Friday, June 30, 2017

June 2017 Pop Culture Roundup

A bunch of items for June...

1. I'd been hearing so much acclaim for a recently-published graphic novel called My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris. Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous 60s, the book is written as a series of drawings and diary entries of a 10-year-old girl named Karen Reyes. She interprets the various people and events in her life--including a devout mother, free spirit brother, and beloved neighbor--through the lens of her favorite horror characters. Her neighbor's personal account of living through 1930s Germany as a Jew, as well as reactions in her own time to Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder, are woven into a gripping tale of self-discovery, standing up for oneself and others, and being genuine in relationships. This book was difficult to get a hold of because nobody can keep it in stock, and now I understand why. I look forward to Volume 2 being released early next year.

2. I also read Crazy Is My Superpower by AJ Mendez Brooks this month. Many may know the author by her WWE performer name AJ Lee. She was a favorite of mine when she was an active competitor, and I looked forward to reading this memoir, in which she shares the struggles of her family of origin, her pursuit of a dream to become a wrestler, and her wrestling with bipolar disorder. Brooks tells of learning a hard resolve to go after what she wants despite the setbacks she experienced, and shares that encouragement with her readers. Her story is heartbreaking and powerful, and she pulls no punches in describing the toll that poverty, mental illness, and complex family systems takes. In fact, that is where the title comes from as she draws from those experiences to help others see what they're like, and inspire people to transcend and learn from them.

3. We saw Wonder Woman on opening weekend. In some ways it's a standard superhero origin story, but with a depth and balance that I think can be elusive in movies like this. We meet Diana as a child on her home island, slowly coming of age and learning to be a warrior against her queen mother's wishes. Eventually she finds herself in the middle of World War I after a spy (Chris Pine) accidentally makes his way to her homeland. There is plenty of action, but we also see Diana struggle with who she is and who she wants to be among humankind. There is a strong undercurrent of our thirst for violence and the question of whether we're redeemable given such urges. This was easily the strongest of the recent "DC Universe" films, and Gal Gadot herself is a revelation as well.

4. I also finally saw Hidden Figures this month, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae as three NASA workers who end up playing major roles in the United States' first manned mission to space in 1961. Of course, the film touches on issues of both race and gender bias that these three face (from both white coworkers and black family and friends), while also set against the backdrop of the larger historical moment which includes fear of communism and the Civil Rights movement. It's an inspiring and funny and interesting depiction of how these three women contributed to an important moment in our country's history.

5. I binge-watched my way through the fifth season of Orange is the New Black the past couple weeks, which picks up right where the last left off with many of the inmates gathered in a hallway, Diaz pointing a gun at a guard that he'd dropped. The situation quickly escalates into a full riot, with the guards being rounded up and Poussey's friends wanting to get the truth out about her death. I really wanted to like what they did with this, with the entire season taking place over maybe 3-4 days and seeing the inmates make use of their newfound freedom and control in various ways. But there was a lot of filler and a fair amount of characters didn't really move forward in meaningful ways. There were some strong moments, but they remained moments in a span of 13 episodes.

6. After finally getting through Luke Cage last month, the final pre-Defenders series we had to get through in preparation was Iron Fist. And "get through" is the right term to describe my experience of it. We meet Danny Rand, just back from a 15-year hiatus and presumed dead. It turns out that he'd spent the entire time training with a mystical monastery to become the Iron Fist, a powerful fighter meant to combat a dangerous group called The Hand (first introduced in Daredevil). Danny just happens to be the son of a guy who co-founded a billion-dollar company, and the first few episodes are more about corporate positioning and cover-ups than anything martial arts-related. When we do finally start into Iron Fist vs. The Hand, it's still slow going until finally we reach the end and are now ready for The Defenders, which really was the only reason I sat through this whole thing.

7. I've been listening to The Morning Bell, the first LP from Jesus on the Mainline, a large ensemble that incorporates a wide variety of styles including rock, country, and folk. I enjoyed the EP they released a few years ago and knew they were working up to a full album. This is a great debut for them, and it was worth the wait. Here's one of my favorite tracks, "All We Ever Have:"