Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


If you’re like me, and political tensions, social divides, inexhaustible news cycles, and worldwide crises have got you down, I have some practical advice for you. Go watch the Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? immediately.

My husband and I caught a showing of it the other night at a local theater, and it was the soothing balm I didn’t know my soul so desperately needed.

I remember watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a kid, though my recollections are fuzzy and unreliable. Despite these grainy Technicolor memories, while watching the documentary, I immediately recognized Fred Rogers’ sweet smile, his tempered voice, his infamous cardigans, the simple yet resonant songs he composed for the show, and the iconic characters, including Daniel (Striped) Tiger and King Friday the 13th, that he brought to life each week.

The nostalgia produced through revisiting the sights and sounds of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was lovely, but where this documentary truly excels is in moving beyond the nostalgia to reveal everything you likely missed as a kid. And man, I missed a lot.

Sitting in that theater, watching clips from the show and from Fred Rogers’ life, I felt like I was seeing this television icon, as he truly was, for the first time. And I saw so much.

I saw a man who valued the experiences, feelings, and potential of children at a time when the general public knew little about childhood development. I saw a man who, unlike many adults, believed in and understood the validity and intensity of childhood emotions.

I saw a social justice pioneer, who invited a black man to dunk his feet in his kiddie pool on syndicated television during a time when racial divides ran so very deep. The same man treated children with disabilities the same way in which he would treat any child, demonstrating inclusiveness and eliminating social stigma through example.

I saw someone who didn’t talk down to kids, but instead did so with dignity. Someone who didn’t sanitize the good, the bad, or the ugly to make it “child appropriate.” Instead, I saw a man bravely explain the Challenger tragedy, the assassination of JFK, and the terrors of war in ways in which children could easily understand and process.

I saw a man who single-handedly saved PBS from budget cuts, not by railing or shouting or evangelizing, but by speaking from the heart and appealing to the humanity of the members of the U.S. Senate. (By the way, his address is less than seven minutes, utterly incredible, and you can watch it HERE.)

I saw an ordained minister who spread a message of love and acceptance through his work in the television industry, a message that was deeply influenced by his Christian beliefs, but never came across as manipulative, coercive, or self-serving.

The result of all these revelations? Flat-out weeping.

I thought that I went to the theater prepared. I had my tissues at the ready. But you guys, I wasn’t ready.

I’m not a fan of spoilers, so I won’t tell you the exact scenes during which I cried, but I will tell you there were three of them, along with other countless moments where my heart swelled in my chest and goosebumps broke out on my skin.

Seriously, go see this documentary. It’s an absolute treasure. Just like Fred Rogers was.

People always say that we study history in order to learn from it. Often, we we look back and examine tragedies or catastrophes, so we can learn from the chaos and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

But the opposite is true in regard to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? This documentary is an opportunity to look back at something (or rather someone) implicitly good. It’s a chance to learn from the example of a man who had a profound and positive impact not only on educational television programming and American pop culture, but (more importantly) on individuals’ lives.

Most of all, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a reminder of how incredible our communities could be if we simply learned to look beyond ourselves and made a concerted effort to value the lives and experiences of others.

Personally, that’s a neighborhood I’d like to live in.

A Quiet Place Will Make You Scream

Quiet Place movie poster

When I first saw the teaser trailer for A Quiet Place, I wasn’t all that impressed. Honestly, I thought the concept of a family that has to remain all but silent so they don’t provoke attacks by some audio-motivated “they” seemed like an excuse to make a film full of superficial jump scares and little else. I tucked the upcoming film into the “Meh, maybe on Netflix someday” category in my brain, and that was that.

However, when A Quiet Place became a Rotten Tomatoes darling and word began to circulate that it was actually a great movie, I decided to give it a chance. I left my lukewarm impressions in the dust and met my horror movie partner in crime, Nikki, at an AMC for a weeknight showing. We armed ourselves with root beer, peanut M&Ms, and all the hope in the world that writer, director, and actor John Krasinski wouldn’t let us down.

He didn’t.

Seeing A Quiet Place in a proper movie theater is a ridiculously enjoyable experience. If you like monster movies, go now!

*Before I proceed and fangirl about everything I loved about this movie, here’s your warning. While I hate spoilers and will keep them to an absolute minimum, I really do think you should see A Quiet Place before you read the rest of this…and then we can compare notes and geek out over this horror film together.

Okay, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I loved A Quiet Place so much, and it’s because the movie is such a fun experience. Here’s what made it stand out for me.

This movie has so much heart. You remember how I was afraid this film would feel like a superficial fear bomb? And that jump scares would reign supreme? Okay, there are a few jump scares, but there are quite a few moments and scenes that hit you harder (right in the gut, to be honest) thanks to their emotional resonance. And that is the golden element that drives the plot of A Quiet Place forward and allows viewers to connect with the main characters on a visceral level. This family isn’t perfect or immediately likable or without their flaws. While defending themselves from bloodthirsty creatures that want to feed on their flesh, they’re also struggling to make their family unit work. And you thought Christmas dinner with your family was rough.

Without getting into major plot points, this movie tackles some deep emotion themes, including grief, loss, and guilt, while also keeping you on the edge of your seat, because the threat is real. In A Quiet Place, Krasinski has struck a really brilliant balance between sweet moments, hard-to-watch family interactions, and straight-up survival instinct fear. It doesn’t seem like it while you’re in the theater, but you go through a lot in 95 minutes. And it’s all enjoyable and beautiful and downright scary in equal measure.

The sheer quiet of the film is actually pretty unnerving and cool…if you have a theater of moviegoers who are invested and along for the ride. When Nikki and I arrived, right in time for the lights to dim and the trailers to start, our theater was packed. We were lucky to snag a couple seats on the far end in the second row, and I immediately began to wonder what this experience would be like, what with the theater being so full. Would the silent moments of the movie actually be quite loud, thanks to moviegoers jostling bags of popcorn, slurping sodas, and making comments to their friends?

Surprisingly, no. There was this interesting thing phenomenon that occurred as soon as A Quiet Place began. Our movie theater became a quiet place, too. It was like everyone was collectively holding their breath and trying to make as little noise as possible. And thank goodness, because the silent moments of the film build this incredibly taut ambiance that’s paper thin and relies on, strangely enough, everyone’s participation. I love that this movie was able to evoke that interesting response in the audience, this desire to go along for the ride and to remain quiet, like the characters onscreen. (I will say, if you go to a theater where folks aren’t respectful or bought in, it will probably suck.)

And while much of the movie was intensely quiet, there were many moments that weren’t. And the noise wasn’t just used to provoke monsters. I mean, sure, you need sound as an impetus for the attacks, so crashes and the like were a given, but there’s really great use of music and natural sounds from the environment that build layers of emotion and also help to keep the prolonged silences from feeling stifling and too intense. Silence builds tension; noise brings release…and much-needed opportunity to discreetly reach into your super-loud-and-crinkly bag of M&Ms for a treat.

And don’t get me started about the noises the monsters make. They were a highlight of the film for me, because they were deeply nostalgic. No, not from my nightmares. Funny enough, from Disney World.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you’re a horror junkie like me and visited the Magic Kingdom between 1995 and 2002, you likely went on a “ride” called ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. And it likely scared the shit out of you.

A high-level rundown of the experience: park goers were invited into a theater in the round to witness a teleportation demonstration by a futuristic company called X-S Tech. And yes, we were strapped into harnesses and restraints for the demonstration, because precautions, right? During the demo, something goes horribly wrong, and instead of teleporting a human scientist into the room with us, the scientists of X-S Tech accidentally teleport an alien. Oops.

And that’s when shit gets real. The lights go out. We hear the sound of shattering glass. A security guard comes in to intervene…but he screams, and we hear the alien chomping on his bones. (Bye, Steve.) And then, the alien is lurking among us, looking for its next snack. Thanks to surround sound, water effects, and rumbling chairs, you really felt like the alien was there, breathing down your neck, ready to kill you, which ignited all sorts of delicious adrenaline in your body.

Here’s a more detailed account of the ride, if you never experienced it, or if you’d like to conjure up your own memories.

Disney deemed the attraction “too scary” in the early 2000s, and now it’s a Lilo and Stitch-themed experience, which makes my little horror-loving heart sad…but back to A Quiet Place.

I know it’s a weirdly twisted thing to admit, but when all hell breaks loose and the creatures descend upon the family in A Quiet Place, I found myself grinning. Not because the family was in peril (that part sucked!), but because the noises the monsters made were so damn familiar. They sounded like the noises the “escaped alien” made in ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.

Thanks to the surround sound in our movie theater, I was transported back to Disney World and to one of my favorite theater experiences ever. That nostalgic moment? Just priceless. Thank you, awesome sound effects team.

The movie features a deaf character, and Krasinski pushed to hire a deaf actress to fill the role. And it was the right call, because Millicent Simmonds is simply captivating onscreen. She’s expressive and emotional, and her presence brings a lot of authenticity to the film. I read that she taught the cast and crew American Sign Language during the production of this movie, and I think that’s exceptionally rad. It’s so nice to see a push for inclusion and diversity, not only in storytelling and script writing, but in the casting of actors, too. I really respect Krasinski for finding and hiring Simmonds.

I also can’t wait to see what she stars in next, and I’m gonna have to watch Wonderstruck, too.

Okay, there’s so much more I could say about this movie, but I like to keep this blog a spoiler-free zone. That being said, the comments section is fair game. What did you love about A Quiet Place?

The Wrath of Kahn


It only took me 35 years to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn—which is forgivable, I guess, since I’m only 32, so the film is little before my time.

Even as a kid, Star Trek wasn’t really on my radar. I was too busy singing Janet Jackson tunes, dreaming of being a figure skater, and reading as many books as I could get my hands on (I was particularly fond of fairytales and R.L. Stine books).

I didn’t grow into my innate geekery until college, and when I finally dipped my toe in, my attention was drawn to Star Wars, The Dark Tower, and Batman.

In January, I’ll marry a bona fide Star Trek fan, so there’s been a bit of an intergalactic education happening to get me caught up. And I have to say, I’m really enjoying it!

Last week, Bryan sent me a text letting me know our local movie theater was showing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn to celebrate its 35th anniversary. Like any good fiancée and self-proclaimed geek, I told him that of course we were going and I’d be happy to get us tickets.

Confession: before last night, I hadn’t watched any of the original Star Trek movies. I’ve seen the new movies, and Bryan and I have been working our way through TV episodes of Next Generation, but that’s about the extent of it.

Because I hadn’t seen any of the OG Star Trek films, I didn’t know what to expect of The Wrath of Kahn other than 80s-movie aesthetic and sensibility—a little cheese, awesomely bad hair, and practical effects since 1982 was well before CGI became all the rage.

Last night, armed with popcorn, Dots, and a handsome man by my side, I was ready to visit the 80s—and perhaps a nebula.

To my delight, a few moviegoers arrived in subtle cosplay. I spotted at least one red shirt and a number of communicator badges that caught the light in the theater.

When the showing began with a sit-down interview with William Shatner, Bryan told me when to cover my ears to avoid spoiling the film. He hand-fed me popcorn all the while, because I have a supportive partner who understands my obsession with movie theater popcorn and how sad it was to stop eating it in order to cover my ears.

As the opening credits rolled, I was struck with that marvelous twang of nostalgia that hits me every single time I sit down to watch an “old” movie. James Horner’s score swept me away into the far reaches of the galaxy and…I watched, I laughed, and I applauded.

Simply put, The Wrath of Kahn was wonderful. Undoubtedly a triumph of filmmaking for its time, it was clever and enjoyable for me, 35 years after its premiere, which is impressive.

What stood out?

The dialogue. The way in which the characters talk to each other is incredibly intelligent and entertaining (albeit a little cheesy from time to time, but I love that sort of thing). There are some fantastic lines and exchanges in this film – “Physician, heal thyself!”—“Ah, Kirk, my old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish best served cold? It is very cold in space!”—“’Suppose they went nowhere’ ‘Then this will be your big chance to get away from it all.’” And, of course, the classic Shatner shout of “KAAAAHHHHHNNNN” (a la “STELLLLLA” in A Streetcar Named Desire). The literature major in me really appreciated the Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick references, too.

The absence of ambient noise. Sure, The Wrath of Kahn is full of truly iconic music and plenty of sound engineering to accompany battle scenes and special effects. But when it’s quiet, it’s really quiet—like when Kirk and McCoy are “celebrating” Kirk’s birthday with Romulan ale and a friendly heart-to-heart. The lack of background noise is a distinct difference between dated and contemporary films. Modern movies use a lot of ambient song or noise to create moods and evoke emotion in audience members (the most obvious example being horror film soundtracks; you can’t sneak down a midnight-black hallway without a taut strings accompaniment, can you?). When that ambient noise is missing, it’s up to the actors to bring the emotion, to let moviegoers know what that should be feeling at any particular moment. It’s pretty cool to see (and hear) this stripped approach, and it makes me admire the actors’ performances that much more.

The use of practical effects. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something special about practical effects that make them damn near timeless; okay, okay, maybe that’s a bit much. They do age, but not as quickly as over-the-top CGI effects that often just look…well, fake. There’s something cool, too, about the fact that the Wrath of Kahn filmmakers couldn’t just go, “Yeah, we’ll just create all of this on a computer, so there’s no need to film anything.” They had to think through how to shoot starships traveling in space, building model after model until they got it right. They constructed that eel-earworm-thing of my nightmares out of latex (puppetry is so rad!). Their stunt doubles were busy, flying through the air every time the Enterprise or the Reliant was hit. I can appreciate what filmmakers in the 80s were up against and the vision it took to create alternate realities (like Star Trek) onscreen.

khanAnd I can’t talk about this movie without fangirling over the actor who played Kahn, Ricardo Montalban. He is the epitome of the perfect 80s villain with his rock star hair (I immediately thought of Bowie in Labyrinth), dramatic delivery, expressive eyes, and whoa nelly, those pecs! (I can’t believe he was in his 60s while filming this movie and still so incredibly fit.) As a moviegoer, I loathed him the second he came onscreen. You just know he’s a bad dude, so it feels good to root for all our heroes aboard the Enterprise.

Yep, after seeing The Wrath of Kahn, I’d be down to watch another OG Star Trek movie. Bryan tells me two, four, and six are the best. To that, I say, bring on the popcorn.

Kubo and the Two Strings is Pure Magic


Bryan and I watched Kubo and the Two Strings last night, and I immediately understood why it wasn’t a commercial box office success when it premiered in U.S. theaters in 2016.

Kubo features stop-motion animation in a world that’s come to expect the sheer perfection of CGI. While it’s an animated film, Kubo is most certainly not suited for kids. The story does not hold to traditional American storytelling tropes, takes magic to a whole new level, and portrays historical Japanese culture.

And while these are some of the reasons Kubo likely didn’t achieve box office success, they are the reasons you should drop everything you’re doing and WATCH THIS MOVIE RIGHT NOW!

Quite frankly, this film left me breathless.

First of all, Laika Studios’ stop-motion animation is spectacular. With Kubo, they’ve achieved a whole level in the art form. (Just watch the trailer for proof.) The majority of the scenes were damn near seamless in execution. The only reminders for me that this was a stop-motion film were little hints around the mouths of characters as they spoke and the distinct style that is associated with this type of animation. Truly, the artistry alone is worth watching this film.

If you know any of Laika’s previous films (like Coraline, ParaNorman, or The Box Trolls), you know they aren’t afraid to get a little dark. Well, I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Kubo is fucking terrifying. Like vengeful floating witches in Kabuki masks terrifying. Like if you let your young child watch this movie they are likely to have crazy imaginative (and gorgeous) but truly horrifying nightmares. The villains in Kubo are ruthless; I mean, our titular character and 11-year-old hero only has one eye because of them. The threat of bodily harm, death, and destruction is palpable throughout this story. And the world is vividly portrayed, upping the creep factor tenfold. For me, all of this works together to heighten the tension and draw me in. If you like spooky stories, Kubo is a must see.

I absolutely love that Kubo draws inspiration from Japanese folklore. From ancient samurai to festivals that bridge the divide between the living and the dead, from the art of origami to the importance (and inherent magic) of storytelling, Kubo does a beautiful job representing ancient Japanese culture (at least to the best of my knowledge – I don’t proclaim myself an expert!). Though it would’ve been nice if the voice actors were of Asian descent (as in Disney’s Moana), Kubo is still a delight in terms of representation of both another culture and a different approach to storytelling.

The last thing you should know about Kubo is that it packs emotional punch. Central to this coming-of-age story are themes of family, loss, life, death, and protecting those your love. I got all the feels during the climax and ending of Kubo (luckily, I’m battling a cold, so Bryan thought I was blowing my nose because I had to). And that’s just how I like my stories—with characters I care about and messages that stir something within me.

Seriously, just watch Kubo and the Two Strings. Allow yourself to get caught up in magic. Remember why family is so important. Drown in gorgeous art. And don’t blink, because you just might miss something incredible.

Legends and Labyrinths

As a kid, I remember the thrill of clicking on the TV in my bedroom after everyone else in the house had gone to sleep. I turned the volume down low, so low anyone in the hallway outside my room wouldn’t hear it, even if they pressed their ear to the door. Because I took such great precautions to avoid getting caught watching movies past my bedtime, I had to lean toward the TV and remain still to hear the sound, which often resulted in a crink in my neck. I suffered many a sleepy morning, but it was worth it to watch whatever I wanted, alone in my room.

I always found something to watch, usually movies TV stations wouldn’t play during daytime peak hours but were okay with playing in the dead of night. They didn’t expect anyone to be watching at that time. But I was.

Legend movie poster

One of the movies I remember distinctly is one of Tom Cruise’s early films, a dark fairy tale directed by Ridley Scott called Legend. As a kid, I loved fairy tales. Not the sweet and bubbly ones where everyone gets married, and evil gets what’s coming to it. I read those, sure, but I also read the versions where body parts are hacked off, marriages are not always happy, and mermaids die. So Legend, with its terrifying portrayal of evil, fit neatly into my personal fairy tale canon.

The plot is rather simple: Jack, an innocent wood-dweller and presumably the very first animal whisperer, loves the fair and noble Princess Lily. To show her his devotion, he takes her to see the unicorns, the physical embodiment of the Light, all that is good and pure in the world. Lily is enchanted by the unicorns and moves close to touch one. At that very moment, a demon from the underworld shoots the unicorn with a poison dart, then cuts off its horn. As a result, darkness descends upon the valley. The remaining unicorn and Lily are herded into the underworld, where Darkness (see: the Devil) seeks to kill the last of the unicorns to rid the world of goodness—and seduce Lily. Jack, with the help of woodland fairy friends, must overcome great obstacles and battle Darkness to reinstate the natural balance between good and evil and save the woman he loves.

I adored this film as a kid. Every time I came across it late at night, flipping through stations, I’d always watch it. I was just as enchanted with the movie as Lily was with those unicorns.

I realize now, as an adult, my attraction to Legend had everything to do with seeing the fantastical beings I’d imagined in my head on the silver screen. They were given life and magic. And while I watched these characters, I became a part of their story, a part of their world. And there is nothing better than that sort of experience for a burgeoning storyteller.

When David Bowie died from cancer last month, my friend, Nikki, and I immediately scheduled a Labyrinth viewing party. By party, I mean the two of us with a bottle of wine and Thai food.

LabyrinthFor many of our generation, the tale of a baby brother stolen from Sarah (played by an incredibly young Jennifer Connelly) by Goblin King Jareth (Bowie) in a bizarre showing of … love? … is a seminal piece of our childhood. We remember the wonder (or fright) we experienced watching Jim Henson’s puppets flit across the screen. We remember the music, catchy tunes that most of us can sing verbatim if asked to do so. We most definitely remember Bowie’s glittery, rock star hair, tight pants and riding boots, and strange allure. We weren’t supposed to like him because he was a villain, and yet …

I tried to watch Labyrinth with my fiancé, but the film was lost on him. He never saw Labyrinth as a kid, and though he was open and understood it was a dated film, it simply didn’t work for him. All he saw were David Bowie music videos, awful dialogue (this part is true), and a fun but not altogether special assemblage of characters.

I realized then that watching movies as a child is so very different than watching movies as an adult. The childhood wonder of seeing something new cements films and worlds and characters in our imaginations as precious gems, remembrances of key moments of childhood – possibility, awe, and love. That nostalgia is what allows us to re-watch films that, in other circumstances, we’d deem absolutely horrid.

LegendLast night, I invited Nikki over to watch Legend with me, and I was nervous. Nikki hadn’t seen Legend before, and it had been a good 18 or so years since I’d seen it. I remembered it with love, but would it hold up? And would I be forcing my friend to watch something that didn’t play a role in her childhood and, thus, would just be terrible?

At the end of the night, Nikki and I had discovered a few basic truths about Legend:

Legend is Labyrinth’s big sister. The scandalous one. The one who takes great pleasure in scaring the bejesus out of you. They share a lot of the same thematics: puppetry, adventure, the overall goal to win over evil – but Legend presents it in a much more grownup way. This film boasts a PG rating, but it was created at a time when the PG-13 rating was just gaining traction, and I’m sure movie studios were sorting out what qualifies as shocking. In my opinion, Legend is pretty shocking. The monsters, demons, and Darkness (again, the Devil—played wonderfully by Tim Curry, still slightly recognizable beneath a crazy makeup job) are terrifying. Nikki and I thought we’d have nightmares.

Tom CruiseTom Cruise’s legs should enjoy their own billing. When we first meet Tom Cruise’s character, Jack, he drops out of a tree wearing a Peter Pan-meets-Tarzan ensemble and lands in a deep squat. It’s the kind of thing I do in yoga classes. From there on out, Jack’s legs are always on display, and he’s often lunging and crouching and flexing. Even when Jack discovers an outfit of gold armor, its coverage ends at his upper thigh, gladiator style. It’s hard to tear your eyes away from the gams, and Tom must’ve built tremendous strength during filming.

A lot of people lambast this movie. And I get it. The dialogue, like Labyrinth’s, is not always cohesive with the action. Sometimes, it’s just strange … and bad. Tom didn’t have his acting chops firmly in place at this time; he was very green. There are holes in the plot, and our suspension of disbelief can only stretch so far. But there are a lot of things this film gets right. The cinematography is gorgeous (and won quite a few awards after Legend’s release). The set designers truly outdid themselves in creating the contradiction of lush, beautiful woodlands and the harrowing halls and twisted corridors of, well, hell. The puppetry is unreal (there’s a witch in a swamp that is the epitome of terrifying), the dubbing is done rather well, and we have to remember this was a time when CGI was not the immediate solution. There are definitely special effects at play in this film, but by and large, a lot of it is practical. It’s an undertaking and quite the accomplishment.

Tim CurryAnd I’d be remiss to not acknowledge the incredible talent that is Tim Curry as Darkness. He’s deplorable but elegant. He’s charming and manipulative in the way that the most wonderful villains are (in my opinion). Then again, Tim Curry can really do no wrong.

All in all, the night was a success. I introduced Nikki to a cult classic and a very specific piece of my childhood. And me? I was cozied up under my comforter again, watching something I knew I shouldn’t be. It was a fun throwback.

And today, thinking and writing about Legend, I can’t help but smile, which only goes to prove my hypothesis: those first moments of magic, mystery, horror, and wonder that we experience as kids will remain with us forever.

I’d Like to Wed a Weasley (And Other Harry Potter Epiphanies)

Harry Potter peg people

I have a couple confessions—revelations that may jeopardize my self-proclaimed geek girl status. Okay, deep breaths…

Confession #1: In high school, I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, read about 30 pages, and discarded the book because I couldn’t get into it.

Confession #2: I saw the first two Harry Potter movies in theaters—and that’s as far as I got.

I know. It’s troubling.

But let me give you some context.

In high school, I was far too serious for my age. I wanted to read “important,” complex works (ie – stuff by dead white men), because I was convinced I was going to write the next great American novel. I considered these works primers, necessary reading. In other words, I was up to my Dickies in Dickens and swooned over tragic works by Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Ellison (the most messed up law office ever?). I wasn’t won over by magic and whimsy and fun, so the coming-of-age tale of a wizard wasn’t exactly my bag.

And don’t get me wrong, the first two movies were great, but when you know there will be seven or eight films, it’s an investment. And without the books to inspire me, why invest?

Now, I’m engaged to a full-fledged Harry Potter fan. There’s a wand in our house. A piece of art showcasing the Hogwart’s crest. The full series of books on our bookshelf. All of the films on our hard drive. A stuffed Hedwig. And now, custom-painted Harry Potter peg people (which can also serve as tree ornaments!) that I found on Etsy and gifted Bryan for Christmas.

Around the holidays, Bryan likes to revisit the world of Harry Potter. For him, there’s something festive and fun in watching a movie or two from the series. This year was no different, and as the camera panned across 4 Privet Drive, a conversation began. How many of the movies had I seen? To be honest, I couldn’t remember. I knew about Muggles and that Harry could talk to snakes and what a Golden Snitch was, but it had all kind of run together in my memory. So, we watched the first two. Yes, I remembered Tom Riddle and that terrible Basilisk.

As soon as we started the third movie, I realized that…that had been it. I had only devoted five hours to the world of Harry Potter. “I definitely haven’t seen this one…And I’ve decided that I want to watch all of them with you.”

In one week, Bryan and I visited Hogwart’s eight times. And now, I get it. I understand the fandom and the madness of Potterheads around the world. Because the series is truly magical…and I haven’t even gotten to the books yet (which are on my 2016/2017 reading list now).

But before I crack open the books, here are five epiphanies I had while watching the movies:

I’d like to wed a Weasley. I know Harry got a lot of looks thanks to his reputation and that devastatingly boyish grin (Daniel Radcliffe was a perfect casting), but the Weasley twins, Fred and George—they were something else. Mirth. Mischief. Undying optimism. Utterly adorable. If I were a character in the Harry Potter world, I’d chase those hilarious gingers through the halls of Hogwart’s with Amortentia at the ready.

J.K. Rowling has a boundless and beautiful imagination. World building is hard—take it from a writer. To create a world so fully realized, so full of whimsy and magic, so fun and attractive that amusement park replicas have been erected and colleges have formed Quidditch teams—that’s no small undertaking. And clearly, the filmmakers went to great lengths to bring this world to life. It’s incredible—and I love that Whomping Willow.

The coming-of-age angst and awkwardness in the films is some of the best I’ve seen on the silver screen. Puberty hit Hogwart’s hard in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire—and it was so fun to watch. Because it was relatable. Hermione’s frustration and exhaustion in getting Ron to notice her “like that.” The stolen glances. The first kisses. Working up the nerve to ask someone to a dance. I was back in high school and feeling hormonal and laughing at imprints of memories.

While I’d love to receive a letter from Hogwart’s, all that dark arts sorcery would probably inspire some crazy episodes of anxiety. Power can either inspire a lot of good or a shit storm of bad, also known as Lord Voldemort…and dementors…and the most frightening of all, Dolores Umbridge. While I’d love to say I’d be a warrior and fight for good in the world of magic…well, I might ride my Nimbus 2000 in the opposite direction.

I clearly need to read the books. That whole Half-Blood Prince thing? That mirror fragment from Sirius Black? I had to ask Bryan about these seeming mysteries, because they weren’t well explained in the movies. In the end, we came to the conclusion that the further you got in the films, the less explaining the filmmakers felt they needed to do. But fans who’d read all the books—they totally got it. And I’d like to be in that camp.

I plan to read the books and then watch the films again, hopefully in another marathon-style viewing. You know, for comparison. Research. And, of course, another chance to roam the halls of Hogwart’s.

In the meantime, I solemnly swear I am up to no good. Always.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night had me at “Iranian vampire western.” Independent of that awesome description and the fact that the film is being hailed as a genre-bending, artistic, fresh take on vampire mythos, I knew that seeing this film would be important for me, because Ana Lily Amirpour is making history as an Iranian-American female writer-director. Cue my feminist lady boner.

And I was turned on for good reason.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is for all intents and purposes an exploration of good and evil. The Girl, played by Sheila Vand, is an Iranian vampire who stalks the streets of Bad City at night, preying upon men who’ve disrespected women (can you say sinister, scary, feminist anti-hero?). Arash, played by Arash Varandi, is a hardworking, decent young man who has lost his beautiful, vintage car to a pimp thanks to the debts accumulated by his heroin-addicted, prostitute-loving, widowed father. (He also dresses an awful lot like the late, great James Dean.) These two characters collide one night and form a seemingly improbable connection through an Ecstasy high, a Dracula costume, a skateboard, music, and touch—one that could lead to love, understanding, and an escape from Bad City.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, like many of its predecessors, plays an awful lot with the theme of a vampire longing to be human. Arash is the first person (at least in the world of this film) to treat The Girl as a human, not a monster; when they meet, he is not afraid of her. He treats her the way he would treat any other girl on the street—decently. Consequently, in her interactions with Arash, The Girl has an opportunity to experience life as something other than what she inherently is—an undead creature who kills without remorse. And though she is guarded and can’t squash some of her evil impulses, we as audience members start to see that perhaps this monster wants something more than her killer existence.

Now, don’t let this analysis mislead—The Girl is still scary as all hell. When she attacks, it’s brutal and unearthly. She seems devoid of emotion—except when she’s listening to records in her basement apartment (hipster vamp!). She lets her eyes do most of the talking, unnerving her prey with heavily lined lids and a frightening stare. When she does unleash her voice to its fullest, fiendish extend, you’ll feel like you’re watching a scene from The Exorcist. For those who like their monsters both complex and scary, the character of The Girl delivers. She’s a traditional monster in a modern culture with a fascination with being human.

For theatergoers who are all about visual and auditory stimuli, watch this movie immediately! A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is shot in black and white with chiaroscuro everywhere, and it’s entirely in Farsi. The soundtrack is a brilliant marriage of Iranian club music, western-inspired lilts, American indie rock, and the bass-heavy reverberations of heartbeats (which arrive after The Girl has listened to Arash’s heartbeat).

The lighting is brilliant, increasing the inherent tension in many scenes and making Bad City look, well, dreary and bad. Individual shots in the film inspire pure awe. For example, drugs completely and utterly freak me out, yet one of the most gorgeous shots of the whole film involves heroin being heated in a bent, metal spoon. And don’t even get me started with the shots of The Girl on her skateboard with her chador (which resembles both a berka and a nun’s habit) billowing behind her.

Now, I will say that because of how the film is shot and how the story progresses (slowly and at times, awkwardly (but isn’t that how life progresses?)), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not for mass consumption. You have to like your films artsy and be okay with long shots nearly devoid of action but full of tension and emotion. You can’t walk into the theater and expect this film to be akin to Interview with a Vampire, Daybreakers, or Dracula: Untold. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is absent of Hollywood glitter. It’s gutsy and watches the way an offbeat, literary short story reads.

If you’re looking for a vampire film you haven’t seen before, characters that are compelling, and an experience that will make you yearn to go back to school to study filmmaking, check out A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. And if Ana Lily Amirpour continues to make edgy, dark, brilliant films, I’ll be the first in line to buy a ticket.


I Want a Baymax for Christmas

Photo by flicker user "DisneyLifestylers."

Photo by flicker user “DisneyLifestylers.”

I’m inspired to create a Christmas list this year, because I most definitely want a Baymax. If you don’t know what a Baymax is, go see Disney’s latest feature film Big Hero 6. Immediately.

Big Hero 6, a Marvel Comics property that’s been Disney-fied, is the story of 14 year old ‘bot fighter and boy prodigy Hiro Hamada. Knowing that Hiro is headed toward a teen-hood of genius delinquency in the hyper-urban and progressive landscape of San Fransokyo, his older brother, Tadashi, takes Hiro to his “nerd lab,” a science geek’s ultimate dream on the campus of his college. In the nerd lab, we meet Baymax, a marshmallow of a robotic health care provider that Tadashi has been developing. (And that is when my love story with Baymax began, because he is immediately adorable!)

Hiro geeks out on all the amazing scientific advancements in the lab. He decides to apply to college and put his abilities to good use. However, the night Hiro presents a new invention—microbots, tiny robots controlled by a brain-powered neurotransmitter that can assemble any which way—a fire breaks out and Tadashi is killed in the blaze. (I’m sorry, but that’s a necessary spoiler.)

In the weeks following Tadashi’s death, Hiro is devastated and forfeits his chance at college. Then, one afternoon, Baymax, who has been moved into the bedroom Hiro used to share with Tadashi, is reactivated. The reactivation of Baymax signals the beginning of a friendship between the robot and the boy.

Soon, Hiro begins to suspect that his brother’s death wasn’t an accident and worse yet, someone may have stolen his invention. Someone who wants to use it for evil instead of good. Hiro will need to push his intelligence to the test to learn the truth—and maybe even save the world.

What follows is a beautiful origin story of the Big Hero 6 (Hiro, Baymax, GoGo, Honey Lemon, Wasabi, and Fred) chock-full of ridiculously cool science, lessons in loss and grieving, social commentary on what can happen if technology gets into the wrong hands, and my favorite part, a low-battery (see: drunk) Baymax.

Though it deviates from the origin story seen in Marvel comics, Disney did a nice job balancing old Marvel and new Disney content. And yes, there’s a cameo by Stan Lee!

And I have to say, in an age where we need more and more of the younger generation to go gaga over science, this movie is the perfect advertisement. I wanted to go home and build something. And I don’t do engineering or science or robots.

But make no mistake about it, Big Hero 6 isn’t just for kids (Baymax’s “drunk” scene proves that tenfold—low batteries, mm hmm). This film handles some very adult themes while remaining fun and vibrant for younger viewers, another balancing act Disney seems to have perfected in the last decade or so.

Like most Disney movies (and some comic books, too), succeeding in the face of adversity (ahem, the death of family members) and the healing power of friendship are central to this story, so you leave the theater feeling uplifted and full of hope…And desperately wanting a Baymax for Christmas. There were so many times I wanted to reach out and give that robot a big hug!

Big Hero 6 is one of my favorite movies of the year. And it’s not just the comedic bits of the film or the mind-blowing animation (the flight sequences and travel into another dimension are superb!). There’s a lot we can learn from Big Hero 6—and specifically Baymax, because he holds the story together, he provides a much-needed link for Hiro between the living and the dead, he heals those that may not know they’re hurt, and he makes us feel good—just like he was programmed to do.

Santa, you know what to do.

Gone Girl Gave Me Nightmares

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel-turned-film Gone Girl left me unsettled, unsatisfied, and twisted up in my bed sheets―and I’m rather thrilled about that. Directed by David Fincher, scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and featuring a standout cast, the film reaches into your gut, turns your stomach, and makes no apologies about it.

But then again, the book did that, too. So let’s start there.

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read Gone Girl or seen the movie and would like to do so without its twisty insides being exposed to you, I’d close this blog post right now. I won’t expose the “big twist,” but I will be talking about the ending.

I can thank LitReactor for my exposure to Gone Girl. Heralding it as one of the novels of the year in 2012, my interest was piqued and I picked up a copy. I was not ready for the ride about to ensue. Flynn’s writing is both manicured and relatable, shocking and easy, and it takes hold of you like an addiction. I zoomed through the book like a tourist on a zip line. I remember one night when I kept telling myself, One more chapter and then I’ll go to bed. Of course, I repeated this over and over until I realized at 1:30 AM that work in the morning would be really rough if I didn’t quit. Immediately.

The story is akin to a modern sensationalist headline: On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne’s wife, Amy, goes missing. In their suburban home in Missouri, there are signs of a struggle in the living room, a discreet smear of blood in the kitchen, and a husband who seems a little too relaxed, a little too glib about the whole thing. As Nick struggles with media appearances and his innate Midwestern upbringing (“be polite to everyone”), he quickly becomes a prime suspect. Did Nick Dunne kill his wife? And what would drive someone to murder their significant other?

What follows is a deliciously dark satire on the institution of marriage, the pervasiveness and detrimental nature of the media, an economy in decline, and the disastrous side effects of love gone stale. The book felt slimy when I finished it.

(Extra creep factor—Gillian Flynn wrote this book as a newlywed while pondering the meaning of marriage. Read the whole interview with The Guardian here. It’s fascinating. There are also some great comments by Flynn about her work being called misogynistic and her supposedly “negative” portrayals of women.)

When talks of a film adaptation started to circulate, I was cautiously excited. If they didn’t get everything just right, it would tank for me. I needed the film to be just as slimy and disconcerting as the book.

Oh, it is.

I think a large part of that has to do with Flynn acting as screenwriter. She wrote the novel. She adapted the novel. She was involved, and that’s important. I’ve never understood why films that books employ alternative writers to craft a script when the author is right there (although I’m sure this is a generalization—the author may be unavailable, too pricy, uncooperative, whatever, but still).

Flynn came up with the characters we so love to hate. She has the feel for their voices, their motives, their actions, so it’s only fitting she would bring them to life in the context of film. Her involvement was crucial. And it shows, because the dialogue is always a little off-kilter, a little wrong, and sometimes outright shocking. Well done, Flynn.

The way Flynn incorporated Amy’s diary entries in the larger story is also solid. While Nick’s present is crumbling, Nick and Amy’s “past” is exposed via Amy’s voiceovers, flashbacks, and handwritten diary entries. The cuts from the past to the present are unrelenting and tense; we shuttle back and forth frequently. They build beautiful suspense and any promise of momentum or rest is stopped cold, jolting the viewer, making us uncomfortable all the time.

Apart from the writing, the cast is on point, too, especially Ben Affleck (Nick) and Rosamund Pike (Amy).

For me, God love him, Affleck has always come across as a bit of a tool, which I know is completely unfair because I don’t know him personally. But, you know, that’s how he’s generally comes across to me in film (ironically, one of the major themes of the movie is perception via media―so the joke’s on me!). So when Affleck was cast as Nick, the unhappy, bumbling, awkward, perhaps a little sociopathic husband of Amy, I was sold. Because he’s not entirely likeable or unlikeable in my mind, he was perfect.

And, I have to say, Affleck surprised me with his performance. I had more sympathy for him in the film than I did in the book. I could see his Nick trying to be a good guy while secretly holding onto this voracious contempt for his wife. But hey, you gotta hold that back while under investigation for a possible kidnapping and murder, right?

And Rosamund Pike, holy hell. As poor little rich girl, cunning, conniving Amazing Amy, Pike is harrowing and subtle. She’s scary in the most terrifying way possible, because she’s calculated and cold. You see very little emotion on her face during the film, which had to be quite the feat given the high octane content. She’s a wall that’s been painted over, so there’s this beautiful façade, but what exactly is underneath? And do you really want to chip away at the paint to find out?

The way Pike delivered her lines was extremely impressive to me, too, because her cold and flippant approach reminded me of the actresses in old black and white movies. It’s simply a different acting style, closer to old school stage acting where the suspension of disbelief was greater, but it’s out of place in this modern film, which makes it perfect for Amy. She doesn’t fit. Her voice alone makes her untrustworthy, blockaded.

One of the only times we truly see some interesting behavior and emotion from Amy is during the third act of the film when Nick is being interviewed on TV and knows his wife is watching. The desperation, the satisfaction of hearing what she wants to hear, the recognition that perhaps her plan needs to take a new direction―Pike does it flawlessly albeit subtly.

There are other great performances in the film (Neil Patrick Harris as Desi Collings, a stalkerish past love of Amy’s; Tyler Perry as Tanner Bolt, Nick’s slick defense lawyer; and Carrie Coon, Nick’s twin sister, responsible for most of the levity and humor of the film), but Affleck and Pike truly hold the film together.

And I’ll probably get a lot of flack for this, but I love the ending of the film. Seemingly identical to the opening, Nick’s voiceover and the image of Amy staring at him (you) is not redundant; rather, it makes you feel something completely different at the close of the two-and-half hour ride, something sinister, because you realize there’s just no escaping Amy. Maybe it’s dread…mixed with understanding?

And then the credits roll and you feel like you need a shower to get the lying, cheating, sensationalism, and blood off your skin.

Which is why I didn’t sleep well last night. I didn’t have any crazy graphic dreams; I just felt a little on edge. And that’s Gone Girl’s ultimate goal—to get under your skin and into your bed so that you don’t forget that people are unpredictable and love isn’t always what it seems.

Getting (V)amped!

Photo by flick user "virginsuicide photography."

Photo by flick user “virginsuicide photography.”

For me, vampires and October are synonymous. Of all the monsters out there, great and creepy, vile and horrible, vamps have always been my favorite. I mean, what’s not to love? Vampires―my favorite breed anyway―are sexy yet ruthless, timeless yet new, scary yet alluring, and can be mistaken for humans. Walking (or flying) contradictions are pretty dang creepy, because you don’t entirely know how to feel about them from one moment to the next. And I think vampires are the monsters that most resemble humans, which is terrifying on an entirely different psychological plane.

I’m happy to report that I’ve kicked off October the right way―with everything vampire.

For one, I just finished a novel called Bite Somebody: A Bloodsucker’s Diary by my good friend, Sara Dobie Bauer, who is brilliant and also just as obsessed with vampires as I am. For a taste of the book, read the query letter for Bite Somebody. Unfortunately, that’s all you can read for now, because Sara’s shopping it to agents for publication. But I will tell you that when it gets picked up and published (because I very much believe it SHOULD and WILL happen), get your copy. Because vampires in Florida and parodies of Twilight and performance anxiety and 80s movies and cute stoner boys and blood bags and love. Yeah, all of that and so much more. Sara created a fun, new vampire world―and it was a great introduction to October for me.


Of course, I didn’t stop there. Last Thursday night, I took my boyfriend to see A Vampire Tale, Scorpius Dance Company’s dark and comical tour de force depicting a vampire clan motivated by tradition, bloodlust, and a human-vampire love triangle. Choreographer and vampire lover Lisa Starry conceptualized and staged this show long before the Twilight explosion―and she’s stayed true to her depictions of vampires despite all the pop culture fluff that’s saturated the market. Her vamps are intense and sexy and physical―and they fly thanks to lots of training in aerial arts. Swoon.

A Vampire Tale is an annual treat and many consider it the Nutcracker of the Halloween season. It’s a pretty sound comparison. It’s the same story every year—a beautiful and innocent girl is invited to “have dinner” with the queen of a vampire clan, but the invitation gets a little complicated when the vampire king falls for the human—but the same story always delights. It just keeps getting better.

I also went to see Dracula Untold last night, which I highly recommend if you like old school vampire lore a la Vlad the Impaler. I will admit, I hadn’t seen too much about this movie before going to see it. I didn’t need to. The movie posters were motivation enough―and the casting of Luke Evans? Uh yeah. Superb call, because he has that dark, brooding thing down that’s so essential for a man—or monster―fighting his demons.

Despite poor reviews, I really enjoyed it.

Warning: Light spoilers are about to happen. If you want to see Dracula Untold without my words in your head, stop reading NOW.

Okay, with that out of the way…

What I loved the most about this particular depiction of the Dracula/Vlad the Impaler mythos is that it portrays Dracula as human first and monster second. Vlad turning into Dracula is not an accident—it’s a choice. And the motivation for him to turn to the dark side warms your heart. He’s a complete character with emotions and drive―and you relate to him on an interesting level. But he’s a monster, so that’s weird, right? (Remember that contradictory stuff I was talking about earlier—yeah, empathizing and relating to a monster is part of that.)

To the end, I did a little talk for Ignite Phoenix a few years ago called “A New Breed of Human” about the transformation of the vampire in popular media from Nosferatu to Edward Cullen and my theory about why they’re becoming more and more human, more and more relatable—Dracula Untold being a perfect example. Watch the video for a full breakdown, but here’s the short of it.

Vamps have it all―sex appeal, immortality, power. And we keep pulling our monsters closer and closer to us; they resemble us more and more. Maybe that’s because, deep down, we all just want to be bitten.


Photo licensing – virginsuicide photography on flickr