Marvel’s Endgame

Hello, and welcome. Did you catch the premier? I did, and I recommend you brush up on the following movies:

While watching all the movies is a great goal, most of us don’t have time for that. These five should get you to a good place, though. If you have time for one extra, you may check out Ant Man and Wasp, or just catch the end credits scene.

Right. Now what did I think?

Spoilers, obviously, after the break.

Continue reading “Marvel’s Endgame”

Competence: The Custard Protocol

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about books, but I wanted to talk about this one because I enjoyed it so much.

I read a lot, and one of the reasons I read a lot is because I love to lose myself in another character, to feel their emotions for awhile instead of my own. Writers talk about “hacking” our readers, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re fiddling with your brain chemistry to help you see things a different way.

When you read a lot, there’s a chance that you will become inured to that fiddling. Of course, there are also those masters that always manage to bring it out in you – laughter or tears or, if you’re very lucky, both. One of those authors that can evoke laughter in me is Gail Carriger.

I first read Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series about ten years ago now, and devoured the rest of the books in that series. Alexia’s practicality – which sometimes bordered on insanity – was something I could commiserate with utterly. Perhaps that is why I so enjoyed this new installment of the follow up series the Custard Protocol, Competence. Whereas Prudence and her method of going off half-cocked was annoying, Primrose with her deep practicality, was someone I could get behind. And the core emotional conflict of the story – that practicality can sometimes cause you to make choices that are harmful in the same way trying to walk in too small shoes is harmful – was something that I felt deeply.

This story is a coming out story of the best kind. It deals with not only attraction, but with the broader implications of coming out – the costs, both perceived and actual, and how those are not always the same; the embrace of family, both found and otherwise; and the joy of finally being yourself and letting go of the ideas of who you should be. It is absurd, as all of Ms. Carriger’s books are. It is also kind. In short, I recommend it.


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It’s movie time!

Guys, I’m starting to get excited about movies in 2019. I haven’t felt excited for any movie releases for months, keep in mind. Then I saw this:

How did I not know?

If there were two people in this world more worthy of taking up the mantle of MIB, I cannot think of them. The movie is coming out in June, and I think it’s going on my most anticipated films of the year list already. I’m hoping it has everything I like about Thor: Ragnarok

Also a thing I’m looking forward to? You probably don’t have to guess. This trailer dropped a few weeks ago and…. I’m cautiously hopeful?

Like admittedly I’m only hopeful because the narrative weight seems to be being placed on Iron Man and the Cap/Black Widow duo (my favorite Avengers movie is actually Captain America: Winter Soldier, followed by Ragnarok, followed by all the Iron Man movies because I can’t pick one? But Natasha and Steve play so well, I love them.) I’m a little nervous about what they’re going to do with Thor because honestly I feel like he ranked as the Most Shafted Character in terms of overall development in Infinity War. Also have I mentioned that if that’s really how they killed Loki I’m never going to forgive anyone?

I am slightly less excited about Captain Marvel mostly because I am just…Marveled out. The continued introduction of new heroes is exhausting. I need them to chill. That said, I will definitely be in the theater for a woman-led superhero movie. I do not like the actress’ voice, though, and I hope that it will grow on me.

Other movies I am probably going to keep an eye on, though I haven’t decided if I will see them yet, include the Terminator Reboot, Charlie’s Angels, Zombieland 2, Aladdin, and Dark Phoenix.

The New Mutants is the last movie on my tentative list. I’ve not been seeing most of the recent X-Men titles in theaters, mostly because I’m just not that excited about them. But this seems like an example of taking a franchise idea and doing an original spinoff with it, so I will see how future trailers go, despite the rumors about delays. It looks a lot more horror focused, which is not my usual cup of tea for movies, but the premise seems really interesting. Plus a couple of the actors are ones I like.

Are there any movies you’re looking forward to? Let me know in the comments! If you want to read my previous movie reviews and analysis, you can do that at the Movies tag.


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The Lady Astronaut and an expert class in writing

Friends, I have just finished The Calculating Stars, and it blew me away. I would compare this book most closely in voice and style to A Natural History of Dragons, but with a depth of urgency that, for all my love of Brennan’s work, exceeds that series. Buckle up, my friends. This is going to be a long ride.

[Spoilers for The Lady Astronaut of Mars and for The Calculating Stars]

Continue reading “The Lady Astronaut and an expert class in writing”

Marvel’s Infinite War Part 1

I finally got around to seeing Avengers: Infinity War. This movie is the latest Marvel installment in their current franchise reboot. They’ve done some really fun and amazing ones recently, but there have also been some major flops for me, including Dr. Strange and Guardians 2. For me, Infinity War fell closer to these two movies emotionally than it did to some of the best recent films (Black Panther and Ragnarok, I’m looking at you). I want to unpack that because anytime I don’t connect with something that otherwise is not a total trainwreck, I like to understand why as a writer so that I can watch for similar mistakes in my own creations. My conclusion about Infinity War is that multi-faceted and mostly to do with the difficulty of trying to handle all of the various characters and plot threads they were putting together. Let’s dive in.

(Spoilers for Infinity War and possibly other Marvel movies.)

Continue reading “Marvel’s Infinite War Part 1”

Annihilation: I’m still disappointed in Alex Garland

I’ve been looking forward to the movie adaptation of Annihilation for a long time, largely because I really enjoyed the book and also because of one specific reason: the cast of the book is, with one exception, entirely female. This is a big deal, since the story revolves around a bunch of highly-educated, idiosyncratic scientists going into what is essentially the Everglades if the Everglades were a haunted house. I was disappointed to see such a big name as Oscar Isaac cast in the movie, though I enjoy him in most things, because I knew that would mean that his role as the husband was intended to be expanded. I rationalized that this was probably a good thing. After all, his death in the book is the entire emotional impetus for the Biologist’s entry into the psychotropic-murder-swamp that is Area X. It made sense that he would have a bigger role.

That impetus, at least, did not change.

(SPOILERS, if you haven’t figured that out yet.)

The movie kept a lot of things to love about the book, including the general creep-fest that is Area X. It jettisoned a lot of other things. Some of this was good. All of the characters got names, for example. There was no magical hypnosis to control their minds, and Area X was a bit closer than I expected, but overall they made some good decisions with that. I was also gratified that, when the husband – called Kane in the movie – did show up, the awkward sex scene didn’t happen. I was not particularly into that sex scene, for obvious reasons to do with consent, though it worked in the book in ways it would never have been able to work in the movie.

That’s about the end of the good changes, I think.

As a whole, the narrative the movie went with was not terrible, but it was not exceptional either. While there was no way that the movie could have stayed entirely true to the book – different mediums being what they are – my dominant feeling coming out of this movie was a sense of disquiet. That disquiet had nothing to do with the giant monster-animals eating people’s throats out to steal their voices, though that was creepy. It had a lot more to do with the fact that Oscar Isaac had such a central role in this film, as I had suspected. In the book, the Biologist goes into Area X to find her husband, or at least find out what happened to him. It is clear from early on that the doppleganger that returns is not him, but a copy, and a malformed one. The Biologist is an ecologist, and she relishes the diversity and fecundity of the newly reclaimed landscape, free of human contamination. Her connection with Area X is almost as personal as her relationship with her husband by the end, who, by the way, she does not find in the first book. Instead, we are left to guess at their story. Did she drown? Did she meet him on the island? Are they living together, still, or dead together, their ghosts haunting this new world?

In contrast, the doppleganger of Kane survives. Lena, the biologist, sets out to eradicate the thing that has threatened her love with her hard-earned military skills. She finds video of her husband at several places, including video of his death. Because of the loss she has experienced, she treats Area X like a cancer, not a cleansing. She burns it. And when she comes home she gets a happy-ever-after with Kane’s echo, miraculously alive.

Kane’s fate remains central to Lena’s story, but not in the way that the husband’s fate is central to the story of the Biologist. There are relatively few points of dialogue in the movie that do not center around Kane or Kane’s all-male team. (I cannot think of an instance of dialogue that does not at some point mention Kane or Kane’s team once they have entered Area X, excepting perhaps the scene with the alligator.) There are also three named male characters in this adaptation, one of whom was invented from whole-cloth to cast Lena as an adulterer, a confusing decision at best. I believe this was supposed to be a way to rationalize Kane’s decision to enter Area X, but it felt like an excuse to show Natalie Portman naked. Keep in mind that this is an adaptation of a book told entirely from a female scientist’s perspective, one whose central themes include a profoundly ecological bent (entirely removed in this on-screen iteration), and where the only male character dies within the first two chapters and lives primarily as a ghost in the narrator’s head.

20-annihilation.w710.h473.jpg

It is disappointing to watch a movie that might have, in a better world, taken a diverse female cast and given them a gripping, cerebral storyline that didn’t revolve around men – and which fails to do so. Annihilation was not a terrible movie, taken out of the context of the source text. I do not hate it. But there was so much potential for what it could have been. And despite numerous things done right, the movie fell short of that potential.


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Labor Unions in space and hunting for mermaids

I loved Dune, surprising no one. I grew up on it, after all. But one thing that always bothered me about the story of the sandy Arrakis was the “divine right of kings” subtext throughout. If this also bothered you, you’re in luck. I’ve got a book with none of that going on.

Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells is the book, the first in a duology that concludes with Blood Binds the Pack. This is Dune if Dune were written by a pissed off feminist steeped in socialism, and let me tell you that I am here for that. Much like that book, the world-building in this short series walks the line between fantasy and science fiction. There is mining of special minerals that let people cross galaxies in a blink, and people tweaked and blended with those minerals that are used to pilot the ships across these vast interstellar distances. There is also native contamination by the same minerals, and otherworldly symptoms that come out of it.

That, though, is where the similarities end. No sandworms here. Instead, you’ll get biker gangs and labor disputes,  vision quests and corporate espionage. Also, found families and badass women abound. If this sounds like your jam, I encourage you to check out these books.

OtherLands

Changing pace a bit, let’s talk about a book that has made me laugh out loud more than any other both this year or last. In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan is a clever book with a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor perpetrated by a very sardonic protagonist. The only complaint I have about this book is that my ship is not canon. I won’t spoil what that ship was, but check this out if you like awkward teen romance done well, elves, mermaids, sword swinging, wonderfully bisexual and otherwise characters, and holier-than-thou brats of a scholastic bent. Also, lots of laughs. So many laughs.

Speaking of bisexual characters, allow me to recommend one last book. Into the Drowning Deep is by Mira Grant, and it is every horror movie you didn’t know you wanted to watch. This is a book with killer mermaids, naive scientists, and a trip out to sea. The main character is again bisexual, and a scientist, and perhaps too driven for her own good. I would certainly not have remained so composed with the mermaids who killed my sister coming for me as well. Expect to feel unsettled and a little iffy around water for a while with this one.


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The Shape of Water: women and sex

I’ve had some time to think about The Shape of Water, which I saw a few weeks ago, and I have decided the thing that most impressed me about the film was not the beautiful composition, nor the aesthetic, nor, even, the commentary on how society attempts to break the outsiders among us into something palatable and how wrong that is. It was the way del Toro treated sex. Specifically, a woman’s sex.

Mild spoilers to follow for The Shape of Water.

shape of water

The movie, for those who haven’t seen it, opens with a sequence of the main character, Elisa, getting ready for her day at the super secret oceanic labs which are going to house the much-advertised fish-man. A very important part of Elisa’s evening is one that is most certainly not shown in film. Each evening, Elisa makes her lunch, runs a bath, climbs in, and masturbates. She does this one screen twice during the film, and each time the shot is framed in such a way as to do two things: to make it clear what she is doing, and to make it clear that you are not the target of it. This scene is not designed to titillate you, not exactly. It’s designed to make you acknowledge the complexity of being in a female body, a female who likes sex.

That last part is a very interesting aspect of Guillermo del Toro’s last two films, Shape of Water and Crimson Peak. In both of these films, the protagonist has been an adult woman. In both of the films, the protagonist has been in sexual situations – a romance arc being integral to the plots of both.

In neither film is the main character sexualized in the way that we, the audience, expect.

Crimson Peak is a good example of this. As the Bustle points out, at no point is Edith Cushing portrayed in any of the ways we expect women to be portrayed during sex. For one thing, she remains mostly out of view, her nakedness taking second fiddle to Thomas Sharpe’s. For another, she is clearly consenting, and her pleasure is accounted for. Del Toro manages to strike a careful, tender balance in this film. Edith is not the wide-eyed virgin, nor is she the ravenous whore. She is a woman, and Thomas is a man, and they are learning and experiencing together.

While the Bustle article crows that this is a new age for Hollywood, I for one have not noticed a sudden dearth of movies featuring the male gaze. I still find, far too often, moments in film that leave me lost and frustrated as I watch a rounded, interesting character become heavily objectified by the camera lens, or worse, a single woman installed as sexual window dressing to men’s struggles. (Kingsman is a terrible example of this, but I digress. We’re not here to talk about people who do this wrong. We’re here to talk about how del Toro does it right.)

Elisa’s role in this film could have easily been one of being unnecessarily sexualized. There were several moments that played off of the viewer’s expectations by skirting close to this but refusing to give into it. Aside from the initial masturbation scenes, one of the most notable ones is the scene where Richard Strickland traps Elisa in his office and makes advances towards her which are decidedly unwanted. This situation could have easily devolved into physical sexual violence. It does not.

In another notable scene, Elisa and her fish-man, unnamed for the duration of the film, have sex and are interrupted by her neighbor, Giles. While in many monster movies, the virginal female lead is the unwilling victim of the monster, in this case Elisa intentionally seeks out, befriends, and then seduces her monster. She is always the one in relative control – the fish-man cannot survive without her help. When Giles walks in on them, he sees a vision – Elisa embracing the fish-man, making clear, unashamed eye contact. Her naked body is not shown, and her position is not obviously erotic outside of that nakedness. The fish-man’s own form hides her, just as Thomas’ form hid Edith. It is not that we haven’t seen her skin before. It is that we see her, in all of her erotic glory, without any attempt at shame or degradation. Elisa is here because she wants to be. You will get no blushes, no guilt, from her.

There were several other things to love about this film. The decision to have a mute protagonist was something I worried about initially, but found myself very much enjoying. I love watching ASL, though I don’t really speak it. And my absolute favorite scene of the movie was also one that was heartbreaking – Giles being rejected at the pie shop was a well-functioning piece that drew clear parallels between the struggles of LGBTQ+ folks and racial minorities within society, with Giles finally speaking up in the face of racial injustice when he realized that it came from the same hegemony that had made his own life so miserable. There’s a lot that can be said about that, and I’m not the person to write it. And of course, as with every movie, there were flaws. I won’t list them here, but I recognize there were things that might have been done better.

All that said, I enjoyed the film, and I look forward to Guillermo del Toro’s next work, and his portrayal of the women in it.

 

 

The Last Jedi

I loved this movie. And if you read this, it might spoil it for you. But hopefully you have made it to the movie already. Hopefully you have gotten to experience it, too.

I’ve read a lot of Last Jedi reviews since the movie came out. A lot. And if you’re recall, the day of the release I posted a blogpost about my hopes for the film. I want to start from that point, and talk about my feelings, and talk about some of the reviews that have stuck with me. I want people to understand why this movie left me glowing, why when I woke up the next morning I was still glowing. This movie gave me hope.

leai last jedi

2017 has been a hard year. It’s been a joyful one for me, too, but I’m not blind to what is happening in our world. When Rogue One came out in December of last year, it felt like the movie we needed. That desperate fight in the rising darkness. The resolution of faith, when hope was gone. I don’t think that I was wrong, in that feeling. I wasn’t entirely right, either. Faith and hope and love must all hold hands. I can have Jyn Erso’s faith, bitter and solid and true. I can have Leia’s hope, the bright vision. And I can have Rey’s love. Rey’s arc has always been about love, and this movie shows us that unshakably.

In my blogpost last week, I talked about how closely paralleled and yet how divergent Luke and Rey’s characters are. In the wake of watching The Last Jedi, I can confirm that Rey is the hero we need. Her character arc continues – as she has come to the force, she comes to it with more skills than her mentor managed in his time. These skills, however, are not just the physical skills that I had previously cataloged. They are emotional skills, too. Rey has learned to forgive others, over and over, sometimes to her own detriment. In fact, Rey’s only character flaw may be that she does not always value herself. She looks up to others, first her lost parents, later Han and Luke, and even, a little, to Kylo Ren. Even though none of these people gives her everything that she wants, though, Rey does not blame them for it. She grows. She becomes what she needs.

In this way, her arc parallels Luke’s in the original trilogy. This, I would argue, is intentional. The thing that Rian Johnson and the new writers of Star Wars want to keep, the inescapable thing that makes a Jedi a Jedi, the thing that Anakin never could hold onto, is emotional maturity. And that maturity requires vulnerability. Without being vulnerable, a Jedi cannot care for and protect what she loves.

Nothing else plays out quite like what we expect, however. I agree with Chuck Wendig that this is a lot of what has made this movie divisive. The Force Awakens trades on the familiar. The Last Jedi steps beyond it. But it keeps the heart.

“They want the familiarity. They need nostalgia.

And this movie burns it all down.

A lightning strike setting fire to a sacred tree.”

– Chuck Wendig

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the burning of the sacred tree, the original Jedi temple. Luke intends to burn the past, to let it die as Kylo has tried to do. Their journeys, here, parallel. Luke is tired, he is angry and afraid. His anger and fear are for himself. He has failed. The Jedi will always fail, because they are human, and so there is no point in any of it, not anymore. Luke is lost. He goes to burn the tree as an act of destruction.

Yoda, on the other hand, burns the tree as an act of emancipation. The past cannot die. The path of the Jedi will always exist, because the Force will always exist. Whatever petty symbols of it may remain are crutches. A Master does not need them. This movie keeps the Force at its heart, and burns down the trappings of it.

And yet, at the end, the books, the knowledge of the Force that the temple guarded? They are carried in the Millenium Falcon, safe. Finn finds them, not during battle. He finds them when he is caring for Rose. Rose, who gave herself up to save him, when he had given up on hope and love and let it all go to rage.

Rey’s power to defy the First Order comes from love. Love for her friends, love for the world. When she goes into the cave to face her test, she doesn’t see an enemy. She sees herself. She sees herself, alone, forever. This is her greatest fear, this aloneness. Luke’s fear was to become his father, to fall to the dark side. His fear of the dark side is also what destroys his relationship with his nephew, starting Kylo Ren along his path.

rey dark side

Rey’s fear is to lose her new family, but she has been alone before. It is a fear she has faced before, a horror she has lived through.  It is no wonder that the dark side does not tempt her as easily. She knows that she has survived her fear. It cannot, therefore, consume her. Luke is horrified when she is pulled into the dark side so easily, because he does not believe that she can withstand temptation. He, after all, could not, not entirely. The dark side has marked his life, forever, it has lost him too much.

Luke’s fear moves the plot of this film just as much as Kylo’s anger and Poe’s pride. Each of them must work through those feelings, because “building that emotional intelligence is the difference between the dark and the light.” Luke succeeds, and finds oneness with the Force. Poe begins his journey by valuing his comrades over the cause. Only Kylo does not embrace that emotional maturity, and in his anger and hatred he writes his own downfall. He is so afraid of Luke, so focused on his hatred, still, of his father and the Millennium Falcon, that he fails to accomplish his goal, effectively losing the final battle to crush the Resistance. He cannot grow without bringing himself into balance, and he shows no signs of doing so, even when Rey offers him a clean slate despite everything.

In the end, The Last Jedi is the truest bit of Star Wars cinema that we have seen since The Return of the Jedi so many years ago. No, it does not look the same. Many things have changed, but hell, there’s a whole galaxy out there. Who would want to stay in the same old orbit? The heart of this story, however, remains. It is the new hope of a new generation.


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