Friday, August 26, 2011

Can I Move Here?

Seriously. I want to live in that! From Mubi
I've always enjoyed the dubbed animation movies from Japan. I may have watched Kiki's Delivery Service way too many times one summer when Cartoon Network had it on rotation. The style of their animation is so novel and, one has to enjoy it. Not to mention, they are good with stringing a narrative together that on paper, shouldn't work. I watched Ponyo earlier this year and loved that as well. The sense of whimsy in these films is so refreshing, so pure. They get laughs without a wink to the audience. Often impressive these days. So, I was excited to find Howl's Moving Castle on the library shelf yesterday. I have started my weekly Disney movie watching in preparation for my upcoming trip and since Disney is the US distributor for Studio Ghibli films, I figured Howl's Moving Castle counted. I't want to give it back to the library.

The film is based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones (which I have an ILL request in for now - because if it's better than the movie, I won't want to get that back either). The story is easy to follow when you watch it but go with me as I describe it. Sophie is a quiet hat maker living in a sort of steampunk world where witches and wizards are common. A war is brewing quietly outside her door but independent Sophie refuses to be cautious which is how she meets Howl, the most feared wizard of them all. Because of Howl though, Sophie is cursed into the body of an old woman. To break the curse, Sophie falls in with Howl's gang, as the cleaning lady of his moving castle. The war escalates and it is left to Sophie to save Howl and her new family.

OK, I kept it simple to not confuse but I cannot explain how much I love the character of Sophie, both young and old. Independent, spunky, clever and willing to work to protect her family, even from themselves. She isn't afraid to tell it like it is. As an old woman, she lets down her guard as she's never seen herself as worthwhile or pretty enough like the rest of her family. Once she's old, she feels free to be herself and truly blossoms. I also love that Howl always sees Sophie as a young woman the few times Sophie is the main focus of the viewer's gaze from Howl's perspective. For the most part, as the story is told from Sophie's point of view so Howl, strange, enigmatic, brilliant Howl, is the main focus of the viewer's gaze.

The rest of the cast of characters are also fun and interesting. The idea of Sophie's world is one with with people who are supposed to be seen as good or bad often operating in the grey areas. One of the reasons Sophie's black and white way of looking at the world is so novel in the world she finds herself in. Calcifer, a fire demon who powers the moving castle, is funny and clever. The Wicked Witch of Waste is one you can never be sure of and Markl, Howl's apprentice, is a child trying to be an adult, often in a hilarious getup of cloak and long grey beard. Then there is the castle...I want to live in it. Seriously. It is right up there with the TARDIS as some of the coolest transportation ever dreamed up. It is a delightful mix of houses, boats and machinery all jumbled together and it somehow just works. Add in a magic door that can open out onto different towns all over the world and it is pretty much awesome. (Actually, the analogy of the Doctor to Howl is quite apt now that I think about it.)

So, I highly recommend you check out this movie for both the fabulous animation (seriously, there is a sea where Sophie is looking out over the ocean, it is fantastic animation) and the wonderful story of magic and love. I have been feeling the need for a dose of whimsy and Howl's Moving Castle more than delivered.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

At least there were no sparkling vampires

From Goodreads
So, I fell in love with vampire lore back in high school when someone gave me one of Maggie Shayne's books. Granted, her vampires aren't the best examples but it was enough for me to want to read more. So, I went to the source, Bram Stoker's Dracula. I love a good source read; it has every cliche in the book and then you remember it's because he came up with the cliche and your mind is blown (I have always been a nerd...). I've read countless vampire tales over the years so you can imagine I was excited to read Twilight. That was a sad day. I didn't make it 100 pages in before I tossed the book in disgust. One: vampires, sun? Two: vampires, celibate? Three: who edited that book?! I was reading it with a red pen to correct grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. And I'm not even that great when it comes to grammar and I could see the problems. So, I crawled my way back to the Underworld movies and re-read Dracula and reassured myself that good vampire tales were still out there.

Sadly, my most recent read isn't one of them. Robin McKinley is usually a safe bet; her fantasy re-tellings of Beauty and the Beast are some of the best ever written. I figured if vampires were safe in anyone's hands, it was McKinley. And, in the grand scheme of things, she doesn't let you down when it comes to the idea of the vampire - they are as evil, bloodthirsty and dangerous as you could want. I mean, the main villain is so bad, his evil has become an idea that can physically poison someone after his death. I was impressed by that level of evilness.  In fact, Sunshine is probably one of the goriest books I've ever read. I mean, there is literally a bloodbath at one point and the two heroes escape from a burning building literally soaked in blood. So, on that front she wins! Sadly, the rest of the book is a mess.

The first issue is the story is told from a first person point of view. Sunshine doesn't know what is happening to her most of the time so how then could the reader have a clue? The narrative is confusing, tends to jump from point to point and never tells you much. Even when Sunshine figures something out, I often was asking "wait, what did you figure out? How did you figure it out? Aren't you going to tell me?!" Also, she's an unreliable narrator since she usually is doing her best to forget everything that happened to her - not someone I can trust to tell me everything then. Maybe McKinley wanted to keep the reader that off balance but an entire book like that? A reader feels like she's suffering from a semi-permanent bout of vertigo.

Sunshine's world is post-apocalyptic (after something called the Voodoo Wars - kudos for a great name) with its own slang and everything but Sunshine never really explains it a lot of it. When she is moved to explain, she usually interrupts a conversation to explain so by the time the reader returns to the conversation, she's forgotten what they were even talking about. It really killed the momentum of the story. In general, I spent the entire book confused and feeling like I was wasting my time. Few authors have the talent to throw you into a world and slowly but surely explain it to the reader without long descriptions and ruining the pace of the story. Jasper Fforde, in my opinion, is the best at this. I realized reading Sunshine, it is is not one of McKinley's.

As I don't really know what I should have known by the end of Sunshine, I find it hard to understand why I think I liked the idea of the story. It has some neat concepts behind it and plays with vampire lore well. The character of Sunshine herself is a neat twist but McKinley fails to develop it so I buy it completely. What remains is a kernel of a good idea in a confusing narrative. But again. like I said, at least the main vampire character isn't sparkling in the sun. I'll take what I can get.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Quiet Finish

From Goodreads
So, last weekend, I very quietly finished my summer reading challenge through the library with a book which uses film to explain and discuss philosophy. It was interesting and a much better way to tackle some of those writers than either of the two philosophy classes I've taken over my lifetime. The thing with philosophy is I always feel it should be interesting than it turns out to be. It should be sitting around discussing what life is, and there is some of that, but then they have to bring logic proofs and ridiculously long sentences which seem to always contradict themselves somewhere along the way. You'd think with all that, there would be answers in there somewhere but those often seem to be missing too. Using film though I think is a great way to go about it and I recommend Christopher Falzon's book if you're at all interested in diving into philosophy basics. He was quite good about using movies that I had at least heard of, if not seen, for the most part. That was another fear when I started it, that he would cite all these gloriously wonderful films that maybe a handful of film majors could say they had seen.  Quite frankly, when the man used Total Recall as an example, I knew we would get along just fine.

I had finished the film part of the challenge several weeks before when I was finally in the mood for subtitles. Heartbreaker was a refreshingly clever and funny romantic comedy out of France and I recommend for anyone who has a soft spot for ridiculous rom-coms to check it out. If nothing else, I learned that Vanessa Paradis is something other than Johnny Depp's long-time partner. And there is an awesome scene when they recreate the final dance from Dirty'd just have to see it to understand how that fits at all with the plot.

So, reading and film challenges are done! Now, I should get back to my other reading challenge for the year, all those pesky books on my reading list that I should have read by now but haven't (the classics) but I think I'll take some time and clear out a few books I picked up on a trip to Denver. In April. Eventually, I get back around to everything!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Reading and Watching a Time Machine

So, by now, you may have gathered I am a bit of a Doctor Who fan. He clearly has the coolest time machine, hands down. Nothing can top the TARDIS. Still, the original is kind of cool. For my summer reading challenge, I chose to kill two birds with one stone and read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, a book that was also on my year-long reading list of books I should have read by now. I also, just to cover all my bases, watched the 2002 movie version of Wells' novel last night starring Guy Pearce. Let's just say, the Doc still reigns supreme as the premier Time Traveller in my book.

From Goodreads
Not to say I didn't enjoy this other time traveler. We'll start with the book. It was the first book I had read by Wells and I liked his style. Although he included considerably more science jargon in his work than his counterpart, Jules Verne, I was still able to easily follow the logic of his story. I liked the set up of the book, or novella as it is more rightly classified. It's divided into three main parts. The first section is a dinner party with the Time Traveler (no other name given) and several of his friends where they debate time travel and then the Time Traveler successfully tests a small scale model of his time machine. This section is heavy on the science, with not a lot of plot but it sets the stage for the second, longest section which is when the Time Traveler goes to the year 800,000 AD and successfully comes back and tells his tale to his dinner companions. This sort of retrospective story technique seems to be popular with both Wells and Verne. In a sense, it makes me more comfortable as a reader; if he's telling the story, he obviously survives the peril of the story. That said, it clearly kills the suspense aspect of the plot. The third, quite short, section is simply the narrator saying that the Time Traveler has been missing, along with his great machine, for the past three years and speculates on whether he will ever return.

The main gist of the story is brilliant; remember, Wells was long before Doc Brown strapped a flux capacitor to a DeLorean and even long before the Doctor started traveling the universe in a Police Box. I love reading the root stories of our great mythologies. The Time Traveler is likable enough if a little bland and he certainly travels to a fantastical place far, far, far into our future. At this point apparently, humans have split into two races. The Eloi, simple childlike creatures, live above ground and the menacing Morlocks inhabit caves miles beneath the surface and only come out at night. The Eloi are likened to sheep for good reason; the Morlocks are meat eaters and the only creatures around to eat apparently are the Eloi. So, the element of cannibalism is a major plot point even if Wells never comes right out and states it as such. Pretty gruesome (and the movie takes it a bit further than I needed to see). Also, the Eloi, childlike to the extreme, makes the Time Traveler's relationship with Weena somewhat problematic. I don't think Wells means for the story to have the undertones I was picking up on that relationship but then again, maybe he did. Either way, it was a bit much at times in my opinion. That said, the adventure of the story holds up. The Time Traveler's war with the Morlocks to get his time machine back is fun to follow and well paced. The novella is definitely plot driven; the characters are rather under developed but again, I've noticed this about the early science fiction novels. They are so focused on getting the story out and explaining all the ways it was plausible that the characters sort of fell by the wayside of the bigger agenda of the author.  

From Moviegoods
Now, we move on to the 2002 film. Setting aside the rather cheesy special effects (I was shocked to see the film was made in 2002 when I looked - the budget must have been rather low key), I liked this movie. It in no way resembles the novella it is based on other then there is a time traveler who goes to the year 800,000 where humans have divided into hunters and hunted. However, this didn't bug me and I'll tell you why. If they'd filmed a straight version of Wells' story, most of the time you'd be bored. There are pages of explanation; pages when the Time Traveler is just wandering around aimlessly trying to decide how to act next. The sort of style doesn't make for the most riveting film. However, and feel free to cry foul on me, how they characterized the Time Traveler, or Alex Hartdegen as he's now called, seemed a bit much to me.

In the novella, the Time Traveler builds his machine because he can; he is a scientist and he wants to explore new frontiers and break boundaries. This fits the time, the spirit, of the age Wells was writing in and trying to embody through his story. The pursuit of scientific discovery itself was a big enough motivator for his character. In 2002, we had to give Alex Hartdegen some melodramatic loss to make him so obsessed in going back in time to fix a mistake that he builds the time machine. People, in one word, lame. I was not a fan of this new plot point. Other ones they added were necessary I think to make the other characters flesh out enough so you cared about them. The Eloi become a fully developed people with their own culture and society (in the book, they just sort of lazed around all day). The Morlocks have a supreme leader who, kind of Borg-like, controls the rest of the pack via mind control. Rule number 1 in action film, we must have a single bad guy controlling all the minions. I also liked the inclusion of the hologram librarian who follows Alex through time; it was a clever way to get information to the audience without going overboard with monologues from the other characters. Also, we need to give props to the Props department - the Time Machine was awesome and, according to IMDB, the biggest and most expensive prop built for a film at that time. I see where the budget went now.

It was interesting to be able to compare the two works, novella from 1895 and film from 2002. I think in many ways, they are reflections of their time; of the expectations of an ever-changing audience and both are worth checking out if you're in between seasons of Doctor Who.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Some Thoughts on Princesses

And no, I'm not going all Kate Middleton on you at this late date. I was recently catching up on some Disney podcasts and the last episode of Mouse Lounge was focused on the Disney Princesses. It's a fascinating topic to me because 1) I am a bonafide Disney geek and 2) I was a women's studies student and a proud feminist to this day. I found myself defending my love of Disney often in my women's studies classes.

Still from Disney's Fairy Tale Wedding Line. From Ranker
I never really analyzed though until a fellow WS student asked me a few questions about her senior project. She was looking at the Disney Princesses and their effect on young girls. This was just a few days after the first release of the Disney Wedding dress line and she hadn't heard about that yet so I told her about that and didn't think about it again until her presentation on her work in class. Her findings were telling if not unexpected - Disney Princesses could give girls the wrong impressions, and those imprssions fell all across the board: If I just wait, he'll come rescue me (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella); If I change enough, he'll fall in love with me (The Little Mermaid, might have an argument for Mulan here as well); If I just love him enough, he'll change and be the man I need (Beauty and the Beast). I'm paraphrasing and certainly hoping I remember this well enough but you get the idea - the princesses are passive; beauty objects to which things happen but they themselves have no control over them. I remember listening and getting progressively more uncomfortable. Did I subconsciously take all that in? I was a kid long before the current Princess craze and Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutiques but maybe, a part of me had taken that in anyway? The more I sat there in class, the more I thought back and wondered.

Ariel was technically my first princess. I vaguely recall seeing The Little Mermaid in the theater when it came out and I loved the music but the story was never my favorite. It was Belle and Beauty and the Beast that ruled my world. I had loved to read already; all I had to do was perfect walking and reading at the same time and I was set. However, I don't recall pining for my prince. I wanted to go off and have an adventure sure - wander forests, ride in to the rescue in the end, marry the Beast for his library...sorry, off track. The thing is, I never saw Belle as someone who was fishing for a man; the fact she finds one in the end is just sort of a bonus. I think it helped that my dad focused me on how smart Belle was, on how much she liked to read, on how brave she was. He never pointed out that she got to wear a pretty dress and married a prince. It was sort of besides the point in my world. So, I spoke up in class. I don't think my friend was surprised. I was the girl writing her thesis on Cinderella after all (for WS, I was more into looking at the sexual revolution of women in the 1890s-1920s, but I got Disney in on the English side. Poor Cindy, she needed someone to prove she was a bit more than a perfect shoe model). I talked about my Dad's point of view and how he presented Belle to me. It was true, I was an odd kid but I was just as inclined to love princesses as anyone. I am a born hopeless romantic but for me, Belle was never just a princess, she was first and foremost her own woman, with or without a man in the picture. My class found this interesting and we ran off into the whole nature vs. nurture discussion. But I've never forgotten thinking about my relationships with the princesses.

Fast forward to today and Disney Princess culture is everywhere. Talk about a merchandising mint. But my approach to the princesses hasn't changed. They have their place, most of them accurately reflect the idea of women in society for when they were created (let's all have a field day approaching Sleeping Beauty with that in mind) which is why Belle reigned supreme for me even over the more overtly feminist princesses Jasmine and Mulan. Then came The Princess and the Frog.

I had totally gushed over her dress first
I discussed this briefly when I looked at Tangled; Tiana, the princess for my 20s. Hard-working, practical, secretly funny and a dreamer at heart though she tries to deny it, Tiana and Belle run neck in neck for my favorite princess award these days. "Almost There" is a song that gets me through the hardest days, the days when I forget I do have bigger goals, bigger dreams and if I just keep working for it, with a little dreaming for good measure, than I'm almost there for sure. Mouse Lounge focused on Tiana a lot and how she is a more "modern" princess and has the mentality to prove it and I had to laugh because the little girl they were discussing in the podcast still just loved the music, the colors, the adventure of Tiana's story. She wasn't thinking about how Tiana is a positive representation of women in animation but about how pretty her dress is in the end. Because, let's face it, girls will be girls and even those of us who like to think we're above that stood in line to gush over Princess Tiana's dress at the Magic Kingdom.

The Princess culture is fascinating but ultimately, I think it is a combination of things that make some girls fall head long into it and others just enjoy the ride along the way. One thing is for sure, it's not going anywhere anytime soon and I am sure to see many a little girl happily skipping up Main Street decked out as her favorite princess on her way to the Castle for breakfast with Cinderella during my trip in September. And honestly? I don't see a thing wrong with that.