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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Women of the Month: Avatar Korra and Asami Sato


Korra and Asami from The Legend of Korra
When I first began this little project, I established some rules for myself – namely that I would pick only one female character per book/show/film to focus on each month.
Well, rules are made to be broken, because there's no way I can choose between Korra and Asami at this stage. And the best thing about The Legend of Korra is there were plenty of other candidates to choose from: Lin or Suyin Beifong, Jinora or Ikki, Kya or Kuvira, Opal or Pema, even Katara or Toph. Any one of these ladies could have easily filled this slot.
But I'm going with Korra and Asami, for reasons that should be quite obvious by now. This is a long one, so it's going under the cut...

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Links and Updates

Here it is, my End of Year Roundup. I was going to fill the intervening days between Christmas and the New Year with plenty of meta and reviews, but as it turned out, I overdosed on Korrasami reaction videos/tributes and ended up running out of broadband. So that's the main reason I've been so quiet this past week.

Link Roundup: Korrasami

It's been over a week now since the finale of The Legend of Korra aired, and the tributes, metas and articles are still coming in thick and fast. Most of them focus on those last three minutes, but there's been an outpouring of love and appreciation for the series as a whole. Here are some of my favourite links:

First of all, confirmation of Korrasami as an Official Couple from Bryan Konietzko and Mike di Martino.

This compilation of reaction videos, which actually made me more teary than the episode itself!


The ones worth watching in their entirety are from Seanimenet (you can tell he knows something is about to happen, but he can't quite figure out what) and from Kristronuovo (shipper joy personified).

This fantastic run-down (pre-confirmation) of how the final three minutes of the show were structured, comparing it to the ordering of final bows on the stage (the least important cast members go first, the most important go last), and what it says about how Korrasami was telegraphed.

An adorable comic that shows Varrick's side of his "hang-gliding off the tower" idea.

A woman with a gay son shares her feelings over the finale and what it means to her family.

The Vanity Fair article which talks about the subversive and progressive elements of the show (not the official VF website, but for some reason it's not loading for me).

The AV Club review, which concentrates on the feminist themes of the show in its entirety.

The Mary Sue comments on both the Korrasami endgame and the Korra's relationships with women.

I09 has a hilarious and poignant recap/commentary of the final episode.

About a month (maybe two) before the finale aired, a couple of Korrasami-themed secrets (here and here) popped up on Fandom Secrets. Let's all take a moment to appreciate the delicious, delicious irony in the comments. Warning: the second one gets a little wanky, but it's worth it for the snotty comments that insist Korrasami is never going to happen.

Which also gives me the perfect excuse to pop out my favourite GIF!

"They said it would never happen!"

A TV tropes review called "In Defence of Korrasami" is worth a quick read. Unfortunately the comments inevitably spiral into wank, but the initial review captures my personal views on why the ship works so perfectly and why the myriad of excuses for calling it "out of left field" or "pandering" are complete bullshit.

This adorable Korrasami video.

This fan-art (safe for work). And this one (also safe).

A retrospective of the entire series.

Another pre-confirmation meta that lists evidence for Korrasami, and points out some details that I had missed.

Tor rips apart the "just fan pandering" nonsense right here.

This great meta on why Korra apologises to Asami for her absence, and not Mako/Bolin.

For reasons that are beyond me, I delved into the comments section of the Internet Movie Database, but amidst the homophobia and other related garbage, there was this rather lovely comment (which I'll repost here, as I won't blame you if you want to avoid IMDB):

I feel the way Korra and Asami interacted in episode seven made it very clear that they liked each other and felt some tension, with Korra blushing at Asami's compliment and Asami acting somewhat angry she had been gone for so long. It had been two years. Feelings for people can boil up even in time they're apart. Korra felt she could trust Asami with her fiery emotions when she was out of control, and it was clear to me in season three that Asami cared for Korra. In episode seven, there was not a single question in my mind that at least Korra liked Asami that way. I just didn't know if anything was going to come of it. It was subtle, while I actually perceive the three pairings you mention as a bit overdone/overemphasized.

As for the final scene itself, the way I see it is it's not a blatant thing, and that's half the beauty of it. Neither of them confesses love. It's kind of a sneaky, sudden, somewhat crazy situation where Korra's just like, "Hey, what if I ask her on vacation alone, just the two of us?" If you are interested in a same-sex friend and neither of you has made explicit potential sexual interest in the same gender, this is exactly the sort of way it goes down in real life--at least that's my opinion. So I thought it was really cute that both of them, probably a bit nervous, feelings somewhat apparent but completely unconfirmed, were heading into the spiritual world together, probably hoping to move into being more than friends sometime during their vacation.

Had the two of them made interest more clear, I feel these last few moments of the show would have robbed of their passion and beauty. Love can move impetuously, in jolts and sudden accelerations. This development suits Korra's personality well. That Korra and Asami's metaphorical dance was quick and timid, in my opinion, was much more charming than any long, lovelorn gazes at the moon or bold declarations of love. To me, it was a humble and ironically unambitious pairing. And I know I could get a lot of flack for saying this, but personally it was the most realistic romance for me in either series.

Ditto.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Legend of Korra: Day of the Colossus and The Last Stand

It's over.

And yet it hasn't really sunk in that this was the last time I'll be seeing these characters in a brand new episode – it's all reruns from here on out. I suppose there's a chance of a comic book continuation (Korra and Asami exploring the spirit world together? GIVE IT TO ME NOW) but for all intents and purposes, this was it. The end.

So how did this fare as not only a seasonal finale, but as the Grand Finale of the show itself?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: Boy, Snow, Bird

Boy, Snow, Bird is one of those books that's been hovering on the periphery of my awareness for a while now. I had seen the positive press, glanced over a few intriguing reviews, heard about the general premise. So when I finally caught sight of it at the library, I snapped it up.

Before you go any further, know that the book is structured in such a way that an important revelation occurs at its halfway mark. It's a long time coming and involves a considerable amount of setup, yet in many ways it forms the crux of the story. Other reviews aren't shy about discussing it, so if you want to experience the story with no foreknowledge whatsoever, then it's best to give this and other reviews a wide berth.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Arrow: Broken Dolls

Look at this! After a prolonged hiatus I decided to check-in with Arrow. I'm still barely into the second season despite the third being well underway (though from what I've heard, there have been some extremely questionable creative decisions), but last night I just had a hankering for the hooded vigilante.

This is a typical episode in many respects: the A-plot deals with a frightening but not-particularly-interesting villain and the rest of the run-time is devoted to edging all our main characters toward the next bout of character development that's required for the overarching plot.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Standing Tall #3

So as much as I've enjoyed all these Giraffes dotted around Christchurch, a couple of them are ... slightly uninspired, shall we say? This one is called Rifraff Giraffe by hairyLemon and it's – as you can see – solid silver.

It was still an arresting sight, especially against the backdrop of half-constructed buildings, but let's just say this wasn't my favourite. (I don't know what was going through my head at the time, but I don't look particularly impressed in the photo either).


 

Review: Dates

I'm not usually one to watching something just because an actor or actress I like is in it, but I've been half-heartedly following the progress of the Merlin cast, and it's that which drew my attention to Dates. Not only does Katie McGrath feature in a single episode, but Will Mellor (who played Knight Valiant way back in season one of Merlin) has a more substantial role that spans several episodes. 

Dates is a nine-episode series of half-hour instalments, detailing the interactions between strangers that have contacted each other on a dating website and agreed to meet up. What follows is best described as nine short vignettes of their time together, structured entirely around the date itself. There are no glimpses of any other part of their lives beyond the time spent on their dates, and we learn nothing of their backgrounds beyond what they chose to talk about. Almost by necessity the acting has to be of high standard, as most of the episodes revolve around "talking heads" – that is, actors simply exchanging dialogue with each other. To make this engaging for an audience is each actor's personal challenge.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Legend of Korra: Kuvira's Gambit

We all knew it was coming: the moment when Kuvira crosses the line. Arguably this has already happened, what with her detainment camps, kidnapping of the Beifongs and creation of a superweapon, but this time (as they say) it was personal. This time she sacrifices something she loves in order to achieve her goal of conquering Republic City.

Which is poor old Bataar Junior. But I'll get to that.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Before reading, please be aware that this review contains SPOILERS for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Though it won't be released in the US until December 17th, it's been out for a couple of days in New Zealand (and a few other countries) so consider yourself warned. When I say there are MAJOR SPOILERS ahead, I'm not just winking at those who have read the books and know about the character deaths. This is about the film in its entirety.

So ... have you ever wanted to watch one hundred and forty-four minutes of CGI figurines fighting each other? Because that's pretty much this entire movie in a nutshell. It's very apparent at this stage why they abandoned the subtitle There And Back Again in favour of The Battle of the Five Armies, and it's because by this point any resemblance to Tolkien's modest little story (relatively speaking) has been obliterated. This is all about the spectacle.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Continuing with my reposting of previous Hobbit film reviews...

Last year I said of An Unexpected Journey that it was two movies: an adaptation of J. R.R. Tolkien’s book and a prequel to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This instalment is definitely more of the latter than the former – in fact, there are times when it’s clear that Jackson wants to skip passed the elements of Tolkien’s story and get to his own ideas ASAP.

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Two years ago (yikes, was it really that long ago?) I sat down to watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This was my review, which I've decided to repost here in anticipation of seeing the last in the Hobbit trilogy tonight (I'll post The Desolation of Smaug tomorrow, and The Battle of the Five Armies on the weekend).

***

But before I discuss The Hobbit, I would also like to draw your attention toward this brilliant interview/article about Fran Walsh – Peter Jackson’s partner in both work and life, who for reasons pertaining to their children made a conscious decision long ago to keep away from the spotlight. But she is clearly a key player in bringing The Lord of the Rings franchise to life – along with her collaborator and friend Philippa Boyens. Among the many insights the article has to offer is their take on the women of The Lord of the Rings...

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Links and Updates

It's been a pretty grim few months. I'm not an American, but I've been watching the Ferguson protests with a mixture of disbelief and horror, and for someone living in New Zealand I think it's of reasonable importance to note that most of my information has been coming to me through social media. There has been a reasonable amount of coverage on the news, but they're not taking a particularly nuanced view of the situation.

So as the protests continue, I think it's important to remember that a) the world is watching, and b) they're watching through the likes of Twitter and Tumblr, not media outlets. To lose access to this form of communication would be the quickest and easiest way to cut off our awareness of what's really going on – so I hope and pray that this won't happen.

***

At the same time all this is going on, I've been trying to inch myself into the Christmas spirit. I put up my Christmas tree, I went to see A Christmas Carol at the ballet, I took my nephew to the Santa Parade, and I went to check out the Christmas windows at Ballantynes Mall (Christchurch's oldest department store, which puts on a seasonal window display every year).  

And of course, Christmas shopping. So far presents include second-hand books, a candle, and agreements not to exchange gifts. Yes, it's going to be a very frugal Christmas, though I know I'm going to have to splurge on my parents sooner or later (I'm thinking maybe a restaurant gift-card so they can go out for a decent meal).

And here's my Christmas tree:


I went for wintry theme this year, playing with the idea that you could be wandering through a deep forest and stumble across this tree covered in birds and snowflakes and (my favourite part) a little fairy house.


My nephew's verdict: "cool." At three years old, I don’t think he's quite grasped the concept of puns, so I'm going to assume that he was being sincere.

***

This trailer for The Little Prince caught me completely off-guard:


It's just magical. I've devoted entire pages to picking apart movie trailers, but this one just makes me want to gaze at it starry-eyed. The animation shift between computer graphics and stop-motion animation doesn't surprise me given the director (who used similar tactics in Kung Fu Panda), and the whole thing just looks stunning. I'll be putting this one on my calendar.

***

A new sub-column is happening over on Helen Lowe's blog, in which I review films under the banner: "Sci-Fi and Fantasy Films You've Probably Never Heard Of". I know that title is just asking for a number of snarky comments from viewers who of course have seen all the films I plan to tackle, but hopefully the silent majority will be introduced to an innovative project that they otherwise would have missed.

***

I'm seeing The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies on Friday! I might repost my reviews for the first two instalments and finish up with my thoughts on this one in the weekend.

Standing Tall #2

This is number two of the Standing Tall Giraffe display that's currently dotted around the city. This one is called Imagine by Gwilym Devey and is located (along with one other) outside the half-ruined Cathedral.

I loved the patterns on this one, for despite the absence of autumnal colours, it reminded me of falling leaves and cold sunsets.


 
 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

If you were to cover a billboard with the names of all the main characters to appear throughout Frank L. Baum's Oz series, and then blindfold yourself and throw a dart at the board, I'd say there would be a 70% chance that you would hit the name of a female character.

To say that the Oz books have feminist subtext is not an exaggeration. Baum's mother-in-law was a renowned woman's rights activist, and Baum himself was the secretary of Aberdeen's Woman's Suffrage Club. It's no coincidence that the most powerful characters in Oz – for good or evil – are women, that most of the societies there are matriarchal, and that its chief explorer is a Plucky Girl from Kansas.

So naturally, Hollywood decided to forego all this girl-power nonsense and concentrate on the backstory of the Wizard instead.

Railing aside, I watched Oz the Great and Powerful after writing my meta on Glinda and Elphaba, out of sheer interest in what this film would do with these characters. Let's keep this short: it's bad. Not just how they characterize the Witches, but the whole film in general.

Review: Clariel

Whether he's writing YA or Middle Grade, Garth Nix is one of my favourite fantasy authors. There are three reasons as to why I find his work so engrossing: amazing female characters (always protagonists), fascinating world-building, and sheer originality.

Bells of diminishing size that are used to subdue the dead, the personified days of the week, monstrous creatures posing as little white cats, houses that are as large as countries, familiar aspects of folklore that are reshaped to fit the contours of his own original worlds – these are just some of the marvels that Nix mixes into his stories, but his real gift is in describing them in such a way that makes them feel both wonderful and organic.

It's hard to describe, but he has this knack of pouring intense creativity into prose that contains and controls it. As a result, nothing ever feels outlandish or cumbersome, even when certain concepts technically are outlandish or cumbersome. Perhaps those who've already read some of his work know what I'm driving at here, but Nix really does have a gift when it comes to shaping his imaginary worlds, and it's in making the weird seem extraordinarily normal.

SPOILERS FOLLOW...

Monday, December 8, 2014

Woman of the Month: Stella Gibson


Stella Gibson from The Fall      
  
There's only one more episode of The Fall's second season left, and it's managed to maintain the quality and suspense of its first. Detailing the police investigation surrounding the search for a serial killer in Belfast who targets attractive brunettes with high-earning jobs, Stella Gibson is called in from London to help reinvigorate proceedings.

Gillian Anderson is amazing as Stella, bringing a demeanour to the character that caught me completely off-guard. On my initial watch, I was surprised by just how cold Stella was, almost to the point of finding her difficult to empathise with.

But then, that’s the point. Because Stella Gibson doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. This level of detached calm on a male character would either be considered normal or demonstrative of his commitment to the job, but on a female character it’s actually rather unnerving. What becomes clear over the course of the show is that Stella is totally, utterly, indescribably unapologetic about who she is and what she wants. Whether it’s in her professional or private life, chasing leads or propositioning a co-worker for a one-night-stand, she’s utterly confident and unashamed.

Furthermore, the writing doesn’t seem particularly interested in giving her any clichéd “flaws” just to give her “obstacles to surmount” (let’s be honest here, on most other shows the temptation to make their female lead an ex-drug addict or socially inept or a recovering victim of domestic abuse or hobbled by rampant misogyny in the work-force is usually too great to ignore). Instead Stella is allowed to handle the case and her sex life with complete autonomy. No slip-ups. No attempt to “take her down a peg.” No personal demons that threaten to overwhelm her.

She’s in charge and she’s practically infallible. And why shouldn’t she be? It’s awesome, and she’s so comfortable in her abilities and her own skin that it makes many of her male colleges visibly unsettled. Not that she gives a shit.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Meta: The Evolution of Glinda and Elphaba

This is probably only the twelfth or so time that I've mentioned going to see Wicked in Sydney last month, but now at last I have something more substantial to say about it. After watching the stage musical it struck me just how much L. Frank Baum's original story has been reconfigured, reshaped and restructured since its publication in 1900, especially regarding the Good Witch of the South and the Wicked Witch of the West.

The gradual change is reminiscent of our treatment of the Robin Hood legends. They began as an oral tradition in which Robin Hood was originally a serf and/or a rather dark figure of folklore. Anonymous balladeers shifted the action from Barnesdale Forest in York to Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. Friar Tuck and Maid Marian were late additions, included to counter the pagan influences of the old tales. The Elizabethan upperclass appropriated and reimagined him as one of their own: the Earl of Huntingdon who willingly gave up his wealth and title in order to fight for justice.

The old songs and folktales eventually gave way to the printed word, each new writer changing, adding or expanding various components of the stories. Sir Walter Scott popularized the idea of setting the story in the time of King Richard and Prince John; later writers took this further and made Robin a Crusader who fought in the Holy Land only to return home and find corruption had flourished in the King's absence.

The 1938 film brought Guy of Gisborne to the fore as one of Robin's more dangerous enemies. In the 1980s, Richard Carpenter's Robin of Sherwood introduced the idea of a Saracen as part of the outlaw band, a trend that has continued into most subsequent adaptations. Most recently, the character has appeared in rather questionable circumstances on both Doctor Who and Once Upon a Time.

My point in sharing all this is to illustrate that a similar phenomenon has occurred over time with The Wizard of Oz. As each generation goes by, more new content is grafted to Baum's books until it's near-impossible to separate the content of the adaptations from the original story. The Broadway musical is based on Gregory Maguire's novel, which was inspired by the 1939 MGM film, which was adapted from L. Frank Baum's original book, which was drawn (at least in part) from traditional fairy tales. All four versions of the story have their roots in the same watering hole, but each one is drastically different.

But one thing remains the same. Despite all the revisions and variations of the story that have saturated popular culture, each one is structured (to some extent) around and between two poles: the Good Witch and the Evil Witch – the women we now know as Elphaba and Glinda.

Out of simple curiosity, I want to track the evolution of these two characters from start to finish; from book to stage musical. Moving through the compendium of Oz-related material, it's fascinating to see the progress of these two women, and how the years have shaped them.

The Legend of Korra: Operation: Beifong

Things are certainly heading toward the grand finale now, with the Beifong clan reunited (and reconciled) and Kuvira demonstrating the power of her super-weapon. Once again Korra takes a bit of a backseat, with most of the action focused on Lin, Suyin, Toph, Opal, and other assorted Beifongs.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Sleepy Hollow: The Akeda

Well, we made it. Sleepy Hollow is on hiatus.

It's been a pretty rocky road, especially when compared to the smooth sailing of season one. It's easy to say that any first season of a new show has the advantages of innovation and novelty to recommend it (Once Upon a Time and Heroes spring to mind), but more often than not a show improves as it goes on, usually peaking in the third or fourth season (after which the writers run out of ideas).


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Standing Tall: #1

There is a city-wide art project currently going on in the streets of Christchurch. Called Standing Tall, it involves the distribution of 99 fibreglass Giraffe sculptures, each symbolizing the strength and dignity of the city after the devastating 2010/2011 earthquakes.

Located on streets, parks and other public spaces, there are 49 large sculptures (reaching 2.5 metres high) and 50 small ones (standing about waist high). Businesses, community groups, charities, education establishments and individuals sponsored the blank Giraffe sculptures (provided by Wild in Art, which has already supplied gorillas to Norwich, rhinos to Southampton and lions to Northampton) and various artists were invited to submit their designs.

The sponsors chose their favourites and the selected artists got to work: adults on the larger Giraffes and school children on the smaller ones. Eventually they'll all be auctioned off in order to raise money for Christchurch charities.

Naturally, I've made it my mini-project to go and see them all, and I thought posting photographs here could be a nice way of keeping this blog active on its off-days.

So here's the first one: The Mosaic by Clare van der Plas, currently situated in front of what remains of the ChristChurch Cathedral.
  
 
 
 
 
 
 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Legend of Korra: Beyond the Wilds

We all survived last week's clip show, so let's get straight back to the important stuff: PLOT.

This felt like another transitional episode, a story in which nothing really gets resolved, but is mostly setup for later developments. By the end of this episode Korra has taken another step on the path to healing, Lin and Opal prepare for a rescue mission, and Varrick and Bolin return to Republic City, only to be almost instantly paired up with other characters in preparation for the next episode: Varrick with Asami and Bolin with Opal.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sleepy Hollow: Magnum Opus

We're on the home stretch now, so I may as well hang in there till the finale.

It appears the show has well and truly found a formula: each episode opens with Ichabod making a portentous comment that ends up being in reference to something completely mundane, some American history is thrown in as part of a National Treasure-esque hunt for a random MacGuffin that nobody's ever heard of before, Ichabod is confounded by some aspect of modernity, a Monster of the Week rears its ugly head while Henry smirks and Katrina flails, and if we're lucky we'll get Ichabod/Abbie discussing how important they are to each other.

As such, most of the show seems stale now. Moloch is wandering around as a sullen teenager, the horsemen have been revealed as emotionally constipated man-children, and the Monsters of the Week are getting increasingly silly. Despite this being the first episode in the build-up to the season finale, I just don't feel particularly engaged.

It starts with Katrina ringing up the Witnesses on the mirror-phone to tell them that she's failed to kill Moloch. Abbie doesn't look remotely surprised, and to add insult to injury it transpires that Henry has bugged the mirror and can rewind events reflected in it to find out exactly what the Witnesses are up to. So not only is Katrina useless, she's now actively making matters worse.

By using last week's MacGuffin (Dixon's journal) Ichabod and Abbie discover the location of this week's MacGuffin (Methusalah's sword), and by interpreting a code in the journal that is too convoluted for me to even attempt to unpack, they learn it's something that can stop Moloch. Just go with it.

Benjamin Franklin, blah, Freemasons, blah, Knights Templar, blah blah blah, and they eventually end up at the ruins Abbie glimpsed in her dream (I wondered if they had some relevance). After the Headless Horseman is forced to retreat thanks to the dawn, the Witnesses dig in the ground and find some easily-displaced bricks that lead to a perfectly functional trapdoor. It's a wonder kids on school field trips don't stumble down there every week.

And then... look, I know this show has done some crazy stuff in the past, but its use of golems and tree demons and nightmare monsters had an internal logic and thematic consistency that made it all work despite itself. But now Ichabod and Abbie are forced to face-off against ... Medusa.


Despite the awesomeness of the above shot, it's still a jarring addition to the show's mythos. They refer to it as a gorgon and even mention Greek mythology, so it's not like its inclusion exists in a total void, but still – it's incredibly strange.

Also thrown into the mix is the symbol of Ouroboros (why not?) and the Shofur Horn (that Henry just had lying around somewhere?) and even a little bit of Indiana Jones/Arthurian Legend when it comes to Abbie being forced to pull the right sword out of the stone and facing dire snake-related consequences if she fails (I was waiting for someone to say "she chose...poorly" but it never happened).

Abbie comes up with the idea to lure the Horseman down into the cave to fight the gorgon, arguing that it can't affect him since he doesn't have eyes to see with, but soon enough Abraham turns his attention to Ichabod. He finally gets the chance to say something halfway interesting, namely that he was meant to be the hero of this tale, not its villain, and though it soon dissolves into a pissing contest over Katrina, the close proximity and intense staring of the sword-fighting that ensues no doubt made a million slash-fans perk up in newfound interest.

There is some neat editing here, in which their battle is intercut with previous fights between the two of them (though oddly, not the definitive one that ended both their lives) but there just hasn't been enough tension built-up between the two of them for any of this to have any real resonance. Ichabod is finally at Abraham's mercy, but Henry sounds the shofur and Abraham just trots out of there. It's so contrived that it wraps all the way back around from "painful" to "eh, there's only three minutes left", and Ichabod and Abbie turn their attention to finding the sword.  

At this point I should say that throughout all this Ichabod has been haunted by the phrase "know thyself", which feels like an attempt to provide something insightful and profound about his characterization, but is the sort of self-indulgent navel gazing that can best be summed up (as ever) by Abbie's face:


The problem is not only that Abbie is completely left out of this "know thyself" narrative, but that it feels too heavy handed. From the opening game of "guess who?" between the Witnesses, to the myriad of flashbacks that are presumably meant to track Ichabod's path toward his destiny, to the lengthy monologues on Who He Really Is, you could feel the authorial fiat at work. The whole thing didn't really feel like anything that Ichabod would internally explore on his own; instead it was just something he had to comment on because it was in that week's script.

They eventually discover the sword's hiding place, but since extracting it involves teamwork it feels rather odd that only Ichabod gets to reach into the pillar and Excalibur it out of there. Shouldn't there be two swords? Or one sword that could be split into two? (see Da Vinci's Demons for an example).

Still, it's a fairly stirring moment, ruined only by Tom Mison's choice of expression:

Dude, it's just a sword.

Meanwhile, the B-plot has dealt with Jenny and Irving trying to make it to the Canadian border. Nothing much happens except when they reach a police stop-point and there's an hilarious moment in which Irving decides to bail out and Jenny patiently informs him that she can't slow down or it'll look suspicious so he'll just have to dive out of a moving vehicle.

Then he foregoes meeting up with her and instead opts to go bush – though I was left wondering if that was really him on the phone or if the forces of darkness are playing some other game.

Miscellaneous Observations:

We did at least learn that demons in this world are – as according to Biblical lore – fallen angels. A lot of shows (Buffy and Charmed spring to mind) present demons more like a destructive and dangerous species rather than an army of spirits that rebelled against the Almighty.

As disappointing as Abraham is without his head, I loved the shot in which Henry turns from the mirror (which reflects Abraham's face) to the door (where he stands headless).


Katrina is so much more interesting in the opening credits: raising the trees, running through the mist, glancing shifty-eyed off-screen. Why can't we have THAT character?

And she just left that bottle of poison lying around for Henry to find it? Worst spy EVER.

Abbie, you could rope in the Horseman to kill the gorgon for you, or you could just take a cue from mythology and take down a large mirror. The Ancient Greeks had this conundrum sorted out.

And hey, Pestilence is back! After being missing since last season, he's now back in the back. Who will he turn out to be? Abbie's long-lost father? Ichabod's disinherited nephew? Some guy who was fined for not returning his library books and is now really bitter about it?
And when's the fourth one turning up? Famine? Can't have an apocalypse without four Horsemen.
 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: A Christmas Carol

On Friday night I took my first sip of Christmas spirit by attending the Royal New Zealand Ballet's performance of A Christmas Carol at the Isaac Theatre Royal. This made it quite an emotional experience as the theatre was all but destroyed in the 2011 earthquake, and has been painstakingly rebuilt and restored in the intervening years. Walking in for the first time, I could still smell the fresh paint on the walls.


And the performance itself was wonderful. The RNZB is filled with extremely talented dancers, but everything – the lighting, costumes, music – was brilliant, all the more so because you could sense the crew's joy at having a proper venue to work in once again.

A Christmas Carol is indisputably the most famous fictional Christmas story of them all, adapted and updated dozens of times. Its potency is based in its simplicity: a stingy miser learns the error of his ways when confronted by three spirits who show him glimpses of past, present and future. All the best stories have very simple hearts, and the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge is as straightforward a redemption tale as they come.


What's more, the story is very short. This ballet was divided by two intervals and the whole thing just flew by, even with a significant amount of what can best be described as padding (though without the negative connotations). On the way home from work, Bob Cratchit stops to dance with a few locals in a scene that had no real purpose beyond giving the dancers a chance to play around on a makeshift slide.

The highlight of the production was the depiction of the three spirits: Past as a white-clad girl (just eerie enough to come across as ethereal rather than angelic), Present as a flamboyant, glitter-throwing cross between Rum Tum Tugger from Cats and Anne Rice's Lestat, and Yet To Come as a truly terrifying spectre of death. I was expecting the skull-face, but not the large ragged wings, the result of which left me shocked that no child in the audience started crying.

I took this from the programme. Just imagine
it dancing around the stage.

The choreography for the spirits was a little strange, for in order to convey otherworldliness they each frequently favoured a movement that looked a little like the "fake drowning" manoeuvre (you know, when a dancer holds their nose and wriggles down to the floor – only in this case, without the nose-holding) or a child waving their arms and swaying back and forth like a ghost. You can see Past doing it in the trailer below at 0.16:


(It's very brief, but there was a lot of it going on).

It was an interesting technique, one that I wasn't entirely sold on, but they were otherwise the highpoint of the show. In particular, Past's dramatic appearance in Scrooge's window earned an audible "ooh" from the audience.

There were lots of little details that I appreciated: the ringing of the single bell that starts the haunting, the clinking of chains as Marley approaches, the nice bit of prop-work as Scrooge's tombstone emerges from his bed during the climactic scene. They were all small but evocative bits featured in the novel, and including them here made it feel like a really thoughtful adaptation.

Other highlights involved the clumsy antics of the Fezziwigs as they tried to keep up with the younger members of their dance party (it must be so difficult for a dancer to convey clumsiness when you've been trained in the art of gracefulness), and Tiny Tim who sings How Far Is It To Bethlehem? without being nauseating (Dickens was notorious for his love of the Littlest Cancer Patient).

The writhing agony of the restless spirits looked like something out of a zombie uprising/rave (again, I'm surprised there was no crying children in the audience) and a lovely sequence in which Scrooge tries to implore his younger self to reconcile with his fiancée, only for the opportunity to pass him by.

So it was a great night out. One of my favourite landmark buildings is back, the Christmas spirit is welling up (next I take my nephew to the Santa Parade) and I got to revisit an old Christmas favourite.

The famous domed roof

The inevitable red curtains

My terrible attempt at a selfie on the main staircase

 

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Legend of Korra: Remembrance

A clip show? Really?

My initial irritation was somewhat tempered when I became aware of Bryan Konietzko's explanation, as posted on his Tumblr:

Sometime around a year and a half ago we were similarly duped on a large scale. We got the news from the higher-ups that our Book 4 budget was getting slashed, almost to the tune of an entire episode’s budget. We had two options: 1) let go a significant number of crew members several weeks early, or 2) make a clips episode. We never considered the first option. We weren’t going to do that to our crew, and even if we were callous enough to do so, we never would have been able to finish the season without them.

Given that they had little choice in the matter, I concede that this episode was a necessary evil. Being placed at the mid-point of the season even helped re-establish some of the characters, their positions and their short/long terms goals, setting us up for the final stretch.


Trailer: Cinderella

Another day, another big screen fairy tale adaptation. Hollywood still hasn't relinquished its  fascination with the genre, for Cinderella follows on the heels of Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty (or rather, Maleficent) and not one but two takes on Snow White. But unlike those other adaptations, which strove to deconstruct or subvert the source material, this feel (and certainly looks) like a fairly straightforward rendering of the classic Rags To Riches story.



I'm rather amused that the trailer isn't even bothering to pretend that you don't know this entire story back to front. The whole plot is laid out on a platter for you: that our protagonist's mother dies, that her father remarries, that her step-family is cruel, that she's nicknamed Cinderella, that she's prevented from going to the ball, that her fairy godmother makes it happen, that a prince falls in love with her, and that there are glass slippers involved.

I mean, no surprises here. It's the familiarity of the tale that they're trying to sell, with a few design flourishes to catch your attention. There's a whimsical aesthetic going on, especially in the deliberate garishness of the step-families' outfits and the fairy godmother wearing something that appears modelled on Glinda the Good Witch's massive frock.

However, between the ooh-ahh music and Hayley Atwell's sound-bites, they certainly aren't shy about slathering on the sentimentality. It reaches maximum glurge at some points, so hopefully it's a side-effect of the trailer that'll be considerably toned down in the film itself.  

And then there's Lily James as Cinderella. I'm well aware that when it comes to acting ability young actresses are held to much higher standards than any other gender or age group in the industry (it's almost a given that if you're attractive, it's assumed you got by on your looks as opposed to any actual talent), and that playing the embodiment of sweetness and light is probably the most difficult role anyone could ever tackle.

That said, she does come across a little bland here. The problem with Cinderella is that (like most fairytale heroines) she's entirely passive, caught in a story that often boils down to: "women are bitches, so go find a nice man who will help you escape from them."

I'll admit, "my" version of Cinderella will always be Ever After, a film that I've come to appreciate more and more as the years go by. Drew Barrymore has made some questionable career choices (anything involving Adam Sandler), but Ever After proved that she was a solid actress, one who gave Danielle intelligence, kindness, spunk and vulnerability without ever tipping her too far in any one direction. You could see why the prince was smitten with her, but at the same time she never feels like anything other than an ordinary, sweet-natured, well-read young woman.  

The film did well in combining a sense of realism with an ornate fairy tale atmosphere, and it alleviated the underlying subtext of catty girls/honourable prince by surrounding Danielle with supportive female companions, including at least one pleasant step-sister. (Of course, they also turned the fairy godmother into Leonardo da Vinci, so perhaps it all evens out).

But one particular line in this trailer sticks out: "You have more kindness in your little finger than most people possess in their whole body." So says Cinderella's mother to her daughter on her deathbed.

As it happens, I think kindness is the single most important attribute any human being can possess. It's also one of the most difficult things in the world to portray on screen or in writing, all the more so since the rise of the anti-hero has resulted in goodness being equated with dullness or self-righteousness in the minds of an audience.

For example, throughout Snow White and the Huntsman a variety of characters speak ad nauseam about the abundance of inner kindness that Snow White has.  Yet what appears on-screen is a just reasonably nice young woman. Not a bad person by any means, but hardly a paragon of goodness, and what acts of kindness she does render aren't anything that any other half-way decent human being wouldn't be capable of achieving.

Depictions of kindness on-screen usually have to be conjoined with acts of bravery if they're to have any sort of impact. Little gestures and pleasant words are basic indicators of good manners, but they're not difficult to perform, and they can just as easily be used by manipulative people toward evil ends. It's only when compassion spurs a person to take risks or endanger themselves or extract some sort of personal toll that an audience can be properly impressed by the trait of kindness.

Kindness is also something that can't happen in isolation, even though loneliness is an essential part of what makes the Cinderella story possible (there are no other relations to take her in). But kindness involves at least two participants: one to give and one to receive. This is something the Disney film resolved by making Cinderella's mouse friends anthropomorphic, complete with clothes and speech, so that she might have companions to extend her friendship to.

There's also the trouble of equating kindness with passivity, for most depictions of Cinderella show her suffering nobly under the yoke of her stepmother, quietly absorbing her verbal abuse, too good to raise her voice or fight back. And that runs the risk of making her a pushover, especially since she takes no real affirmative action throughout the course of the story. Ever After recognised that being angry was not the same thing as being bad, and added a scene in which Danielle is finally pushed to the brink of tolerance and delivers a well-deserved punch to her step-sister's face.

Where am I going with all this babbling? Only that in having made a statement that Cinderella is kindness personified, I hope the film finds a way to a) depict this in a way that goes beyond feeding pet mice, and b) makes it one facet of a much more nuanced personality. For as harmlessly sweet as Lily James is as Rose MacClare in Downton Abbey, she doesn't seem to do much in this trailer besides cry and gasp.

PROVE ME WRONG, movie.

P.S. If you want a story in which a girl's active and consistent kindness impacts the plot in extraordinary ways; kindness that is a challenge to extend but born out of genuine empathy toward others, please track down Meredith Anne Pierce's The Darkangel. It's a problematic book in a number of ways, and one day I'll write that giant meta I've always been meaning to do, but in terms of how to use kindness as a character virtue that has a deep and abiding effect on the plot, no other novel I've read has done it better.

P.P.S. Wow, this post ended in a very different place from where it started. I was just going to briefly comment on a trailer...

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Sleepy Hollow: Mama

I said last week that I'd review this episode for the sake of the Mills girls, but given that the promo for next week announced it as the fall finale, I guess I'll hang in there for that one as well. This show has been skating on thin ice for a while now, but Mama helped raise the calibre a tad.

It's the long-awaited Mama Mills episode, in which light is finally shone on Abbie and Jenny's mysterious mother. It's been established in a previous episode that she committed suicide, but as far back as season one the audience knew that there was something pertinent to be discovered concerning Lori Mills's fate.


Horror and madness have always been bedfellows, no doubt born out of several thousand years of undiagnosed mental illnesses being interpreted as demonic possession. Gothic literature rests on the thin line between insanity and unexplained phenomena, and the Bedlam House is a staple part of any long-running supernaturally-themed TV show. Heck, I'm currently re-watching Penny Dreadful and an entire episode is devoted to a character's stint in a madhouse as she struggles with her very real brush with the demonic.

One thing is for certain: there is no such thing as mental illness in the horror genre. It is always the work of demons. That crazy lady whispering about monsters and dangers and ensuing death? BELIEVE HER.

So it's no surprise that Tarrytown Psychiatric has been a recurring location in Sleepy Hollow, and in this episode Sheriff Reyes puts Abbie in charge of an investigation into a string of suicides at the facility.

Abbie enlists Jenny, which is great. After all, her sister spent several years there. Unfortunately, Ichabod is put on comic-relief duty by wandering in and out of frame with a terrible head-cold. Which means that instead of replacing Jenny, you-know-who is called in to replace Ichabod. Why make Hawley a witness (no pun intended) to the sisters' trauma instead of the co-lead that has deeply established ties with both of them? No idea. Hawley is like fetch. Stop trying to make fetch happen, writers.

As it happens, Lori Mills killed herself in this hospital, and it doesn't take too much digging for the sisters to discover her presence on one of the security videos, apparently goading one a patient into hanging himself.


So the question that lies at the heart of this episode is: what's really going on here? Jenny is considerably more unsettled by the reappearance of their mother's spirit than Abbie is, and flashbacks soon demonstrate why. Growing up with her was a fraught experience in which the girls were ordered to repeat a mantra: "eyes open, head up, trust no one," which in turn explains so much about their current-day attitudes. Abbie took her mother's words to heart and lied about the incident in the woods; Jenny reached out for help by telling the truth and got thrown in Tarrytown Psychiatric as a result.  

Ironically, the fact that Abbie fully believed her mother's words about not trusting anyone means that she later got to be pleasantly surprised by the presence of people in her life that she can trust. On the other hand, Jenny got burned by trusting, and has a much more standoffish personality as a result.

Furthermore, Abbie grew up honestly believing that her mother was suffering from a mental illness and living in terror that she too would be thrown in the psychiatric ward. Jenny believed that her mother was being tormented by very-real demons and tried to share that truth with others. And all this informs their behaviour when Lori's spirit reappears: Abbie is eager and curious; Jenny is point-blank terrified.

Of course, we also learn that the last time Jenny saw her mother she was being dragged away by orderlies and that she's got a suppressed memory of Lori trying to kill them both in the car. So between Abbie's commitment to the greater good and Jenny's awareness of a side to Lori that even Abbie isn't fully cognisant of, both sisters quickly come to the conclusion that if Lori is behind these suicides, she needs to be stopped.

Taking notes, Ichabod?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she isn't responsible for the deaths, but is in fact trying to help. Instead the Villain of the Week is a fairly superficial and obviously red-flagged nurse who hovers conspicuously on the edges of the story before being identified as a long-dead "angel of death" who would goad her patients into killing themselves out of a misguided sense of mercy. Lori Mills appears to guide her daughters toward yet another MacGuffin that will banish the ghost/spirit/demon/whatever. In this case it's a journal of spells that's been passed down from generation to generation – you know the drill.

Jenny reads the incantation and Nurse Lambert is duly destroyed just before she completes her usual methods of persuasion on Abbie. It's...rather perfunctory. Honestly, was hoping that this would end up being a pivotal episode in regards to the show's underlying mythology, and though I'm happy that the Mills sisters' got some long-overdue focus, it still feels like a standalone episode.

Questions remain about how much Lori actually knew about Abbie's role as a Witness and what exactly the demons were attempting to make her do (the scene with her and Jenny in the car was perhaps the most harrowing sequence of the episode – but how much was that Lori's plan and how much was it the demons whispering in her ear?)

So it's best to focus on what Mama reveals about Abbie and Jenny; their strengths and weaknesses, and their give and take with each other. Jenny for example, can barely bring herself to watch the recording of her mother's session, and yet in other ways she's the stronger of the two. I suspect that Nurse Lambert targeted Abbie as her victim was because Jenny has already faced down so many demons that she would be impervious to persuasion.

After all, Abbie coped in her adult life because she didn't believe in the supernatural. All this is still new to her, which in turn makes her more vulnerable.


But of course, the sisters come out on top, with a bonus séance to say goodbye to their mother properly. The scene in which they tear down the wall together (symbolism!) to reveal the pictures their mother had drawn of them was beautiful, and I'm glad the director devoted so much time to it.

***

Meanwhile, over in OH WHO CARES ville, Henry introduces Katrina to a newborn baby that he apparently just ... found ... somewhere? Seriously, he pretty much says: "What, this baby? Oh, I just found him and brought him here. For reasons." Super-spy Katrina is tricked into holding him, and he chows down on her shoulder (???) which later tips her off as to its demonic nature. She comes up with a potion of some kind (I thought Fredericks Manor was spelled to prevent her from doing magic) only to find that the newborn is now a seven year old.

In theory, there's plenty of potential to be mined in a story involving a mother attempting to draw her twisted adult son back to the side of good, but everything to do with Henry/Katrina isn't a plot born out of the characters, but a plot that involves the characters doing whatever's required of them.


And then, in what I'm going to pretend was the final scene because it was so much better than what was actually the final scene, Irving literally busts himself out of his terrible subplot (and the woods) to stash himself in the boot of Abbie's car. It's awesome.

Miscellaneous Observations:

Despite the subject matter, there were still a few glitches here and there. The cold opening, which ends with Abbie and Jenny seeing their mother's image on the security tape, felt too casual and quick. They needed more than a jump-cut to the opening credits to really absorb that moment.

The fact that Abbie has been dreaming of Purgatory for a week, wandering around some ruins and being confronted by her mother, makes me wish for the umpteenth time that the season premiere had paced itself and allowed for more of Abbie's experiences in Purgatory. If this interaction with Lori Mills had happened in "real time", there would have been more of a satisfying build-up to this episode.  

This show used to be quite good at adding bits of realism to weigh down the supernatural hijinks – and so it was all the more grating that there appeared to be no added security measures taken at the hospital after a string of suicides. Come on!

Anyone else find it odd that in a story involving a villain forcing her victims to swallow psychotropic drugs, there was a joke based on Hawley spiking Ichabod's food to make him sleep? I'm not sure how self-aware this was, or what we're meant to take from it.

 

Odd that Jenny didn't recognise – or rather, not recognise – Nurse Lambert. Perhaps she just assumed she was a new staff member.

A nice bit of continuity concerning Katrina still being a point of contention between the two Witnesses. Ichabod immediately got shirty when Abbie questioned her.

It was a shame that the set designers didn't think to put that old doll house in the flashback with the Mills sisters as little girls. I was actually peering over their shoulders, looking for it.
 
In all, a pretty good episode, though it doesn't feel as integral as I had hoped it would be. There was a lot of dark stuff here (suicide, drug abuse, the ambiguous relationship between medication and demonic forces), but also plenty of juicy backstory to unpack in regards to Jenny's devotion to the truth and Abbie's until-recent emotional walls. There was also a subtle commentary on the difference between giving up and fighting on – that is, one does not necessarily negate the other.