Film: My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

aka: となりのトトロ (Tonari no Totoro)
language: English in translation from Japanese
director: Hayao Miyazaki
length: 86 minutes
watched on: 30/1

film still

I’ll have to keep this one short, because I really love this film, and gushing is boring. I have a Totoro wallet and I still squee whenever I see him unexpectedly (such as in Toy Story 3) – about the only thing that provokes that reaction from me. This is only the second time I’ve seen it, admittedly, because it’s been about two years since the last time, but it’s so good; sublime. Maybe a bit short, though. But tearjerking, in a very good way.

Anyway, I watched it with people who wanted the English version, so while it’s been too long since the last time that I can directly compare it with the Japanese version, there were a couple of things that upset me about that, notably the fact that they always use American accents and American slang. It just sounds unnatural to me, every time. Plus in this particular film they had “Toder-o”. For one that likes to squeal [tɔtɔɾɔ::] in an approximation of the Japanese (apologies for the IPA, but it can’t be helped) this was the worst bit. Meh. It is almost disturbing that i can tell exactly what they’d be saying in Japanese sometimes, particularly the ritualised greetings and goodbyes like ‘ittekimasu’ and ‘itterasshai’ when someone’s going out. But that’s probably a good thing.

I’m actually not too diametrically opposed to dubbing in general, and I think it’s acceptable on animated films, where the mismatch with the mouth is usually less obvious, but this one pissed me off a bit. I more just don’t like watching dubs because I want to practise listening to Japanese/French/whatever the language of the day is.


Book #5: And Another Thing… (2009)

author: Eoin Colfer
language: English
pages: 340
finished on: 28/1

book cover I’m a bit late to the game on this one, I guess, since it came out two years ago. I reckon the only way I’m going to be able to talk about it properly is to compare it to the books by Douglas Adams that it continues, which is going to be a little bit of a problem given that I’ve just realised I haven’t read them in 10 years or something. So I think I’ve forgotten most of the major plot points apart from those of the first book. Or something like that. Whether I like it or not and how that compares may also be difficult, because I remember liking the first three books and not being too impressed with the 4th and 5th anyway… so things I don’t like about this may be carry-overs from that. Possibly.

I do quite like Eoin Colfer as an author, in that I’ve read several of his Artemis Fowl books and not been quite bored by them. But at the same time, I do kind of think that Artemis is a bit of a Gary Stu-type character, in that nothing ever seems to properly stump him for long enough. So I began this book optimistically, knowing that we at least have an author who’s successful and whose work I know I can read.

But even right from the start I’m seeing problems. There’s the niggling comment in the back of my mind that a friend made a while ago that the book’s like glorified fan fiction…. and so far I’m sort of agreeing. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course. Fan fiction if done well is most certainly a good thing (although I’ve never had the patience to read any, mainly given that the only series I know with a substantial amount of fan fiction is Harry Potter, and my god is there a lot of crap Harry Potter fan fiction out there…), so we’ll lay that comment aside for the moment.

The characters seem …. fairly normal. As I say, it’s been a long time since I’ve read the previous books in the H2G2 series, so I can’t quite remember what they’re supposed to be like… but I don’t remember Ford Prefect being so incompetent. I also don’t recall the word ‘froody’ being used by him and Zaphod Beeblebrox every second page, nor the word ‘zark’ instead of ‘god’ in epithets – although a quick flick through one of the older books reveals that Adams did at least use the second one but not with nearly as much frequency. And it was capitalised. Nitpicky, yeah… well, there’s worse to come. As for Beeblebrox, he quite definitely used to have two heads. I’ve no idea if this was Colfer’s or Adams’ idea – I seem to recall that Colfer worked off some notes that Adams made, possibly – but it seemed a bit clumsy when he explained that Zaphod’s second head was actually a genius stifled by the utter idiocy of the first head, and was now the sole pilot of the Heart of Gold… which didn’t even need a dedicated pilot before, did it? Or is this related to the non-presence of Marvin the paranoid android? Gripes, gripes.

The style also struck me as a bit stilted. Colfer inserts “Guide Notes” – excerpts from the in-universe Hitchhiker’s Guide – in all over the place in italics. They break the flow of the text, there’s no two ways about it. Adams did include such excerpts, but not with such frequency, and he tended to dedicate a chapter to them (again, just an impression from my brief flick through the earlier books to check that I’m not talking out of my arse). They also seem to be more in context with the characters – as if they’re the ones checking the Hitchhiker’s Guide and finding it out with you. Colfer’s excerpts are all over the place, often breaking the tension in a scene just to explain the context behind a nonsensical statement someone’s just made. He even seems to know that they might do this (and he lampshades it at one point when he inserts one during the climactic scene…) and does it anyway. The italic thing also kind of annoyed me because the book was typeset in a font I didn’t like, and the italic letters looked all skewy. But that’s just a nitpick, really. Some of them are pretty funny, anyway, and they’re certainly in keeping with the original source material. On the subject of style, he hasn’t got the hang of negative simile. I counted one for the whole book (though it’s certainly possible I missed some). I’ll just leave that there for the moment.

Anyway, the tipping point for me came when Colfer made an obvious factual error: making reference to the beautiful deep blues of Saturn. I recognise that this is probably a typo (and may even have been corrected in a later edition), but did it have to be such a blatant factual error too? I mean, I assume he was going for the deep blues of Neptune…

… Actually, no, I just can’t quite work out how he managed to mix them up. It pissed me off so much, because Adams, while his books were patently absurd, didn’t tend to make factual errors, as if his stories were conceivably possible. That was always one of their strengths. So, I do feel justified in finding this unacceptable, even though it is a comedy series. So then I just started listing all his little errors. I’ll try to keep the next bit brief…

So, shortly after the Saturn error, I found the word zigabytes. Obviously, this is on analogy with zillions. But why doesn’t he just use the words ‘zettabytes’ or ‘yottabytes’. They also look like they’ve been made up by preschoolers, and are actually real words. Later, he starts to make obvious spelling errors with foreign names – you ever heard of a Frenchman called deBeouf or a Scandinavian called Lief? Ironically, he gets both names right once before going right back to misspelling them. He makes what he thinks is a pun by talking about the meat festival of Carni-val … actually, this one’s quite funny, but to me it’s not a pun, since that’s exactly the etymology of the word Carnival: it’s the last days before Lent when Catholics (and there are a lot of Catholics in South America) are allowed to eat meat. Or something like that. And there was the word “Ridiculousity” at one point… which I can’t help but point out should be “Ridiculosity”. Cthulhu, about midway through, has a cameo as a slightly pathetic fallen god – but someone else already had that idea!

And then he repeated that bloody myth that humans only use 10% of their brains. OK, so it’s a comedy, and Adams may well have repeated it as well (I’m not about to go searching), but we’ve been over this: it’s a factual error, and if you repeat it at all, you’re just reinforcing the myth. I mean, the only way this could have been worse is if he’d said that Eskimos have 500 words for snow.

He also clumsily shoehorns (a space version of) Ireland into the story… now, OK, I know that a lot of people say you should write what you know, but I actually disagree with that, especially once you’re an established author and writing adaptations of someone else’s work. I just get the impression that Colfer likes to insert his home country all the time – Artemis Fowl, the only other work of his that I’m familiar with offhand, is mainly set there, for instance. That’s fine, but if he does it all the time his works are going to become monotonous. (However, I did enjoy the religious feud going on between the two factions on the planet, one of whom worships cheese.)

As you can probably tell by now, I have a lot of gripes with this book. But the story was alright, and apart from what I mentioned, it’s true to the source material. So if you’re a fan, you might as well. But you will just be reading glorified fan fiction.

Ninja edit: I’ve remembered a couple more gripes: Vogons as the bad guys of the story, which I’m sure Adams gave up on after the first book, for instance. And just the way that the book reads as though it’s not been seen by any editors, and as though it’s very possible that Colfer has only seen the 2005 movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Nah, I’m sure he’s read the books, and after all, it is a direct continuation of Mostly Harmless; it’s just that there are a couple of characterisations and so on that I have a sneaking suspicion may have been introduced by the film…

Book #4: Mission of Gravity (1955)

author: Hal Clement
language: English
pages: about 200
finished on: 21/1

If you read back in my previous posts on this blog, you’ll probably already be able to give a short list of my current (or ongoing…) obsessions, such as Tintin, or Japanese films… you can now add to that sci-fi books, particularly those in the series “SF Masterworks”, which gives me a convenient way of selecting books by various authors that I wouldn’t have read otherwise. Hal Clement is one of them. Never heard of him (until picking up this book), which may mean that I don’t know enough sci-fi. And this is true: I feel I don’t read enough, and that’s what the reading-lots-of-books-this-year-and-writing-a-blog-about-it Thing is about.

Anyway, it’s a story about a gigantic planet, Mesklin, that spins on its axis so fast (about once every 18 minutes) that it’s practically spinning itself apart, twice as wide at the equator as at the poles. In a practical sense, this means that it has ridiculous levels of gravity, some 700g at the pole and 3g at the equator, if I remember correctly. The humans send a probe (a classic McGuffin if ever I saw one!) to one of the poles to make observations about what happens in high gravity; when they can’t get the thing back off the planet they have to enlist some privateer aliens from the planet. They’re adapted for the high gravity and are essentially foot-long centipedes.

Now, I picked it up because it seemed like the level of detail that had gone into the worldbuilding was impressive, and I wasn’t disappointed by that; the world is presented effectively, each element coming together and having a purpose, such as what’s shown of the aliens’ psychology and physiology. There’s little in the way of extraneous material; a minimal backstory is established as to why the humans are there and what they’re doing (including the briefest of mentions of other aliens elsewhere), and all the focus is on the Mesklinites and their doings on the planet as they and the humans discover things they didn’t know about the different gravity regions of the planet. There’s an impressive amount of focussing going on, in that almost every page will relate back to the central theme of high gravity. Too much more of this and it could have been bogged down, so I thought it was a good length overall. Infodumps are mercifully rare and only indulged in when the author just couldn’t help it any longer (going over details of Mesklin’s seasons and orbital perihelion, for instance), and the rest is shown rather than told. I’m pretty sure I’ve read other sci-fi that gets distracted by irrelevant-seeming details and spends half its time infodumping, so this was refreshing to read and well paced.

And of course, at the same time, it’s too tantalizing… I still quite want to know more about the Mesklinites’ means of reproduction, for example; it’s still a mystery because no females were mentioned in the story. Not enough attention was paid to the animal life: we do see two examples of megafauna – odd for a high-gravity world, of course, but they were both in the 3g zone, where the human character was able to survive in his tank for a short period, and one of them was also underwater (well, under-liquid-methane); and not much in the way of land creatures apart from the Mesklinites and one related sentient species, although we know that the Mesklinites eat meat. It’s never quite answered how their respiratory system works in an atmosphere of hydrogen, and it’s never quite clarified what the plants are, apart from vaguely describing them as ‘like trees’.

Hints are made that the Mesklinites follow a different life cycle pattern to humans, especially when the main character Barlennan notes that humans go to sleep and eat on a roughly 80-day cycle, but we never see the Mesklinites sleeping, eating or going to the toilet, and it’s strongly implied that they don’t go to sleep overnight, and nor do they live at a faster rate than humans, given that they carry on conversations during the night and can converse happily in English at normal speed with humans. This, indeed, was the book’s biggest handwave; when a supporting human character marvels at the way Barlennan learnt English in just 6 weeks (and his first mate Dondragmer picks it up after merely listening in on some conversations… argh!), he is puzzled and remarks that this was 1300 days for him, and therefore quite a long time. But this seems to contradict what I’ve just understood about them apparently not living on a vastly different timescale to us.

The weirdest moment for me when reading the book was that I instinctively imagined Charles Lackland, the main human character, as a kind of Nigel Thornberry-type intrepid colonial explorer with a moustache, only to wind up hearing him saying something that only an American would say. His name just sounds like that of someone lifted straight out of the British Empire. Oh well. He was a bit of a boring character, anyway, who only served to show the extreme differences in what the 3g gravity does to humans and Mesklinites – they’re liable to be whipped about by the wind, and their powerful muscles send them flying if they move too brashly… while humans are bogged down completely by gravity and have to essentially spend loads of time in a swimming pool. The really interesting ones were the Mesklinites, of course.

Anyway, I’ve said enough. I enjoyed this book. I guess that’s all I ever need to say, but then what would be the point in writing a review? Answers on a postcard.

Film: Whisper of the Heart (1995)

aka: 耳をすませば (Mimi wo sumaseba)
language: Japanese
director: Yoshifumi Kondo
length: 106 minutes
watched on: 21/1

film still
Another aberrant attempt by myself to learn Japanese via the medium of film, which I’ve pretty much accepted is not just going to happen like that, although I’m managing to pick up the not-particularly-subtle differences between polite and normal speech.

As with my watchings of Kurosawa’s films, this is another attempt to fill up my knowledge of the Studio Ghibli canon – although unfortunately Hayao Miyazaki only produced this one or something – so that I can blab at the interviewers if (well, “when”, I should hope, but one doesn’t wish to presume…) I get this interview for JET next month.

And this film is pretty much classic Ghibli. Unlike the films that Miyazaki directed himself, our main character – a girl, as with like every other Ghibli film – doesn’t exactly travel into fantastic lands. She has a brief imaginary foray into this world in her own story, so it’s fantastical in its own way, but the main story is a slightly more grounded high school fable.

There are some beautiful moments in the film. The old man’s big grandfather clock springs to mind, and the film’s theme song – based on the famous song that goes “Country Road….” and has something about West Virginia, but sung in Japanese – is given a brilliant rendition when the Love Interest gets out his violin (he even makes violins… talk about niche interest! It’s fun to see things like that that have never really been done before), as in the picture above, and his grandfather comes downstairs with a folk band in tow. Yeah…

There’s also the cat, who’s quite funny. She meets him on a train and he seems to go (commute, even) between houses and get fat off different families. His story’s not really told, he’s just the kickstart to the rest of the film’s events. I wanted more of him.

The romance, however, is just so sickly sweet and fairy-tale-ish (although the use of that term is another issue) that there just came a point where it was unbelievable to me. Yes, I know it’s meant to be escapism, but I get enough of that anyway. Come on, Ghibli, subvert our expectations!

I just can’t help but feel this one could have been better. There’s an ongoing theme of polishing an emerald and retrieving it out of a piece of ore, which was a metaphor for the boy’s first violin, or the girl’s first story, being a bit crap but having potential. And it’s a really obvious metaphor for Yoshifumi Kondo’s first film as director: it needs polishing. Sadly, we’ll never know what potential he could have made, because he died soon after the film was released. But I think there’s a reason Miyazaki tends to keep more to strictly fantastical domains, or a romanticised Italy as in Porco Rosso. Cause or effect I don’t know, but having this film in a Japanese high school setting feels a bit pedestrian; it feels done, while the rest of Ghibli feels fresh and exciting.

That said, I still gotta see Grave of the Fireflies. I’m not sure how excited about that I am… it’s meant to be ridiculously sad. So it might be a long time before I get around to it…

Book #3: Answer Me This! (2010)

authors: Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann
language: English
length: 189 pages
finished on: 18/1

book cover
I read this book because I listen to the authors’ podcast, which seeks to answer listeners’ questions in the form of some light comedy. This was their spinoff in book form and it’s basically a big list of questions from listeners for the pair to sarcastically work their way through, with an interlude chapter from their scientist companion, Martin the Sound-Man.

It’s a funny book. It made me chuckle on several occasions, definitely, both with the inanity of some of the questions asked, and because I always like a bit of sarcasm. They call it a toilet book, and I’ve never been able to “get” the point of reading on the toilet; I’ve never been able to do it, myself. But that’s a good description, short and sweet little passages that you can read a bit at a time at your leisure. Or race through it in 3 or 4 days like I did.

But I thought it was too much of the same thing when compared to their podcast. They’ve said several times on their podcast that they repeat themselves a lot because they have bad memories. Fair enough, right, you’re probably not going to remember from week to week what you’ve written (and most listeners wouldn’t remember them either, given that most are listening to it in an interlude such as a commute), but there were several occasions when I read a question that I definitely remember having heard that question before on the podcast, which suggests to me that they were having trouble filling up the book more than anything else. If they’d stretched a bit further back (as I’m sure they have a record of all the questions they’ve answered on the show; in fact I’ve seen such a record on their website), and done some questions from over a year ago, this effect might have been less obvious.

At the same time, it was woefully short. I counted 182 pages, which doesn’t include the index or the five “blank” pages at the end which were a reference to a question asked in an early part of the book, which together made up a sizeable chunk of the latter portion of the book and made it seem like it had more content than it did in the end. So I’m not sure whether I would say they should do more or less of the questions that are repeats of the show, given that they are valuable filler.

Good, though, are the numerous one-liners that were probably just slightly too short for the podcast, and the questions where they would draw a chart to illustrate something, which is an obvious area that an audio-based format can’t cover. And I enjoyed it overall, but I definitely think it works better in the podcast format. Also, I liked the pie-chart at the end showing proportions of listeners’ questions.

Film: Seven Samurai (1954)

aka: 七人の侍 (Shichinin no samurai)
language: Japanese
author: Akira Kurosawa
length: 190 minutes
watched on: 14/1/11

film poster

This really is a brilliant film. It’s really long, but if it was any shorter, it’d be too short… paradoxically. Toshiro Mifune, again, steals the light away from any of the other performers easily with his absolute madman of a character (I can’t remember if I’ve seen him in a role where he’s not completely off the rails… a bit like Klaus Kinski, for instance…), who I think I described as the comic relief character in the last post, from what I could remember from watching Seven Samurai 2 and a bit years ago. That’s only partially accurate, I’d say; it’s mainly that to the other characters, he’s a laughing stock, although I did find his character funny too.

The 3 hour running time, however, means that plenty of time is devoted to some of the other characters, and allows their relationships to develop onscreen. I’m particularly pleased that because I’m watching it again, I notice things that went over my head the last time, like blatant gay overtones in the relationship between Katsushiro, the young wannabe, and Kyuzo, one of the older samurais. I mean, even this still of Katsushiro is pretty gay:

katsushiro in flowers

Well, he does have it on with one of the girls in the village, so he’s not ‘gay’ per se. But y’know… the seeds of doubt have been sown. Or a more appropriate turn of phrase, if you will.

The main plot of the film is pretty much pure action, anyway. The baddies are the ultimate in faceless mooks, absent for most of the film and only really showing up at the end to sack the village, and are pretty much unambiguously evil, which then leaves us to concentrate on the protagonists, most of whom are ‘flawed’ somehow, as usual.

I think many of the major criticisms that would be levelled at this film are symptoms of what TV Tropes calls Seinfeld Is Unfunny, the idea being that something that was innovative in its own time is now seen as contrived and old, despite it inventing half of the tropes it uses. Seven Samurai suffers massively from this, naturally, being an incredible film from a revered Japanese director… not only has its entire plot been remade in a blatant fashion several times (most famously with The Magnificent Seven, which I now need to track down and watch! On that note, I also haven’t seen Seinfeld…), but even just a lot of the ways that they use the camera were new for the time, the budget was bigger than anything else contemporary with it, etc. There’s one particular camera move that stood out for me, where it looked to be on some sort of crane and moving around the group in a circular manner. Done to death these days, of course, but back then it must have been jaw-dropping in its innovation. I can only imagine.

If you’re reading this and haven’t seen this film, do, really. It’s worth the three and a bit hours.

I suppose I ought to be trying to track down bad points in the film for a bit of balance, but I think I have some kind of psychological bias where I either really like something, really hate it, or I’m just a bit lukewarm about the whole matter. So I think I’ll confine myself to gushing for this post, at least. Heh. Normal service to resume again soon? I need to practise making sarcastic comments about things, it’s been a while.

Book #2: A Wild Sheep Chase (1982)

aka: 羊をめぐる冒険 (Hitsuji wo meguru bōken)
language: Japanese translated to English
author: Haruki Murakami
length: 300 pages, nearabout
finished on: 13/1/11

book cover

Again, I’m sort of going through a trying-to-read-stuff-from-Japan phase, so I picked this book up the other week, since I’d been recommended Murakami as a Good Author by someone. And I think that’s not a bad label to put on him, overall. The book was a fun read, and when I was in the right mood for it it became a real page-turner.

It’s set in Tokyo and Hokkaido (which sounds cold!), talks about the state of postwar Japan a bit, somewhat similar to Drunken Angel, and most importantly, is often about loneliness and boredom, two themes that I’m quite receptive to in current times. So I liked it for those reasons.

I didn’t like, however, the way it got a bit incomprehensible towards the end, where weird shit starts happening. People in the world of this story seem to have magical powers for some reason, and the titular sheep, which doesn’t show up in the end (if you hadn’t seen the spoiler warning at the top of the page already, sucks to be you doesn’t it…?), seems to be more of a metaphor. To me that sounds contrived. To put it another way, I was a bit dissatisfied with the ending… he’s been told to do whatever by these mysterious agents of “the Boss”, but it seems like they’re trying to tell him something about himself rather than trying him to get them to do something for them, because he doesn’t manage it in the end. Oh I don’t know. I was more just feeling sorry for myself by that point because I was lonely like he was.

There’s also a strange aversion to names in the book, which is lampshaded at a couple of points, so I imagine it’s something idiosyncratic to the book rather than Murakami, but again I’m not sure. I suppose he’s trying to make some kind of point, but I’m not really in the mood to try and decipher all that, frankly. I just found it funny that the only character that got a name was the cat – very vividly described, might I add, as old and decrepit in a fine example of the author’s prowess. So yes, I liked it, and I liked the author’s style, but I’m aware that there were a couple of extra levels to the book that I don’t want to bother trying to understand, and I’m (therefore?) not sure I liked it when it got surreal.

Film: Drunken Angel (1948)

aka: 酔いどれ天使 (Yoidore tenshi)
language: Japanese
director: Akira Kurosawa
length: 94 minutes

film still

I’m working myself up to Seven Samurai at the moment (it’s three hours long!) – I’m going through somewhat of a Japanese phase at the moment given that I’m trying to apply for JET and all that, and I want to know as much as I can about Japanese films and culture so that I can impress the interviewers… well, that, and I put down Kurosawa as one of my influences for liking Japan and wanting to go there to teach English, so I’d better reacquaint myself with his œuvre… My book on the go is by Haruki Murakami, incidentally, but I’ll post about that when I’m finished it. I also started a Japanese course today, for pretty much the same goal.

Anyway, I have seen Seven Samurai before, but not this, which is an earlier feature of Kurosawa’s. According to the blurb on the back of the DVD, it was his 8th feature and the first that was commercially successful. Fair enough. I’m always quite interested when I read that kind of phraseology what came before the first successful film (if I’m allowed to rant about Tintin again briefly, Hergé’s first two albums were so unsuccessful that they’ve only been published in the UK recently as collectors’ items… I find that quite funny. And Murakami apparently has two books that have only been published in English in Japan itself – but again, I’ll come back to him in a later post. It’s comments like this that make me wonder how bad they could have been). It’s also Kurosawa’s first collaboration with the actor Toshiro Mifune, who went on to be, if I remember correctly, the comic relief character in Seven Samurai. But I digress…

This film is a post-war flick about the slums of Tokyo, disease, alcoholism and gangsters. Fun. Fortunately, it also delves heartily into the liquorice jar that is black comedy… well, either that, or I find it unnaturally easy to laugh at people in horrible situations. Sometimes you just can’t quite tell, you know? That said, one of the later scenes involves two men, one terminally ill, having to fight and getting covered in white paint, suddenly slipping around unable to get a foothold on anything, so maybe I’m not so off in that judgement.

Kurosawa really lays on the social commentary thick; inamongst the bits like the above that are obviously comedic, there were bits that you really couldn’t find funny unless you’re some sort of psychopath. Now, this isn’t bad, of course, and I felt that 90% of the time in this film, it worked, but sometimes I find that blatant style a bit crass.

As with many other Japanese films that I’ve seen – many of them, indeed, by Kurosawa – the rest of the film was basically filled with Japanese men barking at each other. It’s like they can’t control their emotions or something…. You know, I’m sure they’re not like that, but you can hardly blame me for building that impression of them when that’s the only way they’re ever portrayed. But perhaps it’s as much to do with the era as anything else.

The characters are quite a delight, too; while a lot of the extra characters are a bit one-dimensional, the two main characters – the doctor and his gangster patient – are both fundamentally flawed, mainly with alcoholism. The doctor – the drunken angel of the title – can’t leave drink alone, which leads to several comic moments, but also to some of the film’s central conflicts, since at the same time he’s trying to tell the gangster not to drink. Watching Mifune’s character descend into madness as his TB develops and the world around him, until now unquestioningly under his thumb, starts to reject him out of hand is rather enthralling. And it also makes for good viewing when the two blow up at each other whenever they come into contact because neither of them can accept the other’s flaws and the patient can’t accept that he’s got this disease.

All in all, it was a good film, but I know I’ve seen better from Kurosawa. And now I’m going to have to find out what came before this and discover what made it the first successful film…

Book #1: Flipnosis: The Art of Split-Second Persuasion (2010)

author: Kevin Dutton
language: English
length: 336 pages

book cover

Flipnosis is a pop science psychology book about persuasion. It’s quite an interesting read; I found it very easy to delve into, as the author has a dynamic writing style which lends the book an easy page-turning quality. He structures the book quite well, not making any one section too long, meaning that one can be tempted easily into reading further and further.

The subject matter is also interesting; it crosses over into linguistics quite a few times, since persuasion is something that humans tend to do with our linguistic faculties, and the section on evolutionary biology nearer the beginning is also very interesting. The word “flipnosis” applies to the concept (which I’m not sure was invented by Dutton, but we’ll assume that for now) of being able to flip someone’s perspective to the opposite, using only a few simple words – they tend to be the kind of statements that catch you offguard and make you think differently about a situation. The book is filled with anecdotes about examples of this “flipnosis” that Dutton has collected over the years, and many of them are interesting to read, and display a wide range of mostly real-life characters.

But beyond that, it gets a bit tiresome and repetitive, in the manner of countless pop science books before it. Dutton relies overly on anecdote to tell his tale, and sometimes it’s not very clear what he is trying to prove when he tells one of his stories. He makes quite a lot of his points by playing a “devious trick” on the reader by playing with their expectations (in the same sort of style as Derren Brown, but pulled off with less panache), yet half the time it’s so obvious what point he’s trying to make that you can see straight through his little trick. So in that case, not pulled off at all.

And so many of his tricks and points are ones that I’ve seen before, albeit often approached from the slightly different angle of focussing on persuasion. Even going back to Derren Brown again, the man’s already shown in a more showbiz TV style most of Dutton’s points, even if he doesn’t explain them explicitly.

The cover proudly proclaims that (someone thinks that) the book should be banned because it would be dangerous in the wrong hands, with the implication that it’s a guide to getting people to do what you want, and I feel that’s rather an inaccurate description of the book, as it’s a pop science book coming from the other angle of explaining how people who get what they want do get what they want. In some ways you could extrapolate from the examples and the psychological theory presented to real life, but Dutton’s final chapter pretty much states that most of us are lucky when we happen to say the right thing at the right time to influence flipnosis and that you’d normally have to be a psychopath (a group who feature quite prominently throughout the book) to be able to consciously do it more than the average population.

If you’re a psychologist, it’s probably all stuff you’ve heard before, anyway, although it might be worth a try, since I don’t know much about psychology as a field, so a lot of it may be new to you. I don’t know. For a non-psychologist like myself, it was interesting, certainly, an OK read. I just don’t think I would recommend it outright.

FILM: Tintin et les oranges bleues (1964)

aka: Tintin and the Blue Oranges
language: French, Spanish, Arabic
directed by: Philippe Condroyer
length: 98 minutes

Warning: spoilers, and me ranting about Tintin adaptations. If you’re not familiar with Tintin a lot of this might not make sense to you! I also actually watched this film on Sunday, but the blog didn’t exist back then. Heh.

film still

Tintin’s live-action adaptations from the 60s get a bit of a bad press, I think. This was my first time seeing either of them, and I actually didn’t think it was that bad. So yeah, the production values aren’t particularly high; there are several points when the lip synching isn’t particularly good, quite a few where there is a noticeable cut in the action, and it does that typical olde filme thing where the action speeds up at certain points (probably to save film), all of which to modern eyes don’t look very realistic or professional. I also reckon that many fans were expecting an adaptation of an existing storyline, which would probably have made more sense.

But here’s the thing; despite being an original storyline, it does manage to get all the essential elements. Slapstick comedy, deaf Professor Calculus with a silly contraption, Tintin beating up bad guys, Snowy saving the day when the others are trapped down a well, Captain Haddock trying to hide his drinking problem, you name it. And the actors really do look like the characters, particularly the Captain, who I thought did make a very good performance. And it’s quite funny, too.

This also happens to be a part of its downfall; some of these scenes and elements look like they’ve been shoehorned in just so they haven’t forgotten anything, and some don’t even make sense in context. Where do the Arabs come from, for instance?

Bianca Castafiore’s scene was one of the worst for feeling out of context – it’s basically her scene from The Calculus Affair transplanted into this film, but without much purpose beyond getting Tintin and the Captain away from the police (and they could have just kept running, in this case). Recall also that in The Calculus Affair, the chief of police visits her and they steal his documents, meaning that the scene had more purpose.

This leads me to wonder why they didn’t just adapt The Calculus Affair, seeing as the basic plot (Cuthbert gets kidnapped by baddies; Tintin and the Captain rescue him) is also basically the same, yet with an even more tenuous invention of Calculus’s for them to be fighting over: the eponymous blue oranges (which for some reason are glow-in-the-dark), said to be able to grow in the desert and thus cure world hunger. At least when it was the Syldavians and Bordurians fighting over him, his invention had the possibility of becoming an important weapon in the obvious Cold War allegory, which made more sense.

film still

The Thompsons also play a bit of a crap role in the film, too; they only have a few scenes, including a very odd one where they get chased around by a bull (it’s set in Spain, after all). They showed up unexpectedly at one point, but then that kept happening in the books too, so I was sort of expecting it. But they get kidnapped a few scenes later and go missing for most of the rest of the film.

Oh, and there were children in the film, too. Children weren’t really a big staple of Hergé’s books, despite being written for children and Tintin being a ruthlessly ambiguous age. So for me they didn’t gel very well with the rest of the film. The worst for me was when the first kid recognises Tintin, as if he was an avid fan of the books. Yeah, so it wasn’t like it was unprecedented; in one of the biggest displays of blatant deus ex machina in Cigars of the Pharaoh, Tintin is recognised by an Arab sheikh who kidnaps him, who’s read all the stories. But I didn’t think it was quite appropriate in this context to repeat what was essentially a throwaway joke of Hergé’s and a jab at the usual convention that characters don’t exist in their own world (the celebrity paradox). Anyway, their scenes weren’t too bad in the end, and there was a funny one where they were going round Valencia trying to find a man with a tattoo on his wrist.

All in all, I’d recommend it to any Tintin fan, although I’m not going to make any outrageous claims about its quality. I quite liked it overall and found it funny, if contrived. If you’re not a fan, I wouldn’t; there’d be no point in you watching it.

But this now leads me to my next minor rant. I was out googling for images to illustrate this film when I came across these:
film still of captain haddock
film still of tintin
Film stills from the upcoming Tintin film, no less. I don’t even know what to say about these, except that my hopes about the film are starting to be dashed. Captain Haddock looks wrong, his face an unrealistic shape for someone who’s animated in such detail. Tintin looks like a 12 year old (ruining his aforementioned agelessness); at least his face is in proportion. Both will probably have a massive incurable case of Uncannyvalleyitis (it already looks like it from the pictures). Just as bad, still #1 exhibits one of my biggest pet hates in 3D animated films: lens flare. If there’s no camera, there’s no excuse, and it’s jarring when combined with actual 3D glasses.

Even worse, they’re to be played by Andy Serkis and Jamie Bell respectively, who I’m not particularly fond of. OK, to be fair, I would sex Jamie Bell, but that’s all his appeal in my opinion; when his face is covered by the motion capture, he’ll lose that and just become a shit actor. At least Andy Serkis is cut out for motion capture work (cf. Gollum) and we won’t have to look at his ugly face. I just don’t like their voices… Gah! And that’s the other thing: I was promised a live-action film a few years ago when this project was announced. What happened to that? IMO this film from the 60s is living proof that live-action adaptations have already occurred and haven’t been too bad in getting the look of the characters right. Of course, as I said at the start, I don’t think I’m in the majority among the Tintin fandom in thinking this, but this was the directors’ stated intention in using mocap rather than live-action: to give them a more faithful look instead of relying on actors that don’t really look enough like Tintin, although I suspect it was just to give WETA something to do.

On that note, I do have great respect for Jackson and Spielberg, and I hope they do do the best they can with this film. And I do quite like Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, although I can’t picture them “being” Thomson and Thompson. I’m just not holding my breath.

Anyway, that’s quite enough of that pessimistic speculation about this year’s Tintin film (incidentally, if my plan to emigrate to Japan for a year or two goes ahead, I’ll miss the release date over here, which is a bit annoying!). I just wanted to give a shout out to the BBC’s radio adaptation of Tintin from the early 90s, one of the best that I’ve encountered. The animated series is also pretty faithful and comes with a thumbs up. Now all I have to track down are the first of the feature films and the first animated series (allegedly not as faithful). If you value your sanity, there’s a boxset of three animated Tintin films, and I wouldn’t go near it. The first one, The Calculus Affair, is terrible, the second, Prisoners of the Sun, is OK but nothing like the adaptation in the animated series, and the third, Tintin and the Lake of Sharks, has a decent original storyline (better than Blue Oranges, at any rate) and would be the only passable one of these films, except that the Captain’s voice actor makes me want to claw my eardrums out.

And one final note: is it just me or was Tintin really fit in this photo below? (Man, that felt wrong to type.)
still of tintin

Update 12/12/2011: my thoughts on the new film now that it’s out.