Happy New Year, everyone! Getting back into the swing of things with this first round of monthly favs! This January, HBO Max dominated my list of favorites with the reunion special Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts, James Gunn's series Peacemaker, and filmmaker Megan Park's directorial debut The Fallout [*CW*]. Rounding out the month includes Amy Schneider's historic run on Jeopardy! and Disney's animated musical Encanto.
What were some of your favorite films, television shows, web series, books, or podcasts from January? Let me know what you're looking forward to or recommend seeing in February!
Creator: Merv Griffin
Host: Ken Jennings
Where to Watch: Jeopardy!
Jeopardy! is a quiz competition game show where a returning champion and two challengers test their buzzer skills and knowledge in a wide range of academic and popular categories. Presented with clues in the form of answers, contestants must phrase their responses in the form of questions.
While this choice might seem a little out of left field, I wanted to include Jeopardy in this month's favorites, mainly to highlight Amy Schneider's historic run on the game show and acknowledge her incredible performance. It should come as no surprise that I'm a bit of a geek. I like history and trivia, and, growing up, Jeopardy! (pronounced "Geo-party" in our household) was always one of my favorite shows to watch. I still remember watching Ken Jennings' 74-episode winning streak and shouting "H&R Block!?" at the T.V.
Fast-forward to November 17, 2021, and contestant Amy Schneider unexpectedly makes a crack at the top-trivia spot. Over the holidays, my family and I watched her historic run on the show with anticipation. Even my dad, whose idea of intense competition is akin to a C.F.P. National Championship game was invested. She flew through categories like they were nothing but with undeniable poise and grace. Confident but never arrogant, we all rallied behind her, nervous if she missed a clue or got tongue-tied by the buzzer. All the while, her total winnings racked up meteorically.
However, all good things must come to an end, and her record-breaking 40-episode winning streak concluded on January 26. She is the winningest woman, the fifth-most winningest of any contestant in all play, has the second-most consecutive wins, and is the first openly trans contestant to break into the Tournament of Champions. While the internet can be awful and cruel, I hope that Amy enjoys the well-deserved positive attention she's been getting. Though, I'm sure that nearly $1.4 million check makes the experience a little sweeter, too.
Plain and simple, Amy is a fantastic competitor, and I can't wait to see her compete at the Tournament of Champions in the fall!
DYK? Former host Alex Trebek hosted every episode of Jeopardy! from its inception in 1984 until his death from pancreatic cancer in 2020 for a total of 8,244 shows. The only exception was a special April Fool's Day episode in 1997 when he and Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak "swapped" shows for the day.
Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts
Directors: Casey Patterson, Joe Pearlman, Giorgio Testi & Eran Creevy
Featuring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint & Emma Watson
Where to Watch: HBOMax
Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts reunites Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, other esteemed cast members, and filmmakers across all eight Harry Potter films for the first time to celebrate the franchise's first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. The retrospective special tells an enchanting making-of story through all-new in-depth interviews and cast conversations, inviting fans on a magical first-person journey through one of the most beloved film franchises of all time. Additional Harry Potter film alumni joining the memorable tribute include Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman, Tom Felton, James Phelps, Oliver Phelps, Mark Williams, Bonnie Wright, Alfred Enoch, Matthew Lewis, and Evanna Lynch, among others.
There's nothing like watching a 20th-anniversary special on a childhood favorite to make you feel O L D.
All jokes aside, Return to Hogwarts just felt like a giant, nostalgic hug. Having grown up with the Harry Potter franchise, The Sorcerer's Stone is still a comfort-watch for me, and hearing behind-the-scenes anecdotes and factoids straight from the people who experienced it firsthand was really sweet. If you're a Harry Potter fan and haven't seen Return to Hogwarts yet, I would highly recommend giving this reunion special a watch. Just remember to get yourself a mug of butterbeer, a pumpkin pastie or two, and a big box of tissues.
*Just to note, I know that some fans have complicated (and completely valid) feelings towards the Wizarding World of Harry Potter because of author J.K. Rowling's transphobic rhetoric. If, like me, Harry Potter gave you a sense of community and belonging, please know that an author's derogatory statements don't necessarily have to ruin your memories of the work. I think that actor Daniel Radcliffe via the Trevor Project said it best:
"If you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life—then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred. And in my opinion, nobody can touch that. It means to you what it means to you, and I hope that [her] comments will not taint that too much."
This isn't a debate: Trans women are women. Trans rights are human rights.
DYK? Much of the reunion special was filmed on the original movie sets, which are now part of the "Harry Potter Studio Tour" in Leavesden, England, opened in 2012.
Directors: Byron Howard, Jared Bush & Charise Castro Smith
Cast: Stephanie Beatriz, María Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo, Mauro Castillo, Jessica Darrow, Angie Cepeda, Carolina Gaitán, Diane Guerrero, Wilmer Valderrama, Ravi Cabot-Conyers & Maluma
Where to Watch: Disney+
The Madrigals are an extraordinary family who live hidden in the mountains of Colombia in a charmed place called the Encanto. The magic of the Encanto has blessed every child in the family with a unique gift—every child except Mirabel (Beatriz). However, she soon may be the Madrigals' last hope when she discovers that the magic surrounding the Encanto is now in danger.
I am a Disney kid through and through and was raised on Disney Renaissance movies; they are near and dear to my heart. However, I confess that I've been disappointed over the last few years. The animation quality was, as ever, incredible, but the stories were just...meh? Underdeveloped? Unsatisfying? So, my expectations weren't terribly high when trailers dropped for Encanto. I assumed that the animation would be beautiful, a few of the songs would be fun, and that I would watch this film once, and that would be that.
Oh, how wrong I was. Encanto is, without question, one of the best movies Disney has produced in a long time. And no, that isn't hyperbole. Encanto is what happens when Disney sticks to what it knows best—character development. In my opinion, Disney's last few productions have suffered from muddled storytelling, trying to establish these "epics of destiny" and the quintessential "hero's journey" while ignoring the most essential aspect of storytelling: giving audiences characters to care about.
The film relies heavily on magical realism, a genre popularized by Columbian writer Gabriel García Márquez (which I thought was a nice touch given the film's Columbian roots) and, artistically, well-within Disney's wheelhouse—no pun intended. Encanto is as charming and magical as one would expect from a Disney film, but where it shines is its character-driven narrative.
In a family bestowed with incredible abilities, Mirabel is the only ungifted one. Ostracized from her family, particularly her siblings and cousins who all live together in the Casita, Mirabel struggles to find her place and a sense of purpose within the family. However, once Casita begins to break down, and everyone's powers are affected, she takes on the mantle of repairing the house and restoring the magic with a spring in her step and a song in her heart.
At this point, Encanto would seem to fall into the stereotypical trappings of the hero's journey. Instead, Mirabel discovers that her loved ones struggle with the expectations of their abilities, such as Luisa's super-human strength and Isabela's perfection. And then there's Bruno—we've got to talk about Bruno. Infectious song aside, the poor guy has been vilified by the community for his gift to see the future! He ends up hiding in the Casita's walls, befriending rats, and obsessing over superstitions. Oof.
Audiences tend to view animated films as "kid's entertainment," but Encanto isn't just for kids and families; this story can resonate with anyone. Despite being billed as a fun musical adventure, at its core, Encanto is a cautionary tale about reinforcing undue expectations and fostering healthy relationships with the people who matter most to us. The film subtly addresses familial responsibilities, generational trauma, and imposter syndrome healthily.
Ultimately, the animation is gorgeous (duh), the songs are catchy as heck and rival anything from the Disney Renaissance, and the ending is wholesome and gratifying. Hopefully, Encanto is a sign of good things continuing to come out of the legendary studio. I'd rather have "We Don't Talk About Bruno" over "Let It Go" stuck in my head anyway.
DYK? Bruno (Leguizamo) was initially named 'Oscar,' but his name was changed to better fit the song lyrics, "We don't talk about Bruno-no-no-no-no." Additionally, a legal snag over several real-life Oscar Madrigals led the filmmakers to change it.
Creator: James Gunn
Cast: John Cena, Danielle Brooks, Freddie Stroma, Chukwudi Iwuji, Jennifer Holland, Steve Agee & Robert Patrick
Where to Watch: HBO Max
After recovering from the injuries he suffered during the events of The Suicide Squad (2021), Chris Smith (a.k.a. Peacemaker (Cena)) is forced to join the mysterious A.R.G.U.S. black ops squad "Project Butterfly." The team is on a mission to identify and eliminate parasitic butterfly-like creatures in human form.
Full disclosure: I did not want to like Peacemaker. Excuse me, Pissmaker (I'm still mad). In my opinion, the success of James Gunn's The Suicide Squad lies in its ability to take truly awful characters that no one should give a flying flip about and turn into compelling, engaging, and well-rounded characters. After his actions in Corto Maltese, no one should care about Peacemaker and what he'll do next—he has a well-deserved target on his back. And yet, despite his douchebaggery, here I am, watching his story unfold and, at times, feeling sorry for him.
Me getting ready to watch a new episode of Peacemaker every week.
Within the first episode, we learn that Peacemaker is absolutely the product of his father. Auggie Smith (a.k.a. White Dragon) is a Neo-nazi supervillain described by executive producer Peter Safran as an "Archie Bunker on steroids." Raised to be proud of his "patriotism" and sense of duty to his country, Peacemaker wears his costume everywhere. His only confidant is essentially his pet eagle, Eagly. The guy wasn't exactly set up for success. While his awful upbringing doesn't excuse his behavior, it does explain how someone so rigidly obsessed with peace would use any means necessary to achieve it, even resorting to extreme violence.
However, now that he's killed a real American hero, Col. Rick Flag's last words continually haunt him: "Peacemaker, what a joke." Forced to work with the government on "Project Butterfly" to pay for his freedom, Peacemaker begins to question his own mission—who is he if he isn't Peacemaker? His entire identity centers around his personal mission, but now his faith in himself and mission towards peace is shaken. Having an existential crisis while trying to purge the planet of a parasitic alien invasion with coworkers who hate your guts makes for a situation rife with drama and cringy facepalming.
As the obtuse, douchy antihero, John Cena works insanely well. He is bolstered by a supporting cast that waffles between utter disgust and mere tolerance of him. This series shouldn't work nearly as well on paper as it does. But on screen, it's a weird continuation of The Suicide Squad that opens the door for potentially more side series, further expanding the franchise. If you're a DCEU fan, I'd give Peace a chance.
DYK? James Gunn wrote the entire first season in 8 weeks during COVID quarantine out of pure boredom, not actually believing the series would ever get picked up.
*CW* Themes of trauma and gun violence. Readers' discretion is advised.
Director: Megan Park
Cast: Jenna Ortega, Maddie Ziegler, Julie Bowen, John Ortiz, Lumi Pollack, Niles Fitch, Will Ropp, & Shailene Woodley
Where to Watch: HBO Max
Bolstered by new friendships forged under sudden and tragic circumstances, high schooler Vada (Ortega) begins to reinvent herself, while re-evaluating her relationships with her family, friends, and her view of the world. Moving away from her comfortable family routine, she starts taking chances with a series of quicksilver decisions that test her own boundaries and push her in new directions. As she spends more time with Mia (Ziegler), they grow closer, and Vada slowly redefines herself through their shared experiences, leading her further away from that day and closer to living her life in the now.
This is a film I've thought of often since my first viewing, and it wouldn't surprise me if this makes my top list of 2022 films. While The Fallout may not fit the general light-hearted nature of this monthly favorites list, it was still important to me to include it. While challenging at times, The Fallout is necessary and needed in the conversation regarding gun violence and trauma response. And, with an incredible performance from Jenna Ortega, coupled with Megan Park's masterful direction, The Fallout offers a refreshing and realistic approach to the subject.
The Fallout does provide commentary about gun violence in schools. Still, it focuses more on the characters' diverse responses to trauma, especially from the teenage perspective. Nearly every cop procedural has had an episode about an active shooting event at a school, such as Law and Order (2001), Cold Case (2006), Numb3rs (2006), and Criminal Minds (2011) and is neatly wrapped up in 45 minutes. Most films that cover school shootings are either documentaries after a tragedy, like Newtown (2016) and We Are Columbine (2018), or focus on the shooters and their families like We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and Mass (2021). Except for a few teen-centered dramas, The Fallout is the first film that I've seen that truly focuses and explores gun violence-related PTSD and trauma in adolescence.
I was in elementary school when the Columbine shooting happened. My school district's response to the tragedy was to start implementing active shooter drills several times a year. I remember some of my classmates were shaken, but having lived on a military base and gone to a DoDEA school, these kinds of drills weren't new to me. As an EFL teacher in Japan, the drills we practiced involved "suspicious people" and, at most, a knife attack. After one knife attack drill, a colleague asked me in the teacher's office, "Do you have drills like these in America?" When I replied that we practiced for bomb threats and shootings, she, very seriously, said, "I would be terrified to send my children to an American school." Having friends and relatives who currently teach, it's maddening to hear that policymakers expect educators to act as security officials or police, risking their safety, and, potentially, their students' safety, to "take down the gunman."
In all honesty, I have lived nearly my whole life with the threat of gun violence at schools, and it was normalized. Now, new generations of students and educators will be taught the same without offering any real solutions. In The Fallout, Vada's mother good-naturedly but continually questions her about going back to school and getting back to her "sparkling old self." Her little sister Amelia practices TikTok dances in the living room while she texts a friend about another student's death. Her best friend Nick can't understand why she won't join his newfound activism and protest against gun violence with him. She turns to risky behaviors with her self-isolating new friend Mia—a relationship born from huddling together in a bathroom stall during the shooting—just to cope with her experience and feel anything.
As a society, we expect children—victims of intense trauma—to deal with the consequences of gun violence in place of common-sense laws. Without being preachy or self-righteous, The Fallout examines and explores those consequences. Unlike those 45-minute police dramas where the story is neatly wrapped up as the credits roll, Vada doesn't go back to her "old self" after a few therapy sessions and a clarifying moment of self-reflection. In one of the film's most effective and heartbreaking moments, the ending clearly demonstrates what PTSD is and how it can affect people suffering through emotional and psychological trauma. As gun violence remains a highly contested political and social issue, so does Vada's experience in the fallout after the shooting—she keeps reliving it in little ways, unable to let go. The Fallout forces audiences to wonder: Will Vada, and, by extension, any victim suffering from PTSD, ever really be able to let go?
DYK? The Fallout is Megan Park's feature directorial debut. She has received the Brightcove Illumination Award at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival and the Directors to Watch Award at the 2022 Palm Springs International Film Festival for her work on this film.