Review: Eternals

I should note at the outset that I didn’t mean to see Eternals in the first place. I was looking for Dune, but whether it wasn’t in theaters yet, or wasn’t in that theater yet, or was out of theaters or that theater already, there wasn’t a Dune to be found. (In case you can’t tell, I don’t go to the movies that often – and anyway I was traveling and didn’t look things up in advance. And only decided where to stop about an hour before I did, too.)

Anyway, Eternals was about what I expected from comments I’d seen – a mediocre superhero film with certain themes included that were bound to excite the “queer” community. The film, just for context, accompanies a reboot of a perpetually short-run, multiply rebooted comics series. For this go-round, at least one character (Ajak) has been “updated” to female; another (Sprite) is strikingly androgynous (I believe supposed to be female here – unsure of the original); a third portrayed in a homosexual relationship (I forget the character’s name, and the thing is celebrated, if that’s the word, by appropriating the lovely Skeeter Davis number “The End of the World” – which misuse is a crime against nature).

All of which, of course, makes the film very much of part of its age (ours), but doesn’t necessarily compromise the art irretrievably. The Iliad, for instance, is not significantly marred by the fact that its action is spurred by a dispute over a couple of slave concubines (which status may be being polite); although it helps the Homeric case that the cause once explained is promptly forgotten for the majority of the epic, and The Iliad is in any case a tragedy.

Eternals probably would be more effective if it had more of the stylings of a tragedy. It certainly has the plot of one – at least nearly. Since we receive the information practically in the prologue, it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that the “Eternals” are agents of a demigod, and that they end up rebelling. But it’s a superhero film, so they save the world in the process. And elements of the ending do make Eternals stand out for seriousness. The final action sequence is very well done; but perhaps more impressive, the reality of consequences is addressed here. Ikaris’s character arc concludes in devastating fashion, and there’s a hint of actual judgment to come in the sequel hook. Superhero films being what they are, it’s my best guess our heroes wangle their way out of that threat, but I don’t quite want to judge this film on that assumption.

The problem is that up to the ending the film does not live up to the emotional weight its plot suggests. The acting is largely by rote, and the lead actors are unfortunately the most wooden. The pacing and organization is interesting but unsatisfactory: individual scenes are done well – commendably un-rushed – but the movie as a whole feels incomplete like a scrapbook. The most egregious problem is that the character Druig – which I thought was the most compellingly acted – makes sense by himself but at least one scene must have been cut (and the film’s quite long even so) that explains acceptably how he ends up where he does at the end in relation to the team. There’s another character who is, I believe, supposed to be mute – for no explained reason and whose communication through sign language apparently never poses difficulties, where you’d think that would be an opportunity for exploration and/or a moral.

The events of the plot raise questions about – among other things – loyalty, technology, power, identity, and free will – but the mass of uncertainties doesn’t sit well with the fantastic trappings and direct resolutions of the film. (This is, incidentally, the same problem that cripples Jupiter Ascending and Guardians of the Galaxy 2.) I think many of the difficulties with the overall tone of the film could have been avoided by telling the story – granted the time-jumps over thousands of years – sequentially, rather than using flashbacks and making key plot points a surprise. “Ambitious but rubbish,” in the immortal words of Top Gear – although “rubbish” is certainly putting it too strongly and the ambition ought to be commended.

Review: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

I had never bothered watching this film before because it has a reputation as being not particularly good compared to the other Indiana Jones films from the ’80s. That just made it a candidate for my list of films I own but hadn’t seen; but having watched it now, I’d have to agree with the consensus.

In one sense this is a little surprising: individual scenes are well done, Harrison Ford is plenty charismatic, and the kid sidekick thing works quite well. So this review is more a list of reasons it doesn’t quite hold up.

First, the first act busted-deal-into-chase-scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It sort of explains how Indy, “Shorty”, and girl-of-the-film Willy get dumped into the actual crisis, and I suppose the idea of diamonds – lost in the deal at the beginning, given up on with maybe-noble motives at the end – gets introduced.

Second, there’s a little too much indulgence in the gross-out factor. From disgusting food to bugs everywhere to the details shown of the cultists’ ceremonies, there’s a lot in here that seems calculated to scare the audience, more than actually do anything for the plot. Although it’s not just the audience, which brings up the biggest problem.

Willy’s character doesn’t have a very clear role in the film. All the nonsense she goes through ought to get her some recognition or credibility. But actually her reactions throughout are played for comic relief: she’s not part of the group really or clearly outside it. Similarly, despite one scene which evidently used up the film’s entire allowed stock of sexual invitation and innuendo, she’s not a convincing love interest – or even a lust object. The way she’s mostly ignored makes her detestation moments more convincing than her flirtations; on the flip side Indy does mostly ignore her, seems interested only to the extent she is, if that, but also can’t seem to let her go. It’s unsatisfactory story-telling all around. The “fortune and glory” bit might have been used to develop that somewhere, but it really shows up a bit late in the film to build around. It also doesn’t help that Willy and “Shorty” mostly ignore each other completely.

In sum: the introductory act is very good; the fight/chase act starting with Indy’s rescue is quite good; it’s all the middle dramatic bit that really just falls flat. Probably was worth watching once.

Review: Paprika English Dub

I decided this year that I would use my Spring Break to, among other things, watch all of the movies I own but have never watched. Since people give me them and I really don’t watch many movies, they stack up a bit.

This is not one of them. Paprika, Satoshi Kon’s animated masterpiece exploring themes of dream, reality, control, and maturity, is one of my favorite films. However, I’d never taken the time to watch the dub, so this is a quick note by way of preface to the actual project. (No plot spoilers ahead: some references to characters is made.)

Overall I thought the dub was fine. My chief complaint is that it provides explicit interpretations here and there where the subtitled form – and, I assume, the original Japanese – leaves implications to be drawn out by the viewer. Sometimes this results from differences in the translations, but there are also additional lines or at least phrases here and there.

Some of the differences seems inexplicable: why “line of action” (subtitle) but “action line” (dub)? (And while the concept makes sense – it’s explained as the imaginary line between camera and subject – neither phrase seems to be, on a quick web search, the term actually used in English.) Other differences seem like there’s a probable explanation, but the choice might not be justified. For example, the (friendly) criticism of a character’s weight is, “It’s not the outside the counts, but there’s a limit to that too,” in the subtitles, which sounds like a proverb. The dub has something like, “…but there’s a lot of your outside,” which makes me suspect the Japanese proverb also has a pun the dubber was trying to capture or replicate. I don’t speak Japanese myself; I admit a preference for the subtitled line, with its possibility of varied applications.

One thing the dub emphasizes in contrast to the subtitles is the maturity theme, simply because of the voices (or accents) chosen for the characters. This I suspect was replicating the original Japanese voice-acting, which hadn’t quite registered the same way. The “childlike” side of Tokita is really brought out more by the dub, as is the insufficiency of the Paprika alter-ego. For instance, her response, “Run?” to a threat near the end came off previous (watching only subtitles) as a sort of humorous only-option-left; the effect in the dub more brings out he out of her depth the situation is.

I don’t know how directly Kon was involved with the dub. I suspect not very closely, because as noted above it does seem to draw with much harder lines where Kon – both stylistically and particularly in this film – tends to leave things blurred, and up to the viewer’s interpretation of his implications and suggestion. I’m also not sure how closely they consulted native English speakers: there are certainly lines here and there which sound odd to my ear, without obviously being attempts to capture cultural connotations, and the approach to nicknames and honorifics feels a little uneven.

I don’t watch many dubbed films – honestly, many foreign films at all – so it’s hard to say how it ranks as a dub. It certainly captures the overall tone of the film: you are watching the same movie, so on that count it’s a success. I’ve listed above virtually every quibble I had with the translation. I don’t know how I’d rank the film if I’d seen only the dub: not likely as a favorite, simply because the occasional auditory oddity takes me out of the story a little – but it’s still quite good.

Five Short Reviews

I have fallen a bit behind on my intention to write about everything new I read or see this year.  I may have let some things slip through the cracks, but here is a brief run-through of five works I have not previously written on, which (I think) gets me up to speed.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

I have not seen the previous Mad Max films, but this one was a tense, over-the-top action film.  I suspect it would suffer if viewed on a screen smaller than the size of a wall, but it is put together with a master craftsman’s care and precision.  Although likely not a film everyone will enjoy, for what it is it is incredibly well done.  It also passes my personal “suspension of disbelief” test, which I would explain something like this: a film or book that fails makes you say, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense.”  A work that passes makes you think, “Given the premises, how does that work?”  The stunts are ludicrous, but Fury Road leaves you asking the second question.
Grade: A, maybe even A+

The Providence of Fire, by Brian Staveley (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne II)

Staveley’s first installment, The Emperor’s Blades, I was quite impressed with, noting particularly his stubborn willingness to stick with a couple characters’ viewpoints, especially in contrast to the now-normal fantasy trick of trying to capture everything.  In the sequel, the viewpoint remains, but the clarity is largely gone: appropriate enough, I suppose, as Staveley’s fictional empire has descended into chaos, but also largely a function of Staveley trying to fit too much detail and too many events into a non-enormous book.  The effect is to render the plots and counter-plots incoherent rather than tantalizing – and the overshadowing threat feels much less ominous than it probably is intended too, lost in the mesh of all the other complexities.  It would take quite the artist to untangle things again in the following books after the mess this one makes of things.
Grade: C

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

A story not so much of simple good versus evil as honor versus cynicism, the film is carried by the acting of the two leads (Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, neither of whom I’d heard of).  It’s a slow-moving film and quite simply but beautifully done.  The climactic action scene is jarring after the tense build-up – but the final resolution falls flat, a moral drawn without any conviction.  Some fine moments throughout, but not, it seems to me, a truly great film.
Grade: B+

For Love and Glory, by Poul Anderson

Anderson’s books are often a little odd.  In this case, the reader is left with the pressing question: how much does the author agree with his own protagonists?  Set in a future Milky Way galaxy with human colonies and various aliens enlivening the scene, the story is compelling but the characters are not entirely likeable – which is perhaps the point.  Or perhaps not.  I’m really not sure.
Grade: B

Scoop (2006)

Most easily described as a screwball comedy crossed with a murder mystery, and starring Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Jackman, and Woody Allen as the leads, Scoop doesn’t quite live up to its potential.  It has its moments, but in trying to hold suspense and goofiness in tension it doesn’t quite achieve the heights of either.  It’s still not a bad way to spend a couple hours.
Grade: B-

Film Review: Maleficent

The Actual Review

Last night I went to see Angelina Jolie’s new film Maleficent.  A week ago I likely would have added the phrase “against my better judgement” to that first sentence, although the trailer I saw was intriguing (also ambiguous and, as it turns out, somewhat misleading), but Howard Tayler liked it.  While his taste is not identical to mine, he has the great virtue as a reviewer that I can usually tell whether or not I will like a film regardless of his enjoyment.  All of which is to say I went to see the film not out of morbid curiosity – which I have done occasionally (see: Peter Jackson’s Hobbit 1) – but because I thought I would like it: and I did.

The film is presented in a fine combination of the expectations of fairy tales and modern fantasy.  This is evident from the beginning, and the most part the film balances on that knife edge very well, especially with regard to the “set” design and visual effects.  The story is carefully crafted and finely plotted, and for the most part flows naturally.  On its own terms, Maleficent would be, I think, one of the better original movies made recently, and a worthy addition to the fantasy genre – which, despite the box office success of Jackson’s films of Middle Earth, has not quite made its own way yet.

This brings me to the flaw in the film: it consciously does not stand alone.  It is presented as a retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty.  The intelligent viewer might come to the theater expecting something like Wicked – where events are presented with hero and villain recast – or Lucas’ Star Wars prequels – a tragic backstory.  And the intelligent viewer would find himself partly correct, had he compared it to either.  Backstory yes, and tragedy.  Good and evil rearranged, and not neatly.  So far, so good – and for most the first two thirds of the film, so good – but there is a limit to how many events a story-teller can rearrange and still tell the same story.

As I mentioned, the last third or so of the film is not as neatly managed as the rest of it.  This leads me to suspect that the original plan was changed at some point.  Two potential scenarios occurred to me.  One possibility is that the script, originally intended as a simple “retelling” of the story, ran too far off the rails and – rather than rewrite it properly (deadline?) – the loose ends were just thrown together with the approximately correct pieces in approximately the right places.  Another is that the script was originally intended as an independent story – but someone with more marketing savvy than artistry decided it would work better as a tie-in to an established franchise.  A third possibility, I suppose, is that the ending of the film was simply mangled by bad editing to fit a time limit; yet another is that the ending really was just that weak and nobody changed it.  Ah, speculation.

Overall I would give the film a B-.  I enjoyed myself and would cheerfully re-watch it, but I suspect some of the problems might bug me more the second time around.

Further Comments on the Story

From here on, I am going to be describing the film in some detail.  If you have not seen it yet and are bothered by spoilers, I suggest you stop reading here, because the first thing I am going to do is describe the entire plot.  I am doing this in order to back up my charge – briefly described above – that this is no longer the same story.  Maleficent uses all the same names (as far as I can recall) as Disney’s original animated film Sleeping Beauty, and the same curse, but strip those out, and what is left?

Once upon a time, there were two kingdoms.  One was a land of Men – some good and some bad, mixed together in the way of the world.  The other was a country of the Fair Folk: good in their way: content and peaceful with their  but mischievous, and distrustful of others.  At this time their distrust was justified, for the king of the human country was an evil man, greedy and covetous, and he desired the riches of the fairy country.  He made war against the Fairies, but the ancient guardians of the forest encircling that land could not be defeated by mere men.

Now it happened that a boy, just beginning to be a man, found his way into this country of the Fair Folk in search of its riches: and he took a precious stone he found, but was caught by the guardians from the forest.  They intended to execute him for his theft; but a princess of the Fairies, hearing of the theft, came rushing, and by persuading the boy to give back the jewel, saved his life.  She led him then back to his country of Men: but he, grateful for his life and struck by her beauty, asked to see her again.  And she agreed; and as they grew older they met often: and she grew to love him, and the boy admired her greatly and perhaps thought he loved as well.

But his soul was impure, as might have been guessed from his theft, and as he came to manhood he went to serve at court, and so learned the evil ways of the king, and no longer came to see the Fairy princess, preferring to slave for Ambition.  As the king felt his death approaching, he led one last campaign against the Fair Folk: and was beaten as before, and this time the princess, grown greater in power than all her people, and grieving lost love, led the guardians and would have killed the king but for the touch of cold iron.

In his rage at his defeat the king promised his throne to whomever could defeat this great power among the Fair Folk.  While the rest of his ministers quailed, the young man, now grown wicked himself, went by night to the edge of the Fairyland, and called for his princess.  With sweet talk he gained her trust again, and gave her a drugged drink; when she was asleep, he raised his knife to strike her dead, but at the last moment, moved by some merciful remnant in his soul, cast away the blade.  But Ambition still ruled: he burned her wings off with an iron chain, and brought them to the king to gain the kingdom.

When the princess woke, she was tormented by pain, and found she could no longer fly.  In her pain and anger, she took to herself the rule of the land of the Fair Folk, becoming a cold queen, driven by distrust and revenge, and raising around her land a hedge of impenetrable thorn.  And since she could no longer fly, she found a spy for herself, saving a crow caught by men for stealing grain, and shifting his shape as needed – crow, man, or beast – he being bound to her by a life-debt.

So she learned when the queen bore a child to this new king; and she came unexpectedly to the christening.  Now others of the Fair Folk had come, wishing by their gifts to put an end to the strife between the kingdoms.  And they had wished for the child, a girl, all that parents could dream of: happiness and beauty and the favor of all she met.  But the self-appointed queen thought to exact a just revenge on the man – now king – who had deserted her: and she cursed the girl, declaring that on her sixteenth birthday she would be cast by an enchantment into a sleep like death.  The king, struck by guilt and fear, begged for mercy – but the Fairy queen, mocking him, only added a condition: that the king’s daughter might be awakened by the kiss of True Love – a thing she no longer believed in, and the king had never understood.

The king, in fear, thought that this Fairy whom he had betrayed would no doubt return to his castle at his daughter’s sixteenth year to bring home the curse: so when the Fairy queen had left, he asked the other Fairies to care for his daughter, far away; and he sent his army against the land of the Fair Folk, as his predecessor had done.  And as before, the human army was beaten back.  So, being more cunning than the old king, he decided instead to make his castle proof against any Fairy: and where that queen had raised a hedge of thorn around her country, he set ironworkers to fixing spikes of iron all around his castle, and making traps and chains of iron throughout its chambers.  And he grew in fear to the point of madness, refusing to leave his chambers even when his wife lay dying.

Meanwhile, the princess grew up, far away from the castle, tended by the Fairies as the king had asked.  As luck would have it, though, these Fair Folk were unaccustomed to human children, not knowing the food or care she needed – and careless, even when doing the right thing.  Bound by her own curse and desiring in any event to see it carried out fully, the queen was forced to provide much care herself: mainly using her servant the Crow to bring food to the girl, and amuse her.

Now the blessings of the other Fairies came to pass as well: all the animals the princess met adored her.  And so, wandering one day, the king’s daughter chanced to meet the Fairy queen, and was not afraid.  The queen hated her for her father; but the girl, knowing someone had cared for her, mistook the queen for a Fairy godmother, as she had heard of in stories from the other Fairies.  Her grace and beauty melted the heart of the queen: and they met and talked often as the princess grew.  The queen even warned the princess that an evil was coming against her – but did not explain why.  At last, she even tried to revoke her curse – but found she could not.  She had set it too firmly, hating the king.

On the eve of the princess’s sixteenth birthday, the princess found a man from a distant country, lost in the wood and seeking the castle of the king: he was a knight and a prince, and for all his fear and evil, the king was known as a great warrior.  She thought him handsome, and he found her lovely – and she sent him on his way, both promising to meet again.  Soon after, the queen met with the girl, offering to bring her to the Fairy country for good – thinking she could thus protect her, but still not telling her the reason.  But when the princess returned home, the other Fairies solemnly revealed to her the curse – and the princess in horror shunned the Fairy queen and made for the castle she now knew to be her home.

She arrived the next day – and the king, far from welcoming her, shut her in a tower room.  But the curse must have its way, and she found her way, seeking escape, to the dungeons: where, drawn by Fate to the cursed thing, she fell into the prophesied sleep.  When the servants found her again, the king had her laid in state in her tower – and in a rage retired to plot for the arrival of the Fairy queen, sure she would come to mock him.

And she did come, and in haste, knowing from her Crow what had happened.  On her way she had met with the prince, and bearing him with her in a trance, thought to use him to break the spell, the Crow also having told her of his meeting with the princess.  So great was her desire she found her way past the king’s traps, risking burns and scratches, and found the tower – but when she woke the prince and told him of the need, he at first resisted, knowing that he did not know his own true heart.  And so it proved when he at last gave in: his kiss accomplished nothing.  Finally defeated, the queen turned to leave the castle – but first kissed the forehead of the sleeping princess – and to her surprise, the girl woke.  The queen had rediscovered love for another person – not the love she lost, but a love all the same.

But by this point the castle was in an uproar: when she sought to leave, she blundered into a great array of warriors, and was caught in a mesh of iron.  Then using all her strength, she changed the shape of her Crow, this time to a dragon, who caught away the net and fought back the warriors: but the king himself came for the Fairy queen, and she was unable to match his strength.  The princess, trying to follow, found herself in the king’s chamber, where he had once hung the wings taken from the queen for a trophy.  With the curse broken and the Fairy queen nearby and in need, these wings had come to life and battered furiously at their own cage: the princess set them free; they flew to the queen and she, whole once again, cast herself from the castle window and threw the wicked king down to ruin.

The princess and the prince met again, and declared their love; they were married and took the rule of the kingdom.  And not just the human kingdom: all the Fair Folk loved the princess whom they had met walking with their queen: she, healed of her anger, set aside the kingdom she had usurped by force and broke down her hedge, and the princess ruled over both Men and Fairies.  As for the Crow – he still owed the life-debt, and flew far and wide with the Fairy princess.

This is a perfectly respectable fairy story, with many classical elements mixed with new ideas uncommon to the age that collected those stories and set them down.  It also has no particular connection to the story of the sleeping beauty in any of its incarnations.  (Some of the probable sources get very odd indeed to modern ears, but none of them resemble this story.)

Much like the film, however, the ending is a touch weak.  One thing particularly bothers me: the change of heart of the Fairy queen is a fascinating plot, but is overplayed by making it satisfy “True Love”.  Why?  Because in the context of the curse, the love specifically in mind is romantic – the love the queen had lost for herself, deceived by the man who would become another wicked king.  The effect is to weasel out of difficulties on a technicality, which while fine for lawyers is not a satisfactory ending for a heroic tale.  On the other hand, for the prince’s kiss to have no effect does seem correct – in this story, there is no prophecy, no hundred years, no grand quest set in motion.

The solution – I am tempted to say the obvious solution – would be for the princess to be woken by the Crow.  It would fit the build-up nicely: he has cared for the girl and amused her under command by the queen.  Throughout the film she describes him as “pretty bird” and has seen him – in human form – with the queen.  A nice nod to convention to have the farmboy declare True Love for the girl he has served so long.  It also does away with any need to have a prince show up out of nowhere, to do nothing except get the girl (for, might I add, no reason).

Leaving out the prince, of course, drags the plot even further from the story we call Sleeping Beauty: but the fact that it seems more obvious to leave him out is the primary reason I suspect this script did not start its life as the “retelling” it became.

What is the Point of Trainspotting?

Last night, at the instigation of my friend and roommate, he and I and a third party with whom we had gone out for dinner watched the 1996 film Trainspotting.  I found it, to my perhaps Puritanical eye, a well-made film with no value whatsoever.  My friends appreciated it much more; IMDb rates it up at 8.2.

After some brief discussion last night, I revised my evaluation – or at least my statement of my evaluation – to the slightly more tentative opinion that I do not want to be the sort of person for whom this movie has any meaning.  (In order to discuss this properly, I will have to indulge in some spoilers: you are now warned.)  The protagonist Renton (I am pretty sure that that is “Mark Renton”, but the cast list on IMDb does not confirm this) and his immediate supporting cast are terrible people.  All moral centering – both the true good of his parents’ love, and the approximation to love of a (distinctly underage) would-be girlfriend – is rejected by the end of the film.  To me this seems even worse, as a point of plot, than straight-up hedonism, because at some point Renton has redemption – of a sort, at least – within reach, and rejects it.

I found I could not sympathize with the characters.  In the first place, all the main cast are drug abusers; a failing to which I have an absolute revulsion.  Murder is more understandable in my personal calculus: I could imagine reasons for wanting to be rid of someone, but none for giving up health and self-control for pleasure.

But I found myself rooting for Renton, at least as he came clean – and angered when he reverted to his old habits, under pressure from old “friends”.  I cannot find any value in a story which can only be summed up in the old line, “There but for the grace of God go I,” – especially when the “there” in question is one I cannot fathom.

It fails even to be a tragedy – although Renton’s character could be properly tragic, or even heroic, if the film’s plot were different – because no justice is exacted for sin or faults; the story has no conclusion.  An implication is made that Renton falls prey to the same dismal death and decay which we have seen consume his buddies – but only an implication.  As far as the film itself goes, he gets away scot free.  The film could easily be seen as a sort of Faust story – if we left Faust’s story in media res after the magus succeeds in seducing Helen, and we had only the remembered knowledge of the damning contract to remind us that things will end badly.

The film, in short, is incomplete as a narrative, and I hate incomplete things.  The graphic nature of the film and incessant vulgarity did little to endear it to me, either.  The craftsmanship involved was evident and excellent, but the whole thing was basically pointless.