The weather has turned cold and many of us are preparing for the long winter – filled with hot cups of tea, ill-fated attempts to wear 6 sweaters at once, and spending snowy evenings with your dear friend, Netflix.
And that’s where I come in. I’m a firm believer that Netflix time should be quality time. Until their algorithm improves, I’m hoping to spare you some time searching through their catalog and point you right towards the good stuff. So in this edition of Netflix Hidden Gems, I present you with April and the Extraordinary World.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again. The US and Japan are not the only countries telling great stories with interesting and dynamic animation. Just a little digging can easily find top-level animation with dubbing performed by both gifted and well-known actors – April and the Extraordinary World is a perfect example of this.
A French-Belgian-Canadian production, April and the Extraordinary World takes place in an alternate reality where scientists are disappearing. Robbed of their genius and technological discoveries, the world remains dependent on coal, wood, and steam. A young girl named April who lost her parents as child, strives to complete their work by recreating a serum that can grant eternal life. With the help of her talking cat, April discovers the truth behind the missing scientists.
I’m not sure I’m giving the story justice here because I didn’t want to give too much away, but I can say that it’s familiar and inventive in the best ways. April’s world is one that is both beautiful and ugly, shining and polluted. The adventure plot elements are energetically paced while the story still provides enough character development to allow the viewer to see the events of the story from differing perspectives. As I watched it, it reminded me of other period adventure stories like Tintin or Indiana Jones. But this time, our hero is a lady…and well, that’s pretty awesome.
The visual style is much like the imaginary world in which it takes place – gorgeous and off-putting at the same time. Styled after Jacques Tardi’s work, the characters have exaggerated features unlike the large-eyed designs you see in major American and Japanese studios like Disney or Ghibli. Instead, main characters have oddly large noses and tiny eyes that almost seem like they were just hastily added at the end. And yet it all works. The expressions remain clear and have a subtlety that I think can be hard to find in animation in general.
That isn’t to say this film is perfect. With a strong cast featuring Susan Sarandon, Paul Giamatti, and Tony Hale, I was surprised that there were a few times when the delivery felt stilted. Whether this was the result of dubbing over the original French or just my own perception, there were some moments when it managed to take me out of the film a bit. It did cross my mind that it might have been a stylistic choice to mimic the delivery and style of acting in classic films, but it wasn’t always consistent enough to make that clear.
Overall, I would argue that this film is a breath of fresh air and a great alternative for those looking to watch something that is both high in quality and a bit different. It’s a solid bit of storytelling and world creation that it deserves your attention. So really, treat yourself and check this one out. There’s a great chance you’re going to enjoy it, and not just because it has that awesome talking cat in it.
Back in July, Smalerie shared a recipe for a hamburger. What it lacked in deliciousness it made up for in creativity and in its physical resemblance to the product that inspired it – the Cthulhu burger in Kristen Gudsnuk’s Henchgirl. At the time, she mentioned she wasn’t going to review the book; the focus of the post was the horrifying delicacy she’d created. Since then, we’ve discussed the book at Comicazi Book Club, and hosted Kristen as one of our guests of honor at LadiesCon.
So it seems like a good time to review the book and let you know that if you haven’t jumped on this bandwagon, you should.
Henchgirl is the story of Mary Posa, a somewhat aimless twenty-something. She’s a pretty typical young adult on the surface – she lives with roommates, has a bit of insecurity about her looks, and is stuck in a job that she’s not sure her heart is really into. On the other hand, one of her roommates has started manifesting weird powers, her sister is one of the hottest up and coming superheroes, and her dead-end job is working as a goon for Monsieur Butterfly, a supervillain. Even Scott Pilgrim’s life wasn’t quite this weird and complicated.
One of the real strengths of Henchgirl is that it handles some pretty heavy themes – identity, parental expectations, and free will – with a playful sense of humor. There are background jokes aplenty, as the Cthulhu burger attests. Mary’s roommate Tina develops a strange power that is at once humorous, disturbing, and ultimately world-threatening. There’s a scene where Mary is delighted to be mistaken for someone named Consuelo…until she realizes the person in question shares a name with her grandmother. Even some of the very darkest moments, such as this world’s mightiest hero and Superman analog, Mr. Great Guy, losing his beloved in a tragic accident, have humorous results.
This approach can be cynical and overdone (I’m looking at you, Garth Ennis’ The Boys), but in Gudsnuk’s hands it never teeters over that line. Instead, the humor serves as both a relief from the potential angst and also serves to underscore how deeply weird it is to be human, especially a young adult. Your problems in your twenties certainly feel momentous and world-ending – Gudsnuk just makes that literal for poor Mary. One of my favorite running gags is Mary’s fervent desire to be a taxpayer – a symbol of a “normal” life.
The other thing I love about this book is its unapologetic girlyness. A major plot point revolves around a magical girl in the style of Sailor Moon, Lovely Celestial Angel Amelia. Mary herself has a fondness for pink glitter, and of course, she works for a supervillain whose shtick is butterflies. Mary’s doesn’t worry about being tough or hard – she just does her job and if she can look good while doing it, she will. At the same time, no one in the cast is limited by their gender roles. Men love butterflies and women heft heavy objects with ease, and it’s never a big deal – it’s just how things are.
So, if you’re looking to read a complete story about the pains of growing up, complete with family drama, romance, and carrots, pick up Henchgirl. If you’ve already read it, tell me what you thought in the comments!
Warning: Possible spoilers
Welp, it’s been a long time coming. Back from when we all were like “Whoa” when the first Daredevil series came out, to when we were like “Ugh” at what went down with Danny Rand, the Defenders is now on Netflix.
Coming down off Iron Fist, I feel like Defenders could only go up. And it did, starting with the open credits, which remind us that the city is actually the main character here. And it’s more than Cap just calling back to being from Brooklyn every chance he gets, the boroughs of NY are more than a setting, they are the uniting factor for the team. As metaphors go it has the subtlety of a jack hammer, but that’s ok, I’m not really watching this for subtlety.
Defenders isn’t perfect, and I did wish there was more, but for the most part what Marvel does well is bringing together the huge cast of characters they have been building towards. It’s not just about the title characters, but also all those supporting folks. Almost all of them are there (though I do wish there was more Marci), even if some character appearances feel like checking a box. That said I’m not going to complain about one moment of Sigourney Weaver’s (and her outfits) screen time, so yes, sacrifices need to be made.
The main storyline focuses on The Hand, immortal clan leaders, and dragon skeletons, so this gives Matt Murdock and Danny Rand an easier entry into the main story line, while Luke and Jessica remain a bit more street level chasing down tendrils that show how larger schemes affect everyday people. This is really the heart of Defenders and having Jessica remain a 5-star general of snark gives you a touchstone back to what the regular folk might be thinking.
Some additional thoughts:
Claire Temple. She is the voice of reason and a pragmatist in a world with super strength, glowing fists, and bullet proof skin. She’s also the catalyst, the center spoke who brings everyone together. While her appearances in earlier episodes start strong, as the series continues she and Colleen are marginalized to emotional back-up for Luke and Danny. NOT COOL.
Luke Cage has the patience of a saint. He finally calls Danny out on his privilege, asking him what he did before he became the Iron Fist, has he really earned what he thinks he’s owed? And maybe that’s what will salvage this version of Iron Fist, giving him counterbalance. And remarkably, Danny seems to welcome this. Sometimes boundaries are good, so let’s hope Luke continues to play that role because when the series starts one of the biggest disappointments is that Danny Rand hasn’t grown at all. He still thinks everything is about him, and for some reason, Colleen is still with him. WHY??? And she even makes excuses for him when he finally does turn inward to examine what Luke says. WHAT???
By episode 3 we see the 4 heroes come together in what is now a ubiquitous hallway fight scene. I love this and I don’t care if they do one in every series. There are also some nice Power Man and Iron Fist feels.
Black Sky (or as I called it, Dark Afternoon) made Elektra more palatable for me. Previously I didn’t find her overly interesting, but this incarnation of her seemed to have more dimension.
Unlike Claire and Colleen, Misty Knight’s story progressed in some really big and important ways. She has a new look and will soon have a new arm. Will we see Control? God, I hope so.
Despite my earlier griping, this story is still about Danny Rand. He’s like the Key Master or something, and while the character is better in this series, he’s still the least compelling. Except for one moment…..that dumpling scene in the restaurant. Danny finally abandons all his super hero drama and just wants to stuff his face the instant some dumplings show up. I have never felt closer to the character than in that moment.
The next Netflix series is The Punisher, and while it’s in this universe, it’s not super closely tied to the Defenders. I think what I am looking the most forward to is right now is the next Jessica Jones season. David Tennant is still involved so what’s not to look forward to?
In my last post, I mentioned that there were some manga I was excited to share with you all. Since nothing else took my attention this time around, let’s talk about them.
I should note that I haven’t yet read a lot of manga – I really enjoyed Ranma 1/2 when I was just getting into comics, but that was nearly 25 years ago, when the selection of good translations in America weren’t as plentiful as they are now. Additionally, there are SO many manga, in every genre you can imagine. Separating the wheat from the chaff, or even just what stories might be interesting to you in particular, can be a daunting task. Luckily, there are folks out there who can help. Comicazi has a manga book club – I learned about one of these titles from their list. Another I learned about from my pal Morgana, who is the manga maven at Comicopia, a store with a great selection of manga. The last was given to me by my husband, who thought it just looked up my alley. So here are my three picks – don’t be afraid to ask your local shop for other suggestions!
Guys, I’m sure you’re tired of hearing us say this over and over again, but LadiesCon is getting closer by the moment. While I can’t speak for the other Ladies, I can say without a doubt that I’m feeling both VERY excited and VERY tired. Putting together this event is a constant adventure so I’ve been making a point to find time to relax, recharge my batteries, and seek out other lady-led geeky projects for both motivation and inspiration.
My latest attempt at “Chicken Soup for the Geek Girl Soul” was getting my hands on The Secret Lives of Geek Girls. Kick-starter funded and featuring over 50 writers and artists, this non-fiction anthology contains short stories and comics about love, being a girl, and being a geek. So um yeah, pretty much what the title promised.
Just one look at the list of writers and contributors and I knew I needed to own this book. Not only does it include LadiesCon guest Kristen Gudsnuk, but it pretty much goes on to read as a dream guest list for future Cons..or maybe as a list of guests for the world’s greatest cocktail party.
Many of the stories are well-written, relatable, and at times powerful. My favorites included Marjorie Liu’s haunting story about lost memories and dreams and Katie West’s story that cleverly compares the end of a marriage to surviving the apocalypse.
At its best, you can see yourself reflected in the pages of this compilation. While reading, I found myself feeling odd nostalgic pangs for when I first discovered some of my favorite fandoms and swooned over their adventures. Of when I would stay up late watching Red Dwarf on PBS and dream about meeting someone who would think my ability to quote Invader Zim on command was one of my best qualities. Corny, yes, but that’s the point. These stories run the gamut and cover not only the process of love, but how our own love of “geekdom” can make us who we are and help find who we want to be. To me, that’s the good stuff.
The trouble with all anthologies is that they can be uneven. Not every story is a home-run and not every story spoke to me. There were times when I just didn’t love the style or tone. There were even times when I wasn’t sure what the point was, especially if there were a lot of references to fandoms that I’m not familiar with. At worst, there were certain stories that felt too cute or trite, just another meet-cute starring characters who happen to be geeks. Meh. Time to move on to the next one.
Back in July another Kickstarter was launched for The Secret Loves of Geek Girls Redux – a more compact follow-up to the original book. If history repeats itself, there is a good chance the book will be picked up by Dark Horse for another wider release. Assuming that’s the case, I will be there throwing my money in its direction.
The Secret Loves of Geek Girls is a fun book with a great message. It’s also a great way to support female and feminist creators who are producing some very high-quality work. Who knows, your new favorite might be waiting to be discovered among these pages. At the very least, it might be nice to know that you’re not the only who fell in love while gaming or used stories to help you made sense of the complexities of growing up. Really, many of us have been there, so why not spend some time with your kindred spirits?
Hey all, I’m gonna review the Netflix show, GLOW. If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it and then let’s chat. There be spoilers here and I don’t want to ruin the show for you, ok?
GLOW starts with an acting audition that is too real even by today’s standards. Main character Ruth (Alison Brie) is at an audition; she reads a meaty part with passion, and conviction….only to be told, no honey, that was the male part, can you try it again reading the other part? The other part is one line, letting the boss know he has a call on hold. This sets the stage for one of the more meta themes of this show. Yes, it’s 2017 now, but really, how much have things changed? Continue reading
When I discovered that Gail Simone was writing a series for Vertigo, I was annoyed with myself for not knowing about it sooner. I mean, seriously Smalerie? Gail Simone. Original horror series. Get on it, girl.
So I did.
Then I wrote a review.
After Chloe Pierce loses her fiance to suicide, she embarks on a mission find out what could have driven him to take his own life. When all signs point towards self-help guru Astrid Mueller, Chloe will stop at nothing to find the truth behind Astrid and her mysterious organization.
When writing a mystery/horror story, the author has the difficult task of providing enough intrigue to keep the reader interested without making them frustrated. Clues need to be left behind like breadcrumbs or shiny pebbles leading you out of the dark forest. Clean Room handles this so well that I simply could not stop reading the first trade. At one point I was forced to put the book down, and it almost felt like the story followed me, hiding in a dark part of my mind and forcing me to think about it when I should have been concentrating on dinner conversation or watching an action flick with my family. I think reading this one as the issues came out might have driven me crazy.
From the description alone, I’m sure that most of you have figured out this book is for mature audiences. There are some VERY disturbing things that both happen and are referenced in this book. And while there were a few times when I felt that certain language and nudity might have been used more for the shock value rather than because it added to the story or said something about a character’s true nature, this story intends to strip characters down to their emotional cores and that is rarely pretty. But regardless of how ugly it gets, it still remains an engrossing read.
Mueller’s organization is an extremely secretive and organized one, providing more access and information as you go up the ranks. While this structure is common among many organizations, there is a lot here that reminds me of Scientology. It’s still early in the story for me to say if Mueller and her followers are dealing with their reality in the best way, but this book makes you really wonder what’s happening behind closed doors. This is true both in the story and in the outside world. What’s being kept from us? What do we have the right to know? And how high do the stakes need to be for you to give someone complete power over you? It makes you question authority and feel uneasy. And it’s very possible these questions might never really be answered in the story, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth asking.
Jon Davis-Hunt’s artwork is slick and detailed. His art and Quinton Winter’s colors match the writing well and create a really creepy and stark environment. This is especially true when we get the contrast between the Clean Room itself and the outside world. I will admit that there were a few times I felt that the characters seemed too stiff, but it still kinda works once you start to understand what’s really happening in the story. Without giving any spoilers, I think it’s safe enough to say that what you see on the surface is not always a reliable tool for truly understanding the world of this book.
As for the monster factor, I found them to be suitably creepy. You know when you run across something that’s just spooky or gross enough that you need to share it with someone? To either validate your feelings or just to make someone else shudder? Well, let’s just say there were a few times I found myself showing a page to whoever was unfortunate enough to be in the room with me.
It’s great to see Gail Simone writing, well, pretty much anything.
The story builds, feels satisfying enough to keep you reading, and I defy you not to run out and get Vol. 2 immediately.
Hopefully, you already saw Wonder Woman if you are reading this. If not, you may want to bookmark this for later because – spoilers.
Before I even get into the movie itself, it’s almost impossible not to talk about the discussion leading up to Wonder Woman. For women in Hollywood and women characters, there was a lot riding on this one film. That’s largely because the reality is that women don’t get the chance to fail like men do. One dude does a bad thing and it’s #notallmen, but women don’t get that luxury. If WW is considered a failure by the industry it’s “women heroes can’t carry a movie”, or “women can’t direct superhero movies.” Never mind the sub-par records of some other male-centric superhero movies (Batman v Superman, Daredevil, Punisher), these directors and characters all got second chances. I know I don’t feel confident that women are afforded the same luxury, so Diana and Patty Jenkins carried a lot of their shoulders. Thankfully I don’t think we have to test this theory with Wonder Woman. While I didn’t feel it was the best movie (I’m not sure anything can dethrone Fury Road for me), it was a good movie – you know, for a movie about a woman hero written entirely by men.
I haven’t been shy about the fact that largely the DC movies haven’t been for me. It’s a stylistic opinion, but I have generally felt these movies lack joy and color. Wonder Woman tries to buck that trend…at least at the beginning. Themyscira is beautiful, full of cool blues, crisp green, and shining gold. It’s the world of man that is drab, and drags us back into that standard DC color palette. The movie is essentially an origin story. As WW’s origin is less known than her male counterparts this makes sense. And as a character more steeped in traditional myth, this gives an opportunity to explore another part of the DC Universe, especially for those WW fans who don’t read comics.
There was a lot that was good with this movie. First, the Amazons. My main disappointment with them was that they were only in a small part of the movie! While there could have been some more diversity, as someone who will soon be part of the over 40 set, it was nice to see that Themyscira was not filled with young waifs. Nor were the older women covered in overflowing gowns or caftans that hid their bodies. The Amazons were shown as strong, with scars, or marks out in the open.
Diana herself is very much a fish out of water for the majority of the film but remains self-assured and formidable. I’m not gonna lie, the No Man’s Land scene was powerful, and that’s because Diana looks powerful. I believed she was unmovable, and then able to move forward despite what was being hurled at her. It’s maybe a little heavy-handed in terms of metaphor, but I don’t care. For me, it worked. There were some other interesting takes on common tropes. As The Red Menace overheard two women in the bathroom discussing, the typical make-over scene was flipped on its head as Etta Candy (MORE ETTA!) is tasked with making a beautiful woman more dowdy, less distracting to men. You know, so they can continue planning the war and whatever. Thank God she wasn’t wearing yoga pants or leggings, society would have come to a standstill.
My biggest disappointment is the reveal that Diana’s strength is based in the power of love – here’s a trope I would like to see a lot less of! While I get what they are trying to say, having this reveal of her ultimate strength comes right on the heels of Steve Trevor’s death (yeah, he was totally fridged) made it feel more like romantic love, and an utter cliché. I felt the initial scene where Diana first reveals herself as an Amazon and crosses No Man’s Land (I see what you did there), is a much better characterization of her values. Diana’s strength lies in compassion and despite being a god, in her humanity. Compassion, of course, is a type of love, yes, and we see this play out in how Diana rescues a village no one else thinks is worth the time. But the moment where she “seizes the sword” of her own power was too wrapped up in her feelings for Steve, and given the romance angle, that he could be seen as an avatar for the human race gets overshadowed. Diana’s story and origin shouldn’t be based on her love for Steve, but rather in the fact that her compassion is what drives her decisions.
All that said, I think this movie is doing what it needs to do. It is proving that women heroes and directors (let’s get some women writers in there too) can carry a big budget movie. And more importantly how exciting is it for kids of all genders to have Diana be one of their first exposures to heroes? It’s pretty dang great.
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):