{film} song of the sea

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

—Song of the Sea‘s lines borrowed from “The Stolen Child” by William Butler Yeats

The Secret of Kells‘ (2009; my review) Tomm Moore returns with another visually stunning and beautifully written film: Song of the Sea (2014).

From the very beginning of the film, I couldn’t stop with the exclamations. The style, color palette, direction, the weave of the story, the utter charm of its characters and their story.

The story is of the care for the last remaining seal child and Ben’s little sister. Saoirse is literally a thing of legend, a selkie who can save the magical world from turning to stone (rendered inanimate) and thus, destined for oblivion. While Saoirse has the concern of a grieving father and an interfering paternal grandmother, it is Ben who has been entrusted with the stories of his mother; the stories that can help Saoirse in their quest. However, first there are some familial issues to address.

The night Saoirse is born is the night Ben loses his mother to the sea and his father to grief. She is also a strong-willed little sister and prone to thieving. What is lovely in the film is how each child uniquely carries their mother’s legacy. The lore they are tasked to remember, and, indeed, enact is expressed in art (painted murals, map-making, sculptures), music (instrument, vocal), and storytelling (written and oral).

Echoes of the mythic are found in the real world. Granny & Macha and Ferry Dan & The Great Seanachaí (to name two) not only share familiarity in illustration, but the voice talent of Fionnula Flanagan and Jon Kenny respectively. The echoes thread conversations on the urban versus the rural; the sea and the land; the ancient and present; in the relationships of a parent and child. The story reveals an interdependence between the magical creatures of lore, and then a connection with humankind. In the film, humankind expresses a greater reliance upon the supernatural than the other way about. The iconography in the homes, communities, and surrounding wells (e.g. the holy well) is hard to ignore. The murals in the lighthouse home of Ben and Saoirse are not simple backdrops. Ben’s participation in (re)creating them is not without significance. Lore provides a sense of hope, and answers.

Song of the Sea resonates with familiar concerns in lines delivered by old-parental concern: “I know what’s best for you” and “children should be without care, without worries.” Do you? Are they? Ben wears his life jacket and frets when his sister is drawn to the sea (his little curses are amusing, his leash is hilarious), but the fear of risk ages them all. Saoirse begins to wither away, denied the wholeness of herself (her coat, the sea). Ben is left with the (dis)comfort of his memories. How is one to remember and yet let it go in order to heal. How does one bear the weight of a great sadness, a great loss. In the end, it is the confrontation, not the running away that returns the family to rights. It is in the strong characterization of the children that we are entrusted to lead the way.

The film hasn’t a lightness of heart (think Finding Nemo 2003), but it has all a charm that allows for the darker tones it carries.

Ben and Saoirse, in a race against time, are set on an adventure that returns them to the sea. Both children are tasked with fulfilling their mother’s legacy and reconcile relationships within the realms of lore and humankind. Song of the Sea is scenic, often humorous, and extremely perilous. Tomm Moore writes and directs a thrilling adventure that is full of charm and held breaths.

—–Song of the Sea (2014)—-

Director & Story by Tomm Moore; Written by Will Collins; Produced by Paul Young & Claus Toksvig Kjaer; Music by Bruno Coulais & Kila; Edited by Darragh Byrne.

Countries: Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, France, Luxembourg. Starring (aka voiced by): David Rawle (Ben), Lucy O’Connell (Saoirse), Lisa Hannigan (Bronach), Fionnula Flanagan (Granny/Macha), Jon Kenny (Ferry Dan / The Great Seanachaí) and Brendon Gleeson (Conor/Mac Lir).
Running Time: 93 minutes. Rated PG for some mild peril, language and pipe smoking images.

Once Upon A Time–again!

Art by Kimberly Kincaid

Saturday, March 21st mark[ed] the official start date of the ninth annual Once Upon a Time Challenge. This is a reading and viewing and gaming event that encompasses four broad categories: Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, including the seemingly countless sub-genres and blending of genres that fall within this spectrum. The challenge continues through June 21st and allows for very minor (1 book only) participation as well as more immersion depending on your reading/viewing/gaming whims.

The Once Upon a Time IX Challenge has a few rules:

Rule #1: Have fun.

Rule #2: HAVE FUN.

Rule #3: Don’t keep the fun to yourself, share it with us, please!

Rule #4: Do not be put off by the word “challenge.”

Carl (Stainless Steel Droppings)

I know I flaked–at least on the reviewing for–the Sci-Fi Experience. I did read some excellent reviews and had some amusing screen time and reads. The Quests are exciting: I’m thrilled to see the inclusion of International TableTop as part of a Quest this year.

Natalya will be taking over the blog for National Poetry Month (April), but I should be able to chime in now and again. We most certainly should find a poem befitting one of the four categories.

Sign up here!

{book} castle juliet

Castle Juliet: A Fantasy

By Brandon Berntson*

Self-published, 2013.

There are a few editions.

Alice and Jacky-boy are ten years old and the best of friends. For a year they embark on fantastic adventures, most born from Jack’s relentless imagination. As each season draws to a close, another one opens, revealing its own timeless magic and mystery – things Jack and Alice could have never imagined.

Castle Juliet is a timeless tale for all ages. It will leave you mystified and enchanted. But most importantly…it will leave you wanting more.—jacket copy

Castle Juliet reads as if Peter Pan and Wendy of Neverland were subjects in Mayberry RFD or on Walton’s mountain, Goodnight Alice dear. Goodnight Jacky-boy. I was expecting the charm in that first chapter to curdle into something either satirical or cloying. It doesn’t.

This is not to say that there are occasions in which one character or another is not over-the-top. Alice and her mother Jane can be a bit too angelic ala Dickensian standards. All the women exude a tantalizing domesticity, even the late appearance of Emily Lila Patrick. The men, too, are prone to being overtaken by sentiment. Threats of swooning and tearful expressions abound. A healthy dose of sincerity and a few hints of the occasional flaw rescue the novel.

Castle Juliet is an unusual experience in how the novel relies heavily (if not solely) on the cycle of four seasons as the means to open and close the story. The story arc: building a castle for Juliet is subtly suggested now and again–and not to our irritation, but pleasant surprise. The structure of time is what moves the characters through digressions and repetitions and elongated contemplations on one thing or another. The structure reminds us of the driving force of time, and how time carves space for life to linger a while over a mouth-watering feast or a contemplation of the magic in uncomplicated emotion and unfettered imagination.

The novel is character-oriented. The heavy use of dialog in this otherwise 3rd person narrative emphasizes the individual voice of the characters. Each child is unmistakably their own. The adults’ sheer goodness is always surprising (call me jaded), but they are the only ones to slip into representational models of one value/ideal or another. Grown-ups are also surprisingly non-threatening considering they are the adulthood of the novel. But neither are the adults the focus. The threats to Jack and Alice’s desire to stay young are in and amongst themselves.

The son of a repairer of shoes and clocks, small-in-stature Jack riles against the restrictions of time. He doesn’t want the Summer of unbridled adventures to end. Academic work fails to compete with the spinning of his imagination. Indeed, most of the numbers Miss (whom Jack calls Mrs.) Appleblom writes on the board prove confrontational.

“How come the five and three look so mean and scary? […] I think they look scary. The eight does too, especially the way you write it, Mrs. Appleblom. You put that little horn on its head. Makes it look like a monster, like a sidekick of the devil’s or something to terrify the minions. Or a fat, nasty snowman. The seven looks kind of mean, too; at least, he could, if he wanted, I guess. I haven’t decided. And look at the two. He looks harmless enough. An easy guy to get along with. But I don’t like thw way the five and the three are just sitting up there on the board. They look like they’re waiting for everyone to turn their heads, so they can take over the classroom” (7).

It goes on before the teacher finally interrupts. I love that Berntson is unafraid of lengthy dialog here.

Luckily, Jack has his Wendy in Alice who begins to tutor him. His only friend, she joins him on his adventures, challenges his decision to disallow pink lasers, and pummels him in a snowball fight. She invites him over for dinner, can’t run fast in her cowgirl boots, and refuses his blushing requests for a kiss.

Alice is the princess, and not by Jack’s design. She is the doted upon only child and only girl and for most of the time the world of the book will revolve around her. But then, the story is constructing a castle for Juliet. Can Jack convince her that lingering this side of childhood is worth the while?

“Her mind reached out. She might be small, but she was far from insignificant. At the moment, she was the eye of the universe, watching it unfold, a girl on a spotted horse loving everything she saw. […] She wanted to savor this perfect day and take it at her leisure. She would still it, freeze it in time. Her goal was to make everything—including now, her memories, and Jack’s fantasies–immortal” (158-9).

Alice’s family anchors them all, but it is Jack who is driven to build, to imagine and create. He inspires the changes that build the stories in Castle Juliet.

“If Alice didn’t know any better, she’d say everyone she knew had had a hand in its construction in some way or another. […] But in every aspect, it could only be Jack who’d come up with the idea, who’d put the entire thing into execution, laid the groundwork, the planning, supervised” (221).

A believable quantity of goodness can be found in community and imagination, such as is expressed with childlike fervor in Castle Juliet; less of any sense of a return to innocence and more of a childhood reign. It is in adulthood that we find the careworn need for domesticity and its middle class stability. Both Jack and Alice (and even Tork) manage to resist slipping into adult-like proportion; Alice being the most vulnerable. Peter Pan couldn’t (and wouldn’t) rescue Wendy from growing-up, but Berntson does in his freckled and red-haired Alice. Perhaps it is because Jack isn’t all that like Peter, even if blood-thirsty tyrant does come to mind… Jack is able to change and grow without compromising that which the novel values of childlikeness: to love without complicating sexual politics, to find time for creative play and invention, to be like themselves and remain somewhat unexpected.

Berntson explores the wholesome visage of childhood, and he builds a castle of found things, pieces oft discarded and half-buried. He revitalizes the notion of what can be enchanting about the fantasy novel. The affect isn’t flawless**. But I’ll go for heart in a novel over cold precision. I’ll take imagination over stricture. And I’ll pick the castle over the picket fence every time.

——————-

Of note: It was odd having a beloved character called Jezebel, but there you go, Berntson was difficult to anticipate.

*Two: Brandon is a friend and co-worker. He told me that he wrote Castle Juliet as a bid for something more wholesome after a stint of writing Horror fiction; he succeeded. It reads like a palette cleanser for the world-weary.

**Thirdly, and to be fair: some of the flaw comes from my desire for extravagance in design, more paragraphing, corrected grammatical errors, and a reigning in of setting. These feel like nits picked compared to such an unusual and refreshing experience.

 

{film} John Wick?

The tagline: Don’t Set Him Off!

When I tell you how fantastic I found director Chad Stahelski’s John Wick (2014), you’ll likely question my sanity because it really shouldn’t be all that good.

I seriously questioned my decision to not disappear up the stairs while Sean watched a film that, upon first press, reads like a Steven Seagal film of old(er times). I’d grown up on those revenge-action-thrillers. More recently, Keanu Reeves’ role as John Wick would’ve been cast with Liam Neeson or Jason Statham and I rarely sit through a one of them. The dialog, typical plot, blood-letting and tire-squealing action of these genre films rarely find me amused. I was at the edge of my seat, giddy in amusement with John Wick. Its a film that is self-aware, its tongue planted firmly in cheek, unrepentant and playful within its genre.

I was intrigued by the premise: instead of some relative (usually the wife) of a retired uber mensch being brutally murdered, Sean told me that the revenge plot stems from the brutal murder of John Wick’s dog. That was all we knew. The unfolding of just who John Wick is was worth the ignorance. It earns you that immense pleasure in the exchange between Aurelio (John Leguizamo) and Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). John Wick won me over at Tarasov’s “…Oh.”

The non-linear movement through time, the shifts, begin to stabilize chronologically as the film progresses. Disintegration takes on a new form as the violence ups its ante (think South Korean action films). There is a righteous meting out of justice for that sweet little puppy (whose death is handled as delicately as possible). There are beautiful cars, choreography, gun-reloading and martial arts. And there are quality actors.

As the film progresses, the surprising cast was one revelation after another–even as Reeves proves all the more perfect for his role. His age really works for him as John Wick, and I think he actually emotes (which was admittedly awkward for me). I am going to pause for a moment to also admire the bad-assery that is Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins). But is she punished for being a bit too greedy and a full-measure too bold in her breaking of the (male dominated) rules? Little is fair in the film, but what does one expect from a revenge-action film. One certainly doesn’t expect that ending, though we should’ve anticipated it (shouldn’t we’ave?).

Familiarity with John Wick’s predecessors add to the entertainment factor; it certainly reads like redemption for years/hours spent in the genre. However, I don’t think you need a history. What you will need is a sense of humor–and a fairly strong stomach.

——————

Director: Chad Stahelski, Screenplay:Derek Kolstad, Starring: Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Michael Nyqvist (Viggo Tarasov), John Leguizamo (Aurelio), Alfie Allen (Iosef Trasov), Willem Defoe (Marcus), Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins), Bridget Moynahan (Bridget), and Ian McShane (Winston).

Rated R for strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use. Running Time: 101 Minutes

{comics} el deafo

El Deafo by Cece Bell.

Amulet Books 2014.

Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece’s class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends.

Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school–in the hallway…in the teacher’s lounge…in the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All. But the funny thing about being a superhero is that it’s just another way of feeling different… and lonely. Can Cece channel her powers into finding the thing she wants most, a true friend? —Publisher’s comments.

Besides making many of last year’s Best-Of lists, Cece Bell’s El Deafo has also been picking up significant Honors and Awards. You’ll hear it described as important, and the insight Bell is able to share from her childhood is, indeed, valuable. I love just how familiar the character Cece is, despite her bunny-like appearance. Cece is flawed and more than occasionally frustrated and frustrating.

Many will find Cece humorous; and likely charming when she begins to identify with Batman and creates a super-heroic identity all her own in El Deafo. I think I either under- or over-identified with her earnestness to be normal and befriended. The angst felt stretched and I desired a few chapters fewer. When we tell our children that it may take time, trial and error to find a good friend, we usually hope for and suggest the BFF will show up within two errors. However, it really does take a while to learn how to communicate, to read others’ lips (words/actions) and to articulate for ourselves.

 

El Deafo is really well thought-out. It wasn’t an easy read for me, entertainment-wise, but I could immediately appreciate just how well-crafted it is, how coherent it continues to be into second and third readings. I loathe to fall into the fallacy of guessing authorial intent, but the immovable yellow box of text manning the upper edges of panels had to make sense of itself. It otherwise needed to move. (And if you find it difficult to deal with in the first half, you’ll learn to adjust to it in the end.) I questioned the choice of a bunny and the adorable-ness of the artwork in a book I wanted to pitch to the upper-grade-schoolers reading Raina Teglemeier’s Smile and Sisters. I understand the genius behind choosing an animal that is all about their ears in a book about hearing. I can get how seeing yourself as different could manifest in a decision to use an ‘other.’ For readers who are moving away from perceived childishness, it reminds us that one thing that transcends childhood is fear of isolation and loneliness. Okay, that was depressing—and the book is not depressing. El Deafo is just quite realistic and in need of the anthropomorphic.

El Deafo is going to be educational. El Deafo is going to remind people that graphic novels make for great literature for young people—especially the young grade-schoolers who won’t mind this becoming a part of their summer reading lists. It is going to make us all more thoughtful about what and how we communicate with one another. We can get creative and imagine the ways and means to cope with difficult situations.

Spoilers: Cece does find a healthy friendship by novel’s end. She learns a great deal about herself and others along the way. She’s pretty special as characters go, because she is so incredibly (painfully, at times) normal.

——

Of note: “A Note from the Author” is excellent reading as well, so do not forgo it.

recommended: for readers of Teglemeier Smile and Sisters, Hatke’s Zita Spacegirl, and Gownley’s Amelia Rules!  It will likely appeal more to readers of issue-driven books like Wonder (Palacio), Out of My Mind (Draper), and Mango-Shaped Space (Mass), but I wouldn’t eliminate those leaning toward Fantasy.

{images are Cece Bell’s}

{comics} IRL

In Real Life by Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang

First Second (2014)

 Anda loves Coarsegold Online, the massively-multiplayer role-playing game where she spends most of her free time. It’s a place where she can be a leader, a fighter, a hero. It’s a place where she can meet people from all over the world, and make friends.

But things become a lot more complicated when Anda befriends a gold farmer–a poor Chinese kid whose avatar in the game illegally collects valuable objects and then sells them to players from developed countries with money to burn. This behavior is strictly against the rules in Coarsegold, but Anda soon comes to realize that questions of right and wrong are a lot less straightforward when a real person’s real livelihood is at stake.

In Real Life is a perceptive and high-stakes look at adolescence, gaming, poverty, and culture clash. –jacket copy

irl B1sFeN9CYAAeuKx

You could pick this one up for the Introduction alone. Cory Doctorow lays the ground work for Anda’s finest impulse: to affect change in the face of a social injustice. “This is a book about games and economics,” Doctorow begins. And he closes with the reminder that it is “risk” to “change the world for the better,” but there are “principled people” (like Anda) who prove willing–and able. Like the novel itself, Doctorow’s Introduction educates and inspires with plain-speaking and zero condescension. A young Anda isn’t the only one who thinks that maybe she could try to make another’s circumstances better.

You could also pick this one up based on that cover. That Jen Wang is a talented artist is evident. But it is Anda’s real life-likeness that has me enamored and intrigued. Wang sets the visual tone as to what is real. She grounds Anda, but not in order to create a dramatic contrast with the fantasy of the on-line gaming world and the avatar there-in. Anda may strengthen her self-esteem via her gaming/community (love the red-hair dye), but her ferocity stems from a compassion and intellect. In Real Life draws two worlds that bleed into the other, not in a singular direction; note how little, if at all, the color palette shifts between worlds. Anda’s avatar is not a wholly separate entity formed completely as an other (despite the design options). And neither are the other players. Anda interacts with other gamers through a variety of avenues (classroom visit, voice, chat, skype, mediating avatars). In Real Life reminds us that life exists in/on multiple platforms.

irl page-24-of-in-real-life

We need to see some of the real life implications of gaming–for the negative and positive–and In Real Life delivers. “Coarsegold Online” has upsides and downs. The upside is argued by Anda to her concerned mother. Not everyone is a perv and connecting globally broadens horizons. A downside that the novel focuses on is in the gold farming and the desire for some of the gamers to enjoy their time without a complication of ethics. Our heroine finds camaraderie in a space that also generates millions of dollars from abusive labor conditions—I’m referring to the online game-scape, but the same is said of her life back home (e.g. Anda’s school, media), as well as our very own real life comic and gaming cultures. The very spaces that can liberate can oppress, and vice versa; the comic panel and its composition… Wang’s verisimilitude in the rendering of Anda does not go unnoticed.

In Real Life is worth the complication of the female character. So Anda can look like a waif or no, go by Anda or no, and still essentially be her self. I dig how females can be both competitive and cooperative, blood-thirsty and compassionate, a leader and follower.

The online gaming world isn’t only this ‘other’ place where real people say they play pretend. Similarly, Anda’s avatar is just another visual representation of who she really is: a resourceful young woman capable of a complex range of emotion and action. Her only limitations in the imagined setting are rules or expectations imposed by her self or others. …Hmm, sounds like real life.

Anda finds success, but not without error and conflict. What sets her apart, where she finds connection on-line, is in knowing a person exists beyond the avatar/game. Liza is real to her. Raymond also becomes real. She is real. Her father evidences a connection to an event spoken about on television. Life is illustrated in the connections made between the differing realities of media.

irl 11875504

Like most good “serious” or “important” books, the creator knows how to tell a story first and foremost. First: the choice of form. Comics are a great medium for discussing gaming, and not just for the visual familiarity, but a cultural one. Girls in comics and gaming share a conversation. Comics and gaming share a counter culture and overlap in followers.

Second: Wang is excellent in her craft. A random page-flip…6 & 7. On page 7, Liza, the game-recruiter is outside of a box (panel). Page 6: human hands direct/interact with what happens on the screen. Pages 70 & 71 wordlessly seats Anda in a classroom with maps, connecting bubbles of information on a projector, and a clock. We see her considering the time difference with China, both settings connected by a centrally located smart phone operated by thumbs. On 71, Anda begins to research gold farming, not relying on just one source of information (“Sarge”). She is curious and has/uses her resources (education, technology, peers, adults).

Just as Anda’s online persona informs her physical one, the interdependence formed and flawlessly expressed between the Writer (Cory Doctorow) and Artist (Jen Wang) of In Real Life demonstrates how the plural can inhabit a single narrative. As Anda is inspired by both physical and online situations equally, learning from both to aid her in either world, In Real Life is inspired textually and visually.

I swear that In Real Life is an accessible, entertaining graphic novel with beautiful art and an engaging story. It’s just that it is also really smart and unusual that it can’t help but be talked about in some depth. Anda digs deep. She takes risks and inspires others to do the same. She moves beyond the superficial, in perception of self and others. Maybe that is one of the things I like about Anda and In Real Life, both can be fun and serious. Both can be complicated in important and entertaining ways.

{images are Jen Wang’s}

{bookishness} 2014 Cybils Awards

Cybils-Logo-2014-Round-Lg-300x300The 2014 Cybils Awards were announced this weekend. The shortlists made for challenging decision-making–at least in the Graphic Novel Categories.

The Winners:

Elementary/Middle Grade

Book Apps: Kalley’s Machine Plus Cats

by RocketWagon
RocketWagon

Fiction Picture Books: Shh! We Have a Plan

by Chris Haughton
Candlewick Press

Non-Fiction: Feathers: Not Just for Flying

by Melissa Stewart
illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen
Charlesbridge

Easy Readers: Okay, Andy! (Jump-Into-Chapters)

by Maxwell Eaton
Blue Apple Books

Early Chapter Books: Lulu’s Mysterious Mission

by Judith Viorst
illustrated by Kevin Cornell
Atheneum

Graphic Novel: El Deafo

by Cece Bell
Harry N Abrams

Poetry: Voices from the March on Washington

by J. Patrick Lewis and George Ella Lyon
Wordsong

Middle Grade Fiction: Nickel Bay Nick

by Dean Pitchford
Putnam Juvenile

Speculative Fiction: The Luck Uglies

by Paul Durham
illustrated by Petur Antonsson
HarperCollins

Young Adult

Fiction: Pointe

by Brandy Colbert
Putnam Juvenile

Graphic Novel: In Real Life

by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang
First Second Books

Non-Fiction: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia

by Candace Fleming
Schwartz and Wade Books

Speculative Fiction: The Living

by Matt De La Peña
Delacorte Press Books for Young Readers