John Carter came out late in Japan, but I got a chance to watch it last night after a day of role-playing, and while I was impressed by the authenticity of its representation of Barsoom, I wasn’t so impressed by its general cinematic properties. It was a fun romp but it suffered from what seems to be a way too common problem in modern action/SF movies: too much plot. In this case the plot had been laid on thick because the movie had too many themes, but in its defense most of these themes were attempts to work all the essential points of the setting into a single movie. So we had white apes, treacherous Therns, Tharks, a bit of lost-princess plot from one of the later books, the river Is and the environmental problems of Mars all rolled into one movie. It probably would have been a much better idea to make the movie a relatively faithful representation of the first book, and then run on to making a series if the first one had been successful – it could be quite a good franchise if the first were a hit. Instead, the movie has the major components of three or four books compressed into the one plot, and it made the plot unnecessarily complicated and broke the flow of the story.

It also suffered from another common problem – silly plot devices that don’t work and just waste time, something that also happens in TV. For example, why did John Carter have to go attack Zodanga only to discover that the battle was around Helium, then suddenly have to rush back with all his Thark mates? That’s 2 minutes of a long movie that just aren’t necessary and add to the sense of silliness – it seems to have taken him just a few minutes to get from Zodanga to Helium, where previously it took a whole night, and somehow a whole horde of Tharks flew after him even though none of them had ever flown before, without crashing. This kind of stuff isn’t bothersome in isolation but as it adds up across the course of the movie it changes the tone from “I’m suspending disbelief here so I can enjoy the four armed men slaughtering each other” to “oh come on, this is getting ridiculous!” In movies like this, you need the story to pare back on unnecessary suspension of disbelief so that you can accept the existence of a 9th Wave Ray Gun without dispute.

The 9th Wave Ray Gun, as far as I can recall, wasn’t in the original books and was inserted entirely so that we could have Therns in this story rather than waiting for book 3. As a change of plot I’m fine with that, since we get Therns; but I guess the purests will disapprove on principle, and also it adds complexity. The plot of the original book was quite fine, thank you, and we could have happily had a simple adventure involving Deja Thoris (who, by the way, was a stunner!) and the Tharks and left it at that. Ray guns were really unnecessary.

Ray guns were especially unnecessary since this movie was already struggling against a significant design flaw, that is very hard to solve on the big screen: the world and all its races are fundamentally preposterous, and if you’re going to have to sit down to watch this stuff you need, once again, for all the unnecessary preposterosity to be stripped out. You have blind white apes, a dog like a slug that can run at the speed of sound, levitating skyships, great big 8 legged mounts, transportation to mars, and did I mention the four-armed blue-skinned freaks who hatch from eggs and live in a horde without families or education of any kind, and have tasks and are twice the height of a man? I suppose compared to all that ray guns are pretty bog-standard actually… in any case, the setting all the characters and most of the plot were preposterous, and I think that might explain why it was a bit of a flop at the box office. A shame, really, because it’s a pretty fun movie, overall, and if they stripped out the extraneous stuff it could have been a really really good adventure movie and a very good interpretation of the books.

I do think its interpretation of the books was quite good, and I think it also had some very well done adjustments to small points that make it palatable to a modern audience without changing the main thrust of the original. For example, John Carter’s civil war record is unchanged but his rejection of his military history enables the viewer to be sympathetic to the struggles of an ex-slave holder; his encounter with the Apaches is subtly reshaped so that, while they remain a threat and he has to flee from them, their “savageness” can be more easily interpreted as a matter of perspective rather than absolute natural fact … that is, they have their own motivations, which Carter tries but fails to appeal to, rather than just being inchoate savages who want to kill him. Deja Thoris retains her spice and sassiness, rather than being weakened for the movies, and although occasionally seems to need Carter’s help just a bit too much, avoids that common pitfall of modern action movies of being suddenly rendered useless halfway through. The savagery of the Tharks is retained, but all the stupid stuff where Carter teaches them how to do their own cultural stuff better is dropped, and we also get something resembling an explanation for his rapid comprehension of the language. His super-hero status is much less maddening in this movie than in the original, though it’s still hard to understand why everyone thinks he can save the planet just because he can jump high. Deja Thoris can build an experimental ray gun, but she obviously finds this kind of ability nowhere near as useful as Carter’s ability to leap buildings with a single bound, and appeals desperately for him to help her take on a guy whose super power is “destroys cities with a wave of his hand.” Maybe she’d read the novel, and understood that no harm will come to her hero…

This is a good rendition of the setting, with some fun action scenes and very attractive lead characters, and the plot is broadly comprehensible though it fails in the usual ways that modern action movies do. If you’re a fan of the novels and you haven’t seen this already, I recommend giving it a go. If you enjoy pulp science fantasy and want to watch a swashbuckling film from the genre, it’s a good way to spend two hours. But if you’re a serious connoisseur of SF action movies and won’t settle for B-grade silliness at any point, I’d say this is probably not worth your time.

The Artist is superficially a silent film about a love affair between two movie stars in the 1920s. On a deeper level it’s an exposition of neo-liberal, or even Randian, industrial policy.

Essentially the movie charts the entrant of a new company into an established industrial sector. The new company offers a new production mode, and rapidly steals market share from the old company. This company rapidly loses sales, and soon is reduced to selling off its assets in order to maintain even a minor presence in the market (in an ironic filmic twist, even though these assets are sold on the open market in a clearing house, they end up in the new company’s asset portfolio). The CEO for the new entrant, being a bit sentimental – and perhap having some New Deal-style political ideals – offers to use some of its considerable assets and popularity to help the old company adapt to the new market conditions[1]. However, the old company have imbibed the Randian ideology of their times, and refuse to accept any form of charity or support – the CEO prepares to liquidate his remaining staff, but at the last minute the CEO of the new company realizes a way they can combine the classical skills of the staff with the technology of the new company, and the old company is revitalized – able to develop into a niche market combining the new technology with the old artisanal skills.

I guess this could be a metaphor for many of the great market battles of the last 30 years, especially in the technology sector – Apple vs. Windows, fixed line phones vs. mobiles, China vs. Japan, Japan vs. the UK, etc. The main weakness in the metaphor, in my opinion, is brief moment of weakness when the CEO of the new company offers charity to the old company – it breaks the otherwise forcefully presented focus on competitiveness and survival of the fittest. In comparison to the seamless perfection of the analysis of homosexual sexual politics in 300, The Artist is a weaker political metaphor, but I think it makes its point well. Particularly, it’s clear by the end that everyone – producers and consumers alike – is enriched by the competitive atmosphere, and that any attempt to protect the old company would have been bad both for its own staff, its rival and society as a whole. As the CEO of the new company says, “people are tired of seeing actors mugging at the camera to get their point across.”

The movie’s medium is, in my opinion, its greatest flaw, although I understand the purpose of presenting the movie in the outdated medium and having the crucial benefits of the new technology break through at crucial moments. The mechanism by which the new and innovative ideas of neo-liberal industrial policy are presented is itself out-dated and old, and makes the characters and ideas hard to engage with. Perhaps the story would have been better presented as a computer game? Also, it’s hard to have sympathy with a lead character who would rather shoot himself than take a job offer from a woman. But otherwise, it’s an okay love story (with very attractive stars) and nice presentation. See it if you like teary love stories and/or Randroid politics.

fn1: could this part of the film be an attempt to posit a voluntarist anti-trust atmosphere in Randian market places?

Too Lazy for Monster-hunting

I and the Delightful Miss E both have colds this weekend, so we decided to have a lazy weekend in the house, watching monster documentaries. We weren’t quite as lazy as the pictured monster, who couldn’t even be bothered lifting his head through most of the weekend, but about the only time my pulse rose above resting level was when I learnt about the kinds of horrors that ordinary citizens in Madrid have to endure. And my god, were they horrible. It’s nice to sit safe in your home learning about the kinds of troubles that people in the Western Hemisphere face, being reminded of how much more civilized life in Asia is. Although I must say that I sometimes got the impression that the third documentary I watched wasn’t real. Sometimes it just seemed, well, acted. Here is my review of the three documentaries I watched.

Rec: Violent zombie bio-containment in Madrid

Rec is an accidentally-shot documentary about an incident in a Madrid apartment block, filmed a few years ago. The film starts off as a simple TV show, with a presenter and her cameraman planning to spend a night with the Madrid fire brigade filming their activities for a show called While You Were Sleeping. I think they must have changed the name of this show for the documentary because I can’t find any evidence that it’s real, but it is an excellent idea for a TV show so I think people should make this kind of show. Anyway, after a few hours of boredom the team are called out to an incident in an apartment block, where a woman appears to be locked into her apartment, and the documentary crew go with them. When they arrive they are greeted by the apartment residents, who are in the hallway, and two policemen. The “normal incident” turns out to be a monster situation – some kind of zombie in the apartment attacks one of the policemen, and mayhem breaks out. However, before they can do anything to flee the building is surrounded by police and health inspectors and sealed off, and they are warned that any attempt to leave will have “drastic consequences.” They are then required to stay in the apartment block while, one by one, the residents and visitors turn into zombies. The whole thing is recorded by the documentary crew.

This documentary is genuinely one of the most terrifying films I’ve ever seen, after The Descent – which we all know was just a movie. The people are so ordinary and unprepared: the residents consist of an uptight mother and her daughter, some Chinese migrant textile workers, a seedy older man who thinks he still has it, and an intern from the local hospital. No one has any idea what’s happening until the dead start coming to life, and they all start blaming each other (until they settle on the Chinese as scapegoats, of course). They can’t agree about a plan, refuse to follow the orders of the policeman, and don’t have any community feeling to bind them together in adversity. Meanwhile, they’re being lied to by the police outside and hunted down like animals by a terrible beast inside. The panic builds towards an incredibly tense and terrifying conclusion, and much of the action happens in claustrophobic, tangled spaces, or in the dark or just the light of a single spotlight. It’s one of those situations where everyone needs to understand the basic principles of zombie theory, be ready to apply them, and be ruthless and steadfast in sticking to them. Sadly they don’t do this and every time the group fragments or fails to get it fast enough, someone dies. The editing of the documentary is very well done too so it’s sparse with extraneous details, doesn’t make you feel sick or confused from the jumbling images, and gives you a clear sense of what’s going on. It’s so good it could be a movie, and indeed I did feel like I was watching  a movie as the facts were being unveiled. Unfortunately a few years later an American director made a movie, Quarantine, based on the events in Madrid, and in watching the preview for that movie I got a spoiler showing me how the situation finally is resolved. My advice is not to watch the trailer for Quarantine. Why do people put the ending in the trailer? That’s crazy.

This documentary is hard going but very powerful and educational, and it again reinforces the lessons learnt in The Descent: if you’re up against a countable number of undead/generally grey-skinned opponents, and your resources and strength are limited but you have a couple of good weapons, absolutely the best thing to do is to take a stand in one, strong, defensible position and destroy them as they come at you. Do not attempt to run and hide, do not try to find out more about what is going on than you immediately need to know, do not split up and most of all destroy them before you start to run out of energy, light, or esprit de corps. Especially if you are in a building surrounded by police, so all you need to do is survive until they can work out what to do. And most of all, don’t go creeping around in dark hallways and rooms trying to work out who is still alive and what is going on. The lessons of this movie will help anyone who is faced with a supernatural or viral zombie threat of the kind we all need to prepare for.

Trollhunter: The truth about Norway’s troll control program

Trollhunter is a found-footage documentary, based apparently on 283 minutes of footage that turned up at a Norwegian TV station and was verified and pieced together by its editors. The documentary was filmed by some college students who were originally on the trail of an unlicensed bear hunter, only to discover that he is actually a troll hunter. Initially cold, he finally opens up to them and allows them to follow him in the troll hunt. Apparently Norway has always had trolls, but they are confined to specific territories and if they escape those territories the troll hunter, Hans, is sent to kill them. These trolls aren’t like D&D trolls: they’re up to 100m tall and enormously powerful, and they can smell the blood of a christian. The documentary tells us quite a bit about their biology and habits and so we learn that they aren’t supernatural at all, though they can be killed by exposure to sunlight: they’re just very big, very old predators that have been driven into the wilderness by humans. Unfortunately, the government is keeping their existence and the existence of the troll control program a secret, which might explain why the documentary is based on found footage.

This documentary isn’t terrifying like Rec but it is a fascinating, occasionally violent and disturbing, and very exciting kind of animal documentary, like going in pursuit of 100m tall lions or something. It has a good pace, although they do sometimes spend too much time filming shots of the fjords, and it unveils the truth of the situation in the same way that the filmmakers themselves learnt it, which is an excellent technique for documentaries about monsters: by giving this point-of-view style, the documentary maker encourages the viewer to feel like they have themselves stumbled upon these hidden facts about the supernatural world, and so makes the viewer more likely to believe the truth of the story – though obviously as an avid RPG player, I didn’t need any convincing as to the existence of trolls. I just didn’t realize they were so big! Or so well controlled by the Norwegian government, which is apparently up to its neck in conspiracy and cover-up to prevent panic and chaos. Usually when people talk about the dark secrets behind the Scandinavian success story it’s something about suicide or youth unemployment, but I never realized it was actually troll control. A fascinating insight into how the government handles supernatural problems in a stable, social democratic society and well worth watching.

Diary of the Dead: Badly made Zombie hoax

This “documentary” is really, really hard to believe. First of all, although it’s easy to believe that I could miss news about a single weird situation in an apartment in Madrid, it’s really hard to believe that the kind of chaos this documentary describes could have happened in the USA without my noticing it. For the brief period of the documentary it’s as if the world has ended, though obviously that can’t have happened since, well, I’m sitting here writing this and the person who filmed this documentary openly admits that she was able to edit it and release it to us. I really hate it when documentaries about serious subjects like zombie incidents try to exaggerate the importance of them, like the world has ended or something. The second hint as to the falsity of this documentary is its title, which is clearly a play on the names of the famous zombie movies – I even have a suspicion that Romero had a role in this. The third clue that it’s a hoax is that it appears to be acted, and badly acted at that. It’s like a bunch of student actors thought they could reproduce the success of the Blair Witch Project, but through a hoax zombie outbreak. Only they did it really badly.

The documentary claims to be the work of some film students who were out in the woods making a horror movie for class when a huge zombie outbreak occurred in the USA. As the social fabric breaks apart they travel across Pennsylvania in a Winnebago, first to find their families and then to find a friend, while one of the students films everything that happens. It is this film that becomes the documentary. Thus the documentary makers claim to have been in position to film the situation as it happened, though they admit that they edited a little and added soundtrack and effects “to scare you: because perhaps if you’re scared you won’t make the mistakes we made.” Unfortunately, I was really unconvinced that they were doing anything except making a B-grade movie. The acting is so bad as to be self-evidently badly acted, and the narrator tacks on this self-important moralizing about the role of the cameraman and the media, as if they were a seasoned (but tedious) war photographer, rather than a jumped-up student; and this moralizing is almost begging you not to take their “documentary” seriously, especially since in between the moralistic voice-over we’re constantly being reminded that they have no choice in doing what they’re doing. Also they all seem emotionally really shallow compared to the behavior of the people in Madrid. I know those people were Spanish, but they reacted more realistically and emotionally to the deaths of strangers than our student documentary-makers do to the deaths of their own family and friends. While it takes the people in that apartment a good half the movie to work out that they’ve stepped out of ordinary life and into a horror movie, these kids figure it out as soon as they hear a radio broadcast about a single dead person coming back to life. After that, they’re acting like survivors in a zombie movie with nary a whisper of complaint. It just doesn’t work. As a documentary, this movie is uninformative, overblown, overly moralistic and shallow. As a work of fiction (which is what I think it really is), this movie is badly acted, self-referential, poorly scripted and sentimental.

It’s also really cheap to portray a movie as a documentary without warning the viewer. Honesty is essential to the production of documentary film: how are the people desperately trying to tell us what happened in Madrid or Norway going to be believed if there craft is undermined by movies  posing as documentaries? People should know what they’re seeing from the start, or the educational and important messages of a film like Rec will be missed amongst the dross. So, give Diary of the Dead a miss but watch Troll Hunter and Rec if you want to educate yourself about how to deal with the ever-present zombie and troll threat.

Rebels don't endorse standard public health messages

This is an excellent interpretation of Stieg Larsson’s page-turner of the same name. For my sins, I read the novel and enjoyed it despite its sometimes crappy writing, because the story is compelling and the characters are fun. Both the main male character, Michael Blomquist, and the eponymous female lead Lisbeth Salander are excellent depictions of their particular archetypes[1]: crusading journalist and lunatic hacker, respectively. The movie brings them to life well, perhaps even improving on them through good acting (’cause lord knows they were held back in the original through bad writing!) It also brings out the setting, both the historical part and the modern Swedish setting, so that they were just exactly how I’d imagined them when I read the book. It also makes the investigation interesting, and you can understand how the combined talents of Blomquist and Salander are capable of solving a mystery that no one else managed to. It also managed to cut out some parts that would have made the movie too slow, and to interweave the three stories (Salander, Blomquist, and the historical part) nicely without being confusing or chaotic. This is surely good movie-making …

The acting was also great. The woman who played Lisbeth Salander, Rooney Mara, was superb in the role and did a brilliant job of holding together the tension, intelligence, viciousness and strangeness of that character without over-doing any of it, or pushing Salander into a stereotype of a hacker. Salander is a complex personality and a complex emotional story – simultaneously vulnerable and fragile and extremely tough, uncaring about convention but very aware of how other people think and feel – and Mara did a superb job of getting her right. In his own way, Blomquist, though superficially simpler, is also hard to get right, though perhaps more from a direction point of view: Blomquist is a man who respects women but doesn’t put them on a pedestal, who has deep passions but doesn’t lose control of them, and who probably isn’t a particularly expressive guy. Daniel Craig does a very good job of getting it right. The cast were also chosen so that everyone felt real, and many scenes that one might expect a movie remake to change, gloss over or misogynize were very well crafted.

This is an important and unavoidable problem in bringing this book to cinema: handling the gender relations. This is a book about getting vengeance on rapists and murderers of women, but it’s also a story about a young woman who falls in love with an older man (cliche 101!) and a couple of Scandinavians who have an open relationship. The temptation here for your average movie director is to make the rape scenes sexy or shallow, to make the young woman a victim of the man’s charm or the age-gap completely normal and believable, and to make the women in the open relationship young sexy babes, or just crazy fucked-up people. None of this happens: the rape scene is horrible and the vengeance enormously satisfying, while also repulsive; the young woman is not a victim of the older man’s charms, and the nature of their relations with other people are such that you understand the situation is not normal for him or for her – it’s the first such old man/young woman affair I’ve seen in a movie that feels believable. And the older women in the open relationship – 40 something career women – look their age, like attractive 40-something career women in control of their own lives and sexualities. It’s through Blomquist that we mainly encounter these people, and his approach to the women in his life is straightforward, respectful and understanding. A perfect counter-point to the men that he and Salander are engaged in foiling, who are sleazy liars who only know how to use people, and especially women, for their own gratification.

This movie also has one sex scene in it that really does describe the difference between a movie that depicts the real relations between modern men and women, and most of the rest of the American movie industry. The scene is nothing special, but its execution made me happy for its frankness and realism. We see the young woman and the older man having sex, but she is on top grinding away to her own orgasm, largely oblivious of him, and he is just kind of going along with it. In the end she comes and he doesn’t, and I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a sex scene where the woman gets something and the man gets nothing. Usually either the man comes or they both do, simultaneously, without any effort on his part except the glorious power of his amazing dick. The reality of course is that sex is not often like that, unless the girl is faking it, and everyone who has more than the barest experience of sex has experienced the woman who takes her own orgasm astride the man, often quite aggressively. It’s like the guy who made this movie actually wanted to show sex as it happens between real people who love each other, rather than as it is imagined in the minds of people who insist on reproducing the imaginary gender relations of the American culture industry. For that reason alone, the scene made me happy.

The flipside of these scenes, though, is that there is a lot of nasty stuff to wade through in this story. The rape scenes, graphic evidence from the murder scenes they are investigating, the final tense showdown, animal cruelty … if seedy under-belly-of-society type movies don’t appeal to you or you just can’t watch films that involve rape or the cruel mistreatment of women, then I suggest avoiding this one. You’re not going to get much satisfaction. If you can bear this sort of thing in order to see a good story and fine acting, and you can get pleasure from fairly nasty revenge scenes (I certainly can), then I recommend taking this one in on the big screen. In addition to a tense story, fine settings and excellent acting, it also has some very cool cinematography and a great soundtrack, so its well worth the effort if you can endure that sort of cruelty on screen. But you need to go in ready for some nastiness, and if you don’t think you are, then you probably should give it a miss …

fn1: Archetype is the word you use instead of “stereotype” when you enjoyed the book.

Where is the floating girl when you need her?

Yesterday I visited the Studio Ghibli Museum for the first time. It’s in Mitaka, Tokyo, close to my home, and is a museum about the development of animation in Japan, through the eyes of Miyazaki Hayao and the Studio Ghibli team. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ghibli, they are the creators of Japan’s most-loved Anime movies, including Nausica of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Miyazaki Hayao has had huge artistic and cultural influence in Japan and was also a big influence on industry practice, and is genuinely a household name in a way that I think even Disney would admire. His movies (at least, the earlier ones) are amazing and well worth the respect the Japanese public offer them.

The Ghibli museum is set in a smallish building on the edge of Inokashira Park in Mitaka, about a 10 minute taxi ride from Kichijoji Station. The building itself is designed to resemble the classic style of the houses in many of Miyazaki’s movies, but is set slightly back from the road in amongst trees, to resemble a house in a forest. Inside it is built on three levels, with the Laputa robot on the roof, exhibition spaces on the bottom two levels and a shop and children’s play area on the third floor. The children’s play area is, of course, a Cat Bus. The building itself is small, and admission has to be booked up to a month in advance because of the limited number of people who can enter, but is itself cheap (¥1000). For the price of admission you get access to the museum and one-time admission to the movie theatre, which plays a different short film every month. Sadly only elementary school children can play in the Cat Bus (hrmph!)

The bottom level of the museum has the main exhibits, including a room containing a very brief history of animation, all expressed through Ghibli characters – this has an excellent example of strobe-lit animation using extremely cute Totoro characters, showing the basic process by which animation works. The next level contains an example of an animator’s studio, perhaps modeled on Miyazaki’s studio back in the day, which is very interesting. You walk through a room furnished as if it were a studio, with storyboards and sketches on the walls, books that Miyazaki used as sources, and examples of an animator’s workbench or the types of texts and background material he or she might draw upon – whole scrapbooks of pictures of plants, crystals, planes or animals cut from magazines and books, for example, or textbooks full of scenery from around the world. It gives an insight into how the animator develops their work from idea to final production.

The museum also contains a library of children’s books from around the world, all translated into Japanese (some of which can be purchased), and is constructed with bridges, nooks, crannies and mysteriously-placed windows designed to make it explorable for children – and certainly children were going crazy exploring the building while we were there. It also has a cafe, which I’m sure is very cute, but it was so busy we didn’t dare go near it. Finally, it has a cinema. The ticket to the cinema is a framed clipping of a couple of cells from a film reel, and can be kept as a souvenir. Our film was Chu Zumo, “Mouse Sumo,” which was a cute adaptation of an old folk tale, the story of which (in Japanese) is here.

Mouse Sumo

The basic story of this 13 minute film concerns an old couple who live on a steep mountainside. They are poor and have to work hard, and every day is spent farming on the mountainside with no break. Nothing interesting happens. One night, however, the old man goes outside to take a leak, and sees a bunch of mice sneaking off through the grass into the forest. One is carrying a firefly light, one is carrying a leaf as a penant, and the rest are wearing little sumo thongs. He follows and finds all the mice of the surrounding area gathered around a sumo ring to watch a bout between the mice of his house and the mice of a neighbouring area. These mice are bigger and white, and they wipe the floor with the mice from his house.

Horrified, he returns home and the next day he and his wife set about making the mice into great Sumo Rikishi. While she makes dango powder, he goes down the mountain to get some fish; when he returns they bake Tofu Dengaku (YUM!) and sanma dango, stitch together some better quality sumo thongs, and leave them out for the wrestlers. The mice come down to eat the food and put on the thongs, and immediately become stronger and bigger.

Soon there is another match, and of course the mice from the old man and woman’s house win in a tense battle, because of the strength they gained from the food and support of the old man and woman.

It’s cute for the simple fact that it involves mice, doing sumo, with a frog judge, and mice watching in the crowd, in a classic Japanese image of classic Japanese countryside. The old man and woman are done in classic Ghibli style: the old man’s brow is so furrowed that you cannot see his eyes, and have to read his expressions entirely in his pursed lips. They are, of course, sweet and kind and happy, as befits the classic Japanese stereotype of old people. So it’s a cute, sweet story with lots of funny moments (the frog referee, particularly, is hilarious), and a fine showcase of Ghibli’s talent and style. Screenshots can be seen here.

The movie is also an interesting allegory for common Japanese attitudes towards the state of modern Sumo. Here we have 5 small, weak mice who have to take on 5 bigger, more skilled white mice, from a foreign mountain, who always win. However, the story has us believe that if the wrestlers are supported by the locals, and given a bit of special Japanese magic (in the form of food and support) and just try a bit harder, then they will triumph. Of course, this isn’t happening in real Sumo. The big foreign mice are dominating the sport because all the local mice would rather not enter a sport full of bullies and old-fashioned training methods, which requires years of devotion and suffering for little gain. The local mice are already trying as hard as they can. What’s needed is a change in how they try, but this means changing the hidebound traditions of a near-mystical sport. It would all be so much easier if they could take a few performance-enhancing drugs and, with just a bit more support from the local old people, throw the bigger and tougher foreign mice. Sadly, that’s not how sport works. A change in organization style, structure and training – as well as recruitment practices – is needed before the local mice can beat the big foreign ones. No matter how much support the old locals give them.

The Studio Ghibli museum is smaller than expected and a little crowded, but it contains some interesting insights into the animation process and is very pretty and well laid out. It also comes with a movie that can’t be seen anywhere else. I recommend a visit to this place if you are coming to Tokyo. But remember to book ahead, or you will be disappointed!

I saw The Adventures of Tintin, aka Tantan no boken in Japanese, in 3D at the Kichijoji Toho Cinema on Friday, and I can report that it was a great deal of fun. It’s basically a mystery adventure that takes Tintin from his hometown to the desert town of Baggar and back again in the quest for the secret of the Unicorn, a 17th century ship. At the beginning of the movie, Tintin purchases a scale model of the ship, only to discover various forces are trying to get it off of him, because of the secret it contains. Being an intrepid investigative reporter, he decides instead of waiting for a press release from the relevant criminal organization to track down the secret himself (this is the inter-war era, remember, when “investigative reporter” still meant something). In the process he meets Captain Haddock, the Thompson twins and a wide range of nasty villains.

Of course, no one is really that interested in the details of his adventures, since we all know roughly what to expect from the stories and the movie genre: there will be some chases, some (mostly non-fatal) fights, some quite ridiculous leaps of intuition by Tintin, some quite ridiculously intelligent acts by his dog Snowy, and another couple of crazy stunt scenes. What people are really interested in is how it cleaves to the original stories and setting, what is Tintin like, and should all die-hard fans of a musty comic be outraged! outraged I tell you! because Tintin’s quiff is at slightly the wrong angle? So I shall skip over the car chase near the end, which is the most genuinely spectacular and exciting chase scene I have seen in years, in favour of reporting on my opinion of the story’s faithfulness to the original.

Of course, it’s been years since I read Tintin and I don’t recall the details, so I don’t know whether, for example, the way he meets Haddock matches the story of the book. But I have strong images and impressions from my (repeated) childhood reading of the stories, and in my opinion the movie is very close in atmosphere, appearance and style to the original. The opening credits are a direct and obvious tribute to the style of the comics, but the movie itself also sticks to the impressions of the story. It is animated in a semi-realistic style, so I couldn’t tell (and haven’t checked) whether it was animation over real actors, or fully animated, and this means it retains the same sense of simple realism of the stories, which though they might cover fantastic themes, always were very grounded in a sense of being in the real world. Tintin is picture perfect, as is Snowy, and Snowy’s mannerisms are just as I remember them – the same eager, attentive walk, the same cowering manner when gunfire starts, the same cat-chasing peskiness. The first 20 minutes of the movie are, just like in the comics, entirely focused on Tintin, and involve him talking to himself a lot (just like in the book!) Captain Haddock is also straight from the pages of the comic, as are the Thompson twins (or Dupont, as they are known in the Japanese version). But more than that, the colours and structures of the setting – ships, planes, buildings, cars – are nearly perfectly like those of the covers of the books. The sands of the desert and the settings for the conflicts there take me straight back to the books, as do some of the fight scenes, the regular moments where someone gets clobbered on the back of the head with a torch or cosh, the way Tintin runs – it’s a real homage to the style of the originals. The way the characters talk is also refreshingly old-fashioned – polite, no swearing, very clear and short expressions and un-self-consciously old fashioned, also like the comics.

Although the first third of the story follows the plot of The Secret of the Unicorn (1942-43), it completely deviates from the second part of this story, Red Rackham’s Treasure, in its conclusion. It includes a few nods to other stories (e.g. in the credits, and a nice inclusion of a part of The Castafiore Emerald). So although the finale is a conclusion completely different to the original, and the action of the last third follows a completely different style, the first half is quite faithful to the comic on which the movie’s name is based. Also, some parts of that story – e.g. Haddock’s reenactment of a naval battle – work better in the movie than I suspect they would on rereading the comic. So I think it’s actually a good companion to the comic story.

The cinematography in this movie is quite nice. The animation is very very good, and some of the grander scenes – pirate battles involving Red Rackham, flight scenes, and the final car chase – are genuinely spectacular. Transitions between scenes are also very nicely done, and works of art in their own right. Snowy is a joy to watch, and the action is very tightly paced and well coordinated. The final battle scene between Haddock and the bad guy is great fun as well. The movie is visually a lot of fun. The only two flaws I would say are that it’s a touch too long, and the plot could have been simplified to get rid of some twists and irrelevancies; and the first 20 minutes can be a bit hard going because it is mostly Tintin talking to himself. This is very faithful to the comic but just doesn’t work in a movie.

Though I’m sure Tintin aficionados will poo-poo this movie, and no doubt refer to some second-rate 70s job as vastly superior, I think it’s a nice companion to the comic it is based on – at least based on my impressionistic memories of the world of Tintin as I read it in my childhood. I was a big fan, and I really appreciate the effort that has gone into recreating the world for the modern cinema audience. It’s a fun movie in its own right, and a nice visualization of Tintin. I recommend it to anyone who’s not completely stuck-in-the-mud about the originals, and/or wants to enjoy a fun adventure. A perfect christmas holiday fun movie!

I was pretty much guaranteed to like this movie: it has skyships, the three musketeers, some steampunk elements, and Milla Jovovich. I know it’s possible for a modern director to cock up even this basic a combination of win, but I feel that this movie managed to pass muster. The plot is simple and direct, the musketeers are fairly reasonable interpretations of the original, the swashbuckling is excellent fun, and the humour is modern but not stupidly modern. Even Orlando Bloom manages to do a good job, perhaps taking his first turn as a bad guy.

The movie has a nice mix of modern innovations and homage to the original. Mill Jovovich’s Milady is the most obvious modern innovation: she has a corsetry ninja outfit with steampunk Mission Impossible-style rappeling ropes, mad ninja fighting skills, an extremely brazen air and a very athletic style. I don’t remember the original stories having any female characters like that. She’s also powerfully in charge of her own destiny. On the other hand, D’Artagnan is straight from the original text and – to the best of my memory, anyway – the manner of his meeting the three musketeers is just as I remember in the book. The choice to portray D’Artagnan as a kind of rural American chump – he often reminded me of Jason Stackhouse from True Blood – was an excellent one, since that is kind of how I thought of him compared to the elegance and worldliness of his peers. The three musketeers themselves are excellent – my favorite was Porthos, but my partner liked Athos – and carry the story well. In fact, in many ways it seems quite faithful to the original.

The big deviation, of course, and the reason I was likely to enjoy it all the more, was the skyships. These enter the movie about halfway through and are both stylish and sufficiently stupid, as well as offering an excellent swashbuckling platform. They have rotating mini-cannon, flame throwers and grenades, and of course they’re ultimately extremely fragile and our heroes, having never seen one before, can immediately fly one, as well as think up cunning plans involving skyship shenanigans. Which is good, because pretty much any historical movie is going to be improved by skyship shenanigans, and this one certainly was.

If you want a good, solid session of swashbuckling, with Milla Jovovich and skyships for further enhancement, then I strongly recommend this movie. It’s a very enjoyable romp through the skies and streets of Europe with four worthy musketeers and their very enjoyable adversaries, and well worth an hour and a half of your time.

Boromir Meets the Witch

It’s a Sean Bean boom over here in Kichijoji, with 10 episodes of A Game of Thrones followed up this weekend with the 2010 Sean Bean movie Black Death. In fact, a few weeks ago I watched Red Riding too, where Sean Bean plays an evil paedophile shopping mall developer. He’s always good, is our Sean.

Anyway, so Black Death is a fairly basic story: it’s 1348, and the black death is ravaging Europe. Sean Bean is a holy warrior serving the church, who is leading an expedition to a village that, rumour has it, has managed to avoid the plague through necromancy. On the way he picks up a novice monk, Osmund (essentially the main character) who lived in the forest near the swamp that protects this village; he has his own reasons for wanting to go back there, and offers to lead Bean’s character (Ulrich) and their motley crew of degenerate witch-hunters into the swamp.

Once at the village, of course, things start to go wrong, and the treachery and magic of the villagers leads the group into trouble. Unfortunately, things also went wrong for me, because one of the main characters in the village, supposedly quite a menacing chap, is played by the chap who was Percy in Blackadder. Can you take a necromancer seriously after you’ve seen this? How terribly menacing…

However, if you haven’t seen Percy for four whole seasons of the funniest show ever made, then you can probably appreciate him in this movie, and then the last half of the movie, though a little slow, is still very good, and you get a reasonably disturbing, thriller-style ending to a good story. The movie is generally well-filmed, the plot is simple and straightforward (and thus has no holes), and the exposition is reasonably well done. The setting is quite splendid (Germany in summer, I think) and fits into the gritty/dark/realistic zone of the fantasy spectrum. The acting is a tad wooden at times but generally fine, and although it’s brutal and a bit gory it’s not too disturbing. I found the ending and resolution of the story a little disappointing, and it could have been a little more … decisive, but at least there were no pointless twists. There are no unbelievable monsters to kick the movie off onto a crazy tangent, either, so it’s more psychological thriller than horror. Overall, a reasonably enjoyable movie but nothing outstanding.

It’s ET for the noughties! This movie, by JJ Abrams (who apparently made Lost), reproduces many of the major themes of that classic alien encounter movie. It has the energetic and investigative children, the military moving in to cover up the situation, parents who don’t quite get it, and bicycles everywhere. It’s even set very close in time, though one gets the feeling that Super 8 is actually a kind of follow-up to an alternate universe where the military gets its way.

In this movie, a group of pesky kids are filming a movie for an amateur directors’ competition when they witness a massive (and excellent!) train crash. Aware that something is terribly wrong in the aftermath, they flee as the military swoops in to start securing the site. In the ensuing days people start going missing, bizarre things start happening, and the pesky kids start to realize that something very unreal and disturbing is happening. The movie follows the various shenanigans as, being just children, they slip under the military’s gaze and begin investigating the disappearances. Their investigations and the military’s activity lead to a tense climax, resolved through the kids’ innocence and basic good sense.

The movie is darker than the original ET and more adult, but retains many of the same themes of friendship and discovery. It’s tightly scripted and the plot is tense and engaging, and the child actors are excellent. There seemed to be a few flaws in the ending and the resolution which were slightly less than satisfying, but I didn’t care because it had all moved so smoothly up to the finale and we all know roughly what was meant to happen, even if it didn’t quite seem as clear and coherent as it should – in situations like this, with a good movie that held your attention and kept you engaged in the characters, you can overlook quite a few flaws near the end.

If you enjoyed ET as a kid and are interested in a more adult, more modern reimagining of the same ideas, infused with a slightly darker and more paranoid cultural background, then this movie will suit you very well. It’s tense, exciting, well acted and well scripted, with good special effects that are used very carefully to avoid overkill. Well worth seeing at the cinema, and a good addition to the alien encounter genre.

I really like the Pirates franchise: it’s got pirates (sometimes undead), swashbuckling, ships ‘o the line, monsters, magic, necromancy and demonology, back-stabbing, swindling and mincing ponces getting out of trouble by the skin of their teeth. It also has Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush playing parts they seem to really love, which is a joy to watch. This one has the addition of Dan McShane from Deadwood as Blackbeard, and a host of evil mermaids. It’s also dialled back on the double-crossing and plot twists from part 3, which is good – colour me old-fashioned, but I like my action movies to be sparing on plot and heavy with good dialogue and action. On Stranger Tides delivers this with its old passion, giving us a healthy run of piratical interchanges, some entertaining fight scenes, some excellent swash-buckling escapes, and the usual sinister context of black magic and evil.

The basic outline of the plot is very simple: the Spanish, the British and Blackbeard the Pirate are all making an attempt to get to the Fountain of Eternal Youth, and Captain Jack Sparrow has been caught up in it all, along with Barbossa. Everyone has their own very distinct agenda and purpose for the fountain, which we aren’t going to discover until the final confrontation; all the way through we’re kept guessing at people’s motivations, without the thankless task of trying to keep track of the threads of all their betrayals and swindles. To get what they want from the Fountain they need to get some components for a ritual, so the middle part of the movie is all about the contest for the parts, a contest that is at times more than a little deadly and at other times surpassing cruel; the last quarter or so is where all the disparate plots come together and we find out what everyone’s really up to. It’s about 2 hours long but with a better pace than parts 2 or 3; you get a few breathers in the middle, which I think helps to contribute to the sense of a less needlessly complex plot.

We don’t learn much more about Sparrow (though we get some tales from his past); we do get to find out a lot more about Barbossa, a character I really like, and we get to see a very nice vision of the Fountain of Youth. We also get a nice helping of new magic, mainly that under Barbossa’s command, and get to enjoy Sparrow in a new setting (London, as far as I could tell). Overall it’s a nice addition to the series, and makes me think there’s life in this old seadog yet. I reckon it’s good for another one or two instalments before it dies in the arse; I recommend checking in on this one because, in my opinion, it’s a slight improvement on the previous two, and it is fun in and of itself.

And I wonder – would it make a fine role-playing setting? I think it would!