Wednesday, January 20. 2010
When I first heard the premise of "Ratatouille", Pixar's 2007 tale of a rat trying to become a chef in Paris, I thought I heard the most unlikely high concept imaginable. Think of what the pitch must have been like: "Let's take a garbage-eating rat and put him in with high cuisine." Neither cuddly nor appetizing.
But then came Up, and I heard an even more un-Hollywood premise for a family film: "Let's tell the story of an old man who loses his wife before he could ever fulfill their shared dreams." A typical studio exec would pick his jaw up off the floor and say, "Yeah, great, Oscar potential, but this is not going to sell plush dolls."
Yet for all the gravity of the subject, Up defies gravity, and maintains a life-affirming tone throughout. The silent montage that summarizes Carl and Ellie's life had me in tears, and yet even at the end of it my wife could say, "Oh, that's so sweet." Bittersweet, that is, and beautiful in an achy sort of way. I wonder if the kids in the audience can follow the full pathos. As Carl turns the page in the scrapbook past "Things I'm Going to Do" and finds blank pages, did the theater echo with: "Daddy, why are you crying?"
It was the profound realness of Carl's life, and Ellie's death, that provides sufficient counterweight to all the credulity-stretching premises that follow: the floating house, the talking dogs, the old man finding an even older hero, a protagonist who starts the story needing a chair-lift and ends in a leaping, climbing, rope-sliding, cane-dueling rescue attempt. It is all so perfectly unbelievable, and it doesn't matter, because what is happening inside Carl is so perfectly true.
Whenever a house features prominently in a story, you should brace yourself for Jungean archtypes: "Coraline" and "Howl's Moving Castle" are recent examples. Up is no exception. A house is a classic symbol of the self, and Carl's house follows the same transformation he does. It starts as his childhood playground, with the promise of adventure. It later becomes the center of his adult life, loaded up with the full pleasures, painful disappointments, and unfulfilled dreams that humans are prone to. In old age it is his refuge, the last vessel of everything he holds dear. He struggles to preserve the old dream, flying his house away, even dragging his house behind him over mountains (he is literally "tied to his past"). But in the end, he lets go of the past, empties his house of its old furniture, and sets off on a new mission. When Carl transcends his old life, sacrificing it for worthy cause, only then does it finally drift down to its proper place above Paradise Falls. The dream is fulfilled only when Carl no longer needs it.
Friday, January 1. 2010
Happy New Year!
A small gift I picked up at Kenny's New Year's Eve party, which I will pass on to you: an essay from the New York Times that reminds me what is possible with popular writing on philosophy.
Ross Douthat's essay analyzes James Cameron's latest blockbuster "Avatar" and finds it is one more Hollywood tribute to pantheism, along with the likes of "Dances with Wolves", "The Lion King", and "Star Wars". That's obvious enough; the American audience is familiar by now with ham-fisted eco-fables that glorify Nature and those who commune with it. (I would throw in "Princess Mononoke", too, but Joe Morgenstern beat me to the punch.)
But Douthat moved beyond the obvious, to make a spot-on analysis of why American movies have been so taken with pantheism: ambivalence about technology, and the need for a more immediate (and less inconvenient) sense of divinity. And, even better still, he provides as terse, eloquent, and devastating a critique of pantheism as you'll ever find in 190 words.
How could they possibly allow this much wisdom in a newspaper? And in the Times, no less?
And that's just the content. On a process level, check out the dude's bibliography. My enduring respect goes to anyone who can cite five movies, two gurus, a Pew Forum report, a historian, four philosophers, and a scientist (not to mention the casual allusions to Christian theology)inside of 800 words, and not even break his conversational tone. That's what Augie would call "Plato to NATO" -- a well-read person bringing the full weight of their intellect to a conversation, even if it is just about a pop sci-fi movie.
I continue to despair of writing anything remarkable, but for different reasons than before. Once upon a time it felt like people like me, or Kenny Felder, or Augie Turak were all alone in the cultural landscape. The volume of the cultural noise has gone way up in the last decade, but amidst the ocean of drivel there is more sensible thinking to be found than ever before.
So, here's to a new year, a new decade, and the ongoing hope that wisdom is possible, if not easy.
Monday, May 25. 2009
In the hands of any other studio, WALL-E would be unwatchable. The eco-tale would have been way too heavy-handed -- just another manifestation of our cultures' current passion for pretending to do things to save the planet. But, as it happens, this is a Pixar film, where story-telling is the number one mission, and the writers know that a mere moral is not the engine of compelling narrative. While WALL-E presents one of the most repulsive of dystopias I've ever come across, it doesn't seem to have any particular ax to grind. It tells the story, and lets the political and philosophical chips fall where they may. It is that innocence, that willingness to let the story lead us where it will, that charms me.
Had DreamWorks done this film, it would be stuffed with sly digs at current cultural figures -- we would be watching WALL-E doing impressions of George W. that he picked up from salvaged videotape. But WALL-E does not have an ironic circuit in his chassis. He doesn't despise the consumerist culture that has buried the planet in trash; rather, he marvels at the artifacts he finds, celebrating the mysteries of a Rubic's Cube, or the delight of popping bubble wrap. WALL-E loves this junk, because he senses the purpose and passions of the humanity that brought it about.
Nor does the movie vilify technology. (How could it, when its protagonists are technological wonders?) Robots are not the dehumanized, thoughtless powers of destruction, as two and a half decades of Terminator movies have taught us, but rather the builders and helpers we always wanted, as ingenious and limited as their creators. The robots, at least, have the virtues of diligence and faithfulness, a passion for the Directive. It's the humans who seem mindlessly mechanical, trapped in an endless cycle of virtual pseudo-pleasures. But even the people (always the villains of the eco-fable) are treated with gentleness and respect. For all of their ignorance and big-fat-slobdom, all the people are basically decent, sometimes even heroic, and instead of hating them for losing their humanity we find ourselves loving them for regaining it.
Having read several books about minds and machines lately (Pinker, Dennett, Hofstadter, etc.) I couldn't help but ponder over the lives of the robots. Pinker suggested that a truly intelligent robot would have to have something like emotions -- high-level, diffuse motivations -- to be able to function independently without direction. WALL-E seems to capture that vision of artificial intelligence quite well. The cleaning droid Mo doesn't just clean, he has a passion for cleaning, and the sight of WALL-E's dirty tracks excite such a furious need in him that he overcomes the other directives that usually keep confined to the flight deck. Eve doesn't just seek out life -- she is frustrated when she can't find it, overjoyed when she does find it, bitterly disappointed when she loses it. In the emotional lives of machines, we see the reflection of our own needs. People long for purpose, to strive for a goal, because without striving we are merely existing. I loved how the Captain of the Axiom saw the bleak cityscape of earth, and in spite of it said, "We have to go back." Life isn't living without struggle. To work is human.
Wednesday, May 13. 2009
I recently discovered the NetFlix Instant feature, that allows you to download and instantly view movies. I've come to think of it as "Where Commercially Unsuccessful Films Go To Die", because the vast majority of the films offered do not interest me, and with good reason. It's as if the studios said, "Aw, what the hell, we're not getting any more out of this old thing anyway, let 'em download it and see what happens. I only wish folks would start pirating the damn thing." Sometimes there are really good, really old films that are so mined out that they go to Instant -- e.g. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven -- but mostly they are trash-films from two or three years ago, or an underappreciated gem that underperformed. Which, from a studio executive's point of view, is the same as trash.
So, I have a mixed reaction when I see a film I actually would want to see show up in the Instant section. When Joss Whedon's Serenity showed up, I thought, "YES! . . . I mean . . . Aw, that's too bad." Serenity is a really, really good movie, and it pains me to see it sitting next to Hellraiser III.
I got another one of these forsaken classics this week: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Prince Caspian was one of the better Narnia books, so you think it would make a better film than The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. And you would be right. Director Andrew Adamson wins the Peter Jackson "Oh My God, That's Exactly How I Imagined It" Award with the ruins of Cair Paravel and the entire character of Reepicheep.
Adamson also succeeds at staying true to the essential nature and intent of the story, but not letting that get in the way of making a good movie. Critics had complained that the first Narnia movie couldn't sustain much action because its protagonists were so young, so it looks like the producers focused on making this one a little faster and more furious. Peter's swordplay still feels a little sluggish, though his duel with Miraz sustained the dramatic tension fairly well. Meanwhile, Susan seems to be giving Legolas a run for his money in the "Bows are so badass" category, not to mention reminding us that red fletching is the perfect accessory to a killer outfit:
Speaking of which, I imagine that C. S. Lewis, were he writing a Hollywood script instead of a Christian allegory, would be kicking himself for not using the story devices incorporated in this Prince Caspian film: "Of course! Frustrated romantic tension between Susan and Caspian! Why didn't I think of that?" The movie is full of similar innovations, which deviate from the text's literal plot but not from its mood or overall theme. Nikabrik's plot to summon the White Witch, for instance, kept all the best dialogue, but blew it up to a visually dramatic action sequence instead of just a quick brawl in the dark. I don't remember a lot about the actual war campaign from the book, which shows that the movie did a better story-telling job when it came to the failed attack on Miraz' castle and the ego-battles between Caspian and Peter. Narnia fans should rejoice; a basically faithful adaptation also turned out to be a fun movie.
Ok, now that I have the fanboy stuff out of the way, a few more thoughtful reflections.
Maybe its just that movies and games have become so much more graphically violent, that I recognize a conscious retreat back to earlier movie conventions. I have seen so many blood-smeared faces since Braveheart and Gladiator that it strikes me as singularly odd to have a full-scale battle scene where not a single drop of blood is shed. People (and centaurs, and fauns, etc. etc.) get shot with arrows, crushed under rocks, slashed with swords, and the only evidence of damage done is a short surprised grunt before collapsing to the ground. No blood. Ever. No screams, either -- howling in agony does not happen in magical fairylands. So I ask myself -- is this better? True, it's not dulling our capacity for horror by bathing us in gore . . . But do we do any better, making battle look so clean and . . . noble? C.S. Lewis, a veteran of war, believed in the just use of violence and would probably approve of his heroes and heroines being unapologetically forceful in their cause. But I wouldn't want to disconnect it from the consequences, either. My favorite scene in the whole movie, the one that showed the most depth and courage, is when Peter is standing on the bridge of the castle, gazing back at his troops trapped behind a gate, realizing that because he made the wrong decision, his friends and comrades are doomed to die. In that one slow-motion moment, we feel everything about that war -- the horror of battle, the nobility of their sacrifice, the terror of the struggle, and the awful need to keep moving through unspeakable grief. Now that is war.
Saturday, March 21. 2009
I hope that when BeliefNet and other such outlets are judging “best spiritual films” for 2009, they will include Coraline, Henry Selick’s 3-D stop-motion animation adaption of Neil Gaiman’s novel. I’ve been a fan of Gaiman’s Sandman comic for years, and Coraline has the same creepy-fantastic-dreamworld feeling that pervades Gaiman’s stories of the King of Dreams. And, like Sandman or Pan’s Labyrinth, you go into it thinking you’re getting fantasy and are shocked to find that it’s really horror, a genre you wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot-pole had you not been tricked into it. Then you have to deal with the surprising self-knowledge that you kind of like horror, if it’s done right.
Many parents will see trailers and think this is another Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride – that is, faux horror, a cute take on horror, not real horror. But when the MPAA ratings say “PG for thematic elements,” they mean that the movie is designed to creep you out. Critics seemed to differ on whether this is a good thing or not – some found it to be a defect in what they continued to mistake for a children’s film, while others recognized it as the film’s conscious achievement.
So, if Coraline is so horrific, why then am I proposing it as a “spiritual” film? Partially, it’s to cure the prevailing notion that “spiritual” is synonymous with sunshiny, feel-good moral uplift. There can be a lot of spiritual value in being disturbed, and sometimes the best way to discover the light is to face the darkness. But besides that, Coraline is packed with so much Jungean archetypal imagery and spiritual themes that some pop-culture grad student is certainly writing their Master’s thesis on it right now.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I would catch the DVD and then see if you caught the same details I did (caution: spoilers follow):
Continue reading "Coraline"
Friday, January 16. 2009
I just wanted to give a shout-out to Joss Whedon's latest accomplishment, the DVD release of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. Normally a DVD release is only newsworthy in NetFlix spam and casual tie-ins on Fresh Air, but this truly is news because it features a work as startlingly original as the first. The commentary track on the film is not merely commentary, but Commentary! The Musical. As if Joss hadn't already proven his song-writing chops with two musical features, now he goes and creates an hour-long musical to comment on his hour-long musical. Commentary contains twice as much music as the original Dr. Horrible score, prompting Joss to call it "the most painstaking and exhausting piece of whimsy ever mistaken for a good idea."
I remember when the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was originally announced, I expected that it would be a one-off tangential episode, completely off the beaten path of the regular show and its story arc. I was shocked and amazed that Joss did just the opposite – not only did it include all the elements of a typical Buffy episode, it was in fact the pivotal plot turn for the entire season. And recently, when I heard about Commentary, I made the exact same mistake. Half of delivering amazing surprises is starting with low expectations.
Commentary delivers all the things you expect from a DVD commentary: discussions of how the film idea originated, who wrote particular scenes, casting decisions, inside jokes, what the cast and crew ate that day, jibes at each others' expense, actors shilling for their new projects, etc. And Joss put it all in verse and music . . . some of it, really good music. I still find myself humming "Ninja Ropes", a tribute to the actors favorite video game time-killer, and "Better Than Neil," Nathan Fillion's extended crack on Neil Patrick Harris' starring role.
It was a little disorienting, at first, to hear people singing over top of the film – my brain is simply not used to processing music and lyrics and vaguely related video at the same time. And sometimes I had to strain to make out the lyrics – you don't appreciate good musical enunciation until you hear Neil Patrick Harris (the Broadway veteran) come through crystal-clear in a solo at the end, making the others sound fuzzy in comparison.
But these are just nits . . . the overall impression is: "Wow." I heard Fresh Air TV critic, David Bianculli, call Joss "the next Sondheim." Of course, he also had to add, "Who'd have thought?" Joss is like that . . . startlingly, unexpectedly good.
Sunday, January 11. 2009
Janet and I had our first "date" in many months last night. We had gotten so lazy about it we even blew off our anniversary. Nice to get a quick start on completing my goals for the year . . .
We went out the Chelsea to watch The Reader, a post-World War II period romance . . . I guess. It's one of those films that reviewers struggle to categorize and describe in a brief blurb. Since I tried and failed three times, I'll just lift it from IMDB: "Nearly a decade after his affair with an older woman came to a mysterious end, law student Michael Burk re-encounters his former lover as she defends herself in a war-crime trial."
It was kind of nice to watch a film that had no digital effects whatsoever – I had almost forgotten what movies looked like before green-screens and CGI. Unless, perhaps, they blew their entire special effects budget on aging Kate Winslet. She did such a great job turning herself into a stern, pretty-in-a-totally-plain-way German matron that I totally forgot she was in the movie until they rolled credits at the end. I admire actors and actresses who give themselves over to roles that are physically unflattering. Directors and casting agents will remember this film as the one that proved Kate Winslet can play any age; on the strength of this one performance, she'll be getting work into her sixties.
This was such a German story, full of passion overpowered by shame and repression. (Warning: spoilers follow.) Hanna Smitz's secret shame is that she is illiterate, and she has probably spent enormous energy her entire life to hide it. Her shame is so deep, so engrained in her character, that she would rather confess to writing a damning Nazi document and be convicted for murder than reveal her secret. This seemed like such an odd plot twist, and yet it rang true, psychologically – our deepest shames are the earliest ones. Michael is trapped in a parallel shame: he stands by and watches his love sentenced to life in prison, rather than confess his secret affair. His victory over the past only comes when he can tell the story.
I thought it was interesting that the Jewish survivor's summation of Auschwitz – "Nothing good came out of the camps. Nothing." – is fairly close to Hanna's – "It doesn't matter what I think. It doesn't matter what feel. The dead are still dead." Both of them see no chance for redeeming the past. The Jew is completely unwilling to forgive, and the Nazi is completely unwilling to be forgiven. I don't think either of them realizes how close they are to each other. An unwillingness to forgive implies an unwillingness to accept forgiveness, and someone unwilling to accept forgiveness is someone who believes they can do no wrong.
Wednesday, October 29. 2008
A couple years ago I reviewed Appleseed, the movie incarnation of the mech manga. I liked it. So then I saw that NetFlix Instant had a sequel, Appleseed: Ex Machina, that fans raved about, and I thought it would be fun.
My God, how much has changed about computer animation, and yet how much has stayed the same.
The imitation of the physical world has gotten phenomenally good. Computers can make water, smoke, rain, reflections, sunlight and sound effects are unspeakably real. The imitation of human beings, however, remains tantalizingly stalled in the "eerie chasm" – simulations that are almost-but-not-quite human are more disturbing to look at than simpler animation. There are moments in the movie when Briareos or Deunan moved with startling naturalness, and my human-detectors scream, "That's it! That's a human being moving!" But then, just as quickly, it's gone, replaced by that floaty, gliding movement you see in video games. (There's something about big, tough he-man characters walking with the light evenness of a ballet dancer that's so -- and I must say this -- gay.)
Appleseed: Ex Machina was good. It would have been great, except that it borrowed so shamelessly from every other major sci-fi action film that it was mildly pathetic. It became a game of spot-the-ripped-off-scene:
It was all well done, but by the end I felt like no good action sequence had gone unrecycled . . . Including sequences from the original Appleseed, which also opens with a fast-paced fire-fight in an empty cathedral against ruthless cyborgs. To its credit, while the movie might pillage all it can from the Wachowskis, it also avoids their sins: repetitive fight scenes, talky philosophic tirades, and confusing plot-lines. This is straight action with just a little philosophy for flavor.
There was one part of the plot that I found surprisingly, startlingly true. I won't spoil anything by telling you about it, because it's so freaking obvious. The bad guys do some mind-control on an unwitting population through a popular PDA-like device called a Connexus. Anyone wearing the Bluetoothy earpiece gets turned into a zombie when the evil signal is broadcast. That part wasn't surprising. What was surprising -- and true -- was that even after the good guys figure it out and tell the world it's dangerous, you still have lots of users saying, "What?!? I can't live without this thing." If word got out that Steve Jobs was controlling people's minds through their iPods and iPhones, you would still see people wearing them. Kinda gives new meaning to the term, "killer app."
Monday, July 21. 2008
The problem with most punditry is that commentators are rarely held accountable to their predictions. By the time events pan out, everyone's lost interest and moved on to new predictions. So, when I make predictions, I try to keep accurate score. (Warning: spoilers follow).
With Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, I correctly predicted that Dr. Horrible would win a compromised victory, one that left him in pain. That one was pretty easy â€“ as I said before, Joss' whole philosophy of story-telling is that pain is the basis for sympathy and human connection. If the main character isn't in pain, we lose interest pretty quickly.
Where I went totally off the rails was in predicting a greater role for Penny in the unfolding of events. I thought she would have some kind of agency in the way things turn out . . . but nope, she was just cannon-fodder. In my defense, a lot of other people had exactly the same critique of Act III: couldn't we have the girl do a little more than just be the passive motivator for the macho-men? But I will let that go . . . for writing seven years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss deserves an automatic bye on any feminist critiques. Once in a while, a guy deserves to be allowed to write a passive female role.
What also surprised me, but I didn't articulate very clearly in my predictions, was how much Hope got overshadowed by Pain in the conclusion. The structure of the songs and the story suggested a dynamic tension between Penny's world-view (do-gooding is good, what matters is human connection) and Billy's (do-gooding is for saps, what matters is who has the power). The third act doesn't do much to contradict Billy's position; Penny's reward for her do-gooding is to be publically humiliated shortly before she gets killed. I had expected at least one more song from Penny to stake out Hope's position: "All your Power and Domination is bereft of meaning, so who's the sap?" Rather than just falling in love with Penny the object-of-desire, Dr. Horrible could have fallen in love with Penny's virtue, and wished from afar that he could be that way. That would have made the tragedy of Billy's fall more complete, and also perhaps have indicated a path for his eventual redemption in a sequel. Instead, everything about Penny's behavior, right up to her dying words ("Captain Hammer will save us!") confirm that she really is a deluded sap. I think Joss' absurdist philosophy got the better of him, here.
^Â Â Â Â ^Â Â Â Â ^
At the risk of appearing like a raving fanboy with no life, there's a few more random items I wanted to point out, simply because the begged for someone to notice them:
Sunday, July 20. 2008
(Warning: spoilers for Act III of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog follow.)
I . . . man.
I seriously underestimated Joss' guts when it comes to story-telling. I saw the darkness looming in the story, but I didn't think he could go all the way into Wagnerian tragedy with a premise as silly as "Dr. Horrible." And yet he did . . . and convincingly, too.
I should have known there would be blood. Bad Horse had called for blood repeatedly. It couldn't have been otherwise. And death was really too good for Captain Hammer â€“ he needed to be utterly humiliated for the story arc to complete itself. So the blood had to be Penny's. And Billy's descent into full-bore villainy is seen for the human tragedy it is. Billy's decency never left him â€“ in spite of his rage, he hesitated to pull the trigger on Captain Hammer, even while calling for "no mercy." Horrible's "victory" was achieved, ironically, by his own incompetence at evil â€“ had the freeze ray held a minute longer, or the death ray not blown up in Hammer's hands, things would have turned out very differently. And equally telling that it's Hammer's arrogance (and genuine lack of remorse) that ultimately defeats himself and does in Penny, too. So Horrible stumbles across the threshold into full-bore villainy, more the victim of a corrupt society than a willing agent . . . and we feel, with him, the hollowness of his victory, and ultimately, the complete loss of any feeling at all.
"Feeling" is the real theme of the entire story. Both Billy and Penny show their humanity in their capacity to feel pain, which opens to them the capacity for empathy and connection to other people. Captain Hammer evidently never felt a moment's pain in his whole life . . . making him an arrogant self-serving tool. When Hammer does finally feel pain, his capacity to oppress is completely undone. And only when Billy's capacity to feel is extinguished, numb with grief and horror, can he become truly Horrible.
"Pretending" could contend as the central theme, too. Joss mercilessly pounds on the shallowness and banality of society in the final episode, demonstrating how it hides from inconvenient truths with pasteboard heroes, thin veneers of caring over the power of the status quo. I thought it was a sweet to see Penny sitting in the Coin Wash, obviously waiting for Billy, extra frozen yogurt at the ready, and she asks herself, "Should I stop pretending?" Even at that point she knew she was playing along with something less than genuine, denying her real feelings for Billy in favor of the security of being with the established power of Captain Hammer. She alone had the sense to be mortified by Captain Hammer's speech at the dedication . . . but too late. All that pretending â€“ Hammer pretending to be compassionate, Penny pretending to love him, Billy pretending to be the villain he really wasn't â€“ was what ultimately creates the tragedy.
I love the last cut of the film. We see Dr. Horrible fully realized, his white coat and gloves traded for red and black, walking into his place in the Evil League of Evil . . . but at the very last we cut back to Billy's blog. Billy: still human, still small and alone, calling out to the world from his blog, still a human being. This is "Horrible"'s greatest achievement: to humanize evil, to see the person behind the mask.
(Page 1 of 3, totaling 28 entries) » next page
Syndicate This Blog