Wednesday, December 31, 2014

RECAP: Orphan Black 2x10 - Complete and Unconditional Surrender

I had a lot of thoughts about the most appropriate way to finish off my year on this blog. Should I do a best of? Should I talk about my favorites and least favorites from the year and ponder the future of media? Or should I just freaking finish recapping season two of Orphan Black once and for all?

In case you couldn't tell, I went with the last one.

Orphan Black is one of my absolute favorite shows to watch, but it's a pain in the butt to recap. Not because there's anything bad in here, but because there's so much good stuff that it takes me absolutely forever to get through it all. That's why it's been so long for me to get to recapping this final episode. Not because I was dreading it, but because I didn't feel like I had enough time to really do it justice. And now I have run out of time, so we're just gonna go with it.

But also, I have to admit, Orphan Black really is emblematic of the year for me. It's a show that's not without its flaws, but that tackles incredibly hard questions about life and consent and who owns your body. It tries. And whether or not the science or patent law is always accurate is much less the point than that this show tries to tell a story about the people who don't have the power, the people who get stomped on, fighting back.

What's more symbolic of this year than that?

When we last watched the show, back in September (ugh), we were on episode nine, and stuff was going down. Donnie and Alison were united in getting rid of Aldous Leekie's body, and discovered that hiding a body was exactly the spark their marriage needed in order to rekindle. 

Sarah made the tough decision to take Kira in to the hospital and allow the DYAD Institute to harvest some of her stem cells in order to create a cure to save Cosima. But of course Rachel took advantage and used it as a distraction to snatch Kira and hide her away in one of DYAD's weird little rooms.

And up in the frozen north, Helen decided she was done being the Proletheans' brood mare and took her bloody revenge on Henrik, while giving Mark and Gracie time to escape. So, you know, nothing much happened.

We come in for the season finale on Sarah being interrogated while doctors poke and prod her and take vials of blood and hair samples. In the flashes back to right after Kira was kidnapped we find Sarah and Mrs. S freaking out at each other while they realize that DYAD has Kira, but Felix has also been poisoned with something. Sarah takes off and decides to give herself up unconditionally to DYAD in order to bargain for Kira's life.

Sarah's interrogation also includes incredibly probing questions about her sexual history and reproductive capabilities, questions that remind us very starkly of the power differential at play here. Sarah's life is laid bare before her captors, because she has nothing else to bargain. It's honestly terrifying.

In another part of the facility, Kira submits sullenly to a DNA test via cotton swab, and takes the opportunity to pinch the doctor's phone. It's unclear who she calls with it, but we know that a man answers - so, Paul or Cal?

And Cosima and Scott rage as their lab materials are systematically taken away. Including, as it seems, Delphine, who Rachel is having transferred to Germany immediately. She is to have no more contact with Cosima or any of the clones, probably on threat of being killed. Delphine barely has time to send Cosima a goodbye text before she's hustled onto the plane.

The goodbye text contains a lot more than platitudes, though. It has a copy of Rachel's itinerary attached to it, and that means that Cosima and Scott know exactly where Rachel is going to be, and where Sarah will be. Plus, they don't have access to Sarah, but they can talk to Kira. A plan is starting to come together.

For Sarah the stakes are finally becoming clear. It's always been unusual that she was the only one of the clones able to reproduce (except, as we now know, Helena), but now it becomes clear that Sarah's reproductive capabilities have been the aim all along. If she wants to see Kira again, she will have to agree to let DYAD harvest her eggs when she next ovulates. And, presumably, if she wants to keep seeing Kira she's going to have to keep letting them harvest from her.

The scene is starkly reminiscent of the stories we hear bout sterilization programs in prisons across the US, where doctors targeted low income women of color and women with mental disabilities for forced sterilization without their consent or even knowledge. 

In other words, this storyline (intentionally, I think) reminds me of all the ways in which reproductive rights have been controlled by those in power, by the elite, and how those choices affect the bodies and personhood of lower income women. Rachel, as a member of the elite, can choose to have Sarah's eggs harvested because she has the power in this scenario. And it's alarmingly true to life.

Incidentally, Sarah does sign the papers.

They take her to see Kira, and it's not quite what Sarah expected. Because when they say "see Kira" what they actually meant was that Sarah was just allowed to see her. No interaction. She watches Kira from behind a two way mirror, and has no ability to contact her. And all the while she has to watch Rachel swan in and play mommy.

Fortunately, right after this really depressing scene, we get to overhear one of the best conversations Mrs. S has ever had. It's quickly cut off when Felix comes into the room, but S definitely says, "If I say you are making a car bomb, you will bloody well make a car bomb." And that's just awesome.

But before Felix can press her for information, there's a knock on the door, and Mrs. S and her gun go out to greet...Cal! Apparently that's who Kira called, which makes sense. We did see a scene where he made her memorize his cell number. He has a picture Kira drew and it seems that he's the only person in this whole show to have put all the pieces together. Without being told, he knows that Sarah and her "sisters" are genetic identicals, and that Sarah is on the run from some shady science group. Except that she's not on the run anymore.

Oh, and just to make things more complicated and interesting, Felix gets a call from Art - seems Helena's back in town. She broke into Art's apartment, and now she's eating all of his food. She demands to see Sarah, and S sends Felix over there to figure out what's going on. Also to make sure that Helena doesn't find out where Sarah is and therefore prevent a bloody streak of vengeance wreaking through downtown Toronto. Cal's face during this entire exchange is priceless.

A quick peek back to the DYAD prison complex, because of course they have one of those, reveals that Sarah wasn't the only one DYAD took prisoner. They've also got Duncan, Rachel's adoptive father and the creator of the clones. He tells Sarah, "Don't despair, my dear," but things look pretty freaking bleak.

At least Helena's always around to cheer me up. Her version of the events of the last three episodes as explained to Felix and Art make very little sense when compared with what we actually saw her do, but it's certainly entertaining to hear. And at the point Art and Felix have a lot of experience reading through the Helena lines - they can tell what's bullsht and what's true. Like, yes, she did burn down the Proletheans' ranch. No, her boyfriend probably didn't have to go to war.

And, yes, she did room with a good girl who suffered a crisis of faith. Which cuts us to Gracie and Mark, on the run and figuring out what to do with themselves now that their whole lives are gone. But at least they're together - all of them, even the baby.

Back at the house, Cal is explaining what he dug up on DYAD. He managed to hack the hell out of them, discovering how far their tentacles run - influencing senators and judges and everyone who could possibly have a hand in changing biogenetic patenting law. But he also found a source. Someone high up at DYAD, with Project Leda, who can feed him real, concrete information. This person knows that Kira and Sarah are in the Institute and they might be able to help.

Interestingly, Mrs. S tells Cal to mention that he's with her, with "Siobhan Sadler" when he replies to the mystery source, and the mystery source responds by telling him to ask S about "Castor". And then she gives Cal a mythology lesson. 

Which we the viewer get to skip in favor of Mrs. S calling in some favors to reach out to someone or other. They look awfully official, what with the humvees and the military uniforms. Plus, a familiar face - Paul! So this is where Paul disappeared off to a couple of episodes ago. 

From the way that Mrs. S and Paul talk, it's clear that she's known his backstory a lot longer than we have, and that she was completely in earnest about wanting to add him to her collection of sources back when they spoke outside Duncan's house. Something is afoot.

At DYAD, Duncan takes a turn in Rachel's creepy room of screens and watches those old home videos of Rachel as a child. Rachel's using those videos to emotionally manipulate Duncan into giving her what she wants: the keys to the ciphers he wrote, encrypting their genetic sequence. He refuses, unless she cures Cosima, and she counters that if he gives her the codes, she'll think about curing Cosima. 

Also she offers him tea, but he declines because he's just British enough to have brought his own bag from home. Such British.

Anyway, Duncan isn't budging, but neither is Rachel. She's utterly determined, and utterly infuriated when Duncan tells her that he thinks giving her the codes would be unethical because he doesn't know what she'd do with them. And, in a way, I can see her point. Here she is being refused her own medical information by a man with no real vested interest in it "for her own good". On the other hand, Rachel is terrifying and I definitely don't want her to know how to make more clones, so right on Duncan.

And he asks her, heartbreakingly, if she can remember how much they loved her. Her response? "The reason I watch these tapes is because I cannot remember. At all." Which is just devastating, for Duncan and for us. I mean, imagine being Rachel. Imagine having yourself so stripped away that you cannot remember the feeling of having been loved. It's terrifying.

Then Duncan drops his teacup and it becomes clear that his special teabag wasn't tea. It was poison. He's killed himself, and he's taking his cipher code with him. Because, as he tells Rachel, "I'm afraid you don't deserve me anymore." Harsh, but probably true.

Back in that parking garage, Mrs. S and Paul discuss the terms of their deal. He'll help get Sarah out, and in return, Mrs. S will hold up her end of the bargain, whatever it is. It doesn't sound pretty. A limo pulls in and out pops Cal. He's made contact with his mysterious source, and they're willing to talk. Paul gets into the car with said source and the camera turns around to reveal it's...Marion Bowles from a few episodes ago. The woman who ordered Aldous Leekie's firing, and the one who outranks Rachel, working for another company possibly. Curiouser and curiouser.

In return for Marion getting Sarah and Kira out of DYAD, Paul hands over a file full of documents on what must be Castor. We don't yet know what that is, but I have suspicions. None of them nice.

Cosima finally gets her time with Kira, and it's heartbreakingly adorable. Kira's not enthused about her new dolls, but she is happy to have a quick little science class with her favorite aunt. Cosima teaches Kira about force and acceleration by having her push pencils through a piece of paper, and it's all very cute, except it's also intercut with scenes of Cosima and Scott making some kind of ad-hoc machine in the lab. I have no doubt this will come up again later.

And as we go back to Cosima in the lab, it becomes clear that she's only gotten worse as time goes on. She's collapsing now, her lungs not holding enough air to help her stay standing. Scott's worries, as he should be. He wants to take over the rest of the project, but Cosima is determined to see it through. It's personal, whatever it is. But she let's Scott take the last part of the mission, which involves a key card and apparently a lot of personal risk.

Sarah is awoken in her cell to a bunch of medical guards and a gurney, so probably not a good thing. I can only imagine that Rachel's not feeling all that stable right now. Who knows what she has planned. 

What she has planned is terrifying. A procedure to surgically remove one of Sarah's ovaries, for medical research. They're leaving one, of course, because they would hate to render Sarah infertile. And, as the doctor tells Sarah in his most slimy voice, they're looking forward to her next pregnancy with great anticipation. Well that's horrifying.

At least Scott is there. He whispers to Sarah that Cosima says hey and they're going to get her out of there. But he doesn't have much time to chat before Rachel swans in and clears the room so that she can talk to her "sister." Rachel shows Sarah a picture that Kira drew for her - a picture that interestingly includes an image of a fire extinguisher for no reason - and then shows her the bone marrow they took from Kira to cure Cosima.

Rachel is sure that even though Duncan is dead, he left a copy of his cipher somewhere, and she's positive that Sarah has it. Sarah, meanwhile, has no idea what Rachel is talking about. So Rachel smashes Kira's bone marrow samples, thus destroying their best chance to cure Cosima out of petty rage. A temper tantrum. Yikes.

Oh, and out of the corner of Sarah's eye she can see a fire extinguisher that has a note on it saying "SQUEEZE". That's not suspicious at all.

As Rachel storms off to leave Sarah to her fate, Sarah calls her back and pretends she's going to give over the codes. Instead, she squeezes the fire extinguisher handle and a pencil flies out, hitting Rachel directly in the eye. As Rachel writhes on the floor in really gross agony, Scott rushes back in and gives Sarah the keycard, telling her to run. So that's what the plan was. Huh. Weird plan.

Sarah races to Kira's room, only to find Marion Bowles already there, bundling Kira up in a jacket and explaining that she was just about to come get her. Sarah and Kira are free to go, and Cal is waiting downstairs with a car. But. If Sarah wants to know what this is really all about, then she'll meet Marion tomorrow and find out the truth. And we all know that's an offer that Sarah really can't refuse.

At last we've come full circle. Felix's apartment is ground zero for the clone homecoming, it seems, with Sarah, Alison, Cosima, and even Helena converging on it to spend some quality time together. Cal tells Sarah that he's here to stay and help, but then he gets kicked out so that the clones, and Felix, can all get to know each other. For real, this time. So Helena has tearful meetings with Cosima and Alison, and everyone's heart melts when she reunites with Kira.

Then Cosima puts on some music, and they dance. All of them, all in their own ways. All together, all dancing to the same song, and man is the metaphor heavy here. But it's also wonderful to see them all together and happy for once. Even if it is probably Cosima's last dance.

We fade into the morning after, with everyone sleeping scattered throughout Felix's loft. Sarah and Cosima are lying quietly in the bed, knowing that they might be having one of their very last conversations. Sarah is sad, but accepting. Cosima tells her that she's strong, she's the wild type, she propagates against all odds. And while Sarah doesn't want to do this without Cosima, she will and she can. They'll be okay, even if they'll miss each other terribly.

While they talk and cry, Helena slips out (after taking some liquid nitrogen out of her backpack, and isn't that terrifying). She pulls out Jesse's hat, Jesse from the bar and the barfight, the guy that Helena's sure she's in love with and very well might be in love with her too. As she fingers it, we understand implicitly that she's going to track him down now.

But she never gets the chance. Two men in normal street clothes pull a bag over her head and hustle Helena out into a waiting van. All that's left is Jesse's hat, abandoned in the hall.

Another limo takes Sarah to meet with Marion Bowles at an extremely large (presumably hers) mansion. And Kira climbs up to the bed so that Auntie Cosima can read her a story. But Cosima doesn't move when she calls her. Not a whisper of motion, not a breath. And then Cosima's eyes flicker open, but she doesn't see Kira. She sees Delphine, telling her not to be afraid. Her eyes open for real, and it's Kira there. Cosima reads her the story. And I guess Cosima's not going to die after all?

Sarah tentatively enters Marion's opulent yet somehow tasteful home, and finds a little girl is waiting inside. Marion walks in and tells the girl, Charlotte, to stop hiding and come say hello. The girl walks closer, slowly due to the large brace on her leg. Sarah is stricken, and Charlotte asks, sweetly, "You're my big sister?"

Because of course they made more clones.

Charlotte is eight, the same age as Kira (which is what made me feel weird about Kira because she doesn't talk like an eight year old at all), and thinks of Kira as her cousin. Technically, Kira is her niece, but semantics. Sarah's just baffled by it all.

Cosima finishes reading the book Kira brought, and so Kira pulls out another one to read. But this one is different. It's a copy of The Island of Dr. Moreau, which I still maintain is a weird thing to read to a child, and it's the copy Duncan gave to Kira right before he left. What do you know. It's got pages and pages full of the cipher Duncan wrote, keys to their genome, and every piece of information Cosima could hope to know. Naturally Duncan gave it to the little girl.

Sarah wants to know if Marion is Charlotte's monitor, but Marion insists she's something else. "I'm her mother." Like Mrs. S, Marion is deeply invested in the health and safety of the clones, because Charlotte was a miracle, the only survivor of the later trials. Marion is counting on Sarah's fierceness to protect her and her daughter, because what she's got next is even more terrifying.

Marion's company is named Topside, and it's not a company so much as a cabal. They steer and guide multi-nationals like DYAD, hoping to shape the future of bioethics and bioengineering. And not just for profit. They firmly believe that there are other groups seeking the same thing, and they really want to make sure they get there first. 

The evidence Marion has for this was confirmed by Mrs. S, and presumably Paul. It's Project Castor. And it's military.

Project Leda wasn't exactly shut down by the military, it was shunted into two separate programs. DYAD got the female clones and carried them to term, while the military kept the male clones and carried them. Marion takes Sarah down to the basement and shows her Project Castor. And, what's stranger, Sarah knows him.

Then we cut to the military leading Helena onto a plane while Paul and Mrs. S watch. Mrs. S knows that Sarah will never forgive her, but this is the deal she struck in order to save Kira. And she will live with that.

We cut again to Mark and Gracie getting married in an empty sanctuary. And then again to a soldier leading Helena in who has Mark's face. And back to Marion's basement where the man in the cage turns around and it's Mark's face again. 

Male clones. Huh. End of season.

I have to say that this episode, the ending at least, gets me really excited about what's to come in the next season and where the story can go from here. We've spent now two seasons dealing with Sarah and the other female clones' issues of bodily autonomy, but for now that's not our main concern. Or rather, that is our main concern, but it's less immediately threatening for most of them. Alison and Donnie can live their safe suburban life in relative peace. Cosima's probably not going to die, and now she has a code to unlocking their genome. Sarah has her daughter back and a generous patron.

Helena is in a terrible spot, it's true, but compared to the end of last season, everyone's doing pretty well, actually. It's time to widen the world a bit, time to examine other issues and topics and time to expand our issues of identity and consent. Bring in the boys, I say! Mark's been a really fascinating character already this season, and I look forward to how his story will develop, especially in light of him now being married to a woman carrying a clone's child.

This whole season has been about ownership - who owns the clone's bodies, and who controls them. Who controls the rights to their medical care, and who controls the rights to their physical bodies and derivatives. So many of the storylines this season have been about consent, that it's really interesting to now shift to a male perspective. We needed to start with the female side of things, but it's important that we now get to transition to seeing things from the male view. 

Because consent and bodily autonomy aren't just women's issues. They're human rights. And it's good to recognize that.

I'm excited and finally ready for the new season and the new year. Bring it on.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Night at the Museum 3

I feel like I've gotten a bit of a reputation as the kind of person who wouldn't know fun if it punched her in the face, but that's not how I see myself. I think I'm fun. Granted, I don't think I'm the kind of fun you get at amusement parks or children's birthday parties, but I am fun. Really. I'm fun. I can be fun. This is me being fun. Wheeee!

Anyway, my point is, I know that I don't really come across as the sort who'd be good at discussing a children's media series that is literally all about the fun, but I'll have you know that I went to see Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb not because anyone forced me to go, but because I wanted to. I wanted the fun. So there.

It's just that I then came away a little bit disappointed that the fun wasn't quite as substantial and full of good other stuff as I'd hoped.

I think it's not that I'm not a fun person - the jury's still out on that, probably - but rather than I have high expectations of my fun. I want it to mean something. Something important and bigger than just sheer entertainment. And while I absolutely can't deny that Night at the Museum 3 was fun as all get out, it didn't have that extra layer of emotional complexity that would make it actually, you know, good.

If you're not the sort to have followed the scintillating Night at the Museum series since its onset, here's a basic rundown. Larry Daley is a night security guard who discovers that the museum very literally comes alive at night. As in, due to a magic tablet, the exhibits become quite literally alive. Larry spends the first movie freaking out about this, and then slowly eases into tan acceptance of the weirdness. By the start of the third film, he's all in, and has managed to maneuver himself into being the director of the "Night Program" a "special effects" program that "brings the museum to life".

Larry likes his life, and he's perfectly happy to keep doing this for the rest of his days, but fate, as always intervenes. On the night of a big gala for donors and fundraisers, the museum comes to life, but not like usual. This time everyone is mean and angry and confused and attacking all the guests. Which is very bad for Larry, whose job depends on keeping the museum in line.

It turns out that the tablet that makes the whole museum magically come to life is deteriorating. It's got some kind of rot and it seems awfully likely that if it isn't fixed soon, the magic that makes the museum so special is going to end.

Larry's not about to let that happen, not when his livelihood and also his closest friends depend on this magic. So he packs up the tablet and its owner, Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), and ships them off to London with himself so that they can ask Ahk's father (Sir Ben Kingsley) how the tablet works. 

Of course everyone else gets themselves shipped out too: Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), Jedediah and Octavius (Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan), Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), and even the freaking monkey. Oh, also there's a new addition to the museum, a caveman who looks just like Larry and calls himself Laaa. Isn't that just ducky.

So everyone troops off to the British Museum, tricks their way past the guard, Tilly (played by Rebel Wilson in not one of her better roles), and sets off to find the Egyptian exhibit and fix the tablet. Obviously things don't go smoothly. And the rest of the film follows our gang of heroes as they desperately try to get through the museum in one piece while the magic from the tablet slowly wears off. There are heart-wrenching betrayals (not really), touching reunions (eh), and near death experiences galore (they get old).

The bulk of the story is told in their attempts to get through the museum to Ahk's parents, but unfortunately that story is pretty tired and worn. Larry has brought his son along with them for this trip, hoping that the magic of the museum will bring them back together and remind Nick (Skyler Gisondo) of how much he loves being a kid. It doesn't really work out for Larry, as Nick is mostly concerned with growing up and becoming his own man. He is, after all, seventeen, and wants to see the world and sow some oats before he settles down to an expected life.

All of this drama and family tension, then, becomes the backdrop for our sprint against time. Ahk has to deal with his own parental issues, while Larry and Nick try to sort themselves out, and everyone worries that they won't make it. Also Lancelot shows up (Dan Stevens).

So that's the story of the movie. In a nutshell or so. It seems perfectly innocuous and fun and nice, right? Well, yes. It is. I'll be the first to admit that it was very fun to watch. But fun isn't the same thing as good, and I refuse to believe that just because something is fun, it's allowed to be anything less than its best. 

You see, the big issue I have with this film is that it felt like everyone was just phoning it in. There is room in this story, silly as it is, for a real, epic, heart-wrenching series of events. But instead of really going for the emotional reality alongside the fun, we got a scene where a man kisses a monkey. Hmmph.

The heart of the film is supposed to be Nick and Larry's relationship, but I honestly didn't care all that much about them. Nick annoyed me but Larry was clearly in the wrong, so it was hard to really get invested. Meanwhile, Ahkmenrah was preparing to reunite with his parents after several thousand years (I think - it was unclear whether or not they were together in the tomb), and it felt much more like his story should take center stage.

The inclusion of Laaa felt pretty gratuitous to me, as I've never cared for cheap humor like that, and the whole bit with the monkey just grated on my nerves. But most of all what frustrated me was the way that the film denied all of these interesting characters the opportunity to actually feel something, to actually have a stake in their own destinies.

SPOILERS, if you care.

At the end of the film the tablet has finally been fixed, and everyone is brought back to life, thank goodness. But the exhibits decide that the noble thing to do is to leave the tablet, and Ahk in London with his parents, because that's where it's supposed to be. They will all travel back to New York and, essentially, die and Ahk will be reunited with his family.

It's all very touching and heartfelt, and it tells a story about reversing cultural appropriation and giving back artifacts that were stolen, etc. But it's also kind of annoying, because these characters are sentient beings and yet they all decide that the best thing possible for them is to die, and then they proceed to do so in a quiet, orderly fashion. There's no rush of emotion or strong feeling. Just a couple of healthy backslaps and hugs, and then everyone we've come to love in the series so far dies.


It's not the ending itself that I object to, it's the way it was handled, because it feels very much like the rest of this movie. They give up so easily at the end, reminding Larry to let them go, because they're just museum exhibits after all, that it stands as an indictment of all of the rest of the film, which is about Larry desperately racing to fix the tablet so that he can save them. Their deaths are shown as tragic horrors until all of a sudden they're not? That's just annoying.

It bothers me because it feels like the whole movie is telling me to take a chill pill. "It's a kids' movie, just relax," it seems to say. "It's just dumb fun, who cares if it doesn't make sense?" Me! I do! I care! I care a lot.

Because just because something is a kids' movie is no excuse for it not to be good. Just because something is silly and fun gives it no license not to also aim for being interesting and thought-provoking. Let us feel the weight of Ahkmenrah's reunion with his parents. Let us spend some time thinking about how his tomb really was robbed and he might feel violated about that. Or, let's take a minute and think about the emotional realities of all of these characters dying. You told us Sacajawea and Teddy Roosevelt are a thing, well then show us them being sad to lose each other!

Just in general, it felt like this movie was afraid of its own gravitas. It wanted to bring up some hard subjects, but when it came time to actually deal with them, it balked. It backed down, and it decided that it would rather be fun than good. And I refuse to accept that as a choice that must be made.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Into the Woods - Careful the Things You Say, Children Will Listen

So, like any former theater nerd all grown up and now a productive member of society, I have a lot of feelings about Into the Woods. I remember the first time I saw a production of it (a high school drama club, of course), and I remember thinking, even though it was a little bit abridged and a lot bit done on a shoestring budget and with a mediocre cast, that this was a musical I could really get behind. This was a story I understood and wanted more of. That this, the lovely darkness and twisted ambiguity of Into the Woods, was exactly my cup of tea.

Which is why when I heard that Disney was making a film adaptation I immediately clenched up in horror. 

Well, I can tell you now without much hesitation that my clenching was mostly in vain. The movie's good. Not great, mind you, but good. A very solid movie musical that's faithful to the original but doesn't suffer for it. More Chicago than Les Miserables, if you know what I mean. A sturdy adaptation with good casting, a nice interpretation, and nothing particularly new or interesting to add. 

So if that's all you're looking for, you can go now. That's the movie in a nutshell. Johnny Depp isn't fantastic, but he isn't on screen for long and he does a passable job as the Wolf. The kids are excellent, and in general the actors all turn out to be really good singers. It doesn't add anything, sure, but it doesn't take much away either, and if you're a fan of the musical you aren't apt to find too much to complain about in the movie. It's not perfect, but it could have been a whole lot worse.

That having been said, it could have been a whole lot better too. It's funny, because the Witch's indictment of the townspeople could also apply to this film: "You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice." Because it is nice, and you know how I feel about nice.

But I should back up for those of you who aren't massive fans of the original Stephen Sondheim musical and have no idea what I'm going on about.

Into the Woods is a musical that mixes together all of your favorite fairy tales into one story. You've got Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) who despises her stepmother and stepsisters, and with the aid of her mother's ghost gets dressed up to go to a festival where she catches the eye of a charming Prince (Chris Pine). In another part of the woods you also have a Baker and his Wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) who desperately wish to have a child but can't because the Witch (Meryl Streep) put a curse on their family. To reverse the curse they'll have to gather some spell ingredients in the next three days or live with it forever.

Meanwhile, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is an airheaded little boy who has to sell his prize cow (and only friend) to save himself and his mother from starvation and ends up with a couple of magic beans. And of course Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is on her way to Grandmother's house when she's waylaid by the Wolf (Johnny Depp). Oh, and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and her Prince (Billy Magnussen) turn up in here too.

So it's all just one big jumble of fairy tales, and for a while at least it all goes according to plan. Sure, the characters are much more developed and, well, human, than we usually see them, but the stories aren't that different. Cinderella gets her Prince, Jack gets some giant gold, Red is saved from the Wolf, and the Baker and his Wife have their child. Even the Witch gets what she wants - albeit not entirely since Rapunzel runs off with her Prince too.

What makes this story at all interesting or unique is what happens next. See, the whole premise of Into the Woods is that life doesn't end at happily ever after. There's an after ever after, and it's usually messy and human and scary and not nearly as fun as the bit that came before. Life is much bigger and wilder than we like to tell ourselves it is, and it rarely ties up neatly with a little bow.

The second act of the show, and the final third of the movie (roughly), is much much darker than the first. As the characters slowly reenter the woods, fleeing for their lives from an angry giant, they realize that the woods can be much more dangerous than previously supposed and that all of their happily ever afters are much more complicated than they seemed at first glance. Cinderella and her Prince barely even know each other, let alone have a solid relationship. The Baker and his Wife have a child, but now they have to figure out how to be parents when they didn't really have good examples. It's all much harder than it seemed.

And that's precisely why I love it. I love that Into the Woods is about the consequences for telling ourselves that happily ever after is a thing that happens. One of the main themes of the show is the idea that we should be careful what stories we tell children, because children will listen. So if you tell a child that everything will work out fine in the end, then that kid is apt to grow up and be very frightened and disoriented when it doesn't, in fact, all work out in the end. 

Why? Because there is no end. Your life is just one tiny thread in the story of the world and while it is a vitally important thread, it might not make sense when you look at it on its own. It might not all work out. It might be scary and hard and not at all what you wished for. And that's okay.

Honestly, I feel like being familiar with this musical really helped me out when I started to enter the real world and came to the quick conclusion that happily ever after is a misnomer because it presupposes a nice clean ending. In reality life is messy and real and human and full of mistakes and regrets and joy and terror and much wilder than any fairy tale I know. Into the Woods prepared me for that, and I'm grateful.

I think my dissatisfaction with the movie - and that's what it is, not a clear and defined grievance, just mild dissatisfaction - stems from that fact that it's all very Hollywood. Everyone is scrubbed up and shiny and good and very very nice, and no one feels all dirty and messy and mean. Everyone is likable, and I don't like that.

Obviously this isn't the end of the world, but it does make a difference in my interpretation of the film. It does matter. It matters because when the point of the film is that life is not a clear story with a defined "and they all lived happily ever after" in there, then the characters we follow should be equally complex. They shouldn't be good, they should be human instead. And these characters were just a little too good.

I don't think I'm verbalizing this properly.

So, at the end of the movie, Cinderella and her Prince part ways because when it comes down to it, they're not well suited for each other and they really don't know one another at all. Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters run away from the giant, and aren't really seen again. Rapunzel and her Prince ride off into the sunset after she repudiates the Witch and tells her that she never wants to see her again. And that's the last we see of those characters.

The problem with that ending isn't that it's vague or that those characters just sort of drift off screen. I'm totally cool with that. My issue is that we don't get to see how those characters, who don't get the message of the story, are doomed to repeat it. In the musical, both Cinderella's Prince and Rapunzel's become dissatisfied with their wives and end up chasing new and exciting princesses (Sleeping Beauty and Snow White) that they find in the woods. The whole concept of those characters is that they both want what they cannot have and never learn to be satisfied with what they've got.

Rapunzel doesn't get a happy every after either. Driven crazy by the Witch's treatment of her and left by her Prince, she wanders out into the woods and is killed by the giant. That's when the Witch decides to pack it in the with the world because she has nothing left to live for. And we do see Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters again, but only to confirm that they ran away and hid and survived because people like that always survive, and they'll keep on being horrible and nasty and not learning things for a while longer.

In other words, what I liked about the ending of the musical was that it showed the consequences of believing that there is a happily ever after and constantly chasing that "I wish..." It showed that if we don't learn from the situations we're placed in, we're doomed to repeat them. And it also made it abundantly clear that we have to learn if we ever want to move forward. Not just for ourselves, but for the people around us. Especially for the children.

The movie did an okay job with this bit, actually. Because the real point of the show and the movie is the idea that children are listening a lot more than we think they are. Not just to the words we actually say, but to our actions as well. Jack learns to be greedy because his mother is. She never tells him to steal or even tells him that she's glad he did, but he can tell from the way she acts that she's glad he did, so he does it some more. He was listening. 

I'm dissatisfied with the movie because it didn't go far enough. It didn't make it clear enough that life doesn't get easily broken down into the fairy tale and the happily ever after. It's actually much more complicated than that, and a lot harder to understand. Life is, effectively, the woods. We're all lost and all confused, but some of us want to change. Some of us are looking for something more than happily ever after. And it's not easy, but it can be good.

I'm just not comfortable with the movie neglecting to remind us that in life, the bad guys don't always get punished, and even the people we like might not learn the lesson we want them to. That's life.

All of this, of course, isn't to say that Into the Woods is a bad movie or a bad adaptation. I fully admit that the problems I have with it are quibbles, matters of interpretation. It's a perfectly solid and entertaining film, and I recommend it if you think it sounds like the sort of thing you'd enjoy. But it's not daring. It's not revolutionary. It's not challenging the status quo as much as it should.

And that makes me sad. Because I really really believe in the message of this musical. I firmly believe, and I have a whole series of articles devoted to the idea, that we have got to be careful what stories we tell children, because children are listening. It's why I have so many problems with fairy tales or Disney princess movies or any media that we think we can show to children without properly examining first. Children are always listening, and they will learn from what we do. We can't forget that.

The ending of the film (and the musical) is important, because it shows the Baker telling his son a story, the story of all that's happened already in the film. And the ending moral is that he should be careful what he tells in the story, because his son is listening. I would add that while it's not explicit, it's also important that the Baker tell the story without trying to make it any nicer than it is, and without trying to improve upon or redeem any of the characters. Because it's only by understanding the world as it really and truly is that we can hope to make it a better place.

Which is what we all want, right?

Such deep. Very metaphor.

Monday, December 22, 2014

My Top Ten Holiday Themed Whatevers

Okay, to be completely honest right now, I really want to write a long and comprehensive article about why I feel A Muppet Christmas Carol is the best possible holiday movie - themes of redemption, the redeeming power of love, the value of looking outside oneself and seeing others fully, and of course muppets - but I'm a little tired and more than a little braindead today. Hopefully I'll have that really good article up for you tomorrow. But in the meantime, here's a short list of my favorite holiday specials/holiday themed videos and stories and jokes.

Because it's Christmas, and I'm feeling generous. Also lazy. But let's focus on the generous.

1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (cartoon)

Personally I don't have much time for the live-action Grinch movie that came out a few years ago and feels like an insulting travesty, but I always have and always will love this quick little cartoon about a grumpy green guy learning to love his fellow man. Like The Lorax, I think it's the height of Dr. Seuss' writing, and like The Lorax I think that the story is too short and simple to make a good full length movie. But the animated short is only about thirty minutes long and it works perfectly.

I mean, who doesn't feel all wobbly inside when the Grinch hears all the Whos down in Whoville singing and being joyful even without their presents? And who doesn't cheer just a tiny bit to see the Grinch serving up the roast beast? I may be grimly unsentimental most of the year through, but show me a snippet of the Grinch's heart growing three sizes and I will blubber with the best of them.

2. The SNL Christmas Special

Okay. I am the first to admit that my love for and loyalty to Saturday Night Live is mostly unwarranted. It's doing better now than it has in years, but the show is pretty strongly hit or miss and sometimes all you can do while watching is facepalm. But, that having been said, this compilation of the show's best Christmas sketches over the years, ranging from the timeless "Schweddy Balls" to the more recent but still hilarious "Do It In My Twin Bed", is great. Just great.

Also, it features the premier of Adam Sandler's Hannukah song on Weekend Update, which is a moment in history we shall not soon forget. And not just because my sister and I ended up reciting all the words to that song to each other on the phone the other day.

3. Love Actually

I talked more in detail about this movie last year, but suffice to say that for all this movie is a puddle of hyper-gooey schmaltz, I really really love it. I want that little boy to be able to tell that little girl that he loves her and I want Colin Firth and the nice Portugese lady to end up together and I want Alan Rickman to stop being a bad husband and I really want the Prime Minister to end up with the funny housekeeper girl, and I generally want all of these things to happen to swelling music and a parade of gleeful moments and cameos by everyone in the British film industry. So sue me.

But seriously, I don't think this movie is perfect, but I do think that it's really fun. It's blissfully romantic in the kind of earnest and unselfconscious way that very few movies are now. It's not a major cash grab, because it wasn't actually supposed to be a hit in America (you can tell by how much they poop on Americans in the film), and it's all the more charming for how deeply and intentionally British it is.

Plus, who doesn't love watching a movie like this and giggling while Mr. Bean shows up or squealing when someone rushes to the airport to tell someone else they love them or rolling your eyes when something cliched and dumb happens but refusing to stop watching because you have to know how it turns out? No one, that's who.

4. Home Alone

Oh come on. Who doesn't like celebrating the holidays with a psychotic little kid who can booby trap his entire house in the time it takes most people to get to the fridge for another glass of milk? More than that, though, there's something so touching about the plight of Kevin in this movie and his mother's desperation to get back to him, to not leave her child alone, that actually makes me feel my feelings. And isn't that what Christmas is all about?

5. 30 Rock - "Ludachristmas"

It's the episode where we first met Liz Lemon's whole family and discovered that there really is no such thing as a happy family over the holidays, but somehow the gang pulled it together and we got to see how even a dysfunctional family can still love each other and that Kenneth really knows the true meaning of Christmas.

6. The Nutcracker

Yes, I like ballet. And yes, I really like this particular overdone and criminally cheesy ballet. My family used to go see the Boston Ballet perform The Nutcracker every year (because culture snobs), and the music still gets me in the Christmas mood no matter when I hear it.

Sure, it's a weird story about a toy that turns into a prince and some evil mice, but the whole thing is utterly charming and fun and exactly the right speed for a small child who would give her left arm to be taken to the land of sweets. Just saying.

7. Veronica Mars - "An Echolls Family Christmas"

This episode has everything, but most importantly it has the deep and meaningful class tensions that made Veronica Mars a great show. When Logan organizes a holiday poker game, Weevil decides to get himself invited and make some easy cash, but the uneasy truce between 09ers and the underclass gets a bit strained when the poker money disappears. Veronica's brought in to solve the mystery before everyone comes to blows, and all of it goes down during the Echolls family Christmas party, a party that ends with a very literal bang.

8. Supernatural - "A Very Supernatural Christmas"

We get to find out what Christmas was like for the boys growing up as Dean demands that he and Sam have a nice regular Christmas during what could be his last year on earth. But reality intervenes and the boys end up hunting the Anti-Clause, or some pagans gods, or something that's eating people for Christmas and doesn't seem to be very polite, no matter how many Christmas cookies it offers you. 

Also we get some really quality flashbacks that make us wonder how Dean is as sane as he is, and we finally found out the origin of Dean's amulet. All in all, a good episode and arguably one of the show's best.

9. Calvin and Hobbes - All the comics about Christmas and snowmen

Okay, this one's kind of a cheat because there isn't exactly a compilation of the snowmen and holiday comics, at least not one that I know about, but Calvin's endless snow-sculpting creativity and his angst over whether or not he'd been good enough for Santa to appreciate his efforts gets me every time. I wasn't personally a Santa believer as a child (feel free to make of that what you will), but I do love reading all of Calvin's turmoil on the topic, and I really love how his parents invariably handle it all.

Maybe that's the test of whether or not you're a grownup? Do you relate more to Calvin or to his parents? Because his parents are great. Food for thought...

10. And finally, SNL - "Sump'n Claus"

Friday, December 19, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Kate (A Knight's Tale)

I had this happy moment last week where I was flipping channels on the television, idly looking for something to watch, when on came A Knight's Tale. It was near the beginning, right after they'd met Chaucer for the first time, and so I hunkered down and watched all the rest of the film. I didn't have to. It's not like I don't own it on DVD or also know that it's available to stream on Netflix. But I wanted to. It's one of those movies that makes me happy every time I see it, and this was no different.

But as I was watching, I got to thinking about the characters, like I generally do, and I realized that I have been utterly remiss in mentioning my favorite thing about this movie on the blog so far. While I have covered the glory of Jocelyn and her status as a royal woman of color in the middle ages, as well as how interesting her insistence that William's love of jousting is no more noble than her love of dresses is, I haven't really ever talked about Kate. And I love Kate. Kate's my favorite part.

So for those of you who somehow managed to miss this utter gem, the story goes like this. Will (Heath Ledger) is a poor nobody working for a knight when the knight kicks it before they can all get paid. Instead of just hightailing it off on their own, Will convinces the other squires, Wat (Alan Tudyk) and Roland (Mark Addy) to dress him up in the knight's armor and let him finish the tournament. They get their money and figure that this is a good scam and they might as well keep it going for a while.

Along the tournament road they pick up Chaucer (Paul Bettany) to act as their herald, and run into a beautiful princess, Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), with whom Will falls utterly in love. Oh, and they meet Kate (Laura Fraser), a female blacksmith with a chip on her shoulder and the ability to make armor better and lighter than anyone else in the world.

What I love about Kate is how much she, as a character, really is no different from all of the men. While Jocelyn and her lady's maid are rather removed from Will and his gang of weirdos, Kate is right in the thick of it. She gets hired on and travels with Will from tournament to tournament. She gets drunk in the pub with the boys, holds her own in a fight, and frequently teases them into incomprehension. She's just one of the lads, except she's not. She's so much more than that.

Kate's first introduced as a ferrier, a blacksmith who mostly just makes horseshoes, and we're told that her husband was the blacksmith, but since he died she kept up the forge because she needs the money. That explanation, though, is pretty insufficient, and it's not soon after we meet her that we start to see why. I mean, yes, Kate is the kind of woman who can be goaded into repairing armor on credit because the other men "don't think you can do it." But she's also the type of woman who can whip up a suit of armor just as strong and good as the other knight's but nearly a third of the weight in a single night.

I mean, we've been talking about ladies of STEM these past few weeks, and this is just another example of how interesting your story can be when you acknowledge the contributions that women make to science and engineering. Kate has found a new way to process steel so that it's much lighter but just as strong. She did. Her husband didn't teach it to her and she didn't steal it from some other blacksmith. She came up with it on her own.

And the movie shows us that Kate's right. It is the best armor. It's amazing. The stuff can stand up to just about anything. But more than that, they show that it's wonderful but also that Kate faces many challenges in getting the world to recognize her genius. And I really appreciate that.

Kate can make the best armor in the world, but what does that matter if no one will wear it? The only reason she can get Will to wear her stuff is because she essentially blackmails him, then she dares him to do it. She faces constant discrimination and sexism, and while she bears up under it, the movie doesn't shy away from telling us how hard it is. Kate has a hard life, but it's a life she's chosen, and she seems to be okay with that.

Even better, she's not just one dimensional in her amazing blacksmith abilities. Yes, she is essentially a savant, but she isn't just left with that as her defining characteristic. Kate's also a bit of a romantic. While we never do meet her late husband, even in flashback, it's clear she married for love and that she loves him still. When she talks about him she looks soft in the eyes, and we feel the weight of his passing.

Later in the film, when Will has decided to lose all of his jousting matches to prove his love for Jocelyn, the men think he's crazy, but Kate thinks it's a romantic. Turning to her, Roland asks, "Are you a woman or a blacksmith?"

And Kate replies, "Sometimes I'm both."

For me, in a big way, that sums up her character and why I like her so much. Because as a kid growing up, that's how I felt. Like the world demanded that I be either a girl or really interested in explosions. That I could be feminine or strong, but not both. But I am both. Femme is not fragile, and I don't have to like wearing pants in order to fight for feminism. They're not mutually exclusive ideas.

The importance here, for me, is that none of Kate's character was accidental. It's not like they just happened to decide that the crucial blacksmith character in the movie be a woman on a whim. It would have been so much easier to make her a man. Or, at the very least, to make her a woman with a major male love interest. Like, say, Wat, the only other conspicuously single character.

But the movie doesn't do that. Kate gets to be Kate. In love with her dead husband. Blissfully romantic. And yet still capable of wielding wicked hammers that can break bones and shape iron. She doesn't need a man to define her, but she's not the sort to declare her independence in spite of circumstance either. She's not one of those one dimensional "sexism is over" cardboard cutouts, she feels like a real live woman. She faces sexism and discrimination and hardship and loss, but she also goes out for a drink with the boys and invents brilliant new things and can burp longer than any of them.

Sometimes I'm both.

I'm not sure why being both is so threatening, but I have gathered from life experience that it is. That there's something really dangerous when women band together and say, "Yes, I am like other girls. What's wrong with other girls? What makes you say that because I like climbing trees and building go-karts and fighting with toy swords I'm not like other girls? What makes you say that other girls are bad?" That's a declaration of war, it seems, even if I'm not sure I can tell what it's a war against.

But it is, isn't it? There's a war on, and it seems to want us to declare that we're "not like other girls", as if being like other girls is something to be ashamed of. I am happy to announce that I am like other girls. I like superhero movies, like a lot of girls, and comics, like many girls, and pretty dresses, like some girls, and blowing things up, like more girls than probably admit it. I am just like other girls because the differences aren't enough to make me lose my gender. They just make it all more interesting.

Kate can be a blacksmith and can be the single most competent person in the entire movie - which she absolutely is, watch it again if you don't believe me - and she can also be the one who walks into a room where a bunch of men are desperately trying to learn to dance and have them whipped into shape in an afternoon. Just because she's a brilliant engineer doesn't mean she can't love to dance. Just because she thinks it's romantic doesn't mean she makes bad armor.

I love Jocelyn because she stands up for her interest in girly things and refuses to let them be devalued. But I love Kate because she can understand the importance of liking "girly" things and "manly" things and how liking both doesn't make her less a blacksmith or less a woman. It makes her more of both.

Plus, there's something to be said for a movie where even though the two main female characters really have nothing in common or much interest in each other, they never get catty or mean towards one another. Kate only has nice things to say about Jocelyn, for all that she really doesn't get her.

As a closing thought, I do have to say that this movie in general has absolutely wonderful things to say about gender and class. Roland and his love of embroidery and fine cooking is a great counterpoint to Kate, and Wat's raw emotionalism is such an interesting statement about masculinity - especially when we realize how easily and openly he cries.

But all of that is stuff for another day. For now, let's think on this: who profits most from making it seem like a bad thing to be "like other girls"? And how can we teach everyone to say, "Sometimes I'm both." Because damn right you are, and so am I.