Friday, March 27, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Jessica Huang (Fresh Off the Boat)

Guys. Guys. Guys. I don't want to jump the gun here, since the show has only been on now for a month and a half, but Jessica Huang might just be my new favorite female character. Why? Because she is hilarious, brilliant, incredibly sarcastic, and because she refuses to let anyone get away with anything. Basically, because I see myself in her and I love it. What can I say? I'm naturally egotistical.

For those of you who haven't been keeping up with it, Fresh Off the Boat is a new sitcom based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang's childhood. It starts when his parents, Louis (Randall Park) and Jessica Huang (Constance Wu) move their family of three boys and a mother-in-law from the tight-knit Taiwanese immigrant community of Washington DC to Orlando, Florida. 

Louis has purchased a steakhouse and wants the family to pursue the American dream. Eddie (Hudson Yang) is miserable that he's being sent to suburbia. And Jessica is mostly pissed that the humidity is going to wreck her hair. Also that she's leaving all her friends and family behind for an uncertain future.

Still, she supports her husband and she believes in his dream. In fact, Jessica can be very accurately described as the world's most supportive spouse, even if to our eyes she frequently doesn't seem it. She's harsh and critical and nit-picks and nags with no remorse, but she does all of that because she genuinely cares that Louis gets to see his dream fulfilled. She loves her husband and she loves her kids, and she's willing to do a heck of a lot to help them achieve their full potential. Whether they like it or not.

And while the story mainly follows Eddie's frustrations with middle school and his attempts to be cool in all-white suburban Florida, Jessica's role is much more than just as a foil to her son and husband. She's a full character in her own right, and her storylines have as much weight, if not more, than the other characters on the show.

When the season begins, Jessica is isolated and miserable, stuck at home all day while her husband goes to work and her kids go to school. So she reads Stephen King novels (even though they give her nightmares) and watches the news (even though it makes her paranoid) and tries to make friends with the neighborhood moms. Which is hard, because she hates them.

Eventually she does make a friend and her life gets a little less lonely, but there's still something missing. While Jessica tries to sublimate her frustrations and boredom with concentrating on helping her sons with their school work (and creating an entire extra-curricular tutoring program from scratch) and helping her husband at the restaurant (whether he likes it or not), she still finds herself un-fulfilled and bored.

I love that this is a plotline. Jessica's internal malaise at having been pulled from the life and job she knew isn't laughed off or glossed over. It's a real problem that the show addresses. In Washington DC, Jessica managed her brother-in-law's furniture store. In Florida, she doesn't do anything, and she hates it. She loves and supports her husband, but she isn't happy.

And this is huge, actually. Because this is where we see that Jessica's character on the show really does transcend stereotypes: both the stereotype of the Asian-American woman on television and that of the sitcom mom. She has her own crap going on, and the story validates that. Jessica is bored and frustrated. Is that her fault? No, the show tells us, it's a problem that has to be fixed. And it is.

Eventually Jessica finds that her critical nature and skill at strong-arming people into a bargain works perfectly in real estate and goes on to pursue becoming a realtor. It's not a huge point in the show, but it is one that is showcased and presented as important. It's important because Jessica isn't just there to make Louis and Eddie look good, she's her own person and she has her own story. The narrative supports that, and so too do Louis and Eddie. They're happy for her, and they should be.

It's funny to say, but I think the Huangs might be one of the most functional sitcom families in a long while. They're up there with the Belchers. Because while Jessica might not really understand Louis' love for the American dream, and while she frequently wants to strangle Eddie or her other two sons, she doesn't. She supports them and loves them and sometimes tough loves them. They stick together and they work. As a family, they work.

What makes Jessica Huang a legendary character, though, and one of my personal favorites, is how all of this is worked in with her identity as a Taiwanese immigrant coping with the stresses of American society and culture. It would be very easy for the story to descend into cheap stereotypes with her. So easy. 

Like I said before, she could be idealized into a sweet, soft-spoken "Asian flower" racial stereotype, or she could be cast as the "tiger mom", a mother so obsessed with her children's success that she destroys their lives, or she could be a "dragon lady", a woman whose seductive powers are legendary but who has no real agency in her own life. Granted, this is a sitcom, so she probably wasn't going to be that last one. But still.

Or she could have fallen into the trap of just being yet another sitcom mother. She could be defined by her relationships on the show, confined to the house and portrayed as someone with no further ambitions or inner life. Since the narrative is told from Eddie's point of view, and people generally view their parents with a solipsistic lens until well into adulthood, it would make sense for the story to sort of gloss over Jessica as a person, and leave her as "just a mom."

But this show doesn't do that. This show makes Jessica an active agent in her own life, fully cognizant of who she is and what she's doing, flawed and also incredibly, fearfully competent, and generally badass. And the show is a lot better for it.

The key is context. I mean, while, yes, she does sometimes veer towards "tiger mom" territory, it's always incredibly clear that Jessica is hard on her kids because she knows that they have barriers to their success that the other kids don't. Jessica is written to be fully aware of the impact that being non-white will have on her children, and she strives to offset that. And while she is supportive of Louis pursuit of the American dream, she is also critical of "America" in general. She sees little to value in white culture and is openly against some aspects. 

As she says in the first episode when her youngest son, Evan, discovers he is lactose intolerant, "His body is rejecting white culture. Which makes me kind of proud."

She's a complex figure in Eddie's life. On the one hand, he really admires his mother. He respects how driven she is and how she refuses to take anyone's crap. You can tell he has learned a lot about being tough and strong from her. But, on the other hand, she clearly drives him nuts. She gets fierce and overprotective beyond the point of it being helpful, like when she assaults him with a stuffed animal to demonstrate why he shouldn't date rape. It's a great message, but the delivery is flawed. And that makes her a much more interesting character.

Credit here has to be given to all the people involved in the development process of the character Jessica Huang: from Eddie Huang and his real life mother to Nahnatchka Khan (who also produced Don't Trust the B* in Apartment 23) to Constance Wu. All of these people and the many others who influenced her portrayal deserve a lot of thanks for their thoughtful intentionality in making Jessica Huang as grounded and real as she is.

Because that's the thing, the real reason I love her so much. Jessica Huang is a real person. And not just in that she's based on an actual human being. I mean that she has flaws and makes mistakes and overreacts and underreacts and sometimes she's a bitch and sometimes she cries and sometimes she's the best mother in the world. She's a person, not just a cartoon.

I could go on here about how vital and wonderful this is when you consider the deeply sad state of women of color, particularly Asian women, on television, but I think I'll let the numbers speak for themselves. Fresh Off the Boat is only the second mainstream sitcom in America to feature an Asian family. The first was Margaret Cho's All-American Girl, and that show tried to strip as much Asian-ness from its characters as humanly possible. 

Jessica Huang, though not the main character of the show, is undoubtedly its central figure and breakout star. And she is a fully fleshed out, complex, and fascinating character. Jessica's existence doesn't negate the fact that Asian women are chronically underrepresented on television, but she certainly is a step in the right direction.

I long to be this confident.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Announcing the Winners of the 2014 Undies!

Man oh man, this has been a short month. But, if you've been tracking with us, it's been a month filled with movies and laughter and some abysmally depressing existential angst tempered by a surprising number of vampires and aliens. And vampiric aliens.

So, these films announced here represent your favorite underappreciated films of the past year. Whether you defined "best" as "most entertaining" or "most heart-wrenching" or "most thought-provoking" or "most interesting and unique story", this is what you guys thought the best films were. And that's kind of seriously awesome.

Without further ado, here are the winners of the 2014 Underappreciated Films Awards:

Big Budget - Mockingjay

Mockingjay was a landslide winner here, which I was honestly not expecting. Seriously. I was figuring that Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Interstellar would put up more of a fight. I mean, I'm not arguing with the decision, but I was pretty surprised.

Also, shout out to Guardians of the Galaxy for coming in second place.

Micro Budget - Obvious Child

This one was the clear winner, though there was a slight rally near the end for Dear White People. Right on, Jenny Slate. Right on.

Foreign Language - A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Okay. Caveat. It turns out that the foreign language category needs some work before we do this again next year.* Because it turns out that underappreciated, obscure foreign films are really hard to find in the US. Who knew?

Still, out of the voters who actually managed to see any of the movies, this was the clear favorite. Seriously. It was unanimous. So, sorry to everyone who tried to vote and couldn't, and apologies for inadvertently giving at least one voter's computer malware. We shall never speak of this again.

Animated - Song of the Sea

You know, I kind of figured that after all that hullaballoo over The LEGO Movie getting robbed at the Oscars it would do better here, but it turns out that people really love their experimental art styles. Song of the Sea came first, and Book of Life came second. Cute.

Mid-Range - Three-Way Tie. For Real.

And this brings us to our final topic of the day: the Mid-Range Category. Yeah. I can't actually announce a mid-range winner tonight because that category ended, at midnight, in a three-way tie. So while I very seriously considered just giving the award to Snowpiercer because I love it and it's first alphabetically, I've decided to be fair:

I myself will be watching all three of the tied films this weekend and deciding which one is actually the winner. For the record, the other two films are Under the Skin and Top Five. Wish me luck. You are also welcome to join in the rewatch and send in your votes, but just know that while your votes will count, if it's another tie I'm going to just pick my favorite.

I'll announce the winner as soon as humanly possible (so, like, Friday?) so that we can all get busy watching and voting on the BEST UNDERAPPRECIATED MOVIE OF 2014! Yeah!

Happy watching!

*We are so totally doing this again next year. This was fun!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'Llama Llama' and Stickiness

I don't think I can stress this enough, but as someone who has read oh so many children's books aloud to ungrateful little snotbag audiences (by which I mean that I love and cherish children always), I have strong opinions about rhyming patterns in those stories.

For example, stories that don't rhyme at all? That's totally okay. You have decided not to do this, and while you have therefore made my life less fun and wacky for the next ten minutes or so, I can respect your choice. You know your own limits and that is definitely all right.

Stories that do rhyme? Tricky. Because here's the thing: rhyming is a lot harder to pull off that we all collectively seem to think it is. But just ask someone to come up with a limerick on the fly or rap or to generally rhyme even the most basic construct, and they'll fail miserably. Now ask them to make an entire story out of rhymes. That makes sense. And is engaging and fun for children. And doesn't use any swears.

It's so hard!

Which is why I really do respect the authors who can wield a rhyme and tell a good engaging story while they do it. Today's example of that is Anna Dewdney, whose Llama Llama books are one of the few series I can read to the Munchkin over and over again without wanting to scream. Which is high praise, trust me.

Her books, which all started out with the absolutely adorable Llama Llama Red Pajama, follow the adventures of baby Llama, child of the imaginatively named Llama family. There's Mama Llama and probably a Daddy Llama but he doesn't come up much. He has a friend named Nelly Gnu and sometimes he goes to preschool. But mostly, little Llama plays with his toys and goes to the store with mama or stays home sick, or in some way interacts with the world. And inevitably, something doesn't go Llama's way, because he's a toddler, so he throws a fit.

That's when Mama Llama tells him to stop all this llama drama! She says it like once a book at least. And then she calmly explains to him what appropriate behavior is, and he's a good little llama and understands, and then there's a happy ending and everyone loves everyone else the end.

Okay, and I can kind of see why some people might not think I love these books, because they are very simple and moralistic, but they're also good. Like, they're fun to read and the morals are all things I can totally get behind. The moral of Llama Llama Red Pajama is that sometimes you just have to be patient. It's about Llama trying to go to bed and he decides he's scared and he needs Mama right away, but Mama is busy and so he throws a tantrum. And it's super simple, but the message is that Llama just needs to calm the hell down because Mama's still here even when she's downstairs, and sometimes you just have to wait.

I can appreciate that, and not just for the selfish fact that my life would be a lot easier if the Munchkin learned this lesson. It's a good lesson to learn, that while you are important and valued, there are other things that matter too, and sometimes you just have to be patient. Good moral there.

Or what about Llama Llama Mad At Mama? That one is about Mama taking Llama shopping and he throws a fit in the store because it's taking too long. Then Mama tells him to knock it off. The end. Like, that's seriously the whole book, but it's funny and charming and beautifully illustrated, and it rhymes so well, and again, super helpful message. Sometimes we have to do chores. Deal with it. Yes.

But, getting back to the crux of my argument here, the reason these stories are palatable and the reason their morals work so well is because of how they're written. The meter and rhyme of the stories is perfectly calibrated into this kind of lulling sing-song that gets little ears listening without realizing they're being taught a thing. It's genius!

No, seriously. It really is genius. I've read enough badly rhymed books to understand that finding a meter and verse that work for you and for your style, then matching them to the actual mechanics of the story is really incredibly hard. Hats off to Anna Dewdney for managing all of that and then painting the illustrations too. That's a lot of work.

My point here isn't exactly that we should all revere Ms. Dewdney, though. Not quite. More just that it's worth paying attention to the little things, like rhyme, that help get kids' attention. The Munchkin listens a lot better when something is said in a sing-song. He also listens better about getting exercise when I point out that Lightning McQueen likes to go fast and needs to practice before his races. He loves cheetahs and sometimes he pretends one is chasing him. And songs in minor keys make him fall right to sleep. I have no idea why.*

While it's good to know your kid's specific preferences, it's also good to know why that's the thing that works for him or her. Why do the Llama Llama books work on the Munchkin? Why those books and not the Berenstain Bears or something. Because he does love the Berenstain Bears, but they don't teach him anything. He never refers back to them and their morality, whereas he has, on several occasions, mentioned remembering to share because of how Llama played with Nelly Gnu that one time. Or knowing that I'll always be there for him like Mama Llama is. He's actually learned from these stories, and it's really wonderful.

The reason for this is because the books are sticky. It's a term coined by the creators of Sesame Street to refer to how much the intended audience pays attention to a certain piece of media. In the case of that show, they placed kids in front of two monitors, one showing Sesame Street and one showing random images. Then they measured where the kids were looking and designed the show so that you would always look at Sesame Street instead of something else. Which explains so much about my childhood, you have no idea.

But the point here is that the Llama Llama books work because they're incredibly clever and good and fun and also because the rhyming makes them sticky. It makes them hold the attention of a child for a lot longer than another story might, and that gives them much more time to absorb the lessons being taught them. Isn't that awesome?

So I guess this is sort of just a thank you to Anna Dewdney. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for writing stories that I can genuinely stand, and for making them the kind of catchy that a three and half year old can't resist. And please, please, please keep writing them so I don't have to go back to the other stuff.


*I lied. I have some idea why. I think after a year and a half of me singing minor key lullabies to him before naptime I've accidentally preconditioned him to fall asleep to that tune. Which is going to make his adult life hilarious. And since most of the songs I sing to him are in Hebrew, if he ever goes to a Jewish music festival he's screwed.

Monday, March 23, 2015

'Aida' and Why We Need More Diverse Musicals Like This

Okay. This morning we really were going to talk about Insurgent because I really was going to have seen it over the weekend, but then I didn't. Partly because the theater near me had only a handful of 2D showings and partly because I was busy. But since not having seen the movie makes talking about it a little hard, we're going to do a hard left turn and talk about something else that is completely unrelated, but about which I've been thinking for the last few months.

Let's talk about the Tim Rice and Elton John rock-musical Aida. Bet you didn't see that one coming.

The thing is, this is actually one of my all time favorite musicals. I know I don't mention theater all that much on here, because it's not as naturally conducive to blogging as film or television or comics, but it is something I care a lot about. My parents are both theater people, my sister and I are theater people (or at least we were for a while), and theater has played a big role in my life. I think I was in middle school when I first saw a production of Aida, and while it didn't change my life, it certainly did get stuck in my head.

For those of you who aren't up on your American musical theater or on the Italian operas that theater is sometimes ripping off, Aida is based on a very very old legend. The same one that Verdi based his opera on. This legend is about two fated lovers whose devotion to each other nearly destroys two whole nations. Romeo and Juliet can go suck an egg, because Aida and Radames have got them beat, hands down.

The story takes place during Egypt's Old Kingdom period (probably, I think). Radames is a captain of the Egyptian guard and betrothed to the Pharaoh's daughter. Egypt is, at the this time, at war with neighboring Nubia (what we would now consider Sudan), and he has been sent on a scouting mission. It's while he's on this mission that he and his men capture some Nubian prisoners, including the young and beautiful Aida.

Aida, though she absolutely doesn't let anyone know this, isn't just some random girl. She's actually the crown princess of Nubia, and with her father old and nearing the end of his life, she's expected to rise to power very soon. Only she gets captured and sold into slavery in Egypt.

Radames and Aida have an instantaneous spark, one that seems to mostly consist of bickering and pecking at each other on the boat ride back to Egypt, and it's obvious they're going to fall in love. But there are other factors to consider. Aida is given as a slave to none other than Amneris, Radames' betrothed. Radames' father is currently plotting to kill the Pharaoh, force the marriage, and then install Radames on the throne. Aida ends up accidentally leading a slave rebellion. It's a very exciting musical.

And at the end, the lovers, who are absolutely definitely in love at this point, are sentenced to death for their crimes. They die buried alive in a tomb while Amneris ascends to the throne of Egypt, makes peace with Nubia, and reigns for years in a new golden age.

Seriously. You should watch this musical. It's fantastic.

But what I want to talk about today isn't just how wonderful and clever this musical is, though it is both, but how quietly subversive it is. Aida is, in the background, doing some stuff that is way more radical than I think anyone really appreciates. 

We all talk about wanting more diverse characters and more interesting plots, but sometimes we as a culture miss the places where those plots are already happening. And one of those missed plots is this one, a story about feminine strength, female political savvy, romantic love, female friendship, and the cost of power. Also race. It's the whole package.

While the plot of the musical is superficially about a romance between two people who feel "trapped", the actual events of the show are very much about women in power and what it means to be a woman who is "destined for greatness". On the two sides of this issue you have the two female leads, Aida and Amneris. Though they start as rivals and as master-slave, they quickly form a strong friendship based on mutual respect. Both women know what it is to have high expectations placed on you, but the expectations take very different forms.

In Aida's case, the expectation is always that she will be a good and strong military leader, a true ruler to her people. One of the songs even has her people sing to her, "All we ask is a lifetime of courage, wisdom, service - to want more would be selfish, but nothing less will do." Aida has a hell of a time figuring out how to live up to those expectations and be the ruler her people deserve, especially in captivity and slavery. She wants to rule well, but she also wants the freedom to be a person, and that's a freedom she does not have. In fact, her romance with Radames actually makes more sense when you realize that this is her chance to have something not prescribed by duty and obligation. Hence the tragedy of it all.

Amneris, on the other hand, isn't expected to be a great leader or political strategist. She's not expected to do much at all, except marry Radames (or another handsome, clever, well-connected man) and be the perfect trophy wife. I mean, she is the ultimate trophy wife - she comes with the ultimate trophy. Amneris even sees herself this way. She focuses all of her energy on perfecting her outward appearance because she doesn't want anyone to look closely and see how miserable and frustrated she is. And at the end, she decides to screw the expectations everyone has, the destiny she's been called to, and to rule on her own.

But the show doesn't place either woman's choice as better than the other's. They're just different. Aida wants freedom, Amneris wants consequence. They're different women with different goals, and so they have very different ends to their story. What makes this a great show is that it doesn't ask you to choose, nor does it ask them to choose. By the end, it feels less like Amneris is furious with Aida for stealing away Radames than that she's pissed with Radames for stealing away Aida. He took her best friend! The jerk!

All of this is interesting, but it gets even better when we factor in the way that race is portrayed in the musical. Now, bear in mind, this is an American musical based on an Italian opera based on a legend from like seven thousand years ago. So the racial representations are really off.* In the musical, the Nubians are traditionally cast with African-American actors, while the Egyptians are shown as white. Like I said, this isn't accurate, because Egypt seven thousand years ago was just as black as its neighbors**, but the interpretation does hold some interesting meaning for us now.

See, Egypt in the story is a colonizing force. Nubia isn't at war with them because they want something Egypt has, they just want to be left alone. Egypt is invading Nubia and stealing its natural resources while capturing the people to take as slaves. So, yeah, that sounds like white people.

This means that the main romance in the story is interracial, which is super cool. But it also means that the story now has the latitude to talk about race in terms of female relationships, and the way that privilege and power can influence that. When everyone finds out that Radames has left Amneris for her Nubian slave, there's talk about how he's "slumming it" and how they're confused about why he would go for someone so "ugly". Obviously this is dumb because Aida is gorgeous and I think in this case she's the one slumming it, but it's also rather intentionally racist, which is very interesting.

I mean, just the decision in the first place to make this a play where the main character is an African princess with complicated feelings and motivations and perspectives on her life and role in the world - that's huge. Really huge. It adds a level of complexity to the show and its emotional underpinnings that the opera sadly lacks.

Seriously, guys, I can't stress enough how much you should definitely go see this show. It's wonderful and amazing and well worth seeing. But I also have another motivation in bringing this up.

Now that both Les Miserables and Into the Woods have been made into big budget Hollywood movies, producers are starting to scour through their old Broadway Playbills to see what other shows they can turn into cash cows. Next on the chopping block is, I think, Wicked, which is interesting and will probably make for a great movie, but I want to urge those producers looking out there to think more outside the box. Can you make a great Wicked movie? Almost definitely. But do we actually need one? I'm less convinced.

What we do need, desperately, is more diverse media, especially media that deals with intersectional relationships between power and gender and race. Aida has all of that, as well as a soundtrack you can really tap your toes to. Wicked is great, and so are a lot of the other shows they've been considering, but they're all very historically white shows. Why not actually do something different? Why not tell a new story?

We need more stories like this. Stories that expand our ideas of what it means to be human, to be a woman, to be a man, to be Nubian or Egyptian or in power or out of power or in love or in friendship - we need stories that actually represent the whole breadth and width of the human experience. And then we need those stories to be made in to movies so that the most people possible will see them and understand the world just that tiny bit better.

Why not make Aida into the gigantic, sprawling, gorgeous adaptation that we keep trying to make Cleopatra into? Lupita N'yongo can play the title role. Stick Rami Malek as Radames. I have no idea if either of them can sing, but I figure they can learn. Dust off Rosario Dawson and plunk her down as Amneris. Or whoever. But let there be a giant wonderful movie musical about people who aren't white, women who have great power, and about two idiots falling in love and ruining everything. I want that show. I want it more than I want Wicked. I want it because it will make me cry and sing along and spend all my money at the box office.

And, if you can't manage that, what's the point of making movie musicals at all?

*Actually, all of the historical stuff is off. Old Kingdom Egypt didn't have Pharaohs and Queens, it had male Pharaohs and female Pharaohs who ruled concurrently and kept separate households. And while we have no records of a male Pharaoh ruling alone, we have a fair number of records of female Pharaohs doing so. Take that, modern day sexist reinterpretations of history!

**Fight me on this, I dare you. I minored in Africana Studies in college, with a specialty in Egyptology. I will win.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Last Chance to Help Pick the 2014 Undies!

The time draws near. On this Wednesday, March 25, five films will be chosen. Those five films will represent the best of their respective categories. And then those five films will go head to head to head to head to head to determine which one will win the 2014 Undies Overall Round!

Or, to put it better, if you want to register as a voter in the Undies, this is your last chance. The Undies is a voting poll looking to find the best under-appreciated (by critics and awards shows) films of 2014. 

There are five film categories, and you can see more on that here in the master post, as well as what the nominees are. If you want to vote, you can pick a category, see all the films in it, and then email me at to tell me which one you think is the best. The best at telling a story, the best at entertaining you, the best at doing something surprising or new - however you define the "best."

And then I'll compile all those responses and tell you all who won!

So, if you are a voter, get your votes in by March 25

If you're not a voter, register now!

Either way, I can't wait to find out what you guys think of the films. And I really can't wait to discover what actually is the best under-appreciated film of 2014.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Animated 'Hobbit' Gave Me Nightmares, And That's Okay

Look, I've seen a lot of movies in my life. That's kind of my thing. But I completely maintain that out of all the movies I have ever seen, including that period in high school where my then-boyfriend had me watching all these horror movies, nothing has ever freaked me out like the films I saw when I was a kid. Even if those movies weren't actually exactly scary. To adults.

Basically what I'm saying is, is no one else still ridiculously terrified by the animated Hobbit movie? This movie is responsible for half my phobias, a solid third of my neuroses, and a whole heap of childhood nightmares. Why did I watch it, then? Because when I first saw it, at the age of seven or so, it was the only film version of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings that I had access to, and I will put up with a hell of a lot when I'm obsessed with something. Apparently.

No, but seriously. This movie terrorized me as a child, but I watched it faithfully over and over again. And it's not like it got less scary with time. I think, instead, what happened is that I started to kind of like being scared. And that is worth talking about.

So for those of you, that blessed generation, who don't really remember life before the Peter Jackson Tolkien adaptations were a thing, and for those of you who managed to somehow miss this monster of a film anyway, the animated Hobbit is a 1977 made for TV movie. Running at a scant 90 minutes, it is literally one sixth of the length of Jackson's adaptation. And for those of you who know your animation history, it was made by Bass and Rankin, who also made The Last Unicorn and Thundercats.

The story is basically a quick rundown of the book. Bilbo Baggins (voiced by Orson Bean) is a hobbit with a potbelly who doesn't want to go anywhere or do anything interesting. But when the Gandalf (John Huston) and the dwarves show up, he's lured by talk of treasure into joining them on a quest to save the Lonely Mountain from the evil dragon Smaug (Richard Boone).

And of course along the way they run into some nasty trolls, a mountain full of goblins with a surprisingly catchy theme song, Gollum and the Ring, and other stuff like that. I will say, actually, that I think this version, for all that it's super weird (and we'll get to that in a minute) is probably more accurate to the book than Jackson's version. I'm not saying it's better, because it isn't, but it does keep more to the feel of this being a quickie adventure story for children. Horribly traumatized and frightened children.

Just because the story is very in tune with the book doesn't mean that it's not still really weird. That's the thing. Somehow, this adaptation managed to keep the spirit of Tolkien's writing while making a lot of incredibly sketchy choices in translation.

The Mirkwood elves, for example, are portrayed not as extremely attractive human beings like they are in the books, but as spindly, green, almost plant-like Germans. No, really, Germans. They all have German accents and perpetual scowls and Thranduil is voiced by Otto Preminger. Which is interesting because earlier in the film we meet Elrond, who is just a super attractive person type thing (voiced by Cyril Ritchard), and we don't even realize they're the same species. So that's weird.

The goblins are a bit different than I remember Tolkien describing them, but that's less of a thing, because Tolkien isn't super clear on the bad guys. He tends to leave a lot to the imagination. Hence, Gollum in this adaptation very well might be what he was thinking of. In this version, I feel the need to point out, Gollum isn't a thing much like a Hobbit, he's a sort of amphibious blind salamander fish dude. It's a really fascinating character design, but, again, terrifying.

I don't even want to go into detail on why the spiders freaked me out, but suffice to say that the spiders of Mirkwood are responsible for the last nineteen years of my shrieking and screaming when I see a large arachnid.

But more than just the production design choices in this film, there seems to be an underlying tone to the movie, one that is much more serious and deep than any other version I know of. Here, this is the first scene of the movie, and I want you to pay attention to how dark it feels. I mean, nothing bad has happened yet, but this whole sequence is so ominous.

It's terrifying, right?! And this is the most innocuous part of the story. But, like I was saying above, I think that there came a point in my watching this movie where all of this fear, the terrifying elves and spiders and Gollum, became the reason why I watch this movie. And more than that, it became why this movie for me rings true.

It's the tone. Yes, this movie still freaks me out, but there's something I love in how seriously it takes the story. There's no ironic detachment here. Bilbo's story is epic. It's full of danger and darkness, and the movie doesn't gloss over that. It doesn't try to make it okay. Instead, it sort of reaches out a hand and pulls you along, whether you're ready or not. 

I think there's a value in that. There's value in recognizing that sometimes we, like Bilbo, really don't want to be pulled from our comfort zones but we desperately need to be. And there's value in seeing that the road very well might be scary. It might be ominous and fearful and full of terrors. But we have to go anyways.

In a big way, I think that this Hobbit had a far greater impact on me as a person than any of the Peter Jackson films. I mean, those are great, don't get me wrong. And I love them deeply and tenderly (though I love Lord of the Rings much more than his Hobbit adaptations). But those are films I saw as a teenager and an adult. This movie I saw as a child, and it shaped me. It inspired me to seek out things and people who scare me a little, because that's how the best stories are told.

And, yes, it absolutely gave me arachnophobia and it totally has some really silly dumb moments - like when Smaug can shoot lasers out of his eyes or the whole troll sequence - but that doesn't detract from the movie as a whole. It's not a great film, but it was a formative one, at least for me.

Fear should not stop you from doing something important, and knowing enough to be afraid is sometimes a really good life skill. I think I kept watching this movie so much because it freaked me out. But more than that, because it offered me something at the end of my fear: a chance to do great things if I can just make it past my own doorstep.

So, thanks?

And now, a collection of real screencaps from this movie just so I can point out that I am really not kidding, it is absolutely terrifying and will give you nightmares. You're welcome.

Sweet dreams!

Monday, March 16, 2015

'Cinderella' Gives The Titular Character A Personality - Yay!

For those of you who like to cover your ears and hum loudly whenever I start to review a Disney movie, be comforted: I liked this one, so I'm going to be kind. Not least of all because the entire point of this movie was that kindness can be a sort of superpower if you do it right, and I like that moral enough to end up endorsing the whole film for it.

So yes. Those of you who cringe and wish I wouldn't be so mean to Frozen and the other Disney Princess movies, I did like this film. It was good. And I was surprised by how much I appreciated it, considering that generally speaking, Cinderella is my least favorite fairy tale. It's certainly my least favorite animated Disney movie.

My problem with Cinderella, at least the animated one, has always been that Cinderella never really *does* anything. She never chooses anything, and as far as you can tell in the movie, she doesn't have any control over her life or what happens to her. She seems to just drift through the world, falling into things. And sure, she's nice and sweet and kind, but it seems less like a personality trait and more like the drugged smile of someone on a lot of mood stabilizers. Trust me. I would know.

The animated Cinderella relies therefore not on the intelligence and personality of its heroine, but on the actions of other people around her, like the Prince, her Godmother, the mice, and her Wicked Stepmother. All of those characters have far more say in what becomes of Cinderella than she does. 

And worst of all, she doesn't seem to care about that. She doesn't seem to care about anything. Cinderella experiences no grief or frustration or elation or anything. She is cheerful and perky, but never seems to care that she lost both her parents, that her stepmother and stepsisters have abused her for years. Sure, she cries a few times, but, again, it doesn't feel like it really means anything. 

All of this is why I was skeptical going into the new live action Cinderella movie. Not because I've never seen a Cinderella film done right, but because I knew this movie was going to be based firmly on the animated version, and, frankly, that idea does not appeal to me. So color me shocked that I not only tolerated this movie, I actually actively enjoyed it.

Who knew?!

I think the big reason why I liked it is first and foremost because they took all my criticisms of the animated film and seemingly addressed them. Instead of telling just a bare framework of a film where Cinderella goes from being a cheerful servant to a cheerful princess in a scant eighty minutes with pretty much no character development or explanation from anyone, this film decides to actually explore the whys and wherefores of how the situation got like this, who Cinderella actually is as a person, and what it means to have a kind heart.

Those are all things I can appreciate. But the biggest reason I like this movie more than its predecessor is simply this: they let Cinderella have a personality. She is a person. She chooses things. She has agency in her own life. It doesn't just happen to her, she is in control of her own destiny. And that matters a hell of a lot.

"Have courage and be kind."

So, the film starts by giving us a picture of what Cinderella's life used to be like. It explains in loving voiceover that the child, Ella, was born to adoring parents who lived in a happy home on the edge of the forest. Said parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) are sweet and wonderful people who are infatuated with each other and raise their daughter to be kind and good hearted. Aww. 

But then tragedy strikes one day, out of the blue, and Ella's mother falls sick and dies. Ella and her father are devastated but, eventually, they learn to move on. And, one day, when Ella is almost grown (and now played by Lily James), he asks her if she would be all right with him marrying again.

Ella is all right with the idea, and though she doesn't much care for her new stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) she is happy and willing to pursue a relationship with them. They are less enthused about her. Interestingly, however, they are not outright contemptuous. Her stepmother, certainly not a kind woman, is not immediately cruel either. She is just out of place, a woman not meant for country life, and clearly still mourning the very recent death of her husband.

All of this is why, when Ella's father makes plans to leave on what will be his last trip abroad (because he dies, and I refuse to put spoilers about a fairytale that's over five hundred years old), we can see so clearly how the stepmother comes to hate Ella. All the stepmother wants is to know that her new husband loves her at least a little and that he cares for the new family he has taken. But all he seems to care for is his daughter and honoring the memory of his sainted first wife.

It's one of those terrible situations where no one is exactly wrong and also no one is really right. Of course Ella's father should love and cherish her and honor the memory of her mother. But he's not right to outright ignore his wife. And clearly the stepmother has some issues, but can't you feel her pain at realizing that she will never even come close to the true affections of her husband? Meanwhile Ella is trapped horribly in the middle. Then her father dies and we are told that to the last he spoke only of his daughter, Ella, and her sainted mother.

Which is how, a time later, we come to where the story really begins. Ella has become the family's servant as her stepmother manipulated her into a series of degrading diminutions in stature and dismissed the rest of the family help. She sleeps in the attic or by the fire and she no longer can consider herself the lady of the house. She is just a servant, a drudge, and it's purely by force of will that she keeps herself going. The movie even gives her a motivation for this: as long as she doesn't leave, she can still lay claim to the title of the property, her ancestral home, someday.

Until one day she breaks and runs off, trying to lose some steam by riding a horse bareback through the fields.* She's going and going until, with a jerk, the horse stops because he's now nose to nose with a giant freaking stag. Ella and the stag are face to face when some trumpets sound, Ella realizes it's a hunt, and, with her big heart, she urges the stag to run.

It's moments after this that our heroine meets our hero, the Prince (Richard Madden). Or, as he actually introduces himself, Kit. Kit stumbles across Ella in the woods and she chides him for daring to hunt a stag like that. He's charmed by her forthrightness, and also by the fact that she clearly has no idea who he is, and they get to talking. He tells her he's an apprentice at the palace, learning his father's trade. She demurs about what her name is, but admits that she's not happy where she is. What really catches Kit's attention, though, is that instead of complaining about her life or taking this chance to vent, she simply says, "They treat me as well as they are able."

And he likes that. He likes all of her, obviously, but what makes this scene work is that Kit is so clearly taken with the way that Ella views the world around her. She is so kind and so good, and not because she's just naturally like that, but because she has so clearly chosen to be. Kit falls in love with her, and so do we.

In fact, it's because of this chance encounter in the woods, after which Ella makes him promise not to hurt the stag, saying, "Just because that's how it's always been done doesn't mean it's right," or something, that Kit returns home and tells his father's he's marrying that girl in the woods, if she'll have him. His father, the King (Derek Jacobi, because why not?), is appalled by the idea of his son marrying a "simple country girl" and reminds Kit that as the prince he has a duty to make an advantageous match. They're not a powerful or large country and they have many neighbors who would love to make war. Kit must marry a princess and so produce an alliance. It's the only way.

All right, Kit agrees, but only if the ball where the princesses come to vie for his hand (and I love that reversal idea, that Kit is the one being married off) can be opened to all the people of the land. It'll be good for public moral, give the people a chance to meet their new queen before she's crowned, and give him a chance to hopefully run into the charming girl from the woods again.

The story goes pretty much as you expect from there. I don't think it's really worth my time to explain, except to say that at every turn I was delighted to see Ella taking initiative and choosing for herself. Her stepmother won't let her go to the ball because the cost of the dress would be prohibitive, so Ella makes her own dress. When they ruin that dress and Ella is weeping, she comes out of her sorrow to help the poor old woman who's come to beg.

And when that woman turns out to be her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, being herself), Ella isn't shy about asking for what she wants. Specifically, she wants some say in how things go down and what dress she wears. In other words, Ella has opinions and a personality and it's so nice. So nice.

There's also a subplot in here where the Archduke (Stellan Skarsgard) has secretly already bargained the Prince's hand in marriage to a foreign princess, and the stepmother finds out and blackmails him. It's a quite good addition, actually, because this is a story that could use some complexity, and it points out, again, that there are halfway decent political reasons for not marrying Ella. Which I like.

Frankly, there are a lot of reasons to like this film. As I've already mentioned, there's the moral, the "have courage and be kind" thing, that runs through the film and is some of the best advice I've ever heard. That it's delivered by Hayley Atwell is just a bonus, and seeing the way that kindness is an active choice in Ella's life is really fantastic. There are moments when we the audience can tell that she is debating internally over what her reaction will be to any given situation, and yes, she does almost always decide to be kind, but the debate is important. We watch her choose, and it empowers us to see kindness as not the realm of idiots in fairy tales, but as something we ourselves can choose to do. So that's awesome.

But there's also loads of other good stuff. Like, yeah, it's only shown a little bit, but Ella has female friends. She's not "the only decent girl in the world". And the makers of this film have clearly been reading my blog, because the crowd scenes actually contained actors of color! In a fairy tale movie! What is this progressive utopia we have found?! Some of the princesses are even non-white, and it's never referred to, it's just a thing. Hooray!

The movie also does an amazing job making you care about the characters, to the extent that when Ella's parents die and later (incredibly minor SPOILER) the King dies we feel genuine loss and sorrow. These people were so well characterized that we understand their children's grief.

Which brings us to another worthwhile point: Ella and Kit actually have chemistry and have a relationship that is clearly built on compatibility and mutual respect. Imagine that! The movie gets us invested in them not because we have to be because they're the leads, but because they make each other better people. Ella inspires Kit to be kind and Kit inspires Ella to be brave. That's explicitly in the text, and that's great. I mean, they're even able to console each other and talk about grief, which is a pretty big deal for a movie like this.

In all honesty, I find this movie to have less in common with the animated 1950s Cinderella than it does with the revisionist 2000s era Ever After. And while Ever After is still definitely my favorite (because who doesn't love that movie?), this version comes shockingly close in my esteem. It's almost up there with the 2000s Rogers and Hammerstein Cinderella starring Brandi. Almost.

Lily James does a good job as Ella and an especially good job considering that this is patently her first time in such a huge role. And, as usual, Kenneth Branaugh is a skilled director whose real talent lies in elevating superficially simplistic plots to Shakespearean proportions - because he started out doing Shakespeare. 

Cate Blanchett is phenomenal, and her portrayal of the wicked stepmother as a fundamentally broken women is devastating and amazing, adding real gravitas to the story. Helena Bonham Carter is great, but not really doing anything shocking. And Richard Madden is lovely, as usual, but he didn't have a huge amount to work with. 

I will say that the one issue I really have with this film is the whole controversy about Ella's dress for the ball. You might have heard about this, but apparently Lily James went on record admitting that the corset for that dress was so tight and so tiny that she had to go on a liquid diet in order to fit it. And deeply distressing. Especially since I sat next to a maybe eight year old girl watching this movie and she loved that dress. Wanted one of her own. Was enthralled. And I hate the fact that this girl now has an idea of beauty in her mind that is literally unachievable by healthy standards.

I mean, seriously! Why did her waist have to be that tiny? Give me one good reason. It's not like Lily James isn't dainty and tiny already. She is a very small, very slender person. A fitted corset would have worked just fine, honestly, and no one would have thought anything of it. It's not like people would have watched the film and gone, "Hey, that human woman's waist does not match the proportions of a cartoon made sixty five years ago! How dare they!" No. No one would have noticed because we're not all crazy. The decision to make that corset so incredibly tiny completely baffles me and does actually detract from my love for this film.

But not so much that I actually stopped liking it. Just enough for me to compose a couple of really angry emails to the executives at Disney. Because I like to let them know when I'm annoyed.

Still. That is my one really big complaint about the film. Other than that, I really liked it. Could it have been better? Probably. Most things could be better in some way. And is it a perfect feminist masterpiece that you should show your child without reservation? No. It's worth talking some things through with your child when you all see this movie.

But I do like it. It's got enough of an edge, enough personality and verve and life and agency, that I can say comfortably it's my favorite version of Cinderella in years. Top five for sure. And if Disney is going to keep on making live action versions of its fairytales, which it seems bound and determined to do, then between this Cinderella and Maleficent, I have to say that we're off to a good start.

There. I did it. I got through a whole review on a Disney Princess movie being kind. I want a cookie.

*This scene was very pretty but not particularly spectacular for me. My friends who love horses, however, assured me that it was the highlight of the film. I defer to their superior judgment.