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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Reading/Watching Log #15

If there's a common theme in this month's reading/watching material, it would be stories that break their own narrative rules in order to secure a happy ending, and/or exchange their initially creepy premises in favour of saccharine conclusions. In broader terms, perhaps the theme is that of endings, for two of the books below the cut don't even include their final chapters – one is accessible on-line, the other was released after the author's death, and neither one is particularly satisfying.
One thing is for certain: you must never underestimate the importance of sticking the landing – it's the difference between enthusiastic recommendations and repeated viewings, or making the audience feel as though they wasted their time with a story that didn't pay off.
Beneath the cut: masks, time travel, psychological thrillers, period ladies who create scandal, temporal paradoxes, and at least three stories involving Rapunzel. It's amazing how much overlap exists between all these things.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Review: Rogue One (the second time around + novelizations)

I've now seen Rogue One for the second time, and it turns out I have enough thoughts to make an entirely new post about it. Here's my first review, in which I point out that I had something of a delayed reaction to the film: I enjoyed it while it lasted without being blown away – and yet on mulling it over in my head over the next few weeks, I ended up really enjoying it in hindsight.
The second time around was a different experience. Knowing what would happen took the suspense out of the film, but conversely allowed me to pay more attention to what was actually happening. So though my first review states that I preferred the second half of the movie to the first, this time around I had the exact opposite reaction. This time it was much clearer what was going on in the rather chaotic first half when it came to characters and events, whereas I grew a little restless once things streamlined into the final act. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Meta: The Assigning of Blame among Fictional Characters

With the release of Disney's live action Beauty and the Beast in theatres, I did what any fan that grew up in the Nineties would do: watched the original animated version instead. I'll probably see the new one eventually (if not simply to complain about it) but my philosophy is that if you want to remake something, do so because you can make the original better. And in the case of the animated Beauty and the Beast, you can't improve on perfection.
But I'm not actually here to talk about Disney fairy tales or their remakes – instead I want to discuss two lines that caught my attention as I watched the animated film for what must have been the hundredth or so time. When Belle and her father are trapped in the cellar as Gaston and the townsfolk ride out to confront the Beast at his castle, Belle turns to her father and cries: "this is all my fault!"
Later she repeats the words when cradling the Beast's body in her arms, telling him: "this is all my fault; if only I'd gotten here sooner."
The words rang a bell, but it wasn't until reading this review of Aladdin that I realized why. In that movie the protagonist has a line that's almost identical (at least in sentiment) to Belle's, crying: "this is all my fault – I should have freed the genie when I had the chance!"
So what point am I trying to make here? The link above points out something interesting: that when Aladdin admits blame for the situation he's found himself in, it's actually true. He should have freed the genie when he had the chance. Breaking his initial promise to do so after his first two wishes had been granted gave Jafar the opportunity to steal the genie's lamp and wreak havoc on Agrabah.
And it was Aladdin's own insecurities that led to this decision, making it a mistake born out of the character's foibles. It's a bad choice not made accidentally or without full knowledge of the situation – but out of fear and selfishness.
Compare this with Belle, who twice states that everything is her fault, and yet clearly can't be blamed for any of the terrible events that occur in the movie. Perhaps she's holding herself responsible for showing Gaston and the townsfolk an image of Beast in the magic mirror? If so, the audience can't be too hard on her considering she did it to save her father from being dragged off to the asylum.
And her statement that: "if only I'd gotten here sooner"? Come on, she was clearly travelling as fast as she could, and I'm not sure what she could have done to interrupt the Gaston/Beast fight if she had returned a few seconds earlier anyway.
It made me realize that the words: "it's all my fault" are uttered quite a lot in movies/television by a variety of different protagonists. Something terrible has happened, and because they're the main character, they are guilt-ridden. The blame lies with them, even when it clearly doesn't.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Faerie Tale Theatre: The Nightingale

This is the first episode in the series that's not based on a story from oral folklore, but one written and published by a single author. The Nightingale is not the most famous of Hans Christian Anderson's work (it's obviously not as well-known as The Snow Queen or The Little Mermaid or even The Steadfast Tin Soldier or The Tinder Box, but neither is it as obscure as Tommelise or The Swineherd). It's certainly not his best work, but unique among his stories for being the only one set in China.
But I have to admit, I misremembered the story. In my memory, the Emperor of China befriends the nightingale in his garden, only to replace her with a clockwork bird that's covered in gold and jewels. You all know that part, right? But until watching this, I was under the impression that when the Emperor falls sick, he's told only the sound of the nightingale might cure him. When it becomes clear the clockwork bird is no substitute for the real thing, the true nightingale agrees to sing for the Emperor on the condition that she's never caged again.
It turns out that's not the way story goes. The Emperor does get sick, but there's no talk of the cure being the nightingale's song. Instead the little bird turns up at the palace of her own volition, and sings away the personification of Death that's sitting on the Emperor's chest. (And then extracts the Emperor's promise that she can come and go as he pleases).

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Standing Tall #18

This was a simple design but an effective one: a mosaic of tiny square mirrors stuck all over the surface of the sculpture. Called Reflecting Changes for obvious reasons, and created by Sarina Dickson, this giraffe was located at the Agropolis Urban Farm, a section in the middle of the city that holds garden plots and a bike-hiring shed.
Much like a giant glitter ball it caught the light from whatever angle, and was apparently meant to reflect (see what I did there) the changing world around it – which is apt considering Agropolis used to be the site of one of many buildings that have since been demolished in the earthquake.
It was easy to get a little hypnotised by its reflective surface: seeing everything in miniature hundreds of times over has that effect on the eyes.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Review: Republic City Hustle

Just when I was feeling a little glum over having transferred all my The Legend of Korra reviews from Livejournal to this blog (it makes it feel like the show has finally come to an end, and there's still a wait until the comic books arrive) I remembered there was one little story left to tell: Republic City Hustle!

This was originally released on-line as a three-part animated short that explored Mako and Bolin's lives a couple of years before meeting Korra. It's pretty slight; it probably clocks in at just under fifteen minutes, but it's a nice little glimpse into the background of the brothers and how they came to live at the Pro-bending Arena.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Woman of the Month: Mako Mori

Mako Mori from Pacific Rim
The hype train for Pacific Rim 2 has begun, so it was well past time for me to check out the original film. I knew a lot about it thanks to Tumblr and my sister's detailed summarization, but it still managed some surprises when it came to what the characterization offered: specifically in its female lead, Mako Mori.
Having recently watched the original Terminator movies a couple of weeks ago, I have to say that Mako only narrowly beat out Sarah Connor for March's Woman of the Month. One could argue that Sarah has had a greater cultural impact in regards to how women are depicted in action movies, but Mako has also inspired the Mako Mori Test, a way of gauging how any given female character operates in a film's narrative. In this case, it requires a film to include:
a) at least one female character;
b) who gets her own narrative arc;
c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.
If Pacific Rim failed the Bechdel Test, you can't deny that it passed (as well as giving birth to) the Mako Mori Test. Mako is introduced as one of Marshal Stacker Pentecost's best students, in training to co-pilot one of the giant Jaeger mechas used to combat the ever-growing number of Kaijus emerging from the ocean. It's almost immediately clear that she's "drift compatible" with the film's male lead when it comes to piloting one of the few remaining Jaegers, but there are more than a few stumbling blocks to surmount before she and Raleigh can head out into the field.
In flashback we learn that as a child Mako only barely survived a Kaiju attack, and was subsequently raised by Stacker Pentecost. Unfortunately, her desire to avenge her family is at odds with his instinct to protect her, doubts that seem justified when she gets caught in a memory overload caused by the "neural handshake" between Jaeger pilots.
Yet with Raleigh's support, Mako overcomes – even as she skirts close to what's known as Trinity SyndromeThis test is made up of two parts: first that a female character is more qualified than the male lead to be a film's protagonist, but secondly that she's inevitably shunted to the side so that he can complete the world-saving mission by himself.
Mako fulfils the latter requirement but not the former: though Raleigh does remove her from Jaeger while she's unconscious so he can make the final self-sacrificial act, it's been established right from the start that she's a rookie, thereby endowing his decision with a degree of justification (and given the film's ongoing theme of equality and respect, it's important to note that in this moment Raleigh has judged her life more important than his own).
The discussion continues when we consider that Mako isn't ogled by the camera, nor pushed into the role of Raleigh's love interest (the closest they get to kissing is an affectionate head butt). She neatly sidesteps all the offensive stereotypes that are usually affixed to Asian women in film: she's not emotionless, submissive or sexualised*, and when Raleigh tries to call her out on folding to Pentecost's orders, she replies with what is perhaps her best line: "It's not obedience, it's respect."
* I watched Ex Machina a couple of days after Pacific Rim and it's clear these traits are still very much in effect when it comes to portraying Asian woman on-screen.
Basically, Mako Mori defies tropes even as she's built from them, resulting in a character that subverts expectations at every turn, often in surprisingly subtle ways. As Tumblr user spider-xan said:
It’s really easy to throw away a film because of that [Bechdel] test (which is flawed and used incorrectly in a lot of ways) if you’re a white woman and can easily find other films with white women who look like you and represent you... But as an East Asian woman, someone like Mako — a well-written Japanese woman who is informed by her culture without being solely defined by it, without being a racial stereotype, and gets to carry the film and have character development — almost NEVER comes along in mainstream Western media. And honestly — someone like her will probably not appear again for a very long time.
Mako created a flurry of speculation, discussion, critique and praise from the moment she lifted that umbrella, all of which helped edge out Sarah Connor for this month's post.