Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Movie with Two Kinds of People--Dangerous Women and a Boring Guy

There are a lot of movies about basically decent guys having their lives ruined by gorgeous women who seduce them and then turn out to be psychopaths. The first half of 2014's Thorn (가시, literally "Thorn"--pointless new English title: Innocent Thing) seems like it's that kind of movie. Then it does something interesting that looks like it might subvert that kind of movie. Then it goes back to being that kind of movie, unfortunately. There is some subtlety and insight in the way the characters are crafted in this very psychological film, but there's too much superficiality where it really counts.

Joon-ki (Jang Hyuk) is a P.E. teacher at an all girl high school. An all improbably perfect looking girl high school.

He also has an improbably beautiful assistant teacher, Min-joo (Lee Do-ah), who is also an old friend and possible soul mate. But Joon-ki is married to Seo-yeon (Sunwoo Sun) who's pregnant with their first child--this, we learn, being the reason they got married. In one uncomfortable dinner scene with Seo-yeon's family, her father mentions irritably how he was the one who'd gotten Joon-ki the teaching job. A job Joon-ki hates--he'd been an aspiring professional rugby player before the marriage.

Into this certainly thorny situation comes Young-eun (Jo Bo-ah), one of Joon-ki's students. All the girls have crushes on the handsome young Joon-ki--the whole universe seems to revolve around this guy in fact--but Young-eun has the kind of crush where she tells Seo-yeon, while taking tutoring lessons from her to secretly get closer to Joon-ki, that she'd cut off her leg for the man she loves.

Jo Bo-ah as Young-eun is truly gorgeous. Whatever problems this movie has, it really is nice just to look at her, so if nothing else, it has that. She gives a decent performance too, with the wide fixed eyes of the obsessed kid. She has all the typical signs of eventually turning out to be a killer--playing with an x-acto knife, slashing a girl's face because Joon-ki used her to demonstrate how to perform CPR. But I don't understand why the movie couldn't spare a moment to reflect on the flaw in the personality of a guy who would actually be turned on for being the object of this kind of obsession. Young-eun is a kid and her infatuation is clearly all about finding her identity--she talks about cutting off her leg because it's drastic, not about doing something that Joon-ki might actually want. A guy who responds to this kind of "pure love" is not likely to have great capacity for empathy himself.

But in a twist that is genuinely interesting in the middle of the film, personality flaws in the other female characters are the only ones dwelt upon. And then when the twist ends up being more or less a red herring, it becomes a pretty straight forward story about one ordinary guy--with kind of an indistinct personality, actually--surrounded by gorgeous women who are all working to ruin his life in one way or another. This movie came out this year and Vertigo came out in 1958 but Vertigo feels like a rather progressive subversion of the kind of film Thorn is.

Twitter Sonnet #691

Rotund torpedo dockets spell "mallard".
The turtle stripe is a stripper arm chair.
Tank streamers foretold of J.G. Ballard.
Blue yarn frayed out ice in the frigidaire.
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Houses of talking eels'll jeer the bass.
Cross supplied whole fish for Mister Gittes.
Church dead tree drums impregnate the lost flute.
Links under console are taken by cups.
The funk doubled in fluid through the boot.
The white owlet downs'll outfluff the ups.
Misled dust descended on the mouth pool.
Outdated scotch tape sticks to hippo wool.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

More Machine Than Dream

Some movies, we see to be entertained. Some, we see for a transcendent experience, to challenge our intellect, to learn new things about the human condition, to gain perspective. And then some movies are like cancerous tissue; they perform none of these functions but sustain to sustain, drawing resources from product placement and heavily stipulated investments to ensure a profit over the budget required to pay actors who don't care about the project and bloated special effects studios. 2014's Transformers: The Age of Extinction is such a movie, and yet it's also the highest grossing movie of the year. Does this mean movie goers like cancer? Maybe.

The film's supposed popularity is somewhat mystifying, actually. I've never heard anyone talk about it--I don't know anyone who's seen it. When I google fans of Transformers, I come across rather fringe feeling fandoms, with wikis that are a fraction of the size of most other fandoms. I've always had the impression that Transformers enjoyed about a tenth of the popularity of Star Trek and I don't see anything to change that impression. So who are all these people filling the seats?

The movie isn't dumb fun. It's not even really dumb, despite scenes like a helicopter shooting missiles at a semi-trailer driving in a straight line and missing, or a scene where a guy gets off an elevator because four people are too heavy for it to operate--and visible in the background is a sign reading "Maximum Capacity: 9 People". It's not dumb because it's not really trying. There's never a moment where I felt like--here's a concept or an idea the filmmakers wanted to come across. Dialogue hangs in odd ADR over slapdash jump cuts. People speak exposition at each other, explaining things both participants are obviously both aware of and very little of it makes sense.

The Autobots (the good Transformers) are being hunted down by the CIA (headed by Kelsey Grammer), backed by evil Transformers who work for the extraterrestrial creators of the Transformers. Apparently "cyberforming", creating the Transformers on Earth, is responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs but it's never explained how or why. They talk about melting all the cities on Earth for metal to make new Transformers but what that had to do with the dinosaurs is anyone's guess.

Mark Wahlberg shows up in what looks like a clip from a country music video or a Republican political ad. This isn't ass kicking, The Departed Mark Wahlberg, this is weird, breathy The Happening Mark Wahlberg, who explains to his daughter, the Megan Fox replacement, that she hasn't been allowed to date for years, as she knows.

But she's secretly dating an Irish drag racer who ends up saving their lives when the CIA track down Optimus Prime to Wahlberg's garage using the evil Transformers' ability to track Transformers core energy. They come with helicopters and several vans but the heavily injured and unarmed Optimus Prime drives away with the humans and the helicopter can't hit them and won't follow them so then the CIA has no idea what to do. To make matters worse for the CIA, Wahlberg and Optimus and company hide in an abandoned gas station, its opaque walls obscuring them from passersby and so too, I guess, the alien tracker and destroying the will of the helicopter pilot to even pursue.

The heavily injured Optimus magically gets better when he scans a new semi--and he gets a new paint job. We meet a Japanese Samurai stereotype Transformer voiced by Ken Watanabe and a fat one voiced by John Goodman, who plays it like Walter from The Big Lebowski if Walter's self-image was completely accurate.

They all break into a big lab for some reason run by Stanley Tucci. Tucci gives the best performance and I actually even enjoyed some of his business later in the film as he's protected on the streets of Hong Kong by his beautiful and talented bodyguard.

The film goes to China because a lot of the budget came from a Chinese company. Even some of the product placement is Chinese products from then on.

The Transformers have bold paint jobs (and Chevrolet logos), maybe in response to the criticism of the first film that they were all kind of an unintelligible, muddy grey before. It is a little easier to distinguish individuals in the cgi noise but the action is still generally unimaginative and the nonsensical writing completely negates any sense of danger.

Incredibly, this movie is two hours and forty five minutes. There's not enough material to fill twenty. The score sounds ripped wholesale from Hans Zimmer's Dark Knight scores. The story with Wahlberg never feels like more than a rough draft, he has no chemistry with the toneless actress playing his daughter or the toneless actor playing her boyfriend. All the characters are exactly at the point of vapidity at the end that they were at in the beginning--Wahlberg doesn't want his daughter to date but kind of likes the boyfriend in spite of himself, the daughter and the boyfriend still like each other and they hug at one point . . .

I thought Man of Steel was the most artificial success I've ever seen but maybe Age of Extinction surpasses it. I still don't quite understand the voodoo at work to push this one over--the product placement doesn't quite explain it. I expect some books have been cooked but--could that really account for it? Something about the fact that this was a beloved toy line from the 80s makes it feel all the more sinister--when you've sold your soul, isn't it appropriate that your childhood dreams come back, scraped hollow, filled with fuck all?

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Force is Dragged Out of Bed

So here it is for real, the teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII. Contained within is about 8% of all the stuff we've seen from the official "leaks" to say nothing of the supposedly unofficial ones. At this point, I don't really feel like I have an opinion except that the villain looks a bit generic. That burning crossguard on his lightsabre looks like it's an attempt to give the same shock as the sight of Darth Maul igniting his two sided sabre in the Phantom Menace trailers, which I guess goes to show the franchise is still being influenced by the prequels whether it likes to admit it or not. It actually feels a lot like an Expanded Universe movie. As in, this feels like the kind of story an Expanded Universe movie would have; trying not to deviate too much from the original trilogy, incorporating the original characters, featuring Empire "remnants" so we can still have the heroes fighting TIE Fighters and stormtroopers, and featuring villains that are basically guys in robes (like Joruus C'baoth). I have a feeling that whatever Disney announces about canon, what it's going to work out to is that all we'll have is a new Expanded Universe from now on. Kind of as Return to Oz is to The Wizard of Oz. Which isn't to say I think it'll be bad--I really enjoyed a lot of Expanded Universe stuff. But I think we'll look back on Clone Wars as the last of the main vein.

Last night I dreamt I saw Larry King at the supermarket. He looked at me, wearing my suspenders, approvingly but didn't say anything. I noticed a row of turkeys on the shelf had suspenders, too, the button parts fixed under their wings. "Well," I said to King, "At least they know how to dress a turkey!"

He said, "That's right!" and snapped my suspenders. Then I woke up.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Eat Food

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Last night I dreamt that I was enrolled in a class taught by Rob Reiner--young Rob Reiner with black beard and always wearing a baseball cap like in This is Spinal Tap. He took a liking to me and asked me to stop by his house and make sure his home-made marmalade was fermenting on schedule while he was on vacation. At least, I think it was marmalade--there were two barrels, one had translucent, viscous amber liquid, the other had the same thing but was filled with fist sized insect eggs. He asked me to swim naked in the one without the eggs, which I really wasn't comfortable with, but I thought I'd at least check on it and maybe stir it.

His house was located on a small island with dead trees in the middle of a lake. There was a little girl inside the house, giggling and tearing up all the books on his shelves but he warned me I might find her there. He said she was a neighbour's child and she came over periodically to tear up his books.

It turned out I was supposed to empty the barrels in the water and swim with the stuff but the water was much too cold.

Anyway, I'm off to do Thanksgiving things. If you're looking for something to watch, you might benefit from the Turkey Day Marathon of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 airing on YouTube to-day, hosted by Joel Hodgson himself. As I'm writing this, they're broadcasting Jungle Goddess with the infamous "Rock Climbing" sequence. It is truly a calamity that must be beheld.

Twitter Sonnet #690

Grey rust and dust and spiders roll in wool.
Blue glasses frames loudly led the hippos.
The snow proved styrofoam fit for a fool.
The sale drew all of Macy's best capos.
Disney retributions eye the stone grid.
Venus foam presents Teddy Roosevelt.
Ego waffles need the syrup of Id.
Haunted newspapers pad the safety belt.
Eye turkey serrations explode with mint.
Curtailed toffee hides in the derby band.
Generic tape pays a clear stickless rent.
The future glue is asparagus sand.
F12's the avian murder hot key.
Eve needs Hops "like the axe needs the turkey."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Sun Rises On Bonobos Too

Johnnie Walker strikes again, only to-day it's Black Label and a mutant chimpanzee is drinking it in 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I wonder if it's officially product placement now. I can certainly think of a gas station that helped pay for the movie.

Directed by J.J. Abrams cohort Matt Reeves (director of Cloverfield and the pointless and unasked for American remake of Let the Right One In), the film also features Keri Russell, star of Reeves' and Abrams' Felicity, in a supporting role.

She ought to have been the star and it's not really clear why her boyfriend, played by a bland white guy named Jason Clarke, gets to do everything. The movie's enjoyable, a nice adventure film, though the most impressive thing about it is the cgi and motion capture work on the apes.

Andy Serkis reprises his role as Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, his ability to project character through cgi apparently still unrivalled and really remarkable. The film's apes whose faces are slightly more articulated than real apes hover always between ape and something else, making them captivating.

Though my favourite bit is that Johnnie Walker drinking ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell), who's the villain of the film and mostly looks truly intimidating. But he manages to get close to a couple dumb, gun nut humans by suddenly acting like a daft, playful, trained chimp.

Koba's human counterpart is Carver (Kirk Acevado), a trigger happy paranoid human who hates all apes but for some reason Clarke's character Malcolm considers it essential for Carver to join the small team of humans who negotiate with the apes to allow them to repair a hydroelectric dam in ape territory. Malcolm vaguely explains it's because Carver worked at such a place before human civilisation collapsed.

It's not hard to guess the whole plot of the movie from there. I wonder if I ought to feel as weird as I do about the lack of strong female ape characters. Caesar has a wife who has a baby and mostly just stands or lays in the background looking worried. When Koba briefly takes over, she and her baby completely disappear until popping back up at the end without any explanation of where she was in that time. Malcolm's team also have two ape friendly guys who just vanish inexplicably at one point--the movie certainly seems to have trouble keeping tabs on its characters.

I guess female apes having a smaller social role makes sense since they're a primitive society that values physical strength but that doesn't explain why there are no female leaders among the human refugees in San Francisco--though Gary Oldman does a good job playing the leader--or why the second biggest star in the film, Keri Russell, has to be sidelined to a caretaker nurse role while the virtually unknown and uninteresting Clarke makes all the big decisions. Well, I guess evolution just hasn't gotten that far yet.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Gender of the Past and the Future

What does it mean for a larger than life character to be transgender while not being a transgender stereotype? 2014's High Heel (하이힐, literally "High Heel" but marketed by the trans-insensitive and grammatically awkward title in the west Man On High Heels) is about a legendary cop, renowned by gangsters and colleagues alike for prowess in martial arts and a cool demeanour interpreted as the epitome of masculinity. But Yoon Ji-wook, while physically male, and presenting as male for most of the film, is in fact a woman. This isn't a realistic depiction of a cop in South Korea struggling with gender dysphoria. It's more as though Indiana Jones or James Bond were transgender which is certainly an interesting proposition for a film. And it provides fertile ground for a noir quality in the story. While the film treads somewhat cautiously, mindful of its potentially conservative audience, the film never denies the reality of Yoon Ji-wook's nature as a woman and we're clearly meant to root for her to create a new life as a woman, even as the action scenes when she's dragged back into presenting as male are truly exciting and impressively choreographed.

It could be argued that the movie's portrayal of starkly defined gender roles is more curious than its position on gender dysphoria. As Yoon is advised in various aspects of her transformation, she's told it will be difficult for her to make money--for some reason no-one suggests the possibility of Yoon remaining a cop and, indeed, there aren't any women among Yoon's coworkers.

There is the screaming and ranting police chief, one of many familiar cop movie cliches the film consciously indulges in. And it's interesting how well Yoon's story fits into the noir mould, her trouble not unlike Robert Mitchum's in Out of the Past or Ingrid Bergman's in Notorious as her attempt to assert a life for herself is repeatedly sabotaged by friends, enemies, and her own feelings of inescapable doom.

Cha Seung-won's performance as Yoon is truly beautiful and one of the primary reasons the movie works as well as it does. As an elder transgender woman, Bada (Lee Yong-nyeo), advises Yoon, she notes that before seeking hormone treatment Yoon had chosen a very traditionally masculine lifestyle and Bada herself reveals she had been a marine--Bada notes it's not unusual for someone experiencing gender dysphoria to run as far as possible from the truth in this manner. But even being the most feared gang fighter in South Korea doesn't ease Yoon's torment, whose scar covered chest isn't the sign of former fights, as the gangsters who've seen it presume, but Yoon's self-cutting motivated by self-disgust.

The subtlety of Seung-won's performance is great. Cold and tightly controlled when confronting her foes, she seems to relax in an almost imperceptible but unmistakable way when she dresses as a woman and is treated as one.

Monday, November 24, 2014

It Doesn't Matter Which Way You Go

One normally thinks of economic problems when thinking of government collapse but 2014's The Rover focuses on the moral void, the absence of communally agreed upon ideas of right and wrong and punishment. It's a good, rather cruel film, sort of a jazz riff on Of Mice and Men, taking the basic melodies--themes and characters--and creating variations on them.

Ten years after what's simply called "the collapse", Eric (Guy Pearce) wanders the hot, dusty landscape of Australia. One day his car is stolen by a few wounded men on the run and for most of the film Eric is trying to get his car back. It's his white rabbit and his motives are almost as arbitrary as Alice's--even though he quickly acquires another vehicle, one senses his single minded focus on getting his car back is related to a desperate need to find a motive of some kind, any kind, however small to cling to.

He meets Rey (Robert Pattinson), the brother of one of the men who stole his car, apparently abandoned by that brother in the escape from militia. Eric doesn't trust anyone and barely seems capable of having a complete conversation but something about Rey's simple heartedness draws Eric out and we learn more about him. Eric, for his primary trouble being a sense of a fundamentally meaningless universe, has a very strict sense of morality which seems to appeal to Rey. When Rey accidentally kills an innocent person and tells Eric he feels bad about it, Eric tells him he should feel bad. Eric provides for Rey the thing Eric finds sorely lacking in the world, a moral authority. Like Lennie in Of Mice and Men, Rey is the one capable of creating a dream for the two of them while Eric, like George, is burdened with always having to see reality for what it is.

It's nicely shot, conveying the emptiness of dystopian landscape and making use of Australia's almost inevitably cinematic landscape. The performances are good, even Pattinson's.

Twitter Sonnet #689

Peculiar caffeine crashed the red bomber.
Kings hoisted marble to their own table.
Horse tapestries are so rarely sombre.
A hay nightstand finishes the stable.
One door is bigger than a thousand holes.
Undelivered swimming lessons aren't lost.
The new magnets need two repurposed poles.
Red horseshoes have never counted the cost.
Reverse polarity flow looking glass.
Don't buy triangles without the squares.
Survey all nodes in the grey mountain pass.
Instruct apples and oranges to bind pears.
Blitz clock adverb Russia completes the drum.
Absent ramen frustrates the golem gum.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Face is Scarier Than the Mask

This is the most brilliant piece of anime I've seen in a long time. Go watch it now. It's designed to loop endlessly, which is why it's not on YouTube. Come back and read the rest of this entry if you like.

It should come as no surprise it's from Studio Khara, Hideaki Anno's new studio, and not just because of all the Evangelion references in the video. Also because it is, like Evangelion, simultaneously a wonderfully cruel satire of modern anime but also a celebration of the artform. It's the young man's obsession with women's bodies and a fear of confronting the humanity of women, while at the same time being a celebration of physical beauty and the instinctual compulsion to intimacy that seems fated for a cycle of disaster and loneliness. This eight minute video packs in a hell of a lot. It's both striking and hypnotic.

In a way, it feels like a follow up to the 1983 video Anno and his cohorts made for the Japanese Comic Convention Dai-Con which was a showcase of things popular in nerd culture at the time, featuring a scantily clad young woman fighting various battles with cameos from characters and ships from Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Godzilla, and Marvel and DC Comics.

The new video was created for Anime Expo in Japan and reflects how depictions and uses of sexuality in anime have changed. There was plenty of beautiful naked women coupled with strange alien violence in 1980s anime, but there's a sort of stifling tranquillisation about anime now. A desperate clinging to empty conversation in slice-of-life anime where women are as harmless as domesticated cats. Most modern anime seems to objectify women and lobotomise them of sexual desire. But Anno and his fellow former GAINAX artists have always insisted on celebrating fan service while simultaneously making women human.

To-day I also read the new Sirenia Digest which contains Caitlin's new story "THE GREEN ABYSS" which, in addition to being, as I told her, a demonstration of her "ability to convey a poetic, emotional intimacy with folded time," it also references male crabs being castrated by parasites in order to impregnate them so this has been a good day for depictions of weird, dangerous sex. And the story's really lovely, I should add.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Hallo Space Boys

Well, the first season of Star Wars: Rebels has concluded and not nearly as many characters died as I would have liked. It hasn't been bad. Sometimes it's nice pulpy fun and the two episodes written by Henry Gilroy, "Rise of the Old Masters" and "Empire Day" were genuinely good. Gilroy seems to have an instinct for story telling, of following the thought patterns of a human viewer to create interesting moments to follow up others. His episodes have that "anything can happen" feel that so many of the best Clone Wars episodes had.

I think I've said before the fundamental problem with Rebels so far is Disney trying to pander to the original trilogy fans. There's the danger in losing the young audience that's grown up with the prequels, but even more than that, Rebels feels more creatively constrained. In a way, the unpopularity of the prequels served Clone Wars in that I think it give the writers freedom to deviate and improve on prequel ideas while Rebels is basically trying to plant roses in granite.

But it occurred to me to-day while watching the finale that maybe what bothers me the most is the rather conscious male-ness of Rebels. Clone Wars was filled with great female characters--Asajj Ventress, Luminara, and, of course, Ahsoka Tano. The only two female characters so far on Rebels, Hera and Sabine, are defined in the show by their relationships with the male characters--Sabine as Ezra's potential love interest and Hera as a mother figure, a more backgrounded counterpart to Kanan as Ezra's father figure.

And this, too, seems as though it might be playing to an original trilogy format as much as it is Disney trying to make a more concerted sales pitch to the little boy demographic--the original trilogy centring on a male character and a father/son relationship.

I'm reminded of the outcry over the lack of Princess Leia toys planned by Disney to be aimed at girls. But since Disney seems to be backtracking a bit, and since Greg Weisman, who wrote most of the first season of Rebels, is leaving, I'm vaguely hoping for better in the second season.

Speaking of stories about father/son relationships, and since it feels weird not to talk about Doctor Who on Saturday, I listened to The Holy Terror, a 2000 Sixth Doctor audio play written by Robert Shearman, who would go on to write the Ninth Doctor television episode "Dalek". The Holy Terror is a surprisingly transgressive and dark piece of writing, its satirical tone recalling the Douglas Adams era of the series. It concerns a planet where a somewhat medieval society--who use guns for ceremonial purposes--consciously worship one man as a god and then kill him when his successor becomes god. The first half is sort of grimly funny and feels sort of tongue in cheek until the last bit provides a nightmarish explanation for the bizarrely callous behaviour of the people.

The play is my first exposure to Frobisher, a companion of the Sixth and Seventh Doctor that was introduced in one of the many Doctor Who books. He's a talking penguin, which put me off at first, but then, I figured, I warmed up to K-9 eventually so I kept listening. He's actually a being who's able to take any form he likes and for some reason prefers to look like a penguin. He's also American and a private detective. But voiced by Robert Jezek, he was at least more entertaining than Colin Baker. This audio play would have been close to genius if it were a Fourth Doctor story.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Sleeve Hopper

This grasshopper jumped onto my sleeve while I was walking yesterday.

He crawled up onto my chest--here he is between tie and suspender:

I finally had to gently nudge him at which point he jumped back down into the grass. I feel like he had an important message he couldn't convey.

By the way, as might be obvious, I've started catching up on 2014 films so I can rank them on New Years, as usual. If anyone has a movie from this year they'd like to recommend, feel free. I usually try to take samplings from several countries so if you're from some place other than the U.S. I'm particularly interested in hearing about what films were the best in your neck of the woods.

Twitter Sonnet #688

The absent wind sent us through an iris.
Trick happiness skated the hat's rough brim.
Last nines pursue a long woken Alice.
Found footage martyrs salt the beverage rim.
Onion bliss heater vacuum men arrive.
Tor's empty hand signalled the dessert bar.
The thin curled wood shavings fill the archive.
The lion is hard to nail to the car.
Tin timeless clock oorang outangs keep watch.
Pitchfork pegasi gestate pumice stones.
Erased raccoon masks drown in double scotch.
Memos tear in the old dry printer's bones.
No arms in grasslands preclude the torso.
Worldly cobras can lie to the lasso.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Buried In Ice

There's a New York City in the winter where a virtuous canine god looks like a horse and where the Devil and his servants walk the streets in corporeal form. An orphaned thief named Peter Lake grows up in a world like this in 2014's A Winter's Tale which, despite its dumb as rocks trailers, is a good fantasy film. Filled with crisp, pretty visuals and an engaging plot.

I had no desire to see the film. The trailers I'd seen made it look so intensely bad, like Notting Hill meets Love, Actually via Wayne Wang. And the reviews for the film seem to encourage the impression given by the trailer--it now holds a 13% on Rotten Tomatoes. I wouldn't have given the film a second thought--and considering it lost thirty million dollars at the box office, I guess most people didn't--until I read this blog entry by Neil Gaiman:

I really, really enjoyed it. Akiva took a huge, sprawling novel that spans over a hundred years and took the elements he needed from it to tell the story he had to tell. He made it small, of necessity. It's a fantasy movie, with demons and angels and a flying horse: it contains a noble burglar, a beautiful dying pianist, an absolutely terrifying Russell Crowe, Will Smith stealing scenes as Lucifer, and New York, New York all the way.

And Gaiman specifically mentions that the trailer gives the wrong impression of the film. So I felt sort of honour bound to see it and I'm glad I did.

First of all, I think most of the reviews were written after only a viewing of the trailer. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone calling the film "preposterous" is itself sort of preposterous. It's like giving a negative review to Lord of the Rings because Gandalf is shown using magic.

The movie is also not, as several reviews assert, incoherent. Peter (Colin Ferrell) is born to immigrant parents in 1916 who are denied entry into the United States due to their infectious disease. So, as they're departing Ellis Island, they place baby Peter in a small boat. He's discovered and raised by a demon named Pearly (Russell Crowe). Peter runs with Pearly's gang until he's a young man and he finds he doesn't have a taste for killing.

He's aided in his escape from the gang by the sudden appearance of a white horse who can sprout wings and fly when it wants to. It soon leads Peter to a beautiful young woman, dying of consumption. So far, pretty easy to comprehend, right?

I think maybe the trouble the movie's having is we don't see fantasy movies like this much anymore--movies with magic in contemporary settings. They were big in the 80s, when the book Winter's Tale is based on was published. Movies like Splash, Big, Gremlins, or to some extent The Neverending Story or Time Bandits. Nowadays, fantasy tends to be pretty sharply demarcated in the mainstream--if it's fantasy and not mediaeval, it'd better have a superhero in it. I would put this down to modern cynicism and it's partly why television is allowed to be more creative now than film. Certainly I doubt director Akiva Goldsman, for whom Winter's Tale was his début film, will have an easy time making a movie again.

The movie does have a line I heard in the trailer that I still think is stupid--when Peter, who becomes immortal for reasons made clear in the film (despite what some reviews say), meets Jennifer Connelly's character, he says, "I've had no memory for as long as I can remember." But that's not such a big crime, especially since the movie avoids so many familiar, modern beats. It feels like a genuine story, not something cobbled together in board meetings. A nice thing to get absorbed in on the couch with a hot drink.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Skumps to the Death of Stefan

It turns out the evil faerie sorceress isn't so bad. We learned it this year in Disney's Maleficent, a live action version of Disney's 1959 animated Sleeping Beauty where Maleficent, the villain of that story, is reconceptualised as the heroine. Visually nice, though not as striking or as strangely beautiful as the 1959 film, the primary virtue is Angelina Jolie's performance in the title role. I wish she'd been allowed to be bad but the movie's story about a woman finding her strength again after a terrible violation is good.

A few reviews point to a scene where a young Maleficent's wings are cut off by her lover while she sleeps as being a metaphor for rape. Jolie's startling, painful cries when she wakes and discovers the loss are certainly evocative of terrible grief and a sense of profound betrayal.

For most of the film, Jolie gives an icy, restrained performance similar to the one given by Eleanor Audley in the original film. Dealing with the lifelong reminder in the form of physical mutilation certainly explains why Maleficent might be emotionally frozen over.

I don't quite understand why Jolie, unlike Audley, puts on an English accent, though. This is the fourth Angelina Jolie movie I've seen--after Beowulf, Tomb Raider, and Hackers--Hackers being the only movie I've seen where she uses her normal American accent. But I think the reason for the accent here is a general perception now that everyone in mediaeval fantasy worlds must sound like they're from the British Isles, a perception that really began with Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings adaptation, where I thought it was appropriate because the accents come through so strongly in the text. But there's really nothing particularly English about this film.

The film also takes a page from the Lord of the Rings films' opening history lesson montage as a woman who sounds a lot like Cate Blanchett tells us about how the human kingdom of people with Irish accents are trying to conquer the moors, a word the filmmakers apparently believe means "forest lagoon".

Maybe not as embarrassing as the creators of World of Warcraft apparently thinking "shire" means "village" but pretty close. To-day, the moors, to-morrow the tundra! Just think of it.

It's never made very clear but I think the humans want the moors because there are thousands of precious gems just sitting in rivers and streams running through the area. There are also various kinds of faeries, most of whom look like the cheap ceramic sculptures you see at the shopping mall.

Not the most innovative creature designs for a Disney movie. The extensive cgi environments clashing with the green screened actors also give the film a Star Wars prequel feel but Maleficent really shines with its costumes. Obviously they owe the original film for the fantastic design of Maleficent's gown and horned coif but I enjoyed the little variations on it, like a snakeskin version of the coif.

The good faeries, named Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather in the 1959 film have for some reason been renamed Knotgrass, Thistlewit, and Flittle. One of the primary flaws in the 1959 film is that it focuses far too much on these three due to Walt Disney's belief that children would have an easier time identifying with these friendly maternal characters. Strangely, this idea seems to be reborn in the new film's focus on Maleficent as a surrogate mother of Aurora.

It's a really funny idea--the good faeries do such a lousy job taking care of King Stefan's baby that Maleficent is forced to step in just to make sure the child lives long enough for the curse to come to fruition. The curse being the closest thing Maleficent does in this film to actually being a villain, though in this version, instead of giving Aurora a death sentence that has to be mitigated by Merryweather's magic--changing it from death to sleep--Maleficent only curses her to sleep after pricking her finger on the spinning wheel. Rather big of her, really, after King Stefan raped her and the human kingdom's continued, unprovoked assaults on the "moors".

Instead of having every spinning wheel in the kingdom destroyed as he did in the 1959 film, Stefan just has them all stashed in the castle dungeon in big piles. I guess so they can all be returned after Aurora's in the clear? I would think everyone would've gotten used to using drop spindles by then.

All the child actors in the film are uniformly bad, particularly Eleanor Worthington Cox as the prepubescent Aurora from whose annoying fake giggles the film dissolves as she grows into Elle Fanning delivering more lifelike giggles. The version of Merryweather in this version gives her the "gift" of never being blue, sad, for her whole life, which is about as annoying as you might think, as capable an actress as Elle Fanning is.

Though people who've seen Magic Magic know there's an even more talented woman playing this film's version of Fauna, the green faerie--Juno Temple. It's a shame she isn't getting juicier roles but she is good as comic relief here.

I've always wondered why Fauna was the green faerie and Flora was the red faerie, you'd think it'd be the other way around.

James Newton Howard's score of course pales in comparison to the Tchaikovsky ballet music adapted for the 1959 film. But Lana Del Rey does do a nice, drowsy version of "Once Upon a Dream" over the end credits, a song I've always liked.