Catnip It Ain’t

Warning: Spoilers abound. But you may not care.

The most noteworthy aspect of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets may just be the title. Never before in my experience has a title so accurately summarized everything that’s wrong with a movie.

It’s worth noting that when Maggie and I got home from the theater, the cats wanted to know if we had brought them any valerian. If you didn’t know, valerian (the herb) has a very catnip-like effect on cats. It also stinks to high heaven and tends to depress the human nervous system. The parallel is obvious.

Though, to be fair, Valerian (the movie) doesn’t stink that badly. It just takes a few wrong turns.

Let’s start with that title. Alpha is a “city of a thousand planets” in the same way that New York is a city of eight million stories. It’s a city. In space. With, so we’re told, residents who come from a thousand different species. It’s marketing. Hey, if the main character drops by to visit me in the sequel, we can call the movie “Valerian and the City of Pride and Purpose”. That almost sounds exciting.

Oh, and let’s not forget about Laureline. Although whoever named the film sure did. The original comics that the movie was based on are called “Valerian and Laureline”. And she gets nearly as much screen time as he does. But she’s apparently not enough of a marketing draw to make the title. Which pretty well summarizes her role in the film, come to think of it. When Valerian isn’t around, Laureline is, by and large, a kick-ass character. And as soon as he comes into the room–whether she knows he’s there or not–she turns into the archetypal helpless movie female. Hell, he doesn’t even have to be in the same room: just talking to him on the radio turns her into such a ditz she doesn’t realize she’s holding a map upside down! (Insert laughter here–because the audience in the theater didn’t supply any.)

I wanted to like the movie, even if it was only in a “turn off the brain and enjoy the pretty pictures” way. And for the first ten minutes or so, I thought I might. Opening with a space scene a la 2001 set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was a lovely way to invert a SF film trope. And then the opening narration blew away my suspension of disbelief.

We’re told that Alpha, the space station that grew up around the International Space Station, got so big that its gravity endangered the Earth and it needs to be moved out of the way. This is wrong on so many levels, I don’t even want to discuss it. I may have missed a couple of lines because I was banging my head against the seat in front of me, but the next thing I remember is that after several centuries, Alpha has moved “seven hundred million miles”. Big whoop. That’s not even as far as Saturn. From the perspective of a culture that routinely moves from one solar system to another in minutes, covering 700,000,000 miles in three or four centuries is like me walking up to the mini-mart on the corner.

Yeah, I get it. The film is based on a comic book, something not known for scientific accuracy. But how difficult would it be to change a couple of sentences to avoid the worst clunkers. Send Alpha out on a mission to spread Earth’s culture to the universe, and change “700,000,000 miles” to “7000 light years”. Problems solved–still sufficiently comic book, but not as grating to the ear.

Then there was the mcguffin, the living 3D printer that can create unlimited copies of anything–including fully-powered batteries that hold enough juice to power a spaceship–with no raw materials. And what good is having the critter going to do the Pearls? Unless they can convince it to duplicate itself–something that seems unlikely, given the film’s apparently universal rule that all species have two sexes–someday it’s going to die and take their utopian civilization with it.

And I haven’t even touched on the main plot, which relies so heavily on coincidence and character stupidity that it almost makes Star Trek Beyond seem logical. Almost. At least there’s no motorcycle.

All that said, still, the visuals are spectacular, the set pieces are at least competently executed, and there are some nice auditory jokes hidden in the music. The film’s biggest problems are that it’s too long and its plot not only makes no sense, but brings the film to a screeching halt every time it comes to the fore.

Fortunately, one fix would solve both problems. Trim the film by thirty minutes by simply cutting out the plot. The remaining travelogue and explosions would come in at a comfortable hour and three-quarters, and make a perfectly serviceable late night film.

Going Batty

You knew I was going to have a few things to say about The Lego Batman Movie, right?

Three years ago, I called The Lego Movie “a high-speed roller coaster ride through a story we’ve seen a million times.” Lego Batman turns that idea up to eleven–and if you had to click the link to identify the source of that line, you’re not the sort of person who will enjoy Lego Batman.

Forget about a plot. Lego Batman doesn’t have one. It’s got a couple of tropes loosely stuck together with bubble gum*. To be fair, though, they’re tropes central to the BatmanMythos™

* Speaking of bubble gum, if I never see another trailer for Despicable Me 3, it’ll be too soon. The first two were mildly amusing in an “I don’t want to have to think tonight” way. Judging by the current trailer, however, the franchise has jumped the shark, and it’s going to require actual mental effort to find humor in the third installment. That said–still based on the previews–I’d go see Despicable Me 3 at least a century before I’d risk The Emoji Movie.

What Lego Batman has is a nearly non-stop string of sight- and sound-gags. From Batman’s opening monologue–“All important movies start with a black screen,”–and shameless appropriation of Michael Jackson’s lyrics, all the way through to the closing narration and end credit songs, the film is loaded with pop- and geek-cultural references that only work because they’re superimposed on the image of Batman as the brooding Dark Knight. Because that picture is both the viewers’ mental image and Batman’s self-image, the jokes that should fall flat still elicit laughs.

One case in point: jokes about needing a geek to explain something haven’t worked in at least a quarter-century, if they ever did. But when it’s The Lego Joker telling the audience to ask their geek friends about British robots, it’s honestly snicker-worthy.

Lego Batman also avoids several of the original’s most annoying pitfalls. There’s no reference to the deus ex machina that knocked me right of the The Lego Movie. Barbara Gordon never attains the heights of awesome that early Wyldestyle reached, but she remained her own woman throughout, instead of turning into “Batman’s Girlfriend”. And Robin, the obnoxious sidekick everyone loves to hate, despite his moments of Awesome, is just as delightfully loathsome at the end of the film as at the beginning.

There are a few things I could quibble about–Batman being arbitrarily imprisoned without a trial for having the temerity to arbitrarily lock up The Joker without a trial, for example, or the truth that someone can be a jerk without being a villain.

But even the movie’s greatest misstep–for much of the run time, it’s easy to forget that this is a Lego movie; filming it in live action would have worked almost as well–doesn’t detract from its overall success.

If you have any shred of geek credentials, go see The Lego Batman Movie. Watch for the visual jokes. Listen to the song lyrics–the ones written for the film, not the licensed pop tunes. You’ll enjoy yourself.

Sing Out

One more movie review–or perhaps “commentary” would be a better word–to round out the year. No, not Rogue One. It’s on my list, and was even before the news about Carrie Fisher broke, but I haven’t seen it yet.

Back when I was in library school, one of the big debates was “Should libraries carry the books people want to read or the books they should read?” I’d be willing to bet it’s still a hot topic in library schools, even though the answer became obvious several decades ago: “Yes”.

Sing is the cinematic incarnation of the books at the heart of that debate. Think The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, The Baby-Sitters Club, or Goosebumps.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s a bad movie. It sets out to appeal to a very specific audience, and by and large, it succeeds. The thing is, that audience is kids. The plot is formulaic, yes, but how many versions of it will the average ten-year-old have seen already?

The characters are anthropomorphic animals, not as commentary on the human condition, but because kids like cute animals. There are plot holes you could throw an elephant through (sorry), but the kids aren’t paying attention to that: the plot is just an excuse to stage the set-scenes they expect. And so the sudden switch from a furry America’s Got Talent to a furry interpretation of the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show” trope passes unremarked by the target audience.

It is possible to make a movie catering to the pre-teen audience that also appeals to adults–see my comments on The BFG, for an example–but that’s not the direction Sing chose. And it works beautifully for the target audience. We saw Sing in a theater full of kids, mostly between eight and twelve, and they had a grand time, laughing in the right places, and applauding at the end.

And the creators did use a commendable amount of restraint. There is a flatulence joke–but only one. There are body image jokes, but far fewer than I expected, and mostly in the mouths of characters who are supposed to be obnoxious. There’s a running joke about the characters who don’t speak English*, but the joke isn’t run into the ground. (Parenthetically, if someone with more knowledge of Japanese than I have wants to translate the insult Buster Moon reads out of his phrase book, I’d appreciate it.)

* The red panda idol group’s songs are by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, but the color-coded outfits reminded me more of Momoiro Clover Z.

Bottom line: if you’ve got kids in the target age group who want to see Sing, you won’t need tranquilizers to get through it. Crank your suspension of disbelief up to eleven, turn off your facility for critical thinking, and go. It won’t do you or the kids any permanent damage.

Moana

Spoiler time!

Yeah, I actually got to see a movie during the first week of its release. Don’t get used to it; I doubt it’ll happen again.

Let’s bypass the discussion of cultural appropriation in regard to Moana. It’s relevant, but let’s face it: as a privileged member of the dominant culture, i.e. a white male, anything I say on the subject is automatically going to be suspect. And, to be honest, I don’t know enough about the culture in question to comment on whether it was used respectfully.

So, with that said, I can say that the legend of Maui as presented at the beginning of the film, and later revisited when we meet the hero, is self-consistent and feels like a unified whole, not something that was cherry-picked and grafted onto a pre-ordained plot. Kudos to the staff there.

A few things surprised me in how well they worked.

Based on the trailer, I feared that the pig and chicken would get tiresome. But the filmmakers used them sparingly: the pig only appears at the beginning and end of the movie*, and the chicken spent most of its time confined off-screen, only emerging to satisfy necessary plot points. Best use of a cute animal sidekick in a Disney film I can recall.

* I do have to wonder how the pig survived, though. With no fish and no coconuts, what did the villages eat while Moana was on her quest? It’s not like the film shied away from incorporating death–Moana’s grandmother and, in flashback, her father’s best friend–so why not one more? Handling it sensitively for the benefit of young viewers would be tricky, granted, but an element of “not all endings are completely happy” would have been an interesting evolution for Disney.

I was also worried about Maui’s tattoos. Again, based on the trailer, I thought they would be a distraction from the main story. Instead, they worked very nicely, serving as a way to bring out Maui’s internal monologue.

There’s no perfect creation, however, and Moana does have its faults. I’ll mostly refrain from nitpicking (millenia-old sailing canoes that need no repair work to be seaworthy?), but I do want to talk about Tala, Moana’s grandmother. My apologies to voice actress Rachel House and whoever the voice director was, but whatever effect you were going for, I didn’t think you found it. Specifically, I didn’t think Tala sounded elderly; to me she sounded constrained, as though she feared speaking. It put me off the character and in a couple of places, threw me right out of the story.

That’s unfortunate, but a worse problem had to do with her role in the story. It was fine in the early scenes: she served well as the necessary counterpoint to Moana’s father. And her illness and (off-screen) death and transformation into a glowing manta ray were well-handled, serving nicely as the final push to put Moana in motion and literally guide her outside the island’s reef.

But bringing her back at the climax of the story, especially in full-blown Obi Wan Kenobi mode, complete with blue glow, was unnecessary. Worse, it detracted from Moana’s final transformation from failed-quester-about-to-give-up to victorious hero. At that point, she shouldn’t need a push from outside; remember, she’s already heard all of the sentiments Tala presents here. How much more powerful would the scene have been if those same ideas had come from Moana herself? A trigger would be necessary, certainly, but not something that hands Moana her motivation on a platter. Perhaps the sight of a normal black manta ray as Te Fiti’s heart sank down through the water would have reminded Moana of her grandmother, leading her to remember those same key scenes from before and during her quest.

Despite my complaints, though, I will say that Disney has given us a rousing version of the Hero’s Quest tale, refreshingly free of a romantic subplot. There are only a couple of real audio attention grabbers–I’ll nominate Shiny and You’re Welcome as the most enjoyable–but the soundtrack as a whole is certainly above average, with no absolute stinkers to knock you out of your cinematic immersion.

Moana is well worth your time and admission.

Eat Up!

A smattering of food-related items for you today. No, I’m not on a diet–at least no more so than usual. Why do you ask?

First up: Some of my friends have been talking about the Fondoodler. The what?

Think of it as a hot glue gun optimized for kitchen use. Shove in a chunk of cheese, wait for it to come up to temperature, and pull the trigger. Spluuuuuuuuuuuurt!

This is one of the stupidest culinary devices I’ve ever encountered. You need to slice your cheese into small chunks to fit. The nozzle is tiny and only does string shapes. You can’t use it to melt anything other than cheese. There are three separate pieces that need to be washed.

If you want melted cheese, you can do it on the stove just as quickly.

So why do I want one?

Ahem. Moving on.

Perhaps you’ve noticed a trend at restaurants. An obnoxious trend. I’m talking about the increasing use of inappropriate plates.

Excuse me. “Plates.”

It started with serving fries in a cone. What’s the point of that? All the salt and spices rub off of the fries and wind up in an unappetizing pile at the bottom of the cone. You can’t put ketchup on them.

Then it got worse.

Who thought using shoes, shovels, and random pieces of wood as serving vessels was a good idea? Far too many people, apparently.

Fortunately, there’s one brave soul out there chronicling the ugliness. We Want Plates is dedicated to shaming those who serve food “on bits of wood and roof slates, chips in mugs and drinks in jam jars.” Despite their deplorable prejudice against the Oxford comma, the site is well worth your time.

The Lego breadbasket is bad enough–who wants to risk the ire of the poor busboy who has to reassemble the basket after you succumb to the urge to play with your plate–but then there’s the avocado syringe. And the beef wellington on a guillotine. And, of course, prawns in a tree–with a rabbit.

I think I’m starting to understand how the Fondoodler could gain such a grip on the minds of the unwary.

Moving on to something more positive.

Juzo Itami’s 1985 film Tampopo is currently getting a new theatrical release with a restored print. Huzzah!

Tampopo is one of my favorite movies, and several lines have become family catch phrases.

A comedy, yes, but seasoned with just the right amount of tragedy.

If you haven’t ever seen Tampopo, you should be ashamed of yourself–and you should be checking for a showing near you.

Side note: Don’t let Fandango’s synopsis (“Milk-truck drivers (Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken Watanabe) help cook (Nobuko Miyamoto) with her noodles”) put you off. No matter what they suggest, this is not a film about cannibalism.

Oopsie!

Let’s get the obligatory disclaimer out of the way, shall we?

I’m not in favor of piracy. IMNSHO, information does not want to be free. And, while I believe the music, movie, and publishing industries, have, to varying degrees, bobbled the transition to a digital-dominated marketplace*, I don’t believe that justifies an attitude that all audio, video, and written material can be “shared”, guilt-free.

* Especially when it comes to the methods they use to enforce copyright.

That said, I had to laugh when I saw this story. You read it correctly. Warner Bros. issued DMCA takedown requests against its own websites because the content violated its own copyrights.

To be fair, the requests didn’t come from WB directly, they came from Vobile, a company whose homepage claims their goal is to “Protect, Measure, Monetize the best movies and TV content in the world” Advertising mis-capitalization aside, that’s a remarkably elitist statement, isn’t it? Do they decide whether your content is among “the best” when you engage with them, or–as seems likely–is the fact that you want them to work their PMM magic sufficient evidence that your content is superior?

Regardless, they use the usual sort of digital “fingerprint” technology to identify their clients’ content–and then, apparently fire off a barrage of DMCA takedown requests with little-to-no human oversight. “Fair use? What’s that?” “Verification? Never heard of it.” Yeah, I’m putting words in their mouths.

Hey, do you suppose Warner has told Vobile that they should stop searching for unauthorized distributions of “Happy Birthday”? After all, the song was only placed in the public domain seven months ago…

Anyway, it’s a nice bit of gander sauce.

Moving on (briefly).

Rumor has it that Google is preparing to release a successor to the extremely popular Nexus 7 tablets. Ars, among many other tech venues, suggests that it’ll be announced at Google’s big October 4 launch party, along with new phones, Chromecast, and VR hardware.

If it’s true, I’m very glad to hear it. The world needs more seven-inch tablets. It’s an excellent size for reading, it’s large enough that watching video and playing games isn’t an exercise in annoyance, and it’s small enough to be carried easily.

I don’t expect to be getting one immediately–I’m still quite satisfied with my $50 Amazon Fire tablet for reading and my Nexus 9 for anything that needs a larger screen–but if the new “Pixel 7” (or whatever they decide to call it) is as affordable as Google’s earlier seven-inchers, I’d give it a strong recommendation to anyone who is in the market for a tablet.

Pain and Gain

Well, that was painful.

I made the mistake of going to see Star Trek Beyond a few days ago. My brain still hurts.

Yes, a couple of movie mini-reviews. Since the movies are still in theaters, please be aware that spoilers lurk below.

Don’t think I–a Star Trek fan since the mid-seventies–am dissing the reboot for being a reboot. I liked the first reboot film and enjoyed the second one despite its problems.

No, my objection to Star Trek Beyond has nothing to do with its place in the canon. Pure and simple, it just didn’t work dramatically.

I’m not even talking about the extended sequences in which shaky-cam was combined with dark rooms and loud music in a futile attempt to build tension*.

* Seriously, folks, that doesn’t work. It’s never worked. Why do you keep trying? And in this case, those sequences were so long and unproductive, I kept expecting somebody onscreen to stop, look around, and say “You know? This is stupid. Can’t we just turn on a damn light?”

What I’m talking about are the plethora of plot threads that lead nowhere, the logical gaps, and the abuse of coincidence.

Consider, for example, the first scene of the movie. Kirk is trying to broker a peace treaty between a couple of races of aliens, at least one of which obviously has no interest in peace. OK, nice idea for a movie. Lots of room for action and thoughtful discussion, with a goal that emphasizes the Federation’s peaceful intentions.

What happens? Kirk’s efforts come across as hugely half-assed and the negotiation fails within a couple of minutes. End of scene, neither of the contesting races appears in the film again, and to top it off, instead of returning the artifact that was at the center of the peace proposal to its owners, Kirk confiscates it for the Federation! And then he compounds the offense by keeping it on the Enterprise instead of turning it over to whichever archival organization is supposed to hold onto the damn thing. (Hint: starships exploring the unknown are not safe places to keep unique, possibly dangerous, objects.)

If the writers–and IMDB lists five of them, not counting the obligatory credit to Gene Roddenberry–couldn’t think of a way to use those aliens later in the film, why even bother to include them? Just to get the artifact into Kirk’s hands and give him a chance to demonstrate how burned out he is?

Fine, then. Skip the aliens, let the Enterprise find the artifact in open space, and give Kirk the chance to bitch about how bored he is with scooping up relics of vanished civilizations.

I could go on–if you’re heading into unknown space where your detectors don’t work well and where rocks are bouncing off of your hull, why don’t you put your shields up, rather than waiting until the hostile force appears and starts shooting at you? If the villain has weapons that can overpower the Federation’s newest, most powerful ship, why does he need the Federation’s “advanced technology” to conquer them?–but it would be too depressing.

My advice: accept that the whole movie is just as bad as the opening, skip it, and go see Sausage Party instead.

No, I’m not joking. Yes, Sausage Party is rude, crude, and juvenile. It’s also funny, beginning to end, and the writing is, within the limits of the movie’s universe, consistent and coherent.

OK, I exaggerate a little. The last scene is an uncomfortably tacked-on epilogue that’s either a sign of a unnecessary sequel or a failed attempt to parody unnecessary sequelitis. Even within it’s context, the script overuses the F-word. And the film uses the obnoxious “the ugly guy can only find happiness with the ugly girl” trope.

But despite those failings, the story works on a “gang of misfits sets out to save the world” level, as a parody of that genre, and as a loose framework to support a collection of jokes.

And ideas don’t get dropped. Recurring jokes not only recur, but in at least one case a character indulges in meta-humor, commenting on one of the major running jokes. AliensJokes introduced early in the film are brought back in new forms later on.

Despite what some reviews have suggested, Sausage Party isn’t all that deep, philosophically-speaking. But it’s an enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half, unlike Star Trek Beyond, which simply steals two hours of your life and refuses to give them back.

Four for the Price of One

I’ve had an unusually busy couple of weeks, even without GT’s contributions* to the excitement.

* GT is, by the way, doing well. He had the drain removed from his cheek Sunday. He continues to remove the Cone o’ Shame, but is making no effort to evade the other medical necessities (mostly warm compresses twice a day).

Maybe it won’t seem all that busy to many of you, but keep in mind that I typically go to maybe two movies–and less than one concert–a year. Add a couple of ballgames, and that’s pretty much it for my outside entertainment. Somehow, however, I found myself going to two concerts and two movies in two weeks.

All that makes for a priceless opportunity–four ready-made blog posts!–that I’m going to shamelessly squander. One post, four mini-reviews. Ready? Let’s go.

Saturday, 7/9: The BFG

Let’s be honest. The BFG is not one of Roald Dahl’s best books. It’s certainly not in the same league as the Charlie books or James and the Giant Peach*. Not even Fantastic Mr. Fox (no, there really isn’t a “The” at the beginning of the title). The end isn’t really an end, it just sort of fades out. The climactic confrontation nearly slips by unnoticed. And later events happen without much reference to earlier happenings.

* My personal favorite.

So the movie didn’t have a high bar to clear. But Spielberg–or rather, he and screenwriter Melissa Mathison–didn’t settle for a simple transposition of book to film. A single example of the improvements they made: In the book, there’s a minor argument between Sophie and the BFG which neither wins, and the subject is immediately dropped. In the movie, the BFG wins the argument by doing an endrun around Sophie’s better judgement. As a result, we get bagpipes and jet-propelled corgis.

Mathison and Spielberg added a few other callbacks to events earlier in the film, and as a result, the ending became more satisfying, dramatically and emotionally.

It was never going to be a major smash, but it deserves better than the reception than it’s currently getting at the box office.

Thursday, 7/14: BABYMETAL

You know I’m not going to diss BABYMETAL.

But I do have a couple of complaints, so let me get those out of my system first. Standing in line outside the venue was cold. Twainian levels of cold. Nobody’s fault, but the group’s management missed an opportunity: if they had moved the merchandise sales outside before the doors opened, they would unquestionably have sold a huge number of hoodies.

Once they opened the doors, it still took a long time to get inside–they were funneling the entire audience through a pair of metal detectors. From what we overheard, it was the first time they had used them, and their inexperience showed. Given the ongoing controversy over whether BABYMETAL is really metal, I wondered if they were going to turn away anyone who didn’t set off the detectors: “Sorry, kid, you’re not metal enough to attend this show.” I didn’t see that happen, but I also didn’t see it not happen.

The Regency Ballroom was kind enough to open the balcony so those who wished to avoid the mosh pit that consumed the entire main floor could do so. The balcony even had seats! Not that the seats mattered, because as soon as the first notes sounded, everyone stood up. Including the six-footer in front of me. I’ve got some lovely photos of the back of his head and arms.
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No, that shot really isn’t as perverted as his arm makes it look, but the rest of the shots he was in are so much more completely blocked that they don’t amount to much more than unintelligible blurs.

My apologies, by the way, to whoever was behind me. I hope you were taller than I am.

Still, I did get some good shots, especially when the lighting wasn’t so red it threw off the camera’s focus.
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OK, “good” by my standards. Stop laughing, Beth.

And no number of bodies could block the music.

I was able to let go of my brain and get into the experience–my first metal concert!–and wound up exhausted and sore-throated in a good way. All in all, I had a fantastic time, and yes, next time I find myself in proximity to a BABYMETAL show, I’ll attend. I’ll just make sure I have a better line of sight to the stage.

Tuesday, 7/19: Ghostbusters

Unlike many of the people my age who have, shall we say, firm opinions about the wisdom of a Ghostbusters remake, I came into the theater with an open mind. I saw the original when it came out, but I doubt that I’ve seen it more than twice since. Certainly not at all in the last decade. So I remember a couple of key scenes clearly, and I remember the movie as a whole as being funny. But I don’t consider it a cherished part of my youth, and I’m definitely not in a position to do a point-by-point comparison between the films.

Taken on its own, then, I found the new movie more than worth the time and ticket price. I don’t expect it to match the original’s multiple Oscar, Hugo, and Grammy award nominations, but it’s far from embarrassing itself, its actors, or its creators.

Seeing it so soon after BABYMETAL, I probably found the scenes at the metal show funnier than I might have otherwise, but they worked well enough even without that help.

Kudos to the crew for moving the big dance scene to the end credits instead of interrupting the flow of the story; the little snippet they used during the film was much funnier for being so abbreviated.

And the dialog flowed well. Writing humor is hard, and making it look easy is even harder*. That there were so few places where the humor missed is a major tribute to the creative team.

* Yes, I know I’m far from the first person to point that out. But it bears repeating.

Count me as one white male of a certain age who doesn’t think Ghostbusters‘ 2016 incarnation destroyed his youth, but does think it enhanced his certain-age-itude.

However, having said that, I will admit that if I had to guess which of the past couple of weeks’ entertainments is the one I’ll be least likely to remember fondly a few decades from now, it would be Ghostbusters.

Friday, 7/22: They Might Be Giants

No, you’ve never heard me blathering about my enduring love of They Might Be Giants. There’s a reason for that: I don’t have a deep passion for them. But Maggie is something of a fan, and I appreciate their sense of humor, so we grabbed the chance to catch their show in Berkeley.

A slight diversion: the show was originally supposed to be in March, but there were technical problems with the venue. The show was at the newly remodeled UC Theatre, and was supposed to be the theater’s grand reopening after a fifteen-year hiatus. Didn’t quite work out. But now that they’re fully operational, I love what they’ve done with the place. The UC used to be a movie theater–Maggie and I used to go there in its repertory days–and the remodeling handles the steeply angled floor brilliantly: it’s been divided into three flat sections, each with a low wall at the front. The first section is actually lower than the stage, which puts the performers’ feet at the audience’s chin level. Odd, but very workable for dancing. The middle section is about ten feet higher, giving it a perfect view of the stage, and the back section is another couple feet up.

But I digress. So what else is new?

The audience for TMBG was somewhat more sedate than BABYMETAL’s crowd, and we were lucky enough to be near the front of the line. That meant we were able to snag a couple of the small complement of chairs at the front of the middle section. It wasn’t until we were seated that I realized I had forgotten my camera. Fortunately, my phone did an acceptable job.
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An optical zoom would have been nice, but this is fine as a memory cue.

And, beyond the music, the show was memorable for one thing I’ve never seen before:
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I thought at first the sign-language interpreters were with the group, but apparently not–John and John had to ask the interpreters’ names before thanking them. Regardless, a nice touch, though I’d love to get an appraisal of how well they did: it can’t be easy keeping up with TMBG’s rapid-fire lyrics.

Good view, good music. And if I wasn’t as tired and hoarse as the week before, I did come out of the theater with hands sore from clapping. An evening well spent.

So that’s been my mid-to-late July. I could probably get used to those levels of excitement but I’m hoping for a slightly quieter August–at the very least, one without medical emergencies.

Early Announcements

Today, it seems, is adaptation day. Or, at least, the day I’m finding out about pending adaptations that were announced Tuesday.

According to Entertainment Weekly, The Jim Henson Company is adapting Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men into a feature film.

This is–IMNSHO, naturally–a brilliant move, albeit one with a couple of potential pitfalls.

Wee Free Men is not, as the EW article, suggests “Discworld‘s introductory novel”. It is, however, the introduction to the Tiffany Aching subseries of the Discworld novels; a set of works aimed explicitly at a YA audience. A film version–a good film version–could bring a whole new generation of fans to Terry Pratchett’s writing. And there are enough Tiffany Aching books in the series to allow for multiple sequels without stretching on for so long that the filmmakers risk descending into self-parody.

But there are those danger points. Henson has shown they can mix puppetry and live actors to good effect (see Labyrinth, for instance). But I’d be concerned if they went with an all-Muppet approach a la The Dark Crystal. Maybe they could pull it off, but I’m pessimistic enough to hope they don’t try.

More worrisome is the question of how the script will treat the titular Nac Mac Feegles. The joy of the characters comes directly from their reckless disregard for their personal safety coupled with a default assumption that an unplanned, all-out attack is the answer to any problem. Add their unrestrained use of creatively salty language, and any scene featuring them quickly reaches levels of chaos not found in this universe since the Big Bang.* Cleaning up their language or moderating their behavior in the name of “protecting the children” from bad influences would absolutely destroy them, both as foils for Tiffany’s peculiar brand of common sense and as characters in their own right.

* Remember Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin? Lock him permanently in manic mode, give him an impenetrable accent, a vocabulary that would would make Queen Victoria blush (if she could decipher it through that accent), shrink him to six inches in height, and multiply him by twenty. That’s the Nac Mac Feegles.

Fingers crossed–but on the whole, I’m optimistic about this partnership.

The other announcement comes from The Hollywood Reporter. According to their “Exclusive” piece, Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels are being adapted for TV.

I’m dubious at best.

Keep in mind that this is not the first time a video adaptation has been mooted–in particular, I recall a planned animated film of the first book, Nine Princes in Amber in the late ’70s–and the idea keeps popping back up. As far as I can tell, none of the attempts have made any significant progress. And let’s not forget that the producers don’t even have a writer in hand to do the adaptation yet, much less an agreement with a TV outlet (though the production company’s multiple ties to AMC suggest who they’ll likely approach first).

On the other hand, the choice to shoot for TV instead of a movie or series movies is a good one. Splitting the ten books across several seasons gives plenty of scope for a faithful adaptation. The story’s extended intra-family intrigue and the need for some spectacular effects demand a very cinematic approach. Game of Thrones has demonstrated that a TV show can be made with that orientation. Maybe they can pull it off.

Then there’s that third thought: the producers in question are Robert Kirkman and Dave Alpert of The Walking Dead fame. I don’t know if that bodes well or poorly for Amber: I haven’t seen The Walking Dead in any of its incarnations, but what I’ve heard doesn’t fill me with happy thoughts about how much reverence they’re likely to pay to the source material when given an opportunity to go for shock value or artificial tension.

Done well, Amber would make spectacular television. Done poorly, well, the cancelation notice might find us in prophetic sympathy with the first novel’s opening words: “It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.”

Zootopia

Random thoughts in lieu of a review of Zootopia.

Spoilers abound. You have been warned.

Zootopia scores points for not limiting their characters to a narrow selection of species familiar to every kid. Bonus points for including a fennec fox–those giant ears are insufferably cute.

I was a little disappointed that the noisy neighbors were only used twice. Granted, they were used well: one joke to introduce them and a second joke in the radio scene. But as a general rule, I subscribe to the Rule of Three. It aligns well with the classic narrative structure (introduction, crisis, resolution). By not bringing the neighbors back a third time, their narrative arc feels unfinished. Bringing them back one more time to comment on Judy’s departure from the city (“Where’s the bunny?” “How should I know? Why don’t you shut up about the bunny?” “You shut up!”) could have given them closure and smoothed what I thought was an unnecessarily abrupt transition back to the farm.

Speaking of the radio scene, I thought it was one of the best scenes. Completely predictable, but executed so well that I laughed anyway. A perfect selection of songs, and wonderfully expressive body language from Judy.

Missed opportunity department: When Officer Clawhouser was reassigned to Records, “…downstairs, next to the boiler,” am I the only person who expected a quick cutaway to a dance scene a la the Simpsons‘ “Gay Steel Mill” bit? Not that a gay stereotype scene would have been appropriate, but why not give us a few seconds of a group of carnivore officers bonding with music and dance? It would reinforce the developing “us versus them” mentality in the city and prefigure the eventual final scene.

Which reminds me: Is Gazelle really the only pop star in that world? Or is it just that she has some kind of exclusive licensing agreement with the city? The giant animated billboard welcoming people leaving the train would tend to support that hypothesis. But if so, it’s a somewhat disquieting reminder that Disney exercises very tight control over its parks, and it plays oddly against the film’s message of inclusiveness.

On a similar note, the division of the city into various clearly-delineated “districts” is equally problematic. On the one hand, Sahara Square, Tundratown, and the Rainforest District, obviously mirror Disney’s penchant for dividing their parks (Tomorrowland, Critter Country, Toontown, et al.), and they’re clearly portrayed as a desirable separation of species. On the other hand, the districts are fenced off, not only limiting contact between species, but suggesting gated communities and in some scenes even recalling the walled ghettos of Eastern Europe. Mixed messages, anyone?

Then there’s the anti-science message. Judy grew up around the night howler flowers–she knows them well enough to recognize their bulbs–yet she’s never once heard the common name? The message seems to be “If only the Hopps family wasn’t so gosh-darned scientific, Judy would have solved the case sooner.” OK, I’m exaggerating. But it certainly is a convenience for the script writer. Why is that the only plant the family refers to by its Latin name? How about sliding in a joke or two about them growing “Daucus carota subsp. Sativus” and “Vaccinium corymbosum*” to make it a consistent part of the family culture?

* Or, better yet, “Vaccinium virgatum”–the rabbit-eye blueberry.

Consistency is given a pass in several places, though. Much as I love Judy’s carrot voice recorder/pen, why is she even using it? We see her using her iPhone-equivalent to take pictures and video. Why doesn’t she use it for audio too? For that matter, a movie of Ms. Bellwether’s confession would play more strongly in court than a voice recording. (Side note: using a personal device to collect evidence is not a good tactic for a police officer. The phone will probably be confiscated to perpetuate the chain of evidence; more likely, the evidence won’t be able to be used at all, due to the improper nature of the collection. Yeah, a little much to expect for a kid’s movie, and the carrot serves an important function, but it still bugged me.)

OK, last complaint: By the end of the movie, Judy and Nick clearly have a relationship that goes beyond friendship. Maybe it isn’t quite a romantic relationship, but letting them patrol together–putting them in situations where they might be more concerned about their partner than the civilians they’re supposed to protect–seems like a ReallyBadIdea™.

Gripes aside–and remember, it’s QA’s job to break things; we focus on the bugs by nature and training–I greatly enjoyed Zootopia–and so did the young girl in the seat next to mine. The movie hits more of its targets than it misses, and it’s certainly not going to be a “When will the torture end?” experience for adults who take their kids.