cloying moppets

November 24, 2020

I’ve been thinking about cloying moppets recently. This is my label for the child characters that frequently show up in action-adventure/genre films, usually as an overly-sentimental way to force the audience’s sympathy or make our hard-bitten heroes learn the True Meaning of Family or whatever. The presence of a cloying moppet doesn’t automatically mean the story will become saccharine and intolerable, but often it does. If not handled well, the trope is manipulative — it’s there for the reaction it hopes to evoke in the audience, not because it makes sense for the story.

Two of the most egregious examples I’ve reviewed here are in Elysium and Terminator: Salvation. In those, the moppets possess hilariously unrealistic levels of cuteness and feel shoe-horned in. It’s as if the makers didn’t trust their stories enough and felt there needed to be an extra emotional string to tug on. Newt in Aliens may be the ur-model of cloying moppet, but I think that one works because she’s frequently the smartest one in the room, and Ripley’s bond with her isn’t forced — Ripley immediately goes into mama bear mode with her, which is realistic and understandable, versus the stories where some wide-eyed waif has to win over a muscle-bound brute. I loved what Iron Man 3 did with the trope, which was have the characters deconstruct the trope even as they’re playing it out (and also age up the kid, Harley, so he’s barely a moppet at all). Laura in Logan is definitely a cloying moppet, but there’s a lot of interesting story around her and she isn’t the reason I dislike that film, which I think is two hours of missed opportunities.

Which brings me to this awkward realization: Baby Groot and Baby Yoda are cloying moppets.

They’re designed to be adorable, with their gigantic shiny black eyes. A merchandiser’s dream, really. Part of the adorableness is how incongruous they are against the back drops of their dangerous worlds, alongside characters who in normal circumstances no one would ever trust with a small child. Gah, cloying moppet is one of my least favorite tropes, how can these two versions of it be so amazing! Is it just because they’re not human, so I’m able to think of them more as like, puppies, not actually in need of more developed characterization? Except I don’t think that’s it.

There’s something they have, that Newt has, that the good versions of this trope have and the bad versions don’t, and that’s agency. They make decisions. They impact the story their own actions, and not simply by forcing character development on the protagonist.

That’s what it all keeps coming back to, isn’t it? Make good characters, and then make sure those characters have an impact on the story they’re in.

 

so that Dune trailer…

October 5, 2020

I’m a couple weeks late — a couple centuries, actually, the way the viral news cycle runs on social media — but I wanted to talk about that trailer for the new Dune movie that everyone is so excited about.

I’m not that excited.

We’ve been down this road before, everyone losing their minds over a fantastic-looking trailer. And then a year later no one even talks about the movie anymore. We’ve been down this road before with Denis Villeneuve, even, and Blade Runner 2049, which in the final analysis was not a particularly good movie (my long review here) and pretty much no one talks about it anymore.

So here we are again, with a visually spectacular tease of a greatly anticipated movie based on a classic book that’s already been adapted for screen twice before.

One of the things that’s got me cranky is that I love the David Lynch movie. It’s weird and gonzo and fun and visually really interesting. Part of why so many people are so excited about this new version is there’s this idea that it will correct what’s wrong with the Lynch film and be a better adaptation of the book. This is where I really get people’s dander up by suggesting that maybe it’s the book that’s not that good and not particularly suited for adaptation. But okay, let’s see if we can get a more faithful adaptation.

Guys, the trailer looks just like the Lynch version. I mean, it’s modern production values and all but it’s a lot of the same scenes, a lot of the same framing of the same scenes… for something that’s supposed to be new and better, it sure feels familiar.

So, either this new one isn’t going to be any closer to the book than the Lynch version, or the Lynch version is closer to the book than people like to admit.

But I still want to see it and I’m still excited about Timothée Chalamet because casting a really good actor as Paul may be the one thing no one’s tried yet.

Meanwhile, I can name ten classic science fiction novels right off the top of my head that deserve screen adaptations that would make better movies than Dune. And we’re not getting them, and that makes me cranky. (The Stars My Destination, Dragonriders of Pern, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ringworld, Downbelow Station, Neuromancer, Wild Seed, Gateway, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Doomsday Book.)

 

 

Wild Nights with Emily

August 24, 2020

This is a movie imagining the intense romantic relationship that might have (probably) existed between poet Emily Dickinson and her sister-in-law Susan. It’s good and fun and biographically accurate for the most part.

But my favorite thing about it is that the worst professor I ever had in six and a half years of higher education, who was an expert in Emily Dickinson, probably hates everything about this movie. This makes me happy.

Let me explain.

In the last year of my master’s degree, I took an entire seminar on Emily Dickinson from this professor, who announced on the first day of class that she would not let anyone else talk, because we couldn’t possibly know as much about Emily as she did so what was the point? This was a 5000 level graduate seminar, where basically the entire point is for students to discuss concepts and come up with their own ideas. So her contempt for us was…a tad frustrating. Especially when she’d spend the first twenty minutes of every class telling stories about her cats. I have many more terrible stories about this class, too many, so I’ll just close by saying that on the last day of the seminar she made us watch her perform the one-woman play she had written about Emily Dickinson running away to live in a relationship with Helen Hunt Jackson in Boulder. I’m not making this up.

Two good things came out this experience:  I wrote “In Time,” because I was so frustrated that no one ever wants to talk about how Dickinson was a dog person, not a cat person. And I came to love Dickinson and her work, and am convinced she would have despised this professor.

This movie is filled with true things about Emily, her weird sense of humor, her ambitions, her relationships, and so on. It specifically dismantles the myths about her — like the one about how she never published, that she was a recluse — that were purposefully propagated after her death by family members and others who were embarrassed by the truth and wanted to market Emily as a genteel retiring New England poetess.

And the film has a massive, massive burn against Helen Hunt Jackson. I laughed so hard, you guys. Mostly thinking about how appalled that professor would be, watching this.

Good. She never deserved Emily.

 

The Old Guard

July 20, 2020

Netflix seems to be becoming the go-to place for fantasy these days. Just watched The Old Guard — I’m not sure if this was supposed to be a theatrical release that got shifted to streaming, but I actually would have liked this one on the big screen. Charlize Theron cements her place as action heroine extraordinaire as Andy, an immortal who leads a team of other immortals who hire out as mercenaries who are trying to make the world a better place. Andy has been doing this for thousands of years. She’s tired, and she’s finally decided she isn’t doing any good at all. She’s wrong, of course, but that comes late. Enter:  Nile, an American Marine killed in action in Afghanistan, except not really, because she’s the first new immortal to appear in 200 years, and Andy adopts her, however reluctant Nile is to be adopted.

I’m always pleased to see something like this that feels like a really classic urban fantasy series in the making. Kick-ass characters with a big supernatural element battling through the world with over-the-top action featuring massive firepower. It passes the Bechdel test handily, in multiple cases. Evil corporate antagonist. This is super, super predictable. Like, every double cross is instantly apparent as a double cross, but somehow I didn’t mind so much that the characters never see it coming. The characters are pleasant enough that I enjoyed the time I spent with them. Count me among those thoroughly intrigued by Joe and Nicky and I’d like a movie about their entire history right now please.

Comparisons to Highlander, which is also about mysterious immortals moving through the world, are easy to do, but it’s the differences that interest me. In Highlander, the immortals are loners. They are destined to do battle, and can’t really afford to be friends because of the fear that they’ll have to kill each other. There’s tension in those rare friendships.  In The Old Guard, the immortals are connected. They dream about each other. They come together because they’re the only family they’ll ever have. They can support each other. I’m fascinated at this difference between a story that came out in the “greed is good” 80’s and one that came out, well, now. Over the last few years I’ve talked about how much I appreciate stories about people who care about each other coming together, versus nihilistic stories of people being horrible to each other. This is another data point on that.

This is based on a comic, which I haven’t read. Yet.

 

Hamilton

July 9, 2020

I have finally experienced the phenomenon that is Hamilton in its current accessible form.

Much like with The Book of Mormon, I went on lockdown on this one.  I love musicals and feel strongly that the music ought to be experienced in context, so I never listened to the soundtrack, even when tickets were impossible to get. (With the exception, of course, of Weird Al’s glorious Hamilton Polka. Weird Al is an early god of mine and continues to be so.) I wanted to see the characters sing the music first. I wanted the staging to go with it.

My take:  It’s great, it’s powerful. It’s not quite what I expected — the first act is almost entirely exposition, an operetta that breathlessly slides through a huge chunk of Revolutionary history. It’s really great seeing this take on the founding fathers. And then, the last quarter gets incredibly personal and I cried a lot and maybe it’s just as well I was on the sofa with a box of tissues for this and not in a public theater.

A lot’s been made of the musical’s use of rap and hip hop. But it’s also very much rooted in traditional musical theater. It’s a true fusion, which is why I think audiences respond so much to the energy. I really, really want to get my hands on an annotated version, because there are a ton of allusions from both worlds. I get the musical theater ones (“You have to be carefully taught…”) but I’m not so up on the hip hop, and the cuts and samples and so forth that Miranda makes use of. This is a collage, and I can’t always see the seams, which is great.

I will see this live someday. While seeing the movie is great, film versions of musicals always leave things out — there’s always something going on elsewhere on stage, and the big picture gets reduced. I really want to see more of the choreography and ensemble work, which the film necessarily leaves out sometimes because it’s in the background. (In my high school theater days, I was a ubiquitous member of the chorus. I would have killed to be in the chorus of Hamilton.)

We will have live theater again someday, somehow.

 

Onward

June 19, 2020

Pixar’s latest film Onward was released to streaming almost immediately, when its theatrical release was cut short by covid-19 shutdowns. There’s a lot for genre folks to like in this story of two brothers processing grief over their father’s passing, before the younger Ian was born. Elder brother Barley is a classic heavy-metal gaming nerd, complete with a van with airbrushed fantasy art on the side. Ian is shy and awkward and longs for a connection to the father he never knew. The twist here is that they are themselves part of a fantasy world, with elves and centaurs and pixies and so on. But it’s one where magic has been pushed out by technology – technology is easier than magic, so now the elf brothers live in a suburb and the centaur is a cop who’d rather drive and pixies don’t fly, etcetera and so on. On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, they inherit a magical staff from their dead father and a spell that promises to bring him back for one day so they can meet him. And also bring magic back to their world. The film is their quest to make the spell go right.

It’s a sweet story, albeit a bit rote. “Magic has left the world” is an old, old trope in written science fiction and fantasy. I think we’re meant to be startled and amused by the juxtaposition of fantasy and modernity – the adventuring tavern run by a manticore is now a kiddie birthday pizza joint. But even that’s an old familiar trope. (I most recently encountered it  in Patricia McKillip’s wonderful novel Kingfisher, which gives us an Arthurian retelling in which the knights use cell phones and hop in their cars to head out on their quests.)

There is a gelatinous cube joke, the film giving itself D&D cred. Then, there’s a second gelatinous cube joke, in which the concept of the gelatinous cube is explained to those in the audience who don’t know what one is. Barley explaining to Ian, actually. Barley is the gamer, Ian is not, which means Barley can explain gaming and magic tropes to Ian – and the audience – throughout the film. It’s a little obvious. At that point, I know we’re going to encounter a gelatinous cube – rule of threes, there. And we do. That’s what I mean by rote. It’s okay. But I’m kind of glad I didn’t go to the effort of seeing this in the theater.

Dead dad instead of dead mom, so I guess that’s a switch, and their mom is really pretty awesome, so there’s that.

 

I don’t remember now how I discovered Princess of Thieves, a 2001 Disney TV movie starring a teenage Keira Knightly as Robin Hood’s daughter, Gwyn. An offhand comment on an offhand post somewhere. But I did, and having just now released my own story about Robin Hood’s daughter, I was intensely interested in this one.

A friend found it on DVD, and I finally watched it. Purely out of professional interest of course.

It’s fun, it’s sweet. It’s a “girl disguises herself as a boy so she can go have adventures” story. The main of the plot involves protecting King Richard’s illegitimate son Philip so he can inherit the throne instead of John, and this is so alt-history it’s a little breathtaking. Like, the entire point of THE GHOSTS OF SHERWOOD is John, Robin Hood’s worst enemy, really actually becomes king of England and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  Princess of Thieves is just like, nope, we do not accept that, off we go.  I spent most of the movie thinking, Waaaahhhh????

I have perhaps over saturated on the research into this particular era.

Malcolm McDowell is a surprisingly understated Sheriff of Nottingham. Will Scarlet is on hand but not Little John for some reason. And I swear Keira Knightly has barely aged at all in 20 years. Gwyn and Philip fall for each other, Gwyn and Robin reconcile, all is well.

My biggest complaint is that this is yet another example of the Disney dead mother thing. Marian is dead. Why is Marian dead? We don’t know. It’s just really important that the main character’s mother be dead. It’s like these people can’t even comprehend what it might be like to have a story with a mother in it. This is a very tiresome trope.

Marian is very alive in THE GHOSTS OF SHERWOOD. She’s one of the viewpoint characters. She’s the only person who is able to tell Robin, Stop it, you’re being unreasonable. And he actually listens. It was very important to me, having both Robin and Marian in the story.

My second biggest complaint with Princess of Thieves is that it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, not even a little, which goes back to my usual ongoing bit of commentary where if you’re going to do such a good job writing a strong woman protagonist, it would support your argument a little better if she were not the only woman in the entire story. (To be fair, there’s one other named woman character, a French matron in league with the Sheriff. But that’s it. To think, all they had to do was have Marian not be dead.)

Shockingly, this isn’t on Disney+. It seems like a natural for Disney+. Maybe at some point? Because it is worth seeing, even with all its late 90’s early 00’s storytelling conventions.

 

The Black Hole

April 21, 2020

I have finally seen The Black Hole for the first time in probably 25 years. No, make that 35 years. I don’t know, it’s been awhile, which is kind of weird for such an iconic, formative movie. Don’t laugh, you know it’s true — there’s a whole generation of us who saw this while we were in single digit ages who still freak out at the sight of the robot Maxamilian and the sound of his spinny blades. Not to mention the medically zombified crew (that was the scene that got me, when Kate is in the zombie-making machine and the full horror of what happened on that ship becomes clear). And then there’s that ending. Is that hell? Where did they go? What the heck happened?

So, how was it? Did it hold up? Was the childhood trauma inflicted by this justified or laughable?

It totally holds up. Totally justified.

I mean, the film is very dated in some ways. The costumes, the acting styles, the stiff blocking and slow pacing are all very 1970’s. The film is trying to be cutting-edge, clearly influenced by both 2001 and Star Wars, and frankly a film influenced by both those things is never really going to totally work. Just ask Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which also came out in 1979, oddly enough. But something interesting is going on here anyway.

The horror setup? The creeping dread? The actual story? Still sharp, still great. In fact, I kind of sort of want a remake of this with modern sensibilities — but then I realize that already happened with Event Horizon, except that film jettisoned the creeping dread for a straight-up slasher aesthetic and I completely hated it. Anyway, that’s a rant for another time.

The science fiction? “A” for effort, even if it comes off a little vague sometimes. There’s serious discussion about the sentience and agency of artificial life. The robot characters are all great. I was utterly charmed by Kate’s telepathy with robot Vincent, which is such a 1970’s SF detail but I’m okay with that. And I think this might be the first mention of an Einstein-Rosen bridge in an SF movie?

Also, big spaceship. The Cygnus is fantastic. In fact, long time readers of this blog will remember when I dived the wreck of the Spiegel Grove off Key Largo, I was vividly reminded of The Black Hole. At the time I thought it was generic space station imagery, and that drifting alongside the wreck was a fascinating and disorienting stand-in for being weightless.

Turns out, that scene in the film where they’re approaching the Cygnus? Where they’re cruising along and the ship gets larger and larger, and the scaffolding comes into view, and the scale of the thing becomes immense? That’s a lot like the actual experience of descending the line and approaching the Spiegel Grove. That wasn’t a generic association — my hindbrain remembered that scene in the film.  So cool.

 

Emma (2020)

March 9, 2020

This was great. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed and cried this much in a Jane Austen adaptation. Still not my favorite story. It’s kind of difficult, in fact. Here, Austen makes her heroine the kind of character she normally mocks. Rich, vain, mockable. Emma does some really deplorable things because she thinks she’s right and ought to be excused her faults because she’s just so pretty and rich. And then. . .she learns, and we need to sympathize with her progress. But it’s hard. As the audience, we’re in the same place as her friends — we want to like her but she makes it hard.

On the ride home I did a compare and contrast with the Emma film from a decade or so ago, and while that film is nice, this one is passionate. It’s like this film turned the amplitude waaaaaay up. The highs are much higher, the lows are much lower — the picnic scene with Miss Bates in this one is brutal. The colors are much brighter, the costumes more flamboyant. The curls so much more curlier. Everything is stylized and choreographed, from a twitch of a finger to a stray glance. It’s a visually engaging film.

The film did so many interesting things. First off, servants are everywhere. Upper-class Regency culture was powered by household servants, but most adaptations put them in the background, almost as part of the set. Here, they get in the way. They walk across the foreground. There are lots of scenes of characters being dressed and undressed by servants. Their movements are choreographed. You can’t ignore them. Also, food. Lots of scenes focused on weird-ass Regency food. But there’s also the dancing, lots of great clothes and music, and the English countryside. All the things I want from an Austen film.

Star Anya Taylor-Joy is fascinating. The film spends so much time on her elfin face, her very large expressive eyes. Of course everything whirls around her.

Much like Shakespeare adaptations, I want my Austen adaptations to do something. To try something. To put a new gown on a familiar shape. To twist the knife a little. This one does.

 

even more Robin Hood

February 19, 2020

A smattering of Hoods:

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

I finally watched this for the first time in probably 20+ years. I have vivid memories of this thing — it was huge when it came out. Huge. I think it was Costner’s first movie after Dances with Wolves and so got a lot of attention. Partly because it was such a weird thing to follow a critically acclaimed epic. I remember absolutely adoring this film. It came out the year I graduated high school and was on constant rotation in the TV room at the dorm my first year of college. It hit a lot of my teenage fantasy nerd buttons at a time when not a lot did.

Spoiler alert:  It does not hold up.

I think I knew this, which is why it’s taken me so long to watch it again. But it doesn’t hold up in some really interesting ways. Mostly, it’s so very 1980’s. We did not realize in 1991 how much the 80’s would not stand the test of time. Bless our hearts.

The weirdest thing about it, though, is how much it borrowed from Robin of Sherwood. Like, anything remotely interesting in Prince of Thieves? Robin of Sherwood did it first. Saracen character from the Middle East? Weird Satanic witchcraft craziness going on? A comic-relief sadistic black leather clad Sheriff of Nottingham? The Sheriff calls in fur-wearing Celtic mercenaries instead of fur-wearing Welsh mercenaries, but here we are.

This is so weird. I know nothing about the two writers credited here. But I have questions.

And now, bullet points.

  • It’s very dated, and not just because of all the mullets. The costumes are. . .kind of incomprehensible? They’re these 80’s ragamuffin punk things, patchwork cloaks and way too much studded leather. They would have been at home in a Mad Max movie or in any of those elf punk urban fantasy novels.
  • It’s a perfect example of how a movie can strive for diversity out of good intentions and. . .do it wrong. Because yes, it’s wonderful that there’s a black character and that the movie at least thought about making an effort at diversity. But then it hits every single stereotype regarding modern assumptions about medieval Islam. Azeem is 100% stereotype, despite Morgan Freeman’s wry portrayal.  (I don’t think Robin of Sherwood falls into this trap with Nasir. Nasir is exotic, he’s mysterious, but he’s also his own person and we don’t get a checklist of stereotypes.)
  • Is it weird that this is a white savior story when everybody he’s saving is also white? Rich guy savior then.
  • The Bayeux Tapestry in the opening credits really really bugged me because it portrays events that happened 130 years before the movie takes place, but nothing screams High Middle Ages like the Bayeux Tapestry so I guess I can’t argue. This is what comes of mainlining all this research.
  • Bryan Adams “Everything I Do.” The last of the great 80’s movie ballads?
  • Baby Christian Slater. Oh man, I forgot he was in this. And now I’m thinking about Mr. Robot as another version of Robin Hood. Must ponder.
  • Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is so pretty.

Robin Hood (1991)

Did you know there was another Robin Hood movie in 1991? This one starred Patrick Bergin and Uma Therman and was buried in straight-to-video because of the aforementioned Costner version taking up all the oxygen in the room. Well folks, it’s available on Hulu right now and I finally saw it. It’s not bad, I have to say. It’s more traditional, it leans into a lot of the classic Pyle tropes. The staff battle with Little John is fantastic in this one. (“And what do you do?” “I follow him around and bury the people who call him names.”) It also leans real hard into some of the historical tropes (or at least the Hollywood versions of them). Like, everything is covered in dirt. (“He must be the king, he hasn’t got shit all over him.” (that quote isn’t from this movie, just FYI.))

But… this one also isn’t great. It just doesn’t have the charisma and I just kind of didn’t care about the characters? Like, the film tries real real hard to give Marian more to do than look pretty…but it really didn’t sell it and I wasn’t buying. And it couldn’t really avoid the cheese, like when they’re standing there at the end and saying “Normans and Saxons must work together to make England the best country ever and someday England will take over the world!” Like that’s a little on the nose.

But, since I’m becoming a completist, at least I can finally say I’ve seen this one.

Robin Hood (TV, 2006)

Robin Hood, with Gen Y hotties. Only made it one episode. The women are just wearing so much eyeliner I couldn’t take it.

And here are two thoughts about what makes good Robin Hood stories

First, I think the best Robin Hood stories include the Sheriff’s archery contest. I’m starting to think this is actually a requirement:  there must some big formal test of archery. It seems like you ought to be able to tell a Robin Hood story without it — it’s just a plot point, right? But it turns out, all the best Robin Hood stories have the archery contest, and the worst don’t. Prince of Thieves does not have the archery contest. The other 1991 film has a version of the contest that I see quite often — Robin shoots to prove himself to the pre-existing outlaws. And it’s quite nicely done. Seriously, when that film goes full traditional, it’s better than when it doesn’t. Which suggests to me that radical re-imaginings are maybe not always what people are looking for.

Second, Robin Hood stories can’t be totally Robin-centric. Which is to say, the members of his band of outlaws must be just as interesting as he is. The story must have scenes in which they interact with each other, that do not include Robin. We the reader/viewer must believe that the Merry Men/People are competent enough to rescue Robin when he gets in trouble. In Prince of Thieves, Robin is constantly rescuing others and never needs rescuing himself.  Same with the other film, and with a lot of the more recent versions. Turns out, that’s unsatisfying and undermines the idea of a band of outlaws working together against corruption. It undermines the idea that Robin is their equal. I think Robin Hood stories must be about a group of people. A found family. Many of the film versions especially end up being vehicles for the star actor and so fail on this point.

I still have a few more “modern” (i.e. the last 40 years or so) versions of Robin Hood to get through to continue testing my hypothesis. But I believe this is a worthy project and so will continue.

*rides off into the forest*