Movie Review: Booksmart

If you have not seen Booksmart yet, I recommend it. It is an incredibly fun and brilliant movie, and two of the ladies behind it are Olivia Wilde (the director) and Sarah Haskins. I haven’t seen Olivia Wilde’s other films, but I was just happy that she was directing this movie, and I know Sarah Haskins because she did these really funny parodies of products directed at women called Target Women, in which she gives fun and informative commentaries about things like yogurt commercials marketed towards middle aged women and the portrayal of women in movies with Disney princesses. I hadn’t seen any new videos from Sarah in a long time since I watched Target Women ages ago, but I was so glad to see her in action with this movie!

So basically, Booksmart is about these two high schools seniors named Molly and Amy. Both of them are friends and are really smart, and they are about to graduate with the rest of their class (Molly is valedictorian). However, Molly’s world comes crashing down when, contrary to what Maya Rudolph’s motivational voice tells her at the beginning about how she is better than everyone at school because she studied instead of partied like them, even the students who spent their school year studying are, like her, going to top universities. She and Amy realize that unless they spend the night before graduation living a little, they won’t get to end their senior year with a bang. So they go to the party of Nick, who is Molly’s crush. At first Amy doesn’t want to go because she thinks it is pointless, but Molly tells her not just that they need to end their senior year with a bang (especially since Amy is leaving for Africa that summer) but also because Amy’s crush, Ryan, is going to be there, and it would be Amy’s only chance to sleep with a girl before she leaves for Africa. So they go to the party and it turns out to be a night they will never forget (pardon the cliche).

Although I couldn’t 100 percent relate to Amy and Molly, since I didn’t drink in high school or have any relationships, I felt for them so much when it came to their social consciousness and their nerdiness (and their love of the library). Like Amy and Molly, I was a feminist and studied a lot, but Molly also worried about her class rank and where other people were going to college. I didn’t even bother getting in line with all the other students during that lunch period to check my class rank, and when a fellow student came up to me and asked what my class rank was, all I told him was “I don’t know” because I didn’t care enough to check it. Even in my high school orchestra class, where most of the kids were gunning for the top 10 percent of their class, my teacher gave a 10 minute speech on why looking at your class rank was pointless. His idea, which I completely agreed with and still agree with, is that no one cares about your class rank when you leave school (of course, this might depend on which people you happen to be around, because there are grown adults who care about class rank and GPA. And of course, if you go to grad school, you definitely need your GPA from undergrad. But again, depends on what the situation is) and, moreover, your class rank says nothing about who you are as a person. And frankly, he’s right. Not once in college did anyone ask me about my class rank. No one at work has asked me about my class rank. Not my friends. Not my family. Most, if not all, people couldn’t give a rat’s butt what your class rank is.

To add to his point, I was more interested in learning for the sake of learning, not so I could beat everyone else in my school year. Which is why after all these standardized exams I got burned out and tired. There’s this film called Race to Nowhere, and I saw it during my last year of high school because I was fed up with everyone’s focus on class rank and GPA and standardized exams. It is a documentary about how messed up the U.S. education system was (and still kind of is, as is evident by this video) and at the beginning of the film a song by The Weepies called “Nobody Knows Me At All” plays as we see kids going to their classes and the visible stress they feel about their work and extracurricular activities. The students interviewed say that they have to cram in all this information before they take their exams but after it’s done they can’t remember any of it. This is because the teachers, having to follow a set curriculum and deadlines, don’t have time to teach their students more than just what’s in the textbook. In my environmental science class, I was so frustrated because I wanted to delve more into the ethics part of environmental science, ask the hard questions that one couldn’t find by just looking at the text book. Working on a project about invasive species brought me peace as I listened to Seal’s “Dreaming in Metaphors”. But of course, the teacher, being already stressed enough as it was, told me each time, “It’s in your textbook.” “It’s in your textbook.” “It’s in your textbook.” I almost gave up on asking so many questions because I didn’t want to bother the teacher, but I couldn’t, because I have loved environmental activism since middle school, so it made no sense for me to back down just because it seemed as if the other students didn’t care about the material.

Although I definitely see the point of a movie like Booksmart, because the film’s message was that while it’s important to take your work seriously, it’s important to not take yourself too seriously. In other words, it’s ok to let loose a little, although in my opinion, everyone has their own definition of letting loose. And the film isn’t the stereotypical high school party movie because the film gives the studious characters more dimension and personality. Molly and Amy aren’t side characters who go to the party and get laid; they are the central protagonists of the film who prove that they can have some fun even though they study a lot. I remember carrying the same study habits I had in high school to college (aka study hard and don’t party. The only party I went to was my senior year prom, but there wasn’t any alcohol there and I went with a few friends who were also studious like me to college) and I got burned out. So burned out that one of the seniors had to remind me at least a million times (more like the entire school year, to be more accurate) to make time for myself to have fun. After her senior banquet (which I didn’t go to because, well, #studies) she dropped a gift by my door (they called them “wills” since it was their last year of college). It was a planner/calendar for me to balance my commitments and schedule some time for self-care, because, in her words, “it’s not just about the classes”. That whole year I poo-poohed her advice, and this carried on into senior year (although I did go to a few parties that year). It wasn’t until after college that I learned to take care of myself, and my definition of self care has evolved to include doing my laundry, taking a shower, eating right, and blogging about movies like Booksmart without caring about my bad grammar skills or trying to sound like Roger Ebert or Peter Travers (when I clearly do not have the years of experience they had).

Other awesome things about this film? The frequent references to influential women figures. At the beginning of the film, we see, as Molly meditates to the motivational voice of Maya Rudolph, posters with slogans such as “We Should All Be Feminists” (I’m sure it’s a reference to Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s book), photos of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Michelle Obama, and a pro-choice poster with the words, “My Body, My Choice”. Molly and Amy use a code word before they go to the party because Amy is thinking of backing out of the party, and Molly just says, “Malala” to remind her that they are friends and stick together at all times (they are referring to Malala Yousafzai, a young woman in Pakistan who is an activist for women’s education). Like Molly and Amy, I was a hard core feminist and I told people in school I was going to a women’s college because I was a feminist (there were of course other reasons for going to the school but that’s for another time). However, I lacked the knowledge that Molly and Amy did about feminism, because the feminists I idolized happened to be white women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who, as Adam Grant explains in great detail in his book Originals, didn’t care about all women, and by that I mean black women. It wasn’t until I got to college that I had the opportunity to expand my knowledge of women’s rights and the history of the feminist movement to include women of color. Amy and Molly were advocating for Malala before I even heard about this young woman getting shot in 2012 (I was in college by then). They had more posters about feminism and reproductive rights than I ever did (in high school, me, a single poster? Nope.)

The movie also sends a positive message about how it’s okay to be yourself. Even though Jared, one of Molly’s classmates, seems to have slept with his supposed girlfriend, Gigi, and even though he rolls up in a fancy car and, on the night of Nick’s party, has a yacht where there are giftbags with his name on it and fancy hors d’ouevres (sad truth: no one attends his party other than Gigi, Molly and Amy). However, he later tells Molly, when they’re at Nick’s party together, that he is a nerd like her and contrary to popular belief, hasn’t slept with Gigi or anyone. He also tells her that he likes airplanes and theatre and wants to do that after college. Earlier in the film, there is a group of popular kids who talk poorly about Molly while she is in the bathroom stall, and Molly tells them that she worked harder than them and is going to go to a good college because she worked hard. But each of them tells her that they are going to pursue higher education like her, and one of them says that he’s going to work at Google over the summer. The film showed me that while hard work is fine, it’s also okay to spend time with people and not just bury your face in your textbooks (although I am incredibly appreciative of my K-12 education and college education and that I had time in college to study and learn about philosophy and social activism). There are also two students who are passionate about theater, but the film, unlike a lot of films, doesn’t portray them as the outcasts. They are embraced, too, in the film, and really everyone in this high school (the movie takes place in Los Angeles and was filmed in Los Angeles) is a nerd in some way.

The film reminded me of the film Dope. Although of course, there were differences in the storylines (Dope was about three nerdy black and Latino students who sell cocaine on the black market after someone they meet at a party puts it in one of the kids’ backpacks. Booksmart is about two young white women who spend their last night before graduation partying instead of hitting the books so they can make a good impression on their peers), the films have one main similarity, and that is that both of them transcend the traditional white male nerd archetype. Historically in Hollywood, nerds were often straight, cis-gendered white men who were standoffish and incredibly misogynistic. It’s why The Big Bang Theory rubbed me the wrong way during the first few episodes (no shade, but I couldn’t finish it). All except one of the main characters was a straight white man, and the one person of color in their friend group didn’t speak much during these few episodes I watched. I don’t know, maybe I am completely wrong and that I should have finished the show. But after reading and watching so many films and TV shows with LGBTQ+, POC and female protagonists who tell their own stories without following society’s standards on what viewpoint they should have, I didn’t want to watch The Big Bang Theory anymore.

Other characters make the story unique: the principal, Jordan Brown, played by SNL’s Jason Sudeikis (I just found out that he’s the film director’s spouse), turns out to be a Lyft driver because he has to supplement his income (the movie makes this a brief but brilliant commentary about teachers’ salaries in U.S. schools) and is writing a novel about a pregnant female detective whose fetus kicks every time she finds a clue (I have no idea why these writers are so creative. In no movie have I heard a school principal writing a novel with such a random storyline). The teacher Miss Fine (played by Jessica James), an African-American woman who doesn’t play a major role in the film but relates to Amy and Molly very well because she used to study a lot in school and not party and she tried to make it up by being wild in her 20s (she mentions she is not allowed in Jamba Juice anymore because of her behavior). The tall girl in Amy’s class who makes snarky comments and hangs out in the bathroom alone and smokes during Nick’s party (she plays a key role later in the film). And Mike O’Brien, also from Saturday Night Live, who plays a pizza delivery driver. Overall, the film was amazing, and absolutely hilarious! The first time I saw Beanie Feldstein was in her film with Saiorse Ronan, Lady Bird, another, albeit more serious, coming-of-age story. The two actors play friends, but Lady Bird’s story is at the center, while her friend Julie is there to provide support for Lady Bird. The main characters of Lady Bird are Lady Bird and her mother (played brilliantly by Laurie Metcalf). In Booksmart, however, the friendship between Molly and Amy is at the core of the film. Julie is a good polite student like Molly, but any other development of her character stops there. In Booksmart, Molly curses, talks about masturbation, and drinks Heineken (the only out-there thing Julie does is eat the communion wafers and chat with Lady Bird after school. The nun calls them out on it soon after).

Honestly, I wouldn’t mind watching Booksmart again. And like I said, if you haven’t seen it, it is a great film. It got more than 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and I believe it deserved that rating. I felt like I wanted these characters in the film to be real. I wanted Amy and Molly to be my friends so we could talk about feminism together. I also felt for Amy because she is a lesbian, and as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I felt for her. Also, Amy isn’t an outcast because she is gay; there are a lot of films that make the characters outcasts because they are gay. But Amy is an outcast because she studies a lot and doesn’t engage in the silly games her classmates do. This is the thing that makes her stand out, not her sexual orientation. The film embraces Amy’s sexual orientation and that’s what keeps Amy and Molly’s friendship so tight.

Anyway, I have to go to sleep, but watch this movie when you have time. I wish I had seen it in theaters when it came out, but I’m glad I got to watch it period. Also, like the soundtrack for the film Dope, the soundtrack for this movie has me grooving, especially at Lizzo’s “Boys” and Leikeli47’s “Money”.

Booksmart. 2019. Rated R for strong sexual content and language throughout, drug use and drinking – all involving teens.

Movie Review: Elephant

Last night I watched an incredibly harrowing film called Elephant. Although the film came out in 2003 (aka more than a decade ago) it is still very much relevant today, especially in the wake of the recent mass shootings across the U.S. Elephant takes place at a high school in Oregon on a typical day, showing the events leading up to a brutal school shooting on campus. What is interesting about this film is that it is not just from one perspective but from the perspectives of both the survivors and the shooters. There also isn’t much dialogue in the film, so the silences give the film its unsettling quality, and also force the audience to deeply reflect on the meaning of the film. It reminded me of this PSA that Sandy Hook Promise, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about gun violence and the toll it can take on people (in 2012, a gunman named Adam Lanza murdered several children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut). The PSA features several students showing off their back-to-school supplies and using the supplies to protect themselves from an active shooter in the school. At the end there is a chilling scene where a girl is hiding in a bathroom stall and texts her mom “I love you” with her new cell phone before the shooter enters. Honestly I have seen some scary PSAs, but this one seemed to say, “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. Our kids shouldn’t have to fear going back to school.”

I wish I could write a more coherent view of this film, but I am honestly still processing it. At the beginning I wasn’t sure how I would like it, but by the end I had to stop and think and reflect, and this is what this film wants you to do. If I gave away a lot of plot summary it would ruin the film, to be honest. All I can say is, it is a moving film even if it doesn’t have a lot of gratuitous violence. The violence is hard to watch towards the end of the film (if you need a warning, it’s the last 15 minutes). I think the fact that Gus Van Sant had the film be from multiple perspectives makes it a scary film. Ironically I can’t watch slasher films like Chucky and Saw, and yet I can sit through harrowing films like this and 12 Years a Slave and not be scathed. It is scary because it happens in real life, and after hearing about the El Paso shooting, the Odessa shooting, and a number of other mass shootings, I had to go to my keyboard and write how I truly felt about this issue. Because it had been an elephant in the room for the longest time, this senseless violence, and it was time for me to speak up about it through my writing.

I had a talk about world peace and non violence in a philosophy group yesterday, and I brought up one scene in the movie that stuck with me for a while. One of the two shooters in the school is threatening to kill one of the teachers and the teacher asks why he decided to do such a thing (aka kill innocent people) and the student told the teacher that he didn’t feel like him or any of his teachers listened to him or supported him in any way. This shows how violence isn’t random; it is caused by a series of events leading up over time to one huge brutal event (aka the violence). At the beginning we see some kids in class throw spitballs at one of the kids who becomes a shooter at the school, and we see this kid go through the cafeteria and plot something on a pad of paper (which we later find out is his plan to blow up and shoot everyone at the school). There is also a scene where the two shooters are at one of their houses, and one is playing a Beethoven piece on piano (which would have been beautiful except for the fact that while the kid was playing Beethoven, the other kid was playing a computer game where he shot various people and plotted their plan to kill everyone at school), and then we see them watching a movie about Hitler and looking for guns online (there was actually a shooting that happened a couple of years after the movie came out and people blamed it on the fact that the shooter watched Elephant. So of course, some people might be prone to watching this movie and imitating what the characters did. But there were probably other factors in the shooting, too, so it probably wasn’t just the fact that they saw this movie and suddenly wanted to kill people. I saw this film because I wanted to contribute to the conversation on non-violence). This film also makes a commentary in a way that most of the shooters who have committed these murders are young white men who feel like no one respects them in society. In the New York Times yesterday, there was an article on the front page that talked about the mass shootings that happened this summer and mentioned that young white men committed most of these shootings. The film avoids coddling the young men, while a lot of real life reports tend to say things like, “This guy was just an innocent kid, really nice, really sweet”, but it still doesn’t forgive the fact that these guys who kill people in these shootings are dealing with an anger that goes much deeper than surface level early childhood memories. Like I said, violence isn’t something random; it builds up over time, and it’s why, during the discussion, I mentioned the scene where the shooter says he didn’t feel listened to, and everyone said they agreed that schools and homes should be places where youth feel like they can communicate honestly with their family and teachers.

Elephant. 2003. 81 minutes. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Rated R for disturbing violent content, language, brief sexuality and drug use – all involving teens.

Movie Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness

I just finished watching the film Hector and the Search for Happiness, and while I didn’t hate it, I also am cautious about celebrating it as a fun feel-good movie. It is very much along the lines of a lot of mainstream I-am-traveling-to-find-myself stories I read about in blogs and watch in movies. Now of course, I could have chosen to not watch the film, but again, I liked how it asked the question of what is happiness, and at the same time, I am coming at it from a privileged Westerner’s perspective and am aware that a lot of these travel movies that Hollywood makes tend to center around straight, cis white Westerners and often do not portray people of color in deeper more complex roles. After seeing movies like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, for instance, movies in which Asian people are the protagonists in the story and cultural traditions in Asian countries are not seen as some kind of prop, I felt a little uneasy letting it slide that the Chinese characters in Hector and the Search for Happiness are not protagonists and are all minor characters (also, Hector’s girlfriend doesn’t get to travel with him and just stays at home waiting for him until he comes back. Spoiler, she forgives him for his nonsense and gets back with him. This also made me cringe Of course, I know that wasn’t the film’s intent, but I still knew I needed to be careful about painting a rosy picture about this film. Then again, if a Westerner like me goes into another country, I also shouldn’t just go there with a savior mentality there because then I’m merely pitying individuals who live in those countries, and frankly, people need to feel respected, not like they are props for a camera shoot. Then again, I haven’t actually traveled to the countries Hector did, so someone watching this film might have a different perspective. Overall it was okay and also Hollywood films don’t have to necessarily stick to the white male travel narrative. In fact, the film got a little over 30 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and at first, I gave it the benefit of the doubt, and then after finishing it understood why I wasn’t rooting for it much either.

One of the few travel films I think where it challenges the standard Western travel narrative is Salt Fat Acid Heat. First off, the host is a woman of color, Samin Nosrat, and historically most travel documentaries have featured white males who go to these countries and act as if they are “discovering” these foods, when in reality, that’s just a form of colonialism. When she goes to Mexico, for instance, she has a genuine respect for the food as well as the individuals who make that food (many of the women featured on the show are women and people of color) and when she goes to a bee farm in Mexico with a rare species of stingless bees, she doesn’t run away but instead develops this beautiful bond with the bees and the honey they harvest in the community they are in. Not to mention the fact that she also makes the effort to speak the language of the country she is in (which is why I am working on my Spanish so that when I travel to Spain, Mexico, or any other Spanish speaking country, I can fully communicate with the people in the country).

Movie Review: The Farewell

Today I went and saw The Farewell, a beautiful film from the film company A24, and I must say, my eyes are still worn from all the crying I did during this movie. It truly is a tearjerker, and for a good reason. The film, which is the work of director Lulu Wang, is based on a true story in which Lulu’s grandmother died without knowing she had late-stage cancer because her family kept it a secret from her. Billi, played by rapper and actress Awkwafina, is living in New York City and struggling with her career and paying her rent, so she visits her parents, who know she doesn’t have her life together. One night she notices something is going on and her parents are stressed out, and when she asks what is wrong, they tell her that her grandmother is dying of cancer. The film opens with Billi calling her grandmother and asking how she is doing. Even though her grandmother, Nai-Nai, says she is doing well, we see Nai-Nai going through an ultrasound machine to see if she has cancer, and her friend telling her in the waiting room that the cancer isn’t harmful, when in reality, the doctors said the cancer is harmful and she won’t have long to live. When Billi’s parents tell her they are going to China for her cousin’s wedding, she finds out that while the wedding is still going to happen, it is also an occasion for the family to spend time with Nai-Nai before she passes away. When Billi tells her parents that they need to tell Nai-Nai about her cancer diagnosis, they say no because it is customary in Chinese culture to not tell a loved one they are dying of cancer. Billi tells her parents she wants to go to China with them not just to see her cousin get married but to also spend time with Nai-Nai since she doesn’t have long to live. Her parents tell her to stay since they do not think she would be of much use going back to China with them.

But Billi doesn’t give up. She goes to China to see Nai-Nai and runs into her parents at the house. They are disappointed in her throughout their stay, but they let her stay at Nai-Nai’s with them anyway since she insists on staying. During this time, Billi and Nai-Nai develop an incredibly beautiful bond that stands the test of time even when, in reality, Nai-Nai doesn’t have much time to live (one of the best scenes is when Nai-Nai teaches Billi tai-chi). The film deals a lot with the issue of communication and how a lack of communication and honesty impacts not just the individual but everyone around them. Everyone is impacted by the decision to not tell Nai-Nai that she is dying of cancer, and at Billi’s cousin’s wedding, after a joyous game of drinking, he breaks down because he knows that he’s not just at the wedding to celebrate getting married but also there to celebrate the short time that he has with Nai-Nai. Not being allowed to tell Nai-Nai she has cancer also negatively impacts Billi, because she wants to have an open honest relationship with her grandmother but cannot because her parents and their parents frown on getting emotional or expressing grief. One of the most powerful scenes is the dialogue between Billi and her mother in the hotel room. Billi’s mother criticizes her for being too emotional and thinks that she shouldn’t be in China with them because she would get too emotional over Nai-Nai’s deteriorating health, and reveals that her own parents frowned on her for being emotional so she doesn’t want her daughter to face the same kind of criticism. She even says that there are professional cryers at the memorial services so that people don’t have to cry when their loved ones pass, and at the graveyard where Billi’s grandfather is buried, there is a woman who cries for everyone so that they do not have to express grief themselves. This made me reflect on how different cultures face death and handle grief. Some communities treat death by celebrating the person’s life with song and dance and merry-making, while other communities commemorate the person’s life with a serious ceremony. And other cultures encourage people to express their grief through physical gut-wrenching means. My ethnic culture encourages people to grieve, but my spiritual culture encourages people to celebrate the person’s life. My spiritual culture encourages people to shed tears but to also not let grief prevent them from living their lives and celebrating the memories of the deceased person.

But the question I was left with was this: is it bad that the family didn’t tell Nai-Nai about her cancer diagnosis since it was a cultural tradition to not talk about illness and death? How would Nai-Nai have reacted if she knew earlier that she had a cancer diagnosis? Sometimes when people learn early on that they have an illness, they do what they can to make the most of life, while other people suffer in grief and sometimes even end their lives before their illness can end life for them. In the film Billi’s mother says that in Chinese culture, people die not from the cancer itself, but from the fear that comes when they find out they have cancer. These are all important questions that we must deal with at every stage of life. I am rather young, but this film taught me to love the ones closest to me. When I read Nick Hornby’s novel How to Be Good, the main character Katie talked about how her husband and his spiritual doctor tried to do good things for humanity, and yet couldn’t treasure the people closest to them, and Katie mentions that it is easier to be kind to people that we are less familiar with than it is for people in our immediate environment. But The Farewell showed me, through Billi’s relationship with her grandma, that we cannot take people’s time for granted and that we must treasure people while they are still alive. Billi found out a lot about her grandmother, such as her time in the military. At first she encourages Billi to get married, but then later understands that Billi wants to focus on her career. When Billi tells her she didn’t get the fellowship at the Guggenheim she applied for, she confesses that she was worried about telling her grandmother because she didn’t want her to worry about Billi, but Nai-Nai says that it is not necessarily what you do in life that matters, but how you live your life that is important. Nai-Nai wants Billi to embrace her independence because she understands that is what makes Billi happy.

I was searching for articles about the film to better understand for myself the cultural significance of illness in Chinese culture since I personally cannot relate to what Lulu Wang and her family went through, and I found this touching thoughtful piece in The Washington Post by Marian Lu about how The Farewell touched her own life. Lu says that just like Billi’s parents, her dad didn’t let Lu know her grandmother was dying of cancer. This of course impacted Lu tremendously because she never got to have a deeper relationship with her grandmother, and she never got to say goodbye because her family didn’t tell her about her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis until it was too late. Lu later had an honest conversation about this matter with her father, and he tearfully revealed that if he was dying of illness he would want her to let him know of his diagnosis instead of keeping it concealed from him for the sake of preserving family peace. Her father also told Lu that when he found out she had pancreatic cancer and only had six months to live, he told his mother that she had a sickness rather than saying she had a terminal illness, and went to great lengths to get the doctors to give her traditional medicine and other treatments. According to Lu’s article, much of Eastern culture has a holistic approach to illness, one that considers not just physical health, but also one’s emotional and mental state, and is also rooted in community, so one’s diagnosis doesn’t just affect the person with the illness, it affects everyone in the family as well. When someone feels stressed or sad after finding out they have cancer, this emotional response affects everyone in the family, and so a lot of Asian students, according to Asian American Psychological Association president Helen Hsu, do not learn about their relatives’ deaths because their parents want them to focus on their studies and not get caught up in the complex emotions surrounding the relative’s death. However, not knowing about her grandmother’s diagnosis hurt Lu and her family down the road even though it was tradition to not tell her grandmother, and Lu, in the piece, reflects on the fact that she never got to ask her grandmother for advice on marriage and having children, or even taste her recipes, or even talk about her journey as an immigrant to the U.S. When Lu saw The Farewell, she saw her life onscreen, and says in the piece that while she normally doesn’t cry during movies, she cried during this one because it is something that she and many other Asian American youth have had to struggle with in their families.

Even though I do not come from the same ethnic culture as Lu, or Lulu Wang or Billi, I could not stop crying during the film. This is why I love A24’s drama films so stinking much. Moonlight made me cry. A Ghost Story made me cry. Lady Bird definitely made me cry, bringing back memories of my teenage self even though I didn’t have all of the same experiences as the lead protagonist. And even though The Spectacular Now and The Lobster didn’t make me cry, they made me think long after the movie was over. A24 is good at making films that make you think and reflect on what it means to live as a human being, and illustrates how, even during the toughest struggles, individuals can find this indescribable beauty in life whatever age they are at. Combined with the incredibly beautiful combination of string quartet and voice for the score, and the deeply contemplative subject matter, as well as the trademark silences of A24 films (those moments where the characters don’t have to say anything and are free to express their pain, happiness, mixed feelings solely through their body language), I had used up my entire wad of tissues and my eyes were puffy and red, so much I think I got an eyelash in them from crying so much. I convulsed with so many tears throughout the film because I knew the grandmother was dying, and even though I understand it was cultural tradition to not have open discussions about illness and death in front of dying relatives, it was still sad to know that this young woman, whose grandmother helped her understand her roots and her place in the world, is dying and she cannot tell her because no one wants her to. Even though some reviewers dismissed it as ridiculous that the family didn’t tell the grandmother about her diagnosis (instead of opening with the cliche “based on a true story” the film caption is “based on an actual lie”), it’s not ridiculous, and as Marian Lu illustrated in her piece, is quite common in real life. Speaking from my own life, even though I am not from the same ethnic background as Lulu or Marian, I have noticed that when people find out they have illness they get depressed, and people spend money trying to cure them of their illness through all kinds of pills and treatments. Some people, famous or not, have killed themselves when they found out they had a physical illness; their depression from having the illness, not just their cancer or their Parkinson’s, killed them (a lot of people say that Robin Williams’ diagnosis of Lewy body disease played a significant role in his depression and his subsequent suicide) While I am not saying those treatments are bad, death is going to come whether we want it to or not, and while it is a hard truth to confront, it is inevitable and we need to feel okay talking about illness and death with each other so that people with the illness don’t have to wonder why everyone around them is so tense and won’t tell them what is really wrong. I used to get very stressed out when it came to illness and death with my loved ones, but as I have gotten older, I have come to understand that the only constant in life is change. We cannot bring our physical accomplishments with us when we die; even Aretha, the Queen of Soul, is buried under a heap in the ground even with her super successful career. We are all going to die at some point, so it’s not enough to say you are going to live life to the fullest, but how you and your family are going to confront the inevitability of illness. In Buddhism, we believe that there are four stages of human life: birth, aging, sickness and death, and no one, not even the most successful, most youthful looking people, can escape death. The only thing we can do is change our attitude towards illness and death and how we cope with them.

I admit I was rather apathetic about seeing The Farewell. I love Awkwafina in her roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians as well as her music videos, including her video for “Green Tea” where she is rapping with comedian Margaret Cho. But this is the first film I have seen where Awkwafina acts in a lead role, let alone a powerful drama. In one interview, Lulu Wang said she was at first hesitant about casting Awkwafina in The Farewell because even though she loved her rap videos (this was before Awkwafina starred in Crazy Rich Asians, another excellent film) she didn’t think Awkwafina could play a serious role, but then Awkwafina sent in her audition tape with a couple of scenes from the script and Wang immediately then knew she would be the fit for the part of Billi. It kind of reminds me of Melissa McCarthy because many people didn’t think she could act in dramas because she has usually starred in films where she plays goofy characters who fall on stairs, curse and hit people in the groin. But after seeing her in Can You Forgive Me? She nailed that role so hard, and even now I wouldn’t mind seeing it a second time because her acting is out-of-this-world amazing and she played the writer Lee Israel so well it made me want to see more dramas with her in them (she’s going to be in a new film called The Kitchen, although I probably won’t have the stomach to see it since it is supposed to be a violent film about crime during the 1970s). Likewise, I would love to see Awkwafina in more drama films. I love her in comedies, but in this film her acting is so powerful and moved me to tears. In short, girlfriend can act.

The Farewell. 2019. 1 hr 38 min. Rated PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking.

In Honor of Rip Torn

Two days ago the actor Rip Torn passed away. While I haven’t seen many of his films, one of his films will stick with me for years to come, and it’s why I wish that I got to thank Mr. Torn for starring in this film. In 2007, there was this huge music festival called Live Earth (kind of like Live Aid, climate change version), and Rip Torn starred in this funny but dark short film about the impact climate change has had on polar bears. I am incredibly grateful it is still on YouTube because we need to still remember how bad climate change is right now. Let’s just hope that this kind of video will be a thing of the past if we can lessen the impact of our footprint on the planet when there is still time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vD7TqVGBoPo

Movie Review: Silent Voice: The Movie (CW: mental health, bullying, ableism, suicide)

This past week I watched the film A Silent Voice, a Japanese language film that came out in 2016. And I must say, I don’t remember crying at a movie like this since Babel (although I am by nature a cryer, so I’ve cried at a lot of films). The film opens with a young man named Shoya who’s about to commit suicide, but then it flashes back to how he became so depressed. Shoya is popular in school, but then a new student named Shoko Nishiyima arrives to the school and she tells her classmates she is hearing impaired and communicates through writing in a notebook. However, because kids are mean, Shoya and some of the other kids bully Shoko, stealing her notebook and ripping her hearing aids out of her ears and throwing them out the window. Shoko later transfers to another school and the teacher calls out Shoya for being behind the bullying. When Shoya tries to divert the blame from himself by calling out the other students who bullied Shoko, his classmates all turn on him and Shoya finds himself with no friends.

Fast forward to high school, and Shoya is depressed and suicidal. He blocks out people’s faces, not looking people in the eye because he thinks no one wants to be his friend anymore, except for another outcast whose bicycle is almost stolen had it not been for Shoya unintentionally sticking up for him. Shoya runs into Shoko and tries to apologize to her, but she finds it hard to be around him or anyone after dealing with so much bullying early on. Shoya meets Shoko’s sister and mother, and of course because he bullied Shoko, they are less than happy to see him show up at their house to hang out with Shoko. However, as the two loners realize they are outcasts to their classmates, Shoya and Shoko become closer, and Shoya, like a few of his other classmates, even has learned sign language to communicate with Shoko. However, the film gets darker when one of Shoya’s classmates, Naoka, continues to bully Shoko, telling her on a Ferris wheel ride that she hates her and even hits Shoko. Shoko always apologizes even though her tormentors should be the ones apologizing, and at first I wondered why this young woman was apologizing when all she did was be her normal self (and even going out of her way to do nice things for her classmates, such as erasing hateful messages that Shoya’s classmates wrote on his desk). But then later in the film I found out that Shoko thinks she is the cause of everyone’s problems, that if she wasn’t hearing impaired or even alive, that everyone would be better off without her (in reality, I think this is some B.S. because her classmates’ insecurities were the real reason they bullied her in the first place. What a bunch of cowards).

I didn’t know how I was going to like this film. A friend of mine insisted we watch it, and so I did, and by the end I had to watch yet another episode of Brooklyn 99 because my eyes were puffy from a little over two hours of crying. This film hits a lot of topics: bullying, suicide, depression, loneliness and what it means to be a good friend. It takes place in the modern era where we have cell phones and social media, and examines how technology can connect us and yet make us feel lonely. When Shoya truly connects to Shoko and apologizes for bullying her, when he actually looks into her face and sees her crying, he realizes that Shoko’s compassion is what truly helps him keep living. This part is what brought me to tears (also seeing Shoya’s friend cry and hug him when he comes back to school after being injured from the fall). I also cried because Shoya, after meeting with Shoko and sharing this beautiful heart-to-heart dialogue with her, breaks down into tears when the X’s on his classmates’ faces (because his depression is so deep, he can’t look them in the eye) disappear and he finally experiences life and sees its beauty.

This film also shows the severe impact that bullying can have on people. Shoko tries to commit suicide while at a festival, and Shoya saves her, nearly falling to his death himself. Shoko tries to kill herself because her classmates have made her feel, for the longest time, like she was worthless. It serves as a reminder of all the youth lost to suicide from bullying, such as Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University who committed suicide after his roommate recorded Clementi kissing another man and posted it online, or Brandy Vela, who killed herself after her peers tormented her online. These are not the only suicides that have happened, which really shows that while yes, these suicides are sad, they can be prevented by having more effective anti-bullying legislation in place. More people are talking about how to prevent bullying and suicides, but we need to keep talking about it, because if we don’t, then the problem’s not actually going to get fixed.

The Japanese humanist educator Daisaku Ikeda once said that “differences among people are a given. This is what makes each person unique and our world such a richly diverse place, resembling a garden in which many kinds of flowers bloom in profusion. That is why we must not only recognize that people are different, but also respect and learn from one another. That should be our basic perspective. Accordingly, regardless of creed, we must always respect others as human beings first.” (The New Human Revolution: Volume 21, page 99, Daisaku Ikeda) Just because Shoko had a disability didn’t mean something was wrong with her, but because her classmates hadn’t met anyone else who was hearing impaired and were so used to conforming with each other, they viewed Shoko’s disability as a flaw rather than as something that was simply just different from their able-bodied selves. However, Shoko has boundless compassion for her classmates even when they are mean to her, and as he grows older and has come to terms with his own experiences of being an outcast, Shoya starts to appreciate what he didn’t appreciate before: Shoko’s compassion. Because she was bullied, Shoko made it her mission to feel for Shoya’s pain, and later on, he makes it up to her by saving her from committing suicide and having the guts to apologize (because his other classmates couldn’t muster the courage to do so). Embracing differences, not necessarily pretending they don’t exist, is key to being a good ally, and sometimes all a good ally needs to do is just show up for someone and listen to them. Shoya wasn’t an ally before because he made fun of Shoko’s disability, but he later becomes her ally and fosters a bond of trust with her.

I definitely would watch this movie; even though it was stressful to watch because I myself went through painful mental health issues, and watching the film triggered memories of my worst depressive episodes, I had to watch it so I could understand what my mission was as someone who had gone through that. I needed to understand that I’m not alone in my experiences with depression, and that seeking help is so important.

Speaking of which…. 1-800-273-8255 is the Suicide Prevention Hotline. Not doing this to be cheesy or because every article I read about mental health has it at the end, seriously. If you or a loved one is considering suicide, call this number. Seriously. There’s a reason that Logic had a song about it.

Book Review: Up In the Air by Walter Kirn

This morning I woke up bright and early and finished the novel Up in the Air by Walter Kirn. It at first moved kind of slowly but it gradually picked up pace.

The book is about this successful businessman named Ryan Bingham who works as a career transition counselor (CTC), which involves, at its core, assisting companies in downsizing their staff. He racks up all these frequent flier miles, gets first class on all the flights, and sleeps with all these beautiful women he meets (okay I might be exaggerating, but he doesn’t want to get married or settle because he loves living the high life). He meets this woman named Alex on a flight and they hit it off, but he’s wondering if she’s the one. Meanwhile, his family is worried for him because he’s rarely home since he’s traveling all the time. However, Ryan still seems justified in keeping up his lifestyle.

This novel is a work of psychological fiction, so we only get to really witness what happens in the book from Ryan’s point of view, no matter how pessimistic it is. I didn’t hate the book of course, I thought it was well written. I just wish I read it before seeing the movie, then I would have noticed what was different from the novel. For one thing, while George Clooney plays Ryan just as he was in the novel, the book seems to focus more on Ryan’s relationship to his sisters than it does in the movie. In the novel, Julie, Ryan’s sister, goes with him to the airport and we see how she worries about his constant traveling and how it exhausts her when for him, it’s just a part of his job. The film adaptation, from what I can remember (I saw it more than a year ago), focuses on Ryan’s business relationship with Natalie, his new hire, and how she is trying to digitize the career transition process.

The film will stick with me for the longest time because it made me understand that even though I have a great job, I need to always save up money in case something happens. Layoffs are a reality; I don’t care how good of an employee one is. The economy now is getting shakier even though people are divided on whether we’re going into a recession or not, and not everyone can afford to save money for emergencies because they have bills to pay and mouths to feed. But in those situations, it really does help to have money saved up. The film also showed how the job market is different and it’s rare nowadays for one person to hold the same job for 20-30 years like it was in the past. You have people job-hopping, you have people getting fired, and more people are turning to freelancing and working from home so that they don’t have to go into an office everyday. Skills are becoming more technologized, and just having a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough anymore; one has to major in something lucrative nowadays in order to make a six figure income (although it does help to become good in your craft if you want to become successful, even if that craft doesn’t always get a good rap in the job market. Speaking as a musician here).

The novel reminded me that job hunting is no fun and games. It can be a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears, and rejection after rejection. In the novel, Ryan explains CTC to Julie, and after his long explanation she tells him that he is trying to paint this job description as some sunshine and rainbows gig when it’s, at its core, talking idealistic nonsense to people who got fired. According to Ryan, CTC folks don’t do the actual firing and they don’t find them new jobs. Instead CTC means “coaching” them through the process of unemployment because as Ryan describes, job hunting is a job in and of itself. I agree with that, because I got rejected by 70 different jobs when searching for one after college, and not having a job took the life and self-esteem out of me (of course, had I been smarter, I would have driven up to that pancake house right after graduated to see if they were hiring. Darn it). Job searching requires patience, it truly does, Ryan isn’t lying about that. Doing self-assessments about your skill set and qualifications can be draining, too, because you are constantly having to look at yourself, both your strengths and your weaknesses.

However, in the film we don’t get to see how these people go through that process, only that they are depressed when they find out they are being let go. One lady tells Ryan and Natalie that she will jump off a cliff because she no longer has a job, and it’s revealed that she ended up doing so. I found the film dark, but the book was actually a lot darker. It’s almost like a corporate version of Catcher in the Rye; the protagonist sees life in a dark way, and it consumes him, affecting his relationships with everyone around him.

This book also made me think of what home and rootedness really means. Ryan thinks that everyone else doesn’t hold a strong sense of themselves when they travel, but that he has a strong sense of who he is even when he doesn’t have a home of his own. A guy in the book tells him he should own a home, and Ryan doesn’t take much interest in having a home or being settled because he’s used to the life that he has traveling and flying in first class. He doesn’t want to be rooted because to Ryan, that means he has lost his freedom. But like the characters in the novel Freedom, who have all this success but have these unhappy lives, Ryan still suffers because he is chained in by his ego. He won’t let go of this idea that he has to somehow rack up the most miles to feel the most important, he’s holding onto this idea that he is the best at everything and pity everyone else. In the film he tries to get Alex back, but finds out she is married with kids.

I’m too tired to finish this review, but the book was good. And the movie was great.

Up in the Air. Walter Kirn. 303 pp.

Movie Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

I didn’t think I was going to cry when I saw this film. But alas, by the end I found my shoulders quaking as I erupted in tears. And while I was of course super ecstatic when Regina King won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this film, I didn’t truly understand at the time why she won the award because I hadn’t yet seen the film. It wasn’t until I saw the film that my appreciation for Regina King’s acting deepened.

The film, based on the novel by James Baldwin, is about a young black couple, Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt and Tish Rivers, living in Harlem. Tish announces to her family that she is pregnant with Fonny’s child and while her mom, dad and sister Ernestine (played brilliantly by Dear White People‘s Teyonah Parris) celebrate her pregnancy, Fonny’s family does not. Tish not only has to deal with Fonny’s family’s disapproval of her, but also Fonny’s incarceration. Victoria Rogers, a young Puerto Rican woman, accused Fonny of raping her when she has to point out her rapist in a line of black men. Sharon, Tish’s mom, goes to Puerto Rico to tell Victoria that Fonny didn’t rape her, but it doesn’t end up working too well. Even when they are young, Tish and Fonny still live in a brutal world where police will still accuse them of doing things just because they are black.

This film is important because racial injustice is still a messy reality even though social media has allowed people to spread awareness of incidents of this injustice. In Fruitvale Station, for instance, the white lady Oscar Grant meets earlier at the grocery store records the moment where the white police officer holds Oscar and his friends hostage and accuses them of starting the fight on the train, when in reality the white inmate of Oscar’s started the fight. However, at the time James Baldwin wrote If Beale Street Could Talk, there was no social media or smart phones. Jenkins illustrates this point by putting historical photos of white police officers beating black men and arresting them. I know the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” is overused, but in this case, it’s more relevant than ever. Even without physical words, seeing these brutal images of police brutality in the 1960s reminds us how important it is to talk about the intersectionality of criminal justice and racial injustice, even if it is hard to discuss.

I was sad I never got to see it on the big screen, but the benefit of seeing a movie like this on a DVD player is that you get to watch extras, such as deleted scenes and a behind the scenes look at the film’s production. Also, like, let’s be real. If Annapurna Productions can give us gut-wrenching films like Detroit, they can certainly deliver a gem like Beale Street. The deleted scenes, while they didn’t make their way into the film, are key to the story-line and left me trying to catch my breath because the acting is just so brilliant. Also, watching the feature about the making of If Beale Street Could Talk was pretty awesome because I learned about why Barry Jenkins made the film, the inspiration behind the costume design and makeup, and why the cast was perfect for this film. I got to hear what the actors had to say about their characters and hear about what Barry Jenkins loved about working with these actors. In one powerful scene, Fonny’s family confronts the Rivers family about Tish’s pregnancy, and I swear, I was snapping my fingers the whole time and my mouth stayed in an “O” shape for as long as I can remember because there were so many disses that Ernestine, Sharon and Fonny’s mom dished out to each other.

Barry Jenkins was the perfect director for this film. If you haven’t yet seen his film Moonlight, I recommend you watch it. While you don’t of course have to watch it before watching If Beale Street Could Talk, watching Moonlight and then watching If Beale Street Could Talk gave me a greater understanding of why Jenkins chose a certain lighting or way of zooming in on the characters. The cinematography of Moonlight (courtesy of James Laxton) was incredible, and I don’t think I will ever get tired of this film for that reason. I honestly wouldn’t know how to describe the beauty of Jenkins’ filming, because it has its own unique style. The lighting, the focus on the characters’ facial expressions, and the brilliant beautiful music score made Moonlight a kind of beautiful that’s just super hard to describe unless you see the film for yourself. It’s the same with Beale Street; you just need to watch it to know why it’s so incredible.

And I of course would be remiss if I didn’t also recommend you read the novel If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. I first heard about it when I heard they were making a movie based on the book. Before that I had read Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, and I also saw the documentary on James Baldwin called I Am Not Your Negro (if you haven’t yet seen it, I recommend you do so. Powerful film). But I didn’t know about If Beale Street Could Talk; maybe I had passed by it in the library and ruffled through its pages, but I didn’t read it until I saw the trailer for the film adaptation. When I heard Barry Jenkins was directing it, I immediately grabbed a copy and started reading. I devoured that book like it was a delicious meal; it grabbed me and didn’t let me go. Baldwin’s raw depictions of sexuality, black womanhood, black masculinity, love, pain, and racial injustice got deep down into the pits of my soul and tugged so hard at my heartstrings I thought I would pass out. It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. The cast of Beale Street wanted to pay tribute to a legend (aka James Baldwin) and they certainly delivered that tribute through their hard work and dedication during the production of this film. Incredible novel and film. This review doesn’t do justice to how moving both of them are.

If Beale Street Could Talk. 2018. Rated R for language and some sexual content.

Movie Review: Late Night

This is one of the few times I have seen a movie without reading about what it’s about or watching the trailer for it. But I’m glad I saw it at any rate. Late Night is a brilliant film about a late-night show host named Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson plays her so well) who struggles to keep viewers interested in her show. Her writers’ team, all white and male, doesn’t have any original ideas and she has fired quite a few people from her staff because they do not live up to her high expectations, so they feel intimidated and threatened just because she’s a powerful woman in charge. Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) is a recent transplant from Pennsylvania who used to work at a chemical plant but applied to be a writer for Katherine’s show and got the job even though she lacks the qualifications for it. When she first walks into the writer’s room, the men assume she is Katherine’s assistant and ask her to fetch them food and do other administrative things. But Katherine has her be a part of the brainstorming process because people have criticized her for not having a woman on her writer’s team even though she is a woman. All the men on the team, once again, feel threatened that a woman has joined their boys club.

This film reminded me somewhat of The Devil Wears Prada because like Katherine, Miranda Priestly runs the show and does not suffer fools on her Runway magazine team, so it’s no wonder that everyone keeps telling Andy Sachs, one of the applicants for the job as Miranda’s personal assistant, that so many other young women want that position just as much as she does. Andy, however, doesn’t take Miranda seriously, and in one famous scene of the film Miranda is examining two belts and Andy laughs out loud from the corner, telling Miranda that the belts look exactly the same, so there was no point in fussing over them. Miranda calls her out for thinking that she knows everything about fashion when she has no idea how to dress properly for the job. Like Andy, Molly tries to impose her ideas on Katherine in just her first few days on the job, giving her ways to improve the show and outwardly criticizing it in the writer’s meeting to Katherine. Katherine then tells Molly that she’s not going to take advice from her since she is inexperienced with being a writer.

However, unlike Katherine, Miranda continues to disrespect people throughout the film and still maintains her distance from Andy even when Andy starts dressing nicely and losing weight to impress Miranda. Toward the end of the film, Emily doesn’t get to go to Paris with Miranda because she gets sick and falls short in her work, even though she’s been Miranda’s assistant longer than Andy has, and so Andy goes to Paris and meets these famous fashion designers. But when she starts letting Miranda’s demands take over her life, she loses touch with herself and even storms off on her friends when they make fun of Miranda. Towards the end of the film, Miranda says that she sees herself in Andy because like Miranda stepped over Nigel (she promised him a job at a new fashion magazine, but devised a plan so that someone else got it and not him) Andy stepped over Emily by becoming better than her at her job. Andy realizes that she’s not cut out for this job anymore because while she got to work for this really prestigious person, she still never got treated with genuine respect and was just acting like this cool person so that she could keep her job. When Andy leaves, Miranda still treats her with disdain, not reciprocating Andy’s hello when Andy waves at her.

In Late Night, Katherine fires Molly after she tells her and the writers that she has to go to a gig and can’t stay for the meeting, but then realizes that she’s better off going to Molly’s show instead of sitting in the writer’s room while her team pitches unoriginal ideas to her. When she goes, she hears Molly talking about how she was fired and how Katherine hates her, and volunteers to go up after Molly. When she starts off her sketch by calling Twitter stupid, her audience doesn’t laugh, but when she changes the topic and jokes about her age and being a woman, she gets laughs and her show soon makes headway. One of the guests on her show got famous for her videos of pretending to sniff her dog’s butt and Katherine made fun of her for it, and the girl stormed off in the middle of the show. After Katherine starts using Molly’s material and letting go of this need to be distant from people, she starts respecting her guests, and even gets a hug from a girl who appears on her show. This shows that while it’s important to work hard and take your job seriously, it’s important to learn from other people even when you are the boss and not always take yourself too seriously. Katherine at first wouldn’t tell any of Molly’s jokes, but when she does the audience likes her more.

Another reason I love this film so much is that it addresses the issue of diversity in the business of late night show writing (and comedy in general) in a way that recognizes that the conversation around more diversity is more than just dropping a person of color into a room and saying “yay, we’ve fulfilled a quota”. I was really excited when I read that Mindy Kaling wrote and produced the film, and Nisha Ganatra directed it. It’s one of the few comedy movies I have seen produced, written and directed by women of color. Even though progress has been made, diversity and other social justice issues can’t just be settled by one movie. It’s about having these frequent conversations about diversity in the entertainment industry, because when we stop talking about it, we get the same majority-group people produce and write these films, leaving young women of color with no role models who look like them. Even though Katherine is a woman, she is white and as time goes on she understands how she benefits from being white, even producing a sketch where she hails a cab for two black men and jokes about being a “white savior”. Molly is the only woman of color on the writer’s team and the staff members treat her like a token when they first meet her. However, through her hard work and willingness to learn new things, Molly proves to the staff and Katherine that she’s not a token and she got the job because she actually was excited about it. The film addresses sexism in the workplace, but also the intersectionality between race and gender because Katherine and Molly’s experiences as women are just as different as they are similar.

The movie also showed the amount of work that goes into being a writer for late night shows. Molly stays up well into the night at the office during her first few weeks there because she is determined to keep her job at the show, even when Katherine doesn’t recognize her hard work. When she first starts, the writers tell her that in order to stay on the team, she has to not assume she knows everything and that she needs to write a ton. She comes to the first couple of meetings with an agenda detailing what improvements Katherine should make for the show, and Katherine flips through it, but then tosses it on her desk in boredom and tells Molly that she doesn’t care about her silly agenda and to do her job and write, even if the jokes don’t all make it to the show. This taught me that getting a job is hard, but the hardest part is taking criticism. I always go back to that quote by Ira Glass about doing a lot of work as a creative. He said that even though creatives have good taste, when we first start writing or creating this work it’s just not that good and not everyone’s going to like it. The solution to not beating yourself up and quitting your career as a creative? Keep creating. Just show up and do the work. None of the writers on Katherine’s show (or any late night show for that matter) had the time to wait for inspiration; they just had to write the jokes, give them to Katherine, let them get dumped and then write some more. And of course, when you get overwhelmed, it’s important to take breaks (then again, everyone’s situation is different, and not everyone gets to take that break time from their writing).

I thought it was kind of cool that Seth Myers appears in the film. When Katherine fires Molly, Molly goes to Seth Myers looking for a job as a late night host writer for his show. He hires her after she tells him how she worked for Katherine, but Katherine hears about this and dissuades her from working for Seth because Molly taught Katherine to not give up and she really needs her for the show. I thought this was interesting because unlike Katherine, Seth Myers actually has women of color on his writing staff, and they even get their own segments on his show. Amber Ruffin, who is black, and Jenny Hagel, who is Latina, star in a segment of Seth’s show called Jokes Seth Can’t Tell, where Amber and Jenny each take turns telling jokes about race and gender that Seth, being a straight white male, does not feel comfortable telling. The sketch always ends with Amber and Jenny convincing Seth he should tell a joke and then after finally giving in, he tells an offensive joke and Amber and Jenny pretend to be offended. Amber and Jenny also have their own separate segments where they address social issues going on in the news.

But overall, I thought this movie was amazing and I would love to see it again. #WomenofColorRockComedy 🙂

Late Night. 2019. Rated R for language throughout and some sexual references.

Movie Review: The Soloist

I was kind of down on my luck with the music career thing, so I wanted to see a movie that would inspire me to keep at it. I checked out The Soloist at the library because a friend told me about it, but I had wanted to read the book first before seeing the movie. I went ahead and saw it though because I just wanted to have some inspiration so that every day of practice didn’t feel like a grind.

After seeing this film, I can say it taught me to appreciate my musical playing more. It is based on the true story of double bassist Nathaniel Ayers, who attended Julliard but dropped out after developing symptoms of schizophrenia and suffering a nervous breakdown. Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, is struggling to keep his job and a good rapport with his coworker and ex-wife Mary. He finds Nathaniel playing a two-stringed violin under a statue of composer Ludwig van Beethoven in downtown Los Angeles. Nathaniel ran away from home after dropping out of Julliard, and is homeless. Steve is just focused on getting an interesting story for the newspaper so he can gain some credibility and feel good about himself, but Nathaniel doesn’t care about everyone else’s ideas of success. Steve contacts everyone who knew Nathaniel at some point: the Julliard Admissions Office, Nathaniel’s sister Jennifer. An elderly woman even donates her cello to Nathaniel (in the film, he plays the cello; in real life he played the double bass).

The movie addresses a lot of important issues: how able-bodied people treat individuals with mental illness, supporting homeless individuals, the idea of a successful music career, and the experiences of black music students in predominantly white spaces. In the film, we flashback to when Nathaniel is at Julliard and he enjoys his time there at first, but then he develops symptoms of schizophrenia and has a hard time getting through his orchestra rehearsal because he hears voices telling him to leave Julliard and that he should give up his dreams. Now of course, actor portrayals of people with mental illness cannot speak for all real-life individual experiences with mental illness (serious props to Jamie Foxx though for going through such a difficult acting process. I was watching the special features of the DVD that talk about the film’s production, and Jamie said this role really took a lot out of him and his emotions because it was such a moving role to play and also was difficult in terms of playing the cello. From lived experience, I can tell you learning cello is no easy feat, so additional props to Jamie).

But at the least, the film shows how hard it can be living with any form of mental illness. There has been this “tortured artist” myth which somehow makes it seem like you have to just have a mental illness to be considered a real artist, that mental illness fosters artistic genius. I remember watching an interview by composer Nico Muhly and he said that people need to stop making it seem that mental illness is the reason behind artists’ genius. It’s not. Having depression is a day in day out struggle, and while we use our art as a means of catharsis, one should never have to go through a suicidal breakdown in order to create meaningful art. Believe me, I’m living proof. Depression actually stifled my creativity. It told me I wasn’t a true artist, that I should give up. Nathaniel’s schizophrenia deters him from playing in front of people, it just straight up ruins his life. It wasn’t until I had learned to treat my depression that I used my past suffering as inspiration for how I express myself when playing music.

The movie also made me think about how we define success as musicians. We typically think of success as making money and playing in front of lots of people in a packed concert hall, and while that is a mainstream definition of success, it’s not the only definition of success. When Nathaniel is with the other members of the LAMP community outside on the steps, his cello playing brings everyone together and lets people have that time and space to relax and contemplate. When Steve is sitting outside with him on the sidewalk and first gives Nathaniel the cello to play, he at first tries to get Nathaniel to stop playing after five minutes but then comes to understand that for Nathaniel, after running away from the competitive environment of music conservatory, music is his home. Music defines Nathaniel’s existence and survival. When he attends the rehearsal at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, he feels comfortable because it is just him and Steve instead of lots of people.

However, when Graham Claydon, the principal cellist of the LA Phil, has Nathaniel perform for his first ever recital, Nathaniel flashes back to those tortuous days at Julliard and panics when Graham, a religious man, tries to get him to pray before heading on stage, and flees from Graham and the audience. While I don’t fully relate to Nathaniel, I remember how stressful my first professional orchestra audition was. When I auditioned for my college’s campus orchestra, I didn’t feel nervous because I knew I was going to still join the orchestra, and that the audition was just to determine which seat I would be in for the season. However, before my professional audition, my depression got horrible and my anxiety went through the roof. I cried a lot, I remember feeling dead before the audition, the inner critic telling me I should go jump off a cliff because I would never make it in the orchestra. I still played for the judges and did my best, but I remember still shaking even after the audition. For my second professional audition it wasn’t nearly as bad, but I still felt like I was going to vomit. My hands were shaking and my heart was pounding. I know nerves are normal, but while I played I couldn’t shake them. After getting rejected by the orchestra, I stopped playing much and stopped auditioning for orchestras. When I had my first recital in three years, I tried everything I could to stay calm beforehand, but when I got into the small recital hall, I felt once again like I was going to vomit. Nathaniel’s experience playing outside versus playing in a concert hall where everyone’s eyes are on you at all times taught me that we shouldn’t limit venues for classical music to concert halls, and while concert halls are nice, they are not always accessible or pleasant environments for musicians. I think Nathaniel’s experience also reminded me that community is just as important as the individual. Anyone of any career can get wrapped up in ideas of their own success, but classical musicians tend to do this a lot. And for young black musicians, being in spaces where they don’t see anyone who looks like them is a challenging experience, especially if those students deal with both microaggressions and macroaggressions from non-black students. While more orchestras and classical music organizations are addressing the issue of racial diversity, we still need to keep talking about it and recognize each individual black musician’s experience. Of course, every black classical musician can’t speak for each other’s experiences; some may feel okay in predominantly white spaces, other black classical musicians may have had terrible experiences. Racial diversity in classical music is a topic that I have been thinking about for some time, and I want to continue educating myself and talking about it.

Noa Kageyama wrote this piece called “Do Classical Musicians Get More Nervous Than Non-Classical Musicians (And If so, Why?)” and he explores performance anxiety in classical musicians versus non-classical musicians. Researchers did this study and found that while classical musicians experienced more performance anxiety and had less fun performing in front of people, they enjoyed practicing a lot. Most likely because when you’re a classical musician in a traditional music setting, you go off to a practice room by yourself, practice a few hours or more, and then you go out to perform. And of course, musicians of other genres do spend quite a bit of time on their craft, but they mainly focus on their performance experience and how to brush off nerves when performing. It’s why I enjoyed playing with orchestra or chamber music ensembles though because the focus was never on myself but on how the group functioned. Practicing is of course important, but if you get wrapped up in the idea of being perfect or good enough for people, or how you measure up to other musicians, it becomes more of an egotistical thing rather than doing the work of making music. We always need to strive for improvement, but when you’re going through a rough patch you want to transcend the idea that you should only play perfectly and just play music because you love it. Nathaniel, being away from the uptight music environment of college, gets to have a genuine human interaction with the composers he admires through playing his music outside of the concert hall. He isn’t worried about success, he loves playing music for its own sake, not to show off his talent or make lots of money. I think that when you transcend that ego-centered state of “Is everyone going to like my music?” you feel physically, emotionally, and spiritually better.

Now of course, I don’t want to romanticize Nathaniel being homeless. In fact, things are seeming to get problematic with regard to legislation around homelessness. Just yesterday Steve Lopez wrote a piece about how the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, wasn’t following up on his promises to address homelessness in the city with concrete solutions. Even though the L.A. government spent $16 billion to address the homeless population, homelessness still has increased by 16 percent. Lopez presents alternatives that organizations have used to provide access to resources for homeless people, such as SHARE, a nonprofit that finds homes for people and helps them move into these homes and find employment. Even though these programs like SHARE help, City Hall doesn’t provide much support, so it’s hard for them to expand. Now, as Lopez points out, Garcetti has been taking lots of initiative to address the increasing homeless population in L.A and has fought tirelessly for more funding and more housing. Moreover, the power is divided between city and county agencies, so Mayor Garcetti can’t just do what he wants all the time. However, Lopez says that Garcetti should keep searching for other ways to address the homeless population and get at the true roots of the problem, such as access to mental health resources.

Even though the film The Soloist came out a decade ago, it is still relevant to discussions on injustice, and has encouraged me to do more as a musician to bring social justice to the people. And here is an NPR piece on the book and film adaptation.

The Soloist. 2009. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language.