Hidden Figures & Figures of Speech: February ’17 in Film

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February proved to be a pretty significant upswing for me in many ways. The most major way involves my personal life – I finally decided to apply for this promotion that I was initially hesitant on. Long story short, I got the job! I won’t start training until next week, but the mere fact that I’ve made some form of notable progress since this time last year – or even in the past two years – is a great confidence booster. My mental health has also improved significantly this year, though this isn’t far from entirely due to said promotion. This month has just been far more successful than the last couple with surrounding myself with good people and good art, as well as keeping myself busy and active in both the real world and with work published on this site.

I’m tempted to say that I did significantly less writing this month (the only list I published this past month was my post on the top 20 hit singles of 2016), but this couldn’t be further from the truth. I am pretty notorious – at least to myself – for falling off of big projects and challenges midway through them. If the tiniest lack of inspiration comes my way, I have a tendency to just throw my arms up and call it a day; there are some unfinished series of posts on this site that demonstrate this wholly. In fact, I may have to forego my planned write-ups on my favorite films and albums of 2016 – the new year is almost a quarter of the way through and making those posts now would just seem awkward and outdated. The lesson for this is that I’ve got to try to start writing these lists as early as possible, maybe even having my best and worst hit singles posts up before the year comes to a close. Maybe this new job of mine will give me a bit more time to work on these later on (I’m seriously so excited, guys!).

On the other hand, although I am currently one day behind on my One Random Single a Day challenge, I’ve kept it up pretty consistently so far! I am about one-sixth of the way finished with the challenge and I’ve already begun to feel kind of burnt out, which it definitely not a good thing. Nonetheless, I’m going to keep on keeping on as long as possible, hopefully all the way until the very end of 2017. That would definitely be an awesome accomplishment that I’d be super proud of.

As far as movie-watching goes, I’ve come to realize that it’s such an unfortunate inconvenience that Oscar month coincides with Black History Month. Every year I promise myself to watch a whole bunch of Black-centered movies, and every year I fall prey to the temptation of watching as many Oscar-nominated films as possible before the awards ceremony. This year, I managed to watch every Best Picture nominee, as well as every film with at least one acting nomination, a goal of which I always tend to fall short every year. My next goal in this field is to watch every Best Picture nominee of the 20th century – I still have about fourteen to get around to!

Despite this binging of Oscar movies, though, I still watched a good amount of movies directed by and starring Black artists and performers. I also am still trying to keep up with the Queer Films Challenge on Letterboxd. I’m a little bit behind on that one, but also feel comfortable going at my own pace with it! In general, I watched an impressive amount of movies this month, especially considering it’s a shorter month than the others. TV and books have taken a bit of a backseat lately (though I did finally get to reading Maya Angelou’s beautiful I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), but perhaps they’ll make a comeback in the following months. I’ve come to accept that there is far too much music out there for me to ever really catch up, but I’m still trying my hardest to stay on time with the biggest releases, especially those that most interest me on a level of personal taste.

Anyway, without further ado, here is the full list of what I watched this past month. Asterisks indicate rewatches, but this month all but one were new-to-me!

  1. Barbershop (Story, 2002)
  2. Morris From America (Hartigan, 2016)
  3. Friday (Gray, 1995)
  4. Hellbound Train (Gist, 1930)
  5. The Impossible (Bayona, 2012)
  6. Lion (Davis, 2016)
  7. Ming tian ji de ai shang wo (Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?) (Chen, 2013)
  8. Michael Bolton’s Big, Sexy Valentine’s Day Special (Aukerman & Schaffer, 2017)
  9. Life, Animated (Williams, 2016)
  10. Hacksaw Ridge (Gibson, 2016)
  11. O.J.: Made in America (Edelman, 2016)
  12. The Lego Batman Movie (McKay, 2017)
  13. Desperately Seeking Susan (Seidelman, 1985)
  14. Marley (Macdonald, 2012)
  15. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (Perkins, 2016)
  16. This is the Life (DuVernay, 2008)
  17. Live and Let Die (Hamilton, 1973)
  18. Hidden Figures (Melfi, 2016)
  19. Song of the Sea (Moore, 2014)
  20. John Wick: Chapter 2 (Stahelski, 2017)
  21. Captain Fantastic (Ross, 2016)
  22. Toni Erdmann (Ade, 2016)
  23. Show Boat (Whale, 1936)
  24. Menace II Society (Hughes & Hughes, 1993)
  25. Phenomenon (Turteltaub, 1996)
  26. Cupcakes (Fox, 2013)
  27. Borrowed Time (Coates & Hamou-Lhadj, 2016)
  28. Pearl (Osborne, 2016)
  29. Piper (Barillaro, 2016)*
  30. Blind Vaysha (Ushev, 2016)
  31. Asteria (Arpentinier et al., 2016)
  32. The Head Vanishes (Dion, 2016)
  33. Once Upon a Line (Jasina, 2016)
  34. Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Valley, 2016)
  35. Mindenki (Sing) (Deák, 2016)
  36. Silent Nights (Bang, 2016)
  37. Timecode (Peña, 2016)
  38. Ennemis Intérieurs (Enemies Within) (Azzazi, 2016)
  39. La femme et le TGV (The Railroad Lady) (von Gunten, 2016)
  40. Inside the Labyrinth (Saunders, 1986)
  41. Cameraperson (Johnson, 2016)
  42. XX (Vuckovic et al., 2017)
  43. Get Out (Peele, 2017)
  44. Florence Foster Jenkins (Frears, 2016)

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As I mentioned, February didn’t become the outright celebration of Black representation in film that I initially wanted it to be. Nonetheless, I still watched eleven films that feature Black people in prominent roles, with the vast majority of them also being written and directed by Black people. While I’m always looking for movies that represent the Black experience without dwelling into harmful tropes and stereotypes, I also tried to seek out films that are accepted into the fold of the Black community as notable pieces of culture and steps in increasing visibility of Black folks in movies. In the case of Menace II Society, I was initially turned off by the amount of hyperbole that went into the story-telling aspects of life in the ghetto, particularly with the western movie-like enthusiasm the characters possess with murdering innocent bystanders to get what they want or need. However, it’s hard not to notice parallels with today’s social climate in the depictions of police brutality and gun violence, which suggest that maybe what I view as exaggerations are really just the day-to-day struggles of individuals in these communities. I’m unsure if it was (or is) as prevalent as this movie presents it as being, but it’s at its strongest when viewed as an outlet of frustration for marginalized people, who have nowhere else to turn.

I also watched a few comedies predominately featuring Black people, the most notable of which being Friday. I’ve heard very positive things about Friday for many years now, even from my own family of Mexican descent, so I was excited to finally get around to watching it. Overall, I think it’s just okay. There are a handful of scenes that demonstrate the misogyny that tends to be rampant in Ice Cube’s work, and in general this felt very much like yet another annoyingly exaggerated storyline, particularly with how unbelievably heroic Cube had written himself to be. Still, it does master the art of being instantly quotable, which is something that most comedies aspire to be. Chris Tucker is particularly humorous in this – though this would hardly excuse all the sexism, homophobia, and other problematic details strewn throughout this bro-ish comedy. I dunno, I go back and forth on this one quite a lot.

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I don’t think I could properly close this post without bringing up the awesome, wonderful documentaries centered on Black people that I watched this past month. The first of which is the now Oscar-winning documentary, Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, which many consider the best documentary of last year and among the best films of 2016 period. I originally intended to watch each of the five parts separately, one per day, but ended up binging all five parts across nearly eight hours – which is pretty crazy to think about now! Honestly though, I was instantly enamored from the very first part. I was too young to remember the O.J. Simpson murder trial and I think this does an excellent job at emphasizing the monstrous scope of its importance as a signpost in American culture. It painted such a detailed, fascinating portrait of such a troubled figure of the late 20th century, while also using his story to shine some light on racial and class tensions that continue to reverberate until this very day. I do wish that there had been more women’s voices during the talking head features, especially considering that much of O.J. Simpson’s notoriety revolves around domestic violence and his treatment of women in general. Nonetheless, the feature’s involvement with hours of archival footage is nothing short of impressive and makes for an overall fascinating watch, no matter how you choose to watch it.

The next Black documentary I watched was Marley, a documentary on uber-iconic reggae superstar Bob Marley. It’s pretty straight-forward, detailing the ebbs and flows of the title figure’s life from birth to death via talking head snippets of those who knew him best. What it succeeds at, though, is detailing the aspects of his life and personality that made him, out of everyone else, the leading image of reggae music especially to western audiences. It turned out to be less about his music and more about his strengths and flaws as a human being, as well as his involvement in social and political activism. For having a runtime of nearly two-and-a-half hours, it is oddly not very comprehensive, but it is nonetheless a fascinating look at an individual often watered down to his image.

Finally, probably the one documentary I watched this month that had the biggest impact on me was Ava DuVernay’s early directorial effort This is the Life. This was her directorial debut and documents the Good Life Café of south central Los Angeles. It was open from 1989 and 1999 and was well-known for its open mic nights that introduced a fresh crop of talented, unique hip-hop performers during the golden age of the culture. I was born and raised in Southern California, yet had somehow never heard of the Good Life nor any of the underground rappers that seasoned their talent inside their doors. One of my favorite things with documentaries is when it could genuinely teach me new things as I watch it, and I was learning new things at every beat and turn of this particular film. It was a pleasant surprise to see that DuVernay herself was a member of the group Figures of Speech – there’s even a brief archival clip of a younger Ava rapping – which demonstrates how passionate she feels about the subject matter. I feel like more people should watch this, not just because DuVernay is great at everything she directs, but also for the chance to celebrate a subculture of hip-hop that seems largely ignored by the mainstream. Heaven knows it deserves it.

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This past month was a tiny bit better than the previous with how many woman-directed films I watched. In total, seven films directed by women were watched in February; however, this still brings my total up to thirteen, which doesn’t fare well for trying to make my goal of 100 by the end of the year. Perhaps I’ll make March the month where I’ll devote myself entirely to watching women-directed fare… we’ll see. In any case, most of these I watched were pretty good! I finally got around to Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, which was my first from Seidelman. I can see how lovers of 80s movies would be enamored by this one – it certainly feels very 80s, in aesthetic, music, and the general feel of it all. The story really lost me at certain points with how ludicrous it was, but I still enjoyed it for the most part. In particular, Madonna – at the very peak of her early fame here – practically stole every scene she was in and was such a delight to watch overall. I’ve really gotta start using hand-dryers to air out my armpits from now on.

Besides This is the Life, the rest of the woman-directed feature films (not shorts) I watched in Feburary were from 2016 or 2017. The two from 2016 – Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann and Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson – were ones that I had putting off for quite a while and turned out to be very fast favorites from the whole year and perhaps even all-timers. Toni Erdmann initially worried me for being a comedy that clocked in at nearly three hours; while watching it, though, I soon realized that this was the fastest three hours to ever fly by. It was simply, ridiculously wonderful – just when I thought I knew which direction the story was going to go, it throws a huge curveball my way and does something completely different. I’m really not looking forward to the upcoming US remake – it is going to be bad. At least we’ll always have this one to turn to, though.

And of course, there’s Cameraperson. If I had decided to follow through with my plans to list my top movies of 2016, this one would almost certainly be in the top 5. It beautifully compiles a vast, varied collection of scenes from Johnson’s cinematography work which are edited together in such poignant, beautiful ways that I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other film even attempt. In doing so, it quietly challenges the relationship between viewer and subject when filtered through the camera’s eye while also just giving us images of Johnson’s own personal loves and passions in moving, unique ways. The ability of the artist to show us these images is the ability to subscribe their own perception and the experiences of others onto the ever-empathetic viewer, which is so important and is demonstrated so beautifully through the course of the film. My own love for this particular film is hard to put into words, and I don’t think I ever effectively will. I just know that it’s pretty frustrating that not a single woman has ever been nominated for an Academy Award for cinematography, especially when it’s now so clear that Johnson is more than qualified.

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For the first time pretty much ever, I’m actually doing a fairly decent job at keeping up with new films in theaters! Usually by this time I have watched maybe one release from this year, but so far I’ve already seen five, all watched in February. I feel like since I work at a movie theater and have the ability to watch movies for free at a number of theaters in my city, I may as well take advantage of this. The two big sequels from this year so far have been John Wick: Chapter 2 and The Lego Batman Movie, and while I can say that both are far from as good as their predecessors, they are both still pretty good sequels. John Wick 2, in particular, feels a bit mindless in its action sequences, which does lose some points for me. However, Keanu Reeves is as terrific as ever and the film leaves off on an excellent ending that has be aching to watch the next installment. Lego Batman is probably the more significantly weaker sequel of the two, though, although this could be due its writing being increasingly Easter egg-oriented, many of which admittedly went over my head. It also made me sorely miss the witty gag-per-second comedic writing of Lord & Miller, undoubtedly one of the strongest aspects of The Lego Movie. Nonetheless, it nearly makes up for this with some truly funny banter, creative voice acting, and flashy action scenes that does exactly what it seeks to accomplish.

Of course, I’m particularly fond of the movie of the year so far, that being Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out. I have been anxiously anticipating this film ever since the trailer dropped in October, and especially since its Sundance debut in January, where it received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Moreover, I always saw Peele as the more morbid member of the Key & Peele team, which reassured me that this would be something truly distinct and maybe a bit weird. Turns out it’s actually a terrifying, relentlessly honest portrayal of truly real fears voiced by the Black community – erasure of identity, appropriation of culture and image, bastardization of humanity. Hours and even days after I watched it, I remember some little detail about the film that adds a totally new layer to the already fascinating piece of work. I would have to give points off for some of the explicitly comedic bits, which often fall flat, but I also think a second viewing is in order for me to be absolutely sure. In any case, it’s a totally important, relevant, masterful horror film that everyone should see – preferably while knowing as little as possible before walking in. (I’m also super, duper happy to see Daniel Kaluuya blowing up as much as he has been recently, and I’m so excited to see where his career goes from here)

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I didn’t just watch 2017 releases in theaters, though! The other two I watched this month were in the comfort of my own home. The first of which was Michael Bolton’s Big, Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, a parodic variety show collaboration between The Lonely Island and Comedy Bang! Bang!. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, but I do enjoy the work from both of those creative teams, which have me questioning my own tastes and dignity from time to time. With that said, this fits perfectly in with similar comedy films like Hot Rod and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (both of which were also directed by co-director Akiva Schaffer). If you find both of those film’s laugh-out-loud hilarious – just as I do – you can be sure that you will enjoy this one as well. It’s great that Michael Bolton is so enthusiastic about making fun of himself, because he does that a lot here and it’s so great. Other highlights include a “Dueling Banjos” medley with Kenny G (played by Andy Samberg) and an excellent parody of key changes by Maya Rudolph. That’s just scraping the surface, though – this ridiculous little special just needs to be experienced to have a roaring good time.

I also watched the long-anticipated female-directed anthology horror film XX, the very first of its kind. I was a tad disappointed, though, to realize just how underwhelming the final product of all this waiting turned out to be. Annie Clark’s segment in particular was kind of bad – which was sad, considering that hers was one I was most excited to see! Nonetheless, it was smart to bookend the anthology with segments by Jovanka Vuckovic and Karyn Kusama, who definitely knew what they were doing and provided the most unsettling, most successfully horror-oriented pieces of the whole bunch. Roxanne Benjamin’s werewolf segment wasn’t bad at all, but it also felt a bit disposable and predictable. Overall, I’m glad that I finally watched this one; if nothing else, the stop-motion animated bits in between each segment were really cool and creepy to watch. I’m mostly just happy that this was made and released and that people actually watched it – I hope there will be so many more of these in the future, preferably ones that are much better!

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