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Traitors and Daemons and Bears, Oh My: My Favs of November 2019

I can hardly believe we're already into December! Where has the year gone!? And at the end of the month, we'll be facing a new decade! Eek!

But, before we fast-forward to 2020, I wanted to take a moment to slow down and reflect on my favorite media from last month. My November favorites included the television series His Dark Materials, the documentary Words From a Bear, and the film Knives Out. Lots of mystery and intrigue this month, as well as a familiar look back at one of my favorite writers, and learning more about his life.

What were some of your favorite books, films, television shows, web series, or podcasts from November? Let me know what you're looking forward to seeing (or would recommend!) for the rest of 2019!


Philip Pullman & Jack Thorne

An adaptation of Philip Pullman's acclaimed trilogy, His Dark Materials follows a seemingly ordinary but brave young woman from another world whose search for a kidnapped friend uncovers a sinister plot involving stolen children. Lyra and her companions embark on a quest to find the missing children and understand a mysterious phenomenon called "Dust."

Only a few episodes into the first season, and I'm already more hopeful about this adaptation than 2007's The Golden Compass. Lyra's world is so vast, and the intertwined storytelling between the three novels needs the time and space to breathe, which will hopefully lend itself better to television than film.

Admittedly, it did take me those first episodes to warm up to the series—there is a lot of exposition in each episode—but by episode four, I feel like the show is falling into place. The pacing is getting more exciting, there's a greater sense of urgency in the plot, and I'm more invested in seeing how the rest of the adaptation plays out. And, with a second season already confirmed, I hope that a television series really will lend itself better to telling Lyra's story.

While I liked the cast of The Golden Compass but didn't like the movie, this cast is also well-chosen. Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua, Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter, James McAvoy as Lord Asriel, and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby is pretty spot on. The set designs are vibrant and epic, the CGI daemons are well-integrated into the show (Cristela Alonzo as Hester is my favorite), and the overall production value is like watching a mini-movie each episode.

My primary critique of HBO's His Dark Materials, so far, are the changes that have clearly been made to benefit an audience that is not familiar with Philip Pullman's work. One of the best things about His Dark Materials is how readers learn information little by little, just like Lyra. The entire story is set from Lyra's perspective, but in this adaptation, we're getting multiple perspectives. Lyra is the hero of the story. Still, because the focus is split between so many strong characters and their personalities, Lyra doesn't shine as brightly as she should.

If you're a Pullman fan or a fan of fantasy storytelling, I would definitely give His Dark Materials a chance.

WHERE TO WATCH: Amazon Prime Video | HBO | Hulu


Jeffrey Palmer

Delve into the enigmatic life and mind of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet N. Scott Momaday, best known for House Made of Dawn and a formative voice of the Native American Renaissance in art and literature.

Marking the 50th anniversary of Momaday's historic Pulitzer Prize win in 1969 with his debut novel House Made of Dawn, Words From a Bear is a documentary in its own class. Part biography, part spoken word, and part history lesson, Words From a Bear is equally a love letter to and from a uniquely gifted storyteller like N. Scott Momaday.

Having Momaday be a part of the film, rather than being just a static subject, gives Words From a Bear a sense of heart and passion that other biographical documentaries lack.

The documentary also touches on how Momaday has influenced American literature, and more widely, the Native American Renaissance. The filmmakers provide contextual, critical analysis into how indigenous Native Americans have been treated in the 20th and 21st centuries, and how many have turned to art to express themselves and represent their culture.

Even if you're not a fan of biographies or history, Words From a Bear is worth a watch just to hear Momaday read his own work. To me, some writers who read and record their own work sound especially pretentious (here's looking at you, e.e. cummings). However, similarly to performers like James Earl Jones or Edward Herrmann, Momaday's powerful and authentic voice reminded me of a grandfatherly figure; someone I trust and can't stop listening to, no matter how many times I've heard the same tales over and over again.

I first read Momaday's poetry in college. For me, this documentary reminded me of how poignant his work is, and how much I enjoy it. Seeing how he grew up and coming from a line of storytellers and writers and artists made a lot of sense, considering his writing. Words From a Bear was a great reminder to look back at my bookshelf every now and then for a reread.

WHERE TO WATCH: Amazon Prime Video | PBS


Knives Out (2019)

Rian Johnson

When renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead at his estate just after his 85th birthday, the inquisitive and debonair Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is mysteriously enlisted to investigate. From Harlan's dysfunctional family to his devoted staff, Blanc sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind Harlan's untimely death.

As a fan of campy murder mysteries—Clue is one of my undisputed favorite movies of all time—I was definitely interested in seeing Knives Out. However, there is always the fear that when a film has so much hype surrounding it, that it won't quite live up to the expectations. Thankfully, Rian Johnson's ode to the "whodunnit" more than lives up to the hype. Knives Out is the first movie I've seen in a long time that actually made me laugh out loud, as well as had the rest of the theater laughing like crazy.

Knives Out is as if Agatha Christie herself had written a quirky, dark comedy: It's fun, explosive, and will keep you guessing until the end. Every time I thought I saw a clue or anticipated a plot string to pull, it turned into a red herring.

It's clear that everyone who worked on this film had an absolute ball. Standout performances for me included Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, and Chris Evans. I cannot fully articulate just how funny it is to see Captain America with a shit-eating grin plastered across his face suggest that each of his relatives "eat shit."

The Thrombey estate (comprised of a private home and the Ames Mansion in Easton, Massachusetts) provides a fantastic Clue board to the story: rich, opulent, and full of hideaways, perfect for keeping secrets. The library is especially impressive, as each witness selfishly or unreliably provides their version of events. And, the estate becomes a tense point of contention between our protagonists and the Thrombey clan: who will retain ownership now that dear old dad has passed?

Ultimately, Knives Out is a satisfying watch, full of tension, suspense, and unexpected humor and is easily one of my favorite movies of the year.


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