‘Jupiter Ascending’ and Joy in Storytelling

Last night, I went to see ‘Jupiter Ascending’. I don’t want to talk about the film itself all that much; suffice to say, I thought it was a lot of fun, ridiculous and cheesy, frequently silly but with dialogue that didn’t make me cringe too often. What struck me most of all, though, was that it was a film that felt curiously joyful. It revelled in its silliness and was absolutely unashamed about the fact that it was pure fluff. And you know what? I sometimes feel like we need a bit more of that in the world.

It’s a topic that keeps coming up in the world of SFF literature, in a slightly different guise. There, the sub-genre of ‘grimdark’ is oft-discussed, and even as frequent conversations about whether it’s dead yet – or at least dying – crop up, it feels like every major fantasy publisher is trying to market their newest authors in the same mould. Where once everyone had to be ‘the new Tolkien’, now they’re ‘the new George R.R. Martin’, no matter how ridiculous the comparison.

It’s far to say that I’m not grimdark’s biggest fan. Clearly, it sells by the bucketload, and I keep returning to it out of hope (that I’ll find something that blows me away) more than anything, but nearly every book I pick up leaves me disappointed. It’s not just that I’m an optimist and like to see that reflected in my fiction: it’s that I came to fantasy, first of all, for its imagination and its capacity for escapism, and reading endless books filled with death, violence and abhorrent characters doesn’t really fit the bill (particularly when I can see enough of that every day on the news). Fiction should attempt to capture the world as it really is, of course, but I feel grimdark tends to forget there’s light to balance out the rest.

Back, then, to Jupiter Ascending. It’s a very silly film, true, but also packed with ideas and imagination. It felt, to me, to have that same spirit of adventure and optimism that fantasy from the 1980s had in far greater abundance than most of what’s being published today. There are definitely things in SFF from that era I wouldn’t want to revive (the fact that huge swathes of the genre were just Tolkien rip-offs, for one), but I’d still love to see some of that hopefulness return to the fantasy genre. Not every book has to be dark or darker, and not every fantasy world has to be a grim landscape populated only with broken souls. If I had to choose between that and pure, escapist fluff, I’d choose fluff every time.

On Positivity and Criticism (aka How to be a Nicer Person)

Recently, one of my favourite bands released their new single, the first off an album that’s due out next year. For anyone who’s interested, the band is Alcest, and the song ‘Opale’, which you can watch here.

In truth though, both the song and the band are irrelevant to today’s post. Instead, I want to talk about a more general aspect of positivity vs. criticism in all areas of art.

You see, when ‘Opale’ was released, the ‘fan’ comments (and I use the inverted commas there very deliberately) were fairly predictable. When Alcest formed, there was a heavy element of black metal to their music, an element which is entirely absent from their new release. As a consequence, a huge number of comments I’ve seen have run along the lines of ‘It’s not metal enough, therefore I don’t like it’.

A lot of the band’s ‘fans’ have, I feel, come to this conclusion by default, almost without listening to the new song. They’d been told in advance that black metal sounds weren’t going to appear on the new album, at which point they decided there and then that they weren’t going to like it. (Ironically, Alcest have been derided for not being ‘metal enough’ in some quarters for years – that the new album has gone further in that direction seems to be a surprise to no-one but the complainers. I honestly don’t know what they were expecting.)

The whole business bothers me: that the supposed fans suddenly hate a band for turning in a new direction, that they’re not willing to give the whole album a chance based on one song, that they go to such lengths to inform the band of their failings… All of this strikes me as both short-sighted and incredibly negative. So you don’t like a single song, and maybe you won’t like the album either. Does that stop you enjoying previous albums? Do you believe the change in style was made solely and intentionally to spite you? Does that shake your view of the world to the very foundations of the earth?

The answer to all those questions should of course be ‘no’. Liking or not liking a piece of art is, in the grand scheme of things, so very, very minor. It doesn’t alter your life, or the band’s life, or really anything at all.

And here we get to the nub of it all. So much of criticism surrounding art, particularly the ‘fan’ variety that percolates the internet, is focused on negativity. Disliking changes of style, new books by a previously-loved author, the new colour of a website… Said fans go to great and sometimes alarming lengths to make their discontent felt. And really, what does that accomplish? It lets off a few minutes of steam for the ‘fan’ – and makes the musician/author/artist feel terrible for a whole lot longer than that.

I will admit to having posted bad, even scathing reviews of books online in the past, but looking back, I genuinely wish I hadn’t. These days, I ignore the books I didn’t like and focus on the ones I did, by recommending them to other readers and posting about them here on my blog. The same goes for music, and films, and every other form of art and entertainment I enjoy.

I’m beginning to wish, too, that more people followed the same pattern. I’m not saying genuine criticism doesn’t have a place – it does, in all art forms, but it needs to be more considered than just ‘this sucks because it isn’t exactly like the last one’. Instead, I just wish that more fans and online commenters would be a little, well… nicer. Don’t like a film, a book or an album? So what? Either make your criticism a bit more constructive (i.e. a genuine review in which you point out positives as well as defects) or simply forget about it and move onto something you do enjoy.

Because I can’t help but think that, if we all focused on the positives a little more, the world would just be that bit more pleasant a place to be.

The Films I Saw This Week

I don’t usually blog much about films, because doing so makes me realise how little I know about cinema in general, and I don’t feel I have to lot to say beyond ‘This film was great!’ or ‘This one was rubbish!’. Still, I wanted to mention a couple of films I saw this week, because both were brilliant and I’d highly recommend them.

The first, Argo, has been in the news a lot recently for the number of awards it’s been nominated for (and won). The story follows an attempt to get six American diplomats out of Iran during the hostage crisis of 1979. Historical accuracy aside, it’s a fantastic thriller, where the intensity comes down to timing, luck and those involved having nerves of steel. A work colleague pointed out to me that Ben Affleck (who both stars in and directed the film) is a decent actor, but highly underrated as a director – after seeing, in particular, the tightly-structured second half of Argo, I’d have to agree.

The second film, I Wish, was actually released in 2011 in Japan, but has only now made it into UK cinemas. The story follows two brothers, living apart after their parents separate, and their wish to be reunited – a wish specifically to be made when two bullet trains pass, halfway between the two towns where the boys live. The film is half quest, half family drama, but also finds time to include numerous sub-plots about other family members and their friends. It’s charming, warm without being fluffy, and frequently very funny.

So, too very different but equally engaging films. Has either caught your eye?

My Not-Quite Cultural Olympiad: China

[For a quick introduction to this series, and what I’m trying to do with it, go back here.]

I’m kicking off my Not-Quite Cultural Olympiad with China, as they’re really dominating in the actual-Olympics medal rankings at the moment. I’m also, for my first post, cheating a little bit: I said I was going to pick a single piece of art/culture, but this time round I want to actually pick three.

Why three, and what are they? They’re actually three films, namely ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, ‘Hero’ and ‘House of Flying Daggers‘. It’s a tad stereotypical to choose martial arts films for China (ok, maybe a lot stereotypical), but I have my reasons. You see, these three films, which came out in relatively quick succession, are where I can trace my interest in any culture outside my own to.

That’s a big claim to make, is it not? All three films were though, for me, a window into a world so very unlike my own. I had enjoyed action films before, but these were something else, combining stunning visual flair with strong, genuinely emotional stories. I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched these three films (‘Hero’ especially) and they continue to impress me every time, even ten years since their release.

I won’t go into a vast amount of detail about the films themselves – there’s plenty out there online, or better yet just watch them for yourself. Not usually a fan of martial arts films – or even just action films? There’s still a lot to enjoy in all three, right down to the less-than-happy endings (which I think are a given in this particular end of the genre).

Sadly, similar films in the years since have never quite matched up to the joy of these three ‘originals’ (‘The Banquet’, for example, was stunning but felt a bit hollow, whilst ‘Red Cliff’ was impressive but not quite as stylish), but that does nothing to diminish the power of ‘Crouching Tiger’, ‘Hero’ or ‘House of Flying Daggers’.

It’s fair to say that these three films changed the way I saw the world. They’re responsible not just for my specific interest in martial arts films and art in translation, but for my desire to look beyond the confines of my own culture, to see what else the world had to offer. And, as I hope to keep showing in my Not-Quite Cultural Olympiad, there was a whole lot out there for me to find.

The Wolfman

It’s been a fairly quiet week here so far. I’ve been plugging away on the novel and on edits for various things. All fairly standard stuff, really. On Wednesday though, I did go to see The Wolfman, so I thought I’d post a few thoughts.

Overall, it was enjoyable and about what I expected. Lots of action and gore and a few fairly creepy bits, wound around a predictable plot (I’d guessed most, if not all, of the plot within the first fifteen minutes). I’m not sure how much the film followed the plot of the original, but as it was a re-make, I think any lack of originality can be excused. What did seem a bit strange to me was the gore, which felt silly and cartoony and not really in sync with the darker bits of the film. I felt the same way about District 9, which I also saw for the first time recently – the darker aspects of the film got lost behind the OTT blood-and-guts. In District 9’s case, at least the gore was fairly convincing, but I can’t say the same for all of The Wolfman’s severed limbs and trailing guts.

On the subject of special effects, it took me a good two-thirds of the film to get used to the appearance of the wolfmen themselves (yes, there are two by the end and I don’t really think that’s much of a spoiler). I suppose I’ve become used to both the sexy urban fantasy type werewolves and the more-beast-than-human type that have appeared in a lot of films over the last few years. The Wolfman goes for much more traditional looking werewolves: humans with fur and fangs basically, who run on either four legs or two. I’m assuming this was another homage to the original film and it did work, but I was a bit disappointed that the wolves were so human when I first saw them.

One thing that really struck me about The Wolfman was the setting. Perhaps I’m being cynical here, but it really felt as if the film had been made to appeal directly to Americans who have never visited the UK. There seemed to be shots of as many British landscapes and landmarks (some real, some not) as could possibly be fitted into the film – historic houses, standing stones, forests, moorland, various bits of London etc. Also, was it just me, or did the front and back shots of the manor house really not fit together? I think the front was the very impressive Chatsworth, but the back looked much smaller. I can understand using more than one house for the purposes of filming, but the scales were so far out that it looked a bit odd. I also kept wanting to laugh at the vastly stereotypical, “It’s grim up North” picture of what I think was supposed to be Yorkshire (I’m guessing this from the voices of the regulars in the pub, but there was a weird selection of accents throughout the film).

Really though, I don’t think The Wolfman needed to be vastly historically or geographically accurate. It was fast-paced, full of action and kept making me jump. Whilst I wouldn’t see it a second time, it was a fun watch, especially on the big screen. If you’re looking for a gorey, entertaining hour and a half, it’s worth seeing – just don’t believe that Britain is really like that!

Avatar: My Thoughts

Like most of the rest of the world, it seems, I went to see Avatar recently. Although I don’t really feel that a full review from me would add anything new to all the other things that have been said about this film, I thought I’d just post a few of my thoughts.

Story: Predictable. I’d actually avoided finding out anything about the story before I saw the film, so I didn’t know anything in advance, but I think I’d worked out the end within the first half hour. I wasn’t particularly bothered by that as there were other things to hold my attention, but it would have been nice to have been surprised once or twice.

Themes: Again, fairly predictable. Still, I don’t think Avatar handled its themes, like environmental destruction, any worse than other films I’ve seen. It wasn’t exactly subtle, nor was the distinction between the good guys and the bad guys, but again, that didn’t really spoil the film.

Visuals: Let’s face it, this is what Avatar was all about. They were, overall, as stunning as I’d expected (except a single scene of the army commander in his mech thingy, quite near the start – he looked Photoshopped in there, and badly). The landscapes, the characters and the critters were all beautiful and a real joy to watch. However, they weren’t quite as original as I’d expected. The army vehicles could have been straight out of Halo or similar, whilst the landscapes reminded me strongly of the Myst series of games, what with the giant mushrooms and glowy plants and giant trees. (Incidentally, I think this is the first film I’ve seen where the imagination and care that went into the visuals finally matched up to the imagination that’s going into the current generation of games. There are some truly stunning visuals in games both new and old, but films rarely live up to them.) Still, Avatar is a fantastic looking film and hopefully it will pave the way for other fantastic looking fantasy films in the future.

All in all, Avatar is definitely worth seeing, if just to see what all the fuss is about – and plenty of that fuss is justified. Don’t expect it to surprise you or make you think all that much, but honestly, I don’t think that’s what this film is about. It’s beautiful and – if you’re a big softie like me – it might even make you cry a little.

Wanted

I’ve just got back from seeing the film (or movie, if you prefer) Wanted and thought I’d post my initial thoughts. Be warned though: this isn’t a film that really encourages intellectual debate so you’re not really going to get any.

First thoughts: well, it was gorier than I expected, but then I hadn’t realised going in that it was an 18 certificate. I’m not sure what that equates to in American film ratings, but suffice to say there was more blood that I had thought there was going to be, including some fairly graphic shots of people getting shot. As in, seeing the bullet come out of their forehead in slow motion and close-up, before being rewound to show the bullet being fired, including going back through the victim’s head. All CGIed clearly, but still pretty gorey.

Second: the main focus of the film was on action scenes, which is pretty evident if you’ve seen the trailer. Forget extensive character development (although I’ll admit you can see a change in Wesley, the main character, as the film progresses) or highly developed back-story. There is a back-story, concerning weavers who for some mysterious reason decided to become assassins, but you could pretty much strip that right out of the film and have little effect on the story. Apparently it’s an adaptation from a comic book, so I imagine there’s more plot detail in the original format. As a film though, there’s a definite sacrifice of plot for the sake of action scenes.

Third: having said that, many of those action scenes are pretty damn cool. Think cars flipping over other cars so that the driver of the one on top can shoot someone through the sun-roof of the one below. Think running around on the tops of trains and big guns and the physics-defying feat of curving bullets in the air. Additionally, the whole film is slick, well shot for an action film and has some really nice little touches, like the words spelled out by flying letters as a computer keyboard is smashed over someone’s head.

Overall, this is a film to see if you want a mindless couple of hours of fight scenes, chase scenes and general over-the-top, heavily CGIed action. It’s entertaining, but don’t expect any big message or life-affirming moment at the end. At least there was no obvious set-up for a sequel, which is always a good thing. This film doesn’t really need one. It’s silly, violent and entertaining, but it’s really not clever.