Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Shadow Game Is Afoot

If anything confirmed that we need the two most recent Sherlock Holmes movies -- both the first Robert Downey, Jr. one and the recently-opened "A Game of Shadows" -- it's the party I went to where a teenaged girl was watching the first RDJ Holmes on DVD, and confessed that she had no idea who or what Sherlock Holmes was. This was stunning to me, because long before I read any of the Holmes stories, or saw any of the movies, or watched the excellent Jeremy Brett movies, I at least knew who Holmes and Watson were. I had at least seen the deerstalker hat, the meerschaum pipe, the magnifying glass, and identified them as being symbols of a detective named Sherlock Holmes. He is one of the most universally known fictional characters, up there with Tarzan, Superman, and Mickey Mouse. We may take that for granted, however. Holmes might eventually fade from the popular consciousness. To guard against that, we need new Sherlock Holmes movies.

And the latest one is a terrifically entertaining contribution to the collection of Holmes adaptations. Watching the first one, I learned that I could accept RDJ's and director Guy Ritchie's version of Holmes -- which focuses on the man-of-action martial artist Holmes who appears in some of the stories, rather than the cerebral drawing-room ratiocinator -- because it is not so foreign to the literary Holmes as to lose the spirit of the character. And I enjoyed the look of the films, which lend a subtle touch of the fabulous to the usual dreary Victorian England settings; not to mention Jude Law's Watson, who seems to have picked up an unusual number of fighting skills in the military for one who served as a military surgeon. (Why, in this film we learn that he can skillfully aim and fire artillary.)

"A Game of Shadows" expands upon the tapestry laid out in the first film, by moving to the territory which Holmes pastiches have often explored -- the chess game, played out on a global scale, between Holmes and his Player on the Other Side, Professor Moriarty, drawn in the broadest strokes in the story "The Final Problem." Moriarity is, of course, the model for the comic book supervillain, the James Bond baddie, and every other "big bad" who at least matches the hero for wits, and eclipses him or her in resources. So many of the Holmes stories paint him as an intellectual giant in a world of pygmies; so the concept of Holmes meeting a villain whose powers of logic and manipulation were equal or superior to his has fired the imaginations of readers.

The movie handles this aspect of the story well. We don't get the chilling scene from "The Final Problem" in which Moriarity suddenly appears in Holmes's study without Holmes seeing him enter (the scene here is played out in Moriarty's office at his university, which Holmes visits at the professor's invitation); but Jared Harris plays Moriarty as one who is firmly in control not only of what is happening in his immediate presence, but everything everywhere.

Not that the movie is a cerebral match of wits between the detective and the criminal. No, it's a big, loud, action-filled chase across Europe, complete with anarchist bombings, hand grenades, machine guns, trains, and automobiles. (No planes yet. Leave that for the next movie.) After all, you can't teach the young folks who Holmes is by boring them. They'll come for the action; hopefully, they'll come back (to the books) for the raciocination.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

A Tale of Two Conventions

We attended two conventions in November, and they were polar opposites of each other.

The first was Anime Vegas 2011, held November 11-13 in Las Vegas, Nevada. I had attended two other Anime Vegas conventions, and this one was the best run by far. The con was filled with young people, many in costumes; the masquerade was robust and full of entries; and the event vibrated with youth and enthusiasm. In particular, this Anime Vegas was energized by the revival of the license for the Hellsing Ultimate anime, which has been moribund in the U.S. for the last three years. The entire principal English dub cast for Hellsing Ultimate gathered in Las Vegas to promote the soon-to-be-released balance of the Hellsing Ultimate videos. We attended as fans, as enthusiastic as anyone else there.

The second convention was Loscon 38, held over Thanksgiving Weekend. This was a science fiction convention, rather than an anime con (although, in a convention tradition, anime was shown in a video room throughout the con). As is now the tradition with SF conventions, the attendees tended to be older than those who go to Anime Vegas and other anime cons; indeed, many attendees had been going to conventions for 40-50 years or more. The masquerade, alas, was anemic -- only nine entries, little in the way of MC-ing, and judges who were not even introduced until the awards were announced.

We attended this con as dealers (Amy's embroidery business, Heart of the Star, had a table in the dealer's room). That is a fun way to attend a convention, and we had a good time talking to folks from behind the table and selling Amy's wares (which were quite popular with the crowd). But keeping the table running meant that we had to carefully parse the con activities we attended during the show. I attended one panel during the con, as did Amy. (That one panel was a fantastic one, however -- a talk given by Nicholas Meyer, author of The Seven-Percent Solution and director of Time after Time, The Day After, and two of the best Star Trek films. And although there were folks in costume, far fewer costumes filled the halls than those on view at Anime Vegas.

As much as we enjoyed Loscon, however, we wondered how the energy, youth, and enthusiasm of an anime con such as Anime Vegas could be brought to an SF con such as Loscon. After all, many anime fans enjoy the same literary and cinematic SF and fantasy as Loscon attendees. Yet SF conventions such as Loscon don't register on the radar of anime fans. We hope that more young fans find Loscon and conventions of its ilk to their taste; otherwise, SF conventions may be in danger of eventually disappearing.

Lest I end this post on a negative note, I will point out one of the coolest aspects of this year's Anime Vegas. Amy, who is a big Hellsing fan, painted a cardboard coffin a few years ago to match the one shown in the Hellsing manga and anime. She took the opportunity of this reunion of Hellsing cast members to get the coffin autographed by the cast members; and I captured the autographing on video. Here are the video highlights.

Here, voice actress Victoria Harwood (who plays Integra in Hellsing) and ADR director/adaptor Taliesin Jaffe sign the coffin.

Ralph Lister, who plays Walter, signs the coffin:

As does Patrick Seitz, the voice of Luke Valentine and one of the scripters for the English dub of Hellsing Ultimate:

K.T. Gray, who voices Seras in the English Dub, signs the sinister sepulchre:

And finally, Crispin Freeman, the English voice of Alucard in Hellsing, signs on.

We folded the fully executed coffin flat, and transported it to its final resting place.

Movie Magic

I've been watching movies for quite a while; and once you've been doing that for a few decades, experiencing pure magic at the cinema becomes rare. Oh, you can be entertained, and you can marvel at spectacles such as Avatar, and you can be briefly transported by a moment here and there in a film. But getting sucked into a movie from beginning to end, to simply give up critical thinking and allow the filmmaker to lead you wherever he or she wants to go? That experience, so common when one watches movies as a child, becomes fleetingly rare as the decades mount.

Which is why I found Martin Scorsese's new film HUGO so amazing. From the first shot -- an incredible tracking shot across a crowded 1930s Paris train station, as the camera zooms by scores of people, each of whom is a story in himself or herself, into the eyes of the title character -- to the emotional ending -- I was helpless. Scorsese had me in the palm of his hand.

HUGO is, at heart, a children's film. It is devoid of cussing, of sex or graphic violence; it is told from the point of view of a child; and most of the scenes are shot from a child's-eye level. Perhaps the candy-bright child's-film look is one of the reasons the movie slipped past my intellectual defenses. Yet like the best children's film and literature, the movie is profound, filled with dialogue that touches upon universal truths and images that frighten and thrill.

What is HUGO about? It's historical fiction, although I won't reveal the particular history upon which it draws (and it's a shame that plot point has been revealed in the publicity surrounding the film). It's not science fiction, fantasy, or steampunk, despite its fascination with clockwork, gears, and locomotive steam. What it is about is family, and the relationship between people and machines, and the history of movies as a mechanical means of capturing dreams and making them visible to others -- all subjects that should resonate with Scorsese, the legendary champion of moviemaking. It's about healing, and coming to terms with loss and failure.

Most of all, it's about storytelling, verbal and visual. The movie tells a story about characters enthralled with stories, characters who find a huge story closer than they could imagine.

HUGO is shot in 3D, and that's how it should be enjoyed. It highlights the difference between the standard popcorn movie that is shot in 2D and converted to 3D (because that's what's hot nowadays), and a movie that is made in 3D, by a filmmake who uses the device as a storytelling tool. It's the difference between a colorized black and white movie and a film in which color is used to convey emotions and plot points. The 3D in HUGO is part of the film's magic, and shows that the process may not be a passing fad after all.

Movie fans of all ages should be glad films like HUGO are still coming out -- films that are toy boxes full of delights, but also toy boxes intricately carved and full of depth.