I would always rather be happy than dignified

I’ve harped on this elsewhere in the past, but I firmly believe that an adaptation of Jane Eyre rises or falls on the strength of its Rochester. It’s not that Jane isn’t a great, complicated character. It’s more that there’s absolutely no way you can dislike her. She’s one of the greatest literary heroines we have. Nobody sitting in that audience is going to have a hard time rooting for Jane.

Rochester, on the other hand. Kind of an asshole, right? No, no, not entirely. I’m not saying I don’t love Mr. Rochester. Of course I love him. But I do have to be brought around to loving him. Come on, the guy keeps his wife locked in the attic. Whatever the circumstances, you can’t just let that go with nary a raised eyebrow, you know?

For viewers to fully appreciate Jane’s struggles, sympathize with her, and ultimately nod in teary delight at the point of reader-I-married-him, versus screaming “YOU DID WHAT?” and throwing the popcorn, they have to be able to see what she sees in the man. While Jane is busy declaring herself his equal, the rest of us are wondering if he’s really good enough for her. If your Rochester can’t pull it off, even a flawlessly played Jane isn’t going to save that film.

fassbenderochesterThis is why I’m not surprised that the Wasikowska/Fassbender version of Jane Eyre won the September poll by a landslide, with 56% of the vote. Michael Fassbender, please don’t take this the wrong way, because I know nothing about you personally and I’m sure you’re a nice person, but you’re a very convincing asshole. You can probably blame Cary Fukunaga for that if you want, because this is an expertly directed film. There’s no shying away from the darker sides of Rochester’s character, but it’s mixed with the exact right combination of vulnerability, sympathy, and emotion (and, because this is Rochester we’re talking about, brooding) to make the whole thing work. Plus, regardless of everything I just said about the cruciality of Rochester, Mia Wasikowska delivers a really excellent performance as Jane.

stephensrochesterI was glad to see the Wilson/Stephens version come in second place with 22% of the vote, because I quite like that one, too. It’s a different spin, to be sure. Neither character is really dark and broody enough, and Toby Stephens’s only flaw here is that he’s just a bit too likable. But the performances are very good, and the chemistry as well, so it all works anyway. And of course the beauty of the miniseries format is that there’s more time to get in more of the book. Everything benefits from the highest possible amount of Brontë.

The October poll is up, be sure to cast your votes!

The post title is not terribly relevant, except that it’s one of the best Jane Eyre quotes, and probably appropriate for my blog. Or my epitaph.

Guardians of the Galaxy and the clever application of tropes

Guardians of the Galaxy is hilarious, and silly, and fun, and thoroughly entertaining. So like many silly and fun things, there will be some who dismiss it in terms of “real” value, or laugh at the idea that there’s anything to be learned from it. But you shouldn’t, and here’s why: Guardians of the Galaxy does some skillful, even admirable, storytelling.

Because it’s an origin story, but not your typical superhero origin story; it’s the origin story of a team of five. Consider what this movie is tasked with:

  1. Establish five individual characters so they feel like real characters. (From scratch, mind. This isn’t The Avengers, where most of them have had individual movies ahead of time.)
  2. Establish their dynamics as a team and their relationships with one another.
  3. Acclimate the audience to the universe. Be sure they understand its rules.
  4. Be sure the audience is clear on the main conflict and the stakes of failure.
  5. Establish not only the villain and stakes of the current story, but the overarching villain and stakes in this universe, a conflict that will not be resolved in this installment but must still feel like a present danger.
  6. Leave the audience with enough unanswered questions to make sure they buy the next one, but not so many that they feel frustrated or that the story feels incomplete.

But that’s the job of the first installment of any series, right? Sure. Except:

  1. Do it all in two hours, but without ever slowing the pace, so the audience is constantly engaged in a steady stream of action and never feels the exposition at all.

Did you see it? Did you feel the exposition? I didn’t, except when they wanted me to, and never in a bad way. There are few storytellers who can accomplish that list both well and with economy.

They do it largely by using tropes, which may sound lazy and the exact opposite of what any storyteller should do. But while tropes are easy, doing them right is hard. Here they use them skillfully and playfully, as shorthand to acclimate you, without crossing over into boring you because you’ve seen this story before. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Guardians a spoof. (I’ve seen it compared to Spaceballs, but I think it’s more of a story in its own right, that could exist apart from the stories that inspired it.) But it’s certainly tongue-in-cheek enough to embrace its clichés.

Case in point: within five minutes of the introduction of the adult Peter Quill, we’re given very clear visual connections to both Indiana Jones and Han Solo. And I’m just talking about the shots here, not the dialogue or the action. The audience for a sci-fi superhero movie almost certainly already speaks that language. Which means we’re now more than halfway to understanding this character without them having to do anything else to get us there.

As another example, for pretty much the entire first act, very little is explained. We are not explicitly told how the universe works, or what anybody is talking about, or what Quill has, or what it does, or why, or who is chasing him for it, or who belongs to any of the names we’re hearing and why we should care. There is absolutely no as-you-know-Bobbing. Because we don’t need that. We’ve seen enough Artifacts of Doom to know this orb is a Bad and Dangerous thing, and that’s really all we need to know for a long time. So they can afford to wait to explain the specifics of infinity stones until they can do it without much pause to the action, in a scene where it feels natural.

They make all these formula elements work for them rather than against them in a few ways. First, they’re funny about it, and they don’t try to hide it. It’s okay that it’s heavy-handed because it’s a joke we’re all in together.

Second, while they pull at least half their characters off the stock shelf, they don’t just throw them into the movie as-is. They give them their own quirks and strengths and vulnerabilities. And every performance in this movie is good. As a character, Peter Quill is probably the most cardboard one we have here, but Chris Pratt’s performance is such that you not only see a distinct character, you can’t imagine anyone else in the role. He owns Peter Quill, and Peter Quill is not interchangeable in this story with any of the others of his kind.

It’s not just the acting that makes it all work. The team responsible for Rocket Raccoon should be provided with a big stack of money and complimentary pastries every single day. Talking animals rarely work on the screen, but Rocket is expressive in ways many live actors will only ever aspire to be. His face is brilliant.

The same applies, to a lesser degree, to Groot. They took a tree who says three words, and still managed to give him a personality.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, they’ve got something to back the tropes up with. They use them for shortcuts, but the shortcuts actually lead somewhere. This is a Marvel story, and as such, it has a full, longstanding, legitimately created mythology and universe to tap into.

So what’s my point? Maybe it’s that tropes can be great tools when properly applied. Maybe it’s that it is indeed possible to make exposition painless. Or maybe it’s just that you should see Guardians of the Galaxy, because seriously, you should. It’s a riot.

On the murder of our evil little friend

This post contains significant spoilers for Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire (assume that includes all five books, because I can’t be arsed to look up which book things are mentioned in).

So of course I had great fun watching Joffrey die. (But Jack Gleeson, I’m sad to see you’re giving up acting, because it’s not just any actor who could make me feel I’m going to miss that little shit.) Afterward, my husband, who doesn’t read the books, had a few questions. We watched the scene again and I pointed out that wiley Queen of Thorns doing her thing with the necklace. He thought that was all well and good, but voiced his suspicion of Littlefinger, even though we haven’t seen him in ages.

So I blithely explained Joffrey’s death as I’ve always seen it: the Tyrells, or maybe just Olenna, conspire with Littlefinger to both kill Joffrey and frame Sansa and Tyrion for it. For their part, the Tyrells need a more tractable lad to be the king to Margaery’s queen, and one who is less likely to, say, cut Margaery’s limbs off and fashion her severed hand into a candy dish. Building a scapegoat into the plan is a good idea too. For Littlefinger it’s the reverse; dead purple Joffrey is a bonus, but what he really wants, for reasons both political (o hai Winterfell!) and personal (o hai Cat!), is to separate Sansa from the Lannisters and get her under his control. If he can get Tyrion executed and free her up to marry again, so much the better.

No, he can’t know that Tyrion will be put in such obvious and direct contact with the cup, following such an obvious and public humiliation by Joffrey. Those details are a bit of luck for him. But Littlefinger’s a pretty clever guy, and it’s a safe assumption that at some point during that feast Joffrey is going to be a dick to both Tyrion and Sansa, because name the last time that didn’t happen. One way or another, motive will be taken care of for him; plant the murder weapon on Sansa, and you’ve got means and opportunity, too. Done and done.

Except not. Because in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, George himself said:

I think the idea with Joffrey’s death was to make it look like an accident — someone’s out celebrating, they haven’t invented the Heimlich maneuver, so when someone gets food caught in his throat, it’s very serious … I think that’s what the murderers here were hoping for — the whole realm will see Joffrey choke to death on a piece of pie or something.

Then why… what?

For the Tyrells, if you’re not trying to frame anybody, wouldn’t it be easier to just bring the poison in one of your pockets? Less variables in the mix that way. But maybe having Sansa carry it is just a backup plan. Okay, I’ll buy that. I would like to think Olenna doesn’t mean Sansa any harm (because Olenna is awesome), but she’d also want to make sure that even the worst case scenario will still turn out well for her (because Westerosi grandmas are a ruthless lot). It may be her intent that things look accidental, but if someone does cry murder and someone must be blamed, then getting the keys to Winterfell away from the Lannisters is certainly preferable to anyone in her family falling under suspicion.

But I can’t think of any way Joffrey dying in a freak choking accident benefits Littlefinger. (And we know, by things he says later, that Littlefinger is indeed involved in the murder plot.) Destabilizing the realm is fun and all, but I don’t buy that his alignment is just chaotic evil and that’s all there is to it. There’s a method to his madness, and he looks to profit as much as possible from every nasty thing he does. If Joffrey’s death and Sansa’s escape from King’s Landing aren’t meant to be linked, why put them together the way he does? Of course he knows she and her husband will be blamed. Of course that’s his intent. Right?

Except GRRM says not. Maybe when he said “the murderers” he just meant the Tyrells, though?

Confused.

The North remembers that winter is coming in April

Goodness, but April is a busy month, what with the launch of ESO and Camp NaNoWriMo. I haven’t got much to say about either. Yes, the launch is buggy, because that’s what a launch is. The bugs aren’t what matters. What matters is, how many more times am I going to create, delete, and recreate my character because I change my mind about her hair?

As for NaNo, this is my first year at camp. I set my goal at 30k because what I’m doing is really more of an extended outline than actual writing, full of things like: And then she arrives in town. Describe town. And sees the ghost. Describe ghost. But that’s okay. My goal for April is just to get the story straight in my head from beginning to end, work out what my characters would do or how they would react to certain things, and flesh out some scenes if and where I can. I’ll actually write the thing, um, later.

But none of these activities, nor the activities of normal non-April life, can compete with what happens on Sunday:

Game of Thrones is back, and the North remembers, bitches!

Obviously some lemon cakes are in order, at the very least. The ones in A Feast of Ice and Fire are delicious. (I use the traditional recipe because frankly, the modern one looks harder.) If you haven’t got A Feast of Ice and Fire, time is running out to get it before you have to make something icy and/or fiery for Sunday, so you’d better get going on that.

Am also considering making a pie of a certain flavor, even though this isn’t the season for it. That may make no sense to some of you, but the book readers, they know.

Will you be watching? Are you doing anything special for the premiere?

Top eleven questions I have about the GoT trailer

Warning: vague spoilers for Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire.

The new Game of Thrones trailer was released; you can find it here. I think it’s well done: the shots come and go too fast to spoil anything, but still convey the tone nicely. As usual, they’ve cut some good music in there.

But I have questions.

11. Why did Jaime get Joffrey’s haircut?

10. Is that the Queen of Thorns walking past Joffrey at the beginning? Oh dear, wonder what she’s up to.

9. Which one of these shots is of a secret Targ, and which is of a secret Benjen?

8. Why does Theon look so much like, um,Theon?

7. When did Rast turn into Craster? Or, wait. Rast. CRASTer. I see what they did there.

6. How is that kid who plays Joffrey so good at making me want to punch him in the face with just that tiny bit of screen time, and why isn’t everyone nominating him for awards?

5. Not really a question, but needs moar lemon cakes.

4. Who is Littlefinger talking to?

3. Is Varys having a scene with the Red Viper the most awesomest thing ever?

2. Dragon flying over King’s Landing WTF?

1. WHERE IS COLDHANDS?

Evangeline Lilly kicks butt, Richard Armitage twirls his mustache, and fans get the vapors

It seems I’m at odds with many of my fellow Tolkien fans: I liked The Desolation of Smaug. I didn’t love it the way I loved the first one, but I haven’t got any complaints either. Does this mean we’re in a fight?

Look, there’s something us readers of books are going to have to learn to accept once and for all: movies based on books will deviate from their source material. Seriously, it’s like every time this happens we’re surprised and outraged anew. Movies are not books. If we can’t accept someone else messing with a beloved story in a different medium, then maybe we shouldn’t, yanno, see the movie. In the case of these movies, at least a lot of what wasn’t in The Hobbit was drawn from (or inspired by, if you prefer) the appendices of The Lord of the Rings and Unfinished Tales.

And yes, Peter Jackson is always going to have a strong kickass she-warrior. If Eowyn isn’t available, he’s going to make one up. That’s because it’s his job to sell movies. Evangeline Lilly performed the task capably, and as for Kili’s crush on Tauriel, okay yeah, kind of cheesy. But I don’t get all the outrage. It’s not like it’s unprecedented in Tolkien’s universe for a dwarf to have a thing for a beautiful elf.

Like any other fan, I have some quibbles. (What’s with the ringwraiths, both here and in An Unexpected Journey, having tombs? This is driving me nuts.) But they’re minor in the scheme of things. If I have a source of anything that can be properly called disappointment, it’s that there was less acting in this movie. One of the strengths I found in An Unexpected Journey versus Jackson’s previous Tolkien films was that I felt the cast was stronger. Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage in particular were both nearly flawless in their roles.

In this installment, as their arcs are written by Walsh, Boyens, and Jackson, both Bilbo and Thorin are in the midst of important internal struggles (both involving, in what I assume is an intentional parallel, their strength and sanity being tested by a mysterious object). But while we get glimpses of that inner turmoil, the movie always falls back on their more physical adventures, one after another unbroken by those quiet moments of character development that some moviegoers are bored by but others, like me, miss when they’re not there. It becomes a little heavy-handed when the only way you can show me what’s happening to Thorin is by putting an over-the-top moment of swordy-pointy menace (I’m frankly surprised Richard Armitage was able to resist twirling his mustache in that scene – perhaps he couldn’t separate it from his beard) right next to an over-the-top heroic action sequence, just to make sure the contrast is announced as loudly as possible.

The performances were good, but they weren’t given a lot of space to happen. This was, in the end, a special effects movie. So at least the special effects were good, no? Come on. Love the movie or hate it, that dragon was kickass.

Devil babies, frankenboys, and things that make you throw food

Spoiler content – minor for American Horror Story: Coven

I just caught up with episode two of American Horror Story and was pleased to find it so much better than the first. Mainly because of the performances, but the lack of magical killer girlbits was also welcome. Plus I was delighted right in the first three minutes, when they dressed Lily Rabe like Stevie Nicks while playing Stevie Nicks in the background. (Would’ve been better if she didn’t have a speech about Nicks later, but you know, you’re not coming to AHS for subtlety.) The life-death focus of each storyline made this episode feel more cohesive. But some of those storylines were stronger than others.

Frankentate, I don’t even know what to do with that.

Cordelia’s infertility thing just made me ask a lot of questions, especially about that husband who came out of nowhere. Because I thought she lived at the school? She must if she’s waking the girls up in the morning right? Surely they don’t just keep sleeping until she gets up, showers, has breakfast, then commutes? So does the husband live there with her, but he’s mostly invisible unless needed for a sex ritual? How does that work, an adult unaffiliated with the school, still getting to live there among the children? This is just like how I used to obsess about whether Hogwarts teachers could get married and have families or not. I mean, you can’t apparate onto the grounds, so the commute… Anyway. Assuming she got pregnant from that ritual, will this be a devil baby? Please if it is, can we pretty please have a guest visit from Sister Mary Satan, raised from the dead to be his nanny?

And then there’s the big thread, the one that delivers not only Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, and Kathy Bates, but also the overall premise. Which seems to be that the Salem witches were real, except not the ones who were actually convicted, except for Tituba, who is the one who taught them witchcraft in the first place, only to be betrayed by them and turned in, so the witch-types and the voodoo-types have hated each other ever since. Okay, whatever. Convoluted and bizarre and demonstrating a complete disregard for all sorts of facts, but high marks for creativity, with extra points for delivering the exposition in that truly marvelous salon scene. When Fiona paused mid-catfight to wave Marie off with a quick “no more spray,” I almost choked on my tea. So much win. And Kathy Bates, as hoped, is making Madame LaLaurie more engaging to watch than she has any right to be. The chemistry between Lange and both Bassett and Bates is as good as their individual performances. Honestly, I could watch these three all day.

In fact, I’d love to see more of them in exchange for less doe-eyed, open-mouthed Taissa Farmiga. Really Zoe, is it that much to ask for you to think faster than a cauliflower on occasion, and also breathe through your nose? You know that nasal breathing has major health benefits, right? I quite liked Farmiga in the first season so I have to assume this is bad direction and not her fault, or else that it’s intentional because they really want me to throw cookies at my TV out of frustration at my inability to punch her in the face.

Either way, I’ll keep watching this week. I’ll just maybe eat the cookies beforehand.

 

On the dark side

Spoiler content: American Horror Story: Coven (mild); The Silence of the Lambs

So without having seen another episode of American Horror Story: Coven, I’m reconsidering my position on Kathy Bates as Madame LaLaurie. My problem here was the complete lack of dimension. We found out everything we needed to know about Madame LaLaurie in the first ten minutes of the first episode, and considering the real-life person on whom she’s based, we can guess she’s not likely to change much. Which means we haven’t got much left to explore. There are no layers there. Nothing sympathetic or relatable. Nothing at all but pure one-note evil.

I’m not one of those people who thinks every single villain needs to be complicated; I’m cool with just plain monsters showing up in horror stories. But in this case, did we really need the woman who played Annie Wilkes to such amazing, terrifying effect to do it? It just seemed like a waste of talent.

But the thing is, one note can still be pretty interesting (and terrifying) when it’s played right. I got to thinking about characters of pure, unadulterated evil who are nonetheless elevated by good performances. Here are my top eleven picks for one-dimensional monsters who are still done well:

  1. Hannibal Lecter, as played by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. This is the most obvious one, no? Lecter has more dimension in the books – there’s a human under there somewhere, or at least there was at some point – but as far as this film alone goes, he’s nothing but a purely black heart. Yet still, at the end, you’re at least half rooting for him to eat that warden. (No? Just me?)
  2. John Doe, as played by Kevin Spacey in Se7en. His actual screen time is short, and he’s only got one side to show us in those few minutes, but the performance is riveting and unforgettable.
  3. Jon Ryder, as played by Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher.
  4. Top Dollar, as played by Michael Wincott in The Crow.
  5. Freddy Krueger, as played by Robert Englund in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Completely uncomplicated, completely iconic.
  6. Max Cady, as played by both Robert De Niro and Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear.
  7. Maleficent, as voiced by Eleanor Audley in Sleeping Beauty.
  8. The Wicked Witch of the West, as played by Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz.
  9. Count Rugan, as played by Christopher Guest in The Princess Bride. Is sadistic and wholly evil, hilarity ensues.
  10. Roose Bolton, as played by Michael McElhatton in Game of Thrones.
  11. Cancer Man, as played by William B. Davis in The X Files. I don’t care what you say, anyone who is that mean to the Buffalo Bills is pure evil and that’s all there is to it.

So I’m going to keep my eye on this Kathy Bates performance and see where it goes. I’m curious to see what she does with it. (But the rest of my AHS complaints still stand. And I still just can’t even with the magical-deadly-vagina-as-superpower.)

We found a witch, may we burn her?

Did you watch the premiere of American Horror Story? What did you think? Me, I didn’t love it. But I’m reserving judgment. For one thing, my expectations may have been too high. For another, sometimes that show takes me a little while to process.

But thus far it’s sorely lacking in the fresh and interesting department. There were an awful lot of tropes flying around that screen, almost too many to count. This show has always played with tropes but these weren’t being played with in any new or compelling ways. As far as I can see, they weren’t really being played with at all. They were just there. Which is fine if the showrunners are being intentionally campy, but are they? I’m not sure they are. I’m not sure some of those images they mixed in there can play campy.

And why are you hiring all this great talent if this is all you’re going to do with it? Because I don’t think it takes a cast full of award winners to play these roles. Jessica Lange is delightful as always, but oh look, it’s another messy aging bitch hiding her fragility beneath a veneer of cigarette smoke and destruction. Considering the past two seasons, this isn’t exactly new territory they’re taking her to, is it? I’m disappointed with the way they’re using (or not) Lily Rabe. And Kathy Bates is always excellent, but she seems to have been given a role, um, without a lot of dimension to it. All she’s missing is a mustache to twirl.

And the gore. Too much with the gore and the blood and the torture. I’m not objecting due to sensitivity, but on a storytelling level. AHS has never been your go-to for subtlety and nuance, but still. An insane butcher-doctor or a mullet-sporting serial killer torturing and mutilating people is one thing, but witchcraft should be more sophisticated than that, no? I mean, it’s got the word craft right in the name. Where’s the craft here?

On the plus side: The lighting and camera work were sufficiently creepy in the style we’ve come to expect. And I would like to congratulate the folks who do the title sequence on what is possibly their most disturbing and grossest one yet.

Why I love all the horrible things

I look forward to October every year, not just because of pumpkin bread and candy sales and NaNo prep, although those things are of course important. There will be horror movies on TV all the time between now and Halloween, and new ones released in the theater. American Horror Story starts next week. This year I’ve also got a new horror novel to read. It’s just a great month for horrible things.

As my website attests, I can be as kitschy about horror as anyone. I love ravens and haunted mansions and dark and stormy nights. My Jack Skellington bobblehead shares space on my desk with my Poe action figure and my Funko POP White Walker. There are those who find all this weird. They can’t understand how I find fun in all this darkness and death.

But I think characterizing horror as being about darkness and death is missing the point. When I watch or read or write about a monster, it’s not because I love the monster. It’s because I want to slay it. Especially when it comes to writing, horror allows me to face those monsters and win, over and over again, through my characters. And they are always braver than I am. (Or at least, the characters who don’t die screaming while being dismembered. But you know, everyone can’t win. That’s why they call it horror.)

Horror is a lot like a nightlight: it’s there so people can look directly at their fears and walk around them, rather than fumble along in the dark hoping not to trip over them. And also sometimes to help them pee.