Page to Screen: Agent Carter (2015)

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Agent Carter
based on Captain America: The First Avenger

★★★★★

2015 • 8 episodes • ABC

Do I really need to tell you Agent Carter is amazing?

I kind of feel weird reviewing it, to be honest. Part of it is its obvious awesomeness to everyone I come in contact with on a regular day. Part of it is that it feels so long ago. Okay, it’s only been a month, but that’s like a year in fandom time. (I mean, the first blush of Sherlock fandom feels like another decade entirely.) And part of that is because Agent Carter is the closest thing to an original television show I’ve decided to review for the blog, being based on the Marvel Cinematic Universe instead of a specific comic, and that makes me a little nervous. Like everything that makes me nervous, that’s preposterous—it’s not as if I’m reading the Sailor Moon manga to give the anime series greater context…yet.

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At The Movies: What We Do In the Shadows (2014)

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What We Do In the Shadows

★★★★☆

2014 • 85 minutes • Madman Entertainment

I never watched The Office while it was on. Or Parks and Recreation (it’s on my list! After 30 Rock!). Or the films of Christopher Guest. I mean, I’ve seen the original British Office, which is actually a terrifying portrait of awful human beings, and I’ve seen The Thick of It and In The Loop during the dawn of my Peter Capaldi obsession last fall. Oh, and I’ve seen Spinal Tap, for… I imagine it was eighties-related reasons? That’s a pretty good assumption to make. But that’s not my point.

My point is that I am not as immured to mockumentaries as most people are. They just largely don’t interest me, as a genre, so I don’t seek them out. And If I don’t seek them out, then I can’t get bored with them. And I only seek them out when there’s something else to interest me. Like, say, the talents of Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement and Boy’s Taika Waititi. And vampires attempting to navigate modern life with all the success of, say, Sleepy Hollow’s Ichabod Crane. (Although I imagine he’s been doing better as of late, right? I stopped watching it because I’m a busy lady and Agent Carter exists.)

What We Do in the Shadows, presented as a New Zealand documentary via the hilarious use of a vintage New Zealand Film Board logo, follows a quartet of vampire flatmates—sweet, prissy Viago, lusty, violent Vladislav, brooding, mean-spirited Deacon, and basically Count Orlok Petyr—in the months leading up to the Unholy Masquerade, the biggest social event of the undead calendar. Like most mockumentaries, it wanders, despite its fleet eighty-five minute running time. The closest thing to a plot the film produces is the story of Nick, a young man Petyr sires, whose fratty behavior and allegiance to his human friend Stu starts getting the flatmates in trouble. Instead, it’s much more interested in simply pitting vampires against the modern world.

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Review: Doll Bones

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Doll Bones
by Holly Black

★★★½☆

2013 • 256 pages • Margaret K. McElderry Books

After adoring her The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Ana’s amazing review of Holly Black’s Doll Bones made the next logical step for exploring Black’s back catalog obvious. I always had books at the bookstore that I would shelve and whisper “soon” to (oh, like you don’t talk to yourself in public), and Doll Bones was one.

I am kind of tempted to point you to Ana’s review and hand you off, because she, as ever, gets to the marrow of the matter. Doll Bones is the story of three friends who have played, essentially, a homemade version of Dungeons and Dragons since they were little—Alice, Zach, and their game master, Poppy. Now in middle school, Zach is starting to feel self-conscious about his best friends being girls and playing pretend so much. When his dad throws out his figurines, he, although enraged, takes it as the easy way out of the game. But Poppy is not to be deterred, and she demands that all three go on a quest to bury the creepy, antique doll that represents the Queen in their game world because it’s supposedly haunting her. As Ana beautifully writes, it’s about growing up into a strict gender binary being enforced by the various adults around them and how all three negotiate that. While Zach, a basketball player, and Alice, a theater kid, have access to prefabricated narratives that supposedly mesh with their interests, Poppy, who describes herself as the actually weird one, doesn’t.

So instead of retreading the ground that Ana covered first (and better), I wanted to focus on Poppy. Continue reading

Review: Fearless Defenders — Doom Maidens

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Fearless Defenders: Doom Maidens
by Cullen Bunn and Will Sliney

★★★½☆

2013 • 144 pages • Marvel

One of my favorite comic book covers is the piece of art gracing the The Avengers #83, which features several Marvel ladies—Scarlet Witch, Wasp, Medusa, and Black Widow—standing triumphant over the fallen bodies of their male colleagues as an ice cold blonde known only as Valkyrie declares “All right, girls—that finishes off these chauvinist male pigs!” The story within The Avengers #83 is not as gloriously overt as the cover, unfortunately. Valkyrie is soon revealed to have been a false identity created by the Enchantress for extremely petty and dude-centered reasons. (Amora Incantare: the woman who became Dazzler’s main nemesis because she once got an audition Amora totally blew off. The Enchantress, everybody! I love her so.)

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At The Movies: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

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Shadow of the Vampire

★★★½☆

2000 • 92 minutes • Lions Gate Films

I’ve talked before about my distaste for what I call unimaginative biopics: films about artists that argue that, for all their greatness, they more or less just transcribed what they saw around them. Shakespeare in Love, Molière, and the like all try to be a humanizing (read: sexy) look at a great artist while also insulting their powers of creativity. But it’s only recently that I’ve discovered that the late, great Roger Ebert shared my distaste and articulated it far better than I have:

Well, the problem is,” he said, “movies like this are almost always based on potted Freudianism, where two or three childhood, or adolescent, episodes are trotted out to explain the artist’s work. I think great art is kind of inexplicable. What the movies do is cater to kind of a vulgar impulse in all of us to know or to want to understand how an artist is great and why. And so if we can find out that his mother didn’t love him or he was abandoned by a cruel girlfriend or he didn’t perform very well in the Army or something, then we can nod and say, ‘Oh, that’s why he was so good!’ Nobody would be satisfied, I think, with an artist’s biography that told the truth, which is that apart from any human attributes of this person, he simply happened to be able to do what he did as well as he did.”

Shadow of the Vampire could easily fall into this category. The film argues that the enduring chills of Nosferatu were all real. But the film nimbly avoids such categorization by taking that concept to its logical extreme by arguing that Max Schreck, the man who brought Nosferatu to terrifying life, was, in fact, an ageless vampire.

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At The Movies: Ghostbusters (1984)

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Ghostbusters

★★☆☆☆

1984 • 107 minutes • Columbia Pictures

 

Should we watch Ghostbusters for Halloween?

Normally, I simply announce home screenings by texting Captain Cinema (which is how she found out we’re watching New Year’s Eve for New Year’s Eve, which is one hundred percent because Seth Meyers is in it), but Ghostbusters was a question. You see, I should love Ghostbusters. It combines Saturday Night Live, science fiction, and the eighties. Had my brother, actual child of the eighties, introduced me to the film at a young age, I have no doubt that I would love and adore it.

But my brother was a Back to the Future kind of kid, who also naturally kept a small child who destroyed comics at an arm’s length from the things he loved, so I didn’t discover Ghostbusters until the universe took pity on my utter ignorance of American pop culture and I Love the 80s aired on VH1. It was one of the first movies I tried to get my hands on in high school, but I was ashamed to find that I couldn’t get into it. I didn’t really think about it (The Sound of Music is always a much more impressive example of the pop culture I’ve never experienced than any eighties film) until I was seized by an errant, quickly fading urge to watch it. If I was ever to watch Ghostbusters, it had to be Halloween.

And, having finally watched Ghostbusters, I can safely say: I don’t think I like young Bill Murray.

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Page to Screen: Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu, #5 of my top 40 HorrorsNosferatu
based on 
Dracula by Bram Stoker

★★★★☆

1922 • 94 minutes • Film Arts Guild

I have trouble watching silent films.

I learned this during an aborted attempt to watch every film adaptation of The Three Musketeers possible in college. I discovered that the old timey The Three Musketeers I had rented from the library was not, in fact, the one with Gene Kelly but a silent film, which stopped me dead in my tracks. It’s impeded me greatly in my efforts to understand film on a similar level to the way I understand prose. (Similar, not the same, as prose is essentially my native medium.)

What stops me is the perhaps one of the purest examples of urtexting: I am so used to consuming and analyzing sound films that removing what I feel is such an integral element of film leaves me utterly adrift. Of course, it’s not even removing—I’m speaking entirely from my vantage point in 2014, where all films have sound, a lack of score can be utilized as breathlessly as its presence, and Giorgio Moroder once scored Metropolis entirely with the hits of the eighties. (It’s nice to know that other people score the world the same way I do.)

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Review: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains

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The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains
by Neil Gaiman

★★½☆☆

2014 • 80 pages • William Morrow

Somewhere along the way, through no fault of his own, I lost Neil Gaiman.

Good Omens was one of the first non-Harry Potter novel I read under my own steam. (I was not a big reader as a kid; I was a repetitive reader. It was one of my first coping mechanisms for my then unfathomable anxiety.) It was a favorite of webcomic creator Stan Stanley, whose Boy Meets Boy I read religiously—and secretively—as a preteen, and therefore the first recommendation I ever came across from a source I trusted. My faith was rewarded: I devoured Good Omens and moved onto American Gods, Coraline, and Anansi Boys in short order. It was all part of what I think of fondly as my brief kindergoth phase. Despite lacking the resources, chutzpah, or basic understanding of how clothes worked to commit to the baby goth, punk, or emo (kids, ask your parents) looks my childhood friends took to, I happily lingered on the periphery, dreaming dark, Romantic thoughts of dying my hair blue and writing urban fantasy.

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Review: Mordred, Bastard Son

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Mordred, Bastard Son

by Douglas Clegg

★★☆☆☆

2006 • 360 pages • Alyson Books

What’s the dividing line between fiction and fan fiction?

Obviously, there’s the major demarcation between your intellectual property and someone else’s intellectual property, but even that hard and fast legal definition ignores the fact that the vast majority of historical fiction is real person fic and the widespread plundering of the public domain by everyone under the sun. Creatively, though, the artistic impulses behind original fiction and fan fiction are totally different. The writer of fan fiction isn’t writing in a fandom because she lacks imagination (this is me pulling out my bullhorn and bellowing “DIANA GABALDON” at the top of my not inconsiderable lungs); she’s writing in that fandom because she’s responding to that text in a very specific way. That response can be as simple as “I think John and Sherlock should make out, so I’ll write some smut” to “Watchmen doesn’t have enough female characters, so I’ll genderflip the whole thing.” And so we stumble across another line: how far away from a text can your fan fiction (or retelling, homage, or “reimagining,” as the legal and published ones are advertised) get before it simply circles back and becomes your own story in a way that is decidedly different from a fan reclaiming Doctor Who for herself from Moffat? If it’s simply keeping the names the same, what does it say that an alternative universe fic like Master of the Universe can, with little to no effort, become Fifty Shades of Grey?

So perhaps we can answer today’s first question with today’s last question, purloined from Shakespeare, that great writer of fic—what’s in a name?

In his introductory remarks to Mordred, Bastard Son, Douglas Clegg states that his intention in writing the now cancelled Mordred trilogy is to both tell Mordred’s side of the story and inject some gay representation into the Arthurian myths. These are classic fan writer impulses, and I was prepared to tuck into something along the lines of The Mists of Avalon—to see the complex motivations behind the choices we know from the canonical text.

But Mordred, Bastard Son doesn’t really tell the story of a man maligned by history for his acts in defense of the old religion. In fact, it doesn’t really tell the story of Mordred as we know it, because it never gets there. This is not something I can entirely lay at Clegg’s feet, as the trilogy was abandoned by his publisher after its publication. (He has said, as of this year, that he plans on publishing the other two installments, but they have not materialized.) And yet, for a novel about a character whose involvement in Arthur’s downfall is certainly the most iconic part of his story, Clegg is in little to no rush to get Mordred to Camelot. There’s a little bit of The Name of the Wind in Mordred, Bastard Son, as Mordred tells his story to a curious onlooker over the course of several days (with the frame story still technically in media res), neatly separating out three acts into three novels. Of course, that only works if those three acts have acts of their own. That’s the eternal difficulty of constructing a satisfying trilogy.

Telling the story of Mordred’s childhood, raised by his mother Morgan le Fay on the idyllic but isolated Isle of Glass, could have been a satisfying story in itself. With little external plot required until Mordred ventures to Camelot, it would have been a perfect opportunity to dig into everyone’s motivations, explore Mordred’s sexuality, and lay the groundwork for the story ahead. But the story Clegg ends up telling is the story of a young hero destined for greatness, whose complex relationship with his mother and his aunt, who both have very legitimate reasons for despising Arthur (Arthur raped Morgan; Morgause tried to play by the rules of the new world order and lost everything), is flattened when Morgause simply cracks, turns evil, and raises an army of the dead to kill Guinevere for reasons. Mordred must ride to her rescue. That’s one way to rehabilitate a character: completely rewrite him and leave him at the mercy of fate.

Without the Arthurian names, in fact, you would probably mistake it for a pretty generic fantasy novel notable only for its representational value. Clegg’s invented culture for Mordred and Morgan’s people sit oddly with the vaguely historical events going on, even though it fondly reminded me of gorging on mediocre fantasy novels as a preteen. There are some interesting changes to Arthurian legend that would have been fascinating to see play out against the traditional story (which we do not get to)—Merlin as a gruff bear of a man, Excalibur as a cursed, One Ring-like sword, and Mordred having to swear a vow of chastity in order to learn magic. But they fizzle. I’ll grant Clegg Excalibur, as we do not even encounter it in this installment, but Mordred’s chastity becomes the bane of his existence once he encounters a handsome hermit.

Given the novel’s fondness for telling instead of showing, despite the passing of the years in the story, this means that the topic that is discussed the most in Mordred, Bastard Son is Mordred complaining that he can’t have sex—because he’s the only gay kid in the village at first, and then because of his magical vow of chastity. Mordred as the only gay kid in the village is an odd choice, given that it’s talked about—at length—that the Isle of Glass is so pro-queer that it hosts same-sex hand fastings. Mordred’s situation is clearly meant to echo alienated queer kids in straight spaces, but the Isle of Glass is explicitly a welcoming space.

I realize that The Mists of Avalon, especially given that I read it as an impressionable preteen, has set a bar for Arthurian retellings for me that few can match. But Mordred, Bastard Son is not very interested in even trying.

I rented this book from the public library.

At The Movies: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

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Only Lovers Left Alive

★★★★½

2013 • 123 minutes • Sony Pictures Classics

There are videos and photographs in this world that show the slow, inevitable movement of the stars and the planets in slowly increasing speeds. Their orbits first become obvious, and then they become streaks of light. At the highest speeds, they all fold in on themselves, becoming halos. Eventually, everything circles in on itself in infinity. To quote Natalie Angier, remember that time and space are curved, and you will come back to me.

This fact (or observation) is very studiously echoed in the opening shots of Only Lovers Left Alive. The camera circles Tilda Swinton’s Eve as she twirls slowly, dancing to either some ecstatic inner music or. The camera circles Tom Hiddleston’s Adam as he plays a droning guitar, the muddy, drawn-out, and only appropriate music for such a scene. The film cuts neatly between them so that the circle is never broken—they’re intertwined, despite the vast distance between them. (The film later verbalizes this as Einstein’s spooky action at a distance theory, but this is much more elegant.)

It communicates so much with so little—that Adam and Eve are our eponymous lovers, that they, as vampires, are tied to strange, eternal rhythms, and that this film is about mining those outer reaches of immortality—the horizon at which everything begins to flatten and the singularity looms beyond it.

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