Tuesday, June 30, 2015

'The Croods' Isn't Re-Inventing the Wheel, But It's Still Good

I guess I'll start by saying this: if you're looking for a movie that's original, fresh, unexpected, and completely unlike anything you've ever seen, then keep looking. The Croods is none of those things. But, and I know this might be surprising coming from me, that doesn't mean it's bad.

The Croods is basically a mashup of your favorite children's movie tropes, but it's done really well. I mean, it's the rare case of a film that doesn't really have anything new to say, but does a good job saying it anyways. It's a heartwarming family adventure about what it means to really live, and it features a father afraid his daughter is growing up too fast, a budding romance between said daughter and a strange new boy, jokes about the doofy son and the odious mother-in-law, and lots of silly physical humor. But it's good. Really.

It's not that I went into this expecting The Croods to suck, for the record. I don't think I had much expectation about it at all, really. It's a Dreamworks movie and those can be pretty hardcore hit or miss. I wasn't expecting to like it as much as I did, but I also wasn't expecting to be able to predict the entire plot from the opening narration. So, you know, it goes both ways.

But, for what it's worth, this movie does have some pretty cool stuff to say, even if it's not the point of the film. Because for all that the plot is kind of stale, this movie still manages to say more about gender dynamics and real relationships than ten other kids movies put together.

So, for those of you who haven't seen it (which I assume is almost all of you), here's the scoop: The Croods is a family action-adventure movie that features a family of cavemen (and women). They live in a world that they cannot explain or understand, ruled by fear and trembling and by the very simple rule that new things and the unknown must necessarily be bad.

To be fair to them, it's not a bad life strategy and has kept them alive a lot longer than any of their neighbors. The Croods live in a world of pain and terror and constant threat of death, so it's easy to see why "Stay in the cave!" is their family motto.

Unfortunately, constantly being afraid of everything is a bit of a downer when you're a teenage girl, which is why Eep (Emma Stone) is the only one of her family to really want to get out of the cave and explore. Her father, Grugg (Nicholas Cage - yes), constantly despairs of her. When will she learn to settle down and be terrified all the time? She needs to be less curious!

The rest of the family by and large follows Grugg's example: there's the wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), the younger brother Thunk (Clark Duke), Gran (Cloris Leachman), and the mildly psychopathic baby Sandy (Randy Thom). They all live together in the cave, hunt together when they can no longer stay inside without starving to death, and generally subsist in a meager existence that is harsh and cruel but keeps them alive.

Until all of that changes. One night, Eep wakes up to see a strange light coming through the rocks that block the mouth of their cave. There's something out there! Because she's curious and not nearly as afraid as she "ought" to be, Eep goes out to investigate and discovers - a boy!

Yep, she's found Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a skinny, scrawny boy who is clearly not actually a caveman. Guy has fire and inventions and a pet and is completely different from anything or anyone she's ever seen. Eep is entranced. And Guy is entranced right back. Eep is strong and curious and fun and really fast and he's never met anyone as amazing as her before. It's love at first chokehold.

Unfortunately, Guy isn't going to stick around and get to know Eep's family. The world is ending, or that's what he says. There's an "earth-shaking" that's coming towards him. Rocks falling, mountains splitting, lots of lava - the world is coming to an end and Guy is racing as fast as he can to make it up to this big mountain in the distance. He thinks he'll be safe there, and he wants Eep to come too.

Eep won't go without her family, and so Guy leaves her behind. But that ends up not being a big problem because pretty soon the earth-shaking comes and completely destroys their cave. They need a new cave, but more importantly, they need a new place to be safe. Since caves and the world they've always known are definitely no longer safe.

Grugg is naturally completely against all of this, but as the family bumps and falls through the new world they've found, he's forced to admit that there is world outside the cave. And from there it's pretty much your standard family action-adventure. Eep and Guy find each other again and fall more and more in love while Grugg sulks and fumes about it. He's frustrated that his ways are no longer the best ways and infuriated at all of Guy's "ideas" and "thoughts" and how Eep seems to like them so much.

It doesn't help that Guy is genuinely saving his family's life in a way that he can't, and showing them a world that he desperately wants to shelter them from. It's a much more literal interpretation of this plot than most films manage, but it works. Grugg wants to very literally keep his family locked in a cave forever so that they'll be safe, but he has to learn and concede that, ultimately, it's not living if you're trapped inside. 

If all of this sounds familiar, then that's because it is. It's basically the exact same plot as Hotel Transylvania, a movie we coved a few months ago, only done way way better. Because, and this is what makes The Croods actually worth watching, it's not like Grugg doesn't have a point. 

The world he lives in, the world they all live in, really is terrifying and out to get them. There are monsters around every corner and they have to struggle to find anything to eat, let alone to find adventure and freedom. But, at the same time, Eep has a point too. What they've been doing isn't so much living as just "not dying", and if that's all you have then what's the point?

All of this is good and compelling and really cool, but it's not what I actually want to talk about. See, while I like all this and it really is a case of a film finally getting this finicky plot done well and without condescension, I'm actually much more interested in Eep as a character and her romance with Guy.

Eep is in a lot of ways the stereotypical female lead for a film like this. She's the eldest daughter, she's curious and rebels against her father's wishes, she's "different" and "adventurous" and ultimately falls for a guy who her father has to struggle to even understand. But she's also quite different from the usual lead: for starters, she's not skinny. She's very intentionally animated to actually look like a caveman - she has a low forehead and a scrunched up face and giant shoulders with really strong, muscular arms. Her legs are powerful and kind of short. She hunches. She wears an animal skin and doesn't ever think about whether or not she's pretty. Why would she?

Even more than this, though, Eep is unrelentingly physical. She doesn't talk much, preferring grunts and groans*, and she's really tactile, and she's just...she's different. She's not like your average coming of age story girl. There's nothing soft or delicate or fragile about Eep. Literally nothing. She looks like she could break you in two.

By contrast, Guy is all long limbs and skinny bones. He's lanky and awkward and not great with his body. He's very smart, though. Has great ideas. And Eep likes this about him. She likes how he thinks about things and has hope and sees his way around situations to find new solutions. She likes how different he is. And he, well he likes how different she is. He likes that she's brave and strong and can pick him up and throw him.

Together they actually work. You believe that they really have a connection and could, eventually fall in love. The movie doesn't oversell it either. They aren't magically in love at first sight, or even necessarily by the time the credits roll. They're mostly shoved together by circumstances, but they have such a strong attraction that you can totally see something building there. It's less that we're told they love each other and must be together forever than that we can see how they work. They're a good team. And that's most of the battle right there.

Additionally, this movie gets a lot of props for making the characters - all the characters - really complex and fleshed out. They have real personalities and grow and develop throughout the film. Even the minor characters. It's really cool. Plus, it's rare to see a film where over half the characters are female. That's just kind of nice.

Well, actually let's dig into that a little more. It's really cool in this movie how over half of the characters are women and that is never commented on. Better yet, these women all look, act, and think in completely different ways. You've got Eep, who we already talked about, but there's also Ugga, who loves her family and her husband but also adores the freedom and happiness that Guy has brought into their lives. Ugga understands fear and is completely ready to go back to the cave when something bad is happening, but she's also more willing than her husband to reach for something new.

Gran is both an archetype of the weird, inappropriate granny, and also of a woman who has had to become hard in order to survive. She tells this one story that's kind of funny but also really tragic about how she fell in love once but then her father killed him and sold her to a different man. 

And it's just sort of stated matter of fact, but it explains so much about her as a person and her role in the family. She's the unrelenting matriarch and she's cranky and she's prone to trying to eat the children, but she's completely her own character.

And Sandy is very much the stereotype about the psychotic baby, but she's also really interesting. I mean, she's ferocious and basically feral, but as the movie progresses and the family learns to see things without the lens of fear and constant worry, we see Sandy calm down. She starts to look around her more, to see the world without looking for threats. By the end of the film she's still kind of a terror, but she's more like an actual child and less like a possessed hyena.

They're all female characters with more complexity and individuality than like five other movies put together. None of them relies on sexist stereotypes, none of them is inexplicably attractive, they're all just people. Cavepeople, yes, but definitely just people.

Which is why this movie works and other films, like, say, Hotel Transylvania, don't. The Croods is a story about a bunch of characters who feel real, and so we care about what happens to them. The stakes of their story are high enough that we become genuinely invested in what's going to happen. All of this only happens because the writers took the time to make every character in the film well developed and complex. Just saying, it's kind of important.

So while I really don't recommend this movie as a scientific guide**, it's definitely worth a watch. I think it's the kind of movie that is a really great fit for kids in late childhood (you know, like 7-12 range), but it's good for all ages. It has a strong female lead who looks like a real person, is well-developed, and has wants and desires anyone can relate to, the plot is pretty good if predictable, and the ending will make you feel all gooey inside. Recommend.

Besides, there are worse things than having a kid who wants to grow up and be Eep. Eep's pretty cool.

*Which led me to the hilarious realization that someone had the job of prompting Emma Stone to make a bunch of different grunting noises into a microphone. I wish I'd been there for that. It sounds hilarious for everyone involved.

**My one quibble was how much of the film I spent glaring at the screen over how "evolution doesn't work like that, oh my gosh!" Just - turtles and birds can't be mixed together to create flying turtles with four wings, okay? Science says no!

Monday, June 29, 2015

RECAP: Hannibal 3x04 - Frederick Chilton Is Not Nick Fury

Just as a quick reminder, we now have Kyla Furey from Feedback Force doing weekly Hannibal recaps for us! 

Frederick Chilton is not Nick Furey, but god damn is he ever trying. He got himself a bum eye (although he uses a contact lens to make it look normal rather than an eyepatch), and he spends this entire episode randomly turning up and trying to recruit people to his Avengers Initiative. ...Excuse me, Revenge Initiative. Unfortunately he is nowhere near as convincing as Nick Furey, and everyone in the episode just tells him to screw off. Sorry Chilton honey, no one likes you.

Episode 4 was basically a survey episode, where we flow gradually from one character to another as we see what happened at the end of the last season after everyone woke up (or failed to wake up) from the events of Mizumono. Hannibal isn’t even in the episode, except in Will’s imagination (and one tiny letter-writing moment). Instead we see Chilton, Mason, Jack, Alana, and of course Will as they deal with the weight of the trauma that now hangs perpetually over their existence.

We begin with Chilton and Mason comparing scars - we see the extent of Mason’s* facial destruction, while Chilton removes all of his makeup and prosthetics to reveal a disturbingly drooping facial profile along with a dead eye and significant bullet hole in his cheek.** Chilton is trying to recruit Mason for his revenge “lock up Hannibal in my hospital so I can torment him” scheme, but Mason is having none of it. Mostly because Mason actually wants to kill Hannibal, not just lock him up.

Chilton’s next recruitment stop is Will Graham, trying to commiserate with him over their matching abdominal scars and framing by Hannibal. Will knows better than to give Chilton the time of day though, regardless of whether he comes bearing flowers or not. 

Instead, Will completely tunes Chilton out and fantasizes that Abigail came to visit him. He pictures a different ending to his own story - what it might have been like if he’d helped Hannibal to kill Jack instead of following Jack’s lead.***

Later, out of the hospital, Will is working on a boat motor in his garage when Jack comes to visit him. Jack wants to know why Will gave Hannibal a heads-up about Jack’s plan, giving the cannibal a chance to escape. Will finally admits out loud that he wanted to run away with Hannibal. It seems like he wasn’t sure of himself at the time, but he admits the secret now like the terrible confession that it is, startling Jack and perhaps even himself.

Jack’s story is full of sadness and is one of the most heart-tearing parts of the episode - its emotional core, I would even venture - because although Jack survived his encounter with Hannibal, his wife Bella is still dying of cancer. We see here her slow passing, and Jack’s presence with her in her final hours. 

It’s all heart-wrenching and inevitable, but in a quietly sad way rather than the otherwise ostentatious emotionality that is typical of the series. Which really helps to emphasize how stable and meaningful their relationship truly was; one of the only truly functional relationships in the series. One of the last scenes of Jack in the episode is at her funeral, picturing their wedding day in the same church and fuming over a condolence card sent by Hannibal himself.

Even in the midst of all Jack’s trauma though, he still gets the requisite visit from Chilton, trying to keep him focused on apprehending Hannibal and trying to convince him that Will will lead them to the fugitive cannibal. Which is probably true, but Jack is having none of it, having only the space in his heart and mind right now for his dying wife. As well he should.****

The other main character arc we get to see in this story is Alana’s, whose bones were shattered in her fall out of Hannibal’s second-story window. She too is approached by Chilton while she’s still in traction and she too - like everyone else - completely blows him off.***** 

Once out of the hospital, Alana starts in a wheelchair, trying to approach the grieving Will (and failing, because Will is too busy angsting over Hannibal to listen to anyone except his own hallucination of Abigail), but soon graduates to a cane and plans for revenge. She joins Mason in his quest to find and kill Hannibal (after a significant amount of flirting with his sister Margot, hooray for bisexuality on TV), transforming into some kind of steely-gazed stone-hearted femme fatale. 

I’m not sure how I feel about this transformation. I mean, on the one hand Alana was always the most stable and rational character on the show, the most capable of dealing with her emotions and balancing her mental state with the craziness around her. But now suddenly she’s cold and calculating and out for revenge? It seems a bit of a stretch. 

But on the other hand, if anything was going to do that to you, I imagine having your lover’s accomplice shove you out a window would probably be it. At least they’re doing something interesting with her this season. We’ll see where that goes.

Finally, after the death of Bella, we see Jack come to find Will, perhaps intending to save him from himself. But as Alana - at Will’s house and presumably caring for his dogs - tells Jack, it’s too late; Will is already gone. (Apparently SAILING off to Europe across the Atlantic? Or maybe he just sailed out to an airport. The former is funnier though, and somehow more poignant.) Everyone is in place - this is how the hunt begins, and it seems as though next week, we shall see how the hunt ends!

Side note, as I’m sure you’ve already heard if you read Debbi’s news post, Hannibal has not been picked up for a fourth season, much to the despair of the fans. There’s still a ray of hope, though! The creators are shopping the show around to other services (Amazon video looks like the top contender right now, since they already have the streaming rights to the first three seasons), so there’s still a chance we may get it back! If you want to help out the cause, everyone’s been tweeting (and e-mailing and chatting with) Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon using the #SaveHannibal hashtag in an attempt to revive the show.

But regardless of what happens later, we’ve still got the rest of the season to enjoy and indulge ourselves in! Onward, to cannibal confrontations!

* Mason is played by a new actor compared to last season, but you can honestly barely tell under all that scar makeup.

** Am I crazy, or was Chilton shot in the opposite cheek in the episode last season? Am I just completely misremembering that?

*** Some more great cinematography here, as we literally see Will separating from himself as he imagines the different ways his story might have gone.

**** One funny aside though that we learn in this scene - apparently Chilton copyrighted the term “Hannibal the Cannibal,” presumably to use in future writings on the subject. Good grief, Frederick.

***** To be fair, Chilton’s kind of an asshole about it, basically telling her “I told you so.”

Kyla Furey is an independent game designer and writer. She is also one of the hosts of the game-analysis podcast, Feedback Force, and hosts a weekly Saturday night game livestream on Twitch TV. She enjoys the surreal and the moody in her media, hence her great love of NBC’s Hannibal. You can follow her on Twitter @Kyla_Go where she livetweets Hannibal on Thursdays at 10pm Pacific, following which, she posts delirious stream-of-consciousness reaction videos on YouTube.

'Pitch Perfect 2' Is Good But Not Great, and That's Okay

I'm not going to oversell this movie to you guys - it's good, but it's not great. It's a really entertaining film, the kind of movie that you won't regret seeing but also that probably won't change your life. A perfectly acceptable Friday night movie. Or a Thursday night movie. You get what I mean. It's above average but definitely less spectacular and life-changing than the original. And you know what? 

I am totally okay with that.

Well, I am and I'm not. But I mostly am. I still maintain and believe strongly that every film should strive to make the best movie it possibly can. I have no sympathy for those who don't try. But it doesn't really feel like this movie didn't try. It feels like the writers and producers and director of Pitch Perfect 2 tried a lot, and came up with a movie that was pretty good, just not amazing. That's okay.

What makes me thrilled about this movie is not actually how good it is, but the very fact that it got made at all. I mean, we have to remember here that Pitch Perfect 2 is a sequel to Pitch Perfect, and that it's a sequel to a female ensemble comedy about college a capella competitions. I'm just saying, a few years ago none of this could even believe this would happen. The very concept of a female driven comedy being so successful it spawned a kind of mediocre sequel was unheard of.

And I know I'm kind of making a big deal here, but it's true. For a long time it seems like female media, especially comedy, has had to be exceptional to get any attention. Female-driven comedies in particular have had to be revolutionary or surprising or wonderful in order to get people to go see them. Hollywood has had this idea that unless a film is straight-up genius, no one will watch women be funny in it.

Well, Pitch Perfect 2 isn't genius, quite frankly, but it still got made and it made a buttload of money. Enough money that they're talking about making a third one. And you know what? I'm totally cool with that.

I want to reach this milestone. I want the idea of a super-successful lady comedy franchise to not be shocking anymore. I want us to just recognize how normal and pleasant this is now. I mean, we get to be living through the "summer of the female-lead comedy" right now, and that's awesome. Spy and Pitch Perfect 2 and Ricki and the Flash and Trainwreck and Grandma are all big name comedies coming out this summer, and that makes me really happy.

So, in general, before we even get to the review, I want us to take a minute and be happy. We've finally gotten to the place where we can admit how female-lead comedies are good and sometimes not, can be successful or mediocre, but that they're not a bad investment, and that one mediocre film doesn't mean no woman will ever be funny. Let's be happy and then put it to rest so we can move on with our lives. 

Good? Good.

Okay, so the actual movie itself is, like I said above, not bad. Could be worse. It's basically a remix of the first one in a lot of ways, but I like the original, so I could be more bothered by that.

The basic premise is pretty simple: after dominating the college a capella scene for a few years and winning two more national championships, the Bellas are on top of the world. At least until a performance for the President goes horribly awry and Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson, still hilarious) accidentally flashes her vagina to the world. After that, the Bellas are aca-outcasts, with the collegiate a capella board ruling that they are no longer eligible to compete for the national title.

But there's a loophole, one that a desperate Chloe (Brittany Snow) quickly finds: they can't compete in the national competition, but they do still have a place competing in the world a capella championship if they so choose. Admittedly it's a long shot, since no American team has ever won (and Elizabeth Banks laughing hysterically about how the rest of the world hates us was pretty awesome), but it's something. If the Bellas win the world championships, they can be reinstated. If they lose, then they will cease to exist.

So the stakes are pretty high. Or at least as high as they're apt to be in a movie like this. All of our favorites are back - Beca (Anna Kendrick), Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean), Stacie (Alexis Knapp), Lilly (Hanna Mae Lee), Fat Amy, and the other girls are all seniors, while Chloe has deliberately failed all her classes for three years so she can't graduate. This is do or die for the Bellas. 

Except for Beca, who has her other stuff going on. See, Beca has wanted to be a music producer probably since she could say the words, and now she has an internship at a real record studio, working with a record producer (played hilariously and with surprising heart by Keegan-Michael Key). She's an intern and mostly she just fetches coffee, but it's a foot in the door, and when she manages to impress her boss and help Snoop Dogg's newest record, Beca gets a very real shot at making her dreams a reality.

Only, and here's where the big conflict of the film comes in: she's afraid to tell anyone about it. Jesse (Skylar Astin), her boyfriend since the first movie, knows. Chloe doesn't. Beca's afraid to tell her because admitting to conflicting loyalties to a full-on panic mode Chloe is like dropping a cow in front of a shark. 

Complicating matters as well is the presence of Emily Junk (Hailee Steinfeld), their only new Bella recruit. The Bellas were formally banned from admitting new members, but since Emily's mom (the spectacular Katey Sagal) was a Bella, she's a Legacy and the rules don't apply. Interestingly, it's Emily's eyes we see most of the story from, with her struggles to fit into the group, her frustrating that it's not everything she dreamed it would be, and her slow realization that as much as she admires these girls, they're still just normal people with problems.

And oh man do they have problems. Just like in the first film, the majority of the second act documents how horrible the Bellas are right now. They've totally lost their sound and swagger. To make matters worse, they're terrified of their biggest rivals for the world championship, a German "music collective" called Das Sound Machine. Das Sound Machine (or DSM as they sometimes call themselves) is a group of intense, hyper-competitive Germans who want nothing more than to crush the Bellas. Because they can, I guess?

Honestly, as enjoyable as this film is, the plot is nothing to write home about. Beca struggles with balancing work and Bellas, finding herself terrified that in the real world she has no actual talent for her chosen profession. Chloe stresses out about the competition but also about the idea of finally having to graduate college and move on with her life. Emily worries that the group doesn't care about her and it's not everything she wanted it to be. Fat Amy has a whole love story plot going on. 

There are scenes of disastrous performances, an a capella competition in a basement (again), and even a scene where the girls start blurting out their feelings to each other while sitting in a big circle. So, yeah, it's basically a retread of the exact same plot and storyline as before, but that's okay. In a weird way it's comforting.

And, of course, everything turns out fine in the end. Because why wouldn't it? This is a feel-good college movie, so obviously our underdog heroes will win the day eventually. Not every movie will pull a Bring It On.*

What actually ended up surprising me in this film isn't the plot, but rather the emphasis on some of the themes. I mean, some of them were obvious and the same as the first film, but the big one that stood out to me is how the movie ends up really being about how women need to love and support each other, to be the network and backup and general family for each other because without that, life isn't really worth living.

It's not a revolutionary idea by any means, but the movie goes pretty strongly on that idea. When the Bellas don't listen to each other and work together, they stink. But when they pay attention to each others lives, when they support each other, they can make good music. It's not rocket science, but that doesn't mean it's not worthwhile either.

I like this movie. My roommate is always making fun of me because I adore heartwarming sports movies, and this is basically a heartwarming sports movie, let's be real. It's about underdogs working together and finding their groove and then winning a well deserved championship title. Yes, there's some cheese in there. And some stupid fat jokes. And a few moments of eyebrow raising. Yes, the plot is a little stale.

But it's a movie that makes you feel good inside without making you feel bad about anything either. And it's a film that chooses to focus on the bonds of sisterhood, across generations and class and race lines, the idea that you can choose to support the women in your life and that will make your life better. The big breakthrough in the film comes when Beca has a moment of humility and admits how scared she is, only to find that everyone else is scared too. That's important, and it's worth celebrating.

So. Final thoughts. The new Bella introduced aside from Emily, Flo (Chrissie Fit), is a fantastic addition to the team, with her commentary on her harrowing experiences growing up in Guatemala providing a really nice counter-point whenever one of the girls gets too "ah this is the worst thing to ever happen to anyone ever!" about it all. And Birgitte Hjort Sørensen** and Flula Borg are phenomenal as the leaders of Das Sound Machine.

Aubrey (Anna Camp) even gets her own hilarious cameo in the film where we find out what she did after graduation - hint, it involved parlaying her love of yelling at people with her appreciation for guns into a very lucrative career. Heck, even Benji (Ben Platt) gets some development here when he falls hard for Emily and proceeds to make himself into an even more awkward person around her. Somehow.

The real takeaway here, though, should be that it's a fun, enjoyable movie. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, and it doesn't really try. But that's okay. Entertainment is a perfectly acceptable goal for a film and I never got the impression that the people involved in this were half-assing it. No, it's a good film that isn't great about women supporting each other, and isn't that kind of nice?

Yeah. I think so too.

*I love that movie. Just saying. I adore it.
**If she looks vaguely familiar to you, it's probably because she played Tarsi, the super rad Wildling lady in the Game of Thrones episode "Hardhome". You know, the one where that super cool lady became a zombie because we can't have nice things. Her.

Friday, June 26, 2015

RECAP: Game of Thrones 5x10 - I'm Completely Over It

Before we even get started, I want to talk about realism in fiction. Because that's the shield that the writers of Game of Thrones, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, hide behind. Realism. The idea that in real life there are no clear narratives, the good guys seldom win, and the best we can hope for is a slightly less oppressive bootheel.

That's the whole premise of the show, right? Leaving behind whether or not it's the premise of George RR Martin's books, it's clearly the idea that drives the show forward. It's their defense anytime someone questions the horrible atrocities we see on screen, the rape and desecration of their female characters, the death of people who don't die in the books, the sheer unrelenting wall of misery that the later seasons have become. Realism. Grimdark. Gritty, realistic fantasy fiction.

Well, I'm here to tell you that the reason your insides rebel everytime something "realistic" happens on Game of Thrones that bothers you deeply is because it's not realistic. Not at all. I mean, yeah, real life rarely abides by narrative structure, but it's also not an unrelenting parade of badness. Real life is chaotic and weird and sometimes hilariously apt. But mostly it's hard to pin down. So yeah, bad things happen all the time, but good things happen too.

In real life there are tons of really nice coincidences that come along and help the people we care about. In history we have thousands of examples of happy accidents that turned the tide of a war. There are just as many weird moments of serendipity as there are times when the world fell soul-crushingly apart. Real life is chaotic and random at times, but that doesn't mean good things never happen. It really doesn't.

And that's probably my biggest problem with Game of Thrones right now. It encompasses their other sins - the horrible treatment of female characters, an over-reliance on sexual assault as a plot point, and the oppressive grimdark - into one simple issue. In Game of Thrones, nothing good ever happens. To anyone. At least, not for long.

It's a problem because it espouses a worldview I find abhorrent. It's this particularly entrenched white liberal notion that the world is shit and nothing we can do can save it. It's all just terrible and bad things happen. I've seen a lot of this attitude in the past few months, and the past few years, spreading through my friends and colleagues like a disaffected wildfire, and I hate it. I hate Game of Thrones for representing it. And I think it's wrong.

I mean, I get how one could be so discouraged as to think that. The world is pretty unpleasant right now, and it has been for as long as I can remember. But to assume that because all we hear about is bad news that only bad things happen is a sampling error. And the idea that we should just give up because clearly nothing good can happen in our broken world is the kind of defeatist attitude which will change nothing. It's trite and it is totally true: if nothing you can do matters, then all that matters is what you do.

Or, in other words, you can't win this fight. Fight anyway. If you believe that there is nothing good that can happen, then you won't do anything but then nothing will be done. Is it really so much worse to choose to believe that there is good in the world and that nice, brave, kind things happen every day? I could get into examples I have of this, examples of times when the world was changed because of goodness and mercy and grace, but this isn't that kind of blog. We talk about fiction here, and how fiction impacts the world.

I think Game of Thrones impacts the world badly. I think that it is a show that, by its depiction of this fantasy world, negatively impacts real lives. It spreads a toxic understanding of reality where only bad things happen, where only evil prevails, and in so doing it tells us that we should all give up. We can't achieve anything worthwhile, so what's the bother trying? Apathy is not cool, but apathy is what Game of Thrones tells us is our only choice in the face of such unremitting suck.

So, I am hereby announcing now, this is my last Game of Thrones recap. I'm not leaving because of any particular incident in this past season, though there are lots I could have chosen, but rather because I want something better. I deserve something better. I deserve a story that chooses to see the world as a place where people can make a difference, and where good things still happen. I have chosen to appreciate media that doesn't shit on everything I love.

And maybe, just maybe, if we all stop talking about Game of Thrones, it will go away and take its poisonous negativity with it. I hope so.

This my last Game of Thrones recap. Let's get started.

Up at Winterfell, the time has finally come for Stannis Baratheon to earn his keep as a character and get rid of the Boltons, rooting them out of the North and out of Winterfell. His horrific sacrifice from last episode has apparently served him well. The snows are melted and his army can move. But for some reason no one wants to fight for a man who would burn his own daughter alive, so half his army has deserted, taking their supplies and horses with them. Also, Stannis' wife, Selyse, has hung herself out of shame and regret.

But Stannis is undeterred. With Melisandre's urging, he pushes on to Winterfell where the Boltons are ready and waiting.

Sansa takes this moment to actually act on her behalf, coming out of her room in the fuss of the preparations and going up to light a candle in the window of the broken tower, just like Brienne told her to. But Brienne is gone, having heard that Stannis was coming, and so there is no one to find her light.

Worse, the Boltons are more than just ready for the Baratheon army, they're overready. They have a vast number of men on horseback, well-rested troops, so many supplies. They overrun Stannis' army and slaughter it. The battle is over almost before it starts, with Stannis' men falling like wheat.

Stannis himself lives just long enough to pay for his crimes against Renly. Brienne has found him and has told him what she saw that night. Stannis doesn't deny it: he did use black magic to kill his brother. So she kills him, without mercy, fulfilling yet another of her oaths. Stannis even closes his eyes as she does it, probably because even he can't stand to be around himself any longer.

Back at Winterfell, Sansa is ready to escape but she's blocked from doing so by Ramsay's spurned girlfriend, Myranda, to hold her at arrow-point and demand she go back to her cell. Theon/Reek is with her and begs Sansa not to run away. But Sansa no longer has any reason to fear death. She knows that if she stays she'll become just like Theon/Reek, utterly broken, and Myranda even assures her of this. She explains that all Ramsay really needs is a couple of heirs from her, and he doesn't even need all of her for that.

Sansa steels herself for what promises to be horrifying torture, but for once Theon/Reek stands up and does what he should have done all season. He pushes back, tossing Myranda off the wall, and then grabs Sansa's hand. Ramsay is coming back. They have to run.

So they do run. They get to the edge of the battlements, look down at the snow far below them, and silently agree that death by falling and the slight possibility of escape is worth much more than a life lived being slowly stripped of who you are. They jump and we don't see how they land.

Further North, at the Wall, Jon and Sam apprise each other of the events of the last few episodes, and Sam begs Jon to let him go. Let him go to the Citadel with Gilly and baby Sam so that he can learn to be a Maester. The Watch needs one now that Maester Aemon is dead, but also if Gilly stays here she'll die and so will Sam. They have to go, it's the only way that's safe.

Jon doesn't want his one friend left to leave him, especially not since Sam's so good at giving advice, but he does. He won't stand in the way of Sam's happiness, and he definitely won't stand in the way of Sam's continued breathing. Sam and Gilly leave Castle Black on a cart and hopefully never have to come back.

Then Jon and Davos argue over whether or not he should command the Wildlings to fight for Stannis, but the point becomes quickly moot when Melisandre arrives, bearing the sad news that Stannis is dead, alongside his army and his entire family. The house of Baratheon is gone, save for one lost bastard boy we last saw in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean.

Arya, in Braavos, finally gets to cross Meryn Trant's name off her list. In a scene that utterly does not surprise me anymore, she uses a face from the Hall of Faces to disguise herself as an underage whore and attack him. It's not particularly shocking how brutally she does it. What is shocking is what happens when she gets back to the House of White and Black. Jaqen is waiting for her, along with the Waif, and they chastise her. She took the wrong life. She stole from the Many Faced God. That's a big no-no.

Her punishment is another death, and Arya is horrified to watch Jaqen drink a vial of poison and quickly fall down. But when she starts crying it gets even more horrifying. Because that wasn't Jaqen. Or it was. Another Jaqen comes into the room and explains that the faces only work if you have no face of your own. She pulls off the face to find another face, then another, and so on. There are more faces than she can comprehend. 

Arya's crime was that she took a face before she was ready to be no one, and so the face has poisoned her. Arya goes blind and I just sort of shrugged a lot.

Jaime finally gets to leave Dorne, happy to be taking with him his daughter/niece and future son-in-law. Myrcella says a sweet farewell to everyone, and even Ellaria makes nice, giving her a kind and really long goodbye kiss. On the boat, Jaime sits Myrcella down and decides that now is the time to tell her the truth of her parentage, but then he doesn't need to. She already knows and she's okay with it because she's a badly written character. She hugs her father/uncle, then dies of a nosebleed because she was a kind girl and this is Game of Thrones.

Back on the dock in Dorne, we see Ellaria get a nosebleed too, but she stops it by drinking some antidote. So it's clear that not even women in this world are willing to stop punishing women for things they didn't do. Great.

In Meereen, the Unsullied have managed to restore a tentative peace to the city, but Daenerys and Drogon are still missing. They flew off towards the wilderness and haven't come back. All of our remaining heroes there - Tyrion, Daario, Jorah, Missandei, and Grey Worm - meet in her throne room to figure out what to do next. After some stupid male posturing, it's agreed that Jorah and Daario will go look for their queen, being the only two actually suited for this sort of mission, while Tyrion, Missandei, and Grey Worm rule the city.

It's actually not a terrible plan. Tyrion is amazing at strategy and ruling, as we've already seen. Missandei is well known and well liked for being Daenerys' spokeswoman and confidante. And Grey Worm is their strong arm (when he gets better), the leader of the Unsullied and a man that all of Meereen can agree is tough as the balls he doesn't have anymore. They make a good set.

Even better, Varys has finally arrived, ready to help Tyrion rule the city. His little birds have brought him there and it's not hard to see that their teamup will be as fruitful here as it was in King's Landing. Welcome back Varys, everyone missed you and your pragmatism.

Somewhere in the wilderness, Daenerys finds herself completely lost and saddled with an exhausted dragon. Drogon has no intentions of taking his mother back to the place where they nearly killed her (weird, right?), and instead decides he'd like to take a nap. Daenerys tries to reason with him but it doesn't work, so she goes down and explores. While exploring, she spots some riders coming towards her. Then lots of riders. Then a whole army of riders surrounding her. They kind of look like Dothraki? No idea. But she drops her ring and is presumably taken prisoner. Girl power.

In King's Landing, Cersei provides a really interesting encapsulation of everything I hate about this show. Beaten and broken after (presumably) months of imprisonment, Cersei finally agrees to confess her sins. She tells the High Sparrow that she knows what she did was wrong and she's very sorry, now can she see her son please? He agrees - though she does lie a lot and only confess to sleeping with Lancel, not Jaime, and a bunch of other stuff - but on the condition that she make a walk "of atonement" back to the Red Keep.

In case you couldn't guess it based on the simple fact that it's Game of freaking miserable woman-hating Thrones, this walk of atonement involves having all her hair cut off, being stripped naked, and having to walk very slowly through the entire city while a woman walks behind her and chants "Shame shame shame" while ringing a bell. Cersei gets feces thrown at her, is covered in blood and garbage, and essentially staggers through her own front door at the end, having been forced to undergo a kind of humiliation that only someone as sadistic as these writers could come up with.

I mean, I understand that George RR Martin came up with it first. But he told it to us by putting us inside Cersei's head, by making it about her and her struggles. For us, outside her head, it's not about her. It's about the spectacle. The punishment. And that's the problem with this show. It's never about the women, it's always about the violence.

Finally, back in Winterfell, Jon Snow falls for the oldest trick in the book - the news that his uncle, Benjen Stark, might still be alive - and walks right into a trap. The men of the Night's Watch don't think he's a good commander. They're through with his forward thinking and "bigger picture". They stab him to death in a corner of Castle Black, with Jon's former apprentice, Olly, giving the killing blow, then leave him to bleed out on the snow.

And that's it. That's how Game of Thrones, the show we keep being told is one of the best things on television, ends its season. Well, I'm over it. Enough. Enough rape and violence and sadness and futility. I'm out. And to cleanse our collective palates of this unrelenting misery, how about a moment of sheer undiluted joy from a show that was basically the exact opposite of this. So, without further ado, here's your reward for making it through this season of Game of Thrones and also this recap. 

Bye bye Jon Snow, may you meet Lil Sebastian in heaven and discuss haircare treatments.

Strong Female Character Friday: Gina Linetti (Brooklyn 99)

It's been kind of an intense week on the blog so far. And, to be honest, it's been kind of an intense few months for me. So instead of getting all sad and mopey this Friday, I think it's time we celebrate and have a fabulous time. Why? Because we're here to talk about Ms. Gina Linetti, and she would definitely not want us to be sad. Mostly because she doesn't want us bringing her down.

No, seriously, I've actually been planning to talk about Gina for a while now, because as Brooklyn 99 goes one, she's become a really complex and interesting character. We've talked before about Rosa and Amy, but now is the time to talk about Gina. Because Gina really doesn't seem like she should be line to be lauded as a great female character. Right? She's kind of the worst, actually. She's shallow and vain and proud of her flaws. She is the stereotype most women in the workplace are trying desperately to avoid. She's a slacker who doesn't care about her job, mocks others mercilessly, and carries a hairdryer in her purse.

And for all of those reasons, she's actually an amazing character.

As a quick backup, Brooklyn 99 is a half-hour "workplace" comedy on FOX that follows the lives of a bunch of detectives and admins in the Brooklyn 99th precinct. Gina (played with such skill by Chelsea Peretti) is the precinct's civilian administrator and is eventually promoted to being Captain Holt's assistant. While the rest of the characters are generally interested in solving their cases and dealing with crime, Gina doesn't care at all. She takes long naps, refuses to answer her phone, and makes paper airplanes out of official documents.

This is the Gina we know and love or loathe for most of the show. An unrepentant narcissist with enough personality problems to keep a house party full of psychiatrists enthralled for hours, Gina is pretty much a standup of the standard annoying coworker who somehow never gets fired despite doing absolutely nothing productive.

What makes her an amazing character is that she is definitely all of these things, but as the series progresses we see she's also a bunch more.

For example, when Gina's apartment is robbed in season one, Amy and Rosa laugh it off, figuring that Gina is the kind of insensitive where nothing like this should ever bother her. But it did bother her - she's not a robot, she has real feelings. And while she goes about expressing them in a particularly juvenile way, that doesn't make them invalid.

Later in the season we discover that Gina and our protagonist, Jake, have been friends since childhood. She's weird but she's still totally able to keep a friendship going that long. Furthermore, we find out in that episode that Gina has close to half a million dollars in savings, because she's been living in a tiny shoebox apartment since she first moved out and has saved all her money. That's right, Gina Linetti is shallow and self-centered, but also incredibly fiscally responsible. And she's even really giving, offering to buy Jake's apartment and then rent it back to him. He turns her down (rightly) and lets her buy it herself.

Heck, for all that Gina is absolutely definitely a narcissist, she's also a pretty good friend. She asks about Terry's kids when no one else will. She's the only person from their precinct to successfully befriend Holt's husband, Kevin. She has a level of emotional awareness that puts everyone else to shame and is frequently the only one to figure out when a coworker is distressed.

And it's made clear that she's still a growing and changing person. When the series starts she really doesn't care about anyone at work, but over time she becomes really close with Captain Holt and Terry. They believe in her and as a result of their trust, she starts to actually go places with her life. She goes back to school. She gets serious about her (admittedly awful) dance troupe. When she finds out that Captain Holt didn't go to one of her performances, she's devastated.

She even manages to befriend Amy, after having spent years mocking her, by showing her how to get out of her own head and have some fun. Gina's not a bad person, is the thing. She's a complex one. She has her good and bad moments. She can be a bitch or she can be the person you most need to hear. And that's pretty realistic.

I guess part of the reason I like Gina is because I see in her a truth that we often forget. The people we interact with on a day to day basis are much more complex than we tend to acknowledge. We go through life barely paying attention, but every once in a while it's important to stop and remember: the people around you have lives when you're not around. They do things. They cry and snore and wonder if anyone likes them. They have whole worlds of personality that you haven't seen, and just because you haven't seen it doesn't make it invalid.

People are people whether you're looking or not. It's easy to forget when you see the outward sass and ridiculousness of Gina that she's a breathing, feeling human, but she is. And that's the beauty of her character.

It's also a huge part of why I love and respect Brooklyn 99 so much. They're not afraid to make Gina a person even when it would be easier, from a narrative standpoint, to let her stay the same. It's hard to write realistic growth and depth, but they've done it anyway and I really appreciate that.

This past season saw a number of plotlines revolving around Gina that gave us whole new insights into her personality. First there was her fling with Boyle. At first it felt like just another throwaway joke where she was ashamed of having sex with him because he's not super hot, but it turned into a rather complex look at both of their characters. In the end, when the revelation that their parents were dating made them immediately break up, Gina handled it all with a lot of grace and dignity.

Granted, it's a special kind of dignity that involves standing on a chair in the bullpen and loudly proclaiming her sexual history, but she's a special kind of girl.

Next we saw a touching storyline about Gina's relationship with her mother and all the many reasons why she was worried about her mom getting together with Boyle's dad. We got to see how protective she is, and also where a huge chunk of her personality comes from.

There was the scene where we find out how much she respects Kevin and what he and Captain Holt mean to her. There was the entire episode about her attempts to become better friends with Amy (through alcohol). And there was all this character growth about her coming to view her job not just as a place to nap in between dance rehearsals, but as a place full of people who will support her. Still not a place to do actual work, but we're getting there.

Gina Linetti is a great character because she's not a simple one. She takes the negative stereotypes about women in the workforce and fleshes them out, builds them up - makes them into a person. Like we talked about last week with Karen Page in Daredevil, it's not the attributes themselves that I object to, it's how they're usually used to create a female character with no real depth or agency. Gina has both depth and agency. The writers have taken little scraps of character and sewn them into the Lycra bodysuit that is Gina Linetti.

It's been a long week, and sometimes all you really want is to just kick back and let your worst self take over. That's who Gina is. But that's not all she is, and that's why we love her.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"I've Got Family" - Masculinity and Community in 'Fast and Furious

Way way back in the bowels of this blog there's an article I wrote about why we as human beings are so incredibly obsessed with werewolves. I don't really recommend tracking the article down - there's a reason I'm not linking to it - but I've brought it up because I think that the core argument I had there is worth taking another look at. Basically, I said that people like stories about werewolves primarily because of the werewolf pack. We like to hear about these groups of people who love and support each other no matter what, who will fight and survive and live together, through thick and thin, and so on.

We really really like that. It's the core of what makes werewolf stories appealing, and, frankly, the reason I prefer them over the narrative of the lone vampire.* As human beings, we long for community and family and the feeling of being perfectly known and accepted. It's the heart of who we are to want that.

I'm bringing all of this up, obviously, because I think I've found another sweet spot in our culture where this desire for community and deep relationship comes through. I'm talking, of course, about the brilliant and incredibly under-appreciated Fast and Furious series, a bunch of movies that most people write off as pure schlock (including sometimes me), but which actually represents possibly the most powerful collective wish fulfillment our media has to offer.

No, it's not the cars or the hot girls or the ridiculous stunts that get more and more improbable each movie. It's not Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson having a scene where his character literally flexes his way out of a plaster cast. It's not cars leaping between two buildings, or even three buildings. And, shockingly, it's not even all about drooling over the custom cars.

Instead, I think the actual appeal of the Fast and Furious movies comes down to one thing: the people. Yeah, those not necessarily well-developed characters are really the heart of the film. And, as it turns out, they hold the key to some really interesting conversations on masculinity, social norms, and the value of emotional connection.

But, for those of you who have completely lost me by now, allow me to explain. The Fast and Furious franchise is a group of seven films (with another on the way) that loosely follow a bunch of street racers from Los Angeles. Originally conceived as sort of a Point Break ripoff, the first film was a standalone action movie about an undercover cop, Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), being embedded with a bunch of illegal street racers in order to bring down some sort of criminal activity. The course of the first film saw Brian become more and more enmeshed in the world of street-racing, bonding with Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) as they took him into their family and their hearts. Which of course ended tragically when they found out he was a cop.

The second film was all about Brian, now back in Florida, getting further into street-racing. The third movie - by now the studio had realized what a cash cow they had but not quite how to use it - saw a completely new cast of characters and set, this time following street racing in Tokyo. But from the fourth film onwards, the movies fell into a set pattern, mostly revolving around Brian and Dom and their massive cast of family members and friends as they did crime or tried to stop crime using fast cars and massive stunts all over the globe.

The cast of actors involved typically includes big names from both high and low culture, with MMA fighters Gina Carano and Ronda Roussey both having pretty big roles in the films, alongside appearances from Gal Gadot (our future Wonder Woman) and Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandei from Game of Thrones). Oh and Kurt Russell and Ludacris. No big deal. The cast for the films is actually one of the more genially mocked features, with some people pointing out that keeping track of everyone and their relationships requires some kind of chart or at the very least a quick primer.

But, like I said above, that's part of the whole appeal of the films. The point is how big the cast is, how filled with really fun likable characters it is. How villains from one film become allies in the next and family after that. How the relationships shift and evolve. How the characters form bonds that are so incredibly strong.

It's this bond that explains why the entire franchise nearly derailed when its star, Paul Walker, died during filming. Obviously that would be a problem for any film, but in this case, with a franchise that is so strongly built around ideals of family and relationship, it's not hard to see why it was completely devastating for the cast and crew. And it's really not surprising that they turned his final movie into a loving sendoff.

Because here's the thing: the reason we like these movies isn't just because we enjoy watching the people in them get along so well, it's because we get to feel like we too are there and we too belong. Dom even says as much in Furious 7. He says, "I don't have friends. I've got family."

That's what we want. We want to be in Dom Toretto's family. We want the level of security and protection that means. The idea that he would fly across the world just to keep us safe. That he'd jump out of a speeding car for us, that he'd move mountains and make miracles happen because we matter to him. I know I want that, and I'm willing to bet that you do too.

The secret of these movies isn't a secret at all, but it's a hope so deeply buried that we tend to be afraid to pull it out. It's why the films are so often laughed off as "junk food" and "mindless entertainment". Yeah, they're a little mindless. But who cares? They are far from heartless, and I count that much higher.

And it's even better than just wanting the feeling that must come from being on Dominic Toretto's inner circle. The family cookouts and hugs and love must be amazing, don't get me wrong. But the idea that someone like Dom not only loves you but also expects you to be your best self? I can see tha being incredibly motivating.

I'm not saying that Dom as a character is perfect, but he's certainly come a long way since the early days of the franchise, and yeah, I want to be the person that Dom Toretto thinks I am. I want to be part of his crew. But mostly I want to be his family, because when Dom says that he loves all his friends like blood, I believe him. And it makes me long for that in my life.

I've been very lucky over the years to belong to a lot of communities worth being in. The best of them are like Dom's: sprawling, loving, open, and full of people who want to show how much they care. And it's funny how having tasted this, knowing what community can really feel like, only makes you hungrier for it.

I think that, in a lot of ways, this is the real gift the Fast and Furious movies have given us. In showing us a community and a family worth pursuing, it makes us want it. And when we acknowledge that desire to ourselves, then we're a lot closer to actually going after it.

But before we close out, I want to just take a second and recognize that these movies are unique not just for building out a cast of really supportive loving characters, but for doing it all centered around two traditionally masculine male leads. 

Particularly with Dom, he comes off like every stereotype about a man's man that you can imagine. He's huge. He's ripped. He works on muscle cars. He talks in a low gravely mumble. His girlfriend/wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), is hot as hell and can beat you up. Women fall all over him and men want to be him.

And he's also the single most emotionally sensitive person in the franchise, as well as the kind of softie who cries and talks about his feelings and spills hard truths about love and honesty all the freaking time. It's amazing. Dom Toretto - and by extension, Vin Diesel - is a walking, talking subversion of the tropes of classic masculinity. He doesn't bottle up his feelings, he wears them like a badge of honor, and if you've seen the movies you can agree with me that it by no means makes him a less appealing person.

In fact, his emotional intelligence and openness is a huge part of what makes Dom the kind of magnetic leader you want to follow. No one cares about Dom because he's a muscle-bound he-man. They follow him and love him because he loves them back. Because he cries sometimes. Because he talks about his heart. 

Men don't have to bite down on their feelings to be strong, and I love this franchise for making that abundantly clear. But that's really just part of the larger whole. The story of Fast and Furious is one of love between two men who didn't ostensibly have anything in common at the start and ended the seventh film as brothers. 

The unabashedly sentimental ending of Furious 7 isn't something to be embarrassed about, it's just an expression of the core values of the series. These aren't movies about fast cars and explosions. They're films about love. And also fast cars and explosions.

So thank you, Fast and Furious, for reminding me of what I really want in my life. I want community. I want family. I want people who talk about their hearts and ask me about mine. I want to know that I belong, that I'm known, that I'm in the inner circle. I want to feel so strongly that the people around me are just as invested as I am. And now that I know I want that, I can make it happen.

I am definitely not ashamed to admit that I want this.
*There are other reasons, but that's the main one.