Seeing Your Own Mood – “Smile” Review

doctor-who-smile-promo-pics-1All right. Three weeks in and I’m already behind. This doesn’t bode well for timeliness, but I’m determined to complete the blog posts this season, even if they’re occasionally late and/or a bit shorter than normal. We’ve had an extended break between series 9 and 10, and coupled with the two-parter structure of series 9 which resulted in combined posts (and therefore fewer than normal for that season) I’m anxious to work a bit harder and get these right. The thesis is done, after all. No more excuses. Into Doctor Who. Let’s get to smiling.

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Doing Expressions When I’m Trying to be Enigmatic – “The Pilot” Review

billbenchSince writing reviews and blog posts was how I first immersed myself in this whole Doctor Who thing, I’m the return of my favorite show, enhanced by the introduction of a fantastic new lead actress and the impending departure of its lead actor and head writer, will help pull me out of this post-thesis funk I’ve been struggling through. Much like the Doctor in this episode, we’ll start slowly and somewhat hesitantly and work our way back up to full, reckless enthusiasm. This is sometimes necessary after a long period of recovery.

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Thesis Theater

Interested in hearing me waffle on about my recently-completed M.A. thesis on Doctor Who and fairy tales? Join me for the next installment of Signum University’s Thesis Theater where I’ll do just that. The event is free, online, and open to anyone. The live event will take place Thursday, May 18th at 7pm EDT and a recording will be posted on Youtube afterward. To see more details and register to attend live, follow this link. You can find other installments of Signum’s Thesis Theater series in this playlist, including talks on language in The Hobbit, Tolkien’s use of folklore, “Roverandom” as an example of the Irish immram genre, and more. I hope to see you there!

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Fantastic Beasts & Rogue One Live Discussion

This Friday, starting 7pm Eastern Time, I’ll be joining several friends to discuss the latest installments of the Harry Potter and Star Wars film franchises: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Rogue One. The group of panelists are all teachers and students at Signum University and I’m sure we hold a lot of Potter and SW knowledge between us. We look forward to discussing these new movies as adaptations and expansions of their respective stories and worlds, their approach to casting and diversity, how they function as prequels, and their endings. Will we sing their praises as thoughtful and thought-provoking engagements with these beloved sagas, or will we decry them as yet two more installments in Hollywood’s increasingly franchise-driven climate? Who knows! Tune in to find out.

The panel will consist of Sørina Higgins, Brenton Dickieson, Kelly Orazi, Emily Strand, and of course my podcasting partner in crime Curtis Weyant.

You can register to attend live here. A blog post with more detail can be found here. More info on the Signum Symposia series can be found here.

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There and Back Again

Five years, three living situations, and two jobs later I have finally submitted the completed thesis for my graduate degree in English with Signum University, concentrating in Imaginative Literature. I have had the opportunity to study the genres and authors I love most, rarely found at other institutions: the Inklings, fantasy and sci-fi, mythology and folklore, medieval and modern mythopoeia, literature and film and tv. When I took my first Mythgard class I didn’t have a blog or a podcast. I was not yet published, and had only been to one literary conference (in college). I had admired scholars like Tom Shippey, Verlyn Flieger, and Amy Sturgis from afar and had their books on my shelves, but had not yet met them or taken their classes. When I started I was twenty-five and now I’m thirty. A lot can happen in five years.

Luckily for me, completion of this journey doesn’t have to mean farewell. The blog and podcast will go on, hopefully with renewed energy. I will keep being involved in the Signum community on as many levels as I can. I hope that now I will have time to read even more books, watch more things, and write down more thoughts than in the last couple of years. I’m sure the relationships I’ve formed will only continue to grow.

But that’s not to say that nothing is changing, or that I don’t feel a certain relief. Five years is a long time to put forth that kind of concentrated energy, especially when jobs, life, and health pull you in different directions without regard for the fact that you’d rather be reading. This year has been especially challenging, as the myriad “2016” memes well attest. It’s been a rough year for all of us, and while I was lucky to have a goal to distract me and to pull me through I can’t say that I’m sorry to get to the end of this year.

Despite the relief, hope doesn’t feel particularly easy at the moment, but I guess that’s why we need imaginative fiction. Tolkien praised escape as the “flight of the prisoner” from an intolerable situation. We need to exercise that muscle of imagination with all of its attendant virtues: empathy, creativity, courage, and intellect. In choosing last year to write my thesis about Doctor Who and the fairy tale tradition I had no idea that I would be studying something so relevant and so necessary (at least for me). Getting through my MA has felt at times like Doctor  punching the solid wall of diamond, chipping his way through it one millimeter at a time. To be honest, the world right now can feel like the castle in that episode: an endlessly rotating scenario of fear and grief with no apparent escape. It took him a long time to work his way out, but he eventually did through sheer force of will and with the help of a fairy tale.

Fifteen years ago (ten years before starting my MA program) I was fifteen. I had just started high school, a new president was in office, and the world had similarly shifted as the twin towers of New York were destroyed. During this other fearful and grief-stricken time, in December 2001, I felt my own world shift when I saw the first Lord of the Rings movie and then subsequently read Tolkien’s books. In fact in that first year I read everything Tolkien-related that I could get my hands on, whether I understood it or not. Looking back on that uncertain time, I’m sure that Tolkien gave me exactly the gifts that he promised fairy-stories could give: fantasy, escape, recovery, and consolation. At that age and in that time I sorely needed those gifts, and nothing (before or since) has given me such Joy, in all of its senses: happiness, yes, but also a longing, “poignant as grief.”

All of this is by way of apology for the fact that what I want most now that I’m finished my MA with a decidedly Tolkien-heavy program is to read some Tolkien. I know this is ridiculous and you’re free to laugh. Who washes down a three course meal with another supper? Well, hobbits. Hobbits probably do. I actually don’t think I’ve read The Lord of the Rings since that first Mythgard course with Corey Olsen five years ago, and that is a shame. I’ve missed Tolkien, I’m ready for him, and I doubt I’ve ever needed him more than I do right now.

Whatever it is that gives you Joy, throw yourself into it. Exercise your imagination, find your escape, and come back refreshed to reengage with the world, to fight the good fight, even if it’s the long defeat. At the risk of being cliché, there really is no better injunction than Tolkien’s reminder to do the best we can “with the time that is given to us.” I hope and plan to keep this blog going as a place to express my thoughts and invite the rest of you to think and chat and connect. Tea is at four, but you are welcome anytime. Don’t bother knocking.

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Film Review: Tale of Tales

I love it when you can say that watching a movie you’ve been dying to see for a long time can also be called research.

tale-of-tales-2015-bdripMatteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales (loosely adapted from Giambattista Basile’s 17th century collection Il Pentamerone) taps into the weird and wonderful legacy of the fairy tale tradition, reaching back to the earliest literary sources from the days before they were, as Tolkien put it, consigned to the nursery. Though all the recognizable fairy tale tropes (princesses, witches, monsters, spells, transformations, eucatastrophe, etc.) are there, Basile’s original tales and Garrone’s adaptation captures a freedom of spirit which can be difficult to grasp in the post-Disney age. I was struck by an interview with Bebe Cave, who plays the princess Violet, who stated in the behind-the-scenes featurette that one wouldn’t expect a fairy tale to be about someone who travels from safety and warmth through unspeakable horror to emerge victorious on the other side and return home, changed and broken, but stronger. I don’t mean to knock Cave, who I thought gave THE standout performance of the whole thing, but what a silly statement, for what is a fairy tale if not exactly that? Her comment just goes to show how much we still have to learn about this deceptively complex genre.

[SPOILER WARNING FOR THIS SECTION] The tales that were chosen (three, interwoven throughout the film) and the way they were adapted all converge satisfyingly around the struggles of women, both in the medieval and pre-modern world and now, both within stories and outside in the real world. The Queen desires a child, to the detriment of her ability to love and live outside of that purpose. The romantic Violet longs for marriage, but not to the monster her father ends up (inadvertently) choosing. The withered old sisters Dora and Imma sacrifice their relationship to each other for youth, beauty, and the admiration of a horny king. These women all struggle within and against the confines of a world which tells them what they should be: Maternal. Obedient. Desirable. All go to terrible lengths, and pay terrible prices, to achieve these dreams (or nightmares). The Queen and the two crones end up dead, alone, or disfigured, slaves to their lusts and jealousies. In the end, only Violet (whose story most closely adheres to the traditional “there and back again” fairy tale structure) achieves something like a happy ending, defeating her monsters (plural) and being crowned for the Queen she is, her inner state reflecting the outer.

As for the production itself, it couldn’t look more beautiful. Garrone channels Spielberg,  Peter Jackson, and others before they abandoned practical effects in favor of computer graphics, and the movie is all the better for it. The withered old crones, gecko-like sea monster, and impossible giant flea have a weight and tangibility that can’t be faked. Green screens only come in to create the enormous vistas, which evoke the gorgeous matte paintings of Jackson’s LOTR films. There’s even a nod to The Princess Bride when an ogre carries Violet up what I can only assume are the Cliffs of Insanity, and though the effects here (30 years later) are obviously more convincing, they retain the charm of that earlier storybook classic.

An Italian film that received moderate praise, played at a couple of film festivals and only one screen local to me, this won’t be the easiest film to find, but I urge everyone to grab the chance to watch it if it crosses your path.

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Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Cursed ChildObviously I’ll be spoiling the heck out of The Cursed Child in this post, and I’m going to kind of assume that if you’re reading this you’ve already read it (or don’t care). Actually, if you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a solid and take this fun and totally spot-on quiz of Real vs. Fake Cursed Child Spoilers. More than half of them are true. Can you guess which ones?

And really, that painfully hilarious tumblr post sums up The Cursed Child with more warmth and wit than any review I write possibly could, because, as they used to say on Seinfeld, “I’m speechless. I am without speech.” Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the brainchild of J.K. Rowling, director John Tiffany, and playwright Jack Thorne, has to qualify as one of the most bizarre reading experiences of my life so far. Under the tutelage of C.S. Lewis I’ve tried to resist what Corey Olsen has termed “crit-fic”: The fallacious practice of mistaking the attempt to read creators’ minds with actual literary criticism. We can’t always help this impulse, and sometimes it can be quite fun, but at the very least we should recognize it for what it is. And yet, I found The Cursed Child so trite on so many levels that I have to admit that my own crit-fic is in some ways more interesting than the text itself. What I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall of those conversations. What were they thinking? I don’t even mean that in an accusatory way. I’m just genuinely curious to know what they were thinking, because I simply can’t fathom. I’ve been delaying rating the book on Goodreads and writing this review, trying to come up with some sort of coherent take on this whole thing, and it’s a struggle.

But all right, Jack, if we’re going to criticize this “official 8th story” then let’s stick to the text and not waste our time trying to read minds, or just jump to unfounded and/or cynical conclusions (such as “money”). Let’s start with the overarching plot structure. The play picks up exactly where book 7 left off on Platform 9 3/4. Things are briefly warm and nostalgic, and then the magical Hogwarts Express that’s taking us all on a welcome and wonderful journey back to the magical palace of our memories starts barreling ahead at breakneck speed, jumping the tracks like some out of control Amtrak car. I mean this literally: Four years pass in the first act of the play (and remember that there are four acts in total, this play being in two parts and all). The story grinds to a halt somewhere in Albus’ third of fourth year, and things more or less park there for the remainder of the story. For a story so obsessed with mining the series past and playing spot-the-reference with as many characters and surface plot elements as possible, the imbalance genuinely upsets the pace and flow of the piece. This is more than a little disappointing, given that we’ve come to expect extraordinarily sophisticated plot structure from Rowling. Harry’s story had a beginning (books 1-2), middle (books 3-5), and end (books 6-7), with a repetitive and elegant structure where the beginnings and ends of the story echoed each other and where his journey was subdivided into seven individual adventures which had their own beginnings, middles, and ends complete with echoes and subdivisions, etc., etc. Circles within circles, and all that. If you doubt the intricacy of her plotting, I recommend John Granger’s lecture notes Harry Potter as Ring Composition and Ring Cycle, available in PDF and book form. The kinds of literary stunts invented and perfected by Dante and Shakespeare (did you know that “a plague o’ both your houses” is the exact center-point of Romeo and Juliet?) were also very much practiced in Rowling’s Potter books. To go in expecting, if not that level of detail, then at least something reasonably well-paced, and to get instead the Cliffs Notes version of Albus’ Hogwarts experience is jarring to say the least. We go in a matter of pages and montage-like snippets from Albus’ worries about being a Slytherin, to his sorting, to sudden angry rebellion against his father and all things Gryffindor. I don’t object to any of these plot points, as such. In fact, Albus being a confirmed Slytherin is far and away my favorite part of The Cursed Child. Yet Thorne’s play spends none of the time on the things that made Rowling’s world so beloved and successful: smart and well-paced plotting, detailed and memorable characterization, quirky world-building. It shocks me to hear fans say that The Cursed Child returned them to the world of Hogwarts. What world? We spend literally two pages with the Sorting Hat and the first flying lesson before we’ve vaulted ahead to the next summer, back at Kings Cross. We barely spend time in the present of Hogwarts at all. The keystone of the defense of this play has been “at least it brought me back to the world I love and remember,” and it barely does this at all. Instead, the script feels compelled to skip over the opportunity to rediscover Hogwarts through fresh eyes and instead spends the bulk of its time retreading the most infamously plot-holey sections of the entire Harry Potter series: book 3’s time turner plot, and book four’s Triwizard Tournament. The Cursed Child doesn’t cash in on our nostalgia for the Wizarding World at all, but rather for the specific plot-beats of the Harry Potter books. This is a shame, because it misses the opportunity to tell a new story while leaning on the well-established strength of Rowling’s worldbuilding and instead forces the reader to reflect on how much better Rowling told these stories.

To accommodate the overzealous plot we get simplistic characterization. The main returning characters are reasonably well-drawn. Harry is suitably anxiety-ridden. Hermione (in what is admittedly a pretty awesome piece of casting) is adjusting nicely to her new-found authority. Ron’s voice is actually quite good; better than the movie Ron, even. This is pretty faint praise, though. Thorne had 7 books, 8 movies, countless fan and analog materials, ten years in the cultural conversation, and the author herself at his disposal to get this trio right. Where things get screwy is with the new kids. Even though Scorpius is easily the most engaging character in the play, all three (Albus, Scorpius, and Rose) feel like slightly strange amalgams of the previous generation: Harry’s saving-people-thing + Draco’s sullenness = Albus. Hermione’s intelligence + Ron’s goofiness=Scorpius. Both Draco and Ron’s prejudices (both conscious and dysconscious) seem to somehow combined to create the strangely judgmental child that is Rose Granger-Weasley. Oh, Rose. I had so much hope for you. The little involvement she has is spent sneering at Scorpius (and by extension her cousin Albus). These three do not form a new Trio, for we never see them unified. Instead it’s a boyish dynamic duo, and the snobbish girl who’s too cool for them.

Oddly, Scorpius is a more plausible Granger-Weasley child than Rose. That’s how Rowling did family genetics, anyway. Take the Black family. All of the Blacks (and their extended progeny) were some combination of haughty aristocracy and batshit crazy, just dialed up and down in different combinations. Think of Bellatrix. Sirius. Tonks. Regulus. Draco. They’re all different, but clearly fall along the same continuum. I’m not saying that it’s wrong or even unrealistic for a family to have a child who simply does not conform to previous personalities and expectations, but it doesn’t fit with how characterization in Rowling’s world works, and so The Cursed Child swims awkwardly against the current. My main objection against The Cursed Child as canon has less to do with who wrote it, or the fact that it’s on stage, or even that I care much about canon at all (I know this is about Doctor Who canon, but it gets right to the heart at the general silliness of the idea of canon). It’s simply that it’s in such a different style to what’s come before. Is The Cursed Child really the eighth Harry Potter story? I don’t know how to answer that question, but I know it doesn’t feel like one, and the problem is in the fundamental approach to storytelling, world, and character.

And then there are the greatest hits of Potter secondary characters, and their bizarre, shoehorned actions. Voldemort. Snape. Dumbledore. Umbridge. We got ’em all. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this many returning favorites packed into this damn play. It’s tempting to complain that the only characters NOT used are the ones I’m most interested in. Lord knows I would be dishonest to say I hadn’t wished for a Marauders prequel more than once in my life. However, I think this brings up a salient point. If you’re going to do the fanfiction thing of re-examining the story from another angle, you have to choose a new frakking angle. Exploring Harry’s grief over his dead parents, with help from Ginny, Ron and Hermione, and also bringing in his complicated feelings towards Dumbledore and Snape all while trying to stop the rise of Voldemort… That is a well-ploughed furrow. In fact, let me go one step further. Reading it all out like that, it’s clear that that’s not an eighth story. That’s the seven stories we already have. It’s important that everyone put the qualifier “bad” in front of the word “fanfic” here, because good fanfic doesn’t do this. Let’s call it the Stoppard principle: It’s great fun to watch Hamlet imagining that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are just behind the curtain in the closet scene. By changing the angle, we gain new understanding of the old story whlie also telling something new. Stoppard knows better than to try to top Shakespeare’s explorations of Hamlet’s psychology, so instead he writes Rosencrantz his own soliloquy on death that is very nearly as iconic. This is the appeal of the Marauders, to me: their shadowy potential. We know the skeleton of their plot, their basic motivations, but everything is still there to be explored fresh in detail. Or, forget the Marauders. Take Teddy freaking Lupin, who is alive and well in this timeline and yet somehow manages the titanic feat of not making it onto the stage or even getting mentioned, because that would just be one character too much. If you want to explore the abandonment daddy issues of a cursed child orbiting the fringes of the great Harry Potter’s narrative while struggling to find his identity as he heads off to Hogwarts, there he is, all wrapped and ready for opening. Making everything about Teddy wouldn’t have fixed the play, but I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have taken the story in more interesting directions. In fact, this makes me, if not more excited for the Fantastic Beasts movies, at least more interested in them. Newt Scamander, collecting and categorizing obscure magical creatures in the 1920’s, is exactly the kind of impulse that lies behind the more successful kinds of fanfic. It realizes that Harry Potter isn’t just about Harry Potter. It’s about the world. The world is so much wider than Harry Potter.

And then there is the what we can only call character assassination of Cedric Diggory. Of all the potential spoilers in the link above, how many of you would have chosen this one? Look, Buffy did an alternate universe plot where a lot of our heroes are now evil bad guys. But, they were turned into soulless vampires. Cedric straight-up becomes a Nazi and murders lovable, squishy Neville Longbottom because of embarrassment. He loses one measly task in the Triwizard Tournament and it’s all downhill from there. That is a mightily slippery slope. It’s not just the sheer dumbness of the notion, it’s the meanness of it. At least Viktor Krum and Fleur Delacour are portrayed as competitive, even ruthless, magical champions (Viktor is a shark, right?). What makes Cedric in The Goblet of Fire so attractive, heroic, and infuriating is his sportingness. We all know people like this: who are so nice that you can’t even hate them for beating you at life. He’s good at everything, and couldn’t care less. Sure, he’s talented and tries his best at all times, but he also shares tips and secrets with Harry like the good Hufflepuff is. He gets to go out with Harry’s crush, but we’re all thinking, “Well, can you blame her?” He is the archetypal Hufflepuff hero: hard-working, fair, and totally without ego. You know what I think might’ve happened if Cedric Diggory had lost the Triwizard Tournament? Nothing much. He would have lived a perfectly happy life. His tragedy is that he won. The entire premise of the play is based on this fact. This is exactly what Albus and Scorpius expect to happen. It’s why they go back in time to save him. And yet, the plot contradicts this bedrock characterization for…reasons.

In true Rowling fashion, let’s circle back to that tumblr post because it exemplifies the most glaring, if not the most damning, sins of The Cursed Child: the basic absurdity of its ideas. It is deeply, deeply silly. I’m sure Tiffany’s production is worth seeing for how it brings the magic of the Wizarding World to the stage, but from a simple script perspective nothing is new here. The spells, magic, creatures, and locations are all recognizable from the books. What’s so strange are the twisted ways in which Thorne applies these elements, almost to the point of parody. Yes, the Trolley witch is revealed to be a guardian beast who chases the boys onto the roof of the Hogwarts Express while pelting them with pumpkin pasty grenades (before letting them escape by simply jumping off). There’s the use of polyjuice potion to turn into Voldemort, to stop him from reuniting with his long-lost daughter. The sheer angst surrounding the question of Scorpius’ paternity. It has been pointed out by many others that these plot points have long been a part of Harry Potter parody as perfected by Team Starkid, but that’s just the thing. The majority of The Cursed Child reads like parody. Unfortunately Starkid is far better at parody.

I’m aware that this review is even more of a hot mess than The Cursed Child,
and at least The Cursed Child is an interesting mess. To try to wrap things up, you should read my tone as not so much angry as befuddled. I don’t feel angered by this play. I didn’t have hugely low expectations for this play, but neither did I have hugely high ones. I don’t know what I expected, frankly, but I know it wasn’t this. I’d like to keep thinking about it and see if a more coherent “hot take” comes to mind, but at the very least I wanted to vent some of my exasperation with this strange (and ultimately ill-conceived) new branch of the Potter tree.

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