Saturday, October 29, 2011

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

It Cannot Be Sweetened

The Nostalgia Chick reviews The Lion King

Now, normally I love The Nostalgia Chick, and the rest of this website. But c'mon…it's not that she inadvertently disagrees with part of my critique of The Lion King, namely the hyena-based bits of that whole "the natural order cannot be changed" thing, but that she does it in that particular way. It's the theory that the legitimacy of complaints about a film's unsettling subtext is measured by whether or not said subtext actually drives people to commit similar actions.

Naturally, that would make The Lion King SOL, since of course nobody was driven to support racial segregation because of its positively-portrayed analogue in The Lion King, or to dislike hyenas even more than they already would. But discussing the progressive values of films, or their lack thereof, isn't about literal goals or literal expressions…it's a discussion for its own sake. If it serves any political purpose, it's about calling attention to tropes which reflect rather than create the attitudes of society, and these tropes often don't reflect things literally.

Hence why I agree that pointing to the hyena's VAs as evidence of the "racial segregation" subtext is pretty flawed, because Simba's parents are portrayed by black actors, too, and Jim Cummings was white. Instead, the hyena plot is part of the film's larger theme that there is a natural order that should not be changed, and the hyenas living where they did, and apparently being unable to better themselves, is part of that natural order--it's the unspoken dark side of the "Circle of Life". These kinds of themes aren't expressed maliciously, or intended to refer to anything in the real world: this is all about subconscious, nigh-universal themes that are, sadly, expressed in stories all over the world. Nobody at Disney wanted to use this as racial propaganda.

However, I was in a different way uncomfortable for what's basically an argument from popularity. Hyenas aren't as liked by the public, so nobody would go to see a movie called "The Hyena King" (or wouldn't it really be a "Queen"?). …and? So? It serves as a justification if you're asking why a film that wanted to make tons of money went with "majestic" animal protagonists, but this argument seems to be more about storytelling--that if an animal stereotype exists, there's no complaint to be made against using it.

Even if this logic is restricted only to animal stereotypes, it's still trying to justify a formula solely by its longevity, and often these issues are just a matter of presentation. After all, look at Ratatouille. It took mammals that were as much maligned as hyenas and made something that was a mainstream success out of it. This fits with the video's notion that Pixar is more risky, but the issue isn't discussed in terms of the stuido's willingness to take risks, but just that no one would be interested in a film about hyenas. Come on, what if the hyenas looked like this? Or if you want to just go to Disney, think about Gaston from Beauty and the Beast--he was an intended subversion, and it didn't hurt the film at all.

Also, also, also, my interpretation was that Scar's reign was meant to have caused the drought somehow. Over-hunting by the hyenas (it would fit the rest of the movie so well if their desire for food was from greed rather than starvation) or whatever you want to say, it's meant to be symbolic. This isn't just the dry season, this is Fisher King territory.

Timon and Pumbaa are still annoying.

The Kimba thing isn't just about rhyming protagonist names and lions on cliffs. It's the fact that many of the TLK characters have Kimba counterparts in terms of species/role/appearance, and that Disney is keeping its lips zipped about the idea. Still quite a shame.

Dammit, Scar, you used to be so cool, slithering around and snarking on the pomp and circumstance of the kingdom, but you turned out to be a moron.

I've gone over and over on it in my head, and I still can't accept that the later plot hinges on the entire cast doing absolutely nothing until Simba grows up.

Finally, I did see the film in 3-D, too, out of nostalgic value. But I had watched it just prior to making my blog post, and of course nothing changed between that viewing and the theatrical one. My heart soared at the beginning, but my rational mind soon set in. Things have changed with me.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hill House, Not Sane

Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has become a personal icon of mine, one of my all-time favourite novels. It is unconventional in a way that I like, restrained admirably but layered with irony and still genuinely creepy, and overall a wonderful piece of literature. I'm a fan of Jackson's work in general, but this is the top.

However, I had the grave misfortune of seeing Jan de Bont's 1999 film version of The Haunting of Hill House before anything else. Fortunately, it didn't stick with me, didn't colour my later interest in the novel and the first film.

In fact, it's a pretty blessing that I forgot about 1999 version, because this recent review by The Nostalgia Critic shows me what I couldn't recognize before: not only is it a genuinely bad movie (all I remembered that the house looked bitchin' cool and nothing else was memorable), but it is horribly contradictory to the spirit of the original book, having big scares and a main character who becomes an actual heroine.

Besides that unknowing blunder, my history with Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House began when I took an interest in Stephen King's non-fiction book Danse Macabre, a book I'd picked up in the tornado of King obsession when I was a kid, but never read because I had discovered it was non-fiction. As an adult, though, it's a great read, an overview of the horror genre that is part informal criticism, part memoir.

King makes much of Shirley Jackson's book, coming back to it several times when discussing haunted house stories. Yet what stood out to me above everything else was his excerpt of the book's first line: "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream." It's such a wonderful line, expressing, in Jackson's excellent style, that fantasy is intrinsic to existence. It also composes part of one of the most effective openings I've ever read, engaging the reader while giving away so little. We are left to wonder how this relates to Hill House, which then is described as "not sane".

The entire book is fascinating. Firstly, it is an interesting take on the haunted house story: slow and introspective, but it works so well, better in that form, in fact, because it is more unusual. I'm not a big horror reader, but I love brooding stories if the characters are compelling. The Haunting of Hill House is also layered with irony: while the scares are genuine, there is little real sympathy for the mousy protagonist.

The Haunting of Hill House offers no such easy paths, of course, but if we were to measure things in degrees, Eleanor just feels like she is less meant to be loved than simply pitied, or even perhaps hated. She is a child in an adult's body, and easily taken (figuratively and literally) by the house, which she is convinced loves her. Her immaturity and her giving into the house is not tragic but blackly comedic. It is clear that her personality is the result of her terrible home life, but nonetheless, she is at fault, and cannot escape. We just watch Eleanor, a bug inside the terrarium, with a clinical tilt of our heads. I don't love Eleanor, but I enjoy watching her self-destruction.

It's a fascinatingly different way to handle a protagonist, and it's what makes the 1999 Eleanor's transformation into passionate heroine so painful to see. It's completely a misfire, turning her into something crass and...uh, "common", especially when nobody seems to realize the stupidity of a woman who's been crushed by her own family unironically using the force of familial love to banish the horrible father-demon.  Jan de Bont can't even make Eleanor's spine-growth convincing, either. This is why we have people who hate adaptations, folks.

Robert Wise's original 1963 version, however, is far better. It is elegant and effective, complementing the book perfectly, not only through faithfulness, but in simply being good. I've been able to track down a DVD copy, and look forward to watching it, in the spirit of the season.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

An American Werewolf in London

For some reason, I waited years to see this movie. I don't know why, when I'm a werewolf buff: maybe I thought my delicate appetites would be too disturbed by the transformation sequence that this movie is famous for. Turns out that it's like John Carpenter's The Thing: on a deeper level you realize it's gross and the reason you can't make pasta for dinner afterwards, but the sheer coolness overwhelms that impression and you're going right along with it. This is why I prefer practical effects: so much more visceral.

Actually, I found the nazi-demons and David's monster-face in the dream to be more disturbing. The werewolf itself was awesome, because while quadrupedal wolf transformations have been done before, freakish quadrupedal werewolves are less common. I love the forefeet: at first I wondered why the middle part of David's hand became longer, then wow. And the face, and the very un-lupine bulk and shaggy mane.

An American Werewolf in London also got me back in touch with a part of the werewolf mythos that maybe has gone underfed in recent times: werewolf transformation as tragic, uncontrollable, and confined to the full moon. While I'm decided on a preference for savage vampires, I can't decide whether I prefer this interpretation of werewolves, or the idea of a voluntarily-transforming "werewolf species", or any of the ones in between.  Both have their cons, and their thematic resonance, and neither are a guarantee of bad storytelling.

An American Werewolf in London, however, is pure transformation tragedy, because it's meant to be an old-fashioned horror movie in a contemporary setting. The presentation is effective here, when the film's being serious, and when it's being funny. As we all know, An American Werewolf in London also is a horror-comedy, and damn does it work well. The film doesn't feel indecisive or lopsided, the two aspects blending seamlessly, and I laughed aloud at several points. I laughed, and enjoyed that the film cuts out so fast; It might have spoiled the film's irreverence if the tragedy of David were dwelt on for so long.

I liked the addition of a new wrinkle of the zombie-ghosts, the restless spirits caused by the werewolf's killing spree. The movie would be distinct enough without it, but it's nice to see it reaching even farther beyond the same horror convention it's trying to pay homage to. I got further laughs out of Jack's casual dialogue as he keeps appearing in more and more decomposed states. His exclamation of "It's boring!" strikes just the right note of despair and whiny hilarity.

The film's biggest sour spot was the bit with the nurse, and how she would just take home a mentally disturbed and traumatized man to be her boyfriend, one that she's just seen to in the hospital. It felt like this was a completely earnest subplot, without irony or humour. Thus, it's hard to really believe in. About the only part that seemed mocking was her inability to calm the transformed David, which was wonderfully nasty.

Indeed, there's a black undercurrent in the film beyond the fact that the guy will become a monster and kill people. The movies lied, nothing can stop this but a bullet, and in "real life" the hero, David might be too cowardly to do it himself, just like he ran when Jack was attacked. Love is also useless.

Because horror movies don't have to explain everything, but instead are to focus on the terror and tension, I wasn't begging for more explanation about the werewolf on the moors, but I was still curious about him. The locals know him, but won't do anything but stay away—why not try to kill him before now? Where did he go when he was human during the rest of the month? Or was he simply stuck in the wolf state after long enough time had passed? Could David have become a permanent wolf in time?

Overall, while I prefer more esoteric werewolf movies like The Company of Wolves and Ginger Snaps, An American Werewolf in London is pretty damn fun. A great monster, and an excellent blend of humour and horror.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What is Beautiful, and what is Bestial






Like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast was another of my childhood Disney obsessions. However, when rewatching Beauty and the Beast as an adult, I found it to be much more appealing than I did The Lion King when I also rewatched that recently. Both have a nostalgic cachet that prevents me from rejecting them entirely, but I was sour towards The Lion King because it was a film that said everyone should know their place or they're stupid, evil, or misguided. Beauty and the Beast, though it also has elements that make me uncomfortable, was much more appealing.

The characters of Beauty and the Beast are well-crafted and defined, even if they are big ol' Disney clich├ęs. The viewer wants to follow them through their adventures and to believe the film is a good one. For one thing, I like Belle. A three-dimensional female lead with an iron will doesn't erase any uncomfortable elements in the film, but I was enamoured with her bibliophilia, determination, and desire for adventure and still am now. In short, Belle is still pretty damn cool.

Even without my thinking the Beast is attractive (see below), his character design is still great. It's a little top-heavy, and his muzzle seems to get about twice as long when he roars, but the way it combines so many different mammals into a single refined whole is a great look. The silhouette he cuts is appropriately minotaur-ish, and the human eyes just add more uniqueness to it. Robby Benson also has an amazing voice, deep and terrible.

Gaston is a great villain. He portrays a very human evil through his unappealing traits and simple desires, yet it makes him no less threatening. Also, unlike Scar, Gaston never loses that villainy when being exposed as a weak coward and a fool, therefore taking the easy way out and giving the audience no threat. Gaston is a jackass, and the early parts of the film try too hard to show what a boor he is, but Gaston is still a dangerous one when he's crossed or defied.

The castle servants aren't as annoying as they could have been. The three main objects have motivations and intelligence, so it's less easy to brush them off as things designed for merchandising and/or ensuring the film doesn't get too dark. Me, I was always the fondest of Cogsworth, due to my weakness for fussbudgets.

On a minor note, it was a treat hearing the late, great Tony Jay as Monsieur D'Arque, the corrupt asylum keeper that Gaston bribes. I had completely forgotten about that role of his, but it was wonderful to hear one of my favourite voice actors from childhood in one scene. Tony Jay only had one voice, but damn it wasn't a good one.

However, D'Arque reinforces another disturbing element that doesn't have anything to do with gender politics: that Belle's village and the surrounding country seem to be full of assholes. Some people are nice, such as the elderly librarian, but most of them seem willing to support or follow Gaston in everything he does, jump to mob violence, and find Belle and Maurice suspicious simply for being eccentric. No wonder Belle dreamed of something else.

However, yes, despite that I like the film a great deal, there are elements to Beauty and the Beast which make me uncomfortable. There’s been a backlash towards criticisms of Beauty and the Beast's themes over the years, with it being just as likely to find someone who says the film was totally not about Stockholm Syndrome, abusive relationships as fixable things, or anything even remotely like that. But these things can't be confirmed or denied outright, especially in a way that would put an end to the debates.

Here's what I think: Beauty and the Beast tries really hard, unintentionally or not, to try to defuse the more disturbing elements in its premise. That doesn't make it immune from criticism, but it makes it more palatable than The Lion King, which embraces its subtext without question.

To start with, it's Belle who makes the choice to stay in the Beast's castle, so she is not, in a direct fashion, falling in love with her captor, since she chose to be there rather than being abducted. The bargain also ensures Belle will stick around without coercion or violence, since she's the sort of character who honours her word. Because of this, it makes the Beast appear less monstrous.

However, the sweetness of their falling is love is tainted by the fact that not until after the ballroom scene does Beast give Belle explicit freedom, meaning that all their sweet moments took place when Belle was still a prisoner. On the other hand, it's still easy to be moved by his willingness to let Belle go free, because of the depths of sacrifice it means for him. It makes the audience more inclined to believe the best about the central romance.

Secondly, the more obvious point: Gaston is a worse beast than the actual Beast could ever dream of being, which ensures that the audience sympathy is routed to the even hairier male lead. Not only is Gaston violent, conniving, vain, callous, anti-intellectual and sexist...it slowly becomes clear that the Beast is more bark than bite.

While he appears terrifying at first, and throws Maurice around like a chew toy, in many  later scenes Beast come off as all bluster,  a spoiled brat with claws that he'll never use. It's only because Belle softened him, by both standing up to him and then loving him, but the impression nonetheless colours any later viewings, solidifying the viewers' sympathy towards Beast.

That said, I still can't transcend my distaste for the fantasy convention that female humans can fall in love with male beings that are physically monstrous/alien. All progressive ideals have been leeched from the trope due to it nearly always being a female human and a male watchathing, so that it seems more like male wish fulfilment than anything else. The trope can still be enjoyable in the hands of a good writer, but it is not subversive or inspiring.

Beauty and the Beast plays that aspect entirely straight: Belle is beautiful and human and learns to love Beast despite his monstrous exterior and initial harshness, and in doing so, civilizes him. The villagers describing Belle as "funny" might be an attempt to make her seem at least a little more level with Beast when it comes to overall strangeness (or maybe just to show that the village sucks). However, it's not unheard of for stories like this to add some quirk to the female human to make it more plausible that she'd fall for a male whatchathing-- it doesn't really change the trope.

It's also because of this that Gaston can be both a subversion and a conventional character. On one hand, he's "handsome" while the Beast is "ugly", and so it's a subversion of older stories and epics in which the heroes and heroines were equally beautiful, something which Disney does with gusto even today.

And yet, in the modern era, male beauty is treated with suspicion and scorn, with the female lead often ending up with the grubby guy instead. Male vanity, too, is treated with more derision than female vanity, without the related contradiction that we expect women to care about looks anyway. Though Beauty and the Beast was made twenty years ago, this sort of backlash was already in full swing then, so in some ways it's entirely unsurprising that the more conventionally handsome male lead is the villain, and is exaggeratedly concerned about his looks.

On top of that, Gaston isn't really interchangeable with a Disney Prince in terms of his looks. There's a comical quality to his design, and he seems to veer slightly more towards men's image of their ideal body, rather than what is attractive to female viewers, although as with all things, viewers vary in their response, and some female fans do find Gaston as handsome as the other characters do. In short, the role-reversal that Disney is trying still manages to hold up, but it's not as cut-and-dried as it first appears.

(Incidentally, whenever I hear talk about "manliness", I think of someone like Gaston, whether or not that was the person's intention.)

Perhaps in relation to this, I've seen many nerds decrying the ending where the Beast transforms into a human. Human Beast is apparently "ugly" and it undermines the message of the film to have him transform—if the writers were really liberal-minded, they would have kept him a Beast, and have Belle go all the way with him! However, when genre fiction is already full of romances like this where the male being never changes his form, I'd rather have them both end up as humans at least intended to be attractive, rather than continuing this overdone theme. Also, I don't think the prince is that bad-looking myself. Nicer than Gaston, certainly.

Besides, it's abundantly clear that being the Beast sucks. Despite the shaggy badassery, he lives in the middle of nowhere in a decaying castle and can't really go anywhere or do anything. The writers have also suggested that he was becoming more and more bestial as time went on, degenerating mentally.  That's even without factoring in the poor furniture-servants whose lives must suck doubly.

About the only return to form that I did mourn was that of the castle—all those wonderful lions and gargoyles were replaced by cherubs and pastels; yuck. I've felt that way since I first saw the movie in 1991, and haven't changed my feeling. I recognize the symbolism involved, but it's not so hard to believe that the castle could have had that shape before the transformation, and just gotten dirtier and more decayed. After all, the interior was always luxurious enough.

My issues with some of the themes prevent me from considering Beauty and the Beast my favourite animated film, and besides that, the pacing is a little too fast. I'm glad the extra "Human Again" number was left out of the theatrical cut, because it corrupts that same pacing, but my impression of the film was still that it was so fast. At least it doesn't have that huge gaping timeskip in the middle that The Lion King does.

There are also a few possible logistical errors which have been brought up before: was the prince really only eleven years old when cursed, as anyone who does the math can figure out? Then where are his parents, and who’s in that torn picture? Were there really enough servants to be every object in the castle, including every dish, and what happened to the actual objects? Also, a French cast with largely American accents...again.

Still, Beauty and the Beast is a great movie to have, and I was glad to watch it again. If the promised theatrical re-release happens, I'll be there with bells on.




Monday, October 3, 2011

10/3/82

On October 3, 1982, the anime Super Dimension Fortress Macross aired in Japan. I don't have the time to knock out a retrospective post on such short notice, but...it's become one of my all-time favourite anime series since a very short time ago. If you want to know why, just check the archives.

Sometimes, all you need is love. And Zentradi. Nothing but pure undiluted SDFM, mmmm....


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Dat Freak




It’s a story a lot of us 90s kids are familiar with: going back over a cartoon we loved as a kid, only to discover we missed all the adult-targeted humour that was fuel-injected into every episode. At the best of times, it adds a new dimension to a show that’s still entertaining to us, years later, making it even better.

It’s been over a decade since I’ve watched Freakazoid! on TV. I caught some episodes on YouTube a while back, but apparently that wasn’t enough for the final click, for it wasn't until a short while ago I was hit with the sudden and very powerful impulse to rebuy and rewatch the entire series. Now I totally love it all over again.

Freakazoid! has always been my favourite of the Amblin/WB animated comedies, ranking above Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. I don’t know what it is, but I keep being drawn to superhero spoofs, even though I’m not that big a fan of superheroes. I’m smart enough to know that not all superhero stories are endless tales of black-and-white morality and shallow characterization, so it’s not a misplaced mean-spiritedness that drives my interest, either. Nor is it feeling that superheroes are somehow more absurd than the rest of SF and fantasy. I don’t know what it is, but I love The Venture Brothers, Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, The Tick, Mystery Men, and so on.

The appeal of Freakazoid! is easy to discern: it’s just the type of humour I grew up with and still love when it's done right. Just when I feel I’ve become exasperated by the endless tide of pop culture parodies, fourth-wall breaking, and celebrity impersonations, another good cartoon comes along to remind me that this type of humour can still be used effectively. Freakazoid! is a great example, even if it might be the nostalgia talking.

However, it’s the characters that really sold this show to me, then and now. I loved the character of Freakazoid, and it ain’t hard to see why. Yeah, people hate “random” humour too, but Paul Rugg plays Freakazoid with such loud earnestness, there’s no way I’m not going to think he’s awesome. Ed Asner, western animation’s quintessential Grumpy Old Man, is wonderful as Sgt. Mike Cosgrove, the guy whose reaction to the must absurd situations is always his crotchety deadpan. Freakazoid’s family is also great, bland sitcom-folk with the occasional bouts of weirdness.

The only weak link in the good guy” cast is Freakazoid’s girlfriend Steff. While the joke probably is supposed to be, “She’s Freakazoid’s girlfriend with almost no personality, you know like superheroes have”, given that the rest of the characters, male and female, are funny in a more individual way (Dexter’s mother may have a creepy Stepford grin, but she’ll also eat 24 pizza rolls offscreen), I still wish Steff had actual characterization instead.

Not keeping to a steady viewing schedule in my childhood, I had no idea that The Lobe was Freakazoid’s arch-enemy. It makes a lot of sense: not only is The Lobe ostensibly the rational mind to Freakazoid’s silly insanity, but often The Lobe seems like he believes he lives in a world that takes itself more seriously than it actually does, while Freakazoid knows exactly what the score is.

David Warner gives The Lobe a voice full of grandeur and conviction that fits this perception of the world, and it makes him even funnier. Of course, The Lobe can delve into comedy with the rest of the cast, including the entire “Bonjour Lobey” musical number, but the idea that he takes things more seriously than anybody, even Gutierrez, (who is a weenie) remains strong. This gives Freakazoid and his arch-enemy the kind of opposite dynamic that apparently makes for good hero/villain conflict.

The Lobe is probably my favourite villain in the series for these reasons (though it’s a little disturbing that his hands and his head are a different colour, and that he thinks a pterosaur is a dinosaur). Up behind are Cobra Queen and Cave Guy, even before they were a couple. The reptilophile in me says that casting reptilian characters as evil is usually a bad thing, but there are so few female reptilian characters that I’ll give Cobra Queen a pass. It doesn’t hurt that she isn’t protected from slapstick, and unlike Steff, she’s funny as an individual character (I also positively love the design of her tusked, horned cobra). Cave Guy, well, he’s just hilarious because he’s a snooty, pretentious caveman in a loincloth, though I still wonder why he’s blue. In short: I ship it.

I don’t miss any of the back-up segments from season one, and I still can’t say whether I prefer Freakazoid! in a shorter or longer episode format. If I were to pick the back-up character I liked the most, it would have to be Lord Bravery. As a kid, I totally didn’t get that he was a Monty Python pastiche, but now it’s perfectly obvious and awesome. It’s just that I don′t mind jettisoning any of them for a Freakazoid-only series.

I want to give a special shout-out to the episode “House of Freakazoid/Sewer or Later”. At some point, my household TV stopped getting Freakazoid!, save for a channel that had perfect audio but extremely distorted picture. However, on a day when the station came through, I managed to watch and tape a rerun of this episode, and watched that thing into the ground. Since it had a werewolf (albeit based on the Wolfman rather than the more wolf-headed werewolves that I prefer) and giant snakes, I considered it the best of a bad situation.

Freakazoid feels like a cartoon made by funny people, for funny people, to please themselves, and thankfully coming out with something the rest of us could watch. The names of the writers and I loved it as a kid, and I love it again now. What the hell was I waiting for, taking so long to buy it?

Picking out the voice acting greats is also fun, and recognizing the names of writers well-known in nerddom.