Blues Groove Film Reviews

a solitary perspective of independent and world cinema

Orange is the New Black: Season Four

I wasn’t the biggest fan of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK when it first debuted on Netflix. To me, it was simply a show featuring a privileged white woman navigating prison life while trying to understand her relationship with the ex-girlfriend. And that annoying guy from AMERICAN PIE played her husband. However, the past two seasons were beginning to shed light on issues that really need attention in our polarized society. The writers started to flesh out the lives of other characters besides Piper Chapman and deeply examine the corporatization of prisons in the United States.

But Season Four just dropped all the balls as the writers attempted to juggle too many conflicts at once, badly mishandling sensitive topics for the sake of shock value. The show has fallen into the same trap in which so many other stories on television have plunged. Mainstream America gets a kick off of the horrifying conclusion to the season, but those who have experienced real trauma only find that their feelings have been exploited by entertainers.

Important societal issues surface in the first half of the season: race relations, stop and frisk, prison overcrowding, tribalism, and rape. The characters develop in promising directions that prompt us to think about their roles. Due to her new job, Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) has the opportunity to influence Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), the new warden and “Director of Human Activity.” Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) reflects on what is means to be Dominican and tries to unite her fellow Latinas. Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), the most complex character of the show, has a new relationship with Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), one of the few Asian prisoners. It is a bond in which we see so many barriers fall. Black and brown characters are reclaiming space, getting a chance to voice their frustrations, and finding opportunities to do something about them. Furthermore, Piper (Taylor Schilling), is beginning to realize that she has to be more responsible with her words and actions. She is also understanding that race does matter even though we don’t want it to. Rape, an act of violence that is commonly overused in television, is deconstructed through conversations between Tiffany Dogget (Taryn Manning) and Carrie “Boo” Black (Lea DeLaria) rather than simply being exploited as a device. But that conversation, like all the other plot lines, goes sour.

The season begins to unravel quickly after Ruiz and her “gang” brand a swastika on Piper’s arm after she unwittingly starts a white supremacy group. While it was certainly gut-wrenching watching Schilling scream as hot metal burns her skin, I couldn’t help but wonder: what was the point? Nothing was gained by the audience. No lessons are learned either in this fictional world. Ruiz is now perceived by the world to be ruthlessly cold and Piper simply ends up spending the following two episodes crying on Alex’s shoulder, wishing that she would’ve been a better friend. She doesn’t learn shit about race. From that point on, all the characters for whom we were rooting become terrible, pathetic people who make all the wrong decisions. While all characters don’t need to be lovable and heroic, what happens is insane and insensitive. Dogget ends up falling in love with her rapist who is apologetic and wants forgiveness. Caputo, who spends the entire season reflecting on his role as a leader in a corrupt system, ends up screwing over all the women he has been trying to protect. If those were shots in the leg, here’s when that leg gets amputated…

Poussey is killed… not by one of the racist, psychotic guards but by a naïve, well-meaning guard – and you have to be kidding me -- on accident. What kind of messaging is this? Especially in an era in which we’ve seen the deaths of so many young black people in the hands of white cops. The young white guard, named Baxter Bayley (Alan Aisenburg), doesn’t even realize that he is suffocating Poussey as he is trying to get Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba) off his back. And it’s pretty clear that the writers portray Bayley as being unintentional in his actions. While we want justice brought against the other asshole guards who are clearly abusing their positions of power, we are now forced to feel for this young man who has had such an insignificant part in this show. He is suddenly boosted into the spotlight. This is NOT the right message in a time when there are so many authority figures who have intentionally abused and murdered black lives, using “self-defense” and “on accident” as an excuse. No justice has been witnessed in actual society and this “ground-breaking” show is not providing it either. Right now, people of color in the United States are angry and they want to see abusive people brought down. What they don’t want to do is to spend time figuring out how to feel about a young white boy who didn’t mean to do anything harmful.

And so we are robbed of the chance to even ponder our feelings for Poussey’s story -- her prospects in life, her relationship with Soso, her complex identity. We don’t get to continue these discussions because she’s DEAD. She’s not part of the equation anymore and the show will move on with Bayley’s story. Poussey served as the bridge between so many different cultures. She defied stereotypes and inspired others to rise above their challenges. In the most disgusting manner, her body was left on the floor of the dining hall for hours similar to Michael Brown’s body, which lay for four hours on the hot pavement after his death. While people need to be reminded of these tragedies, it is irresponsible to show such disrespect to a body while providing no way out of the grief. The writers didn’t give viewers any path toward hope, which is a demoralizing message to those fighting for justice and equity.

Maybe the show will redeem itself in the next season although it’s really hard to see how they are going to write their way out of this mess. In case you’re wondering, I’ll be watching the next season. I’m not the type to dump something that is still developing, especially when I know that the creators, writers, and actors on the show are empathetic people who really do want to make a difference. This is not to excuse their misguided ideas. Let’s just hope that they spend time examining their choices and listening to the critiques of their botched creation.

Fresh Off the Boat
ABC Network
Starring Constance Wu, Randall Park, Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler, and Ian Chen

I was nervous about Eddie Huang’s new show – very nervous. As an the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who simply wanted (and still wants) to pursue her passions without any kind of judgment, I was petrified that ABC’s newest sitcom, FRESH OFF THE BOAT, would bring back my childhood insecurities of being Asian-American.

For most of my life, I simply wanted to be left alone to pursue my various interests, but I found that my race sometimes complicated these pursuits – I can’t be sure whether those obstacles were self-derived or societal or both.

Huang, the celebrity chef, author, and son of Taiwanese immigrants, knows what I’m talking about. Hudson Yang, who plays the younger version of Huang in the show that is based off his bestselling memoir, announces to his on-set parents, “I got big plans” (He’s alluding to his favorite rapper, Nas). I get what the little man is saying – let me do my thing. However, when the show’s trailer first came out, I only wanted to scream to the world: They aren’t like me. This isn’t my family. Mostly, I was trying to express: Don’t think we’re all the same.

While Huang’s show does highlight some of my own past conflicts growing up Asian in America, I was petrified by unnerving anticipation of HOW the writers would portray these experiences. The way a primetime television show paints the lives of those who have been traditionally marginalized can either relieve the rampant identity crises of people of similar backgrounds, or it can add more doubt and reflective anxiety. Twenty years ago, the network’s last attempt at including Asian-Americans in mainstream media, ALL AMERICAN GIRL, forced people like me into hiding.

After reading multiple articles both championing and chastising Fresh Off the Boat, I had to know what ABC churned out. I took the plunge and watched the first two episodes, anticipating bad cultural jokes and stereotypical portrayals that would make me pull out my hair.
Two episodes later, I’m sad to announce that there were plenty of bad cultural jokes and stereotypical portrayals. I found my hands covering my face every time Mrs. Huang (Constance Wu) pulled a Tiger Mom maneuver on her family, expertly manipulating situations to her liking. After Amy Chua’s infamous article in the Wall Street Journal, I hoped to never see another mother publicly touting the benefits of controlling her children’s lives. Easy comedy was found in Eddie’s lunch of Chinese noodles, his parents’ disappointment with the lax environment of American public school, and the other usual cultural clashes we’ve come to expect.

Despite all of this, I wasn’t pulling out my hair by end of Episode 2. In fact, I cheered when the same mother who forced her three children to enroll in the Chinese Learning Center knocks out a dishonest teenager with an onion after he and his friends left the family’s restaurant without paying. I nodded in agreement when Eddie’s parents defended him for fighting a boy that called him a chink. Eddie’s optimistic father, played by The Interview’s Randall Park, is one of the most complex characters of the bunch. Mr. Huang aggressively takes on his white acquaintances, cutting deals and forging connections left and right. He is doing what all immigrants have had to do to ensure survival in the United States. He’s a risk-taker, someone who is not afraid to make his mark in unfamiliar territory and is not afraid of changing himself to adapt to new circumstances. However, he is also a man of compassion and has sincere empathy for others, especially those who work for him at the restaurant. Eddie’s father is a refreshing contrast to past media portrayals of Asian men as emotionless and misogynistic.

It will take time to see if the show truly changes the public’s perception of Asian-Americans. I still don’t know if I can comfortably hang in Eddie’s world. I don’t know what I’m looking for or if I should be looking for anything at all. Eddie is just incredibly annoying at times, but that’s actually how I feel about the real Eddie Huang when I watch his show on Vice. I feel like he’s trying too hard, but I also admire his "fuck it" attitude that has gotten him where he is. I also like how much he appreciates his family and his heritage despite his criticism of them. On the other hand, I have fallen in love with Eddie's two brothers, Emery and Evan. The contrast between Eddie and his two brothers is compelling, as each of the three siblings has his own way of surviving the alabaster landscape of Orlando, Florida. '

I want Eddie to be something more. And maybe that’s just unfair.

In interviews, the real Eddie Huang has subconsciously revealed the mind-blowing identity crisis that many Asian-Americans face. In Vulture’s article titled “Network TV Ate My Life,” Huang contradictorily criticizes the producers and the writers of his show while citing that the show is still ground-breaking. It seems that many Asian-Americans don’t seem to know who they are and what they believe. They are accepted in the mainstream on one level, but are rejected on another.

What this show has done -- simply by its existence – is prompt me to think about myself and those who are like me. Moreover, the hype, the praise, and the criticism has encouraged the public to re-examine their perspectives of people. Like any piece of art that explores the sensitive subject of race, each joke on the show evokes some kind of self-reflection: Is this racist? Am I too sensitive? What is acceptable? What is not acceptable?

I’ve decided that I don’t have to love the show or hate it. I want to simply absorb what I see, think about how the story is told, and consider whether I’d tell it the same way. But I hate the title. While Huang has claimed to reclaim the term, F.O.B., it’s a source of pain for anyone of immigrant background who has had to navigate his or her way through the complicated spaces of American life.

Articles to consider:
Eddie Huang's article in VULTURE MAGAZINE:

Life Itself - Steve James - 2014
Directed by Steve James
Starring Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Richard Corliss, Marlene Siskel, A.O. Scott, Ava DuVernay, Errol Morris

When I was nineteen, I had lunch with Roger Ebert when he was still a relatively healthy man. I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, Ebert’s alma mater, studying literature with an emphasis in film studies. Every year, Ebert took a trip to his hometown of Champaign-Urbana to talk about films at the Overlooked Film Festival. As part of the camera crew that was filming Ebert’s interviews with guest stars, I had the privilege of eating pizza with the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, a man I had watched on television during lazy weekend afternoons as a child. When I told him that I was majoring in “Comp. Lit.,” he gave me a puzzled look and asked “What is that? Computer literature?” Afraid that I had insulted him, I quickly explained that I was getting a degree comparative literature, which prompted the bespectacled man to launch into a mini lecture about the importance of the humanities. I was secretly delighted that there were several engineering majors in the group who felt uncomfortable afterward.

To be honest, I snubbed Ebert for some time after I became a kind of film snob in high school, touting foreign and independent cinema and ridiculing anything Hollywood. To me, Siskel and Ebert, fortified by their signature “Two Thumbs Up,” were critics for mainstream audiences. I was young, angst-ridden, and “beyond” trends and popular media. I chose Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, highly intellectual, obsessively detailed film critics, as my idols – not that I actually understood anything they wrote. To this day, I’m not quite sure I can fully get through an article by Kael.

Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival, an effort to highlight independent and international films that weren’t popular (at the time), changed my mind about what kind of film lover Roger Ebert was. It was at that festival that I watched the Taiwanese film, BLUE GATE CROSSING, which became one of my favorite films of all time. He also further promoted the work of Hayao Miyazaki – now an internationally famous animator – to American audiences. I watched SPIRITED AWAY on big screen, amazed by the humanity and artistry in Miyazaki’s animation. Up to that point, I had only been exposed to American cartoons and Disney films, which I didn’t find all that meaningful. The most exciting part of the festival was that Ebert invited his celebrity friends to join the conversation about good filmmaking. This was a BIG deal for a small Midwestern town surrounded by cornfields. I had the honor of filming Ebert’s interview with Billy Crudup after a screening of JESUS’ SON.

When Ebert passed away in 2013 after a long battle with cancer, I felt a kind of loss that was almost personal. This was a person I had grown up watching on the tube (my parents’ television only had three watchable channels) and had later met face to face. We had walked the same university halls and sat in the same classrooms, decades apart. I obsessively read the school newspaper, The Daily Illini, of which he was once the editor. I didn’t realize how much Ebert had influenced me until his death.

So by the time I watched Steve James’ documentary, LIFE ITSELF, based off of Ebert’s memoir with the same title, I already felt a strong connection with the subject. While I knew the film would be informative, I didn’t know it would break me down emotionally. After watching Ebert’s life unfold on screen, I walked away entirely appreciative of the experiences with which I have been blessed, grateful of all the people I have met that have helped shape me into who I am today, and more motivated than ever to continue writing regardless of my abilities. Even though film criticism dominated Ebert’s life, James doesn’t focus on deconstructing Ebert’s incredible capabilities as an analyst and writer. Instead, he emphasizes Ebert’s humanness – his triumphs and failures as a professional, a colleague, a son, a husband, and a friend.

The documentary is framed through Ebert and his devoted wife’s fight against cancer. With this backdrop, James weaves in stories about Ebert’s childhood, family, and professional career. How Ebert and his wife, Chaz, chose to deal with ramifications of this disease is the most fascinating part of the film. While Ebert’s esteemed colleague, Gene Siskel, quietly passed away in 1999 from brain cancer without publicly disclosing his illness, Ebert decided to document his struggles through writing, interviews, conferences, and this film. Ebert, who was unaware of Siskel’s condition at the time, was traumatized by his partner’s death and he vowed to openly share the news if he were ever put in the same position. In 2002, he would suffer a blow similar to his colleague’s: thyroid cancer. In the passing years, he would survive a burst carotid artery and a cancerous hip fracture among other health problems. His entire jaw was eventually removed, restricting him to a computerized voice system. Yet, it was in this period of immense pain that Ebert took to blogging and social media, writing some of his best work to date. Despite the depiction of suffering, LIFE ITSELF is really about the writer’s celebration of life.

Ebert lived a very full life even when so many of his physical abilities were taken from him. He watched and wrote about more films than any other critic in history. He won numerous awards and even wrote a Hollywood screenplay (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS). His friends were celebrated artists and thinkers. He traveled. He eventually met the love of his life. Together, they raised several step-children and grandchildren. He was willing to help James make this documentary even when he couldn’t physically speak and was confined to a chair. He also wasn’t afraid to die since he viewed death as playing a very necessary role in living.

After watching the documentary, I didn’t feel sad, at least not in the way I felt after find out about Ebert’s passing on April 4, 2013. Rather, I felt inspired, hopeful, alive, and motivated. I had the urge to write. I had the urge to read. I had the urge to observe and to listen and to speak. When I was young and naïve, desperately hoping to be a great artist one day, I shrugged off Roger Ebert as a writer who pandered to the mainstream. Now, I realize that Ebert inspired the mainstream to observe life more meaningfully. Unlike so many in academics, he knew how to speak to the masses. He fought against the snobbery of Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss and those like Pauline Kael. He was inclusive, not exclusive. He watched everything and wrote about everything.

A non-judgmental critic. Is there such a thing? Sure, why not?

Like all writers, there are periods of time when I am incredibly insecure about my work. At least I’m writing. Don’t ever tell me that I shouldn’t speak my mind. The most important I learned from Roger Ebert? BE BRAVE.

Dope - Rick Famuyiwa - 2015
Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa
Starring Shmeik Moore, Kiersey Clemons, Tony Revolori, Rakim Mayers, Blake Anderson

Inglewood, California – also known as “The Wood” – is the setting of Rick Famuyiwa’s latest comedy, DOPE. In the early nineties, John Singleton unveiled this Southwestern Los Angeles County city to audiences worldwide through his acclaimed debut, BOYZ N THE HOOD, which also ironically bolstered its reputation as a violent area dominated by gang activity. While violence is certainly visible in Inglewood, Famuyiwa paints a slightly more complex picture of his hometown in his fourth project.

In DOPE, Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), and Jib (Tony Revolori) are three self-proclaimed geeks who are navigating their way through the diverse landscape of their neighborhood. It’s fair to say that they are noticeably different than most of their peers. They adore classic 90’s hip-hop, play in a punk band, read manga, and take their SAT’s very seriously. While their neighbors and their classmates attend parties, do drugs, and get involved in criminal affairs, the three friends are focused on going to college.

Malcolm, the main protagonist, has his eyes set on Harvard, even though his college counselor balks at the idea of a black kid from a single-parent household attending an Ivy League school. “You go to high school in Inglewood. You think you’re going to Harvard?” the counselor says, and proceeds to tell Malcom that his 4.0 means absolutely nothing. But the beauty of Malcom is that he accepts the challenges of his environment while being fully aware of his great potential. He moves forward in pursuit of his dreams regardless of what others think or say. This is until he finds himself accidentally mixed up in a drug deal involving a neighborhood dealer named Dom (Rakim Mayers) who hides a huge stash of powdered molly in his backpack. Treading on dangerous ground, Malcolm is forced to conform to the situation. As his hopes of going to college are slowly fading, he struggles to figure out a way to defuse the problem (and keep himself from getting killed) while preparing for his future as a collegiate scholar.

What is a promising start to the film slowly fizzles into a confusing maze that involves the three main characters trying to dodge death. The first part of the film presents the conflicting facets of Malcolm’s, Diggy’s, and Jib’s identities and portrays how their personalities make them oddities in their environment. Their struggles to reconcile the different aspects of their lives – school, gangs, parents, sexuality, future aspirations, and peer pressure – are inspiring. However, the story takes an awkward turn when the three amigos arrive at the mansion of a business tycoon named A.J. after receiving instructions from Dom to drop off the drugs there. A.J. isn’t home, so the crew ends up recording music with A.J.’s entitled son, Jaleel. Soon thereafter, Diggy and Jib find themselves in a shootout at a fast food restaurant while picking up grub with Jaleel; all the while, Malcolm is being seduced by Jaleel’s sister who – in some crazy turn of events – ends up peeing publicly on the sidewalk after getting extremely high off of the molly she found earlier in Malcolm’s backpack. While her shameful act plays a part in pushing the plot forward, the comedy of it all feels rather forced.

The plot becomes even more nonsensical from here, which is somewhat acceptable only because DOPE is a comedy as much as it is a critique on society’s ills. The main plot line continues with the three friends trying to sell the drugs, using their school as a narcotics lab, the internet as a marketplace, bitcoin as currency, and white kids as customers. However, there are other plot lines that complicate the main one, making the film feel rather uneven. I’m not convinced that DOPE needs a love story. I mean, there's already the drug dealing, the chase for college, the battle for recognition, the preservation of young life in a dangerous world... At some point, it all becomes just too much. In addition, the film is stylistically inconsistent, which surprisingly worked for me. MTV-style pop-up commentary, split frames, mockumentary-like confessionals, musical bits, and action sequences are all mixed together, as if Famuyiwa was trying to tell a tale that fit every genre. The visual mashup actually kept me on my toes just as I was starting to lose it with the plot.

While the story is unbalanced and even ridiculous at points, the film is saved by compelling key characters who are empowered by their deep beliefs, morals, and ambitions. The young actors cast by Famuyiwa give brilliant performances, embodying the quirkiness of their characters. By the end of the journey, you can’t help but respect the tenacity of these three besties in spite of their nerdiness and over-the-top lingo. The film also sends a powerful message about stereotyping. All of the main characters break clichés: Malcolm is an exceptionally smart African-American male who can also hang with the gangbangers in his neighborhood; Diggy is a lesbian who dresses like a boy, but she isn’t afraid of taking advantage of her feminine features when she wants something; and Jib is Latino, yet he “feels” black. All three are first and foremost geeks. The director’s point? Blanket judgement is bad. People are complicated. Famuyiwa literally stuffs this in your face through Malcolm’s epic of a college personal statement at the end of the film. As much as art snobs despise blatant messaging, the topics of how we perceive others and how we perceive ourselves need to be in our daily conversations as we try to understand the modern-day tensions involving race, gender, class, and politics in America.

Black Coal, Thin Ice - Diao Yi-Nan - 2014
San Francisco International Film Festival 2015
Pacific Film Archive

Written & directed by Diao Yi-Nan
Starring Fan Liao, Lun Mei Gwei, and Xuebing Wang

Presented the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, BLACK COAL, THIN ICE is Diao Yi-Nan’s third narrative film. The Chinese writer-director fabricates a premise that is haunting, but the outcome is one that highlights the absurdity of modern life in China, a country that is struggling to figure out its moral compass and identity. While particular scenes are comical in nature, it becomes hard to laugh when the situation becomes more and more perverse, creating an experience that leaves knots in one’s stomach.

It’s 1999. Human body parts are discovered by workers in a coal plant in Northern China, and Zhang Zili (Fan Liao) is the cop assigned to figure out what happened. After identifying the dead man as Liang Zhi - Jun and apprehending the possible suspects, all of Zhang’s hard work crumbles in a fatal shoot out that leaves suspects and several police members dead. Years later, a heavyset and perturbed Zhang revisits the case with his ex-partner after a string of murders are connected to Liang’s wife (Taiwanese actress Gwei Lun-Mei), a clerk at a laundry and clothing repair shop.

Zhang goes underground, posing as a customer who needs his clothes cleaned. It is obvious that he is attracted to Liang’s wife, Wu Zhi-Zen, and he isn’t the only one. It seems that Wu has had several men -- including the shop owner -- court her since she became a widow. Zhang’s intentions become more and more ambiguous as he continues to follow Wu. Does he really want to solve this case or is he just chasing the girl?

Wu is even harder to read. Her deadpan expression throughout the entire film adds to her mystery as the story’s femme fatal. She doesn’t appear to like Zhang back, but she eventually agrees to work with him. Although Wu isn’t given many lines throughout the film (her accent is also very much Taiwanese), her character becomes the most compelling as we try to figure out her agenda – if she even has one. While there are moments where we don’t trust her, Diao also sheds sympathetic light on her. She is alone, at the mercy of different men who want her and show their lust in nefarious ways.

While there is forward action, Diao makes us pause to reflect on the daily existence of Chinese people, including those who are in positions of authority like Zhang and his partners. This isn’t a polished Hong Kong gangster flick. Nothing is dramatized; the characters don’t take themselves seriously and simply move along as one would in life. They smoke cigarettes, eat watermelon, tidy up their work spaces, converse with colleagues about arbitrary topics, endure minor injuries while trying to fufill their daily tasks. The contrast between old and new is also apparent, as nightclubs and flashy hairdos stand out among the worn-down apartments and traditional street life.

The filmmaking is impeccable and every element is deliberate, down to the stains on the bed sheets. Diao is known for his long takes. He purposely distances the viewer from the actors, and we become observers. He does not want audiences to live vicariously through the characters. Rather, he wants us to critique them.

Boyhood - Richard Linklater - 2014
Written and directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater

When Richard Linklater wrote BEFORE SUNRISE, he never thought that the story would go any further, but BEFORE SUNSET and BEFORE MIDNIGHT followed. The whole trilogy was made in a span of 18 years, but the latter two films were impulsive projects that were made out of random inspiration. He was lucky that the two leads, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, wanted to continue the project. With BOYHOOD, Richard Linklater purposely took 12 years to make this coming-of-age film. Each year, he met with the stars of the film to shoot another segment of the story. Although the film appears to be a loose collection of scenes, there is a clear beginning, middle, and end. In an interview with BACKSTAGE, Linklater tells author Tim Grierson that this was a “storytelling methodology,” which was “the only way to tell this.”

Linklater is what I call a true "visionary."

Brilliant when writing about the ordinary, Linklater paints a touching portrait of a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) trying to make sense of his environment. Set in various cities in the director’s home state of Texas, the film also unmasks the diversity of Texans as they react and adapt to the changing world.

It’s good to see Patricia Arquette on screen again, as well as Ethan Hawke, a Linklater staple. I grew up watching the veteran actors play youthful, restless characters (TRUE ROMANCE, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, DEAD POETS SOCIETY, REALITY BITES) and it’s sometimes hard to see them as adult adults. As Mason’s divorced parents, they bring maturity to a film largely focused on young people.

Mason is only five years old when we meet him. He loves video games and gets into fights with his feisty older sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter). The world begins to become a more complex place as he reconnects with his adventure-seeking father and as he experiences new settings with his nomadic mother who is trying to find stability in her life. Alcoholic stepfathers only complicate the picture.

Mason and his sister, Samantha, are rebellious, but not more than most American teenagers. They experience bouts of frustration and self-doubt. They drink, smoke, date, and anguish over breakups. They want to fit in with everyone else, but they are also forming their own strong opinions about the world. Mom and Dad also are also evolving along with the kids. The genius of Linklater is that he makes this normalcy entertaining.

The film is surprisingly funny while it uncovers the harder truths about life. It’s not as deep, dark, and serious as one would expect. While the main characters are portrayed in as natural of a state as possible (their lines appear reactionary as opposed to crafted), the comical subsidiary characters are slightly exaggerated caricatures of distinct American archetypes: the flirty professor, the brutish bully, the war veteran, the shotgun-wielding rancher, the guy who still proudly hangs his Confederate flag. These people really do exist and are part of our American fabric (even though some of us hope we are nothing like them).

Linklater is not trying to show us unique perspectives that we haven’t seen before. Even the soundtrack is composed of songs that have probably graced on our playlists as some point. BOYHOOD simply a film, built off of moments and of unspoken inner struggle, about growing up (pretty radical that Ellar Coltrane was growing up while he was making this film, which ends when his character is eighteen years old). As vague as the premise sounds, it takes a lot of skill and a lot of work to make a story about just living worth others’ time.

In depicting a life, the director had to make his project at the pace of life. There's not too much more to say about this film except that you should experience it. I'm sure there's something to which every American can relate.

Some reviewers have called BOYHOOD a masterpiece. I tend to stay away from that word when writing reviews, but it’s hard not to describe the outcome as such.

Grierson, Tim. "12 Years of 'Boyhood' with Richard Linklater." N.p., 30 July 2014. Web. 30 July 2014.

Short Term 12 - Destin Daniel Cretton - 2013
Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring Brie Larson, Kaitlyn Dever, John Gallagher Jr., Frantz Turner, Stephanie Beatriz

SHORT TERM 12 brought back many memories of my ten months working in a RCL 12 (highest level of restriction is 14) group home for girls. Group homes “provide the most restrictive out-of-home placement option for children in foster care… with significant emotional or behavioral problems” (“Group Homes”). I was twenty-two years old – going to school for my Masters degree in Education – and I had the responsibilities of feeding, transporting, providing medication to, and counseling highly disturbed teenagers. Their case files were filled with details of severe abuse, drug addiction, abandonment, poverty, and mental illness. During my graveyard shifts, I was often perturbed by the nocturnal noises I heard and I always left work with great anxiety.

Destin Daniel Cretton captures many of my experiences in his film that is roughly cut and a bit vague in direction but has a whole lot of heart. It sheds light on the difficult work of those who care for foster youth and on the alienation of those who live in foster care.

The film begins with two group home counselors pinning down a prepubescent escapee who is screaming his head off. In most group homes, employees are trained to restrain out-of-control residents. Thank god, I never had to physically hold someone down, but the fact that I was trained to do so shows the extent of the job.

Brie Larson plays Grace, the director a co-ed group home. Her boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), also works there. They are both products of the foster care system, and soon discover that they will also be parents. At work, Grace knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s a confident woman who can manage the most chaotic of events. However, at home with Mason, she’s plagued by insecurities and doubts. Her pregnancy concerns her, most likely because she’s not sure if she would make a good mother after all that she’s seen in the world.

“You kind of have to be an asshole before you can be their friend” is the advice Grace gives a new employee named Nate. As inhuman as it sounds, the system’s priority is keeping kids safe. Considering their backgrounds, the most dangerous threat is often not external but internal.

At the group home where I worked, all closets and drawers were locked because you never knew if a resident was going to steal a pair of scissors to cut themselves, stab another resident, or stab you out of anger. You were constantly watching to see if a resident was on the verge of nervous breakdown, paranoid whether you left anything out in open by accident -- like that bottle of bleach after clean-up -- because she could pour it down her throat out of frustration. Doubts followed you throughout each shift. Did they thoroughly swallow their meds? Did I check the backpacks after they came back from school? Were the people who called on the approved list? Hardly any of my co-workers stayed at the job for more than a year.

When Jayden arrives at Grace’s group home, Grace’s self-assurance completely crumbles. The gloomy young girl reminds Grace of her teenage self. The protective walls that separate Grace's current life from her tumultuous past begin to fall as she gets to know Jayden. Being a product of the system herself, Grace begins to spiral out of control and is plagued by old feelings that haven’t surfaced for years. She becomes child-like at one point, regressing into the angry teenager that she once was.

Affection is important, but it can often have more of a negative effect than a positive one if you don’t know to provide it responsibly. You never want to get too close. Attachment often means that you are taking work home with you.

It’s hard not to make this line of employment personal, especially if you’ve been through it yourself. There were too many moments during my job that brought back memories of my own upsetting childhood. Anger, regret, and sadness would often flood the perimeters of my sanity. However, I had to get it together. We all have to grow up at some point.

But Cretton shows us that it’s not easy to give up these ghosts. The mere level of stress working in this type of environment can break a person, emotionally and physically.

While it provides shelter and protection, the system also doesn’t necessarily provide the mental support, the education, or the love needed to be a healthy human being. SHORT TERM 12 exposes a messy government-run operation that can hurt more than help. Bureaucracy often leaves those who need protection vulnerable to danger. It takes passionate people like Grace and Mason to fill in the void and do what is right rather than what is expected. In rare cases, breaking protocol can be better for the child than following it, providing nerve-wracking dilemmas for counselors. In Jayden’s case, Grace makes decisions to go around rules, risky moves that would have gotten me fired right away. It seems that Cretton takes artistic liberties with this particular storyline, which veers towards the unbelievable, but it demonstrates how disorienting this type of work can be.

Once, I had to put the entire house on lockdown after one of the residents had threatened me and the other residents. As she was destroying the house, my boss advised me to call the cops. It is an event that still haunts me today. The fourteen-year-old girl was eventually dragged away in handcuffs. The sad part is that I understood her rage (not to mention that being arrested is also an incredibly traumatizing experience). It came down to keeping everyone safe, including myself.

Let’s just say this work can really fuck with your head.

When I finally left the job, I felt aged and experienced in ways that forever changed me as a person. SHORT TERM 12 gave me a chance to reflect on my time as a group home employee and it hopefully shows others how excruciatingly hard it is to do this type of work.

"Group Homes." Department of Social Services., n.d. Web. 25 July 2014.

Ask This of Rikyu - Mitsutoshi Tanaka - 2013
Japan Film Festival of San Francisco 2014
San Francisco Premiere

Directed by Mitsutoshi Tanaka
Starring Ebizo Ichikawa, Miki Nakatani, Nao Omori

Director Mitsutoshi Tanaka had everything he could possibly want in making ASK THIS OF RIKYU: famous actors, skilled extras, fan support, chef with two Michelin stars, national treasures worth up to three million dollars, and a story adored by many in Japan. The film is based on the award-winning novel by Kenichi Yamamoto, but his main character, Rikyu, has been a nationally recognized historical hero for hundreds of years.

A 16th century tea master, Rikyu held the respect of many during his time, including warlords and the notorious Chancellor Hideyoshi. Emphasizing simplicity and honesty, he had significant clout in the implementation of “Way of Tea” (Chanoyu), the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. For Rikyu, beauty lies in the very basic and the imperfect. Still highly influential in the Japanese customs of today, Rikyu’s approach to the art of tea making is less about skill and more about situating oneself in a philosophically sound environment.

Takana begins the film on the day of Rikyu’s suicide, a mandate by the jealous Hideyoshi (Nao Omori) who feels that the tea master has gained too much power. Then, we are reeled back 15 years before he does the deed. In a series of flashbacks segmented by year, the film details Rikyu’s rise in popularity and his evolving relationship with Hideyoshi, who actually greatly admired the philosophical tea master before falling down a path of greed. Yet, the real story, which slowly reveals itself under all the politics of the Momoyama period, resides in the secret love affair that Rikyu has kept hidden from everyone. We are given glimpses of this hidden story through objects before it is finally revealed.

The story itself is nothing that epic despite the prominence of Rikyu’s name. In fact, there are a few overly dramatic scenes that made me wince. Playing the revered tea master, Ebizo Ichikawa is as dominant on screen as he was in Takashi Miike’s HARA-KIRI. However, it is the tea making at transports us into godly realms. The ritual plays a major role in setting the mood of each scene. The activities of folding cloth, scooping tea, pouring water, and whisking the ingredients together enhance the relationships between the master himself and the subsidiary characters: Hideyoshi, Rikyu’s wife, and Rikyu’s previous lover. Every movement is carefully captured and elevated to importance, for it is the “ordinary” that Rikyu cherished more than anything.

Whether it was due to luck or just part of destiny, Tanaka was able to use many of the actual bowls and the very tools that Rikyu used hundreds of years ago. The most expensive bowl was worth three million dollars. Japan’s most celebrated Kabuki actors were also part of the film, performing particular ceremonial movements that only trained professionals can accurately portray. As if that wasn’t sufficient, the celebrated chef of Maruyama restaurant prepared all of the food seen on screen. And to top it off, many of Rikyu’s current followers did whatever was necessary to make sure the film was made. According to the director, without them, the film would not have succeeded. For Tanaka, preciseness was crucial and what we see on screen can only be described as poetic. There is nothing I can write that can capture this beauty. I can only imagine the ecstasy of experiencing Rikyu’s art in person.

I will end with Rikyu’s seven rules of tea making since it says so much about the man and his work:

“First you must make a delicious bowl of tea
lay the charcoal so the water boils
arrange the flowers as they are in the field
in the summer suggest coolness, in the winter, warmth
do everything ahead of time, prepare for rain
and give those with whom you find yourself every consideration.”

Ida - Pawel Pawlikowski - 2014
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Jerzy Trela, Adam Szyszkowski

In showing less, Pawel Pawlikowski has matured since directing a young Emily Blunt in the darkly sensuous MY SUMMER OF LOVE (2004), which is about two young women who dangerously push the boundaries of their friendship. IDA, Pawlikowski’s first film in his native Polish language, shows immense emotional restraint in the depiction of people overcoming heart-wrenching tragedy.

The black and white narrative again stars two women fostering an awkward relationship. Youthful Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is only weeks away from taking her vows at the convent when she is asked to pay a visit to Wanda (Agata Kulesza), her chain-smoking, alcoholic aunt who also happens to be a prominent judge (although you would hardly believe it). Initially strangers, the two embark on a road trip through once Nazi-occupied Poland to rediscover a difficult past buried in folds of World War II.

When Anna knocks on Wanda’s door, the older woman appears, dressed in a robe, smoking a cigarette with a haughty expression that could only be rivaled by Norma Desmond, the bitter ex-movie star from SUNSET BOULEVARD. While one of her lovers is getting dressed in the other room, Wanda reveals rather matter-of-factly that Anna is actually named Ida Lebenstein. “You’re a Jew,” the older woman spits, cruelly pointing out the irony of the young girl’s Catholic calling. After sending a confused Anna / Ida off to the train station without providing any more answers, Wanda later drags Ida back to her place in regret and encourages her to find out the circumstances surrounding her parents’ deaths. The next morning, the reunited family members squeeze themselves into Wanda’s tiny car and Poland of the 1960s fills the screen.

They drive to a village, pinpointing the location where Ida’s parents were hiding two decades before. Each new discovery tortures Wanda who copes by smoking more, drinking more, and brashly encouraging others to join in the debauchery. By this point, it becomes very clear that Wanda is carrying baggage that she is afraid to acknowledge, a secret that will be revealed later. As for Ida, it’s not clear what she’s thinking – she neither talks much nor offers any signs of emotion. This quiet nature, though, is balanced by Trzebuchowska’s intense presence on screen. Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal’s breathtaking cinematography illuminate Ida’s uncertainty and gives the character artistic depth that can’t be portrayed through acting alone.

Shooed off by the owner’s son, the pair drive to a larger city where the owner’s father is dying in the local hospital. They hope he will be the key to unlocking Ida’s past, but they will have to wait some time to see him. Picking up an attractive musician named Lis along the way, the two end up staying in a hotel in which the musician’s band is playing. While Wanda easily slips into flirtatious form for the evening, Anna finds herself conflicted about sexuality.

The opposite personalities of the two women soon clash bitterly as Ida begins to express her disapproval of Wanda’s liberal manners, at first through facial expressions and small physical gestures. She pours herself into prayer, unwilling to let her aunt walk all over her. This is all accompanied by Lis’ beautiful, slow saxophone solos – Coltrane -- that seep in and out of montages. Kulesza is brilliant as Wanda, clearly stealing our attention in the first half of the film, but plain Ida begins to show a lot more color in the second.

The bonding that often occurs through pain eventually brings Wanda and Ida together again once the facts are revealed. However, how does one actually overcome the pain that comes from so much violence and betrayal? While the truth is uplifting for one, it proves to be too much for the other.

IDA is hands-down the most beautiful road trip film I’ve ever seen. Pawlikowski has done a masterful job of pacing, allowing us to thoroughly take in each scene, moving us onto the next just as we begin to get bored. The framing and the angles tell as much of the story as the talented actors. Each shot is carefully composed and every detail is deliberate, yet the entire film evokes stunning visual simplicity, which directly contradicts the emotional complexity of the characters. Paradoxically human. Absolutely beautiful. Cinematography junkies will have a joyride soaking it up.

Dark Girls - Bill Duke & D. Channsin Berry - 2012
Directed by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry

Black women are “the mules of the world,” Zora Neale Hurston proclaimed in her novel, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD. In the societal hierarchy of America’s past (and arguable the present), white men sat on the top rung of the ladder while white women supported them from a rung below; black men were placed near the bottom, but black women were rock bottom, forced to carry both their own burdens and the black men’s burdens of being born with dark skin. It is this identity crisis that DARK GIRLS, the documentary by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry, attempts to deconstruct. Colorism -- discrimination based on skin color – is a disease plaguing many minorities, most often occurring within one's own racial community. While the film largely emphasizes the African-American perspective, everyday Americans of all skin types divulge their honest opinions about color without much inhibition. What surfaces are the insecurities, the fears, and the dregs of racist ideology that we are all responsible for perpetuating.

Let’s be frank -- the global standard for beauty is the white standard of beauty: light skin, straight hair, thin body. In most developing nations where the majority of people are NOT white, whiteness equals perfection. Twisted but very true. In popular media worldwide, lighter-skinned actors and models are featured. Beauty stores all over Asia and Africa carry products that whiten skin so commoners can try to look like those stars they see on billboards, magazines, and television. Strangely enough, progressive whites in the U.S. look largely beyond color, often dangerously succumbing to colorblindness while minorities - minority women in particular - suffer from low self-esteem as a result of discrimination from their own.

DARK GIRLS begins with a young black girl refusing to identify herself as black because she equates it to stupidity and ugliness. Her self-esteem is directly linked to her exterior, and her exterior is pitted against history that demonstrates over and over again that she is not wanted. Moreover, this mentality is reinforced by the older women and the men of her community. In multiple interviews, black mothers admitted that they hoped that their children, especially daughters, would be born with lighter skin. In one discussion around the pool table, several black men openly spout their preferences for lighter-skinned women. So when a young black girl decides that she is not worthy, society has to take a look at how it talks about color in the public sphere.

Darker-skinned people just aren’t represented enough in popular media. If there aren’t successful people out there that look like them, how do young people know that it is possible to achieve more? Young black men only see rappers and athletes and therefore aspire to be such. Young black girls only see lighter-skinned women in the spotlight, so they begin to question their own abilities, underperforming because they feel like they are not expected to achieve more. Similar to the anorexia and bulimia epidemic, colorism is largely propagated by mass media and young people are the most vulnerable victims.

I am not exempt from these trends. As one of two Asian girls in my elementary school’s entire second grade, I always felt… less. My mother still jokes about how I came home from school one day and asked her why I wasn’t born with a pointier nose. To her amusement, I desperately tried to pinch my nose into perkier positions, eventually capitulating to biology. Even though some of my closest friends were Asians, I privately saw them as less until I went to college in the Midwest (and experienced both subtle and blunt racism). Furthermore, I despised other Asians that didn’t grow up in similar wealthy, white-washed landscapes. In fact, my parents had chosen to settle in this rich, less diverse suburb to shelter my brother and me from the academic pressures that festered in school districts where Asian immigrants flocked. At my school, the white kids were always the cooler kids. Among my group of friends, all our celebrity crushes were all white males of whom Abercrombie would highly approve. Interestingly, all of my female Asian friends from grade school are now married to white men, except for me. However, most of the Asian men I know are partnered with Asian women. I no longer feel any embarrassment for being who I am and I don't see race as definitively as I once did, although I recognize that it still plays a major role in social interaction. I now live very happily with a Taiwanese man who was born in Taiwan. Ironically, I was the one who publicly announced in my teenage years that I would never date Asians. And sadly, I've had more than a few Asian friends who have said the same thing.

If I was able to see strong Asian women in the spotlight and in different roles, my impression of my racial heritage probably would have been very different. I remember thinking when Michelle Yeoh became an international superstar after her stint in TOMORROW NEVER DIES, “Wow, she can kick some ass.” I had always seen Asians play passive characters. I was also sick of seeing Asian Americans only pursue fields like engineering, medicine, or science. I was not interested in any of those subjects, and while my parents fully supported my decision to study film and literature, I didn't see the same encouragement from other Asian parents. In the Midwest, I was often the ONLY Asian person in my humanities courses. Asian-Americans are the fastest growing minority group in the U.S., and we need more role models – DIVERSE role models, not just ones that can punch and kick or do math.

Diverse representation is the key. Media has molds and those molds terrorize all minorities who don’t necessarily relate to the experiences of others with the same cultural or racial lineage.

DARK GIRLS offers a wide variety of opinions, but lacks academic support from scholars who study race and culture. The personal stories go a long way though and are highly effective in tapping into the emotions of the viewer. All of us have felt rejection before even if not all of us have felt racial discrimination. The film also goes off on two interesting tangents in its interviews. The first is dating. From the selection of men filmed, the common conclusion is that women are treated better by their white partners than their black partners. Apparently, most black men who date black women consider their partners’ shade of color while most white men who date black women could care less. Sadly, today, racism is often continued by those who have historically been oppressed who take their feelings of shame out on those within the community rather than trying to fight against the greater forces of history and media. The second tangent is white women’s obsession with tanning. Ironic, right?

We can’t ignore race and wipe it away because history has scarred us too deeply to simply just let it go; however, we also can’t always allow race to define who we are. As an interviewee states wisely, “The experiences in your life that have brought you to where you are ultimately matter.” Remember that as the world continues to generalize, categorize, and degrade.


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