AEL: JatH#19, Middlemarch, SU ep, Fantastic Beasts

Jem and the Holograms #19 — Somehow I have quite a few thoughts about this issue; we’ll see if I can remember them all.

To start out with, I’m not sure how I feel about the new art. I can’t say I dislike it, and I do think it fits with the tone of the comic, so you’d think there would be nothing to complain about? But I’m not sure I’m completely happy with it. Maybe I just need time to adjust.

I am very happy to see the storyline with Shana quitting the band playing out so similarly to how it did in the TV series, since I really enjoyed that part — particularly the emotions involved on all sides, which are even more pronounced in this version where the gals actively refer to each other as the sisters they’ve always been.

I’ve enjoyed having Jetta in the Misfits since the beginning (though I have to admit I miss the sax), and I appreciate that they’ve replaced her joining the band with the group’s attempt to integrate Blaze so we still have that balance in story at this point.

It hasn’t been stated outright, but I get the feeling there’s some transphobia behind the push from the powers that be to let Blaze go, and therefore I’m all the more happy with the Misfits’ (particularly could-have-been-a-rival-Pizzazz’s) determination to keep her on and make it work. It makes the Misfits seem more like… well, misfits that stick together, being allies like that. Also, since I’m sure part of it really is a desire for a richer sound, it makes them seem like more dedicated artists as well.

But… and it’s hard for me to say this… I miss the old Pizzazz. The tweaked and updated characterizations in this comic have all been fun, but I don’t feel like we’ve gotten much of a sense of Pizzazz yet, even with her car crash storyline; she seems like little more than a shadow of her TV series self, who was one of the most interesting characters there. I’ll be interested to see what happens between her and Riot — especially given the development right at the end of this issue.

I think that’s all the JatH thoughts I had, but it’s been too long… there was a Disneyland trip between my reading the issue and typing out most of this, so some of it may have gotten lost. Ah, well.

Middlemarch by George Eliot — This is the second time I’ve read this book, and the very first thing that struck me, pretty early on, is how much The Casual Vacancy (which, you will remember, I also just read for the second time) reminds me of it. I hopped online real quick to see if anyone else had noted this similarity, and found that somebody not only had, but in drawing the comparison had referred to TCV as “Mugglemarch,” which totally made my day.

George Eliot’s prose is the best. It’s just the best. I think she’s second only to Poe on my list of “Favorite Authors In Terms of Command of the English Language.” If I had a better command of it myself, I could better express the love I feel for her every sentence, but as it is I’m not going to bother to try.

I do kinda wonder who her target audience was, though, at least with this book. Her snark about the patriarchy and the role of women therein, not to mention gender interaction in general, is so pointed (and seems to be so pointed at men) that the book hardly seems fitted for anyone in her own era. It hits me in exactly the right place (especially since it’s not nearly so hopelessly fatalistic as The Mill on the Floss), but did it hit anyone in her own time that way? Or was this author particularly prescient? I wouldn’t put it past her.

There’s one thing about the book that is not only bugging me this time through, that not only bugged me the first time through, but that bugs me about a lot of literature from the Victorian and adjacent periods: extreme vagueness when it comes to Christianity. This is the religion that shapes the lives of most if not all of the characters in these books and is fundamental to many of their core beliefs and/or behaviors; and sometimes (as is the case with several characters in Middlemarch in particular) some of them individually are deeply spiritual and religious with specific sets of religious philosophies and practices. Some are even clergy, though that, of course, does not guarantee any actual religiousness XD

And yet no specific tenets of any branch of Christianity are ever mentioned, and specific beliefs (and even behaviors based thereupon) are thin on the ground… and Jesus is never once named. “Christianity” is constantly referenced, but that’s about as specific as it gets; you could probably replace the word with “Islam” or “Bábíism” and make not a ripple of difference in the lives of the characters as written.

Now, I don’t want to read a primarily religious book (particularly about Christianity), and I can understand if an author wants to avoid making one out of what would otherwise be social commentary and drama. But the total divorce of religious specificity from specifically religious characters that I see in this as well as so many other works of the period is bizarre and jarringly unrealistic. No matter how disinterested I am in any detailed discussion of Christian doctrines and faith, allowing the characters to have such discussion naturally when it’s appropriate for them to do so would make those characters and the setting they’re in seem so much more believable.

I can’t quite figure this out definitively, but I kinda feel like there was an unstated taboo in this era against the inclusion of religious specificity in works that weren’t intended as specifically religious, as if novels were generally considered too frivolous to include such serious topics. However, when George Eliot was so publicly irritated by the frivolity of the generality of novels and writing such meaningful and incisive works herself, would that attitude have stopped her? However however, she was also a bit weird about Christianity for her own part, and perhaps was just as reluctant as I to have any detailed Christian talk mixed into her social commentary.

Aaaanyway. Yes, that bugs me about a lot of books, including Middlemarch, but Middlemarch and George Eliot are still consummate badasses. Everything I said about The Casual Vacancy regarding engaging characters and profound understanding blah blah blah applies here too, so consider this a similar gush without my having to type it all out again. I’ll undoubtedly have more thoughts in a future log, too, since I’m only just under halfway through the book.

Steven Universe episode Gem Harvest — Though this episode was somewhat touching and had some delightful implications of teh ghei, it didn’t do much for me. It kinda felt like Bismuth in that it seemed like The Movie: a longer, special episode with a self-contained story that is a little difficult to insert into the series timeline and, despite introducing a new character and new information that you might think could be important later, isn’t going to change the status quo.

The one moment I really found interesting was yet another instance of Steven being uncharacteristically unempathetic when he was traumatizing Pumpkin by carving a jack-o-lantern right in front of him. I wonder if this is a direction the writers are intentionally going — Steven, possibly because of all the dire shit he’s been through, slowly drifting away from the deep empathy that has been so integral to his character all along. Is he hardening up into something more like Rose, who was willing to shatter a fellow gem because she felt it was what was best for the war effort at that time? Will he recognize that he’s heading in this direction and dig his heels in? I don’t know. I may be reading too much into little scenes like that.

Anyway it was good to see Lapis so cheerful and at home, and she and Peridot are still basically married and I love it. But I’m looking forward to better episodes later.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — The big question I’ve been waiting to have answered ever since this was announced has been, “Is she as good a screenwriter as she is a novelist?” We got a hint with the Cursed Child script, but for the definitive answer (or at least the start of it), we had to wait until now when the first movie was actually released. I figured that at the very least, her profound understanding of humanity would translate. Unfortunately, I think the answer turns out to be in the negative.

Not that this is in any way a bad movie… but I think it’s just OK. It didn’t bore me (at least the first time around), and I am easily bored by movies, so that’s something definitely in its favor. I thought it was well directed, well scored, pretty well acted. However, I thought the characters were not well developed and a lot of the dialogue was (unintentionally) awkward.

The biggest problem comparing novels to movies is always going to be that novels have so much more time and space for detailed development (of character, setting, emotions, situations, etc.) than movies do. A good movie-making team can compensate for this, to a certain extent, by slipping in details in other ways than in prose, but I’m afraid a novel is always going to have scope for richer detail and greater development than a movie will.

Richness of detail is one of the things that makes Rowling’s novels so spectacularly good, and, sadly, I feel that richness is lacking from this movie she’s written. Yeah, there are a lot of impressive visuals, but the characters are still underdeveloped, and there are a lot of questions a novel would have casually answered that a movie does not and probably cannot address at all. I love Rowling and I always will, but I’m afraid she’s just not as good a screenwriter as she is a novelist.

Overall there was a muddiness to the storytelling that was probably the result of this being very much a setup for future installments in the series… when I see future installments in the series, I’ll be able to judge better whether this story seemed somewhat bloated and vague because we’ll be coming back to multiple points established here or because it’s just… inherently somewhat bloated and vague for no good reason.

I had no trouble at all grasping the specifics of the plot, but brother found it confusing. I think the lead-up material Rowling has been posting on Pottermore may have helped my understanding, and, though it’s always nice to have an additional depth of comprehension in a situation like this, it doesn’t improve a movie to require familiarity with extraneous material of its viewers.

Some specific (read: nitpicky) observations.

First off, legilimency is presented in the canon we’ve experienced thus far as a more formal discipline than it seemed to be here. Previously, legilimency was presented as something you had to cast an actual spell — with an incantation — to perform. In this movie it comes across as more traditional telepathy, and while it’s true that Queenie might be non-verbally casting the spell over and over again, her legilimency did not feel like the legilimency we’ve experienced in the past(/future). Also, why would she be continually non-verbally casting that spell? Also also, why would such an accomplished legilimens be working such a meaningless job at MACUSA? Surely they would have uses for her beyond making coffee?

Secondly, Newt’s trunk is confusing, and I think this is directly the fault of the camerawork. Obviously it’s expanded on the inside as we have seen other spaces expanded within the canon — that’s all fine and good — but our introduction to its inside space is filmed in such a way as to give us no clear idea of how big the interior is, how it’s organized, or where and with what boundaries one area stops and another starts. I would have appreciated having a clearer idea of what the crap was going on in there.

Thirdly, the execution scene dragged on too long and had some stupid moments. The MACUSA witch, in extracting good memories from Tina, accidentally took some bad ones too, apparently. Why? Isn’t she better at her job than that? Admittedly they might not have to execute people very frequently, so perhaps she just doesn’t have all that much practice at this… but I’m reminded of Henry Fonda’s line in 12 Angry Men, “Testimony that could put a boy into the electric chair should be that accurate.”

If part of your job is to ease the lot of condemned criminals by presenting them with hypnotically pleasant memories as they’re ushered into execution, you’d better be damn sure you’re not mixing unpleasant memories into that potion at the same time. In the situation the movie set up, that seems like an unforgivably inhumane mistake, and I really feel like that particular witch should face an inquiry of some sort.

Then that scene dragged on and on and was probably the most boring part of the movie for me. Newt was able to overcome the two MACUSA witches present with ridiculous ease, and then he completely failed to make it clear to Tina how he planned on helping her. Then Tina, who is an auror, stood there like an idiot on a chair that was actively dissolving in death potion beneath her feet, reluctant to take her only chance at getting to safety because… I’m not sure why. It’s totally unfair of me to judge the actions and the presence of mind of someone in a life-threatening situation, because people panic and make stupid decisions or freeze up and stupidly make no decision at all. But did I mention she’s an auror? You kinda can’t blame her superiors for dismissing her from that position if she sucks this bad in life-threatening situations.

Fourthly, the Swooping-Evil-venom-ex-machina at the end made the barest amount of sense it possibly could and maybe not even that. Newt’s earlier throwaway line about it implied only that he was experimenting with the venom’s properties in erasing memories, and seriously who uses an experimental venom on an entire city just hoping it’ll work out??? Another throwaway line about muggle/no-maj physiology being subtly different from that of wizards allowed us to guess at the reason the no-majs were affected but the wizards were immune, but that was no more than a guess. The whole thing felt very contrived and overly convenient.

Fifthly, along those same lines, I think it would have been wiser to scale back the level of destruction that was wreaked upon the city during the finale — because the casual repair-job magically enacted (especially on that stupid skyscraper) seemed totally disproportionate to what we’ve seen magic do that quickly and easily in the past. In short it felt unbelievable and handwavey in a world full of usually-much-more-swallowable unbelievable and handwavey things.

Sixthly, in more unbelievable handwavey news, Picquery’s sudden change of heart regarding Newt’s unlawfulness after he saved the day, while it certainly was reminiscent of Dumbledore repeatedly forgiving Harry et al for rule-breaking after he saved the day (and therefore demonstrated some in-universe consistency of a sort XD), seemed absurdly irresponsible in a government official and out of character with what we’d seen of her so far.

So, as usual, I’ve made a much bigger deal of issues I had with the movie than anything I liked about it, and probably given an impression of not liking it at all. This was not the case; I did enjoy it. Despite the weak characterization in general, I liked very much Newt’s touching total devotion to his creatures and the goal of bridging the gap between them and the wizarding world (Hufflepuff represent!!). I loved the relationship, underdeveloped though it was, between Queenie and Jacob, especially the kiss in the forgetful rain and the (incredibly predictable) moment in the bakery at the end. And I loved the setup for a larger-scale story about Grindelwald making a bid at accomplishing his goals in the U.S. instead of Europe; I liked what we saw of his attempts so far, and I’m very interesting in seeing that unfold and getting my very favorite Rowling character, Dumbledore, involved.

I don’t know how much I can recommend this movie to anyone that’s not already a Harry Potter fan, and I don’t know that I think Rowling is a good screenwriter, but I did think Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was pretty decent. There may be better things ahead, and that could be far more fantastic than this was. I’m definitely keeping my hopes up.

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