Sunday, June 19, 2016

In Which I Review Finding Dory

Sequels are always a particularly hard creature with which to tangle. The first and original iteration of a franchise is obviously so beloved that it warrants another go around; but how exactly should a writer and director approach this new undiscovered work--should it follow in the footsteps of its predecessor, reminding the audience why it fell in love with the first showing, or should it branch off completely and find its own voice and un-trodden path?I was a junior in high school when Finding Nemo came out and, in spite of being well above the target demographic, I thought it was one of the best, freshest, and emotionally gut punching animated films I'd ever seen. The story--a basic one about a father searching for his lost child--was full of deep oceanic wonder, quirky secondary characters, and as much heart as the sea is deep. It became an instant classic and, easily, the most famous aspect of the movie was everyone's favorite blue tang, Dory. Voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, the forgetful fish packed one hell of a wallop and managed to imprint herself on our hearts somewhere between teaching us all to just keep swimming and speaking whale. So, in other words, it came as little to no surprise that Disney/Pixar trotted out a sequel staring Dory in the aptly named "Finding Dory." A secondary outing of the characters probably wasn't necessary but it doesn't mean that it wasn't welcome. Grab your favorite Dory plushie (you know you have one) and let's go!


General Thoughts

Whether or not Pixar suspected the sort of cultural collateral they were about to establish with Dory when she crashed into "Finding Nemo" we'll never know, but the little blue tang was always supposed to be a sidekick and comic relief. Her tendency to forget everything she knows in the blink of a fish eye and her propensity for hilarious one liners and endearing catchphrases made her ridiculously lovable. However, in terms of character, Dory is (understandably) a blank slate. Presented in the first twenty minutes of "Finding Nemo," Dory has no ties to the main family of clown-fish Marlin and his erstwhile son, Nemo. None, that is, except those that she establishes as the film progresses. Dory becomes one of the family as she helps Marlin along his Odyssey-like journey to find his fishy son, but her character history is a broad one and stays as such all through the first flick, and that's to the movie's credit, to be fair. Dory is not the lead in "Finding Nemo;" she need not be fleshed out and given a backstory to give her any sort of pathos (which she inexplicably has in spades even without any sort of history to ground her character). While the title "Finding Nemo" is a literal one--Marlin literally goes on a journey to literally find his son--"Finding Dory" takes a different approach. Dory does not need to be literally found; she's not lost in the traditional sense. She has a home and a family, albeit one of her own making, having taken up with Marlin and Nemo in their coral reef home at the end of the first movie. Dory is lost in a more metaphorical sense--she has no concept of who she is or where she came from. Dory's family is lost to her, along with her home and any sort of memories she may have once had about those two life defining things. While Marlin and Nemo provide her with a sense of belonging, all fish (and, really, everyone) need to know from whence they came, otherwise how can we really know who we are as a person? In this sense, "Finding Dory" is actually deeper than "Finding Nemo," though both touch on the same themes of loss and family. While Nemo centers on Marlin letting go of his son and learning to survive when bad things happen to his family, Dory focuses on the identities we build through our experiences with families---families that we define and create with all manner of peoples, be they of blood relation or not. While the adults in the room might get that message more than the little kids in the audience, it's never too early to start teaching said children the importance of communities and accepting those that are different than we are. We're all just fish in the ocean, looking for a place to belong. Disney/Pixar, it's not just about singing princesses anymore.

The major through-line for the entire film is Dory trying to find her biological family but at the same time comes to understand that her family is more extensive than just mom, Jenny, and dad, Charlie. Dory's family includes not only Marlin and Nemo, the two fish she discovers she misses just as much as her mom and dad, but all the characters that flicker in and out of her rather extraordinary life. This includes Destiny the nearsighted whale, Bailey the Beluga whale who has lost his ability to echolocate, and Hank the surly, cranky but tender septopus (he lost a tentacle), all of whom try to help Dory find her family, both of the blue tang and orange clown variety. Dory's emotional journey matches her outward journey of setting out to find her home only to discover that she has always had part of it with her once she found Marlin and Nemo. This, more than any of the other emotional beats in the movie, is what will get audiences to reach for their Kleenexes. Lovers of "Finding Nemo" will already recognize that Dory has a family and a home with the two clown fish in their anemone, but it's watching Dory come to the same understanding about just how big her family really is that plucks at the heartstrings. It helps that Marlin (and Nemo to a lesser extent) are fully fleshed out characters with a ton of history that we already know; we understand how much Marlin loves Dory, even if he's loathe to admit it and still finds himself exasperated with her at times. We know how strongly the ties between all three of them are and it's watching the three of them piece it together for themselves that will cause the waterworks. While this emotional journey is undergoing, there are, naturally, quirky characters, funny moments, and gorgeous CGI. It's exactly what you'd expect from a visit to the deep blue with these well loved characters. Somehow, everything feels familiar; Marlin is a worrywart and tends to snap when he's upset; Nemo's heart is the size of an ocean and loves unconditionally; Dory still manages to somehow pull off zany plans that make no sense except that she simply believes they'll work. There are shout-outs to the best moments of "Finding Nemo," tiny moments that let the audience chuckle at an inside joke. It's a thoroughly enjoyable film that swims down familiar territory while trying something new (and deeper) on for size.

What I Liked/What I Did Not Like

--I'm going to put likes and dislikes together because there are far more of one (likes) than the other (dislikes) as has probably become apparent with the above general review.

--While the new characters in "Finding Dory" aren't as memorable as the side characters in "Finding Nemo," they are still very enjoyable, if lacking in any sort of shading. Part of this is because of setting. The main action of the film takes place in an aquatic hospital and while that's a very intriguing idea, the film doesn't exactly go to any trouble or length to explain how many of those creatures ended up there. Yes, Destiny is near sighted but she's clearly grown up in the aquarium. Yes, Bailey has "hit his head" and lost his ability to perform echolocation and yes, Hank has lost a tentacle and is traumatized by the thought of the ocean but we don't get any indication as to how these issues surfaced, how they were noticed, and how the animals in question feel about these handicaps outside of sometimes melancholy but fully functional. It's an animated film that centers on three characters predominately, so I wasn't expecting a fleshed out story for each side fish (erm, whale and cephalopod) but it's worth noting that the film series has a tendency to give their side characters a certain trait that is clearly manifested (short term memory loss, nearsightedness, crazy as a loon, missing a limb,) without explaining it further. It's most disquieting in Gerald, a sealion that is drawn with wide, vacant eyes and give no dialogue as if he's mute and dumb and is simply played for laughs. While the movie is all about celebrating the differences in people, this one gave me pause, though I will be forgiving given how adorable Gerald is.

--With that said, if Dory stole the first film, then Hank steals the second. It's nice to know that Dory meets grumpy, cautious, orange sea creatures wherever she goes.

--No scene made me cry harder than the ending of the opening "flashback" when Dory literally runs into a frantic Marlin after swimming the length and breadth of the ocean looking for her family. Yes, it's the actual "Finding Nemo" scene but the major theme of the movie series is perfectly captured here: Dory needs Marlin and much as Marlin needs Dory. Families are built through love and trials as well as blood.

--Lots of callbacks to "Finding Nemo," including the return of several favorite characters like Mr. Ray and Dude Crush, the hippie surfer turtle. I do wish they had Bruce make a special appearance. Inquiring minds need to know if he's still living by his mantra that fish are friends, not food.

--The animation continues to be breathtaking, though in this case we aren't marveling at the deep ocean but the almost dingy water of an aquarium. There's an unspoken meta commentary about ocean pollution that does not go unnoticed.

--There were a few too many fast paced action sequences of getting one fish (either Dory or Marlin/Nemo) to another place but that's to be expected when you have to fill in some time.

--"Follow me!" "...you're in a cup." "Okay, I'll follow you."

--I have no idea what kind of bird Becky is (though, I suspect loon), but she's fabulous and if there's a third movie, I hope she's there to carry Marlin around in a bucket.

--Seriously, I'd like to have a stuffed Gerald, please and thank you. I'll give him his own rock.

--Baby Dory is the cutest fish to ever exist.

--Sequels have an annoying tendency to take little quirks from the first film and explain them in a way that fits into the larger mythos of a story. Finding Dory does this but doesn't try to make them salient plot points that hint at something larger. For example, in the first film the most famous scene is probably Dory speaking whale while Marlin looks on in horror. That quirk of Dory's is explained in the second film. But instead of it being something that is important to the entire franchise, it's simply because she grew up next to a whale. Props to the writers for not making this multi-lingual ability something mega important but simply a fact of Dory's multicultural life.

--The animated short "Piper" that opened the film is equally cute if a little schmaltzy.

--There is an adorable post-credits scene that is worth sticking around for!

Final Rating: A-

Grab the family, grab the Kleenexes and go back home to the big blue one more time.

Monday, May 16, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x22 and 5x23)

Remember back in season two when young, still-baby-faced Henry decided to blow up magic by throwing some dynamite down a well? It was a stupid plan then because it neglected to take into account all the good magic has done for the residents of Storybrooke and Henry, in his own naivete, didn't realize that magic is more a neutral universal force being wielded by flawed individuals for good and bad reasons. At the time, I rationalized it with Henry's age, his trauma from watching his mothers battle each other, and a rather sweet desire to fix his family by removing what he (at the tender age of 11) thought was the problem. What does it say about the emotional growth of characters on this show that two years later, at the age of 13 (maybe even 14), Henry still has the same impulse: bad things happen to his family and instead of calling members of his family out on their life choices, their actions, and their own shaping of the world, he blames magic and sets out to destroy it? It's season five finale time and in the two hour special, "Only You" and "An Untold Story," and, like Henry, we appear to be repeating a lot of the past. Like so many arcs of stories gone by, this science vs magic one (complete with scientist Jekyll and mad-magic-man Hyde) has potential because in many ways it's being cast as dark (science and magic) vs light (magic and science). A lot of science fiction deals with that almost invisible line between science and magic and how cultures put binary restrictions on those two. It's not exactly new for the show to examine the different personas of the characters and have them fight their inner demons but something about this upcoming arc does feel fresh--maybe it's because for the first time it won't be an internal struggle. That of course could fall flat on its face once its fully realized episode by episode.  But who knows. Maybe I'm wrong and season six will be the one that won't fall to pieces before the end. Grab a black cup and red serum and let's go! 


Suffer Me To Go My Own Dark Way

The above epigram is from "Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson and, if I'm being perfectly fair, the small novella is actually a perfect launching point for the sixth season of our fairy tale show. After all, it is also "Jekyll and Hyde" where "all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil..." is written. Is that not exactly how OUAT has defined all their multi-layered characters in the past few years? The villains are sympathetic and redeemable while the heroes can be selfish, myopic, condescending and, when you least expect it, they snatch a baby from its mother and fill it up with darkness! The point, though, is that darkness and light exist in all the characters, as if they are actually two separate individuals. Of course, they aren't and that's rather important to the Jekyll and Hyde novella. Jekyll and Hyde are not two people; they are different aspects of one person and when you defeat one, you defeat the other. Identity is such that you cannot squash or destroy one aspect of yourself. It's always there, lurking under the surface, be it a kindly angel telling you to behave or a mischievous devil wanting your id to take over. Regina got it right in the first hour when she tells Emma, "I'll never be at peace with myself." Coming to terms with all parts of your identity--be they Evil Queen, Dark One, Mother, Pirate, Hero, Princess, Bandit, Farmer, and/or Knight--is supposed to take work and hardship. It's supposed to be incredibly difficult and to be perfectly blunt, it may never happen. There may always be a war within you. For some, it's easier to give in to one aspect than to put in the effort it takes to lessen the darker tendencies of man. Think about Dr. Jekyll in the novella; he truly struggles with his darker half; it's a psychological thriller about the depravity of man when it's unleashed. So much of these two finales are about the two original villains of OUAT--Rumple and Regina--accepting or fighting with their other identity. Can Rumple be more than the Dark One obsessed with power? Can Regina ever truly be free of the Evil Queen? All of this, naturally, is paralleled with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and what appears to be a rather complicated but modestly respectable relationship (at least, while they are joined together). For Regina, the answer to her problem of the internal identity war is to destroy that one aspect of herself that keeps her up at night. This bothers me quite a bit, if I'm being honest. Regina, more than anyone, has had a pretty decent redemption arc. While the show may not be concerned with justice (ie: caring enough about the victims to allow them any peace), it has made Regina suffer time and time again and had her pay for some (not all) of her crimes. In this regard, Regina's character development has been one of the better stories on the show. It's been a five season long struggle, flitting back and forth between the Evil Queen with the ready-made fire balls and Regina, the lost and lonely little stable girl. The idea that all Regina needs to be really free of her evil self is a magical potion that allows her to kill the Evil Queen persona (literally) isn't really keeping with any of the above themes I've mentioned nor with her character arc thus far. Regina's worked for her redemption; unlike Rumple she didn't need a magical hat-suck to rid herself of the darkness; it was a part of her but controlled, Regina having learned her lessons and fought her instincts anytime they threatened to overtake her (like when Hook magically comes back from the dead but Robin doesn't). This magical serum is a cheat not only because it doesn't keep in line with the original source material (it is actually rather antithetical to it) but because it shortchanges all that Regina has accomplished over the years. Suddenly, she got a magical fix to her problems that really only creates more ills than it solves, undoubtedly, with the Evil Queen coming to play and make mischief inside Storybrooke. Regina might feel free without the Evil Queen persona, but she needs to learn that the Evil Queen is always a part of her, and that she needs that fierce strength and determination but in more moderation than the Evil Queen would like.

While Regina might be trying to reject or destroy her own inner demons (er, inner demon in one helluva dress) Rumple is gleefully accepting his own darkness admitting, not for the first time this season, that he likes the darkness and it's as much a part of him as the light. In a way, this is keeping more with the Jekyll and Hyde manifesto. Do you know why people do bad things? Because it usually feels pretty good, either in the moment or even for long term. Why do alcoholics or drug addicts keep using? It feels good, it gives them a rush, it helps them feel more at peace, more connected, more at ease. We call it indulgence for a reason. This isn't meant as an excuse for mankind's less that savory aspects but behind every bad deed lurks some sort of good feelings (why do you think the moniker crimes of passion exists?). Bullies, after all, aren't miserable being bullies. They tend to relish it. Rumple likes doing bad things; he enjoys the control and the feelings of control that power gives him. For a man who was so poor, so downtrodden, that he didn't even have control over the life of his son or his own life, the power the darkness gives him helps him achieve that which was always out of grasp when he was simply a humble spinner. He can control his own life, his own destiny and because he became so consumed with that control, he started controlling other people's destiny as well (just look at Rumple in season one). I suppose if Rumple wants to let his inner dark flag fly, then that's his business (I don't have to like him for it) but there is one problem that he himself raises. He hides his little pockets of light in other people, first in Bae and then in Belle. Those two are his light, what keeps him from going so fully over the edge as to be totally consumed by the darkness. For centuries, Rumple's sole focus was Baelfire, a love for his son so passionate that it blocked out everything else. Bae was his light and he fought for it. Now that our dear Nealfire is gone, Rumple's light has been placed in Belle (hence his sadness earlier this arc that Belle learned the hard way that sometimes...darkness does win). One of Rumple's most famous lines about Belle is that she was a "brief flicker of light amidst an ocean of darkness." Placing all your goodness in others is problematic because people are fickle, cruel and y'know...die. Much like with Hook placing all his hopes for a happily ever after and redemption in Emma, Rumple needs to be good for the sake of goodness, not hope to find redemption in others because as it stands, Rumple has lost both of his sources of light. Baelfire is dead and Belle is lost to a land of Untold Stories (huh, that's kind of ironic isn't it? A character who gets no screen time and little development is now banished to a land of Untold Stories). Perhaps Rumple's quest to find the Belle-Box will help him find his own inner light? Perhaps it's not too late for him to break his own darkness or at least use it for good, especially with a magical serum floating around that can have Dark One Rumple confront Spinner Hero Rumple? Wouldn't that, more than anything, cause Rumple to change his tune? I say these things but then I remember that when push came to shove, Rumple chose to save the shard of plastic filled with magic over the Belle-Box.

Welcome To A New Land! Here You'll Find Plots For Season Six And Beyond! 

There exists, we are told, a Land of Untold Stories, a safe haven where all the lost and forgotten stories can find refugee. First off, does this mean that the people living there are aware that they are story characters? Because why else name your little corner of the world a land of untold stories if you're not aware of your own fictionhood. Do they think/know they are considered fictional in other realms? How does that mess with identity? Think about it--you know that you're considered fictional in other corners of the universe and that your story is unfinished or forgotten. Wouldn't it make you wonder about what your end is? Do you get to decide your own end? Does this new found agency make you non-fiction? See, this is almost smart of the writers (almost because I'm not sure if they intended these very meta questions). In a way, the writers are assuaging any doubt that the show has run out of steam. Nope, they say, look at all these random characters gathered in one realm. We're gonna tell their stories now; maybe we've used up most of the famous Disney-cache but we've still got more tricks up our sleeves! Aren't you just dying to hear all about these untold stories? See; they got me there cause I totally answered "yeah!" I'm actually really intrigued how these stories/characters are unfinished or undeveloped. What happened to them? Are they all part of the forgotten novels left on people's desks, abandoned because the writers couldn't make their plot bunnies work? Are they legends or myths? Are they Western stories or might we hope for other cultures? Are they fairy tales or science fiction (cause so much of the makeup of that world looked pretty Jules Verne meets H.G. Wells). Do they get to decide their own fate or do they need a Savior/Author team-up to finish their stories (which I'd be totally down for since the past season was way too lite in terms of Emma and Henry working together). I wonder if Cthulhu lives in the oceans around the Land of Untold Stories. Right now this land is pretty intangible because it's fresh and new and not even remotely like any fictional universe we've seen before--Wonderland, Neverland, the Underworld, and Arrendale were all familiar through our experiences with their original source material. What isn't so intangible, though, are Jekyll and Hyde; not unexpectedly, Hyde seems better fleshed out and developed and more likely to receive the bulk of the narrative next season. Here's a query: if Hyde brought all the forgotten stories to Storybrooke to get their happy endings, does that make him a hero? Is he writing his own story to cast himself as a hero? Is season six about him helping the Untold Stories complete their stories, even if the heroes are trying to stop his wicked ways? I know I'm asking a lot of questions, but that's how season finales are designed--to entice you into watching next season. Well, I'm a sucker because I'm here to stay. See everyone in September!

Miscellaneous Notes on Only You and An Untold Story

--"When you're upset, we follow you to Hell!" Regina slayed so much of this episode, especially her anger toward the unfair resurrection of Hook while Robin remains 6 feet under.

--How did all those OUAT book get into the library? That's actually a fascinating idea and I hope we explore that next year.

--Really Henry? Operation Mixtape?

--Regina doesn’t say goodbye to Roland. Mmkay. But Zelena, who raped Roland’s father and who pretended to be his mother, gets to. I repeat…Mmmkay.

--Neal, the guy with no unfinished business, had an unfinished quest to destroy magic and kept it all in a journal. And never mentioned it. Ever. Mmkay.

--“To be clear, I was fine running”

--Really great to see the Dragon again; continuity many years after the fact.

--Using the power of a wish to bring your family back invokes a certain Disney song: “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires can come to you….” That’s powerful. It’s one of the most powerful messages in the Disney-verse. I actually kinda teared up a bit thinking about this. Along with this, Henry encouraging everyone to believe using the idea of nostalgia, the idea that when we were younger and less jaded we were capable of belief the likes of which can change the rules of the world. Isn’t that what drew so many of us to OUAT in the first place? That nostalgia for our childhood stories, for a time when we believed in the possibility of magic and hope and happy endings? I don’t get sentimental about this show a lot (not anymore) but that’s powerful stuff.

--Violet’s dad is a Yankee from Connecticut who found himself in Camelot. That’s hilarious.

--Henry destroyed magic in 5 seconds flat. Like he literally held up a cup for five-ten seconds and POOF. ALL of magic is gone. LOL Okay. (Also, Ghostbusters much?)

How about some thoughts on S5B overall? I don't say this lightly, but this was easily the best and most fun arc of OUAT since Neverland (S3A). Yes, there are a host of problems including an unclear motivation for the seasonal villain, horrible morality, pointless plotlines that served no purpose, and some poor world building. But a lot of times, a charismatic character and an idea can override a lot. Look at the way I praise Sleepy Hollow (okay, except the S3 finale) and its spaghetti-to-the-wall writing; it's helped along by its dynamic twosome. Hades with all his charms, one-liners, and chemistry with Zelena made the episodes enjoyable; at least eclipsing the more eye-roll worthy aspects of 5B. While I still loathe that Emma's entire story is centered around her romantic relationship, while I still don't approve of Robin's death, and while I still find myself frustrated with the themes of redemption, atonement, and forgiveness being paraded around this show, there was enough intrigue, thought, and interesting otherness happening that it elevated an arc that could have gone bottom up much quicker than it did. There was also a surprising amount of closure between characters and storylines. Regina got to say goodbye to her mother and father; Emma had a better final moment with Neal; Pan is out of the picture of good. The writers took what usually works, the dynamics between the characters, and tried to craft a story around those moments. I applaud Rumple's story becoming (mostly) about being a father again; I like the way Belle's heroic black and white world is being tested; I like(d) Zades and exploring the idea of love changing a person. However, there were definitely bad parts, like the travesty that was the LGBT tokenism relationship, the underdeveloped backstory and motivation for Hades, the James/David storyline, and the super silly Hercules and Snow one-off. And of course, even though this should have really been Emma's moment to shine as the Savior of this little enterprise, it wasn't and the character is becoming increasingly hollow and pod-like. I started off this arc with one question: was the show worth it? After 111 hours of OUAT I can't say a resounding yes. But I can't honestly answer no either. There were gems here, buried under a lot of plot and some MacGuffins, but they are there. As long as they keep cropping up, I'm here for the long haul.

Final Rating for S5B: B

Final Episode Ranking for S5B

12. Last Rites (5x21)
11. The Brothers Jones (5x15)
10. Ruby Slippers (5x18)
9. Labor of Love (5x13)
8. Firebird (5x20)
7. Souls of the Departed (5x12)
6. Her Handsome Hero (5x17)
5. Only You (5x22)
4. Devil's Due (5x14)
3. An Untold Story (5x23)
2. Sisters (5x19)
1. Our Decay (5x16)

Monday, May 9, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x21)

There is a word that was swimming in my head during several of the key scenes in this week's episode "Last Rites." That word is tacky. When you think of the word tacky there are certain connotations that come to mind: cheap, tasteless, crude, and trashy. Like a fine layer of slime that coats some sequined leotard found in the dusty corners of a thrift shore, that's how I feel after watching this episode. I wish I had sadness over Robin Hood's death; I wish I had the same reaction to this week's death that I had two seasons ago when another under-developed, good man and father died (yeah, there are some Neal callbacks this week). I don't necessarily feel angry over Robin's dying; his development has been marginal and his character flaws (wonky honor code, indecisiveness) outweighed any virtues (like being the heroic thief who stole from the rich to give to the poor and would lay down his life for king and country). I'm going to unpack this tacky feeling below but it's a shame that an arc I was enjoying, with a villain who had more charisma in his little finger than the past several villains combined, became such a (sadly) predictable mess before the end of the season. Hades, we didn't deserve you. Grab a phallic looking Olympian crystal (this is a thing that does not exist in mythology) and let's go! 


Only One Can Live....

Can you put definitive value on a life? Or, maybe more accurately, can you put different values on different lives? Does person A matter more than person B? If your answer to this last question is yes, then it begs the next series of queries of who gets to decide such matters and what rubric they use to determine which life, which soul, matters more to the universe. Whether or not the writers this week consciously sat down and decided which life had more value, and how to determine such an astronomical feat, I don't know; though, I err on the side of caution and say that the writers probably did no such thing. But when you kill one character and raise another from the dead, all in the span of ten minutes, you are telling your audience one thing: the character that lives matters more. Either they have something worthwhile to contribute to the story and universe at large or they simply mean more to those loved ones they left behind; but, in short, their continued life means more. Let's finally add some names to this scenario: Hook matters more than Robin. Now, I ask you: why? I know that I try to maintain some distance on Hook when I can but in this case I cannot. Another man died and while his death did not trigger Hook's resurrection, I am forced to ask why Zeus could not also bring back Robin (simply wave his hand and undo the Olympian Crystal). Is Hook really that worthy? Did he really do that much good in this episode as to override all the previous murders, plots, and y'know, almost sending everyone (including a 13 year old!) to the Underworld simply because "I was a Dark One?" What makes Hook so necessary to either the plot of Once Upon a Time or the universe that the show inhabits that warrants him another (another, another) chance at life?

Let's look at both characters, shall we. Robin is not the most dynamic of characters on this show. He's never really been anything more than a prop through which to explore Regina's redemption; he supposedly has a code of honor but it only comes into play when the plot or angst calls for it. Robin's never really stood out as the ultimate hero nor has been the ultimate villain. He simply exists in a scene, hangs out with Regina, and fires off some arrows when the audience needs reminding that Robin is the best archer in the land. In other words, he's dull and boring but not a black hat, mustache twirling baddie of the highest order. Robin's only real crime is being so lackluster (and speaking on behalf of the boring types of people, that's not a serious crime). This, however, is a writing problem. These professional writers clearly don't know how to make Robin more interesting, which should make us call into question their artistic integrity, at the very least. Hook, on the other hand, has quite a bit of blood on his...hook. Count the baubles that represents some (not all) of his victims (for example, he did not take a trinket off of Claude and we know Hook killed Regina's guard). While Hook has stopped killing people who irritate him or dare to stand up to him, he did make several horrible choices during his time as the Dark One. And while, yes, we can say he was infected by a ruthless entity who only snuffs out the light, the show does not give the same consideration to Rumple so it seems only fair to either forgive Rumple all his crimes while he was the Dark One or hold Hook accountable for all his crimes as the Dark One, which includes killing Merlin, bringing all the former Dark Ones to Storybrooke, and almost sending everyone to the Underworld for all of time. Murder aside, Hook's other sins include: maiming (Rumple); threatening bodily harm (Archie); shooting (Belle); violently attacking (Belle); and other "lesser" crimes like stealing and lying. Now let me be clear that I expect our villains to act like villains; if they didn't do heinous things, then they wouldn't be villains. But that's the point: Hook is a villain. Maybe a mildly reformed one, but there aren't enough pros to outweigh the cons. There is, quite simply, not enough good to even out the bad even adding in this episode's fight with a soup-y ghost creature. And when we are comparing his life to Robin's, then it's no contest. Boring character development should trump truly evil acts. If one character should have gotten this deus ex machina from Zeus, it's Robin, not Hook. I hate to make children the forefront here, but Robin has two children, whom he loves, whom he fought for, whom he has tried to protect and serve as best as he could (and maybe he didn't do it very well, but he's loads better than any sort of care Hook has ever shown for....well, any child! His life lesson to Henry was that you cheat to win; let's not forget the time he sold Baelfire to a sociopath, a man he would later call "a bloody demon.")

The tacky feeling, then, doesn't just stem from the weighing of the lives and finding Hook the more worthy, but from Emma Swan and Hook's actual reunion, literally on the grave site of their fallen friend. I don't care what Snow says; Emma set all of this into motion, beginning last season when she decided to save Hook by making him the new Dark One and then when she made the choice to go after his soul in the Underworld--heading to the land of the dead without a sensible plan, without thinking through any of the consequences or any of the dangers. Snow and company may have chosen to follow Emma to that place, but Emma knows these people...there was no way they were going to sit out when Emma comes to them, heart in hand, and says she's choosing love. At the funeral, it appears that Emma is really starting to get the full weight of consequences. Just when I think Emma might have a breakthrough and realize that her actions have damning results, just when I think Emma might actually take responsibility, she is rewarded for all her behavior with her pirate. This is what I mean by tacky and heartless. The funeral for Robin--yes a boring but ultimately okay character--just ended and here comes Hook, zapping back to life and into Emma's arms just as she's about to have her "ah-ha" moment of self-actualization. It's like Hook stops all of Emma's character progress or something (not so subtle commentary is not so subtle). I understand that this is supposed to an emotional moment for Emma who was just starting to grieve for yet another fallen lover, but the way it comes across is so utterly tacky (see, there's the word again) that it made me recoil in horror. Poof yourself somewhere else; anywhere else. I don't care where, honestly. Granny's, Snow's loft, the new Swan house, the docks, the middle of Main Street. Just not here, not in this place, not in this time. Emma Swan made terrible life choices that resulted, in the end, with the death of a hero and instead of learning a vital lesson for it...got rewarded with some smooches. This show's morality continues to baffle me; is it really about hope? At the end of the day, does anyone find this episode or this show all that hopeful? Do you, because of this show, really believe that happy endings are possible if you just keep believing? Really. I'm asking.

Glowy Phallic Objects 

Meanwhile, on the other side of this delightful plot, Hades turns out to be a pretty simplistic villain. He's Rumple but without the many seasons worth of backstory to elicit the proper amount of sympathy. Honestly, it's really a good thing that actor Greg Germann was so dynamic or else the Hades character would have been an absolute wash and waste. Hades simply wants it all: the girl, the power, and apparently the kingdom? Where did this come from? Hades had a kingdom; he was lord of the Underworld. His kingdom just happened to be populated by dead people that he was holding in captivity unto perpetuity. But, hey, any port in a storm. Just like Arthur and Rumple (yeah, yeah. I'll get to him later), Hades desires a kingdom full of peasants he can bend to his will, only to go home to the missus at the end of the day and watch baby Pistachio play in the garden. The show seems to be making a case that you cannot have it both ways--you cannot be powerful, oversee a kingdom or a people with any sort of ambitious drive--and have love in your heart for those closest to you. I guess that's fair; one should come before the other, theoretically. I don't necessarily think that you can't have love for your kith and kin and not also desire power or have ambition (but this leads to a much broader question of if ambition is wrong or if never ending ambition is wrong, which--if I had to guess--is what the show is trying to get at; that overflowing ambition is wrong. Poor Slytherin house). But to return to Hades, it's just a shame that the show didn't feel the need to flesh him out. This is the first seasonal villain for which we've never gotten a back story; we had one flashback with Zelena to set up Zades, but usually the show complicates their villains by revealing the "truth" of their history. Cora was a Miller's Daughter, poor and unloved by a drunk of a father who went to bed with a liar and had a child out of wedlock. Pan was poor and greedy and selfish. Ingrid was considered a monster by people. I expected to see the conflict between Hades and Zeus (but, then again, this is a show that is all about telling me and not showing me, so I guess we'll never really know how things went down on Olympus apart from what Hades told Zelena in passing). I'll miss the humor and levity (but also terror) Hades brought, but the creativity the writers could have really pushed with his character clearly got stabbed by the same Olympian Crystal that killed Robin and Hades; both gents and the creativity got totally wiped from existence and I'm left with a pile of ashes and no phallic objects to scoop them up with.

Miscellaneous Notes on Last Rites 

--Like Neal, Robin never even got to say goodbye to his children.

--"Hello there..." Maybe underwhelming at the end, but there's no denying that Hades was fantastic while it lasted.

--Raise your hand if you're shocked that Zelena named the baby Robin. No one? Yeah, me either.

--I am completely at a loss about Rumple. So he want to rule Storybrooke? It's his kingdom? Since when is this part of his plan or any notion he's ever had? All Rumple ever wanted was his son (and yes, to keep his power). But world domination--or even just Storybrooke domination--was never a part of this. And now that Moe's decided to ignore Rumple asking for help, I guess Belle better get really comfortable in that Burning Red Room.

--And Hook managed to magic those pages into the story book in SB...how? I know everything in the Underbrook has a "mirror" in SB, but Hook isn't magical.

--What an utter waste of Zeus!

--Regina tells Zelena that true love is sacrifice and that love means giving up everything for someone else. I'm sorry, but no. This is a horrible message. Love is grand and great but your identity, your self worth, your agency, your individuality, and your life are not something you toss away just because of "true love"--whatever the heck that means on this show and in real life. Robin begged Hades to kill him instead of Regina but doesn't even stop for a moment to remember that he has two children. What kind of message is that? A bad one.

--Did this episode ruin the whole arc? This Underworld story had some clunkers already, to be sure, but nothing as egregious as this one. I guess we'll see where I stand next week during the two hour finale.

Monday, May 2, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x20)

It seems, my dear readers, that we have reached the one episode in which I struggle to write a review. It invariably happens every season  And yes, they are typically Captain Swan episodes. How do I approach writing a critical review about a couple whom I find so distasteful that I simply avoid talking about them except when it is absolutely necessary? Last arc, my solution was an entire diatribe about emotional truths and how attempts to convince me of the sanctity of Emma and Hook as a romantic partnership was futile before examining the ways in which Emma's Dark Swan arc failed any conceivable test of feminism and logic. This year? Well this year I find that I'm enjoying the Underworld arc overall and don't want to suddenly be pulled into a long tangent about why I find Captain Swan so damning, though, almost without fail, that will happen somehow. But here we are, with the episode "Firebird;" roughly forty-two minutes of Hook and Emma facing some sort of ultimate test as though the show doesn't sell the same superlative song and dance routine about every story these two share. How about I just remove my own heart and try to do this as analytically as I can? Let's go. 


What's (True) Love Got To Do--Got To Do--With It?

I suppose we should get this out of the way; to make it clear, in language that cannot be confused or misconstrued: Emma Swan and Captain Hook are canonical true loves. We'll bypass over Henry and season one (cause goodness knows that the writers did the exact same this week) though, I should stress, that one should be able to have True Love with a child and a romantic partner and not be unable to tackle the "you-shall-not-pass" test. Instead of trying to force Henry into this situation, let's talk about Emma Swan. It was her episode, after all. When Emma was conceived as a character, at the beginning of all things, there were several archetypes and fairy tale-like jargon that got attached to our young blonde and leather jacketed heroine. She was, first and foremost, the Savior. In the cosmic good versus evil battle, she was the lawful good, able to take down evil, curses, and dark magic with her innate and in born abilities. Part of that Saviorhood, we learned, was that she was born of the truest love in all the realms, the love between Prince Charming and Snow White. This compounded her Saviorhood and made her even more of a force to be reckoned with. Emma's entire being is that of True Love--she is literally True Love in the flesh, an incarnate entity made up of the most powerful magic of all; this is why Cora couldn't remove her heart in Season 2 and why her magic is white. By that virtue alone, Emma Swan should be able to pass Hades' test to enter the ambrosia fields without needing confirmation that she and Hook share true love. And, for this review, I'm going to ignore the fact that Hook and Emma shouldn't even be true loves at all, and instead focus on how the writers took Emma--someone who's entire being is the most powerful magic of all, a powerful and unstoppable force unto herself--and reduced her to only having a heart full of true love when she's with her (4 month long) boyfriend. I'm harping on the parenthetical that Emma is True Love Incarnate because ignoring this factor has been a trend for some time on this show; the show has begun lessening Emma's own importance as a cosmic figure and emphasizing her romantic story as being the only thing that makes Emma complete, with season 5A as the culmination. Emma's been on her own heroes journey since the moment Henry showed up at her doorstep and called her off on an adventure and a big part of that journey (nay, the biggest part) is the conquering of death or the representation of death and chaos by the hero. This is such an integral part of the journey that I was actually excited for Emma to live up to her cosmic role and defeat death (and Hades) with her own self actualization and herohood. She doesn't need anyone else to be a hero; Emma alone should be enough, but OUAT takes this long standing tradition and warps it into something decidedly not feminist/representative of strong women and unworthy of the character they created at the start. There is nothing wrong with twisting well worn tropes when the author is trying to make a point about society or give commentary on those tropes and, again, this isn't to say that a hero (or Emma, specifically) can't have a romantic love story, but the fact that in order for Emma to be that cosmic superhero she needs the true love she shares with a romantic partner to (literally) open the doors is malarkey. To drive this point home and further complicate it ask your self what role Hook actually plays here. If you remove the romantic love partner from this equation how does the story play out? Emma, down in the worst parts of the Underworld, can't pass the test without Hook because without him she doesn't have a heart full of true love. No, I say, no. Emma's agency and importance are her own and simply being True Love Incarnate means she should be able to pass these Tests (capital T cause we're in Cosmic-land).

What makes this even more laughable and cringe worthy is that the writers couldn't even let the True Love declaration/confirmation happen organically and in any sort of natural way. Charming kisses Snow goodbye and awakens her; Zelena kisses Hades in gratitude and to show that she trusts him and his heart begins to beat; Belle gets Rumple to let down his guard and trust her for a moment and his skin changes. These are moments that make sense because they aren't just driven by the plot but because in that moment the two people have a deep connection and they aren't hoping to get anything out of a kiss in return. There is no prize to be won nor no goal to accomplish in other words. Charming doesn't know he's going to wake up Snow and Belle didn't know that she had True Love with Rumple but in that moment Charming and Belle know that kissing their partner is the right thing to do; it feels right. The show has twisted True Love to be a prize at the end of finish line, a goal that couples need to reach in order to be "valid." Hook and Emma aren't breaking a curse, they aren't declaring their love in a moment of passion and because the moment is right...they are doing it in order to open a set of doors in order to get precious ambrosia from a field so that they can get Hook back up topside. It's plot driven and it's incredibly clunky. Forgetting that Emma's heart and very essence alone should be enough to open the doors once it is set upon the scales, the confirmation only comes about because Hook was about to die in a firestorm and Emma's heart was being squeezed and Emma decides to save Hook from the flames by way of hug-tackle (that's what it looked like, it all happened pretty fast). And, because Emma chose Hook and the doors opened, they apparently have true love? But isn't this in and of itself a problem because if you were to replace Hook with anyone else (Regina, Henry, Snow, Charming, anyone with whom Emma has a passing realtionship) Emma would make the same choice (the Savior always saves) and then suddenly Emma's got true love with everyone (it's like her cosmic nature dictates that she's True Love Incarnate or something!) Hook is just a filler for anyone else; his very being doesn't actually matter but now the writers have canonically made Hook Emma's one and only. Why should I care that Hook and Emma are now True Love when the moment comes because of forced plot and could have happened with any other character? As for Hook's "sacrifice" at the end, I'm sure it means something to someone but not to me because I don't believe for one second that we won't see Hook alive again and topside with Emma. Death means very little on this show and the writers wouldn't dare part with a ship that they believe is compelling and the greatest love story of all time (hint: it's not).


On the flip side of all this, we've got two other true love couples muddling their way through deception and deceit. I've made note of this a few times already but Rumbelle and Zades are being pretty heavily paralleled. You have two men who have almost unlimited power and who have a chance at true love and a happily ever after if only they'd let go of their revenge and need for ultimate power. The question comes down to if they can let go or not (largely the overarching theme of this episode). Is Rumple capable of being a better man and a different man? Can Hades actually be something other than the Lord of the Underworld? Right now, it doesn't appear that either couple is going to make it to the finish line of S5 (and not because Belle is in a box). Unlike when Rumple killed Pan back in S3A, this "murder" wasn't done in the service of others, but more out of malicious intent. There is no sad goodbye, no kiss on the forehead, no tender parting. It's cruel and harsh, condemning his father to a life of agony in the River of Lost Souls. Pan deserves it, of course, but Rumple's casual murdering ways are a bit scary. What will Belle say? She knew the first time around that Rumple did it to save everyone and it was perfectly in line with her ideals of heroism--bravery, sacrifice, forgiveness--but this time, Rumple's motives are more in line with how Gaston defined heroism in 517--it's all about power. Is Rumple changing? Nope and given that the TLK he tried didn't work even a teeny tiny bit, I'm inclined to say he won't be having a switcheroo any time soon. But is there light at the end of the tunnel? Yeah, maybe, but only because the other couple in question is clearly going down before the end of the season( which is a shame because, as it stands, Zades is far more entertaining and worth watching than Rumbelle) and the writers have to give the Big Moment to one of them. I find myself glad that Hades and Zelena got their True Love's Kiss because even though their relationship is incredibly fast, it's entertaining to the point that I'm willing to over look the fastness (and we know it won't last, so enjoy the ride). I think Zelena has a case of heart-eyes right now; it's not as if Hades lied to her. Hades told her, point blank, that his plan was to leave the heroes in the Underworld and takes Zelena and her baby topside to the Real Storybrooke, which is what he did this episode, manipulating Emma and Hook down to the depths of the Underworld, and trapping Regina and company in the library. Hades made no promises about changing; he's been clear that his reformation is for Zelena's love and her love alone. Zelena's the one who got it into her head that her love could change him (perhaps a side effect of living among the heroes for so long) and I suspect that if Zelena were to clear her head a bit, she'd remember that she delights in the more wicked aspects of Mr. Blue Hair. Zelena and Belle are set for a pretty serious heartbreak, in other words, but only Belle (and Rumple) will come out the other side. Like Captain Swan, the writers wouldn't dare to break up one of their most popular, non-arc specific ships, but playing Rumple as the villain when need be is too tempting for the writers to ever let go of entirely. Hades may exit our show fairly soon, but Rumple-the-sometimes-peasant-killer is here to stay.

Miscellaneous Notes on Firebird

--"I came for your...wow...this is hard...help." I really will miss Hades.

--The flashbacks were mostly fine this episode though I am frustrated that the show keeps inserting important life altering people in Emma's life and then never has her mention them until the episode they are introduced. The origin of the jacket was a long standing question, but I hate that it killed a few headcanons I had.

--Regina can remove Emma's heart because...?

--Lots of mythology this week, both Greek (Orpheus and Eurydice) and Egyptian (the scale for the weighing of a heart; it's just missing the feather of Ma'at, the living concept of judgement and fairness).

--Cruella and the Blind Witch are now ruling the Underworld. That will end well.

--The Royal Navy teaches Ancient Greek to its sailors? Well, I went about learning it in a weird way then.

--Henry can now control the Author's writing abilities to the extent that he can write what everyone's unfinished business is? How does that make sense?

Monday, April 25, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x19)

Readers, I have a question I'd like to put forth: will you make chaos with me? Say what you want about the lightening fast and crazy maelstrom that is the Hades and Zelena relationship...it works, for reasons that I'm not sure I can fully explain. A lot of it has to do with the sparkling chemistry between the actors and the other half has to do with the writers and actors both embracing the loony tunes show that is Zades. Do you know what else works? When the show remembers one of its founding principles: that everyone, no matter if you're a hero or a villain, needs a community in order to flourish. We are shaped, changed, enhanced, torn down, and rebuilt by our family, be they of the kind bound by blood or by affection. Without a place to plant our feet and know that we are home, we are adrift and outcasts. And what, really, is the Underworld if not the weigh station before you reach your final destination? This week's episode, "Sisters," remembers this worthy family-first motif by looking at people who don't belong to any sort of community and contrasting them to someone who does. Brothers they may be, but James doesn't have a bedrock like Charming does. Sisters they are trying to be, but Zelena is torn between the new fledgling community she could be a part of and the insular twosome with her Lord of the Underworld while Regina's remarkable transition from enemy to member of the community is given weight. And at the heart of it all, a mother tries to forge a connection with a daughter long since cast out. Things were revealed, the ante was upped, and important themes were pushed to the forefront. After last week's major disappointment, I'll take it. Let's go start some chaos! 


Brothers....

The James and David portions of this episode left a lot to be desired because the show spent most of its time elsewhere on more compelling sibling drama. I don't blame them for this; Zelena and Cora are far more meaty and vital to our show than James ever was and it shows in how little I cared that he got shoved into the River of Lost Souls to spend all of eternity in torment. James' complaint against Charming rings as fairly hollow, doesn't it? At least, it does at first when you leave it as is and don't try to get to the root psychology behind it. James had glory; he was a warrior, a favorite son, and the only hope of a poor and broken kingdom. Yes, it was highly political; King George forced his hand, and maybe James had other plans for his life, but the show has never given James any real color or introspection so it's hard to tell what James thought of his father's plans for his only child. Did James have any sort of love (not including his bed and giant-robbing partner, Jack) that would have made him happier? James' true love is really himself; he needs to be the best and so he does everything in his power to prove his prowess. Maybe that's really the heart of the problem for James in retrospective, since he has only recently learned that his birth parents gave him up over his twin brother. For reasons unknown, to everyone, his mother and father chose to give him up over David. Why? Isn't that the real question that plagues James: why wasn't I good enough? Why wasn't I chosen? What was it about David that was better, more worthy, more lovable that I don't posses? A child that has been forsaken or abandoned has a very hard time accepting love from anyone in their adult lives, lest it be ripped away from them again--just look at Zelena's lament that Cora gave up the wrong child or even early Emma Swan being closed off from everyone, including her son. James is, in essence, over compensating by seeking out his brother for an imagined fault that James doesn't actually have; Ruth and her husband did not make this choice based on some perceived sin or error of baby James; they just simply made it and we will likely never know why. In James' mind, he needs to prove his birth parents wrong, to show them that they gave up the wrong child and that he was the "better" of the two. If he can defeat David, he can retroactively prove to Ruth and his father, and, probably more importantly, to himself that he is the better twin. It's actually pretty deep and interesting psychology so it's a shame that the show took the easy way out and pushed James into the murky depths below Underbrooke instead of letting him come to understand that the fault lies not in him, but in his stars.  

...And Sisters

I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised to learn that Regina and Zelena met earlier in their lives. Let me be briefly harsh here before I turn to gushing over some really outstanding moments: a lot of this flashback plot is convenient nonsense. So that we are all on the same page: inexplicably, and without warning, Regina gets hurt by a magic wand, needs healed from a blood relative (but not Cora cause of reasons) so enter young Zelena (and like last week's Red and Mulan, how did Cora get to Oz?) and then both sisters forget it all because a river from the Underworld just so happens to run by the Mills' house? That's so much convenient in one place that I can't help but wonder if the Enchanted Forest is really in the Forest of Coincidence (Galavant reference!) It was like the writers wrote the present day drama and then realized they needed a flashback (because what would this show be without its mandated flashbacks) and so they came up with something on the fly that could easily be wiped away in a manner of moments with a lazy handwave about magical waters. However, I am actually very willing to over look a lot of this eye-roll worthy flashback because of the raw power of the present day Mills women reunion. I've never been a big fan of Regina; I leaned so heavily toward Rumple so very early on in the show that Regina became his absolute antithesis and, in my eyes, mostly irredeemable; however there is no denying that her character arc and journey is one of the better conceived and more well thought out ones. Cora is magnetic even if ruthlessly coldhearted (or, in her case, literally heartless). Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I hate Zelena with the power of a thousand suns (except for this season because of how delightful she and Hades are together--and yes, this makes me question my own feminism). So three characters I don't have strong attachments or feelings to and they reduced me to some serious blubbering during their emotional reconciliation scene. That, my dear readers, is the power of good writing and it's what makes OUAT so damn frustrating sometimes. Every now and then, there are little sparks of brilliance, little reminders that the show could once reach inside your chest and squeeze your beating heart (much like Cora!). And shockingly enough, most of the time, it's not when there is some sexual-romance agenda being pushed.

The writing here might be too on the nose, like when Cora allays Zelena's fears that it is too late for her to join in any sort of community by telling her eldest daughter, "it's never too late, you never stop being connected," but it's the kind of clear message that this show often needs when it gets too muddled in plot and shiny tokenism (still not over last week, guys). What I loved most about these present day mother and daughter(s) scenes was the way the three characters know each other and can cut each other to the quick in a matter of moments because while OUAT is all about reminding us that no one can heal you like family, it's also eager to touch on the fact that it's also family who hurt you the most. Zelena can tell Regina that her younger sister is cut from the same dark cloth as their mother and it's true! Regina even gets to say some of those iconic lines that Cora has uttered over the years, like knowing what is best for someone, even if the person in question wants something totally different. Regina has no qualms about poisoning her sister if it means "protecting" Zelena from Hades, a man her sister does truly love! Sound familiar? It should because Cora had no problem killing Daniel, a man Regina truly loved, in order to ensure that Regina led the life Cora mandated. Cora, meanwhile, gets right to the heart of what she really did to Zelena all those years ago when baby Wicked Witch was just an infant being left in the woods. Cora doesn't need Zelena to explain how it felt to be so abandoned, Cora can explain Zelena's emotions: "what I did left a wound that's been festering for decades." Even better, Cora openly admits she did it for ultimately selfish reasons, because she was young and ambitious and didn't want to be saddled with a baby when she could have a better life. It wasn't noble, it wasn't kind, it wasn't like Snow giving up Emma so that everyone could have their best chance, it was a self-centered decision based on Cora's needs, Cora's wants, and Cora's desires. Add to this that Cora finally changed her mind about her life long doctrine that love is weakness and called herself a fool for ever believing that love can't be selfless and can't help more than it hinders and we are left with a sweeping but logical transformation that really did take Cora many years to go accomplish. This is a very big step and piece of character development for a character who has only ever been in a handful of episodes and it goes to show that often times the writers do remember the important themes and motifs of their colorful cast of characters, that they can get them to an organic and logical point when the writers drop all the shiny pretenses and the wonky MacGuffins and the tired shipping moments and focus, instead, on community, on family, and on being connected through blood, through affection, and through all the hardships life has to offer. Zelena isn't necessarily redeemed and whether or not Cora should have gone to the better place is a big debate that bears a lot of thought (it'll be in the notes, guys) but this really was a step in the right direction for the thesis of the entire show and trying to get back to the last semblance of what it once was. But, before I get too hopeful, someone throw a burlap sack over my head and take me far far away.

Miscellaneous Notes on Sisters

--Does Cora really deserve to go to the "better" place? Not really. It goes back to what I was saying in episode 515 about whether you can have true redemption and forgiveness without first facing any punishment or consequences of your actions. Cora did a lot of bad and the only true apology she made was to two people--yes, the two people to whom she did the worst bits, but still only two. I don't know that it deserves an eternity in the River of Lost Souls, but I don't think she should get the fluffy cloud treatment.

--How about one final round of applause for Barbara Hershey who has deftly played Cora since season 1?

--I'm so glad Emma has a superpower that allows her to tell when people are lying. Seriously, Sheriff Swan, how did you not catch on to the James/David switcheroo?

--"Why is everything in the woods with you people?" And then Cruella punched Emma in the face. Attagirl!

--Hades setting up his little dinner date for Zelena, complete with his practiced dance moves, was adorable. I'm gonna miss this crazy blue-haired guy when the show invariably sends him packing.

--Hook thinks killing Zelena might be a step in the right direction. Will he keep her jaunty feather hat as a token to remember that kill by??

--So Robin has literally been in the woods with an infant in a car seat and the heroes have been bringing him baby wipes, formula, and diapers?

--I have no comments on Rumple's actions this episode.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

In Which I Review The Jungle Book (2016 Disney Movie)

Well, Disney you did it again. And by "it" I mean you took a beloved classic, let some real humans take the well worn characters for a test drive, and profited an almost obscene amount of money by playing on people's nostalgia and fond remembrances of days gone by. It's what you're good at, poking the childhood feels with clever songs and beloved narratives and I tip my hat to you for being able to put forth a "new" product every year that isn't, strictly speaking, new, innovative, fresh, forward thinking, or any typically positive adjective movie makers aim for when casting their lens or pens at a new project. That sounded like a heavy criticism, but it wasn't, truth be told. These are the films I grew up with; these movies and stories are my childhood and I, sucker that I am, join the masses in indulging in some fond recollections. Like my Cinderella movie review from a little over a year ago (was it year? gosh, time doth fly) there's very little need to set up this review. The plot is so well known that it barely (pun?) needs remarked upon at all. But unlike the Cinderella rave review, this one gets only a tentative "good" from me. There's something lacking in this new Disney live action adaptation, as if the film couldn't push itself to try and say something new. It certainly wasn't bad, but I did not leave the theater believing in the power of fairy tales again. And maybe--just maybe--it's because the Jungle Book isn't a fairy tale (though many of the tropes are well embedded). There's something darker and more feral at the heart of the jungle and the movie really missed the chance to explore the heart of darkness in man and beast alike. The jungle isn't for kids (despite the sugary sweet ending this film gives) and by not delving into the savagery of both man and beast I am left with something wanting. Hopefully I can unpack that a bit below, eh? Grab a cowbell (because of course) and let's go! 


General Thoughts

There came a point during my viewing of this film when I wondered if I'm not just a wee bit too cynical at times. Don't worry, readers. You don't actually have to answer me; I know I am. I've been trying to think back to my childhood experiences of The Jungle Book, the original Disney animated movie. Did I enjoy it then? I think I did, but certainly not the extent of, say, The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast. I liked the songs; I liked Baloo; and I know I loved Kaa (this, by the way, will come up again below so stay tuned). But for me, as a child, The Jungle Book felt too foreign. Talking animals were common in Disney films so I had no problem with that, but the lack of a real world made it too escapist. I've never been in a jungle nor witnessed any of its horrors (and the Disney film mostly makes the horrors of the jungle into jokes--it is, after all, a cartoon) and the cartoon landscapes felt too otherworldly to ever feel deadly. In the new live action film, the otherworldly feeling goes right out the window and becomes very real. But as I stated above, the realness feels flat, or at least unexplored, lacking in the depth of horror we know the jungle can offer. A jungle, in literature, can often represent as terrifying an ordeal as a haunted castle or a wild moor. More so, even, because the jungle in the actual Jungle Book is one of those wildly untapped ones; the kind that people go in to and never come out of (sort of like Mowgli). There are giant apes and ruinous temples and raging rivers and apparently elephants who are also expert landscapers. The jungle itself is supposed to feel like a living creature in this film, one that can be wild and deadly but also one that can nurture and endure. The film does a passingly good job at the latter, but it's the former where it falls down for me. We spend the last bit of the beginning of the movie moving from landscape to landscape with Mowgli and Bagheera--and yes the jungle is so vast and uncharted that it contains everything from rocky terrain, to dense forest, to yellowed Savannah, to something that looks akin to your local midwest state park. The jungle in this movie is the world, but it never feels truly like a threat (hint: it should!). It's not just Shere Khan who threatens Mowgli; the entire situation should be a threat. If Mowgli wants to chose the jungle (because that's where his multi-creatured pack is) that's fine, but the movie never shows the true horror of the jungle; but you better believe it shows the horrors of the man village. Bathed in fire--not just normal fire, mind you, but a fire that licks the sky and threatens to overtake the men standing around its warmth (tiny beings reduced to mere shadows before its red and yellow glow)--the man village is an unholy nightmare from which Mowgli runs.

And this is what I mean by my own jaded cynicism. It's a Disney film, for crying out loud. I shouldn't be rooting for something akin to Conrad's Heart of Darkness! But lessening the terror of the jungle felt out of place with the realism the movie brought in other terms, like the animation, voice acting of most of the cast, or, yes, the raw human emotions the animals invoke when they deal with the incredibly real problems of Shere Khan's threats, losing a loved one, or friend. This is topped off by what I feel is a very rough ending that makes everything too saccharine and too "happily ever after." Again, it's a Disney film so why am I being so harsh that the storybook closed and all's well that ends well? Well, I think it's actually because the animated Disney film--the one that should by virtue of medium be more Disney-esque than this new live action one--chose a very different path, one this new movie eschewed in a rather eyebrow raising manner. Mowgli doesn't leave the jungle; the closest he gets to the man village is the threshold, where he steals some fire and runs back to his jungle home. The animated film pushes Mowgli toward humanity. Like mythical Enkidu, Mowgli is tamed not by fire but by the lure of his own burgeoning manhood--in other words, he sees a pretty girl. Humanity is placed above the law of the jungle, the wild untamed forests, and even his two best friends Bagheera and Baloo in the animated film. It's definitely a bold statement for this 2016 film to cast humanity so dark and have Mowgli stay in the jungle--after all, humans are doing a pretty nice job of wrecking the planet as is, right (yes, the modern overtones of this movie are fairly heavy at times). But it cannot be that straightforward (jungle good, village bad), not when your plot has side moments like a blood thirsty tiger, a law in which peace between "tribes" of people only comes during great upset (like lack of water), and a 2,000 pound ape who wants to rule his empire with the help of the red flower (fire). All three of those "dangers," except Shere Khan, are given little room to truly become terrors and instead are either quickly resolved (the rainy season comes quickly) or are made into comic and iconic moments of song and dance. And once the imminent threat of Shere Khan is removed, the jungle returns to a paradise. My criticisms sound harsh but only because there is so much more this film could have done to emphasize that the jungle and the village are one and the same--packs of peoples or animals, seeking to dominate and protect their own. King Louie wants to bring the jungle under his control with fire? So do humans. Driving home this point--that there is little separation between the wild and the civilized--would go a long way in demonstrating that Mowgli would be at home in either place and is both beast and man.

What I Liked

--The animation of this film is gorgeous. The standout animation scene is probably Mowgli sitting on Baloo's belly, floating upstream.

--I especially loved the re-imagining of King Louie as a giant ape sitting on a throne of a long forgotten temple. Christopher Walken gives a very nice performance moving from stuttering kindly voice in the dark to oversized temple-destroyer in a matter of moments. Also, a round of applause to whoever thought up Mowgli finding a cowbell seconds before you first hear Louie speak.

--While I didn't like the actual plot ending, the ending-ending of the book closing whilst laying on a blue velvet cloth is so damn iconic I actually sniffled a bit.

--"You have never been in more danger of being extinct than you are right now." Baloo was on point.

--Even if their roles were smaller, most of the voice actors did a fantastic job bringing their talents to animal creatures. I say most because despite loving Idris Elba in everything he does, he was a bit too whisker twirling bad kitty this time around; the cartoon tiger was elegant in his villainy. He also missed the chance to showcase Shere Khan's trauma and (yup) humanity in light of his fears.

What I Disliked 

--Not nearly enough Kaa! The giant snake was masterfully rendered but her role was so small. And she didn't even get to sing "Trust In Me" until the end credits!

--Some clunky dialogue like right after Kaa tells Mowgli the story of the man and his cub who fought Shere Kahn in the distant past, she says, "and that man cub was you!" No kidding. You don't need to make this text. The young kid is wearing red pantaloons. It's clearly Mowgli.

--The actor playing Mowgli was a hit and a miss. One the one hand, he's incredibly young and his costars are tennis balls on sticks so it takes a certain amount of imagination to even make this work, but on the other hand, at no point did I forget that I was watching a kid "play" around. He never became Mowgli, in other words. Also, his annunciation could use some work at times.

--The constant "law of the jungle" refrain got wearisome.

--I'm glad Bear Necessities wasn't cut, but Baloo and Mowgli couldn't even sing it together in time?

Final Grade and Thoughts on The Jungle Book

--Final Grade: B

--Final Thought: This is a mostly acceptable version of a beloved Disney story and it strays little from the wheelhouse. But where it does stray is noticeable and without any real depth of exploration of what the film is really trying to say.

Monday, April 18, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x18)

Poor Mulan. Always the bridesmaid and never the bride. See what I did there? I eased into the tricky LGBT waters by starting off with a joke. Clever, right? I'm starting with a joke to break the ice because this week's episode, "Ruby Slippers" is a tricky one for me. At the outset let me just say, I am not a member of the LGBT community,I am ally instead. I self-identify as a heterosexual cis woman and because I do occupy a certain place of privilege where my type of romantic love is constantly given weight and a speaking voice in narrative, it is harder for me to critically analyze an episode of TV that is designed to speak to those who do not occupy my social sphere--who are marginalized, disenfranchised, maligned and altogether lacking in true representation on TV--without sounding like a pompous arse. My opinion that this episode wasn't really enough to push the LGBT cause or that it left a foul taste in my mouth for its cheapness and tokenism shouldn't overshadow an LGBT person who felt like this episode hit on certain themes and motifs that are relevant and important to them as a member of the LGBT community. Theirs is the voice that matters more in reactions to this episode, but since this blog is a one woman show, I guess mine has to suffice. Grab your shiniest shoes, glue an abnormally large feather to your hat, and let's go! 


The Adventures of Wolfie and Kansas

As I mentioned, this episode is a tricky one to navigate, not only because of my own "outsider looking in" perspective but also because I'm not sure there is much to sell the Dorothy and Ruby relationship outside of being outcasts in a show full of outcasts. There's nothing new here (unless we consider lesbianism new and that's a bridge I'm not going to cross) and it's not as if their sexual preferences made them outcasts. For Dorothy, it's her first trip to Oz that made her family believe she was crazy; for Ruby, it's her part time wolf status (and accidental ingestion of her former boyfriend) that caused her to feel so alone in the world. But one issue that arises is that virtually everyone on this show has felt like an outcast; in fact it's that feeling of being "otherized" that usually sparks their villainy. I do applaud--and will go into more detail in below--that the sexual orientation of Ruby and Dorothy doesn't play into their outcast feelings, but it also means that their connection is tenuous at best. So they feel like an outcast? Well, who hasn't? Other characters who have likewise shared those same feelings are not suddenly true loves, unless the show is about to endorse polyamory and have Regina, Emma, Hook, and Robin partake in a wild night in Vegas. To be fair (or, I suppose, fairly critical), exploration of true love and relationships is no longer the show's strong suit. Most relationships are now developed lightening fast, with almost no room to breathe for the two individuals in question. Merlin and Nimue, Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, even Hades and Zelena (a couple I'm enjoying!) are tragically under developed. All it takes, apparently, is one flower, one neglectful husband, one adventure into a dark vault, one bike ride, or one walk through a field of poppies (and fighting some flying monkeys) to solidify that the character has "never felt this way about anyone!" Snow gives a pretty telling line in the present day that "love is freaking scary" and it is. And it should be. You're making yourself vulnerable and open and exposed. It's easy to get hurt, to be wounded. There's a reason why people scoff at love after only a few dates or days; human beings take time to get to that stage. We do not arrive at Planet Love without having to traverse an asteroid belt of emotions and conflicts (tortured metaphor, I know, but the show started it by likening Ruby to Toto!) Falling in love after only a few hours and expecting to have an earth shattering, curse breaking true love's kiss after one meaningful conversation makes true love that was fought for over a much longer period of time--like that of Snow White and Prince Charming--feel cheap, which isn't where the show should be going in their first LGBT outing.

I will agree that Ruby and Dorothy get more development than the likes of Arthur/Guinevere and certainly more than Lancelot and Guinevere, but only by virtue of Ruby being an old hat to the audience. Because of our long standing love of Ruby (a season two regular and part of the original OUAT Season 1 pack of beloved characters) it's easier to believe her emotions and go along on her own torrid rollercoaster of self-esteem and doubt. We feel safe in watching her many emotions play out because we've been down several winding paths with our Wolf Girl before--from Granny and Peter to killing her mother. We know Ruby; we will accept her emotions as valid because they have been shown, not simply told, slowly and solidly over the years. It's harder with Dorothy who was inserted only this season (as a grown up) and only for this purpose. And this brings me to another criticism: tokenism. It's not really tokenism, I suppose, because Ruby and Dorothy will likely flutter off to Forgotten Character Island to live happily ever after and if we see them again, it won't be in service to their story but because the writers occasionally like to play with old toys. Tokenism would keep the couple around only to highlight the shows own diversity, making their sexuality the only interesting and story-worthy thing about them. Giving the show an LGBT relationship and not having it be one in which the characters in question fight for their right to love is a good idea; not taking their story further and developing it organically and instead dropping it like the proverbial hot potato is less so. It reeks of sensationalism and trying to generate buzz. And that's a problem because it's using gays and lesbians as a punch line; it's the answer to a long standing "joke" about who Ruby would end up with and whether or not Adam and Eddy would address the gay elephant-sized fandom in the room.

As I hinted above, I did enjoy that Ruby and Dorothy's sexuality is never brought to bear. The words lesbian or gay are never uttered nor are any of Ruby's friends shocked to find her leaning in a direction she's never leaned before. That by itself is a fantastic message. These characters--Snow, Charming, Emma, et al--believe in love and the power of love so much that for Ruby to love Dorothy is simply an honest, heartfelt and beautiful expression of agape--universal, all consuming love. Brava to OUAT for that. That message is sadly rare where too often LGBT storylines are reduced to social commentary about how homophobes condemn gays and lesbians; something valuable, to be sure, but something that has been hit too many times at this stage. For Snow to be so open--to the extent that she doesn't even question Ruby's love of Dorothy--is refreshing in a world where these types of acceptance should be commonplace, but aren't. The fact that the show doesn't shy away from showing a very extended true love's kiss between Dorothy and Ruby is also to be applauded. Other shows would have panned away and made the moment about the witnesses instead of the actual kissers. It's easy to see that OUAT and the writers are trying to convey the weight of love, any love. From Charming giving up his freedom so that Snow can leave the Underworld and travel home to baby Snowflake, to Ruby and Dorothy tearfully admitting that they don't want to lose each other, the power of love is emphasized in the episode. But my last criticism needs to be stressed: poor Mulan. For over three seasons now, it has been fairly obvious that Mulan was in love with Aurora. She was denied her chance to express her feelings in season three because of Aurora's pregnancy but those feelings obviously linger (in spite of OUAT's insistence that they play the pronoun game and keep who Mulan loved a guarded secret). The fact that Mulan has no part to play in the LGBT storyline, except as a witness, is more than a little frustrating. I have to wonder if the Great Mouse dictated that their character (and certainly this version of Mulan belongs to Disney) be left in Limbo. That's a whole other bag of worms, one that casts some dispersion on Disney for not understanding the evolution of what "family" means and how their brand translates to all manner of people (seriously, how big is the LGBT Disney fanbase? My guess is massive). Mulan should have been part of this because while Dorothy and Ruby are perfectly fine (if problematic for all the reasons I already stated) it did come out of left field; I would never assume the sexuality of any character but there was no hint or buildup for Dorothy and Ruby whereas Mulan has previously been established as having same sex feelings for another. All of this is to say that navigating this episode is tricky. It's hard to applaud when the end result feels like a cheap thrill for the writers but the ultimate thematic message behind the episode is definitely applause worthy. I guess the best we can hope for is that the writers don't neglect the wide spectrum of love there is in the world. For a show that wants love to be its central tenant, they need to keep moving forward; to find a way to balance buzz with heart. They used to know how. Maybe they can figure it out again. Wait is that hope? Gosh, that's contraband! To the River of Lost Souls for me!

Miscellaneous Notes on Ruby Slippers

--The present day plot was mostly fluff and filler because we've reached that part of the season in which everyone drags their heels in order to hit the 22 mark with enough story.

--I don't care how dense the trees in Oz are; Toto could not possibly sound like that.

--I did applaud the lack of outsider feeling over sexual orientation but lines like "one more life I destroyed because of what I am" are awkward and too heavy and really should be avoided before I take back my applause.

--"Chisel Chin Jr"

--Kansas and Wolfie sounds like a really terrible buddy-buddy cop TV show in the 1970s.

--Belle put herself in a sleeping curse and expects Moe to wake her up, not Rumple. I spent an inordinate amount of time last week discussing Rumbelle so I'll just leave this observation here for now and move the heck on.

--Hook actually said thank you! It's a miracle!

--Did the writers name this episode "Ruby Slippers" as a cheeky attempt to name the 'ship before the fandom could?

--Hades literally melted Auntie Em, mopped her up with a dishrag, and then wrung her into a mason jar. Can we keep him please? Just a little while longer?

--Belle has morning sickness but she is so newly pregnant that she didn’t even know she was pregnant when Rumple told her. But Zelena, who was pregnant for long enough to fully know she was with child, never had morning sickness? That makes NO sense.

--The feather on Zelena's hat bothers me, deep in my soul.