emotional jugulars

July 21, 2014

I cry a lot while watching movies and reading books and looking at art and. . .well, I cry a lot.  It doesn’t even have to be sad, it just has to be beautiful.  If something is beautiful, emotional, and hits me right in that vague spot where my sense of wonder and heart live, I’m going to cry.  The opening credits of Lilo and Stitch, for example, make me cry.  I’ve been thinking a lot about how that works this week, because of a couple of things.

During my trip, my connecting flight out of Chicago Midway was delayed, and I was kind of miserable.  The airport was super crowded, loud, uncomfortable, and for whatever reason I just didn’t have the reserves of willpower to deal with it.  So I thought, “I’ll hide in a corner and read my favorite comic books.” (I have like 50+ comics on my iPad at this point.)  So I picked a random issue of Planetary, which I suspect is going to be my favorite comic for the rest of my life unless something really amazing comes along.  I only got about four pages in before I had to stop because I was crying.  Part of it was I was already kind of emotional and upset.  And part of it was I just love this book so much, and being with these characters made me so happy, I couldn’t contain myself.  It was this specific scene that tipped me over:

Jakita:  Angels?
Elijah: We keep angels here.
Jakita: I don’t like that I didn’t know about this, Elijah.
Elijah: I know.

– Planetary, #19, Warren Ellis.

There’s a ton of characterization in these lines.  When Elijah says, “I know,” he isn’t being snippy or confrontational.  He’s sad.  He’s made mistakes and he’s trying to amend them — he didn’t tell her about the angels before, but he’s telling her now.  Because of how much he cares about her.  They’re a team.  And I started crying because I love these characters so much.  (That thing I talked about last week, about how tired I am of stories where people in dire circumstances are constantly being horrible to each other?  Planetary is the exact opposite of that.  It’s about unironically saving the world.)

Objectively there was no reason that scene should have tipped  me over.  I’ve probably read it a half a dozen times before without crying.  But this time — yeah, it got me.

Then I went to see Jersey Boys, because sometimes I do go see movies that aren’t science fiction, and I grew up listening to The Four Seasons because that’s the kind of music my parents listened to, and I just adore their music.  So this one?  It starts, the screen is dark, and an instrumental version of “Oh What a Night” plays as the opening credits starts.  And not two bars in I started crying.

(Aside:  I really enjoyed Jersey Boys, both because of the music and because I was sitting next to my full-blooded Italian friend who completely and utterly lost it from laughing during one scene that he said happened pretty much exactly like that during his own childhood.  Indeed, I was impressed at how many people in the movie talk just like the people in his stories about growing up.)

So, for me, this emotional jugular, this thing that makes me instantly cry after just two bars of music or two lines of dialog, is as much about memory as about story or mood or wonder or greatness.  It’s something that makes me happy, something that I remember making me happy.  It’s a cozy blanket for the brain, and I love that.

 

Snowpiercer

July 14, 2014

Given how much I hated Rise of the Planet of the Apes, there was no chance in hell I’d go see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,  despite the good reviews it’s getting.  Good thing there’s another limited release under-the-radar science fiction flick out for me to go see instead.

This is the kind of hype Snowpiercer is getting:  on The Mary Sue: “Review: Run, Don’t Walk, to See Snowpiercer, The Best Sci-Fi Film of the Decade So Far.”  My Facebook news feed has had people raving about this. I confess to feeling raised expectations.  Well…

This movie is not that good.

Science fiction has a long and glorious tradition of using the trappings of the genre to build up metaphor and allegory and commentary.  Such tales work best when a) the story is rock solid, and b) the metaphor is consistent.  (Like Edge of Tomorrow, to the shock and wonder of us all!)  I was willing to give Snowpiercer a pass on logic (seriously, the economy of this thing made no sense), if it could give me something else — cleverness, consistency, sense o’ wonder.  Alas, it wasn’t quite there.

*SPOILERS*

First, it starts really slow.  The page six problem — skip the opening scroll, skip the long meandering opening, and start when Claude enters to take away the two children.  Next scene, the movie totally lit up when Tilda Swinton’s character walked in — thank God for Tilda Swinton!  She very nearly saved the thing herself just by chewing all the scenery.  And the movie got a whole lot better for awhile and I had great hopes that it was going to keep getting better.  But then we get to that last forty five minutes, and it kinda fell apart.

I loved the set up.  A globe-circling train carrying the last of humanity through an artificial ice age?  Sold!  All we had to do was get from the back of the train to the front.  The tension ought to be built in.  But the movie pretty much offered the same solution to every obstacle, and that solution wasn’t clever, it was violent.  It got old quick.

It has some nice moments.  It has some clever (the cigarette scene was great).  It has a great aesthetic — reminiscent of Terry Gilliam, as the aforementioned reviewer said.  (One of the characters is even named Gilliam!  Is that an accident?  Probably not!)  Those scenes were lovely.   But.  But but but.  There wasn’t enough surreal/absurd — it needed more Gilliam-esque — in story beats as well as aesthetic — and it needed to be consistent.  But when Snowpiercer didn’t do clever, it fell back on cliches.  I kept thinking…Gilliam would have been able to pull this off.   (Fortunately, we have a Gilliam movie coming out later this year!  Huzzah!)

(I have a rant about how for being a 99% v. 1% metaphor the movie has no grasp of Marxist theory and it really should, but we’ll skip that one.)

I kept waiting for a clever twist that never happened.  Why do I keep expecting movies to be clever, dammit?

Bonus Rant:

This is also yet another movie that posits that in dire circumstances, everybody will be totally horrible to each other in really horrible ways.  All the previews before this?  Movies about how in dire circumstances, everybody will be totally horrible to each other in really horrible ways.  I’ve about had enough of this bullshit, y’all.  I’m going to go watch Big Fish, which is free On Demand right now.

that necklace!

July 11, 2014

So I was thinking about CA: The Winter Soldier and how really really nice it was to see a big tentpole action superhero flick with a man and woman lead, working together, with absolutely no romantic involvement, or hint of one, or suggestion that there ought to be one.  Steve and Natasha are friends, or become friends, and are totally professional.  I think that’s just great.

Then I remembered the Necklace.  THAT NECKLACE.

The necklace was definitely supposed to remind us about Hawkeye, and that Black Widow and Hawkeye might be an item.  Was the necklace there expressly to tell the audience that Steve and Natasha won’t be romantically involved because she’s already “taken?”

On the one hand, this is a nice, subtle bit of signalling — much nicer than some ham-handed on-the-nose conversation would have been.  On the other hand — is that kind of signalling even necessary?  Is the only way to keep the audience from thinking that Steve and Natasha won’t hook up is to tell them that she’s already taken?  Like they can’t just be friends?  Like Clint has to frakking mark his territory or something?  Argh!

Or am I reading too much into the whole thing?

 

Edge of Tomorrow

June 30, 2014

Well, that turned out to be a lot of fun!  Nicely done, everybody!  There’s an interesting subtext here about war, futility, and gaming — this felt like a video game:  dying, going back to start and playing forward with what you learned the last time.  But Cage only really gets anywhere when he stops playing that part of the game.

The thing that really won me over:  the main character, Cage, starts out being a complete asshole.  What this means is this is a redemption story, very straightforward.  But you know what I keep saying about the pleasures of a rote story, well told?  You don’t need bells and whistles and head scratching plot twists.  Tell me a solid story, tell it well, and the thing about this one is, Cage has to really work for his redemption.  Really work for it, so by the end it’s very clear he’s grown and learned and come out of this a completely, believably changed person.

I love all this because Hollywood doesn’t often give us such flawed heroes (I’m not talking about the “bad boy with a heart of gold” kind of character that usually gets passed off as a flawed hero, I’m talking the “asshole who usually gets his head bit off first in a Jurassic Park movie” kind of character), with such difficult roads to redemption, and whatever else happens, whatever other nits I could pick with this thing, that makes the film worthwhile.

And is the kickass woman character (yay, Emily Blunt!) just a prize for the hero?  No.  (Or at least, it’s really ambiguous.)  And isn’t that nice?

And now, a story that may or may not be relevant, but the movie reminded me of it so I’m going to tell you

Years ago — 1997 maybe? — Clancy Brown came to Starfest to promote Starship Troopers and I got see his talk.  He showed the proof-of-concept clip Veerhoven had put together, sixty seconds of pure brilliant awesome that left the room silent (and to this day I still mourn that the final product couldn’t replicate that sixty seconds), and talked some.  Then he opened the floor for questions, but he started by saying, very carefully and specifically, “Look, guys, I know you want to know about the power armor, but we weren’t able to do the power armor.  They just couldn’t figure out how to do it.  So please don’t ask me about the power armor.”

I think the very first question was asking how they were going to do the power armor.

Over the course of next half hour, four or so more people also asked about the power armor, and each time Clancy Brown patiently, but with obvious frustration, explained that no, there was no power armor, they couldn’t do the power armor, sorry.  And yet, people kept asking.

And that was the moment I knew Starship Troopers was going to be a terrible disappointment to a lot of people.

But that first battle drop scene in Edge of Tomorrow?  I kept thinking, that right there is the scene that all those people at that Clancy Brown talk really wanted to see.

 

You know that thing where people say, “Well, how do you write strong/tough/kickass/whatever women characters who aren’t just men with breasts?”  i.e. so-called women characters who are basically men, in female trappings, doing male-type things in the  story.  I guess.

I realized awhile back that I have no idea what this means.  Seriously.  What kind of men?  What kind of breasts?  What does this even mean?  The answer is, it doesn’t mean a damned thing.  In fact, I think it’s nothing more than apologia, another thing feeding into the idea that strong/physically tough women characters are somehow weird and need to be explained, and if you do them wrong you’ll be accused of some kind of. . .I don’t know.  I’ve written before about the discomfort with powerful women we often see in fiction, how they’re often mitigated by being some kind of “chosen one,” or given some kind of traumatic past that explains their current power, or saddled with perceived feminized weaknesses like low self esteems.  What this “not just men with breasts” statement says, I think, is that you’re supposed to somehow temper tough women characters.  Give them something that makes them “not men.”  When you ask, “Like, what?” you usually get some kind of answer like, “Oh, you know, women are more nurturing, they have to be feminine, they have to have something that shows that feminine traits can be strong too. . .”

That is exactly the essentializing bullshit we’ve been trying to get away from.  The minute you start saying things like “Women characters have to be like x, y, z, and shouldn’t be like a, b, c — ” you aren’t writing characters anymore, you’re writing stereotypes.  Don’t do that.

I mean — give me an example of a woman character who’s “just a man with breasts.”  Show me an example where this terrible mistake has been made.  Book, movie, whatever.  Vasquez in Aliens maybe?

Vasquez may be the butchest woman character ever to appear in a genre film — and there’s no mistaking her for a man.  She says so.  She’s a badass who’s amassed an arsenal of skills to deal with the male-dominated world she lives in.  She has a problem with authority, and a take-no-prisoners attitude.  She’s a great character.

Here’s my pick to play Wonder Woman, Gina Carano, in Haywire, where she plays a superspy on the run from a serious double cross.

No one is more physically tough than this woman.  Anyone gonna mistake her for a guy?  Is Mallory “just a man with breasts?”  Oh hell no.

Okay, here’s a character who’s definitely been accused of being too “mannish” or not feminine enough:

OH WAIT THAT’S NOT A CHARACTER THAT’S ACTUALLY MARGARET THATCHER, AN ACTUAL HUMAN WOMAN.  (My apologies for posting a Margaret Thatcher speech, everybody.)

And there we have it.  “Too manly” and “not feminine enough” or “too bitchy” or whatever are intended to be insults levied against actual real world powerful women to detract from their power.

That’s when I realized this whole “just a man with breasts” thing was total bullshit.  Because I don’t think it’s ever been done — it’s just another way to be scared of writing strong women.  Stop saying this, stop talking about it.

Really, seriously — to write strong women, write strong people.  I’m going to list a bunch of character traits:  funny, sly, smart, wise, kind, caring, ambitious, physical, psychotic, manipulative, narcissistic, thrill-seeking, generous, restless, brave, cowardly, cautious, cheerful, optimistic, practical, articulate, calm, elegant, dramatic, loyal, sympathetic, proud, humble, gregarious, stoic, emotional, hyper, gentle, graceful, artistic, restrained, stubborn, aggressive, passive, aloof, clumsy, cruel, curious, anxious, quiet, loud –

Which of those traits are female and which are male?  Bueller?  Bueller?  You should be able to list ten traits for your main characters before ever referring to their gender.  Because those are the sorts of traits that are going to impact the story, and determine how that character responds to the story.

Write people.

Maleficent

June 16, 2014

“I was a fairy princess once…Everything was so nice and peaceful,

’til one day it all went horribly wrong!”

–Miss Bitters, Invader Zim

And the moral of the story is, MEN RUIN EVERYTHING!!!!!

Ahem.  But seriously.  I’m really ambivalent about this movie.  It had things I liked.  And it had a lot that I didn’t.

Before going to see it I saw a couple of reviews titled, basically, “Let’s talk about that rape scene in Maleficent, shall we?”  So I was looking for it, and while it was metaphorical, it was just as horrible as you’d expect. (My friend leaned over right after it and said, “Well, that’s about the worst thing I’ve ever seen in a movie.”)  I have this pet peeve, in stories about powerful women, where all their power and motivation comes from some traumatic incident in their past.  Not always rape, but often it is, and this plays right into it.  That’s the whole point of the movie — what traumatic thing happened that made Maleficent go all evil and stuff?  Ta-da, there you go.  Complete personality transplant after that scene.  I mean, when we first meet her, and she’s this cheerful happy young fairy, and she announces, “I’m Maleficent!” I’m thinking “No you very well aren’t!”  The word Maleficent literally means “evil-doer” in latin, and at that point, she really really isn’t!  Etymology matters, bitches!  What would have worked better, I think, is her renaming herself Maleficent when she decides to go for revenge — that would have shown a whole lot more consciousness of what she’s doing, some kind of agency of her choosing this path rather than inevitably sliding into it because that’s what happens to traumatized women in stories.

Because you know who didn’t really need any motivation to go all evil and stuff?  Stefan.  Base ambition was enough to turn him bad, and he didn’t need a reason, and he didn’t need any redemption after, apparently.  This whole movie is supposed to be, is billed as, Maleficent’s redemption story.  And I just kept thinking, she isn’t the one needing redemption here!  She’s the victim!  Gah!

Aurora saved the movie for me.  Until her appearance, this was a movie about how people are terrible and awful to each other all the time.  Even the three “good” fairy/pixies were awful.  But Aurora, when she announces, “You’re my fairy godmother!” with such joy, and the look on Maleficent’s face when she realizes, Dammit, the kid’s right.  That was awesome.  I feel like I should have despised the character for being a caricature, all sunny and happy and tralala.  But I loved her, because she managed to convincingly embody what’s good in the world and why life is worth living.  Oh, and I also loved the raven.  Another great character who saved the movie from being about unrelenting terribleness.

I was disappointed that Aurora’s mother died, because that didn’t happen in any of the versions this is riffing on, and it’s like the movie just didn’t want the complication of Aurora having two mother figures. I know why they skipped the whole “everybody falls into a deep sleep” thing because they wanted to have a big battle at the end, but that also felt like a misstep.

But I do really love that we now have two Disney movies seeking to redefine what “true love’s kiss” means, and that there are lots of kinds of loves that are just as important as hetero romantic love.  I also love how the closing credit version of “Once Upon a Dream” was super-emo-goth, specifically designed to appeal to two generations of emo goth kids who look on Maleficent as their goddess.

Now, if you really want a subversive retelling of Sleeping Beauty, let me recommend Robin McKinley’s Spindle’s End.

 

I liked a lot of this.  But I didn’t love it, and it took me a day of mulling it over to figure out why.  Most movies that are broken I can figure it out immediately.  This. . .it was subtle, and it took awhile, but here it is:  This movie doesn’t know who its main characters are.

So I’m going to ramble on about main characters for awhile, as if this is some kind of writing workshop and I’ve just gotten in a manuscript that is mostly very good but will probably never sell because of that subtle main character problem.

In the comics, Kitty Pryde is the one who goes back in time to warn her friends in the past.  At the time the books came out, she was the most engaging character in the series, and she makes the story great and heartfelt and charming, even with all the tragedy. (It’s right there on the cover:  EVERYBODY DIES!)  Here’s this middle aged woman suddenly returning to her teenage self, on what’s really her first day of being an X-Man, and the contrast is intriguing, and gives the reader a concrete emotional anchor.

I understand why the movie decided to send Wolverine back instead — he’s basically the main character of the entire X-Men series of movies, right from the start.  We’ve only seen glimpses of Kitty (though her battle with Juggernaut was the only good thing about the third film); audiences are already invested in Wolverine, so that’s fine.  But he’s near-ageless, and except for a few gray hairs, he’s basically the same in both times — so that arc has to change.  And that’s okay, because there’s another arc there:  Wolverine has to learn to be a mentor to this young man, Charles, who will eventually grow up to become his own most important mentor.  That’s a great story hook right there.

But Wolverine isn’t the main character of this story.  Charles, Eric, and to some extent Mystique, are. (Mystique is clearly the villain, but a sympathetic one, given what we know about her.  But she really only gets enough time to be the one-note crazy bad guy here. Unsatisfying.)  I rewatched First Class the night before going to see this, and it’s a great, great story — because it’s so solidly about the friendship between Charles and Eric.  I’m a little in awe of how awesome this is — a movie about friendship, that  happens to have superpowers.  That moment when Eric puts on the helmet, shuts Charles out, and Charles is screaming because he knows something important has just broken, shattered — the movie nails all the beats.  It’s powerful.

I kept looking for something like that in Days of Future Past, and the movie kept slipping past it.  Part of why it did:  it crammed in a bunch of things that had nothing to do with that arc, and Wolverine’s role in it.  It kept throwing in references to Stryker, flashbacks about Jean — all important to Wolverine’s story as depicted in the other movies.  In fact, this depended a whole lot on the audience having seen those other movies, to its detriment, I’m afraid.

For a story whose plot was essentially a big standoff — Mystique wants to kill Trask, Trask wants to kill all mutants, the Sentinels want to kill everyone, Eric wants to kill Mystique, Charles wants to stand in between them all shouting “No!” — this was a really complicated movie.  What it really needed to do was cut out everything that wasn’t about Charles and Eric trying to work together to stop Mystique.  Wolverine doesn’t have an arc in this story.  He should be something of a Greek Chorus, foretelling doom — and that’s totally okay.  He can have his realization about settling down and learning to be a mentor — and then get to the work of mentoring and observing.  Everything else muddies the story.

Three more general observations:

All the superhero action stuff was pretty much great.  The Quicksilver sequence in the kitchen was amazing.  I loved the future bits, and the way the movie cut back and forth during the climax.  The familiar characters, the fighting, the struggle against impossible odds.  Totally engaging.  My friends and I decided we really want to see a movie starring the second stringers — Kitty, Colossus, Iceman, etc.  That would be awesome.  One of the tricks of writing about superheroes, especially in something like the Wild Cards world, or X-Men, is finding creative ways to use your characters’ powers.  Unexpected ways.  Put your water-bender in a desert and let her figure out how she can still use her powers.  Let your metal-bender find ways of working around his limitations.  Rebar is Magneto’s favorite thing in the world, and I love that.

The Easter Egg:  was a failure, I think, because even my comics geek friend was like, “Wut?”  Clearly, it’s a teaser for whatever movie is coming next. But I’ve got nothing linking it to what came before, and no idea what’s coming next.  I kept thinking of the Guardians Easter Egg in Thor: Dark World, which was also completely out of left field — but we had the Asgardians there to tell us this is the same universe, and I knew Guardians was coming.  It’s a stepping stone.  This egg had me flailing in the deep end with nothing to hold on to.

Women characters:  Yes, I’m going to talk about this, because it bothered me.  I’m wondering why the scarcity of meaningful women characters bothered me more in this than it did in Godzilla, and I think it’s expectation.  Previously, this series has done a great job:  Jean, Rogue, Storm, Mystique, Emma Frost, Moira — I really missed Moira in this one.  This time we have. . .Mystique, the Macguffin.  Jennifer Lawrence did what she could with what she had, but it was really unsatisfying having a plot that was basically a bunch of guys trying to stop this one powerful crazy woman.  I walked out of the theater feeling this desperate, aching, heartbreaking desire for a Kitty Pryde movie with Emma Page.  Please, Marvel.  Please give me a movie focused on one of your amazing women characters.  Do it soon.  I’m dying here.

 

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