Review: Otherbound

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Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis

★★★★☆

2014 • 400 pages • Amulet Books

When it comes to fantasy, I usually don’t like my secondary worlds squirreled away within our own. (Careful Internetting tells me that this is called portal fantasy, which is an incredibly handy phrase.) As a kid, I was just burned too many times where the real setting isn’t integrated carefully and a real part of the story. At best, I’ve seen easily bruised worldbuilding (Harry Potter); at worst, I’ve seen hideous emotional trauma swept under the rug (The Chronicles of Narnia). I fully realize and know that it can be done well—I’ve seen it done well, such as in The Magicians, an incredibly brutal deconstruction of both Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia—but I’ve developed an aversion to it.

(This probably accounts for my reluctance when it comes to urban fantasy, come to think of it.)

So Otherbound’s central conceit, that a teenager in our world experiences the life of a servant in a more traditional fantasy setting whenever he closes his eyes, didn’t appeal to me. What did appeal to me was Ana’s review at the Book Smugglers, which revealed that Otherbound was diverse young adult fiction, a rare enough quantity in and of itself, let alone diverse young adult fantasy. I decided to suck it up and give it a go.

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Review: Under the Banner of Heaven

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Under the Banner of Heaven
by John Krakauer

★★★★☆

2013 • 372 pages • Doubleday

To celebrate the Fourth of July this year, my local Alamo Drafthouse Cinema screened two films—Top Gun, which we’ve already been over, and a Quote-Along for Team America: World Police. Specifically, a Quote-Along for Team America: World Police’s tenth anniversary. I’ve never seen that movie, but watching the brief advertisement for the upcoming Quote-Along, I was instantly taken back to the political climate of the United States in the early aughts.

While the nostalgia wheel has turned to the nineties (which explains the amount of Sailor Moon and Xena: Warrior Princess I’ve been consuming) per its traditional twenty year delay, the aughts are finally far enough behind us to take a certain narrative shape. There’s even a new VH1 series, I Love the 2000s, to prove it. This is nothing new for history and nostalgia, but it is something new for me.

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At The Movies: Jersey Boys (2014)

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Jersey Boys
based on 
Jersey Boys
by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice

★★☆☆☆

2014 • 136 minutes • Warner Brothers Pictures

In our culture, musical theater, as an art form, is coded as feminine. This is due to the form’s pointed embrace of artificiality, which is so often conflated with femininity. In reality, musical theater doesn’t divide along gender or sexuality lines so easily—in my Georgia high school, everybody got involved with the spring musical. But the stereotype remains, to the point that even Camp, a film celebrating musical theater with a diverse cast, sees all the male-attracted teens go dizzy when an actual straight boy turns up.

In response, producers have begun to highlight certain musicals as guys’ musicals or musicals you can bring your boyfriend to. My beloved Rock of Ages pitches itself quite hard in that direction, what with the strippers, concert atmosphere, and stunt casting, and so does the mildly more family friendly Jersey Boys, which tells the true stories behind the success of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. In fact, both musicals are jukebox musicals that play with the fourth wall, luring in non-theater goers with songs they already love and constantly puncturing the supposed artificiality of stagecraft by talking to the audience. (Both musicals’ abuse of the fourth wall peak memorably: the script is produced in Rock of Ages and the stage is visually flipped in Jersey Boys.)

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Review: Young Avengers — Style > Substance

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Young Avengers: Style > Substance
by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

★★★★½

2013 • 128 pages • Marvel

Through sheer timing and luck, I have, in my comic book collection, Kieron Gillen’s entire run on Journey Into Mystery in single issues. I don’t mention this as a bragging point; its genius is readily available in trader paperback. I mention this because I really loved getting to follow the story of Kid Loki in weekly installments. In the digital age, it’s very easy to binge on something in days or weeks, so I really value being able to take my time with a series. (I’m doing the same thing right now with Sailor Moon. It’s awesome!) Gillen’s self-contained arc—best described as “a comedy in thirty parts and a tragedy in thirty-one”—is fun, heartwarming, thoughtful, meta, and heartbreaking, all at the same time.

And that’s without Gillen working with long-time collaborator Jamie McKelvie. I don’t mean to imply that Gillen’s writing sparkles less without McKelvie or vice versa, but the narrative and the art walk hand in hand when they’re working together. The two began their working relationship in 2003 at PlayStation Magazine UK on Save Point, a comic about gaming. (This is, to quote John Mulaney, a very old-fashioned sentence. I can practically smell my old GamePro magazines reading it.) Since then, they’ve worked together on Phonogram, the upcoming The Wicked + The Divine, and the short-lived but critically acclaimed and GLAAD Award-winning Young Avengers.

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Review: She Matters

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She Matters
by Susanna Sonnenberg

★★★☆☆

2013 • 272 pages • Scribner

The storied Bechdel Test caught some flack last year in the wake of Pacific Rim. Faced with such a fully realized female character that was, nonetheless, the only woman with a major speaking role in the film, fans coined the Mako Mori Test, which focused on testing a film’s development of a female character.

Of course, passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t mean that a text is feminist or not. Showgirls, as you may hazily recall, passes it several times, and John Carter squeaks by with a single exchange. What the Bechdel Test means that the film’s female characters have the potential to exist, however briefly, in a world where they are not defined by the men in their lives and where they can connect to each other. The test indicates a breeding ground for depictions of female relationships, be it in the film itself or in the fanworks created around it. Representation in media is incredibly important, as we’ve been over time and again. In a culture where teenage girls pat themselves on the back for not being like “other girls” and mainstream films tell us that (heterosexual) marriage is the only important relationship in your life, seeing female friendships not only validated but celebrated onscreen disrupts those harmful narratives on a visceral, immediate level. Which, to bring it back to Ms. Mori, is why fans were so unsettled to realize that Pacific Rim fails the Bechdel Test: it’s the rare—and, perhaps, only—action movie that posits that friendship is more than capable of being the defining relationship of a lifetime.

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Page to Screen: Snowpiercer (2013)

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Snowpiercer
based on 
Le Transperceneige 
by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette

  

2013  126 minutes  Moho Films, Opus Pictures

Was there ever such a tale of woe than that of Snowpiercer and its distribution?

This Boston Globe article goes into great detail about that saga, but suffice it to say that the Weinstein Company, who owns the American film rights, has done the film no favors, despite its massive popularity on director Bong Joon-ho’s home turf of South Korea. As a Radius film, American theaters balked at booking the film, given that subsidiary’s heavy involvement with video-on-demand. And when it finally got into a handful of theaters in the United States, excited viewers had to negotiate traveling to out of the way theaters (two hours, in the case of one of my friends) and waiting for it to open a week after some theaters got it. And we Americans are lucky—there are currently no plans for a proper UK release.

All of this sturm und drang was because the Weinstein Company thought that Snowpiercer was too abstract, too weird, and too incomprehensible for middle America. A reedited version was threatened, but never made it past test screenings. Unfamiliar with Bong as a filmmaker, I was prepared for something completely out there.

But nothing can really prepare you for Snowpiercer—not even reading the graphic novel, which tells a different story in the same setting. It manages to be perversely accessible, willfully surreal, truly dark, and utterly… well, itself. My friend Natalya and I have been talking about “passionate cinema” recently, right after we stopped singing “There Can Be Miracles” when we learned that Pacific Rim 2: Kaiju Bluegaloo was go. Passionate cinema is composed of films made by people who truly love the project. There’s, of course, nothing wrong with journeyman filmmaking—everybody’s gotta eat!—but there’s a unique joy to seeing something so wholehearted, so uncompromising, and so trusting of its audience.

Trust might seem an odd word to use, since Snowpiercer’s story is ultimately a simple one. But simple, as Pacific Rim told us last summer, does not mean stupid. Snowpiercer lets character beats occur physically and trusts its audience enough to never yell at them. Many have been tempted to call the film an allegory, the term of choice to elevate a simple story to sophisticated enough heights to, apparently, warrant analysis, but I agree with The Dissolve commenter Adam’s calling it a history, per Tolkien’s definition:

I’m also going to disagree with pretty much everybody I’ve seen writing about this and say that it is not a socialist allegory, not an allegory at all, but what Tolkien referred to as a “history.” In the introduction to LotR, he distinguishes the terms succinctly: “I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” An allegory is an essentially limited and controlled parallel reality whose moral purpose is made clear. A history (again, oriented not to our shared reality but to the history of the story’s native reality) opens a world which can be delved into by any number of readers who can all come out having learned different lessons and drawn wholly different parallels.

Snowpiercer, in Bong’s hands, has a purity of narrative. While Curtis, the reluctant leader of the back of the train, originally begins the rebellion to take the front of the train to save his literal class, all of his nobler impulses are stripped away, one by one, until reaching the engine consumes him. After the losses he suffers, the only way is forward. It’s simple. But Bong deconstructs it, by following it to its logical ends. If the only way forward is revolution, then the only way forward is putting the oppressed over the oppressors, perpetuating the broken system. The answer Bong hits upon for this is radical, untidy, and complicated, and best left to the film itself to reveal.

But this film is not a dry political treatise. With these wonderful bones in place, Bong elaborates with stunning concepts, from the sheer madness of the upper classes on the train (who pause a bloody battle in order to celebrate New Year), the self-contained nature of the train, to Curtis himself. Chris Evans has expressed (as much as he can) his discomfort with the claims playing Captain America has his on career, but he’s manipulating that image so well. The film sets up Curtis as the hero, with his chiseled jaw and piercing blue stare, and spends the rest of it painfully disillusioning of that idea. Watching Curtis make increasingly cruel decisions until he finally makes the right decision is the greatest action set piece of the film.

Between this and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chris Evans has spent this summer in American movie theaters anchoring diverse summer blockbusters. (Snowpiercer deserves to be a blockbuster. If Inception could do it, so can Snowpiercer.) While the rest of the characters do not get as much screentime as Curtis, they’re still just as equally lived in, from Jamie Bell’s eager, painfully young Edgar to Octavia Butler’s determined Tanya to Luke Pasqualino’s tattooed near-mute Grey. But the standouts are Bong regulars Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko, a father daughter team of drug addicts who can open the various gates to the front. As the film slowly strips itself down to almost nothing, they become the only voices of sanity. Their chemistry and, in particular, Kang-ho’s quiet but blinding charisma anchor the film in its more surreal moments. Despite being an absolute horror wimp, I find myself compelled to seek out Kang-ho and Bong’s previous collaborations.

I saw this film in theaters.

Review: X-Men — Season One

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X-Men: Season One
by Dennis Hopeless and Jamie McKelvie

★★★★½

2012 • 136 pages • Marvel Comics

Why aren’t you listening to Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men right now?

I haven’t been this excited for a podcast… well, ever. Being led gently through the saga of the X-Men by a pair of awesome, feminist-minded comic professionals who know their stuff and have great banter is one of the highlights of my week. After those forty-five minutes are up, I’m brimming with recommendations, a greater appreciation for Chris Claremont, and my love for Dazzler.

(Well, my love for Dazzler is eternal, but you get the idea. Lupita Nyong’o for Dazzler 2016!)

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Review: Landline

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Landline
by Rainbow Rowell

★★★½☆

2014 • 320 pages • St. Martin’s Press

When it comes to brass tacks, the difference between young adult and adult fiction is an issue of intended audience, not of genre. What gets them designated as young adult (and therefore placed into the hands of actual young adults) is what the literary gatekeepers of our society (publishers, booksellers, librarians, parents) think young adults want to read. Whenever I bring this up, I always point out that Malinda Lo’s graceful Ash, a queer retelling of Cinderella, was originally pitched as an adult novel but was published as a young adult novel. And, last fall, I shelved The Hobbit and Ender’s Game downstairs in young adult fiction and upstairs in speculative fiction at the bookstore. (I mean, we still do, but we don’t have an upstairs anymore.)

However, there’s no denying that there’s enough similarities in style, form, and content in the aggressive tidal wave of young adult fiction of the last two decades to make the argument that there is a genre being generated within that age range. The conflation of those two—the audience and the emerging genre, which has no handy moniker beyond “young adult fiction”—is the reason new adult fiction, despite differing from the emergent genre in that its characters are slightly older. I don’t think the genre is cohesive enough, but Rainbow Rowell’s novels are an argument for it as a cohesive, coherent genre that spans audiences.

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