Monday, January 23, 2017

The Adventures of Moana

Moana was everything that I look for in a Disney animated film, and pretty much everything that I might have wanted it to be.

I don't mean to bash on Frozen here because I do think that was a good movie, but Moana essentially fixed all of the complaints that I did have about Frozen, while otherwise going with a similar approach. Mainly I am talking about visuals here: the camera angles, the style and design of the animation, and simply whatever it is that you see within the frame.

Especially now that computer animation allows such realistic visuals, I always need there to be a reason that a film is animated instead of live action, otherwise you can just insert the talking snowman or the unicorn or whatever it is into a live action film using CG. Frozen had amazing animation on the characters' faces, but felt very visually sparse and uninteresting to me. Moana, however, was an animated film by design. The camera moves in its own unique style. While certain elements (like the water) are fairly realistic-looking, all of the visuals (from the characters to the landscapes and so on) have a cohesive and recognizable style. And there are sequences that only appear in animated films: the way that Maui's tattoos move and that one scene with all the cut-out figures. I love sequences like that in animation--and it seems like they've been disappearing from modern films, which I truly don't understand because, to me, this is the art of animation.

I see now why the music of Moana has been so well-received. It has a recognizable style, it's catchy, it always flows, and it perfectly moves along the story. New Disney classics right here. (The one possible exception is "Shiny," but maybe I just found that scene too long.)

Time to move on to story.

Moana shares some similarities with Pocahontas--except that it has less baggage because it depicts only one culture instead of two colliding. It's also perhaps smoother. As with Pocahontas, I love that this film shows respect for nature and even teaches children a little something: "Where You Are," for instance, describes the way that Moana's people use the different parts of a coconut for both food and tools. And Moana's love for the ocean and the ocean's recognition of her love (I, in turn, love the way the ocean kept lifting her back onto the boat) was both a sweet and important message, somewhat reminiscent of the "circle of life" theme from The Lion King.

What I also love is that Moana is not a rebel. I was talking about my thoughts about rebels in fiction a bit in my post on Mulan. Moana doesn't want to rush out to the ocean to spite her father or escape her life. She loves her father and she loves her island and she loves her people. I vastly appreciate that. Her love of the ocean is simply her love for one more element, and it's a love that she is eventually able to share with her family and her people, a love that she is able to remind them of. She restores balance, so to speak.

Moana is the title character of this film, but Maui is also quite central: they really are a duo, mostly equal in importance in the story. I didn't think that I would like Maui--but he surprised me. His character goes from appearing as a basic picture of arrogance to revealing a person who is searching, someone who is trying to fill a longtime void and to find recognition and to try and find that he is worthwhile. Though Moana is the one who physically goes on the journey, Maui is the one who goes on the emotional journey. Sure, Maui teaches Moana to sail--but Moana teaches Maui that he matters, simply because he is himself. It's a good theme that is often done in either a too flat or Hallmark way, but here it flowed well and realistically without appearing contrived or forced. Not only did I appreciate the theme; I also appreciated that it centered around a male character. Sure, I love a good female heroine--but let's not forget the male characters, either. Especially when it's a children's film, there ought to be both male and female characters for children to watch; you don't need to choose one or the other when there can be both.

The restoration of the island at the end of the film was very pretty, and Te Fiti reminded me of a dryad out of Narnia and the Pan, god-like figure in The Wind in the Willows both at once. She is Nature. And when you treat Nature with respect, good will come out of that.

I started this post talking about Frozen, so let's go back to Frozen to finish off, as well. People praised the theme of Frozen, for what it said about sisterly love and such. So I found myself wondering, after I got over simply enjoying Moana, what its central theme was. All the themes seemed like side themes rather than central themes--and then I realized that that's because Moana is primarily an adventure film. Sure, Moana learns some things along the way and teaches some things to others, but she basically just went on an adventure. And I love that. This film was an adventure, and I enjoyed the journey.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Hamlet on Stage

As you know, I've been planning my move back to Scottsdale for the past month and a half. This week I finally made it over, and you know how I celebrated? (Well, besides going to see Moana, which I hadn't had time to go see before and which I loved and which will get its own post later.) I went to watch Southwest Shakespeare's production of Hamlet.

Do you know how excited I was?

Here's the thing. They did Hamlet before--I think it was my senior year of college. But for this and that reasons, it wasn't convenient for me to go and I was a little disappointed by that. So when I realized that it was going to be playing as soon as I moved back, well, it was like they were putting on the show just for me.

That is, I didn't like Hamlet the first time I was forced to read it. I was fifteen, and there just wasn't much to draw me in. (By the way, I also think that Romeo and Juliet is a terrible first introduction to Shakespeare and I don't see why it's the first one that all high schoolers must read. Just because the characters are teenagers doesn't mean it speaks most to teenagers. But I digress.) I, however, kept returning to the play over the years. At seventeen, I read it again and my topic of analysis for my paper and presentation was Hamlet's attitude toward death. Given that I now had more experience in literary analysis and was all set to study literature in college, I was able to approach the play in a more mature way. It was getting to be an interesting play. And, of course, in college I read it one more time; we watched one or two film versions (including the fantastic one with Patrick Stewart and David Tennant). So by this time I was able to conclude that not all Shakespeare plays are the same and however hesitant I feel about much of Shakespeare's material (I don't usually like the comedies), I do like Hamlet (Macbeth is cool, too).

My, that was a long intro. Can you tell that I haven't been posting lately? All the words want to slip from my fingers, as if I haven't spoken to all of you in ages and must make up for the lost time.

Back to Southwest Shakespeare, the company I have adored ever since I saw their production of Pygmalion around ten years ago. (Before the play started last night, they talked a little about the upcoming shows and the high school program. They mentioned that people who don't see a live production before they get out of high school are I think 75% less likely to ever see one in their lives. Wow, what a statistic. And he's right: while I always liked live things, seeing that play with my high school is what spurred me on to keep an eye on future productions from this company.) David Barker directed, and William Wilson starred as Hamlet.

The stage was very interesting, and caught my attention right away. Ropes dangled from the ceiling in various curves and arcs, one shaped subtly like a noose so that you might not notice it right away. These are metaphors for the ropes tying down the characters. There are more ropes, too. There are ropes in their clothing--something that at first seemed odd to me but came to make more sense as the play went on. The types of ropes or the the way in which they're draped over or with the clothing varies for each character, expressing something about each one's personal bondage. There are also ropes that sometimes physically tie them, ropes that stretch from backstage and that the characters must struggle to stand or walk with. With the Ghost, these ropes tie him to the world of the dead. With Ophelia, they keep her locked in her father's will.

The directer made interesting comments in his director's notes. Basically, he wanted to cut down the long dialogue and keep the action going. He succeeded wholeheartedly: my attention was drawn in the whole time. Scenes go together with scenes, and always the emotion of the moment keeps moving and keeps developing.

Right away, William Wilson shows himself as a talented actor. He plays Hamlet as a man in grief--not just a depressed youth or a madman but someone who is truly grieving and overcome by that grief. Not everyone does that, but the approach makes sense (especially to me, with my memories of that paper I did about Hamlet's attitude toward death). Not only, however, did Wilson play the drama well; he also played wonderful comedy. Many of Hamlet's lines have such wit about them and Wilson also added physical comedy and various voices that all rounded out his scenes into a full range of emotions. He really did have me laughing and crying. I can't even describe how much I loved his performance.

Now we come to Ophelia, played by Melody Knudson. Ophelia is usually on the sidelines, the girl Hamlet had a fling with and then left behind. Not so in this production. Here Ophelia is someone you can actually see Hamlet falling in love with, someone who would fall in love with Hamlet. She watches his moments of anguish and is touched by his sorrow. She feels deeply, too, as he does. She ponders deeply, and her "mad" speeches aren't so much from a girl who went mad for love as companion speeches to Hamlet's. They're both not quite mad but distraught.

The rest of the cast was also good, though I haven't enough space to talk about all of them. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were hilarious as women and that casting choice fit in surprisingly well, even better than leaving them as men. I was a little sad to see Polonius die because he was a good actor and played well opposite Hamlet.

Another note on the production. Perhaps the most modern touch (other than the ropes) was the use of pauses. The actors physically pause while one of them speaks to the audience or to highlight a particular moment, such as the dread when Gertrude drinks from the poisoned cup. Sometimes the pauses are longer and sometimes they are short, but they all made sense for each moment and helped to highlight the emotion of the action.

The emotion. That brings us to the final bit. Very touching ending. More than anything, this particular production was about each character having to come to terms with mortality but also with judgement and redemption. They're the same lines that are in other productions--but everyone gives more or less emphasis to certain elements to move forward their particular focus. This theme was moving. You see Claudius there praying, the Gravedigger there making his comments about death, and Hamlet dancing around the topic of mortality from every angle. It really makes you pause and see this very familiar play as if you're seeing it for the first time.

Well done, everyone. Well done.

For their winter season, they're switching off between Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing. Given how much I enjoyed this one and given that many of the actors are in both plays, I might just have to see Much Ado, as well.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Why the Favorites Are Gone

I used to do monthly favorites posts at the end of each month--and you'll notice that I haven't done any in almost half a year. I was never certain if I was simply going to rework them, possibly just posting one every other month or maybe every season. But I never got around to it, and so now I think that such posts are truly part of the past for me.

In a way, I didn't have anything left to put in such posts. Instead of favorites posts, they were more like posts of things I had bought recently. The thing is, I use pretty much the same things all the time. If I'm happy with the same shampoo and conditioner, I'll keep using them for years until I find that I need to switch. The only other hair products I use are blow dry cream in winter and curl cream in summer (both from Carol's Daughter). I mainly just use the same Tarte makeup products, along with some Bite Beauty lipsticks. I don't buy that much new clothing, and often I buy it out of season so it isn't always very interesting to talk about it when I first get it. I've been drinking the same loose, bulk tea. I eat the same types of foods. And when there is a show or a movie I want to talk about, I usually give it its own post.

I just don't buy enough new products or enough of a changing diversity of products in order to have favorites posts anymore. And while occasionally I do want to share a new lipstick or eyeshadow palette, I don't have many words to describe such products. And I find that I don't necessarily want to share when I can or can't buy a new lipstick or perfume--or when I've been given something as a gift.

My tastes are changing, too, I suppose. It used to be fun to talk about trinkets--and now I feel like I'm wasting space by doing so unless it's something that I really want to talk about or I'm approaching it in a creative way. A couple of years ago, for instance, I did a post where I paired different makeup products with books. I would be open to doing more things like that (occasionally) in the future.

Photography is also a problem. Sometimes I want to share an outfit, to write about what inspired this outfit--but I can't get a good picture. I don't have the lighting or the angle. Or I can't take very good pictures of the products that I want to show. So sometimes that holds me back, too.

Why post about all this now, when my favorites posts are already buried in the past? Well, I felt like I needed some closure if I knew I was going to purposefully end a series. And I wanted to share that I might try a different approach if I do still want to share makeup I'm using, clothing I'm wearing, or food I'm eating. I do like to try and have a variety of topics on this blog--and lately I think I've been letting it get stagnant because my mind has been elsewhere. One of the things that has been taking over my mind's space is, of course, my upcoming move (which will be very soon now). Once I've moved, I predict that I'm automatically going to have more to talk about. I'll be reworking some of my habits, and I'll be going out to watch more plays and movies, and it's just going to be a restart for me in many ways.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Disney Princess Analysis - Part 8: Mulan

Click to read Part 1 (Snow White)Part 2 (Cinderella)Part 3 (Aurora)Part 4 (Ariel)Part 5 (Belle)Part 6 (Jasmine), and Part 7 (Pocahontas).

I've been waiting to get to Mulan: I love talking about her character. Admittedly, when I first watched the 1998 film of Mulan in theatres (I went with cousins, and I remember this because I actually went to see very few Disney films or films in general in theatres), not much of it stuck with me. I have no idea if I liked it or not or for what reasons; I just don't remember anything from watching it back then. A couple of years later, though, I had a Disney storybook that had a chapter on Mulan, so my familiarity with the story was based more on that brief summary.

I give all of this backstory because I wanted to say that when I finally watched the movie again a couple of years or so ago, I really enjoyed it and really appreciated Mulan's character.

When describing the movie to someone else, I called it a combination of Pride and Prejudice and Divergent. You have something of a marriage plot in there, but it's different. The plot isn't about Mulan trying to prove that she doesn't need an arranged marriage. The concept of marriage is simply the setting: in Mulan's culture and time, a good marriage was her way of honoring her family. So while "becoming a good bride" doesn't come naturally to Mulan, she tries her hardest and she does genuinely want to do well: she isn't a rebel. She's simply a person. We, as moviegoers, don't need to see Mulan rebelling against the system because we don't have her system anymore. A marriage plot/setting handled well and in the right balance for a modern audience and a modern story (I realize that this is an old story, but from what I understand Disney heavily adapted it, hence why I call it a modern story).

I must also give a note about Mulan's relationship with her family. I praised Belle's good relationship with her father. Mulan has a father, a mother, and a grandmother--that's gold in the Disney princess world, which is so often filled with orphans or stepparents. And she loves and is loved by all her family. Not that this needs to be the case with every story, but it is nice to have a character who comes from a loving home. Part of the story, true, involves Mulan's father's realization about who his daughter is and the fact that she is precious to him exactly because of who she is. He is a proud man, and Mulan's outspokenness was sometimes difficult for him to accept. But he always loved his daughter and tried to express his love for her. I appreciate this because, once again, Mulan doesn't need to rebel against oppression or painful family ties or whatnot.

But wait, you say, isn't Mulan all about a girl's rebellion against the system?

Kind of. But not entirely.

Here's where my Divergent comparison comes in. Like Tris, Mulan enters a completely different culture when she takes her father's place in the Emperor's call for soldiers. She trades her lessons in being ladylike for lessons in war. All the while, she tries to hide the fact that she is a woman from the other men. So everything that she has tries to suppress she is now letting go: she tries to be loud and outspoken and tough rather than demure and meek and gentle. And in doing this, Mulan thrives. At first, yes, she struggles, but that is because she has never had reason to build up physical strength. Shang gives up on Mulan. But Mulan doesn't give up on herself. She is persistent in her training and she keeps it up until she can stand side by side with the rest of the soldiers. The irony of the song "To Be a Man" is that Shang is trying to whip his trainees into shape by calling them girls and saying that he wants to make them into men--but Mulan is a girl and not a man and yet she is able to excel in her training as much as the men are. What Mulan does is what a person can do when she is simply trying to complete a task, with no one looking at her as being this or that gender but simply as one person within a group.

I'm going to go out and say that, to me, this is more inspiring than showing a female character who is already athletic and tough and good at fighting or whatever else. This shows that if you want to be something or to do something, you can do it . . . by working hard to achieve it. You're not automatically something because you want to be. You have to work, you have to train, you have to have drive, you have to have discipline. Mulan is inspiring because she works hard at tasks. (She worked hard to become a good bride, too, you'll remember. She just found that she was better suited toward battle training.)

So you see, Mulan isn't really trying to rebel when she pretends to be a man in order to join the army. For one thing, she does it to help her father: she sees that he is getting older and has already been injured in battle before. The other men have sons to fight for them; Mulan is an only child, a daughter. So she decides that she still must do this to help her father. She is acting out of kindness and out of the desire to maintain the family honor--not to prove that, as a woman, she can be a soldier. If everything had gone according to plan, after all, then no one in the army would have known that Mulan was a woman. It is only Shang's respect for Mulan allows her to walk away from the illegal act. Which brings us to an interesting point.

If Mulan were rebelling against something, you could say that it's represented by Shang since he's her commander. But she respects him--and rebels don't really have that respect. Mulan respects Shang for trying to serve the Emperor and train these soldiers well, teaching them strength and discipline. By in turn earning Shang's respect back, Mulan saved herself when her identity was discovered and Shang decided to let her go. And I think this is a more important lesson to learn than rebellion. Yes, there are some things we need to defy or try to change, but sometimes the way that you make things better is to respect everyone involved and to take your steps one at a time.

. . . And now I remember that I've left out one other aspect of Mulan's character: her diversity. Continuing with the tradition of Jasmine and Pocahontas, Mulan is not a European princess in the traditional Medieval setting. She is a Chinese character in China whose speaking voice is done by a Chinese American actress. Her costumes, then, move away from the traditional Disney princess look to reflect her Chinese culture--and her situation (that is, she has a soldier's outfit).

One thing more. Mulan is the first Disney princess who is not a princess in any way or form. Her father is not a king or even royalty. Her love interest, Shang, is not a prince or a king or royalty: he's just military. Yet Mulan fits in with the Disney princesses--probably because her story is a story of self-discovery and a story of realizing how to express that self to the world. Snow White and Aurora faced the evils of the world, but characters like Belle and Mulan have to start the quest on the inside, have to realize first who they are before they can figure out how to show kindness and courage towards others. Mulan receives a positive princess rating from me, making that two in a row.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Thoughts on the Sarah Trilogy

For whatever reason, my family always enjoyed a good 19th century film. The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Black Beauty, Little Women, and Oliver Twist, for instance. I think we were all discovering them together and that we all had an innate interest in that time period. One of our other favorites took place just after the turn of the century: the Sarah, Plain and Tall trilogy.

These are old Hallmark films--that is, they're from the 90's, which makes them old in comparison to the newer movies that play on their channel nowadays. And while most of those newer movies are trite to the point that I can't even watch most of them, Sarah, Plain and Tall is quite beautiful in its straightforward simplicity (granted, it was part of the Hallmark Hall of Fame series, so its production received more attention than that of a standard TV movie). Of course, it also helps that the movies are based on a wonderful set of books by Patricia MacLachlan, who helped write the film scripts.

There is a specific and recognizable tone to this story, in both book and movie form. At first it's pleasant and enjoyable, the story of a family on a farm--and then you begin to see so many more layers. The depth that I begin to see in this trilogy is so powerful, even more so because it's essentially just a simple children's or family story. For all the discoveries that you make along the way, you always know why there is the feeling of depth: it is because this story displays life.

In particular, the second installment, Skylark, speaks to me. As Sarah questions the choice she made to leave her home by the ocean to live on the prairie and comes to realize how much love she has for her new family, she reminds us of all sorts of life choices. Moving, not moving, relationships in the past and in the present, career changes, personal quests--and the seeking or finding of meaning. I suppose the question is, what fulfills you? What will make you wake up in the morning and be glad? What tasks will you be ready and willing to start on? What do you want to choose to spend your days doing? And why? How will that make you feel at the end of the day? Daily life--it is daily life that holds the power.

It is daily life that is the most difficult and the most wonderful. And it is through daily life that changes small and great, good and bad, come. So let's remember to focus on building our daily lives--in the many ways in which you can interpret that phrase.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Chemist

Just a couple of months before the announcement of this new novel, I was talking to someone about authors never finishing a series, like how The Host was supposed to be the first installment in a trilogy and eight years later doesn't even have one sequel. And then came the sudden announcement that Stephenie Meyer would be releasing the first in a new series--an adult thriller this time, The Chemist. Didn't we all kind of wonder what we were even supposed to think of that?

I guess I read a variety of types of books--I always think that I don't, but then I look at my shelves and I compare them to other people's and I realize that I do. But there are a couple of genres that I hardly touch. Mystery, romance, and thriller. I just don't read those genres. And the only book I can think of that I've read that was probably a thriller, Blink of an Eye by Ted Dekker, held my attention while I read it but failed to keep any good opinion of mine once I'd finished it. That's how suspense usually is for me: temporary. It doesn't hold more meaning for me, and I usually prefer my books to have at least some element of lingering meaning.

So I wasn't exactly excited that Stephenie Meyer was releasing a thriller. But she's one of the authors I've said I'll read anything she publishes (until I get disappointed by a book and change my mind, that is). I wasn't able to read the book right when it came out because I was reading other things first, which meant that I read it during Christmastime.

And that did rather bother me at first. During this time of year, I didn't want to be spending my time reading about being on the run, people shooting at each other, and various methods of torture. Add to that that I found the first thirty or so pages exceedingly boring: they're all about spy traps and gadgets and such. I worried that all 500-some pages would be like those first pages. Then I got to the torture stuff and I wondered why I was even reading this because it just really didn't seem like my type of book.

But somewhere at about that point, I started reading Stephenie Meyer again. A couple of characters reminded me of Ian and Kyle from The Host. And I saw in the elements of hiding and preparation pieces from both The Host and Twilight. Then the book started moving in toward the human element that is prevalent in all of Stephenie Meyer's work.

In the midst of all of the "action stuff" (which is the easiest way of putting it without writing out the plot), the characters became people. People with personal struggles and doubts and choices and individuality. That's what allowed the plot to move forward with some interest for me, and that's what kept it from being too much of a generic action story.

There isn't much else for me to say. I guess I did overall enjoy this book, although I didn't overly enjoy it, either. It still isn't really my genre, so I'm sure people who read more of this sort of thing will like it more than I did. It also says something, though, that I could enjoy a book that wasn't a type of genre I usually enjoy. So despite my lukewarm and brief comments, I do find that a success. (I also don't know how to talk about individual aspects of this book without simply giving away the whole plot, which is also why my comments are brief.)

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Untold Story of Rogue One

Here is my non-spoiler bit on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This was a good film and surpassed my worries about being simply "a war movie" by rooting everything in humanity. It's a good addition to the Star Wars universe. Oh, and other than one or two scenes, the 3D didn't really do much; The Force Awakens was beautiful in 3D but this one would've been fine in 2D.

Okay, now for the spoiler-riddled comments.