Saturday, May 17, 2008

Review - Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Who Framed Roger Rabbit
1989 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Very loosely based on the book Who Rubbed Out Roger Rabbit? this film tells of a Hollywood in the 40's where animated characters exist side by side with actors. The cartoons make their movies and live a lifestyle based on the quirky animation of the era. Roger Rabbit, one of their biggest stars, has been framed for the murder of the owner of the Acme Novelty Company and hires a washed up private investigator to find out who did it. The results are film noir filtered through Tex Avery.

There are three very good reasons for Who Framed Roger Rabbit to have been awarded a Hugo. First it's a good movie but that's pretty much a given with the awards; even when I don't care for a film that's won I can recognize the quality of the production. Second, it was a major technical achievement which is something that Hugo voters would appreciate. Finally it was an artistic achievement unlike anything else that has been done before or since and that's a good place to start.

You might not be able to tell looking at the state of things now but animation was pretty much dead in Hollywood at the time Who Framed Roger Rabbit was made. Disney's previous animated films had been financial disasters (Eisner would soon revive the animation division and produce The Little Mermaid but that was yet to come). Animation for the US was almost exclusively done cheaply overseas (take a look at the animation credits for your favorite 1980's television cartoon and count the Korean names). This movie helped bring that animation back to the forefront.

But on top of that if you had an idea for a film now that involved bringing together characters from multiple studios you'd be laughed out the door. It's tough enough getting minor studios to cooperate; getting Mickey Mouse together with Bugs Bunny could have been one of the labors of Hercules. Nearly every single major cartoon character from the 1940's and before appear in the film, many of them appearing on screen with their opposite number from another studio. The result is that the movie is a tribute to the animated films of the era and I honestly don't expect to see anything like this happen again in my lifetime.

On the technical side of things Roger Rabbit is astounding. The complex interplay of animated characters and humans over the course of the film is something taken for granted in these days of CGI but every one of those frames had to be painted by hand. In just a few years the CGI revolution would start so the effort that was placed into the production of the movie will never be equaled. That effort was not wasted since with only a few exceptions it is very convincing.

But even all of that would be nothing if the film wasn't any good. While I'm not fond of most of the actors the two principles (Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd) did exceptional work given that they were required to mime most of their role. The story doesn't flow as smoothly as it could since it's build around showcasing the technical achievements but it isn't terrible.

The net result is a superb and unique movie. Animation and live action have been combined before and it's almost a given in any large movie these days but rarely has it been done so effectively.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Quick Preview...

I've been getting ready for something next week. I give you...

Jack Kirby in the 1970's!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Review - A Time of Changes

A Time of Changes
by Robert Silverberg
1971 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Sometimes a novel doesn't click with me. Alright, a lot of the time a novel doesn't click with me but most of the time I can point to the shallow prose or the despicable characters or the ludicrous plot. A Time of Changes is different since while I disliked the book the deciding factor for me was the theme. Silverberg's writing is fine, he tells an interesting story (some of the time), and the characters were interesting but when I try to mesh it all with his central concepts it just breaks down for me.

A religion that is dedicated to the removal of ego has founded their own interstellar colony. Their society is built on the idea that expressions of the self are wrong. English is changed so that only an external passive voice is acceptable: "One disliked the book" rather than "I disliked the book." Using first person pronouns is offensive enough to get you killed in some places. Similarly talking about your feelings is forbidden with the exception of a pair of "bondsiblings" with whom more free discussions are allowed.

The book is the first person account of a prince in this society who has become dedicated to overturning this situation. He was second in line for succession and when his brother gains the throne he flees the country. After some time in hiding he gains a high post in a distant land through his political connections. While there he is told by offworld trader of a drug that removes the psychic boundries between minds; two people taking the drug gain complete knowledge of the other person. After using it he decides to distribute it in order to undermine the foundation of society. In the end this goes badly and he is forced to hide in the wilderness (where he is writing the account of his life).

The story hinges on the concept that a society so tied up and repressed that while they still have the language and concept of the self it is the strictest taboo to express it. Okay, it's a bit rough but I can buy that for the purpose of the story. Also it has managed to be stable in such a state for thousands of years until the protagonist came along. And there goes my suspension of disbelief.

Even with an institution working to maintain that structure over a period of thousands of years where they are not isolated either some kind of contamination or modification is going to seep in. They'll either loosen that taboo over time to the point when it's just impolite in their culture or their world view would shift to something completely different reinforcing the taboo. The idea that such a fundamental element of human psychology could be suppressed for millenniums with no consequences or effects at all gives me a headache.

In addition while the suppression of the ego is the society's stated goal (and the narrator repeatedly goes on about that) in practice it seems to amount to little more than rearranging sentence structures slightly. People still do what they want for their own self-gratification and even in the most fundamentalist sections this is accepted and normal. It's a strong case of "telling not showing" and since the novel revolves around the exploration of this culture it weakens the central theme.

It has been suggested to me that Silverberg was writing an allegory for the alternative culture in the late sixties and early seventies and I can see how that's possible. The main character expands his consciousness with drugs but in doing so fails to see how badly it affects some other people around him. In the course of my reading I didn't pick up on that theme and I'm not sure that it's completely supportable since the the protagonist is rebelling against a culture a thousand times more repressive than anything on Earth.

So thematically the novel didn't connect with me at all. What Silverberg did well was craft the full life of a distinctive character. Since the novel is, in essence, a forbidden biography it should be intensely personal and it does have that feeling. Silverberg also doesn't stray from his chosen format; the book is composed in short snippets which carry a kind of implication that they are hastily jotted down notes by the protagonist.

And yet despite the fact that I can see it's a well crafted book I just didn't like A Time of Changes. Trying to put the entire story in context made me question why things were the way they were. So I don't recommend the novel but at the same time I can acknowledge that if the theme does work for a reader then that reader would enjoy it quite a bit.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Don't Look!

Okay besides playing Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King (I haven't played enough yet to form a solid opinion besides hating the nickel and diming "additional content") I picked up another toy for my shelf last night. With the new Indiana Jones movie being released in two weeks some toys based on the old movies have been released and I found something I never thought I would see...

That's a miniature Ark of the Covenant complete with a cute version of the wrath of God which you can position so that it's emerging from the open Ark in order to melt the faces of neighboring action figures. It also comes with an evil German but sadly not one with head exploding action.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Review - Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage
by Alexei Panshin
1968 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

First off, don't expect me to follow up this review with Panshin's Hugo winning non-fiction; the only hard cover edition that exists is a signed and numbered first edition. It's unfortunate but most of the non-fiction winners left on my list are apparently somewhat rare. But that's his The World Beneath the Hill, let's talk Rite of Passage.

There are vast colony ships that travel a circuit around hundreds of human colonies. For the most part the people who live on the ship have a life of technological ease while those on the colony worlds toil to grow food. The exception to this is that shortly after their fourteenth birthday all of the shipdwellers are dropped into the wilderness of a planet with minimal supplies and they must survive a month. Once that ordeal has been completed they are considered adults.

Rite of Passage covers a few years in the life of the daughter of the leader of one of these ships. It is the usual coming of age story; she moves to a new neighborhood, makes friends, finds a first love, develops a more complex relationship with her father, and deals with problems in school. The twist is that at the end of all those usual things it also is a survival adventure.

I both read and seen a lot of coming of age stories (it's practically become the default story for any "independent" media) so it takes a lot to interest me in that theme. Panshin succeeded at that. I found Rite of Passage completely engrossing. Part of that I think is that the survival test builds an inherent tension in the book; you know it isn't going to go well since "And then they built a camp fire and all sat around it toasting marshmallows for a month," isn't good storytelling. There's plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong and Panshin builds a large cast of potential victims through the book. And since dying isn't the only way for things to fail even the success of the main character is in doubt.

And its those characters where Panshin really excels. Unlike modern coming of age stories Panshin doesn't fill his cast with "zany" characters; he remembers that all of the children he features are going through the exact same process as his main character and everyone grows up as the novel continues. Panshin paints an image of a world where everyone is dealing with their problems and we only get to see one small view of it.

One particularly interesting thing I found was the politics in Rite of Passage. The patronizing attitude that the people living on the ship have toward the people living on the colony is deeply embedded in their culture but Panshin avoids the stereotypes that often come up in science fiction about conflicting cultures. I don't want to say too much for fear of spoiling the novel but the people on board ships know that they are disliked by the colonists but they also hold the upper hand in their relationships and take advantage of that. So the actions and reactions of different political factions as they arise in the book are very understandable.

The worst thing I can say about the book is that the prose was not outstanding. Which is not to say it was bad; just not brilliant. Panshin's narrative and characters carry the weight of this novel and his words and style never get in the way of that but they don't lift it up further either.

And that's not really much of a complaint. Where Delany's novels that I talked about last week were heavy on the style with little substance as their foundation Panshin is the other way around. He's not poetic but his story is as solid as they come and I greatly enjoyed it.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Review - "Cascade Point" , "Blood Music", and "Speech Sounds"

Michael Whelan
1984 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"Cascade Point"
by Timothy Zahn
1984 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Standard science fiction plot #3: a technology with complex implications is introduced, causes problems, and then the characters devise a solution to that problem based on a logical extension of the concept. Most commonly done with space craft since they're self-contained with obvious risks. Expect a lot of heavy exposition as the technology has to be explained to the reader so they understand both the problem and "new" solution.

Grab a random issue of a science fiction magazine since the 1930's and I can just about guarantee that it has a story that follows this basic pattern and it takes a careful touch to pull it off well. Besides the obvious trap of having the only thing of interest in the story be the technology it can be easy to make many of the characters (if not the entire society) appear foolish for not recognizing simple applications of the technology.

I can't say that Zahn is entirely successful with his story. In it there is a faster than light drive that may involve moving through parallel earths. A material that changes the flight characteristics is accidentally brought on board a ship using it (the story hints that it might not be an accident and the character didn't understand the consequences but that's like not understanding the consequences of carrying a bottle of nitroglycerin on board a airplane) and they find themselves in a parallel universe and they have to work out how to use the drive to get back.

Where this story works and works well is that Zahn pains a vivid image of characters with many regrets who live through them every time they use the drive. They see visions of what they may have been at different points making staying conscious through the process emotionally draining. Zahn uses this cleverly to illuminate the characters.

The downside is that the technology isn't really as well thought out as it could have been. There were obvious, easy things that anyone who was developing this technology should have tried. It disrupts electronics requiring one person to manually make adjustments for all spacecraft but apparently the idea of mechanical devices has been lost. The unique situation the ship finds itself in should be well understood.

Don't get me wrong, I did like the story because it works extremely well on an emotional level; I just didn't find it very satisfying intellectually.

"Blood Music"
by Greg Bear
1984 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

This story on the other hand had the opposite problem. A researcher finds a way to make intelligent colonies of microscopic organisms and he modifies them to live in his blood stream. As they grow and develop they begin to modify his body and he seeks help from a college friend who is driven to desperate measures.

Bear creates an interesting situation and goes in depth on it. He tells us how such things might be possible and how they might be performing their actions. The problem lies in that it feels more like an indistinct report than someone reacting to a human being being modified for the purposes of an non-human intelligence. The story is surprisingly passionless, but I enjoyed it for the interesting ideas.

"Speech Sounds"
by Octavia Butler
1984 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

A plague that essentially gives everyone who catches it a stroke has swept the world. The language centers of the brain are destroyed and most people lose the ability to read or write. A woman is attempting to make her way across Los Angeles and finds herself in the company of a police officer who is driven to continue helping people despite the failings of communication.

Obviously from the category this is a brief tale but it is very vivid and Butler makes the lack of dialog feel natural in the context of the story. It's also a hopeful story despite being post-apocalyptic. With some very appealing characters to hang her story on I found Butler's tale quite interesting.