Saturday, February 28, 2015

Book Review: Fingersmith

I feel as though I've been living in a cave.  Sarah Waters has been publishing neo-Victorian and early/mid 20th century novels since 1998, yet I learned about her only a year ago.  More is the pity, because her writing style is so compulsively readable, at least going by her third novel, Fingersmith (2002).

As with Crimson Petal and the White and The Seance, I read with one eye toward seeing (1) what aspects of the Victorian Era were incorporated, (2) what "modern" elements were added, (3) what worked and did not work, (4) how well Fingersmith conformed to expectations of "what would sell," and (5) whether it was a good story.

Starting with No. 2, one common aspect of Sarah Waters's novels is that their protagonists are lesbians.  Not all, but at least the first three, including Fingersmith.  Waters was working toward a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London, with a thesis focused on "lesbian and gay historical fictions, 1870 to the present," when she came up with the idea for her first novel, Tipping the Velvet (1998).  The material for her thesis would inspire several of her novels.  Whereas other neo-Victorian authors might send their lesbian protagonists out into the woods, where they could be free of social disapproval, Waters based her novels in the heart of London.  Her intent was, in some respects, to correct misunderstandings about Victorian mores and aspects of society considered purely heterosexual.  Though at first publishers rejected Tipping the Velvet, it was eventually picked up and received both critical acclaim and commercial success.  Therefore, by the time Waters published Fingersmith, she already had a good idea that her work would sell.

As for why I chose to read Fingersmith over Tipping the Velvet, the story just appealed to me more.  But was it a good story?  For the most part, yes.  Like Crimson Petal and the White, some aspects left me very frustrated, so that I consider Fingersmith a very good novel rather than a great one.  In short, I adored the first third, but was unable to suspend my disbelief regarding the twists in the next two parts.


Plot Synopsis

From this point onward, I will assume that you have read this book, and this review will be filled with spoilers.  

In early 1860s London, 17-year old Sue Trinder lives in a "den of thieves" under the protective eye of mother figure and baby farmer, Mrs. Suksby.  Sue is a "fingersmith" whose mother, she was told, died from hanging after a theft gone wrong.  One day, a rakish associate known as "Gentleman" shows up, with a proposal that could potentially make Sue very well off.  He proposes that Sue serve as a lady's maid to Miss Maud Lilly, niece of an eccentric gentleman who lives in an isolated manor house, whom Gentleman has been assisting.  Gentleman intends to make the "odd" Miss Lilly fall in love and elope with him so he can claim her 15,000-pound fortune.  Then, with help from Sue, he will deposit her in the mad house.

Sue agrees to the plot, but from the moment she arrives at the manor house, nothing goes as she imagines.  Among other things, she does not expect to have feelings for Miss Lilly, and vice versa.


The Good Aspects of This Novel

Writing Style.  I really liked Waters's way of writing, the way she doesn't need to fuss over every detail of description, yet provides very vivid descriptions when the scene calls for it.  On the one hand, we never know quite what Gentleman looks like, other than that he's "handsome."  On the other hand, we know exactly what Maud's manor house prison looks like, including the library her uncle inhabits with his ink-blackened tongue and green spectacles.  I think it's because Waters understands that what Gentleman looks like is not essential to the story.  He's handsome and charming -- what more do you need?  On the other hand, it is very important that we feel the mouldy claustrophobia of the Briar so we understand not only why Maud chooses to escape it, but also the events that preceded Maud and Sue's births.

Waters's characters have a plain speaking style, yet the story is constantly leaking new details that keep it intriguing.  Except for some stretches (see below), she also knows how to keep the story moving.  Most scenes advance both plot and character (though in some respects, character development is a bit of a chimera), which makes Fingersmith something of an anti-Crimson Petal and the White.  Faber could not resist showing the same scenes again and again, lingering on what each character was wearing and details of the room.

Interesting Places.  Fingersmith has no shortage of interesting places that manage to be more than simply an homage to Dickens.  There is Mrs. Suksby's den on Lane Street in London, where dog-skinners, con artists, and "fingersmiths" congregate, while dozens of orphaned babies live upstairs, their cries dulled by gin water.  Then there is the Briar, which somehow makes quiet country life seem like a horror story, and the true horror story of the asylum where Sue remains locked up for months at a time.  Even spots that should be fairly nondescript, like the cottage where Maud and Gentleman spend their first married night, carry foreboding.        

Rupert Evans as Gentleman in the BBC version.
Looks much younger than I pictured him...
Character Development (to An Extent).  For the most part, I liked the characters, though not as well as I'd hoped (see below).  The one I liked best, mainly for her consistency, was Sue.  She is brusque, yet soft; uneducated, yet astute; shrewd, yet innocent.  I liked her realistic responses to the changes in her life.  Even though she is supposedly a hardened street girl, she is still afraid of leaving home and homesick.  The development of her love for Maud is delicately done, as is Maud's reaction to her feelings.  And Maud... I really liked Part One Maud.  I loved her nervousness, her seeming naivete, the way she wore her white gloves like armor.  I was intrigued by her nightmares, the way she kissed her mother's portrait each night, the way she seemed to yearn for someone to love her, and her slow awakening to Sue's passion.  I mourn for Part One Maud.  Had she been that way throughout the book, she might have been my favorite character.  Otherwise, despite the fact that Maud narrates roughly half of Fingersmith, Sue feels like the main character.

The other characters are interesting, if a bit two-dimensional, especially Gentleman and Mrs. Suksby, who knows more than she lets on.  Much more.    


The Less Good Aspects of This Novel

Twists That Don't Make Sense.  That really is my main gripe with Fingersmith.  While yes, they keep you reading, they also take away from what made the book so good in the first place.  And the first third was so, so good.  I liked Sue's past with the dead mother who was hanged for murder.  I liked how Maud was quirky and clearly suffered from OCD, but was also kind and sensitive.  I liked the unexpected friendship, then love, that bloomed between Maud and Sue.  By the end of Part One, I was convinced that Sue would smuggle Maud away from the asylum and the rest of the book would be their adventures together as two unmarried women in love, trying to forge a life in 1860s England while staying one step ahead of (now vengeful) Gentleman.  But maybe that would have been too much of a stretch even for Sarah Waters.

So instead, at the end of Part One, we learn that Maud is, well, not Maud.  In Parts Two and Three, we discover that very little of what we knew about Maud Lilly is real.  She's not really naive about sex.  In fact, she knows more about it than Sue.  She's not naive about the marriage plot -- she helped hatch it with Gentleman.  The reveal is an interesting plot element, but it comes at the expense of character.  The Maud Lilly of Parts Two and Three is flatter than the Maud Lilly of Part One.  Flatter, and possibly too modern.  (Would an unmarried girl of good breeding so casually refer to Gentleman as "Richard"?)  We know her unusual background, her resentments, her penchant for abuse, but Waters cannot get inside her mind quite as easily as she does Sue's.  Therefore Maud of Parts Two and Three feels like the antithesis of Maud of Part One, but not much more.

Maud and Sue share a bed at night due to Maud's nightmares.
Or should I say supposed nightmares?
Other twists follow, each more absurd than the last.  It's not enough for Maud Lilly, gentleman's niece, to conspire with Gentleman to leave her rural prison.  Nor is it enough for her to simply be a fraud.  No, she must be Mrs. Suksby's real daughter, purposely switched with the true Miss Lilly -- Sue!

The backstory behind this twist is shaky, but I could buy it if it didn't render other aspects of the novel more ridiculous.  Specifically, why was Sue ever involved in Maud's plot of escape?  Did Maud really need a lady's maid to help her sneak away on Gentleman's boat?  Why were Maud and Gentleman so confident they could keep Sue locked away in the asylum without Mr. Lilly or his household staff ever checking on "Maud"?  And why would Mrs. Suksby be so quick to toss aside the girl who was basically her daughter for 17 years and replace her with a virtual stranger?

After a while, the plot seems to strain under its own weight.  While the reading is rarely dull, it is also not satisfying.  I wanted a character that I could hold onto as an anchor in the constantly shifting waters.  The only one who seems to maintain her inner core is Sue, which was why she was the only character I truly liked.                        

Redundancy.  Even in a novel with as many twists as Fingersmith, there are stretches that are slow and redundant.  The worst is the first half of Part Two, which recounts the events of Part One from Maud's perspective.  While it provides for some amusement -- revealing that Maud's seeming oddness was really discomfort at deceiving Sue -- it easily could have been reduced to a few paragraphs.  Sue's time in the asylum, likewise, is interesting, but much too long.  

Cliches.  Sometimes it feels like Waters doesn't trust the characters to hold our interest by themselves.  Instead of letting us empathize with Maud simply for being a young Victorian girl trapped under the thumb of her crazy uncle, she has to include the shocking! twist that Maud is also forced to read passages from porn literature to eager gentlemen visitors.  How edgy.  How modern.  Yawn.


Conclusion

All in all, while I didn't love Fingersmith, I liked it a great deal.  Enough that I sucked down the 580-page book in a little over two days, and vowed to read more of the Sarah Waters canon.  Enough that I decided to make my next read a Dickens novel.  Dickens!  A bit of background: Dickens is the Victorian author whose writing I could never tolerate.  Many times I picked up one of his overwrought tomes and tried to read beyond the first page, but failed.  Yet if Michel Faber and Sarah Waters love him so much that their novels contain obvious homages, maybe I should give him a chance?  So my next read will be Bleak House.  If you don't hear from me in three weeks, send help.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Novel Update: San Francisco Writers Conference 2015


After cutting and refining my novel, I finally decided I was ready for the next step: attend the San Francisco Writers Conference, where real-live agenty people would congregate... along with the rest of us.

I won't provide a ton of detail, except to say that the price is probably a bargain if you attend all four days.  I came for only two.  Still, I managed to get what I came for.  

On Saturday, my first full day, I showed up at the Mark Hopkins Hotel to do what is called "speed networking," where you meet with an agent for three minutes and pitch your novel.  At 8 am, riding a caffeinated high, I flocked into a large room where agents sat and lined up with the ones on my list.  I had just an hour to appeal to as many agents as possible, and regrettably, I was not as efficient with my time as I could have been.

One big-time agent shot me down, stating my idea wasn't high concept.  It was painful, but then again, she was right.  It was a valuable lesson to learn, that no matter how well written my pages, some agents who represent my genre just won't go for the story.

Still, it left me reeling, and I wasted a few minutes just standing there, too rattled to talk to my next chosen out of fear that I could be shot down again.  Finally I did, and surprisingly, she was very enthusiastic about the novel pitch.  

Overall, I talked to five agents: the one who shot me down, one who had previously liked my pitch but rejected my pages, and three others whom I had never pitched to before.  Each of those three agents requested pages.  

The rest of the conference was a thick mass of 45-minute sessions on everything you want to know about writing.  Much of it I had already read about in publications like Writers Digest or on writer websites.  Some of it just plain didn't apply to me.  I'm not quite ready to solicit reviews or design my book cover.  That said, it turned out my last session on Sunday may have been my most valuable.

The session was "Hiring a Freelance Editor," or some such.  I went in thinking it wasn't necessary because hello, I have spent the past two years editing my novel.  I had hired a semi-professional editor to help cut the novel down and had cut it by nearly one-third.  Plus, I had been a professional editor myself, albeit a line and copy editor more than a developmental one.

It turns out that spending years editing your novel isn't that unusual.  The editors flat out stated that when you think your work is as polished as you can make it, that is the time to hire a developmental editor.  Which of course isn't cheap.

Whereas once I kicked and screamed at the thought of reducing my word count (as documented in several posts), now I feel agnostic.  If an editor can make my book awesome in 90,000 words then go for it.  At this point, I just want to give my novel the best chance for being published.

However, I do feel a bit repulsed by the thought of more editing.  Noooo!  I thought I was free.  I thought I could finally focus fully on my second novel.  But I guess that's not a realistic possibility until the first novel is published.  So right now, I'm studying different editor options, searching for the one that's right for me.  Should I use one, by the time I'm through, I hope the agents waiting for my pages won't have died of old age.

The above image is royalty free from freeimages.com.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

Things That I Love: The Legend of Korra, Revisited (Part Two)

Last time, I focused on the ways in which The Legend of Korra was intertwined with its predecessor, The Last Airbender, to the point where it's almost useless to compare them (though many will try).  This time, I want to focus on what made Korra such a great, and at times frustrating, show.  In many respects, it's more difficult than I thought because since the final Korrasami moment, news outlets have tripped over themselves (many of which had previously shown no interest) to glorify every aspect of the series.  Coming up with something unique and non cliched is rather difficult.  Maybe it would be easier if I began with the less impressive aspects of the series...

The Less Good

Some Choppy, Underdeveloped Plot Points.  I am mainly referring to the Season Two arc, but the same is true of the other seasons to an extent.  Season Two suffered from Nickelodeon's sudden reward of three additional Korra seasons, forcing the Korra creators to scramble for a new story line that would force Korra to mature as a character.  Yet even this does not explain the poor pacing and confusion of Season Two.

First, there was the Northern and Southern Water Tribe feud, hastily introduced in the second or third episode.  While in The Last Airbender, the tribes appeared to be disconnected, there was no indication the Northern Water Tribe ruled the South (that I recalled), or if they did, that the South minded.  Yet in Season Two, we're supposed to understand that tensions were there all along and the South wanted independence?  Furthermore, what was the point of the civil war if Unalaq's grand scheme was to destroy the world as they knew it by becoming the Dark Avatar?  The war seemed to exist solely to give the other characters something to do.

And yes, Korra's friends' actions seemed oddly disconnected from the main plot until the last four or five episodes -- Bolin's star turn in propaganda "mover" films especially (though it is the more amusing plot line of the season).        

Seasons Three and Four would handle the tensions within the Earth Kingdom/Empire much better, though even they had weaknesses.  Why would Prince Wu wait three years to be crowned?  Who was ruling the Earth Empire while Kuvira was off reconquering everything?  Why would the other world leaders turn to Suyin Beifong to rule the Earth Kingdom when Lin Beifong had much more experience bringing order to chaotic regions?

Then there is Season One, with the intriguing "benders oppressing non-benders" plot line that was dropped like a hot potato and never picked up again.  Electing a non-bender as president of the United Republic doesn't count as a resolution.

Characters Don't Always Face Consequences for Their Actions.  The prime example of this was Suyin Beifong, who never apologized for scarring her sister Lin's face.  Lin was just supposed to get over Su's youthful "indiscretion" and see that she'd changed.  At least Su got a taste of her own medicine when her son, Baatar Jr., became Kuvira's fiance and a homicidal maniac.  But judging from the last episode, she seemed to think he should avoid punishment as well.

Studio Pierrot.  This one is hardly the Korra creators' fault, but it does stand out as a blemish.  When Nickelodeon green-lit a Season Two, the Korra creators had to act quickly.  Studio Mir, the Korean animation studio behind Season One, declined to animate a second season initially, being too exhausted by the intense level of detail.  Enter Studio Pierrot, a Japanese animation studio behind other series such as Bleach.  Pierrot's animation style was quite different in several ways from Mir's... and not for the better.  Studio Mir eventually reentered the picture to animate half of the season's 14 episodes. <sounds of cheering>

On a rewatch of Season Two, Pierrot's animation really isn't that bad.  If I didn't know Mir's, I'd think it was pretty good.  The problem is that I do know Mir's, with its vivid expressions and dynamic character animation even when the characters were merely talking.  Whereas under Pierrot's guiding hand, the characters remained stone-faced and unblinking.  

That Damn Love Triangle.  The love triangle between Korra, Mako, and Asami never bugged me that much -- and now, it's fun to go back and watch Korra and Asami scenes, knowing what's to come -- but it did rear its ugly head a lot in the first two seasons.  The obsession with Mako never quite worked for me because I thought he was just... okay.  Even at his smoldering sexiest (not counting his incredibly hot hero moment in the final episode), he never had great chemistry with Korra.  I thought she had better chemistry with Bolin.  But no, Bolin was reduced to the "funny man" sidekick until Season Three, when he finally had a serious love interest in Opal.

Still, these are quibbles, overshadowed by the many terrific aspects of Korra.  Without further ado:


The Good

Mind-Numbingly Good Animation.  I can't adequately describe the complexity, the attention to detail, the constant fluid movement, the poses, and the expressions in mere words.  Except for the unfortunate Pierrot lapse, Korra grabs hold of you visually and never lets go.  Highlights include Korra and Zaheer's chase/fight scene in the Season Three finale, Korra's face-off with Tarlock in Season One, Bolin's fight to save President Raiko in Season Two, and Mako's awesome near-sacrifice moment in the Season Four finale, among many, many others.  But I can't emphasize enough that it's not just the character movement, but character still shots that are frequently stunning.  Take, for example, the shots of Korra's face as she tries to avoid the Avatar state in the Season Three finale.

Oh just buy the series and watch already!


Woman Power.  Korra always had strong female characters, from Korra herself to Lin Beifong to Asami, but they took a major step forward in Seasons Three and Season Four, when we met Su Beifong, founder and ruler of Zaofu (and metal-bending bad ass), her daughter Opal, and Kuvira, guard turned military conqueror.  Season Three also saw Jinora become an airbending master in her own right and acquire the famous arrow tattoos that Aang and Tenzin wore.  They weren't just awesome women, but awesome people who happened to be women.  It shouldn't be unusual to see a lot of strong, confident women in positions of power, yet it is.  So while Korra's creators made it organic to the story and characters, everyone still had to comment upon it.  And why not?  How often in television or film do you see a scene where all of the major power players on the battlefield are women?    

At the same time, it was not at the expense of the male characters.  Bolin and Varrick grew more awesome as the series progressed, and Tenzin was always Tenzin.  More on that below.

Great Secondary Characters (Including the Villains).  For a series with such a limited number of episodes (nine fewer that The Last Airbender) Korra really made the most of its characters.  Tenzin and his family are fully formed, as are Lin and Suyin.  Then there's Bolin, who began as more of a comic relief character, but matured throughout Season Four as he understood his role in Kuvira's oppression.  Varrick showed a moral backbone he never knew he had by refusing to build a superweapon, while his long-suffering assistant, Zhu Li, began asserting herself, eventually winning his respect (and his hand in marriage).

Then there are the villains, who are on a level by themselves.  With the exception of dull, muddled Unalaq, all of the villains were compelling in their own way.  There were Zaheer and his possee, a quartet of scarily good benders with the aim of killing -- not merely removing, mind you, but killing -- world leaders to create "chaos" as the natural order.  Part of their plan involved killing the Avatar while in the Avatar state, thus ending the cycle.  (How that would affect Raava or prevent her from joining with the next Avatar is never explained... probably because the Raava/Vaatu backstory did not exist in The Last Airbender.)  Then there was Kuvira, a brilliant metal bender and tactician who took the chaos Zaheer created and turned it into a chilling new order.  Her abandonment issues, regrettably, were introduced too late in the season, but what we saw already hinted at something deeper.

Then there was my favorite villain, Amon.  Not only did Amon possibly have the most relatable gripe (benders oppressing non-benders), but he was also the only Korra villain who was truly scary.  With his Jason-like mask and immunity to others' attacks, he resembled a rapist from a nightmare.  (This was driven home more than once in Season One, such as the episode where he captured Korra on Aang Memorial Island.)  I almost wish we didn't learn Amon's true identity, and he remained this anti-bender boogeyman who would emerge from the darkness.     

Korra Grows and Changes.  On other shows, Korra might have been the focus-grouped-to-death peppy protagonist whose personality was too bland to be off putting.  On Korra, there were times when she was genuinely unlikeable.  Yet you never felt like that's all there was to her.  She was cocky, yes, but also genuinely sweet, honorable, temperamental, and brave.  She also had a defined character arc, beginning as an arrogant, but sheltered, teenager and ending as a humble adult who realizes that the learning never ends.  While Aang on The Last Airbender had many good qualities, his character interested me less than Korra's.  Korra had a messy personality and how you felt about her could change from episode to episode.  I wouldn't have it any other way.

And Finally... Korrasami.  I'm of the opinion that Korrasami was not as well built up as it could have been... but I still love it.  I'll start with the negatives.  Asami Sato has the potential to be a great character, but she's the least developed of the main four, and frequently seemed to exist as an ideal.  While I liked her interaction with Korra in Season Three, it didn't seem to point toward romance, and they interacted even less in Season Four.  During the two-part finale, they barely interacted at all.  Korra did not express any sadness or concern when Asami was nearly crushed by Kuvira's machine.  Because of this, the final moments of the series had an unnecessary sense of randomness.  Even if Nickelodeon restricted the portrayal of a lesbian romance, during certain key moments, Korra could have shown a few close ups of Korra's or Asami's faces to get the point across that they at least cared about one another.

I would have been happy if Korra and Asami had remained good friends.  That is rare enough in television.  But I was thrilled when they ended the series romantically.  It was a groundbreaking moment in Western animation.  Plus, it just works somehow.  Korra and Asami could be really good for one another, in a way that Korra and Mako never were.  Korra needs someone to challenge her, someone not easily pushed around.  Even though Mako got tough with Korra at times, he went into tentative boyfriend mode too frequently.  Asami strikes me as the type who wouldn't take crap.  At the same time, the more emotional Korra might help Asami open up a little more about her own pain and doubt.

Plus, they look pretty darn good together, don't they?

Here is hoping they continue their adventures in the comics.  (Though that said, why on earth did they go to the spirit world for vacation?  Does anything relaxing happen in that place?)

Conclusion

Having grown up with glorified toy commercials, I envy the people who grew up watching The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra.  Both are fantastic series with high production values, great characters, and challenging themes.  Korra took what The Last Airbender left and expanded it even further.  I'm sad that this is the end of her journey on television, and can only hope we get to follow it in some other visual form.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Things That I Love: The Legend of Korra, Revisited (Part One)

Beware of spoilers...


When I did my first review for The Legend of Korra, I had seen only Book One and had no previous exposure to the Avatar universe.  What little I knew about Avatar: The Last Airbender came from the Nostalgia Critic review praising the series while rightfully ripping on the movie adaptation.  Now I come with a richer perspective, having having watched both series in their entirety, and I have one thing to say:





Korrasami!!!!!!





Just kidding.  I do want to talk about that, but it can wait.  First I want to focus on what else made The Legend of Korra such a memorable show.


Background

I already gave basic background about the Avatar universe in my previous review.  Both Avatar series are set in a world parallel to our own, divided into four nations based on the elements: earth, fire, air, and water.  Inhabitants of these nations who can manipulate an element are known as "benders."  The Avatar is the only one who can manipulate all four elements, as well as the only one who gets glow-eyed super strength at pivotal moments.  When the Avatar dies, he or she is reborn in the next nation in the element cycle.  So after Avatar Aang, an Air Nomad, died, he was reborn as Avatar Korra, a member of the Water Tribes.  When Korra dies, she'll be reborn as a member of the Earth Kingdom/Empire/Republic, which, given the state of its politics at the end of the series, should be interesting.

Whereas in his series, Aang was a peaceful individual who dreaded the thought of fighting and killing Fire Lord Ozai, Korra begins her series ready to kick some ass.  She has been sheltered at a compound in the Southern Water Tribe for 17 years, finally leaving for Republic City to train in air bending with Tenzin, Aang's younger son.  In Republic City, The Legend of Korra's version of New York or Tokyo or Some Big City, Korra has her first rude awakening at the hands of Amon, a blood bender determined to achieve equality by eliminating all bending.  Though Korra would eventually regain her bending ability, this was just the first challenge to her existence.  In Season Two, her uncle Unalaq, chief of the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, would try to eclipse her by becoming a dark Avatar.  In Season Three, a gang of anarchic super-benders led by Zaheer would attempt to kill Korra and destroy the Avatar cycle with the goal of restoring the world to its "natural" state.  Finally, in Season Four, Kuvira, ruler of the Earth Empire, would view Korra (by this time nearly destroyed mentally and physically by Zaheer) as no match for her vast military or SWOMD (spirit weapon of mass destruction).

Through it all, Korra would survive and learn, including that her enemies' goals were not always bad.  She would open spirit portals that had been closed for 10,000 years, allowing spirits to move among humans and for air bending powers to make a resurgence.  By the end, she would even freaking create her own spirit portal by energy bending Kuvira's massive spirit ray.  And even as Korra's feats become progressively more amazing, she grows humbler and more circumspect, admitting to Tenzin that she still wants to learn more while gazing across the water at the massive spirit portal she created.  Many fans of both Avatar series view Korra as weaker than Aang, but by the end, I would say it's at least a draw.  


Korra vs. Aang

Technically, there should be no contest between the two Avatars, since they are the same person.  Yet most fans of the series fall into the trap of comparing the series and their characters.  Avatar: The Last Airbender was the "great" series because it was planned over three 20-episode seasons and could progress at a steady pace, while The Legend of Korra failed for being a 12-episode miniseries unexpectedly expanded by three more seasons and then jerked around by its corporate parent, Nickelodeon.  Aang was a better Avatar for being wiser at the age of 12 than Korra was at 17 (even though Aang ran away from his Avatar duties and wound up frozen in an iceberg for 100 years).  Avatar: The Last Airbender was a "simpler" show than The Legend of Korra, with more black and white and less gray.

The shows and characters elude such easy type casting.  For instance, the "simpler" show featured a character who lost his entire culture in a holocaust; an heir to the throne who lost his only son, then his place in the succession, and somehow managed to come out stronger; a character who witnessed her mother's brutal death; and a character whose father burnt off half of his face on purpose.  Any of the backstory moments of Aang, Iroh, Katara, and Zuko trump the love triangle between Korra, Asami, and Mako.  At the same time, you could argue that Korra, on a whole, is the grittier, grayer show.  It's the only show that actually shows people dying on screen.  Its villains often make more sense than the heroes, and are sometimes easier to root for (a sizable contingent prefers Zaheer, Amon, or Kuvira to Korra).  It examines social problems that are only hinted at in Avatar: The Last Airbender, such as tensions between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, or massive inequality in the Earth Kingdom.  Far from suggesting that everything after Aang ended the Hundred Years' War was unparalleled bliss, Korra showed that some of Aang's solutions ended up resulting in more problems.

That said, there are certain things one show does better than the other.  Though Avatar's animation is pretty good, Korra's can be mind-boggling.  Avatar has an arguably stronger core cast in Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph (not to mention Zuko), than Korra does in Korra, Mako, Bolin, and Asami.  Korra has the arguably stronger supporting cast with Lin Beifong, Tenzin and his family, and Varrick and Zhu Li, than Avatar does even with Iroh and Azula's posse included.  While Korra's villains are generally more complex and interesting than Avatar's one-dimensional Ozai, the villain scale is nearly balanced by the presence of Azula.  With her combination of mental issues, feelings of abandonment, and genius both as a bender and as a tactician, she's the one villain you almost wish would get away with taking over the entire world.  

You can compare these series forever, but ultimately, when makes each series so great is that the other exists.  Would we care as much about the pressures Tenzin faces as Aang's only air bending child if we didn't know about Aang's tragic backstory?  Would Toph's metal bending seem quite as awesome in the original series if we didn't know the heights it would reach in Korra, especially Season Four?  Both Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra make each other richer.  Thus, though I'm going to talk primarily about Korra, I will inevitably weave in discussion of the previous series.

Next Time: An examination of Korra's awesomeness in Part Two, some areas where it could have been stronger, and oh yes, The Ending... 

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Out of the Woods and Onto the Silver Screen: Sondheim’s Into the Woods Hits Theaters

I'm please to introduce guest blogger, Beth Kelly, who will give her take on Into the Woods, Sondheim, and other recent movie musicals.


Theater lovers and cinephiles alike are buzzing about the movie adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. The play, which has been running in some form for the better part of two decades, is a darkly twisted take on some very near and dear fairy tales, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. The plot twists and turns as the audience sees the characters they thought they knew in a whole new way. The movie, produced by Disney, stars well knowns such as Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp and Emily Blunt.

Since "darkly twisted" and "Disney" are terms at odds with one another, some changes had to be made to the plot to make it a bit more family friendly. The original story line follows the baker and his wife, trying to break the curse of a witch so that they can have a child. The witch tells them that they have to locate four ingredients to a potion for the curse to be broken, "the cow as white as milk (from Jack), the cape as red as blood (from Little Red Riding Hood), the hair as yellow as corn (from Rapunzel), and the slipper as pure as gold (from Cinderella)."

The basic plot, while it sounds like a ready-made Disney story, also includes some details that had to be edited to make it more appropriate for family audiences. In the play, Cinderella’s prince sleeps with the Baker’s wife, Rapunzel dies, and Red Riding Hood and the wolf have a very sexually-inclined interaction, none of which are going to appear in the movie adaptation.

Into the Woods isn't the only musical play that has been adapted to the big screen in recent years. Other notable plays that have seen acclaim in the box office include:

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Tim Burton’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical stars Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman. Following Burton’s penchant for dark themes, the storyline follows Sweeney Todd, a barber bent on revenge as he kills the people who stand in his way. After he kills them, his landlady, Mrs. Lovett, bakes them into meat pies.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

This musical comedy drama is based on a rock musical about a band whose lead singer is a transgendered East German. Hedwig, born as Hansel, uses rock music to help her navigate through the difficulties of love, politics and a botched sex change operation.

Grease

Named for the working-class youth subculture of “greasers” in 1950’s America, on Broadway the production became infamous for its raw and raunchy depiction of high school life. The film toned down much of the vulgarity, and it became one of the most popular movies of the 1970’s - not to mention the highest-grossing movie musical to date. Starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, it received positive reviews from critics and even went on to spawn a sequel, Grease 2. Both are must-sees for anyone who hasn’t already, luckily they’re easily streamable (click here for more info) and even available on YouTube.  

Chicago

This satire film focuses on the idea of the "celebrity criminal" as it explores the corruption in criminal justice. The main characters, Velma and Roxie, murderesses and vaudevillians, compete for attention and fame from both the other inmates of the women’s prison and the world at large.

As Sondheim and others like him know, converting a musical into a film can be a bit like seeing your life’s work chopped into pieces with a chainsaw. Sometimes, what works for a play doesn't translate to the big screen. Audiences also expect different things; theatergoers may be drawn to themes and storylines that are grittier than might appeal to a larger audiences. The move from play to screenplay often sees drastic changes in the dialog, and the musical numbers must be re-evaluated for the screen as well. Despite initial controversy, Sondheim eventually found himself satisfied with the work the filmmakers had done translating his work, even if there had to be some changes. No matter the little tweaks, Into the Woods is a film that will thrill the youngsters while including enough veiled innuendo to amuse the parents, all the while keeping everyone engaged in the familiar fairy-tale story line. 



Beth Kelly is a freelance writer based in Chicago, IL. A lifelong musical theater fan, she holds a degree in Communications and Art History from DePaul University. In her free time she loves watching obscure Lifetime movies and trying new smoothie recipes. Follow her on Twitter @ bkelly_88

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

New Year's Resolutions

It was so much easier to write long posts when I had more time off.  But anyway, to hit off January, here are some New Year's resolutions:

1.  To start sending query letters again for my novel, and to steel myself for the pain of many rejections...

2.  To write 300 words per day of my sequel novel.  So far easier said than done... I tend to get more writing done on weekends, and have close to 70 pages written.

3.  To make it through a whole episode of Downton Abbey sober.  Rather difficult when you play drinking games based on certain show tendencies...

4.  To not throw things at the screen when I watch sports on television.

5.  To not throw things at the screen when I watch Mad Men's likely unsatisfying conclusion, which is anything other than Don admitting his identity and surrendering himself to the police.  Though at this point, I would settle for Peggy getting a great promotion or starting her own agency.  She hasn't done anything good since Season Four.

6.  To not throw things at the screen when I watch Game of Thrones episodes that cut characters that did not need to be cut, or put existing characters in plot arcs that make no sense.

7.  To stop watching television.

I also have some good stuff lined up for this month.  I plan to do a retrospective of The Legend of Korra (with a lot of The Last Airbender) thrown in, as well as another installment of Through An Introvert's Lens.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Into the Woods

It's turned into musical movie month, hasn't it?  Beware of spoilers!

If Into the Woods isn't the most soul-stirring musical, it is still well made and highly entertaining.  Written by Stephen Sondheim and premiering on Broadway in 1987, it combines several classic fairytales and centers them around a semi-original tale involving a baker and his wife.  The movie version is directed by Rob Marshall (of Chicago fame) and contains a star-studded cast, including Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, and Anna Kendrick.

Plot Synopsis

The Baker and his wife live a good life, except that they cannot have children.  One day, they learn from their neighbor, a witch, that their house has been cursed because the Baker's father once stole items from the witch's garden, including magical beans.  In addition to taking the Baker's parents' second-born (a girl), the witch proclaimed that his house would remain barren unless the Baker and his wife were able to locate four magical items: a cape red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, a cow as white as milk, and a golden slipper.

This sets the Baker and his wife off on a quest that gets them tangled up in Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Rapunzel.  Madcap adventures ensue, and every character ends up with what they think they want, but may not actually be the case.  And that's only the first hour.


A Note on Sondheim

Prior to my Sweeney Todd review, I didn't know a great deal about Stephen Sondheim, other than that he was the lyricist for West Side Story.  Since then, I will confess that I am still very ignorant of the ways of The Sondheim, but some patterns have emerged.  One, Sondheim is a brilliant lyricist.  That much is clear.  Sondheim loves word games and word patterns.  From him, a conventional rhyme is both surprising and a disappointment.  Two, Sondheim does not let anything get in the way of his lyrics, including the music.  Whether you hum the songs leaving the theatre matters less than whether you heard the ideas expressed.  See, for example, Sweeney Todd's "The Epiphany."  That said, Sondheim can bust out a glorious soaring melody when he really wants to, like "Johanna" or "Being Alive," or a memorable ensemble number like "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd."

Three, Sondheim meditates a lot on what it means to be happy and fulfilled.  Does it involve being in a relationship?  Does it involve getting revenge?  Does it involve being famous for your art?  Into the Woods contains this pondering, specifically: What comes after Happily Ever After?

Four, Sondheim musicals can be... awkward.  Both Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George have two very distinct acts that hold together uneasily.  With the latter, while the first act is a self-contained story about the formation of Georges Seurat's most famous painting, the second involves the struggles of Seurat's (fictional) grandson or great-grandson to make art.  The second act has thought-provoking ideas and "Putting It Together" alone is worth sticking around, but it seems like a clumsy attempt to make it all "mean something" when maybe the first act wasn't enough (or at least long enough).  With Into the Woods, Act One appears to be Happily Ever, while Act Two is After.  That itself would not be so problematic except that the device used to bring things to a head, to me, detracts from the message.  The movie does not do a whole lot to solve this problem and, in fact, might make it worse.

Overall, Sondheim musicals are brilliant and problematic, yet always an irresistible source of movie adaptations since this one.


The Good   

Whimsical Premise.  It is hard not to like any story derived from fairy tales, and on the whole, we are conditioned to see fairy tale entertainment that takes big liberties with the source material (see Frozen versus The Snow Queen).  Into the Woods is no exception, almost seamlessly weaving together four very different fairy tales and focusing them around an original tale.  The movie manages to mine both humor and pathos from this arrangement, the humor coming primarily from mocking characters like the vain handsome princes in Cinderella and Rapunzel.  Meanwhile, Cinderella's tale, the witch's backstory, and the Baker and his wife's situation contribute much of the pathos -- particularly the last example.  The Baker always dreads becoming like his father, whom he regards as a snake who abandoned his family.  It's also nice to see that a Disney-produced Into the Woods doesn't shy away from some of the darker aspects of the source material, such as when Cinderella's step-sisters butcher their feet to fit the gold slipper.  The stories shouldn't work so well together, but somehow they do.  

Strong Performances.  While on the whole, there is no one performance that grabs me and shakes me by the shoulders (as arguably was the case with Anne Hathaway or Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables), they are all pretty solid.  I found Emily Blunt as the Baker's wife to be surprisingly effective in what might have been a largely thankless role.  Meryl Streep is fun and occasionally moving as the witch, and Anna Kendrick brings some sensitivity to the role of Cinderella, the girl who isn't sure Happily Ever After is what she wants.  Everyone raves about Chris Pine as the prince, and I thought he was fun.  Even Johnny Depp as the Big Bad Wolf was okay, even if his was the weakest (and smallest) of the major roles.  Though there were no Anne Hathaways in this cast, there were also no Russell Crowes.         

The Sondheim.  It's Sondheim, so of course the lyrics are intricate, witty, and effective.  See, for example, the "Prologue," with lines like "Into the woods to bring some bread/To Granny who is sick in bed/Never can tell what lies ahead/For all that I know, she's already dead."  The witch's explanation of the curse is especially delightful:

So there's no more fuss
And there's no more scenes
And my garden thrives --
You should see my nectarines!
But I'm telling you the same
I tell kings and queens:
Don't ever never ever
Mess around with my greens!
Especially the beans.

Sondheim even manages to break out a fairly moving tune with "No One Is Alone," which has some typical irony woven in: everyone is alone, so no one is alone.

Themes.  The paper-thin facade of Happily Ever After is poised for tearing apart, and Sondheim does so with aplomb.  Even before everyone gets their "wish," Into the Woods makes it clear that not all wishes are worth granting, particularly where Cinderella's prince is concerned.   


The Bad

Hokey in the Second Act.  I'm aware that there are significant differences between the stage musical and the movie in Act Two, and that the stage musical's version is better regarded.  That said, both versions of Act Two rely upon a plot device to spur the events of the dark second act that, while it makes some sense, is just so... hokey.  Basically in Act One, Jack killed the Giant by cutting down the beanstalk.  In Act Two, the Giant's wife comes down to earth looking for Jack to take revenge, stomping everything in her path and killing several main characters in the process.  I understand the need for action, that there needed to be a reason to bring these disparate characters together again, but... what the hell?  Maybe it's to provide some much-needed levity in what would otherwise be a very serious Act Two, who knows?  Though given that the second hour of Into the Woods looks like it takes place after a forest fire, the direct result of this hokey plot device, I can't say that it worked.

Lacks Heart.  I feel as though I should be so moved by some of these characters' dilemmas, yet they left me empty.  The ones that stick out most are the witch's fear of being left by Rapunzel and the Baker's fear of fatherhood.  Perhaps in the stage musical, the latter (which turns out to be quite significant) is delineated clearly and builds to a moving conclusion, but in the movie, it was mostly backgrounded, so when the Baker met his father's ghost, it left me scratching my head instead of reaching for a tissue.    

Not as Sondheim as Some Sondheim.  Sondheim musicals are convoluted and don't always work, but when they work, they really work.  Sweeney Todd flows well throughout, dispensing dark humor and pathos, floating solos and multi-layered ensemble numbers, and building to an inevitable grim climax.  Yet even more flawed musicals, like Sunday in the Park With George, can have moving themes that get inside you.  Into the Woods, at least in movie form, never challenges me or breaches my emotional barrier, for the reasons noted above.  But maybe even more problematic: the songs just aren't that exciting.  I really like "The Prologue," but it's not exactly a self-contained song you can hum, and nothing afterward rises to that same level.  The music is just... okay.  From Sondheim, I've come to expect better.


Conclusion

Into the Woods is pleasant and entertaining, and is arguably better made than Les Miserables.  That said, it feels like a movie that has polished most of its rough edges, that never takes risks emotionally or musically.  I like the characters, but their dilemmas never get inside me.  That is why I will continue to prefer movies like Les Miserables (even as its flaws grate on me more and more) to Into the Woods.  Yet it is still one of the best offerings of the holiday season, and probably one of the better Sondheim translations to screen, which makes it well worth seeing.


Other Movie Musicals That Got It Right: DreamgirlsLes MiserablesChicagoMamma Mia!Sweeney ToddMoulin RougeThe Sound of MusicPitch PerfectCabaret

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the OperaEvitaRENTAcross the UniverseRock of AgesHairsprayJersey BoysAnnie (1982), Annie (2014)

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