Birds in "The Farewell"
This week I saw a quiet movie: Lulu Wang's The Farewell. Billi (Awkwafina, in a dramatic turn that plays like penance for her caricature in Crazy Rich Asians) is a Chinese-American twentysomething whose beloved grandmother gets cancer, but the family decides not to tell her. Billi and her family fly from America and Japan respectively to spend time with Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) in China under the guise of a quickie wedding. She gets time to spend with Nai Nai around the festivities, getting life advice, playful ribbing and a bit of tai chi training. (Their relationship is seriously adorable, from their affectionate opening phone conversation - riddled with little white lies - to the final parting shot.) With her unchecked emotions and broken Mandarin and not-money-centered ambitions, Billi and her American sensibilities have a hard time accepting that the Chinese contingent of the family is doing the right thing in not telling Nai Nai about her condition. They make some pretty solid points:
What if it's the fear of dying that kills Nai Nai, rather than the cancer itself?
Is it not just easing their own guilt in passing the emotional burden of knowledge on to her?
Is it not their duty as her family unit to bear it?
Twice in the course of the story, Billi finds a little bird in her room - in her apartment in New York and then again in her hotel in China. Both times the bird escapes while she's looking the other way. In the last moments of the film, Billi is home on the streets of New York when she echoes the "HA!" of Nai Nai's tai chi instruction, startling a whole tree of birds out of their perch back in China.
While I wouldn't call the symbolism subtle in any way, I am struggling with its meaning. If we were dealing with a conventional young female protagonist, the birds would represent Billi's innocence, which might be linked to her sexual maturity in some way. But in spite of several instances of being asked if she's married or in a relationship, we actually don't know anything about Billi's love life. It's a non-factor in The Farewell. What a refreshing change from literally every other coming-of-age film centered on a young woman. So what then changes in Billi?
S P O I L E R S :
After questioning her father, her mother, her aunt, her cousin, the doctor, and basically every one else she can, Billi ultimately makes the choice to help shield Nai Nai from her diagnosis. Upon realizing that Nai Nai's aide has gone to pick up test results, Billi runs at full speed to the hospital to stop the report from getting back to her grandmother. She even helps the aide change the report to read as benign.
(If that wasn't answer enough regarding the film's opinion on the ethics of the situation, a postscript shows the director's real life grandmother doing tai chi with the caption: Six years after her diagnosis, Nai Nai is still with us. To me, that answers the question of "Should the family tell Nai Nai about her cancer?" with a resounding HELL NO LOOK SHE'S STILL ALIVE BECAUSE SHE DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT IT where I thought some ambiguity would have had a more powerful sendoff.)
Between Billi's decision to join her family in their subterfuge and coming to understand her parents' understated (anticipatory) grieving, as well as using the tai chi she learned to do something other than humor Nai Nai, a lot of the film is concerned with Billi accepting her Chinese heritage and culture. I appreciate that she returns to New York - there was a point where she wanted to stay in China - because it's the only sign that who she became in America is still valued and should be integrated with what she's learned.
But I don't think the birds represent acceptance of her culture. She's losing one bird at a time, then all of them, suddenly, in her eureka moment at the end. Is it acceptance of herself? I think it might be the release of her guilt. She's dealing with the disappointment of losing out on a fellowship, disappointment in her parents for what she perceives as failing Nai Nai, disappointment in herself, until she allows herself to release all of the guilt and accept the decisions they all made with agency.
Of course The Farewell reminds me of my grandmother, the one who passed away a few weeks before my wedding. Maybe that's why I was bitter about the ending, the little postscript about how the real Nai Nai is still alive. We flew out to Israel to see my Savta in the hospital when we heard she wasn't doing well. For five days, she was too weak to open her eyes or do more than squeeze your hand. On Friday night, Shabbos, we ran for forty-five minutes for a scare that was resolved by the time we got there. The next night, our last one in the country, we went to see her again in the hospital and there she was, sitting up, eyes open, trying to speak past the rattling in her chest. She met my fiance for real. I held her hand as much as I could, because we were leaving the next day. And two days later she had passed.
The scene at the end of The Farewell when Nai Nai has her hand on the cab as it pulls away, trying to hold on as long as possible, and then seeing her through the back window of the cab, was unspeakably sad to me. It's hard to know how much you can do in any given situation, but it was nice at least to see a film where the options are all within the characters' power. It's just up to them to make the decision.
Overlord: Movie Review
So you wanna watch Overlord (2018).
J.J. Abrams + Nazis + Zombies + Video Games + Final Boss + Three Different Languages + POV Camera Work + Black Protagonist + One Woman (two if you count the ten second snitch, three if you count the zombie, four if you count the one that's literally a talking head and spinal cord) + Lots of Exploding Bodily Fluids + Lots Of Spitting
Take a shot every time there's spitting.
(There's a lot of spitting.)
Also playing off the Nazi human experiments, but it's all French people. This is World War II and there is no mention of Jews. If we could lay claim to a war, should it not be the Holocaust one? Do we not get to throw around the 6 million figure whenever possible? In Overlord there's a Jewish soldier which we know because he's skinny and pale and his name is Rosenfeld, and yet he is played by an actor whose name is Dominic Applewhite. Like, non-Jews playing Jews is not my issue, it's not the hill I'm gonna die on, but do we have an issue, Mr. Abrams? Is there something you wanna add to the agenda at the next Elders meeting?
That's about all I need to say about this movie. It has 81% on Rotten Tomatoes.
I don't know if Showtime's brilliant show "Kidding" developed before or after Jim Carrey was cast. What I do know is that the character he plays, Jeff Pickles, is a very poignant followup to what looks like, from the outside, as Carrey jettisoning his career. Take this interview from September 2017, in which he gleefully expounds on his existential ennui to a panicked E! announcer:
There was a narrative surrounding Carrey at the time. This happened two years after his ex-girlfriend committed suicide in 2015. Her family was blaming him for it, trying to sue him. It was in the midst of a popular belief that Jim Carrey had lost it a little bit. Poor, rich celebrity, dealt a bad hand and unable to contend with problems that can't be solved with money.
On "Kidding", which just wrapped up its first season on Sunday, Carrey plays Jeff Pickles, a Mr. Rogers-like character on a children's TV show. The pilot takes place a year after one of Mr. Pickles's identical twin boys (Cole Allen) is killed in a car accident. Mr. Pickles can't seem to deal with the loss head-on and so it manifests in violent ways.
This is Carrey's first acting credit since 2016, which technically means he probably hadn't acted since 2015 - the time of his personal life tragedy. It's impossible that the creators of the show didn't take the similarities into consideration. It's impossible that they didn't intend for Mr. Pickles's struggles to inform and be informed by Jim Carrey's real life struggles. The role is so perfect for a celebrity looking to comment on his own celebrity through the medium of acting. It's perfect for Jim Carrey to use Mr. Pickles's gentle demeanor with the children who watch his show as a metaphor for what's good in his life and needs to be protected; juxtaposed with the violent outbursts he has over the course of the show as a demonstration for what happens when that's all you see; juxtaposed with the very real sentiments he expresses about love, loss, loneliness, mistakes, and the failure of our loved ones to protect us from harm, given over in several very literal monologues on "Kidding." There were very few times watching "Kidding" that I remembered Carrey as a celebrity and not as Mr. Pickles, yet his history imbues the messages he preaches with sublime duality.
Similarly, Lady Gaga was very clearly cast in "A Star Is Born" because she is Lady Gaga. Certainly this makes sense, seeing as the film is centered on the singing and songwriting ability of her character, Ally. While Ally and Stefani Germanotta have different lives insofar as Ally is from California and Gaga is from New York, watching the film I couldn't forget that I was watching Lady Gaga Without Makeup; Lady Gaga In Orange Wig; Lady Gaga In Gold Lamé Flamenco Dress (even though she'd never wear that in real life).
Much has been made of Bradley Cooper's transformation for his role as Jackson Maine: how he developed his voice, aged his appearance, and got a tan. I was taken in by his performance. Cooper is an incredible actor. (Side point: he should not have starred in his directorial debut, there was way too much of his face taking up the screen.) It is no accident that the casting of Lady Gaga and the stories about her first duet together with Cooper and how he mauled her face with a makeup wipe is what dominated the media narrative. I wouldn't be so cynical as to call this stunt casting, but Cooper hand picked Lady Gaga to star opposite him, and that is what he got.
The question, as always, is whether the decision serves the story. Is "Kidding" better because Jim Carrey suffered in a similar vein to his character? Are the unique vocals displayed in "A Star Is Born" worth a lesser quality of acting? On a more simplistic level, did the viewer benefit from the gamble or did it become a distraction to the detriment of the final product? By this point of my virtuous rant, you should have my answers already.
Bad Times at the El Royale
Spoilers ahead for this bonkers movie, but it's not like I'm necessarily making a recommendation to see it, so proceed at your fancy.
First off, until the title card showed up about seven minutes into the film, I thought the name of the movie was "Bad Times at the El Camino" as if this was some Fear Street chronicle about a gangster car where everyone's having a good time until they all die. God I've been in the automotive business for a hot minute. So the El Royale is this formerly glorious gambling spot that straddles Nevada and California in both location and over the top decor (rooms in California are $1 more), and this is where our players congregate in the mid-seventies. We've got Jon Hamm chewing the scenery as a vacuum salesman who's really an FBI agent, Jeff Bridges as a priest who's really a gangster ex-convict who's losing his mind, Dakota Johnson as a hippy with a blowout that must have cost $300, and Thor as a cult leader who can belly dance. From the lesser-known casting cadre there's a hotel clerk/junkie/snitch named Miles and a black singer who sings so much in this movie that I caught myself meditating.
I realize that on paper this may sound like a lot of plot but if that's the case then why did the majority of the 2 hour, 22 minute run time feel like a buildup? I did not need to hear Jon Hamm talk about his accoutrements five times in his hacky accent. I did not need to hear Miles try to confess on four different occasions just to find out he's an altar boy with PTSD from Vietnam. I definitely did not need that horror movie music when there was no horror.
But I'm not saying there isn't payoff here. The place burns down in the third act. We've got a crazy 14-year-old murderer on the run, who has been kidnapped by her sister Dakota in order to be saved from cult leader Thor. But wait! The El Royale is no ordinary hotel, it's a pervert hotel. (Well really a blackmail hotel but try explaining that when Thor's got a gun pointed at your head.) Every hotel room has a big gigantic one-way mirror for Miles to keep an eye on people and report back to management. Jon Hamm finds the other side and witnesses Dakota tying her sister up, so he interferes against FBI orders and unties Baby Dakota and then Big Dakota shoots him and Baby Dakota calls cult leader Thor to come get her and all hell breaks loose.
But then there's a lot of plot points that have ZERO PAYOFF. Where is the FBI raid after their agent is killed? And what was with racist Jon Hamm in the beginning? Was that just to make Darlene even more sympathetic? She's pathetic enough. Also, the black singer is played by CYNTHIA ERIVO OF THE ORDER OF THE TONY. I guess that's why there was literally twenty minutes of her singing a capella in this movie. I hate to insult a Knight of the Tonys, but Cynthia Erivo did not play Darlene well. Removing your wig to reveal a teeny weeny afro does not make you Viola Davis. I'm sorry. I will go hide under a rock.
I need to reiterate that this was not a good movie. But it is the first time in an extremely long time that I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. All these moody silences, moody singing, moody comic book-like lighting out in the rain - you think you know where it's going, but you don't! Priest Jeff Bridges is about to drug Darlene's drink so that he can tear up the floorboards in her room and get the money he went to prison for. Instead, just as he's turning around, she wacks him across the head with a champagne bottle. I was stunned! And then Thor is actually a very good cult leader! I would like to join the cult of Thor, please, minus the pedophilia and violence.
In the end, Jeff Bridges and Darlene are the only ones who make it out alive, proving this to be a very moralistic tale. Darlene has been downtrodden her whole life but she's been virtuous, so she gets to survive, and Priest Jeff Bridges doesn't remember his own name, let alone his crimes, so he survives. (Side point: is she now his caretaker? Was this all a racist end after all?) Even poor Miles dies, and I was never sold on the idea that he was a junkie. If I'm not mistaken: Thor kills Dakota. Miles kills Thor (and henchmen). Baby Dakota kills Miles. Priest Jeff Bridges kills Baby Dakota.
And ... that's it, I think. That's the movie. It feels like a bunch of cool parts from other movies transplanted into this one with some humming to fill the time. So if you need to fill your time and can't handle Tarantino levels of violence, consider "Bad Times at the El Camino."
Not Seeing "Ocean's 8" Again
HERE BE SPOILERS.
I can’t be the only one who had an orgasmic reaction every time a new marketing tidbit was released for Ocean’s 8. First came the production still of our #squad in those fabulous coats on a subway. Then came the movie poster, each exquisite profile outlined in red, channeling business and mayhem. Then came the trailer. I couldn’t catch what Rihanna said her name was and it didn’t matter: I knew she would be the key to the whole operation. I knew Sandra Bullock would play a doe-eyed criminal hiding a master plan that takes no prisoners. I knew Cate Blanchett would be serving Boss Bitch with a side of homoeroticism. I wanted to drown myself in girl power vibes. It felt like women’s movie desires were finally being taken seriously. It felt like Hollywood had finally clued in to what the Women’s March was about. The beginning of #MeToo, yes, but also the right to entertainment that allows us joy in its purest form. Joy like watching a bunch of women steal a bunch of stuff just because they can.
Listen: I understand that trailers are crafted by people who are experts in human behavior and cater purely to the bottom line. It’s not unusual for a trailer to be better than the film. But when the reviews for Ocean’s 8 were underwhelming, I was actually saddened.
I like to keep my expectations low. How can I be disappointed, I reason, if I never had any expectations at all? There’s a long-standing debate in my family about surprises. Some of us love surprise parties and surprise visits from overseas relatives. The near-heart attack reactions are precious. However, the consensus seems to be that it’s a better time when you have a chance to anticipate the excellent time ahead. Bite your nails in the days leading up to the big event. Hope for the feminist event of the century and then get ... Ocean’s 8. All anticipation, no payoff.
That’s not to say the movie has no redeeming qualities. I now know that in an ideal world, my wardrobe would include every article on Lou’s (Blanchett) body. The expression Daphne (Anne Hathaway) makes when the insurance investigator (James Corden) mentions her neck is a masterful blend of “surprise” modesty and arrogance. Everything Rose (Helena Bonham Carter) does is absurdly hysterical. Someone watched Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and understood that Rihanna doesn’t have to speak, dance, or act – she just has to sit there and she’ll be the most impactful presence in the room. (See: BDE.)
So what went wrong? Pacing. And a severe lack of stakes. Remember in Ocean’s Eleven when Danny (George Clooney) was getting beat up in the back of a casino? Watching that was sickening. He was blinded by love! He doomed the heist! Then to have the whole flashback sequence explain how everything was planned – sitting on my couch the first time I saw that, I felt an honest-to-goodness rush of endorphins. I myself wasn’t trying to rob Andy Garcia, but watching Danny Ocean’s team do it made me feel like I was in on the operation.
Ocean’s 8 is the fourth installment in this series and by now, it’s not hard to predict that these fabulous ladies are ironclad. They’re too good to fail. Even if I hadn’t figured out that Daphne was in on the shebang ahead of time, I wouldn’t have felt the same rush as I did watching Brad Pitt parade around in a SWAT uniform. There is simply a crushing amount of evidence at this point that everything will go exactly as planned, with perhaps a little twist at the end to make it even better.
So what? So I was disappointed by a movie. Who hasn’t been? Who hasn’t entered a movie with high hopes just to leave disappointed? It’s a sequel, for crying out loud. Who among us?
But if I was wrong about Hollywood understanding what I, a white Millennial woman, one of their target audiences, wants to see on the big screen, that means a whole lot more than me being a snowflake brat. It means that Hollywood executives think if they give me enough female-led films directed by men, I should be satisfied. That if they give me enough sparkly fashion to look at, it will distract me from fundamental narrative issues. Worst of all, that if they keep me quiet for long enough, the men in their midst who have been shamed into hiding might one day reemerge. I’m afraid that movies like Ocean’s 8 indicate the #MeToo era won't have the lasting effect so many people have been working for.
Let’s demand better. Let’s demand that the next film with a female cast as stellar as this one not be squandered. Let’s demand blockbuster entertainment that doesn’t insult its target demographic. Maybe by making our demands known, this small act will send a message that even here, even in fluffy escapism, we won’t be silent.
Why do people like naming guns "Betsy"? Is it like when I name my giant chin zit "Ned"? To hide its potential for violence and social disruption beneath an unassuming, nonthreatening name?
Edit: As my excellent friend on Facebook points out, here is another example!
I love when a complex idea results in a really simple, familiar concept. I mean; I don't love it. It's like when you're writing this awesome new piece but then you boil it down and it's just a familiar plot you've known you're whole life. It would be great to make something new. It would be great to figure out something unpredictable, something without ten pages of notes on TV Tropes. But it's also comforting, and in this particular case, supports the notion of form following content. (It actually doesn't. It just reminds me of that. I love anything resembling form following content. I should look at that more.)
I have seen You've Got Mail (1998) about five hundred times. I grew up on it, much as I grew up on numerous romantic comedies that don't have sex scenes. Since it was approved by my mother, my sisters and I watched it over and over again. We watched Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) fight to keep her little bookshop open on the Upper West Side. We watched Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) threaten her livelihood with his Barnes & Noble stand-in, Fox Books. We watched them flirt online in a pre-aughts-unsullied Internet chat room without knowing each other's identity, and reveled in Kathleen's minor victories when she unwittingly used Joe's advice against him. There's never a question that they'll end up together, but seeing them overcome the unfortunate career situation is really enjoyable.
However, it's a wordy film. There is a lot of talking in "You've Got Mail". A lot of musing, a lot of literati references. There were a lot of scenes I tuned out of when I was younger. Watching it now, it's fun that I can understand the conversations that used to mean nothing to me. I appreciate the subtleties. (Especially Parker Posey. She's a gem.) Here, to get this out of my freaking system, is my favorite part of the movie that I discovered when I got big.
Kathleen's boyfriend, Frank (Greg Kinnear), is a journalist. He frequently and comically tortures himself with questions about time and things that have become obsolete. (His support for Kathleen's bookstore miiiiiiiight have been a clue that it wasn't going to survive.) In a scene where he talks over her, trying to support her, we learn Kathleen's greatest fear:
"I'm wondering about my work," Kathleen says. "I'm just ... what is it that I do, exactly? All I really do is run a children's bookstore--" At which point Frank delivers his funny line about her being a lone reed.
I always overlooked that line. The Lone Reed line overshadows it. But it's key to understanding Kathleen's struggles in the story. Hers is an understandable fear. Most people will look around at their careers or their jobs and wonder the same thing. Whether you enjoy your work like Kathleen or are doing it for the paycheck, we can't avoid taking stock of what we put our time and effort into. In this situation, Kathleen is being forced to examine her bookstore from the point of view of the conglomerate pushing her out. She inherited the store from her mother and so it has emotional significance for her, but if the going gets tough, is her work important enough for her to fight for it?
Later, Kathleen meets Joe at an industry party. The first time they met in her store, he kept his last name from her. When she figures out that he's part of Fox Books, she goes on a rampage, accusing him of spying on the competition. Joe knows he did her wrong. However, he's not one to admit that. He's about the bottom line and he wants his new venture to succeed. So instead of engaging in Kathleen's emotion, he remains passive and infuriatingly calm. But that comment about him trying to spy on her gets him enough to poke her back.
He says to her: "I have in my possession the super-duper secret printout of the sales figures of a bookstore so inconsequential yet full of its own virtue that I was immediately compelled to rush over there for fear that it's gonna put me out of business."
Joe was most likely trying to save face and shut her up: You think you're a threat? Nice try, lady. You're not. You're inconsequential. That word. It's devastating! Kathleen's deepest fear is that she's fighting for a cause that isn't worthy, that she herself is unworthy (which is probably why she comes off as the opposite, as virtuous). It's no accident that Joe knows exactly what to say to her. Indeed, it works, she's speechless, all she can do is point at him with a kitchen knife. And he knows it. He knows he cut her to the quick, as evidenced in his chat room confession later on. Here comes Mr. Nasty.
But: The feeling is mutual. Kathleen, while not as quick-witted as Joe in the moment, can be equally destructive. In the scene in the coffee shop when she's waiting to meet her Chat Room Prince Charming, Joe shows up and figures out that they've been chatting with each other all along. He doesn't reveal this information, however, and storms in without a plan or fully comprehending the situation. He doesn't understand how it's possible for two people to hate each other and be in love at the same time.
So he sits down and proceeds to torture Kathleen, making fun of the signals they had planned for identifying each other, teasing her that her man is never going to show up. He's lording it over her that she's probably at that very moment in love with him. But the fact of the matter is that he's in the same boat, he's just in denial. For now.
Finally, provoked beyond belief, Kathleen snaps at him.
She says: "You've deluded yourself into thinking that you're some sort of benefactor bringing books to the masses. But no one will ever remember you, Joe Fox ... You are nothing but a suit."
It's that line about no one remembering him that wipes the smug smile off Joe's face. Kathleen, just about in tears, is busy in the throes of being able to speak her mind finally, but even that satisfaction is quickly thwarted when she realizes how much she hurt Joe's feelings. Turns out he has the same fears that she does. That no matter how many books he brings people, that no matter how much money he makes, that's not what matters.
It's such a terrible feeling, to speak your mind when you wish it - as Joe had previously warned Kathleen during one of their Internet chats. Kathleen is devastated once again, but it's because of her own actions this time. She can't even blame Joe for it, other than the fact that he provoked her.
Joe realizes that he is in love with her and begins a journey to make amends and ingratiate himself to her. He is able to accomplish this easily - because of his subterfuge as her chat room confidant, yes, but it's more than that. Kathleen and Joe see each other. It's an extraordinary power, to see someone. To understand why they do things and what they strive for. As enemies, they exploited this power to harm each other. As lovers, Joe uses that ability to woo Kathleen instead. He comes over to Kathleen's apartment when she's sick and realizes that he's still bringing out the worst in her. He stops her from insulting him in order to help her avoid that horrible feeling again.
It's an example of there being a fine line between love and hate. Both require deep understanding of the other person and that understanding can be both used and abused. In this case, the whole story supports the fact that these two people are meant to be together - as a good rom-com should - right down to the speech and motivation of the two main characters. (Is there a form/content argument in there? I could have sworn there was ...)
Commentary Through Adaptation
Confession time: I watched the Dirty Dancing remake and I liked it. Specifically, I liked the screenplay. I could have done without the wooden acting; the "spontaneous" singing from everyone, all the time; the unnecessary melodrama in the delivery of certain lines. However, it was inspiring to see not-size-zero Abigail Breslin get the same treatment that Jennifer Grey did. And though the guy who plays Johnny (Colt Prattes) has super dead eyes most of the time, being able to act through dancing is not an insignificant talent – and both he and Breslin are really good at that.
But back to the screenplay: Written by Jessica Sharzer, this version of Dirty Dancing doesn't do what so many remakes before it have done – namely, a literal beat-for-beat recreation of the source material. (See: Beauty and the Beast.) Originally written by Eleanor Bergstein, Sharzer rewrote the movie with added depth. Her screenplay explores story lines hinted at in the original: Baby's mother (Debra Messing) is a frustrated housewife contemplating divorce. Kellerman's son (Trevor Einhorn) tries to impress Baby with knowledge of The Feminine Mystique. Robbie (Shane Harper) really is a dirtbag, like, salt in the wound uber-dirtbag. (But yeah – didn't really find it necessary for Baby's sister (Sarah Hyland) to become a Hairspray-style checkerboard chick who sings Bob Dylan, or for Johnny to be a dyslexic ex-con.)
Sharzer's working with the material means that she recognized and respected the audience's familiarity with the original movie. Obviously the people watching her remake would know the 1987 version by heart, and any lines lifted directly from it would feel disassociated and hollow. It's like a cover of a classic rock song where the singer knows her voice isn't as good, but by looking for new meaning in the piece she can bring something else to the table.
Watching the 2017 Dirty Dancing feels like a commentary on the original 1987 Dirty Dancing. Adaptation is a tricky process, and I love when it's done in a new and original way.
I felt the same watching Syfy's television show, The Magicians (2015-present). Now two seasons in, it's an adaptation of the book series by Lev Grossman. Take some young angsty millennials in modern times and have them learn that magic exists, along with their versions of Narnia and Hogwarts -- Fillory and Brakebills, respectively. The antagonist is a sadistic creature called The Beast. Another character informs students that she's been using time warps to figure out what the students can do to finally defeat The Beast in the present. In all honesty, I stopped reading the series after the first book, but my friend liked it so much that I got the sequel for us both to read. The sequel is when protagonist Quentin goes to Fillory and boy, does it pick up speed there. It's also where Quentin's best friend from childhood, Julia, gets her story told. The third book was even better, the best in my opinion.
While Quentin is often perceived as depressive and whiny - getting by mostly on his intellect and willingness to try anything - Julia doesn't get that luxury. In the books, she is rejected from Brakebills. The memory wipe of her entrance exam doesn't work, though, so she picks herself up and figures out how to become a hedge witch instead, learning magic outside of the clean and safe academia. Her story is tragic and it details the sacrifices she has to make to get what Quentin is handed on a silver platter.
When the Syfy series began, it was clear from the pilot that we weren't going to have to wait around for Fillory like we did in the books. Neither, as it turned out, did we have to wait for Julia (Stella Maeve). Quentin (Jason Ralph) gets in to Brakebills as he does in the books, and Julia's story parallels his from there. The series, however, works the material even further: Julia's rejection from Brakebills is not arbitrary in the series. Her rejection isn't because she's not smart enough or talented enough, because clearly she is. She proves herself more resilient and powerful than many of the successful students. Instead, in all of the previous time warps used to calculate The Beast (Charles Mesure), she was a student at Brakebills. She was happy and learning and not abused. The difference in the present time warp was that she was rejected and thus had to go on her journey to learn her magic on the streets, bargain for it, work for it, and therefore be able to defeat him this time around. Her pain is given more meaning in this version of events.
Instead of repeating the material over, Syfy's series - the creation of which Grossman is extremely involved in, by the way - works the material in a new way to create a new experience. It's building on the books and the story they tell. Remakes don't have to be nostalgic revisits of old stories. In both the Dirty Dancing remake and The Magicians, I felt that through the adaptation process the writers were able to enrich the original story with a commentary.
To be honest, fangirling – when your mind enters a fictional world so intensely that you develop territorial tendencies that border on the loyalty you feel for your immediate family – has always scared me a little bit. My teenage encounter with Buffy the Vampire Slayer coincided with my first experience of binge watching. And man, did that show take over my brain. After watching a couple of episodes in a row, trying to understand how a one-hour TV show could occupy me longer than any movie I had ever seen, I became obsessed. I thought, dreamt, breathed Buffy in a way that I never had about something fictional. Even the fantasy books that I read growing up (the ones that made me want to write my own fantasy books, the ones that kept me busy for hours in a corner by myself, the ones that made me so happy that my own writing was actually just rewriting the fantasy books I was reading) didn't take over my imagination the way Buffy did. Because of my awareness of that all-encompassing infatuation – along with a religion-inspired need to believe I cared about more than just television – I stopped watching it. Cold turkey. I had enough under my belt to talk to people about it, to appreciate the Sunnydale High School T-shirt a fellow intern was wearing the first day I met him, but I full-on rejected the feeling that resulted from immersion in Joss Whedon's vampire world.
Enter J.J. Abrams. When the new trilogy of Star Wars was announced, I was excited; but I wouldn't say elated. I had watched all of the films when I was a preteen, around the time Episode I and II came out. I did have to wait for Episode III until I was a teenager, glaring at the computer screen when I realized I would have to wait until 2005 for it to come out – 2005! three whole years! – and learning how to be patient for movie release dates for the first time. I liked the films a lot. I was proud to be able to talk about them with my older siblings. Yet I didn't watch any of the films again after that initial encounter. So when Episode VII was announced, I was excited and planned on seeing it after the hype died down.
A week before The Force Awakens hit theaters, I noticed that few of my contacts on Facebook and Twitter were rewatching all of the old Star Wars films. At first I was skeptical, thinking of the sheer number of hours it would take to get through the series. But I changed my tune pretty soon. As Episode VII's release drew nearer, I found myself committing to the same process. It appealed to me in some way: Work hard by getting through the old ones in order to enjoy the new ones better. Okay, I said to myself. Yeah. Let's do this.
I started with The Phantom Menace because, like I said, I wanted to work hard in order to reap the benefits. And boy did I work hard. Watching the first three episodes first was mind-numbing. The ratio of minutes to action is bogglingly high. I did, however, get the benefit of (sort of) keeping track of what was going on in the Senate for the first time. (I was also able to recognize Global Treasure Keira Knightley this time around in her geisha makeup.)
Now this may be a direct result of the fact that I started teaching high school at the beginning of the year, but one of my readings of the story arc in Episode I, II and III is about teaching. About the effects of good teachers and bad teachers. Yoda is a good teacher – we already know this from Luke's successful training in the original Star Wars. Palpatine is also a good teacher, in the sense that his students – Count Dooku and Anakin – continued the mission that he taught them. Qui-Gon is a good teacher, because his student Obi-Wan Kenobi continued his legacy as a stellar representation of the Light Side.
But Obi-Wan himself is not a good teacher. While I agree that the failure to align Anakin with the Light Side is due in part to him being too old, as the Jedi Council foresaw, as well as his generally childish attitude, I'd posit that Qui-Gon or Yoda might have been able to steer him despite all that. Obi-Wan was not up to the challenge. He let Anakin's delusions of grandeur balloon and affect his behavior, let the chutzpah ooze from him in nearly every interaction. I'd also suggest that in Episode VII, it turns out that Luke wasn't a good teacher either. His student, Kylo Ren, was tempted to the Dark Side and he massacred the next generation of Jedi – much the way Anakin did in Episode III.
Once I got through the first three episodes, I slinked into Episode IV: A New Hope without too much hope on my part. But boy did I get blown away. It was a mechaya to experience an enjoyable Star Wars movie after trudging through the first three. I couldn't believe how pleasurable it was to watch Luke, Han and Leia flying through the galaxy, kicking ass and taking names. I didn't realize how truly whiny Luke is in the beginning, which makes Anakin's arc a little more understandable. Not to mention how morally ambiguous Han Solo's actions are at every turn.
One of the fun things about the original three movies, though, is how complementary the three main characters' personalities are. They all have flaws that keep them from defeating the Dark Side on their own. They all need each other to accomplish that ultimate goal. Nonetheless, it never feels clear whether or not they'll actually be there for each other in the eleventh hour.
When Luke abandons his Jedi training to go save Han and Leia, it feels like a turning point that could become fatal. If he fails in his self-appointed mission, not only will it all have been for naught, but – as we later see – he would have given up on finishing his training completely. But he succeeds, and then he has to face Darth Vader and the Emperor on his own and witness the death of his father. When he returns to his friends, none of them can understand what he's gone through. They see a change in him, but it's not something they can relate to. Luke is on his own, the only Jedi left in the world.
All of this is to say that by the time I went to see The Force Awakens on Christmas Day, I had watched all seven Star Wars movies in the space of a week. A week! I never would have guessed I could do it but after the fact, I wouldn't do it any other way. I went into that new Star Wars movie with the wide-eyed excitement I first felt for the films back when I was twelve, sitting in my basement, watching VHS tapes on a VCR that couldn't rewind. I got goosebumps – as I had each of the six previous times I had seen and heard it that week – when the combination of the logo and theme music burst onto the screen in the dark theater. I watched Rey and BB-8 trying to figure out their place in the galaxy. I looked out for all the callbacks to the older movies. I enjoyed Kylo Ren's face reveal scene much more than I should have. (A hot Darth Vader, woohoo!) More than anything, though, the movie was fun, and I had a great time watching it.
It made me remember how fun it is to fangirl about something without a trace of guilt.
Now that the hype has died down, I no longer feel the need to buy Star Wars merchandise, or decorate my walls with Star Wars travel posters. But I do have a lingering desire to feel that excitement again. I've been wanting to see The Force Awakens again since I left the theater, but I promised myself I wouldn't go see it again for at least two months. February 25, here I come.
Hitmen Make Bad Heroes
Disclaimer: I am not the world's biggest fan of the violent genres. I do not have encyclopedic knowledge of fight choreography and what makes a shootout/explosion sequence compelling (...uh, nothing?). I have not, despite my love for Timothy Olyphant, watched the movie called Hitman. However, I noticed this thing about movies depicting hitmen as their protagonist that I (previously explored in a Facebook post and can no longer find now) and would like to share here. To be clear, I am not referring to wisecracking, borderline psychopathic, obscurely idiosyncratic, Tarantinoesque/Coen Brotherly hitmen who provide humor in an otherwise bleak landscape of human grit. I'm referring to the stereotype of the uber-capable, never-misses-a-shot, does-this-job-because-he-has-nowhere-else-to-turn kind of hitman.
This kind of hitman in movies is the prototypical anti-hero. He is dark because he must be sneaky; he is mysterious because he can't have personal attachments; he is excellent at what he does because he is still alive to tell the tale. (Which he doesn't. Except to that one beautiful girl who will never see him again.) We like watching anti-heroes, such as the protagonists in Mad Men and Breaking Bad, because they allow us to feel better about our own bad behavior.
But there's a key ingredient when it comes to the hitman: He isn't meant to show emotion.
Think about Don Draper (Jon Hamm) for a second, who only ever killed someone in a dream. Yes, he's admirable for the suave coolness he oozes wherever he goes. But in addition to that, we watch him go through the full gamut of human emotions. We see him angry (a lot), we see him sad, we see him nervous, we see him having a nervous breakdown. The ideal hitman shows no emotion. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Colin Farrell in London Boulevard. Christian Bale in Equilibrium, who had to be given a puppy for us to like him. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Terminator is the best example - he's a robot!
What I'm getting at is that while it's very cool to have a hitman in your movie, and I certainly am not immune to the charms of watching someone decimate an entire room of people with perfect fight choreography, the problem with having a straight up hitman as your main character is that they aren't very interesting as people. I have no emotional connection to them and no investment in their fate. Even Keanu Reeves in John Wick was entertaining, but not particularly compelling.
When you can't relate to a character emotionally, you're missing a pivotal element to the narrative: Why do I care about this person? Yeah, he's fun to watch fight. He's fun to watch saving people. But I don't get much else out of it, let alone the stamina to sit through 2+ hours of him fighting and saving people and not caring.
On the flip side of this (very rudimentary) theory, you have Kingsman: The Secret Service. Remember Christian Bale's puppy? Well, in Kingsman main British guy Eggsy (Taron Egerton) gets his very own puppy to train and develop with at his super secret spy agency. Now, Eggsy clearly does not have the makings of a super spy. He didn't go to Oxford or Cambridge. He doesn't have an impressive family lineage. Even his father, the reason Eggsy was accepted into the training program in the first place, died in the line of duty early on in his career. And to top it all off, Eggsy can't even shoot his stupid dog at the end of training – which, as he's later informed, only had a blank in it!
But the fact that Eggsy couldn't shoot the dog and didn't have the credentials to be a Kingsman is what makes him an interesting character. I could have listened to him goad people to fight in that British accent for hours. It was funny to see him revert back to his sartorial roots for a mission where he had to be a pickup artist. And when he ultimately saves the world, his motives stem more from avenging the death of his mentor than they do from a desire to actually save the world. The reason Eggsy is compelling is exactly because he didn't make for a good hitman. He doesn't blend in, he's terrible at playing nice with others, and above all – he displays emotions. Lots of them.
Video games, though. Now there's a place where a well-appointed, emotionless hitman can have it all.
Thoughts with Alisa
Current writing on pop culture. Also known as my post-graduate school writing motivation.