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AniMaytion Month: Rock and Rule/Strange Frame

Last year about this time I spent some posts focusing on works of science fiction, and this spring I’m kind of doing it again by default, except that this month, my particular interest is in animated productions.

And, in addition to that, I find myself in the position of having recently encountered two animated features that are, at best, cult classics in terms of notoriety, and both of them involve people in a post-apocalyptic scenario saving those they love through the power of rock and roll.

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Chronologically, the first one is 1983’s Rock and Rule, produced by Canada’s Nelvana Studio – the first English animated film produced entirely in this country, I gather. In a time after global war has left the world populated by animalistic humanoid mutants, Angel and Omar are a couple who dream of making it big as musicians. Angel has a real talent but Omar is selfish and insecure about his own success and they quarrel over exposure for their own songs. Angel is sought out by Mok, a sorcerous former superstar who tempts Angel with going solo. Mok has been searching for a special voice that will enable him to achieve a new kind of power – a horrible demon summoned from beyond. However, I would never have known this movie existed if it hadn’t turned up in the YouTube suggestions while I was watching the other one…

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In 2012, an award-garnering indie film called Strange Frame: Love and Sax came out completely under most radars. Centuries after the polluted Earth has been abandoned and humanity has colonized the rest of the Solar System, hereditary debt bondage and genetic engineering to make you better at a given job are the norm. Parker, a runaway middle-class saxophonist on Ganymede falls in with a debt-slave rebel, Naia. The two become a couple and form a subversive band. When Naia catches the eye of a recruiter for a big music producer, Parker finds herself turfed out as Naia becomes a brainwashed, sanitized superstar. Joining up with the crew of a DIY spaceship, Parker formulates a plan to defy the big fame machine, recover her beloved and get away from it all.

First off, it should be made clear that neither of these movies is meant for kids. I gather that it was a popular misconception that Ralph Bakshi made Rock and Rule;¬†the use of rotoscoping does give that impression, I suppose. The movie sure isn’t shy about suggestive clothing – club dancers wearing the bare (ha, ha) minimum, the villain half-naked in a robe and Angel forced into an outfit on par with the Princess Leia slave bikini – and there’s a scene of Omar and Angel making out very energetically. Strange Frame meanwhile takes place in a Blade Runner-esque grungy future where fetishistic clothing is commonplace and Parker and Naia have sex two or three times in the run of the story – it’s not pornographic by any means but it is still pretty steamy. Plus the monster Mok summons in Rock and Rule is fundamentally disturbing.

Rock and Rule‘s voice cast aren’t big names, as far as I know, except for Catherine O’Hara in one scene. That said, the singing voices are quite big. Well, to be honest, the only one I knew was Iggy Pop, and that’s only because of the time he was on Deep Space Nine. He and one Lou Reed lend their voices to musical numbers by the villainous Mok, the singer Robin Zander¬†does Omar and Deborah Harry does Angel’s singing.

Strange Frame, by contrast, first caught my eye precisely because of its cast: Parker, the heroine and narrator is voiced by Claudia Black, late of Farscape and Mass Effect 2, Naia is played by Tara Strong, Grenman, the captain of the DIY ship – the delightfully named Lone Mango – is Ron Glass, and Chat, the band’s drummer, is Alan Tudyk. Given the general look of the thing, two Firefly and one Farscape actors make perfect sense, really. Cree Summer, Tim Curry as the villain, and George Takei as the villain’s overseer round off one heck of an ensemble.

I can certainly understand why somebody thought that Rock and Rule was Bakshi’s doing. You can tell from how they move that the characters are rotoscoped over live performers at least some of the time, and the attention to detail is pretty impressive. Whoever was animating Mok’s face certainly cared about their work. It’s got more movement in it than some whole characters. It seems to be set in the far future with a new civilization having arisen long after the old one. Omar and Angel make out in a car that looks abandoned in a sort of campsite, the nearby big city is called Nuke York and features such as Mok’s airship, his power plant base and the hovering-shuttle transit system suggest islands of advanced technology in a sea of used future – Blade Runner again splattered across Mad Max, as it were. What’s kind of weird is the halfhearted way the characters are made to look like animals. If TV Tropes is to be believed, most of the main characters are meant to look like dogs, but they resemble dogs to about the same extent that Arthur resembles an aardvark. Angel just looks like a regular gal with a button nose if you don’t look too close. Mok is supposedly meant to be a cat, but I don’t see it at all. He looks like Count Dracula as played by Steven Tyler. Overall, the effect isn’t ‘these are cartoon anthropomorphic animals’ so much as ‘these are humans but something about them is weirding me out.’ That said, the animators pushed the boat out on the demon. It doesn’t stick with cliched demon imagery. Instead it goes the Eldritch Abomination route of depicting something that seems unused to having a physical form, and is in a constant state of hideous flux.

Strange Frame‘s animation is made in a style of stop motion with paper cutouts. It incorporates bits of old live-action movies and CGI-distorted live images for some of the backgrounds and vehicles. The character design is eclectic to say the least. The various genetically engineered persons create a colourful cast. Reesa, Grenman’s first mate, looks more like a hybrid of monkey and bat than a human; the three ‘Muses’ who advise Parker include a catgirl and a lady with ram’s horns; Atem, the band’s bassist looks like a werewolf and Chat the drummer has four arms. Parker is easily the most normal-looking. The grungy, orange-tinted scenery, megacity setting, corporatocratic society and whacky-tending-to-racy clothing styles evoke Blade Runner, Transmetropolitan, or Warhammer 40K Hive Worlds. The way ancient spare parts get used to build ships, and how some ships are built using hollowed-out asteroids as hulls was particularly nifty. The combination of digital and physical media – or appearance thereof – is reminiscent of the Neil Gaiman movie Mirrormask.

Neither film is a musical exactly, but music is nonetheless a key part of the story. Rock and Rule is, as I said, a bit of an all-stars lineup of its time. Lou Reed’s villain song for Mok is fun enough. The original Canadian version and American redub of this movie are apparently markedly different, because I found a standalone clip of Iggy Pop’s contribution, but in the original version’s upload I watched, it’s barely audible above the sound effects of our heroes dashing to the rescue. I’m innately wary of any story where somebody’s voice or talent is supposed to be earth-shattering, especially when it’s as literal as here, because it’s hard to find a real talent that lives up to that much hype. But to my pleasant surprise, Angel’s song, ‘Send Love Through’ – later reworked by Deborah Harry into the single ‘Maybe For Sure’ – is written and performed so well that you really could believe that it has the power ascribed to it. Certainly, it’s now been stuck in my head for over a week.

Music in Strange Frame is superb. The songs of Naia’s that get spotlighted are catchy, especially the one she composes in the first act. The only disappointing thing is that you feel like you’re only hearing portions of them. Strange Frame doesn’t seem to have a soundtrack album. The background music is also catchy as hell, with Jazz, electronic and other influences evident. The saxophone’s presence, as Parker’s instrument, gives the music real drive and emotion. The big chase scene at the end is especially good. The sci-fi sound effects are first rate, too. As before, some of the busier scenes might make it hard to notice what’s going on. According to the Wikipedia page there’s a Roger Waters song in the movie, but don’t ask me where.

Rock and Rule‘s story is, if nothing else, pretty original in concept, and the way that a quarrelsome couple can come together to vanquish evil through song is oddly moving, if a little cheesy. The only drawback is that the characters evolve by the flick of a switch, rather than gradually. Omar is hot-headed and selfish, storming off in a huff when Mok seeks out Angel’s solo talent, but we don’t really see enough of their life to know why she puts up with him. I think the relationship is meant to be seen as passionate but creatively fractious, but without enough context it almost looks abusive. It still drives a theme of your loved ones and your art being more important than your ego. Omar pulls a big damn heroes moment more because it looks cool in the movie than because it seems true to the character, while their other two bandmates actually make a rescue effort we get to witness. And that doesn’t actually accomplish much, except to get their drummer, somewhat an audience surrogate, into position. Omar’s character arc, such as it is, is served by Angel, despite her nominally being the main character. She doesn’t really have an arc. She doesn’t fall for Mok’s enticements of solo success, he kidnaps her. She stays much the same. Though it is cool that she’s a positive example to those around her, and she’s an active and intelligent character, it does seem like she’s doing a lot of the emotional labour here. Mok is a villain I like. Complex he ain’t, but cunning, grandiose, petty and diabolical, and the theme of fundamental goodness drives his downfall as well as the demon’s. But the plot has a sense of being rushed from point to point.

Strange Frame‘s plot is a lot better organized, with Parker’s narration keeping you on top of things. That said, some of the plot is communicated visually without being spelled out, but it comes across more as ‘we want you to interpret this’ rather than Rock and Rule‘s ‘we don’t have time to explain this properly’ vibe. Exactly how the villains’ evil plot works is a little unclear. They make an android duplicate of Naia but still keep her squirrelled away in stasis – I interpreted it as using the android as a conduit for her talent while locking away her rebellious personality. The other bandmates kind of fall by the wayside with little ceremony. In contrast to the sense that large chunks of plot and character are missing in Rock and Rule, Strange Frame seems to have a lot of plot elements that don’t go anywhere. I gather the original plan was to make a series out of it, and there are threads tending to indicate that. The parallel narrative with the AI installed on the Lone Mango barely interacts with everything else. It sort of reminded me of that ‘castaway’ metaplot thing in Watchmen. While the villain is vanquished, his overseers, represented by the voice of George Takei, are never seen, named, nor called to account. The rescue plan seems to go a little too easily, and the big chase scene seems oddly unimaginative, albeit visually enjoyable. That said, the ending, while open-ended, is positive and satisfying, and the movie defies the increasingly infamous Dead Lesbian trope!

It might be obvious by now that I like Strange Frame more than Rock and Rule. Strange Frame‘s dialogue and voice acting are excellent, funny, heartbreaking, and clever. I had to laugh at Claudia Black bringing us a whole new set of sci-fi fake swear words after her tenure on Farscape. The story’s better constructed, and the characters are more varied and interesting, with almost everybody in it a person of colour (when they look human) a sexual minority, or both. I like the setting, a future civilization spanning the Solar System, like the Expanse or Cowboy Bebop. I like the artistry of the animation, which is quite unlike anything I’ve seen.

I’m not saying I don’t like Rock and Rule. Apart from its Canadian background, it’s still an great archetypal story, however haphazard, and its animation style gets me in the nostalgia somewhat. The imagery is quite imaginative. Despite the comparisons to Bakshi, I actually thought some of the scenery was akin to Studio Ghibli’s style. It’s just that if I had a choice of which one to push to friends, Strange Frame would be – and indeed, is – first in line. I recommend it first for story, characters, voice acting, progressivism and general weirdness. Rock and Rule‘s weirdness seems more unintentional than Strange Frame‘s. For music though, for me, it’s a dead heat, I’m glad to say, and it feeds this weird fascination I have with stories about fictional bands I was previously feeding on a diet of Jem and the Holograms.

You can rent Strange Frame on YouTube and Rock and Rule has been running the bootleg circuit so long I don’t think anyone cares anymore, so it too will pop up on YouTube time and time again, so check them both out, if you like.

Meanwhile, in the interest in getting that song out of my head, here it is in a fan-edited video so you all have to hear it too…

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2017 in animation, Movie

 

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Leviathan Wakes: A Bleak Expanse

Hard Sci Fi. I’d be the first to admit that I’m susceptible to the idea that ‘scientifically accurate’ in sci-fi goes hand-in-hand with ‘boring.’ The restrictions of real laws of physics tend to place limits on things like speed and range of places that can be visited.

I think that the reason for this is that I’ve read a lot of such stories that felt more like textbooks on how life in space would really be rather than being actual stories about people living in that. Honor Harrington occasionally becomes a borderline example of this, but I do recall some others.

A while ago I was involved in a conversation about human evolution, where it was wondered aloud if humanity could ever diverge again into separate species. I remarked that it would only be possible if separate human population were isolated for a very long period, such as if we were dispersed among other planets. At this, a colleague commended to me a book that, in part, depicts exactly that.

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Leviathan Wakes is the first in the Expanse series, which has apparently also given rise to a new television series.

In it, humanity has spread throughout the Solar System. Mars and the settlements on the large bodies of the asteroid belt have become semi-independent nations. ‘Belters’ regard those from ‘down the [gravity] well’ as arrogant, exploitative and dangerous. People have been living in low gravity and pressurized environments for so long that their physique and culture have developed accordingly.

Holden is an officer on a comet-mining ship who loses friends in a violent attack. He openly declares his suspicion that Mars has committed an atrocity against the Belters, and thus gets drawn into the escalating Cold War between the ‘well’ and the ‘belt.’

Miller is a police detective on Ceres Station in the Belt. He’s put on a quiet little favour-job for one of the corporations that runs Ceres to track down their daughter, who has run away on some idealistic crusade. His investigation is thrown upside-down by the esclation of the interplanetary conflict.

Miller, Holden and his crew, each beset by tragedy, end up following their respective, intertwining paths to discover the root of the events that are causing this potentially cataclysmic conflict between worlds: the conflict is merely a by-product of a discovery that will shake every kind of humanity to its core, and threaten its soul.

Over the Christmas break I finally watched Blade Runner end to end, and it struck me that this is what life off Earth would probably be like in that world. The Earth is described as overpopulated and exhausted, but powerful. Corporations, not governments, run the Belt stations like Ceres and Eros. Food is synthesized from non-photosynthetic sources like yeast and fungi – reminiscent of the protein rations used on Firefly as well.

Speaking of Firefly, lived-in, dingy, used-future aesthetics are in full swing here. Quarters on stations are called ‘holes,’ if that gives you some idea.

The futuristic science is awesome without breaking too many rules that I can spot: artificial gravity is only possible with certrifugal force or acceleration – and that’s usually really unpleasant for all concerned – weapons and ship-to-ship combat rely on acceleration, pressurized compartments, and guided missiles, and isn’t fought at whites-of-their-eyes close quarters, much like in Honor Harrington.

At the same time, unlike several sci-fi properties out there, technologies appear to have advanced apace with each other. Everyone has a ‘terminal,’ somewhere between a smartphone and the omni-tools of Mass Effect, and medical science has achieved immense precision and idiot-proof applicability. There’s a chapter where Holden and Miller both cop a huge radiation dose, and they have to be hooked up to a machine that spends hours stamping out the nascent cancers around their body, which it does flawlessly. There are also cocktails of drugs used regularly for mitigating accleration g-forces.

As for the story itself, apart from being in space, it is an awful lot like a noir detective story or political thriller – Holden being the everyman sucked into something bigger than himself, and Miller the jaded, hardboiled detective who finds his emotions consumed in a seemingly ordinary case.

Then the twist happens, and what I suppose must be the groundwork for the rest of the series is duly laid, which ties all the seemingly disparate threads together, and kicks this story up into Lovecraftian levels of disturbing.

The intricacy and cleverness of the plot further allows us to visit a number of facets of the civilization these people live in. It’s a somewhat bleak depiction, making us seem rather petty, not to mention tiny and vulnerable, but still makes the case for the better angels of our nature, especially via Holden.

I like Leviathan Wakes for its worldbuilding, themes and atmosphere. It left me emotionally drained and satisfied. And yet, strangely enough, I found I don’t have a powerful urge to read the rest of them. Maybe to watch the TV show, but not much.

This puzzles me. Maybe I’m still in the post-holiday funk, but more than that I find that, despite the rich and detailed world – worlds – the characters themselves are strangely boring.

Miller’s sort of the same-old jaded, over-the-hill cop who can’t seem to make a difference. Holden’s the more idealistic and appealing of the two of them, but the idealist looking into the abyss is likewise a bit tired to me.

There’s also something about the way the book treats women that I find subtly icky. The relaxed, rational attitudes about interpersonal relationships are kind of nice, I guess. Nonetheless, the only two women Holden has on his crew he ends up sleeping with, and one of them dies to give him the old woman-in-a-proverbial-fridge to avenge. And getting together with his comrade Naomi seems like the standard hero’s reward that’s danced around until the usual boxes of dramatic tribulations are ticked. If he’s a very good hero, he gets the sex. Ho hum.

Miller is even worse, in a way. He’s sent to track down this runaway rich girl basically to kidnap her and send her home; in piecing together her life and fate, he claims to have fallen in love with her, and sees a vision of her that talks to him as his obsession grows. You can’t fall in love with someone you’ve never met. Miller’s meant to be a broken man, but this kind of pedastalling of a woman comes across as far more creepy than tragic to me. While it’s sort of understandable since he’s a jaded old cop and all, I also find it faintly obnoxious the way he persistently refers to the sex workers he encounters on his regular beat as ‘whores.’ Call me a Social Justice Warrior, but I’ve always thought that a word better suited to the mouths of villains. And when he finally tracks the rich girl down the ensuing discovery is so grotesque as to almost constitute gore porn.

So Leviathan Wakes is a beautifully conceived setting and plot, which kept me guessing right until the end, but as much as I enjoyed it, the characters inhabiting it feel like they could have been written decades ago with no appreciable difference, and lot of things a story should have in this day and age, this one doesn’t. And this costs the book the sharpness or spark that would have taken it from ‘functionally good’ to ‘outstanding,’ if you see what I mean. I shall learn from it what I can, but having done so, I feel I have very little use left for it.

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2016 in Book

 

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Saga: An Awesome Epic

Back when I reviewed Babylon 5, I argued that with sufficiently different trappings, even the most standard storylines can be fresh and exciting.

And comics, with the benefit of visuals and a willingness to be ‘edgy,’ can help make the story look as well as read different.

A friend recently recommended via Facebook the ongoing series Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and drawn by Fiona Staples, currently up to volume 3. Despite the strangely bland title, I was sanguine that it was worthy of my attention when I saw the cover:

Epic battle couple side by side? Nothing special. Epic battle couple of mixed ethnicity side by side, the lady breastfeeding their baby? Unique. So I grabbed it at the first opportunity.

In a galaxy far, far away (I assume), the people of the planet Landfall have been at war for so long with their moon, Wreath, that it’s become a habit. But since the destruction of one would destroy both (being as they orbit each other), they take the Cold War approach of pitting proxies against each other.

It’s a war of forces: the Wreath folk (distinguished by their peoples’ various horns and antlers) use magic in tactical applications, while the Landfallians (distinguished by having wings) use more conventional, if advanced, technology. Indeed, one of their proxies, the Robot Kingdom, are advanced technology.

Marko, of Wreath was, like so many, a fresh-faced young soldier who, sickened by his first sight of combat, surrendered to Landfall on the spot.

Alana, of Landfall, was a regular grunt, stuck on prisoner duty when she hesitated to bomb civilians.

Marko, as previously mentioned, was a prisoner. As they came to share their mutual doubts about the rightness of the cause, they fell in love, and at the point we commence the tale, they’re on the run, while also welcoming their new baby daughter, Hazel.

Neither of the warring leaderships are pleased by this development. Ostensibly for the purposes of general morale, both want Alana and Marko dead, while the Wreath leaders, at least, want Hazel captured alive for reasons as yet unclear.

Marko and Alana remain on the run, picking up, at various points, a teenaged ghost babysitter, a rocketship grown from a tree, and Marko’s hardboiled but gentle-hearted mother. All the while, Prince Robot IV (as in ‘four,’ not ‘the Fourth,’ I think) of the Robot Kingdom, despite his own new family and his wartime trauma, is sent by his Landfall puppeteers to hunt the couple down, while Wreath has contracted a freelancer known as The Will, a sombre killer with a soft spot for innocents, who ends up with his own band, comprising his living lie detector the Lying Cat, a rescued slave girl and Marko’s Amazonian ex-fiancee.

The setting is both awesome and slightly ridiculous. It clearly owes much to Star Wars, but it reminds me of ElfQuest in that, apart from taking place in space, it has the hallmarks of a classic fantasy: the Landfallians and Wreathfolk both look like the types you’d run into around Oberon’s court. A lot of the other ‘aliens’ look like anthropomorphic animals of various sorts. They curse and use military jargon a lot more than average. Oh, and did I mention that they grow rocket ships out of trees?

Then you have the Robot Kingdom, made up, seemingly, of silvery aristocrats with televisions instead of heads and, for robots, very enthusiastic sex lives. Then there are the freelancers – sort of like what you’d get if the bounty hunters in Star Wars were unionized – who all have aliases starting with ‘The’ like ‘The Will,’ ‘The Stalk,’ ‘The Brand,’ ‘The March’ and similar.

A universe structured thusly is wonderfully fertile ground for interesting characters, and not only did Vaughn and Staples do that, they did it with more flourish and daring than most fiction even today has the gall to do.

People of colour abound, including but not limited to Alana – given her appearance and tough-gal demeanour, if this was a movie I think she’d be played by Zoe Saldana. Neither Wreatheans nor Landfallians lack for diversity in appearance. There’s a B-Plot involving two investigative journalists who are also a gay couple. No Steven Moffat-esque jokes at their expense, their relationship is just there, and apart from suffering cultural persecution on their homeworld, it isn’t a dominant part of their story so far. Being gay isn’t the point of their character, as is so often the case.

The villains – or perhaps I should say antagonists – are very nuanced characters: The Will may be a cold-blooded mercenary, but he’s got a strict code and a soft heart worthy of Commander Vimes. Prince Robot IV is a snob and a racist, but the war has messed with him pretty badly, and his desire to see his wife and start a family makes him, for want of a better term, more human.

And something the authours seem to love is mucking about with gender roles. Our heroes are quite the juxtaposition: Marko is a buff warrior man, but his natural disposition is gentle, fussy, and nurturing. He might rip into anyone who threatens his family, but you’d have to push him far before killing comes into his range of options. That said, he’s uncompromising, flawed and possibly a bit whiny.

Alana, by contrast, is aggressive, curses like a sailor, would drink like one if she weren’t pregnant and then breastfeeding, and has a quite spectacular appetite for sex, food and corny literature, and then can turn into a gooey-eyed puddle when her baby smiles at her. She’s also abrasive and insecure. But unlike a lot of tough action girls in fiction, she has a soft side that she can show without forever discarding the toughness.
Fair warning however, that the daring of the story does come with a certain discomfort factor: sex and nudity and foul language are not spared, and are often quite graphic. When the time comes to break out the gore, it’s done with vivid aplomb, and some of the gore and monsters are so extreme it’s actually legitimately nauseating.

Unlike my sometime nemesis Game of Thrones, however, the gore and general spectacle isn’t in every single frame. It comes in exactly as often as it needs to and that’s part of why it’s so very effective. It’s deployed for maximum punch and not just splashed across everything. Juxtaposition of imagery is done quite well. A good example is Isabel, the star couple’s ghostly babysitter. A wisecracking, rather gangsta teenager who loves babies, you’re reminded her being a ghost is no joke by the entrails hanging out past her t-shirt, the product of having been killed by a landmine.

Other than that the only thing that I find jarring about the story is a criticism I’ve felt about a lot of comics: the medium does not lend itself to indepth or paced storytelling. We get dropped into the tale in medias res, as they say, and the plot proceeds in a way that’s so brisk it can seem like it’s skimming by too fast. Characters come and go really fast, and keeping on top of their names can get tricky. Having said that, the addition of the visual element lets you remember character profiles if not names, and as the numerous elements pile up, over time they add up to a sense of the wider universe you’re in.

Saga, therefore, is unique. It’s built on classic tropes and then painted over spectacularly. It’s truly bold – sometimes a little overpowering – but fresh and different, in ways that hit so many socially important notes.

For the beauty of its art, for the depth of its characters, for the colour of its universe, for its socially responsible storytelling choices, Saga is well worth checking out!

“This is an original fantasy book with no superheroes, two non-white leads and an opening chapter featuring graphic robot sex. I thought we might be cancelled by our third issue.”
– Brian K. Vaughn

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2014 in Comic

 

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