Well, Nanowrimo continues on. I’m well past the 50,000 word goal at this point, but I stopped tracking word counts on November 7, I’m afraid. So I’m not sure how much farther I am. I think it’s probably about another 30 k just in totaling up everything that I have put into Google Docs.
The thing is that most of it is unusable. Well, at least for now. It’s turned decidedly political as you might have noticed if you’re on this blog. Hopefully it has been more productive rather than being simply cathartic, though, in fairness, I am writing these more for myself and my own processing than other people’s benefit. Maybe they’re beneficial. So far I’ve written about voters on both sides, abstaining from votes, women in positions of leadership, third-party voters, what does action and speaking up actually mean, is speaking up sometimes counterproductive, does past behavior excuse current, and some other matters. Obviously not all of these have been posted here. On the bright side, I’m doing better about promoting what I write. Hopefully more of that resistance fades in time.
There have been a lot of new questions that have popped into my head, and I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of people from different backgrounds. Over time, I’ll work through more of these questions and issues. Hopefully. Or I’ll just compile research, file it away, and then do something with it later. Some of these questions aren’t easily answered, and that’s all right.
On an entirely personal note only marginally related to the political developments in this nation, I found myself stuck with Insurgent Queen. Most of the time, Tue-Rah is my safe haven for creative development, but, for whatever reason, I just wasn’t able to make progress. I wrote little more than 100 words a day on it since Tuesday.
It took me almost four hours to write this chapter, even though it was less than 2000 words in length. I don’t particularly care for that. Granted, it would have gone faster if I wasn’t listening to the news, but I have been very bad about leaving that on. The constant chatter of various pundits and reporters and Youtubers is such that it does prevent swift thought, but I’ve been more addicted than usual to the information sources.
That’s going to have to change starting tomorrow. Constant information streams, while addictive, are massively counterproductive. I need to be informed, yes. But not at the cost of everything else.
I think I’m also a little bit behind on the number of posts that I need to make to hit the 30 on my website or Youtube. But I’m not too concerned about that.
Well, that’s enough musing for tonight. Talk to you all later. Have a blessed evening.
I keep intending to get Talk Story to Me up and running again. I’ve been reading so many great books, and there is so much to talk about! But thanks to the mighty Thor (my cat, not the Norse god of thunder), the tripod was destroyed. It was really quite impressive.
Ah, but I still have a camera, you might say. True. Or rather I did. However, Loki (another cat, not the Norse god of trickery) has confiscated it. I heard a strange clumping sound and looked up just in time to see Loki disappearing down the staircase with the camera in mouth. I started to pursue, but Maelona and Sophie (neither of whom are Norse or Celtic goddesses but simply cats) both tripped me at intervals. By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs (intact, blessedly), Loki and the camera had vanished. I have a checklist of all the possible places it might be. However, I have yet to find it….in time though.
I haven’t been idle though. I’ve been working on ways to improve my review system to make them more helpful. I don’t think that an actual number based system actually does much. Rather it’s the analysis on key points that can help readers determine whether a book is for them. So I have created some categories. Feel free to recommend any more if you like.
But that doesn’t mean I should refrain from reviewing the splendid books I have found. The first one I’m pleased to review is Beggar Magic by Heidi Lynn Burke or H.L. Burke as her name is displayed on the book. I am not friends with the author though I am in a writing group with her. I bought this book on my own because it looked intriguing.
And appearances were proved correct. The cover of Beggar Magic suggests a story of two key individuals, music, mystery, and fantasy elements. It delivered on all that with a fairly creative premise. In Geila City, the primary location for this story, magic isn’t just figuratively musical, it is literally musical. It exists throughout the world and allows for a variety of uses, being known simply as the Strains. A quasi caste system exists with the nobility being capable of using the Strains in more powerful and creative ways and the Common folk having to make do.
The story follows the adventures of Leilani, a Common, and a Highmost girl named Zebedy. The two come from different worlds, and, in a subtle “grass is greener on the other side,” both envy the other. While Zebedy shows great potential with her use of the Strains as well as imagination, Leilani is strong and independent. Their friendship isn’t supposed to last, but it grows as time passes. At last, Zebedy goes on to further her strength and education, and she invites Leilani to come and essentially be her assistant, which is a great honor. From there, mysteries develop, both as the two young women learn how to function within this system and as blank spots where the Strains do not exist crop up.
I’ll talk about this more in plot, but this book has a very gentle and slow pace. The world building reflects that. It focuses in on the more minute areas of this world, and it also shows on a more intimate level how much the Strains influence the world. Even those who cannot use the highborn magic still rely on the Strains. In fact, not being able to hear or sense the Strains is horrifying for those who are used to them. Only a few types of individuals are unable to hear them, and many are looked on with suspicion. For instance, anyone who kills is forever cut off from the Strains.
The rest of the world itself is fairly typical low fantasy stock. It has a calm pastoral feel with a combination of more formal school manors and a higher education system as well as a mystery. It has enough of a familiar feel to let the reader feel comfortable in exploring the new concepts without being overwhelmed. As such, the book is great for those who want something with fantasy but don’t have to learn an entirely new language or culture that goes with it. But the uniqueness of the Strains and their interaction in the world should also satisfy those who want something new and intriguing in the fantasy realm. All in all, a well struck balance that is hard to achieve.
The characters are just who you would expect in this sort of story with a few twists. Leilani is outspoken and independent, the strong willed commoner who has to learn how to keep her tongue in check. Not much scares her. Zebedy is, as is often the case, the more privileged and shielded noble who doesn’t really understand all that the world is about. And then there is the inevitable villain and possible love interest. When these characters enter the scene, you may recognize them at once, but I won’t reveal their names just in case.
One character who struck me as particularly interesting was Brick. I haven’t run into many stories that tell the story of a character with disabilities in a way that lets the character be himself. It takes a certain skill. Even though Brick reaches his initial conclusions quite swiftly when he is otherwise more deliberate, he is one of my favorites. He complements the other characters well, and he has some of the best secrets.
Oh, the glorious plot. As I mentioned above, the pacing is actually rather slow, but don’t mistake slow for boring. The beginning reminded me of some of my favorite stories as a child, the gentle introduction to a new world that lets you experience it. I don’t think I’m giving away too much to reveal that this is how Leilani and Zebedy meet. They are both quite young, one is lost, and the other finds her and helps her to her home in what results in a quiet tour of the countryside. After that, things pick up.
There really weren’t a lot of surprises for me in the book, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I attribute a lot of this to the narrative. It’s an exciting book that doesn’t leave you desperate to know where the plot goes. But whenever I set it down, I wanted to come back and find out the next twist.
The twists themselves are handled quite well. One minor point for criticism is that, in the end, a couple things may seem too convenient. The discovery of one relationship and the fulfillment of one of the character’s dreams as well as a healing could be seen as too saccharine.
And at first, I thought this fell into the all too common trap of “yay, everything is well and good! There’s nothing bad in the world.” And while the one discovery is rather convenient, these developments aren’t undeserved. The worldbuilding and the clues themselves are sufficient to point to this being a conclusion. I wonder if I would have liked these two twists more if the story had been darker at points, but, in fairness to the author, these moments are earned and well told.
This was H.L. Burke’s first book for me. And, as I am also preparing to review Land of Ash, I can say that I quite love this author’s voice. It’s very gentle. Almost poetic without becoming purple prose. There’s a great deal of creativity, and you can see the love and care that went into crafting this story and world. This book really is its own creature, and it’s well worth the trip.
Would I Read Again? Would I Recommend?
Yes, I would certainly read this book again. Actually I already had to take another read. It’s a sweet and pleasant story. Easy to get into and easy to relax while reading. The world building was intriguing, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Currently it is available for free on Amazon from August 2 – August 3. But if you can purchase a copy for full price, I’d encourage you to do so. H.L. Burke is precisely the kind of writer I want to encourage to keep writing with my sales. Check it out here.
For part of our Christmas celebration, James and I decided to watch Into the Woods. It was quite an experience, and we were glad we went.
In terms of stated biases, I have only seen this story in amateur productions and high school musicals. Never anything professional. I admire the concept of weaving multiple storylines from familiar stories together, but Into the Woods is not my favorite story overall nor my favorite musical. I should also add that I am not an avid musical fan. So while I may not be overly biased, I may not be as well informed.
Please note that there will be spoilers in this review. I can’t comment on everything, so I will point out the things that drew me in particular.
Premises You Must Accept If You Will Enjoy This Movie
magic explains everything that is not readily understood
weaknesses in the original play remain present here
ham and cheese make this film more palatable (and I mean that as a compliment)
the story runs wide rather than deep
Acting in General
I’ll get into some of the characters more specifically later. But overall, well done and mostly well cast.
Yes, there were hammy performances, but they fit the tone and the mood. Meryl Streep was stunning from her first appearance to the last. I’ll get to “The Last Midnight” later, but let me say that I was looking forward to that song most of all, and it exceeded my hopes. Daniel Huttlestone was even better here than he was in Les Miserables, and he made an adorable and sympathetic Jack. He was everything a young Jack should be. Chris Pine shocked me with his smarmy Prince Charming and had me cracking up at all the right moments. Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife was sympathetic and sweet, and James Corden played the role of the nice guy moving on to make his own path well. Lilla Crawford did so well as the ever hungry and curious Red Riding Hood. I didn’t really have any characters or images in mind when I envisioned this theatrical release, but none of the casting or acting disappointed me really except Cinderella.
All in all, I felt that Into the Woods provided a stronger Jack and the Beanstalk story than Jack the Giant Slayer and will likely be a better Cinderella story than Disney’s upcoming Cinderella. Costuming and set design seemed top notch, though the CGI effects were cheaper looking in the distance shots more than the close-ups.
Wow, Jaw Dropping Meryl Streep
The previews convinced me that Meryl Streep could do this role justice, but the previews in no way did justice to what she did on the big screen. She plays the character well, sometimes slipping into more modern dialogue and sometimes sharing the audience’s perceptions. She scares at the right times, provokes laughs at the right points, and captures the voice of the original play with ease. (I have always felt that most of the story’s momentum dies with the Witch, and this was true especially here.)
My one criticism would be that in the beginning, she is supposed to be ugly. Now, don’t get me wrong. She’s no beauty, but nor is she ugly. She is just Hollywood ugly. Her nails are too long and yellow, her teeth look somewhat nasty, and her hair is wild. But really…she just looks like she needs a bit of a makeover. Given the budget as well as the CGI capabilities, I expected her to look hideous. I’ve looked worse some mornings, I’m afraid, and I have no curse to blame. That said, she does look stunning after her transformation. The blue palette compliments her skin, and I can only hope I look as good at her age.
The part I looked forward to the most was “The Last Midnight.” That’s always been one of my favorite songs from the play, and this rendition was every bit what I hoped and more. She sang it with such energy and passion. The song built and built and built until it delivered its final fatal punch. The lighting, the score, the acting, and the costuming were dramatic, over the top, and every bit what I anticipated. At a few points, my fellow moviegoers were sitting there open mouthed. Between “The Last Midnight” and “Agony,” the movie was worth the price.
All in all, I found every bit of Meryl Streep’s performance enjoyable and riveting. She didn’t just play this role. She poured herself into it, and it showed.
The Big Bad Wolf As Bad As Can Be
I had no idea what to expect with Johnny Depp’s performance. He can turn in stunning performances, and he can sometimes just be strange, odd, and frightening. In this case, well, it was a bit of both, which is what I think he was going for.
The sexual overtones remain in place, though if I recall correctly they have been toned down somewhat. But the somewhat lascivious response the Wolf has toward Red Riding Hood is hard to miss. I suppose one could argue that
there is nothing in it, but all in all, it feels more like a nod to some of the original Red Riding Hood stories. More implication than blatant discussion. But exceptionally uncomfortable to watch.
That said, Johnny Depp gave it his all. From the stalking around the tree to the first “Hello, little girl” to the final howl at the end, he was an unforgettable Wolf. This particular rendition of the song was one I can’t get out of my head. It is disturbing but well blended, punchy and almost cartoonish. It’s quite difficult to describe, but, all in all, it felt like the right choice and it was about on the same level as the Princes’ “Agony” in terms of ham and energy. I would add though that his costume did appear more theatrical and garish compared to the other costumes. My husband, who has more experience with
musicals and plays, said that in most of the other renditions he’s seen, the Wolf wore a fur outfit. Here the Wolf had the look of a more sophisticated Jeff Goldblum’s Wolf from the Three Little Pigs (Fairie Tale Theatre).
Cinderella, Nice But Not Good the Perfect Summary
I always found Cinderella’s story to be one of the more intriguing ones in the original play because it provided fascinating insight into this young woman who remained in such a horrid situation for so long. The fact that Cinderella would actually consider remaining in the abusive home she shared with her stepmother and stepsisters rather than make a choice that might be wrong was intriguing. And promising. The problem though is that Cinderella here fades to the background and seems significantly less important and interesting than the Baker and his wife or any of the other characters.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a beautiful standout moment in the story. The “On the Steps of the Palace” song was so well done. It captured Cinderella’s dilemma as well as her inner struggle and personality. Plus it had more choreography than I anticipated, and the setting itself added to the magical atmosphere. Anna Kendrick played it quite well, singing with emotion and even showing happiness as she made the decision to make no decision and force the Prince to choose.
In fairness, part of Cinderella’s character development is weakened because the story is slammed together in the overall pacing, particularly at the end where Cinderella should be revealed more fully. And her confrontation of the Prince as well as her bidding him farewell is shortened tremendously. There’s no real sense of regret or sadness that the two are split apart or that Cinderella has even lost anything she wants. The loss seemed as inconsequential as losing a shoe. Here I do not blame the actress. The writing in her overall development gave the actress little to work with. The prince’s infidelity seems irrelevant to her and receives less time than her indecisiveness and generally neutral feelings at first.
The stepmother and stepsisters were deliciously awful and hammy. I chuckled to see Lucy Punch in the role of Lucinda. She played almost the
exact same character in Ella Enchanted, and she did it just as well. It was cartoonish and lacking in any sort of nuance, but it was never intended to be nuanced in the first place.
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let’s Change Your End
In the original play, Rapunzel has nervous breakdowns, gives birth to twins, and ultimately dies as her prince goes on to pursue another fairy tale princess. In the movie, however, she and her prince ride off after the witch gives her warning. There’s no indication that anything bad happens to Rapunzel and her prince. We see nothing of her or her prince ever again. There is only the witch’s warning that she should have listened and that the world is dangerous.
Now…I suppose that it could be said we don’t know that Rapunzel didn’t die. Something terrible might have happened to her. But, in my opinion, Rapunzel’s apparent happy ending really cuts away at the deeper meaning of the original play, which was that there was no such thing as a happily ever after. Her story line was not developed enough to suggest that there is hope for a happy ending after all (though it seems that that must be what the aim was). But neither is it dark or bleak. It just feels unfinished. Or as if the producers were concerned that the real Rapunzel story told in Into the Woods would be too dark. Admittedly, it is dark, but it added a great deal to the tone and motivation.
Personally, I think this change was a misstep. Rapunzel’s demise demonstrated the validity of the Witch’s w
arning. Plus the prince’s philandering ways painted such a bleak and sorrowful end to her that it underscored Sondheim’s original point. Without that change, Rapunzel seems unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the song “Stay with Me.” Meryl Streep did a beautiful emotional job with it. But just about every other purpose that Rapunzel served could be met through altering the story further and without further loss of the story’s integrity.
Sometimes a happy ending is worse than a sad or tragic one when it is forced. It’s even sadder when the story just feels unfinished. It makes the point less clear, and even if life may be that way, the ambiguity hurts the story and overall flow and purpose.
Agony…From Laughing Hysterically
One of the downsides of watching primarily high school renditions of Into the Woods is that most high school students do not have the chutzpah and confidence to pull off the roles of the princes. They are a special pair, aren’t they? So full of themselves and so confused by the women they wish to claim. Well…Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen deliver on every aspect, right
down to the demonstrated competitiveness and rivalry between the two.
The song “Agony” is one of the best in the film. It had the audience laughing at several points as the two brothers strive to outdo one another in a well choreographed dance scene beside and over a river. There’s tearing of the shirts, heaving of the chests, arching of the eyebrows, deepening of the voices, and flinging of the arms. It’s overdramatic, cheesy, hammy, and utterly splendid.
Similarly his song with the Baker’s Wife is quite over the top as well, though it does feel more like he is pushing her into something she is not all together comfortable with. The parallels between the Wolf and Red with the Prince and the Baker’s Wife would be interesting, but that’s another discussion.
Chris Pine’s Prince though also vanishes from the story too soon. His pursuit of yet another fairy tale princess after he leaves Cinderella and enjoys the Baker’s wife demonstrates his shallowness in the play. That’s cut though. While he does share some passionate kisses with the Baker’s Wife, he does not take on another princess later. Here, he and Cinderella share a brief conversation after she learns that he cheated on her. And while Pine delivers the line “I was raised to be charming, not sincere” with fantastic personality, the scene ends too quickly. He, like Rapunzel’s prince, disappears after this
. We do not see him again with his newest conquest, and there is no reprise of the famed “Agony.”
Don’t get me wrong. What scenes he does have, Chris Pine wrings out every drop of humor and hamminess, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. He was just ushered out far too fast, and the smarminess and point could have been better developed through that final closing sequence.
An Intriguing Though Feeling Unfinished Tapestry
Into the Woods has never been one of my favorite musicals, and my initial opinion of Into the Woods was that it started out with an intriguing premise but didn’t really tie up the ends in the most satisfying of ways. Many things are left unexplained, whether through lack of time, carelessness, or just because. The pacing in the Second Act in particular has always felt off to me, and I wanted certain things explained more. Yet those weaknesses have not kept me from enjoying it or the music. I had hoped though that the movie would address some of those weaknesses. Perhaps add another layer to the characters or reveal more subtleties. There are so many opportunities afforded to a movie that are not in an onstage production.
The movie, however, does not take the opportunity to clean up the story and make it more coherent or establish stronger characters. Instead, it plays it quite safe and softens some of the original plot line to make it more palatable for a younger audience that probably won’t even be interested in it. As a result, it actually lost something of itself without providing something more enjoyable or even something that felt like a coherent whole. I’ve already discussed Rapunzel and the princes. But some of the changes made deviated from the play in other ways unrelated to making it more family friendly (an arguable endeavor).
The pacing is what draws my attention most. The First Act seems to take up the majority of the movie with the plot threads set up and the characters established, even if it is only briefly. But there does not appear to be much of a passage of time between the First Act and the Second Act. The characters’ positions after thinking that they have attained their happy endings are rushed. In fact, they are thrown back into the action after what seems like perhaps a day. The Baker’s Wife is made instantly pregnant and looks ready to deliver after the curse is lifted, and the baby himself has no age reference. It does not feel as if any time has passed at all. Cinderella’s unhappiness and boredom as well as the Baker’s struggle to connect with his son are all rushed, and I entirely missed Jack’s desire to return to the sky, if that was even part of the movie’s second act at all. As a result, it feels quite rushed. The last half hour in particularly are quite bad comparatively and left me feeling unsatisfied.
Overall Worth a Watch
Even with the changes and the weaknesses, the movie is worth a watch. Some of the performances are stunning, and there was a great deal of heart put into it. It feels very much like a Disneyfied movie version of a play. If you enjoy any of the primary actors or if you like revisionist fairy tales or if you appreciate musicals, I recommend you watch it.
I have seen it advertised for families with children though, and I would add one caveat. It isn’t really a kid friendly movie. Not because of the dark themes but because of the pacing. Young children will likely find it boring. And the latter half is particularly slow by comparison. Most of the violence occurs off screen or is implied. (The death of Jack’s mother, for instance, was handled in such a way that at first I wasn’t sure if she was actually dead or even how she died.)
It’s a shame because I think that a work more closely following the original or expanding upon the original’s themes would have worked better here. The actors possessed the necessary skills. The sets supported the endeavors, but sadly the woods were far tamer and less dangerous than they might have once appeared.