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Movie Review: Turning Red

My hubby thinks I’m so weird for bawling my eyes out over this “cute panda” movie. Turning Red hits home for Asian girls though, and YOU ALL KNOW IT! Krisandryka from The Mad Tea Book Club first recommended this to me so here I am sniffing my snot.

Themes in Turning Red

The “tiger mom” culture. The pressure to continue a line of tradition which you don’t really understand fully. The constant demand of having to behave well. Those themes are all explored in this animation. But when our protagonist, 13 year-old Meilin activates the family curse and turns into a “monstrous” red panda, how is she supposed to behave? Herein is the main message of the animation: that you CAN be ugly. You CAN get angry, let your emotions out. In fact, if you try to always bottle it in, there can be disastrous effects. Like what we see with Meilin’s mother. Y’all, I’m just so glad themes like these are being brought up into popular culture. Finally.

Cringe Factor

There is definitely a lot of cringe factor (like their craze over boybands) but I think it’s special in that way! So few movies raise up this unabashed feminine side. How does a teenage girl go through puberty? In that way Turning Red is courageously controversial! I honestly think that teenage girls are the smartest representatives of humankind. Because of that, society cracks down during that crucial period and tries to conform girls into “the way women should be”.

Menstruation

This topic can be a whole NOVEL but let me try to condense a bit here. Raised up as a conservative Christian, it’s been pounded into me from the sacred book that a woman is dirty when she is in her period. Great, thanks. Add to this the social stigma of not being able to talk openly about my periods, how to deal with it, what to do when it really hurts, when I’m PMSing, and we have ourselves a continued rejection of the very way our body works. What a sad twist on how amazing our reproduction cycle is. And yet women are also baby machines. The irony is complete.

That’s why I think Turning Red is controversial but also so important for teenage girls to watch: so we know our cycles are to be celebrated, not to be hidden away in shame. Another similarly empowering movie for teenage girls is Netflix Enola Holmes.

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Movie Review: West Side Story (2021)

My relationship with this musical goes all the way back to my 9 year old self. Little me is in middle school in Chicago, singing Robin Hood the musical. Watching jealously while the high schoolers perform West Side Story. Yes, that was my first exposure to this great work of art. Needless to say, I memorized every single word and song, watching the first version of the film hundreds of times.

Fast forward to 2016 when a performing arts group in Jakarta decided to stage West Side Story. DAYUM. I eventually met the director, Fonnyta Amran (check out our podcast episode)! We even worked together with her on the Last Five Years musical production.

And then. Then Steven Spielberg is set to do a remake. And fresh breath revives the modern tragedy of Tony and Maria.

Spielberg’s Version

Spielberg’s version brought tears to my eyes all over again. For those of you that shame love at first sight, please watch West Side Story. I mean, these two youngsters meet at a dance and over the course of 3 days manages to fall in love, get married, get a lot of people killed, and bring peace to their warring gangs. There you go. Love at first sight does exist (if only in musicals, you say, and in Shakespeare).

I enjoyed most the perfect balance of new and old. Old favorites like the gym mambo dance, the railing duet, the Jets song are preserved next to a change of scenery for “America”, “Cool”, and “One Hand, One Heart”. I love that Spielberg manages to keep the spirit of these songs even though the setting is updated. Sometimes of them even gets a shuffle in order appearance! There were enough pleasant surprises such as the strengthening of Anita’s character (Ariana Debose stole the show!), Rita Moreno playing as Doc’s widow, and Tony beating up Bernardo that I had HOPE. A small spark of illogical, dangerous hope that in this version, Tony and Maria would somehow make it on that bus and be able to finally live. Alas, West Side Story remains a tragedy still, and there isn’t yet a place for those two.

Off now to drown myself in happily ever after rom-coms so the tragic cloud can pass.

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Movie Review: Encanto

I love that Disney is actively pushing and diversifying its female heroines. The most recent Disney-Pixar: Encanto is everything I wish I had seen as a little girl. Encanto is (yes, I must admit) better than Raya and the Last Dragon in that it has crazy good songs! By the one and only Lin Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, In the Heights, Moana…). We Don’t Talk About Bruno and Surface Pressure are my two favorite songs from this deck.

My “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” Piano Cover

Story

Somewhat a tribute to the book One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez’, Encanto is about a magical family called the Madrigals. Three generations live together in one house (sounds familiar, anyone?) and of course as you can imagine in such a living situation family dynamics are likely to explode (which it did). Without someone taking initiative to patch it up together, all you’d have is a ruin, both figuratively and literally.

Enter, Mirabel Madrigal, is the only person in her family that is “average” (like Number Seven in Umbrella Academy but we all know the reality behind that!). She didn’t get a magical gift at the age of 5 when everyone else got theirs. As a result Mirabel becomes the brunt of Abuela’s (her matriarchal grandmother) insecurity about their magic was running out. Mirabel has a vision that their home starts to cracks, so she investigates deeper into her family. One by one hidden truths are revealed, family relationships are restored, and their magic comes back strong.

A happy ending with a terribly sad beginning – we get to see more of Abuela’s backstory at the very end… Lots of tears from me, even on the 2nd time watching.

Side Characters in Encanto

There are a host of fun and also layered side characters, from Dolores the gossip to sweetheart Antonio who can talk to animals. Of course, the one nobody wants to talk about – the prodigal uncle Bruno is just a riot of a character. I like how the directors immediately inserted the mystery about Bruno in the beginning song, giving just a bit of foreshadow of the plot. Luisa, the muscular and bulky oldest sister is super strong. But under all that strength is a weight that’s tip-tip-tipping on her. Her song Surface Pressure strikes me as a very modern and adult. Yet it was a great way to introduce the importance of mental health and self-care to kids. Thanks to Hercu-lady.

Isabella, Mirabel’s second oldest sister is also an interesting character study. She starts off as the classic pretty and perfect girl. Her gift is being able to produce beautiful flowers to decorate anything pink and purple. We eventually learn she hates being perfect all the time, and actually wants to be a bit naughty. YES! You know that’s the stuff I like! Other members of the family include Pepa who can control weather and her husband Felix, Julieta (Mirabel’s mother) who can heal any ailments with her food with her husband Augustin, and Camilo the family clown who can impersonate anyone. There isn’t really a plot outside of the family members, so these characters drive the show.

Last of all, it’s an animated film and the animation is SPOT ON especially with the dancing and choreography . The way the 3D figures move, the lighting, the coloring, is all very realistic. Apparently there is a new technology Disney used called the eye-shader which heightens emotions through the eyes. Let me tell ya, it worked. At times I even forgot it’s an animation! A must see for the whole family.

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Movie Review: Spencer (2021)

Do yourself a favor and pick up Spencer (2021). Lathered with trigger warnings as it is (eating disorder, self-harm, suicidal thoughts) Kristin Stewart brings to screen a Diana that is still constantly trying to regain control over her life. A Diana who resists the suffocation of totalitarian power. Indeed oppression can have many faces, and one of them is glamour.

Indeed oppression can have many faces, and one of them is glamour.

Eating Disorder Portrayal

As someone that struggled with bulimia for a third of my life up to now (almost 10 years), I thought the portrayal of Diana’s disorder was spot-on. Her dread while her weight was being tallied. Her stress over being forced to eat and appear to enjoy food. The purging followed by binging in the middle of the night. How it all ties in with the breakdown of her psychology. It makes Spencer (2021) is a good resource to understand roughly what people with eating disorders go through. Even that part when Charles mocks her (conveniently and cruelly) about appreciating the hard work of the kitchen staff.

Rebellion and Fighting Spirit

Given Diana’s circumstances in which she had very little choice over anything (all of her clothes are picked for her and labeled for each occasion), Spencer (2021) shows what a powerful spirit she has in fighting back however she can. She’s an independent woman who chooses to drive off on her own. She is a mother who gives her children gifts on Christmas Day so they can experience being “normal people”. She leaves the curtains open while she is dressing – it may seem like behavior that invites concern, but that’s how she fights back.

And till the end, she fights in her own way. Till the end, Diana is constantly trying to claim back a piece of herself, for herself.

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Movie Review: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Out of the darkness…into the spotlight…

That song is now forever cemented in my head. I must also join the hype for this one and also talk about Jamie! In short, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a musical movie about a high school boy Jamie who decides he wants to wear a dress to prom.

The events of the few weeks leading up to the prom become touching and emotional as Jamie gets mixed receptions to his intentions. His best friend Preeti and his mother supports him, while his teacher, some macho bullies, and his father opposes him. Another key figure is a mentor who teaches him the ways of a professional drag queen.

The stage musical came before the movie, and it was inspired by a documentary titled Jamie: Drag Queen at 16.

Songs

It’s a musical so let’s talk about the songs. In short, they are fabulous. Put them on your Spotify play loop now and you’ll see what I mean.

The lyrics by Tom McRae are realistic and not forced, with a lot of witty humor. The melodies are simple and memorable – it reminds me of Les Misérables’ songs. Indeed the composer Dan Gillespie Sells said he connected with Jamie’s story and therefore could write the songs in a way that was hopeful and confident instead of tropic and cliché.

Some of my favorite are Spotlight (I covered it on my IG channel), Over the Top, and Everybody’s Talkin About Jamie. My Man, Your Boy is touching but whenever I listen to it I cry and bawl and sometimes I don’t want to cry and bawl, but this song makes me so emotional every single time). So it’s on my “emotional” lists not my “play all the time” list.

Story

Just like the composer, I love stories like Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. It’s got a timeframe which is well defined ( a couple weeks into the prom and prom night), a clear focused struggle (he just wants to wear a dress to the prom – he isn’t trying to change the world or be a billionaire, or answer the world’s problems), realistic relationships (probably cuz its based on a true story), and a satisfying ending: everyone dances at the dance party. Simple, focused, sweet. And by being true to himself in this one thing, Jamie has touched and impacted many hearts.

We often forget that sometimes, it just takes one simple small stone to dislodge, and then the avalanche will roll.

If you like movie musicals, another one I recommend is In the Heights by Lin Manuel Miranda.

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Movie Review: Cinderella 2021

Cinderella must be one of the most often retold fairy tales out there. If you like the dusty girl, bullied to misery by her stepmother and two stepsisters, then be prepared to add this rendition to your list.

Cinderella, a jukebox movie musical by Amazon prime is a fun, fresh take on the old tale. The songs chosen were hits from the 80s pops to some newly written original songs. I won’t lie, I watched it for my heroine, Idina Menzel, who played Stepmother. Yes, Elsa from Frozen and Elphaba from Wicked and now Cinderella’s Stepmother.

A Fresh Retelling

Several reasons why this version is fresh and thus worthy of your time:

  1. Ella as (Camila Cabello) is as modern as modern goes! She likes love, but doesn’t want to put a “label” on it. Presented the choice of marriage with Prince Charming or growing her business, she chooses to grow her business. She’s sassy but still the smart and kind Cinderella figure we all know.
  2. Fairy god mother is genderless? This is brilliant! Although Billy Porter only shows up for several minutes to magic up Ella’s dress, they stole the show! I absolutely loved it!
  3. Idina Menzel as Stepmother is something else. I really like how the writer reshaped this character into not just your classic villain, but someone who is actually trying to do what she really believes is best for the family. And she is material as material goes, but we all know it’s good to be material. If girls don’t have their own money, they just end up in powerless situations and are likely to be abused.
  4. Princess Gwen! What a fabulous twist and additional character! The younger sister of Prince Charming has always thought of plans and strategies for the betterment of the land, but has constantly been rebuffed by their father due to his patriarchal views. Despite this, their brother and sister vibe was rock on, and I enjoyed how they tried to support each other instead of take the other down.
  5. That leads us to the last telltale role of Cinderella: the prince. Prince Charming (Nicholas Galitzine) is a spoiled brat here, but learns some really good lessons and becomes someone who is a happy supporter to Ella’s budding career. What a nice stab at gender reversals.

All in all, I truly enjoyed this remake of Cinderella, much more than I thought I would. Want another fun Cinderella retelling? Try Marissa Meyer’s futuristic Cinder (book version), in which Cinderella is a (get ready for it) cyborg.

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Movie Review: Cruella

What a doll of a movie! This retelling of one of Disney’s creepiest villains Cruella Devil, is a party vibe fun watch. I mean, as if two Emmas (Emma Stone and Emma Thompson) is not enough star blinking power, we get a Devil Wears Prada high fashion mixed with Six of Crows thievery mood. This review has mild spoilers, so continue at your discretion.

The Hair

Yes, Cruella’s signature is her half black half white hair which you can tell from miles away. This hair got a lot of symbolic attention which was frankly quite brilliant. When Cruella was younger (under her birth name of Estella), she was already wild. The little girl got into trouble in school for defending her friend Anita, and beating up the guys who bullied them.

However, after her mother’s tragic death, Estella had to go into hiding (or risk living in orphanages). She ran into two thug boys Jasper and Horace, and they become a team. Estella hides her identity by dying her hair red. When the three grow up, Jasper helps Estella land a job in the fashion industry, something Estella had always dreamed of.

Her dreams become nightmarish however when Estella discovers horrible truths behind her boss, the Baroness. Bent on revenge, Estella goes back to her true self and this is symbolized with the return of the black and white hair. She renames herself Cruella and upstages the London fashion world with her daring antics and wild sense of style.

The Family Card

At one point in the movie, Cruella gets carried away and becomes a bit manic. I really liked this part because I agree that any extreme is dangerous. Moderate is the new cool. It’s great to discover (or rediscover) your true self, and to show that to the world, but it’s not cool if it happens at the cost of the relationships which matter most to you.

When Cruella comes to her senses (shout out to Emma Stone’s fabulous acting) she finds a moderate middle between Cruella and Estella and rallies her thug family back together.

Cruella makes it the second Disney movie this year which gets 5 stars from me- the first was Raya and the Last Dragon.

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Movie Review: Wolfwalkers

Oh oh oh. I’m sure you have all had this experience, where you see something interesting and decide to try it with no expectations at all. That was my case with Wolfwalkers (2020). It is an animation based on Irish folklore, directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart. The story revolves around two girls. The first is a young girl hunter named Robyn Goodfellow, whose mother has died and is now living only with her father. The second is a wolfwalker named Mebh, who is a girl during the day and a little she-wolf cub at night.

Wolfwalkers pleasantly surprised me and won me over with the gorgeous artwork, anti colonization theme, women empowerment message, and friendship amongst different creatures. It reminded me of Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon, although with completely different artwork concept.

“I don’t want them to put you in a cage,” the hunter Bill said to his daughter.

“Can’t you see? I’m already in a cage!” shouted Robyn.

Synopsis

The Lord Protector whom Bill works for insists that the hunters kill the wolf pack that lives in the forest. Their death will show that the Lord Protector can control the forest, and as such is a brutal show of his power. Of course, his voice represents the voice of God, so everyone must listen. Everyone, but the rebellious Robyn and her mysterious friend Mebh.

Robyn met Mebh in the forest, where the cub accidentally bit Robyn to help save her from a trap. This bite turns Robyn into a wolfwalker like Mebh, and so Mebh shows Robyn the secret place which is the sanctuary of the pack. In this magical cave lies the sleeping body of Mebh’s mother, who has been in that state ever since her wolf body went missing months ago. Mebh is determined to find her mother, and Robyn promises to help her.

However, Robyn’s rebellious behavior attracts attention from the Lord Protector. Thus he instructs Bill to keep a reign on his daughter, or “reigns will be put on her.” As a result, Bill forces Robyn to work in the scullery (kitchen) under the watching eyes of other maids.

Will Robyn be able to fight back against her fearful father? Is her and Mebh’s friendship strong enough to overcome the many differences that lie in between? Will Mebh be reunited with her mother and protect their pack, or will they all be annihilated by the Lord Protector?

Please find out for yourself and watch Wolfwalkers. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film at the Academy AwardsGolden Globe Awards and BAFTA Awards. You won’t be disappointed at all!

A special perk of this beautiful movie is the song Running with the Wolves by Aurora.

Go row the boat to safer grounds
But don’t you know we’re stronger now
My heart still beats and my skin still feels
My lungs still breathe, my mind still fears

But we’re running out of time
Oh, all the echoes in my mind cry
There’s blood on your lies
The sky’s open wide
There is nowhere for you to hide
The hunter’s moon is shining

I’m running with the wolves tonight.

Have you come across this movie? What did you think?

PS: If you like wolf and magic put together, the book A Wolf for A Spell by Karah Sutton is a great fun read.

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Movie Review: Radioactive (2020)

“I have suffered much more from a lack of resources and funds, than I ever did from being a woman,” says Marie Curie in the 2020 retelling of her life: Radioactive. Directed by Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) with Rosamund Pike as the brilliant scientist, this movie aims to be an inspiration to young girls.

How is Radioactive inspiring young girls?

Marie Curie’s life is already an inspiration; 2 Nobel prizes in the field of physics and chemistry. Satrapi adds into this her bold directing vision: cutting and lurching to scenes in the future which are completely unrelated to the plot. Right after Marie Curie announces their discovery of two new elements-radium and polonium-the scene launches to a doctor in Cleveland, Ohio, explaining a new medical treatment for cancer called radiation. At one of the most heart-wrenching moments of Pike’s acting, the scene cuts to the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown of 1986.

Some movie lovers will despise this style of storytelling. I, however, found this reinforcement of dichotomy to be brave and daring, showing how the actions in one person’s life can create such impact (for the better or for the worse) into the future. Marie Curie directly impacted her daughter Irene (played by Anya Taylor-Joy of The Queen’s Gambit), who went on to win a Nobel prize of her own. Indirectly Marie Curie impacted humankind all around the globe forevermore. To me, this gives the extraordinary message that women do have power.

To me, this gives the extraordinary message that women do have power.

Despite all odds, the headstrong Marie was able to find a husband that respected and supported her science. For a moment, at least, it was possible to have both love and a dazzling career. I find this to be another powerful message for a world which tells women that we have to choose. We can have love but we must clip our wings, or we can choose a glorious career but stay a spinster until old age.

“I wasn’t a very good mother, was I?” Marie admits to an adult Irene as they are heading into a World War I battlefield. Mothering is difficult. Put on top of that being a single mother and juggling a world famous career. How does one play all these roles? Is it even possible? Or are these illogical demands we put on girls and women who long to have both kids and a CV? And yet, Irene Curie turned out just fine in her own accord.

Finally, I was most taken aback by the line that Marie Curie suffered more from lack of resources than from being a woman. This is so fresh. Satrapi’s Curie never victimizes herself as a woman dominated by men. She is confident with her mind, her values, and her worth. And this is why I find Radioactive so inspiring.

Have you seen Radioactive? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!