Saturday, June 29, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Right (I Guess...): Chicago

My Across the Universe review should have sent the message that liking a movie and thinking that it works are two different things.  While I feel that Across the Universe had significant weaknesses, I have affection for it.  By contrast, I think that Chicago (2002) executes very well... but it leaves me cold.

It's not that I hate it.  Chicago is highly entertaining, filled with energy that rarely flags.  But there is nothing for me to hang my hat on: no one to root for and no appealing message.

Yet my view is clearly in the minority, as Chicago is both a commercial and critical darling.  Commercially, Chicago is second only to Grease at the box office, with more than $170 million.  Critically, it boasts a Certified Fresh rating of 87% on Rotten Tomatoes.

It's easy to see why audiences would take to it, with its blend of energy and spectacle, but what's more interesting is why critics -- a notoriously difficult bunch -- seem to like it.  Energy and spectacle are cited, but other reasons seem to pop up repeatedly.  One is that Chicago is cynical, highlighting the corruption of a bygone era the way court TV exposes (or promotes) corruption in today's society.  The other is that Chicago isn't like other musicals.  Where other musicals feature the characters "breaking reality" to sing a song, the movie version of Chicago does not require any uncomfortable suspension of disbelief.  Instead, most of the musical numbers are figments of Roxie's imagination, with the real activity taking place alongside it.

So it would appear that one of Chicago's major selling points is that it is Not A Musical.  Musicals are almost cloyingly romantic, featuring characters who regularly shift between talking and singing, walking and dancing.  Musicals require major suspension of disbelief.  Whereas Chicago never forces musical haters out of their comfort zone.  The musical is only in Roxie's mind, see?  Moreover, Chicago's cynical tone lets critics feel as if they're smarter than everyone else, and that's always a winner.

So what is Chicago about?  It is set during the 1920 Jazz Age period and begins in the steamy world of Chicago night clubs.  Roxie Hart, a chorus girl with a schlub of a husband named Amos, dreams of being a star of the vaudeville stage like the Kelly sisters.  Little does she realize that Velma Kelly is about to be arrested for murdering her sister after finding her with Velma's husband.  Roxie quickly has problems of her own after she kills her lover upon learning that he lied about having connections to big club owners.  While Roxie awaits her murder trial, she is locked in an all-female cell block overseen by "Mama" Morton.  Mama informs Roxie that the way to a "Not Guilty" verdict is to hire Billy Flynn, criminal defense attorney and bullshitter extraordinaire.  Flynn has been helping Velma -- also an inmate in the cell block -- and quickly fabricates a backstory for Roxie designed to gain media sympathy.  It works, and Roxie is soon a celebrity.  She incurs Velma's wrath, as Velma sees her own celebrity fading by comparison.

I should note that the synopsis above is of the movie only, not the stage musical on which it is based.  This is another case where I have never had the opportunity to watch the stage version, which differs significantly.

The Good

1.  Production Values.  Chicago is a good-looking movie, filled with reds, blues, and blacks.  It shifts seamlessly between "reality" and the festive sequences in Roxie's mind.  Two of the standout numbers, "Cell Block Tango" and "We Both Reached For the Gun" are imaginatively staged, even if director Rob Marshall is a little too fond of close-ups during large group sings.  

   

2.  It Is Well Paced.  That's not a small thing, especially in a musical.  Even Les Miserables has its draggy moments.  With Chicago, there is no dragging -- quiet moments seem intended to provide a breather before another big number.  Maybe "Mister Cellophane" is a little slow, but it is also poignant, and serves to underscore how out of step Amos is with the madcap world around him.

3.  Energetic Performances.  Despite the fact that I don't really care about or identify with the characters or the actors who play them, I still found them worth watching.  Catherine Zeta-Jones is the biggest standout, snarling and strutting her way through numbers such as the excellent "All That Jazz."  Renee Zellweger does reasonably well in a role that would be played by Amy Adams if it were cast a few years ago.  Her playing Roxie, just like her role in Nurse Betty, seemed to be an attempt to dispose of the "girl next door" label she received after Jerry Maguire.  In Chicago, the image of a sweet, innocent girl works in her favor, as it allows the gullible press to believe her tales.

As for Richard Gere, I've never been ga-ga over him like so many others, but he does a good job as a boyish, lighthearted huckster.  Queen Latifah is Queen Latifah: jaded and wiser than everyone around her.  And honorary mention to Christine Baranski for doing the gushing, shallow reporter thing so very well.  Everyone is in good voice, though Autotune may deserve some credit.           

The Bad

1.  Really, Guys?  I know the legal profession and the justice system deserve some derision, but... seriously?  Chicago is a smart movie that thinks it's smarter than it really is.  Its greatest failing is that it thinks the average person is very stupid.  And people would have to be pretty damn stupid to fall for Billy Flynn's transparent shenanigans.  I realize that there was no Internet in those days, but surely the press employed one fact checker among them?  Even if they didn't, the level of bullshit he shovels in the courtroom should have caught the suspicion of one juror and certainly the judge.  Maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but in real life, I just don't think the court would be so daft.  But never mind reality!  Chicago is trying to portray a stupid, corrupt world where 99 percent of people are suckers, easy prey for the few smart people.  Was the original screenplay written by Ayn Rand?  

2.  I Don't Care.  It's rare when I can't find anyone to identify with in a movie.  Yet there's no one here that I sympathize with, other than maybe Amos.  Roxie is amoral and pretty horrible.  We can sympathize with Velma's reasons for murdering her husband and sister, but she's pretty horrible as well.  Billy Flynn is a slime ball, and Mary Sunshine shallow and idiotic.  Of the main characters, Mama is probably the most likable, with her savvy ways and (feigned?) warmth, but she has nothing resembling a character arc.  If you don't care about the characters, you can't really care about their outcomes... or at least I can't.
 
3.  It Is Cold.  That is really my biggest complaint.  The production values are great, the performances good enough, but the end leaves me empty.  What are we supposed to take from Chicago?  The world is a cynical place, and only those jaded enough to lie shamelessly will triumph?  Whereas decent people like Amos, or the poor acrobat who was innocent of murder, will be left in the cold?  Hooray?  It's hard to get excited about Chicago's message, which boils down to: the media has always been horrible and shameless, so we should just roll with it.

Conclusion

Maybe Chicago just cares about entertaining its audience, not about inspiring reform.  If people come away from it wanting to reform our shallow gossipy press, that is just a bonus.  At the same time, a movie with such low aspirations risks becoming instantly forgettable.  While Chicago is not a forgettable movie, it doesn't get inside me the way other, more imperfect musicals have.  I don't have a scene or a song that is emblazoned in my memory as the perfect expression of something I've thought or felt.  Then again, it's a little unfair to expect all musicals to be heart-soaring and soul-baring -- just as it's unfair to rip apart any musical that is not as cynical and sharp-tongued and pleased with itself as Chicago.  There is room in the musical universe for a movie like Chicago.  It just won't be something I feel compelled to watch multiple times.


Other Movie Musicals That Got It Right:  Dreamgirls, Les Miserables

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong:  The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, RENTAcross the Universe 

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Monday, June 24, 2013

Game of Thrones: The Prediction Post That No One Asked For


SPOILERS for all five novels in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.  This prediction thread is for the novels ONLY.  So if you are purely a fan of the TV show or have not read the novels, LEAVE NOW!!!!!

Ahem.

Since I've already done one lengthy post about Game of Thrones and the A Song of Ice and Fire series, why not another one?  There are more predictions about the last two novels than you can shake a stick at.  If I were to post this on any dedicated message board, it would instantly be smothered by countless other thoughtful and incisive posts.  Fortunately, I have this blog, and can go as long-winded as I want.  Without further ado...


Major Predictions for A Song of Ice and Fire

1.  Benjen Stark is Cold Hands.  Either that, or the "boss" of Cold Hands.  Benjen Stark has been hardly discussed since his first disappearance.  Martin never depicts his absence in the same melancholy fashion as he does other lost or dead characters, which makes me suspect that he is really alive, or at least "alive."  

2.  Sansa Will Run Into Nymeria.  Sansa is currently in the Vale, which isn't far from the Riverlands.  Nymeria is currently roaming the Riverlands, leading a wolf pack.  While I know that Martin loves for characters to keep missing each other despite being in close proximity, he eventually has to have some of them meet up.  What is the point of Nymeria being in the Riverlands if Ayra is in Braavos with no clear return date?  What if Nymeria is destined to play a role in another Stark's life?  Many people assumed that Sansa lost her "Starkness" when Lady died, but perhaps Sansa was really meant to bond with another direwolf -- one more suited to who she is now.  If Sansa discovers her warging ability through warging into Nymeria, she might also connect with Arya.

3.  And Sansa Will Be the First Stark to Meet Lady Stoneheart.  Likewise, Sansa's proximity makes her likely to be the first Stark to see her undead mother.  Lucky her.  In typical Martin fashion, Sansa's life will probably be on the upswing, with her having outsmarted Littlefinger and leading an army from the Vale, only to have Jaime Lannister kidnap her and take her to Lady Stoneheart.  No doubt Sana's reaction will be heartbreaking, but Lady Stoneheart's may be more interesting.  Will she remain a ghoul, or regain a little of her humanity?

4.  Jon Is Azor Ahai.  That much seemed obvious when Jon "died," and all of the elements necessary for "the prince that was promised" were in place.  If Melisandre's visions of Jon as Azor Ahai weren't enough, the smoke that rose from one of Jon's wounds was a big sign.  The question now is whether Jon will actually die, warg into Ghost (as the opening chapter hinted), or go into a trance state, only to transform into Azor Ahai.      

5.  Bran Will Not Be a Tree.  This is something I hope more than something I can argue with any certainty.  Things look grim for Bran and company beyond the Wall, and Bran's "mentor" Bloodraven is a tree, but it just seems like a depressing end for Bran.  Great, he gets to free his mind and be everywhere, even in the past, but he will never be physically reunited with his siblings.  Meanwhile, his companions are fated to die... does that sound like a happy ending to you?  Then again, Martin said that the ending would be bittersweet, and Bran being a tree would certainly leave a bad taste in my mouth.    

6.  Bran Will Be the First to Learn... That Jon Is Really a Targaryen!  He came so close in A Dance With Dragons, which was one of the frustrating things about that novel -- everyone came so close to a big meeting or revelation.  However, with his ability to look into the past, Bran will probably witness the aftermath of the Tower of Joy.  I can't wait.

7.  The Faceless Men Will Send Arya to Kill Daenerys.  That seems like the most logical outcome of Arya's training.  She can't kill someone she knows, and she knows most of the baddies in Westeros.  But she doesn't know Dany, who is the biggest threat to a lot of people.  It is highly likely that one of them would be willing to pay a steep price to have Dany killed.  The question then becomes where Arya meets her, and whether Arya tries to follow through.  If she aborts the plan, or goes through with it and is caught, what will the consequences be?  Will the Faceless Men want to kill Arya for disobedience?  Will all be forgiven with Dany if it turns out Arya can warg into one of her dragons?    

8.  Aegon Is a Blackfyre.  I had not realized how prominent the Blackfyre Rebellion was in the novels until others pointed it out.  But it makes sense that Aegon is not really Rhaegar's son: there was that reference to the "mummer's dragon" and to a Blackfyre black dragon sigil being rusted red (like the Targaryen red dragon) after being in the river.  The final clue is that he is being protected by the Golden Company, which was founded by Daemon Blackfyre's loyalist brother, who swore to put a Blackfyre on the throne.  The question is whether Jon Connington and Varys are aware that Aegon is not really Aegon.  Varys probably does know but doesn't care: he just wants someone on the throne who will rule wisely (or so he says).  And if Aegon is a Blackfyre, will he prove to be benign or a threat to Daenerys?

9.  Daenerys Will Make It to Westeros.  Given her extended stay in Essos, many fans have become skeptical that Dany will ever come to Westeros.  Some believe that Martin's upending of fantasy tropes means that instead of being the heroine riding in to save the day, Dany will choose to rule in Meereen for the rest of her life.

I don't believe that.  Even though Martin likes to upend fantasy tropes, he still understands the basics of good storytelling.  After spending many chapters raising Dany from a scared girl to a conquering queen, and dropping hint after hint that Dany's journey is far from over, Martin would lose a lot of good will if he just left Dany and her dragons in Essos.

"But what about Eddard and Robb?" you say.  True that Eddard appeared to be the protagonist in A Game of Thrones, but did Martin ever set expectations that he would survive beyond that novel?  If anything, Eddard's chapters come across as rather bleak, as though Eddard himself expects his doom.  As for Robb, while the trope of a son avenging his father is alive and well, we are given hints that Robb is not meant to survive to the end.  First, the fact that he is never given his own point of view chapters.  Second, Catelyn's constant warnings that the Freys would not be pleased with Robb's betrayal.  And finally, Robb's choice to create a will designating Jon Snow as his heir.  If the last one doesn't say "I could die soon," I don't know what does.

By contrast, we have had several hints that Dany's quest has barely begun.  She is told by a mysterious presence that she must go south to go north, east to go west, which we still have not figured out.  She will encounter a blue eyed king with a red sword and a mummer's dragon.  She is also told that she will only bear children after certain events occur -- events that seem impossible until you consider that the "sun" and the "mountain" might represent people.  Finally, what would be the point of the dragons, and Dany being the "mother of dragons," if she and the dragons play no final role?

That said, I can't say for certain whether Dany will ever sit on the Iron Throne.  Even if Martin allows her to be a hero in the Final Battle, I wouldn't put it past him to kill her before she gets to sit on the throne.  Even so, I think that she will be the ruler at the end.  Instead of completely upending the "good guys win" trope, I could see Martin undermining it with more subtlety.  Most of these scenarios play out with a sudden cut to "10 years later," where everything is happy and shiny.  I could see Martin instead showing us a bewildered Dany, looking at the ruined kingdom she just won, thinking: "I have to rule THIS?"  There might be some discussion of the new alliances she has to form and the hard choices she has to make in order to get anywhere close to a Happy-Shiny Future.  I could even see signs that former slave cities in Essos, still steaming with resentment, are planning to attack Westeros.

But Dany never make it to Westeros?  That would be far too anticlimactic.      


Remaining Questions

The above did not nearly cover all of my questions or predictions, but I only have so much time.  Unanswered questions abound, but I think my biggest ones are:

1.  What the hell is happening with the Citadel?  Martin has one member of the Citadel travel to see Dany with seemingly benign intentions, but another who is a Faceless Man with intentions unknown.  What is the Citadel's end game?  Will they help or hurt Dany's rise?

2.  What the hell is happening with the Faith?  I really don't know what the end game will be with the growing prominence of the Faith, except maybe Margaery's or Cersei's permanent downfall.  Why create yet another complicated, endless subplot?

3.  How much time will Martin spend on the Sand Snakes?  A whole bunch of Sand Snakes are going with Princess Arianne to spy on the Lannisters.  How many chapters will their madcap adventures take up?  Enough for people to wish that these chapters were spent on other characters?

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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Game of Thrones: Aspects of the Show That Are Better (and Worse) Than the Novels

The following contains spoilers for both Game of Thrones the TV show and A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series by George RR Martin on which the TV show is based.  If you don't want to be spoiled, TURN BACK!  TURN BACK NOW!

I'M SERIOUS!!!

REALLY!!!!!!!!!

Okay.  Can't say you weren't warned.

I would love to claim that I've been a George RR Martin fan since A Game of Thrones first hit bookshelves in 1996.  But like most people, I became a fan of the novels only after the show premiered.  In fact, A Song of Ice and Fire may be the first series that I wanted to read simply because I was spoiled for the entire thing.  A wonderful overview at Salon.com gave me a taste for what lay in store.  A massive rebellion that overthrows a cruel king?  His daughter frees a "continent" of slaves?  Sibling sex?  What's not to intrigue?  So after two episodes of the TV show, I picked up the first novel, and did not put the series down until I had read all five.

Then, like many series readers who know What Lies Ahead for the characters, I became protective of the novels' vision.  "That scene was SO cool in the book!  They didn't do it justice here!"  Much of it is because George RR Martin does a wonderful job world building and scene setting.  Say what you will about his tendency to develop too many characters and subplots, but Martin fills his world with a misty sadness that the television series has failed to capture.  You get a sense of how much ruin lies in the near past, how many honorable families were extinguished, and not just during the War of Five Kings.

That said, the TV show Game of Thrones has managed to frequently capture good elements of the novels and even improve upon certain aspects.  So after three seasons, which characters have come out better, which have come out worse, and which have come through the transition unchanged?

Better

1.  Catelyn.  Though Book Catelyn is often unfairly maligned, she does seem pettier and more tempestuous than Show Catelyn.  Michelle Fairley brings so much gravitas to the role that even when Catelyn is doing something wrong -- like kidnapping Tyrion Lannister -- her actions still seem wise.  Show Catelyn is also more multilayered and fair than Book Catelyn.  For instance, early in Season Three, she laments her harsh treatment of Jon Snow.  It will be interesting to see what Michelle Fairley does to elevate the Lady Stoneheart role, as you know she will.      

2.  Cersei.  Another character given some much needed gray shading is Show Cersei.  Book Cersei is beautiful, evil, cunning, and drunk on her own sense of grandeur.  Aside from when she is denied something because of her gender, we have little reason to sympathize with her.  Book Cersei never seems to accept that Joffrey is/was horrible.  She is the one who started the campaign to have Robert's bastards killed, not Joffrey.  Whereas Show Cersei is a little bit more self aware, a little more ambivalent.  Oh, she's still evil, but she kind of knows it and hates herself for it.  She is quietly distressed by Joffrey's monstrous actions, but knows that she is powerless to stop them.  It doesn't hurt that Show Cersei has wonderful chemistry with Show Tyrion.            

At least this one sometimes pretends to care...


3.  Robb.  We are sadly deprived of seeing Book Robb's thoughts, so we don't get a sense of what makes him tick.  We don't get much more with Show Robb, but at least we get to see (1) that he has a good, commanding presence and (2) he is mighty easy on the eyes.  You can debate over which Robb's move was more boneheaded -- Book Robb for eloping with Jeyne Westerling after having sex with her during a time of vulnerability, or Show Robb for eloping with Talisa with eyes wide open to the consequences.

4.  Melisandre.  I think the character should look more exotic, but otherwise, I don't have any complaints about Show Melisandre.  I like what she's done with her expanded screen time, and that the series has made an effort to establish her position within the "Lord of Light" universe, such as in the scene with Thoros of Myr.  Book Melisandre was more of a mystery until A Dance With Dragons, but in this case, it doesn't hurt to have the mystery revealed a bit sooner.  Plus, while Book Melisandre comes across as a bit dense, Show Melisandre is just awesome.   

5.  Shae.  One nice thing is that the TV series has significantly improved the roles of numerous minor characters.  Shae has arguably the best upgrade of all.  Book Shae is a self-absorbed whore who only exists to give Tyrion someone to love.  Then she has the nerve to betray him during his trial and reveal that it was all an act -- she was really Tywin's paramour, and Tyrion would later kill her for it.    Whereas Show Shae has a much more interesting journey ahead.  I'll admit, I questioned giving her a backstory and making her more interesting, but it's paid off nicely.  Now we don't really know where Show Shae will turn.  Will she be so disgusted by Tyrion's marriage to Sansa that she turns on him?  Will she take the fall for poisoning Joffrey to protect Tyrion and Sansa?  If Show Shae does end up betraying Tyrion, my money is on her being coerced by Tywin.  

6.  Gendry.  Can I just say how glad I am that the TV showrunners have dispensed with the near-miss nonsense that plagues the novels?  It defies belief that no one has ever told Book Gendry that he is a bastard son of Robert Baratheon.  Thankfully Melisandre dissolves the mystery by Season Three, and the show even gives Gendry his own subplot when he replaces Edric Storm as the "king's blood" sacrifice.  Neither Book nor Show Gendry is a well-defined character, but whereas Book Gendry is surly and antisocial, Show Gendry projects the confident "thin Elvis" qualities that Robert possessed in his prime.

7.  Osha.  Another minor character improved on the show.  Book Osha never registered with me, whereas Show Osha, as played by Natalia Tena, is gritty, complex, and intensely loyal once she is won over.  I wonder if she will simply disappear for a couple of seasons, or if the show will portray her journey to Skaggos.

8.  Daario.  Not that there's much to improve.  And not that I don't dig the multicolored trident beard and the gold tooth, but that doesn't really translate as "attractive" on television.  Right now, Show Daario is an improvement over Book Daario... though that might change once he and Dany start fucking.

9.  Ygritte.  Loathed her in the novels, care about her on the TV show.  She is probably a close second to Shae in terms of her character getting a makeover.


Worse

1.  Stannis.  Book Stannis is a jaw-clenching, teeth-grinding, miserable badass.  You need only read the Theon The Winds of Winter chapter to see how far Book Stannis is from Show Stannis.  Book Stannis knows how to get things done.  He may be unlikeable, but he's also fearless.  You understand why someone like Davos Seaworth would be so devoted to him.  Whereas Show Stannis is too whiny and indecisive.  I could never see him patiently enduring a blizzard for days on end the way Book Stannis does in A Dance With Dragons.  We end up puzzled over Show Davos's loyalty to him.

2.  Renly.  See Stannis for reasons why Show Renly suffers compared to Book Renly.  There is not much to either character, but at least Book Renly is a good-looking "thin Elvis" type who seems confident, easy-going, and likeable.  By contrast, Show Renly is whiny, weak, and not all that attractive.  Why Loras would like him, let alone the Tyrells back him, remains a mystery.

3.  Littlefinger.  In both versions, Littlefinger tends to be a bit too moustache-twirling "aren't I clever?".  But at least you could sort of believe that Book Littlefinger was subtle about his intentions.  Not so with Show Littlefinger, who can't interact with another character without boasting about how clever, shifty, and out for himself he is.

4.  Margaery.  This is controversial, I know.  Natalie Dormer has done an effective job playing Show Margaery as a cunning type who can shift between sweet and cold blooded in an eye blink.  But isn't it a little too soon for us to be seeing Margaery's true colors?  One nice thing about A Storm of Swords is that we really don't know what to make of Book Margaery or the Tyrells.  Are they a decent, well-meaning family like the Starks, or are they like the Lannisters, but more subtle?  Because Book Margaery seems like just a nice girl in A Storm of Swords, we don't immediately suspect her of taking part in Joffrey's death.  Whereas we wouldn't suspect Show Margaery of anything less than pouring the poison into Joffrey's cup herself.  If the showrunners are already adding A Feast for Crows material to the TV series, I wonder what will be left by the time Season Five hits.    
She's not thinking of ways to kill him at all!

5.  Sandor Clegane/The Hound.  Of all the characters, Sandor has probably had the worst transition to the screen.  Book Sandor is fascinating -- sympathetic, but clearly mentally unstable.  Show Sandor is gruff and kind of cold, but otherwise seems okay.  After the Blackwater episode, where Sandor offered to take Sansa away from King's Landing, I remember a bunch of "unsullied" fans screaming: "Why didn't she go with him?!"  He just has a skin problem!  She's so shallow!  Maybe Sansa didn't want to go with him because in A Clash of Kings, Sandor tries to rape her.  He invades her space and makes her sing him a song.  He is about to rape her, but Sansa sings a song that he didn't expect, which makes him uneasy and he leaves.  Book Sandor has had a creepy fascination with Sansa almost from the beginning, when he grabs her after King Robert's tourney and tells her his story.  You would never want Sansa to end up with Book Sandor (well okay, some people do... weirdos).

6.  Jon.  Admittedly, I don't think Show Jon has had a chance to be interesting yet.  For me, Book Jon didn't become interesting until after he was elected the new Lord Commander, which will happen next season.  Until then, I found "the Wall" chapters to be among the most tedious in the novels.  Even so, I think Book Jon comes across a bit deeper than Show Jon, who tends to look confused.  I wonder how Kit Harington will handle the heavy lifting of the Lord Commander scenes, as well as the Big Reveal yet to come... assuming it is the reveal we think it is.

7.  Samwell.  Show Samwell is good-natured and pleasant enough, but I have a real affection for Book Samwell.  You get a much stronger sense of his story arc in the novels.  The scene where he is protecting Gilly from the Other is fantastic -- you feel Sam's desperation, and feel the triumph when, with his last desperate move, he kills the Other with dragonglass.  It is a pivotal scene in the series.  By contrast, that scene felt tacked on in the episode, and Sam himself has seemed like more of an afterthought.  Maybe Show Sam will be given more screen time when he is sent south with Gilly and Maester Aemon.

8.  Eddard.  Here is another controversial one.  I'm a fan of Sean Bean and thought that he portrayed Eddard quite well.  However, Book Eddard has this sadness, this heaviness, that I don't think Bean ever really tapped into.  Maybe it's the fault of the showrunners for never once mentioning the "blood and roses" scene, or Lyanna's "Promise me, Ned!".  Book Eddard is the one character who seems weighed down not just by his past, but by all of recent history.  His chapters bring a gravitas not only to A Game of Thrones, but also to the entire series.  Sean Bean's portrayal is good, but falls just short.  


No Better and No Worse

1.  Arya.  If you had an image of Arya Stark in your head, it was probably of Maisie Williams.  Okay, her eyes should be gray.  That's it.  Otherwise, Show Arya is very much the same as Book Arya.  While it's true that with Book Arya, we get more information about her fears and loneliness, that has more to do with format.  The novels show us Arya's point of view, whereas the TV characters tend to reveal their innermost thoughts through confessionals.  Who is Show Arya going to confide in -- the Hound?

2.  Tyrion.  Show Tyrion is painted with a slightly glossier brush than Book Tyrion.  See the differences between their wedding nights for an example.  Nonetheless, Show Tyrion is much the same
Somewhat better looking than advertised...
as Book Tyrion: cynical, sharp, unappreciated, loathed.  It will be interesting to watch Show Tyrion veer to the dark side as the Lannisters turn on him.  

3.  Sansa.  I was tempted to put Sansa in the Worse category, because I think her character has gotten shortchanged in the TV series.  In the novels, especially A Storm of Swords, Sansa chapters can be heartrending.  Noteworthy scenes include her first period, her wedding, her wedding night, and her reaction to her mother and Robb's deaths.  (And I swear to God, show, you have better not fuck up Sansa's flight from King's Landing.  Update: It did.)  Rather than showing things from Sansa's point of view, the TV show seems to present Sansa from the perspective of others, like Margaery, Tyrion, or Shae.  However, the weakening of her character is balanced out by Sophie Turner's good acting.  Sansa could have come across as whiny, but instead she is sweet and vulnerable, much the way Martin intended her to be.  

4.  Joffrey.  Jack Gleeson has managed to infuse some humor into Joffrey's monstrous ways.  Otherwise, Show Joffrey perfectly portrays Book Joffrey's blackened, shriveled soul.

5.  Daenerys.  Dany was another one I was tempted to put in the Worse category.  I base this mainly on how poorly her scene in the House of the Undying is portrayed.  But once I got over that, I saw that Book Dany and Show Dany are basically the same, for better or for worse.  Both have been more or less coasting since Dany stepped into the fire with the dragon eggs.  Now Dany just has to lift her chin, smile smugly, and one of her devotees will fight a battle for her.  Okay, maybe I'm not giving Dany enough credit: she is pretty clever about deceiving the Astapori slavers, which helps jumpstart her army in the first place.  It's just difficult to tell what goes on behind her eyes before A Dance With Dragons.  Is she developing schemes to overtake the cities she conquers?  Is she an active part of long battle strategy sessions?  Or does she just sit and smile with satisfaction while other people do that work?  It's true that Book Dany never shakes her vulnerability, and Emilia Clarke does a good job portraying it in Show Dany.  It would just be nice if either version brought something more, such as a knack for strategy.         

6.  Tywin.  Show Tywin seems a bit more graceful and mild, which makes him that much more dangerous.  But otherwise, he is the same ruthless, three-steps-ahead tyrant that he is in the novels.

7.  Jaime.  Book Jaime always seemed like a difficult balance: charming, glib, attractive, yet deep.  Yet somehow Show Jaime manages to pull it off.  I could see Show Jaime cynically wandering around the Riverlands, doing damage control after the war.  Though I hope the showrunners spare us by cutting back on the "characters wander" scenes, one of the weakest aspects of the novels.

8.  Brienne.  Show Brienne's portrayal is also very faithful to the novels, especially as she is portrayed through A Storm of Swords, before we start getting her point of view chapters and seeing how vulnerable she feels.  

9.  Davos.  Many of the TV characters seem as if they were lifted whole from the novels, but none more than Show Davos.  I can't see any gap between him and his gruff, honest, loyal counterpart in the novels.

10.  Varys.  Book Varys strikes me as a little more openly sinister, but otherwise, Book and Show Varys are evenly matched.  Both are mysterious, yet manage to invoke our sympathy at the same time.

11.  Theon.  Show Theon nails Book Theon's character, from his initial swagger to his insecurities to his quiet yearnings and resentments.  Show Theon also deserves credit for portraying the character's chilling journey from a nobleman's son to Ramsay Snow's abused pet.     

12.  Asha/Yara.  Fuck this Yara nonsense.  Her name is Asha.  At least Martin trusts us to distinguish between two people with similar-sounding names.  Regardless, both versions are fierce, kicking ass and taking names.  Some bonus points to Show Asha for vowing to go retrieve Theon instead of being like: "Yeah, I'll just hang around here and wait for a Kingsmoot so I can challenge my crazy uncles."


Aside from characters who turned out better or worse, there are certain aspects of the Martin universe that have been enhanced or forgotten.

Winners

1.  Brothels.  Did we ever see so many brothel scenes in the novels?  I guess we can't have our weekly dose of sexposition without them.

2.  Short Attention Spans.  That sounds bad, but it's actually not.  While Martin might think himself clever for always having major characters just miss each other, it becomes tedious to the reader.  Fortunately, the showrunners seem to agree.  Forget this characters hardly meeting crap -- let's have Melisandre come to collect Gendry.  Maybe in Season Five, they'll have Arya ask Samwell about her brother Jon.  And speaking of tedious, Show Asha's vow to bring home Theon suggests that the show might do away with the Kingsmoot.  We can only hope!

3.  Violence.  Martin's universe is pretty grim, with unspeakable horrors being committed every other chapter.  Yet the TV show has managed to actually increase the depravity.  By, say, throwing in a scene where Joffrey has painful, violent sex with a whore using spikes.  Or having Talisa stabbed about a thousand times in the belly while her novel counterpart, Jeyne Westerling, survives unscathed.  Is there some sort of dick measuring contest between Martin and the showrunners that we don't know about?

Losers

1.  The Direwolves.  In the novels, the direwolves hold a strong spiritual connection with each of the Stark children.  When one dies, the others somehow know and will howl in mourning.  On the show, the direwolves are more like "nice doggies," who pop out every once in a while, but are otherwise not a factor.  The show missed the chance to show the direwolves' connection after Grey Wind's death.

2.  Subtlety.  Martin's writing tends to be pretty graphic, but he still manages to hold back now and then.  For instance, we just hear about Robb's and Grey Wind's decapitations, portrayed almost like rumors or tall tales.  Martin does not actually force us to read about Robb's corpse being paraded about with Grey Wind's head.  Not so with the TV show -- Corpse Robb with Grey Wind's head is shoved in our face.  Not just our face, but poor Arya's as well.  The TV show also seems content to do away with some of the intricacies of Martin's plotting, downright ignoring characters and small acts that will become significant later.

3.  The Bannermen.  With some exceptions, such as the Boltons and the Freys, we don't get the sense of the great lords' relationship with their bannermen the way we do in the novels.  Almost nothing with the Manderlys, Umbers, Mormonts, and Cassels.  Not to mention the Redwynes, Royces, Selmys, Florents, and Westerlings.  The Red Wedding is pretty horrifying, but even more so when you know that Dacey Mormont, Wendel Manderly, and Smalljon Umber are getting killed along with Catelyn and Robb.

4.  Westeros History.  The show has a gritty, hurried, unsentimental vibe, which does not allow much wallowing in the mournful history that Martin has created.  So while we get the occasional mention of Rhaegar, we have next to no idea who he was or what he believed.  No birth on the day of the Summerhall Fire, no belief in Azor Ahai, and no Tourney at Harrenhal.  But it's not just Rhaegar -- we miss out on learning about other prominent Westerosis, like Arthur "Sword of the Morning" Dayne or his sister, Ashara.  And those are relatively recent deaths.  Forget even trying to introduce the Blackfyre Rebellion or the War of the Ninepenny Kings.

Conclusion

So while the TV series has done a very nice job, all things considered, of keeping up with Martin's universe, those who have never read the series should give it a try.  It often provides more context for what you see on the screen.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.   

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Updates: Dog Days of Summer...

Those of you who regularly tune in may have noticed that I've not been posting as frequently.  That is because over the past month or so, my life has been incredibly busy... in a good way for the most part.  It's all I can do to post once a week, which I do vow to continue doing.  Once things slow down a little, I will go back to posting twice or more a week.

One bit of good news: the "publishing person" I referenced a while back is now reading my novel and likes it a lot.  She will refer it to editors in her company, and even though I don't think her company is quite the right fit, it is still awesome to hear.  In the meantime, I am working on my query letter and preparing to send it to agents.

But what's new for this blog?  The Movie Musicals Series will be back, along with some media critique posts (I have one for Game of Thrones up next) and some more Unpopular Opinions.  I don't have any new series planned for the next month or so, though after a debate over the merits of Kenneth Branagh's versus Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, I might do a series on Shakespeare in movies (last 20 years).  MIGHT.  I like Shakespeare, but large doses can try my patience.  "Look at me!  I'm doing Shakespeare set on a subway!  Aren't I hip?"

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Unpopular Opinion: No, Bike People, You Do Not Have Special Powers!

They only look dorky and responsible...
To any responsible cyclists who are offended by this piece, I do apologize.  This is not meant for you.

There are cyclists who remain watchful of their surroundings, who ride on the correct side of the road, stop at signs and at red lights, who signal when they turn, and who get off of their bikes to walk them across cross walks.

Then there are the majority of cyclists.  Seemingly unaware that their bikes are vehicles and must abide by the same rules as cars, they ride the wrong way on busy streets, careen across cross walks without bothering to put a foot on the ground, and -- oh yes -- never met a stop sign that they didn't sail through.

They're on the street one minute and the next, they're all over the sidewalk.  As if they think they're pedestrians equipped with special powers.  "Look at me, Ma!  I can go super-fast!  Whooooeeeee!"

Oops... here come the protests.  "What about cars?  So what if bike riders are annoying -- cars kill!  Apologist!"  

I am not a fan of cars.  I try to do as little driving as possible.  My fantasy is to one day be completely rid of my car and to travel everywhere on bicycle or by foot.  I also understand that cyclists are much more vulnerable than drivers.  Recently, I visited the most bike-friendly city in the United States and rushed off on my rented bike with helmet firmly in place.  Despite the abundance of bike paths, clearly marked lines, and helpful signs, I never felt so exposed.  Even parked cars along the side of the road became a silent enemy.  I understand that riders need to develop a certain fearlessness in order to share the road with vehicles several times their weight and power.  Yet many cyclists have taken "fearless" up a notch to "asshole".

"BUT!  Car drivers are the real assholes!  Going fast, making sudden turns, opening doors when they know bikes are coming or just not bothering to look!"

No doubt many car drivers behave irresponsibly, putting cyclists' and pedestrians' health at risk.  But as an avid walker, I have been far more threatened by bikes than by cars.  I have yet to walk on the sidewalk or a pedestrian path without encountering at least two bikes going at top speed -- on the wrong side of the road no less.

These cyclists are either really ignorant or just don't give a fuck.  It never occurs to them to slow down -- ever.  And why should they when police officers rarely lift their hands to write a ticket?  Sure, you stop your car beyond the designated stop line and they're all over you, but weave through the intersection on your bike like you're heavily intoxicated?  "Haha, hope you're having a good day so far, young man.  Carry on."*

A car driver's irresponsibility can cause harm, but if all drivers acted like cyclists, the streets would be filled with carnage.  No one would get from Point A to Point B alive.  We'd all have to buy insurance just to cross the street.  Which is to say that while drivers need to be more careful, that does not give cyclists license to be less careful.    

"Well look at you, High and Mighty Pedestrian!  Like you never jaywalk right in front of cars, forcing them to come to a screeching halt!"

That's illegal, by the way.  A pedestrian's "right of way" doesn't permit him or her to endanger the health and safety of others.  That said, other than that incredibly brazen example, I can't think of a pedestrian breaking the rules in a way that causes damage like a car or bicycle.

Look, I want more people riding bikes.  I want more bike paths and bike friendly streets.  Which is why I find it frustrating that a percentage of cyclists routinely shoot their cause in the foot.  Cyclists and pedestrians should be united in promoting alternate modes of transportation.

Cyclists, just because you are vulnerable to cars does not mean the world owes you.  Stop treating your bicycles like giant toys to use however you want.  Realize that to pedestrians, you are the bully, and show them the consideration that you would like from a car driver.  Stay off the sidewalks under most circumstances.  Get off your bike and walk it across the cross walk.  Stop at stop signs and stop lights.  Ride in the right direction.  Christ, I almost hit a cyclist head on because he was riding the wrong way in the middle of the lane.  Again, bicycles are mostly bound by the same rules as cars.  If that wasn't drilled into you when you first learned to ride a bike, I'm telling you now.

"APOLOGIST!"

Hold on.  Car drivers, like it or not, you need to share the road with cyclists.  That means scanning the road to see whether they are ahead of you or behind you -- especially before you change lanes, make a turn, or open your car door.  Don't infringe on their designated space, and if there is none, give them space on the right.  Don't speed up and intimidate cyclists just because you are The Car.

And pedestrians, don't walk out into the middle of the street whenever you feel like it and expect everything to stop for you.  Your right of way is not absolute.  Stop treating bike lanes like designated jogging paths.  And please don't walk in the middle of the road and then only bother to move over when a car or bicycle is a few feet away.  Be watchful of your surroundings, and get over to the side when you see a vehicle approaching.

Roller bladers and skateboarders, that goes for you, too.  Don't ask me why, but for some reason, you're still considered pedestrians in my state, despite being capable of high speeds.

Oh, and motorcycles... I'll leave it for another time.  Just imagine the sound of high-pitched screaming.  

If we all just learn to follow the rules and be watchful, we should all be better off.  Everyone agree?

*sound of crickets*

Okay then.
 

* Yes, this actually happened, when a cyclist swerved back and forth through the intersection of a four-way stop.  A nearby cop looked as though he were contemplating the number of calories in the doughnut he just ate.

The above image was supplied by thadz on Stock Xchng.  Use of this image does not mean that thadz endorses this commentary.  In fact, thadz probably thinks I'm scum. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Earth's Children Series: Epilogue: What Could Auel Have Done Differently?

So here we are.  Where did it all go wrong?

A month or two after The Land of Painted Caves was released, when the cynicism had fully sunk in, I dashed off this fanfic, which detailed the plot for a proposed Book Seven.  I still wish that such a novel would be released, though I have little faith that it will be.  Jean Auel hinted in 2010 that she had more material and The Land of Painted Caves might not be her last, but that does not mean she is hard at work pounding out the story.  While Auel still seemed quite sharp in 2010 and 2011, the physical toll of writing -- at least at the pace she knew -- might be too much for her at this point.

Of course if Auel does produce a Book Seven, all bets are off.  It could be the best story that she's written since The Clan of the Cave Bear, enough to dissolve our cynicism and make us fall in love with the Earth's Children series all over again.  Or it could be drek that makes The Land of Painted Caves look like a feast of brilliant plotting and characterization.

If there is no Book Seven, though, we have to ask ourselves where the Earth's Children series went off the rails, or if it went off the rails.  Who is to say that Auel did not intend for things to unfold exactly as they did?

<Crazy Theory Time>

Maybe it was always just a big joke on us, that we believed Ayla's destiny was to do good instead of evil.  Maybe Auel always intended for her to be the proverbial Eve who eats the apple and gets humankind banished from the Garden of Eden.

Think about it: who better to start the shift from matriarchy to violent patriarchy than someone comfortable with the concept of male domination?  It couldn't be one of the other Cro-Magnons because they grew up in cultures that promoted an all-powerful Mother who gave women her blessings.  Men can make babies, too?  Why that's crazy talk!  Whereas Ayla never had that indoctrination because she was learning that men were stronger, better, and must always be obeyed.  She was ripe for cutting a swath through the Cro-Magnon Mother culture, even as she appeared to embrace the freedoms of Cro-Magnon women.

What better way to get Cro-Magnons used to the idea of male supremacy than to put them in greater contact with the Clan?  In all the time Ayla taught the Others that the Clan were human, she never condemned their gender practices.  So the Others learned that the Clan's ways were "human, just different from ours," and were taught to accept a society where men were dominant -- sometimes brutally so.  And gradually the Others' objections to male domination would fall away in their own society.

How insidious of Auel to make Ayla someone the Others admired and trusted, so that they did not think to question the "truths" she taught... right down to the Gift of Knowledge.  In the final novel, the Clan did not appear because they did not need to appear: by the end, there was a little Clan in everyone.            

</Crazy Theory Time>


Do I think that the Crazy Theory was what Auel intended?  No.  Though part of me wishes it were, because that would at least make the Earth's Children series far more clever and coherent than any of us imagined.  I do think that the series opens itself up to this interpretation, though by sidestepping a few issues and stretching others.

Instead, I see a more pedestrian explanation: Auel started off with one vision and got sidetracked.  Either she realized that her original vision was not going to work, or she became interested in a new vision.  Maybe it was a little of each.

We know that from early on, Auel was committed to presenting the prehistoric era as accurately as possible.  Due to the limitations imposed on her at the time -- a suburban wife taking her first stab at fiction writing -- she did not have access to the most cutting-edge papers.  So Auel took what she had and created as realistic a portrait as possible, but gave herself room to imagine the rest.  Then as her work became more renowned, she gained access to more privileged work.  Some point afterward, Auel's zeal for research and realism must have taken over.  Maybe she simply felt awed by the years of research contained in the scientific papers and felt it would be like spitting on their authors to present something that was never there.  So while Auel could not white out the "psychic Clan" from her series, she could at least prevent further inaccuracies.  When she wrote The Clan of the Cave Bear, Auel thought that the Clan lived near the Ninth Cave location, but more in-depth research proved this was not so.  Therefore, Auel changed her series outcome so that there was no final Clan-Others confrontation.    

If that was not the reason for the detour away from Clan-Others clash to "Men make babies, m'kay?", then maybe the reason was because Auel attempted to plot out a Clan-Others clash and found that it did not work, that any clash was resolved in just a few chapters.  I find this hard to believe, as Auel could make one dinner feast last 10 chapters, but it's another possible explanation.  

Another problem may have been that Auel realized that any confrontation between the Clan and Others would be messy and morally complex, and as we all know by now, Auel is uncomfortable with untangling the moral messes that she creates.  Auel showed this discomfort as early as The Valley of Horses, so maybe the outcome of her series should not have been a surprise.

Understandable, yes, but no less frustrating.  What could Auel have done differently to make her series stronger?  Here are a few ideas:

1.  Have a Proof Reader Who Wasn't One of Her Kids.  From Auel's acknowledgements at the beginning, it appears that she relied frequently on her children as "beta readers" for the series.  In some ways, that is understandable: they would know how to keep a secret, and might not hold back on harsh feedback the way a stranger might.  At the same time, her children are not writers.  Furthermore, kids who love their mothers are going to be soft in their criticism, both because they are in awe of Mom's accomplishment and because they don't want to hurt her feelings.  Don't need any awkward Thanksgivings, after all.  Auel should have relied more on beta readers who had a lot of experience reading fiction and could discern the good from the bad.  That brings me to:  

2.  Be More In Touch With the Fan Base.  One brilliant move by George RR Martin of the A Song of Ice and Fire series was to have a devoted fan provide quality control.  The fan would alert Martin to inconsistencies and narrative problems as he was writing A Dance With Dragons and is currently doing the same for The Winds of Winter.  Having a fan provide quality control can create problems similar to the ones I mentioned above, but it can also get a writer in touch with someone who really knows the series well and can remind the writer of plots and characters that he or she might otherwise have neglected.  While I have some gripes about Martin's most recent installment, it is clear he still knows how to write a story, and fan input has likely kept him consistent.

But even if Auel refused to use a fan for quality control, she should have at least tended to her fan base over the years.  Auel may have liked delivering lectures on the research aspect of her novels, but she completely ignored the segment of fans (aka most of them) who just read her novels for the story and characters.  Had she attended a few conventions, say, or had a Q&A over chat on the Internet, or answered questions on a website, Auel might have been more aware of what fans wanted, and also of the criticisms.  That is not to say Auel should have written solely to please her fans, but she should have at least been conscious of our not-unreasonable desires, and it seemed like she never really was.

3.  Screw Accuracy and Write the Damn Story as Intended.  Once you create the theory that all Neanderthals have a psychic connection, you can't get much more out there.  So what if there wasn't much evidence of Neanderthals living near the Ninth Cave?  I doubt anyone would have held it against Auel if she inserted the Clan where they historically never were.  Even prehistoric purists would have given her a pass.

By the early 2000s, Auel was no longer the main storyteller in the prehistoric universe.  If she did not portray a certain place or time accurately, someone else would have.  That might have been her problem: maybe she felt too possessive of her groundbreaking research, too much like she had to "own" the prehistoric era and place her narrative stamp all over it, like a dog peeing to mark its territory.  If that was the case, her story suffered for it.

Conclusion

So yes, there is no question that the Earth's Children series gradually slides downhill, bottoming out with The Shelters of Stone and The Land of Painted Caves.  More is the pity if the latter is Auel's final novel of the series.

It is easy to let disappointment overwhelm after decades of build up.  However, what Jean Auel created overall is impressive, and the series as a whole has many good points.  Even if you roll your eyes at the series, there is always that novel you feel compelled to reread -- whether The Valley of Horses because you like seeing Ayla's survival, or The Mammoth Hunters to groan at the terrible love triangle.

Publishing a novel is an accomplishment.  Publishing a series of novels that are not only best sellers but are also constantly reread is a remarkable feat.  Auel deserves praise for hitting this rare literary sweet spot.   

Image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.