Media · Story & Characters

Movie Review – “Valhalla Rising” (2009)

Five Stars out of Five

**Spoilers may be present throughout**

As stated in my review of Casino Royale, the performance I had been most intrigued to see was that of Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who portrayed the principle villain. Eager to dive into his filmography, I mulled over which of his films to view next. Seeing as I was impressed with his portrayal of the sinister Le Chiffre, a character who displays his personality chiefly through silent expression, I opted to view this film, which showcases Mikkelsen as a silent character, as my first formal introduction.

Valhalla Rising (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn) is an English language Danish film set during the time of the Viking conquests. Mikkelsen plays an enslaved warrior known only as One Eye who literally only has one eye and is completely mute. In time, he rids himself of his captors and sets out on his own only to encounter a band of “Christians” who recruit him to join them on their voyage to the Holy Land. However, their trek leads them into a lush no-man’s land where their very survival and sanity are at stake.

Artistically and visually, Valhalla Rising is an atmospheric film where you can practically feel the wind, mist, and mud. This is not a large-budget Viking-inspired action flick but a minimalist film with sparse dialogue and nothing pretentious in its design, score, or tone. It’s raw, organic, and its lack of spectacle allows audiences to use their imaginations. The meaning and execution of Valhalla Rising might be lost if one goes into this expecting to be visually wowed. Instead, this is a decidedly Scandinavian film that relies heavily on mythology yet isn’t a retelling. It’s a wonderful yet gritty work of cinema that recaptures the lost art of presenting less rather than more.

Structure-wise, this film’s story is divided into six parts:

Part I: Wrath introduces us to One Eye, a warrior at the mercy of his captors who is forced to compete in brutal fights. Even though he’s caged and chained like an animal, his handlers still fear what he can do. His only ally is a young nameless Boy who gives him food and water and seems to pity his plight. After One Eye escapes his captors, the Boy follows in his wake and serves as One Eye’s voice.

Part II: Silent Warrior shows One Eye as a free man. In time, he runs across a band of Christian soldiers who invite One Eye to join them on their voyage to Jerusalem to reclaim the Holy Land for Christ. It’s worth noting that these “Christians” are, for the most part, not true followers of Christ (save for one man who genuinely seems concerned for his soul and the souls of others). Rather than driven by a love for God and the Gospel, these men are dragged away by their own greed as their true desire in reclaiming the Holy Land is rooted in a false belief that it promises untold riches.

Part III: Men of God has the soldiers, One Eye, and the Boy on a cramped boat en route to the Holy Land. Their journey becomes arduous as the wind and sea currents cease and dense mist obstructs their view. This leads some of their number to believe One Eye is to blame and is, therefore, cursed. However, it is One Eye who ultimately discerns when they have made safe passage.

Part IV: The Holy Land shows the men entering a verdant land but it’s not the Holy Land. Here, they stumble upon natural beauty as well as terrors that imply they are not alone. Tensions mount when One Eye goes out and returns with a sword but not its owner, leaving some of the group to wonder if he is not only cursed by also a murderer.

Part V: Hell shows the soldiers’ mental, emotional, and moral breakdown as they remain in an uncharted land. Their leader cares more about claiming the land in God’s name than his men’s safety. Rather than seek a way back home or even a means of finding food, he insists they press on. This leads to a complete dissolution of the group as it’s every man for himself. Only the Boy stays out of harm’s way and One Eye goes off by himself to erect a seven-stone carin away from the chaos.

Part VI: The Sacrifice shows the fates of all of the characters, none more poignantly than that of One Eye. While the film doesn’t possess a traditional happy ending, it concludes with a sense of victorious triumph very much in line with the Scandinavian epics of old.

It’s worth breaking down the mythology incorporated into this film. I have always been interested in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian mythology and warrior culture as the latter is uniquely masculine, so I (as a woman) am drawn to these intriguing philosophies and points of view. Works such as Beowulf (Old English), The Wanderer (Old English), the Poetic Edda (Norwegian), the Kalevala (Iceland), and sundry Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian tales have served as the backbone for my own studies and work in fantasy literature as well as an appreciation for myths from those parts of the world. While knowing about Scandinavian myths and legends isn’t required, it certainly helps in understanding where Valhalla Rising is coming from.

Valhalla (“hall of the slain”) in Norse myth was essentially a mead hall presided over by Odin, the chief Norse god. In Popular Tales from the Norse, Sir George Webbe Dasent describes it as a place of “endless mirth and bliss with Odin” (xi). However, Valhalla isn’t a realm of the afterlife in and of itself but a location within Asgard, home of the gods. Here, Odin decides from among those slain in battle who will accompany him into Valhalla, escorted by the Valkyries, and who will go to the field Fólkvangr overseen by the goddess Freyja. Hence, Valhalla was intended to be a place of merriment where warriors’ souls could convene with the gods. Thus, it’s worth establishing that this is the underlying philosophy and culture Valhalla Rising stems from. It might be an English-language film but it is unmistakably Scandinavian in its treatment of its world, characters, and underlying mythology.

As stated earlier, this was my second Mads Mikkelsen film after viewing Casino Royale. In that review, I noted that Mikkelsen had a special, undefinable quality to his acting that I was eager to explore. I decided on Valhalla Rising as my formal introduction to him as a leading actor for a couple of reasons. One, it is a Danish film, so I felt it was only fair to watch him in a film from his home country and that represented and paid respect to his native culture. Second, I knew of his character’s verbal and visual limitations in this film before going in, and seeing as I was impressed with his restrained performance of Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, I was curious to see how he tackled a similar role as the lead character.

Mikkelsen does not disappoint and his acting skills are extraordinary. I would imagine that a character who is not only mute but also visually impaired would be difficult to play in and of itself, but the entire persona of One Eye defies convention. He never expresses outright emotion yet you can feel his anger, his desperation, his resignation, and even his compassion towards the Boy. It’s never through large, obvious gestures but in subtle movements, such as careful glances of the eye, twitches of the lip, or controlled breathing, as One Eye’s displays of pain, anger, frustration, and determination come entirely through micro-expressions.

In interviews, Mikkelsen said his inspiration for playing this character was derived from watching animals interact with their environment. He notes he was mindful not to give One Eye human tics or cues nor turn him into an animalistic person but someone who isn’t at home in the world where he finds himself. Mikkelsen said he viewed One Eye not as a “human being” but a “mythology character….[akin to] an animal in a zoo that people [were] looking at.” Many allusions are made in the film to One Eye being a supernatural or super-human being; hence, it makes sense to have such a character distance himself from people. Initially, it seems One Eye relates to his environment and the people he encounters (save for the Boy) through violence, which, according to Mikkelsen, serves as a metaphor, a “means of expressing…emotional violence in brutal emotional situations.”

The way Mikkelsen employs subtle physical cues with restraint and control is a skill I’ve only seen exhibited by one other actor, Al Pacino, whom I consider to be an acting gold standard. Pacino is a master at playing to his environment, allowing his face and body language to relay emotion and turning a character into a person from whom you can feel emotions and sense what he’s contemplating before, or even if, he ever speaks. Mikkelsen’s style is redolent of this and it’s a joy to watch. As a side note, for me to compare Mikkelsen to a living legend such as Pacino is the biggest compliment I can give an actor, and I believe it’s fairly warranted.

Concerning One Eye himself, his character deserves to be discussed at length. At first glance, One Eye seems to be a stand-in for Odin. In Norse myth, Odin is sometimes called One Eye as he sacrificed one of his eyes in order to obtain wisdom and, in the process, was able to glimpse hidden things. However, the film stops shy of overtly calling One Eye an embodiment of Odin though the implications are there and such an interpretation is certainly not inappropriate.

Though we’re never told where One Eye comes from, it’s clear he is feared and his fighting skills are legendary. However, the fact One Eye is initially kept chained and caged shows he is a power mortal men try to contain to no avail. As One Eye’s captor observes, “He’s driven by hate. That’s how he survives. Why he never loses.” Whatever his reason for existing in the human world, One Eye is initially driven by wrath and revenge though that changes as the story progresses. One aspect that doesn’t change is that One Eye clearly doesn’t belong in the world of mortal men as he is mistreated, misunderstood, and wrongfully accused albeit he decides to sacrifice himself for others, namely the Boy, who is the only pure-hearted character.

When asked about his origins, the Boy declares that One Eye was “brought up from Hel” (not Hell), which is located “on the other side of the ocean.” I make this distinction because how we interpret One Eye’s origins rests heavily on the meaning of this statement. One interpretation is that One Eye is a being from Hell, which implies he has demonic origins. Another interpretation (and I lean more towards this view) is that One Eye is a being from Hel. In Scandinavian myth, Hel was both an underworld realm and the name of the female being who ruled over it (akin to the way Hades is both the keeper of the underworld and the term for the underworld itself in Greek myth). There is no heavy reference to Hel as a goddess in Scandinavian myth, so it’s possible she was merely a figure and not a worshiped deity. What we do know is that Hel was the daughter of Loki, a trickster god, and was a bit of a schemer herself though not shockingly cruel. Not much is known about her or her realm, though it’s never depicted as a place of torment. The word hel actually means “concealed place;” therefore, it was simply a place where deceased souls resided. Hence, another – and probably more culturally correct – interpretation is that One Eye is a warrior whose soul went to Hel but for some reason was allowed to return to the mortal realm. Curiously, even One Eye himself leaves his origins up to interpretation. This ambiguity is a rare trait in movies these days and it’s something I enjoy because it encourages the audience to use their imagination to determine for themselves who, or what, One Eye is.

Furthermore, I also believe One Eye functions as a Messianic figure. A Messianic figure is not an exact metaphor for Christ but a character who embodies some of Christ’s traits. Savior figures appear in numerous stories and films, from Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings to Neo from The Matrix franchise. Such characters are not meant to be allegories but symbolic figures. Hence, based on some of the traits he exhibits and treatment he receives, One Eye serves as a Messianic/savior figure.

One Eye is misunderstood by most and trusted by only a few, namely the Boy who ventures to places even grown men will not go because he trusts One Eye, embodying the idea of having the faith of a child. Others seek to kill One Eye, assuming he is a cursed man and of the devil (much like how Christ was accused of being in league with demons). In Part III: Men of God when the men are on the boat, we see a parallel between this scene and the time in Scripture when Christ calmed the storm. Only here, the storm is internal rather than external. While the wind and waves are calm, the men endure inner turmoil and a few even attempt to kill One Eye. However, this inner distress is calmed when One Eye discovers that they have entered fresh waters and offers some to the men to calm their thirst.

One Eye’s story echos another part of Christ’s life in Part V: Hell as this serves as his Garden of Gethsemane moment. While One Eye is off building the carin and mentally preparing himself to meet his fate (much like how Christ went off to pray prior to his death on the cross), the Boy and the soldiers go their separate ways. This echos the way Christ agonized in Gethsemane alone while his disciples were oblivious to his suffering. And just as Christ often made reference to his own death, so One Eye catches glimpses of his fate through red-tinged visions of seemingly disconnected images of future events.

By the film’s end, as One Eye leads the Boy out of the wilderness, they are followed by two soldiers, the leader’s son, who is a victim of assault, and the only genuine Christian in the group. Curiously, it is the group’s outcasts – a boy, a rape victim, and a man whose theology is different from the materialistic philosophy of his comrades – who follow One Eye, who is also an outcast. In time, the leader’s son decides to go back to his father. Before making his decision, the leader’s son calls One Eye a liar, which prompts the Boy to ask, “If he’s lying, why are you following him?” This serves to symbolize a challenge of faith – if one doesn’t trust in God or believe what Christ said about Himself is true, then why follow Him in the first place.

However, just as the film never makes explicit parallels between One Eye and Odin, it also doesn’t openly parallel One Eye and Christ. There are elements in One Eye’s story that paint him as a Messianic/savior figure but he is not a metaphor. He harbors a vengeful side and isn’t sinless. Even other characters note this, as the only genuine Christian soldier tells One Eye that, “We are more than flesh and blood. More than revenge….You should consider your soul. That’s where the real pain lies.” One Eye is a man of war, not peace. Whoever he was before, he was clearly forged by battle and possibly anger, hatred, or a desire for vengeance. The Christian soldier is right in telling One Eye that “we are more than flesh and blood” as people also possess a soul, and it is this that One Eye needs to give more heed to rather than acting out of a spirit of revenge.

Along these lines, water also serves as a motif, marking the major turning points in One Eye’s journey: he finds his key to freedom while bathing, he embarks on his principle journey on the ocean, he enters the new world through a river, he makes peace with his fate on an islet in an estuary, and his final scene occurs near an entry point to the sea. Perhaps in these moments, a part of One Eye’s vengeful soul being washed away so that by the end what is left is a refined, cleansed soul who is ready to return to the afterlife with a clean spirit and conscience.

In the film’s final moments, One Eye displays a rare gesture of emotion to the Boy and surrenders any means of defending himself. Just as the Christian solider tells the Boy how Christ “sacrificed His life so that we could be free from pain and misery,” so One Eye gives of himself so others, namely the Boy, can be free from danger and fear. The film then closes on a epic bookend to One Eye’s narrative. As Dasent notes, “The Norseman’s god was a god of battles, and victory his greatest gift to men!” (viii). Valhalla Rising captures this in a way that allows a sliver of myth to come to life despite not being a strict retelling of any particular myth. One Eye embodies the image of the fierce Norse warrior and potential demigod as well as a savior who ultimately sacrifices himself. His fate is not a defeat but a victory both for himself and the ones he chooses to save.

In the end, One Eye’s story is left up to interpretation, which I thoroughly enjoyed because it allows viewers to derive their own meaning from his tale. One Eye could be Odin in Human form or a warrior soul who has been forced or permitted to return to the land of the living to redeem himself, learn a lesson, or carry out a mission he failed to complete in life. It’s possible this latter view is the most appropriate as, to start, One Eye is driven by rage and revenge but later displays a reversal of this nature. As such, perhaps in his final act, he ends up redeeming his vengeful soul and can finally be at peace. Regardless how one chooses to interpret One Eye and his journey, this open-ended quality to the film’s story allows viewers to ascribe their own meaning and, hence, their own cathartic takeaway.

Overall, Valhalla Rising is a compelling work of cinematic art that demands serious viewership, analysis, and discussion. Unlike some minimalist films that reek of desperate pretentiousness, this film never calls attention to the fact that it’s a piece of visual storytelling rather than a verbal narrative, so it welcomes multiple interpretations. Mikkelsen’s performance is stunning and not to be missed either by newcomers or seasoned fans. Lastly, its basis in Scandinavian lore and myth as well as its subtle, metaphoric quality that avoids spelling everything out ultimately make it a gritty treat for the senses as well as the mind.

Content: Valhalla Rising is unrated but seems like R-rated fare based on the following:
Language – This film only has 120 lines of dialogue, so profanity usage is extremely infrequent and consists of a few uses of the word bast–d, SOB, and several uses of the f-word in succession by one character during a stressful scene. The word hell is also used but usually not as a profanity and is oftentimes Hel, which is pronounced exactly the same.

Violence – While the film isn’t constantly violent, there are scenes where characters engage in combat and die often with blood splatter and some gore, from slit throats to stabbings. Two of the most graphic moments are when One Eye bashes a man’s skull in with a rock, exposing his brains (which are glimpsed for only a few seconds), and when One Eye disembowels one of his captors. In this scene, all the audience sees is One Eye cutting into the man’s stomach and (off-screen) reaching inside the man’s torso. (His intestines are briefly shown as One Eye casts them aside.) Later, One Eye carries a severed head and places it on a spike; however, the actual decapitation occurs off-screen. Elsewhere, there are numerous perilous and tense moments as characters either are or might be in danger. Decomposing bodies are glimpsed on what appears to be sacrificial altars, but no details are shown. The band of soldiers evidentially (off-screen) burned a group of people as we see a pile of charred bodies and bones in the background. One character willing sacrifices himself, though his fate is never depicted on-screen. Also, while One Eye sports a single eye and a heavily scarred face, we’re never told or shown how he acquired these injuries. Overall, while there are some bloody moments, the camera never lingers on any carnage and it is not violent for shock value as it relates to the overall story and tone.

Sexual Material – Essentially none save for a quick scene where one man appears to rape another man who is face-down in mud. However, both men are fully clothed and most of the scene is filmed from the victim’s perspective (so we never see the rapist in the act, but we do see the Boy’s horrified expression as he watches from afar). Elsewhere, at a raided campsite, we see a group of naked woman huddled together at a distance. No explicit nudity is shown as any sensitive areas are concealed by crossed arms, legs, or objects such as rocks or grass. Early in the film, One Eye is shirtless as he’s forced to grapple with other warriors, but these scenes are devoid of any sexual context or content.

Dasent, Sir George Webbe. Popular Tales from the Norse. Dover Publications, 2001.
Mads Mikkelsen Valhalla Rising Interview:

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “The Secret of the Old Clock”

Four Stars out of Five [GoodReads: “Really Liked It”]

I first discovered the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories in my elementary school’s library. Being a voracious reader from an early age, I was searching for something lengthier than most books for my age group. Hence, I stumbled upon this classic detection series and it’s only been recently that I uncovered my childhood copies and started reading them again.

The Secret of the Old Clock is the first novel in the expansive Nancy Drew Mystery Stories and was originally published in 1987. It’s worth noting that the author “name” Carolyn Keene is actually a pseudonym for a variety of writers, both men and women, who penned works for the series about the titular young, intelligent, amateur sleuth. At present, the series boasts over sixty titles, which impressively reflects its popularity throughout the years.

Concerning The Secret of the Old Clock, which serves as Nancy Drew’s first case, the amateur sleuth agrees to track down a missing will of a deceased man who, before he died, was living with a disagreeable family and supposedly left all of his estate to them. In time, Nancy comes into contact with, and even befriends, closer friends and family of the gentleman who claim there was a second will. These persons, for numerous reasons, are shown to be more deserving of an shared inheritance as opposed to the persnickety family with whom he spent his last days. While the ways Nancy stumbles upon these individuals are rather convenient, it’s important to note that the Nancy Drew mysteries were written with a younger readership in mind, hence why the plotting is brisk, the revelation of clues convenient, and the mystery neatly tied up by the end. But in all honesty, I enjoyed this novel because of these attributes.

In today’s often pessimistic, brooding, angst-driven literary market, these books are a welcomed breath of fresh air. Reading a Nancy Drew mystery is akin to watching reruns of The Andy Griffith Show. The heroes aren’t perfect but are ultimately good, moral people who strive to do the right thing and will go out of their way to help others, even if there’s no reward for themselves. The bad guys aren’t necessarily evil but are usually folks who have veered off the virtuous path. Nancy herself is deeply admirable as are her father and housekeeper (who, in keeping with the Andy Griffith theme, I kept envisioning as Aunt Bea). In short, the world Nancy and her family and friends inhabit isn’t trouble-free, but in the end right prevails and the bag guys get their just desserts.

Regarding The Secret of the Old Clock in particular, I enjoyed its plot’s twists and turns, regardless of their quickness or convenience because, to be fair, those traits come with the territory for most Nancy Drew mysteries as they’re not lengthy books nor are they intended to have convoluted plots. While I don’t read many mystery novels, I have nothing against the genre and I have a love for classic detective fiction such as Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Part of the fun in perusing a detection-based mystery for me is mentally collecting clues along with the detective. Since it had been years since I had read The Secret of the Old Clock, I had completely forgotten the plot and characters, so re-reading it was diving into it with fresh eyes. I ended up finishing this book in a day because I was eager to see not only how Nancy would solve her case but also that the people deserving a happy ending would get one by the end. And I wasn’t disappointed.

In closing, for all of the talk about fictional role models for girls, commentators seem to fail to include Nancy Drew. Perhaps this is due to Nancy’s unassuming presence: rather than serve as a rallying point for revolution or rebellion, she’s a down-to-earth lady who puts family and friends first and who uses her talents and resources to help others. In most cases, the people who seek her aid have no means of defending or helping themselves, so they turn to Nancy for help and she is more than happy to do so. Furthermore, Nancy is level-headed and harbors an encouraging heart, a strong intellect, classy manners, and a heightened sense of perception and intuition. She’s not afraid to venture into risky places, using her wits to get herself out of trouble, but isn’t afraid to ask for help or backup if she feels she needs it (though she never willingly asks her friends or family to put themselves in danger for her sake). Lastly, she has a strong sense of fairness and deep-seated respect for the law, so she often includes the police or other officials when it comes to catching villains or troublemakers. Thus, Nancy Drew might not spout off feminist rhetoric or stand atop a socio-political soapbox, but she’s a strong, courageous, smart young lady who deserves to be upheld as a fictional role model worthy of such a title.

Overall, The Secret of the Old Clock is a treat to read, both for nostalgia’s sake and for exploring the Nancy Drew novel that started it all over 30 years ago. This entry, as well as subsequent Nancy Drew titles, would make for a perfect introduction to classic detective fiction for middle grade, pre-teen, and teen readers as well as offer a breath of fresh air for adults looking for a quick, uplifting read. While the plot devices can seem conveniently placed and the pace is unrealistically brisk, it’s enjoyable for these aspects and deserves to be treasured as a hallmark of juvenile detective fiction that has continued its old fashioned popularity and values throughout the decades.

Language – None.

Violence – None. Nancy gets into some perilous situations, such as when she’s cornered by some thieves and locked in a closet, but she escapes unscathed. Elsewhere, a child accidentally falls off of a bridge, but Nancy comes to the little girl’s rescue and the child is unharmed. Lastly, police chase after some criminals, but no one is hurt and the thugs are arrested without incident.

Sexual Content – None.

Books & Reading · Book Review · Story & Characters

Book Review – “Jane Eyre”

Five Stars out of Five [GoodReads: “It Was Amazing”]

I first read Jane Eyre many years ago in junior high school. At the time, I knew nothing about it and only selected it from the reading list because the character’s name intrigued me. However, the novel quickly drew me in and it has remained one of my all-time favorite books.

By way of background, Jane Eyre was Charlotte Brontë’s first publishing attempt (after failing to initially secure a publisher for The Professor) and was originally published in three installments, following the traditional Victorian novel format. It probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has read Jane Eyre before know the novel retains a semi-autobiographical thread. Among other similarities between Jane Eyre and Brontë herself, one obvious connection concerns Brontë’s time as a student in Brussels where she fell in love with a married male teacher who never reciprocated her feelings. Thus, according to David Cody of Hartwick College, “Jane Eyre is in some ways a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the young woman student/teacher gets to seduce her master.” [1] Perhaps even more so, the reason for the novel’s close ties to Brontë’s own life and experiences was due to the fact that Brontë believed art was most convincing when based on personal experience; in ‘Jane Eyre’ she transformed the experience into a novel with universal appeal. [2]

Jane Eyre is a work of Gothic melodrama (where emotion is emphasized and favored over detailed character development) and is told in first person by the titular character. Jane’s story opens with her living with a harsh guardian who treats Jane more like an unwanted inherited antiquity than a member of the household. In time, Jane is sent off to a boarding school run by a religious fanatic but eventually escapes through employment as a governess. At Thornfield Hall, Jane is under the employ of the broodingly enigmatic Edward Rochester. In time, Jane’s hardened heart begins to soften not only towards Mr. Rochester but also towards some persons who once wronged her. However, Jane’s path to happiness is not a smooth one as she suffers disappointment and heartbreak only to receive a well-deserved happily ever after.

Jane Eyre comes across as a sympathetic, but not initially likable, heroine, yet it’s this quality about her that endears her to me. Jane is no angel and is anything but. She starts out as a stubborn girl who, to her credit, refuses to be abused or bullied and isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. However, her stony heart causes her to act callous at times. As Jane matures, she allows her heart to change for the better. Some of the best moments for me are when Jane willingly goes to make peace with certain persons from her past, not for a show of morals but because she feels it’s the right and best thing to do. Early on, Jane believes such displays of compassion are mistakes, though admirably she moves away from this philosophy and readers can’t help but applaud her for it. In some ways, Jane is subject to the cultural and societal measures of her day, but she by no means accepts fate with open arms. She asks questions, gives serious thought to her future, and isn’t afraid to voice her true feelings. Hence, she becomes an admirable figure as she is a woman who seeks to design her own future yet isn’t afraid to welcome others into her life and be open to the possibility of finding love.

One such person who enters Jane’s closest circle is, of course, Edward Rochester. While Mr. Rochester might be looked upon as the template for the cliched brooding leading man, his temperament fits with his character. Rochester, much like Jane, has a past and seems to have allowed his circumstances to dictate his life more so than what Jane has done. While Jane strives to move beyond past abuses, Mr. Rochester, for a time, is chained by his own personal woes. He harbors a dark secret he keeps tucked away and seems blind to the manipulations of one woman to win his heart. However, he is by no means a weak-willed character. In many ways, his and Jane’s love story is very much about semi-polar opposites attracting each other. Both are tortured souls though Jane has allowed her trials to forge her; whereas, Mr. Rochester seems to let his personal tribulations ensnare him.

In terms of underlying philosophies at work in the novel, Naturalism is a prevailing theme though the story does offer up a twist. Naturalism is a form of Realism that shows or implies that social conditions, heredity, and environment form a person’s character. Its focus, thus, is more on a commonplace reality rather than idealistic depictions of life. In relation to Jane Eyre, Naturalism is shown through the novel’s depiction of the titular character; however, the novel also questions some of Naturalism’s suppositions. In relation to Jane, it’s easy to see that her initial cold heart and hardened personality are direct results of having been raised in a heartless environment where she is treated as a burden. However, as time progresses, Jane loses some of her initial frigidity. Ultimately, it is not Jane’s environment that molds her but an inner realization that to harbor a spirit of hatred will erode her soul. So while the novel displays characters acting as a semi-direct cause or reaction to circumstances, upbringing, and social circles, it also shows them acting contrary to how they were reared or initially led to believe.

Jane Eyre also includes numerous Christian references and characters, some of whom aren’t the best representations. Jane herself is not excessively pious despite adhering to a strict moral code, and it’s this devotion to a deep-seated virtue that prevents her initial marriage to Mr. Rochester. Perhaps this was done to contrast Jane with figures in the story such as Mr. Brocklehurst who represents a legalistic form of Christianity where there is no room for compassion or mercy. Curiously, I always found the Biblical books that young Jane felt drawn to interesting: Revelation, Daniel, Genesis, Samuel, Exodus, Kings, Chronicles, Job, and Jonah.

Two books – Genesis and Exodus – are works of Jewish law; Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and portions of Daniel are historical accounts; Job is classified as a wisdom book; and Jonah, Revelation, and parts of Daniel are prophetic books. Based on this, I always deduced that Jane was a grounded person driven by a sense of righteous fairness, preferring history over literature, prophecy over poems. What I think this also shows is that Jane is not the sort of person to be pigeonholed and, instead, has her own way of thinking and speaking, preferring the meatier matters of life rather than idle talk or gossip. To her credit, she never loses this trait of being her own person and learning from her circumstances, and perhaps it is this nature that, in the end, allows her to be transformed from the inside out.

Overall, Jane Eyre is a classic Gothic romance. Its focus on a singular character, the flawed yet morally upright Jane Eyre, gives a glimpse into her transformation, not merely from a foundling into a loved woman but also from a cold, calloused heart to one that accepts and administers compassion, forgiveness, and trust. The trials Jane endures provide cathartic ground for readers to transplant their own struggles onto and gain hope from. Lastly, the romance between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester might be emotionally overwrought but it is refreshingly real and raw, quite unlike the fluffy insta-love prevalent in modern works. In the end, this is a classic novel that belongs on any book lover’s to-be-read shelf and certainly deserves to be read again.

Language – Language is minimal and confined to mild, PG-level swears. Mild British profanities may also be present.

Violence – None. Jane is mistreated as a young girl but nothing ever becomes disturbing or graphically abusive. We also hear how a character committed suicide but the act itself occurs off-page.

Sexual Content – None. We learn that a male character, who is getting ready to be married, is still legally married; however, his wife is mentally insane and is locked away. Some characters also embrace and kiss but nothing further occurs.

Media · Story & Characters

Movie Review – “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (2016)

Two Stars out of Five

**Spoilers may be present throughout**

My adoration of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is no secret as the series ranks among some of my all-time favorite books and I consider it to be a modern fantasy classic. Seeing as I think the Potter universe (i.e. its books and adapted films) is perfect as-is, I was hesitant to take in the first non-Potter film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. While this entry in a new timeline and branch of the Wizarding world isn’t a flop, it’s not the magical ride I assumed it was going to be.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (dir. David Yates) was “based on” a faux textbook of the same name penned by Rowling in 2001 under the pseudonym of Newt Scamander, a magizoologist (i.e. a wizard who studies magical creatures). The book is an appendix of various creatures found in the Wizarding world, some of which appear in the Potter novels, along with a brief description and commentary. Hence was my first concern – how does one take, essentially, a reference book, and turn it into a story with characters? It’s akin to taking a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica and basing a movie off of it. It’s a confusing venture, to say the least, and the end result is rather lacking.

That’s not to say the plot to Fantastic Beasts is poor, that is when it actually presents a focused, cohesive story. The problem is there really isn’t a central narrative but more of a series of semi-connected tales and side-stories. When the film does harbor some semblance of a plot, it soon veers off into a different direction, making it feel like all of the various threads needed to be built into their own separate stories, not joined into a single narrative. The primary story line wants to be Newt Scamander’s (Eddie Redmayne) quest to collect and study magical creatures. He has arrived in 1920s New York City but runs into a snag when his suitcase, which houses numerous creatures, is accidentally opened and the creatures escape. (All of the creatures are CGI creations rather than created using practical effects, but they’re very creative in their designs and mesmerizing to watch.)

Hence, the movie seems like it wants to be a whimsical adventure where Newt has to find all of the creatures before they wreck havoc on the no-Majs (the American term for Muggles). Along the way, he runs into a no-Maj, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who is down on his luck. Together, Newt and Jacob form a fun friendship as they work together to round up the missing creatures. In time, both men meet sister witches Tina, a demoted magical government employee, and carefree Queenie. These character pairings play off of each other perfectly and, to start, it feels like this will be the focus of the film. To be honest, this is exactly what I was hoping would come out of a film called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. When the movie focuses on this premise, it works and is entertaining, retaining that classic Harry Potter sense of wonder. Sadly, looking for magical creatures and where they lurk isn’t what Fantastic Beasts is ultimately about.

Instead, the story turns its attention to a young boy named Credence, son of religious fanatic Mary Lou Barebone who oversees a group called the New Salem Philanthropic Society. He, along with his mother and family, warn the populace about the dangerous of wizards, witches, and magic, declaring it “unnatural.” However, Credence harbors a secret he only makes known (though we’re never told how or why) to a magical government official named Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), who urges Credence not to suppress his gifts. Another running narrative is the possibility that Gellert Grindelwald, an evil dark wizard, is running amok and intends to inflict death and damage to Muggles, No-Majs, and any witch or wizard who stands in his way.

Thus, we have at least nine plots, all clamoring for attention: Newt and Jacob’s attempts to reign in the fugitive creatures; Newt’s plan to locate a magical parasite called an Obscurus; the nuisance posed by the New Salem folks; Credence’s quest to explore his true self; Graves’ attempts to corner the Obscurus along with his shadowy promises of help to Credence; Tina’s attempts to get back into her supervisors’ good graces; a politician trying to stop the bleeding after a disastrous campaign; Jacob’s attempts to fulfill his personal dreams and goals; and the possibility of Grindelwald showing up to wreck havoc on America’s shores. Needless to say, that’s quite a bit of plot juggling and, despite the film’s 133 minute running time, it still feels incomplete as it’s biting off more than it can reasonably chew and ask audiences to digest.

If Fantastic Beasts had focused solely on the magical beast adventure plot and added another B-story to run parallel to it, this movie would have told a stronger, more focused story. Instead, it tries too hard to develop multiple plots that all come across as underdeveloped. Make no mistake: I think Rowling is a talented novelist who knows how to craft compelling stories, worlds, and characters. But therein lies the key: she is an excellent novelist but she is not a screenwriter (as she penned the script to Fantastic Beasts herself). This is not intended as an insult as, in truth, most writers are really only good in one or two genres, whether that is novels, short stories, poetry, or scripts. Rare is the writer who can tackle all forms with equal skill.

Rowling is a detailed-oriented writer who loves devising complex plots, backstories, and story worlds. This form of writing and planning is perfectly tailored for novels, but it does not, and cannot, translate into screenwriting. Scripts by their very nature are written skeletons, delivering sparse details with little to no backstory or character backgrounds. Instead, they are designed to be told visually, hence why their descriptions and off-screen details are limited to non-existent. (To note, I did read the script in its published book form and it reads more like a detailed novel outline than a typical screenplay.) What I sense Rowling needed was either a co-screenwriter, someone more seasoned in the craft to write alongside her, or a ghost writer to hone the film’s story. There are elements in Fantastic Beasts that could have worked and do work when they become the focus. What drags these parts down are the convoluted backstories and sundry side plots.

Despite its flaws, Fantastic Beasts does have its bright moments. The 1920s New York setting is refreshing and vastly different from the usual haunts explored in the original Harry Potter films. I liked seeing the Wizarding world transplanted into an older time period as well as an American backdrop. But the most enjoyable moments are in the film’s principle performances. Eddie Redmayne is a delight as Newt Scamander, a character who feels like he would have been right at home in one of the original Potter tales. Newt teems with an infectious, adventurous curiosity and childlike wonder that avoids becoming childish. He is also intelligent and deeply compassionate towards both magical creatures and people, magical and No-Maj alike. What drives Newt is not a desire for riches, glory, or fame but a deep-seated desire to do what’s right and a noble, courageous heart. Redmayne truly owns this character and he seems to be having fun every second he’s on screen, which makes for an entertaining performance to watch.

Dan Fogler is also noteworthy as Newt’s No-Maj friend, Jacob Kowalski, as he brings a genuine sense of wonderment and determination to the role. At first, I worried that Jacob was going to become the comic foil paired up against Newt, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than act as a filler character or a buddy for Newt to pal around with, Jacob comes complete with a sympathetic side story. He is a factory worker who aspires to have his own bakery; however, his attempts at making his dream come true are thwarted at every turn. After he (quite literally) runs into Newt, Jacob is immersed in the Wizarding world and serves as the everyman lens through whom the audience experiences the magical realm with an organic sense of astonishment. Much like we root for Newt to succeed in his mission, we also want to see Jacob fulfill his dreams. Katherine Waterson’s Tina and Alison Sudol’s Queenie are also an on-screen delight. They might be family, but these women are polar opposites as Tina is generally no-nonsense and Queenie is more relaxed and fun-loving. Their pairing with each other and pairing up with Newt and Jacob lends itself to moments of sincere warmth and humor. And Queenie’s eventual relationship with Jacob is especially adorable as their on-screen chemistry is a joy to watch.

Aside from the performances, which are true to the spirit of a Potter story, and the occasional dabbling in adventure true to the film’s title, there is sadly little else I can say in the film’s favor. Aside from plotting issues, there is another contention I have with Fantastic Beasts and that is its subsurface social justice message. The theme of religious fanaticism – embodied by the character of Mary Lou Barebone – is a new introduction to the Potter canon as the series generally steered clear of open and obvious religious tones. To be honest, this element wasn’t needed and it seemed like Rowling was trying to slip in a not-so-subtle insult against persons of faith at large and how they shouldn’t come out against certain “persons” (which is left up to interpretation though I have a good guess as to which “community” she’s inferring). The connection here – that wizards/witches are “unnatural” and it’s wrong to suppress certain tendencies because a person was supposedly “born that way” – brings up parallels to real-world issues that are too close for comfort. While the movie never makes its metaphoric connections plain, it’s hard to divorce them from Rowling’s own rhetoric. I will stop short of openly identifying what I think these connections are as perhaps they are generic coincidences after all. But this could be a polarizing aspect for some viewers as the “religious” characters, who clearly serve as stand-ins for Christians (rather than from any other faith), are vilified.

Overall, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, on its surface, promises the whimsy and charm fans of the Harry Potter franchise have come to expect. When the film dives into its adventure elements with its four leads, it’s creative and entertaining. However, it stumbles when it starts incorporating too many B-stories that detract from its central premise. In truth, Fantastic Beasts isn’t about the titular fantastic beasts at all, which is not only a misnomer but also a disappointment. Viewers expecting this to possess the same level of adventure and emotional chemistry found in the original Potter films will be hard-pressed to find that here as the film loses focus quickly and no amount of magical creatures can bring it back.

Content: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is rated PG-13
Language – Essentially none, save for a few PG-level words.

Violence – Most of the violence is confined to the fantasy/magic arena, so there is very little in terms of blood and no gore. Rather than weapons, wands and spells are used in combat, both in large-scale scenes and one-on-one fights. Police officers use guns (to no avail) against a magical presence. One character is “infected” by a magical parasite that causes the person to lash out in highly destructive ways that, for the most part, is confined to mass property damage with implied causalities. Characters find themselves in perilous situations but, as far as the four leads go, never come to any lasting harm.

Sexual Material – None. Queenie, who is able to read minds, quips that what Jacob is thinking isn’t what comes to most men’s minds when they first meet her (though we’re never told what that is). She and Jacob flirt but it’s sweet rather than seductive or sensual. Other characters kiss but nothing more occurs or is implied. Queenie is also glimpsed wearing a negligee but the context is non-sexual. Newt remarks that a magical beast is “in season” and needs to mate but nothing further is shown or discussed.

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “Almost Home”

Three Stars out of Five [GoodReads: “Liked It”]

Being a dog lover, I was initially drawn to this book for its cute cover and found the blurb interesting enough to convince me to give it a go. But while this middle grade novel seems tailor-made for its target audience and doesn’t possess any glaring flaws, it just doesn’t seem to cast a net for a wider readership.

Almost Home focuses on Sugar, a twelve-year-old girl who struggles with problems at home. At the time of the novel’s story, her grandfather has passed away, her gambling father is gone, and Sugar and her mother lose their home and are forced to head to Chicago to make a new start. However, things don’t fall into place for Sugar or her mother as both contend with the unique trials of being homeless, especially in a strange city. Despite her predicament, Sugar does her best to keep her chin up and refuses to wallow in misery. Instead, she turns to poetry, a supportive teacher, and a stray dog named Shush to keep herself grounded on what is most important in life.

As a whole, Almost Home tells a succinct story that fleshes out Sugar’s ordeals, not giving way to flowery prose or even much description. The writing style here is rather sparse, relating only what is needed. Descriptions are minimal and there is no rich language or sense of metaphor or motifs. For its target audience of middle grade readers, I sense this style fits, though this reads more like a young middle grade novel, something more fitting for ages eight to ten, giving an allowance for children to “read up” as Sugar is twelve years old. This isn’t a negative as it’s fine for a book to be intended for a very specific audience. However, I, as an adult reader who enjoys reading middle grade fiction, lean towards more age-inclusive books.

By way of example, some middle grade books are meant for a broad audience, such as the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling or the Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy by Trenton Lee Stewart. Both of these series contain middle grade-age characters (at least to start) along with prevalent adult characters that enable the story to hold appeal to a broader readership. Likewise, the writing, story structure, plot, themes, and symbolic/metaphoric/thematic qualities invite readers from across a diverse spectrum of ages. In contrast, there are books that seem intended to appeal to a middle grade audience and no older. Almost Home belongs in this latter category. Most of the story focuses on Sugar and is related in her voice and from her perspective. Other than her mother, her teacher Mr. Bennett, and a few other minor figures, no adults play a large role in the story but feel more like background characters. Likewise, the writing reads very young and borderline juvenile at times, which makes sense as it’s Sugar telling her story. But, again, this style would hold more appeal to readers younger than or close to the same age as Sugar instead of anyone older or more mature than she.

Other hallmarks of this being a more juvenile read come through the novel’s vignette-style plotting. Granted, the little side stories, for the most part, do tie in, but these read more like snippets of a day in Sugar’s life rather than an accelerant for the plot and its climax and resolution. This especially becomes the case through the introduction of Shush, the stray dog Sugar rescues and bonds with. While I will never object to introducing a puppy into a story, it needs to have more reasoning behind it other than it’s cute. To be fair, there is an obvious parallel between Sugar and Shush, both of whom are looking for a permanent place to call home rather than just a building with four walls. I did appreciate this aspect to their relationship, but it’s spelled out a little too plainly (at least for older readers) and Shush, as a whole, doesn’t have that big of a role to play in the overall story. While his inclusion was adorable and there is a juxtaposition between him and Sugar, he essentially serves the role of cute animal sidekick and little else.

Concerning the treatment of homelessness, while Almost Home doesn’t gloss over it nor its ramifications on Sugar, who is an innocent bystander, its treatment is superficial and, again, keeps its target readership in mind. Granted, I appreciate the fact that the novel doesn’t become dark and gritty and Sugar does meet some helpful adults who don’t harbor ulterior motives. It’s also a smart, kind decision to depict Sugar as a determined young girl who decides to make the best of her circumstances and relies on her own inner courage, humor, and imagination to help herself rather than devolve into angst. That being said, anyone searching for a middle grade novel dealing with homelessness in a more realistic manner might not be fond of Almost Home‘s upbeat, semi-convenient approach. Once more, this isn’t a negative against this novel as it’s handling of a delicate subject feels age-appropriate, but it does avoid delving into deeper questions and issues regarding homelessness and its effect on a young population.

My only real issue with this novel is with the relationship Sugar has with her teacher, Mr. Bennett. Before I go any further, want to stress that absolutely nothing inappropriate, or even remotely inappropriate, occurs between them. He is simply a teacher with whom Sugar feels she can open up to, perhaps seeing a quasi-paternal figure in him as her own father is absent and her grandfather is no longer alive. My issue, thus, has nothing to do with their staying in touch nor with Mr. Bennett’s encouraging of Sugar. Instead, my issue arises out of the convenience and implausibility of it all. Mr. Bennett is a genuinely nice guy who tries to encourage Sugar even after she moves away and can only communicate by email. But therein lies my problem: we have a young girl communicating with a male teacher whom she no longer sees on a daily basis and who also emails her back without Sugar’s mother being any of the wiser. Again, there’s nothing sinister going on, but this seemed a little too far-fetched and unrealistic, especially for a story that is supposedly a realistic tale.

To its credit, Almost Home is readable and probably a good fit for classroom and elementary school libraries. It’s not a long novel as it possesses a brisk pace due in part to its writing style. Likewise, it tackles the issue of homelessness with a gentle hand that avoids becoming too realistically tough. So while in terms of theme it’s insufficient for prompting discussion among older children, teens, or adults, I could see it serving its purpose in introducing younger readers to the topic (who are old enough to understand the concept of homelessness, that is) in a way that’s age-appropriate and doesn’t preach.

Overall, Almost Home seems to be intended for its target middle grade readership rather than a wider audience. This is evidenced in its entire structure, from its lead character, to its treatment of its central subject matter, to its tone and writing style. I did ultimately award this book three stars on GoodReads, which translates to “Liked It,” and that’s the best way for me to sum up my feelings towards this as it’s not an age-inclusive novel nor is it utterly unreadable for older readers. That being said, I sense this would be a perfect fit for young middle grade readers who are looking for a realistic story that, to its credit, avoids becoming too serious by focusing on a plucky heroine and her cute stray dog who promote perseverance over self-pity.

Language – To the best of my memory, there were no profanities (and if there were any, they were very minimal and did not exceed the confines of a PG-level).

Violence – None. Sugar and her mother become homeless and are forced to contend with a mercurial living situation, but nothing violent ever happens to them. Also, for readers concerned about how an animal is treated in a story, Shush never comes to any harm and is alive at the end of the story.

Sexual Content – None.

Media · Story & Characters

Movie Review – “Vox Lux” (2018)

Zero Stars out of Five

**Spoilers may be present throughout**

The sparkly trailers for Vox Lux caught my eye when I first saw them and the film’s initial premise also attracted my attention. On its surface, this movie seemed liked it was going to be an artistic tale of a fictional pop star (think a quasi-Lady Gaga-type figure) whose ascent to success and descent into irrelevancy would be peppered with glittery pop confections and gritty commentary about the fickle face of fame. However, in the end, this film is as heartless and shallow as the very art it is supposed to critique.

Plot-wise, Vox Lux (dir. Brady Corbet) tells of the rise of pop starlet Celeste Montgomery. As a young teen, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is injured in a school shooting and finds cathartic release through music with the help of her sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin). This eventually propels her into superstardom, leading her to work with a sharp-tongued manager (Jude Law). The movie’s timeline jumps into the modern day where an adult Celeste (Natalie Portman) is on the cusp of fresh success with a new album that is shrouded by yet another tragedy as well as her estranged relationships with Eleanor and her own teenage daughter, Albertine (Raffey Cassidy).

Vox Lux‘s narrative is divided into four parts. Prelude: 1999 opens the film with a school shooting in which Celeste becomes a survivor. Act I: Genesis 2000-2001 highlights Celeste’s rise to fame, starting with her and Eleanor composing a song they perform at a vigil. The song finds its way onto the radio waves and Celeste is whisked away to record demos and learn the ropes of becoming a pop star, which culminates in her first music video that is overshadowed by the 9/11 attacks. Act II: Regenesis 2017 opens with yet another terrorist attack on the advent of Celeste’s comeback show to promote her new album. Here, we meet Celeste’s teenage daughter, Albertine, and it’s clear she and her mother have significant struggles to iron out. Finally, Finale: XXI is Celeste’s concert, which consists of a medley of electropop “sci-fi anthem” tracks.

Before I dive into my review, I have a confession to make.

For over ten years, the worst movie I had ever seen had been the Will Farrell NASCAR-inspired comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballard of Ricky Bobby for its weak humor, poor off-the-cuff acting, lack of character development, and lack of any remotely admirable characters. However, I can safely say that I now have a new all-time worst movie and that is Vox Lux.

The reason is that, for me, having a film waste its inherent potential and make me feel hollow after watching it is far more of a cinematic crime than being a lowbrow, brain cell killer by default. Vox Lux deeply infuriated me in numerous ways but collectively they boil down to one reason – wasted potential – as this movie wastes potential in its story, its actors, its tone, and its theme.

The best rule for any film to follow regarding critical revelations or emotional development is the classic show, don’t tell method. This means that a film needs to show characters in action, behaving a certain way or reacting to an event, rather than tell the audience what is going on. Vox Lux‘s biggest sin is that it is almost 100% telling, which is carried out in two ways. One is through a voice-over narrator who cuts in to deliver commentary and backstory that is never shown on screen. The other is that this film literally never stops talking. In terms of action, there is none as most of the movie feels like time just stops so characters can have elongated expositions for no reason other than to take up space with empty words. In short, this movie is akin to that annoying friend who never shuts up. Rare are any quiet moments where characters pause and reflect. There is one such scene when Celeste holds hands with her daughter on the beach to have a much-needed moment of silence, but it’s over as soon as it begins. When characters aren’t prattling among themselves, the voice-over narrator fills the audience in on critical backstory details. Yet the film never shows us anything of much consequence, creating a bone-dry narrative and a nearly non-existent story.

By way of example, rather than show us how Eleanor and Celeste grew apart, we’re simply told that they are estranged. Rather than show how Celeste lost her innocence as a bright-eyed singer, we’re told she’s become jaded. Rather than show how and why Eleanor is jealous of her sister’s fame, we’re only told that she is. Rather than show how and why Celeste broke off a relationship with Albertine’s father, we’re told that he cheated on her and has moved on. Rather than show a seemingly significant accident that caused legal trouble for Celeste, we’re only told about the details. And rather than show us how Celeste went blind in one eye from drug abuse, we’re simply told this as a sidebar tidbit. My list could go on but, in summation, most of the movie’s critical moments are told and never shown, which is its first catastrophic flaw.

Regarding its performances, Vox Lux requires its actors to be as dry and robotic as possible with their constipated emotional range hovering between dull indifference and snappy annoyance. Raffey Cassidy, who plays a double role as a young Celeste and as Albertine, is the cast’s redeeming grace as she’s the only character who displays more than two emotions but just barely. Everyone else comes across as insipidly austere. Regarding Natalie Portman, I confess I’m not familiar with her as an actress, so I don’t feel I’m in the best position to fairly judge her work here. To her credit, she at least tries to inject some color into adult Celeste, making her a smart-mouthed, wise-cracking Jersey girl, but because everyone else is so monochromatic, her performance comes across as borderline cartoony. But for me Jude Law is the biggest letdown as the unnamed manager, and it pains me to say that. I really like Law as an actor and I think he’s very talented, but this was a complete miscast. His character’s only purpose, it seems, is to stand, frown, and scowl, displaying irritation as his only go-to reaction. Law is better than what this role allowed him to do, and I trust Portman is, too. So in the case of the top-billed stars, Vox Lux felt like a means for them to collect a paycheck and nothing else.

The film also misses the mark in its tone and structure. Despite its four-act arc, it never feels like a complete story and this is due in part to its massive time jump, going from Celete’s rise to fame in 2001 to her resurgence nearly 16 years later with nothing shown in between. Likewise, the final act feels disconnected from the rest of the film as this is the first time we get to see Celeste put on a show. It’s as if the movie was hijacked by a concert film, running through a medley of songs and choreographed routines, before it simply ends, fittingly – and finally – in silence. However, the concert is the liveliest the film gets and the closest it comes to having any action. Otherwise, it’s deadpan and serious, even down to its loud, melodramatic score, which seems counteractive to its central topic – bubbly pop music. That’s not to say films about superficial subjects can’t have a dark side, but it needs to be balanced. By way of example, Fashion (2008), a Hindi film, explores the (fictional) colorful Indian fashion industry while also exposing its darker corners. However, the film balances itself by featuring bright, lively catwalk scenes and quieter moments of character development with the darker, more serious side of the industry. Vox Lux has no such balance and assumes no such approach, which also works to its detriment.

Similarly, the film makes startling revelations and denouements to no ultimate end. For instance, Vox Lux touches on the topic of violence, both in the form of a school shooting and a terrorist attack, yet never bothers to stop and care much about it. It gives lip service to the horrors of such tragedies but it’s as insincere as Celeste’s own superficial flare ups of emotion. Likewise, in the film’s finale, the narrator makes a supernatural supposition for Celeste’s rise to stardom. To discuss it at length would be a spoiler, but in essence Celeste supposedly made a Faustian promise in exchange for pop stardom. This revelation comes at the very end of the movie and, like the rest of the film’s crucial moments, is told and never shown. (Though perhaps it’s alluded to when an adult Celeste reveals that she no longer believes in God but has made herself a god and branded herself as a “new faith.”) However, it’s a serious charge that’s made against Celeste not merely as a performer but also as a person, and it brings up a whole host of questions, none of which ever get addressed. Instead, it’s swept under the proverbial rug as if audiences should just gloss over it, too.

Finally, this film wastes the potential to tackle the subject of pop culture as a vehicle for superficial entertainment. It certainly seems like it wants to make some sort of grand claim judging by its own self-importance, but it never does and, as such, wastes the rest of its already spent potential. Granted, Celeste’s driving motivation throughout the film is that she wants people to feel good about her music, consuming it mindlessly and not thinking about it. In a lengthy dialogue-filled scene where Celeste has a sit-down with her daughter, she reveals her thoughts about the nature of business and, in a sense, pop culture, more particularly “junk culture.”

“People will sell you anything,” Celeste tells Albertine. “Their business model relies on their customers’ unshakable stupidity. Deep down, we probably sense that. Our intimate knowledge of our commitment to the lowest common denominator. It’s the manifestation of the increasing important urge to break with every living thing that has any connection to the past.” Celeste even admits that, year by year, her music videos get worse in quality yet they are still successful. Hence, she brings up a good point (albeit, once more, it’s told rather than shown): pop culture can become “junk culture” when it’s deprived of meaning and divorced from any sense of aesthetics. If the general public only expects or demands low-brow “art” or entertainment (the “lowest common denominator”), then that’s exactly what will be provided to them. Similarly, such displays of “art” should – at least in their creators’ minds – never attempt to provoke serious consideration or thought, forsaking what has been done before and aiming for newer, flashier media and trendier messages.

In an article, Hal Niedzviecki surmises that “[w]e elevate the meaningless because we have grown up believing – being taught – that through mass culture we can find meaning. In lifestyle culture, things that do not of themselves have direct relevance to our lives….become somehow crucial and important….Rather than rejecting the lies of pop culture, we admit that we can no longer live without them” (“Junk”). As a whole, most of current popular culture is akin to cotton candy – it’s fluffy and easy to digest but in reality it’s empty calories and insubstantial. This relates to Celeste’s career as even she recognizes that what she offers is nothing but musical confections that aren’t well-conceived or even well-crafted but are consumed anyway because the public has lost its sense of discernment. Oddly enough, Vox Lux itself works to prove this theory. On the surface, it was marketed as a gritty, glittery look at pop music stardom, but its true tale is dull, uninspired, and structurally unsound. However, the film assumes that audiences will partake in it simply because it’s an uninspired product of uninspired mass culture making commentary about uninspired mass culture. This is circular reasoning at its most marketable.

If there were any bright spots for me in Vox Lux, it would be its music, not its score but its vocal songs, which were penned by Sia. Most of the songs sung by either Raffey or Portman are decent but nothing mind-blowing as these musical numbers seem to intentionally embody this sense of shallow bubblegum pop in their simple composition, overproduced delivery, and vapid lyrical content. However, I can see the semi-satire in them, and, knowing Sia, they were penned this way on purpose, so for that reason I give them a pass. While most of Portman’s tracks are resigned to the final act, and it’s hard to hear her voice over the heavily-produced music in the film, they are catchy on their own when isolated on the soundtrack and are worth taking a listen to.

The only other worthwhile moment in this movie is a scene early on when a teenage Celeste tells about a reoccurring dream. In it, she says she is driving through a tunnel but never reaches its end. Along the way, she claims to see lifeless bodies but never stops for them. She simply keeps going and admits that, while in her dream, she will never die though she always wakes up before she reaches the tunnel’s end. This is the one and only time the film feels genuine (albeit it’s another exposition scene, one that tells but never shows the dream), allowing audiences to take away their own meaning and imagine the dream’s significance for them and in how Celeste’s future pans out, which is a cycle of cultural insignificance followed by a rebirth of palatable stardom.

Overall, Vox Lux is a self-important movie that doesn’t have the narrative, acting, or artistry to pull off its inherent artsy claims. The title itself combines two Latin words, vox meaning “voice” and lux meaning “light,” but there is more voice here than light, more talking and less showing, more self-indulgent dialogue and less scenes with any true takeaway value. After one scrapes away the glittery overspray, Vox Lux is an emotionless film that drags its proverbial feet to the finish line. It acts like it has something to say when all it really says is a lot of nothing and has nothing to offer in return in terms of any moral or object lesson or cathartic release. Celeste’s tunnel dream is actually an excellent metaphor for the film itself: Vox Lux is an endless narrative with no real direction and no real end as it simply meanders past any potential for thought-provoking artistry in favor of an endless, empty pretentiousness that leaves viewers feeling just as hollow.

Content: Vox Lux is rated R:
Language – Language is frequent but not pervasive and includes a variety of words, including f-words. Early on, a young Celeste asks her manager to watch his language around her little sister and he apologizes though later he recants and swears freely.

Violence – The film opens with a school shooting where a student kills a teacher and discharges a gun in a classroom, striking Celeste with a bullet. After a SWAT team arrives, one of the officers enters the classroom and sees multiple students injured, though it’s unclear who might still be alive and who is dead. Blood splatter and pools of blood are seen on the walls and floor though these are not lingered upon. Later, a terrorist attack occurs at a beach resort, but all we see are masked gunmen open fire on beach-goers (while we hear frantic screams, we never see anyone actually killed). (This same scene is repeated twice in the movie.) We’re told that Celeste got into a fight with a car accident victim but we’re never shown the fight or the accident. Lastly, some scenes utilize strobe-like lights and effects, which may affect persons with photosensitive epilepsy.

Sexual Material – None in terms of sex scenes or nudity. A shirtless musician hangs out with a teenage Celeste, lying next to her (she’s fully clothed) as the two talk and do nothing else. We learn that an adult Celeste was cheated on by a man because he had a “fling” but nothing is ever shown or discussed further. We’re told that Celeste’s daughter lost her virginity but nothing to this effect is ever shown (we’re also told that her daughter takes a pregnancy test but, again, nothing is shown and we’re also never told if she’s pregnant or not). Celeste walks in on her manager and Albertine hugging, but it’s completely innocent (he said she was crying and needed a hug). Celeste later tells her manager he can have sex with her after they get high, but we never see them do anything but romp around fully clothed in a drunken stupor. Female dancers and Celeste, at times, wear sparkly, skintight body suits or one-piece bathing suit-like garments but are essentially covered up, so there is no nudity.

Substance Abuse – Celeste uses pain killers and drinks alcohol. We’re also told (but not shown) that Celeste has gone blind in one eye due to meth use and binge drinking household cleaners. Celeste and her manager also end up drinking and possibly doing drugs together in a blurry, dreamlike sequence.

Niedzviecki, Hal. “When Junk Culture Becomes a Way of Life.” The Globe and Mail. 7/20/2000.

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “The Lunar Chronicles”

Five Stars out of Five [GoodReads: “It Was Amazing”]

It’s rare that a book series comes along with the power to attract my attention and envelope my imagination. To date, the only series that have done so are the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, the Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull, and the Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy by Trenton Lee Stewart. In the case of most series, I tend to peruse the first book but usually won’t bother exploring subsequent entries. The reasons for this are varied but the most common one is that the plot and/or characters aren’t strong enough to compel me to venture on, especially to commit to a multi-book story arc. That being said, when I first read Cinder a few years ago, I was immediately hooked and knew I had stumbled upon a new series that actually commanded my interest and investment for the long haul. Hence, the Lunar Chronicles is now among my most-loved book series.

The stories comprising the Lunar Chronicles are an innovative hybrid of fairy tale retellings and science fiction space opera (though seeing as the action only occurs on either the Earth or the Moon, I use the term “space” here loosely). At first glance, this sounds like an odd, unworkable combination due to each genre’s inherent differences. However, what Meyers offers is a unique spin on some familiar fairy tales that don’t wax as paint-by-numbers or fill-in-the-blanks stories. Instead, she retains the basic skeleton of each tale, then grafts new skin and characters upon it, creating a series that is engaging and fresh.

There are four novels and one novella that make up the Lunar Chronicles (I am excluding the numerous short stories and the two graphic novels for the sake of simplicity): Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter with Fairest serving as a prequel novella to Cinder. As their titles imply, each book uses a classic fairy tale as its basis: Cinder is a retelling of Cinderella, Scarlet is a revamped Little Red Riding Hood, Cress is a Rapunzel re-imagining, and Winter and Fairest both borrow from Snow White.

Plot-wise, the series possesses a large scope that involves a conflict between the various unified nations of Earth and the Lunar throne, occupied by the sinister Levana. At the epicenter of the political turmoil is a seemingly unimportant cyborg mechanic named Cinder who quickly discovers that she has a far greater part to play in the story at large. Joining her in time are Scarlet Benoit, who is searching for her missing grandmother; Wolf, a rugged street fighter who is more than he seems; Cress, a satellite-bound foundling forced to serve as a hacker for the Lunar government; Carswell Thorne, a hotshot pilot with a knack for getting into trouble as well as getting out of tight jams; Princess Winter, the seemingly insane stepdaughter of Queen Levana; and Prince Kai, ruler of the Eastern Commonwealth, one of Earth’s conjoined nations.

As one can probably tell, the Lunar Chronicles sports an expansive cast, yet each novel works to not only introduce its characters in their novel-by-novel micro-plots but also tie them into the series’ overarching macro-plot plot involving Cinder and her true identity/nature. This careful management of plots, subplots, and characters is achieved through a delicate blend of action and character development that work together to maintain each book’s and the series’ momentum. Even if the fairy tale elements were removed, the series would still stand as a solid work of modern space opera.

Much like traditional space opera, the focus of the Lunar Chronicles is not (as one might expect from a young adult series) on cliched love triangles or petty teenage dramas. Instead, its primary tone is one of robust adventure that moves like a literary EKG with undulating highs of action, peril, and suspense and lows of character growth moments and exposition. Similarly, the series places an emphasis on the threat of warfare between Earth and the Moon, offers up clean romance, displays risk-taking among all of the characters, and introduces some well-placed melodrama for the sake of high adventure [1]. Again, while most of the action is confined to Earth (with the exception of Winter), it’s not exactly a fair fight as the Lunar government has some technological and biological advantages over the people of Earth. Hence, while perhaps not a space opera in the strictest sense of the word, it seems appropriate to call the Lunar Chronicles a space opera-lite tale.

Furthermore, its sense of depth and focus on character dynamics and action as opposed to the usual YA tropes gives it an edge that propels it into a category of stellar (pun intended) YA sci-fi. Yet another attribute in this series’ favor is that it never becomes a play-by-play retelling of its respective fairy tales, meaning there is no “this-equals-that” formula at work. Granted, there are allusions to the original tales, such as a robotic foot in place of a glass slipper and apple candies instead of a poisoned apple, but these inclusions are subtle and clever rather than overt and trying too hard to be charming or call attention to their fairy tale counterparts. Overall, Meyer uses her chosen fairy tales as a jumping off point before crafting a brand new futuristic world that comes across as very believable and doesn’t feel overwrought.

Cinder serves as a solid series opener, introducing readers to the titular heroine who, much like Cinderella, is the unwanted ward of her stepmother and step-sisters. However, what makes Cinder unique is that she is a cyborg, a trait that makes her undesirable in both her family and society at large. But Cinder’s small world quickly enlarges when she finds herself at the crux of a dire plan to save the population of the Eastern Commonwealth from a deadly Lunar disease. To make matters worse, Queen Levana has come to propose marriage to young Emperor Kai, a political move that reeks of ulterior motives. As such, the novel balances character development – chiefly Cinder’s evolution – with political intrigue and suspense. This novel does wrap up on a rather open-ended note but it effectively sets the stage for the second novel, Scarlet.

Out of the series, Scarlet is my “least” favorite (but I use that term loosely) simply because there seems to be more character down time when compared to the other entries, but it is by no means sluggish or weak. Here, we’re introduced to a new set of soon-to-be main characters, Scarlet Benoit and Wolf. The two meet in a rather innocuous way but soon become comrades on the run as Scarlet is desperate to locate her missing grandmother and Wolf is forced to confront his own demons. In time, Cinder and a few other characters from the first installment are added to the mix. Normally when it comes to novels with large casts, I find myself disconnected due to all of the persons to keep track of. But Meyer creates a nicely balanced narrative that inches the characters closer to each other as their respective plot lines intersect.

The third novel, Cress, has the daunting task of trying to juggle all of the current characters’ story arcs while developing one more, this one involving Cress, a Lunar hacker hoping to escape her confinement and meet heartthrob American pilot, Carswell Thorne, whom she admires from afar. Thorne proves to be more than a comic foil character, which is what I feared he might become upon his introduction in Scarlet. In this novel, we’re given an intriguing “man behind the mask”-type of narrative where subtle commentary about the nature of celebrity is briefly explored. Cress, without going into specifics, is a sheltered young lady who spends her time, among other things, mooning over Thorne. But all she knows is what she has read in the news and tabloid feeds. Once she meets the man himself, she is a bit underwhelmed. But their pairing is the start of a beautiful friendship that evolves into something more. In terms of character plots, Cress is as knotty as the titular character’s hair; however, it all comes together brilliantly. The suspense and action in this novel essentially takes everything I loved about Cinder and amplifies it.

In a bit of a deviation, Fairest was released prior to the series’ final book. However, even though it is a novella (and a prequel) it is by no means less important. The reason I include it among the series’ novels is that it serves as a baseline for the chief antagonist, Queen Levana. Until now, Levana is a good villain but harbors mysterious aspects about her that are never fully explained. Similarly, her personal motivations, aside from her overt power plays, are also kept under wraps. But all of that changes in Fairest where we see Levana’s origins and learn why she behaves and believes as she does. (For example, in the series we learn that Levana hates mirrors though we’re never told why; but in the novella, we learn the reason behind her revulsion.) Even though she is the villain, she becomes strongly sympathetic here (albeit not enough for readers to condone her actions, but they do make some sense in context). Hence, Fairest serves as a great look into the making of the series’ villain, and I would strongly encourage readers to peruse it before diving into Cinder as it sheds light on Levana’s driving passions.

Winter, the largest book of the series, works to close everything out with much aplomb as all of the major characters are swept up into the macro-conflict ensnaring the Earth and the Moon and individual micro-conflicts. Much like in Cress, the characters are initially scattered, each with their own subplots, yet everything comes together to form a cohesive story. Here, we are introduced to the final new character pairing of Princess Winter and her bodyguard, Jacin. Winter steals the show with her humility, compassion, and cleverness. Rather than serve as the cliched beautiful princess who melts everyone’s hearts, Winter has personal scars (both literally and figuratively) and she is presumed to be mentally unstable. She fits in perfectly with the series’ other heroines, all of whom are not cookie cutter characters but are unique, smart, and flawed individuals. To call Winter satisfying would be an understatement as it serves as the crown with which to top a well-crafted, entertaining, engaging series.

Overall, the Lunar Chronicles is a fantastic epic sci-fi series that is redolent of classic space opera, only in this case it’s sprinkled with fairy tale inspirations. It presents complex characters; serpentine plots; riveting action; and clean, swoon-worthy romance that at times can remind me of Golden Age science fiction. As the books themselves increase in page count, each character is given his or her due and is allowed to shine, both as individuals and as members of a group of unlikely heroes in a tale that happens once upon a future but concludes with a rousing happy ever after.

Language – Sporadic PG-level profanities are uttered throughout the series, but such instances are few and far between.

Violence – Most of the violence occurs in scenes of hand-to-hand combat where characters fight either with weapons or under the influence of Lunar mind control. Nothing ever turns graphic or gory as most scenes of carnage (such as when a genetically engineered army attacks several cities on Earth) are never described in detail. Lunars can telepathically manipulate others and most instances of this involve forcing a person to commit a violent act against their will. There is talk of characters being murdered (usually off-page). A Moon-based virus called letumosis attacks suddenly and kills quickly. Scenes where victims discover they are infected and are transported to quarantine, as well as scenes in the quarantine centers, are frightening on a psychological level but are non-graphic. There is also an undercurrent of tension between characters and many characters find themselves in perilous situations at times. Characters breath murderous threats, physically threaten others, and there is implied (non-sexual) violence against children, but nothing ever becomes graphic or uncomfortable to read.

Sexual Content – None in terms of sex scenes or sexual content. Some girls talk of flirting with Prince Kai, who is seen as a heartthrob but he doesn’t display a playboy persona. Cinder’s robot companion comments about a palace robot possibly having seen the prince naked but nothing further is speculated. Characters couple up and kiss but nothing ever goes further. Fairest contains the most suggestive content of the series but it’s sporadic and presently vaguely. Monogamy isn’t practiced among Lunars and it’s common knowledge for people to have lovers, so this gets mentioned in some characters’ conversations. However, nothing explicit is ever discussed or shown in terms of these loose relationships.