Streaming on Netflix: Miss Lovely’s director Ashim Ahluwalia

0a5a0-miss_lovely_06Director, Ashim Ahluwalia—whose first feature film, Miss Lovely, currently streaming on Netflix—is not your typical Bollywood director.  I interviewed Ahluwalia last year and he was not what I expected, as I anticipated meeting the next big blockbuster Bollywood director.  He’s a down-to-earth guy, well-informed and totally aware of his field, and passionate about making movies that matter.  I approached the topic of Indian cinema (a subject new to me) in hopes of broadening my knowledge. After speaking with Ahluwalia, I walked away feeling much enlightened on the business of Indian cinema, in particular the emergence of C-grade movies. My fears were confirmed that it’s hard everywhere for filmmakers who don’t want to just make films that are “instantaneously gratifying.” But—be it Hollywood or Bollywood—it’s good to know that there are directors out there like Ahluwalia who are committed to making movies that matter.

West:  As I started doing my background research on this new “Bollywood” director, Ashim Ahluwalia, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he is not a Bollywood director, but rather a director who happens to be Indian, and a fine director of world cinema.

Ahluwalia: Thank you.

West:  You studied [film] here in the USA at Bard. How has studying in the USA informed or created conflict for you in making films in India?

Ahluwalia: Bard was a huge eye-opener for me. It’s a freaky school, even by American standards, and even by American narrative industry cinema. It comes from a very ’60s experimental film tradition, and the way they look at cinema is very different. So, as I was growing up, I was exposed mainly to Hollywood and Bollywood stuff. When I went to Bard, I was exposed to a lot of experimental stuff, world cinema, and a lot Asian cinema, which I had never seen.  And also a lot of Indian films from the ’50s and ’60s, which I had also never seen. So, it was suddenly a complete new world.  One of the things I took away from Bard was the fact that film is a language. It’s not something that you just take as [a] given. I think that that’s something that we don’t see so much of now. Because people sort of accept the genre that they work in, and there’s no questions about the language and the things that you can do with form. I think when you talk about contemporary Korean and Japanese cinema—they’re still doing that form. Popular film, studio films, will do some weird stuff, and you say “Wow, how do they get away with that?” I’m kind of fascinated and amazed by that way of making film. You know, necessarily flagging it off and making an art house film, which for me is as boring as doing a commercial film, but really this new way of thinking about cinema, like, collapsing into itself. I think Miss Lovely is a perfect example of me being very unencumbered in the Indian industry setup, That’s very satisfying, because that means there’s something new to do with film. You’re not retroactively trying to do something that’s already been done twenty years ago. So, that’s where I’m coming from. Bard got me really thinking about form and language and what you can really do with it, and slipping things [in]. How porn is so close to experimental film, and how horror is sometimes so close to sex. These lines that people keep very far apart from each other, but if you slip over them, things really happen that are interesting.

West: But within the film [Miss Lovely], they’re making movies that are marrying horror and soft porn.

Ahluwalia: Exactly! I think for me—you know in India we have a tradition—I think you have that here too—a tradition of the straight up commercial film, and then there’s art house films, and then there’s a big gap in between. Right? I think that what happened is that when I went back [to India], I discovered the C-grade space: the sort of illegal sex film, which had bits of stock footage in it, and had weird mismatched narrative: where an actor suddenly disappears, and is then suddenly replaced by another actor. I think this was actually the missing link for me, between these two spaces. And so, as a first feature, it’s not only an interesting subject, but it’s also defining a space for me.

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West: How was Miss Lovely received in India?

Ahluwalia: It’s been received well. I didn’t even expect it to open theatrically—it opened in 400 cinemas in India. The distributor said, “We can do this.” I said, “Are you sure you want to do this because it’s a really challenging film.” It [Miss Lovely] is really frustrating, because it gives you all the clues of a traditional genre movie, a thriller, and then it doesn’t deliver. It delivers something else. And they were like, “No, we really want to do this.”  So, what they did is quite interesting. They released it as an art house movie in the cities, and kind of a sexy film in small towns.

West: How interesting.

Ahluwalia:  It was really interesting. It was really well received.  Actually the week we opened, we were the most popular film. Which makes no sense whatsoever. It could also have to do with the fact that it has all this sexual-titillating content in a country which is very conservative. But the reviews were great.

It was just staggering for me that people just got it. There were reviews from mainstream papers talking about how this film is all about its relationship to Bollywood, and its definition, vis-à-vis, having a dominant film industry that’s kind of a looming force that doesn’t let you make movies.

West:  So, this is an example of don’t underestimate your audience.

Ahluwalia:  Yeah! You know, I learn that every time. It’s so amazing. There will be the most intelligent cinephile who will be, like, “I don’t get it.” Then there will be some granny, “Oh, that was interesting how that happened.”  That makes me excited.  So, once you get into that whole thing that only the audience wants is a summer blockbuster, then it becomes difficult to make work.

West:  Do you think this creates more opportunities for other Indian filmmakers to make non-glittery [non-Bollywood] films?

Ahluwalia:  Yeah. It really helped that this film went to Cannes. Because, suddenly it was like, “Oh, there’s something worth looking at here [in India].”  And it was in Rotterdam and Toronto, which is rare for a first feature. Rotterdam is art house and quite rigorous and challenging. Toronto can be quite mainstream, but also very indie, so it has this weird mix. I think the fact that it had a kind of a stamp of approval that allowed for people to say, “Oh this isn’t a sleaze film.” [Otherwise,] I think that people would have just said, “Oh, this is a sleaze movie. Get rid of it.”

West:  The distributors, you mean?

Ahluwalia:  The distributors, everybody, would not have allowed for the film to circulate. It would have been killed as a weird oddity. And then maybe rediscovered some twenty years later.

West:  Are there other [Indian] directors who are making similar films or films about real people?

Ahluwalia:  There are, but not so formally radical. I think that the film allowed for non-histrionic acting; the film allowed for a weird space, where you have [a] mix of real people, documentary, and also a darker sort of film. Something that is radical with this film—in the Indian context—is how dark it is, and how it doesn’t ever fulfill that happy moment. Happiness with a tinge of sadness attached to it. I think that tone has never existed in Indian cinema. Because the characters are nuanced: the younger brother is submissive, yet he’s kind of conniving; and the older brother is horribly dominating, yet he’s kind of loyal. Things are not complete.

West:  They’re not cookie cutter characters.

Ahluwalia:  It doesn’t further along the Indian moral agenda: the family being a good thing. I think that can influence younger [Indian] filmmakers.  So, you see films with ambiguous characters, or more incomplete characters and more nuanced, and so, the realness from that aspect, not just the superficial realism from the handheld [documentary look].

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West:  You mentioned documentaries. I understand that Miss Lovely started out as a documentary that you turned into a narrative film. How has documentary influenced your style and experience?

Ahluwalia:  Well, because pornography is illegal—just to put it in context—any kind of pornographic material is illegal; it will get you a minimum of three years in jail. It’s non-bailable.  So when you think about these movies, they’re not B-movies, which want to be real movies; they’re C-grade movies that are made for the excuse for these sex bits to be illegally interspersed. They get interspersed at the cinema level, and not through the censors. So these reels, in the ‘80s, used to be delivered on bicycle at night and get spliced into these movies. So you’d have a movie, which people would be waiting for the sex bit to appear.  I was fascinated by this. I spent a year and a half with these people. By the end, nobody wanted to be in the documentary. They were, like, “Why would I tell you on camera what I told you last night while [we] were drunk?”  Then, I realized how naïve I was. I guess, in a way, how westernized I was by not understanding that these people would hang out with me, but they would never let me make this documentary. Years later, what I did was take all the people and their stories—which were all real—and kind of patch them together and make the script of Miss Lovely. So there are elements of that documentary that worked back into the film. The movies that the two brothers make [in the film] are real C-grade movies. They’re not re-enacted. All that stuff and the sex bits were brought back into the film. So, it allowed room for my earlier life as an experimental filmmaker, using stock footage, reused footage, stuff that in a mainstream film, you’d never get away with.

West:  So, you learned a lot in the process of making the film.

Ahluwalia:  I’ve become, sort of weirdly, the archaeologist of this stuff and now, unfortunately, I have to say, I’m fucking tired of it—talking about C-grade films. Two years ago, nobody talked about this stuff. Before this film was made, this didn’t exist. It was kind of a vague subculture. This film comes out, and I thought that people in India were going to freak-out, because it’s quite wild, not just formally, but the sex stuff, and the way women are shown. Because women in Indian films are very submissive, or they’re vamps, and they die at the end. The funny thing is that it’s gone the other way. People are non-neurotically talking about subculture. Which is great, because it opened up this huge conversation. Everybody is writing a paper on C-grade cinema; everyone is doing a coffee-table book. It’s gone the other way a bit. And I’m kind of done. But I did it accidently, because I actually restored these films; I had to find them on film. I went into basements to find them, digging up movie negatives, getting them restored. As a result there’s a kind of a resurgence of interest. And now French DVD labels want to put out a series of Indian sex films.

West:  While watching Miss Lovely, it made me curious to see these [C-grade films]. The more [Miss Lovely] is shown, the more you’re going to entice people’s curiosity. I guess it’s really good timing, huh? Maybe two years ago you couldn’t have gotten it played?

Ahluwalia:  It could be.  It took me years to get this film financed, three to four years to make it. Then it went to Cannes in 2012, but then it didn’t get released [in] India until two months ago, when it was released in 400 cinemas. It was stuck in the censors for a year in India.  Now it’s being released in the States two years later. So it’s got this very weird, very slow movement, which is very unlike the normal path of a film. Usually, it’s at a festival; then two months later it opens, then DVD, VOD. [Miss Lovely] is so weird, because it has different lives and different ways of being perceived in different cultures. In India, the distributors put it out as an indie art house movie in the cities, and then as a sex film in small towns. So, I have the good fortune of my first feature [film] being in Cannes and in the sleaziest, fleapit cinemas in North India, in the middle of nowhere, which is bizarre. It’s just crazy!

West:  You said somewhere that you want to continue to make films that upset, bother, and leave the viewer thinking, why the hell did I watch that?, and then find themselves still thinking about it a week later.  As you continue to experience some success, is this something that you can maintain?

Ahluwalia:  I would love to do that. I would be disappointed if I made a film that was instantaneously gratifying, and then two weeks later there’s another [hit] movie, and then mine is gone from the public consciousness. I’d feel a bit sad, a bit depressed. I’d feel like an addict. I would need to make another one immediately to get a response; but then [when] I’m not getting a response, and I’m getting great box office, it becomes instant gratification and then instant forgetting.

West:  Yeah, an explosion comes instantly, and then is gone instantly. A film is good when it leaves you with some questions, something a little ambiguous, you can come back to it over and over again. Unfortunately, that kind of film doesn’t make billions of dollars.

Ahluwalia:  The funny thing is, I get a lot of commercial offers to do commercial movies, like aSlum Dog Millionaire kind of thing. I am being offered those kinds of projects: “Can you do this [movie]; we’ll give you the writer, but it can’t be too art house.” And, I’m a bit, like—“fuck, man!” From a career point of view, it’s probably better; but it also means I’ll have a shorter life as a filmmaker, because in a couple [of] years, I’m going to be known as an old thing [making commercial movies]. So, you have to be careful about these things.

West:  Will we see more smaller, intimate, independent Indian films of the caliber of say, Iranian cinema, like Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, being made and exported to audiences abroad?

Ahluwalia: Yes, I think you will.  I think Iranian cinema is very developed, because it had the Farabi Cinema Foundation that put money into early films, [Abbas] Kiarostami for example, which then allowed for an [Asghar] Farhadi. There’s already a tradition of a delicate realism in Iran. India doesn’t have that, like America; India comes from a tradition of spectacle. You’re taking spectacle, and your working down to a smaller film.

West:  But, even in Hollywood, they’re able to turn out some great intimate films. I don’t know how things are in India about foreign cinema coming in.

Ahluwalia:  It [India] has a very strong, dominant culture of its own cinema. It’s also very star-driven. Imagine if everyone in the U.S. was making Michael Bay movies, and then one or two people make a small movie. That’s the scale. The films that are really big are the ones that bring in fifty or a hundred times their budget.  It’s really difficult, but I think its’ going to happen.

Indian cinema exceeds American cinema with double the number of films. Through the Internet, streaming video Indian cinema is available to Western audiences more than ever before. Ahluwalia is sadly correct in his charge that making smaller, more intimate, films is difficult, but as in the USA, it can be done. And Ahluwalia has indeed proven that it can and will continue to be possible in India, as well, to make films that matter.

—John David West

 

 

 

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Streaming on Netflix: The Nightmare

The-Nightmare-Poster-350x517To highlight one of the many movies we’ve covered in the past that’s now currently streaming on Netflix, we are reposting our 2015 feature on The Nightmare. The interview below features one of the stars of The Nightmare, Kate Angus who recently published her beautifully realized debut book So Late to the Party.

“There’s nothing we can do when it chooses to visit us, but to breathe, keep our eyes open, and wait for morning.”
—Kate Angus

Sometime last year my dear friend Kate Angus sent me a random text announcing that she was going to appear in a documentary about sleep paralysis. I soon forgot about it, then months later she sent me another text: “they’re coming over to shoot the documentary at my apartment—OMG, I’ve spent the whole day cleaning!” “Who is the director,” I asked. “Rodney Ascher. He did some documentary a year ago that got good reviews.” I replied, “That’s awesome!” It was then that I took this thing more seriously. However, knowing that Asher is the director of Room 237, I thought, God I hope he doesn’t make her look like a nut case! Over the following months, I kept my thoughts and fears to myself, and did as any good friend would, telling Kate that she would be fine and most importantly—if she did come off a little crazy—I was certain she would, at least, look pretty.

In Rodney Ascher’s 2011 documentary Room 237, he assembles a collection of slightly off (I’m being kind) interviewees who discuss their various conspiracy theories around the film The Shining. This time, in The Nightmare he assembles a collection of similarly likable if not awkward interviews where the victims of a disorder known as sleep paralysis retell their worst nightmares. The disorder, where a patient is stuck in a conscious, dream-like state while physically paralyzed, is accompanied with terrifying nightmares and the specific visit of a shadowy figure—sometimes sporting a Freddy Kruger like hat.

Kate was approached by Ascher, a confessed victim of the phenomenon himself, after he found an article in The Toast that she wrote in 2014 titled “The Dark Thing Beside You: Night Hags and Sleep Paralysis,” where she recounts her own experiences related to sleep paralysis.

The Nightmare opens this weekend in theaters and on VOD. Of course I had to take advantage of my friend’s “fifteen minutes,” and so we met at a crowded East Village wine bar for drinks, an interview, and a chance for me to go on the record by saying, “Kate, I’m so relieved that you don’t look or sound crazy.”   —John David West

“The word nightmare originates from sleep paralysis and its accompanying hallucinations. The Anglo-Saxons believed in a ghastly nocturnal visitor known as the mare (from the Old Norse mara); a night hag who would sit on sleepers’ chests and strangle them.”Kate Angus

 West: How did Rodney Asher find you?

Angus: Somebody from his production team, emailed me, and said that Rodney was coming to NY to interview a couple people and would I want to be one of them.

West: Did you know what you were getting into?

Angus: I didn’t think about it. I googled him, and I saw that he had one documentary out (Room 237), which got good reviews—but which I did not actually watch. I didn’t do my due diligence.

West: [Laughs] Had you watched it, you might not have wanted to do the interview.

Angus: But I have so many friends making docs, so when I see them go through the long process—Marah Strauch (Sunshine Superman), and my friend Barak who has been working on a documentary about a band [Silver Apples] for a number of years. So, I’ve been watching two friends that I adore go through the lengthy process of making a doc, trying to get people to talk to them, so now I have this inherent and ingrained desire to help somebody making a doc. So, I was like, well he seems reputable, he got good reviews. Here’s a man making a documentary and I want to be helpful. I didn’t really think about it all that carefully. I’m currently in a stage where I’ll say yes to whatever—we live in an unpredictable world, it might be fun! So I said yes and I kind of forgot about it.

West: How did you prepare?

Angus: I didn’t. I forgot. Then a few days before they were due to interview me, they called. Then I freaked out. Because they were going to film in my apartment. So instead of watching his other movie, I freaked out about cleaning my apartment. I just didn’t think about the fact that this is a documentary and that anything I say can be in the movie.

West: So you didn’t do any prep for the interview?

Angus: What is there to prep, David? It’s my life. They were going to ask me about my experiences. My preparation was cleaning my apartment. Oh, and deciding what to wear and putting on some eyeliner before they came over.

West: Did you think about that fact that it might be a movie that’s released in theaters?

Angus: I didn’t really think about that. I didn’t realize how much trust I had given to them until well after the fact. Then I was, oh, god, what if I look like a crazy person in this sleep paralysis documentary—they could make me look like a lunatic.

West: I remember when you texted me that you had been asked to do the movie. It wasn’t until long after you agreed [to be in the film] that I did my own due diligence and realized that this was the same director of Room 237—a movie I very much enjoyed—and that the interviewees were a bit kooky. Some were really kooky. Did you worry how you might sound?

Angus: Not really, I didn’t think about it at the time. I wished that I had. When I teach I have a teaching filter, so I don’t swear that often. But I don’t generally use—[laughs] what they call blue language—in my teaching. If I had thought about it, I would’ve remembered not to swear. Because that’s what bothers me the most about being in this documentary is, “oh, no I swear so much! My mother will be appalled.” [laughs] It’s shameful. I use bad language. I’m a failure as a WASP. I’m a WASPY failure.

West: But, Kate, you do swear in person.

Angus: But not on film, David.

West: They didn’t do any reenactment with your story.

Angus: No. Because I’m the most boring.

West: [laughs] Thank god!

Angus: I know.

West: Ascher didn’t interview any scientist or psychologist. You’re actually the closest thing to that.

Angus: I am the closest thing to a scientist or psychologist that they used and that’s not my normal hat. I’m glad I didn’t’t get a reenactment like the spiders, or the giant claw or the woman who had sex with her creature. I was glad that my sleep paralysis is so normal.

West: Is it stress related.

Angus: The last time I had it was when I saw a guy killed on the L train so yes.

West: When you in experiencing sleep paralysis are you aware that you’re in it?

Angus: Yes, I know it now. I mean the first time that it happened; I didn’t know what it was. I thought somebody broke into my building and they were going to rape and murder me. Then I looked up what I experienced on the Internet the next day and I found sleep paralysis. So I thought, “Oh, that’s what I have” and then ever since that first time, it wasn’t scary to me. It became sort of a metaphor, that’s how I rationalize it: in life, the few times I’ve had it have happened during times where I was figuratively paralyzed—during a stretch after grad school when I couldn’t find a job or when I saw someone die and couldn’t help them. Awake, I couldn’t change the external circumstances around me, so in sleep, I had sleep paralysis.

West: That’s why you didn’t get a reenactment! Yours wasn’t horrifying to you or the viewer.

Angus: Yeah, it was weirdly comforting; it was like, “Hey, there! Hi, Sleep Paralysis.”

 “Only New Guinea legend offers sleep paralysis not as thing to be feared, but rather as something potentially beautiful.” –Kate Angus

West: You touched upon the similar sleep paralysis shadows appear in different cultures.

Angus: Yeah, I really like the one [Asher] featured from New Guinea, tribe that believe paralysis comes from sacred trees, they need to feed on human essence to keep going, but they’re polite so they don’t want to do it while you’re awake, so they paralyze you while you’re asleep and feed on you then. But, sometimes you wake up in the middle [of a feeding] and that’s why you have sleep paralysis.

West: It’s a nice spin on it. But of the shadowy figures are terrifying to the interviewees.

Angus: I’m such an optimist about the world, so naturally I see a weird dark figure and I think “why wouldn’t it be nice?”

West: Hm? I’m from the Midwest too and I have to say that I don’t think I would react the same way. I mean some of the interviewees had really dramatic, life changing, reactions to their shadow figures. One girl turned to Christianity.

Angus: Yeah, well, OK, this is me speculating—I don’t know these people—and it’s probably unfair of me to speculate but I also wonder if they’ve had additional trauma in their lives.

West: Most people have some horrors in their past.

Angus: True, yes, everyone has something in the past that affects them and it can cause trauma, but my life was really – not – that – bad. I don’t mean to impose. I mean it not fair of me to put a narrative on other people.

West: The people in Room 237 appear a bit more crazy and weird than they are in this movie.

Angus: HOW?

West: They are, well with their wild—although entertaining, conspiracy theories and odd obsessions on [Kubrick’s] The Shining.

Angus: I believe Rodney interviewed a lot of people, and I’m sure there were a fair amount of people with boring stories like mine that didn’t make it into the film. But, since I’m a teacher, I’m pretty good at presenting boring material in an entertaining manner. It’s what I’m paid to do, with my meager little teaching salary.

West: But you didn’t embellish your story or experience

Angus: No, no, no, in fact it’s pretty boring, so clearly not.

West: Did your shadow figure wear a hat?

Angus: No. He didn’t have a hat. He was like Death from the Seventh Seal, but he didn’t have a face—or a hood, just that shape. It didn’t really have arms.

West: Oh my god. That’s scary. Wait, what makes him masculine?

Angus: It didn’t feel especially gendered but I guess it was masculine.

West: But what makes it masculine?

Angus: I don’t know. Maybe there’s more appeal in the masculine, maybe I have a patriarchy default setting.

West: Actually a lot of the [interviewees] saw masculine figures. There didn’t seem to be any women shadows.

Angus: Well, how do you know? I mean they weren’t chanting “I’m a man, I’m a man!” Or holding up a Playboy centerfold.

West: [laughs] They weren’t shadow lady figures with big racks either.

Angus: I’m a little offended by that. Even in the shadow world, you’re imposing cultural norms of beauty on women, you monster.

Our server, Marianne arrived just in time to check on us. After some polite customer-server talk we learned that Marianne was a wine and spirits specialist and asked her to create a drink for us. Something with cardamom, yuzu and gin.

West: Would you ever appear as an interviewee in a doc again?

Angus: Yes.

Marianne brought our drinks especially created for us,  to which we toasted documentaries and shadow spirits.

West: Kate, what would you do differently?

Kate took a generous sip of her icy cocktail of yuzu, gin, orange juice, and ginger and cardamom bitters

Angus: I wouldn’t swear as much!

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This Week on Netflix! Jurassic Park (1993)

JP posterJurassic Park, along with most of Steven Spielberg’s catalog at the time, was a staple of my childhood. It taught me what an adventure movie should be like in every measurable way. Some would blame Spielberg for ushering in the modern era of substance-devoid summer blockbusters, but that criticism seems unfair to me. He set the standard for character-driven action flicks, and despite what other filmmakers have done with the formula over the years, his legacy has held strong in both quality and quantity.

Spielberg’s movies, and Jurassic Park in particular, are adept at keeping not only the audience’s conscious gaze, but the tension-rich atmosphere from start to finish. An ominous note by the film’s composer, John Williams, sets the mood perfectly, as a ground crew works to safely introduce a velociraptor to its new enclosure. We’re also introduced to Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), two archaeologists who are asked by their dig’s main source of funding, John Hammond, to visit his new dinosaur park. Of course, they’re not told what is at the park. In this case, seeing is believing.

Once at the park, they meet up with Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and Donald “The Blood-sucking Lawyer” Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), and are asked to evaluate if it is safe for the general public. The sheer spectacle of living, breathing dinosaurs is short-lived, as the park soon loses power and its guests are left to fend for themselves. Velociraptor JPFear and survival instincts replace awe and wonderment, and the goal of everyone is to reunite and get off the island as soon as possible.

When you think of the Jurassic Park series, your brain might conjure up CG images of rampaging dinos, but in fact, a lot of the effects in the original movie are practical. Most of the velociraptors’ major scenes, for example, are just dudes in suits. There’s also a five-ton, fully anamatronic version of the T-Rex and a full-size triceratops puppet. Point being, you don’t see stuff like this anymore, and it’s incredible.

JP triceratopsAside from what Stan Winston’s team accomplished with the dinosaur puppets, there’s a constant theme of nature vs. technology, and it’s one that doesn’t get enough follow-through in the rest of the series (at least in my opinion). Once Jurassic World comes around, it’s pretty clear nobody cares about the dangers of playing God. I find that to be a flaw in the franchise, but you won’t find the same error in Jurassic Park. Ian Malcolm is a reminder that life will always “find a way,” and while I would think the scientists at the park would have realized the potential harm from dumping a bunch of foreign DNA into a jar and swishing it around, the “fool me once” idiom is in effect.

JP TrexGetting back to the atmosphere and tension, a lot of it is owed to the pacing of the film. There’s never a lull in suspense, which creates the kind of nervous nail-biting I’ve come to expect during a Spielberg story. Add to that several memorable characters, and the reasons for success become obvious. Imagine not having Jeff Goldblum’s brand of discomforting flirting with Dr. Sattler or Wayne Knight’s smarmy selfishness (perfected over the years with his Newman character on Seinfeld). Lots of the story beats wouldn’t work with lesser actors, and having quality in this department is something I also expect from Spielberg.

There are dinosaur movies, and then there is Jurassic Park. While not the first to feature the extinct giants on the big screen (neither is Caveman, but check it out anyway, it remains the definitive experience on the subject.

—George Bell

Read more from George Bell at Knights of Mars Roundtable

 

Yo, Marilyn, You’re on Netflix!

Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)

Don't Bother to Knock 4Marilyn Monroe as a mentally deranged babysitter? Yup. And it’s worth a looksee, if only to prove that La Monroe could actually ACT. It’s the darkside of her fragile wounded sparrow persona. A noir with an insular setting, a big city hotel, has Richard Widmark in a relaxed performance as a fellow guest who meets the star for a possible hookup…then things go very, very wrong. A witty script with some funny lines amongst a few still chilling moments of sustained suspense.
—Ron Castillo 

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

The Seven Year Itch 1The movie that shot Marilyn Monroe into the pop icon stratosphere. George Axelrod’s Broadway play centered on an Everyman (Tom Ewell) in the buttoned-down ’50s who has daydreams of an extramarital affair with his nubile upstairs neighbor. In Billy Wilder’s movie, it’s all about “The Girl,” as MM is simply billed. She OWNS any frame she’s in…and the movie lags when she’s not around. But when she is, oh my, it’s sensory overload. See it and understand what having the “it” factor is all about.
—Ron Castillo

Netflix Nick

pay the ghost by rafy-1402.cr2

I don’t think I’m capable of summing up this man’s character in a single paragraph, but we should all be on the same page here. Cage has been around forever, and though he’s been cranking out less-than-stellar stuff over the past decade or so, that doesn’t mean he’s incapable of making decent movies.

I’d forgive you for thinking my first post in this series will actually contain some of those decent movies. Well, the joke’s on you. Instead, I took to Netflix and lined up a couple of snoozers. So, without further adieu, I give you three (not so) great Nicolas Cage selections from Netflix: Pay the Ghost, Rage, and Next.

Pay the Ghost (2015)

Pay the GhostWell, I’m glad I didn’t pay a ghost or anyone else to see this one. The setup is simple, with Cage playing a father desperate to regain his missing son, whom he loses at a Halloween carnival. The run time is spent solving a decades-spanning mystery involving dozens of missing children, which ties directly into what happened to his own son.

The premise isn’t bad, and neither are the first two-thirds of the movie, Sarah Wayne Callies notwithstanding (Sorry, I’ve hated her ever since The Walking Dead. Ugh. Gag me.). The atmosphere is suitably creepy, and Cage does a fine enough job selling himself as a distraught father whose everyday life has become a distraction from thoughts of his son. I don’t know whose call it was, but I think somebody in the production really, really liked Insidious, though, and decided the end of Pay the Ghost should kinda be like that.

The problem, of course, is that Insidious already exists, and you’ll excuse me if it’s a bit late to ignore that fact. Actually, to get a more accurate picture of the final act of Pay the Ghost, you’ll need to throw in a healthy dose of Darkness Falls, Dead Silence, or any number of other horror movies that use vengeful ghosts as the villains. It just feels like they couldn’t come up with a reason for Cage’s son to disappear, so they went with formulas that have worked in more capable hands. If you’re going to introduce a dreamy hellscape where souls become stranded between worlds, you have to at least make the attempt to better the one everyone knows and (I’m assuming) loves. Pay the Ghost doesn’t do that, which means you’re left with a pretty forgettable experience that hardly justifies asking us to become invested in characters and experiences that are better served elsewhere. This movie is why Netflix was invented.

Rage (2014)

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For a movie titled Rage and starring Nicolas Cage, you’d think it would be about some effectual, focused anger by a worthy main character, but don’t forget what you’re dealing with. For about the hundredth time (theatrically?), Nicolas Cage’s offspring has been taken from him, and he’s left to figure out what to do about it. Personally, my focus would be a bit off after about the fiftieth kidnapping, but I get distracted a lot with things like Facebook and cat videos set to Dr. Who music.

It’s been said that Rage is a ripoff of Mystic River, which sounds accurate enough for me. I haven’t seen Mystic River in a long time, and I’m not exactly in the mood for that much over-acting in one two-hour span again quite yet. But there’s definitely no shortage of underwhelming acting in Rage, which showcases at least one difference between the films.

Unlike Pay the Ghost, Rage pits Nicolas Cage versus his daughter’s kidnappers, and there aren’t any shitty ghost stories behind this one, although I might accept that over the tragedy that is everything about Rage.

Cage is a reformed gangster, and his daughter’s disappearance ends up being blamed on the Russian mob, which I guess is fair enough. I think they’re usually the guys who do whatever bad thing to whatever action hero, right? Even if it isn’t them, just blame them anyways. Rage makes it clear that there are plenty of them to go around in Mobile, Alabama, so shoot away.

Not to ruin the party before it gets started, but Rage has one of the most disappointing, horseshit endings a movie like this could possibly have. Any meaning, growth, or acceptance on Cage’s character’s part is tossed away like trash out of a taxi cab window in favor of, I don’t know, something a third grader mentioned to the screenwriter during Career Day one year. A spoiler-free thing I can mention is Danny Glover’s character. He’s a police chief (or lieutenant, or…something) who has some sort of history with Cage, which apparently means a former mobster can get away scot-free after a car chase that ends with a police cruiser being literally exploded as he causes accidents left and right. Nothing Cage could do during his Rage-filled quest is over the line for Danny Glover, because he gets it. He understands. Just like the mayor will most likely understand when Glover has to explain how an ex-con going on a murder spree is cool, man. Like, just don’t worry about it. He’s grieving.

I so badly want to explain about everything that is wrong with this movie, but I’d have to get too specific. Maybe time can heal this wound; maybe not. Maybe having more people watch it only to feel exactly the way I do is the singular way the curse of Nicolas Cage’s DTV flicks will end. Like Ringu, I guess. As it stands, there’s only one solid Cage freakout moment, which is more than I can say for Pay the Ghost. But one solid Cage-ism does not a good movie make, so for all I care, Rage can take its impotent self back to whatever pissed-off, unholy typewriter it came from and stay there until it gets a little less pissed and brick-stupid.

Next (2007)

Next is one of those kinds of movies that puts an obviously CG water tower in the middle of a scene for the sole purpose of using it an hour later in an action sequence. That may not sound so bad on paper, but with effects barely above some Syfi productions, couldn’t they find someone to build them a cheap water tower? Or maybe not use a water tower?

Whiff-2But Next’s most damning attribute is its basic premise, which is – I shit you not – about the FBI tracking down a psychic magician in order to see into the future and stop a nuclear attack on American soil. Did the writer/s of Jurassic World have something to do with this? They should have transported Cage around on raptors. I’m reasonably sure this requires no more discussion or explanation, so if you don’t bring it up again, I won’t either.

Moving on, I can’t help thinking Nicolas Cage gives the worst portrayal of somebody who can constantly see into the near future. The way he describes it in the movie, he can see two minutes into the future, but only his direct future. Once he looks at the future, it changes because he looked at it. Rinse, repeat. At least that’s what would have to be happening: He would be receiving visual barrages of billions of ways all actions pertaining to him play out. Nonstop. He never mentions anything about being able to tune them out, so it sounds to me like a psychic nightmare. I’d have killed myself in my teens if I were him.

Anyways, Jessica Biel is in this. Exciting, right? For some reason, her presence allows Cage to see farther into the future than ever before, which in turn gives him a better chance of stopping the bomb. This schtick gets old quick, though, because the movie is fond of letting events add up for a while only to show you that – ah, ha! – it was only one of his psychic future possibilities. Imagine putting up with that after half an hour’s worth of stuff happens.

Next 2Tell me, what diners offer martinis? Why is Peter Falk in this movie for one scene? Does Cage really not understand that his “gift” means he’ll never have a genuine interaction with another human being that isn’t based on him seeing every possibility and picking the “best” option? It’s creepy manipulation, especially when you realize that’s how he forms his relationship with Biel. Well, it’s just plain manipulation, but the way he stares her down when she first walks in the diner is the creepy part. There’s no way he’s picking me up with that confused, lonely, soul-piercing gaze. He’s like one of those paintings that’s always looking at you, only he’s actually sitting next to you and just doesn’t care if you’re aware of it.

All of this is to say I don’t understand Next. Any of it. Julianne Moore must have had a long weekend available or something, and Nicolas Cage just plays weird, ol’ Nicolas Cage. I think this was made around the time his decision-making capabilities started catching up with him, so maybe having to deal with selling Scottish castles and whatnot distracted him from noticing Next for the giant piece of shit that it is. Unless we get the documentary nobody is asking for, I guess we’ll never know.

—George Bell

Read more from George Bell at Knights of Mars Roundtable

Moviefied’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2015

2015 was a weird year in television. We’re in a new Golden Age; everything is so good that it’s incredibly difficult to parse out the truly great—and I’ve never been more aware of it than now. I’ve looked to television with lethargy lately, with only a few bright sparks in between to remind me of the passion I have for it. I’ve even fallen behind on some of my favorites (I’m so sorry, Jane the Virgin, I’ll be caught up before the midseason premiere). Thinking of what I loved watching this past year, I struggled to put together this list. A couple recent shows came to mind easily enough, but what actually sparked my inspiration this year was Steven Universe, a Cartoon Network show that oozes love and acceptance of who you are and those around you. I watch at least one episode every single morning as I get ready for work, and it is the best possible way to start your day.

With that in mind, I put together a list of the top ten shows this year that made me happy, regardless of budget, critical praise, subject matter, or any other arbitrary grouping method. Beware, though—spoilers. P.S., no particular order, as always, except the number one spot. That one is truly number one.

-Mariana Zavala, TV Specialist

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  1. Veep

I’m so glad Veep is on this list (as if I didn’t specifically put it there) because I didn’t give it a chance for the longest time. If you’re like me and spent the first few seasons of this show ignorant of the pure joy that watching Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) struggle her way to the presidency while verbally eviscerating anyone and everyone around her brings, this is for you. Veep has an incomparable ensemble cast of characters and they work flawlessly off of each other, which is a difficult feat considering the whip-quick and nasty scripts that the show brings—and it would not be as successful without them. Like any comedy however, maybe even more so given the type of humor of Veep, it wouldn’t feel complete without a drop of seriousness every now and then, and this past season, Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky, who blows every single one of her costars away when given the chance) brought that moment in one of the best scenes the show has ever offered. Finally fed up with the incompetence of everyone around her (and unfortunately, Selina’s entire campaign), she explodes in a perfect rant that ends with the line: “You have achieved nothing apart from one thing. The fact that you are a woman means that we will have no more women presidents because we tried one, and she fucking sucked.” It’s perfect, and for that scene alone, Veep is on this list.

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  1. The 100

This show is not just the best show on The CW, but it is actually a really good show in comparison to other networks too. Set in a post-nuclear event Earth, The 100 is (at first) about 100 kids sent down to see if Earth is safe to repopulate. They soon find out, however, that Earth is not as empty as they thought it had been left, and the show, at its core, is about how far people will go to survive, and whether the relationships that are forged in survival will last. There are five groups at play that dominate the conflict: the 100, the criminal kids sent to Earth; those on the space station who eventually join them; the Grounders, those who adapted to the radiation and survived to form battle-hungry tribes; the Mountain Men, who have survived the nuclear holocaust in a military bunker and have no defenses against the radiation outside; and finally the Reapers, who, like the similarly-named “Reavers “of Firely, are humans that have become corrupted by cannibalism. I came into this series late, drawn by the promise of a Latina in the main cast (Raven Reyes, played by Lindsey Morgan, who is an outstanding mechanic and one of the best elements of the show) and the revealed bisexuality of the main character, Clarke Griffin. Clarke Griffin is actually one of the main reasons The 100 is on this list. Her season two arc involved a fraught romantic entanglement with Lexa, the leader of the Grounders, and the most important decision of the show so far: the release of radiation into the military bunker, and as a consequence, the death of every single one of the Mountain Men, including innocent children. The 100 goes to incredibly dark places and does not shy away from dealing with the moral and emotional repercussions that each action brings. Next season (premiering in January) will revisit Clarke in the aftermath of her Mount Weather genocide, and that is easily one of my most anticipated story arcs of 2016.

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  1. Sense8

This show somehow manages to be problematic because it’s trying so hard not to be problematic, and it’s so aggressively full of marginalized groups being the main characters that my overall opinion is that I love it. Sense8 has flaws, sure, and a couple well-intentioned but still so problematic moments (I still can’t decide how I feel about that orgy scene, I really can’t) but it’s also fun, fast-paced, and full of amazing characters. That’s where the true draw in this show is. The premise is interesting enough; eight people born in different parts of the world, brought together through a mental and emotional connection, and they’re called “sensates.” What makes it good, however, is getting to know each of the individual sensates, and watching them interact with and learn each other. There is a magical scene in episode four (the scene that cemented my love for this show) when Riley Blue (Icelandic, DJ, adorable) is listening to 4 Non-Blondes’ ‘What’s Up’, and by the end, all eight of them are singing along, together, in different parts of the world. I am incredibly weak for this scene. It is truly a perfect scene. Sense8 also brings us Nomi (sensate, trans woman, hacker, SAN FRANCISCAN) and her girlfriend Amanita (not-sensate, Black lesbian, FREEMA AGYEMAN). Nomi is the trans woman character we deserve. She’s smart, intuitive, strong, and she’s in one of the most supportive and wonderful relationships I have ever seen on a TV screen. Her storyline is also one of the saddest, as her mother is unable to accept Nomi’s identity and attempts to force her into a lobotomy. Sense8 does have a habit of relying on stereotypes to get the job done; we have Sun Bak, the South Korean businesswoman slash martial arts expert; and Capheus, the Kenyan desperately trying to get AIDS medicine for his mother. Still, despite these shortcomings, Sense8 still creates vivid and full characters, even the ones borne out of lazy archetypes, and it’s certainly worth watching. The entire first season is on Netflix right now, ready to binge.

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Charlie Cox and Deborah Ann Woll in the original Netflix television series “Daredevil.” CREDIT: Barry Wetcher, Netflix [Via MerlinFTP Drop]
  1. Daredevil

The number one best thing about Daredevil is Rosario Dawson. The other number one best thing is Charlie Cox. The third number one best thing is—alright, everything about this show is the number one best thing about this show. Daredevil was the first of Netflix’s Marvel shows (which continued in November with Marvel’s Jessica Jones, which is also on this list), and it was the strongest possible start to a new set of stories within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For those who are unfamiliar with the character, Daredevil is the super-“hero” persona of Matt Murdock, blind and Catholic lawyer-cum-vigilante. As someone who grew up in the Catholic faith and also grew up a fan of comics, Daredevil brings one of the most interesting conversations about religion on the silver screen. Charlie Cox brings such a wonderful softness to Matt Murdock—and the contrast that arises from that as he’s driven to frustration and violence is delicious. The hero team is rounded out with Foggy Nelson, his best friend and law partner, and Karen Page, a victim who crusades for justice and becomes friends with Matt and Foggy in the process. They’re both so enjoyable to watch. Foggy (Elden Henson) is hilarious, loyal, and it’s clear that Matt was honestly lucky to find him, and luckier still that Foggy loves him. Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) is also a delight; she’s so fiery and determined, but it’s the way that she overcomes her fears and personal weaknesses that is the most rewarding to watch. Her confrontation with James Wesley (the right hand man to Wilson Fisk, the primary antagonist) is one of the most charged and tense scenes of the season, and Daredevil (in a similar move to The 100) does not leave the audience wanting in the aftermath. Daredevil is so good that it will actually be the first show I rewatch after writing this list, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

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Master of None
  1. Master of None

The reason this show is on this list (okay, one of many important reasons) is that I cried huge, gasping, relieved tears during the final scene, when Dev is running through the airport and it’s revealed that no, he’s not going after Rachel (even though he loved her, and we loved her), he’s going after his dreams. He’s being selfish. He’s being good to himself. Master of None is so good because it finally delivers on the promise that so many of these mature, sarcastic, “real,” half-hour comedies that are so trendy now keep trying to push at us. There was always something missing though—most of these shows stayed pretty well within the margins that the entertainment industry has set for us, especially Girls. Master of None succeeds because it connects to a reality that most of us are actually living. Dev (played by Aziz Ansari) is an Indian-American man living in New York City and he only has one white friend, who is literally the Token White Friend (Ansari has called him that on occasion). His other friends include Denise, the hilarious Black lesbian who always tells it like it is, and Brian, who shares a cultural experience of immigrant parents with Dev (Brian’s family is from Taiwan) and struggles to reconcile that with the privileged life he’s always had in the United States. I use the word privilege specifically because Master of None takes no prisoners when it comes to social issues: they blatantly speak about the racism and various inequalities they face every day, and they do it in a way that’s funny and speaks to the experiences of a vast and underrepresented group of people. Master of None is for each and every one of us modern, vaguely lost and distant millennials in the audience that belongs to a marginalized identity. Queer folks and people of color can be disillusioned, trendy, hipster, whatever, too—we just experience it differently, because it’s layered with the repercussions of institutionalized oppression, and Master of None proves it’s possible to portray this within a compelling and funny TV show, and for that reason, it’s on this list.

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  1. Mr. Robot

I was full of questions while watching Mr. Robot. “Is this show actually good? Who the hell is Tyrell? Why is Tyrell watching that woman pee? Why is Rami Malek’s whole TV family white?” But I will say that never once while watching Mr. Robot did I ever reach for my phone, and that’s saying something. Plus, it’s giving Rami Malek the attention and credit he’s deserved since his turn as Pfc. Merriel ‘Snafu’ Shelton in The Pacific, Steven Spielberg’s second World War II HBO epic. I own the tin DVD box set. Mr. Robot is more or less about Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a hacker who suffers from social anxiety disorder, clinical depression, and paranoid delusions, and is drawn into an anarchist hacktivist group (fsociety) that is trying to eliminate all debt. On the whole, I’m not sure how much I cared about the overarching plot beyond needing answers to the questions I asked earlier, but the show is full of individual elements that each shine and make Mr. Robot worth watching. It seems redundant to wax poetic about Rami Malek’s acting (though I easily could) because that’s clear from the first scene. Whenever Rami Malek is on screen, you will be paying attention, and you will be mesmerized. Mr. Robot also, however, boasts incredible cinematography and a knack for framing shots—and it’s so seamless that it often goes unnoticed, until a shot lingers exactly where it should and reminds you that nothing on the screen in front of you is unintentional. Another standout is Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström, a higher-up in the company that fsociety is trying to take down. Tyrell is bisexual, Swedish, and has personally taken it upon himself to sleep with and/or murder anyone in his way, and he’s easily the most interesting character to watch after Elliot. In fact, it’s his fate I’m most interested in when the second season comes back next year, and that’s plenty of time for you to catch up.

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  1. Steven Universe

As the show that inspired me to finally write this article, of course it deserves a spot on the list. Steven Universe, is about the life of the titular character, a kid who is half-human, half-gem (who are a race of humanoid aliens with gems that give them special powers). His own mother, a Crystal Gem named Rose Quartz, fell in love with a human man and gave up her physical form to give birth to Steven, entrusting him to Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl (who are her followers and friends). Steven Universe starts out much as you’d expect a children’s cartoon to develop: wacky adventures, Steven’s journey of self-discovery, the importance of relationships in your life, whether they be platonic, romantic, or familial. But Steven Universe goes a lot farther, gets a lot darker, and comes out on the other side as one of the most incredible shows I’ve ever seen, no matter the genre. There are pockets of despair; the Gems were originally sent to Earth to sterilize it, and Rose Quartz led a rebellion against her own people, reducing them to a shadow of their former selves. In fact, it turns out that the monsters they face are Gems themselves, but can no longer maintain a thinking, self-aware form (as evidenced by the appearance of Lapis Lazuli, who is currently holding another Gem prisoner underneath the ocean for the foreseeable…eternity). Pearl as well is a constant reminder of the undercurrent of loss throughout the show: she was in love with Rose Quartz, and she holds onto her memory without fail, no matter how much pain is causes her. But those elements only make the love and happiness in the show that much more apparent. Fusion, the ability of Gems to fuse into a larger and more powerful being, is a recurring theme, and in the first season it’s revealed that Garnet herself is a fusion. Ruby and Sapphire are Gems are so in love that they prefer to live as a fusion rather than alone, in one of the most heartwarming moments the show has to offer. Steven Universe is probably the cartoon show I’ve seen that is most reflective and relevant to my everyday life. It is chock-full of queerness and affirmation. Nobody is ever made to feel less-than because of who they are. Steven Universe teaches us to love unconditionally without forgetting to love ourselves, and that is why it’s on this list.

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  1. Please Like Me

Please Like Me is probably as far from Steven Universe as you can get, yet it’s on this list for the same reasons. Please Like Me is pretty dark at times; in the first episode, Josh’s girlfriend (Caitlin Stasey, who is also known for her work on Reign, and as an outspoken feminist) breaks up with him because he’s gay (he is), and his life gets progressively worse from there as the show progresses through the seasons. Josh’s mother attempts suicide and is institutionalized; his Aunty Peg dies; his stepmother cheats on his father while pregnant then leaves him; his (former) boyfriend refuses to sleep with him because he isn’t attracted to Josh sexually, his (current) boyfriend has a serious anxiety disorder and wants to sleep with other people—and Josh has to deal with all of his while being generally unambitious and impressively self-deprecating at every angle. It’s also hilarious. Please Like Me takes very real situations (one that many viewers, including me) can relate to, and leaves you with two choices: wallow and despair forever, or laugh about it. Please Like Me helps me to laugh when all I want to do is the former. Josh Thomas, the creator, writer, and star, has impeccable comedic sense, but he also knows that it isn’t always possible to laugh. Season three, the latest, has felt darker than previous seasons, and it’s harder to find the humor sometimes, but it’s done in a way that feels true and even necessary, and for that it is on this list.

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NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 10: Krysten Ritter filming “Jessica Jones” on March 10, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Steve Sands/GC Images)
  1. Marvel’s Jessica Jones

(Content warnings: discussions of rape and abuse)

Marvel’s Jessica Jones just came out, and it’s a current critical darling. Despite the wealth of media attention (all of it well-deserved), I’m going to talk about it too. Jessica Jones is the show we’ve been waiting for: it offers an uncompromising look at PTSD, rape, sexism, harassment, and consent, and it takes no prisoners. Melissa Rosenberg is a powerhouse showrunner, and her agenda is felt all over this. Agenda is a heavy word, but all Rosenberg wants us to do is open our eyes and make us see, which is remarkable considering so much of what happens onscreen (save the truly impossible, aka the literal mind control—though it has a real-life counterpart in gaslighting, in which abusers make their victims question their own perception, memory, and sanity) actually happens every day. Krysten Ritter is Jessica Jones, superpowered human mess who got her abilities in an accident that killed her family, only to be taken in by the family of a child celebrity. This celebrity (Trish Walker, played by Rachael Taylor) ends up becoming her best friend in one of the most rewarding and prevailing friendships on TV this year. Already pretty emotionally scarred (she also saved Trish from her abusive mother), the series starts after Jessica has already had a go at being a hero, which ended in her abduction by Kilgrave, the series’ villain, who can use mind control. While under his control, Jessica was repeatedly raped and was also ordered to kill an innocent person, and the PTSD she suffers from is a direct result, and when he surfaces again, she is determined to bring him down for good. To single out only a few things to highlight in this show is incredibly difficult, but the repeated use of the phrase “smile” (reflecting again, the everyday harassment that women face), Kilgrave’s inability to accept that he is a rapist, and Rosenberg’s own comments and statements about the show are a few. A well-deserved criticism must be included as well, however. Aside from a cameo by Rosario Dawson (Claire Temple, a nurse and one of the best parts about Daredevil), the show is largely absent of any women of color, despite the setting in New York City. Looking forward to season two, that is my only request—that, and upping the noir elements.

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  1. Every Single Television Appearance Lin-Manuel Miranda Has Made This Year

The other week, JJ Abrams called Broadway composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda’s appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon the best television he’d seen in ten years, and I am inclined to agree. As an avid Broadway fan, I’ve been obsessing over Miranda’s new musical: Hamilton, a rap musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, cast entirely with actors of color (Miranda himself is Puerto-Rican, and I can’t think him enough for giving me a Latino hero in the Broadway community). The term lyrical genius has never been more appropriate than in use for Lin-Manuel Miranda, and he’s been freestyle rapping across our TV screens (including on 60 Minutes) for the few months or so, thanks to Hamilton, and to watch him talk about the show in ten- to hour-long segments is more compelling TV than almost anything I have seen this year. Miranda brings unadulterated joy to everything he does, and he’s taken the story of an old dead white guy, used a traditionally upper class venue, and made it accessible and relatable to the voices clamoring for attention in the United States: the minorities, the immigrants, the underprivileged and abused. Miranda is joyful, impassioned, and impossible to turn away from, and even if you’ve never heard of him, Hamilton, or Broadway, take five minutes out of your day to watch his Wheel of Freestyle with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots. If you’re not hooked by then, there’s no hope for you. Did I also mention he wrote the cantina music for Star Wars: The Force Awakens? As Alexander Hamilton himself (…as Lin-Manuel Miranda) pleads: do not throw away your shot.

On Netflix: Beasts of No Nation

IMG_5886On Netflix and in theaters, Beasts of No Nation follows, Agu, a young boy who is torn from his family during the onset of civil war in an unnamed West African country. Agu must fight for survival, both physically and mentally as he looses his family, his friends, and his innocence. 
Based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala, Beast of No Nation features strong performances by Abraham Attah as Agu and Idris Elba (Luther) as the charismatic and damaged Commandant.

Beast of No Nation explores the horrors of young boys being indoctrinated into war by fighting as grown men. 
Directed and written by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, True Detective), the film begins by cleverly inviting viewers to enter Agu’s innocent adolescent world as he and his friends attempt to sell an empty TV set to a soldier which they playfully call an “imagination TV”—it almost feels as if Netflix is subtly saying, join us as we venture from TV to the world of feature films. This civil war drama is relevant, insightful, and disturbing as it languidly flows from one nightmare to another. If you can’t make it to the one movie theater where Beast of No Nation might be playing in your city, it’s definitely worth watching on Netflix.

Grade: B+

—John David West

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#Beastsofnonation #netflix #IdrisElba