Oscar-nominated Chilean film ‘A Fantastic Woman’ puts a strong trans woman in the spotlight

Oscar-nominated Chilean film ‘A Fantastic Woman’ puts a strong trans woman in the spotlight

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

Watching “A Fantastic Woman,” I couldn’t help but think about the comments underneath a recent tweet by The Washington Times.

“Is Caitlyn Jenner a woman?,” the tweet reads. “A growing body of research says no.”

The replies contained a massive pool of insults, with some calling Jenner an “it,” others called her an “alien” and others called her a “monster.”

In this atmosphere, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” boldly follows transgender woman Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), who fights every day for the right to be herself. As the film progresses, it reveals itself as both a poignant story of loss and a window into the life of an unrepresented community. Lelio, simply by showing the struggles faced by a trans woman, is making a statement film, pulling double duty and succeeding on both levels.

The story opens with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a divorced, cisgender, heterosexual man in a relationship with Marina. The two have a seemingly normal, healthy partnership — he works a day job, she waits tables and sings at a club, they go out for drinks and then head home to have sex. Lelio does not objectify or make a big deal out of Orlando and Marina’s sexual relationship. It just feels like another part of living. Their life feels routine, but never unromantic.

Very early on in the story, Orlando dies of a sudden aneurysm, and Marina is left to pick up the pieces of his life. Though not the first movie of this kind, “A Fantastic Woman” is a new take on the grief film, made so much more impactful by the size of the hole Orlando leaves in Marina’s life.

Orlando is survived by a brother, son and ex-wife, each of whom has their own terrible way of relating to Marina. Every member of this family represents a different manner in which society treats trans individuals, starting with Orlando’s acceptance of Marina and slowly disintegrating from there. His brother sees Marina as who she is, but is afraid to stand up to anyone for her; Orlando’s ex-wife sees Marina as a perversion, hurling verbal and psychological abuse at her in every scene; and Orlando’s son is the worst offender, physically assaulting Marina for her own existence. It makes for a brutally difficult film to watch, but a challenging, brilliant work of art.

Vega gives one of the best performances in any film released in the past year, and it’s a shame the film is only nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Through a wide range of nuanced facial expressions and a towering screen presence, Vega dominates the movie. She largely plays Marina as a restrained, quiet individual, allowing glimpses of her grief through small facial tics and body posture. In the few moments where she’s allowed to let loose and show her emotion, Vega shows the tragic pain of a heartbroken, misunderstood human who just seeks acceptance. These moments where her pain surfaces act as punctuation marks on an already brilliant performance, proving Vega as a fully formed performer in only her second film.

It is groundbreaking that Vega is transgender herself, as Hollywood has a history of hiring cisgender men to play trans women, including Eddie Redmayne, Jared Leto and Jeffrey Tambor. But these actors generally tell the same story about a trans woman undergoing her transition, and Lelio has no interest in Hollywood’s vision of trans women. The picture he paints is of a woman undergoing a personal loss, a woman who faces an inordinate amount of obstacles, a woman who may be called “it,” “alien” and “monster,” but emerges fantastic.

“A Fantastic Woman”
Rating: R
Runtime: 104 minutes
Score: 4.5/5 stars

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


Ava DuVernay’s empathy saves the groundbreaking ‘Wrinkle in Time’ from getting lost

Ava DuVernay’s empathy saves the groundbreaking ‘Wrinkle in Time’ from getting lost

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

There are 375 movies in history with a budget of over $100 million , but the first of these films directed by a woman of color arrives this Friday with “A Wrinkle in Time” from Ava DuVernay.

Much hype has followed “A Wrinkle In Time” since its announcement in 2016, and many have paired the film with last month’s “Black Panther” as milestones in Hollywood’s march toward progress. Although it doesn’t quite hit as hard as Ryan Coogler’s superhero masterpiece, DuVernay’s “Wrinkle” is a charming fantasy epic, a film that swings for the fences at every turn and hits more than it misses.

Young actress Storm Reid leads the film as Meg Murry, a brilliant 14-year-old student who has been emotionally distant ever since the disappearance of her father (Chris Pine) four years earlier. Meg’s parents are NASA scientists, but her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) drifts away from the field after her husband’s disappearance. Early flashbacks and prologues show Meg and her parents working on experiments together, and it’s refreshing to see black women scientists, as opposed to bespectacled white dudes huddled around a table.

Just before Mr. Murry’s disappearance, the couple adopted a young son, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), who grows up with Meg. To get a sense of Meg and Charles Wallace’s life before the adventure begins, the film shows a normal day at school for the two of them, and it is incredibly painful to watch. Meg is bullied; Charles Wallace hears teachers gossip about their father; the principal gives Meg a lecture. It all feels ripped out of a lower-tier Disney Channel Original Movie. This series of events thankfully constitutes only the film’s first fifteen minutes, but it kicks off an epic fantasy adventure with a whimper.

It’s a great relief when Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) finally enter the film, providing it with exactly the burst of energy and light it needs. They tell Meg that they need her to help them save her father, and then they whisk her, Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin (Levi Miller) away on a galaxy-hopping adventure.

Though the first act of “A Wrinkle in Time” is conventional and exposition-heavy, it all acts as a setup for DuVernay to absolutely let loose, and the film quickly goes from cringeworthy to crowd pleasing. It does not spend too much time bogged down in the hows and whys of the characters’ supernatural abilities or otherworldly looks — these things just are. Winfrey, Witherspoon and Kaling breathe humorous guiding light into the movie, but Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace have to figure out their own way through the universe to Meg’s father.

The extraterrestrial locales visited by the trio borrow heavily from other sources, including Dr. Seuss, “The Wizard of Oz,” “Avatar” and sometimes even Japanese video games, such as “Xenoblade Chronicles.” Some are whimsical, some are intimidating, but they are all engaging. Instead of focusing on the science of space travel and other planets, the film focuses on its characters, their relationships with one another and their relationships with themselves.

As the film goes on, DuVernay grows more confident, concluding the story with a trippy, mind-bending metaphor of a finale that one would expect from high-concept science fiction, not a Disney fantasy-adventure. Throughout the film, Meg grapples with herself and the person she feels pressured to be, rather than who she is. As she barrels toward this conclusion, it becomes clear that her journey is just as much about her own growth as it is about her father.

In spite of its flaws, “A Wrinkle in Time” is an earnest plea for how much better the world could be if we loved ourselves and loved one another. As corny as that sounds, the plea, like the movie, rings true.

“A Wrinkle in Time”

Rating: PG

Runtime: 109 minutes

Score: 3.5/5 stars


Comedy thriller ‘Game Night’ plays into genre tropes, fails to play up the laughs

Comedy thriller ‘Game Night’ plays into genre tropes, fails to play up the laughs

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

“Game Night” feels like a film conceived by two extraordinarily high filmmakers between tokes: What if David Fincher’s “The Game” met the Steve Carell/Tina Fey vehicle “Date Night,” and it was about people who liked having a game night?

The resulting story is a sloppy, half-baked franken-script of two infinitely better films, a movie which should’ve been left on the cutting-room floor. Surprisingly effective direction from John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the helmers of 2015’s “Vacation” remake, and a brilliant cast led by Jason Bateman try their hardest to save the film, but nothing can salvage the bad script packed with cheap jokes.

Bateman and Rachel McAdams lead as Max and Annie, a hyper-competitive married couple who host game night with their friends every week. When Max’s equally competitive brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes to town, he throws a wrench into their regular plans, asking to host a “very special” game night at his house.

Brooks’ idea of a game night involves hiring actors to come in and “kidnap” one of the party’s members, leading the rest in a race to find the missing individual. It’s an escape room meets The Game from “The Game,” a large-scale competition where no one knows what is real and what isn’t. From there, the plot borrows the structure and elements of “Date Night” as the group gets tied up in what seems to be real trouble, involving gangsters, drugs, a car chase and potentially real kidnapping.

While there’s nothing wrong with well-executed genre parody, films that specifically parody one other film never work, and “Game Night” is certainly the newest addition to that club. Though the film could easily have used its plot to make a broader parody of the action/thriller genre, all of its jokes fall into three categories: easy, implicit references to “The Game” (which is 20 years old), mindless references to any number of pop culture icons, and the seldom clever, well-earned joke. It leads to an exhausting time, one that moves at an extraordinarily brisk pace but is still somehow boring.

It’s a shame that writer Mark Perez drops the ball so hard, because everyone else attached to the movie puts in some of their best work. However, no one matches Jesse Plemons as creepy neighbor Gary. Plemons steals the show in only three or four scenes, each of which are the film’s only laugh-out-loud moments.

Daley and Goldstein miraculously show themselves as fully formed comedy directors, trying their hardest to work with the script they’re given. All of the establishing shots in “Game Night” are not the typical footage of exteriors, but of highly detailed dioramas, making the whole movie feel like it takes place on a game board. These little touches give the film its only semblance of personality.

However, none of these touches are as impactful as the comedic action centerpiece, a multi-minute single take that is some of the best physical comedy in any recent movie not featuring the small bear Paddington. The camera dances around a massive house, following the many characters and giving each a chance to stand out, not unlike the casino fight in last week’s “Black Panther.”

Brilliant direction and hilarious performances abound in the film, but it’s hard to love. Last year, “The Big Sick” and “Darkest Hour” proved strong scripts can overcome sloppy direction. If there’s anything “Game Night” proves, it’s that no amount of excellence can save a bad script.

“Game Night”

Rating: R

Runtime: 100 minutes

Score: 2.5/5 stars

Tat-Tuesday: Student share stories behind their ink

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

Yessenia Herrera

Between her personal love of both music and tattoos, radio-television-film junior Yessenia Herrera has a great appreciation for artistic expression.

Herrera said she dreams of a large network of tattoos adorning her body, but for now she settles for the single, minimalist design of an origami frog, inspired by the cover of the album Copacetic.

“I wanted to start small, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted,” Herrera said. “Then I got it off an album cover of a band I like, Knuckle Puck. Their lyrics are very personal to me.”

Though the idea of tattoos can have a somewhat negative connotation, Herrera loves the personal ability to express herself and show that to the public.

“They’re very much about claiming your body,” Herrera  said. “I feel like they’re about personalizing yourself, and I like the art and modification.”


Evan Stack

The album Letting Off the Happiness by Bright Eyes had a significant impact on speech pathology sophomore Evan Stack when he first heard it in middle school.

“When I first listened to it, it really changed my perspective on music in a drastic way,” Stack said. “I think about it daily. I still listen to the record, and I still love it the way I loved it.”

This January, Stack decided to take an unplanned trip to a tattoo shop and get a portion of the cover on his shoulder. But to him, these three fireworks mean more than just a beloved album.

“There’s a lot of lo-fi production techniques that are technically unimpressive but add a human quality to the record,” Stack said. “It symbolizes a DIY musical ideology, and it really struck me poignantly.”


Emily Gibson 

The tattoo of a black-eyed susan — Maryland’s state flower — that marks the leg of journalism senior Emily Gibson is only the first in a planned series of tattoos.

“I got it the summer after I moved here from Maryland,” Gibson said. “It’s where I grew up, and I have this plan that I’m gonna get a tattoo for everywhere I live that shapes me as a person.”

The experience of living in Texas and Maryland have been stark contrasts to one another, with both cultures valuing different sports, different foods and different attitudes. Moving to Texas uprooted her life, and the tattoo helps to commemorate the previous chapter.

“The places where you live inform who you are,” Gibson said. “You learn about who you are everywhere you go.”

Good Flow Honey provides a treat to locavores with a sweet tooth

Good Flow Honey provides a treat to locavores with a sweet tooth

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

In the face of numerous obstacles, the members of the Crofut family pursue their shared passion — the wildly popular Good Flow Honey Company.

The beloved honey, now on the shelves of grocers all over Austin, started out as just a school project for founders Tom and Judy Crofut for their former employer, Greenbriar School.

“The school closed,” Judy Crofut said. “So, there we were with the beehives and the honey. So, we started selling the honey.”

With their children Daniel and Jennifer in tow, Good Flow began. Their product quickly became a mainstay in the diet of locally-minded Austinites such as Andre Davis, an employee of Wheatsville Co-op, one of Austin’s licensed sellers of Good Flow, who believes their honey is one of the best in Austin.

“Their honey tends to be sweeter,” Davis said. “It’s more of like a creamy sweetness with vanilla undertones, it’s not as molasses-y as some of those other ones.”

Once people began to take to their blend of honey, Good Flow began selling juice as well. Placing their personal spin of pure, unprocessed goods on juices helped Good Flow thrive, reaching more customers than ever.

“The juice really took off,” Crofut said. “We got a location on east Cesar Chavez in 1980.”

Then, in 2008, FDA restrictions on the juicing process forced Good Flow Juice and Honey Co. to shutter a significant part of their company.

Though they did initially attempted to work with the government, Crofut said the endless bureaucracy and even typos in official documents consistently blocked their path. Many local buyers still lament this loss, including Davis.

“I loved it. It was way better than the things they on the market have now,” Davis said. “Their orange juice was just the best.”

These days, the Good Flow warehouse is mostly empty. Though they initially bought the space for their juicing business, it’s now being solely used for honey storage, it occupies about half of the space and has an odd, somewhat creepy feeling. However, Crofut said the empty space will not go to waste. She intends to eventually reopen Good Flow’s juicing business. They are attempting to revisit working with the FDA to approve a process which properly pasteurizes the juice, while retaining Good Flow’s standards of raw purity.

“We can still make fresh citrus juice because you can apply the bacteria killer to the outside of citrus, and then squeeze them and make the juice fresh,” she said. “We’re hoping to get in time for when the Texas crop comes in for the fall, but you never know.”

Even after all of these highs and lows, the Crofuts remain passionate about their business. This passion extends to even their children, who now work with the company. Their daughter Jennifer helps out in the office, doing computer work and labeling. She said she’s passionate about supporting the company’s presence in the city.

“My favorite part is watching the product go out,” Jennifer Crofut said. “It’s perfectly hand-done, and we take great pride in it.”

Tat-Tuesday: Students share stories behind their ink

Originally published at The Daily Texan on April 4, 2017.

Kassidy Sablatura

Biology sophomore Kassidy Sablatura has always chased after the idea of self-liberation. She credits the UT community with helping her redefine her values last year and figure out what personal freedom means to her.

To celebrate her transformation, Sablatura designed a tattoo that combines it with her lifelong love affair with music: a bird made of musical notes.

“I’ve always liked bird tattoos,” Sablatura said. “They’re kinda the concept of freedom and liberation. They’re peaceful animals to me, and it’s a universal symbol of freedom.”

After growing up surrounded by music in all of its forms, she currently uses dance to express her love of music.

“Dance is really musical,” Sablatura said. “You have to hear the beats and move in a way that emphasizes them. It made me listen to music more critically.”

Sablatura strongly credits music as the driving force behind her freeing, intrapersonal journey.

“I felt like I had to free myself of other people’s biases to have enough confidence to be strong,” Sablatura said.

Allison Medina

After biochemistry junior Allison Medina’s grandmother died of breast cancer, she decided to memorialize her with a tattoo of the pink breast cancer ribbon.

“It was pretty hard losing her,” Medina said. “I want to go to medical school and do oncology, so it’s meaningful to me. A constant reminder.”

The small tattoo is hidden on the side of her torso to keep it out of sight from others. Dreams of working in a professional field prevent Medina from having visible tattoos, motivating her to strategically place it in a concealed area.

“It’s hidden so people don’t see it a lot,” she said. “But I know it’s there, and it affects me.”

Regina Baker

Tattoos blanket the body of psychology senior Regina Baker. Comprised of different styles from different artists, each design has its own unique meaning, but her favorites are a series of stars that stretch the length of her body.

“There’s 63 stars from my shoulder to my ankle,” Baker said. “Really, they don’t mean a lot. It was kind of a spur of the moment gift from my son’s uncle.”

Baker’s love of art is what propels her drive to ink her skin. Baker takes pride in the artists’ many distinct styles.

“It’s basically a collection of art I get to wear,” Baker said.

Latin-American superstar Eugenio Derbez discusses new film and the challenges of multicultural comedy

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

Eugenio Derbez, named the most influential Latin-American star by Variety, is hugely popular in Spanish-speaking countries, and this week he begins his attempt to make it in America.

He produced and stared in “How to Be a Latin Lover,” a funny and surprisingly sweet tale of a washed-up Hollywood gigolo who moves in with his sister, played by Salma Hayek. The Daily Texan sat down with him to hear about the struggles of transitioning to English and the advice he has for student actors.

The Daily Texan: What was the hardest part about making an English-language film?

Eugenio Derbez: Probably the language and the culture. Let me tell you why: Drama is universal. We all cry for the same stuff: love, death, lust. But comedy depends on where you were born. You go to Argentina and you watch a show, you’re not gonna laugh at the same things. So it depends on where you were born, if you are young, if you are old. Your grandma doesn’t laugh at the same stuff as you, you know?

It’s so hard to make a movie for two different countries, for two different cultures. So it was an experiment, kind of. Our hope was to make (two different cultures) laugh: the Hispanic culture and the Anglos. And I think we found a great mix between the two senses of humor.

Having a director like Ken Marino—and I am a director myself, I direct all of my TV shows—so I brought my style into the American comedy, and I think we found the perfect balance between the cultures. And we have some tricks. There are some scenes that are funny, in the few scenes that I’m in Spanish, we cheated. The subtitles say something different that appeals more to the general market than the Hispanics. If you try to translate every single joke it doesn’t work.

DT: What advice do you have for an actor who is trying to make it today?

ED: I spent many years of my life knocking at the door of all producers. This happened to me in Mexico and, of course, here. I never got anything. There’s a lot of people around, so how can you compete in a market like this?

Everything changed my life the day I decided, instead of asking for a job, to bring something to the table. So what I did then is the same as what I did here. They are like “How did you get a starring role in a movie in Hollywood?” Well, I did it myself.

In Mexico I did the same thing. When I was starting, I worked a lot as a waiter. Then I hired two writers that could develop a script for me. That’s what I did here too. I hired two American writers, they wrote the script and then I went to the studios.

The best way to open the door, even if it’s Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Will Smith whoever you want, is having a good script. A good script is the best key, the best weapon. So I got the script, it was really funny. So I came with everything: a production company and a great script. They said yes and that’s how I got here.

So instead of just waiting and knocking at the door and asking for something, I brought the idea, I put the team together, and that’s it. That’s the best way to do it.