No Tools of the Imagination

Sorry, kids.  No ToI this week.  I’m afraid I’m neck-deep in a two-household move as well as in not-quite-negotiations to finally get my book off the blocks and out the door.  Yes, the book that was supposed to be out in June (thus, why everything’s getting backburnered until we get it taken care of).

I fear the next couple of weeks may see a few delays, but I’ll try to avoid that.  For now, just kick back and enjoy Pacific Rim on blu-ray or DVD, because you either own the movie or you hate fun.

Wooden Dummy

When I was sixteen years old, my father had a local carpenter make for me a Wing Chun Doll.  It’s used in training of trapping and striking, sort of a bridge between forms and actual sparring, not unlike a punch bag but for more complex technical work.  The doll cost a small fortune, but it was custom made, most notably to accomodate my six feet of height.  Most kids, if they’re lucky, get a car for their sixteenth birthday.  I got a sparring partner.  In the grand scheme of things, I think I came out better.

The problem is that, over a decade later, carting that dummy around has become cumbersome.  It’s big, it’s heavy, it takes up more space than it seems like it should.  It doesn’t collapse easily.  And worst of all, it’s not very well made.  Most traditional dummies are wooden posts with multiple supports built into the actual design.  The carpenter in this case elected to essentially screw half a telephone pole into a wooden platform and covered said platform with carpeting.  This means the dummy can’t sustain particularly severe blows, lest it rip away from the screws, and thus the purpose of the dummy is partially negated.

Despite most wing chun dummies costing hundreds, even thousands, of dollars and a fervent desire to have better equipment to train with, I know I’ll never replace this dummy and will likely hand it down to a nephew or niece.
For while it isn’t a well-made tool, it was made specifically for me.  And nothing could make me give that up.

Tools of the Imagination — Revolution Machine Valvrave

Revolution Machine Vlavrave
directed by Ko Matsuo, written by Ichiro Okouchi, released 2013, available on Crunchyroll

Model UN with mecha

Valvrave starts with a sentence that can really only be uttered in anime: so there’s this high school in space…

It gets a little more complex than that, obviously.  Sakimori High School is on the space station Module 77 of the neutral nation of JIOR.  The evil Dorssians invade JIOR without provocation and pacifist (and otherwise unremarkable student) Haruto Tokishima discovers there’s a giant invincible giant robot located under the school grounds, which he pilots against the invading army, forcing them back.

However, things quickly get complicated.  The Russian Soviets Dorssian military makes repeated attempts to conquer the plucky high school, despite catastrophic losses suffered each time.  Meanwhile, the American ARUS forces try to constantly force and coerce the newly founded JIOR government of Sakimori High School – they declared sovereignty (and it was recognized), thus forming a new government funded entirely by donations and Kickstarter – into handing over more and more of their power, until it comes out that both ARUS and the Dorssians want the Valvraves because…they do.  Of course, that’s the larger story that happens in the background while Haruto discovers that use of the Valvrave mecha seems to carry with it some sort of mutation into a semi-vampire, because Haruto begins randomly attacking people, often biting them to drink their blood but on at least one occasion, he rapes them instead.

Did that make sense?  No?  Well, that’s because very little of this show makes sense.
Story – 2 out of 5
Valvrave’s story is about as typical as it gets in anime: evil military attacks for no identifiable reason.  High school student with no training discovers a nigh-invincible giant robot and pilots its successfully, defeating hundreds of highly trained and experienced mecha pilots.  A love triangle.  One of the two teachers that survives the military attack on the high school turns out to be a highly knowledgeable government agent.  A nigh-omniscient enemy agent defects to the high school (being high school age himself) because despite a decade or more of intense training, he’s actually trying to take down the enemy army from the inside.

And then there’s the whole mystical element.  The Valvraves are sprinkled with – oh, yeah, there’s more than one Valvrave under the school, and each is a different color and has different powers, but can only be piloted by one person – various mystical and pseudo-religious elements that make no sense and offer next to know explanation.  A handful of people reference the Valvraves using biological terms (survived, grown, offspring, etc), and the highly colorful, cartoony sprites for the Valvrave operating systems are revealed in the last episode to be living entities that are related, referring to each other as brother and sister.

Worth noting is the abrupt injection of ‘grittiness’ that happens half a dozen times in the show.  The show feels like your typical superhero-style mecha show.  Things get tense, but the good guys always come out on top, usually because of pluckiness and a naive-like commitment to their ideals.  A great example of this is when the characters decide to sing a Christmas song to raise money for their fledgling nation and, somehow, it raises all the money ever.  Because why wouldn’t it?  In and of itself, that’s fine; that’s what happens in these kind of sparkly/good-wins-out shows.  The problem is that the show is occasionally injected with really garish, ugly reality (a supporting character dies a graphic and abrupt death, the main character rapes one of the other characters really vividly, etc).  But this isn’t like, say, Joss Whedon’s work where occasionally people die unexpectedly because it’s life.  These sudden bursts of grittiness really clash heavily with the otherwise sunny feel of the show, to the point that it feels schizophrenic or like a rogue author slipped these scenes in when nobody was looking.  It’s not jarring in the way real life is; it’s jarring in the way bad writing is.

All in all, it’s very trite, almost like a paint-by-numbers plot rather than anything resembling original.

Art – 4 out of 5
While the story is simultaneously trite and nonsensical, the art is really excellent.  Most characters aren’t too zany in their appearance, yet still are distinctive enough to have a personal feel.  The world is beautifully illustrated and nicely detailed.

The one except are the Valvraves themselves, which (when in motion) almost hurt to look at, they’re so visually busy.  Much like the insect-like designs of the Transformers from the live-action movies, the Valvraves have way too many components to be able to tell what is what when the mecha is zipping around the screen.

Animation – 3 out of 5
The animation is unremarkably good.  It does it’s job, does it well, but isn’t too outstanding.  The action sequences outside the mecha are fair to good, while the mecha squences themselves are mostly grandiose and over the top.

Characters – 2 out of 5
Anime functions on stereotypes to establish characters, and then begins to break their mold so as to develop them more fully.  Valvrave does this first part very solidly (establishes the stereotypes), but then never breaks the characters out of their molds.  There is no character progression or development at all.  The characters aren’t bad per say; just two-dimensional and uninspired.

Acting – 3 out of 5
Having watched the Japanese voice cast, I can’t speak for the English voices.  The Japanese actors were all thoroughly mediocre.  It’s hard to say what may have been acting and what may have just been the thoroughly unremarkable script and dialogue.  Whatever the case, the acting didn’t distract from the show.

Overall – 2 out of 5
Valvrave is an example of a really ‘okay’ show, with occasional flourishes into sub-par regions, but never without turning truly bad.  Nothing about it is awful, but nothing about it is particularly good.  It’s just sort of there.  No element is outstanding and worthy of mention, but nothing about it is poorly done or worthy of warning.  It’s a show that exists.  Sadly, that’s about the best praise it can deserve.

Tangible Goods

I own all of Robotech on DVD.

The whole collection, I own in the Legacy Collection that was released in 2001.  It’s a great set; I like it a lot.

I also have Netflix which has had Robotech every time I’ve checked.  And even if they take it off Netflix, it’s also on Youtube in its entirety.  And I’m sure if it were to disappear from Netflix, Hulu or Crunchyroll would snatch that up in a heartbeat.  Bottom line, not being able to find it streaming isn’t exactly a strong fear.

So the question kind of becomes, should I keep the box sets?  I like having them, but I find myself with precious little time these days to watch much of anything, much less something as long and as sweeping as Robotech.  And the bonus material is pretty much out of the question.  I’ve still yet to get around to watching the commentary tracks on the Extended Edition Lord of the Rings sets.  Yeah, the ones that came out a decade ago.

As I prepare to move to a new apartment, I find myself wondering about taking these sets with me.  It’s not necessarily that they take up that much space on their own, but when you factor in all the DVDs I own (yes, DVDs; don’t get me started on Blu-ray), it all starts to add up.  And since the vast majority of what I own is available streaming, I find myself wondering why I keep the tangible, hard copies?
Charles Dunbar once talked about how anime fans (and many traditional sci-fi/fantasy fans) see box sets differently than mainstream audiences.  He asserted that fans buy discs and box sets as a sort of investment in a series they love, rather than purchasing something with the express and sole plan to watch it.

That makes sense, and I think I agree with it.  But at the same time, I find myself looking at several hundred DVDs of movies and shows that are all available on Netflix, and I wonder about their role in the coming move.

Tools of the Imagination — Metallica, Through The Never

Metallica, Through The Never
Directed by Nimrod Antal, Produced by Charlotte Huggins, Written by Nimrod Antal and Metallica, released 2013

All that is, was, and will be

*Spoiler Warning*

This is a hard movie to review for many reasons.  The first is that, well, I tend not to review live-action stuff.  Tools of the Imagination is meant to shed some light on animation and toys, stuff that while not specifically the purview of kids, is somewhat the result of a linger sense of child-like wonderment.  Secondly, because I’m struggling to remain unbiased.  I consider myself a huge Metallica fan – some fans’ opinions notwithstanding – and thus it becomes hard to appreciate the movie on its own merit without dipping into my fandom of the band that inspired the film.  And thirdly because this is NOT the movie I thought I was going to see.

If you haven’t seen the original trailer for Through the Never, the audience is treated to a narration of our protagonist (played subtly but excellently by Dane DeHaan) that paints the film as being some kind of coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of some sort of social unrest/upheaval/war.  In the current trend of musicals and movies set around bands’ discography (Mama Mia for ABBA, American Idiot for Greenday, Jersey Boys for the Four Seasons), I made the mistake of thinking the Boys in Black had decided to get in on the action and give us some sort of Metallica musical.

This was not to be.

What we’re instead treated to is, for all intents and purposes, concert footage with a really ambitious music video interspersed in sixty to ninety second spurts.  Both are very well done (more on that below), but that left the movie feeling very underwhelming because I was hoping such a high-concept band like Metallica was going to deliver a stirring narrative.  What remains, however, is still very worthwhile.

Story – 2 out of 5
The story is about as bare-bones as you can get and still be comprehensible.  Trip, our intrepid protagonist, is a roadie at a Metallica show (it isn’t entirely clear if he works for the stadium or the band, but we do get the impression his employment may not be entirely legal).  He delivers a package and as the concert is starting up, he gets sent off to find a wayward truck with a crucial MacGuffin.  Trip goes out, gets into an accident, and finds himself stranded in the middle of a city in the midst of widespread and very violent protests.  Trip becomes a target in this protests after he throws a brick at a murdering horseback rider in a gas mask.  Trip eludes capture for a bit, only to end up cornered.  He employs an escape that is as brilliant and hardcore as it is stupid, ends up dying and getting brought back, which sets up a final confrontation with the horseman that simultaneously blows up Metallica’s stage show.

Characters – 1 out of 5
While I really liked DeHaan’s performance of Trip, there really is no character or character development what so ever.  There’s a marionette that plays into the story’s third act which is clever but again doesn’t really gives us anything to work with.  Lastly, the figure of the masked horseman is completely enigmatic.  While all of this makes for evocative imagery, it leaves a lot to be desired as far as developed characters.

Acting – 3 out of 5
Almost all of the story is conveyed through the music, the imagery, and DeHaan’s acting.  With no spoken lines in the film (the trailer’s narration not only isn’t in the movie, but amounts to more dialogue than is in the movie), DeHaan still manages to create a very identifiable character in Trip.  It’s a testament to both the director and DeHaan that this very minimalist performance works so well.

Visuals – 4 out of 5
Much like the acting, the visuals are really superb, not just in the ‘story’ sequences but also during the concert.  The framing and cinematography of the Metallica concert that is the majority of the movie is expertly done.  The visuals are engaging and dynamic, with transitions from one shot or focal point to the next proving to be very innovative and clever.  Somewhat like visual puzzles, you will be looking at the screen, not entirely sure what you’re looking at when it will suddenly hit you.

Music – 2 out of 5
If you’re a Metallica fan, then the sound and music will blow you away.  Since the ‘story’ events tend to occur during the transition from one song to the next, it’s often the opening notes of a given song that will set the stage for what’s about to happen in the story, giving serious gravity to the events.  Sadly, if you aren’t ‘fluent’ in Metallica’s musical language, you may be left a little clueless why everybody else suddenly just gasped.

There’s also an issue with pacing in the film.  While normally this might be a story issue, since this is essentially a filmed concert, it seems appropriate to address here.  The songs are, by and large, played in their entirety.  As a concert, that’s great but as a film, it quickly gets to the point where a stanza or two is all that’s really needed to get the full emotional impact with regards to the story, and yet the song will keep going for way longer than seems necessary.

There are also a couple of points where two and even three songs are played back-to-back in the concert before we return to the ‘story’.  If you’re invested in the story, these periods can really drag, no matter how much you like the music.

And the inclusion of ‘Nothing Else Matters’ still baffles me.  I love the song, but it’s such a jarring change of pace given what’s happening in the movie and in the concert, it just comes off shoe-horned.

Overall – 2 out of 5
I really enjoyed this movie, but I am squarely in its target demographic.  I’m a Metallica fan and I enjoy vivid cinematography, so I loved every minute of it.  At the same time, I’m really disappointed in what the trailer suggested the film would be, versus what it delivered.  I was really hoping for more story, more characters, and less concert.  I dug the concert and enjoyed it tremendously, don’t get me wrong, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t expecting, and hoping for, Metallica’s Mama Mia.