Sunday, June 15, 2014

Let's Talk About the Children: War and the Loss of Innocence in Game of Thrones


            When watching Game of Thrones, HBO’s contentious, wildly popular fantasy series, it’s easy to get caught up in the Big Moments, the ones that light up social media and generate a week’s worth of think pieces: Ned Stark’s beheading; the Battle of Blackwater; the Red Wedding; so many deaths. But the show isn’t all about shock and awe. In fact, some of the best, most memorable moments this season have been the quiet ones, often involving nothing more than characters talking. There’s the circuitous beetle-crushing anecdote that Tyrion tells Jaime in “The Mountain and the Viper,” delivered with tortured intensity by Peter Dinklage, just before the climactic, explosive duel scene. Daenerys’s flirtation with Daario in “Mockingbird.” Any scene between Missandei and Grey Worm, whose tender relationship is perhaps the show’s most welcome addition to George R.R. Martin’s novels.

            There’s a reason why, even in a season teeming with game-changing, water-cooler-ready incidents, “First of His Name” remains my favorite episode. Although relatively uneventful, it contains a wealth of perfect little moments that might seem inconsequential on the surface, but actually have profound implications for the characters and their world. Take, for instance, the scene where Podrick Payne confesses to Brienne, “I killed a man.” It’s a simple, four-word line, but for a character that had previously functioned as little more than comic relief, it constitutes a miniature, heartbreaking revelation. Pod may be hopelessly earnest and awkward, but he’s far from the naïve simpleton we and Brienne thought he was; despite his lack of formal training and experience, he’s just as capable of taking a person’s life as a knight of the Kingsguard.

            At its heart, season four is a narrative of disillusionment, watching as each character is deprived of his or her innocence. In the premiere, Arya Stark, not yet a teenager, sticks her newly reclaimed Needle into Polliver’s throat to avenge her friend, Lommy Greenhands. A contemptuous smirk lingers on her face even as her victim chokes to death on his own blood, yet whatever catharsis this death brings is only temporary. Arya doesn’t hesitate to revel in her victory; instead, she simply wipes her sword clean and continues on her journey with the Hound. In an interview, Maisie Williams says that Arya is “being eaten from the inside out… She's got a hole in her heart. She fills it with all these eyes that she's going to shut forever, and she's just turning black from the inside out.” Ultimately, killing Polliver is not the act of a girl obtaining justice for her fallen friend; it’s the act of a girl who has lost – or is in the process of losing – her soul. A deliberate, cold-blooded murder, devoid of feeling, performed with matter-of-fact calmness. With this, Arya has officially been indoctrinated into the culture of violence that reigns over Westeros.

Monday, June 9, 2014

In Which Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt Try to Save Hollywood


             Unintended metaphors stick out from Edge of Tomorrow like machine guns from clunky metal exo-skeletons. On one hand, the movie mirrors the career of its aging lead, a once-formidable superstar struggling to cling to the last vestiges of his fame and hurtling through action extravaganzas as though he wasn’t now past 50 years old. One early scene shows our hero William Cage, a spokesman and officer in the United States Army Reserve, reacting with incredulity to the news that he will be sent into combat for the first time in his military career, and it’s hard not to see that moment as tongue-in-cheek, Tom Cruise poking fun at his own cushy celebrity status. After all, though tarnished, his image is still apparently enough for studios to keep shoving tent-poles at him. He still looks as handsome and bright-eyed as ever – damn near indestructible.

             The movie could also represent the precarious position of contemporary filmmaking. We’ve all read enough think-pieces lamenting the demise of cinema and rolled our eyes in jaded exasperation at the announcement of yet another superhero reboot. Yet as clichéd and overblown as the cynicism may be, going to the theater does sometimes feel like déjà vu, a never-ending cycle of carbon-copied battles and catastrophes. We’re like Cage, throwing ourselves into the turmoil again and again, hoping that this time, it will be different, only to be continually disappointed.

             On paper, Edge of Tomorrow seems like a continuation of the same pattern, just another disposable blockbuster that will be forgotten in a week. Even the title (once upon a time the endearingly ridiculous All You Need Is Kill) screams “generic”. Yet somehow, despite the name and the hackneyed premise, it works. Of course, this being a moderately budgeted science-fiction spectacle, a decent chunk of screen-time is consumed by elaborate set-pieces involving bright lights, loud noises and quick editing. But what the action lacks in ingenuity, it makes up for in efficiency; at the very least, it makes sense and helps to advance the narrative instead of stalling, overwhelming or distracting from it. Although the plot carries echoes of numerous other movies (it’s essentially Pacific Rim crossed with Source Code), director Doug Liman has such a blast playing with the central gimmick that it doesn’t feel like a simple retread; in fact, it surpasses both of the aforementioned films, buoyed with enough humor to eschew the pompous melodrama of the former and enough energy to ward off the staid repetitiveness of the latter. The whole thing is just enough cheeky, absurd fun that you can forgive its more familiar moments and logical failings, at least until the letdown of an ending.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Fault with The Fault in Our Stars


            When I set out to read John Green’s runaway bestselling YA novel The Fault in Our Stars last year, I fully expected to adore it. I wanted to adore it. Star-crossed romance? Female protagonist? Teen fiction that actually takes its audience seriously? Glowing critical reviews that included phrases like “heartbreaking”, “brutally honest” and “tough, touching valentine to the human spirit”? It sounded right up my alley, the kind of book I’d fall in love with in a heartbeat.

            For the first few pages, it seemed promising. I enjoyed narrator Hazel Grace Lancaster’s droll tone, her scathing indictment of the weekly support group she attends to appease her mother; it’s like something from J.D. Salinger or Chuck Palahnuik – wordy, clever and cynical, even malicious, but authentically so. As it turned out, though, that was the highlight of the novel. I first felt my spirits sink when Augustus Waters appeared on the scene and Hazel observed, without a hint of irony, that “He was hot.” Not “handsome” or even the slightly more-tolerable “cute”, but hot. What’s more, the description doesn’t go any more in-depth than that, so we have to just take for granted that Augustus is as breathtakingly attractive as Hazel claims. This was probably supposed to be endearing, a reminder that although she’s diagnosed with a terminal illness, Hazel is still a regular person just like you. But for me, it was off-putting and patronizing, a grown man’s lame attempt at impersonating a stereotypical teenage girl.

            Then came the cigarette “metaphor”, which I still can’t think about without rolling my eyes because it makes no freaking sense (a metaphor is a comparison; it’s basic English, dude). And Augustus’s habit of calling Hazel “Hazel Grace”. And Hazel’s favorite book, a made-up novel called An Imperial Affliction that ends in mid-sentence for vague, profound reasons. And the dialogue loaded with periodic all-caps and words like “existentially fraught free throws” that have no business being placed in consecutive order.  And the trip to Amsterdam that culminates with Hazel and Augustus kissing in the Anne Frank house to the applause of their fellow visitors, a moment that’s supposed to be romantic and triumphant but really just comes off as manipulative and insensitive. And the scene where Hazel helps vandalize the car of a girl she’s never talked to or even met because obviously, Monica must be a heartless bitch for dumping Isaac and it can’t possibly matter what her side of the story is. And the part when Peter Van Houten inexplicably shows up in Hazel’s car and we’re not supposed to find it creepy as hell because he reveals some tragic backstory that explains his asshole behavior, except it just makes him seem more pathetic than before and I don’t even care in the first place.

            All in all, it was a colossal disappointment. There were occasional moments that I found genuinely touching, like when Hazel cringes at the painfully insincere condolence messages left behind for a deceased cancer patient, or Augustus’s sweeping declaration of his love for Hazel (Titanic and Casablanca are two of my favorite movies ever, so I have nothing against grand romantic gestures), but those were far outnumbered by the times I had to resist shutting the book out of exasperation. Still, for a while, I put off writing about it. I’ve been trying my damnedest not to be one of those narrow-minded snobs who reflexively dismisses anything aimed at teenage girls, and it’s not like I consider myself superior or more discerning for defying popular opinion; if anything, I envy the novel’s fans, since there are few things as rewarding as literature that burrows into your soul and makes you feel like a somehow wiser, fuller person.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Belle Makes Gentle Case for Storytelling Diversity


        It’s easy to imagine a different version of Belle. Told through the eyes of Tom Wilkinson’s William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield and great-uncle of the titular character, or the idealistic lawyer played by Sam Reid who falls in love with her, this alternate version positions Dido Belle Lindsay, the illegitimate daughter of a British Royal Navy officer and an African slave, as a prominent but still secondary character. Her nobility and courage inspires the people around her to overcome their prejudices and become more tolerant, showing them that people of color can be worthy of their respect. Like the actual film, this hypothetical one climaxes with Murray delivering his verdict for the famous Zong massacre insurance case, except here, his rousing speech demonstrates that he’s no longer racist, that he’s now so not racist that he’ll rule against the slave trade establishment that was so integral to 18th-century England’s economy. Characters weep tears of joy and pride, and audiences cheer, because look at that, people can change for the better, and haven’t we come so far from those days?

        Luckily, thanks to director Amma Asante and writer Misan Sagay (both of whom are black women, a true rarity for a semi-mainstream movie), that isn’t the Belle we got. To be sure, it has a feel-good buoyancy that puts it closer tonally to a frothy romantic comedy than the somber gravitas of Great Movies like, say, 12 Years a Slave, and it doesn’t upend the tropes of the costume dramas in whose footsteps it follows so much as it puts them in a new light. Yet, this film still illustrates just how much those in charge of a movie’s production influence the way a particular story is told and how something as deceptively simple as a point-of-view shift can make what would otherwise feel clichéd seem interesting again.