Friday, December 23, 2016

Favorites of 2016

Ed Ruscha at the de Young, Seonna Hong at Hashimoto Contemporary,
Yuri on IceAll My Puny Sorrows, The Makropulos Case 

It's no secret that 2016 wasn't great. But here are the pieces of art and entertainment, from an ice skating anime to paintings in Milan, that I loved in this crazy year. 


All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews: One of my favorite books and one of my favorite movies this year are about suicide, but both in an oddly hopeful way. In All My Puny Sorrows, two middle-aged Mennonite sisters - struggling writer Yolandi and renowned pianist Elfreida - grapple with Elfreida's suicidal ideation and their family's long history of mental illness. This sounds like a dreary premise, but Toews's novel is full of warmth, humor, and fierce love. In a highlight, Yolandi furiously gives her sister the kind of defense most depressed people long for, but never get.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: As a The Tempest superfan, I was excited for Margaret Atwood's novel take on the Shakespeare play. The resulting work, Hag-Seed, is inventive and entertaining (if not terribly deep). When a smarmy board member removes egotistical but dedicated Felix from his role as artistic director of a theatre festival, Felix goes into hiding. But when he finds a job teaching Shakespeare to inmates at a local prison, he realizes how he could have his revenge.

Bloodline by Claudia Gray: Set seven-ish years before Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this eerily topical Star Wars novel captures, from Senator Leia Organa's point of view, the political tensions and escalating disasters that make way for the rise of the First Order.

Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie: A spaceship trapped in a human body teams up with a drug-addicted former colleague in a quest for revenge: this is the story Ann Leckie tells in three beautiful page-turners. The trilogy is a masterclass in world-building; a breath-taking tour of imaginary planets, space stations, and cultures. Characters like measured, compassionate, quietly determined Breq; the sometimes heroic, sometimes a hot mess Seivarden; and zany, endlessly curious Translator Zeiat become quick favorites.

After dutifully carrying out a devastating order she wishes she hadn't and then losing her omniscience in a betrayal, former spaceship artificial intelligence system Breq tirelessly plots a course that will take her to the evil leader of the empire she once served. Along the way she gains companions and rights various social justice wrongs. The vision Leckie presents of a compassionate, justice-focused way of governing is enticing and needed, but her didactic impulse can get distracting as the trilogy continues (even on the climactic brink of a potentially existence-ending war, a lot of time and energy is devoted to browbeating an emotionally unstable character over a microaggression, for example).

Older Books I Read or Re-Read
Grace Marks (L), the subject of Atwood's novel

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood: One of Atwood's finest, Alias Grace is based on real murders that happened near Toronto in 1843. Told by various narrators, newspaper clippings, and even some poetry, Atwood imagines the build-up to the crimes; the lengthy aftermath; and most importantly, the precarious and complicated lives of female servants.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: I revisited this classic on a whim, and got a little obsessed. (Bonus: on Halloween, I scored a reduced price ticket to San Francisco Ballet's forthcoming production of a ballet based on the novel!)

The Debacle (Le Debacle) by Emile Zola: Something I'm writing has required me to do a lot of research on the Franco-Prussian War, which lead to Zola's The Debacle. Because of this research I already knew the novel's ending, but I got so invested in the characters involved that I hoped I had misread it. I hadn't. :( The translation I read, by Leonard Tancock, was distracting (he makes the French peasants talk like English cockneys for some reason, like with them saying "tuppence" and everything), but the story of two Frances represented by two men who form an unlikely friendship on the battlefield is still powerful.

Zofloya by Charlotte Dacre and The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole: I read Zofloya for the Venetian setting when gearing up for a trip to Venice, and had no idea going in just how bonkers the 1806 Gothic novel would be. It is very bonkers, with murders, affairs, magic, kidnappings, and lovers clasping each other on top of a mountain while lightning flashes around them. But then I went back to what is considered the first Gothic novel, the 1764 The Castle of Otranto, which starts with a teenager getting killed on his wedding day by a giant flying helmet. That definitely takes the bonkers gold. Reading these made me better understand Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, her 1817 novel in which a teenage heroine who devours these types of books sees Gothic drama in everything around her.


Swiss Army Man: This bizarre, gross-out indie about a depressed man and a corpse is also deeply affecting.

Moonlight: "That shit was perfect," announced a man behind me when the end credits started to roll. It's hard to argue with that assessment of Barry Jenkins's reflective portrait in three acts of a gay boy growing to manhood in Miami's mix of drugs, danger, and beauty.

Arrival: I was a bigger mess during this movie than in 50/50, The Fault in Our Stars, or Liz in September, and cancer wasn't even mentioned. I cried at the beginning of the movie. I cried in the middle of the movie. I cried at the end of the movie. This film about a linguist hired to communicate with recently landed, cephalopod-like aliens is based on the Ted Chiang short story, "The Story of Your Life," and I'd suggest avoiding spoilers.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople: New Zealand director Taika Waititi, unlike many people, presumably had a good 2016. Not only was he filming Thor: Ragnarok, a hopefully lighter addition to the increasingly bogged-down MCU, but his adventure-comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople was released. When it looks like Ricky - a city-raised foster kid who has finally found home at a rural farm - will be returned to the system, he and his cantankerous foster parent go on the run in the New Zealand bush.

Midnight Special: I am going to be totally honest and admit that I 100% saw this because Adam Driver is in it. He plays an awkward, studious government agent who is tracking down a boy, Alton, rumored to have strange powers. Also looking for the boy are representatives from the cult in which Alton was raised. Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst are Alton's parents, and chameleonic Joel Edgerton is a friend helping them flee. Like other artsy sci-fi films Arrival and Under the Skin, Midnight Special spends long moments lingering on its Earthen landscapes, in this case the American South at night. The shots of headlight-filled highways and glowing gas stations reminded me a lot of the Ed Ruscha show held at the de Young this year (below).


Yuri on Ice: I'm not a big TV watcher, but I watched my usual stuff this year: South Park, Gotham, Drunk History, hours of HGTV in the background, etc. But what completely captured my heart (and judging my twitter feed, the hearts of girls from Japan to Mexico)? Ice skating anime Yuri on Ice.

Morfydd Clark and Janet McTeer in Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Les Liaisons Dangereuses - Donmar Warehouse: Josie Rourke and the Donmar Warehouse are British national treasures we're sometimes allowed access to via National Theatre Live. I loved Rourke's take on Coriolanus a few years back, and her production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 novel, was another stunner. (The show eventually made it to Broadway, but I saw it via telecast at the Lark Theater in Larkspur.) My favorite aspect of this production was how Rourke made use of what we know but the characters and Laclos did not: that in just a few years, the upper class's lives of luxurious boredom and bored excess would be upended by the French Revolution. As the play progresses, the sumptuous set is stripped bare, mirroring the protagonists' pretense and foretelling the storm to come. 

Much Ado About Nothing - Cal Shakes: This gender-bending, cater-waiter take on one of my favorite Shakespeare plays worked marvelously. 

King Lear - PacRep: I had no idea what to expect when my family decided to see some local theater while on a trip to Monterey, and was blown away by the caliber of acting and set design in this King Lear

The Makropulos Case - San Francisco Opera: The image of Nadja Michael in a Pierrot costume was enough to get me through the door for this 1926 Czech opera about a 300-year-old superstar looking to further extend her life. Michael's charisma makes the piece work, but I also truly touched by the story of the jaded diva and the everyday people who have been embroiled in a generations-long legal conflict partly of her making. 

Detail from Seonna Hong's "Brotherhood of Men"

Musee Massena - Charlotte Salomon: Vie? Ou theatre?: The Musee Massena in Nice, France, celebrated the work of a young artist who once sought refuge nearby from Nazism.

Palazzo Reale - Simbolismo: When my sister and I stopped in Milan for the night on our way from Nice to Venice, we didn't do much research beforehand and didn't know what to expect. Along with the Duomo and finding the perfect duck umbrella, this exhibition of the beauty, weirdness, and sometimes gaudiness of the Symbolism movement was a highlight.

Fine Arts Museums San FranciscoEd Ruscha and the Great American West & Wild West: Plains to the Pacific: The de Young's Ruscha show focused on the artist's work capturing both the sprawl and emptiness of the American Southwest. Its sister exhibition at the Legion of Honor was a clear-eyed survey of the West through many artists.

Hashimoto Contemporary - Seonna Hong, In Our Nature: I was immediately taken by Hong's intriguing images of youths exploring minimalist landscapes in pinks, greens, and grays. I even ended up buying a 2.5 x 2.5" painting - an addition to my tiny collection of tiny original art.

Ancillary Mercy, Swiss Army Man, Bloodline,
Moonlight, Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Previous Favorites:
Favorites of 2015
Favorites of 2014

Header and footer collages made in LiveCollage
Grace Marks: Murderpedia 
Les Liaisons Dangereuses: photo by Johann Persson
Seonna Hong: my photo of Hong's painting "Brotherhood of Men"

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Yuri on Ice


Much like Welcome to Nightvale, Yuri on Ice is something I first saw talked about on twitter by people (generally women and girls) much younger than I am, and I wasn't sure what it was. When I saw screenshots, I initially thought someone had made a fake Johnny Weir anime. But it was a real anime, and I from what I could gather, young ladies everywhere desperately wanted the male leads to get married, as is true for media with male characters everywhere.

I hadn't watched any anime for a long, long time, but I did grow up in household where figure skating was watched enthusiastically. I remember the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding craziness, the tears of Oksana Baiul. I can remember where I was (playing in our house's guest room) when I heard of Sergei Grinkov's sudden death. My mom has a picture of my sister and I as kids posing with Brian Boitano (her all-time favorite) at a signing. We were devastated when Michelle Kwan lost Olympic gold to Tara Lipinski. We went to Stars on Ice. I fell in love with Evgeni Plushenko instead of Alexei Yagudin. We reveled in the juiciness of the rivalry between witty, sneering, flamboyant Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek, a gorgeous youth with the brain of a labrador and the mindset of a workhorse.

I'll always <3 him for getting Frank Carroll Olympic gold

I have to admit I'm not as "up" on what's happening in figure skating currently. I love the Shibutanis and local girl Polina Edmunds, but if you asked me to name a promising young men's skater I'd probably be like, "um..Patrick Chan?" However, I'm pretty sure I'm about to dive full into skating fandom again, because of Yuri on Ice.

I was expecting a silly, frothy yaoi soap when I watched episode one on 12/13 (Shout-out to the girl in Indonesia who responded to my inquiry into the twitter void on how to watch it. It's here). But the show, directed by Sayo Yamamoto, won me over immediately. I was surprised by the depth of the characters and show's dedicated depiction of figure skating. I understood why it had taken over my twitter feed. By midnight on 12/15, I had watched all eleven half-hour episodes currently out (the finale is next Wednesday).

Social media is also important on the show

The show's protagonist is Yuri Katsuki, a skater whose career is in a rut after a disastrous Grand Prix: he has no self-confidence, he's put on weight, and he's approaching "skating-old" at twenty-three. He moves back to his hometown: a small Japanese seaside city reliant on tourism, which is in steady decline. Unexpectedly, a video of him doing a favorite routine of his idol, Russian skating superstar Victor Nikiforov, goes viral. Even more unexpectedly, Victor himself shows up at Yuri's family's inn, announcing that he's retiring from skating to coach him. Soon bratty just-out-of-juniors star Yuri Plisetsky (nicknamed Yurio against his will to avoid confusion), also arrives to demand Victor choreograph him a routine.

Anime has been known to get pretty outlandish with sports, but there are no zany super-powered antics here. Instead, there are discussions of the intricacies of the scoring system, angst over quads, and lots of over-rotations and hands on the ice. No wonder so many actual skaters have embraced it! And as in real life, the sport is a multi-national, all-hands-on-deck production. Of course you have a skater from Thailand training with an Italian coach at a rink in Michigan!

And that skater is selfie champion and hamster daddy Phichit

One of my favorite things about Yuri on Ice is its generous cast of characters, and how it avoids one-dimensional heroes and villains. Yuri is sweet and naturally lovable, but myopic when it comes to how he treats others. Victor has such charm and confidence that it's easy for others and himself to assume he knows what he's doing...even if he doesn't. Yurio is a pretty terrible enfant terrible, but he's also a fifteen-year-old who's suffocating in the wake of fame (Yurio makes me feel bad for hating Tara Lipinski in the 90s. I'm sorry I hated you, Tara!).

A great strength of the show is how it goes into the skaters', coaches', and others' heads during performances, so we see, for example, the anxieties and joys of otherwise hate-able arrogant jerk JJ, the determination of standoffish Otabek, and the sincere passion for art harbored by Yurio's cold and exacting choreographer. That passion is what ultimately unites all the characters, despite their vast differences.

Angry baby kitten Yurio thinks he's a lion

Because despite the drama and fame and flowers and pageantry, that is what figure skating is about: the blending of sport and music and ice into art. Michelle Kwan might have lost two Olympic golds to her own Yurios, but the beauty of her spiral is iconic. I joke about Evan Lysacek*, but the straight line footwork in his Bolero routine is one of my all-time favorite skating sequences.

Yuri on Ice is an ice skating love letter, a portrait of flawed people pursuing their dreams and supporting each other, and a reminder to see the love and beauty around us and keep trying.

Fun fact: when Yuri and Victor wed, Japan and Russia will finally sign
a WWII peace treaty! 

For me the show brings to mind this song sung by Priscilla Lopez in A Chorus Line, where the auditioning actors reflect on the inevitable end of their dancing careers:

*Another favorite Evan moment: So Johnny Weir's most famous costume is his white swan costume from his Swan Lake program (this costume, complete with bird beak glove, was parodied as a peacock in Blades of Glory). Well, a number of years ago I went with my family to Stars on Ice in San Jose when Evan was skating. When he started skating to the Black Swan soundtrack, I was thrilled. Was this white swan versus black swan dichotomy intentional? By ending the routine on the black swan's moment of glory, the fouettes, I'm pretty sure it was. So catty!

It's a look.

All from Yuri on Ice except:
Frank Carroll and Evan Lysacek: Zimbio 
Jon Heder in Blades of Glory

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Dream Cast - The Tempest

Prospero with his magic staff; Miranda riding around the island;
where the bee sucks, there sucks Ariel

The Tempest is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I've seen multiple productions and re-read it over and over. I've written more than one poem about it, and the one that's published is about a character who is only mentioned once and probably due to a textual error. I've read W.H. Auden's goddamn The Sea and the Mirror. I also love Margaret Atwood. So I was elated to hear that Hogarth would be publishing her novelized take on the work under their new Hogarth Shakespeare imprint.

I bought the novel, Hag-Seed, the day it was released and devoured it quickly. Of course it's always a little worrying to see a new take on something old you love, but Hag-Seed is one of my favorites of the year. After Felix is ousted as the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival (if you're a Shakespeare festival aficionado, you'll know Atwood did her homework), he takes a job teaching Shakespeare in a prison, and plots his revenge.

Hag-Seed is clever and touching, but Atwood's take on The Tempest is different than mine would be. That's one of the reasons Shakespeare's plays endure on the stage and other media - they are open to countless interpretations. A character can be done so many ways. Reading the novel made me think of whom I would cast, and thus another overlong Dream Cast was born.

Prospero - Forest Whitacker

I have a soft spot for Forest Whitaker because, like him, I also have a wonky eyelid. That doesn't have anything to do with his acting credentials, but his career speaks for itself. Anyways, Prospero, like Lear and Shylock, is one of those Shakespeare roles distinguished actors of a certain age spend years paying their dues to play. Prospero is a bombastic egotist, passionate artist, cruel tyrant, doting father, and melancholy old man.

Prospero is also the rightful Duke of Milan and a sorcerer. Unfortunately, he is so into studying magic stuff that he doesn't notice his brother Antonio, whom he had assigned to run the kingdom, is going to usurp him. Cast out to sea with his daughter, Miranda, he lands on an enchanted island and declares himself ruler of it. When his enemies sail within his reach years later, he uses his magic to enact a complicated revenge. 

Miranda - Gugu Mbatha-Raw

We're getting flexible on the ages here, but whatever; it's Shakespeare. And anyways, if you landed on an island and saw Gugu Mbatha-Raw, you'd assume she was a goddess, right? Mbatha-Raw is in pretty much everything right now, because she's very talented. And that talent is needed to give Miranda her due. Miranda has some classic damsel moments (horror at a shipwreck, falling in love at first sight), but also shows pluck (standing up to Caliban, trying to help Ferdinand with his log-carrying).

Since toddlerhood, Miranda has been raised with no other women and with her father as the only other human. What might that mean for how Miranda acts, moves, and talks? There's a great but subtle moment in Mbatha-Raw's Black Mirror episode "San Junipero" where in anger, her character's idealized virtual reality avatar suddenly takes on her "real" mannerisms. That makes me think Mbatha-Raw could be a ground-breaking Miranda.

Caliban - Andy Serkis

Caliban has been a tricky role to cast in modern times. Caliban, born on an island in the Mediterranean and then subjugated by the first European who lands there, is read by many as a stand-in for aboriginal peoples. His is mother is an Algerian witch, but also described as blue-eyed, and critics have differing opinions on what that was meant to indicate. He's also an attempted rapist and gullible fool, so drawing too direct parallels is dicey.

For this Caliban, I'd go back to the text, which describes him as non-human and fish-like in appearance. For a fish monster, motion capture seems ideal, and for motion capture, you hire Andy Serkis. He's Hollywood's premier thespian working in this form, and he's got the chops for Caliban. Throughout the play we see Caliban as threatening, laughable, and rightfully enraged, and he also has one of the play's most moving speeches: an ode to the island's magic and beauty. 

Ariel - Kate McKinnon

Ariel is male in the text, but like fellow fairy Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream, often played by a woman on stage. Whatever the gender, air sprite Ariel has both ethereal beauty and manic energy, so who better than Saturday Night Live's Kate McKinnon? Imprisoned by Caliban's mother, he is then freed by Prospero in exchange for a set time of service. Ariel is the real magic behind Prospero, and although he serves Prospero dutifully, his longing for freedom is clear.

Antonio - Anthony Mackie

Besties Antonio and Sebastian are two of my favorite villains in Shakespeare. Why do I like them so much? Imagine that Scar from The Lion King and Loki from the Marvel Cinematic Universe get stranded on an island with little chance of rescue and, instead of panicking, immediately launch into a Statler and Waldorf routine. That's Antonio and Sebastian. Later, when their treasonous plot against the king is foiled, they're upset for a few minutes, and then just go back to treating everything around them as their personal RiffTrax.

Antonio is the more conniving of the two. Put in charge of running Milan while his older brother Prospero doddered away in his library, slick and competent politician Antonio was able to organize a coup with the backing of the King of Naples. Mackie is charming, and you can see how he could pull off being a schemer, too.

Sebastian - Sebastian Stan

After their banter as Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes in Captain America: Civil War, who doesn't want to see these two together again? And Anthony's name is close to Antonio and Sebastian's name is exactly Sebastian, so it's practically written in the stars!

Sebastian is the younger brother of Alonzo, but unlike Antonio, the thought of betraying his older brother to take the crown doesn't seem to have ever crossed his mind. That doesn't mean he's completely at peace with his brother, though. Sebastian is furious that his niece Claribel was pressured by her father to marry against her will in far-off Tunis, and he also blames Alonzo for the supposed death of Ferdinand. With Ferdinand thought dead, Antonio is easily able to convince Sebastian that it's no biggie to kill Alonzo and his annoying ally Gonzalo. Especially Gonzalo.

Alonzo - Jeffrey Dean Morgan

Jeffrey Dean Morgan has been terrifying and enraging viewers of The Walking Dead as sociopathic Negan. As King Alonzo of Naples, he could show his softer side as a ruthless ruler who then feels the full emotional weight of his tactics. Already regretting marrying off his daughter Claribel on another continent, Alonzo is sent into a tailspin of grief when his son Ferdinand is thought lost in the shipwreck during their return from the wedding. By the time he's reunited with his happily alive son in the final scene, he's a changed man.

Ferdinand - Alden Ehrenreich

In The Tempest, Ferdinand needs to be sad, and then be in love, and always be pretty. This prince has none of his father Alonzo's politicking (except in chess), and his marriage with Miranda will reunite the kingdoms of Naples and Milan in love instead of treachery. Alden Ehrenreich, a scene-stealer in Hail, Caesar! and our future past Han Solo, would fill the role nicely.

Gonzalo - George Takei

Gonzalo, an elderly adviser in Alonzo's court, is kindly and means well, but also a bit oblivious and a windbag. His non-stop speechifying makes him the subject of Antonio and Sebastian's jokes, and I have to admit I've thought of Sebastian's "[and yet] he will be talking" complaint when stuck listening to a chatterer. However, he is also the one who saved Prospero and Miranda during the coup and looks out for Alonzo, Antonio, and Sebastian when they're made insane by Ariel's magic. With his cheeriness and comic timing, George Takei would be a hoot in this role. 

Trinculo and Stefano - Key and Peele

Providing the comic relief are Trinculo and Stefano, King Alonzo's jester and butler who have also been shipwrecked on the magic island. The two get drunk, meet Caliban, and get Caliban drunk. Caliban thinks alcohol-bearing Stefano is a god, and convinces the two to help him overthrow Prospero. It's a perfect plan! Or it would be, if they weren't so drunk and easily distracted. Good chemistry and comedy skills are essential for these roles, so I'm choosing duo Key & Peele. I'd pick Keegan-Michael Key as Stefano and Jordan Peele as Trinculo, but honestly, they'd be hilarious either way.

Alonzo, Sebastian, and Antonio fight imaginary monsters courtesy Ariel
while Stephano and Trinculo enjoy island life

First collage:
Forest Whitaker in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Black Mirror
Kate McKinnon from The Hollywood Reporter

Headshots: all IMDB except Key & Peele official image

Second collage:
Jeffrey Dean Morgan in The Walking Dead
Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan in Captain America: Civil War
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in Key & Peele

Monday, October 10, 2016

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders

Tonight I saw a Batman movie in theaters, which has not been a rare outing for me in 2016. The year started out with the messy, grimdark Batman v Superman; progressed with the messier, grimdarker, but at least Hamill-ful Batman: The Killing Joke; and then sighed and continued with the messiest Hot Topic mess, Suicide Squad. But despite the third time not being a charm, DC went forth (get it?) with yet another theatrical release.

Turning away from the grimy and the lurid, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders harkens back to the 1960s TV show. In Batman: The Killing Joke, the Joker paralyzes Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, strips her, photographs her, and then shows those photographs to her father, Commissioner Gordon, whom he has also stripped and imprisoned in an X-rated roller-coaster, all so that he can convince Batman to kill him. In the 60s Batman TV show, Joker rigs the high school milk machine to dispense money instead of milk, thus robbing Gotham's youth of their passion for hard and honest work, because why be a productive citizen when you can just get money from the milk machine? (Dick Grayson/Robin, of course, is not tempted by this corrupting teat.)

Nice try, commies!

The wholesome zaniness was a boon for great thespians wanting to have a scene-chewing blast in the Rogues Gallery. Eartha Kitt prowled as Catwoman, Burgess Meredith chortled as the Penguin, and barely-in-the-closet Cesar Romero and Frank Gorshin got to be as flamboyant as they pleased with the Joker and the Riddler. However, Adam West and Burt Ward, the painfully earnest Batman and Robin, had a much harder time with the show's legacy.

Fortunately, they both seem to have reconciled with their preppy, do-gooding characters, and reunited as Batman and Robin (along with one of three Catwomen, Julie Newmar) to lend their voices for this animated feature, directed by animation veteran Rick Morales.

Fans who have been disappointed by past 2016 Batman movies might ask, "Do I really want to invest my time into this again?" That's a fair question, so first ask yourself these questions:

  • Would I be in hysterics (of the good kind) if the movie opened with Dick doing ballet?
  • Do I think deep down that what the Joker really needs is a guitar-gun that shoots paper streamers?
  • If Batman were to travel to space, would his spacesuit's helmet having adorable bat ears be important to me? 

If you answered "yes" to all of the above, there's a good chance you'll enjoy this.

Note the seatbelts. They're villains, not uncouth monsters.

And yes, space is involved, but surprisingly, it's not even the climax! The self-aware yet gleeful craziness just keeps coming long after our heroes and villains have fought in the International Space Station. The film's not completely perfect - it is very silly, Newmar clearly struggled with the voicework, and some won't like the adherence to retro gender stuff. But it's darn good fun, and definitely the best Batman movie I saw this year. It was also the only one I saw in a nearly empty theater, but this has been marketed mostly for home viewing. Hopefully the nostalgia factor and yearning for some fun Batman will win over burned-out Batfans.

Image info:
Serious Robin: Batman wikia
Extremely safe driving in a Jokermobile: SciFiNow

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Haunted by Childhoods: Three Ghost Stories

Thandie Newton and Kimberly Elise in the 1998 Beloved adaptation

I started this blog post in August 2014. It's been in the drafts section of my blogger account since then - out of sight, but never quite out of mind. It began as a simple Halloween-themed rambling for my little-read blog: a selection of literary ghost stories. But as I wrote about each piece, I realized something connected them all, and not just that they were all ghost stories about children. I needed to stop and think about what it was I was trying to say.

Then I procrastinated for two years and just finally finished this post!

Anyways, when I re-read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein earlier this year, I was struck by Victor Frankenstein's anti-climatic, almost comical reaction to the "birth" of his creation. He sees that his creation is alive, panics, and...leaves the room. To sleep. He literally just shuts down, leaves the room, and goes to bed. When his creation seeks him out in his bedroom, he goes outside and sleeps in the courtyard. Then he stays away from his apartment for the day, hoping the thing will leave.

Oh. Never mind, don't want you after all.
BTW, check out my dick windows.

Victor's utter fecklessness in the face of crisis amused me, but also hit at one of my deepest fears. I don't have kids, and don't know if I will ever have one or even want one. But sometimes I picture motherhood, and I am terrified I would react just like Victor. What if I went through labor, held my new baby in my arms, and felt...nothing? Or felt revulsion? What if the crying, screaming, pooping thing got to be too much for me and I just closed the door walked away (just like with this blog post!)?

Victor's panic and denial are understandable (I mean, the reality that one has bestowed life upon a giant mutant corpse hits pretty hard), and he feels extremely justified in his actions, but his "child," just as understandably, doesn't feel the same way. The creation is never able to get over the pain of that early abandonment.

And there's the crux of the conflict between parent and offspring. The adult, with their adult mind, adult body, and adult words, exercises a lot of control over the life of the child. Their choices - whether made out of desperation, love, selfishness, or necessity - shape the child's very existence. Because children are, by nature, helpless, things are done to them; they have little to no agency.

It's unavoidable for parents and other adults to take actions that impact a child's life. And it's tempting to hush up, smooth over, or outright deny unpleasant things that happened (as Carol Ann Duffy captures in her poem "We Remember Your Childhood Well"). But the adult can't control how the child feels about those actions and what the child will eventually do with those feelings. The creation abandoned in Germany returns as a monster in Switzerland. Ben Solo becomes Kylo Ren. Christina Crawford pens a memoir. Kelly Clarkson sings a beautiful patricide of a song.

I think this uncertainty and tension shows up in our ghost stories. Children are easy to subdue, lie to, or abandon, but they remember.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

In 2006 the New York Times independently asked 100 writers, editors, and critics to name the best American piece of fiction of the past quarter century, and Beloved was the top selection. It's not hard to understand why once you've read Morrison's masterpiece, which explores the shame that haunts a nation and the skeletons hidden in individuals' closets. Inspired by the true story of an enslaved woman who escaped the South and later killed her daughter rather than return the girl to slavery, Beloved deals with what lead to that choice and its repercussions.

It's impossible not to sympathize with Sethe. As a slave, Sethe is raped and tortured, and later separated from her husband. Despite all this, she still manages the Herculean effort to get her four children to freedom in the North. When men arrive to bring Sethe and her children back to slavery, back to the place where she and her loved ones were brutalized, she does the most merciful thing she can think of: she attempts to kill her children before they can be captured.

Sethe with her returned daughter in the 1998 adaptation

She only succeeds in killing one: a toddler girl posthumously called Beloved. The slavers abandon their pursuit, and a local lawyer takes pity on Sethe and gets her released from prison. But her life, of course, can never be the same. Her two oldest children now fear her, and soon flee from home. The house seems haunted.

And then years after the awful event, the ghost of the child returns with the body of the young woman she would be but the psyche of the toddler she was. Her feelings about Sethe are complex. She's desperate for love and affection from her mother, but she's also furious about her murder, and embarks on a series of escalating acts of revenge. There's no reasoning with her why what Sethe did what she did and that the real enemy is slavery itself - her mother killed her, and she's hurt and angry.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

This novella by Henry James is a classic. A group of vacationers are staying at a remote country estate, and tell ghost stories to each other. One captures the audience's attention more than the others.

The story starts with a governess assigned a strange job: look after two children in an isolated mansion, and no matter what, do not contact the children's uncle, who is their legal guardian. At first everything seems fine (as it always does). The little girl, Flora, is sweet, and her brother, Miles, who is away at school, is assured to be the same. Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, is kindly. The grounds are beautiful.

But then comes the news that Miles has been expelled from school for being "an injury" to the others. Mrs. Grose seems horrified and defensive, but not necessarily surprised. When the governess starts to see what she believes to be ghosts, she becomes convinced that they are the children's previous caretakers, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. Mrs. Grose reveals the two had unsavory dealings with Miles and Flora. While what exactly happened isn't spelled out, sexual abuse is heavily implied ("Quint was much too free." "Too free with my boy?" "Too free with everyone!" / "He did what he wished." "With her?" "With them all.").

From The Innocents, a 1961 adaptation

None of the adults at the house spoke out during Quint and Jessel's tenure, and no one dared tell the uncle about it. The new governess now knows there were and are problems, but whether she's equipped to deal with those problems is another matter. As the children act out in increasingly alarming ways, she becomes convinced that the ghosts of Quint and Jessel are trying to possess them, and she focuses her energies on protecting the children from these evil spirits. Whether or not the ghosts are real, it's clear the children have been failed by the adults in their lives.

"The Bees" by Dan Chaon

In the Dan Chaon short story "The Bees," Gene has an ideal life. He lives with his wife, Karen, and their young son, Frankie, in the Cleveland suburbs. However, their household is suddenly plagued by a strange phenomenon: Frankie repeatedly screams in the middle of the night, waking his parents but not himself, and without an accompanying nightmare. Their pediatrician can find nothing wrong. The screaming episodes leave Gene feeling increasingly on edge, and he starts experiencing a buzzing sensation, like the sound of bees. He wonders if his secret past is playing a part in the disturbances.

Many years previously, an alcoholic Gene married his pregnant girlfriend, Mandy, when they were nineteen. He made a few attempts at being a father to their son, DJ, but could be cruel and short-tempered. He mostly saw DJ as an adversary, and abused both him and Mandy. After giving five-year-old DJ a black eye, he took off and moved far away - drunkenly crashing his car in process.

Gene eventually sobered up, but by then was unable to track down Mandy and DJ to apologize and provide financial support. So he moved on, and until the screaming incidents with Frankie, he has mostly managed to put his firstborn son out of his mind. As the screams and sound of bees continue, Gene begins to be haunted by visions of DJ dying in a fire. Is his eldest really dead...and even if he is, would that stop his desire for revenge?

"The Bees" was first published in McSweeney's #10, which was then republished as McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. You can read the beginning here.

Illustration for "The Bees" by Howard Chaykin

Image Info:

Beloved header image: Movie Stills DB

Frankenstein illustration with dick windows: Theodore Von Holt engraving for 1831 edition

Sethe and Beloved: Cineplex (Full disclosure: I have never been able to bring myself to watch the film due to certain scenes, but Matty Steinfeld has a passionate and informative defense of the film here)

Miles being creepy: The Ghost Central

Howard Chaykin illustration: from McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Swiss Army Man: It's Always Ourselves We Find in the Sea

My saddle's waiting, come and jump on it

Swiss Army Man, the feature film debut of Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, directors of music videos like Turn Down For What), sounds like a movie created on a dare: a man on a deserted island is saved by riding a fart-powered corpse. In that regard, it feels like it could have similar origins to Kevin Smith's Tusk, which came from a joke about a man demanding his roommate dress up and act as a walrus.

Tusk stayed in the throwback-horror genre, and while interesting in its own way, was not terribly deep or successful. Swiss Army Man could have played it safe (as safe as a farting corpse movie could be) by either staying in the gross-out comedy genre or going for a clinically detached symbolist interpretation. Instead, Daniels refuse to shy from either puerile humor or art, and they make something funny and beautiful in the process.

Response has certainly been mixed (walk-outs at Sundance were reported). I particularly enjoyed Onur Tukel's comic-format review (spoilers!). I didn't come to quite the same conclusions as he did, but it's a thoughtful, thought-provoking piece. Interestingly, despite his deep reading and admiration of the film, Tukel decides he didn't like it. I felt the same way about Yorgos Lanthimos's The Lobster - appreciation of its daring and art, but little actual affection. On the contrary, like the conqueror worm, Swiss Army Man has chewed and nuzzled its way into my heart.

Cannes aftermath

Daniels open the film with a shot of the ocean. Soon we see floating pieces of trash bearing desperate messages: someone has had a boating accident. On a very small, uninhabitable island we find Paul Dano's disheveled, sunburnt Hank preparing to hang himself from the mouth of a cave. He hums a song to steady himself, but is distracted by the sudden appearance a body (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on shore.

Startled, Hank falls from the cooler/gallows he's standing on, but manages to break the noose in his determination to reach the man, whom he hopes is still alive. He's not. A rumbling gives Hank hope, but it turns out to just be gas the bloated body is expelling. "That's funny," Hank sighs before taking the dead man's belt to use as a replacement noose. But before Hank can hang himself (again), the body, continuing to fart wildly, shows off a neat trick: it can propel itself in the water. Hank runs down the beach and - using the broken noose as a lasso - triumphantly rides the corpse out to sea.

Hank wakes up on a Pacific Northwest shore and goes off in search of civilization, carrying the body on his back (Dano apparently did actually carry Radcliffe through much of the film) and sometimes talking to it. To his alarm, it starts talking back. Hank names his new friend Manny and tells him about life, sex, pop culture, his deceased mother, his distant father, and his crush (using hikers' garbage to make educational props) as they look for home. Along the way, it becomes clear how lonely and unsure of himself Hank has been. And Manny's abilities continue to develop and surprise (for example, his penis works as a compass). Will the duo be ready to rejoin civilization by the time they make it back, and will they want to?

A bed of clover...and poop

Dano's and Radcliffe's performances are masterful, funny, and affecting, and Daniels capture the Pacific Northwest's coastline and redwoods in all their glory. Andy Hull and Robert McDowell's powerful, infectious score is a critical part of the movie. If the Oscars refuse to consider Dano's work in the farting corpse movie, they should at least acknowledge that score.

The Atlantic's David Sims is being fair when he writes in his otherwise glowing review that, "The downside of [the story] is that this is an indie film recycling an age-old indie trope - that of the introverted, lonely white dude, unlucky in love and pining for a silent woman who isn’t afforded similar agency by the plot." As Mary Elizabeth Winstead was pursued by an awkward Michael Cera in Scott Pilgrim, here she's pursued by an awkward Paul Dano. In that, it does feel annoyingly familiar and twee. I mean, look at these fucking hipsters who directed it.

That said, I saw a lot of myself in Dano's Hank. Like, a lot. Like...maybe despite being completely romance-adverse, I've seen someone on the bus and imagined our courtship, proposal, and wedding even though that might not be what I actually want out of life. I've never dressed up as a bus crush and made out with a corpse, though. I swear.

I swear

My Interpretation (Spoilers!)

I read the movie as a twist on the "life before your eyes" concept. I think Hank's opening suicide attempt was successful. When he first finds Manny, he tells the body that he had hoped when he died he would see the life he wished he had - full of music, friends, parties, and a lover. With Manny filling multiple roles, Hank gets to see all of that.

The final part of the movie, when Hank and Manny stumble into the backyard of a freaked-out Sarah (Hank's bus and instagram crush) and are soon besieged by law enforcement, the media, and Hank's father, confused me on the first viewing. Having thought about the film and seen it a second time, I think this part is Hank finally accepting himself and his reality.

He's been fantasizing about getting a second chance to talk to Sarah on the bus and having that interaction blossom into romance. But he finally realizes that even if he did get a second chance with Sarah...she's perfectly happy with her husband and child and would understandably be majorly creeped out by some stranger obsessing over her instagram photos. He realizes he wasn't really in love with Sarah, but that he wanted her happy life. He realizes that and accepts it, just as he realizes that even though he'll never have the connection he wants with his father, his father still loves him. Hank's acceptance of himself (symbolized by him admitting, with relief and delight, to farting in front of the crowd) gives him a final moment of peace as he dies.

Maybe that's what the Daniels meant, or maybe not, but that's what I saw in the movie. To close on the closing lines from e.e. cummings' "maggie and milly and molly and may,"

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea

Image sources: 
Paul Dano riding Daniel Radcliffe like a water pony
A day at the beach
Sleepy Daniel Radcliffe
On the bus

Friday, June 24, 2016

Dream Cast - Frankenstein

TFW your dad is the sullen youth in your relationship

Just over a week ago, on a Thursday, I was getting ready to go to work. Having just finished Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice trilogy, I needed a new read for my commute. I grabbed my high school paperback of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein off the shelf. I'd been thinking about re-reading it for years, and recent Byronic research for something I'm writing and the fact that my sister watched and related to me the awful James McAvoy Victor Frankenstein movie made the novel fresh in my mind.

By complete coincidence (or was it - ominous music) that day, June 16, is the day some astronomers think Shelley first dreamed up the basis for her story.

From my vague remembrances of the book, I knew it was different than our popular conception of the Frankenstein story, but I had forgotten just how different it was. There's no castle, no Igor. Victor Frankenstein makes his first monster in his apartment at university and his second, unfinished monster in a crude hut in the remote Orkney Islands.

I had also forgotten (or just couldn't appreciate at the time) just how great the novel is. It's groundbreaking, compelling, thoughtful, and ambitious. Boris Karloff's monster is rooted in our pop culture, and Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein will always be a favorite of mine, but I found myself wishing for an adaptation more faithful to Shelley's vision. Not only in theme and message, but in the 18th century setting and the powerful landscapes she describes in Switzerland, Germany, and Scotland.

Like I did with Wuthering Heights, I spent a lot of free time picking out my dream cast for my dream Frankenstein miniseries. Here are the fruits of my imagined labors:

Robert Walton - Nicholas Hoult

Who is Robert Walton? Good question! Walton is our narrator narrating other characters' narrations, much like Lockwood (who?) in Wuthering Heights. I didn't cast Lockwood in my Wuthering Heights dream cast because nobody cares about Lockwood, but I'll shrug and go to bat for Walton.

Frankenstein is actually an epistolary novel, a series of letters Walton sends to his beloved sister. He's setting off on a dangerous quest to find a shipping route through the North Pole, and is so excited! But, he tells his sister, although surrounded by men, he's sad not to have a special guy friend whose eyes he can gaze into as he reveals his feelings. :( Fortunately, one almost immediately shows up on an ice flow! This Elsa-sent buddy is none other than Victor Frankenstein, who eventually tells Walton his story. Later, Frankenstein's monster will also get the chance to unload on Walton.

Why use an actor like Nicholas Hoult for this comparatively small role? Because I think it's important to see how Walton is hearing Victor's story and what lessons he takes away from his encounter with the Monster. Although he's been somewhat blinded by his affection for Victor, does his meeting with the Monster alter his opinions? Walton doesn't put any of those final thoughts on paper, so it would be up to the actor's face to communicate Walton's mind. Any wide-eyed young actor could be slotted in this spot, but someone like Hoult could add depth.

Victor Frankenstein - Paul Dano

One thing that stood out to me about Frankenstein, when re-reading, is just how feckless Victor Frankenstein is. He's not exactly a man of action. Yes, when he discovers the secret to life, he passionately and manically works on his creature, but when it isn't what he wanted, he decides his best course of action is...avoidance. He literally just abandons his new, awake, conscious creation on the table and goes to bed. When the confused, lonely monster finds him in his bedroom, he sleeps outside and waits for the thing to leave his apartment.

This response isn't out of character for him. We've already seen him shrug off communication with the people he loves most in the world simply because it's not what he wants at the moment. Later, when a servant in his household is falsely accused of the murder of his little brother - a murder he knows his Monster has committed - he half-heartedly argues for her innocence without implicating himself in any way. When the Monster demands that Victor make him a companion, promising he'll take his new friend far from human civilization and live a vegan life in South America, Victor agrees...and then procrastinates for a year on the project while worrying about it the whole time.

Yet despite the fact that this entire disaster - which all of Victor's loved ones end up paying for with their lives - is literally of Victor's making, the depths of his despair do provoke pity. Dano could handle the range of this character - from fevered curiosity to sullen passivity to mental breakdowns - without campiness.

Frankenstein's Monster - Richard Armitage

While a green-skinned, boxy-skulled Frankenstein's Monster has become the popular image, Mary Shelley describes a creature who was supposed to be handsome - ravishing black hair, good teeth - but comes off as horrifying due to his outlandish size, runny eyes, and yellowish skin that clearly belongs to a cadaver. With some special effects (makeup, Andy Serkising, or both), naturally handsome Armitage could pull off this unsettling mix of greatness and ugliness. Also, while the Monster is usually depicted as inarticulate and lumbering, Shelley's monster has superhuman speed and grace.

The differences between the original Monster and the pop culture Monster aren't just visual. Shelley's is intellectual and complex. Just two years after his "birth," he's not only able to speak, but is a clever, erudite man who can talk circles around the sniveling Victor. His capacity to do good seems greater than Victor's, yet he is the one who chooses to murder again and again - not Victor. Like his creator, he is excellent at rationalizing his actions to himself and identifies with fallen angel Lucifer from Milton's Paradise Lost. I'd love for an adaptation to show the tragedy and humanity of this iconic creature.

Elizabeth Lavenza - Lea Seydoux

The orphaned daughter of Italian nobility, Elizabeth is adopted from an impoverished foster family by the Frankensteins as their "niece" and betrothed to Victor when they are both small children. It's an odd arrangement (like, don't do this today), but she loves her family and they love her. She keeps the family going after Mrs. Frankenstein's death and passionately advocates for the falsely accused Justine.

As with Justine (below), Elizabeth's virtue and strength make Victor's selfishness all the more visible. It would be all too easy in an adaptation to make this character a wilting violet doormat of a victim, which is why I'd want an actress of Leydoux's mettle to take the role (and be backed with a great writer and director, since this is my dream).

Henry Clerval - Sebastian Armesto 

Victor and Elizabeth grow up with their best friend, the less financially fortunate but romantically minded Henry Clerval. Happy, generous Henry loves stories about knights and heroes as a child. When he finally attains his dream of going to university to study Asian languages, he puts it off for a year without a thought to tend to Victor, who has suffered a nervous breakdown. Henry is sweet and oblivious, happily prancing across Europe on a road trip with Victor, who gloomily frets and collects body parts.

When thinking of whom I would cast as this character, I couldn't help but remember how - in a matter of moments - Armesto made hapless, puppy-eyed Lieutenant Mitaka memorable in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Sadly, Frankenstein's Monster will finish what Kylo Ren started. :( 

Justine Moritz - Morfydd Clark

Justine, a young woman scorned by her mother and brought into the Frankenstein family as a servant, becomes an early victim of the Monster when he frames her for murder and she is sentenced to death. Her grief and bewilderment is heartbreaking, and it would be easy to make this minor character a one-note victim. However, her ultimate courage in the face of death is in contrast to Victor's continued cowardliness. I'd trust Clark, from Love & Friendship and Josie Rourke's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, to show both innocence and strength.

De Lacey Family

After being abandoned by Victor and chased by terrified villagers, the Monster hides out near a cottage. The inhabitants are the De Lacey family, and Shelley gives them a rich backstory. They are an aristocratic French family living in exile in the German countryside, and they consist of the blind patriarch, daughter Agatha, son Felix, and Felix's Arab-Turkish fiancee Safie. Despite suffering hardships that have left them in poverty, they are a loving, kind, musically gifted group. By spying on them for a year, the Monster learns how to speak, how to read, and the basics of human history. He comes to love the family and desperately wants to be accepted by them. Alas, his introduction to them goes horribly wrong, and he is rejected out of fear again.

I'd cast grizzled, stately Hugo Weaving as De Lacey; Adele Exarchopoulous and Jamie Bell as his two dutiful children; and Mandahla Rose as joyful Safie.

Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein - Ralph Fiennes and Sheryl Lee

Mr. Frankenstein is a loving father who is distraught as he watches his oldest child descend into depression and then more severe mental illness. He's at a loss to determine the cause (no one suspects their child has learned the secret of sparking life and used it to make an eight-foot-tall creature that keeps killing people), but he doesn't give up on his son. At one point he has to travel from Switzerland to Ireland to pick up a hysterical Victor from a small-town prison, and he's completely supportive the whole time.

Even though Sheryl Lee's scene in Winter's Bone was brief, I was drawn to her warmth. I can see the Twin Peaks star as the matriarch of this adventurous, welcoming family. Given all that happens, it's probably a blessing this character dies of scarlet fever before everything goes to hell.

Image info:
Header image: Richard Armitage in Robin Hood, Paul Dano in War & Peace
All actor headshots: IMDB