Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Monsters University Review

Depending on when you ask me - the day of the week, the alignment of the planets, and just how romantic I'm feeling - Monsters Inc. is either my favourite or my second-favourite Pixar film. But, even on the days when Wall-E is my favourite, the world of Monsters Inc. is still the most creative, unusual, vibrant and fun of all the worlds they've created. It's wildly imaginative in a way that really hasn't been topped.
It also has the most story potential by far. The Toy Stories all had to be about things that really happen to toys, Cars 2 had to be about things that really happen to cars, Finding Dory will have to be about things that really happen to fish, an Incredibles sequel would have to be about superheroics, another Ratatouille would have to be about cooking - but a Monsters film can be about anything at all, just with tail-holes in the chairs. If we're going to return to one of those worlds, I'm glad it's this one.

The only trouble is Boo.
The original Monsters Inc. hinges entirely on Sully's relationship with that tiny human stowaway. Their bond is so heartfelt and affecting that the film once made me cry my eyes out in a bar full of strangers because I caught the last few seconds with no sound on a tiny TV on the other side of the room. The film was playing on a loop so this happened three times.
If there's any reason not to make another Monsters film, it's this. There is no way - no possible way - they could continue the story of Sully and Boo without tarnishing Monsters Inc.'s perfect ending. Yet a sequel without that relationship would be just as bad. There's no way to win.
Being a prequel, then, allows Monsters University to spend more time in this fertile world, without affecting the emotional legacy of the original.

Without Boo, the problem then becomes finding heart and emotion somewhere else. Pixar's solution is, as ever, ingenious. The emotion in University comes from love and nostalgia for Monsters Inc. itself - not our own love and nostalgia, but Mike's.
As a small green child we see Mike visit the Monsters Inc. scare factory where, in wide-single-eyed wonder, he falls in love with the place - as we did, twelve years ago - and decides then and there to become the world's greatest scarer. Mike's adoration of Monsters Inc. is real and heartfelt, and so is this film's. We go back there a few times and, every time, it's an emotional highpoint for us and for the characters. It's those emotions that tie the film together, and that eventually lead Sully and Mike to the great friendship we know.

Driven by his childhood experience, we follow nerdy Mike to the prestigious Monsters University, to learn from the scariest monsters in the world. He quickly develops a rivalry with arrogant jock Sully, and that rivalry quickly gets them both thrown out of school. Their only hope is to learn to work together and help their misfit fraternity (what the hell is a fraternity, anyway?) to win MU's annual Scare Games, so that the Dean will have to reinstate them.
Yes, this is a pretty standard college-movie plot, and it hits every single beat and plot-point you'd expect - but the monster angle keeps things interesting enough, big enough, and unrelentingly funny enough, that it never suffers because of it. It all wraps up with exactly the college-movie ending you expect and... then it keeps going.
I won't say where it goes, exactly, but it's thoroughly unexpected and brilliant, as it slowly reveals that the film is not about what, or even who, you thought it was. It's pretty amazing.

It's admittedly not as resonant as Monsters Inc., but what University lacks in tears of sadness and joy, it makes up for in tears of laughter. This might be Pixar's funniest film. Every frame is packed with sight-gags and in-jokes and references, the script is very funny, and the physical humour is second-to none. Returning character "Randy" Boggs (who only has an evil squint because he doesn't wear his glasses) has a motivational poster on his wall that just destroyed me.
This stuff comes thick and fast - in fact the whole film is surprisingly fast-paced. Monsters Inc. took a while to let us settle into the crazy world before barraging us with jokes and action, but MU hits us with these from the very first scene. It doesn't let up, and it's great.

The one thing that isn't played for laughs, interestingly, is humans. In Inc. the monsters' fear of children was basically a joke - watching huge scary beasts freak out about a little girl (or a sock) - but where children are concerned, this film gets scary. The human world sections are like a horror film, dark and creepy, and any sight of a human is treated as terrifying and dangerous. It's a great, atmospheric approach and it leads to some of the film's best sequences.

All in all it's just a really solid movie. It has great set-pieces, tons of heart, and near constant hilarity. But the real strength comes from wonderful characters that we learn to love all over again, and a deceptively deep story that goes to truly surprising places. The last act pushes Monsters University from a fun extension of the first film into an actual worthy successor.
It won't be making me cry in any strange bars, thankfully, but it's fantastic all the same.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Gipsy Danger's iPod

Do you know what’s awesome about Pacific Rim? I mean, besides the eighty-metre-tall robot battle-suits, the hundred-metre-long alien death-monsters, and the fact that one hits the other in the face with a freaking boat! Apart from all that, d’you know what’s awesome?
The music is awesome.

It's by Ramin Djawadi, the guy who does the equally awesome music for Game of Thrones, and it's just perfect for this movie. The main theme makes me smile the exact same way the film makes me smile: it’s exciting, over-the-top, and just a little bit cheesy. The whole soundtrack is the same - there's an operatic horror-theme for the Kaiju, and an overly melodramatic one for the overly melodramatic bits. It knows it’s kind of silly, and it’s running with it - which is Pacific Rim in a nutshell. It's larger than life.

I said before that the Iron Man 3 score didn’t really feel like an Iron Man film to me. It's brilliant, but it's too choral and orchestral, where I think Tony Stark needs a more mechanical sound. Why I'm writing this post is that the main Pacific Rim theme - the one I linked to above - is exactly what I had in mind!
This film's also about guys in power-armour, and it turns out that Djawadi actually is the guy who did Iron Man, so I shouldn't really be surprised that they synch up so well. I just wanted to mention it because I thought it was interesting, and because it gives me an excuse to listen to it again.

Because it's awesome.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Pacific Rim Review

I live my life according to a strict and ancient code. It is called the Creed of MEGAS and, though it has many complex and subtle rules, its central and most sacred tenet is that I dig giant robots.
I can't help it. Something about them just speaks directly to the pleasure-centres of my brain, bypassing all conscious thought. If you show me a giant mechanical creature, I'll be willing to forgive any number of sins (cough, Revenge of the Fallen, cough). Big robots, and their piloted mech cousins, make me very very happy.

What this means is that Pacific Rim feels like it was made specifically for me, and I'm therefore the last person on Earth you should trust the opinion of.

For years the world has been under attack from Kaiju (Japanese for "giant sodding monsters") and, somehow, the best solution has turned out to be fighting them with giant sodding mech-warriors called Jaegers (German for "hunters" as well as "deadly student booze"). For a while this worked but now, with attacks becoming more frequent and more ferocious, the Jaeger Program is failing - their robots getting destroyed, their pilots getting killed, and their funding getting cut. The film follows retired mech-pilot Raleigh Becket and rookie Mako Mori - who operate his outdated Jaeger, Gipsy Danger, through a Vulcan mind-meld - as they prepare for a last-ditch assault on the deep-sea interdimensional portal from which the Kaiju emerge.

On some level, I'm completely aware how stupid all this is. But on another level, it's pretty much what my dreams look like.
Happily, Pacific Rim is also completely aware how stupid all this is. After the reveal of Gipsy Danger's secret weapon, and a ludicrous moment with a desk-toy (to say nothing of Ron Pearlman's black-market Kaiju-part-dealer), we're under no illusion that it’s taking itself seriously. This is a film with a character named Hercules Hansen, a building called the Shatterdome, and a part where someone actually shouts "Elbow Rocket!" Gritty and realistic, it is not.
Which isn't to say it's a parody, or even tongue-in-cheek. While it is self-aware, and often pretty silly, it's also incredibly earnest - even when it’s poking fun at itself, it's always completely invested in its story, its world and its characters.

In truth, those characters only range from simple archetypes to basic stereotypes. They’re reductive and minimal and their stories aren’t always handled as well as they could be, but they're humanised enough that we still care about their struggles. It’s used as shorthand: we recognise most of these characters immediately, which means we understand them immediately, too. The ones we don't understand are explained through the pilots' mind-melding process - "the Drift" - which means we literally walk through their minds and memories. This is criminally underused, but the few times it does appear are brilliantly effective and powerful.
In spite of their simplicity, or maybe because of it, the characters make a strong impression quickly and we can't help but care - so much so that Marshal Stacker Pentecost (played to perfection by Idris Elba) might be my favourite character of the year.
What sounds like a weakness is used as a strength - Pacific Rim is painting with broad strokes on a huge canvas, so it helps to keep things basic. The plot is simple, the characters are simple, their relationships are simple, and it's all delivered to the audience as simply and efficiently as possible. The entire history of the Kaiju War, for example, is recounted in the first five minutes, and it contains more information and world-building than most entire films!

The world-building is phenomenal, by the way. It's a living, breathing place, so real you can smell it. Those first five minutes - the origin of the Kaiju and Jaegers, the early victories and the later defeats - are so dense with information that they could almost be the first two films in a trilogy. In a film-climate currently obsessed with origins and franchises, it's actually surprising that they're not. This film is willing to just throw us into its world, fully formed and expertly realised, and to end without setting up a sequel. It's confident enough to be self-contained, and that's worth celebrating.

Also worth celebrating is the action. It's why I'm here, it's why you're here, and it's why director Guillermo Del Toro is here (though I still can't pronounce his name). They sold this film on robots fighting monsters, and it delivers spectacularly.
All the action is excellent. Inventive, distinctive, gorgeous to look at - everything you could want from this kind of mayhem. Del Toro clearly loves this stuff, and as much thought and care is put into the fight-scenes as into the dialogue scenes; maybe more. Every Jaeger, and every Kaiju, moves and fights in a different way, giving each battle a unique personality. The only constant is the scale and weight of these things - their movements are big and slow, and collisions and impacts feel enormous. We've seen big movie action before, but it's never felt this big.
Yet, even while the scope is huge, it remains tightly character-driven. We’re made aware early on just how vulnerable Jaeger pilots are, and the battles cut to them throughout. The pilots may shout things like "Let’s do this!" a little much, and it’s a shame that the character drama never directly informs the action, but it’s more than enough that we always know and feel the human stakes.

My only complaint is that the action peaks too early. The movie’s highlight is undoubtedly a battle in Hong Kong - it’s an incredible sequence for a number of reasons, not least the diversity and changing nature of the fight, but the main reason it works is that we can really see the scale of the combatants. When the Kaiju or Jaegers stand beside buildings, their size is breathtaking. When they’re smashing each other’s heads into those buildings, so much the better! It also means they can make use of their environment - using cranes or shipping crates as weapons - to further show off their enormous size and weight.
The final battle abandons urban locations for a more natural landscape - which makes sense for the story, and is certainly better for the population (Superman could learn a lot from these guys), but it means we lose the sense of scale. The fight itself is still fantastic and creative and tense, but it just can’t replicate the sheer awe of seeing how big they are. Of course, we know they’re still huge, but without a visual reference to remind us, they don’t really feel it.
It doesn’t matter, though, because that last fight is more about the characters. Though the drama may be thinly sketched and, dare I say, even a little cheesy, it all pays off in that climax. The battle may seem smaller, but it has a massive heart.

Pacific Rim is, first and foremost, enormous fun - pun intended. It takes a ridiculous premise and simple characters, and works them into a surprisingly effective story. That story is very basic, but it’s a solid enough foundation to build an immersive, believable world with some of the biggest, most impressive, most downright enjoyable action you could hope for. It's big, loud, crazy, over-the-top and completely lovable - which is not surprising since that's basically a discription of Del Toro.
I was probably going to love this film whatever happened. Just the mere sight of Striker Eureka (the shiny, sexy, super-high-tech Australian Jaeger) is enough to get me grinning like an idiot. But if you’re willing to accept how daft Pacific Rim can get - if you’re willing to Drift into its mindset - I think you’ll be grinning too.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Avatar: The Glory of Aang

In my last post I said that Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the best animated series ever made; then I proceeded to rip it to pieces for its disappointing cop-out ending. I feel bad about that.
As I said, I love Avatar - but that's probably not the impression that last post gave. So, to restore balance to the Force (or possibly to the chakras), I'll be using this post to look at the things the show gets right.

If you were to ask me which is the best season of Avatar my default answer is, and always has been, Book Two: Earth. But now, watching it back for the umpteenth time, the second series seems to have a lot more fluff and filler than I remember. Stuff like that swamp episode, or the first three quarters of The Chase. Tales of Ba Sing Se is blatant filler of the most gratuitous order (though Sokka makes it work). Likewise Avatar Day (likewise Sokka). That's not even mentioning the entire subplot with Appa!

Book One has a lot less of this - or rather, if it does, it hides it better. There are filler episodes, but at that point we're still learning about Avatar's world, so even filler is interesting and new and educational. The only ones that really stand out as obvious fluff are The Great Divide and The Fortuneteller - but even those serve to teach us more about these characters we're still getting to know (and the latter gets a pass anyway on the strength of just one line).

Book Three is similar in that we've never visited the Fire Nation before that series. Again the filler episodes are teaching us about this new environment, and about the people living there. Up 'til now our only experience of the Fire Nation has been their military - faceless soldiers who do bad things. Episodes like The Painted Lady, or that weird Footloose one, show us that people in this land are just as oppressed as those in the Earth Kingdom - even while they're blatantly killing time before the real meat of the series begins.
Series three is also the first series to really embrace what Tales of Ba Sing Se tried to do, which is to just go crazy with it. The Play and the amazing anime beach episode (also, somehow, very important to the plot) are both half-an-hour of winking and nudging the audience - and Daydreams and Nightmares is just plain bonkers (did I mention that everybody loves chakras?).

So why do I prefer Book Two? As a series it's essentially treading water until Toph arrives in episode 6, and then it wastes even more time when we reach Ba Sing Se. Again, not even mentioning Appa's subplot. It has (discounting the finale) the deepest, and the longest, low-points of the entire show.
But it also has the highest high-points. Zuko Alone is one of the best episodes of the entire programme. The end of The Chase (after a pretty poor first half) is also brilliant. Zuko's entire second series arc, in fact, is one of the best things in the entire run - and it has that bit where Uncle sings.
Series two also introduces Toph, who is obviously amazing, and Azula, who is obviously terrifying. Azula's far more effective as both a character and a threat than either Ozai or Zhao (and infinitely better than Sparky-Sparky-Boom-Man) so this series has the best villain too.
But the real reason that Book Two is my favourite is how coherent it is as a complete series. The way that, from start to finish, it's always about the same few things, and how those same things all collide come the finale.

Think about the final battle of each series. In Book One, Team Avatar must save the North Pole from a Fire Nation attack - something that is only set up a few episodes earlier. There's also some business with two mystical koi fish and Sokka's new girlfriend, both of which are also introduced in the last few episodes. It ties in with a recurring theme of technology versus nature (and skepticism versus mysticism) that crops up throughout the first season, but that's about it. Don't misunderstand, though, this ending still works pretty damn well.
In Book Three, Team Avatar must stop the "Phoenix King"'s ridiculous plan to (literally) set the world on fire - something that's never ever mentioned before the finale itself! Also energybending and lion-turtles and Aang's unwillingness to kill (he's blown up a lot of ships and tanks at this point) are all clumsily introduced during the ending itself. It doesn't even have the thematic anchor of season one's ending. This ending does not work so well.
In Book Two, by contrast, Team Avatar must prevent the Fire Nation from conquering Ba Sing Se, capital city of the Earth Kingdom. This conflict is set up in the first episode of the series - maybe even before that, in season one. Everything else about that ending - the temptation of Zuko, Aang learning to let go, everything with the Dai Li - is set up and foreshadowed throughout the series. The only thing that feels out-of-nowhere is the sudden introduction of Guru Pathic - but we did already meet him briefly in Appa's Lost Days and, unlike energybending, the aid he provides is something Aang knew existed and has been searching for for some time.

Every episode (except, perhaps, that swamp one) pushes forwards these themes. Episodes I’ve already described as filler are nevertheless focused on the central concepts of the series. Both The Cave of Two Lovers and Return to Omashu, while not progressing the overall story very much, highlight Aang’s reliance on emotional attachments (to Katara and Bumi respectively) and the entire Appa plot, much as I keep joking about it, does the same thing. Almost losing Katara and actually losing Appa are the only things in the series that drive Aang into the uncontrolled Avatar State - and it’s no coincidence that they come at the beginning and exact midpoint of the series: the whole series is built around these ideas, so that the finale mirrors and contrasts what has come before.
Zuko’s arc is even more pronounced. The battle between what he wants and what he thinks he wants plays into every episode he appears in, and the string of choices and realisations he makes mean that his character is subtly different every time we see him - abandoning Uncle, accepting Uncle, dealing with Jet, dealing with Jin (his date), and finally helping Appa. Like Aang, this is underlined exactly half way through his arc by his screaming at the sky in Bitter Work. And, like Aang, the finale reflects and complements everything that has happened to him. It’s brilliantly done.
It’s not just those main two characters, either. Toph gets almost as much focus - her need to prove herself, and the insecurity it stems from, coming up again and again from her first episode to her last. The Chase and Tales of Ba Sing Se, again both mostly filler, highlight this, as do The Blind Bandit and The Serpent’s Pass. When she fails to save Appa in the desert (though not actually in The Desert) this gets hammered home to both us and her and, once again, it comes at the exact midpoint of the series.
Azula doesn’t have an arc the way the others do (though she does get the most interesting arc in Book Three) but her single-mindedness and skill at manipulation are emphasised from the minute we meet her, using Zuko’s desires against him. She does the same thing with Ty Lee, and later with the Dai Li, and, once again, the end of her story - the temptation of Zuko - mirrors where that story began.

This is all fantastically constructed, and perhaps the best thing the series then does with it is to split the characters up as the ending approaches - each character must deal with these issues alone before being thrown together to see how they affect one another. Even Katara and Sokka are separated to deal with her hatred of the Fire Nation and his desire to be a man - themes which, while not foreshadowed as overtly as Aang’s or Toph’s, have been bubbling under the surface for two whole series.
Then, after each character faces the conclusion of their individual theme and each seems to be heading towards a particular solution, the arcs suddenly come crashing together, veering off in new directions. Some get the catharsis they needed (“I am the greatest earthbender in the world!”) and others find it in a way they weren’t expecting (as with Sokka realising where he’s most needed), but it’s Aang and Zuko of course - their respective struggles reinforced so well throughout the season - who get the most interesting changes and turns in that ending. The whole thing eventually converges on Zuko - fitting, since his arc is the strongest in the entire programme - and comes together in unexpected, undesirable, but totally perfect ways.
Contrast this with series three, which splits up our characters, has them face their individual problems, then reunites them after the fact just to talk about what happened. It’s going for enormous scale, but the separate story threads feel quite small in the face of Book Two’s tightly interwoven character arcs.

The second series is just built so well, with every episode - filler, standalone or otherwise - driving towards an ending that must have been meticulously planned from the beginning. It escalates slowly and surely, focusing all the themes and character journeys towards that one unifying crescendo. It’s wonderful, honestly, and it’s one of the best seasons of television - certainly of a cartoon - I think I’ve ever seen. In terms of such an unblinking focus on the endgame, the only comparisons that come to mind are Babylon 5's fourth season, Doctor Who's fifth and, of course, the first series of Game of Thrones.
Book Two is the best example of this, but it’s a level of storytelling quality that’s consistent throughout the whole of all three seasons. The buildup and conclusion to Day of Black Sun in the third series, for example, is similarly great, and the worldbuilding in series one deserves a discussion all to itself. And that's all before we even mention the great dialogue, fantastic characters, stunning choreography, terrific animation (with hilarious inbetweens), and the way it can jump effortlessly from genuinely dark and serious stuff to ridiculous humour, doing justice to both!

It’s just an amazing show, basically, despite what I said last week. I love Avatar.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Avatar: The Problem of Aang

My fiancée and I are watching through the Avatar cartoon again (a practice which is fast becoming an annual tradition) and I noticed something. It's something I've probably noticed before - but I've never had a blog before. So, because I'm loud and opinionated, I'm going to tell you about it.

Avatar: The Last Airbender (or Avatar: The Legend of Aang in countries where "bender" means something else) is one of the best animated series ever made. We all know this, so I won't dwell on it. If you haven't seen it - see it! The sequel series, The Legend of Korra is not quite as good (it's lacking in, for example, Sokka), but it's still better than almost anything else out there.
But I've always had a problem with Legend of Aang. A teeny, tiny little problem that I like to call "that bloody stupid ending". Because, while Avatar as a whole is a brilliant achievement, the four-part finale, Sozen's Comet, is a weak, scrappy, deus-ex-machina-ridden nightmare. Actually, no - that's not true. The Toph/Sokka/Suki section is suitably awesome, and the Zuko/Katara/Azula showdown is among the show's best ever parts. But Aang's story - the third corner of the triangle - collapses, and brings the whole finale down with it. For me, at least, Sozen's Comet is a failure.

Naturally, spoilers follow.

So what have I noticed in rewatching the series? Has something changed my mind?
No - quite the opposite. I've noticed something that crystallises what was already wrong with the ending. Something that makes the failure hurt even more.
It concerns the first episode of the second season; an episode called The Avatar State. The overall arc of season two - Earth - from the very beginning to the Empire Strikes Back ending ("If I leave now, I'll never complete my training - but I have to save my friends!") is all about the Avatar State. It's about Aang's fear, acceptance, attempts to control, and eventual loss of this glowing, superpowered god-state. One would think, after that entire season of setup, that the Avatar State would play into the finale in some way. Oh, it absolutely does - but not in a way that makes any narrative sense.

The first episode of season two is about an Earth Kingdom general who believes that, after his victory at the North Pole, Aang is more than ready to defeat Firelord Ozai. All they need to do, he argues, is get Aang to the Fire Nation and release the awesome power of the Avatar State. By the end of the episode it becomes apparent that Aang has no control over the Avatar State. It is an uncontrollable force of destruction - too chaotic and unpredictable to use. If Aang is to defeat Ozai, the episode tells us, he must master the two remaining elements (earth and fire) and beat the Firelord on his own terms. Which would seem a fair and noble message for the episode to have, if only any of that had actually been true.

The reason that specific episode has spawned this blog post is that, in the finale, Aang defeats Ozai by... releasing the awesome power of the Avatar State. The general was right! Two seasons of the show, and countless lives within those seasons, could have been spared if they had just listened to that general!
All Aang's training; his mastery of all four elements; all the stuff that The Avatar State told us he would need to defeat the Firelord turns out to mean nothing. When they fight, Aang loses. He loses fast and he loses hard. At no point are they anything like an even match - Ozai decimates him from the very start.
Then Aang releases the Avatar State (an uncontrollable force of destruction that's too chaotic and unpredictable to use, don't forget) and the tables are instantly turned. Ozai runs away; Aang wins; hooray. Remind me again why this kid needed to spend two series learning earth and fire, please?

This could have played well if, and only if, Aang was in control of the Avatar State. If that glowy blue god had still been recognisably Aang, just more powerful, then I would have no complaints. That was, after all, the point he had supposedly reached at the end of season two. We never got to see him in control of it because Azula skewered him with lightning, but we saw him let go of his material attachments, we saw his chakras (everybody loves chakras) unblocked and flowing freely. As the guru explained, this should have given Aang complete control over the Avatar State.
Yet the thing that defeats the Firelord (so very very easily) is not Aang. It doesn't act like Aang (except in one fantastic moment involving a beard); it doesn't move like Aang; it doesn't fight like Aang (it barely "fights" at all). Then, when it is going to kill Ozai - something Aang has just spent three episodes telling everyone that he would never do - the only way Aang can prevent this is to actually come out of the Avatar State. That doesn't sound like control to me.

So now we find Aang once again facing Ozai as his own human self. Now, surely, he will use those bending skills he spent two seasons learning. This moment should justify all that training and hardship instead of just barging in blindly when the general suggested.
But no. Instead, Aang uses a fifth kind of bending (deus) that he learned literally that morning (ex) from a handy giant lion-turtle (machina). The show's greatest moment, this is not.

So, in conclusion, if Aang had listened to an overzealous general when he first reached the Earth Kingdom, the war would have been over roughly a day later. Two days at a stretch.
Aang spends two whole series learning how to bend earth and fire, mastering water, and learning to control the Avatar State. And not a single part of that comes into play during the show's eventual conclusion.
There's also the fact that the finale turns the credible villain of the Firelord into a caricature and a joke in the Phoenix King. But that's for another time.
For now, all that matters is that the general was right.

I love Avatar - but Sozen's Comet mainly just upsets me. Not least because, on top of everything else, it's clearly a meteor and not a comet.