Thursday, September 8, 2016

Confessions of an Escape Room Enthusiast - Original Version

Something I wrote for Ace of Escape to be posted on  Of course, the final version got edited a bit (apparently I was a bit too specific), but I felt like posting the original for posterity.  First fiction (ish) writing project I've finished in a while.  Took me a couple hours overall (spaced out over a normal work day, had some research and notes involved), and a day between first draft and editing for final.


Confessions of an Escape Room Enthusiast

I never thought I'd get hooked on escape rooms.
First time I heard of them was from a co-worker friend. “Hey, did you try the new room?”
“The what?”
“Escape room. Online.”
I wrinkled my nose.  “I don’t even know what that is.  Why would I have tried it?”
“It's fun!”
“How,” I asked, one eyebrow up.
That was the real question. Even with her hurried explanation about solving puzzles and connecting clues to escape a two-dimensional virtual room, I didn’t see how that sort of thing could be FUN.
Then she parked herself at my desk and said, “You need to do a real one.”
“Because you love this sort of thing. The mystery solving. The aha! moment. The satisfaction that your gut or sleuthing was right.”
“Hmph.”  She had a point, but I was skeptical.
Two nights later, I found myself in the lobby of a local escape room, sitting with my friend and six other people I’d never met.
The owners greeted us with big smiles, asked if we’d ever done an escape room before.  I shook my head along with the other six, but my friend offered, “Only online.” 
The owners nodded, and proceeded to explain that the object of the room is to get out in the time allotted; in our case, that was one hour.  “There’s a story and a theme to every room,” one of them said.  “All the clues are tailored to that theme.  It’s about paying attention, letting your brain stretch, and trying to put things together in a way that makes sense, though maybe not in a way that you’re used to.”
After some safety instructions and tips for first-timers, we filed into a room lit only with black light, and one owner handed me a flashlight.  “There’s more throughout the room, but you get to find them.”  She smiled mischievously.  “Have fun!”
Most of us hesitated at first, unsure what to do.  My friend, however, just dove right in, started tipping over vases and opening box lids.  I followed suite, along with another gal.  We found small things at first, like chess pieces and scrabble tiles, some puzzle pieces, too.  Soon the whole group was investigated every nook and cranny, even the underside of tables and chair cushions. We made a MESS, even if an organized one.  I started feeling excited.  We were doing this, laughing and calling to each other when we found yet another possible clue.  Someone started collecting the puzzle pieces and putting them together.  Someone else volunteered to organize the Scrabble tiles, yet another the rest of the items we found.  Then the key, cleverly concealed.  We rushed to the drawer they told us to open first, half eager, half anxious.  What would we find inside?  Would we understand it?  Would it be too hard?
No, not hard.  We found more pieces of everything else we’d collected, and each of our three organizers bore off their treasures to their respective piles.  The rest of us started at… something new.  For a beat, no one moved, then an epiphany.  “That over there!”  I pointed across the room.  “It would fit here!”  I rushed over and grabbed it off the wall, then placed it in the bottom of the drawer.  Yet another clue!
That was the moment I got addicted, I think.  I had discovered something, figured it out.  As we swarmed around the rest of the room, fitting together more clues and opening one lock after another, I realized that my friend was right - this was fun.  I enjoyed using my brain in ways I don’t normally, creativity hand-in-hand with logic, and the feeling of satisfaction and achievement as I recognized patterns and connections and uncovered yet more secrets of the room, bringing us closer to finding the key that would let us out.
We came to a riddle toward the end, just minutes shy of an hour.  We were close, we could feel it.  It was just a plain riddle; two sentences.  Everything we’d opened came down to this.  If we could solve this, we’d have the final combination and the key to get out.  But I had no idea what it meant.  I glanced at my friend.  She looked back at me and gave me this helpless splay of a hand.  It stumped her, too.  I couldn’t stand the silence as we all just gawked at it, trying to let our brains stretch but trying not to follow any red herrings.  We had too little time.  I glanced at the clock, staring as the seconds ticked down from two minutes to one minute and fifty-nine seconds.  Fifty-eight.  Fifty-seven.
“There’s got to be a clue about this somewhere,” the Scrabble woman whispered.  She turned away from the riddle and started eyeing our glorious mess, searching for anything we hadn’t used yet that might help.  My friend and I looked at each other again. For an agonizing minute, no one said anything.
“WAIT!!”  Her yell made me jump, and we all jerked toward her as she darted to the table.  “Quick!  Try this.”  My eyes yanked back to the clock.  Less than a minute.  Forty-six seconds.  Forty-five.
The man holding the lock groaned.  “It didn’t work.”
“Let me try.”  My friend held out her hand, and he gave it to her.
Thirty-three.  Thirty-two.
I wanted to tell her we had only half a minute left, that she needed to hurry up.  But I pinched my lips as she painstakingly lined up every number.  Twenty-four seconds.  Twenty-three.
A click.
I whirled as she pulled the key out and triumphantly held it toward the Scrabble woman.  She hurried to the door, the rest of us screaming while she turned the lock.
We all flung the door open, and one owner flew past to tap on the timer button.  Ten seconds.  We had beaten time by ten seconds and we couldn’t stop talking about it.  The excitement filled the room and spilled out into the hallway.  That was the other moment, the one where I marveled at the minds we had, the unique ways we process information and ideas, how alone I might not have made it out, but together we did.
My friend glanced at me with this smug grin, and I just shook my head back at her.  Of course she had been right.  She usually is.
As we walked out to the parking lot, she nudged me with an elbow.  “They have two other rooms, you know.”
I didn’t reply until we got to her car.  “Think Janet would come with us next time?”
She smirked.  “And Angie.”

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Movie Review - Camilla Dickinson

“Camilla Dickinson” is a film adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s young adult novel “Camilla,” which takes place in the 1940’s after World War I, and tells the story of fifteen-year-old Camilla (Adelaide Clemens) discovering her parents and best friend Luisa (Colby Minifie) are flawed human beings while also finding a kindred spirit in Luisa’s brother, Frank (Gregg Sulkin).  Being the avid read-the-book-first sort of person I am, and given how much I’ve enjoyed what other books of L’Engle’s I’ve read over the years, it’s rather embarrassing to admit that I had no idea the book existed until I got the review copy of the movie.

I’m sure you’ll forgive me.

Strictly movie speaking, I think this was supposed to be a coming-of-age film, but it turned into more a documentary of Adelaide Clemens facial expressions.  How many times does she try to speak and fail?  How pinched or teary-eyed can she get while her mother whines about needing more affection than her husband gives her?  How awkwardly can she fidget while her father asks how often this greasy Frenchman comes to their apartment to see her (Non-spoiler: he’s not coming to see Camilla and everyone knows it).  How long can she keep this nervous-happy curl of her lips every time she’s around Frank?

Now, it’s good that she can emote like that.  I appreciated that I could see and infer some of her inner monologue.  It helped sell her as a self-conscious, sheltered rich girl.  It also provided a nice juxtaposition to the times when she speaks up and gives her opinion, or how her face lights up when she talks about being an astronomer.  I thought she and Frank shared their scenes quite well, both of them shy around each other, trying to be themselves while struggling with trusting the other person enough to do it.  It quite differs from scenes with Camilla and Luisa, where Luisa dominates the situation and constantly poke, prods, and picks at her friend when she wants to know something.  Frank always waits.  He doesn’t rush, which is why Camilla feels safe enough around him to open up.

While Camilla values the different relationships she has with the Rowen kids, and her interactions with each stretch her toward recognizing herself as an individual person in a confusing world, the dynamic between her and her parents, and the tension between them, stretches her the other way, toward stoic closure. 

Bluntly, I disliked her mother, Rose (Samantha Mathis), more than her father, Rafferty (Cary Elwes).  Neither of them are balanced individuals. Rose grew up beautiful and most likely sees it as her only redeeming quality; she is used to being fawned over, both by men and her daughter, but as she grows older and her beauty fades, she has become increasingly co-dependent, clinging more and more to Camilla and Rafferty for affirmation that she’s loved, only to have each of them withdraw because she smothers them.  The more she feels unloved, the more she interacts with aforementioned greasy Frenchman, Jacques (Salvator Xuereb).

Rafferty, though, maybe have been an ice king from the get-go.  He’s portrayed as a mountain of a man (in aura, not in literal size) with a savvy business mind and great intelligence.  He most likely married Rose because she was so lovely, and then found her to be rather silly.  Over the years he seems to have withdrawn from her, not because she’s growing older, but because in her co-dependency, she accuses him of not caring enough, or not paying enough attention to her, et cetera.  This may be true to a degree, but not nearly the degree that Rose claims.  Raff is a little awkward toward his daughter, and rather domineering, but I believe both are a result of Camilla growing up and away from the family unit, and he inwardly needs the same sort of affirmation and stability Rose is so vocal about.  His issue is that he makes decisions that alienate both wife and daughter and somehow doesn’t seem to see it’s a problem.

The greatest redeeming factor in “Camilla Dickinson” is the Stephanowski’s (Robert Picardo and Camryn Manheim).  They’ve suffered a huge loss, and yet they don’t isolate themselves from each other.  In fact, they border on nearly too perfect: it’s the suffering they’ve endured that evenly balances their seeming infatuation with each other.  They’re the couple that Rose and Rafferty could learn from, the couple that helps Camilla see what marriage could be like, and the couple that embodies nearly every 1940’s stereotype for happiness.  I watched them and both disbelieved what I saw (“no one is like that, ever”) and yet envied them.  They stole the scene every time they entered frame. 

As far as adaptations go, “Camilla Dickinson” is a shadow of “Camilla” the novel, though it gives Camilla a more active role in her development than the book does.  It holds its own and delivers its own message: in a culture where women are viewed as homemakers or trophy wives, girls can be who they want to be, can form their own opinions, can stand up to their mothers and fathers, and can learn to forgive.  Camilla is representative of the cliché misunderstood teen who just wants to escape a bad situation and is accused of associating with bad influences, when the bad influences are actually her parents.  Yet she can still overcome her mother’s co-dependency and her father’s stone-walling when she allows herself to trust people she barely knows and gets to see another way to live.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Movie Review - The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Blu Ray)

Many of you have read my previous reviews, and therefore you know that I very much enjoyed “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011).  It was a hope-filled, delightful look at the possibilities during one’s Sunset Years, though it was not without its more sobering themes.  It revealed that dreams can still come true, freedom achieved, and love discovered, all amid the lush and vibrant backdrop of India and the new entrepreneurial venture of young, awkward Sonny Kapoor – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful.

The sequel to this well-received film, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” holds all of its predecessor’s charm and life, just in different situations.

Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), still elated over the success of his first business venture, and his engagement to the beautiful Sunaina (Tina Desai), goes to America with his newly appointed co-manager, Mrs. Donnelly (Maggie Smith) to secure backing for his expansion endeavor – The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  Impressed more with Mrs. Donnelly than with Sonny, the investors (led by David Strathairn) assure the pair that they are quite interested in his proposal, but must first send a hotel inspector to assess the potential of Sonny’s plans.  Sonny contacts his beloved to tell her the incredible news…and discovers childhood rival Kushal has swooped in to claim Sunaina’s attention while he was away.

As Sonny tries to work out Kushal’s ulterior motives AND plan his wedding AND prove to his mother that he can succeed in business, the other residents of the original Best Exotic Marigold Hotel also have their various conundrums to resolve: 

  • Evelyn (Judi Dench) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) are, by Evelyn’s own admission, “not not together,” but somehow haven’t moved forward in their relationship; not from a lack of willingness on Douglas’ side, truth be told, but more a hesitation on Evelyn’s side.  To make matters worse, Douglas’ daughter (Claire Price) and estranged wife (Penelope Wilton) arrive back at the Marigold Hotel, making an already awkward situation worse.
  • Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Carol (Diana Hardcastle) seem happily paired, but a drunken confession about the frustrations of monogamy, combined with too much tip, result in Normal thinking an Indian taxi driver accepted a hit on Carol’s life.
  • Madge (Celia Imrie) continues to pursue rich, eligible suitors, and has stepped up so far as to have two vying for her affection at once, yet she seems unwilling to choose either.
The icing on the proverbial cake presents itself in the form of not one, but TWO new residents to the Marigold Hotel, Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) and Levinia Beech (Tamsin Greig), one of whom Sonny is absolutely positive is the incognito inspector.  Proving he is once again overbearing and obstinate in matters of socialization, Sonny seeks to impress one guest and neglect the other, much to his mother’s, fiancee’s, and co-manager’s frustration.  Matters are further complicated when Guy takes a liking to Sonny’s mother (Lillete Dubey).

Many themes weave in and out of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but the most predominate revolve around the concept of making challenging decisions.  Sonny must decide between focusing on his hotel or his wedding.  Evelyn must decide if she’s willing to take the next big step in both her romantic relationship and in her job.  Douglas must decide if he’s going to passively accept the decisions of others.  Madge must decide left or right at the turning.  Norman must decide if he wants to pursue other women.  And Mrs. Kapoor must decide if she’s going to trust this strange American writer who expresses such blatant interest in her.

It’s not just about making decisions, however.  It’s about tackling one’s life head-on and choosing to direct it, purposefully and intentionally.  For some, it’s a question of time.  For others, it’s a question of preference.  But for all, it is a question of courage and willingness.  Do they stay and wallow in self-pity, or do they boldly step forward in a new direction and embrace the unknown?

There were several quotes dropped by various characters that really resonated with me, and they all tied together by the thought, Can I truly change this situation in which I find myself?  

“There’s no present like the time….Some you win, my lady. Some you learn….Sometimes it seems the difference between what we want and what we fear is the width of an eyelash….I thought, how many new lives can we have?  Then I thought, as many as we like….Coincidence is just a word for when we cannot see the bigger plan….Is there truly nothing you can do?....She doesn’t trust anyone, least of all herself. Which probably means she’s become someone she’s not proud of….There are some people into whose laps good things fall. I am not one of them….I don’t believe there is such a thing [as a difficult decision]. Throw a coin in the air and we always know what side we want it to land on….There’s no such thing as an ending; just a place where you leave the story.”

I found myself recalling a recent conversation with a friend of mine where he accused me of being complacent, or acquiescent, to my situation in life, that I simply accept it and do nothing to alter it.  My initial reaction was to be defensive, but then I took a few honest seconds to evaluate what he said.  I’ve often thought about how I feel unable to live any other way, too entrenched to make any changes.  My friend claimed my attitude came out in my opinions of things, and he self-righteously declared himself “not that way.”  I perceived his judgement as harsh and skewed, coming from a young, energetic, “the world is my oyster” perspective…until I realized that he’s right, and I’ve become cynical.  “He’s young.  He’ll understand when he’s my age.”  Will he?  Or have I just become too accustomed to my circumstances to bother wondering if there’s a different way to live?  As someone told me yesterday, “Just because you’re used to it doesn’t make it right.”

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel brought these things to the forefront of my brain, and I found myself asking the same questions the characters did: Who am I, and do I still want to be that person?  What actions must be made to change my life?  What priorities must I make to let my years mean something?

What side of the coin do I want to land up?

Or am I going to settle for letting a coin dictate my options?

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is another vivacious romp through Jaipur, India, full of humor and affection and sarcasm, but it’s also a closer look at what it means to make another life for yourself at a time when most think you’re running out of life.  But to do so means we must overcome our fear of what might be, what might go wrong, and what we think is holding us back.  As Evelyn wrote, “This is what the young make us remember: that in the end it’s all very simple, that all it takes is to look into someone’s eyes and say, ‘Yes, this is what I want,’ and for them to reply, ‘It’s what I want, too, and there’s nothing to be afraid of.’” The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel reminds us that sweeping emotions, grand adventures, and new beginnings are for all of us, no matter our time.

Movie Review - Spirited Away (Blu Ray)

I first saw “Spirited Away” when I was in college – risking dating myself here – about 12 years ago.  I had just gotten into anime the summer before via some friends of friends, and I loved it almost immediately.  The animation was superb, the detail exquisite, and – let’s face it – it had a dragon.  A DRAGON.

Synopsis: Ten-year-old Chihiro is uprooted from her home and her school, presumably due to her dad’s job.  On the way to their new home, amid Chihiro’s whining and grumbling, they take a wrong turn and end up at what they assume is a run-down former theme park.  However, they find that someone still has a restaurant running, so while the mister and missus pig out on the delectable eats, Chihiro takes a walk and discovers a bathhouse…and a young man who most URGENTLY warns her away.  Too late; darkness falls, and Chihiro rushes back to find her parents transformed.  Chihiro desperately tries to escape the nightmare, but all her attempts fail until the same young man comes to her rescue and instructs her in how to survive.  But can she hold her own against the mercenary proprietress of the bathhouse?  Will she find a way to change her parents back and return home?  Or is she trapped in a world of scary monsters, adorable soot-balls, Stink gods, and murderous No-Faces?

I like Spirited Away for several reasons, but the one that has stood out most to me over the years, and the one that may be quite relevant considering hot topics swarming around the internet, is that Chihiro is a self-saving protagonist.  A FEMALE self-saving protagonist.  

Not at first, no.  Like most characters thrust into an unknown world, Chihiro flounders to understand what she’s seeing, to accept it, to alter her expectations of the norm, and then finally adapt to where she can function in her environment.  However, though she does not know the rules governing this world, she is still subject to them.  She cannot protect herself unless she has help, and that comes through a variety of supporting characters.  Each in turn give her pieces of the puzzle, guide her through the realm of the bathhouse, until she comes face-to-face with her antagonist: Yubaba. 
Yubaba is ferocious, intimidating, treacherous, and repulsive.  She’ll hurt Chihiro if she can, turn her into an animal and possibly eat her, but using the few precious hints already given her, Chihiro steadfastly holds to the first rule – ask for work.  Keep asking.  Don’t stop.  God knows why, but KEEP ASKING.

Thankfully for the audience, explanation of that rule comes in a side comment from Yubaba, one that betrays another rule of this universe – oaths MUST be kept.  Even she who holds all the power must abide by that rule.  And so Chihiro survives, but only just.  In signing the work contract, Yubaba displays another rule of the bathhouse – names can be taken, and new ones given.  Chihiro is thus dubbed “Sen,” and sent to work with Lin and her cleaning girls.

Haku reappears at this point, a stoic and arrogant figure, and shows no recognition of Chihiro/Sen, and even goes so far as to instruct her to call him “Haku-sama,” which in English is roughly “Master Haku.”  The honorific “sama,” to those who don’t know, is a term of superiority, an acknowledgement that the person to whom you refer is above you, usually very far above you, and such a person is allowed to treat you as subjugate to them.  This is a rather humbling position for Chihiro, especially since he had been so kind and protective at first; she wonders aloud to Lin later if there are “two Hakus.”  

However, “Sen” accepts this treatment as part of her new identity.  And it’s an identity too easily assumed, one that subjects her to harassment and insults by the other residents of the bathhouse.  Later, when this same Haku comes to fetch her to see her parents, once again all compassion and patience, he saves her a second time by giving back her true name.  In this short scene, we discover Haku is also under Yubaba’s control, having forgotten his real name, and so became her puppet. 

Now, there’s another character whose existence in the film is both vital and somewhat enigmatic – the No-Face.  There have been many interpretations as to what the No-Face symbolizes, among which is how some people cannot function without trying to please others, and in so doing, destroy the very thing they want to keep.  Another interpretation is that he is the embodiment of what happens when greed is allowed to run amok, and can only be conquered once removed from the source(s) of temptation.  Another yet is the identity question: is he his own creature, or does he represent the assimilation of external forces that cause a person to assume a new identity?  Is this identity then something the person wants to keep, or something to be purged so as to return to their true self?  You be the judge.  Personally, I find No-Face a pathetic yet compassion-inspiring figure, and I believe his role in Chihiro’s development is possibly the most critical.  He is both a monster to be defeated and a victim to be rescued.  Chihiro does both.  This entire situation evidences yet another rule – no one is who they first appear to be. 

Except maybe the soot sprites.  They’re just adorable.

One of my most favorite characters in this movie is actually the most surprising.  She makes her entrance as a paper doll, one of thousands that actually attack and nearly kill Haku; she turns Yubaba’s baby into a rat and her harpie into a bird; and to top it off, she demands Haku’s life in exchange for something he stole.  Conniving and homicidal, one at first thinks that Zeniba the Swamp Witch will be Chihiro’s final test, the boss at the end of the quest, as it were.  Leaving Haku in the care of those she trusts, Chihiro chooses to leave the familiarity of the bathhouse and journey with three companions to Swampy Bottom to return what was stolen and ask Zeniba to lift the deadly curse ravaging Haku.  But upon arriving, she discovers Zeniba is quite the opposite of her rival sorceress.  She demonstrates hospitality, compassion, and a great sense of humor.  While all the other supporting characters aid Chihiro in a hostile environment, Zeniba provides a safe harbor for rest, which is exactly what poor Chihiro needs.  All crises resolve at Zeniba’s, or somewhere in between; Chihiro returns to Yubaba a different girl than the one who first begged her for work, ready to confront her ultimate trial, the one that will grant her freedom.  Zeniba indirectly demonstrates the fourth rule governing this fantastical world – one can leave the bathhouse.

“Spirited Away” is one of the few movies, I think, that have a female protagonist truly transform from a victim into her own hero.  No, she’s not competent at first.  She complains and whines and resents her situation.  However, being thrust into a supernatural and frightening realm, she must first learn the rules of her new world, to function within them, and then begin to exercise her own will against those rules.  This is when she finds she can save the people she cares about, and ultimately, save herself.  One would be remiss, however, to neglect those that gave of themselves to help her become stronger and more confident.  We all have these people, the ones whose kindness and courage live with us and become part of who we are.  “Spirited Away” is not just about a girl surviving a world of monsters; it’s about character and acceptance and love.