Reflections on 17 Years Since 9-11

This past week was the seventeenth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks on New York City and Washington DC. Like most Canadians, I didn’t really make much of a deal out of it – it was an ordinary Tuesday this year. (It started out like an ordinary Tuesday seventeen years ago as well…)

But I did reflect on how I can officially say that I have lived over half my life now in a post-9-11 world. I travelled a lot within Canada as a child (with a few forays abroad), but most of my travel memories have been since 2001. I associate the days of not meticulously packing liquids separately, keeping my shoes on, and breezing on through security as being part of childhood – ever increasing security measures have become second nature to me. I almost forget what it would be like to visit the captain, have a metal knife and fork, and have my relatives see me off from the gate. (I don’t think that last bit ever happened to me personally, although I had heard of it happening.)

Travel issues aside, I mostly reflected on how much has changed in the past seventeen years. By contrast, 2001 was only ten years removed from the end of the Cold War. Nearly an entire generation has grown up with 9-11 being a mere historical event rather than an actual memory. (Indeed, children born after the event now qualify for the U.S. Army reserves.)

The day of the attacks, our history teacher reminded us that this was history as it unfolded. This was what “real history” was like – scary, unknown, hard to analyse, and subject to a lot of change. On Sept. 11, 2001, we didn’t know what had really happened. Who was responsible? Why? What would be the response? What would happen? Would we end up in World War III? There was just a lot of “oh my God, wow!”

I can still remember what I was doing when I heard that a second plane had hit the Twin Towers, thereby confirming that this was no freak accident. I was standing in front of my wooden chest of drawers, holding a hairbrush in one hand and deodorant in the other. (I can’t remember which one I was picking up and which one I was putting down.) I was getting ready for school like I did on any other September morning. I don’t remember thinking that it was momentous at the time.

Not until I got to school and realised that the towers had collapsed, one shortly after I had left my house, the other as I walked into my first class of the day, did I think something truly horrible and world-ending might be happening.

It may seem strange why I have felt a strong connection to the events of 9-11. For sure, New York City is a common location for entertainment, so I likely felt some connection to the city because I had seen so many of its landmarks on television. I also have ancestral connections to New York – what is now the World Trade Cent[re] used to be the docks where my ancestors left in 1783, never to return. But I was not nearly as aware of that in the early 2000s as I am now.

And yet, I felt such an affinity for the event – the people, the place, etc. – that I even wrote a screenplay about it. In some ways, this screenplay was about my entire young adulthood and a tribute to saccharine romance rather than 9-11, but I nonetheless wrote it. The woman who is as anti-American as…(I don’t know, apple pie covered in maple syrup?) wrote a 9-11 tribute screenplay – that managed not to reference “America” once.

Because this wasn’t just about America to me. It was about the world – the confident, democratic world that I was supposed to be part of. Those of us who had grown up in the 1990s had been promised a wonderful future – we had relegated the threat of nuclear holocaust to the back burner, more states were democratising, and we had many Holocaust anniversaries to remind us not to go back down that road again. We were happy with political correctness because it was supposed to ensure a more egalitarian society.

This decade has since shattered that future even moreso than 9-11. My contemporaries thought concentration camps (or internment camps) were horribly unjust, but children and teenagers in the 2010s can argue that “it was for security!” Security has become a holy grail of some kind. I won’t bother going on a rant.

I decided that I would not think of 9-11 as a historical event in a long narrative, but as a tragedy that happened to people. Thousands died that day. Thousands more have died in related incidents since. All deaths have left families and friends bereft. Communities shattered. Lives unfinished. Society divided.

9-11 was the real end of my childhood – I started to pay much more attention to world events and my place in adult society that day. Earlier memories, particularly those associated with travel, seem almost foreign, as though they happened to someone else.

I wonder how many people born between 1983 and 1987 feel that way.

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How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

Having finally watched How to Train Your Dragon earlier this summer, I got around to watching How to Train Your Dragon 2 this past week. It was a great story and I look forward to seeing the third film in the trilogy nest year!

Like the first film, this one had beautiful animation and music. I found it very humourous as well, but the humour did not distract from the emotion or the setting itself. As this film is a sequel, the creators were able to building upon the existing world and characters. That is arguably one of my favourite things about sequels – not having to set up and explain everything.

Unlike many sequels to films aimed at a younger audience, this story takes place about five years after the first. The main characters have grown up; at least, they have advanced from awkward and impulsive (and somewhat cruel) teenagers to awkward and slightly-less-impulsive (and more empathetic) young adults. Sure, the difference from 15 to 20 doesn’t seem that much numerically, but it does wonders for one’s maturity. Sadly, our hero gets further upgraded to head-of-household adult in this film – which most of us are not ready for at twenty.

The main theme of this film is loyalty and it further explores the relationship between our hero and his dragon, as well as the relationship between humans and dragons in general. Loyalty is earned through love and trust, not domineering behaviour and abuse. This is a bit undercut by the fact that the main focus is on the human-dragon relationship, but it is also explored as a leadership style among humans and between individuals. The conclusion? Peace and understanding work well, but sometimes violence is necessary, and it will be tolerated (and supported) when it is used sparingly.

The problem with “sometimes violence is necessary” is that it is not as obvious in reality when it is necessary, especially compared to fiction. Most of the time, we are not dealing with armies outright attacking our families and communities. We are trying to champion causes and improve our lives.

Even when faced with actual attack, a violent response is not always the best course of action. Sometimes, taking a stand means not standing at all, or simply standing as one’s enemy fires. Sometimes, letting the violence happen to you is the most powerful response – not because you condone it, but because you don’t.

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Stardust (2007)

Stardust (2007)

There is something to be said for deciding to create a ‘2.0’ version of a story when adapting a novel to film. While all films technically do this, the creators of Stardust openly opted to create new characters, change the ending, and radically alter the tone of the original story to fit into a more “family” category. The author of the novel thoroughly enjoyed it. All in all, having both read the book and seen the film, the latter keeps its adaptation respectful of the novel’s whimsy and social commentary, as well as its world and characters, while essentially telling its own version of the story.

In essence, the filmmakers took an original fairy tale and adapted it, like countless people have adapted Cinderella and Snow White.

Stardust, both Neil Gaiman’s novel and the film, is indeed best described as an original fairy tale. We have the supernatural origin story for our hero, lots of magic, and many converging quests. The characters are new, the world is new (although based on European folklore), and some of the concepts within it are outlandish and mainly serve to further the narrative. Both are inherently funny.

Personally, I enjoyed the film moreso than the book. I liked how the film neatly told the story in two hours and I appreciated the changes that the filmmakers made. Perhaps the novel could have a miniseries adaptation in the future that follows the book more closely. (I think the rise of streaming services has definitely opened up the possibility for better novel-to-screen adaptations, as one can watch multiple episodes at one’s leisure.) Stardust is meant to be enjoyed by audiences of all ages, while the book is most definitely meant for an older audience.

There are some problematic elements in the story, but some of that has to do with the fairy tale conventions that it follows. Our protagonist is hopelessly pursuing the love of a woman who rejects him and in turn, fails to see the humanity in the woman who is the embodiment of a fallen star. One could argue that the fallen star is not entirely human, but she is considered a human equivalent. Our protagonist matures and realises that he is wrong to treat her like a trophy. Is it problematic that she still falls in love with him? Perhaps, but that is a fairy tale for you. Moreover, in this film, it is a cautionary tale for men: do not overlook the right woman in pursuit of the wrong one, because it almost might cost you both of them. Perhaps it is the fallen star’s eternal nature that understands our protagonist’s inner goodness that makes her fall in love with him despite their relationship starting off very much on the wrong foot.

Every film that has problematic elements like the above needs to be evaluated on its own merit and usually makes sense within its own story. Despite it all, I enjoyed the film very much. We are being told a campfire story. It is a magical world. (As an aside, the villains are horrible and we are not supposed to cheer for them, but they are still funny because we are supposed to be entertained.)  It is weird and there are things that are supposed to disturb us, at least a little.

Overall, I am entertained more than I am disturbed by this film. It is perfect for a Friday night in or a rainy afternoon.

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Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor”

Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor

As proof that breakout characters and franchise spinoffs are not unique to our current superhero era, William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedic spinoff from his history plays. He wrote this play because his character of Sir John Falstaff from Henry IV (Parts 1&2) was extremely popular. Perhaps he also liked the character and the member of his troupe who played him was fun to write for, but I highly doubt audiences would have been keen to come see a new comedy starring an existing character from the history plays if they had not been asking for it. The historical plays are quite different in tone from the comedies.

This play has arguably been enduring, but not very popular. It isn’t one that comes to mind to non-Shakespeare fans. It doesn’t have the glamourous and/or fantastical settings that most of his other comedies do.  The characters are mostly middle-class or gentry. The recurring characters are only recurring for die-hard fans, since Shakespeare’s history plays are not as memorable as his comedies or tragedies. They are otherwise somewhat interchangeable. The whole play smacks of a “jolly good time”.

In other words, The Merry Wives of Windsor is a sixteenth-century sitcom. While most of Shakespeare’s comedies could be considered situational, this one obviously pokes fun at current norms from within the same society. It uses a lot of economic and ethnic stereotypes. Everything is resolved amicably, even situations that would not be very amicable, for the sake of a good joke.

What is also notable as that what would be considered the A-plot in most stories is relegated to B-plot status, while a silly B-plot is made the foremost event in the story. The only decision of consequence in the play is who Anne Page will marry – and I think we can all agree that marriage is a life-changing event – but the antics of Falstaff, Mrs. Ford, Mrs. Page, and Mr. Ford end up taking priority. We can laugh at the misunderstandings and mishaps of Falstaff and the wives, but even Shakespeare’s audiences found arranged marriage to be uncomfortable. Those scenes are arguably more serious and great care is taken to portray Anne’s suitors as buffoons (except for the one whom she genuinely loves) so that we can still laugh at them when they get swindled. We in the audience can be comfortable at thinking “why do her parents think either of these men would be a good husband for their only daughter?” and not “Anne is being a bit unreasonable here”. We are also meant to laugh because Mr. Page and Mrs. Page favour different suitors. For once, I felt that I was watching a comedy that both me and my sixteenth-century counterpart would have enjoyed and understood – and possibly even laugh about together.

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The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

Ever wondered how you might react if suddenly thrown into the midst of a spy caper, not knowing who to trust, and relying solely on your quick reaction time and your knowledge of spy film tropes and clichés?

Did you predict a lot of screaming?

Those are essentially the question that the creators of The Spy Who Dumped Me posed. I found the film hilarious because I could just imagine it being believable. Of course, our heroines have very good luck (though they probably don’t always see it that way) and the comedy is intentionally over-the-top. But the main characters act very much like two hapless thirtyish-year-old women might in such situations. They may be annoying, but they are in shock for most of the first act of the story. Even as they get more comfortable as the story progresses, they are still flying by the seat of their pants. They are understandably freaked out for most of the story. They do hilariously stupid things that unnecessarily draw attention to themselves. They spend a lot of time screaming and rambling. They make very poor decisions.

But of course they do! Not only would there be little comedy if they suddenly did everything properly, but the story wouldn’t make sense. There would have been no story to speak of if the main characters had entirely cooperated with everyone and they would have been killed very quickly, having outlived their usefulness and being seen as loose ends.

I have to admit that I was not sure entire how I would classify this film. It is undoubtedly an action-comedy – albeit a dark one with a high body-count. It has romance elements that parody spy-thriller pairings, but the main relationship in focus is that of the two female best friends on their journey. We are left to believe that romances can come and go, but your best friend is forever. It is a story about self-reliance and empowerment. At its heart, though, this is a comedy.

I really enjoyed this film. I tried to imagine how I might fare in this situation. The whole audience is brought along for the ride and we really want to see the main characters succeed – or else we’re so annoyed with them that we wonder if they actually are going to make it to the end credits.  At the very least, we want to see them get home safely. Plus, we get to see a lot of Europe!

The secondary characters, however, are obviously not aware that they are in a comedy. They are actually spies, assassins, henchmen, etc. They are trying to do their jobs and are rather flummoxed by our heroines antics that don’t fit the usual pattern. The women gradually become less stupid and yet are still highly unpredictable, frustrating the “good guys” and “bad guys” alike.  This adds to the hilarity of the film. Unless you were expecting an actual serious spy thriller, that is – which this is not.

Is it violent? Yes, although no moreso than a superhero or regular spy film. Is it what might best be described as “earthy” in its humour? Yep, but still done tastefully and believably. It can be best summed up as “those two gals invade a James Bond film”. One of the campier James Bond films, to be sure, but still. It’s not perfect, but it is fun.

 

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Christopher Robin (2018)

Christopher Robin (2018)

As a long-time fan of the Winnie-the-Pooh franchise, I was thrilled to see that Disney was making a live-action film that explored the idea of what might have happened to Christopher Robin after he grew up. To be honest, just seeing Winnie and his friends as actual stuffed animals interacting with the real world was enough of a treat. They are adorable, bumbling, honest, earnest, and well-meaning. We get to see the implications of one’s stuffed animals coming to life – they act partly like pets and partly like small children. Just like Christopher Robin, you alternatively want to smack them and cuddle them.

I have not seen the recent film (Good Bye, Christopher Robin) that actually explores the historical Christopher Robin and the relationship with his father as he aged. Disney’s Christopher Robin is whimsical and lighthearted, not meant to be historically accurate. This is a fictional Christopher Robin to go with a fictional Winnie-the-Pooh.

The main theme of the book is growing up and gradually losing one’s childhood innocence and gaining responsibility. Neither of these things means that it is impossible to be playful and experience wonder, but it does make it more difficult to do so. In addition to having a career and family, Christopher Robin fights in WWII and experiences horrors on the battlefield that most of us watching the film will never face (although we certainly all have our own demons). Our adult Christopher Robin – brilliantly portrayed by Ewan MacGregor – is thus not only overly concerned with providing for his family, but also battling post-traumatic-stress-syndrome. It is clear that he never forgot Pooh and his friends, but he pushed them to the realm of childhood fantasy.

This is a great film and I don’t want to spoil the adventure. The main message of the story is that one needs to have a well-balanced life – one that includes play, wonder, and relaxation, or whatever else anyone thinks “doing nothing” is. In short, we all need Winnie-the-Pooh in our lives sometimes.

Indeed, Winnie-the-Pooh is almost 100 years old now (and his real-life inspiration would be 104 in 2018) and his enduring power is not just due to Disney marketing, but due to the wondrous, relatable, and somewhat silly stories that A.A. Milne created. Pooh is synonymous with recreation and whimsy, and the bear himself, in his relationship with Christopher Robin, is also synonymous with unconditional love.

The fact that the cinema was filled with people of all ages to watch this film is proof of that.

 

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

At long last (after having the film on my shelf for a year and a half), I finally worked up the courage to watch Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them!

Now, this may come across as surprising, since I really enjoyed the Harry Potter books and films (and J.K. Rowling’s wizarding universe in general). It may also just seem odd – why buy a film and then leave it on the shelf?

I am not really sure why it took me so long to watch. I hadn’t forgotten it. The most likely reason is because the Harry Potter books and films represented an era of my life that was over and I was thus reluctant to dive back into the same universe. I don’t have a lot of local friends who are into Harry Potter, so no one to share the experience with, either.

I was also unsure of the story: it was not based on an existing novel (other than inspired by a short book), it was set in the 1920s, it was set in New York, and the characters were wholly new creations.

Well, thank God for that!

I love the Harry Potter series, but it is about teenagers in a school setting. There was something truly enjoyable (for an adult, anyway) about this film because its main characters are adults who have more autonomy and awareness of the world that they live in. Newt Scamander may be socially awkward, but he is independent, responsible, and fully capable of magic. The other characters likewise have jobs, skills, and maturity. I admit, I don’t really like school stories – in fact, the Harry Potter series is the only set of school stories that I have enjoyed.

And yet, in this film at least, the main characters are still young enough that the world is full of possibility and wonder. (I imagine that the actors might be slightly older than their characters in this installment, as they all seem to be in their 30s or early 40s, while their characters seem to be in their late 20s.) While they have jobs, they don’t have children and while they are concerned about paying their bills, but they have the drive to do what is right. They are a little less idealistic than teenagers, but they still have high hopes and dreams.

Overall, I am glad that J.K. Rowling has been able to explore further backstories and corners of her world to share with us. It was familiar and yet still new and wondrous.

The 1920s New York setting was amusing and beautiful. It felt more fantastical than the 1990s/2000s. The magical creatures were very well-done and I was especially impressed with the mix of puppets and CGI. The creatures seemed real – if not always realistic. Everyone interacted well together.

The new characters are excellent. They are relatable and yet eccentric. I never felt like I was watching a Harry Potter spin-off, but a new story altogether. The story does not lock out new viewers who have never read or watched the previous series, although there might be some confusing references.

I am very interested in where this story is headed. The first film works well as a standalone story, but leaves many questions.

Like any good sci-fi or fantasy story, this film also touches on topics like racism (or species-ism), animal rights, the environment, fear of the unknown, feeling inadequate, etc. It does so many times blatantly, but always in the context of the story and never feels preachy. I look forward to finding out how these themes continue in further stories.

This is arguably a better film than the Harry Potter film series because it was written for the screen. I am glad that I finally watched it. Perhaps I didn’t need to put Rowling’s world behind me after all.

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