November 25, 2015
So, that was a little awkward after the events of the last couple weeks, what with all the bombings and civilian casualties.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the movie a lot, thought it was a worthy end to the series — especially after being so burned by The Hobbit last year. (I confess to being worried — this breaking things up into two movies and endless drawn out series thing rarely seems to work well.) But it was impossible to watch without thinking about the real world. Which I think is one of the strengths of this story, but it was still uncomfortable realizing that our heroes, when cast in a certain light, are in fact terrorists. (Which is why what Katniss does at the end is so necessary — she’s checking out of the whole damn system.)
The pacing went fast. A lot got glossed over, and I was glad I had read the book — I wondered if someone who hadn’t might be a little lost, or if the slam-bang action made that not matter so much. But I think what I admire most is the demonstration of how a fantastic, Oscar-calibre cast (seriously, how many Oscars and nominations does that cast have between them?) can elevate a cheesy over-the-top story into something dramatic and powerful. If these movies succeed so well I think the cast deserves a ton of credit.
I felt the movie pulled some punches on that last scene. I mean, I’m happy they did that last scene, which in the book pulled together Katniss’s entire arc and made abundantly clear that this story is not meant to celebrate her heroism, and that her damage will never truly be repaired. But the movie insists on a happy ending, only fleetingly mitigated by past trauma. So, you know: read the book.
November 9, 2015
The opening pre-credit sequence was worth the price of admission. Very stylish, very well done.
I’m a fan of Daniel Craig’s Bond, so I was inclined to like this. This may be the most Bond-ish of Craig’s Bond movies. Lots of old-school Bond tropes here: remote ski chalets; him and his current Bond Girl walking through an exotic foreign market very blond, very stylish, very Western, and somehow the bad guys don’t find them; and the beautiful daughter of someone-or-other who must be protected. And yes, there’s a chubby white Persian cat. This had less angst than the last couple of films, while still referencing earlier stories — he’ll never quite get over Vesper, these movies keep reminding us.
Best of all, I think: All the women he sleeps with survive! Huzzah! (To remind you: I was keeping count, because in both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, every single woman he sleeps with dies rather horribly and violently.)
Overall, this was a satisfying Bond film if not a spectacular one. And while I’ve enjoyed Craig’s Bond, it may very well be time to retire this particular stretch of tone and story and try something new. For the record, yes, I’m in the camp that thinks Idris Elba would be a fine, fine choice for a new Bond.
November 2, 2015
So this is about a plucky blond writer in glasses who falls for Tom Hiddleston, so it automatically has to be great, right?
Crimson Peak was a fine over-the-top visual costume extravaganza thing, as one would expect from this director. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the “Is it Horror/Is it Gothic” debate that was raging in various circles when it came out. Because a thing can certainly be both, and I think this is. I’ve tried to warn people who are thinking this is little-r romance (you know, two people get together and are happy, as opposed to big-R Romance, i.e. early 19th century trope-driven melodrama) that there is really precious little to warm the heart here. It’s just plain gruesome enough in a places that I shut my eyes at least once.
But overall it’s very pretty, and very trope-laden, in a self aware way that I appreciated. Much of the theater laughed at parts that I think we were supposed to laugh at, even though they weren’t ostensibly funny. I admired some very elegant misdirection — i.e. one character handles a straight razor for a full two minutes of screen time, and the straight razor never actually cuts anyone. That sort of thing happens a few times throughout. On the other hand, the story unfolds in a rather matter-of-fact way. (BIG FAT SPOILER: Like, when Thomas enters the party with Edith and then kisses Lucille on the cheek while Lucille is staring daggers at Edith, I’m all, Thomas and Lucille are totally, totally sleeping together. Like, constantly. And I was right.) END SPOILERS.
I mostly left the film wondering how much fabric it really takes to make those giant muttonchop sleeves on late Victorian gowns.
October 19, 2015
I’ve given myself some homework — something you need to know if you want to be a pro writer is that there is always homework. I’m analyzing LeGuin’s The Dispossessed for structure. This story follows one person through much of his life, alternating between current pivotal events and flashbacks telling the story of his life. It’s a good structure, I think, that packs in a huge amount of information about the main character, his world, and his place in it. I’m contemplating a similar structure so I really want to get a handle on what the book does well.
It also turns out this is a book that reads differently at different points in one’s life. The last time I read it (and first time, I think) was for grad school 15 years ago. I was 27. I turned down a lot of pages to note things on those pages (without actually marking passages, alas), and this read through I can’t think of what I wanted to note back then, because of bunch of entirely different parts of the book are jumping out at me this time. Some of them are things I need to hear at this point in my life, oddly enough, so I’m enjoying this read through. And making notes.
TV: I seem to have stopped watching Castle. This used to be the center of my Monday night dinner parties, but we have so many other shows we’re trying to watch (Flash! Arrow!), that we can’t be bothered. The end of last season was such a perfect series finale, and the one episode I’ve managed to catch from this season doubled down so egregiously on the stupid conspiracy thriller plot that the show does so badly, that I just stopped watching and barely noticed.
I’m finally watching The Bletchley Circle, and I started liking it after I decided to stop being so furious at how condescending Susan’s husband is toward her. It’s such a contrast to the couple of times she speaks with men who have an inkling of what she did during the war.
And…I hear there’s some Star Wars buzz around today? Up late last night, someone posted a 15 second clip from the new trailer. 15 seconds. But it had X-wings and pilots and something big happening and dammit but I started crying.
I’ll tell you what I’m looking forward to with all this new Star Wars stuff: meeting some new people. Following some new characters and new stories. My favorite Expanded Universe stories were always the ones dealing with new characters: Rogue Squadron, Tales of the Jedi, etc. This is a huge, rich, amazing universe — that’s why we keep coming back to it. But I want to meet some new people in it, please.
October 16, 2015
Okay, so this is why I save everything, and go through everything piece-by-piece rather than throw away entire boxes. I’m one of those people who saves Playbills:
As you can see, this was for Arsenic and Old Lace at the Morris Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore. Ticket says November 1987. (A quick google tells me the Mechanic Theater was demolished just last year. This has made me unexpectedly melancholy.)
But what’s really cool about this, and getting to see this particular production, is the cast:
Just in case you can’t quite read that, it’s Jean Stapleton and Marion Ross as the sisters. Jean Stapleton, aka Edith Bunker on All in the Family, and Marion Ross, aka Mrs. Cunningham on Happy Days. Is that inspired casting or what? As I remember it (which is somewhat well — I vividly remember going to this, but Arsenic and Old Lace is one of those plays that’s so familiar it’s hard to remember how much of the actual performance I’m playing back in my mind, and how much I’m remembering the play rather than the performance.) Stapleton and Ross played it pretty much like Mrs. Bunker and Mrs. Cunningham are dotty old sisters who moved in together and start casually murdering lonely old men, and it was deeply, wonderfully hilarious. I wonder if this is on film somewhere? To the googles! Aha, here’s a tiny little clip of it. Just a taste. But here’s a full review.
I’m so pleased to be reminded of this bit of theater adventure.
BONUS THEATER REVIEW: HAMLET
In another bit of theater adventure: I went to see the live movie broadcast of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet last night, thanks to the generosity and foresight of friends. I have to confess: the performance was a little slow to find its feet, and a little uneven after. Cumberbatch played Hamlet like he plays everything: flamboyantly moody. I didn’t understand what was up with Hipster Horatio — he didn’t match anything else in the play.
And all I could think when the second half came up and the stage was absolutely covered in whatever that dirt analog was (I’m guessing some kind of foam): that poor, poor stage manager.
October 12, 2015
For years now I’ve ranted that what I want, more than anything, is a beautiful movie about living and working in space that doesn’t rely on monsters, metaphor, or melodrama to build suspense because it doesn’t trust the audience to understand that space is already suspenseful enough because it’s always trying to kill you.
FINALLY. This is that movie. Oh thank God. (An aside: The Expanse TV show coming to SyFy in December is also that TV show. I’ve seen the first episode and it is divine, especially if you’re a fan of the books. But more about that later.)
Mars is beautiful. The Hermes is gorgeous. Science nerds being science nerds is awesome. Only the bare minimum explanation of tech details because it trusts the audience. Pulling the Pathfinder model out of storage at JPL made me cry. We are spacefaring beings and this movie celebrates that. Really good upbeat stuff here. Ridley Scott can still make taut, non-bloated movies!
A Word about the Book and Movie as Adaptation
I know a lot of people really like the book. That’s fine. But I’m one of the people who found it a bit of a slog. I made an effort to read it before the movie, and I kind of wish I hadn’t, so that the movie would have been more of a surprise.
But the movie fixed every single problem I had with the book. As I knew it would. Seriously, I finished the book and immediately thought about how much better the movie was going to be.
First, the movie left out all the parts of the book that I skimmed (I did a lot of skimming toward the end). Second, just having the faces of some charismatic actors (and oh, this is a cast of charismatic actors) to do some emoting and give me something to relate to immediately added a level of depth the book entirely lacked in terms of character. Seeing family photos pinned up in the habitat? That all by itself provided more of an emotional anchor than I found in the book.
That scene toward the end of the film of Mark leaving the shower and you can see every single rib and lump on his backbone because he’s down 40 lbs after spending a year on tight rations? Not to mention the burns and bruises and exhausted look in his face? His obvious agitation when the wind is blowing and his makeshift repair on the habitat might or might not be holding? That’s what I wanted from this story, to see that this trial was affecting him. To be able to just frakking relate to these people.
In the book, Mark — and everyone else for that matter — aren’t so much characters as they are stand-ins for an engineering thought experiment. And I guess that’s okay. Except the emotional flatness drove me batty. That, and the cheap narrative tricks the book used to build suspense, which the movie completely dispensed with, so huzzah!
One last thing: apropos of absolutely nothing, it amused me that The Martian used “Love Train” in exactly the same place in the story, structurally speaking, as The Last Days of Disco did. (You should totally click on that last clip because it includes a freaking adorable Matt Keeslar, aka the Middleman, dancing.)
September 14, 2015
I was on a panel last year with a writer and activist who explained that superhero stories — and particularly the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — are fascistic. They’re about Aryan ubermensch acting as judges, juries, and executioners, essentially becoming dictators, larger than life and certainly larger than the faceless masses they’re supposedly saving. Who do they work for? Who are they accountable to? Nobody. They’re an abdication of democracy and an embracing of authoritarianism. And I thought — well, she’s not necessarily wrong about any of that. But I don’t think she’s entirely right, either. Because I don’t think superheroes are fascistic.
Atavism: “The tendency to revert to an ancestral type.” They reach back to a time when the world was large and poorly understood. Think primal, rather than primitive.
The impulse to create heroes with special powers — to believe in them, to celebrate them — is very old indeed. Gilgamesh old. As long as we’ve had writing, we’ve had magical, superpowered heroes. We can assume the oral tradition of heroics goes back even further — those written stories came from somewhere.
Heroes are the tools that human storytellers invented to give us hope. And that hope is distinctly human. Not gods, not demons, not supernatural creatures. They’re human beings who take these supernatural powers and use them for good, rather than destruction. That’s the key, I think: These ancient heroes, and their modern counterparts, are how storytellers take things that scare us and turn them into things that save us.
In Greek mythology, people were most scared of the gods and goddesses of Olympus. They were capricious, cruel, they caused storms and earthquakes, they blighted crops and killed babies. One committed a lifetime of prayers and sacrifices in the hopes of propitiating these gods, and of averting their attention from your tiny human life. But then came the heroes. Theseus, Perseus, Hercules, and so on. What they all have in common: they’re demi-gods. They’re the children of gods, but they’re also human, and they bring superpowers literally down to Earth. They represent those fearful divine powers, but in a form that will slay monsters and tyrants and rescue the innocent from certain doom. They are semi-divine, but they are human, and they want to help.
Fast forward to the Middle Ages in Europe. Saints were the superheroes of the western medieval world, performing miracles and interceding with an absent God to protect us poor mortals, once again making the thing that scared us — divine wrath — a thing that could save and protect us. Their stories were presented in full color in the stained glass windows of a thousand churches for all to see and celebrate. Medieval graphic novels, read over and over again by the faithful.
Where do modern superheroes get their powers? From radiation. From genetic mutation and manipulation. From accidents, from toxic waste. From aliens and outer space. The terrible mysteries of our modern age, transmuted into a form that is human, that can battle all manner of disasters. Notice the different origin stories for Spider-Man in the comic and the 2001 Sam Raimi movie? A bite from an irradiated spider became a bite from a genetically engineered spider. Because radiation was the big scary thing in the 60’s, but at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it was genetic engineering.
Superhero stories change to reflect the times and people writing them. They’re supposed to adapt — they were built that way. That’s why we’re still telling this kind of story, after 10,000 years of civilization. Superheroes are the oldest form of storytelling. Archetype and melodrama and battling monsters and making cosmic journeys and encountering crazy shit like giant scorpions and holy cedar forests. These stories are as old as writing.
Psychologically and emotionally, superheroes are a shield against darkness. Against evil, against death. Against the terrible things that happen to us that we have no control over, like the wrath of the gods. If a portal to deep space and the alien army waiting there opens up over New York City — metaphorically speaking — we want to believe that something will be there to save us. Something human, who we can understand and relate to. We want to be inspired to maybe do that saving ourselves.
Superheroes aren’t just for fun. We need them. We’ve always needed them. Superheroes are atavistic, and that’s not a bad thing.