Sunday, December 31, 2017

When Shoney's Became The Oval Office

Nothing captured the spirit of the USA in 2017 quite like the Rick and Morty Mulan Szechuan Sauce phenomenon. Something that started out as a mildly amusing joke, and which was never meant to be anything more, spiraled out of control, took on a life of its own, attracted the unhealthy attention of the worst kinds of people, and became an embarrassing debacle.  

Friday, December 29, 2017

Best Movies of 2017

2017 was such a stellar year for film, I'm devoting an entire post to the ones I enjoyed the most, in no specific order.

For a while, now, Pedro Almodovar has been dishing out stories which focus on the relationship between mother and child. In my mind, All About My Mother and Volver were partner movies. With Julieta, we have a complete trilogy and, while the first two were great, Julieta is a masterpiece. Almodovar has never been as good, and his storytelling has never been so heartbreakingly real. Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte play the title role, each during different phases of her life, as Julieta's story unfolds. It's a story in which she is both a daughter, and a mother, and every other part of her life is somehow affected by one of these roles, or both. If Almodovar decides to hang it up and call it a day with this movie, no one could blame him. It's perfect. Watching Julieta feels less like seeing a movie than it does like reading a diary. 

Roger Mitchell's My Cousin Rachel presents Daphne du Maurier's vision as we've never seen it, before. Rachel Weisz's Rachel is uncompromising, unapologetic, and downright subversive. One doesn't usually think of du Maurier's women as empowered, or in any way feminist, but this film flips the traditional notion of her characterization of women on its ear. I find it cringeworthy that this film was promoted as a romance. It's not a romance. It's almost a protest film. If there's a love story here, it's the love story between a woman and the ownership she claims of her own body and sexuality. Don't tune in looking for neat, happy endings - you won't find any here. You also won't find a female lead who accepts without question what the men around her decide what her life should be like.

If you've heard that Logan is a great superhero movie, that's not quite true. Logan is a great movie, full stop. It's the movie that shows us just how good a movie based on characters from the world of comic books can be. It shows us that a movie with these origins can stand up next to the best movie of any kind, and more than hold its own. Forget about mutants and super powers and the X Men. This is a movie about fathers and their children. It's about taking care of our parents when they can't take care of themselves. It's about taking responsibility for those to whom we are leaving this mess of a world. It's about facing one's own mortality, wondering if one's life has even mattered, and finding ways to make one's last days count. Damn it - it's about carrying one's self with dignity and grace in a world where such concepts are no longer respected. Jackman and Stewart are miraculous. I've seen it several times. I've cried, every time. 

Angela Robinson's Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is one of those movies that was hardly promoted, at all. Which means if you didn't see in a theater the weekend it opened, you didn't get to see it, at all. What little promotion it did receive focused on the fact that the characters involved worked together to create the comic book superheroine, Wonder Woman. Thing is, this movie is about those three people, but this movie is not about Wonder Woman. Not really. It's about living life on one's own terms, bucking convention, not giving in to fear and hatred, and about welcoming love, even when it comes in an unconventional package. Deeply moving, this film stayed with me for days after I saw it. Rebecca Hall, who is always good, is downright mesmerizing. She should win all the awards. She won't, but she should. 

Jordan Peele's Get Out caught us all by surprise. Who the hell expected one of the most brilliant films to come along in years to 1) be a horror film and 2) be written and directed by a guy who is well known for sketch comedy? But that's not even a fair question, because this isn't a traditional horror movie, and it's not without its laughs. It's like nothing else we've seen, before. It's not just horror. It's biting social commentary. It's a tragedy. It's a thriller. It's gut-wrenching. Peele is quoted as having referred to it as a documentary. If you've seen it, chances are you know what he means. If you haven't seen it, no one should tell you; you should pay to see it, yourself. Jordan Peele is the filmmaker to watch out for. If this is how he starts out a career in writing and directing, I cannot imagine what he does for an encore. 

Another from the "if you blinked, you missed it" category: Aisling Walsh's Maudie, a film based on the life of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis. Sally Hawkins, who has been one of filmdom's quiet treasures for a good ten years, now, is just great as the title character - a woman who, despite living in constant pain, and suffering all manner of hardship, viewed the world with wonder, and captured that sense of wonder in her art. Sherry White's screenplay is uncompromising. She doesn't sugarcoat the truly ugly, disturbing details of Maud Lewis's life and marriage. Instead, she does what Maud Lewis, herself was so good at; she shows us there are beauty and wonder to be experienced in the most unlikely places, under the most unlikely circumstances. Ethan Hawke, who is not my favorite actor, is great in this. Honorable mention to Kari Matchett, who makes the most of a small, but pivotal, role. She's an actor to watch out for. 

Since I'm singing the praises of Sally Hawkins, it makes for a great segue to Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water. The film borrows heavily from one of my favorite novels, Rachel Ingalls' Mrs. Caliban, (if you haven't read it, do so - you will not regret it) which worried me, at first. And then I saw it. I need not have worried. This is magical realism at its most accessible. So much more than a love story, this is a film about outsiders and those who would squash them out of fear of - and contempt for - that which is different. It's a celebration of anti-fascism. The good guys here aren't superheroes with other-worldly powers, though. In this world, The Man is, well...The Man. But the heroes? A woman who is mute. A lonely, aging homosexual. A working class black woman. A scientist who actually cares about doing the right thing. And, yes, a sea creature who, like so many people in the real world, just wants to be left alone to live his life, instead of being exploited and tortured. In a year full of great films, this one might be the most beautiful. 

We waited. And waited. And waited. When this film finally arrived, there was a collective sigh of relief from so many of us. Behind that sigh: it was worth the wait. Patty Jenkins brought us the Wonder Woman of our dreams: beautiful, strong, thoughtful, decent, brave, full of heart. Gal Gadot was perfectly cast. There's not much about this film that hasn't been said, but I'm not sure many men actually get how or why this movie is so important to so many women. Men have had dozens of superhero movies. Superman, Batman, Thor, Ironman, Wolverine, Spiderman.... Women? We really haven't had this on the big screen, before. Not like this. Diana Prince kicked ass, and it was gorgeous. A triumph for girls and women everywhere. More of this, please. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

2017: The Year in Review

Not my usual breakdown. For me, 2017 will forever be the year that two hurricanes tore through the island my family has called home for 500+ years....

.....the year that, when the U.S. gov't, FEMA, and Donald Trump failed Puerto Rico during her hour of greatest need, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz stepped up and showed us what compassion, strength, leadership, heart, and courage look like. They look like a Puerto Rican woman.

It's been the year when adversity brought us heroines from unlikely places. For using her money and connections to deliver aid in person, and raise awareness about how the world has failed Puerto Rico, there will be a seat for Bethenny Frankel at every Puerto Rican table, until the day she dies. 

In 2017, Jose Andres stepped up, rolled up his sleeves, fed the people of Puerto Rico, and gave new meaning to the term "rock star chef."

It was the year that Lin-Manuel Miranda got together with the Hispanic world's favorite sons and daughters and did this. If you're Puerto Rican and hearing the name of your family's hometown sung by Ednita Nazario or JLo or Juan Luis Guerra doesn't make your heart skip a beat, check your pulse. 

It was the year that I was truly ashamed - for the first time in my life - to be American, but prouder than ever to be Puerto Rican. 

Puerto Rico se levanta! 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

What's So Wonderful About Wonder Woman?

My friend, Tom, posed a question on Facebook: what is that people find so interesting about Wonder Woman? Now, before anyone gets into an uproar, know this: Tom is a comic book aficionado who doesn't find Wonder Woman to be a very interesting character. This does not make him a misogynist, and this question was asked in earnest; Tom has a long list of female superheroes who who finds to be more interesting and/or dynamic than Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. So, yes: chill out.

It was a fair enough question. It made me think. I am not a huge comic book fan, but I grew up sporadically reading the major titles and following the major characters. When it came to Wonder Woman, I'm also just the right age to have watched the television show, which was one of my favorites. I loved Wonder Woman. I still do. But why? Until my friend posed this question, I'd never given it much thought beyond the whole "she's a cool woman who kicks ass" angle and, let's face it, as Tom points out, there are other women in the world of comics who kick ass. I also love Jean Grey, but not the way I love Diana Prince/Wonder Woman which is weird because, in the entire comic book universe, X-Men is my favorite thing. Yet, my love for Diana Prince/Wonder Woman is steadfast and true. Why?

It came to me, suddenly.

Wonder Woman is essentially an immigrant narrative. Diana Prince is an immigrant who adopts the USA as her own, and does so with a vengeance. This appeals to me, I think, because I'm the first generation in my family born on mainland US soil, and raised with English as my first language. I'm the child of people from another place, who spoke another language, knew an entirely different culture, landed here without a word of English, and eventually grew up to wholeheartedly embrace every good thing about this country, even though they got called "spic." Even though they sometimes got the side-eye for being different. Even though the way they did things did not always fit in with their new surroundings.

My mother, who landed in NYC without one word of English, and who brought with her 'strange' ideas from the Caribbean ended up becoming the most kick-ass New Yorker, ever. No one had more street savvy. No one knew the subway system better than she did. No one had that New Yorker bullshit detector as finely tuned as she did. That's my mother's story. It's also Diana Prince's story.

If I love Wonder Woman, I don't have much time for Superman. I find him to be a bore. Superman lands on earth, in the USA, as a baby. He knows no other reality than that of being a milk-fed boy raised in the heartland. He is, for all intents and purposes, the all-American boy who grows up to be the all-American hero. He is dropped here and his destiny is somewhat preordained. Diana Prince, by stark contrast, makes deliberate choices which land her here as a grown woman. A foreigner in a strange land. She's the mother of all American immigrants and, like so many immigrants, she chooses a life of service to her new homeland, in the name of defending democracy.

There is something about this that is, and always has been, really attractive to me, although I'd never articulated it before Tom posed the question about Wonder Woman, and why she has such a huge and devoted following. The appeal, for me, anyhow, can be boiled down to this: Wonder Woman is an immigrant who embodies every good American value, and not really one of the crappy ones. She's my mother.