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*

 

 

Okay, so much to say.

I’m a little pissed off this film got so little promotion — I never saw a trailer for it and thought it was coming out this summer. But I saw it, and I’m conflicted. It’s important to have a big action supervillain film with a woman director and woman writer and woman star and all about grrrl power and multiple scenes of just, like, all women kicking ass and looking out for each other. I loved that. A lot of folks are really, really loving this and the empowerment it espouses, so I hate to punch holes in it. But.

I think there’s 75% of a good movie here. The rest … never have I wanted to re-edit a movie as badly as I want to re-edit this one. And all the re-editing is in the first half. In the first half, it’s trying to do this edgy non-linear thing like Deadpool or Tarantino, and I don’t think it works.  It just ends up repeating itself, stalling out, restarting, and destroying all the tension it ought to be building up to propel us into the second half, which is full of straightforward action and plotting and works great. Seriously, the action scenes are great, the characters are fine, Margot Robbie is clearly having a good time. I would re-edit the entire thing to just give the story a straight through-line with relentless pacing, where the only breaks are Harley pausing to deliver an instant and accurate psychoanalysis of other characters, because those bits are awesome.

Also, kill the voice over. Voice over not needed. It’s explaining things that are clear from just watching the film.

(Yes, yes, I totally get that Harley is crazy and the non-linear cut and the voice over are meant to portray her chaotic thought process and lack of focus and so on. But as I said, I don’t think it works. There are other p.o.v.’s in the film that jolt us out of that framework, so it ends up not being consistent and it frustrated me. Harley’s chaos comes out in plenty of other ways.)

And kill the prologue. This is another one of those times where there’s a long-ass prologue explaining the entire backstory, and then in the middle of the movie the main character stops to explain the backstory again. Repetitive, unnecessary. In fact, it’s actually really hilarious when Harley stops to explain her origin story, the entire plot of Suicide Squad, and everything that happens in the prologue, in twenty seconds of deadpan dialogue. Just do that and cut the prologue because the prologue is boring. I swear to you by all that is holy, no one is going to see this movie who doesn’t already know at least a little something about Harley Quinn. It’s like starting a Batman movie with the Waynes beings shot and the pearls scattering across the pavement. Enough already.

Start the movie with her blowing up the chemical plant. That’s the first scene. Booyah.  This is such a common problem with new writer manuscripts — start the story on page six, the story starts on page six, you think you need all that set up but you really really don’t, start with something actually interesting. It’s so incredibly frustrating when big-budget movies fall into that exact trap.

So, to summarize, I feel like I’m an outlier on this one. I’ve never been a huge fan of Harley Quinn as a character, and I’m wondering if that’s a prerequisite for really wholeheartedly loving this movie, which I didn’t, mostly because it made so many new-writer mistakes with pacing and storytelling.

But I will say I’m really glad this exists, and for the people who do love it — YES. Make this movie yours.

 

I loved it.  (No spoilers here.)

There’s a moment in this film that encapsulates all of Star Wars. This small, quiet, beautiful moment that manages to draw in, like, everything. The more I think about it the more I love it.

This is not to say it’s a perfect movie. The pacing in the first half is relentless and disorienting. I was watching and thinking, This needs to slow down and give us a moment to breathe or the whole thing is going to be a mess. Funnily enough, about five minutes later the movie slowed down and gave us a moment to breathe and the rest of it opened up. There’s a ton of handwavium going on. If you go into this movie looking for things to pick apart, you’ll find them.

But I loved it. It’s full of hugging and heroes and epic duels and big moments and all the things I love about Star Wars. I got my Poe and Finn on a ridiculous caper story. Lots of Rey and Kylo. I got way more of General Leia than I had any right to expect.

And story…  Here’s a bit of analysis.

I know I said I was never going to talk about the prequel trilogy again. Episodes I, II, III. But I am, because I’m struck by something in them now:  the lack of spirituality. Episodes IV – IX are full of spirituality, the Force as a mystical thing that transcends people, that is always present, that just is. It binds the universe together, it doesn’t just belong to the Jedi, it requires calm and introspection and a personal connection to the universe. In Episodes I-III the Force is almost mechanical. There’s a blood test. The Jedi aren’t mystical shamans — they’re a bureaucracy.

And this may be one of the points of the entire saga. The Jedi of the Old Republic are like the medieval Catholic church, formal and political and bureaucratic. Because of this, their rigidity, they lack the awareness that anything is wrong and the flexibility to do anything about it. And they don’t know how to deal with Anakin. They’ve actually lost a ton of power. (I still think that part of the story is badly told, but the story is there.)

The rest of the saga may be about restoring a spiritual aspect to the Jedi. The idea of individual connection. A more shamanistic Jedi practice.

The prequels kept talking about “balance” in the Force. This film brings that idea back, with the idea that maybe “balance” wasn’t what those rigid practitioners of the Jedi order thought it was.

There’s a lot to think about — if you want to think about it.  Since thinking about this stuff is also one of the things I love about the Star Wars universe, I am happy.