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Mediaversity Reviews: “Wonder Woman”

Original review at Mediaversity Reviews

Title: Wonder Woman (2017)
Director: Patty Jenkins 👩🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Screenplay by Allan Heinberg 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈  and story by Allan Heinberg 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈, Zack Snyder 👨🏼🇺🇸, and Jason Fuchs 👨🏼🇺🇸

Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸

Quality: 4/5
Standard fare for a comic book origin story: thrilling action (with standout fight choreography), earnest idealism, and subtle humor. On the flipside, slightly uneven pacing and simplistic characters and storylines.

I’m giving this an extra half point due to the social impact of this being the first female superhero franchise—directed by a female filmmaker, to boot. Patty Jenkins shouldered a massive responsibility and met it head-on with this highly enjoyable popcorn flick, which ticks the box of female empowerment despite struggling to break into truly progressive territory.

Gender: 4.5/5
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
This was a tricky category to grade. I would love to give Wonder Woman a 5/5 in Gender for its unquestionable importance as a feminist work that impacts women and children around the globe. And if I were just grading the first third of the film, I would have done so, considering the all-female cast portrayed as warriors, politicians, and caregivers alike, covering a broad swathe of different types of women and relationships. However, the second and third acts of Wonder Woman shrink to a majority-male ensemble, save for Diana (Gal Gadot) as the leading hero and Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) as a welcome female villain.

Unfortunately, there were two glaring issues—likely carried over from its 1940s source material—that I simply could not overlook:

  • A Forced Romance – Chris Pine is wonderful in his role as Steve Trevor. But the closed-door love scene between him and Diana is wholly unnecessary, as is his awkward interjection of “I love you” before he dashes off. I hate that Diana only finds her true powers due to some sort of implied, romantic awakening; why couldn’t she have found her powers thinking about Antiope, who had trained and mentored Diana for her entire life? Or why couldn’t she have been inspired by Steve as a platonic embodiment of the goodness of human beings? This film would have been so much stronger if the tension between Diana and Steve was kept at mutual respect, rather than romantic interest.
  • The “Born Sexy Yesterday” Trope – I would highly recommend a viewing of Pop Culture Detective Agency’s explainer video, which covers the history of this common pitfall and how antithetical it is to female empowerment.Beth Elderkin sums it up:“‘Born Sexy Yesterday’ is the crafting of female characters who have the minds of children but the bodies of mature women…the idea that a sexy yet virginal woman needs a man to explain the basic fundamentals of being a person, making her dependent on him. It doesn’t matter how unremarkable he is, she’ll always find him fascinating, because she’s never known anyone else.”I was disappointed to see Wonder Woman unfold in these exact blueprints. Diana may be a warrior goddess, but she has never seen a man before Steve Trevor. Who she, of course, falls in love with and (as the film suggests) sleeps with. It’s frustrating to watch the actress be forced to play dumb; if Diana knows what hydrogen is and can speak hundreds of languages, why does she need Steve Trevor to explain the word “marriage” and what it means to “sleep with a woman”?

Lastly, mimicking the unfair tightrope all women have to balance, Diana is even more the paragon of perfection than male superheroes have to be. She’s physically incomparable but with the mind of a child so as not to threaten the egos of fanboys. She’s otherworldly in beauty and scantily-clad, yet manages to embody honor and virtue—contrasting attributes that real-life women are unfairly expected to exhibit simultaneously.

It would be much more empowering, in fact, to have seen Diana as flawed. If Batman gets to be an obsessive human with no real superpowers, Spiderman gets to be a twerpy nerd but still get the girl, and the Hulk gets to have debilitating anger issues and transform into an unsightly monster as his superpower, why does Wonder Woman have to be utterly perfect, with her only Achilles’ heel the eroticized, forced bondage at the hands of a man?

That being said, I still appreciate the undeniable role Wonder Woman is playing right now, advancing opportunities for women to direct big-budget blockbusters and to feature as leading characters. The visible gender role reversal—Steve Trevor as the gorgeous, flawless, and self-sacrificing love interest—is truly refreshing. I just want to get to a point where seeing a female superhero headline a franchise is de rigeur, as opposed to a rarity that occurs once every 76 years.

Race: 3.5/5
White-centric, though it could be argued that Diana, as a Greek goddess played by Israeli Gal Gadot, is less America-centric than it could have been. We see an effort at ethnic diversity within the mercenary group assembled by Steve Trevor—he hires a stereotypical Scot, drunk on whisky and clad in a kilt, along with slightly more nuanced appearances by the francophone, Moroccan Sameer and native American explosives expert known only as “Chief”. Sameer and Chief represent communities significantly underserved by Hollywood and whose parts feel fairly authentic, especially considering this positive reaction written by Vincent Schilling for Indian Country Media Network. Yet the film as a whole remains visibly white, with rank-and-file characters hailing from the Themyscira, Great Britain, America, or Germany.

Similar to the Gender category, I sincerely appreciate the effort to diversify—especially in looking across international borders for talent. Casting an actress who hails from the Middle East (Israel) is significant, while various cast members are non-American: Huston, who plays German villain Ludendorff, is Italian while Dr. Maru is played by a Spaniard.

But the bottom line is, despite their countries of origins, the aforementioned actors play white characters. So I can’t bestow much more than an above-average score in this category.

LGBTQ: N/A
We don’t grade films for omitting LGBTQ representation due the short running time of most movies, as well as the small demographic size of LGBTQ at roughly 4% of the American population.* That being said, thoughts on missed opportunities for Wonder Woman:

Wonder Woman has been an queer icon for decades, with the original comics containing lesbian subtext and the writer of the latest reboot going so far as to confirm Diana as canonically gay.

Yet in Wonder Woman, her romance with Steve Trevor is as heteronormative as its gets. Christopher Hooten puts it succinctly in The Independent:

“Her long-standing bisexuality will not be referenced. Instead, she will very boringly fall in love with the very boring Chris Pine.”

What a lost opportunity! How much stronger would Wonder Woman have been without this mind-numbingly routine romance? Now, don’t get me wrong—I don’t condone queerbaiting (the practice of filmmakers and TV showrunners coyly hinting at queer subtext in their stories without ever delivering actual LGBTQ characters). But considering this is just the first film in what we hope will be a full franchise, the writers could have left some breathing room, simultaneously paying homage to Wonder Woman’s longstanding role in queer and lesbian culture.

Mediaversity Grade: B 4.00/5
This is an exciting moment for women all over the world, make no mistake. But the outdated, male-created source material hinders Wonder Woman from reaching full-out beast mode, at least by 2017 standards of intersectionality and feminism. It isn’t enough for me just to see a “bad-ass” woman anymore—I want to see complex ones, as flawed and relatable as male superheroes are allowed to be.

Still, this is a huge step forward and I’m thrilled about how its worldwide success could open wallets for female directors.

So, for today, I genuinely enjoyed Wonder Woman and am thankful for the strides its making. But tomorrow, I’ll want to see more from this franchise—more complex women, more ethnic diversity, and a proper homage to its LGBTQ roots.

http://www.gallup.com/poll/158066/special-report-adults-identify-lgbt.aspx.

Mediaversity Reviews: “As You Are”

Originally published on Mediaversity

Title: As You Are (2017)
Director: Miles Joris-Peyrafitte 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Madison Harrison 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Miles Joris-Peyrafitte 👨🏼🇺🇸

Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸

Quality: 4/5
The film received rave reviews at Sundance, as well as a Special Jury Award, and has seemingly launched the career of its 23-year-old director. There’s much to laud in his feature-length debut, from the cinematography and editing to the writing of three-dimensional teen protagonists. The young actors—Owen Campbell, Charlie Heaton, and Amandla Stenberg—are absolutely riveting as a trio of outcasts who come to love each other.

While the 90s-throwback certainly has an aesthetic appeal, I’m not sure that the period setting did much to enhance the storytelling other than to do away with cellphones and computers. Finally, I wasn’t totally sold on the film’s ending, which I felt relied too heavily on its narrative gimmick rather than being earned through actual character development.

Gender: 3/5
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? NO
Told mainly through the eyes of Jack (Campbell), the coming-of-age story features only two female characters—Jack’s friend, Sarah (Stenberg), and his mother, Karen (Mary Stuart Masterson)—who interact minimally with each other. Sarah seizes many opportunities to demonstrate her agency, although many of her actions primarily serve to create conflict for Jack and Mark (Heaton). Karen and her male counterpart, Mark’s father Tom (Scott Cohen), are both presented as a tableau of rigid gender norms, against which the younger generation is attempting to push back.

Race: 4/5
The burden of being the sole actor of color rests on Stenberg (who is half-black), yet she’s able to imbue her supporting role with a sense of depth and grace. The fact that her character is shown to have two white parents is also seamlessly woven into the story. Additionally, I appreciated seeing a diverse student body, especially knowing that the movie, which was shot in Albany, NY, (the actual hometown of the director and his co-writer) used local high students as extras.

LGBTQ: 5/5
The film’s greatest strength lies in its exploration of love and sexuality. The evolution of Jack and Mark’s relationship debunks any easy labels such as best friends, brothers, or boyfriends. And the constant ebb and flow of boundaries appear to happen organically, capturing what it actually feels like to be young—as well as gay, bi, queer, or questioning.

Mediaversity Grade: B+ (4/5)
It’s certainly exciting to see how easily this younger generation is able to dismantle heteronormativity, although I do wonder if Jack’s reckoning with his sexual identity was fully conceived or cheaply cut short. Overall, though, I think the trend of straight allies being invested in making art that is inclusive and nuanced is worth celebrating.

Mediaversity Reviews: “Get Out”

Originally published on Mediaversity

Title: Get Out (2017)
Director: Jordan Peele 👨🏽🇺🇸
Writer: Jordan Peele 👨🏽🇺🇸

Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸

Quality: 5/5
Get Out lives up to the enormous hype. A plethora of traditional film reviews can speak to the nuances of the writing, directing, genre-bending, and historical and social contexts, so I’ll just leave you with a succinct quote from Paul Whitington’s review in the Irish Independent:

“Get Out is so clever you could write a thesis on it the length of War and Peace.”

Gender: 2.5/5
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? NO
While none of the female portrayals were offensive, their screen time, number of speaking roles, and levels of sympathy were dwarfed by those of the male characters. Look, Get Out has no interest in discussing feminism or gender equality. But that isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, a tightly-executed film with a narrow focus is often stronger than a film that tries to do too much.

In this vein, similar to my feelings on Donald Glover’s TV series Atlanta or Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, I might love and support Get Out wholeheartedly but would be remiss to score it above a middling grade on Gender.

Race: 5/5
Peele points his finger at American society and lets us know that, dammit, the emperor has no clothes on. White America might look relatively harmless in 2017 (or, at least it did in 2016), but underneath all that self-congratulatory noise about living in a post-racial society, Peele makes the convincing case that white Americans have craved ownership of black bodies for the entirety of our country’s violent history and continue to do so.

He challenges the notion that we’ve made any progress at all. Is today’s coded control of black communities via rigged legal systems, disproportionate levels of incarceration, and cultural appropriation actually any better than literal slavery? It’s a topic few are able to unpack, especially in less than two hours, yet somehow Get Out winks at centuries of painful history and honors it with an absurd, no-bullshit de-pantsing of race in America. No sin is left unturned—every small micro-aggression hints at entire tragedies such as police brutality or sexual objectification, and Peele even finds time to comment on Asian participation in anti-blackness through a single line, as detailed by Ranier Maningding on NextShare.

Meanwhile, one of the most complicated and internal struggles minorities face, cultural appropriation, gets an onscreen embodiment as well. As Amandla Stenberg explains, “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.” For the black community, this could look like Miley Cyrus wearing cornrows and twerking, profiting immensely from the controversy. For Asian-Americans, this could sound like studios who say they are “paying homage” as they profit from Asian stories (Ghost in the Shell, Altered Carbon) or stereotypes (Iron Fist, Last Samurai).

Cultural appropriation is so insidious because of its blurred lines between “inspiration” and “theft” which are especially difficult to navigate for those in societal positions of power. All the more reason Get Out feels so necessary; it finds a way to bridge this disconnect, giving viewers a peek behind the curtain of the minority experience where they can feel for themselves the horror of having one’s identity and agency robbed from them for profit, victims able to do naught but watch on helplessly from the Sunken Place.

By the end of the film, we see the ugly guts of America’s racial history spilled out on the streets and are left with no choice but to leave the theater, chuckling a bit but thinking a lot.

LGBTQ: N/A
No representation but too short a program to ding them for it.

However, due to the allegorical nature of Get Out, I found that the racial anxieties explored in the film could be used as a thought exercise for other marginalized groups—for example, the experience of being queer in America. In the same way Peele suggests we lose some of ourselves by “acting white”, is there a similar loss of identity when LGBTQ individuals “act straight” or attempt to “pass”? What’s more important to us—celebrating our vibrant cultures and fighting for acceptance while staying authentic, or do we take the path of least resistance and lobotomize ourselves in order to assimilate into straight and/or white America for access to social and economic opportunities?

Through the lens of the black experience, Get Out presents the tension between the self and the performance for society—of having a double-identity. But this tension is hardly limited to black individuals; rather, it’s an overarching hallmark of the marginalized experience, whether that means being a woman worried about sounding too aggressive during a meeting, or an introvert trying not to seem “anti-social” at a party. Herein lies the magic of Get Out: it strikes a chord with so many viewers and in such personal ways.

Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.17/5
Jordan Peele sows the seeds and we water, nurture, and let bloom our own ideas of what Get Out means to us. Are we the oppressed, like Chris, who just want to live our lives without being interrupted by the crime of existing? Or are we the inadvertent oppressors, who awkwardly code-switch when we meet black individuals? More interestingly, are we both? For an Asian-American such as myself, I relate to the minority experience of being used and erased by white America, yet I also recognize the relative economic privilege of East Asians and the fiscal conservatism of my own parents—positions that sustain systemic oppression of low-income communities.

Get Out is the mirror held up to our faces that forces us to to pause and think about our own culpability in contributing to cultural tensions. The virtuosity with which Peele weaves together this complex social commentary with genuine comedy alongside eerie, horror-flick thrills, is impressive to say the least.