The Book of Life

Book of Life CoverGenre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Creative Team: Jorge R. Gutiérrez (director, writer); Doug Langdale (writer); Guillermo del Toro (producer)
Main Cast: Diego Luna; Zoe Saldana; Channing Tatum; Ice Cube; Ron Perlman; Kate del Castillo; Christina Applegate
First Shown: October, 2014
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A group of school children are taken to see a special exhibit on Mexico, where they hear a story that took place many years ago.

The opening had promise. Once the frame story of the children settles in, the main action in the past gets going. It’s the Day of the Dead, and the rulers of the two lands of the dead are watching. La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) is made of sugar and rules the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) is made of tar and rules the Land of the Forgotten. They see three children playing and make a wager. This is the point where I got that sinking feeling, and it just kept sinking lower as the story continued. The problem comes down to the wager: which of the two boys will marry the girl when they grow up.

There are things I liked about the film. The visuals were great. The school children are being told the story with wooden models, so the characters in the main story also resemble those models. The Land of the Remembered is particularly beautiful, with vibrant colours and detail. It creates a distinctive animation style.

The two immortals were the highlight for me. Both had great character designs, again with a lot of nice detail. Though they’re introduced as though one is good and one bad, it becomes clear that they’re both rather more ambiguous. I enjoyed the interplay between the two of them.

I also liked the plotline of Manolo (Diego Luna), one of the potential suitors, trying to find his place. He comes from a line of bullfighters, but wants to pursue music. This addresses gender role issues and machoism. Manolo is sensitive and doesn’t want to kill the bulls, which is seen as weak and unmanly.

Joaquín (Channing Tatum), the other suitor, is the son of a famous hero. Joaquín is arrogant and self-centred, but it becomes apparent that it comes from insecurity. He gets to grow into a more caring person as he comes to terms with his own issues.

Then there’s the problem of María (Zoe Saldana). Though María says she’s not a prize to be won, this is wishful thinking on her part. The entire story is about her having to choose one of the men. She gets a choice of which one, but she doesn’t have a choice to do something else with her life or marry someone else. There’s potential for stories to look at how women have very restricted choices at times, but this one failed to go there, because it never acknowledged that she was restricted.

One of the glaring things is that María does not have a personal story outside of the main plot. Manolo is figuring out his place in the world. Joaquín is trying to live up to the legacy of his dead father. But María is just there for the main plot. She was sent away by her father as a child, yet she doesn’t get space to address her family relationships as the others do. She’s highly educated, yet doesn’t have plans on what she might do next. She has combat training, yet when the action scenes roll around, they’re mainly there so the men can reconcile their differences by fighting together. She doesn’t really develop in any way from the María introduced as a child. All the speaking up, knowing how to fight, and being educated, serves to make her a more valuable prize. It doesn’t mean she gets treated as an equal part of the story.

Even for viewers who don’t have the same issue I did, and think love triangles are amazing, there’s no tension to this one. It’s obvious who she’ll marry from the start. There are no surprises here.

The setting could have told any story. The wager could have been anything. It could have gone in a direction no one expected and still have a happy ending. Instead, the main plotline was this, which really didn’t do justice to the characters and setting.

Paddington (Film)

Paddington CoverGenre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Creative Team: Paul King (director, writer, story); Hamish McColl (story); David Heyman (producer)
Main Cast: Ben Whishaw; Sally Hawkins; Hugh Bonneville; Madeleine Harris; Samuel Joslin; Julie Walters; Jim Broadbent; Nicole Kidman; Peter Capaldi; Tim Downie; Michael Gambon; Imelda Staunton
First Shown: 28th November, 2014
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

The original Paddington Bear books, by Michael Bond (who has a cameo in the film), began publication in the late 1950s. The film isn’t a retelling of any specific book, but follows the same basic idea. Paddington’s (Ben Whishaw) home in Peru is destroyed, so he stows away on a ship heading for London. Once there, he ends up at Paddington Station, where he meets the Brown family. But things take a sinister turn when a taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) finds out he’s arrived.

I wasn’t sure how funny I’d find the film, as some of the humour stems from Paddington not understanding what’s going on and making mistakes. However, the funny side tended to be that things turned out unexpectedly, rather than Paddington feeling embarrassed or upset. I find the former funny, but the latter makes me uncomfortable. So I was glad it focused on unexpected resolutions.

The interactions between the Browns were great. At the start, there are obviously tensions in the family. Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville) is very serious and obsessed with trying to shield everyone from risks. Judy (Madeleine Harris) sides with him over Paddington, because she wants the family to appear normal and not be embarrassing. On the other side, there’s Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins), who is an artist, and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), who dreams of being an astronaut. The dreamer side of the family want to help Paddington. I liked seeing how the family came together and sorted out their differences.

However, my favourite member of the family was Mrs Bird (Julie Walters), an elderly relative. Her asides, and her practical approach to dealing with Paddington, were very funny. She knows what’s really going on, even if it takes the Browns a little longer to figure it out.

There’s a magical realism feel to the film. Paddington causes some comment, but most people either ignore that he’s a bear or accept it after an initial comment. Things shift around the characters, such as the mural changing in the Brown’s house, the band playing the background music appearing in the scene, and the dolls house in the attic becoming a tiny version of the Brown’s house. This works particularly well due to the film being live action, as it grounds the surreal elements in the real.

One possible issue is whether people will make the connection between a bear in a children’s story and real refugees. I felt this was handled reasonably well, as there are references that reinforce this connection. Paddington has a label around his neck, reminiscent of child evacuees in World War II. This is stated directly in the film by his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton), who hopes it will remind people of their past kindness. Putting this into the story was a nice touch, as it’s something the author of the books said was a direct inspiration for Paddington’s label.

Some of the hostility Paddington faces is based on fears about immigrants. The Brown’s neighbour, Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi), is worried that bears will end up taking over the neighbourhood and keep him awake with their jungle music. The narrative makes it very clear that Mr Curry isn’t a nice person. In contrast, Paddington also meets Mr Gruber (Jim Broadbent), who was a Jewish child refugee. Mr Gruber is warm, kind, and everything Mr Curry isn’t.

Colonialism is tackled in the tradition of snark and sarcasm. The film opens with an old colonial explorer (Tim Downie) on an expedition to Peru. He’s taken only the essentials, which means a trail of baggage including a large clock and a piano. Later, as the bears are learning English from a recording, it announces to them that British people have numerous words for rain, in a parody of the statements made about Inuit people and snow. Peru is referred to as Darkest Peru, as it is in the book, though the repetition of this is taken to an extreme that highlights its ridiculousness. Many of these moments are subtle, but clear in their critique of colonial attitudes.

The choice of villain also reinforces an anti-colonial narrative: she’s a taxidermist working at the Natural History Museum, who wants to return to a time when the best way to deal with a new species was to kill it and mount it as a trophy. She represents the old values, with all the problems that come with them. Her scenes are particularly chilling, because she is so callous about the value of life.

Though I generally liked the film, there were moments I didn’t like. There’s a scene where Mr Brown dresses as a woman as a disguise and a security guard flirts with him. These kinds of scenes rely on the idea that a man dressing as a woman is inherently funny, and that a man flirting with another man is funny. I did like some aspects of how it was handled though. Mr Brown later comments on the clothing being liberating. The disguise represents the first risk he takes to help Paddington, stepping outside of the constrictive life he’s constructed. It’s more unusual to follow up such scenes with a positive framing (it tends to be “never again, because I’m a manly man” rather than “actually, that was fine”).

I recognise that Paddington being called Paddington is unavoidable given the source, but it does still make me wince that he gets named because his name is deemed unpronounceable. That’s always been the part of the story that doesn’t sit well with me.

Paddington is a light-hearted family film with genuinely funny moments. I enjoyed seeing the Brown family come together and loved the visual style. The topic of refugees and immigration is as relevant now as ever, and the film presents this in a positive way. I would note some of the taxidermy scenes could be frightening for younger viewers. No animals are harmed, but the intentions are clear, and there are previously stuffed animals on show.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Movie CoverGenre: Superhero / Film
Main Cast: Henry Cavill; Ben Affleck; Amy Adams; Gal Gadot; Jesse Eisenberg; Jeremy Irons
First Shown: March, 2016
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

I wasn’t that fond of Man of Steel. So when I went to the cinema recently, I walked past the staff in their superhero costumes, the table of drinks, and the balloons. Instead, I headed into Zootropolis, which was great. But there had been a bit of a mistake when the tickets were booked, which meant the manager had to handwrite tickets for a showing at a slightly different time. The cinema sent free tickets as compensation. So it’s thanks to Odeon Cinemas that I’m writing this review of Batman v Superman.

In the aftermath of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) fight with Zod, people are questioning whether Superman is a good thing for the world. Batman (Ben Affleck) has no doubt about the answer: after seeing the carnage caused by the battle, he thinks Superman has to go. But it might be that there’s something more happening than either of them realise.

One of my criticisms of Man of Steel was the amount of death that was brushed under the carpet. Epic fights happened with no attempt to move the fight away from the city. Civilians had to fend for themselves, if the film even acknowledged they existed. This film does address that. The opening scenes were the strongest on that score, as they show Bruce Wayne on the ground during the finale of the previous film. It humanises the conflict in a way Man of Steel failed to do. Some of the later scenes did not work so well, as there were a whole lot of happened-to-be-uninhabited places in two major cities. That was rather convenient and hard to believe. Though at least the heroes are now considering that civilians will die if they’re not careful.

I liked the concept behind Batman. He’s older, and twenty years as Batman has taken its toll. Wayne Manor is a ruin, so he lives in a new building on the grounds. Alfred (Jeremy Irons) is also older, and has become rather more cynical. Given how often the Batman origin story is done, it was a good choice to have an established Batman, with the issues that come with that.

Batman going darker is the main theme of his storyline. He tortures criminals for information, which fails as it’s not a reliable method. As Alfred points out, it’s Bruce Wayne who finds the information through non-violent means. The violence is a coping mechanism, not a solution. This was an interesting take on Batman, but I would have liked more on what led to this. He has flashbacks about his parents dying, but the traumatic things he would have faced after that are glossed over.

Superman’s storyline didn’t have a lot going for it. He gets very little time as Clark Kent, and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) ends up doing the reporter thing without him. There’s a lot of standing around looking sad and feeling guilty about people dying. Not a whole lot of really getting into his story, or showing his relationship with Lois developing.

The final main hero is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). She has a small role in this one, but it’s a good sign for her coming solo film. She has an air about her, as though she’s a lot older than she looks, which really works for the role. She also brought a bit of interest to later fight scenes, as she’s a lot more tactical with her weapons than the other two.

The villain is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), son of the original Lex Luthor. Having him as the next generation of Luthors isn’t a bad thing, though little time is given on expanding his backstory and motivation. It wasn’t clear how the older Lex Luthor died or how else things had gone differently in this timeline. All of this would have impacted the life of the current Lex Luthor.

Unfortunately, undeveloped elements are a trend. There’s a lot of introducing characters and plot, then trying to wrap them up neatly and quickly. This doesn’t make for the best story.

Taking Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy), for example. He’s in a wheelchair after having both legs amputated (above the knee), due to injuries from the big attack of the previous film. He feels bitter and blames Superman. When he climbs the Superman statue to spray messages, it looks like he might get a role that goes beyond being there to pity. But he doesn’t, and that’s his last moment of agency when he’s not being manipulated. I was particularly uncomfortable with the press interview, where the camera moves to show his legs as he complains about losing everything. It’s set up in a way to point at his disability as something to pity. It would have been a lot more interesting to have his anger against Superman and the system actually come to a resolution. And as a result, for him to come to terms with what happened. But there’s no time to develop his story.

On to some of the other things going on, mental illness is handled the way superhero stories often do. Batman’s trauma is shown with empathy, even when his behaviour is going off the rails. Lex Luthor is the bad guy, which means he’s called psychotic as an insult (he doesn’t come across as actually psychotic… he also shows signs of trauma). Lex is irredeemable and mentally ill, while Batman can change and is troubled.

There’s a scene where Superman rescues a girl in Mexico. The crowd holds their hands out to touch him, as though he’s a god. Superman might be uncomfortable with this, but it still paints him as the great white saviour, worshipped by those simple non-white folk who don’t know any better.

Gotham and Metropolis were difficult to tell apart. They were also really close together. I never imagined they’d basically be districts of each other, viewable just by looking the right way. If it hadn’t been for characters saying where the action was happening, I wouldn’t have known.

There’s a lot more that could be said without needing to give away major plot twists or talk about the ending, simply because there was so much happening. It’s really the setup for multiple films.

I didn’t hate it, and I did like it better than Man of Steel. There were some themes I’d like to see explored more in sequels, like what it means to be an older Batman. There was plenty of action, and it’s likely to be enjoyable enough for superhero fans. But I didn’t love it because of the cramming issue.

When it comes down to it, I’m a lot more interested in the possible future films that will come from this. Wonder Woman is finally getting another film. After reading Cyborg’s adventures, I’m curious about how his story will be developed. Aquaman has always hit my love of ocean stories, even before Jason Momoa was cast in the part. The groundwork for the setting could lead to something great, but the filmmakers do need to slow down and tell one complete story per film, rather than trying to do everything at once.

Zootropolis

Zootropolis Bluray CoverAlternate Titles: Zootopia
Genre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin; Jason Bateman; Idris Elba; J.K. Simmons; Jenny Slate; Tommy Chong; Octavia Spencer; Nate Torrence; Shakira
First Shown: February, 2016
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the first bunny police officer in the city of Zootropolis. She fights for acceptance by trying to crack a missing mammals case, and she has a lead: fox con artist Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).

This was a strong film in many areas. The worldbuilding of Zootropolis was fun, with multiple anthro animal species living in various biomes in the city. Business hamsters get to work via tubes. Trains have doors of different sizes for the various animals. It created a complex and colourful world.

The story was also great. Judy has a mystery to solve, which touches on the prejudices running through Zootropolis. At the same time, her relationship with Nick develops from uneasy cooperation to close friends. There are a lot of fun side characters, including singer superstar Gazelle (Shakira) and terse police chief Bogo (Idris Elba).

Prejudice is a major theme of the story. Judy joins the police force as part of a diversity initiative. She has to be the best of the best at the academy, and is still assumed to not be good enough due to her species. The police station is clearly not designed for smaller animals, as the chairs are so tall she has to struggle to climb on them. The police world is literally not designed for her.

Judy and Nick both face discrimination for their species, and both have their own prejudices to overcome. For Judy, being a small prey animal means it’s assumed she can’t do the job. Bunnies are seen as cute, easily scared, and not very smart. For Nick, the assumed aggression of predators becomes a bad thing. It makes a lion a fearless leader, but it means a fox can’t be trusted. The story touches on microaggressions, from Nick touching a sheep’s wool, to animals shuffling away from species they don’t trust. Even Judy, who tries so hard not to be prejudiced, still holds beliefs that predators are naturally aggressive because it’s in their DNA. Nick becomes the exception in her eyes, rather than the example that disproves the rule. Prejudice is complicated, and I liked that the film embraces that.

However, unlike the real world, the discrimination can go both ways. Initially it looks as though larger predators, such as big cats and wolves, hold a privileged position. In some respects, they do. But it’s also possible for them to be on the receiving end of discrimination, which isn’t how the balance between privileged and marginalised works in the real world. It was believable in the context of the world of Zootropolis, but does mean it’s not a perfect metaphor for talking about real discrimination.

On the subject of things in the real world, there are some nods to that. Though being a woman isn’t a cause for discrimination for Judy, she stands out on that basis to the viewer. Her small size and strength are clearly a factor in deciding she’s unsuited to police work. Yet she succeeds anyway, despite the additional obstacles thrown in her way.

There are also Judy’s neighbours, who are both male antelopes (of different species) and presumably living together in a room a similar size to Judy’s. Though I took them to be a married couple, I figured if I looked it up there’d be something making it plain they weren’t. Turns out they share a hyphenated family name, so I will continue viewing them as a married couple.

Less great was the introduction to Clawhauser (Nate Torrence), the cheetah who staffs the main desk. The joke of him finding a half-eaten doughnut in his neck fat was something I could have done without. It’s a big misstep for a story tackling prejudice to fall into fat jokes. They could easily have stuck with laughs based on him being a superfan of Gazelle, which wasn’t poking fun at his weight.

I really enjoyed the film. Though I felt there were some weaker points, such as the fat jokes, it was a well-paced mystery with interesting character relationships. The world was beautifully done. There’d be a lot of potential for more stories in this world, but even if there aren’t any sequels, this was a satisfying story.

Agent Carter (Season One)

Agent Carter Cover (UK)Alternate Titles: Marvel’s Agent Carter
Genre: Superhero / Television Series
Main Cast: Hayley Atwell; James D’Arcy; Chad Michael Murray; Enver Gjokaj; Shea Whigham
First Shown: 6th January, 2015
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

** This is a full season review, so will discuss some scenes from later in the series. It will not reveal the major plot twists. Please don’t post information about season two in the comments. I’ve not seen it yet. **

Agent Carter tells the story of Peggy Carter’s (Hayley Atwell) life after the war. She works for the SSR, but is constantly undervalued for being a woman. They’re more interested in having her take the lunch orders than doing secret agent stuff. When Howard Stark’s (Dominic Cooper) vault is raided, and his dangerous inventions end up on the black market, he contacts her to clear his name. Part of the deal is assistance from his butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy).

One unusual thing with this series is we know where it ends. Peggy will found SHIELD and survive into old age. Howard will eventually become the father of Tony Stark. Jarvis will live long enough to inspire Tony, and be immortalised as the A.I. Jarvis. This is the story of how everyone gets there.

I enjoyed how the story progressed. Each episode tackles a new part of the overall plot, with plenty of twists and turns. The short season meant there was no filler or waiting on the movies to reach a certain point (an issue Agents of SHIELD is prone to having). What makes it though is the relationship that develops between Peggy and Jarvis – one of friendship and mutual respect. I’m down for watching them solving mysteries together.

Peggy losing Steve is also tackled head on. She’s grieving the loss of the man, while society only sees Captain America. One reminder of this is a radio show, where her role is taken by Betty Carver, a damsel in distress. As well as being salt on her wounds, this show highlights how history was often rewritten to exclude the women who were part of it. The secret agent becomes a nurse, who is there to mend socks and get kidnapped.

A large part of the conflict for Peggy is getting things done in a society that’s sure she’s incapable of doing so. It’s why she ends up going behind the back of her colleagues, as she knows they’ll neither believe her, nor be willing to look at theories outside of Howard selling his own inventions. Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham) is trying to protect her. Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) is the typical women-don’t-belong-here sexist. Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) is the best of the bunch in many ways, but still idolises her in a way that a real person can’t live up to.

It’d be easy to show Peggy as the single exceptional woman, but that’s not how it goes down. One of my favourite moments is when the women she lives with are explaining the elaborate ways they smuggle food out of the buffet. They don’t lack ingenuity. They lack opportunity.

It also touches on disability issues. Daniel is a war veteran with a leg injury, who walks with a crunch. He’s been told his survival is an inconvenience. When someone notices his developing feelings for Peggy, he’s told she’d never date a guy with a crutch. Daniel also stands out among his colleagues as not being the classic Northern European guy (the actor is Albanian-American).

The dynamic between Daniel and Peggy is interesting, as they’re each marginalised in different ways. They use that to empathise with each other. They don’t always get it right, but it gives them a starting point to try.

Around the time I was watching, there was yet another example of a romance book where a Jewish woman falls in love with a Nazi, then converts to Christianity. There seem to have been a string of them recently. Some authors are very determined to romanticise Nazis and sweep all of the atrocities under the rug as not being that bad. One comment on this is why the non-Jewish love interest has to be a Nazi, rather than one of the many people who actively opposed them.

So I was very interested to find out that Jarvis was married to Ana, a Jewish woman. This is one of those stories about a person who opposed the Nazis doing what he can to get the woman he loves out of Europe, and to safety. I also liked that when Peggy refers to Ana being Jewish in past tense, Jarvis corrects her. She hasn’t stopped being Jewish.

What I didn’t like so much is we don’t get to meet her. This was a golden opportunity to have a positive on-screen Jewish character, and it didn’t happen. Though I can see why Jarvis would try to keep her out of things, this wouldn’t have prevented there being a scene where he made up some vague excuse and she was suspicious, or something on those lines.

It’s also very noticeable that black characters aren’t in main roles. Though I’d be happy to see more non-white people in general, I really wanted to see anti-black racism addressed given the setting and time. For a series that handles other issues of marginalisation, this is one that’s glaring in its absence.

Despite those areas where I would have liked more, I enjoyed the season as a whole. It tackles a number of difficult issues, as well as having a fun action mystery plot. I’ve always rather liked stories that handle being non-superpowered in a world with superheroes, so in many ways, I like it better than the movies it came from.