Why You Should Watch “The OA” Right Now

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Netflix’s new original series, “The OA,” is unlike anything else on television these days. It’s one part supernatural drama, one part science fiction thriller, one part fantasy horror and one part paranormal mystery. But that’s exactly what makes “The OA” so addictive – it will completely play with your mind and emotions. You need to be watching it right now because the show will challenge your assumptions about life and death, the sacred and the profane, and the mutability of truth.

A genre that defies explanation

Is it a drama? A mystery? Nobody really can say. Netflix calls it a “mystery drama,” but that doesn’t take into account how big a role the occult plays in this new show. Entertainment site E! even went so far as to post a blog and video about the show under the headline “WTF is ‘The OA’?”

Part of the reason why nobody can say for sure what genre this is stems from the fact that the narrator – Prairie Johnson (aka “The OA”) – turns out not to be so reliable after all. The show only has 8 episodes, but in at least half of them, you won’t be sure if she’s actually telling the truth about what happened to her.

And, let’s face it, her story borders on the insane. Blind and adopted, she goes disappearing for seven years before returning with the ability to see again and lots of unexplained scars on her back. And she calls herself “The OA” (which we learn later means “Original Angel”). She won’t tell the FBI or her adoptive parents what happened to her – she will only tell a group of five local kids, and her story gets weirder and spookier with each new episode.

A storytelling format that pulls you in

What makes “The OA” so addictive is that it’s often challenging to tell what’s going on, since the show makes elaborate use of a non-linear storytelling format. As Prairie Johnson/The OA (played by Brit Marling) tells her story, she begins to unwind all the events over the past 7 years that led to the present situation.

She says that she was tricked by an evil scientist known as Hap, who convinced her to take part in near-death experiences to see what happens to the human soul when a body dies. That’s because, when she was young, she had a near-death experience when she almost drowned. Oh, and Hap has apparently captured three other people, whom he is also subjugating to these near-death experiences. (Not to give too much away here, but if you have a fear of drowning, you’re going to be completely freaked out)

But that’s what happened over the past 7 years. We’re also shown what’s happening in the present day. There’s an FBI agent who is trying to figure out what really happened, as well as a group of five local kids trying to piece together all the parts of the OA’s past life. Who’s lying and who’s telling the truth?

There are some crazy conspiracy theories on YouTube. Some people are convinced that the person claiming to be an FBI agent is not really an FBI agent! (Mind blown) And there’s a scene in the show – when the OA’s friends discover a trove of books – that suggests that maybe the OA was just making all this up, as some sort of elaborate creative writing hoax.

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Brit Marling as “The OA”

Brit Marling is one of the co-creators of the series (together with Zal Batmangli), and she also plays the starring role of “The OA.” She’s the unreliable narrator, who frames the whole story for the TV audience. The only problem is, we don’t really know who she is, or what she is trying to do. And why won’t she talk to the FBI?

There’s a lot to unpack here, and Brit Marling is fabulous in this role. She spins an unbelievable story – including her previous life as the child of a wealthy Russian oligarch, her kidnapping at the hands of an evil psychopath-slash-scientist, and her new mission in the world. She’s convinced that there are other missing persons that she must save.

That’s because “The OA” stands for “Original Angel,” and she’s convinced that she has a purpose on this earth as an angel to save people. She even has a series of dance moves – known as The Movements – that, if performed correctly, can accomplish miraculous things. There’s a certain element of the occult here, which is what makes these movements so hard to figure out – are they real or just a bit of made-up pretense by a very psychologically damaged girl?

The ending

Which brings us to the best reason to watch “The OA” – the ending (Episode 8 of Season 1). It’s here that we learn one of the true powers of The Movements is to stop a school shooting incident. This ending has spawned a whole sub-genre of YouTube videos, trying to piece together what just happened.

Some critics complain that the ending is deeply unsatisfying, and that The Movements are a bit ridiculous. (OK, even Brit Marling in an interview admits that they do look a little silly). But that ignores the larger arc of the show – it’s in the final episode that we realize how much we missed in the previous seven episodes.

We know for a fact that something definitely happened to the OA, because she can see now and she once was blind. That’s definitely confirmed. But the show raises a lot of questions, like: Would we recognize an angel if one lived amongst us? And what really happens when we die?

The best shows are always the ones that you want to watch again and again, to uncover all the little details you might have missed along the way. And “The OA” is definitely one of those shows. It’s not clear whether Netflix is planning another season of this show, just like Santa Clarita Diet, but if it is, it’s all but certain that you’re going to have a lot of fans looking very closely to see if everything they thought about “The OA” was really true or not. And that’s going to be an unbelievable experience you’ll want to share with your friends.

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Why “Hidden Figures” Is An Important Film

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There’s one film that you’re going to be hearing a lot about as we get closer to Oscar award season, and that’s “Hidden Figures.” This film, which tells the fabulously entertaining story of how three African-American women helped to win the Space Race for the United States, is not just a fun movie to watch with the family, it’s also an important movie.

A breakthrough for race relations

The film takes place during the same time as the Civil Rights movement, when African-Americans were trying to gain equal rights in America. At the same time the film is set during the early 1960s when the United States was desperately trying to catch up with the Soviet Union (which had just launched Sputnik).

In a segregated America, where blacks and whites were kept separated from each other in schools and in the workplace, the topic of race was everywhere. We see this segregation in the U.S. space program, where African-American employees toiled away at the West Area Computers Division of the world-famous Langley Research Center. It’s here that we meet the three African-American heroines of the movie – Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (played by Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae). All of them are enormously talented, but all of them have been held back due to their race.

You can think of this film, then, as putting the “race” in “Space Race.” At one point, a manager of the space program, played by Kirsten Dunst, says: “Y’all should be thankful you have jobs at all.” That’s the type of thinking that the film helps to break down. In many ways, the opposite is true: NASA and the space program should be deeply thankful that it had such extraordinarily talented African-American employees during a critical moment in the nation’s history. These African-Americans, toiling away in obscurity in the West Area Computers division, were the “computers” and the brains of the operation, long before the first IBM mainframe computers first arrived.

And it’s here that the film is so empowering. We see, step by step, how the team at the Space Task Group (responsible for putting John Glenn into space) slowly strips away all the outward signs of segregation. And these outward signs of segregation are many – the African-Americans working in the group can’t use the same restroom, can’t drink coffee from the same coffeemaker and can’t even have their names included on reports that they’ve helped to produce.

But there are so many uplifting scenes that take place in the movie that show us how the U.S. space program became meritocratic. We see Kevin Costner in the much talked about “bathroom scene,” where he physically turns the bathroom into a place for all races. (Before, Katherine Johnson had to run across the Langley campus in her high heels anytime she needed to use the bathroom in the West Computers Building). We see the three women laughing merrily as a white police officer gives them an escort to their workplace. And we see all the visible signs of co-workers learning acceptance of their African-American co-workers.

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A breakthrough for women’s empowerment

As much as the film is about race, it’s also about female empowerment. We have those three amazing women – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson – continually fighting for acceptance in the workplace. At one point, Mary Jackson (played by the exceptional Janelle Monae) points out: “Every time we get a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line. Every time.”

And so the story of the U.S. Space Race is really just as much about the exceptional contributions of women. Instead of just being secretaries, these women became engineers, mathematicians and scientists. Mary Jackson, in fact, is studying at night at an all-white engineering school for the right engineering qualifications to get ahead in her career. (You go, girl!)

The moral and emotional arc of the story

This is a feel good movie filled with an unflinching look at racial and gender dynamics. There are just so many inspiring lines from the movie, like when Kevin Costner (playing Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group) tells everyone: “We all get there together, or we don’t get there at all.”

That’s what really raises this movie up from just being a story of racial or gender empowerment – it’s also a story of how we all need to get along if things are going to work. When astronaut John Glenn thanks the brilliant African-American women for their work, he’s thanking them for all of America.

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Critical acclaim

It’s so satisfying, then, to see this film pick up so much critical acclaim. Many are now touting the film as a surefire Oscar pick, and the only question really becomes: Which of these exceptional actors and actresses are going to be nominated for which award? Any of the actresses – Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae – could get a Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress nomination, and there’s buzz building over Mahershala Ali (who plays Jim Johnson, the love interest of Katherine Johnson) possibly picking up a Best Supporting Actor award.

The good news is that the awards momentum is already starting to build. “Hidden Figures” has picked up two Golden Globe nominations, for Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer) and Best Original Score. It has also picked up a number of other nominations for its amazing ensemble cast and its inspiring screenplay. Meanwhile, the film has an incredible 92% freshness score on Rotten Tomatoes and a rating of 7.9/10.0 on IMDb. And Deadline predicts that this film could smash through the $100 million box office point, making it a pop culture hit. And that’s going to be huge for these Hollywood careers of these actresses, especially Octavia Spencer, who already had a huge hit back in 2011 with “The Help.”

Oscar night anticipation

The final proof that “Hidden Figures” is an important film will come on Oscar night. That’s when we’ll know that the Academy recognizes this film as more than just a “feel good” movie. It is entertaining, yes. But it also important. Just a single big Oscar win will go a long way toward empowering women and African-Americans in Hollywood, helping to bring their stories to tens of millions of people all over the world.

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Movie Review: “Sing” Will Make You Sing With Joy

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One of the biggest hits of the holiday season has been “Sing,” the latest animated film from Illumination Entertainment (the same studio behind “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Despicable Me”). As you might guess from the title, music plays a central role throughout the film. Young kids may not recognize all of the several dozen classic songs that appear in the animated film, but adults surely will.

The young ones will view the film as a delightful animated classic featuring an ensemble of funny animal characters – Buster Moon the koala bear (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), Ash the porcupine (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), Rosita the pig (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), Eddie the sheep (voiced by John C. Reilly), Mike the mouse (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), Johnny the gorilla (voiced by Taron Egerton) and Meena the elephant (voiced by Tori Kelly) – all with funny lines and over-the-top singing styles.

Adults, though, will surely enjoy aspects of the film that the tiniest ones simply won’t get – like Johnny the gorilla singing the rap/rock song “Butterfly” by Crazy Town. Or the impossibly beautiful and sophisticated Scarlett Johansson singing a goofy song for teenagers (“Call Me Maybe”) while voicing the role of a punk rock porcupine who’s being cheated on by another porcupine. (Mind blown, Scarlett.)

And, then, of course, there are sure to be the uncomfortable moments when adults have to explain a scene from “Sing” to the young ones. To a small tyke, a bunch of rabbits wiggling their tails on stage to a Nicki Minaj song may seem cute, but for older movie chaperones, a line like “OMG, look at her butt” may be a bit hard to explain later. (as might be the “Anaconda” reference in the song’s title!)

Which is why some critics have complained that the film seems to have a dual personality – on one hand, it wants to appeal to kids with funny animal characters and on the other hand, it wants to entertain adults with upbeat, animated karaoke versions of songs from more than a decade ago. This is what “American Idol” would look like if it were animated and transported to an imaginary world populated only by talented animals.

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And, indeed, the entire plotline of “Sing” is really just a slightly more dramatic version of what could be called “The Making of American Idol.” You can summarize the whole plot of “Sing” in twenty words or less – theater impresario wants to save a classic theater and decides to raise money by hosting a massive singing talent competition. Only in this case, the theater impresario happens to be a koala bear named Buster Moon and the talent show participants happen to be a mouse, an elephant, a pig, a gorilla and a porcupine.

But merely dismissing “Sing” as an animated sing-along doesn’t give enough credit to the film’s core message. That message is that fear shouldn’t stop you from doing the things you love in life. In this case, it’s singing. The shy and timid Meena the elephant must overcome her stage fright and give the performance of a lifetime. And, indeed, she literally “brings down the house” with a rousing performance of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.”

Meena thinks she can’t possibly sing on stage, even though that’s her real passion in life. “Just sing,” she’s told. And lo and behold, it works! For young kids, she might be the most relatable of all the characters. Although one suspects that “major piggy power” in the form of Rosita the pig could give Miss Piggy a run for the money in terms of favorite animated pig.

As a corollary theme, the film emphasizes again and again that “you have to be willing to work harder than you’ve worked in your entire lives.” Hard work, we’re told, is the secret to success.

But, as “Sing” also makes clear, family and other personal issues can sometimes get in the way. The film has some wonderfully diverting side-plots involving Johnny the gorilla, who must deal with his family’s shady and criminal underworld background. And all of the other animal characters, too, must struggle with relationships. Rosita the pig, for example, must decide what to do when she’s selected for the next round of the talent competition, but her partner isn’t.

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The secret to success is collaboration rather than competition. Things all come together if you’re willing to work with others. When you have friends pulling for you and rooting for your success, that’s when you’ll succeed.

That sounds almost a bit formulaic, and in many ways, it is. But remember – this is a kid’s movie at heart. If kids are being told that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up, then what’s the problem? It is, as some other critics have pointed out, a very “warmhearted storyline.” You’re meant to feel good when you leave the cinema, with a song in your heart.

There are a lot of great songs in “Sing” (which you’d expect, of course) – but the one song that people are talking about is the one song that’s completely original – a collaboration between Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande called “Faith.” That’s the type of collaboration that the film seems to be embracing – a collaboration across race, gender and generation – to produce a wonderful music hit.

As a purely adult film, “Sing” may leave you feeling a bit short-changed. It’s been called “cheerfully undemanding” and perhaps it is. You’re meant to enjoy the music and everything else is secondary.

It’s clear that Illumination Entertainment (owned by Comcast) is a rising star in the animated film industry. With hits like “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Despicable Me,” they seem to have cracked the secret to making a hit film involving animated creatures.

Sing” may not be as good as “The Secret Life of Pets” but it’s ultimately more enjoyable – especially if you’re an adult forced to endure yet another viewing of this film once it comes out on Netflix and iTunes. There are worse things in life than being forced to jam along to animated karaoke versions of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” again and again.

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Why Viewers Love “This Is Us”

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When “This Is Us” premiered in September 2016, NBC immediately knew that it had a smash hit on its hands. “This Is Us” quickly grew audience share and became Fall’s #1 new show with a lineup of 10 hit episodes. On IMDb, the show has a rating of 8.9/10 and on Rotten Tomatoes, it has a staggering 90 percent approval rating.

There are so many reasons to love this new family comedy-drama starring Mandy Moore (who plays Rebecca), Milo Ventimiglia (who plays Jack) and Sterling K. Brown (who plays Randall), but here are four of the best reasons.

Reason #1: The amazing ensemble cast

When NBC first aired the show, the thought was that this was going to be the Mandy Moore show – or, at the every least, the Milo Ventimiglia show. But the real breakout star of the show has been Sterling K. Brown, who is coming off a star turn in “The People Vs. OJ Simpson” (where he played Christopher Darden). This fall, Glamour magazine went absolutely gaga over Brown, saying that he had the best storylines, the best scenes and the most interesting and most complicated character on the show.

Sterling K. Brown plays a successful New York City businessman with what seems to be a happy family life (a wife and two daughters). However, he has a lot of emotional baggage that he’s trying to deal with – including the fact that he was abandoned as a baby and raised by white parents (Jack and Rebecca). In the series, one of the plotlines is his search for his real father and what happens as a result.

And there are plenty of supporting characters – including the twins Kate (played by Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (played by Justin Hartley) – who give the family drama a lot of emotional resonance. Kate and Kevin must deal with their own complicated relationship, as well as their relationship with Randall, who is part of their family. Kevin must handle the future of his acting career, and whether or not it’s time to settle down from his bachelor lifestyle, while Kate must learn to deal with her self-esteem problems and find a significant other in her life.

Reason #2: The Number 36

How much could a number really matter? Well, in “This Is Us,” the number 36 plays an important role in uniting all the different plot strands around people, all of whom share the same birthday. Both Jack (the adoptive father of Randall) and the real father of Randall share a common birthday and their children are now 36. Randall wears the number “36” on his high school football team and he also tracks down his real father on his 36th birthday. Kevin – Randall’s adoptive brother – quits his Los Angeles-based sitcom show on his 36th birthday to pursue a new career. And Kate – Randall’s adoptive sister – meets her boyfriend Toby on her 36th birthday.

In any other TV show, this bizarre occurrence of the number 36 and the coincidence of people having the same birthdays would be highly questionable and actually a bit unbelievable. But in “This Is Us,” 36 helps to unite all the convoluted plot strands across different generations. Suddenly, everything makes sense, and the number 36 is the reason.

Similar to the Hollywood movies where the stories of a bunch of strangers turn out to be somehow united by a common, shared incident (usually a tragedy, like a car wreck as in the 2014 movie “Crash”), “This Is Us” has a type of forward momentum that’s made possible with this simple plot device. It makes the whole show more believable, and also helps to bring out the emotions of the actors. We see how all the stories of the characters unite in one narrative arc.

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Reason #3: The show’s willingness to take on tough family issues

It wouldn’t be a family drama without the exploration of the types of issues that unite and divide families. And there’s no shortage of tough family issues in “This Is Us.” For example, one story line deals with Kate and her obesity problem. Throughout her whole life, she’s struggled with problems of self-esteem and depression brought on by her weight gain.

Another story line deals with the potential problems created by a black child growing up in a white household – and then the reaction when that black child must meet his real, biological father. Will a shared race and identity be a help or a hindrance as he seeks to make sense of his own established life?

And, finally, there’s the matter of Jack and Rebecca. We learn details of how their relationship hasn’t always been smooth, and how Jack may have suffered from alcoholism before passing away.

Almost every critic has called “This Is Us” something akin to a “heartstring-tugging family drama,” and for good reason. You will have your heart tugged and pulled as you root for the different characters, and try to empathize with the problems and hang-ups in their lives.

Reason #4: The glorious flashback scenes

What makes each character unique are all the tiny scenes and dramas that have played out over the course of their lives, and one way “This Is Us” helps to bring these scenes out are via a series of flashbacks in the episodes. For example, we see Jack and Rebecca 36 years ago, as they were considering the decision to have kids. And then we see them deciding to have these kids during Super Bowl XIV in 1980 featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers. So Kate and Kevin are really “Super Bowl babies” with a real tie to the city of Pittsburgh.

And there’s another great flashback scene featuring Thanksgiving – we learn some of the traditions and rituals that the Pearson family follows, and how those traditions have carried through to the present day. Whenever there are problems in everyday life, it is these rituals and traditions of family that have provided a safety net against failure.

What’s clear is that “This Is Us” has been a smashing success. CNN called it “this year’s breakout hit.” It’s clear viewers and not just critics love it. For the 2016 finale in December, “This Is Us” pulled in 10.95 million viewers, and momentum appears to be growing. It’s exciting to see what the show will offer starting in January 2017, when it will continue with the final 8 episodes of Season One.

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