A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 369 – The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass – March 4th, 2011

It has been a couple of years since I read the book that this movie is based on and I entertained some thoughts of re-reading it before we put this in for the project. The thing is, I’ve got a lot of books on my to-read list. It’s part of my job. And they just keep coming. Re-reading something is a luxury and this book is a dense one so I never really got around to it. Still, I remember it fairly well. I certainly remember it well enough to watch this movie and feel a definite sense that something is amiss.

I feel bad about saying that, because there’s a lot of care and effort that went into this movie. It’s not a shoddily done film and there are bits that were done quite well. But it’s lacking something and it throws everything in the movie off. I think the trouble is that the book is a fairly intricate work, with a lot of threads of plot woven together and the reveals are done bit by bit, so you learn everything along with Lyra. And the movie can’t do that. It doesn’t have the time or the medium, so it has to simplify. Unfortunately it seems to have tried to simplify while also keeping all of the major plot points. That’s a problem.

The world the movie is set in is an incredibly detailed universe that’s an alternate reality to our own. And that’s set out at the beginning. That’s part of the whole plot. Some of the characters know that it’s just one of many alternate universes in existence. It’s a sort of steampunky neo-Victorian vibe and also has some magical stuff. Such as huge talking polar bears, and witches (who are never really explained but who play a key role in the final battle, but I’ll get to that). Also, and this is key, every person has an external representation of their soul. They’re called daemons and they take animal forms. Children’s daemons change shape, but they settle on one permanent form as a child grows up and their personality becomes more set. Daemons talk to their people and stay with them at all times. It’s taboo to handle another person’s daemon with bare hands and hurting someone’s daemon hurts the person too. This is all very important and it’s one of the things the movie does well. There’s some exposition, but there’s a lot more showing than telling and a lot of nice details with daemons all over the place in various forms. The only quibble I have, really is that once or twice the daemons are very obviously CGI in moments that don’t require it. Like a couple of guards with mastiffs that just stand there. Really? You couldn’t find a couple of dogs to stand there? I guess.

So we’ve got the daemons, and they’re important, but then we’ve got the dust, which is sort of like the physical representation of sin as it’s described to Lyra. But that only comes in later on and is rather clumsily handled up until then. And it’s important! Because it’s the motivation for several key plotlines! And then there’s the gobblers, who are kidnapping kids, but they don’t get a whole lot of time or explanation beyond the most cursory of lines. There are strange and mysterious things going on in the north, but we only know that because the characters all but flat out state “There are strange and mysterious things going on in the north!” Lyra’s guardian, Lord Asriel, shows up at Jordan College in Oxford, where Lyra lives, and he’s an explorer who does mysterious things. In the north. Then he takes off again after some strange and mysterious conversations. Lyra meets the strange and mysterious Mrs. Coulter, who takes her away from Jordan College with the temptation of a trip to the north. It feels like everything that happens in Oxford is all just set up to push Lyra to the north with tons of quick explanations and even quicker character development.

The thing is, once we’re in the north we get bogged down with the bears and what feels like a whole lot of empty space. I know things happened, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how it all went together to get from one point to the next. Time passed, people were introduced and then set aside, one of the witches showed up and then we didn’t really find out anything about her or what makes her important. And then? Bears. Lots of stuff with the bears. The bears fight and growl and oh it’s all very impressive, but in the larger scheme of things in this movie? It’s just plain not important. It’s not like the entire bear army shows up to help Lyra in the end. Just Iorek, whom she already knew.

Once we know what’s actually going on in the north – Mrs. Coulter and her cronies have some scheme to separate children from their daemons – there’s a big battle and well. That’s it. And I know damn well that the book went into more detail here. Leaving aside that it ends in a weird spot that isn’t where the book ends, it just feels like so much of what’s important to the book is glossed over in the movie. Oh, the separation plot point is horrifyingly done and I was genuinely uncomfortable watching it, but the purpose behind it? The grander scheme of things? It’s just not there. Same with the witches. Same with the bears. Same with everything. Because it’s all tossed in there and it’s all given a tiny bit of time. But at the expense of everything else. Everything takes away from everything. The book is a dense brick-like tome and the movie doesn’t even run two hours. So while I enjoyed a lot of the performances, and the cast is full of recognizable names, and the costumes and set dressing and cinematography and visual worldbuilding were lovely, and the daemons were well handled, the movie just doesn’t work for me. Sad, but there it is. I truly wish it had been otherwise.


March 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 288 – Read or Die (OVA)

Read or Die (OVA) – December 13th, 2010

I first saw this movie for work. A few years back we ran a regular anime night at work, showing episodes of shows and some movies and OVAs. We did a few episodes of Witch Hunter Robin and Here is Greenwood and to be honest I’ve forgotten a lot of what else we did. There was one incident where one of the regulars, who’d been trying to get me to show Naruto for months (no, kid, I can’t show your fansubs), stormed out when he realized that the version I’d finally gotten legal rights to show didn’t have as much skin as he wanted. It was an interesting experiment as programs go, and it got us in the paper, but eventually we discontinued it. We started it, however, with this. It seemed fitting, what with it being about librarians and books.

Oh, if only I could work for the British Library Special Ops division. According to the movie, the British Library has a Special Ops taskforce for the protection and retrieval of rare books all over the world. And in case you were wondering, yes, that is fucking awesome. When the Library of Congress is attacked and 400 manuscripts stolen from it the LoC calls in the British Library Special Ops folks for help. Bizarre attacks all over the place have resulted in missing manuscripts and books, all of which is totally horrific to Yomiko Readman, an agent also known as The Paper. She’s a voracious reader and bibliomaniac who also has an instinctual power over paper. She can mold it, throw it, make it sharp, make it hard, stick pieces together through force of will, etc. Sort of like Magneto, but with paper. Eventually it’s revealed that there was also an attack on a bank of genetic samples and the people responsible for the attacks are all clones of significant historical figures. And at the center of it all is an old copy of Immortal Beloved with some musical notations on the endpapers.

Right, so it’s bizarre. I mean, it’s got Jean Henri Fabre riding in on a giant mechanical grasshopper at one point, and the plot revolves around a plan to kill off the human race using a symphony that makes people commit suicide. Let’s just face up to the fact that it’s more than a little weird. It’s totally not a big deal, because it’s also fantastic. Yomiko is a great character, really, and while there’s a good backup cast full of her teammates, she herself is undoubtedly my favorite part of this movie.

Yomiko collects books with a passion. When faced with new reading material she goes into a sort of book-induced trance of bliss. So while she’s pretty bad-assed with her paper skills, tossing sharpened cards at people and using a suitcase full of paper to quickly make shields, gliders and grappling hooks, it’s all in pursuit of a good book. The initial fight scene has her take down the mechanical grasshopper and Fabre not because they’re causing destruction all over the city and are obviously Up To No Good, but because Fabre took her book and she’d like it back, please. I won’t say she’d make a good library patron, since she’s more likely to be the type who can’t bear to bring the books back. But she is certainly my kind of gal with her neverending love of books and desire to always have more. And that’s why she makes a good library employee. It’s a perk of the job that there are always more books.

I do admit to being slightly confused by the choices in historical figures. I can’t argue with Gennai Hiraga, Genjo Sanzo or Ikkyu Soujun, because while I’m not familiar with them, I’m also not familiar with the historical periods and areas they’re from. The others, on the other hand, seem uneven. After all, there’s Fabre, who was an etymologist but not really a big name outside the field, and same for Otto Lillenthal and Stephen Wilcox. But then there’s Ludwig van Beethoven and Mata Hari. So the names seem to vary wildly in terms of renown. I guess it’s Fabre and Ikkyu who confuse me the most. Fabre because… Really? Out of all the historical figures they could have picked they go with an etymologist and give him a giant grasshopper? And Ikkyu Soujun, from what I can tell from a quick bit of reading, seems an odd choice for an antagonist. They even say so in the movie and he responds by saying that once he came back in modern time he realized he could use his mind for world domination and most humans are too stupid to live or something like that. It’s always seemed a bit arbitrary to me, like the writers threw darts at encyclopedias until they hit names.

Confusion over the specific people involved aside, I do enjoy this. Mostly I love it for Yomiko and for the British Library Special Ops division. It’s got this great ultra-new technology combined with a semi-steampunk Victorian vibe that I adore. Oldfashioned phones but super high tech cameras. Perfect for a group tasked with protecting rare books the world over. Respect for the old but also embracing the new. I really need to get the series that followed this and watch it through. I’m told it picks up a few years after this plot, which could be very cool. And I’d just love to see more of The Paper.

December 13, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 255 – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – November 10th, 2010

Oh, this movie makes me so confused. Not in that I find the plot confusing. Messy, yes, but it’s not rocket science. It makes me confused because I enjoy it, but when I poke it a little I wonder why that is. And then I come up with answers, but none of them seem to be quite enough to explain it all. And some of them I’m sort of ashamed to admit to anyhow. Like admitting to them will make someone, my thesis advisor perhaps, teleport into my bedroom and revoke my English major cred. I always feel like I’m on shaky ground anyhow, with my love of film and my insistence that no, I don’t need to read anything by Jane Austen. Ever. But then, my thesis advisor loved movies and preferred modern literature, so maybe I’m safe.

The thing is, while I largely skipped over the classics in my college coursework, I know enough to know that there are some severe liberties taken with the characters in this movie. The whole concept of it is like one big crossover party, and I do love a crossover. This movie delivers, gathering a host of Victorian characters into one plot. The one big exception is an invisible man. Not The Invisible Man, since he’s from a considerably more recent work and therefore not public domain. But the rest? All firmly Victorian. Allan Quatermain, Mina Harker, Tom Sawyer, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo, Dorian Gray, even the eventual villain. And they all band together to face off with a mysterious bad guy who’s been attacking various European countries and building some sort of super weapon. To be honest, I tune out when it comes to the specifics of what the dude’s up to. He’s a villain and he’s doing villainy things. Now put Sean Connery back on my screen. Or Stuart Townsend. He’ll do too!

And here is one of my points of confusion. You see, the whole conceit of the story, that this group of famed characters from our classics, which are all real in the world of the movie, will get together and use their combined skills and powers to overcome some sort of evil? I am on board with that. It makes for a difficult set-up, since the characters need to be introduced and the team put together, and that leaves little time for things like actual character arcs and plot development. And that’s a genuine issue with the movie. We get little snippets of each character, but not much else. And those snippets? Not necessarily true to the source material for each character. I can’t speak to them all, but I can speak to the one that confounds me: Dorian Gray.

I took a single Victorian literature class in college. I needed a class at the higher level offered by the department and I needed it that semester and I think my other choice was heavy on the Steinbeck, so it seemed the lesser of two evils. I suffered through Trollope, faked my way through Austen, skimmed Gaskell and then reveled in Wilde (and the bizarre book we read that featured a health spa that offered electric tonics for rejuvenation). I loved The Picture of Dorian Gray. So I know I should be outraged at the Dorian in this movie. I mean, look at his hair! But I can’t help it. I love the movie’s Dorian. I love him passionately. I love how he strides around in the shootout at the beginning, sword in hand, ignoring the bullets around him. I love how he’s an utter jackass, but charming all the same. He’s a scoundrel. I do like scoundrels. And I like Mina Harker too. I like that, unlike in the comics, she does have supernatural powers and displays them right in front of the others. So she’s not canonically accurate. Who gives a damn, when she gets to point out that she in no way needs the protection of the men in the group? And she’s a scientist! She wears glasses and plays with vials of chemicals and she really is a wonderful female hero.

It’s very frustrating, this movie. I love Sean Connery, but Allan Quatermain as a character can be a bit annoying. I could watch Stuart Townsend’s suave scoundrel Dorian for hours and hours, even though he’s inaccurate. And I will cheer on Mina as she flies up the wall of a building with her fangs bared. I love Nemo a hell of a lot (though I can’t speak to whether he’s accurate or not) and the Nautilus makes me swoon about as much as Dorian does. The movie has fun characters, for all that they’re not deeply explored, and it has fun action, for all that it’s based in a hole-filled plot that meanders more than a bit. But it has so many flaws! And they’re flaws that ruined the movie for many other people. So why is it that they don’t ruin it for me? I’m really not sure. It’s not just Sean Connery’s presence, or Dorian Gray or Mina Harker. It’s not just the Nautilus or the crossover conceit. It’s a weird alchemy of all of them together. I can live with that.

November 10, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 239 – Steamboy

Steamboy – October 25th, 2020

When I was in college I avoided most Victorian lit courses, but given that I was an English major and it was a small school well, eventually I had to grit my teeth and do it. I lucked out, though, and the year I had to take the class (it was that or something worse and I needed the upper level credit) the specific focus was on the culture of the time as shown in literature. Victorian Material Culture was the title of the class, and while there were some things I disliked about the class, I ended up getting a good deal out of it. Sure, I had to read Trollope and my classmates were scandalized by my lack of interest in Austen. But I also got an excuse to visit the Mütter Museum, and I got to read about the Crystal Palace, which is featured in this movie. It might not be related in depth to the movie, but I can’t help thinking about that class whenever I see something steampunk-ish.

Steampunk’s a lot bigger now than it was when I was in college and I’ve been mildly interested in it for a while now, but not so much that I know everything that’s out there. I like the concept of it though, and I like the concept of this movie. It’s pretty pure Victoriana steampunk action/adventure, with steam powered everything and a giant flying castle and arguments about whether mankind is ready for the moral issues advanced steam power will inevitably bring up. The main character is a boy named Ray Steam, whose father and grandfather have been researching a way to make steam power more compact and powerful. They manage it, but of course that’s where the moral issues come in, because much like nuclear power in our own timeline, this super steam power in the movie’s timeline will obviously be put to use powering weapons. I won’t go into too much detail trying to describe the various factions and how they shift and align, but suffice it to say that Ray is caught in the middle, trying to decide who’s telling the truth and what that truth really means. What’s one person’s “benefit to all mankind” is another person’s war machine.

Eventually it all comes to a head with a huge battle in the middle of the London Exposition, destroying the Crystal Palace (which was doomed in our timeline as well, alas). There’s a hell of a lot of wrangling between the various figures in power. And to be honest, the movie never really portrays any of them as completely and utterly evil. They’re all men who can see the potential in this new scientific discovery, and who then get wrapped up in how to harness it. It seems inevitable that they’d turn to weapons. But I’m not going to try and read any allegory into it. For one, it has a giant flying castle that freezes the Thames. If I was taking my Victorian class then perhaps I could have horrified my professor by attempting to write about this in relation to real Victorian literature and to the spreading use of electricity. But I’m not. I’m watching this for fun. And it is fun.

This is not a deep movie. The moral issues are spelled out quite plainly for all to see. The characters have sweeping arguments about scientific discovery and furthering mankind’s progress and all that. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before. The Iron Man movies touch on it as did Real Genius before them, and I’m sure there are more examples I’m not thinking of off the top of my head. It’s not revolutionary. But it is fun. It’s got lots of great animation, both hand drawn and computer generated. It’s got fun action scenes and flying machines and the castle itself. There are gears and pipes and gauges and levers. There’s humor, like when one of the steam-powered amphibious suits can’t climb steps. There’s a steampunk version of Asuka from Neon Genesis. And it’s all put together quite well. But, well, I’ve got a problem.

The closing credits are a series of minimally animated images that show some of what comes after the movie, and I found myself wishing that this hadn’t been a full feature film but a series instead. Perhaps with the events in this movie worked into the background as flashbacks and backstory for Ray’s superhero persona. It feels like an origin story without the hero it’s an origin for, which is too bad, really. I would have loved this as a feature film explaining the history behind a character I’d come to love in series. It feels like it’s leading up to something, and the credits hint that the creators of the movie wanted to show where it was leading to. So why don’t we get more than semi-stills and tantalizing tidbits? The movie was great fun, but there should have been more to it. It should have been part of something bigger in scope so those credits don’t feel like such a tease.

October 25, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment