Monday, February 19, 2018

Featured Filkers #8: Lauren Cox

The filk community is a quirky amalgam of generations and attitudes. You'll find a good many senior citizens and middle-aged people, but the newest crop of filkers is coming out of the woodwork. Beware the murderous Millennials. We're taking aim at your french fries, your boredom, and your dubious misconceptions about the youth.

Just look at that determined face. 
Photo by Rob Wynne. 

I am privileged to know one of filk's youngest rising stars in person, and she is well worth being a Featured Filker. Today's post is about Lauren Cox.

Keeping her composure, despite attempted cat sabotage.
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From my perspective, Lauren burst onto the scene in song circles at the Ohio Valley Filk Festival in 2016. But in two short years, she has already had concerts at OVFF, GAFilk, Confluence, and Worldcon 74(!) in Kansas City, also known as MidAmeriCon II. As of last month, she was just selected as the Interfilk Guest for Conflikt 2019, a filk convention in Seattle. She gets around. Primarily in a car, with her friend and veteran filker Cat Faber. As a fellow Tennessean, Cat was the one responsible for Lauren's introduction to the filk community. They still make music together in a local band called Yonder and Back. Here's the whole group, complete with a glorious backdrop.

Photo by Anne Armstrong.

Lauren is an artistic Jill-of-all-trades, with one foot in the visual arts, the other in the journalism world, and both hands deep in the realm of music. Besides graduating in May with her Bachelor's in photography, she also works as a darkroom technician and does graphic design and copy editing for the local newspaper. Yet somehow she has time to also be an up-and-coming singer and songwriter. Oh, did I mention she plays all the instruments? Banjo, mandolin, guitar, ukulele, piano ... autoharp ... marimba.

Maybe like this guy. With one more cat.

Lauren has switched string instruments four times in one concert before. It's a sight to see. But even with just one instrument, it's wonderful to watch her do her thing. Her classic folky soprano is perfect not only for her original works, such as the song in the first video or this delightful ditty about her hyperactive felines, but also for covering artists like Anaïs Mitchell, Joan Shelley, and others. Here's her take on a song by Kate Wolf, complete with artistic sepia-tone video (as befits someone majoring in visual media).


Lauren is working on making her first album a reality. It's an exciting time to be in filk. What more can I say? I only wish someone had captured her performing "Part of This World," her heartfelt tribute to all things filk. It's written to the tune of the similarly-named song from The Little Mermaid. But I'm going to be seeing her at Filk Ontario in a few short months, so maybe that will be remedied sooner rather than later. I am doing the "excellent fingers" as we speak. In the meantime, go check out her other single on Bandcamp, give her Facebook page some love, and come to a filk con. She'll probably be there, and you might find your new favorite song.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Nygmobblepot: Gotham's Greatest Love Story


In honor of Valentine's Day, I'd like to share my OTP—one true pairing, favorite fictional couple of all-time—with you: Nygmobblepot. The deep, emotional bond between Oswald Cobblepot and Edward Nygma on Fox's Gotham gives me all the feels. ALL. OF. THEM. What makes them such a beyond wonderful pairing? Let me tell you!

First off, both Oswald and Edward are fully developing characters. Sometimes when writing a couple one of the characters is more developed and more important to the overall storyline than the other character is. This makes the relationship dull and difficult to invest in. By developing both characters, Oswald and Edward are interesting whether they are in a scene together or separately.

Second, they have inner conflict. We see Oswald learning what it means to fall in love through his realization of his feelings, jealousy of Isabella, his betrayal of Ed and, ultimately, his sacrifice for Ed. Edward meanwhile seems to be conflicted by his budding romantic feelings for Oswald after the dock incident. While Ed tells himself that he loves Isabella (spoiler: or, now, Lee?!), it seems to be infatuation only, as both relationships lack the depth of feelings and the friendship of his relationship with Oswald.

Third, the relationship isn't just full of fluff. Oswald and Edward's relationship is constantly put to the test through misunderstandings, their own personal flaws, betrayal, etc. Without the heartbreaking moments, the relationship wouldn't feel realistic and would be boring. It's through these trials that their happy and fluffy moments really shine.

Fourth, they are true soulmates. Oswald and Edward have no one to rely on but each other. And it's through this reliance and friendship that both of them are able to grow into better versions of themselves. Oswald is able to learn how to truly love another person, for example; and Edward is able to become more confident and sure of himself and his abilities.

Last, and perhaps most important, they started their relationship as friends first. When they first met there was no instant attraction. In fact, Oswald was a bit rude to Edward. It was only through Edward's kindness that their friendship started and it developed through the show until the third season gifted us with the potential for the romance. The foundation of friendship is so refreshing to see when the vast majority of couples on television are physically attracted to each other first and develop the friendship later, as if it were not as important (or sometimes they don't even bother with the friendship, which just boggles the mind).

Regarding where their story ended as of Season 4a, I still have hope that these two will continue to work through their issues and emotions in spite of what we have seen so far in the beginning of the current season. Gotham gave us the "love is weakness" storyline; I am hopeful we will see "love is strength" next.

Do you agree with me? Who is your OTP? 

Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Happy Pal-entine's Day: Celebrating Fandom Friendships

Remember in Elementary School where instead of celebrating your significant other (because you're like seven) you would gift everyone in the classroom Valentine's Day cards and perhaps even those cool, holographic stickers? Ah, the good ol' days.


It reminds me that Valentine's Day isn't always about romantic love; in fact, it SHOULD be about all kinds of love, your family and friends included. So, instead of focusing on my fandom couples, I instead want to celebrate some of my favorite fandom friendships. (Note: All of these are just what came to mind first and do NOT signify what I deem as the BEST friendships in fandom. Additionally, spoilers are only included blacked-out but can be highlighted to view.)

Anime

For this category, I’m going a decade or so back to Fullmetal Alchemist. One of my favorite relationships in the series—and there are many—involves tinkerer Winry Rockbell and bookworm Sheska.


These girls cannot be more different from one another, since Winry has an obsession with mechanics and engineering and Sheska focuses on reading and, well, more reading. You might think, “hey, what do these girls have in common, anyway?"

Though an unlikely pair, it completely works, since they amusingly feed into each other's goofiness but have the same drive to help people in need. They form a tremendously capable duo! YAY for besties.

Video Games

You can’t see it, but I’m shaking with excitement (and also from a teensy bit of caffeine) over this next one. Recently, I’ve been playing Persona 5 and have found that I’m only slightly addicted. Okay, okay, so I’ve been playing it fairly frequently and because of that, I’ve come to care for the characters and acknowledge how important friendship is to the game (just like past Persona games).


Throughout Persona 5, you must pay attention to what’s called the confidant system, which is a social link level system between the main character and another character in game. As your friendship with another person grows stronger, you’re able to gain more abilities, items, and bonuses.

Besides this gameplay aspect, it was also interesting to see how the characters interact with one another, both in cutscenes and battles.


What’s even more amazing is that throughout the game the importance of friendship is cherished and put far above most things. In fact, at the end of the game, in order to get a “good” ending, the player MUST choose not to spill any information about his friends. It feeds into the whole concept behind Persona, that you're connecting with not only people in the world but, most importantly, your team.

Books

So, this goes for all Rick Riordan’s series, but the most recent one I’m on is Trials of Apollo.


Of course, we have to acknowledge Percy, Annabeth and the rest of the characters' friendships. That’s a given. However, I do want to touch on Apollo and his evolution from self-absorbed god to only slightly less self-absorbed god. The premise of Trials is that Apollo, the god of the sun/prophecy/medicine/music/etc. (he’s in control of a LOT!), is sentenced to live as a mortal until he can prove he is worthy to come back to Olympus. Zeus commands that the first mortal Apollo sees shall be his master (turns out to be a girl named Meg), who will have absolute control over him.

Now, you’re probably thinking: wait, this doesn’t sound like fun and most certainly doesn't sound like the beginning of a friendship. This sounds...like the opposite of that.


Oh, ho! But the story progresses and you watch as a burning hatred between Apollo and Meg blossoms into something more. I won’t dare step into spoiler territory, but I will say that there is one specific feels moment between Meg and Apollo in the second book that made me want to die from complete and utter sweetness. We’re talking full on sugar coma, people! It’s refreshing to see the great god Apollo develop modesty, kindness, and consideration all thanks to a little girl's friendship.

TV Series

I’ve recently finished Jessica Jones (I'm watching all the Marvel series at the moment) and found it was fascinating because it was packed with complicated human feelings, artsy noir vibes, and true to life consequences. That’s why Jessica and her best friend Trish's friendship was so treasured for me, because it was bright and white hot and created the perfect light to brighten the darkness of the show, especially near the end.


Jessica is about to take out Kilgrave once and for all, so she must pretend that she’s under his control to fool Kilgrave. Prior to this, Jesssica has said that she doesn’t say I love you. So, when Kilgrave compels her to say just that, instead of turning to him and telling him what he wants to hear, she locks eyes with Trish and says "I love you" to her instead. 

Of course, there are many more instances of lovely friendships (Harry Potter, Kingdom Hearts, Voltron, Fire Emblem, and Totally Spies all demonstrate this), but fandom culture truly tends to highlight the importance of relationships of all kinds, most recently friendships. It's refreshing to see that bromances and galentines are definitely a thing. Let's keep it that way!

What's your favorite fandom friendship?

Friday, February 2, 2018

I Am My Father's Son: The New Villain of 'Anastasia'


The stage adaptation of Fox’s beloved 1997 film Anastasia opened on Broadway on April 24, 2017 to a slew of sold out performances and rave reviews. Previews had been running since January, but before the show hit the streets of New York, it had a short run at Hartford Stage in Connecticut to test the changes. The biggest change was the decision to ground the show in realism and take out the mystical characterization of Rasputin. In his place is a Bolshevik officer, Gleb. Without the fantastical elements, Gleb is a common villain, with an interesting arc that’s more impactful than a manic curse and a talking bat. However, like Rasputin, he is focused on something akin to revenge and, perhaps to a greater degree, eliminating the past.

The main storyline, that of Anya and her journey to rediscover her past, remains the same at its core: an orphaned young woman with amnesia who is looking for someone in Paris and who is swept up in a masquerade pretending to be the real Anastasia. While songs have been tweaked and new ones added, the ones specifically written for Gleb tell the other side of the Romanov story.

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Hartford’s Gleb, Manoel Felciano, looks very much like a Russian version of Les Mis’s Javert, and the character holds a similar role. Gleb’s father was a part of the firing squad that was in charge of disposing of the Romanovs ten years prior. The role falls now to Gleb as rumors swirl that Anastasia is alive and headed to Paris. It’s an eerie parallel as he encounters Anya, warns her later about her scheme, and then follows her across country borders in order to intervene just before the press conference that could change history.

Through one majorly defining song, “Still”, and the twisting of another (“The Neva Flows”), Gleb’s heart and soul are bared to the audience. He finds himself at war between his duty and manliness and his heart. In his brief interactions with Anya, he paints her both as a trembling flower in need of protection and a deceptive manipulator. It’s a dichotomy found in many villains: their newfound love for the lead tries to overpower their end goal (usually destruction or death). Gleb remembers watching his father leave, seeing the Romanov children being ushered into Yekaterinburg, and hearing the world go silent for a moment. His story is very much about becoming a man, especially in relation to what his father could (or couldn’t) do. He takes on the task his father couldn’t complete in hopes that it will complete him. His arc is dependent on other people.

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Anya, having found her place in Paris, stands before Gleb and his pistol and defiantly says, “Finish it. I am my father’s daughter.” Because she remembers the horrors and now shoves them toward Gleb in a reprise of his song. “And I am my father’s son!” Gleb barks back. “Finish it I must.” His pistol is cocked but it does not go off. On stage, we see him falter, drop his arm, and leave. To those listening solely to the musical album, the show takes a slightly more ambiguous ending, as the listener is immediately transported to the finale.

The finale draws two pictures: the Dowager Empress in Paris and Gleb, now back in Russia, both announce that Anastasia was a dream, a fantastical story that is finished now. Fans of the story know that Anya decides to stay with Dmitri, but while Rasputin is defeated and destroyed, Gleb lives on. However, the ambiguity allows for the true history to have a moment. Anastasia Romanov died in Yekaterinburg in 1918 with her family, the end of a monarchy and the beginning of a new era. But still, for years after her death, the hope remained that someone survived (until conclusive DNA testing on discovered remains found the two missing children, Alexei and either Anastasia or Maria).

The story told here remains a fairy tale that many cherish; it offers closure on all accounts, both historical and fictional. Gleb himself isn’t a historical character the same way Anya and her grandmother are, but he serves as the amalgamation of many Bolsheviks serving the new order. Because he is made a complex human, his story impacts the plot much more than Rasputin's did despite Rasputin's actual history with the family. At the base, this near typical yet complex character is a perfect break from the fantasy. (And if you’re missing Rasputin’s big song “In the Dark of the Night,” you’ll be happy to know that the melody still has a home in the musical adaptation.)

What do you think of Anastasia's changes from film to stage?

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Quirky and Different: 5 Artists That Are Worth Your Attention

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January 31st is Inspire Your Heart With Art Day, so I hope you take the opportunity to visit a local gallery or museum and find something you like!


To some people, art and museums have a certain amount of snob appeal attached to them. It's easy to picture some guy with a fancy glass of wine in hand waxing philosophical on some minimalist piece and feel like art isn't for you. Unfortunately, this view is more prevalent than it should be. More fortunately, this refined and highbrow view isn't representative of the art world.

While there are always going to be serious artists and serious art fans, a deeper look at the art out there reveals tons of quirky, oddball, or just plain different artists waiting to surprise you. A full list of these artists worth your time would be impossible, but the short list below contains a few of my favorites.

5. Giuseppe Arcimboldo
You've probably seen works by this guy before. He's an Italian painter from the 1500s who is best known for making portraits of people made out of fruit, fish, and other types of food, the most famous of which is shown below.

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Any list of offbeat art works would be incomplete without him. Maybe not the sort of thing that you would want to hang in the dining room, but nobody could ever accuse his works of being derivative. You have to feel for all of the art critics who try and interpret what's going on in his works. They certainly have their work cut out for them.

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4. Emily Carr
 Emily Carr is a Canadian painter who was associated with, but not actually a member of, Canada's "Group of Seven," who wanted to create a unique artistic identity for the nation. Her works were influenced by Canada's indigenous peoples and this along with her unique use of color set her apart from other artists.

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Landscape painting and more naturalistic works tend to get looked down upon by the art community as a whole, but this treatment is unfair. It's clear that works like the one shown below are visually stunning and deserve just as much praise as other types of painting.

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3. James Grashow
I could probably write an entire article on this guy, as a few paragraphs here don't do him justice.  James Grashow is a Brooklyn-based artist who is primarily known for working with cardboard, so much so that he has been dubbed the Bernini of the medium. And boy, is that description accurate.

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He has stated that he likes the medium because of how temporary it is and has even incorporated this into some of his works. See below for one of his installations falling apart after being rained on.

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Lest you think he's just some sort of one-trick pony, he also makes house plants.



Get it? House plants. He also does woodcuts and designed an album cover for Jethro Tull, so if I haven't sold you on him by this point, I'm not sure I can.

2. Melchior De Hondecoeter
Hodecoeter is a Dutch painter who goes to show that you can still be a great artist even if you only have a single talent. This single talent of his is the ability to paint birds. Just birds. He didn't paint anything else. Seriously. This guy's portfolio is entirely composed of bird paintings.

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And my gosh are those some fabulous birds. Who needs to paint other things with birds like this?

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Seeing all of these different birds kind of makes you wonder if he could paint anything else. Like, if he tried to do a portrait of a person it might just turn out like a stick figure. Unfortunately he died in 1695, so there's no way to know. All we are left with is the knowledge that this guy could paint a chicken better than anyone else could ever hope to.

Fabulous
1. Julian Stanczak
Julian Stanczak is a Polish-American artist whose works are full of visual tricks that fool the eye into seeing all sorts of things. He's one of the few "abstract" artists that isn't just three squares on some white space. His works also deserve an award for sensory impact, as a Google image search on his works will give you vertigo if you scroll through it too quickly.

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Images on the internet don't really do him justice. A lot of these pieces are large and draw the eye all over the place in a trippy sort of visual maze. As he was based in Ohio, the Cleveland Museum of Art has a number of his works, as do some of the other museums in the area.

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Hopefully you've seen something you like here, and if not, I challenge you to find something that is out of the ordinary for you. Everyone deserves to have these experiences, but you can't have them until you go out and look for that one piece that makes you think just a bit differently. Because life without art can be a very boring place.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Thinking You're Paranoid or Knowing You Should Be: The Mystifying Oeuvre of Shane Carruth

"Huh? What?" (source)
One of my favorite directors is a guy named Shane Carruth. You shouldn't be faulted if you haven't heard of him—he has so far only produced two films, Primer (2004) and Upstream Color (2013), begun work on one more (The Modern Ocean), and abandoned one (A Topiary). That being said, his films are the intellectual equivalent of Pringles, in that once you pop, you just can't stop. (Trying to make sense of them, that is.) So this post is an overview of the directorial portfolio of this former engineer.

There's spoilers downstream, and not the kind that Jeremy and the boys used to decry so often on Top Gear. Content warning for violence.

Primer (2004)

From a meta standpoint, Primer is all the more impressive for its journey from thought to screen. Shot on a budget of just $7,000—no zeroes have been omitted there, that's seven kilodollars—Carruth ended up doing a lot of the grunt work on this himself. Sound editing, music, actual direction (a lot of which was made sotto voce and some of which can be caught in the film if you pay close attention)…oh, and playing the lead role. This was actually not born so much out of egotism as it was the fact that Carruth was an indie filmmaker who had rehearsed scenes so many times while casting other characters that he figured it'd simplify things if he took on the part.

Special mention should go to the sound design. In the commentary, it is related how about half of the original recorded dialogue was unusable for technical reasons and had to be dubbed. This is not obvious, even when it's been pointed out. There's one scene in particular where the actor on the screen is not the voice you hear—that belongs to Carruth's brother. It says something pathetic about the entertainment industry at large when a guy with a $7,000 budget and a MacBook can do a better job syncing up dialogue to lip flaps than corporations worth billions of dollars.

A story of time travel and how the ego is the enemy of small business (source).
But enough about the real-life underpinnings of the film. There's a quote, rightly or wrongly ascribed to Isaac Asimov, that goes, "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny…'". The story of Primer is basically this quote injected with interpersonal drama and character development.

Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan, whom you may know as Chet from Deidra & Laney Rob a Train) are half of a small business, Emiba Technologies, based in Texas, and they have a problem. They've been making JTAG cards in Aaron's garage, but it's not making them the dollars they desire; they need something new. So their little company's latest idea is magnetic levitation using superconductors.

How about we plug it in and then try turning it on? (source)


However, there is a method to their madness, and this method ends up having an unintended side effect. Put a watch in the box, run it for a minute, take it out. It gives you the wrong time. Put in a kid's toy, it comes out covered in slime from a common household mold. Abe realizes what's up. He interrupts Aaron's March Madness session on a bench outside their workplace, runs him on a bunch of seemingly useless errands, and then reveals that he's built a time machine out of it by showing Aaron his past self in real time. Naturally, Abe and Aaron figure that the best way to use this device is what amounts to undetectable insider trading. Then things go haywire.

Aaron can't sleep, there's some bothersome pest up in his attic, and his ear starts bleeding. Abe starts running the box outside of their planned hours. The guys "can't write like normal people". Abe's ex-girlfriend's dad shows up with zero warning and almost dies whenever Abe gets close to him. Eventually, Abe decides to take the nuclear option and undo everything using his "fail-safe machine".

Still neater than a lot of "normal people" (source).
The narrative device throughout the film is Aaron making a phone call, the implication being that Aaron is narrating everything he knows and how it all fits together. He can do this because the conversations he's had have been recorded. Abe realizes this when Aaron starts saying everything he said the first time, unprompted, even when Abe tries to derail the conversation and avoid this whole mess.

To keep the boxes safe during excursions, Abe rented a storage unit. He actually rented two, the second for the fail-safe, and Aaron realized this when going over the manifest, so he went back in the box and was consistently one cycle ahead of Abe the entire time. Aaron wants to edit time; there's an upcoming party where Abe's ex's ex comes into the party "waving a shotgun", and he gets to be the hero and save everybody. Abe doesn't much like this, but there isn't a whole lot he can do to stop them.

Except turn this thing off (that is not a typo), get inside it, wait a few days, and try to avoid static electricity on the way out (source).
It's a short film, clocking in at less than an hour and a half…but what an hour and a half that is. Repeated viewings turn up new observations, double meanings in what felt like meaningless things. True, you may need to make a chart—or several, if you don't use pencils—in order to figure everything out, but in my opinion this is the single best time-travel movie ever made.

Upstream Color (2013)

If Primer was a question, a riddle, then Upstream Color is more of a declarative statement. That doesn't make it any less of a piece of cerebral cud for the chewing, it just tastes a little different.

One of the main characters, the Sampler, who is so ready for Burning Man (source).
In the interim between Primer and this film, Carruth was in negotiations to create another motion picture, more massive in scale; this was A Topiary, and the talks fell through. The main character can be seen running test footage from the intended VFX on her screen at one point, though, so in some small way at least a part of that vision made it to film.

Our story begins with your average scumbag lowlife rifling through a potted plant to get at some insect larvae. He then puts it in a capsule, abducts a successful young adult woman, and forces her to swallow it. The parasite has some sort of extreme effect on its host that makes him or her almost totally susceptible to suggestion. Our thief, whose face is, for some reason, obscured by an auto mechanic's trouble light the sun, basically commands poor Kris (Amy Seimetz) into willingly giving him everything of value that she has.

Also, the dude has zero idea of how to throw a decent party (source).
He then sets her free, whereupon she goes on a massive food binge. Subsequently she is drawn to a rural farm where a guy is playing the world's worst minimal EDM into the ground. This helps to draw out the parasite from Kris' body; the worms are then transferred to the pigs the guy raises.

"That'll do, Pig. That'll do." (source)
Kris' nightmare doesn't end here. Her life has been utterly ruined, at her own choice by all appearances. Destitute, she is approached on the bus by Jeff (Carruth again), a smooth-talking…something-or-other businessman who had a similar experience happen to him—worms, pigs, and all. Kris and Jeff fall for each other so hard they start remembering each other's memories as their own.

You may think that this is fizzling out into a cliché romance story at this point. I can understand how you'd come to that conclusion. The important detail, however, is that the pigs on the pig farm have also bonded. They have even mated and are expecting a litter soon. Kris, too, finds herself pregnant.

Except that's impossible, as she is physically unable to have children.

If you've only ever heard about this movie tangentially, this is probably the picture you've seen (source).
The pigs give birth, and our farmer is none too pleased, so he, shall we say, disposes of the piglets. This sends the pigs into a rage. Kris and Jeff also completely flip out because it feels like someone has seized and murdered their children. It doesn't matter that the children don't exist, at least not their children. It's their pigs' children. This makes so much more sense and is so much less ridiculous if you actually watch the movie.

Anyway, Scumbag Steve from earlier kept his marks in line by having them write out Walden longhand. Turns out, Kris and Jeff are no dummies, and realizing that Walden is a thing sends them on a hunt for clues. They find a number of other victims and get led to a musician who lives a simple life out in the country: He records ambient and experimental music, farms pigs, and has a habit of dropping the bass hard enough to annoy worms. Kris commits what must be, at the least, second-degree murder on the guy, and the Walden-torture brigade takes over the farms and raise pigs.

So, uh, how are we going to get the deed to the property transferred? You kind of killed the owner (source).
Remember the piglets from earlier? When they died, the parasite flukes that were in them were released into a stream. The river in turn waters a stand of rare plants that a certain parasite from earlier likes to prey on, and a local horticulturalist likes to find and sell these plants. The plant-seller has a certain regular customer. See how this all ties in? It's not quite as subtle about it as Primer was, but again, once you hit the third act, everything before it starts making more sense, and it still has the gravitas of a film that gets better if you let it marinate in your head for a while.

OK, he snooped on your memories and used them as a basis for his new mixtape, but Kris, isn't this a bit harsh? (source)
Coda: One of the things that intrigues me the most about this movie is that the wrong guy gets punished. All the farmer guy ever did was make some really crappy dubstep and de-worm people. Sure, he could probably be charged with animal cruelty for the whole piglet situation, but it's not like he was aware that Kris and Jeff had such a connection to them. For all Kris knew, however, he was the guy who had ruined everything for her—and for all we know, he wasn't.

Do you like bizarro films like these, or is this article a defense of terrible practice in cinema? Let us know in the comments!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

To Bee or Not To Bee: A Reaction to VA Repertory Theatre's 'Akeelah and the Bee'


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I recently had the opportunity to see a live production of the play based on the 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee. The theater articles on The Fangirl Initiative usually consist of videos or recordings of shows that are or have been on Broadway. I think it's time for a review of an actual production that isn't Broadway or a Broadway tour. So here you are!

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There is a common saying suggesting that a person should never work with children or animals on stage. But this opinion is misleading. Something special breaks into the world when a truly talented child actor shines on stage or screen for the first time. When raw, unmarred talent bursts forth to stop even the most grizzled of humans in their tracks, it is a great thing. Of course, not every child actor is blessed with the compelling power to hold attention. Some merely have an ability that can be mined to produce something great. Some try, but fizzle out before they shine, lacking the quality so many in the performing world strive for.

In Virginia Repertory Theatre’s production of Akeelah and the Bee, I saw many young actors. Some offered a future of potential, others left much to be desired. To my surprise, the lead actress and title character gave what I considered the weakest performance. I am sure others took away different thoughts from her performance. Another young actor, playing opposite her as Dylan Chiu, gave a good performance, through his movements and other characterization choices. The other child actors also produced a valiant effort, and the adults were all talented, including actress Alana Smith, who was extremely convincing as the desperate mother she played. Overall, I enjoyed the performances presented, though some performers did massively affect scenes they were a part of, not always in a good way.

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The scenic design was pretty simple. A sky drop was placed behind two small apartment fronts, serving as the main character and her neighbor’s homes. The buildings were not constructed to realistic standards. The lack of detail in this design may have had to do with the fact that the play is based on a film of the same name, and the director may have wanted to convey a sense of childish whimsy, though the inclusion of gunshots over the sound system at the beginning of the show makes me doubt that. More likely, the set was simple because it was a repertory production, and other shows would have to move into the theater later.

The use of sound was interesting in this production. As I mentioned above, near the beginning of the show there were gunshots, though these sounded rather tinny to me, instead of frightening. I suppose the director may have wanted to avoid scaring children, who are this show's target audience. Sound was also used to portray the spelling bee judges in voiceover. No actors appeared on the stage in these parts, but the child actors interacted with the voices as if they were on a spelling stage, staring into the audience as if the judges were sitting among them. I thought this was a nice usage of sound.

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Lastly, I want to make mention of direction. I think the director did an all right job, but I have to wonder if the lead actress might have been more natural if the director had worked with her more. I know that sometimes people ignore notes, but the fast and hard-to-understand speech she gave could have been at least partially remedied with some careful coaching. One element that may have been a directorial decision, or may have been written in the script itself, was the inclusion of various children of the cast writing out the important events throughout the show on the stage itself, in large enough letters to be read by the audience. This was a fun addition to the show. At different points during the show, cast members took seats in the audience, as if watching the other actors really participate in different spelling bees. Most notably, this occurred when Akeelah took part in the national spelling bee, and her mother called out in aggravation about her daughter’s word being more difficult than another student's. I feel this was possibly a directorial decision that added an extra element to the spelling bee on stage.

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Overall, Akeelah and the Bee was an enjoyable, heartfelt show. I only wish that all of the actors in the production had matched each other more closely to make the most heart-wrenching elements, such as Akeelah’s fear of gunfire, resonate more with the audience. Still, the rest of the viewers seemed to enjoy the show, and overall, I found it to be a genuine production full of hope and possibility. All people have weaknesses, but like this show, they can become more than what is not perfect, and strive to be better.

Have you seen any theater shows lately?