Review: Blindspotting

Blindspotting (2018)
Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Wayne Knight. Written by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. Directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada.

It would take longer to describe the plot of Blindspotting than I want to take, and anything I’d write might fail to convince you to see this movie, which is what I really want. The writers (who also star) try to do a lot with this story, most of it successfully, but the accomplishment isn’t in the story; it’s in the development of these characters toward a face-off over issues so layered that it takes all these plot elements to get us ready for it.

Daveed Diggs plays Collin, a late-20s black man living in a halfway house. He has three days left on his probation after a prison sentence. For three days, he must stay completely out of trouble, but there are pitfalls all over the place in his hometown of Oakland. It’s tempting to think forces are amping up their game against him in these three days, but one gets the feeling after getting to know this man that it’s not these three days: it’s every day that a black man trying to stay clear must dodge problems.

Collin’s best friend since childhood is Miles, a white man who seems to think it necessary to prove in every waking moment that he’s as street as any of the black men and women he’s friends with. Miles doesn’t just walk the line; he takes daily steps over it, I guess because he can.

Collin’s loyalty to Miles may be wearing itself out, the way childhood friendship sometimes do, and it is the central tension in this film, but it’s only one of many tensions. Oakland is having an identity crisis as hipsters gentrify formerly decrepit neighborhoods, and its longtime residents have mixed reactions to the transformation. Police officers and black men have the problems police officers and black men have in many other American cities. And Collin can’t get his ex-girlfriend to warm up to him after his prison time.

Blindspotting has a lot to say, and it brilliantly says most of it through the lives of these characters. This is when it works. Sometimes it says it through the mouths of the characters, almost in Greek chorus-like fashion, and here is where it doesn’t quite work. I suspect there’s a cultural barrier here for me, as the characters repeatedly break out into spoken-word, freestyle verse of the sort that some call slam poetry. When it’s playful it’s cute and clever. When it’s dramatic, I have difficulty taking it seriously. And while I admire the device for its vision, creativity, and daring, it doesn’t quite click things into place the way it wants.

As a result, the film has two climaxes, one that’s amazing, moving, and beautiful, and one that’s strange, awkward, and contrived. I’m grateful for them both. A fifty percent success rate when you’re trying to do something nobody’s ever seen in a movie is tremendous.

Excellent acting and great dialogue make it worth a look all by themselves, but there’s so much more going on here, a reminder that people have a lot to say, and a reminder that film is one medium through which they can say it.

8/10
84/100

Friday 5: Great and Small

From here.

  1. What’s your favorite large, furry animal?
    I think polar bears.  I perceive them as being mostly solitary creatures, and what a rough existence they seem to have.  Plus they’re so cute while being so fascinatingly ferocious.
  2. What’s your favorite large sea creature?
    I like walruses and giant squids, although I get the feeling walruses aren’t as charming up close as they are from afar.
  3. What’s your favorite insect?
    I’m fascinated by praying mantises.  They’re so mysterious-looking and so scary, but they’re mostly human-friendly, right?  I mean, there’s no reason not to want them around, I think, and do they eat other bugs?  I used to know a thing or two about mantises but it’s been a long time.  Plus Mantis in Guardians of the Galaxy is such a great character.  A being whose super power is compassion.
  4. What are your favorite names for pets you’ve known?
    A friend’s neighbor had a dog named Budweiser.  That was pretty cute.  One night at Honolulu City Lights, some friends and I met a cat whose name was Manapua, which is only super funny if you’re from Hawaii.  It’s our word for char siu bao, or steamed pork-filled dumplings, and urban legend has it that the manapua wagons, which are like neighborhood food trucks crusing the neighborhoods, make their manapua out of feral cats.  It’s a disgusting legend, but we all grew up hearing it.  I never believed it, of course, and I had many, many manapuas in my day.  Plus the parents of one of my good friends owned a manapua wagon.
  5. Besides unicorns, what are some mythical beasts you wish were real?
    Griffins for sure.  Manticores.

Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Fred Rogers. Directed by Morgan Neville.

Four personal memories of Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, my favorite TV show for most of my early childhood.

1.
Mr. Rogers shows a short film on his in-studio framed painting, whose name is Picture Picture. Mr. Rogers challenges us to guess what’s being produced in this film. We see machines leading yarn around and around through a maze of mechanical arms, spools, and belts. Something’s taking shape but it’s impossible to tell what it is. Suddenly the process is complete, and we’ve witnessed the automated production of socks.

2.
Mr. Rogers has a leaky wooden bucket. He takes us to the house of a neighbor who’s a woodworker. She repairs the bucket. I’m not sure, but I think she does it without glue or any kind of adhesive. Before Mr. Rogers leaves, he thanks his friend and says, “This is water-tight, right?” And the neighor says, “This should be water-tight.” Mr. Rogers takes the bucket back to his place and puts water in the bucket. It’s water-tight, and I’ve learned a new phrase at five years old.

3.
I have some kind of boo-boo, something bad enough to make me cry. My family is living on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. My dad is at work; I don’t know where my sister is. My mom puts a Band-Aid on it, or kisses it, or does some kind of mom magic that makes me feel better. Then she gives me a Granny Goose Goos-Bar (it was our family’s preferred brand; I don’t remember having Otter Pops until I was almost out of elementary school, at some kind of school function) and puts me in front of the TV to watch Mr. Rogers.

4.
The kids in first and second grade liked Sesame Street. I liked Mr. Rogers. Still. None of the guys liked Mr. Rogers at all. Some of them said Mr. Rogers was gay. None of this was enough to make me change my mind. All of this is part of my first memory of being alienated from the other guys by liking something different, a state that never really went away.

Sesame Street was entertaining as heck, and I loved it. But Mr. Rogers stoked my curiosity and taught me how to ask meaningful questions, fueling a love for learning that has never left me and always made me an outsider, even at my college-prep private high school.

It’s a bit more trendy now to remember Mr. Rogers with fondness, and I want to feel good about it, but mostly I feel slightly resentful. I knew Mr. Rogers was awesome when I was three. Where were all these fans at seven and eight? I don’t need them now; I needed them then.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary by Morgan Neville (who directed the terrific 20 Feet from Stardom) is helping me get over it. I need a movie about kindness at this time when kindness in the media seems scarce, perhaps more than I needed common ground with my guy friends in the mid-1970s. I can’t pretend I’m over anything yet, but I can be reminded that kindness is a mission, that kindness is the high road, and that one of my childhood heroes looked a cynical congressman right in the eye, returned spite with kindness, and saved PBS.

For about as long as I can remember, I’ve admired rebels. See this movie and understand why.

8/10
81/100

Review: Incredibles 2

Incredibles 2 (2018)
Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson. Written and directed by Brad Bird.

Although I am a deep admirer of Pixar Studios and its amazing work, I didn’t love The Incredibles in 2004, even acknowledging that the characters were well imagined and the story pretty creative. Breakneck action just doesn’t do much for me most of the time, and even at its most creative, my brain can only handle so much before it starts counting down the minutes until the end credits, which was my experience with the new sequel, Incredibles 2.

I’m not complaining about too much action in an action movie any more than I’d complain about too much chocolate in a chocolate cake. I’m just noting that however good the action is, it turns me off after a point. Just like a too-chocolately chocolate cake.

The Incredibles are in hiding because public sentiment is against superheroes, but Winston Deavor, a wealthy benefactor with a thing for supers, has a plan. His new technology can follow a single superhero around as he or she does good deeds, broadcasting the exploits on nationwide television so opinion can be turned in supers’ favor.

Because Elastigirl’s work usually results in less collateral damage, Winston selects her for this project, leaving Mr. Incredible at home to take care of the kids.

The household mayhem is my second favorite part of this movie, and Mr. Incredible’s emotional journey is really the heart of this movie. Of course he’d rather be out there fighting evil, but here at home, he discovers a few super abilities he didn’t know he had, the stuff that Elastigirl as superhero and mom has been managing for years.

My favorite thing in this movie is Violet Parr, the teenaged daughter in the Incredibles family, and her dealing with identity issues related to two mutations: her super powers and her adolescence. If Pixar is interested in a spinoff, I would totally be there for a movie about Violet, set in Violet’s high school.

It’s a cute, fun movie. But those last twenty minutes are a bear for me to get through! Can we get instead a twenty-minute café scene where Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible have lunch and talk about the college literature class where they first met?

7/10
71/100

Review: Christopher Robin

Christopher Robin (2018)
Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett. Written by Alex Ross Perry and Allison Schroeder. Directed by Marc Forster.

It’s been thirty years since Christopher Robin last visited the Hundred Acre Wood, and he is sorely missed by its denizens. He’s a man now, with a career as an efficiency manager for a luggage company in post-WWII London. He has a wife and a daughter, and if he ever thinks of his friends Pooh and Piglet, you wouldn’t be able to tell.

Christopher Robin is unhappy, despite a lovely family and a good job. His job is draining him, and his sense of duty has removed the joy from his family life.

Since Christopher Robin will not visit the Hundred Acre Wood, which has always been there for him, Winnie-the-Pooh comes looking for Christopher Robin, stumbling into London through the door where they used to meet.

The rest alternates from magically, nostalgically unexpected to disappointingly cliche. By the time it becomes the latter, however, some viewers will have bought into the whole thing. That’s what happened to me. Although I wasn’t once tempted to say “Awwwwww” the way everyone in the row behind me did several times, I admit to a few teary moments. Christopher Robin runs 104 minutes, and about 80 of them are quite sad.

Ewan McGregor is perfectly cast as middle-aged Christopher Robin, reminding me at times of his wonderful Alfred Jones character in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, only not as funny. Brad Garrett seems like a no-brainer to voice Eeyore (my favorite), but he’s kind of distractingly recognizable as Brad Garrett most of the time. Young people will probably not have this issue, as Everybody Loves Raymond has been off the air for thirteen years.

Another excellent decision was to represent the animal characters based on the original drawings by E. H. Shepard in the books, rather than on the Disney cartoons that have replaced them in many of our minds. However the animators managed to put these characters on the screen, the animals seem pretty real to me throughout the film, in both their and Christopher Robin’s realities. Which is rather perfect.

Although I admit I found most of the third act disappointing, I cannot deny the emotional effect the very existence of this film had on me, an enormous fan of the books by A. A. Milne. I did not have these books read to me as a child, and I came to them rather late, beginning in sixth grade and finishing in seventh. I don’t know what drew me to them then, but I hold tightly to them today for their utter lack of cynicism, for their pureness of spirit, and for their steadfast belief in the virtues of kindness, curiosity, imagination, and the specialness of certain relationships.

In a time where certain forces seem determined to erode my confidence in foundational institutions of government, religion, and culture, I’m willing to believe, at least for 104 minutes, that “wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”

Small point deduction for not including some variation of that quote somewhere in the film.

8/10
80/100

Friday 5s: Performance Evaluation and Repeat

A couple of Friday 5s (this week’s and last week’s). From here and here.

Friday 5: Performance Evaluation

  1. In what way do you maintain a tidy and efficient workstation?
    My desk at the office is not tidy, but I would like to remind people that I’m a writer with attention issues.  A huge part of my job is thinking, and it helps to surround myself with some visual stimuli, such as a few novels I’m working through or plan to work through someday, some posters on the wall, a printout of an amusing Awkward Yeti comic, some movie ticket stubs, and scraps of writing ideas I’m saving for later.  However, I do tidy it up at the end of every month just to keep things from getting out of hand.  My desk at home is a disaster and I’m thinking of setting the whole thing on fire.
  2. In what way do you maintain positive relationships with others?
    I try to send friendly text messages every so often, most of which get ignored, but that’s fine.  I reach out on social media in positive ways.  I know; I could do a lot better for sure.
  3. What effort do you take to be punctual?
    When I became a bus rider, I repeated the commitment I made the previous time I became a bus rider: no using the bus as an excuse to be late for anything, and no running for a bus.  This mostly keeps me on time for stuff, but when I’m trying to get somewhere I don’t go very often, on a bus line I’m not familiar with, I’m sometimes off the mark.  Most of the time, though, I’m pretty good about getting places on time, which is not one of my skills.
  4. What are your strengths and challenges in communicating effectively?
    In person, I tend to take too many words to say stuff that doesn’t require them.  I also overexplain, probably a vestige leftover from my teaching.
  5. What will be your focus for growth in the coming year?
    I really need to get back to the weight-losing trend I established a couple of years ago.

 

Friday 5: Repeat

  1. What’s something you are repeatedly asked to prove?
    I still get carded when I buy alcohol sometimes, and I was born in the Sixties.  I suppose a bus pass is proof that I paid the monthly fee, and so is a Costco card.  I read an article on network security that says the average person at work has to know eight different passwords just to do his or her job.  I think I have seven, including the entry code for the building door and the combination for the lock that secures my laptop to my desk.
  2. What’s an album you can listen to on endless repeat?
    I’m a guy who does this all the time.  On my all-time list are Extreme’s Extreme II: Pornograffiti, Yes’s Drama, and Styx’s Paradise Theater.  Lately, I’ve had Monster Magnet’s Mindfucker, The Sword’s Used Future, and the Night Flight Orchestra’s Sometimes the World Ain’t Enough.
  3. What’s a story you’ve told several times?
    There used to be this heavy metal record store near on Ward Avenue.  I only went in there once, but it was glorious, and I hoped to get a real job later in high school and spend all my money there and even hang out on weekends, maybe when I got some wheels.  The store didn’t live long and it’s gone, and I apparently have told people this story many times.  They keep letting me tell it even when they’ve heard it.
  4. What’s something you always order at a certain restaurant?
    I like to mix it up, but despite better intentions, whenever I eat at Likelike Drive-In, I seem always to get the loco moco unless they have the pot roast special (they serve it on noodles, which is amazing).  At Koa Cafe, I’ve fallen into a rut, almost always ordering the Denver omelette although I usually go in there telling myself to order something else.  Oh, you know what?  I pretty much always get the Waikiki Burger at Teddy’s.  It’s a teri burger with a hashbrown on the patty.
  5. In what way do you hope this weekend will be exactly like last?
    I hope to get some good sleep.  This past week was night after night of miserable sleep.  Friday night was also pretty bad.  Determined to get good sleep tonight and Sunday.  I hate that this is one of my issues.

Friday 5 for July 20: Acromony

From here.

  1. When were you recently SOL?
    I took Friday off from work because Bruce Cockburn played two shows here for the first time in his 50+ year career.  I had a few errands to run in the morning and took the opportunity to have lunch downtown.  Now that I work in Manoa, I’m almost never downtown on a weekday for lunch anymore and I miss it.  As I passed through this one sandwich spot off Fort Street Mall, I was lured by the digital sign saying the sandwich of the week was a roasted chicken and goat cheese sandwich  with curry mayo.  Sold!  But not really.  It had been last week’s sandwich of the week, and they hadn’t changed the sign yet.  Great.  I ordered instead a half turkey-bacon-avo sandwich on sourdough that would have been decent but it was so messy I had to eat it with a knife and fork.
  2. What was a recent SNAFU?
    Friday I discovered that I didn’t have seven tickets for the Saturday show; I had eight.  Woo.  Sent a few texts to friends who’d probably be interested, but they had family plans.  When I invited the third person on my list, she seemed interested but then I didn’t hear back from her all day Friday, despite my text every few hours.  Ugh.  Now I had this extra ticket, an invitation just hanging out there, and time running out to find a new plan if this person declined.  When I finally heard back Saturday afternoon, my friend said she was bringing her dad.  It was kind of messed up but I refused to worry about it, and it mostly worked out fine.
  3. From what social gathering were you most recently AWOL?
    I planned to get lunch on a work day with a couple of former coworkers at the engineering firm.  But I was working against a deadline so I had to bail.  The friends decided not to meet anyway once I was out.
  4. When has someone reminded you to MYOB?
    I make a huge effort to stay out of other people’s stuff unless it looks like people need help and I might be able to offer it.  When I was in Walmart several months ago to get a micro SD card, the woman in front of me asked the cashier something about USB ports on a wireless keyboard she was holding up.  You should never ask a Walmart cashier a technical question, no matter how easy the question.  I thought I was being helpful when I said the keyboard she had in her hand was wireless and didn’t need a USB, which I now realize was egregious mansplaining, or possibly geeksplaining.  She was an older woman, and I think I assumed she was therefore clueless (I mean, who asks a Walmart cashier a tech questions if she’s not clueless?).  It turns out she was asking for auxiliary USB ports so some things could run off the keyboard.  I apologized but probably not sincerely enough.  She didn’t tell me to MYOB but that’s what she was saying.  It was the message I received anyway.
  5. What might get in your way this weekend as you TCB?
    I’m typing this Sunday morning, so there’s not much weekend left, and the important stuff happened Friday and Saturday.  Most of what I have left is the usual Sunday stuff, so missed buses could foul things up, but probably not much else.  I’m a little behind on my Camp NaNo project, but I’m ahead on my side work, so I may have some time this evening to focus on getting those flash fictions drafted.

More about Bruce later.  Still kind of processing.

Friday 5 for July 13: The Road to H. E. Double Hockeysticks

From here.

  1. What are some titles in your to-read stack?
    My stack is huge and keeps getting huger.  Some books I’m really looking forward to are David Mitchell’s Slade House, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe, Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, and a whole bunch of cozy mysteries I recently took a break from.
  2. What are the highlights of this weekend’s to-do list?
    A bit of work for the side gigs, for sure.  Some housecleaning.  A trip to the swap meet for black t-shirts.  Maybe the World Cup final.  I’d like to squeeze in a DVD or two as well.
  3. Which current or upcoming movies are you looking forward to?
    Still haven’t seen The Incredibles 2, and there’s this Ben Foster film called Leave No Trace that interests me even though it’s only playing at Kahala, a theater that’s a bit out of the way for me.  Crazy Rich Asians in August.  A modernization of Little Women at the end of September with Lea Thompson as Marmee.
  4. What’s something you meant to do this past week that will have to wait until next week?
    Really wanted to make a bunch of cucumber kimchi but with Camp NaNoWriMo taking up almost every evening, it’s been tough to make time.  Plus I’ve really tried to put a high priority on getting enough sleep on work nights.  It’s tough to find time for that.  I also have a boatload of films to write reviews for and some website-related maintenance I’ve putting off.
  5. What’s an unfinished project (unrelated to media consumption) you haven’t touched in at least a year?
    Ah shoot.  I started my first cross-stitching project a couple of years ago and it was going really well, but I haven’t had time to finish it up.  It’s sitting in a very visible, prominent space in my living room to remind me that I want to do this.

Camp NaNoWriMo July has consumed me these past couple of weeks and it will continue to do so until the end of the month.  More about this later.

Review: Book Club

Book Club (2018)
Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Wallace Shawn, Richard Dreyfuss, Alicia Silverstone, Ed Begley Jr.. Written by Bill Holderman and Erin Simms. Directed by Bill Holderman.

Four women who’ve been friends since college have now been a book club for more than thirty years. Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen play Diane, Vivian, Carol, and Sharon.

Diane is a recently widowed mother of two adult daughters. She’s going through some reidentification and is unsure of herself, but she’s not nearly as disoriented as her daughters perceive.

Vivian is a builder and owner of hotels, apparently a self-made business success who doesn’t let relationships with men get too serious because they interfere with her independence.

Carol is an empty nester, married to a great guy (Craig T. Nelson) but unhappy with her nonexistent sex life.

Sharon is a judge, divorced for fifteen years. Her adult son is engaged, her ex-husband is dating a much younger woman, and she spends her evenings with a fluffy cat.

At one of the book club meetings one of the women passes around copies of 50 Shades of Grey, which draws complaints and derision from the group, but “bestsellers” is the club’s theme this year, and so they give it a go. The novel inspires them to make a few changes to their love lives, each in her own way.

Some of the sequences are ridiculous, but I suspect we’re meant to take the themes seriously but not the stories, and if you’re capable of doing this, you’ll find a few things to like here. I already have a Mary Steenburgen bias, so I love every scene she’s in, pretty much. Of the four main characters, Candice Bergen’s Sharon is perhaps the most interesting.

I was frustrated with Diane Keaton’s character Diane, because she’s forced to play a character who’s nonassertive around her adult kids, a mode that doesn’t suit the actress well at all. It isn’t until nearly the end of the film where we see Keaton shine as an actress. I wished her story could have begun right there.

It’s a harmless movie, but in this era of gigantic comic book superhero films, its existence and box office popularity feel important. Here are four celebrated actresses of proven competence, yet how often do we get to see them in starring roles anymore? The movie is worth seeing if only to send a message to Hollywood that there’s a market here. Let’s not waste good talent.

6/10
61/100

Friday 5: Happy ASLIRT

From here.

It’s about trail mix, you see?  ASLIRT.  Trail mix.  Or trails mix I guess.

  1. What are your favorite and least favorite nuts?
    I guess pistachios are my favorite, but I want to shout out two non-nuts that are nutty enough for consideration: cashews and pumpkin seeds.  Although I certainly don’t dislike them, I’m beginning not to be thrilled about either walnuts or pecans, exept in a pecan pie.
  2. What are your favorite and least favorite berries?
    My favorite are blackberries, with strawberries a close second.  My least favorite are raspberries, which I will eat if they are placed in front of me but will not place them in front of me myself.  You know those berry mixes in the freezer aisle?  I don’t buy those because a third of those mixes is always raspberries.  I’ll be darned if I’m going to pay for them.  I will make my own blueberry-blackberry-strawberry mix myself, thank you.
  3. What are your favorite and least favorite tropical fruits?
    It’s a sad thing that I have lived in the tropics pretty much my whole life and do not love tropical fruit.  I guess I’ll go with lychee as a favorite and mango as a least favorite, although there’s a local tradition of pickling green mango, and that’s pretty good eating, I guess because I just love vinegar so much.  In recent years, I’ve taught myself to like banana.  I am now trying to do the same with papaya.
  4. What are your favorite and least favorite varieties of M&Ms?
    My favorite are peanut butter, with rice krispies second.  My least are either those berry-flavored ones the mint ones.  I dig mint with chocolate (those Hershey Cookies & Mint bars are amazing), but the mint in the M&Ms is disgusting.  It tastes like brushing your teeth and eating chocolate at the same time.
  5. What are your favorite and least favorite raisin-containing foods?
    My favorite are cinnamon raisin bagels.  My least favorite might be bread pudding.  I eat them when they’re in there, but I can’t help feeling like they’re degrading a perfectly good bread pudding.  You know, it’s also true of rice pudding with raisins.  Let’s just keep raisins out of any pudding.