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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Reading/Watching Log #8

It's been a slow month thanks to attempts to catch up on my second Polytechnic assignment AND get over the flu (I had almost reached the end of winter without getting sick!) but I managed to revisit my early adolescence with some Bruce Coville books – think of him as a writer of Harry Potter-esque books long before there was a Harry Potter to compare them to – and continue my interest with Audrey Niffenegger's work – though with mixed results.
I also got started on Foyle's War, and put the first seasons of Jessica Jones and Supergirl under my belt. Watching those two latter shows in tandem was a lesson in contrast, even as both starred a preternaturally strong and sympathetic female super-hero. Jessica Jones in particular was riveting, and is a quintessential example of how a show can explore themes of rape and abuse without explicitly depicting it, and without diminishing the trauma a victim goes through. It's tough going at times, but I'd definitely recommend.

Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville
I took a walk down memory lane by revisiting some of Bruce Coville's Middle School work. When I was ten my teacher read the class books from the My Teacher is An Alien series, but the Magic Shop stories were also quite popular. The premise is simple: a child having trouble at home or with school manages to find their way to Mr Elives' Magic Shop, where they're given a magical artefact that'll cause them even more trouble, but also teach them some important life-lessons. Each one is a standalone story, but with some related elements.
In the decade before Harry Potter came along, Jeremy Thatcher discovers the mysterious Magic Shop and leaves with a dragon egg, along with a list of instructions on how he's to care for the baby dragon once it hatches. Shenanigans ensue, but Coville is a strong enough writer to derive some poignancy out of the inevitable goodbye.
Jennifer Murdley's Toad by Bruce Coville
Perhaps the best thing about this series is that each book is surprising different. If Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher was a coming-of-age story about A Boy and His X, and Russell Troy, Monster Boy a comedy/horror, then Jennifer Murdley's Toad is a straight-up fairy tale.
Jennifer has self-esteem issues when it comes to her physical appearance, all which comes to a head when she leaves Mr Elives' Magic Shop with a talking toad called Bufo. This is only the first of several strange occurrences, which also include a toy phone that rings and a school bully who turns into a toad after a kiss from Bufo. Coville manages a surprisingly twisty story when it comes to Bufo's origins and the identity of a beautiful but evil witch, and sensitive commentary on the nature of beauty (much like Shrek, Jennifer doesn't get a magical makeover at the end of the story).
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Well, this was a strange one. I read and enjoyed The Time Traveller's Wife last month, so thought I may as well go ahead with Niffenegger's second novel. Though having read it, I suspect that it may have been written before The Time Traveller's Wife and trotted out as her second novel when her publisher asked for more material. It happens more often than you'd think.
In any case, the biggest problem with Her Fearful Symmetry is its characters. I don't need characters to be likeable as long as they're interesting, but after a certain point all I wanted from this cast was for everyone to get some intense psychotherapy.
Estranged twins Edie and Elspeth only come into contact again after the latter dies and bequeaths her home and possessions to Edie's twin girls Valentina and Julia. The co-dependant sisters travel to London on their own, where they end up mingling with Elspeth's friends and neighbours – particularly Robert, Elspeth's ex-lover who works in Highgate Cemetery (and if nothing else, Niffenegger's descriptions of the place have put it on my bucket list).
Thing is, Elspeth is still a ghost haunting her apartment, and once the twins become aware of her presence, Valentina comes up with an idea to escape her domineering twin. Since Elspeth has learned how to remove the spirit of a living creature from its mortal body, Valentina wants her to do the same to her so that she can fake her own death and be brought back to life later.
Yeah, all this instead of just taking her share of the inheritance and moving away from her sister. Is that really so hard? Other stuff happens, like the guy living in the apartment above theirs trying to get back in touch with the wife who left him after his OCD became unbearable, but for the most part the focus stays on the twins and their messed-up dynamic. After a while their self-imposed weirdness and complete lack of ambition became tedious, and Valentina's plan doesn't result in a particularly satisfying conclusion.
Of course, it's written beautifully throughout. There's even a funny shout-out to the Doctor Who episode The Girl in the Fireplace, which is immensely fitting considering it was inspired by The Time Traveller's Wife. But it's a strange novel that ultimately left me thinking: "so what?" From a twist involving the identities of Elspeth and Edie, to what Robert does on the final page of the final chapter, it all came across as the futile nonsense of really annoying people.
Foyle's War Season 1
I had heard only good things about Antony Horowitz's long-running WWII detective series, and it certainly lived up to its reputation. Though it's a little too gently paced at times (each episode runs 90 minutes when it could easily be pared down to 60) the premise is a winner: wartime provides plenty of opportunities for unscrupulous people taking advantage of the chaos. It's up to the low-key, unglamorous and largely uncredited efforts of the police force to keep law and order.
Specifically the efforts of Christopher Foyle, a detective with a grown son serving in the air force, who finds purpose in (as they say) keeping the home fires burning. In a time when British society was largely perceived as banding together to fight the Germans, it comes as a bit of a shock to be reminded that crimes didn't cease to be committed.
In this respect Horowitz is particularly interested in moral conundrums that emerge from the "greater good" mentality that arises when morality is already slightly askew. For instance, should you imprison a murderer who is in a unique position to lend critical aid to the war effort?
Michael Kitchen is excellent as Christopher Foyle, playing the character extremely stoically, but with obvious intelligence and a wry sense of humour. You can see him thinking through the components of each case, and it's a wonder he can play such an introverted character with so much nuance.
Bu perhaps the most enjoyable thing about the show is that it's brimming with pre-fame A-listers. It would seem almost everyone got their first gig on Foyle's War: James McAvoy, Rosamund Pike, Sophie Myles, David Tennant – not to mention plenty of other notable character actors: Charles Dance, John Shrapnel, Roger Allam, Edward Fox, Elliot Cowan, and familiar faces: Tobias Menzies (Blackjack Randall from Outlander), Julian Ovenden (Charles Blake from Downton Abbey) and Anton Lesser (Qyburn from Game of Thrones). Heck, even the actor credited as Policeman #2 is Sam Troughton (aka Much from Robin Hood!)
Foyle's War Season 2
See above, though season two is certainly a lot darker than the first. There are more bittersweet endings and more moral compromises, and I spent the entire four episodes expecting Andrew Foyle to die tragically in a plane crash (turns out it was his gay best friend who was secretly in love with him that took the fall). There are more familiar faces here, most notably Emily Blunt before her Hollywood years, but also Christina Cole, David Troughton, Laurence Fox and Andrew Lee Potts. Trust me, you've seen these guys a million times before, even if you don't recognize their names.
Michael Kitchen as Foyle is as good as ever, but for whatever reason Julian Ovenden became rather insufferable as Andrew. It's hard to pinpoint why, but for the most part he just seemed to be stuck in permanent smug mode.
Supergirl Season 1
This show had been on my To Be Watched pile for ages, but as soon as I heard Katie McGrath was joining the cast next season as Lena Luthor, it jumped the queue. This time last year I felt as though I should be watching Supergirl (along with Jessica Jones) directly as it aired considering the influx of important female characters being showcased on film and television – but given the slim pickings of 2016, I'm glad I waited.
I'll admit I'm a little fatigued with the superhero genre at the moment, and there's nothing hugely original about Supergirl when compared to the likes of Arrow or The Flash. It's got the staples of the genre: a secret identity, the balancing act of normal life and heroic derring-do, a makeshift Scooby Gang, the Monster of the Week formula, a tepid love triangle, and a lot of reliance on cribbing familiar names and scenarios from the comic books.
The acting is pretty dodgy, with Calista Flockhart and Melissa Benoist doing most of the heavy-lifting, and a hit-and-miss supporting cast: Chyler Leigh and David Harewood are reliable enough, but Mehcad Brooks and Jeremy Jordan make for pretty dull sidekicks, and even duller love interests. Jenna Dewan Tatum as reoccurring guest star Lucy Lane has potential, but is yet to be mined for anything other than her role as an obstacle to Kara's romantic yearning for Jimmy.
But it's difficult to be too harsh, since the show makes a concentrated effort to avoid the dark-and-gritty atmosphere that is currently plaguing almost every other superhero property out there. Here, Supergirl is portrayed as the light in a world that isn't really all that bad to begin with; in which people just need a source of inspiration to rise to their better selves; where the villains are defined mostly by their cynicism and lack of faith in others.
I had also been "warned" beforehand that the show's feminism could get a little too heavy-handed – but as usual, the internet exaggerated. Yes there were a few overt girl-power lines, but none of it was anywhere near as obnoxious as I had been expecting, and the show's emphasis on Kara/Alex's sisterly bond and Cat Grant's mentorship of Kara is to be lauded. Season two is starting soon, and I'll be watching it on a weekly basis.
Jessica Jones Season 1
Yes, I watched Jessica Jones in tandem with Supergirl, knowing their air dates had overlapped and that there was some commentary regarding how drastically different in tone they were, despite each one featuring a female protagonist in the superhero genre. But where Kara Danvers is cheery, optimistic, light-hearted and hopeful, Jessica Jones is surly, damaged, sarcastic and grim. 
In many ways it made for a strange viewing experience, but since both female-led shows were constantly compared and contrasted during their run, it seemed fitting that they watched together. Honestly though, a better contrast for Jessica Jones is the wider Marvel Universe, especially its film franchise. What struck me again and again while watching this is that a) the personal stakes felt so much higher than the umpteenth threat of planetary destruction, and b) its villain easily tops anything the movies have offered thus far – including Loki.
But what's most significant about the show is that its story is one of abuse. And I'm not just talking about Kilgrave and Jessica, but the abusive relationships between Trish and her mother, Hogarth and her ex-wife, Trish and Simpson, and even Jessica and Luke. There are different extremes to these relationships (from a mother forcing her child to throw up a meal to a boyfriend's escalating sense of control born out of genuine protectiveness) and different portrayals of the ways in which one person can harm another (verbally, physically, emotionally) but all of them are integrated into the central theme of how abuse works, why it happens, and its lasting effects on the victim.
For instance, here's a line spoken by one of the characters: "you were mean to everyone else, but nice to me – and that made me special." It's the gooey caramel centre of every single Beauty and the Beast tale you've ever known: that a moody, brooding, violent, tortured man can be tamed by a beautiful and spirited young woman – but it's not a line spoken by Jessica. It comes from a supporting character in a subplot that mostly exists to serve the overarching theme.
There's a lot more to say, so here's a great, more in-depth review.
The Heat (2013)
Coincidentally enough, this movie was on television only a couple of days after my sister and her boyfriend recommended it to me, so I ended up watching it with my folks. Comedy is such a subjective thing, as though mum laughed her head off, dad only chuckled a couple of times, and was quick to point out that a woman like Shannon Mullins would be fired from the police force on the basis of her bad language alone.
I haven't seen many Paul Feig comedies apart from Ghostbusters, and it was interesting to see some of his trademarks – clearly he has a rapport with female comedians, and with Melissa McCarthy in particular. Of course, there are some jokes that would definitely be considered Harsher in Hindsight in the wake of police brutality controversies across America, but when the film focuses on the dynamic between uptight over-achiever Sarah Ashburn and abrasive, foul-mouthed Shannon Mullins, it's on solid ground.
Due to plot contrivances, the FBI agent and the police detective have to team up to take down a drug lord, and shenanigans ensue when their vastly different methods of operating start to clash. Like I said, comedy is subjective – but I had tears of laughter in my eyes when the two of them try to bug a suspect's cellphone at a dance club, or their attempt to perform a tracheotomy on a man who doesn't really need it.  
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
The latest in the rebooted/alternate timeline Star Trek franchise was released with what felt like little fanfare, as well as a sad pall considering the untimely death of Anton Yelchin. This is a reasonably strong film, though better described as enjoyable rather than good, with an overriding theme of unity and trust that just stops short of heavy-handedness. I've seen it described as a high-budget, movie-length television episode, and that's true enough – though not necessarily a bad thing.
It involves a mysterious attack, a destroyed Enterprise and a crew scattered over the surface of a hostile planet (I'm not a Star Trek expert, but I'm told these are staple tropes of the franchise) with several interesting dynamics emerging in the team-ups that follow: Kirk/Chekhov, Spock/Bones, Uhura/Sulu and Scotty/Jaylah, a stranded alien woman who sees the Enterprise as a chance to escape the planet.
She ends up being the best part of the movie, with a predictable but poignant character-arc, some neat fighting moves/defensive technology, and a fantastic design. I hope she'll be back for more sequels, though on the whole the film has an odd relationship with its female characters. There are three tiers: main characters, supporting characters and bit characters. Jaylah (inarguably the female lead) is great, but Uhura is wasted, Carol is completely absent, and two other significant female characters are a traitor and a red shirt, respectively.
Yet when it comes to the extras, the movie steps up: there seems to be about a 50:50 ratio of male-to-female crew members, many of whom are of varying ethnicities (and I don't just mean green skin). Plus Shohreh Aghdashloo appears in a small but memorable role as a woman of significant rank in the Federation. Oh, and no underwear shots this time.
So there's little to complain about here – even the villain goes from pretty boring to surprisingly interesting in the film's final act. Of the three reboot films, this is the one I'd be happy to watch a second time.

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