Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rapunzel gets more done in one song than I get done all day! : A Look at Tangled

Tangled is wonderful.

I went to see it out of pure obligation, all ready to hate it because of the CGI and the fact that it looked nothing like Rapunzel, but it won me over. I loved it. I have now seen it twice. I even paid the ridiculous price and saw it in 3-D today as a reward to myself for winning NaNoWriMo (*bows head proudly*). I laughed a lot. I squealed with joy. I got chills and leaned forward in my seat and cried. The animation is beautiful, the songs are splendid and the story is good. It's not Rapunzel as the Brothers Grimm told it, but there were enough references to keep me happy--one in particular which I would tell, but then you would have every right to kill me. Going in, I was especially curious to see how they handled one of the story's more infamous plot points.

In the fairy tale, the Prince visits Rapunzel in the tower at night when the Witch isn't there. And at the end of the fairy tale, there are twin babies, even though there was no wedding. It was a fun day when little Erin realized this meant they had had sex during those nightly visits. The Brothers Grimm got a lot of complaints from parents about that one and had to do their fair share of moral clean-up, but it's there. Needless to say, Disney cut this. And even though I would have liked to see the House of Mouse pull off late-night tower trysts and premarital pregnancy, maybe now is not the time. Besides such a thing would most likely make the planet fall of its axis, and we wouldn't want that to happen.

I did quite a bit of griping when the trailer first came out because this clearly was not the Rapunzel I knew and loved. But Tangled knocked me off that high horse but quick. I enjoyed it too much. The fun thing about fairy tales (besides the gore and the Jungian archetypes) is that they belong to a colorful, fascinating tradition. Through the centuries, storytellers passed fairy tales down to the next generation changing details, adding twists and putting their mark on them. Disney has gotten a lot of flak for tampering with their source material, and yes, when it's a book or a literary fairy tale (hello, Little Mermaid), I get the griping, but when the story's from the oral tradition (as Rapunzel is) Disney's doing what storytellers have always done. After all, at its most basic, what is Rapunzel about? A girl with hair long enough to climb spends her days locked in a tower, the prisoner of her overbearing foster mother, until a man comes to the tower and rocks her world. And that, at its most basic, is what Tangled's about. The difference is in the details. If I hated Tangled because it isn't exactly like the fairy tale, I would also have to hate Revolting Rhymes, Ever After, The Company of Wolves, Kissing the Witch and Ella Enchanted (the BOOK), and I love all those things--note I said Ella Enchanted the BOOK. Besides the nice thing about this post-printing press, post-Internet world we live in is that you can still read the Brothers Grimm version any time you want.

"Oh, don't mind us. We're just going to stay in and have illicit relations that will scandalize parents for generations to come. You two enjoy your adventure."

Anyway. With that off my chest...

In Tangled, Rapunzel is a fully developed character, torn between obeying her mother and becoming her own person. She fulfills her fair share of princess stereotypes (pretty, sings while she cleans, animal sidekick), but her main focus is not a prince or true love, it's becoming a woman in her own right and discovering the world on her terms. Also some kind of miracle must have gone down at the Disney studio because they managed to produce a love interest who is not simply a love interest, but ALSO a fully developed character. His name is Flynn Rider, and I have a big crush on him. I am always a sucker for boys and girls working together on an equal plane, and this movie delivered that: two fully developed characters working in tandem, being equal partners, having awesome adventures AND actual conversations before they fall in love. Someone sound the trumpets! My biggest problem with The Princess and the Frog was that the romance between Tiana and Naveen felt way too rushed. One minute they hated each other, the next they were in love. Rapunzel and Flynn actually become friends during their adventure. And it's fun. Yes, the main action of the movie goes down over the course of three days, but I still felt like I knew them and they knew each other.

Speaking of which, Tangled seems to have sorted out a lot of the problems I had with The Princess and the Frog. Don't get me wrong. I like The Princess and the Frog. The animation is beautiful, and Tiana is kickass, but now when I watch it, it feels a little...preachy. Disney was way too aware of its reputation making that movie. I'm thinking primarily of the Charlotte's princess obsession, and Tiana's father's speech about "it takes more than wishing." I could practically hear the Disney people saying "See! See! We know what we've done in the past, but loooooook! We have a head on our shoulders now!" That doesn't make the animation less beautiful or Tiana less awesome, but it does take me out of the movie when I watch it now. I had a few teeny, tiny problems with Tangled's story, but for the most part it's good and tight. I got completely lost in it both times. The commercials made Tangled look like a Dreamworks knock-off, but it isn't. It has the heart of ten Shreks plus two. It feels like a Disney movie.

As for the voices: Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi and Donna Murphy are the headliners as Rapunzel, Flynn Rider and Mother Gothel (the villain) respectively. When I heard Mandy Moore had been cast, I was concerned that come movie time, I would only see and hear Mandy Moore and not Rapunzel (such is often the case when famous people do voice work). However, I need not have worried. Her voice fit the character to a tee. It's a credit both to her performance and the strength of the animation that I only ever saw and heard Rapunzel. Donna Murphy, an acclaimed Broadway actress, does a deliciously evil turn as Mother Gothel. I had a few issues with this character (which I would go into if they didn't totally spoil the movie), but Murphy's performance was not one of them. She has one of those voices that can bring out a myriad of sounds in one word, adding a lot of life and nuance to the character. And boy can she sing. Zachary Levi was the real surprise here. Evoking Errol Flynn (the character's namesake), he makes Flynn sarcastic but never smarmy, lovably arrogant, very funny and refreshingly genuine. Brad Garrett, Jeffrey Tambor and Ron Perlman are a few of the familiar voices that add to the fun. And everybody does their own singing! Yay!

As for the animation: I'm a sucker for hand-drawn. I will always love hand-drawn. I will always resent that Disney felt the need to abandon the artform that gave them their start, the artform American animation was built on. I've never understood why computer animation is considered a higher level of animation, as if hand-drawn evolved into computer animation. They're two different kinds of animation, two different means of creating art. I enjoy both as long as there's a well-told story behind it all, but I still nurse an aching loyalty to hand-drawn. Until Tangled, I always felt that as moving as Pixar's films are, there's an intimacy and warmth to hand-drawn animation that CGI can't imitate. Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 did their part to challenge that, but Tangled pushed me over the edge, probably because it is a Disney movie (not a Pixar movie being released by Disney) and I no longer felt the need to be defensive. Throughout this movie, you can see so much life and emotion in the characters eyes. You can count individual blades of grass and almost feel the sun on your face. Rapunzel's hair looks real. And there's one scene (again I can't spoil it), that moved me to tears, because of the combination of everything: music, story and animation. The scene was so astonishingly beautiful, I couldn't help crying. I was just so happy to be a part of it.

As for the music...whew, this review is getting long. Let's just say I bought the soundtrack as soon as I got home, and I've been playing it non-stop. If "I See the Light" doesn't win the Oscar for Best Song, I will be one unhappy camper.

There's been a lot of hoopla about how Disney has decided to move away from fairy tales and princess movies in the coming years. They actually changed the title of the movie from Rapunzel to Tangled to assure audiences that this wasn't (GASP) a GIRL'S movie (shudder). On one level, I agree with the title change, because this isn't a straight retelling of Rapunzel; it's a completely new take on it. It would be damn confusing if every retelling of Cinderella were actually called Cinderella. However, Disney's REASON for the title change makes my blood boil. Flynn Rider's prominence over Rapunzel in the advertising was another result of this blatant sexism (and Disney, I love you, but it is sexism). My theater was PACKED with boys AND girls, and everybody seemed to be loving it. Put that in your market testing pipe and smoke it, Disney. Not to mention the fact that there are LOADS of fairy tales with boys at the center. Or that there are LOADS of NON-fairy tale stories you could tell about girls. Or that it's flat out wrong that boys apparently have to be catered to and bathed in testosterone every time they go to the movies, while girls are expected to enjoy anything--even though girls are consistently and repeatedly forced to serve as tokens or love interests in movie after movie. Tangled is not just a princess movie. It's the story of a young woman's coming-of-age. And so far, it's pretty darn successful--the most successful opening weekend a (non-Pixar) Disney animated movie has had since The Lion King in 1994. I know it's not just Disney. It's all of Hollywood, but I hope Tangled does its part to prove that audiences want and need movies about girls, fairy tale-based or not.

In short: Go see Tangled. It's very good. That is all.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Silly old bear.

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy.

Obviously, I have to turn in my mouse ears because I did not even know this was in the works. A hand-drawn Winnie the Pooh based on the original A.A. Milne stories!

I love Winnie-the-Pooh. I love the books, and I love the Disney cartoons. These cartoons, starting with the first animated short "Winne the Pooh and the Honey Tree" in 1965, purposely imitated the look of E.H. Shephard's classic illustrations. They include numerous short subjects, feature films, and TV series. I've been reading and watching Winnie the Pooh forever. I cried when I learned that Disney had lost the rights to use Christopher Robin for their TV series and had replaced him with a girl character. So when I saw this trailer for a new movie to be released in 2011, I was struck dumb with delight.

First of all, it's hand-drawn. That alone would be cause for rejoicing. I'm excited for Tangled (even if it looks like no version of Rapunzel I ever read), but Tangled is CG. As much as I love Pixar, hand-drawn animation feels like home to me. Second of all, Christopher Robin is back. From the start, the tears were biding their time, but as soon as Christopher Robin appeared (a little taller if I'm not mistaken), the floodgates burst open. Also the new movie is based on Milne's stories and features the "book format" of the original Disney-Pooh cartoons.

Did I mention it's hand-drawn? Beautifully hand-drawn too, from the looks of things. The combination of Pooh and old-school animation is almost too good to be true. Pooh needs to hand-drawn. There's a warmth and melancholy beauty to the Hundred Acre Wood that hand-drawn animations brings out so well. I am a slave to nostalgia (especially Disney nostalgia), so this well and truly made my day. I officially can't wait.

In the meantime, if you ever want to know why "pooh" is the best thing to say to swan, I will happily tell you.

P.S. That uncannily appropriate song in the background is Keane's "Somewhere Only We Know."

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Because it isn't Halloween without Tim Curry

This clip is from 1986's The Worst Witch, one of my favorite movies and a staple of every Halloween since I was nine. Based on a series of books by Jill Murphy, it's about Mildred Hubble, a student at Miss Cackle's International Academy For Witches who can't seem to get anything right. Though the movie centers around Mildred's misadventures, it bows down to this scene where the Grand Wizard shows up at the school's Halloween celebration. The Grand Wizard's exact political position in this world is somewhat vague, but he's important and the entire witch population is in love with him. And of course he's played by Tim Curry. And he sings. In front of some of the worst special effects the 80's ever produced. The song itself is pretty bad too ("Has anybody seen my tambourine?"), but as usual Tim Curry brings the awesome to the table, elevating this to a level of so-bad-it's-good hilarity.

By the way, Tim Curry was on Criminal Minds this season. And he was terrifying.

I am doing National Novel Writing Month this year, which means I have to produce a 50,000 word manuscript in 30 days starting November 1...TOMORROW! So you probably won't be hearing from me for awhile. Here's hoping I make it. Good luck if you're doing it too, and Happy Halloween! Watch out for those toads in your bass guitar.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Where Are You Going and What Do You Wish?" : A Look at Wynken, Blynken, and Nod by Eugene Field

This is another of my favorite poems. I first heard it on an episode of "Sharon, Lois, and Bram" (please tell me I'm not the only one who watched that show) when I was very, very small and I've loved it ever since. It was the first time I can remember being surprised by an ending--I still think of it as a twist. I gained a whole new appreciation for it two years ago when I experienced very bad insomnia for the better part of October. I was very frightened and unsettled and then I discovered this version of the poem on YouTube--see below. It's sung by Wendy Craig off an LP (!!!) from the 70's (hence the scratchy sounds in the background). It's the poem in full set to music and for some reason, it was the only thing that could get me calm enough to sleep at night. Even if I hadn't loved the poem before, this would have made it one of my favorites. I had it memorized pretty fast, so I started saying it to my ceiling at night and I was usually asleep by the last verse. Worked like a charm. Truly the perfect lullaby

If you haven't heard or read it before, check it out. It's really a beautiful poem and I love how Wendy Craig sings it.

My favorite part:
"’T was all so pretty a sail it seemed
As if it could not be,
And some folks thought ’t was a dream they’d dreamed
Of sailing that beautiful sea—
But I shall name you the fishermen three:
And Nod."

P.S. I've always wanted to use "Where are you going and what do you wish?" as a title, but it sounds so much like Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Very, very different story. So it will have to do for a title here.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Halloween Potpourri: BOOKS!!!

It's that time of year again--the only time of year (unfortunately) when it's acceptable to dress up like a gross imitation of something you are not and demand candy of your neighbors. Halloween was always my favorite holiday growing up, and I still look forward to it like a little kid even though I'm told I'm now "too old" to go trick-or-treating. Whatever, neighbors. If you don't want to see my awesome costume, it's your loss--not that I'm bitter or regressing or anything. So if you are like me, too old to party like you're eight years old, but still in love with the all the frightening fun of the holiday, then this list is for you. It's a collection of spine-tingling books and short stories to get you in the mood.

1. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1820) - "The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head."

This classic tale of superstition gone awry in the Hudson River Valley circa 1790 haunted my entire childhood. Few characters have scared me as much as the Headless Horseman did--not helped in the least by the fact that Sleepy Hollow is a real place. I not only believed in him, I thought he would take time out of his busy schedule to come to New Jersey, hunt me down, and steal my head. This made it all the easier for me to relate to Ichabod Crane, Irving's dubious hero whose masochistic love for ghost stories helps bring about his downfall. Told with wit and vivid imagery, an adult reading of the legend reveals it to be more of an indictment of superstition than an actual ghost story. When Ichabod decides he wants to marry Katrina van Tassel, the local It girl, he incurs the wrath of her brutish suitor Brom Bones--who let's just say probably uses antlers in all of his decorating. Ichabod wears his fear on his sleeve, giving Brom just what he needs to get rid of him. Is the Headless Horseman real? Is the figure Ichabod encounters in the woods man or monster? Irving leaves it up to us to decide, but he definitely has an answer in mind.

2. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962) - "First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys."

"Be careful what you wish for" has rarely been conveyed as beautifully as in this beloved Ray Bradbury novel. Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show is a demonic traveling carnival that ensnares its victims by promising to grant their deepest desires. Only two boys, best friends Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, suspect something rotten beneath the surface and they set about trying to conquer the evil--before they fall prey to its temptations. The villain Mr. Dark is a scary customer indeed, and the book poses serious, thought-provoking questions about regret, longing, and why we want what we want. Lyrical and genuinely frightening, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a must for Halloween. It even starts on October 24--TODAY! Take that as a sign.

3. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962) - "My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance...Everyone else in my family is dead."

I finished this literally last night and I am absolutely in love with it. To my shame, I had never read any of Shirley Jackson's novels before this, but now I want to read everything she wrote. Constance and Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood have been outcasts in their small village ever since a sprinkling of arsenic in the sugar bowl killed everybody in their family except the girls and their Uncle Julian. Constance who was accused and acquitted of the murders now leads a mostly agoraphobic existence, while the childlike Merricat wanders the woods with her cat Jonas, dreaming of living on the moon. When their long-lost cousin Charles drops in for a visit and starts filling Constance's head with strange ideas, Merricat knows she must do all she can to protect her sister. I devoured this book in one afternoon. The characters are some of the most wonderful I've ever met and their world is deliciously creepy and quietly disturbing. Shirley Jackson stirred my envy with her subtle clarity and pitch black sense of humor. She is an astonishing writer. I highly recommend spending a few hours with the Blackwood family. I know I won't forget my visit any time soon.

4. The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1816) - "Nothing pleased me more than to hear or read tales about spirits, about witches, about dwarfs; but over everything there hovered the Sandman, whom I used to draw with chalk or charcoal on the tables, in the strangest and most horrible shapes."

Fear makes children of all of us, no matter how grown-up and mature we consider ourselves to be. This idea lives at the center of E.T.A. Hoffmann's chilling short story about how childhood fears continue to affect us long after we leave childhood behind. Growing up, Nathaniel had been told stories of the Sandman, a monster who steals the eyes of children who don't go to bed when they're told. Meanwhile, a real monster was loose in his home: his father's business partner who took sadistic delight in frightening Nathaniel. Young Nathaniel came to think of this man as the Sandman, merging fantasy with reality. Years later, as a university student, a chance encounter with a stranger who resembles his "Sandman," resurrects all sorts of disturbing memories, sending Nathaniel down a dark path where the line between fantasy and reality ceases to exist. The German Romantics were all about exploring the uncanny, and few did it better than Hoffmann (who also penned the story that became The Nutcracker Ballet). He tells the story partly through letters and partly from the perspective of an unnamed first person narrator who is not one of the main characters--implying that it may be Hoffmann himself and blurring the line even further. The Sandman does a number on your mind and imagination. By the end, you're not sure what was real, what Nathaniel imagined, and what you imagined. It's a disturbing, fascinating story that reveals new layers with each reading.

5. The Witches by Roald Dahl (1983) - "In fairy tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy tale. This is about REAL WITCHES."

Think you know how to spot a witch--a REAL witch? Well, here's the perfect guide. My love for the work of Roald Dahl has been a topic of discussion here before, and this is one of my favorites. Dahl takes a page out of Hoffmann's book by blurring the line between fact and fantasy. He drew on elements from his own childhood to create his young (also unnamed) narrator and his cigar-chomping, witch-wary Norwegian grandmamma. For all I knew, the scene where a witch, snake-in-hand, approaches Our Hero in his treehouse could have been based on Dahl's own experiences! This gives you a good impression of where my mind was as a kid. The story is fantastic, Our Hero is a true hero, and as always, Dahl's sly, slightly sadistic sense of humor shines through. Quentin Blake's illustrations capture the childlike wildness of the book. My favorite line: "For all you know, a witch might be living next door to you right now...she might even--and this will make you jump--she might even be your lovely schoolteacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment." You can almost hear Dahl muahaha-ing in the background.

6. Sharp Objects (2006) and/or Dark Places (2010) by Gillian Flynn -

"My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly." -Sharp Objects

"I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ." -Dark Places

Gillian Flynn is one of my favorite authors writing today. She has two novels out now and both of them are excellent, so much so I was up well past my already obscenely late bedtime reading them. And then I was too scared to go to sleep. They are brutal, unforgiving books that grab you by the throat and force you to follow them. Not that you'll put up much resistance, I guarantee. Sharp Objects concerns Camille Preaker, a journalist who is forced to confront the demons of her childhood when she returns to her Missouri hometown to cover the murder of a pair of local girls. Dark Places is about Libby Day, who at seven years old delivered the testimony that put her 15-year-old brother Ben away for the murders of their mother and two sisters. Years later, as a bitter, depressed adult, she gets a call from an organization called the Kill Club that claims they can prove why Ben is innocent. Neither book is easy to read content-wise, but Flynn has such a strong voice (the kind you can hear in your head) and creates such vivid, true-to-life characters, it's impossible to look away. Not for the faint of heart (or stomach), these books are perfect for a chilly fall evening. But beware--you might be afraid of your own shadow by the time you're done.

7. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898) - "If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children?"

I devoted an entire entry to this novella last year around this time so I won't delve too deep, but since I reread it every Halloween, I couldn't exclude it in good conscience. A naive young woman gets a job caring for two children, a boy and a girl, in an isolated manor belonging to their handsome uncle. After strange things start happening around the house, she begins to suspect that the ghosts of two former servants have possessed the children. Are the ghosts real or the crazy result of a paranoid, sexually repressed mind? And just who is the object of the governess's affections in this so-called "love story"? The Turn of the Screw has been analyzed and debated for decades and there are no answers except the ones you come up with. Disturbing, frightening, and utterly absorbing, this is the ultimate ghost story...or is it?

8. Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann (1845) "Anything to me is sweeter / than to see Struwwelpeter!"

The subtitle for Struwwelpeter (which is usually translated as Slovenly Peter or Shock-headed Peter) claims it's a book of "Happy Tales and Funny Pictures." Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a horrifying book. Written by the author as a CHRISTMAS PRESENT FOR HIS SON, it's a book of cautionary tales, explaining (in rhyme no less) what happens to children who misbehave. For example: ignore proper hygiene and you will become an ugly, downright frightening looking outcast deserving of your isolation and destined to one day be on the cover of a horrifying children's book. Also: Playing with matches is dangerous. If you play with matches, you will set yourself on fire and die and your cats will weep for you. Think of your cats, children! And best of all: Do not suck your thumb. If you suck your thumb, the Long, Red-Legged Scissorman will BREAK INTO YOUR HOUSE and CUT OFF YOUR THUMBS!!! Yup. I have had nightmares about the Long, Red-Legged Scissorman and I never sucked my thumb. And I was in college when I discovered this book. So there you go. It's awful, but I would lying if I said I didn't LOVE Struwwelpeter in all its morbid glory. Apparently, every German child knows these poems by heart (as my German professor demonstrated for me--they're even scarier in German). It was featured on an episode of The Office, courtesy of Dwight, of course. There's even a Struwwelpeter museum in Frankfurt which is AWESOME. I had the good fortune to be there alongside a class trip of six-year-olds who were adorable and not at all put off by all the pictures of bleeding and dying children adorning the walls. Good stuff.

And just for fun...


Whew. And that, my dears, is all. If one of these books sends the proverbial chill down your spine, I have done my job. Happy Reading!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In Which the Blogger Rejoices

"And now for the last brook, and to be a Queen. How grand it sounds." -(Alice) Through the Looking-Glass

I have good news, pickles. I've been published. After 23 years of working, wishing, and waiting, it's finally happened. My short story, "Slut" has been published by a brand new magazine called Dark Moon Digest. I received my copies yesterday and they look wonderful. It's surreal and overwhelming to see my work finally in print, but above all, it's amazing. I'm so grateful and happy.

And now for some shameless self-promotion...the issue is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble's website. I highy recommend checking it out. After all, I can vouch for the author.

Amazon: (I'm partial to Amazon because they include a cover image and an editorial review, but I want to support Barnes and Noble too).

Barnes and Noble:

I don't quite believe it yet, but I'm still so happy. And more than a little terrified.

I'm also happy to be able to report this on the same night as the successful rescue of Chile's 33 trapped miners. Wonderful, wonderful news.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"We Like It and We're Pretty Sure You Will." : A Look at Time Bandits

"God isn't interested in technology. Look how He spends His time: 43 species of parrot, nipples for men...SLUGS! He created slugs! They can't hear, they can't speak, they can't operate machinery. I mean are we not in the hands of a lunatic?"
--(Evil) Time Bandits

Times Bandits is the story of a little boy who travels through time and fantastic realms in the company of outlaw dwarfs. It's not your average kid's movie. It's frightening, filled with dark adult humor, and quite bleak in some places. I wish I could say it's one of my favorite movies. It sounds like it should be (fairy tales! mythology! evil technology! Monty Python! David Warner!) but it isn't. As is often the case with Terry Gilliam's movies, I like the idea of it better than the actual thing. I found it overlong, confusing, and even a bit boring despite its terrific cast and adventure-ridden plot. That said, there are some wonderful parts so I would recommend seeing it at least once. It also has one of the most unique and hilarious trailers I've ever seen.

I love a good trailer. Sometimes I like a trailer better than the actual movie. Case in point. In the trailer for Time Bandits, clips from the movie play while the Classic Trailer Guy Voice keeps going off-script to the exasperation of Michael Palin--who has a role in the film. It's so inventive. The clips intrigue you, but they give nothing away because you can't hear anything. You see all the great people in the movie while laughing at what's being said. You'll remember it for sure and because the trailer made you laugh, you have every reason to think the movie will. It even ends with a philosophical question. Time Bandits may not be one of my favorite movies, but it is one of my favorite trailers.

One more thing. About those aforementioned wonderful parts. Most of them involve the character Evil as played by the one and only David Warner (sigh). He's the best thing in the movie and his rants against the Supreme Being (i.e. God) are insanely funny. Below is my favorite scene in the movie. It tickles me that Evil sees technology as his ultimate weapon: "When I have understanding of computers...I shall be the Supreme Being." And this came out in 1981. Did the world have any idea?

Incidentally, I recall this speech a lot when I'm at work, thinking about my ever-patient high school computer teacher and how amused and confused she would be to learn I now work for a tech company.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

In Defense of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Today I found out that Wesley Scroggins, a professor at Missouri State University, wrote a piece in which he called for the banning of (among others) Laurie Halse Anderson's novel Speak from his community's schools, likening it to "soft pornography." Here's an excerpt from the article.

"This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes." --Wesley Scroggins

As a writer and lifelong bibliophile, I find the concept of book banning offensive on principle. It encourages ignorance and denial hidden behind the trusty veneer of "protecting our children." But Speak's appearance on the chopping block is particularly painful.

The summer before I started high school, my aunt gave me a copy of Speak. It became one of my favorite books and one of the most important I've ever read. It's the story of Melinda Sordino, a high school freshman who survives a brutal rape and suffers in silence for months, hiding deep inside herself while keenly observing the absurdities and cruelties of high school life. It's a terrifying, darkly funny, and incredibly moving book, one I feel everybody should read, particularly every teenage girl as she prepares to start high school. I've read it many times since that summer. In my junior year of high school, I suggested it be added to the curriculum (I'm not sure if it was). In my senior year, I used selections of it as part of my piece for forensics (speech and debate, not CSI). Everybody can relate to Melinda's pain and isolation whether or not they are victims of sexual assault or rape. It's an invaluable book and I'm grateful to Laurie Halse Anderson for writing it.

Yes, it does depict the rape of a teenage girl. It's horrifying but it's not pornographic. I find it disturbing that Mr. Scroggins used the words "soft pornography" to describe it. Maybe he's trying to stir up fear and misconceptions about it for those who haven't read it. Maybe he doesn't know what "soft pornography" actually means. Yes, the idea of sexual assault and rape is disturbing, but it happens. One need only look the overwhelming statistics to see that. One in six women and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. And those are just the crimes that are reported. Families are dysfunctional, teachers are as human as the rest of us, and teenagers have sex. Yes, these facts are icky but they are facts. They are a part of reality. Banning Speak won't change that. It will only deny potential readers the comfort and awareness it can provide. Mr. Scroggins uses his Christianity as one of his reasons for fighting this book. I'm also a Christian, but I don't use my faith as an excuse to hide under a rock and write off brutality as "soft pornography." This is fear mongering and ignorance, plain and simple. If Mr. Scroggins wants to improve his community, he should work to raise awareness about sexual assault and rape, not fight to take away a book that can help people.

Here's a link to Mr. Scroggins's letter:

And here's a response by Laurie Halse Anderson

Friday, September 17, 2010

Talk About a Good First Date: A Look at "Let Me Be Your Wings" from Don Bluth's Thumbelina

I'm a little ashamed to admit this, but I LOVED Don Bluth's Thumbelina when I was little. I've seen it so many times. Too many times probably. I was six when it came out and I made my mother take me to see it in the theater. Then I watched the VHS tape over and over and over until I had every song memorized and a good deal of the dialogue as well. Unfortunately, Don Bluth's Thumbelina is not a good movie. It's a bit cringe-worthy as a matter of fact. Based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale about a tiny girl (literally no bigger than a thumb) on her own in the wide world after she's kidnapped by an evil toad, it's a pretty blatant Disney knockoff, complete with Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid) as our heroine. Plus they bastardized the hell out of Andersen's story. Andersen's Thumbelina can be interpreted as a feminist narrative. The title character is refreshingly assertive, saving herself on several occasions through quick-thinking and compassion. She's determined to hang on to her independence until she meets the man who is right for her, turning down the son of the aforementioned toad and a misanthropic mole along the way. She doesn't meet the prince until the end of the story and when she does, SHE initiates the relationship. This movie turns her into a simpering idiot who meets the prince five minutes in and can think of NOTHING else from then on. He becomes her motivation for everything, which isn't the case in Andersen's story. Not to mention the fact that the movie has her meet her swallow friend much earlier in the story and yet she doesn't think to ask him to FLY HER HOME MAKING FOR A GIGANTIC UNNECESSARY PLOTHOLE.

Having said that, there is one part of the movie that I still love. One part that made me buy it on DVD (before I knew the scene was on YouTube). The love song, "Let Me Be Your Wings." Written by Barry Manilow, it's one of my favorite movie love songs ever. I know every word and listen to it often. It's been called a poor man's "A Whole New World" and maybe it is, but I don't think so. The animation is gorgeous and I've always loved Prince Cornelius's voice (provided by Gary Imhoff). Not the character himself (though you can see shades of Dimitri from Anastasia in the design) but the voice still makes my heart go pitter-pat. He and Jodi Benson sound lovely together.

Not to mention the reprise at the end gives me happy chills. See what I mean about shame.

I didn't love the song when I was little, but when I was little, I thought Thumbelina should have married the mole. Really. I thought his house was cool and he had John Hurt's voice...how could I resist? It wasn't until I was in my teens that I watched the movie in a fit of nostalgia and swooned during "Let Me Be Your Wings." I mean come on, does anything sound more romantic than dancing on Saturn's rings? I think not.

P.S. Speaking of John Hurt, a few weeks ago, at a wine and cheese reception, I let it slip that I have The Elephant Man on tape and watched it repeatedly in high school. When a horrified fellow guest asked me "Why?" I started stuttering something about how it was a good movie and blah blah blah. Nope, it is a good movie but I watched it repeatedly because I am in love with John Hurt's voice. I have been for years and as a result, I will watch (or rather listen to) him in anything. But do I love it as much as Prince Cornelius's? Another question for another day.

Let Me Be Your Wings

Let Me Be Your Wings Reprise (Spoilers)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

My New Favorite Picture of Sleeping Beauty's Castle

"It was dusk by the time I left the shop, and I was redirected by the security guard who explained that a photographer was taking a picture and would I please use the side exit. I did, and saw a small, thin woman with hacked brown hair aim her large format camera directly at the dramatically lit castle, where white swans floated in the moat underneath the functioning drawbridge...The photographer it turned out was Diane Arbus. I try to square the photo's breathtakingly romantic image with the rest of her extreme subject matter, and I assume she saw this facsimile of a castle as though it were a kitsch roadside statue of Paul Bunyan. Or perhaps she saw it as I did: beautiful." --Steve Martin, Born Standing Up

Thursday, September 2, 2010

"I Shall Be the Saddest Thing On Earth" : A Look at The Blue Bird (1940)

"We can't pick and choose." --Unborn Girl, The Blue Bird

Shirley Temple's movies were a staple of my childhood. Between the ages of seven and ten, I watched them ad nauseum. I had the crappy colorized VHS tapes put out by Fox Home Video in the 90's--I didn't know any better!--and they pale in comparison to the rich black and white of the DVDs available now but oh well. Young as I was, I was able to overlook glaring racism and poor literary adaptation and just focus on Shirley. She was an amazingly talented young performer, often outshining the major stars with whom she worked. Some of her movies may not hold up nowadays but she definitely does. One that got a lot of play in my collection was The Blue Bird, one of her most unusual and obscure childhood films. Most of the time, Shirley played an optimistic, hopeful little girl who inspired optimism and hope in everyone around her (usually via song and dance). She also inspired her Depression-era audiences and this was the key to her enormous popularity. What makes The Blue Bird so unique is that Shirley (then twelve years old) dared to play against type.

Based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, The Blue Bird is about a nasty young girl who gets a much-needed wakeup call after she leaves home in search of The Blue Bird of Happiness. Together with her little brother, she has all sorts of crazy adventures and gradually learns the value of kindness and selflessness. The movie was obviously an answer to The Wizard of Oz released the year before complete with a No Place Like Home moral. The filmmakers even had the audacity to start the movie in black and white and switch to color fifteen minutes in, though with none of the magic of Dorothy first stepping out into Munchkinland. Still Shirley is good in it as always and it has that fairy tale quality I can't resist. And there is one scene that fascinates me even more now than it did when I was little.

Towards the end of the movie, Shirley and her brother are sent to look for the Blue Bird "in the future." Having already been to the past (a visit with the ghosts of their dead grandparents), this makes sense but how does one visit the future? By going to Heaven and meeting the children waiting to be born. What an awesome idea. The scene does stir a little bit of ire in me. All the unborn children are, of course, white. And dressed in togas with gender normative coloring no less. Also when Shirley sees a few of the kids plying their future trades, they're all scientists and, sure enough, all boys. Because only boys are scientists. Clearly. Anyway...

Despite its flaws, I was very moved by the emotional power of this sequence. There's so much going on in it. One child suspects her parents don't really want her. Another tries to sneak away before her time. A girl reveals herself to be Shirley's future sister and has sad news about what's in store for the family. Shirley also meets the boy who will be Abraham Lincoln (never mentioned by name) already aware of and dreading the fate that awaits him. To me, the most powerful moment is when two children who have fallen in love learn they must separate. The boy must leave to be born and the girl knows she will not be born until after he's died. They will never know each other on Earth and so neither will experience love in life. ARGH! I must have seen this movie 20 times as a kid. That goodbye scene never made me cry before now. The idea of being born too soon (or too late) to be with your true love is devastating. The essence of loneliness. A very affecting scene.

The entire "unborn children" sequence is worth watching in its entirety (see below). It's easily the best part. The Blue Bird, unfortunately, flopped at the box office, marking the end of Shirley's reign as America's child star. It was too expensive to turn a profit and audiences didn't like seeing Shirley in a negative (or adolescent) light. That said, The Blue Bird is a good movie. It's beautiful to look at and Shirley's dark side is a lot of fun. If anything, it could lead you to rewatch The Wizard of Oz, which is always time well spent in my opinion.

Unborn Children Sequence First Part

Second Part

Monday, August 30, 2010

In Which the Blogger Reacquaints Herself With the Invisible (Still Mostly Imaginary) Audience and Celebrates an Anniversary

Idling Reader,

I have been a terrible blogger lately. I'm sure the blogosphere ached without me but never fear. I've returned to heal its wounds with my presence and essence.

It's strange to think I've had this bad little habit for a year now. Craziness. Thanks to my readers for reading and for chiming in once and awhile. So what if I only need my fingers to count you all. It has been (and hopefully will continue to be) a lovely trip.

Even though I'm no longer in school (and therefore have no vacation to mourn), I always get a little sad this time of year. Not only does it make me sad to see my birthday month end (23 this year!), it's always a little melancholy to watch another summer fade away. Don't misunderstand me. I love fall. I can't wait for it to get cooler, and I'm already excited for Halloween, but I'm still a bit sad to see summer go. There's an innocence to summer that dies with the changing of the leaves. Nothing explains it better than the poem I've copied below. It's the poem that closes Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and it might be my favorite poem. It's so poignant, so nostalgic and bittersweet, it always comes to mind when summer turns to autumn. Every year, I grow to love and appreciate it more.

By the way, the first letter of every line spells out the full name of the girl who gave her name to the Alice books: Alice Pleasance Liddell.

Life is but a Dream by Lewis Carroll

A boat beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July--

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear--

Long has paled that sunny sky;
Echoes fade and memories die;
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die;

Ever drifting down the stream--
Lingering in the golden gleam--
Life, what is it but a dream?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Answer to a Maiden's Prayer: A Look at The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart

"I might have been alone in a painted landscape." -The Ivy Tree, Mary Stewart

Riddle me this, pickles. Where can you go to find compelling mystery, gorgeous description, mistaken identities, ballads, dialects, insane plotting, thwarted passion, family drama, an inheritance worth killing for, and not one, not two, but THREE swoon-worthy love interests? Why The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart, of course. I had no intention of reading The Ivy Tree. I had never even heard of it (though I had heard of Stewart) until I grabbed it almost at random off a library shelf. But after the very first page, I knew there was no turning back.

It begins on a beautiful day in the North of England. Mary Grey has just come over from Canada to explore and to make a new life for herself after the death of a friend in Montreal. She's sitting alone enjoying the landscape when she hears a cry in the distance. It's the sound of a name--"Annabel!"--being shouted by a furious--though devastatingly attractive--young man and she soon realizes he's shouting at her. This young man, Connor Winslow, believes her to be his cousin Annabel who ran away from the family farm eight years before and whom everyone in the family now believes to be dead. Everyone in the family, that is, except Annabel's grandfather--Connor's great-uncle--Matthew Winslow, who still intends to name her as his heir and leave her the farm Con so desperately wants. That makes Annabel (if she is still alive) very inconvenient--as Con implies during an introductory rant rife with veiled murder threats. All this is quite startling to Mary, of course, especially since Con, after he finally relents and believes that she is really Mary Grey, calmly sits down and turns on the charm. He's Irish by the way, with the "almost excessive good looks of a certain kind of Irishman." So naturally, he's the villain...or is he?

Soon after this clandestine meeting, Mary gets an offer: come to the farm pretending to Annabel, wait out the grandfather's death and collect the inheritance, then hand over the farm to Con, keeping any money for herself. Reluctantly, Mary accepts. It's money after all, and she needs money. After weeks of preparation (think The Parent Trap) she moves into the Winslow house on Whitescar farm and sets the ruse in motion. Sure enough, everybody falls for it. But she soon discovers pretending to be Annabel won't be as easy as she hoped. She must contend with the complexities of the Winslow family--especially Con's unresolved feelings for Annabel whom he had wanted to marry (incest be damned!). And then there are the secrets the real Annabel Winslow left behind, for which nobody can help her prepare.

What makes The Ivy Tree such a great read is that for the first half of it, you have NO idea what kind of book it's going to be. Is it a thriller? A romance? A funny/sad English family story a la I Capture the Castle? Turns out, it's ALL those things. It's a wonderful, flawlessly plotted mystery. It's a love letter to the North of England--I want to go to Northumberland SO BADLY--written with such achingly beautiful descriptions I wanted to weep. And then there are the characters: Matthew Winslow, who enjoys abusing Con almost as much as he adores Annabel; Lisa Dermott, Con's drab half-sister who harbors an almost incestuous devotion to him; Annabel's cousin Julie, whose giggly self-absorption adds a lot of comedy to the mix; and Adam Forrest, the brooding, Mr. Rochester-ish neighbor with secrets of his own. It's all led by our heroine, Mary Grey, who is layered and kickass and won't take any of Con's shit--even though there were times when I really, REALLY wanted her to. And speaking of Con...

He is one of the most fascinating characters I've met in awhile. Between his Vertigoesque attraction to Mary and his blind passion for the farm, he's impossible to predict. You can never tell if he's being genuine or just playing his cards. He'll flirt with you five minutes after he's threatened to kill you. His native accent comes and goes with his anger. And then there's that good old Irish charm. So what if he threatened to kill her...he tells Mary her blond hair looks like "melted silver in the moonlight." I mean, come on, I'm not made out of metal. Then there's Donald Seton, Julie's boyfriend, who is EXACTLY the man I wanted to marry when I was twelve. When I little, I wanted to be an archaeologist as well as a writer. However, I soon realized that I couldn't fully devote myself to my novels if I were also an archaeologist so I decided to marry one instead and reap the intellectual benefits. There's twelve-year-old practicality for you. My heart still goes pitter pat whenever there's an archaeologist around...and Donald Seton is an archaeologist! Plus, he's adorably shy and Scottish and he smokes a pipe and has a "transforming grin" and a soft-spot for animals and...okay, seriously Mary Stewart, I can't take much more of this. I'm going to swoon over the Irish would-be murderer some more.

The Ivy Tree isn't a fast book nor is it a brainless pot-boiler. It's slow and deliberate and you have to pay attention. Stewart doesn't spell anything out. All her characters have a veil over them, keeping them half in shadow. You wonder what everybody's motives are and the tiny hints you get of the family history are your only clues. There is not one wasted character or scene and it's often impossible to put down. Stewart weaves everything together, building to the tension to such a point that when everything finally breaks, you will probably drop the book. As soon as I finished it, I went back to the beginning and started reading it again. After I had picked my jaw up off the floor, that is. It has just about everything I love: England, intrigue, great characters, an Irishman, literary references, ballads, romance, danger, an archaeologist, Gothic undertones, and (maybe) murder. Great book.

So if you're looking for a character-driven, fiercely intelligent mystery that will leave your head spinning, go with The Ivy Tree. It's I Capture the Castle's creepy cousin. I can't wait to read more by Mary Stewart--she wrote an entire Arthurian series...seriously, where have I been?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Growing Up is Hard to Do: A Look at Toy Story 3

"When a child loves you for a long, long time not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real." --Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

"How long will it last, Woody? Do you really think Andy is going to take you to college, or on his honeymoon? Andy's growing up, and there's nothing you can do about it." -The Prospector, Toy Story 2

When the first Toy Story came out in November 1995, I was eight years old. And I did not want to see it. Between the sensory overload and the inability to flee if the show got scary, going to the movies was always very stressful for me and so it took a lot for me to go. I remember liking Toy Story though. There were some tense moments (that Baby Doll head on spider legs!) but for the most part, I really enjoyed it. After that movie, I was positive my toys came to life when I wasn't there. Never caught them though. Anybody who was my age around that time probably remembers the fervor that followed that movie's release. It was everywhere. We all shouted "To Infinity and Beyond!" like we were getting paid for it and I still have the Woody I got with my Burger King Kid's Meal somewhere. It was a big deal movie. However, it wasn't until Toy Story 2 came out four years later that I really fell in love with the characters. I was twelve and had overcome most of the fears that made going to the movies so stressful. I remember I laughed until I couldn't breathe throughout but I broke down during "When She Loved Me." It was one of the first truly enjoyable movie going experiences I had.

Now I'm 22, a college graduate and a very reluctant grown up. Most of the toys I played with when I was eight, the same toys I was so sure came to life when I wasn't there, are in the attic. So when I heard the premise of Toy Story 3, naturally it hit close to home. In Toy Story 3, Andy, the imaginative little boy who loved his toys so much in Toy Story and Toy Story 2, is now a teenager getting ready to go off to college and faced with the dilemma we all face: keep your toys or give them away?

I'm not going to get too into the particulars of Toy Story 3. You should go in knowing as little as possible. It's a great movie. I've known these characters for 15 years and Toy Story 3 drove home how much I've come to care about them. The story was well-developed, incredibly funny and almost overwhelmingly sad. I've always admired Pixar's bravery about subject matter and this movie is no exception dealing with themes like abandonment and obsolescence. There are several moments here that are very dark and very tense. Bring tissues.

This movie also meant a lot to me because of where I am in the scheme of things. I feel like I've grown up with Andy. I was eight years old when the first movie came out and so was he. When Toy Story 2 came out, I was a little older and so was he. Sure, it took him a little longer to get to college but that's Hollywood for you. I identified so much with what happens in this movie because I've been with it since the beginning. The end of this movie felt like the end of an era. Mine was the first generation to get to know the Toy Story characters. Now we're all grown up. I remember when I first saw the trailer for Toy Story 3, I actually leaned over and hissed in my friend's ear, "Andy would never give Woody and Buzz away," but as soon as I said it, I realized how few of my toys are still in my room. I still have my Pound Puppy Sassafras who came to college with me all four years and lives on the foot of my bed, but so many other things are gone, things I once thought I would play with forever. Don't be surprised if the adults in your theater are crying and the kids aren't. It's that kind of movie.

Sequels and franchises are a dime a dozen these days and most of the time they're crap, a transparent attempt to milk a successful gimmick as far as it can go. But that's not the case here. Every Toy Story movie has served to develop the characters and examine the existential dilemmas of being a toy. What do you when a new toy replaces you as the favorite? Is it better to be appreciated by thousands of kids or truly loved by one even if that one will eventually grow up and stop playing with you? And when he does grow up, what will happen to you? When I heard there was going to be a Toy Story 3, I groaned because I thought enough was enough. What could they do? How much older could Andy get? Now having seen the result, I realize that's the point. That's why there had to be a third movie. The story of the toys wouldn't have been complete without it.

So thank you, Pixar for making yet another awesome movie and for putting the Tupperware lid on my childhood with grace and dignity. It's been a great ride.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

This Is Why I Don't Go Out Drinking in the City Alone: A Look at Fright by Cornell Woolrich

"He was twenty-five that year, 1915, and his name was Prescott Marshall." --Fright, Cornell Woolrich

AHHHHHHH!!!!!!! For the love of all that's holy, Cornell Woolrich!!! Why? WHY?!?!?!?! F&*KI&#%G#D*&MN*ON%&*B*&T*H!!!!!!!!!!!!

It's no good even pretending to be a lady. This book left me speechless. Literally speechless. Not "Oh wow. this is such a good book. What a pleasant reading experience" speechless. Or "Wow that was a really awesome ending" speechless. Nope. White-hot rage, electric shocks pulsing through my system, blasphemy-riddled thoughts frightening my mind speechless. The fact that I am even able to write these words is a testament to my sheer will-power. If not, I might still be sitting up in bed, staring at the last page of Cornell Woolrich's Fright. Sheer will power and I had to bring it back to the library soooo....

Published in 1950 under the pen name George Hope, Fright tells the story of poor pathetic Prescott Marshall, an up-and-comer in 1915, New York City. At 25 years old, he seems to have a fine life going for him. He has a rising career on Wall Street and a beautiful society girl named Marjorie on his arm who, gosh-darn-it, is just as crazy about him as he is about her (her family's money and social prominence don't hurt either). So at the start of our tale, Press seems to know where his towel is and he's just as pleased as pie. Poor bastard. He has no idea he's the main character in a roman noir.

Things start unraveling on the night he plans to propose to Marjorie. As he's getting ready to pick her up, she finds out that her aunt and uncle, both passengers aboard the doomed Lusitania, have been found dead. Obviously, she can't go out and this leaves Press alone for the night with no other plans. So what does he do? Go out drinking, of course! Alone! Because that's ALWAYS a good idea. He gets so drunk that he eventually passes out on the sidewalk. In New York City. Smart boy, that Prescott Marshall. Finally, Press sobers up, proposes to Marjorie, she accepts, and all seems right as Turn-of-the-20th-Century rain until a mysterious young woman knocks on his apartment door. This is noir, after all, a mysterious young woman had to show up eventually. And wouldn't you know, she has some pretty unfortunate news. Turns out, while Press was drunk out of his mind, he met this girl, brought her home, and slept with her. And now she wants X amount of money to keep quiet about it. Yay! So begins Press's journey down a path of ever-intensifying mental instability that would make even Hamlet say, "Wow, dude, come on. Nothing's that bad."

Woolrich's writing style takes a little getting used to at first. Much of his language is outdated and over-the-top, but he more than makes up for it with his storytelling abilities. He cuts out and enters into scenes in unexpected places, forcing your attention, urging you on, making your mind reel as you try to imagine what could possibly happen next. He uses repetition in a way I've never seen before, mostly to aid dark humor. There's a lot of dark, downright grim, humor in Fright. Also his descriptions are some of the most gorgeous I've ever read. None of the characters are that likable--Press does everything wrong, Marjorie is a DOORMAT, and I was actually rooting for the Mysterious Young Woman at one point--and yet somehow, I managed to get emotionally caught up in their journey. So much so that by the end, I was staring at the book in a blind rage and would have thrown it across the room if I could have summoned the energy. Also 1915 is such an unorthodox year for a roman noir to take place in. I found it oddly refreshing to see such heinous goings-on in such an over-idealized time period. The Happiest Millionaire will never be the same.

I didn't enjoy Fright, per say. It's a very bleak ride, but it's a good book. I also recommend I Married a Dead Man, the first book I read by Woolrich, which is also very good and not surprisingly, also very twisted.

P.S. Take a look at the pulp wundertraum that is that cover. I guess the girl is supposed to be The Mysterious Young Woman but she's basically Marilyn Monroe. Especially since the Mysterious Young Woman is described as looking very childlike. And the guy looks like he's just been electrocuted.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Out of the Darkness, Into the Light: A Look at Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce

Strangers never walk down this road, the sisters thought in unison as the man trudged toward them.” –Sisters Red, The Prologue

Little Red Riding Hood and I go way back. I've spent many, many hours fawning over my copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales and no matter how old I get or how many times I've read it, that immortal bedside dialogue always makes my breath quicken and my heart beat faster. Every single time. Nothing makes me regress faster, in fact, except Disney movies. When I was nine, my grandmother (of course, my grandmother) made me a red hooded cloak which I still have. I know Roald Dahl’s kickass Revolting Rhymes version by heart and occasionally recite it on command at family parties (I could do it at eight and I think the family’s amused that over ten years later, I haven’t forgotten it so they still request it). When I was twelve, I saw the movie version of The Company of Wolves (mostly between my fingers), which introduced me to Angela Carter who is now one of my favorite authors. It was one of the first fairy tales I learned to read in German, and for better or worse, it’s the first thing I think of whenever I step off the bike path in the park—even if it’s just to answer my phone! So yeah, I dig Little Red Riding Hood. I am emotionally invested in its existence as a folktale that continues to influence literature, pop culture et all. This doesn’t grant me any particular authority, but I do know a bit about its history and the story definitely means a lot to me.

So. Now that that’s all out in the open, let me get on with what I came here to say: Sisters Red is one of THE BEST Little Red-inspired things I’ve ever read. Period.

I found this book completely by accident. It came out literally last week. I was on SurLaLune, an online cornucopia of fairy tale awesomeness, and looked, as I always do, at their advertisements for newly released fairy tale books. My eye immediately went to the above cover which is probably one of the most effective covers I’ve seen in a long time. No dimly obscured heroine vaguely touching something here. No terrifying corsets or completely inaccurate character renderings. Nope. Just a shocker of red/black/white magic that knocks you between the eyes and practically forces you to open the cover. Didn’t get a good look at it before? Scroll back up. I’ll wait.

See. Moving right along.

Now seeing as how not everybody has the same involved relationship with Little Red Riding Hood that I do, here’s a brief synopsis of the tale itself just in case it’s been awhile. Our Heroine, a little girl defined by the red cloak (or cap in some versions) she always wears, ventures off into the woods to visit her sick grandmother. Before she leaves, she promises her mother that she WILL NOT STRAY FROM THE PATH. That’s a gun over the fireplace if ever there was one. Along the way, she meets a Wolf who sweet talks her off the path and into a nearby meadow where she wastes time picking flowers while he sneaks off to Granny’s. He promptly eats the old woman, dresses in her clothes, and hops into bed, eager to enjoy the little girl as well. When Little Red arrives, she falls for this impregnable ruse, sensing something is amiss but unable to put her finger on what specifically. She and the Wolf engage in the aforementioned dialogue (“‘What big eyes you have’ ‘The better to see you with, my dear’” etc.) and then the Wolf eats her. Now depending on the version you read, the story either ends here (Charles Perrault) or with a huntsman/woodcutter coming in, cutting open the Wolf’s stomach, and freeing the devoured duo, paving the way for a happy ending (the Brothers Grimm). There have, of course, been versions that make this savior come in just before the Wolf eats Little Red as well as versions where the Wolf instead of eating Granny, locks her in a closet (???) Roald Dahl and James Thurber both had Little Red pull out a gun and shoot him. Angela Carter had her sleep with him. But at the end of the day, when talking canon, Perrault’s and the Grimms’ are considered the versions to go by.

Today the moral of the story is generally said to be "See kids, this is why you don't talk to strangers." However, back in Perrault's time it was more along the lines of "See girls, men are bad. They are basically animals who only want one thing. And they will stoop to dressing up like your grandmother to get it. And if they succeed, you might as well be dead because no other man will want to marry you. So always be obedient and never stray from the path society has chartered for you." Even the Grimms' happy ending reeks of moral clean up. In their version, if the Wolf is the man who will lead you astray, then the huntsman/woodcutter is the man who will save you (most likely your father). Despite the more sanitized versions that reign supreme nowadays, it probably doesn't take an exceptionally vivid imagination / dirty mind to recognize the story's history as a sexual morality tale, tracing one little girl's downfall from trusting innocent to wolfmeat. Never stray, indeed.

I think there’s a reason why you don’t see a lot of novels based on Little Red Riding Hood, even though it’s been the subject of countless poems and short stories. There just isn’t that much there in terms of length. In terms of depth, sure, but not length. Any retelling worth its salt should comment in some way on its source material whether to reinterpret it or satirize it or whatever the author wants to do. The brilliance of Sisters Red lies in the fact that it does this while also telling its own story. Sisters Red isn’t so much a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood (except, perhaps, for the prologue, which is worth the cost of the book all by itself) as it is a fantasy-horror novel rooted in Little Red imagery and mythology that tells its own story while also making an empowering statement about the fairy tale that inspired it. No small feat.

Since they were little girls, Scarlett and Rosie March have lived with one all-consuming purpose: to hunt and kill as many Fenris as possible. What’s a Fenris? You and I might call them werewolves, but we would be wrong. They’re Fenris and they’re scary as hell. These attractive, seemingly ordinary men seduce young girls (the younger the better) into trusting them. Once they have their victims isolated and vulnerable, they transform into monstrous wolves and viciously devour them. As children, Scarlett and Rosie barely survived the Fenris attack that left their grandmother dead, Scarlett brutally injured, and the knowledge of this big bad evil alive and well inside them. With the help of their friend and neighbor Silas, a woodsman’s son, they track down, lure, and kill as many of these monsters as they can in their small Georgia village. The crux of the action takes place seven years after the attack. Scarlett, now eighteen-years old, lives for hunting. It is her passion and the only thing, apart from her sister, that sustains her. She also sees it as her responsibility. How can she do anything else knowing that the Fenris are out there? Sixteen-year-old Rosie, however, is starting to itch for a more “normal” life. She wants to stand by her sister, but she also wants to fall in love and go to school and enjoy herself, and a life dedicated to hunting leaves no room for that. This conflict tests the bond between these devoted but utterly different sisters as they leave their small town for the big city of Atlanta where Fenris are literally everywhere. It’s a story about a lot of things: responsibility, guilt, normalcy, love, fear, passion, why we make the choices we make, and what it means to live in the light while others live in darkness. But most of all, it’s about sisters.

Scarlett and Rosie are achingly real characters. I loved them and identified with them both even though they are vastly different. They take turns narrating in first-person chapters and when the book ended, I wanted them to go on confiding in me, which is always a wonderful feeling. I felt like I knew them. They’re badass in the best sense, able to fight and destroy Fenris with hatchets, knives, and their womanly wiles, but they’re also vulnerable and their bond is heart wrenching. Pearce wittily evokes the iconic imagery of the fairy tale by dressing her heroines in red hooded cloaks for their hunts. The color red, appropriately, gets the Fenris’ juices flowing faster than Pavlov’s bell, echoing the long-held interpretation that Little Red’s cloak symbolizes the sexual desire she supposedly stirs in the Wolf. Waiting in the wings for the fight to begin is Silas, also a very well-drawn character. He’s a good guy. He cares about the girls and fights alongside them, but he is not, thank God, the savior that his folkloric ancestor is. That said, I am grateful that Sisters Red is not the kind of book where the Patented Generic Strong Female Lead whips her hair back and says, “I don’t NEED a man’s help.” I always appreciate guys and gals working together on an equal plane and Sisters Red delivers that.

I also really enjoyed the world of the book. It’s the real world with a twist, a world where Scarlett and Rosie can wear red cloaks everywhere they go and not raise eyebrows; where Silas can come from a long line of woodsmen; and where pretty, flirty girls are known as Dragonflies. It’s basically the world of the fairy tale set in the 21st century. Fittingly, their small Southern neighborhood lies on the edge of a forest, but you can meet a bad guy just as easily in the city as in the country. The book is so fast-paced I finished it almost without realizing and I was utterly absorbed throughout. The characters reveal themselves subtly through conversation and action. The fight scenes are well-orchestrated, suspenseful, and they ALL contribute significantly to the plot, though the girls’ interactions with the Fenris before they transformed were what really frightened me.

Jackson Pearce deserves an award simply for the Fenris. Nowadays, when fiction is dominated by the “monster that cares,” it was perversely refreshing to meet creatures so unapologetically evil. The Fenris are literally soulless. There’s no “maybe we can reason with them,” or “let my love tame the beast inside you” here. No, these are monsters who will track you, charm you into submission, frighten you for their own pleasure, and finally, brutally, kill you. The prologue—I know I mentioned the prologue already, but seriously, it’s amazing—sent a shiver up my spine. I’m talking gooseflesh and I read it safe and sound under the bright lights of my office’s break room, surrounded by people. I’ve read many retellings of Little Red and met a lot of Big Bad Wolves, but that son of a bitch in the prologue put them all to shame in terms of pure fear factor. The best fantasy, in my opinion, acts as an allegory for real life; what makes the Fenris so frightening is how eerily real they are. Little Red’s Wolf has often been interpreted as a sexual predator, and the Fenris are basically sexual predators. Their change from men to monsters is triggered by lust, rage, and the need to dominate. They see their victims first as playthings and finally as meat. Many scenes in Sisters Red are genuinely unnerving, tapping into something primal in the subconscious, which is what good fantasy is supposed to do.

Sisters Red does not abide by the “rules” set down in the folktale. Nobody dresses up like anybody’s grandmother. Nobody waits to be rescued. It has an emotional relationship at its heart that the folktale doesn’t: Little Red doesn’t have a sister. Best of all, unlike the most well-known versions of the story, Sisters Red is not a lesson in moral downfall or a cautionary tale about how easily girls can fall victim to dangerous men. Instead, it’s about young women being empowered enough to acknowledge the evil around them, look it in the face, and decide they’re not going to let it beat them, and this idea, it turns out, might be truer to the spirit of Little Red Riding Hood than even the Perrault and Grimm versions. See, Little Red Riding Hood has gone down in history as a naïve, foolish little girl who falls right into the hands of a predator, but that was not always the case.

There’s a little-known version of the folktale called The Story of Grandmother. Though it was first printed in 1885, 73 years after the Grimms’ version and almost 200 years after Perrault’s, it lived a long and healthy life in the French oral tradition, dating probably as far back as the Middle Ages. In this version, the heroine, a young woman of indeterminate age, sets off to take bread and milk to her grandmother, but she never dons a symbolic cloak or promises not to stray from the path. This tale is blatantly more sexual than your better known versions. When the heroine arrives at the house to find a wolf in her grandmother’s bed, she is not fooled for a minute. She does, however, perform a striptease for him, removing all her clothing at his command until she’s naked, and nothing remains except to climb in bed beside him. Before the Wolf has a chance to devour her (make of that what you will), she tricks him into letting her go outside to go to the bathroom, promising to keep a rope tied around her foot so he can hold onto her. Once outside, of course, she unties the rope and runs like hell, leaving the Wolf all by his lonesome. This story was passed down from generation to generation across the French countryside as young girls grew up and prepared for courtship. It was still treated as a cautionary tale, warning them of men with unsavory intentions, but it did not treat sex or sexuality as the key to a lady's undoing, literal or otherwise. In The Story of Grandmother, the heroine uses her sexuality and quick thinking to outsmart the Wolf. No moralizing death or male savior here; she saves herself. What I love best about Sisters Red is that it’s a glorious return to this idea. Scarlett and Rosie are, as Angela Carter once put it, nobody’s meat. They’re not afraid or ashamed of their sexuality; they’re empowered by it, knowing they can use it to attract the Fenris. They’re smart, they’re powerful, they can fight, they love each other, and they are survivors, which gives them all the strength they need. And that’s pretty awesome, actually.

Do yourself a favor and read Sisters Red. It’s the best thing to happen to Little Red Riding Hood in a long time. Even if you haven’t read Little Red Riding Hood since you were five and your kindergarten teacher forced you to sit through it during Story Time when you just wanted to play with the trucks, read it. It’s a damn good book.

P.S. For further information about Little Red Riding Hood’s vast history, I highly recommend Yvonne Verdier’s “Little Red Riding Hood in Oral Tradition,” Jack Zipes’s The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, and Maria Tatar’s The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, all of which aided me in the writing of this rather lengthy blog entry. And here's SurLaLune...because you know you want to. http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/

Image Via: http://darkfaerietales.com/wp-content/uploads/Sisters-Red.jpg

Monday, May 31, 2010

For Memorial Day: Sullivan Ballou's Letter to His Wife, Sarah

This is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read, heard, or seen. It's a letter written by Sullivan Ballou, a Union soldier, to his wife, Sarah, on July 14, 1861, a week before he fought in the First Battle of Bull Run. I first heard it on Ken Burns's documentary, The Civil War. I've now listened to it many times and every time I hear it, I sob. It's a humbling look at a soldier's immense sacrifice and sense of duty towards his country, as well as a powerful declaration of love from one man to his wife. I can't even fathom what it must have been like for Ballou to say goodbye to his wife and children and go off to war, but I am grateful we have this letter to remember him by.

With my thanks to the fallen, Happy Memorial Day.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"My blood will have been well spent." A Look at Anne of the Thousand Days

"Commend me to his Majesty, and tell him that he has ever been constant in his career of advancing me. From a private gentlewoman he made me a marchioness, from a marchioness a Queen; and now that he has no higher degree of honour left, he gives my innocence the crown of martyrdom as a saint in heaven." --Anne Boleyn, 19 May 1536

Oh, Henry VIII. You sick son of a bazooka. There are few monarchs as fascinating (in a train wreck sort of way) as that English cousin of Bluebeard, Hal Tudor the Eighth. And of course, his six wives: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parr. Or as they're more commonly known in some circles: Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived--a rhyme that comes in handy during a Pub Quiz Night after you've had a few too many trysts with the demon liquor to keep all the Catherines and Annes straight. The history of Henry VIII and his wives is as riveting and scandalous as any paperback romance--with the added bonus that it's true. One night when I was eleven years old, I stayed up way past my bedtime to watch Anne of the Thousand Days, an underrated gem from 1968 about the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife and the first to die by execution (her cousin, Katherine Howard, number five, would suffer the same fate) whose reign lasted roughly 1,000 days. It went on to be one of my favorite movies and kindled my love of Tudor history.

Despairing over his first wife, Catherine of Aragon and her "failure" to produce a son (their daughter, Mary--Bloody Mary, that is--would briefly reign), Henry divorced her and married Anne Boleyn in 1533. To do so, he broke with the Catholic Church--which would not grant him the divorce--securing his new wife and years of religious turmoil for his people. However, after becoming queen, Anne's "success" (or lack thereof) bearing children eerily mirrored Catherine's. She produced one daughter, Elizabeth but all her later pregnancies over the course of the three year marriage, ended in stillbirths and miscarriages. In a fury, Henry determined to get rid of Anne and had her arrested on fabricated charges of adultery. Her supposed lovers included several prominent noblemen, a court musician, and even her brother, George. To the surprise of no one, she was found guilty and beheaded on May 19th, 1536. Today! So naturally, what better use for this electronic soundboard than to commemorate executions and the movies they inspire?

Based on the play by Maxwell Anderson and directed by Charles Jarrott, Anne of the Thousand Days is not the best movie to watch if you want the truth and nothing but the truth. It took its fair share of liberties including its portrayal of Anne herself. Anne is definitely the good guy here--albeit a flawed one--while in real life, she could be cruel and even ruthless. Here those elements are mostly pushed aside. But the history is still there (besides anything's better than The Other Boleyn Girl). Here Anne comes alive as a passionate, willful woman ahead of her time who sacrifices her life for her daughter's honor and birthright. All of which has basis in fact. Richard Burton makes a great Henry and I'll always have a special place in my heart for him in the role but Genevieve Bujold owns the movie as Anne. It would not be half as awesome without her. She's intelligent, fiery, wry, and constantly in control of herself even as the events around her spiral out of control. Her slight French accent even works to the movie's advantage. The real Anne Boleyn spent much of her life in France, learning courtly ways among members of French noblity. When she returned, it was said she seemed more French than English. Bujold is brilliant all around. I can't call it an unsung performance (she got an Oscar nomination for it) but it's definitely underrated. And it deserves to be appreciated.

Below is one of the best scenes of the movie. A confrontation between Henry and Anne just before her death in which Anne basically predicts the future. Did this happen in real life? Probably not. But it does drive home how incredible the future Elizabeth I's reign really was. Knowing that she managed to become one of England's greatest monarchs in spite of the tremendous odds against her makes the movie, and particularly this scene, powerfully moving and ultimately triumphant.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Guide to the Greenwood: A Look at The Book of Ballads by Charles Vess et. all

"'Young man, I think you're dying.'" --Barbara Allen, The Book of Ballads

It's May! The Lusty Month of May! The first of May is a day to, appropriately, go "a-Maying," an activity that can involve anything from spending a lot of time outside, to having picnics, singing, gathering flowers, watching Camelot, performing a ritualisitc pagan sacrifice or participating in an orgy. As you do. Alas, since neither sacrifices nor orgies were going on in my local public park this year, I had to make do with simply sitting on a bench with a good book and taking in the delicious scenery.

I also watched Camelot. And you should too! It was lovely.

Ah, but be warned. May, though beautiful, can also be a mighty dangerous month--as if bomb scares, oil spills, flooding, and tornadoes weren't enough to clue you in to that fact. However, the dangers to be found here belong to a (mercifully) fantastic realm, well-famed in folklore and song, and brought to vivid life in The Book of Ballads, a wonderful graphic novel illustrated by Charles Vess which retells thirteen classic ballads.

Now as Glee taught us, a ballad is a "song that tells a story." However, unlike many of the songs used in that particular episode of Glee, the ballads that existed as a part of English, Scottish, and Irish folklore for centuries actually tell stories. Stories like: hero meets villain, struggle ensues, magical forces intervene, love is denied, all live happily ever after....or maybe not. They have a lot in common with fairy tales: their evolution in the oral tradition, their staying power (many of the ballads in this book are still recorded by popular musicians), and their elements of magic, the macabre, and the just plain bizarre. They even have fairies...but again, be wary. These are not your Pixie Hollow fairies. These are fairies as God and the collective unconscious intended: downright cruel sociopaths who steal human beings of all ages and treat them like personal playthings. You do NOT want to go to Fairyland. Unless of course, you're rescuing your kidnapped sister. In that case, kill everybody you speak to and do NOT eat the food. Bonus points if you can guess which fairy tale I'm referencing.

(Answer: Childe Rowland)

Anyway, such is the world of The Book of Ballads. A world where cleverness, sacrifice, will-power, repetition, and rhyme might be the only things that can save you from untold pain and destruction, and where stupidity is punished. Harshly. Vess's illustrations are beautiful, layered, and nuanced. He manages to convey worlds of emotion in his characters' eyes. Some of his illustrations also add elements that aren't in the text, adding a dimension all his own to the stories. Many of them are also genuinely terrifying. If the Devil or demons frighten you, you probably won't enjoy this. Again you have been warned.

Some of the biggest names in contemporary fantasy contributed their own versions of these ballads for Vess to illustrate. Some of these are straight forward retellings (Neil Gaiman's "The False Knight on the Road"), some are modern-day transfers (Charles de Lint's "Twa Corbies"), and some are refreshing revisions with details added to explain and/or enrich them. For example, Jane Yolen turns the king of "King Henry" into Henry VIII, spinning a semi-historical tale about the English people's hatred of Anne Boleyn and the many urban legends that arose about her as a result (and played no small part in leading to her death). Only Elaine Lee's "Tam-Lin" disappointed me. I found the changes unnecessary and ultimately confusing. If it ain't broke etc. In fairness to Lee, however, I thought "Tam-Lin" was a version of "The Elf Knight" and it isn't. But what can you do? A version of the actual ballad follows each retelling in verse form sans illustrations, allowing for convenient comparison.

My favorite story in the book was Midori Snyder's take on "Barbara Allen." Of all the ballads in the book, I was most familiar with this one going in. I studied it in high school and college and it plays a prominent role in the 1951 Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol, which I have seen many times, but despite all this, I never thought to be bewildered by the very strange story it tells. This story concerns a fair maid, the Barbara Allen of the title, who is called to the deathbed of the man, Sweet William, dying of unrequited love for her (as you do in ballads). However, the only comfort she can give him is the cold statement, "Young man, I think you're dying" even though she reveals after his death that she did actually love him. The tragic story ends in mystery. What was the relationship between these two? Why did he die of love for her? Why did she refuse to reciprocate if she felt the same? Snyder provides answers and the result is so perfect, it made me love and appreciate the song in a way I never did before.

I highly recommend The Book of Ballads. It fanned my ever-growing love for graphic novels and allowed me to indulge my constant passion for folklore. It also provides solutions to important dilemmas that can creep in and disrupt even the calmest life. What are you supposed to do, for example, when you meet the demon who killed your father on your way to school? Or when your fiancé of many years ago, supposedly long dead, knocks on your door and asks you to abandon your husband and child and run away with him? Or when the local witch is determined to make you her lover? Or when Satan shows up and...well, does Satan really need to do anything besides show up? Isn't just showing up enough? The answers to these and many more burning questions can all be found in The Book of Ballads. Get thee to your local library. May is a dangerous month and the Greenwood is a scary place. Go now and don't say I didn't warn you.

But first. Just for kicks and wiggles. My favorite movie May Day....