The Breadwinner, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Ready Player One, and Avengers: Infinity War find themselves in paraded in front of our fact cannons in this latest episode. Which will escape this certain doom? Tune in and find out!
Having loved both their 2009 debut feature The Secret of Kells and, especially, their beautiful, melancholy 2014 fantasy Song of the Sea, I was very excited to see Irish studio Cartoon Saloon’s most recent film, The Breadwinner. Beyond its name, its release date (frustratingly far way, as it doesn’t get released in the UK until the 25th of May, months after its North American release) and being vaguely aware that it was set in Afghanistan, I intentionally kept my knowledge of the film to a minimum. This often works out well, but for The Breadwinner? I’m really not so sure.
While the previous two films from the studio had their darker moments and some heavier themes (notably Song of the Sea’s tackling of loss, blame and grief), they were very much family films. Cork native Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner totally blindsided me. Based on Canadian author Deborah Ellis’ novel of the same name, The Breadwinner is the tale of Parvana, a young girl living in Taliban-ruled Kabul shortly before the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. She spends her days helping her father (formerly a professor and now a street trader, and missing a leg after being injured in the Soviet-Afghan war) sell goods and services from a blanket laid out on a dusty street.
Things begin to go south for them after Nurullah gets on the wrong side of very angry young Taliban member Idrees, who castigates him for having the temerity to have a female outside (the Taliban having made even the Ferengi look progressive and open-minded in their attitudes towards their womenfolk). Thanks to Idrees, Nurullah is soon after arrested (for being guilty of having argued with Idrees) and carted away to prison.
Surprisingly early in what I had fully believed to be a film that, if not aimed at then certainly suitable for children, I lost count of the number of times that four letter epithets crossed my mind, and quickly resolved to start using rhyming slang to keep this podcast clean, and maintain my recently re-established desire not to use so many dang cuss words. So let me just tell you this: Idrees is a Russian Front, and no mistake. Sadly, he is far from alone in a culture where… look, I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never really understood this. It’s like the Taliban (and those like them) are working under the assumption that women are actually Gorgons, and that seeing one in the wrong place will immediately turn them to stone or something.
Without their father, the remaining family (Parvana, her mother Fattema, older sister Soraya and infant brother Zaki) can’t even eat. Not because they’ve got no money – they haven’t even gotten that far yet. No, because they’re not even allowed to buy food; the shopkeepers will be in trouble for even talking to a female. I’m very much struggling with the whole no foul language thing, and we’re about ten minutes into the film.
Parvana and her mother attempt to reach the prison to beg for Nurullah’s release, but a moment of violence every bit as shocking in animation as it would have been in live action sees the family soon terrorised into staying indoors and considering any possible way out of Kabul. But they still need to eat, and it is here that Parvana becomes the breadwinner of the title. Cutting off her long hair and donning her deceased elder brother’s clothes, she ventures out into the market as a boy. There she encounters Shauzia, another girl posing as a boy, and together the two scrape together what money they can, doing odd jobs, selling clothes and writing letters. Both have escape from their situation on their minds, Parvana by rescuing her father and Shauzia by fleeing hers.
Interwoven with her real life struggles are the tales (animated in a cut-out style different to the main story) that Parvana tells Zaki to entertain and calm him; the stories of a young boy who sets off to challenge the evil elephant king (Babar he is not) whose jaguar minions made off with his village’s precious seeds, needed to sow crops for next year’s harvest.
The Breadwinner’s themes are hardly subtle, but given that lack of power and freedom for women is all too true, all too common and unequivocally wrong there seems little need to present them in any way other than front and centre. And in case you think this is not the case, may I remind you that a current news item is the fact that Saudi Arabia is about to allow women to drive, and many men in that country still oppose that. It’s 2018, by the way.
It would be easy for this film to be completely one-sided, but fortunately all of the Taliban members depicted aren’t as one-dimensional as the “it’d be comical if it wasn’t so sadly true” Idrees, Ellis’ story acknowledging that even the Taliban contains a range of types of people in its ranks, most notably here the imposingly large Razaq, and there is the definite suggestion that the actions of many of the shopkeepers, for instance, is due to fear of the Taliban enforcers, and not shared beliefs.
I have seen complaints that The Breadwinner doesn’t go far enough in its exploration of the freedoms and differences of being, or passing, as a man, in Afghani culture in particular, and a seeming emphasis on sexuality and gender, but to be honest I think this film has plenty going on without that, especially since Parvana and Shauzia are largely asexual, or presexual, during this film. Their minor references to growing up and getting married seem almost entirely to do with that being the expected path, or a way out, rather than personal desire.
No, the only two real issues I have with this film are that 1) I was very sceptical about the veracity of this film, coming from the pen of a Canadian, and very white, writer, but Deborah Ellis spent many months interviewing Afghani refugees in camps in Pakistan, so I’m very happy to give her the benefit of the doubt; and 2) while I really liked the animation, the Elephant King story didn’t go anywhere, especially the final portion which didn’t really seem to pay off in its relation to the main narrative as it seemed it would, instead feeling rather rushed and unsatisfying.
But otherwise it’s a great film, and looks lovely, which is good because the inside of my mind certainly did not by the time this was over. This is a very strong recommendation to watch it though, as I appreciate that may not be hugely clear – it’s powerful, touching stuff, but with simple moments of warmth and joy to make it bearable, which also serves to make it more believable: humans in general, and children in particular, finding, and needing, those moments of light amongst the darkness.
With three such strong films to their credit and such a clear gift for telling stories with weight, Cartoon Saloon deserve to now be mentioned alongside the likes of Studio Ghibli and Laika, and I eagerly anticipate whatever comes from them next.
Titular young lass Mary finds herself shipped off to her Great Aunt Charlotte’s manor house in advance of her parents arrival, but has little to do. She tries to be useful around the home, but being clumsy by nature, causes more trouble than help. She can’t even wield an adult-sized broomstick properly, causing a farcical scene that local lad Peter mocks Mary for, along with her unruly red hair, which she’s self conscious of.
While exploring the garden one day, she follows two cats in to the woods and finds a little broomstick and an unusual blue flower, later identified by the entirely normally named gardener Zebedee as a fly-by-night, which folklore would have witches covet for its magical powers. For good reason, it turns out, as another piece of trademark Mary brand clumsiness sees her crush part of the flower against the broomstick, making it fly, and also giving her the ability to use magic.
Unbidden, the broomstick takes her to the Endor College for witches, not that Endor, presumably, where the seemingly kindly Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee assume she’s a new student and give her the grand tour, with Mary’s flowerbourne powers greatly impressing all. Eventually as her powers wear off, and still half thinking she’s dreaming, Mary confesses to having no innate magical ability, and tells the Madame about the flower.
This turns out to be a mistake, as both Madame and the Doctor are obsessed with the rare flower, believing with some reason, it to be the key to magical transformation of animals and people, as their menagerie of test subjects will attest to. While they seem to let Mary leave amiably enough, they turn heel immediately, kidnapping Peter as leverage to have Mary delivery the flower to them, before double crossing her and proceeding with experiments that will put Peter in danger. Mary, of course, is having none of that and sets about saving him, aided by the broomstick and the last of the flower’s magic.
This is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, last spoken of here in our most recent Studio Ghibli episode. The director of Arriety and When Marnie Was There left Team Ghibli at some point, I believe during the uncertainty of what was happening after Miyazaki’s latest, now apparently undone retirement, joining Studio Ponoc along with a number of other ex-Ghiblies. The heritage shows, and if I didn’t know different I’m sure I’d think this was a Ghibli film.
It’s a very pretty film, with relatable, amusing characters and nicely handled action, and I was thoroughly entertained throughout the piece. I heartily recommend it. I say this now, because while there’s a few criticisms I could make, and will, these are the things that stop a very good film becoming an excellent one, and as tired old geezer I often sound more negative then I feel.
To a degree it has a touch of the Arriety about it, by which I mean it’s a bunch of stuff that happens then stops. There’s not much in the way of character development for anyone – Mary’s confident and determined at the start of the film, so unless maybe feeling a bit better about her hair counts, there’s not much of a character arc there. Still, as I say, she’s charming enough that I don’t think this matters, apart from missing an opportunity to leverage some emotion from it.
I’d love to find a reliable comparison of budget and schedule between this and, say When Marnie Was There. This isn’t quite as polished as Yonebayashi’s Ghibli output, but it’s really close. I wonder if there’s the same “it’s done when it’s done” attitude Ghibli had at Studio Ponoc, or if financial realities for a brand new studio cause a different mindset. But that’s heading into idle speculation territory, and it seems like the success of Mary and the Witch’s Flower has ensured the short-term future for Ponoc, and I very much look forward to whatever they produce next.
We’re going to start with a book review. I passionately hate Ernie Cline’s Ready Player One, and it is without doubt one of the worst books that I have ever read. OK, granted that’s barely a review, but I could probably spend all day talking about everything wrong with it, and no-one, especially not me, wants to hear that.
Ready Player One is an inexplicably popular book that is, with little need for exaggeration, about 90% “do you remember this 1980s pop culture thing? Well, I remember this 1980s pop culture thing. Let me explain to you what I remember about this 1980s pop culture thing”. It’s like a novelised form of those Wikipedia and other Wiki articles along the lines of “1980s in Video Gaming” and “Cars of The Fast and the Furious franchise” (actual article that exists, by the way), and it is painful. Not only is it pandering to geek culture nostalgia, it’s spelling it all out. Even the few moments when you think that a reference isn’t going to be explained and the reader allowed to work it out for his or herself are soon followed by another list of what the thing is and why. It’s beyond infuriating. And as if the masturbatory geek-pleasing wasn’t bad enough in written form, the audio book is narrated by Wil Wheaton.
So why, then, you might ask, entirely reasonably, would I watch a film adaptation of this sticky mess? Well, I suppose there are three reasons. Firstly, despite my sometimes cynical manner, I’m actually quite an optimist. Secondly, Spielberg: the man can generally be relied upon to produce a shiny movie. And thirdly, the other 10% of the Ready Player One book I actually like, and always thought would actually make for great cinematic set-pieces.
Sadly, the screenplay, written by Cline himself, throws away almost all of that good stuff entirely, and most of the film looks like a particularly gaudy videogame, so I’ll direct you back to my first reason, and add 4) I’m an idiot.
Set in the year 2045 (meaning that the film’s fawning over 1980s nostalgia would be like a film set this year cooing about Perry Como and Bing Crosby, and going gaga for Sputnik, Wagon Train and Queen Elizabeth II’s televised coronation), Ready Player One is set in a post-energy crash dystopia where the great form of escapism and entertainment is via the Oasis, a free-to-access virtual reality world that is so far-ranging and popular that it has become synecdoche for the internet in general. After the death of the Oasis’s founder, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), also known as Anorak (a telling name sure to be lost on US audiences, and possibly even the author) a contest is announced: an Easter egg has been hidden in the Oasis, with three special keys required to access it. The first to find the Easter egg will inherit Halliday’s fortune and control of the Oasis. Given that this would more or less instantly make the winner the richest and most influential person on the planet, it’s quite the prize.
The egg is particularly well-hidden, though, so after years pass and interest, and belief, in the egg wanes only a hardcore remains: an evil corporation called IOI, headed by the cartoonishly evil Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), and a small population of “Gunters” (“Egg Hunters”) who are steeped in 1980s pop culture and other Halliday lore, and whose main priority is stopping IOI winning and monetising the Oasis.
The main Gunter is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who is the first to find a key and who reignites the race to find the egg. He is aided in this by fellow Gunters Aech, Art3mis, Daito and Sho, and these are all people who definitely have personalities onscreen.
In the source the Oasis, where the majority of the action takes place, is realer than real, in most respects indistinguishable from the real world; in this film it’s a goram nightmare, a gaudy, visually repugnant world that looks considerably less realistic than many video games I’ve played (this is a complaint I am happy to be talked around on – the portions in the film set in the Oasis do need to be obviously different, so I don’t really know how else you’d do it).
It’s also mindbendingly stupid: the great puzzle of the location of the first key (presented as a believable mystery in the book) is changed in the film to being found by driving backwards in a race. The greatest games players in the world took five years to try driving backwards in a racing game, something any five year old could do first time by accident? The challenges of the keys are necessarily changed for the different medium, but this is as poor an adaptation as I can remember, because nothing makes a lick of sense.
I don’t know who this film is for, or why Cline has adapted it (from his own work, remember) in the way he has. In the book a crucial late story item is attained, after several pages of how and why this is so significant of course, by a feat of rare gaming prowess. The same item, in a film that features a hefty amount of videogaming references and history, is instead attained by… a wager? A wager about a largely inconsequential fact. Who is the audience for this, aside from Ernie Cline?!
Anyway, renewed interest in the egg heightens the desire for Wade and his fellow Gunters to find it and stop Sorrento, and Sorrento and IOI will do almost anything, including doing a murder, to get the egg first. There are a lot of references to things most of the target audience will have no knowledge of, the finale set piece of the book, that I thought would be the one thing that would translate well to the screen, is a massive disappointment, and someone wins, and Spielberg can’t restrain his need to add in a dose of schmaltz. It ends, and I want my time, and my better judgement, back.
One thing has actually improved with transition to the screen, and that is the all of the fan-pandering references: because they are visual, and often fleeting, rather than painfully spelled out in exhausting detail, you’re allowed to miss some of them. And I thought I wouldn’t be able to find anything positive to say about this mess. See, I told you I’m a secret optimist.
That really is about it, though. It feels like Steven Spielberg may be trying to make Mark Rylance his new muse, but sadly Rylance is now one for three with Spielberg, so maybe Bridge of Spies was a fluke. Not that anyone comes out of this well, though some, Simon Pegg in particular, suffer particularly because of the bizarre choices made when adapting their characters from the book. Tye Sheridan is about as bland a protagonist as I can recall in a good long time (at least one who wasn’t named Worthington): the most memorable thing about him was that terrible poster with his go-go-gadget legs.
At least in this film adaptation we’re spared Cline’s complete misunderstanding of either time or arithmetic, as at no point in the film are we told things like Wade had watched Blade Runner or Monty Python and the Holy Grail 47 times each, to say nothing of the apparently thousands of individual TV episodes each watched multiple times that an eighteen year old who attended school every week day would totally have been capable of having done. I hate that book so much. The film I merely wish I hadn’t seen.
Due to the tyranny of release schedules, I’m aware that the latest in Marvel’s Films for Babies series has been out for the best part of a month now, and its box office success suggest that most who want to see this already have. I’m also aware that every podcast and their dogs podcast have given their two hours of discussion on it, so I’ll attempt to limit this. Which shouldn’t be a problem as, while it’s enjoyable enough, the greatest trick Marvel ever pulled was suggesting there was any weight to this film at all.
In short, not that there’s much of a long version, big purple doughball Thermos, puppetmaster behind a number of the prior Marvel film’s bad guys, finally makes his move on collecting the fabled Infinity Stones to install in his Infinity Gauntlet, a McGuffin made of McGuffins. This will grant him the power to achieve his long wished for but not particularly well reasoned goal of killing half of the universe. Still, at least his vague overpopulation based eco-doom-mongering here is a better reason than the comic books, where it’s to impress a chick.
So, off he goes a-gathering, with his army and lieutenants therefore running across, well, nigh-on everyone featured in the prior Marvel films, who will have to team up to fight Thermos in a variety of novel combinations, throwing your favourite, least favourite, and not-all-that-bothered-about heroes together to bounce off each other, briefly, in-between the CG action setpieces we’ve grown to know and tolerate.
The critical thing to realise about Infinity War is that it’s not a film, at least in the typical way you’d think of a film, and if you’ve not seen the bulk of the other Marvel films, then this will be a bamboozling experience. It’s not about to take time to catch anyone up on who these characters are or the situation the find themselves in, which, although for some reason pointing it out triggers Marvel fanboys, is a valid, useful criticism. To some people. Marvel films are not yet required study material, no matter how popular they are.
Instead, it’s very much like the comic book crossover events that this models itself after – at its best a celebration of all the things the previous films did best, carving out a good number of great new character interactions between its best developed stars. At its worst, it’s a competently produced series of CG things bashing into other CG things, but thankfully it’s skewing more towards being funny than grim, even with the stakes involved. Which probably triggers the DC fanboys, but on balance I prefer my flyaway pop culture to be amusing over gruelling. I get my actual emotions from real films. And occasionally real life, although that’s much less convenient.
It’s also deftly learned a lesson from the comic books in giving the illusion of depth, in as much as if you are so inclined you can talk about various nuances and theories about how this effects the rest of the films going forward for as long as you have available oxygen. I’m very happy this film brings so much joy and engagement for them. For a more casual observer, one perhaps who’s ony still watching these films because of a podcast they’re recording, it’s hard to see the film’s “shocking events” as anything much more than an opportunity to run a sweepstakes as to exactly how they will hit the undo button on it.
Which might be a warning for Marvel, I suppose. The comic book arm looked to be on the verge of going under a while back, in part because people got tired of shock character deaths that were quickly undone, and too many crossover events asking for too much investment in time (and money) from a wearied audience. So, might not be too great an idea to take this path too often, but despite the negative tone I mainly take for self-amusement, I’m on-board for Infinity War Part 2 at least.
I suppose your opinion of this film will most likely be a reflection of your opinion of Marvel films as a whole. I like between half and two-thirds of them, and like between half and two-thirds of Infinity War. For me, very much a film I enjoy less every time I think about it, but thankfully not thinking about Marvel films comes easily for me. As I say, I’m glad so many find this enjoyable, but watching this multiple times and proclaiming it to be a work of genius is a bit too Kool-aid-ey for my liking. Actually, it may not be the film I like less, but the fandom that surrounds it.
I think that’s annoyed most people. Bergman and Godard were hacks. McG’s true genius goes unrecognised. Films are not art, games are. All the films you like are actually ghastly.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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