Category: SF/Fantasy

The Hogwarts Librarian

Published / by Rachel Ayers

I don’t know about Madam Pince.

Sure, there are bad librarians in the world — we’re only human, after all, and plenty of people don’t know what they’re getting into when they choose their career, including people who think that being a librarian means you read books all day.  And I can see how that might make you bitter and disappointed, especially if you’re nothing but a one-dimensional stereotype.

But librarians are, in spite of persistent stereotypes, largely liberal; proponents of social equality; sneakily subversive champions of free information.

A real librarian would be like, “Hey, since you guys are studying in here anyway, I brought you some pumpkin pasties and hot chocolate.  Let me know if you need any more books!”

A real librarian would be like, “If you have a problem with your young wizard child reading a book from the restricted section, the best strategy is to read the book before or with your child so that you can discuss the social implications of pureblood propaganda, rather than pretending that it’s not part of our history.”

A real librarian would be like, “My goodness, I’d better order more copies of Hogwarts: A History.  It’s really popular this year!”

A real librarian would be like, “Hey, I’m not trying to breathe down your neck, but let me know if you need help finding anything, okay? And don’t worry about shelving these, just set them on this cart when you’re done and I’ll make sure they get back into the right place.”

A real librarian would be like, “Sure, Harry, let’s cross-reference ‘lack of oxygen’ with ‘uncommon charms,’ and see what we can find.  And maybe with ‘magical tools.’  And maybe with ‘herbalism.’  Hmm, let me check ‘muggle studies,’ too, maybe they’ve come up with something….”

A real librarian would be like, “Sorry, Professor Umbridge, I can’t tell you what the kids have been checking out from the library, that would violate their privacy.  But did you see this new book of cat poetry?”

A real librarian would be like, “Well, I try not to let my personal biases influence the way I develop the collection, but I do feel like studies have shown that muggle born wizards are just as talented as pureblood wizards, so I really think the whole Voldemort thing was a big load of Bertie Bott’s bullshit flavour beans.”

A real librarian would be like, “Pssst, Dumbledore’s Army, you can meet in here until you find a better secret place to hide.  I encourage kids of all ages to use this community space.  And here are some books that might help you cast the patronus charm….”

Listen, if Pince doesn’t know how to be a librarian, I’d be happy to apply for the position at Hogwarts.

Supernova, 1999

Published / by Rachel Ayers

Last night I watched Supernova, starring James Spader and Angela Bassett.  Not exactly a cult classic, but I’ve never seen it before and I wondered how it would look after almost 20 years.  (All the online listings for this movie say 2000, but my DVD case gives it a copyright of 1999, so take your pick I guess?)

If you haven’t seen it, spoilers, obviously.

The basic premise is that this is a medical rescue ship doing a deep-space tour with a motley crew: a captain writing a dissertation on either cartoon classics or late 1900s nostalgia (I couldn’t quite figure it out, also, enjoyed the notion that we banned violent cartoons in the early 2000s); a mysterious medical doctor; two medical interns who are, according to Spader’s character, Nick, more interested in each other’s anatomy than anything else; and an engineer/computer programmer who seems to be in love with the ship’s AI.  Nick comments on the ridiculous crew early on and gets rebuked by Caela (Bassett’s character, the flinty doctor).

They receive a mystery call, directly to their ship, with the name of Caela’s ex, Karl Larson, attached to the message.  They have to make a jump to hyperspace faster than lightspeed travel to get to the source of the distress call within their lifetimes, so as they prepare to do this the medical interns tell each other horror stories about all the ways this can go wrong, like the people who were fused together when they shared a protective pod.

While they travel through this dimensional vortex, they or perhaps only the viewer are assaulted with visions of the probable near future mishaps they will suffer.  They get to regular space to find they are colliding with asteroids due to the extra high gravity field they landed in, and also that the captain, who mysteriously switched pods with the doctor, is almost dead, having been flayed apart when his protective pod failed.  He asks Caela to kill him so she does, putting Nick in charge of the crew.

Nick, meanwhile, is busy saving the ship from being smashed to bits and does some fancy manual flying without the AI assist to save their bacon.  They now have 7 hours and 12 minutes of fuel left, enough to keep them in orbit around the blue giant sun while they recharge their dimensional engines, which will be ready for another jump in 7 hours and 1 minute.  Everyone is appalled by this narrow window but nobody offers other suggestions.

Of course they still have to deal with the distress call.  A shuttle comes ramming into them faster than necessary but this has no repercussions other than depositing the man who sent the distress call.  He tells them he’s Karl’s son, and used his father’s name to get Caela’s attention (after she already noticed that this wasn’t Karl).

Also can I just take a second to ask why a medical rescue ship doesn’t have any stretchers?

As they assess the situation, poor Robin Tunney has to make it work with a script that has her medical intern character, Danika, blushing and speechless at the sight of a nude male.  She apparently just can’t handle his strapping manliness.  That’s okay, though, because her fellow-intern-boyfriend, Yerzy, (Lou Diamond Phillips, also suffering without much writing to work with) becomes besotted by the “treasure” that Not-Karl has brought on board, a strange purple glowy object vaguely resembling a vagina or possibly some kind of space vibrator.  (Danika comments on this at one point and I was disappointed but not surprised that nobody else seemed to think that idea made sense.)

The item gets locked up in quarantine, but while Danika is being creepily harassed seduced by Not-Karl, Yerzy opens up the quarantine and makes passionate love to leans on the object for a while.

Meanwhile Caela is doing her best to discover what the object is, with the AI’s help.  Nick is off to Not-Karl’s wreckage to find extra fuel for them, and the ambiguous engineer/computer guy, Benj, played by Wilson Cruz grossly underutilized, is presumably also doing something.  (I don’t know, I watched this last night completely sober and I can’t remember).  Danika gets Yerzy out of the object-hypnosis-zone and Caela assesses him to discover that he’s aging backwards and growing new muscle mass and he expresses that HE FEELS GREAT; Caela talks to the computer which tells her that the object is filled with 9th dimensional matter which both re-energizes life matter and also overwhelms it, so Caela labels it a bomb; Not-Karl harasses Nick over the radio and strands him by putting his shuttle on “infinite loop,” at which point Danika discovers him and flails about with trying to beat him up.  Not-Karl, who we start to realize IS Karl, spaces the medical interns.

A note about Karl, here, played woodenly by Peter Facinelli; is it the script?  Can he just not elevate himself to the level of Spader and Bassett, or Tunney who he probably spent the most time actually emoting against?  Nobody had much to work with here, but his singularly unconvincing and uncharismatic characterization had me wonder why they didn’t just shoot the guy five minutes after they got him into the infirmary.  The only other thing I remember seeing him in was Twilight (as Dr. KARLisle, hahaha no but really), but that doesn’t really say anything about anybody’s acting ability….

At this point Benj and Caela realize they’re in trouble, and Benj tells Caela she’s way more badass than him, but still goes to fight IS-Karl.  After a not-believably-poignant with the AI who admits that she does love Benj, he gets killed by IS-Karl.  IS-Karl goes super-ex-creepy on Caela, who manages to get away from him.

Nick mysteriously rescues himself and then comes and rescues Caela.  They manage to blow IS-Karl and the alien object out of the ship without getting sucked out themselves, and they escape by sharing the last safety pod IN SPITE OF THE EARLIER SCARY STORIES ABOUT DOING THIS!  2% of their genetic material is swapped, which apparently resides entirely in their eyes, so now they both have one blue eye and one brown eye. Okay, that’s fine, that’s cute.  Oh, AND CAELA IS PREGNANT, CONGRATULATIONS.

They live happily ever after, at least until the 51 years until the explosive 9th dimension matter makes its way to earth.

***

I didn’t not like this.  Let me be clear about that, in spite of my sarcastic points above.  (It’s just really easy to sarcasm “old” sci-fi.)  I had really low expectations, due to the ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, and that may have actually helped.  It was an enjoyable time-capsule of sci-fi ideas, played out with some good and some bad acting.

It mainly suffered from too many ideas which weren’t developed well enough.  I would have loved to know why, if we’re exploring vast light-years of space, their is apparently such rigid population control that both parents have to be approved for reproduction, even when some people who want children (Bassett’s character) are apparently sterile.  I would have loved to talk more about dimensions.  How did we get to 9?  Is space/time somehow tied up with this?  Are we just full of crap right now?

There were two recurring problems that took away from the movie and they did it over and over again.  First, the action was boring.  I didn’t know any of the characters well enough to care about what happened in their fight scenes.  In spite of the early seeding of their quirkiness, none of them had time to develop into particularly interesting people, perhaps because they all continued to act stupidly in service of moving the plot along, rather than acting like real people, the second recurring problem of unending stupidity.  The captain gets taken out for no apparent reason, leaving the rest of the crew guessing as to his logic.  He already knew the safety pod was malfunctioning, so he switched with the doctor, and therefore almost-died and then had to be put out of his misery.  The characters even question the illogic of this (“Then why didn’t he cancel the jump?”) without reaching any conclusion, most likely because the writers couldn’t.  This is in service of putting James Spader in charge of the crew, I assume, but if that’s the case, why not just have the captain’s pod fail without warning, without the weirdly-telegraphed-obviousness?

Danika is utterly incomprehensible; everything about her character is contradictory.  She’s a medical intern who goes unprofessionally batty when she sees a naked man.  She apparently wants babies but isn’t sure she wants them with the guy that she loves.  No disrespect to Robin Tunney; she’s stuck have Not-Karl-IS-Karl narrating her motivation more than she ever gets to feel it out as an actor.

Yerzy and Benj and the captain never really develop as anything other than plot points, though there’s a bit of an attempt with Benj (can we not just say Benjamin like the AI does??) and his “relationship” with the AI, whom he dubs “Sweetie” and everyone else also calls it/her this.  He dies while attempting to get her to override her programming so that she can eject IS-Karl from the ship.  She realizes that she does love him and can have her own wants and decisions but it’s too late, he’s already been beamed over the head by IS-KARL and she realized she loved him just in time to lose him.  Another plot point that could have been really interesting if it had actually been developed at all.  The fight itself between Benj and Karl was utterly boring.

What really does hold up about this movie, what is utterly convincing and believable, is the “nightmare ex boyfriend returns unexpectedly” plotline.  Bassett sells it, portraying both shattered and determined in the face of Karl’s return.  (Though why she wouldn’t recognize him simply because he’s been de-aged is another miss by the writers.)  And I had a moment of real hope for the movie, when she was stranded alone on the ship with him, manages to break their stalemate and get away from him — and then co-pilot Nick sweeps in for the rescue.  Still, STILL, they didn’t quite blow it; Nick and Caela cooperate believably to defeat the physicality of Karl, and Spader and Bassett manage to cobble together some believable chemistry and affection out of the wreckage of their meet-not-cute.

And then the writers crap all over the ending with the joyous announcement that Caela is pregnant; although we must assume, without evidence, that she wants a baby, for the singular reason “she.”

I had as much fun tearing this apart as I had watching the parts that I liked, and for that, I thank the cast, producers, and production crew.  As for you, writers: you know what you did.

To Another World … The Forbidden Kingdom

Published / by Rachel Ayers

There is something compelling about the idea that any one of us might, at any moment, be summoned/dragged/pulled out of this world and into another — a world of adventure, magic, mystery, and heroism.  The motif shows up over and over again in everything from fairy tales to Stephen King novels.  What is so special about the idea?  Perhaps the notion that we’re meant for more than humdrum lives, or perhaps we simply like our escapism served up with the idea that we could be next….

The Forbidden Kingdom stars Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Yifei Liu, and some white kid Michael Angarano, who have to work together to return the Monkey King’s staff to the Five Elemental Mountains to free the Monkey King and end the reign of the evil Jade Warlord.  But first we meet generic white teenager Jason Tripitikas (Angarano) in South Boston, where he wakes from a dream of the Monkey King fighting the Jade Army.  At first glance, it would seem that the kid simply watches too many kung fu movies, and the glimpse we get inside his room emphasizes his obsession with all things kung fu.

Jason goes to the local pawn shop to find some more action movies to feed his obsession, where he trades jokes with Jackie Chan wearing all of the age makeup.  He gets some DVDs and heads home, flirting with some neighborhood ladies.  All is well until a bunch of ruffians show up and it turns out that watching kung fu movies does not help prepare one to stop bullies.  Once the bullies realize that Jason knows Old Hop at the pawn shop, they use him to break into the shop after hours and try to steal all the money.  Jason shows that he is a terrible person for not taking a bit of a beating but instead going along with it to get his friend robbed.  Things go even more wrong when the lead-thug pulls out a gun and shoots the old guy, who gives Jason the staff and tells him he must return it to its rightful owner.  Jason runs from the thugs and ends up on the roof, and as the lead thug threatens to shoot him, he’s magically dragged backward off the roof, and falls for a long long time.

He wakes up again, but this time he’s in a tiny village in the Forbidden Kingdom.  Before he can understand what’s going on, he’s chased by Jade soldiers until he runs into the Drunken Master Lu Yan (Chan), who fights off the soldiers and then gives him the magical ability to understand Chinese (I guess) by yelling at him that he’s not listening.  This shortcut at least allows the characters to understand each other for the rest of the movie.

Lu Yan takes him to a teahouse and infodumps the history of the Monkey King and his rivalry with the Jade Warrior, the Jade Emperor’s very unperceptive dismissal of the matter before he goes off to meditate for 500 years (okay man, if you want to be a hermit, be a hermit, but if you’re the emperor you should probably do some emperoring).  The Jade Warrior tricked the Monkey King into putting down his staff and then turned him into stone.  At the last second the Monkey King threw his staff out the window and through time or other worlds (within the movie it all seems to be treated as another world, though summaries of the movie suggest that it’s all time travel, so take your pick).

They are overheard by Golden Sparrow (Liu), who helps them escape when they are attacked by more soldiers.  Lu Yan gives them directions to the Elemental Mountains, implies that he’s an immortal who needs wine to be immortal (actually Sparrow does the implying here, and Lu Yan goes along with it), and Jason convinces him to come with them and teach him kung fu.  They’ve been at this for a few days — with a nice reference to a traditional Zen story about emptying your mind to learn new things — when the staff is stolen by Gandalf the White the Silent Monk (Li), who takes it to a temple and sits meditating over it.

Lu Yan finds him there and then Jackie Chan and Jet Li face off for the first time in cinematic history!  Really, if you don’t see this movie for any other reason, it’s pretty great to see their styles blend.  They fight to a standstill, and then Jason catches the staff, which for some reason convinces the Silent Monk that he is the seeker from the prophecy.  (Because it reverberated slightly when the kid caught it?  I don’t know.  On a rewatch the logic doesn’t hold up so well. I’m not convinced they ever needed the kid after this point but hey, it’s not my movie.)

So now the gang’s all here, the scarecrow, the cowardly lion, and the tin man, so they continue on their way to reach the Elemental Mountains.  Meanwhile, the Jade Warlord has hired Danaerys Targaryen a witch, Ni Chang (Bingbing Li) — and a nod to The Bride With White Hair, which Jason mentions as one of the movies he bought from the pawn shop, nicely done there.  She tracks them down after they cross the desert and Jason lives through a torturous kung fu montage, the best of which is Chan and Li using Angarano as the comedy prop in some pretty classic Jackie Chan style fighting.  We also get more background on Sparrow, whose entire village was wiped out by the Jade Warlord, but the Silent Monk (considerably more talkative by now) warns her that vengeance is bad.

About this time, Sparrow and Jason have a tender moment, and of course right then, Ni Chang finds them and harshly criticizes them for having feelings.  She offers Jason passage home if he’ll turn over the staff to her, but he refuses.  The four travelers fight Ni Chang and her Jade Goons, racing away and escaping, only to have Lu Yan struck down by a long range arrow from Ni Chang.  Can’t help but admire shooting like that, as it’s apparently hours later when he finally gets struck.  The others whisk Lu Yan to a temple and it turns out that he’s not immortal, he just really likes wine.

He’s lying there dying and the Silent Monk and Jason argue (with staffs) about the best time to go to the Elemental Mountains — Jason doesn’t think they have time to waste, since his friend and teacher is dying, and the Silent Monk thinks their best chance of success is to wait two days until the new moon, so they can sneak up in the dark.  Sparrow tells Jason that he’s grown a lot as a warrior, which inspires him to take the staff to the Jade Warlord in exchange for the elixir of immortality to save Lu Yan.  Again, can’t really understand what this kid is thinking, this seems like a terrible plan.  The witch escorts him to the Jade Warlord, who makes Jason and the witch fight to the death for the elixir since he’s promised it to her already.  Jason is pretty outmatched and their fight is pretty boring, oh well.  For some reason the warlord stops Ni Chang from striking the death blow, which gives Jason’s friends time to come to his rescue.  They show up, closely followed by all the trainees at the monastery, who have also dragged Lu Yan up the mountain on his deathbed, presumably for convenient access to the elixir.  A bit more scuffling and Lu Yan gets the elixir and joins the fray.  The Silent Monk and the Jade Warlord fight for a while, and then Sparrow decides to have her moment and kill the warlord, which backfires because revenge is bad.  Then Jason uses her jade pin to kill the warlord, which doesn’t backfire because revenge is only bad if you’re a girl, I guess.  She dies.  Everyone else lives, and the Jade Emperor returns for some reason, because at this point things are pretty well fine.  However, he sends Jason home.

Jason returns the same moment he left (giving some credence to the time travel theorists) and fights off the thugs from before.  He returns to the pawn shop to find that the owner will be okay, because, he hints, he’s immortal, and therefore we are led to believe that he’s actually Lu Yan.  After that Jason runs into a girl who looks exactly like Sparrow, which makes sense because, as a young lad who’s earned his chaps, next step is getting the girl.

Jackie Chan tells us that as one story ends, another begins, and we fade out on some beautiful music.  The end!

Let’s break it down for the Wonderful World of Forbidden Kingdom:

PROS:

  1. It’s gorgeous.
  2. Plenty of time for tea and contemplation.
  3. You might just get that training montage you’ve always wanted, to magically become a badass.

CONS:

  1. People may try to kill you just because of a stick you brought with you.
  2. Good luck if you aren’t male.
  3. You’ll never be quite sure if you went to another world or traveled in time.

 

So overall it’s a better movie, visually, than a great story — the plot holes gape just a little too wide, especially on repeated viewing.  Ummm, why is the kingdom forbidden, exactly?  I’m uncomfortable with the White Savior motif, which is only tolerable because Jason’s pretty much useless.  More damaging is the concept that the Everyman is a white male from the United States.  Of course this is a loose adaptation of Journey to the West and it’s adapted by American filmmakers, so that doesn’t surprise me but… ehh, we’ve done that song and dance so many times that it doesn’t matter if it’s done well or not at this point: it’s old.  Still, it’s fun to see Chan and Li together, and the cinematography is beautiful.  If you want a decent kung fu movie you can skim through the lazy filler plot (I was knitting).  If you want an excellent other-world-ly adventure… there are other worlds than these….

Blade Runner: Director’s Cut

Published / by Rachel Ayers

Somehow, I had never seen the first Blade Runner.  With all the excitement about the new one, I figured I’d finally watch it.  I went in knowing very little about what I was about to see, other than the fact that it was a cult classic, and that people I trust were excited about the sequel.

 

So the original Blade Runner is actually a horror movie about these four kids who get trapped in an evil, haunted retro-future city where they know they’ll be hunted down and killed if they’re found. They try to get around this by blending in with the local monsters, and they get away with it for a little while, but the evil masterminds know they’re there, so they call in this mega-hunter, the Blade Runner, who weirdly doesn’t have any blades or even do a whole lot of running (but horror movie monsters never really have to run so you’ve gotta wonder why they called it that anyway).

Meanwhile, the evilest mastermindest has another kid, RACHEL, captive, and she thinks she’s actually one of the monsters until it’s revealed that she’s just another innocent kid who the mastermind is experimenting on. When she realizes this she runs away, and goes to the Blade Runner for help for some reason, even though it’s its job to hunt these poor kids down. Then she comes to her senses and runs away from it, too.

So the Blade Runner is hunting these kids down, and finding them one by one, and even though they put up a good fight, it is able to eliminate them because it’s got that persistent evil thing going on, so it slaughters them even though they manage to beat it up a little bit. For some reason, Rachel goes back to the Blade Runner, maybe thinking it’ll keep her safe if she helps it, and she helps it take out one of the other kids. It kiiiind of rapes her or maybe you could argue that it just convinces her to have sex. Then she’s in love with it or something. She wears less makeup and her hair changes to show she’s not a monster anymore.

Two of the kids are dead and the other two hide out with one of the monsters, who is less monstrous than the other monsters. That monster tries to help them by taking one of the kids, the handsome male, to the evil mastermind. The evil mastermind almost tricks the kid into letting him live, but then at the last moment the kid manages to defeat him, and also kills the less-evil monster for some reason, I mean I guess he’s still a monster.

He goes back to the place they were hiding and finds that the Blade Runner already killed his girlfriend, so he’s sad about that. He fights the Blade Runner and they chase each other around the building for a while. He defeats the Blade Runner but at the last moment saves it from falling to its death, and then he dies because the evil mastermind actually managed to defeat him, even though it seemed like he was going to escape.

The Blade Runner goes back to its lair where Rachel is still waiting, and runs off with her, presumably to use her for its own twisted purposes until the evil mastermind’s evilness destroys her.

I really did enjoy the ambiguity of the Blade Runner, who seemed conflicted about all the killing it was doing for the evil masterminds, even though it did continue to torture and kill the poor kids. That’s more than you get from a lot of horror movies. I dunno, I had a beer, but I think I followed it pretty well.

 

***

 

Originally I posted this on Facebook, and got some great commentary.  I wanted to post it here where I’d be able to find it again in the future.