Friday, 4 December 2015

Hiatus From Another Star

You might have noticed that my usually reliable output every Friday has become less reliable and less Friday the past couple of months or so.

I've got some things going on personally with my person that have been taking time away from this blog and while I have worked hard to maintain the deadlines I've set for myself in the past, right now I just don't have the energy or the time. In any case, it is my blog and I do it for myself.

Well, also to be read by other people, of course. I do like the fact that several hundred readers a day read words I've put in some order about things I've decided to write about for completely random reasons.

Why'd I write about The Invisible Man that one time you ask? Because I saw the movie years before and thought, "he's pretty murderous for a guy who's invisible" and then eventually wrote about it just because.

However, with the aforementioned personalised things going on in my life and the holiday season coming up, I just can't muster the time and dedication this blog requires. Even though it is only a single post a week and I joke about how under-researched my articles are, I still do do research and think about what I want to touch on before I write, all of which takes time.

Time which I no longer feel I can prioritise at the moment because, again, personal stuff and accessories.

Don't worry though, if you were at all worried which you probably weren't, this isn't the end of Musings From Another Star. It's just a break for the holidays so I can recharge and level up to come back fresh and rejuvenated next year.

I plan to upgrade my weapon a flaming sword too.

Also, I'm not sure exactly how yet but I would like to shake things up and maybe do more things like my James Bond marathon of articles or more contemporary/immediate reviews rather than retrospectives. I might even start doing more music articles like the one I did on The Police. Or maybe I won't, who knows.

All I do know is that I love writing this blog and hope to keep on writing it for a long time. I just need to take some time off to make sure I can.

See you all next year (that was a lie, this is a blog, I can't see you at all).


Friday, 20 November 2015

Don't Stand So Close To Me: The Weirdness of The Police

The Police were the biggest band on the planet in the early eighties and helped propel Sting to pop super stardom when he went solo at the height of their success. But they were were more than just a springboard for Sting to launch his solo career or the band that made white reggae songs about prostitutes.

The Police were a musically innovative and interesting band in their own right, with three proficient and accomplished musicians. The fact they could actually play their instruments is probably why it didn't quite fit when they tried on punk for size in their early days and found it was a bit tight and chafed around the crotch.

They were also very weird. And no one seemed to notice.

These guys, weird? Who would have guessed?

Let's start with the most weird and work our way down because people generally lead with their strongest point and let their argument fade, right? There might be some debate about this but the weirdest Police song is almost certainly the song "Mother" from their last album, Synchronicity.

Some people might suggest it is their song about cannibalism or the one about a blow up doll, but we'll get there since it's pretty clear "Mother" is the clear forerunner. Firstly, the music is a bit out there, vaguely Middle Eastern influences, dissonant repeated guitar and strings, but it is the vocals and lyrics that put it in the real realm of the weird (which would be a good album name, write that down).

The song is sang by its writer and The Police's guitarist, Andy Summers. And by sang, I obviously meant deliriously screams in tune. There is so much paranoia and Oedipal undertones/overtones/all tones in the lyrics that Norman Bates would have loved as his ring tone.

"I just love Sting's bass." - Norman Bates, probably.

I'm not joking about the intense Oedipalness of the lyrics by the way. Perhaps it's to be expected with a song called "Mother" but seriously, take a look:
Well the telephone is ringing,
Is that my mother on the phone?
Telephone is ringing,
Is that my mother on the phone?
The telephone is screaming,
Won't she leave me alone?
The telephone is ringing,
Is that my mother on the phone?
Even though it's his ringtone, Norman Bates still thinks that Andy Summers has some serious mother issues and probably should look into therapy or something to deal. And that's just the first verse.

Also, Summers might want to reexamine his choices of romantic partner when every girl that he goes out with becomes his mother in the end.

"Jesus, Andy! Keep that shit to yourself." - Sting, definitely.

And this was on Syncronicity, The Police's most successful album by like a lot. An album that sold a bajilion copies with some of their most popular songs, like "Every Breath You Take". We'll get to "Every Breath" eventually, but it seemed that even on their most commercially massive album, The Police weren't afraid to get weird. 

Oh, look at that. Both the Police songs I mentioned about cannibalism and blow up dolls were written by Summers. "This article isn't just limited to Summers, is it?" No, alarmed imagined reader but he does get an early starring role since he did pen a number of The Police's more out-there songs.

Let's turn to blow up dolls, shall we? "Be My Girl - Sally" starts relatively normal, a simple pop song with a catchy yet inane chorus of "Won't you be my girl, won't you be my girl, won't you be my, be my, be my girl?" sung by Sting, However, it goes all Lars and the Real Girl on us during Summers spoken word section in the middle of the song.

"Oooh, that's my favourite bit."

It's like an excerpt from some beat poet's tripped out comment on the misogynistic objectification of women or something in the middle of a simplistic love song. The song just should skids to a halt as Summers narrates his tale of loneliness and inflatable girls.

And it's straight up about ordering an inflatable doll from a seedy magazine, I'm not suggesting it subtly hints at it or there is a possibility that I am misreading the lyrics. Here's some of those lyrics by the way,
And then by lucky chance I saw in a special magazine
An ad that was unusual, the like I'd never seen,
"Experience something different with our new imported toy,
She's loving, warm, inflatable and a guarantee of joy"
She came all wrapped in cardboard, all pink and shriveled down
A breath of air was all she needed to make her lose that frown
I took her to the bedroom and pumped her with some life,
And later in a moment that girl became my wife

"For fuck's sake, Andy! I told you to keep that shit to yourself!" - Sting, obviously.

Summers was obviously quite lonely after eating all his "Friends". Wait, didn't I discuss that yet? To be honest, I don't think there's much to say about the song since you get the idea once you read the opening lines,
I likes to eat my friends and make no bones about it
I likes to eat my friends, I couldn't do without it
"Friends" was the B-side to the single "Don't Stand So Close To Me" (b-sides were bonus songs that use to come when you bought a single song on a LP, which was like a CD, only bigger and with grooves in it). And here's where I want to go for the rest of this article.

A number of Police songs tackled unconventional themes with a dark lyrical bend that was obscured by the upbeat or rhythmic tendencies of the music and melodies. "Don't Stand So Close To Me" for example might have a minor key intro and verse but the chorus is so jubilant and bouncy you scarcely notice he's asking a young school girl not to stand so close to his boner.

"I'm trying to grade these papers but this inappropriate teacher-student boner isn't helping." - Sting, I guess.

Yet that was Sting's true gift as a songwriter and lyricist during his days in the force, putting dark lyrics to joyous music or a clever lyrical twist in a dark song. So of course he has a song about teenage suicide. "Can't Stand Losing You" is all about a young man's inability to deal after his girlfriend breaks up with him and sends his LPs back all scratched, and commits due to his heartache.

However, the key song for me is "Every Breath You Take", The Police's most popular song by some margin. Now, originally I hated "Every Breath" and this persisted for years. I thought the lyrics were the sappiest sentiment ever with the whole watching everything thing and the melody seemed overly romantic.

I later thought it was kinda creepy how he's watching everything they do. Seems a little obsessive, almost like a stalker. I then read an interview with Sting how he described that he doesn't understand why people play "Every Breath You Take" at their weddings when it's a song about a stalker and obsession.

I'm just gonna leave this up here...

And it was reading that interview that I first realised there was more to The Police than I had ever given them credit for at that time. There's this undercurrent to their music and lyrics that really distinguishes them from a lot of other bands.

Even when they were at their most commercially successful, usually a time when artists appeal to the lowest common denominator for maximum coverage, The Police were weird. Their most popular song is about stalking someone and either everyone was cool with that or just didn't notice.


Editors note: I didn't even mention that The Police did instrumentals. Like instrumental songs. Without lyrics. Did you know that? I didn't know that until I listened to their full discography. And on those instrumentals, they're... interesting.

Just listen to "Behind My Camel" and I think you'll get what I mean. Vaguely Middle-Eastern vibe again in a spiraling guitar riff with a very repetitive thump-thump-thump bass line, and oh look it was written by Andy Summers. That's whatever the opposite of a surprise is. "Behind My Camel" won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance by the way, just in case you were curious.


References:

The Police Wikipedia page

Outlandos d'Amour Wikipedia page



Zenyatta Mondatta Wikipedia page




Synchronicity (The Police album) Wikipedia page


The Police’s Andy Summers on his songs, Sting, and being ripped off by Puff Daddy - A.V. Club

Sting: How I stopped hurting after The Police split - The Daily Mail



Friday, 13 November 2015

Pacific Rim: The Shadow of the Kaiju

Okay, so I know I did a del Toro movie in my last post, and it's pretty obvious that I love his films which some of you may be tired of hearing about, at least in such quick succession. However I think it's better to get these sorts of things out in the open rather than keeping them hidden. That path leads to fanboyism and illicit anime use.

Let's get this out of the way, I loved Pacific Rim. It was like the culmination of every mecha anime and kaiju film in one gloriously loving tribute/homage/ripoff. Essentially, it was a movie that the 12 year old boy who wears my skin as a suit never knew he wanted until he saw it.

I couldn't imagine why.

Just in case it wasn't clear, that is a giant robot slicing a giant monster in half with a giant sword... in space. The awesomeness of that sentence cannot be underestimated, if it could be estimated at all. All I know is that I couldn't barely comprehend how excitably giddy that moment of nerdgasmic splendour was when I first witnessed it.

That's what this film is. Guillermo del Toro's A Series of Awesome Events. Including scenes like, The Badass Beginning and The Exquisite Exposition, not to mention The Fantastic Fight, The Carefully-Crafted Characters, and The Superb Sword.

"This is the story of the four Jaegers: Gipsy Danger, Striker Eureka, Coyote Tango, and Cherno Alpha.
My name is Guillermo del Toro and it is my duty to tell you their tale."

The thing is, hearing me gush about Pacific Rim, and I have barely began to gush yet, you may be under the impression that I think the film is a masterpiece or a perfect film. It's not. Well, it is a masterpiece but a certain type of masterpiece, the type that requires a qualification.

Because Pacific Rim is a dumb film. It really is. There are so many stupid action movie moments or things relating to plot or logic that leave you with a "wait, why?" in your throat and itchy feeling on your head.

Wait, why does a Jaeger need to be piloted by two pilots who have to be neurologically linked? And if each pilot controls one half of the Jaeger howcome both pilots move in tandem to walk or throw a punch which makes no sense if the pilot on the left controls the left arm and the pilot on the right controls the right arm. Also, if they control a half each how does walking work? Does a pilot have to take two steps for the Jaeger to move the leg they control? And on that subject...

The point is, I'm not under disillusion or are wearing any holographic blinders. Pacific Rim is a stupid action movie. This is thing that is true. But holy nuclear fallout is it an amazingly awesome stupid action movie.

Every moment of palm mark on your head stupid is counterbalance by a moment of sheer exuberant awesome (I mentioned the giant robot sword, right? Because holy macaroni cheese and crackers, giant robot sword!).

I think the thing that differentiates Pacific Rim from standard dumb action movie fare is the amount of care and thought that's been put into the film, even if the plot has holes or the science is more flaky than Cadbury Flake.

This care can be seen with the Kaiju, the Kaiju being the giant monsters that are clearly the bastard offspring of Godzilla and Cthulhu. As soon as you think you've got the monster sussed and know what they can do, del Toro adds a twist or a little something that makes them unique. And the most impressive of these is Otachi.


"Oh, hi guys."

When Otachi first appears on the scene with another Kaiju, Leatherback, she initially appears to be a regular category 4 Kaiju like the ones they've seen before but then she uses her tail like a third arm. So you're like, "okay, I get this one's gimmick, she has a tail that can be used as a weapon".

Naturally she proceeds to spit acid from her mouth. Acid which dissolves anything it lands on within seconds.

Okay, that's fine. You reevaluate and note she's the Kaiju with the weapon tail, that also spits metal dissolving acid. Cool. Got it. Gipsy Danger eventually breaks off her tail by using cooling agent to freeze and shatter it while simultaneously ripping out the acid sack in her mouth. Stripped of her downloadable content, you think that's that.

Then she spreads her wings.

"Surprise bitches!"

What could have been uninspired monster designs are instead filled with inventive touches that add character and it is those types of little touches that elevate the film from standard blockbuster fare.

Talking about character, each of the characters have their own arc of some sort and while those arcs might trade in cliche, there was enough thought put to give each character some sense of development which is rarer than you would think.

For example, even though by all rights he shouldn't have any character development aside from being an unnecessary bully character who serves to be dick to the protagonist Raliegh for reasons lost to mankind, the Jaegar pilot Chuck actually ends up having something close to a character arc.

"I cannot believe that an one-note character like you has a legit redemption arc with an actually touching reconciliation scene with your father" - Raleigh 

But it is the three leads that are the most impressive since there is no reason they should be anything more than stereotypical character tropes in a dumb action movies. Superficially, they are stereotypes. Raleigh is the angst ridden protagonist who's the best at what he does but has a tragic backstory, Mako Mori is the female romantic interest, and Idris Elba's Stacker Pentecost is the no nonsense square jawed marine authority figure for the young protagonist to butt heads with.

However, that's not how things play out in the film. Let's focus on Raleigh for a moment. As Very Sharp Teeth puts it,
Raleigh was a character that any director but del Toro would have sent down the stereotypical path of “has angst from unspeakable loss, has authority issues, gets into a pissing match with anyone he crosses, has the only female in the movie fall in love with him through sheer manliness”. Thankfully, not so was Raleigh. 
Rather than taking out his dick measuring tape at every confrontation, Raleigh is almost passive throughout the film. Perhaps passive is the wrong word, understated is better. Instead of asserting his masculinity at all points since he's a hot shot but he gets results, goddammit, Raleigh restrains himself. Because he has respect for others.

"While I completely disagree with your decision, I respect you as a person and your experience as my superior officer, so will begrudgingly follow your orders."

To be honest, in a standard blockbuster, Raleigh would have been like Chuck without the unnecessary asshole factor, a braggart and maverick who resists authority. However, the thing that really distinguishes Raleigh from typical action hero character is that he kinda is a supporting character to his love interest.

Now, before I go any further, while others might suggest otherwise, Raleigh is the main character in the film. While Pacific Rim does give a lot of time to Mako Mori's storyline, which isn't given any treatment that would indicate it was a secondary character's story, rather the opposite, Raleigh is still the primary protagonist.

The film is framed by him and he serves the focus for the film since the story, including Mako's, is told by his relation to the narrative. He provides the opening narration and is the character needed to be pulled back into the story for the plot to progress. That said, Pacific Rim is kinda Mako's movie.

"Go on."

There is a lot that's been said about Mako Mori since she is a fantastic character, so I'll try not to reiterate any of that here. Essentially Mako is so badass that they invented a test named after her which can be used as a barometer of how independent a female character's narrative in a film is.

As The Daily Dot states,
In the film, Mako struggles to asserts her independence despite the protectiveness of her stern father figure, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). She is strong, smart, and perhaps most remarkably, her goal of fulfilling her dream of being a Jaeger pilot is a major part of Pacific Rim's storyline.
Recognising her innate awesomeness, Tumblr user chaila proposed the Mako Mori test which is passed if a movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.

"That doesn't sound like it would be too hard to pass."

In fact, Raleigh ends up supporting Mako's story, he is the conduit through which she can face her tragic backstory while they are in drift, is unabashedly in awe of her, and continually insists she be his co-pilot.

He also treats her as an equal throughout the film. Probably the real reason that Raleigh serves as support for Mako's story is that his grief/angst following his brother's death is resolved pretty early on. When they drift for the first time, it was his memory that initially got them to fall out of drift but he gets back in pretty quickly since he's already resolved his shit and can deal.

However this triggers Mako's own painful memory and leads into her backstory, which to be honest is more rich than Raleigh's relatively standard "loved one lost in tragic accident". The image of a young Mako walking, red shoe in hand and crying, through a deserted street is a powerful one which gives such weight to her character.

Hey, it's okay. It'll be alright. You're gonna grow up to be a badass.

It also establishes her father-daughter with Idris Elba's Stacker Pentecost. Firstly, can we just establish what a ridiculous, yet completely appropriate, name Stacker Pentecost is? It somehow conveys exactly who his character is while sounding like something a preteen boy would come up. Which actually describes the names of the Jaegers too but let's not get distracted.

Oh, Idris Elba is amazing of course. The man is a wonder. He actually is the reason I wanted to rewatch this film (I mean aside from all the giant robot versus giant monster stuff). He brings such an authority to the role that also comes with a sense of responsibility.

Just look at all that authoritative responsibleness going on. 

Guillermo del Toro apparently hired Elba based on his performance in the BBC detective drama Luther, which is a legitimately good show and will get its own review at some point.

In del Toro's own words,
Idris is one of those actors that is capable of embodying humanity, in almost like a Rodin sculpture-type, larger than life, almost like a Russian realism statue, you know, big hands, all the turmoil of humanity in his eyes. I wanted somebody that you could have doubts internally, and very few guys can do that.
And boy, does Elba have those doubts internally. You can just feel the internal struggle behind every decision he makes in the film, what he thinks is right to save to the world and the fear of being wrong, dooming us all.

"I'm just so internally filled with doubt despite my assertive leadership qualities."

So that's about it. I'm sure there's more I could say about the look of the film (which is stunning with a sharp colour palette), the wonderful diversity of the cast, or exploring the film's direct appeal to the 12 year boy inside all of us in a more analytical fashion but I'm good.

I understand that Pacific Rim is not a film for everyone. Some people hate dumb action movies, regardless of quality. I can't say I fully understand that since when a movie is this much fun, I don't mind if it is dumb. Sometimes I suppose it can be hard to let go of one's prejudices in order to accept something different.

I mentioned there was a freaking giant robot sword, right?


References:

Pacific Rim (film) Wikipedia page

Kaiju Wikipedia page

Otachi (Kaiju) - Pacific Rim wiki

Friday, 30 October 2015

The Frightening Fable of Pan's Labyrinth

It's Halloween and Guillermo del Torro's latest horror film, Crimson Peak, is about to be released, so what better time to sit down around the campfire for his perfect fairy tale fable, Pan's Labyrinth?

Last Halloween I declared the del Toro's Hellboy movies the perfect Halloween movies and mentioned that, filmed in between those films, Pan's Labyrinth indicated an unprecedented growth for del Toro as a filmmaker and storyteller. I stand by that declaration.

In that article, I also mentioned that Pan's Labyrinth deserved its own review rather than just a passing mention. This is that review.

"Wait, you mean this one?"

Pan's Labyrinth is set in 1944 Francoist Spain, with the backdrop of World War II and five years after the Spanish Civil War. It's a stunning work that uses two narratives, one set in fantasy and one in war drama, to flesh out and parallel the other.

The narrative that gets all the attention is naturally the fantasy narrative which follows a young girl named Ofelia who discovers that she is the reincarnation of a long lost fairy princess after following a fairy into a labyrinth and talking to a faun.

I'll get to the fantasy narrative in a bit but for this article I'm gonna focus on the war drama. Mainly because I think the war drama stuff deserves some words devoted to it since it is really great and often doesn't get the attention the fantasy stuff does, probably because it is less visually iconic than the wondrous monsters which Ofelia faces and grace the film's posters.

The most popular poster features a magic uterus tree so it's obvious this is a film about resistance post-civil war Spain.

To the surprise of everyone, about half of Pan's Labyrinth actually revolves around the Spanish Marquis resistance to the Francoist fascist regime and the brutal methods of control by the military during that regime.

Ofelia's step-father Vidal is a captain in the Falangist army hunting the Marquis in the forest and he is fantastic. Not in the sense I think the hunting of resistance fighters is fantastic but in the the sense that the character is such a great villain.

Now Vidal may seem cartoonish on first impression since he is so obviously evil with evil pouring out of his every evil action ever so evilly. He's just so violent and so merciless. A true psychopath he feels no remorse nor empathy but at the same time he dislikes killing without purpose. Not that he won't, just that he dislikes it because it wastes his time.

"You wanna know how I got this scar?"

I think the thing with Vidal is that he is just so outright evil and a true sadist that he leaves a lasting impression. Like Amy Nicholson notes in The Canon episode on Pan's Labyrinth, there's just something about a bad guy who has his torture speech ready.

But there are other little touches too. There's his strict adherence to time and schedule (remembered I mentioned time earlier, it was literally just a couple of sentences ago). His obsession with his cracked pocket watch which he inherited from his father.

Which ties into his subscription to a very restrictive ideal of masculinity and obvious misogyny. Not to mention his vicious sadism. All of which on repeat viewings make it clear what a layered antagonist and perfect embodiment of fascist evil he is.

Look how he sparkles with fascism in the sunlight.

If I was really gonna get into it, we could see how his watch which he father cracked at the moment of his death both indicates how time, which he manages to a second, is actually beyond his control and how his version of dominant masculinity inherited from his father is itself broken.

But instead, let's move on to Mercedes and the good doctor Ferreiro. Both work under Captain Vidal but secretly help the Maquis. And both are interesting since they present a type of heroism not always seen or celebrated in cinema, that of the quiet objector.

The hero who cannot actively or violently stand up against the big bad but rather displays courage by putting themselves at risk within the enemy camp and who shows their heroism through their compassion and moral fortitude. And the film comments on how we don't often appreciate this type of bravery.

"I'm such a coward for spending each day in the same house as a man who would kill me without hesitation even before he knew I betrayed him, running his household while all the while spying on him and smuggling out valuable resources.
Oh, what a coward am I."

Maribel Verdú is amazing as Mercedes. There is a real sadness to her performance yet an undeniable strength to her character. Mercedes is a woman who is terrified of what she has to do and the danger she is in but does it anyway, The very definition of a hero.

And her version of femininity offers a clear contrast to the more passive submission of Ofelia's mother Carmen who has succumb to the fascist regime and Vidal's advances to bear his child and be the dutiful wife. Now the film positions this more as a difference between submission and rebellion but it's hard not to see Carmen's death in childbirth as a critique of that passive femininity.

However, it could be a comment on the destructive nature of fascism is such that the child of fascism's entry into this world brings with it the death of his mother. Or maybe that's reading too much into it. It's a bit hard to tell where to draw the line since the film invites such interpretations.

"Oh really? Is that so?"

What's interesting about the Maquis, which the film wants us to root for and are positioned as the good guys, is that they lost. There was a fascist regime in Spain until the 1970s. I'm assuming the film assumes the audience would be aware of the historical context in which case the film becomes a story about doing the right thing even if you might not win in the end. 

Within that context, it is a film about not following orders in a time where not following orders was punishable by torture and death. Where any form of disobedience was deemed treason and treated as such.

Let's talk about disobedience since that is apparently the primary theme of the film. The Nerdwriter labelled the film a "disobedient fairy tale" and his is far from the only such reading of the film. Rightly so since the primary narrative climax of the film is when Ofelia right out disobeys both the Faun and Vidal.

And then she becomes a princess because parents in the 1940s Spain punished their children a bit differently.

However, while the theme of the film is disobedience is definitely apparent throughout the film, this seems to have resulted in the notion that Ofelia is subsequently a rebellious child. This is even though that reading of her character isn't really supported by the text of the film.

Now some may list the times where she disobeys or fails to follow instructions as acts of rebellion. Aaah, no. While she may be disobedient or negligent, this does not equate to being a rebel. Until the climax of the film, Ofelia never makes a stand in her disobedience which could make it rebellious.

For rebellion is not mere disobedience but rather is disobedience with a point, whether that point is to disrupt, to defy, or to create anarchy. To be rebellious there is a underlying reason behind that disobedience, a desire to resist authority, But we never get the sense from Ofelia that she wants to defy authority until the very end.

"Wait, you're not cool with me killing your baby brother with this knife so you can become a princess in a magic kingdom?"

It just seems hard to swallow that Ofelia is some rebellious child throughout the movie when most of her acts of disobedience are done through carelessness or an act of selfishness rather than any real desire to resist authority,

That comes through far more strongly in the characters and actions of Mercedes and the doctor whose acts of disobedience are precisely acts of rebellion, flying in the face and in defiance of the authority of the Francoist regime.

To call Ofelia a rebel any point before the final act of the film seems to be projecting a rebellious spirit onto her character rather than that spirit being apparent in her character. I understand that this is a fable about disobedience but disobedience on its own does not a rebel make.

"Well, snapcrackles."

But this is still a fable and del Toro structures the film as such while at the same time playing with the conventions of a fable. In a traditional fable, the scene with the Pale Man (aka Eye-Ball Hands) would play out quite differently than it did in the film.

Ofelia is told not to eat anything on the table by the faun but then does. awakening the Pale Man. In a traditional fable, this would be a story about obedience and Ofelia would be eaten by the Pale Man as punishment for not following the rules. However in Pan's Labyrinth she gets away alive, even if she is berated by the faun for not following instructions.

It kinda turns the structure of a fable on its head (set up of lesson - thing done wrong - punishment to reinforce the lesson). You see this in the classic fable of The Tortoise and the Hare: cocky hare thinks he will win the race because he is the faster - due to his brashness he becomes complacent and takes a nap - tortoise wins the race through hard work and dedication. Easy set up and lesson: don't be cocky since slow and steady wins the race.

"Hahaha, you win the race? As if you could, you metaphor for steadfast dedication and hard work you."

By setting up the convention of the fable but then playing with them, obviously partly due to narrative structure for a feature film, del Toro allows the story of Pan's Labyrinth to invoke the feel of fables but not constricted by their limitations.

And by having the fantasy scenes mirror the war drama scenes, del Toro is able to reiterate and reinforce the lesson of disobedience he wants to impart. This culminates in the climax of the film where Ofelia says no to both the Faun and Vidal in the same scene.

It works out really well for her.

Pan's Labyrinth is a gorgeous and wonderful film which makes for perfect viewing this Halloween season. It might not be as terrifying as some straight horror film but features some legit scary monsters. It might not be as bloody as a gorefest but its violence is brutal and uncompromising. It might not be a Halloween movie but it is great to watch during Halloween.

Or any other time of the year for that matter.


References:

Pan's Labyrinth Wikipedia page

Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista Wikipedia page
Pan's Labyrinth: Disobedient Fairy Tale - The Nerdwriter

The Esoteric Interpretation of “Pan’s Labyrinth” - The Vigilant Citizen

Friday, 16 October 2015

James and the Giant Peach Nightmare

In keeping up what seems to be becoming a Halloween tradition, for this article I'm looking another seeming innocence children's movie and realising that it's actually a terrifying horror movie in disguise.

However, compared to the existential dread of life inside a Pokeball, the absolute terror of the chokey in Maltida, or the horror that is The Brave Little Toaster, I'm kinda cheating with this one. For although James and the Giant Peach is undoubtably creepy and scary in parts, that's just it. It's creepy. Not horrifying, just weird and creepy.

"I say, have a look at that weird and creepy thing, James!" - Grasshopper, probably.

Now, I did have a lot of nostalgia for this film since I've watched it since I was a young child but revisiting it as an adult you notice that a lot of things are just weird. And it's not limited to the wonderful but off-kilter character designs or intentionally odd moments, although we'll get to those in a moment.

Rather there's just something off about the film, almost conceptually, that is woven into the very fabric of the script and narrative, spilling like succulent peach juice all over the place into the aesthetic and execution of the movie.

Unsurprisingly, the film is based off the children's book by Roald Dahl and we're all too aware of Dahl's particular predilection for outright torturing children through nightmare inducing means in his charming stories for children to read charmingly.

"Soon there will be only one left."

I think the thing about the script that makes feel off is that it is so disjointed. Things just happen at the drop of record scratch out of nowhere for no reason aside from 'I guess this is happening now'. This results in abrupt and jarring shifts in tone which gives the film an odd dissonance that adds to the film's creep factor.

For example, we start the film with idyllic family bliss as James is cloud-gazing with his parents on an English beach and everything is hunky dory. And then the narrator states that "an angry rhinoceros appeared out of nowhere and gobbled up his mother and father" ...

Well, you know what else was out of nowhere? That abrupt skip track from happy family beach time to 'and then they were gobbled up... by a rhino... that was angry'. I understand that the removal of the parents in the novel is similarly abrupt but the key change in the film is kinda ridiculous in just how sudden it is.

James: Dad, I have the strangest feeling like a herbivorous animal will just appear to eat you and mum
because it has anger issues serious enough to develop a taste for man-flesh.
Father: Well James, like your mother said, try looking at it another way. We have to be removed from the plot somehow.

And this dissonance permeates throughout the whole film. Every scene seems to stumble into the next with no flow. Things happen and nothing is explained nor is the world fleshed out enough for things to just be accepted as part of the established universe of the film.

Rather things are there because they are there. How they exist or what makes them work is just asking questions the film gave no thought to because it's a children's film of course there is a giant mechanic shark thing in the ocean, why wouldn't there be?

Actually, the mechanic shark thing is interesting since it is legitimately terrifying and a great monster with its rotating teeth of terror. Bellowing smoke even though it's a submarine which submerges underwater, it seems like the perfect combination of fears of industrial machinery and, well, sharks.

It also shoots a harpoon out its mouth so it's not completely handicapped.

Back to the point about how things kinda just happen in James and the Giant Peach, the characters don't develop over the film. Rather they come as though just taken out of the freezer, no backstory or motivation, freshly microwaved and ready to be served. They have an identifiable characteristic and that's about it.

Centipede has a Brooklyn accent and is a compulsive liar because reasons. Spider is a loner even though she spends all her time with everyone else because apparently that's something the scene needed when she's tucking James into her web.

Where this really works though is with Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margoyles as James' terribly mean aunts Spiker and Sponge respectively. While they have only one note, which is be incredibly mean and angry to James at every opportunity, both actresses put their all into the part, willing to be utterly atrocious and unappealing at every turn. It's rather admirable how dedicated they are to the bit.

They're absolutely fabulous.

The writing is just all over the place, which kinda adds to the film's off-kilter appeal. On the other side, the film is wondrously creative and imaginative, not only in its character designs but also the unreal, dream-like aesthetic.

The live action sets are decidedly unreal with German Expressionism-esque architecture on what is obviously a studio set with matte drawing backgrounds. Because of their heightened nature, the live action scenes almost feel more dream-like than the stop-motion scenes. And remember those are the scenes with a mechanical shark.

And this surreal disjointed nature means the film is almost ideal for interpretation since there seems to be no reason for why anything is happening or what it is supposed to mean. That said, it's pretty obvious what the rhino is meant to symbolise, right?

"Oh no, a metaphor of the inevitable encroach of death!"

Oh, and of course the climax with the rhino just ends with no clear resolution because what else would you expect from the film by that stage? James stands up to it, shouting that it is just a lot of smoke and noise and that he isn't afraid because he is looking at it a different way, just like his mother said.

Which is quite an inspiring message really if we accept the rhino as the embodiment of death, which we totally should because what the hell is it otherwise? It came out of nowhere and took away his parents just as death can happen at anytime and take away the ones we love.

By standing up to the rhino, James is really declaring that he's not afraid of death but willing to face it head on. Which is probably why the rhino just zaps the peach then bounces. He has no further power to intimidate James.

"Arr, I might be dead and can remove my head for Shakespearean citations but my mind is blown." - Captain Jack Skellington 

Or maybe the writer just wanted to end the film and that seemed like the easiest way to bring in the rhino and then get rid of him before the happy ending. Considering how fractured and weird this film is, it wouldn't be surprising if that was the case.

James and the Giant Peach isn't a horror film masquerading as a children's movie but it definitely is odd and a little more than creepy. There's also a mean streak which runs through the film and adds to the slightly unsettling tone a number of scenes touch on.

That said, there's also a lot of inventiveness and a couple of touching moments like when James walks on Grasshopper playing the violin which is a lovely scene until it descends into a weird music video with toy globes in a song about love. And maybe that is the scene which best captures the disjointed nature of the film, shifting gears for no reason and little warning.

I guess it's just a lot of smoke and noise.


References:

James and the Giant Peach (film) Wikipedia page

Nostalgia Critic: James and the Giant Peach

Reality, Dream and Animation: James and the Giant Peach - Tor.com

Friday, 25 September 2015

007 Daniel Craig: Do I Look Like I Give a Bond?

Daniel Craig is the best James Bond ever. I know, I know. It's sacrilege. How could he be? He's too rough, too brutish, too serious, too blonde. And wasn't I the one who spent a whole article describing how charming Sean Connery was? Didn't I just state in my previous post that Pierce Brosnan was my James Bond?

"I thought you hadn't even watched a Daniel Craig Bond movie", you ask incredulously. Thanks for reminding everyone, fictitious question raiser. It's true. I did say all those things and I had never watched a Daniel Craig Bond movie all the way through until watching them for this article.

And yet it's so abundantly clear that the man is James Bond. I still stand by my assertion that Pierce Brosnan is the definitive Bond but Craig is the best Bond. As soon as I finished watching Casino Royale I searched my feelings and knew it to be true.

"The name's Bond. James Bond." - Yes it is Daniel Craig, yes it is.

And let's talk about Casino Royale for a bit because hot barrier which impounds water or underground streams is that a great movie. Now it may be lacking the gadgets and/or more fantastical elements of previous installments in the Bond franchise but as a movie, it is so well constructed and expertly shot with such an intelligent script and perfect little touches that it might be the best James Bond film.

Again, I know, sacrilege. It has to be Goldfinger or some other Connery film the purists exclaim, with the occasional Brosnan fan giving a shout out to GoldenEye. Surely it has to be one of the films in the franchise with the clear iconography of James Bond, right? Ridiculous moments, disposable women, and a megalomaniac villain who has an evil base in a volcano and a holiday cottage in his underwater lair.

But Casino Royale has all of that, just in the most subtle way possible for a Bond film. You have the unique villain with some distinctive quirk, in this case he weeps blood and has asthma. Asthma? Well that's almost too quirky. You have the ridiculous moments even if they are grounded in some sort of reality and a disposable woman (singular) so it's all there, it's just done in a more subtle way than the excess of the past.

He even wears a tuxedo and gambles. 

However, while this feels very much like a Bond film, right from the get-go the film makes it clear that this is a very different type of Bond movie with a very different type of Bond. The movie starts in black and white with what is essentially a film noir flashback/prequal scene that is near artsy. There are a lot of odd angles and interesting shots going on in that scene.

Also, this introduces Craig's Bond and specifically, the physicality and brutality of this Bond. He isn't a smooth operator who never gets ruffled ending a scuffle with a quip, he moves and feels like a fighter. The first fight in this film is utterly brutal. Bond and his target both grapple with each other exchanging blows and move with the thuggish fluidity of trained killers.

"Easy, I've got some tension in my neck."

Where in previous movies Bond's fights with bad guys might have lacked heft or weight, you feel each and every blow in this fight. And then Bond drowns his target in the sink, holding his head down in the water. Although Bond kills all the time in the other films, it is rather disconcerting in a way because this death really feels like murder since it is so violent and so visceral.

It's great scene and sets up the modern, muscular, thuggish James Bond we'll see in the film. But the scene that follows the title credits is even better. I am of course referring to the parkour chase scene where Bond pursues a bomb maker through a construction site. It is a brilliant piece of action and has so many little moments that just work.

Because they don't make Bond quite as good that guy he's chasing. While that guy is running up metal beams and slipping through narrow spaces with an effortless grace, Bond crashes through the walls and manages to keep pace but with none of the fluidity or ease of the man he's pursuing.

I wasn't joking. He literally crashes through a wall in pursuit.

That there is someone who is better than Bond at something is actually a nice touch since it never really happened in previous films. It's only Bond's stubbornness which won't let him quit, so through sheer resolve and brute physicality he manages to win out in the end.

I haven't even gotten to Eva Green's Vesper Lynd yet. She is amazing. Possibly the best Bond girl ever, or at least the most capable and fleshed out. And while we'll get to Bond in a minute, that is probably the most significant difference about this Bond film: the characters actually feel real rather than one-dimensional. This wasn't often the case on previous Bond films, especially when it came to the Bond girl.

Vesper is an intelligent, seductive, complicated, and intriguing character played to perfection by the utterly gorgeous and grossly talented Green who pulls off a real convincing English accent for a Frenchwoman. Her character is complex and there are several layers to the performance that gives her gravitas.

Furthermore, and here's the lemon twist, she has a real impact on the plot of the film, not to mention shaping this James Bond into the man he will become. She is the woman for whom he lowered his guards and who most drastically impacts his life. And she has such an impact since she is his equal, not a disposable sex lady but a woman he can love.

I mentioned she's played by Eva Green, right?

Green is such a fantastic actress that she embodies Vesper with such a seductive reality she is near irresistible and sells every moment on screen. And Craig matches her step for step. I told you that we were getting to Bond and here we are, getting to Bond.

Craig is the best actor to play Bond. While Connery definitely was an iconic actor, that's the thing, he was an iconic actor. He didn't disappear into his characters, you always knew you were watching Sean Connery. He was of those actors that played a type (in this case, suave, sophisticated yet roguish) but played it so goddamn well that it was incorporated into every role he played.

On the other hand, Brosnan is a fine actor but maybe due the scripts he was handed or the direction he was receiving, most of his Bond films require hurt acting when he would thrust out his lower jaw in pain or when he seemed a little stiff in the role on the odd occasion. (I know I'm doing Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton a disservice by not mentioning them but I haven't watched their films so I can't comment.)

But Craig is an actor with some serious acting chops. Perhaps this is why his Bond is the first that feels less like an archetype but a real character with backstory and depth beyond a tuxedo and witty quips.

"Apparently there's a new app called 'Xposition' that provides an easily downloadable backstory to flesh out your character."
 
There are a lot of little nuances in his performance, most of which are conveyed through his eyes, those beautiful baby blues which somehow can express heartbreak and steel up in a second while his face remains stoic. Seriously, watch his eyes. It's all there. The intensity and determination, the rare glance of wry humour, the condensation, the pride.

And that intensity feeds into the way in which he delivers his lines. Now this obviously relates to the scripts he has to work with but Craig's Bond doesn't quip. A line which would have been delivered tongue-in-cheek or a wink by a previous Bond here is delivered as a line someone would say, which actually makes it more effective.

Think about the exchange where Bond is asked by the corrupt MI6 section chief in the black and white prologue how did his contact die, Bond's response is "Not well". Where this would have been delivered with a slight wink at the audience or even a more silly reply like, "He was a little flushed", Craig delivers the line straight giving it more weight, a full-bodied retort rather than throwaway quip.

And talking about full-bodied...

Craig's Bond is physical. More so than any Bond before him. The only Bond I think who could be considered really physical before Craig would be early Connery. And Craig has a great body. This is not to say that previous Bonds weren't fit (although sometimes they weren't, You Only Live Twice Connery) but Craig has a real good body and is in fantastic shape.

The film even comments on his body during the torture scene when Le Chiffre repeatedly swings a heavy knotted rope into Bond's balls. And it is Le Chiffre who makes the comment, right before he starts the worst case of blue balling ever saying, "Wow, you've taken good care of your body". Which he has, he has indeed.

Built like a boxer, this is a man who works out and keeps care of his body through rigorous excercise. I think I might have mentioned on this blog before how there has been a shift in the past 10-15 years to more ripped male bodies on screen, and although Craig isn't ripped, he definitely fits more into this trend than his predecessors.

This isn't to dismiss or body-shame previous Bonds, just to highlight what an impressive body Craig has and shifting ideals of the ideal male form in recent years. Craig is also perhaps the least hairy Bond, at least out of Connery and Brosnan which might be natural or part of this trend, I dunno. Again, this isn't to hair-shame Connery or Brosnan, especially since Brosnan has the most impressively hairy chest.

Dammit, turn down the sex appeal. Jeez.

But I think we should move on to give some measure of relief from the awesome of Casino Royale and shirtless James Bonds, so let's discuss Quantum of Solace, shall we? As a direct sequel to Casino Royale (a rarity for a Bond film), it is often seen as the lesser sibling of Craig's first two outings as Bond.

However, watching them relatively close together, there is a lot to love in Quantum. It's almost like the two films make a great four hour movie if played one after each other, even if the second half isn't as good as the first.

That said, the opening car chase is one of the best car chases put to film. While it is rather chaotic to follow and the editing is frenetic, there is so much well-choreographed exhilaration on screen it's just an impressive action sequence.

I don't think I could adequately caption badassery of this magnitude.

I have to spend a moment here to talk about the theme song by Jack White and Alicia Keys, 'Another Way to Die'. This is generally not regarded as one of the better Bond songs and has actually been quite heavily criticised. And I understand the criticisms mostly because I have no idea what Jack White and Alicia Keys are doing on the same song.

No really, why are they both on the song? The Bond films aren't known for having duets on their theme songs, indeed this is the first Bond theme duet so there is no precedent for two completely unrelated singers with completely different styles singing together on a Bond theme. It doesn't even sound like they were in the same room when they sang their parts. Keys appears to be singing in a different key than White at points and I don't know why it's happening.

It's not even written like a duet where they trade lyrics or parts that have to be sang with two singers. They're just singing together because reasons. It's so obviously a Jack White song I don't know why Keys is even there, not to be mean to her but just out of sheer curiosity.


And all this is a shame because I quite like the song despite it's flaws. I like the horns and White's guitar. I even enjoy the scat-like verses, and appreciate the different set pieces which come in and out like the piano v. guitar bits. Also, it's pretty much in sync with the opening credit's visuals which I always like. For example the first gun shot shoots off perfectly in time with a horn blast following the guitar/drum build up, which is neat.

Now Quantum has its problems, it's lacking in humour for the most part and seems less coherent than Casino Royale, lacking the synergy that movie had. However, it is possibly the artsiest Bond movie, at least of the ones I've seen. There is quite a bit going on here even if it doesn't quite come together.

And now for something completely related, the fight scene at the opera is simply stunning and oh-so-arty. Inter cut with shots from the opera, the sound drops out with some exceptional Foley work that seems dissonant from the action on screen. Guns shoot onscreen and the sound is heard but almost as though it is completely removed from the action even though it happens at the same time. Maybe the sounds are a second delayed? However it was done, it's a great piece of film-making.

Also he looks damn good in a tuxedo he just happened to find in a locker which somehow fits him like a glove.

The plot of Quantum on the other hand less something to be desired. Not because it is terrible but it was really hit by the Writer's Strike back in 2007 and feels oddly disjointed as a result. This is the main contributor to the incoherence I mentioned earlier.

At one point, Bond is in Austria and his funds are frozen because he is suspected of killing the bodyguard of an adviser to the English Prime so he can't pay for a plane ticket to Boliva. Fair enough. Then Bond is in Italy and convincing his ally of sorts Mathis to get him to take Bond to Italy.

Wait, hold up. How did Bond get to Italy? I mean, Austria isn't too far from Italy... if you're travelling by plane or even train but how did Bond makes his way to Mathis' retirement villa? Did he walk there? Did he steal a car?

This is like the cut in The Dark Knight Rises from Bruce Wayne escaping the prison pit somewhere in the Middle East to somehow getting to Gotham city in time. The movie doesn't want you to ask how he got there or how long it took him either. It's just saying he is there now so let's roll with it, okay?

He also had the time to put gasoline on ice and up a massive bridge in the shape of a bat... somehow.

And that segue ways nicely into Skyfall. While making all of the money at the box office on it way to becoming the most successful British film of all time, some people couldn't help but notice that Skyfall seemed to be influenced in part by Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.

Which is fitting since The Dark Knight Rises stole its plot from The World Is Not Enough and Chrisotpher Nolan a well-known Bond fan, the whole thing coming full circle with Skyfall cribbing from the success of the Dark Knight Trilogy. Bond films have always taken what is currently popular or in vogue and incorporated it in some measure to the latest Bond film.

The bad guy in Skyfall is definitely supposed to be like Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight, 20 steps ahead of everyone else, playing off events like a puppet-master. He even allows himself to be capture like the Joker so he can actually lay a trap which makes no sense when you stop to think about the logistics of having your plan hinge on a thousand things you have no control over.

But with hair like that, why would you ever stop to thing about logistics?

Plot problems aside, Skyfall is a fantastic film and definitely is the most gorgeously shot Bond movie. It is utterly stunning how well shot this film is. Judi Dench gives one of her best performances as M which is saying a lot considering that she's a Dame.

M is a strong and forceful character but there's a scene where Silva is threatening M and she is absolutely terrified but trying not to show it and restraining herself. Her fear is only shown in her eyes which give off such a look of outright terror despite her resolve. It is an impressive feat of acting bar none.

And despite his plan riding all on luck or the fact he's omniscient, Javier Bardem's Silva is a great and truly memorable villain. His idiosyncratic manner of talking, his fey mannerisms, homoerotic relationship with Bond, white suits and bleached blonde hair all culminate in Bardem's amazing perrfomance. And his scenes with Craig and Dench are just fabulous to watch.

Thanks for waiting Mr Bond, we were just getting to you.

But back to Bond. I'll say it again, Daniel Craig is the best Bond. The man is great and brought a new physicality, a new vitality, and a new authenticity to the character that none of the previous actors quite managed to do.

I love Connery and Brosnan's Bonds and have nothing against Moore, Lazenby, or Dalton's, but Craig is James Bond.

Even if he is too blonde.

Announcement: 

Musings From Another Star will be on hiatus for a couple of weeks while I battle sharks with lasers attached to their heads. 

But I'll be back after watching my lover suicide-drown herself before my very eyes in order to motivate my character.



References:

Daniel Craig Wikipedia page

Roger Moore on Why Daniel Craig Is the Best James Bond Ever and What 007 Role He’s Dying to Play - Time

Has Daniel Craig eclipsed Sean Connery as James Bond? - The Guardian

Daniel Craig Is Esquire's October Cover Star

My favourite Bond film: Casino Royale


19 Casion Royal (with Matt Gourley) - The Canon

James Bonding #006: Casino Royal with Amanda Lund & Maria Blasucci

James Bonding #004: Quantum of Solace with Emily Gordon

James Bonding #002: Skyfall with Steve Agee

10 Ways Skyfall Borrows From the Dark Knight Playbook

5 Huge Movies That Stole Their Plot from Other Hit Films

6 Huge Movie Plot Twists That Caused Even Bigger Plot Holes

About Me

My photo

This introduction is supposed to let you know that you have found the correct Caleb. 

I am here to tell that your search is over. I am indeed the correct Caleb for any given situation. Parties, hunter-gatherings, long walks on the beach, shindigs, guest appearances, and so much more. I am an multi-purpose Caleb guaranteed to impress friends and influence your uncle.

I also write stuff online.