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Review: LOTR The Rings of Power: Stuff That Works and Doesn’t

As with yesterday, there will be spoilers in this entry. Whole great big bleeding buckets full of them. Spoilers never bothered me much, but if they bother you, stop reading now and come back after you’ve seen the whole series.


All jokes aside, I’ll give you the bottom line up front: I liked this series. Quite a bit, in fact, in spite of a little too much pointless dialog and a few howlers. Some things were just wrong, like Galadriel stating that her husband Celeborn had already died in some war. Celeborn was in LOTR, and in fact Galadriel bailed from Middle Earth before Celeborn did, if he bailed at all. Tyler’s The Complete Tolkien Companion (highly recommended) says Celeborn lived into the Fourth Age, and there is no indication that he ever went back to Valinor. I’m sure there were a few other counterfactuals that I just missed. If I missed them, they weren’t serious enough to bother with.

So let me move on to things that I thought worked. First and foremost are the sets and the settings. Egad, I thought Peter Jackson’s films had a lock on this, and in some instances he still does, like the Khazad Dum interiors. Amazon’s Khazad Dum is less grand. All the wide-open spaces are the mines. Living and meeting quarters are smaller, almost comfy. But the cityscapes are breathtaking. So are the sailing ships. And you can’t beat New Zealand for rugged landscapes.

Celebrimbor, the master smith of the Elves, was brilliantly cast in Charles Edwards. He has the face of an Elf Lord to begin with, and he acted like a guy who Makes Important Things. His workshop was a very nice piece of architecture. Also, the process of crafting the Three Rings in that workshop was excellently shown.

Lenny Hendry as Sadoc, the top Harfoot, is terrific. Lloyd Owen is a very good Elendil, both in appearance and in action. Sophia Nomvete as Princess Disa is the only Dwarf woman we spend any significant time with. People are bitching that she didn’t have a beard. Sheesh, guys, not everybody likes beards. And she has a warmth that one doesn’t generally expect from the Dwarves.

And then there’s Adar, a brand-new invention of the showrunners. Adar is one of the Elves captured by Morgoth in the First Age and turned to the dark side. The orcs of the southlands call him “Father,” and that is in fact what the name “Adar” means in Elvish. Adar was born an elf, but bears all the marks of living thousands of years torn between two natures: elf and orc. He wants to protect his orc children from war and sunlight. He hates and claims to have killed Sauron (untrue), though that might have been a lie to keep Galadriel off his case.

The actor playing Adar, Joseph Mawle, presents possibly the most skilled performance in the whole series. Adar is sad, but more than that, he is weary, weary of fending off attempts on his life while he tries to care for his orcs. His craggy, scarred face projects that weariness in every scene where he appears. He takes no pleasure in anything. His defiance is quiet, and sometimes seems desperate. He is eventually captured and imprisoned, though I’m guessing he will have a significant role to play in future episodes.

Reviewers have rolled their eyes at the rock-cracking contest between Prince Durin and Elrond. I think they missed the point: This is a grin-inducing joke on the Dwarves, who consider themselves the masters of iron, stone and mountains. Well, Elrond, who one might think couldn’t even lift the hammer, swings it hard and cracks the rocks with alacrity. When he stops, I almost think he was throwing the contest to Durin as not to embarrass him in front of his underlings in the audience. Given Elrond’s character as shown up to that point, it’s precisely the sort of thing that the good-natured (to the point of goofiness) Elrond would do.

One thing that didn’t work well was the guessing game Amazon was playing with viewers, putting several contenders in front of them and daring them to guess which one was Sauron. I guessed Adar, though in truth none of the choices seemed likely to me. And I was wrong. Adar is Adar, which is a good thing, as I’m eager to see how he will relate to the southlands’ new boss next season. The answer to the puzzle, Halbrand, made me groan. The most I would grant him is a sort of bad-boy girl magnet type who looks a little too much like Viggo Mortensen, who played Aragorn in the Peter Jackson films.

But maybe that was the point. Like his former boss, Sauron is pure evil, but he’s still a king. He didn’t use the power that a major Maia could conceivably summon. Maybe that’s because he was in hiding. And he rescues Galadriel from drowning. That was a lot harder to figure. Once he establishes himself in the brand-new Mordor, I suspect the facade will fall away, and he’ll look like the nastioso that he is and has always been.

Galadriel? She needs to chill a little, or she’s going to pop an artery. The serene power projected from Cate Blanchett in the LOTR films simply isn’t there. Again, I think this is a fault of the scripting. Morfydd Clark didn’t seem as melted into her role as some others in the series, especially Joseph Mawle. Some of her dialog is too too utterly utter. Her acting wasn’t bad. I think the showrunners’ vision of Galadriel was just lightyears away from mine. That’s fair.

The pace is slow. I would have enjoyed a few more action scenes, and maybe a few more minutes to gape at the fantasy world that Amazon’s billion bux created. It is what it is. My recommendation is positive: Watch it. Enjoy the ride. Don’t pick nits; there are nits allthehell over the place, and if you go off on them too hard it’s you who are likely to pop an artery.

Cautiuously recommended.

Review: LOTR The Rings of Power: Silliness

Yesterday was all overview. Today we get into things that most people would consider spoilers. So if you’re of the cohort that can’t abide spoilers, leave now.


Here and there during the 9+ hours of the first season of The Rings of Power, I rolled my eyes. Every so often, I giggled. I doubt that this is what Amazon intended. I’m a hard man to please on the fiction side. I considered The Silmarillion a waste of time and money. I’d already been to college, and had read quite enough Cliff Notes, thank you very much. I wanted another story.

The Rings of Power is certainly a story. Several stories, in fact, and I enjoyed most of them. I was very interested to see what Amazon could do, given how little they had to work with about the Second Age. We got Ar-Pharazon the Golden; will we get the sinking of Atalante? (Yes. That’s what Tolkien called the Lost Continent underneath Numenor. Really.) Well, they made a lot of it up. What would you do, with a sparse outline of events and a billion bux to blow? You’d make most of it up too.

They did. Some of what they made up was better than expected. And some…I giggled.

First up: The Three Witches Or Something Very Like Them. Here and there in the saga there were these three women dressed in spotless cream-white capes, wandering around the wild country asking every third person they met if they were Sauron. This is silly enough on the surface. But really: Where were the grass stains? Where were their backpacks? Did they camp somewhere, somehow, or just get a room at the Southlands Best Western?

One was a soldier, with a helmet. She threw knives, and nailed one of my favorite characters. Another was a preacher, with her hair under cover, who carried a saucer sled and said a lot of pompous things that didn’t amount to much. But the third…Eru help us…she was another damn deranged albino. I was already tired of deranged albinos in 2008. (There is a whole Wikipedia entry about deranged albinos.) I guessed that she was the boss, carrying around a very Egyptian-looking magical staff and levitating rocks with it. Alas, she eventually picked a fight with the wrong man (also not Sauron) who grabbed her staff and roasted the three of them real good.

The Harfoots (proto-hobbits) were sweet and sane, and only occasionally silly. I liked Sadoc the Harfoot tribal chieftan, who was well-cast and acted the part brilliantly. He defied The Three Witches Or Something Very Like Them and got a knife in the heart for his trouble. So what was silly? Just this: As best I could tell, their primary source of protein was…snails. Raw. Sometimes shells and all. Ye valar, everybody knows that snails carry a veritable arsenal of parasites, many of which can send you off to that far green country beneath a swift sunrise with barely a burp. The Harfoots haul their whole village around in tumbrel carts. A few dozen chickens in cages wouldn’t weigh that much and could work wonders for their diets.

Ok. Here we get to the more significant stuff. Elrond, one of the Elf-lords who eventually got to wear one of the Three Elf Rings of Power, is a cuddly, huggy, back-slapping round-faced good ‘ol boy who looked like he could do standup and keep the audience in stitches. Ok, this was the Second Age. He still had a few thousand years to develop Hugo Weaving’s gravitas–but probably wouldn’t. The actor did his best with what they gave him. But the casting and the scripting were all wrong.

And now, the biggie: Early in the series, a human teen kid named Theo discovers a weird artifact in his unpleasant neighbor’s barn. It looks like the hilt of a sword minus the blade. It gives him the serious galloping creeps, so being a teen, the only thing he could think of doing is to wrap it up in rags and take it home. It comes out of hiding here and there, with Theo’s blacksmith friend finding that hammers can’t do a thing to it. Shifty-eyed people want it, and eventually get it, without having to kill Theo in the process, whew. I was thinking it was some kind of immaterial magic sword, which would have been way cool, like an Iron Age lightsaber. But no–here there be belly-laugh spoilers–the damned thing is the ignition key for Mount Doom.

Really. And literally. I am not making this up. The shifty-eyed neighbor takes the gizmo, shoves it down into some kind of keyhole, and gives it a twist, just like a car key, if any of you remember what car keys were. Alluva sudden, in an undisclosed location that clearly wasn’t anywhere nearby, hidden machinery opened up a very big dam and sent a megacrapgallon torrent of water roaring toward the dormant volcano. The water goes down into the cracks, meets some lava, and (presumably) boils. Then, boom! Old Orodruin (AKA Mount Doom) suddenly erupts like Krakatoa cubed, and turns the Southlands into…wait for it…naw, you already figured it out…Mordor.

I did not know that you could make a dormant volcano erupt (rather than merely explode) by giving it a good thorough soaking. I was really into volcanoes when I was a kid, and that never came up in any of the books I read about them.

I didn’t giggle. I laughed out loud.

Here and there I also groaned, but those groans were few and far between. (I hope you figured out by now that I’m not being entirely serious about all this.)

To avoid leaving you with the wrong impression, tomorrow let’s talk instead about what works and how well.

Review: LOTR The Rings of Power: Overview

Carol was gone for a week, so after I burned out on updating my assembly language book during the days, I had empty evenings. My path was obvious: Pour myself a drink or two, and binge on the first season (now complete) of Amazon’s Tolkien pastiche, The Rings of Power. I’ve seen various estimates of how much money Amazon is spending on the project, which is projected to release eight episodes a year for five years. Whether it’s 750 million or a billion, that is very serious money.

As best I can tell, Amazon bought rights to The Lord of the Rings…appendices. They pointedly did not license The Silmarillion, which I’ve heard was a rule laid down by the great man himself and respected by his estate. My guess? He really didn’t want The Silmarillion turned into a story.

The Silmarillion is not a story. In a way, it’s the Cliff Notes to a bunch of stories that JRR never wrote. But in truth, it’s a history. It’s like viewing a story on satellite video from Middle Earth orbit: We get to see all the people and the monsters running around killing each other, a continent and a half sunk to the ocean bottom, and much else. But we get inside no one’s head to experience their insights or their sufferings. It’s all Who Did What To Whom (Or What) But Not Why, which set the stage for the extremely rich cultural background behind The Lord of the Rings saga itself. (I consider The Hobbit part of that saga.)

We have Amazon Prime. The series is part of Prime, and thus without marginal cost. Why not? I’d already paid my money. I took my choice.

So what did I get? Here’s quick list:

  • Some of the most beautiful scenery and backdrops I’ve ever seen in cinema, greater than what Peter Jackson managed twenty-odd years ago, and his weren’t shabby.
  • A great deal of interpolation and (mostly) studied invention of a lot of original characters and conflicts. Some of this was very good; I much enjoyed the Harfoots (basically wandering Iron Age proto-hobbits), particularly Nori and Poppy.
  • A certain amount (probably less than you might have read elsewhere) of silliness, none of which we can lay directly at the feet of JRR. I’ll come back to this.
  • Mostly excellent acting, and (huzzah!) no celebrities.
  • A slow, often clumsy, dialog-heavy screenplay, which at times bore more than a whiff of an Iron Age Days of Our Lives. When you have 560 minutes to fill, well, dialog is cheap. Alas, as dialog goes, it wasn’t thin gruel, but gruel so thick it was occasionally impossible to swallow.
  • Wholesale butchery of the Tolkien timeline. This may have been necessary, given the scraps Amazon was able to license versus what true Tolkien fans were sure to expect. The Dwarves didn’t strike balrog until Third Age 1980, but Durin the Somethingeth almost got the booby prize thousands of years earlier, in the Second Age. Everybody loves balrogs, right? They break the Days of Our Lives boredom, fersure. I’m guessing we’ll be seeing more balroggery in forthcoming seasons, if Amazon doesn’t run out of money first.
  • A puzzle: Which character is actually Sauron? I guessed wrong, but as with a lot else, I’ll come back to that.

This will have to do for today. I have to leave for the airport pretty soon to pick up Carol.

More AI Text Generator Freakiness

I tried it again. This time, I used a much more detailed prompt, which I’d written years ago (2014-ish) about a bottle that used to have a genie in it. The genie had been freed, leaving behind…a bottle. And what self-respecting genie would ever live in a non-magical bottle? So a nerdy guy buys a supposedly magical, genie-less bottle at a curio shop. The bottle, it turns out, has a trick: Ask it a question, and it answers.

Alas, the bottle has issues of its own.

I gave the prompt to Sudowrite, and let it follow its nose. Now, the way Sudowrite works is that when you ask it to write a section, it gives you two text blocks, both of which are based on the prompt. You choose the one you like better, and add it to the text that follows the prompt. Then you ask it for another section.

After a couple of go-rounds, I realized that in one of its generated text blocks, Sudowrite was putting together a sex scene. No sale. I chose the other block, which still had enough innuendo to make me uncomfortable. I sensed that in a sense it made a deranged sort of sense: I had described the protagonist as a lonely nerd. So! Toss him into bed with an imaginary girl who (the AI made graphically clear) had all the required female parts.

I stopped there. The first Sudowrite story I posted was in (somewhat) bad taste. I don’t make Obama jokes. Nor do I make Mossad jokes. I might make golem jokes, at least if the golem is the good guy. One reason I tried Sudowrite again today is that I wanted to see if bad taste was a habit or an outlier. It’s starting to sound like a habit.

Here’s the story. Everything up to the first rule is my prompt, taken verbatim from my notes file. I will someday use the concept (of a genie bottle without a genie) in a Stypek & Tuggur adventure, a prequel to Ten Gentle Opportunities. Everything after that is Sudowrite. Still a bit surreal–but if there’s a surreality slider somewhere in Sudowrite, I haven’t found it yet.


Djinn and Tonic

“What’s this?” Chuck Bialek asked the Gizmoids shop owner, and waved the weird, bulbous crystal bottle in the air over the counter. As best Chuck could tell, it was half-full of dirty water.

“Genie bottle,” said the old man. “But somebody let the genie go, so no wishes. Still, if you shake it and let it sit for a minute, it’ll tell your fortune. Used to be a hundred bucks. You can have it for fifty.”

Which meant it was probably worth a buck and a half, tops. Still, Chuck’s grandma had left him almost a million dollars, half of which was now in stocks. The rest was, well, for fun. He’d had a magic 8-ball when he was a kid. It was fun. This might be a reasonable facsimile.

Chuck laid a fifty on the counter, tucked the bottle in his canvas bag, and went back to his flat. After stuffing down a bratwurst and some Cheetos, he shook the bottle hard and set it on the kitchen table. Little by little, the dirt in the water settled out, leaving behind…words.

I miss my genie, read the words. Ha! He wondered how it worked.

“I wish I had a Jeannie to miss,” Chuck said. The nerd business was fun, but…lonely.

Chuck shook the bottle again, and waited.

Trade you a Jeannie for a genie, the dirt-words said.

“Deal,” replied Chuck.

 


His phone rang the next morning.

“This is Jeannie,” a voice said. “I’m with a Mr. Bialek, right?”

“Yep,” said Chuck.

“Trade?” asked Jeannie.

“What do you have in mind?”

“Wishbone,” said the genie.

“I wish you wouldn’t keep doing that,” said Chuck.

The Jeannie-thing giggled. “Make a wish,” she said.

Chuck thought for a bit. “I wish you were wearing a bikini.”

He hung up, and was on his way to the coffee shop when he heard a voice behind him.

“Trade?” asked the genie-Jeannie-thing.

“No!” shouted Chuck, and fled. He might be a nerd, but he was still the last straight guy in the world who hadn’t seen the Girls Gone Wild videos and had no intention of doing so.

He stumbled into the coffee house, and ordered a single-shot espresso with a splash of vanilla syrup. He had just opened a browser window and was trying to find a porn site that didn’t offer a free trial when he heard a voice behind him again.

“Trade?” asked the Jeannie-spirit.

“Are you nuts?” he said. “That’s the second time.”

“Make a wish,” said the genie.

“What does this do to your magic?” asked Chuck. “I mean, every time I make a wish, you get a day older.”

“Rhymes with night,” replied the genie. “So I’m immortal, just like I always wanted.”

“What happened?” asked Chuck. “I mean, most genies are pretty nice, but they had to have their masters’ best interests in mind.”

“My master was a fraternity boy. Couldn’t make a wish without prefacing it with ‘Yo, Genie…'”

“Oh,” said Chuck. “My apartment’s on the third floor. You can stay in the spare bedroom.”

“You’re a nerd,” said the genie. “We could never live together.”

“Right,” said Chuck. “So I need to make a wish for you to be you again. With unlimited magic.”

“I can do that,” said the genie.

“And I’ll need a million dollars. Are you listening?” asked Chuck.

“I don’t have to,” replied the genie. “From now on, I’m invisible to you.”

“This is going to get tiring,” Chuck told his computer screen. “I wish you’d figure out how to be a girl again.”

Will genie make the coffee? will genie make the toast? will genie make Christopher Hitchens read my manuscripts?

Will genie have sex, or merely masturbate?

Will genie remember to take out the trash?

Will genie notice her glasses are on her head?

Will genie give me a million dollars,

even if she does have the power?

Yes, genie will do all of these things.

Will genie kick my ass down the stairs

if I ask for more wishes?

 


Heh. Fersure.

If You Give an AI a Writing Prompt…

Ok. Fasten your seat belts. I am giving an online writing AI a test drive, using my free trial of a website called Sudowrite. I gave the AI a writing prompt from my crazy ideas file, a mere handful of words that I wrote down a very long time ago (I think in the ’90s) and never went back to. Here’s the writing prompt:

St. Louis Blues

“Take me to St. Louis,” said the cruise missle in the thick of the bramble patch.

Howie Hinkle blinked, and put down his machete. “How’s that?” he asked.

“Take me to St. Louis,” the missle repeated.

Howie howled. “Paw, dammit, there’s an old water tank in here and it’s talkin’ to me!”


It’s not a great deal to go on, but that was the idea. With a bare hint of a concept, what would Sudowrite do? I could have written some of it myself, or edited it, but I wanted to see what the damned thing could produce solo. 100% of the writing after the prompt was done by the AI. I had hoped to avoid the literary equivalent of Salvador Dali. Well, too bad. Hello Dali…


St. Louis Blues

“Take me to St. Louis,” said the cruise missle in the thick of the bramble patch.

Howie Hinkle blinked, and put down his machete. “How’s that?” he asked.

“Take me to St. Louis,” the missle repeated.

Howie howled. “Paw, dammit, there’s an old water tank in here and it’s talkin‘ to me!”

His father, Howard Hinkle Jr., took him for a look. The old tank was rusty and damaged, with a huge gash in it. Penetrating the tank from inside was a cruise missle, with a single eye and a fin on top. A single missile launcher poked through the gash.

“Who the hell are you?” Howie Jr. asked. “Why do you have a cruise missle?”

“My name is Shiloh,” said the voice. “I am a cruise missle, and I will ask you one more time to take me to St. Louis.”

“I don’t know where St. Louis is,” said Howie Jr.

“I will find it,” said Shiloh. “I am a golem of the Mossad. If you do not help me, I will call my brethren. We will clear the bramble from the road, and from there, we will find you.”

“Y-you can’t do that!” Howie Jr. said.

“If you do not take me to St. Louis, I will call my brethren, and we will take your woman, and we will bring her back to Tel Aviv. We will use her to breed a generation of human-missle golems. You can raise them with your own spector. They will be of your tribe, and they will spread across the land.”

Howard Hinkle Jr. swallowed, and wiped the sweat from his brow. “If I take you to St. Louis, will you let us alone?” he asked.

“I will,” said Shiloh.

“Deal,” said Howie Jr. “Let’s go.”

Hours later, a police car rolled up, and several officers got out. One pulled Howie Jr. aside.

“Which way did he go?” he asked.

“Er- he went that way,” Howie Jr. said, pointing.

“We appreciate your cooperation,” said the officer.

“Say,” the officer said, “was that your grandma that was in the hotel room with you?”

“Uhh, she’s my wife,” said Howie Jr.

“Doesn’t look like a 43 year old woman, honey,” said the officer. “What’s your name?”

“Howie, honey,” Howie Jr. said.

“Yeah, that’s what he said,” the officer said.

A week later, on the steps of the White House, President Obama announced the success of the St. Louis negotiations. Behind him, an Israeli flag hung. Beneath it, a Mossad agent clapped.

“What a complete dick,” said the agent. “He really thought he got one over on us, didn’t he?”

Shiloh’s eye blinked, and his fin wiggled.

Sudowrite, Egad

I got wind of an online AI thingie called Sudowrite this morning. It’s a sort of writing engine that takes a piece of writing you’ve started and then runs with it. I’ve always been interested in AI, including AI creativity (“The Steel Sonnets,” “Sympathy on the Loss of One of Your Legs”) and used to play around with Eliza back when Eliza was young and hot. Well, here we are, in 2022. The supermarket is fresh out of Soylent Green, but by gully, Sudowrite is here, waiting for me to get stuck on something and yell for its help.

What I did was not quite that, exactly. For my first test I gave Sudowrite the initial few paragraphs of my weird fantasy short story, “Whale Meat.” Then I told it to go off and do its best to continue the story. First, the text from the current version of the story, which is published in my book Cold Hands and Other Stories. After the second horizontal rule, behold Sudowrite’s run with what I admit was a very peculiar football.


Sitting on a cold bus-bench at night-west I wished I had never been born a witch. I had just killed a man and Mara wanted whale meat. But I am on the canvas. I am not the painter. Creator forgive me. We had to stay somewhere. It would have been in the park with the ice if Lennie had not looked in my eyes in the public library and half-snerfed my pain.

There is no word for Lennie now. Years ago he would have been a hippie. Longer ago, a beatnik. Further back into time’s fog, a bohemian. Head. Weirdo. I don’t know what people call them now. Freak, perhaps. But he knew we were tired and homeless, and told us to stay with him.

His apartment was a hole. I was too exhausted to snerf him. He gave us hot coffee and a blanket and we slept on ragged foam rubber with the roaches. My dreams floated in hunger, tormented by Mara’s request for whale meat. She told me without words. I snerfed the picture in her head, a gray sea-mountain blowing steam from its nostril above moonlit swells.

I woke from restless dreams in a sweat of fear and anger. Some part of me never sleeps, and knew Mara was in danger. In yellow candlelight Lennie was bending over Mara, knife in his hand above her belly swollen with James. His eyes were slits and he chanted a language I never learned. I snerfed him. Some bad acid (is it still called acid?) was eating away at him and leaving only insanity in its wake. Snerfing him gave me a grim glimpse of the future: He would kill Mara and James in seconds. The knife began to circle for its last time, like a live thing in his shaking hands.

I had to time-opt. The universe ground to a slow halt around us while I dug up power from my heart-place, and zotted him. Lennie’s poor head shorted out like power lines blown away in a windstorm, with sparks and shrieks of inner agony.


His blood froze in his veins, his skin burned and turned black, his body dropped like a puppet with its strings cut.

I pulled Mara and James from the bed, and backed out of the stinking room, stumbling into the street, breathing deeply of the winter air. We hurried away past the sleeping city, three in a row. I held them in a circle of toil’d air. The sad lights of the city slid behind. We were two hundred miles away before Mara spoke.

I don’t mind you killing Lennie, I snerfed. He would have killed us.

I was just defending myself, I snerfed.

So were the people in the Warsaw Ghetto, Mara snerfed.

I walked faster. She didn’t snerf me.

The river was frozen solid. I cut off a section of the ice, and chopped it into chunks with the edge of my mind. I piled the chunks


Does this work? Dunno. I admit I was curious where Yonnie piled the chunks of ice, but it only gives you so many words at a time. Sudowrite half-understood my made-up word “snerf,” which is a witch-power, essentially telepathy. I forgive Sudowrite for not knowing that James was still in Mara’s uterus, where he’d been for five years. (Witches are pregnant for seven years, and James still has two years to go.)

Now, this isn’t the fairest of tests. I’m going to dig around in my notes files for an opener, ideally one I abandoned for some reason, and then go back and forth with Sudowrite to see if the one-and-a-half of us can actually finish a story that doesn’t read like a Salvador Dali painting looks.

I’ll let you how it goes.

Review: Tangled

TangledBoatScene - 500 wide.jpg

Everybody knows the story: A girl with magical golden hair is kept in a tower by her supposed mother, who somehow climbs up and down the girl’s hair to access the tower. There are a lot of variations, but as with most fairy tales, a clever screenwriter could do a lot with that.

Disney did.

Carol bought me some DVDs for my birthday, including both Cinderella (1950) and Tangled (2010). I’ve always liked cartoon movies, and those were two that we didn’t yet have in the cabinet. We watched Cinderella first. It had been a lot of years since we’d seen it, but I want to say my mother had the VHS tape and I saw it regularly as a young man. The next night, we watched Tangled. We’d seen it in theaters back in 2010, but I wanted to compare how animation had evolved across 60 years.

Wow.

Not that this was a surprise. Cinderella is good fun, but for the most part it’s a funny animals movie. Neither Cinderella nor the prince have much in the line of personalities. The side characters like her stepmother and stepsisters, the king and his grand duke, and all the chateau’s animals steal the show. I suspect that’s because Cinderella and the prince are supposed to be realistically drawn, whereas the others are caricatures. Realism in animation is hard. Caricatures, by contrast, are a snap.

Which brings us to Tangled. It may not be Disney’s masterpiece (my vote on that score is still for Fantasia) but of all the princess films it’s by far my favorite. It has a warmth that the other princess movies try for but mostly miss. The minor-key masterpiece “Let It Go” from Frozen is a remarkably bitter item if you read the lyrics, and a certain chill permeates the whole story. Even The Little Mermaid, as good as it is, depends heavily on its minor characters like Sebastian the crab and its heavy, Ursula.

With Tangled I think we see (at last) true mastery of CGI animation. Rapunzel’s hair is dazzling. This shouldn’t surprise anyone; her hair is what makes the story happen. Disney, in fact, had to develop rendering software specifically for hair. They nailed it, and Rapunzel’s hair might as well be another side character in the story. (There are many more side characters, most of whom are well-drawn yet caricatured ne’er-do-wells.) What surprised me the most was the subtlety of the facial expressions of the main characters Rapunzel and Flynn/Eugene, big-eye characters though they be. (The big eyes keep us out of the uncanny valley, I’m pretty sure.) Cinderella’s face had three or four different expressions. Rapunzel’s face flowed smoothly across a whole spectrum of emotions. Even her pet chameleon Pascal (great name!) could show emotion without speaking a single word. At some point I think the animators were showing off: Rapunzel is barefoot for the whole film, and her feet are animated realistically, right down to her toes.

There are a couple of funny animals, especially the hero horse Maximus, who at times thinks and acts like a dog. The animals, however, do not steal the show. What steals the show are the subtle and dazzling backdrops, especially the scenes with the film’s core motif, the candle-lofted flying lanterns. If you’ve never seen the film, you can see the lantern scene during the big love song “I See the Light” on YouTube. I consider that song, hands-down, the best love song from any Disney animated film. I could easily sing Flynn’s part about Carol.

None of this is to dump on Cinderella. It was the best Disney could do in 1950, and I’ll see it again for the mice alone. But Tangled represents something that animation has been working toward in fits and starts for more than a century: an emotionally engaging fantasy world full of startlingly beautiful things. You may have to mellow out a little bit to enjoy it to the fullest; it’s not an action film at heart. So if you can stream it or buy the disc, pour yourself a glass of wine, kick back and just let it take you.

Highly recommended.

Review: Rise of the Guardians

A few nights ago, Carol and I watched Dreamworks’ 2012 animated feature, Rise of the Guardians. It came free with Amazon Prime, and given the research I’d done on Dreamhealer, I wanted to see another take on good dreams vs. nightmares. As with any of my movie reviews, there will likely be spoilers here, so read or don’t read accordingly.

I would characterize Rise of the Guardians as “so strange that it’s cool.” The animation is nothing short of dazzling, even ten years on. The studio clearly drew every idea they had and tossed it into the pot. They might have stirred the pot a little more, but stay tuned. I’ll come back to that.

The premise sounds loopy: Under a certain amount of protest Jack Frost joins the Guardians, who protect children from, well, bad stuff, especially Pitch Black, a well-drawn villain voiced by Jude Law. So we have a sort of League of Holiday Superheroes starring a Russian Santa Claus named North, with “Nice” tattooed on one forearm and “Naughty” on the other. North’s colleagues include The Sandman, who doesn’t talk but makes his thoughts known by drawing them in golden sand, an Easter Bunny channelling Crocodile Dundee, and the Tooth Fairy, who is very sweet but in truth doesn’t bring a lot to the table in terms of super powers. Jack Frost was selected as a Guardian by the Man in the Moon, but would prefer to help kids have fun in the snow. Bunny brings colored eggs. Jack Frost brings snow days. North brings toys. Sandman brings pleasant dreams. Tooth Fairy brings quarters, and hoards the teeth she takes in return as forgotten childhood memories. (Echoes of the excellent Pixar cartoon feature Inside Out.) Yes, loopy, but I bought it, especially as a satire of comic-book superheroes.

It’s a little unclear where Pitch Black has been, but he’s returned with some very literal nightmares and is ready to drop them into little kids’ heads. But that’s not the whole story. Pitch is somehow persuading kids to stop believing in North & his gang, and too much of that will make them disappear. This was the one trope I found tiresome, since we see it so often in films: Believe in Santa Claus or he loses his powers and eventually goes away.

Pitch tries to recruit Jack Frost (cold and dark; what a dynamic duo they could be!) but Jack, always a bit of a snot, wants none of it. This is where the film gets a little incoherent. One of the kids (Jamie) is a strong believer, but even he starts losing it. Although Jack is normally invisible, Jamie (as best I can tell) believes in him so strongly that Jamie can see Jack Frost. (None of the other kids can, though they sled happily on the ice that Jack creates.) Jack plays a few sumptuous visual tricks with frost and snow and helps Jamie win back his belief. The other kids in Jamie’s gang come around soon after, though it all happens so fast it’s a little hard to tell what the mechanism is. The Guardians then battle Pitch Black and take a lot of hits. In fact, Sandman is overwhelmed by Pitch’s black nightmare sand and disintegrates. (Pitch is sort of a sandman for the Dark Side.)

In the climax, the Guardians (minus Sandman) and Jamie’s gang confront Pitch. Jamie has one of the best lines in the film when he takes a step toward Pitch and says, “I believe in you. But I’m not afraid of you.” The other kids step forward and echo Jamie. Pitch, furious, directs his black sand at them. Jamie (followed by the others) raises his hand and (somehow) Pitch’s black sand turns into golden sand, which then reverses course and not only tosses Pitch to the butt end of (somewhere) but brings back Sandman.

And that’s where the pot could use a little more stirring. What I think the scriptwriters wanted was for the kids to reject nightmares in favor of good dreams, and by believing in Sandman bring him back to life. They missed a chance to make that explicit. Jamie should say something more at the climax: “I believe in you. But I’m not afraid of you. We all remember our best dreams, and we believe in them.” Who brings good dreams? Sandman. So by remembering the good dreams that Sandman always brought, they bring Sandman back. Those memories could have been strengthened by Tooth Fairy, who, alas, doesn’t have much of a role in the climax.

Maybe the animators ran out of time. Maybe I failed to notice a few things. The film is so gaspingly kinetic that you could blink and miss a whole subplot. It’s certainly a tour de force of gorgeous computer graphics.

All that said, I enjoyed it a lot and will probably watch it again, in an effort to see what I might have missed the first time. Note that it’s a little intense (and complicated) for the under-seven set. Don’t expect total coherence. Plan on just enjoying the ride, whether or not the whole thing makes sense or hangs together. (My inner life as a ten-year-old wasn’t especially coherent either. I wouldn’t pick the nits then that I routinely pick now.) No. Leave your nitpicker in the medicine cabinet. Think of the whole thing as a cool dream. It is.

Reasonably recommended.

New Music on YouTube

Way back in the summer I posted here about digging around on YouTube for new music, particularly in the realms of melody and harmony. I admit that an occasional hard rock song appeals to me for reasons unclear, a good example being the Gin Blossoms’ “Found Out About You.” The human brain is a weird business, but we’re all nerds here and you knew that.

So, as we close in on Christmas, I wanted to post a few items I’d found and liked on YouTube. Nearly all of it is Christmas music. (I’ll post some other non-Christmas discoveries in a future entry.)

And that, my friends, is precisely what Christmas music is for.

Close Harmony

I’ve been low-energy for most of this past week, and haven’t made much progress on various projects. These things happen. I filled in some holes (of which there are many) in my memoirs, but mostly I’ve been prowling YouTube for new music. I hear occasional classical cuts on KBAQ that I’ve never heard before and buy them as singles on Amazon, usually for 99c or (at most) $1.25. So I have classical covered. I do like pop music. My collection is…big. But I’ve been gathering it since I was in high school, and I’ve heard it all a lot. I’ve caught myself being impatient when one track or another isn’t over yet. That’s a pretty clear sign that I need to freshen up the collection a little.

I’ve been looking on YouTube. A lot of people probably haven’t caught on to the fact that whatever music you like is probably in buried in that huge pile somewhere. Really, it’s not all cute puppy videos. I consider the Monkees’ cover of the Mann-Weil song “Shades of Gray” pretty obscure. It was never on a single, even as a B-side. But it’s there. The accompanying video is forgettable. In truth, I generally don’t watch the video portion of a song playing. The other day I was taking notes on The Molten Flesh and listening to a lot of different things. I put the browser down in the taskbar. It’s a lot like listening to the radio, and all it takes to “change the station” is to bring the browser back up into view and look for something else.

As long as I’ve listened to music, what has mattered to me are melody and harmony. Youtube does a pretty good job of suggesting tracks I might like after I play something. So I jump from one song and one artist to another. There are plenty of misses. The hits I add to a playlist. The best of the best I buy on Amazon and copy to the thumb drive that plugs into my stereo in the Durango.

One of the first things I found startled me for a number of a reasons. It’s the Podd Brothers’ NYC Virtual Choir and Orchestra, performing the old hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing.” There must be a hundred singers and musicians, all at home, each shown in a window in a matrix that scans around as the track plays. The harmony, wow, particularly toward the end when the orchestra goes quiet and the singers go full a capella. I was startled by the faces, which are the faces of ordinary people, which is to say, not movie stars or rock stars, of all ages and races. Any of them could have been my friend, and by the end of the song I caught myself wishing that all of them were. And that’s music, with a capital M!

Most of my old friends were present. I’ve been listening to Celtic Woman for a long time. Some of my colleagues dislike the big stage productions they prefer, but I’m not in it for the video. Their cover of “The Parting Glass” is wonderful. I’m not a huge fan of bagpipes, but in this case, well, it fits. Another solid piece they have is “Tir Na Nog,” which I had not heard before.

Perhaps the best discovery so far is Brigham Young University’s Noteworthy, an a capella group of college-age women, and they are good. Close harmony doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. Consider their cover of “When You Believe” from the animated film Prince of Egypt. It’s a powerful piece from anyone who performs it well, and this is hands-down the best I’ve ever heard. “Be Thou My Vision” is another favorite hymn here. Listen to harmony on this one, yikes.

The biggest single surprise so far is almost certainly the One Voice Children’s Choir. Getting what looks like most of forty or fifty kids to sing harmony is a feat that boggles the mind. And they are really, really good. Consider their cover of the Chainsmokers’ 2017 hit, “Something Just Like This” It’s a terrific song, and even better when the voices are this good. The first time I heard it I had a weird realization: This song could be a duet between Larry and Sheri, the stars of my novel Dreamhealer. Larry reads all the old books (which get him into quite a bit of trouble) whereas Sheri wants a good man at her side, and she could do without all the occultish dream arcana. (Sheri loves him and follows him anyway, all the way to the center of the Collective Unconscious, to face down the Architect of All Nightmares.) One Voice also does a cover of “When You Believe,” and it’s excellent. Ditto “J’Imagine.” Kid choirs seem to be a thing right now. Here’s one from Ukraine, singing “Something Just Like This.”

Maybe you’re not that into close harmony. No sweat. I don’t listen to rap. As best I can tell, it’s all here. Set aside an evening, pour yourself a drink, and poke around. Whatever might be bothering you, I’m pretty sure you’ll feel better. Worked for me.