Howl’s Moving Castle at the State Theatre

Howl’s Moving Castle had its Australian premiere on the last night of the Sydney Film Festival. I’d never been to the Festival before, but when I saw the listing I thought I’d probably go along to Howl’s. Then, a week after tickets went on sale, I read an article that said it was the fastest selling film in the whole Festival. I phoned up the next day – it was almost booked out, but I managed to get seats way up in the circle.

Although I’m not a huge Diana Wynne Jones fan, I read Howl’s Moving Castle a few months ago (see my comments on it), in preparation for the film. It didn’t make an overly strong impression on me, so going into the film I found I could only remember the broad outlines of the plot and characters. Even so, it was enough to know that the film was very different from the book – in fact, I’d hesitate to call it a “film version” of the book. I think it existed in a grey area between “based on” and “inspired by” – sort of like the Olivier film of Wuthering Heights. It took characters and events from the book, but added to, excised from and reworked the material to produce something that was fundamentally different at all levels.

Because I’m not passionate about the book, this actually didn’t bother me in the least. Although I recognised that many things were very different, I was quite happy to go along with the flow and enjoy it as a completely new story. When I did notice differences, my reaction was more along the lines of “that’s changed – what an interesting decision” rather than “that’s changed – and it’s completely wrong“. In fact, the only thing that threw me slightly was the changing of the Donne poem. Obviously once it was translated into Japanese it wouldn’t have had any cultural significance, and it didn’t have the same relevance to the plot that I remember it having in the book, but it was still odd to read in the subtitles something that looked like it had gone through a double translation process. I’d be interested to see how it is treated in the dubbed version.

I liked the mechanised Victorianism of the setting (my mental image of the book – rightly or wrongly – was set much more in “once upon a time” land) and I thought the war scenes (which, as far as I recall, were completely not-appearing-in-the-book) were incredibly visually compelling.

I also enjoyed the humour – it was enough to keep you engaged, without actually undermining the serious aspects of the plot, or becoming too Disneyfied (although I have to admit, the dog came close).

The characters of Sophie and Howl seemed (as far as I could remember) to be rather different from the book – I first thought “simplified”, but maybe it was just a significant shift in emphasis. In any case, I found them both interesting, and I cared what happened to them – one of my key criteria for whether or not I enjoy a film. And I think Howl was probably the sexiest animated character I have ever seen!

My initial reaction was that the world was a lot less rich than Spirited Away, but maybe it was just that I found it more culturally accessible. At this point I’m not prepared to say which I prefer of the two films – I think I’d need to see Spirited Away again first.

Coming out of the film, my reaction was that I liked it better than DWJ’s book. However, it has inspired me to re-read the book, and somewhat surprisingly I’m enjoying it much more than I did the first time around.

Batman Begins at Broadway Cinema

I thought Batman Begins was better than the other Batman movies by a considerable margin.

The cast was great. I liked the fact that the young Bruce Wayne wasn’t a particularly nice person. I was pleased with the way the romance subplot panned out. I thought there was a good balance between darkness and humour. I liked the bit at the end where they talked about the effect Batman would have – it sort of fit in with The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, where someone says “if you toss in the victims of his fan club, the Batman-related body count is up there with a minor war”. Of course, it doesn’t come close to being that extreme in the film – so far, there’s only a hint of it raising the stakes for the villains, and no suggestion of a vigilante fan-club – but I like the acknowledgement of it as a possibility.

The only thing I was a bit worried about was the “I won’t kill you but I don’t have to save you” approach. It seems to be a bit ethically dodgy … especially given that Batman/Bruce Wayne created the dangerous situation in the first place. This particularly applied with the murderer he refuses to behead in the first half of the film. Although we don’t actually see the man dying in the fire, I don’t really see how he could have survived, so surely this means that Bruce Wayne is still totally responsible for his death. It almost seems like he can only kill people if he doesn’t actually see it happening … which is a line of thought I really don’t want to follow through on.

Still, at least it’s a clear statement of his moral position. In Dark Knight Returns, Batman says killing someone would mean “crossing a line I drew for myself thirty years ago”. I may not be entirely comfortable with where this Batman has drawn his line, but it’s a lot better than one of the earlier films (Batman Returns, I think) where he deliberately kills someone. That was just wrong for the character.

Old Times (Harold Pinter) – Sydney Theatre Company production at the Wharf Theatre

I don’t think I’ve ever seen or read a Pinter play before. And I don’t think I’ll be rushing out for another one. I’m not sure whether it was the performances or the script, or whether it’s just become a bit dated, but it really didn’t do anything for me. It was stylised rather than realistic, but not in a particularly interesting way; and I just didn’t care at all about any of the characters. I think I just completely missed the point of it all.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith at Broadway Cinema

Mr. & Mrs. Smith was quite a fun film. The dialogue was generally amusing, and some of the action scenes were good. Others were a bit drawn out, though – especially the big one at the end, which was way too long and not particularly interesting anyway. Overall, I probably would have preferred rather more dialogue and character interplay, and rather less uninterestingly-filmed combat. In general, not too bad; but disappointing because it could – and should – have been so much better.

Ethan of Athos and Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold

Ethan of Athos is not one of my favourite Bujold books set in the Vorkosigan universe – it doesn’t have Miles in it, and I’m not particularly grabbed by Ellie Quinn. Allowing for that, however, it’s a reasonably fun adventure story, with enough twists to keep you on your toes. But even the most plot-driven of the Miles stories seem to have extra depth to them, because of Miles’ personality (or maybe it’s just because he’s so hyper, whereas Ethan, although a well developed character, is very staid). Also, although the settings (Athos and Kline Station) are not uninteresting, they’re both a bit conventional – unlike, say, Cetaganda.

Brothers in Arms is also more plot-driven than character-driven – unlike the next few in the series. It’s more sophisticated than, say, Warrior’s Apprentice, but I don’t think it even comes close to the depths of Memory. Though because it introduces the characters of Mark and Duv Galeni, it’s pretty crucial to the series as a whole. I find it hard to make up my mind how much I like it for itself, and how much because it’s setting up the later books that I really like.

I find the concept of a mercenary fleet having an accountant totally bizarre, and yet at the same time completely logical.

Permanent Rose by Hilary McKay

I absolutely adored Saffy’s Angel, and really liked Indigo’s Star. While I certainly didn’t dislike Permanent Rose, on a first reading I’d rate it below its prequels (though considerably above the other McKays I’ve read).

I think my problem wasn’t so much with the story itself, as with the fact that it seemed to undercut the earlier books. Maybe I should re-read Saffy’s Angel before saying this, but I strongly suspect that the revelations about Saffy’s background in Permanent Rose had not actually been invented when she wrote Saffy’s Angel. Also, I was unhappy about the way Derek had completely and utterly disappeared off the scene since the end of Indigo’s Star. And the Caddy/Michael relationship was a lot less fun than in the earlier books. In fact, the book as a whole seemed rather darker, and less funny.

Permanent Rose may grow on me – I know I liked Indigo’s Star a lot more the second time I read it – but I don’t think there’s any danger of it displacing Saffy’s Angel as my favourite in the series.

Finally …

According to his website, George R. R. Martin has now finished writing A Feast for Crows. Yay!

The bad news is that because it came in very much over length, he has had to cut it in half. The decision he made is to include material set in Westeros, King’s Landing, the riverlands, Dorne, and the Iron Islands in this book, and leave the material set in the east and the north until the next book (A Dance With Dragons). In principle, I think this is a good decision; but unfortunately it means that the two characters I’m most interested in (Arya and Tyrion) probably won’t appear in the book at all. On the plus side, this decision means that A Dance With Dragons is now half finished, so maybe we won’t have to wait another five years to find out what happens.

In other good news on the book front, the copy of Permanent Rose (Hilary McKay) that I had reserved at the library came in. When I went up to borrow it, I also got out To the Nines (Janet Evanovich – a Stephanie Plum story) and The Last Temptation (Val McDermid – a Tony Hill story). I think the three of them make an interesting contrast – even more so when you throw in Brothers in Arms (Lois McMaster Bujold), which I am currently re-reading.

And speaking of Bujold, I am very excited about the fact that Michael has picked up a copy of The Hallowed Hunt while he is in the US. Coincidentally, he arrived within a few days of the book’s release.