Nostalgia in Film

Musicals are tricky. Because they’re not super popular like Star Wars or Harry Potter, there’s a financial risk involved with it. When done properly, however, they’re worth the risk.

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La La Land’s premise is almost too simple, following two love-struck artists struggling to make it in Los Angeles. Through failed auditions and soul crushing record deals, Mia and Sebastian’s dreams are what carry them through their time together. They challenge each other to be true to their passions, even when the unforgiving nature of show business beats them into the ground.

La La Land is one of those movies that’s great because of how it was made more than the story itself. Most of the songs are done in one uncut take, which adds a certain energy to each scene. Costumes and locations are designed in such a way to infuse the urban sprawl of L.A. with bright nostalgia, paying homage to classic films and iconic landmarks around the city. Ryan Gosling had to learn to play piano for the film. Emma Stone and Gosling were both singing on set. The effort that went into making this movie shows, and that’s probably why it works as well as it does.

It’s rare to find a movie-musical that’s so grounded, positive, and all around inspiring to dreamers everywhere. Flitting between whimsical and painful with relative ease, the movie is engaging from start to finish. The characters are somewhat lacking in true depth, but the theme of dreaming in spite of all is a driving force into this movie and somehow more timely than ever.

I’ll keep it short this week, seeing as the actual story isn’t all that complicated. If you get the chance to check out La La Land, I highly encourage it.

 

If you’ve seen La La Land, let me know what your thoughts are. Share if you liked it!

 

I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I haven’t checked it out, I’ll add it to the list!

 

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Is Brand Extension a Problem in Entertainment?

I’ll answer the question posed in the title right now: it honestly depends. With several exceptions, the most anticipated films set to come out in the next few years are associated with Marvel, Star Wars, DC, and Transformers. Several of these movies have been fantastic triumphs that explore the human condition in a way few popular movies have managed to since. Others are simply an excuse to watch things explode on a big screen. Now the Harry Potter universe joins their ranks.

The question about brand extension is especially relevant to Harry Potter, given that very few people asked for this specific movie. When The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 came out, I assumed the film industry was finished with the Wizarding World for some time. The movies had reached the end of the books. The final scene at Platform nine and three quarters played out almost exactly the way I envisioned it when I read it, right down to the music.

It was a fantastic ending to a record-breaking series, which begs a question: Why make a movie about a completely unknown character set in the same universe who loses a bunch of animals in 1920s New York? I’ll answer that after I talk about the plot.

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***Spoiler Alert***

It turns out the ‘20s was a terrifying time for witches and wizards everywhere. The shadow of Gellert Grindelwald, the most powerful dark wizard at the time, lurks in the backdrop as havoc is wreaked around the world, and now, in 1927, strange and mysterious things are happening in New York City.

We follow two interwoven stories throughout the movie. The first is of Newt Scamander, the Wizarding equivalent of Charles Darwin, who has stopped briefly in New York towards the end of extensive travels around the world. However,  a mix-up with Jacob (a No-Mag, the American term for a muggle) leads to Scamander’s false arrest by ex-auror Tina Goldstein, the loss of his case and even more of his creatures. With the American wizard’s strict government aware of his unregistered presence, Scamander, Tina, her sister Queenie, and Jacob must avoid them to recover his specimens before they expose the existence of witches and wizards.

Meanwhile, Percival Graves, Auror and Director of Magical Security, is tracking down the source of magical destruction around the city. He believes that Credence, a teenage orphan associated with a witch-hunting propaganda cult, has information about an Obscurus, a powerful parasite that manifests itself in young witches and wizards who repress their abilities. After escalating incidents leads to several deaths, Graves gives up on Credence’s abilities and blames Scamander for the incident, only to learn shortly after that Credence is the Obscurus. In a fit of rage, Credence unleashes the Obscurus and terrorizes the city.

Scamander and Graves confront each other indirectly over Credence. Scamander and Tina work together to calm him down, believing that Scamander can remove the Obscurus from Credence. Graves, however, attempts to convince Credence that he can help him more than Scamander. It all comes to naught, however, as every member of magical law enforcement in New York descend upon Credence, destroying him.

When Graves declares his true intention of releasing the Obscurus to expose the magical world, Scamander figures out Graves isn’t who he says he is. With a quick cast of ‘revelio’ and assistance from one of his creatures, Graves’ disguise disappears, revealing the dark Grindelwald in his place. With Grindelwald under arrest, Scamander uses his creatures to erase the incident of the Obscurus from the minds of the No-Mag population, including, to Queenie’s dismay, Jacob, and leaves for London.

***Spoilers Over***

If the lengthy description didn’t give it away, this is a busy movie, and there are minor plot threads I didn’t even bother touching. It’s setting up a franchise and introducing us to unfamiliar aspects of a beloved universe with swaths of adoring and unforgiving fans. Which brings me back to a question posed earlier: of all the topics in the Wizarding World, why this one?

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As it turns out, this spinoff is more authentic than any of the other Harry Potter films. We’ve never met any of these characters before. There’s no opportunity to say ‘that’s not how he was in the books’ or ‘it was better in the books.’ The originality makes it much easier to lose yourself in the 1920s aesthetic and enjoy Scamander stammering awkwardly as the introverted explorer slowly learns to open up or marvel at Graves’ hypnotic focus as he executes his duties with precision.

The lessons this story teaches are fairly obvious ones, but the stories of these characters makes the lessons so resonant. The controlling nature of the wizarding government draws some parallels to the discussions about  government control of its citizens, keeping Queenie and Jacob apart from a burgeoning attraction that pains them throughout the film. The Obscurus sends a blatant message about the risks of hiding your true self, and you can see through Credence’s toxic circumstances why someone could so willingly repress who he or she really is (and the dangers of doing so).

The biggest reason this movie works so well is because of the time period. Not only does this movie tell a fairly succinct story in and of itself, the reveal of Graves being Grindelwald in disguise opens up a trove of untold history in the Wizarding World. After all, Grindelwald was touted as the most powerful dark wizard of modern times before Voldemort rose to power. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next, since we know so little about this period of Wizarding history.

I went into this movie with a lot of skepticism. No one I knew asked for a movie about an obscure author of an in-universe textbook. It seemed like a push from Warner Brothers to milk more money out of the Harry Potter name, even if JK Rowling, one of the most authentic and generous women in the entertainment industry, wrote the screenplay. Its deeply constructed world and slightly less deep emotional well made the film far more enjoyable than I anticipated. Even though spinoffs and brand extension are a plague to many moviegoers out there, Fantastic Beasts is a fine example of  how to do it properly.

 

If you’ve seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, let me know what your thoughts are. Share if you liked it!

I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I haven’t checked it out, I’ll add it to the list!

And Now For Something Completely Different!

With all the vitriol/passion this election has elicited, I needed a break from it all. I headed to the movies and saw Doctor Strange, the fourteenth installment in an unprecedented franchise that sparks its own interesting discussion about creative expression and corporate influence in the film industry.

People grumble about Marvel movies these days. They’ve been coming off the assembly line for the past eight years. Some folks are tired of big, flashy action movies or that they want something original. A lot of the criticism/cynicism towards these movies is valid.

For one thing, the market is flooded with superhero movies, and they’re not stopping anytime soon. Just next year, Marvel is releasing three more movies, DC is trying to right their ridiculous ship with two more installments to their attempt at a cinematic universe, and Fox is releasing another X-men movie.

If that doesn’t turn you off of comic book movies, how about the fact that they all have the same basic plot? Think about it. Hero faces a major setback, discovers something new within himself, uses that to overcome some big threat and save the day, and looks good on camera the whole time with just enough humor thrown in there for good measure. It gets generally predictable after a while.

That’s where some of the lesser known characters come in and shake things up. The formula may not change that much, but their worlds do more than enough to make it interesting.

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***Spoilers Ahead***

Much like Guardians of the Galaxy surprised audiences with the objectively bizarre premise and relatively grounded plot, so too does Doctor Strange thrill as it explores an untapped aspect of Marvel’s deep, complicated universe: magic.

Pure, unadulterated magic.

Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), one of the best neurosurgeons on the planet, loses function in his hands after a car accident. Fueled by arrogance and frustration, he expends all of his resources on every treatment imaginable to regain his fine motor skills. He pushes away what few people he has in his life in his manic desire to return to normal, eventually tracking down a mystical lead in Nepal. Little did he realize the literal mysticism he was falling into.

Strange is a reluctant hero simply looking to get his old life back. Once his mind is opened to the possibilities of the universe by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), he puts his entire being towards understanding the mystic arts with the hopes of healing himself. He ends up being remarkably proficient, but throughout the movie he’s reminded of how little he knows about the world he’s stepping into, especially in his confrontations with Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), the token bad guy whose plans will destroy the world.

In the end, it’s Strange’s intelligence that saves the day, not an all-out brawl like we’ve come to expect from superheroes. There’s still plenty of action, but there’s no literal final blow that determines the outcome.

***Spoilers Over***

A lot of this story follows Marvel’s tried-and-true origin story formula. However, it’s focus on the mystic arts allows for an emphasis on knowledge via supernatual scholarship, giving a fresh take on morality tropes that command center stage in most superhero movies and comic books in general.

As the title of the film implies, the entire movie’s story is about Strange, who Cumberbatch plays with the intelligence and charm people have come to expect. His journey towards rediscovery and healing is consistently at the focus, almost to the point that the other characters’ struggle seem inconsequential. The strongest example comes from Strange’s pre-sorcerer life. I had no idea what his ex-lover’s first name was (played by Rachel McAdams) until halfway through the movie. One more minor spoiler: On one hand, it was certainly a bold choice to forgo the romantic tropes most entertainment can’t live without. On the other hand, she comes across as more of a passive observer, a fleeting reminder of Doctor Strange’s life before becoming a sorcerer. Maybe that was the point? Regardless, she paled in comparison to Strange.

There was also controversy over casting Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One, who was traditionally an older Asian man. That’s not a stereotype at all (sarcasm, of course). Instead, they picked a damn good English actress, opting for whitewashing over forcing a respected Asian actor or actress into a racial pigeonhole. There was no politically correct option here, and that’s that. The social dialogue will continue as it always does, leading to progress down the road. In the end, her character was interesting enough, and Swinton performed well.

If you like fantastic worlds and entertaining movies that aren’t super deep, this is a pretty cool movie. It’s full of trippy visuals and action scenes that strike a blend between The Matrix and Inception with the colors of deep space nebulae. Plus, the funniest gags are from an inanimate object. Honestly, it was plenty different from the other Marvel movies for my taste, not to mention a great break from the current political climate.

 

If you’ve seen Doctor Strange, let me know what your thoughts are. Share if you liked it!

 I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I haven’t checked it out, I’ll add it to the list!

A Different Marvel Hero

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Marvel has exploded into the mainstream culture since the turn of the century. They didn’t invent the superhero, but they created iconic, instantly recognizable characters: Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, Daredevil…the list goes on.

With the Marvel Cinematic Universe being as popular as it is, Marvel has gained the leverage to bring less popular characters to life, such as Jessica Jones on Netflix, the no-nonesense, tough talking street-level hero. I had certainly never heard of her, but after the TV show came out last year I was on the hunt for the Alias Comics the show is based on. Last week at the library, I struck gold!

***Spoilers Ahead***

Alias Volume 2 follows Jessica well into her private investigation career, taking on a case in a rural town in New York. A girl has gone missing, and the mother is desperate to know what happened.

With rumors flying through the town about Jessica’s supposed abilities and the possibility that the missing girl is a mutant, Jessica struggles to sift through the misinformation and small-town gossip to find the girl. Through all of this, Jessica reminisces on her former life as a superhero.

***Spoilers Over***

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Beyond these slight spoilers, I won’t say anything else. Unlike most comic stories, Alias takes a darker approach to comics. It’s not glossy and pretty. The lines are rougher, the colors more muted. Curse words aren’t *%&$ing censored. Jessica is (mostly) dressed down as opposed to hypersexualized like most women in comics. There is a scene of her previous life that’s drawn in the more popular flashy comic-book style, which only goes to show how drastically Jessica’s life has changed.

They also manage to tackle the issues of diversity and acceptance in regards to mutants. This is a fairly common topic in superhero comics, but it was interesting to watch regular people in a small town address the issue candidly instead of politicians or superheroes discussing them. It’s a refreshing change of pace.

For fans of the TV show, the influences are readily apparent. Shades of purple give the comic a distinct tone, much like the show. When I read Jessica Jones, I hear it in the voice of the actress playing her in my head. Even though most of the comic doesn’t take place in the Big Apple, the few scenes we get show a grittier, slower city.

Honestly, it’s one of those comics you have to read to fully appreciate. I’m glad I picked it up.

 

If you’ve read Alias Volume 2: Come Home, Rebeca, let me know what your thoughts are.

I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I hadn’t read it, I’ll add it to the list!

Sacrificing History for Story

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I was never an enormous fan of Johnny Cash as a child. That being said, I remember watching Walk The Line and being captivated by it. The music was fantastic, and I was surprised by the strength of the story.

From that point on, I grew to love biopics. Despite the creative license these films tend to take, they introduce me to aspects of history I wouldn’t have known much about otherwise. Milk and A Beautiful Mind in particular stand out, as does the most recent one I saw.

The Imitation Game tells the story of the forefather of the computer, albeit with some fictionalized aspects. Alan Turing was an English mathematical genius in the mid 20th Century. Published at 23, Cambridge Fellow at 27, he was recruited into a secret military program tasked with breaking the German’s infamous Enigma Code, which none of the world’s most powerful countries at the time could crack. What resulted from the team’s effort was the world’s first computer.

The film is at once a moving, powerful story and a wonderful tribute to a genius who was never truly appreciated in life as he was in death. The work completed by him and his team remained a complete secret until decades after V-E Day. On top of all that, the most unexpected message surrounded civil rights. Turing was homosexual during a time when it was considered a crime of indecency.

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***Spoilers for the film ahead***

Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley steal the screen as Alan Turing andfellowncryptographer Joan Clarke, coworkers turned ‘romantic couple’. Granted, the film exaggerates the nature of their relationship and adds in plenty of additional components to make the story more dramatic and exciting.

Besides making Turing far more awkward in the film than he was in real life, the film jumps through time to tell as much of Turing’s story as possible. There’s the story of the Enigma Code and Project Ultra during WWII. There’s a police investigation in the early 50s and the resulting castration. And there’s a series of flashbacks depicting his boarding school years with his closest (and only) friend, Christopher. When Turing creates the computer that cracks the Code, he names it Christopher. Years later, when criminally charged for his sexual identity, he elects to chemical castration instead of imprisonment so he could remain with his only link to his childhood friend.

This is the core of The Imitation Game’s story: Turing’s enduring connection to Christopher and his desperation to honor him, for Turing first learned of cryptography (the study of codes) through Christopher. It’s also the film’s biggest inaccuracy, much to the chagrin of historians, for there was no Christopher. The way the film reveals information, from the significance of breaking the Enigma Code to the reason behind Turing’s decision to avoid prison makes the historical inaccuracies completely worth it.

***Spoilers Over***

Sacrificing historical accuracy is fairly common in biopics. Most audiences don’t particularly care, however. Movies are about entertainment, and while the accurate story is compelling in its own right, The Imitation Game tells the same story with its own Oscar-worthy flair, complete with just enough relevant social commentary. I enjoyed the movie more than I was expecting, and I’d been eager to see it ever since it came out.

Man, I love good biopics.

 

If you’ve seen The Imitation Game, let me know what your thoughts are.

 I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I haven’t checked it out, I’ll add it to the list!

You Can’t Like Everything Out There

Everything I’ve reviewed and shared on this site, I’ve given a glowing stamp of approval. Not as in a ‘glow-in-the-dark’ stamp or a ‘radioactive glowing stamp’, but I enjoy everything I’ve shared on my site thus far.

This time, however, I didn’t completely love what I read. This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s debut novel, chronicles his early adult years in an thinly veiled fictionalized account. What follows is two hundred fifty pages that disregards structure in favor of a free-form story that reads, at times, more like a stream-of-consciousness loaded with fantastic quotes such as this:

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The frank, candid nature of Fitzgerald’s descriptions of college life and early adulthood were quite risqué when the book was published in the early 1900s. Lots of alcohol, substances, and wild love. That type of information is much more commonplace now, however, so the value of that is a bit lost in this modern day and age.

To be honest, Fitzgerald’s writing in this book felt dry to me. I definitely recognize it’s good, it just didn’t resonate with me. Even though I struggled to finish it, I could definitely relate to a lot of the stories and messages Fitzgerald was recounting. Stories about growing up always connect to people, even if the writing doesn’t appeal to me.

I’d still recommend that everyone give this book a read, even though I didn’t like it as much as other things I’ve reviewed. It was a seminal work for its time, and from a writer’s standpoint, it’s helpful to read other well-received books so you can learn something that you can try in your writing.

If you’ve read This Side of Paradise, let me know what your thoughts are.

I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I hadn’t read it, I’ll add it to the list!

A Wonderful Return to the Wizarding World

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This review has a bit of a backstory, I suppose, so I won’t be going much into plot or anything. A couple weeks ago, we had a mini family reunion in Pittsburgh. It’s a great city, one I could absolutely see myself living in at some point.

Another thing to know is that my whole family has been Harry Potter fans since The Sorcerer’s Stone. We used to argue over who read the books first when they came out. I remember we chased my Dad around the yard because he got his hands on The Half-Blood Prince before the rest of us did.

With that being said, my sister has a copy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I had begged her to send it to me, but she’s understandably protective of it. So, being the introvert that I am, I asked if I could borrow it during the mini reunion and finished it within four hours. Don’t worry, I didn’t abandon my family. I just, you know, read the book around all the activities. They even let me sit off in the corner, away from  them, while I read the script. I love my family for that.

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Back to the book, though.

Everyone knows J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series. The Cursed Child is the eight official story in the series, and it’s different from any of the other books. Firstly, it’s a play. Lots of dialogue, minimal description. I read it in an afternoon. Secondly, it doesn’t follow the traditional story structure of the other books. It picks up after the Epilogue of The Deathly Hallows, where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are sending their kids off to Hogwarts. What follows is a whirlwind adventure that spans four years in the Wizarding World.

I haven’t talked to many people about The Cursed Child, so I had no expectations going into it. That may have been one of the greatest decisions of my life, reading-wise.

I didn’t expect the heart-wrenching story of expectations, love, and reconciliation. Rowling revisits all our favorite characters as adults, plus explores other characters in a deeper fashion than in the books. There’s also the kids: Albus Potter, Harry and Ginny’s second son, and Scorpius Malfoy, Draco’s kid. The adult angle gives new depth to the original trio (even Ron, who still serves a fair bit of comic relief), made even deeper by the children.

Does this live up to the hype that anything Harry Potter related carries? I think so. Hogwarts is back through fresh eyes. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are as familiar as always. The story gripped me more emotionally than anything I’ve read in ages. I grew to love reading in no small part because of Harry’s adventures in the Wizarding World, and Rowling has recaptured that in her newest tale.

I definitely encourage you to read this book. If you can afford to see the play, too, go for it. I’m sure the magic doesn’t lose any luster on stage.

 

If you’ve read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, let me know what your thoughts are.

I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I hadn’t read it, I’ll add it to the list!