Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 5 from the '13

2013, contrary to the opinions I held in childhood, did not mean hover-cars, clones, and trips to the moon. But it was still a pretty weird year for all that.

For one, though this isn’t my first time at the year’s-best-list rodeo, I’m noticing how challenging it is to list stuff from this year. I’d like to put stuff on here that I discovered this year, but a lot of it came out ages ago. I was never too great at reading books right after they come out—but thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, now my TV and movie diet is pretty asynchronous too these days (mostly thanks to number 1).

So here are my standouts from the year that was:

1.     Netflix

Once upon a time, Netflix was this little envelope service that occasionally sent me movies on disc. I say occasionally because that’s how often I got around to watching the actual movies and remembering to send them back. Today, the power of the ‘flix is hard to ignore. For example, Sea World had kept its head down, riding out the Blackfish controversy in silence—until last weekend when the documentary debuted on Netflix. Suddenly Sea World was taking out ads in major papers all across the country to share their side of the story. This was the year of Netflix. They even broke into programming with a bunch of original shows. It’s a coach potato dream come true.

2.     Gluten

At the start of 2013, I barely knew what it was. Now everywhere you look: gluten. Well, the word is everywhere...the actual substance is being subtracted from food all over the place. There are even books, like Grain Brain, claiming that wheat is making us dumber.
Crackers and pasta: maybe they’re the reason I’m so bad at math.
I’m hoping next year the big discovery is that trans-fat is actually pretty good for you, and there’s a fad to eat more snack cakes and Cool-Whip.

3.     Clones!

While there weren’t any in real life, that I’m aware of, hands-down the best new show I watched this year was Orphan Black on BBC America. Tatiana Maslany is a genius—I’ve lost count of how many roles she plays...just do yourself a favor and watch this if you haven't already. 

4.     Recycling

I don’t mean glass and plastic—I mean stories. It’s not a new phenomenon, but a look at this past fall’s network TV schedule is full of lots of cutting edge new tales—like Dracula, an oldie but goodie from 1897, the story of Ichabod Crane and the headless horseman, first published in 1820, and all the motley crew over at Once Upon a Time from lots of way-old fairy tales (along with the spin-off about Alice, who was hot off the presses in 1865.) And lots of these were movies and scads of books before they ever made it onto the TV lineup.
I guess it’s because hardly anybody’s writing books anymore. Shame about that.

5.  New deals

We are seriously getting a Veronica Mars movie next year, thanks to Kickstarter. I know of several authors who broke out this year whose work came out first as a self-published e-book. That girl from Tumblr who’s upset she’s in her twenties is getting a TV show. Everywhere you look, people are finding creative paths to success. 

Here's to an even more interesting 2014!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Literally On Fire

 Spoiler alert: this post is about the third book in the Hunger Games series, Mockingjay. It took me three years to read the final book so if it’s taking you even longer, cheers, and see you next time.
When this book came out in 2010, I’d just had major back surgery and was just generally in the worst mood ever for an entire year, so my best friend told me not to read the book yet. I understand the advice—this isn’t exactly a raise-your-spirits type of read. Except maybe the worst year of my life would actually have been the perfect time. Because in the end, this final chapter in the series is really all about how life will be terrible sometimes...but you can still come out the other side.

What impresses me most about this book is the author’s bravery—where many authors shy away from pulling the trigger, she kills off loads of beloved characters—in heartbreaking ways. And she doesn’t use future science to genetically engineer any deus ex machina clones, either. As a matter of fact, Collins doesn’t even avail herself of the magic-like science she’d already invented with mutts and magic dresses to heal her hero. Katniss is literally on fire in this book, and she comes out the other side with the scars to prove it. Just like real life. And let’s have a moment of silence for poor Peeta’s eyebrows. I’m betting that detail won’t survive the Hollywood treatment, though, and they’ll make an appearance on the big screen at the end of the fourth film.

Of course, given the extraordinary popularity of the series, Collins had the license so many other writers could only dream of. She could have sent Katniss and Peeta to district 11 to become yam farmers. The central conflict of the third book could have been a protracted debate over how much fertilizer to use, and the book would still have sold many millions of copies.

But even given the extreme amount of freedom she had, it seems to me it still takes guts to take a character like Katniss down such an unrelentingly dark road. The moment when Katniss casts her vote for a new hunger games is at once heartbreaking and all too believable.

The ending is bittersweet—I can’t imagine anyone would call it happily ever after. And thank goodness for that. We need stories in which there is no magical fix, decisions have devastating consequences, and not everyone makes it through—just like life.
Yikes!Who would actually want a victory tour? 

And as much as I’ve enjoyed the first two film versions of these stories, there’s a strange cognitive dissonance that accompanies the clueless marketing. I’ve already railed about the inappropriateness of the Capitol Collection makeup line from Cover Girl. And just the other day I heard an ad for Subway: “Where Victors eat!” Once they’re done murdering other children to survive, and in between being loaned out by President Snow, presumably.

Not only did these advertising folks not read the books—it seems they didn’t read the book jackets. If they ever do, boy are they in for a shock, because Collins didn’t just dress the Girl on Fire in a flame-retardant gown—she literally set the poor girl on fire. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Reset Button

These days it seems that writers aren’t content just to reboot a franchise story—the new trend seems to be hitting the reset button. Last week’s Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special was just one example of a story arc which not only affects the future of a series, but retroactively changes everything that’s come before.
For the serious fan, the reset button can lead to some serious headaches.

Here are some re-sets in my fandoms, and my Head-Scratcher Score

On a scale of 1-5: 
1 is clever despite being mildly irritating
5 is I’ll never be able to watch or read the same way again, dammit.

Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary Special
(if you haven’t seen it yet, “Spoilers!”)
 Ask almost any Whovian, and they’ll tell you Steven Moffat, the current show-runner, has some major cojones when it comes to reconfiguring the world of Doctor Who. But he really stepped in it with some fans by rewriting the modern Doctor’s most defining moment. I won’t claim to be an expert on Classic Who, so I’ll stick to modern Doc-lore. Since the show was revived in 2005, his defining trait has been his guilt over ending the Time War by destroying not only the Daleks but also his home world of Gallifrey in the process. But Moffat’s anniversary special rewrote that history, so that now the planet’s merely hidden, possibly in a painting (you have to love SF sometimes).
And the Doctor’s overwhelming guilt—that drives not only his personality development but has also guided every choice he’s made since then? Suffice it to say it will be hard to re-watch without thinking about this conundrum.
Head Scratcher Score: 3
Upsetting, but I can get past it, especially if it means re-watching the David Tennant years.

Star Trek: The New Movies
Like Moffat, J.J. Abrams had time travel in his arsenal, so resetting the world of Trek was as easy as sending classic-Spock out into space with some vaguely named “red matter” and opening up a temporal rift which changed Kirk’s destiny, and that of the rest of his crew along with it. To me, the most engaging part of this story was watching a Kirk who grew up aimless and angry over losing his father still manage to blunder into his destiny. 
If, like me, you adore classic Star Trek, it will probably creep into your brain when you re-watch an episode featuring the planet Vulcan “oh, hey, everything’s different now, so that (sort of) never happened”...but this move was still such a brilliant way to reboot the franchise. I’m not too sure, though, about the moment in the second new film when new-Spock rings up old-Spock for advice about Khan. It seemed cool until I really thought about it—what’s to prevent the old-version of Spock from just giving the new one a list of People and Places to Avoid? The next movie would literally be the ship just peacefully cataloging gaseous anomalies, nowhere near any angry Klingons or troublesome Tribbles.

Head Scratcher Score: 2
This would be a 1 except for the aforementioned Advice From Past Spock interlude.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer—2.0
In 2001, Buffy changed networks—and rose from the dead. Buffy’s creator, Joss Whedon, didn’t have time travel at his disposal—but he did have magic, which witch (and Buffy’s bff) Willow employed to bring Buffy back to life...after a disturbingly long period of decay, I might add.
Buffy 2.0 reset the show in a number of ways—when Spike warned that she “came back wrong” it definitely seemed to be true. A Buffy who was willing to sleep with Spike was certainly a new version of our old heroine. But the most reset-buttony moment of this season came in episode seventeen, “Normal Again,” in which it is suggested to the audience that maybe there never were any demons, witches, or vampires. Maybe crazy Buffy had been imagining it all as part of her psychotic episodes, which she'd been having for years, locked inside a mental hospital. 
The episode ends leaving the audience to wonder—FOREVER—if Joss meant that was the real story.

Head Scratcher Score: 4
Still adore the show, but, yeah, this will bother me forever.

Twilight Love
Oh, Stephanie Meyer, you do create characters I really care about, and then you go crazy with the deus ex machina and the absurdly happy endings—and the reset button.
This button, of course, reset the entire love story of Bella and Jacob. Now, I know that clearly Meyer meant for us to root for Bella and Edward all along (TEAM JACOB FOREVER!) But the love triangle was what kept me reading those thousands of pages. Now, if I go back, I’ll know that Jacob was just drawn to Bella so he could fall in love with her baby.

Head Scratcher Score: 5

How do you feel about the reset button? Clever storytelling, or plot to ruin fan’s lives?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

City of Nouns

I finally got to watch the movie version of The City of Bones this weekend. I would have seen the thing when it came out, but I couldn’t get anyone to go with me. Some of my friends are fellow readers/fans of the books, but the stinky reviews scared everyone away.

But I was undaunted. Some of my favorite movies are loathed by critics. Of course, I was a little worried about Jamie Campbell Bowers, whom I’d only seen as a glowering Volturi vampire who wore too much makeup.

It was clear in the first few minutes, though, that the filmmakers for some reason decided to ignore the plot of the book in favor of just pulling out the nouns:

Shadowhunters! Mortal Cup! Angels! Demons! Silent brothers! Portals! Magic coffee!

I’m pretty curious whether this business made any sort of sense to someone who hadn’t read the book. I’m guessing not so much.

This list could be longer, but these are, for me, the standout moments:

       1.  PanDEMONium

This film showed a lot of faith in its audience right out of the gate. For example, the sign for the club Pandemonium breaks the word into three parts so that it’s really super clear that the name contains the word DEMON.

Uh, folks, most of the people buying tickets for this movie like to read. Entire books. Pretty sure most of us don’t need the Hooked on Phonics treatment. A lot of us probably even know that Clare is referencing Milton’s Paradise Lost.

      2. Jace wasn’t funny anymore

He was, however, extremely concerned about his hair. And also, if there is another outing, please make sure he keeps his shirt on. That, or feed the kid a whole bunch of sandwiches or something.

      3. Simon doesn’t get turned into a rat.

What’s that about? 

4. Blech

There was surprisingly little romance, but the one big scene we did get?
 Glowy CG flowers, possibly leftover from Avatar, and a Demi Lovato song. 
 I just can't even. 

       5.   Abandon all logic, ye who enter here 

In keeping with the nouns from the book, Jace takes Clary to see the Silent Brothers, whose masks seem to have been purchased at Party City. Clary remembers a whole bunch of stuff, then passes out for the fourteenth time. At which point Jace announces that the spell blocking her memory is too strong! It must be broken by the warlock who put it there!

Wha-huh? Yes, the girl just had four minutes of flashbacks, so clearly the memory block is still working great.  

6.   Listen all y’all, it’s a sabotage

In the final few minutes of this carnival ride, Hodge says to Valentine “If you lie to them and tell them they’re both your children...”

...thus effectively destroying the entire plot of book 2. So the good news seems to be, they aren’t going to even bother making another one of these.

Perhaps somewhere in Hollywood right now they’re on the hunt for another book filled with lots of cool-sounding nouns.