Goals for 2017

It’s nearly the end of 2016. Hurrah. Which means it’s nearly 2017. Hurrah…?

Sadly, I don’t know if 2017 will be better than 2016, a year of diminished confidence, high anxiety, and a little bit of heartbreak for me. But I can set out goals and try to make it better. I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions as they’re as easy to break as they are to make, so I’ll simply lay out little long-term goals I’d like to achieve by this time next year.

So here they are…

Write a short story
I’ve been longing to write fiction for a while, and have a number of ideas in my head (including a fairy tale that I really love). But every time I sit down to write something, I get discouraged. I’m worried, I suppose, that I’ll realise that I simply can’t write fiction and so the dreams I have in my head will disintegrate. But I need to give it a shot. I’ve always wanted to write something that means something to someone, something that can give people hope and warmth. The stories in my head are all about clinging to hope in dark times, and I need to get on and write them. Better to try and fail than not to try at all.

Get confident, stupid
Confidence has long been an issue for me. I’m both an introvert and shy, so even when I want to go out and mingle, I find it really hard. It’s not much fun. But I’ve made some strides in the last few months of this year – going to conventions, meeting up with people, talking to new people online – and want to continue that progress into 2017. It’s not going to be easy, and sooner or later I need to take some big strides, but I need to just get on and do it. Gladly, I’ve got some excitement in me about it (as well as, y’know, crippling fear), so I should focus on that and use it to my advantage.

Do some cosplay
I’ve blogged about cosplay here before, and I really wanted to do some at the con I went to in November, but it didn’t work out. I wasn’t ready. I want to cosplay at at least one con this year though. It doesn’t need to be anything big (I’ve got an idea for cosplaying as Elliott from E.T.), I just need to do it. It’s a nice chance to draw a bit of attention to myself, maybe even have people come over and talk to me. I’ve been wearing some Disney pin badges on me whenever I’ve gone out recently, and have had some lovely conversations with people because of them. That’s the beginning of the big road to cosplay!

Compile my essays into a book
I’ve written a lot about Steven Spielberg. Like, loads. Seriously. I’ve uhmed and aahed about writing a book about him and trying to get it published, and I’m getting the itch again. With a new Indiana Jones film on the horizon, a book on the series would likely go down well with publishers, so that’s an option. But I find writing about film a little empty at the moment. I can’t put my finger on it; it’s just: what is me writing about Spielberg or Disney actually achieving? What’s it doing to help others? Not much. But I still want to get a book published, and maybe a good step on that road is to gather the essays I’ve already written, add a few new ones, and self-publish. At least then I can try to work out exactly how I feel about my film writing.

Find a special someone
I’m 32. I’ve never had a girlfriend. I’ve never been kissed. I’m shy. I live alone. I’m lonely. Really, very lonely. These are things we’re not really supposed to talk about. Social media and blogging is all about projecting a perfect vision of yourself, right? Well, I don’t believe that. What’s the point? Things don’t change if you don’t talk about them, and I want them to change. I want to find someone special, I want a girlfriend. That’s very much the wrong way to go about things: don’t aim to find a girlfriend, as that’s a sure way to failure and frankly a little creepy. Women are human beings, not things to turn into girlfriends. But I can’t deny I want to meet a woman. I need to work on my confidence before then, I need to be the kind of person who can be a good boyfriend, I need friendships first of all. I’m certainly not going to rush things, and I’m certainly not the kind of guy to go hunting for women or anything so hideous as that. But by the end of 2017, I’d love to have a girlfriend in my life, so let’s see how it goes.

And that’s it. My five core goals. I hope they make sense and I hope that if you’re setting yourself goals, you achieve them. 2016 hasn’t been a great year, but that doesn’t mean things can’t get better. We’ve all got to be a little nicer to each other, a little more empathetic, and things can turn around. Happy New Year folks. I hope it’s a good one.

Essay: Empire of the Sun and Spielberg’s Death of Identity

empire-of_-the_-sun_-1987Empire Of The Sun has been called Steven Spielberg’s ‘death of innocence’ film, but that description doesn’t quite capture the true desolation of what remains the director’s bleakest, most hopeless work.

An adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s same-titled autobiographical novel, the film breaks the rules of biopics and historical epics by shrouding in mystery the very subject it should be illuminating. In doing so, it emerges as a complex and rewarding piece of drama that’s as much about the death of identity as the death of innocence. Beginning with the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1941 and concluding with the atomic attack on Nagasaki four years later, Empire Of The Sun focuses on the story of Jamie Graham (Christian Bale), a British boy brought up in China and living in a state of cultural confusion

The opening scene sees him singing Welsh hymn Suo Gân in a Chinese church decorated to resemble a British one, while later he strays from a costume party dressed flamboyantly as Sinbad and stumbles across a battalion of Japanese soldiers. These moments, with their stark visual contrasts and distant framing, serve to isolate Jamie from his surroundings, the audience and his own sense of self. As is typical of his film-making, Spielberg links Jamie’s fractured identity to his lack of a reliable father figure. John Graham (Rupert Frazer) is a negligent parent who seems more concerned with his golf swing than his son.

A rich businessman, he attends the costume party dressed as a pirate but his plunder stands for nothing when he and his wife are separated from Jamie during the occupation of Shanghai. When Jamie returns home hoping to find them, all he discovers in this once opulent abode is scattered talcum powder scarred by clinging finger prints and imposing boots marks – ghostly indicators of the violence that has poisoned his life. Such scenes inspired critic Andrew M. Gordon to refer to Empire Of The Sun as “a child’s dream of war” and this is evident in the writing as much as Spielberg’s imagery. Tom Stoppard’s masterful script is a typically postmodern effort from the author, playing with cinematic form and asking the audience to consider the film as a piece of fiction, born from Jamie’s imagination as much as his reality.

This sense of fantasy comforts the boy and when the film moves to its primary location, the Suzhou Creek Internment Camp, he conjures two flawed father figures to replace the one he’s lost. American ship steward Basie (John Malkovich) is the first and the most post-modern. Almost identical to a character on a comic book Jamie carries with him, Basie is literally a fantasy come to life and his survivalist, something-from-nothing spirit makes him an embodiment of the American Dream and an immediate hero to Jamie. But Basie is a dark twist on American endeavour who reduces life to dollars and cents.

Seeing the boy as an asset, he takes ownership by renaming him Jim (“a new name for a new life”) and tries to trade him to anyone who needs a labourer. “Buying and selling,” he says triumphantly, “you know: life!” British doctor Rawlins (Nigel Havers) is the second father figure. A refined British ideal of heroism, he nurtures Jim by maintaining his education and teaching him moral responsibility. He’s a good man and a better role model than Basie, but like Jim’s father, he’s clueless about the Eastern culture he lives in.

When the camp’s commanding officer, Sgt Nagata (Masatô Ibu), arrives to destroy Rawlins’ hospital in retaliation to American bombing, the doctor fights back, leading to further violence that only ceases when Jim bows to Nagata, showing him the proper cultural respect. The moment muddies Jim’s identity further, with Spielberg highlighting the positive elements of his cultural confusion. Unlike everyone else, Jim can connect with other nationalities and rejects the good/evil binary that war has forced upon him. He makes friends with a Japanese boy (Takatarô Kataoka) and repeatedly associates Japanese pilots with the sun, a key Spielbergian signifier of truth.

The Japanese are human beings, not ‘the enemy’, and the warmth Jim has towards them suggests he could grow up to become a better man than all the fathers he aspires to, one with more compassion than John and Basie, and more cultural understanding than Rawlins. It’s an identity that’s never allowed to take shape though. War catches up with Jim when American planes bomb Suzhou Creek in one of the film’s defining sequences. Amongst the madness, Spielberg focuses on one pilot as he swoops past. Shot in slow-motion, the pilot waves triumphantly to Jim, forcing him to identify with American heroism again. Unsure of who to idolise, which identity to try to become, Jim finally breaks down and reveals he can no longer remember what his parents look like.

He’s morphed so much, retreated so far into false notions of heroism, nationality and identity, that there is no real, true Jamie Graham any more. This is brought into literal truth in the film’s closing scene, which reunites Jim with his parents in a Shanghai orphanage. A grey-faced Jim stands in the middle of a crowd of children seeming disinterested and hopeless. Spielberg’s camera moves uncertainly across the children and when Jim enters the frame we struggle to recognise him, despite having spent two-and-a-half hours with him. His parents are the same and similarly he fails to acknowledge them.

When Mrs Graham finally realises this broken boy is her son, they embrace, but it’s a hardly a happy ending. Jim stares over his mother’s shoulder with glassy eyes that tremble with tears and confusion. Spielberg cuts to a shot of a celebrating Shanghai and then to one of Jim’s suitcase containing all his belongings, floating in a river.

The child Jamie is dead and the adult Jim never got a chance to live. What then will become of the shell that remains?

2016 was bad, but…

I’m determined to make 2017 much, much better. I’m a generally positive person and always cling to hope no matter what. 2016 has eroded a certain amount of that hope, but I hold on to what I’ve still got and endeavour to make things better over the next 12 months.

One thing I’m keen to do is more writing for other websites. I recently put together a series of five articles for Den of Geek about Steven Spielberg, and had a great time doing it. It’s really nice to contribute to another site because you feel a part of that community and that’s certainly something I need at the moment.

I’m also determined to try to meet more people. That means going to more comic cons and events, and hopefully attending some clubs (book clubs, film clubs etc). I’ve been introduced to a lot of great people through this site, my Tumblr, and Twitter and need to find a way to translate online success to real-life success.

Overall, I want to get more comfortable with myself and eventually meet someone special. So that starts now with doing something I’m very uncomfortable with. Showing a picture of myself. Here goes – here’s me.

A picture. Of me, obviously. Why would I include a picture of someone else?
Oh dear…

Essay: Indiana Jones and the Power of Film

coj9ommukaaj_laIt’s a common misconception that Steven Spielberg first confronted his Jewish heritage and the tragedy that goes with it in Schindler’s List (1993). The truth, however, is a little more complex. His Holocaust drama may be his most explicit depiction of his ancestry to date, but traces of its impact on Spielberg’s life can be seen in many of his early films, including the first Indiana Jones adventure, Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981).

Made at the start of a decade of tremendous personal and professional change for Spielberg (who became a father and a husband, and made his first drama during the 80s), Raiders is an ostensibly light-hearted romp inspired by the escapist adventures of its director’s youth. With its rousing theme tune, breathless set-pieces and charming lead performance from Harrison Ford, it deliverS what remains one of modern cinema’s most enduring blockbusters.

And yet, Raiders is a surprisingly violent yarn. Its heroic leads (Indy and Karen Allen’s Marion) kill 23 people between them and 63 are slain all in all. Indy shoots an Arab swordsman in cold blood, watches as a pilot is mangled by one of his plane’s propellers, and pummels and runs down a Nazi soldier as they battle for control of a runaway truck.

Such scenes are surprising coming from a man who’d found such success in suggesting threat rather than explicitly showing it in Jaws (1975) and who would go on to make E.T. (1982), and they drew stern criticism.

The film’s writer, Lawrence Kasdan, has described the swordsman sequence as “brutal”, while in his biography of Spielberg, writer Joseph McBride argues that the film’s violence is “exploited for purely visceral thrills…[and] presented in a winking tongue-in-cheek style to anesthetise the audience’s moral sense.”

While McBride goes too far in suggesting the film anesthetises the audience’s morality, the “winking tongue-in-cheek style” is certainly clear and it’s out in force in the climactic scene. Having failed to wrestle the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, Indy and Marion find themselves on a secret island hideout where Indy’s rival archaeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman), Nazi commander Dietrich (Wolf Kahler) and henchman Toht (Ronald Lacy) begin a ceremony that will open the artefact.

The scene ends, of course, with the three men suffering deaths so over-the-top that Looney Tunes legend Chuck Jones – who acted as visual consultant on Raiders‘ predecessor 1941 (1979) – would have taken pause. But dismissing the film for its cartoonish violence is somewhat missing the point. Raiders is a revenge movie and its director’s anger is generated from the passion of a man looking to exorcise the ghosts of a childhood spent at the mercy of bullies.

Growing up in five different towns, the young Spielberg found settling difficult and his awkwardness made him easy prey for other kids. Some of the resulting taunting took the form of anti-Semitism and he later described his experiences in Saratoga, California, where he finished his high school education, as “Hell on Earth”.

His mistreatment was by no means exclusive to Saratoga, though. Throughout his childhood, Spielberg had to endure repeated bullying. He was mocked because he didn’t celebrate Christmas and would hear kids coughing ‘Jew!’ as they walked past him. “I felt as alien as I have ever felt in my life,” he confessed during publicity for Schindler’s List. “It caused me great fear and an equal amount of shame.”

Spielberg was also made aware of his heritage through the Holocaust stories he’d hear from relatives and the elderly students in his grandmother’s English classes. One showed him the numbers that had been tattooed onto his arm at Auschwitz, while his mother Leah told him about a woman who was so panicked by a Nazi soldier’s threat to chop of her finger so he could claim the ring stuck on it that the ring eventually slipped off.

“It just freaked me out, I’m sure it affected Steven,” Leah has explained. “Some of the stories were so horrible that there was almost a movie-like quality to them.”

It’s fitting then, that Spielberg would learn to master his feelings of persecution through a movie. Made in 1961 while the director was still at school, Escape To Nowhere is a war film that starred one of Spielberg’s bullies in a primary role. After a rocky start, their relationship began to shift and suddenly wimpy Spielberg was transformed in Director Spielberg and in that position he could boss his actor around.

“Even when he was in one of my movies I was afraid of him,” Spielberg would later say. “But I was able to bring him over to a place where I felt safer: in front of my camera. I didn’t use words. I used a camera, and I discovered what a tool and a weapon, what an instrument of self-inspection and self- expression it is…I had learned that film was power.”

It’s a lesson Spielberg has exercised throughout his career. Whether it’s the theatricality of Hook (1991), the blockbuster meta-textuality of the Jurassic Park films (1993 and 1997) or the self-aware artifice of Catch Me If You Can (2003), Spielberg films are, as Empire Of The Sun (1987) screenwriter Tom Stoppard noted, “’about’ cinema before they are about anything else”. Even his more serious efforts feature movie references, most recently War Horse (2011), which finishes with a prolonged nod to Gone With The Wind (1939).

The climactic scene of Raiders Of The Lost Ark is no different. The island that Indy and Marion are taken to is littered with cameras and lights, and an army of soldiers are on hand to operate them. With Belloq, Toht and Dietrich standing at the head of the stage, the scene is like a movie set, the three men the actors, the soldiers the behind-the-scenes crew. Tied up, Indy and Marion can only watch and so represent the audience. All that’s needed is the star attraction.

When it finally does arrive, it manifests itself through technology. A generator explodes; setting off a chain reaction that sends sparks across the lights and all the soldiers’ guns. The scene falls dark and quiet. John Williams’s mysterious Ark theme begins on the soundtrack and slowly white-blue light emerges.

The spirits of the Ark seem benevolent at first, celestial streams of light dancing around the men in a display of typically Spielbergian wonder. It’s the end of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and the audience is primed for life-affirming spectacle.

But the mood soon changes. One of the spirits flies up to the three men, craning its neck to look directly at them. Spielberg shoots this moment from the men’s point of view, the spirit looking at the camera, through to the audience. Slowly, the benign face turns into a malevolent skull that screams piercingly. Vengeance is at hand.

An orange light pours from the Ark, smothering Belloq’s head and projecting out across the soldiers. It impales all the soldiers, including – significantly – the one operating the camera, and finally returns to Belloq, Toht and Dietrich, the latter two’s faces melting, the former’s head exploding. A great purging fire covers the base, incinerating any Nazis left standing.

Indy and Marion have survived, but their place as the audience has changed. Realising the threat, the pair had closed their eyes before the spirits appeared, thus saving themselves from the Nazis’ fate. The Ark, like film, is power and those who look upon it must do so with the proper reverence – or suffer the consequences.

Spielberg would return to Indiana Jones in Temple Of Doom (1984), removing the Nazis’ disrespect and replacing it with Indy’s own arrogant search for “fortune and glory”, and again in The Last Crusade (1989), which brought the Nazis back and punished a Belloq substitute (Julian Glover’s egotistical Donovan) with a similarly nasty fate for his pursuit of the Holy Grail.

The films are often dismissed as Spielberg’s most impersonal efforts and, co-created as they are with George Lucas, perhaps that’s true. But regardless of authorship, the Indiana Jones franchise provided Spielberg with an important bridge between the popcorn entertainment he excelled at in the 70s and the serious-minded drama he’d produce in the 90s.

Film was power, Raiders had helped him prove. Now it was time to turn its might onto reality.

Mouse House Movie Club #10: The Enchanted Christmas

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“Then somebody bends… unexpectedly.” Yes folks, this is the quality of humour you can expect here. Sorry

Ho Ho Ho! Merry Christmas! Mouse House Movie Club’s gone AWOL for a few weeks, but that’s just because I’ve been super busy and stuff like that. It’ll be back properly in the New Year and is here now with a bit of a Christmas Special. Because all great things have Christmas Specials, and you’re not seriously going to tell me that Mouse House Movie Club isn’t a great thing. Are you? Are you!?

Disney have done a few different festive-themed films over the years and having caught Mickey’s Twice Upon A Christmas on TV over the weekend, I was considering writing this entry on that. It’s actually pretty good, and features a great Mickey and Pluto story. Dogs and Christmas? Is there anything better? No, chums. No there is not.

However, while wrapping presents, I put in the Beauty and the Beast Christmas Special, The Enchanted Christmas, and was hugely impressed by it. It’s a surprisingly dark, genuinely worthwhile, and very charming film that takes place in the middle of the original movie, and significantly alters the way you perceive it. What I’m saying is that it’s the Rogue One of the Beauty and the Beast universe. And I’m entirely, 100% per cent sincere about that.

You'll catch cold like that, Belle
You’ll catch cold like that, Belle

Yeah, but aren’t Disney sequels terrible?
Well, no not really. During the Renaissance (and for a little while after it), Disney put their classics and modern releases into the sequel churner, pushing out spin-offs and TV series to the likes of Bambi, Cinderella, Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Made by Disney’s television animation wing, and often telling stories that frankly didn’t need to be told, these films are not great pieces of art and, even as an avid defender of them, I’ll admit that some are downright awful and/or baffling (the time-travel based Cinderella 3: A Twist in Time).

Sadly, fandom being fandom, all the films have been tarred by the same brush, so even the good one (Cinderella II, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Peter Pan: Return to Neverland) are seen as poor. The Enchanted Christmas has largely escaped the sharper end of fan anger, mostly because it’s a Christmas film, and, well, it’s bloody Christmas, innit, come on! But it still gets lumped into that homogeneous mass of Disney direct-to-video mediocrity, and its position is made worse because it’s a midquel, a sequel subset so ludicrous nobody could come up with a proper word to describe it so they just cobbled some letters together and hoped for the best.

PARENTHESES! If you don’t know what a midquel is, it’s a story that takes place during a gap in a previously established story. It’s a nonsense word, but amazingly, it’s not even the most nonsensical word out there. There are also sidequels (stories which take place alongside existing stories), pseudosequels (sequels which have little in common with their predecessors but are still judged to be sequels) and most laughably at all macroquels (sequels which cover events before, during, and after the previously existing story). I am not making this up! This is an actual type of spin-off, and according to Wikipedia, 300: The Rise of an Empire is one of them.  2016, man: is there no insanity too insane for it?

Still with me? Good. Ok, so The Enchanted Christmas is a midquel, and it takes place directly after the moment in the original when Beast saves Belle from the wolves. It’s Christmas (because, y’know, it’s a Christmas film and it’s hardly likely to be set in May, is it?!) and Belle really wants to throw a Christmas party. The Beast, on the other hand, does not. (It’s called dramatic tension, folks. Come on, keep up.)

Tim Curry dressed as a villainous organ
Tim Curry dressed as a villainous organ

You’re a mean one, Mr Beast
Of course, that in itself isn’t a particularly sensational revelation. At this point in the original film, Beast isn’t in the best of moods, and the idea of celebrating Christmas probably wouldn’t appeal much – especially as he was struck with the Enchantress’s curse during the festive season. By all rights, The Enchanted Christmas should be a pretty standard story then, and it could well have turned out to be just that had the script run with the original concept of making Gaston’s vengeful brother the villain. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea, it’s just a bit of a mediocre one (though admittedly it worked pretty well for Die Hard With A Vengeance two years earlier. Y’know, I’d say Vengeance is as good to the original, even though most deem the original to be an unimpeachable classic. I mean, it’s good and all, but Vengeance has Frozone and Scar in it, and I’m still not exactly sure how they solved that puzzle with the water. I hate maths. It sucks.)

But anyways, I digress.

Ultimately, the brother plot was abandoned and instead a villainous organ was introduced. Yes… a villainous organ. Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha. But a villainous organ voiced by Tim Curry, making this villainous organ at least 35% more delicious than any other villainous organs you may be acquainted with. His name is Forte and before being turned into a villainous organ, he was the disconcertingly grey-faced palace musician who enjoyed scowling, sucking up to the Prince, and playing… an organ! Dun-dun-duuuuuuuun!

Forte was ignored by Prince Adam when he was a human, but has now won a measure of respect and influence in his new giant organ form. He’s the Prince’s confidante, hearing all his concerns and frustrations from the confines of a dark room high in a secluded part of the castle. He’s chained to the wall so can’t do much beyond sitting around and waiting for Adam to come vent to him, but that doesn’t seem to bother him much (for some reason). He’s just desperate for Beast not to turn back into a human so he can continue to hang around with him. Hey, even deliciously evil giant organs need a buddy.

Wrong Prince Adam
Wrong Prince Adam

So what you have in The Enchanted Christmas is a villain who, despite being static throughout the entire film and despite being part of a tale whose outcome is beyond doubt, is surprisingly threatening. Part of that’s down to Curry being thoroughly delicious, part of it’s down to Beast being as angry as he is at this stage in the original, and part of it’s down to Forte being rendered with the same dodgy CG that the Hydra from Hercules is (weird). But more than anything, it’s because Beast seems genuinely vulnerable here, Forte representing his inner monologue and everything he hates about himself. If you’ve ever been alone with your dark inner thoughts, you’ll know exactly how scary that can be.

I think it’s perhaps going a little too far to liken The Enchanted Christmas to the complex emotional landscape Elsa inhabits in Frozen, but there are similarities. Like Elsa, Beast hides himself away from the world, convincing himself he’s happy in the state of loneliness he’s built for himself because that’s what he needs to tell himself to get by. Fighting against it is so much more difficult and so much more unpredictable than simply giving in. Accepting your fate is easier and safer. Better the devil you know, and all that.

In light of all this, Beast’s anger and frustration (here and in the original) becomes much more understandable. Being a dick because you’ve been turned into a beast is fine and all. You could be less of a dick, but hey, we get it. Being a Beast is bad. But being a dick because you’ve been turned into a beast and have Tim Curry dressed as a poorly CG’d giant organ whispering nasty stuff in your ear every time you feel down? Well, if that happened to me, I think I’d be pretty down too. I getcha Beasty boy.

Top-level punning
Top-level punning

Jingle Belle
The Enchanted Christmas also brings fresh insight into Belle, who seems even more heroic in light of the film’s events. In the original, Beast’s anger is a plot point: a feature of the narrative that needed to be established and overcome. It’s like the Ark of the Covenent or the Death Star plans: a MacGuffin that’s there to reflect, primarily, Belle’s character and the tenacity with which she goes about getting what she wants from life. Here, however, it’s a real character point; indeed a real character – Forte. So while Beauty and the Beast‘s main threat was a moron (a very very very very very manly moron, but still a moron), The Enchanted Christmas‘s is anger, depression, and frustration.  There’s absolutely nothing funny or charming about Forte like there is about Gaston.

Listen to his song. While Gaston got to brag about his manliness and expectorating prowess, Forte tells Beast not to fall in love in a fantastic villain song that even manages to nod to the original’s classic ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Here’s a cut of the lyrics.

As soon as your heart rules your head
Your life is not your own
It’s hell when someone’s always there
It’s bliss to be alone
And love of any kind is bad
A dog, a child, a cat
They take up so much precious time
Now where’s the sense in that?

Love takes the wildest heart and makes it tame
If you’re turned on, then just turn off
Emotions are a thing all great men overcame
Please, don’t make this grande catastrophe
Don’t get attached to anyone or anything
There’s nothing worse than things that cling

Pretty brutal, pretty scary (and more than a little reminiscent of Elsa’s ‘conceal, don’t feel’ mantra). Yet Belle’s kindness perseveres: she never takes her eye off her goal, and never lets Beast’s Forte-driven depression set her off her path. She represents kindness, love, and compassion in the face of Forte’s sheer hatred and misery, and she mounts a fierce opposition, despite the fact she never really faces off against him. Indeed, her lack of interaction with Forte may make her faith in the Beast and love as a whole even more heroic: she doesn’t have the luxury of knowing where his misery is coming from like we do.

Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow…
I know what you’re thinking: Paul, for a post that opened with a GIF of a dog doing Yoga, this has been awfully depressing. And yes, you’re right. But then, The Enchanted Christmas isn’t an entirely happy-go-lucky film, and indeed many of the best Christmas things aren’t. Look at It’s A Wonderful Life or listen to ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ (from Meet Me In St Louis) if you want proof. Both are, of course, about the magic of the season and how festive goodwill can turn around even the darkest of days, but for that to work, the day has to be dark: George Bailey has to be standing on that bridge ready to jump in the water. Festive? Not really. Dramatically important? Yes!

The Enchanted Christmas sits alongside films like It’s A Wonderful Life (in theme more than quality) because it’s all about finding the goodwill amongst the bad, the light in the dark, the hope in the despair. It’s a little naive and certainly not as emotionally complex as more recent Disney films that have taken on the theme (Frozen and Inside Out in particular), but it’s a hell of a good effort for a 1997 direct-to-video feature and deserves respect for that alone. Add in to it the fact that it genuinely enhances the original and has Tim Curry as a deliciously evil organ and you’re on to a winner.  A big old festive, slightly depressing, weirdly CG’d winner.

Until next year folks, Happy Holidays! Have a lovely time whatever you’re celebrating and however you’re celebrating it.

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Rogue One and the Future of Darth Vader

With Rogue One now on general release, it’s worth looking a little closer at one of its main stars: Darth Vader. He may not be in it all that much, but the artist formerly known as Anakin Skywalker looms large over the film, dominating the handful of scenes he’s in and leaving you with plenty of questions. Why’s he on Mustafar? What’s he doing in that big old watery pod? How does he get his helmet so shiny black?

Valid questions, all (especially that last one: Polish? Turtle Wax? Does he have his own little waxing droid?). But what runs through my head whenever I see Vader appear in Rogue One or the TV series Rebels is: what’s he thinking? Come on, big guy…

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Why? Because one of my biggest frustrations with Revenge of the Sith (my least favourite of all the Star Warses) is that I can’t reconcile the Vader at the end of that film with the one who appears at the start of A New Hope. The latter is so full of rage and hatred, while the former is pretty much just a scared boy who’s lost everything and is now stuck in a big black tin can. At what point did one become the other? And more importantly: how?

The re-emergence of the Star Wars franchise gives us a chance to find out, and I’m sure we will. The marketing for Rogue One teased Vader’s cameo perfectly, showing Lucasfilm and Disney are well aware of his continued impact on pop culture. There’s simply no way we won’t get a Vader standalone film, though I suspect it won’t be until Episode 9 is released as the character will likely continue to have a significant bearing on Kylo Ren in the new trilogy. This will hopefully give Lucasfilm plenty of time to think about how to approach the film, because it really isn’t easy.

The difficulty with making a Vader film is that the character works well when used in moderation. He’s a monster: the xenomorph from Alien, the shark from Jaws. Balance is everything. Show too much, and he loses his sense of mystery. Show too little, and the film loses its sense of threat (which is one of the problems I had with Rogue One). Vader exists on the edge of nightmare: always there, but just out of sight. We should’t know him too much: we should let our imagination run away with itself.

That said, there’s a fascinating character study to be had in a Vader film, one that shows the man behind the monster. Because the man is definitely still there. While watching him hack his way through rebel after rebel at the end of Rogue One, I didn’t just see a bad guy doing what bad guys do. That scene is one of the most thrilling in the movie because it’s utterly desperate: the Rebels are desperate to secure the Death Star plans, and Vader is desperate to get them back. At the end of the sequence, he looks on as the Rebels escape, not angry, not plotting their demise. He’s motionless, empty.

Again: what’s going on in his head? Whatcha thinkin’ Vadey!? My own interpretation is that everything he does in Rogue One, everything he did in the preceding, unseen 20 years after Sith, and everything he’ll continue to do is because of Padme. If his evil in the prequels was down to a love for her and a desire to protect her, isn’t it just as true that everything he does after the prequels is a bid to honour her memory? He wouldn’t just let that all go. The fact he’s still based on Mustafar, perhaps as some kind of weird tribute to Padme or act of self-punishment, shows that. Anakin Skywalker doesn’t simply let things go.

Don't rub it in, Elsa.
Don’t rub it in, Elsa.

The Rebellion isn’t just political for Vader then; it’s deeply personal. Every sabotage, every insurgency, every attack is an affront to his efforts to preserve the memory of his lost love. So he would be pretty desperate in that final sequence: just as the Empire is close to completing something that could essentially end the Rebellion and secure the peace he’s been longing for since Padme died, these pathetic, treacherous Rebels have come along and ruined that. He’s desperate, he’s angry, he’s going to destroy every last one of them to get those plans back. He’s the hate-filled Vader we see at the start of A New Hope.

If a Vader standalone is made, I’d love to see it take that angle. To see Vader as a purely bad guy is to misunderstand the point of the series. Star Wars deals in broad strokes: good and evil, light and dark, Rebellion and Empire, but the dramatic core is the stuff in between them, the frailties and contradictions that make us human and drive us to do the things we do. For good and for evil. Rogue One hints at that complexity in Vader, but there’s still a lot to build on. Hopefully a standalone can take it even further.

Spielberg at 70: A Tribute

As I’ve mentioned in the past, along with writing on Kids Riding Bicycles, I also run a Steven Spielberg website called, suitably enough, From Director Steven Spielberg. Check it out. It’s okish, I guess. A solid 6 out of 10.

I’ve written lotsa stuff over the five years From Director Steven Spielberg has been running, and over the last year, I’ve branched out by creating a few videos. They’re nothing fancy – just little Supercuts and mini video essays – but they work ok. You can watch them at the site’s YouTube channel.

With Spielberg celebrating his 70th birthday on Sunday 18th December, I wanted to create a new video that highlighted something we don’t often appreciate about Spielberg: the gentility of his films. More often than not, we think of the action and spectacle of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws and Jurassic Park, and so we miss the heartfelt, quiet moments of human connection. Hopefully ‘The Secret Whisperings’ as I’ve pretentiously called it, reminds us of those moments.

I’m still working out how to master the art of video editing and video essays, and will continue to develop my skills next year. I may even branch out into creating Disney-themed videos. Until then, I hope you enjoy this. Oh, and Happy Birthday, Stevie.

Notes from Rogue One

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WARNING: THIS REVIEW IS BUILT ON SPOILERS. MASSIVE ONES. DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.

Rogue One was always something of an anomaly for me. It’s a Star Wars film, so I was excited to see it, but it was a very different kind of Star Wars film: a gritty war film rather than a mythical fairy tale. As someone who loves the fairy tale quality of the saga, I was unsure about this new direction, and so my anticipation for Rogue One never hit quite the same levels as it did for The Force Awakens last year.

Now I’ve seen the film, I remain a little unsure. I love parts of it, but as a whole, it never quite seems to gel. It’s a bold and ambitious film; arguably one of the most ambitious blockbusters I’ve ever seen. For that it deserves a huge amount of praise. But it also creates some of the film’s biggest problems. Here are a few very spoilery notes from the film.

  • Felicity Jones is incredible here. While I think the film struggles significantly with the depth it gives some of the characters, Jones manages to counter that with a performance of deeply affecting silence. Her eyes in particular are tremendously powerful: full of despair, hope, fire, and anger. Everything is done with the eyes. The moment when she breaks down while watching the hologram of her father is one of the film’s greatest moments.
  • Just as he did on Godzilla, Gareth Edwards demonstrate a great ability to ground the fantastical in a tangible sense of reality. From the moment Krennic and his Deathtroopers turn up to take Galen Erso from his family at the start of the movie, everything feels real and that has a particularly important effect on the stormtroopers, who here feel like an actual oppressive army – irrepressible, genuinely scary – rather than a bunch of useless underlings who need target practice.
  • The film’s core message is brilliantly prescient, and is likely to have particular resonance with late teens/20-somethings. Contrary to Bob Iger’s recent comments about the film’s lack of political message, Rogue One is not just deeply political, it’s about becoming politicised. Jyn is so beaten down by the cruelty of the galaxy and her lot in life that she feels she can’t achieve anything and so resorts to apathy. The film forces her to take up a cause so she can express her frustration more positively, and as the real world darkens, that’s a worthwhile message for the film to convey. Also: super-political, Bob. Come on, dude, grow a spine.
  • The last 20 minutes of Rogue One are genuinely remarkable. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything so thrilling at the cinema. Like all the great finales, it convinces you that anything can happen, that there are no guarantees, and that either good or evil could win. The very final few sequences, in which Rebel troops desperately flee Vader, Death Star plans in hand, while the Sith Lord cuts through them like a hot knife through butter is as terrifying, desperate and vital as blockbuster film-making gets. This is a prequel. We know how it ends. But somehow, in that final act, everything feels up for grabs.
  • (Sidenote: the moment when the destruction of Scarif creates a gigantic mushroom cloud style explosion that resembles a sun is one of the richest and most poignant uses of Star Wars iconography I’ve ever seen. If Luke looking out towards the twin suns on Tattooine was an expression of pure hope and potential, Jyn and Cassian framed against a sun-like mushroom cloud is an expression of that same hope tainted by tragedy. Rebellions are built on hope… but also desperation.)
  • And yet, for all that, the finale also exposes one of the film’s key flaws. It has big moments that never quite feel earned. As our heroes are picked off one by one, it feels like Rogue One‘s doing it for shock, a way to underline how dark it is and make the wider point about the sacrificial nature of political resistance. That’s a valid point and the deaths make it well, but I wanted to care more about these people than I did. As the deaths kept coming, I sorta expected it and they lost a little impact.
  • This is extended throughout, particularly with Jyn. A key moment for her is when she tries to encourage a rebellion stripped of morale to fight on. They want to give up, convinced that there’s no way they can possibly fight a weapon like the Death Star, but Jyn insists they keep going, stating the film’s signature line: “rebellions are built on hope”. But the film doesn’t feel like it earns her change of heart. Key relationships – with her father, with Cassian – feel too thin, key moments in her life –  her childhood, her abandonment by her father and Saw Gerrera – feel underdeveloped. I wanted to see all that, not simply be told it. Perhaps the prequel novel Catalyst expands this, perhaps there’ll be future media showing her as the 16-year-old tearaway we’re told about, but for Rogue One to function like it needs to, all that really needs to be here, in Rogue One.
  • (Sidenote: While I admire the braveness of the film killing its cast, I wish Jyn at least had survived. It feels like they could have done so much with her. Imagine, for example, her watching or taking part in the Battle of Yavin, finally seeing the fruits of her and her father’s endeavours. Hope is a part of the film’s make-up, and in many ways her surviving to see the Death Star’s destruction undermines that message: hope, by its nature, is about believing in something, not actually seeing it. But it’s still a shame (though an admirable one) that we won’t get any more Jyn stories.
  • Director Krennic’s another key character the film never quite gets right. In isolation, he’s a fascinating villain: a middle manager with arrogant ambition. He’s pretty normal really, and the moment where he realises he’s about to be destroyed by the monstrosity he’s created underlines how pathetically human he is. But the film needs a bigger sense of threat. It needs the murderous sneer of Tarkin (who appears here but isn’t the main threat) or the cold calculation of Grand Admiral Thrawn (who would have been perfect for this), but Krennic doesn’t have that stature. Rogue One is the beginning of an endgame: the set-up for a battle that will bring 20 years of conflict to a head. It just never quite feels like that’s on the line.
  • While Edwards largely helms the film very well, there are definite flaws, mostly with tone. At times, Rogue One feels at war with itself, fighting to be a different kind of Star Wars film, but still knowing that it needs to be a Star Wars film. So you get some moments, such as the scenes of the insurgency on Jedha, that are deliberately touching upon very real world concerns. Others, meanwhile, feel like classic Star Wars, such as the aerial attack on Scarif. It creates a film that, on first viewing at least, feels patchwork and inconsistent, unable to feel entirely like one thing or the other. I hope that feeling recedes on repeat viewings.
  • Despite all of this, I did very much enjoy the film – I just didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped, or as much as I loved The Force Awakens. Ultimately there’s a mix of issues, some that simply won’t go away (the thinly-written characters) and some that maybe will (the sense of clashing tones and styles). But whatever flaws there are, they’re created by Rogue One trying something that nobody really had any right to expect. It’s a brave film that tears up the Star Wars rule book and asks us to accept a different version of the franchise. I have a feeling it’ll reward repeat viewings, but even after just the one, for its boldness and ambition alone, Rogue One deserves the benefit of the doubt and a huge amount of praise. The Star Wars universe is a vast and diverse place. Rogue One shows us that Lucasfilm and Disney are brave enough to explore it.

Mouse House Movie Club Goes Festive #2: Donald’s Snow Fight

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Not from this cartoon, but this is indeed an actual GIF from an actual Donald short!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I love Donald Duck. He’s a dickhead. A terrible, terrible dickhead. And I think that’s worth celebrating, because unlike other famous Donalds, Donald Duck is a dickhead in a charming, ridiculous kinda way. (Rather than, y’know, the terrible, oppressive, gonna-blow-up-the-world kinda way.) He’s the kinda dickhed who, instead of helping his young nephews build a snowman like any normal anthropomorphic duck would, jumps on a sled and rides straight through the thing cackling like a maniac.

Somewhere, there’s an excellent Donald Duck/Frozen crossover waiting to happen.

Released in 1942, Donald’s Snow Fight is one of the very finest Donald Duck cartoons, and probably the finest Donald Duck Christmas cartoon. Like all Donald’s best efforts, the set-up is brilliantly simple. It’s Christmas, Donald goes out for a stroll in the snow, finds his nephews building a snowman, and decides to wage war on them. Y’know. Like you do.

Right from the off, Donald’s Snow Fight crams in gags at Gatling gun pace. In the first couple of minutes alone we get Donald’s absurdly huge snow jacket, the sight of his beak growing a little frost mustache, and the sound of him quacking half the words to Jingle Bells before finishing off by ringing himself like a bell. This may be the only recorded instance of a testicle joke in Disney history.

(Do ducks have testicles? What the hell else is ringing!?!)

Anyways, Donald’s out in the snow and suddenly spots his nephews having fun and building a snowman. This simply won’t do, of course, so Donald attacks, destroying the snowman and escalating the whole situation into all out war. He even wears a cute little Admiral’s hat to underline his battle-readiness. Because Donald Duck is both totally adorable and utterly psychotic. Also: massive dickhead.

Somehow though, he retains our sympathy. Both here and in other shorts. Fights between Donald and Huey, Dewey and Louie are a reoccurring trope in Donald cartoons, and while they get comically out of hand, there’s never any sense of viciousness. It’s a little like watching early episodes of The Simpsons where they’d fight and call each other names. There’s frustration there, sure, but there’s always love. Donald just shows that love the only way he can: with pointless anger.

It’s why Donald’s such an icon. In all his arrogance, obnoxiousness, and ultimate love for those around him, he’s the closest thing Disney has to a great everyman (don’t let anyone tell you it’s Mickey! Donald all the way). Like my favourite actor ever, Jack Lemmon, Donald is just an ordinary schmuck with no great sense of nobility simply going through life trying to make ends meet. And sometimes, everybody, that means you have to freak out and destroy some snowmens.

So celebrate the festive season with some classic Donald and go out and destroy some snowmen yourself. (Don’t do this. Please. It’s just mean.)

On Shyness

Regular readers will know I struggle with shyness. I mention it quite a lot on here, and that’s not because I’m looking for sympathy or anything like that: it’s because I’m shy about being shy and I want to try to break out of that by talking about it.

Shyness is a frustrating state to occupy. While introversion has (gladly) gained a measure of understanding recently thanks to the hard work of writers such as Susan Cain (there is sadly still plenty of work to do though), shyness remains a blind spot for many.

Just get over it. Talk to someone. Go on! It’s easy!

I appreciate that attitude, because it’s hard to understand shyness. Talking is one of the most natural things in the world, and people are generally good. Why should anyone be scared of talking to them?

Well, the truth is, I don’t know. I’m as confused as anyone. All I can do is articulate the emotion of being shy and hope that leads to some understanding of the why of shy. So here goes.

Shyness is feeling like you’re under the microscope in every single conversation you ever have. For the love of God, don’t screw this up.

Shyness is fearing that you’re boring the person you’re talking to, even if they seem absolutely enraptured by what you’re saying. How could anyone be interested in you.

Shyness is believing that every time you speak to a member of whatever gender you’re attracted to that you need to impress them as they represent your only shot at romance. You won’t be able to talk to anyone else.

Shyness is hoping that you’ll find someone who understands you, rather than seeing it as a certainty that someone will. You’re just… too weird.

Shyness is lacking the confidence to be assertive enough to put your point across. Yep, you’re gonna lose another meeting debate.

Shyness is hovering over the reply button on Twitter, wondering whether to tweet to someone and what to say. They weren’t really looking for a response anyway.

Shyness is knowing that no matter how much you try to unlearn everything you’ve learned, the fear will always be there, lingering in your mind. It doesn’t simply disappear.

Shyness is… loneliness.

Shyness is all those things, and many many more. But… it’s also not all bad.

Shyness is not just the inability to talk but the ability to listen.

Shyness is not just fearing that you’ll be alone but the ability to value the people who are close to you.

Shyness is not just being scared of what to say but understanding that what you do say has impact, so be careful.

Shyness is not just believing that your chances of love are slim but knowing that love is a truly powerful and significant thing that’s rare for a reason.

And shyness is not just not being assertive but knowing how to find compromise and seek diplomacy.

Shyness is… understanding loneliness and why it should be avoided at all costs.

Do those positives outweigh the negatives? Maybe. Maybe not. But hopefully they at least shine a light on what shyness is. Maybe even someone will read this and take a little heart from it. Hey there, shy person. You’re pretty darned cool and so is your shyness.

This isn’t the last post I’ll write about shyness, but it’ll tide me over for now. In the meantime, here’s a Paperman GIF. Because sometimes, even if you’re not looking for it, the world can still bring you into contact with people in weird and wonderful ways.

Also, I super-love this film.

giphy