Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Why I Love Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

As the follow-up to one of the most beloved franchises in film history, 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arrived heavy with the weight of expectation. With David Yates still in the director's chair, and Rowling herself penning the screenplay, surely we were in for a rich new adventure inside the Wizarding World we know and love.

Did it turn out the way we all expected? Not exactly. Does it still hold a special place in the heart of this die-hard Potter fan? Absolutely.

Of course it's not perfect. The action sequences are entertaining but silly, which often jars with the overall dark, threatening tone. Colin Farrell's Percival Graves makes for a pleasingly mundane villain, especially after the nose-less Voldemort. But then they had to turn him into Johnny Depp at the end. Why not just make Graves a servant of Grindelwald?

But there's lots to love too. Protagonist Newt Scamander and his unlikely sidekick Jacob make a very likeable duo, supported by surprisingly snappy dialogue from Rowling's debut screenplay. 1920s New York is no Hogwarts, but it complements the dark, hostile tone of the film. And the beasts themselves are the icing on the cake - CGI masterpieces designed to make us laugh, gasp and go "aww" in all the right places.

But what makes this film special is the same thing that helped Harry Potter stand out in the crowd of magical children's novels: it's actually about something. Of course, every film has a point to make or themes it wants to explore, even family blockbusters. But what I love about Fantastic Beasts 1 is that the whole story - every scene, character and relationship - exists to discuss the film's key questions.

Gender Expression and Where to Find It

First of all, Fantastic Beasts provides a detailed exploration of gender expression, something that remains rare in Hollywood even today. An excellent discussion of Newt's gentle masculinity can be found here, and it's wonderful to see such an understated, thoughtful leading man in an age where bad-ass superheroes are making the big bucks. But this theme isn't limited to the film's protagonist.

Sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein display very different takes on femininity - Tina is a wannabe hard-boiled detective, seen showing traditionally male traits like ambition and gruffness. Meanwhile Queenie, from her cutesy voice to her aptness for household magic, displays a more traditional femininity.

Crucially, though, both women take their gender expressions in their stride. Queenie is delighted to find a happy house guest in Jacob, and the two hit it off immediately. Tina, though an impostor in the New York auror office, seems perfectly at home in the world of gritty investigation work.

Indeed, Tina and Newt's blossoming romance is characterised by them embracing sides of themselves they are less familiar with. Awkward, unassuming Newt learns to open up to another human, and Tina softens her hard edges as she warms up to our protagonist.

Which brings me to perhaps the most important idea considered in the film. Almost every relationship explores a different answer to the question: What does it mean to care about someone?

The Obscurus - Caring Too Much

First up is the newest addition to our catalogue of fantastic beasts  the obscurus. This force of dark energy is created when a child is forced to hide their magical ability. The obscurus terrorising New York is that of Credence Barebone, a powerful young wizard who was adopted by witch hunters.

The obscurus acts as a defence mechanism for Credence - it lashes out whenever he is angry or in danger, destroying buildings and even killing the people who oppress him. As a massive Potterhead, I can't help seeing the obscurus as a kind of anti-patronus: a spiritual protector that's built on anger and fear rather than hope and happiness. And like the destruction it wreaks on the city, the violent care the obscurus shows for Credence will eventually destroy him.

Graves and Credence - A Means to an End

Percival Graves (head of security for the American Ministry of Magic) is busy trying to stop a dark mysterious monster from terrorising New York. Credence, who seems to have a special importance to Graves - so much so that Graves rescues him from his cruel adoptive family, and promises a life away from harm in exchange for help.

As the movie continues, we learn to see Graves as the villain of the piece, and his relationship with Credence takes on a new meaning. Graves does care about the boy, but only as an asset. He sees something special in Credence, and he's willing to show kindness if it will further his own (rather mysterious) ends.

Newt - The Master Carer

And then there's our protagonist. First introduced to us as the author of the "Care of Magical Creatures" textbook, it's no surprise that Newt is defined by caring. More specifically, he is presented as someone who cares for those who can't offer him the same thing in return.

Most obviously, he has dedicated his life to the proper treatment of magical animals, a task he seems to trust no one else with (he puts a very complex undetectable extension charm on his suitcase just so he can bring his whole menagerie with him to New York). There's no doubt that the creatures owe a lot to Newt, though of course he expects nothing in return from them.

But there's a human example too. At the start of the final act, Newt finds a photo of Leta Lestrange, an old flame of his. This is clearly shoehorned into the film to foreshadow the next movie, but it does provide an insight into Newt's character. Seeing him look at the photo, mind-reader Queenie intuits that Leda was "a taker," whereas Newt needs "a giver". Another example here of a relationship where Newt gave more than he received.

Newt is a master of caring for others, but he's not used to receiving care in return. It's no wonder then that he initially resists Jacob's attempts to befriend him, or that he's so slow on the uptake when it becomes clear that Tina likes him. While most characters are exploring what it means to care for others, Newt experiences for the first time what it's like to be truly cared for.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them might stumble a bit as it tries to appeal to both children and grown-up Harry Potter fans. It might get a little confusing as they attempt to set up a five-film spin-off franchise. But it remains a pacey, thrilling, heartfelt adventure that breathes new life into JK Rowling's wizarding world. And crucially, it pushes the themes of friendship, bravery and compassion that makes the Harry Potter books so timeless. I'm sure that will be an enduring feature of the series...

See you next time.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Dream Bigger #5: Controlling the Narrative

When I began this series in January, it was to mark my resolution to dream bigger this year. So naturally the time has come to ask myself how successful I've been. Has everything gone according to plan?

Not exactly. For example, I was really hoping that I'd be running a regular improv night in Nottingham by now. And though we've had several ideas that have reached various stages of readiness, it just hasn't happened. I was also planning to write loads of short stories this year, after a great writers' retreat at the start of January. In reality, that ended up being the only time I got any short story writing done.

But does that mean I've failed? Well, rhetorical question, this is the beauty of abstract resolutions. They allow you to control the narrative.

It makes sense to think about your life as a story. Events happen in a certain order for everyone (birth, infancy, school, university, etc.), so there's a well-defined structure. But what makes your story unique is that you're the main character.

The trouble with thinking like this - perhaps especially for a writer, but maybe not - is that I often expect my life events to make sense, as if everything was planned out beforehand. If something doesn't work out, I'm left trying to work out how this failure fits into my narrative. 'Maybe I was always meant to have that unhealthy relationship,' I might say. 'It paved the way for something that happened a few chapters later.'

I'm not sure why I do this, but I know that there's a time and place for it. Sometimes we need to admit when something went wrong, and dig into why that happened. But other times it's healthy, especially when the narrative you're trying to create isn't your actual life.

So I haven't set up a regular improv night this year. But thinking about the events that I have run in the last 12 months, maybe it wouldn't have been the right thing to do this year anyway.

And I haven't written any more short stories yet this year. But I did submit one for a competition. And though I was unsuccessful, my rejection has helped me identify some issues in my writing that I can fix ready for next time.

In short, dreaming bigger has succeeded this year. I might not have achieved exactly what I wanted to achieve, but reflecting on 2019 has helped me realise two things...

1) I have done some pretty cool stuff this year. I wrote and performed my first ever one-man show. I co-wrote and performed in a live sketch show. I'm engaged to my best friend in the world, I've spent lots of time with wonderful friends, and I've really gotten back into reading for pleasure. I haven't spent as much time on creative endeavours as I could have done, but I couldn't call any of it time wasted.

2) Dreaming bigger isn't a one-year project. My resolution this year has helped me commit to my creative dreams, and work out ways of making them a reality. This series might be over, but the act of dreaming bigger has only just begun. I've got big plans for next year, and I've already started setting them in motion.

Thank you so much for following this series, I hope you've found it as useful as I have. If you don't want to miss another blog post, they're not going away. You can subscribe to the mailing list on this page. Thanks, and here's to another year of dreaming bigger.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Frozen VS Frozen II: When Plot Takes Over

I can say with certainty that Frozen II is not a bad film. It's well animated, the setting is full of imagination, and I laughed out loud more often than I thought I would. I saw it with my family on opening weekend, and we all left the cinema with the same reaction: satisfied with another Disney-tastic family experience... and pretty confused about what exactly had happened.

As soon as we got home I knew I had to write something about this film, because it presents a textbook lesson in storytelling. For those who haven't yet seen the film, this is your spoiler alert.

One of the strengths of Frozen (2013) is how tight the narrative is. Each main character has something they want, a motivation that is supported by the rest of the film's building blocks. Elsa is scared of what her ice powers can do, so she shuts herself away - both literally and emotionally. In response, Anna wants doors to be open: again, the real doors separating her from the outside world, and the metaphorical doors into her sister's affections.

The entire plot of Frozen is motivated by this tension. Anna's feelings of seclusion make her reckless - she almost marries someone she's just met, who turns out to be the villain. She sets off into the wilderness with no preparation. For Elsa's part, she embraces her ice powers, but still hides herself away, believing they can make her nothing but a villain.

The resolution of the story is equally tied to the bond between these two sisters. When Anna saves Elsa from Hans (the true villain of the piece), it heals the frozen heart that Elsa accidentally gave her years ago. At the same time, this act of true love thaws Elsa's cold demeanour, allowing her to open up and rule the kingdom with a happy heart.

And just in case you weren't convinced of their thematic link... Elsa, the uptight one with ice powers, was born on the winter solstice. Anna, the ginger one with a fiery personality, was born on the summer solstice.

Herein lies the reason that Frozen II can't really measure up to its predecessor. There's plenty of plot to the movie, but it's not really about anyone. In the film's opening, we flash back to Elsa and Anna's childhood, where their parents tell them of an ancient forest whose people are at war with Arendelle.

Turns out, Elsa and Anna's father was there when the fighting broke out, though conveniently he didn't see how things began. (We learn later that he was rushed to safety by the girl who grew up to be the girls' mother, though for some reason she neglects to reveal that at this point.)

Most of the movie takes place in this enchanted forest. Granted, it is a very cool setting, full of magic and mystery. But everything feels so... unmotivated. The only thing bringing them to the forest is a mysterious voice calling to Elsa. The only people we know connected to the forest are her parents, whose death early on in the first film means that we're not really invested in them.

To give you a concrete example of what happens when a film focuses on plot rather than character, let's focus on Kristoff's story. He spent the first film as Anna's guide in the frozen north, becoming her true love interest. The second film begins with the two of them in a comfortable relationship, and we learn early on that Kristoff wants to propose to Anna.

On the surface, a nice development of their relationship. Plenty to explore there, right? And they very nearly do. The film starts to examine Anna's loyalties - does she follow her sister into the unknown, or stay in Kristoff's warm embrace? But she doesn't have to choose, since they all decide to go north!

While it is good to have the gang all together (we don't get that in the first film), it changes Kristoff's role in the movie, and not for the better. As soon as they arrive at the forest, he becomes merely an annoyance to Anna, attempting to propose in various inappropriate moments until the film separates them entirely. While a local villager and fellow reindeer enthusiast teaches Kristoff about proposing correctly, Anna and Olaf go after Elsa, who's travelled north in search of the plot.

It's now that Kristoff has his best moment, a solo song that portrays how lost he feels whenever Anna isn't around. Shot like a cheesy music video, it's a very funny scene. But his sentiment is serious, so it's a bit jarring that the film plays it for laughs.

And where has his confusion about the state of the relationship come from? The two of them started the film happy together, and nothing's really changed - yes she's not around right now, but she has important things to do! Like many of the scenes and songs in Frozen II, this beat ends up feeling unmotivated, because the film hasn't spent enough time setting up the tension between characters.

If I was in Jennifer Lee's place, I'd have kept Kristoff in Arendelle for at least the first two acts. He would be our connection to the homeland, and provide comic relief as he prepares a variety of ridiculous proposals. The song could stay pretty much the same, but now it's the point when he realises that proposing is about expressing your feelings honestly, not about the grand gesture.

This would be emotionally dramatic, and also increase the tension of the final act. When the tidal wave from the broken dam rushes towards Arendelle, it's not very scary because the city has been evacuated. But what if we knew (and Anna didn't) that Kristoff and Sven were still in the city. Instant high stakes, and a better feeling of relief when Elsa saves the day.

The confusion my family and I felt when watching Frozen II is a classic symptom of sequel-itis. Everything was tied up with a nice bow at the end of the first film, so the writers invented a big complex plot to give the next story momentum. The result was an enjoyable, fun, thrilling, visually beautiful movie. But I think, if they had drawn the new story from the characters and their relationships, it could have been even better... and much less confusing.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Dear Evan Hansen: Passion over Poetry

In the first half of the musical Wicked, two teenage witches prepare for a college ball. In a classic trope of the genre, the classically beautiful Galinda is giving the (literally) green-faced Elphaba a high-school makeover. This is done through the lyrics of ‘Popular,’ a delightfully scathing comedy number that truly shows off Stephen Schwartz’s prowess as a songwriter.

Known elsewhere for his contributions to Disney films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted, Schwartz was undoubtedly the perfect choice to score Wicked. His knack for a sparkling, key-fluid yet very singable melody is matched only by his refusal to miss any opportunity for rhyme. ‘Popular’ is a classic example of this style:

Don’t be offended by my frank analysis,
Think of it as personality dialysis.
Now that I’ve chosen to become a pal, a sister and advisor -
There’s nobody wiser,
Not when it comes to ‘popular’.

This trick of manipulating words to construct a perfect rhyme has long been a trick up the sleeves of writers like Schwartz. Whether it's the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan, the wit of Stephen Sondheim or even the mind-boggling bars of Lin Manuel Miranda, it has proven a popular technique for as long as the musical theatre form has existed. But everything changes in the end.

Dear Evan Hansen recently opened on the West End, having made its Broadway Debut in 2017. It deals with themes of grief, social awkwardness, mental health and the struggles of parenthood. And it explores each of these themes from both the adults' and the adolescents' perspective - something few high school dramatisations have achieved.

One of my favourite moments comes towards the end - no plot spoilers, I promise. It's an intimate solo song called 'So big/So small', in which Heidi (mother of the titular Evan) recalls the moment she became a single parent. The rhymes in this song are simple, as are the words and the sentiment. A mother re-committing herself to being there for her son.

The bridge of the song features almost no rhyme at all, and is sung through tears of anguish by Rachel Bay Jones on the original soundtrack - it's no surprise she won a Tony for this role. For me the pinnacle of this piece comes before the final chorus:

Your mom isn't going anywhere, your mom is staying right here.
Your mom isn't going anywhere, your mom is staying right here no matter what.

Pasek and Paul (composers for Dear Evan Hansen, as well as hit film The Greatest Showman) had so many options for conveying this statement, but they went for this. No metaphor, no flowery language, simple. And that's not all. They don't use the second line to rhyme cleverly with the first or impress us with a witty insight. Simply repeating the first line with an additional phrase makes Heidi's emotions here so much more powerful.

You might be feeling that this is an unfair comparison. I've picked a comedy moment from Wicked - of course that has more wit in it than a serious, emotional moment in Dear Evan Hansen. Well here's a chorus from 'No Good Deed' - the emotional climax of Wicked, where Elphaba scorns her attempts to do good and pleads for the life of her lover.

No good deed goes unpunished:
All helpful urges must be circumvented.
No good deed goes unpunished:
Sure I meant well, but look at what well meant did.

In musicals like Wicked, the wit and ability of the lyricist is on full display. It's a key part of the entertainment, and it lands almost every time. Tim Minchin's score for Matilda is a perfect example of this. He knows when to turn on the wordplay, and his intelligence matches the prodigy of Matilda herself. Then when things get serious, he tones it down a bit, to allow the honesty to come through.

But pushing the clever rhymes in the most sincere and sombre moments - like the above example from Wicked - can create a disconnect between the words being used and the emotions the scene is trying to convey. In Dear Evan Hansen, eloquence abandons the characters in moments of heightened emotion, a decision which only makes them more relatable.

All this makes me wonder if the era of the "clever wordplay musical" is coming to an end. Perhaps WickedMatilda and Hamilton are the last bastions of an age where complex language is used to convey complex emotions. We live in complex times, so maybe what we crave from our operatic entertainment, from our musical catharsis, is the simple passion that's often so hard to express in real life.

Dear Evan Hansen is a gem of a musical - an original plot that drags the classic high school image created by Mean Girls and Clueless into the 21st Century. Loveable, funny, flawed characters whose lack of word-based wit helps us to see them as real, normal people. Here's hoping for many more musicals like it in the future.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Dreaming Bigger #4: Making it Work

We all want to do a job we love, right? Well, the internet can help you. From the virtuoso guitarists of Fiverr to the game developers on DriveThruRPG, it’s never been easier for someone to start making money from their hobbies.

There are pros and cons to this approach - see this article for more. But that’s not what this post is about. Today I’m wondering - regardless of whether we want our creative endeavours to be our job…  is there value in pretending that they are? Let me explain…

Keeping Track of Time

At my first full-time job out of uni, the timings were pretty strict. We had to log exactly how much time we’d spent on each project every day, down to the quarter of an hour. It made sense for the work we were doing - our clients were being charged by the hour. But it could sometimes make my workday feel restrictive and stressful.

I worked there in different roles for just under two years, so the idea of logging hours on a time sheet is now inextricably linked to the world of work in my head.

I now work in a similar role at a different company, one where there’s less emphasis on when and for how long we work on different projects. And yet, I still can’t help but log my hours, even though no one’s really checking them.

And the funny thing is, I think it helps. It’s something to do with satisfaction in my work. If I log my hours, I can go home knowing exactly what I spent my time and effort doing, and how much progress I’ve managed to make in the time I’ve devoted to it. It feels like a silly impulse, but it does make me feel productive, efficient, and good at my job.

Funny, then, how I only just worked out I could do this for my creative projects.

Seize the Means of Productivity

I’ve been trying it on a trial basis over the summer. I’ve got a little spreadsheet where I can write out my projects, and log time for the different tasks I complete towards my bigger goals. I think it’s helping so far: I set a target for how many hours I think I can devote that week, and I’ve found myself wondering where I can fit in an extra half hour to make my quota.

It’s funny - I’m not doing this for anyone but myself, yet I feel like I’ve let someone down when I don’t make my weekly quota. I’ve said in a previous post that my own success doesn’t motivate me a great deal, but one thing that does is the chance to prove myself. And my favourite person to prove myself to… is me.

What’s more, the segmenting of my creative time into hourly or half-hourly chunks is helping me find time for my other, less productive hobbies. If I’m already on my way to meeting my quota, then I can definitely give myself a break to read a book or play a video game.

There are other things I do to help my creative projects feel as important an urgent as work: for instance, I have now finally embraced the to-do list, after years of avoidance and apathy. But as my hour-logging system leaves its beta stage in time for September, I feel positive that it seems to work well for me, and maybe it will help you too!

Until next time, thanks for your attention!

Monday, 19 August 2019

Welcome to your Airbnb (after Dolly Alderton)


Hello there guests, and welcome to the Barn! We hope you have a really pleasant stay. Just a few things you need to know before you unpack, sit down or make a cup of tea.

We hope you love the rustic feel of the place as much as we do (Yes, that is real straw in your mattress!). You won't believe what it smelled like when it was still a barn! We've made the bedroom wardrobe into a little 'conversion museum,' in case you want to find out more about the space.

While you're here, you have free reign of the bedroom, living space, kitchenette and bathroom. There is a power shower in the bathroom, though the water is heated by solar panes. So if you want a hot shower, best to wait until about 3 pm. Fresh towels and sheets can be found in the airing cupboard, located in the main house, just next to the master bedroom. Don't worry about walking around the house undressed, we do it all the time!

Feel free to use any of the storage space available in your part of the house, just try not to leave any food lying around the place. We think that hole behind the TV might be a fox den, so let us know if you see any!

Before you ask about the toilet - we know! It seems something went wrong during the installation of the auto-close toilet seat. If you're having trouble flushing, take the watering can provided, and fill it from the outside tap in next-door's garden (they know about this too, don't worry). Then hold down the flush while pouring water into the bowl from about head height.

While we pride ourselves on our countryside getaway, this isn't the middle of nowhere! Your nearest convenience store is The Coppiton General Store, just a 25 minute drive from here. A train into Gloucester runs once every two hours from Coppiton station, though be warned the last train leaves Gloucester at 18:11.

Now for the really fun bit! Here are a few rules to make everyone's experience as great as possible!

  • Please keep noise to a minimum. There's an independent recording studio less than a mile away and sound really carries out here.
  • If you're planning to order takeaway, please tell them to call you instead of ringing the doorbell! We don't want to set the dog barking late in the evening. Also, maybe give us a heads up if we're in - we don't want to be strangers, and we love a good pizza!
  • That handmade ceramic chess set on the coffee table is there for playing, though needless to say, be careful! It's an antique set, one of only 3 ever made.
Finally, please note that your check out time is 11:00 AM. And that's everyday, not just the last morning of your stay. In the afternoon we rent this space out to a local dog grooming service, though they usually manage to clean up most of their mess before guests get back.

Enjoy your stay, and thanks for choosing our little annex as your home away from home!

Tim and Jemima

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Dreaming Bigger #3: The Diary and the Deal

Welcome back to Dreaming Bigger, the blog series where I try to make my unrealistic goals more practical and tangible. Though it's been four months since the last installment, I'm proud to say that it seems to be working. I write to you now following the success of Hideout Productions' first ever scripted show!

It ate up a lot of my free time and caused some stress along the way, but it was absolutely worth it. Performed to a sellout audience at the Nottingham New Theatre, 2021: A Sketch Odyssey was a success. So, to celebrate a creative idea becoming a reality, I thought I'd share a couple of unorthodox motivational techniques I've been using to fuel my creativity...

Jane Austen is Watching

As a child, my partner was an avid diarist, but A-levels and University left little time for it. So at the start of the year, she bought a "line-a-day" diary - a journal with one page for every day, and enough space to write a sentence or two on each day for 5 years.

Not to be outdone, I bought one too; but I've never really been a diarist, and I knew I'd never find time to record my day even in a couple of lines. So I decided to use it as a method for tracking creativity. Since I'm trying to do something towards a project every day, why not write it down?

Initially my ritual of writing down the creative stepping stone of the day did help me stay focused on my projects. But, inevitably, the habit has slipped. Yet it continues to be of use. Keeping it on my desk, unopened, serves as a reminder, not to write in the diary, but to use the little time I have to actually do something creative or productive.

Each page of this diary is headed with a quote or aphorism from Jane Austen's body of work, so even if the pages remain empty (as many of them now do, half way into the year), I know there are still some words of wisdom to be found within.

A Creative Wager

So now the sketch show is done and dusted, what's next when it comes to big projects? Well, this is where motivation two comes in.

Readers of this series will know that my own success is not a great motivator for me. I'm much better at getting things done when there are other people who I might let down otherwise. It would then seem ambitious for my next project to be a solo show. So how have I ended up submitting a one-man show to perform at the Nottingham Comedy Festival in November?

Well, I have a little bet with a fellow performer. He's also writing a one-man show, so we've decided to motivate each other. If both of us have our shows ready for the festival, then great. But if either of us doesn't, then not only do we have to pay the cancellation fee to the festival, we also have to make the other one a three-course dinner. It's a simple incentive, but effective nevertheless.

So, if you're struggling to get going on a creative project, then I suggest thinking outside the box. Not just when it comes to the content you're creating or the ideas you're bringing to life, but with the ways in which you find motivation. And remember that, even if your project is a solo one, you don't have to undertake it alone.

Until next time, thanks for your attention :)