Another Major Award!

No, still not a lamp. Leg. Statue. “Yeah! A staaaatue!” “Ralphie!”

I’ve been given the prestigiously obscure Liebster Award, in which one blogger with fewer than 200 followers writes trivia and answers to random questions about themselves, and then tags a bunch of other bloggers with fewer than 200 followers to write more trivia and more random questions. My eternal thanks to Lady Blue Whimsy for sharing the fun with me!

L’Trivia du Moi

Firstly, I’m supposed to talk about myself.

1) Hello, my name is David, I like fantasy stories and run a modest blog visited by wonderful people which I’ve somewhat embarrassingly been neglecting for several months.

“That’s no good! Why, that’s not even conversation!”*

2) Alright, how about this? I’m currently listening to the achingly beautiful soundtrack from The NeverEnding Story (1984).

“Ah, that’s better. Any other amusing trivialities?”

3) I can struggle my way through Latin, even the medieval variant, preferably if I have Cassell’s Latin Dictionary at hand…and William Whitaker’s Words.

4) My workplace got robbed recently, but it was my day off (no one got hurt, fortunately!).

5) I recently counted over two dozen unread books in my bedroom, the thought of which leaves me simultaneously sad (they are unread) and very happy (BOOKS TO BE READ!).

6) Since discovering him about a month ago, I have spent many hours listening to the Tolkien Professor podcast by Dr. Corey Olsen. IT IS AMAZING. If you love talking about Tolkien and taking his works seriously, definitely give this guy a listen. What he’s done is take the world of academic Tolkien Studies, which is struggling valiantly for recognition amongst mainstream academia, and brought it to the masses. There are close to 300 episodes already, but they are organized into different series: some go through The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion chapter-by-chapter, others speculate about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, some are recordings of the actual class lectures he gives at Washington College or Mythgard Institute. Basically, if you read my blog and like Tolkien, immediately add this podcast to your listening list.

7) I like people more than I let on.

Answers to Lady Blue Whimsy’s Questions

1. If you could date a fictional character, whom would it be?

Probably Gwyneth Blair. I’d probably have more to talk about with her than with most other fictional women I can think of, and I’m pretty sure we’d get along.

2. If you could travel either forwards or backwards in time, which one, and why?

Backwards. Something about traveling to the future just feels wrong, like cheating. But, especially being a historian by training, I thrill at the idea of traveling back and actually experiencing the things we can now only study through texts, archaeology, and such clues. It’s like the ultimate primary source! Of course, I have a feeling that even if backwards time travel existed, historians would still argue angrily over what “really” happened. Everyone who went back to a particular event would see it differently. Even when the facts match up, “history” is often merely the interpretation that wins out in the mainstream.

3. Vanilla, chocolate, or Superman ice cream?

Wha–Superman ice cream? What’s that? Does it taste like the American dream? (And why does that sound awful?) Like Truth, Justice, and the American Way? Like Krypton? Oh wait, I guess it’s a real thing. Hm, never had it. Personally, I can’t resist an excellent vanilla OR an excellent chocolate ice cream, and I combine them whenever I get the chance.

4. If you had to name your children after your family and relatives, which five names would you pick?

Five all for one kid? Hehe, I’m guessing this is five names in general. Well, perhaps: Rose (or some variant, my family has many), Audrey, Orlando, Joseph, Michael.

5. What one type of food or dish could you eat every day for the rest of your life?

Home-cooked spaghetti.

6. If you could be a fictional character, whom would you be?

Be? I’ll go with Ridley Dow, from the wonderful Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip. A kind-hearted but absent-minded scholar of the arcane, he cuts a mysterious and dashing figure when he arrives at the Cauleys’ Inn during a storm. I used to imagine myself as a roguish swashbuckler, but Ridley’s brand of dramatic scholarship is a slightly more realistic goal for me, but no less romantic. He gets to study magical, Fey happenings and save (and end up with) the woman he loves, all while making some very good friends and dressing pretty cool.

7. If you could only write one story in your entire writing life, which would it be?

The evasive-but-true answer is whatever story God desires me to finish, but the story most important to me is currently titled The Carpenter’s Sons, and I do hope it will be a published novel sometime before I die. Ideally, it’ll be a pleasing blend of influences (Tolkien, Brian Jacques, Rosemary Sutcliff, R.L. Stevenson, and George MacDonald most notably) filtered through the better parts of my imagination, and all by the grace of God.

8. If you could change the ending to a favorite story, which would it be?

I’d like to make the ending of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth a bit more romantic, between Marcus and Cottia. It’s nice as it is, but it’s the only part of the book that feels even slightly less than perfect to me. A bit rushed, mainly, as if their romance was an afterthought (although their friendship itself is very well developed).

Tag some other bloggers who have fewer than 200 followers

  1. Brenton Dickieson
  2. Manoah’s Wife
  3. Matt Schneider
  4. Urania, Terpsichore, Melpomene, Thalia, Calliope
  5. Tyler Tichelaar
  6. The Golden Bookwyrm
  7. Emily Kazakh

(Of course, as with always when I tag people, you’re not obligated to participate, and you can participate even if I neglected to tag you. But if you do participate, please let me know somehow, because I really want to read your answers to the questions below!)

Questions for the Tagged

1. If you could choose one fictional creature to be your pet/animal companion, which would you choose and why?

2. Name a favorite moment of yours from any movie released in the 1980s and explain why.

3. If you had to be chased by some hostile fictional creature or character, through a fictional landscape, which ones would you choose and why?

4. In-N-Out, Five Guys, or Chik-Fil-A?

5. Name a song you really like from a musical genre you don’t generally like and explain why this one works for you.

6. What is, in your opinion, the best portrayal(s) of the Elves/Fair Folk/Faeries in film? Multiple choices are permitted, but you must say why you think your choices are so good.

7. What was the last black-and-white film you saw, and what did you think of it?

8. What did you think of the new trailer for The Desolation of Smaug?

*Extra special gold star points and cookies to whomever can name what movie this line comes from.

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In Memoriam: Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Roger_Ebert_(extract)_by_Roger_Ebert

Roger Ebert, respected film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and arguably the most popular and influential man in the history of his profession, passed away Thursday, April 4, 2013. He was also the greatest blogger the Internet has yet seen. Since this blog would be very different if I had never read him, it seems appropriate that I spare a few good words for a man who never ran out of them.

My earliest memory of reading him—I mean really reading and being influenced by him—was just after I had seen Citizen Kane for the first time. I was in high school, and Orson Welles’ film had just shown me that movies could also be great art. After finishing my first viewing, I was in such awe that I immediately started it again from the beginning. Once the second viewing had finished, I ran to my computer and looked up Ebert’s Great Movies review. Welles’ greatness demanded exegesis, and Ebert delivered it. It was something of a revelatory time for me: I had never really thought of movies as art before. I had enjoyed movies greatly, but was only beginning to see them critically. And adding to this, the DVD of Citizen Kane included a commentary track by Roger Ebert himself, in which he explained in conversational tones, scene-by-scene, just what makes that movie so darn awesome. Movies “clicked” for me, then, much as literature had some years before. They were entertainment, yes, but they could also be meaningful art.

For nearly every movie I see, new or old, I find myself looking to see if Ebert has reviewed it. Sometimes I read his review before seeing the movie, to gauge whether it is worth my time. Other times I see the movie first, and then run to read what his thoughts were. Often I would read his recommendation first, see the movie, then come back to reconsider what he said. You know a writer is special if you reread him, voluntarily, for both enrichment and enjoyment.

Ebert’s history you can read elsewhere; I will not repeat it. But I would like to mention one thing about him that has long earned my respect: his willingness to have his mind changed. This type of humility is uncommon in men who know they are famous. Consider his famous “war” against 3D films, epitomized by this essay he wrote for The Daily Beast. For the space of a few years, his reviews of nearly every 3D movie that came out would end with a note on how poor or unnecessary the 3D was. By all accounts I’ve heard, he was right. But then some fascinating things started to happen as truly brilliant directors started playing around with the technology. We got Avatar, where the 3D at least ceased to be annoying (though neither I nor Ebert thought it an asset), and then Hugo in which it was fancifully pretty and charming, and most recently Life of Pi, in which the 3D actually aids in producing some of the most awesome and gorgeous frames of cinema you will ever see on the silver screen. Ebert’s reviews of these movies reveal how much fantastic art excited him, especially when he least expected it. Compare what he said in the article for The Daily Beast with this excerpt from his review of Life of Pi:

What astonishes me is how much I love the use of 3-D in “Life of Pi.” I’ve never seen the medium better employed, not even in “Avatar,” and although I continue to have doubts about it in general, [director Ang] Lee never uses it for surprises or sensations, but only to deepen the film’s sense of places and events.

Let me try to describe one point of view. The camera is placed in the sea, looking up at the lifeboat and beyond it. The surface of the sea is like the enchanted membrane upon which it floats. There is nothing in particular to define it; it is just … there. This is not a shot of a boat floating in the ocean. It is a shot of ocean, boat and sky as one glorious place.

In that quote you might also note something else that appeals to me: the poetic prose he was capable of when the Muse of Cinema gripped him. Most critics use metaphors as a way to sound witty before their readers, or sometimes to hide the fact that they haven’t clearly thought through the part of the film they are commenting on. Ebert wasn’t bound to that; here he reaches for poetic phrases in his ecstasy to communicate the joy of his experience watching the movie. It was important to him that we readers to know how wonderfully the 3D is used in this movie. He knew that many of us would regard it as important. I sure do.

[The Nostalgia Critic Doug Walker elaborates on the importance of Ebert’s passion in his own tribute video, which is well worth a watch.)

When he arrived in the blogosphere, he turned his keen mind to every other subject that interested him: politics, social issues, foreign cultures, music, religion, clever YouTube videos, cartoons, photography, literature, video games, cooking—fer cryin’ out loud, this Pulitzer Prizewinner wrote a cookbook about rice! You could always disagree with his writing and feel he would respect you for it, if you knew why you thought the way you did and believed it truly. And in return I have paid him the same respect: some of his opinions I have really hated, especially when he would praise men like Hugh Hefner or his friend Russ Meyer, but I understood why he held them, and I could never hate him. I could always understand why I agreed or disagreed, because he was honest about his opinions and biases as well as he was able to be. It gives me great sorrow that—to my knowledge—he remained, in practice, an atheist to his death, despite the influence of many Christian friends. I italicize in practice in deference to his own words, published quite recently on March 1:

I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God. I refuse to call myself a atheist however, because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable.

I do believe this: that God works good even through those people who reject Him. It does honor to God to recognize this, and to honor those people through whom we have been blessed. By God’s grace, I have been blessed through Roger Ebert.

Farewell, Roger. You never knew me, but I became your friend in the way a reader befriends the soul who writes to him. I prayed for you a lot over the years, and always wished you well. Indeed, I wished you a greater happiness than you would accept for yourself. We disagreed much, and agreed much, and I owe you a great debt when it comes to how to think, write, and enjoy movies intelligently. You enriched my life. I already miss you.

God bless,
David

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I hardly expected to break my hiatus (unannounced, for which I beg your forgiveness and thank your patience) in such a somber manner. When work and projects pile up, they easily overwhelm me, and my time ends up divided between That Which Hath Deadlines Enforced By Others and That For Which I Need Thinketh Not At All. Things in-between, which have no deadlines but are enforced by myself on myself, but which yet ask of me thought and care and passion, such as this blog, sometimes then fall from the wagon of my workload. But not blogging leaves me unhappy, and I have long been directing myself towards a return. I have so much to say, and so much to read! And I have been reading, make no mistake. Novels, scholarly works, fairy tales, webcomics. Very many of your own blog posts. I’ve seen great movies and exciting television shows. My mind needs sharpening and my soul the nutrition of fellowship. I am ready to come back. Are you ready to read?

Movie Review: “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (2010)

Seriously dude, get a haircut.

Title: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) IMDb
Director: Mike Newell
Lead Actors: Jake Gyllenhaal (Dastan), Gemma Arterton (Tamina), Ben Kingsley (Nizan), Alfred Molina (Sheik Amar)
Score Composer: Harry Gregson-Williams
Length: 116 min.
Rating (US): PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “Set in the mystical lands of Persia, a rogue prince and a mysterious princess race against dark forces to safeguard an ancient dagger capable of releasing the Sands of Time — a gift from the gods that can reverse time and allow its possessor to rule the world.” (Written by Walt Disney Pictures, courtesy of IMDb)
Reason for Watching: Firstly, it’s based on the popular Prince of Persia video games, which feature some really neat Arabian-Nights-esque settings and a cool fantasy version of parkour. Secondly, I heard from friends it was actually pretty fun.
Movie Re-watchability: Fun and disposable, this is the kind of adventure I’d watch on a casual movie night with friends, or watch if it was on TV, but that I’m not likely to choose if I really want to set aside a specific time for a movie viewing. It was entertaining the first time, but it doesn’t have much novelty to offer on repeat viewings.
Director Re-watchability: Mike Newell also directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which is my pick for the most boring and disposable Harry Potter film (well, Deathly Hallows Part I may have been more boring, but it at least had greater atmosphere). He’s not a bad director, as far as I can tell – he’s got an eye for pretty images, and in Prince of Persia he does keep the story moving at a brisk, entertaining pace. But he seems competent at best. I wouldn’t be interested in a movie just because his name was attached.
Recommendation: Do you like the video game series? Do you like fantasy adventures even when they are campy and ridiculous, so long as they maintain a sense of fun? Do you not mind if the story and characters exist only to support the pretty pictures and give you something to laugh and snicker about while you and your friends drink beer, eat snacks, chat on a non-work (or non-school) night? Does the reasoning of “Hey, the actors look like they’re having a good time, why shouldn’t I?” make sense to you? If any of these are true, then you will probably find something to enjoy in this movie. If you answered “no” strongly to any of these questions, then it might not be worth your time. I’m glad I saw it, but then, I answered strongly in the positive to all the above questions. +)

Key Thoughts

What else to say about this very straightforward movie? Nothing about the plot, surely. It’s just not important. If you try too hard to follow it, you’ll start falling through all the holes. The many, gaping holes. In fact, I recommend that you smile and wave at the plot holes as you skim over them. It’s the best way to get full enjoyment out of this movie.

Aside from including one or two scenes not in the movie, the official trailer will actually give you a remarkably accurate feel for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. It engages your attention, has some very pretty set pieces and artwork, a variety of stunts that, if not brilliant, are at least energetic, banter between the romantic couple that, if not quite witty, is at least amusing, and doesn’t take itself seriously but indulges in just enough drama that we can sort-of-almost-hey-it’s-Jerry-Bruckheimer-producing-what-do-you-expect buy the characters’ motivations if we don’t think on them too hard. (If you do start thinking, you realize that a few important deaths in this movie could have easily been solved by the magic dagger that rewinds time, but for some reason Dastan doesn’t think to use it for the people he cares for most.) If you’re the kind who can’t help but take a movie too seriously, then this movie will probably annoy the heck out of you.

And this guy will shoot five steel darts into your chest.

While it is somewhat disappointing that the lead actors aren’t even remotely Middle-Easternish, much less Persian, but rather very white Caucasian (with the exception of Ben Kingsley, who is half Indian), this is more or less what we expect of a Hollywood blockbuster. Gyllenhaal is no Errol Flynn, but he’s competent in this roguish role, wading shakily through a script of bad quips and emotions desperately trying to be earnest and emerging with a smile at the end.

My main complaint regarding the role of Dastan (the titular Prince) has nothing to do with the actor, but rather the special effects. I find it’s always more fun when the actors themselves, or convincing stunt doubles, are doing the actual stunts in the action scenes, when there is real human physicality and skill on display. But in this movie, Gyllenhaal doesn’t get to move far before the CGI and lightning-quick cuts jump in. It’s not impressive when you can see a computer doing all the work. Nor when the editing jumps so much that you can’t be sure where things are happening in relation to each other, and the action scenes which should be glorious expressions of the athleticism of the human body instead became a jumble of zoomed-in images of movement that don’t thrill or really amount to much of anything. It’s not quite shaky cam – when there isn’t a fight or chase going on, the camera steadies itself properly – and technically it does the job okay, but it doesn’t inspire you with awe at what the human body can accomplish. And personally, I think that’s one of the great virtues of the action genre, the thing it should properly do besides just entertain.

“Whoa, sand is more slippery than I thought!”
Granted, even with all the gorgeous CGI scenery going on, she’s still the sight easiest on the eyes. I think she’s prettier in this relaxed shot than she is in many of the dramatic, posed ones.

The dialogue he shares with Princess Tamina is the kind of banter formed of one-liners designed to show that the characters are trying hard not to like each other despite their obvious attraction. It’s not very clever dialogue and often crops up at times when the characters really have more important things to do and emotions to feel, and it does substitute for character development, but at a very basic level it gets the job done. If we like these two characters, it’s because we find Gyllenhaal and Arterton to be likable themselves. Tamina is a bland character on paper, as are these all (excepting perhaps Sheik Amar, played by an enthusiastic Alfred Molina), and doesn’t have enough of a sense of humor, but Arterton herself seems to understand the role, and gives it just enough charm and gentleness to get by. I’m not sure she and Gyllenhaal have what is called “screen chemistry,” but at least they seem to be having fun together.

Most of the humor comes not from the dialogue, but from the more over-the-top stunts, Alfred Molina’s enthusiastically selfish Sheik and his love of ostrich-racing, the sheer awful corniness of the romantic arc, and the entire lack of subtlety anywhere in the movie. This all is fun. And as I said, there are some really beautiful fantasy cities and desert landscapes we get to visit. If anything, I wish there were fewer locations, just so that we could spend more time exploring the more spectacular ones, like the holy city of Alamut. I’d welcome a sequel just to revisit these landscapes in greater detail.

“I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.” “I was misinformed.”

And there’s also another element that’s quite interesting: the theme of brotherhood, and the importance of its bonds. See, Dastan is not a prince by blood; rather, he was adopted by the Persian emperor when a young boy, and so became brother to the emperor’s two older sons. Tus, the eldest, is trying his hardest to be worthy of succeeding his father – he’s grave, serious, ambitious, but also desires to learn wisdom and justice. And he likes Dastan, despite the rogue’s general irreverence, lack of manners, and bedraggled appearance. The other brother, Garsiv (WHO THE HECK CAME UP WITH THESE HORRIBLE NAMES? THE WHOLE RICHNESS OF PERSIAN LINGUISTIC CULTURE AND THEY INVENT THIS LAMENESS???), is more arrogant and can’t stand Dastan. We immediately sense he is untrustworthy (his darker hair and eyes are also typical Hollywood symbols), and probably in league with the villain, but things don’t end up being quite that simple. Well, fine, things are still very simple, but the movie affirms the bonds of brotherhood in a way that is satisfying and less cynical than I sort of expected from Hollywood. The treatment of the theme certainly isn’t deep, but the mere presence of brotherly love in this story was actually kind of neat.

I watched the whole movie swearing Tus (the guy on the right) was played by Karl Urban, but apparently it’s some other guy.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time lets you turn off your brain without having to worry too much about what’ll happen to you without your brain’s defense. I spent most of its running time smiling, and sometimes grinning, and I’m grateful for a movie that does that.

Riding off happily into the sandstorm…

Credits
Screencaps from here and here.

Book Meme Day 19: Favorite Film Adaptations of Books

I have already modified the original meme to allow for multiple choices, and I will now modify it even more to allow for multiple meanings of this exceedingly vague topic. The original topic of “favorite book turned into a movie” does not allow for substantially different books for me to feature than the previous topics, and also says nothing about the quality of the film. For instance, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has, to my knowledge, never had a very good straight adaptation, but someone could conceivably choose it for the original topic even while despising its film versions. But since I am a film buff as well as bibliophile, I am turning the question so it allows me to feature films that I think are also very good of themselves. But first, my three interpretations of the topic (as I’ve modified it), along with my three film choices.

Also – and this should go without saying – these choices are limited to films I have actually seen.

1) Favorite Book Turned Into a Film

The Ringwraiths were spot-on in the movies, especially the scene where the hobbits are hiding under the tree root.

Well, that would have to be The Lord of the Rings – the Peter Jackson trilogy. For all that they changed or left out – the songs, the poetry, the humor of the Elves, the confidence of Aragorn, the moral conscience of Faramir, the reducing of Gimli to comic relief, the Scouring of the Shire, etc. – I believe there is more that they got right. The epic scope, the themes of friendship, forgiveness, and the importance of never giving in to evil, and much more.

Although, I still hold out the hope of one day seeing a grand film adaptation of Perelandra; since the book is almost a textbook example of “unfilmable,” such a film would probably have to be animated. And very philosophical. I mean, hey, they made an opera of it!

One day I also hope to see a fantastic adaptation of The Lantern Bearers, which I think could easily become one of the great historical epics of film, if it is done right. But alas, I wait still.

Nevermind. Moving on.

2) Film That Best Represents Its Source Material

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), directed by Robert Mulligan and starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.

Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch. I was astounded, upon seeing the movie, how exactly he fit my mental image of Atticus. The tone of his voice, the way he carries himself, the tender nobility and humble love in his eyes…all of it, there. Additionally, the children are perfectly cast. They’re real kids, not child actors, with all the spontaneity and intensity that implies. It is also helpful that the script is nearly identical to the book, only cutting a few scenes due to time and pacing constraints. To my recollection, everything in the movie is also in the book, and it is all represented in the right way. The music (by legendary composer Elmer Bernstein) is justly one of the most famous movie themes, evoking the carefree world of childhood imagination. The directing is also masterful, setting the right and bringing out the book’s themes.

3) Film That Most Improves On Its Source Material

I already know there will be some disagreement here, based on yesterday’s post, because I’m going to say the 2002 version of The Count of Monte Cristo, directed by Kevin Reynolds and starring Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, and Richard “Marcus Aurelius/Dumbledore” Harris.

First and foremost, this is one of the last true adventure movies that Hollywood has made. In the past decade or so, “action movies” have supplanted the adventure genre, replacing exciting stories with endless combat and chases. They are more about adrenaline than the wonder of exploration and imagination. But The Count of Monte Cristo is in the glorious tradition of the old swasbucklers like Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk (both featuring Errol Flynn), in which an essentially good man suffered terrible trials and had to find the right ways to fight back, all the while visiting exotic locations, making friends and enemies, and generally having some great adventures. There’s a liveliness and joy in its storytelling, despite the dark-ish nature of its revenge tale. Its very well-paced in three acts, and in each Edmond transforms himself completely into a new person. The change Caviezel effects is astounding – he’s almost unrecognizable as the same person in the three acts, but the change is entirely through grooming, clothing, and the way he carries himself and speaks. When he returns to Paris, it is completely believable that his old friends would not recognize him.

This movie has everything I desired from Dumas’ book that Dumas did not deliver. It trims the soap opera fat that I did not care for (the meandering subplots with less-than-intriguing Parisians) and brings out the story’s key elements. There are some great swordfights, that are thrilling and well shot, without that horrible shaky-cam that infects Hollywood like a plague nowadays. Also, I think, some key relationships are deepened. The decision to make Albert actually Edmond’s son rather than Fernand’s is brilliant, for even though it does mean that our hero had immorally slept with his fiancé before their marriage (an action I of course do not condone), it explains some things much better: Mercedes’ quickness to marry Fernand after Edmond’s arrest, Albert’s innocent nature and sense of honor coming from both Mercedes and Edmond rather than just Mercedes, and why Fernand doesn’t like his own son (he subconsciously realizes that Albert is more like Edmond than himself). The emotional threads are clarified, given motive and substance, and played out to an exciting, dramatic conclusion.

I love it. It’s fantastic entertainment.

EDIT May 25:

On reflection, I have concluded that this list is inadequate. I still agree with my choices for the categories above, to some degree, but feel that I have left out too many excellent film adaptations of books.

For instance, how could I have neglected The Princess Bride? I grew up quoting the film, and only discovered the book in my teenage years. Both are excellent: witty, romantic, adventurous, and hilarious. The movie is more accessible than book, which is filled with Goldman’s elaborate ruse in which he tries to convince the reader that he is merely “abridging” an original, older text by S. Morgenstern in which the author supposedly went on for dozens of pages about trees, the minutiae of packing royal luggage, and such boring materials. He claims his abridgement is “the good parts version.” Some readers may not catch on to Goldman’s trick – there is no real Morgenstern, nor kingdoms of Florin and Guilder, of course – because he plays it so straight-faced and with such casual detail, and those that do catch on may not find it funny (for example, my father), but for those that do, it puts a fun twist on the central story. The book and film benefit from having the same writer, and thus maintain the same ton and essential appeal. Pure entertainment, beginning to end. Both versions are iconic.

I must also add The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), which together form the best adaptation of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers that I know of. I only just watched them over the past three days, and I think they are actually much superior to The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) that I list above. They manage the same effect – trimming the fat while crafting the most excellent adventure promised by Dumas – while remaining far, far truer to the text. I cannot think of anything significant in these films that was not in the book, nor of anything from the book that I missed in the films. They retain the adventure and the comedy in equal parts, with dashes of drama thrown in to give the proceedings just enough gravitas to get by.

A hilariously stolen breakfast.

And is there a better all-star cast for such a movie? Charlton Heston makes a devious, but strangely honorable Cardinal Richilieu, Christopher Lee is imposing as Rochefort (and it’s great to see Lee have some fun with his character’s humiliations), and Michael York proves excellent as the young, naïve, but lively d’Artagnan (sort of like Luke Skywalker, with more passion). The Three themselves are excellent – Richard Chamberlain as the kind, refined Aramis, Frank Finlay as the hilarious and friendly Porthos, and Oliver Reed as the intense Athos. Faye Dunaway is a perfect Milady de Winter, and even eye-candy Raquel Welch shows some comic talent as the bumbling coquette Constance Bonacieux. The sword-fights are superb, some of the best I have seen. Swashbuckling with all the energy and joy of Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone’s best duels, but with more genuine strategy and convincing moves. Really, really fun movies.

To be honest, I am such a film buff that I think I will have to return to this list and add movies as I think of them. Only movies for which I have read the source books are candidates, but still, there are likely so many…

Movie Review: “Steamboy” (2004)

There is a boy, and he is quite proficient with steam.

Title: Steamboy (2004) IMDb
Director: Katsuhiro Ôtomo
Lead Voice Actors (English): Anna Paquin (Ray Steam), Alfred Molina (Dr. Eddie Steam), Patrick Stewart (Dr. Lloyd Steam)
Musical Score: Steve Jablonsky (sample here)
Length: 126 minutes
Rating (US): Rated PG-13 for action violence.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “In [alternate] 1860s Britain, a boy inventor finds himself caught in the middle of a deadly conflict over a revolutionary advance in steam power.” (courtesy of IMDb)
Reason for Beginning: I love 2D animation and have long been interested in the steampunk genre – this movie promised both! Plus it’s available free on YouTube Movies!
Reason for Finishing: The animation is fantastic and the characters are interesting.
Movie Rewatchability: Mainly because of the beautiful animation; the story really isn’t as good as it should be.
Director Rewatchability: I’d definitely watch this director again, though in this film he relies too much on extended action scenes with minimal plot. Ôtomo directed the famously violent Akira (1988), which doesn’t interest me much, and an anime remake of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which sort of interests me because I’m a fan of the original silent classic.
Recommendation: Yes, it’s a good, interesting film, mainly visually. Good music, too. Plot was weaker than expected, though, and there’s little emotional content or character development. Continue reading “Movie Review: “Steamboy” (2004)”

Movie Review: “Peter Pan” (2003)

Title: Peter Pan (2003) IMDb
Director: P.J. Hogan (based on the play by J.M. Barrie)
Lead Actors: Jeremy Sumter (Peter Pan), Rachel Hurd-Wood (Wendy), Jason Isaacs (Mr. Darling/Hook), Richard Briers (Smee), Ludivine Sagnier (Tinkerbell)
Score Composer: James Newton Howard
Length: 113 minutes
MPAA Rating: “Rated PG for adventure action sequences and peril.”
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Fun and emotional adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s famous play, wherein the three Darling children get whisked off to Neverland to have adventures with Peter Pan, the magical boy who never grows up.
Reason for Beginning: Peter Pan has been one of my favorite stories since childhood, on a level with Robin Hood and King Arthur.
Reason for Finishing: It engaged me exactly the way the story is supposed to. It’s also a surprisingly effective tearjerker.
Movie Rewatchability: Higher than I initially thought. A day after watching it for this review, I found myself bored and decided to watch the movie again. I enjoyed it every bit as much as before, and would eagerly watch it again.
Director Rewatchability: Hard to say, since no story is quite like Peter Pan, but I like his directing style. He doesn’t try to impose upon this very traditional British fairy tale an inappropriately modern sensibility, in theme or in style.
Recommendation: If you like the story of Peter Pan or have any interest in modern fairy tales, you will find this movie interesting and highly enjoyable. If you are a romantic at heart, this movie will satisfy. In fact, I think it may be the best screen adaptation of Barrie’s story yet, at the very least on par with Disney’s excellent version. I say this having seen the original stage play, though without having read Barrie’s book based on it.

Key Thoughts

The difficulty with any adaptation of this story is simply how well-known it is. There are no surprises in the plot or characters. The story was old when Disney animated it, and many generations have now grown up with that one as the definitive version. (Some people have expressed a strange fondness for the 1960 TV movie starring Mary Martin, a fondness which I do not share.) And then came Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), which tried to be both a sequel and a reimagining of the classic story. Despite the number of faults and miscalculations in Hook, we must credit Spielberg with really trying something new and original with the old story. It has its own charm, its own magic, and has claimed a special place in my heart. But to the point: did we really need another version of Peter Pan for the modern era, especially one that plays the story so straightforward and traditionally?

This beautiful picture needs no caption.

I think we did. For one thing, the wonderful boy is finally played by, of all things, a young boy! While Disney’s Pan was voiced by 16 year-old Bobby Driscoll, I think this is the first live-action movie to feature him played by an actor of the correct age and sex. Without this, the story’s themes of youth and not wanting to grow up wouldn’t work nearly as well. Also, while I certainly don’t think a fantasy movie needs great special effects to be successful, this one really benefits from art direction that takes good advantage of the technical wizardly available in 2003. And lastly, what really makes this version unique is how it addresses some of the more sophisticated and serious themes inherent in Barrie’s story. This movie is actually about something.

Smee: Captain, the ice is melting, the sun is out, and the flowers are all in bloom…
Captain Hook: He’s back.

What sort of boy is Peter Pan? The kind whose coming causes winter to flee and flowers to spring into bloom, whose sorrow causes the clouds to curl and the seas to wail, and whose sheer joy causes the sun to rise after a long night. I found it interesting that, in this very English story, Pan is played by an American, Jeremy Sumter. Some British viewers might not like this, perhaps, but I think it serves to subtly set him apart from the other children. Sumter’s more American acting style helps with this as well, being sharper, wilder, and maybe a little more tempestuous than the more gentler British style of his costars. Now, I’m using the terms “American” and “British” very loosely here, and very subjectively – I’m not a student of acting styles and can only go off my gut instinct here. But I like Sumter’s portrayal. He can crow in joy (so that verb really feels apt), wail in despair, and steel himself in heartbreak, and we believe it. He’s easily offended, but quickly forgives. Death holds no horrors for him, but loneliness is unbearable. He knows endless ways to fight and escape the pirates, but can’t acknowledge his own emotions, which are begging him to let them grow into maturity, to usher him into adulthood.

Peter: [forcefully] I want always to be a boy, and have fun.
Wendy: You say so, but I think it is your biggest pretend.

When speaking of bright and pretty actresses the term “luminous” is probably far overused to the point of cliché, and yet I find it really does describe Rachel Hurd-Wood’s performance as Wendy. She simply lights up the screen whenever she’s on it. Another reviewer’s cliché, I know, I’m sorry. But how else to say it? Her smile makes you smile. Her disappointment makes you want to immediately stand up and fix whatever is wrong. Peter Pan is the blood racing through this story’s veins, and Wendy is the pounding heart. She is entranced by Pan, but we also see her realizing his immaturity and longing for him to be able to grow up, even a little bit, so they can be on the same level. While Wendy doesn’t initially want to grow up, she realizes that it’s the healthy thing to do, and that there are other, different joys to be had as an adult, even if she doesn’t fully understand what those are.

Their innocent romance is the center of this movie, as it hasn’t truly been in others. I like how the movie manages the theme of growing up through romance without letting the subject devolve into a discussion of sex. There’s a brief scene near the beginning which lightly acknowledges that some people might interpret the story with sex as a theme, but I think the point of that scene is to highlight how sex is actually irrelevant and inappropriate to the story at hand. It’s about the beginnings of romantic love, which is a completely different thing. The kiss is simply the most visible and intimate method by which that love is communicated innocently and chastely.

Kisses in this story possess great power, as Slightly says below, even when it is the thought of one more than the actuality that counts. Near the beginning, Mrs. Darling says that Mr. Darling will need her special kiss to have courage to face the bigwigs of the bank in light of his recent humiliation. Peter’s “kiss” (actually an acorn) on Wendy’s necklace saves her from Tootles’ arrow. Tigerlily’s long kiss of victory inspires John with superhuman strength to pull the lever and save the whole group. And finally, of course, Wendy’s kiss brings Peter back from despair and defeat, and makes him impervious to Hook’s threats and insults. Despite his denials, Peter really does have a “crush” on Wendy – it’s even revealed that of the stories she tells, the ones he likes best are the romances ending with a kiss. Because of the movie’s gentle treatment of all this, it ends up being quite romantic, while maintaining its innocence.

Hook: Come on, fly to the rescue! Then I’ll shoot you right through your noble intentions.

*sneer, smirk, gnash gnash*

But where would this story be without Captain Hook? One of the best villains in all children’s literature, he is played here by Jason Isaacs, who brings a similar teeth-gnashing menace and snobbery as he does in the Harry Potter movies, but with considerably more dark comedy. He’s really fantastic in the role, taking it seriously while playing it with gleefully psychotic villainy. He is truly fearsome, but also convinces as the essentially lonely and depressed character that Hook is. It’s a delicate balance, but one that Isaacs nails perfectly. When Hook finally douses himself in Tinkerbell’s fairy dust and begins to float into the air, he exults, “It’s Hook, he flies! And…he…likes it!” And later, thinking he has the victory, he gloats that Pan will die alone and unloved, and then pauses with a sad glint in his eye, whispering, “Just like me.” He’s younger and more physically aggressive than many other Hooks we’ve seen, which only serves to increase his menace. You know he can easily overpower Peter in a contest of simple brute force, and thus their duels are tense as Peter flies and flips impishly just out of reach of the pirate captain’s slashing blades.

Slightly: [examining the thimble Peter gave Wendy, thinking it was a “kiss.”] I remember kisses, let me see. Aye, that is a kiss. A powerful thing.

Mr. and Mrs. Darling face the bankers together.

Other side characters are well-represented here. Isaacs, as per tradition, plays Mr. Darling as well, and is awkwardly warm (rightly so) in the role of the timid banker who has sacrificed so much for his family. Olivia Williams glows as Mrs. Darling, who sympathizes with her children while trying to gently explain to them the depth and nature of their father’s love and courage. Smee is played by the twinkly-eyed Richard Briers, who in my mind will always be Tom Goode, and is appropriately cheerful and goofy, while viewing his evil captain with a simple-minded, but wry optimism. John and Michael are the little gentleman and cute kid respectively and effectively, and Tigerlily is a fun, wild creature with a charming crush on John. The Lost Boys are also well-cast. I admit, part of me has always wanted to be Peter Pan and live with the Lost Boys, flying over forests, living in a tree house, and fighting pirates. I like the innocence and open-heartedness of their brotherhood, and how in many ways they do display maturity that many adults lack. In an honorable and manly action, Tootles accepts responsibility for shooting Wendy out of the sky. Slightly is sort of Peter’s lieutenant, and has some of the best lines (as above). Importantly, they are believably innocent, rather than hip and cynical as in the movie Hook.

...and straight on 'til morning.

The art direction is quite beautiful, combining the effect of a lavish pop-up book with modern techniques. The children fly to Neverland through a space filled with planets that hang large and colorful like otherworldly balloons to the “second star to the right,” all setting a perfect fairy tale tone. London looks magnificent, as if taken from Dickens, cleaned up and polished to a warm glow, while Neverland itself blooms and boils with life. Action scenes have some cartoony physics in places that seem appropriate, and the camera maintains an appropriate distance from its subjects, without going too far for the epic look. Action is comprehensible and immediate both, as it should be!

All this is aided by James Newton Howard’s score, which practically leaps from the screen and throws you into flight with the characters. It is full of equal parts joy and magic, gentility and robustness. Dancing and fairy-like, if you will. You can listen to some of it here.

On a more academic level, I think the story of Peter Pan is a true fairy story, in the Tolkien and George MacDonald sense. For all the fun and jokes and whimsy, the magic itself is taken absolutely seriously. Physical laws are turned upside down, but moral laws are upheld. Neverland is an escape from the real world that, properly experienced, prepares one to return and face the real world with renewed vigor, wisdom, and clarity. As MacDonald advised, the story does not “give” me these things to think about, it does not hammer them into me, but rather it causes me to think them for myself.

I am sure I am not the only one who, as a boy, longed to be Peter Pan and live forever in Neverland. I still want to fly like him. There is always a tragic, melancholic tint to the end of his story. By refusing to leave Neverland and grow up, he denies himself true love and the true potential which he has. I do not think Neverland would be the last magical world Peter would find, if he had the courage to leave it. As an adult, there are plenty of wonders to discover and exult in, if one looks with the right eye and mindset. As the Professor himself said,

Children are meant to grow up, and not to become Peter Pans. Not to lose innocence and wonder, but to proceed on the appointed journey: that journey upon which it is certainly not better to travel hopefully than to arrive, though we must travel hopefully if we are to arrive. But it is one of the lessons of fairy-stories (if we can speak of the lessons of things that do not lecture) that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom. (Tolkien 15)

Credits
Tolkien, J.R.R., “On Fairy Stories”
Most screencaps from MovieScreenshots

Movie Review: “The Eagle” (2011)

The Eagle should appeal to movie-lovers who are frustrated with the way modern action movies prefer to ignore story and character in favor of rushing from bloody killing to bloody killing. It’s an exciting adventure that really does care about the characters and their relationship.

Title: The Eagle (2011) IMDb
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Lead Actors: Channing Tatum (Marcus), Jamie Bell (Esca), Tahar Rahim (Seal Prince), Donald Sutherland (Uncle Aquila), Mark Strong (Guern)
Score Composer: Atli Örvarsson
Length: 114 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for battle sequences and some disturbing images.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “In 140 AD, twenty years after the unexplained disappearance of the entire Ninth Legion in the mountains of Scotland, young centurion Marcus Aquila arrives from Rome to solve the mystery and restore the reputation of his father, the commander of the Ninth. Accompanied only by his British slave Esca, Marcus sets out across Hadrian’s Wall into the uncharted highlands of Caledonia – to confront its savage tribes, make peace with his father’s memory, and retrieve the lost legion’s golden emblem, the Eagle of the Ninth.” (by Focus Features)
Reason for Beginning: As it’s based on the novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, one of my favorite authors, I desperately wanted to see this. Been waiting for it for years.
Reason for Finishing: Somewhat classic-style adventure story, and good entertainment.
Movie Re-watchability: Yes, though I would let a little time go by first. Because the story is so simple and focused, I predict it will become the kind of movie I can easily jump into at any point, and enjoy equally in individual chunks or as a whole. It’s nice to have some movies like that.
Director Re-watchability: Hard to say, really. It’s the source material and art direction that make me like The Eagle so much, although Macdonald’s overall directing is good. He’s clearly talented, but I’m wary about his camera work: shaky cam and I do not get along. Wouldn’t know what to expect from another movie of his.
Recommendation: Not a perfect movie, but very good and rather unique. For those who like movies about ancient Rome and period adventure stories, yes. Also, if you saw Gladiator (2000) and thought “Well that’s fun, but I wonder what it all really looked like,” then you should see this movie. The Eagle should appeal to movie-lovers who are frustrated with the way modern action movies prefer to ignore story and character in favor of rushing from bloody killing to bloody killing. It’s an exciting adventure that really does care about the characters and their relationship. Continue reading “Movie Review: “The Eagle” (2011)”