Musings On Fanciful Hagiographies

Disclaimer: I am simply a layperson and these are my observations. I am not claiming to speak for any authority other than my own.

Maybe because I have been thinking of realism in fiction lately, and with it being the Easter season, but it has occurred to me that one of the main reasons that so many early Christian saints have been rejected lately is because their stories are no longer real and relatable. There is still so much that we can learn from the early saints and emulate from them, but instead, people latch on to the supernatural elements and either ridicule the whole story or assume that they themselves cannot be saintly.

It is easy to see how this happened. Saints from pre-500 had over a thousand years of their stories being retold and embellished before the Protestant Reformation and the rise of the scientific era. Many of these stories were the popular entertainment of the Middle Ages. (Stories of female martyrs were especially popular.) It is only natural that elements were added and new stories created for the purpose of entertaining the audience. The saints were following in the tradition of heroic epics – divine intervention in their birth, abilities beyond their age, early wisdom, and taking on authorities with a righteous cause. Oh, yes, and the ability to wield magic. Christian stories changed “magic” to “God’s power”, but the ability to take dismembered remains in pickle barrels and restore them to whole, living persons again is magic nonetheless. (It does make for a good story!)

But even in regions where these saints remain popular, there is a sense that they are special and “not like the rest of us”. Now, I’m not arguing that they were not special! Nor am I arguing that they did not have the grace of God working in them, or that any of the story elements are outright false. Of course, it is entirely possible that God gave St. Nicholas the ability to restore dismembered people to life. It is entirely possible that He caused the wheel that St. Katherine was supposed to be killed on to break (although why he then allowed her to be beheaded is another question) and for milk to pour out of her neck. It is entirely possible that He caused all of the snakes in Ireland to flee from St. Patrick’s staff. However, while these are certainly memorable parts of the story, are they really essential?

All that these stories do is serve to set the saints apart from the ordinary faithful. St. Nicholas is not remembered as an extraordinarily generous and faithful bishop, but as a magical wizard. (A very generous and selfless magical wizard, however.) Other saints have not suffered so much embellishment, but they are still seen as supernatural. They are supposed to be examples for us, but these hagiographies set up barriers rather than paths.

What started me thinking about this was my patron saint, St. Katherine of Alexandria. There is a lot of controversy about her, specifically whether she existed at all or whether she was entirely invented for propaganda purposes. While I am a strong advocate for scholarship and historical thinking, I am doubtful as to how far back one can go before one can truly say “I don’t know what happened, and there is no way to know for sure.” Is St. Katherine a composite character? An invented character to justify attacks on pagans a century after she is supposed to have lived? A real woman, martyred circa 305 just as the story goes? A larger-than-life woman who had magical abilities?

While I see nothing wrong with her being a composite character, I don’t think she is. I do believe that she is real and that she was martyred – but I am not fussy about the exploding wheel that killed onlookers or the milk from the neck, or other supernatural bits that have been added later. She was an intelligent young woman who had the gift of preaching. She might also have been beautiful, but that was not what convinced most of those she came into contact with to convert to Christianity or furiously reject it. She refused to marry, or at least rejected her father’s arrangements for her.

There is nothing in her story that a Christian should not try to emulate: faith, resistance to society norms, using the talents that she had been given (intelligence and oratory, in her case), sacrifice, and not being afraid to die for her beliefs. No need for explosions, visions of a supernatural wedding, or milk from her neck. The former was probably added to the story to make it more convincing that she had God on her side (rather than the wheel being faulty or sabotaged), while the latter two serve to make St. Katherine seem more conventionally feminine: “See? She got married to Jesus, so she is really being a good and faithful wife after all. And the milk proves that she was nurturing and motherly. Blood is much too dirty and boyish.”

While that is a paraphrased quote, it is based on actual medieval tradition. None of this is outright wrong and served a purpose in its time. However, it diminishes how God really did work through St. Katherine in 305, and it does not work for 2018 either. St. Katherine is not Wonder Woman. She preached and tried to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ – and she died because of it. She rejected earthly glory, including wealth, social status, and having children, because she believed in a greater glory.

Indeed, all of the saints, ancient and modern, did simply that. They may have done extraordinary acts in the process. They might have even done superhuman feats with God’s help. But they were real people whom we can emulate, and that should not be diminished or rejected.

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Meditations on Realistic Entertainment

“I don’t want my show/book/movie to explore real stories! I watch TV/read books/go to the movies to get away from real life!”

This is a constant whine that unfortunately any storyteller has to contend with. After all, it is a valid point. There is nothing wrong with wanting escapism. There is nothing wrong with not enjoying something because it is too realistic, too personal, or not what you were looking for. I personally find that I have missed out on many good films because they weren’t what I wanted to watch on a Friday night, and I have made my peace with that. Others, while they might be fine stories, are not entertaining to me at all (gross-out comedy, horror & shock thrillers in particular), so I don’t watch them, no matter how realistic or not they are. One has to pick and choose one’s entertainment, be it music, television, film, books, theatre, or sport, as there is simply too much for one person to consume it all.

At the same time, whining that something is too realistic so that it is “ruined” is childish. (This is especially noticeable with a television or book series, where audiences get invested in the story over time and numerous changes occur, rather than a one-off story that is consumed at once.) Notice how in the quote at the beginning, the complainer says “my show”? Whenever I hear that, I wonder whose story they think it is. Who has the writing credit? Who authored the novel that got turned into a mini-series? Who created the story to begin with? Who is the storyteller?

Let’s face it, if we’re watching or reading something, we are the audience, not the storyteller. Even if we don’t like the direction that the story takes, and even if we are legitimately concerned for its viability, we are not responsible for it. Sometimes, there is a plan already in place and the writers are taking us on a journey that will pay off if we are patient. Sometimes, writers were just exploring a fun idea. Sometimes, writers actually know the characters better than the audience (especially if those characters are their own creations!) and want their story to reflect the choices that the characters would make, not those that the audience wants them to make.

That doesn’t mean one’s opinion counts for nothing. Write a different ending, an extra scene, another story entirely…stop watching or reading altogether if that really makes one feel better. Whining and stomping off, loudly declaring that you will never watch a show or read a series again, does nothing. In all likelihood, others will simply shrug their shoulders and roll their eyes. Your favourite show is ruined? Bully for you. Find something else. You’re never going to read the earlier books in a series again because the author ruined it by not supporting the romantic pairings you wanted? That’s nice. The book sale is looking for donations.

This comes back to conflicting issues about realism. One person’s realism is another person’s escape. For example, a person who lives in relative comfort in suburban North America might want to “escape” to slums halfway around the world. A person who lives in the middle of a densely populated city might want to “escape” to open grasslands. Someone who is in a happy marriage might want to “escape” to a story starring a character with no attachments. An only child might want to “escape” to a story about a family with many children. Many people from the year 2018 want to “escape” to various points in the past. In other words, a story might be too realistic for one person, but very interesting to another. Not everything is made for everyone.

Others want to see characters realistically solve problems in the hope that it inspires them to solve their own similar issues. Examples are stories about children coping with their parents’ divorce in a realistic manner (not whimsically making them fall back in love again), stories about couples grieving the loss of a child, and the many variations on characters losing everything to war, poverty, bad choices, or natural disaster. While some may find these stories too heartbreaking to watch, others find them inspiring, feel better about their own situation, or see the characters as people that they can sympathise with. Sometimes, seeing favourite characters go through tragedy and grow from it is simply “one more adventure” that the audience ends up enjoying as part of a bigger story.

Finally, we have the fact that our suspension of disbelief only goes so far. Even fantastical settings need to have some elements of realism. Swashbuckling pirate films may involve supernatural curses, anachronisms, and actions sequences that defy the laws of physics, but we expect the setting to be grimy! Time travel may exist in a story’s universe, but we expect that the characters from the past are going to act like they are actually from the past. (Although, admittedly, sometimes our ideas about the past are wrong.) We expect characters who don’t work to be strapped for cash, not living in fancy apartments. We do want our romantic leads to have chemistry with each other – heck, we even want the romantic spares to have some sort of interaction that would lead us to think that they could get together! Otherwise, what is supposed to be entertaining ends up seeming fake.

And that’s just it – the complaints that a story is “too realistic” come from the same people who complain that other elements of the story are “too silly”.

Ultimately, if I want something to turn out exactly the way that I want it, I have to write that story myself.

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Season 11 Finale!

MURDOCH MYSTERIES
Season 11, Episode 18 (Free Falling)

 

Well, isn’t that all tied up nicely! Done, the season’s all stacked up with a ribbon around it.

(Okay, spoiler warning.)

Unlike last year, there are few cliffhangers left as the credits roll. There is a little teaser, but otherwise, we are left feeling a bit sad, but satisfied. I look forward to seeing where they pick up the story in the fall and what storylines they decide to explore in Season 12.

Thankfully, the story worked out. If this had been the end of the series, it would have been bittersweet but satisfactory.

With both Detective Murdoch and Dr. Ogden away from work, the “main case” of the episode is solved by the supporting cast. (Higgins is conspicuously absent – undoubtedly enjoying time with Ruth. His character would have been too humourous for the tone of the episode. His role is filled in by Constable Brackenreid.) Detective Watts, both Brackenreids, and Constable Crabtree solve a doozy of a case with help from Violet. There was nothing remarkable about this case, except for the fact that it gave our supporting characters a chance to show how different they are from Murdoch. Watts finds Murdoch’s blackboard useful – but doesn’t bother with chalk, leaving the others confused. It is clear that he is still used to working alone. The younger Brackenreid plays well off of him, since he is still at the stage of his career when he is primarily following orders. Crabtree and the Inspector, on the other hand, notice Murdoch’s absence immensely.

Murdoch instead goes on a wild goose chase with a stranger in the hopes of fixing someone else’s marriage, if not his own. It almost ends up badly, but he makes it right. Both this and the murder-of-the-week make for a good hour of solving simple puzzles. These cases aren’t about the mystery – they are about the characters. Still, Murdoch needs a lot of coaxing to realise that he and his wife are better together, even for their differences. After all, they have always had these differences!

Dr. Ogden, meanwhile, is questioning her whole career – which is convenient for Violet. My character analysis of her is correct: she is ambitious and career-driven. She also does not like Dr. Ogden and has found an opportunity in her absence. She has realised that Stationhouse 4 will always side with Ogden, so she has found allies elsewhere. Is she evil? Certainly not. In fact, she has a good point about Dr. Ogden possibly being unable to do her job. Violet really wants to advance her career. Cozying up to Murdoch and Ogden got her nowhere. Violet is not only a woman, but non-white. She is not playing by the same rules as Ogden because she can’t. (Rebecca tried to play by those rules and failed, although she has found success elsewhere.) That said, I certainly prefer Rebecca’s methods to Violet’s. This will be an interesting storyline for next season.

 

As for the other main plot development: Crabtree and Nina realise that they have incompatible dreams and ideas for the future, and thus go their separate ways. Bittersweet? Absolutely! But it was also necessary. Crabtree tried to give up his desire for marriage and a chance for a family. Nina considered the idea of being married. One might say that they could have compromised: getting married and moving away together. However, Nina was right in thinking that it would only be a matter of how long before Crabtree started going on about children. (Not to mention that he would not enjoy leaving everything behind for her.) She really wants to perform and have her career. That is nothing to be ashamed of.

I liked Nina because she fit in well with the characters. She was a realist and even got in on the crimesolving once in a while. She was fun, but serious when she needed to be. She was highly intelligent and not afraid to take risks. She was not aloof like Dr. Ogden, nor out of touch like Ruth, nor demanding like Mrs. Brackenreid. Nor was she actively part of the cases like Dr. Grace, Rebecca, or Violet – she was still mostly there for decoration. She was also not passive like Edna or shrewish like Louise Cherry. If Crabtree had not wanted marriage, or if she had not so badly not wanted it, they would have been perfect for each other. Alas, that is a pretty big dealbreaker!

So who is Crabtree going to set his eyes on next? I hope the writers find him his wife soon. Personally, in order to complement Crabtree, I think she should be intelligent, independent, and imaginative – perhaps a librarian or schoolteacher in her early thirties. Someone interested in marriage and children, but not desperate. She should be willing to put up with diverse personalities like Ruth and Dr. Ogden so that their scenes together are not torturous for the audience – or the characters, for that matter. Someone who could join in solving a case or two, but not show up every episode. After all, Murdoch and Ogden will always be the alpha couple of the series.

So thus ends Season 11 – the winter is over!

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No Kidding on the Falling Shadows!

MURDOCH MYSTERIES
Season 11, Episode 17 (Shadows Are Falling)

 Well, that was some episode! (Spoilers ahead.)

Remember last week when I said that I was fast-forwarding through most of the Murdoch-Ogden scenes because they were getting too annoying? I missed some good drama, but I fast-forwarded through the first twelve minutes of this episode. It took that long to get to anything close to a murder mystery to brew up. After that, of course, the show settled into its usual rhythm, albeit with a lot of awkward pauses. Did I enjoy it? No, but I don’t think anyone enjoys watching their main characters upset. I also thought that while it was nice to see Nate and Rebecca back, I was disappointed that they were really only objects in the case – they really didn’t do much. This episode was about Murdoch and Ogden. Why bother bringing back Nate and Rebecca in the same hour?

I am actually happy that the writers chose to explore this storyline. I was getting annoyed with the pregnancy subplot and it only lasted six episodes. I enjoy seeing happy couples as much as the next person, but it all seemed too easy. I like seeing awkwardness. It was realistic.

The plot of this episode can be summed up as follows: Dr. Ogden suffers a miscarriage and while she and Det. Murdoch are still processing the event, Nate Desmond comes to their door looking for help before being arrested. Murdoch and Ogden both use the case as an excuse to ignore their grief – not that it works – and while Nate is finally exonerated and the real murderer arrested, Ogden and Murdoch reach an impasse in their relationship that results in Murdoch leaving. (We can put to bed the whole “he left vs. she kicked him out” debate. She clearly said “If that’s how you feel, then get out!” He chose to leave.)

While not everyone has suffered a miscarriage in their lives, just about all of us can relate to being devastated and having our colleagues, friends, and family members awkwardly trying to help or dance around the issue. If we haven’t been the devastated one, we have been the awkward one. While I didn’t enjoy watching the Murdoch-Ogden scenes, I did like seeing the various reactions from the supporting cast. We have the Sorry Olympics, where everyone goes out of their way to say how sorry they are to Murdoch and Ogden, even in situations where it is somewhat less than appropriate. Somehow, I think “condolences” would be a more historically-correct term – not to mention better overall. “I offer my condolences” is a much better line than “I’m so sorry”. Honestly, while I appreciate the sentiment, hearing “I’m so sorry” only made me think “Why the Hell are you sorry? You didn’t having anything to do with it.” I appreciated that the characters also felt that way, even if it was only communicated in odd glances.

Then we had everyone telling Murdoch and Ogden to go home and rest or spend time together. Good advice and they probably should have heeded it! If the writers had wanted to solely focus on their relationship, they ought to have gone full-out on a clip show with flashbacks as Murdoch and Ogden discussed their past and how it compared to the present. Obviously, that was not the direction that they wanted to go in, and I am not disappointed. It would have been a good fit for a penultimate episode of a planned series finale, but that was not what the writers were going for. Luckily, there is going to be a Season 12!

Keeping Murdoch and Ogden from just going home is likely why the writers decided to bring back Nate and Rebecca. Murdoch and Ogden might have decided to forgo helping out a character-of-the-week, but Nate is their friend. His arrest gave them a plausible excuse to throw themselves on the case. He would have hanged were it not for their interference. Brackenreid, Crabtree, and Watts understood that and strove to help. Violet Hart did not, but she didn’t know Rebecca either. (Do I think her any more suspicious than last week? No.)

Despite the circumstances, it was nice to see Nate and Rebecca together and married with Rebecca still practicing as a doctor. I am very happy for them and glad that they pulled through. I admit, when Rebecca showed up with a puffy cloak on, I wondered if we were going to find out that she was pregnant – which might have inadvertently sent Dr. Ogden over the deep end. That would have been a cliché, but not unsurprising.

Also nice was the foreshadowing with Crabtree and Nina. It sounds like Nina has attachment issues and suffered trauma regarding her family in the past. I would have liked for the couple to have pursued that conversation further, but perhaps they will address it next week in the finale. From what I can gather, Nina came from a modestly well-off family, but her parents are gone from the picture and her only close relative is her brother, who is successful now but has spent time in prison. She has friends from work, but I imagine there is a fierce competition there. Lydia was her closest friend, but she has been dead for months.

All right, as for the (hopefully temporary) break-up of Murdoch and Ogden, I am all for some new drama. (I was not keen on the baby and was always on the side of them adopting instead.) Both of them have had some serious values differences that have always been a part of their relationship. Murdoch reconciled his wife’s abortion as being both a youthful mistake and something from the past. He never condoned it. Hearing that she still allegedly helped others procure them reminded him that she did not see her actions as wrong. All three lost babies got conflated in his head and I am not surprised that he wondered if the loss of their child was divine retribution. (I think the thought separately crossed Ogden’s mind as well.) The ways that Murdoch and Ogden alternate between blaming themselves and blaming each other is extremely realistic, even though no one is ultimately at fault.

Likely that is another thing bothering Murdoch – that the merciful and omniscient God that he has put his faith in would kill his child for no reason. Thinking that He took his child as a penance for his wife’s actions is more in line with his rational mindset. (Don’t get me started on the theological implications…)

This was a well-written episode and I look forward to exploring the characters in the future. This is a show about murder mysteries, after all. It can’t all be sunshine and roses.

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Back in Action

MURDOCH MYSTERIES
Season 11, Episodes 14.5, 15, & 16 (The Book of Jackson) (Murdoch Schmurdoch)(Game of Kings)

 Even though there was a nice tribute to Constable Jackson at the end of the season premiere, it still felt a bit abrupt. We were more concerned about the fates of the other characters and we had just breathed a collective sigh of relief that everything was getting back to normal. The Book of Jackson was a nice webseries (that was about the length of a sitcom episode when viewed all together) that put closure to Constable Jackson’s story and served as a tribute to a character that the viewers had come to love.

I did not think it odd that there was little mention of Jackson throughout the season, other than his quick tribute and the fact that his photo is still up on the wall. Being a police officer is a dangerous job and dwelling on lost comrades is not conducive to getting the job done. It is not that the police don’t grieve – it’s that they can’t let grief get in the way of their work.

The webseries is a chance for us to see that Crabtree, Higgins, Murdoch, and Watts do miss Jackson and feel that there is a hole in the stationhouse without him. They dutifully set out to solve the case that he was working on before his death, in the process setting up some good jokes that call forward to text-speak – all in a believable manner. (Honestly, there is no reason why ROFL couldn’t mean “ran out for lunch”.) The actual case keeps the conspiracy theme going, which makes sense, as the season premiere and last year’s finale also focused heavily on corruption and conspiracy. Timeline-wise, the webseries fit well with occurring shortly after the premiere. I enjoyed this “lost chapter”.

While I said that it was funny and that it was about the length of a sitcom, the actual story is not a comedy – it still has the same feel to it that a regular episode does. It was an enjoyable bonus to watch during the Winter Olympics and a good tribute to Jackson.

Going into the last act of this season, Murdoch Schmurdoch opens with an anti-Semitic riot that is promptly broken up by Brackenreid. Regardless of his beliefs about Jews (which are left ambiguous), Brackenreid does not stand for riots. The moment felt historically accurate and also brings to mind current debates about immigration. Brackenreid is an example of how one can be on the side of the law without necessarily being entirely in favour of change. That is not to say Brackenreid is anti-Semitic – as I said, his feelings on the matter are shown to be deliberately ambiguous.

While there was a murder to solve in this episode, most of the story focused on Det. Watts, whose background we know little about, other than his sister abandoned him when he was twelve and his parents had died when he was much younger. In the course of the investigation, Watts inadvertently discovers that his mother was Jewish – and thus, so is he. Therefore, while he still continues the investigation, he spends most of the time trying to learn about his heritage. In the end, he decides to embrace learning about it further. Murdoch and Brackenreid do not seem too taken aback by Watts’s ethnicity, but whether it will come back to haunt him in the future remains to be seen. We know their higher-ups are less than tolerant of religious diversity. (Murdoch has never risen higher in the ranks due to being Catholic, after all.)

Watts is a curious man in general, but he is especially curious about his heritage and all of the customs that go along with it. Within hours of discovering his background, he is handed a prayerbook to be part of a minyan. (He is told “just move your lips and hum”, and I would have added flip the page whenever the other men do.) While some might find this portrayal offensive, I thought it was actually heartwarming. Judaism is not only a religion, but an ethnicity as well. If you’re Jewish, you’re Jewish, Watts is told, and it doesn’t matter that you don’t yet understand the intricacies of the faith or customs. (Knowing Watts, he will want to learn those intricacies.) There are a lot of people who discover or re-discover their heritage later in life who feel that they know nothing about their ethnicity or culture, but want to be accepted and learn more. It was a relatable episode. Even though he is a new addition to the cast as of last year, Watts has proven to be an interesting and intriguing character. I was happy to learn more about him and wish him success on his journey to learn more about his Jewish background.

Game of Kings was both highly entertaining and disappointing. It was entertaining because Crabtree is back and showing off his newfound love for chess, Nina helps solve the case, and pretty much the whole cast gets the chance to be a part of the story. I think the subplot with Murdoch and Dr. Ogden was also supposed to be funny, but I have come to the point where I fast-forward through most of their scenes because, well, they are just too sweet. I am very happy for them, but they are distracting me from the plot. Dr. Ogden is also getting on my nerves, even if I understand her motives. She is getting mad at her husband for doing his job now? Seriously, Julia, you’re married to a police officer!

I found the episode disappointing because of its patronising message that political causes are not worth dying for. It had great potential, but ultimately, we were left with Brackenreid and Murdoch yelling and then patiently lecturing at full-grown adults as though they were naughty schoolboys. While Murdoch could be considered a pacifist, Brackenreid is all about the glories of empire, so his attitude seems out of character. Either way, Murdoch’s explicit statement that Polish independence from Russia wouldn’t be worth dying for is not a good message, since it also implies that any independence movement is not worth dying for. It is also really not a good thing to say to a Polish nationalist. If Murdoch had instead waxed poetic about scientific progress and globalism, I might have been more satisfied, because that fits with his character.

I really didn’t want to criticise the writer’s understanding of her own characters, since Maureen Jennings – the original Murdoch author – wrote this episode, but it did not fit with the characters as they have evolved over the series. It felt too much like the author was inserting her own pacifist beliefs into the story. An hour-long episode with commercials is not enough time for a history lesson when there is a murder to solve.

What I did like about the political intrigue was that it reminds us that the early 1900s was not a peaceful time. 1905 was the year of the first major movement to overthrow the Tsar in Russia, as well as the year Russia suffered a disastrous defeat to the Japanese. There was a lot of instability in the country and that instability had effects that were felt internationally, including in Toronto. Polish nationalism, like the nationalism of many stateless-at-the-time ethnic groups, rose and solidified throughout the nineteenth century. Poland had only been a part of Russia and Germany for about 120 years, so they had precedent for a state of their own. It was a nice call-forward to the First World War and the Russian Revolution, because we know that the Poles will get their country back. I just felt that this was heavy-handed.

Murdoch Mysteries is still a fairly cozy series. Murdoch solves cases in Toronto. This one was a bit out of his depth! I would have preferred if Stationhouse 4 had simply gotten the Mounties involved and that the resolution was that all of the men involved would be deported.

The other plot that I enjoyed was seeing Nina and George work together. She is an excellent chess player, but is not allowed to compete because she is a woman. Thus George has to play and she has to guide him. They soon realise that they are not the only ones to come up with this arrangement!

Finally, why does everyone think Violet Hart is suspicious? She just wants Dr. Ogden’s job and I thought that was fairly obvious awhile ago. She is forward and ambitious – she was a saleswoman when Dr. Ogden met her! She knows that due to her gender and skin colour, she has to go above and beyond to be recognised. She has to prove that she is efficient and capable. She wants a good reference from Murdoch and Ogden. This is her chance to make something of herself and she is doing her best to take it. Whether or not she is going about it “the right way” depends on your point of view. From what I can tell, she has not done anything illegal or immoral. I don’t think she is an Eva Pearce 2.0.

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Coco (2017)

Coco (2017)

I finally got to see Coco this week! (I have only wanted to see it since I saw the first teaser trailer…) The film well exceeded my expectations for it – and they were high expectations, being that it was a Pixar film and not an existing franchise. Of course, the animation was spectacular and I was immersed in the world that the film created, even only on a small screen at home. Marigolds have an important role to play in the Day of the Day and thus featured heavily in the animation, and while I am not really a big fan of the colour orange, I loved the marigolds. In the right context, orange is absolutely beautiful.

I have never been to the region of Mexico where this film is based, so I cannot verify how well the animators captured it, but other reviews seem to agree that it was quite accurate. It did make me want to visit. Too often, Mexico is portrayed as a frightening place, particularly by American media. (Canadians, on the other hand, seem to see Mexico uniquely as a vacation destination.) While this film definitely fit the Canadian stereotype of Mexico as a place of endless music and fun, it only portrayed one day. If anything, Coco shows that Mexico has a sense of ordinariness to it. The people feel relatable, even as they are in a Disney-Pixar film and thus definitely have exaggerated characteristics.

Attention to detail is really important in visual world-building. Unlike in a book, where the reader is expected to fill in what’s missing with elements from their own imagination (hence why book-to-screen adaptations are often disappointing), film and television need to show these extra details to present a clear picture of the setting. Animation used to get away with moving figures across a nearly-featureless painted storybook background. Now, every little window and rooftop is meticulously rendered, giving a sense of depth and reality. The background characters actually do things as well, so that we are not simply following the main characters around a set. My favourite little background scene was when the main character’s grandmother was trying to get her toddler grandsons to make a trail of marigolds across the yard. Like most toddlers would, the boys simply dumped their baskets of marigold petals into a heap at their feet, and then had to be shown how to make the heap into a trail. It was simply such a realistic and relatable moment!

The story and characters were delightful. Above all, Coco is about family and love. It is not a fable about the Land of the Dead or any kind of interaction with supernatural beings, but simply a story about a family – living and deceased – trying to do their best and having misunderstandings with devastating consequences. Except for the villain, everyone’s heart was in the right place. In the case of the villain, I even felt sorry for him, because he honestly believed that the only way he could achieve his dreams was to destroy others. He had elements of being a sociopath – in which case, he would be incapable of really understanding how wrong his actions were. I was certainly glad that he got his comeuppance, but I couldn’t help thinking that he could have still achieved his dreams by making better choices.

As for the rest of the cast, the heroes, I loved their story. Miguel, our main character, was a perfect twelve-year-old. I felt like I could run into a boy like him at any school. His living relatives weren’t as fleshed out (ironically) as his deceased ones, but I could understand their motivations. His grandmother was both hilarious and tragic, in that she was so determined to keep things right in the family that she failed to realise when her actions were actually causing harm. His great-grandmother, the titular Coco, was well-portrayed as an elderly woman whose senility had mostly gotten the best of her. She was not funny at all – because senility is not funny, especially at that point. She can no longer recognise her family, barely move or speak, and no longer makes sense of her surroundings. Her great-grandson Miguel spends the most time with her – apart from the women who change and dress her – and from his perspective, she is the only one who seems to understand him. However, by the end of the film, we retroactively realise why Coco seems to enjoy Miguel’s presence so much: he reminds her of her father, and when he is talking and playing with her, she feels like a little girl and her papa is home again.

Which brings me to Miguel’s dead relatives, who get much more screentime. Some of them are for back-up and comic relief, but Miguel’s adventure with his great-great-grandparents is an emotional roller-coaster ride. As an adult, I really wanted to know more about their backstory. How did they meet? Why was his great-great-grandmother a wonderful matriarch, but no mention was ever made of her parents? Why was Miguel’s grandmother’s husband not featured in the film – what was the story there? What occurred between the great-great-grandparents during their 45 years in the Land of the Dead at the same time? Surely his great-great-grandfather would have sought out his wife only to be pushed away repeatedly. Perhaps that is why he was surprised that he was still considered the love of her life! (According to Wikipedia, the couple was only in their early twenties when the husband disappeared/died, so from his perspective, there would have been plenty of time for his wife to find someone else. Of course, she was too busy raising their daughter and didn’t know she was widowed, so again – misunderstandings!)

Personally, I would love it if Disney commissioned an author to write a novel about Miguel’s great-great-grandparents and ending with the events of the film from their perspective! It sounds like it started with an ill-fated teen romance with two idealistic and artistic kids running off to find fame and fortune together (hence the lack of their parents ever being mentioned – although they could be orphans), then getting married and having conflicting timelines regarding their family, leading to the husband going on tour while his wife stayed home. He never came back, leading to her to despise music and decide that she was going to succeed at life on her own. But since she didn’t actually know he was dead, she never remarried – and perhaps she wanted to avoid getting her heart broken again. So instead, she surrounded herself with her family – the people that she could trust not to leave her: her little brothers, her daughter, her son-in-law, her granddaughters, etc. And they were all indeed very successful!

While she still missed her husband, her love for him had turned to anger and frustration over the fifty years of the rest of her life, so naturally when she met up with him in the Land of the Dead, she was in no mood for apologies or reconciliation. Even Miguel telling her that her husband had never meant to abandon her did little to soften her anger – it was not until she realised that her desire to erase him from her life had meant that she was going to lose him again to being forgotten by the living that she was able to consider reconciling with him. Honestly, does this not sound like a good novel? Honestly, it’s got historical fiction, music, paranormal travel, tragedy, romance, family curses, and an ultimate happy ending.

I’ll definitely be watching this one again – with boxes of tissues handy!

Posted in Disney, Films, Katy Pontificates, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Annie’s Escape

copyright 2018

Part II of “Annie’s Interrogation

“Daddy, why isn’t Mummy coming to meet us?”

“Mummy and Andrew were too badly hurt to come with us.”

“What about Puffball?”

“He stayed to protect Mummy and Andrew.”

“Why didn’t we stay with them?”

“Because our house is gone and it isn’t safe anymore.”

“Are Mummy and Andrew at the hospital? Can we go visit them, like we visited Great-Granddad?”

“No, we can’t go visit them.”

“Why not?”

Annie was awakened by the sound of a door opening. Across the corridor, Corporal and Private Nott shoved a gangly boy into the cell facing hers, tossing him a water bottle and snapping a photo of him, just as they had for her three days earlier. Private Nott had a few more choice words for the boy as Corporal marched away and was replaced by another soldier. Annie shuddered as the woman went on about being respectful and law-abiding and how she knew so many good people who suffered because of resistance acts. Nott had already ranted about the same thing at her and the three other students who must have been in cells adjacent to Annie’s, since she couldn’t see them herself. Which of her classmates were they?

For the past three days, Annie had been ritually dragged out before Commander and Corporal for further questioning. It had been a repeat performance of her keeping her mouth shut while they tried various ways to get her to say something. Luckily, the third soldier with his eager pants had been nowhere to be seen. Commander must have realised not to bother with that threat when all of the prisoners were minors. After each session, Annie had been thrown back into her cell, given a new water bottle, and had her photo taken.

The one thing that Private Nott had been good for was as a shield. While she couldn’t hide Annie from the camera in her cell, she always stood in front of Annie while the latter relieved herself into the drain in the corner, concealing her from any guards, including herself. Annie figured that she did the same for the other prisoners. The older woman also constantly kept an eye on their toilet paper supply – each cell was supposed to have precisely one roll. It was thin and rough paper, but at least Annie did not need to soil her clothes.

After her rant, Nott turned her attention to the newly-arrived soldier who was supposed to be standing guard with her. While she was a strict disciplinarian with the prisoners, she went all gooey and sweet with soldiers. She asked him whether he was new to the facility, and when he seemed to answer in the affirmative (the man was very quiet), she acted as though she were a hostess showing her guest around. Annie could not help but roll her eyes.

As the guards moved down the corridor, Annie could finally turn her attention to the boy. He was hard to identify until he looked up at her, at which point, Annie’s eyes widened and she squeezed her hands over her mouth to muffle her gasp.

Nicky?! What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here – your class wasn’t on a mission. You’re only in Grade 9!

Nicky winked at her. Glancing in the direction of the soldiers, he gestured to the cross around his neck. It was not his style – Nicky was a country boy, not really into the gangster music scene with the big flashy necklaces. The smaller, plain cross that slid under his shirt was more in character for him. But then Nicky gestured to his eyes.

It’s a camera?

Annie imitated the gesture.

Nicky pointed at her, then at his ears, then at his smaller cross – identical to hers. Annie nodded and winked back at him. Then the two shuffled back from their doors to sit quietly in the middle of their cells.

“So they stuck you on guard duty, huh?” Private Nott asked the new soldier, as the two of them made their way back toward Annie and Nicky. The new soldier stopped just out of view of Annie, so only the woman was visible to her.

Her “huh” is funny. It almost sounds like “ha”, like she’s emphasising it too much.

The new soldier must have nodded, because the woman went on.

“We’ve got five prisoners in this wing. All dumb kids with ties to the resistance, though I doubt they actually have any ties to the resistance. They’re probably just making mischief. What the Hell loyalty would they have to a country they can barely remember, if at all? Probably found some maple leaf crap somewhere for cheap and thought it would be fun to go out and blow up train tracks.”

Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that, lady.

“Do you have kids?” the woman continued. If her comrade was responding, Annie could not hear him. In fairness, Nott was barely giving him a chance.

“As in three kids, or a three-year-old?”

Nicky held up three fingers, obviously trying to help Annie follow the conversation. The man must have done the same to Nott.

“Whatever, same thing. I’m sure you’d do anything for them, right?”

“’Course.” This time, Annie heard a quick answer.

“I just can’t imagine how these kids think this is a good idea. No respect! My kids know right from wrong and would never do anything against the law. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like it. Tough! The law is the law.”

Where are your kids? You’ve been here the past four days. I’ve never seen you leave.

“Lots of kids lost their parents in the war,” the new soldier pointed out, his voice a low growl. “Maybe they aren’t as lucky to have a mother like you.”

“Still, that’s no excuse not to learn respect! My kids are half their age and know better.” She then continued to tell anecdotes about her daughter and son.

Funny, she asked him whether he had any kids, but didn’t even ask any more questions. You would think she would try to build a rapport with him, not just rant and brag.

When she was done talking about her kids, Nott decided to change the topic slightly.

“Did you fight in the war? Or are you a new arrival? How many tours of duty have you done?”

The man must have nodded again.

“My husband fought in the war too. He stayed on after his second tour when he met me!” She giggled flirtatiously.

Aha! So you’re not one of the invaders. Who’s the traitor now?

“I figure that’s what everyone should do. Stop fighting and move on! It’s over!”

Bit ironic, since fighting is what soldiers do. If you don’t want to be a soldier, why are you here? Go home and keep ramming that respect into your brats. Let your great American husband sex you up!

The man mostly kept silent. Private Nott kept prattling on about nonsense and it was clear to Annie that Commander must have exiled her to their corridor so that he would rarely have to listen to her. To be fair, she was not giving away any secrets. What did it matter that five teenagers were annoyed listening to her gossip about her private life? Maybe that was part of the strategy to get them to talk.

Nicky suddenly got Annie’s attention by rhythmically tapping on the padded floor. To the camera, it just looked like he was passing the time. However, he was playing a code. Annie recognised it as “be ready.”

Be ready? Ready for what?

He must have caught her quizzical look, not to mention whether any of the other three students could see or hear him, because he gestured with his head toward the guards.

To Annie’s surprise, Private Nott suddenly collapsed onto the floor, her voice knocked out by a well-placed punch to the throat. Her head hit the concrete with an audible crack and she lay motionless as the man handcuffed her and tied a blindfold around her head. Grabbing her weapons, he let out a string of French curses at her. Annie wondered how long he had been coming up with them while he listened, because they sounded rehearsed.

Still translating the curses in her head, Annie realised that the soldier was now unlocking all of the cell doors, starting with the cell next to her, moving back to Nicky, and then to her. It was only then that she recognised the man as her uncle. He winked at her as he ushered her toward the end of the corridor as he opened the remaining two cells.

As the group hurriedly made their way past empty rooms, they were met by two more soldiers. Instead of stopping them, these soldiers handed them weapons and extra ammunition. Annie was relieved to get her pink handgun back.

“It’s not stealing when it was ours in the first place,” the soldier handing it to her whispered. “Don’t tell me how many bullets you had on you. However many boxes I hand you is how many they took, okay?”

She nodded.

The five students and three soldiers soon arrived at a side door. It was so old that it splintered into several pieces when kicked. Evidently, this wing of the building had not been remodeled.

“This was mental hospital – over a hundred years old,” her uncle explained. “Rule number one of making a prison – make sure all exits are sealed. But thank God for their arrogance, eh?”

Another soldier was waiting with a prison van outside the door, but they too were in disguise.

“Switch!” the driver called out. One of the soldiers hopped into the driver’s seat while the driver took her place loading the five students into the back.

“Phil, get in the front with Kerry,” the first driver ordered. “Kayley and I will deal with the kids.”

Once safely in the van, the first driver pulled her mask off to reveal herself as Nicky’s mother, Leanna. She smiled at her son, whispering that she was proud of him. His being captured had evidently been part of their plan.

“Now, Kayley, let’s get to work on these bracelets and anklets. We’ve got to get them disabled! Kids, your crosses!”

All five of them turned the recording and tracking devices off. Nicky fiddled with his bejewelled camera cross, but managed to find the off switch.

“Hard to remember which sparkly bit it was.”

The two women managed to disable and partially remove all of the bracelets and anklets while speeding down the road in semi-darkness.

“Are we going all the way back to Frozen Lakes now?” one of the students asked.

“Eventually,” Leanna explained, flinging the boy’s anklet into the middle of the floor. “There, that’s the last one!”

“We’d be stealing a military van. No point in having them chase us all the way. We’re gonna switch out soon,” Kayley added.

Leanna nodded.

“Nicky and Annie-Penny, you come with me. Autumn, you go with Kayley. Simon and Henry, you go with Kerry.”

In a grove of trees with an abandoned farmhouse, three cars and drivers were waiting when the van pulled in.

“Take everything! Let’s go!”

Everyone divided up to ride in the cars.

“Daddy!” Annie cried, giving her father a hug.

“Hi, sweetie!” He had tears in his eyes. “I’m glad you’re okay. Now, let’s get in the car and go home!”

Annie and Nicky settled themselves into the back seat while Phil and Leanna tossed their uniforms into the trunk.

“Meet you at the first rendezvous point!” Kerry called out as she slid into the passenger seat of her car. “Keep in contact, preferably visual!”

Annie’s father and the other driver agreed.

“All right, everyone ready?”

“Other than being slightly underdressed, yep! We’re all buckled in.” Leanna was only wearing leggings and a light cotton shirt.

“Weapons at the ready!” Phil added. “But hopefully, we won’t need them.”

“Kerry and Kayley made sure to rescue Mama Anna’s pink handgun,” Annie chimed in. “I’m sorry I almost lost it.”

“She gave it to you to use, so she wouldn’t mind,” her father added, thinking of his second wife. “You weren’t careless. Your group got overpowered. You’ll know for next time!”

Annie finally had a chance to look at the surrounding countryside.

“Where are we?”

“About eleven and a half hours from Frozen Lakes! They took you kids a long way.”

“Thanks for coming for us.”

“We’re family, of course we’d come for you! You’re our kids! Our Frozen Lakes kids!” Leanna gave her a hug. “We’re very proud of you.”

“I didn’t tell them anything!”

“Nope, neither did the others. We could hear your crosses sometimes. Nothing but shouting soldiers and the occasional sarcastic response from one of you kids. That must be why Simon has a black eye and Henry’s got a broken nose.”

“I’m sorry to have caused trouble.”

“No trouble! But the Canuck Pirates probably won’t be doing any gigs this far south for awhile! I think we might get recognised. We’ll stick to the northern route.”

“Speaking of which, let’s practice,” Phil suggested. “Start us with a song, Annie!”

Posted in Katy Originals, Katy Rants, No Fixed Address, YA Lit & Films | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment