NB: This post will contain spoilers for both Margaret Atwood’s novel and Hulu’s adaptation of it through episode 3. It also assumes familiarity with the basic plot of the book.
I have a confession to make. Despite being a feminist of a certain age, I had never read Margaret Atwood’s story of women living under an oppressive patriarchal regime until last week. The Handmaid’s Tale was forever on my to-read list, but somehow it never quite crept to the top. But with Hulu’s adaptation coming out and the state of the world being what it is at the moment, the time had finally come.
Having read other Atwood and found it a bit of a slow burn, I was a bit surprised to find the novel compulsively readable, despite being incredibly bleak. I finished it in two days, marveling over the eerie and disturbing parallels in our current sociopolitical climate and delighting in Atwood’s prose (and spot on description of Harvard Square). The book is a damnation of the power dynamic between men and women, of course, but it touches on so much more than that – the way that fear causes us to exchange freedom for the illusion of safety, the damage of white supremacy, religious hypocrisy, and the pain of post-traumatic stress disorder. I was interested to see which of these would surface in the series – I knew going in that they’d removed the race elements, but what else would change?
Let me start by saying that, after watching the first three episodes, the show overall is incredibly well done. There are certainly changes and updates, both major and minor; some I agree with and some I don’t. But on the whole, the creative team has done an amazing job of setting the right tone and message. Like the novel, the show makes liberal use of narration and flashbacks, though it rearranges the timeline of the entire novel. The flashbacks help establish both how new and foreign the position of women in this society is, and how they struggle to survive it. As Aunt Lydia helpfully reminds the handmaids-to-be in the Red Center, “Ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not feel ordinary now but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.” Women aren’t used to being chattel anymore, she’s telling them, but in a few generations no one will remember another way.
The show also makes excellent, unnerving use of music. Most of it is instrumental, humming quietly in the backgrounds of scenes, imparting an air of menace and tension. However, when a song does come to the forefront, they are often even more jarring – a combination of 80’s classics, remakes of the same, and newer songs with similar new wave sounds. This choice both nods to the book’s original time and setting, while providing a creepy counterpoint to the nearly Colonial-style dress and mannerisms of the future it depicts. It’s a reminder that although it may look like the past, it’s the near future we’re watching.
The actors also give excellent performances. You can feel the strain in every interaction our narrator Offred (Elisabeth Moss) has with other characters in the present day scenes – no one is saying what they mean, no one can be trusted, and kindness always has some sort of strings attached. You can see it in her face and body language. This tension is complemented by the total ease in her memories of her former life before the government takeover. Her scenes with her best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) are particularly good – you feel their closeness, and how they’ve influenced each other’s lives.
With all of that said, the show makes a few changes that I don’t entirely agree with, changes that affect how we see Offred and the other women in relation to each other. Keep an eye out for part two, where I’ll explore those changes.
Have you been watching The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu? What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
French animation isn’t something that’s on a lot of radars in the US. With major houses like Disney, Pixar, Illumination, and Dreamworks (and even Ghibli for a bit) taking up the major real estate in theaters and awards shows, it can often seem surprising when a quiet French animated film starts to get even a little recognition. And when it gets nominated for an Oscar, chances are quite good that the film is going to be worth your time.
When I saw that the English dub of Ernest and Celestine was available on Netflix, it was a no-brainer. The only choice I needed to make was what type of tea to drink while watching.
Based on the book by Gabrielle Vincent and made on a shoestring budget, Ernest and Celestine tells the familiar story of two unlikely friends who manage to create a home and family together. It’s familiar, yes, but it’s also warm, sweet, and perfectly crafted.
Celestine is a young mouse living beneath the streets of a city inhabited by bears. Each night she sneaks into town to steal the teeth that young bears leave under their pillows for the Mouse Fairy. These teeth are then used by other mice to repair their own damaged and missing teeth. Sadly, she’s not great at her job and the dentist she works for threatens to fire her if she doesn’t improve. Desperate to make her quota, Celestine gets caught in the city above and finds herself in the paws of Ernest the bear.
First things first, the animation is gorgeous. With hand painted watercolor backgrounds and matching Flash animation, the soft tones result in a visual style that is extremely enjoyable to look at. Everything feels soft, cozy, and dreamy. It’s a children’s book come to life with mice scurrying across pages and bears quite literally lumbering around. Yes, it’s very cute, but it’s never cutesy or sickeningly sweet. The tone and the stylistic animation complement each other, and it works just as well during the darker moments as it does during the lighter ones.
Additionally, this movie is funny. It’s hard to explain why, but there is something about the slapstick and physicality of the characters that made me smile a lot. The timing and pace never feel heavy, so when a character trips or runs into a wall, the audience is given just enough time chuckle without feeling as though the movie is waiting for you to congratulate it on how clever and funny it is.
Lastly, the voice acting in this film is great. The cast is filled with distinguished, talented, and familiar names like Forest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall, and Paul Giamatti. Celestine herself is voiced by Mackenzie Foy, who does a charming job of making Celestine both empathetic and brave.
So, go ahead and add Ernest and Celestine to your Netflix queue and maybe someone other than me will start gushing over it to her friends and online. Hey, it could happen!
Already seen Ernest and Celestine and looking to expand your horizons when it comes to animation? Specifically French films? Here are a few recommendations (many of which can be found on Netflix):
Much in the vein of our Netflix Hidden Gem series, this week I’m branching out to include Amazon Prime. Why you may ask? Simple. I want to talk about Studio Ghibli!
Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter (Netflix Original, Studio Ghibli)
Based on Astrid Lindgren’s novel, this series tells the coming of age of Ronja, the only daughter of a robber chief growing up in medieval Scandinavia. When Ronja becomes old enough to explore the forest on her own, she discovers that a rival robber clan and their young son are living quite close by. The two strike up a friendship, regardless of their parents’ wishes.
Photo: Amazon, Studio Ghibli
I was very excited when I heard that Ghibli was going to be releasing this series on Amazon and I started watching it not long after it was available. But here it is almost 2 months later and I’m only just getting around to talking about it. This is because it took me a long time to both finish watching it and even longer to decide how I felt about it. So, for the sake of this review, I’m going to simplify things. For better or worse, here’s what I thought. Spoiler alert: it’s kinda a mixed bag.
I’ve been writing a lot about zombies lately, so I was going to change it up this month and write about some great comics I’ve been reading. But then I read this strange review of the new Netflix Original Series, Santa Clarita Diet, (SCD) from Esquire by a woman named Katie Van Brunt, and frankly, it demanded a response.
Talking about feminism can be a complex issue. Over the years, there have been different definitions and movements, but put most simply it can be distilled down to the belief in equality between men and women and the rights that go along with it. It’s not a new concept, and it serves as a backbone for the very blog you are reading right now. So when an author is harassed off Twitter for writing a character who wears an “Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda” t-shirt on the cover, I made it a point to not only read Chelsea Cain’s Mockingbird comic, but to also review it for you guys.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time focusing on the Twitter incident, except to take pleasure in the amount of support Cain received from the comics community. It brought a lot of attention to a book that in many ways had been under the radar. As a result, it shot to number one on Amazon and I got to discover one of the most unusual books I have read in a long time.
[Updated January 9, 2017]
Chewing Gum will have you laughing, squirming, and nodding in that “Yeah, I know how that goes” kind of way. The comedy — created by, written by, and starring Michaela Coel — follows Tracey, a 24-year-old woman discovering how awesome and awkward sex can be.
The 6-episode first season originally premiered on the BBC’s channel E4 in October 2015. Thankfully, Netflix brought the show to U.S. audiences in the fall of 2016. Season two premieres on E4 this January (watch the trailer).
I stumbled across the series while browsing Netflix, and I quickly binged all of season one. Here are my top 3 reasons why Chewing Gum should be next on your list.
Confession time. I’m not a huge Christmas person. I like it fine; I’m not full-on a Grinch, but I don’t get overly excited about it. That said, there are a few traditions I enjoy, like cookie decorating, a yearly trip to to get my Drink on, and less-christmasy Christmas movies (it’s kinda like how I don’t care about sports but like movies about sports—eh, go fig). By this I mean movies where the holidays are in the background, not the main focus. I’m sure most of you know some of the more popular less-christmasy Christmas movies like Die Hard, Gremlins, and The Ref. In these movies, Christmas is the background character rather than the star.
This year, while we trimmed the tree (and yes, I do insist on a real tree because having a tree inside your home is cool), I suggested we delve a little deeper into the less-christmasy Christmas genre and watch Christmas horror! Am I a little one note? Maybe. But I watched these movies partially for you too, in the spirit of giving! So, get your eggnog or mulled wine, and buckle up those sleigh bells ’cause it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.
As the Ladies’ resident expert of movies and shows involving blood splatter, and since I did one of these posts last year, I decided now was a good time to prowl through Netflix for 3 more hidden gems to help get you into the mood for the best, or at least the spookiest (spoopiest?) month of the year. This time around I am going for a bit more variety, rather than just 3 straight horror movies. Think of them as choices in the spirit of trick-or-treating. Not one wants a bag full of just one kind of candy.
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
I love a good horror comedy, but it’s a tough genre to do really well. For me it works best when there’s a real love and understanding of what is at the root of some standard horror tropes. Movies like Shaun of the Dead, Cabin in the Woods, and Zombieland do this particularly well. Enter Tucker and Dale vs. Evil with its flipped around take on the “backwoods murder hillbilly” trope. Frankly I think it’s more fun to go into the movie with less knowledge of the plot so I’m not going to give you much on purpose. I didn’t read any summaries myself and that made each reveal more fun. Plus, it stars Allen Tudyk, who is just a delight in his role. A word to the squeamish: while this movie is surely considered a comedy, it’s also pretty gory. If that’s not your thing, this isn’t for you. Note: It’s been reported that a sequel to this 2010 original is in the works. After enjoying this one so much I’m excited to see where these characters will go next.
4 out of 5 bodies through a woodchipper
Wait, what? Tiny Doom is going to write something about an animated thing? Yeah guys, I am, I’ve got layers. Well, it’s an animated thing with blood splatter so I guess I’m not really going too far off task here. Curated by veteran Disney animator and Spanish writer-director Raul Garcia, Extraordinary Tales is an animated anthology of 5 tales by Edgar Allen Poe. We are talking about some pretty time-honored Halloween fare. Each tale has its own animation style, and the voice talent (ranging from Christopher Lee – in one of his last projects before his death, Bela Lugosi, and Julian Sands) makes this an almost hypnotic watch. It’s not scary so much as it satisfies a craving for the Gothic and the creepy. It’s probably best viewed in the evening or on a dreary afternoon.
3.5 out of 5 red death masques
They had me at “lady ghost debunker” with this one. A BBC film, The Awakening is a period piece in which that invokes both horror and mystery tropes. Florence Cathcart uses science to expose charlatans and debunk claims of haunting. However, each time she succeeds at her task it’s a bit heartbreaking because she is also hoping for evidence of the supernatural so that she can contact her partner who was lost in the war. Think, the Houdinis. When she gets called to a case in a boy’s boarding school more is revealed about her past, including some memories she buried regarding her upbringing. This movie is a slow burn of creepiness, with some big reveals at the end. I found the ending to be sort of ambiguous and sort of not, but I think it leaves things open enough that if you want to believe, you can. If you liked The Woman in Black, you might like this.
3.5 out of 5 creepy British boarding school kids
LadiesCon 2016 may be over, but we’re still thinking about what made it such a great time. One of the things that I was really excited about was the opportunity to speak directly to so many creators and artists about their original works. One of the creators I was most excited about was Mildred Louis, who writes and draws a comic called Agents of the Realm. I hadn’t heard of her work before the con, but when she contacted us about having a table, I looked at her work and knew I’d be paying her a visit. I had the supreme good fortune (thanks to a huge assist from Smalerie) of snagging the last copy of her book, which collects the first volume of an ambitious work which, luckily for me, continues online.
The premise is a twist on the classic magical girl genre of manga (see Crystal Cadets for a more standard version): five young women discover that they are the protectors of our world, which is being threatened by strange beasts entering our realm from a sister dimension. In the classic magical girl style, Norah, Adele, Kendall, Paige, and Jordan have special brooches that transform them into uniform-wearing warriors, each with her own weapon, powers, and attendant element. Through the magic of the brooches, they find each other and begin to learn about their powers, the other realm, and why and how they were chosen to protect the world.
The twist comes in from the fact that in standard magical girl stories, there is an emphasis on girl – the protagonists are typically tweens or young teenagers, and part of the transformation is that they become an adult version of themselves. They’re all Mary Marvel, if her posse were other girls instead of two boys and talking tiger. The Agents are all adults already – young adults, to be fair, but in college and of legal age. This immediately has different implications about how they make the choice to accept their roles and for how Louis is able to explore the relationships between the characters and the problems that they face. When you’re watching or reading Sailor Moon, you know that while Sailor Moon is presented as an adult, Usagi Tsukino is really still a kid, and her concerns when she isn’t saving the planet are appropriately childish. The Agents, on the other hand, are young adults, and they have concerns that an adult can relate to, in addition to fighting off giant spirit birds.
Another thing that makes the series great is the level of representation of both people of color and of LBGTQ folks. Most of the characters, including 4 of the 5 Agents, are not white. They also have a wide range of body types – and they keep them after they transform. They do not become “idealized” versions of themselves. This is a powerful message delivered with subtlety – that they are already good enough, already powerful just as they are. They are also beautiful, and feminine, without needing to all fit into the white, western ideal shape.
The orientations of the various characters are handled with that same grace – we’re shown characters who have loving relationships of all types, completely integrated into the story. It doesn’t feel like anything that’s being called attention to, a lesson we’re meant to learn – these are just people, and people have many different approaches to sex and love and romance.
Norah, Adele, Kendall, Paige, and Jordan feel like real people – they have strengths, but also flaws – and not just “oh, she’s such a klutz.” It’s apparent even in the first issue that Norah struggles with social anxiety. Paige is driven and ambitious to the point of being rude at times. Kendall is a peacemaker. It’s refreshing to see the trope of the “chosen ones” applied to characters who feel like more than a cardboard cutout.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the art. As you can see from the pictures here, it’s gorgeous and dynamic. There’s a clear progression as Louis’ style evolves – I think that she continually improves her panel layout and visual storytelling – but the technical excellence is on display from the beginning.
Do you read Agents of the Realm? Tell me what you think in the comments!
Recommended age: Teen to adult. The content is far from racy, but the website does have a trigger warning that suggests that not all of it might be suitable for younger readers.
You might like it if: You like realistic ladies kicking fantastical butt.
Bonus features: If you’re local, Mildred Louis will be at MICE! So if you missed getting a physical book at LadiesCon, you might have another shot.
As LadiesCon draws ever-closer, we here at the Ladies are working to find ways to make an enjoyable experience for everyone involved. We’ve split up into two locations – vendors and guests at 212 Elm Street, and panels and programs at Comicazi. (They’re only a 5 minute walk away from each other, never fear!) We’ve added pre-event lunches and after parties. And of course, we’ve been working on these posts to showcase our exceptional inaugural guests! This week we’re featuring multi-talented Ming Doyle.