, Homecoming King. But here, Gadsby takes it a step even further by breaking down the process by which she tells jokes, making that a story (and a joke) in and of itself.

I'm trying, in vain, to convey the depth and brilliance of Nanatte without much success. When my husband and I finished watching it, we both sat in silence for a few moments, in awe at the way she crafted the set to come full circle. Every single moment of it serves a purpose and there is not one wasted joke or line in it. It is a mastery of comedy, storytelling, and tension. It's so good, in fact, I'm not entirely certain it is a stand-up comedy special. It seems more like a documentary on how marginalized people in our community cope with society. It is both important and entertaining, funny and sad. It is every contradiction you can think of and if this special isn't referenced as one of the most important cultural moments of 2018 I'm going to throw a fucking chair at something.

This comedy special/stand-up routine/whatever you call it captures the indelible sadness and rage of both women and the LGBT+ community around the world right now. Gadsby pinpoints the exact moments of discomfort that exist and somehow turns them into laughs, but not cheap laughs--laughter that comes through tears; laughter that knows we are only laughing because what the fuck else are we supposed to do. So please, please, please, I am begging you. Watch this. And laugh. And cry. And even if you do neither of those things, please just watch it until the very end.


October 1, 2018

American Panda by Gloria Chao [book]


At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents' master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can't bring herself to tell them the truth--that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.

But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?

Riding high on the Asian wave, I've extended my search for representation to books. I've read everything I could get my hands on across the Asian spectrum, from contemporary stories like Emergency Contact and It's Not Like It's a Secret to more fantasy-inspired stories like The Epic Crush of Genie Lo. But one story, above all, prompted me to write a review of it.

American Panda starts off funny: jokes about stinky tofu, disapproving mothers, and of course, starting college at MIT--pre-med. It warms you with the familiars Tiger parent narrative and sprinkles of Mandarin before launching into wonderful awkward hints of romance. I thought I would know where the book would lead. I was wrong.

What's so lovely about this book is that it isn't at all what the fluffy cover and loopy font leads you to believe it is. The jokes and awkwardness are cute, but this isn't a To All the Boys-style rom-com. It's barely even a romance. Or a comedy.

This book is a wonderful examination of what it means to be Chinese-American; to be stuck between traditional parents and a progressive world. This book explores the familial relationship in a way Chinese-American kids haven't seen reflected back at them in the media they consume. This book is secretly a deep, poignant drama, wrapped in the cloak of teenage romance.

This is not to say that the romance angle is irrelevant or unnecessary--it's not. Only that it's not the main focus, and I actually love the book more for it. I cried reading it. A lot. All the feelings I had watching The Joy Luck Club for the first time rushed back when reading this. It's a hell of a thing--representation. And even though my life experience does not match that of the main character in this story, the small overlaps feel like a victory. Oh, she only refers to her butt in Chinese? Me too!!

Of course, it's impossible to live in America and read something like this and not wonder how it fits into the larger landscape of accessibility: i.e. how would white readers react to this? What experience would they have reading it? Would it all seem foreign to them? Would they assume this is how it is in every Chinese family? I don't know the answer to any of those questions, but honestly, I don't really care. I read a book that felt like it was written for people like me and you know what? Fuck anyone who doesn't understand it. I don't care. (I'm sure the author cares, but that's not currently my problem.) I want a movie made of this. I want this story out there, like The Joy Luck Club, for new generations of Chinese-American kids to relate to.

Final word: Where's my movie, Netflix?!?