Thor: Ragnarok (another good review)

I’m sure I’ve said before on this blog that the Thor films are my favorite Avenger movies–not just because of their central character (who’s gorgeous, funny, sensitive, and smarter than people give him credit for) but because of the whole mythology-infused world of the stories and the painfully realistic (though sometimes hilarious) family drama that lies at their heart.  Anyone who knows me in real life is aware that I have a special love for Loki, but I’ve never been one of those fans who advocate for him to get a solo film.  Loki needs Thor, and both need Asgard.  And as we learned in Thor: Ragnarok, Asgard is a people, not a place (and certainly not just a throne).  Read on if you’re not worried about spoilers.

When trailers for Ragnarok started appeared several months ago, I was worried that the movie, with its neon colors, comedy, and rock-and-roll soundtrack was basically going to be Guardians of the Galaxy 3.  (Though I was pleased to see “Immigrant Song” finally associated with a Thor movie.  And not that there’s anything wrong with Guardians–I just wanted Thor to be Thor.)  And certainly, there are elements of Ragnarok that would fit comfortably in the Guardians universe, like the trippy trash planet Sakkar (which also reminds me of Mad Max and those weird landfill people from the last season of The Walking Dead) and the new character Korg, a humanoid pile of rocks with a Kiwi accent and a deadpan delivery, who shares certain qualities with Guardians characters Drax and Groot.

Yet, despite the fact that we’ve departed far from the Shakespearean line delivery of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (and of the old comics) and the high seriousness of much of Thor: The Dark WorldRagnarok still feels like a Thor movie.  Maybe it’s the callbacks to the previous films–lingering interior and exterior shots of Asgard on the verge of destruction and appearances (however brief) of Thor’s old comrades.  (I wanted to cheer when Heimdall finally showed up!)  But I think the main reason Ragnarok feels like a Thor movie is that even though I spent most of the film laughing, I still felt the gravity of what was at stake.  And I felt that Old Norse sense of the dignity of dying alongside one’s companions (even though, happily, most of our favorite characters didn’t die).

One key death in the film, of course, is Odin’s, and I loved this beautiful, understated scene.  It was fitting that Odin, now humble but never humiliated, should spend his last moments not detailing his exploits but calling attention to the wild cliffs of the Norwegian coast.  Most importantly, he tells both of his sons that he loves them, and I think this explains not only the surprising (yet really not surprising, when you think about it) new power Thor attains at the end of the movie (I loved this) but also the subtle difference in Loki throughout the rest of the film.  Not that he suddenly converts to a thorough-going good guy, but he seems to have softened just slightly.  I really believed he was going to cry when Thor was talking about how it would be good for Loki to stay on Sakkar.  (Darn you, Tom Hiddleston, and your beautiful eyes.)

And that scene takes place just before the first occurrence of the recurring “Get Help” bit, which has been making me giggle out loud every time I recall it.  There’s a lot about the Thor movies, as a series, that’s really good, but I maintain that the best thing about them is the chemistry between Thor and Loki.  Whether they’re physically fighting or verbally bantering (or Thor is throwing Loki at unassuming guards), they act like real brothers, and I’ll never get tired of watching.  Here’s hoping their Sakaarian spacecraft leads them to more adventures that we’ll get to see.

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what I would say if I were on Talking Dead

Sometimes I think about what I would say if for some reason I became famous enough to sit on the celebrity couch in Chris Hardwick’s fake studio apartment.  Lately, the guests (and Chris) have been doing fairly well at focusing on The Walking Dead instead of promoting their own work and making dirty jokes.  But there are some topics nobody has broached that I think need to be addressed.

  1. Negan is not a good role model or even a cool guy.  I made this quite clear in my post from a year ago entitled why I hate Negan, so I won’t belabor the point now.  At the time, I said he was an engaging character, but now I find his swagger contrived (which it is, of course–it’s a post-apocalyptic persona) and his relentless unkindness, even to his own terrified followers, almost unbearable to watch.  Yet convention attendees are still dressing their little kids up in Negan costumes.  It’s troubling, to say the least.  I wish Rick (or anyone, really) would kill him ASAP–next Sunday, preferably–but I’m sure he won’t die until the end of this season, if even then, because he seems to have surpassed Darryl as the darling of ratings.
  2. The most interesting characters are the people who seem to have nothing to offer–the ones considered dead weight or even liabilities according to the masculine contribution-value paradigm I wrote about in another post.  Sure, we need people like Rick who have gun skills and leadership abilities, and people like Carol whose past traumas have made them tough, but we also need people like Father Gabriel, who had to go through a serious worldview shift in order to even comprehend what was happening, and people like Eugene, who concocted the (end of the) world’s biggest lie because he was so afraid of being cast out or killed by people he knew were more capable and prepared.  People like these latter two, perhaps my favorite characters right now, provide a necessary non-majority perspective and are able to empathize with others who aren’t brave or bad-ass and yet have worth just by being human.  (Well, Father Gabriel is able to empathize.  Eugene’s not great at people skills, but he’s improving.)  I often think back to Dale in Seasons 1 and 2 and that bewildered look he would get, which I affectionately refer to as The Dale Face.  Dale clearly was having trouble reconciling his understanding of the world with the horror he was seeing around him.  I would have the same trouble, and I’m glad to think I would.  The people who aren’t troubled by the zombie apocalypse are the people who scare me.  And even some of our most confident and capable characters have had to go through periods of retreat and reflection–Morgan, most notably, but also Rick when he went through his gardening phase.  (By the way, I was annoyed with all the fans who mocked “Farmer Rick.”  Besides processing his own grief, he was also creating a sustainable food source for his community.  Since when is that a bad thing?)
  3. King Ezekiel, his tiger, and his kingdom have turned this show into a bizarre mashup of a gritty, hyper-realistic road story set in the near future and a faux-medieval high fantasy, Lord of the Rings style, and I love it.  He’s the best thing that’s happened to this show in a while.
  4. Please, someone, wash and cut Carl’s and Darryl’s hair.  I can hardly stand to look at them.

the fandom panel! (updated with more cool links!)

In May, I told you about a panel discussion on fandom that I had just begun, along with a committee, to plan.  This morning, all the planning came to fruition, and we had a wonderful event that was collegial, fun, scholarly, and well-attended by enthusiastic fans (not of us, but of a wide range of fandoms), many of whom were wearing t-shirts representing their chosen texts.

In the spirit of “remix culture” (which we could have discussed this morning if we’d had more time), I’m not going to give you a traditional, single-authored recap of the event; instead, I’m going to give you some cool links that will inspire you to join the conversation!

  • One of our panelists captured an iPhone audio recording of the discussion that turned out surprisingly well.  Here it is on YouTube.  The image you’ll see is the fantastic event poster created by Ms. Mariannette Oyola–also mentioned in the next point.
  • We had two fabulous vendors selling their fannish wares.  One has an Etsy shop, GeekOutsidetheBox; the other posts her work on her Instagram site, @misssoyola_art.  I bought something from both, and there was a lot more I had to restrain myself from buying.  Check them out.
  • During the discussion, I mentioned Confessions of an Aca-Fan, the blog of Henry Jenkins, who was one of the first media scholars to study fandom in a positive light when he published his book Textual Poachers in 1992, and who is still going strong today.  If Jenkins and/or his blog sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because I’ve mentioned him several times on my blog.
  • I’m going to pull a Gilderoy Lockhart and tell you to see my published works for further details.  My doctoral dissertation is about, among other things, fans.  In it, I mention the intriguing (if I do say so myself) idea that some authors, like J. K. Rowling and Charles Dickens, are fans of their own work.  I don’t mean that they’re arrogant; I mean something more positive and productive.  Read more here.  (I am not sure if this link requires a log-in.  If it does and you can’t get in, let me know–I’d be happy to send you a PDF.)
  • Panelist Marybeth Davis Baggett referred to her Christ and Pop Culture article on Kurt Vonnegut, of whom she is a devoted fan.  Read the piece here.
  • All of our panelists are active (and saying really smart things) on some blog or social media platform, but I didn’t ask which is each person’s preferred platform.  I’ll check with them and post their handles here so you can follow them.  (And if you’re a panelist and you happen to be reading this, go ahead and comment with all your info.)

Let’s keep the conversation going.  Share some cool links that you think would be relevant!

It’s tough to be a kid.

First, I’d like to apologize for not posting last week.  It’s a busy time of the year.  But I’m back!

Over the past week, a number of situations and stories have brought to my attention, with unusual force, the difficulties that face many children.  Some of these difficulties are brought about or compounded by social ills like poverty and abuse; others are just part of childhood.  Yet we adults tend to romanticize childhood retrospectively, talking about it as a carefree time when all we had to worry about was winning at baseball or video games.  Millennials talk about “adulting” as if life just recently became hard, forgetting or denying that being a kid can be just as tough.

That was all very abstract, so let me quickly run through the situations and stories that I mentioned.

  • I went to see It, which shows children being empowered by genuine friendship but also portrays harsh bullying and parental abuse that are just as frightening as the elemental force of evil that comes out of the sewer embodied as a creepy clown.
  • I am about to start training to become a volunteer CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate).  This means I’ll be assigned to observe and report on behalf of children involved in court cases due to their guardians’ abuse or neglect.  Just from filling out the paperwork and reading the manual, I know this work is going to break my heart sometimes.
  • But this is the example that stopped me in my tracks.  I recently reread Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in preparation to discuss it with my children’s lit class.  Like all of Dahl’s novels, this one is zany, exuberant, and the utter opposite of realism—except for one passage in chapter 10, “The Family Begins to Starve.”  This bears quoting: “And now, very calmly, with that curious wisdom that seems to come so often to small children in times of hardship, [Charlie Bucket] began to make little changes here and there in some of the things that he did, so as to save his strength.  In the mornings, he left the house ten minutes earlier so that he could walk slowly to school, without ever having to run.  He sat quietly in the classroom during recess, resting himself, while the others rushed outdoors and threw snowballs and wrestled in the snow.  Everything he did now, he did slowly and carefully, to prevent exhaustion.”  Here, in the middle of this wacky, colorful story about Oompa-Loompas and marvelous candy, is a textbook description of a child who can barely function because of hunger.  I told my students, mostly future teachers, to pay attention—they might see a boy just like this in their classes one day.

And even for children who aren’t abused, bullied, or starving, everything feels more intense in childhood: fear, jealousy, shame.  The good feelings are more intense too, sure.  But be careful when you make rosy generalizations about childhood.  Don’t let yourself forget that it isn’t easy.

Let’s talk about the zombie apocalypse.

Classes started at my university today, and even though I’m not even teaching on Mondays, right about now I’m really relating to that song in Fight Club, “Where Is My Mind?”  (See my post from the beginning of the spring semester, “This is my brain on the first day of classes.”)  So in honor of not having a functioning brain—but also because I’ve been working on this particular project lately—let’s talk a little bit about my zombie apocalypse story.  I’ve been going to a creative writing group and getting some awesome feedback, but I’d love to hear your thoughts as well on a key issue: the title.  My working title for the story, which I eventually want to turn into a screenplay, is “Sam and Adrian in the zombie apocalypse.”  That’s nice for helping me find my Word document, but that’s about the extent of its usefulness.  Here are some other titles I’ve considered:

  • “Jungleland,” as in the Bruce Springsteen song.  It evokes the proper sense of chaos, but that song is very much about a city, and my story takes place mostly on rural roads and in a small town, so the title may be misleading.
  • “The Pursuit of Happiness,” an ironic reference to the central plot device: a man is running out of his antidepressant medication and is searching for more in a world where there are no doctors and most pharmacies have been depleted by looters.  But this title could also be confusing; I can just see audience members grumbling, “I thought this was the movie where Will Smith solves the Rubix cube!”
  • “The Road to Hibbing” because roughly the last half of the story takes place in Hibbing, Minnesota, the hometown of Bob Dylan and also of one of my protagonists.  (The first half is about getting there.)  The title accurately describes what happens, but I think it sounds a bit too whimsical.  It also makes me feel like Irish ballads should be playing during the movie trailer.  That’s not really the musical tone I’m going for.
  • “Life Is Hard,” which is going to be a recurring line in the story.  (It also gives a very subtle nod to a line from a Bob Dylan song: “Life is sad, life is a bust.”)  Effective, but a bit heavy-handed, perhaps?
  • “Sam’s Town,” as in the Killers album.  The name of my character who grew up in Hibbing and returns to his hometown is Sam, so again, an accurate description.  However, this title might lead to more disgruntled viewers—this time, people who were expecting to see a Killers tribute (though I do like the idea of using one or two Killers songs on the soundtrack, along with Dylan and Springsteen).  A similar option would be “Sam’s Home”; I like this one because it can be interpreted two different ways.  I think of this story/screenplay as, among other things, a supernatural twist on the “30-ish guy moving back in with his parents” plot, and “Sam’s Home” riffs on that a bit.

Titles are important, so I’ll probably be thinking about this for a while.  I’d love your feedback on these suggestions, along with other title ideas you may have.

what I’m watching

I was inspired by my brother’s podcast, Does Anyone Really Need to Hear This(listen to the latest episode here) to begin regularly reporting on what I’m watching, reading, and listening to.  But since the blog format is less tolerant of long-windedness than the podcast format, I am going to focus on just one of these today—on the three movies I watched this past weekend, to be exact.

  1. Logan.  I may have mentioned before that I’m a regular platelet donor and that one of my favorite parts about donating (aside from knowing that I’m helping to save people’s lives) is getting to watch a movie while tucked under one or more electric blankets.  Last Thursday, I chose to watch Logan, the first X-Men movie—indeed, the first Marvel movie—to have Oscar hopes.  I’m always a little hesitant to watch violent movies while donating because it’s hard to escape or even look away from a particularly gruesome scene when I’m strapped to a bed, but even though this R-rated film was very violent (more than I expected), I’m glad I watched it.  Probably the most striking feature of Logan is how well it captures the artistic trends and cultural anxieties of 2017.  The setting—a not-too-distant, not-quite-apocalyptic future (technology still works, but things are quickly falling apart, especially along the US/Mexico border)—reminded me of The Walking Dead and even more of its borderland spinoff Fear the Walking Dead.  Fears about genetic experimentation devoid of human conscience were represented in the character Laura, basically an 11-year-old female Wolverine, who, in her silent and deadpan (and occasionally delighted) observation of the “normal” world, reminded me of Eleven from Stranger Things.  The cinematography made the whole world look hot and tired, and the music (especially the Johnny Cash song in the credits) added to the weary and foreboding tone.  In spite of the cynicism of both the characters and the general tone, the movie still had the heart of a more traditional Marvel film, and I nearly cried at the end.  I had always thought of Wolverine as one of the least interesting X-Men, but, like many viewers of this startling film, I’ve done a complete reversal on that opinion.
  2. Jaws.  One of our local theaters was showing this 1975 classic last week, and I saw it Friday night.  It was my first time seeing it in many years, and it was both gorier (they blew up a shark!) and better than I remembered.  John Williams’s score, though sometimes over the top, is a classic of his early style.  The acting is fantastic, the writing is straightforward yet understated, and even though the special effects are not what they would be today, the pacing of the film contributes to a dramatic tension that never lets up.  I’m kind of a sucker for male bonding stories, so I really like the camaraderie (and tension—more tension) among the three men who go out to hunt down the shark.  It’s a classic seafaring story.  And now that I’ve used the word “classic” three times in one paragraph, I think I’ve made my point, so I’ll move on.
  3. Moonlight.  On Saturday night, I finally watched the real Best Picture winner of 2017.  I can’t comment on whether it’s better or worse than La La Land; the movies are too different.  But I can say that it’s very good.  And although it couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to Jaws in every way, Moonlight, too, has some great dramatic tension.  I think I may have been holding my breath for the last 20 minutes of the movie as I watched the main character and his old high school friend (and lover? That’s what he wants to find out) conversationally dance around and around the topic neither of them wants to broach.  The score of this movie is also excellent, and the camera work and lighting, combined with the bright colors of many of the buildings in Miami, make everything look not cheerful but lurid and sad, in keeping with the story.  And Maharshala Ali deserved that Best Supporting Actor win, even though he’s only in the first third of the film.

If you’ve seen any of these movies, let me know what you thought.  Next week I’ll be back with what I’m reading.

weekend miscellany

I couldn’t think of a unified topic for my blog post this week, so I’m going to tell you a few things I learned or re-learned this past weekend.

  1. Grilling okra is a good idea. It takes away the infamous sliminess of the oddly-shaped vegetable and brings out the true flavor.  You may want to consider wrapping your okra in foil, though.  The slippery little guys kept falling through the grates on my grill.
  2. Bambi is a great movie. I’ve mentioned before that it’s in my top five Disney animated films, but sometimes I forget how excellent it is.  It’s visually gorgeous, from the watercolor backgrounds to the use of color to convey emotion—note the liberal use of red during the scene when Bambi fights with another young buck.  It uses orchestra and voices to create mood and replicate sounds in nature—“Little April Showers” is not the only musical composition in the world that approximates a thunderstorm, but it’s a good one.  And one of my favorite things about Bambi is the use of real children to voice Bambi, Thumper, Flower, and Faline.  Their line delivery is a little more studied than that of the absolutely hilarious children in A Charlie Brown Christmas, but their delight—sometimes conveyed through hysterical laughter—is pure and genuine.  Even the dialogue captures the way a child would really talk, like when Thumper says the water in the frozen pond is “stiff.”  Maybe this relatability in the main characters was why I enjoyed Bambi as a child, even though the film as a whole could be justly be described as scary, sad, and slow.  Even though it’s only 70 minutes, I’m not sure if most children today would sit through it.  And maybe that’s okay—perhaps the real audience for this audience is art- and nature-loving adults.
  3. A guitar string may not be the best weapon for killing zombies. This falls under the category of things I learned for the first time this weekend.  I’m writing a story, which I eventually hope to adapt into a screenplay (so I can win my Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) for a buddy road-trip movie that is set during the zombie apocalypse and sensitively explores the topic of clinical depression.  (Here I need to say that anyone who has ever written or ever will write a zombie movie screenplay is profoundly indebted to George Romero, who passed away yesterday.)  I read one of the final scenes at a creative writing group on Friday evening, and while I got really positive feedback about the emotional impact of the scene (technically, it was negative feedback—as in, “No, you can’t kill that really nice guy!!!”—but I knew that meant my character development had worked), I also got some practical comments about the impracticality of slicing off any head—even a dead one—with guitar string.  I also got some alternative suggestions, like using the neck of the guitar, which apparently contains a metal rod—who knew?—as a stabbing weapon.  The people at this creative writing group (I highly recommend joining one, by the way) are serious sci-fi/fantasy nerds who can sustain serious, unironic conversations about stuff like this, and I benefited from their suggestions.  Perhaps I’ll share some of this story on my blog!  It’s still in the early stages (I skipped ahead to write the last scene), but I’ve “known” the two main characters for a long time.  I posted a non-zombie story about them a few years ago.
  4. Sixteen miles is a long way. I know this because I ran ten miles Saturday morning and walked six more Saturday evening.  I don’t regret it, but I would like to make this public service announcement: If you run first thing in the morning, make sure to drink water first, since we all wake up slightly dehydrated.  Also, do not wear yoga pants for a long run, especially in the dead of July.  The more you know…