If…

[Screenshot]We visualize the 60s by and large through the publicity of some of its more influential luminaries. So there’s a general view of it as a time of free love, drugs, peace and beads and harmony and whatnot. Struggle against the system, sure, but the peacable kind. If… is a 60s film, but unrepentantly nonharmonious: the story’s rebels (the “Crusaders”, as they’re described in the closing credits) are not hippies or socialists, but hard-line anarchists full of the-end-justifies-the-means ideology. It’s viewed through the lens of a British boarding school with a subtle tinge of pure fantasy injected in. To say the least, it’s odd, but in ways which are effective. It captures both the rrage of the times and the rage of youth effectively: Travis is rebelling against the system, but he doesn’t really have any cogent plan beyond pure rebellion, no real ideology of his own with which to replace it (which makes his moral justification that much weaker). It’s a discouraging picture of pretty much any sort of human struggle: those with power become abusive and capricious; those without become conduits for undirected rage rather than effective social change.

I make If… sound like some leaden political discourse here, and it’s not. All that discourse about rebellion and the system? It fits into a surprisingly cohesive and engrossing collection of vignettes fleshing out the characters. I kind of wish there was a bit more said about the juniors though. I figured for the first five minutes that this was Jute’s story, because his outsider perspective seemed to be the one which we as newcomers to College House would follow. But that’s a false lead, and we’re dropped into the deep end of the British boarding-school dynamic, with its power politics and petty sadism (not, to my surprise, homoerotic sadism. There’s homoeroticism, but it’s distinct from the whole masters-and-slaves issue).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

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The Fisher King

[Screenshot]I like a lot of Terry Gilliam’s films, and have learned to embrace his madness. The Fisher King surprised me by having a fundamentally more realistic plot, generally free of complete crackheadedness. There are still fantastic elements, but they’re realistically grounded. At times it seemed to move slowly: it’s surprising how little actual plot content there is to this full-length film. But there’s some solid character development, driven mostly by solid acting on Jeff Bridges’ part. Robin Williams is OK, and different enough from his standard role to at least be interesting, but, still, he’s such an iconic character he has trouble breaking out of his role. Bridges has a fair bit more wiggle room, since the role I think of as his most definitive is the Dude from The Big Lebowski, who doesn’t much resemble Jack.

The Fisher King is a sweet and strange story. Very much off the beaten path for Gilliam, I think, but overall successful. It shares his general penchant for black comedy but otherwise moves in a fairly different direction than his frequently fantastic or bleak stories. Granted, it’s got bleakness enough, but it’s not an unreal bleakness, such as the post-apocalyptic 12 Monkeys or Kafkaesque dystopia of Brazil, but rather a pretty decent mirror of the authentic disillusionments of the 80s and pre-boom 90s, when it seemed like fate could drag you down from on top of the world at any time. Seeing a realistic take on the dispiriting times actually does a fair bit to put Gilliam’s otherworldly morbidity into a sensible context.

Oh, also, a mention for the female roles. Mercedes Ruehl was good in a somewhat limited way, but Amanda Plummer was either brilliant or terrible, and I’m not sure which. Very unnerving and awkward, almost painful to watch.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Queer as Folk US version, episodes 1–3

[Screenshot]I should maybe do more research. i noted the name, knew it was a British series, and had heard it was a comedy. I’m into comedy, and sufficiently gay-friendly that I don’t find a focus on the gay community threatening or disturbing or immoral or whatever most folks get all up in arms about.

Two problems, however: while it’s based on a British series, what I got was a US series. I’m not sure how different they are. Bigger, and more serious, is the focus and tone. The tonal issue is a straight-up classification thing: it’s more drama than comedy, at least in what I saw. It’s got funny bits, sure, but by and large the various trials and tribulations of the leads’ lives are played straight, as serious issues. That’s OK although not what I was looking for. As to focus, well, maybe the intervening seven years have softened the issue a bit, but I got both an “us vs. them” vibe (explicitly stated at least once) and a feeling that the lives of at least this particular subculture was in fact completely alien. To go into more details on the latter point: there are people (of all orientations) who go clubbing habitually, and there are probably clubs very nearly as grotesquely hedonistic (for any gender/sexual orientation) as Babylon. But it comes off as a gay cliche, and a gay cliche which I don’t think is actually indicative of the habits of most gay people. It’s just kind of unnerving, being shown this alien world of writhing people in all levels of costume/undress, and having this held up as some sort of standard of gay lifestyle. That’s a definite subculture of the gay community, I know, but I get the impression it’s not actually representative of the cultural mores held in the larger body.

So all this was kind of distracting from the plot, which was there, and pretty good, but I couldn’t get engaged by it.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

涼宮ハルヒの憂鬱/The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

[Screenshot]This is perhaps one of the more self-contained screwball comedy animes I’ve seen. It’s a lot less in-jokey than Excel Saga or FLCL, although a lot of homages and shout-outs are there for the astute viewer. The plot’s unreal enough that too many details would be a spoiler, but we can start with the important detail that the broadcast order does not follow the in-story chronology. This is worked into the story in odd lacunae, primarily references both overt and veiled to events from the end of the first narrative arc. The anachronism is thoughtfully constructed, so even the omissions work well in the story and it builds up to something akin to a conclusion.

Yes, I’m being coy about details, because it’s a strange show, and some of the joy in in figuring out the details of its oddness. Two things worth mentioning, though. First, the “first” episode is extremely atypical, so don’t judge the show by it, although it does set the scene. Second, I can’t let this pass without commenting on the kind of unnerving sexual antics in the show. Pretty much every time Asahina and Suzumiya were in the same scene, I knew something extremely unsettling was going to happen. To the show’s credit, it never goes too far, although it dances on the line a couple times, making you wonder if you’re a bad person for laughing (this may be an unintentional cross-cultural effect, since the ways the Japanese are weird about sex are kinda different than the ways Americans are weird about sex).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future

[Screenshot]Max Headroom was sort of an iconic figure for the 80s. This movie isn’t his first appearance (that was on the British Max Talking Headroom Show, where the stuttering faux-CGI personality introduced music videos), or even his most famous (which was probably the doomed American TV series). But somehow he managed to be everywhere in the 80s, from guest appearances in Doonesbury to Coca-Cola commercials.

There’s a character type I call a “Harry Lime” after the Orson Welles character of the same name. He gets almost no screen time, but manages to dominate The Third Man nonetheless. Looking back on the 80s, and at this movie, Max Headroom is really the anti-Harry. He’s on screen everywhere, and couldn’t be less consequential. Likewise, he’s something of a sidelight even in his own movie. Fortunately, the movie’s still kind of OK, although not phenomenal nor terribly significant. The central duo, the only ones to make it to the US series, are unfortunately the least well-portrayed characters: Pays in particular is a nonentity. A lot of the strength draws on the colorful cast of secondary characters: most notably the spoiled, gleefully psychopathic manchild Bryce Lynch, and the contrasting crowd of scruffy underworld characters serving as Byce’s henchmen and the management of Bigtime.

As for Max Headroom himself? Well, he’s the same character he always is. He has no real relevance to the plot, so his inclusion is really just to draw in the fans. But he’s entertainingly glitchy and believably magnetic, so that works well enough. The plot’s no great shakes anyway, although as a near-future cyberpunk mood piece it succeeds well. I place a lot of the credit for that on the aforementioned crowd of scruffy secondary characters, who present a pretty well-done futuristic lower class.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

パプリカ/Paprika

It’s a bit out of sequence, but I saw it tonight and have been trying to see it for a while, so I’m putting the thoughts out there before this film turns into odd debris in my head (or vice versa!). We can start with the simple fact that it’s a Satoshi kon film. Kon’s work has been becoming steadily weirder and more visually lush since Millennium Actress, and Paprika is a fairly straightforward point along that trend. We’re dropped in at the deep end; usually the genre-splicing only begins at the halfway point, but here we it starts in the first five minutes. The comparison to his former work becomes obvious in a lot of particular visuals: in particular, certain effects are reminiscent of the final two episodes of Paranoia Agent. Don’t worry, it makes more sense than those did.

There is a clear delineation between the successful and unsuccessful aspects of Paprika. The visuals are extraordinary, a busy fantasy of imagination with a lot going on. I think I can say without reservation that it’s among the most gorgeous animation work I’ve seen, in competition with the best of Ghibli. In praising stylistic elements, a good deal of credit also has to go to Susumu Hirasawa, who on his third collaboration with Kon has transcended to a fair degree his electropop roots. There’s still a lot of music which sounds like an evolved state of P-Model, but it’s blended with a wider variety of cinematic themes. It goes without saying, of course, that the music’s frenetic and otherworldly style matches the visual design.

So much for the good. The bad is, alas, much of the rest of the film’s characteristics. The visual extraordinariness is actually a liability from a pacing perspective: we’re treated to massive infodumps by the psych crew, which are notable mostly for the lack of anything exciting happening on the screen at the same time. I’ve tolerated dialogue as technobabble-laden and abstract or even more so in the past (Ghost in the Shell springs to mind), but Paprika achieves an unequalled momentum of action, and it’s that much more bitter when it grinds to a halt.

The ending is vaguely unsatisfying, although things are at least more-or-less resolved. Kon is in danger of acquiring Stephenson’s syndrome at this rate: Perfect Blue‘s ending was a cop-out, Paranoia Agent‘s final episode was largely incomprehensible, and here we have another weak ending. Not terrible, but weak enough to cause alarm.

Time to swing back to the good. Character design has evolved in some places; stayed a bit stagnant in others. Konakawa’s a bit of a rehash: the physical design echoes Millennium Actress‘s Genya and the characterization has fragments of Genya blended with Paranoia Agent‘s Maniwa and Ikari. The other characters however, are largely a fresh design, and I particularly like the newfound autonomy female characters get. Kon’s female characters have in the past been basically a thin layer of skin over a jumble of neuroses: even the comparatively strong title character of Millennium Actress is more a scared girl acting out a dream than a strong independent woman. Paprika‘s women are a breath of fresh air in this regard. Atsuko is intelligent, active, and dominating, and the title character is simply charmingly vivacious.

All in all, Paprika is an extraordinary stylistic spectacle, and indicative of significant creative growth for Satoshi Kon (and Susumu Hirasawa), and is well worth the watching despite its serious flaws in plot and pacing.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling

It has been established that I’m behind the times, so when everybody else is getting all excited about some new book, I’m of course off reading its prequel for the first time. I don’t know why, but I found this story weirdly unsatisfying. It might be the matter of the academic facade starting to come down. Our heroes spend hardly any time in class at all, and a lot of what goes on feels like a series of unrelated events rather than part of a cohesive whole. Previous books made a big deal of examinations and holidays and Hogsmeade weekends and the like: the events in Half-Blood Prince, freed of these anchors, seem to be a bit adrift in time.

But ignoring, for the moment, the metaphorical pickles and tomatoes and bun, how is the meat of the story? I wish I could say it made sense to me. The Harry-Ginny dynamic is coming kind of out of left field — sure, they’ve been friends for ages, but giving Harry obsessive fantasies all of a sudden? Well, he’s a teenager, I guess, so we can handwave it away. Less excusable is the unnecessarily convoluted Horcrux plot. For a start, the big memory-stealing plot seems rather unnecessary: Harry finally gets the much-coveted memory, and while it’s critical for revealing to Harry (and to us) such vital information as what a Horcrux is, it wasn’t anything Dumbledore actually needed, since his plan had apparently been hatched independent of any information he might receive. And a very half-assed plan it is too: why doesn’t he bring along any of his trusted lieutenants? Sure, they couldn’t come across the lake with him, but he didn’t know that at the time.

So, uh, yeah, plotwise, I found the increasing focus on Dumbledore to not serve Rowling well. She’s good with children, who are kind of irrational, and good with heavily flawed adults, so that Snape and Fudge and the teacher-of-the-year come out well. Dumbledore had previously been mostly a non-speaking part, so he sufficed. But give him a large role, and one wonders: isn’t he supposed to be smarter than this? This was a problem in the fifth book, too, where Dumbledore revealed the Big, Secret Prophecy, and the readership blinked and said, “Eh, we figured that out four books ago.”

Still well-written technically, but, I’m getting a feeling the quality’s been dropping off more-or-less steadily since the third book. I guess I’ll have to read the seventh and see what gets wrapped up (and whether Dumbledore’s various dumb ideas this book are somehow justified).