28 June, 2012

Things You Should Listen To: Flashing Lights by Kids These Days

What do I tell you about Kids These Days that I haven't already said? They are, without question, the best young group working today. It's everything you like about rap, everything you like about soul and a few things you didn't even know you missed coming together in perfect little bites. Turning Kanye's Flashing Lights into a social commentary Kids These Days give us the best thing since Jay-Z dusted off  Ice-T's 99 Problems. It's like Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On jumped into the future to see how little has changed. Austin Vesely perfectly matches the retro-modern feel with his 60's inspired visuals. The final shot of the thin young  drummer, his arms raised before being cut off into the dark, is a perfect end note. 

"Lock you up cause they don't want to see you in no cap and gown." - Kids These Days

You don't have to watch this video thinking about Rekia Boyd or that Chicago has had more than 250 murders in six months. But think about that. At least one Chicago resident dies every day, most of them black. Yesterday it was 7 year old Heaven Sutton at a candy store. Look at this page and tell me you don't want to holler. Every day in Chicago people are dying, people are crying, and people are lying about why. Chicago is not unique. Chicago is their America, I have mine. You have yours. 

"Brother, brother, brother there's far too many of you dying." - Marvin Gaye

27 June, 2012

Review: Scandal Wears Satin by Loretta Chase

 Loretta Chase is a victim of high expectations. Scandal Wears Satin is a perfectly serviceable book with a few flaws. Unfortunately when you write like Loretta Chase does you end up being graded on a curve. This is my least favorite Chase book but it still beats most of the wallpaper historical authors working. I want to establish that I know this book would kill as a debut novel. As the second installment of The Dressmakers series it collapses under it's own weight.

Scandal Wears Satin wants to be too many things to too many characters. This keeps it from truly serving any. It also has a tic. I hate that. It can be J.D. Robb running an anal, it can be Jayne Castle and her coff-tea, it can be Loretta Chase and the surname Noriot. I don't care about the context, a tic drives me out of the story and up a wall. In Scandal Wears Satin the word Noirot is an all purpose wallpaper covering a multitude of plot needs.  Why does Sophy do that / think that / feel that? Because she is a Noirot. Often repeatedly. The problem is that while Chase understands enough of what being a Noirot means for the explanation to satisfy, the reader does not. It was her Noriot pride and her Noriot lack of morality and her Noriot style coupled with her Noriot wit that made Sophy a chore to hang out with. Sophy has what could be a fascinating backstory kept hidden from view by the gauzy hand wave of her surname. Sophy also has three sisters. What richer soil is there than the sibling relationship between women? It's never used. Occasionally her older sister (from the prior book) will comfort her or she will worry about the possible reaction of the third sister. (The third sister is nearly invisible.) We have Sophy, from a family of grifters who died of cholera in Paris. She sneaks around London in disguise, works as a columnist and is co-owner of a dress shop. Her sister has recently married a Duke. So of course we spend all our time with Longmore.

Longmore's family is even more fascinating than Sophy's fabled Noriot line. First of all, he's titled and rich. His sister is impulsive and somewhat spoiled. His mother dislikes Sophy. Ok, that's it, we're done. Of course the problems of the extended Longmore clan are the most interesting place to go with this story. It is obvious. Even a Noirot could see it. Or someone who isn't a Noirot. I get confused. Anyway, we also have a street kid with a host of nicknames and a few deft skills that is also just window dressing. His story doesn't go anywhere either. 90% of Scandal Wears Satin involves getting Longmore's incredibly boring sister out of the incredibly predictable problem she's gotten herself into. While there are some interesting side note (Love, love, love Hampton Court as a retirement home) most of the book is just waiting for a different book to happen. Why does Sophy even like Longmore? She thinks he's an idiot. Why does he feed her delusion that he's slow? He shows every sign of intelligence. Why does the rival shop from the prior book enter the picture at all? It doesn't affect the plot in any significant way. Everything about Scandal Wears Satin leads to why? Perhaps it all becomes clear in a third book, perhaps not. Either way I wanted more from the excellent start to this series than I received from Scandal Wears Satin. Maybe it's the Noirot in me.

26 June, 2012

Beyond Brave: The Secret World of Arrietty

Brave is being treated as some new, unexpected, long awaited event. It's a film. Intended for children. Marketed and distributed by Disney Pixar. With a female lead. With a mother daughter relationship. If you take away the word Pixar and add the word Ghibli, this happened in February too. The difference is hardly anyone went. If there is such a pent up desire for alternatives to the Disney Princess machine, what kept parents away from The Secret World of Arrietty? This film opened to almost precisely ten percent of Brave's opening. (U.S. numbers).

If you saw Brave I urge you to consider The Secret World of Arrietty. Do you want voice over stars? How about Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, and Carol Burnett? Good reviews? How about a 94% at Rotten Tomatoes? Strong female lead? Check. Troubled but resolved mother / daughter relationship? Check. Fight over traditional values versus a new way of living in the world? Check. Princess? Sorry. No Princess here. Asexuality? No, Arrietty has an age appropriate curiosity. Prince? Nope. Not even close. Her love affair is doomed from the start, such as it is. Strong message of social responsibility? Check. Feminist viewpoint? Check. Total American box office? 19 million. Brave made that on it's opening day.

Face it people. You like the Princess. You want the Princess. It's the Princess you turn out for.

Back to Arrietty. (A local elementary school was so taken with this film they canceled lessons for the day and organized a field trip to the cinema.) Our entry into Arrietty's world is the narrator, Sho. Sent to live with his grandmother prior to heart surgery, Sho spots Arrietty in the grass. Arrietty lives in a two parent family where her father treats her as a fully capable person. Her mother is housebound and fearful, causing friction with Arrietty who strains at the rules her mother imposes.  Arrietty's father is training her to provide for their family, with her mother's support. She is expected to do all he does. She faces the same potentially fatal dangers he does, she gathers the same provisions he does. Arrietty is praised for her strength but chastised for her lack of caution. She's a tween, it's what they do. They rebel.

Pod (her father) and Homily (her mother) have warned Arrietty all her life against mixing with humans. It's not xenophobia, it's hard earned experience. Arrietty is a brave and self reliant character. She makes herself a weapon and uses it in her own defense. She prides herself on her ingenuity and physical abilities. Merida climbs a rock face? Arrietty climbs a similar distance in a treacherous storm. When the new human (Sho) arouses her curiosity she investigates. This leads to repeated fights with her mother. Despite Sho's best intentions Pod and Homily are right. He endangers them. Homily is taken from the family and only Arrietty can save her. In doing so she realizes that her mother's rules are based on hard experience and pragmatism, not caprice. By disregarding her mother, Arrietty has cost her family their comfortable home. She says goodbye to Sho as her family is forced to leave everything behind. In doing so Arrietty urges him to fight for his own life, to follow his own path as she will. She embraces the necessity of her parent's rules but does not adopt their bigotry.

Look Arrietty, I'm not white!
But your dad trusts me!
Arrietty is not without flaw. There are some slow pacing moments (like Brave) and a subtle racism in the depiction of Spiller, a Borrower from another area. Because he is a forager he is shown in stereotypical 'savage' attire. But Spiller is also their salvation. Where her parents thought they were the last of their race, Spiller proves differently. He offers to be their guide to a new home and shows a strong attraction to Arrietty. She treats his interest casually, her mind is full of Sho and her family. Alongside the messages of self reliance and family respect is a strong rejection of materialism. Arrietty is told time and again to take only what she needs. While they beautify their home it is through their own craftsmanship and recycling. Goods they have not made are a trap they must never accept. It is better, in her family's mind, to live independent lives through their own labor than risk being enslaved in luxury. They pride themselves on repurposing items to meet their needs.

So here was a strong female lead with a complex mother / daughter relationship. It had the Disney brand, big name voice actors, and a full advertising campaign. America stayed home. Don't tell me these characters don't exist. Disney has tried to bring you a number of female leads from Ghibli. Mononoke was even a Princess. Maybe next time we will talk about Sen from Spirited Away or Kiki from Kiki's Delivery Service. I know you think "Well, if they can bring them over as imports why can't they produce these stories in America?" Why should they? You don't go to see them.

25 June, 2012

Things Unseen: The Bear And The Bow and Brave

So once upon a time Brenda Chapman had a movie planned for Pixar. It might have been good. It might have been awful. I've been trying to find the original concept for Brave because I can't shake the feeling that this wasn't the intended Girl Power message. (And really, I will move on soon. It's the contrarian in me. As more and more reviews arrive jumping over the incredibly low bar of Not Completely Sexualized to herald Merida as a triumph, I find myself saying Yes, But...)

The largest piece of information I can find is the following text. If you wrote it, let me know. Most people have sourced it to a 2010 Entertainment Weekly article, before Reese Witherspoon dropped the project. So assume authorship as EW until I find differently or confirm the issue.

Brave is set in the mystical Scottish Highlands, where Merida is the princess of a kingdom ruled by King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). An unruly daughter and an accomplished archer, Merida one day defies a sacred custom of the land and inadvertently brings turmoil to the kingdom. In an attempt to set things right, Merida seeks out an eccentric old Wise Woman (Julie Walters) and is granted an ill-fated wish. Also figuring into Merida’s quest — and serving as comic relief — are the kingdom’s three lords: the enormous Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), the surly Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), and the disagreeable Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane). - Entertainment Weekly

That sounds like a completely different movie. But it also sounds like the same movie. Since the three lords stayed to become her father's drinking buddies, I think there is a story untold. Until Brenda Chapman gives her post career interview or Brave comes out on the Deluxe Bonus From The Attic Edition DVD with the requisite rueful voiceovers, it remains unanswered. I still want to know why Merida has to apologize for everything but her father gets a pass. Sure, he was under the influence of bear but I still think (since she was tied down and all) that he could've taken a second to set aside his manly anger and listen to his kid. Just me on that one?

Along with the Scot-Face theming, I'm leaving the fantastic (natural black) hair alone. I've already spent more time on Brave than I intended or care to. If I say more it will be on the subject of our low expectations (all Merida had to do for Amazing Status was not be interested in marriage or overtly sexual) and our cultural blindness. Why didn't we salute Arrietty for it's strong family message? Why wasn't that capable and curious girl held up as a girl we'd like to see more of? Despite a wide release through Disney Arrietty (like the female lead of Spirited Away) was largely ignored by the same people overly excited about the extremely conventional Merida. If Merida had been a boy, the reaction to Brave would be quite different and far less enthusiastic. When we embrace Brave we set the bar for female narratives low indeed.

Just say no to sexuality and we will love you. Weird.

24 June, 2012

Maiden Mother or Crone, Brave Is A Small World After All

Yesterday I was unable to move beyond Brave's normalization of domestic violence to really discuss where it fails as a Pixar film. Much ink has been spilled on the replacement of original director Brenda Chapman with Mark Andrews over creative differences. I really didn't care. Directors get replaced all the time. Mark Andrews co wrote two of my favorite Pixar shorts, One Man Band and Jack Jack Attack. I had high hopes for him. In the aftermath of seeing Brave I think he might be a huge part of where the film went wrong. I've read a few dozen interviews with him this morning and two points come up again and again. He added animals and streamlined the characters, cutting away those that were not the main family.

There you have it. Girls like horses, right? Merida gets a horse. The most important part of this story is Merida learning to respect her place and Elinor loosening up a bit, so focus on them. Unlike every other Pixar film (except, perhaps Up) and every Disney Princess ever, Merida has no confidantes. She has no comrades. Elinor has no support system. These two women are alone except for the men they must please. When the clans come to visit there is great talk of the close bonds between the families. Elinor is given the hushed impersonal respect common to Traditional Values while the men are excused from being reasonable. Her taming hand causes them to bow and scrape. When she's a powerful bear they tie her naked body down and prepare to kill her. I don't buy the "But she's a BEAR!" aspect of this. She is a bear when Merida's brothers recognize and obey her authority. In a film supposedly about women there are only three - maid, mother and crone. (Ok, there is a sexualized and fairly dim servant, but otherwise.)

Name another Pixar film where the main character has no friends. I'll wait.

Still working on that? In order for Merida or Elinor to have the same friendship offered other Pixar characters, they would have to be seen as something outside of their gender. As long as Merida is trapped in her Token Female Lead role, she is stuck in the trinity. I assume at one point Merida did have a friend. Andrews says he cut the extraneous characters, which means other plot lines were abandoned. Since Merida's father still has a large and varied social group it seems likely that women were once in the cast. Think about the scene just before the ending. Merida reminds the men what makes them great. It is their friendship, it is the service they have done one another. In a film about a mother and daughter, the most significant speech the enlightened heroine gives is... about the glory of men.

23 June, 2012

Review: Brave by Pixar

Hey look, Pixar used a girl. Check out that weapon! Merida is going to use her abilities in a traditionally male arena to win recognition of her equality, right? Yeah. Not so much. In fact, Merida is going to realize that her true power lies in submission. It's going to be so awesome. Unless you have an abuse background and then it might be traumatic. Let's get to it!

I saw Brave in a group of six people. Three adults, three kids. Of the adults, two have an abuse background. Of the kids - well that's for them to decide, isn't it? Anyway, the children and one adult proclaimed Brave "Heartfelt, life affirming family fun." No really, someone said that. The other two adults hated it for different reasons. The first adult felt Brave was antifeminist, normalized domestic violence, telegraphed it's intentions, lacked charm and changed characters to suit the needs of the plot. The other adult was vaguely traumatized and wished walking out halfway through had been an option. But the rendering was cool.

For me, Brave failed on every level. (Since this will make me the least popular reviewer on the internet, I'm going to explain why in detail. You might want to see the film first then come back, because I will be talking about all major plot points.) We meet Merida in the traditional pre-titles happy family opening sequence. Then a bear ruins it all. Instead of semi-orphaning Merida as one might expect, the bear just traumatizes her father. He has bear issues. It's like, his thing. Merida's father wants her to be able to take care of herself, despite being a Princess. (The faux Scots things is all over Brave but I will leave that for someone else.) Merida's mother, who wears her hair tightly bound and extra long to show her feminine strength, wants Merida to play the dulcimer and meet the domestic pinnacles of princessdom she herself holds. In what is meant to be a send up of princess culture, Merida's mom rattles off all those traditional values while Merida rolls her eyes. Too bad the film undermines that. To begin with, Merida's father dwarfs The Incredible Hulk. Merida's mother is a slight and beautiful wisp. So the only thing Merida gets from her father is her hair. A hulking muscle bound Princess? Please. Merida's mother even complains that Merida overeats, because a Princess has an eating disorder. It's ok. Merida really only eats the occasional apple. Her plate of cookies is just for show. And her brothers. They can eat what they want because, you know, boys.

Mostly Merida's mom is just impatient with her willful teenage daughter. Things don't boil over until Merida's mother announces that the clans have been invited to compete for Merida's hand in marriage. Merida understandably balks at this announcement. Her mother tells her not to be silly, it's just marriage. Even she was nervous when she was handed off. Let's take a second here. Merida's appetite is unacceptable. Her physical prowess is unacceptable. Pimping her out to the neighbors is just fine. (Traditional family values for the win.) Merida attempts to use the traditional rules of the firstborn being able to compete for the hand of the princess to circumvent the bartering of her sexuality for social order. This infuriates her mother. Repeatedly Merida is told she doesn't know what she's done. Unless someone is allowed to marry her (read, have nonconsensual sex with her for life) the kingdoms will go to war. This message is repeatedly driven home to Merida in a number of ways. Without the Queen's calming and stoic voice controlling them the men fall into violent chaos. Without the right to marry Merida, conflict breaks out. The only thing holding these base animal men back is the dulcet and accepting tones of a confined woman. Okay then.

Moving on from the landmine of sex trafficking and young girls, we encounter Merida's plan to save herself. She runs off to cry. That's about it. She yells at her mother, and storms out. She doesn't set out to lead her own life. She doesn't open an archery school. She doesn't take a meaningful step toward independence because that is what a boy would do. Girls flounce. The magic of the forest leads her to a Miyazaki style crone in the woods who sells her a way to poison her beloved mother. To be fair to Merida, the bear obsessed witch never says the word poison. Neither does Merida. She wants to change her mother (not herself) and thus change her fate. She doesn't want independence or a solution - she wants to control her controlling mother and thus alter in some unspecified and therefore clearly unimportant way, her future. The witch is like hey, I did this once before and it really didn't work out so well but if you're paying, I'm playing. Merida tricks her mother into eating the poisoned cake.  Her mother promptly turns into a bear. Wow! A bear! (Hey wasn't there another bear at the start of this movie?) Merida is like, I didn't ask for a bear. I just asked a complete stranger to feed mind altering chemicals to my mom so she'd stop being such a drag. WTF, bear?

The point of the bear is twofold. The first is for Merida to show her mother that the life skills she gained from her father were not useless. The second is to normalize domestic violence. Merida quickly realizes that since her mother is a bear, if her father sees her she will be murdered. This is all Merida's fault. If she had just let herself be pimped out, none of this would have happened. Later, Merida's mother attacks her and lays open her arm. Merida assures her regretful mother that it is Merida's fault. If Merida hadn't acted so hastily and foolishly, her mother wouldn't have hurt her. (That's right kids, it's always your fault.) Merida's father sees the torn clothes of Merida's mother and decides the bear has eaten her. The only way to avenge her death is to kill the bear. The bear that is actually his wife. If you change to the point that your husband doesn't recognize you (although all four of your children do) he will kill you (because he loves you so much) and it will be your daughter's fault. Men are scary irrational creatures women barely hold in check and upsetting that balance has terminal consequences. Merida has to keep her mother alive, control her massive father, keep the kingdom from going to war, and apologize about fifty times. If she had only been a little bit skinnier and a little bit sluttier none of this would be happening.

Of course it is through her brains and her brawn that Merida wins the day and saves the kingdom, right? Well, not so much. Mostly it is through accepting her fate. Merida apologizes a bunch more and demurely walks into a crowd of warring men to use her placid feminine voice to calm them and agree to marry at once so no one has to die. Her mother, still a bear, has seen that Merida holds more value than her stone face and untouched vagina, so she intervenes by giving Merida permission to refuse the marriage. Well, sort of. Merida postpones the marriage by suggesting that free will be given in the choosing of sex partners. No one is really into this until the young men agree that maybe they don't want to sleep with Merida either. The fathers agree that Merida will be courted by the sons and choose one later, maybe after falling in love, thus deferring the still planned upon matrimonial ending. Or course her mother is still a bear and her father still wants to kill her. Merida has to rush upstairs and do some sewing (really) run after her enraged father, fight him off to defend her mother, then cry an awful lot and beg her mother's forgiveness. You see, Merida's mom has always been there for her. All she asked of Merida was one little thing (her entire life) and Merida was so ungrateful that she refused, poisoned her, and brought the kingdom to ruin. If only Merida had just done what was expected of her everyone would be safe and her father wouldn't murder her mother or brothers.

Well, I feel empowered, how about you?

Merida breaks the curse, the other bear is revealed (and defeated) the kingdom is happy, etc. Merida's mother learns to let her hair down a bit (literally) Merida learns her proper place, and with his women returned to their roles the king settles down and doesn't kill anyone. Along the way some small children dig around in a buxom maid's breasts and millions of young girls learn valuable lessons. You can be whoever you want, as long as you have permission. Control over your own body is granted by others. Strength is nice to have, but it's not what really counts in the end. Love means always having to say you're sorry. They wouldn't hurt you if you weren't so difficult. It really is your fault. Crying can totally solve things.

I have long defended Disney's Princesses. I will make a case for the ability to be empowered by any of their willowy young beauty queens. I have to make an exception for Merida. That chick is toxic and so is her whole movie. Thankfully the youngest girl in our group said "Ok, I don't see why Merida had to say she was sorry though." There's hope for the next generation.

21 June, 2012

Review: The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz

To be completely honest, I can't really call this a review. Perhaps I should have labeled it a strong recommendation. What would I say? As a protagonist the legislative bodies of America frequently act in odds with the nation's self interest. I find it unlikely that such actions would occur. Insanely rich people are completely fine with breaking the economic core of the nation, rendering them unsympathetic.  Voters are locked in an abusive relationship through a lack of choices and a powerful desire to self harm.

Actually, that review would probably rock. Alas, it remains unwritten.

With The Price of Inequality Stiglitz lays out some pretty tedious economic theory in an accessible and popular way. You might think you understand why our economy is bleeding jobs while your bank account gets thinner but you really don't. Unless you do, I don't want to prejudge you. However I am not a Nobel Prize winning economist and therefore found Stiglitz made several outstandingly infuriating points. What we do about it, that's a different story. Step one, admit you have a problem.

We are so screwed.

I'd like to pretend that I've been spending my time reading books like this one. Or genre fiction, or comic books. To be truthful I've spent the slump evaluating various iPad games. VelociRapture vs Monsters Ate My Condo? I'm your girl.  Things are looking up though, since I switched from the K3 back to the Land of Sony Readers my reading has gone up dramatically.

13 June, 2012

Review: Three Weddings And A Murder

Books just aren't holding my interest at the moment. Three Weddings And A Murder is a decent slump breaker.

I believe I have crossed over into the Obsolete Reader section of the market. My grandmother used to complain that there were no good Gothics anymore. Now with Gothics a distant memory, Regencies having evolved into Wallpaper Historicals, and the rise of Paranormals I begin to see her point. Long live the Victorians! I'm sure my kids will lament their demise as the Windsorian books begin to hit shelves. (Is Windsorian even a word? Well, we've a decade or so to figure that out.) Three Weddings And A Murder made me reflect on my place in the genre food chain because Tessa Dare is a very good author who bores me silly.

On paper, I should love Tessa Dare. In practice I find myself emotionally removed from her work. I'm not quite ready to cue my reader to the oldies station (Best of yesterday and today!) but my bones are creaking. In The Scandalous, Dissolute, No-Good Mr. Wright Dare tells a time lapse tale of a young girl and a not so old man. I enjoyed it more than other works I've read by Dare but I felt the characterization was somewhat uneven. The heroine's speech patterns didn't work for me. She was given to more exposition than I found strictly plausible. The hero was charming, but his HEA required evolution didn't feel organic. (Why would he do that? Is he insane?) Tessa Dare is firmly in the list of authors I admire yet avoid. If you like Tessa Dare, I'd buy the anthology just for her novella - it's the closest she's come to winning me over.  

Of course the draw for me was Courtney Milan's The Lady Always Wins. As an open fanatic of Milan I was not disappointed. While it lacks the emotional punch of The Governess Affair I found it the strongest of the four. (It played to my personal fetishes. Tulipmania has always fascinated me.) This is a tale of lovers lost, but their loss has a solid cause. I believed their separation as much as their reunion. You can't live on love, and Ginny knew that far better than Simon. (The formerly meddling parents are some of Milan's best characters. I adored their brief appearance.) I think what kept The Lady Always Wins from hitting great (it's very good) is the resolution. Ginny, who is risk averse, is required to bet almost everything in a way I am not sure she would. I believed her motivations, but her actions I have mixed feelings about. The fact that I spent so much time worrying about Would Ginny Have Done That reflects my investment in the characters.

Leigh LaValle was one of two authors new to me. The Misbehaving Marquess didn't work. This is a short where a little bit of communication between the primary characters would go a long way. They felt very modern in a historical setting, treating their relationship as something easily set aside. The reasons for estrangement were thin and the reunion therefore lacked power. Both of them needed a pair of Big Kid pants. Carey Baldwin was also a new author to me. I'm reasonably certain (but too lazy to do any actual research and verify) that she's a debut author.  Solomon's Wisdom is a modern suspense that wouldn't be out of place next a Susan Elizabeth Phillips book. I don't think it does Baldwin any favors to follow three similarly themed tales with such a change of pace. Once I adjusted to the swap there was a lot to appreciate. While not offering a real challenge to solve, her mystery had several fresh touches that kept me interested. (I may check out her full length novel.) Overall this benefit compilation is worth checking out.