Tag Archives: Movies

A Normal Teenager Named Lara Jean

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before really feels like a classic 80s teen romcom, except it was made much more recently. It’s delightfully sweet, and has that uncynical honesty that readily calls back to fare like Sixteen Candles or Can’t Buy Me Love. Honestly, this movie is almost an anachronism, but a delightfully refreshing one at that.

Now here’s the thing, unlike all those 80s teen romcoms, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’s protagonist is Asian-American. Lara Jean Covey, played by Lana Condor, a Vietnamese-American actress, is one of three sisters. Their Dad’s white, their passed-away mother Korean. This isn’t really relevant to the plot, it’s mentioned in passing here and there, and their dad makes a decided effort to blend some Korean culture (namely: cuisine) into everyday life. But beyond that, Lara Jean and her sisters are just typical Americans.

Point is, she’s really pretty normal.

Which is actually pretty unusual. Lara Jean’s narrative has nothing whatsoever to do with her identity. She just happens to find herself in the midst of some romantic comment shenanigans after some love letters that were never meant to be sent got sent.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is based on a book of the same name by author Jenny Han. Apparently, there was a few groups interested in adapting it to a movie, but they all wanted to make a change: make Lara Jean white. Han stuck to her guns and eventually a studio came along that was alright with keeping Lara Jean Asian (as, let me remind you, she is in the books) and so we got the movie.

Let’s focus in on just how ridiculous this is. You’ve a bunch of movie studios game to adapt a book, on the condition that the protagonist be white. Only one of the ones that approached her agreed to keep Lara Jean as an Asian-American. Sure, the story’s got basically nothing to do with her race, but that’s all the more the reason why it’s important for her to be Asian.

If you’ve read this blog for a while you probably know that I am a really big proponent for representation in fiction. So of course I want a character who’s a minority in the source to remain such for the adaptation. Especially when it’s a story where her race doesn’t come into play.

Yes, there’s a time and a place for ‘Asian stories’ and all that, but there’s also a space for stories about people-of-color getting to be normal. Look at all those classic 80s teen romcoms we love so much, everyone’s white. Kevin Bacon in Footloose, Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles, John Cusack in Say Anything. There’s the implicit suggestion that those stories are their stories; sure, they’re meant to be everyman, characters who the audience can see themselves in, but there’s still this undercurrent of the everyman usually being a white dude.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel with any of its plotting. Yet it’s a delight of a movie, especially coming in an age when we really don’t have much in the way of romcoms anymore (Set It Up, also on Netflix, is wonderful too, by the way). Having an Asian-American woman as the main character, adds a small, cosmetic spin on things and makes these stories just a little more inclusive. So if we’re in the middle of a romcom renaissance, I’d like more of that too, thank you very much.

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First Man(liness)

I’m a little tired of manly manliness in cinema. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always have a soft spot Predator, Die Hard, or a good Spaghetti Westerns. But it’s 2018 and I’m kinda tired of that being the MO for male characters, especially manliness for the sake of manliness, like that 50s stoic, silent masculinity. In short, I’m really tired of ‘traditional’ masculinity, especially when it’s idolized and unquestioned.

Which leads me to First Man, the new movie by Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash (excellent!) and La La Land (ehhhhh). First Man centers on one of my favorite topics: space exploration, particularly the effort to put a person on the moon, hence, y’know, the title. I like space. I think the Apollo Missions were terribly exciting, always have — I was one of those kids who absolutely consumed space stuff. That love of space was enough to beat out my trepidation about watching another Chazelle movie after La La Land.

Now, First Man is a very well made movie. It makes space travel terrifying in the best way possible, it’s claustrophobic and there is so little under your control. The movie really makes you feel that terror, and oh, it’s such a thrill. It’s such a shame, then, that square in the middle of that is Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong.

I don’t know much about Armstrong as a person; I haven’t read biographies and I only know him for his role in space exploration. I don’t purport to really know what he’s like as a person. I do know, however, that I found Gosling’s portrayal to be very frustrating. See, in First Man Armstrong is a very stoic character. We see him crack once or twice — in the aftermath of his daughter’s death, for example — but beyond that he’s borderline emotionless. Maybe there’s a world of emotion going on behind his face, but we’re never afforded a glance inside.

Throughout the film, Armstrong’s stoicism is portrayed to the point of blandness, he doesn’t really seem to feel much (which again, could be argued away as being due to his daughter’s death, but we’re never really allowed to know) and instead his main quality is that he is a driven, quiet man. While other astronauts are bantering about space he is silently committed to getting to the moon. He’ll take part in some family stuff, but at the end of the day, he is Quiet and Manly, focused on going to space. Other astronauts dying just makes him more committed, in addition to having Manly Fear so we know he’s scared (but not too scared). Gosling’s Armstrong is the epitome of that silent, stoic, 50s masculinity, and, as far as the movie is concerned, all the better for it.

First Man doesn’t say much of anything about Gosling’s version of masculinity, aside from extolling it (the other astronauts don’t have the right attitude, his wife [like all of Chazelle’s female characters] just doesn’t understand). Because, as the movie implicitly argues, Armstrong did such great things, and because he embodied this brand of masculinity, clearly it’s great. Underlying the movie is an adoration of his stoicism and drive.

And I am so damn sick of that brand of masculinity. I’d be fine with Armstrong in First Man being a selfish prick if he got called out on it and it was recognized as being a flaw; but instead the movie loves him for it. I’d be okay if we saw some more self-doubt behind that heroic facade, but he is constantly in the zone, never weak, never emotional, always masculine. There’s no real antagonist for that masculinity to butt heads with; no warring factions for Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name to outdo in A Fistful of Dollars, no equally over-the-top villains for John Matrix to vie against in Commando. Rather the doubts raised by his wife and friends fall like the words of a straw man on Armstrong’s manly, too-determined-to-listen ears. It’s frustrating, especially when recognized as the predecessor to the modern toxic masculinity that’s so problematic today.

And it’s 2018, for crying out loud! Masculinity doesn’t have to be so narrowly defined! Consider Chris Evan’s Captain America/Steve Rogers. There’s no doubt that he’s a Manly Man; dude’s jacked, he fights for AMERICA! and is a superhero. He’s also the nicest, sweetest member of the Avengers, the one who sees the best in everyone and supports those around him. He has his doubts and questions; he’s weak at times, but he presses on. His strength isn’t so much his muscles and physicality, but his gentle heart and belief in others. Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed in Creed is a boxer and the inheritor to both his father and Rocky’s legacies. But for all the machismo you’d expect in a boxing movie, we also see him doubt ridden, trying to make relationships work, and being called out on his masculine bullshit. In my beloved Pacific Rim, is Raleigh, a male main character whose primary role is providing the emotional support so other characters (particularly the Japanese woman Mako) can reach their full potential. None of these characters are any less ‘manly’ for these traits, rather in them we see a more complex, fuller, and more welcoming depiction of masculinity.

In the same way that a feminist approach to storytelling challenges the teller to create narratives where women are given agency and allowed to appear in a variety of roles, so too does it desire an allowance for male characters to take on more interesting dimensions. If Neil Armstrong was the embodiment of that style of stoic, selfish masculinity, couldn’t First Man have explored what was beneath that outer shell? Was he a husk of a man so bound by his need to be in control? Or was there genuine, painful emotion behind it? Could the narrative have questioned whether having all that to get to the Moon was worth it, rather than ending with him and his wife reconnecting? We’ve gotta get over this old-fashioned, idealized sort of manliness. It’s 2018, there’s more than one way to be a man.

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Captain Marvel Trailer

It’s happening.

It’s finally freaking happening.

On Tuesday we finally got a trailer for Captain Marvel, a movie I’ve been looking forwards to quite incessantly since it was announced way back in 2014. And now, at long last, we’re getting a glimpse of the movie itself and what all it’s gonna be.

Needless to say, I’m somehow even more excited.

Trailers are tricky beasts. Sometimes they give away the entire darn plot. Sometimes they misdirect you all over the place. Sometimes they’re better than the actual movie (hello, Man of Steel). A lot of the time, though, they give you an idea of the theme of the movie. You’re not gonna be given a plot breakdown, but rather the Central Question of the movie gets raised — or at least hinted at — within the trailer. Trailers for the original Avengers asked if they would be able to work together as a team, the trailer for Sorry To Bother You immediately brought to the forefront questions of race and class that the movie went on to tackle.

The trailer for Captain Marvel hints at what the movie’s gonna be about: identity. It’s heavily implied in the trailer that Carol’s an amnesiac, who doesn’t remember growing up on Earth before becoming a part of Starforce. She crash lands (in a Blockbuster of all places) and, presumably, plot happens. Given the flashbacks in the trailer, it stands to reason that a major part of the movie is Carol rediscovering her roots and coming to terms with the earthling side of her.

In the movie — and this is all speculation — we might end up seeing Carol, a renegade soldier as Nick Fury calls her, creating an identity for herself outside of the one she’s had in Starforce. Take the whole space ranger thing away from her; what’s left? Who is Carol Danvers? If Captain Marvel is gonna be an origins story (and it might have to be), a far more refreshing narrative is how Carol became Captain Marvel, rather than how she got her powers. As the trailer asks “what makes a(her)o.”

A Carol who doesn’t remember her past is an interesting starting point. In the comics, Carol sacrificed much of her memory to defeat Yon-Rogg as part of “The Enemy Within.” She pushes herself further than she’s ever gone before in an effort to sever the psychic connection between them and, in doing so, defeat the villain. Much of Captain Marvel’s adventures after that involves a lot of her trying to figure out who she is, some of it through friends helping her rediscover her identity, some of it through her friends, some of it through her own self-determination.

I realize so much of this blog post is pure conjecture. All we’ve gotten has been this two minute trailer that’s been precious light on our details. Sure, there’s been vague hints about the movie’s story in the press and all, but there’s some room for guesses about the theming for narrative. And if it’s a story about identity, which it sure seems like, they made a really good choice. Because at the end of the day, Carol is the sort of person who keeps picking herself up again and again. Can’t wait to watch her discover she is and has always been that person.

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On Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians is an odd beast for me. It’s a movie based on a book I didn’t really like, but oddly it’s one where I do like the movie over the book. More than that, though, it’s a book set in Singapore, a country I’m not used to seeing on screen. Also where, of all the places I’ve lived, I’ve racked up the most years of residence. And now I’m seeing streets I’ve driven on and places I’ve eaten on a movie screen in New York City.

It’s surreal, because a lotta folks don’t really know much about Singapore. When I moved to the States (South Carolina) at fourteen I got asked where in China it was. To this day folks tell me my English is really good for someone from Singapore, never mind that said language is the main language spoken there. The island I sorta come from is an unknown, save for a depiction in the third Pirates of The Caribbean movie so fantastical it makes the New York of How I Met Your Mother look like a documentary.

Now the place it seemed that no one this side of the Pacific had heard about is featured in what’s been the top movie in the US for three weeks in a row. Singapore has summarily gone from “where?” to that place in Crazy Rich Asians. That island is Known.

Herein lies the conflict at the root of the surreality. It’s absolutely thrilling to see Singapore in a movie — and a good movie at that. If this cultural osmosis takes hold, maybe the response to hearing I’m half-Singaporean won’t be thinking I hail from a backwards, destitute island. Maybe it’ll be the metropolis of Crazy Rich Asians. At last there’s an image in the cultural consciousness. And it’s that.

Most of the people I know here in the US will never go to Singapore. For many, this is the first — and maybe only — impression of Singapore they’ll have. As good as the movie is, I guess I wish it was more comprehensive; it held within it a fuller take on Singapore. I wish it showed more of the Singapore I know.

By virtue of its story, Crazy Rich Asians focuses on a very specific Singaporean experience: that of the ultra wealthy, the crazy rich, if you will. The cast, though entirely comprised of Asian actors, are primarily from the West, and so absent from the film is the Singaporean accent and its idiosyncratic turns of phrase — something the novel captured so well. It’s awesome to see Awkwafina and Gemma Chan have hefty roles in a major film, but there’s a part of me that wishes that accent was there — especially because your style of speaking in Singapore very much denotes which social class you’re part of. It feels like a missed opportunity.

Characters/actors’ accents are something so tiny for me to take issue with, but they’re indicative of more. Singapore is a complex place for me; it’s a place that’s taken me away from whatever I’ve had going on in the US a number of times. It’s got the best food on the planet. It’s a place I’ve hated and loved. I want the people in my life to see that country, the one with a pros and cons list each a kilometer long. I want people to see more of this place and get where I’m coming from.

I want to be understood.

Crazy Rich Asians — the film — deserves every accolade its gotten. I hope there are many, many more movies with all-Asian casts. It means so much to me, this mixed race guy who passed as Chinese in the US, to see Singapore and people who look like me in the spotlight. The movie isn’t gonna be the solution to my myriad questions of identity; I shouldn’t expect a delightful romcom to provide a sociological survey. It’s still a closer depiction of a part of my life than I’ve seen elsewhere. I’ve gotta take the advice I hold for so many stories: to let it tell the story it wants and to judge it based on that and not what I might want.

Anyway. Crazy Rich Asians is great. Go watch it. Michelle Yeoh needs to be in everything.

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Yellow (流星)

I have A Lot of thoughts about the movie adaption of Crazy Rich Asians. Far more thoughts that I’ve had time to write down. Much of that is wrapped up in the fact that it’s set in Singapore and I have a very complicated relationship with that country, owing to it, well, being where I was born and the odd circumstances with which I’ve found myself returning there for the past decade or so.

So this blog post is not about that.


Rather, it’s about a song that shows up towards the end of the movie, Coldplay’s “Yellow.” Except it’s not; it’s a cover the song, in Chinese; “流星” [liú xīng]. Now, I do really like “Yellow,” as I do a lot of Coldplay’s music; and I really like it when covers put a spin on things (Run River North’s cover of The Killer’s “Mr. Brightside” is nothing short of incredible). But “流星” is an interesting thing, it’s not just a cover, it’s also been rewritten in another language. A language I happen to kinda sorta speak.

Chinese, well, Mandarin Chinese if you wanna get specific, is an odd thing for me. I didn’t speak it at home growing up, owing mostly to having a mother who doesn’t speak it. It’s a language I learnt in school, and mostly used only in class. Chinese was my worst class, at that, one where I thought a C was a good grade and routinely pulled very low grades — grades low enough that I still remember them twenty years later. Elsewise, I’d only use it when ordering food (“Uncle, 一碗鱼丸面加辣椒”) or in smattering when talking to my grandmother.

It’s one that I’ve gotten better at in bursts; I can follow along with a conversation to a certain extent and can interject comments into dinner conversations with the extended family, often to their amusement since I’m very much the Caucasian nephew on that side. Working in retail in New York has meant that I’m the go-to Mandarin speaker who gets to answer all the questions Chinese tourists have, which often sees me finding very basic ways to say more complex things (“每年他们做好的房子,这是十年最好的房子.”)

Point is, I’m not really good at Chinese, and haven’t really done too much to get better at it. Chinese pop songs fall far outside the usual scope of music I listen to, and most of the Chinese cinema I watch is of the Hong Kong variety and so in Cantonese. Not much impetus to learn.

And then along comes this song, one I’ve added to my iTunes and listened to way more times than I care to admit. I understand parts of it, and reading the lyrics replete with pinyin and a translation helps. I really like it, far more than I thought I would/could. It’s surreal to hear a familiar tune with lyrics in a language I don’t speak near as well as I really should. It’s surreal to want to listen to a song in a language that’s meant so much grief for me, be it through bad grades or the othering that my lack of understanding sometimes creates. It’s surreal to like this.

I’m still processing a response to that movie and the inevitable blog post that’s gonna come along with it. Part of the reason it’s taking a while is because so much of the movie ties in to, well, me as myself. The older I get, the more I feel like much of life is processing stuff, processing what’s happening and what’s happened, processing who you are. I’m mixed, I’m biracial, I’m half Singaporean-Chinese, half Norwegian-American, but my Spanish is better than my Chinese. Identity is a weird thing for me, partially out of my own reckoning with myself, and partially out of my reckoning with others’ interpretations of that self. It’s not something I expect to be resolved anytime soon. But “流星” is a gorgeous song, and I like that I like it.

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Of Movie Subscriptions

As I said last week, I have a real soft spot for not-great movies. I’ve also really enjoyed having a MoviePass in no small part because it alleviates me of some measure of financial responsibility for poor choices. The subscription nature of the service means that it’s not gonna cost more to watch a silly movie in addition to something I do really wanna see. And now with the service going sideways, I’m really gonna miss it.

It is an odd sorta idea. $10 a month gets you unlimited daily movies. Which is dope. Though it does raises questions as to how exactly it’s profitable. My theory’s that they’ve been selling my data to studios so they can analyze the viewing habits of a dude in his late-twenties in New York to better optimize the funding of potential movies. Which could be a whole ‘nother issue about studios making their stuff over-specific and edging out room for wonderfully weird fare that no one expects like Sorry To Bother You. But as it is now, it seems that MoviePass couldn’t  quite figure out a way to monetize it and now some movies aren’t eligible for the pass.

Unless MoviePass finds a way to turn its whole thing around, it’s starting to look more like its golden days are over (in the last few months the service stopped allowing repeat viewings, introduced a surcharge for certain showings, and now, after a series of outages, decided not to support some major blockbusters). I could be wrong and, hopefully, they’re able to bounce back and I can continue to watch movies with abandon, though it’s looking more unlikely.

All this does raise a question about movies and, along with it, my own willingness to spend money on, well, art. It’s easy to have reckless abandon with choosing a movie when you’ve already paid a flat fee. The bar for going to see a movie in theaters rises from being curious to having to actually be interested. Take the upcoming Crazy Rich Asians as an example. I’m certainly curious about the movie, what with it having an all-Asian cast and being set in my sometimes-home of Singapore, but I’m not terribly fond of the book and don’t really find the narrative to be one I’m super into. So whether or not I see it is certainly up in the air.

I can get a pass to buy a movie ticket for around $10. Which isn’t that bad, given that a regular ticket in New York runs around $16. And I like movies, so $10 is certainly worth it. The question that’s begged, however, is why don’t I think it’s worth it? Because the debate inherent in this rant essay is the semi-arbitrary demarcation of value produced by comparing a subscription based service with the standard model. Am I more entertained by, say, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom knowing that my viewing of said movie was effectively free, given that it was included in the same fee that allowed me to see Sorry To Bother You and Eighth Grade that same month? Is part of my enjoyment of ‘bad’ movies due to the lack of attachment that comes with the background knowledge that this movie isn’t affecting my budget in anyway?

In many ways, it’s a sunk cost fallacy in another form. If I’m paying x amount of money for something, it had darn well better be worth the money. Does the knowledge that some of my hard earned cash was paid for this movie in particular affect my enjoyment of it? Or, if art is inherently worthwhile because folks put time and effort into it, shouldn’t I respect that and be willing to pay the money since, well, I’m supporting creators?

I don’t really have a good answer to any of these questions. In many ways, this is me rambling and exploring my own attitudes towards entertainment. I don’t know where this self-introspection will lead. I don’t know if it even should lead anywhere. What I do know is that, should MoviePass go sideways, I’m really gonna miss the reckless abandon with which I’m available to enjoy movies right now.

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Good Bad Movies

I like bad movies. I really do. Take Outcast as an example; its plot is pretty simple: Former crusader Hayden Christensen winds up in China where he’s protecting the rightful prince from said prince’s vengeful older brother. Also, Nic Cage is in it as Hayden Christensen’s old mentor-turned-hermit who’s acting in a very different movie from everyone else. All this to say, it’s an utter delight. Not that it’s a good movie; Outcast has a host of issues, ranging from being unable to decide what accent the Chinese characters should have when speaking English (the same family has one with an English accent and another with an American) to the fact that it really reinforces the whole White Savior narrative, what with the best summary of it being “Hayden Christensen and Nic Cage save China.” Yet it’s an enjoyable mess, and Nic Cage’s performance alone is worth the couple hours in front of the tv.

It’s really easy, especially in cinephile and filmmaking circles, to get caught up in the whole idea of Quality. Like, is a movie Good, is it Important? There’s a canon of sorts for what’s allowed to be considered The Best (woe unto you if The Godfather doesn’t crack your top ten list). For the most part, though, a lot of these movies rightly deserve their hallowed spot; The Godfather is indeed excellent and holy crap is Casablanca a masterwork of film. In light of this, more pulpy fare like The Avengers or Scott Pilgrim get relegated since, sure, they’re entertaining, but they aren’t that Important.

But why isn’t entertaining enough? I’m very partial to both The Avengers and Scott Pilgrim for telling really interesting, well-wrought stories that despite a flashy exterior, touch on deeper themes (sacrifice and unity for the first, self-respect for the second). And most of all, they’re really fun. There’s no denying that Whiplash is an excellent movie, but it’s not one I’ll pop in while hanging out with friends. Though Ant-Man and The Wasp is undoubtably a movie worse in quality and critical reception, it remains a movie that’s just plan fun. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a movie that I’d call aggressively stupid, but I was grinning ear to ear for just about the entire film.

There’s much to be said for that. I could spend a very long rant essay discussing all of the fallacies and nonsensical plot developments of Fallen Kingdom, but, really, does that even matter? I had fun watching the movie, more fun than I had watching, say, Molly’s Game or even Deadpool 2. It’s why Fallen Kingdom is a movie I can recommend wholeheartedly to anyone in it to watch dinosaurs wreck crap rather than a treatise on the sublime majesty and horror of those extinct terrible lizards. And really, that’s all the movie sets out to do. It has no assumptions about itself as something more than that; it wants to be a really fun movie and it succeeds. Heck, look at Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, a movie with a tangential grasp of narrative consequence and character development, but it’s such darn fun and a great way to spend a couple hours.

I don’t deny that there are bad movies (and good grief, there are some that are truly awful), but I think there is still a delight to be found in movies that aren’t great and yet are enjoyable all the same. Not even necessarily movies good in their badness like The Room or even the aforementioned Outcast, which are enjoyable for how poorly they missed the mark set out for themselves, but rather ones that have low aims and succeed wonderfully. There’s a movie about a giant killer shark coming out, The Meg, and it looks incredibly silly, but also super fun. And if I’m going to the movies to chill out after work, why not be willing to turn off my brain and enjoy a fun, bad movie?

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