EmotedLlama’s 2017 in Movies

Or more accurately, “EmotedLlama’s 2017 at the Movie Theater” but that’s not the naming convention, dammit!

Anyway, here’s a rundown of the seven movies released in 2017 I saw in 2017, in chronological order. Full spoilers should be assumed.

Hidden Figures

This movie was utterly fantastic. On a fundamental level it’s a standard inspirational biopic, but by focusing on, well, hidden figures of American history, and doing it with just impeccable execution, Hidden Figures denies being reduced in that way. It’s hard for me to say a lot more about it since a lot of the depth to the movie is on topics I’m not well-suited to write about, especially since my memory of the movie is a little iffy after a year, but suffice to say that, well, this movie is great. Also, the performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae are just perfect.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

I really enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy the first time I watched it, but on rewatch found it kind of stale, so I wasn’t entirely sure how much I’d like this one. And . . . it was fine. There were some good gags (<3 baby groot), and elements of the movie’s thematic material about family worked, but it felt like for every good moment there were twice as many moments where characters were just yelling at each other for no real reason.

There’s also a kind of unsettling tonal dissonance throughout the movie, like how the crew that stand up for Yondu are vented out the airlock and it’s meant to be a sobering moment, but when Yondu kills the crew who mutinied against him its a fun action sequence. Like, apparently murder is bad when it’s sort-of good guys, but when it’s sort-of bad guys it’s exciting! Another example is the character of Mantis, who on paper is a tragic victim of emotional abuse and educational neglect, but these things are played for laughs rather than examined in any meaningful way.

Additionally, the movie suffers from not really having a plot outside of the stuff with Yondu in the second act, which might work if the character interactions were more meaningful but they’re really not that exceptional. The relationship between Gamora and Nebula is somewhat interesting, if only because “adopted sisters who were forced to fight each other by their supervillain dad” is such a unique story, but then Peter Quill’s entire arc is one we’ve seen time and again in fiction and the wedge it drives between him and Gamora is super rote.

Wonder Woman

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I mean. I’m not sure there’s much to be said about Wonder Woman that hasn’t been said already. It’s just an incredible movie and in a landscape of Marvel’s experimentation, Fox’s whatever-the-fuck-they’re-doing, and DC’s Zack Snyder obsession, Wonder Woman stands out as the first superhero movie in a long time to portray a traditional style of superhero. Diana Prince as a character is a beacon of hope, of selflessness, of fighting for what’s right and the greater good, to the point where her enemy is literally a personification of the concept of war. It’s really meaningful to see a hero like that in today’s cultural landscape, and I’m thankful that she has such a strong movie to back her up.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

After seeing this movie I thought about doing a post comparing the ways it, Wonder Woman, and Guardians Vol. 2 portray superheroes, because it’s a really fascinating contrast. Where Guardians is about messy people trying their best and Wonder Woman is about a classic-type hero, Spider-Man: Homecoming shows us a young kid who kind of wants to be a Wonder Woman-like hero, but is held back by his inexperience and immaturity, not to mention Tony Stark’s horrible mentorship. It makes for an enjoyable arc for Peter Parker, and the relationship he has with Tony Stark is fascinating to watch.

And outside of all that, this is just a really fun movie. The high school trappings are a smart storytelling move and help make for a story that gets closer to exploring what life for the everyday person is like in the MCU than any of the franchise’s other entries. There was some stuff I didn’t like as much, such as the way the movie pokes fun at some if its genre conventions (like Peter awkwardly changing into his costume or being unable to web in a park) while holding onto others (how in the heck did he get away from that ferry without being caught?), but on a whole it’s a well-crafted movie with a lot to enjoy.

Atomic Blonde

There’s not a lot going on in this movie (I left to use the bathroom at one point and didn’t even feel I’d missed anything), and it uses that simplicity and singular drive to tell a nerve-wracking, intensely-thrilling story with knockout action sequences and a brutal, but never sadistic, tone that just rules. I don’t think anything else needs to be said by me.

Thor: Ragnarok

This was really the year of fun Marvel movies, and this was definitely the most fun of the three. I have my quibbles–until Thor and Loki meet with Odin the movie keeps setting up dramatic moments and then diffusing them with silly humor in a way I found annoying, and the shuffling off the the series’ previous female characters is really questionable–but those aside, this is a fun, exciting movie with a pretty good use of humor and some interesting thematic material about colonialism and whitewashing of the past.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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This. Movie. Was. Phenomenal!

Okay. First: The Last Jedi just would not stop producing incredible, destined-to-be-iconic moments. Leia’s spacewalk! The throne room fight! Holdo’s lightspeed sacrifice! Luke’s standoff with Kylo! And that’s without all of the other action set pieces which were thrilling and visually stunning and just a joy to behold.

Second: the thematic material! I’ve seen people deride the Canto Bight sequence for slowing the pace of the movie, but the exploration of a corrupt ruling class exploiting the working class was awesome to see and I felt it meaningfully expanded the Star Wars universe. (I didn’t have issues with the movie’s pacing, though, so maybe I’m extra forgiving.) And I’ve seen it pointed out how DJ’s character even criticizes the “both sides are bad” mindset by showing him siding with the unquestionable bad guys out of opportunism, which is an interesting interpretation.

Then there’s the message about failure, which the movie builds into every one of its plotlines in a really great way. Luke’s failure to keep Kylo Ren from the dark side and Rey’s subsequent failure to turn Kylo to the light side, Rose and Finn’s failure to disrupt the First Order’s tracking, Poe’s failure to subvert Holdo’s plans, the Resistance’s failure to escape the First Order intact. The ultimate message of all this, though, is that just because the heroes failed and made mistakes doesn’t mean they’ve lost and can’t move on. It’s not a hugely original or complex theme, but for a Star Wars movie it’s pretty robust.

Third and final: the character arcs. I loved the continued evolution of Finn from The Force Awakens as someone who originally just wants to get away from the First Order/Resistance conflict, then gets involved to save Rey, then comes to see the value of the Resistance and the just fight they’re fighting and is willing to sacrifice himself to try to save them. (DJ is used neatly as a foil here, presenting pessimistic ideas that Finn ultimately rejects.) I also love the way that Rose saving him isn’t just a contrivance to keep him from dying, but fits with her grief after her sister’s sacrifice and Poe’s arc of learning that risky, showy plans aren’t always the best.

Speaking of Poe’s arc, it’s where I’m a little iffy on the movie. I think some of it works, but the contrivance around Holdo not telling him the evacuation plan significantly weakens the plotline. Not only does it really not make sense for Holdo to not make everyone aware that they’re going to evacuate the ship (I’d think at least her bridge crew would be aware, yet Billie Lourd’s character continuously helps Poe), but the fact that she withholds that information from Poe makes his decision to subvert her command seem like not such a bad idea. Additionally, the initiation of his arc is in the movie’s opening sequence where he leads a strike against a First Order ship against Leia’s orders–except whether his decision was a good one is pretty debatable, and so I’m left ultimately wondering just how much Poe actually needed to change.

There’s also the subtext of his arc, which I’ve seen pointed out is questionable given that Oscar Isaac is a Latino man and the movie portrays his character as hot-headed and reckless. (I’m not sure I’d use exactly those words but I’d need to rewatch to really disagree.) Of course, there’s also subtext in his plotline about men needing to listen to women, so it’s more complicated than just “the only subtext present is bad,” but it is an issue.

Finally there’s Rey’s arc, which I think I need to see the movie again to fully form an opinion on. Her story is split between her relationships with Luke, Kylo, and her heritage in a way that makes untangling those elements from each other a little complicated. I’m tentatively willing to say, however, that I don’t think Rey has an arc across the movie so much as she takes actions and learns things, which isn’t necessarily bad–I don’t think Moana really has an arc in Moana, and that’s not to the detriment of the movie–but makes her feel a little less dynamic in the movie compared to Finn and Poe. Still, it’s something I need to think more on and get another viewing in to really get my head around it.

But overall, as I said: this movie is amazing! I need more time to decide if I prefer it to The Force Awakens overall, but these two movies are definitely my favorite Star Wars movies regardless of their ordering compared to each other.

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EmotedLlama’s 2017 in Music

This year I’m just going to stick to a “top five albums” list, which works out since that’s as many albums I listened to that came out this year. (Well, I gave Lorde’s Melodrama a few listens but it doesn’t do much for me.) Actually I’m not even going to rank them, because I think they’re all solid albums with their own strengths and weaknesses. So, to start:

Everything Now by Arcade Fire

There’s . . . a lot going on with this album. The title track and its two-part “Infinite Content” argue for an album about consumerism and the information overload of the information age, but the rest of the album doesn’t really follow that theme. And that’s for the best, really, as while “Everything Now” works well enough, both “Infinite Content”s are laughably bad, literally just the lines “infinite content/we’re infinitely content” over and over again. In contrast, the rest of the album moves in subtler, less rotely-judgmental spaces, painting a picture of general unease and existential melancholy that feels much more fully-fleshed. Like, damn if I know exactly what “Put Your Money On Me” is about, but it’s easily one of my top Arcade Fire tracks across their five albums, and that lyrical opacity really works in its favor as Arcade Fire tends to be its worst when it’s at its most direct.

Something to Tell You by HAIM

This is just a really solid, late-’90s/early-’00s-tinged modern rock album. The influences are all over the place–from the Christine McVie-penned Fleetwod Mac soundalike “Nothing’s Wrong,” to the R&B sensibility of “Walking Away,” to the grungy closer “Night So Long”–but all feel masterfully synthesized into an album that feels at once contemporary and retro in a way that works out to roughly timeless. On the other hand, some of the melodies here just don’t work for me that much, which is compounded by the repetitious nature of the choruses on practically every track. “Little of Your Love,” for instance, pretty much just repeats the same hook at the halfway mark, making it feel like it’s in outro-mode for nearly two minutes. Nevertheless, standouts like “You Never Knew” and “Right Now” easily justify a few lesser tracks.

Truth is a Beautiful Thing by London Grammar

Truth is a Beautiful Thing stands out as the only album here that doesn’t have a track on it I don’t care for (ignoring the special edition bonus tracks). London Grammar take the simple production from their debut album and ramp it up here to create something far more sweeping and dramatic, a direction perfectly suited to the band’s style and Hannah Reid’s ethereal vocals. I don’t really have anything else to say about this one, because it’s really just an incredibly solid album.

Now by Shania Twain

I’ve been revisiting Shania Twain’s back catalog this year and it’s been astounding to realize just how many perfect melodic compositions she released over just three albums. This gave me high hopes for her comeback album, Now, and . . . it sort of delivered. On a whole it’s a lot less catchy, a lot less upbeat, and so isn’t very reminiscent of what made classic Shania Twain so phenomenal. But it does still have a lot of solid tracks, and honestly some of the better ones are the ones that diverge the most from her classic sound–the swampy intensity of “Roll Me On The River,” the contemporary pop sound of “Poor Me,” the jazzy “We Got Something They Don’t.” Ultimately, none of the tracks live up to the standards set by her classic singles, but as an album I think it’s on par with those in her past, as some of the album tracks from her previous albums are pretty forgettable.

Beautiful Trauma by P!nk

This was definitely the biggest surprise of the year. P!nk really wasn’t on my radar until she released the lead single for this album, “What About Us,” which I really enjoyed and when I checked out the rest of the album I found I liked it all as well. There’s the sort of stuff I’d expect from P!nk here–sort of abrasive pop with a moderately hard edge–but what really astounded me on Beautiful Trauma is the strong through line of singer-songwriter styling, leading to stellar songs like “Barbies,” “Where We Go,” or “Better Life.” The absolute standout track, meanwhile, “I Am Here,” mixes gospel backup singing with thumping folk-rock instrumentals for one of the most emotionally impactful songs of the year. There are some songs here that I don’t think work as well as the others–“Secrets,” for instance, feels a little on-the-nose lyrically–but in all this is a remarkably good album.

What I’m Watching: Alias Grace

Sarah Polley, who wrote the Canadian-Netflix coproduction adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, described it as a sort of counterpart to Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation: where that show takes a look into a future where women’s rights have been stripped away, this one looks into the past where they didn’t exist in the first place. And while Alias Grace is structured within the framework of a true crime mystery, it’s this theme of the intersection of sexism and classism that really resides in its core.

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This poster defies witty commentary.

Though I’ve read it’s very faithful to the 1996 book it’s based on, Alias Grace in many ways feels like a take-down of the cheery way in which Downton Abbey portrayed the class differences between its characters. It always struck me as profoundly wrong in that show that Mary could be best friends with Anna, her maid, while also employing her at a level of wealth drastically beneath hers. In Alias Grace, this disparity is not glossed over, as central character Mary Whitney privately rails against the social and class system she lives in, idolizing rebellion leader William Lyon Mackenzie. And ultimately, Mary Whitney embodies a horrible reality of the time, all-but forced into getting an abortion after being impregnated by one of the men of the house and dying from it. As the same man, George, starts to go after Grace, she leaves the house to work for a new employer, leading to the murders which put her in prison.

So immediately it can be seen how so much of Grace’s life is shaped by the amount of wealth she’s born into: forced into working as a maid, where the power disparity forces her to leave for another house, where power struggles in turn result in murder. And in addition to being a factor of class, it’s also a factor of gender: Grace’s drunk, abusive father; the scummy George who leads to Mary’s death and chases Grace out of the house; Thomas Kinnear, who strings along Nancy in a way similar to how George did Mary; James McDermott, who probably initiated the murders; and Simon Jordan, who seeks to contextualize and understand Grace’s story but not necessarily on her terms. Even Jamie, who prior to the murders was the one man who seemed to like Grace in a non-exploitative way, grows fixated on how his testimony hurt her and asks her to repeat her trials in prison over and over, seemingly just for his benefit.

And so I think when, in the end, the exact story of what happened during the murders stays somewhat ambiguous–be it possession, multiple personality disorder, or something else entirely–it’s not only appropriate to the fact that Grace Marks was a real person and the exact story of what happened is unknown in the real world, but also to the fact that Alias Grace was never truly about the murders. The real injustice is not that Grace may have been falsely imprisoned, but that she existed in a world that trapped her simply for who she was born as, leading her to the situation of the murders in the first place. The jail cell she lives in for 30 years is only a literal manifestation of the prison that is society to working class women.

Alias Grace

The idea that the truth isn’t really the point is reflected in the way the show tells its story through flashbacks. Most of these are meant to be what Grace tells to Dr. Jordan, but some seem to be flashes into Grace’s head as memories come back to her, and some are based in others’ accounts of events or Grace bringing up a possibility as a rhetorical device. Additionally, Grace narrates the “present” scenes from the future in what’s revealed to be a letter to Dr. Jordan, meaning even that may just be a performance. This creates a compelling tension as the details, especially around the murders, are blurred, while the broad strokes all seem to be true. But, more importantly, it means the audience never gets to hear Grace’s story from herself, really–only as she narrates it to a male, upper-class listener. Her story is always obscured by what she thinks Dr. Jordan and society want to hear.

This is a theme that’s in turn strengthened by how the show touches on the fascination behind true crime stories and explores what it’s like for Grace as the center of other people’s interest. The way that Dr. Jordan becomes obsessed with Grace and finding the truth of what she did seems reflective of how society in general treats these sorts of cases, and in portraying him not as a noble hero but as a really rather messed up dude might criticize the way we view true crime stories. It also returns to the theme of not looking at the exact details of the salacious crimes that may or may not have been committed, and instead paying attention to the greater cultural context that led to such a story in the first place. Alias Grace is ultimately not about a mystery, or watching tragedy for its own sake, but about social injustice and the way in which it destroys lives.

Premiere Week Fall 2017

UHHH. I genuinely did write this the week everything premiered (the week of September 18th, I think? Ahhh), but I took a pause to write about The Good Place and Madam Secretary and then life got busy and stressful and this sat in my drafts. Anyway, I’ve left out those two shows and will write about them at a later date.

Star Trek: Discovery

I only caught the episode of this that premiered on actual TV (the rest of the series is a streaming exclusive on CBS All Access), but I thought it was pretty good! It’s certainly a very different kind of Star Trek series from what we’ve seen before, but then so was Deep Space Nine and that wasn’t a bad thing (or so I’ve heard; I never watched past the first episode).

What really worked about the episode for me was that although it was gussied up with fantastic production values and some fancy sequences, at its core it was a plot about an unexpected problem and the characters trying to find a way to solve it in a way that mostly came down to arguing their different sides. Maybe it wasn’t as cerebral or philosophical as previous series, and it certainly had a stronger theme of insubordination and character confliiiict, but I still appreciated watching an episode of television that was focused on characters debating an issue.

What I’m not sure I like as much is how focused in on one character the episode was. The idea of the show is that Michael Burnham is not the captain of a ship but is the straight up protagonist, and I think that’s fine–but since this episode doesn’t take place on the primary ship of the series, there really wasn’t any time spent developing the crew. The ship’s captain, Michael, and the next highest-ranking officer were really the only characters in the episode (excluding the Klingons) and that felt limiting.

Still, I’m intrigued to see where the rest of the series goes, and while I probably wouldn’t have started the show without the main ship anywhere in sight, the first episode did set a fine enough basis for the rest of the series since it’s so centrally focused on Michael.

The Voice

I’d never watched The Voice before Monday and Tuesday nights, and before that the only reality singing show I’d ever watched was American Idol back in the Carrie Underwood era, so what most interested me here was the contrasts between the shows. I think American Idol in later seasons got more into contestants who were already in music-related careers, but back when I watched it it was still (as far as I remember) mostly filled with hopefuls whose careers hadn’t started yet. That combined with the a capella auditions gave it a much more down-to-earth feeling, plus a lot more shenanigans due to the lower bar to entry.

The Voice, on the other hand, is way more on the “people who can already sing looking to get a break” side of things (although I’ve yet to hear of any The Voice contestant hitting mainstream success), which makes for auditions that are a lot more interesting to watch since there’s already a baseline level of quality. The added element of the judges having to compete to fill a set number of positions in their teams is an interesting wrinkle, too, adding a bit more strategy and gaminess to the audition process.

Anyway I’m sure the world needed my years-late and uninformed comparison between these two shows.

The Brave

I only half-watched this but I’m not sure that really caused me to miss anything. Questionable politics aside (justified or not, watching the characters kill a dude and then move on like nothing happened creeped me out), this is a really dry procedural that somehow managed to feel underdeveloped both in its case of the week and in its characters. Pass.

This is Us

Half-watching this one, plus never having seen an episode before Tuesday’s season two premiere, definitely hurt my enjoyment of the episode, but man did this feel blah to me. The sentimentality seemed waaay too saccharine and the character conflict felt really dry and predictable.


Aaand there we are. That was really worth over a month of waiting, right?

The The Princess Diaries Journals

I recently (read: two months ago when I wrote the first half of this post) rewatched The Princess Diaries and The Princess Diaries 2, two movies from my childhood that I hadn’t seen in a long time. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the first movie is actually pretty good, and unpleasantly surprised to find that the second one is really bad.

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She’s not like regular princess, she’s a cool princess.

The first Princess Diaries movie has a really strong premise: Mia, an awkward, unpopular 15-year-old girl, finds out she’s actually the princess of a kingdom in Europe named Genovia and has to contend with the changes this brings to her daily highschool life.

The only thing I really remembered about this movie going into it was that it involved a makeover and the protagonist learning how to be more “princess-like.” Given that, I was expecting some questionable messages about femininity and how girls “should” be, but while that subtext was there at the bottom, I was pleased by how the movie sidesteps those themes by specifically grounding the story on this one character. It’s true that because Mia is now in line to rule a country that she has to act with a certain amount of decorum and meet a certain level of conventional attractiveness, but this is never presented as a universal standard of being that everyone else should aspire to. Lilly, Mia’s best friend, demonstrates this by starting in a similar social standing to Mia and staying there over the course of the movie, and this isn’t portrayed as a bad thing–it just is.

Meanwhile, amidst the silly humor (which works pretty well, actually) and larger-than-life plot, the movie is grounded by solid character work for its primary cast. Mia’s journey especially is extremely compelling, as she learns to become more comfortable in the public eye and finds that the popular kids, who she sort-of-secretly wanted an in with, aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

In addition to Mia’s arc, there’s some good stuff about how Mia’s fame affects her relationship with Lilly; how Mia’s grandmother Clarisse has to learn to see her granddaughter not just as a potential successor but also, you know, her granddaughter; and I think Mia’s mom sort of has an arc about respecting Mia’s independence but their relationship is mostly strong throughout the film. There’s even a little romantic subplot with Lilly’s brother, Michael, that isn’t groundbreaking or anything but is solidly executed.

With all that the first movie had going for it, I had moderately high expectations for The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, the second Princess Diaries film utterly fails to live up to its predecessor’s level of quality.

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I’ll take the alternate universe where “she needs the rock to rule” refers to Dwayne Johnson, please.

The first misstep here is the premise. The first movie sets up the idea that Mia can be an actor for positive, large-scale change as the ruler of a nation, and so the obvious (and good!) narrative for the sequel would be her working to do just that while navigating the complexities of leading a country. Instead, The Princess Diaries 2 opts for a plot in which a political rival seeks to take the throne by invoking an archaic law which states that a queen of Genovia must be married in order to rule. What follows is a shenanigans-y romantic-comedy plot that’s ultimately nothing more than a piece of meaningless fluff.

What’s extra frustrating about this is that the movie does occasionally flirt with substance, but never actually goes the distance. For instance, there’s a sequence where Mia learns of an orphanage that doesn’t have an adequate building and chooses to home it in one of the royal palaces until a better one can be built, angering the Genovian upperclass in the process. That’s exactly the sort of stuff I wanted from the movie–but here it takes up maybe a few minutes of screentime and has no real impact on the plot.

Meanwhile, there’s this really uncomfortable subplot involving Mia’s maids, who are so subservient and eager to please Mia that they get on her nerves. It’s really bizarre to watch Mia, who lives in an opulent palace and possesses the highest office in the country simply by chance of birth, engage in wacky tactics to avoid two girls whose job is to serve her every whim. It comes across as totally tone-deaf to portray the maids in this way, totally ignoring the injustice of their disparate positions from Mia. Like, she could probably sell a single one of the lavish pieces of jewelry given to her by Clarisse and the money would set her maids for life, but she does nothing. Adorable orphans, though, they get absurdly-overkill help!

Probably the worst part of the movie, however, is the resolution to the main plot, where Mia calls a snap vote to abolish the law requiring her to get married. It’s framed as this feminist message but, like, I’m not sure how meaningful a statement “women shouldn’t have to be married to inherit the rule of a monarchy” is in the 21st century. Plus, there’s literally no reason why Mia couldn’t have called for this vote at the very beginning of the movie and made the entire plot moot.

A better movie might have made it so that Mia, an outsider to the country, didn’t have the political clout or trust of the people to abolish a law right off the bat, but by the end of the movie proves herself as a capable leader worthy of respect, but nope–she just arbitrarily decides that actually she’d rather not play by shitty rules and everyone’s like “yeah that checks out.” It’s really disappointing because the first movie managed to be a lighthearted, silly affair that nonetheless had meaningful things to say about its characters, who had actual arcs and solid plots. The Princess Diaries 2 just leans into the silliness with no substance to back it up.

But, hey, apparently they’re trying to get a third Princess Diaries movie off the ground, so maybe whoever’s behind the next one will have the chance to right the mistakes of the first sequel.

What I’m Watching: GLOW

What I expected: an exaggerated, high-energy, soapy drama set behind the scenes of women’s wrestling in the ’80s.

What I got: an understated, pleasant, yet meaningful character drama following the creation of a women’s wrestling league, still in the ’80s.

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Why are we screaming again?

I mean, with those promo photos, who could blame me for wrongly assuming the show’s tone? But it turns out that, like the wrestling in the show, they’re just a flashy front to a complex, diverse cast of characters whose inner lives are portrayed with a great deal of respect.

The two most important of those characters are Ruth and Debbie. Ruth is trying to make a name for herself as an actress, but is held back by wanting more substantial roles and not being conventionally attractive (which I don’t think is actually true of the actress, but okay); Debbie, on the other hand, was a reasonably-successful soap actress but was frustrated by sexism on the set and retired from acting to raise a kid with her husband.

These establishing details put both characters in sympathetic places, which is good, but they’re also crucial to the show’s examination of just what kind of people would be drawn participate in women’s wrestling in the ’80s. As portrayed in the show, it’s primarily those who exist outside of the mainstream’s very narrow view of what women in media should look like and be: white, conventionally attractive, and subservient to male authority.

GLOW is at its best when it focuses on giving voice and narratives to these women, but unfortunately it’s a little mixed in how well it does that. Debbie is drawn to the wrestling production when she realizes it’s like a soap opera, but in this case it’s one that she gets to have some degree of creative control over. That creative control is not extended to the other women in the show-within-a-show, however, resulting in the women of color being forced to represent racist stereotypes.

These stereotypical characters might be historically accurate, I guess (although I’m not personally familiar with the real-life GLOW the show is based on), but it’s disappointing that the only reason Debbie really gets to have control here is because she’s the only one of the wrestlers who has mainstream success and is therefore the star. The women of color might be getting roles, but they’re still reductive and even harmful. The show does make efforts to have its characters point this out and express their discomfort with it, but these concerns aren’t given enough space to feel more than obligatory. There is a nice sequence, however, where Cherry goes behind the director’s back to swap things so she and the other black wrestler are the heroes of their double fight instead of the villains.

While the show-within-the-show does get bogged down in caricatures and stereotypes, the show itself is a lot more empathetic and respectful of its characters. All of the women are given meaningful, if sometimes light, characterization and character moments over the course of the season, which is impressive given that there are 14 of them. I do wish that the show had leaned a little bit more into its ensemble, though–one episode gives a decent subplot to Sheila that really digs into who she is, but a lot of the other characters aren’t examined as closely. Just a little bit more could have gone a long way toward fleshing out some of the more tertiary characters.

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Leaving the audience wanting more is hardly a terrible problem to have in this case, though, as my desire for more character moments is fueled by how good the moments we get are. The bulk of the show’s first season is spent focused on Ruth and Debbie, even more so on Ruth, following their personal struggles and conflict in the wake of Debbie learning that Ruth twice slept with her husband. The show does a really good job portraying the two’s fractured friendship, that weird space where they both care about each other a lot but now there’s this betrayal hanging between them that prevents Debbie from really letting Ruth in.

Ruth and Debbie’s plotline is also important to one of the show’s less prominent themes, where it goes into what it is to be a heel (the villain in wrestling). There’s a connection built between Ruth, who is arguably the “villain” between her and Debbie, and Ruth’s character in the ring, a Russian foil to Debbie’s American hero. The show remarks upon how a good heel is needed to make the hero look better and be easier to root for, but how the audience also, in a strange way, loves the heel. The exploration of this fairly universal storytelling concept is interesting, but unfortunately the way it relates back to the characters in the show is a little weird.

The first part of this weirdness is the framing of Ruth and Debbie, where Ruth is more or less the show’s protagonist. We spend the most time with her, she gets the most in-depth and complex character work, she is who we’re ultimately rooting for. And so because of this, she’s isn’t the heel in the story. The second thing is that she’s really not a bad person, making the focus on her “villainy” feel hollow. With the exception of sleeping with Debbie’s husband, Ruth doesn’t really do anything morally questionable–in fact, she’s one of the most responsible and mature characters on the show.

This creates a disconnect where a large part of Ruth’s plotline is about accepting the importance of villainy within a narrative and how she feels like she is that villain in her personal life, but that villainy is not actually present in her character. We’re never even given a particularly compelling reason for why she slept with Debbie’s husband, making her one bad act seem more like a contrivance than a character flaw.

While that theme did leave me a little wanting, it’s a small nitpick in what is otherwise a very compelling plotline. And I do really appreciate Ruth as the protagonist–she’s driven and passionate, but that passion sometimes manifests itself as a sort of dorkiness that makes for a really entertaining and easy-to-root-for character. I can easily see a version of the show where Debbie is the protagonist and I think it would have been lesser for it.

So, yeah, that’s GLOW. Not what I anticipated, but I think it was better for subverting my expectations to tell an almost gentle in tone, but still meaningful and nuanced, story.

Speech & Debate is a Movie about Speech & Debate the Club and Also Speech and Debate the Concept

This is another of those tiny indie movies that Netflix picks up distribution rights to and is basically impossible to gauge the quality of until you try it. Fortunately this one was more Eat With Me than Jenny’s Wedding (which I haven’t written about, but trust me, it’s awful).

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I don’t actually have anything snarky to say about this poster, it’s pretty cute.

Speech & Debate is about three high school seniors in Salem, Oregon and ostensibly follows their struggles for creative and social freedom in their school. That thread kind of gets lost a bit along the way, but we’ll get to that.

Let’s start with the teens. There’s Solomon, who works for the school paper and wants to pursue journalism as a career, but the limits placed on what subjects he can write about (anything controversial is off-limits) makes him feel silenced. Next is Diwata, an aspiring actor/singer/etc., who’s frustrated by the school’s decision to alter its production of Once Upon a Mattress to appeal to social conservatism (and is ticked off she didn’t get the lead role). Finally is Howie, openly gay but used to big-city Portland, who feels isolated as a result and wants to start a GSA but is blocked by the school board because it’s “more of a social hour.”

This all works pretty well, and writing it out like that it seems like there’s a pretty clear trajectory for the movie wherein the characters try to find ways to affect change and stick it to The Man. The problem is that the movie never really gives its characters tangible goals until the very end and spends most of the second act on stuff that’s functionally irrelevant to the movie’s plot and themes. I think the movie intends to frame this section, where the characters get involved in Speech & Debate club, as the characters trying to follow their interests in a system-approved manner to less-than-stellar results, but there’s two problems with the execution.

First, the characters aren’t actually pursuing Speech & Debate club in an approved way. They go off to a competition without a faculty sponsor for the club, or even seemingly alerting the faculty of what they’re doing, which results in them getting detention for fraudulently representing the school. Second, their less-than-stellar results don’t really have anything to do with Speech & Debate not fulfilling their desires, but rather because they’re inexperienced with the format and don’t properly prepare. If they’d just gone through the proper channels and learned the rules of the competition, there would have been no problems.

As a result of this, the characters don’t have a meaningful realization about how following the decisions made by those in power isn’t going to work for them, and so their subsequent decision to cause a scene at a school board meeting in order to draw attention to their being stifled doesn’t have nearly as much weight. The only reason they couldn’t have done it right at the start of the movie is because they didn’t know each other well enough, but any plot in the second act could have accomplished that. The movie could have spent half an hour on them at Disney World and the same character work could have been done.

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There’s also a problem with the conclusion to the film in that the way it resolves the characters’ goals is unsatisfying and reveals how low-stakes the whole thing was. Solomon is interviewed by a local news station, getting him recognition in a journalism context and implicitly pressuring the school board to change some things (although it’s never shown that this happens), so he pretty much gets what he was looking for, but it’s more complicated for Howie and Diwata.

It’s implicit that the reason Howie wanted to start a GSA was to find friends and to date, so the fact that there’s no indication the school is going to start a GSA isn’t a problem for him because he made friends and gets a romantic interest. But that romantic interest, as far as I could tell, was someone from the Speech & Debate competition, and the same is true for his friends. This means that while his personal goals were accomplished, the climax in the third act has no bearing on them, and his thematically-relevant goal is left totally ambiguous.

Diwata, on the other hand, never even seems to be that concerned with the alteration to Once Upon a Mattress and is more interested in being the lead in any sort of performing. So in that way her goals are fulfilled by the trio’s performance at the school board, but continuing with Speech & Debate club would have accomplished the same thing. And she has the same issue as Howie, where her personal desires led her to the issue around free expression, and so while that’s the theme of the movie neither character actually has to succeed on that front to be successful. The result is that the movie’s themes are played up and made to seem like the important thing, but they really aren’t. Speech & Debate is torn between telling personal, individual stories and exploring a wider topic and because of that it doesn’t really execute either vision.

So . . . that’s all pretty negative, but the thing about fiction is that it doesn’t have to be thematically and structurally solid to be enjoyable, and Speech & Debate totally was enjoyable. The leads all have strong characterization and are easy to like and root for, and their actors do great work to make them come alive. The movie also has a pretty charming sense of humor that keeps things feeling breezy and entertaining even when the plot is going down pointless detours.

And while I am pretty harsh on the movie’s handling of its themes, I do appreciate that it’s trying. Exploring the world of bureaucratic school decisions and their affects on students is a solid premise, and even if the movie doesn’t dig as deep as it should it still touches on important and engaging ideas.

The movie also does a pretty decent job of incorporating modern technology. The usage of texting feels really natural (there’s a great bit where Diwata texts Solomon’s mom as him and the mom immediately knows it’s not him because of Diwata’s excessive emoji usage) and there was a good sense of how Youtube fame works. The on-screen presentation of Youtube did bug me a bit though since the bar showing the like-to-dislike ratio never fit the videos’ views and like counts. Aside from that, though, the movie had a great sense of style. There were a lot of original-but-not-distracting editing flourishes and musical cues in key places that made things more interesting.

Finally, a little nitpick: when Diwata auditions for the school play, she briefly sings from Hamilton, and then later in the movie Lin-Manuel Miranda shows up but not as himself in an instructional video the leads watch. Apparently in this world Hamilton exists but Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t? It’s kinda weird.

Overall, I’d give Speech & Debate a pretty solid three out of five stars. It’s far from exceptional and has a lot of issues, but it’s got good heart and even if it doesn’t quite work, you can really see what the movie was going for and that helps me forgive its faults.