Kristan Hoffman

writing dreams into reality

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Tag: TV/Movies (Page 1 of 10)

Straight Outta Compton


On Saturday night, Andy and I went to see Straight Outta Compton, the biopic about (primarily) Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Easy-E, who together founded the one of the biggest, most influential, and most iconic rap groups in history. Upon returning home from the theater, I immediately jumped on Twitter to sing the movie’s praises. I had to. The movie energized me in a way that would not be contained. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Those are my thoughts in a nutshell, but I wanted to discuss a few things in more detail:

F-bombs and n-words. I suspect that a lot of people will be turned off by the “vulgar” facade of Straight Outta Compton. The movie showcases a side of American culture that many look down on, and it’s easy to use the profanity as an excuse to dismiss the film, the music, and the many artists who created it all.

But as a writer, as a lover of words, I think it’s important to recognize that profanity is just a mode of expression, as valid as any other. So is “street” speak. So is broken or accented English.

Things do not have to be comfortable or pleasant or polished to have merit. Furthermore, who gets to define comfortable and pleasant and polished anyway?

Hip hop as a voice for the marginalized. Eddie Huang, the celebrity chef whose memoir inspired the TV show Fresh Off the Boat, talks openly about his love for rap music. He has said that as a chubby Chinese kid growing up in the suburbs of Orlando, he stuck out in pretty much every way, and he connected to hip hop because it is all about the hardships of being in the minority. It is angry, empowering, unapologetic social commentary set to music that makes you move.

Growing up, I knew a lot of Asian guys who were into rap. Coincidence? Maybe.

Maybe not.

Not just for black people. “Conventional wisdom” says that only black people will read/watch/pay attention to black stories — and thus, that black stories are “niche” and can’t be blockbusters. But I have never been convinced of that. I certainly don’t want it to be true.

Personally, I have read and admired books like Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Beloved, Things Fall Apart, and Pointe. I have been a fan of shows like Sister Sister, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, black-ish, and Empire. I have watched and loved movies like Bad Boys, Dream Girls, Precious, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Beyond the Lights. And I have never once thought, “This story was not meant for me. I cannot relate. These are not my people.” Just the opposite, in fact.

I know I’m not alone in this.

Straight Outta Compton’s screenwriter was a middle-aged gay Jewish man. Clearly he connected with the story of these young, impoverished black musicians, because he did a fantastic job with their story.

Of course, he didn’t do it alone.

Oscar contention. As I said, I think Straight Outta Compton is worthy of a Best Picture nomination. Probably Best Director and Best Actor (for Jason Mitchell, who plays Easy-E) too. Every aspect of the film was top quality, and the subject matter was a perfect balance of personal and political, historical and timely.

Skepticism and hope keep battling inside me. Last year Selma got nominated, yes, but it lost out to a movie that I couldn’t even finish watching. Plus, Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo were horribly snubbed. A few years earlier, Ray was also nominated and lost, but at least Jamie Foxx won for his amazing performance.

That’s not a lot of precedence to go on, though. And those movies focus on black heroes who are actually accepted and embraced by the mainstream.

Regardless, I have more optimism for Straight Outta Compton right now than I did Saturday night when I was tweeting. I just read about the film’s screening for members of the Academy Awards, which apparently went quite well. Fingers crossed that they prove me wrong. Fingers crossed that we really are progressing. Fingers crossed that we can recognize and reward excellence even when it comes in a less familiar package.

Police brutality. OK, this one doesn’t really segue well, but I need to talk about it. Sunday morning, I woke up with swollen eyelids. I had cried that much during Straight Outta Compton.

Throughout the movie, we see Dre, Easy, and Cube experience multiple conflicts with law enforcement. Not once are they treated with respect, or even basic decency. It’s very hard to watch. Even harder when you remember that it’s real.

The film also includes brief but harrowing footage of the Rodney King beating. In 1991, I was only 5 years old, so I don’t remember much of anything about the incident myself. But 25 years later, I’m very aware of the world around me, and it’s disheartening to see the same thing happening now. So much has changed, and yet so much hasn’t.

Treatment of women. Given the role women tend to play in hip hop culture, I had low expectations for what I would see in Straight Outta Compton. But I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a story about the men, yes, but the women who figure prominently are portrayed with a fair amount of respect. The mothers, the wives, even Dre’s baby momma. We see them as strong, savvy individuals, who play significant roles in the lives of these men.

The background women may not get as much respect, but I felt that they weren’t used gratuitously. There were plenty of bare body parts, but without the unnecessary lingering that I see in so many music videos and cable TV shows. It was more like set dressing, for authenticity.

Note: In real life, a few of these guys have reputations when it comes to misogyny, and even violence against women. I am in no way condoning that. But I do understand the decision to leave that out of the movie given that (A) these guys were producers on the film, and (B) it’s not relevant to arc of their music careers or friendships, which is the heart of this story.

Update: Dre addressed his past mistakes. Ice Cube made new ones.

Last but not least, here’s a link to the original Straight Outta Compton album, free to stream on Spotify. Several of these songs were familiar to me already, but I definitely have a greater appreciation for them now.

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Beyond the Lights


My friend Elissa recommended Beyond the Lights several times on Twitter, so when this striking image popped up on Netflix, I immediately took note. (I didn’t realize that the love interest is reflected in her glasses until I was putting the picture into this post, though. Hah!) Beyond the Lights is the story of Noni Jean, a pop starlet who has lost her true self in the swirl of fame. Her depression is dragging her under, and no one sees it — until one night, police officer Kaz Nicol somehow does.

Noni and Kaz not exactly star-crossed, but they do come from very different worlds. Will loving each other help or hurt their respective goals? What happens when what you want isn’t actually good or right for you?

Ambition and over-sexualization, performance and creativity, romance and self-discovery. The movie explores a lot of themes that I have a strong interest in. Also, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is mesmerizingly beautiful, which is eclipsed only by her immense talent. Her eyes could almost tell the story all on their own.

It’s a quiet, sexy, serious but uplifting film.

Baggage Claim


Baggage Claim is not a great movie… But it’s fun, and it features a wonderful cast that really drew me in. I mostly know Paula Patton from Mission: Impossible 4 and from her former marriage to Robin Thicke, so seeing her in this kind of a light-hearted role was a change of pace. She really embraced the goofiness and the physical comedy, and she’s just a delight to watch. (Random observation: At times she bears a strong resemblance to Jennifer Lopez.)

Adam Brody is a scene-stealer, and Taye Diggs performs with an unexpected and understated hilarity. They are also two of the many, many, many extremely handsome men in this movie.

Then there’s the airline support staff — curbside luggage guy, check-in counter lady, and security checkpoint guy — who subtly ratcheted up the humor of their performances throughout the film until they had me laughing out loud (for real) by the end. They reminded me that even small characters can have a big impact on the success and enjoyment of a story.

The Good Lie


To be honest, I bawled my eyes out the first time I saw a trailer for The Good Lie. But I was hesitant to actually go see it, because I thought Hollywood would do their usual thing and turn this into a story about Reese Witherspoon’s character. I mean, just look at the poster, right?

But I’m happy to report that Reese is barely in this movie. (Just to be clear, I do like her!) Instead, the story rightfully centers on 3 young men and 1 young woman who survive a terrible war in their home country of Sudan, and eventually find themselves trying to recover and make new lives in America. It’s about children robbed of innocence, families torn apart, sacrifices and choices and powerlessness, and the things we can never forget.

Another thing I loved about this movie is that the main characters are portrayed by Sudanese actors. In fact, several of them lived through the horrors depicted in the film. I cannot imagine how difficult it was — and hopefully empowering too — to tell a story so near to one’s trauma and to one’s heart.

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About Time


Rachel McAdams in a red dress, holding onto a man and laughing in the rain. Looks like a rom-com, right? It’s not. About Time does deal with love, but also with family, and growing up, and growing old, and getting second chances, and accepting what cannot be changed.

This_is_40Even though the two films have very different tones, About Time reminded me of This Is 40, because both stories revolve around the beauty and humor that can be found in living an ordinary life. That theme has become increasingly important to me over the years, both for myself and for my storytelling.

There are so many great little moments in About Time. These were my favorites:

  • Pretty much every scene between Tim (the protagonist, played by Domhnall Gleeson) and his father (played by Bill Nighy). But especially when they’re playing table tennis and pretending it’s the Olympics.
  • When Mary (McAdams) offers to take off one item of clothing for every decision that Tim makes about a big event they’re planning. It’s sweet and sexy and real — a side of passion that is woefully under-represented by Hollywood.
  • When Tim wants to solve his sister’s problems, and Mary says, “If it’s going to be fixed, I think she probably has to do it herself.” This is a deeply difficult lesson to learn, when you love someone. When you can see the smarter path for them to take, but you can’t make them take it. It’s something that I’ve been struggling with a lot recently.

Even though the movie is about a guy who uses time travel to correct his mistakes, in the end, About Time reminds us that part of what makes life so precious is that we can’t get any do-overs. There’s just the once. Whether you choose right or wrong, you have to move on. That’s how you learn and grow. And hopefully that’s how you come to appreciate and make the most out of every day. Go with time, not against it. That’s the real path to happiness.

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Broken promises and clinging on for too long (or: What ruined Grey’s Anatomy)

Spoiler level: HIGH. If you don’t know what happened on last night’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy — and don’t want to — then walk away now.


Fans be like…

I could make a long list of things that last night’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy did wrong. From ridiculous plot points and redundant dialogue, to bad green screens and cheap fake-outs. There were dozens of violations, offset only by a few brief moments of brilliance from Ellen Pompeo, the endearing mother-daughter duo that Derek rescued, and Patrick Dempsey’s pretty face.

But that list, however long, is all small potatoes. That list is all forgivable.

What isn’t forgivable is the death of Derek Shepherd.

I’m not upset because he was McDreamy and I’m some moony fangirl. I’m upset because the act of killing off Derek broke a sacred, unspoken agreement between storyteller and audience.

A television pilot, like the first chapter of a book, is a promise to the viewer. This is what the story is about. This is what you’re signing up for.

The pilot episode of Grey’s Anatomy promised viewers that Meredith and Derek were the endgame. That they would get their Happily Ever After. That’s what I signed up for. Of course there were going be obstacles in the way. A first wife, a bomb, a cute vet, depression, a shooting, etc. That’s how storytelling works. Writers raise the stakes; we raise our expectations and investment.

Last night, our investment went completely bust.

I know there are reasons for what Grey’s did, even if I’ll never really know what those reasons are. Regardless, I think the better decision would have been to shut the show down. It has had 11 good years. It launched Shonda Rhimes’s career. It highlighted diversity in mainstream television. Rather than being pushed around by whatever off-screen ish came up — and eroding the artistic integrity of the story and main characters along the way — Grey’s should have gone out on its own terms, with a spectacular and fulfilling series finale reminiscent of its glory days.

But no one asked me. So I guess instead it will limp ahead for as long as it can.

In fairness, it’s not impossible for fans to enjoy Grey’s going forward. I’m sure there will be good, smart developments for many of the characters. (I’m particularly interested in Karev, Jackson, April, and Amelia.) But there is no longer any way for Grey’s to deliver on its original premise. It’s a fundamentally different show now.

Would I still have listened to my mom 10 years ago — “You have to watch this new doctor show!” — if I had known that the pilot was, essentially, a lie? I don’t know. Maybe. Okay, probably, because it was really damn good. But would I have continued past Season 3? No way. That was the end of the best years. I wish I’d seen the decline coming, found a good stopping point sometime during Season 4, and just gone off on my merry way.

(Ironically, that’s pretty much what my mom did.)

Will I quit the show now? I’m not sure yet. Part of me says I already put in 10 years; I ought to see this through to the end. But another part of me knows that those 10 years are a sunk cost; I can’t include them in the calculation of what my time is worth moving forward. And when I think about other shows I’ve quit — Scandal, Heroes, Chuck — I have no regrets.

So we’ll see.

I suppose what’s more important is that this has made me think much more critically about my own beginnings and what I’m promising to readers with my opening chapters. I don’t ever want to be guilty of this kind of betrayal.

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We need to talk about Empire


Let me start by saying: I am not going to be able to do this show justice. There is too much to unpack. But I can’t not talk about it! It’s too entertaining — and too important.

If you want to read something more comprehensive, here are two really good articles:

As for me, I just want to mention a few specific elements that hooked me as a viewer and impressed me as a storyteller.

The All-Black Cast

This shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. I mean, “racism is dead,” yet we still have separate sections of the greeting card aisle for “Mahogany” cards. The truth is that we live in a society where non-white, non-heterosexual, non-able-bodied people are automatically designated as “other,” in ways both big and small.

So the fact that millions of viewers — of every demographic — were tuning in each Wed night to watch the Lyon family? The fact that Empire has absolutely dominated the ratings this season? And the fact that it is the first show in at least 23 years — maybe the first drama ever — to increase its viewership with every single new episode?

That’s huge.

Because it’s proof that black characters are not “niche” by default. It’s proof that American audiences are willing and able to identify with protagonists who might not look, sound, or act like them. (And not just identify with those protagonists, but be riveted by them.) It’s proof that stories do not require white, straight, able-bodied characters in order to make them financially or critically successful.

Empire isn’t the first show to tell us these things. From my childhood, I can remember Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters, and more recently, there are shows like Black-ish, Jane the Virgin, and Fresh Off the Boat. But Empire is the biggest, loudest, and most impossible to ignore. I have no idea if it can sustain this momentum or for how long — but I don’t think that matters. Nothing can erase the accomplishments of this first season.

I think Empire could be a watershed for mainstream American culture. I hope so.

The Social Commentary

One of the show’s many strengths is its audacity. Empire goes where most stories are afraid to go, and it does not tread lightly.

One gay son. One with bipolar disorder. One with mommy issues that lead to dating inappropriate women. And then there’s the racism, sexism, wealth, creativity, religion, and more. Empire doesn’t shy away from anything.

What I think is most significant, though, is that Empire is tackling these topics from the “hip hop gaze,” so to speak. Political correctness is not a priority. Keeping it real is. Which means that even the family members who have no issue with Jamal’s homosexuality refer to him in ways that would make most liberals cringe. And when Andre experiences a mental health breakdown, his concerned, loving mother still has a hard time believing that he could be afflicted by “white people problems.”

The Lyons are not intended to serve as role models. The things that they say, do, and believe are not always kind or pretty. But the Lyons are not our court jesters either. This isn’t like a trashy reality show where the viewer is meant to laugh at the contestants, to watch from a safe and comfortable emotional distance, to feel superior. When you watch Empire, you are a Lyon.

That’s why the social commentary is so impactful. Would I say that? Have I done that? Do I think that?

Cookie and Her Sons

With a book, good writing needs only the reader to make it come alive. But for the screen, good writing needs good acting to really shine.

The entire cast of Empire is top-notch, but Taraji P. Henson is divine. Her Cookie Lyon is everything. Fierce, fresh, and foul-mouthed — yet also vulnerable, sensitive, and savvy. Music may be the heart and soul of Empire the company, but Cookie is without question the heart and soul of Empire the show.


Terrence Howard does a fine job as Lucious Lyon, but Lucious to me is just the engine for the story. His ambition and his selfishness are what create all the conflict. In some ways, he’s more like a force of nature than one of the heroes. I’m certainly not rooting for him.

So after Taraji/Cookie, I would say that the Lyon sons (collectively) are the next best part of the show. No matter how many times they are pitted against each other — either directly or indirectly by their father — Andre, Jamal, and Hakeem keep coming back to their brotherly bonds. Hakeem and Jamal are particularly close, since they share a talent and passion for music, on top of everything else. But even Andre, the business-minded tone-deaf “black sheep” of the family, can put aside his resentment at being left out and offer a hand to his brothers when needed.

Edited to add: The depiction of Andre’s bipolar disorder is perhaps not entirely medically accurate, but I think there’s an emotional truth to it. Also, Trai Byers does an incredible job with the material he’s given.

More than anything else, I hope the relationships between Cookie and her boys will stay strong over the course of the story. That fierce family love is what’s most powerful and universal in Empire. It’s what got us through the scheming, murders, betrayals, and countless other twists of this first season. I can only imagine the storms it will have to weather next year.


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