The Peanuts Movie (2015)

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When I started reading the collected editions of Charles M. Schulze’s Peanuts strips, it wasn’t love on first sight. I took me a few of them to really get into it and appreciate the subtle genius of what Schulze did. And the 2015 Peanut’s animated movie is a bit like that.

The beginning is a bit slow, the story meanders and doesn’t seem all that interesting, but once you get into it, once all the different aspects of movie start to work together, you realize you’ve fallen for it. Whether this was intentional or just an accident, its the best kind of tribute the movie could have been.

I think the turning point for me was when I realized that Charlie Brown, for all of his inane introspection and the way the world makes him lose his shit all the time, is a genuine good person. It’s not often that you can say that a main character in a movie would make an awesome friend, but Charlie Brown is that kind of person. The scene where he gave up his own plans to help out his little sister was really moving. And while having a main character who is a nice person isn’t always a guarantee for a good movie, in this case its both the core of what everything else is moving around and it makes for a really good movie too.

On the animation side of things, it’s amazing how well the movie transforms its 2d-origins into a 3d-cgi landscape that still feel like genuine Peanuts. It was also great that they included Snoopy’s imaginary side-story as WWI flying ace, which was funny and managed to offset all the parts with Charlie Brown, which could get you down with his continuous failure in almost everything. So, good balance, a captivating story and all the large and small details you would expect in a good Peanuts adaptation, marvelously executed.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014)

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Animated movie about a dog who has adopted a boy and both run into trouble when the boy gets bullied at school. It’s kind of cute with really nice animation, but also generic and cliched in all the ways that occasionally make it a bit boring even for its short running time: the plot is an assortment of things that suddenly happen, both Mr. Peabody and Sherman are rather more cardboard than character, if nice cardboard, and I can’t imagine myself ever wanting to see it again.

It’s not that movie can’t do genuine emotion, it’s that the emotional core is based on such a artificial/constructed plot device that nobody who hasn’t been adopted and raised by a dog can really relate all that much. Sure, the trouble they both run into is sort of relatable: father-son problems, overbearing-government worker who wants to take away a kid (a hell of an annoying movie cliche), but its all very mediocre and run-of-the-mill stuff, even the whole time-travel.

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

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The recent sequel to the ultra-jingoistic 96 alien invasion classic was a positive surprise, though given that I had rather low expectations, it shouldn’t have been entirely unexpected. It sports the same mix as the original: another invasion, a certain we-can-do attitude in the presence of utter, nightmarish destruction brought on by an even bigger alien ship and various plans to fight back that get more desperate as events spiral out of control.

What I didn’t expect was how the sequel built on the foundations laid down by the first movie. Instead of US-centric jingoism, there is now human-centric jingoism that reminds me of old SF-novels and their humanity-is-superior approach and which shows that the humanity united theme of the original’s ending actually carried through. Also, unlike lots of invasion movies, humanity actually researched the technology left by the destroyed alien ships and used it to built an advanced defense system including local space-faring capabilities. Also typical for old space opera books, but rather rare in movies.

I wouldn’t say the movie is great, but for what it is, it’s very enjoyable. It starts with slowly mounting tension and the utter nightmare-inducing descent of the alien ship, packs in a neat mystery that is essential for the final part and beyond, has well directed, tense action (arguably even better than that of the original) and sports lots of clever plot twists which overall make it feel more ambitious in terms of world-building. And while there’s a lot of pandering going on, both to those who like the original as well as the humankind-uber-alles mindset in general, at least it has no major suspension of disbelief breaker like the winning strategy of the original.

If you want to see something like early space opera – slightly modernized but not too self-aware – brought to the big screen, this is your best bet.

Fred the Mermaid (2006-2008)

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Urban fantasy as a genre is pretty much pure entertainment with few works striving to be more, but even with most of it being fluff, there are some that are much more lightweight than others. The works of MaryJanice Davidson fall into the ladder category, amusing but mostly forgettable stuff. Characterization is utterly rote, plots are an afterthought and the prose is serviceable.

The Fred the Mermaid trilogy is about a female half-human, half-mermaid hybrid who has secretly lived among humans and gets involved with other mermaids and has three books to decide between a human and a mermaid love interest. She’s established as snarky and abstinent, but her stick (as well as that of all the other characters, who are just as one-dimensional) is only tolerable in small doses (maybe that’s the reason the books are so short).

As said, plots are an afterthought and utterly perfunctory. The worst offender in that regard is probably the second book, whose plot is summarized as, and there was a big meeting and then a decision was made. Yep, that’s pretty much it.

Another example why this is really fluff is the way Davidson handles her characters and how they react to major trauma. SPOILER ALERT In the last book Frederika goes from being all cuddly with her long-lost dad to breaking his neck once he reveals himself as a big bad. Instead of any psychological turmoil after that or at least a decent human reaction to having killed someone, she shows no sign of being at least a bit stressed out about that. Sure, there are people who react like that, but I somehow doubt Davidson intended Frederika to be some kind of sociopath.

It’s kind of odd, these are books based almost exclusively on the interactions between the characters, their conversations, not action, scenery descriptions, backstory or deep introversion. It’s all talk, talk, talk, but while most of it can be described as amusing and entertaining, there’s no depth to it. Characters remain one-note, and occasionally, as with the few kills that happen, characters react weird (and that’s a nice way of saying that author Davidson has only a perfunctory grasp of how to write realistic human beings once it goes beyond snarky, superficial dialogue).

Stiletto (2016)

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You wait almost forever (at least it felt like it) for a sequel to a book only to discover that the author ditched the narrator from the first book and instead made him part of an ensemble cast. Once I got over this, I have to say the sequel to surprise hit The Rook from Daniel O’Malley turned out just as great as his first novel, if somewhat different.

The Rook and Stiletto are arguably urban fantasy, or at least the setting is: there is a secret agency fighting supernatural threats while at the same time keeping them hidden from the public, there are all kinds of scary monsters running around. Still, both The Rook with it’s amnesia angle and the second with it’s ensemble cast and plot line about supernatural terror attacks and internal strife feels like it doesn’t follow exactly the same formula than most books in the genre do.

O’Malley is somewhat more inventive with his setting details, the agency defending the world, or at least Great Britain contains individuals whose powers feel like those of superheroes, yet they are entirely supernatural, while their opposition in the first book and somewhat ally in the second is another secret organization that does science-based biological augmentations, and has done for hundreds of years. The threats are also more original, not just common mystical creatures with a slight spin but entirely new creations that feels fresh and intriguing.

The long gestation time of the novel has not been wasted, O’Malley packs lots of stuff into the book, a major plot line, a minor one that still feels essential and makes the world feel more complex by not being connected to the major plot at all and lots of clever world-building in general, much more so than in the first book. Stiletto almost feels like O’Malley realized the lack of setting in the first book and overcompensates here, but instead of just deluding the reader with boring info-dump after another, he manages to integrate his world-building bits seamlessly into the narrative, making it part of the longer history that still informs the things going on in the present.

My favorite of those were two short, covert references to famous science fiction novels (Frankenstein and the Isle of Doctor Moreau) that fit perfectly into the background and enhance its fictional history instead of distracting from it.

Overall, it’s really nice to see a book that not only manages to fulfill expectations but to surpass them.

The Nightmare Stacks (2016)

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Switching from one genre to another is always a tricky proposition, especially if you and your readers might be at odds about what genre you’re writing in. The Nightmare Stacks is the 7th book in the Laundry series about a secret British government agency fighting occult threats, only that as of this 7th book it’s not secret anymore.

There are two kinds of urban fantasy settings (very generalized), the one where the supernatural world is hidden (Dresden Files for example) and one where its out in the open (Anita Blake series). In my experience, few urban fantasy series have depicted the point of transition (the recent Magic ex Libris Revisionary is one example), and the deeper reason for that is that most of them are, despite the urban and modern element, fantasies.

They are not interested in looking at it from an sfnal point of view, showing the effect that these revelations have on the culture, on people and how it shapes society. In my case, if I want to see these kind of stories, I rather go directly to the source, to science fiction that actually deals with things not based on magic or the supernatural.

One could argue that Stross laid down the rules of his setting from the beginning to be like science fiction, to be internally consistent, but at the end of the day it feels as real as PSI-based powers or attempts to scientify magic ala midi-chlorians, which might look good enough for some, but it’s still not the same as science fiction that deals with rather more ‘realistic‘ things.

So, why is changing your genre a tricky proposition? Because it might be that readers dig your stuff for entirely different reasons than you where expecting. Or maybe not. It does look like the Laundry series is in endgame mode and most people who are still with the series might hand around for the ending just to see where it lands, but to say that I like where its going would be a lie. Changing genre means focusing on different aspects than what drew me to the books in the first place, and it doesn’t really work all that well here.

One example is that The Nightmare Stacks contains long, very drawn-out sequences of what I can only describe as war- or combat-porn, detailed, long-winded descriptions of weapons and battle scenes that make the second half of the novel rather tedious and which feels completely at odds with earlier novels in the series and what they focused on. And while I do like the inclusion of Moorcock-style elves invading Britain much more than the silly and really annoying superheros in the previous book, it was much better for the lack of those boring fight scene and weapon descriptions.

Will I hang around for the next few novels in the series? Sure, but I’m less enthusiastic about the prospect of Stross looking at the ramifications of putting the supernatural in the spot-light, while diminishing the aspects of the earlier books that I actually enjoyed.

Antifragile (2012)

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Taleb’s latest book is tremendous fun from start to finish, managing to insult a large swath of people from all corners of life while integrating them with his philosophies about systems that are positively enhanced by shocks and how to navigate a world that doesn’t get this and is slowly constructing ever larger systems that are utterly fragile to the same.

The book is abrasive and offensive to almost everybody (though in such a playful way that only the truly dour and pathetic will take it personal) and yet offers such a wealth of deep insights that its easy to stop feeling attacked and just enjoy the ride, look at the brilliance beneath the surface aggressiveness and try to learn as much as you can.

After Fooled by Randomness and the Black Swan, I thought Taleb had used up all his novel material, instead he managed to upstage his earlier books by providing one that connects to both but provides more than just doom saying, instead here’s a utilitarian, positive spin that is easy to overlook, yet gives hope that all is not lost.

That said, one of the most interesting aspects of the book are the various and varied critics leveled against it, that make it clear that many of the points Taleb mentioned are easily misunderstood or intentionally deflected, as most of what Taleb is saying isn’t exactly hard or complex. It’s just that he attacks sacred cows, especially those build at the expense of others. Few people like to be called out as idiots (at best) or malicious frauds.

The Black Cauldron (1985)

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I knew next to nothing about this going in, only that it was based on the first book of a fantasy series (not a faithful adaptation I heard) and a major flop. Throughout the movie there is an odd mismatch of tone, it’s much darker than most Disney movies, going so far as depicting blood in one scene and some of the monster design is almost inspired in terms of generic but effective fantasy. On the other hand there are continued intrusions of Disneyfied elements: sweets fairies, a secondary pet character, a naive hero right out of the Disney handbook and other stuff. Also the most cuddliest pig I’ve ever seen.

Still, I did enjoy the movie, while still too childish in many ways (it’s Disney after all) it does tell a more or less coherent story that doesn’t feel too much like a collection of disconnected elements strung together by a flimsy narrative, like a lot of the earlier Disney movies. Some of the visuals, for the time, were quite cool and while I wished it had been more mature throughout, it definitely is a lot better than many of the reviews I’ve seen made it to be.

The Sword in the Stone (1963)

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Like most of the early Disney movies this has a strong episodic feel to it, but in this case this works for the movie, instead of against it. To some degree it has elements of a coming-of-age narrative, only that this stage is never reached. But Arthur as the young teen getting life lessons from Merlin and his owl is both highly amusing (when the lessons go wrong) and educational (often not for the reason Merlin expected) as well as gives great insight into the characters.

Each of the episodes gives Arthur glimpses of the wider world beyond what he has been exposed to in his mundane existence, and what might be if only he allowed himself to take a step, believe he can fly or dive as a fish. But as Merlin says from early on, he’s cheating. It’s not so much that Arthur is exposed to another path his life could take, but what Merlin is doing is broadening his horizon to the extend that Arthur probably couldn’t shy away from the wider world. The moment he accepted the lessons from Merlin, being a simple squire wasn’t his fate anymore.

The ending on the other hand is just odd. Not sure how the book on which this is based handled it, but in the movie it feels like the narrative does a large deus ex machina (given that this is Arthur it was expected but it still feels out of character for the way the narrative was going, not Arthur himself) and then stops at the oddest point in terms of pacing. But otherwise its quite a fine movie.

The Jungle Book (1967)

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I adore the old-school, hand-drawn animation of old Disney movies, but the Jungle Book, like lots of other older Disney movies, suffers from feeling like a compilation of events with a serious lack of an overarching narrative that is more than just an excuse. The movie suffers sadly not only from this, also from the fact that while the host of various secondary characters are great and quite amusing, Mogli himself is an utter blank apart from his motivation to remain in the jungle.

There’s just not much to him and without his character keeping an emotional grounding for the movie, it really feels a bit episodic and haphazard, so overall enjoyment hinges on whether you like the various parts. I do, but overall I can’t shake the impression of having seen a decidedly second-rate movie elevated somewhat but good secondary performances.