Monthly Archives: June 2013

Sci-Fi, Superheroes and Shakespeare: Newly Released Films

It’s summer! Not that you’d know it, since it’s been raining here for a couple of days – but there’s still a whole lot of films coming out. Films that are a big deal in the circles I move in (i.e. circles of nerdery and geekdom). This can mean only one thing: way too much popcorn.

darkness

Star Trek: Into Darkness

If you have no previous emotional attachments to Star Trek as a franchise, you   might like this film. As a big, dumb sci-fi epic it’s really not that bad. There’s explosions. There’s space-ships. There’s pretty cgi – I was quite taken with the sparkly trails ships leave when they go into warp.

But the crucial word is ‘dumb’. I don’t understand how this film has garnered so many positive reviews. It’s not that good a sci-fi film – it’s full of irritating little nit-picks, like why it was necessary for Spock to climb down inside a volcano other than to create a pleasingly tense opening, and why Bones inexplicably has a dead Tribble on the enterprise.

I think that tribble is representative of one of my biggest problems with this film. It’s not a good Star Trek film. It’s a big dumb sci-fi action movie that occasionally throws Star Trek references at the audience in case we’ve forgotten what film we’re watching – ‘wait, we’re making a Star Trek Film? Quick! “The Needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one!” Klingons! Tribble! See the cute tribble?’

And if that weren’t enough, I remain baffled by the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan Noonien Singh. Cumberbatch doesn’t do that bad a job – it just strikes me as a profound misunderstanding of the character. And a reminder that I should really watch Wrath of Khan.

 

MuchAdo

Much Ado About Nothing

I don’t like modern-dress Shakespeare films. I can handle modern dress in a stageplay, but films like this one unnerve me – are we to take the dialogue as symbolic or representative of the characters interacting, or is this set in an alternate universe where there is a country that looks like 21st century America but is called ‘Italy’, and where everyone speaks sixteenth century English? I had the same issue with Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet.

To make matters even worse, Much Ado hinges on a moral issue that doesn’t really exist any more – the importance of a woman being a virgin when she gets married. The basics of the plot – Claudio thinks Hero has been sleeping with another man – still hold, but the dialogue repeatedly and specifically says that the problem is Claudio thinks Hero is not a maid. Except in this film Beatrice and Benedick had a one-night stand at some point before the start of the story and this does not seem to be an issue. It’s a story that needs to be a bit more loosely adapted to work in a modern setting.

This film is a bit like watching a Joss Whedon-characters crossover fanfiction – Beatice and Benedick are Wesley and Fred from Angel, Don Pedro and Claudio are Dominic and Topher from Dollhouse, Dogberry and Don John are Mal and Simon from Firefly. Leonato is Agent Coulson. This is not a criticism. Playing ‘spot the actor’ is a whole lot of fun – though I was very frustrated at not being able to work out where I knew Riki Lindhome from (it was Pushing Daisies).

The modern setting is not as intrusive as in Hamlet. There’s nothing approaching the weirdness of the ‘Denmark Corporation’ or the ‘to be or not to be’ speech being delivered in a video store – things are kept suitably vague and I did get sucked into the setting despite my dislike. Amy Acker is an excellent Beatrice; Nathan Fillion manages to be one of the highlights of the film as Dogberry, a character I’d almost forgotten existed; Fran Kranz is brilliantly cast as Claudio (he excels at combining puppy dog-esque cuteness with repugnance). And the film just looks gorgeous. Thoroughly recommended.

 

ManofSteelFinalPosterMan of Steel

I want Superman’s red underpants back.

To be fair, I really did like a lot of aspects of this film. Lois Lane was pitched more or less perfectly; much like Gwen Stacey in The Amazing Spiderman she becomes more of a side-kick or supporting character than ‘just’ a love interest. Henry Cavill is a great casting choice – at the very least he certainly looks like Superman. There’s a series of flashback sequences showing a young Clark Kent growing into his superpowers that are beautifully executed.

But I want the red underpants back. He looks plain weird without them (see?). The supersuit needs a red belt or something to offset it.

This is not just a nitpick. My main issue with Man of Steel is aesthetic. It’s all in greys and blues. Superman’s trademark red and blue has been muted as much as possible. Superman is all about bright colours and idealism and traditional heroism (and perfect hair); some characters just aren’t right for a gritty reboot.

Man of Steel avoids saying the name ‘Superman’ as much as possible. The lead character’s name is uttered two and a half times in the entire film. I’m not sure if this is something that’ll be correct in the likely sequel, but here it comes across as if they think calling him ‘Superman’ is childish silly. Word of advice: if you think Superman has a silly name and his costume is too brightly coloured, you are not the right person to make a Superman film.

I’ve also had enough of origin stories. Give your audience some credit: we know Superman’s origin story. Megamind managed to do the entirety of Superman’s backstory in about three minutes. Man of Steel takes something like twenty. The whole film is like that: too long, and trying to pack in too much Superman.

But still: Amy Adams is an excellent Lois Lane. I’ll take what I can get.

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100 Animated Films III: Don Bluth and Batman

An American Tail & All Dogs Go To Heaven

I missed out on Don Bluth growing up – I was born slightly too late. The only films of his I saw were the ever-controversial Anastasia and A Troll in Central Park, which I remember as simultaneously saccharine and frightening.

Of all of his films, An American Tail is the one I am most confused at not having seen as a child. It’s the most iconic of Bluth’s films. At the time of its release it was his most commercially successful. It remains absolutely beloved in animation circles. Suffice to say this film comes with a whole lot of hype.

I feel the same way about An American Tail as I do about all Don Bluth films: I don’t know if I like it. I went in wanting to like it. I liked many parts of it. It’s not bad – not by any stretch of the imagination – I just found it… confused.

An American Tail is quite definitely a children’s film – the storytelling style, the child protagonist, and the overall cuddliness see to that. But there are parts of this film you really need to be an adult to appreciate. It’s very firmly rooted in its nineteenth-century setting, in its context of immigration and social inequality. At its heart it’s really a film about oppression. It’s a children’s film with sweatshops and political rallies. Both sides of the film – the cute and the political – are equally good, they just don’t quite mesh.

All Dogs Go To Heaven is even worse in this regard. It’s less over in its social themes, but it’s confusing as well as confused. It’s a film about gangsters, but they’re also dogs. Dogs who the human world treats like dogs, even though some of them wear clothes and work in casinos. It’s a children’s film, set in and around casinos and gambling rings, which opens with a pre-meditated murder. It’s a children’s film in which original sin is a significant plot point. And there’s a singing alligator.

To sum up: All Dogs Go To Heaven is a redemption story, full of overt Christian imagery and with some honestly disturbing moments… told with singing dogs. To the film’s defence I’d say it actually meshes a little better than An American Tail, because everything in this one is so outlandish (did I mention the singing alligator?). But An American Tail is the better film.

I went in to All Dogs Go To Heaven with much lower expectations, and I think I was right to do so. It’s a decent enough film – I just couldn’t get over the dog gangsters (they’re stray dogs – but they’re also gangsters who run gambling rings…).

Persepolis

 Here’s another film with a whole lot of hype surrounding it. Persepolis is based on a acclaimed graphic novel (which I’ll confess to not having read); it’s visually striking and politically resonant.

This one did not disappoint. It’s a beautiful, moving and all-round polished film. ‘Polished’ I think is a good word to describe it: the art style is just so clean and smooth.

The only real issue I have with Persepolis is that I don’t think the material translates perfectly to film. It’s a memoir, so by nature choppy, varied in tone, and difficult to streamline. Real life is – sadly – not as satisfying or even as fiction.

But really, that’s a nitpick. It’s a memoir, and it doesn’t make any pretence of being other than it is. It’s also an excellent film. Thoroughly recommended.

 

 

Kirikou and the Sorceress

I first came across Kirikou while watching some kind of ‘greatest animated films’ count-down on television. They only showed a few scenes but it stuck in my head; I think it has something to do with the colours.

Having finally, after many years, sat down and watched it, I can say this: I think Kirikou is the best animated folk tale I’ve ever seen. It retains a lot of elements that most animated films based on folk and fairy tales omit – odd little things like Kirikou’s tiny super-speed run, or the bizarre ending, which I won’t spoil. The story structure gets repetitive – the people of Kirikou’s village refuse to listen to him, forcing him to save the day: lather, rinse, repeat – which honestly isn’t a criticism. I found it refreshing and curiously nostalgic.

Karaba – the ‘sorceress’ of the title – is an excellent villain. Her backstory is ostensibly simple, but has some dark and complex implications. I’m not sure what to make of her ultimate fate – it’s uncomfortable, but not so uncomfortable as to spoil the film for me.

The whole film, despite being rooted in one village and the surrounding countryside, has a sense of bigness to it – probably helped by the small stature of Kirikou. It’s like an epic on a miniature scale.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

The third of three very hyped up films in this entry! Mask of the Phantasm is, as far as I’m aware, the only theatrically released animated Batman film. It might be one of the only theatrically released superhero films to date – which I find very strange, because comic-book heroes are much better suited to animation than live-action.

Mask of the Phantasm didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, sadly. It might be that I watched it not all that long after Batman: Under the Red Hood so I couldn’t help but compare the two – and the emotional stakes in Under the Red Hood were just higher.

But taken purely on its own terms, it’s amazing how much Mask of the Phantasm manages to weave into one film. The story is split between Batman’s present-day battle with the Phantasm and flashbacks to his origin story – though not the origin you might expect. Rather than the death of his parents, Phantasm hinges around the moment Bruce Wayne really became Batman – the moment he took up the cowl for the first time, and what drove him to it.

I found the motivation the film gives him a little lacking (spoilers: he got dumped), but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a really good film. I still like Under the Red Hood more, but since it requires more comics-knowledge to appreciate, Mask of the Phantasm is more recommended – and it has a female lead, which is a plus.

Next up in 100 Animated films: Computer-generated assortment.

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Books-to-Read: II

bookstoread

It would seem that I have, after a little over a year, finally managed a 100% turn-over of my books-to-read pile. I’m not sure if congratulations are in order of if that’s just a little sad. But anyway – above are the books that are on my pile at present!

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter: Would you believe I only just got around to buying this one? For some reason the ‘& Stephen Baxter’ put me off reading it. But then I read the short story in A Blink of the Screen which is based on the same ideas (The High Meggas) and loved it.

City of Swords by Mary Hoffman – I was suddenly struck with an urge to finish reading the Stravaganza series, which I got three books into before ‘growing out of’. Very disappointed to discover that they’ve changed the cover art to something much less attractive – this is what the books I used to read looked like. But I digress. This series never quite lived up to the promise of the first book, but all of them had such a sense of wonder to them that I’m looking forward to more.

The Tempest, Manga Shakespeare edition, by Paul Duffield – I went to see The Tempest at the Globe theatre a couple of weeks ago. Found this in the gift shop. Couldn’t resist.

The Myst Reader by Rand and Robyn Miller – I actually bought this by accident (oops – I thought it was something else) and now appear to be stuck with a monster of a book which may or may not be absolute crap. It’s a collection of video game tie-in novels. I’m dubious. But if nothing else, I am a big Myst fan, so I’m sure I’ll get something out of it.

Scottish Fairy Tales – a hand-me-down from a friend. I’m still not sure whether I’m going to keep it or not, since it doesn’t particularly interest me, but I’ll probably read it eventually – I don’t like owning books I haven’t read.

The Fantasy Film by Katherine A. Fowkes – I’m looking forward to this! It’s just such a pretty book. I’m enjoying building up a collection of books about fantasy.

Grimm Tales by Phillip Pullman – a Christmas present. It still takes me six months to get through my Christmas books. I am ashamed.

(currently reading) A Blink of the Screen by Terry Pratchett – his collected short fiction! I’m really enjoying reading this – particularly the non-Discworld stuff. Which I actually prefer, because I’m unusual and strange, apparently.

(currently reading) In The Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland – non-fiction book about late antiquity. I do find the period very interesting but non-fiction always takes me a while to get through…

Since I’m currently mid-move, these are actually all the books I have at the moment – the rest are in storage – which means if I can just stop buying more, I might be able to get through them reasonably quickly. Maybe. Hopefully.

See you in another year?

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100 Animated Films II: Traditionally Animated Disney

Saludos Amigos (1942)

Saludos Amigos is the first of a run of Disney films that have nowadays fallen into obscurity – and in all honestly, not unjustly. Between Bambi (1943) and Cinderella (1950) there were no full-length Disney films. During the Second World War Disney put out a series of compilation films, which divide quite neatly into sets of two: two collections of musical shorts in the vein of Fantasia (Make mine Music, 1946, and Melody Time, 1948), two films made up of two loosely linked shorts (Fun and Fancy Free, 1947, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, 1949), and two Latin American themed films: Saludos Amigos and its follow-up, The Three Caballeros.

If you’ll forgive the history lesson, Saludos Amigos is historically speaking one of Disney’s most important films. It was commissioned by the US government as part of the Good Neighbour Policy and was I gather quite successful in its aims.  The unfortunate downside of this is that, like the other wartime compilation films, it lacks the timeless quality of the Disney films of the earlier 1940s.

The film is made up of four shorts, strung together with documentary footage of the Disney staff’s tour of South America. The documentary parts of the films make for an interesting – if likely staged – look into the inspiration for the film. The shorts themselves are for the most part fun and reasonably educational – the one outstanding exception being the final short, Aquarela do Brasil.

Aquarela do Brasil (Watercolor of Brazil) is undoubtedly the highlight of the film: it has the best music, the best animation, and it has José Carioca, the dapper green Brazilian parrot who is by far the best-known element of the film. José is an absolute delight and the only bad thing about Aquarela do Brasil is that he’s not in it enough – but he was popular enough to get two more film outings in the 1940s, so really, one can’t complain.

The Three Caballeros (1944)

On the one hand – or wing, perhaps – this is a tighter and all-round more enjoyable film than its precursor. On the other hand, structurally it’s downright baffling.

The story, if one can call it that, is about Donald Duck. It’s his birthday and his Latin American friends have sent him a present that seems to be a box full of trippy animation. There’s a few distinct shorts, including one about a penguin who hates cold weather, but for the most part the action stays with Donald, José Carioca, and Panchito the Mexican rooster as they have strange, surreal, adventures.

It’s an odd film – an odd duck, one might say. But the visuals are interesting, it has more José, and more of the Aracuan Bird from Saludos Amigos – though sadly not enough. It just tends to run together into a confusing mess in one’s memory.

Fun and Fancy Free (1947)

As Disney films go, Fun and Fancy Free is downright paradoxical. The shorts that make it up are not bad: one is decent, the other is actually very good. Yet the overall product might just be the worst Disney film I’ve seen to date – and yes, I have watched the entire animated canon.

The framing story is a confusing mess of Jiminy Cricket, children’s toys, and awkward live action/animated fusion. It doesn’t hurt the first half of the film too much, but in the second half it becomes seriously intrusive. Jiminy Cricket is invited – or rather, invites himself – to a little girl’s birthday party. The film transitions to live action, and the ‘party’ turns out to be just the one little girl, a grown man who is clearly not related to her, and a gaggle of eerie talking ventriloquist’s dummies. It’s an unnerving reminder of how old this film is that anyone at Disney thought this would be perceived as charming rather than creepy.

The second short cuts back to the ‘party’ over and over, and, were that not enough, the dummies join in narrating the story, talking over every part of the short with no dialogue. This is intensely annoying; animation is, by nature, a very visual medium, and is often very sparse on dialogue for a reason. Someone at Disney in the forties seems to have failed to understand this. I’m told a lot of the dummies’ jokes are topical references that are actually very funny, but honestly, it doesn’t help matters.

Moving onto the shorts themselves!

The first is Bongo, the story of a circus bear who breaks out of his cage to live in the wild. The bulk of the short is actually a romance, focusing on Bongo trying to win the paw of a lady-bear. It’s cute, regrettably bordering on saccharine in places, and unfortunately not as harmless as it should be; there’s a whole song about expressing your love for people by slapping them (Say It With a Slap), apparently a bear custom, but not a very nice message for children.

This is followed by the best-known part of the film: Jack and the Beanstalk, starring Mickey, Donald and Goofy, and it doesn’t really need much more explanation. The story is classic, the visuals are great, the three leads are all on form – particularly Donald, who has a brilliant freak-out scene near the beginning – and all in all, it’s probably the best bit of animation Disney put out during the war years.

Unfortunately, those damn dummies nearly manage to ruin it. I’d recommend watching a version with the alternative, sparser, dummy-free narration; otherwise Fun and Fancy Free isn’t really worth the effort.

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

Now there’s a baffling title. It seems Disney learned a lesson from Fun and Fancy FreeIchabod and Mr. Toad is a much more streamlined film. The framing device is unobtrusive. The narration – by none other than Basil Rathbone and Bing Crosby – is clever and enjoyable. There’s no attempt to work in awkward live-action footage.

The downside is that the quality of the shorts themselves is party. The Mr. Toad short is not particularly memorable and manages to miss the point of its source material not once but twice: first by implying that Mr. Toad is the lead character, and then again in having him be innocent of vehicle theft. On top of that it has all the issues that come with adapting The Wind in the Willows; namely, how on earth a toad-sized toad can drive a car, let alone be put on trial for stealing one. The other characters are pushed into the background. Still, the character designs are cute, and the narration is very slick.

The second short falls into two halves. The first half, setting up the rivalry between Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones is enjoyable enough but somewhat bland. But then the Headless Horseman sequence begins – and it is without doubt the highly of the film. The build-up to the Horseman’s entrance is genuinely frightening, but the chase itself is comic, leading to some real tension and a real feeling of catharsis.

My main issue with the short is the treatment of Katrina, Ichabod and Brom’s love interest. She is alternately a passive prize to be won by whichever man has her by the arm, and a tease stringing both suitors along – and just to top it off, there’s an ‘ugly girl’ both men palm off on each other as a sort of punishment. I suspect this is partly down to the source material, but nonetheless it’s some of the most blatant sexism I’ve seen in a Disney film. This coupled with the fact that no women have speaking parts in the entire film makes for an uncomfortable experience; at least Fun and Fancy Free had one female narrator.

Home on the Range (2004)

And not for something completely different! Home on the Range was Disney’s last traditionally animated film until The Princess and the Frog and the last to be released on VHS. It’s really not much of a milestone: it sank into obscurity almost immediately and remains, together with Brother Bear (2003), one of Disney’s least popular films.

I’m not sure I quite understand why. Home on the Range isn’t as horrible as I was led to believe. I actually quite enjoyed it. There’s a lot wrong with it: the animation is occasionally unnerving (the cows have prehensile tails! Why do the cows have prehensile tails?), the music didn’t do much for me, the constant modern slang is jarring, and the premise is downright weird. I gather this film was originally going to be The Pied Piper of Hamlin but for some reason the story was reworked… to be set in the Old West… with cows instead of children. I think that says a lot about the film industry, really.

But it has one big upside: this right here is a Disney film with not one but three female leads, and – if you ignore the obligatory hook-ups at the end – it’s an adventure story, not a romance. It focuses on the relationships between the three cow-heroines in a big way. Home on the Range might just be unique in that regard in the entire Disney canon. I can’t help but enjoy it just for that; maybe I’ll even buy it on DVD.

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