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Thursday, February 28, 2008





20080228

Among currently producing animation studios, there is none so good at what they do as Studio Ghibli. Producing films since 1984, they maintain the place in the animation world that Disney held in '40s and '50s. In fact, nobody even comes close in terms of consistently producing amazing works of importance and integrity. In this special edition of Capsule Reviews, I'll look at all of Ghibli's feature films (save for Tales from Earthsea, which due to Scifi Channel holding the rights cannot be released in the US until 2009). We'll list these chronologically, beginning in 1984.

Skip to a Review:

Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind
Laputa: Castle in the Sky
My Neighbor Totoro
Grave of the Fireflies
Kiki's Delivery Service
Only Yesterday
Porco Rosso
I Can Hear the Sea

Pom Poko
Whisper of the Heart
Princess Mononoke
My Neighbors the Yamadas
Spirited Away
The Cat Returns
Howl's Moving Castle


Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind

Year: 1984
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Runtime: 116 min.

Nausicaä was the film that started Ghibli and many of the motifs that would later mark Ghibli films are introduced here. Environmentalism (later revisited in Only Yesterday, Pom Poko and Princess Mononoke) and anti-war sentiment (revisitied in Castle in the Sky, Grave of the Fireflies, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, and Howl's Moving Castle) both find a prominent place in Nausicaä's themes. As well, this begins Ghibli's durable tradition of strong and independent female protagonists.

This is a tale set in a post-apocalyptic future. Centuries prior, the earth had been destroyed in seven days of fire as humanity's technology for killing had grown beyond its ability to control. Now with the world poisoned and the earth gradually cleansing itself through its flora, mankind (as per usual) finds itself at odds both with its environment and with itself. Nausicaä tells the story of a world-conscious young princess named (ta-da!) Nausicaä as she tries to bring peace, love, and understanding to a world that threatens to destroy itself again.

The animation feels a bit dated (though the technique for animating the giant ohmu is impressive) and the story a bit brisk, but it's a good film and a great start for what would become the premiere animation studio of the age.

Rating:

note: I highly recommend the book version of the story as Miyazaki had only finished the first quarter of the story when he released the movie. The book took more than ten years to finish and has the kind of epic quality that is missing from the movie.


Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Year: 1986
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Runtime: 124 min.

When a girl named Sheeta falls from the sky bearing a strange stone, Pazu begins an adventure that will take him under ground and over cloud, eventually bringing him face to face with the legacy of his dead father and a discovery straight out of myth and legend. Floating cities, air pirates, royalty-in-disguise, robots bent on killing all, humanity on the verge of apocalypse, and a pair of intrepid heroes populate the background of this story of adventure and hope.

Unfortunately while Laputa contains several breathtaking scenes and edge-of-seat moments, it is also overlong and tends to flag at times. Miyazaki also uses a device that has always been unpalatable to me and crops up again in several of his films (most notably and to greatest deficit in Porco Rosso), and that is his rendering of comedic characters in a more cartoonish style than the average character. Such representations strike me as out of place and always serve to remove me from the story. Still, that said, while Laputa is certainly not Miyazaki's best effort, it is worth watching.

Rating:

note: I always recommend watching these films in their original language and opting to use the subtitles, but I understand how it can be. You get home from work. You're exhausted. The last thing you want to do is read a movie. In such cases even I, being the purist I am, will sometimes give the dubbed English version a shot. DO NOT do this with Laputa. Within minutes (if not immediately) James Van Der Beek will cause your ears to bleed and your lungs to ulcer. The English voice-casting director ought to return to hat-making. Listening to the English dub is like buttering your jam with your tears.


My Neighbor Totoro

Year: 1988
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Runtime: 86 min.

Totoro, for a long time, was Miyazaki's most famous creation and is still perhaps his most iconic.

The film follows two young girls, Satsuke (11) and Mei (4), as they and their father spend their first days in their new house in the countryside. Their mother is sequestered in a hospital in the city as her health fails due to some undisclosed (to the children and to the viewer) illness. Against this backdrop, Miyazaki plays out a tender story exploring both the wonder and terror of childhood as the girls cope with the fact of their ailing mother and become acquainted with the tree spirits who occasionally haunt their property.

The film is endearing and the scenes featuring the spirit creatures are indelible (especially those with the large Totoro and the catbus).

Rating:


Grave of the Fireflies

Year: 1988
Director: Isao Takahata
Runtime: 88 min.

Grave of the Fireflies is one of those hurtful movies that probably everybody should watch on occasion. It's right up there with Schindler's List in its portrayal of the tragedy of humanity. Takahata's first Ghibli film should be required viewing every time our nation feels the need to go to war—so that we might better judge the necessity of our actions against the plain cost we will incur.

Grave of the Fireflies is a story of children and war. It begins with the male protagonist narrating, "September 21, 1945. That was the night I died." And then we watch as he passes into death from weakness and hunger. Then we flash back to a healthier time and watch his story unfold.

It is hard to watch, but really very good. I hope to never see it again. Which means it's probably about time I did.

Rating:


Kiki's Delivery Service

Year: 1989
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Runtime: 102 min.

Kiki's story is like an expansion of The Little Engine Who Could. Kiki is a vaguely talented young witch who has reached the age at which she is expected to go out into the world and find a town to serve in as Town Witch. She and her little black cat Jiji eventually find a place to serve but as Kiki is not the most powerful of witches, she is not certain how it is that she can work for the good of the town. Until she strikes upon the idea of running a delivery service, taking parcels here and there on her broom.

It's all pretty standard. She has her ups and downs. Doubts her place. Mopes a bit. Then saves the day. Kinda like a typical Spider-Man story.

But the joy of the story is not found in the pieces. Like all Miyazaki's films, Kiki's Delivery Service delivers a sense of wonder and joie de vivre that exists independent of its particulars. This is an entirely human film. Plus, kids seem to love it.

Rating:


Only Yesterday

Year: 1991
Director: Isao Takahata
Runtime: 118 min.

Only Yesterday is my favourite of Isao Takahata's Ghibli productions. It could very well fall under the category of "chick-flick," but it's so good that one shouldn't worry about taxonomy.

This is the story of twenty-seven-year-old Taeko as she takes a break from her life to visit the countryside. Taeko finds herself at a crossroads, not knowing where her life should take her. Or where she should take her life. This recalls for her the last time she felt such confusion for life, as she endured the fifth grade, on the cusp of puberty.

As the story progresses and Taeko gradually builds toward making a decision for her life, we are treated with numerous vignettes of her childhood in 1966 Japan. The story is treated delicately and with affection and for a long time it may even be hard to discern that there is a story to the film at all. There is. And it is only resolved while the credits roll.

And it causes me to smile every time.

Rating:


Porco Rosso

Year: 1992
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Runtime: 93 min.

Porco Rosso would probably be my favourite Ghibli feature if it weren't for the problem I mentioned with Laputa in which characters present for their comedic impact are drawn in a far more cartoonish manner. As in Laputa, the air pirate gangs that fill the air over the Mediterranean here are silly-looking and it takes me out of the story. The climax is also drawn with such comedic intent.

Aside from that, Porco Rosso is a gorgeous film. The seascapes are beautifully painted and the story carries such a warm sentimentality that it's hard not to bask in Porco's nobility—when he's not being crass. The film is fascinating in that the hero, having flown with honour for Italy during the war, has become nauseated by humanity and the human endeavor and has thrown off the skin of that disgusting animal for that of a far more noble creature: a pig. Porco has cast off his allegiance to any nation and now trolls the Mediterranean as a bounty hunter, so that he might subsidize his life off solitude in a lonely cove.

It really is a marvelous exploration of individual identity vs. national identity—made all the more striking when one considers the highly nationalistic nature of Miyazaki's own country.

Rating:


I Can Hear the Sea

Year: 1993
Director: Tomomi Mochizuki
Runtime: 72 min.

This was a simple story, filmed for television, masquerading as a love-triangle—but it's really just a great little coming of age tale. I don't really have much to say save for that I've seen this three or four times now and I always find it enjoyable. There are no fantasy elements and it could probably be as easily told via live-action filming, but it wasn't and it may be more poignant for that fact.

Rating:


Pom Poko

Year: 1994
Director: Isao Takahata
Runtime: 118 min.

This is probably my least favourite of the Ghibli oeuvre. It's a documentary-style presentation of how the encroaching civilation of man affects the wildlife that used to live where there are now suburban developments. It's kind of what I imagine Over the Hedge would have been like if the raccoon had enormous magical testicles.

No really.

The principle characters of the film are a group of tanuki, a raccoon-like dog-beast native to Japan and notable for their tremendous nutsacks. And throughout the movie, these tanuki use their scrotum for a hilariously diverse set of tasks. Parachute canopies to slow their fall. Large picnic-like blankets. One even sets his to form a large ship that they might sail away to safety and new fortune.

I know. It sounds like the RADDEST MOVIE EVER. Maybe it was. Maybe the subtitling on my peculiar copy was so poor that the movie seemed boring. Because really, that's how it felt. Dry. Overlong. Unexciting. Granted, it's probably still worth a rental so that you and your family can enjoy a good healthy dose of tanuki balls.

Rating:

note: here's a popular commercial featuring a tanuki that was going around for awhile. Uh, it's NSFW I guess. It's more funny than offensive, but you never know...


Whisper of the Heart

Year: 1995
Director: Yoshifumi Kondo
Runtime: 111 min.

Whisper of the Heart is probably the most adorable of all the Ghibli productions. It is in almost constant battle with Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke in contention for my Top Spot as Best Ghibli Film. While Miyazaki did not direct, he was heavily involved in scripting and production, so I guess you can see his hand. Or else Kondo just rocks. Er, rocked. He was being groomed to take over Ghibli, but he died suddenly right after completing Whisper of the Heart.

This is the story of a fifteen-year-old girl who loves fantasy and faery tales more than life. When she meets a kid who crafts violins, they inspire each other to be the best people in the world, so she determines to write a novel over the next month or two. I won't say anymore except to say: "High-five Ghibli!"

Rating:


Princess Mononoke

Year: 1997
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Runtime: 133 min.

This is the first Miyazaki film I ever saw. It was a revelation to me. Like most of you, I grew up on "quality animation" being synonymous with Disney. I don't know what I expected. I had seen Akira so i had some taste for Japanese animation, but the sheer attention to detail on show here was awestriking. Visually, Princess Mononoke may actually be the most impressive Ghibli film of all.

And it's not just in the broad strokes either, but in the little things as well. A scene in which a rock is pebbled with a light rain until it is soaked to wetness. Beams of light piercing as shafts through storm clouds and wind breezing across fields as the grasses flutter against its waves. The dappling of sunlight as Ashitaka rides through the forest. These were details that would not even be considered in the American animation style. Animation was not dead as I had been led to believe. It was just overseas.

Princess Mononoke is thoroughly adventurous and action oriented, but it has its soft, thoughtful side as well. For every arm that Ashitaka lops off, there is a scene of quiet reflection and care for the world or the forest or humanity itself. I walked out of the theater in August 1999 changed. And not every film can boast that kind of accomplishment.

Rating:


My Neighbors the Yamadas

Year: 1999
Director: Isao Takahata
Runtime: 104 min.

Less a narrative direction and more just a series of vignettes, My Neighbors the Yamadas is good or mediocre depending entirely on which vignette is playing at a given time. Some of the short stories are funny and inspired, others are less interesting and function more as time-fillers than anything else. More than anything though, My Neighbors the Yamadas offers a sketch of one brand of contemporary Japanese family life.

Rating:


Spirited Away

Year: 2001
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Runtime: 124 min.

By the time Spirited Away was released to theaters, I had seen a number of Ghibli's films and so was well-prepared for a cinematic treat. Still, I wasn't prepared for the harmonious cacophony of creatures and sights that filled the screen during the bulk of the film. I feel like I've been gushing about Ghibli's product so I don't want to do that here.

But I can't help myself.

If you've never seen a Ghibli film, not knowing you or your tastes, I would probably recommend Spirited Away as the place to start. It's possible that you won't like it, but that would mean you had no soul—and so, not liking a movie I recommended would be the least of your concerns.

Spirited Away, as I've described before, is kinda like Alice in Wonderland hopped up on meth. It tells the story of Chihiro, a little girl who becomes lost in a world of gods and spirits as she works in a mystical bathhouse hoping that she can rescue her parents who have been captured according to their greed. There's witches, dragons, bodiless heads, giant babies, sludge monsters, and giant hopping chicks. There may be other things you'd want from a movie, but I can't think what.

Rating:

note: despite the japanese penchant for fan service, the giant hopping chicks are not cute women but but baby chickens.


The Cat Returns

Year: 2002 Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Runtime: 75 min.

This was a slight, enjoyable film. The animation was perhaps a small step down from typical Ghibli, but it was a fun story. It also functions as something of an off-shoot of Whisper of the Heart bringing back both Muto the cat and the Baron figurine and breathing new life into each. Worth a rental.

Rating:


Howl's Moving Castle

Year: 2004
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Runtime: 118 min.

Howl's Moving Castle was adapted from, I guess, a British children's book. I don't care to read the book. I was perfectly satisfied with Miyazaki's presentation and can consider myself sated.

I was actually surprised that I found the story as compelling as I did. Miyazaki typically uses the young as his protagonists, and though the hero started as a young woman, she spends the majority of the film as a tubby old lady, bent over with age. Like Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle presents an explosion of visual imagery, most notably in scenes within the titular moving castle itself. This film is the best kind of fantasy and I can't wait to see it again. And probably again.

And again.

Rating:

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008





20080226

While reading Noble Alan's response to a recent embroglio involving himself (a writer for Christ and Pop-Culture) and the staff of Movieguide.com* (the object of one of his recent critiques), I was struck with consideration for the goal of the critic versus that of the reviewer. Noble's most recent article speaks to the fact that quote-unquote secular critics may have valuable things to say about secular movies.

The thing is, this should be obvious on the face of it when one considers the goal of the critic and his realm of expertise.

We should start off by describing the difference between critics and reviews. And this is not something I've made up. Many so-called film critics are really just movie reviewers. Some movie reviewers are both critics and reviewers, devoting time to each pursuit either on separate occasions or occasionally simultaneously. Roger Ebert is a notable example of this.

So let's explore the difference.

A critic is not so-much concerned with whether a product is worthwhile or not but devotes attention to identifying themes and character notes. The critic is looking for cinematographic tells, editing techniques, and audio cues. The critic is concerned with the film's communication and ability to communicate, not to evaulate that which is communicated but simply to identify the communication and discuss the tools available for further interpretation.

A reviewer is less concerned with the discovery of themes than with the evaluation of the themes perceived—and more, with the evaluation with the film as a whole. The end goal of the reviewer is discussion of the film's value as a worthwhile expenditure of one's time. The reviewer's whole task is the commodification of a film into a purchasable quantity. Almost anytime we speak of rating movies, whether with points or stars, we're speaking of reviewers rather than critics.

The reviewer asks will you like what the film said (or more often, "Did I?") while the critic asks what the film said.

As I mentioned, some who talk about film are both critic and reviewer, while others lean wholly to one camp or another. Personally, I generally lean toward review. My capsule reviews are wholly evaluations of how much I appreciated each work. My lists of bests are the same. Very occasionally, I'll write critical pieces, but not often. I prefer to read critics than reviewers myself, but its much easier to review than critique.

Noble quotes Tom Snyder of Movieguide:

Just because the secular movie critics and secular elites in Hollywood donít like some of the movies we pick does not mean that they are really bad movies within the categories in which we pick them.

Snyder is responding to a point Noble had made earlier when he said that the average rating collected by Metacritic (an aggregator of film review ratings) for Movieguide's top picks was far lower than what critics generally thought of as being the year's best films.**

Part of the difficulty here is terminology. Properly speaking, criticism doesn't involve anything unique either to Christians or non-Christians any more than does garbage collection. Just as we wouldn't speak of Christian or secular garbage collection, neither would we speak of Christian of secular criticism. Identification of a film's meaning and discussion of the technical aspects of its presentation are a learned set of tools available liberally for those who pursue them, whether saved or damned. A Christian isn't better prepared to understand Transformers, its codification and its influences, than a non-Christian.

A Christian may, however, be better prepared to discuss his feelings about a film from his own particular Christian perspective than a non-Christian reviewer can. Because really, Person A should always be better equipped to discuss his feelings about a film from his own perspective than any person who does not sit in his same subcultural niche. In this sense, all who discuss whether they liked a film or not are reviewers and the only way one reviewer achieves merit over another is that he is better able to express the opinion he holds than is another.

At the end of the day, a reviewer is only valuable to the niche he serves—a niche comprised of those who hold opinions like his own. There is only one movie reviewer I ever pay any attention to. This is wholly because through reading his reviews, I have come to find that our tastes intersect enough so that if he likes a movie and explains why, I can usually judge with great success whether I will also like a movie. Sites like Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes are of no real value to most people because there is little consistency between the perspectives of most critics and any single individual.*** Likewise, the reviews Movieguide provides will never be a useful tool to me because their reviewers come from so wholly a different perspective than me that any intersection of tastes will be almost wholly coincidental.

However, while the value of a good film reviewer is scarce (only presenting itself to its niche) the value of a good critic is far more universal. Whether one agrees with a critic's opinions or not, their presentations are thoughtful and work toward unraveling purpose and meaning—the things that can contribute to the value perceived by a reviewer.

It should be noted that I realize that both Alan Noble and Tom Snyder are largely referring to reviewers when they make use of the critic terminology, which is fair as such use has found its way into popular parlance. Still, there are moments when the terminology is confused. There is the assumption in Noble's article that reviewers may be a better source of information as to a film's quality as they are trained professionals**** (hence his comparison between Movieguide's opinions and the collected opinions of the average reviewer—a comparison that shouldn't otherwise matter). This presumes, I think, some sort of cross-breed between reviewer and critic, a creature who offers an opinion on a film's value based not just upon the perspective of one's circumstances but upon a universal set of standard tools as well.


*note: Movieguide is one of those institutionally Christian services that falls under the banner of "discernment ministy," reviewing movies and noting whatever moral problems might prohibit pure viewing from susceptible Christian audiences.

**note: Movieguide's Top 10 films for a mature audience apparently averaged a rating of 60.4 out of 100. Here is Movieguide's Top 10 (with Metacritic's score in parentheses):

1. Amazing Grace (65)
2. August Rush (38)
3. Spider-Man 3 (59)
4. I Am Legend (65)
5. Strike (72)
6. The Great Debaters (65)
7. The Astronaut Farmer (55)
8. Pride (55)
9. Transformers (61)
10. Live Free or Die Hard (69)

And here is Metacritic's:

1. Ratatouille (96)
2. Killer of Sheep (94)
3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (92)
4. There Will Be Blood (92)
5. No Country for Old Men (91)
6. Persepolis (90)
7. No End in Sight (89)
8. Once (88)
9. Away from Her (88)
10. This Is England (86)

***note: yes, I know single individual is redundant. I wrote it anyway. Because I'm like that.

****note: This is never stated overtly but is something I inferred from my reading of the text. If my reading is mistaken, I am happy to be corrected.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008





20080220

Since this edition of Capsule Reviews contains a several few entries, I'll provide a table of contents for your reading convenience:

Films
The Good Shepherd
Roman holiday
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring
Tampopo

Books
Stardust
Magician


The Good Shepherd

Film: Espionage/Historical.
Year: 2006.
Director: Robert De Niro.
167 minutes.

As far as spy movies go, I am always more interested in the ones that eschew action and gadgets for a sense of reality. Movies like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sit well among my favourites. I adore Greg Rucka's work in the Queen & Country series. I even liked Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, even though that was really far more than an exploration of espionage.

So then, it should come as no surprise that I think highly of The Good Shepherd.

The film (starring Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, and a bunch of other Hollywood favourites who populate the background) is suitably downbeat and thematically complex. Ostensibly a film about the formation of the CIA during the Cold War and the sacrificial protection necessary to maintain what we know as, quote-unquote, national security, The Good Shepherd actually offers a spectacular autopsy of the kind of spiritual murder nations (and particularly our nation) deem necessary as they destroy the souls and lives of those who serve their cause. The sacrifice of men like Matt Damon's Edward Wilson on display here is every bit as tragic and disturbing as that of the naive young men fooled into selling their lives in battle for a menagerie of meaningless wars advertised as being for the sake of that great lady, Democracy (don't forget the quote-unquotes).

And perhaps sacrifices like Wilson's are even more devastating. Your friend from high school, your brother, your son—though they die for a fool's errand, at least it was over quick and the grieving will move on, the sting of pain becoming less every passing season. With those given over to the secret defense of the nation and all the ideals for which honest citizens dream, however, life is a death of inches and the corruption of that slow destruction reaches out to infect everything within reach. Lives like Edward Wilson's are not only poisoned but are poisoning as well, actively bringing misery to all who care, to all who hope for better than so mere a wish as a secure nation.

And De Niro's film captures this with skill and certainty. He does not stumble and he does not kiss it better. The Good Shepherd is worth watching, even if it doesn't make you feel better.

Rating:


Roman Holiday

Film: Romance.
Year: 1953.
Director: William Wyler.
118 minutes.

This is the movie that made stars of both Audrey Hepburn and Vespa motorscooters. It's a slight and inconsequential film, but it radiates a sweetness and down-to-earth glamour that can't help but cheer the soul. It is, in a word, cute. This is one of those quintessential "chick-flicks"—one of the ones to which contemporary versions look back toward and seek to emulate. You've got the male lead who starts off as a user, but comes to be swayed by romance. You've got the cross-stratum affection that can never be consummated in any lasting way. You've got the montage of events through which love comes to be. And the entire thing has a sense of unreality about it.

Which is why, of course, the film is so thoroughly romantic.

Rating:


Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring

Film: Art Haus.
Year: 2003.
Director: Ki-duk Kim.
103 minutes.

Ki-duk Kim's exploration of spirituality and the ethics of life is stunning in its beauty. Would it have been cliché to have said "sublime beauty"? If so, I'm glad I didn't say it, but it doesn't really matter because the Kim's film has more sublimity than you can shake a stick at.

It took me a long time to get around to seeing this. It's a thoughtful film and I knew it and I was never quite in the mood for a thoughtful film whenever I had it around. I Netflicked it several times, leaving it on top of my television for months at a time while watching Lost or some animated show or a classic or an adventure or whatever before sending it back in shame. Rinse, repeat. Finally, I did the smart thing and had some friends over for an "Asian-movie night." So sequestered, it was easy to take in the meandering story and thoughtful silences.

And really, in the end, it's one of the best films I've seen—perhaps even worthy of a place on the illustrious Top 100.

Rating:


Tampopo

Film: Food Comedy.
Year: 1985.
Director: Juzo Itami.
114 minutes.

Tampopo was the other presentation at the "Asian-movie night" and, while I had seen it before, I'm always in the mood for its special brand of humour.

Long story short, Tampopo is an anthology of short comedies about food all strung together by an interweaving tale of the kung-fu-style training of a noodle chef seeking to run a worthwhile noodle joint. It's better than it sounds. Unless that sounds completely awesome. Then it's exactly as good as it sounds.

Really, the only reason this has escaped my Top 100 in the past is probably sheer forgetfulness.

Rating:


Stardust

Novel: Faerie-Tale Fantasy.
By Neil Gaiman.
288 pages.

It's been a long time since I'd read anything near the neighbourhood of Truly Enjoyable as Stardust. This was truly a treat. It was also well-written enough that pretty much everything I've read since just seems like a pale imitation of good writing. I'm going to need to read a lot of crap over the next month and wash my mind's ears of Gaiman's work here so that good writing once again sounds good—instead of the practice in hackery it currently seems.

Gaiman's writing is always pretty good, but in this case, it makes me honestly joyful that there are languages and that communication is possible.

Stardust is, in its simplest description, a faerie tale. And one well-told. Some things surprise, some things delight. And I enjoyed every last minute of my time with the book.

I only have one disappointment. For reasons beyond imagining, the book is published in very different formats: one with Charles Vess' page-by-page illuminations and one without. My copy is lamentably without. The story is amazing, but so was Vess' artwork* and I feel ill-used by the publisher.

*note: Example 1; Example 2

Rating:


Magician

Novel(s): Straight-Up Fantasy.
By Raymond Feist.
1072 pages.

Raymond Feist is to fantasy literature what Greg Rucka is to crime/espionage literature. He presents stories in a workmanlike fashion, neither embracing literary elegance or dwelling overlong on that which does not forward the story itself, and yet he offers a rollicking good time. His characters are all interesting and his narrative twists retain reader interest. He is not a great author, but he is certainly a good author.

And sometimes, good is just what the doctor ordered.

Both halves of Magician (Apprentice and Master*) are incredibly entertaining. The whole story spans about a decade and the changes in character design are sometimes remarkable (certainly this is the case as we see the two principles develop from teenagers into adults who only vaguely resemble their former selves). The book features the typical inhabitants of fantasy kingdoms: elves, dwarves, goblins, kobolds, and dragons all dwell within fighting distance of their more mundane human neighbours. Magic plays a role as well. But things quickly turn to something more than your average sword-and-sorcery epic. Portals to whole other planets are opened and wars begin for military as well as cultural dominance. Apart from the more overt aspects of these clashes, Feist excels at portraying the fascinating internecine struggles that plague the human kingdom above and beyond the obvious conflict delivered to their gates via these strange portals.

If you are looking for a light read that might cater to compulsive reading in either bed or bathroom, Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master may just fit the bill (I figured since I had already opened the floodgates of clichés, a couple more wouldn't kill us anymore than the first had).

*note: Magician was originally published as a single volume but presently finds itself in its current form of being divided into two paperbacks.

Rating:


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Tuesday, February 19, 2008





20080219

Some of you may recall the link I unveiled between Britney Spears and the Presbyterian tastes. Because that was so popular, I now reveal new joys, transversing from las palabras to iconography. Bon appetit.

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Friday, February 15, 2008





20080215

So I'm a day late on this, but here's my happy VD wish for y'all.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008





20080213

Way back when, I listed Fight Club as a special inclusion in my Top 50 Chick Flicks list. Here's why.

This was cross-posted in comments in a slightly different form at The Pundit's new blog in response to his post on anti-consumerism in Fight Club

Despite the rousing bravado of Tyler Durdenís speeches, Tyler-the-imaginary-character is really just a stand-in for aggressive masculinity and Fight Club ultimately mocks him by killing him off and presenting an ultimately feminist solution to the worldís ills. The entire movie is actually a paean to Marla Singer and the aggressive rebuttal to patriarchy that she represents—and Jackís narration* demonstrates this. The movie presents Tylerís anti-consumerism and neo-neanderthalic ideologies as cute and fun but ultimately trite and unworkable.

Marla, as Jackís savior (she delivers him from his psychosis), source of strength (sheís his power animal), and anchor to reality (at least in the scope of the film), represents a return to matriarchy. The great danger that Tyler represents and hopes to force upon the the world is patriarchic anarchy, a return to hunter/gatherer reality, in which sex roles return to those classically defined. This is the film's central conflict. Tyler is the film's antagonist, though we like him.

Jack keys us in to Marlaís importance with the filmís opening in which he says, "All of this has got something to do with a girl named Marla Singer."** Immediately after, we see Jack nestled between Bobís boobs, a representation of comfort and safety for him. The film climaxes with Jackís victory over Tylerís dream, all the while being prompted and inspired by Marla (whom he loathes but comes to cherish). The denouement, with the buildings collapsing is a blind. Most will see the destruction of the credit companies as a victory for Tyler, but itís ultimately hollow. While the scene of destruction plays out, we hear Pixies singing "Where is my mind?" and we look and see that while Jack is certainly taking in the scene of destruction, his mind is on other matters. He has chosen Marla, not Tyler. Tyler states, "Weíre a generation of men raised by women. Iím wondering if another woman is really the answer we need." Jack affirms that it is.

And that is why the movie is about her.

But what is she? She is the ultimate egalitarian woman. Marla inhabits a world in which traditionally female roles have been subsumed by the men. (This is Tylerís whole problem with consumer culture. Not that itís driving fruitless needs and wants but that shopping is feminine and real men shouldnít need consumerism.) In this world in which men encroach on female sex-roles, Marla responds in kind, taking on traditionally masculine aspects to herself. She is the aggressor in the sexual relationship. She is the one with the foul mouth. She is the one who is not fashion-conscious. And she is the one who talks sense while the men in the monkey house are wholly driven by the emotional appeal of Tylerís message.

Marla is, in short, the new femininity. She has absorbed all sex-roles, taking what suits her, and begins to rule the world. Or at the least, Jackís world. And part of Marlaís bid to absorb all sex-roles is her exchange of the formerly male/female consumer dynamic. In a world of effeminate men, she becomes the ideal not just for women but for men as well.

In the end, I donít think the film cares about consumerism one way or another. The battle between consumerism and Tylerís violent anti-consumerism was just a gimmick to express the war of genderization. The fact is, the film didn't really say anything about consumerism at all.

But letís pretend that weíre to take Tylerís points seriously. I think the film is right to not take his ideology too seriously. Consuming isnít bad or wrong or harmful in itself. Thoughtless consumption is the problem. Tylerís agenda, however, makes no allowances for this. And the big irony is that he is selling his ideology to born consumers. They eat it up. They want what heís selling because thatís who they are, thoughtless consumers. Consumerism and commodification doesnít stop with arbitrary economic units (a.k.a. money and money-purchaseable product), but it goes well into all aspects of life—and I can sell an idea or an image or a belief as easily as a car, only the rate of exchange doesnít involve dollars.

p.s. I attribute my introduction to this view to Alex Bernhardt, whose article for the now defunct 24 frames per second website I first read around 2001 or so.

*note: We are never actually given the narrator's real name. I use "Jack" as a placeholder and take it from the series of children's books the narrator finds amongst rubbish (e.g., I Am Jack's Kidney) and later transforms into statements about his current frame of mind (e.g., I am Jack's raging bile duct).

**note: Oh yeah, and I was reminded that it helps the reading to remember that Tyler was on the scene before Jack was introduced to Marla—so one cannot read the opening line as a reference to the creation of Tyler (though it would be fascinating if Marla had been the catalyst for the creation of Tyler Durden).

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Thursday, February 07, 2008





20080207

I was going to write this rad post today unveiling a mystery of awesome corruption and deviance in the realm of youth fiction. I had evidence, you see. I was not certain what my conclusion would be but I did know there were questionable things afoot.

Then I really looked at my evidence.

As it turns out, while there still may be some shennanigans, the evidence is not as strong I thought it was when my comparison of the two exibits was made without the two pieces side by side. In any case, here's the deal.

This morning as I perused the comics news (a morning ritual by which I ascertain the health of the subculture and discover things to which one should pay heed), I noticed that Evan Kuhlman's Wolf Boy has been optioned for the cinema by the Weinstein Co. As I read, I noticed the book's jacket art and thought, Waitasec! Something looked way too familiar. See, The Monk has been reading, just finished, and greatly enjoyed Nate Wilson's recent book (also aimed at a youth market), Leepike Ridge. I haven't read the book myself (save for the first chapter), but the book jacket by Tim Jessel is pretty engrained in my mind since, for the past week, it has stood placeholder for The Monk's face during many of the evening hours.

Something seemed fishy to me. And here it was:

Battle of the Ugly Shoes

The thing that set me off was having Jessel's Converse-clad feet ingrained in my mind for how poorly they were rendered. The just looked awkward there, more rounded than long and with strange bulges beginning immediately as the rubber toe ends. I had been thinking, Who would draw Chuck Taylors like that? So when I encountered similarly rendered Converse-clad feets on the cover of Wolf Boy, I didn't think, Wow, someone else drew sucky-looking shoes. Instead, I thought, Wow, are those shoes clip art or did one artist rip off the other? Or is it the same artist just going for an easy paycheck?

So, naturally, I put together a post about it. But while gathering evidence, I thought I should overlay the art in order to see just how alike the two pairs of shoes actually were. The thing is, they are close but not exact.

Battle of the Ugly Shoes

There may still have been some copying* going on, but I suppose we'll never know. It does seem overly coincidental that two youth-market books bear such thematically similar covers within the space of a year (Wolf Boy was published in 2oo6** and Leepike Ridge in 2oo7), but since I don't know the illustrater for the prior book and the art is slightly different, I have little case for conspiracy theorizing.

Wish me better luck next time!

*note: or the more tasteful homaging, which really amounts to copying but is a friendlier way of saying it.

**note: Wolf Boy no longer features the badly-drawn-shoe cover in its current form.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008





20080205

I found this juxtaposition of two lifestyles (via Facebook status) interesting.

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Monday, February 04, 2008





20080204

We're waiting to get our voter info still. It should have arrived by now. I'll be sad if I don't get to vote in this primary, but don't worry: I'll live. But it's always fun to have the chance to put in a vote against evil. The primary system has always struck me as hopelessly inadequate. People don't vote for the best candidate, they vote for who is most likely to defeat the worst leading candidate. So you have people voting for Huckabee (a hopelessly inadequate candidate) just because they would suffer any indignity not to have McCain as president.

My guess is that I'll be voting Democrat in the Fall. My other guess is that I'll have no one to vote for at all. We live in a lunatic world.

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Friday, February 01, 2008





20080201


Hellboy: The Bones of Giants

Novel: Fantasy.
By Christopher Golden (manuscript illuminations by Mike Mignola).
96 pages.

I've been a fan of Hellboy pretty much since its inception - or at least since before his first book was published. Mike Mignola has created a gruff-but-lovable character and a lovably gruff cast. There are currently nine graphic collections (Hellboy found initial publication in serially released chapters in comic book form) exploring his world and investigations into myth, folklore, and the paranormal. Mignola's art perfects Hellboy's mood and the flow of action and thought throughout each story.

The books are another matter. The fact is: Hellboy just does not properly translate into other media, whether prose or cinema or animation. In fact, he doesn't even translate into his own native medium when presented by creators other than Mignola. So it's no surprise that The Bones of Giants might not be the best thing I've read this year.

Author Christopher Golden crafts a story that is a little bit fun and adventurous. He's got some of the mythic and horror elements that make Mignola's series such a joy. He even ties into some of the obscure shorter stories that Mignola wrote in the mid-'90s (notably the Norwegian incident featuring King Vold). Yet, something is missing. It was like reading a report of what happened to Hellboy without actually living through it like one does with the comic format.

Golden's style is straightforward and hits all the right story points, yet despite the presence of Mignola's art illuminating the text, it's just not a Hellboy book. The Bones of Giants, put simply, is missing its heart.

There's also an obnoxious section in which a vision is recounted for a couple pages in italics. That is exactly the point where I put the book down when I tried to read it a few years ago. Large sections of oblique type do not make comfortable reading and it was only do to my own formidable tenacity that I was able to persevere this time through. Note to young authors: Don't do this in your books.

Rating:


Neverwhere

Novel: Urban Fantasy.
By Neil Gaiman.
400 pages.

As usual, Gaiman does not fail to be imaginative in his productions. As well, his oblique sense of humour is here both hale and hearty—though perhaps not quite so buoyant as in works painted in lighter tones such as Anansi Boys or Stardust. Still, I hate to say it, but Neverwhere was never really quite to my taste.

It's hard to pin down the reason, though some might point to my fevered experiences from the night I finished the book for some explanation (experiences regaled elsewhere), but the truth is that I was only ever on the favourable side of ambivalent for nearly my entire experience of the book. I think it may have been the darker, sewer-tinted vibe from the story that may have coloured my opinion.

Still, Gaiman performs the tasks of a storyteller with precision and in the hand of an accomplished writer. Details, presumably forgotten earlier, are woven back into the fabric of his narrative in such a way that one can tell he appreciates the role of the reader as much as he does that of his own as author. His characterization is colourful and his characters themselves progress through believable arcs and evolutions (well, when they do actually arc). And everything wraps up tidy and for the most part satisfactorily.

It was a well-wrought book. Just one that I didn't enjoy quite as much as I would have liked.

Rating:


The 10th Kingdom

TV Miniseries: Fantasy.
417 minutes (a.k.a. 39 minutes).

Wow. No, seriously. Wow. The 10th Kingdom clocks in at just under seven hours and I only made it thirty-nine minutes before I resigned myself to the fact that I could by no means in good conscience finish the movie.

Allow me to put it plainly: The 10th Kingdom is the worst thing I've seen in memory. There may have been worse. I just can't remember anything as bad.

Some may think it unfair of me to judge a story of which I have only experienced 9.35% its entire product, but I can assure that the rest of the movie could be Citizen Kane and the still not redeem the horror foisted upon viewers in the first hour.

Where do the problems lie? Chiefly in the acting. Or over-acting. Painful over-acting. The only thing inoffensive to me was Kimberly Williams - though I suspect I may be here influenced by the childhood crush I fostered from her work in Father of the Bride. The story I had no such past affection for and I was thence unable to overlook its stench. Even the musical cues were overwrought and painful.

Still, I imagine that ten-year-olds might get a kick out of the show and think the writing witty and urbane. Take that for what it's worth.

Rating:

note: this is another one of those instances in which the Amazon reviews are baffling and betray the fact that society is not actually collapsing but has in fact long since fallen into a ruin from which nothing can be saved and we are likely better off in communion with monkey gods than with our fellow Americans (monkey gods being wholly the product of our own imaginations and all).


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