Tag: TV/Movies Page 1 of 13

Always catching up, always falling behind

Travel, pregnancy, holidays. Lately I feel like life is a never-ending series of obstacles — mostly good ones, but still — that are keeping me from catching my breath. Every day my to-do list grows… then shrinks… then grows even more. How? Help!


Well, one thing I can cross off today is sharing my thoughts on the shows, productions, and movies I’ve enjoyed over the past few months.

(Yes, months. Have I mentioned how behind I am?)

Based on an award-winning play, Kim’s Convenience is a sitcom about a Korean-Canadian family and their store. It’s not funny in a laugh-out-loud way, but I appreciate the quieter humor — and heart — inherent in the cultural observations and conflicts between the characters.

And unlike Fresh Off the Boat — which unfortunately I think has lost a lot of steam over the years — this show seems content to be what it is, rather than eroding into the more typical Westernized formula for comedies.

I’ll be honest, my default attitude toward any remake is wariness. Because are we really updating and improving upon the original, or just trying to bring it back for a cash grab?

In the case of She-Ra — a beloved classic cartoon from my childhood — I think they’ve done a really nice job reimagining the story and themes for a contemporary audience. Even the art style has been modernized in an elegant and inclusive way. Season 1 was a lot of fun, and I especially loved the complicated dynamic between She-Ra and Catra.

In a nutshell: Hamilton lives up to the hype.

I was afraid it wouldn’t, because I don’t adore the music in Moana the way everyone else seems to, so I thought perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda might be overrated, at least for me. But no. He’s brilliant. Hamilton is phenomenal. Within a minute of the show starting, I turned to my husband and said, “I love this already.” And that feeling only grew as the story continued to play out on the stage before me.

Race. Revolution. Passion. Family. Tragedy. The music. The lyrics. The performances. The choreography. It’s all so wonderful, so epic.

The Edge of Seventeen was a solid coming-of-age story, told with a good balance of humor, cynicism, and hope. Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson are the stars, and with reason — but over the course of the movie, I was surprised to find myself just as compelled, if not more, by the performances of Blake Jenner and Haley Lu Richardson, as the brother and best friend, respectively. They each brought a lot of subtle power to these side characters, elevating the roles, and thus the story.

I first watched Miss Saigon roughly 20 years ago, and I think a lot of it went over my head at that time. Now, as a relatively “woke” adult, I found myself disturbed, even angered, by the story. By the way that a show ostensibly featuring Vietnamese characters completely lacked any semblance of real Vietnamese perspective. By the way that America and Americans were portrayed as golden ideals, in spite of their many misdeeds. By the lack of dimension or interiority to any of the Asian characters, who were pretty much all “bad.” (Whores, pimps, vengeful soldiers, impoverished fools, etc.)

I recognize that not everyone will have the same reaction, but truthfully, as a person of Asian descent, I did feel harmed in a way, and that has given me a lot to think about, as I consider other works (of fiction, film, etc.) that negatively impact some people, even while I enjoy them.

Instead of rewatching To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before for the fourth time, I decided to try a different rom-com starring Noah Centineo, and he didn’t let me down. He’s just as charming in The Perfect Date, but not at all the same as his TATBILB character. The tone of this movie was more like Easy A — less candy and sunshine, more sour cherries and neon lights. Which is neither good nor bad, just an observation.

I knew nothing about the show Dear Evan Hansen before watching it, but wow, did it pack a punch. It’s funny and heartbreaking, and so intense that, at least in our traveling tour, the actor playing the main role does not perform twice in one day. (Which mainly comes into play on weekends, when they have both matinees and evening runs.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the music, and I felt the show had a lot of valuable things to say about growing up, and parenting, in our image-obsessed, anxiety-ridden world.

15 years old at this point, Chasing Liberty features Mandy Moore and Matthew Goode — two people for which I have an inexplicable fondness — as the First Daughter of the USA, and a secret Secret Service agent who is tasked to protect her while she galavants around Europe. So of course I loved it, as unlikely and cheesy as it was.

In the literary world, Someone Great would probably fall under the “New Adult” label, which for various reasons, never really took off. The story is mostly about life in your 20s, which for many people involves epic heartbreak, evolving friendships, and casual sex and drug use. (Weed and ecstasy, in this case.) There were plenty of things I liked about it — especially the soundtrack, and Lakeith Stanfield — but I don’t think the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Always Be My Maybe was another one that I wanted to love more than I did. I laughed out loud plenty of times — because Ali Wong and Randall Park are great at writing and delivering one-liners — and I really appreciated the natural way that Asian-American culture was featured in the film. (Food. San Francisco. Complex parent/child relationships.) But overall there was a sort of raw, choppiness to it that didn’t quite work for me.

And while I applaud that he was game for it, Keanu’s role in this film was utterly ridiculous.

The highlight for me was Michelle Buteau, who played the best friend, and stole pretty much every scene she was in.

Quiet but competent, The Spectacular Now was probably the least exciting of everything I’ve seen lately. Everything about it just felt… kind of obvious, and unoriginal. It’s the story of a young man’s emotional pain, and the way he deflects it from himself by inflicting it on others. He’s supposed to be charming, but I wasn’t charmed. At least not by the protagonist. Shailene Woodley was as watchable as ever, and Brie Larson surprised me with her turn as the popular girl. (Not the kind of role I’m used to seeing her in. She brought some depth to it, though.)

Cleverly written — and actually kind of subversive while maintaining the key beats of a rom-com — Set It Up definitely exceeded my expectations. Zoey Deutch is completely adorable and endearing, and the chemistry between her and Glen Powell was strong. On the one hand, there wasn’t much new here; on the other hand, things don’t have to be new to be good.


Sometimes I think TV, movies, etc., aren’t that important. Why bother talking about them?

But they’re stories. I live for stories. I learn from stories.

And I think stories have the power to change and connect us.

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Recently viewed: Buffy, Angel, The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie Society, and Black Panther

Well that’s a mouthful. And I even truncated two of the titles!

This past December through February, besieged by the chaos of holidays and recurring illness, I indulged in a lot of screen time. I wouldn’t say it was the best use of so many hours… but I always try to make my “creative consumption” productive — i.e., learn what I can about good storytelling, character development, dialogue, etc. Plus there’s something to be said for keeping one’s finger on the pulse of our culture, right?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I remember watching Buffy as a teen when it first came out. I only made it to Season 3 or 4 before junior year of high school started kicking my butt and I made the radical decision to cut out TV, go to bed at 10 PM, wake up at 5 AM, go for a run, and then finish whatever homework I had left before school.

(That was a remarkably healthy period of my life that I have never again been able/willing to replicate.)

So I did get to witness Buffy’s “golden years” in real-time, but what I learned from completing the series now is that while Seasons 1-3 were the best overall, Seasons 4-7 actually had the best individual episodes. (The worst too, though. The highest of the highs, and the lowest of the lows.)

Also, without getting into potential spoilers, I’ll just say that I loved how the show addressed the theme of the Chosen One being a lonely, thankless position (throughout the series, but especially in the end) as well as how Buffy empowered girls and women, both in the audience and in the actual story.

Takeaways:

  • Sarah Michelle Gellar is immensely watchable.
  • Even when you’re writing about imminent doom and recurring gloom, you can be funny. In fact, that’s probably the best way to tackle tough stuff.
  • Swing for the fences. Sometimes you’ll miss, but when you hit a home run, boy will it be worth it. Infamous episodes like “Hush,” “The Body,” and “Once More With Feeling” were big risks, because they were so different from the show’s normal style, but they are brilliant and beloved.

You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love till it kills you both. You’ll fight, and you’ll shag, and you’ll hate each other till it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends.

Love isn’t brains, children. It’s blood. Blood screaming inside you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.

Spike in “Lover’s Walk” (S3E8)

Angel

As a teen, I loved Angel’s character in Buffy — to the point that I sporadically watched Bones out of lingering loyalty to David Boreanaz — but when Angel left for his spinoff show, I let him go. Fast forward to now, when friends heard I was finally going to finish watching all of Buffy, most of them urged me to binge Angel as well.

I can’t say I loved it, but I can see why it has faithful fans. Maybe even more so than in Buffy, the character arcs in Angel are astounding, for how significantly and yet organically many of the main characters change. Wesley in particular.

Season 4 was a disaster, though. Gina Torres just barely saved it. The soft reset in Season 5 was clever and enjoyable. And although Fred was my hands-down favorite, Illyria was pretty cool too.

Takeaways:

  • Amy Acker is great in everything.
  • Don’t force the hero into an ill-suited love story just because you’re worried the audience will lose interest without some sort of hook-up. Give people more credit than that.
  • Related: Sometimes romantic tension is better than romance.
  • You can pull off some wacky ideas if you do it with conviction. For example, puppets.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

Honestly I went into this movie expecting a meaningless but sweet romantic drama that I could just pay half attention to while I did other things. Instead I found myself sucked into the heartfelt — and heart-wrenching — story of these islanders and the bonds they forged during the most difficult of times.

Takeaways:

  • Matthew Goode is painfully handsome and charming.
  • It’s okay to be sentimental and/or predictable as long as you do it well.

Black Panther

I think this is the best superhero movie I’ve seen in ages. Maybe ever? It’s big and fun and yet full of depth. It fits into the genre, but it’s different enough to stand out too.

(Disclaimer: I am not a big superhero movie buff. In fact, I find myself fairly fatigued by how many have come out in the past few years. I cannot keep up and at this point, don’t particularly care to.)

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Wonder Woman — especially the first part with just the Amazonian women, and by the way, Gal Gadot might be human perfection — but Black Panther is several cuts above. The writing, the cast, the visuals… Everything was phenomenal.

I especially appreciated how elements repeated, tied in. Nothing was wasted. Each scene was important in the moment, then even more important later. And the themes of the story were both timeless (a son trying to live up to his father’s legacy, yet also do better) and timely (do we wall ourselves off to protect our treasures, or share our resources to enrich everyone?).

If I’m nitpicking, there are a couple moments that felt a bit Lion King-y to me… but that’s truly trivial.

In one scene, as the camera pans around several different Wakandan tribes, I found myself in tears, overcome with emotion just like when I watched Crazy Rich Asians. Because I know that Black Panther meant to so many black people what CRA meant to so many Asian people. Representation. A movie about people like us that wasn’t only meant for people like us. It was meant for everybody. And it kicked ass.

Takeaways:

  • Wakanda forever.
  • Use specificity to get at universality. It’s the details that people connect to.
  • A story can both fit the mold and break out of it at the same time.

“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”

T’Challa in the post-credits scene
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Seen on screen

On Friday, I indulged in two movies, one on the big screen, and one on my iPad mini. Both filled my heart with joy, and made me cry several times, because of the stories themselves, and also because of what these stories mean. I haven’t stopped thinking about them all weekend, and I can’t wait to watch them again.

Based on the novel of the same name, Crazy Rich Asians is part rom-com, part fish-out-of-water story, part family drama, and part extravagant party.

It’s also the first Hollywood production to feature an all-Asian cast since 1993’s Joy Luck Club. (Which is one of my all-time favorite movies, by the way.)

When the movie started, I was overcome with emotion. Seeing all those Asian faces — faces like my aunts, my cousins, my friends, their parents — and for them to be the stars? For them to be the focus of a lighthearted contemporary story, as opposed to something historical or niche? It was just so…

It was everything.

Crazy Rich Asians is not perfect, but it’s genuinely enjoyable. Henry Golding is a gem, and Michelle Yeoh is great as ever. The last third of the movie is especially strong, which is significant, because endings are hard. (The wedding reception! The mahjong scene! The plane scene!)

The more I look back on the movie, the more I appreciate both the big things (romantic love vs. family love; mother-child relationships; self-sacrifice) and the little things (Araminta with glasses and no make-up at the night market; Rachel and Peik Lin going barefoot through the Goh family mansion; everyone making dumplings together and sharing family stories in a mix of English and Chinese).

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, now streaming on Netflix, is also based on a novel, and features a half-Korean main character. The whole cast is charming, but especially Noah Centineo (Peter, one of the love interests) and Anna Cathcart (Kitty, the younger sister). To be honest, I was just expecting this to be a bit of fluffy fun, and it was, but it was also much more.

This piece does a great job explaining how TATBILB manages to succeed within its genre, while also setting itself apart:

The story plays out with familiar beats and set pieces, bits I remembered from beloved predecessors like “A Walk to Remember,” “She’s All That” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” movies designed to make you remember, viscerally, the terrifying thrill of first love.

But damn, does “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” stick just about every landing, in part by reshaping misogynistic and shallow tropes of the genre in ways that make it feel more honest and yet also more optimistic.

Specifically: The dad is not stodgy and oblivious; When couples break up, they don’t instantly hate each other, because that’s not how first love usually works; And maybe most importantly, the heroine doesn’t require a sexy makeover in order for the hot guy to fall for her.

[It’s] a gentle, witty, nuanced movie about family, grief and growing up, wrapped around a love story that’s both believably bumbling and an irresistible fantasy.

Also: That hot tub scene.


My daughter IB is too young to watch these movies with me at the moment, but I hope when she’s old enough, she’ll want to. Because if seeing them healed pieces of my own 30-something-year-old heart, then I can only imagine what they might mean to her growing up. Maybe she’ll watch them dozens of times, like I did with Mulan and Joy Luck Club. Or maybe, if we’re lucky, she won’t have to, because there will be so many stories with good Asian representation that these won’t stand out like they do now.


I would like to be a part of that. Like many writers of color, my earliest work defaulted to whiteness, but as I’ve matured, all my best writing has reflected my mixed race identity, in one way or another.

Sometimes I wonder whether the world really needs my stories or not. I ask myself, What can I add? Why does anything I say matter?

This weekend, Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before reminded me that you don’t have to change the world, or be perfect, to make a difference.

#RepresentationMatters

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Recently viewed: Hidden Figures and Gifted

“Recently” might be too generous of a term, in the case of Hidden Figures, which I watched several months ago. But I really enjoyed this movie and have been intending to post about it ever since.

Although I no longer watch Empire, I will always be drawn to Taraji P. Henson — and of course Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae are rock solid too. Together, they play three black women who, in real life, were geniuses and pioneers within the NASA program. I loved how each woman had her own professional and personal storylines, but also intersected with one another in tender, humorous scenes of supportive friendship.

Though it is all presented in a relatively palatable way, the movie’s themes of feminism and racism are, unfortunately, still quite relevant.

Speaking of Octavia Spencer, she must be one of the busiest women in Hollywood, because it seems like she is in everything I watch! Or maybe she and I just have similar tastes in stories? That wouldn’t be such a bad coincidence.

Gifted tells the story of a family at odds with itself. In the aftermath of his sister’s death, Frank is raising his niece Mary (with some help from his neighbor, played by Octavia Spencer). When Frank’s mother discovers that Mary is a math genius, she swoops in and tries to take custody away from him. The ensuing battle brings up a compelling knot of love, ambition, sacrifice, and blame.

Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the theme of a mother’s ambition driving her relationship with her daughter is something that I plan to explore in the near future. As a mom myself now, I can see how easy it is to fall into the trap of projecting your hopes and dreams onto your children.

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Week in review (Jan 31, 2018)

Opening credits

Several months ago, I wrote a column for my dad’s newspapers about life as a new mother. Now I’m working on another one, about the part that technology played in our first year of parenting.

Recently I read my friend Jasmine Warga’s second book, HERE WE ARE NOW. On the surface, it’s about a daughter reconnecting with her long-lost father, who has become a rock star. But on a deeper level, it’s a love letter to music, to immigrants, to artistic ambitions, and to the messy ups and downs of relationships of all kinds. I adored it.

I also found a very pleasant surprise at the end: my name in the acknowledgments!

Feel-good funny

While This Is Us and The Good Place were on winter break, I needed some well-written, light-hearted TV. I decided to try Brooklyn 99, and it did not disappoint. Like Michael Schur’s other creations (Parks and Recreation, The Good Place), the show focuses on characters that are basically good people, who care about each other, their work, and the world at large. That’s not necessarily a great setup for comedy, but the characters are so quirky, and they play off each other perfectly.

Rosa is my favorite — for some reason I am often drawn to the “tough chick” — but even as I say that, a part of me wants to take it back and make a case for each of the other characters. I love them all, and can see pieces of myself in every one.

A voice for the voiceless

The Shape of Water is not a feel-good funny movie, but there were, to my surprise, several moments where I laughed. (“No, no, don’t play with the kitties.”)

I did not love The Shape of Water the way so many people seem to, but I did admire its beauty, its ambitions, and its themes. I find myself thinking about it a lot, which is just as significant as loving it, I think, but in a different way. It’s a story about outcasts, and how hungry we all are for love. Sally Hawkins was tremendous in the lead role, and Michael Stuhlbarg sneakily wormed his way into my heart as Dr. Hoffstetler.

Speaking of tough chicks…

I’ve been a Taylor Swift fan from the beginning, but I’m not against an artist evolving with the times. (I hope to be given that opportunity myself, after all.) Overall, I’ve enjoyed her progression over the years.

That said, I was pretty wary of her latest album, Reputation, after hearing the first couple of songs. It’s not that they were bad, but… The heavy-synth sound is not my thing, and the petty, repetitive lyrics did not impress me.

I’ve now had the chance to listen to the entire album on Spotify, and on the whole I’d say it’s fine. Not great, but fine. The Old Taylor is, contrary to reports, still alive and well (particularly in “Don’t Blame Me” and “Getaway Car”) and the New Taylor is, if not excellent, at least interesting.

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