April Superlatives

Book posts are back! Just as Superlatives for now, but who knows what the future holds?

In April I read 10 print books (pictured above) and 4 ebooks, plus listened to 2 full audiobooks (most of which pictured below), which makes 16 in total. The anxieties and slow progress of March have been replaced by a rejuvenation of reading mojo, albeit not a noticeable diminishment of more generalized worry. But I don’t think I’m alone in that.

gateway drug: Michael Christie’s family-saga eco-drama Greenwood started slowly, but quickly compelled me to read on, as it leapfrogs backward into the tangled and hidden histories of a family whose destiny is irrevocably entwined with trees: whether tapping them for sap to sell, cutting them down for timber that fuels the growth of a business empire, or protecting the last stand of virgin growth-forest in the world, only a few decades into the future. A tad melodramatic for my taste, but definitely did the trick.

biggest time-warp: Agnes Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays started out as columns in The Times, but lovely Persephone Books collected them and put them between beautiful dove-grey covers. Reading them is like experiencing a mad, but not unpleasant, dream, where the correct preparation of Lobster Newburg (eh?) is discussed alongside deeper moral questions (“choosing well is one of the most difficult things in a difficult world”).

most delightful surprise: Briarley, by Aster Glenn Gray, which was my very first ever romance novel and which shocked me by being absolutely excellent. It is a m/m retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in an English village during WWII, featuring a bisexual vicar whose daughter is volunteering for the war effort, and an arrogant landowner who’s been turned into a dragon for his heartlessness. Gray incorporates the classical references you’d expect educated men in the ’40s to have at their fingertips, along with Biblical and literary ones, and the whole tone of the novella is both wistfully fable-like and muscular. Gorgeous, and funny.

best disguise: I’m awarding this to Mistresses by Linda Porter for being, basically, quite enjoyable fluffy chapters on the lives of the major mistresses of Charles II, cunningly hiding in the form of a group historical biography. She does provide political and historical context, and of course the fates of mistresses often parallel the fates of administrations, factions, and fashions, but it’s not highly academic by any means.

steamiest surprise: My second foray into romance was the equally delightful, well-written and tender, but also waaayyy hotter, The Duke I Tempted by Scarlett Peckham. I implore you, look past its cover and the title and what is surely a pseudonym, and consider: an ambitious, proud woman trying to make a career as a botanical gardener in a world that despises working women; an emotionally damaged nobleman who can only find the emotional release he needs at the hands of a professional domme; a marriage of convenience; profound misunderstanding; and the beauty of what is possible when people really try with each other. It’s so good on BDSM dynamics without being anachronistic (at least not in any ways that stuck out to me), and I’m so glad I read it.

most fun reread: Two rereads this month, the jolliest of which was Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I still find her pacing, especially in the latter third of the book, a little confusing; things seem to happen very quickly but without much consequence, and in the whole chapter where Sophie goes to visit the king, nothing advances. It’s still really fun, though, and the movie is now on Netflix (though I know it’s quite different!)

most anticipated: Sarah Moss’s new novel, Summerwater (not out til August). It’s good, of course—she literally can’t write a bad one at this point—though it doesn’t maintain its sticky tension the way Ghost Wall does. I’m not sure it’s trying to; the reason it loses that claustrophobia despite being set in a small place over one day is that the point of view bounces from character to character each chapter, and what it doesn’t have in dread it makes up for in its miniaturized characterization, each new voice convincing.

best proof that “old” =/= “classic”: The 1830s bestseller Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, which takes 600 pages to tell a pretty straightforward story of a young boy who grows up to be a highwayman, his life of crime, the woman he falls for, and their eventual happy ending. It’s not terrible, and there’s value in being able to see that Bulwer-Lytton is aiming for effects that Dickens manages not long after with infinitely more panache and individuality (poor and elderly grotesques with funny accents! Parentage shrouded in mystery!) But the fact that it’s now out of print (after a brint stint as one of a short-lived Penguin series of Victorian Bestsellers) is really a mercy.

second-best surprise: Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, which I started listening to basically on a whim and found myself really sucked into. She’s such an appealing narrator/protagonist: she’s not into politics at all, her self-presentation as a driven, conscientious rule-follower is rueful and funny, and to start with she’s not all that into Barack either. Her dedication to her kids and family life also goes down very well: she’s smart and educated, and has no intention of being a smiling doll-wife, but she also unashamedly loves being a mom. I liked her a lot just from listening to this. The hype is real.

most frustrating: I really wanted to like Holly Watt’s follow-up novel, The Dead Line, which sees her investigative journalist protag Casey Benedict chasing a story about illegal surrogacy in Bangladesh. And for much of it, I did; it’s a page-flipper, even though it’s too long. But there’s a certain authorial sympathy extended to the white British women who constitute the market for this illegal surrogacy and who don’t care how many vulnerable people are hurt as long as they get their baby at the end of it. I think it was meant to be even-handedness, which is admirable in theory—there’s a lot of emotional territory to be explored—but instead it felt like an attempt to equate their sufferings with those of the women forced to carry their babies, and that sits very, very badly with me indeed.

best popcorn books: Two thoroughly trashy YA novels from a series that I was obsessed with as a pre-teen, Fearless FBI: Kill Game and Fearless FBI: Agent Out, by Francine Pascal. Fearless FBI is a follow-up series to Fearless, which is about a teenage girl “born without the fear gene” (teh sciencez!) living in New York who just kicks everyone’s ass vigilante-style because she can. Very ’90s, very girl-power, lots of violence and sexual tension. I was not allowed to read them and therefore had to borrow them in secret from my best friend. In Fearless FBI, our protag Gaia has just graduated from Stanford and joined the FBI (in the first book’s first scene, she saves everyone from a suicide bomber at her college graduation because of course that’s a natural venue for a domestic terrorist). These were written around 2005, and there are definite efforts to integrate some more sophisticated gender politics, but they flounder because Pascal is clearly a lot more comfortable in the “RESPECT WOMEN, YOU DOUCHE [round-house kick] THAT’S RIGHT, GIRLS CAN BE CUTE AND DANGEROUS” zone. They’re quite bad and joyfully these two of the series (vols 1 and 3) are available in ebook form. (Vols 2 and 4 are not, which is a huge disappointment; please get on that, Simon & Schuster, kthanks.)

biggest splash of cold water: After chewing through two of those in one weekend afternoon, I elected to read something more sensible and settled down with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian satire on Taylorian management principles and totalitarian (Soviet) society, We. It’s not masses of fun, and it’s pretty misogynistic, which shouldn’t be a huge surprise with things written in the mid-20th century but somehow always is. Not dissimilar to Brave New World (though We came first and Huxley denied the influence), with its classes of citizens, strictly regimented timetables and regulated sexuality, and brutal repression of dissidents. Worth reading if you’ve exhausted Huxley and Orwell, though. It wasn’t published at all until three years after it was written, and then only in English; its first publication in Russian took three more decades.

wait, no, this was the biggest splash of cold water: The audiobook of Garrett M Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky: an Oral History of 9/11. It is, as the title would suggest, sombre. But it’s also incredibly well done; a full cast reads the interviews, which are interleaved with each other and arranged in roughly chronological order, so we get a section called Tuesday Begins followed by Checking In, The First Plane, First Reactions in DC, American Airlines Flight 77, The Military Responds, and so on. It feels like nothing so much as being physically inside a multi-part documentary. The amount of work that went into the writing of the book—fifteen years—let alone the recording, is phenomenal. Did it make me tear up several times? Absolutely, yes. Did it leave me with a profound sense of hope? Also, absolutely, yes. Good to read about acute disasters during a chronic one, in a way.

best reminder to reread more: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, which I read at about thirteen and hadn’t revisited since. Liz Dexter (on Instagram I accidentally said it was Clare from Years of Reading Selfishly, I’m so sorry!) prompted me to read this again along with her, and it’s so good. Cather was one of my authors of the year in 2019; in My Ántonia, the story of a Bohemian (Czech) immigrant girl and her family in the American West, her landscape descriptions and her gifts of empathy and grace are on full display.

most alarmingly topical: Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig, an 800-page novel about… a global pandemic. (There’ll be no spoilers here, but let’s just say the ultimate revelation about the pandemic’s source is fairly chilling.) Good, clean, page-turning fun; not as profound as it thinks it’s being, and Wendig has one of my least favourite writing tics (“And with that, [character’s name] [some kind of synonym for “moved out of shot”: “walked away”, “left”, “departed”, “closed the door”, you name it]). It’s kind of sub-The Stand (mind you, I like Stephen King). But absolutely great for this moment in time, if what you want to do with this moment in time is stare into the abyss of it.


currently reading: Shirley, the major Charlotte Brontë novel I hadn’t yet gotten to. (I don’t count The Professor.) For nineteenth-century depictions of industrial unrest, I have to say, I find Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South both more sympathetic and less preachy, but Shirley is very readable and moreover is primarily about a close female friendship that doesn’t sour (or hasn’t yet) over a man, which is great.

April 2020 e-and audiobook collage

Pandemic commissions: Monsters University

1395333

Literary analyst extraordinaire and blogging buddy Laura commissioned me to watch and review Monsters University, a sequel to Monsters, Inc. about which I had no great expectations whatsoever. It’s Pixar, so I figured it’d be good, but the movie’s existence seemed inessential. On the whole, watching it just confirmed my thinking, but there’s plenty of fun to be had, and it’s got a heartwarming message, so let’s dive in.

The interesting thing about Monsters University is that it almost feels like fanfic. It fleshes out the world of Monstropolis in ways that the earlier movie didn’t have the time or the inclination to do: it becomes evident, for example, that there’s more than one scaring company, and by extension, there’s more than one institute of higher education. The focus of this film is also very firmly on Mike, who (as I think I mentioned in my review of Monsters, Inc.) has hitherto been presented as a lifelong sidekick. The beating heart of Monsters University is in showing us how no one is a sidekick in their own story, nor should they be. If Monsters, Inc. is about the jocks, the big-time celebrity scarers (developers have described their conception of Sulley as being “like the star quarterback”), Monsters University is–quite literally–about the nerdy weirdos, misfits and outcasts, and it handily dramatizes how short-sighted it is to valorize jocks and popularity culture.

This makes it extremely well suited to be a movie for kids, since popularity is a major concern of every child who attends school. Even if you have no interest in it, it is a force that shapes your kid-life like gravity, and it’s also easy to get caught up in these contests despite your best intentions. Randall Boggs, the villain in Monsters, Inc., is given something of an origin story here: he’s Mike’s roommate at university and starts off as a friendly, hapless nerd with no self-confidence, attending a frat party bearing a box of cupcakes decorated to read BE MY PAL. (During a chase scene, the box is upended and several of the cupcakes fall on Randall’s head, forming the word LAME, which is the sort of thing that both works brilliantly, as a visual gag that appeals to the general emotional cruelty of kids, and has always made me intensely sad. I’ll be your pal, Randall! Cupcakes aren’t lame!) His garden-of-Eden moment comes when the cool guys at elite frat Roar Omega Roar accept him, because his ability to blend in with his environment is considered scary. He’s never seen himself this way before, and popularity is a drug; it goes straight to his head, and he’s no longer friendly to Mike. He’s a cautionary tale: we know how he ends up.

Mike, meanwhile, is a fount of boundless optimism and jollity, and he doesn’t really give a damn who likes him. His sidekick nature in Monsters, Inc.–we see him as Sulley’s coach, personal trainer and cheerleader–is developed in Monsters University; he’s desperately ambitious, if also overly theoretical, and anything that stands in the way of his becoming a scarer is simply an obstacle to be surmounted. Threatened with expulsion, he determines to win the Scare Games, a student-run competition, but can only scrape together a team composed of the frat brothers of Oozma Kappa (yes, it’s abbreviated as OK). They’re wretchedly unscary: round-bodied mature student Don, a former sales manager with a mustache and ’80s glasses; goony (and apparently stoned) arch of purple fluff Art; two-headed Teri and Terry (drama and dance majors, respectively) and monster-version-of-the-kid-from-Up Squishy, whose mom’s house doubles as the frat house. As in all such films, the training montages–Mike attempting to teach them how to roar and sneak and pounce, the OK brothers failing dismally but hilariously–are delights. The real emotional heft of the film, though, is in the discovery that “scary” can be a lot of different things; that people monsters can achieve success by embracing what they have–even their weaknesses–instead of trying to be something that they aren’t. The final round of the Scare Games is a great set piece, but the best bit is when Squishy (who really does just look like an elongated pink potato with legs) achieves the highest score simply by utilizing his ability to appear, absolutely silently, right over someone’s shoulder.

The OK brothers are the best-realized of the new characters. Don’s character arc–from laid-off, middle-aged middle manager with disappointed dreams to newly confident scarer to dating Squishy’s mom (yes!)–is particularly moving; as ever, Pixar is good at bringing out the poignancy of adulthood even while it continues to be brightly coloured, funny, and fast-moving enough for its child audiences. The other new characters are less impressive. Helen Mirren’s Dean Hardscrabble, though brilliantly designed (she does look bloody scary; she’s sort of part dragon, part centipede), is basically a stereotype of a stern professor and not particularly believable. Worthington, the president of Roar Omega Roar, is again a jock-y cliché, as is his own sidekick, the intensely stupid and boorish Chet. Alfred Molina plays a Scaring 101 professor who makes virtually no impression, which is a brutal waste of Alfred Molina. Squishy’s mom, gloriously, is a curlers-in-her-hair, minivan-driving housewife who listens to thrash metal, but that’s as much nuance as she gets. (You might say that’s all the nuance she needs. It’s a good joke and the timing is impeccable.) There are sororities as well as fraternities at Monsters U, but they’re weirdly uniform; all the members of Python Nu Kappa look exactly the same, for instance. Sulley’s character arc, though, is very well done. The privileged scion of an ancient scaring family, he appears to regard his position and success as his birthright, an attitude that enrages scrappy, started-from-the-bottom-now-I’m-here Mike. (We still never see their parents or families, though; this must have been a deliberate choice, though I can’t quite work out why.)

It’s a lot of fun, then, Monsters U, although I don’t think it reveals anything particularly new about the world we already know through Monsters, Inc.: it gives us more detail, sure, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything. A sequel, instead of a prequel, might very well have done so; there must be serious economic and social implications for the adaptation of the energy industry to the discovery that laughter is ten times more potent than screams. But I don’t think that’s likely anytime soon, and I don’t think it’d be necessary either, even though Sulley and Mike are fun, lovable characters.


Got a Disney, Pixar, MCU or Star Wars film you want me to watch and Have Opinions about? You can commission me here.

Things we did in the pandemic: episode 4

I have been reading, a lot. I just don’t want to write about books at the moment. They’re as great as ever and they’re getting me through—from my first forays into really well-written romance with Aster Glenn Gray’s Briarley, a tender WWII-era m/m retelling of Beauty and the Beast starring an overprivileged aristocrat/dragon and a battle-scarred vicar, to classics like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s socialist dystopia We and Willa Cather’s gorgeously atmospheric My Ántonia (which I’m currently rereading). But right now I want my reading to be just that: mine, private, just for me. And I want to write about silly movies. Things where everyone knows the plot, so I don’t have to do any summary, and can just tell you what works and what doesn’t. Here’s some more.

2002084

Growing up in Virginia in the ’90s, it would have been weird if I wasn’t wildly obsessed with Pocahontas when it came out. Other people seem to have been less affected by it, but a rewatch only confirmed its place in the Disney pantheon for me. Alan Menken’s music is ten for ten, every song evocative, sophisticated and often funny. “Just Around the Riverbend” and “Colors of the Wind” are the obvious standouts, but there are strong showings from “Mine, Mine, Mine” (which is A PUN, HOW DID I NOT GET THAT AGED THREE) and “Savages”, which uses intercutting shots of Powhatan and Governor Ratcliffe to brilliant metaphorical effect. Speaking of Ratcliffe: contemporary reviewers seem to have thought him a weak villain. I think he’s brilliant: pompous and silly, yet sufficiently unanswerable to anyone else to be dangerous. (His valet, Wiggins, clearly designed as comic relief, is delightfully twinky, and their relationship remarkably queer-coded, if not exactly healthy.) The fact that the animal sidekicks don’t talk is something of a blessed relief; Meeko, the cheeky and permanently hungry raccoon, is perfectly comprehensible with his clicks and purrs, and less grating than the more vocal Disney animals (see Iago in Aladdin, below). Pocahontas herself is a touch Manic Pixie Dream Girl–forever running off to the forest or leaping down waterfalls–but the vast majority of her dialogue with John Smith reveals the astonishing presumption and irony inherent in the Virginia Company’s “civilize the savages” mission; it’s much more directly addressed than I remember, which feels impressive for 1995. And the film is visually stunning, maybe the most beautiful thing Disney has ever made (with the possible exception of The Lion King). The sets are so saturated with colours: pink and purple sunsets, red dawns, green mountains, blue rivers. I could look at it for hours.

1706745

Pixar never seems to fail, but Ratatouille hasn’t historically been among the number of their movies that I feel a particularly strong love for. Rewatching it, though, I couldn’t get over how much I wanted to be in Paris, and as the film progressed, I remembered what a charming piece of work it is. Remy, the gourmet rat with a gift for cookery, is beautifully animated; his little pert nose and expressive ears are used to heartrending effect. The long scenic shots of Paris are, of course, stunning. (Is it possible that Lingini’s apartment has the same blueprint as Sulley and Mike’s from Monsters Inc.? I’m just thinking of that long window…) All of the scenes set in the kitchen of Gusteau’s restaurant are exceptional on a technical level: many of them are shot from above, giving viewers a strong sense of an industrial kitchen as a well-oiled machine, as well as a haven for life’s misfits. (One of my favourite parts of the film is when Colette gives a potted biography of each chef, none of whom has an uninteresting past.) The floating Gusteau force-ghost who periodically appears to Remy, always clarifying that he is “a figment of your imagination”, is a delight. Other than that, I think the human plot is less engaging: hapless young Linguini is sweet when he’s interacting with Remy, but a bit of a waste of space in every other context, and Skinner’s villainy feels a little pantomime-y, although still executed with panache. What surprises me is the fact that the filmmakers make Linguini’s illegitimacy quite explicit: he’s Gusteau’s son, and Gusteau famously never married, but apparently “became close” to Linguini’s mother Renata. As ever with Pixar, an adult concept is treated without either sentimentality or luridness, but it still comes as something of a shock given that their core audience is probably middle America. Their perfect emotional pitch comes to the fore in the treatment of Anton Ego, though: the wordless scene where he eats Remy’s ratatouille and is instantly transported back to the comforting country kitchen of his childhood is worth a thousand words in cookbooks about the mnemonic powers of food and flavour. It never fails to make me cry a bit, actually.

aladdin-4k-blu-ray-cover

Famously, the first film I ever “saw” in cinemas was Aladdin, which my parents (clearly more enthusiastic than practical about child-rearing) took me to when I was still an infant. Wildly overstimulated by the lights and noise, I started screaming during “Friend Like Me”, forcing my parents to flee the cinema with me, and didn’t see the film again for probably a decade. Given this inauspicious beginning, though, I’ve always really liked Aladdin, right from the opening shots of waves of dunes and the (somewhat stereotypical) caravan trader who sings “Arabian Nights”, then breaks the fourth wall in a very particular way that I can’t remember another Disney character doing. He’s not perpetrating a smug aside to camera; he’s addressing us directly, molding us into the audience for this particular story. It’s a shame we never come back to this frame device. It’s smart and a little bit sinister; I remember being slightly freaked out by it even as an older kid. There are other genuinely freaky moments too: the appearance of the mysterious elderly prisoner in the dungeons of the sultan; the booming voice of the cave as it rises out of the desert sands. Aladdin himself is a bit bland as a human, but at least he does more than Disney leading men normally do, and he’s a working-class hero. Jasmine is surprisingly resilient and sparky, standing up to powerful men and flirting sarcastically with Aladdin: no one comes close to Mulan for ballsiness, or Meg for sass, but Jasmine is among the most interesting of the Disney princesses. Jafar is SOOOO GAAAYYYY [coughs] dramatic (how many other Disney villains actually get subtitled as “maniacal cackling” more than once in their movies?! It seems to be Jafar’s every other line.) The sultan is utterly adorable and useless, a big baby-man in the vein of Prince Charming’s royal father from Cinderella. The few shots of him dressed up as a puppet jester during Jafar’s brief reign are genuinely pretty horrifying, not to mention the infamously sexy outfit Jasmine has to wear; it’s a surprisingly dark movie in general, with the parrot Iago’s anger management problems exploding in violent verbal fantasies. (Iago is dreadful. He’s banal and unfunny and his voice is grating. Abu is a slight improvement because his dialogue is delivered in what sounds like monkey chatter. Rajah the tiger is lovely, and, not coincidentally, mostly silent.) And Robin Williams as the genie, may he rest in peace, is superb. He makes the movie, no question. The sheer amount of verbal energy he pours into his performance, both sung and spoken, could power a small city. Will Smith could never.

iron-man-desktop-wallpaper

At last, a toe in the waters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which I felt less driven to explore via Disney+ because a lot of its movies have been on Netflix recently, one way or another), with its very first installment, Iron Man. Somehow I had never seen it. Given that my expectations for MCU movies are now a) many explosions, b) extremely dubious faux-ethical hand-wavey explanations for extreme violence, and c) extremely dubious faux-feminist hand-wavey sops to teh wimminz (look, all the lady superheroes fight together for one shot! The battle for equal rights is won!), it’s a pleasant surprise to go back to the start and see that it actually wasn’t terrible. The MCU is always better with single-character-focused movies than with its ensemble pieces, I feel. Iron Man is largely carried by Robert Downey Jr., whose come-to-Jesus trajectory is the plot of the movie: a billionaire genius playboy weapons manufacturer, he changes his life after spending three months in captivity at the hands of a (totally fictitious and implausible) Middle Eastern insurgency group called the Ten Rings who happen to have large amounts of his company’s weapons. (What do they want? What’s their history? Who’s in charge and why? What’s the command structure? How do they recruit? Not only do we never find out, we never get the impression that there even are answers. Bad man Raza muses that with some iron suits, he could “control Asia”; that’s as much as we’re gonna get.) Downey Jr.—sorry, Tony Stark—declares that his company will no longer manufacture weapons, which scares the investors and pisses off his right-hand man, poster boy for nominative determinism Obadiah Stane (played by a bald, bearded, call-me-daddy Jeff Bridges). He then builds an iron suit which is essentially its own weapon, perpetrates what in real life would be acts of treason against the US Air Force that would absolutely get him shot down as a matter of national defense, and saves LA (and his love interest, Gwyneth Paltrow) from Jeff Bridges, who has built his own mech and wants to take over… everything, I guess? I didn’t say it was a great movie, I just said it wasn’t terrible in comparison to later MCU forays. What it has going for it is an extremely realistically-shot first half, which mostly takes place in the mountains of Kandahar Province—it’s easy to see how, twelve years ago, this kind of gritty, current-events-based approach to a superhero story would have felt like a breath of fresh air, especially after nonsense like the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies—and a real sense of growth and evangelism in Stark, who is completely thrown and then horrified by the fact that his weapons can in fact be used against America. (Always interesting to check the timing of movies like this. Iron Man came out in 2008, seven years after the 9/11 attacks. The most deadly bombing of the Afghan war happened that year, in Kandahar.) Stark’s not really a heroic kind of guy, but he wants to do the right thing eventually, and that—at least in theory—is the cornerstone for the MCU we’ve come to know.


Next up will be another commissioned review, this time requested by Laura, of a sequel I’ve never seen before: Monsters University. Don’t forget, if you want to commission a review, you can!

Pandemic commissions: Monsters, Inc.

wp1841646

Annabel, British-book-blogging celebrity and webmistress of Shiny New Books, commissioned a review of Monsters, Inc. (2001) last week. This was an utter delight, as it was one of the handful of VHSs my brother and I had as kids and rewatched fairly obsessively, but I hadn’t seen it for over a decade, and it’s a wonderful world to re-enter.

The reason Pixar is so successful—I have theorized—is because every one of their films turns on a premise that is so simple you could summarize it in a sentence, and every one of those premises is simply a flipping or inversion of a situation we (the audience) are intimately familiar with, or encounter daily. The Incredibles: what if two suburban parents having mid-life crises were literally superheroes? Ratatouille: what if the creature most horrifying to find in a kitchen was a really talented cook? Monsters, Inc: what if they’re more scared of the kids than the kids are of them? The exotic and the quotidian don’t just shake hands; they change places. In the case of Monsters, Inc., this means we get to delight in sequences like Mike and Sulley’s walk to work: waving to the neighbourhood kids (who are jumping rope using the enormous sticky tongue of one of them), encountering a co-worker at the pedestrian crossing (albeit a co-worker who’s several storeys tall and of whom we only ever see a single scaly leg), talking about the day’s headlines (an energy crisis engulfing Monstropolis, which of course is the hinge of the plot).

The main characters are a huge part of Monsters, Inc.‘s brilliance. Sulley and Mike’s locker room banter is delightful: Sulley as celebrity wrestler, Mike as hype man. The fact that John Goodman’s and Billy Crystal’s voices so perfectly suit their characters’ physicality and personalities is the icing on the cake; we believe their friendship, we can see right from the start that Mike has always been the sidekick, and we can understand his frustration later when Sulley seems perfectly happy to throw away everything they’ve devoted their lives to. Villainous Randall, who’s voiced by Steve Buscemi, is genuinely scary: his plot to forcibly extract screams from abducted children is one of the more sinister concepts Pixar’s ever introduced, and his character design—sinuous, reptilian, sneering—matches. (I also love virtually all of his dialogues with other characters. He’s much wittier than our heroes, for all that he’s a jerk, and “Shh shh shh, ya hear that? It’s the winds… of change” makes me laugh every time.) The female characters, of course, are still one-dimensional; there are only two of them, beautiful airhead Celia and repulsive late-middle-aged cardigan-wearing Roz, which is an unfortunate reflection of how we still generally seem to feel about women (and, clearly, how we felt about them in 2001). The fact that Roz turns out to be the undercover head of the Child Detection Agency is clever, but doesn’t necessarily make up for anything.

The film’s visuals are its other main strength. It was made at a time when computer-generated animation was just about to really take off, and the way that cloth, fur and hair is rendered here is noticeably more realistic than in earlier movies. (Look at any scene with Sulley in it, for example.) Just as impressive as the more photographic look is the sheer quantity of creative energy on display: every crowd scene in Monstropolis contains bystanders, all of whom had to be invented, drawn and animated. The ensemble shots of scarers entering the scare floor are among my favourites for this: a tall blue monster unsheathing his claws and growling, a short red monster having his enormous sharp teeth brushed, poor hapless orange-and-yellow George! The best sequences, of course, are those in the door vault; I vividly remember seeing those for the first time and being completely blown away by them, and the scenes haven’t lost anything with age. Watching Mike and Sulley sneaking Boo in and out of various childrens’ rooms across the globe, followed closely by Randall—one minute we’re in a wood-fire-lit room in Scandinavia; the next, there’s a curlicue balcony and a window view of the Eiffel Tower—is one of Monsters, Inc.’s greatest joys.

This sentence, however, brings me to Boo, whom I have no memory of disliking as a child but who, upon rewatching, strikes me as one of the oddest, most obnoxious versions of childhood ever animated. It’s hard to tell how old she’s meant to be. Maybe two or three? She can walk on her own, has object permanence and some gross motor skills, and experiences mood swings the way a toddler ought to. And yet for some reason she can barely talk. The only comprehensible words she ever says are “Mike Wazowski” and “kitty”; the rest of her vocalizations are (very high-pitched) shrieks and giggles. It’s as though she’s a sort of Platonic ideal of toddlerdom: the animators and scriptwriters seem to have created her character around a core of what we generally accept to be “cute” behaviour in children, but it feels curiously unreal. More concerningly, it had precisely the opposite effect to the one presumably intended: instead of finding Boo adorable, I cordially hated her. During the scene where Sulley “roars” and scares her—which is meant to tug at our heartstrings! We ought to feel protective of her!—I found myself thinking yes, bitch, cry. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that I’m a psychopath, of course. But surely with a character whose creators are so clearly reaching for a certain reaction from an audience, the failure to elicit that reaction on any level is a problem.

I don’t think Monsters, Inc. is one of Pixar’s best films, honestly, but I think at the time it came out, it probably was. (It was the second of their movies to get an A+ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, after Toy Story 2.) Its emotional engagement is fairly superficial, and the comedy is pretty broad. But it’s still astonishingly creative—like watching fireworks in someone’s brain—and the ending is sweet. Definitely worth revisiting.


The next commissioned review—naturally—will be of the follow-up to this film, 2013’s Monsters University. Don’t forget, if you want to commission a review, you can!

Pandemic commissions: The Prince of Egypt

307371

After serious alarm over whether I could find a copy of this to watch without infecting my laptop forever with sketchy maybe-porn and casino sites, the day was saved. (It’s on YouTube.) It’s not a Disney movie, but a Dreamworks one, which makes the inclusion of songs a little unusual. I can only imagine that, in 1998, they were making a bid to steal the animated-musical crown. On the basis of The Prince of Egypt (requested by witty, dedicated blogging buddy Rachel of paceamorelibri), it was a strong effort.

The movie opens with a disclaimer that acknowledges the filmmakers’ “liberties” with the Exodus story, but that hopes they have remained “true to the essence, values and integrity” of their biblical source material. I’m not Jewish, but I was raised Episcopalian, my grandpa was a vicar, and I spent my first fifteen years of Sundays in Sunday School (where, yes, I was an obnoxious question-asker), so I felt reasonably qualified to assess this claim. The most obvious difference, I think, is that the Pharaoh whom Moses has to face is his adopted brother, Rameses, whereas from Egyptian sources it seems most likely that the Pharaoh who served as his adopted father was Akhnaten, and the Pharaoh ruling at the time of the Exodus of the Hebrews was Tutankhamun (who was actually Akhnaten’s son-in-law, not his son). Presumably, however, Rameses the Great has almost equally strong name recognition, and claiming that King Tut (he was the famous one, the one whose tomb Howard Carter opened in the 20s) was Moses’s step-brother was considered off the table. (It’s worth noting that apparently no Egyptian records that survive mention the enslavement of the Israelites, or the Exodus. At all. Which is interesting, and doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen. But that’s a historical curiosity for another day.)

Back to the movie! First of all: it has an absolute all-star cast, for apparently no reason. Val Kilmer plays Moses; Rameses is voiced by Ralph Fiennes, of all people, who also does his own (brief) singing. Sandra Bullock is Miriam, Moses’s devout sister; Tzipporah, his wife, is Michelle Pfeiffer. Pharoah Seti, the father of Rameses and adoptive father of Moses, is Patrick Stewart, and his queen is played by Helen Mirren! Neither of them have a great deal to do. In fact, given the state of the cast in general, most of them don’t have a lot to do, and some of the dialogue feels surprisingly wooden. (When Moses flees into the desert after having protected a slave by killing an Egyptian foreman, his farewells with Rameses seem to consist primarily of them repeating each other’s names, which, let’s be honest, no one does in real life with people that close to them.)

If the spoken words are average, though, they’re more than made up for the soundtrack and score, which start off intense and memorable and never become less so. The whole opening chunk of the movie isthe iconic “Deliver Us”, which starts as a (literal) chorus of the Hebrew slaves and becomes a wailing ballad delivered by Moses’s birth mother, Yocheved (played by Ofra Haza, known as the “Israeli Madonna”); it then turns into her lullaby, repeated by Miriam, as Moses floats down the river and is rescued by Pharaoh’s wife. We barely hear a person speak til the queen picks up the baby. And the rest of the songs are equally brilliant. My favourite is “Through Heaven’s Eyes”, delivered mostly by Brian Stokes Mitchell as the singing voice of Jethro, Moses’s future father-in-law; it’s probably the only really upbeat number in the film and it’s animated beautifully as a time-passing montage. It also provides a sense of warmth and belonging that’s curiously lacking in the rest of the film, which overall isn’t very good at engaging our emotions on a character level. It’s mesmerizing because it’s epic, not because we really have a strong sense of most of the human players within it, and in a sense that’s how it should be.

It does, however, mean that the female characters get very short shrift. They are, I think, a good example of where popular feminism was in the late ’90s: strong on girl power, weak on nuance or individualism. Miriam is a strong woman, in the sense that she never, ever doubts her brother’s calling or his ability, even when he does; she’s the psychological MVP of the Hebrews, the one who never stops hoping. Tzipporah is a strong woman, in the fairly limited sense that she’s suicidally defiant when presented as a prize at the Egyptian court and then a little mean to Moses before marrying him, but if Dreamworks were trying to whip up a challenger to, say, Meg from Hercules, they didn’t come close. Queen Tuya, meanwhile, is the biggest waste of Helen Mirren that has ever been perpetrated; there are whole scenes where the character is physically present–animators spent time on her!–but says nothing, and her biggest scene with Moses is a total washout during which she’s given the line “Please try to understand”, but then stops talking, as though Moses is meant to magically guess what her perspective might be.

The one misfire, musically speaking, is “Playing With the Big Boys”, which is so close to being a great song but is hobbled by its baffling slowness. It is clearly a song that’s meant to baffle and bamboozle; it’s sung by the two Egyptian priests Hotep and Huy (also, possibly, attempts to challenge Hercules, since they correspond to the tall and thin/short and fat body types of the latter film’s bumbling comic relief characters, Pain and Panic). Their rhetorical strategy is to throw the entire Egyptian pantheon into battle against Moses’s singular God, and if you want to overwhelm an opponent with quantity, that calls for speed. Instead they’re always a beat and a half behind where you expect them to be, and the effect is to make the song confusing and a little boring. (The words also aren’t very good; the title phrase is made far too much of.)

One final comment: the voice of God in this movie is portrayed, quite softly, by Val Kilmer, who also does Moses’s voice, and it’s one of the smartest, most theologically apt choices they could have made. I asked a lot of obnoxious questions at Sunday School, but I did absorb some things, and one of them was this passage:

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lordwas not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lordwas not in the earthquake;and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lordwas not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

That’s not from Exodus (it’s Kings 19:11-12, for the curious), but it really captures the sense in which the voice of God, or conscience, or whatever you feel comfortable calling it, is less to do with resounding trumpets and stentorian pronouncements, and much more to do with the quiet, persistent assertions of our own hearts.

(There will be no comments on “When You Believe” at this time, because its stature is immense and of course it is a ridiculous ballad and an absolute banger at the same time.)


Got a Disney, Pixar, MCU or Star Wars film you want me to watch and Have Opinions about? You can commission me here.

Things we did in the pandemic: episode 3

pixar-brave-wallpaper-preview

So the other week my friend Katie asked if I would watch Brave for her (which sort of sparked the whole idea of commissions). I’d seen it before, so had reasonably strong memories of its strengths and weaknesses. It’s a good movie; maybe not Pixar’s finest (because, yes, it’s Pixar!) but really fun to spend time with and possessed of an enormous heart. The pre-credits sequence with Mordu works well—I’d completely forgotten it, but it effectively front-loads what we need to understand for the plot to work. The most interesting thing about Brave, of course, is that it’s a mother-daughter love story, with Merida’s independence, uncouth manners and rebelliousness pitted against her mother Elinor’s profound, and probably painfully earned, awareness of the role of women in their society: to wield soft power as peacemakers, diplomats, and, frankly, designated adults. The scene where Elinor walks through a room of fighting chieftains, who immediately stop throwing things and settle down by the mere virtue of the presence of a woman, is perfectly pitched to convey this (and I hope I don’t have to spend much time on the fact that it’s not feminism, given that it relies entirely on the pedestalization of women and the infantilization of men). It’s later mirrored in a scene where Merida throws herself into the centre of the hall to speak to the chieftains, drawing attention to herself and giving Elinor-as-a-bear a chance to move through the room unseen. The fantasy element of the movie is, as they often are, the least compelling aspect, but what the animators manage to do with bear-Elinor is beautiful and convincing, from the way her ears turn down when she’s sad to the way her eyes change when true wildness takes over. (And her final fight with Mordu! Of course animators know their onions, but it’s so exactly what bears look like.) A lot of the comedy in the middle section of the film comes from bear-Elinor pretending she’s still human, and the bittersweet moment when Merida sees her catch a fish like a real bear and is torn between pride at her capable mother and fear that her mother will become truly feral is perfectly judged. The rest of the comedy comes from Merida’s three little brothers, who are probably dividers of opinion; I loved them because I love comedies of scale, and the idea of a tiny menace is never not funny. Likewise, you’ll either find busty and constantly-shrieking nursemaid Maudie tiresome or hilarious; I tend towards the latter, and defy you not to at least giggle when she sees the three little lads in the form of bear cubs. It’s almost as good as the moment when one of the three suitors for Merida’s hand speaks in actual Scots (as opposed to the other characters’ commercially friendly Scottish accents), and no one understands him.

889495

Moana is the other HUGE Disney success of the 2010s, and it would be unfair of me not to say from the start that I’ve seen it twice already and absolutely love it. Watching it shortly after Frozen is an exercise in comparison; both of them front-load their bangers (a technical term) in a way more reminiscent of a Broadway show/operetta like Les Mis than of the evenly spaced songs characteristic of the earlier films. As my very clever housemate Joe points out, this strategy is way more musically and structurally sophisticated, because it establishes three or four tunes that viewers then recognize when they recur (instrumentally or in vocal reprise) later. (It’s Wagner’s tactic. Yes, I just compared Moana to Wagner. This is the kind of hot take you love.) So, for instance, the song “Where You Are”, which is the second number in the film and happens within the first twenty minutes, comes back when Moana’s Gramma appears to her as a kind of force-ghost (in a scene that always, always makes me cry). Narratively, Gramma’s apparition exists to buck Moana up, remind her of who she is, and inspire her to use her own inner strength. That aim is reinforced by the music; we last heard that tune being sung by her whole village, on her island, and she draws her strength from being a part of that community. It’s a powerful parallel, and it helps that the music is so good (Lin-Manuel Miranda!!) And, my God, this movie has heart. Dwayne “The Rock” “My Future Husband” “Pretty Sure My Boyfriend Has a Man-Crush On Him, Too” Johnson as Maui is magnificently selfish, yet also likeable and funny; Auli’i Cravalho, who was sixteen when she voiced Moana, is vocally gifted and conveys the headstrong determination of a teenager so well. (The lack of a marriage plot means Moana as a character can be younger than Disney heroines usually are, too, which I love; I’d say she’s about fourteen.) The Mad Max coconut pirates and the cabaret crab are kind of weird if you stop and think about them too hard (they feel rather too much like episodic obstacles to be overcome because otherwise it’d be too easy), but both are executed in a way that feels thorough and considered. And OH MY GOD, THE CHICKEN. It’s literally one joke for two hours, but perfect. Solidly in my top five, so far.

1602843

The Star Wars project continues with Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, which is the source of almost all the images, memes and incidents I associate with the original trilogy. Luke is still lame and drippy (theory: he, Harry Potter and Frodo comprise the OG Troika of Boring Chosen Ones), but the training montage on Dagobah at least shows some work being done with and around the Force, which is the first time in five movies that anyone has expended any kind of effort in order to wield it. Perhaps the most surprising thing in the film is Yoda, who when we first encounter him is completely chaotic and steals Luke’s flashlight for fun, then shouts “Mine! Mine! Mine!” at R2D2 until Luke lets him have it. He’s a far cry from the gnomic sage of the prequels, and I really much prefer him this way. Perhaps he’s meant to be a bit mad after his long exile?! Leia and Han’s chemistry is on fire (as I said on Twitter, it’s not that on-screen couples have to be fucking irl, but there’s a reason Ford and Fisher work so well together). I like the introduction of Lando Calrissian; we didn’t necessarily need another loveable rogue, but it feels right that Han should have had some handy contacts outside the dynamic trio. (Quartet? Do we count Chewie? I don’t, really; he’s basically useless, although he does put C3PO together again, so that’s nice.) Luke’s showdown with Vader feels like it’s treading water, though—until that line, which is what we’ve all spent the past ten minutes waiting for anyway. And the ending is a great, infuriating cliffhanger.

1602769

…Which meant it was lucky I could carry straight on to Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. It’s got Jabba the Hutt, which is a major plus; the scenes in his court are a mix of decadent, horrifying, and absurd, which makes me wonder what life as a Huttian courtier is like. I’m sure there’s fanfic in abundance. Carrie Fisher’s chainmail bikini, and the fact that she’s chained by the neck and reclining on Jabba’s enormous fleshy slug-body, is waaayyy more sexual and simultaneously more disturbing than I remember (though I do remember being very disturbed by it as a nine-year-old. I think the overt sexiness of the bikini somehow suggested to my pre-adolescent mind that she’d Had Sex With Jabba, which I knew in some obscure way would have been coerced and deeply not okay, although I didn’t have the vocabulary or the framework to understand that at the time. For the record, adult me is pretty sure she hasn’t Had Sex With Jabba.) Anyway, the Emperor finally shows up and is horrifying (he’s played by Ian McDiarmid, who plays Palpatine in the prequel trilogies! He was in his early 30s and in heavy makeup when he played the Emperor, and in his 60s when he played him as a “younger” man. Oh, time is so weird.) Ewoks are cute as hell, though I know they divide opinion; I really like them. Vader redeems himself, the ending is touching, blah blah. (I actually was touched by Luke’s final farewell to his father. I know Vader is one of those awful genocide guys whom we like to pardon in our collective cultural consciousness because he sheds a single tear before dying, which apparently, to us, constitutes meaningful remorse, but it is a genuinely moving moment nonetheless.) But the moment that really matters in this movie, maybe the best sixty seconds or so in the entire original trilogy, is right after the death of the Rancor. Everyone runs around screaming and Luke is dragged out of the lair, and in amongst all of this, there are two shots of a guy who’s clearly the Rancor’s keeper, crying. We never get any more of it. We don’t know his name, where he’s from, he doesn’t get a word of dialogue, he never appears again, he’s totally irrelevant to the plot, but for a moment, a profoundly unimportant character’s humanity is fully exposed to us. It’s not too much of a stretch to call this Shakespearean. It reminded me of Aguecheek’s line in Twelfth Night: “I was adored once too.” The audience never gets to know that story, but they know it’s there.


Next up will be another commissioned review, this time of Dreamworks’s 1999 political epic, The Prince of Egypt. Don’t forget, if you want to commission a review, you can!

Pandemic commissions: Tangled

I’ve been enjoying these write-ups so much, and other people seem to be enjoying them too! So, more in hope than in expectation, there’s now a new element to the process: if you want to, you can tip me £3 (the cost of an average coffee in central London) and I will watch and write a longer-than-usual piece about the Disney, Pixar, Marvel Cinematic Universe, or Star Wars film of your choice (assuming I haven’t already written about it). If you want a film from a different franchise, just send me a message along with your tip and we can work out access. (This has already happened, and I’ll be watching and reviewing that commission soon!) I will also continue to watch and review things at my own pace, and roundups of those slightly shorter reviews will be posted regularly.

For now, though, commission number one came from the ever-supportive, creative and talented Esther, whose three-and-a-half-year old (who happens to be my goddaughter) has just seen Tangled. To Esther’s horror, Bea loves it.

156492-popular-tangled-wallpaper-1920x1200-htc

The most glaring failure of the film is its music, which is aggressively medium roast. Fifteen minutes after I finished it, I couldn’t remember a single tune. (After some thought, “Flower, gleam and glow” came back, but it’s weak sauce as Disney tunes go, and also only four lines long.) Even the prettier songs, like I See the Light, are unmemorable. A big part of that is the lyrics, I think, which can sometimes carry a melody that’s less strong but which in Tangled are generally just anodyne expressions of clichéd feelings. (In Frozen, “the wind is howling like the swirling storm inside” is lifted from potentially being a cliché because of the film’s use of pathetic fallacy, where external weather conditions do mirror a character’s interior feelings; in Tangled, “And at last I see the light/And at last the fog has lifted” doesn’t have the same charge of literal truth and therefore is simply hackneyed.)

The love plot is also a major issue. The story of Tangled, fundamentally, is about Rapunzel’s coming to terms with what amounts to lifelong abuse by someone who she not only trusted, but who was virtually the only other human being she’d ever seen. Her real identity—the long-lost princess in whose memory lanterns are released every year—makes her not only deeply loved and cared for in a way that Gothel specifically denies her, but also the locus of an entire nation’s annually-enacted grief. Her character trajectory ought to be both enormous and primarily centered on her processing of a trauma that the film is happy enough to gesture at, but that turns out to be almost too big, too serious, to actually engage with. I would argue that Rapunzel’s first eighteen years constitute a more profound trauma than Elsa’s and Anna’s, for instance; Gothel’s constant belittling, casual cruelty and thoughtlessness revealed in their dialogues, and her drive for absolute control of a person she sees essentially as a commodity, are classic indicators of an emotionally abusive, narcissistic parent (and that’s not to mention the actual imprisonment). That stuff lasts. It is no small feat to get out from under it. The closest the film gets to acknowledging this is in a sequence just after Rapunzel escapes from her tower; she alternates between merciless self-flagellation (“I’m a despicable human being” as she lies face-down on the forest floor) and hysterical rejoicing (“I’m freeeeee!” as she dashes across the screen, followed by floating yards of golden hair). It’s almost painful in its portrayal of an abused person’s cycle of punishing themselves for wanting the liberty and respect they deserve, but it’s played for laughs—wisely, in a sense, because this really is a movie for children, but also a clear demonstration of how unprepared the film is to explore the very conditions it sets up.

Rapunzel’s story of self-discovery is almost entirely shoved out of the way by the appearance of Flynn Rider, who—let us not forget—is literally the only other person she’s ever met, making it not that surprising that she would imprint her affection upon him, but a little shady of him to willingly accept it from someone so clearly naive. (The moment around their campfire when he finally clocks how badly she’s been treated, though, is tenderly done; Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi do convey a surprisingly strong emotional connection.) The film essentially presents us with two plots—Rapunzel’s growing self-confidence, and the growing attraction between her and Flynn—then throws all of its eggs in the basket of the less powerful story. I See the Light starts off as a song during which she realizes a lifelong dream, and (unwittingly) witnesses a ritual that is her heritage; in its second verse, it immediately turns to Flynn and becomes a song about him and his relationship to her. It’s disappointing.

Major plus points, however, for the scene in the Snuggly Duckling, which is so obviously a gay leather bar. (The guy with a hook who wants to be a concert pianist playing show tunes! The guys who knit and crochet and collect ceramic unicorns! THE MIME, FOR GOD’S SAKE, THE MIME. Not to mention the guy whose costume design includes something that can be passed off to kids as “metal helmet with horns”, but to the over-18 eye looks a hell of a lot like a fetish mask.)

Esther’s least favourite part of the film, when I asked her, turned out to be what she described as “the exaggerated movements of the horse”, which I think is kind of a Marmite thing. It’s Disney, and Disney does silly animals. Still, a truly baffling choice comes in the form of Rapunzel’s animal sidekick, which is a chameleon (a tropical animal) named Pascal (a French name), despite the topography of the kingdom, which, though it might charitably be called inconsistent (one moment our protagonists are frolicking in an alpine meadow; the next, they’re in what appears to be a deserted mine from the California Gold Rush), never appears to be set in anything more humid than a temperate climate.

Decidedly not in the top tier of Disney films, then, and probably not even in the second rank. Redeemed primarily by the rather beautiful, delicate emotional treatment given to the king and queen, whose silent reunion with their long-lost daughter is a masterclass in how to animate faces so that they convey as much emotion as real ones do, but other than that? A bit of a mess.


Got a Disney, Pixar, MCU or Star Wars film you want me to watch and Have Opinions about? You can commission me here.

Things we did in the pandemic: episode 2

I have actually been reading things (in fact, I have a WHOLE NEW GENRE to enthuse about now—more on that story later), but be honest: you lot really would prefer a bunch of over-analysis of children’s movies*, wouldn’t you? I know you would.

*or, as a friend of mine more aptly put it, movies primarily marketed to children

the-princess-and-the-frog-desktop-wallpaper

More than anything, The Princess and the Frog feels like a missed opportunity. And if you look at the box office receipts, that’s exactly what it was; it underperformed spectacularly. Which is a shame and a little surprising, given that it’s not actually a bad movie. It was the first Disney film to feature an African-American “princess”, it’s set in New Orleans (at some unspecified inter-war period), and it has some quite stunning visuals (the stylized animation during Almost There is particularly good). Somehow, though, it never really rises. Dr. Facilier, the vodou practitioner, is a brilliant villain in concept (and his character design feels strongly influenced by Prince!), but he only really gets one good song and not nearly enough development as a person for us to understand what he really wants. (What are the specifics of his bargain with his “friends on the other side”? What drove him to become what he is? Who knows? Who cares?) In fact, a dearth of good songs in general is a large part of the movie’s problem—the best one, probably, is the zydeco number that hillbilly Cajun firefly Ray gets to sing in the bayou, but it’s not especially memorable. Mama Odie, the ninety-year-old swamp-dwelling vodou priestess, is brilliant in her scenes but criminally under-used. And it’s extremely unfortunate that the attractions of the first protagonists of colour in a Disney film should be mostly hidden by the fact that, for the largest portion of the film, they’re both… frogs. There are the bones of something better underneath this, you can sense it.

chihiro-anime-hayao-miyazaki-spirited-away-wallpaper-preview

I understand it as something approaching heresy to criticize any of Miyazaki’s movies, Spirited Away not being an exception to that rule. Fortunately, and unlike Mark Antony, I come to praise the movie, not to bury it. Watching it with an eye towards having Something To Say did point me in the direction of a few observations, though, most of which are probably more generally applicable to the difference between Japanese and American animated films. Spirited Away takes a surprisingly long time to really get going, and it keeps moving the goalposts; Chihiro’s aim in general, of course, is always to free her parents, but first her obstacle is just finding her way around the bathhouse complex, then it’s becoming a good bath attendant, then it’s the Stink Spirit, then it’s not being crushed by Yubaba, then it’s surviving and redeeming No-Face, then it’s saving her friend Haku, then it’s going to Zeniba’s cottage and maybe lifting the spell on Yubaba’s son… and on, and on. Luckily, this somewhat scattered focus is underpinned by the most beautiful background painting. Chihiro’s world doesn’t have much depth (consider the scene where she looks out of the window onto the sea; the motion of the waves is never animated if it’s just landscape. Indeed, nothing in the background really ever moves, unless it’s occurring right at the front of the screen), but it’s more than made up for with the delicacy of colour, and the imagination and ingenuity that clearly went into the characters (many-armed old Kamaji, who runs the boiler that heats the water! The soot sprites, back again! Yubaba’s monstrously huge baby!) It’s a visually gorgeous movie, and the quest narrative(s) convince; Chihiro’s not exactly a badass, but she’s tenacious and loyal, which feels right.

491326

I’ve only seen Frozen once, the same year it came out, and time had dimmed my appreciation of it somewhat. Yes, it had the most consistently excellent songs of any Disney movie since Mulan, and the “true love” thing was between family instead of romantic, but there was still a romance plot, and in the interim Disney has released Moana, which may have taken Frozen’s crown re. consistently excellent songs. Rewatching it, though, made it clear all over again why this has been one of their most successful franchises. Much of it is in the pacing: it runs at snappy, but perfectly judged, speed. At no more than ten minutes in, we already know about Elsa’s power, her terrible mistake in hurting Ana, the awful misjudgment of the king and queen about how to cope with her magic, and their untimely deaths. By this point there have also already been two excellent songs, including the iconic Do You Want To Build a Snowman, and the soundtrack just doesn’t let up: from there, it’s banger after banger (For the First Time In Forever, Love Is an Open Door) until Let It Go, which occurs at almost exactly the half-hour mark. It’s also musically sophisticated; my housemate points out that it’s less a movie peppered with songs than an operetta, with a series of musical leitmotifs that exist independently outside the songs (and where the plot is actually moved on by them.) Moreover, it’s funny in a smarter and yet more innocent way than Disney had been for a while by then; the Duke of Weaseltown (“it’s Wesselton!”), Olaf’s weird pronouncements (“I don’t have a skull. Or bones.”), the “big summer blowout” at Wandering Oaken’s trading post (and yay, gay representation in a Disney movie! Even if it lasts for three seconds tops.) The sole misfire, I think, is the troll song and scene (and why do we never know why they’re Kristoff’s only family?), but the fact that an entire franchise has been spun out of that suggests that I’m the one missing something. Also, Hans’s betrayal is just as shockingly painful when you know it’s coming. (“If only there was someone out there who loved you” is perhaps the most horrible thing I’ve ever heard a Disney villain say.) Five solid gold stars, this one.


1603171

My Star Wars binge also continues. As I elected to watch them in chronological order, last week I was required to suffer through Episode II: Attack of the Clones, widely considered to be the very worst installment of them all. I actually have a soft spot for it, because it was the first Star Wars movie I ever saw (in cinemas, age ten), and my brother and I watched it endlessly thereafter on VHS. But that does not alter the fact that it is really a very, very bad film. High points: Ewan McGregor, here fulfilling the Liam Neeson Perma-Sexy Role with aplomb; Yoda’s duel with Christopher Lee at the very end; Padmé quietly picking the lock on her handcuffs in the execution arena; the creepiness of Obi-Wan’s visit to Kamino, the planet of the cloners. Low points: Hayden Christensen’s hair; every single word that comes out of Hayden Christensen’s mouth; this scene, obviously:

sandicon

It is a great shame that Padmé’s best costume should be worn in the absolute worst scene. (Real talk for a minute: the reason this film is so bad on a structural level is that it has three different plots, yet its two and a half hour running time still feels too long. That’s it, that’s all I want to say. Next!)

wp3054761

Obviously I did not have high hopes for Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, which I’d only ever seen once and remembered as being awful. It came as something of a surprise to discover that it’s probably the best film in the prequel trilogy. That’s not saying a lot—it doesn’t make Revenge of the Sith a good movie, by any stretch of the imagination—but several things are in its favour. It has one plot (okay, one and a half; all that General Grievous stuff is pure misdirection, but who cares when your red herring villain is a tubercular cyborg who shoots flames out of his eyes when he finally dies?) Ewan McGregor is still sexy, and has aged appropriately and convincingly from episode I to now. Master Windu’s death is horrifying and Palpatine’s transformation satisfyingly repellent. Natalie Portman has very little to do other than look sad and shocked, which is a shame, but Anakin’s slow-then-fast turn to the dark side works pretty well (mostly, I think, because Hayden Christensen is a more convincing arrogant tosser than he is an idealistic young student, and we were all just waiting for him to get there). The final duel on the volcano is ridiculous, of course (I confess to laughing hysterically at the line “It’s a fire planet. You’ll be safe there”), but Anakin’s not-exactly-death by burning is genuinely horrible, and the fact that Ewan McGregor just walks away and leaves him, apparently to die in agony, feels appropriately, alarmingly dark. The only thing about it that really gets my goat is the way that Padmé dies, not in childbirth but after it, of—of all the clichés—a broken heart. Are we supposed to believe that someone who ruled a planet at the age of sixteen would actually “lose the will to live” (I quote the dialogue directly) because her secret husband turned out to be a dirtbag baby-killer? I think not.

thumb-1920-613328

Anyway, from there it was on to Episode IV: A New Hope, which is a weird about-turn in a lot of ways, not least that the CGI is so much worse in a movie that is supposedly set in a later period. It’s also a great example of how pacing has changed, and not always for the better. A New Hope very much has one plot, which is a good thing, especially as it comes in at under two hours total, but each separate scene runs much more slowly than the speed of action that the prequel trilogy had conditioned me to. Especially on Tattooine, there are whole minutes where not much happens except for a person walking across the screen in real time, or a couple of jump cuts between one character eating and another shaking their head ruefully. And yet somehow, the plot happens pretty quickly. Major takeaways: Luke is boring and useless. C3PO is the most queer-coded robot in the history of robotics. R2D2 is the MVP of the entire outfit. Carrie Fisher, unsurprisingly, is perfect (although people keep pronouncing her character’s name as “Leah”. Does that change? Have I been saying it “Laya” incorrectly for decades?) Chewie is mostly dead air in this film, though I understand he has a bigger role later. Vader is… surprisingly non-iconic? James Earl Jones has a deep voice all right, but he modulates it quite a lot; it’s not all basso profundo pronouncements. You get the sense, if you’re paying attention, that Vader is kind of just a bagman, even though the Emperor doesn’t appear in A New Hope at all. (Also, Alec Guinness twice addresses him during their duel as “Darth”, like it’s a first name instead of a title—because when this was the only Star Wars movie, it actually was—which is a continuity error I never fail to find amusing.) And finally… Harrison Ford. Oh, Harrison Ford. You know what? I never understood the whole Harrison Ford thing, really. I saw all the Indiana Jones films and didn’t fully grasp what the fuss was all about. And then:

star-wars-iv-a-new-hope-harrison-ford-3730066-720-304

Ah. Right.


What are you watching, reading, listening to?

March

There was a part of March before the lockdown, and in it, I read a few books. (I also finished one book in March directly after posting my most recent round-up, so I’ll cover that too.)

61nwfakbkpl

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Before I went to the States, I posted a call on Twitter for recommendations with regards to good airplane books. The resulting deluge of suggestions was lovely but completely un-navigable, so I narrowed it down to two classics that I already owned and knew could keep me occupied for eight hours, Crime and Punishment or Don Quixote. Posting about this triggered another avalanche,  this time primarily from middle-aged men, all of whom were very keen to tell me just how Extraordinary An Achievement of the Human Spirit both of those books are. (Yes, Kevin, but is it consistently diverting at high altitude?) One guy was such a strong proponent of Cervantes that I decided to take Dostoevsky, out of spite. Crime and Punishment turned out to be very much not what I expected, though that’s not a bad thing. It’s not particularly dense, for one thing, though it is repetitive. (Once Raskolnikov kills the old lady, he mostly wanders around in cycles of despair and defiance, being sick and getting better, intending to turn himself in and deciding not to.) The oddest thing is that those repetitions make it kind of… funny? In the darkest possible way. It’s like a Coen Brothers movie. Just after the murder, he gets stuck in the old lady’s flat while the two guys renovating the flat downstairs yell at him, and his paralysis is ridiculous, hilarious. At one point he literally hides behind a door to evade his pursuers. It’s absurdist comedy. Also: is there Porfiry/Rasknolnikov slashfic? It may just have been me, but there’s a distinct flavour of erotic sadomasochism/power play in the way they talk to each other. Anyway: weird, worth it, I still like Tolstoy better so far, is there another Dostoevsky novel that might be a good next step?

419x2bhuzrrl

The Iliad, by Homer, transl. Robert Fitzgerald: Posting about my struggles with the audiobook version of the Fitzgerald translation of The Iliad also drew the exaggerated incredulity of the Kevins of this world, which I suppose I should have expected. Anyway, the fact is that for at least the first 50% of the poem, I was not enthralled. Dan Stevens reads the Fitzgerald edition that’s available on Audible, and he has a lovely reading voice, but even he cannot hide the fact that much of the first twelve books is just names and deaths, going by in a blur too quick to be meaningful. Which I guess is the point—soldiers die in war like Whitman’s leaves of grass, cut down before they can know themselves or their enemy can know them—but twelve books of the stuff is rather a lot. The interventions of the gods, also, seem scrupulously pointless: one intervenes for the Achaeans and they advance, another intervenes for the Trojans and they push back. Again, the futility of war is thoroughly conveyed, but at the cost of being able to invest. Things improve significantly around the time of Patroclus’s death (which comes much, much earlier than you’d think given its emotional weight in the poem), and the final 50% was infinitely more compelling. Maybe the most interesting aspect of The Iliad is seeing how the demands we place on our stories have changed over time; it was clearly conveyed orally to its first audiences and was probably shaped in direct response to their tastes and preferences, so why do we now find that parts of it drag, that the dramatic tension drops and rises in curious places? What’s changed about humans, about the pace at which we live our lives and absorb our stories, or about the events and relationships we find significant?

91oudly6ejl

The Bass Rock, by Evie Wyld: Of all the books for which I’m sad because the pandemic will fuck up their first-week sales, The Bass Rock may be the one for which I’m the saddest. Evie Wyld is a great writer—her last book, All the Birds Singing, was subtle and scary about female vulnerability without sacrificing characterization or style to a political end, and The Bass Rock does the same thing. It has three narrators in three different time frames, but all in the same place, which is a structure easy to do badly, but here done in just such a way as to demonstrate its strengths: it allows us to compare and contrast, to see the ways in which society and landscape pattern peoples’ lives across decades, even centuries, throwing up eerie parallels between otherwise disparate stories. The strongest, I think, is that of Ruth in the 1950s; she is the second wife of a man whose kindness is quickly, dizzyingly, somewhat sickeningly, revealed to be merely the condescension of an everyday misogynist, entitled and thoughtless. The anticlimactic, deflating banality of his awfulness is a key strength of Wyld’s writing. In fact, that now-clichéd fact is everywhere in the book, from the ever-so-slightly-wrong local vicar who takes the children off for sinister excursions, to the boyfriend of the woman in the modern-day sections whose anger flares up when she sets a boundary he deems unreasonable, to the matter-of-fact detachment with which the young narrator of the seventeenth-century sections describes the gang rape and subsequent murder of a young woman denounced as a witch. It sounds po-faced and preachy when I write about it this way, but it’s not, I promise it’s not. It’s funny and queasy and stylish and lives in my head weeks after being read. I think it might be this year’s Ghost Wall. Please, please order it (it was published yesterday, by Jonathan Cape) or put it on hold from your library, and read it.

91pjaudlbml

Deeplight, by Frances Hardinge: A new book from Hardinge is guaranteed to be a treat. She seems to get darker and more adult as she goes on, and I like it a lot. Her latest is set in an archipelago that was previously ruled over by Lovecraftian gods, horrifying eldritch monsters of the deep that occasionally wrecked islands or devoured ships and who had to be placated by a special caste of priests. Within living memory, all these gods killed each other, and the world is now devoid of divinity, except for the thriving market in “godware”, leftover pieces of their corpses that have strange properties. Hardinge paints the relationship between her young protagonist, Hark, and his best friend Jelt, in shades of grey: we realize pretty early on that their “friendship” is emotionally abusive, as Jelt constantly manipulates Hark into putting himself in danger. There are definite shades of Ursula K. LeGuin here—personal accountability and growth are just as important as saving the world; indeed, the latter relies heavily on the former. It’s also the first time I can remember seeing young adult fiction that deals with emotional abuse between people of the same age who are not in a romantic relationship. I hope it’s the first of many.

258094

Air, by Geoff Ryman: My attempt to read all of the Arthur C. Clarke Award winners has introduced me to some really incredible science fiction, and Air, which won in 2006, is by no means the least of these. Appropriately, it’s set in 2019-2020, and concerns the coming of a new technology called Air (“like TV in your head”) to the remote Central Asian village of Kizuldah, where people are barely aware of “the Net”, let alone this potentially devastating new world. Chung Mae, the village’s stubborn “fashion expert”, experiences an early test version of Air that kills her elderly neighbour and implants the old woman’s consciousness in Mae’s mind. Realizing how desperately unready her people are, she determines to make them so. Ryman’s smart not to play the situation for laughs on the whole; the book is funny, sometimes, but it’s not laughing at Mae or at her fellow villagers. It’s also the most effectively political book I’ve read for a long time, seamlessly integrating the odd coexistence of Muslims, Christians, and (fictional) ethnic minority Eloi in the same village with the central government’s formal oppression of those same Eloi, an oppression reflected in the tiny, propaganda-riddled quantity of information about them available online (and which an Eloi woman in the village decides to remedy, to her own hazard). Nor can I think of another book that so clearly demonstrates how universal access to information is democratic only in the most sinuous and slippery way, how the division of “haves” and “have-nots” (the book’s subtitle) will persist unless have-nots are specifically taught how to use new tools, and taught without condescension, in ways that they can grasp. It’s an exciting, gripping, hopeful, bittersweet book, and an exceptionally good one.