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Archive for the ‘Movie Review’ Category

Growing up as an army brat in Germany, I had no TV to watch, so I came to rely heavily on comic books for entertainment. First Superman, then Batman and Robin, filled my reading hours and fired my imagination. As I grew older I gravitated more to books, and by the time Marvel Comics hit the scene I considered myself too mature for comic books. Although I had to admit, the graphics were cool. First Conan the Barbarian, then Thor, then The Silver Surfer, and finally Doctor Strange. All featured mind-bending graphics that broke out of the boxy style employed by DC Comics that made Superman in particular look old-fashioned. These were the 60s, baby, and Marvel played to the psychedelic audience.

Doctor Strange wasn’t the main star in the growing Marvel pantheon. Maybe he was too far out and not muscled up enough, or he was too intellectual. Who knows? But he was…strange. And for a teenager whose personal motto at the time was “Wierdliness is next to Godliness,” this character spoke to me. The whole world felt strange to me at times, and I in it, so yeah I liked Doctor Strange! Plus of all the Marvel comics, his stories had the trippiest, mythiest, wildest, most psychedelic arenas for a superhero to play in. I didn’t need drugs—all I had to do to immerse myself in that far-out land was to look at the pictures as Strange dealt with cosmic characters and mindscapes.

When Marvel started churning out all their action blockbusters, I basically yawned. Okay, except for Spiderman. But the Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, even Thor…no thanks. Too many heroes, too many explosions, too many fistfights. My taste in movies had also changed. I still caught some interesting sci fi flicks now and then, but I preferred more literary tales, or fantasy with folk elements. Marvel felt more like a factory, and when that happens I tend to shy away.

But when they did Doctor Strange, something inside me felt that old urge, the urge to explore the wild places in the psyche, that sense of wonder and power I’d had as a teenager. Especially when I found out that Benedict Cumberbatch, whom I’d loved in The Imitation Game, had the lead role. So I decided to plunk down my eleven bucks and watch it.

[Spoilers ahead. If you want to call them spoilers…]

I can tell you the exact moment in the movie when I said “Yes! I’m in!” to myself and did a little fist pump. It was when Strange had just gotten into his sports car, left the city, and with a smile on his face cranked up his engine—just as—oh, yeah!—Pink Floyd’s song Interstellar Overdrive poured out of the speakers. Just sayin’, I was an early Pink Floyd adopter; after one listen to their album Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), from which this song was taken, I clutched them to my breast as brothers in weirdness. So when this song came on in the movie I felt an instant bond with Strange, and I knew I was going to like the ride.

(Yes, I know this was right before Strange foolishly ran his car off the road into a horrific accident that ruined his hands. But still. I knew this was just the setup for when he was going to transform his egocentric persona into something much more metaphysical and out there, just like old times.)

So, weirdness followed. And fabulous special effects. And Cumberbatch doing a great job showing the transformation of Strange into a sorcerer battling black magic. And yet he needed more than just a bunch of villains intent on destroying the Earth; he needed someone to push against him and guide him in his transformation. That person, The Ancient One, was a man in the comic books, but here a woman, played by Tilda Swinton. And this was an inspired choice indeed. Swinton’s character is part pixie, part sorcerer, clever and empathic—yet also mysterious, with hints of darkness. And a kickass magic martial artist, adept at using those sparkly spell things as defensive weapons as well as transport devices. Best of all, she looks great doing it—really, Strange never quite looks comfortable in combat, but The Ancient One glories in it. Strange has a girlfriend in his quotidian life as a surgeon, but his soul mate is truly The Ancient One.

So, the movie ended. With more movies to follow in the pipeline, of course. Don’t know if I’ll get around to seeing them, though; with a few exceptions, sequels aren’t my thing. And really, though this flick is entertaining and stimulating, it’s still just an action flick that employs the usual compendium of action flick tropes. But any movie with an ancient Pink Floyd song to kick me into overdrive has value that can’t be measured by tropes alone.

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Time Travel is a concept that has served many literary needs: a protagonist’s hopes and desires, what-if scenarios for historical events, and philosophical puzzles and paradoxes, to name a few. It’s a trope with multiple subtropes, and typically involves a futuristic machine and a scientist out to change an event in the past or prevent one in the future. TV shows from The Twilight Zone in the 60s to the current Timeless on NBC have put time travel front and center. Movie franchises have been built around it (Terminator, Back to the Future). Every sci fi writer alive today probably has a dozen or more story concepts based on time travel stuffed into a drawer.

One of Time Travel’s subtropes is what I call Magic Time Gone Wrong. Magic Time, for those who know their faerie myths, is what sets apart the magical world from ours. Whereas our time is linear, Magic Time is circular. All magic spells rely on this fact; a circle drawn in a spell is a graphic manifestation of the time’s circle. A circle has no beginning or end, thus creating a mental form of the infinite. In its most obvious manifestation, Magic Time brings us back to the elemental cycles and rhythms of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun and moon. In linear time, birth is the beginning and death the end; in Magic Time, the two cannot be separated.

Time Travel stories that make use of Magic Time are invariably much less geared toward sci fi. Futuristic machines and evil scientists are often absent altogether, for the engine that drives the loop often can only be described in mysterious ways. These stories are rarely about historical events, but personal karma, in which the main character invariably must find their way out of the time loop that has them mercilessly trapped.

The most well-known example of this story is the engaging and popular movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a weatherman seemingly doomed to repeat one day for the rest of his life (so popular has this movie become over time—heh heh—that “groundhog day” has entered the common vernacular to mean something happening to someone over and over again, usually with distressing consequences). Murray’s character Phil the Weatherman cannot hop into a machine and travel out of the loop; he has to feel his way out. He must undergo personal growth before he can be released from Magic Time.

Among many books for children that employ time travel, Dorian Cirrone’s recently published middle grade novel The First Last Day also relies on a time loop to provide her main character’s obstacle that doubles as a vehicle for self-discovery. Instead of a weatherman, Haleigh Adams is an eleven-year-old girl who, without realizing it, paints a picture that magically makes her live out her last day of a beach vacation over and over again. Like Phil, she has no technological way out. Her only hope is to find the instructions to the box of paints that mysteriously showed up in her backpack. Ultimately she succeeds only by perserverance, and by learning to trust her best friend, a boy she might have a crush on. By repeatedly going over the same events over and over again, she tries in subtle ways to alter reality, but nothing works until she makes a connection with her friend’s grandmother that helps her unpaint the painting and consciously choose to undue her wish for the last day of vacation to never end.

Though The First Last Day tracks Groundhog Day very closely, the main characters are quite different. Phil the Weatherman is a blasé, arrogant fool who grows so despondent he tries to commit suicide to escape the loop, only to find himself waking up yet again to the same song (“I Got You Babe”) on his clock radio. Haleigh is a bright, creative preteen who has self-image problems but otherwise is the kind of person you’d like to know. Unlike Haleigh, Phil doesn’t have a magic paintbox—his time loop ends just as mysteriously as it begins, but only after he discovers the power of love. Haleigh’s journey isn’t nearly so harrowing, but it does include a lesson in the power of letting go and accepting death. While one story is for adults and the other for grade school readers, each treats Magic Time as the power that drives personal change.

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Star Wars VII blasts into a post-Lucas galaxy that’s far far away, but all too familiar

By sheer force of numbers, A New Hope (whoops, I mean The Force Awakens) has taken the country of multiplexes by storm. Fans are flocking to the new sequel-that’s-not-a-prequel, critics offer a few light verbal jabs before applauding the film for its freshness and lightness of spirit, and even nonbelievers in the Star Wars canon are admitting that the movie has merit for its entertainment values. Virtually everyone I know who’s seen it has liked it. So despite the fact that I had to shell out an extra 5 bucks because the only seats available were in 3D, I was prepared to like it as well—considering that, back in the day, I thought the original series—especially when Han and Leia’s verbal jabs were more entertaining than swooshing light sabers—to be jolly good fun.

But Han and Leia were a lot older for this one. And though Han could still do that world-weary twinkle in his eye, his age showed. The two newcomers who replaced them as stars—the orphan junk dealer Rey and renegade soldier Finn—come off as much more serious, despite Finn’s occasional comic lines. Rey is scrappy (she works collecting scrapped parts—get it?) and determined and somehow strong with the Force, though we’re never told how she managed to swing that. She also wears the same expression on her face, a kind of blank stare, for virtually the entire movie. Finn is more interesting, but I had a hard time buying his running away from the army when the army had programmed his entire life up until that point. Not that he’d chicken out when it came time for him to kill innocent people—that’s a visceral, instinctive reaction to war. But he’s still just a number, and he only knows people as numbers. How’s he supposed to suddenly decide that he’s got a name—and a desire for freedom–unless someone has planted those seeds in his mind? And this film never shows that side of his backstory.

When these two get together, any chance for developing a relationship with nuance gets blasted away in withering tie fighter tracers and explosions. So here I’m going to go all grumpy on y’all and say that, back in the day, dodging tie fighter tracers and explosions was exhilarating fun. This time after just a few tie fighter tracers and explosions on a much-too-close 3D screen I had had enough, thank you. Yet that was just the beginning. The Force Awakens thus settles into the comfortable and peculiarly American movie diet of loud fast blow ‘em up shoot ‘em up chase scenes that for some reason Hollywood has decided every red-blooded citizen has to enjoy.

Otherwise, like Rey herself, director J.J. Abrams played the scavenger, ripping off chunks of the original Star Wars series and jamming them into his story. Apologists for this call this a nodding tribute to the original tale, but I call it lack of imagination. Did we really need another Death Star, only bigger? More Army officers that look straight out of the Third Reich? A bad guy who looks like a bad cross between Palpatine and Voldemort? Tie fighters that haven’t changed in thirty years? Another bar scene with aliens? Same old stormtrooper suits? Another father-son confrontation on a narrow bridge over an endless chasm? And how did the First Order come into being, anyway?
There was one scene that held my interest, a scene that might have revealed much about Rey’s character had it been explored further. Wandering into the basement of Maz Kanata’s castle, she stumbles on Luke Skywalker’s light saber stored in a box like a religious artifact. After opening the box she’s overwhelmed by eerie sounds and a flashback of herself as a child when her parents are wrenched from her. Had she stumbled on a powerful manifestation of the Force? Would we be granted access to her past and gain insight into what she believes and what motivates her? Perhaps a spiritual awakening, or a great fear would be unleashed on her? And what did it have to do with Luke’s light saber? Unfortunately, the scene ended quickly and Rey seemed untroubled and unchanged by the experience.

Perhaps—but it’s never even hinted as such—this experience enabled her to use the Force, which Luke only learned after numerous lessons from the venerable Yoda (here missing, alas). Because, guess what, she uses the Force to get her stuck-in-the-snow light saber to return to her hand just in the nick of time. Just like Luke.

So maybe in VIII, Rey will turn to the franchise writers and using her best Jedi mind control voice, say “You will unshackle your own creative bonds and do something truly different this time.”

POSTSCRIPT

I wrote this about a month ago and some…force (ahem) kept me from posting it. Could it be Disney himself? Or the threat of legions of TFA followers casting aspersions my way? But now I’ve decided to do the right thing and post it.

I do have one last meme to explore here: Kylo Ren’s cool new light saber. It dawned on me that this young, disturbed villain carried a Christian symbol, since the two crossguards shine red like the shaft. This can’t have been coincidence, and has been noticed by others on the Internet. The red color gives the saber a certain demonic quality, contrasting with Luke’s “pure white” light saber. What does this symbolism intend?

Christians may see it as symbolizing the anti-Christ, though I wouldn’t go that far. It could be a not-so-subtle comment, in visual form, that any religion taken to extremes leads to evil–Muslim, Christian, or Judaism, take your pick. “Christian Soldiers” has all to often been taken literally, leading to behavior directly antithetical to the teachings of Christ.

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Sometimes, the film is better.

Such is the case with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky’s 1991 YA novel that was turned into a movie in 2012. Twenty-one years is a long time for a best-seller to make it to the screen, and after reading the novel recently I was curious to see what unspeakable horrors Hollywood would visit on it. I mean, 1991—not only was that before social media, before cell phones, before the Internet even—that I imagined the movie would be some kind of bastard marriage between worlds so different that it would be bound to fail, and fail miserably.

I’m glad I didn’t read any advance reviews of the movie, because discovering how wrong I was had a wonderfully powerful effect on me.

First, the book. The cover blurbs compare it to Catcher in the Rye. The main character in the story, a wallflower named Charlie, mentions Catcher in the Rye several times throughout, so the author is clearly telling us: “My character is awesome and relevant like Holden Caulfield. So, if you like relevant fiction that speaks to ‘today’s generation,’ you will agree that my novel is part of that canon.”

Charlie is like Holden in that he tells the story and is an angst-ridden teen. Other than that, the characters are very different. Holden suffers from an unnamed, existential anxiety that reflects the post-WWII nuclear age. He spends most of the time wandering around by himself. Charlie suffers from a buried trauma that isn’t exposed until story’s end. Meanwhile, despite his pathological shyness he makes friends with a pair of upper class highschoolers. He spends a lot of time with them smoking cigarettes, drinking, getting stoned, and then smoking more cigarettes. In between, he cries. A lot. And tries his best to impress us with his sincerity. He really does.

This guy was supposed to be a genius? He kind of seemed made of cardboard to me. Especially toward the end, he kept saying the same thing over and over again. As I read on I grew restless: isn’t something exciting supposed to be happening, about now? Instead of hearing about all the stupid people in his life? Like, doesn’t someone die, or at least try to die? By the time the Big Reveal happened, I was mostly relieved the story was almost over.

So I was expecting more of this when I popped in the DVD. The first pleasant surprise came when I saw that the character Sam, the girl Charlie has a crush on, was played by Emma Watson. I loved Emma Watson in Harry Potter, and she doesn’t disappoint here.

Then I realized that the movie doesn’t try to stick two eras together: this takes place in the early 90s, completely. As the movie progressed, I heard no references to Holden Caulfield. People drank and did drugs, but nobody smoked a single cigarette. So, yay for that.

Movies often have to cut out a good amount of both dialog and exposition, given the restraints of the medium. Often a good novel loses too much, particularly when a conceited director decides to make the movie “his creation.”

In this case, the novel’s author also wrote the screenplay. And clearly, in the 21 years since the book was published, Chbosky has thought about what worked in the novel, and what didn’t work.

For example, in the novel Charlie repeats himself. Over and over. Maybe that’s realistic, given his personality, but it makes for tiresome reading. In the movie, most of the repetition wound up on the cutting room floor. As a result, the film moves along at a nice clip—propelled by some really great acting, BTW. Three quarters of the way through, I had warm feelings for all the main characters, and felt touched by their problems because they had such lively personalities—personalities that never really came out in the novel. By the end I was wiping away tears and blowing my nose—my eyes and nose don’t lie, if they’re going at the end it means I like the movie.

So congratulations, Mr. Chbosky. I’m glad your YA novel found its way into my heart via my flat-panel TV. Even if it took 21 years to do it.

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Most of you reading this will know who Robin Williams was, how he fought depression that ultimately led to his suicide. Far fewer will know who Walker Judson is, a fictional character in Janice Strubbe Wittenberg’s recently published first novel, The Worship of Walker Judson. Coincidently, I learned of Williams’ death right about the same time I completed reading about the fictional Judson. Both have been on my mind recently, but more than that, both—despite obvious differences—are men who had vast talents (humor, healing arts) who fell prey to their inner demons. So I decided a comparison was in order.

Comedians have long been viewed as having shamanic powers, using humor to expose our hidden fears in an act of audience catharsis. Robin Williams did more than just do this symbolically in the movie Patch Adams, in which he plays the lead role as a doctor who uses humor to treat patients. Fittingly, his character is a maverick who contemplates suicide after his girlfriend is murdered. After he bounces back, he still has to fight the state medical board on charges of practicing without a license. Just as in real life, his character is a misfit who struggles against conformity. In real life, of course, Williams didn’t bounce back, and took his own life—a victim of his own demons.

[spoiler alert!]

In Strubbe Wittenberg’s novel, Walker Judson is a faith healer who is also a nonconformist, though in a completely different way. Though blessed with the power to heal others with his hands, Judson is a passive-aggressive masochist, abused as a child, a chain smoker who also has a peculiar way of attracting females. Judson doesn’t take his own life, but he seriously compromises it, especially when he is convicted of sexual assault. He is in many ways a typical cult leader, and falls prey to the darker aspects of his own powers. And yet, paradoxically, he heals many—often without asking for anything in return—including a young woman who falls in love with him and becomes his acolyte.

Williams and Judson are both complex, charismatic, and in touch with powers that most of us only glimpse fleetingly throughout our lives. It takes a strong person to not let those powers destroy oneself, and in the end both men succumbed to those powers. Being a shaman carries inherent risks, but for those compelled to be one, the risks are worth it. I for one am glad that Robin Williams took that path; and those healed by shamans such as Walker Judson are undoubtedly glad as well. Who am I to judge them, after all?

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(spoiler alert)

I guess I should have seen this coming way back in 2007 when Gregory Maguire rescued the reputation of Oz’s Elphaba in Wicked. Postmodern feminist lovefests are rapidly replacing the old fairytale memes of evil queens and noble princes riding to rescue damsels. This can be seen most clearly in the most recent line of Disney movies, which all feature a kickass female lead who challenges the patriarchal bad guys. And the two most recent ones—the highly popular Frozen and this summer’s Maleficent—go even further by booting romantic love to the curb in favor of love between women. (Not sexual love, of course—we haven’t reached the point where Disney would feature a romance between two women.) To accentuate the point, in each film this female bonding twist gets revealed in the exact place in the narrative where the male lead is supposed to bring his love magic and win the day.


(Memo to Disney: We get it. It’s not a big surprise anymore, it’s the New Normal. So how about a story where love between women is expected and even taken for granted? And then do the same for men.)

Of course there’s more to it than a plot twist. Let’s take a look at these two movies.

Frozen distinguishes itself with not one but two princesses. One good and one bad, right? Not so fast. They actually love each other deep down, despite the bad one’s icy habits. And they both have what appear to be eyes from an alien species: huge, saucer-shaped, and floating tentatively on their plastic CGI faces, screaming “I’m cute!” in 142 different languages. So we know right off that, deep down, they love anime and are awesome.

Good Princess Anna, the goofball, falls head over heels for a gorgeous prince and his equally gorgeous horse, so the postmodern feminists know right away he’s gonna eat it, and he does. Anna eventually has a safe romance with an ice hauler who is strong and loyal but no royal. So it’s no real surprise when her frozen heart is rescued not by him but by her big sister Elsa.

What I found interesting about Frozen is that it has no backstory at all to explain Elsa’s peculiar ice-generating powers. Was she put under a spell by a witch? Bombarded by a radioactive ice storm? Or just born that way? I suspect that the under-12 crowd who make up the main audience don’t give a flying icicle. She just has it, the power that is both a wonder and a curse. For adults, it’s a different matter. I want to know who did this to her, and why, and what the ramifications are for the world of Arrendale, and how did their parents meet, and why was the Prince of the Southern Islands such a shmuck? Guess I’ll never know.

On the other hand, Maleficent—with a much more complex target audience—is virtually all backstory. It explains “what really happened” in the tale of Sleeping Beauty, so we need to know the fairy tale first, just as in Wicked we need to know The Wizard of Oz. And just as we learn how Elphaba is unfairly branded in Oz, we learn how Maleficent’s cruelty sprang from crueler treatment at the hands of a prince who could have been her lover.

And my goodness, once you get past staring at Angelina Jolie’s supernatural cheekbones, consider all the different messages and subtexts this movie has! Overly cute fairies and other sprites and goblins, check. Innocent princess eager for first love, check. Rampaging patriarchal madness, check. Doofus prince, check. Violence and war (without a drop of blood shed but plenty of sturm und drang), check. And a once-innocent, then kickass, then evil, then repentant witch queen with devil horns and wings of a Fury, check. Then underneath it all, hints of bondage and illicit desire. It’s like the bastard child of Spiderwick Chronicles meets Legend meets Neverending Story meets Once Upon a Time meets Batman. Too violent for kids, too Magic Kingdom glittery for adults, Maleficent tries to please everyone and fails, despite entertaining visuals and a reasonably good storyline.

I wanted to love Maleficent, I really did. And it almost delivered. I crave magic tales with dark themes and haunted characters. Without buckets of gore. I guess it’s good the story didn’t have any Ewoks or Jar Jars, but that’s not saying much. Now that Disney has postmodern feminist plots down, let’s hope they can put one in a real dark fairy tale without the cute stuff.

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