Review: Nimona

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Nimona
by Noelle Stevenson

★★★½☆

2015 (originally published 2012 to 2014) • 272 pages • HarperTeen

When last I reviewed a web comic turned graphic novel (Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half), I brooded upon the fact that blogs are living things while books are fixed. In that situation, I had the benefit of having followed Hyperbole and a Half for quite some time beforehand. I had experience with it as both a web comic and a graphic novel.

Not so in the case of Nimona, Noelle Stevenson’s senior thesis turned complete comic. I knew about it when it debuted, having, alongside with most of fandom, fallen in love with Stevenson’s witty and thoughtful sketches on her tumblr. By the time I decided that I did want to read the web comic, I knew it was going to be published by HarperCollins, so I decided to wait.

And I think I’m the poorer for it.

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Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender — The Promise – Part 2

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Avatar: The Last Airbender — The Promise: Part 2
by Gene Luen Yang and Studio Gurihiru

★★★½☆

2012 • 76 pages • Dark Horse Books

Of all the magnificently drawn characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender, I might like Toph Bei Fong and Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe the most. I have a soft spot for nearly all of them, but Toph and Sokka face particular challenges that make them stand out. Toph is a girl whose blindness and status has made people refuse to see her as a whole human being, keeping her from achieving her full potential as the greatest earthbender the world has ever seen. Sokka, besides being a glorious nerd with a penchant for shopping, is the only member of the Gaang who isn’t a bender and occasionally feels ignored, set aside, or just lesser because of it. The series doesn’t go too far down that path, but it’s present enough to form the foundation for the first series of Legend of Korra.

(Which I still haven’t finished. Yes, I know, bad fandom queer, bad!)

Avatar: The Last Airbender — The Promise: Part 2 (punctuation is taking quite a bruising today here on the blog), obviously, furthers the A plot of the comic—the psychological torment of Fire Lord Zuko as he tries to determine what’s best for the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom and Aang circling the question of keeping his promise to kill Zuko should the Fire Lord begin behaving like his tyrannical father. Unfortunately, the only way Zuko can get any information about his presumedly deceased mother is by visiting his imprisoned father daily, and his father’s theories about morality (namely, that those in power get to determine what is and isn’t moral) are seeping into his unconsciousness. Aang tries to run interference with the Earth King, but the Earth King’s previous blindness to the Fire Nation’s invasion of the Earth Kingdom has made him determined to fight fire with fire. (Pun entirely intended.)

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Review: The Promise — Part One

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The Promise: Part One
by Gene Luen Yang and Studio Gurihiru

★★★★☆

2012 • 80 pages • Dark Horse Books

Was there ever a dreamier team better suited to writing and illustrating Avatar: The Last Airbender comics as Gene Luen Yang and Studio Gurihiru? Yang, the amazing Chinese-American comics writer, has written eloquently in support of boycotting the heinously whitewashed The Last Airbender movie and in glowing praise of the original show drawing on actual Asian history in a respectful way for its stories in the same comic. And Studio Gurihiru (composed of Japanese artists Chifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano) is known for its endearing, lyrical, and slightly cartoonish art style, making it the perfect choice to translate the stunning gorgeous and dynamic animation of the original cartoon series. Fittingly, the two have remained joined at the hip throughout the run of Avatar: The Last Airbender comics, from “The Promise” to “The Search.”

The Promise: Part One picks up where Avatar: The Last Airbender leaves off—with the Fire Nation safely out of the hands of the tyrannical Lord Ozai and in the hands of his son, Lord Zuko. Terrified that he’ll repeat the mistakes his father did, Zuko makes Avatar Aang promise to kill him if he shows signs of repeating the past. Aang promises, of course. A year later, Aang, the Earth King, and Zuko are working towards the peaceful repatriation of the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom. But repairing the damage the Fire Nation’s century long war against the rest of the world has caused is more complex than any of them thought.

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Page to Screen: Cinderella (2015)

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Cinderella
based on the 1950 motion picture and the fairy tale by Charles Perrault

★★★½☆

2015 • 112 minutes • Walt Disney Pictures

Despite my fervently fevered hopes, there was never any real chance that Kenneth Branagh’s live-action adaptation of Disney’s Cinderella would follow in the radically feminist footsteps of Maleficent. While Sleeping Beauty is widely considered one of the best Disney films, Cinderella is the film that saved Walt Disney Animation from shutting down in the early fifties. The film and the character are so intertwined with the company that Walt Disney World is crowned by her castle. Letting Linda Woolverton turn in a script that is literally about destroying the patriarchy for Maleficent is one thing; letting Christ Weitz radically change what Jess Plummer calls the “ur-Disney movie” is quite another.

So Branagh’s Cinderella doesn’t make many changes to the original film. We do get a bit more of Ella’s childhood (including a kind turn by Hayley Atwell as Ella’s mother), an adorable meet-cute in the forest between Ella and the Prince, a more fleshed out relationship between the Prince and his father, and some half-hearted court intrigue involving the Grand Duke. Any commentary on the original text is largely kept to Ella’s characterization. The film deepens her already established compassion, best expressed in the scene where Lady Tremaine is horrified to discover that Ella pities her. She questions why things are the way they are, but the most radical implication of that is that Ella is a vegetarian. Lady Tremaine gets a sympathetic backstory in one brief scene, but a pointedly feminist retelling it is not.

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Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon

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Throne of the Crescent Moon

★★★★☆

2012 • 288 pages • DAW Books

Where is the God in fantasy?

There are speculative fiction novels that deal with faith and spirituality—while I haven’t read it yet, I am told that Mary Russell’s The Sparrow touches on it. But I don’t mean faith and spirituality as a core theme of a text; I mean faith and spirituality as both worldbuilding and character building. In my experience, fantasy worldbuilding is often predicated on the existence of gods or goddesses. There is no question that the gods exist. Their decisions make be questioned or influenced or what have you, but they made the world, they exist, and that is that. Depictions of faith and religious practice tends to be dramatically diverse—the dwarves worship their god, and the elves theirs—

It’s something I’ve never really thought about. My only religious training as a kid was pointedly not being actively Catholic with no viable option presented, so religion as a whole was never on my radar. (My mother once panicked before a family funeral and tried to make me learn the Lord’s Prayer. I was what, eighteen? Nineteen? It did not take.) Since organized religion has never played a role in my life, I’ve never wondered what kind of role it can play in secondary worldbuilding.

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Page to Screen: The Princess Bride (1987)

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The Princess Bride
based on the novel by William Goldman

★★★★½

1987 • 98 minutes • 20th Century Fox

I suspect that one of the many, many motivating feelings in my quest to CONSUME ALL MEDIA is envy. It’s the curse of the pop culture obsessive raised by non-pop culture obsessive. I, of course, had plenty of media to chew on. I was a preteen when The Lord of the Rings happened. I’m part of the Harry Potter generation, for the love of Pete. (Hufflepuff, by the way. Always and forever.) And yet, there’s still a part of me that squirms enviously when people merrily recall childhood memories of Star Wars or—more to the point of today’s review—quote The Princess Bride in near-full.

It’s not so much that I’m angry that I didn’t get to experience it that way—you can’t change the past—but rather that nostalgic love is a hell of a feeling and I’m very greedy. I’m getting better about it, but there’s still always that twinge. Of course, the only way I could actually satisfy said twinge is if I were Tilda Swinton’s character in Only Lovers Left Alive—i.e., immortal, filthy rich, and made of free time.

And when it’s good? Oh, that’s even worse. (Do keep in mind that I’m from fandom and regularly bark “YOU DORK!” at people and characters I adore.)

I’m not sure if I have anything else to say about The Princess Bride that hasn’t been said already, by the kinds of lists that introduced me to it (thanks, I Love the 80s), the coolest kid in my high school (who once took me aside at his job just to point out how flippin’ cool the twentieth anniversary cover was), and the stars themselves (see Cary Elwes’ As You Wish). I haven’t even read the original book, although I have a copy of the book at home—a gorgeous paperback copy from my hometown bookstore that smells exactly like an old speculative fiction paperback should. It’s a perennially fresh cult classic, undoubtedly aided by the fact that’s the rare fantasy comedy.

There just aren’t enough of those in the world at the moment. There are plenty of fantasy films with a funny bone—How I Met Your Dragon, anyone?—but comedy is not their raison d’etre. Your Highness was the last mainstream fantasy comedy to hit theaters in 2011, and it bombed so poorly that there is (I am told) a joke in This is the End about it. Galavant made a go of it recently, but it’s hardly revitalized the genre. The Princess Bride still stands head and shoulders above the rest.

And that’s because The Princess Bride is supremely disinterested in parodying fantasy. At no point does Fred Savage’s grandson (two degrees away from too cool for school before the story enraptures him) question exactly where Florin and Guilder is in the real world, where the fantastical elements come from, or how Inigo manages to learn the events of the last third of the film while blind drunk in another part of the movie. Instead, the film’s humor derives from the breaking of the fourth wall via the grandson and his grandfather, as well as a truly witty script. There’s a reason it’s so eminently quotable—it delights in wordplay and elegant humor in a way that few films do. A lot of modern comedies are focused solely on the script, as Tony Zhou rightfully points out in his Every Frame a Painting episode on visual comedy, but The Princess Bride carries off the same focus with grace and aplomb. That’s mostly because the story is as invested in its characters’ emotional lives as it is in their witticisms; I can never watch this film without tearing up at Mandy Patinkin’s performance as Inigo, given his intricate connection with his role. (If you don’t know that story, you owe it to yourself to find out.)

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Watching it again as a grown woman and not a feckless teenager, it’s very glaringly a white boy’s club to the point that I started getting uncomfortable. Robin Wright is luminous as Buttercup, but she gets so precious little to do that I’m now itching for The Congress or House of Cards. (The Congress is more likely, since it’s so focused on the consumption and exploitation of her image.) IMDb informs me that Carrie Fisher was the first choice for the role; I’m not sure any film could withstand the amount of sassy eyebrows thrown had she been cast.

I saw this film at Videology.

At The Movies: Into the Woods (2014)

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Into The Woods

★★★½☆

2014 • 124 minutes • Walt Disney Pictures

While I was a theater kid in high school and college, it wasn’t because I was the kind of kid who put on skits for the family and adored The Wizard of Oz. It was because the high school debate team, after I proved to completely suck at actual debating skills and not suck at acting, had no idea what to do with me and the high school theater director kind of did. So when I turned up for my big girl acting class, the one I had to audition to get into, I found myself surrounded by the common American theater kid—bright, chatty, performing types who talked about famous plays and musicals I had never heard of. I was so ashamed of how little I knew that I never asked, so I only learned that Stephen Sondheim existed when the film adaptation of Sweeney Todd came out. (Tiring of Tim Burton, I immediately began delivering spirited rejections of the film’s hotification of Todd and Lovett to anyone who brought it up. I was incredibly charming and popular, as you can imagine.)

But at least one theater kid took pity on me, and I eventually watched the filmed version of Into The Woods in said theater kid’s basement during a slumber party. It became and remains my Sondheim musical, although I’ve largely left theater behind at this point. And so when Disney announced that there was an Into the Woods film adaptation in the works I was… excited. Movie adaptations of musicals (or even just officially released video of the musical itself) are fantastic, especially when you haven’t got a chance of seeing a show unless it rolls into town.

Others were less excited.

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Page to Screen: The Hobbit — The Battle of the Five Armies

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien

★★★½☆

2014 • 144 minutes • Warner Brothers Pictures

“We’re still on for seeing The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies tomorrow, right?”

“I’ve scheduled it in as ’12:05 PM: UGH’ on the calendar.”

Yes, it’s been a long time since I excitedly herded a pack of Valkyries to the midnight premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey back in 2012 resplendent in a homemade Fili costume. Despite the fact that my heart has ever beat for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings ere we met, Les Hobbitses un et deux have both proven to be lesser footnotes in the canon of Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies shares much of the same problems with its predecessors. All of The Hobbit films heavily rely on CGI that gives the whole proceedings the weightless, stakes-less look of a mid-aughts video game that can only look worse when compared against the jaw-dropping tactility of The Lord of the Rings. The literary protein powder required to bulk up The Hobbit into a trilogy, while organically sourced from the Appendices, ends up muddying the narrative structure. (As in food and as in fashion, it’s always easier to edit down from too much than the opposite.) And the overwhelming nostalgia for the original trilogy that saturated The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug takes new form in pointed elbows to the rib about Dúnedain kids showing promise.

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Review: The Rose Throne

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The Rose Throne
Mette Ivie Harrison

★★☆☆☆

2013 • 400 pages • Egmont

The Rose Throne sold itself to me by simply including two princesses as its leads. (Itself, I say, as if there isn’t a marketing team at Egmont who did their job well. Although it does say something positive about the young adult market that they thought promoting two princesses who interact with each other meaningfully was the way to young readers’ hearts…) The cover copy, which I surreptitiously flipped through while I worked at the book store, promised two princesses pitted against each other by court politics in a way that did not make me fear that they would hate each other at first sight because they didn’t get along with other girls or some equally noxious and boring narrative excuse. I dreamed of two princesses finding an alternative solution to whatever court intrigue was at hand. What I got… was almost that in a peculiarly frustrating way.

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Review: The Mighty Thor — Volume 2

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The Mighty Thor: Volume 2
by Walter Simonson

★★★★½

2013 (originally published 1984) • 238 pages • Marvel Comics

There is something about old school fantasy—sf that was produced between 1977 and 2001 and the attendant/appropriate rock and heavy metal—that fascinates me in a very specific way. It’s this kind of unwarranted nostalgia for something I’ve never experienced, somewhat similar to my love for the eighties. But this is more specific, usually coming with daydreams of reading poorly designed Tolkien paperbacks out on the roof in the summer of 1995. (The flannel shirt tied around the waist of this teenager who never was goes, of course, without saying.) Something about that entire configuration has been setting me on fire lately, and I’ve been trying to tease out why.

Upon reading the second volume of Walter Simonson’s legendary run on The Mighty Thor, I think one factor is just good old-fashioned Norse mythology. Its sweep covers both the fantastic and the mundane, the epic and the low, the bombast and the humanity. And you certainly can’t beat the location. It’s the kernel of fiery truth that many bad Tolkien imitators completely miss, focusing on the trappings and not the heart. (Look, nobody can be the second Tolkien, okay? The degrees required alone would bankrupt you in the United States. We just need to make peace with that and move on.) Simonson not only acutely understands the emotional underpinnings of Norse mythology, he understands where that ties into the unique bombast and mythology of Marvel comics.

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