I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!: “Descendants”

Descendants-Poster I don’t own a TV and it’s not something I go around bragging about as if I’m the coolest person you know. I could probably fit a TV somewhere in my apartment if I got rid of a bookcase (unlikely) or my desk, but until then, there’s simply not any space. As a result, I don’t have cable and all TV I consume is watched on my laptop.

This means I missed the most recent Disney Channel Original Movie phenomenon, “Descendants,” until I was in the checkout line at the grocery store. No, not one of the food co-ops I buy groceries from, an honest-to-God supermarket. (I have a craving for Bigelow Lemon Lift tea rooted in memories of sitting in the dining halls of MSU with food and a book.) Among the magazines was a tie-in magazine for “Descendants” with an image of the four main characters on the front. Confused and intrigued, I picked it up and flipped through before my purchase was ready. I looked it up when I got home and discovered it was a Disney Channel Original Movie and my interest has been piqued ever since, only growing since I saw a copy of the DVD at Target and noticed Maleficent on the back and learned from the blurb there’s a lot of retconning that goes on in this movie.

The movie is set shortly after the marriage of Belle (Keegan Connor Tracy) and Beast (Dan Payne) in the United States of Auradon, a land created from the unification of all the kingdoms in Disney films. Beast is elected king of Auradon and he banishes all of the villains and their henchmen to the Isle of the Lost. Flash forward 16 years and Beast and Belle’s son, Ben (Mitchell Hope), is preparing for his coronation as king because apparently this is an elected monarchy where the descendant of the king becomes the next king, sans an election. Ben decides his first act as king will to invite four children from the Isle of the Lost to attend school in Auradon and he selects Mal (Dove Cameron), Evie (Sofia Carson), Carlos (Cameron Boyce) and Jay (Booboo Stewart), who are the children of Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth), the Evil Queen (Kathy Najimy? Kathy Najimy.), Cruella de Vil (Wendy Raquel Robinson), and Jafar (Maz Jobrani? Maz Jobrani.), respectfully.

The children are tasked by Maleficent with getting the wand of the Fairy Godmother (Melanie Paxson), which will allow the villains to break free and get their revenge. While at Auradon, the four, erm, descendants work on trying to make the plan work while connecting with the children of the good guys and struggling with if they’re really evil as a result of who their parents are.

Oh, and it’s a musical.

The biggest issue with the movie is the logic right at the start. Beast is elected king of Auradon, not president. And on top of that, his son automatically becomes king? There’s no chance Prince Charming could be king? Or Li Shang? If we’re going to be honest, Shang and Mulan would be the perfect leaders. They have military experience and proven leadership. But then there’s the Isle of the Lost itself, where we have reason to believe the villains have found other villains to procreate with, even though the only villains we meet are the four mentioned earlier. Where’s Governor Ratcliffe, human Ursula, Gaston and Lady Tremaine? Did Frollo get banished to the Isle of the Lost or did he get to help out with state-sponsored discrimination against a group of people? Also, how are the Evil Queen and Maleficent alive? Why is Jafar running a junk shop and why is he the only person who has a new thing since being banished to the island? The movie just tells us these things are the case at the beginning of the film, assuming we’ll just accept the reality presented, but no, I’m sorry, I was raised on Disney movies and I know how these villains go.

The other big issue with the film, although it could be argued it makes the movie stronger, is how every child of a “good guy” is significantly less interesting than the main quartet, right down to the costumes, designed by Kara Saun. But on the other hand, the film presents us with four characters you can root for, particularly Mal as she struggles between pleasing her mother and doing what she really wants. Sometimes the movie tells us things in the most rushed way, like in order to prove to us Evie is smart she has her magic mirror stolen and she manages to still get a good grade. But the four of them are believable as being good people, with great moments like a recurring gag about Jay and Carlos loving chocolate.

The film also does something unthinkable even in 2015 and actually casts actors who are good for the roles, regardless of their race. This means having Robinson, who is black, play a character usually depicted as white and having a son who appears white. Similarly, Sleeping Beauty’s mother is also played by an black actress and her granddaughter also appears to be white. You can suspend all disbelief here because the actors are perfect in those roles, particularly Robinson, and the characters they play are all that matters, not the race of the actors, which is how it should be. Even if some of the characters come off as bland because of how they’re written–looking at you Ben–the casting for this film is pitch perfect, particularly the four leads and their parents.

I have unfortunately glossed over the fact the film is a musical, which is actually the only other demerit. The opening number, “Rotten to the Core,” is a catchy EDM-influenced number–Carson recorded a fantastic version of the song I recommend checking out–but at no point during the song did I truly believe the actors were singing the song. The rest of the original numbers are bland, but the worst I can say is they feel like a time suck and without the songs I feel like the movie would not be nearly two hours long. If you do watch the movie, I recommend skipping the bizarre pseudo-hip-hop cover of “Be Our Guest” the students of Auradon perform because it is flat out awful and feels like an arbitrary number dropped in the film to remind us all of how the movie follows the children of our favorite Disney characters.

The film does have the trappings we now cynically expect from a Disney Channel Original Movie, but thanks to some fantastic casting and protagonists I can actually care about it manages to be a fun movie to watch, even if you just put it on in the background. It’s a shame they really didn’t think through the logic of how Auradon works.

 

 

 

Slow Down…

A note was published on Gapers Block yesterday announcing the site will go on an “indefinite hiatus” on January 1, 2016. If you followed the site at all, it’s worth reading the entire thing.

Gapers Block was my journalistic home for three years and as a result of the time spent there I grew as a writer, editor and person. I started as a writer for Mechanics, the politics section, which always kind of surprised me because I viewed myself as being completely unqualified as I had been a theater blogger and the most notable thing in my background was I dropped out of The Theatre School at DePaul University. From 2013 through 2015 I was the editor of Mechanics, which was a fun adventure and I’m eternally grateful to Andrew Huff, the editor and publisher, and Ramsin Canon, who proceeded me as the editor of Mechanics, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the site.

As a send off, I thought I would round up my favorite pieces I wrote or edited because Gapers Block was such a unique part of Chicago media some of these pieces feel like they only could have been published there.

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Hey, Where Are You Writing?

After going five months without writing anything for a publication–although I did write blog posts, an intentionally bad play with a NSFW title and a frantic emotional tweet after seeing “Fun Home”–I am writing again as a freelance journalist.

I have an essay in the December issue of Riverwest Currents about receiving a copy of the New York Times at the age of 12, further cementing the fact I was a weird kid. If you live in Milwaukee, I recommend picking up a copy of the issue. If you do not live in Milwaukee, you can read the issue online and there’s a lot of fantastic writing in there. (Huge thanks to Vince Bushell, the paper’s publisher, for asking me to write about a Christmas gift.)

I promise I’m writing about other things, which I will try to post about more regularly.

 

I Love to Travel, Don’t You?

One of the fun things that comes with having a full-time job is time off. Instead of staying at home, reading, curling up with my cat and crying while listening to indie folk records, I decided to actually travel.

I finally had the means to do so and after years of being the person who went home for break in college or stayed home in junior high and high school–which really isn’t fair because my family did visit Chicago and New York when I was in ninth and tenth grade, respectively. (Also, I went to New York with my family instead of going on the orchestra’s cruise. More on my feelings on cruises later.) Compared to a lot of people, it felt like I did significantly less traveling.

I decided to use my first grouping of vacation days to just pick somewhere and visit. I decided on a place that struck a lot of people as odd: St. Louis.

Hear me out on St. Louis, because I did live there: It has a lot of gorgeous historical buildings, features a brewery tour, has the freaking Gateway Arch and has what I’ve heard is a world class zoo that has free admission. I was also going to visit in June, which would also mean The Muny would begin its season. Plus, traveling to St. Louis would be relatively inexpensive between Amtrak fares and hotel rates.

I requested a tourism guide and began marking all of the places I wanted to visit. The City Museum, the Budweiser brewery, a farmer’s market, the St. Louis Zoo, a museum of religious iconography. I was becoming incredibly excited as I kept hearing from people, “St. Louis? Why? Do you know anyone there? What’s there to do in St. Louis?” as well as various racist and off-color comments about Ferguson.

Then, while I was still hard at work on a Friday, I found out Amtrak cancelled my train, so I had the option of taking a train to Urbana, Illinois and then taking a bus to St. Louis. I would arrive much later than I initially would and having taken Amtrak loads of times, I know the arrival time posted is when you should arrive, but rarely is when you do. I made the decision to call off the trip and find somewhere else to go.

I made this decision two weeks before I was supposed to travel.

After searching every travel website I could, I decided on New York City because plane fares to New York from Milwaukee are at least less than I would have expected. I booked my plane, found a hotel in the Flatiron District, bought a ticket for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and then embarked on a whirlwind adventure to New York.

This was of course met with some questions from people. “New York City? By yourself? Aren’t you scared?” “Do you know people there?” “Isn’t that expensive?” The answers to these questions were yes, yes, no, yes, and depends on what you do.

I loved being in New York and after years of hating flying, I felt relaxed while thousands of feet in the air. The only problem with being in New York for about 36 hours is you can pack a lot in during that time, but leave not feeling fulfilled. Still, I felt happy to get away and just explore somewhere.

I returned to New York City in September and decided to do my previous idea of just doing as few things set in stone and the rest I was going to just do by wandering around. Again, I was asked the same questions and managed to do New York City fairly cheaply, even if I was prone to popping into Pret a Manger to grab a fruit cup to keep me going through the day. I found a bagel shop in Brooklyn with cheap bagels not far from where I was staying, wandered into as many parks as I could manage and still squeezed in meeting with friends.

This brings in the part about the joy of traveling alone: I can do whatever I want. If I want to wander into a shop in Greenwich Village, I can do just that. There’s no itinerary, no limits, other than my bank account. I can spend as much time in a place as I want. If I feel like getting off a subway station and walking around Williamsburg, I just have to follow my feet.

Traveling, especially alone, is liberating in its own ways. Sure, I was frequently texting my parents and even called my dad a couple of times while on vacation, but that’s different from being with a group or with another person. Want to take the subway back to where you’re staying instead of paying for a cab fare? Go right ahead. (Also, take the express bus from Harlem instead of cabbing it to LaGuardia. You’ll thank me later.)

I’ve been revisiting my thoughts on traveling alone as I’m planning a road trip. I keep thinking I may want someone with me as I’m driving all the way to Michigan. But ultimately I’m going there for hockey and to catch up with friends from college. I don’t want to make someone feel like a third wheel or be dragged to a hockey game. I also realized driving alone means I can sing showtunes at the top of my lungs and not be asked, “We’re going to listen to “Hamilton” again?”

Besides, I have made the drive from Michigan to Milwaukee possibly a dozen times and have the routine down pat. Make sure you start off with “Dennehy” by Serengeti because you can’t be sad while listening to that song. Stop at the Portage McDonald’s, because it’s a really nice McDonald’s. If you have the extra money and want to save time, feel free to take the Chicago Skyway.

And above all, enjoy the trip.

Milwaukee Film Festival: “Call Me Lucky” and “Nina Forever”

Call Me Lucky

Barry Crimmins made a name for himself as a humorist in Boston in the 1980s, influencing many young humorists, including Bobcat Goldthwait, the director of this film. Crimmins revealed he had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child and went on to take on AOL’s role in the distribution of child pornography in the 1990s.

Even though Crimmins left a mark on comedy with his incisive take on the United States government, he still manages to be a somewhat obscure figure, possibly because he’s largely been inactive for several years as he’s been living in a cabin in rural New York. But Goldthwait’s film gives you a reason to care about him even though he’s possibly the prickliest of subjects for a rather uplifting and moving documentary. One of the things the film excels at is showing how Crimmins could be an incredibly caring person while also showing his tendency to some times lash out at his audience members or other comedians. Even though it is made by a friend of the subject, it manages to be very even-handed and fair in the best way possible.

Although a dark film because of what the subject endured, Call Me Lucky manages to be an uplifting and hopeful film. This should come as no surprise for those who have seen Goldthwait’s other films that, although fictional, manage to find the right balance between hope and darkness. It is hopeful that although this film features a formerly volatile subject it brings hope to those who see it and an added familiarity to the subject.

5 out of 5 stars

Nina Forever

Rob (Cian Barry) is starting to move on from the death of his girlfriend, Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), and decides to hook up with his co-worker from the grocery store, Holly (Abigail Hardingham). Unfortunately, Nina has developed a habit of coming back to life in the middle of Rob and Holly’s sex, violently appearing as a bloody figure through the sheets and bed. To complicate this, Nina usually makes some quip after interrupting the sex.

Nina Forever should work and be a great film, in theory. But it struggles to find the right tone as there is something inherently bizarre and humorous about a wise-cracking girlfriend emerging from a bed mid-coitus with glass shards sticking out of her face, which contradicts the rather thoughtful examination of love, loss and being in a relationship aware of the history a significant other has. The tones are at odds with each other, which is unfortunate because had the film picked one tone and ran with it, it could have been a fantastic film.

This does not detract from the fantastic visuals and imagery in the movie, including make-up causing Holly to appear to have sunken in eyes and the repeated motif of Nina’s parents drinking red wine. The three lead actors give fantastic performances, particularly Barry who is torn between wanting to be with Holly and having to put up with Nina occasionally popping up in the middle of sex.

3 out of 5 stars

Milwaukee Film Festival: “Iris” and “30 Seconds Away: Breaking the Cycle”

Iris

Iris Apfel became a fashion icon basically by doing her own thing and not caring what other people wanted. As she states in Albert Maysles’ documentary, “It’s better to be happy than well-dressed.” With her legendary over-sized glasses, chunky necklaces and bracelets and unique pieces of clothing, Apfel has become an artist in her own right.

Maysles’ has a unique knack for portraits of interesting individuals–If you haven’t seen Grey Gardens, which he directed with his brother, you should–as this film shows Apfel interacting with her husband and members of the fashion industry in New York.

The documentary manages to be breezy while giving us a good idea of who Apfel is and her rise to being someone beloved enough to receive a tribute in the form of windows at Bergdorf Goodman. (Really, that’s when you’ve made it.) The documentary doesn’t have any real heft to it compared to other films at the Milwaukee Film Festival about individuals who did their own thing, but this doesn’t require that. It suffers from the lack of a structure or a sense as to the timeline of when events occur for Apfel–even if you read a lot of fashion coverage you may feel lost as we bounce around from one thing to the other–but it manages to be a good portrait of someone who truly is 93 years young.

4 out of 5 stars

30 Seconds Away: Breaking the Cycle

Milwaukee, like many major cities, has a sizable homeless population, many of whom face problems including mental illness and drug addiction. Former federal agent Faith Kohler makes her directing debut with this documentary, filmed over the course of five years.

In an attempt to make a documentary looking at this issue from multiple perspectives–those on the streets, the Milwaukee Police Department, and Milwaukee County judges–Kohler ends up making a film that is scattered-brained. What could have been a good focus point, the attempts of Harold Sloan to stay sober, have a place to live and a steady job, is diluted with other examinations of homeless individuals in Milwaukee whose stories are discussed, but then dropped until the text epilogue. Sloan is someone audiences can empathize with as we see his efforts to improve his life and stay off the streets and as we see him in court, Kohler could have easily woven in the other aspect of the story from the criminal justice system and the struggle to balance trying to enforce laws while trying to truly help the homeless in the city.

Instead we are given a film that goes on for too long and features poor production, such as jerky camera work and muddled audio, making it often difficult to understand what interview subjects are saying. What could have been a moving examination of something Milwaukeeans possibly don’t think much about ends up being a frustrating film, making you wish a better movie had been made about this important issue.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Milwaukee Film Festival: “The Russian Woodpecker” and “Wisconsin’s Own”

The Russian Woodpecker
A woodpecker sound was detected over radio waves in the 1970s. The sound originated from the Soviet’s over-the-horizon radar system, Duga. Duga consisted of three radars, one of is located in Chernobyl. Chad Gracia’s debut film follows Fedor Alexandrovich’s investigation into the cause of the Chernobyl disaster, one he survived but was affected by as a child. As he walks the ruins of the worker’s village in Chernobyl, sometimes wrapped in plastic wrap while carrying a torch, his search leads him to the looming antennas of Duga, sitting there haunting the irradiated countryside.

The journey leads to questioning former Chernobyl and Soviet officials, making the safety of Alexandrovich and the film’s crew increasingly precarious. Although the film yields a rather convincing argument surrounding the Chernobyl disaster, it may seem far-fetched for some viewers.

This does not detract from the success of the film as Gracia has created a documentary that plays like a mystery-thriller with a magnetic personality at its center. While the film tackles Duga, Chernobyl, the rising tensions between Russian and the Ukraine and Fedor’s dreams of him naked, wrapped in plastic wrap and carrying a torch–it’s oddly less weird when you see it–it manages to handle all of these threads while making a well-paced, engrossing film. Throughout the entire thing is the theme of the USSR rearing its ugly head again as we see the problems that arose from the Soviets in the 1980s.

Even if the film doesn’t convince audience members the theory presented is true, it manages to suck you into the paranoia of post-USSR Ukraine while showing why it’s important to question the past in order to prepare for the future.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wisconsin’s Own

Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club

The supper club is a Wisconsin institution I admit to have not participated in yet, but Holly L. De Ruyter’s documentary on supper clubs is a thorough and delightful look at the family-owned restaurants. The film has interviews with supper club owners and patrons, as well as historians to explain what makes supper clubs an endearing part of Wisconsin dining culture.

De Ruyter’s documentary, although short, feels as though it covers all of bases on the topics while coming across some interesting characters, such as a particular supper club patron who has some interesting insight into why she enjoys supper clubs. The film features great graphics, including one explaining how the brandy old fashioned sweet is made, and an amazing opening title sequence. Knowing De Ruyter had edited out some of the interview makes one wonder if there’s uncovered territory, but on the other hand she avoids the problem of having a movie that goes on too long and feels over stuffed.

4 out of 5 stars

Tale of the Spotted Cow

The New Glarus Brewering Company has gained a reputation for producing delicious beer only for sale in Wisconsin. The documentary, directed by Bill Roach and written by Curry Kirkpatrick, tells about how Daniel and Deb Carey started and continue to run the brewery in what is essentially the ideal story of the American Dream. Deb Carey had a hard childhood and money for them was tight, but they took a risk and started the brewery one year in the 1990s. The brewery took off and started to grow before Carey made the decision to have it sold only in Wisconsin. It has continued to grow with Spotted Cow being the number one draft beer in Wisconsin.

Although this is a story that should be told, Roach and Kirkpatrick were not the people to tell it. The film has a very amateurish feel starting with the use of rolling dark clouds when going back in time to discuss Deb Carey’s troubled childhood. The film’s biggest problem is the use of a narrator who has a distinctive accent that is not one of a Wisconsinite. It becomes a distraction during the film about something that is unique to Wisconsin, causing the film to lack authority.

The script for the narration is riddled with cliches and hackneyed lines, including one at the end quoting St. Francis of Assisi and connecting it to New Glarus’ beer. The film only really works when it focuses on the interviews with the Careys–which thankfully makes up a lot of this film–who are both vibrant personalities behind a Wisconsin legend. Had this film, which is only a little more than half an hour in length, focused on them with b-roll from both the brewery and the town and archival photos from the subjects, it would have possibly worked. Unfortunately, the film lacks the polish to tell this story as well as it could have.

Two out of five stars