Friday, September 26, 2008

Review - The Incredibles

The Incredibles
2005 Hugo Winner for Best Long Form Dramatic Presentation

Hey comic book writers: this is how you create a good post modern superhero story. Please take notes.

Mr. Incredible is your traditional super strong and invulnerable superhero. He gets married to Elastigirl but their lives as superheroes come to an abrupt end when lawsuits over all the incidental damages that superheroes cause drives them into hiding. Fifteen years on and they're a traditional suburban family with a teenage daughter (who turns invisible and makes force fields), a young boy (who doesn't burst into flames), and a baby. Mr. Incredible is depressed by his life as an insurance adjuster, though, and he jumps at the opportunity to return to action. His midlife crisis entangles his whole family in a conspiracy.

I can honestly say that I think The Incredibles is the best superhero movie ever made. The recent Nolan Batman movies also are spectacular and I enjoy the Donner Superman movies but they don't manage to both capture the spirit of superhero comics and reinterpret them.

Starting with the obvious, the entire film is a parallel to the transition between the golden age and silver age of comic books. First the superheroes were driven out of business by legal actions (see the congressional hearings that shut down the majority of the comic book industry in the early fifties). The revival of superhero comic was triggered by two major books: The Flash which was about a guy who could run fast (like the young boy in the movie) and The Fantastic Four which featured a "family" of superheroes including a super strong guy, a stretching guy, a woman who turned invisible and made force fields, and a teen who burst into flames. The most common type of villain to show up in those early days of the silver age was the mad inventor; a normal person who created fantastic scientific devices and robots but used them for evil. You'll also note that the style of decor, archetecture, and fashion in the movie is straight from the late fifties/early sixties.

What makes it post-modern is the fact that while it's a film with superheroes in it the themes break from that mold. The conflicts are multilayered in a way that you don't typically find in superhero films (it has become more common in comic books). It's about raising a family, growing old, give up on your dreams, and the tendency for the masses to tear down the idols. Being post-modern with superheroes means breaking down the traditional conventions, not adding more violence and swearing as far too many people think. The Incredibles did this by attaching to different themes.

It helps that director Brad Bird really took advantage of the animation medium to create a superhero movie that live action directors can only dream of. Live action is constrained by budget when it comes to showing us the hero performing incredible stunts. This means every effects shot has to count there while in The Incredibles the effects of those superpowers can be demonstrated constantly. Similarly costs require that action sequences in a superhero film be kept to a minimum which is why despite costing $160 million there are only two of them in the first Fantastic Four movie. The action set peice is the hook to get people in to watch the movie and the Incredibles has by my count nine of them (and I'm running a few closely tied in portions together). Then there is the actors; a real problem for superhero movies is that the actor wants to have more screen time than the stuntman which means that they tend to lose their masks a lot (see Spider-Man who couldn't go an action scene without taking the mask off). With no actors on screen there's no one to complain that they're not getting enough face time.

Speaking of acting I have to say that I'm grateful the Pixar constantly avoids the stunt casting that plagues modern animated movies (see the Shrek films for examples of that). Using big name actors might get a little bit of attention but the big name actors often don't have decent voice acting ability. When the biggest name in the film is Samuel L. Jackson, a man who I'm convinced gave up on a normal acting career ten years ago and has now decided to do anything that sounds like it would be fun, then it's clear that they're not casting to get an Entertainment Tonight mention. Instead we've got a lot of people doing fine work most of whom have experience in voice acting.

As someone who collects comic book movies I was incredibly impressed when I saw The Incredibles and my appreciation of it has only grown over time. I am certain that it will be regarded as a classic film long after superhero comics have gone the way of the western.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What Have I Been Reading Lately?

Since I finished up my last reading project I have been reading primarily three things. First, short stories since I now have about a dozen short story collections where I've only read about half the stories in them. Second, novels that I purchased in omnibuses with ones that won awards. I finished off The Book of the New Sun (the second half wasn't as good as the first half but it was far from terrible), for example. Third, and most broadly, I've been catching up on my comic books. Not new comics, mind you, but things like:

With my energies and money focused elsewhere for a while I haven't dug into comic series that I had been intending to read for a long time but haven't. I read some of the First Comics (that's the defunct publisher, not the premier) Lone Wolf and Cub issues but never got around to reading the whole thing so I've been getting volumes of it. Though this will be the third time around on some volumes I've gotten current with the Absolute Sandman releases and I've been rereading that.

However, I have acquired the first book for the World Fantasy Awards winners so I'll be back to award winners sooner than I thought. I may take the reviews slower this time but they will come eventually.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More Library Cards

The one thing I enjoy about getting a former library book when I buy used books is getting to see how a book was received by the public. I've found SF classics where a first edition sat untouched in a library for decades and rare editions that only one person ever looked at. This time it's the first Nebula Awards collection:

People may not have been chasing after them but I don't think this is bad for a relatively obscure collection that has been supplanted by other sources (Clarke's collection that has just the winners in it).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Review - "The Saliva Tree", "He Who Shapes", and "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth"

What? The Nebulas don't have an artist to highlight? Well then let me hit the story reviews!

"The Saliva Tree"
by Brian W. Aldiss
Tied for 1965 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

In his history of science fiction The Trillion Year Spree Aldiss points out "The Colour Out of Space" as one of the few works of H. P. Lovecraft that he enjoyed. Which I suppose is why he decided to remake it only worse. Imagine the Lovecraft story with more needless explanations, actual invisible monsters, a very British attitude, and a romantic arc and you have "The Saliva Tree".

One day in the early twentieth century a rock falls from the sky and lands on a farm in Britain. Shortly afterward strange things begin happening at this farm as all of the life there becomes incredibly fertile and grows rapidly. Invisible things begin stalking the farm and the mental health of those living there deteriorates. Fortunately a scholarly young man spending a holiday in the countryside after finishing his schooling has taken a liking to the farmer's daughter and he resolves to comprehend the phenomena.

This would be a weak story even if I had not read the superior prototype. The main problem for me is one of tone. Is it a War of the Worlds pastiche? Lovecraft? Manners comedy as different social classes clash? Scientific adventure or cosmic horror? Aldiss flips on these so often I got whiplash and he never quite brings it all together as a coherent whole. On top of that I found the protagonist to be as interesting as lawn clippings; I just didn't care if he managed to deal with the aliens or got the girl. For those reasons I'd say don't bother with this story.

"He Who Shapes"
by Roger Zelazny
Tied 1965 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

I have made fun of Zelazny for so many of his stories being similar. Part of this is that he found a particular voice that he preferred and stuck with it regardless. That was not so at the beginning of his career. "He Who Shapes" was first published in 1964. Zelazny's first work was published in 1962. A spectacular rise and it means that both of his winners of 1965 Nebulas are very different from his later work.

There is no macho protagonist in "He Who Shapes". Nor is there a fist fight that ends with both combatants walking away friends. There is quite a bit of a drinking and smoking but only alcohol and tobacco.

A psychologist who specializes in entering the dreams of his clients and shaping them (hence the title) encounters a blind woman who wishes to learn that profession. There is a danger to it since if person who enters dreams loses control of the dream they risk insanity. Though the psychologist cannot take her on in good conscience as an apprentice he agrees to see her as a patient to help her overcome the confusion she will encounter upon seeing things in a dream. They're therapy becomes entangled in his personal life and the psychologist's quest for scientific glory.

For some reason I can't put my finger on the story just didn't connect with me. The character dynamics are interesting as Zelazny builds quite a bit of conflict into them (my plot description doesn't cover the intelligent seeing eye dog that fears being obsolete or the lover concerned about the integrity of the patient relationship). I suspect it has to do with the fact that Zelazny relies heavily on hallucinogenic descriptions of dreams and I find that kind of thing to be dull (and Zelazny himself does them better in other books and stories) but there's also the pacing which feels awkward. I can't recommend seeking it out but this is a situation where millage may vary quite a bit.

"The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth"
by Roger Zelazny
1965 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Zelazny's other winner is much closer to what his stories would become thanks to it being heavily influenced by Hemingway (and not simply The Old Man and the Sea as you might guess).

In the seas of Venus swims a fish larger than any other in the known universe: around three hundred meters long which is large enough to swallow most office buildings whole. A special ship was built specifically to catch it but when the attempt failed it bankrupted its builder. Many have tried to use the ship to catch the giant fish but at best they've left in disgrace and at worst people died in the attempt. One resident of Venus makes an effort to be directly involved in each attempt and now a woman he had a love affair with a long time ago arrives to make another attempt. The fisherman knows from experience how hard it can be to capture the beast when staring it in the face.

One of the things that makes this story particularly interesting is that Zelazny is very obtuse in his plot developments. You'll be half way through before you have a pretty good idea of the back story. It does make it tough reading for the first few pages before you realize exactly what Zelazny is doing with his plot but patience is rewarded.

The same strong characterization I noted with "He Who Shapes" is on display here but with "The Doors of His Face..." I think that it is supported by a stronger plot. I can honestly say that I had no idea where things would go in the end since either success or failure on any front in the story would have been perfectly appropriate. I strongly recommend seeking this story out as long as you can get past that "oceans of Venus" part.