Inside Out (2015)

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Pixar’s films were always deeply psychological. Toy Story wasn’t just a film about funny toys coming to life. It featured a mental breakdown. The main message behind it was that we can’t be anything. We have to understand our limitations and make the best of them.

Inside Out is the most overt psychological film yet. The main setting is, after all, the inside of a girl’s head. It’s also their most metaphorical film to date. Nothing about the film is meant to be taken literally, not even the life of Riley. There is clear meaning behind everything happening outside her head. It’s that meaning that makes this film a success.

I can’t imagine anyone enjoying this film unless they’re past high school age. The fact that Riley is frustrated with the moving isn’t the point. The meaning of moving to a new environment is an extension of the new environments we encounter when we grow up.

Growing up is receiving blows to our core worldview. High school, a new job or a new town makes us question who we are. We’re forced into a new environment and have to make sense of ourselves over again. Riley moving away is paralell to any other radical change in your life.

The same goes for her running away. She’s not running away but she’s running back. She’s trapped in nostalgia. It’s reminiscing over old memories taken to the extreme. Since so far she only knew how to be happy, she thinks that simply going back to the old place means going back to happiness.

Happiness isn’t enough for deep thought, however. It’s often when we’re depressed that we ask questions. It’s when we’re depressed, seeing problems that we actually search for solutions. Sadness also makes us see reality for what it is. When Sadness (the character) colors the core memories with that emotion, it’s the realization that it’s over. You can’t go back.

The original meaning of ‘nostalgia’ is a form of homesickness. The term was coined to describe how Swiss soldiers felt, missing their land. I first felt this fully in the military when I was away from home. Looking back, I noticed how nothing will be the same. I was still with the same people, but how we are now is vastly different from the past. Growing up is having a whole chunk of past to look behind to and feeling sadness over the fact these happy moments ended. That’s why Sadness colors these memories.

Growing up also means seeing the various colors of life. In truth, no moment of our life has a single emotion. Entering a romantic relationship, you’re happy that she said yes and fearful she’ll break it tomorrow. Some people said of their loved ones’ suicide that they’re at least happy their pain has ended.

Inside Out doesn’t recall Toy Story just because of the artificial details (both films feature two characters who are opposites, on a journey of return). The main message behind it is that we should embrace our emotional comlexity. It’s anti-‘Be positive’. It’s amazing how a film with bright colors and cute characters can have such sentiments. It goes to show you that no matter how many gangsters, witty lines and suits you have in your film it doesn’t equal depth.

At this point, talking about the technical details of Pixar’s films is boring. They know their formula. The good old journey of return is back. Since it works, since they have enough visual ideas and depth to make it feel new again it doesn’t matter. After all, it’s the content, rather than the form that’s harder to get right. So if following this pattern means Pixar can focus on the themes and ideas I don’t mind.

There is a small alteration to the formula. Pixar tends to push their journies to the extreme. It’s amazing how always, no matter how hard they push the characters the solutions make sense. This time they’re more restrained. Althugh they had an oppurtunity to roll the snowball more and make it bigger, they didn’t. They stopped it just in time. The grand moment of realization is also more subdued this time. That’s a good thing. Pixar are always one step away from becoming manipulative and after the brilliant behemoth that is Toy Story 3, it’s good to see them more restrained. Success can get you drunk.

Inside Out is as brilliant as people say it is. Of course it’s beautifully animated and cleverly written. What makes it unique and what makes it another classic by Pixar is the deep psychology, the complex emotions and how maturely they treat their material. At this point, it’s ridiculous to call these films for children. Sure, Pixar never has any violent or sexual content but they can say so much without it. They make it seem so simple.

4.5 voices in your head out of 5

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Kemono no Souja Erin (Beast Trainer Erin)

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It’s a curious thing. Good stories tend to come when the creators know their limits and strengths. You cover up your weaknesses and emphasizes your strengths. Some stories know their weak point and still find a way to get around them. Erin is an anime that’s often focused on its weak parts, yet aside from a weak patch in the middle it’s fantastic.

The strength and weakness is in Erin herself. She’s not a psychological portrait but a mythic one. The whole story is, in fact, more mythic than psychological. Characters aren’t complex or odd, but have very specific role they fill.

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It can sound limiting, but it’s not. Giving your characters a certain role gives you focus. Since the series never pretends to be a deep psychological examination of these roles, they manage to breathe life into them in other ways. Sometimes, two characters have the same role but act on it differently. Jone and Esal are two very different kind of teachers.

These aren’t roles that limit characters. They are never moral ones, of villains and heroes. They give them agency and define who they are. The story is often more than about Erin. There are many episodes in which she barely appears. Other characters star them and their viewpoint is explored.

Excluding one power-hungry villain that only reveals himself in the end, Erin is a series full of shades of grey. Almost any character that is introduced as villainous is immidiately revealed have a logical viewpoint. Even when their intentions still side against Erin, the anime expects us to understand them. This goes further than grey morality. Erin is clearly a moral hero, yet we’re expected to understand her enemies.

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As for Erin, she’s a great example of how a moral hero should be. She’s not defined by her morality. Her moral behavior comes from somewhere, specifically her fascination with nature which her mother gave her.

This is also where the series, despite not being psychological manages to accurately display what growing up is. Like any good story for children, it deals with the themes of childhood. Erin has the natural curiosity of a child. The difference between her and others is that her mother encourages it. As Erin grows up and meets more mentors, they keep on encouraging it rather than discouraging for some bizarre reasons that create the contemporary education system.

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When Erin starts to display extraordinary abilities, it’s not a case of Mary Sue-ness. Erin is a moral hero who represents curiosity, and curiosity naturally leads us to develop our skills. Curiosity is also what what makes us reach towards others and understand them.

That’s its answer to the main conflict. The show doesn’t have a central theme but it builds towards an epic climax that’s expressive, rather than a placeholder. The central conflict between the two populations is simple. It doesn’t rival the complexity of real life conflicts and it doesn’t have to.

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Political ‘intrigue’ is often a crutch authors rely on, killing characters off to surprise (Game of Thrones still suck). The root of many conflicts is in disagreements, and violence is what we use when we don’t try or think we can reach out to the other side.

As the best episode displays, it’s easy to love one another when you agree with that person. It’s harder to still love them they take a separate path from yours. The episode that chronicles this divide between two brothers is easily the best one of the show.

While the lack of a central theme and psychological exploration don’t harm the series, they do take its toll on the middle part. It’s almost neglectful of a traumatic experience and the pace grinds into a halt.

It doesn’t replicate the serenity of Mushishi. The view of the natural world is different. Rather, the show gets stuck, recycling the same ideas (Erin’s curiosity) and adding characters who only become fleshed out later on. There are worthwhile moments there, but about 8 episodes could have been cut.

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There’s also the odd technique of repeated flashbacks. While some are well-placed, showing them over and over first makes them lose their impact. Then it comes off as lazy and just trying to kill time. The big traumatic event’s repetition is especially bad. Since the series isn’t psychological, the flashbacks don’t make sense and they just make it lose its impact. That said, when they do return in the last arcs of the series they retain their impact.

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The series also teases too much in these episodes about characters who become fleshed out later. Since the series is static during that section, it’s not a slow build-up. Rather, the series feels shy at throwing itself at something greater. What’s weird is that anytime it does become ambitious are fantastic. Nearly every dramatic moment is powerful regardless of Erin’s age. The line “Don’t harm these people with the same hands that can play such a beautiful song” is more profound than any time with realistic design and adult characters wearing suits.

The art style is excellent and beautiful. It’s ‘childish’, but in a good way. There is a simplicity and elegance to it like a children’s drawing. The backgrounds are where the series does it best. They often have a sketchy look to them, relying more on basic shapes and colors to create an atmosphere. It’s not chaotic, though. The sketchiness creates a bare background which fits with the sombre atmosphere. When the series gets dark, it stands in contrast.

 

Erin doesn’t justify its length. It lags in the middle and has too many repeating flashbacks. The varied cast also don’t the development they clearly can. While these flaws can make it tedious at times, the improvement at the second half saves it. From then on, as an example of how deep and emotionally engrossing children’s stories can be it’s perfect. It may focus on a single heroine, but it’s a world of shades of grey, with only one truly villainous character who has a purpose anyway. It fell off the radar because it’s not immediate, but it’s worth pushing through its weak parts. At its best, it’s almost the best anime ever.

4 lizards out of 5

Scott Cawthon & Kira Breed-Wisley – Five Nights at Freddy’s: The Silver Eyes

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There has been a lot of transitions from video game to literature. Many were bizarre choices. Were people really interested in the stories behind Halo? Didn’t it mainly exist for multiplayer? Even video games that had potential are mostly better off as pulp adventures.

The Freddy’s franchise has potential. The game is like no other. It’s not just scary but brilliantly designed and deeply psychological. Shitty YouTubers couldn’t ruin what is one of the most original games, the kind that doesn’t rely on advance technology. It’s a prime example of how video games can be an art.

Thankfully, Cawthon isn’t an exploiter. His approach to horror is unique and not just because of the lack of gore. The sequels elaborated on the themes and ideas of the games, rather than just up the shock value. The transition to other forms of media was inevitable. There was so much you could do with it.

Sadly, The Silver Eyes isn’t the novel the franchise deserves. To Cawthon’s credit, it fails mainly because it reads like a first-timer. The novel actually does try to push the franchise into a new direction. Cawthon does try to humanize the story and give us fully-developed personalities. He’s just not sure how to do with it.

If the failure of the novel surprises you, keep in mind this is completely new territory. Cawthon dealt before with general psychology. He never had to create specific and diverse personalities. Here, he’s faced with a challenge of creating a cast and giving each of them a different personality.

He tries, but he stumbles. It’s amazing how a novel can be at once character-driven, and yet not develop any of its characters. The reason it takes so long for action to happen is because the story isn’t all action. Cawthon is aware jumpscares weren’t what made the game great.

So he spends a lot of time with these characters, having them interact and show us their relationship. Sometimes it seems like it’s just postponing the moment the slasher comes alive. Then you notice Cawthon lingers on it for too long,

He’s not catering to the target audience. He spends so many pages with these characters because he’s trying to inject a face to the franchise, but nothing happens. None of them come alive. Our protagonist is the worst. There isn’t even a hint towards who she is. She’s your generic protagonist who just observes the events and acts like she should.

It’s when the novel goes to the franchise’s main themes that it improves. The main idea behind the games wasn’t horror. It’s growing up, realizing our childhood wasn’t so glorious. It’s the difference in how children see the world and how grown-ups. A description of a house early in a novel, how it decayed and how the toys are still there is powerful. The descriptions contrast the decay with the toys. They also point how the toys were never much in the first place, but just robots.

There aren’t enough scenes like that. The novel gets especially lost in the middle. Although it never slides into cliches of horror, it doesn’t know how to translate Freddy’s brand of terror into words.

The horror of Freddy’s came from not knowing. There was no gore in that series. What made it so scary is the fact we never knew what was going on. We didn’t know why Purple Guy killed those kids and we don’t see the animatronics move.

It may have something to do with the writing style. It’s not terrible, but it’s generic. Sentences lack a unique structure or tone. Similes appear from time to time, not too much to annoy but there’s nothing unique about them.

Literature isn’t just a collection of facts that form a story. You’re also supposed to use a style of language that will fit your story. It’s just like how visuals in a film don’t merely give us a setting. They don’t just show us the layout of the house, but how it’s decorated expresses something.

To his credit, he tries to do things his own way. They hint at a romance but never work on it. It wouldn’t belong, anyway. Characters that can die aren’t killed, so we’re not given a cheap death to heighten the excitement. Even the grand death of the bad guy isn’t narrated in gory detail. Fans of the game know how it happens, and just like in the game we only get the basic idea of it. The rest is up to our imagination.

The desire to go in a new direction backfires too often. Lack of cliches is fine, but the novel isn’t as weird as it should be. The lack of the Puppet is also disappointing. He’s the most frightening and mysterious thing in the series. It’s nice how the horror and mystery have a more thematic importance, instead of a puzzle for a reader to solve. These routes aren’t developed enough.

It’s a decent novel. It avoids the pitfalls of a transition. The story stands on its own and it’s written in a way that’s accessible for newcomers. It’s meant to be a stand-alone horror story and doesn’t have fanservice. The themes of the franchise dominate it – childhood and growing up – instead of the stereotypical jumpscares. The novel reads too much like a first-timer. Cawthon needed help from someone more professional. Still, it’s good to see him stretching himself. So far, he’s pushing the franchise in new direction. If it fails, at least it’s not because of a re-hash.

2.5 animatronics out of 5

Siri Hustvedt – The Summer Without Men

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Chick Lit is a dirty word. Reading other reviews of this novel, many expressed fear that this would be Chick Lit and therefore a waste of time. While I didn’t have the fortune of reading Chick Lit, I heard it’s full of romance and character drama. Why is that considered so bad while Game of Thrones is praised for being ‘surprising’ is unclear. Maybe it’s just our society’s fear of femininty.

Femininity is a big issue in The Summer Without Men. The novel does live up to its title. There’s a moment where, instead of a teenage boy meeting the teenage girl it’s just her friends trapping her. Even the best female singers sing about wrecked relationships, while Marilyn Manson writes about metaphysical rebellions. We could definitely use a story to show us women can have a life outside relationships with men.

It happens in real life, too. I met many ‘tomboys’, women who’d rather be one of the boys and only get along with fellow tomboys. The subtle bullying of Cat’s Eye makes an appearance. The whole premise of the novel is, what do you when the opposite gender rejects you?

There are two possible conclusions here. One is not convincing enough and the other isn’t explored. Mia looks at her rubble and builds a house. That’s nice and all, but we’re just told that it happens instead of seeing it.

Siri employs a style similar to Paul Auster. It’s an introspective style with more telling than showing. It creates a maze of thoughts that you’re supposed to swim through and come up with something of your own. The key to making the style works is to make the narrator unreliable and deeply flawed.

Narrators of such stories tend to have an emotional affliction they can’t get over. It clouds their judgment and so we get two different versions of reality. One is presented in the details. The other is in the langauge and sentence structure. These are often obsessive characters, going over certain details over and over.

By presenting these characters as flawed and often the opposite of heroic, we’re invited to try to find the reality beyond the character’s perception. Mia lacks such an internal struggle. She has a psychotic episode, but we’re told that instead of being shown. In Catcher in the Rye, we’re not told that Caulfield has PTSD but we’re shown it by seeing him going over and over his brother’s death. A maze of thoughts tells us how reality is while showing us who the character is by his choice of langauge.

I never got an idea of who Mia is. What is her complex? What are her priorities? What is her worldview? She’s supposed to have had a psychotic episode, but the prose is clean and precise. It makes it easy to read, but I’d expect someone in an emotional turmoil to not be very coherent. The rambling style was necessary in those aforementioned novels because a character with emotional problems would be too busy venting them then making sure his words make sense.

The closest she come to doing that is breaking up the structure. She moves from topic to topic, rather than follow the typical “this happened and then this happened”. This works because the novel has a few different storylines that stand on their own, but that’s not a way to express Mia’s character. It’s just a way to make us take each individual story on its own, rather than try to make sense of the chronological order.

The stories themselves, while good, don’t rely enough on the rambling narrator tool. Stories with rambling narrators aren’t eventful. It’s less important what happens and more how it affects the characters. The action in this novel doesn’t, if it’s psychological, with Mia’s psychology.

There are two main arcs. One has a group of old ladies slowly dying out, and the other a group of young girls who are just entering the teenage wasteland. At this point, the novel is less about Mia and more about these characters. We get Mia’s opinion of them, but we also get some showing.

Siri needed to decide whether Mia gives us only her point of view, or whether she’s an observer who just reports what she says. We get something in the middle, which means it’s teasing without the orgasm. The arc with the old ladies is well-meaning, but is doomed from the start. One of the old ladies’ secret is that she makes quilts with hidden, profane images.

Siri was, what, 55 when she wrote the novel? There is the perception that old people are all prudes, but making them be into profanity doesn’t add any more life to them. The cliche of the Dirty Old Man or the old woman who seeks a sugar daddy are boring. If the only proof we have that this old lady still has life in her is her interest in profanity, then I don’t think she has much life in her left. Profanity is attention seeking. True rebels don’t care.

Profanity is impressive when you’re young, but by the time high school started it lost its charm. You occasionally get people who know how to use it, like what Bring Me the Horizon did in “Happy Song”. Most people, including the character in this novel, use it for pathetic shock value. When Abigail showed Mia that she put naked women in hidden in the quilt, I did not see an old lady with life still in her. I saw an old lady whose horizons are now so limited she can’t imagine anything more exciting other than profanity. By the way, this novel was published before Bring Me the Horizon’s album.

The almost-teenagers work better, but they deserve a whole novel to themselves. They are forced to write about the incident of bullying from the perspective of everyone else. This is a brilliant idea. How a character writes about another can tell us about both, and if an author is going to tackle this idea head-on we can get some serious character development.

Siri doesn’t do it. All we get is some snippets. They’re interesting enough, but again it’s all just teasing without even foreplay to compensate. There’s an attempt to understand the bully just like the bullied. It’s an interesting take that recognizes the cruelty of bullying, how these little thing produces social retards. It also tries to understand why bullies start in the first place. Many of them are sure they’re in the right and that the bullied just has a superiority complex. Siri touches that, but not enough.

There are off-topic digressions which don’t contribute much and reinforce the feeling this is just a collection of notes for an incomplete novel. Siri at least puts effort into writing her notes. Her prose flows smoothly and whenever she sinks deep into Mia’s psyche it gets better. The beginning is powerful, throwing us right in the middle of heartbreak and all the self-pity and anger that accompanies it. If Siri would let her loose a little and let Mia ramble, this could’ve been a great novel.

The Summer Without Men is too written-well to be bad. Even if everything in it is left unexplored, everything is interesting enough to make you want to do something with it yourself. The prose is pretty good and it’s short enough so it doesn’t drag. A good choice if you want a light read that’s not stupid, but that’s it.

3 summers out of 5