Saturday, June 12, 2021

Review: Shadow and Bone: Season 1

The Netflix adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone was a viewing event. I’d read all the available books (excepting Rule of Wolves) and put the release date on my calendar, opting to travel to my friend’s house and watch the whole thing across a single weekend (four episodes per night) on his big screen television. I took this seriously!

I’d consider myself a fan of the book series (currently made up of one trilogy and two duologies, plus a smattering of short stories) for their dark fairy tale ambience and moral complexity, especially in Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom. Leigh Bardugo is a writer who knows her audience, what with her mastery of witty banter, traumatic backstories and shipping tropes, and yet she avoids certain pitfalls of other popular YA writers. There is little in the way of wish fulfilment here, and it’s replaced with a genuine sense of weight when it comes to her subject matter.

The whole thing was ripe for a streaming adaptation, and I sincerely hope that we’ll get the chance to see the entire saga play out, despite the “changing of the guard” when it comes to the protagonists: from Alina to the six Crows to Zoya and Prince Nikolai (not even introduced in the series yet) across the three sets of stories.

We’re off to a good start, with a first season that’s far from perfect, but which has a decent budget, an engaging premise, and spot-on casting. Seriously, everyone looks and behaves exactly like their book counterparts – even when some creative liberties have been taken. Alina and Mal were white in the books, and are here played by bi-racial actors, yet they embody their characters so perfectly I won’t be able to picture anyone but Jessie Mei Li and Archie Renaux in the roles from now on.

This rather negative (but fair) review points out that you can tell the show is YA by the way the material focuses on relationships over world-building, with romantic complications and love triangles taking precedence over what could have potentially been a genuinely fascinating political setup. I’ll delve more into that later, but watching the show and being aware of its target audience had the unexpected side-effect of making me feel old for the first time in my life.

Which is ridiculous since I’m still younger than Ben Barnes – and yet when I last skyped my sister and mentioned watching it, she (totally unprompted) said: “it made me realize I’m not a teenager anymore.” So it obviously had the same effect on other people too!

Even the show itself seems oddly self-conscious about the fact only one significant cast member is over the age of forty-five, to the point where a joke is made in which Jesper has to impersonate someone significantly older than him, and is indignant that anyone could think he would pass for that age – only for a snide official to tell him: “I thought you were older.”

The joke falls completely flat, since... my God, they’re CLEARLY all children! And to add another layer of irony on top of that, these actors are STILL at least a DECADE older than the characters they play in the books! Matthias is meant to be the only legal adult at eighteen!

So, if you plan on recommending this to co-workers or friends, do as I did and add the disclaimer that it’s the most YA thing they’ll ever see and may induce a premature mid-life-crisis.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Woman of the Month: Inej Ghafa

Inej Ghafa from Shadow and Bone

Having enjoyed Leigh Bardugo’s “Grishaverse” books (man I hate that term though) I knew I was going to have a good time with the Netflix adaptation of her first book, Shadow and Bone. What was most fascinating to me was the choices made by showrunner Eric Heisserer, who insisted that he be allowed to bring several characters into the story that aren’t actually present in the trilogy – rather, they’re the main characters of the sequel duology Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom.

It’s easy to understand why this was a condition of his employment: the duology is a much more complex and polished work of fiction, and the characters less drawn from the typical YA mould (plucky heroine, broody villain, childhood best friend).

Among these characters is Inej Ghafa, who is safe to say, the fandom darling. And let’s be brutally honest here guys – it’s very rare that a brown girl ever becomes the undisputed favourite in fandom. Usually it’s difficult enough for female characters period to become so popular, yet Inej seems to be one of those rare “golden” characters that are universally beloved.

I recall actress Amita Suman saying in an interview that she was excited about playing Inej because the character was written as non-white (in the Grishaverse, her race is known as Suli) as opposed someone who was race-lifted to increase the diversity quota*, and was therefore a character who belonged to her entirely.

I get that, and Inej is certainly a gift to any actress, not only in getting to do loads of cool stuff (acrobatics, knife-throwing, stunt-work) but in the darkness of the backstory she’s given, and the way in which her every word, action and decision is a journey away from the trauma it has inflicted on her. In many ways she reminds me of Max from Black Sails; another young woman who has endured sexual violence, but who makes a clear and determined decision – over and over again – that she will not let it change her inherent goodness.

But as it happens, the show (like the book) is very lightweight when it comes to depicting the full extent of Inej’s suffering. I watched this show with a friend who had no foreknowledge of the books, and he didn’t pick up the fact she was captured as a slave, separated from her family, and made into an indentured sex worker. On the one hand, I can understand why the show (and Bardugo herself) wouldn’t want to delve too deeply into the horrors of this; on the other... well, like I said – it’s left extremely unclear just what the Menagerie is and why Inej is so desperate to escape it.

But Amita Suman carries the trauma of Inej’s time there in everything she says and does. She’s always controlled and contained, but there’s so much sadness in her eyes and the expressions on her face. I honestly think she put in the best performance, all the more so because it wasn’t as showy as her main screen partners, Freddy Carter and Kit Young, which meant she was putting more work in.

And Heisserer even finds the space to weave in a clear arc for her to follow: namely that her religious conviction makes her hesitant about kidnapping someone she believes is a living saint, and that she must to confront her reluctance to kill when the people she cares about are on the line.

They’re both unique to the show, and therefore not perfectly integrated with the rest of the plot, but it provides her with a thoroughfare that can be picked up on later down the track (just as they seeded Jesper’s gambling problems and explored Kaz’s proclivity as a flawed genius who will one day concoct the Ice Court heist – he succeeded here largely through luck, but you can tell he’s learning as he goes).

The best part is that, having read the books, there’s some fantastic material ahead of her. Let’s just hope they make it that far.

* This is not a dig at Jessie Mei Li and the choice to make Alina half-Shu. They did some interesting things with that casting decision and how it affected her character, but at the same time I can understand why Amina Suman would make these comments about how Inej is portrayed in the book itself.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Reading/Watching Log #65

The last week of May 2021, will go down as a famous one in my family history: it was the week my sister had her first child, and I bought my first house.

Yes, two of the most stressful things that can happen in a person’s lifetime happened to my family in the space of a single week, though I think my parents got the worst of it since: a. I wasn’t told about some of the complications during the birth until after they had happened, and b. my sister had no idea I was trying to buy a house until it was all confirmed.

In any case, I’m now auntie to a little boy called Finn, and I’m now at the start of the acquisition process of owning my first house – which is very small, and definitely a fixer-upper... but it's MINE.

So there isn’t a lot of reading material under the cut: whenever I’ve had a spare few minutes I’ve only ever had the energy to blob on the couch, though the theme for this month was Victoriana horror... more or less. What a week.

Also, you won’t find the first season of Shadow and Bone under the cut – my thoughts got so long that I’m going to put it in its own post.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Review: The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers

I’ve been meaning to do a post on animation studio Cartoon Saloon for a while now, as their films are truly some of my absolute favourites – yet still woefully undiscovered by mainstream audiences. It drives me nuts that Pixar takes home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature every year, when Cartoon Saloon’s offerings are substantially and undeniably superior (somehow Big Hero 6 won out over Song of the Sea in 2014, and that Soul beat Wolfwalkers this year is just absurd).

The studio is based in Kilkenny, Ireland, and has managed to remain independent despite several offers to buy it out since 2009, which mercifully means their distinctive style and hand-drawn artistry remains untampered with. As of this post, they’ve released four feature films, seven short films, and worked on five television series, all of which have been wonderful. (If you haven’t seen Puffin Rock on Netflix yet, then what are you waiting for? It’s adorable).

I could have discussed The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea years ago, but knowing that writer/director Tomm Moore was always planning to release a third film called Wolfwalkers to complete what’s unofficially known as his “Irish triptych,” I’ve been holding off in order to comment on all of them together.

The three films are referred to as a triptych rather than a trilogy because they aren’t related to each other in regards to story; they’re not prequels or sequels to each other. But they all speak the same cinematic language, and are all of one artistic vision. The human figures have distinctly round heads and bodies, and exist within deeply stylized settings with recurring patterns and motifs: for example, circles denote safety and beauty, angles suggest danger and strife.

Each film is set in Ireland. All draw heavily from the mythology and folklore of that land. Each one features two children as its protagonists, one from the ordinary world and one more supernatural in origin, as well as a stern father figure who isn’t really so bad. All have reconnection and reconciliation between two people (and by extension, two belief systems) as a central theme.

This is largely captured in the presence of both Christianity and paganism in each of the films, not necessarily in conflict with one another, but existing side-by-side – in practice, in symbolism, and in the way each one influences and illuminates the storylines.

All are directed by Tomm Moore, all are rendered in beautiful hand-drawn animation, and each one is extremely uplifting, thought-provoking and visually stunning. Like all good fairy tales, they touch on ancient truths and rhythms, but contain a freshness and originality that set them apart from anything you’ve seen before.

Oh, and though they can be watched in any order, the latter two films contain little Easter eggs that reference their predecessors (Aisling can be spotted on the bus in Song of the Sea, and Mebh casually pulls the Eye of Crom out of Robyn’s bag in Wolfwalkers).

SPOILERS BELOW

Friday, May 7, 2021

Links and Updates

I haven’t done one of these in a while, so there’s a good chance I’ll have missed out on some good stuff...

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Woman of the Month: Contessina de' Medici

Contessina de' Medici from Medici

When I finally settled down to watch all three seasons of Medici, I was hoping that at least one of the female characters would prove interesting enough to justify one of these monthly posts. And thankfully there was: Contessina de’ Bardi, who becomes the matriarch of the powerful de’ Medici family through her marriage to its eldest son Cosimo.

Female characters in period dramas always interest me: how they’re depicted, what their storylines involve, and how they negotiate the restrictive standards of the time. There’s often a self-consciousness (especially in male writers) about how modern expectations might influence how audiences perceive these women. Does anyone really want to watch a perfectly submissive doormat who acquiesces completely to her father and then her husband?

Should these women anachronistically rail against the patriarchal injustices surrounding them? Should they quietly accept them? Should they push back in subtle or overt ways? Should they be self-aware about the obstacles they face? How much agency and power should they command?

As much as I enjoyed watching Contessina ride her horse into the Signoria to speak in her husband’s defense, it’s obviously not something that a woman of her standing in that period would have ever gotten away with. But it’s also really cool, so it feels counterproductive to complain about it. Where do we draw the line between respecting the role women played in the distant past, and allowing them the autonomy to be active participants in the modern stories we’re actually watching?

It’s a tricky balance, but I feel that Contessina achieved it more effectively than any of the other featured female characters. Lucrezia is a valued wife and mother, Clarice is the conscience and helpmate of her husband, the likes of Caterina Sforza and Ippolita Sforza are allowed a certain degree of political acumen, but Contessina is easily the most self-possessed and authoritative.

Where other women are soft and feminine, she’s hard and intellectual. Her Character Establishing Moment involves her confronting two desperate men trying to break into her home to steal gold; she coolly informs them that money is only to be found at the mint (after removing her valuable earrings, of course). Even as she’s strong-armed into marriage by her father, she tries to meet the situation on her own terms, clinging to her sense of dignity with all her strength.

There is plenty of bittersweetness to her life story: she was romantically attached to another man before her father arranges her wedding to Cosimo, and at one point she says that her husband didn’t really warm up to her until after she gave birth to a son (makes you wonder what would have happened had she had a girl). She grits her teeth and endures the indignity of Cosimo bringing his mistress into her home, though struggles more with the unfairness of him blaming her for saving his life when he had already resigned himself to a martyr’s death.

She definitely gives Cosimo more chances than he deserves, but then – what choice does she have? None but to embrace the role of devoted wife/mother that society has assigned to her, even though you can tell it doesn’t fit her particularly well. But she’s nothing if not self-aware, clearly articulating what’s expected of her, how she can achieve it, and demanding respect for her loyalty and duty.

Men in period dramas have a way of ignoring the sacrifices that their women are making, and though Cosimo finally gets something resembling a clue as to how amazing and valuable his wife is, most of Contessina’s pain and suffering remains private – as would have been the case with essentially every single woman throughout history. She may not get the respect she deserves from the people around her, but she definitely does from the audience.

Reading/Watching Log #64

This month involved a concentrated effort to watch a selection of shows and films that were (somewhat) connected through either theme or content, which meant that I got through a lot of stuff. Generally speaking it involved puppetry, the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the trio of animated Cartoon Saloon films.

That said, I’m going to hold off talking about The Secret of KellsSong of the Sea and Wolfwalkers until next month, so I can do a proper post on them. (For now – just watch them!)

I also made a miniscule dent in my TBR pile, so a few books can be taken from the pile on the floor and put into an actual bookshelf. Hey, it’s a start!