Friday, June 8, 2018

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Like the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, "Murder on the Orient Express" is destined to be re-imagined by every new generation of filmmakers for centuries to come. Each interpretation will bring its own stamp of individuality to the project, as seen through the lens of the current culture. Whether an individual remake will survive the test of time remains to be seen, however, as long as it stays true to the timeless story, it should do well.

(This review is spoiler free. If you have not seen the film or read the book you may still safely proceed.)
20th Century Fox

The story's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness--the sheer size of the cast, each character of which matters intensely in the narrative tapestry. The twist hinges on the numbers, which means that a faithful adaptation cannot eliminate anyone from the cast, even though they can make changes to character specifics. The easiest way to solve the problem is also the most delightful--and the most lucrative: cast a name brand actor in every role.

The 1974 version of the film featured names that are still remembered greats today, including Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave and Ingrid Bergman. The 2018 cast is no less stunning, and even if our grandchildren won't recognize every name the way we do, they will still know a decent number (if only because Disney will market their properties to infinity and beyond.) Yet each actor on this list earns their place, imbuing each character with distinction and pathos worthy of remembrance. Michelle Pfeiffer, in particular, delivers a pitch-perfect performance.

Kenneth Branagh's Poirot, although grayer and thinner than typically imagined, is also well done. However Branagh deserves double kudos, as he not only delivers a good Poirot, but also a beautiful film, both visually and emotionally. Nearly every frame of the film looks like a portrait, and every possible angle of the train is utilized to support the narrative in a way that is interesting but not distracting. Without giving away the twist (for those of you who, like my husband, have not yet been spoiled), I will say that the ending lands soberly, leaving one with a great feeling on contemplation and reflection. Like Poirot, we don't feel we can judge, and yet it is an ending one cannot help needing to analyze.

Cultural lens is a phrase I used earlier, and I will say it is clear that this is a film of the present times. The film, like adaptations before it, must set up Poirot's genius for those who are not coming off of Christie's previous novels starring this detective. Michael Green, the screenwriter, chooses to set Poirot's entrance in Jerusalem, 1934, with a crime centered around a priest, a rabbi, and an iman. Poirot solves the puzzle with careful aplomb, and so does the rest of the film weave a diverse cast into the narrative without upsetting the historical accuracy of the period.

For those of you who have read the book, yes, there are a few changes to character backstories in a few places, and a few switches of motivations. Yet, going into this film as someone who knows the story very well, I felt each substitution was faithful to the intent of the original, while serving a more accessible purpose to modern film-goers. And, in a couple of cases, the motivations were actually nicely deepened.

We live in a culture that has put every possible twist on murder shows, setting them against every possible backdrop in every possible drama. While "Murder on the Orient Express" features a fantastic reveal, it nonetheless features an ending that brings us back to the sober truth--Murder is evil, and it ruins every life it touches. Justice may not bring peace, or closure, but it does make the world a safer place.

Whether you know nothing about Agatha Christie, or whether you have every one of her books on your shelf, if you love a good mystery, you need to check out this adaptation of "Murder on the Orient Express." And while I'll always encourage you to read the original book, this film is definitely a worthy way to experience the tale.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Once Upon a Time: The End and the Begininning

Almost seven years ago I wrote: "'Once Upon a Time' is exactly the show fairy tale fans have been waiting for. It's got princes, princesses, swordfights, evil witches, curses, prophecies, fairies, dwarves, mysteries, and yes, of course, true love." 

I hoped against hope that the show would go on to fulfill its promise, and indeed it did so (although at times it lost its way). There were moments, or even months when I felt nearly ready to give up on watching it, and then some twist, or good writing, or awesome costume, or beautiful character moment drew me back. It was a hot mess of emotions that made no sense at times, and it was a beautiful fairy tale that kept me coming back for more. It outlived its welcome for the final seasons, but even then, Season 7 had enough good stuff in it that I would recommend any fan finish watching to the end...even if you end up skipping parts of season 5 and 6.

(Spoilers for all seven seasons to follow)

My husband has seen most of the show with me, and ended up liking Season 4 the best (go figure) although we stopped watching again toward the end of the Camelot/Dark One arc in Season 5. I may just skip the rest of that season to show him the end of Season 6 -- I'm not sure. 

At the same time, the series finale brought back enough nostalgia for me to go back to the beginning again, to return to the days when Emma Swan was not a believer, and Regina was evil, and Snow and Charming were still looking for each other. For the days when Henry was tiny, and Ruby a regular, and nobody in a grave (for good). For the days when things were fresh with the beckoning of adventure. 

I love that we got this show, imperfect as it was. The costumes spurred my imagination and that of many fans who ended up giving me the chance to live my dream doing custom costume commissions (until ill health put that to rest). I loved getting to tune into fairy tales every week, retellings and old tellings. I loved the cast so very much and was happy to keep watching them even when things were mediocre. 

I didn't mind that everyone was related; I did mind that all of the decent men except Hook and Charming got killed. I came to accept the story they wanted to tell when they turned Peter Pan evil, and I went from hating Hook to loving him (although I still think some early issues were valid.) I wish we'd gotten more of Ruby and Dr. Whale and I will never stop mourning Baelfire. I loved some costumes, hated others, and couldn't figure a few of them out.  I think Mulan and Aurora got too little time on screen, but at the same time I'm sad that Anna and Elsa never came back (the Frozen arc wasn't perfect, but the actresses playing those women were). I still think Mob Boss Bo Peep was weird, the Wonderland spin-off crazy and wonderful, and have all the mixed emotions about Rumbelle. 

In short, like most of the fandom, there was no way they could make a show that pleased us all, yet they did make a show that, despite controversies and ranting, still elicited deep loyalty and love and made it through seven seasons. They even got a remarkable number of cast members back for the series finale, which I think goes a long way to show what kind of an environment this was for the actors and crew. 

I am really going to miss getting a regular dose of fairy tales on my screen. I'll miss the hope in the darkness, the costumes and the characters, and the flight of imagination we got to take every week. At the same time, we got not one but two serious closure finales, which I think is pretty fabulous. Although I wouldn't hate a spin-off show about certain side characters, I am fully at peace with the main story of the Charmings, Regina, and Rumplestiltskin being finished for good.

Thanks for the adventures, OUAT. I definitely will never forget you. And, if I'm ever blessed with kids, I'll be passing on your stories (or most of them) to a new generation of fairy tale lovers.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Instagram and Simple Joys

I came to Instagram from the geeky world of Tumblr. I thought that Tumblr was *my* place on the internet. Geeky memes, fanfiction, and a pleasant mix of photos and text. Yet there was tension and stress on Tumblr that had begun to make the internet a less pleasant place to be. I’d begun to think that this was just how social media was, since Facebook had become a similar sort of place.

When I got my first smartphone, it only took a few months before I ventured onto Instagram. I was so prolific on Facebook that I first thought that Instagram would be rather redundant. Yet I decided to give it a try and have been hooked ever since.


I keep pondering this. I think there are a lot of reasons. One is that, despite being a writer, I am an intensely visual person. I LOVE photos with a deep and intense passion. I love seeing photos from people I love, and I adore seeing beautiful pictures, inspiring pictures, and especially photos of the creative process. Once I found the sewing world on Instagram, I fell head over heels in love with the platform.

But it is more than photos that I love about Instagram. It is the aura of positivity. I’ve been on Instagram for several years now and it has been, overwhelmingly, an encouraging and positive experience. I’m sure there are circles on the platform that are negative and factional, but overall I believe the way the app works lends itself toward celebrating beauty, of all kinds. (And I include the beauty of *real* life, #nofilter, #messyroom, #nomakeup in that.)

Social Media photos have come under a lot of fire in recent years and for good reason. An excellent example is the new “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” movie where an early scene shows a teen staging a photo that is supposed to be just a snapshot of ordinary life but clearly isn’t. We want to put our best foot forward to the world. It also, clearly, facilitates an idea of a ‘perfect life.’ One can get the sense that everyone else lives in a rosy, Pinterest-perfect world.

This leads to a growing self-awareness and introspection of the way photo sharing online works. Sophia Kinsella wrote a funny and critical book called “My Not-So-Perfect Life” that beautifully and scathingly dissects the weaknesses of the media—but ends with an offer of a better way: namely, to be honest about every aspect of our lives.

I’ve tried to be conscious about this in my own media. Being chronically ill, my life is so very far from perfect. Sure, I won’t show the pile of dirty laundry in the corner, and I may crop out the very worst of my facial acne, but I try not to shy away from showing the roughness around the edges. I’ve always been my own advocate for my deafness, and I’m trying to be one for my chronic illness as well. Using Instagram to give glimpses of all the sides of living with chronic fatigue and chronic pain is important. I know I’ve certainly found courage and inspiration in the photos and stories of others in the same boat and I hope to pass on the benefits.

That is not, however, the only struggle that I have. The other week I came across a meme that attached each of the major social media platforms to one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Instagram’s temptation? Pride. Boy did THAT hit home. See, the other side of being chronically ill is that so much of what I do remains hidden. For me, sharing it on social media is a way to be, well, social with my creative endeavors! I know there has been great positive encouragement both for myself and in inspiration for others with many of my postings. Yet I would be naïve to ignore the temptation of pride which photos can clearly elicit from me.

And yet, even while pondering this weakness, I came across another strength of the platform, one which I believe feeds the sense of positivity that I’ve enjoyed from it.

You see, the past month has been tremendously difficult, emotionally. And I find, when I’m struggling with really difficult, painful things, I have a lot to think and say about the subject in my diary, my prayers, and to my loved ones. Now the past few days have been beautiful, and I’ve taken such joy in their beauty. Yet when I try to reach back and hold onto the beauty, try to write it down or share it, it is fleeting. I am taking joy in tiny things, ordinary things: the fresh growth of plants in my garden, the sense of wholeness and health just from doing a load of laundry or making dinner for my husband, the satisfaction from being able to sit down with tea and write and write and write, the laughter at the latest escapades of my puppy. I can capture a little bit of this in these sentences, but repeating them over and over, every day, would get redundant.

And yet…when I share pictures on Instagram, it captures these simple little joys. Maybe there is some redundancy, but the visuals capture a poignancy, immediacy, and individuality that words alone cannot. And far quicker too. A simple glance passes on the joy, whereas a whole paragraph takes much longer to read without truly conveying the beauty.

Instagram, at its heart, is a place to share and celebrate the joys of life, of every shape and size. It’s a place where you can see the satisfaction and beauty of a simple cup of tea with the same poignancy as a breathtaking landscape. Indeed, the limited size of a smartphone screen means that, in some ways, the smallest things come through the strongest and have the largest impact on our emotions.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

When Mother's Day is "Not This Year."

Mother’s Day can be hard for many reasons. Estrangement, abuse, death…there are many factors why thinking about your mom might be difficult. Or maybe you are a mom who lost a child. Or maybe you want to be a mother yourself, but for whatever reason, you are not.
I fall into the last category. This probably won’t come as a surprise to many of you. After all, chronic health in general, and endometriosis in particular, are significant barriers to parenthood. But Nathan and I have been married four years, and I am turning thirty very shortly. My biological clock is ticking away hard, and my heart is grieving.
This past year we have watched as post after post on Facebook, message after message, conversation after conversation, have turned into pregnancy announcements. And while we have deep joy for our friends and the new lives they are bringing into the world, each new pregnancy and birth feels like a death knell in my own heart. For not only is it a reminder of what we don’t have, but it is another set of friends moving on to another stage of life. And however much we might work to maintain the friendship, there is a drastic difference in having children and not having children, and how it affects everything. Getting married can change friendships, but I think the addition of children to one half of the equation but not the other has the potential to be even more so.
Both Nathan and I have felt a call to parenthood from a very young age. We both worked as nannies, and we both have always taken a great delight in connecting with our young relatives. We absolutely adore our nieces, nephew, and godson.
We also deeply trust in God’s timing. We both have family history that had long prepared us for the possibility of an infertility struggle, and for the same reason our families are deeply sympathetic, understanding, and supportive. And we can see in our own lives just how God’s timing for the birth of a child is perfect and out of man’s control.
I trust God. I trust him so much, that even when I am crying, and I want to be pleading for a child, I still find myself wanting his timing more than my immediate joy. If we are to be blessed with a baby, I want the best for that baby, and I want God’s perfect timing for my child in our lives. At this point, I don’t know whether it will be a biological child or an adoptive one. I don’t know if it will be soon or late. I don’t know if it will ever happen.
It’s a lonely struggle. People don’t talk about infertility. I know very few people of my own age who have openly shared with me that they are in the same boat. And even when you do find someone, chances are that at some point one of you is going to become pregnant and the other is not. And then you are so, so happy for them, but once again you are left behind. Or you worry about leaving your friend behind and hurting them.

And the rest of the world...well, there are so many kind, loving people in this world, who mean nothing but goodness, but still don't know what to say. Things hurt all the time, even when people are trying to be helpful and positive. Words, no matter how well-meaning, can cause so much pain. And so often I will just not talk about it, because I'm afraid of receiving more kind but upsetting platitudes.
I’m not hopeless. Indeed, at many times I am full of great hope. “Maybe this month…!!!” But I’m also really struggling. Many of the things one starts doing to try and achieve a pregnancy is adjust your hormones, so that an already emotional struggle becomes far, far more difficult to navigate. There’s a lot of crying. And there’s a lot of just walking around with a deep, deep sadness that you can’t talk about.
In part, this is a big reason of why I haven’t been blogging as much this year. It’s really hard when the biggest thing on my mind is so heavy. I don’t want to be a complainer. I don’t want to drag other people down into my depression and grief. But I also know how uplifting it has been whenever I do find another couple going through the same struggle. Whenever I feel less alone. Whenever I know that someone understands, someone else is also waiting on God. It helps so much. And so Nathan has encouraged me to write this post, in the hopes that it will do many good things, including some comfort of solidarity to anyone else going through this struggle.
It’s taken me five months to finally sit down and write this. I really didn’t want to do it. I really hoped that I’d have good news, not sad news to share. But I’d feel guilty every month I didn’t write it. I felt like I was missing an opportunity to be honest and shine a light on a very dark corner.
I don’t know if, or when, I will ever have happy news on this subject to share with you all. But if this journey continues to be a hard one, I may have further thoughts and reflections to share, as I feel they may be of use. I never, ever want this blog to become an outlet for complaining.
So. Mother’s Day. If you’re feeling apprehensive or sad about it, for whatever reason, know that you are not alone. And if you have any thoughts on how to navigate the day, please feel free to share.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Rook by Sharon Cameron

They seek her here, 
they seek her there, 
they seek that Red Rook everywhere...

This rhyme doesn't appear in "Rook" by Sharon Cameron, but it ought to. For this tale of a young girl seeking to rescue the unjustly condemned of of a dystopian future Paris is a clear homage to "The Scarlet Pimpernel" if not quite a retelling.

In this version, however, the role of the titular masked rescuer is played by a young woman (it's YA fiction, what else do you expect?). Sophia Bellamy, English gentlewoman by day, Red Rook by night, is devoted to both her family and the endangered citizens of France. Whether it takes a sword or a marriage proposal, she'll do whatever it takes to ensure that no one is left to prison--or worse. Yet she soon discovers that she is not the only one wearing a mask...

Initially, I picked this book off the library shelf because I confused it with another book of similar title. However, the moment I read the jacket blurb, I was hooked. I'm an old fan of "The Scarlet Pimpernel", always intrigued by things French and British, and fascinated by anything that lets me view history in a new light. In Cameron, I found an author with the same interest.

Although the world of "Rook" could be loosely cataloged as dystopian, this future world is not your usual sci-fi fare. After the shifting of earth's magnetic poles, all technology fails, leading many governments to declare machines 'evil' and require their citizens become self-sufficient. In consequence, the far off future of the Sunken City is no so very different than the 18th century of Baroness Orczy's tale of adventure and romance. And yet, set in a semi-wasteland where plastic artifacts like 'diet' bottles are highly prized, humanity has not changed so very much.

I appreciated the set-up for a future that mirrors the past, but was even more delighted to find the writing and plot well above your average YA book. There is a love triangle, sort of, but the real love story in the book manages to be sizzling, sweet, and sincere. Worthy to follow in Orczy's footsteps, in my very humble opinion.

So if you're looking for another Parisian adventure to tide you over until my next book is released, you may just find this worth checking out.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It's finally time for me to review "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." My thoughts may not be what you expect, but there will be spoilers. You've been warned.

You'd think that, being chronically ill, watching movies would be one good way of filling the time. And that is partially true (I'm superb at keeping up with TV shows!) However, due to extreme sensitivities, I cannot go to the movie theater without getting a migraine.  So our household tends to lag behind when it comes to seeing the latest releases. This has put a damper on my enthusiasm for film consumption.

However, there are some films that are still really hard to have to wait for. Most of the Marvel films. Some special ones like "Beauty and the Beast." And Star Wars. Always Star Wars. 

My husband works for a company that will typically rent out a theater on opening day of a Star Wars film and all the employees go watch it with their families. My husband comes home and we read the spoilers together. This sounds pretty sad, and it has been, but this time, I'm really glad that it worked out this way. Because while a large portion of geekdom sat on the edge of their seats waiting for certain revelations while watching "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," I already know what was (or more importantly, wasn't) going to be revealed.

Let me tell you, based on the uproar on the internet, I believe "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" is a much more enjoyable film when you can go into it without any expectations. Indeed, it is a beautiful film, easily the most gorgeous and visually striking of any film in the Star Wars saga thus far. It also is the most grounded, stepping beyond the realm of fairy tales and myth and into a landscape of flora and fauna that felt real and solid in a way that I have never before experienced Star Wars.

I really appreciated the many homages in the film. Whereas "The Force Awakens" was a heavy-handed retread of "A New Hope", "The Last Jedi" paid more subtle tribute to "The Empire Strikes Back" (and other films), by taking iconic set-ups and tropes from the earlier films and then reworking them in a fresh an innovative way. For one example: I loved how Crait looked like it was going to be another snow planet, but then was revealed to be salt, with each thrust of battle scraping away the white veneer to reveal the scarlet beneath.

This is not to say that "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" is a perfect film. It is easily the busiest of the Star Wars films, with too many subplots and perhaps more than the typical number of head-scratching logic holes.. Yet I can see how every one of those character arcs was important for the story that Rian Johnson decided to tell, and I'm not sure which of them I would have cut.

This is a personal opinion, you understand. For instance, I have heard that many people didn't like Canto Bight, but I thought it did a great job of finally showing the audience a) the evilness of the empire on a personal scale and b) the range of gray among the citizens of the galaxy. The ride of the Fathiers brought a moment of true joy into an otherwise fairly dark film that was greatly needed. It reminded us of what our heroes are fighting for.

I know people argue about Poe, and Poe's arc, and Haldo's secrecy, and who was right--and really, it all makes a very interesting conversation, doesn't it? Rebels, by their nature, are breaking the rules. But what rules do we still need in order to actually function? (Some, apparently, since breaking radio silence was disastrous...) To cut just Haldo as a character is perhaps the one edit that would interfere with the overall film the least, and yet, you'd lose that magnificent sacrifice scene. Because Leia couldn't do it, she hadn't reunited with Luke yet, (and during filming, of course, they expected Carrie Fisher to be around to carry the biggest legacy role in IX). And if Poe had done it--oh how fans would have cried. Plus, you know Harrison Ford probably would have griped about it. Y'know. They didn't let Han go off young and heroically, so why should Poe get that kind of juicy end?

I loved all of Luke's scenes, this sense of reality and the simple life of a former legend. Everyone kept talking about how awkward the milk scene was, but gosh, when I actually saw it, it was just so short! And I just thought, "Well, Luke started off with blue milk, his final film should have blue milk too, right?" But mostly I loved the mix of grounded humor and conflicted conviction that made up old Luke. I could truly buy this as the Luke of the original trilogy, whiny farmboy to Jedi hero to disillusioned old warrior. He felt authentic to me.

And Rey and Kylo Ren -- their dynamic is the core of this entire trilogy, how could a minute of it be cut? That had to stay. (Whether they are going to fall in love or not, as I discussed after watching "The Force Awakens", I don't know. Kylo is definitely obsessed with Rey. Rey doesn't seem romantically interested in anyone. The only person I saw a spark of chemistry with was Poe, but Poe has chemistry with everyone, so that doesn't really count.)

I loved it all. And I can tell the filmmakers tried very, very hard to cut it tightly together, to keep all of the really good stuff and trim every bit of excess fat that they could. Unfortunate, for several scenes could have used just a little more time to breathe, to let us reflect...yet the running time couldn't spare it. Those seconds add up.

So it's not a perfect script, which means it can't be a perfect movie, right? And yet, I think "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" is the perfect film for this slot in the saga. It says, subtextually and blatantly, "the myth is gone. The heroes you adored are just people, and they are gone too. But that's okay. There are more people coming, out of which new myths are being born...and you already love them too. Trust us, and keep watching."

Some Star Wars movies, like "A New Hope" and "The Force Awakens" are funny and entertaining and make us believe we can do great things while laughing through them. Other Star Wars movies, like "The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Last Jedi" subvert expectations, reveal uncomfortable truths, and make us ponder new ways of seeing the world. "The Last Jedi" may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I am personally quite happy with it as the eighth installment in the Star Wars saga.

Now here's hoping that the yet untitled Star Wars: IX strikes a good balance between the different strengths of VII and VIII and delivers the strongest film yet!

Friday, March 2, 2018

Surgery Recovery Update

I am not sure that I've ever entirely missed a whole calendar month since beginning this blog. I hope I didn't worry anyone by taking so long to post this update. I've made a few updates on instagram and Facebook, so hopefully anyone who got concerned check those out!

Only time will tell if the surgery was completely successful, but right now I can say it was dramatic. They discovered stage 3 endometriosis, which is widespread endometrial cells throughout the pelvic cavity, as well as some organ adhesion and scarring. My doctor is extremely hopeful, and I have to say, I can't remember my abdomen feeling so clear before.

I feel extremely blessed to have a great support system of family and friends supplying help and prayers during this difficult time. I know many women suffer Endometriosis and other similar conditions and lack support systems, so I don't take a single bit of this help and support for granted.

There is other health stuff going on too, so my recovery is (surprise surprise) taking quite some time.It's going well, just long.  I ended up in the ER briefly and got an infection, but that all healed up well. Mostly I'm just tired, and limited in what I can do. Even though I know this is all for the better in the long run, it is very difficult to feel even worse in the short run.

Right now I'm still extremely exhausted, and still on pain meds. I'm waiting to reopen Whimsical Kitchen and return to writing when my thinking and emotional tolerance are at a higher, clearer point.