Monday, January 11, 2016

Seen in December 

Babette's Feast, image via The Movie DB

In the past, December was my number one movie watching month. It was guaranteed that I would rent five or six movies to watch during the Christmas break and see at least one family friendly movie in theatres and probably two or three Oscar-buzz worthy movies again during the weekends around Christmas and New Years. So much has changed. The quality of binge-worthy television shows for one and the compression of time commitments around the holidays is probably the other reason I don’t get to see as much as I would like. Also, if you are with other people and you are trying to decide what to watch, you might end up seeing old familiar favourites as opposed to new challenging stuff. That’s exactly what you’ll see reflected here:

Master of None, Season 1
Aziz Ansari (of Parks and Recreation and numerous standup specials) and Alan Yang have created a unique sit-com for Netflix unlike anything else. It’s funny, thoughtful, bittersweet, stylish and genuine. If there was like a Bechdel Test for brown comedians, this show would pass with flying colours. It is one of the rare shows that portrays South Asian Americans or a more diverse collection of Americans in an honest and realistic way. Ansari plays Dev, a workaday actor trying to make it in New York City. His friends include Brian, an Asian guy who is another first-generation American (one episode shows the two trying to connect to their immigrant parents), Denise, a black lesbian who is not playing to anybody’s stereotype, and Arnold, who is a kind of friendly giant Jew. The series owes some of its mojo to shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louis in tone and format but it tells unique, sometimes uncomfortable stories. It’s also pretty good looking being mostly shot on location in NYC and uses great music, both in scenes and as a soundtrack. What is unusual is how breezily the stories can turn on a dime from a group of whining hipsters griping about nothing in a Seinfeldian way to pretty serious issues like race, gender inequality, adultery, romance and relationships. I’m keen to see what a second season will bring.

Babette’s Feast
It’s been years since I first saw this and I was a little taken aback by how moving it was (or maybe I was too tired for it). It's such a natural film for the holidays with its celebratory meal as its climax. Set in a 19th century remote Danish coastal village, two elderly spinster sisters (who were once great beauties), live an austere life administering to their pastor father’s aging congregation. Babette, a French woman escaping the turmoil of civil war, arrives at their door not able to speak Danish and carrying only a letter from a former (spurned) suitor of one of the sisters. The sisters take her in as their housekeeper in exchange for room and board. Typical Scandinavian restraint means the sisters ask little of Babette but over the years grow very fond of her. All they know is that during the violence she fled, she lost everything, including her husband and child. Her only connection to France is a lottery ticket. One day Babette receives a letter informing her she had won 10,000 francs and she requests time away to make preparations. The sisters fear she will leave and return to France but instead Babette asks only to prepare a feast in honour of the anniversary of their father’s passing. When the night of the celebration happens, a dozen guests, all members of the sisters’ congregation have decided it would be inappropriate and sinful to speak of the meal or of the worldly desires it represents. What we witness is the conflict between the austerity of the congregants and the luscious, lavish, decadent and artful meal Babette has prepared. It is during this incredible meal it is revealed that Babette was actually one of the most accomplished and inventive chefs of Paris. After the meal we learn she spent her entire fortune on that finest of feasts as her only way to thank the sisters for all the years they safely harboured her in their home.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, image via The Movie DB

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Best film of the year? Personally I don’t really think art should be judged that way. Did I enjoy the hell out of it? Hell yes. I’ve heard cynical folks say this Star Wars is just a retread of the original with a girl as the lead. Yet that is exactly the JJ Abrams playbook. Honour the legacy, add some new story elements, flip the original, set up the next one. Fundamentally it’s a simple quest story; princesses, divine calling, sacred swords, orders of knights - all set in space with lasers and stuff… pew, pew, pew! At a time when it’s really hard to impress a moviegoer this movie genuinely transported viewers to a place where we don’t ask silly questions about, marketing, toys, tie-ins or the universal laws of physics.

Back to the Future
Christmas is a time of movie sequel marathons like James Bond, Harry Potter or anything with Julie Andrews. This year was no different except, being 2015 there was a year long nostalgia for the time travelling series that landed Marty McFly in 1955, then later in 2015 (30 years back, 30 years ahead of 1985). Michael J. Fox escapes a terrorist attack (forgot about that) by jumping into his friend’s time-travelling DeLorean sports car. He winds up causing havoc with the 1955 timeline that threatens his own existence. I have to admit, it holds up. Time travel is inherently an absurd concept so it makes perfect sense to be a comedy.

Back to the Future 2
Emboldened by the success of the first film, the filmmakers decide to mess around with the future of the McFly clan. The self tying shoes, 3D Jaws sequels, a new kind of Pepsi and of course, hoverboards are all showcased as one timeline screwup leads to another. Which of course leads to Back to the Future 3 which I could not stay up to watch.

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