Trollhunter

15 Jul

As it turns out there is more to Scandinavian cinema than just Ingmar Bergman and bleak, wintry black and white films which contemplate the human condition, religion and death. A new generation of young filmmakers are challenging old stereotypes and forging exciting new ground. Trollhunter is a 2010 Norwegian dark fantasy film, made in the form of a “found footage” mockumentary. It is written and directed by André Øvredal, and features a mixed cast of relatively unknown actors and well-known Norwegian comedians. This is a bit of an oddball film: a found footage faux documentary about a group of Norwegian college students tailing and filming a mysterious hunter who turns out to be a specialist in capturing and killing trolls. The result is a surprisingly believable dark fantasy film with some top notch digital effects.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Legend of the Avatar

10 Jun

Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in an Asiatic-like world in which some people can manipulate the classical elements with psychokinetic variants of the Chinese martial arts known as “bending”. The series combines anime with American cartoons, and relies on the imagery of East Asian, Inuit, South Asian and New World societies. For the uninitiated, the series takes place in a world defined by water, earth, fire and air. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, can stop the evil Fire Lord from enslaving the rest of the nations. As it happens, the current Avatar is the last of the Air Nomads, a young boy named Aang, who must learn the ways of waterbending, earthbending and firebending if he hopes to save the world. If you haven’t already seen it, Avatar is seriously a must-watch. In my opinion, it’s one of the greatest animated series of all time. The series was commercially successful and was universally acclaimed by audiences and critics, with praise for its art direction, humor, cultural references, characters, and themes. It was nominated for, and won, Annie Awards, Genesis Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award and a Peabody Award. The series inspired a critically panned but financially successful live-action film, The Last Airbender, directed by M. Night Shyamalan; action figures; a trading card game; three video games; and a sequel series, The Legend of Korra, aired from 2012 to 2014, which perhaps rose to even greater heights.

Continue reading

A Superman for All Seasons

13 May

Superman is the blueprint for the modern superhero. He’s arguably the single most important creation in the history of superhero comics. Superman is a hero that reflects the potential in all of us for greatness; a beacon of light in times that are grim and a glimmer of hope for the hopeless. He’s an archetype for us to project upon; whether you consider him a messiah or just a Big Blue Boy Scout, Superman’s impact on the genre and pop culture is undeniable. Rocketed to Earth from his dying planet of Krypton, Superman was raised in Smallville, Kansas with small town American ideals. Brought up by the loving Jonathan and Martha Kent, Kal-El was given the name Clark Kent and was taught to use his powers to better humanity. After adopting Metropolis as his home in his adult years, Clark would save the city – let alone the world – time and time again. Though he’d be joined by other members of his Super-family throughout the years, it would be the Man of Steel that would demand the attention of evil-doers, the respect of his peers, and the adoration of citizens across the globe. Superman stands as the single most iconic figure in comic books; his Kryptonian S-Shield recognizable as a universal symbol for truth and justice. Though Superman may have begun as a slice of Americana, he’s grown into a symbol that all of humanity can look up to. In his 80th anniversary year and with the recent publication of the 1000th issue of Action Comics, there is perhaps no better time to look at this character’s ‘super’ legacy.

Continue reading

Into the Labyrinth

8 Apr

Comedian Robin Ince once said it was impossible for people under forty to experience nostalgia. Real nostalgia meant pain, he argued, a gut-aching, punch in the chest, yearning for home, youth, and a life that no longer existed. Nostalgia was the feeling you had when, having come face to face with the unalterable fact of ageing and mortality, you recognised the things you’d lost, and desperately wanted them back. The under-forties hadn’t yet the distance from their youth to be truly get nostalgia, Ince reasoned. When the under-forties think they’re experiencing nostalgia, he said, they’re just remembering stuff. He’s got a point. While it might make for a decent pub chat, the loss of Pigeon Streetand Mallett’s Mallet hasn’t left me with any inconsolable yearnings. I don’t ache for the days back when Snickers were called Marathons and nobody knew you shouldn’t make school dinners exclusively from hydrogenated trans fats. They’re just fond memories. But there’s a film which, for a lot of us, is more than just a fond memory. A film which, if we under-forties can experience nostalgia, is our generation’s Proustian ticket straight back to childhood. For over thirty years, Jim Henson’s 1986 Labyrinth has been lodged like a bullet in our collective brain. So, following the pearl anniversary of its cinematic release, we ask: what’s all the fuss about?

Continue reading

Saga of the Swamp Thing

11 Mar

The character of Swamp Thing, an elemental creature who shares a connection to all plant life on the planet, first appeared in 1972 but had roots in a comic published a year earlier. DC Comics’ House of Secrets #92 (June-July, 1971) contained a story by Len Wein and artist Berni Wrightson, about a man murdered and dumped in a swamp, whose body metamorphosed into a muck monster that rose from the mire to wreak vengeance upon his killer. Response to the story was overwhelming, and plans were immediately made to launch a new title with a similar creature as the protagonist. Swamp Thing #1, by Wein and Wrightson, had a cover date of Oct-Nov, 1972. In the ongoing series, the man in the muck was Alec Holland, a handsome young scientist, and his first mission in hideous, shambling post-life existence was to avenge the murder of his wife, done in by the same criminal outfit that put him in the swamp. In the course of the series, he found his body had become more plant than human — if a limb was cut off, he could grow it back. He ranged far from the Louisiana swamp he’d come to call home — even had an adventure in Gotham City with Batman — and he took on a wide variety of science fiction and supernatural adversaries. The series was both a critical and a commercial success. But Wein and Wrightson were unable to stay with it beyond its 10th issue, and their replacements were not as well received by readers. The series ended with its 24th issue (Aug-Sep 1976), and the character was relegated to occasional appearances as a guest star. In 1982, Swamp Thing was adapted into a movie — not exactly a record-smashing box-office bonanza, but DC deemed it a big enough deal to warrant reviving the comic book. The new series limped along for a couple of years, then was taken over by writer Alan Moore. That’s when the character really took off.

Continue reading

Realm of the Rising Sun

11 Feb

In Japan, as in China, there is a large pantheon of gods and demons, but whereas the Chinese mirror the bureaucracy of Earth in heaven, the Japanese pay homage through their state religion of Shintoism to a sun goddess, Amaterasu. Shintoists believe that almost 3,000 years ago Amaterasu sent her grandson down to Earth to be Japan’s first ruler, thus making the emperors of Japan her direct descendants – an actual divine family and not just a divinely chosen one. The persistence and survival of Shinto beliefs are remarkable phenomena in a country in which the majority of people are practising Buddhists. In part Shinto owes its longevity to political factors – it has been used periodically to bolster the authority of the state. Equally significant, however, is the way in which Shinto beliefs are meshed into the very fabric of Japan: into the physical landscape as well as the mental hinterland of traditions. For Shintoism (literally “The Way of the Gods”) has its roots in ancient nature worship: its first deities were the innumerable spirits – the kami or “beings of higher place” – that resided in mountains and waterfalls, or sacred groves of trees. Yet even now, when the emperors have renounced their claim to divinity, the gods have retained a place in Japanese affections. While, today, most these beliefs are consumed as entertainment – in manga or anime – there is nevertheless a sense in which for many Japanese they form an important part of national identity.

Continue reading

Legends of the Dark Knight

14 Jan

Batman was the brainchild of the artist Bob Kane and the writer Bill Finger, who collaborated on a new character for Detective Comics in 1938. Their first sketches were a long way from the Batman image most people are familiar with today: the first drawings gave him wings and red tights. A few drafts later, a Batman who looked more like the movie version was born. He was soon starring in his own self-titled comic. From the start, Batman was unlike other heroes. His rivals, Superman and Spider-Man, are festooned in the primary colours of the American flag, whereas Batman dresses in dark blues and blacks. And no other superhero has a story quite as bleak. When Bruce Wayne was a little boy, he watched his parents’ deaths at the hands of Joe Chill, a heartless mugger, and vowed to dedicate the rest of his life to gaining revenge on the criminal underworld. Superman’s arrival from another planet is more the stuff of myth and fairy tale in comparison. To quote the film director and comics geek Kevin Smith: “Batman is about angst; Superman is about hope.” So why then do we love Batman so much?

Continue reading

A Touch of Frost

14 Dec

Jack Frost is the personification of frost, ice, snow, sleet, winter, and freezing cold. He is sometimes described or depicted with paint brush and bucket colouring the autumnal foliage red, yellow, brown, and orange. Sometimes he is portrayed as a dangerous giant but, starting in late 19th century literature, more developed characterizations of Jack Frost depict him as a sprite-like character, sometimes appearing as a sinister mischief maker or as a hero. This mischievous sprite is traditionally said to leave the frosty, fern-like patterns on windows on cold winter mornings (window frost or fern frost) and nipping the extremities in cold weather. Over time, however, Jack Frost has become far less prevalent in the modern world due to the advance of double-glazing, but he remains a well-known figure in popular culture. He is a variant of Old Man Winter who is similarly held responsible for frosty weather, nipping the nose and toes in such weather, colouring the foliage in autumn, and leaving fern-like patterns on cold windows in winter. However, he also resembles other similar spirits of winter from around the world, including the Japanese Yuki-onna, Grandfather Frost in Russia and Mother Holle in Germany.

Continue reading

A Charmed Life: Diana Wynne Jones

26 Nov

Diana Wynne Jones (1934 – 2011) was a British writer, principally of fantasy novels for children and adults. Some of her better-known works are the Chrestomanci series, the Dalemark series; the novels Howl’s Moving Castle, Dark Lord of Derkholm, Fire and Hemlock and The Tough Guide To Fantasyland. Together with her near-contemporaries Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Penelope Lively, she was one of the most successful and influential of the generation of fantasy writers who rose to prominence in the ‘second Golden Age’ of children’s literature in Britain. But is some ways Jones is a different and rather baffling case from these other authors. After Wilkins’ Tooth was published in 1973, she wrote some forty volumes of fantasy, almost all of them for children. Her books, which are characterized by humour, intelligence, unparalleled technical inventiveness, and a humane but unsentimental view of human nature, have long had a devoted following, not least among other fantasy writers. Yet for all this, she has not, at least until recently, enjoyed the same centrality in critical discussions of late twentieth-century British children’s literature as the other three authors. By 1981, for example, Jones was already the author of ten full-length children’s fantasy novels, including a winner of the Guardian Award (for Charmed Life in 1978). However, of two substantial critical books on the state of children’s literature published in that year, Sheila Egoff’s Thursday’s Child and Fred Inglis’s The Promise of Happiness, both of which give considerable space to Garner, Cooper and Lively, Egoff omits any mention of Jones at all, while Inglis names her just once, in passing. Nor are they by any means unusual in their neglect. As late as 2001, Peter Hunt’s otherwise admirable Blackwell’s Guide to Children’s Literature, though citing Lively’s work on numerous occasions and devoting whole sections to Cooper and Garner, makes no reference to Jones. It seems reasonable to enquire as to the reasons for this surprising attitude from critics towards Jones.

Continue reading

After the King: Tolkien’s heirs

22 Oct

It is something of a relief, having looked last month at his critics, to turn this time to Tolkien’s many admirers. It would not be true to say that there was no such thing as epic fantasy before Tolkien: there was a tradition of English and Irish writers before him, such as E R Eddison and Lord Dunsany, and a parallel tradition also of American writers appearing in pulp-magazines such as Weird Tales and Unknown. The Lord of the Rings however altered reading tastes rapidly and lastingly. Several hundred English-language fantasy novels are currently being published annually. The influence of Tolkien on them is often apparent from their titles – Guardians of the West (David Eddings), The Fellowship of the Talisman (Clifford D Simak), The Halfling’s Gem (R A Salvatore) and so on, to name just a few. Most writers do better at concealing their literary ancestry, but the first works even of authors who have found their own highly distinctive voices, like Stephen Donaldson or Alan Garner, habitually betray deep Tolkienian influence. Terry Pratchett, whose works have now been reliable best-sellers for almost forty years, began with what is obviously in part an affectionate parody of Tolkien, The Colour of Magic. Tolkien furthermore provided much of the inspiration, the personnel and the material, for early fantasy games and for role-playing games of the Dungeons & Dragons type. Spin-offs from these into computer games are still developing and multiplying. Middle-earth has become a cultural phenomenon, a part of many people’s mental furniture. Any full study of Tolkien’s legacy would have to be at least book-length – and will not be attempted here – but there is some interest in recording what at least a few of his most evident emulators have found most inspirational in Tolkien.

Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: