Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rogue One: The Star Wars Prequel Fans Deserved

Star Wars fans seem to agree on one thing: ignore the prequels.  However, fans can rejoice in Rogue One as it blends the new and the old while offering a fantastic space ride and just enough character throwback (or foreshadowing?) to satisfy your all your nerdy needs.  The movie tells the story of the people who steal the plans to the Death Star, and despite knowing the end result, I was still invested in every character, every moment.  Spoilers ahead.

(Source: Wikipedia)

The protagonist Jyn Erso is the daughter of Galen Erso, who is responsible for the design and construction of the Empire’s Death Star.  Galen sends a message through a defected pilot that he has placed a hidden weakness in the weapon.  When the Rebellion recruits Jyn for her help, she must convince them of her father’s good intentions and exploit the Death Star’s weakness.  We know from the original trilogy that she and the other characters succeed but die in the attempt, since none of them greet Luke Skywalker in A New Hope.  Although this could have stolen the tension, it instead creates a ticking time bomb for the characters to operate in.

I liked Jyn as a headlining female character (though not quite as much as Rey).  She looks tough, she is tough, but her devotion to her father carries the story as she reveals a greater amount of hope than she initially had.  Rebel officer Cassian Andor possesses an interesting moral nuance as a man who believes in the cause but who has done pretty ugly things to support that cause.  Then there are just plain cool characters such as Chirrut Imwe, a blind warrior who taps into the Force to kick everyone’s ass and take names - though he isn’t himself a Jedi.  His capabilities reminded me of Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender.  K-2SO, a former imperial android, was by far the sassiest character.  He had the best lines.  I didn’t think I would find a droid the most relatable character, but here we are.

Meanwhile, Saw Gerrera wasn’t used much despite his important relationship to Jyn.  After her father was kidnapped, Gerrera rescued and raised Jyn until she was sixteen and he abandoned her to “protect” her - a fact that was skimmed over in a fast and awkward conversation.  I guess you can only cover so much, but I would rather not be set up to believe a character is more significant than he is if he’s only going to fall away in the first act.

The movie quickly establishes that Galen Erso is an unwilling accomplice to the Empire’s Death Star, but I thought it missed an opportunity to amp up the moral grayness. One of Jyn’s childhood flashbacks hinted that Galen was once willingly working with the Empire.  I thought the story could have explored his involvement more and make the audience wonder whether Jyn is right to automatically trust him.  But that’s just a thought.

I also want to gush about the diversity of the cast.  Almost all of them were people of color, which makes me wonder where they disappeared to in the original trilogy.  Even better, Andor is played by Mexican actor Diego Luna.  A Mexican in Star Wars!  I’m so proud because it means have a chance.

Rogue One offers a fun and fast-paced space adventure that mixes the appropriate amount of action and just enough fan service to make me squeal at the right moments.  I hope that this film signals more quality Star Wars content in the future, from Episode VIII to the Han Solo spin-off to whatever else Disney churns out for us.  It’s a good time for geeks to be alive.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Moana Review

Moana is a strong, independent woman who don't need no man.  Well, she recruits help from a demigod, but when you watch the movie my point still stands.  I consider Moana another Disney hit (as if the box office numbers don't already speak for themselves) that deserves attention for its beauty, its sound, and its heart.  Disney has created yet another fun animated film with catchy music, exciting adventure, and rich culture.  Real culture.  Even though I'm not Polynesian, I saw a lot of myself in Moana's design: dark skin, dark wavy hair, brown eyes.  Of course I'm not salty about still waiting for a Latina princess movie.  At all.  But I can move past that to enjoy myself anyway.

(Source: Wikipedia)

The demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) stole the greenstone heart of island goddess Te Fiti until he was attacked by a lava demon and lost it in the sea.  The ocean, personified to be a character of its own, chooses Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) as a child with the heart of Te Fiti.  I question why the ocean would give a toddler such an important object, but her grandmother took good care about it in the meantime so I'll let it go.  Moana grows up dreaming of sailing across the ocean, but her father insists she focus on her upcoming role as chief of Montunui.  You know how that's going to go.  Because Te Fiti's missing heart has caused their island to start deteriorating, Moana must follow the call of the ocean and her seafaring ancestors with the loving support of her grandmother behind her.


Moana has a great dynamic with demigod Maui.  They create a comedic duo (with no romantic entanglements!) who eventually form an emotional bond.  I give snaps to the movie for keeping me engaged with a story that mostly takes place with just two characters out on the ocean.  One of my favorite moments in the film was Moana insisting that she wasn't a princess and Maui replying that if she has a dress and an animal sidekick, she's a princess.  Moana is the chief's daughter and will soon be chief herself, but she makes clear that this is not the same as a European concept of a princess.  Where was this hilarious meta-commentary during Pocahontas?  I was disappointed that Moana's idiotic chicken was the animal sidekick rather than the pig.  The pig was way cuter.



(Source: Wikipedia)

Because Disney cannot resist its compulsion to make everything musical, we hear songs from Moana, Maui, and other characters throughout.  The soundtrack isn't my favorite of all time, but "How Far I'll Go," "Where You Are," and "We Know the Way" have beautiful vocals and sound.  I loved that Polynesian talent went behind writing, producing, and voicing Moana, and that the film explored wayfinding, which is how islanders discovered and planted themselves in every habitable island in the Pacific - a real-life historical phenomenon.  However, make no mistake that this movie is not a completely accurate representation of Samoans, Tahitians, Hawaiians, and other distinct peoples that were mashed into one island.  Perhaps that's obvious, but if people can believe Africa is a country then I must make this disclaimer.  I have seen the conflicted response to Moana - pride in being represented on some level and anger at sacred traditions, clothing, mythology, etc. being appropriated, homogenized, and commodified by Disney.  So, what to do with this knowledge?

Moana is a fun and inspiring movie that managed to touch me and surprise me.  I think there's nothing wrong with appreciating the film, but I hope it encourages people to learn the real history and customs and peoples behind it.  If Moana's success inspires its audience to do so, then it will have done a great service to Polynesians and to the world at large.  Education is powerful, friends.  And so is Moana.  Don't let either go to waste.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Doctor Strange Review

The Marvel formula has succeeded again.  The first origin story since Ant-Man, Doctor Strange opens an exciting new dimension of the multiverse: magical mysticism and sorcery.  (I watched this on the same day I watched wizardry and witchcraft in Fantastic Beasts.  Here's hoping I don't burn in hellfire for the double whammy.)  While the film has its issues, from the casting controversy to its formulaic pattern, Doctor Strange still engaged me with stunning visuals and some surprises behind the curtain.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I cannot imagine how hard the special effects team worked to make the film happen.  Even without seeing it in 3-D, I was entranced and engulfed by the colorful kaleidoscope world that they created.  The new visual and psychological presence of mysticism fascinated me.  Meanwhile, although Dr. Strange doesn't offer a wit quite on par with some other Marvel characters, he was good for an occasional laugh.  I had no comic book background with the character, so perhaps that's why I was surprised at how much Stephen Strange remind of Tony Stark.  For one thing, they have similar facial hair, and they're both arrogant.

However, Strange's (excuse me, Doctor Strange's) pride takes an interesting shape.  He is an excellent neurosurgeon who saves a person's life in the first scene and has saved many other lives before that, but it turns out he only takes the cases that will make him look good.  Near hopeless cases he tosses aside.  I have no idea why Pepper Potts - I mean Christine Palmer - puts up with him.  A former lover and current colleague of Dr. Strange, Palmer stays by his side when a car accident steals the steadiness of his hands.  I liked watching Dr. Strange coming into his own.  His arc goes the way you might expect of an initially self-glorifying character who learns to be a hero.  We've all seen it before.  That's because it works, and it works for this movie.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

My real enjoyment began when Strange goes to Nepal to be healed by the Ancient One, master of sorcery, played by whiter than bread Tilda Swinton.  I'll give credit to Swinton for playing a character with so much nuance and, frankly, really badass magical skills.  Her teaching technique can be summarized with this: that she stranded Strange on Mount Everest until he learned to create a portal back to Nepal.  If that isn't immersion learning I don't know what is.  The Ancient One serves as a rich resource of wisdom and a strong juxtaposition against Doctor Strange's personality.  Yet at the same time, she has a mystery about her that Strange suspects.

Her powerful force makes me all the more disappointed about a white woman being cast as her.  The original Ancient One was a Tibetan man.  The movie creators have given us all kinds of reasons as to why Swinton rather than an Asian actress was cast.  The Washington Post does an excellent job breaking down their excuses.  I would like to add that the director's fear of an Asian Ancient One becoming a Dragon Lady stereotype wouldn't have happened with the way her character was written and performed.  A Dragon Lady is strong, mysterious, domineering, and manipulative.  The Ancient One is certainly the first two, but I would hardly describe her as domineering or manipulative.  And how wonderful it would have been to see the stereotype of a meek, quiet, shy Asian woman broken with a powerful, complex, wise master of mystic arts.  If people automatically label such a thing as "Dragon Lady," that's their prejudice and their problem.

People have a right to be upset about whitewashing in Doctor Strange.  If it wasn't for that, I would have no qualms about recommending it.  For me, the movie was worth watching to continue following the Marvel Cinematic Universe and be able to see and discuss for myself what is right and what is wrong with Doctor Strange.  I hope Marvel has learned their lesson from the controversy.  With the talent of their writers, directors, and actors, the studio can and has created three-dimensional characters rather than racist caricatures before.  Marvel can afford to take a few risks with other characters of color.  Starting with - and I know this is pretty radical - casting an Asian actor for an Asian character.  What a concept.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Bad Moms

If I were a mom, I would whip out the duct tape every time my kid talked back to me - which is probably why I'll never be a mom.  (You're welcome, non-existent children.)  Although, according to the R-rated comedy Bad Moms, even the seemingly perfect moms don't always know how to best handle their kids, or their lives.  As the movie creates an atmosphere ripe for laughter and fun, Bad Moms touches on the overstressed perfectionism of modern motherhood that can make any woman crack from the pressure.

(source: Wikipedia)

Mila Kunis plays Amy, a woman who opens the film with a montage of her chauffeuring her kids around, working at an office full of young people, crying to herself in her car, and dealing with her deadbeat husband.  Said husband turns out to be cheating on her by having Skype-sex with a naked dairy farmer.  I have to give credit for the affair's originality, as strange as it was.  Amy's world continues to crumble until she snubs President Gwendolyn James at the PTA meeting.  Fed up, Amy recruits Kiki (Kristen Bell) and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) to join her in a bad mom rebellion.  They engage in teenager-style abandon, and Amy tells her kids and her young boss that they have to take care of some things themselves.

Although the title and synopsis give off vibes of reckless irresponsibility, the movie is careful to offset Amy's self-liberation with her continued devotion to her family.  She may not do their homework or make breakfast, but she takes her daughter out to a spa, gets her kids where they need to go, and eventually runs for PTA president to defend her daughter.  She might have given up on being the "perfect" mom, but she never loses her mom-ness.  That actually serves for some of the movie's best comedic moments (i.e. the mom bra) and the most emotional moments as well.


On occasion, Bad Moms stretches reality a little far.  The PTA is presented as a mega influence that determines everything from standardized tests to teacher hires/fires, which sounds more like a school board than a group of parents.  Gwendolyn James, PTA President, is the blond Queen Bee that you have seen in every high school movie ever.  She possesses an unreasonable amount of long-windedness, arrogance, and pettiness that made me forget that I was watching adults rather than teens competing for prom court.  Additionally, some of the jokes surrounding her were so over-the-top that they fell flat (such as Gwendolyn naming one of her pasty-faced kids Ghandi).  As far as characters go, Gwendolyn was the weakest.

However, I adored Mila Kunis as the main character.  She had the same non-apologetic, snarky vibe that I remembered from her performance in Friends with Benefits with Justin Timberlake.  She formed a funny, dynamic trio with Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn that carried the movie with lighthearted buoyancy.  Eventually all three to learn to modify their behavior to preserve their independence (and sanity) while taking care of their families.  Amy and Carla have particularly touching moments with their children.  The moms' biggest takeaway is that they do not have to be so hard on themselves - a message that everyone in an overworked world needs to hear these days.  I appreciated hearing that even if society expects a lot from me as a woman, I have the right to self-care.

My favorite part of Bad Moms comes during the credits.  Each of the actresses are sitting with their real-life mothers as their mothers recall their "bad mom" moments and reveal their insecurities as they raised their daughters.  After all the hilarious and relatable stories are through, all the actresses affirm that they had a wonderful childhood and embrace their mothers.  The official site for the movie features other submissions from moms who have had epic and not-so-epic fails.  Even the most "perfect" of us often don't know what we're doing, because we're human and we fail.  A lot.  Bad Moms offers a helpful reminder of that while still giving its audience a rowdy good time.

If you're interested in seeing Bad Moms for yourself, it's available here in digital HD and will be released on DVD November 1.

Monday, September 5, 2016

If You Love Narnia, Read These Three Authors!

Recently at a club retreat, we did an ice breaker where we told someone our life story in five minutes, and afterward my partner told me with a laugh that I mentioned C.S. Lewis twice.  Facepalm.  Now that I have established my obsession, I think it appropriate to mention a few recommendations for anyone who loves Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia as much as I do.

Source: tudor-rose (https://www.flickr.com/photos/smileeyface1993/6864840044)
The world has a lot of fantasy fiction out there, but a rarer find is a fantasy story that incorporates Christian elements or themes.  If that's what you're looking for, here are three authors you should check out:

1. Wayne Thomas Batson
Source: commons.wikimedia.org
A prolific writer, Batson has done six series and counting.  Some are finished, some are ongoing.  If you read only one thing from him, I highly recommend The Door Within trilogy.  Featuring an adolescent overweight boy named Aidan, the series recounts his (and others') journey to Earth's parallel world known as "The Realm."  It has the classic fantasy elements: knights to sword-fight, dragons to ride, The Great Evil to defeat.  The Aslan figure is King Eliam, and although his presence is not strictly visible in the action, you know he's behind the scenes.  The Door Within has lots of fun and intrigue and mythology and character arcs that make a compelling read.  The first book ends in such a way that you don't have to read the other two, although I'd be surprised if you didn't want to anyway.


2. Christopher Hopper
Make no mistake, Hopper is a quadruple threat: recording artist, youth pastor, motivational speaker, and author.  I'll focus on the last one here.  He co-authored The Berinfell Prophecies with Batson and wrote The White Lion Chronicles.  The Berinfell series has a good mixture of fantasy adventure and Christian themes, although its much larger cast of main characters (the elven Lords of Bernifell) can become a lot to handle.  The White Lion series imagines what the world might have looked like if Adam and Eve hadn't sinned.  The trilogy has an emotional intensity that left me winded when I read it.  Hopper steeps the characters in deep tragedy and suffering that refuses to let up for most of the ride.  A relatable book series if you've ever wondered where God was in a hard season in your life.

3. Chuck Black
Okay, so out of all of them, this author is the most obvious about his Christian influence.  The Kingdom Series translates the Bible into allegory, showing knights in a medieval-ish world.  I recommend Black mainly for book clubs or for introducing the Bible to young readers.  I liked pulling out the parallels between the books and real life biblical people while seeing familiar stories play out in a fantasy context.  If you don't want to commit to reading that whole series, The Knights of Arrethtrae has individual installments that have their own characters/plots/themes.  The only exception is Sir Dalton, which spills into Lady Carliss - the only book out of the series with a headlining female character.  Both Kingdom Series and Knights of Arrethtrae have questions in the back to help you pull out the symbolic Christian elements.

Hopefully one of the series I mentioned appeals to you for your next fantastical journey.  If so, you can click the links to the authors' websites to see what else they've got, or you can go to Amazon to order something now!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Why Saga Is More Than a Comic Book

Before I begin my review, which of the following appeals to you?

a) Star Wars
b) Romeo & Juliet
c) A Game of Thrones
d) All of the above

Right answer? When it comes to Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga, any of them are enough to make the comic book series worth a lifelong obsession.  But Saga's brilliance does not end with its seamless integration of science fiction, fantasy, war, and star-crossed romance.  In terms of action, reading the series is like letting someone else push the gas pedal until even your thoughts can't catch up to your body.  The comic also deals with heavy real-world themes through a plethora of diverse, well-rounded characters that are drawn with astounding imagination and detail.  To put it plainly, Saga is an artistic and literary masterpiece.

(source: Wikipedia)

The main characters (pictured above) are Alana, from the planet Landfall, and Marko, from Landfall's satellite moon Wreath.  For ages, Landfall has engaged in battle with Wreath for reasons no one seems to remember.  Since destroying one would destroy the other, Landfall and Wreath have outsourced their war to other planets.  Alana and Marko are on the run with their newborn Hazel to avoid the conflict and the people that want them dead.  An adult Hazel narrates along the way.  Her commentary fits well with the story, foreshadowing events to create tension on behalf of the characters as well as adding a dry humor common with the series in general.  What I most appreciate about Alana and Marko's relationship is that, despite my earlier comparison to Romeo and Juliet, theirs is more honest and flawed.  They have lied to each other and fought with each other about the banal and the serious.  Volume 4 most vividly portrays a trap that all relationships can fall into.

A ruthless freelancer called The Will, sent to find the couple, becomes another high-profile character.  He's the kind of antagonist you root for - or at least I do.  The Will is hung up on another freelancer named The Stalk, and he unwittingly takes a little girl under his care after rescuing her from sex slavery (like I said, heavy stuff).  At the same time, he shows he's not afraid to kill to get what he wants.  Complicated doesn't even begin to describe him.  My anticipation for his first confrontation with Alana and Marko keeps stacking up as the narrative progresses.  In the meantime, I'm deeply invested in seeing him get his act together.  I admire Vaughan for making me sympathize so much with him.

So many other characters arrive on the scene with different gender identities, sexualities, appearances, and complex world views.  Staples has drawn a world with species I could never have conceived of - such as that of Prince Robot IV.  He has a man-like body with a television for a head.  How the creators turned something that sounds so ridiculous into one of the most fearsome antagonists of the series, I have no idea.  I just know they did it.  (It could be the fact that his hand can morph into this.)

Not only are the characters well fleshed out, but also the storyline.  Saga is exciting, addicting even.  The quick transitions from subplot to subplot propel me to keep reading even when I have a week's worth of to-do list items ahead of me.  Vaughan always knows the right moment to pause on a scene: right before a revelation, right after a revelation, a character about to die, etc.  It's not fair play.  It's like he wants me to never put his work down.  At least I've gotten good at guessing when someone will die. With war, what else can one expect?

My only disclaimer for Saga is that it 100% earns its mature rating.  The language, violence, and sexual content do not bode well for the squeamish.  Once you plunge into the world, however, you barely even notice.  Some graphic sexual images did feel like overkill, but I will blame that on the creators ensuring the comic book doesn't become a movie.

In conclusion, Saga deserves all the praise it has received.  The creators have given birth to a diverse, beautifully rendered universe for characters that feel more human than some actual people I know.  They handle the most delicate issues with the right percentage of heart, sarcasm, and unconventional beauty.  They make me fall more in love with their fictional world with every panel.  I don't think my body is ready for the next installment.  If you find me crying here in the near future, you'll know why.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Jersey Boys in Vegas

I just returned from Las Vegas (happy 21st to me!), and I thought I should jot down a review for the show I saw there: Jersey Boys.  The show tells the story of the band The Four Seasons through the perspectives of each of its original members.  As you watch their rise to fame, you see the families they leave behind and the tension between them build.  Tommy DeVito's tendency to overspend becomes just one of their problems.  But of course none of this drama happens without belting out some of The Four Seasons' hits!  If you're into how-they-began stories, Jersey Boys makes for a fun ride even if you're not familiar with the group.

(Source: Wikipedia)

I'll start with the most important thing.  The actor playing Frankie Valli?  He has a voice like the sunrise.  That lead singer has a range I could never hope to reach after decades of singing lessons, and the other members did not have bad voices either.  My sister adores The Four Seasons and is the reason I know their music.  During the show, she would often clap before the song was even over.  Not that I blamed her.  Those songs had a true sixties/seventies swankiness to them that I wanted to sing and dance along to.  Additionally, I liked hearing Bob Gaudio's backstory for the songs he wrote.  Several of them were placed in appropriate parts of the narrative to resonant with whatever scene just happened.  To be honest, the plot didn't have much more to it than the characters' monologues, but I found them interesting enough not to care.  Tommy, Frankie, Bob, and even Nick had a chance to bask in the attention, and they made for funny and honest commentary throughout.

The staging for Jersey Boys deserves a review of its own.  There were so many moving parts - literally!  After the intermission, a drum set slid onto the stage as the drummer played, but then kept moving until it disappeared into the other end.  Couches, tables, bars, and more rotated around so quickly you barely had time to register that the scene had changed right in front of you.  For one scene, lights blared at the audience while the performers played with their backs to us like they were in a concert and we were watching from behind.  One of the coolest moments in the show.  It placed me right with The Four Seasons as I saw even their concerts from their point of view.


Jersey Boys provided fantastic music, emotional backstory, and nice one-liners that had me cheering at the end.  It's a shame that the show is closing out in September.  If you happen to have the chance to drive down to Vegas to see this for yourself, I would 10/10 recommend.  If not, well, you can rent the movie at least.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Rosie Project

Nontraditional romantic comedies, not an easy find.  But you discover one in Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project.  Don Tillman, a genetics professor with Asperger's, goes on a quest to find human companionship, and he does it the best way he knows how: a sixteen-page questionnaire called "The Wife Project."  When he meets Rosie Jarman, however, chaos ensues.  The good kind.

(source: Chris Dorward "the rosie project")
(https://www.flickr.com/photos/listingslab/16006260108)

What I love best about this book is that it breaks down the perception that people on the autism spectrum don't care about personal connection.  They want friendship and love as desperately as anyone else, but don't have the automatic social skills to get it.  That's why I find Don an especially compelling protagonist.  Don's perspective offers unique humor and refreshing frankness.  I haven't read anything like it before.  Simsion captures the voice, the logic, and the emotions of how a real first person narration would sound from a person with Asperger's syndrome.  Despite his limitations, Don unwittingly manages to express genuine tenderness - such as when he develops a friendship with an old woman named Daphne.  In one of the book's most moving scenes (slight spoiler), Don learns her husband used to buy her daphne flowers for her birthday, so he buys them in his place.  She cries, and he doesn't understand why.  Talk about a punch to the feels.

Rosie also defies the typical rom-com tropes.  She has spiky red hair, a willingness to call out the sexism in Don's Wife Project, and a tendency for direct confrontation.  My mother once threw water in her sister-in-law's face to make her shut up.  I imagine this character doing something quite similar.  Rosie wants to find out who her biological father is, so Don embarks on the Father Project with her.  The Father Project functions as an effective subplot that propels the characters forward as individuals and as a pair.  It had several twists, one of which literally made me gasp aloud.  Snaps to Simsion for surprising me!

Anyway, as their friendship grows, Rosie disrupts everything in Don's flawless schedule and Don realizes how much he enjoys it.  Along the way, he develops stronger empathy and social skills without losing his core identity.  Theirs is certainly an opposites-attract relationship, but it works for them and the story.  If you're down for an entertaining read, a cute romance, and an authentic reflection of the Asperger's experience, pick up The Rose Project as soon as you get the chance!

Friday, July 22, 2016

C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert

Before I even knew I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to write like C.S. Lewis.  Through the Narnia Chronicles, he introduced me to fantastical imagination, to thrilling adventures, and, most of all, to Aslan.  Growing up, I developed a stronger appreciation for how his faith permeated his fiction and his nonfiction works.  His apologetics made me think more about my belief in God in a fresh and interesting way.  However, Lewis wasn't always a Christian.  That's the reality that Max McLean's one-man show, "C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert," presents us with.

(source: facebook.com)

I knew that my favorite author used to be an atheist, but I enjoyed watching his transition to Christianity in a theatrical production.  The set looked exactly as I would picture Lewis' study - filled with books and completed with a comfy reading chair.  McLean essentially monologued for the whole 75 minutes, but I hardly noticed.  He displayed the character with the humor, intellectualism, and genuine reluctance that I could picture the real Lewis possessing.  I laughed out loud when he essentially called God a "nuisance."  I find his conversion so compelling because of how stubbornly he resisted God for years, despite the people and experiences He put on his path from atheism, to theism, to Christianity.  Eventually, even his books turned against him!  That was my favorite line.

I recognized various quotes that McLean pulled from books such as Mere Christianity, and I learned many aspects of the author's family, lifestyle, and personal journey that I hadn't known before.  Afterward, McLean came out for a brief Q&A, which he feared broke the magic.  It did, but it was worth hearing about his passion for the project and for portraying Christianity through theater at large.  McLean had a solid performance, and the background visuals were good.  However, if I wasn't already a fan of Lewis, I probably would not have enjoyed the production nearly as much.  For that reason I wouldn't recommend it to the general audience unless they are interested in learning more about Lewis' life.  If you are, this production would certainly satisfy you in an entertaining way!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Who You Gonna Call? Ballbusters!

I'm going to pause my aching need to exult in how the Ghostbusters gave me hope for feminism, because I don't consider that a primary factor for whether a movie is good or bad.  Being new to the sci-fi genre and having never watched the original Ghostbusters, I considered myself a fairly objective viewer who could either be impressed or disappointed with the new version on its own merits.  Friends, I was impressed.  With the comedy, the acting, the special effects, the characters, nearly everything!

(source: Wikipedia)

The story starts with Erin Gilbert, a professor that unexpectedly runs into a ghost from the past (I know, I'm awful) in the form of a book about the paranormal that she had co-authored years back.  She barges into the lab of Abby Yates to demand that she take their book down from Amazon and meets engineer/fellow paranormal fanatic Jullian Holtzman.  However, Erin gets wrapped up in their ghost hunt, and when she is recorded screaming that ghosts are real, she's fired.  Thus begins their quest to prove their scienctific research is legitimate.  After having her own paranormal experience, New Yorker Patty Tolan joins their team - with her uncle's funeral hearse as their admittedly sweet ride.

I have trouble pinning down exactly why I like these four characters so much.  I can say none of them are cardboard.  Each has a distinct presence with quirks and talents and perspectives that the team and the film need to make an interesting story.  The most attention goes to Erin and Abby, who had been friends until Erin gave up searching for the paranormal in order to become "normal."  Erin has to let go of her insecurity to accomplish their work, and her arc thankfully follows through on that.  She and the others make a solid team. They only become better with every confrontation, each of which builds with the appropriate amount of action and suspense.  My absolute favorite scene involved Holtzman attacking ghosts in slow-motion along with the Ghostbusters theme song.  I would recommend watching the movie for that part alone.

(source: www.themarysue.com)

Of course I have to mention Kevin.  Beautiful, stupid, beautiful Kevin.  Kevin who doesn't know how to answer a phone and wears glasses without glass lenses.  (As a person who wears glasses I should have felt so offended, but that discovery was too hilarious to do so.)  I have a theory that just having his name makes you dumber.  He acts as the Ghostbusters' secretary whose literal only purpose is to look pretty and to be the fodder for several of the movie's funniest jokes.  Nice gender role reversal.  Let me tell you, I did not think of The Majestic Thor even once while watching Hemsworth play him.  Fun fact: he ad libbed quite a bit for this role.

(source: ghostbusters.com)

While I can't remember that many specific jokes off the top of my head, I do remember frequently having a good laugh.  As you must know from my previous reviews, laughter is one of my greatest weaknesses.  Despite the comedy, the movie also had some pretty scary moments with the ghosts.  I probably only thought this because I'm a weenie and I close my eyes on roller-coasters.  You can take my comment as a vague appreciation for the movie's visuals - even if they did freak me out.  Regardless, I liked seeing the Ghostbusters face off against their adversaries with their proton packs and their supreme intelligence.  I can't put it more plainly: I had a fun time watching.  This means a lot to me because I didn't want this film - headlined by funny, brilliant, and competent women who are fighting the bad guys and NOT each other - to give the dudebros an excuse to hate on it.  So HA, dudebros!  This movie exists.  And it's pretty darn good.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The BFG

I wish I had more to say about Disney's BFG other than "Meh."  I don't know how much of the problem lies with Roald Dahl's original story or the movie's adaptation of it - since I haven't read the book - but for the purpose of this review I'll stick to the movie.  The main character Sophie was likable enough.  An obvious book nerd, she was full of spunk and determination and was therefore the ideal catalyst to change the Big Friendly Giant's life for the better.  However, the journey to get there feels like you're plodding through wet sand.

Scene after scene stuffs us with dialogue and leaves out backstory that might have made the movie far more interesting.  We're never told why BFG decided to be a vegetarian in contrast to the other giants, or whether he'd always been that way.  Essentially I kept asking myself: why was he so different in the first place?  The BFG also hears and collects dreams in jars, but we never learn why or how this began.  I am a huge fan of fantasy, and that dream mythology looked promising in terms of both story and characterization.  What a fascinating yet wasted concept!

(source: movies.disney.com)

The movie struggles to make the stakes high enough for me to say more than "Good for you" to the characters' triumphs.  The story stresses the other giants' abuse of the BFG as the primary conflict, but when those giants are going around stealing and eating children in London, priorities seem out of place.  I suppose it would have been too dark for Disney, but I didn't feel the danger when the movie finally tells us via a newspaper read aloud that oh, by the way, a bunch of kids are disappearing!  It's those man-eating giants!  Considering the movie's final act focuses on resolving this apparently widespread issue, I would have thought that we'd know about it sooner.  Additionally, Sophie's idea to save the day came out of left field.  I can't decide if it surprised me in a good or bad way.

I don't want to completely stink on the BFG.  It had an imaginative children's story feel - which is likely a residue from the original material - as well as pleasant characters and a moment or two of humor.  (If you know what's good for you, never drink frobscottle.)  I watched the movie with a subdued smile, but once I left the theater I knew I wouldn't go out of my way to watch it again.  Perhaps animation is not Steven Spielberg's forte.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Finding Dory

Marlin should put a bell on all his family members.  Might make him look less worried all the time.  Thankfully for our enjoyment, however, Marlin must make yet another trek across the ocean to follow Dory as she pursues the parents she had forgotten until now.  Finding Dory plows forward with as much zeal as its titular character, and not without good payoff, but does it match its predecessor?  Perhaps I'm not being fair by thrusting Finding Nemo's shadow over it from the get-go, but all sequels have to face this question.  It's the price they pay for continuing a beloved story.

(Source: movies.disney.com)

Dory, of course, serves as a wonderful leading lady fish with the same endearing enthusiasm and jump-headfirst philosophy from the original movie.  She even manages to win over Hank, the octopus whom she drags into her search.  The two of them end up having a touching scene, but I won't explain due to ~spoilers~.  This is one of the Disney animated movies where romance is 0% of the picture, refreshingly (#friendshiprules #romancedrools).  Out of all the original characters, Dory most deserved the backstory she gets in assorted flashbacks in the movie.  My mother called her baby self a-DORY-ble, and I'll forgive her for the pun for its truthfulness.  All her childhood scenes with her parents were sweet and heartfelt enough to warrant you to root for Dory if you weren't already.

(Source: movies.disney.com)

Meanwhile, the movie sets Marlin on the path to trusting Dory to be okay despite the extra challenges she faces with short-term memory loss.  You might remember his overprotectiveness from Finding Nemo, although that trait doesn't appear to bite him in the tail fin nearly as hard this time.  Unfortunately, nothing seems to be able to wipe off his perpetually anxious expression.  It seems to me that he still doesn't trust his loved ones to take care of themselves, which doesn't speak well for his character development after two movies, but such is Marlin.

Additionally, we meet several other new characters who are almost as quirky as Dory, but we also see many brief throwbacks to old side characters.  This gets to my quibble with Finding Dory.  Several parts of the movie felt more like fan service than a real contribution to the story or to the character development.  Thankfully they don't take up a great amount of space in the movie, but I personally would have preferred original jokes to the rehashed ones.

Finding Dory, despite falling into a few of the typical "sequel" traps, offers an enjoyable follow-up story that I would not hesitate to watch again.  Like I said, Dory deserves all the attention and love she receives and was the most appropriate character to put into another adventure.  If you liked Finding Nemo (but, come on, you obviously liked it), then you should watch this movie.  Just remember: what would Dory do?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

An Ode to Captain America

Captain America: Civil War, the moment you have waited for.  No, not because it follows up the ridiculously popular and amazing Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  No, not because of its stellar critical reviews, including a 90% score on Rotten Tomatoes.  No, not because it's the longest running Marvel movie to date.  No, it is the moment you have waited so long and patiently for because it leads to my fantabulous (fangirl) review.  So here we go. (Apologies for the lateness.)

Like its predecessor, Captain America: Civil War explores political questions, specifically about government control in a world of "enhanced" people.  The film handles with masterful dexterity the question of whether or not the Avengers should fall under the United Nations' jurisdiction.  As much as I love Cap, I came into the theater thinking I might agree more with Iron Man's ideological side.  It's hard to argue against any regulation when you think of the Avengers' catastrophic collateral damage.  However, both Captain America and Iron Man were very sympathetic - both in terms of their characterization and their beliefs.  They have very clear scenes showing why they're approaching this issue the way they do.  These scenes make their conflict feel inevitable, but also understandable.  I'd explain the scenes in more detail, but I'm trying not to give spoilers.

(source: moviepilot.com)

I find it hilarious looking back at myself in 2014 when I thought Captain America 2 was a little violent for my taste.  Watching this movie, I cheered every time Cap kicked a man off a building or Black Widow did her classic thigh grab, or Iron Man got punched in every conceivable fashion.  I'm in so deep it's not even funny.  The action scenes are on point every time, which is especially important considering the plot revolves around conflict between superheroes.  Hardly a scene goes by without major ass-kicking right and left, up and down, sideways and diagonally.  (Whoever coordinated the fights deserves an award.)  People never stop jumping off bridges or buildings.  Captain America even prevents a helicopter from taking off with his unfairly large biceps.

The movie also has its funny moments, although most of them are not exactly witty or quippy like in previous Marvel films. The characters were more amusing in their humor, especially Spider-Man and Ant-Man.  Those two are bae.  Who am I kidding, everyone in this movie is bae!  Black Panther had a brief but stunning introduction, which I hope intrigues enough people to watch his standalone movie.  Civil War also expands on some of the heroes' powers, including Scarlet Witch and Ant-Man.  If these guys get any cooler, I won't be able to stand it.

Seeing a story as multi-faced as Civil War with as many characters as it has, I knew it could have no neat, solid ending.  Any ending that tried to repair a rift that has existed between Captain America and Iron Man since Avengers would have felt rushed and inappropriate, so I'm glad the movie didn't go there.  Despite me having this opinion, and even after a 2 hour 27 minute runtime, I discovered I still wanted more of the fun, more of the characters, more of the plot.  I had such a fun time watching the movie - not just because of the nonstop action (though that was awesome) or the nuanced political theme (though that was awesome too).  What I loved most was watching the characters grow into their best and worst selves as they struggle with their relationships with each other and the harsh world around them.  Captain America, you did good.  In conclusion for my review, I leave you with a simple poem:

An Ode to Captain America: Civil War

O Captain! my Captain!
With your patriotic spandex and your little metal frisbee,
You have defied all logic and raised fangirl havoc everywhere
You took on Iron Man to stand for what you believed in
(freedom)
While you were kicking ass and taking names,
You never lost your faith in your best friend Bucky
Or your ability to jump off twenty story buildings
O Captain! my Captain!
You have the best sequels in the MCU
Civil War is no different, as all the critics agree,
Tackling superhero battles with finesse and skill
And not being a mess like DC's BvS
O Captain! my Captain!
We salute you, dear Captain!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Don't Tell Me Not to Worry

Dear Friends & Family,

I could think of a hundred moments when you told me not to worry.  When I had a math final.   When I had a college interview.  When I had to speak in public.  Any time I feared failure.  You would list all of my blessings and tell me that grades/success/money didn’t matter and that you loved me anyway.  In light of that, what reason did I have to worry?

What reason did I have to lie in my bed shaking uncontrollably, or feel my chest tightening, or hear my breath getting shallower and shallower as the panic devoured me?  When I told you about my anxiety symptoms, you would tell me not to worry.  You would try to prevent me from sobbing so hard on your shoulder through a few Band-Aid phrases.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that hasn’t worked.

I know that in America we’re supposed to pursue happiness.  Often, I suck at doing that.  If I have to cry, don’t stop me.  If I have to stress, let me stress.  If I have to vent, just listen to me.  If I have to feel, don’t tell me otherwise.  Because I’m tired of holding it in for your sake.

I’m sick of feeling bad for not being ‘normal.’  Of anxiety about anxiety.  Of trying not to make you worry.  I don’t want to live that way anymore, and I’m sure you don’t want me to, either.  Fiction author John Green writes: “That’s the thing about pain.  It demands to be felt.”  I should have known as soon as I first read that line that he struggles with mental health.  His words described my condition with such cutting accuracy.  My pain demands to be felt.  My worry demands to be felt.

Do you still think I shouldn’t look at my anxiety that way?

            Tell yourself to be happy.  Tell yourself to be so rip-roaring ecstatic that you want to jump out of your chair and do cartwheels and a dance number from Grease.  Tell yourself to be so giddy that you can't stop laughing.  Stop reading this letter so you can try it.  Can you do it?  I might sound extreme, but commanding yourself to rise to such heights of happiness is as ridiculous as telling me to not feel anxious—especially when I am trapped inside a tornado of fear.

            I know you don't want me to feel unhappy.  I don’t want to feel unhappy, either.  You may hope that the right words will eradicate my fears.  Your comforting speeches do offer hope when my brain is blaring red alert 24/7.  But words can't heal me.  Even less so when they command my emotions to leave or change.

            I admit these ideas aren’t mine.  I have learned a lot in the past year about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which boils down to psychological flexibility.  Psychological flexibility allows me to accept whatever I am thinking or feeling (even if it is ‘bad’) while engaging in activities that matter to me.  ACT has taught me that my thoughts, sensations, and mental images are less scary than I have interpreted them.  Does that mean that I no longer deal with anxiety?  No.  It means that I fight my anxiety less often and less intensely.  It’s okay for me to not be okay sometimes.

            I'm not saying that I never want to hear reassuring words from you, because I do.  I wish they could do even more for me.  I want you to remind me how much you love me and how many good things I have and how important I am.  In the end, however, part of me will never believe you.  Never.  The volume of that voice will vary.  Some days it will speak in a small whisper that I can easily ignore.  Some days the voice will ring louder, harsher.  Some days, my mind will scream over and over again: NONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONO!  DANGER! DANGER! YOU CAN’T DO IT YOU’RE NOT WORTH IT YOU’RE A FAILURE!

            When that happens (and it will), instead of telling me not to feel anxiety, tell me that, even as I feel it, you still care for me.  That would make me feel far less ashamed and guilty about my mental health.  Even on the days when I have my anxiety "under control," remember that it has not left forever.  I have to live with it, and if you don’t accept that, my task becomes all the more difficult.  I know you want to support me, because why else would you read this letter?  I hope this has helped you to learn how to support me even better than you already have.

Love,

Me

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Just Okay

I've made no attempts to hide my preference for Marvel as a superhero fan, but because I liked The Flash so much, I wanted to give the DC cinematic universe a shot.  Batman v. Superman seemed to promise a gritty conflict between "god" and "man" as well as a solid introduction to the Justice League.  Instead, this unwieldy blockbuster becomes bogged down with uninteresting character nondevelopment, odd dream sequences, and a dragged out plot.  Between Wonder Woman and some intense action, the movie remained mildly entertaining, but I wouldn't go out of my way to watch it again.

I'll give the film credit for its basic idea.  If someone like Superman really existed, there would be controversy on a social, political, and personal scale - great fodder for nuanced storytelling.  Unfortunately, Batman's reasoning for taking on Superman are paltry at best.  Even if there's a 1% chance for Superman to be bad, he claims they should take it as an "absolute."  Okay, I don't know much about Bruce Wayne, but logic or math do not appear to be his forte here.  In the first scene, one of Wayne's buildings is destroyed in the battle featured in Man of Steel, killing one of his employees (his name was Jack, but for the first few times I kept hearing "Dad" and I was really confused).  If it had been his dad who died in the destruction, it would better justify Batman's rampant killing and irrational, impassioned opposition to Superman.  As it stands, Batman dislikes Superman because he's too... super?  I don't even know.

(source: youtube.com)

Another character I couldn't understand was Lex Luthor, who turns out to be yet another boring and flat villain.  Hollywood has not gotten a handle on how to create complex antagonists, especially in superhero flicks.  I couldn't tell if Luthor hated Superman, Batman, or both for most of the movie.  Even when he reveals his "master plan," his various schemes fall apart pretty quickly and I never felt much suspense.  Luthor himself acts stereotypically "psychotic," as Lois Lane calls him, in a way that contributes nothing to portraying him or mental health in a complicated fashion.  It was so easy to write him off as "unstable," and I hate even saying that because he still could have been an interesting human character.  He just wasn't treated that way.  I'm sure the comics do Lex Luthor way more justice.

As for Superman, his characterization (if you could call it that) ties closely to Lois Lane - AKA a shameful waste of Amy Adams.  Their "epic" romance is encapsulated in the several times he rescues Lane from certain death - a classic damsel-in-distress formula to make the superhero look awesome and to give him a meaningful motivation.  Yawn.  At least we had Wonder Woman!  For like, three or four scenes.  I liked her badass fight skills, but despite this, she didn't do all that much.  I did like the part where Superman asks Batman "Is she with you?" and Batman replies, "I thought she was with you."  She's not with EITHER OF YOU, PUNKS!  Glad she's getting her own movie.

I mentioned the dream sequences, which are all in Batman's perspective and are all extremely unnecessary.  To be fair, I didn't like the dream sequences in Age of Ultron, either.  The only purpose they seem to serve in both movies is to set up for future movies in the most confusing way possible.  They failed to contribute to the story or Batman's characterization in any meaningful way.  (I even stepped out to go to the bathroom during one of them.)

Batman v. Superman did not make me excited for future DC movies.  If anything, it made me nervous about Marvel's Captain America: Civil War.  BvS shows us how a battle between superheroes does not necessarily equal a great film, good storytelling, or even decent characterization.  Perhaps I could have appreciated the movie better if I'd already possessed a taste for DC's distinct style of comics and heroes.  However, as it stands, I could live without seeing any more of Batman or Superman.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Zootopia: Disney Hits Us in the Feels Yet Again

I always knew my friends were the cutest in town, but I didn't fully understand how cute they could really be until we watched Zootopia on Friday.  As soon as the credits began rolling, one of them clutched their chest and announced that they felt so warm and fuzzy inside.  They each talked about different moments when they almost (or did) cry, and then gushed about the characters' various charms and jokes for the entire car ride back.  The thing is, they were totally right to react this way.

Zootopia is about a bunny named Judy Hopps who wants to become a police officer, but because of her size and species she's not taken very seriously.  She stakes her career on investigating a case of a missing otter, one of many predators that have mysteriously disappeared, and ropes in a fox named Nick Wilde to help her.  Judy has a ton of spunk, not letting the physical challenges of her small stature or the frowning opposition from everyone stop her from pursuing her dream.  Nick, on the other hand, basically wants to be left alone.  He's surrendered himself to the fox stereotype of slickness and slyness, and he's always ready with a quip against Judy.  However, she's not one easily put down.

(Source: movies.disney.com)

These two characters have an undeniable chemistry together that somewhat reminded me of Flynn and Rapunzel from Tangled.  Her bubbly, irrepressible optimism and his sarcastic realism create a fun contrast that makes for entertaining conflict and awesome banter - my greatest weakness.  Their budding friendship opens up a deep conversation about predator and prey relations in a society that has supposedly evolved past such barriers (*cough* the racial themes abound *cough*).  Theirs seems to remain an exclusively platonic relationship, although with Disney you can never be sure (I kid, I kid - mostly).

I can't stress this enough, but the movie is really, really funny.  Just look at the trailer and you'll grasp only a tiny portion of it.  My friend said they milked the movie for all it's worth, and I think she's right.  Every possibility of humor you can get from a world of anthropomorphic animals, you can be sure they addressed it at least once.  But it wasn't just the humor that they addressed. The story didn't wrap up quite so quickly or neatly like I expected, so I congratulate the writers for pushing the plot further and digging deeper into the bias theme than I had thought they would.

Zootopia has a wide scope: it's a feelsy and hilarious family flick and it's a beautiful animation, but it's also a sophisticated demonstration of unconscious social bias.  I admire Disney for tackling such a tricky issue, one that as a woman of color I could relate to in a world that often fails to recognize its own diversity.  Zootopia doesn't beat you over the head with its big moral lesson, thanks to the movie couching itself in lighthearted comedy and telling its story through the eyes of two relatable characters who both have to work through others' and their own prejudices.  While watching this movie you will laugh, you might cry, and you will hopefully think more critically about how you perceive others.  Thank you, Disney, for doing such a great job once again!