Monthly Archives: March 2011

A Double Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Devil Rides Out

I’m going to start this review off with the elder of the two films (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) then tackle the younger one (The Devil Rides Out).

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Robert Wiene) is both a good film and a rather boring movie. It is good in that it is a classic of its genre, one of the first great films, and set the standard for what comes later. But, the movie is also extremely boring until the final scenes.

I am a very restless viewer (and reader). If my attention is not grabbed, I will mentally disengage and focus on other things. And I suffered this during the movie. In part, I think the silent nature of the film bothered me.

But the biggest problem is, perhaps, the predictability of the plot. It is fairly obvious fairly early that Dr. Caligari is up to no good, and his somnambulist curio/ slave is the murderer. However, the twist ending makes up for a lot of the predictability of the plot.

Maybe its because I’ve seen it all before (genre wise) or perhaps what is needed to produce fear/ suspense today is different than it is in the past. Needless to say, the plot is not that interesting.

The acting is perhaps a little exaggerated, but that may be due to the theatrical quality of early film. Watching Caligari gave me the impression of watching an opera without song, and much shorter.

The true power of Caligari, however, is the visuals, the sets. The sets are just amazing. Though obviously theatrical and unrealistic, the sets used draws my attention to what goes on and keeps it, despite my boredom. The sets work well to produce an atmosphere of dread that is little present elsewhere.

And of course, Cesare, the somnambulist played by Conrad Veidt, is a striking image that pulls the visuals together. The unnaturalness of his makeup just hints at the seeming otherworldly nature of the film.

All in all, I rather like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Moving on to The Devil Rides Out (or The Devil’s Bride) (1968 Terrence Fisher), I have wanted to watch this film in its entirety since I first saw bits of it a few months ago when it aired on TCM. I kicked myself in the rear for missing half of it then, and I have sought to watch it ever since.

Christopher Lee plays the Duc de Richleau, an occult scholar and friend to a young man named Simon Aron. De Richleau and Rex van Ryn (another friend) have sworn to watch over Simon as a courtesy to the younger man’s deceased father. Unfortunately, Aron is enticed into a satanic coven led by Mocata (Charles Gray). While trying to rescue Aron, a young woman named Tanith is also rescued from the coven.

I love this movie. I love the highlighting of the technology of the twenties, I love the usage (believable usage) of the occult, I love Christopher Lee as a hero. This movie is awesome!

That said, there are a few flaws, mainly plot issues that drive me crazy thinking about it. But back to the good stuff.

The acting is good. The principles are excellent in their roles, although Patrick Mower (as Simon) is somewhat unsure of himself and Nike Arrighi (Tanith) seems a little too naive at times. But beyond that, pretty good acting.

Like Caligari, I love the sets. Simon Aron’s house is a marvelous design. It is just gorgeous. I also enjoy the other interiors utilized. And the amusing and shocking scene at the sabbat is beautiful as well.

My problem with the film, though, lies with issues of plot and story. During the sabbat when Tanith and Simon are to be baptized into the Devil’s service, both Tanith and Simon seem to be both uncomfortable and disgusted with the orgy going on (Simon even seems disgusted with the sacrifice of the goat!). Now, I have to ask myself, why are the two of them even there if they are disgusted by the proceedings? I get that they both have to be redeemable (and they are, both quickly decide to abandon Mocata and seek redemption). But why join in the first place? Surely they both have experienced the orgies and other things before their dark baptism. Indeed, the first glimpse of the coven seems to be more of a ceremonial magic organization, but the glimpse of the sabbat is one of a stereotypical demonic witches’ coven.

And don’t get me started on the too fast romance between Rex and Tanith. I know they met before, but still.

Beyond these quibbles, the plot itself is rather good, having been adapted by Richard Matheson from the novel by Dennis Wheatley.

The Devil Rides Out is suspenseful, a supernatural thriller. I don’t know if I would call it horror though. There are scary moments and the fear is more psychological and spiritual rather than physical. To be honest, I prefer these nuanced horror films rather than the disgusting torture porn of contemporary slasher films (what little of those I’ve seen).

Anyway, if you’re looking for two classic horror films, you can do much worse than The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Devil Rides Out.

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Summer Wars Review

Summer Wars (2009 Mamoru Hosoda) is a great movie. I had the chance to watch it last Saturday, and I loved every second of the movie. Having had some time to reflect, there are some issues in the film, but on the whole, I think it is utterly fantastic.

The film is about high school junior Kenji Koiso’s adventure with his classmate Natsuki Shinohara and her extended family over the course of four days as they try to stop a threat to Oz.

The film is only incidentally science fictional, and indeed, the scifi elements are the least interesting parts of the film (although the most gorgeous visuals of the film). The film is really about old styles of human connectivity. The relationships that are built up over time, starting with the family and extending out to friends, coworkers, and all the people one meets over the course of a lifetime. This is best embodied by the matriarch of the Jinnouchi family, Sakae, as she takes the initiative and manually calls all those she knows (family, friend, everyone) and organizes a far more effective response than the film’s antagonist can create by coopting millions of accounts.

This leads us to a discussion of the antagonist, the game loving AI called Love Machine. Love Machine, as an AI, does exactly what it is programmed to do, hack and create chaos. While programmed by a civilian, the Love Machine is purchased by the U.S. military and unleashed on the Oz network as a test. But while its attempt to create chaos are effective, it is no match for the power of human interconnectivity.

And that’s the theme of the film, whether embodied by Sakae’s amazing single handed organization of the response to Love Machine’s initial attacks, Kenji’s acceptance into the family (even after Natsuki’s deception is revealed), his willingness to sacrifice himself to save the family, and the willingness of the family (and millions of users around the world) to risk their accounts by giving them to Natsuki to gamble with against Love Machine.

But this does open up a problem. These relationships are born in crisis. And it is debatable whether these relationships, these bonds will last after the funeral, after the end of summer. One hopes so, but one can never tell.

The visuals are amazing whether in the real world or in Oz. Both the character design and the landscapes are breathtaking.

The voice acting (I watched the subtitled version) is really well done, I think.

After ruminating on the film for a few days, I do think there are a few issues. The fact that the creator of Love Machine is a member of the Jinnouchi family is too much of a coincidence. And Kenji’s stolen account is rather weird (unless it is stolen when he answers the email, not answers the code). Of course, that leads to how he is accused of being the kid behind the attack when he didn’t do anything.

Another issue is the sheer prevalence of Oz (think Second Life expanded out to encompass the entire internet). Am I to believe that everyone has an account on Oz? Really? And if that is the case, why would the U.S. military chose to use the biggest online community as a test? But these are minor quibbles.

Personally, this film should have been nominated for an Oscar. Really. If you haven’t watched this excellent and delightful film, you should do so. Now.

Continued Thoughts, or, Why I’m Not Fond of The Blade Itself

This past week has been rather tough when it comes to my reading. I think I mentioned a few posts back that I had tried to read Brent Weeks’s The Way of Shadows and just could not get into it. I have to admit that of the five books on my plate, the only one I have enjoyed is volume 49 of Naruto. The Way of Shadows just annoyed me (and I didn’t care for the characters), Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover is, despite its lyricism, not very good fantasy or science fiction. I wanted to like it, but Jane’s problem is so silly and idiotic that I just could not get into it. And that brings me to Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. Lee and Weeks can take comfort in that I got further in their novels than I did with Abercrombie’s. Why is that? Why did I not like it?

The question of Abercrombie’s artistic merits, style, and vision have been talked about enough lately. I’ve participated in the debate and I find that I may be forced to reassess my position.

I still disagree fundamentally with Leo Grin’s take on Abercrombie (okay, his royally stupid insertion of politics into the essay), but I find that Theo over at Blackgate may have more points than I had originally given him credit for.

My own personal take on the matter is that I generally dislike medieval secondaries (secondary worlds with a medieval European culture/ civilization). I’m  more enamored of new weird works rather than the traditional fantasy.

That and character. I just didn’t find any of Abercrombie’s point of view characters interesting at all. In the end, The Blade Itself is a big meh (all of the thirty eight pages I read).

Even though I can’t be said to have really read the book, I think I can see more of what the attacks on Abercrombie’s work is about. He’s writing in an ironic mode in Northrop Frye’s formulation of the term.

The ironic mode is a form in which the characters are weaker than, less powerful than, more pathetic than the average reader. These characters are debased, cowardly, silly, and have little hope of redemption. I think this is what Abercrombie is writing, and I don’t like it much. Morgan writes in this vein too in his The Steel Remains, but I think that Gil and his comrades are greater than the average reader. They are genuinely heroic in a horrific world. Or it could be that Gil’s character captured my interest from the start while Abercrombie’s left me cold.

I can also see Theo’s objection to much of this type of fantasy. If you are going to utilize a medieval setting, use as much authenticity as possible. From history, religion, culture, psychology, etc. be as authentic as possible. The problem with this approach is that unless the writer (and the reader) is passionate and even a scholar of the period, then being completely accurate may not be the best option. A professor of mine said that most readers prefer the Romantics because their way of writing, their psychology, is closer to ours than those of other periods. And I think that is true of fantasy. I know I don’t want to read a novel of five hundred pages about Julian of Norwich, Margery Kemp, or any of those others. And I suspect most fantasy readers don’t either. That’s why so much of these novels are being written with “modern” point of views, I think.

I admit that I may be wrong about this. It could just be I don’t like Abercrombie’s style nor Weeks’s nor Rothfuss’s. So I may revisit this later (maybe). But for now, I have research to do.

Hetalia: Axis Powers Seasons One and Two Review

For those who have read my review of volume one of Hetalia: Axis Powers, you will already know that I love this series. And I do, whether it is the manga or the adaptation. Whether in the Japanese original or the English dub. So be aware that I won’t have many negative things to say.

Hetalia: Axis Powers and its  successor series (really seasons three and four) Hetalia: World Series are composed of roughly five minute webisodes that cover at least one or two strips from the series. In this way, the entire first volume is not even concluded in the first season. Personally, I think this works quite well and heightens the almost schizophrenic nature of the series.

The major selling point is, I think, that there is no coherent storyline running through it (save for WWII). Story lines begin and end in less than five minutes, or can last for several episodes, or be skipped and come back to later. On one level, this can be confusing, but on another, it keeps things interesting.

The animation is good, but not spectacular. I like the character designs, but some of the backgrounds can be a bit simplistic. And the quality is variable. the best animated strip by far is “America Cleans his Storage Closet.”

The voice acting is good. Todd Haberkorn is a very good Italy, and most of the main caste are equally as good. Some of the accents are a little over done, but I think that works well here where the point is to over do the accent. The Nation Avatars are essentially national stereotypes incarnated as single individuals and so one would expect them to have stereotypical accents.

The narrators are also excellent in their roles as well.

I don’t think I disliked any episodes, so if you want a good time and learn a little history, check out Hetalia.

Epics and Dystopias in a Tossed Salad

Okay, this post is going to be rather scattered as there is a lot to cover today in criticism and news/ announcements.

For the past few weeks, there has been an extended debate over nihilism and morality in fantasy, a dearth of definitions, and questioning who gets left out of the discussion. I’ve been interested in the debate (even wading into) and I want to get some of my thoughts down.

After a lot of thought, I think that when it comes to “realistic” or “nihilistic” (would some one please actually define what you mean when you use it!) a more appropriate term would be “dystopic.” A dystopia is a fantastical place where life is a mess- it is brutal, cruel, sadistic, depressing, etc. TV Tropes also uses the term “crapsack world” for it. I think this works better than either realism or nihilism. Realism makes one think of mundane fantasy while nihilism is just a pejorative with little real force. A dystopic fantasy is, I think, the best descriptor (until a better one comes along).

I’ve also been intrigued by Matthew David Surridge’s essay from last week trying to define “epic” fantasy. I agree with parts of his arguments, but I’m not totally with him. I think a good definition is “a work of fantastic literature that 1) Features a prominent ‘great conflict’ against a great, undeniable evil 2) usually lasts for over a thousand pages either in a single volume or across several and 3) typically, but not necessarily, being set in a secondary world that is annoyingly like Medieval Europe.” Now, not all of the definition has to be met although a consensus is that part one should be met.

Postmodernism has been brought into the debate, which I feel is problematic to say the least. Personally, I don’t trust postmodernism that much, especially with fantasy. I like some of the stylistic innovations that postmodernism has brought, but I don’t think that the wider philosophy of postmodernism is all that helpful in appreciating or understanding fantasy. What I mean is that often times postmodernism reflects on the text as an artificial construct but this, I think, damages the enjoyment of fantasy. And challenging everything before anything has been set is rather like knowing Cthullu. Enough of this.

I just finished read Naruto vol. 49, and I am debating whether I want to do a review or tackle it when I do my Naruto analysis project. I think I may do that then. I also attempted Brent Weeks’s novel The Way of Shadows and did not make it too far (only about 117). Not impressed with that one. Next is Tanith Lee, Joe Abercrombie, and Glenn Cook. As for my own reading projects for the blog, I’m either going to do Naruto in the coming weeks or do a Clark Ashton Smith project. Or I could do both!

Enough for now. I need to get to writing.