What I Did For Love (or not): A tale of a magnificent, much hated ballad

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I don’t talk much about music on this blog, and this next statement might well be evidence as to why: Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” is easily one of my favorite songs of all-time.

“I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” has no sense of self-awareness, and is 12 minutes of relentless cheesecake. It is the lowest of low hanging fruit on the “let’s bond by all making fun of a song that no one is going to feel compelled to defend, so we can mock free of guilt” tree.

But here I stand.

“I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” has that sort of shameless-bordering-on-hopeless bombast, the willingness deep dive into embarrassment with the belief that you if flail blindly enough with your dying breaths in a storm of piano chords and choral singers that you will find a heartstring. It is driven by the force that was the heart behind early-90’s pop culture, which was fueled by grand appeals to big emotions. To deny “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” is to deny that which made us who we are today.

Even if “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” is a terrible song (it’s not, or I don’t care),  it’s in a grand fashion. And its massive success in 1993 (it went number one for five weeks) is not an embarrassment. No, the same culture that could embrace a song by a 46 year old man named after a congealed meat dish, who had gone more than a decade without a hit, giving it his absolute all on a song that could only be sung by one with nothing left to lose, could also embrace a film whose primary appeal was “Dinosaurs are amazing and you know it” or a TV show about beautiful FBI agents perpetually searching for a truth that might just be out there.  Jurassic Park and The X-Files have better stood the test of time for good reason (they are legitimate classics in their mediums and genres), but they thrived as entertainments of sincere conviction in an environment willing to give in with wide-eyed enthusiasm.

What I’m saying is, sing on, Meat Loaf, and let no one tell you what you won’t do.

P.S: If you can’t enjoy this holy mess of a video, we can’t be friends.

Lessons every fantasy writer could learn from Avatar: The Last Airbender

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(Spoilers ahead)

As Avatar: The Last Airbender nears the 10th anniversary of its debut, I finally got around to watching it. I was not disappointed; what begins as a lively and engaging fantasy tale rapidly spins into a gripping epic. All the while, Avatar had to tailor its subject matter to a 12-and-under target audience: children had to be able to understand its plot, and its violence could never exceed a TV Y7 level. And yet by the end of the series I was more invested in it, and more moved by its Big Moments than I ever have been by Game of Thrones (which I love).

I thought about this a lot as I watched the show: how did Avatar find so much creative energy despite these limitations?

And then it occurred to me: they weren’t limitations. Fantasy stories are usually told in broad strokes whether they’re aimed squarely at kids, adults, or everyone in between. There’s no time for ennui in the genre, whether you’re in Middle Earth, Westeros, or Ba Sing Se.

But Avatar has so much fun with its material. It doesn’t talk down to its target audience; it just speaks at a register that doesn’t block them out. The show knows that a reveling in its own creation once in a while is not mutually exclusive with having a high stakes plot. And being able to revel in the world in one of the joys of fantasy.

As I was watching Avatar, I asked my younger sister (who was seven when the show debuted) how as a child she managed handle a show that so often went for the emotional jugular. Her answer struck a chord with me: the writers; Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino (known affectionately by fans as Bryke); know what kids can handle. Children can grasp strong character arcs, and pick up on subtle nuances as characters grow and evolve. They are attuned to big emotions, and the grand sweep of fantasy is almost ideally attuned to a child’s wavelength. For the most part, Game of Thrones isn’t too complex for children, which can make its unrelenting sense of despair a bit tiring for me. It sometimes mistakes misery for depth, and resembles a gory game of whack-a-mole.

Avatar is a rare case of a fantasy recognizing that children are more than capable of appreciating a story that is still equally entertaining for adults. It’s a formula that writers have labored over since the dawn of motion pictures. Few have nailed it so successfully as Bryke.

I’m not saying that having to tone content down for children is why Avatar is such a good show. I’m saying that DiMartino and Konietzko had such a strong creative vision for the show, and it was one that was malleable to requirements of Nickelodeon. Where other writers have regularly run into hurdles, Avatar never skipped a beat. For example, I was struck by one episode late into the show’s run that grappled with Aang’s (the titular Avatar) desire not to kill the show’s primary antagonist (the monstrous Ozai, leader of the Fire Nation). It seemed clear that the show couldn’t depict Aang killing Ozai on screen without committing to a more mature rating. But this episode was not about waffling on content; it was thinking long and hard about what it would do to Aang, who is still just a child, to take a life. So few stories linger on that. Death is usually taken for granted as a means to an end. It is lingered on only when good guys die. When Katniss Everdeen kills career tributes, we’re supposed to be happy she’s taken them down. We don’t really get a sense that she has lost something for having to turn to killing in order to survive.

Avatar regularly displays uncommon thoughtfulness about its own material. It eschews story morals for character growth. When Katara, a water bender whose mother was murdered by the fire nation, goes on a mission to track down her mother’s killer, we understand her anger completely. And when she backs down from her vengeance, to let the man live, the scene is not constructed as a morality tale, but as moment of growth for her as a character. For children, it is far more instructive a method of teaching the virtue of mercy over vengeance than a more didactic approach would require, because it never once loses the episode’s narrative beat.

The show’s primary gang of four; Aang, Katara, Sokka (Katara’s older brother), and Toph (a young noble girl and an earthbending prodigy) fulfill one of the prime mechanics of fantasy storytelling: the fellowship. Like any fellowship, they have conflicts, and like characters on any Nickelodeon show they resolve those conflicts by the episode’s end. But Avatar is not concerned with imparting morals; it lets us get to know these characters deeply. There is a splendid little moment in one episode where Toph has a heart to heart with Katara. Toph, who is blind, has just been ridiculed for her appearance by a group of older girls. Her usually tough exterior falters. She tries to tell Katara that she enjoys not having to care what people think of how she looks, but (in a splendid moment of voice acting by Jessie Flower) her voice falters just a bit. We know she’s hurt. It’s not a necessary moment to the plot. Rather, it is one of many splendid moments of character building that the show features, simply by letting characters interact with each other in ways not dictated by the plot.

One of the show’s most impressive traits is its grasp on its antagonists. It goes through a series of them, all of them members of the totalitarian Fire Nation. The first antagonist we meet is Zuko, a teenage former-prince, Ozai’s son. Ozai burned his face and banished him for daring to speak up against him during a military meeting. Now Zuko searches for the Avatar, hoping that capturing Aang will restore his honor in Ozai’s eyes. Zuko’s motives are clear and simple. His path is anything but, and the simplicity and sincerity of his motives allow Zuko tremendous room for growth. His arc takes him from being a primary antagonist in the first season to one of Aang’s closest allies in the third, and it’s a transition that is as earned as it is satisfying.

The strength of Zuko’s arc is largely due to how well DiMartino and Konietzko constructed the world of the Fire Nation. One of my biggest gripes with Harry Potter is how conveniently evil Slytherin is. The overwhelming bulk of villains in the book are Slytherins. Snape takes some heroic actions, yes, but he is an utter dick toward Harry for most of the books. Draco Malfoy has some interesting turns as a character, but for the most part he’s a not quite evil jerk. Let me put it this way: JK Rowling would often throw all Slytherins under the bus (the reawarding of the House Cup at the end of Philosopher’s Stone; the summary arrest of all Slytherins before the battle of Hogwarts in Deathly Hallows) and we are expected to take it for granted. Slytherin is there to provide an easy source of anatagonism; Rowling saw little need for nuance beyond that purpose.

Avatar allows the Fire Nation ample room to become something far more than a conveyor belt of villainy. Its imagery is rooted in totalitarianism, an age-old source that fantasy and sci-fi alike have mined for decades. However, beneath the surface is very deep sea. Zuko’s sister Azula is the show’s functional primary antagonist from season 2 on. She is a coiled ball of menace, but watch carefully and you’ll see a human being there driving every moment. A key scene shows Azula (ordered by Ozai to find the Avatar after Zuko begins having second thoughts) recruiting a childhood friend of hers to join her team. The friend, named Ty Lee, is a circus acrobat. Azula’s recruitment is subtle and brutally manipulative. In a few minutes we see years of a toxic friendship laid bare, ready to continue for as long as Ty Lee is willing to fool herself that Azula is really her friend. Yes, Azula is a terrifying villain, but the show lets her be a character. She is not defined simply by her ability to impede Aang.

Her relationship with Zuko is similarly poisonous, helping to deepen Zuko’s arc that much more. When he interacts with Azula, who is more openly cruel and manipulative to him than she is with her friends, we can see clearly the sort of environment he grew up in. Additionally, both Azula and Zuko help to build up Ozai’s villainy before we even properly meet him. After all, he is the sort of man who would maim his own son, who would encourage vicious antagonism between his children, and who would raise and encourage Azula to be as cruel as possible. And that inevitably leads to us empathizing with Azula; she is still just a teenager, after all, and it becomes clear that she is as much a product of her father’s upbringing as Zuko is. They are different forks splitting from the same path.

This is deep and superb world building. Antagonists are rarely so acutely rendered in genre storytelling.

I would be remiss to not talk a bit more about the main characters. Aang is someone rare in fantasy, an unwaveringly noble protagonist who is perhaps the show’s most interesting character. Most fantasies start from a moral position than unwavering morality is either a character flaw or evidence of denial. The irony of that position is that it works best when the story’s antagonist is unremittingly evil, and the audience gives the writers leeway to deny them mercy. The moment in Deathly Hallows when Harry Potter uses the Cruciatus Curse on a Death Eater struck me as a bit too flippant; that Harry could successfully use the curse should say something about how the horror of the world he inhabits has chipped away at him. Instead, it’s something of a bravura moment; we’re supposed to cheer because the recipient of the curse a) is a Death Eater and b) has just spat on the beloved Professor McGonagall.

A similar moment involving Katara is given much more weight. She resorts to a rare and brutal tactic called bloodbending (manipulating the water in a human body) to subdue an adversary. Afterwards, Katara breaks down sobbing as her friends and brother comfort her. She did what had to be done, but the show recognizes the toll it takes on her. Avatar’s always allows character to dictate action. It is unwavering in its recognition of everyone’s humanity.

 

Boyhood: A few thoughts on the Oscar frontrunner on the eve of nominations

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I finally watched Boyhood the other day, and since it just won the Golden Globe and seems primed to be the Oscar favorite, I figured I’d share my thoughts.

Boyhood is a very good film with limitations that make me wonder: how much of a handicap was it to have just 45 days to shoot over 12 years? It’s quite an accomplishment. I also think it lacks the narrative force of Linklater’s best work (which for my money is the Before trilogy, and Before Sunset if we’re choosing one). Its primary virtues are less obvious, namely that it manages to imbue an ordinary life with a sense of importance, without ever seeming to try.

Boyhood is actually an interesting companion piece with Before Sunset. The early scenes from Boyhood were shot around the same time as that film, and it’s interesting to see Ethan Hawke inhabit a role in this film that sees him growing out of the character he played in Before Sunset (Both films see him as a dad in his early-30s grappling with his desire to still live like he’s in his twenties and his subsequent shortcomings as a father). Before Sunset also condenses years of heartache and dissatisfaction and the anxieties of feeling like you’re running out of time that come with approaching and then being in your 30s all into what is essentially a single 80-minute conversation. Before Sunset is a sudden outpouring of two peoples’ nine years of regret, while Boyhood is a quiet observation of every aspect of 12 years in a life. It’s undoubtedly compelling to watch, but I don’t think it quite surpasses the tumult of pure humanity that is Before Sunset.

I don’t think Before Sunset’s great volume makes it a necessarily better film, but that volume is fine tuned and focused, while Boyhood’s form is messier, sometimes to a fault. Its narrative lens is oddly inconsistent. We see practically the full scope of Olivia as a character, and her relationship with Mason, and we get a clear sense of Mason Sr.’s strengths and foibles as a father. But we never really sense how Mason Sr.’s long absences affect Mason. We also don’t get any sense of Samantha and Mason having an actual relationship. At the end when she is asked to give a speech for her brother’s graduation, it’s a pat “Good luck”. And honestly, any other reaction would have been contrived, because we just don’t know who she is by the time the movie ends. The portrait of this family doesn’t quite feel finished.

Boyhood is an impressive film, and its likely slew of Oscar nominations will be well-deserved. For Linklater Boyhood occupies a territory similar to A Serious Man for the Coen brothers and The Tree of Life for Terrence Malick: films that demonstrate deep curiosity and risky storytelling by veteran virtuosos. They might lack the polish of their very best work, but I’m grateful that they were willing to pursue these stories in the first place.

The Babadook: Take a look, it’s in a book

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Horror movies rarely resemble true nightmares. It is possible for a film to be sufficiently scary with enough frightening stimuli. But to make us feel trapped and bewildered? To not simply frighten, but shake the ground beneath our feet? That is the sort of horror that I remember most a week later, when I’m awake late at night.

The Babadook is being marketed as a demonic funhouse thriller, akin to The Conjuring. The two films bear little in common, however. The Conjuring used a grab bag of old-school horror tricks to create a very scary thrill ride. It knew its audiences wanted a good time, and it delivered. The Babadook is frightening. But while The Conjuring left me giddy with post-scare endorphins, The Babadook left me trembling in its wake. Most horror gives the audience enough enough distance to remain oriented even as the protagonist is running dizzy for their life. But The Babadook puts its two protagonists; a woman named Amelia (Essie Davis) and her 6 year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman); through a brutal fight for their sanity and their lives, and it makes the audience feel every blow.

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The Babadook occupies a space somewhere in between We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Exorcist. All three films are about mothers driven to their breaking points with the realization that something is unnaturally wrong with their children. The difference lies in the types of evil the films deal with. Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin is an evil person, pure and simple. Regan in The Exorcist is an innocent child who has been possessed by an evil spirit. But both films are primarily about the brutal tests their mothers endure for the children’s sakes. I think people forget that The Exorcist spends more time on Ellen Burstyn running her daughter through every medical and psychological test available than on the exorcism itself, which only comprises the final act.

Like both of these movies, The Babadook begins with a mother sapped of resolve, caring for a son whose needs seem beyond her capabilities. Whatever problems they are suffering at the beginning of the film will soon be dwarfed by the events that unfold. Where The Babadook falls on the Kevin-Exorcist scale depends on whether or not those events are caused by the evil spirit of the film’s title. I won’t spoil the film by answering that question here. More to the point, by the end of the film I was so drained it didn’t really matter.

The Babadook is surprisingly empathetic as descents into hell go. Endurance horror is usually aggressively cynical. Consider the nihilism of the French New Extreme films, like Martyrs and Inside. Both excellent movies, neither with so much as a whisper of hope. The Babadook starts off without a hint of horror at all; it is simply the story of a woman still grieving the loss of her husband and perhaps in over her head in trying to raise a son who needs more care than she can provide without support. That Amelia’s husband died in a car crash as he drove her to deliver Samuel at the hospital complicates her relationship with her son, to say the least. She has never emerged from the shadow of that day, and Samuel only now seems to realize that he has been living under it his whole life. Amelia reaches out to her sister, but gets no reciprocation. Her elderly next door neighbor loves her and Samuel, but she is frail and can only offer so much help. Amelia doesn’t seem to have any friends or deep relationships. Samuel isn’t doing too well at making friends himself. The one solace Amelia and Samuel have is their nightly bedtime reading.

This is a stage we’ve seen before. It is a versatile one. In another movie, Amelia and Samuel might make a friend or two to help them find stability. Or perhaps it would be a bittersweet story about the inherent struggles of being a single mom. This isn’t necessarily bedrock for a horror movie. Had I not known this film’s genre going in, I would have been surprised that it was a horror film. Most horror films telegraph their intent. The most common tactic is to open with a shocking sequence, to rattle the audience before beginning the plot. Consider the infamous first-person murder that opens Halloween. But there’s nothing to suggest that anything unnatural is afoot in the opening of The Babadook. This is not a happy family, but the goings-on are still firmly placed on a scale of normality. But when Samuel requests that Amelia read him a new book- titled “Mister Babadook- at bedtime, things begin to veer off the scale.

Let’s talk about the book that gives the movie its title. It provides some of the most frightening images in the movie. It is a pop-up book for the type of children who grow up into horror movie fanatics. When I was a child, I was a huge fan of Keith Moseley’s horror pop-up books (choice title: “Some Bodies In the Attic”). They were playfully gruesome but still very dark, confirming my suspicions that attics were places scary spirits and their skeleton friends gathered in their spare time. I imagine Moseley would recoil at the images within “Mister Babadook”. The book itself is crucial to setting the movie’s tone: the drawings within nudge across the line from spooky (say, Emily Carroll’s “His Face All Red”) to sinister (like Emily Carroll’s “Out Of Skin”)*

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*By the way, please read all of Emily Carroll’s comics. She is brilliant.

After the first read through, Amelia considers the book to be too frightening for her son, but otherwise nothing unusual. Samuel initially reacts as children often do to frightening books, taking it completely seriously. He starts to see the demonic Mr. Babadook everywhere. His behavior worsens. He injures his cousin, throws tantrums that would test the patience of a saint. It’s the Babadook’s fault, he says. He starts bringing homemade weapons to school, and gets suspended. He needed them to protect himself and his mother from the Babadook, he says. Amelia, already at the end of her endurance when the film begins, starts to turn on her son. Understandable impatience and anger turns to shocking verbal cruelty. This could all still simply be a tale of familial woe. But we begin to wonder, just a bit, if that is too simple an answer. And that’s when the film hooks us and and refuses to let go.

The rest of the film deserves to be seen without being revealed. Writer and director Jennifer Kent is in astonishing command of this story. As darkness overtakes Amelia and Samuel’s lives, we are never sure whether or not it’s the doing of the Babadook, or simply their inevitable personal unraveling. Kent doesn’t cheat. There’s no “it was all a dream” obfuscation. She builds a completely believable world, introduces the possibility of otherworldly evil, and sets things into motion. We are in the same place as Amelia and Samuel. The possibility of the Babadook’s existence is no more frightening than the possibility that Amelia is simply falling to pieces.

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Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman deserve far more plaudits than awards-givers will likely bestow on them. The movie rests on their performances, and they do far more than simply carry it. Davis finds every color on the gradient of exhaustion. I wondered how the hell she made it to the end of the movie, like a pitcher tossing a complete game on no rest. And Wiseman gives a performance of fearsome believability and energy. I grow weary of critics who dismiss child actors as simply being themselves on screen. It is a task for any actor of any age to stand up to this material and not just withstand it, but to be completely convincing.

Credit also goes to cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, production designer/art director Alex Holmes, and art director Karen Hannaford. The Babadook was filmed in sun-bathed south Australia, the film’s use of light and dark is essential to its tone. The outdoors aren’t much of a respite for Amelia and Samuel, but it’s a welcome diversion from their enclosed tomb of a home. The home becomes a character in itself. At one point, Amelia says to Samuel “we just need to get out of this house”, and I just about nodded in agreement. Without ever calling attention to the home in the usual horror movie way ( your usual dramatic exteriors and long shots down dark hallways), Kent instead slowly makes it feel claustrophobic.

The Babadook is one of the best films of this year, and yet difficult to recommend easily. You should see it if you want to see a superb movie. Just don’t expect a grand old time. It is a deeply unsettling experience, in a way that burrows deep and dies there. It is an assault on the most paranoid recesses of our minds. It wields empathy like a weapon; without such an understanding of its characters, it would not be nearly as effective. I actually hoped that Amelia and Samuel were under attack from a monster, and not simply caught in a personal death-spiral. I hoped, for their sakes.

The many dimensions of Interstellar

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Interstellar is far from being Christopher Nolan’s best movie, but it has stuck with me to an extent that I need to write something about it. I just didn’t know quite how to approach that task. It’s a big, at times glorious mess of a movie, and I admit that figuring out how to write about it in one piece was sort of daunting for me.

So instead, I’m going to write about it in pieces.

After seeing Interstellar, I wrote on Facebook that it felt like a film adapted from a first draft of a script. Weeks later, I still feel that way. Interstellar feels like multiple movies on stage at once, each taking hold of the mic for a moment before ceding the floor, with varying degrees of willingness.

So in lieu of a simple review, here’s my take on the different faces of Interstellar.

1. Just a bit of an Apocalypse

For a big-budget, special-effects driven spectacle, Interstellar takes a surprisingly low-fi look at the apocalypse unfolding on Earth. At no point does the film ever depict Earth beyond its unspecified American Midwestern setting. Hell, the headquarters for NASA are even conveniently located within driving distance from Cooper’s (the protagonist) house, albeit in a secret bunker. It doesn’t show much of this area beyond Cooper’s family and home. At one point he visits his daughter Murphy’s school, and is distraught to learn that in this society they teach that the moon landings were a hoax. Cooper and his daughter Murphy go to a baseball game, where the New York Yankees are barnstorming against local scrubs.

It’s an odd way to depict an apocalypse. It’s effective at getting across how things have changed for this one part of the world, but as “show don’t tell” goes, it shows us a small portion and tells us to take its word that the rest of the world is the same way. Children of Men (my favorite apocalyptic film) never ventures out of England, but in its opening sequence accomplishes more (showing the scope of the collapse of civilization, the culture that is evolving out of it, and the draconian government that has risen to control that culture) in significantly less time.

Ultimately, Interstellar‘s apocalypse is on the scale it needs to be for the movie to function. And that is fine. But as the dust continued to gather over the film’s Earthly anchor, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on beyond the farmhouse and down the road a ways.

2. Lost in Space

The vastness of space provides endless narrative possibility. Alien told us that no one could hear us scream. 2001:A Space Odyssey turned space into a nearly religious experience, a stage for the unfolding of life in a manner completely foreign to that on earth. Gravity might well have scared off a generation of potential astronauts with this shot alone.

But all too often space is shorthand for “action-adventure set in the future”: the setting is less significant than the plot. And that’s a shame. Few locations so easily evoke awe as space.

Interstellar often aims for- and achieves- reverie. The vastness of the mission is characters are going on- exploring new planets, studying black holes- is never shortchanged. Space is never Nolan’s MacGuffin, a convenient excuse to move the plot.

As much as I enjoyed the film’s take on exploring wormholes and black holes and 3-D representations of 5-D, it was actually the scene on the planet that seemed to consist entirely of tsunamis that inspired the most awe in me. Space is vast, yes, but it is also filled with extraordinary locations that are so rarely given their due in science fiction. There are too many Earth 2’s in science fiction. I love that Nolan took a familiar concept (an ocean planet) and then turned it on its head, making it incomprehensibly terrifying and foreign. Subtle alterations to things with which we are already familiar can make them deeply sinister.

After the escapade on Planet Tsunami, I wondered if Interstellar might bring to life that aspect of Mass Effect that I enjoyed: planetary exploration, with the vast possibilities of actual space as the only limits.

That turned out not to be the case: the movie features one more planetary escapade that ends up focusing more on fisticuffs than fearsome terrain. That’s not inherently criticism, but it is an example of perhaps my biggest problem with Interstellar: it has big dreams, but it lacks commitment. That can be a passing annoyance when the movie suggests that it will be Around the Worlds in 80 Minutes/26 Years. But when it tries to inject something deeper into the story and then backs off, it is significantly more disappointing.

3. Voices through a Distant Wormhole

I keep telling you about 5 Centimeters Per Second, the exquisite anime by Makoto Shinkai. However, I don’t believe I have ever mentioned his first work, a 25-minute film called Voices of a Distant Star. Its plot is simple enough: in 2047, a teenage girl is recruited to fight in a war against an invading alien race. The war will take her deep into space, separating her from her boyfriend. She sends him messages regularly, but thanks to the (for this person with an English degree) mind-boggling relationship between space and time, the messages arrive days, then months, then years apart. By the end of the film, he is an adult, still getting messages his girlfriend sent him when they were both 16.

It’s an effective enough story. It’s not as polished or perceptive as 5 Centimeters Per Second. It rests on its plot, rather than mining the characters the way 5 CM does. But the simple power of its narrative makes Voices of a Distant Star memorable. I’ve been waiting for a filmmaker this angle; the way space travel would wipe out the modern Earthly comfort of instant communication wherever you are; and really explore it.

Interstellar announces the daunting relationship between time and relativity in a Chekov’s Gun moment; as soon as Cooper descends onto Planet Tsunami, we know that Murphy will soon be played by Jessica Chastain.

Nolan grants these scenes their due significance… in parts. Matthew McConaughey is brilliant during a scene where Cooper returns from a mission that has taken just a few hours to watch 26 years of increasingly despairing messages from his children. The scene is one of the film’s best, thanks largely to Nolan’s trust in McConaughey to carry it.

But Interstellar’s time games raised a minor pet peeve of mine: when the edges of a story are more interesting than the center, and the storyteller doesn’t seem to recognize it. The narrative potential of the relationship between time and relativity is immense, but in the film it never becomes more than a plot device. As the movie’s plot unfolds, it serves its purpose and then steps aside.

Again: this isn’t necessarily a problem, but bear with me. The fourth member of the film’s planetary exploration team is named Romilly, played by David Gyasi. He stays behind on the ship while the other three members of the team head down to a planet that, thanks to its proximity to a black hole, will experience accelerated time. In other words, Romilly will age with the rest of the galaxy. He will wait for 26 years. When he greets the team with the news that so many years have passed upon their return to the ship, I was rightly astonished. That’s one hell of a narrative bomb to drop into the movie. And I wanted to know more about him. What was it like to wait in isolation for 26 years? How did he cope? What is is like for a person to go through that? And to my great disappointment, Nolan showed little interest in exploring this narrative thread. Romilly had a purpose to serve: to announce that lots of time has passed, which effects Cooper and Anne Hathaway’s Brand emotionally because they have family on Earth. Romilly’s tale is just a means to an end.

And that aggravated me. Nolan is excellent at coming up with interesting material, but he struggles on occasion to form it into the most interesting possible narrative. Interstellar didn’t necessarily have to follow every narrative thread to its end, but for a film that rarely seemed to know what its primary narrative purpose was, I would have liked for its peaks to be its most interesting aspects.

4. Boldly Go Where Many Have Gone Before

It’s been a while since this movie came out, so I feel comfortable speaking freely about Matt Damon’s surprise cameo. Damon plays Dr. Mann, a legendary scientist who led a mission to explore one of the planets NASA targeted as a potential target for colonization. The mission went awry, and Mann was forced into an emergency hibernation, hoping that someday someone would find him.

The Dr. Mann sequence of the film begins as the film’s most surprising turn and evolves into its most familiar one. Once the shock of Damon’s cameo wears off, we begin to appreciate his performance. Dr. Mann is lonely, desperate, and we sense he’s no longer all there. There’s a sinister undertone to the scenes that pay off in a strange fashion. I wasn’t upset when Mann and Cooper were suddenly grappling with one another as Dr. Mann tried to maintain a significant cover-up. At the same time, as the camera pulled back and showed two pinpricks of actors wrestling on rocky terrain, I wracked my brain to try to figure out how the hell a movie so in awe of the possibilities of the galaxy had gotten to a point where two of our biggest movie stars were wrestling in space suits.

5. Plucking the Chords of Time

The greatest pleasures of Interstellar all involve some willingness to risk coming off as silly for the sake of taking a big leap. Let’s travel right into a wormhole! Hell, let’s throw ourselves right into a black hole! Let’s make the black hole a 5th dimension that has a 3D aspect to it that turns our lifetimes into little strings of light that you can peer into an manipulate!

Good science fiction should be bold and silly, in great measures. My favorite sci-fi film is Atom Egoyan’s Dark City, in which alien worms move around in trenchcoat-wearing human cadavers and psychic powers take the form of animated beams eminating from the forehead. There comes a point in sci-fi when you inevitably venture into unknown territory. It’s fun when storytellers use this territory as a playground for their imaginations. Yes, the visual of Matthew McConaughey floating around the gigantic loom of his own life was a bit goofy and on the nose, but you know what? I appreciated that the movie didn’t back down from the challenge of its own ending. The plot raises countless questions and the ending attempts valiantly to answer them. That it does so with narrative and visual audacity should be applauded.

Interstellar didn’t leave me thrilled to my core, but there was a zeal under its surface that consistently shone through its larger shortcomings. Every once in a while, that zeal burst through. The trip through the wormhole, for example, or the tsunami sequence, or when we finally venture in to the center of a black hole. Truth be told, I don’t know of Christoper Nolan could have made a great film with this material. It was all so unwieldy. There was no underlying structure like the caper movie format for Inception, or the pre-existing comic book templates of Batman to provide support for his many ideas. Interstellar could have used that sort of backbone. It is a beautiful journey that never quite figures out where it wants to go, or how it’s going to get there.

 

Over the Garden Wall: an autumnal masterpiece from Cartoon Network

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Over the Garden Wall is so good, so successful at everything it sets out to accomplish, that it is something of a miracle. I cannot fathom a better TV show debuting this year.

Over the Garden Wall tells the story of two brothers- the teenage Wirt and the much younger Greg- who have gotten lost in a forest. They are trying to find their way home. Early on, they run into a talking bluebird named Beatrice. Yes, this all sounds familiar. This show’s roots are in the fables and folklore that we seem to absorb through osmosis as children. This is a show with singing, magic, talking animals, witches, and more than the occasional sinister creature in the shadows. It contains elements that will be familiar to anyone who was a child. It’s how it uses those elements that makes it so special.

Many reviewers have given in to the temptation to describe Over the Garden Wall as whimsical, but it rarely struck me as such. Yes, Wirt is inexplicably dressed like a gnome, and Greg has a teapot on his head, and yes Beatrice is a talking bluebird. But Wirt’s and Greg’s costumes are given rational explanations in due time and Beatrice is neither a friendly Disney-style sidekick nor a snarky Shrek knockoff. She’s blunt and critical in a big sisterly sort of way and we grow to like her because her story is as compelling as any in the show. And it never stops telling compelling stories.

There is precious little exposition in this show, both for the plot at large and episode to episode. Each episode is largely contained to a single-serving of a new setting. In the first episode, the brothers end up in the home of a strange man living in the woods, warning them of a sinister creature he calls the Beast. Other settings include a town populated by sapient pumpkins; a sprawling, apparently haunted mansion owned by a tea mogul; and a steamboat transporting some very well-dressed frogs to their annual mud hibernation. This narrative approach is extremely engaging, giving the plot a constant sense of headlong momentum, even as it takes it sweet time exploring each world in detail.

And lord, what detail.

Over the Garden Wall looks so good that you could choose just about any still and want to frame it. It is autumnal in the best ways, alive with color and character.

The show frequently uses old-fashioned motifs, but they rarely seem to be calling attention to themselves. Techniques like the iris lens above are a callback to silent movies, but it also gives the opening sequence of the show a dreamlike quality that sets the tone before the story starts.

Before each episode, I found myself looking forward to simply seeing where Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice would go next. Each location is cool on the surface, and only get cooler as their layers peel back. In one episode, they end up in a creepy cottage where a teenage girl is held captive by her fearsome Auntie Whispers. Auntie Whispers looks like how Yubaba from Spirited Away might appear after spending a few years bathing in formaldehyde. But she is not simply a grotesque. Auntie Whispers ends up being one of the most interesting of the show’s vast roster of side characters, and the episode’s story takes a turn that is surprising, scary, and incredibly satisfying.

Another episode features a schoolhouse full of animals, being taught by a lovelorn human schoolmarm. In this show’s style, there is almost no setup preparing us for this setting, but eventually there is an explanation for it that somehow ends up making sense. One of the show’s delights is how heedlessly it explores its settings, and how thorough that exploration is.

There are plenty of musical sequences in Over the Garden Wall, and they are just about all delightful. Well, if not delightful, then excellent. This scene is the sort that would have haunted my dreams a kid:

That is a gloriously creepy 30 seconds. I don’t intend to show too much more of this show out of context, but here’s another, completely different song from another episode:

Over the Garden Wall uses music to set the tone its episodes beautifully. The first song is as jarring and disturbing as the second is jolly and fun. The first song creates a sense of deep unease. It’s downright trippy. The second helps define Greg as a character: infectiously optimistic and fond of nonsensical, improvised wordplay. The show navigates between these tones (and many more in between) effortlessly. At times it is pure delight and others genuinely frightening and all the while we get to know its characters a little more at a time until we are completely invested in their journey.

For all the rightful plaudits Over the Garden Wall receives for its animation and music, it is as good as it is in the same ways that any good show succeeds: strong characters, quality writing, excellent performances. The show’s creator, Patrick McHale, is yet another graduate of the Adventure Time/Misadventures of Flapjack school of animators who continually churn out outstanding shows (see also: Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, and Bee and Puppycat). Over the Garden Wall’s writing team includes a number of the best Adventure Time alums, including AT creator Pendleton Ward and alums Natasha Allegri and Cole Sanchez.

Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice are brought to life with outstanding voice acting by Elijah Wood, Collin Dean, and Melanie Lynskey. Wood’s voice has a constant tremble of harried anxiety, warm towards his brother, defensive towards Beatrice, and always at his wits end. Dean is charming as Greg, who is one of the best written child characters I’ve seen on TV in a good long time. It’s difficult for adults to write convincing children. Greg is not simply a fount of energy. Like many young children, he is endlessly curious about the world around him and equally lost in his own imagination. \

Beatrice is the show’s biggest scene-stealer, a slightly amoral bluebird (I did enjoy writing that phrase) whose clashes with Wirt slowly evolve into the sort of affection that comes with deep mutual empathy. Lynskey’s performance is warm but not fuzzy. Beatrice is the show’s most conflicted character, and Lynskey’s voice seems naturally laden with gravity, buoyant as it can be.

Each character is quietly dynamic in their own ways. The show has no use for preachy moralizing; its characters’ revelations are deeply personal, rooted in their relationships with each other and how far they realize they are willing to go for each others’ sakes. And I was just as invested in them by the end.

Over the Garden Wall billed itself as a “5-night Mystery Adventure”, and that’s apt. The show’s sense of mystery is not a parlor crime novel, but something more childlike. It reminded me very much of Spirited Away, a film that observed a fantasy world from a outsider, child’s eye view, with every new and amazing sight raising a new set of mysteries. With 10, 11-minute episodes, you can easily watch this show in its entirety over the course of the week in 22 minute chunks. Or you can take it all in at once (since all the episodes add up to less than two hours), and have the best fantasy movie experience of the year. You can buy the whole show on iTunes for ten bucks, and it is worth every penny and then some. If you have cable, you can find it On Demand. However you watch Over the Garden Wall, just make damn sure you watch it.

Edit: While looking for other reviews of this show I realized that I gave this post almost the exact same title as this article on Bloody Disgusting. It was a coincidence, but something still worth rectifying as that article came out before I posted mine. I have now changed the title.

Big Hero 6 and the pleasures of animated superhero movies

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My favorite superhero film remains The Incredibles. No superhero film before it or since has so deftly balanced so thoroughly engaging a story with an unrelenting sense of fun. Oh, there have been contenders for its belt. Heath Ledger’s performance as he Joker in The Dark Knight is one of those pitch-perfect turns that elevates the entire movie by setting a tone that reverberates throughout the whole film, like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. As someone who has never hopped on the “Batman is the best superhero” bandwagon, The Dark Knight won me over by being the Joker’s movie.

This summer produced two films which announced their candidacies for my “favorite superhero movie” mantle: Captain American: The Winter Solider and Guardians of the Galaxy. Winter Soldier was a film blessedly devoid of plot excess, lean and thrilling. Superhero movies that trust in there lore- in this case, resting on Steve Rodgers’s lingering sadness over Bucky Barnes’s “death”- to drive the story without relying on excessive exposition are immensely satisfying. Make no mistake: Winter Soldier has more than its share of cheerful and goof moments, but it frequently ventures into shadows.

On the other hand, Guardians of the Galaxy was unabashedly goofy. In Chris Pratt it found the perfect star for this approach. Pratt has been one of the most charming actors on television for years. In Parks and Recreation, which boasts one TV’s most talented comic ensembles, he is frequently the standout performer. A lesser actor might have turned Peter Quill into a poor man’s Tony Stark, a repository of sass and snark and not much else. Pratt injects an sincere, just-a-bit sensitive core behind the smartassery. Pratt’s performance elevates the film much like Ledger’s elevated his, just in a different direction. Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun film, but without Pratt it could easily have teetered into a constant series of reminders that we weren’t supposed to take it too seriously. In an age dominated by sarcasm and irony, Pratt’s comic gift is how thoroughly he doesn’t break the fourth wall, and how convincingly he makes just about any setting feel like home.

But still, there was something missing in both those films that The Incredibles had, that special something that elevated The Incredibles to a higher tier: the ability to have fun with their material while still taking it seriously, and effortlessly changing gears between both tones without missing a bear. Having one overriding tone is not a flaw, but when sorting out my personal hierarchies, it can be a deciding factor. The Incredibles is no less interesting or engaging to me than The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, no less willing to have fun with its material than Guardians of the Galaxy. But it has more fun with its material than those first two films and none of the arms-length self-awareness of the latter. The Increidbles is as earnest in its convictions as the 1978 version of Superman or the 2002 version of Spider-Man, only with none of their corniness.

I felt some of that same energy watching Big Hero 6. It’s not as good as The Incredibles or even Winter Soldier. Butt is the first superhero film since The Incredibles to take its material seriously without a stone face, to radiate with the joy of simply being fun without being obligated to find the material silly. And that both The Incredibles and Big Hero 6 are animated plays a big part in this sort of appeal.

I love animation for its ability to make any world feel fully alive. A live action film can be undone with poor special effects. Our point of view, no matter how otherworldly the plot might be, is always going to be rooted in reality. Sam Raimi’s 2002 version of Spider-Man suffered mightily for this; at times Spidey looked so rubbery that it broke the trance. Animated movies can render lo-fi universes without worrying about this effect- the immersiveness of the world tied to the scope of the artist’s vision. A literally sketchy film like Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected is no less convincing in depicting its strange little universe than a technological wonder like How to Train Your Dragon 2, because realism is not the goal with animation. On the flip side, a live action rendering of Dragon would likely be much more difficult to do convincingly (considering how much of the Dragon’s emotional core relies on humans and dragons communicating directly, something that feels perfectly normal in animation). And a live action version of Rejected wouldn’t be Rejected, so let’s not even go there.

I have long felt that animation is an ideal format for superhero movies. The easy immersion into any world of the artist’s choosing, that 1:1 translation of an artist’s vision to the audience’s eyes, is what has made animation such an effective medium for fantasy. With animation, there’s no such thing as suspension of disbelief, because reality does not apply.

But in the modern (let’s say beginning with Raimi’s Spider-Man) era of superhero movies, The Incredibles had long been the only animated offering.

And lord, what a good offering it was. Right from the opening, its fleshes out the core cast of characters and the rules of the world they live in with a breezy sense of humor that nonetheless sets the stage for a meaty plot. We likely wouldn’t accept a Superman movie that opened with Superman shaking a cat free from a tree and defeating an evil mime on his way to his wedding, and then getting sued after the fact. But in a world as stylized as Brad Bird’s creation, every tone he aimed for fit. The goofiness was exactly what we expected from a movie with a futuristic 1960s aesthetic. The serious moments are earned from the realistic, at times unnervingly sad and human family drama that builds these characters.

A live action movie forcing actors to navigate these narrative waters would have a difficult time avoiding tonal dissonance. When a live-action movie or show adopts an “everything goes” style of storytelling, we call it “cartoonish”. It tends to be strictly comedy, shows like 30 Rock and Malcolm in the Middle.  Navigating across tones and genres is doable in live-action, but difficult, requiring a razor-sharp directorial focus and vision, and actors game for the challenge. Films like Fargo and Dr. Strangelove are classics for a reason. But when such a story is animated, the material is much easier to digest, and more easily applicable to simpler genre films.

Big Hero 6 doesn’t quite pack the narrative punch of The Incredibles. Brad Bird’s film was as much a drama about the relationships within its titular family as it was a superhero movie, which is what helped make it so good. But Big Hero 6 does benefit from the same narrative freedom granted to it by its medium. The first major action sequence in the movie is a delirious chase sequence through the streets of “San Fransokyo”* The film’s primary villain is a mysterious figure in a kabuki mask, who moves atop a massive swarm of completely mind-controlled microbots that act as a sort of sapient, free-flowing silly putty. It’s a wonderful bit of character design, and in a superhero film universe increasingly filled with indistinct and boring villains, it was terrific just to see one who looked so damn cool.**

The scene has a reckless silliness that reminded me of some of the best Pixar action scenes- the door chase in Monsters Inc., the paper chase in Ratatouille, and my favorite, the 100 Mile Dash scene in The Incredibles. Yes, they could all technically have been done in live action, but there’s a joy in seeing a sinister figure atop a flowing black mountain towering over a cityscape and experiencing absolutely no dissonance: for that image to be as organic to the world of the movie as the heroes who are being chased. To some degree, we are always aware the special effects are special effects. But in good animation, nothing feels like a special effect. Everything feels like a part of the film’s reality.

*I admit, much more could have been done with this setting. Ostensibly a hybrid of two of the most visually distinct cities in the world, in the movie it comes across as San Francisco with occasional superficial Japanese motifs. For example, the Golden Gate Bridge has pagodas.

**While the best villains have backstories as interesting as any hero, I like to employ what I call the T-1000 rule now and then: A villain consisting of nothing but menace and a great visual design can be spectacular when done right. Technically, this might better be called the Darth Vader rule, given that that describes Vader in the first Star Wars film to a T, but it stopped applying to him the moment he uttered the word “father”. 

Big Hero 6 lacks a truly compelling story for its villain, but it ended up being so much fun that I could forgive it that. It incorporates many of the expected elements of both superhero and Disney movies (tragic first acts, cuddly sidekicks) but they are seamlessly integrated. The other people who make of the team of six (Go-Go, Honey Lemon, Wasabi, and Fred) are all surprisingly distinct, and given plenty of character despite the limited runtime. Baymax is a delightful character, aided by a gentle and powerful voice performance by Scott Adsit. The protagonist, Hiro, is relateable and likeable even when he’s going through (usually completely understandable) bad moods. Their interactions are the heart of the movie and yes, it’s the most Disney film to stick its hero with a cuddly sidekick, but this hero and this sidekick felt fresh and new. The film relies a lot of physical comedy. Not pure slapstick, but the sight of the giant puffball that is Baymax trying to move around the world when he was clearly designed not to leave a room. Again, animation enhances the appeal of these scenes significantly. Baymax is every bit as normal resident in this world as Hiro. It’s easier to appreciate his physical comedy as a character, and not as a prop or an effect.

The Iron Giant is probably the finest example of a movie using the unique advantages of combining human and non-human characters in the same universe. The way that film continually came up with ways to creatively use space to create scenes with the Giant (Brad Bird again; where have you gone, dude?) was inspired, effortlessly flowing from desperate comedy to poignant drama.

Big Hero 6 still has a knack for physical comedy, though. A partially deflated Baymax is inherently hilarious, like an old basset hound rolling on its back, rolls of loose skin happily flopping everywhere. And his limited movement makes for some terrific tension in the early scenes that is easily combined with slapstick humor; for example at one point, Hiro and Baymax need to make a quick escape that’s impeded by Baymax’s inability to easily squeeze through a window. It’s a simple visual gag, but a funny one. It’s not quite the range of The Iron Giant, but the principles are the same: when you can easily integrate physically creative character, as animation allows you to do so easily, the possibilities for scenes that are just fun are endless, which for a superhero movie can be a priceless quality.

Big Hero 6 doesn’t quite have the deft control of its emotional range that makes for the upper echelon animated films. Its story is more broad strokes than the little details that make The Incredibles and The Iron Giant really special. But it has all the usual elements in place for a perfectly fun Disney film. And yet I enjoyed it more than that. Because superhero films that are built on earnest joy are unfortunately rare in this new golden age for the genre. And Big Hero 6 was the most pure fun I’ve had at the movies since Pacific Rim, another big action movie as goofy as it was sincere. I treasure movies like that, because they know that “fun” is not a synonym for “mindless”, that you have the most fun with any activity when you are invested in it. And both of the animated superhero films of this era have been so effortlessly fun without compromising their sincerity. I can only hope the third one comes out in less than ten years.

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