Category Archives: films

Canadian Afrofuturism: Brown Girl Begins

blog-Brown-Girl-Begins-posterIf you’ve listened to all the buzz surrounding Black Panther, you’ll know that Afrofuturism* is having a moment. Black Panther is the Big Hollywood Blockbuster version of an Afrofuturist film. If you want to see the small indie version, look for Brown Girl Begins.

(*What is Afrofuturism? The short definition from Oxford Dictionaries is: “A movement in literature, music, art, etc., featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of black history and culture.” For an article-length answer, read “Afrofuturism: The imaginative sci-fi movement black people need now” by Sam Fulwood III at ThinkProgress.)

Imagine a grim future world where a struggling Black community lives in sight of city towers that are forever unreachable. Imagine an older woman, a healer and leader in her community, and her wilful young granddaughter, Ti-Jeanne. Imagine the loa of Vodou belief, locked in a struggle that can be broken only by Ti-Jeanne.

Brown Girl Begins is a Canadian film made by TV director and producer Sharon Lewis, set in Toronto and based on the 1998 novel Brown Girl in the Ring by Caribbean-Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson.

blog-brown-girl-hopkinson-coverLewis describes the film as a prequel. If you’ve read the book, be prepared–although the backstory and character relationships are drawn from the book, the plot is quite different. So is the geography, which will be slightly confusing to both readers of the book and Torontonian viewers. Though it is pretty neat–and a bit mindboggling–to see Toronto depicted as an untouchable nirvana, the harbour as (once again) a polluted cesspit, and the Toronto Islands as a place of exile and poverty.

The book is nearly 20 years old, which shows in its depiction of a hollowed-out city core–anyone who can afford it has moved to the ‘burbs. In today’s era of condos, that idea doesn’t have quite the same resonance anymore. Maybe that’s why the action of the film has moved to the Toronto Islands.

Or maybe it was a matter of cost…this is a low-budget film, with a limited number of sets, a short running time, and few special effects. The filming and storytelling are sometimes clunky. But the actors universally do a fine job, which goes a long way toward creating emotional resonance.

The greatest strength of the book–and the film–is the melding of Caribbean-Canadian culture and Vodou figures with a careful imagining of the near future, all wrapped around a classic coming-of-age story for Ti-Jeanne. Toronto doesn’t get to show up all that often in science fiction (at least as itself–it often stands in for other cities in films and TV shows such as The Expanse), and a SFnal depiction of the experience of Blackness in Canada is rarer still.

Brown Girl Begins has had a short theatrical run here in Toronto. I hope it will continue to be accessible in some form. If you can find it, do watch it.

 

If you liked this post, you might like:

Genre-Bending Books (Redux)

Chappie: Gender Influences At Play

If You Liked City of Hope and Ruin…

 

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Chappie: Gender Influences At Play

blog-Chappie-Movie-PosterThis weekend I saw two films about the performance of masculinity, coming-of-age stories about struggling with machismo, as well as surrogate fatherhood and flawed role models.

One was the critically acclaimed, multi-award-winning Moonlight.

The other was the critically panned Chappie, Neill Blomkamp’s answer to Robocop.

I don’t feel qualified to talk about Moonlight (though there’s a great discussion here: “Masculinity and ‘Moonlight’: Eight black men dissect Barry Jenkins’ momentous film”), and besides, this blog is mostly about science fiction and fantasy. So I’ll just say that the accidental juxtaposition of the two films gave me a different lens for Chappie, and one that I think improved the viewing.

In Chappie, an escaped police robot is taught how to behave, how to think, how to be by two very different influences: the cultured but amoral engineer Deon and the countercultural trio Ninja, Yolandi, and Amerika. (I’d call them punks, but the Internet tells me they’re “Zefs”, the South African equivalent.)

A good chunk of the film revolves around Chappie’s education: Deon brings him paints and books, going for a well-rounded education of the mind, while Ninja teaches him how to swagger, swear, and shoot (and Yolandi provides an unconventional yet feminine, nurturing touch). Chappie veers into feminine pastimes and Ninja tries to “man him up”. Simplistic and played for laughs? Yes, but also poignant, as Chappie tries to navigate these competing influences, please everyone who matters to him, and understand what makes a man.

Deon’s rival at work, Vincent, is yet another representation of masculinity: an ex-soldier full of repressed rage, trying to get approval for his military-grade killer robot, whose ambitions are being held down by his female boss (the fabulous Sigourney Weaver–capable but sadly underused in the role). Deon, slim, bespectacled, and feminized or perhaps asexualized, is everything that Vincent hates.

Chappie’s level of success at integrating these influences determines the outcome of the film…but I won’t spoil it.

If you’re looking for an accurate and nuanced depiction of AI learning, you won’t find it here, but as a more metaphorical exploration of what it means to be a man, Chappie is worth seeing.

 

 

In Defense of Sense8

Apparently I’ve never blogged about Sense8, the Netflix show whose cancellation is making waves in the news this week. Time to correct that…

sense8-trailer-pic

The show first came to my attention because it was created (and written and directed) by the Wachowskis of Matrix fame and J. Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5. Then I learned about the hyper-diverse cast and concept, and I was sold. It features eight people from all around the world who are telepathically connected. They’re also being hunted by shadowy figures, but the focus is really on their connection, and it’s a joy to watch.

What does a Detroit cop have in common with an Icelandic DJ living in London, or a trans hacker in San Francisco, or a Nairobi bus driver, or a closeted gay Mexican actor, or a Mumbai pharmacist, or a kickboxing business heiress in Seoul, or the son of a mob family in Berlin? Perhaps not much…and yet…

It’s really neat to see all these people who don’t usually get stories, especially not science fiction stories. I know people who identify with one or more of the characters so strongly, and are devastated by the cancellation, because they never get to see themselves onscreen in the genre they love. Of the eight characters in the ensemble, only two are straight white men. The show is L, G, B, T, and Q-positive; it’s even poly-positive. It treats its diverse cast and their homes, families, and cultures with respect.

Granted, the depiction of the San Francisco queer scene is better fleshed out and relies less on obvious tropes than some of the other settings. (Our man in Nairobi is caring for his mother, who has AIDS; there’s a Bollywood-esque dance sequence in Mumbai.) But the tropes are gradually explored and deepened. It’s a start, and better than a start.

You do have to be patient: as noted above, the story is more interested in exploring the slow development of interpersonal connections than in plot or explanations. But there’s plenty of action and excitement as season 1 draws to a close and in the Christmas special. (I haven’t seen season 2 yet.)

And…it’s going away.

There are petitions. Netflix has a “request new material” feature where you can put in “Sense8 season 3”. If you haven’t seen it yet and are interested, now’s the time to watch it so Netflix can see the viewership soar.

Fan mobilization worked to save Star Trek (the original series). Maybe it can work here too.

In author news, I have two things to share!

First, my short story “The Data Carrier” is now posted at Turtleduck Press.

renewal-book-selectionSecond, my flash fiction piece “Urban Renewal” has been accepted to an upcoming anthology published by Queer Sci Fi. The anthology also includes a contest — three winners, judges’ choices, runners-up, and honorable mentions — and the results aren’t out yet, so keep your fingers crossed!

 

Divergent, Frozen, Hollywood, and the Strong Girl Character

Divergent film posterSo the film adaptation of Divergent came out a few weeks ago. It’s the latest in a string of movies starring girls. Twilight* kicked off the trend six years ago, and then Hunger Games and Catching Fire blew the box office away. On the animated side, we have Tangled, Brave, and most recently Frozen. And for adult female protagonists last year, we got the Academy Award–winning Gravity, Best Picture nominee Philomena, and a pretty awesome supporting character in Pacific Rim.

* Note: I’m not holding up Bella as an example of a strong girl character. For the purposes of this argument, I’m chiefly interested in her existence as a female lead. But if you want to argue that some of the female leads I’m citing are problematic, I’m happy to listen.

Is this a trend? I sure hope so.

I’m a big SF&F watcher (and reader, and TV viewer). I try to see most of the big genre movies in theatre as they come out. If there’s a well-told story and a good character arc to suck me in, I love explosions and superheroes and aliens and dystopian futures and all that. I’m the target audience.

I can, and do, identify with male heroes in these genres. But it gets tiresome after a while, seeing the girls (or women) as sidekicks or objects to yearn after (*coughHercough*) or nice butts in tight outfits. Even Divergent is guilty of this — check out the poster above and tell me, based on the poses, who looks like the protagonist and who looks like the sexy sidekick / love interest.

Frozen flim posterBut then along comes something like Frozen. Here we have not one but two princesses who stand up for themselves and fight for what they believe in. And they’re not just strong because they kick ass — but that’s another rant.

Better yet (SPOILERS HO)…

…their closest relationship is with each other, and that’s what the whole story revolves around. Sure, there’s a prince, and there’s a commoner love interest, but they’re subplots. The main plot is a love story between two sisters. The climax isn’t a kiss, or a proposal, but the culmination and expression of sisterly love. How cool is that? How much did you not expect that from Disney?

(Another reason to love Frozen is the wonderfully earnest MALE sidekick, Olof. Thinking about him still cracks me up, months after I saw the film. But I digress.)

Films like this give me hope. If even Disney, bastion of heteronormative roles and romances, is getting into the act, surely we’re making headway. And Frozen is the highest-grossing animated film in history. Surely the legions of female film lovers — and their interests — are finally getting noticed.

Now, Divergent didn’t crush the box office like the Hunger Games movies, nor has it received the same level of critical acclaim. But it did finish first on its opening weekend, a good enough showing to ensure the making of sequels…and, if we’re lucky, lots and lots of copycat productions.

Long live the strong girl character!

Your turn! What female-led films have you enjoyed recently? What girl heroes from SF&F books would you love to see onscreen?

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy Strong Girl Characters: YA and MG Classics and The Gothic Novel and the Feminine Touch.

Top 5 Movies About Ireland

Poster for OnceHappy That-Day-When-Everyone-Is-Irish!

(I’m not Irish or otherwise Celtic by blood, as far as I know, but in spirit? Oh yes.)

In honour of St. Patrick’s Day, here’s a roundup of some of my favourite movies with Irish connections…

5. Far and Away

Okay, this one just starts in Ireland. But hey, cute love story? Young Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (before they were even married, let alone divorced)? Victorian-era drama? I’m in!

4. The Devil’s Own

To be fair, this involves Northern Ireland, not the Republic of Ireland. (Quick geography recap: the actual island of Ireland is divided into two states, the independent country called the Republic of Ireland and the part of the United Kingdom called Northern Ireland. Confused yet? Northern Ireland is where the violence used to happen — thankfully not so much anymore.)

Anyway…The Devil’s Own stars a young Brad Pitt and a young(er) Harrison Ford on opposite sides of a missile-stealing plot. It’s not fabulous — and neither is Pitt’s Irish accent — but it’s fun.

3. Once

I’m a sucker for a sweet love story between two questioning souls and free spirits. Think Before Sunrise and Benny and Joon. Better yet, they’re both singer-songwriters, and so are the actors. Add in some nice acoustic guitar, a haunting melody, some really thick Irish accents, and a pretty cityscape (Dublin) as a backdrop…lovely.

2. The Secret of Roan Inish

Selkies! Need I say more? I guess you’d call it a kids’ movie, but if you’re a lover of selkies, you don’t exactly have a lot of movies to choose from, and you could certainly do worse than this one. Beautifully shot on the west coast of Ireland, and featuring an island much like this one:

A country lane on Inishmore. Copyright Siri Paulson 2004.

A country lane on Inishmore. Copyright Siri Paulson 2004.

1. Waking Ned (Devine)

My all-time favourite Irish movie is a comedy known as Waking Ned Devine in North America and simply Waking Ned on the other side of the pond. An old man in a tiny Irish town wins the lottery and promptly dies of the shock. The rest of the villagers decide that Ned would want them to have the money regardless. Hijinks ensue.

Honourable Mentions

And a couple of movies I very much enjoyed that were filmed, but not set, in Ireland:

Reign of Fire is a post-apocalyptic movie in which the apocalypse is…dragons. How is this film not more popular? Starring Christian Bale and a very muscular Matthew McConaughey.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and The Princess Bride both include scenes shot at the Cliffs of Moher on Ireland’s west coast. And why wouldn’t you, when they look like this?

Cliffs of Moher

The mighty Cliffs of Moher. Copyright Siri Paulson, 2004.

Your turn! What’s your favourite movie set in, filmed in, or otherwise involving Ireland?

If you liked this post, check out YA books for St. Patrick’s Day.

Best Films of 2013: My Picks

So you might’ve heard about a little awards show yesterday. Not the Oscars, that other one. In honour of the Golden Globes, here are my picks for the best films of 2013.

Poster for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

3. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Unlike, say, Catching Fire, the Hobbit films take plenty of liberties with the source material. (Granted, most of the additions are originally Tolkien’s, just not from The Hobbit, but the filmmakers added an entire love triangle that wasn’t there before.) But viewers who can suspend their preconceptions about the story are rewarded with a well-done fantasy film — complete with rollicking adventure, some nice character moments, and a beautifully done encounter between a hobbit and a dragon. (I don’t have a review up for this one, but I may natter on about it later if anyone is interested.)

Catching Fire movie poster

2. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The first Hunger Games film blew all expectations out of the water, at least in terms of box office returns (and it was a pretty good book adaptation, either). The sequel took a bigger budget and ran with it, without getting so caught up in special effects that it lost the heart of the story. Jennifer Lawrence makes this series what it is, and she has some superb supporting actors behind her. In my opinion, the film is actually better than the book.

Gravity movie poster 1

1. Gravity. This was what 3D was invented for. Forget deep perspective and things flying out of the screen at you — director Alfonso Cuarón uses the technology to capture the feeling of being in outer space. It’s the best of an IMAX science film…with a story. Sandra Bullock does a phenomenal job on an almost one-woman show. (Bonus points for Cuarón: he also wrote the script.) My full review is here.

Dishonourable Mentions from 2013

I wouldn’t call these films the best of any year, but they caught my interest and emotions enough that I had plenty of opinions about them:

Honourable Mentions from Other Years

These films are disqualified because they weren’t released in 2013, but last year I really enjoyed watching:

  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (with Dame Judi Dench)
  • Quartet (with Dame Maggie Smith)

And yes, I may be secretly an old lady in a thirtysomething body.

Your turn! What do you think of the Golden Globe wins? What were your favourite films of 2013?

Catching Fire: Book vs. Movie

Catching Fire movie posterSo who’s seen Catching Fire? If you’ve read the book, how does the movie hold up? How does it compare to The Hunger Games (film and book)? Come on in and let’s talk!

Before I get into the spoilers, here’s a quick movie review: For me, the book dragged, especially in the first half, and the movie has tightened up the plot without dropping anything essential or feeling rushed. As with the first film, the addition of scenes showing President Snow and the new Gamemaker helps to explain some of what Katniss experiences – oddly enough, making the conflict feel even more immediate. Katniss does a bit too much weeping and screaming for my taste, but overall, Jennifer Lawrence does a stellar job again. Fabulous adaptation, wholeheartedly recommended.

(Note: I have not yet read Mockingjay, so I’m reacting to the film without knowing how the trilogy plays out. Please refrain from discussing Mockingjay in the comments, unless you mark your comment clearly as being a spoiler!)

Spoilers below…

What Got Cut

Because books are longer than movies, any film adaptation of a book has to cut something. The trick is deciding what can be cut while still creating a coherent story. Sometimes this results in an almost entirely different story, or else a film that rushes through without dwelling properly to give the audience the emotional journey they crave.

In this case, the film adaptation sticks very close to the plot of the book – even closer than the first film, which shows unrest in the districts even though in the books Katniss doesn’t learn about this until Catching Fire.

One major difference is that several events in the first half of the book are condensed or eliminated – her PTSD-induced nightmares where Peeta comes to comfort her are trimmed down to a single scene (two if you include the flashback while she’s hunting with Gale), her leg injury is skipped altogether, District 13 is barely mentioned, her personal grooming team is gone except for Cinna, and the idea of “talents” is also gone.

The elimination of Katniss’s supposed talent in design is no great loss, but cutting Peeta’s talent with art leads to a moment of confusion. When Katniss enters the training arena to show off her skills, it’s not clear that Peeta did the painting of Rue. That bit couldn’t be cut because it’s what incites Katniss to make the dummy of Seneca Crane, but if you hadn’t read the books, you’d be lost.

Other than that, trimming the first half works well – the montage of the Victory Tour hits all the highlights from the book and is still very effective. In fact, it is even clearer in the film that Katniss and Peeta’s attempts to stick to the Capitol-approved script only incited more discontent from their audience.

I didn’t notice much, if anything, missing from the film version once the Games started…did you?

What Got Added

As with The Hunger Games, the film version of Catching Fire adds the point of view of President Snow, letting us see more about his motivation and his interactions with the Gamemaker. (Though, critically, we are not privy to the motivations of Plutarch Heavensbee until the end.) This fills in some of the pieces that, to me, were missing in the book.

Catching Fire book coverFor example, when I read the book, I had a hard time buying that Katniss’s love life was really so important to President Snow. But with the movie, seeing Snow and Heavensbee talk about Katniss in her absence, Snow’s thought process is clearer.

She really has become a symbol of resistance, and if he kills her outright she’ll be a martyr, but he has to bring her in line somehow. The increased Peacekeeper presence, for example, is a direct reaction to the threat she poses. It’s meant to cow and deter, not only District 12 as a whole, but also Katniss specifically.

It’s also chilling to watch Snow and Heavensbee plot Katniss’s downfall. Everything she tries is met with a counter-move. It reminds me of that XKCD comic about the definition of success. First of all, she contemplates running away. Then she realizes she can’t run, but she only has to get through the Victory Tour and pretend to be madly in love with Peeta until the tour is over. Then Haymitch explains that that’s not enough, they’ll have to pretend for the rest of their lives. And then Snow drops the bombshell: she’s going back into the Games.

Now that’s good plotting. All of Snow’s counter-moves are in the book, of course, but they’re explicitly shown in the film, and that change makes the tug-of-war between Katniss and Snow more gripping.

The Characters

Jennifer Lawrence did a brilliant job as Katniss in the first movie, and if anything, she’s even better here. Everything from her PTSD to her grief for Rue feels real, and the final close-up on her face would not have been nearly as effective with a lesser actress.

My only quibble is that she’s continually bursting into tears. Fewer tears would have made the remaining ones more effective. If I were directing, I would have had her cry when she learns she’s going back into the Games, when she and Finnick are trapped with the jabberjays, and maybe one other time, but that’s all.

As before, the acting for the secondary characters is fabulous. Most of them, particularly the adults, are a little flat, but at the same time they’re distinctive. Look at any line Effie or Haymitch delivers, and there’s no way that line could belong to anyone else. I even caught myself muttering “Oh, Effie” in fond exasperation at some points.

The new additions are also strong, and come across very much as they’re portrayed in the book. The other tributes are broken people, and it shows. I particularly liked Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee, who presents as a complete opposite to his predecessor, the foppish Seneca Crane.

A Few Notes on the Story

I also want to mention a few things about Catching Fire that aren’t specifically about book vs. movie.

My movie-going companion maintains that Katniss is weaker in Catching Fire than in The Hunger Games because she spends a lot of time dwelling on the love triangle. By contrast, I feel – especially with the book – that it’s Peeta and Gale who are dwelling and pining away, while Katniss stands aloof from both of them. What’s your take?

(Speaking of “weak”, here is a great point about Peeta and his masculinity.)

I mentioned earlier that I had trouble suspending my disbelief when President Snow takes such a close interest in Katniss’s love life. The other major plot point I had trouble buying was that so many of the other tributes would join in on the plan to keep Katniss alive, when it’s at the expense of their own lives. Of course, maybe I’m still underestimating the extent to which she’s become a symbol for everyone outside the Capitol, or maybe this is explained further in Mockingjay.

Your turn! What did you think of Catching Fire?