If it seems like I got through a lot of stuff this month, it's probably because I watched a lot of movies and read a lot of graphic novels – which obviously take less time to consume than my usual diet of novels and television shows. Among all the comics and movies were plenty of Star Wars, a lot of swords-and-sandals, a couple more children's classics, and at least one more season of Arrow. I'm catching up!
The Glassmaker's Daughter by Dianne Hofmeyr
Jane Ray isn't my favourite children's book illustrator, but she's certainly up there. I love her blend of colourful whimsy and stylized geometric shapes, both of which are used to good effect in a story set in 18th century Venice.
It follows the familiar fairytale premise: a glassmaker's daughter is perpetually melancholy (it's usually a princess) and so her father offers anyone who can make her smile a beautiful glass palace. Suitors come from miles around to make the attempt, but it takes a handsome youth and a unique gift to finally get the desired result.
Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Lost Adventures by Aaron Ehasz, et al
There have been dozens of Avatar-related comics distributed in various children's magazines and other mediums across the years, so it makes sense that Nickelodeon would eventually collect them all in one place. It certainly makes it easier to read them all.
This collection is called "the lost adventures" as each one (with a few non-canonical exceptions) deal with things that went on between the episodes that took place on the actual show. Some are more fleshed out than others, and a couple have truly dreadful artwork, but all of them are consistent with the show and capture the characters nicely.
In fact, a couple would have made for better episodes than what actually aired, especially in Book Three. Remember all those annoying filler episodes when the kids were mucking around in the Fire Nation when they should have been collecting weapons, infiltrating towns and doing reconnaissance work? There's one comic that has Sokka volunteer at a Fire Nation military camp, where he can gain intel on how their forces work. It would have been much better than "The Headband", where a similar premise culminates in a secret dance party.
Poe Dameron: The Gathering Storm by Charles Soule
This is one of several comics centred on Poe Dameron that explore what was going on in the lead-up to The Force Awakens (specifically the search for Lor San Tekka). Given that Poe is perhaps the least-developed of the new trilogy, it's a good idea to have him as the protagonist of these comics, especially since they also shed light on the genesis of the Resistance and the First Order.
He's given a good nemesis in the form of Officer Terex, a former Imperial soldier who was a true believer in the cause and yet isn't afraid to break the rules in order to achieve his goals. But more than that, this story raises some interesting questions on droid sentience and agency, especially in its use of C3-PO. Think about it: are the droids in Star Wars slaves? Do they have free will or are they subject to their programming? How much personality do they have, and is it ethical for someone to override their self-preservation in order to save a human's life?
It's stuff that'll never in a million years be included in a Star Wars film (at least not as a major theme) so if you've asked yourself this stuff while watching the trilogy, you might want to check out these comics.
How To Train Your Dragon: The Serpent's Heir by Dean DeBlois
I grabbed this one on a whim (as you've probably noticed, I've gone through a lot of graphic novels this month) and it's a perfectly adequate story set in the HTTYD universe. Taking place just after the events of the sequel, it involves Chief Hiccup and Toothless (and pretty much every other supporting character) heading to an island afflicted by strange earthquakes in order to try and help its citizens.
It's not much to write home about – the villain is obvious and the storyline pretty rote – but it gets points for artwork that beautifully captures the colour and character designs of the franchise. In fact, I'm not entirely sure why it wasn't just adapted for an episode of the TV series.
Saga: Volumes 4 – 8 by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples
After moving slowly through the previous instalments over the last two months, I finally went "screw it" and binged the rest. In a galaxy far, far away (but one that is infinitely more graphic and violent than the one we're used to) Alana and Marko try to escape the forces of their respective home-worlds so they can raise their daughter Hazel in peace. You see, they were soldiers on separate sides of the war that has engulfed thousands of planets, making them a powerful symbol of unity that can be used for either good or evil.
Of course, they don't care about any of this, and the war that threatens them is certainly not the straightforward "goodies versus baddies" conflict of Star Wars. It follows their quest for a stable home as well as the tribulations of the various bounty hunters and assassins that are hunting them – with plenty of musings on the nature of life, death, war, love, family, sacrifice and other weighty themes along the way.
The Five Sisters by Margaret Mahy
A while ago I did a toy-themed Storytime session at the library, and so put a ton of books on hold that related to the subject. One of them was this by Margaret Mahy, and I actually have vague memories of her doing promotion for it back in the day. It's vintage Mahy, with a somewhat whimsical premise weighed down by her musings on time and meaning and bittersweetness, in which a grandmother helps her grand-daughter cut out five paper dolls.
Before she gets a chance to draw in any details but those of the first, a gust of wind blows the sisters out of the garden and on an adventure, in which they end up in the hands of a variety of people, all of whom add their own additions to the cut-out figures. By the time all five sisters are filled in, years have passed and their journey has come full-circle.
It was way too long to read to a group of kids in a single sitting, but as it happens I had them all make paper dolls for that week's craft (having instead read The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson). And what do you know, it was a huge hit. There's a magic about homemade paper dolls that hasn't disappeared in the hundreds of years since children first started making them.
The Curious Tale of the Abandoned Toys by Julian Fellowes
Another book I checked out to see if it was suitable reading material for a group (it wasn't; too long), but mostly due to the fact it was written by Julian Fellowes. Yeah, he wrote a children's book. Who knew? It's a rather odd story, divided into two distinct parts that each bear a remarkable resemblance to the plot of Toy Story: the first recounts a teddy bear's journey from a hospital waiting room to a garbage dump, in the second (which reads more like an actual story), the teddy and his friends band together to return a stuffed rabbit to his owner, who accidentally threw him out when the family moved house.
It's...fine. The most interesting thing about it is recognizing certain patterns and motifs that appear frequently in Fellowes's body of work; especially a character who is essentially the Dowager Countess ... if she had been a china doll cast out of her house and living in a shoebox with a napkin wrapped round her head to disguise her baldness. There's also that quaint humanity that shines through most of his work, in which everyone is more or less good at heart, not to mention incredibly down-to-earth and willing to take life's knocks with a "well, it could be a lot worse" attitude.
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
This caught my attention YEARS ago, when a republication included a quote on the cover from J.K. Rowling, mentioning how much she had adored it as a child. That's an endorsement to pique anyone's interest, but having read the book, I now wonder if it would still be in print were it not for Rowling's fondness for the story in her youth.
I was expecting something along the lines of Joan Aiken or Diana Wynne Jones, but instead The Little White Horse reads like something Anne Shirley would have written as an eleven year old. Let's see: usually beautiful pre-teen orphan with strange silvery eyes? Check. Huge sprawling mansion that manages to be both romantically dilapidated and luxurious? Check. Scores of elderly bachelors and spinsters who quarrelled with their lover in their youth only to be reunited with them in their twilight years? Check. A ton of religious tracts about virtue and discipline and having faith in a higher power to the point where no one needs to be particularly proactive at all? Check.
Granted, there is more of a fantasy element to the story than anything Anne Shirley would have written about. Maria Merryweather is a recently orphaned girl who travels to her uncle's estate of Moonacre to become his ward and heir (her father was a reprobate, so no one wastes much time feeling bad about his death). It's there she gets drawn into her family history and the shadow it has cast across the valley, requiring her to right ancient wrongs and secure peace.
It's not a bad premise, but the whole thing is so preachy and saccharine that it's difficult to enjoy the occasional charming feature. With everyone sporting names like Prudence Honeybun or Loveday Minette, and each character showering adoration on Maria like she's the second coming, I'm afraid my cynical twenty-first century self just couldn't buy it.
Calling on Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede
I only recently found out that the fourth book in the Dealing with Dragons quartet was actually published first, with Wrede then going back and writing the three stories that are now treated as books number one, two and three in the series. Which means that this instalment reads more like a direct prequel to Talking to Dragons, with a conclusion that was clearly written as a lead-in to the events of the final (or first) book.
And to be honest, I didn't really enjoy it that much. I suppose I could say the same of all the books in this series, which I stuck with because (like The Little White Horse) they're considered minor classics, but have dated in completely the opposite direction of Elizabeth Goudge's story. Whereas hers is packed full of sanctimonious preachiness, Wrede's Dragon books are parodies of the fantasy genre that have been done to death by this point, as well as comedy that's not particularly funny. (There's a bunny rabbit called Killer. Not for any in-story reason that might make sense, but just because it's incongruous. Hah?)
I feel like an old grump for saying that, as all four books are completely harmless and were probably a lot more innovative when they were first published, what with their tomboy princesses, attractive witches and little links to/jabs at familiar fairy tale tropes, but these days...? They kinda remind me of the super-bright colour and mishmash story quality of Once Upon a Time. Not good.
The Dry by Jane Harper
One of my regulars at the second-hand bookshop recommended both this and Behold the Dreamers (see below) to me, and noticing both of them on the library shelves soon after, I picked them up. (And then, coincidentally, a co-worker at the library mentioned she had put The Dry on reserve – it's a small world).
This murder-mystery's drawcard is its setting: an Australian outback town in the throes of a devastating draught, where a murder/suicide could quite easily be chalked up to despair brought on by failing crops and dying livestock. Such is the conclusion drawn by the folks of Kiewarra after Luke Hadler is found dead, with his wife and young son shot in their own home. But Aaron Falk – a childhood friend of Luke and federal agent – who has returned to his hometown for the funerals, is not so sure.
On the behest of Luke's parents, Aaron begins hunting for answers, though he's stymied by a hostile community and a lingering concern about an incident in his youth, in which a friend of his adolescence was found dead, with neither he nor Luke able to account for their actions at the time of her (supposed) suicide. Are the two deaths connected? Because if they are, that would point to Luke as the killer.
It's an impressive debut that races along at a cracking pace, though with a somewhat anticlimactic resolution (at least to me). It's only a matter of time before this gets adapted for television.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
This was the other customer recommendation, about an immigrant family arriving in New York from Cameroon in their pursuit of the American dream. Jende Jonga, his wife Neni and their young son Liomi find life in the big city to be everything they dreamed of, especially when Jende gets a job as chauffeur to a wealthy businessman. And if all of his immigration papers aren't quite in order... well, surely that will sort itself out in due course.
As you may have guessed, this book was published right when the issue of immigration to American became international news, though it's set back in 2008 so as to use the inauguration of Obama and the impending financial crisis as a backdrop to the Jonga family's experiences in New York. Jende and Neni are slowly but surely drawn into the privileged world of Clark Edwards, his fragile wife Cindy and their two sons Vince and Mighty, discovering that even wealth and whiteness is no guarantee of happiness.
At the same time, it cannot be denied that their continued prosperity depends entirely on the blasé generosity of the Edwards, and when the cracks begin to widen in one family, there's inevitable discord in the other. Author Imbolo Mbue is remarkably restrained when it comes to making judgement calls on the individuals within each family group, though I can't say I was ever truly invested in any of them.
I'm glad I read it, but what can I say? My genre of choice is speculative fiction.
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
I have a Tumblr mutual who keeps reblogging quotes and fan art from these books (known altogether as The Raven Cycle) and so when the first instalment turned up at the second-hand bookstore, I nabbed it. Stiefvater is a bit of a long-winded writer: she carefully sets the scene and establishes the characters, to get a sense of her pacing, consider that the phrase: "something had begun" occurs just past the halfway point.
I'd say it's a collection of strong characters in need of a decent plot. Or at least a plot that doesn't leave a dozen or so storylines hanging to be picked up in the following books (do any YA authors write standalone novels anymore?) There's also a complete lack of urgency in the prose, to the point where several mind-blowing twists and developments are conveyed so casually that they lose their power. The final revelation in particular, revealed in a cliff-hanging line of dialogue, is downright random.
The gist of the story is that Blue Sargent (daughter of a psychic who has no gift but to amplify the abilities of others) gets caught up in a gang of schoolboys who attend the local prep school. Known locality as the Raven Boys due to the school's insignia, Adam, Ronan, Noah and Gansey are all joined by the latter's obsession in finding the resting place of the Welsh prince Owain Glendower.
But Blue has already been warned by her family that she'll be the death of Gansey – one of only many secrets among the five friends as they uncover new clues in the search for Glendower.
I'll be back for more, but I'm not totally invested yet.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
You'll notice below that after several months I finally watched all the episodes of Conan the Adventurer; a cartoon I watched when I was a kid. Having done that, it was an easy task to look up the famous Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, just to continue my newfound (and inexplicable) interest in the character.
Is it goofy and overwrought? Sure. But there's also a consistency in the way Conan and his world is presented, which lends the whole thing a weight it wouldn't otherwise have. It may be a standard fantasy world, but there's a sense of realism in the way all its disparate parts fit together. Slavery, mysticism, deserts, gladiator fights, that Nietzsche quote that starts the film – it all belongs to the same grim and gritty place.
It's basically a quest for vengeance, in which he goes on a life-long search for the men who destroyed his village and killed his family, which takes him through a few mini-adventures before reaching a giant snake-worshipping cult. He's joined along the way by requisite Thief and requisite Warrior Women. Granted, this movie is hardly a character study, but Valaria is actually pretty awesome (though she's never actually named on-screen) played by an actress who reminds me of Lucy Lawless and Gwendolyn Christie in that she has the physique to play a physical threat. (She dies of course).
And hey, it's Maxwell Sydnow, letting us know that his single-scene cameos in fantasy/horror/sci-fi films (see also: The Force Awakens and The Wolf-Man) started much earlier than I had realized.
Conan the Destroyer (1984)
The sequel is definitely lighter and more comedic than its predecessor, and for this reason wasn't as much of a success. That said, I probably enjoyed it a lot more, even though it loses some of the grounded nature of the first, to be replaced with a generic fantasy storyline that is both convoluted and incredibly boring.
Here's the rundown: Conan is enlisted by Queen Tamaris to escort her young niece Princess Jehnna (written of in prophecies, with a special birthmark – you know the drill) to find a key in a castle owned by a wizard that only she can touch that unlocks a tomb that holds a magical horn to be used in a ceremony involving a certain god. Zzzzzzzz.
As you can see, there are no personal stakes at all, and if this movie suffers from anything, it's a complete lack of motivation from its entire cast. Okay, so Conan agrees to escort the princess in the hopes that Queen Taramis will resurrect Valaria. But why does the queen want to kill her niece? Why does Jehna agree to this incredibly random quest? Why do any of Conan's sidekicks decide to tag along? What was up with the wizard in the castle? Why does he do anything in this film? Because technically his actions to prevent the princess from acquiring the key was a good thing.
And what about Bombarda, the princess's personal bodyguard? He's working on the queen's orders that he'll bring the princess back safely so she can be sacrificed, but we never get inside his head at all, and there's never any moment of doubt or recrimination when it comes to murdering a girl who trusts him utterly.
It definitely falls into the So Bad It's Good category, and some parts are just genuinely good. Grace Jones is easily the highlight as Zula, and because I have a soft-spot for spoiled little princesses who gain maturity across the course of their adventures, I really liked Olivia d'Abo as Jehnna, right down to her haughty demeanour, idiotic decision-making skills, and cute front teeth.
Conan the Barbarian (2011)
Rounding things off is the reboot of the franchise starring Jason Momoa, which is sooooooo generic. So, kinda like Conan the Destroyer except without all the amusing practical special-effects from the eighties.
Jason Momoa's charisma is wasted, and (though I don't know much about Robert E. Howard's novels) the characterization is a little suspect. I mean, if there was one thing that was pretty clear about Arnie's Conan, it's that he was incredibly fucked up. His family is killed while he's a child, he spends his entire adolescence pushing a giant wheel, he gets thrown into a cage-ring and forced to kill – the guy is a mental and emotional mess. Heck, I was almost moved when Subotai says: "he cannot cry, so I cry for him." It's not a macho thing, it's the fact that Conan really is that messed up.
Here Conan is just an average, well-adjusted dude, roaming the countryside and doing what he likes. After a flashback to his childhood that would have the internet screeching: "MARY SUE!" at the top of their lungs had he been a female character, Conan goes hunting for the men who killed his father in yet another Roaring Rampage of Revenge film.
Most of the plot has to do with protecting a woman who has the "pure blood" required for an evil dude to resurrect his dead wife and rule the world, though the woman in question doesn't get much of a better deal from Conan. After rescuing her he ties her up so she can't leave (she wants to go to a place of refuge, he wants to use her as bait) and gags her when she protests. Gross. For about two seconds I was going to give them credit for having her leave after their inevitable night together while Conan was still sleeping (it's usually the other way around) but turns out it's just a way of getting her alone so she can be duly kidnapped again.
Look, it's not like I expect much in these kinds of movies – but it's also not 1982 anymore, and Valaria managed to be more of an impressive character than Tamara.
More than that, I'm beginning to think I've been consuming too much pop-culture recently, as all stories are beginning to feel the same to me. I mean, what does this remind you of: a villain with delusions of godhood. A set of six McGuffins that have to be found and reunited to create an artefact of ultimate power. A female character with some degree of agency, but whose purpose in the narrative is to be a sacrifice for the male villain to attain power. A group of visually dynamic but characteristically bland henchmen (including one woman) whose task it is to follow their leader's orders and get picked off one-by-one by the heroes.
Okay, maybe it's just late over here, but here I am, comparing Conan to Infinity War.
The Invisible Woman (2013)
It was always going to be difficult to sell a love story between a forty-five year old married man and a teenage girl. The movie thinks so too, as it is at pains to portray Mrs Dickens as disagreeable and unappealing, largely ignores things like how Dickens abandoned his mistress in the wake of a train derailment, and ensures that everyone from her mother to her sisters to her friends and even her rival encourage young actress Nelly Ternan to become the mistress of a married man.
Yeah, there are a few moments in which they acknowledge the creepiness and profound power imbalance of the relationship, but ultimately the film would have us believe that the two were passionate lovers, despite the complete lack of chemistry between the Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones, and Dickens's general cowardice in ditching his family and breaking up with his wife via a newspaper announcement. The best part is the framing device, which involves Nelly reflecting on the affair several years after Dickens's death, and realizing that it's within her best interests to move on and start appreciating her new family.
So having watched Troy: Fall of a City last month and being on a bit of a Swords and Sandals roll, I ended up watching the two versions of Hercules that came out in 2014. Why'd they make two versions of Hercules in the same year? And why the obsession with Hercules in the first place? What sets him apart from the likes of Perseus, Theseus, Achilles, Jason, Odysseus and Bellerophon? He's by far the most popular of the Greek heroes, even if Hollywood continues to call him by the wrong name.
Despite trailers that promised scenes of all twelve of Hercules's labours, this movie actually acts more as a Demythification of his story, in which some of the hero's backstory and incredible feats are retold as exaggerated legends, while other things (such as centaurs) are revealed as tricks of the light or tall tales. Personally I don't know why you'd want to remove all the fun magical stuff from Greek mythology, but whatever.
As with The Legend of Hercules this film has zero interest in fidelity to the myths, and though it does include a brief montage of the twelve labours (or at least three of them) and the murder of Megara and the kids, one does not preclude the other, and it turns out the deaths of Hercules's family were all part of a darker backstory.
But enough about that – this movie is surprisingly good with its female characters. Granted, there's only two of them and one of them goes into battle with her midriff bared, but although Atalanta is the tomboy warrior and Ergenia the feminine healer, they're never pitted against one another and – even more astonishing – neither is a love interest to Hercules. (Granted, Megara is his fridged wife, but considering this story is thousands of years old, I guess I'll give it a pass).
But Atalanta is a great example of what I've been talking about recently when it comes to how female characters are presented: there are those who are written self-consciously and those that aren't. Contrast Atalanta with the women of Star Wars Rebels and Black Panther: all of them are confident, able, self-sufficient women in combat situations – but whereas Hera, Okoye, Sabine and Nakia just are all these things without commentary, Atalanta goes through a litany of scenes in which she has to prove herself to male scepticism, make a few dick jokes at the expense of chauvinist pigs, and to endure banter among her male comrades as to how she "doesn't count" as female companionship. The movie is almost hyperaware of her gender.
Granted, all this takes place in Ancient Greece as opposed to an advanced African culture or a galaxy far, far away – but it's still interesting to note this technique (or the absence of it) in writing for women characters.
Also, you wouldn’t believe the actors they rope into this. John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes, Rebecca Ferguson, Ian McFreaking McShane – I'm not sure how they managed it, but it's almost worth it to see these guys slumming it.
The Legend of Hercules (2014)
Of the two Hercules movies that came out this year, this is the one that was considered the worst of the two (not that the other one got rave reviews). But having watched it on the heels of the last Conan movie, it wasn't actually that bad.
Yes, there's nothing in here (save a brief appearance from the Nemean Lion) that bears any resemblance to the Greek myth – in fact, the story probably owes more to the Bible than mythology, but ... I dunno. Expecting complete rubbish I ended up kinda liking it.
In this version Amphitryon is a tyrannical king, and Hera appears to Alcmene in order to bless the union between herself and Zeus so that a child can be born to overthrow the king. Yeah, we're already WAY off script. Despite already having a son with Alcmene, Amphitryon is suspicious of his second-born (granted, the conception scene between Alcmene and an invisible Zeus is HILARIOUS) and the two brothers grow up as rivals – not only for the throne, but for Princess Hebe.
Yeah, you read that right: this movie casually ignores Megara, Deianira and Omphale and goes straight to his fourth wife Hebe. And for what it's worth, they put an incredible amount of time and effort into making the audience care about their romance. I even found myself rooting for those crazy kids. Of course, the women in this movie only exist to be distressed and fridged – even when they're not. I wonder if perhaps a test audience demanded a change in the ending, as despite Hebe initially pulling a Veil (from Into the Badlands) and stabbing herself in order to kill the guy holding her hostage, the very next scene shows her alive and well and giving birth to Hercules's firstborn son.
Sadly, can't say the same for Alcmene, even though there's a blink and you'll miss it criticism of the old "I can change him" fantasy when she admits her vanity made her believe she could make Amphitryon a better man. (She couldn't).
So despite the lack of interest in adhering to the myths and the frankly horrible CGI, there's some interesting tweaks here and there. Amphitryon and Alcmene are royals, and Hera blesses Zeus's adultery in order to ensure Hercules's birth. Chiron is a normal guy instead of a centaur. Iphicles is a jealous brother. And instead of Deianira or Megara as Hercules's wife, they go with the third option: Hebe, the goddess that no one really remembers (and who here is a princess, perhaps more widely recognized as a popular fan cast for a Targaryen on Game of Thrones GIF sets).
The Red Turtle (2017)
Have you ever felt completely hypnotised by a movie? That was how I felt watching The Red Turtle, a completely dialogue-free story of a man stranded on a deserted island who not only finds a way to live off the land, but form a family of his own under miraculous circumstances.
All you can do is sit and let the animation wash over you. It's completely immersive, from the sound of the rain in a bamboo forest, to the wincingly tight squeeze through a submerged crevasse, to the ever-constant circle of life and death. In the hands of Dutch film-maker Michaël Dudok de Wit, the most mundane details become utterly fascinating. In fact, I watched this on the same night as Coco, and it struck me just how simple it was in comparison (which has a surprisingly complex plot when it comes to its myriad of rules, goals and motivations).
That said, some things remain eternally mysterious. Did the red turtle deliberately sabotage the man's raft to make him stay on the island? How did the "death" of the turtle result in its transformation into a woman? And what are we meant of the fact that it's the man's deliberate act of rage that kills the turtle in the first place? It's almost like he's rewarded for his violence with a loving family. Yet this isn't a complaint, it's a natural part of the story of life this film depicts: some things are forever beyond our ken.
There I was, unpacking a crate of new materials for the library, and a never-before-opened DVD of Coco was waiting for me. It seems like just yesterday that it was released in theatres (I missed it on the big-screen) but time certainly flies, and I wasn't about to pass up being the first person to see it on a brand new DVD – especially when you take into account how scratched library DVDs can get.
Have you ever wanted to like something more than you actually did? Look, it's not that Coco is in any way bad. How can it be, it's Pixar! The premise? Fascinating? The storyline? Tight. The characters? Loveable. The design? Stunningly beautiful.
The problem is that the Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks output of animated feature films are starting to feel extremely similar in their use of two particular tropes: firstly, that of a young protagonist with a certain passion, calling or hobby that is staunchly opposed by their family. Moana's love of the ocean, Hiccup's interest in dragons, Remy's desire to become a chef, Merida's longing for freedom – you can trace this all the way back to Ariel and her fascination with the human world. Whenever there's a spirited teenage protagonist, there apparently has to be a disapproving parent who learns the error of their ways by the time the credits roll.
And the Hidden Villain twist. Oy. At this point it would be a surprise if an otherwise friendly and helpful ally didn't turn out to be secretly evil. Toy Story 2 and 3, Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia... I haven't seen Wreck-It Ralph yet but apparently there's one in that as well. Enough already!
Both these tropes are present in Coco, and though they're not handled badly in themselves, coming at the end of a very long list of animated films that use the exact same templates make them feel pretty worn-out by this stage. In this case, it's also not helped that the "adventures in the afterlife" premise has already been explored in The Book of Life and Corpse Bride, which also share a lot of similarities with Coco in terms of their settings and range of quirky characters.
Miguel Rivera is a twelve year old boy living in Mexico, a (presumably) self-taught guitarist who idolizes black-and-white film star Ernesto del la Cruz, a famous song-writer and musician. The problem is that his family of shoemakers have strictly banned music-making in their home, due to a dark secret that's gradually uncovered over the course of Miguel's adventure on Día de Muertos.
After interacting with family members who have already crossed to the other side (but are allowed back into the Land of the Living for a single night) Miguel eventually teams up with a rather sketchy skeleton called Héctor so that he can return home on his terms, and not via the blessing of his great, great-grandmother which comes with the condition that he can never play music again.
It's a beautiful film, with the realms of the dead teeming with light and colour and sound, though there's also some pretty dark existential stuff. Basically, if you're dead and no one still living puts up your photo on the Day of the Dead, you're not allowed to cross over and visit them (which begs the question – what happens to all the spirits who died before the camera was invented?) and if you're completely forgotten by everyone on earth, you succumb to what's known as the "final death", which involves a being simply dissipating into nothing. I bet plenty of parents had to answer some tough questions after that one.
I recommend Coco, I have to, as it's as beautiful and heartfelt and as sophisticated in its humour and implications and overall message as every Pixar film is. But there was definitely a sense of having seen it all before, despite the unique beauty of its Mexican setting.
Crooked House (2018)
One of my biggest literary regrets is that I was spoiled for the solution to Crooked House – that is, I found out beforehand that one of Christie's novels had a child as the killer, and it didn't take much to deduce that this was the one after I started reading it. Still, the film adaptation makes for an interesting watch knowing that it was Christie's favourite novel (along with Ordeal by Innocence, another recently-filmed miniseries that I'll get to shortly).
As you might expect, this is well-shot and acted, with only a few minor changes in the storyline (Brenda is American, Josephine falls from her treehouse instead of getting bonked on the head, Charles and Sophia are witnesses to the big climactic scene). The cinematography is opulent – perhaps a little too opulent, as neither the house nor the costumes look lived in. Instead they look like what they are: set pieces and costumes. And a story like this needs a little dirt and grime.
The cast is solid all round, with Glenn Close as an obvious highlight, and Max Irons as a suitably solid detective/lead. If anything, it ends rather too abruptly, without anyone getting the chance to process the murders or the fallout of the resolution, and (as with a lot of Christie adaptations) wastes a bit too much time on the romance between the two leads. As in the books themselves, this is always the least interesting part of any murder mystery.
Conan the Adventurer (1993 – 1994)
Yes boys and girls, I've spent the last few months watching all sixty-four episodes of a cartoon from the nineties. Thing is, this was a big deal when I was a kid. My sister and I would hurry home from school every afternoon in order to see what Conan and his friends were up to, and the show remains one of my early (though not the earliest) inductions into the fantasy genre.
Even now, the formula works. Evil wizard/warlord Wrath-Amon is building pyramids and collecting star metal so that he can release the god Set from his dark dimension. His minions are spread out across the world, disguising their serpent-visages with illusions that can only be destroyed by weapons forged out of the aforementioned star metal. But when Conan's home is targeted, his confrontation with Wrath-Amon only results in his parents and grandfather being turned to stone.
So that's the premise: with an array of friends, Conan travels the world searching for a way to restore his family and destroy any serpent-men where and when he finds them. (And despite the fact that getting rid of them just involves banishing them through a portal to their home dimension, there's plenty of eye-opening content here – the word "death" is used frequently, and one villain screams in agony whilst getting smothered by lava, right before a shot of her burnt skeleton).
But what really captured my younger self's imagination was that there could be any number of combinations when it came to who accompanied Conan in each episode's adventure. There were six companions in all: Needle the baby phoenix, Zula the jungle prince, Jezmine the circus acrobat, Greywolf the wizard, Snagg the Viking, and Falconer the ... um ... he had a pair of wings and a whip. Sometimes Conan would travel with one, sometimes two and occasionally three. And when all seven were involved? That was event television.
But returning to the show as an adult? Yeah, I'm afraid the Suck Fairy paid a call. In hindsight, the show's animation ranged from adequate to complete shit, the storylines were comprised of every cliché the genre has to offer, and though the stock characters are fine on their own, they fail to form any interesting dynamics with each other. Also, the grab-bag of cultures with fantasy veneers can get truly bizarre at times: not only do we have pastiches of Japan and Egypt, people based on the Picts, the Vikings and several African tribes, and gods from nearly every pantheon around the world (Set, Damballa, Mithos, Odin), but fantasy staples such as unicorns, shamans, naiads, frost giants, werewolves, nagas, and Atlantis.
How weird does it get? One episode featured Hanuman, the monkey-god from Hinduism. Only here he's reimagined as a telepathic alien ape-man whose spacecraft crash-landed in the desert. After his sceptre of invincibility is stolen by an evil wizard, Conan helps liberate him from slavery and returns him to his ship so he can fly back to his home planet. Yeah.
But the show isn't entirely without merit. There's a surprisingly good grasp of continuity, with people and places appearing across all sixty-four episodes, and a three-part finale that wraps up most of the lingering plot-threads (though Greywolf never returns his siblings to human form, Mesmera and Ram-Amon are still at large, and Windfang's fate goes completely unmentioned).
Despite being the only girl in the team, Jezmine ends up being Conan's most frequent sidekick, with plenty of other capable female guest-stars (both good and evil) appearing throughout, and it wasn't until this rewatch that I realized (along with the obvious example of Zula) that Greywolf and Falconer are POC – Middle Eastern and Japanese respectively – or at least the fantasy equivalents. Not bad for a mid-Nineties cartoon aimed at a young male audience!
Ah well, it was a fun walk down memory lane, and with today's superior animation and mastery of long-term storytelling, I wouldn’t be too disappointed if the Powers That Be decided to reboot the premise for a new audience...
Star Wars Rebels: Season 1 (2014)
Despite my incredibly mixed feelings about The Last Jedi, I still can't get enough of Star Wars right now, and thankfully the animated television shows are scratching that itch (and in most cases, are actually better than what's happening up on the big screen).
Set five years before the events of A New Hope, during the time in which what will eventually become known as the Rebel Alliance is still in its infancy, a group of six agitators make trouble for Imperial forces on the planet of Lothal.
Though their missions initially start out small – smuggling, thieving, stirring up trouble – there's the definite sense that they're plugged into a much larger network of resistance, and the first season does a surprisingly good job of crafting an overarching plot in which we start with a single team of outcasts doing little more than annoying the Empire, which then steadily grows in allies and contacts and numbers into what will eventually be the Rebel Alliance. When the term "rebels" is first dropped and attributed to the team, it feels like a special moment.
The premise is a solid one, with the first episode opening on Darth Vader himself giving an Imperial agent known as the Inquisitor a new mission: to recruit or eliminate any Force-sensitive children. It's simple but effective (and certainly the sort of project the Empire would have had running) and it introduces us to one such child: Ezra Bridger.
He's best described as an Aladdin Expy, who in a nice Character Establishing Moment saves a merchant from Imperials through trickery and slight-of-hand, only to help himself to the very food that was being requisitioned. Other characters even refer to him as a street-rat (okay, a "Lothal rat") just in case you didn’t get the connection.
He falls in with the crew of the Ghost, and just as in Firefly, they're already a tight-knit team of experts by the time our POV character joins them. Kanan, Hera, Zeb, Sabine and Chopper are as ragtag a bunch of disparate misfits as you'd wish, with plenty of juicy dynamics to enjoy. Ezra for example gets a surrogate father/mother rapport with Kanan and Hera, a sibling-esque rivalry with Zeb, and a precocious crush on Sabine.
(Also of interest is Kanan and Hera. Even before watching a single episode I knew there was a lot of speculation between them, and there are plenty of subtle romantic cues in their glances, smiles and body language. Which is interesting, as this makes it a case not of "will they or won't they?" but "are they or aren't they?")
Ezra is called by the Force and quickly discovers that Kanan is (or was) a Jedi. In a nice bit of poignancy, he takes on Ezra as an apprentice, though in the larger context of the Star Wars universe, this creates all sorts of tantalizing questions – foremost among them: is either character going to survive this series given the state of the Jedi in the original trilogy?
A part of me wishes they'd stuck with strictly non-Force users as the main characters, which was what made Rogue One so special, but this still works. There's a melancholy in being the last of your kind which is mined for its full thematic weight, and Ezra doesn't come across as a new beginning for the Jedi Order – just the final remnant of a culture that's already died out.
Although they're outnumbered 2:4 and play supporting roles to Kanan and Ezra, the girls are fantastic. Sabine is small and spritely and combines her demolitions expertise with artistic flair, and Hera is a wonderful example of the Mother Archetype mixed with the typical swagger and confidence you'd expect from any pilot in the Star Wars universe. That's a combination you don't see every day.
They follow a trend I've noticed since seeing Black Panther which I'm still trying to articulate properly: that there's often a self-consciousness when it comes to showcasing "strong female characters", whether it manifests as her confronting sexism, or the inclusion of a surprised-yet-appreciative comment from a male character, or a remark about how she's bucking gender norms.
Now obviously this is unavoidable if you're watching a movie about the suffragette movement or another similar subject, but in speculative fiction it's such a relief that we're moving passed this type of commentary and just letting women be awesome. As with the women of Black Panther, those of Star Wars Rebels are allowed to be brave, competent, and talented without comment.
Another nice touch is that the parent figures (in this case Kanan and Hera) are allowed to be right. Not infallible, but wise, understanding and generally worth listening to. On the other hand, Zeb and Ezra can get pretty obnoxious at times – it's something they're undoubtedly going to grow out of, but it's still annoying when missions are compromised by their pointless bickering. As for Chopper, there's no hope at all. That droid is psychotic.
There are plenty of the usual clichés you'd expect from the franchise: Stormtrooper Marksmanship, cute call-backs to famous dialogue (here it's variations on "try or do not try", "this plan gets worse all the time," and "not the ___ we're looking for") and an over-eagerness to plug things into the larger continuity, not even waiting until the third episode before C3PO and R2D2 make their inevitable appearances, followed closely by Tarkin, Lando and Vader himself. (Though there is one awesome moment, when we hear a jaunty, cheerful version of the Imperial March for a celebratory parade).
The animation is sadly even worse than The Clone Wars – seriously, Ezra looks like an acorn with a sea anemone on top – but the voice-acting helps out a lot. There's natural sounding banter between the protagonists that makes up for their plasticine complexions.
But most of all, the show illuminated something for me that I'd never really given much thought to before: that when times get dark, our heroes (much like Robin Hood) are reduced to thieves and con-artists and guerrilla fighters – and so become very susceptible to enemy propaganda that labels them as terrorists. And I have to admit I felt a little queasy in the episode where the team targets Imperial forces during an Empire Day rally in a crowded square; blowing up a TIE fighter in such a way that could have resulted in casualties. It's a thin line guys, and as they say: Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters. I hope the show continues to explore these grey areas in forthcoming seasons.
(And yes, I did squeal and clap my hands when Ahsoka showed up. And I caught the four mini-sodes that take place directly prior to the start of the show, and provide pretty good introductions to all the characters).
Arrow: Season 4 (2015 – 2016)
Yup, still trudging along in my valiant effort to get to the crossovers. Season four of Arrow rights the ship a little in the wake of season three's mistakes, but it still seems to slip up more often than it hits home-runs.
In broad strokes, this season sows some narrative seeds that were sown as far back as season two: HIVE, Damian Darkh, and the return of Diggle's brother Andy, as well as providing the introduction of magic to the Arrowverse (largely through Damian and Constantine as a single-episode guest star) and ever-more superfluous flashbacks to Oliver's five-year absence.
Neal McDonough as the season's Big Bad is certainly a step up from the show's take on Ra's al Ghul: as an actor he has charisma, as a character he has genuine power, menace and dark humour, and within the narrative he's allowed to have his own skewed sense of honour and the ability to truly change the status quo. That said, he's the third villain in a row whose evil plan is to destroy Starling City – and the fact that this is expanded to include the entire world doesn't make it any more interesting.
(And I also have to roll my eyes over the fact his motivations are exactly the same as Ra'a al Ghul's in Batman Begins: destroy the city to cleanse the world and rebuild from the ashes. It's also what's currently going down with Reign over on Supergirl. The superhero genre on the whole really needs to get some more unique evil plans).
And a lot of what sounds interesting (or at least important) on paper ends up feeling rudimentary on-screen. Sara comes back from the dead. Felicity becomes a paraplegic. Diggle shoots his brother. Laurel is killed. Yet it all plays out in the most unoriginal ways possible, with barely any attempt at emotional resonance at all.
Take Quentin Lance for example. As an actor Paul Blackthorne has simply run out of ways to convey the intense responses required for what his part demands – after all, this is the second time he's reacted to Sara's return from the dead, and the third time he's mourned the death of a daughter. And he's only got two!
That they give him only one scene in which to grapple with the decision on whether he should shoot Sara in cold blood to "put her out of her misery" is one of many bizarre creative decisions this season. Another is making Oliver realize he's the father to an illegitimate son in the same crossover episode that introduces Hawkman, Hawkgirl, Vandal Savage, and the start of Legends of Tomorrow. These two plots do not go together.
The writers also hark back to the usual "do superheroes kill?" debate, which they're not even remotely equipped to handle. As ever, the drug lords are spared while bodyguards and other hired personnel are indiscriminately killed – and despite having to assume that Oliver only takes non-lethal shots with his bow, he's got Diggle right next to him flat-out shooting people with a gun. It's utterly garbled to say the least, and so it's impossible to grasp what point the writers are trying to make when each of the three original team members deliberately takes a life (Oliver kills Darkh, Diggle shoots Andy and Felicity redirects a missile from a city with a huge population to a much smaller town in a standard use of the Trolley Problem). Will any of it even matter in the long run? Probably not.
Another irritating theme: that Oliver blames himself for everything, even though the narrative ensures that he's always right about everything and must be forgiven for all the shitty things he does.
As I mentioned in my notes on season three, there's a fascinating switch in roles between Laurel and Felicity. Katie Cassidy must have been laughing to herself when she realized she'd be spared the nightmarish plot of Oliver's illegitimate son and Felicity's reaction to it. Samantha's pregnancy was introduced in season two, back when the writers were still treating Oliver/Laurel as the Official Couple, so there's no doubt that all this was originally intended as an obstacle for Laurel to deal with.
Instead, it goes to Felicity. Now it's her turn to cry and nag and beg and argue with Oliver, in a classic example of the Superhero's Girlfriend's Role. It's Felicity who has to deal with Olvier keeping the secret of his son from her, and becoming a paraplegic so that Oliver can feel angry, sad and guilty about it, and generating the ire of the fandom for standing between Ollie and his happiness.
(Thing is, I understood and agreed with every one of Felicity's decisions when it came to her relationship with Ollie – but if there's one thing that a female character can never do, it's prevent the hero from getting what he wants, even if it's against her own best interests).
Meanwhile Laurel, now free from the constraints of love interest and moral compass (which on this show, simply involved criticising him a lot – another task that's been handed over to Felicity) is no longer subjected to any tedious relationship drama. No longer on the list of "those closest to Oliver Queen who can be used as leverage against him", SHE'S the one who plays a pivotal role in saving Felicity, Diggle and Thea from a gas chamber.
Seriously, I find this stuff FASCINATING.
And it's this season that they finally manage to start writing Laurel right, with confidence in her abilities, a prickly-but-fundamentally-trusting rapport with Ollie, a return of the big-sister bond with Thea, and even some nice interactions with Diggle. And of course, just as they begin to write her properly, they kill her off.
It's infuriating, and the manner of her death is downright offensive. It's not even about HER in any way – Darkh kills her simply because he told Detective Lance he would if he didn't obey his commands. I'm too angry to even list the reasons why this is absolute flaming garbage, and if it's not blatantly obvious then I can't help you.
And it's a damn shame, because the first half of this season had the unprecedented portrayal of a superhero team in which the male/female ratio was 3:2 in favour of the girls. Seriously, can you name another mainstream show that managed that? Not even Supergirl can claim that honour.
Nyssa gets a subplot that's only tangentially related to Oliver (and she gets to interact with Tatsu on the way), Lyla gets a lot more screen-time than she has in the past, Vixen shows up on the heels of her animated web-series, and there's a glorious moment in which the two Canaries and Speedy are fighting back-to-back. Oh show, you were doing so well.
Having watched the first season of Legends of Tomorrow ages ago, it's really weird watching Sara's resurrection here, not to mention the second half of the crossover episode that introduced Hawkman and Hawkgirl (each one having debuted on The Flash. I have watched all of this completely out of order).
Malcolm is still pestering Thea, and no one has yet taken steps to remove him from her life, forcing her to continue interacting with this evil, toxic man. Please tell me he dies next season.
Curtis Holt (aka the future Mr Terrific) is a nice new addition, and strikes up a cute rapport with Felicity. Roy also comes back for a brief visit, reminding me of how much I enjoyed the Oliver/Roy dynamic, how briefly it existed on the show, and how much I miss it now Colton Haynes is gone.
It's also fun seeing Matt Ryan as Constantine again, with his appearance managing to be both random and ingenious. It's a great opportunity for Ryan to return to a character he clearly loves, and he was as good a character as any to introduce the concept of magic to the proceedings. That said, I have no idea if we're now supposed to consider the events of Constantine as canon to the Arrowverse.
Willa Holland is so tiny that it's difficult to take some of her fight scenes seriously. I suppose I could fanwank that the Lazarus Pit has given her preternatural strength, but I really wish the fight coordinator had focused on agility rather than force.
The Olicity stuff (even the word is starting to make me twitch) is tedious, and a perfect example not only of how writers should never listen to the demands of the vocal minority, but how viewers should be careful what they wish for. They hook up, and it's awful.
Oh, and I also think Amanda Waller dies. I must have glanced away for a second and missed it, but I definitely heard Felicity making a snarky comment about it.
Lost in Space (2018)
Everything is being rebooted or remade these days, though I can understand why Netflix would want another shot at the 1960's cult classic Lost in Space. There's a lot of potential to be mined in its premise, and even the title itself: "lost in space" is genius – that's an endless array of story possibilities in just three little words.
I only have vague memories of watching reruns of the original show as a kid, and I'm ashamed to admit that it's taken me this long to realize the Robinson family are based off The Swiss Family Robinson, with the two eldest boys switched out for girls, and space taking the place of a deserted island. (Oh, and a talking robot and homicidal doctor). The whole thing also caught me by surprise given its lack of promotion. I usually hear about these types of projects well in advance, but it felt like it was only a few days between realizing a remake existed, seeing the trailer for the first time, and the entire series being dropped on Netflix.
I was surprised at the lukewarm reception on Previously.TV, where I do most of my on-line discussion, as I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. There are some great actors here (particularly Toby Stephens, coming straight from Black Sails to a brand new kind of ship and an American accent), extremely high production values (this solidified my realization that there is really no visual difference between a high-budget television show and film these days), and some great story-beats (in the first episode, John Robinson is forced to leave Will alone in a vulnerable situation so he can go save Judy from certain death).
Granted, most of the science is completely ludicrous, but it makes a nice change that problems are solved by the family pooling their collective intelligence and thinking their way out of trouble, and though a gun is introduced early on, it's met with thinly-veiled horror and causes nothing but chaos.
Though the sixties version never did anything particularly interesting with Judy and Penny, we can at least be grateful that they were gender-flipped from Fritz and Ernst in the first place, as a 2018 remake obviously has no qualms about putting two girls in the middle of the action; not to mention a much meatier role for Maureen Robinson and (of course) another Gender Flip in the form of Parker Posey as Doctor Smith.
Unfortunately, both of these women fall under fandom's ever-frustrating mentality of: "you all want complex and flawed female characters until you actually GET them." It was with increasing weariness that I watched Maureen dismissed as a bitch and Doctor Smith as annoying, when the two of them are easily the show's best characters, and whose relationship with each other forms the crux of the final few episodes. Seriously, it's amazing. It's a full-on battle of wits between these two women while the show's alpha-males float helplessly in space.
What makes it especially frustrating is that the writing itself doesn't do Maureen any favours early on. I have no problem with the Robinsons' marriage being on the rocks, and I actually enjoyed watching the couple find their way back to each other over the course of the season. But the show never fully explains WHY John Robinson decided to walk out on his family (which caused the marriage to break apart) in the first place, especially when he seems utterly devoted to them throughout these episodes. This means that Maureen's anger towards him feels baseless instead of justified, and John ends up being so contrite and so heroic and so undemanding that she's cast into the role of shrew. Even though she isn't one.
What makes it especially galling is that John is often depicted as being more "in touch" with the emotional and psychological needs of his children, even though he was absent for a good chunk of their lives. So commentators could also call Maureen a bad mother on top of everything else, and let's face it – there is no crime a male character can commit that will ever be considered half as heinous as a woman being a bad mother.
As for Doctor Smith (actually June Harris, a con-artist who stowed away on board the ship) I can understand why opinion would be divisive, but I still think the criticism was a bit over-the-top. Does she overplay her part? I don't think so, especially when her sixties' counterpart is the absolute pinnacle of hammy acting: she's was clearly trying to pay tribute to Jonathan Harris's performance while putting her own spin on things.
Sure, she comes across as Obviously Evil at times, but the Robinsons catch on reasonably quickly, and there's a certain tragedy about the character as written and performed: this is a grifter who just can't stop spinning. I believe Smith when she insists she doesn't want to hurt anybody (while at the same time acknowledging that her self-serving nature means she does hurt people) and her warped mentality makes its own kind of twisted sense: after running for so long, she desperately wants the protection of something loyal and powerful so she can just be herself. Her awful self.
The kids are better than expected, with great sibling chemistry and nice little character arcs of their own (though I wish that Penny – easily the most humorous of the three – had a bit more to do) and there's a great twist on the robot's origins that doesn't require the sacrifice of That Iconic Line. Oh, and Don West is here, straddling the line between endearing and aggravating, but eventually managing to be more of the former than the latter.
(That said, I'd be incredibly surprised if they went ahead with a Judy/Don hook-up – the age difference alone is questionable, but the relationship itself is of the tedious bickering kind, complete with him calling her "princess." Despite the profusion of this dynamic in fiction, only a few couples in history have managed to pull it off – and these two won't be one of them).
Okay, there's one more thing I have to complain about, and the more I think about it, the more it bugs me. As it happens, Judy is mixed-race, the result of Maureen's first marriage with a guy who goes completely unnamed, unseen and unmentioned. Which would be fine, until you realize that the casting for Judy was almost certainly based on the show's desire to have a POC among the main cast – which again, would be fine... until you consider that a much easier option would have been to cast a black actor as either John or Maureen. Which they were clearly not prepared to do.
It's feels like the showrunners wanted to tick a box instead of going ahead with the more obvious and simpler solution: a mixed-race marriage with three mixed-race children. As it is, Judy feels like a frustrating "baby step" – like the show is saying "we'll do this much, but no more," or "we want to get credit for having a mixed-race character, but there's a limit to how many we're prepared to have in the main cast, so we gotta come up with this unnecessarily convoluted family dynamic to justify it."
Maybe I'm overreacting ... but it just rankled. Because of course, unless they establish that Judy's father is deceased, there's the unfortunate implication that her black father ditched his wife and daughter (which bizarrely enough is never brought up as a reason as to why Maureen might have acted so vehemently towards John when he does the exact same thing – which again suggests that the writers have constructed this family unit for Doylist reasons, and subsequently without any real interest in exploring it within the story itself).
Forces of Destiny (2018)
So I thought all of this year's Forces of Destiny episodes had been released, and then... they drop another load of six. And then they add another to coincide with the release of Solo, which showcases Emilia Clarke's character Qi'Ra. Since it'll be a while before I get around to watching the that movie, her introduction here will have to do for now.
But there are some interesting little tidbits this time around, particularly a) animating a deleted scene from The Force Awakens in which Finn and Rey race to Starkiller Base and learn to play to each other's strengths, and b) the reintroduction of Princess Kneesaa from the old Ewok cartoon back in the eighties. My jaw actually dropped when she turned up.