Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review: "Tangled"

For those of the spoiler-phobic disposition, beware, I may sprinkle some rather liberally through this review. If you wish to avoid them, I'll give you the short version: I did not love this movie. I didn't hate it, either. I'd call my reaction "tepid" and occasionally frustrated at what I felt like it not only could have been but should have been. I will also say that I appear to be in a vast minority, judging from Rotten Tomatoes and my own online f-list. If you saw the trailer and thought it looked like a laugh riot, then go, you'll enjoy it. If, like me, you looked at the preview and thought they were trying way too hard and not hitting the mark, wait for DVD.

Spoilers beyond this point, beware all ye who read past this line.
Since I got home last night I've been trying to focus on exactly why
this movie fell so far short of my already hesitant expectations, and I'm still not entirely sure. In part, I felt like the character animation wasn't quite up to snuff-- the three leads look too perfect, with no blemishes, little imperfections, or quirky facial features to offer anything very interesting to look at. They came off looking more like dolls than people, and without much in the way of visual performance beyond highly repetitive slapstick numbers and not a lot in the way of internal mechanics, I found myself very aware that I was watching some very pretty emptiness. I might change my mind if I ever watch this again, but going off my first impression, the characters didn't seem to do much in the way of "thinking" or experience an emotion that wasn't telegraphed a mile wide.

This leads to my second issue: the lack of character depth in general. Again, I'm not expecting Hamlet from Disney, but characters that feel like they had at least some thought beyond archetype tropes put into them would be nice. Rapunzel fared the best in this department, I think, and there were some interesting things done with her, but quite often she ran into trouble in terms of interesting animation that might have added that little extra depth that could have pushed her over the edge in Really Interesting territory. Sadly, she spent most of her time hovering in the Has Potential lobby. To a lesser extent, Flynn suffered from the same issue, and the Mother character was just flat as a pancake. I tried to get invested in them, but the only one I felt an even remote connection to was Rapunzel and quite often that connection would get squashed by a completely unnecessary musical sequence or series of slapstick jokes. This happened with nearly any moment where started to feel like we were finally getting into some character development/connection, which was irritating and downright annoying by the end of the movie. I get the concept of delayed gratification, but the filmmakers weren't giving me enough time to get a solid foothold into my caring about ANYTHING that was happening. It's like in their effort to ramp up the swashbuckling adventure/humor elements they cut too deeply into any real emotional resonance for the audience (or just me, whatever).
Major irritants: the musical numbers and the animal sidekicks. I'll give the horse a pass since they did a serviceable job of making him important to the plot in some small ways, but the lizard was completely pointless and just took up running time that could have gone into character development or humor that didn't involve hitting someone with a frying pan. The same goes for the songs. I'm not anti-musical, in fact I quite enjoy them when they're well-made. But I have a rule for the musical numbers: if they don't advance the plot, reveal character, or transport the audience from one level of emotion to another in the service of the previous two things, in ways that can't be done as efficiently with plain dialog, cut the song because it's dead weight and will drag the pace of the movie down. For me, that was every SINGLE song in this movie. I have never been so annoyed with musical numbers as I have been with this movie. I could be a bit more forgiving if the songs were at least catchy/fun enough to be memorable, but none of them were. They were dull, dead weight around the neck of this film, and again, that time could have been better used in the aid of character development or plot advancement.

I've mentioned the humor several times, and it probably works for a lot of people. It didn't work for me at all. Can't say why, really, maybe it was too dependent on repetitive slapstick and abruptly halting animation and not anything actually clever or creative. This was probably the biggest mood dampener for me, since it felt like so much of the run-time was devoted to it and it just flat-out did not work for me. I gave a few half-hearted chuckles at first, but I got tired of it pretty fast and gave up. Other people seem to like it, and if there's anything that's subjective, it's humor, so eh, whatever. I do object to the filmmakers trying to use it for character development instead of actual character development in the case of Flynn.
All in all, though, I think my biggest complaint was this nagging sense that this movie really could have been something a lot better and different than it was. It felt like I was watching something that could have been great but was hamstrung by a bunch of people who were too afraid to take risks. Elements of this would surface now and then and I'd find my interest piqued only to have it re-submerge and never appear again for the sake of banality. That was the worst of it. Don't dangle the carrot in front of my face long enough to get me excited and then take it away. You can't be brave and cowardly at the same time, either take the court or go back to the bench.

I don't know if it was a lack of faith in the animators, the story, or the audience, but I suspect the latter. Rule one in movie-making: trust your audience. If you can't do that, do something else with your life. Trust that we will understand what a character is feeling without having to spell it out in huge letters. Those musical numbers felt superfluous specifically because they were not necessary to understand anything. It was like getting "Anakin, you're breaking my heart" on repeat for two minutes a pop every ten minutes or so. Film, and especially animation, is a visual medium: SHOW us, don't TELL us. If you don't trust the audience to understand the significance of a moment that has been built up for half the film in every conceivable way without a song TELLING us how the character feels, you have issues. The moment with the lanterns would have been so much more powerful resting on the ability of the animators to convey it on Rapunzel's face instead of the song they felt was necessary. I get it's a big moment, I don't need you slapping my face asking me if I get it yet. Give us the opportunity to figure it out for ourselves, it means so much more when we do. Other animation studios get this, it's time to step up and get with the program.
Having said all that, I didn't hate it. It's not going on my "must own" list, or even my "I'll rent it when it comes out" list, but I'm probably in a minority there. Everyone seems to quite like, if not even love this movie, and that's fine. I really wanted to, heck, I paid $9 to see it on an evening when I could have stayed off the icy streets and watched a movie I know I already like. I heard friends wax poetic about how much they liked it, I skimmed reviews to the same effect, and I figured if nothing else I'd get an hour and a half of nice animation. Instead I spent an hour and a half being very aware that I was watching a movie in a theater. I was constantly aware that I had seen nearly all of this before in other Disney movies and I had a hard time trying not to directly compare them. It was like a mash-up of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame when it would have been nice to just see Rapunzel without the ghosts of Disney past. Yeah, you had some successful movies back then, but don't strip their carcasses to try and pad your new movies. Figure out WHY those moments worked and go with that, don't just recycle the same ideas over and over again. In short, I was bored. I am frequently many things while watching animation, but"bored" is not one of them, even if the movie itself isn't that great. I left feeling frustrated, confused and irritated at the waste of it all. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't what it could or should have been if someone had taken the chances the film needed to really breathe and come into its own the way it had the potential to do.

For a less clich├ęd version of (a surprisingly similar take on) the Rapunzel story, check out the graphic novel Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon, Dean and Nathan Hale. I read it a few years ago and found it really charming and clever in ways that fell flat for me here. Even if you liked this movie, check it out, you'll probably like it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

Just a quick holiday greeting to the general blogosphere. I'd been hoping to write out some ideas that have been bouncing around in my head about the popularity of vampires and werewolves right now, especially with adolescent and teen girls, but sadly I'm up to my pits in papers and reading for school right now and didn't get it done. So maybe you'll see it around Thanksgiving. Mmm, festive.

So instead, here's a short list of some of my favorite scary movies, in case anyone out there just can't decide what to watch to get in the Halloween spirit.

Anyone else want to share their favorite scary movies? Go right ahead! Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Brenda Chapman Off "Brave"

Okay, it's late and I have things I need to be doing aside from this, but I won't be able to sleep tonight until I get this off my chest. It seems the upcoming Pixar film Brave (formerly known as The Bear and the Bow) will no longer be directed by Brenda Chapman as she has left the studio. For anyone who missed my commentary on the discussion around the lack of leading females in Pixar films, Brave was kind of a big deal, not just because it marked the studio's first female lead but also because it would mark its first female director as well. And just like in live-action, female directors in animated features is a rare thing. In fact, Chapman is America's first female animated feature director with The Prince of Egypt. She hasn't directed another movie since then, and I'm having a hard time coming up with another female animated feature director outside Nina Paley (who was totally independent and not part of a big studio). So now, it's being directed by Mark Andrews who co-directed the Pixar short One Man Band, but beyond that I don't have much info on him.

No one's saying why Chapman was replaced yet, and honestly, it could be for legitimate reasons. Directors and people in all sorts of positions get replaced in films all the time, so what makes this such a big deal? Precisely because there are so few women directors out there, especially in feature-length animation. Especially because it's at a studio with the prestige and clout that Pixar has. The reason this studio gets singled out for this sort of scrutiny is because they make good films, period, and people pay attention to them. Why does anyone care if Pixar has a female lead or a female director? Because it matters what they do. Because they set a standard in the industry that matters not just in animation but in live-action film as well. Up was the only animated film aside from Beauty and the Beast to break into the Best Feature category at the Oscars, and before that there was questioning amongst critics as to why Ratatouille hadn't made that leap as well. John Lasseter has stated that Pixar is a director-driven studio and that telling a good story and artistic vision come before anything else there, so it's especially troubling that its first female director left before her project was even finished. Said project is now to be finished by someone else, who is male. This isn't surprising, seeing as how female directors are so hard to come by, but it begs the question yet again: when are women going to be able to tell our own stories? When will this not be a big deal? When will we stop having to put "female" in front of "director" to clarify that it is a woman directing a movie?

I'm far from the only one asking these questions, too. The Animation Guild Blog posted about this in June with Where the Girls Aren't; recently asked In What Year Will Female Directors Make Up Half the Workforce?; and Women and Hollywood reported on the Zero Progress Made on Gender Disparity in Films Targeted at Kids. I'm sure there are others out there as well, but the point is, as much as gender shouldn't matter in terms of replacing a director on a project, frankly, it does. Not only does the director guide the cohesiveness and vision of the entire film, but in a project like this, where much of the creation of the project was helmed by the director, the loss of a rare female vision for a female-centered story is sad, disappointing, and for someone like me who hopes to break into both directing and animation, it's discouraging and frustrating. Mark Andrews may be more suited to helm this project than Chapman was, and he may do a fine job and help produce a good film with a good female lead. But it won't cease to be troubling that Chapman is one of the few women successfully blazing this trail in American animation, and that her leaving a project is causing such a stir specifically because she's a woman. Yeah, gender shouldn't matter, but it does. When half the population of the human race is considered "other" and "token" and under-represented in such a huge way, the loss of one in a position like that matters.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Animation Break!

Well the school year is upon me again and naturally I didn't get around to making all the updates I wanted to for the blog. I'm working on my feminism in animation series still, but in the meantime I thought I'd just post up some really cool things I've collected from Youtube over the past while.

What did I do before Youtube? I honestly don't remember anymore.

Nina Paley's very creative Flash animation demonstrates her standing on the so-called "Cult of Originality" that seems to be quite pervasive at the moment. I quite agree with her point: everything builds on what came before it, and art is certainly no exception.

Another Paley Flash bit, this time it's the opening credits of her film Sita Sings the Blues. It's not only very well-designed and animated, but it conveys the Hindu version of the creation of the universe without any narration or dialog in approximately three and a half minutes. That's some visual storytelling.

Some wonderful traditional animation from Tony White. While I'm ambivalent about actually animating Hokusai's work, since one of the things I always found striking about it was the implication of movement-- to make it actually appear to move seems to take something away from it. But nonetheless, this is wonderful work. Also, it's very informative about the work of a brilliant artist.

Russia has such a rich history with animation I'm a bit beside myself that I can't get my hands on more of it. If anyone used to watch the Animated Shakespeare show on HBO back in the '90s, I believe most of, if not all of the animation for it was done by Russian studios and there was a fantastic variety of media and some incredible creativity at work in those. This short was linked to me by a friend in Hungary and I can't tell you how much I love it. It's a perfect example of comedic timing at its best.

I may be a little bit biased, since I grew up on He-Man, She-Ra, Transformers, and My Little Ponies, but even disregarding the nostalgia factor, this is some very creative stop-motion animation done by (I believe) amateurs. This is the first video I favorited on Youtube years ago and I still get a kick out of it.

A professor of mine last year showed this in class and it absolutely blew me away. It is bar none one of the most moving, creative, and perfectly executed pieces of animation and performance art I've ever seen. If you haven't seen it, watch it. If you have, watch it again. It's simply spectacular.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Review: The Expendables

I love going to the movies, whether with friends or by myself. I especially enjoy watching action movies. Sylvester Stallone, along with his cavalcade of co-stars, delivers a movie that has kickass fight scenes, plenty of explosions to go around (and then some), and an array of 80’s action movie icons. The Expendables has a straightforward and somewhat simplistic plot, yet over all fun to watch.

Okay, enough of the polite, semi-professional demeanor. Reviewing movies is a new hobby for me, and I want to make a good impression. That being said, I also want to make sure that what you all read sounds like me; not my knee-jerk reaction to write for my high school English teacher. Now let’s get to the review.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, The Expendables is a fun movie to watch…though it does lack imagination and originality. Really there’s nothing new about a group of mercenaries going off to some small country (in this case an island near South America) to over throw a dictator. Nor is there anything new about mass explosions and kickass fight scenes, no matter how cool they look. As for the array of 80’s action movie icons, well that’s just entertaining. Any pop-culture reference to my childhood always makes me smile.

What little creativity there was in The Expendables comes from the fight scenes. My favorite fight scene happens on a basketball court, and Jason Statham (Lee Christmas) is the one doing the damage. I also really enjoyed the fight scenes with Stone Cold Steve Austin, especially when he fights Randy Couture. And of course watching He-Man: Master of the Universe (aka Dolph Lundgren) as a washed out, drug addicted, soldier holds a special place in my heart; a place where childhood memories come to a screeching halt into reality when you realize a childhood hero isn't as cool as he used to be.

As entertaining as the fight scenes were, perhaps my favorite scene in the movie was with Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone in a church. Bruce Willis (Mr. Church) is the man with a job offer and Stallone (Barney Ross) and Schwarzenegger (Mr. Trench) are the men bidding for that job. Barbs and jabs are traded between Barney Ross and Trench, but ultimately Trench leaves and Ross gets the job from Mr. Church. The whole scene lasted about 5 minutes, and it’s the only time that we see Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The thing I love about this scene is the fact that three of the most iconic action stars of my generation are standing in a room together and trading jabs at each other… well, mainly Stallone and Schwarzenegger. I suspect that the line about Trench wanting to be President is a reference to real life gossip about Schwarzenegger’s ambition of being President after he became the Governor of California.

Okay, so we’ve talked about 80’s action movie icons and kickass fight scenes. I’d elaborate on the mass explosions, but I’m pretty sure that’s self-explanatory. I’m positive there’s more to say about The Expendables, but I think its best that you watch the movie for yourselves. I wouldn’t want to ruin the experience, as it is a movie worth watching.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Satoshi Kon: 1963-2010

This news makes me very, very sad. Satoshi Kon is one of my all-time favorite directors, not just in terms of animation, but in general. His films are brilliant as far as I'm concerned, and I can't believe I'll only get a handful of them. Maybe that's selfish of me, but I never knew Kon as a person so I can't feel his loss that way, but I knew him as a filmmaker and his loss as a visionary and as a director is one I will definitely feel. For anyone who hasn't seen his films, I'd recommend them very highly, even if you aren't a fan of animation. What he did with the medium is so unusual and his films themselves are so varied, it's hard for me to believe that someone wouldn't be able to find something worthwhile in them. I've already written a post on his films, and I was planning another one for my feminism in animation series, so I won't say much here. I guess I just wanted to put my regret at his passing out into the internet-ether, and hope that maybe someone out there would be interested in giving his work a shot.

Memories. His contribution to the short film Magnetic Rose was not as a director but as a writer and designer. I haven't seen it yet, but Stacy saw it years ago and told me about it, before I knew who Kon was. Even just the story stayed with me.

Perfect Blue (1999). His first directorial film, a psychological thriller that critiques Japanese pop media and the sexualization of female public figures. Mind-bending, upsetting, and rightfully compared to Hitchcock, this movie put Kon on the map. Director Darren Aronofsky paid for the rights to the film so he could use a scene from it for his film Requiem for a Dream.

Millennium Actress (2001). Widely regarded as his best film, though there is some contention to that. This is a romantic melodrama centered on a (fictional) legendary actress recounting her life for a documentary. It's really something else. If you decide to try a film, I'd recommend starting with this one. I have yet to meet someone who was unmoved by it. It also made Slant Magazine's list of best 100 films of the '00s at #30.

Tokyo Godfathers (2004). One of his more unusual films and one of the most overtly humanistic. The story of three homeless people in Tokyo on a journey to return an abandoned baby to her mother during the week in between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day. A screwball comedy that nonetheless doesn't shy away from the harsher aspects of the side of Tokyo no one ever makes films about. It highlights not only the homeless but South American migrant workers, transvestites and the gay subculture as well as youth violence. Yes, it really is a comedy.

Paprika (2008). An adventure science fiction film with a plot that's difficult to follow but really not as important to the film as it might seem. This one's very interesting when you get under the surface, especially when you hold it up to his previous films as a continuation of their themes and elements. Some people don't like it, I really do.

Paranoia Agent (2005). His only TV series, I'm only halfway through it but so far it's very, very good. A further continuation of his themes of fantasy and reality, media, and societal critique.

Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist by Andrew Osmond is a decent book I read for a paper I wrote spring quarter on Kon. For people interested in Kon's history and some insights into his work, it's not bad, though for scholarly papers it's on the light side.

Cinema Anime by Steven T. Brown has one article on Kon's work that I thought was quite good. It mostly compared his films to Hitchock's body of work and how certain themes and ideas related between the two.

A one-minute short film he wrote and directed for a compilation of animated shorts.

He was working on another film called The Dream Machine. I'm not sure if it got finished or not, but in case it gets a release, that's another one to watch for. It's supposed to be a children's movie.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Diversion: My Favorite Video Games

I'll get back to my Feminism in Animation series as soon as school's done raking me over the coals for a bit. Just to prove I'm not actually dead or something, here's a quick list of video games I like enough to play more than once. I'm hardly a gamer, but I do blow off a considerable amount of steam with my old standards here.

1. Katamari Damacy

This and its sequel, We Love Katamari, are not only fun and inventive, but addictive enough to play over and over. I've been playing one or the other of these games for probably about four years now and they're still fun. It's a little hard to describe what the point of the game is, since it's so bizarre you basically have to play it to understand. Basically, you are a tiny little green alien prince, and your dad's the King of All Cosmos. You'd barely fill his codpiece, and he never misses an opportunity to tell you what a huge (ha ha) disappointment you are, even when you're working your butt off to clean up his mess. It seems one night, dear ol' dad went on a bender and smashed up everything in the galaxy, and now its your job to make new stuff to replace it. How does one go about making new stars, constellations and planets, you ask? Why, take a little sticky ball called a katamari down to Earth and use it to roll up anything you can find until it's big enough, then shoot it into the sky. You roll up everything from bugs and thumbtacks to people, houses, and even continents. Naturally there's a time limit you have to beat, and even if you win the level, chances are high your katamari won't meet the King's standards and he'll give you some backhanded compliment about how he would have done it better. If you lose... you don't want to lose. Let's just put it that way. So really, the game's supposedly about rolling a bunch of weird stuff up into a ball to make a star, but really it's all about father-son bonding and family strife, mixed up with some really fun gameplay and some catchy Japanese pop/rock music. (Yeah, I know there's more of these games out there but I haven't played them yet.)

2. Okami


To list all the reasons I love this game would take me too long, so here's just the highlights. For starters, it's gorgeous. I love the stylized design for the characters, and the sumi-e look they gave everything, and some of the effects are just fantastic. Secondly, I love the inventive gameplay. Not only do you control a character in the game, but you can also control the elements as the wielder of a divine ink brush that literally draws the wind blowing or the trees blooming. Not to be left out, I love the story. It's like a giant mash-up of some of Japan's best-known folklore, and even though many of the stories have been tweaked with, it's still a lot of fun to have that moment of recognition when you figure out who a character is or what story you're involved in. It's deceivingly epic, too-- just when you think you've finished the game, you figure out you're not even halfway done with it. The premise is fairly simple: you are the sun goddess Amaterasu, on Earth in the avatar form of a white wolf in order to stop the rampaging evil that's been unleashed on Japan. You travel around smiting demons, helping villagers, solving puzzles, restoring dead trees and sacred pools, and regaining your power over nature by relearning divine brush techniques. You complete loads of mini-quests during your big one, and travel from one end of Japan to the other, encountering all sorts of people and animals along the way. It's incredibly addicting and tons of fun to play, or even just to watch. I only have it on the PS2, but I've heard the Wii version is pretty fun, too. I've also heard there's a sequel coming out for the DS, so I'm excited about that.

3. The Legend of Zelda

I'm not sure how many times I've beat this game, but it's quite a few. Yeah, I'm talking the original Nintendo, 8-bit graphics version. I don't know what it is about this game I like so much, but I find it tons of fun. I haven't played any of the other Zelda games, though I know people that like some of them quite a bit, so maybe I'll get around to it someday. For now, this one's satisfying enough for me. Maybe I'm just nostalgic for the good ol' days when this was the height of video game technology, but I never played this game much back when it was new. Maybe I'm just tickled that Zelda's named after F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife. Maybe I'm just a sucker for a simple adventure story. Can't really put my finger on why I like this one so much, but I do anyway.

4. Space Invaders

Now this game was a huge part of my childhood. My brother had an Atari system and a bunch of games for it, and this was the one I played the most. Followed closely by some shooting game that had over 20 different styles of games that you'd go through and select, and I discovered I was really good at one of them (edit: I believe this game was known as Tank Plus). But that wasn't this game. This game, in all its simplicity, was the first game I can remember getting a callus from playing so much. Part of it was my desire to outdo my brother's old scores, but part of it was I just liked playing the game. There's something so ingeniously simple about it, and all these old games, that still makes them fun to play even with their primitive graphics. Like the developers were more concerned with stuff like making the game fun and not how realistic they could make it look. Maybe I'm just an old fuddy-duddy.

5. Lots of Games on the Atari 2600 I Never Played but that Have Awesome Names

I never played Tapeworm, but can only imagine what the plot of that was. Or Tax Avoiders, which seems to be a little human figure trying to gather money while avoiding what appear to be snakes, what might be either a spider or a large asterisk, and what I'm assuming is the tax man. I can't really tell, though. Plaque Attack looks like a similar idea to Space Invaders, only instead of a cannon, you're a tube of toothpaste defending two rows of teeth from floating junk food. has tons of these old games listed and I have to assume that they're probably more fun to imagine than they were to actually play, but you never know.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Review: "How To Train Your Dragon"

Well it finally happened. Dreamworks Animation finally nailed it. Kung Fu Panda set the bar for the studio as far as I'm concerned, and How to Train Your Dragon raised it.

I feel I should preface this by saying that I had no idea what to expect going into this movie. I hadn't seen many ads or any trailers for it, and barely knew it existed until just a few months ago. I knew nothing of the plot aside from the fact that there were vikings and dragons, and everything I'd seen looked pretty fun and silly. I didn't know Chris Sanders and Dean DeBloise (whose work you might know from Lilo and Stitch-- which I will coincidentally be writing about in my feminism in animation series) were the co-writers and directors, I didn't know anything about the voice casting (surprisingly and refreshingly skimpy on the celebrity names), and I sure didn't expect it to be so moving. Directors like Sanders and Dean, and Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) keep treating their audiences like they actually have brains and emotional intellect, and have studios capable of producing animation quality that backs those things up, hopefully more animation directors will follow suit.

So, having gone into the movie with very little in the way of expectations other than maybe some silly comedy and lots of wisecracks-- it's Dreamworks, after all, that's usually what they base their movies around-- I was not prepared for the movie I actually saw. It had its funny moments, certainly, with nary a fart joke or pop culture reference to be found, but it wasn't a wacky comedy like what I'd been expecting. The story itself is really basic, and yeah there are loads of predictable tropes like 'the coming of age story', 'the geeky guy likes the popular girl', 'a boy and his dog', 'teenager emotionally estranged from parent/s who don't understand him', 'the dork who doesn't fit in because he's too different', and so on. And yeah, one of the big underlying messages of the movie is the typical 'just be true to yourself', but it's actually really underplayed in favor of something that usually gets less focus: 'learning to understand something differently'.

The main character, Hiccup, is from a tribe of Vikings (who speak with Scottish accents for some reason) who raise sheep, build houses, and kill dragons. Mostly the latter, although the house building is tied in with that as well. Their village is constantly raided by dragons who carry off their sheep, and the Vikings are experienced enough with killing them that they have some classifications and techniques for each species, and even have a right of passage tradition that involves training to fight and eventually kill them. Hiccup, a small, skinny teenager who isn't understood or respected by anyone, especially his father, the village leader and big brawny tough guy, wants more than anything to kill a dragon and earn some respect and affection. He isn't strong enough to wield his own weapon, but he's clever enough to design a catapult to do it for him, and manages to down a member of the most mysterious and enigmatic of the dragon species, the Night Fury. When he finally finds the injured dragon, he finds he can't bring himself to kill it, and instead starts observing and eventually befriending it. What he learns about dragon behavior is often at direct odds with what he's being taught in dragon training, but through his understanding of dragon behavior, he's able to rise to the top his class despite his complete lack of warrior prowess.

Meanwhile, he's also figured out how to repair the injury to the dragon-- now named Toothless-- which is able to properly fly again with teamwork. The flight scenes are amazingly well-done, not only because they're beautiful in and of themselves, but because they drive home the beauty of the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. We get to experience the exhilaration they both feel at getting to fly right along with them, and the fear they both feel when they fall. Hiccup's actions have made him responsible for Toothless, and Toothless in turn helps validate Hiccup's unconventional ways and gives him a kind of freedom and perspective he couldn't have achieved on his own. Neither one can reach their full potential without the other, and the flight scenes drive that home beautifully without a word.

I also really liked that they didn't shy away from the potential consequences of Hiccup's actions, and there are some surprises toward the end. In retrospect, they probably shouldn't have been as surprising as they were, but at the same time, it happens so rarely in movies for younger audiences-- or even older ones for that matter-- that it took me off guard. There's a more mature sensibility at the heart of the movie that is refreshing in general, and most certainly so for Dreamworks animation. It's a fun movie, but it's not afraid to get into some more serious issues for the sake of more emotional integrity. I highly recommend seeing it, and especially in 3D, which isn't something I typically recommend. I've never seen a movie in 3D in the theater, and I usually don't feel like I'm missing out on that much, but I do regret not seeing this one in it. I actually forgot it was supposed to be in 3D until I was leaving the theater and saw the sign on the poster that said it was in 2D only. No gratuitous things flying toward the camera for the sake of a gimmick, I get the impression this 3D was used intelligently, to heighten the experiences of the characters onscreen for the audience.

So in summary, this movie will likely be compared to a lot of other movies out there. Some of the comparisons will be fair, some will not, but to take the film only on the basis of its tropes (of which there are many) leaves out how those tropes are presented. All movies and stories work with tropes, either by employing them or defying them. It's in the execution that makes the difference as to how an audience will respond to it-- whether attention was paid to the characters and an investment in having the audience care about them is paramount for me. It's clear the filmmakers here cared about Hiccup and Toothless and their bond is the biggest focus in the film. That's why it works as well as it does, and that's why any of it means anything. For me, the execution here was good. They cared about the characters, they cared about what they were trying to say, and they cared about whether or not the audience cared about the same things.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wait, What's Wrong With Being a Girl, Again?

(Not officially a part of my series on feminism in animation, although it certainly applies. Just a quick rant.)

So, as most people who might care probably already know, Disney's changed the title of its upcoming movie Rapunzel to the more gender-neutral Tangled. In and of itself, I guess not that big a deal, it's got a certain catch to it, slightly more engaging to a modern audience since it's an adjective, not a noun. Whatever. But then why did they decide to change the content of the movie too? According to the interviews I've read, they're beefing up the role of the heroic prince guy and giving him lots more action scenes. Okay, I'm all for equal character development (which is not what "swashbuckling action" means, btw), but why are they changing so much so suddenly, and especially less than a year before the movie opens?

"We didn't want to be put in a box," according to Ed Catmull, president of Disney and Pixar's animation department (via the LA Times). "Some people might assume it's a fairy tale for girls when it's not. We make movies to be appreciated and loved by everybody."

Translation: "The Princess and the Frog underperformed (ie: only made ~$220 million worldwide) and like we always do, we're blaming something totally arbitrary on the failure instead of our story department and our marketing strategy."

Remember back when they announced they were closing their traditional animation studios in favor of switching to digital animation? Their reasoning there was that everyone else's CG-animated movies were making money and their traditional ones weren't, therefore it must be that traditional animation as a medium is dead and not that the movies themselves had issues. Only now, instead of blaming traditional animation for the "failure" of their blockbuster movie, they're blaming it on the fact that boys won't go see a movie with the word "princess" in the title.

Or, apparently, "Rapunzel". (Which the semantic in me must point out is a kind of leafy green plant people use in salads, not a fancy word for "princess".)

So now, instead of the method of animation at fault, it's the fact that it's about a girl. I keep forgetting that girls aren't regular people who can be easily identified with by people of either gender, like boys can. See, when you make a movie with a girl in the lead part, and it's about "girl" stuff like romance and magic (as 99% of lead-women movies are), it means it's a "chick flick" and the only acceptable guy audience members are the ones dragged there by their girlfriends and who spend every second of its run-time in sheer emotional anguish. Because everyone knows that girl things are silly and emasculating and real men only tolerate it for the sake of sex.

But when a movie comes out with a guy in the lead and it's about "guy" stuff like adventure and action, it's totally cool for girls to like that, too, because when we say "guy", we really mean "everybody". Because guy stuff is the default, "non-gendered" stuff, and "girl" stuff is for sissy, fluffies who like glitter and shoes. And in case you're confused by that, "glitter" and "shoes" and everything else associated with being feminine are less important, interesting, relevant, and acceptable to enjoy because they are silly and beneath all the relevant "boy" stuff like explosions and car chases.

Thank you, Disney, for reminding me that girls are silly and nobody wants to watch movies about them. It's a really good thing you remembered, too, before releasing another movie that will only make a few hundred million dollars because there wasn't enough boy-time and we all know that the only way to relate to a girl character is to be a girl yourself. I mean it's not like they're real people or anything.

(Just for the sake of clarification: I do not assume this of all males, and in fact I think it's pretty demeaning to assume they're all this shallow, but there's a lot of cultural pressure and influence out there that supports the "girls are silly and you shouldn't like anything aimed at them" mentality. I don't know which I find more insulting, the idea that all guys must think this way, or the fact that there are evidently so many who do. And they're not the only ones! There are loads of girls out there who feel the exact same way due to the same social stigma. I was one of them for a very long time. Hence the bitter.)

(Another clarification: I have big issues with the so-called "chick flicks", too, and the predominance of princesses in animated movies. Not because I think femininity in and of itself is demeaning, but because of how "appropriate" femininity is showcased in them, and the almost complete lack of anything else for female consumers. I'm of the opinion that people who genuinely like the glittery princess thing, rock on. But limiting the idea of "girl" to just that is... limiting. Girls can be foofy princesses, and they can be other things, too! We have LOADS of princesses already, maybe we can explore, I don't know, something else for a change?)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Feminism in Animation: "Disney's Hercules" (the series)

This series really never got the recognition it deserved when it was on back in 1998, and I'm really doubtful that it'll ever make it to DVD despite a fan following and a ton of celebrity voice talent. I found it to be a pretty clever series, especially since I'm a huge fan of Greek mythology and I love that the writers clearly studied it and involved it heavily in the plots of the series. It's not always accurate, of course, since it's Disney and an animated daytime show aimed at children, but they actually got away with a fair amount, and you can tell they went to the myths first. It's actually pretty cool, since the original myths were largely pretty woman-phobic, anyway. Don't believe me? Take a look at all the female monsters those strapping demigod heroes had to go defeat, like gorgons, sirens, harpies, dracaenae, scylla, maenades, sphinx, Amazons, and the list goes on. (Note: I'm not saying all the monsters were female, but there were a lot of them, and there's a lot of symbolism involved in terms of taming/conquering female power, especially sexuality, which actually lines up with the role and treatment of women in ancient Greek society, too.)

The basic premise, as with most Disney TV adaptations of their movies, is setting Hercules (Tate Donovan) in high school during his awkward adolescent phase. Despite being a demi-god and the son of Zeus, he's pretty much a social outcast and his only steady friends are Icarus (French Stewart), the boy who flew too close to the sun on wax wings and who now seems to be permanently fried physically and mentally, and Cassandra (Sandra Bernhard), a pessimistic, sarcastic, and downright acidic young woman who's cursed to have unerring visions of future catastrophe, but who will never be believed if she tries to warn anyone about them. Cassandra alone's a great feminist character because, as might be surmised by the casting choice, she's a smart, outspoken, independent woman with a lot more on her mind than just dating and shopping. In fact she only dates one character in the entire show and that was only for two episodes-- this is in spite of Icarus's conviction that they're a couple and his stalking and obsessive behavior towards her, while not portrayed as anything other than annoying and basically harmless, isn't touted as building up to a true love match for them, either. She rejects him constantly and never capitulates to dating him or seems interested in him in that respect at all, which is nice. In fact, the character she winds up dating is very similar to him in a lot of ways, but importantly, he's not obsessive or clingy or possessive. Of course it's played for laughs and Bernhard goes completely over the top with her syrupy lovesick voice, but I think it's interesting that it seems to be Icarus's stalker-like behavior that's his biggest obstacle with her.

Icarus, for his part, is also pretty cool when not latched onto Cassandra, since he doesn't seem to pay much heed to constructed gender roles at all-- he's often shown to be more creative, nurturing, and domestically-minded, and never self-conscious about it. Of course he's also delusional and often has very bad ideas that get him into trouble, but it's still cool that he's totally at peace with his masculine and feminine sides.

There are several specific episodes that deal directly with feminist issues, especially anytime the Amazon Tempest (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is featured. One episode, The Girdle of Hyppolyte, dealt with Hercules having issues with his “Home Grecinomics” class (ha ha, puns) because he didn't feel like he should have to do “women's work” like cooking. He winds up following Tempest back to her home because he thinks she's in danger and winds up at odds with the Amazonian ruler, Hyppolyte (Jane Curtain). Banished to the kitchen to do “men's work”, he meets Tempest's father, King Darius (Emeril Lagasse) and learns that cooking and homemaking aren't gender-specific, nor are they inherently demeaning. They stay clear of more prickly topics like reinforcing the gender binary and its inherent struggle for dominance, and the idea that homemaking as a full-time job isn't regarded any more highly in the matriarchy than in the patriarchy, but the ideas are in there if anyone stops to read between the lines. Pretty subversive for a daytime animated kid's show.

It also takes on the Pygmalion myth, which has become popularized these days in movies like My Fair Lady and Annie Hall (which is a great movie, by the way). The basic story of the original myth is that the sculptor Pygmalion found every woman he saw to be inadequate next to his idea of what they should be, so sculpts himself his perfect woman. During his sculpting, he becomes so besotted with his creation, Aphrodite takes pity on him and brings the statue Galatea to life. The episode The Dream Date plays on this, even having Pygmalion be the school's art teacher with the improbably attractive wife (who is never named), but instead of a dissatisfaction with women in general, Hercules's problem is his inability to get a date for a school dance. Inspired by the art teacher's story, he sneaks into the art room and sculpts a woman out of clay, hoping to invoke Aphrodite (Lisa Kudrow) to bring her to life so he can have a date. As exacting and specific about what he wants her to be like physically, he is equally as uninterested in her personality, and just asks that she be “crazy about [him]”. Naturally, things go awry when Galatea (Jennifer Aniston) is clingy, obsessive, possessive to the point of violence with any other girl who so much as says boo to him, and even winds up rigging the election for the king and queen of the dance. When Herc tries to break up with her (by restraining her and dropping her on a remote island), she's completely undeterred and makes her way back to the dance. Long story short, the dance is ruined, the building catches on fire, and because she's made of clay, she winds up hardened into a statue. Realizing his mistake with the helpful prodding of his friends (Cassandra even gets to say the word “sexist” in a Disney cartoon), he asks Aphrodite to give Galatea the ability to be her own person, which is granted; however instead of getting the real date he's hoping for, Herc instead gets the very same break-up speech he'd given her earlier in the episode right before she runs off to find “that hunky Ajax”. All in all, the message there is pretty clear, and I think the episode presents it in a fun and not-too preachy way: women are their own people, not soulless dolls for men to use to satisfy their lust with and project their fantasies onto-- and yes, that means that they might choose to date someone else, no matter how nice a guy you might be. Seems simple, right? Sadly, in the words of Aphrodite, “not everyone gets the lesson.”(may be nsfw)

Other notable examples from the show include:

Hecate (Perri Gilpin), a disgruntled Underworld employee who's sick of getting very little recognition for her work and is trying to unseat Hades much the same way Hades is trying to unseat Zeus-- frankly in some ways she may actually be more qualified to run the Underworld than he is, not the least of which because she actually wants the job. She creates the unique situation of putting Hades in a vulnerable and even sympathetic position at times, while at the same time, the viewer can also sympathize with Hecate's frustration at her lack of respect and power. I wish she'd been around more, she was interesting. Episode to try: The Underworld Takeover

Athena (Jane Leeves), as the patron goddess of Athens shows up more than once, and is always amusing since she's usually smarter than anyone in the room, and usually in a competitive relationship with her twin brother Ares (Jay Thomas). I like her because she can compete with him in physical areas (they were both patrons of war and combat), but not at the expense of knowledge, wisdom, and reason. I also like that she seems to love irritating everyone by being a smarty pants a lot. Episode to try: The Big Games

Artemis (Reba Macentire), as the goddess of the hunt, is only in two episodes or so, but is knee-slappingly funny most of the time. Interestingly, the writers dug out this old myth about Orion, the legendary hunter of constellation fame, and she having an affair of some sort, in contrast to her more typical virgin status. But in typical Reba fashion, Artemis is straight-shootin', down-home wisdom, and prone to raising her voice when someone isn't listening to her. Episode to try: The Boar Hunt

Elektra (Jennifer Tilly), interestingly having nothing to do with her mythical counterpart, this Elektra is a goth/beatnik girl that Herc's interested in. The problem is, she hates guys like him and wants nothing to do with him until he starts trying to adopt her counter-culture lifestyle. Oh yeah, and she summons “furies” (bird-like monsters) when she gets angry for some reason. What's interesting about this is that the episode doesn't seem to come down firmly on one side or the other here; she isn't really vilified for her viewpoints, and Herc doesn't seem to learn much of a lesson beyond 'don't pretend to be someone you're not to fit in'. They butt heads constantly about their life views but neither one wins the other over, and they part still not seeing eye to eye, but it's actually a more realistic ending than everyone magically getting along after seeing the error of their ways. Episode to try: The Complex Elektra

Medusa (Jennifer Love Hewett), in a big nod to The Little Mermaid, is a lonely soul who longs for a connection with someone without turning them to stone. When given the choice between a human makeover that lasts from sunup to sundown in exchange for doing work for Hades, or a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses that keep her look from turning things to stone from Aphrodite, she takes what really does seem like the better deal and goes with Hades. She fits in when she goes to school, has friends, gets the start of a romance with Hercules, but after a serious anxiety attack when she hears Herc talk callously about learning to kill gorgons in his training, she decides to tell him who she is. It's an interesting episode and the only one I can recall offhand that focuses more on the emotional journey of a one-shot character than the protagonists. I remember that one being somewhat controversial in the fanbase when it first aired, since some people found Aphrodite's solution to be too optimistic in the face of overwhelming cultural bias against 'monsters', but there is also something to be said for the basic lesson of not trying to pretend to be someone you aren't just to gain acceptance. It's too bad she was only in one episode, since by the end of it, only Hercules was shown to be accepting of her, and it never says what happened after that. Episode to try: The Gorgon

As noted before, this series isn't available on DVD, nor is it likely to be for at least a very long time, if ever. Fortunately, some episodes are available on at least one popular movie sharing online community, and to the best of my knowledge, it's in reruns on one of the Disney channels, although I think some of the episodes have been edited since their initial airing. It's not a perfect show; the animation's pretty hit or miss, and some episodes are definitely better than others, but I thought overall it was pretty clever, especially if you're familiar with Greek mythology and history already. If not, it's a fun introduction, and it's a great way to play 'spot the celebrity guest voice', too.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Feminism in Animation: "Slayers"

This is basically the sum of a bunch of different thoughts I've had bouncing around in my brain for a while. For a while I've been wanting to highlight some media products from Asian cultures, most specifically Japan since it's the one I'm most familiar with, that feature strong feminist themes, and since it's International Women's Day, what better time to kick it off? There's this prevailing idea floating around that Eastern cultures are more “backwards” and oppressive toward women than we are in the West, and while there are certainly problems in Asian countries in regards to gender equality, I really can't say the West is any better in many ways. It's an unfair viewpoint, and I've been wanting to challenge it for a while now, but I also want to talk about some feminist viewpoints from Western media products, specifically in terms of animation. For the purposes of this list, I'm looking specifically at Disney products, since Disney is very often viewed as being un-feminist, which is fair, but that's ignoring the feminist ideas that do exist there as well. So this is my list. It leaves out a bunch, I'm sure, but these are the TV shows, movies, and comics that I'm most familiar with and have the strongest ideas on. My goal here isn't to compare these shows with each other and try to rate how each culture is doing, my goal is simply to examine them in their own rights and maybe provide a different viewpoint or raise awareness of a product that might be less known.

The first anime I ever saw that I actually liked, and to this day I still enjoy it, even the dated parts. Originally based on a series of novels by Kanzaka Hajime with illustrations by Araizumi Rui, Slayers is an epic fantasy adventure story that in part spoofs epic fantasy stories, while at the same time creating its own story with messages all its own. It's a great adventure saga, full of humor, action, at times suspense, and loads of great characters. Kanzaka really created his own world, with its own history, culture, and mythology, and even an intricate and fascinating system of magic, with sub-groups and spells that clearly do their own different things, and that interact with each other in different ways. And at fifteen original novels, and over thirty spin-off novels, not to mention the comics and anime series that spun off from those, there's plenty that gets explored. I especially love that this series is proof that the idea that 'guys don't identify with female protagonists' is bunk because not only is the lead character in this series a female, but the novels are written in first-person perspective. So not only did Kanzaka, a man, write a lead female character convincingly and uncondescendingly, but it became one of the biggest hits of the '90s in Japan, with four TV seasons (to date), countless manga spinoffs, a string of direct-to-DVD releases, successful movies, radio dramas, and hit songs, to say nothing of the merchandise that must have been produced. To this day it has an enduring fanbase, enough to warrant a fourth TV season years after the previous one aired. Lina Inverse is an anime icon because she's a fantastic character, and the series is full of many more.

In the novels Lina describes herself as a petite, brown-haired, brown-eyed girl of fifteen or sixteen who's been traveling for years already-- gradually her hair and eyes were both lightened to a dramatic red, which admittedly does suit her personality more. She's not on some grand quest to save the world-- although she does usually wind up doing it anyway-- she's doing it because she loves adventure, kicking the butts of roving tribes of bandits (and making herself money in the process) and building up her reputation as a sorceress. By the time she's in her mid-teens, her name is already feared far and wide and she's almost a living legend-- although not quite in the way she'd wanted, since her nickname Dra-Mata (“dragon spooker”) is less flattering than her own title of “beautiful sorcery genius”, and she's very often regarded as a public menace. She has an ego the size of a small state, but the thing is, she really is a genius. She is a force of nature to be reckoned with, both in terms of her magical power (which is portrayed literally as an atomic explosion in the anime), but in terms of her personality. She's loud, brash, egotistical, angry, opinionated, educated, fearless, ambitious, greedy, hardworking, adventurous, confident, funny, and totally relentless. And yet, as much as she brags about how gorgeous she is, it overlays this insecurity about her figure, since she's willowy and petite and seems to be surrounded by women far more well-endowed than she is. She's awkward and shy when it comes to things like romance and tries to avoid thinking or talking about it at all, let alone pursuing it. Her temper is legendarily short, and she's been known to blow up entire villages just to let off steam when she gets riled up, which only contributes to her reputation as a menace to society in general. She's very well-versed in magical theory as well as folklore and legends, and will often explain things to less-educated people. She also loves food and has been known to put away as much as twenty helpings in one sitting, which I believe was once attributed to the amount of magic energy she channels on a regular basis. Her abilities with magic, especially black (destructive) magic are astonishing for someone of her age; her signature spell is incredibly powerful, and one only a handful of people in the world know, but there's one even more powerful that she herself managed to figure out on her own that taps into energy so powerful it can destroy the planet if miscast. She's also tactically very savvy and will use creative and unorthodox methods of solving problems and getting out of trouble.

I could go on and on about how much I love her and all her foibles and shortcomings and amazing humanness, but she's also far from the only worthy female character in this series. In Lina's earlier wandering days, she had a sometime traveling companion/rival in Naga the Serpent, another powerful sorceress looking to establish a name for herself-- the fact that the name she establishes is "goldfish poop", after the way she follows Lina around, doesn't seem to slow her down much. Naga is a largely comedic character, with many moments of supreme idiocy (poking her own cheeks with her spiked shoulder pads while casting a spell springing immediately to mind), and an outfit that defies nearly every rule of practicality and common sense, but there's a lot more to her than that. She does come off like an idiot a lot of the time, but I don't think she really is-- she's shown frequently to also be pretty canny and proves a good foil for Lina a lot of the time. She's a skilled magician, especially with nature-related magic, and her blistering confidence and complete lack of self-doubt about anything is really pretty cool when you step back and look at her. The signature laugh that drives sane people mad at the sound is the manifestation of that confidence, and it's what drives her tenacity, her ability to wear that ridiculous outfit without shame, her ambition, and her ability to drive Lina absolutely crazy. It's never directly stated anywhere, but there are big hints dropped that she's actually the older sister of another main character, Amelia, and the crown princess of a very powerful kingdom. She left home after witnessing the murder of her mother, which is why she faints at the sight of blood, and seems to prefer the life of a wandering adventurer to that of being royalty, although she's hardly lost the viewpoint of the upper echelon of society. She is also a woman who loves her alcohol, and delights in stealing Lina's food when the opportunity presents itself.

Amelia Wil Tesla Seillune is the next most prominent female character in the story, especially in the anime. Back when I was first into the series, she was widely despised by the fanbase, and I'm glad to see that's died out now because she's a great character. Amelia is a princess of the kingdom of Seillune, a large and powerful country that specializes in white (protective/healing) magic. The kingdom even has a series of walls built through and around it in the shape of a protective charm. Amelia is a very powerful white magic priestess, but she also has a great deal of proficiency in shaman (nature) magic, which gives her a greater diversity of spells to draw on than Lina in some ways. She's also an accomplished physical fighter, but has an inexplicable need to climb on the top of something tall and give righteous lectures to villains about justice before entering the fight-- also she will frequently fall off the tall things and land on her head, which often ruins much of her credibility as a threat. A year or two younger than Lina, she's a bit shorter than her, but with much more curve in her figure, which a thorn in Lina's side from time to time. Like her other family members, Amelia has a love of adventure and travel, but she also feels a great sense of responsibility to her kingdom, and so frequently returns home to take up her political and diplomatic duties instead. Raised by her father after her mother was murdered when she was small, she has a very strong sense of filial duty, and takes after her father in many ways, not the least of which are exuberance and an iron-clad belief in justice. Once stated that she didn't want to be the princess who gets rescued, but rather the prince who saves the damsel in distress, and very often refers to herself as a warrior of justice. Is probably the most naive character in the entire series, but grows considerably during its course into someone with a lot of sense and diplomacy, an even temper, and a really formidable opponent in both court politics and battle.

Sylphiel Nels Radha is the least like any of the other major female characters in the series. She's the epitome of the “ideal” woman and everything Lina isn't; kind, gentle, nurturing, domestic, beautiful, graceful, soft-spoken, shy, obedient, dutiful, sweet, and friendly. Lina hates her instantly, but that's likely due in large part to Sylphiel's very overt designs on Lina's traveling companion and romantic interest, Gourry, and Lina's own buried insecurities. A very powerful white magic priestess, Sylphiel lives in a legendary city that once saw the destruction of a major demon and is renowned for its holy tree that played a large part in that battle. Though she starts out as the obligatory rival character, she soon starts taking on her own life, after enduring an unimaginable tragedy and playing a very important role in the defeat of a major demon. Little tidbits of her past and hidden parts of her personality are revealed slowly, and they add a nice dimension to her, even though she's still not one of the more well-developed characters in the series. But she serves her purpose well and even offers a number of surprises toward the end of the second anime season that showcase just how far she's willing to push herself for the sake of her own dreams. A character that, similar to her namesake Radha from the Hindu tradition, is completely devoted to the object of her love, but is doomed to a life of loneliness, waiting for the love of a man she'll never get. Even though she knows this, she still doesn't back away, and even then never bears Lina any ill will or overt resentment about it. She brings out the insecurities in Lina as she would in anyone, since she is too good to be real, and yet you can't help but feel badly for her since she's lost everything she cherished and deserves much better than the lot she's been given. She is the character who seems most fragile, and yet is able to endure the unendurable and keep moving forward without losing her kindness.

There are more supporting characters that are worth discussing, as the series ran for a long time and had a huge supporting cast, but these are the major female ones. I love the cast for its diversity, and for the sense of human-ness that abounds in each one of them. Some characters are tragic, some comic, some both, some tomboys, some feminine girls, but none are invalidated or made lesser because of their traits. There was clearly thought put into each of them, and while they might seem on the surface like the embodiment of long-standing tropes, each has qualities that defy their categorizations and raise them up into something more thoughtful and interesting. It's also just a great overall series, full of cosmic battles between Good and Evil, silly side-quests, giant slugs, lots of magic, a little romance here and there, complicated family ties, loads of silly gags, lots of food, and plenty of concussions. I still have fun with it even ten years after the fact.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

That Sentimental Feeling

So it's Valentine's Day, a holiday I used to hold in the highest contempt for all the trendy reasons-- 'I don't need a special day to remind me about love', 'it's just a commercialized holiday designed to get people to spend money they don't need to', 'conventional romance is stupid and I'm so much better than that', yadda yadda. While I don't really celebrate it, I have gotten over my contempt for it and don't see anything wrong with people wanting to appreciate their significant others any day they choose. (And really, it's not like it's hard to find commercialized holidays of any sort these days, not just this one.)

However, having said all that, I do still hold most romantic comedies in pretty high disdain. Not because I think it makes me cool or smart, but because I find them to be insulting to my intelligence (and often even my gender) and I simply don't enjoy watching them. I especially hate the version of "romance" they present as anything even remotely approaching healthy or charming, and would run screaming in terror from most of the lead characters should I ever manage to meet one in reality. These people are not healthy, and I resent the idea that I'm supposed to root for them to get together with the other screwed up person and make sociopathic babies. Very often this gets me branded as a non-romantic, and if the examples in movies like How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days or The Proposal are considered real romance, then that's fine with me. But that's not to say that I've never enjoyed an onscreen couple, there are many that I find charming for a number of reasons. So if anyone's looking for something maybe a little off the beaten track to snuggle up with their special someone with, you might give one of these a glance.

Stranger Than Fiction
This charming, genre-defying movie is one that works on just about every level for me, from the tone to the performances, to the quirky plot and its trust in the audience to get the jokes without flashing neon signs. One of my favorite aspects of it is the relationship between mildly OCD IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrel in a surprisingly restrained and nuanced performance) and Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the sleeve-tattooed "anarchist" baker whom he's auditing. On paper they might be your standard romantic couple trope of the people who start out hating each other but then inexplicably fall in love, but on screen, something much more interesting happens. They're charming people. Ana is understandably upset with Harold when he shows up to audit her and makes no effort to hide her anger, and Harold promptly sticks his foot very far down his mouth, and then stares at her breasts in the process. Instead of being played for big laughs, it's a humiliating awkward scene that feels more true than if it were trying to be funny. I have to say that I love the casting choices, too-- neither Ferrell nor Gyllenhaal are what would be considered conventionally attractive on the scale that most romantic comedy stars are, and that's part of what makes them so endearing. In her first appearance, Anna is less than ingratiating since she's yelling at Harold, and yet you can tell he's completely taken with her anyway. If this were Kate Hudson, not only would she be less intimidating but Harold's attraction would feel more shallow and superficial. Gyllenhaal not only isn't afraid to be abrasive, sardonic, and even unpleasant at times, she still manages to be likable, understandable, and very much a person who knows who she is and what she wants and who isn't required to change that for the movie to work. She and Harold don't spend the whole movie hating each other, or trying to trick the other one into dating them, or avoiding their feelings, and it's really refreshing to watch their relationship take its natural course.

A tip: Mix up some chocolate chip cookie dough and keep it in the fridge until after the movie. You will want a warm, gooey cookie straight from the oven like crazy by the end of this.

3-Iron (Bin Jip)
This movie took me really off-guard the first time I saw it. Based on the title, I was expecting some sort of golf movie, and while the sport does play a part in the film, it's not at all what I was expecting. The story is about a young man who breaks into people's houses while they're away, but instead of stealing their things, he repairs broken appliances and does their laundry in exchange for eating their food and using their homes. There's not explanation as to why he does this, he's a college graduate who rides a nice motorcycle and seems by all other accounts to be pretty normal. One day he breaks into a really upscale place, not knowing that the wife of the man who owns it is still inside. Clearly abused and battered, she watches him go about his normal routine of doing laundry, cooking, and repairing her bathroom scale, and never calls the cops or tries to escape. When her husband comes home, they fight again and she leaves with the younger man to accompany him on his routine of living in other people's homes while they're away. What follows is probably one of the sweetest, most tender and mutually respectful relationships I've ever seen on screen. It's all done without a word exchanged between the two, leaving one wondering how necessary words really are in understanding who someone is. For anyone not familiar with Buddhism, it might be a bit confusing at the end, but the whole movie is basically a Buddhist parable. It's a gentle, loving look at how people are capable of relating to each other in ways we don't often consider, and a reminder of how our actions influence the lives of those around us. "Haunting" is probably the best word I've heard to describe it.

When Harry Met Sally
I saw Norah Ephron in an interview once stating that she thought the ending to this movie (which she wrote, in case you didn't know) was unrealistic, and I'd agree, but there's something that's still so much fun about watching these two idiosyncratic people go through different phases of their lives, become friends, and eventually lovers. He's neurotic, cynical, and reads the endings of books before everything else in case he dies before finishing the book, whereas she is optimistic, confident, and likes to order food in very specific, exacting terms. They're both flawed and quirky but not unpleasant and you don't feel guilty rooting for them to them to get over themselves enough to get together. Even though it was made in the late 1980s it still holds up and I found it to be a genuinely entertaining movie when I watched it with my mom a few months back.

Movies don't get much quirkier than this, or more evocative of the little pleasures in life that we often don't notice, like the feeling of sticking your hand in a basket of dried beans, or eating fresh raspberries off your fingers. The title character is odd, to say the least, and she lives a somewhat reclusive life in her little Paris apartment. There is a romance of sorts with a man she sees in the train station one day, but really, this movie is more of a romance with life and its oddities, tiny pleasures, and unnoticed opportunities.

The Band's Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret)
Not a romance as much as a sweet moment between two people who cannot be together due to life circumstances just as much as who they each are. It doesn't focus on the idea of 'what might have been' or lament the missing of an opportunity, but instead quietly revels in the beauty of the connection that was briefly made. It's a wonderfully sweet movie, full of hope and idealism for two cultures that despise each other so fiercely in reality. It's not a realistic movie in that sense, but it is an optimistic one. Sasson Gabai and Ronit Elkabetz give wonderful performances as two lonely people who happen to share one evening in each other's company, then each go on their way to wherever they were going.

Chungking Express
The first time I saw this, I described it as the Chinese version of Amelie, and there are some similarities, but really, they are their own unique movies. This one actually has two stories, both involving lovelorn policemen meeting someone new. The first cop meets a woman who, unbeknownst to him, happens to be involved in a drug smuggling syndicate and is on the run after a job goes bad. The second cop just got dumped by a flight attendant and catches the attention of a young woman working at the fast food place he frequents. This is the story that's Amelie-esque (even though this movie came out before Amelie), in that this young woman takes it upon herself to interfere with the cop's life in unusual ways, doing little things to break him out of his routine and help him move on from his past relationship. It's also really interesting in how it plays with time and makes you aware of the timing of things, and how sometimes when a moment passes us by, it's not always a bad thing or a good thing. Sometimes things just are what they are and it doesn't mean they have more or less value in life.

Yeah, yeah, I know, but I can't help it, I love watching this movie. I love the overblown emotion and the goofy characters and the food, food, food, and the sheer operatic nature of it all. It's just fun, and the cynical view of life, death, and love is so funny because they managed to not overdo it. Everyone's theatrical and overblown, but somehow it all works. Cher's classic "snap out of it!" line still kills me every time.