Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'Anastasia' and Revisionist History

Before we even start this article, to forestall the anticipated complaints, I actually really like Anastasia. I think it's one of the better animated "princess" movies, and I think that the music is catchy, the voice acting is very well done, and the animation is beautiful. So there.

It's just that I also think that the whole thing is a mess of revisionist history, Tsarist propaganda, and demonization of the lower classes. So, you know, a mixed bag.

But seriously, though, I really do love Anastasia. Though it's not a Disney movie and she doesn't qualify as a Disney Princess, Anastasia is the the Princess I always wanted to be. She taps into something very soft and small inside me, the desire to find out that I am destined for greatness, that there is some bigger story being told in my life, and that I am only just discovering my true potential. That's what this story makes me feel. And to top it off, Anastasia herself is way more interesting and fun and cool than all those boring Disney Princesses. She's spunky and sarcastic and rebellious and she totally kicks Rasputin's butt at the end, which is super awesome.

As far as feminist messages go, I'd actually have to say that this movie gets it right more than it gets it wrong. Anastasia rescues herself for the most part, and Dmitri is there to be eye candy and a plot complication, but she rescues him way more than he rescues her. Anastasia has agency in her own story, and that's awesome.

However, like I said above, there are also a lot of things I don't like about this film. And the problem is, when you look at a movie like this, that gets so many things right and also so many things wrong, it's awfully hard to decide whether or not to show it to your kids.

So. For those of you who didn't grow up in the 90s, this is what the movie is about. Anastasia is a heavily fictionalized version of the story of the "missing" Romanov princess, Anastasia. According to the urban legend, when the Bolsheviks had the entire royal family executed in 1918, Anastasia escaped and somehow was still living at large, waiting to reclaim her title. This is, of course, provably not true.*

The film takes this story and spins it into a classic tale of mistaken identity, evil bad guys trying to ruin nice girls, and reclaiming who you really are. Little Anya (Meg Ryan) has only vague memories of her life as a little girl, because she was found at age nine (or so) wandering the train tracks in St. Petersburg. She has a necklace that seems to suggest she has family out there somewhere, but no idea how to find them. Until, that is, the rumor starts circulating that the Princess Anastasia might really be alive!

So Anya, who we know from the film prologue really is the lost Princess Anastasia, decides to team up with a pair of con men, Dimitri (John Cusack) and Vladimir (Kesley Grammer), to go to Paris and trick the Dowager Empress (Angela Lansbury) into thinking that Anya is her lost granddaughter. Which she is.

Along the way, of course, Dimitri and Anya fall in love, and Anya comes closer and closer to recovering her memories and realizing who she really is. But there's a snag - the evil sorcerer, Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd, excellently cast), has made an evil pact to kill every last member of the Romanov family, and when he learns Anastasia might be alive, he sends himself and all the forces of hell to kill her. Family fun!

That's pretty much it, as far as plot goes. I mean, there is a little more. It turns out that Dimitri is the kitchen boy who saved Anastasia's life all those years ago, and of course there's a tragic moment where Anastasia thinks he's taken a payoff rather than stay with her and live in love, but who cares? The bulk of the movie is Anya learning etiquette and traveling through Europe while Rasputin and his minions trail behind and try to murder her.

Like any Don Bluth movie, it's a lot darker than your average Disney fare, and definitely more overtly sinister. Rasputin is a genuinely terrifying villain, and his song "In the Dark of the Night" still gives me goosebumps and gets stuck in my head, which is impressive. I mean, the visuals alone are horrifying. Not as bad as Hunchback of Notre Dame's "Hellfire", but pretty close.

Like, legitimately terrifying.
But for all that it's scary, I actually don't mind. Yes, it freaked me out as a kid, but it didn't detract from how much I liked the film. Quite the contrary, in fact. I think being a little bit scared made me like it even more. So that's not the problem. 

Nor is my issue with the actual plot. Sure, it's kind of stupid that the whole movie is basically about a girl pretending to be herself (and very much aping the plot of The Addams Family - not kidding) and then finding out that she was a princess all along, which leads to an obscenely happy ending. But who cares? It's a fantasy, and the whole thing is silly enough that you don't really mind how ridiculous it is. It's a princess fantasy, but at least the princess has a hell of a right hook.

The problem is the whole way that the story is set up.

See, my issue here is with the framework of the story, namely how Rasputin enters the narrative and the whole background for the main plot. Rasputin, this film maintains, used to be a mystical man in Russia, but when the Romanov's "betrayed" him, he turned on them and literally sold his soul to an eternal evil so that he could kill them. It frames the Bolshevik rebellion not as a bunch of starving farmers overthrowing the feudal system that has been keeping them bound to the land for centuries, but as a single madman ruining a very kind and loving family because he's Evil.

Do you see what my problem is with it? I hate the lack of moral complexity. I hate how the whole Bolshevik revolution is reduced here to a bunch of people being possessed by evil spirits. Rasputin isn't ambiguous and he has no motivation beyond hatred. He's just plain Evil and there is no other explanation. The film paints him as the bad guy, the Romanovs as his innocent victims, and everyone in between as scuzzy, terrible, rude peasants. 

Like, seriously, when the movie jumps ahead nine years and has the rumor going around St. Petersburg that the Tsar's daughter might be alive, everyone is super excited about it. Because of course they don't really hate the Tsar. They were just possessed by evil when they overthrew him and now communism is here and we must hate it.

I doubt things were really that simply. I doubt things have ever been that simple.

And the thing is, this narrative is very persuasive. It's very easy to think that there's a clear bad guy to blame and that all of the terrible things that have ever happened in the world were done by Evil men. When we think like that, we allow ourselves to relax, because we're safe. Evil men did those terrible things, not normal, nice people like ourselves. We would never do something like that, because we are not Evil.

Right? We're not Evil, so there's no danger of us doing something horrifying and depraved. When we allow narratives like this to be how we define history, we absolve ourselves of power and guilt for what might have been done. In reality, though, history is made up of complex factors, everything from economics to the freaking weather, and while one man can make a difference, it's always always always more complex than that.

The Russian revolution didn't happen because one man decided the Romanovs were evil and should go away. And the Romanovs weren't innocent victims targeted for no reason. Was what happened to them still bad? Of course! But to claim that it was Evil is to ignore the larger issues involved, and to ignore those larger issues is to make it more possible for terrible things like this to happen again.

The Russian revolution was a long time coming and was directly related to the economic oppression that the Tsar and his family had enforced in Russia for hundreds of years. While the rest of Europe was slowly transforming into a capitalist-industrialist society, Russia was mired in a very formal, institutionalized feudal system, and it was rough for the peasants. Really rough. Reading lots of Chekov plays gives you a very rosy view of the world pre-Revolution, but it's worth remembering that happy people do not overthrow their governments. Stuff was pretty messed up to get to that point.

And while we know that ultimately the Soviet Union did fall and did do a lot of really horrific things, to portray it as ultimately Evil is also missing the point. All these systems and bad things happened because of complex causes and multiple factors and we have got to understand what makes history if we don't want it to repeat.

So, yeah. I think Anastasia is a wonderful fun story about a princess with a hell of a lot more bite than usual, fantastic songs, and some amazing set pieces. It blows your average Disney Princess movie straight out of the water on sheer personality alone - Anya has about five times the amount of characterization than every character in Snow White combined. But it's not a perfect movie. It tries to pass some really suspect ideas off as truth, and it peddles a simplified narrative of a complex period in history. I don't like that.

It's really up to you on where you fall - is this a movie that's worth showing to your kids, despite the moral simplicity and potential dangers that can cause? Is the value of a Princess movie that actually passes the Bechdel Test enough to compensate for the demonization of a single man who was honestly completely unrelated to the Bolshevik revolution?

I don't know. You have to decide for yourself. But whatever you choose, my advice is simple: explain it. Tell your kids why you've chosen what you have. Because when we give children the tools to understand and analyze for themselves, we go a long way towards making sure that we won't have this problem in the future.

*No, seriously. DNA evidence has now shown that all the members of the Romanov family are definitely buried where we think they are. So, you know, definitely no missing princesses.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Calling All Voters for the Undies 2014 FINAL ROUND!

Here's the deal: whether you did vote in the Undies preliminary rounds, wanted to vote but didn't get around to it, or have no idea what I'm talking about, you still have the chance to become a voter in the Undies 2014 Final Round!

That means that you have between now and Midnight (PDT) on April 14th* to watch every single nominated film (there are five) and send me your pick for which one you think is the best. That's it. That's all you have to do.

I mean, granted, that is asking you to watch five movies in two weeks, but I feel like most of you can handle that. The one requirement for voting is that you tell me, in good faith, that you have in fact seen all five movies. That's it. Easy, huh?

And in case you missed it before, here are the five nominees for best underappreciated film of 2014 overall:

Mockinjay, Part 1

Under the Skin

Obvious Child

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Song of the Sea

These are the films that won their individual categories, so heck yes this is a throwdown of champions. And in case you're noticing that almost all of these movies have female protagonists or are about female issues, I would like to remind you that this is a feminist movie review website. So, yeah. We're kind of biased.

Email us at kissmywonderwoman@gmail.com if you want to register to vote or if you've seen all the movies and want to send us your pick. Happy watching!

*Yes, the deadline was originally April 1. But I am tired and do not feel like going insane, sooo....

The Problem With 'John Wick' - And A Lot of Action Movies

Late Saturday night as I was lying in bed going over my day, I realized that I was missing two hours. Somewhere in between going out to the grocery store and starting my laundry, I'd been doing something, but I couldn't for the life of me remember what it was. Was I watching Parks and Recreation? No, that was earlier. Under the Skin? No, that was later. What the hell was I doing in the early afternoon?

Eventually, as I was just starting to drift off, the answer came to me. Oh right, I thought, I was watching John Wick. Why didn't I remember that? Why indeed.

Because it's not that John Wick is a bad movie - it's not. Nor is it a particularly good movie, but that's beside the point. It wasn't so ridiculously horrible that I blocked it from my mind, nor was it so amazingly good that I remembered and savored every detail. I remember that it was very well shot and very (as my roommate put it) "directed". The performances were pretty good and the plot...there was a plot, right? The problem is that even eight hours after finishing this film, I could barely remember a single thing about it. Not a dang thing. And that strikes me as kind of a problem.

In case you're about to get mad at me for trying to write an article on a movie I can barely remember, I'll have you know I read the wiki article to prepare.

So the plot of John Wick, which stars Keanu Reeves in his usual role as stone-faced badass, is about as basic as an action movie plot can get. The titular character, John Wick, is a former hit man for the Russian mob. He retired to get married, but the story takes place just after his wife has, after a long battle with cancer, died. He's devastated and at a loss, but he doesn't want to get back into the business. He just wants to figure out how to live again.

And, to his surprise, his dead wife wants to help him with that. She prepared for his loneliness, and one day John wakes up to find a puppy on his doorstep, courtesy of the aforementioned wife. He is gruff with the puppy at first, but within a few scenes they are fast friends.

Then, of course, the plot starts. While getting gas one day, John runs into a young jerkface (Alfie Allen) who really likes his car and tries to buy it off him. John insists it's not for sale, and that should be an end to it. Since this is an action movie, it's clearly not. Instead, John wakes up in the middle of the night to said jerkface and his goons breaking into his house. They beat John, kill his dog, and steal his car.

Obviously he wants revenge.

Only, as it turns out, life is a little more complicated than that. See, the kid who stole his car and killed his dog, Iosef Tarasov, is actually the son of the man John used to work for: Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). Viggo is the head of the Russian mob in this city, whatever it is, and so when John decides to take out his son, he's effectively declaring war on the mob. A hit goes out on John, and the fun begins.

If by fun, of course, you mean about an hour and a half of Keanu Reeves punching everyone ever without smiling and monochromatic cinematography. Because, it seems, this is it. This is the whole movie. It's exactly this basic, and that has its virtues and its problems.

On the plus side, there's something kind of refreshing about an action movie that doesn't make any pretense of having a solid, compelling, emotionally engaging plot. 

Like, seriously, this is a movie about Keanu Reeves murdering everyone because they killed his dog. And while it has been proven that audiences are more emotionally impacted by the death of a dog than the death of a human (true story), it's still a kind of dumb premise. Which is fine! Great, even. This movie understands that we don't need a good reason for John Wick to go on a rampage. We're just here for the carnage.

However. Without a strong emotional through-line in the story, the movie fades into forgetfulness. Yeah, the action scenes are cool, and yes, there are some memorable one-liners and neat set-pieces, but for the most part, it's all the same. John Wick punches someone. John Wick shoots someone. Someone shoots John Wick. Rinse, repeat.

There are no real character arcs in this story, no emotional consequences. While we are told that John is deeply grieved over the loss of this dog - you can tell, because he's shooting everyone - it's honestly hard to tell. And don't get me wrong, I love Keanu Reeves as an actor. But there's just nothing there. This story is paper thin, and while that works all right, it doesn't make it actually good. It doesn't make it anything.

And that is the real problem I have with it. In reducing the action plot to its lowest common denominators, this film has only really succeeding in making something watchable. I don't think I could, in good conscience, call it entertaining. It's just there.

Compare this to another action movie that feels pared down, that doesn't really explain anything about itself, and which is relatively similar in tone and visual style: Shoot 'Em Up. I actually really like this movie, which stars Clive Owen as a hitman who finds a baby and uncovers an illegal human trafficking conspiracy, and then shoots everyone. While holding a baby and eating carrots. It's a silly movie.

It's a silly movie, but it's something. John Wick is so the action protagonist that he feels stripped of all defining features and personality. When his name is first said, it's said as people whisper to each other that Iosef stole John freaking Wick's car. And it's really funny watching everyone poop their pants over this, since all the characters but Iosef know what this means. But that's really all we know about him. That's his whole personality: assassin.

Contrast that with Clive Owen's character, who is a dead-faced contract killer, but one who likes babies and really loves carrots. He's always cracking wise, making Bugs Bunny jokes, and saying the worst thing at the worst moment. He's colorful, and you like him for it. John Wick, on the other hand, is utterly devoid of color. He is the embodiment of grey. Which is probably a much more accurate representation of a hitman, but it doesn't make him fun to watch in a movie.

Right? I mean, I get that contract killers really probably are very average people, because otherwise they would be noticed. But I don't want to see that in a movie. I have The Professional for that. In my silly action movies I want someone larger than life, like Jason Statham in Crank. I want color.

There are other problems with this movie (and other strengths), but this is what stands out to me. Sure, there is a dearth of female characters, and John's wife is fridged before the film even starts, but this only makes it more unremarkable in terms of other action movies. Adrianne Palicki (who I love) is great as a rival assassin named Ms. Perkins, but we don't see nearly enough of her for her verve to spice the movie up. And Alfie Allen is entertaining and all, but he has virtually nothing to work with. Same thing for Willem Defoe. There's just nothing there. No characterization for anyone.

I suppose, when it comes down to it, the real problem with this film is that it tries to be a minimalist interpretation of an action movie, but the issue with action movies has never been that they had too much character development or emotional engagement. 

Frankly, the opposite. So this film has sought to fix the modern action movie by leaning into our tendency for simplified plots and no character arc, and in the process they've made something utterly forgettable. This isn't going to save the action movie. And if more films follow their formula, it just might kill it.

How many action movies like this have come out in the last year alone? John Wick is one thing, but what about The Equalizer? A Walk Among the Tombstones? I know absolutely nothing about those movies, but I don't really want to. As far as I can tell, they are exactly the same. Neutral mask main characters shooting people for some vague "justifiable" reason, and begging us to spend our money to watch them do it.

Well, I'm sorry, but I can't. I want arc, dammit. I want story and characters and emotional consequence. My favorite action films are the ones where I was deeply invested in the life of the characters. Die Hard? It works because John McClane is a person, not just a gun with legs.

So take note, Hollywood. John Wick does not work. Sure, it's fun, but it's completely forgettable, and I know that burns you to the core. If you want to make movies that stick, go back to writing real stories that matter. Until then, stop wasting our time.

grimace grimace scowl

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Winner of the 2014 Undies Mid-Range Category Is...

This was a rough decision. Not just because I had to watch three movies in three days (it was actually two days, if I'm being honest - I was busy on Thursday), but more because these three films are such completely and utterly different movie-going experiences. They each represent totally different approaches to telling a story that matters, a different view of what it means for a film to be "the best".

So, before I tell you which one I ended up choosing, let me explain why each of these films could be considered "the best."

First off, Top Five. Out of all the films in this three-way tie, Top Five is the one I was most surprised didn't get nominated for any major awards at like the Oscars or the Golden Globes. It seems like such a slam dunk of an awards show movie. It is, after all, the thinly veiled story of Chris Rock. Or, as he's called in the movie, "Andre Allen", a comedian who's done being funny and wants to be taken seriously as an actor and artist now.

The movie takes place over the course of a single day, a day that Allen spends being tailed by Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a New York Times reporter doing a profile on him. Allen is wary at first because he's been burned by the New York Times in the past, but slowly warms to Brown, and the two enjoy a very witty repartee as they wander through New York and talk about life, rap, and everything. 

It's also worth noting that this day in question happens to be the day that Allen's passion project film comes out (a movie about the Haitian Revolution that it seems no one wants to see) and also only a few days before his wedding Erica (Gabrielle Union), his reality show star fiancee. In the midst of all the chaos, the movie finds time to meditate on what it means to be funny, famous, sober, and a genuinely good person, and it never loses its stride or gives up genuine feeling for the laughs.

It's a very good movie, and frankly one that I am shocked didn't get more critical love and attention. I mean, seriously, there's nothing Hollywood loves more than a movie about the industry, right? Then again, they also deeply hate movies that criticize the industry, and since a huge part of this film is Allen blatantly pointing out how racist Hollywood is, maybe it's not hard to see why it was snubbed.

Still, it's a great film and definitely worth your time. Funny, charming, and full of feeling, it is completely understandable why this one made it to the final round.

Okay. Now on to Snowpiercer. Like I said before, this one is sort of a cheat for me. I love this movie. I own it on DVD. I've written about it before too. It's a film that has had a genuine and profound impact on me and that kicks me in the pants every time I see it. I was deeply tempted to just give the award to this movie because I like it so much, but then I decided that wouldn't be in the spirit of the thing.

Aside from my general sentiment, though, there are good reasons for Snowpiercer to be at the top. I mean, it's the sort of movie that makes people uncomfortable, and I really mean that as a compliment. While critics are generally in favor of it, there was never any chance of this film being honored by a major awards show, because it's a searing indictment of the class system and inequality. Since Hollywood is very much an entrenchment of that same class system and reinforces it in most films, it didn't seem likely that they'd applaud this film. And they didn't.

Snowpiercer takes place entirely on a train, set in the not particularly distant future. Humanity has frozen itself to death in trying to fix global warming, and now the only survivors on the planet live inside a single train, endlessly circling the globe as it waits for temperatures to rise and the new ice age to end. The train itself comprises a microcosm of society, with the upper classes living in luxury and endless wealth at the front of the train, warmed by the engine, and the lower classes crammed into the freezing tail of the train where there are no windows and they have to eat protein blocks to stay alive. Our heroes are obviously from the tail.

The movie starts when the people in the tail decide to revolt against their "masters". Led by Gilliam (John Hurt) and Curtis (Chris Evans), they band together to fight through the whole train, trying to get to the Engine. Because, as they point out several times, whoever controls the Engine controls the world.

What makes this more than just a good action movie about underdogs rising up against the "bad guys" of an oppressive system, though, is that the film never lets you feel good about the violence. Ever. I mean, honestly, it never lets you feel good about anything. So when Curtis and his crew slaughter a group of mercenaries, you can't feel good for them. There's no swelling music or moment of triumph. It's bloody and ugly and there are unacceptable losses on both sides, and it's all horrible. The whole movie is like that, and it is brilliant and brutal to watch.

Which I suppose makes it hard to see why I like this film so much, but I guess I should say that in addition to being brutal, it's true, and that's the key of it. A movie that was just bleak and horrible wouldn't be in the top five or the top three, but Snowpiercer is elegant and pointed truth. It's about how we all need to really really examine the narrative we are spinning about ourselves, that we cannot dehumanize the enemy, and that we must truly understand the human cost of our lives. It's a good freaking movie. 

Finally, rounding out the top three, there's Under the Skin, a movie that pretty much embodies the word "opaque". Where Top Five is verbose and funny and full of color and Snowpiercer is densely packed with symbolism and detail and hard-hitting criticisms of the class system, Under the Skin sort of just is. It's like poetry in movie form, minimalist, virtually impossible to describe, and very intentionally obtuse.

I was surprised by how much I liked it.

Insofar as there even is a plot, it goes like this: The Female (Scarlett Johansson) is some kind of alien in human form who lures unattached, unmissable men into her van. Then she takes them back to a warehouse where she drowns them in a pool of black liquid. For some reason. And there's a man with her who seems to be in control of her, but that isn't really clear either. Did I mention that there's virtually no dialogue? Because there isn't. It's almost entirely visuals and music, and it's brilliant.

I mean, I can tell you what happens in the film, which is mostly that, following an encounter with a man she doesn't actually want to kill (Adam Pearson), the Female goes off script and ends up wandering the Scottish countryside, becoming more and more human and vulnerable until Bad Things Happen. But that's not what happens. That's not what the movie is about.

As far as I can tell, which is not much, mind you, the movie is about being human. And, I would argue, it's very specifically about being a woman. What it means to be a woman, what it means to be subject to the male gaze, what it means to be vulnerable and invincible at the same time. You could say it's a film about growing up. You could also say it's a movie about rape and sexual assault. You could probably make a compelling argument that this movie is about anything you want, because that's the thing: Under the Skin never tells you what it is about. Not once. It just shows you some things and lets you decide.

Which, for the record, isn't something I thought I would like. I generally enjoy my films to be clear and honest about their intentions. I'm not a "mood" person, I like plot and story structure and character arcs. This film had only one of those things, but what it did have was truth. I'm still not sure what it was about, but I know that it was true, whatever it was. And yes it's insane and tense and stressful and very very bizarre, but it's spectacular at being all of those things, and it definitely deserves to be in the top three as well.

So, with all of that in mind, what did I choose?

I chose Under the Skin. I know, it surprised me too. But there's something to be said for a movie that feels no need to explain itself. Under the Skin, way more than the other two, is subtle. It's slow and feeling and weird and quiet and it just makes you sit and watch until you understand, rather than tell you what it wants you to know. And I just...it's an amazing movie. From all accounts of how a movie can be good, this one hits them.

Like, there's no exposition in this movie. None at all. You are never told what is going on, but that's okay, because you figure it out. Mostly. I mean, you don't understand wide swathes of it, but it doesn't matter because anything you don't understand isn't essential to the movie. Who is The Female and what the hell is she doing? No idea. But that doesn't actually matter in the narrative, and I really appreciate the confidence it takes to just not even bother trying to explain. It takes guts.

And then there's the phenomenal acting of Scarlett Johansson, the absolutely beautiful cinematography, and the riveting music...it all comes together into something that feels less like a movie and more like art. Which I can appreciate. I get that it's a total movie buff's film, and that's okay with me. This movie is amazing, and I can comfortably say that it's the best. It tells the best story in the best way, and that's how I'm judging it.

Oh man guys. This completes our ballot for the Best Overall Underappreciated Film of 2014! 

Like I said before, if you can, please vote in our final category, where the winners from the last round go head to head to see which film ends up on top! The nominees are Mockingjay, Under the Skin, Obvious Child, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, and Song of the Sea. Happy watching!*

*Just a reminder that you must have seen all the nominated films to vote.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Jessica Huang (Fresh Off the Boat)

[This post originally appeared on Bitch Flicks as part of their theme week on Asian Womanhood in Pop Culture.]

Guys. Guys. Guys. I don't want to jump the gun here, since the show has only been on now for a month and a half, but Jessica Huang might just be my new favorite female character. Why? Because she is hilarious, brilliant, incredibly sarcastic, and because she refuses to let anyone get away with anything. Basically, because I see myself in her and I love it. What can I say? I'm naturally egotistical.

For those of you who haven't been keeping up with it, Fresh Off the Boat is a new sitcom based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang's childhood. It starts when his parents, Louis (Randall Park) and Jessica Huang (Constance Wu) move their family of three boys and a mother-in-law from the tight-knit Taiwanese immigrant community of Washington DC to Orlando, Florida. 

Louis has purchased a steakhouse and wants the family to pursue the American dream. Eddie (Hudson Yang) is miserable that he's being sent to suburbia. And Jessica is mostly pissed that the humidity is going to wreck her hair. Also that she's leaving all her friends and family behind for an uncertain future.

Still, she supports her husband and she believes in his dream. In fact, Jessica can be very accurately described as the world's most supportive spouse, even if to our eyes she frequently doesn't seem it. She's harsh and critical and nit-picks and nags with no remorse, but she does all of that because she genuinely cares that Louis gets to see his dream fulfilled. She loves her husband and she loves her kids, and she's willing to do a heck of a lot to help them achieve their full potential. Whether they like it or not.

And while the story mainly follows Eddie's frustrations with middle school and his attempts to be cool in all-white suburban Florida, Jessica's role is much more than just as a foil to her son and husband. She's a full character in her own right, and her storylines have as much weight, if not more, than the other characters on the show.

When the season begins, Jessica is isolated and miserable, stuck at home all day while her husband goes to work and her kids go to school. So she reads Stephen King novels (even though they give her nightmares) and watches the news (even though it makes her paranoid) and tries to make friends with the neighborhood moms. Which is hard, because she hates them.

Eventually she does make a friend and her life gets a little less lonely, but there's still something missing. While Jessica tries to sublimate her frustrations and boredom with concentrating on helping her sons with their school work (and creating an entire extra-curricular tutoring program from scratch) and helping her husband at the restaurant (whether he likes it or not), she still finds herself un-fulfilled and bored.

I love that this is a plotline. Jessica's internal malaise at having been pulled from the life and job she knew isn't laughed off or glossed over. It's a real problem that the show addresses. In Washington DC, Jessica managed her brother-in-law's furniture store. In Florida, she doesn't do anything, and she hates it. She loves and supports her husband, but she isn't happy.

And this is huge, actually. Because this is where we see that Jessica's character on the show really does transcend stereotypes: both the stereotype of the Asian-American woman on television and that of the sitcom mom. She has her own crap going on, and the story validates that. Jessica is bored and frustrated. Is that her fault? No, the show tells us, it's a problem that has to be fixed. And it is.

Eventually Jessica finds that her critical nature and skill at strong-arming people into a bargain works perfectly in real estate and goes on to pursue becoming a realtor. It's not a huge point in the show, but it is one that is showcased and presented as important. It's important because Jessica isn't just there to make Louis and Eddie look good, she's her own person and she has her own story. The narrative supports that, and so too do Louis and Eddie. They're happy for her, and they should be.

It's funny to say, but I think the Huangs might be one of the most functional sitcom families in a long while. They're up there with the Belchers. Because while Jessica might not really understand Louis' love for the American dream, and while she frequently wants to strangle Eddie or her other two sons, she doesn't. She supports them and loves them and sometimes tough loves them. They stick together and they work. As a family, they work.

What makes Jessica Huang a legendary character, though, and one of my personal favorites, is how all of this is worked in with her identity as a Taiwanese immigrant coping with the stresses of American society and culture. It would be very easy for the story to descend into cheap stereotypes with her. So easy. 

Like I said before, she could be idealized into a sweet, soft-spoken "Asian flower" racial stereotype, or she could be cast as the "tiger mom", a mother so obsessed with her children's success that she destroys their lives, or she could be a "dragon lady", a woman whose seductive powers are legendary but who has no real agency in her own life. Granted, this is a sitcom, so she probably wasn't going to be that last one. But still.

Or she could have fallen into the trap of just being yet another sitcom mother. She could be defined by her relationships on the show, confined to the house and portrayed as someone with no further ambitions or inner life. Since the narrative is told from Eddie's point of view, and people generally view their parents with a solipsistic lens until well into adulthood, it would make sense for the story to sort of gloss over Jessica as a person, and leave her as "just a mom."

But this show doesn't do that. This show makes Jessica an active agent in her own life, fully cognizant of who she is and what she's doing, flawed and also incredibly, fearfully competent, and generally badass. And the show is a lot better for it.

The key is context. I mean, while, yes, she does sometimes veer towards "tiger mom" territory, it's always incredibly clear that Jessica is hard on her kids because she knows that they have barriers to their success that the other kids don't. Jessica is written to be fully aware of the impact that being non-white will have on her children, and she strives to offset that. And while she is supportive of Louis pursuit of the American dream, she is also critical of "America" in general. She sees little to value in white culture and is openly against some aspects. 

As she says in the first episode when her youngest son, Evan, discovers he is lactose intolerant, "His body is rejecting white culture. Which makes me kind of proud."

She's a complex figure in Eddie's life. On the one hand, he really admires his mother. He respects how driven she is and how she refuses to take anyone's crap. You can tell he has learned a lot about being tough and strong from her. But, on the other hand, she clearly drives him nuts. She gets fierce and overprotective beyond the point of it being helpful, like when she assaults him with a stuffed animal to demonstrate why he shouldn't date rape. It's a great message, but the delivery is flawed. And that makes her a much more interesting character.

Credit here has to be given to all the people involved in the development process of the character Jessica Huang: from Eddie Huang and his real life mother to Nahnatchka Khan (who also produced Don't Trust the B* in Apartment 23) to Constance Wu. All of these people and the many others who influenced her portrayal deserve a lot of thanks for their thoughtful intentionality in making Jessica Huang as grounded and real as she is.

Because that's the thing, the real reason I love her so much. Jessica Huang is a real person. And not just in that she's based on an actual human being. I mean that she has flaws and makes mistakes and overreacts and underreacts and sometimes she's a bitch and sometimes she cries and sometimes she's the best mother in the world. She's a person, not just a cartoon.

I could go on here about how vital and wonderful this is when you consider the deeply sad state of women of color, particularly Asian women, on television, but I think I'll let the numbers speak for themselves. Fresh Off the Boat is only the second mainstream sitcom in America to feature an Asian family. The first was Margaret Cho's All-American Girl, and that show tried to strip as much Asian-ness from its characters as humanly possible. 

Jessica Huang, though not the main character of the show, is undoubtedly its central figure and breakout star. And she is a fully fleshed out, complex, and fascinating character. Jessica's existence doesn't negate the fact that Asian women are chronically underrepresented on television, but she certainly is a step in the right direction.

I long to be this confident.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Announcing the Winners of the 2014 Undies!

Man oh man, this has been a short month. But, if you've been tracking with us, it's been a month filled with movies and laughter and some abysmally depressing existential angst tempered by a surprising number of vampires and aliens. And vampiric aliens.

So, these films announced here represent your favorite underappreciated films of the past year. Whether you defined "best" as "most entertaining" or "most heart-wrenching" or "most thought-provoking" or "most interesting and unique story", this is what you guys thought the best films were. And that's kind of seriously awesome.

Without further ado, here are the winners of the 2014 Underappreciated Films Awards:

Big Budget - Mockingjay

Mockingjay was a landslide winner here, which I was honestly not expecting. Seriously. I was figuring that Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Interstellar would put up more of a fight. I mean, I'm not arguing with the decision, but I was pretty surprised.

Also, shout out to Guardians of the Galaxy for coming in second place.

Micro Budget - Obvious Child

This one was the clear winner, though there was a slight rally near the end for Dear White People. Right on, Jenny Slate. Right on.

Foreign Language - A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Okay. Caveat. It turns out that the foreign language category needs some work before we do this again next year.* Because it turns out that underappreciated, obscure foreign films are really hard to find in the US. Who knew?

Still, out of the voters who actually managed to see any of the movies, this was the clear favorite. Seriously. It was unanimous. So, sorry to everyone who tried to vote and couldn't, and apologies for inadvertently giving at least one voter's computer malware. We shall never speak of this again.

Animated - Song of the Sea

You know, I kind of figured that after all that hullaballoo over The LEGO Movie getting robbed at the Oscars it would do better here, but it turns out that people really love their experimental art styles. Song of the Sea came first, and Book of Life came second. Cute.

Mid-Range - Three-Way Tie. For Real.

And this brings us to our final topic of the day: the Mid-Range Category. Yeah. I can't actually announce a mid-range winner tonight because that category ended, at midnight, in a three-way tie. So while I very seriously considered just giving the award to Snowpiercer because I love it and it's first alphabetically, I've decided to be fair:

I myself will be watching all three of the tied films this weekend and deciding which one is actually the winner. For the record, the other two films are Under the Skin and Top Five. Wish me luck. You are also welcome to join in the rewatch and send in your votes, but just know that while your votes will count, if it's another tie I'm going to just pick my favorite.

I'll announce the winner as soon as humanly possible (so, like, Friday?) so that we can all get busy watching and voting on the BEST UNDERAPPRECIATED MOVIE OF 2014! Yeah!

Happy watching!

*We are so totally doing this again next year. This was fun!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'Llama Llama' and Stickiness

I don't think I can stress this enough, but as someone who has read oh so many children's books aloud to ungrateful little snotbag audiences (by which I mean that I love and cherish children always), I have strong opinions about rhyming patterns in those stories.

For example, stories that don't rhyme at all? That's totally okay. You have decided not to do this, and while you have therefore made my life less fun and wacky for the next ten minutes or so, I can respect your choice. You know your own limits and that is definitely all right.

Stories that do rhyme? Tricky. Because here's the thing: rhyming is a lot harder to pull off that we all collectively seem to think it is. But just ask someone to come up with a limerick on the fly or rap or to generally rhyme even the most basic construct, and they'll fail miserably. Now ask them to make an entire story out of rhymes. That makes sense. And is engaging and fun for children. And doesn't use any swears.

It's so hard!

Which is why I really do respect the authors who can wield a rhyme and tell a good engaging story while they do it. Today's example of that is Anna Dewdney, whose Llama Llama books are one of the few series I can read to the Munchkin over and over again without wanting to scream. Which is high praise, trust me.

Her books, which all started out with the absolutely adorable Llama Llama Red Pajama, follow the adventures of baby Llama, child of the imaginatively named Llama family. There's Mama Llama and probably a Daddy Llama but he doesn't come up much. He has a friend named Nelly Gnu and sometimes he goes to preschool. But mostly, little Llama plays with his toys and goes to the store with mama or stays home sick, or in some way interacts with the world. And inevitably, something doesn't go Llama's way, because he's a toddler, so he throws a fit.

That's when Mama Llama tells him to stop all this llama drama! She says it like once a book at least. And then she calmly explains to him what appropriate behavior is, and he's a good little llama and understands, and then there's a happy ending and everyone loves everyone else the end.

Okay, and I can kind of see why some people might not think I love these books, because they are very simple and moralistic, but they're also good. Like, they're fun to read and the morals are all things I can totally get behind. The moral of Llama Llama Red Pajama is that sometimes you just have to be patient. It's about Llama trying to go to bed and he decides he's scared and he needs Mama right away, but Mama is busy and so he throws a tantrum. And it's super simple, but the message is that Llama just needs to calm the hell down because Mama's still here even when she's downstairs, and sometimes you just have to wait.

I can appreciate that, and not just for the selfish fact that my life would be a lot easier if the Munchkin learned this lesson. It's a good lesson to learn, that while you are important and valued, there are other things that matter too, and sometimes you just have to be patient. Good moral there.

Or what about Llama Llama Mad At Mama? That one is about Mama taking Llama shopping and he throws a fit in the store because it's taking too long. Then Mama tells him to knock it off. The end. Like, that's seriously the whole book, but it's funny and charming and beautifully illustrated, and it rhymes so well, and again, super helpful message. Sometimes we have to do chores. Deal with it. Yes.

But, getting back to the crux of my argument here, the reason these stories are palatable and the reason their morals work so well is because of how they're written. The meter and rhyme of the stories is perfectly calibrated into this kind of lulling sing-song that gets little ears listening without realizing they're being taught a thing. It's genius!

No, seriously. It really is genius. I've read enough badly rhymed books to understand that finding a meter and verse that work for you and for your style, then matching them to the actual mechanics of the story is really incredibly hard. Hats off to Anna Dewdney for managing all of that and then painting the illustrations too. That's a lot of work.

My point here isn't exactly that we should all revere Ms. Dewdney, though. Not quite. More just that it's worth paying attention to the little things, like rhyme, that help get kids' attention. The Munchkin listens a lot better when something is said in a sing-song. He also listens better about getting exercise when I point out that Lightning McQueen likes to go fast and needs to practice before his races. He loves cheetahs and sometimes he pretends one is chasing him. And songs in minor keys make him fall right to sleep. I have no idea why.*

While it's good to know your kid's specific preferences, it's also good to know why that's the thing that works for him or her. Why do the Llama Llama books work on the Munchkin? Why those books and not the Berenstain Bears or something. Because he does love the Berenstain Bears, but they don't teach him anything. He never refers back to them and their morality, whereas he has, on several occasions, mentioned remembering to share because of how Llama played with Nelly Gnu that one time. Or knowing that I'll always be there for him like Mama Llama is. He's actually learned from these stories, and it's really wonderful.

The reason for this is because the books are sticky. It's a term coined by the creators of Sesame Street to refer to how much the intended audience pays attention to a certain piece of media. In the case of that show, they placed kids in front of two monitors, one showing Sesame Street and one showing random images. Then they measured where the kids were looking and designed the show so that you would always look at Sesame Street instead of something else. Which explains so much about my childhood, you have no idea.

But the point here is that the Llama Llama books work because they're incredibly clever and good and fun and also because the rhyming makes them sticky. It makes them hold the attention of a child for a lot longer than another story might, and that gives them much more time to absorb the lessons being taught them. Isn't that awesome?

So I guess this is sort of just a thank you to Anna Dewdney. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for writing stories that I can genuinely stand, and for making them the kind of catchy that a three and half year old can't resist. And please, please, please keep writing them so I don't have to go back to the other stuff.


*I lied. I have some idea why. I think after a year and a half of me singing minor key lullabies to him before naptime I've accidentally preconditioned him to fall asleep to that tune. Which is going to make his adult life hilarious. And since most of the songs I sing to him are in Hebrew, if he ever goes to a Jewish music festival he's screwed.

Monday, March 23, 2015

'Aida' and Why We Need More Diverse Musicals Like This

Okay. This morning we really were going to talk about Insurgent because I really was going to have seen it over the weekend, but then I didn't. Partly because the theater near me had only a handful of 2D showings and partly because I was busy. But since not having seen the movie makes talking about it a little hard, we're going to do a hard left turn and talk about something else that is completely unrelated, but about which I've been thinking for the last few months.

Let's talk about the Tim Rice and Elton John rock-musical Aida. Bet you didn't see that one coming.

The thing is, this is actually one of my all time favorite musicals. I know I don't mention theater all that much on here, because it's not as naturally conducive to blogging as film or television or comics, but it is something I care a lot about. My parents are both theater people, my sister and I are theater people (or at least we were for a while), and theater has played a big role in my life. I think I was in middle school when I first saw a production of Aida, and while it didn't change my life, it certainly did get stuck in my head.

For those of you who aren't up on your American musical theater or on the Italian operas that theater is sometimes ripping off, Aida is based on a very very old legend. The same one that Verdi based his opera on. This legend is about two fated lovers whose devotion to each other nearly destroys two whole nations. Romeo and Juliet can go suck an egg, because Aida and Radames have got them beat, hands down.

The story takes place during Egypt's Old Kingdom period (probably, I think). Radames is a captain of the Egyptian guard and betrothed to the Pharaoh's daughter. Egypt is, at the this time, at war with neighboring Nubia (what we would now consider Sudan), and he has been sent on a scouting mission. It's while he's on this mission that he and his men capture some Nubian prisoners, including the young and beautiful Aida.

Aida, though she absolutely doesn't let anyone know this, isn't just some random girl. She's actually the crown princess of Nubia, and with her father old and nearing the end of his life, she's expected to rise to power very soon. Only she gets captured and sold into slavery in Egypt.

Radames and Aida have an instantaneous spark, one that seems to mostly consist of bickering and pecking at each other on the boat ride back to Egypt, and it's obvious they're going to fall in love. But there are other factors to consider. Aida is given as a slave to none other than Amneris, Radames' betrothed. Radames' father is currently plotting to kill the Pharaoh, force the marriage, and then install Radames on the throne. Aida ends up accidentally leading a slave rebellion. It's a very exciting musical.

And at the end, the lovers, who are absolutely definitely in love at this point, are sentenced to death for their crimes. They die buried alive in a tomb while Amneris ascends to the throne of Egypt, makes peace with Nubia, and reigns for years in a new golden age.

Seriously. You should watch this musical. It's fantastic.

But what I want to talk about today isn't just how wonderful and clever this musical is, though it is both, but how quietly subversive it is. Aida is, in the background, doing some stuff that is way more radical than I think anyone really appreciates. 

We all talk about wanting more diverse characters and more interesting plots, but sometimes we as a culture miss the places where those plots are already happening. And one of those missed plots is this one, a story about feminine strength, female political savvy, romantic love, female friendship, and the cost of power. Also race. It's the whole package.

While the plot of the musical is superficially about a romance between two people who feel "trapped", the actual events of the show are very much about women in power and what it means to be a woman who is "destined for greatness". On the two sides of this issue you have the two female leads, Aida and Amneris. Though they start as rivals and as master-slave, they quickly form a strong friendship based on mutual respect. Both women know what it is to have high expectations placed on you, but the expectations take very different forms.

In Aida's case, the expectation is always that she will be a good and strong military leader, a true ruler to her people. One of the songs even has her people sing to her, "All we ask is a lifetime of courage, wisdom, service - to want more would be selfish, but nothing less will do." Aida has a hell of a time figuring out how to live up to those expectations and be the ruler her people deserve, especially in captivity and slavery. She wants to rule well, but she also wants the freedom to be a person, and that's a freedom she does not have. In fact, her romance with Radames actually makes more sense when you realize that this is her chance to have something not prescribed by duty and obligation. Hence the tragedy of it all.

Amneris, on the other hand, isn't expected to be a great leader or political strategist. She's not expected to do much at all, except marry Radames (or another handsome, clever, well-connected man) and be the perfect trophy wife. I mean, she is the ultimate trophy wife - she comes with the ultimate trophy. Amneris even sees herself this way. She focuses all of her energy on perfecting her outward appearance because she doesn't want anyone to look closely and see how miserable and frustrated she is. And at the end, she decides to screw the expectations everyone has, the destiny she's been called to, and to rule on her own.

But the show doesn't place either woman's choice as better than the other's. They're just different. Aida wants freedom, Amneris wants consequence. They're different women with different goals, and so they have very different ends to their story. What makes this a great show is that it doesn't ask you to choose, nor does it ask them to choose. By the end, it feels less like Amneris is furious with Aida for stealing away Radames than that she's pissed with Radames for stealing away Aida. He took her best friend! The jerk!

All of this is interesting, but it gets even better when we factor in the way that race is portrayed in the musical. Now, bear in mind, this is an American musical based on an Italian opera based on a legend from like seven thousand years ago. So the racial representations are really off.* In the musical, the Nubians are traditionally cast with African-American actors, while the Egyptians are shown as white. Like I said, this isn't accurate, because Egypt seven thousand years ago was just as black as its neighbors**, but the interpretation does hold some interesting meaning for us now.

See, Egypt in the story is a colonizing force. Nubia isn't at war with them because they want something Egypt has, they just want to be left alone. Egypt is invading Nubia and stealing its natural resources while capturing the people to take as slaves. So, yeah, that sounds like white people.

This means that the main romance in the story is interracial, which is super cool. But it also means that the story now has the latitude to talk about race in terms of female relationships, and the way that privilege and power can influence that. When everyone finds out that Radames has left Amneris for her Nubian slave, there's talk about how he's "slumming it" and how they're confused about why he would go for someone so "ugly". Obviously this is dumb because Aida is gorgeous and I think in this case she's the one slumming it, but it's also rather intentionally racist, which is very interesting.

I mean, just the decision in the first place to make this a play where the main character is an African princess with complicated feelings and motivations and perspectives on her life and role in the world - that's huge. Really huge. It adds a level of complexity to the show and its emotional underpinnings that the opera sadly lacks.

Seriously, guys, I can't stress enough how much you should definitely go see this show. It's wonderful and amazing and well worth seeing. But I also have another motivation in bringing this up.

Now that both Les Miserables and Into the Woods have been made into big budget Hollywood movies, producers are starting to scour through their old Broadway Playbills to see what other shows they can turn into cash cows. Next on the chopping block is, I think, Wicked, which is interesting and will probably make for a great movie, but I want to urge those producers looking out there to think more outside the box. Can you make a great Wicked movie? Almost definitely. But do we actually need one? I'm less convinced.

What we do need, desperately, is more diverse media, especially media that deals with intersectional relationships between power and gender and race. Aida has all of that, as well as a soundtrack you can really tap your toes to. Wicked is great, and so are a lot of the other shows they've been considering, but they're all very historically white shows. Why not actually do something different? Why not tell a new story?

We need more stories like this. Stories that expand our ideas of what it means to be human, to be a woman, to be a man, to be Nubian or Egyptian or in power or out of power or in love or in friendship - we need stories that actually represent the whole breadth and width of the human experience. And then we need those stories to be made in to movies so that the most people possible will see them and understand the world just that tiny bit better.

Why not make Aida into the gigantic, sprawling, gorgeous adaptation that we keep trying to make Cleopatra into? Lupita N'yongo can play the title role. Stick Rami Malek as Radames. I have no idea if either of them can sing, but I figure they can learn. Dust off Rosario Dawson and plunk her down as Amneris. Or whoever. But let there be a giant wonderful movie musical about people who aren't white, women who have great power, and about two idiots falling in love and ruining everything. I want that show. I want it more than I want Wicked. I want it because it will make me cry and sing along and spend all my money at the box office.

And, if you can't manage that, what's the point of making movie musicals at all?

*Actually, all of the historical stuff is off. Old Kingdom Egypt didn't have Pharaohs and Queens, it had male Pharaohs and female Pharaohs who ruled concurrently and kept separate households. And while we have no records of a male Pharaoh ruling alone, we have a fair number of records of female Pharaohs doing so. Take that, modern day sexist reinterpretations of history!

**Fight me on this, I dare you. I minored in Africana Studies in college, with a specialty in Egyptology. I will win.