Film #276: April and the Extraordinary World (2015)

aka: Avril et le monde truqué
directors: Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci
language: French
length: 101 minutes
watched on: 23 March 2017

I picked this up randomly when I was back in the UK at new year. In fact, I think I bought it mainly because if I bought two DVDs with a particular deal, they’d be £20 for two (it was this and Departure, if anyone’s wondering, and I also bought a bunch of other movies too). DVDs are expensive, yo!

Anyway, my last foray into French animation was a complete dud, so I was slightly worried that I’d have the same problem again, but this is not computer-animated. Phew! It’s gone down the Japanese route of adapting a comic book (manga, bande-déssinée, whatever you want to call them) to the big screen, and it looks the part. A lot of the character styles, and the sensibility of the animation, remind me strongly of Tintin, and likewise a lot of the humour seems to be drawn from a similar source.

The movie is an alternate history story where the age of steam didn’t die out, electricity was either never discovered or never harnessed properly, and things stayed roughly as they were in the 19th century. The film is set around the 1930s or so, but the history is completely different: needing coal and wood to power everything, Europe faces an energy crisis and starts fighting over who gets to strip-mine Canada. It’s “steampunk”, in a word. Things that would be controlled by electricity in the real world are clunking great steam machines. It’s very much in the vein of Howl’s Moving Castle, or the Japanese anime Steamboy, which I watched a few years ago. In fact, the plot of Steamboy, just reading back on Wikipedia, seems suspiciously similar to this one. There’s a MacGuffin (the elixir of life, or something), and people have to fly around on clunking machines to get at it.

Anyway, the characters are funny – I like the fact that the main character is female, for one thing. She has a talking cat pet, which also tangentially reminds me of Tintin. I think the world is well-developed and looks nice, if very brown. From the exquisite descriptions on the DVD case of the visual style of the film, I was expecting something less beige. But it does make the colourful parts come alive a bit more.

Say no more for now, but the film just goes bonkers in the third act when the identities of the secret captors are revealed. I think by this point I’d decided just to enjoy the film, and even though it’s stupid, it ties together somehow. So I can let it off.

The level of technology in steampunk stuff always amuses me. It’s always way above and beyond what we in the real world can produce, despite being set a hundred years ago. This is guilty of that – the “bad guys” have some kind of super space age ‘copter that can control the weather and go invisible, but the rest of the world are stuck with heavy pollution and mechanical parts that break a lot. It reminds me of the bonkers last act of Wild Wild West, when Kevin Kline has a giant mechanical spider. Like, there’s steampunk, and there’s pushing the boundary of what can be considered physically possible, and that danced right over the line.

It’s enjoyable, anyway, one of those gems I was lucky to find by browsing (this is why physical stores are important). And if anyone wants to borrow this or any of the other DVDs I have, you’d be welcome. Has anyone else seen this? What do you think?

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Book #132: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

aka: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
author: Kurt Vonnegut
language: English and some German
length: 313 minutes (5 hours 13 minutes)
finished listening on: 22 March 2017

I got this on a cheap deal from Audible, and what a coincidence: it’s narrated by James Franco, who I just watched chew the scenery in King Cobra. I’ve been meaning to read some of Vonnegut’s work for a while, as he’s one of those authors that’s constantly referenced in other works – and is rightly considered a classic author of sci-fi.

The book is a kind of comedy about war, written semi-autobiographically about Vonnegut’s experiences in Dresden during World War II. In that vein, it fits well with Catch-22, but is less obviously comedic in its outlook. In fact, it is a lot more morbid than that book – Catch-22 waits until near the end of the book when we’ve become emotionally invested in its characters before it starts killing them off, but this book starts right from the beginning.

The story of the book is that the main character Billy Pilgrim gets “unstuck in time”, and later kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, aliens who can see all of time simultaneously and are fatalistic in their worldview. Billy Pilgrim also adopts this worldview. To this end, every time a death is mentioned in the book (which is a lot), the book uses the Tralfamadorians’ catch-phrase, “So it goes”.

Like all the best books, and especially sci-fi, this book can be read on multiple levels – on the one hand, it’s the adventures of a man who travels through time a lot and meets aliens. On the other, it seems to be a depiction of PTSD flashbacks, or some other mental illness brought on by Billy’s experiences during the war. Also, because of the non-linear way the book is structured, it is probably best to read it two or three times to get everything, to really understand what is going on. Like Catch-22, jumping around so much could leave me confused as to where I was.

I also realized while listening to this that this was certainly the inspiration for the aliens in Arrival. I feel like I’ve read them in the wrong order now!

As for James Franco, honestly I don’t think he’s cut out for audiobook reading. There’s an awful lot of vocal fry and mumbling in this (especially when he repeats the Tralfamadorian mantra), and the book also contains a few sentences of untranslated German, which Franco utterly mangles. I couldn’t understand what he was saying at all. Can audiobook producers not screen that kind of stuff before producing an audiobook? I complained about Franco in my review of King Cobra recently – I also just realized that I complained about him (indirectly) in my review of 127 Hours, about five years ago, although not by name because I didn’t know him at the time. That film relied so much on his one performance, and he couldn’t quite carry it.

So I think I’d like to read this book again just to absorb it better, but maybe in print form this time. I think it’s beautifully structured, to the point that a single reading doesn’t quite cut it. Anyone else read it? What do you think?

Film #275: A Single Man (2009)

director: Tom Ford
language: English and a bit of Spanish
length: 100 minutes
watched on: 17 March 2017

I think I knew this film would be sad when I watched it, but it was a major LGBT-themed release from a few years ago that I completely missed… and it would certainly be amiss for me not to watch it.

The film’s central character is played by Colin Firth, a gay man who lost his partner, but was not allowed to attend the funeral. After about a year of mourning, he decides to take his own life, and the film follows his final day, preparing to commit suicide, interspersed with flashbacks to his long relationship.

The film’s use of colour is very advanced – I especially like how things and people that spark something in Firth’s character come into sharp focus and high contrast primary colour. The movie starts out with a lot of sepia colouring and wood panelling in the background, and it shifts to more supple tones, and it seems to be Firth moving from boredom and depression to a different mindset. But at the same time, it becomes laboured as soon as Firth’s characters explains to Nicholas Hoult’s character, the young student who basically seduces him over the course of the movie, in detail what each primary colour represents. I thought it would be better to keep this more subtle.

The period of the movie, in the 1960s or 70s, is demonstrated very stereotypically, just like I mentioned with other recent things I’ve watched like High-Rise – it’s cold war broadcasts about Cuba and students smoking in class. It’s like a weird shorthand filmmakers have got.

Basically the whole premise is sad and depressing – I can’t even imagine what it must be to go through such a loss. But – and there are major spoilers coming up – I felt really cheated by the ending. After the movie puts a lot of effort to show Firth’s redemption and how he regains vigour and a sense of purpose in life by the end of the movie, just as he puts away the gun and decides not to commit suicide, he dies of a heart attack. I was livid – I did not just put in two hours of my time to watch the story of a man rediscover the beauty of life just to have him killed off by some lazy, barely-foreshadowed plot device. I do not need to hear another story about a depressed professor who discovers the inevitability of death.

So there’s a lot of good about this movie – it shows the struggle of gay men growing older and how we deal with the loss of life. It is composed very beautifully. It is a good character study. But that ending ruined it for me.

Film #274: Se7en (1995)

aka: Seven (much more sensible)
director: David Fincher
language: English
length: 127 minutes
watched on: 12 March 2017

I’ve dropped off the radar a bit with this blog – blame sickness. I had some grand plans to go on a cycling trip this month, but I had some kind of nasty throat infection and that looks like it’s not going ahead either. But I’ll have a few days off at least.

But anyway, this post is meant to be about the film I watched. It’s now been one month, and not a lot of Se7en has stuck with me. I had wondered why I waited so long to watch it, but 18-rated films that came out when I was a kid were never really on my radar, that much is obvious.

And the film has that rating for good reason – it’s pretty gruesome. There are a lot of mutilated bodies in it, and we follow two detectives, the old-timer Morgan Freeman and the newbie Brad Pitt, in their search for a serial killer who’s killing people he believes have committed the seven deadly sins.

The film is now over twenty years old and is considered a classic of the crime-thriller genre, so it’s pretty easy to go out there and find information about it. Honestly, I wasn’t that impressed. I did think it was thrilling and exciting, to a degree, and I was interested to see what would happen next and so on. But there’s a major twist near the end that turns Pitt and Freeman’s decisions into a moral quandary, and I just kind of shrugged my shoulders at that point.

The rest of the film is mostly a bit monochrome, like I wished they would add a bit more colour into it.

But I don’t think I’m going to convince anyone to see this film or not by writing this – it’s a pretty old movie – so let’s turn it into a conversation: what do you think? I’d like to hear your comments!