Category Archives: Film

Movie Review – King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

As a longtime lover of all things Arthurian for whom Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels used to be a favorite movie, there was no way that I wasn’t going to go see this glorious mess at the first opportunity. If you’re like me, and the trailer for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword filled you with unironically joyful anticipation for this film, you will probably love the finished product, which is basically the trailer, but two hours long and on an enormous screen in a dark room. It’s all giant magic war elephants, fast-talking heist-planning, aggressively ugly action scenes, and hilariously confused imagery. I don’t think I stopped smiling from the first frame to the last, though I also lost count of the number of times I gleefully whispered, “What the fuck?” to myself. I adore this movie.

To the degree that King Arthur deserves serious analysis, it’s not as bad as you might expect. Like all of Guy Ritchie’s oeuvre that I’ve seen (which admittedly isn’t all, as I’m by no means a great fan of his), this movie is heavily focused on exploring the filmmaker’s seemingly complicated feelings about class and masculinity. What’s interesting about King Arthur, however, as opposed to Ritchie’s early work, is the presence of women and the way that the film’s masculine identities are constructed around the characters’ interactions with women. Whereas movies like Snatch and Lock, Stock didn’t feature any women at all, being entirely concerned with men and their homosocial interactions as a microcosm within which to explore broader (if only slightly) social issues, women figure prominently in King Arthur and in a variety of roles.

It’s not that the women of King Arthur are particularly interesting on their own—indeed, only the Mage and Maggie get any appreciable speaking time—the way they exist in the narrative and what they mean to the male characters is kind of fascinating.

Arthur’s mother could almost be considered a classic case of fridging, but the truth is that the deaths of Arthur’s parents occur at the same time in a scene that, visually, recalls the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents several iterations of the Batman origin story as much as anything else. And make no mistake about it, this King Arthur is a super hero, which is an obvious and natural modern interpretation of the source material that ought to be accepted in order to best understand and enjoy this version of the story. While it’s primarily Arthur’s father, Uther, whose death Arthur must come to terms with to learn how to control the power of Excalibur, the trauma of his mother’s death is revisited numerous times throughout the movie as well, and she’s not forgotten or ignored even if she isn’t especially important.

While King Arthur has commonly been interpreted as a Christ figure, our earliest significant image of this Arthur is his being pulled out of the river like Moses when he’s found floating on the Thames by some prostitutes, who then raise the boy in their brothel in Londinium. These women (with a single, sadly fridged exception, Lucy) remain unnamed, and while the adult Arthur seems to respect and care for them—even working as a sort of bouncer for the brothel and taking actions to keep the women safe and avenge wrongs against them—the montage of Arthur’s childhood suggests that he was largely left to run wild, growing up on the streets with a couple of similar-age male friends and being taught how to fight by some of the adult men in their neighborhood community. It’s a kind of bizarre case of trying to have one’s cake and eat it, too; we’re meant to understand these women as important to Arthur, to understand Arthur as a man who likes and cares about women (and, to be fair, Arthur in the movie is unfailingly polite, gentle and respectful of the women he interacts with), but we’re also meant to understand Arthur as having practically raised himself. He’s a fantasy of a very literally self-made man, pulling himself up by his bootstraps through hard work, cleverness and a charm I would normally describe as “rakish” if it wasn’t so weirdly sexless (not that he’s lacking sex appeal, however).

Many critics have pointed out that the mythology of the movie, just in general, has little to do with classic Arthuriana, and one of the more interesting departures from the source material is to eschew Merlin almost entirely. He’s mentioned, almost as if the writers wanted to make sure the audience knew that they had read some King Arthur stuff, but Arthur’s magical mentor here is instead a woman who works for Merlin. The Mage is never given a proper name, and this interestingly works well to prevent the audience from projecting expectations on her. I spent the whole movie thinking she would eventually be revealed as Morgana or Nimue or maybe even Guinevere, but she never was, and it’s kind of amazing. Though the Mage doesn’t get much of a character arc of her own (the film is pretty strictly from Arthur’s point of view), the decision to avoid naming her as any of the classic Arthurian women lets us interpret her without any of the centuries of baggage those names carry, allowing the Mage to exist as a wholly original character. Surprisingly, she never becomes a love interest for Arthur—is not, in fact, sexualized at all—and while she is at one point captured by Vortigern she’s also never portrayed as a damsel in distress. Instead, Arthur is able to simply negotiate for her release in exchange for himself, and she’s returned unharmed and ready to help him in his final battle against Vortigern. We never actually see her trapped or suffering or powerless on screen, and though she doesn’t save herself from this situation, it’s a minor beat in the larger story and her capture and release is never given enough emotional weight to conform to the usual damsel in distress pattern. All in all, it’s a neat way of averting an all-too-common (and frankly boring) sexist trope.

Maggie is a woman working in Vortigern’s household, and while it’s not entirely clear what her job is—Cook? Maid? Concubine? Vortigern sarcastically calls her a representative of the people, but then he also has her escorting him when he travels, so who knows?—her importance in the story is as a spy for the resistance against Vortigern. Maggie is competent, brave and loyal to the cause. Oddly, though, she never actually interacts directly with Arthur. Instead, she reports on her spying to Bedivere, and her most memorable interactions are with Vortigern when he realizes (somehow) that she’s a spy. What’s interesting about Maggie is that she doesn’t die tragically once her duplicity is found out, but lives right on to the end of the movie, where it’s visually hinted at that she is paired off with Bedivere.

If Arthur is meant to be understood as a man who values and respects women, even as he avoids romantic entanglements, Vortigern is the opposite. One of Vortigern’s first actions in the movie is to sacrifice his wife to gain magic powers so he can defeat his brother, Uther. One of his last actions is to sacrifice his daughter to the same evil-seeming creature (which, incidentally, is three women and a bunch of slimy tentacles) in exchange for yet more power in his futile quest to possess Excalibur. This is by no means a feminist film, and it may be the most generous interpretation of it, but it’s easy to read Vortigern’s willingness to destroy women—even those he claims to love—as a key to his downfall and Arthur’s respect for women as a key to his success.

Ultimately, though, this is a movie about masculinity. Arthur’s coming of age and acceding the throne is tied directly to his ability to control Excalibur, a sword (this sword, even) being a classic phallic symbol. Vortigern’s power is represented in an enormous tower, even more aggressively phallic than Arthur’s sword—especially when we consider that Arthur treats Excalibur casually (e.g. letting it drag on the ground, allowing it to be passed around and carried by his various friends, easily lending it to Bedivere so that Bedivere can knight Arthur’s friends) and with some ambivalence of feeling (there’s a whole sequence where he tries to throw the sword away and the Lady of the Lake has to convince him to take it back), while Vortigern’s tower is jealously guarded and vigorously defended. It feels as if this wants to be a rejection of toxic masculinity—represented by Vortigern and his armies—in favor of a more sociable, constructive masculinity as represented by Arthur, with much of the meaning conveyed through their respective interactions with women, but it’s honestly a mixed bag. There’s a lot to analyze, but for a movie that’s not actually about women at all, there are so many female characters that it’s genuinely hard to make heads or tails of what the filmmakers are trying to say about them.

Miscellany:

  • Charlie Hunnam wears far too many shirts in this movie. Yeah, there’s a nice scene where he wakes up and pulls his shirt off and we get to feast our eyes upon his gorgeous back muscles, but even that was too short. Know your audience, Guy Ritchie.
  • Someone ought to write more about the bizarre use of religious and pagan imagery in this movie. It’s downright bananas, and it doesn’t even stick to just classic Arthurian retelling stuff like trying to visually represent the conflict between Roman-influenced Christianity and the indigenous religions of Britain.
  • In an age where the artfully gritty gore of Game of Thrones and the surreal stylized hyper-violence of American Gods are the fashion, this movie’s violence feels almost old-fashioned. There’s a high body count in King Arthur, but there’s very little blood and no guts to speak of. Also notably absent is the sexualized violence against women that is so endemic in Game of Thrones. When Lucy is abused by the Vikings early in the film it’s left deliberately vague what has happened to her, her injuries are painful-looking but relatively minor, and (most importantly) we’re not shown any of that violence at all—much less shown it in the gleefully gratuitous torture-porny manner that Game of Thrones has popularized. The violence of King Arthur is largely sanitized comic book-style violence, and that’s a good thing.
  • Jude Law is an absolutely perfect scenery-chewing villain.
  • I genuinely hope that a miracle happens and this movie is financially successful enough for it to continue as a franchise. I would gladly watch a dozen more just like it.

Assorted thoughts on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

In 1991, I turned nine, and I was just starting to change from being a little girl who loved books about horses to being a little girl who loved books about dragons and wizards and spaceships. I fancied myself something of a tomboy still in 1991, but this was well before “princess culture” became ubiquitous enough for liking a Disney princess movie to be mutually exclusive with tomboyishness. Before Beauty and the Beast, my favorite Disney movies were Sleeping Beauty (because it had a great horse and a badass dragon) and Robin Hood (because I had a raging crush on that cartoon fox, natch). Beauty and the Beast had a horse and a Beast (which isn’t that much different from a fox, right?) and it had Belle, who was nothing like any of the princesses before her. I mean, she was white and conventionally pretty, obviously, but she didn’t spend any portion of her movie asleep, and she didn’t have to give up her voice just to have a chance at a dude who couldn’t even remember what she looked like, and this is what passed for progressive in 1991. Most importantly to nine-year-old me, Belle liked books, and she liked them so much that she was gifted a whole enormous library from her Beast, and it was glorious: the grand romantic gesture that first taught me to appreciate grand romantic gestures, and gifts of books are to this day the easiest way for people to buy my affection.

So, let’s just say that there’s a certain degree of uncritical love that I have for Beauty and the Beast, both the Disney movie and basically every iteration of it I’ve gotten my hands on in the years since, from Rose Daughter to Uprooted. When I saw the first trailer for the new live action version, I said right off that it was aggressively ugly but also that I was definitely going to see it. It turns out that it’s every bit as aggressively ugly as I thought it was going to be, but it’s also a surprisingly decent, if still very problematic, update to a beloved childhood classic. Here are my thoughts on it, in no particular order.

Spoilers, obviously.

18th Century fancy French menswear is sexy.

This isn’t important, really. Just a general observation. And a reminder that I need to make time to watch season two of Outlander sometime soon.

This adaptation tried to explain why the whole castle was cursed, and it only somewhat worked.

I was somewhat surprised that this was a thing at all, but it wasn’t a terrible idea. As in the animated film, there’s a short prologue that shows how the Beast gets himself and his whole castle cursed, and special attention is paid to make sure that the audience sees his court and servants as complicit in the prince’s cruelty. They stare and laugh at the disguised sorceress as the prince turns her away, and none of them do anything to stop it. Later in the film, Mrs. Potts weirdly both supports and undermines this when she tells Belle that, after the death of the Beast’s mother, Mrs. Potts and the other servants did nothing to prevent his abusive father from raising the Beast to be the nasty piece of work he was. Unfortunately, the only time we see the Beast’s father is in a flashback to his wife’s deathbed in which he not unkindly steers his grieving son out of the room, an image of relative gentleness that is at odds with what we’ve been told about his treatment of his son.

It makes sense that in this new film Disney would want to address the seeming injustice of a whole household of kind, loving servants being cursed for their master’s bad behavior; it’s just a weird case of a more or less good idea taken both too far and not far enough. The initial scene of the characters at the prince’s ball standing silent and then laughing as he mocks the sorceress is not quite enough to really justify everyone being cursed forever—especially when it’s revealed that they’re also erased from the memories of everyone they knew outside the palace. Disproportionate as the punishment is, this might have been fine if the film had decided to just stick to fairy tale logic. However, piling on that the servants somehow failed in a responsibility to protect the Beast from his father—without ever showing how the father was so bad—only really serves to muddle the message. It would have been much smarter to just stick with “the whole court was decadent and wicked in the moment when it mattered” without trying to also treat the curse as a sort of cosmic justice for a much more nebulous moral failing.

I legit cried at “Belle” and the opening village scene.

Emma Watson isn’t a great vocalist, but this song was nicely done, the village is genuinely lovely, and it’s the one time in the movie that I really felt like it was the animated version brought to life. For me, it was a little bit like first seeing Hobbiton in The Fellowship of the Ring or when Grant and Ellie first see the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, both scenes that still make me tear up. Your mileage may vary, but I totally loved this sequence.

Belle is kind of an asshole.

Listen. Belle has always been the ultimate Not Like Other Girls heroine, and her desire to get out of her small, provincial town figured largely in the animated film as well. This movie, however, makes Belle’s absolute disdain for the literally illiterate townspeople extremely clear. It’s not just the boorish, sexist Gaston that she dislikes. She’s at best condescendingly indulgent of her neighbors’ foibles and more often openly scornful toward them for, apparently, no other reason than their rural lifestyle and lack of sophistication. The town is pretty and clean, and its people seem to be mostly happy and decent in spite of their lack of privilege—remember this is supposed to be a rural village in 18th century France that has previously been ruled over by cruel and selfish nobility who exploited the people and land for their own gain. It makes sense that a young, relatively privileged girl with an education that is out of reach of most her peers might chafe at the restrictions of rural society and dream of adventure, but Belle’s sheer unbridled hatred of this town and its people doesn’t reflect well on her at all.

On a similar note, the girl hate is even stronger in this film than in 1991.

Just like in the animated version, this film has a trio of nearly identical women whose only character traits are wanting to marry Gaston and not being Belle. It was a sexist, damaging trope the first time around, and I’m disappointed to report that it’s actually worse in this move than it was in the original. Whereas in the animated film, these three women were identically beautiful blondes who seemed vapid but ultimately good-natured, here they’re presented as a group of garishly made-up (in pointed contrast to the natural beauty of the heroine) mean girls with an unexplained antipathy towards Belle in addition to their desire for Gaston. And this film no longer stops at portraying them as silly girls swooning over a man who barely notices they exist. Instead, it makes a point of having Gaston explicitly reject them with a dose of implied slut-shaming and the added humiliation of having Gaston’s horse kick mud on them. It’s a particularly hideous instance of misogyny that also isn’t helped by having Le Fou gleefully reinforce Gaston’s point with a snide “Not gonna happen, girls.”

Le Fou is awful in pretty much every way.

The animated Le Fou was a clownish, craven crony to the toxically hypermasculine Gaston, a cartoon fictional dynamic that rarely occurs to quite such an extreme degree in reality. In the live-action version, Disney has chosen to address this by casting Josh Gad in the role, giving him an unrequited crush on Gaston, and unsuccessfully playing it for laughs. It’s not funny. Josh Gad is not funny in this role, which mostly consists of Le Fou being a stereotype of a catty, faintly effeminate gay man and being mildly misogynistic in ways that validate and complement Gaston’s own misogyny. The “exclusively gay moment” that has been so bragged about is literally about a second and half shot at the end of the movie of Le Fou dancing with another man—an unnamed character who, incidentally, is “outed” as gay in the story when the magic wardrobe dresses him in women’s clothing during the climactic battle and he grins like it’s Christmas, which seems senselessly offhandedly transphobic and further suggests that gay men are simply effeminate dudes.

Literally nothing about this portrayal of Le Fou was at any point a good idea, the execution is horrendous, and Disney’s public crowing about how progressive they are for having a gay dude in this movie is hilariously offensive when you actually see how bad it is.

Luke Evans is a perfect Gaston.

Seriously. He’s delightful, and he plays Gaston with amazing gusto and a surprising amount of charm. This is one of the only roles in this movie that I’d say is perfectly cast, along with Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe and Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza.

Audra McDonald should sing everything, forever.

She is an actual perfect angel, and though Emma Thompson’s rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” was fine, it’s a straight up crime that the song wasn’t given to McDonald.

There were too many new songs, and every one of them was too long.

The worst offender is a song the Beast sings after Belle leaves to rescue her father. It’s entirely superfluous and puts the brakes on the story for a full three minutes of the Beast verbalizing feelings that could easily have been conveyed in about a ten second shot of him just looking sad. It might have been fine if “Evermore” was a truly good and memorable song, but it’s completely unremarkable and Dan Stevens is only an okay singer.

The animated objects are straight up nightmare fuel.

Dead-eyed little Chip might be the worst, but all the CGI objects are somewhere between mildly unsettling and absolutely terrifying.

The Beast looks much better than I expected.

He looked awful in production stills and trailers, but he works on the big screen and honestly possesses more sex appeal than Dan Stevens does in real life.

This movie is fine, overall.

It’s at least as good as the live action Cinderella was, and if you liked the animated version you’ll probably like this one, too. I don’t know if it’s a movie I’ll want to watch over and over again, but it was worth seeing for nostalgia reasons, even if it did also prove that Disney still has a lot of work to do when it comes to crafting progressive feminist narratives.

What I’m Looking Forward to in 2017: Film

I feel like every year is a lackluster year in film anymore, to be honest, but there are still a few things I’m looking forward to in 2017, just like there were still a few things I enjoyed in 2016. Here’s what’s on my radar right now for the coming year.

Kong: Skull Island – March 3

Kong: Skull Island confuses me because everything about this movie seems way better than I would ever think yet another regressive creature feature deserves. It’s got a good cast (although predictably short on women), amazing looking CGI, and a clever sense of self-awareness that I find appealing. As a longtime lover of creature features, I am intrigued.

Beauty and the Beast – March 17

Beauty and the Beast has never been one of my favorite Disney movies, and this live-action remake is downright aggressively ugly. However, I will probably see it anyway because everyone else will be doing it.

Power Rangers – March 24

I’m a little old for Power Rangers to have been a big part of my childhood, but this looks moderately entertaining. It’s not at the top of my must-see-in-theaters list, but I’ll see it if I have the time and money come late March.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5

I don’t care that much about super heroes, but the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie was a ton of fun. I predict that by May I will definitely be in need of some fun.

Wonder Woman – June 2

I don’t have high hopes for Wonder Woman, to be honest. The trailers and reviews of the other recent DC comics adaptations have been so terrible that I haven’t even bothered with them. Regardless, I do think it’s important to support female-led super hero movies when they come out, few and far between as they are. Hey, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7

For all that I say I’m not very much into super heroes, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Spider-Man. Plus, this actually looks genuinely decent, which would be a nice change after multiple troubled adaptation attempts.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – July 21

This might turn out to be the Jupiter Ascending of 2017, and I’m more than okay with that. I loved Jupiter Ascending. I also loved Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element twenty years ago, and Valerian looks equally stunning. I’m hoping that Rihanna as a shapeshifting alien will make up for the two pouty, pasty-faced leads. Aside from the new Star Wars, this might be my most-anticipated movie of the year.

Blade Runner 2049 – October 6

I hate an unnecessary and redundant sequel/reboot of an iconic film as much as the next person, but Blade Runner 2049 comes out just in time for me to see it on my birthday.

Star Wars Episode VIII – December 15

Obviously.

Annihilation – TBA 2017

There is no trailer or release date yet for Annihilation, based upon Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same title, but I expect it to be good and creepy.

The Best of 2016: Movies and Television

This has been a weird year for me when it came to television and movies. Writing it all down in preparation for this post, I found that I definitely watched more than I thought I did, but I feel like I haven’t watched pretty much anything. Partly, this is because I spent a ton of time traveling this spring and summer. Partly, I’ve been too depressed to write about what I did watch. And partly, I actually haven’t watched as much this year as I normally would because several shows that I have enjoyed and am looking forward to aren’t getting their next seasons til 2017. When it came to movies, there just wasn’t that much that I was really looking forward to this year, particularly since I’m not very interested in any of the Marvel and DC superhero flicks. All in all, it’s just been a light year of TV and movie watching for me, and I’m mostly okay with that. On the bright side, most of what I did watch was good stuff that I don’t feel like I wasted my time on, and there’s some comfort in feeling like I nailed “quality not quantity” for once.

Favorite Television

The Expanse – SyFy
Hands down, The Expanse is the best sci-fi show on television these days. Season one did suffer from some of the same problems as Leviathan Wakes, the first in the book series, but the early addition of the incomparable Shohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala prevented the show from being quite so much of a complete sausage fest. Thomas Jane managed to make Miller tolerably complex, and Steven Strait was perfectly infuriating as colossal dipshit Holden. I do think the show could have cut some stuff to squeeze more of Leviathan Wakes‘ content into the first season, and there are times when the show’s pacing is just atrocious, but it’s beautifully shot, largely well-written, and pretty much perfectly cast. I mean, have I mentioned that they got Shohreh Aghdashloo? Season two will start airing with a double episode on February 1, 2017. In the meantime, you can stream the whole first season on Amazon Prime.
You can read my full coverage of season one here.

The Shannara Chronicles – MTV
My love for this show is likely an unpopular opinion, but I really did think that it was–overall–surprisingly decent. For one thing, it’s lovely to look at, with scene after scene of incredible scenery porn in the far-future ruins of the Pacific Northwest, and while some parts of it (particularly the look of the elf city) do owe a bit too much to Lord of the Rings, it’s not really quite like anything else out there. As someone who grew up watching Xena and Hercules and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, I have a longstanding appreciation for somewhat campy fantasy, and as someone who loved Terry Brooks’ books as a teenager, I was happy to see the show geared more for teens than adults. And sure, The Shannara Chronicles rehashes a lot of plot points from The Fellowship of the Ring. And sure, the teen drama can be tiresome at times because I’m an adult woman. And sure, the show has some problematic tendencies, such as casually adding in some attempted rape or senselessly killing minor characters for drama. But it’s a fun show to watch, and it was even more fun to write about.
You can read my season one posts here.

Game of Thrones – HBO
Speaking of shows that are problematic as all get out and fun to write about, Game of Thrones is still a thing that is happening. Every season is worse than the one before, and there’s no reason at all to think that this is going to change anytime soon, but I just can’t quit this show, you guys.
I’ve written thousands and thousands of words about this show, and you can read them all here.
Or just read my season six stuff.

Lucifer – FOX
I’ve never read the comic book this show is (apparently very loosely) based upon, so I came to Lucifer with basically no expectations. It didn’t even look that great in the early trailers for it, and Fox pushed back its original airdate once or twice, which is never encouraging. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a pretty decent show after all. Season one certainly stumbled a few times, but star Tom Ellis is handsome and charming enough in the titular role to make up for quite a few missteps in other areas. Season two started off a little rocky with some clunky changing of gears and the total abandonment of a season one plot that just never quite worked, but in the last few episodes it’s developed into a truly excellent show. The supporting cast has grown, everyone is getting a bit more to do, and all the characters feel a lot more lived-in this time around, and the easy chemistry between the members of the ensemble makes Lucifer a real joy to watch.
I’ve fallen behind on writing about Lucifer, but you can read my reviews of season one and part of season two here.

iZombie – The CW
Season 2 of iZombie wrapped up back in April, and so much has happened in my life since then that it feels like a lifetime ago. It’s also been very disappointing to not have any new episodes this fall; the Season 3 premiere isn’t until April 2017, which even now feels terribly far away. Season 2 was great, though, with some real progress made on understanding the show’s growing zombie epidemic, some really memorable cases of the week, and a finale that sets up a game change for the upcoming third season that I can’t wait to see.
Check out my iZombie coverage here.

Favorite Movies

The Lobster
This weird and wonderful little movie only got a limited release in the US back in the spring, and I didn’t actually get to see it in the theater. In it, Colin Farrell plays a man in a dystopian near-future society where all adults must be paired off and married or else they will be turned into an animal of their choice. It’s a beautiful, absurd, vaguely Vonnegut-esque and darkly hilarious story that lampoons our societal obsession with marriages and families that conform to specific bourgeois ideals. The deadpan humor and somewhat nihilistic ending may not be for everyone, but it’s exactly the kind of bold and clever risk-taking I like to see and that can really only be found in this kind of independent film.

Tale of Tales
I’ve always said that my favorite fairy tales are the weird ones, and I’ve lamented the fact that the really strange stuff tends to be passed over in favor of endless retellings and adaptations of princess stories. With Tale of Tales, based on a 17th century Italian fairy tale collection, a bunch of weird stuff has finally been brought to the big screen, and it’s glorious. I love every sumptuous detail of this movie from start to finish. Every frame of the film is stunning, with a gorgeous naturalistic quality that makes the fairy tale world seem real and lived in. The interconnected stories mirror and echo each other in strange and unexpected ways that provide plenty of material for dissection and analysis, but the film can also just be enjoyed simply as a viscerally affecting experience. This is the only film of 2016 that I can see myself watching over and over again for many years, as it’s the kind of production that I expect to see something new in on every viewing.

Equals
I wasn’t at all excited about this movie when saw the trailer for it, even though I love Kristen Stewart and like Nicholas Hoult just fine. When it got poor reviews, I just sort of wrote it off altogether, and I only came back to it late in the year when I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime. It turns out that Equals is actually a solidly decent movie. Stewart and Hoult turn in fine performances, and they have a good chemistry that sells their romance well. Everything in the movie is sleek and clean in a way that is rather charmingly retro, putting me in mind of classic sci-fi stories of this type. The movie isn’t breaking any new ground thematically, and much of the plot is regurgitated classic tropes, but everything is so lovingly crafted and generally well put together that I can forgive it for being derivative. Equals isn’t a great film, but it’s a perfectly nice and enjoyable example of its type of story, which made it a great comfort-watch in late December of this year from hell.

Warcraft
I feel like almost everyone hated this movie except me, and I’ll admit that it wasn’t completely accessible for folks who weren’t already fans of Warcraft going in. But, dammit, this movie was enjoyable, and it seemed so obviously made with love that I couldn’t help kind of adoring it.
You can read my full review here.

Ghostbusters
There was never any universe in which I wouldn’t have loved this movie, and my enjoyment of it was only enhanced by the knowledge that thousands of whiny entitled manbabies hated it. I hope they make a dozen sequels.
I wrote a full review of this one when I saw it.

Arrival
Arrival is the movie that I expect to win all the genre awards this coming year, and it deserves them all. It’s a serious original story with some good ideas, a good cast (Amy Adams is superb.), and good production values. There’s not a whole lot to say about the plot that won’t spoil it, but I was extremely pleased at how the adaptation of Ted Chiang’s marvelous “Story of Your Life” turned out. It’s a challenging story to adapt, and it worked with only a handful of relatively minor changes to smooth the translation from page to screen. That said, if you haven’t read the story, be sure to whether you see the movie or not.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
I actually won’t be seeing this one until this Friday or Saturday, but let’s be real. It’s definitely going to be one of my favorite movies of the year, so I’m going to go ahead and slip it on at the end here.

Fox’s Rocky Horror remake is dull, sexless and even more problematic than the original

rocky-horror-press-fox-2016-billboard-1548Remakes of old movies are probably never necessary, but they can often be redeemed if they can breathe new life into old stories and present the audience with a fresh perspective on dated material. Sadly, Fox’s clunkily titled The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again does neither of these things. Instead, it somehow manages to sanitize and straighten a classic piece of queer theater and highlight all of the problematic aspects of the original film at the same time.

First things first, though. There are a few things to like about this new production. Laverne Cox (while in my opinion miscast—more on that later) sparkles in the role of Frank, and a couple of her songs are truly excellent. Annaleigh Ashford’s Columbia is pitch perfect, and she does the best job of anyone on the cast to make this role her own. It’s good to see a production that is so diverse in its casting in general, and this is especially apparent in the crowd scenes. Finally, the costumes are pretty great.

So, this new Rocky Horror isn’t a complete disaster. Still, it’s not good, either.

From pure craft standpoint, this reimagining of Rocky Horror is a bit of a mess. The framing device of the theater and the choice to include some of the audience participation that is common at the still-ongoing midnight showings of the original film sounded interesting when the show was in development and suggested a sincere attempt to introduce a new generation of young people to Rocky Horror. The execution of this concept was terrible, though, from beginning to end. Even decisions that in theory work really well to set this production apart from the 1975 movie—for example, the choice to cast the Usherette for the show’s opening number—fail to hit their mark.

Ivy Levan’s soulless rendition of “Science Fiction Double Feature” is illustrated with her empty-eyed vamping around an old-timey movie theater with no coherent sense of tone or meaning. Like, I literally don’t know what they’re going for here. Similarly, while Reeve Carney’s performance as Riff Raff is overall workmanlike, his introductory solo (in “There’s a Light (Over at the Frankenstein Place) is characterized by absurd overproduction and a truly bizarre set of incomprehensible facial expressions. It’s genuinely weird and not in a good way. This kind of emotional disconnect is (with a few exceptions) a consistent thread throughout the show, as if everyone learned the words of their songs but had no idea how to bring any of the characters to life. Lowlights include the worst version of “The Sword of Damocles” I’ve ever seen and a “Planet Schmanet Janet” that wildly misses its mark, tone-wise.

The whole show would likely have benefited from live performances, which might have felt more organic. Instead, everything kind of ranges from somewhat to ridiculously overproduced, which gives the whole thing a slightly sterile feel that is enhanced by the too-clean cast and pristine (if nice-to-look-at) costumes. There’s an affectation of high camp here, but it’s too self-conscious and purposeful to have the disheveled charm of the original. Probably the perfect example of what I mean comes when we get to the floor show. Frank has Columbia, Rocky, Brad and Janet decked out in gold costumes with gold makeup, but the makeup doesn’t run when they move to the water. The original Rocky Horror had a messiness, a sort of homemade quality, that made its weird world feel real and lived in, and this remake doesn’t have that.

Perhaps the greatest sin of this Rocky Horror, however, is the sheer sexlessness of it all. There’s very little chemistry between any of the characters. Brad and Janet seem not just innocent and unworldly, but practically childlike. The connection between Columbia and Eddie feels real enough, but it’s such a small, fast-moving section of the film—and with the dinner party scene missing its cannibalistic implications—that it isn’t actually very impactful. Laverne Cox is stunningly beautiful and oozes sex appeal, but all of Frank’s interactions with other characters have been toned down so much that it’s never actually clear if any sex happens at all. Instead, everything comes off as just slightly saucy play. This is also true of Janet’s big song, “Touch-a Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me,” throughout which she and Rocky gambol around a bed like a couple of thirteen-year-olds having a sleepover—I don’t think he even touches a boob. Meanwhile, Columbia and Magenta are very specifically non-sexual in their interactions. Even the climactic orgy in the pool is stripped of most of its sensuality. Lips barely even touch, and none of the ones that do belong to two women.

Even stripping most of the sex out of the show and making what remains almost aggressively heterosexual doesn’t allow the show to completely avoid the problematic messaging of the original. In fact, it almost highlights these things even more, and the casting of a trans woman as Frank actually deepens some of the more unfortunate implications of Frank’s predatory behavior. The toning down of Frank’s “seduction” of Brad and Janet here accentuates rather than mitigates that this is rape. While there’s less actual sexual content to the encounters, the coercion is exaggerated and then highlighted by the absence of any sense that Brad or Janet are overcome by either passion or pleasure. Instead, their decisions to give in to Frank’s advances feel both more calculated and less earned.

Rocky Horror has never been a paragon of sense-making cinema, but this production turns absurdity into straight up gibberish. It does nothing to address the problem of the damaging and dated depraved queer trope, and even adds a new dimension to it by inserting a trans woman into the role of Frank—which feels especially irresponsible in a time when public fears of trans women continue to incite violence and are motivating anti-trans legislation all over the place. Sure, the ultimate “message” of Rocky Horror is still about sexual freedom, but what was significantly transgressive forty years ago is positively tame by modern standards and made more so by the determined effort to sanitize and straighten the production so it could be aired in an 8:00pm Thursday timeslot.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • It’s bittersweet to see Tim Curry as the Criminologist.
  • Christina Milian is a fine Magenta, but her wigs are godawful. That bright magenta is too on the nose, and the wigs are so monochromatic they look cheap.
  • I know I said I liked the costumes, but I hated Rocky’s gold boxers with a passion. They’re hideous and incredibly unsexy.
  • The conventioneers weren’t terrible, but they did all kind of blur together into a kind of indistinct countercultural blob of attractive bodies.
  • I wish Ben Vereen had gotten a little more screentime to stand out. His scenes felt rushed and a waste of his talent. Great legs, though.
  • Seriously, though, Laverne Cox’s version of “I’m Going Home” is incredible. Like, she’s so good that it almost redeems this whole shitshow.
  • Last thing: Richard O’Brien’s recent garbage statements about trans women have honestly kind of soured me on Rocky Horror altogether.

What to Read and Watch While Leaves Are Falling

Sure, I already published a fall reading list that should keep me very busy until 2017, but this is my favorite time of year. I just had a birthday (Thirty-four, eek!), the leaves are changing, the nights are getting slightly chilly (at least here in southwest Ohio), and I’m in the mood for comfort reading and watching some fall favorites. For me, that mostly means witches, obviously, though there are a few other things on here that are just more generally fall-feeling.

What are you reading and watching as the weather changes?

Stories to Pair With Pumpkin Spice Everything (Don’t Judge Me):

Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell
I read this little gem when it came out last September, and I fell in love with it. It’s a nice, seasonally appropriate read, and Cornell has a sequel–the more wintry The Lost Child of Lychford–coming out November 1 from Tor.com. If you haven’t read Witches, now is a perfect time to enjoy it. If you have read it, it’s a perfect time to refamiliarize yourself with it ahead of its sequel.

Of Sorrow and Such by Angela Slatter
This is another of the 2015 Tor.com novellas; it’s another witch story; and it’s another great read. While you’re at it, check out her recent short story at Tor.com, “Finnegan’s Field,” which is a good, creepy changeling tale. I haven’t gotten around to reading Slatter’s couple of short story collections, yet, but her 2016 novel, Vigil, is definitely on my to-read list.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
This is a book that I also read last September and really wished that I’d saved it for another month or so. It’s dark and funny and just a little scary, a great book if you’re like me and don’t usually like straight up horror but still want to get into the spirit of Halloween.

Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World by Jonathan Barnes, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Emma Newman, Kate Heartfield, and Foz Meadows
It’s still the year of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, and this collection of novellas is a perfect way to celebrate. Foz Meadows’ Coral Bones is probably my favorite, and it can be read alone, but I enjoyed reading all five tales together. Highly recommended for reading outdoors with a cup of tea on a crisp fall evening.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
Hogarth has been celebrating Shakespeare differently–by having well-known authors re-envision the Bard’s plays in novel form. Obviously, you should read everything by Margaret Atwood, always, but her retelling of The Tempest is a really exceptional examination of its themes of prison, grief, vengeance, and the transformative value of literature.

Nightmare Magazine‘s Destroy Horror! Special Issues
This year we’ve got People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror! which is well worth checking out. If you only read one story in the issue, make sure it’s Terence Taylor’s “Wet Pain.” It’s also not too late to pick up last year’s Queers Destroy Horror! and 2014’s Women Destroy Horror! This project just gets better and better, you guys.

The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe
This book is brand new (literally–it’s got a 10/18 pub date), but it might be my most anticipated anthology of the year. It’s got an absolutely to-die-for table of contents–with stories by ton of my favorite authors–and a gorgeous cover. I almost never get hardcover books unless I find them at the used bookstore, but this one is a must-have for my shelf.

The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece by Roseanne Montillo
Sometimes, reality is even better than fiction, and this 2013 examination of the genesis of Frankenstein is well-researched and highly readable. Even if you haven’t read the novel, The Lady and Her Monsters offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of Mary Shelley and how she came to write a classic of horrific science fiction.

Films and Television to Watch While Curled Up Under a Blanket:

Practical Magic (1998)
I cannot go a single October without watching Practical Magic at least once. I just watched it the other night with my thirteen-year-old daughter (her first time), and was struck again by how much I love it. It’s by no means a very good movie–there’s nothing like a critical watching of it to make one aware of every absurdity and plot hole–but I will always want to watch movies about women saving each other.

Hocus Pocus (1993)
Hocus Pocus is a Halloween classic that I’ve been watching for over twenty years now, and I can’t imagine stopping anytime soon.

Sleepy Hollow (1999), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Corpse Bride (2005)
This trio of Tim Burton flicks are seasonal must-watches.

Ghostbusters (2016)
loved the new Ghostbusters, and I cannot wait to rewatch it in the lead-up to Halloween. I remember enjoying the original movies as a kid, but this reboot is more fun that those ever were.

Ash vs. Evil Dead (2015-now)
This show is definitely a problematic fave, but if you like artfully splattered gore, Bruce Campbell, and Lucy Lawless, Ash vs. Evil Dead is a ton of fun.

Lost Girl (2010-2016)
This show is basically Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s more diverse, sexier, more Canadian descendant. It definitely starts to fall apart a bit in later seasons, but the first three or four seasons are pretty solid.

Gilmore Girls (2000-2007, 2016)
With a Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls coming out on Thanksgiving, now is the perfect time to binge watch the show in preparation.

Movie Review – Star Trek: Beyond

Star Trek: Beyond is an interesting addition to the Star Trek universe. Of the new alternate timeline films, it’s certainly the most Trek-feeling of the bunch, and it’s the best at making use of its ensemble cast. Unfortunately, it’s still just not that great a movie, in spite of being great fun to watch.

Somewhat, but not totally, spoiler-y review ahead.

Beyond opens with the Enterprise already three and a half years into their famous five-year mission, which is somewhat disappointing to begin with. We get to see just the last bit of the crew’s most recent adventure before the movie dives right into James Kirk’s (Chris Pine) existential crisis. Apparently, after several years of being captain of a state-of-the-art spaceship where he’s responsible for a crew of hundreds, he’s now questioning whether he wants to be there at all, and the rest of the movie is basically about how Kirk gets his groove back. While the rest of the cast has a bit more to do in Beyond than in the last two Trek movies, Kirk’s dilemma—which isn’t whether or not to stay in Starfleet, but whether or not to take a promotion to admiral, which it’s frankly unclear how exactly he’s earned—makes up the central emotional arc of the film.

Sure, this is a thin and rather boring basis for getting the audience invested in the story, but it would have been fine if equal attention had been paid to some of the other characters who are also dealing with some life stuff. Spock (Zachary Quinto), in a touching tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy, is dealing with the in-universe death of his mentor, Ambassador Spock, and his relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is on the rocks, but most of this is explored through Spock’s conversations with McCoy (Karl Urban) and several short shots of Zachary Quinto looking sad. Yes, I cried more than once, because I’m not a monster, but those tears were only partly earned (I really loved Leonard Nimoy, okay?). Spock and Kirk barely interact at all in this film, and their lack of communication could indicate problems in their relationship as well, but their whole inability to be truly emotionally intimate with each other is hand-waved at the end of the film with what feels like a wink to the audience. Kirk and Spock might spend a whole movie with hardly a word to say to each other, and their lack of communication can be explicitly pointed out in conversations with other characters, but really we all know that there could never be any real trouble in that paradise. It’s a missed opportunity to add some depth and nuance to the Kirk/Spock friendship. Instead of examining these ideas further, they instead play the situation almost for laughs.

Much was made in the week or two before the film’s release of the revelation that Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) is gay in the reboot’s alternate universe, but it turns out to be much ado about, well, not nothing, but still not much. Ostensibly, the filmmakers were trying to raise the stakes by having Sulu’s husband and daughter on the Yorktown space station that the Enterprise crew spends most of the movie saving, but the revelation of Sulu’s partner and child happens quickly and without remark. There’s no scene to properly introduce us to Sulu’s family, and between our first sight of them and their reappearance at the end of the movie they are never once mentioned. I suppose the audience ought to be able to infer the personal significance the threat to Yorktown has for Sulu, but he gets a good amount to do in this movie. Would it have killed them to include some line, clichéd as it would be, to the effect of “My family is on that station!”? In a relatively high-paced action flick, it’s easy to lose these kind of subtler character beats in the shuffle of other things going on, and I’d rather have a slightly cliché line to highlight the point than see it get lost as I think Sulu’s story, tertiary as it is, does here.

One relationship that did work well in Beyond was the one between McCoy and Spock, but even that is somewhat overshadowed by the movie’s larger events. Still, there’s real humor and a friendly chemistry on display in the scenes shared by Urban and Quinto. Their adversarial affection is perfectly pitched and cleverly written, and both actors turn in nice performances. I wish the same could be said of Saldana and Cho as the similarly paired-off Uhura and Sulu. While that pair gets to participate in some theoretically important plot material, neither actor seems to really have their heart in it, and Cho’s performance in particular feels at times very wooden. The late Anton Yelchin’s performance as Chekov is little more than workmanlike, but it’s enough for the material he’s given. He’s paired off with Kirk for the parts of the movie that he’s actually visible in, and it’s not bad. It feels as if this movie was written very intentionally to shake up some of the character pairings in order to set it apart from the previous two movies and perhaps to give each character more time to shine, but I’d say this was done with mixed success at best.

Co-writer Simon Pegg reprises his role as Scotty, and he finds himself paired with relative newcomer Sofia Boutella, who plays the cringeworthily named Jaylah, a young woman trying to escape from the planet the Enterprise crew finds themselves trapped on. I think the intent of all of Jaylah’s scenes with Scotty (and, later, Kirk) is to be sweet, but I found the overall effect to be creepily condescending, and Jaylah to be unusually and selectively naïve and childlike in a way that was consistently unpleasant. She does get a few badass moments, and the struggle to get Jaylah’s crashed ship “house” up and flying sets her up as a sort of engineering savant while also offering some moments of genuine comedy. On the bright side, Jaylah gets something like a character arc as the Enterprise crew hijacks her escape plan and forces her to help them get off the planet and stop the villain, and she even gets a truly happy ending, which was surprising. After the senseless killing of a couple of other new-to-this-installment female characters, I was fully expecting Jaylah to die tragically, so it was a pleasant surprise that by the end of the film her future is actually looking pretty bright.

Let’s talk about this villain, though. I love Idris Elba as much as the next red-blooded woman, but he’s a bit wasted in the role of Krall, who is one of the movie’s biggest problems. It’s not that Elba is a bad actor, and Krall definitely looks the part of a menacing Trek villain, but it’s never really clear exactly what Krall’s motivation is for wanting to commit such an enormous atrocity as killing a space station on the scale of Yorktown. Even when his supposed reasoning is revealed near the end of the movie, it’s not clear what his actual goal is. He’s an old soldier, and he misses war so he thinks a massive act of terrorism is going to turn back the clock on progress? Okay, but that doesn’t actually make much sense, and it doesn’t help that the revelation of Krall’s identity comes seemingly out of nowhere. In hindsight, I think I remember some hints at it throughout the movie, but the pacing is so frantic throughout that the eventual reveal feels blindsiding. It’s obvious that Krall is supposed to work as a sort of foil for Kirk, with both men experiencing doubt, unrest and disillusionment after years in Starfleet, but this isn’t explored enough to make one really care that much about it, and it’s resolved in the same pat fashion as every other conflict of the film.

On a more personal level, though, the biggest problem that I have with Beyond is that, though it does a much better job than the last couple of Trek efforts did at incorporating women characters into the story, women’s representation still kind of sucks. I already mentioned a couple of the issues I had with Jaylah, but to cap it all off she ends up damselled and has to be rescued by Kirk before they leave the planet, after which she is mostly absent until she shows up right at the end to be written out of the narrative. She does get a happy ending, as I stated earlier, but it feels much more like the tying up of a loose end than anything else—so they don’t have a repeat of uncomfortable questions like “Whatever happened to Carol Marcus?” Uhura doesn’t have to be rescued, but I loathe any time when a male character shows up unnecessarily to rescue a woman and it’s called out in the text. It’s not cute or funny, and it’s a simple aversion of the trope that is old and tired enough that it’s become its own trope. It’s 2016, and this is boring and lazy writing.

Also, and this is just sad, for all that Beyond has plenty of women, theoretically doing lots of stuff, it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. And I get it; the Bechdel test isn’t the be all and end all of measuring the representation of women in film, but it’s honestly kind of impressive just how many women appear in Star Trek: Beyond without any of them actually interacting with each other. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I don’t recall any two female characters exchanging even one word together about anything. Even when Uhura is forced to watch another woman member of the crew get killed, I don’t think they talk to each other. Instead, Uhura only talks with Krall and watches helplessly as he murders the other woman.

This general lack of presence of women in the film is made worse by nearly all of the women characters being completely useless. They get a decent amount of screen time, and they’re all doing things, but none of the things they do seem to actually matter very much. Minor villainess Kalara manages to lure the Enterprise to Altamid, but she’s quickly disposed of. Uhura is desperately working with Sulu to escape their captivity or something, but I’m still not certain I really understand what she actually accomplishes. In the end, all of the captured crew members have to be rescued by Kirk and company. Jaylah has managed to survive alone on Altamid for years, and she’s gotten the radio working in her ship, but it takes Scotty to actually get the thing in the air and off the planet. And, ultimately, Krall is defeated by Kirk in true Trek tradition—in a bout of manly fisticuffs, just two men fighting a symbolic battle between good and evil, chaos and order, civilization and barbarism, progressive values and old hatreds—without a woman in sight.

Here’s the thing, though. I still kind of loved this movie. It was highly enjoyable and had some really excellent action sequences that made me happy to have shelled out for 3D. I was happy to see Shohreh Aghdashloo being typecast as a sci-fi woman of authority; she should be in everything ever, really. I adored the tribute paid to Leonard Nimoy, and I was never bored even when the film was at its most predictable. Of the new Trek films, this one certainly feels the most Trek-like, and that counts for a lot in my book as well. Realistically, I don’t think this (or any of the new Trek movies) will be something I want to watch again anytime soon, but I’m happy to have seen it once, and I recommend it equally for lovers of Star Trek and lovers of high-energy action adventure flicks. And do see it in 3D; Yorktown is worth it.