Monday, December 28, 2015

A Review of The Force Awakens

Erin: There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?
Anna: Yes. Let's write a post about it.

Introducing The Wood Between the Worlds' review of

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Image result for the force awakens

"That's one hell of a pilot!" Within the first few minutes of the film Anna had already decided that Poe - the resistance pilot - was her favorite character - possibly because he had an awesome x-wing, more likely because he was extremely attractive. It was especially cool when he tried to shoot Kylo Ren. It may have seemed like a rash decision - why blow his cover, but he had already sent BB-8 away with the map, so that wasn't in any danger. But think about it, he may not even know this guy who gave him the map - we really have no idea but since it seems like no one that important really lives on Jakku it's safe to say that he's never met this guy before now, and yet he's willing to risk his life to save him. Something else great about Poe was his acceptance of Finn - their somewhat brief friendship was a great part of the film. Of course, every Star Wars film needs a good x-wing pilot - maybe Poe will replace Wedge Antilles. Erin liked his spunk, and relationship with BB-8. 

"The droid . . . stole a freighter?" BB-8 was adorable - we liked that he had a strong personality even though he was a droid. For instance his interaction with the powered down R2D2 was the cutest. 

"Not anymore. The name's Finn. And I'm in charge. I'm in charge now, Phasma! I'm in charge!" Finn was cool because he had a different background than the typical Star Wars character. There was quite a few things that mirrored the older films, but a storm trooper going rogue was unprecedented. One of the things that made us like him was how much he cared about Rey and how eager he was to impress her. At the beginning of the film Finn is super freaked that he will have to return to the first order, but by the end of the film he volunteers to go back to the Star Killer with just Han and Chewy to rescue Rey. 

"So, who is the girl?" The question on everyone's mind. Erin noticed that every time someone asked who Rey was, the scene immediately switched. So, who is Rey? We have some ideas about that, and they aren't all logical. 
          1) Luke is Rey's father. 
                  For: The force is strong with her. She has an x-wing doll and helmet - which looks an awful lot like Luke's helmet. Luke's lightsaber called to her - a lightsaber that has been passed from father to son. Everyone seems to know who she is except for her. 
                  Against: It seems too obvious to be true. 
          2) Rey and Kylo Ren (Ben) are twins.
                  For: Kylo was very interested in her, and even offered to train her in the ways of the force. Han and Leia seem to really like her and know something about her. 
                  Against: If Kylo was sent to train with Luke, why was Rey abandoned on Jakku? If Han or Leia knew that Rey was their daughter they would've made a bigger deal out of it. 
          3) Rey is Wedge Antilles' daughter.
                  For: She knows a lot about piloting a ship, and has an x-wing helmet. Wedge was a very devoted member of the rebel alliance and made it through all three movies, he also isn't an obvious choice for Rey's father. 
                  Against: We just really like this theory.

Rey was a very strong character. She not only took care of herself - but she was smart and impressed all the people around her. Daisy Ridley did a fantastic job of portraying the force awakening within Rey. She had a very can-do attitude - and didn't plan on waiting for anyone to come save her - this is probably a result of surviving for so long on her own on the harsh planet of Jakku. 

"You're a monster." Uncontrolled and animalistic is a good way to describe Kylo Ren. He kept losing his temper and slashing things with his lightsaber when events didn't turn out as he would have liked. In the fight scene with Rey and Finn he kept hitting his side where he had been shot which was quite disturbing. Kylo's lightsaber mirrored his anger - it was very violent not only in color but in static. The lightsaber was constantly spitting energy, unlike Rey's which was calm and straight. 

Erin was impressed with little things throughout the movie which pointed back to the original films. For instance, she liked the random alien head that popped out of the sand to gawk at BB-8, as well as the scene transitions in the style of the old trilogy. That being said, there were moments that felt a little repetitive - like when they blew up the death star for the THIRD TIME. Erin's only criticism of the movie was that it felt a little too repetitive at times. But it was still great. 

Anna had no criticisms. Besides that Wedge Antilles wasn't in it - he's kind of her favorite character. (We don't know why . . .)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Merry Christmas

Just something to get you into the Christmas spirit. A Star Wars review might be on the way, but in the meantime, enjoy these highlights from Smeagol's upcoming Christmas album, with special appearances by Gollum:

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Winter - A Brilliant End to a Beautiful Series


Title: Winter (The Lunar Chronicles #4)
Author: Marissa Meyer
Published: November 2015
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends

Goodreads Summary: Princess Winter is admired by the Lunar people for her grace and kindness, and despite the scars that mar her face, her beauty is said to be even more breathtaking than that of her stepmother, Queen Levana.

Winter despises her stepmother, and knows Levana won’t approve of her feelings for her childhood friend—the handsome palace guard, Jacin. But Winter isn’t as weak as Levana believes her to be and she’s been undermining her stepmother’s wishes for years. Together with the cyborg mechanic, Cinder, and her allies, Winter might even have the power to launch a revolution and win a war that’s been raging for far too long.

Can Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter defeat Levana and find their happily ever afters?

What I thought: This book was a great finish to a fantastic series. I adore fairy tales and fairy tale retellings. I don't especially like dystopian novels, but this doesn't read like your typical dystopian novel. The fairy tale elements and the writing style lift this book above the others, it stands out. Meyer somehow introduces new characters each book, and still gives them all enough screen time and development to become main characters, and that's no easy feat with nine main protagonists. 

From this point on there will be spoilers.

Something I loved in this story was how much the characters had grown from when we first met them. Cinder accepts her identity and isn't ashamed of it, sometimes she even forgets she's a cyborg. Kai has gone from a prince to an emperor and understands what it means to lead. Scarlet has found bravery and courage after she thought she lost everything. Wolf has thrown off social prejudices and customs to be his own man. Cress is beginning to understand people and sacrifice, and what it means to put others above yourself. Thorne has learned he can be more, and that he does deserve love. Winter has found someone who loves her for who she is, crazies and all, and she has learned not to be ashamed of herself. Jacin is finally happy, and free to do as he pleases. Iko, has grown past her faulty personality chip, she isn't just an android, she's a person. 

One of the most fantastic things about this book is that it's not a glossy happily ever after for everyone. I mean, yeah, the main characters get their love interests, but they don't get out scott free. The final battle gives lasting scars. While Cinder gets off pretty well, this is probably because she is cyborg and most of her parts can be easily fixed, while others are not so lucky. Thorne is now missing two fingers which were shot off by Cress, and as a pilot that's not really something he can ignore. Cress was severely injured by Thorne, which has to give her some major trust issues and nightmares. Kai was forced to witness Levana's cruelty first hand. Winter has crazies that go to a whole new level, and Jacin has to deal with said crazies. And then there's Scarlet and Wolf. I'll go into more detail about them later. 

So, Levana's death was fan-freaking-tastic. Like that psycho needed to die. I was super happy when Cinder finally became queen, but even happier when she decided to make Luna a Republic. I think this really shows the authors grasp of politics and rulers. Cinder being the progressive that she is, would naturally take it one step farther, and help the people, because she herself understands what they feel. Living as a cyborg in a country that treats them as lesser citizens, and having seen the terror of the plague and outer sectors first hand, I think she understands that the people need to learn to govern themselves, no one should have power over an entire planet. 

Okay, now I would like to focus on a few characters. First Scarlet and Wolf. Not particularly sure why, but I find these two some of the most intriguing characters in the story. I love their connection and just the overall awesomeness of Scarlet's courage and determination. One of my absolute favorite parts of the book was Scarlet's interaction with the wolf-soldiers. Yes, she's terrified of them, but she's also an alpha and she knows what that means. One example of this was when a wolf-soldier growled at her, and she growled back. And then by the end of the whole plague fiasco she had them respecting her. All this because back in France she was able to see through the rough exterior of Wolf and treat him like a human. Okay, now to Wolf. Oh Wolf. He may be my favorite character, so the further genetic mutation he was subjected to almost killed me. I may have actually screamed out loud. I was horrified how could they do that to him, and then when Levana used him as her own puppet, my heart nearly broke. Here was a man who had lost everything as a child and been made into an animal, living only to do as his leader commanded. Until one day he met a fiery girl with red hair who thought he could be something more. And somehow he took back his humanity. And they took it all away again. Made him more of a beast than he had ever been before, instead of just on the inside, now it was the outside too. In the chaos of the battle he attacks Iko, shredding her outer skin and tearing through wires. But, no matter what they do to him, he still recognizes his pack. Somehow across the blood and terror he sees Scarlet and something clicks. Within moments of reaching Scarlet - his alpha and pack - his humanity returns. The link with the queen is broken because love and respect will always be stronger than fear. And Scarlet doesn't care that he's no longer handsome, or even human, because inside he's still wolf, and he still loves tomatoes, and he's still her pack. There was something truly beautiful there, maybe that family doesn't give up on you, and you can always count on your pack to be there. 

So, now (briefly) to Jacin and Winter. Wow. I LOVED Winter. She was fantastic. Her hallucinations were incredibly real to her, and really mirrored the state of Luna. The bleeding walls showed how corrupt and dead everything on Luna really was. The ice showed how breakable she felt, and how fragile the government really was. I really could connect to Winter, not because I have hallucinations, because I don't, but because I have anxiety. And to me, when it gets really bad, it seems real. It really feels like I'm going to explode, or die or catch fire. And I know it isn't, but sometimes that gets forgotten when things get tough. Just like Winter, sometimes I actually believe I am a girl of ice, and that this next breath may be my last. But there is always that person, or people that can just touch you and things are alright. For Winter that person is Jacin. The moment he's there, her hallucinations begin to fade, maybe not totally, but she is able to focus on something other than herself, and her own broken mind, and that is what changes things. But it's not just that Jacin brings her back to reality, it's that he understands who she is, and doesn't need her to change, he respects the choice she has made to resist her powers and instead be trapped in her own mind. He loves her for who she truly is. That doesn't mean that she won't ever have hallucinations again, just that it will be more bearable. I can relate to that. Being with family helps with anxiety, but that doesn't mean that it's gone, just that it's easier to bear when you have people on your side who don't treat you like you need to be cured, but who understand that this is who you are, and work with it.


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Mr. Holmes

Title: Mr. Holmes
Director: Bill Condon
Screenplay: Jeffrey Hatcher, Mitch Cullin
Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Milo Parker, Hattie Morahan
Release Date: 24 July 2015

Length: 104 min
Rating: PG
Genre: Drama, Mystery
Watch: Amazon Instant Video
Buy: AmazonGoogle shopping

What IMDB has to say:

An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes, deals with early dementia, as he tries to remember his final case and a woman, the memory of whom still haunts him. He also befriends a fan, the young son of his housekeeper, who wants him to work again.

What I have to say:

I knew it was going to be a great movie when I heard about it. The premise was Ian McKellen meets Sherlock Holmes, and what could be more perfect? But I could never have predicted the seamless, moving piece of artistry that is Mr. Holmes. Moving along with an easy grace aided by paradisaical scenery and a wonderful score, Mr. Holmes delves into the regions of memory, reality, human relationships, and loss. The main character may be the remarkable Mr. Sherlock Holmes, but the story told by the film is universal, and the chords it touches exist in every heart.

First, the aesthetics. The film is perfect. With masterful cinematography, a score that is light but warm and never intrudes into the story, and a subtly clever script, the plot moves along seamlessly with a grace that is almost breathtaking. The transitions are so smooth they feel like a continuation of the story and the viewer is hardly surprised, and the pace moves slowly but steadily on with a measured step that feels natural and uncalculated. The acting is brilliant on all counts but never overdone. And pervading the whole film is a quiet warmth that grows slowly but steadily on with the story, and over and through everything is a soft but thoughtful sweetness. When the film ends, the viewer breathes out a sigh of contentment.

Next, the content. Thinking back over the themes of the film, I am awestruck at the way in which the filmmakers weave these strands through the story and bring them out the other side completely changed in the eyes of both the characters and the viewers. And yet the way in which they bring this change about is so subtle and gradual that the change doesn't come as a surprise and, in fact, you hardly notice it at all. It's only thinking back over the film afterwards that I realize all that changed from the beginning of the film to the end. There are also so many subtle little echoes throughout the film, one or two of which I noticed in the moment, but most of which I didn't notice until I found myself thinking back over the film later.

Memory. The film plays on memories in so many ways. The premise of the movie is Sherlock Holmes struggling with memory loss near the end of his life as he tries to remember his last case. Gradually, the memory begins to unfold, and each time Holmes remembers a little more. Along with Holmes, the audience sees the memory a length at a time, and we are frustrated along with Holmes by his inability to remember. At first, we are shown very little - a face, a word, or a scene - in short flashes, the way someone might remember an event that occurred many years back; but gradually, the flashbacks lengthen, until the whole memory is revealed, piece by piece. Holmes's inability to remember the story of his final case is echoed in Roger's inability to remember the stories his father used to tell him before his death in WWII. The dilemma of an old man struggling with memory loss at the end of his life finds an echo in the dilemma of a young boy unable to recall early memories of his father. And that brings us to the theme of loss.

Many characters in the film are forced to deal with this theme. Ann deals with the loss of her unborn children; Holmes deals with the loss of his friends, his profession, and his memory; Umezaki and Roger deal with the loss of a father; and Roger fears losing his way of life, while his mother worries about what will happen when Roger loses Holmes. The theme of death and loss finds a gentle metaphor in the bees kept on Holmes's property, which keep dying unaccountably, and reaches a dramatic crescendo when Holmes views the aftermath of the atom bomb in Japan. Each loss seems interconnected, and subtle visuals throughout aid this intricacy.

In a short scene that only afterward takes on importance, Holmes and Umezaki watch a Japanese man perform a ritual to commemorate those he has lost: kneeling on the ground in a circle of stones, the man raises his arms to the heavens. Umezaki tells Holmes that the stones represent the people the man has lost. The man's ritual stands out boldly against the black and barren landscape. Later in the film, Ann erects tombstones for her two children and another for herself. Finally, in the final scene of the film, Holmes reenacts the ritual he witnessed in Japan, forming a circle of stones in the grass to commemorate those he has lost: Ann, Watson, and others. The visual backdrop of Holmes's ritual - a fertile green hillside overlooking the ocean - contrasts sharply with the black, barren backdrop of the Japanese man's ritual; Holmes's act of grieving signifies the beginning of a new life in which he will find long-sought healing, peace, and perhaps even joy. When Holmes and Umezeki find the small prickly ash plant at the site of the atom bomb, Umezeki's comment that the plant's presence shows life reasserting itself seems to foreshadow Holmes's healing at the end of the film, and finds echoes in his friendship with Roger; after devastating loss, life begins anew.

Holmes's ritual at the end of the film comes as no surprise; it occurs as the natural culmination of the process he undergoes throughout the movie, but considering his state of mind at the start of the film, Holmes has changed drastically. Early on in the story Holmes remarks that he doesn't mourn; he uses logic instead, which leaves no room for emotion. The remark is consistent with the character of Sherlock Holmes, coolly making deductions while others succumb to hysteria; but no one is ever done learning, even at age 93, and even Sherlock Holmes still has a few things to learn. Perhaps it is because of Holmes's refusal and - dare I say - inability - to mourn that Ann's death so completely defeats him. After learning of Ann's death, Holmes is defeated, broken, and utterly unable to function. His famous logic has finally failed him and Holmes is crushed in the rescind. His self-imposed rule of never succumbing to emotion has left him unprepared for such a blow. He has developed no coping mechanism for grief, because he has never allowed himself to grieve. It is only Watson's fiction which eventually pieces Holmes back together.

Fiction. This is seriously one of the most epic elements of the film. It'll blow your mind.

Almost at the beginning of the movie, Holmes tells someone that if he ever writes a story, it will be to correct Watson's fictive embellishments. When Umezeki's mother asks Holmes about his deerstalker hat, Holmes replies that he hardly ever wears the deerstalker; that was just one of Watson's embellishments (though he admits later to wishing he'd brought the hat if only to accommodate her). Similarly, at other moments in the story, Holmes shows the high value he places on fact, and the disdain he feels for fictionalizing the truth. When Umezeki tells Holmes about his father, Holmes shows no restraint in giving Umezeki the cold hard facts about the case: Holmes never met Umezeki's father, who clearly lied to his son in order to conceal the fact that he was abandoning his family. Umezeki is visibly upset by Holmes's frank declaration, though he cannot fault Holmes for delivering the truth. His father's lie was a way of softening the reality, as Holmes grasps, though he fails to understand why such softenings are necessary.

When Holmes at last sets out to write his true account, he discovers painfully why fiction is sometimes preferable to fact. The true story of his final case is hard to live with, and embedded within this realization (the movie is like metaphor-inception) is the realization that had Holmes lied to Ann instead of confronting her immediately with reality, her suicide may have been averted. In some cases, fiction succeeds where fact cannot. From this realization comes an unraveling of Holmes's long-held ideas and a reweaving in a different pattern. Holmes writes to Umezeki to tell him that he has suddenly remembered having encountered Umezeki's father and this means that Umezeki's father did, in fact, tell him the truth (work that one out!). For a moment, the viewer is uncertain as to whether Holmes's letter is a true record of an actual event, or a fictive account designed to soothe and heal the recipient. It's a moment of pure genius on the part of the filmmakers. But the viewer soon infers that Holmes's story is anything but true.

Holmes writes the letter to Umezeki at a desk in his room, and the only thing that would make this moment even more genius would be if the desk he sits at is Watson's old desk, which, as the viewer discovers earlier in the movie, has remained with Holmes ever since Watson's marriage and sits in his room throughout the film. I regret to say that I wasn't paying close enough attention at the time to be able to tell you which desk he was sitting at, but next time I watch the movie (and there will be a next time), I'll watch for it. If he is in fact writing the letter from Watson's desk, then the symbolism is complete and the process too: Holmes has converted to Watson's viewpoint concerning fiction and fact, and now sits at Watson's desk, fabricating stories about the great Sherlock Holmes. [After watching the movie a second time, I am pleased to report that Holmes writes the letter to Umezeki while sitting at Watson's desk.]

At the center of Holmes's turn-around is the realization that fiction soothes and heals where fact cannot. When Holmes is devastated after Ann's death, Watson brings Holmes healing by changing the details of the case, writing a fictive account which later serves as the basis for the movie Holmes watches and finds humorous (for all the wrong reasons).

"You shouldn't say everything you think," Mrs. Munro tells her son Roger. And in her simple yet deep motherly wisdom, she understands what the great Sherlock Holmes does not: forbearance is wise, and fiction has its value. And as the audience, we sense that, although Mrs. Munro's observation is couched in a mother's reprimand to her son, she means it in another sense as a check to Sherlock Holmes, who never could resist a plain deduction.

Inherent in Holmes's turn-around regarding fiction and fact is the filmmakers' subtle but effective statement about the value of fiction in society and human life.

Finding that his metaphorical wrestling has renewed his strength, Holmes emerges a changed man. And one of the first ways it shows is in his free expression of grief for a sudden and unexpected tragedy in his life. When Holmes breaks down and sobs in response to Mrs. Munro's accusation that he doesn't care for anyone, Mrs. Munro is visibly shocked - and for good reason. Is this the Sherlock Holmes who, only a short while ago, declared that logic cancels out grief? It is this act of grief that binds the two characters, previously at odds, together. Acting in concord, Holmes and Munro set fire to the wasp nest, destroying once and for all the source of death for the bees; and the act feels cathartic, much like Holmes's sobs. It's as if the two survivors have united to face and destroy once and for all the cause of all their losses and heartache. Maybe the torched wasps' nest, flames rising into a black sky, parallels the act of destruction caused by the atom bomb in Japan. Or maybe it mirrors it, closing the cycle out. Or bringing the circle around again because once more, life begins anew after destruction.

When Roger hands Holmes a stone to use in his mourning ritual, Holmes asks who it's meant to represent:

"Me," Roger replies. "You." Because sooner or later, we lose it all; it's just a part of life.

"Well," says Holmes. "Not yet a while, surely?"

"Did you finish what you had to do?"

"Yes, I did. My first foray into the world of fiction. One shouldn't leave this life without a sense of completion. You can use this in one of your stories. A glass, a bee... and Roger."

Roger will go on telling stories the way his father used to, and Holmes, perhaps, will take up writing stories the way his friend John Watson used to. We tell stories to make sense of the world, to cope with heartache, and to find the will to go on. And if the story we're trying to tell turns out perfect, it might just be Mr. Holmes.