Jiro Horikoshi is a young boy in provincial 1910s Japan when he realizes that his mission in life is to design airplanes. Becoming a top class engineer just in time to join Japan’s struggle to become a first-world nation, Jiro’s designs will be needed for certain national ambitions.
The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ) is the latest film from Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki, and it fits right in with the best of Miyazaki’s work. Although serious in tone and completely non-fantastical (except for a few dream sequences), it has the same gentle almost fairy-tale quality as earlier films such as Spirited Away. The the story moves gracefully along and artwork is top-notch, every frame could hang in a gallery. I particularly liked the way that the motion of air was portrayed, almost every scene has waves of grass in motion or smoke lazily drifting, very befitting for a film concerning an aviation engineer.
Viewers expecting a hard hitting film about the build up to WWII will be disappointed, the film doesn’t exactly skirt around the issue as it is just not interested with telling that story. The coming war is alluded to, and the changing nature of Japan’s ties with Germany comes into play at certain points, but the focus is firmly on the struggle to create in the face of great obstacles. That fact that the creation is a war machine is only lightly touched on.
This is not really a criticism, The Wind Rises is about mostly about creating rather than the thing created and it succeeds in its goal. However there does seem to be a large WWII shaped-hole leaving a slightly disjointed tale. But that disjointedness does play into the dreamlike feel that the film seems to be going for.
Moving and beautiful, The Wind Rises is worth watching. Highly recommended.
The Swerve : How the World Became Modern
By Stephen Greenblatt
The dark ages took a pretty brutal toll on Europe and it is no surprise that scholars of that era looked back to the writings of the Roman Empire with a reverence that they probably didn’t deserve. But the rediscovery of one particular document, On The Nature of Things by the free thinking Lucretuis, inspired several generations of scholars and kickstarted the scientific revolution.
Or so Greenblatt’s impressively researched book argues. Actually, most of the page count is concerned with a monk named Poggio Bracciolini who led a fascinating life against a backdrop of distant monasteries and vicious vatican politics, before becoming something of a professional manuscript hunter with On The Nature of Things his greatest find.
On The Nature of Things certainly sounds like a wonderful piece of work. It asserts that the Gods (if they exist) take no interest in humanity and that natural laws (not to mention random chance) hold complete sway over events. It even claims that all matter is made of tiny particles, which is a remarkable guess. I imagine it was pretty heady stuff for stuffy 15th century society.
The Swerve is at its best when it is describing Bracciolini’s life and the state of 15th century Italy. But it makes an unconvincing argument that On The Nature of Things‘ rediscovery deflected caused the course of human thinking to swerve (to use the book’s tortured analogy) away from dogma towards science. There were lots of things going on, and the new found popularity of an ancient poem was only part of the story.
Despite that quibble, The Swerve is well written and informative if perhaps a little dense for summertime reading.
After negotiating the Misty Mountains, Bilbo Baggins and the party of dwarves make their way to the Lonely Mountain and their date with a dragon, pursued constantly by a band of murderous orcs hellbent on killing Thorin Oakensheild and adding some urgency to what would otherwise be a gentle stroll of a plot.
Another year, another Hobbit film. I was pretty lukewarm about the first film (my review), it was OK but seemed like a really good 90 minute film crammed into 3 hours. The Hobbit : The Desolation of Smaug (HobDoS) is also almost 3 hours long but I am glad to say that it hangs together a lot better and some clever choices have been made in what to add to bulk up the plot.
The Hobbit was never a story that would support 9 hours of film, it is a thin book, episodic and repetitive in nature as befits a story designed to be read to sleepy children. The producers of the films have had to scratch around to additional material to pad out time and to make the films fit in stylistically with the Lord of the Rings movies. In the first Hobbit film, this meant stretching out the fight scenes with the goblins to a ridiculous degree and adding some tediously canonical foreshadowing that made no sense unless you already knew the story. Somewhere during production of HobDos the decision was made to just start inventing new stuff and the film is much better for it. The journey through the elvish kingdom is enlivened by an unlikely love triangle and Laketown becomes an impoverished city of political intrigue.
The additions are all a little Shakespearean and make for entertaining viewing. What the new stuff isn’t is very Tolkenesque, and the seams show when scenes that are taken verbatim from the book (Bilbo talking with the dragon) are juxtaposed with 21st century comedy action fare (the dwarfs battle plan) and the horror styling of Gandalf’s pointless side quest. The over-the-top action scenes are still very long and sometime nonsensical but they do not outstay their welcome so much this time around.
Once again, I got sucked into paying extra for the high frame-rate 3D version. The 3D is very subtle this time around and I didn’t notice any problems with the high frame rate although I don’t know whether that is due to changes in the process, the crew learning how to light scenes for the new cameras, or just me getting used to the way it looks.
HobDos is an improvement on the first film and I enjoyed it.
Sometime in the near
future past (when we still had space shuttles), a routine mission to service the Hubble goes horribly wrong resulting in an astronaut being cast off into the void. She must use her training and limited experience to survive.
Gravity is an amazingly visual film, more or less an extended showreel for director Alfonso Cuarón (best known for Children of Men) to indulge his passion for really long, complex shots. His style work really well for this type of story, the camera drifts with the characters in space, subtly framing the action or lingering on the planet below.
Everything is choreographed perfectly, I wish more directors and editors would follow Cuarón’s lead. We live in the age of great CGI but people still cut films like they are trying to hide the seams that don’t need to exist anymore.
The long shots also serve to make use of 3D tolerable, indeed even enjoyable. The crisp lighting of space and the fact that background is hundreds of miles away makes the foreground really pop, while the leisurely camera motion lets your eyes just soak it in. I saw Gravity in IMAX 3D and it is the only film to date that I can recommend paying the extra money for.
Is there anything bad about Gravity? I didn’t really care for the dialog which verges on corny in places. To be brutally honest Gravity might work better as a silent movie with a soundtrack containing only ambient sounds and music. Sandra Bullock does an OK job and Clooney amps up his Clooneyness to 11 but neither of them really steal the show. But that is actually fine, since the visuals, nail-biting story, and clever sound design take up the slack.
Not perfect but very well worth seeing, especially on the big screen. Highly recommend.
Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson
The Malazan Empire is completing its purge of the former nobility, sending thousands to the slave mines to die. Meanwhile a huge rebellion has reached boiling point amongst the tribes that inhabit the plains between the empire’s seven cities. Meanwhile a heavily outnumbered group of loyal empire troops struggles to fight its way across the continent while protecting tens of thousands of refugees. Meanwhile some characters from the first book arrive, among them an assassin who will carry a sacred book into the heart of the rebellion (unknowingly being followed in the meanwhile). Meanwhile, his companions head off somewhere else, while escapees from the slave mines do some other stuff meanwhiley.
Like its predecessor, Deadhouse Gates tells a bunch of overlapping stories, although this book amps it up to eleven with an incredible amount of plot going on simultaneously. The point of view changes very frequently and I found it almost impossible to keep track of who was who. By far the best parts are the passages that follow the Malazan refugees and their tireless protectors as they struggle through the desert under the leadership of the brilliant Coltaine. This is basically a rip off of Spartacus but no worse for it. Other parts could probably be jettisoned without losing much however the multiple viewpoints do allow for a couple of genuinely surprising reveals.
The good news is that the writing has improved immeasurably since Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates is a very readable book. The bad news is that it still has a very D’n'D plot, with events happening because they must to advance the plot rather than seeming to arise organically as a result of previous actions and incredibly arcane and powerful objects just falling into characters’ hands at the right moments. The whole world was apparently created for the author’s role playing game in what must have been a real humdinger of a campaign, but this makes for an oddly constructed story. Huge coincidences drive the plot as the novel jumps from action set piece to action set piece. You can just about hear the dice rolls, and anytime a character doesn’t speak for a while you get the feeling like the rest of the players sent someone out to pick up the pizza.
Speaking of action set pieces, Deadhouse Gates is incredibly bloody even by the standards of grimdark fantasy. I doubt there is an 800 word stretch in the whole novel where nobody gets their liver ruptured or their face staved in. The action is pretty well written though and the talkiness of the first book is greatly diminished.
Only recommended if you really like this sort of thing.