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You Need To Watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

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I thought I was super late to the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend party, but turns out the ratings say otherwise, and since the finale of season two just aired and it’s all available to watch on Netflix…

Oh my god, you need to watch Crazy Ex Girlfriend.

Crazy Ex Girlfriend is laugh out loud funny, with great characters and heaps of diversity and originality. The colors are bright, the songs are catchy, and somehow, underneath that, it’s a serious treatment of mental illness with far better representation than you usually ever see.

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Not Loving La La Land

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La La Land  is the darling of Hollywood right now. It’s received the most Oscar nominations in history, tied with All About Eve and Titanic at 14, and it has good odds of sweeping many of the biggest awards. And as much as I want Lin Manuel Miranda to get his EGOT, even I couldn’t be unhappy with a victory for Audition as Best Song.

So, for the first time in many years, I actually went to see an Oscar-nominated movie. A beloved musical should have been a guaranteed hit for me. But after seeing La La Land, I’m mostly just confused. Yes, Sebastian and Mia’s theme is gorgeous, and I absolutely love Audition, and the colors are amazing, but overall… La La Land is boring. It has a great concept, but the actual execution of the plot felt lacking. It’s as though the movie needed another editing run to bring the characters and their struggles into focus and allow it to meet its potential. As is, it felt like a bunch of musical set-pieces, and not much emotion in between.

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Dean for Gilmore Girls is (Not Quite) The Worst

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Since I maligned Jess a couple of weeks ago, it seems only fair to turn my attention to Rory’s other high school boyfriend, Dean.

And god, I hate to say it, because I’ve always hated Dean, but… I think he may be a better boyfriend and person in general than Jess. I know. That’s more of a statement of how awful Jess is than anything in praise of Dean, but it still feels wrong to say.

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Tropes, Intentions, and Critical Role

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Whenever writers get criticized for invoking troubling tropes in their stories, there’s one excuse that crops up more than any other: “this was where the story needed to go.” Yes, many other stories have shoved girlfriends in fridges or killed off the lesbian characters or had the black guy die first, but they weren’t thinking of that when they were writing this story. The story told them that this needed to happen, for the good of the narrative, and so that’s what happened.

It’s almost as though the writers have no say in where the story goes. The narrative takes over their brain, and any critical thinking ability or chance of reflecting on things vanishes. There’s no editing, no critical thought, just the all-powerful Story.

This has always struck me as complete nonsense, since no matter how “in the moment” a writer might be when creating a first draft, they have plenty of editing time afterwards to consider a story’s implications. But I’ve been thinking about it in more depth recently, inspired by my new favorite thing to recommend to people, whether they want to hear about it or not, Critical RoleCritical Role is half improv show, half radio play, built around the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons. Not only is the story mostly improvised, but it happens in reaction to the randomness of dice rolls. Who lives, who dies, who tells their story… in the end, the dice decide. For once, the writers really don’t have total control.

And one moment sticks in my mind, from several months ago now. (Spoilers for episode 68, Cloak and Dagger). Once upon a time, a character called Vax struck a fanboy on the head, knocking him out, to show him how out of his league he was and warn him not to get messed up in the sort of stuff that the protagonists of Critical Role face. About 50 episodes later, that kid shows up again, allied with some of their enemies, and in the ensuing fight, he almost kills Vax’s girlfriend, Keyleth. She doesn’t die, but it’s close, and she only survives because the dice rolls come out in her favor.

It was a really interesting narrative moment for me, because it had great unplanned narrative symmetry, a consequence of Vax’s harsh actions coming back to bite him after so long. If it were planned, it would be compelling, but also troubling, as a female character was killed off for a male character’s story arc. Unplanned, it might actually represent that unseen pure case that writers often attempt to invoke, where “that’s just where the story wanted to go.”

The hypothetical has stuck in my head for months since the episode aired, precisely because I’m wondering how I would have reacted to this trope actually appearing by accident. Would it still have bugged me? Would the fact that she’s an independent character controlled by her own actress have changed how things felt? Intention isn’t magical, but to what extent does invoking a trope by accident excuse the troublesome implications? It didn’t happen, so it’s all hypothetical, and I won’t dig into it too deeply, because I think it’ll make my head explode with all its problems and contradictions.

But one thing I know is that, even if the story had come together completely randomly, it wouldn’t have stopped the idea that a female character dying to enhance a male character’s story is troubling. That the actors would have needed to handle things carefully, both during and afterwards, to ensure that Keyleth’s death had remained a key part of Keyleth’s story, and not been all about Vax’s mistakes and the consequences on him. And if pure random chance doesn’t completely override the context of troubling tropes, regular storytelling methods have no excuse.

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The Forest: Turning Cultural Insensitivity into an Artform

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I think most people know of The Forest for the same reasons I did. It stars Natalie Dormer of Game of Thrones fame, and it sparked controversy because of its use of Aokigahara Forest, a real place near Mount Fuji in Japan where many people commit suicide every year.

As a non-horror movie watcher anyway, it wasn’t even vaguely on my “to watch” radar. But then it showed up on Netflix, and my friend and I couldn’t decide on what to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and Natalie Dormer was there, and, well. You know. I’ll probably watch less than ten movies this year, and now The Forest is one of them.

Here’s the thing: The Forest is horrifically insensitive. Despite the troubling set-up, there are ways that it could have been at least arguably interesting. If it had been a purely psychological thriller, instead of a supernatural one, with well-developed characters, cultural understanding, and a sensitive approach to suicide, this might have been a decent movie. But by making the threat supernatural, The Forest managed to invoke “Japan is creepy and magical” tropes while also exploiting suicides and throwing aside any psychological insight or message for cheap and lazy scares.

The story is that American Sara has come to Japan in search of her missing twin sister, Jess. Jess has been suicidal before, and after a school trip to Aokigahara Forest, she has disappeared. Sara is determined to find her.

Despite Sara’s apparently admirable determination to help her sister, the actual story here is one of a white foreigner who dies because of her cultural insensitivity and her refusal to believe that the people who actually live in an area might know what they’re talking about. That kid is just crazy superstitious. And that woman. And the person who works in the park. And that other person who works in the park. And the people saying don’t leave the path. And the people saying don’t stay in the forest overnight. And, and, and. It’s an ever-escalating story of ‘are you serious, Sara??’ And perhaps there’s something in there, just as there might have been something in Sara’s relationship to Jess, and the subtle implication (or completely accidental message) that Jess doesn’t exist, and this is all a psychological thriller about her a girl who disassociated from her experiences after a traumatic event. You know, something at least a little bit interesting. Hints of potential. You get the feeling that maybe a Japanese movie with a psychological bent may have done something worthwhile here.

But the insensitivity on both a cultural and mental health level is off the charts. There is, of course, the innate insensitivity of taking a place where many, many people have died, and still die, and using it as a setting for a supernatural horror movie. The movie uses suicide as a jumpscare multiple times, and although hanging bodies is staple in horror movies, they carry a slightly different tone when they’re connected to real people who really died recently. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, when Sara Googles the forest, the movie uses real photographs of the bodies of victims. Real deaths, real pain, to set the scene for cheap horror. That’s the kind of IMDB “fun fact” that would ruin even an otherwise pretty decent movie.

Then, of course, there’s the suggestion that people in the forest only kill themselves because evil spirits trick them into it. Could you have a decent movie where suicidal thoughts are metaphorically represented by dark spirits haunting a person? Sure. But this is not that movie. We’re told, from the very beginning, that the forest wants to kill people. It grabs onto sad people and lures them to death. It’s even strongly suggested that Jess was lured into the forest by the spirits, rather than her actually intending to be suicidal, despite her apparent past. The movie ends with Sara killing herself accidentally, because the ghosts play tricks on her mind and make her think she’s fighting off a demon, when she’s really just cutting herself.

The basic premise of The Forest is pretty unsalvageable, on a sensitivity level, but there are ways it could have been better. If they pushed the psychological angle, if they had explored the effect that Sara’s traumatic childhood experiences had on her more explicitly, if, if if. If the Japanese characters had more than bit parts. If it was a Japanese movie. If it was set somewhere fictional, for god’s sake. If it didn’t treat Japan as a foreign land of magic and creepiness.

If you’re going to tell a story about a difficult subject, do it right. Try to approach it from a place of sensitivity and understanding. The Forest is cultural appropriation and insensitivity of the worst kind, because it does it lazily, callously, throwing a bunch of elements together without the slightest nod towards the idea that any of it has any connection to real life. It’s not that The Forest tried to tell a sensitive story and messed up. It’s that The Forest didn’t care, and never cared.

I knew we should have watched Spiceworlinstead.

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Jess from Gilmore Girls is the Worst

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It’s true. When I watched Gilmore Girls as a teenager, I loved Jess. I just wanted him and Rory to live happily ever after. I guess he was cute, and he read a lot, and he could talk really passionately about books, and that was all I needed. Even when watching the Netflix revival, my inner teen squeed when Jess finally appeared on screen.

But I’ve just finished rewatching Season Three for the first time in years and years, and it’s official. Jess is the worst. Like, the actual, literal worst. What was teen!me thinking? How does he have such an important place in so many viewers’ hearts?

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The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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The Bear and the Nightgale is a medieval Russian fairy tale-esque novel by debut author Katherine Arden.

And it’s beautiful.

That’s pretty much the whole review I want to give this book. It’s beautiful. It’s an experience. You should absolutely read it.

The closest comparison I can think of is Uprooted by Naomi Novak, for the same dark fairy tale feel. The Bear and the Nightingale is something of a slow burn book, about a family living in Northern Russia, and particularly about their youngest daughter, Vasya, who loves to run wild in the forest and sees the creatures of folklore all around her.

The novel juxtaposes Vasya and her stepmother, Anna, two young women who have the sight. Vasya embraces the creatures as protectors of the land and her friends, while Anna sees them as demons, and throws herself into religion to try and escape them. Then a young charismatic priest, Konstantin, comes to the village, and decides that he’s been called by God to rid these people of their old-religion superstitions and fill them with fear of God’s wrath. He reviles Anna, who wants nothing more than to be his disciple, and is obsessed with Vasya, who he increasingly sees as a witch. When Konstantin’s fear allows a dark force to awaken in the forest, Vasya must fight to protect the magic that protects them all.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a book of wild forests, dark creatures, unsettling promises, and complex characters. It’s a story of magic, of wonder, of fear, and of not fitting in, beautifully imagined and enchantingly told. I really recommend it.

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Rogue One’s Moral Ambiguity

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The Star Wars universe has a slight problem with moral complexity. Although it does occasionally hint at stances beyond Good Is Good and Evil Is Bad, like when Lando Calrissian sells out Han and Leia, it mostly makes very clear who is supposed to be a hero, and who is supposed to be a villain.

But the more the Star Wars universe grows, the trickier this stance becomes. When Finn turns against the Empire, he raises questions about the idea that Stormtroopers are mindlessly evil. They’re still treated as generic villains, but once Finn changes sides, we have to wonder about the morality of mass killing brainwashed Stormtroopers who have little choice about what they’re doing. The more detailed the world gets, the more we have to question this idea that the rebels are always the good guys, and anyone mixed up with the Empire is always a villain.

Rogue One is the first movie to really embrace that problem. Again, as general groups, the Empire is Bad and the Alliance is Good, but inside those clearly defined sides, the movie explores the massive grey area of how individuals act, and to what extent the ends justify the means. And it’s the very existence of this grey area that allows the story to explore certain narrative risks and consequences that the main Star Wars movies would be unlikely to touch.

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Never Alone

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Never Alone is a puzzle-plaformer game, based on folklore from the Inupiaq people of Alaska. The game was made as a partnership between Upper One games, the first indigenous-owned video game developer in the US, and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and is specifically designed to not only be a compelling game, but also to shaure Inupiaq stories and culture with players around the globe.

First of all, this is an absolutely beautiful game. The animation and art style are stunning. I would recommend it for that alone. But as you progress in the story, you also unlock cultural insight videos, short clips that explain, through interviews and the like, elements of the culture seen in the story. Get a weapon in the game? Here, it’ll tell you, if you’re interested, what the weapon actually is. Meet strange underground-dwelling people? Here are the legends about them. There are short introductions to the Inupiaq belief systems, to some of their cultural objects, to their community, their hunting styles and storytelling traditions and legends about the Northern Lights.

The game itself is about three hours long. You control both a girl, Nuna, and a fox, as they seek the source of a never-ending blizzard that has been plaguing Nuna’s village. You can play the game as a local co-op, with one person controlling Nuna and one controlling the fox, and honestly, I think that’s a much better experience. Although it’s possible to play the game as one player, as I did, some of the puzzles aren’t well-optimised for it. Some of the later challenges require switching back and forth between Nuna and the fox under time pressure, and I found myself dying many, many times because of how difficult it was to coordinate both movements by myself. The AI was also occasionally frustratingly inadequate. There’s nothing quite like controlling one character and having the other fall idiotically off a platform instead of standing still, or having them move away from where you’ve placed them, causing the platform the other character was using to disappear. Some of the puzzles also get a little repetitive by the end, but that might have been because of how frustrated I was getting with all these deaths — especially as you see the surviving character mourn the dying one every single time, and seeing that heartbroken fox broke my heart too.

So if you’re a gameplay first kind of person, I wouldn’t recommend this one. But if you’re willing to overlook some flaws in service of an overall story experience, then Never Alone is fantastic, with a lot to teach you, a great story, and absolutely beautiful graphics (and, of course, the fox is adorable).

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