Fargo Film Festival 2015: The House on Pine Street

house on pine street

The second day of the 2015 Fargo Film Festival ended with a bang – a psychological thriller called The House on Pine Street. Since this movie’s world premiere was last Saturday, the community of Fargo was only the second audience to watch the finished film.

the house on pine streetThe movie follows a young, pregnant woman named Jennifer, who temporarily moves into an old house in a small town with her husband. As the days go on, Jennifer begins to experience unexplained, escalating phenomena that terrorizes her.

Lead actor Emily Goss pulls out a mesmerizing performance as Jennifer. Much like the main character, the audience is not certain how much of what is happening is inside Jennifer’s head and what is real. While there are genuine scares, the practical special effects in the movie are what truly stood out to me. Too many movies depend heavily on CGI for movie effects, but part of being scared is really believing that something is actually happening, and this movie pulls it off.

pine-street-111

One of my other favorite aspects of the film was when the writers turn certain tropes on their heads, such as the tendency for horror movies to have a psychic character who tells the homeowner what supernatural events are happening and exactly how to solve it. The House on Pine Street is much more realistic in this portrayal and was something I appreciated.

Overall, this movie was solid entertainment. The ending of movie is not entirely clear, but instead lets people drum up their own interpretation.

house-pine-street-5After the showing last night, the cast and crew answered questions, mostly pertaining to special effects. Interestingly enough, everyone working on the movie lived and worked from the house they filmed in, and even had some real unexplained phenomena occur during the shooting, such as children’s voices being caught on tape when there were no children in the house.

I had the opportunity to talk to the crew one-on-one after the Q&A to ask the writers about their own personal interpretation of the supernatural events in the house on Pine Street. Although I won’t reveal it here, there is one scene near the end of the movie with Jennifer and another character that hits pretty close to the screenwriters’ own interpretation of what was happening in Jennifer’s home.

The_House_on_Pine_Street_Movie_Poster-e1423840539633The Fargo Film Festival continues through Saturday. I’ll be doing a write-up on the Friday evening showing of It Follows, another horror film that has received raving reviews at the Sundance Film Festival.

 

The Oscar Tour: Boyhood

boyhood reviewHow can I describe Boyhood?

For starters, there is no other movie quite like this one.

At its core, Boyhood is a 12-year journey with a boy named Mason (played throughout his life by Ellar Coltrane). The audience watches Mason as he becomes a young man. As he grows up, Mason moves all over the country, deals with his abusive stepfather, tries to figure out what he wants to do and be in life, and attempts to find common ground with his biological father during his weekend visits.

boyhood review

Mason plays his Game Boy

There isn’t always a conclusion or a happy ending to Mason’s problems. The men in Mason’s life constantly critique his behavior and appearance, but don’t seem to realize the effect this has on him. His parents don’t always apologize for their careless comments. His stepbrother and stepsister don’t escape the reign of their abusive dad. Life isn’t always fair.

Like every childhood, there are good moments, bad moments, first moments, and last moments.

boyhood review

Mason heads off to college.

I’ve seen all but one of the best picture nominees this year. Despite Boyhood’s unique setup of having the same cast for 12 years, this is the only one that didn’t feel like it was trying to win an Oscar. The other nominees felt like they were made to win Oscars.

Perhaps it was because all the others dealt with something much more serious than merely growing up. Selma dealt with the civil rights march to Montgomery in 1965, The Imitation Game centered on English mathematician Alan Turing helping the Allies win WWII but still end up being prosecuted for being homosexual, The Theory of Everything was about Stephen Hawking’s work and his debilitating disease.

Boyhood was about the simple truths of being a child growing up at the turn of the 21st century.

boyhood review

Mason graduates from high school

I was a little older than Mason during his journey, but my twin brothers were his age. I feel like this is the first movie that captured what it was like to be a child growing up during this time. There were so many moments that felt familiar, like I was looking at a snapshot of my own childhood.

His sister sings Britney Spears to annoy him, Mason gets taken away by the magic of Harry Potter and video games, and the ever-evolving technology of the world becomes both a blessing and a curse to his interactions with others.

boyhood review

Mason’s mother reads Harry Potter to Mason and his sister

What happens in the movie is not always a really important moment in the grand scheme of things, but they are moments that matter to Mason. For instance, we never see the birth of his baby brother, but we do see the moment one of his coworkers doesn’t show up to help him with the dinner rush.

I felt the frustrations of childhood and teenagerhood again as the movie went on. The expectations of Mason to behave and act a certain way reignited my own frustrations I had as a kid. I found myself thinking at numerous times: Why can’t these adults cut Mason a break?

This movie is an experience. This movie is a feeling.

In general, kids feel everything so much more strongly than adults. This comes across clearly in Boyhood.

My conclusion

  1. This deserves its Best Picture nomination
  2. Can we have a Girlhood, please?

The Oscar Tour: The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmaye as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of EverythingMy friend Emily and I have been going on what I call our “Oscar Tour” — seeing a majority of the Oscar-nominated films from this year.

I was convinced the universe didn’t want me to see this movie. Emily and I eagerly bought our tickets for the film, but the projector in our theater inexplicably broke down, as Mike the theater attendant apologetically told us before offering us some free theater goodies. When we heard the Theory of Everything was playing at the historic Fargo Theater downtown, we knew it was the universe’s way of apologizing for our inconvenience.

the theory of everything

Jane and Stephen enjoy each other’s company

The movie is about Stephen Hawking, his debilitating disease, and his brilliant mind. It concentrates on his family life, especially his relationship with his then-wife Jane.

Emily and I both knew that the movie would deal with Stephen Hawking’s disease, but we were both still surprised at the direction the filmmakers took. Here are our thoughts on it.

Acting:

Stephen Hawking watches his children play

Kayley: For me, the acting was where the movie really stood out. It’s why I think it was nominated for a couple Oscars this year. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking was a very physically demanding acting challenge that could easily have been done poorly, but I forgot I was watching an actor as the movie went on. The physicality of his role wasn’t distracting at all for me, which is how it should be.

Emily: He did great. And the woman who played his wife, Felicity Jones, also did an amazing job. The filmmakers really portrayed her caregiver role strain in a very realistic way.*

*Emily is currently a nursing student with experience in the field

 

jane and stephen hawking theory of everythingPlot:

Emily: I was really surprised at the film in terms of what the story was about.

Kayley: Me, too. I thought it was going to be more about the process of Hawking discovering or coming up with his theories. It didn’t tie in with his career very much. During one scene he was teaching at Cambridge, the next he was famous…but the plot didn’t really touch on that. It just kind of happened with no warning.

Pictured: not The Notebook

Emily: It was very romance-heavy. In my opinion, it was a little too rom-com —the scenes were a little too beautiful. That scene of them at the party watching the fireworks go off…I was like “Am I watching the Notebook?” I would have also liked to have seen them connect more with Jane’s religious beliefs. They spent a lot of time on that dynamic of how she’s religious and Stephen wasn’t and how that affected their relationships and his work.

Kayley: There wasn’t really a payoff with that. Not a definite one. There’s a saying – if the audience sees a loaded gun sitting on the shelf in the first act, by the third act, the gun should go off. With the religious undertones in this movie, I felt like they were waving the gun around for the whole movie and then it just kind of got put back on the shelf.

stephen hawking and jane wedding theory of everythingThe Verdict:

Kayley: Rent it. It was pretty good, but I didn’t feel like I needed to see it in a theater.

Emily: This would be a good “Date Night” movie. With Stephen and Jane, they explored this deeper level of love. How far would you go for someone in that situation? Do you love them enough to let them go? It really got me thinking about my own relationship when we were watching it.

The Legend of Korra: Korra Alone Review

Season 4, Episode 2

This week’s episode made up for the severe lack of Korra in the season opener with an emotional Korra-centric episode. Like the title suggests, this episode is about our Avatar after she left for the South Pole to recover from her fight with the Red Lotus leader Zaheer. She’s definitely not the Korra we know anymore. She’s cut her hair, ditched her Water Tribe clothes, left her spirit dog Naga behind, and joined in a cage fighting match in the seedy Earth district of Republic City.

Nega Korra

It appears that Korra’s fight with Zaheer left her even more broken than it first appeared at the end of Book 3. She’s wheelchair bound, she can’t go into the Avatar State, and she has a pretty vivid (real?) Korra ghost following her and threatening her. It’s unclear if this menacing manifestation of Korra (I’ll call her Nega Korra) as she appeared during her fight with Zaheer is a hallucination or if it is real, since some spirits can detect Nega Korra’s presence. This question is sure to be answered throughout the season.

Korra goes to the South Pole to try to regain the use of her legs. She says she’ll be gone three weeks but two years fly by. She regains her ability to walk, but she is still a physically weak fighter. She feels absolutely useless, and Tenzin basically saying “The other Airbenders and I got this whole world peace thing” probably isn’t making her feel any better. Tenzin certainly means well, but his words appear to hit Korra pretty hard. If she can’t maintain world balance, then is she a failure as the Avatar?

As she tries to recover, all her friends—Mako, Bolin, Asami, Tenzin, and Jinora—are all doing great things for their world. Korra lies to her parents about going back to Air Temple Island and goes on a journey to reconnect with Rava, the Light spirit. This leads her to an unexpected person: Toph, who apparently has been chilling in a swamp for who knows how many years. This wasn’t a surprise for anyone who watched the season trailer, but it’s still tantalizing to think of what role the greatest Earth Bender in the world can play in the final chapter of the Avatar saga. Perhaps a Yoda-like character to Korra’s Luke Skywalker?

Korra’s character and personality centers completely around her physical abilities. Now that that has been cruelly taken from her (temporarily, hopefully), she has to deal with questions of her identity and her purpose as the Avatar. If she can’t do anything, then what good is she to anyone?

Her physical prowess is such a part of the Korra character that I didn’t even know how to process the first episode of the season. “Did she just purposely throw that fight?” I asked my sister after Korra lost a cage match.

“I don’t think so,” my sister replied. It was so jarring to think that an Earth Bender that Korra wouldn’t have sneezed at in the first season could beat her up so completely. Breaking Korra down in this way is sure to lead to intriguing storylines.

“Korra Alone” is a solid second episode for Book 4 that helps ground some of the more startling aspects of the first episode, “After All These Years.”

Unanswered questions:

–          Why is Nega Korra haunting Korra? And most importantly, is she real or a figment of Korra’s broken psyche?

–          What has Toph been doing all these years?

Some great moments:

–          That Avatar Aang picture in the seaside shop. Good to see he was still goofy, even when he grew up.

–          Mako writing letters to Korra – “It is 2:14 in the afternoon…”

–          The cute little puppy dog spirit that leads Korra to the swamp

–           “You’re not the first Avatar who has overcome great suffering.”

–           And of course… “Nice to see you again, Twinkletoes.”

The last season (Book 4) for one of my favorite shows began on Oct. 3rd and I plan to review each episode every week.

Guardians of the Galaxy Review

In recent years, Marvel has gone where no other franchise has gone before: interwoven, high budget individual stories (movies and television) in one big Marvel “universe.”  At this point, Marvel’s spot as a powerhouse in the box office is relatively safe. And as a result, it looks like Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn was given a lot of freedom to take a bunch of crazy risks.

The result is…AWESOME…for lack of a better word.

Star Lord: Legendary Outlaw

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, there was Star Lord: legendary outlaw…what, you’ve never heard of him? Neither has anyone else. His real name is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and he was abducted as a kid by a group of alien pirates called the Ravagers after his human mother died from cancer. The Ravagers take him on as a surrogate son of sorts and give him a cool leather jacket and a false sense of bravado. Star Lord: legendary outlaw, with a combination of Han Solo’s smarm and Luke Skywalker’s naiveté.

Hello, I’m the Orb and I’ll be your MacGuffin for the remainder of the movie.

Years later, Peter ditches the Ravagers and is jamming out on his Walkman when he stumbles across a mysterious orb on the ruins of a planet, which according to Peter, has an “Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe.”  Later, Peter discovers that intergalactic baddie Ronan the Accuser is after the orb, which apparently has the power to kill billions of people.

Star Lord teams up with a group of criminals after they break out of a high security prison together: the enigmatic Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). They’re a rag tag group, but together, they just might be able to save the galaxy from Ronan.

I was hooked (on a feeling) as soon as I saw the first trailer for this movie:

A talking raccoon? Andy from Parks and Recreation with muscles? Blue Swede? What was this? I’d never heard of it..and for good reason, since the Guardians are (i.e were) one of the lesser known Marvel comics. After a quick visit to the comic book store, I picked up one of the Guardians’ adventures and devoured it. It was like the Avengers…in space!

Needless to say, my expectations for this movie were high. And it still did not disappoint.

The movie kicks off with an adult Peter dancing around and singing along to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone as the opening credits roll. This sets the tone for the whole movie. After years of having the “dark, gritty” superhero film, I forgot how much fun they could be.

And Guardians is a LOT of fun.

Gamora, Star Lord, Rocket, Drax, Groot

The performances work well together. Chris Pratt layers on the charm as Star Lord and Zoe Saldana brings a fierce intensity to Gamora. Dave Bautista is actually pretty hilarious as Drax, as his tendency to take everything literally lends for comedic moments. And although Rocket and Groot are CGI, they steal the show. I’m just saying, I’d watch a buddy movie about those two. The soundtrack itself is almost a character, with everything from Cherry Bomb to The Pina Colada Song.

Although the five Guardians are not superheroes, but they each have their own origin story. Sadly, the movie doesn’t have enough time to go into a lot of detail for each of the main characters. A lot of side characters, like Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Nova Prime (Glenn Close) are not given much to do, but they hold their own.

Pictured: pelvic sorcery

My only disappointment is that the Star Lord/Gamora pairing happened really quickly, although it did lead to one of the best phrases in the film: “Pelvic Sorcery.”

The best way I can describe this movie is that it reminds me of Star Wars with updated effects, a bigger budget, an amazing jailbreak, and even a one-sided dance-off. After a summer of lackluster movies, this is just what we needed. It’s big, bright, and above all, it’s a fun time.

And I can’t wait for the next one.

Sleepover: A Modern Masterpiece?

Terrible movies are up there on my list of favorite things, along with the sound of rainfall and a hot cup of tea. The sheer awfulness of poor filmmaking decisions snowballing out of control until it regurgitates itself onto your screen is something that fascinates me as both a viewer and a writer.

One of my consistently favorite terrible movies is the 2004 schlockfest, Sleepover.

It featured a ton of celebrities before they were big stars, including:

Even Summer Glau can’t believe she’s here.

  • Alexa Vega (post-Spy Kids)
  • Steve Carell (right before The Office became a hit). He easily gives us the best acting in this movie.
  • Summer Glau (post-Firefly!)
  • Coach Sue Sylvester from Glee
  • Evan Peters
  • The kid from Weeds

And those are just the better known actors. You will constantly question what urgent mortgages these people had to pay off in order to accept these roles.

So What’s It About?

Sleepover is about a group of 14-year-old girls at a sleepover party who go on a scavenger hunt in order to earn the coveted “fountain lunch spot.” There are the mean girls, a vain football player, a dorky skater boy named Spongebob, a slacker college brother, the clueless dad, a suspicious mom, and of course, the dreamy Steve Phillips:

I lose it every time. This is by far the best way for the out-of-your-league love interest to enter the storyline–skateboarding over a not-too-impressive water fountain to the sound of angelic pop cherubs and making the most unattractive face he can muster, like that of a confused chipmunk.

Pictured: “So plush.”

Steve serves as little more than an empty shell that’s obsessed with “The Girl in the Red Dress,” our main character Julie (Alexa) after watching her skate across his car’s path earlier in the evening. His sole character development is:

1) He’s so plush

2) He likes skateboarding

3) His shoes smell good

4) Julie likes him and movie rules mandate that he will therefore like her

Steve and Company

Steve’s nameless buddy (who I’ll call Romeo for ironic purposes) is the most underdeveloped character I’ve ever watched, but for some reason, the movie seems to think of him as comic relief or, at the very least, as a foil to the pure awesomeness known as Steve Phillips. Romeo spends the whole movie in the background, getting rejected by girls who love Steve instead and listening to Steve rant and rave about “The Girl in the Red Dress.”

The movie is much funnier when you make up a background story about Romeo secretly being in love with Steve. Just try it with the scene below:

Watch that and tell me that “There’s a gym full of girls waiting for you.” isn’t code for: “But you’re dating me, Steve!” Not only do Romeo’s acting choices make him look like he’s secretly pining after his undeniably plush friend, the inclusion of the scratched pool shot boggles me on a filmmaking level. It’s not funny, all the dialogue stops, and what little pacing there was screeches to a halt. What does this shot mean? What is life?

I’m also convinced Steve is secretly a sociopath. Look at his reaction to finding out that a 14-year-old girl snuck into his bathroom while he was taking a shower and stole his boxers:

That is the wrong reaction, Steve.

That is the reaction of a man who was minorly inconvenienced when he realized he just forgot his cell phone in the car, not a man who just learned a stalker broke into his house and stole his underwear

Just Date Guys Who Like Brownies

Another interesting choice by the writers is the inclusion of the confusing “Brownie vs. Celery” debate as a metaphor for choosing the perfect romantic partner. Yancy suffers from intense body image issues because of society’s crippling beauty standards and her peers’ constant bullying. Her friends’ advice? Just date guys that like brownies. That will solve everything. And it does.

The effectiveness of this method must be called into question. No one would choose celery over brownies. Are Yancy’s friends implying that she should settle for ANYONE on the entire planet?

So What Sets Sleepover Apart?

These are just the tip of the iceberg for the wonderful horror that is Sleepover. But why do I keep coming back to this terrible movie before all other terrible movies?

As strange as it sounds, Sleepover has a certain innocence about it that is in the details. It’s hard to explain, but not a lot of movies portray 14-year-olds like this movie does—as obviously whiny, clueless, self-absorbed, but not altogether loathable children. “Children” is the key word here. A lot of other shows and movies portray kids as miniature adults who are wise beyond their years. This movie does a little bit of that and the girls are definitely annoying, but…they also try to order a milkshake at a nightclub. They dance around in Spice Girls costumes. Their mannerisms are child-like. They put on outlandish makeup (for fun!). And while skater boy Spongebob is obsessed with girls, he still has a Velcro wallet that holds his prized picture of him lying in a coma that he shows off to anyone who will listen.

“Wanna see a picture of me in a coma?” – actual line in movie/best icebreaker ever

This is basically a PG rated version of an 80s teen movie.

Most movies seem like they were written by teenage boys. Well, Sleepover sets itself apart because it’s like it was written by preteen girls and the result is absolutely magical. It follows the most basic plotline imaginable, the acting is what you’d expect from a middle school play, but I think it helps me remember how I saw the world as a 14-year-old girl.

So tell me, what’s a terrible movie you like?

How To Train Your Dragon 2

The fictional Scandinavian town of Berk is a pretty cool place now that dragons and humans live in harmony.

Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless are still free spirits who are trying to map as much of the world as they can; something that may have to fall to the wayside now that Hiccup’s dad, Stoic (Gerard Butler), wants to hand over the title of Chief to his son.

Thank goodness I googled the bad guy’s name. I almost wrote Dirk Bloodfish instead of Drago Bludvist.

The 20-year-old is hesitant to accept this mantle, he’d rather chart new territory (literally and figuratively) than lead his father’s people. Before Hiccup can decide if he wants to be Chief or not, he discovers a new bad guy called Drago Bludvist is capturing and controlling a dragon army. His plan? To defeat all humans who once refused to bow down to him, which includes Hiccup’s father.

Hiccup thinks if he finds Drago and talks to him, the Vikings can avoid a war, so he takes to the skies with Toothless and his friends in order to save his home.

Toothless and Hiccup take to the skies

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a great follow-up to the heartwarming first installment. It’s darker than the first movie, but everything that made the first one so amazing is here—and better than ever.

1) First of all, it has breathtaking flying sequences and action scenes that remind audiences 3D can serve a purpose in the moviegoing experience.

2) One of my favorite relationships, the “awww” inducing friendship between Hiccup and Toothless, grows in its depth as the two characters age and mature. Other characters get lovely moments together as well.

3) The movie’s content and humor can speak to people of all ages.

Toothless and Hiccup

One other motif that follows from the first movie: this kids’ film isn’t afraid to show what real loss looks like—and stick with it instead of solving it via a last minute solution. In the first movie, Hiccup loses his leg in the final battle. This movie doesn’t dwell on his lost limb, but rather subtly shows the reality that Hiccup has to live with on a daily basis. How to Train Your Dragon 2 also doesn’t shy away from the permanent, sometimes staggering cost of each choice we make. In this sense, the series is one of the more profound children’s movies I’ve seen.

Overall, seeing this movie in the theater was a great experience, but a couple of aspects of the movie rubbed me the wrong way. Too much time is spent on the comic relief side characters all having crushes on each other…with no payoff. Some of the interactions were funny, but they were sometimes distracting from other things that were going on. I don’t particularly care for this type of subplot, but it needs to have some sort of definite conclusion if the writers want to spend so much time on it.

Lastly, the film just skates past the fact that a character’s parent abandoned their child for no apparent reason. Rationalizes it, even. There’s not even a line of dialogue dealing with the anger or the tension this would cause. It didn’t debilitate the entire film, but it bothered me nonetheless.

Despite these small aspects, How to Train Your Dragon 2 was one of my favorite animated movies of the year. The characters grow, the bad guy is despicable and frightening, there are tender moments, scary moments, funny moments, and action that will knock your socks off. Much like Hiccup, this second installment is more grown-up than the first movie, but it’s a worthy sequel.

The Fault in our Stars Movie Review

Last night, I thought I’d casually go out with couple of friends and see The Fault in Our Stars, based on the bestselling young adult novel by John Green.

“Casually.” Was I ever wrong.

I thought getting to the movie 20 minutes early would give me plenty of time to get good seats, but when I arrived, I was surprised to find that my showing had sold out.

Lines. Lines everywhere.

In the packed lobby, young teenage girls were clutching blankets, buying popcorn, and chattering with each other. My friends and I went on a pilgrimage to different Fargo theaters to find a showing that hadn’t sold out, claiming three of the last tickets of the final showing of the night.

At this point, I was intrigued. I hadn’t seen people making this much fuss out of a movie since the last Harry Potter movie had been released. I hadn’t read John Green’s book or followed the movie’s marketing…and in light of its apparent popularity, I felt like I had been dropped right in the middle of a frenzy.

Could Fault in Our Stars really be worth all this hype and trouble?

Hazel and Gus flirt

After all, it is a movie about teen romance. I’m usually not a big fan. I’d much rather watch Hot Fuzz for the billionth time. The typical teen romance movies formula consists of two teens wanting to be together but adults and classmates telling them they can’t because society and status quo.

Suffice to say, Fault in Our Stars was a bit of an anomaly in the teen romance genre. In a sea of romantic movies, the highest praise I can give this movie is that it is…different. In a good way.

Our two main leads (Hazel and Gus) meet in a cancer support group, become friends, discuss literature, share their dreams and fears, and then become…more than friends. It’s a pretty simple premise, but the difference between this movie and every other romantic movie I’ve seen is that these kids have experienced some of the tough truths about life (and death) first-hand and because of this seem more mature than most leads in romantic movies.

Gus gives Hazel some flowers

These teens aren’t concerned with going to the prom or which college they will go to; they just want to live another day as pain-free as possible. Hazel’s big dream is to meet the author of her favorite intellectual book and ask him questions about his work. Pretty atypical for a teen girl in a movie, but much easier for me to relate to than a girl whose main goal is to get a killer dress for senior prom. It doesn’t hurt that actor Shailene Woodley’s got some mad acting chops. The male lead, Gus, in turn is actually a nice, funny, thoughtful guy (kind of like a manic pixie dream dude)…also out of the ordinary for a teenage boy.

I don’t want to give too much of the movie away, but I can tell you that if you have a heart, you will feel something by movie’s end, whether it is hope, happiness, sadness, or longing. In my theater, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a dry eye.

Fault in Our Stars was “okay.” And once you see the movie, you’ll realize what high praise that is.

How Kids’ TV Can Do It Right: Gender in Avatar and Korra

As a masters student finishing up my thesis on the childhood media role models of current adults, I find myself constantly analyzing current kids’ shows and movies in terms of gender, race, and overall equality. What are our kids watching now and how can this affect the way they perceive gender—in present day and in the future?

Every character, every bit of dialogue, every plotline is under scrutiny.  No kids’ show is a match for my academic background in gender communications. It’s like a switch I can’t turn off, but sometimes wish I could because of how frustrating it can be to be constantly aware of the disappointing reality. For all the progress media has made, it still seems to be changing outdated notions of gender just enough to maintain the status quo while pleasing audiences.

Or in some cases, not pleasing anybody.

Either the shows are hypermasculine, hyperfeminine, or just plain dumb. Sometimes it seems impossible for kids’ shows to get it right.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

But one of my favorite shows, Avatar the Last Airbender (ATLA), is one of those that hits a lot of the marks. Not only does it feature an equal number of females, it also gives them a piece of the action and agency in the plot. Three of the “bad guys” are in fact a team of three teenage girls, one of whom is set to take over as the ruler of her father’s kingdom instead of her brother. ATLA also features disabled characters and characters of color who are key to reaching goals and are not objects of pity or ridicule. One of my favorite running jokes is that the main characters keep forgetting that their friend Toph is blind.

Aang

The biggest display of nontraditional gender traits is the main character himself: a 12-year-old boy named Aang. He is gentle, caring, quiet, humble, and spiritual. Basically, everything that boy characters on kids’ shows normally aren’t. He struggles with his role as the Avatar (essentially, being The Chosen One), which means maintaining peace in his world at any cost. Although his society and his friends expect him to kill the main bad guy of the series, a merciless dictator, Aang instead finds a more peaceful solution and doesn’t compromise his values or his character.

The Legend of Korra

With two seasons of Korra already released and the third set to air sometime this summer, I thought I would see how this sequel to Avatar holds up with the original series. From the get-go, we see we’re getting a much different Avatar than Aang. Check out Korra’s first appearance:

Both Avatars are caring and strive to do the right thing. But whereas Aang was reserved, thoughtful, small, and nimble, Korra is the opposite: hotheaded, impulsive, and physically strong.

Take a look at Korra’s character design:

Got your tickets to the gun show.

She is physically imposing and conducts herself in a masculine way. Unlike a lot of animated girls, she has defined arm muscles, her outfit is practical, and she wears no makeup. She does have larger breasts, but she is not sexualized with her clothing, the dialogue, or in the way she moves.

When her spiritual mentor sees Korra after a long absence, he says sincerely and proudly, “Korra, look at you. So big and strong.” When I was watching the episode, I finished that sentence like this in my head, “Korra, look at you. So beautiful and grown-up.” These words, “big and strong,” are traits that we’d normally assign to a male character. The fact that I was surprised by the way the show chose to describe its female protagonist speaks volumes for the different way gender is portrayed and vocalized on The Legend of Korra.

Korra’s physical strength is one of her defining characteristics in the series. Her feelings are relayed through her physical actions. When Korra feels an emotion, it often finds an outlet through physical expression, whether it is hugging someone when she’s happy or destroying something when she’s angry. Although I was uncertain how the showrunners would choose to portray gender now that there was a female (of color!) as the main character, I was immediately struck with how different or nearly nonexistent traditional gender roles are in this world. While her youth and inexperience are occasionally referenced, no character ever questions Korra’s capabilities because of her biological sex.

For the naysayers who say that an action-oriented kids’ show aimed at both boys and girls can’t have an interesting female lead, I direct your attention to Korra. Both Korra and Avatar are children’s television at its finest, and are just as interesting for adults to watch. Hey, I loved both shows and I’m way past the targeted age group.

My two young brothers, who love Avatar, were a little skeptical about a girl as the new Avatar, insisting they wouldn’t like it as much. But we watched the first season in one day. They made comments of their admiration for Korra and other women on the show and soon, Korra’s gender wasn’t an issue. At the end of the season, my 11-year-old brother shrugged nonchalantly and said, “I guess having a girl Avatar isn’t so bad.”

You can say that again.

Fargo Film Festival 2014: Thursday afternoon Favorite Picks

Another afternoon of all-access to the Fargo Film Festival brought on yet another round of short films. There was a great mixture to be had, from a relationship seen from the view of a computer screen (Noah) to a story about robots being replaced by humans (Shelved).

Here’s the ones I liked the most and the least.

My favorite: A Good Wife

A Good Wife is a short documentary about the struggles of rural Indian women in the Sundarban islands who live in a conservative, patriarchal society. In interviews with the women and their families, womens’ marginalized role in arranged marriages is revealed, where dowries are demanded and domestic violence is a reality. How can these women fulfill their own lives and still be “a good wife?”

There is no clear answer.

As I’ve stated in other blog posts, feminist issues interest me immensely. Looking at an entirely different patriarchal culture was incredibly interesting.

Second favorite: Noah

Told entirely from the perspective of one teenage boy’s computer screen, “Noah” follows a breakup through the lens of Facebook, Skype and Chatroulette.

A little crude (definitely NSFW during the Chatroulette part), but an accurate portrayal of how modern teenagers forge, maintain, and end relationships. I was surprisingly invested. (“Don’t click that link, Noah!”)

Moral of the story: Don’t go on Chatroulette.

Get used to this, people. This is basically the whole movie.

My least favorite: Postface

Admittedly, this one was on my list of shorts I definitely wanted to catch at the festival. The synopsis was enough to pull me in:

“In a celebrity-obsessed culture, filmmakers often exploit the downfall of a star to amplify the emotional undertones of the fictional films in which they perform. POSTFACE takes a look back at the filmography of Montgomery Clift whose private life and career spiral downward after a 1956 car crash that left his face scarred and partially paralyzed.
Like an actor without a face, the video is an exploration of obsolescence, produced by means of analog tape manipulations.”

Instead of being an “exploration of obsolescece,” this felt more like an exploration of intentionally shaky editing and the emotion of confusion. I’m not quite sure what the message was. The audience I was with clapped perplexedly at the end of Postface…maybe no one wanted to admit that they didn’t know what had just happened. Check it out for yourself:

Perhaps I’m not cultured enough to appreciate a short film good enough to make it into the festival. I think what really threw me off was the editing: pixelation and jumpiness on every frame, never a clear picture, never an explanation of who Montgomery Clift was or what he looked like after his car accident. It felt like watching my Youtube video buffer with a faulty internet connection for seven minutes.