Film #117: Ender’s Game (2013)

director: Gavin Hood
language: English
length: 103 minutes
watched on: 10 May 2014

I read Ender’s Game back in 2010, a few months before I started this blog, mainly because it was famous. Then I found out that the author is a big homophobe, and was glad that I’d borrowed the book from a library instead of buying it. It’s a bit ironic, since his story very much appeals to anyone who’s felt alienated or singled-out by the school system – and it’s actually quite homoerotic, even though it’s about pre-teens.

The film came out near the end of last year, although not until this year in Japan, and its release was surrounded by the reignited controversy of Orson Scott Card’s homophobia, the filmmakers quick to try and encourage people to see the film on “its own merits” and the opposers quick to respond with the fact that Card will make a lot of money in revenue from the film.

The plot surrounds Ender, a boy who is being groomed by the military to launch an attack against an alien race (called Formics or nicknamed Buggers, most confusingly and amusingly when you read the book) – he is taken to a space station, where he’s trained in zero-g battle, then later taken to a former Formic outpost to practise actually attacking the aliens. Then there’s a famous twist towards the end.

The film, as generally happens, strips down the content of the book quite a lot, leaving only the essentials. It was easy to follow the plot, but like the last film I watched, Geography Club, a lot of the sequences hinted that there was something deeper to certain characters or scenes that had been stripped out. In particular, none of the characters except Ender got any significant character development throughout the film. For instance, one character is established as a bully by calling Ender names once, and then the next time we see him, he’s inexplicably on Ender’s side again.

The Battle Room scenes were another such example – a lot of detail and thought went into those scenes in the book, and they were by far some of the most interesting, and enlightening about the characters, but only two scenes make it into the movie – the rest of Ender & co’s training is only implied to be taking place in the background during a montage scene. Again, the lack of explicit development in the area made the film seem rushed. An extra ten to fifteen minutes on this (although not more than that) wouldn’t have hurt the film one bit. That said, the Battle Room was pretty much how I’d imagined it from the description in the book, so I liked seeing it in action.

The rest of the film seems to be Harrison Ford making brooding facial expressions, and there’s only so much I can take of that. The book is by no means flawless, and from such a reprehensible author it’s much better than I’d expect. Most of the film’s flaws stem from rushing the story and glossing over the characters too much – but I definitely enjoyed seeing the story in action.

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TV: World’s Busiest Train Station (2013)

World'sBusiest_TrainStation_2Language: English and dubbed-over Japanese
Length: 45 minutes
Watched on: 28 April 2014

My friend wrote about this Channel 5 documentary recently (you can find his more detailed account of the program here). Basically Japan has all of the busiest railway stations in the world, and Shinjuku tops the list.

The documentary basically follows a day in the life of Shinjuku station, starting with the night-time cleaning, then the employees getting up out of special capsule hotels within the station complex at 4am in order to get the station operational in time for the first trains. It follows one employee around, a guy called Tomoaki, whose name the narrator consistently gets wrong (he keeps saying Tomoki or Tomaki) – I should have thought they could have at least done enough basic research to get him to say it properly. His pronunciation of Shinjuku also sounds strange, but to be fair, is better than the attempts made by many foreigners who actually live here.

There were certain details that I would have done differently – for example, it’s not adequately explained that part of the reason that Shinjuku is the busiest station is because it’s the terminus of two major private commuter lines as well as JR. It does at least mention the subway, although it falsely paints Shinjuku as a “hub” of the metro lines, which I wouldn’t say is quite true. It also seems to imply that Shinjuku’s employees work inhumane 20-hour days and never go home. I’m sure dramatization factored in at some point, since they wanted to keep the same guy to follow round the station from morning to night…

There were a few things I didn’t know already, such as the morning ritual of reciting the company motto, or the gas attack that happened in the 90s, which I’d only vaguely heard about before. There was also a segment about the earthquake of three years back, which was mildly interesting given that I wasn’t here at the time.

An interesting way to waste 45 minutes.

Film #116: Geography Club (2013)

GEO-01 GC_04982Director: Gary Entin
Language: English
Length: 84 minutes
Watched on: 22 April 2014

I think I was tempted to watch this after seeing an image of two football players stealing a kiss in the locker room or something. It’s a high school comedy about some gay kids setting up a secret club (labelled Geography Club in order to dissuade others from joining) where they can be themselves – then they’re gradually joined by more and more people until they go public and make it into a proper GSA.

The main character is a closeted gay guy who starts a candid relationship with a football player – he then gets onto the same team, although the rest of the team are horrifically homophobic bullies, almost to the point of parody. I guess I haven’t seen many films with gay American football players, so that was new, but knowing almost nothing about the strange foreign sport, the scenes are automatically boring for me, although actually there was only one, so it’s not that bad.

The high school setting is also unfamiliar to me, somewhat reducing my enjoyment, and there were too many characters with too little development – later, I found out that the film was based on a book, so I surmise that in the adaptation process a lot of plot detail and character detail was lost.

The story was very standard in general, though. I doubt that the book would actually be a lot better, unfortunately. I’d watch something else, to be honest.

TV: Brooklyn Nine-Nine season 1 (2013-14)

brooklyn99Creators: Dan Goor & Michael Schur
Language: English with a couple of sentences of Japanese
Length: 22 episodes of about 22 minutes each
Finished watching on: 20 April 2014

This is one of a growing number of series that I’ve been introduced to by seeing photos and gifs on internet sites like Tumblr before taking the plunge and watching the show. Like many others of its type, I was more specifically enticed by the presence of a gay character, who is also black and relentlessly deadpan in a cast full of larger-than-life outspoken jokesters.

The show concerns a police precinct in Brooklyn and is nominally about the police, although it’s one of those sitcoms set in an office where very little work gets done. Occasionally they will go out to try and solve a crime, and there will be elements of a whodunnit or police procedural, but in general they just ignore the police side of things and go straight for the comedy.

I guess the main character is called Jake Peralta, who is the closest thing to an everyman the show has (although that isn’t saying much), and in certain ways the show seems to be conducted from his point of view (this may be because he’s one of the writers or something). Each of the characters is just as weird as the others, but in a very unique way, such that describing them all here would become a chore, as they all have two or three distinguishing aspects, which often fit together ironically. The characters really make the show, though: even after one episode they fit right into expectations and becomes fun to predict how they will react. For that reason alone it was easy to watch at least two episodes in one night.

The writing is also pretty slick, especially the one-liners that pepper the show, which come much thicker and faster than many other shows I’ve seen recently. There’s also a good dose of surrealism, which makes the show feel fresh and new. I feel like TV in general seems to be heading that way, and if so, I’m very pleased. The fast pace and the comedy make this very easy to watch. I’m glad I took the plunge with this one.

Film #115: The Lego Movie (2014)

the-lego-movie-image03Directors: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
Language: English
Length: 100 minutes
Watched on: 16 April 2014

When I saw The Lego Movie last month, I’d already heard some good things about it, so perhaps I was primed to like it. I worked out that at least Tokyo, and probably Japan, had only one subtitled screening of the movie, the rest being dubbed for a younger audience, so it was lucky that said screening wasn’t so far away in Shinjuku – that said, not so lucky because the first time I tried to go, on a Sunday, the screening was fully booked. Perhaps I was foiled by the sudden influx of tourists last month.

Watching The Lego Movie was certainly an experience – it’s certainly a lot more upbeat than most of the other movies I’ve watched recently, for one thing. Nominally, everything in the movie’s universe is made of lego, although hints are laid down early on that this isn’t really the case – for instance, one of the main strands of the plot is that they have to recover a McGuffin artifact that is the cap to a bottle of glue.

The main character of the story is a construction worker drone from a very large city, which is controlled through propaganda by Dr Business (there is a very strong anti-big-business theme running throughout, and the filmmakers roll with it without trying to hide it at all). By accidentally recovering the McGuffin, he is branded “the Special” by the “Master Builders”, a group of famous franchised characters that have been made into lego figures, such as Batman, or Dumbledore and Gandalf, who are mixed up by the other characters – or rather, they realize he is nothing special at all.

The plot isn’t especially strong, as it mostly consists of a string of loosely connected events, almost like a road movie. Characters surface and disappear in order to make a pop culture joke – probably most obvious with the Star Wars characters. In some ways this makes sense given the context and premise, since they are able to transfer between different lego-based environments easily, but I thought it was a bit spotty and could have done with some stronger direction.

The ending is pretty standard for this kind of movie – it’s there to teach you a lesson, pure and simple. I don’t wish to spoil it beyond that, because there is an important twist. I wasn’t disappointed by the ending, but it was a bit trite. Then there is enough to set up a potential sequel right at the end.

The humour, however, is spot on, enough to make me giggle throughout most of the movie (I actually had a bit of a surreal experience where most of the rest of the audience were laughing when they read the subtitles, and I was pretty much the only one laughing when I heard the joke a few seconds later). Most of it was just pure silliness, although some of it stemmed from the aforementioned character cameos.

It was generally a fun movie. Another amusing thing for me was comparing it to the Lego Star Wars games that I’d been playing recently – obviously the brief scene with Han Solo was the most reminiscent of that. I don’t know if I’d see the movie again – maybe give it a few months or a year and I might be up for it. But it’s pretty high up in the pantheon of animated movies, and for something with no predecessor, that’s pretty commendable. It’s come in strong and I hope the series stays and grows that way.

Book #57: Homeland (2012)

smallHomeland_Jun_19_2012Author: Cory Doctorow
Language: English
Length: 725 minutes (12 hours 5 minutes)
Finished listening on: 14 April 2014

This is the sequel to a book I read last year by Cory Doctorow, Little Brother (I reviewed it on this blog already). Doctorow, ever the crusader, refused to publish any more audiobooks on Audible due to their DRM system – credit to him, I guess, but Audible is the most popular site, to the extent that publishers won’t take the risk of producing an audiobook if you are not willing to publish via Audible. Instead, this was published as an exclusive for the Humble Bundle (anyone else seeing a pattern to my habits?). Since I enjoyed the first book, I decided to get this one too and have a listen.

I don’t know how they produced this audiobook, but there were definitely things that annoyed me about its production. There is a loud theme song played at the start of every chapter (this is very unusual, although it’s a nice clear signal that the chapter is over), and the voice actor, Wil Wheaton, is not very talented at doing alternative voices, so all the characters sound the same (this can make or break an audiobook, perhaps unfortunately, although here it wasn’t too bad). It also descends into narcissism and/or nepotism when Wheaton is name-dropped in the story, along with the main character gushing that he loves and admires Wheaton and a few other people that Doctorow knows in real life.

That kind of sums up a lot of the story, to be honest: gushing. I probably mentioned so with the last book in the series, but the main character frequently takes asides to soapbox about some hobby or science fact, such as his favourite way of brewing coffee (utterly uninteresting for someone who doesn’t like coffee). At times this could come across as obnoxious, and I suppose I should be charitable and say that it follows what I should expect from the character, rather than simply Doctorow soapboxing himself, although I suspect there is not a large separation between the two.

The story follows on, roughly speaking, from the previous book – this time it starts in the Burning Man exhibition in the salt flats of Nevada, and involves the main character becoming the leak for a grand-scale conspiracy theory, and the IT guy for a political campaign for an independent candidate. It’s roughly based, this time, on Wikileaks and the Occupy protests, although both of those are named explicitly, so it’s not exactly a stand-in per se. It is odd that the two are named explicitly, though. I don’t think I ever quite worked out what the real time setting for Little Brother was, as it seemed to be something that could happen in the future, but there were five years between the publications of the two books, and yet the main character is still a teenager, so he can’t have aged that much between the two. Of course, some of the technology that is used in the book is still fictional, so it’s not entirely real, and not really worth worrying about.

It managed to hold my interest, despite the frequent soapboxing, and the fact that I don’t think Doctorow knows how modern teenagers actually speak – the main character’s thoughts include words like “pwned”, “lulz”, and other little gems that sound both slightly out-of-date, and too slangy to be appropriate for prose. This did provide me with an excuse to crack up on my bike, though, so maybe I should encourage it. But I could have done without the theme tune.

Book #56: Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean (2005)

vampiratesauthor: Justin Somper
length: 428 minutes
language: English
finished listening on: 2 April 2014

I downloaded a whole batch of audiobooks via the Humble Bundle recently. Unfortunately, they’re of vastly varying quality, and I had a couple of false starts, which I still haven’t finished. But this was the first one I finished, as the story was actually interesting, set in a kind of hybrid fantasy-sci fi world. It’s either young adult or children’s fiction, to be fair, so I didn’t think it was particularly high quality, but it held my interest during a long cycle ride, so I stuck with it.

The story involves two children, twins, who are separated during a storm. One ends up with a regular pirate ship, while the other ends up with the deadly vampire pirates, or vampirates. In a sense this is about as high-concept as you can get with fantasy: vampires mixed with pirates, and that makes the premise an easy sell.

Since there are two main characters, the plot switches back and forth between them like a soap opera. The girl, who ends up with the vampires, has her story unfold more slowly, as it takes her a while to twig that these strange men who keep her hidden away from the prying outside world and don’t go outside during the daytime are in fact the vampirates she heard about in her father’s nursery rhymes.

Beyond that, the book is fairly predictable, although there are some tense scenes where she has to avoid being eaten by the evil vampires (as opposed to the captain, who seems to be benevolent), but to be honest, her brother’s story is even more unmemorable in the details, but his at least introduces a host of varied and interesting characters.

The setting was mildly interesting, although only mentioned in passing: it seems to be in a postapocalyptic world 500 years in the future, where there has been a big flood, covering all the major cities. I detected a bit of an environmental theme there, although again it’s only mentioned in passing and not fully expanded on. Of course, this leads to a world in which sea travel is very common and pirates really have the opportunity to rule the waves, although it doesn’t really explain why the pirates tended to be so much like the swashbuckling stereotype of the 18th century.

It was fine, overall. I liked it enough to continue with it, and although it did drag at certain points, it wasn’t long, so it was easy enough to finish, especially since it was the spring cherry blossom season and I was going cycling a lot at the time. I don’t know if I liked it enough to continue with the series, however. Certainly not at the prices demanded by “Recorded Books”, the audiobook seller that provided it for the Humble Bundle – they seem to require an average of $60 per audiobook, far over my budget, and mystifying given that Audible sells them for an average of £15 per audiobook, without a subscription that would make it even cheaper. I’ve still got a few to try and work through from the Humble Bundle, but a lot of them are pretty atrocious, so it’s becoming difficult and I’m slowing down or becoming unenthused by the prospect. Let’s see how far I get, anyway.