At The Movies: Help! (1965)

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Help!

★½☆☆☆

1965 • 96 minutes • United Artists

In college, my friend Kathryn and I came up with a completely objective list of the Beatles rated from best to worst. It goes as follows: George (whatta saint!), Ringo (whatta cutie!), Paul (whatta ham!), and John (whattan a-hole!). Kathryn grew up with the Beatles, whereas I had just finished listening to their discography for the first time. I have this feeling that mainstream (Western, English-speaking, and white) pop culture can be understood through the dual lens of James Bond and the Beatles. I, personally, know that they have given me a better grasp on the last fifty years of pop culture in two dedicated but still manageable Big Gulps. (Television’s the hard one to get through, although my attention span is infamously shot.)

Of course, I’m hardly done with the Beatles—I’ve got to finish Beatles Anthology, Shout!, and, of course, their cinematic output. I’m endlessly fascinated by the narratives created by, developed for, and assigned to the boys, undoubtedly influenced by my nascent interest in star studies. How do all the various incarnations of the Beatles—scream-worthy mop tops, stoners, and psychedelic searchers—fit together? I still feel like I’m only at the beginning, and Help!, didn’t, well, help. A Hard Day’s Night is such an effervescent and almost pure expression of that first (to American eyes, at least) incarnation of the Beatles that anything was going to fall short of it, if only because the boys had discovered marijuana and could no longer be coaxed into doing much of anything that wasn’t music.

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Review: Sorrow’s Knot

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Sorrow’s Knot
by Erin Bow

★★★★★

2013 • 368 pages • Arthur A. Levine Books

I can’t say I’m totally sorry to have left bookselling in the rearview mirror when I left Denver, especially now that I am gainfully employed once more. (Yes, it’s publishing, no, it’s not trade publishing, and no, I’m not going to talk about it.) It’s really nice to have a predictable schedule and not have to deal with the small, interesting messes that come with working the children’s section. Or any other section, come to think of it.

But I do miss book recommendations simply falling into my lap at work with absolutely no effort. There was always a new shelf talker, bookmark, excited customer, or swag floating around. (This is why I own a City of Bones tee shirt. It lives at my mother’s house, where I wear it to clean.) Sorrow’s Knot was one such recommendation; I found the bookmark while cleaning out my pockets to do laundry. The downside of all of those recommendations, of course, is that there were so many of them that I never got around to them. But now I am very lucky to have a passive commute, where I can have my own sacred reading hour every (work) day.

So, at long last, I’ve come to Sorrow’s Knot, practically sight unseen after the summer I’ve had. Which is really the best way to come at such a hypnotic, archetypical, and yet thoroughly unique novel.

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Review: The Ten-Cent Plague

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The Ten-Cent Plague
by David Hajdu

★★★½☆

2008 • 448 pages • Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I hate it when mediums and genres are conflated. It smacks of intellectual laziness to me to insist that cartoons are inherently for children, or, in an example more pertinent to today’s book, that comic books are synonymous with superhero comics. Percentage wise, that audience and that genre, respectively, dominate each medium, but they are not inherently better suited to that thing than any other medium. With the cultural ascendency of Marvel and (in my anecdotal experience) an increased interest in comics in general, it’s important to remember the medium’s roots—and the controversy it once engendered.

David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague starts at the dawn of comic books—which starts, naturally, with comic strips in newspapers—and follows the medium through a turbulent period in American history, when comic books were blamed for the supposed onslaught of juvenile delinquency, comic book burnings actually happened (barely a decade or two after World War II!), and comic book publishers were seen as unsavory at best and demonic at worst. And this is all long before Spider-Man took Marvel to the top in the sixties.

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At The Movies: Funny Face (1957)

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Funny Face

★★★★☆

1957 • 103 minutes • Paramount Pictures

Every once in a while, I have a hankering for a midcentury film in Technicolor. Despite not having grown up on it, I find something so incredibly soothing about Technicolor’s slightly oversaturated color palette. It may have something to do with being reared on nineties-era video games, which is also the reason why I use the word “palette swap” a lot more often than you think a non-artist would. Whatever the cause, however, this impulse has dovetailed nicely with my new cinephilia, letting me kill two birds with one film.

Thus, Funny Face, which boasted the chief virtues of films I watch with my mother: it was on Netflix while I was visiting her and lolling on her orange leather couch, dithering between that and The Great Muppet Caper. (Given our adoration of Diana Rigg, this would have been a fine choice.) I vaguely remembered something about Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, and age differences, but the titles were already rolling—directly into my heart.

You see, Funny Face does not open with either Astaire or Hepburn. Instead, it opens with Richard Avedon’s clean, stylized, and bright opening credits, playing with a lightbox and fashion magazine iconography. And then off we go, following Kay Thompson’s Maggie Prescott’s military march into her offices at Quality Magazine, summoning her editors to express her disappointment. When one of them lights her cigarette, she sees pink and they’re off—with a well-choreographed roll of pink fabric into the camera lens, Thompson launches into “Think Pink,” a musical editorial. She’s capable, wry, and utterly enchanting. And for her to stand out in a film whose leads are the inherently and effervescently charming Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn… well, that’s something.

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Review: Pantomime

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Pantomime
by Laura Lam

★★★½☆

2013 • 400 pages • Strange Chemistry

I go out of my way to interrupt any continuities in my reading. According to my house rules, I can’t read the same genre twice in a row, and, more often than not, I don’t read two books intended for the same audience one right after the other. Nonetheless, there are always through lines to be found in my reading. That’s how reading works—you’re the common denominator in all of it. You are the glue that makes the context.

The through line between Tell The Wolves I’m Home and Pantomime is the kind of secret that you cannot tell. In the former novel, June Elbus cannot bring herself to face her love for her uncle (okay, it is so much better than that description suggests); in the latter, Gene cannot confide the fact that he is intersex without fear, even in the slightly more broadminded circus he takes refuge in. (Laura Lam takes the welcome approach of using first person to avoid gendering Gene’s pronouns. We’re more aware of how people gender Gene than how Gene genders himself. However, given that Lam’s quick summary of her first book for readers uses “he” to refer to Gene as he finishes out the first novel, I’m going with that. Spoilers at that link!) Even expressing himself in a way that was inaccessible to the noblewoman Gene was raised as, he has to play a part to protect himself.

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Review: Tell The Wolves I’m Home

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Tell The Wolves I’m Home
by Carol Rifka Brunt

★★★★☆

2012 • 360 pages • The Dial Press

No matter how much young adult fiction I read, it’s difficult squaring the fully realized humans that populate the vast majority of them with my own experience of adolescence—foggy, confused, and only on the road to being a person. (Tips for teens: everybody is worried about themselves. Keep your eyes on your own paper. Also, queer girls, don’t let straight girls give you makeovers. Their motives are rarely pure.) I understand why, of course. Not every author or every story needs to dig deep into the strange dreamscape that is the adolescent psyche. And every adolescent is different. But it’s important to write stories about the painful, harrowing process of becoming a person, lest kids (like yours truly) grow up ashamed of the half-formed nature that is, by rights, theirs.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home tells the story of one such teenager—June, a fourteen year old in the eighties, mourning the loss of her beloved uncle Finn. Her parents attempt to put on a brave front and refuse to discuss the disease Finn died from, while her elder sister Greta views June’s excessive mourning with cruel contempt. Only Finn’s final painting, a portrait of his nieces entitled “Tell The Wolves I’m Home”, marks his time in their lives. Adrift without Finn and vague at school, June suddenly finds a new avenue back to Finn when Finn’s boyfriend, Toby, asks to speak to her. The two begin meeting clandestinely, bonding over their love of Finn even as June has to keep him secret.

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The Week in Review: October 19th, 2014

SNL: Stage Dooring with Cecily Strong

Okay, so that was last weekend, but it was kind of the greatest.

In other news that is not my Saturday Night Live love slowly creeping to take over my life again, I’m finding a new rhythm for my life, but it’s a rhythm that particularly suits my internal rhythms, so I’m looking forward to it. Plus, I can read on my commute. I love you, New York.

Links

Stevie Nicks summons Haim to her, gives them career advice, and blesses them with gold moon necklaces. Perfection.

Batman was such a hit in The LEGO Movie that he’s getting his own spin-off movie. At least there will be a fun Batman somewhere in the world! (I mean, Gotham’s baby Bats is cute, but the show also finds a new way for him to self-harm every week, so that’s… you know… classy…)

Batman V. Superman: Grimdark Grimdark Grimdark will honor the recent reboot of Wonder Woman’s origins, by having her be Zeus’ daughter. BOO—also, holy crap, how does this square with religion? If Zeus exists, does that mean all deities exist? Or does that mean the Greek gods are the only gods? Or, more likely, the film will never address this. BOO.

Jam of the week: Daphne Guinness’ Bowie meets Gaga “An Evening in Space.” The video is NSFW, but is stunning.

Spider-Gwen is getting her own series! Huzzah huzzah!

Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a public appearance in Utah due to death threats and the state’s open carry laws. This is disgusting.

A la carte HBO is coming next year for those without cable.

DC has announced that a Wonder Woman movie is go for 2017 and that Ezra Miller will be playing the Flash on the silver screen in 2018. Oh, no, now I have to see both of those—Wonder Woman because if that movie fails, people will blame female characters, not DC’s awful films, and the Flash because, well, Ezra Miller. Darth Vader no!

Neil Patrick Harris is hosting the Oscars! I will step up my suit game accordingly for whatever Oscar party I end up going to.

Saturday Night Live’s Director of Photography Alex Buono explains the process of creating the show’s new credits for its fortieth season. Retro effects meant to evoke the seventies! Freelensing! Manipulating bokeh into tiny Saturday Night Live logos! It’s a fascinating read, complete with useful illustrative .gifs. I heartily recommend his blog for cinematography and Saturday Night Live nerds alike.

Author Kathleen Hale stalks a book blogger who posted a very negative review of her debut novel to the point of turning up at her house and then writes a self-pitying article forThe Guardian about it. I’ve read The Guardian article about it, but I’m not linking to it. A mean-spirited, scathing book review does not excuse the stalking and destroying a pseudonym created for the safety of the book blogger. Absolutely unacceptable.

Guillermo Del Toro wants Pacific Rim 2 to segue into Pacific Rim 3. Oh, let this happen. Please.

I feel incredibly lucky to have found my apartment in New York. Tad Friend’s “Crowded House” is about the unbelievable story of a famed photographer who scams people out of their money by pretending to rent his apartment (to what feels like dozens of people at the same time) and is finally confronted when the would-be renters gang up on him.

The Sailor Mercury cosplayer from the Sailor Nerds walked by me last weekend at New York Comic Con, astonishing me, and then the whole group walked by. I’ve been knee deep in Sailor Moon feels lately, as I’m watching it on Hulu and just finished the first season, and I’ve really been loving how it feels like a subversion of the superhero media that I consume. (Of course, I’m willfully taking it out of the context of magical girl anime and placing it context with Western superheroes.) Seeing a group of gentlemen cosplayers whose genderswapped designs are really thoughtful and true to the material (instead of the “ha ha look we’re dudes in dresses” tone that I sometimes, despairingly, see) was a really wonderful moment. My hat is off to you, Sailor Nerds! Y’all are great.

At The Daily Beast, Arthur Chu talks GamerGate and culture wars:

I’m scared of people who look at someone like Zoe Quinn, an individual who makes free indie games, or Anita Sarkeesian, an individual who makes free YouTube videos, and honestly think that these women are a powerful “corrupt” force taking away the freedom of the vast mob of angry young male gamers and the billion-dollar industry that endlessly caters to them, and that working to shut them up and drive them out somehow constitutes justice. The dominant demographic voice in some given fandom or scene feeling attacked by an influx of new, different fans and rallying the troops against “oppression” in reaction is not at all unique. It happens everywhere, all the time.

But let’s be honest: It’s usually guys doing it. Our various “culture wars” tend to boil down to one specific culture war, the one about men wanting to feel like Real Men and lashing out at the women who won’t let them. Whenever men feel like masculinity is under attack, men get dangerous. Because that’s exactly what masculinity teaches you to do, what masculinity is about. Defending yourself with disproportionate force against any loss of power? That’s what masculinity is.

And the myriad permutations this takes when it percolates down to the level of pop culture are fascinating.

Acquisitions

Books
Purchased: None
Added: None

Films
Purchased: None
Added: The Limey (via The AV Club), Big Night (via The Dissolve)

At The Movies: Muppets Most Wanted (2013)

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Muppets Most Wanted

★★½☆☆

2014 • 112 minutes • Walt Disney Pictures

Do the Muppets really work on the silver screen if they’re playing themselves?

As a child of the nineties, I was introduced to the Muppets as a very unique group of day players in The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, and the short-lived Muppets Tonight. Even The Muppets Movie, which sets out to tell the troupe’s origin story, is a surreal, meta wonderland. The fourth wall has always taken a well-received beating from the Muppets, from Rizzo’s shock that someone would die in a kid’s movie in Muppet Treasure Island (Gonzo reassures him that it’s literature) to the script being used as a plot device in The Muppet Movie to the very existence of Statler and Waldorf, who can considered the forerunners of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew.

When the action is about the Muppets playing other characters or different versions of themselves, it can be sublime. But when it’s about the Muppets’ lives and tries to balance resolving and leaving open their usual and necessarily unresolved character beats (Piggy and Kermit’s relationship is always on the edge of a knife, Scooter is always frazzled, Sam is always disapproving and stoic), it can fall flat. Case in point: Muppets Most Wanted.

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Review: The Mist-Torn Witches

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The Mist-Torn Witches
by Barb Hendee

★★☆☆☆

2013 • 336 pages • Roc

Last year, buoyed by the runaway success of Frozen and Sleepy Hollow, I predicted that sisters were going to be the next big thing in media. Alas, it hasn’t dominated the cultural landscape as I’d hoped, but the realization that women can have meaningful relationships with other women has saturated mainstream media to a small but significant degree. (Fun fact: Maleficent fails the reverse Bechdel test. I have no idea how the live-action versions of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are meant to top that, but Cinderella features Cate Blanchett with a cat on a leash, so I’ve got hopes.) Case in point: The Mist-Torn Witches, a fantasy novel that caught my eye while I was working at the bookstore for featuring two young women. Lovely!, I thought, and faced it out, despite being a tiny mass market paperback. (I was fanatical about facing out diverse speculative fiction at the store. It helps to see a friendly face or two.)

The Mist-Torn Witches’ young ladies are the sisters Amelie and Céline Fawe. Having lost their father and then their seer mother at a young age, the two sisters scrape together a living, with the diplomatic Céline pretending to be a seer and the rough and tumble Amelie as her guardian. One day, Céline is approached by representatives of the tyrannical sub-prince Damek, who want her to assure the Lady Rhiannon that she should marry Damek. Céline agrees, but when the girl shows up, she has her first real vision—Rhiannon being murdered by her husband. Céline warns her against the match. In retaliation, Damek has their home burnt down, but they are rescued by Damek’s brother, Anton, who wants their help in solving a recent run of bizarre murders. Pretty, unmarried women are being found not only dead, but dried to a husk. Unused to their new powers and the politics of court, Céline and Amelie have to solve the murders if they want to ever find a home again.

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