Sunday, February 18, 2018

#CBR10 Review #06: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

First and foremost I will say that this is the first Rainbow Rowell novel I have read: I know she’s been pretty popular around here the past few years and always meant to pick up one of her books, but just never did for some reason. Until my friend gave me Carry On as a gift, thinking that it looked very Lisa. And you know what? She was right! I loved this book! I mean, it’s a little corny at times, don’t get me wrong, but it’s got just the right amount of fun balanced with seriousness. Also having not read any books by Rowell before, I was not aware until after I finished and read the author’s note about the context/background of the characters coming from one of her previous novels, Fangirl, so in this instance I had no previous notions, ideas, or opinions going into it.

Carry On is centered on a teenage boy named Simon, orphaned at a young age, but later discovered to be an exceptionally powerful wizard/mage, and taken in by The Mage, who is the leader of the magical world, but also the headmaster of a private magical boarding school for magical children. Simon is considered to be “the chosen one” to save the magical world from an insidious being sucking magic out of the world, known as The Humdrum. But it’s not so simple a story in that there are magical politics based on race (ie, vampires, pixies, etc), social and economic class, and of course, Simon’s roommate named Baz, who has been Simon’s nemesis since they first began at school, based on the notion that during the class war and war against the humdrum brewing in the magical world, Simon or Baz would one day need to fight and kill each other. But, you know, you spend a lot of time with someone and develop sympathy, and hey maybe one day one of them needs the help of the other with an issue which ends up tying into the whole overarching story of the humdrum and saving the magical world and… well, you see where this is going?

I can say that some of the twists and turns took me for a loop, though a few of them I did call pretty early on in the novel and every new piece of information just confirmed my theories. But! That’s not necessarily a bad thing: I wasn’t disappointed at all by not being surprised at certain points. In fact, I kept tingling like, “ooooh I’ve got a feeling about this!” before everything came together. Because while I do love surprises, sometimes they seem thrown in there as if an author is going “aha! I fooled you!” even though there wasn’t really anything leading up to it to begin with. And when that happens I get annoyed. But what I’m trying to say here is that there were some fun surprises, but I didn’t feel like Rowell was trying to trick me at any point. There is an awareness here that really works. Because the whole thing plays out like an homage to Harry Potter (it’s hard to not make comparisons) or like those other YA “chosen one” stories, but with a little playfulness there that doesn’t per say rip on the genre, but definitely plays around with it in a way. In particular with the faith in authority figures like that of the Mage, as well as the fact that these different subcultures of magical beings don’t need to be so strict and separate from the normal world: it can also come into play with spells, references, and the like.

The most important thing about Carry On, however, is how much I enjoyed the characters. And okay, the drawings of Baz and Simon on the cover reminded me of Ezra Miller and American Ice Dancer (and all -round cutie) Joe Johnson respectively, so that was in my mind the whole time and definitely helped paint a nice picture.But apart from them, we also have Simon’s best friend Penelope and her lively family, kicking ass all in their own ways. I also liked the point of view presented by Simon’s girlfriend and classmate, Agatha, who is expected to follow a certain path in life that she desperately wants to escape.

But of course, our two mains in Simon and Baz on whom the story rotates, really bring the whole thing to life: their perceived destiny and also wanting to escape it like Agatha, but in a different way as they want to fulfill their roles and stay in the magical world, but also don’t want doing so to be their end. And now we are getting into mild spoiler territory, but I know some might say that their relationship really follows a common fanfic trope of enemies to friends to lovers. But what’s wrong with that? Frankly, I love it. And you know, I see this in particular with a lot of young women/girls who are attracted to women: we are pit against one another or don’t consider that our fascination with other women is actual attraction so then it turns into a strange fixation and competitiveness.  At least, in my experience I’ve seen this. And so, while the relationship between Simon and Baz may seem a little hokey, I get it. You don’t want to feel what you feel so it turns to antagonizing and competition, and just add to that the political issues due to the boys’ familial allegiances and what do you get? Years of focusing on one another but misplacing those feelings or believing them to be something they are not. So what I’m getting at here in many many unnecessary words is that I like how this was handled. They clearly care about one another and notice one another’s presence as they’ve influenced each others’ lives for so many years, so this really works for me.

But lets’ be real: this novel may not be everyone’s cup of tea, as with anything. But it was pretty fantastic for me, and the only nitpicks I personally have weren’t enough to ever really pull me out of being so transfixed by it throughout reading. Maybe the climactic resolution seemed a little quick, and all the political issues seemed to resolve pretty simply, and I got tired of Baz being described as “sneering” constantly but ultimately, I think the biggest thing for me was that I just wanted more. I want to know more about this world and the families and the history and the characters. I’ve heard a lot of people in the past say about books that they love, that the worst part was when it ended, and you know what? That’s what I’m feeling right now.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

#CBR10 Review #05: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

I’ve definitely seen Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda reviewed a number of times by Cannonballers in the past few years, and was always interested to read it but for some reason never did. Enter my best friend who surprised me with an early birthday present of some books, with this among them. And immediately after receiving it we went to a movie and what do we see? A preview for the upcoming movie adaptation called Love, Simon. Talk about coincidence, especially since I was insanely enamored by the cuteness that appeared in the preview. But did that apparent sweetness also come through in the novel source material? Sure did! And my heart is warm after reading. Because as much as I complain about love and romance, we all know that I am just goofy and really am a romantic at heart and just love a little feel-good fluff, but not without some hearty themes in there, of course!

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is from the point of view of a teenager named Simon, who is gay but hasn’t told anyone in his life yet. After seeing an anonymous post from a fellow gay student at his school who goes by “Blue”, he began emailing back and forth with a similarly anonymous identity. And all is well and the two are cute and getting to know each other nicely, but everything goes helter-skelter in Simon’s life when his emails are discovered by a fellow student, who then attempts to blackmail Simon with this information into letting him get close to Simon’s cute friend, Abby. And so… what’s a nervous boy to do? Because no matter how well you think people might take a coming-out, it’s always awkward and never really a thing people get excited about. At least, for me it hasn’t been, and so in certain parts of this novel my heart just squeezed into a little ball of anxiety, because I felt for Simon: you really come to care about him. He feels like a real teenager with complex emotions, and learning that Becky Albertalli has worked with a lot of young people and gender non-conforming youth really made sense to me as you can tell that she worked hard to make at least Simon feel like a true person that isn’t just the caricature of a teenager as adults often see them.

There are a lot of familiar young adult themes in this novel (friendship, relationships, identity, etc), and I have read a number of LGBT+ novels in the past to make these coming-out story tropes all the more familiar. But what struck me as a good addition to this was the anger at being “outed” before ready by someone else: how the intent may not be necessarily bed, but it still takes something away from a person. I haven’t really seen that as articulated in a novel before, but it is definitely a subject with which I am familiar and I feel a lot of people can relate to. And also the concept of continual coming-out: it’s not just a one-off thing, it’s a moment you calculate in your mind with everyone you meet, as a continual process with continual questions as to who and why and how and when. It doesn’t matter how easily you think someone will take it, you never know how a dynamic will change, and I think this is articularted very well within the novel.
 “I don’t know how to tell them something like this and still come out of it feeling like Simon. Because if Leah and Nick don’t recognize me, I don’t even recognize myself anymore.” – pg. 133

Something that I also thought about a lot while reading this novel was the idea of selfishness in youth. I remember a conversation with my friend who said she disliked the film The Edge of Seventeen because the protagonist was so “whiny and selfish”. And I thought, well yes, that’s what it’s like to be a teenager: you think so much from your limited view point, and also the girl in that movie was clearly in pain and no one seemed to be noticing that? I don’t know but that comment seemed so devoid of understanding of the point. And so I think about the teen protagonists of other novels and how many of them balance a fine line between sympathetic and just plain annoying. I think Simon, here, strikes a good combination of showing that somewhat self-centered nature that most of us have in our young years, but also with a caring nature about him, as well as a sympathetic turn in that a lot of his self-centered nature deals with a big issue that he doesn’t know how to talk about with others and so causes him to close off to those around him a bit. But he also get’s called out for some of the things he does, and has to face the reality that he’s not the only one struggling, and that his actions do affect the people around him, such as not taking his friend Abby’s feelings into account when dealing with his blackmail situation. So, all of this is to say, I think Albertalli dealt with what could have easily been portrayed as just another whiny “why-me?” teen, and taken it to a more real-feeling and complex level. Because teenagers may be children, but that doesn’t mean they don’t understand the world and don’t have complicated emotions and deal with complicated things! I think a lot of people brush off youth as being dumb, reckless, and egocentric, but there’s so much to more them than that, and I always appreciate a nice portrayal of this in fiction. Why as we grow older, do we suddenly want to distance ourselves from formative and growing years? Why do we not want to even associate with younger generations, which so often contain a lot of awesome young people with big dreams, bug hearts, and great ideas?

But with all these good aspects, there was still something stopping me from truly loving it and giving it a full five stars: really it comes down to just a bit of a disconnect for me in some areas. One of these aspects is just that the language used made me cringe in some parts, especially in the email-correspondence or Simon’s inner narration: little phrases or references which obviously are pretty recent and relevant but boy did the make me cringe at times. Do teens really talk like that? I guess it’s been a while since I’ve been one or really interacted with them in a larger capacity so who is to say! Still, it just felt a little awkward in terms of the flow of the writing at times. I also always feel a bit of a disconnect with YA novels too whenever they describe some dynamics and groups at high school. This one didn’t have quite the same disparity from my own experience, as people from different “groups” still interact and know each other from classes or clubs, etc, in this novel, but I always hit a bit of a wall with these things since my experience with high school was never quite like how all the movies and books like to portray it. Or maybe I just wasn’t involved in any of the right clubs or groups or enough stuff in general (I mean, its not like anyone ever came to watch our games when I played for the High School Curling team…)

Finally, the one other nitpick I might have with this novel is that some of the side characters felt a little one-note. I mean, the story is about Simon more than anyone, but there is always a little more for more dimensionality in side-characters to better understand them and how they fit into the protagonist’s life, right? But then again, there are only so many pages in a book before it ends, and there are other emotional aspects to fill it with. And I DID say that maybe Simon was a little self-focused throughout the novel (I mean given what he was struggling with I don’t entirely blame him), but it still felt maybe a little too trope-y for my taste. Like they were all trying to break out of the pre-designed simple shell of stock characters, but only a slight few actually made it out.

That said, I did find Simon to be an engaging and sympathetic character. And not just because from time to time he said things that sound like they came directly out of my own mouth. Well, alright, that definitely helped me fall in love with him all the more quickly. I mean, his friends all poke fun at him for being such a mushy romantic at one point, despite trying to be all cynical about relationships all the time, which is 100% a conversation my friends and I have had, always making fun of me for being a total sucker for a cute love story all while claiming love is a sham (but also, how would I know). At one point the he also says:
“Cranking Sufjan Stevens at top volume doesn’t solve anything, which is probably why people don’t crank Sufjan Stevens.” – pg. 260
And I mean wow, if that ain’t something that I would have said in my teen years. Or every year after that. Or last week even. Shhhh, don’t worry about it. Oh, and I also cracked up at the moment where Simon says:
“I’m just so sick of straight people who can’t get their shit together.” – pg. 189
Because yeah, I’ve definitely mentioned that things were “straight people nonsense” a time or two around my friends. All in good sport, all in good sport! But also with some minor shade.

But anyways, as always I’ve gone on for far far too long. And so I bid thee adieu with my parting thoughts: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a lovely novel and I absolutely zoomed through it. I definitely recommend it for both young adults and YA-loving adults alike. Is it revolutionary? Maybe not. But it sure is a lovely ride. I held my breath in a few spots and my heart skipped a few beats, and I just let myself get wrapped up in the overall gentle nature of it. But not without some serious sting at times too! My romantic little heart does indeed approve of this message, and I will absolutely see the upcoming film version at some point when it comes out (no pun intended) later this year.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]
--> -->

Thursday, February 8, 2018

#CBR10 Review #04: Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

A magical little journey that was delightful but also didn't quite have the teeth for me to really sink in with it. I am of course familiar with Hayao Miyazaki's movie version of Howl's Moving Castle, but heard that the novel was quite different. And it is in some ways, but also follows a similar plot in others. It really is fun and delightful, and not too serious which was great for me to read through at work while in the midst of some personal issues. But there was something missing here which prevented me from truly loving it...

Howl's Moving Castle deals with a young woman named Sophie, who has conceded that as the eldest of three daughters, her life is not meant to be special, as based on some strange idea or old-wives-tale perpetuated where she is from (at least, I have never heard of this before?). But of course, a curse from a witch leads her to suddenly become an old woman, and she decides that it's a great time to leave her life behind, and perhaps find some help through a wizard named Howl, whose castle travels along the edge of her small town. From there she becomes a staple part of the life of Howl, his young apprentice named Michael, and a fire demon who wants to strike a deal with her named Calcifer. Over time, these individuals grown fond of one another, and Sophie learns about the magic and curses surrounding Howl, as well as the rumors and other twists of magic developing in the lives of her sisters.

The story itself is full of fun and magic, and made especially funny by the interactions between characters. I found it particularly humorous how Sophie is so resigned to her life that basically whenever something wacky happens she just rolls with it. She also takes to the role of curmudgeonly old woman quite quickly after changing into an old lady. But this is also a bit of a detriment in that things happen wherein a real human would react or it seems like things are just far too easily accepted and taken at face value: sure this is a world of magic but where's the conflict? And speaking of conflict, quite an interesting and engaging tale is built up surrounding the witches and wizards of the land, but ultimately things fall flat in how they play out so simply and almost with an ease of everything falling into place. There is so much build up for a very quick resolution in my opinion. There was also a bit of a mismatch in my brain regarding the manner of writing: so straightforward and easy to follow when suddenly it wasn't, and there were cryptic messages and riddles in there about curses on various characters that I'm not entirely sure I understand even now finishing the novel. But, maybe I just didn't pay enough attention? I thought I was following along just fine.

In any case, Howl's Moving Castle is sweet, fun, and easy to read. I don't know that it is something that will entirely stick with me, though I do have a fondness in my heart for the film adaptation. So it's a weird little dichotomy going on in my brain right now. Definitely worth a read, but sadly just fluttered on by without holding me after I finished the last page.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Sunday, February 4, 2018

#CBR10 Review #3: Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson

The third book in Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy series, The Stormlight Archive, hit a bit of a slower pace for me than the previous two instalments. Which is not to say that it’s bad, it is still very detailed and impressive and engaging! Just, a little bit of a different mood here. There are a lot more politics involved with different nations which sometimes went over my head, and I found that the pacing was quite slow until the last 200 pages or so, where it finally exploded into fast-paced action.

Oathbringer begins right where the previous novel, Words of Radiance, leaves off, as the people of Alethar have been transported to the lost city of Urithiru: a new storm threatens the land, and the nations need to figure out how to survive this new natural threat, as well as the new army of Parshendi people who had previously been slaves of humans. Basically, everything is a mess, so it makes sense that there would be a lot of nitty gritty details and governance that needs to occur now. And really, the length with which Sanderson goes into determining these details really makes the world feel rich and complete. Again, the scope of this story and the world created is truly outstanding! But also, takes a bit to get through, and with most of the action in this one occurring in such a quick spurt at the end made the leadup seem like it dragged a bit more than the last two before the pace started to pick up. I always enjoy these novels but this one, really felt a little bit like work to get through. Though, it doesn’t help that I was in fact also reading it while at my place of work.

So first, some good things: first and foremost, one of my complaints for the previous two novels were the interludes between bigger sections of the novel, always dealing with smaller, different characters and often in different lands. I always found these a little disjointed from the rest of the novel, and soon forgot about them, but in this case they worked well with the progress of the story, were shorter, and didn’t feel as out of place. I was also worried that there were the brewings of a love-triangle that was going to drag on for books and books with little progress or reason, but that was dealt with nicely (and SPOILERS: didn’t end with someone dying or doing something inexcusable so the decision was essentially made for the person in the middle without them actually sitting down and making the choice, which always seems to happen, at least in most of the books that I’ve read). Additionally, there were added roles and points of view given for more strong characters, which I think added to the story overall, such as Navani, Jasnah, and Teft. However, I do worry any more additions to points of view during the “main character sections” may start to bog the whole thing down a bit more.

But of course, being myself, there are also some things that I need to nitpick about. The first is that, while not always bad I do find some of the gendering or attempts to write differences between genders as based on this society’s culture to be… let’s say, a little awkward. Or seemingly meaningless besides the fact to remind us that this is a different world, which, yes obviously we know that. I don’t know, maybe that’s just me. The other biggest thing is that while the previous two novels each had a focus on the background and history of either Kaladin or Shallan, this novel focused more on Dalinar, and I have to say I didn’t find it as engaging as the previous two major characters’ backstories. I think a lot of this has to do with how much Dalinar’s focused on old, long-gone, battles of conquest, and they all sort of blurred together or I couldn’t follow exactly. I typically find Sanderson’s writing of action sequences and battles to be very exciting and engaging but for some reason these ones lacked something for me. Not only that, but a lot of Dalinar’s backstory presented here focused on his wife and her role in his life before she died and I honestly found her character to be quite one-note: so soft and delicate and a pacifist and also somewhat exotique™ because she’s from a different country and had a different culture and way of seeing things. I don’t know, but it annoyed me. But maybe that’s also because I’ve been getting annoyed with all the movies/shows/books I’m consuming that have a female characters whose sole existence is to die and therefore progress the story of the man. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good revenge thriller from time to time, but it’s just been a lot and so often these women seem like all they do is whimper and make the man sad because of something they did. This is not to say that Evi, Dalinar’s wife, is not a good character, but so little was done with her beyond having children and making Dalinar sad because of what happened to her (which of course he feels guilt for, as they always do in these kinds of tales). But I’m rambling now, time to get to the end of this

All that said, I am still enjoying this series, and Oathbringer is a solid addition to it, despite maybe being a little tougher to get through than the previous two novels. Though, that may also have a little to do with the fact that I haven't really read any epic fantasies on such a large scale before. There are good things and not so great things here, but overall this is a good series and I will indeed continue with it. Hopefully I don’t forget a lot of major details that end up being important before the new book comes out though!

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Friday, January 19, 2018

#CBR10 Review #02: Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol

Sweet, and a little spooky. Anya's Ghost is a graphic novel that features a short little story about a teenage girl named Anya, who moved to America from Russia at a young age. She isn't doing great in school, and doesn't feel like she truly fits in: she has one close friend named Siobhan, who isn't really all that nice to her, and her mother tries hard to keep Anya connected to her cultural community through church and other families she knows (most notably, a young boy named Dima who is also from Russia, but others tend to pick on). Also, Anya harbours a crush for a popular basketball player at school, who just happens to be dating a beautiful popular girl. Isn't this such a familiar little trope for most YA stories? Well, here's where we get a twist...

While skipping class one day, Anya falls down a well in a park, and meets a ghost of a young girl named Emily, who ends up following her: Anya reluctantly becomes friends with this ghost after she helps with some things at school and with her romantic pursuits. Though you never really know if spirits have your best intentions in mind, do you?

What I love about this book is that it picks up on a lot of typical high school, young adult tropes, but with many pertinent themes within: girls being pit against one another through jealousy and for the attention of boys, friendships that aren't truly meaningful, how quick we are to pick on people for the same reasons we used to be just in order to feel like we now fit in, not knowing the pain going on in the lives of others despite the fact that they look so perfect from the outside, and so much more. There were some opportunities here that could have even been more expanded on, in particular with how Anya reacts to a situation with her crush and his current girlfriend. But doing further with that may have muddied the waters of the real main focus of the story in the end.

The art of this graphic novel is also very clean, and cute looking. In a subdued monochromatic scheme of black and white (with the odd touch of blueish or purpleish gray-tones), the mood presented by the imagery fits what is presented in the story, in particular during the latter portions of the book.

The only minor complaints I would have would really be with the ending of this novel. There is a particular emotional moment between Anya and the ghost Emily, but leading up to this, once we sort of figure out the hitch in everything going on, it plays out pretty simply; I don't want to say it felt "too easy" but... maybe a little predictable after the reveal? It was intense, for sure, but something held me back from being totally immersed at that point. I was also a little disappointed in some of the resolution with Anya's friend Siobhan: she has her struggles too, but she isn't really a nice girl, and a further point about friendship could have really been driven home here. But then again, I'm not the author of this novel, am I? It's not my choice to make!

That said, I did very much enjoy Anya's Ghost: it was quite the respite from the long and heavy other novel I'm currently working on at the moment. And I honestly would have loved it when I was younger as well, because that lonely teenage feeling is oh-so-relatable, but then you also get some fun, and a little bit of creepiness thrown in here too. 

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, January 4, 2018

#CBR10 Review #01: Guardians of the Whills by Greg Rucka

A short and sweet little story to expand on a couple of characters we see all too briefly in the Star Wars cinematic universe: upon watching Rogue One, I immediately fell in love with Baze Malbus and Chirrut Imwe, the two “guardians” of the Temple of Kyber in the city of Jedha. They act like an old married couple, one a little gruff and the other full of mysticism and hope, joining our heros in their quest to bring hope to the galaxy in defeating the empire. But you’ve all seen Rogue One and know this by now right?

Well, given the opportunity to learn a little more about these two characters through Greg Rucka’s Guardians of the Whills, I thought, why not! It’s a short and simple book, with a little bit of action in a small adventure seemingly just before the events of Rogue One. We see Baze and Chirrut in their already long-standing, established relationship, after the Empire has taken some residence in what used to be a holy city of pilgrimage for many. It is a destitute time, with many children becoming orphaned by the actions and violence of the Empire. The main story here therefore revolves around Baze and Chirrut trying to help their friends running an orphanage with survival, as well as eventual escape from the city. Along the way, the two also come in contact with Saw Gererra, who is also trying to find a way to hurt the empire. It left me a little confused because I haven’t seen Rogue One in a while, and can’t remember  if there is the implications that Baze and Chirrut know Saw Gererra or not when they get taken into his base with Jyn and Cassian? Mmm, in any case, it doesn’t really matter I guess.

Ultimately, this is a story about doing what you can: about how small moves and hits can inspire hope and lead to more. And I love that. The overall mood of the book is serious and light: not super complicated and maybe a little simple with a bit of an anticlimactic ending, but really it’s supposed to be a little vignette to show life in the area before they get drawn into the bigger adventure. So, the story itself may not be the most inventive thing, but the main draw here for me (and what was most successful) was just to see a little more of the characters. What makes both Baze and Chirrut great is how they could be simple stock characters, but they aren’t: Baze could just be big and gruff, but we see a softness and caring there. Meanwhile, Chirrut could be just a sterotyped religious image of centered calm and reason, but there is also anger and conflict, and holding on to his faith despite knowing that others around him have faltered in it, yet not judging them for this. It is also these differences between the two that compliment each other so well. I love their friendship and how they work together and care about each other so much, regardless of their slightly different views on some things: it’s their major views of life that matter the most, and searching to do all they can for those who need help.

In any case, this was a short and fun read: a few little messages and tidbits in there, but ultimately nothing too crazy or complex. Still, a good and light way to start off my reading for the year! And as I said before, I love these characters, and wanted a little more of them, which is exactly what I got in the end.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Sunday, December 17, 2017

I Keep Getting Reminded of The Neon Demon (2016) and I Keep Getting Angry

Still Frame from The Neon Demon IMDB page

The scene is set: a young girl, all dolled up lays glassy-eyed and covered in fake blood. The camera pulls out on her posed-but-broken looking body. We are at a photoshoot, where the model is creating a scene of beauty and allure, all while looking as if she is dead. This is a trend I never understood in fashion shoots, the "drop dead gorgeous" scheme as I like to call it. But I guess so long as a woman still looks good regardless of her current state of life, her body can still be used for enjoyment, right? Hmmm... And so I pushed through and watched The Neon Demon (2016), which ended up being one of the worst movies I've seen in a long time. Well alright, maybe "worst" isn't the right word, but it was definitely the most disappointing and irritating. Because here's the thing: there was potential and setup for some good commentary in this movie! All the ingredients were there, but it went in the direction of nothing more than a gratuitous and seemingly self-satisfied mess in my opinion. And since I keep having reminders of this movie come up, I decided to get my thoughts out about it.

The Neon Demon is a film written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, starring Elle Fanning as Jesse, an aspiring young model who moves to Los Angeles to pursue her career, where she learns just how ruthless this world can be as she rises in the ranks to the scorn of others. The cast is rounded out with the likes of Jenna Malone as Ruby, a makeup artist with an obsession with Jesse, Abby Lee and Bella Heathcote as rival models who know the ropes of the industry, and Keanu Reeves as a seedy motel owner where Jesse is staying. Christina Hendricks also makes a brief appearance as a modelling agent that has interest in Jesse. Overall, it's a capable cast that turns out good performances with what material they are given, but the stand-out for me was Jenna Malone, who is incredibly talented and honestly deserves better than what she tends to get as an actress (more on that later). But for now I will throw out a warning about major spoilers for the film in the rest of my post.

Here's what I was liking about the movie before it started to disappoint: the basic premise had a lot of potential to explore a lot of topics about the nature of the fashion and modeling industry, women as objects, beauty as a commodity, etc. And it does touch on some of these subjects. Notable scenes include those where people have an inkling that Jesse is lying about her age (she is only 16 and shouldn't be able to work without parental consent) but choose to look the other way and still utilize her in sexualized ways, highlighting our obsession with youth and indeed sexualizing girls at younger and younger ages. There is also a scene where Christina Hendrick's character takes one look at a girl in her office and sends her away after making such a snap judgement on her worth based on how she looks, which is a subject that far too many women are aware of: being thought worthless if they are not beautiful in a particular way. There is a scene where a photographer chooses to have a closed set with Jesse posing naked for just him as one of her first jobs, in order for her to work with such an acclaimed photographer, reminding me of all those coming forward now with allegations of sexual assault that thought they had to put themselves in these uncomfortable situations where they are taken advantage of in order to further their careers. There is even a scene where the models at a casting call walk around in their underwear, and they are solely judged on how they look as objects in the eyes of the one man in the room, and are completely disposable. Now, this last one is framed in such a way that I feel the message is getting across: we see the vulnerability of Abby Lee's character, Sarah, as she begins so confident having worked with this designer before, only to be torn down when that which she has to offer is not even looked at and passed on for something new. There is a lot of focus on the face of the designer choosing the models, so it doesn't seem like the intent of this scene is just to leer at young skinny girls parading around in their underwear. I am always highly suspicious of these decisions in movies, and this one could have easily fallen into nothing more than some lingering male gazes (it almost does) but having such a focus on the actual gazing itself happening leads me to see that there was indeed an intention and discussion starting to be made here.

But as soon as these topics started coming up and I became more intrigued, the rug got pulled out from under me in favour of focusing on a hammy and unsubtle "message" for the film. Because what is this film really trying to say? That it's a girl-eat-girl world in the fashion industry. How do I know? Well, because a couple of jealous models literally eat Jesse, that's how. Oh, and because the synopsis on states: "When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has" (emphasis mine). With so many avenues and even scenes within the movie itself set up to say so much more about society, beauty, and gender, that's the overall message you go with? That women will devour each other in order to be successful, while hardly touching on how our competitiveness as females is derived from our larger society and how we are deemed as worthy within it? The film doesn't even present it's message in a clever way, it's an annoying and ham-fisted metaphor through and through, despite an air about it that seems to think that it's being very clever about what it's saying.

Speaking of ham-fisted: the dialogue. The dialogue is sparse, but that which is present is a bit over-the-top. There's a whole scene where the models discuss how lipstick colours are either named after food or sex, and that this also relates to life, asking Jesse if she herself is more food or more sex. It's so corny, and yet could have been such a great segue into the topic of consumption of women like products to buy. Yet instead, it literally just translates from the very beginning into her being yearned after for sex by men and Ruby, but ultimately being literal food for the other models. There is also some hammy monologue that Jesse goes on at the end, seemingly out of nowhere about how her mom always said she was a "dangerous girl" because she knows how she looks and how people look at her. This character shift almost seems to come out of nowhere as if the writers really just wanted to throw this dialogue in and show what a femme-fatal she is, even though it amounts to nothing and doesn't really align with how her character has acted so far: if you want to show how this industry and living here has changed her, there needs to be some development, not just out-of-the-blue right at the end when it doesn't even matter anymore.

Also in terms of the dialogue, Nicolas Winding Refn does have a certain stylistic way about him, that some audiences love while others hate. I know that Drive (2011) was pretty divisive between critics and general audiences, though I personally thought it was pretty interesting. One thing about this movie, though, was the way in which there were long spaces in the dialogue and prompted by the direction that felt a little awkward, but it really suited the relationships in the film. The same thing happens in The Neon Demon, but here it feels super unnatural. Someone will ask a question and it will go unanswered in an awkward space of time for far too long; it was excruciating and no real human being speaks like that, making it feel so weirdly put-on. And not only was the dialogue drawn out, but other sequences as well. These include scenes such as Jesse being painted by a photographer or walking down the runway in strobing lights. Such scenes were all clearly there for visual gratification, and they were indeed quite neat looking, but ultimately went on far longer than needed to appreciate this artistry.

It honestly felt like there wasn't enough in the plot that all these things had to be dragged on for more time than necessary, otherwise there wouldn't be a full run-time for the movie: dramatic pauses between sentences took up a good half hour or more of the time, I swear (not that I was timing them). And not only that, but there were scenes that felt completely unnecessary, as if they were added in an attempt to make the plot and overall situation more complex, but ultimately got forgotten about or didn't really matter in the end. This is most notably seen in any interactions with Keanu Reeve's character, Hank, who runs the motel Jesse is living in as she begins her life in Los Angeles. There is an incident with a cougar getting in the building, which I'm sure is a metaphor for something but I didn't get it. Jesse also has a dream about Hank putting a knife down her throat during the night, but again I don't know what this was supposed to mean given how everything plays out. Finally, Jesse leaves the motel to stay with Ruby one night after hearing what sounds like Hank killing a guest next door, but I really don't know what the purpose of this was despite showing some fear of violence in Jesse, which is a theme all too common in many movies, just watching the young girl hide and whimper. But there were many other reasons that could have been used to have Jesse staying with Ruby, so that whole bit felt very forced and purposeless, again given how everything played out in the end. Which is a shame because I love Keanu Reeves and he could have been given more to work with here, or his character could have had a bigger thematic purpose. But alas, twas not the case.

Finally,-- and this is the big one-- the reason I think this movie bothered me so much was the gratuitousness and seeming self-satisfaction of it all. There was so much going on that felt really unnecessary, but that the creators specifically wanted to include just to be able to see it play out: a feeling of "look how artistic and clever I am with this gruesomeness" which ultimately isn't that clever nor does the payoff seem worth it in the end. I feel this a lot especially when it comes to nudity of women (young women, in particular) and ask if it's really purposeful to have these bodies exposed or is it just for the kicks and leering of the male creators/audience? The "reasons" for these things to happen often seem so cheap and like throwaway lines too, so as I said before, I am always suspicious of things like this getting added to movies. And even here, I mentioned how the casting call for models seemed more focused on viewing the male-gaze itself rather than the women, but those actresses and models were still subject to walk around almost naked on set and filmed as such all day. It's not that I outright disagree with nudity in film, but I do question the choices at times and the true intent behind them.

I am thinking about these things in particular right now, as just two days ago I read Salma Hayek's account of her dealings with Harvey Weinstein, which highlight the trials of coming to make the movie Frida (2002). Hayek claims that the movie about the iconic Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, was almost shut down as Weinstein didn't think her unibrow was sexy (despite being pretty iconic to the historic figure) and pushed to have the inclusion of a sex scene that was not originally in the script: leading up to this, Hayek recounts incidents where Weinstein attempted to get her into the shower for him to watch, so now, this insisting that this sex scene occur with her nude in order to get this movie made --that she had worked on for years-- really seems like just another plot to get her naked no matter what, despite her established refusals to do so in private. It makes you wonder about a lot of other movies too, and what the actors/actresses were forced to do or show in them. I think this series of tweets from user Alan Scherstuhl sums up my feelings on this subject nicely:

Now, this isn't per say jus about nudity, but including things and making actors/actresses perform them when not exactly necessary, or making these bits go on for far too long-- think: the almost 10-minute sex scene in Blue is the Warmest Color (2013). There are things that seem really gratuitous in a lot of films and movies nowadays that just feel like the creator wanted to see them play out in front of them like some weird fantasy, all while pretending that there is some nonexistent "message" or "reason" behind the whole thing. And this brings me to Jenna Malone in The Neon Demon:

Jenna Malone is a very capable actress who I see show up in projects from time to time, but given her skill, I honestly want so much more for her. She's great in everything she is in, even if the role ends up being small (think of her minor supporting role in The Hunger Games trilogy). But here, while the role of Ruby could have been very interesting, the way the story and direction went made me feel uncomfortable for her and what she was required to do for this part that ultimately boiled down to a "predatory lesbian" trope. For example near the end of the movie there is a scene where she is outside washing blood off the sidewalk and watering plants, etc, and she is wandering around shirtless. Why? It's the nudity thing again, there hadn't been anything too much up until this point so you had to include some breast somewhere, right? 

But the most awful part of this movie for me was one scene in particular that involved her working on the makeup of a corpse for a funeral: while doing this job, Ruby starts thinking of Jesse, climbs on top of the corpse, spits in its mouth, kisses it, and masterbates on top of it. Imagine writing that and wanting an actress to act this part out. Imagine wanting to see that being acted out in front of you time and time again, and then later on film. Yeah, I get that it's supposed to make audiences uncomfortable (Or is it? What kind of necrophilia fantasy such as the one mentioned at the beginning in regards to death-fashion shoots does this play into?) Of course, actors/actresses don't need to take roles if they are uncomfortable with what's involved --props to Jenna Malone for being a trooper and going through that all gung-ho--, but we all know that most movies that are taken seriously nowadays involve some kind of sexual content on the part of women, most notably when written by a man. And there are also agents urging people to take part in films, and if one actress doesn't feel comfortable with the part, eventually you will get to one who will do it just for the exposure or experience of working with this person or because they are told they should. Eventually, someone takes part and acts out these bizarre scenes. And hey, if they are comfortable with it, all the power to them, but I'm just suspicious of these things being written in order to be acted out in the first place. It also has to do with the framing, I mean the whole thing is quite on display and in your face in this movie, there could have been a way to do it that didn't seem so... I don't want to say graphic, but maybe more subtle? 

In any case, I started The Neon Demon feeling curious, only to become uncomfortable and angry at how things played out. It felt like this movie thought itself oh-so-imaginative and clever, while ultimately being nothing more than a mess of violence, clunky dialogue, and eye-roll inducing symbolism with an absolutely unoriginal takeaway. It could have been so much more, and the visuals and potential of the premise are quite intriguing, I will give it that. But unfortunately a focus on aesthetic and desire to include specific extended moments led to the actual story being treated in what I feel to be a lazy fashion. 

Does any of this matter though? I'm just one person on here, and I don't plan on watching this movie again. And I do know that I have a tendency to overthink things. But like I said, I keep being prompted to think about this film for some reason, and that leads me to think about other implications that this movie has in relation to our views of women and the film industry in general, which has recently had more of a microscope being put up to it (though not completely). Have you seen The Neon Demon? Do you feel differently about it than I do?

Friday, December 8, 2017

#CBR9 Review #26: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

After finally reading The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year, I figured it was time to dive into more Margaret Atwood content! I was looking at Alias Grace but my friend assures me I will love the TV show, so I’m holding off on that one for now. So where to go? Well, the title of The Heart Goes Last kept poking at something in my brain, and so, off I went. It’s as simple as that. And what I got was something very unique and filled with commentary about many different things, but also quite a wacky little setup and adventure in a way. Though, I didn’t love it: because I didn’t love any of the characters therein. For some reason, I couldn’t feel for them, and they seemed almost distant or not truly like real people to me. And perhaps that is part of what is important in this novel, given some of the issues and how they play out: they are the semblance of reality and just the ideas of people while really falling into a lot of unrounded tropes. “That type” of person at face value, if you will. And I do find that if I don’t connect with characters or don’t find them interesting or as if they connect to relatable emotions and personalities, I tend to not fully enjoy a story. It’s not as if this is a bad novel, but definitely not a favourite.

The Heart Goes Last focuses on a married couple named Charmaine and Stan, in the wake of an economic collapse in America. The wealthy remain so, but many people are facing unemployment and homelessness: Stan and Charmaine are living in their car when they see an ad for an experimental new community which provides everything they need, but once they are in, they cannot leave. They eagerly sign up and learn that the setup involves living a normal life in a normal house for a month, and then living and working in a prison for a month, back and forth. The design is derived from experiences utilizing prison labour and does seem to operate smoothly as people share resources and essentially all put in work to ensure that they community continues as it does. But of course, you get the feeling from the beginning that not all is as it seems, as certain “undesirables” are eliminated, only certain types of people and those who appear to follow rules without issue are accepted into the community to begin with, and life continues is a comfortable but strict manner. This unsettling seeming hidden side to the community and prison of course comes to light in what is actually a bit of a wacky situation, manipulated by people on the inside who want the truth out. Overall the plot is intriguing and I was engrossed enough to wonder how it would play out and zip through it quite quickly. Though truth be told it did seem a bit absurd at points, I didn’t totally understand all the inner-workings and economics of the situation, and I wasn’t sure if every part of it was really necessary in coming to the end goal. 

Despite being a little thrown by the overall story and seeming unnecessary or egregious nature of some of it, the novel is thematically very strong. It deals with a lot of subjects in a creative and telling way such as: how we perceive people versus who they really are, the security of being told what to go and how to be versus the freedom of making our own choices, is removing free will wrong if people are happy, how the things people tell us and drill into our minds can still come to affect us years later, etc. Some of the most poignant themes, however, are those that are so relevant to our society right now: one of the biggest ones being institutionalized prison labour that is essentially slavery, as well as how we treat those in prison or anyone who we deem to be undesirable or doesn’t follow the prescribed path. There is also a piece on sexual coercion and how sex can be tied up in situations that lead someone to feel powerless and unable to control the situation. Given what is occurring today with all the sexual assault cases particularly involving powerful individuals, this is a very important topic. However, once outside of these situations in the novel, I did find that the preoccupation on sex and happiness in some of the relationships was perhaps overdone: I’m not saying that sex isn’t important and can’t be a huge factor in relationships but really, that realm is not something I relate to.

I was also pleased to find some commentary and themes regarding sex, violence, and sex robots in this novel. I recently tried to start a conversation in a group chat with my friends about sexbots and some of the areas wherein they can be harmful in a grander scheme, buuuuuuuut this did not go very far as nobody responded to the articles I sent about the destroyed sexbot at a convention and following comments I made (Whoops, complaining about being ignored in my review, this is neither the time nor the place, Lisa!). But anyways, there is some interplay between the concept of these realistic robots and the features that are allowed, versus how this may affect real life or lead to dissatisfaction and a need for new advancements or perhaps even violence in the real world, etc. A interesting topic for sure, and one that perhaps we aren’t even aware of what the repercussions will be at this moment.

And yet, despite the inclusion and presentation of a number of topics that got me thinking, it was almost a little too much at times, and I found one of the most important ones (prison labour) almost being forgotten near the end, despite being so crucial to the setup of the novel and how things progress. But more than anything, I found that some of the themes were really overshadowed for me by the main characters who I did not care for. I mean, it’s not as if I can’t be interested in unlikable characters, but here I found there wasn’t enough to them: the grumpy husband who wants his wife to be more into sex, the wife who just wants to live a happy and picket-fence life  (okay this one I maybe related to a bit in her insistence to pretend like not everything is terrible all the time), the manipulative outsmarting bitch, the guy who just can’t stop cheating on his wife because of a sex addiction, the disfigured woman who just wants to be loved no matter what, the ceo who always gets what he wants no matter the cost. It felt pretty stock and while there were some moments that hinted at something more, it wasn’t enough. The characters didn’t feel real enough for me to empathize with them or even to understand their motivations. Pair that with a somewhat over-the-top story, and it started to run away from me pretty quick in the second half of the novel.

That said, the premise and overall idea of The Heart Goes Last had potential, and some strong themes therein, however a lot of this got overshadowed by a few too many twists that really weren’t that shocking at all. The characters seemed like they were just along for the ride and not in control of anything. Which…. Okay, so maybe that is kind of the point to the whole thing, in relation to the themes of having your role and life decided for you in order to fit into a picture-perfect puzzle with every cog in place. But uuuuh, it wasn’t clear. Maybe I just need some more time to reflect on this. And the pacing of the plot did keep me wanting to know what happens next, I just found it maybe to be a little too forced feeling? Hm. I just don’t know anymore. Things definitely got a bit convoluted in how everything played out in this one, so I guess at the end of the day, it really boils down to a little too much going on in the plot and action, with too little happening in the characters. If only there was a way to pare down one while bumping up the other. All in all, though, not a bad read, just not one that I found to be particularly great.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]