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Monday, May 30, 2016

Thoughts on Call the Midwife

I am really enjoying Call the Midwife. I have been watching the first two seasons this weekend. I like how feminist and progressive it is, while staying accurate to its setting of 1950s London. It is about a house of nuns and midwives who provide maternal health services to poor and struggling women in East London, as well as providing support and care on visits to lonely elderly people and people in poverty.

I like how the nuns balance their beliefs between conservatism and liberalism, that the midwives and nuns are loving and supportive as a sisterhood, and how they truly care for the well being of their neighborhood.

So far, my favorite characters have been Chummy (a sweet woman who grows in confidence in her midwifery skills and socializing), Cynthia (a dorky and mousy midwife with an endearing charm in her innocence); and Sister Monica, a nun who is a little mentally frail and forgettable, but refuses patronizing attitudes from others, and is otherwise quite lucid in her observations. The lead character, Jenny, is a good person, but not interesting, she acts more as the vessel in which the audience enters into this world as a nurse entering the slums to help women have babies. I do like hearing Vanessa Redgrave's voice as the mature Jenny, looking back on her memories as bookends to the episodes.

The show is in its fifth season now, and I likely will catch up with it through Netflix.

Eclipsed - A Theater Review

I really enjoyed seeing Eclipsed, it was an excellent play. The play was about five women surviving during the Liberian civil war under Charles Taylor's dictatorship, and how their lives were affected as victims, whether they were concubines, soldiers, or attempting to save women's lives. The first act had a lot of humorous moments within the "wives" in their home, while the second act got much heavier and tougher to watch.

Lupita Nyong'o was the billed star, and she was excellent, especially in tracking the emotional journey from a naive young girl forced into sex slavery to being manipulated into becoming a soldier to be "free," and facing PTSD and mental conflicts.

I was also amazed by Pascale Armand as Wife #3, as she was both naturally funny as the comic relief (especially in running gags of her wigs scaring the other women), and deeply emotional as a woman forced to carry to birth a child of rape. And Saycon Sengbloh was stunning as Wife #1, the "mother" of the group, maintaining hierarchy, and feeling as if there is no life for her without war, because she has been a sex slave for many years, and she cannot imagine life after it. All of them received Tony nominations, so it will be fun to see if any of them wins (if Nyong'o wins, she will be halfway there to being in EGOT territory).

It was tough in scenes where the women, due to trauma, could not remember their parents or their birth names, just accepting their new roles as methods of survival.

I wasn't as interested in a character who was a former sex slave turned soldier, because the actress's performance didn't show much complexity, even in a scene where she has an emotional breakdown. And I had sympathy for the woman trying to save the other women, though I found her to be preachy and patronizing to women she treated as victims.

Danai Gurira wrote a truly stunning play, and I am glad this made it to Broadway. Plus, since the cheap mezzanine section I was in wasn't very full, I got to move down to the front of the mezzanine and be closer to seeing the show, so that was sweet.

Thoughts on Spaced

I watched Spaced last weekend, a 1999 British TV series created by and starring Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes. and I enjoyed it. There were only two seasons, of 7 episodes each. The show is about two slacker friends who pretend to be a couple so they can live in a great apartment in a house, and their misadventures with romance, seeking employment, befriending their oddball neighbors, and deciding what to do with their lives.

I liked director Edgar Wright's style a lot (quick cuts, flashbacks, imagining of schemes and plans, good punch lines and unexpected answers), and I could see precursors to Shaun of the Dead (Simon Pegg's character Tim is playing a zombie video game and imagines himself the shotgun-wielding hero with pre-kill one-liners) and Hot Fuzz (Nick Frost's character imagines himself as Neo from The Matrix, with long coat, shades, and guns).

I liked that Jessica Hynes as Daisy had a likable everywoman feel to her, as an optimistic woman who wants to be a successful writer, but distracts herself when she doesn't want to do hard work. I looked her up, and most of her stuff is British, I would like to see more of what she has done.
I liked Simon Pegg's energetic performance, though I didn't really like Tim, as he was immature and self-centered. But he and Nick Frost had great chemistry together as best friends. They both have this childlike enthusiasm together that is endearing and sweet to watch.

I also appreciated that the people in the house gained more depth than their initial weirdo exteriors, like a ditzy young woman who was funny and sweet, a seemingly antisocial artist who was sensitive and caring, and an uptight landlord who really wants to be accepted and liked by others.

The second season was stronger than the first, as it had gotten past the initial quirks of the supporting cast, and the characters seemed more grounded and less lost. The cultural references really dated the show (a Spice Girls "girl power" reference, The Matrix parodies, a Fight Club parody), but luckily there weren't too many of them.

So I enjoyed it, mostly laughing at the sight gags and visual humor. It was a pretty short-lived show, but was a huge jump-off for several talented people.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Thoughts on Green Room

I just saw Green Room, written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier. I liked it a lot, it was a very intense movie. I don't want to give much away, because it is much better going in cold, but the basic plot is that a punk rock band touring the country in their van plays a random show for neo-Nazis in a small country town, and something bad happens, and it becomes an intense thriller from then on.

I was creeped out and scared by the neo-Nazis, and Patrick Stewart was very quietly intimidating as a Nazi club owner, he barely raised his voice and was still chilling.

Besides Stewart, Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat appeared as two of the band members, and both gave solid performances, though sometimes I was mistaking Yelchin for Elijah Wood. Imogen Poots and Mark Webber played neo-Nazis.

I was really feeling bad for the band, and I loved how uncomfortable the movie was, it really had a "what would you do in this situation" feel to it.

I also found it interesting that one of the Nazis seemed to straddle both sides, the one who was the righthand man to the club owner. He seemed very sympathetic to the band and being on their side, while appeasing his boss and dealing with his fellow Nazis. He wasn't necessarily likable, but I could symphasize with his position. I liked the actor a lot, and he seemed vaguely familiar to me.

I am glad I saw it. I saw some of the director's first movie, Blue Ruin, on Netflix, but only watched some before deciding I wasn't in the mood for a revenge thriller. But I am glad he got to make this, this was a magnificent film.

Thoughts on Fast Times at Ridgemont High

I am on a kick of watching Jennifer Jason Leigh's movies, so I rented Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I have already seen it, and it still holds up well. It is smart and funny, with a great cast of people who blew up big, and it mixes in raunchy humor with three-dimensional portraits of characters. Even the sleazy jerk is shown to be an insecure coward beyond his initial front, which I thought was nice for showing depth.

I don't like Sean Penn as an actor (prefer him as a director), but he was weirdly brilliant in this, and stole the movie.

I liked the girls' supportive friendship, how neither judged the other for their sexual practices or choices of guys, how abortion wasn't treated too shamefully, and how much of a time capsule it was of the 80's, especially in one scene of homophobia where Spicoli calls some guys fags. Even Judge Reinhold was funny in this, I forgot that his character is a likable dork.

I read Roger Ebert's review of it from 1982, and he hated the film, giving it one star. He thought it was exploitative of Leigh (because her character starts out a virgin and becomes promiscuous fast and shows her breasts twice), that it was dirty humor with no class (he defended Animal House, and I thought that was more sexist than this), that Leigh's character is humiliated in disappointing sexual encounters (I liked the realism that she learns early on that sex is overhyped and gets over her phase and wants a real boyfriend and slows things down with her nerd love interest), that the abortion part was rushed and forgotten quickly (again, I liked that she was supported by her brother; the jerk initially tried to raise his half of the cost before chickening out, and she moved on with her life and wasn't shamed for it), and that he was amazed a woman directed it (a man did write it, but it was clearly a collaborative process). I don't find the movie relatable, but I still think it was better than other teen sex comedies that were more degrading to women or were more gross.

Thoughts on Captain America: Civil War

I enjoyed seeing Captain America: Civil War yesterday, directed by the Russo Brothers.. It was well-written, and I liked how it was mostly dialogue-driven, with the major action fight sequence having a point to it. I was on Captain America's side in their debate, but could see Iron Man's point as well. It was a little overwhelming sometimes with so many characters, but the script and editing managed to keep them in order and not confusing.

I really liked the addition of Black Panther, I appreciated how they set up his character as a dignified and intelligent royal who could switch into being a badass and agile superhero, and his animal character was linked to his culture and family. Chadwick Boseman was awesome in this, and I am excited for his 2018 movie.

I liked how Spider-Man seemed way younger than previous portrayals, which only made him seem like an innocent kid. Sometimes his quips bordered on annoying during the fight, but he was often kept in check by the other characters to stay in his lane and shut up. Also, I was happy to see Marisa Tomei in a cameo as Aunt May, she is always a joy to see.

I didn't like how chopped-up the first two action sequences were, with the jump cuts and sped-up editing. It was annoying to watch, and distracted from the good fight choreography that was on display (especially when watching the stunt double for Black Widow, I was really impressed with her moves and agility). It got better once the civil war started, but it was tough to watch in the beginning.

Of the three CA movies, Winter Soldier is my favorite, because it had a great script, better character writing for Black Widow, a 70's spy thriller vibe, and solid acting, action sequences, and storyline. I did enjoy Civil War for its complexity, the character development, and continuing on a story with deception and intrigue.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Edge of the City - A Film Review

At the Moving Image museum, I watched Edge of the City, a 1957 movie starring John Cassavetes, Sidney Poitier, Jack Warden, and Ruby Dee. It was a gritty movie dealing with issues of race, as Cassavetes plays a dock worker running away from his tortured past, befriending his gregarious boss (Poitier), and dealing with threats of blackmail from his racist other boss (Warden).

The film was really well-acted, and I always like seeing small details in how life was different decades ago (phone operators speak live on collect calls and listen to conversations; the $1.70/hr dockworker wages and a bet where the loser owes 40 cents). I liked that the film felt more like an independent film than a Hollywood movie, though the music score could get way too over dramatic at times (like getting louder during a scene with the villain or during any kind of pathos).

Poitier was very charming and likable in his role, and was a total scene-stealer from Cassavetes. He would be nominated from an Academy Award the next year for The Defiant Ones. He was so compelling to watch that it felt like a shame that more POC actors during that time didn't get as much fame as he and Harry Belafonte did. Rita Moreno is one of likely three Latino actors to win an Academy Award for acting, and I believe there has been only two Asian actors who won Oscars for acting (Ben Kingsley, and a supporting actor from The Killing Fields).

The film's director, Martin Ritt, also directed Hud and Norma Rae, and seemed to excel in making films about working class people fighting for a better life.

I was also really impressed with Ruby Dee, particularly in a heavy dramatic scene that exemplified her pain and the cowardice of Cassavetes' character. She was really excellent. And Jack Warden, though he played an awful racist, excelled in his role, too. I only knew of him as an old man from Problem Child and While You Were Sleeping, so it was nice to see him in a much earlier role.

Obvious Child - A Film Review

I really adored the movie Obvious Child, written and directed by Gillian Robespierre. I saw the original 2009 short film on Vimeo several years ago, and enjoyed seeing a feminist film about a woman who gets an abortion with no regrets. It starred Jenny Slate, and I knew of her from ten years ago from being on VH1 pop culture shows and briefly on SNL. I liked that she was really good in a dramatic role while still being charming and funny and relatable.

The full-length movie came out in 2014, and I love how it is a romantic comedy with a sympathetic heroine (Slate) named Donna, who is funny, vulnerable, and is coming of age at nearly 30, learning to be more confident and less insecure. She still gets an abortion (product of a one-night-stand after getting dumped by her boyfriend for her friend), but it isn't the point of the movie, nor is it her romance with her hookup. It is about her growing up and learning to love and accept herself.

While the movie can feel very insular in its depiction of Brooklyn hipster-ness (it is a very white cast, scenes are set in trendy parts of Williamsburg and Bushwick), I still found the movie touching, and I connected to it emotionally. I really liked the performances of Gaby Hoffmann and Gabe Liedman as Donna's best friends, who represent different aspects of her personality (the serious side and the party side) and while they contrast when giving her advice, Donna needs them both to be whole. Jake Lacy was endearing and boyishly sweet as the hookup, and I liked him in How to Be Single as well.

I hope to see more work from Gillian Robespierre, as she is very smart and talented and clearly feminist. and I like seeing Jenny Slate pop up in web series, TV shows, and voice work in cartoons, she is a gem.

Rush - A Film Review

I have a weird guilty pleasure movie. I really like the 1991 movie Rush, starring Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh as undercover narcotics cops in 1975 Texas trying to bust drug dealers, mainly a local drug kingpin (Gregg Allman). The cops have to do hard drugs as part of their cover, and they get in too deep in their addictions, as well as falling in love with one another.

It is a really bleak movie about drug addiction and police corruption, yet I find it compelling. The relationship between the cops is intimate and complex, as they form a deep bond and fight through their addictions while trying to get their cases done, as the kingpin is too smart and elusive for them. Leigh's character Kristen starts out as a rookie cop whose only previous drug experience was smoking two joints in college, and she is determined to prove herself worthy of the force (especially in a time when female rookie cops were purposely put in dangerous situations in order to scare them off of the force), and quickly gets into a heroin addiction, getting into way more that she can handle. Patric's character Jim is a more experienced cop who is blunt about liking drugs too much, while thinking he can kick a habit after "a few days of sweaty sheets,' and his addiction becomes much more debilitating, as he falls apart much more than Kristen did.

Patric brought a lot of dark mystery to Jim, as he seemed like someone who was a natural addict and chose being a narcotics officer as a cover for access to drugs, while Leigh delivered a great performance in tracking the journey of Kristen from rookie to addict to survivor.

I also enjoyed the performances of Sam Elliott as a seasoned detective who survived his addictions and is worried about his younger officers; Max Perlich as a frightened young man who is pressured to snitch on his dealer friends for a lighter conviction; and William Sadler as a seedy drug dealer cooking meth in a dirty lab and looking sketchy with homemade tattoos.

Gregg Allman as Gaines has very few lines, but his quiet intensity often makes him intimidating, and he easily looked like his 1970s self in 1991, carrying a rock 'n roll swagger with him. The movie opens with a fantastic one-take panning shot that follows Gaines through his bar as everyone greets him with fear and respect, a la the Goodfellas scene of Henry Hill being greeted by everyone in a Mafia-run club.

Eric Clapton did the original score, and it is so 1970s blues rock that I forget it isn't original music from that era. It sets the tone for the seediness of the drug culture of the Texan town, like its own world in a bubble. But I don't like that "Tears in Heaven" plays in one scene, because even though it is a song about death that plays after a major character's death scene, I found it to be too contemporary, and too much of a reminder of Clapton's son's death in the early 90's, taking me out of the 1975 era.

The film was written by Pete Dexter and directed by Lili Fini Zanuck, and was based on a true story about two 1970s narcotics officers who planted evidence on dealers because they snorted or shot up the original evidence, and were convicted of their police corruption.

The cinematography often has a muted or brownish look to it, and the set designers and costumes paid close detail to the era, likely using a lot of vintage clothes and props. It really looked of the era, and made the story much more believable.

I really like this film, mostly for Leigh's performance, the seedy drug underbelly it depicts, and how the cops aren't any different than the addicts and dealers they are trying to bust. It is a compelling movie, and a personal guilty pleasure of mine despite its dark story.