Observations on science fiction, writing, life and whatnot

Movies

May the legacy of Nimoy and Spock live long and prosper

So the man who spent his life trying to deal with another man who didn’t even exist is gone. That fictional man threatened to engulf and overwhelm the human original, and perhaps it did once or twice.

But the original finally came to terms with the other, and both became admired and loved.

Leonard Nimoy was an actor, playing various parts for TV movies, theater. He was good at his craft, he making himself a solid career.

And then came Mr. Spock. He originated somewhere in the minds of Gene Roddenberry and his writing staff who were putting together a TV series based on the idea of “Wagon Train in space.” The central idea was a starship filled with human beings and perhaps a couple of friendly aliens exploring the galaxy, seeing what’s out there, finding new things, going where no man one has gone before. And doing it boldly, even if it meant bending rules of grammar.

So who was this “Spock” guy anyway, and why did women, including my mother, take to him so readily? Half-human, half-alien, utterly in control of his emotions, always looking for the logical answers to everything, imperturbable yet a master of a musical instrument, a bit mysterious. Almost cold, sometimes, always ready to reject your argument with a twitch of an eyebrow.

He may be alien, but those character traits are ones we humans would like to have. Able to set aside emotional baggage, be able to see things without prejudice, utterly competent at what task he takes on, stoic in the face of danger, strong without being over-intimidating , quiet and reserved. It took Vulcans a long time to achieve balance of emotion, of intellect and control, so it gave us hope that human could at least in move in that direction and achieve at least a little of that.

It didn’t always work, of course. Spock had a partial excuse in his partial human origins, but even full-blooded Vulcans sometimes slipped. What logic is there in marrying a human female? None, yet Sarek still fell in love with Amanda and produced a son that seemed at war with himself sometimes. That son carried this battle with him always, it helped define him, and it made for some great story-telling. Spock sometimes showed us more about being human than many of the human characters in drama.

And Nimoy inhabited the role. Despite the kind-of cheesy make-up (TV-show budgets being what they were) with the slanted eyebrows, pointy ears and a greenish pallor, Spock became as real as any fictional character ever has, allowing us to project our desires, our admiration, our hopes onto him. And while Nimoy has many other accomplishments, when you talk SF, Spock is now as central as ray guns, robots or alien invasions.

With his death, there’s been talk about honoring him and Spock with an announcement of another iteration of Star Trek. That might not be a good idea. The optimism of the ’60s has faded and now everything has gone dark (as seen in the re-boot movies). The mission of the Enterprise crew was to explore, find new things, not constantly get into battle with them. It didn’t always work; the Romulans and the Klingons didn’t like having humans around, but while conflict flared up occasionally, it didn’t become the sole reason for the series. Sometimes the Klingons and Romulans even helped solve the puzzle and prevent disaster. That’s not gonna happen in any new series. It’ll be constant conflict with some alien species or another, battle after battle, war upon war, because that’s the way we view the universe now.

A more fitting tribute to the legacies of both Nimoy and Spock would be to continue to learn, to understand, to deal with the universe and the future. That means continuing to send robotic spacecraft to explore the Solar System, it means continuing to develop launch capability whether public or private, it means continuing plans to send humans to the other planets as the beginning of the exploration of the galaxy, where perhaps a real Spock-like alien awaits our arrival.

And it also means continuing to try and understand and deal with problems at home, from global warming to vaccines to our origins to overpopulation to epidemics. Spock indeed would be very, very disappointed if we failed in this. Enough to make him turn away and wash his hands of us forever, perhaps.

No, a better way would be something like this:

You’re heading to Mars to begin your new job at the Mars Biological and Life Sciences Institute at Goddard City. It’s been a long trip out from Earth, so you’ll need to acclimate from ship-gravity and time. You’ll stop at Spock City on Nimoy Station, a hollowed-out asteroid moved to Mars orbit. A short stay and you’re ready for your Mars adventure.

A small step, but still bold, eh?

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I wanted a big, galactic adventure but all I got was this orb plot

The biggest movie of the year, the one filled with wit, adventure and interplanetary travel, the one that pulled in the biggest box office (though summer 2014 box office numbers supposedly aren’t that great) and probably will kick-start a bevy of movies with these characters mixing with characters from other parts of the Marvel universe, left me cold.

I don’t have much interest in a lot of the superhero movies mostly because I have no interest in the comic books they are based on. Many stories in the comics have gone just totally batty and the characters hard to identify with. They occupy worlds unto themselves, where laws of nature — a.k.a. physics — are ignored while the human drama becomes little more than soap operas. This was a condition of superheroes from the get-go; Superman has never made sense but he’s a hero to us because he’s a fulfillment of our hopes and dreams. He’s taken a dark turn lately, so we’ll have to see if he remains at the pinnacle of human possibilities or he becomes just another overpowered costumed avatar grubbing around the shadowy corners of our dark natures.

I wasn’t planning to see the Captain America films at all, but the response to them, including by friends whose judgment of superheroes and superhero movies I trust, intrigued me so I watched the first on DVD and saw the second in the theater. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the better of the two, partly because of the struggle the captain has to make to adjust from the years of the so-called “good war” years to the America of the nervous, divided and cynical society of the 21st century, a century when we were supposed to be exploring planets and getting ready to go to the starts. The other big reason it appealed to me was Cap’s decision to take down the giant surveillance apparatus being put together by S.H.I.E.L.D. (Oh, Nick Fury, you have changed so much from your Howling Commando days.) This explores, though only minutely, the idea that superpowered humans, or those who control superpowered humans, will try to take over control of everyone and every thing in the world. It’s a natural outgrowth — look at mundane human society — those with the physical power to conquer and rule generally tend to do so.

(Time out for blatant self-promotion: This is the theme explored in my book, The Tyranny of Heroes, which has a Superman-like character, a Wonder Woman-like character, and a Captain America-like character as a triumvirate in charge of a league of superheroes who have taken over the world and rule with an iron hand [literally in one case]. Links to the e-book sales sites can be found elsewhere on this page.)

Where the movies faltered was in bringing the comics version of global evil, HYDRA (although it was a hoot watching Robert Redford mutter “Hail HYDRA” as his character was dying). I suppose the plot-driving Object of Desire — you know, the tesseract, orb, power crystal, ring, sword, whateverthehell — comes from the comics, too, but I tend to also ascribe it to lack of imagination among the movie writers. That damned Object of Desire stuff is spilling over to many of the Marvel movies, including the one this post is supposed to be about, Guardians of the Galaxy. (Not to be confused, as a couple of theaters did, with Rise of the Guardians, a “family” film about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy and Jack Frost joining forces to keep the bad guy from destroying children’s dreams — hey, am I seeing a pattern here?)

The whole movie is centered on the Object of Desire, who has it, who loses it, who controls it, what they want it for, who it bites in the big climatic scene. And in the end, it makes no difference whatsoever. Yeah, the Evil Guy wanted it to take over a world or something, and in the end died for it, but the object itself, after all that destruction, is not changed. And it is placed where it can be — and will be, you bet — stolen by another Evil Guy and here we go ’round the merry-go-round again.

Said Evil Guy — looking an awful lot like someone who took his style clues from north and south Native Americans, Egyptians and the Na’vi of Pandora — wants to use the orb-thing to destroy a planet (don’t they all?). A large part of the film is our heroes trying to keep it from him, but they fail. All the Evil Guy has to do is touch the thing to the planet’s surface and zap! no more cities and people and stuff. So, he jumps into a small one-person shuttle, using the craft’s small radar profile to weave his way through planetary defenses, lands on an isolated spot, raises the orb, says “Sayonara, suckers!” and slams the thing into the ground, completing his mission (comic-book science allowing him to survive his own evil).

No! He does not do that! He aims his gigantic spaceship directly at the main city,  sparking evacuations of said city (we are told everyone got out; do I see fallout from Man of Steel here?) while scrambling the defenses. I have to admit, the visuals are amazing, particularly when the one-person defensive ships link into a huge net and encapsulate the enemy spacecraft. This whole sequence, except for a few plot lapses, is pretty exciting. But, alas, it shares a fate with other exciting, amazing sequences in other movies, that being a worthy thing trapped in bad film.

Meanwhile the subplots — our main characters hate each other at first, are captured, bicker, join forces, are beaten and lose the Object of Desire, bicker, are disheartened, listen to a speech that inspires them, gird their loins, bicker, go out and beat the tar out of the bad guy, recovering Object of Desire — are playing out the way they’ve played out in the various Captain America, Thor, Avengers and many more superhero movies to come. A lot to come — Guardians suggests moviemakers are going to scrape the entire Marvel pantheon for future films (Howard the Duck?!). The result being the creation of another walled universe called Marvel the way a walled universe of Marvel comics exists. Members only, thank you.

Rocket Raccoon is problematic for me, too. Every time I heard the name, my brain kept digging up the old Beatles song Rocky Raccoon from the white album. Well, what do you know? Wikipedia says the writers of the comic-book version based the name on that song back in 1975. The 2014 Rocket Raccoon (Rocky Raccoon checked into his room/Only to find Gideon’s bible … Gideon checked out and he left it no doubt/To help with good Rocky’s revival … oh, uh, sorry) bothers me because I just don’t believe those words are coming his mouth. The body is too small, the lungs are too small, the vocal chords are too small. His voice should be pitched higher. Well, comic-book science, right? I suppose they’ll explain it by referring to the biological manipulation that created him. But still … it’d be nice if someone made the effort.

I have no trouble with Groot. Odd, you’d think, ’cause here’s more comic-book science in making a plant-man. His sacrifice at the end saves everyone, but in true comic-book tradition, he comes back. And man, does he have the moves.

The other characters? Meh. The hero is a “loveable rogue” — ha ha, like we haven’t seen that before. His fixation on his mother’s mix tape is supposed to be endearing, but it’s irritating, especially when he puts it above the mission and his friends. Look, if he was that smart — probably is, but comic-book plotting, right? — why didn’t he copy the music, then keep the tape in a safe place? It’s not like there wasn’t any technology around him. Plus, after 20 years, he’s lucky that tape wasn’t at least stretched, making his music sound a little more … alien. And, of course, the non-human aliens have the technology to play 20th-century cassette tapes, and, of course, they’re grooving to American rock-and-roll music. That’s like hacking an alien computer with an Apple MacBook.

And I am sick to death of giant space ships falling on cities. It’s as if writers and producers got together at a secret retreat a few of years ago and said “OK, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy, you’ll drop big honkin’ starships on hapless cities. Captain America, you can use those flying carrier things, they’re big enough. Avengers, we’ll count the big invading bugs as space ships for now, but you gotta do better next time. That thing the purple-faced guy is riding would be great. Look, think about it, OK? I mean, come on guys, this is the Next Cool Thing.”

And these misfits have the gall to call themselves “guardians of the galaxy.” The Milky Way Galaxy is hundreds of thousands of light years across and could contain 400 billion stars and probably billions of planets. You’re going to patrol all of that? Right. And who knows what’s on the other side? You could run into really powerful beings with super-dooper-holy-mackerel technology, stuff that’ll make your orb look like an LED Christmas light. With just a flick of a mighty wrist, they could just sweep away the entire Marvel and DC universes (no matter what studio) and say “OK, we’re starting all over and we’re going to do this with logic.”

I’d pay to see that.


Lego my childhood; or, unleash the dog of history

Popular culture in the United States is like that mythical worm that eats its own tail.

An Ouroboros it’s called, a self-devouring beast that could eat itself right out of existence. That last foot or so, where the mouth swallows the head, must be a bear.

U.S. pop culture, though, likely won’t have that problem because it’ll just keep finding new stuff to devour over and over again to eternity.

What brought all this talk about ouroboroses (ouroborosi?) was two movies both animated and both based on child-like nostalgia. Childhood, you mean, don’t you? Not necessarily. Child-like is a better description, in my view.

The first is The Lego Movie, and at least the creators didn’t insult anyone’s intelligence by pretending it’s not a long commercial. (Yes, it is. If it’s not, then where are the other toys? In the Pixar Toy Story series, toys from different manufacturers appear in speaking roles. In this movie, it’s Legos and only Legos.) Generations of children around the world have grown up with Legos, so the marketing is already three-quarters done. Through the years, the company hasn’t sat on its laurels, it’s adapted its product for whatever popular culture meme is in force at any given time. A long way from the humble carved-wood toys it started out with, and if you don’t believe it, look at the CGI movie the company made about itself and how its founders took Mr. McGuire’s advice and went into plastics.

I don’t remember playing with Legos when I was a kid. I did have some plastic brick-like things with the holes and tabs, but they were all red with some longer white pieces. They might have been Legos, but it’s more likely they were some off-brand. My main construction set was the wooden Tinkertoys. A couple of my friends had Erector Sets, made of metal and you had screws and bolts to piece the thing together. So when are the Tinkertoy and/or Erector Set movies coming out? Not soon, evidently; a Lego sequel already has been approved. Money talks, and Lego is there to collect.

The movie itself has been a big seller, and deservedly so because it’s actually good. It’s flashy and humorous for the kids and satirical and metaphorical for the adults. It suffers from the same thing that nearly every American animated film suffers from: action crammed in for the sake of action. Afraid of losing their younger audience, the makers put in speedy chases and complicated fight scenes while the adults are forced to sit through it until the next plot development. Fortunately, it has voice actors such as Morgan Freeman, who seems to be having a ball sending up the Wise Old Man cliché.

The movie also has an interesting take on what Legos actually are for. On one hand, you’ve got those who build under strict real-world rules, erecting buildings and skyscrapers, regular cities with streets and traffic. On the other hand are those who are more free-form in their creations. This idea sifts through the entire movie as the Lord Business tries to lock down everything and everyone in its place. An adult who wants a nice, tidy, realistic city. The less strict, a child, say, has the Millennium Falcon come out of nowhere to help the good guys. Why not? To him, there’s nothing wrong with mashing pop culture together.

The movie also wants to suggest that conformity is a dead end and life needs spontaneity to advance. This is illustrated by the reluctant (and, admittedly, clueless) hero, a construction worker who spends his days following the rules and going to work as a member of as team and who must leave it all behind to fulfill his destiny. But he can’t do that alone; he needs help. So he trades one team for another. Granted, the methods of the second team are unorthodox, but he still is a cog in a larger wheel. So, has the lone hero really turned his back on conformity?

The Lego Movie, despite its name, wasn’t made with actual Lego pieces being manipulated frame-by-frame. A daunting task, that would be, but man, think of what it would look like! Instead, it’s CGI, a cop-out. Computers make everything too easy any more.

The other nostalgic movie uses the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show of the ’60s as its source. This I do remember; coming home from school and turning on the TV to cartoon shows on the local stations (before the time was taken over by network talk shows, infomercials and soaps). Rocky and Bullwinkle was done in what’s called limited animation. That form was popular because it was cheap and the channels were filled with Quick-Draw McGraw, Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear, all execrable examples. Rocky and Bullwinkle had style, though, more imagination and great writing with wit and intelligence.

Besides the adventures of the titular characters, the show also had various short segments, such as “Fractured Fairy Tales” that pretty much destroyed the fairy tales we’d learned when we were younger. “Peabody’s Improbable History” featured a dog who had a time machine he’d use to teach his boy, Sherman, a lesson in history. They’d find things weren’t happening they way they were supposed to, so Peabody would have to take action to set things aright. And to set up the show-ending pun.

Why a dog? Who knows, but we can imagine Ted Key, the show’s developer, saying to himself, “Well, every boy needs a dog, so why shouldn’t a dog have a boy?” Just a silly thing to make the segment that much more off-beat, to poke a finger in the eye of convention. (Ted Key, by the way, also drew and wrote the one-panel cartoon Hazel that appeared in a weekly magazine for many years. Talk about a broad field of interest.)

Now jump ahead fifty years or so to a conversation that begins with something like “Hey, you know what would be neat? A movie about Peabody the time-traveling dog and his kid, what’s-his-name, Grant, McClellan—what? Oh, yeah! Sherman!” So Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a big, CGI, 3-D animated movie is born. And, being a Hollywood movie, we must have a back story. In the Key cartoon, we didn’t care how a dog came to own a boy, it was the show’s set-up, it didn’t matter. But I suppose a 92-minute movie needs it all explained.

Well, not everything. Mr. Peabody doesn’t explain why Mr. Peabody is the only talking dog in the movie, but it does explain why he was forced to educate himself and make his own way in the world: nobody wants to own a smart-alec dog. Fair enough, but he knows so much he becomes insufferable. It would have been nice if just once he could step aside and say to his guests, “You know, I’ve studied many things, but I was never able to squeeze in bartending lessons. Perhaps you’d like to take a shot at mixing us drinks. ‘Take as shot,’ get it?”

And we now know how Sherman became his son: An abandoned baby found in a cardboard box in an alley, already wearing round glasses. Not such a stretch, actually (except for the glasses). And, of course, there are complications. A boy with a dog father isn’t exactly going to be popular at school. Enter Penny Peterson, bully, who goads Sherman into biting her. (At least she’s not the popular-girl-stereotype bully; she’s a bully because she thinks she’s the smartest girl in school. A smart girl, who wants to be smart. At least there’s some eye-poking going on here.) This brings the evil family services agent in to threaten to take Sherman away ’cause, you know, dogs aren’t fit to be fathers to human boys.

Mr. Peabody has Penny and her parents over for dinner in an attempt to fix things. He tells Sherman not to tell Penny about the WABAC machine, so of course he does. Hijinks ensue. The past is as a messed-up place as it was in the ’60s, and Mr. Peabody is hard-pressed to fix the things that Sherman and Penny have screwed up. We meet historical characters, and they all seem to be a gregarious lot. Da Vinci especially, who owes a great debt to Mr. Peabody for getting the Mona Lisa to smile. (See what I mean about Peabody? He can do no wrong, even when he’s the butt of the joke.) And then it all threatens to collapse as the past is crashing into the present and Mr. Peabody—and Sherman, who has by now gained confidence with the help of Penny—try to send everyone back to their respective whens and correct the time stream. Well, mostly. Touches of 21st century culture went back with each historical figure, suggesting that the present Sherman & Peabody tried to fix isn’t really. But perhaps that’s for a sequel.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman as a computer-animated movie looks generally fine, the backgrounds are lavish, the time-warp stuff is dazzling. However, it does suffer from crammed action (see above). And while it was nice the animators stayed with Key’s character designs, they went too far. Those kids would never be able to support those heads on those scrawny necks. Key could get away with it because his Sherman hardly moved, but a three-dimensional child running, jumping, falling and spinning needs muscles and bones in his neck.

Other parts of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show have been plucked out and turned into modern movies, but the less said about them the better. Fortunately, Mr. Peabody and Sherman rises well above those and is an entertaining movie. Still, though, the question of why arises. Both this movie and The Lego Movie suggest there are no new ideas in Hollywood, that the past, our childhoods, are going to be scraped clean and everything run through the technological improvements again and again. Look at comic superhero movies—icons from the past made into film after film, and then rebooted for a new generation before the old generation even has a chance to age much. The recent awful Lone Ranger movie is a sign of this self-devouring trend. Pixar is going to make a third Cars film, a second Incredibles film, and is working on a second Finding Nemo film. And now we hear of plans to make 3-D movie with the characters from the comic strip Peanuts. It just doesn’t stop.

Nostalgia is a nice thing, and remembering the past is important. But we also need to think about the future, we need to see new ideas, not constant rehashing of the old. It’s hard, really hard, to present something totally new; just look at what happened to The Iron Giant. But everything was new once; even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. A hundred and fourteen years ago it was new, but you have to start somewhere.

Or, as Mr. Peabody might say, sometime.


‘The Wind Rises’ might not be Oscar’s cup of tea

Update March 2: Frozen got the Oscar.

The Wind Rises could very well swoop down and snatch the animation Oscar from Disney’s jaws.

It’s as good as Frozen in its own way, it’s the swan song from a beloved animation (and manga) storyteller and it has universal themes. The subject of the story, however, could be its downfall.

The Wind Rises centers on Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical engineer who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, one of the weapons that enabled Japan to expand its empire in the late ’30s, early ’40s. That alone might make Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters pause. It’s also a serious adult movie, despite being animated. No singing, no dancing, no happy endings; a main character dies, the hero is left with a bittersweet legacy.

Why did Hayao Miyazaki pick such a topic? Because he could mold the story to illustrate the things that are important to him: following your dreams against adversity, staying true to yourself, opening yourself to outside ideas and working them into your own vision. Oh, and flying. A biopic about an aeronautical engineer certainly lets Miyazaki indulge his love of soaring over the landscape.

The film cannot be taken as serious biography. The love story is fiction, especially in the way Miyazaki has this one unwind. And the hero is a little too perfect: generous, kind, smart, handsome in his pastel lavender suits, dedicated and brave. As a kid, he stops the bullying of a smaller boy, tosses the aggressor over his shoulder—then get told by his mother that violence never solves anything. When an earthquake strikes, he helps a little girl get home as Tokyo burns. He speaks several languages and is able to calm a bombastic German soldier with just words. (He does smoke a lot, so that’s at least one flaw.)

This puts Horikoshi on a pedestal that the real Jiro Horikoshi likely never could live up to. But I think Miyazaki is after something else here. This is a story not only about dreams but about how dreams of men often are stuck in the dark clay of his baser instincts. Horikoshi has a dream of flying, of breaking the bonds of Earth, but to get the money to  make those dreams reality, he has to accept the reality of how his beautiful machines will be used. Like Werner von Braun, who had visions of sending rockets to Mars, but he had to see them land on London before they could go elsewhere. Horikoshi had visions of his planes carrying people from place to place, but first he had to see his planes carry bombs.

So instead of simply glorifying a builder of war machines, Miyazaki perhaps is showing us how we allow our dreams to be co-opted by fear and loathing. These people could always refuse the militarization of their dreams, but that could mean prison and someone else doing it instead. So, they go along with the program. And perhaps, in the end, they do as Horikoshi does at the end of The Wind Rises: Walk through a graveyard where the skeletons of their ideals lie in ruins. (He is reported to have said in an interview with the Asahi Shibun the Zero “represented one of the few things we Japanese could be proud of—they were a truly formidable presence, and so were the pilots who flew them.” Sounds like a little flag-waving from the maker of My Neighbor Tortoro, but he has criticized the Japanese government on war-related issues, and did protest the U.S. action in Iraq. So he’s proud of Japanese know-how on building the machine, but not what it was used for. But, again, if not for the military, the thing might never have been built. So his—and our—ambivalence stands to illustrate the dilemma.)

Whatever, the film is as glorious as any other Mitazaki production, with sumptuous visuals and an incredible attention to detail. Never thought I’d ever see a realistic animated slide rule, but that’s Miyazaki for you.

What chance does the film have in making off with that Oscar? Good, but I’m still going with Frozen. I can tell you, though, I won’t be unhappy to see an upset here.

(Updated March 1 to add more on Miyazaki’s anti-war stance.)


Like it or not, Disney ‘s ‘Frozen’ deserves the animated-film Oscar

Update March 2: Frozen got the Oscar, Let It Go got the best song Oscar, but Disney’s short film, Get a Horse, didn’t. That Oscar went to Mr. Hublot. Nice to see an outsider get this one.

A Disney animated film is up for an Oscar, no surprise, but no film from Pixar is, which is … shocking.

I know many people disdain Disney animated films as products of the big fantasy factory that shovels out carefully calculated products geared first, to make lots of money and second, earn a bunch of awards. Plus, they perpetuate the “girls should be princesses” trope, or they’re full of sappy songs, or they’re wrecking the source material. All perhaps true in one form or another in the past, but this year the studio released a film that pushes back against some of those tropes.

Frozen will deserve the win beyond being just a Disney film. It’s already won the best-film Annie from the International Animated Film Society (IAFS), which is animators giving other animators awards.

At first glance, the Disney “princess” factor is in full play here with not one but two princesses, daughters of the king and queen of Arendale. Princess Elsa possesses the talent to create ice and snow at the wave of her hand, while her sister, Anna, doesn’t (why one has it and the other doesn’t is never explained; it’s one of those things you just have to go with). When they are girls, Elsa accidentally injures Anna seriously enough to require some odd rock-borne magic from the chief of trolls to save her life.

To prevent this from happening again to Anna or anyone else, the king and queen lock Elsa away with instructions to suppress her power, to never use it again, to never let anyone else see it, to deny its existence. (Fill in your favorite metaphor here.) The king and queen go on a journey, but their ship sinks. Elsa, the oldest, becomes queen, but on her coronation day, she refuses to approve Anna’s marriage to handsome Hans. In the ensuing argument, Elsa’s power is unleashed and she flees, leaving Arendale locked in a permanent winter. Anna, believing she was the cause of Elsa’s anger, chases her to try get her to come home, but that leads to more disaster, which plays out to the point where Elsa is about to be executed by a usurper to the throne.

Two princesses? Throw in a comedy relief from a talking snowman and an clever deer sidekick, some songs, and we’re off again rolling merrily along on the Disney marketing juggernaut. Another brilliant success for the giant corporation swallowing everyone’s childhood.

Except—there are things going on here that keep the film from being Just Another Disney Cartoon. There are lessons to be learned, especially about throwing yourself at the first handsome prince you see. And that favorite “true love will save you” theme Disney loves to milk again and again gets a different interpretation here. Both of these add a dimension to Frozen that moves the film from the usual Disney offering into something more complex—and much more satisfying. Even the sappy songs get a remake. The Oscar-nominated song Let It Go is not just a princess pining for her prince to show up and carry her off to a “happily ever after” ending but a bold statement about acceptance of self against all opprobrium.

Is any of this due to the influence of Pixar? Pixar was cleaning Disney’s clock with the Toy Story series, Monsters, Inc., Wall-E, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Cars—films that were winning Oscars almost every year. So, to handle the competition, Disney bought Pixar. Two Pixar executives, John Lassiter and Ed Cantwell, became Disney animation executives and brought some of the Pixar operating procedures along, and it seems to be paying off. The last few Disney animated films have been big improvements over earlier ones that didn’t do so good (Atlantis, Treasure Planet). Tangled showed the seeds of this change when Rapunzel, known for her long, long, blond hair, sacrificed it all for her “true love.” The film was sassy, funny, a bit subversive, and had one of the best horses in animated films.

Then came Wreck-It Ralph, which should have won the Oscar for best animated feature for 2012. Yes, Vanellope von Schweetz can be irritating, but the film has heart and soul. It lost to Brave because Brave was a Pixar film and Pixar films are always better than Disney, right? Not this time. Brave was gorgeous to look at, but it was flawed in story and character. It just did not rise to the usual Pixar heights. Normally, we’d expect the same kind of situation this year, but (horrors!) Pixar’s 2013 film, Monsters University, wasn’t even nominated. (It did not deserve to be. A pleasant film, but it didn’t break any new ground like its predecessor did.) And then we find out that Pixar isn’t going to have a film at all in 2014.

Does this mean Disney is sucking the life out of Pixar? Has Disney decided that the best way to deal with the upstart is to hollow it out and transfer the creativity to it? Will Pixar be relegated to making more hum-drum sequels to Cars and Monsters, Inc.? I prefer to believe Pixar delayed its next film because it wanted to ensure the film lives up to its standards. Pixar does has a couple of interesting-sounding films in its release schedule, so I’m not ready to give up on them completely. But I am concerned.

These three films—Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen—represent yet another renaissance for Disney studios, the first since the Little MermaidBeauty and the BeastLion KingAladdin tetralogy of the late ’80s, early ’90s. For a while, the quality was slipping (except for the really subversive Lilo & Stitch) until these came along. I just hope the creators are careful and don’t slavishly imitate these in their future films. Signs of a formula are evident already: Frozen‘s princesses as children bear a resemblance to Vanellope of Wreck-It Ralph; as adults, they resemble Rapunzel of Tangled; Olaf, the talking snowman of Frozen, resembles in both design and sound King Candy in Wreck-It Ralph; the handsome prince of Frozen shares the same DNA with the handsome thief of Tangled; Sven, the reindeer of Frozen, has a lot in common with Maximus, the horse in Tangled. And though no one stopped and sang in Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled and Frozen are harbingers of the return of songs to Disney animation movies. That’s OK, mostly, but it can be overdone.

Frozen has been in development for a long time. James B. Stewart, in his 2005 book, Disney War, about the Michael Eisner years at the studio, describes a creative meeting of animators he was allowed to attend with Eisner on June 11, 2003. Among the films discussed was one based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale The Snow Queen, something that had been in the works long before then. That’s now Frozen, the gender-neutral name given because studio execs are convinced boys won’t go see a film about girls. That’s why the tale of Rapunzel was called Tangled. It’s all reportedly based on the not-so-good showing of The Princess and the Frog, but I doubt giving that film a neutral name (Day of the Frog? The Magic Frog? The Frog and I? The Frog Dairies? Beauty and the Frog-beast? The Little Frog-maid? The Frog King? Froggie Goes a-Courtin’?) would have attracted that many more boys.

(As last year, a Disney short cartoon is also nominated. When Get a Horse, which precedes Frozen in the theaters, starts, you think you’re going to see an old black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon resuscitated from the vaults, but then characters start falling out of the cartoon as if they were landing in the theater. When this happens, the characters are in color and rendered by computer much more realistically [as much as a talking mice standing erect wearing shorts or skirts can be]. Kudos to the directors, Lauren MacMullen  and Dorothy McKim, for making an engaging little blast from the past. The problem is, it will probably get the Oscar simply because it’s a Disney film. I just wish some of the independent and student animators would get more   recognition in this category.)

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If Frozen has any competition, it’s going to be The Wind Rises, perhaps Hayao Miyazaki’s last film (he’s said this before). Miyazaki is the genius behind Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and many other Studio Ghibli films. The film might be handicapped by its subject matter, the man who developed the warplane known as the Zero, which was one of the weapons that allowed the Japanese Empire to conquer so much territory in World War II.

Why that topic? It indulges Miyazaki’s love of flying, something that works its way into almost every Miyazaki film. Plus, it’s a story about holding onto one’s beliefs and persevering despite setbacks and roadblocks, another favorite Miyazaki theme.

This is all based on what I’ve read about The Wind Rises because I haven’t seen the film. It doesn’t open here until Feb. 28, two days before the Oscar show. Miyazaki won the writing award Annie from IAFS (though he wasn’t there to collect it) which is why this film could rain on Frozen‘s parade.

(One of three lifetime achievement awards IAFS handed out this year went to Katsuhiro Otumo, who directed Akira, the film that kickstarted (to coin a phrase) the anime boom in the United States. His films are what we think of when we say “Japanese anime” [see Steamboy and Metropolis, where he was the screenwriter], This year, Possessions, one of the four films in Short Peace, an anthology of Japanese short films Otumo helped produce, received an Oscar nomination for animated short film. Otomo’s contribution, Combustible, was shortlisted but not nominated.)

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The Croods (Dreamworks Animation) makes no attempt to copy a Disney princess. The teen-aged Eeep isn’t a tiny-waisted, perfectly coiffured, shy and delicate thing, she’s a rough-and-tumble stone-age girl with a yen for adventure. She’s stocky, has a low forehead, freckles and a wide face. She’s engaging, though, showing that with little effort, not all women have to look like models to succeed. The design of the characters won an Annie, which was a nice recognition for this film.

The story essentially is about the clash of Neanderthals and more “modern” humans, such as the Cro-Magnons. This isn’t stated, but the brutish, timid nature of Eep’s family is contrasted against the new guy, Guy (clever, huh?), who has a forehead, narrower features and knows how to make shoes, build fires and can lead them to the Land That Won’t Blow Up. We get very little of Guy’s background, why he’s alone and where the rest of his tribe is. (There’d better be some others, otherwise Eep’s brother, Thunk, is left forever without a mate because the Croods seem to be the only survivors of their people. This certainly makes it easier [and less expensive] for the producers, but it does leave a lot of holes in the story that viewers might ask themselves at the end.)

The best word I can find for The Croods as a film is amiable. It doesn’t break new ground, the characters for the most part are enjoyable to watch and the story of a family trying to cope with huge changes in environment, immigration and acceptance of outsiders. Sometimes the slapstick gets a little much, but it stays on track for the most part. There are several entertaining moments, such as the one spoiled by the trailer when Eep gets her first pair of shoes. That moment is funny, but it comes in a larger scene where it turns out that in order to make it to the new land, the family, which to this point didn’t worry about their feet much, finds that protecting them suddenly is a matter of survival.

At the end, though, The Croods does what Disney films do all the time and that is shy away from the sad ending. This might be because of some execs and staffers once worked for Disney, but also keep in the mind Steven Spielberg is a partner in Dreamworks and Spielberg has an aversion to sad endings. In The Croods, the father, Grug, who has evolved from a man who protects his family from any kind of change to a man who reluctantly accepts it and then does whatever he can to ensure the family’s survival, is facing death by volcano. We get a few minutes of the family grieving, but then father appears almost miraculously unhurt. It undermines the story, because the last scenes are of the family gamboling in their new home, with the unanswered question are they the only humans on the planet? And from this bunch the rest us evolved?

Oh, the humanity.

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Despicable Me 2 (Illumination/Universal) is about change, too, with the continuation of the development of Gru from evil villain to loving father. In the first Despicable Me, because he was pretty well into his life of villainy, it was an easy arc to follow as he fell in love with the three orphan girls he’d originally adopted as part of an evil plot and his willingness to throw it all over for their sake. Now that that’s been established, any follow-up is going to lose that edge.

So it is with DM2. Gru seems to be happy with his lot as a dad, taking good care of his charges. Having him fall back to his evil ways and ignoring the girls is right out as a plot line, so something else has to explain why he would get back into the game. So we have him being recruited against his will by the Anti-Villain League or something to help thwart the nefarious plans of some other bad guy (who, it turns out, also is a father but what the relationship with his son is and what happens to him at the end isn’t really explored except for a gratuitous scene to make him hateful).

This means most of the film is taken up with Gru as Dad. Gru must go underground, but here “underground” is a shopping mall, giving an excuse to include the girls. And have one fall for a boy, giving Gru’s father-instincts something to work against.

The film is given over to Gru’s new life, sometimes too much so. Yes, the girls do have a father now, but they also need a mother. So a new character whose only purpose is to eventually become that mother is introduced. Fortunately, Lucy Wilde is a fairly eclectic figure, confident, competent and ditzy all at the same time. This appeal prevents her from becoming just a one-note character. And, of course, the girls fall in love with her and she with them, so there will be no evil-stepmother stuff here.

And, of course, there are the minions. What a marketing masterstroke! Disney must be jealous. Little fuzzy creatures with their own language whose main job seems to be just being utterly silly. In DM1, they were assistants in the evil plots; in DM2, they’re assistants in cleaning house, watching the kids and producing the inedible jelly that Gru chose as his means to become a legitimate businessman. But the bad guy comes up with a way to turn the cute yellow guys into awful purple evil minions who can chomp on anything (and who must have super-duper digestive systems). But Dr. Nefario, who had left Gru’s employ over the bad guy-good guy thing, saves the day when he realizes what the jelly really can do.

DM2 is pleasant enough; no real challenges here. It has excellent visuals, especially when thousands of purple minions are climbing the building trying to get Gru. And there are some genuinely funny moments and lines in here, showing that writers, animators and other creators aren’t just phoning it in despite this being a sequel. Among the many pieces of old songs you’ll hear are original works by Pharrell Williams, who adds a distinctly different flavor to the usual animated soundtrack. Disney could take a lesson here.

A pleasant enough film, but does it have a chance to beat Frozen or The Wind Rises? No. If it does, though, like The Croods, it’ll be one of those big upsets a lot of people like to see in the Oscar races.

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The fifth nominee is Ernest & Celestine (GKIDS), which I haven’t seen. It’s available only on Region 2 DVD (which is pretty much everywhere else but the United States), though Amazon says the Region 1 DVD will be released in June. UPDATE 23 Feb.: The film opens March 14 in New York and Los Angeles (that coastal thing again) then expand to the rest of the country with an English-language soundtrack.

The film looks like a traditional hand-drawn animated film, but these days, it’s hard to tell. The story is about the relationship between a bear and a mouse in a world where bears live on the surface and mice in the underground tunnels and both hate each other. It looks good and it’s been getting high praise from the film festivals it has played in.

If it doesn’t win, and it’s unlikely to, the nomination at least brings attention to it, the same way it did for The Triplets of Belleville (2003) and The Secret of Kells (2008). Both certainly differ from the American style of animated films, but both are outstanding examples of animation possibilities. (But they were foreign, you see, and Americans generally don’t like foreign films, and so they would have been overlooked without the nominations.) The producers of Ernest & Celestine are the same ones who produced both of those films, so we can probably surmise that the quality of the film will be good.

And who knows? Lightning might strike. And it wouldn’t upset me that much, either.


Decay is the subject and it has a musical soundtrack

I just saw a film about decay, and decaying film was the medium.

Decasia: The State of Decay is an hour and seven minutes of old film clips that have been deteriorating. They’re shown as they are, no attempts made to clean them up. (The Wikipedia article says some computer imagery was used to “create  more meaningful abstract imagery.” That’s the only place I’ve seen that claim, so believe what you will.) The filmmakers also make it clear that they didn’t do anything to speed up the process, either.

The film came out in 2004 (OK, so I’m a little late, so what?) and was directed by Bill Morrison. The films in the film are mostly silent films, some documentary, some travel, some scripted dramas, some perhaps home movies. The opening image is a Sufi whirling dervish, an image the film comes back to again. It’s also the least damaged.

Sometimes the damage is severe and all we see for a few seconds are warped, pock-marked, moldy and bubbled emulsion, a crazy abstract pattern that flashes constantly across the screen. During one of the worst of such segments, a single, small lonely face appears in maelstrom, like a drowning man giving up his last gasp. I saw a film long time ago made when someone scattered salt on the negative, exposed it to light, then projecting the result.  It doesn’t come close to the random frenetic visuals in here.

Often, though, the original image will shine through like the sun emerging from behind thick clouds. It’s easy to tell the scripted pieces; the silent-film acting tropes just don’t look realistic. Still, the pieces cut from the whole do make us wonder what the film was like. (A couple of the films have been identified, including one based on a book by L. Frank Baum. No, not Oz.)

As interesting as those bits are, it’s the documentary type films that are the most compelling; art just cannot imitate all facets of reality. Rescuers bringing out unconscious or dead miners after disaster; miners trying to escape some sort of emergency. A burning house collapsing. A Japanese woman walking through a house. A man walking in a garden. A birth, perhaps risqué for the time. A boxer apparently working out on a punching bag. (Only apparently because half the image is buried under mold. If he is sparring with someone, his partner must be a bloody mess.) Scenes of a big city, with another man cranking his camera on a ledge to the left. True, many of these would be boring without the decay images making the look spooky and other-worldly, but in this context, all have their share of poignancy.

And then there are the ones that make you ask “what the foofraw is going on here?” Without context, we can only guess, and with much of the image buried under decay, that context is even more distant. For instance, we see a group of children  and adults standing around a 1920s era vehicle, all waving their arms in a circle, and then they all start jumping up and down. The scene is made more surreal by the damage that distorts the shape of the vehicle. (This happens quite a lot in the film.) A doctor and a nurse giving TLC to a mannequin. A man scraping a tree with some kind of tool. A scene on what looks like a 1950s-era school bus shows us individual shots of a few of the children, who are looking away at first, but then turn toward the camera, faces frowning with … anger?

One image the film returns to several times was apparently shot at a Catholic school or orphanage. The children are paraded through a courtyard and into a building. The girls are wearing sailor-style outfits with white tops and dark skirts, the boys white shirts and dungarees (probably). In every scene, though, there are two nuns nearby, sometimes with backs to camera. They hardly move, resembling two Grim Reapers examining their latest harvest.

Other films leave us hanging. One seems to be answering the question “What happens when you poke an anthill with a stick?” The obvious answer: a bunch of angry ants. But wait—was that a bone they just uncovered? Alas, the film cuts away, we’ll never know. A scene of what look like World War I-era biplanes (it’s hard to tell) flying in formation is marginally interesting because the damage cuts out any reference points. Then something drops from one; we suddenly realize someone is parachuting from the plane. Then there are others. They take forever to reach ground, but when they do, it looks like they’re landing on top of a factory. Are those two over there going to land on a smokestack—aw, dang, once again the cut ends.

And then there’s Michael Gordon’s music. Dissonant, edgy, repetitive, it complements the image perfectly. In their original state, the films would not show well with this music; but in their deteriorated state, this is the only music that serves. Do I detect influences of Philip Glass here? Well, in the long list of thanks for support in the credits, there’s a group called “Qatsi Productions” with glass and Godfrey Reggio listed therein.

Gordon’s music reminds me of Glass’s score to Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio’s 1982 film contrasting the modern world against the natural world. I’m not saying Gordon copied the score wholesale, but there are passages that evoke Glass. Gordon’s score stands on its own in creativity and musical themes, but if you’re going to be influenced by someone, you could do worse than Glass.

Indeed, Decasia as a whole reminds me of Koyaanisqatsi. The whirling dervish theme reminds me of the rocket launch opening and the rocket exploding and spinning back to Earth at the end. The only sound is the music as the images flash by in both films. I don’t know if Morrison had Koyaanisqatsi in mind when he put this thing together, and this form of film certainly wasn’t invented by Reggio, but having seen both, the parallels just stick in my brain.

Decasia isn’t for everyone. The splotches, distortions, holes and scratches flash by like those 1960s strobe lights . The constant changing shapes and light intensities can be distracting. And the score is, like I said, dissonant with odd sometimes irritating high-pitched sounds. But if you can stand all that, the movie is a compelling watch.

And what’s the point? Decay, my friend. When these films were shot, no one gave much thought to preserving them. They are records of the times, but decay carves holes in our history. Being confronted by this decay, seeing these people from another era seemingly desperately going about their business even as decay overwhelms them, reminds us that we, too, are of limited existence.


Good movies, good popcorn — good move, George

Congratulations to George R.R. Martin and Jon R. Bowman on the reopening of the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, NM, this weekend (Aug. 9).

A labor of love, as the saying goes, an effort by Mr. Martin to bring back the one-screen, intimate theater showing interesting movies without too much worry about whether said film will top the weekend box-office charts, along with a recognition older movies still have something to say to us. Such theaters are an endangered species as the multi-theater multiplex continues to squeeze them out.

Usually, you find such efforts in larger cities because there’s a better chance pf success. Santa Fe is not a big city, but it has an eclectic population that does like alternatives in books, movies, restaurants and lifestyle. So, while its a risk, it’s not a pie-in-the-sky dream.

It takes more than just a love of film to open such a theater. It takes budgetary planning, a knowledge of finances, a knowledge of how film distribution works along with a knowledge about the films themselves, which ones are likely to draw an audience, what kind of an audience that will be and how many days they might be willing to come for a particular movie. That usually falls to a manager the owner — who might be a film lover but a bit weak on the mechanics of showing them — chooses to run his heater.

And Mr. Martin couldn’t have picked a better managerthan Mr. Bowman. He knows film, he’s studied them formally since college (and probably informally since he was a kid) and he reviewed them for many years for the local newspaper. As director of the Santa Fe Film Festival, he learned about the distribution of new movies and movies making the film-festival circuit. which film creators might be available to attend and making sure they’re treated right, and how to entice an audience to come and take a chance on these movies. All while trying to keep things on budget. While Mr. Bowman’s personal tastes in films are sometimes, shall we say, a bit skewed, he does know the value of bringing films with wider interest, especially when trying to make a go of a small theater.

And it won’t be easy. The bigger chain theaters will have first crack at the big movies (something the Bowman-Martin team likely wouldn’t be interested in anyway), but they’ll also be in the position to get the smaller ones, too. And in a few months, a new multi-plex might rear its ugly head a few doors down in the Railyard retail complex. Might open — there’s been talk for years about opening a theater in that spot, but all have failed in one way or another. This one looks the most promising, but the Martin project has a big advantage: It’s open now, it’s real, it’s showing movies, it’s not just talk, it’s not just a dream.

Well, it was once, a dream born of Mr. Martin’s desire to regain the pleasure he once had of watching movies in small venues where the crowds were small, the movies intimate, the popcorn tasty. (That last isn’t just a wish — when the Jean Cocteau was showing movies in its earlier incarnation, it’s was renown for having the best popcorn anywhere. Martin-Bowman are under the gun to repeat that.) Santa Fe is lucky Mr. Martin is in a position to make his wish a reality. And while one would would expect that because of Mr. Martin’s affinity for science fiction and fantasy, that’s all that will show there, but one would be wrong. Both Mr. Martin and Mr. Bowman know that to make a success of the operation, they have to attract as many movie-lovers as possible. This means a wide range of films, and you can bet that’s what we’ll get. OK, so maybe the opening films for the free-admission opening week — Forbidden Planet (1956), one of the classiest SF films ever made; Orpheus (1950) directed by the theater’s namesake; and Dark Star (1974), John Carpenter’s darkly funny look at space exploration — may be biased toward SF/fantasy, but let them have their new-toy fun, eh? Dark Star is the midnight movie, so they have your fun in mind, too, see?

So, raise your bag of popcorn in a toast to the rejuvenated Jean Cocteau Cinema, may it shine a light in the dark — so we can see at least the film.

More information and photos are on the theater’s website.