Category: film and animation

That Other, Better Hobbit Movie

A while back I wrote about Ralph Bakshi’s animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. I seem to be one of the brave few who actually did enjoy the movie, but mostly because of the few things it got right. Overall, the best I can say about it is that it’s not as bad as people say, but when that’s the best defense of a film one can offer, well, it’s probably not a good movie.

In any case, about the same time I saw that, I also heard of the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit, and figured I’d check it out eventually, but after one underwhelming Tolkien adaptation I wasn’t eager to see more. A few weeks ago, though, I came across Dr. Bruce Charlton’s positive review of the film, and when I shared that on Twitter I was quickly informed that I needed to watch it. So, to the front of the queue it went, and I have to say I should’ve watched this sooner, because it’s an excellent children’s film and a worthy adaptation of the novel.

Now, part of any adaptation’s success is knowing what parts of the source material to keep and what to exclude. Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings failed in part because it tried to stuff two books into a two hour movie, whereas Peter Jackson’s version mostly succeeded because each of the three books had its own film. However, Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit has often been criticised, justly, for bloating one fairly straightforward novel into a massively overdone trilogy of movies. Rankin/Bass couldn’t fit everything into ninety minutes, but as Dr. Charlton wrote in his review, they do hit the most important points and allow each scene to develop fully.

Nice place IMHO
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Is There a Hierarchy Among the Arts?

tezuka_osamuLast weekend I wrote up a recommended reading list as a permanent page, and as I came to the end I briefly considered adding a section for comics, but decided against it because my goal was to direct people to higher art; pop culture already has enough promotion.

While thinking about some of the graphic novels I may have added, I noticed that most of them were works that I’d only really recommend to someone specifically interested in the medium. I took a look at the general fiction section and considered whether I’d encourage anyone to read them before even the relatively lighter works, like The Things They Carried or The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and the answer was no, I wouldn’t.

Why is this? It’s not as though I’m only working from a small sample size; I’ve read dozens of these works, including those that are commonly cited as the best of the medium, like WatchmenThe Dark Knight Returns, a few works by Tezuka Osamu, as well as some more niche titles like Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths or A Bride’s Story. Are comics just inherently an inferior medium? How would one even go about comparing different media?…

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An Experiment in Fandom Criticism

A few years ago, I wrote a post called “What’s Up with Anime Fans?” In short, I considered why anime and its fandom make some people, including some of its own fans, uncomfortable, and concluded that the problem isn’t anime in itself so much as the culture surrounding it, and that the fandom’s awkwardness is a self-reinforcing phenomenon. I still agree with most of that post, but it raises a couple broader questions that may be worth considering. First, can we judge a medium by its fans? Second, can we judge a person’s character by the media he consumes?

First, we should recognise that though the quality of art isn’t as objective or precise as, say, mathematics or the natural sciences, this does not mean that it is completely subjective and unarguable. The simplest criteria we can use to judge the quality of a work is whether it accomplishes what it sets out to do. If it’s a comedy, does it make the audience laugh? If a tragedy, does it give a sense of catharsis? Responses will vary, of course – humour in particular is notoriously subjective – but things become clearer if we examine why a work succeeds or not. Is the plot coherent, the characters believable, the spectacle artful? Taken together, did the various parts of the work each contribute to the intended effect? Should any of the parts be removed, did anything need to be added?

Furthermore, there is a moral dimension to judging art. The best works uplift the audience in some way. This certainly does not mean having an explicit moral; in fact, explicitness is often counter-productive. Compare the uplifting but enjoyable Lord of the Rings to the preachy, unbearable Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

From Bakshi's film adaptatin of Lord of the Rings
From Ralph Bakshi’s film adaptation of Lord of the Rings
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Watamote v. 5-7 (75 Books XVI-XVIII)

Though I’ve been reading Watamote for a few years now, first via scanlations, then by importing the Japanese graphic novels, I’ve yet to write about it directly. I did talk about the anime adaptation shortly after it aired about a year and a half ago, and my thoughts on that still reflect my opinion of the first few volumes of the source material. As much as I love the early part of the comics, it is a formula that runs a high risk of growing stale – Tomoko comes up with a scheme to get popular quickly, or to impress someone else, this plan blows up in humiliating fashion, Tomoko learns little or nothing, repeat. Luckily, author Tanigawa Nico (actually a two-person writer/artist team) inserts some variety by giving Tomoko other people to interact with, early on her brother Tomoki, her cousin Kii, and middle-school friend Yuu. These volumes add another interesting dynamic by introducing Komiyama, a mutual friend of Yuu, and who has a crush on Tomoki. While we still see Tomoko making a fool of herself on her own like the early chapters, the most interesting parts tend to be those involving the trio of Tomoko, Yuu, and Komiyama. The added interactions also make Tomoko more easily relatable for those who, while uncomfortable in social situations, aren’t quite helpless as she appeared to be early on.

Now, I imported the Japanese editions so, while I think my reading skills are improving over time, getting through was still a bit of a slog. I have noticed that now, when I pick up the official English edition, it sounds a bit off to me. It’s a similar feeling to watching a foreign film subtitled, and then rewatching it later with an English dub; whether the translation is faithful or not (and doubtless the translator in this case is far, far more fluent than I am), the new voices are distracting and bothersome.

On a final note, the seventh volume also came with a DVD with one anime episode on it. My spoken Japanese is noticeably worse than my reading skills so I was mostly lost in about half a minute. Making things even more difficult for me, this seems to be an original story rather than an adaptation of a chapter of the comic, though I think I did manage to follow the gist of the story. The story’s okay, I suppose, but there wasn’t as much Tomoko as I expected, and frankly I’d have preferred an adaptation over this new material. The animation is decent, about on par with the TV anime.

I’m still continuing with Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, which is taking a while partly because it’s over 800 pages long and partly because of visiting relatives. In any case, I’ll also concurrently be reading my Japanese editions of Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, starting with volume fifteen.…

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Maniac (1934)

Watching films from the 1930’s and earlier takes some patience from modern viewers. Even studio productions can feel amateurish, as performers tended to overact, the camera was generally static, and early sound films often lacked background music. That said, there was some interesting experimentation going on in a still relatively new medium, so viewers willing to do without some modern polish can find some genuinely interesting material.

Which leads me to 1934’s Maniac, directed by Dwain Esper, which was produced outside the studio system and was thus free to include things like extra violence and bare breasts. Before getting too excited, though, keep in mind this was still 1934, so there’s not really anything a modern audience would find remotely shocking.

maniac_a

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A Decade’s Worth of Serial Experiments

I did make sure to put on my bear cap before writing.
This post was written with my bear cap on.

I got my first job in late October 2004; it was only as a temporary hire for a one-week special event, but for me that first pay cheque was an absolute fortune. I don’t remember what all I got with it, but do remember the one thing that mattered – a copy of serial experiments lain, which I count as my first anime.

Perhaps it technically wasn’t my first; like most everyone my age I’d been a huge Pokémon fan. I’m afraid to even guess how many hours I spent with the games, and of course I got into the TV show as well. I wouldn’t count it as a “first” anime, though, because even though I was aware that it was Japanese, I didn’t attach any significance to that fact.

Similar for Spirited Away, which I saw in theatre. Thanks to the DVD special features I even learned who Miyazaki Hayao is, and though I had a mild interest in seeing more of his work, and perhaps anime in general, I didn’t pursue that until a couple years later, in Spring 2004, when I stumbled into the manga aisle of a bookstore. That interest in Japanese comics prompted a greater interest in its animated cousin. I’m not sure how I first heard about lain specifically; probably through the forums for the webcomic Megatokyo. I didn’t know much about it going in, either, except that it was vaguely cyberpunk-ish, but then as now I don’t require much more than a few interesting screencaps and a strong recommendation to pique my interest.…

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Uncle Walt-a-thon: The Jungle Book

<- Uncle Walt-a-thon: Sword in the Stone

It gives me a little sense of pride that mine must be one of the few blogs that can post a review of The Jungle Book right after a post on Doctor Zhivago, and it’s not even out-of-place.

Anyway, I already wrote up a closer for this series, but I did want to include The Jungle Book since it was the last film Disney worked on (though he passed away while it was still in production). Also, it was likely my favourite film as a child. I couldn’t even guess how many times I watched this movie before I turned ten, but it was enough that, even though I haven’t seen it in a solid decade-and-a-half, I could still remember every scene, almost every line, even. Only Robin Hood and Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day are even in the same ballpark for my favourite and most-watched childhood films.…

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Doctor Zhivago

You know a movie’s going to be good when it opens with an overture. I’ve actually not seen any other films that have one (though a few people on twitter have informed me that it used to be fairly common for old film epics), but I knew it was a promising start to this latest film about Soviet-induced misery, Doctor Zhivago.

Unlike the last two installments, which were either obscure (The Chekist) or at least not very well-known in the United States (Katyn), Zhivago is one of the better-known Hollywood epics, and “epic” is just the right word for it – with a wide-ranging plot and a run-time of three hours and twenty minutes, it’s a project just to watch. Fortunately, though, it doesn’t feel that long; the pacing if fairly quick, and it never dwells on a particular scene for very long. It’s also a visually interesting film, with a variety of settings and some unusual camerawork (e.g., following a character by looking in through outside windows). A bit distractingly, one can also play a game of “place the accent;” it has a mix of American and British actors, a couple French minor characters, and a couple guys who do a Russian accent, which is rather confusing.

Anyway, the plot is well-constructed, and though the characters are believable I didn’t find any that I particularly liked. Many minor characters come and go, and the two female leads aren’t particularly interesting, though Lara does have more personality than Tonya. Zhivago himself is a little too idealistic for me, and though this kind of character often does have an appeal, a couple incidents killed most of the sympathy I had for him. One was putting Lara and her daughter in danger because he didn’t want to accept help from the unsavoury Komarovsky, as well as carrying on an adulterous affair with Lara in the first place.…

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Katyn: Can’t Get Enough of that Mass-Murder Jazz

Since the last film I saw about Commie democide was such good times, how could I resist more? Unfortunately, it’s slim pickings in the murderous Marxism genre; I had to go to Russia for The Chekist, and this time I had to look to Poland, for 2007’s Katyn. (As an aside, shouldn’t there be more movies like this? We Americans fought a decades-long Cold War against Communist states, and while there are several films featuring them as villains, there’s not really a Western film that I’m aware of that’s like a Soviet Schindler’s List. Instead, there are only these relatively recent Polish and Russian films.)

As one can easily guess, Katyn covers the Katyn Forest massacre, albeit somewhat indirectly. In an interview included as a DVD special feature, director Andrzej Wajda discusses how he’d wanted to make this film for a long time because of his family’s connection to the massacre. His father was among the victims, but he ultimately decided to draw more from his mother’s experience at home. So, while we do see the massacre and some of the treatment of the prisoners, most of the film focuses on one officer’s family during and after the war.…

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A Short Review of The Chekist

The shortest way to describe The Chekist, which covers the 1920’s mass executions carried out by the Cheka, the early Soviet Union’s secret police, would be to call it a Holocaust movie, but instead of National Socialists we have International Socialists. That does give the film, directed by  Aleksandr Rogozhkin, some novelty value since, though I can think of several films off the top of my head that deal with Nazism, if not the Holocaust specifically, the only movie I can think of to cover Communist massacres is the Polish film Katyn. If nothing else, for those who have a visceral reaction to the word “Nazi” but not “Communist,” this film should help fix that.

A three-word summary of the film
A four-word summary of the film
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