The Book of Life (2014)

The Book of Life (2014)

While waiting to see Disney-Pixar’s new film Coco, I finally got to see The Book of Life. Both films are about Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday celebrated on Nov. 2, but that is about where the similarities end. (Oh, and they’re both animated. There’s that.) Any more comparisons will have to wait until I actually get to see Coco.

The Book of Life is stop-motion animation and is entirely a fairy tale. The frame story is a group of wayward schoolchildren are taken on a tour of a museum somewhere in the United States that has a Mexican exhibit. It is the Day of the Dead, so their mysterious tour guide tells them a story about the holiday.

What follows is classic fairy tale fun: the story centres around a bet made by on-again/off-again lovers La Muerte (who rules over the Land of the Remembered) and Xibalba (who rules over the Land of the Forgotten) in the Underworld. Their bet involves a spirited young girl – unsurprisingly named Maria – and her two childhood male friends, Manolo and Joaquin. Each one bets that Maria will end up marrying their favourite. Both boys love Maria, albeit initially only as friends. After she is sent away to boarding school, both boys grow to love her romantically in absentia.

La Muerte picks Manolo, while Xibalba picks Joaquin. Xibalba keeps trying to cheat to win the bet. Meanwhile, the two boys follow drastically different careers pursuits. Joaquin becomes a military hero while Manolo becomes a bullfighter, although he would rather be a musician. When Maria returns, she warms up to Manolo, but her father would rather that she marry Joaquin.

A trip to the Underworld ensues, thanks to Xibalba’s cheating, and eventually all ends well – but I won’t reveal how!

Despite the plot being fairly predictable, it was a delightful story. The animation was hilarious and beautiful. The music was especially touching. The score uses many pop songs (both recent and classic) remixed as mariachi music – and they work within the film to tell the story. There was lots of comedy, but plenty of dramatic and emotion scenes as well. It is a good family film that will appeal to adults and children together.

As for the heart of the story, the moral centres around what makes a true hero. Joaquin is the traditional military hero, although his heroics are largely aided by Xibalba’s magic; Manolo tries his hardest to please his father, who wants him to become a bullfighter as all the men in his family have been before, but he fails miserably.

The other theme is family and legacy. In the Underworld, Manolo meets all of his bullfighting ancestors – all very famous and all very much dead from their exploits. Some of this ancestors enjoyed the identity, but even some of them would have preferred other careers. His father insists that the men in their family do not apologise, but as part of outplaying Xibalba, Manolo is forced to fight the spirit of every bull that his family has killed. Instead of trying to kill the spirits, he instead brings out his guitar to sing a song of apology. It is not that he does not respect his family, but that he acknowledges that a) they got where they were through a lot of pain to others, and b) that he does not want to follow in their footsteps.

We cannot change the past, but we can acknowledge it and continue to move forward.

I really enjoyed this film and its lessons go far beyond its fairy-tale cuteness and simplicity. It is funny, sad, beautiful, romantic, clever, and action-packed. It is everything that a good story should be.

I hear there might even be a sequel!

 

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Meditations on The Nutcracker Ballet

Meditations on The Nutcracker Ballet

Despite how ubiquitous The Nutcracker is around Christmas – its music especially, if not the ballet or story itself (in fact, some of the music even makes it into non-Christmas-themed commercials), I realise that it has been over 25 years now since I have actually seen the show. I was listening to an awesome parody medley where the unfortunate narrator keep going on about how the story “makes no sense” and it occurred to me that I could not remember it that well.

But then I thought about it, and when I later researched the plot online, I got it pretty much on the head.

Really, it is not a very complicated story. The ballet simplifies an otherwise convoluted German tale into a beautiful, visually-dazzling performance with catchy tunes. It is not about the story – it is about the dancing! The costumes! The elaborate sets! (Especially the giant Christmas tree in the first act, which was a novelty in late 19th-century Russia.) The music!

Thus the plot boils down to this: A young girl, Clara-Marie, gets a nutcracker doll from her mysterious godfather as a present on Christmas Eve. Her mean-spirited little brother breaks the doll, and when Clara-Marie falls asleep, she dreams that her doll has come to life and is fighting an evil Mouse-King. Thanks to her, the Mouse-King is killed (or just defeated, depending on how child-friendly the production is trying to be) and the Nutcracker Prince takes Clara-Marie to his kingdom, which is made of candy. There, all of the candy dance for her as they laud her heroism.

Basically, the whole story is about a young girl who has a sugary dream (having likely consumed lots of sweets at the party) and imagines her doll coming to life. Either he is a wholly fictional character whom she dreams up as a fantasy man, as young girls often do, or he is a representation of her godfather’s son whom she met at the party and developed a precocious crush on. (It depends on the production, just like whether Clara-Marie is called Clara or Marie.) Not much to parse here!

This is a ballet – it is about telling a story through dance and music. Part of the reason that it is seen as child-friendly is because of its relatively simple plot, Christmas theme, young protagonist, and bright colours. Oh yes, and the dancing candy.

Like most young girls, I took ballet classes and briefly dreamed of being a ballerina. As a result, I went to The Nutcracker at least a couple of times before the age of 8. It was the unofficial start of the Christmas season, usually taking place in the middle or latter half of November. The studio where I took ballet also housed the theatre where The Nutcracker was performed, so there was lots of excitement around it. I can certainly see why it appeals to young children.

I also think it presents a great opportunity for children to learn to appreciate live stage performance. The story is simple and relatable to them. Compared to most ballets, it has no romantic triangles, tragic love stories, or evil spells. It is quick-paced and dazzling, so it holds attention. I went to see Swan Lake when I was six and had to leave at the intermission because, well, I was tired and the show was boring. Then again, half the fun of going to The Nutcracker as a child was getting all dressed up. (It still is, if Facebook posts by my friends who are parents are anything to go by.)

The music itself is still wonderful – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky at his best, despite his not being all that fond of it. (He would probably be slightly embarrassed to find out that his most enduring work is The Nutcracker and that it is being used to advertise garden centre and furniture clearance sales.) However, because it is everywhere at Christmas, it does feel a bit cliché. It is in holiday film trailers, countless commercials, Christmas concerts, music compilations, and more. Now I have to watch clips of the music with the dancing to get an idea of what the music is supposed to represent and truly appreciate it. Even still, it can be hard not to think of slapstick comedy or commercials.

However, the music is still used so much because it is enduring. Partly due to marketing, yes, but also because it is enjoyable. Great music and a great story – it is still relatable to audiences (for the most part) over 120 years after it was composed.

It’s about a little girl, her doll, and candy.

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Looking at One’s Life

MURDOCH MYSTERIES
Season 11, Episodes 5, 6 & 7 (Dr. Osler Regrets)(21 Murdoch Street)(The Accident)

Murdoch Mysteries has not been a show to shy away from difficult and timely topics, so I was not surprised by the premise of Dr. Osler Regrets, an episode that both explores libel and freedom of the press as well as the care of the elderly.

It centres around a visiting American doctor who is unfortunately quoted out of context as claiming that the elderly should be killed off. Not only is this a press disaster for the eponymous Dr. Osler, but a serial killer soon emerges who is targeting men over sixty. The newspaper – especially the annoying Miss Louise Cherry – makes the connection between the murders and Dr. Osler’s misquoted speech, thereby setting up much of the tension of the story.

Of course, the article and the murders are not related, and certainly, Dr. Osler is not to blame for the events. However, the misquote does get our characters thinking! Inspector Brackenreid is naturally concerned with his own aging, while Murdoch and Crabtree debate the idea of people being past their prime and what that means for them and society. Crabtree has an awkward reunion with Miss Cherry and we are unfortunately left with the impression that she is going to be a thorn in the constabulary’s side into the future. On the one hand, she is a determined career woman and talented writer; on the other, she is snoopy, snobby, and oblivious (or uncaring) to how dangerous her actions and writing can be. Personally, I want to see her succeed at her career, but I worry that her insensitivity will only cause herself eventual harm.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ogden confides in Dr. Osler about her experiments and potential fertility treatments. He is pleased for her, but dutifully warns her that she should be careful not to let her emotions get in the way of the experiment or take unnecessary risks. While this could have come across as patronizing, he does so in such a way that does not. Instead, he comes across as genuinely concerned for Dr. Ogden’s health. He treats her as a colleague, friend, and equal. Dr. Ogden has earned a place of esteem in her own right without having children – but she clearly still wants them, and she has earned the right to try.

Speaking of children, 21 Murdoch Street brings Brackenreid’s son, John, to the forefront of the weekly investigation. He infiltrates a prestigious college and gets a glimpse of how wealthier boys his age live and learn. He is initially investigating missing persons, but it soon turns into a murder case when he and Crabtree (who is undercover as a professor) find human remains in a furnace on campus.

Because the missing persons are not only less-than-exemplary students, but also sons of an Indian diplomat, issues of racism and imperialism arise over the course of the episode. The students’ behaviour is not unlike that of their peers, but the dean dismisses them as trash because of their skin colour. Their behaviour, meanwhile, stems directly from their desire for respect among their fellow students. Unsurprisingly, the boys are not dead, nor are they the murderers – despite the establishment’s strong dislike of them.

Crabtree takes his cover role seriously and tries his best to connect to the students in his class, most of whom are bored with their studies and futures. He manages to convince one student to pursue – or at least maintain and nurture – his artistic talents rather than viewing them as a hindrance. Sadly, these young men, John Brackenreid included, are all nine years away from the trenches of the First World War. Their futures are very likely to include death in the mud, or a lifetime of shellshock. It is poignant to see them in their pre-war, normal lives. There was nothing special about them – they were just young men. Whether or not they were content with their futures and lots in life, they still thought they had time. Sadly, most of them would not have much longer.

Finally, The Accident brings everything down to one hour and the chaos of a traffic accident in the early era of the automobile. It would not have amounted to much except that Mr. Dilbert, a city clerk whom Brackenreid briefly had to work with last season, is pinned between a car and a trolley. Dr. Ogden soon realises that to move him would likely kill him. Humble, diligent Mr. Dilbert enjoys one last hour of life, accompanied by Brackenreid. They are later joined by Mr. Dilbert’s colleague Miss Ash, whom he needs to submit his report to the city.

It soon becomes apparent that the accident was staged and that Mr. Dilbert was intentionally targeted. Murdoch has to contend with impatient drivers as he investigates as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. Meanwhile, Crabtree and his fellow constables have to clean up the scene, including comically chasing chickens and pigs – all the while dealing with nosey Miss Cherry again. To her credit, she does take Crabtree’s advice to help out instead of just being bothersome, but she still fails to understand that helping is not a transaction in exchange for information. (I actually feel sorry for her in her failure to understand. She is still annoyingly insensitive, but I don’t think it is as intentional as it appears.)

What this episode primarily focuses on is Mr. Dilbert as he comes to terms with his impending mortality. He goes through the five stages of grief and still manages to find time to ensure that his report gets finished and to confess to harbouring a crush on Miss Ash. Sadly, but fortunately for him, she reciprocates his feelings and both realise that they might have had a happy life together. That is not to say that Mr. Dilbert had a sad life, It merely was not all that remarkable and because he put his work first, he did not have any close friends or family. Like most of us, he thought he would have more time. Sudden death is not as likely for a clerk as it would be for a police officer. Yet he died precisely because his work mattered so much.

It is easy to get caught up in one’s own life, whether it is in one’s work, children, pursuit of happiness, or other endeavours. We are all only a sneeze away from death, no matter how careful and risk-averse we are, and most of us don’t get an hour to contemplate our demise.

In the end, Mr. Dilbert lived a life that he could be satisfied with. That is what we all need to hope for,

 

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Stalingrad (2013)

Stalingrad (2013)

Every year around Remembrance Day weekend, I usually pick a war-related film to watch. This year, I decided to watch the 2013 Russian film Stalingrad, which is about the eponymous battle that lasted six months 1942-43, turning the tide of the Second World War (or the Great Patriotic War, as it is known in the former Soviet Union). The Battle of Stalingrad tops many lists about WWII battles: it was one of the bloodiest (over 2 million dead, including civilians); it was one of the longest, considering it was really only over one city; and it was one of the most important in terms of how the war would turn out.

As someone from North America, I don’t have much connection to the battle. It certainly hasn’t been as romanticized as other battles – the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic, the D-Day invasions, etc. Despite being highly influential, and recognised as such at the time, it was largely forgotten since it didn’t involve any North American or Western European troops. However, having seen a lot of WWII films from American or British filmmakers, I was interested in seeing a modern Russian film. Would it be as propagandistic as Saving Private Ryan or Pearl Harbor and the like? (My answer would be “No, not as much.”)

To be clear, the armies fighting at Stalingrad were fighting for two bloodthirsty and ruthless dictators, and this film makes that somewhat apparent. The Soviets are the heroes because a) they are defending their homeland; b) they are the underdogs in terms of military strength; and c) they are not of the opinion that there are inferior races that need to be subjugated or eliminated. (And of course the fact that it is a Russian film.) Because of how brutal the war has been, they are less fighting for ideals and more for simple survival. Barring survival, they are trying to take out as many of the enemy as they can before dying.

What is haunting about the film – particularly the opening sequence and several other similar sequences throughout – is that it has some qualities that reminded me of a video game, but it was indeed based largely on fact. The battle really was that brutal, and the Soviet soldiers in particular were told to keep advancing regardless of obstacles. By the middle of the six-month battle (not that they knew it was the middle at the time), no one really thought that they would get out of the city alive.

Which is a problem if you’re a civilian who happens to live in the city. The filmmakers take pains to show how dismal life was for surviving civilians: starvation, brutal treatment by the enemy, lack of water, high likelihood of being caught in the crossfire, and loss of community.

There was a lot of criticism about this film, namely that it focused too much on a small group of characters in a short window of time. However, I needed that. Otherwise, the film would have indeed amounted to nothing but a video game. One needs to have some humanity behind the people who are trying not to die.

The plot is fairly straightforward: a small band of Soviet soldiers take control of a semi-bombed-out apartment building on the Nazi-occupied side of the river, and they attempt to hold the building until Soviets can make a crossing and attack. Inside the building, they discover a young woman who used to live in the apartment and whose family and neighbours have all been killed. Over the course of three days, the woman brings out their humanity and they bring her out of her frightened shell-shock. There is some concern that the men have become too focused on protecting her, but she is determined to help them fight.

All of the characters are fairly archetypal, although they do have individual personalities. However, this film is not about being original or inventive. The characters are supposed to be archetypal. This is how they stand for all of the soldiers and civilians of Stalingrad, trying to retain their humanity, fulfill their duty, and survive as long as possible. Yes, they only portrayed a small portion of a large battle, but how else were they to depict it without having it turn into a video game or a melodrama?

One beautiful storytelling device that they used was a voiceover narrator who was telling the story in 2011; while we thus knew that at least one character would survive (and exactly who it would be, since the narration told us), the point was not about suspense. The narrator was able to fill in gaps in the story and thus we avoided having too much expository dialogue within the film itself. The narrator filled us in on the individual soldiers’ backgrounds, as well as that of the young woman, with the assumption that the soldiers discussed it off-camera. The background gave context to the characters’ motivations and actions. It also allowed for us to see bombed out ruins while the narrator described the ruins’ former inhabitants in all of their living glory. That scene alone was heartbreaking and poetic – and worth watching the film for, in my opinion.

Simply put, war is hellish. Stalingrad showed just how hellish it was. This isn’t about a plucky band of heroes destroying the big bad invaders. This is about trying to stay alive and not totally give in to the hellishness.

At the end of the film, the narrator reminds the audience that millions died in the hope that future generations would never have to face war like they did. It is worth remembering that we don’t want to go through that again. It is easy to feel removed from that type of hellish warfare when your primary narrative of the World Wars is “soldiers went away to fight”. They had to go somewhere, and that somewhere had people living in it.

And in terms of how the Second World War went, Stalingrad destroyed the Nazi momentum and eliminated their European allies, making the North African campaign, the invasion of Italy, and the Normandy landings possible. Stalingrad was not just about the Soviet Union, but about all of Europe. The rest of the twentieth century might otherwise have gone very differently.

That’s not propaganda – the film never even claims that, being strictly about the Soviet experience. That is simply how the war went.

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A Known Grave

copyright 2017

Two small graves, side by side,
Alone amid the woods,
Small crosses with painted names,
All that marks whose final place
This small patch of ground has become.

So many dead had no graves,
Their bodies left amid ruins,
Lying on battlefields, destroyed to pulp,
Burned for being too sick,
No place to bury them in hallowed ground.

This little clearing in the woods,
Is more than two graves,
More than two crosses, two brave heroes,
To those who remain, so many more
Are buried here in spirit.

And yet, in spirit, they are all free,
Blown about by the wind,
Sailing on the waves of faraway seas,
Soaring through the skies,
Whistling through the trees.

This is not the land of the dead,
But of the living,
The broken souls come to be healed
By the power of the memory
Of their fallen loved ones.

So many unknown,
So many forgotten,
So many remembered,
So many missed.

But this is not the end,
And as the mourners shiver in the wind,
The living swirl among them, and beyond,
Finishing their journey,
Home to freedom and peace.

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Orphan Black – Season 5 (2017)

Over the course of four previous seasons, even with only ten episodes apiece, Orphan Black managed to weave a web of controversy, conspiracy, and intrigue that involved numerous corporate schemes, scientific breakthroughs, and a lot of distrust. For their final season, it seemed like it would be an arduous task to bring all of these plot threads together and wrap them up nicely while still telling an interesting and emotional story.

I was pleased that the writers managed to pull off this task. Each of the main characters received closure and had time dedicated to them, even with only ten episodes. There were very few loose ends left, aside from those left purposefully open-ended. The one question that I did wonder about was what happened to Kira’s father? Somehow, though, I had it in my head that he had been killed offscreen in the previous season, so I did not miss him too much. However, upon looking back, I realise that he wasn’t officially killed off. Oh well, I guess I will stick to my theory.

Ultimately, the story circles back to how the main characters have become a family. They thus want to fight to protect that family from corporate interests who do not see them as people. This is the season where we find out who the “man behind the curtain” is who initiated and controls all of the experiments related to cloning. I do find it intriguing that in the course of these experiments, there was little thought put to the fact that they were creating people. People, unlike any other organism, cannot be patented or owned, at least not in North America where the story is set. Even if a corporation could be said to act as parent-guardians for minor children, once the cloned individuals reached adulthood, they could not legally be considered property. Yet the writers of the story manage to create situations where we genuinely understand why the clones and their creators continue to have a lopsided relationship. We entirely forget the legal aspect. The whole operation exists outside the law and just barely within the realm of scientific possibility for it to feel absolutely real.

There are lots of parallels to questions of reproductive rights – and in this season, the question itself actually comes up as lead character Sarah’s pre-teen daughter, Kira, is taken by the corporation to have her eggs harvested against her will. The thought is abhorrent to the audience (I hope), especially as Kira’s family does not consent, Kira cannot consent herself, and even if either of them could, there is the question of why should a corporation feel that they have the right to a young girl’s eggs merely because they created her mother? Putting it another way, would a grandparent feel that they have the right to do whatever they please with their grandchild, even over their child’s objection? Could a pre-teen child have any idea of what they wanted for their future? The idea of a woman selling her eggs for money is not science fiction anymore, but it is certainly controversial.

The story manages to avoid being too bogged down in these questions, however, and instead focuses on the human element of the characters. It is a quick-paced season that manages to have slower, drawn-out moments when they are needed. The finale episode devotes half an hour to wrapping up the surviving characters’ lives, showing at once that life goes on but old issues still remain. We are left feeling satisfied. While the story took some odd twists and turns in previous seasons – whole subplots could have been eliminated without changing the overall story – it ended neatly.

It ended in such a way that while I will miss the characters, I won’t feel like I miss the show. It is short enough to rewatch, skipping those nearly irrelevant episodes, and a novel-like story in five parts. Would I be interested in more adventures? Possibly, but I like the way the series ended. Any further stories would have to be carefully written. I cannot see a way to include all of the characters that viewers have come to love, and without all of them, anything new would feel somewhat empty.

Perhaps a Christmas special down the road would be interesting…

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No Fixed Address

copyright 2017

“For the last time, ma’am, what is your name and address?”

“What does it matter? I just need checked out. Isn’t this an emergency clinic?”

“We still need your name and address for our records.”

“Lots of displaced people about.”

“Yes, ma’am, I understand.” For a moment, the doctor’s tone almost sounded compassionate. “There are lots of people who don’t have permanent addresses right now. That’s okay. We need something for our records, though. What if you have family or friends who are looking for you?”

“They’re dead.”

“My condolences, truly. But you never know who might decide to look you up!” His eyes wandered lower. “Long lost friends, perhaps?”

She reflexively pulled her jacket together, even though it did not zip up. It was still her armour. The doctor took notice and returned his gaze to his monitor.

“My name is Sarah Donald. Here’s my ID.”

“Is this still your address?”

“Technically, yeah, I suppose. Missed a few mortgage payments now though! Bank is gone too, so not sure where we’re at. But the address is a pile of rubble. No one lives there now.”

“Alrighty then, no fixed address it is. I’ll put this as your last address, though. And your age is…”

“Thirty-six in July.”

He handed her back her identification.

“So what brings you to the clinic? I don’t see any broken bones or blood. You look a little pale, but you seem healthy enough.”

That she had long suffered from chronic illness was something she decided to keep to herself.

“I need checked out. I want to see if the test I did was right.”

The doctor nodded, slightly sceptical.

“We don’t have the resources to do lots here. You’re not bleeding at all, are you?”

She shook her head.

“Any other worries? How’s your health been?”

“Good, I suppose. Considering I have no fixed address.”

“Well, I’d say keep hydrated, try to stay well-fed with a balanced diet, and get a roof over your head so you have a safe place to sleep.”

“Sure.” A car roof would have to suffice.

“We can do a visual scan, if you like. We have an ultrasound machine here – usually, we use it for other things, but every so often, it’s for a happier occasion.”

“How much?”

“It’s part of the emergency service, Ms. Donald. No charge.”

*

The clinic’s washrooms were full, so Sarah staggered out to the nearby pharmacy. Clutching her envelope tightly in front of her, she hurried inside and said a prayer of thanks that the toilet was available.

“I’ll buy a drink after!” she called out to the cashier, who simply shrugged. No telling who was armed these days. She hoped that no one had threatened to kill anyone over access to a toilet.

Sarah burst into a mix of sobbing and laughter. What was she going to do? How was she going to manage this? What a silly trick!

The ultrasound had not only shown that she was indeed pregnant, of which she had little doubt, but that there were two healthy babies squirming around inside her. One was a boy, while the other one had kept its private parts hidden. She had begun to hope that it was a girl, since she had always wanted one of each. Not that she had thought that she would have any.

“I’m glad you two are okay,” she whispered, adjusting her sweater over them protectively. That she was carrying twins made her size more reasonable, since she knew exactly when they had been conceived. “I’m going to try to keep you safe. Just stay in here as long as you can, please!”

When she got back to her car, she spread out her map on the passenger seat. Where was she going to go? She needed to find somewhere safe.

No fixed address, no fixed address…

Tears ran down her face.

“I had a home!” she cried. “I had a home and I had a country and I had a job and I had a family and you two should have had all that too!”

Even though they owed their existence to the war, she admitted to herself. Or else she would have never found herself sheltering young soldiers who had fallen behind enemy lines!

“Your dads got caught by the invasion,” she continued, happy to have an idea of who she was talking to. “I wonder which one it is? Or maybe one of each?”

She was not sure what had happened to them once they had been captured. Had they been killed immediately? Ransomed? Sent out east? Kept as prisoners of war indefinitely?

“We’re going north,” she decided. “I hear there’s a resistance base there. It might take us awhile, though. I’m going to take care of you two first.”

They were hungry. Just like their dads.

“All right, Vimy and Juno, we have a plan. First, let’s get food.”

No fixed address…well, what was wrong with that? They could not be found. The invaders could not claim them. They were going to be free – even if that only meant they would be free to die.

She stared at the tattoo of the red maple leaf on her wrist.

“Invaders be damned!”

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