Review: Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight

Sometime last year, I saw a blogger talking about Before Sunrise and how it was her favorite movie. I didn’t think much of it until a week or two later, when something ended up on my dash referring to the Before trilogy. Now that caught my attention: three movies following the same couple, set in real time? Far more interesting than a standalone romance plot, if you ask me. I added all three films to my watchlist, but honestly didn’t think much of them for a while. But then I watched Boyhood and realized that Richard Linklater might possibly be a storytelling genius, which left only one option: a movie marathon. The first lazy Sunday I had in February, I sat down and watched all three movies back to back to back. I don’t know if this post counts as a review or not, but I’ll definitely be rambling about all three movies and my thoughts on each one. Thanks for looking!

Before Sunrise (1995)

While watching this movie, I found myself with a similar reaction as I had to Boyhood, albeit on a lesser level. Despite the quietness and meandering pace of the story, I couldn’t help but be wholly invested in what was happening. It seemed sacrilegious to even think about scrolling through my phone or cooking food while bearing witness to two people connecting in such a human way.

before sunrise

What worked for me: Linklater has a way of telling stories that resonate, and I think that’s largely due to how he captures basic human interactions. A lot of romance movies (and lots of movies in general) feature a plot point or character interaction that is wholly unrealistic. It can make it difficult to relate, even if it’s a beautiful or touching moment. The power of Linklater’s stories is the humanity of them– they’re so peaceful and unassuming. He manages to capture day-to-day moments and frame them in a way that feels a little more charming– as if the light was hitting them just right and making them look almost magical. I think he’s the visual medium equivalent of Billy Collins.

What didn’t work for me: Honestly, I would’ve totally bought into their relationship if not for one thing: Celine is WAY too good for Jesse. She’s clever, opinionated, mature, funny, and honest (and French, of course). He is none of things. He’s cynical and derogatory and irresponsible. In many ways, he feels like a manchild that she will be responsible for educating and elevating. She reminds me of myself in a lot of ways, and maybe that’s why I struggled with their interactions. It was impossible for me to ignore his red flags, and I wished she had been more up front about calling them out.

Favorite moment: The poet writing them the piece using the word “milkshake”.

Before Sunset (2004)

I think the first and third installments would have benefited from being the same length as this one. The impending time of departure carries a lot more weight for the viewer when you can feel the end sneaking up on you. I felt like Hawke and Delpy had even better chemistry here than in the first film, and I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the natural flow of their conversation and interactions.

before sunset

What worked for me: Chemistry aside, there was one thing that really got my mind to spinning. As a disclaimer, I’m rather a fan of conspiracy theories (my personal favorite: Idaho doesn’t exist). My theory isn’t quite as preposterous as that one, but I googled it and apparently I’m the only one thinking about it! I couldn’t find a single post, review, or article, so here it is: is no one talking about the possibility of Celine being a figment of Jesse’s imagination?? I think he made her up.

What didn’t work for me: I have one huge qualm with this installment: how in the world did Jesse become a writer?? Sorry, but he’s dull as hell and previously showed no artistic inclination or creativity. However, his sudden and miraculous transition into becoming a writer did spark my aforementioned conspiracy theory, so I guess I can’t really complain.

Favorite moment: The last two lines. That was the most impeccable ending imaginable and it gives me chills just thinking about it.

Before Midnight (2013)

To be fair, I think this installment was probably far more profound for viewers in the same age group as Celine and Jesse. Those who had been following the trilogy since 1995 had aged along with the couple, which indubitably made their arguments and challenges far more relatable. However, it was my least favorite, largely because all those red flags I saw in Jesse 18 years ago come roaring to the surface and Celine is stuck with the aftermath.

before midnight

What worked for me: The opening scenes remind me so much of A Bigger Splash, which I mean as the highest compliment. The idyllic nature of Greece just feels so soothing and drowsy. It makes me want figs and sparkling wine on a sun-baked veranda. It was also interesting to see the two characters interact with other people for the first time. It was a risk on Linklater’s part, and I think it paid off.

What didn’t work for me: gaslighting, gaslighting, gaslighting. Jesse invalidates Celine’s emotions, disregards her reasons to be angry, and continuously attempts to sweep her feelings under the rug. He calls her “the mayor of crazy town” and belittles her for “carrying that much feminine oppression”. It was really disheartening to read IMDb reviews and realize how many people thought Celine was “being a bitter bitch” or was “totally overreacting”.

before midnight review

The ending also felt like a total copout. Watching Celine resign herself and dumb herself down at the cafe broke my heart. She had been making compromises for so long, and it felt like each time she did, she lost a little more of herself. You could actually see the moment she gave up.

Favorite moment: Celine storms out of the hotel room for the third time, but this time she leaves the keycard. The finality of that moment was so sublime, and the fact that she intentionally left it behind made me gasp out loud.


Overall, this was a deeply enjoyable and admirable undertaking. It’s rare to see such dialogue heavy films, much less ones that successfully execute such a specific stylistic choice. While I had my qualms throughout the series (primarily with Jesse being the worst), it was well worth the lazy Sunday to watch all three films in succession. I’ll probably be perusing more Linklater projects in the future, as I really haven’t come across another storyteller like him.

Winter Wins

Spring is almost here! While the first day of spring is still officially a week away, the beginning of March always feels like the beginning of the new season for me. Like my fall media intake, this winter was pretty visually inclined as well. Here are my top five favorites from the past several months!

The Handmaiden

I know I’m late to this party, but wow. What a treat this film is. Stoker has long been one of my favorite films, so I don’t know why I waited so long to check out another Park Chan-wook project. The structure of the film is impeccable, the varying POVs is seamless, the set and costume design is gorgeous, and the cinematography is absolutely stunning. I watched the movie without knowing anything about the storyline (something I’m a huge fan of doing and highly recommend), so I was completely caught off guard by the plot twists and resolutions. This is now up there with Carol in terms of my favorite love stories, and one I’m super eager to watch again.

the handmaiden

Six of Crows

I mentioned this duology in my recent post about book series, so I won’t talk about it too much here. However, coming from someone who hated the Grisha trilogy, Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom were so enjoyable. There’s a great character lineup, government infiltration, solid representation, and of course magic and assassins. It’s rare to read a book that successfully meshes six MCs and their point of views, but Bardugo executes it surprisingly seamlessly. Each character is unique and has their own set of driving forces and issues, but they interact as a group as well. I almost didn’t give these books a chance because of my dislike for the Grisha trilogy, but I’m so glad I did. (Artist credit here)

six of crows

The Dressmaker

Another one I’ve mentioned recently, this movie was directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and was my female director pick for January. I love good costume design in a film, and in that regard, this viewing was delightful down to the last detail. Considering I can count on one hand all of the Kate Winslet movies I’ve ever seen, it seems noteworthy that she has ended up on my list of favorites both this season and last season. This is an Australian movie from 2015, based on the book by Rosalie Ham. If you’ve been following my cinematography posts, you might have noticed the name Donald McAlpine pop up a lot. He’s an extremely talented DP who happens to have worked on many of my favorite films. He has an extraordinary eye for framing, and this project is no exception.

the dressmaker 4

The End of the F***ing world

Okay. So I first binge watched this when it was released, and really really enjoyed it. I talked about what it does right in my mini-review on You, but didn’t go very in depth. I just rewatched it again in January, and being aware of the storyline allowed me to really absorb the chemistry and characterization of the two main characters. Their on-screen interactions are so natural and charged, and it was a stroke of genius to include both of their internal narratives in tandem. The soundtrack is absolute perfection as well, and overall it’s a show worthy of multiple viewings. (I recommend watching all the episodes  in quick succession, preferably in one day if possible. It allows the story to build and the character connections to become more tangible.)

the end of the fing world

Black Panther

Because I included The Last Jedi on my last favorites list, I was hoping to include another accessible blockbuster here… which ended up being entirely too easy after seeing Black Panther. I’ve been struggling with pacing in a lot of recent releases, and while I felt the same about Black Panther, Ryan Coogler absolutely knocked this out of the park in virtually every regard. This is a beautiful and empowering and important story, filled with impeccable casting and paired with a stellar soundtrack. The costume design was flawless (more to come on Ruth E. Carter in a future post) and Coogler’s inspiration from Ta-Nehisi Coates (who is undeniably one of the most talented writers of our time) made this script sing. Representation matters, and bearing witness to how uplifting and important this story is has been nothing short of magical. As Christopher Orr aptly puts it: Black Panther is more than a superhero movie. (Bonus: the second after-credits sequence was enough to make my heart implode.)

black panther


So there you have it! These were my top five favorites from this winter. Did you read or watch anything this over the past several months that stood out to you? If so, let me know in the comments!

On Why I Hate War Movies

Inspired by: 12 Strong (trailer), The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow is the only female to have ever won an Oscar for Best Director. Since 1929, the first year the Oscars ran, only four women have even been nominated (Italian director Lina Wertmüller in 1977 for Seven Beauties, New Zealand director Jane Campion in 1994 for The Piano, Sofia Coppola in 2004 for Lost in Translation, and Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for The Hurt Locker) and from those four, Bigelow was the only one to have actually been awarded the Oscar. But here’s the thing: I am 100% certain that Bigelow would not have been awarded an Oscar if her film had been about literally anything other than war.

Oscar nominations for Best Picture often feature a war movie: Hacksaw Ridge in 2017, American Sniper in 2015, Zero Dark Thirty in 2013, The Hurt Locker in 2010, and so on and so forth. There were also the lesser war-centric nominations of Bridge of Spies in 2016, The Imitation Game in 2015, and War Horse in 2012. This year, Christopher Nolan’s WWII film Dunkirk is up for Best Picture and Nolan received a nomination for Best Director. The very first Oscars ceremony ever saw Wings win Best Picture, which goes to show that the academy has always adored and honored war movies. No less than sixteen war movies have won Oscar awards for Best Picture, and over five times that many have won Oscars in various other categories.


Now that some background is out of the way, prepare yourself for the incoming unpopular opinion.

My senior year of high school, my friend had me sit through Act of Valor. I felt appalled by what I was watching– I was sick to my stomach with the intensity and violence and fear of it all, bothered by the glorification and theatricality of the entire scenario, and guilty for feeling that way at all. Two years later, my college boyfriend tried to convince me to see American Sniper with him. By this point I was starting to come to terms with hating war movies, even if I couldn’t completely put my finger on why I hated them. It’s a complex thing to feel this way about this specific genre. I couldn’t really understand why I had so much trouble sitting through Saving Private Ryan, or why Black Hawk Down left a bitter taste in my mouth for weeks.

Experiencing negative feelings over the form of entertainment heralded as the pinnacle of patriotism wasn’t something I really knew how to handle, much less verbalize. I grew up with four brothers and a hyper-republican father so war movies were commonplace– Lawrence of Arabia was the very first movie I have memories of watching at home. By the time I started my second year of college, friends I had known for years were in all the branches of the military: Marco in the Marines, JP and Anthony in the Air Force, Carlo and Vivian in the Navy, Ryan and Lindsey in the Army. How do you express your opposition to war movies (and war in general) without coming off as being opposed to soldiers and veterans?

Over time, as I grew increasingly aware of current events and my surroundings, I stopped feeling guilty for disliking the genre. I realized that it isn’t a question of whether or not the depicted situations were difficult for American soldiers– of course they were (and are). It’s more a question of what other stories we’re leaving out in order to tell how hard it is on American soldiers.

The criticism here isn’t against soldiers. The criticism is against a military machine, glorified and propagated through the films we’ve been surrounded by for generations. The leadership of this industry has allowed misinformation and praise to be spread to the point that it’s painted in black and white: if you don’t support war you’re unpatriotic; to die for your country is the greatest honor imaginable. George Elerick says that “somehow patriotism, nationalism and identity have seemingly come together in such a way that most Americans don’t know how to separate themselves from these ideas. There is a religious zeal to American nationalism and its relationship to foreign policy.”

Recent war movies such as Zero Dark Thirty and the upcoming 12 Strong have a feel of moral justness. There is an overarching theme to them that the portrayed Americans made the right choices, were justified in what they did, and were even noble in their actions– despite being the invading forces in a foreign country. I can’t help but worry about the influence of the military industrial complex on American viewers. It is undeniably profitable to always have an enemy, which seems to lead to the dramatization of certain threats– even if that comes at the expense of peace. Elerick also states that “Consciously or not, these movies are teaching us that all behavior is justified under the guise of nationalism. […] Movies play a role in presenting back to us our own fears, wants, desires, dreams and nightmares. Whether they are given to us on our own is the question we should be exploring.”

In his think piece on Dunkirk, writer and filmmaker John Ott outlines it like this: “War is by its very nature a high-drama enterprise. The stakes are not only life and death, but the fate of nations. It is natural for filmmakers to be drawn to stories set during war.” These stories are packaged to be entertaining, and maybe that’s because we’re so eager to be entertained by them. But that’s not the whole story, and it never will be.

This is why films like the documentary The White Helmets are so imperative– because we need truthful accounts to show us the utter devastation and havoc that we help to wreak, to show us the real effects of scenarios that are glorified in movies like 12 Strong and American Sniper. To show that our involvement in foreign countries has led to mass destruction, hundreds of thousands of deaths, humanitarian crises, widespread diseases due to a lack of sanitation, and political radicalization that continues to inflict terror on innocents. To show us the other side of the story.

whitehelmetedit
The White Helmets (2016) || Orlando von Einsiedel (Director)

This is why films like Eye in the Sky are important– because we need to be shown how much of the “boots on the ground” image we’re fed is just kids following orders from up the chain. To be shown how that chain of command leads to men in suits in their ivory towers, ordering things– oftentimes without truly seeing the whole picture.

eye in the sky alan rickman helen mirren
Eye in the Sky (2015) || Gavin Hood (Director)

This is why films like Atonement are so rare– because finally, we bear witness to the pain of war rather than the glorification of it. Because even in movies that attempt to show the reality of war, they are still painting soldiers as heroes worthy of endless idolization.

atonement
Atonement (2007) || Joe Wright (Director)

But herein lies the issue: none of those three films are American. The White Helmets has a British director and a British producer. Eye in the Sky features a South African director and a British screenplay writer. Atonement was directed by an Englishman. American war movies aren’t like the ones listed above. Not only are Americans not being told the whole story in our gun-touting, explosion-blasting, shoot ’em up films, but the films that do tell the whole story often don’t even make it across our radar. And there’s a reason why.

Remember at the beginning of this post when I was talking about the Oscars and mentioned Wings being the first ever Best Picture? It just so happens that it was made with hands-on support from the U.S. military. In fact, a lot of American war movies were. Medium’s must-read exclusive article, written by Insurge Intelligence, outlines the documents that revealed the full scope of the relationship between the Department of Defense and Hollywood.

“When we first looked at the relationship between politics, film and television at the turn of the 21st century, we accepted the consensus opinion that a small office at the Pentagon had, on request, assisted the production of around 200 movies throughout the history of modern media, with minimal input on the scripts. How ignorant we were. These documents for the first time demonstrate that the US government has worked behind the scenes on over 800 major movies and more than 1,000 TV titles.”

-Tom Secker and Matthew Alford

From Top Gun (which was paired with Navy recruiting booths in cinema lobbies after showings and led to a reported 400% increase in Navy recruitment) to Transformers (aimed at a young audience and filled with thrilling action and civic duty turned splendid heroism), these movies are shoving pro-war messages down the throats of viewers. While arrangements like these mean that production costs go down for filmmakers, it also means that the Department of Defense gets to veto creative choices, scripts, and portrayals if they feel it doesn’t paint the military in a positive enough light.

“Our desire is that the military are portrayed as good people trying to do the right thing the right way,”

Philip Strub, Director of Entertainment Media at the US Department of Defense

Medium & Insurge explain: “When a writer or producer approaches the Pentagon and asks for access to military assets to help make their film, they have to submit their script to the entertainment liaison offices for vetting. Ultimately, the man with the final say is Phil Strub, the Department of Defense’s (DOD) chief Hollywood liaison. If there are characters, action or dialogue that the DOD don’t approve of then the film-maker has to make changes to accommodate the military’s demands. If they refuse then the Pentagon packs up its toys and goes home.” Having this much control over so many aspects of such popular films is nothing short of insidious and dangerous. By portraying themselves as sparkling poster children, the military is ensuring that the average movie-goer is seeing only the best parts of the war machine. They place themselves on a pedestal. Author Lawrence Suid coined the phrase “mutual exploitation” in regards to the relationship between Hollywood and the U.S. military. “The U.S. military gets incredible publicity and recruitment advantages, and the film industry gets equipment, locations and authenticity.” he explains.

“When Ridley Scott went to Morocco to film Blackhawk Down, the U.S. Army was so gung-ho to immortalize this bit of military derring-do history onto celluloid forever, that they not only supplied all the weapons and vehicles for the film, but they actually provided a real life Ranger regiment to train and advise the filmmakers for their film about an embattled Ranger regiment in the Battle of Mogadishu, in Somalia.”

-Thought Co’s exposé on military support of war films

So what’s the issue with this? Plenty of filmmakers strike deals with other institutions to allow themselves access to locations and props. Surely it’s up to the filmmakers themselves if they want to sacrifice the integrity of their script for the sake of production value, right? The problem is that the military is a governmental structure. The Department of Defense is a huge arm of the executive branch, and as such, should not be able to dictate what information is being spread about them. Some people believe that this falls under a breach of First Amendment rights, some believe that it’s entirely fair game. I believe that it’s bordering on propaganda.

military

Thought Co sums it up perfectly: “Pentagon support of filmmaking likely shaped the type of movies we got throughout the first half of the 20th century. When one considers the effect that cinema has had on shaping culture, it’s not a big leap to suggest that Pentagon subsidies for filmmakers might have very well helped shape parts of our American culture.”

And now we live in a culture that borders on a fiscal-military state, that sends children to invade foreign countries and kill younger children, that puts war on a pedestal and produces glamorized tales of these wars packaged as entertainment.

So whether it’s Act of Valor with its line about the worst part of growing old being the fact that people don’t find you dangerous, or American Sniper applying the analogy of soldiers being sheepdogs to protect the sheep from the wolves to the entire Iraq War, keep in mind that American war movies are not the whole story. What is the rest of the story? The rest of the story is that during some periods of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, more U.S. servicemen have killed themselves than have died in combat. The rest of the story is that in the first two years of U.S. airstrikes in the Middle East, the U.S. and coalition partners have conducted more than 14,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, with nearly 11,000 of those strikes coming from U.S. aircraft and resulting in an estimated 4,000 civilian deaths. The rest of the story is that America’s military spending is astronomically higher than anyone else in the world, with the 2017 military budget clocking in at $611B, nearly $400B more than the second highest military budget in the world. The rest of the story is that the level of indifference to non-American lives on the part of the U.S. military and DOD is staggering: U.S. military forces were directly responsible for approximately 10 to 15 million deaths during the course of the Korean, Vietnam, and two Iraq Wars. There’s more to the story than explosions and heroism and happy endings tied in nice bows. There’s always more.

On Adaptions

Prompted by: Annihilation

Book-to-film adaptions are difficult. Some are certainly more fraught with challenges than others, but it is a huge hurdle to do a good book justice. I think that people largely underestimate the sheer volume of adaptions that are out. Most people know that movies like The Notebook, The DaVinci Code, and The Shining are based on popular books. Fewer people (but still a lot) are aware that movies such as The Godfather and Jurassic Park are also adaptions of books. But when it comes to movies like Forrest Gump and even Mean Girls, most people have no idea that they were based on books at all. High Fidelity, Requiem for a Dream, The Dressmaker, Breakfast at Tiffany’s… all books. The number of times I’ve been watching credits and seen the phrase “based on the book by _______” continues to blow me away.

These days, it seems like any book that makes it big gets turned into a movie. From Gone Girl to The Girl on the Train, popular books are being snatched up for movie deals left and right– not to mention books that came out half a century ago (I’m looking at you, A Wrinkle in Time). Half of me is proud of these authors, proud that they crafted a story so deeply enjoyable that they have been able to make a small fortune off of them and transition them to a new medium. But the other half of me squirms with discomfort over the fact that Hollywood execs are going for so few original scripts. Studios like A24 have been doing an increasingly impeccable job of giving inventive and creative scripts a chance, which makes it exciting instead of uncertain when they do spring for adaptions such as Neil Gaiman’s How to Talk at Girls at Parties. Overall though, I tend to avoid adaptions in theaters, especially when they’re on stylistic novels like Room or The Song of Achilles (more on that below).  But without further ado, here’s some of my favorite examples of successful adaptions.

Fight Club

This is, hands down, the best book-to-film transition I have ever seen. The casting was sublime, the pacing was perfection– especially given that I felt it wasn’t ideal in the novel, and the subliminal messages throughout the movie help to recreate and heighten the same sense of disease that the book draws upon. There are some aspects of the book, such as the “I am Jack’s ________” lines and the anti-consumerism themes, that manage to have more impact in the movie, possibly due to having such a visual connection with the narrator. I also feel that the storyline as a whole benefited from the visceral images in the film. My only qualm with Fight Club— both the book and the movie–  is that is has the same effect on certain male groups that Rick and Morty does. Rather than realizing that the stories are a commentary on what is wrong with society, some people place characters like Rick Sanchez and Tyler Durden on a pedestal.

fight club

Carol

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, the film adaption was released in 2015 and was my favorite film of the year. The strength of the adaption is that it absolutely nails the calmness of the book. Both mediums have a soothing cadence to them, a quiet sort of chemistry that nestles inside your chest. The subtlety of the romance itself is exquisite in the film and pays so much respect to the era that the book was written in. In 1952, coming out as a gay woman would have been nigh on catastrophic. This lends an aura of secrecy and subtlety to every single interaction between the two women, something that the movie displays flawlessly. Lingering glances and fleeting eye contact, swollen silences and unassuming lunches, casual comments and small talk– these are things that the vast majority of heterosexual viewers didn’t pick up on as romantic, whereas queer viewers are entirely too familiar with the language. In fact, some critics complained that the film was “cold” and detached. In an age inundated with overt innuendos and transparency, it can be difficult to pick up on the undercurrent of energy and longing that runs through Carol. This is certainly one of the best adaptions I’ve ever seen, and one that breaks my heart every time I watch it.

carol

Lord of the Rings

The primary issue that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series faced when it came time for adaption was time constraints. The book trilogy was incredibly complex and features so much material that plot points like Tom Bombadil and The Sacking of The Shire would have only felt shoehorned if they had been included in the movie adaptions, so it is understandable why they were left out. Speaking of time, however, I do feel that the passage of time was not properly conveyed in the movies. Seventeen years pass between Bilbo’s birthday party and Frodo’s departure from The Shire and the quest itself takes over a year to complete. Aside from that, there are really only two things I take issue with: Frodo telling Sam to go home on the stairs to Cirith Ungol, and Aragorn’s near death when he falls over the cliff. While Legolas and Gimli’s on-screen friendship is lacking in comparison to the books, I think the majority of the characterization was spot-on, especially that of Merry and Pippin and Gandalf. Don’t even get me started on Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, but I felt that he succeeded in many ways to bring the scope and scale of such a beloved world to the big screen.

fellowship of the ring

Harry Potter

Again, the main issue with adapting an entire book series is the time constraints. I am rather of the belief that JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series would have vastly benefited from being made into a TV series rather than a movies series, but of course that would have come with it’s own full set of challenges. Things like Peeves the Poltergeist, Neville’s full background, S.P.E.W., and Dudley’s “I don’t think you’re a waste of space” line are all things would have enriched the movies… but also would have added noticeable run time to the films. The movies are not without their flaws. From the casting choices for Albus Dumbledore to destroying the Elder Wand, I think the movies left much to be desired. However, what made the series such a huge success (and why I’m including it on this list) was the fact that it was accessible for both readers of the books and new fans. The movies feature a slew of small hat tips to the books, which enriched the viewing for everyone who had been following along for years, while still making it entirely accessible for those who had never opened one of the books. The undertaking of bringing such a layered and detailed story to life was monumental, and I think that the four directors did a surprisingly good job of illustrating the aspects of the wizarding world that many readers held near and dear to their hearts.

goblet of fire

Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire

I’ve talked about my issues with this show in a previous post, but I didn’t discuss how much I feel that the books and the show should be required companions for each other. I watched the first four seasons of the show a couple of years back, but only picked up the books this past fall. To say that Martin’s undertaking is ambitious is the understatement of the decade. His endless litany of characters, names, historical events, and houses often feels more like a religious tome than a fantasy novel. I’m not ashamed to say that I likely would not have even made it through the first book if I hadn’t already watched some of the show. Having a familiarity with the main characters (and a lot of the secondary ones) made the story far more enjoyable and immersive. With that being said, the show is severely lacking in many aspects. There are a number of plot points and character subtleties that didn’t make it on screen but do so much to flesh out the world and the people. After finishing the books, I re-watched the first three seasons and had very mixed feelings. There are a lot of things about the show that I simply can’t justify. Merely on a lit nerd level, it’s really difficult to watch all the unnecessary ways in which the show deviates from the books. But on a deeper level, the amount of violence and sexism that repeatedly takes place on screen is something I struggle to watch, for various reasons. I don’t have any intentions of continuing the show, but I can’t recommend the books enough to anyone who is a regular watcher.

a song of fire and ice

Room & Virgin Suicides

I almost didn’t include this section, as I haven’t seen either of these movies. However, both films were nominated for various awards and were clearly well-executed. So why won’t I watch them? As I’ve mentioned before, I’m absolutely over the moon for prose that reads like poetry. The Song of Achilles always leaves me breathless and/or in tears for that very reason, as does Valente’s Fairyland series. While poetic prose is my favorite stylistic trait when it comes to novels, I’m also a huge fan of inventive narrators in general, such as Jack in Room. The Virgin Suicides has been one of my favorite books for close to five years, largely because of it’s blend of unique narrative and beautiful prose. I find myself deeply attached and endlessly in awe of these novels almost entirely due to their writing style. Of course the characters and the settings are wonderful as well, but I only connect to them in the first place because of how they were written. It seems to me that regardless of how well filmed or perfectly cast these movies may be, they will still be unable to properly capture the writing style that made me fall in love with them in the first place. I hate to think that I will watch these movies and forever associate the film choices with the novels. I would rather have the books remain flawless for me than try to mix the two mediums.


So what do you think? Did you enjoy these adaptions? Leave a comment below with your favorite page-to-screen adaption! 

On Simple Stories Well Told

I watched a lot of films in 2017, and I found myself with a growing affection for simple stories well told. In today’s Hollywood, it feels like most blockbusters are all explosions and drama and excess. They’re full of fillers and, as director Eric Swiz puts it, they end up feeling like “movie-flavored” productions rather than real movies. There seems to be less and less emphasis on proper characterization and meandering stories. Instead, more and more emphasis is being placed on catching the attention of viewers, however fleeting that attention may be. Movies like Batman vs Superman and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets feel like they were made to be trailers, not full stories. The goal is to get viewers to spend money on a ticket, not necessarily to make a movie that they will connect with. This makes it all the more surprising (and reassuring) when films like Moonlight make it to the forefront of the public sphere.

As I’ve grown more fond of these simple stories, I’ve noticed a common thread running through their reviews: they’re boring and slow and their endings are unsatisfying. To which I have only this to say: sometimes, so is life.

Boyhood

I wanted to start with an example that a lot of readers might have seen. This 2014 piece directed by Richard Linklater is a daunting 2 hours and 45 minutes, something that had me putting off a viewing until very recently. Nominated for a handful of Oscars and Golden Globes (and winning over 170 awards) this is nothing short of a meandering masterpiece. Within five minutes of this movie starting, I was utterly immersed. I didn’t look at my phone or eat a snack or do anything else except watch the film. Following the normal life of one normal boy, this story winds through 12 years of life, marking both pivotal points and unassuming events in his childhood. On the surface, it almost feels like nothing much happens. There are no deaths or spectacles or dramatic reunions, and you often feel like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. But there are relationships and conversations and evolution and this is what fleshes out a beautiful and subtle tale of growth. It is a quiet story, one that illustrates how much we change through the years and how our goals and dreams often change with us. It’s difficult to explain the magic of this movie and how deeply it connects with you as you’re watching it, but if you haven’t already seen it, I recommend it highly.

boyhood
Boyhood 2014) || Richard Linklater (Director)
Drinking Buddies

Featuring Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, and Jake Johnson, this might very well be one of my favorite viewings from 2017. It follows the stories of two intertwined couples over a short period of time and the impact they have on each other. It’s a romance film, but it’s not like the romance films that end up on the big screen. There isn’t a dramatic ending, there isn’t a knock-down drag-out fight, and there isn’t a cheesy soundtrack playing when people kiss. It’s quiet and emotional and believable, and it ends like it started: without fanfare or debacle. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoiling the story, but it’s a very candid look at interactions and the human experience, and one that I can’t recommend enough. Bonus: it’s currently on Netflix!

drinking buddies
Drinking Buddies (2013) || Joe Swanberg (Director)
Spa Night

This 2016 Korean film is brilliant in a very quiet way. The use of negative space throughout the film heightens the overall mood by not using a soundtrack, completely eliminating physical touch, and even minimizing the main character’s self-expression almost to the point of removing it entirely. I think the strength of this movie comes from it’s day-to-day moments and how simple tasks and experiences can be both uplifting and heartbreaking. The movie ends with another average action in another average day, highlighting that in real life, many stories don’t have a happy ending or a neat resolution. This movie is so grounded in the challenges of day-to-day life that it is virtually impossible not to connect with it on one level or another.

spa night
Spa Night (2016) || Andrew Ahn (Director)
7 Chinese Brothers

Following the escapades of a struggling 20-something, played by Jason Schwartzman, this 2015 indie comedy was significantly more fun than I was expecting. A lot of reviewers were flustered over the fact that the film never referenced the title, but not only does the exact phrase show up, but where it shows up is a huge metaphor as to what this movie is all about. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll catch it. An excerpt from my Netflix review is as follows: “Not all films have to feature a grand adventure or a huge plot twist to be enjoyable. This may not be for everyone, but I found it to be a really enjoyable character study. A simple story well told, in many ways.” Bonus: the dog actor is Jason Schwartzman’s real-life dog!

7 chinese brothers
7 Chinese Brothers (2015) || Bob Byington (Director)
Imperial Dreams

This 2014 film starring John Boyega is heartbreaking to the nth degree. We watch a young man, just released from prison, desperately trying to make a safe and legal life for his son. The film doesn’t sugarcoat anything and demonstrates the crippling nature of a system built to work against you. There is a quiet grittiness and honesty to this story that crawls into your chest and wraps around your heart. You want so desperately for the main character to succeed at such a simple wish: to take care of his son. Your heart breaks each time another challenge is presented and he is made to feel that it is his own shortcomings that are stifling him. The bittersweet nature of the entire story feels hopeless in some places and awe-inspiring in others, but it is never anything less than honest.

imperial dreams
Imperial Dreams (2014) || Malik Vitthal (Director)
My Life as a Zucchini

This 2016 French stop-motion film has a run time of only one hour and six minutes– but I was misty-eyed long before that point. This story follows the life of a little boy called Zucchini who ends up at a French orphanage. I have long been of the belief that animated films are not automatically children’s films, and this is an exquisite example of that. Dealing with profound themes in a simple way, there’s a lot that can be found between the lines. In addition, the fact that it doesn’t make any attempts to fill up the run time is certainly one of its strong points. It’s a peaceful story about a tumultuous time, and is handled with a kind of delicacy that is very rarely seen. It is tender without being overly sentimental, and honest without being explicitly open. It was one of my favorite viewings of 2017 and I would be lying if I said I don’t think it deserved the Oscar over Zootopia.

my life as a zucchini
My Life as a Zucchini (2016) || Claude Barras (Director)

On Manic Pixie Dream Girls

Prompted by: The Secret History & The Raven Boys

I’m sure most of us are familiar with manic pixie dream girls by now, but just in case, here’s a quick overview: Coined by critic Nathan Rabin in reference to Kristen Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” She is unavoidably quirky, overtly charming (often because of her quirkiness, sometimes through her aloofness), and is, 99 times out of 100, the love interest of the male protagonist.

“A type of female character depicted as vivacious and appealingly quirky, whose main purpose within the narrative is to inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist.”

-Oxford Dictionaries’ recently canonized definition of the MPDG

If you’re struggling to think of an example, you can pretty much insert Zooey Deschanel’s on-screen essence in just about anything she’s ever been in. The problem that this trope creates is twofold: it typecasts certain actors, and more importantly, it reduces female roles down to one-dimensional objects of infatuation.

“When you get sent scripts and you see you’re always playing someone’s girlfriend when you want to be the central role, it’s so depressing.”

-Zooey Deschanel in regards to being tired of being cast as a MPDG

mpdg

The holy trifecta of MPDGs in film is Claire in Elizabethtown, Summer in 500 Days of Summer, and Sam in Garden State. However, the presence of the manic pixie dream girl has thoroughly infiltrated the lit world. In fact, they’ve been around for much longer than the term has been. From Sam in Perks of Being a Wallflower to Camilla in The Secret History, these manically dreamy girls pop up like daises (coincidentally, that’s a pretty popular name for the MPDG) in novels both old and new. Usually, the MPDG takes a backseat to our main (male) character. In The Secret History, this means she talks significantly less than any of the other (male) characters. In Looking for Alaska, this means she crashes her car and dies– which propels the main (male) character into his self-realization phase. Her personality is filtered through the rose-colored glasses of our male protag, and she usually ends up vanishing sometime before the third act so our brave boy can ~discover himself~. If you haven’t ever come across an MPDG in literature, you can pick up virtually any novel by Haruki Murakami or John Green to find one.

Here’s the thing about manic pixie dream girls: they really can seem quite delightful. They’re undeniably enjoyable to read, at least when they’re first introduced, because it takes a certain amount of whimsy and creativity to write them. They have unique names and quirky personality traits and most of the time they have dyed hair and green eyes. They’re vibrant and electric and people gravitate towards them. So why are they problematic? As I mentioned earlier, the big issue is that it reduces a unique female character to nothing more than a trope, which is problematic all on its own. But one of the reasons this is so frustrating is because it’s such an easy fix.

Maggie Stiefvater is the author of The Raven Cycle, a four-book series following the adventure of four prep school boys and their one female friend, Blue. Sounds like trouble already, doesn’t it? Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Except it’s not. Stiefvater is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, an incredibly talented writer. She makes paragraphs feel like listening to your favorite song on the radio while you’re cruising at night with the windows down. She weaves stories that drip in nostalgia and make your heart ache with the beauty of it all. And the vehicle that carries all of that emotion is her characterization. Every single character is resplendently unique and unavoidably important. Every single one has a part to play within their own character arc as well as in the grand scheme of things. But if it weren’t for that, all of them could easily feel like manic pixie dream girls (and boys). Blue only eats yogurt and wears crochet leggings in the summer. Gansey chews mint leaves and bought a warehouse to convert into a living space. Ronan is a high schooler with elaborate tattoos and a secret love for farming. Adam has freckles and a shy voice and can fix just about anything wrong with a car. There’s a family of psychics living under one roof, a handsome hitman with a penchant for 70’s culture, a Bulgarian who makes Molotov cocktails and loves street racing, and a 7 foot tall giant who lives in a house full of cats. Each character is quirky in one way or another, and could easily be one-dimensional without flaws or struggles or arcs. But Stiefvater makes sure that isn’t the case. She makes sure they all function both as cohesive groups and as individual characters. They work within their romantic storylines and outside of them as well. They are brave and scared and lonely and hopeful. They have secrets and share their lives with each other and throw temper tantrums from time to time. They are whole characters with whole personalities and it’s impossible not to adore them. (artist credit here)

raven cycle 3
Artist: flockeinc via tumblr

(If you haven’t read anything by Maggie Stiefvater yet, you’re missing out. She’s a master of magic and beautiful prose and slow burn relationships.)

My creative writing professor in college told us that all characters should be like the yin-yang symbol: the darkest characters should still have a spot of light, and the brightest characters should still have a spot of dark. No one wants to read about a glossed-over girl who doesn’t have anything wrong with her, just like no one wants to read about the dark villain with the mustache and black hat. To relate to a character, the reader must be able to see them as human. Not as just an object to be obtained, not as a quirky caricature, not as a disposable plot point. And so therein lies my issue with manic pixie dream girls: they are quirky objects, hard to obtain but easy to dispose of.

While the MPDG trope is a device that is in desperate need of some work, I’d be remiss to not share a secret about it. Sometimes, if I’m having a bad day, I think about how John Green would write me as a manic pixie dream girl. It’s reassuring to know that my collection of vintage china and my color-coded bookshelf would be whimsical, that my compulsion for neatness and my ripped cuticles would be marks of my quirkiness. That my gray-green eyes framed by glasses and my literary tattoos would be attractive. So if nothing else, the trope sometimes helps me to reframe myself and remember that there are always parts of ourselves that are delightful.

Eiko Ishioka: A Master of Her Craft

Japanese art director and costume designer Eiko Ishioka was virtually unparalleled when it comes to the amount of detail and excess that she put into her work. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I love opulence and decadence in a film. It’s one of the reasons Baz Luhrmann is one of my favorite directors, and I can’t help but wonder what one of his films would have looked like if Eiko had designed the costumes for it.

Today marks six years since her death, so I wanted to take a quick minute to highlight some of her spectacular costume designs.

the fall wedding
The Fall (2006)
dracula
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Her costumes were over the top in the very best of ways, always featuring an extraordinary attention to detail, as well as combinations that most designers wouldn’t even think to attempt.

the fall lineup
The Fall (2006)
mirror mirror comp
Mirror, Mirror (2012)

Eiko had the ability to maximize the potential of ordinary objects of clothing. Whether it was by elevating a hood to an item of mystique and wonder or turning a simple black collar into a work of art or, she had the magic touch.

dracula 2
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

It was a mark of her genius that she was able to create two wedding dresses for two different movies that could not have been less alike. The inventiveness and ingenuity that went into both gowns is a thing of wonder.

Her ability to work with colors across the spectrum and combine them to create works of art is something that is rarely seen, especially on the scale of grandeur that Eiko utilized.

the fall lilac
The Fall (2006)
mirror mirror
Mirror, Mirror (2012)

I find her to be the most talented designer of our time, and the film world is a less beautiful place without her.

The Misogyny of Romantic Comedies

Prompted by: Playing it Cool

Sometimes I’ll be watching a movie and something will occur to me regarding the genre or the character or the style or whatever else the case may be. Sometimes I’ll do a google search to see if anyone else has noticed the same things. Sometimes there will be an article or a blog post about the same exact thing I noticed… sometimes there won’t be. And sometimes I think to myself “I should write about it.” But I never do.

But I am today! And today I’m going to talk about how rom-coms are so misogynistic.

When Harry Met Sally

Okay so this is a classic, right? I mean, it’s up there with You’ve Got Mail and Pretty in Pink. I had  never seen it, so when it was playing during a plane flight a few months back, I was excited to watch it. Except that I hated it. I hated it from the moment Harry propositions Sally even though he is dating her friend… which is about three minutes into the movie. I hated how smug Harry was, how his self-absorbed monologues wouldn’t let Sally get a word in edgewise, and how he’s aggressive in his pursuits. I hate that he ghosts Sally after they sleep together, that he won’t stop harassing her after she tells him she wants him to leave her alone, and that he publicly announces all of her shortcomings as if she’s only acceptable once he’s said so. For 12 years, Harry shirks responsibility and demeans commitment, and yet we’re somehow supposed to buy that he magically changes and is ready to settle down and live happily ever after? Yeah, right. I hated it so much that I had to look it up when I landed and make sure I had even watched the right movie. I couldn’t fathom how so many people have found it endearing and romantic over the years.

Worthwhile moment: Sally publicly demonstrates how easy it is to fake an orgasm to prove that Harry really isn’t as good in bed as his monstrous ego would lead him to believe.

harry met sally

Play it Cool

This movie is an actual train wreck. Chris Evans plays the lead, and his character is just as sexist as his portrayal The Human Torch, if not more so. With a great line-up featuring Topher Grace, Aubrey Plaza, Michelle Monaghan, and Luke Wilson, I was pretty excited to see this pop up on Netflix. Unfortunately, the cast is really the only good thing about the movie. This sorry excuse for a romance features:

  • a scene featuring a sexy babysitter seductively dancing for a young boy.
  • a line about Malaysian women being the best to sleep with because they’re used to undersized appendages and you can “rip them up.”
  • a main character who continues to show up at the house of his love interest and drunkenly shout up at her window despite her repeatedly asking him to stop.
  • a girl whose consolation prize for not being loved by the main character is ending up with her ‘friend’ who previously forced himself on her.
  • a cliche attempt to stop a wedding because our white male lead simply can’t fathom that someone genuinely isn’t interested in him.
  • repeated racism, sexism, and narcissism.

Worthwhile moment: Topher Grace’s character leaves copies of his favorite book at cafes and coffee shops with a hand-written inscription about how the story changed his life and he hopes it can do the same for the stranger who picks it up.

play it cool 2

27 Dresses

Another airplane viewing, this is one I didn’t even finish. 27 Dresses relies so heavily on stereotyping and sexism to further the plot that it’s shameful. Girl is wedding-obsessed, girl wants her own wedding so badly because that is what gives life meaning, girl is jealous over her sister stealing her romantic interest (instead of just talking about it like grown women should). I turned it off at the part where James Marsden steals her planner and starts plotting about how he is going to use her personal information to get her attention… after she already told him in no uncertain terms that she wanted him to leave her alone. There’s a TV Trope for this plot device called Stalking Is Love. I’m not sure when we started presenting not taking no for an answer as something that’s romantic and endearing. What it is is creepy, and oftentimes borders on harassment. No means no.

Worthwhile moment: none.

27 dresses


So what’s the deal with the misogyny in romantic comedies in the first place? From women being expected to change in order to land the guy of their dreams (a la Sandy in Grease) to men creepily following women around to woo them (a la Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey), there’s just something off about what these popular romantic movies are selling. My frustration only increases when I realize that all this sexism exists in movies made for and about women. What are women retaining, consciously or not, as they watch these movies? Do we start to think it’s okay to be followed by a man even when we’ve told him to stop? Do we start to believe that our life doesn’t have true meaning unless we’re spending it with a man? Do we start to think that men can treat women however they want as long as there’s a grand airport/ballroom/sidewalk-in-the-pouring-rain apology? In her must-read article about what she learned from a year of watching rom-coms, Chloe Angyal summarizes it nicely:

“In romantic comedies, men who appear to be misogynistic pigs are simply waiting for the right woman to prove to them that women deserve to be treated like human beings.”

-Chloe Angyal, The Crappy Lessons of Romantic Comedies

The problem isn’t that this genre is often fluffy and predictable, and it’s not that they’re sappy or corny. The problem definitely isn’t that women want love or are interested in marriage. The problem is that, like or not, what we view impacts us. And the impact of consistently viewing love, sex, and relationships in an inaccurate and unhealthy light cannot be good. Angyal says that “romantic comedies teach us that a woman’s life is empty and meaningless without a man, and that any woman who believes she is happy being single is simply lying to herself. They teach us that love is only for straight white people –- skinny, beautiful straight white people, at that. They teach us that men are sex-crazed, commitment-phobic animals who have to be manipulated into romantic relationships, and that when a man really loves a woman, he’ll demonstrate his feelings with grand gestures that barely skirt the line between love and stalking.” And she’s right. These movies are sending the wrong messages, and they’re sending them relentlessly.

I’m not sure what the solution is. Maybe take viewings with a grain of salt? Maybe don’t be shy about turning off a rom-com that has even less redeeming qualities than most? Maybe add a few indie romances to your lineup: ones that feature healthy relationships with real characters and believable storylines (or just watch anything with Leslie Knope/Ben Wyatt or Morticia/Gomez Addams). Whatever the case may be, there’s no shame in rewatching Made of Honor for the fifth time if that’s something that makes you happy. But while watching Patrick Dempsey race through the Scottish countryside on horseback, remind yourself that, corny as it may be, the best love out there is actually the love you have for yourself.

Kings of Some Things

After finishing Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle for the second time, I was thinking about how much I appreciate the tenderness with which she writes her male characters. Because I already created a post about my favorite female characters, I thought I would go ahead and whip up a list of my favorite male characters. Enjoy!

Books

Dobby: My pure angel baby. Far and away my favorite character in the HP books, Dobby is a wholesome soul who does his best to be himself in a world that was not made for him. His penchant for socks and his adoration for Harry are just two of the characteristics that make him so lovable. (Artist credit here) || “‘Socks are Dobby’s favorite, favorite clothes, sir!’ he said, ripping off his odd ones and pulling on Uncle Vernon’s. ‘I has seven now, sir. . . . But sir …’ he said, his eyes widening, having pulled both socks up to their highest extent, so that they reached to the bottom of his shorts, ‘they has made a mistake in the shop, Harry Potter, they is giving you two the same!'” -J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire

Saturday: Companion to September from Valente’s Fairyland series, Saturday is a blue marid from the ocean who can grant wishes– under certain circumstances. He’s a soft spoken creature with a tender heart and a knowledge of time and space that rivals any astrophysicist. I’ll keep recommending the series until the day I die, so you might as well pick up the first one now. || “She leaned in, and kissed her Marid gently, sweetly. She tried to kiss him the way she’d always thought kisses would be. His lips tasted like the sea.” -Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

Ronan Lynch: Bad boy extraordinaire, Ronan Lynch is a force to be reckoned with. He’s a heart attack, a car crash, an oil spill. He’s a magician beyond your wildest imagination, a farmer with a secret and a soft spot, and he must be protected at all costs. (Artist credit here) || “Ronan’s smile was sharp and hooked as one of the creature’s claws. ‘A sword is never a killer; it is a tool in the killer’s hand’.” -Maggie Stiefvater, The Dream Thieves

Merry & Pippin: Quite possibly one of literature’s most dynamic duos, these two hobbits are nigh on inseparable, hence my including them as one unit (even though I prefer Pippin). Merry is the smarts and Pippin is the… comedic relief? They are witty to a fault and set in their cushy hobbit ways, but they don’t hesitate to stick up for their friends and do what is right. ||“‘That’s what I meant,’ said Pippin. ‘We hobbits ought to stick together, and we will. I shall go, unless they chain me up. There must be someone with intelligence in the party.'” -J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Comics

Dream: Moody, broody, and omnipotent, Morpheus is a wise and petty demigod of sorts. Ruler of the dream world, he has moments of shallow vindictiveness and moments of heartbreaking compassion. His ten volume arc was published over the course of 14 years and garnered endless acclaim– for a good reason. Neil Gaiman is an unparalled writer, and the life he breathes into Dream is passed on to us. || “But he did not understand the price. Mortals never do. They only see the prize, their heart’s desire, their dream… But the price of getting what you want, is getting what once you wanted.” -Neil Gaiman,  Sandman #19

Ghüs: He’s a humanoid seal. Who rides a walrus. And wears yellow raincoats. Nuff said.|| “Ghüs has been a lot of things in his day… but sweet is not one of those things.” -Brian K. Vaughan, Saga Vol. 5

Peter Quill: With the exception of DC’s Bombshells series, the comics I read the most of is Guardians of the Galaxy. And Peter Quill, aka Star Lord, is a gem in the galactic group. A little more tenderhearted than the movies portray him, Peter Quill is just a man trying to save the galaxy and his friendships. || “I don’t mind dying like the valiant intergalactic hero that I am… but the least you could do is pay attention!” -Peter Quill, Earth-616

Movies/TV Shows

Leo Fitz: Scottish scientist and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Leopold Fitz is equal parts brilliant and dorky. He has a soft heart and looks for the best in people, as well as using his genius to create inventions to help others. He’s also half of a beautiful slow burn relationship, which I historically have a huge weakness for.|| “There’s nothing wrong with the data in my head.” -Leo Fitz, Agents of Shield, #2.11

Han Solo: Problematic fav. Han is definitely the outlier on this list– he’s cynical, arrogant, unreliable, and honestly, a bit of a f*ckboi. But he’s also the most realistic character in Star Wars and he ends up coming through in more way than one. Not to mention, he’s a hell of a pilot. #hanshotfirst || “You like me because I’m a scoundrel. There aren’t enough scoundrels in your life.” -Han Solo, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Lito Rodriquez: A closeted Mexican actor in the Sense8 cluster, Lito is beautiful and emotional and brave and tender. He spends the vast majority of two seasons learning how to do what is right instead of what is easy, which is both relatable and hugely encouraging. || “In the end, we’ll all be judged by the courage of our hearts.” -Lito Rodriguez, Sense8, #1.8

Peppermint Butler: A master of the dark arts, Pep But is devious in his spare time but unequivocally loyal no matter what. Long-time advisor and caretaker to Princess Bubblegum, he is the only member of her kingdom who sticks with her when she is exiled. He brings her tea, helps her prank usurpers, and assists with saving Marceline the Vampire Queen. || “Say ‘hi’ to Death for me if you see him, he lives in a castle made of light.” -Peppermint Butler, Adventure Time, #2.17


It’s been increasingly refreshing to come across more gentle boys with good hearts over the years. Toxic masculinity is a deeply damaging and pervasive part of our culture, and the more we present boys with alternatives to the stoic and degrading men that grace our pages and screens, the better off the world will be.

Runner-ups included Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, Jake the Dog & Finn the Human from Adventure Time, the MCU’s version of Loki Laufeyson, Onion from Steven Universe, and The Gray Man from The Raven Cycle.

Fall Favorites

Because yesterday was the first day of winter, I wanted to take a minute to do a super quick recap of my top five fall favorites! I watched more films than I read books this autumn, largely because I was trying to get my film count over 1,000 before 2018 (spoiler alert: I didn’t), so this list is definitely inclined towards the visual medium.

The Reader

 I watched this movie with absolutely zero idea what it was about, aside from that fact that Kate Winslet was in it and someone would be reading. I think this is the way everyone should watch it, so I’m going to say as little as possible. It’s a 2008 film with a heart-breaking narrative on humanity and it absolutely gutted me. The acting is phenomenal and the script is equally so. I believe it’s off Netflix in January, so if you get a quiet December evening to watch it and you’re okay with crying, I highly recommend it.

the reader

The Divines

I try to watch at least one female-directed film a month, and November’s selection was impeccable. This French film from 2016 follows two young girls from the ghettos of Paris. It is gritty, raw, and heart-wrenching. It’s brilliantly written and the acting chops on the two WOC leads took my breath away. Don’t let the IMDb blurb fool you: this is not a boy-meets-girl story. It’s a breathtaking and unparalleled coming of age tale full of beauty and sadness and truth. It’s worth every single minute and then some. Bonus: it’s also on Netflix!

the divines

The Discovery

Another Netflix find, this 2017 Netflix original stars Rooney Mara, Robert Redford, Mary Steenburgen, and Jason Segal (not really sure how he ended up in that all-star lineup but okay). This is one is a bit of a thinker, and I think it’s better to go into it knowing that. It deals with concepts of death and the afterlife, and Rooney Mara is, as always, a wonder to behold. I’m not including this because I loved it or even because I thought it was really well done. Rather, I’m including it because I’m still thinking about it and I think that’s a mark of a worthwhile movie.

the discovery

The Last Jedi

I was considering writing an entire review for this, and still might write one after a second viewing. But I’m going to stick with this for now: it’s better than all the prequels put together, at least twice as good as Rogue One, and significantly better than Force Awakens in some regards. I adored it, and while I’m sure most Star Wars fans have already seen it or are planning to, I really do recommend it. Rian Johnson did an exceptional job from start to finish, and I think he excelled at tipping his hat to nostalgic tenants while still keeping things fresh and original.

last jedi

The Raven Cycle

I’m almost 3/4 of the way through my re-read of Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys series and I’m loving it even more than I did the first time I blazed through them. I have a more in depth evaluation coming up on manic pixie dream girls and what it is that makes these books stick out to me, so I won’t get too verbose today. However, Stiefvater is a true master of her craft who weaves such vivid images and emotional relationships that it is nearly impossible not to become attached to the characters and the world. Fantasy is my favorite genre, but I’m pretty picky about it, and this is a series that has one foot in our world and one foot in another. It’s beautifully woven together and features POC, a queer relationship, survivors of abuse, and a kickass young feminist.

The-Raven-Cycle-Series


So there you have it! These were my top five favorites from this fall. Did you read or watch anything this autumn that stood out to you? If so, let me know in the comments!

Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino: Same, Same; Different

Prompted by: Kill Bill: Vol 1

I’ll never forget the day I watched both volumes of Kill Bill and Moonrise Kingdom in the same night. I was introduced to Tarantino at an earlier age than I was Anderson, and have always been partial to Anderson due to my own affection for whimsy and quirkiness. But for some reason, I never made the connections between the stylistic choices of the two directors until the day I accidentally watched their films back to back.

Here’s my hypothesis: Anderson and Tarantino use the same techniques– color and symmetry– in similar ways to achieve different results.

Color

The colors that Anderson and Tarantino use are completely different, as are the moods they achieve with those colors. But both of them utilize color, both in entire palates and in specific spots, with a dedication that is not often seen. The thing about using color in film is that it isn’t always something viewers consciously pick up on (expect to see more on this in an upcoming post about color in film). The psychology of colors is a complex and extensive field of discussion, and there is no doubt that colors can both subtly and massively impact moods and feelings. Successfully utilizing certain colors to set certain moods is quite possibly one of the most clever ways to evoke feelings in film.

Tarantino uses primary colors such as red and blue in bold hues and cool tones to create emphasis on certain characters and contribute to the intensity of certain scenes. An excellent example of this is the use of the color red with Shosanna in Inglorious Basterds. When we first see her, she is running away with splashes of dark red blood on her face.

shoshanna1
Inglourious Basterds (2009)

When we see her next, she is working on the marquis for her theater. There are bold red letters in the background and she is wearing a muted red jacket.

shoshanna2
Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Her next scene features red as a significantly more dominant color: she is sitting in a bright red cafe booth and is surrounded by a vibrant shade of red.

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Inglourious Basterds (2009)

And by the time we finally arrive at her climactic scene, she is draped, garbed, and surrounded by red.

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Inglourious Basterds (2009)

The use of such a visceral and unavoidable color to slowly develop an incredibly strong and driven character is unmistakable. Tarantino’s most frequent use of red is with blood, but he often utilizes the color to evoke feelings of passion, violence, revenge, and intensity. Red is also known to enhance attention, both by drawing the eye to the color and by triggering certain feelings in the viewer. In the case of Shosanna, this works to drop increasingly more obvious hints that ‘this character is important, pay attention when she’s on screen.’

Anderson, on the other hand, uses it more often as an aesthetic focal point, while still hinting that something important is happening. An excellent example of this is with the narrator in Moonrise Kingdom. He’s simply talking about the weather, which is a very easy thing to zone out for. But by dressing him in a bright red coat and placing him in relatively colorless scenes, it helps the viewer to pay a bit more attention. Of course, anyone who has seen Moonrise Kingdom knows that the weather turns out to be a rather pivotal aspect of the entire storyline.

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Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

A similar effect is achieved through the coloring of the tracksuits in The Royal Tenenbaums. It is impossible to not be drawn to those fire-engine-red outfits, which again hints that this is something important and the viewer should take note. In this case, it is quite possibly the clearest indicator of the arrested development that the three children experienced.

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Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Anderson also plays up the passionate nature of the color red, using it to illustrate longing and deep desire, usually for affection. We can see this through the simple act of putting red hats on Suzy, Ned, and Max– all of which are desperate for the love of someone who is inaccessible in one way or another.

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Suzy, Moonrise Kingdom — Ned, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou — Max, Rushmore

Symmetry

Over the years, Anderson has become known for his symmetry, and it is undoubtedly one of the primary characteristics of his stylistic choices. Tarantino seems to be a bit more partial to asymmetry, often choosing to follow the rule of thirds and offsetting a character to one side of the frame.

When I was watching Moonrise Kingdom minutes after finishing both Kill Bills, it was impossible not to notice the similarities between some of the frames.

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Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
tarantino room symmetry
Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004)

Director Stanley Kubrick is often referenced in discussions about symmetry in film, but in a very specific way. He utilizes symmetry to create unnatural and oftentimes uncomfortable frames (think about the hallway shots in The Shining). A similar effect is achieved in the living room frame from Kill Bill: Vol 2 seen above. The precision of the character’s exact separation creates a tangible sense of tension that is virtually impossible to ignore.

Anderson, on the other hand, uses symmetry for the complete opposite reason. Almost everything about the way he frames his shots, symmetrical or not, helps to create a storybook feel. The viewers are the intruders looking in on what might as well be paintings, a feeling further heightened by shots where the characters in the frame look directly at the camera, as seen in the above shot from Moonrise Kingdom.

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Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
tarantino overhead symmetry
Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)

The overhead shot from Kill Bill: Vol 1 creates tension in a different way. Rather than showcasing the amount of empty space around or between key characters, this frame highlights the lack of space that currently exists around our protagonist. The symmetry and mirror images help to build the tension of a scene that already has us on the edge of our seats.

Shot Lists

Tarantino is responsible for coining the specific shot seen below. Known as a ‘trunk shot’ they feature characters (usually two or three) opening something and looking down at the camera. It’s a creative angle that brings a unique perspective to the shot.

Trunk Shot
Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)

While Anderson doesn’t mimic the trunk shot exactly, he’s fond of a similar reveal: an item being suddenly moved or opened to reveal a group of characters looking directly at the camera.

anderson trunk shot
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Both directors also utilize wide angles, although Anderson more so than Tarantino. Wide angles help contribute to that painting-like quality I mentioned above in regards to Anderson. In the below frame from Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson pairs the wide angle and symmetry to create a rather haunting shot. This frame is an excellent example of building tension using the devices discussed above.

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Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
tarantino wide angle blue 2
Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)

The above frame from Kill Bill is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful shots from a Tarantino film. Whether it was the brain child of Tarantino or of DP Robert Richardson, I’m not sure. Whatever the case may be, it is a breathtaking frame in every way and not one that is easily forgotten.

So what do you think? Do the two directors utilize the same techniques to get different results? 


Robert Richardson is the DP for all the Tarantino films referenced here, and Robert Yeoman is the DP for all of the Anderson films. 

My Love Affair with Cinematography

Prompted by: re-watching LotR

I am such a sucker for cinematography.

Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos have, in my opinion, the best video series out there on film and cinematography: Every Frame a Painting. Their series has come to an end, but if you haven’t already watched some of their work, you’re truly missing out. Their very handle perfectly sums up the magic of cinematography– it is truly art.

So what exactly is cinematography? Essentially it’s what the viewer sees in any given frame. It’s composition and angles and light and shadows.

“The cinematographer—also known as the Director of Photography, or “DP”— is responsible for all the visual elements of a film… He or she makes every creative choice related to composition, lighting, and camera motion—anything that audiences can see in a given shot.”

Abigail Schoenberg, Contributing Writer, Harvard Crimson

While a DP is responsible for those visual elements, they are chosen through very specific conversation with the director. The DP is the one who brings the director’s vision to life, so it is of utmost importance that the two are allies and agree on creative choices. As a director, having a DP that you can rely on and trust in is an absolute game changer. The two individuals inform and support each other throughout the creative process, from day one all the way to color correction in post-production. We can see how a close relationship between the director and the DP magnifies stylistic choices through the work of director Wes Anderson and his most frequent director of photography, Robert Yeoman. Yeoman has worked with Anderson for over 20 years on no less than 8 films, working alongside him on films from Bottle Rocket to The Grand Budapest Hotel. There’s no question that Yeoman has been an instrumental part of bringing Anderson’s visions of symmetry and color schemes to life through his own choices of lenses, lighting, framing, and positioning.

Cinematography connects with different people in different ways. Some viewers like wide angles, some like symmetry. Some like orbital shots, some like overhead shots. Some people may not even realize that what they like so much about a film is the cinematography. Regardless of their level of awareness though, from super hero movies to romances to arthouse films, a good DP makes all the difference.

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Like Crazy (2011) || John Guleserian (DP)
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Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) || John Seale (DP)

I still remember the first time I saw a frame that made me audibly gasp out loud in the theater. It was 2012 and I was watching Django Unchained, which was only the second time I had seen a Tarantino film. Growing up in a very conservative household, my media intake was strictly limited, and Tarantino was definitely not approved viewing. There’s a scene that takes place in a cotton field where Jamie Foxx’s character points his gun and takes precise aim at a man fleeing on horseback. He pulls the trigger and the camera angle changes to a cropped shot of the cotton. We hear the hoof beats of the running horse in slow motion, and then…

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Django Unchained (2012) || Robert Richardson (DP)

A fine spray of bright red spatters the pristine white cotton. I watched Django Unchained three more times that year, and every single time there was something about the cropped frame took my breath away. And so began my documented love affair with cinematography.

But then, when I was re-watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy this summer, I realized that my delight with well-framed shots had actually started much much earlier.

Balrog Fall
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) || Andrew Lesnie (DP)

In fact, it had even started earlier than that. The Prince of Egypt was the first movie I ever saw in theaters, and even at the ripe old age of four, certain shots stood out to me.

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The Prince of Egypt (1998) || Brenda Chapman (Director)

I still gasp out loud when I’m watching movies and a particularly moving frame appears. I “mmm’ed” out loud at the end of Fight Club. My toes curled with bliss at the opening of Evolution.

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Fight Club (1999) || Jeff Cronenweth (DP)
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Evolution (2015) || Manuel Dacosse (DP)

Cinematography will be a frequent topic on this blog. Whether a monthly collection of favorite frames or a closer look at the work of a particular DP, it is something that I find to be an endless source of joy and fascination. So join in on the fun and leave a comment! What are some of your favorite frames?

Queens of Everything

While I was reading Martin’s A Clash of Kings last month, I got to thinking about how much I adore Arya Stark and what an exceptional example of a great female character she was. It made me want to compile a list of some of my favorite females, so without further ado, here’s the heroines of my life (in no particular order, of course).

Books

Luna Lovegood: one of the rare instances where a film adaption truly did a literary character justice. Quirky and openly honest, Luna is unapologetically herself. A Ravenclaw (like me!), Luna is exceptionally open-minded and inquisitive and always brings a new perspective to things. || “Daddy, look — one of the gnomes actually bit me!” -JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Arya Stark: tough as nails, non-comforming, human through and through. What makes Arya such a dynamic character to me is the fact that she feels fear and loss, but moves forward all the same. She is one of the bravest and boldest characters I have ever come across and it’s virtually impossible not to adore and admire her. || “She tried so hard to be brave, to be fierce as a wolverine and all, but some times she felt she was a little girl after all.” -George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

Lucy Pevensie: my very first hero. When I first read the Chronicles of Narnia at the age of six, there was utterly no one I admired more than Lucy. Her spunk, tenderness, and delight with the world were all characteristics that I longed to emulate and adopt as my own. When the movies started coming out, I was over the moon for Georgie Henley– and not much has changed. She remains, to this day, the most marvelous embodiment of Lucy I could have ever asked for. || “Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed.” -C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian

September: a little-known character from a little-known book series, September is the lead in Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland book series (if you haven’t read it yet, I cannot recommend it enough. I’m a sucker for prose that reads like poetry and Valente does it better than anyone.) Fuse Alice in Wonderland and Arya Stark and you’ll get an idea of the kind of heroine September is. She longs for adventure and desires to leave things better than she found them. She certainly left me better than she found me. || “It will be all hard and bloody, but there will be wonders, too, or else why bring me here at all? And it’s the wonders I’m after, even if I have to bleed for them.” -Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Comics

Gamora: the Deadliest Woman in the Galaxy and the light of my life. The MCU’s version of Gamora is nothing short of utterly disappointing, as comic book Gamora is the most badass and kickass thing alive but the movies simply paint her as a nagging and cranky gal with a weapon. Adopted child of the mad titan Thanos, Gamora is a master assassin, martial artist, and weapons master. Even Tony Stark can’t keep up with her in the sack, and she puts up with nobody’s shit. || “If you really knew me as well as you thought you did… you would not have attacked me.” -Gamora Zen Whoberi Ben Titan, Earth-7528

Diana of Themyscira: what could I say about the Woman of Wonder that hasn’t been said already? From 1941 to 2017 she has been an icon of empowerment, justice, and compassion. In 2016, the United Nations named her an Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. Diana is canonically bisexual, historically supportive of people from all walks of life, and truly a wonderful role model. || “If you need to stop an asteroid, you call Superman. If you need to solve a mystery, you call Batman. But if you need to end a war, you call Wonder Woman.” -Gail Simone, Wonder Woman vol 3

Pamela Isley: eco warrior and the queen of my heart. Alias: Poison Ivy. Pamela can be frigid and brutal at the best of times, but she also has a true tenderness for those who need help– chiefly plants and Harley Quinn. Known for taking vengeance on those who have harmed Mother Nature, Pamela uses plant toxins and mind-controlling pheromones to exact revenge on behalf of the environment. It’s quite possible that she puts up with even less shit than Gamora does. || “This park, this is Gotham now… its future. Reclaimed by nature, pure without mankind’s assaults. It is a sanctuary now, and I am guardian. I will not let it be defiled. Not by anyone. Certainly not by you. Leave.” -Pamela Isley, New Earth

Shows & Movies

Sun Bak: a martial artist in the Sense8 cluster, Sun is a wise and selfless woman who sacrifices her entire life for the well-being of others. She is courageous and tender, and always seems to have a sage bit of advice to offer her fellow sensates. || “This is what life is. Fear, rage, desire… love. To stop feeling emotions, to stop wanting to feel them, is to feel death.” -Sun Bak, Sense8 #1.11

Leia Organa: a no-contest. I grew up with four brothers, and watching Leia in New Hope was the first time I got to see a girl do the same things my brothers’ action heroes did. She could shoot and sass with the best of them, and was willing to give up her comfortable life for the betterment of the galaxy. No girl should have to grow up without seeing a princess save herself. || “Someone has to save our skins. Into the garbage chute, fly boy.” -Leia, A New Hope

Garnet: in terms of Steven Universe characters, I’m a full-blown Lapis Lazuli. But gosh, I really wish I was a Garnet. A crystal gem of few words, Garnet is a sage fusion of two gems in love and the unofficial leader of the Crystal Gems. She rises to the occassion in every situation, displaying everything from maternal instincts to battle commander status. She experiences emotions deeply, but is careful not to let those emotions rule her. (Artist credit here) || “There are millions of possibilities for the future, but it’s up to you to choose which becomes reality. Please understand. You choose your own future.” -Garnet, #1.39

Irene Adler: morally grey all the way. Irene Adler, alias: The Woman, makes similar decisions to Pamela Isley, but for opposite reasons. A true neutral through and through, Irene bases all her decisions on what might be in her best interest. She looks out for number one, regardless of who might get in her way. However, as we see in A Scandal in Belgravia, she is not without emotion and not beyond caring. || “Do you know the big problem with a disguise, Mr. Holmes? However hard you try, it’s always a self-portrait.” -Irene Adler, BBC’s Sherlock, #2.1

Peggy Carter: talk about your strong women… Agent Carter is where the reality of being a woman in the 1940’s meets the fantasy of a world with superheroes and alternate dimensions. Peggy is resilient in the face of relentless adversity, determined to do her best work, and still remains compassionate and tenderhearted despite it all. She carries the weight of the world on her shoulders and is often left holding the short end of the stick. She deserves the world, but contents herself to work on making that world for future generations of women. || “All we can do is our best, and sometimes, the best that we can do is to start over.” -Peggy Carter, Captain America: The Winter Solider 

 

And that about sums it up! Runner-up characters were Blue Sargent from The Raven Cycle, Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Galadriel from Lord of the Rings, Marceline the Vampire Queen from Adventure Time, and Rey from The Force Awakens (although I’m sure she’ll be much more than a runner-up after The Last Jedi)

While I was typing up this list and outlining what exactly it is that makes me connect with these women, I realized that a lot of them have something in common: they are strong, but not at the expense of feeling emotions. That’s definitely something that I struggled to balance in my teen years, largely due to society telling us that to cry is to show weakness and other things of that nature. It’s reassuring in a very big way to see women like Peggy Carter and Sun Bak and Hermione Granger who aren’t afraid of their emotions and to bear witness to the ways in which they manage those emotions in healthy ways.

So, here’s to strong women: may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.

On the Wars in the Stars

Prompted by: Rogue One

I’ve been thinking about something for over a year now. It started with this:

threatsguns

fear
Captain America: The Winter Solider (2014)

This was the first time I can ever recall that a fantasy movie crossed a very real bridge for me. I remember watching this and thinking, clear as day, “this is real.” A superhero movie was addressing an issue that was relevant in our day and age, without any guise, and I wondered how many other people got that. And I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I thought about it in Age of Ultron, when the Sokovia Accords started to be addressed. I thought about it in Civil War when Iron Man and Cap faced the reality that they supported two very different realities. And I thought about it with Star Wars— I thought about that a lot. Star Wars.

Our generation has been blissfully unaware of the reality of war. The Iraq War is the extent of our experience with warfare, and even that seemed awfully far off, almost surreal in its distant. Perhaps others remember more, being older than I was, but all I recall is yellow ribbons. I didn’t have any family members who were in the military at that time, and I didn’t know anyone who died overseas during the war. This was not Vietnam, where those who did come back came back mangled and scarred, both mentally and physically. This was not WWII where every able-bodied man was drafted to support the cause. Our generation has never faced the reality of uprisings and rebellions and catastrophic loss. And this is a reality that is added to by the privilege of our nation. It’s been 150 years since our nation was torn by civil war, while numerous countries are still locked in deathly struggles and have been for years; it’s been over a decade since a U.S. city faced the threat of attacks from the air, while even in the past week, entire towns have been obliterated by air strikes. Rationing has not taken place in the states since WWII, while there are citizens of other countries starving to death due to the grips of warfare. And rebellions? What do we know? We are children, rebels without a cause, playing pretend and speaking when we feel like it. We have never been faced with the hard choice, never faced the fork in the road. Sure, we make decisions– speak up on social media, maybe even say something to a stranger who is harassing someone. And then what? We return to our bubble, we step back into our scene, we walk down the sidewalk of the free world and do not have to worry about what lurks around the next corner or who heard us defending someone who is deemed lesser than us. We do not know of the gestapo or the thought police or the people’s security. We know nothing and we have nothing to fear.

Star Wars. Perhaps our closest association to a war-torn galaxy, and it has been presented to us over the course of 30 years, eight movies, a number of books, one TV show, and endless merchandise. The implications of The Rebellion versus The Empire are, for most people, almost entirely lost in their shiny packaging and sweeping soundtracks. Han Solo! Leia! Oh and Yoda! Who doesn’t love Yoda… How easy it is to forget that this is a war story. The rebel alliance made the choice to stand up against a global– nay a galactic– superpower. Leia risked her life and her position– not to mention lost her entire planet (her country, if you will)– to stand up for the rest of the galaxy. Ambassadors gave up their privilege, their positions, and their safety to give what they could. Yoda was one of the last remaining survivors of a genocide. We watch these movies and forget that we are watching a violent grappling for freedom. We forget that beneath every storm trooper helmet lies a human being. Count Dooku, General Grievous, Darth Maul– these are generals and weapons specialists. Han Solo and Chewie are average citizens turned rebels, normal people who made the choice to fight for what they believed to be right.

What I’m trying to say is that I think we have missed the point, and I think we still are. Rogue One reminded me once again of the implications and far-reaching impacts of war. Rebellions start somewhere, and rebellions are not merciful. And while most people my age will watch Rogue One two or three times and enjoy the fight scenes and hat-tips to the original trilogy, I find it safe to say that the majority will never grasp what is actually happening and what the series is actually about. The prequels catalog a descent into war. Senators doing their best to maintain a grasp on control, government officials choosing between what is right and what is easy. I can’t help but think a similar scenario looms on the horizon for us, in which we will have to choose. Choose to live a quiet life of safety and not speaking up, or if we will choose to brave the colder horizons of Hoth, where danger lurks at every turn, but where we are fighting for the future.

And yet still, we are removed. We’ve seen how many of the rebels die, how many of the fighter pilots are shot down. But they’re extras in a movie, and we’re not surprised when they die, are we? We are removed from the reality of war. I’ve been seeing a lot of Empire bumper stickers lately, and it gives me pause. Who would ever support the empire? Even wikipedia describes it as “a brutal dictatorship, one based on tyranny, xenophobic hatred of non-humans, power projection through brutal and lethal force, and, above all else, constant fear.” Why would anyone openly support that?? And then I remember– it’s a movie. Darth Vader is a badass. It’s all fiction. It’s easy to pick sides. And in a way, this only makes me more frustrated. Because how far off is that, really? Here lies what may very well be our generation’s best frame of reference for what is right and what is wrong within government structures, and are we overlooking it? I have long pondered the implications of desensitization in media and videogames (which is a topic for a different post) and I wonder if this is a similar case. How easy is it to look at the clash of rebels vs empire with excitement. We settle in with our popcorn, the lights dim, we squirm excitedly. We forget that the Empire is a dynasty built on hatred, leaving entire races extinct in the blink of an eye. Half of me says I’m being melodramatic and taking all the fun out of an enjoyable franchise that has been a part of my life for over a decade. But the other half says it is childish and irresponsible to overlook the larger themes. Stories hold meaning.

Ever since I read The Chronicles of Narnia when I was seven or eight, I knew there was a larger struggle in the world. An overreaching battle between good and evil, one that would manifest itself in virtually every worthwhile story for the rest of my life. And sure, they’re just stories. But stories are often based on history, and history is destined to repeat itself. And when that day comes, when the circle restarts, wouldn’t we want to be the Leia Organas and the Lucy Pevinses of our stories? Wouldn’t we want to stand up and say no, this is not right? Wouldn’t we want to be the heroes, the protectors, the valiant? Wouldn’t we want to speak the truth, even if our voices shake?

On Lazy Betrayals

Prompted by: Moana and LotR

Before I start, I should probably make it super clear that when I first saw Moana back in November 2016, I LOVED it. I was absolutely over the moon for the lead woman of color, the lack of romantic subplot, and the soundtrack. I loved it so much that as soon as I left the theater, I texted Mr. Swiz and told him that it was an absolute must-see. So he went to see it and after he got out of the theater, he told me how much he… was disappointed with it. It sparked a fun conversation about representation and appropriation, the monetary nature of the movie business, and betrayals. I’ll leave those other heavier topics for another time, but today I want to talk about the betrayals. An excerpt from our conversation is as follows:

“A young viewer enjoys a story well told because it takes them somewhere, and they’re not thinking at all, at least probably not on a conscious level, about how the protagonist’s goals inform their character, or how the obstacles they might face define their journey and so on and so forth. When Maui inevitably turns his back on Moana before the third act, a less-jaded Swiz may have been anxious, instead of unsurprised, about his inevitable return.”

I didn’t think much of it at that point in time, largely due to the other conversation topics, but also because it’s a Disney movie and Disney movies tend to follow certain plot points  (see Shang leaving Mulan on the mountain, Han’s infamous “if only there was someone who loved you” line, etc.)

As some of you know, I re-read the Lord of the Rings trilogy this summer after more than a decade since my last reading. I found the books far more enjoyable and immersive this time around (for some reason my 10 year old brain struggled with the litany of middle earthen names) and upon completion decided to re-watch the movies as well. The movies feature several big departures from the book story line, some of which make sense given time constraints (eg: Tom Bombadil) and some that I wholeheartedly support (eg: Arwen having more to do than serve as a three-sentence love interest). However, there is one scene in the movies that really and truly irks me. During the ascent of the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, Gollum uses lembas crumbs to frame Samwise and as a result, Frodo tells Sam to go home.

frodo sam

My frustration over this betrayal reminded me of Maui’s betrayal from last year. And it got me to thinking: what IS the deal with Maui’s entirely too predictable disappearance and reappearance? He leaves Moana after their first attempt to restore the heart, in a betrayal that many viewers saw coming a mile away. And even more predictable is his reappearance, right when Moana needs him the most. As it turns out, TV Tropes has a name for them both: Plot-Mandated Friendship Failure and Changed My Mind, Kid, respectively.

You can view other examples of them here and here 

The fact that there’s such an abundance of examples available leaves me feeling a bit frustrated. I think there are certainly situations in which a betrayal is in-character or is even necessary. For example, Hans’ betrayal of Anna is Frozen is a sublime plot twist, and Han Solo’s departure in New Hope is 100% on par with what we already know about his character. But I’m rather of the belief that relationship drama– in any kind of relationship– shouldn’t be the sole thing keeping the story moving forward. A good writer should have other tricks up their sleeve to propel the story towards the desired climax.

In the book, Frodo and Sam made it through Mordor without any departures or betrayals, which spoke volumes about their relationship and the trust they had in each other despite all the odds. Why couldn’t they have done the same in the movie? Why couldn’t Maui have been injured or Moana’s spirit defeated by something other than Maui’s disappointment? Why couldn’t the two have maintained their friendship and found a different way to arrive at the point of perfecting their teamwork?

I re-watched Moana a few weeks ago, and while I might have been frustrated by the plot-mandated friendship failure, you can bet your bottom dollar I sang along with every word of ‘I Am Moana’.

On Why I Don’t Always Finish Books and Movies

Prompted by: You Shall be my Son

It was Chris Brogan who said:

“Don’t settle. Don’t finish bad books. If you don’t like the menu, leave the restaurant…”

While I know this is a comment on life as a whole and not just books and menus, this is an idea that changed my life when I first heard it years and years ago. I’m not sure where I developed the sentiment that everything I picked up was some sort of non-negotiable task of completion. Everything from YA novels to hobby art projects had to be carried through to fruition, even if I was miserable along the way. Sometimes that looked like sitting through grueling 3 hour movie events that I had no interest in (looking at you, King Kong) and sometimes that meant returning to the same painting over and over and over again even though I had started to hate it four sessions ago.

But after stumbling across that quote from Brogan sometime in high school, it occurred to me that being miserable was a very poor use of time. Sure, there’s a lot to be said for perseverance and sticking with things, but why waste your precious time and energy on something that isn’t feeding you joy? So I dropped my philosophy of forced completion, and dropped some other things along with it. Goodbye, Moby Dick audio-book. So long, iconic sports movies. Farewell, loathed abstract painting-in-progress of two years.

Half of the beauty of the art world is that there’s something for everyone out there. It’s always worthwhile to try new things, but it’s not worthwhile to guilt yourself into continuing if you don’t like said thing. There’s no reason to read past the fifth chapter of a horror novel if it isn’t your style. There’s no reason to force yourself to continue watching a biopic if it’s putting you to sleep. Choose to invest your time in things that feed you— things that bring you joy and enrich your world. Don’t stay at the restaurant if you don’t like the menu.