Monday, December 31, 2012

Mirror Mirror Fails To Make Me Care

Hollywood has a tendency to go through phases. We’re just starting to come out of a vampire phase, and I think I speak for everyone when I celebrate that one. We’re in the middle of a superhero phase, which seems to be getting a bit thicker before it gets thin again, but trust me when I say that it will. We like to indulge in a bit of the fantastical, but soon we get bored and we want a different kind of fantastical. And that’s fine, really. Not overly surprising.

All of this is to say that while we are coming out of a vampire phase, we are most certainly going into, and some would argue already in, a fairytale phase. We’ve got shows like Once Upon a Time and Grimm trundling around the networks, movies like Maleficent, Jack the Giant Killer, and Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters coming down the pipeline, and a fair spate of similarly themed movies already out.

Of these movies, we’ve actually already talked about one in particular, Snow White and the Huntsman, a gritty, semi-historical take on the Snow White story. Well, coming out around the same time, there was also Mirror Mirror, a lighthearted Disneyfied version of the same story. Which I have now watched, and bring you commentary on.

But first, a little context. I don’t think I need to tell you the story of Snow White, so I’m not going to, but I do want to discuss the idea of making a fairy tale into a movie. You see, fairy tales can be incredibly complex, and they do have the ability to tell us much more than the story itself. They can fundamentally change our worldviews, give us new insight into ourselves, and generally be an enjoyable yarn. But overall, they’re pretty freaking short.

I mean, what are the actual elements of the Snow White story when you get down to it? What do you absolutely have to have in order for the story to be about Snow White?

First, you need a king and a queen and you need them to have a supremely attractive child. Which is a little creepy to start off with, but there you go. Then, you need the mother to die and the father to remarry. Again, a bit unnerving. The stepmother needs to be super vain and hate the baby Snow. Somewhere in there, usually, the father needs to die.

So the stepmother, obsessed with her beauty, decides to off her very pretty stepdaughter, and sends said daughter out into the woods where she is decidedly not killed. Kid escapes, hides with vertically challenged orgy of men, is thorn in queen’s side. Then the queen decides to poison the kid, the kid falls into a coma and is only awoken when some dude passing through takes extreme liberties with a seemingly-dead body.

The corpse comes back to life, true love prevails, and the evil queen is vanquished. Skippy doo and cake for everyone.

That’s the story. The basics. What you need in order to make the story qualify.

What you don’t see in there is a lot of complexity or plot. What you really have a is a series of vignettes that could be handily got out of the way in about seven minutes, without cutting anything or giving it particularly short-shrift.

So what the hell do you do with the other hour and a half of your movie?

Now here’s where we come back to Mirror Mirror. Because the answer we can imply from that film is, simply, not much. There is really not a lot to do when you’re not telling the actual story. 

Sure, you have a few intriguing flourishes, like the dwarves actually being bandits who use stilts, or the queen being a scenery-chewing Julia Roberts, or even the prince falling under a puppy love scene and acting like a dog for a while. But these don’t really eat up a lot of time, and they really don’t make the story any deeper. All they do is remind you that the movie is paper-thin and about to collapse at any moment.

The real gut of it is that it’s a shame they wasted their incredible cast. Not only are Lily Collins and Julia Roberts surprisingly well matched, Armie Hammer makes a very entertaining fatuous prince, and Nathan Lane sparkles as a beleaguered servant. Heck, even Sean Bean shows up as the king. What I’m saying is that this was a movie with a lot of potential. The concept was to take the Snow White story, which is pretty grim, and find the funny in it. To make it a heartwarming story, and let Ms. Roberts get a few kicks along the way.

Unfortunately, it didn’t really work out like that. In focusing too much on all the cute little quirky things they could add to the story, the writers failed to add any compelling depth or reason to root for any of the characters. Sure, Snow White is charming, but so is Nathan Lane, so I fail to see how that helps here. The Evil Queen might be evil, but at least she looks like she’s having fun, so who are we to hold that against her. With the Queen clearly having a ball, and Snow set up as a self-righteous, blandly lovely person, it’s really hard to watch the movie, and, well, care. Which is rather a death-knell for any film.

I’m not saying that they should have cut anything in particular, more that they should have added to the story, specifically things that would make it more emotionally resonant. Even the scenery feels thin and false, relying heavily on CGI and minimalism, it’s interesting to look at, but adds nothing whatsoever to the story. It all just feels fake.

In a sense, it’s a fairy tale, it’s supposed to feel fake, but that’s not the whole story. Fairy tales are supposed to be fake, but they’re supposed to feel real. Our emotions need to glom onto them, or else the metaphor they’re trying to sell us won’t take. And in Mirror Mirror, sad to say, the story never lets you get deep enough to give a crap.

Nice costumes, though.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Sympathy for the Devil (Once Upon a Time)

I have a bad tendency to over-identify with the villain in stories. Call it Elphaba syndrome, but some illogical part of me gets sad when there’s a well-written villain in a story, who is clearly manipulated into their evil and cannot, for the reasons of plot, find a happiness outside of revenge. It’s just so hard to write a good villain who isn’t relatable, you know?

Most of the time, though, I can keep some level of distance, and understand that while these people, or Loki, did get a pretty raw deal, their method of retribution was far and away evil and mean and horrible.

Not so with Once Upon a Time. I mean, I totally get that Regina has done some woeful wrong, but what I don’t get is how the villagers think that making her feel isolated and unhappy is really going to make that better.

I don’t really have an agenda for this, I just think it’s really interesting. And sad. Mostly sad.

In the second season of Once Upon a Time, Regina’s curse has been broken, and the people of Storybrooke are returned to their memories and happy endings. Hooray! Less of a hurray, though, for Regina, who has now lost her happy ending, again, still isn’t reunited with her beloved Daniel, and has to deal with a whole town full of people who really hate her guts. Understandably, she decides to hate them right back, until her adopted son, Henry (aka, child I want to shove in a hole, though is acting is getting a little better), begs her to stop using magic. If she does, he might love her.

Now, I have been privy to some pretty intense emotional manipulation in my time (thanks, high school boyfriend!), but that is a winner.

Furthermore, it’s hard to actually get where Henry is coming from here. For all that he spends the first season of the show yelling about how his adopted mother is the Evil Queen, and insofar as he is actually right, Regina’s not actually a bad mom. 

She’s not a fun mom, and she does do some not great stuff, like send him off to see a shrink when she knows he’s not really crazy, but it’s less diabolical and more…smothering.

In fact, it’s hard to say what Henry’s real problem with Regina actually is, aside from the fact that she’s not his “real mom”. This disregards the part where his “real mom”, Emma, gave him up for adoption, has never had custody over him or taken care of him for any extended period, and that Regina is really a perfectly fine mother. Henry just doesn’t like her. He’s ten. It’s not the end of the world.

When you get down to it, too, most of Regina’s actions in Storybrooke (I did say most) aren’t evil so much as they’re just really bitchy. She isn’t a horrible tyrant imposing her will on anyone, she’s more of a bitch with control issues. Not a dragon to be slain, just someone who needs a bit of therapy, and a friend.

We even get glimpses back into Regina’s past to see that she was molded into what she became by a conniving Rumplestiltskin, a complicit Jefferson, and a crazy Cora (her mother). Out of all of these, we see her mother’s influence the deepest, and it’s not hard to think of how that influence poisoned Regina, forcing her to live in her rage and thirst for vengeance, instead of allowing her to seek peace.

And all of this would be fine if the narrative weren’t constantly veering all over the place with her. One minute we’re supposed to like Regina and respect that she’s looking for redemption. The next, we’re supposed to be suspicious of her motives and think that she’s up to no good. And somewhere in there we get a big dose of Cora, and we’re supposed to want to curl Regina up on our couch and give her a cup of tea. It’s all very confusing.

I give a lot of credit to Lana Parrilla for making Regina so accessible, and for giving us insight into every swing of her moods and temper. But I also give the writer’s a lot of blame for not allowing her to move on, and for dragging their heels with the whole redemption arc.

On the one hand, I appreciate the idea that the townsfolk are resentful and angry with Regina for freaking cursing them. On the other, I think they need to stop acting like they had nothing to do with how mad she was, and maybe consider buying her a gift basket and inviting her to dinner sometimes.

But as far as Henry goes, and he is often held up as this terrible thing that she’s done, I just don’t get it. She wanted to adopt a child, because she wanted someone to love. Is that really so bad? There are a lot of worse motives. And maybe she wasn’t very demonstrative, or happy, or even kind to her son, but that doesn’t mean she stopped being his mother. That doesn’t mean she didn’t love him, and it really doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to revile her for trying to care.

By all means make Regina the villain. She’s a great one, and she’s fantastic at every step. But don’t make her overly sympathetic while you do it, because one of these days, you’re gong to turn around and the audience will be firmly on her side of the apple orchard. And then the show’s going to get real interesting.

Lana Parrilla really is an amazing actress, for the record.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bend It Like Beckham Is My Perfect Movie (I Like Soccer)

It’s a question I get asked a lot, especially by my mother. If I hate so many movies, and so many things in so many other movies that I don’t actually hate entirely, then is there any movie in which I find nothing objectionable? And, more than that, is there any single movie that I think isn’t just unobjectionable, but also, you know, really good?

In short: what’s my perfect movie?

Now, I can’t answer that universally. People like different things in their movies, it’s a fact of nature. My perfect movie is probably someone else’s objectionable mess. But when it comes to that question, after thinking long and hard about it, I do have an answer. Bend It Like Beckham is my perfect movie.

Allow me to explain why.

Now, to start off with just personal taste stuff, there’s a reason why I picked this particular movie. In addition to all the really awesome social stuff, which we will talk about, and the wonderful themes and fantastic character representations, I like Bend It Like Beckham because it is a fun freaking movie. Starring Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Archie Panjabi and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, it’s a fantastic little indie about an Indian girl in London who just wants to play professional football (soccer), much against the wishes of her traditional family.

With Keira Knightley as her best friend, Rhys-Meyers as the coach who believes in her (and secretly wants to kiss her), and Panjabi as her complicated, soon-to-be-married sister, the whole story twists through the usual sports movie clichés, and deftly works in an examination of the second generation immigrant experience. And it’s funny.

Since I happen to love sports movies, and am very curious about Indian culture (a friend has a whole theory about why we become interested in other cultures and what that says about the culture we inhabit, but it’s too long to go into here), I found this to be a particularly intoxicating mix of stories. Also it’s about soccer, which I like, and reminds me just the tiniest bit of The Big Green, a childhood favorite.

So, for all those reasons, I was pre-programmed to really like Bend It Like Beckham. What I wasn’t already prepped for was how freaking good it is.

When it comes to judging a “perfect movie”, or at least one that meets my standards, it has to pass a couple of basic tests. First, it has to pass the Bechdel Test. That’s the one about female characters and their involvement in the plot. This film passes with flying colors. Then, if we get that far, we do the Race Test, which is just a version of the Bechdel Test with “character of color” substituted for “female character”. And, finally, we just scan the film for a minute to see if anything offensive or weird has popped out. No? Good.

But just passing a few tests doesn’t make a movie “perfect.” What it does is make it adequate. Yes, it seems harsh to say it, but passing those tests really is the bare minimum a film can do under the name of being inclusive. What really counts is how the film deals with the rest of the story.

This is where Bend It Like Beckham truly shines. Built into the premise of the story are several large social issues. There’s Jess’ (Nagra) dissociation from her parents’ culture and desire to assimilate into British mainstream footie culture. There is also her friend Jules’ (Knightley) constant battles with her mother (Juliet Stevenson) over the meaning and importance of femininity. 
There are questions about what it means to be a woman. There are even more questions about how to balance the importance of family and culture with the individualistic desire to strike out for something new.

Without the examination of these issues, Bend It Like Beckham would be a cute little story that holds no water. No character ever gives a monologue about these problems (well, maybe once), and no scriptwriter should be so obvious as to make them overt, but these are the base themes that make the movie work. We care about Jess because she is a rebel, but we love her because she wants her family to love her. This movie has depth, and that goes a long way to making it perfect.

I wouldn’t say that this movie is absolutely perfect for everyone ever, but in terms of the values that I hold dear, it hits the mark squarely in the center. It’s about a young girl, who doesn’t just look different but feels different too, dealing with her difference and coming to understand that being brilliant at what you do is nothing if you have no one to support you in it, but also that begging for support will never make you happy. Superficially, I can say that it’s a movie with multiple strong female characters, where the lead is a character of color, and I can talk about how it addresses issues of race and sex in a loving and intriguing way. But that isn’t why it’s perfect.

This movie is perfect because until I pointed all of that out to you, you probably hadn’t given it a single thought. You just freaking liked it.

That is a perfect movie.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Ladies in Pants (Monstrous Regiment and Discworld)

Okay, so you were going to get a rant today about how I can’t stand the supposed “War on Christmas” almost as much as I can’t stand most of the traditional Christmas specials – I don’t care how rude I sound, the 1960s Rudolf is freaking disturbing – but it was starting to sound psychotic even to me, so instead we’re going to talk about a book I read on the plane!

I mean, it’s not just a book I read on the plane. It’s by an author who I thought we’d get around to talking about someday. As of fall 2011, Mr. Pratchett had written thirty-nine novels set in the Discworld universe, which is not to mention all of the appendices, companion books, and short stories he’s crammed in there too. I think it’s safe to say that by sheer numbers, we were going to get here eventually.

What I’m saying is, there are a lot of them, and they’re good. For the record though, the books are good and you should read them. There’s something there for everyone and I guarantee your library has a couple.

The Discworld is an imaginary world (maybe) that sits on the backs of four elephants, all of whom are standing on the back of A’Tuin, the great world turtle. The world is a disc, obviously, populated by a people who look oddly similar to us. Act like it too.

The series itself follows dozens of characters through hundreds of storylines, but the simplest way to explain it here is that it’s satire. While the stories themselves are compelling and affecting on their own, as seen in Commander Vimes’ growth from a surly alcoholic nightwatchman to a lovable if gruff Duke, they also comprise strong societal critiques, like Small Gods and the explanation of extreme religion or Making Money’s insightful expose on the monetary system.

And this is good. Very good. It makes the satire palatable, because you care about the characters, and the characters more biting because you love the satire. Occasionally one of the books will go too heavy on the satire, or not heavy enough, but at that point you’ve probably spent enough time in the world that you don’t care and can just pick up another volume. There are, after all, nearly forty.

Monstrous Regiment is somewhere in the middle of that forty, and suffers the dubious distinction of being mostly independent of other storylines. While it does feature cameos from Vimes and Angua (who are in most of the novels in some way), the actual plot concerns the fate of Borogravia, a small war-like country in what is basically Eastern Europe. Ish.

Borogravia is at war with its neighbor Slobenia again, and as this is the sixth such war in living memory, not counting all the other wars they’ve had with other neighbors, the army recruiting is getting pretty slim. In comes Polly Perks, a clever girl who wants to find her enlisted brother and drag him home from this whole mess to help tend the family bar.

Obviously, she has to dress up as a boy and enlist herself to do this. It’s how fiction works.

The clever thing in this book, the thing that makes me actually want to talk to you about it, isn’t that she dresses up. (SPOILERS) The clever bit is that every single one of the other lads recruited with her is also a girl. All of them. Down to the troll.

In a way, it makes sense. Borogravia is a country so enamored with war, that it seems likely the women would be interested too, as well as the way the war has removed all eligible men from home already. And all the men at home are already veterans.

As the book goes through the story, the “lads” prance and strut and slowly realize that everyone else is faking it too, until the reader realizes that the only men in the whole company are the officers, Blouse and Jackrum. It creates a bit of a confusion for the girls, who have each enlisted for their own reasons. Polly’s looking for her brother, while Shufti wants to find her babydaddy, Tonker and Lofty just wanted to get out of town, and Wazzer is the next Joan of Arc. I mean, if all of them are women pretending to be men, then are there more of them out there?

This question keeps rolling through the story, as the girls go up against successively bigger enemies, defeating their opposing army several times without being discovered, and without much help from the main Borogravian force. They even go so far as to infiltrate an enemy stronghold to get their generals freed.

Which leads to the greatest scene, and the most interesting. Because when the girls free their generals, they reveal their true sex, and the generals put them on trial for infiltrating the army. Borogravia is a very traditional place, and women in men’s clothing are an Abomination Unto Nuggan, the local god. The generals are displeased. Jackrum, however, begs to differ. Because it turns out that every single general in the army is a woman in disguise. All of them. None of them realized there were so many, and all of them have been trying to act as men, to be perceived as men for decades.

They were so good at being men, they beat out the actual men.

Pictured: feminists. Clearly.
I’m not sure where you fall on the differences of the sexes argument (I’m a bit of a difference feminist, if not super hardcore), but wherever you stand that’s an interesting thought. What do we do when we think no one’s watching? Or, rather, what do we do when we think everyone’s expecting us to do it one particular way?

The government of Borogravia was going broke paying for wars the army started because it didn’t want to be thought of as feminine. In fact, the further you get in the book the more you realize that there’s pretty much only two definitively male characters in the whole bloody thing.

The women pretending to be men so they could be soldiers all thought that in order to seem like a man they had to be gruff and crude and loud and want to fight. And in so doing, they created a culture where those things were revered, and the separation of the genders was exacerbated.

I don’t want to turn this into a huge political argument, or even a rant on the importance of listening to each other. That would be mean, when you’re all just getting over your food comas. All I’m going to say is that I think we sometimes need to stop and figure out if we’re all just women in men’s clothing trying to do what we think men would do so we don’t get caught, or if we’re doing this because we actually think we should.

Because those are two very, very different things.

Also this book is amazing and you should totally read it. I didn’t know you were even allowed to write books with this many female characters. Crazy!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

There And Links Again (DC Is Dumb, Memes, and More!)

It has been a while since we did a solid links post on here, and while I would apologize for that, I doubt anyone’s too terribly broken up about it. 

Still, here are some links that might tickle your brainfancy. 

1. In bit-awkward news, The Good Men Project has tackled an issue that I think most people are far too awkward to even consider speaking up about. Namely, the behaviors and attitudes of gay men towards women’s bodies. Now, I’m not saying that every gay man acts as if he is entitled to ownership of the female body, but I do think that it’s something we ought to be talking about even if it’s uncomfortable. If only so that we can stop the whole gay men grabbing boobs thing. It’s weird. Article here.

2. In life-philosophy-thanks news, The Boston Globe has got a fabulous article up that manages to combine all the latest research available in order to say that, yes, fiction is good for you, very good for you, and that stories are what keep civilization together. As I have believed this for years, it’s nice to have some justification. Check it out.

3. In oh-DC news, it seems that our favorite comics giant (to hate) has decided that expressing mildly feminist views is far too scandalous, and fired Gail Simone (one of the most influential women in comics) when she spoke out against her company’s policy of sexism towards female characters. Sigh. Check out some coverage of the situation here.

4. In this-week-sucked news, I suggest that everyone head over to Buzzfeed to check out their list of 26 Moments that Restored Our Faith in Humanity This Year. Go quickly.

5. In meme-subversion news, yet another anti-woman meme has been taken back for the cause of goodness and light! I refer here to “Friend-zone Fiona”, a meme that let guys complain about the girls in their lives who weirdly didn’t want to have sex with them. The meme has now been taken back to form a commentary on friend-zoning, and this makes me very happy. See it here.

6. And, finally, in it’s-almost-Christmas-see-you-later news, have a very happy holiday, and peace out.

There is no Crossover Appeal this week, but KMWW will be back on Wednesday, December 26th, and in the meantime, have some pie.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Is All Around Us

There are moments when I know that I could be critical, I could have things to say.

But, shockingly, there are also moments when I know that I don't need to say anything. It's not really worth it.

So, have some Love Actually GIFs, and have yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Happy holidays, you hoopy froods.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Red Dawn Met My Expectations (Which Were Low)

First, let me start off by saying that I am a fan of discount movie days. They enable me to see movies that aren’t quite good enough for me to actually want to spend real money on them up on a big screen. Plus, since the movies are only five dollars, I don’t feel nearly as upset if I hate them.

Which I do. Frequently.

In this case, a friend and I (the same friend with whom I saw Breaking Dawn, I feel the need to point out) went to see Red Dawn, the recent remake of the 1984 “classic.” I’ve made my feelings about the original pretty clear here, but I thought it would be interesting to see how the story was updated for a modern crowd. Plus, it’s been in production hell for so long that you get to glimpse a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth, and that’s always fun.

Actually, cast-wise the movie was pretty freaking great. It had Chris Hemsworth as Jed, the older more experienced main character, Adrianne Palicki (of Friday Night Lights and the Wonder Woman that wasn’t fame) as the pretty girl in love with him, a pre-Hunger Games Josh Hutcherson as the nerdy kid, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Supernatural, The Losers, my dreams) as the grizzled Marine they find. Also it has Drake from Drake and Josh as the leading romantic hero.

Trust me, I was as baffled as you over that casting choice. Weird.

So, if you have no idea what I’m talking about so far, let me explain. The Red Dawn from 1984 featured a rugged Patrick Swayze leading a group of local kids who escape into the hills when Russians invade the US. It was the end of the Cold War, and the threat of a Russian invasion seemed not unreasonable. In fact, the Tom Clancy novel that all of this is based on is actually pretty good.

I really didn’t like the original movie, for reasons too great to mention here, but suffice to say that I did not think it was a good story, and I thought the character work was awful.

The new version has updated the story ever so slightly for our modern world. Now the invading force is North Korea, prompting a lot of confusion from the audience. Because, aren’t they like starving and not particularly populous or technologically advanced? That’s not so much propaganda as it is the general consensus of everyone who’s been there. This little fact, though, was the result of a writing faux pas. Originally the enemy was China, which at least makes sense, but was considered impolitic when the studio remembered that China pretty much owns us now.

Hence, it was changed to North Korea. This prompted literal years of rewrites and reshoots as they tried to piece it back together with North Korea as the bad guys. And as a result, it feels kind of weird.

Like the original, the basic plot follows a group of local kids who escape into the mountains when the bad guys invade. In this case, they’re from Spokane, Washington (which looks reasonably like the film, so that wasn’t bad). In the true spirit of ‘Merica, the boys (and a few girls) form themselves into a guerrilla warfare unit. Chris Hemsworth commands them with all the authority that his Iraq-veteran character can muster. It’s not an awful premise, but I can’t say it was done overly well.

Well, no. It was better than the original in that most of their plans weren’t terrible. There was a training montage, and their campaign of terror at least made sense here.

I said something nice. There. I’ll even go further here, and say that I thought the character development was moderately better than the original. I say this mostly just because when (SPOILER ALERT) Chris Hemsworth dies, I was actually upset. Now, some of this came from an intense dislike for his younger brother, who got to survive and continue being terrible, but still. I liked him, I was sad when he died. That’s something.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think I’ve seen a movie in a really long time that was so intensely accidentally racist. Really. Really really.

Like, I could tell it wasn’t trying to be racist. It was actually trying to be pretty race-neutral. It just failed like whoah.

Let me explain. In the original film, there were no characters of color. Just, not at all. Even the bad guys were white. In this version, we have two African-American guys on our team, a pair of Hispanic siblings, an Asian enemy, and an Asian-American ally. A few of the incidental characters were of color too, and that seemed nice.

Until. Until you realized that of those characters of color, none of them, NONE OF THEM, lived through the movie.


I just…Really?

And, of the white people, the only one who died was Chris Hemsworth. Even the dumb useless girlfriend character managed to live to the end, beating out the seriously badass medic chick who happened to be Latina. Sigh.

The problem with all of this, other than the obvious, is that the movie was so clearly trying to be progressive. “Look at me!” it seemed to say. “I have a multi-racial cast and several non-white actors in major roles.” What it failed to do, though, was realize that the characters it created, then killed, were less developed, had fewer lines, and were, as stated before, more dead than their white counterparts. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t malice. I think it was just stupid.

But should any of that stand in the way of you watching the movie? No, not really. The fact that it’s a terrible movie should cover that.

And, really, it is. While the original Red Dawn carries through on the strength of Cold War fear and a really rousing tale of success against great odds, this one has to deal with our more cynical society, a script that’s clearly been amped up to go with our more explosion-demanding movie demographics, and a much murkier antagonist. It’s hard to root for the Wolverines unambiguously, because you have no clear idea what they’re fighting for or against. And in a movie like this, that really does matter.

More than that, though, I really didn’t like it because I never got a strong sense of any character outside of their immediately apparent description. Chris Hemsworth is the emotionally damaged Marine. That’s it. That’s all he ever is or does. Josh Peck is his little brother who is in love with some blonde girl. Again, that’s it. Adrianne Palicki has a crush on Chris Hemsworth. Josh Hutcherson plays a nerd. Nothing earthshattering, nothing complex, nothing interesting in the slightest.

On paper, it makes sense to update this story for the current day. We live in scary, dangerous times, and it makes us feel good to hearken back to the days when we might have been terrified, but we knew who we were afraid of. 

In translating this story for a modern audience, however, not enough concessions were made the real ways our world has changed in the past thirty years. We have cell phones now, or at least walky-talkies. Do you really think that the US government would take months to get out an invading force? Do you realize how built-up our military-industrial complex is these days?

And, for that matter, I don’t think we’re really afraid of being invaded anymore, if we ever were. Right now, we’re afraid of terror cells and panic in the streets. Martial law, the slow chipping away of our personal liberties, and cyberterrorism. The idea of a nation just invading us by force is almost quaint.

I guess what I’m saying is this: if you want a movie that condescends to you, is accidentally racist and reasonably sexist, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, go see Red Dawn. If you find all of those things objectionable and annoying, but still want to feed your paranoia about the dangers facing America, just go watch Homeland. Much more satisfying.

It was fun seeing Wonder Woman and Thor canoodle, though.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I Don't Remember Fairy Tales Being This Dark (The 10th Kingdom)

I first watched The Tenth Kingdom when I was a freshman in college, which was a fair amount of time ago. Enough that while I could remember liking it, certainly, I didn’t really remember anything specific. So, Netflix Instant being what it is, I decided to give it another watch.

It is, for the record, both better and worse than I remembered. It’s a lot cheesier than I thought, and the effects look a lot crappier now than they did six years ago and they weren’t too fresh then. The plot is meandering and occasionally silly, but it’s also got a depth that I didn’t remember, and some real emotional heft. Oh, and it is, without any doubt, way darker than I could possibly remember.

But let me back up and explain what’s going on before we get into that. The Tenth Kingdom is a miniseries, aired eleven years ago, on NBC. It got bad ratings but good reviews, and garnered an artistic Emmy. It’s a fairytale fantasy story, that follows a young woman, Virginia, and her father, Tony, when they find a magic dog and chase him through a portal in Central Park that leads to the magical Nine Kingdoms.

Hence the title. It refers to New York City.

Anyway, the plot is pretty convoluted and complicated, as befits a five episode miniseries, but it boils down to this: Prince Wendell has been turned into a dog by his evil stepmother. The stepmother wants to take over his kingdom, and really all of the Nine Kingdoms, for herself. To do so, she has to kill dog!Wendell, but he escapes and enlists Tony and Virginia to help him. The stepmother sends Wolf, a wolf in human form, after them. Wolf falls in love with Virginia, and hijinks ensue.

Mostly, it’s about our motley band of heroes trampling all over the kingdoms looking for a magic mirror to get them home, and possibly a way to stop the evil stepmother, who, SPOILER ALERT, we find out is actually Virginia’s disappeared mother.

Yeah. It’s a bit weird.

For the record, this is what I was referring to when I say that the show is really a lot darker than I remembered. You see, Virginia remembers her mother only vaguely, but the abandonment, which happened when she was seven, has clearly set a pall on the rest of her life. She’s devoted to her father, who feels like a failure, and can’t even begin to open herself up to love or even a new experience, because she’s so mired in her feelings of abandonment and unworthiness. After all, if her own mother couldn’t love her, how could anyone else.

And in case you think I’m reading too deeply into this show, I would just like to say that none of this is really subtext. In fact, most of it is said really explicitly during a very enjoyable, if completely baffling, scene between Virginia and the long-dead Snow White.

As far as I can tell, Virginia’s mother (Christine) was a high society woman who married for love and then fell deeply into what I can only assume was post-partum depression or something of the sort after she had Virginia. According to Tony, she was getting worse and worse, and then, when Virginia was seven, Christine tried to drown her in the bathtub. Again, not subtext. We see this in flashback.

Distraught that she nearly killed her daughter, Christine ran away and fell into a portal in Central Park. That portal took her to the original evil stepmother, Snow White’s, who bought Christine’s soul in exchange for taking away her pain.


Now, aside from having a new level of respect for the show for really going there with the tragic backstory angle, it’s not precisely what I respect about this series. No, what I really respect is the way that it leveraged that tragedy into a great story with some really amazing female characters.

Virginia might be defined by her pain, in a way, but as the story goes on, you see her overcoming it. It’s a story about personal growth and triumph. In fact, her final confrontation with her mother is all about Virginia using her love and forgiveness to triumph. Excuse me if I think that’s a really awesome thing to see.

It’s not just that though. What really sets The Tenth Kingdom apart is that it tells a very female-centric story, without making it feel like it’s actually trying to, or alienating any men in the audience. That is both impressive and cool. So here’s how they did it.

By centering the conflict between Virginia and her mother in the story, the narrative gained a clear emotional thread, even before we knew that Christine and the evil stepmother were the same person. We had a female protagonist and a female antagonist. As the story developed, it became clear that the final conflict would be between these two.

But the story didn’t leave men out altogether. We followed the adventures of Tony, her bumbling father who learned to overcome his own greed and bitterness, Prince Wendell, who learned humility and the importance of having your paws on the ground of reality, and Wolf, who learned not to eat people. Basically. With each of these stories, there was intersection with the main female story, and with each other.

Tony and Wendell become very close and really help each other to grow. Wolf starts out as a real outsider to them, despised by Wendell because he’s a common wolf, and by Tony because Wolf is so obviously into his daughter. By the end of the adventure, however, Wolf has proven himself and is recognized as such.

So even though the protagonist is a girl, there’s still quite a lot for the guys to relate to and enjoy in the story. And, really, Virginia being a girl is not the most important thing about her. Which is very important to remember.

I feel like I rant about this a lot, but there is a very clear difference between a character who is strong and also happens to be a woman, and a character who is a Strong Woman. One of them is well-written and says interesting things about the story she’s placed in, and the other is a bit patronizing, and usually means that the writers weren’t sure how to make a woman a person.

Because that is the difference. Virginia is a woman, sure and obviously, but she’s mostly just a person. She’s a screwed up person who has trouble opening up and misses her mommy, which, for the record, is genderless. Sure, she has her moments of damseldom, and she has her moments of kicking ass. What she has is the complete package, a fully realized, faulty character who can grow into her own and become a really amazing person.


To this end, her romantic story is never really the focus of the main plot. It’s always about trying to get home or save Wendell, never really being driven by her romance with Wolf. While Wolf is obviously smitten with her, and very verbal about it, Virginia remains incredibly (rightly) wary of him up until quite near the end. This makes the romance both meaningful, because it had to be fought for, and touching, because they made it in the end.

Romance wasn’t the focus of the story, but it is a nice icing to add on top. Virginia came into her own, and she opened up enough to have a love story too. Sweet.

Of course, it is pretty unusual that the story has a pretty clear consummation of said romance and a mention of an out of wedlock little cub for the couple before she’s even said yes to his proposal, but whatever. The show clearly didn’t mind breaking a few taboos!

Or commenting on the weirdness of self-help books and shoe obsessions.