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March 25, 2008

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi

Great Names in Direct to Video

"Tinarie Van Wyk-Loots."

That is all.

January 29, 2008

Filed under: movies»commentary»action

iWar

If you watched Live Free or Die Hard (verdict: not bad at all), you might have noticed two things. The first, for DC residents, is how little effort they actually put into making the sets look like DC. The taxis here aren't usually yellow, people. Try to actually visit your locations.

Also, in the opening credits, you might have seen that the movie is based on "A Farewell to Arms," by John Carlin. I remember wondering what was up with that--was it a short story that they'd adapted? A novel?

Nope. It's this 1997 Wired article on information warfare preparation. Which is interesting for a number of reasons, one of which is that almost none of it has (as far as I'm aware) come true. Good news for the rest of us, I guess. Bruce Willis isn't getting any younger.

July 31, 2007

Filed under: movies»commentary»superhero

Soon We Will Be Invincible

If you bring up superheroes outside of comics, sooner or later someone will mention The Incredibles. It happened to me lately. And much like Harry Potter, you're not supposed to dislike The Incredibles. It's a Pixar film, after all. What are you, some sort of hateful hater, filled to the brim with more hate, and living on 101 Hate Lane? How could you feel that way about The Incredibles?

The answer "because it's fascist propaganda" is probably not the most tactful response, in case you wondered.

In order to understand this, you have to separate the story of the movie, which is crafted with Pixar's typical care and humor, from its message, which is abhorrent. Ignore the villain's desire to conquer the world, and ignore his ruthless demeanor. Pay no attention to the charming way that the Parr family reacts to each other, and actually listen to what each character is saying:

Mr. Incredible: You mean you killed off real heroes so that you could *pretend* to be one?
Syndrome: Oh, I'm real. Real enough to defeat you! And I did it without your precious gifts, your oh-so-special powers. I'll give them heroics. I'll give them the most spectacular heroics the world has ever seen! And when I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions so that *everyone* can have powers. *Everyone* can be Super! And when everyone's Super...
[chuckles evilly]
Syndrome: No one will be.
That's not an isolated line, either. The theme of "if everyone's special, no-one is special" gets parroted by several characters, although the emphasis changes--family brat Dash clearly stands in for the audience when he despises this philosophy, since it's the rationale his parents use to keep him from using his superspeed, while Syndrome just as clearly thinks it's a great e-e-e-evil plan.

One is forced to wonder, frankly, why this is supposed to be such an evil plan. We don't wonder why Syndrome is a villain, naturally--he makes that perfectly clear by using heroes as guinea pigs for his doom machines, and planning to manipulate the populace for his own benefit. But these don't follow directly from the "special" sentiment. They're standard bad-guy plots, which have been applied to a strawman philosophy in order to demonize it. The same thing happens with the Parr family: they're undercover to keep from being sued, which may be a shame but doesn't have anything to do with some mythical "everyone's special" point of view.

And of course, we have no reason to believe that if everyone were special in some way, that everyone would be devalued, apart from the way that The Incredibles stacks the deck. Surely everyone can have their own special gifts in their own way. It's ridiculous to think that if Syndrome could sell everyone a pair of jet boots, all of a sudden we would be plunged into a world of mediocrity. Why should it be a bad thing that everyone could reap the benefits of superpowers? Wouldn't you like to have a pair of jetboots? I would. The only possible way that you could see this in a negative light would be if your worldview is divided into two groups: those who have inborn powers (the Supers), and those who don't (and are therefore inferior mediocrities). There's something of this viewpoint evident in the contempt shown by the "natural" heroes and villains for Syndrome, who dares to work hard and build his own super powers, thus artificially crossing over from unter- to ubermensch.

I am not, by the way, the only person to have noticed this. Search Google for "the incredibles and ayn rand" and you will find many critics who have noticed its... unusual subtext.

In the film's defense, as with so many other lovingly-rendered details (the montage of cape-related disasters, the references to "monologuing,") this philosophy is true to the comic source. As a friend of mine has pointed out when we were discussing this problem, superheroes are the ultimate fantasy of agency by the powerless. They ask, "what would you do if you had amazing powers and no-one could stop you?" Dramatically, I agree that it's a fun thought experiment, and it's made for some great pop cultural moments. But it's a terrible basis for a moral or ethical message, because it by definition puts the wants and needs of other people secondary. It always assumes that the majority of people are only either A) targets to be protected, B) collateral damage, or C) barriers to the hero's progress. In almost all cases, the hero must work from outside (or even against) the system put into place by and for normal people--a point of view that's often held by fanatics and radicals, both conservative and liberal.

Both in terms of comics and their adaptation, this radical perspective is jarring when extracted from its customary position because it's so far from the usual message of American feel-good entertainment. We're used to Saturday morning fare and kids' movies (or many times, even films targeted at adults) that remind us that everyone has something of which they can be proud, or that hard work can take a person far. At times, especially for cynics, the clumsy moralizing of these plotlines may seem cloying or heavy-handed, but consider the alternative. It's hard to imagine a cartoon subtly arguing that "some people have gifts, and they are better people, who should not be restricted by society," but that's exactly what The Incredibles does. Viewers may dilute this message on their own by believing that they, too, are part of the special group, but it doesn't change the caricature of the masses oppressing their betters--shades of John Galt!

The reason that many reviews of The Incredibles mention its agenda but forgive it anyway is that the movie is honestly an amazing work of art. It's filled with clever homage, underhanded references, and witty dialogue. It's funny, and fun to watch. I admit that, but I also believe that good art and bad reasoning are not mutually exclusive. There are good reasons that Triumph of the Will is still shown to film and media criticism classes to this day--which is not to say that Pixar is on the same level as Riefenstahl. I only wish that its ideology--one shared with several genres of popular fiction--saw a little more critical awareness. We may not always want to admit it, but superheroes are a significant influence on American culture, from Spiderman to Batman, Captain America to the Tick. It would be nice if there were a little more discussion on what that ethically implies.

January 17, 2007

Filed under: movies»commentary»classic

La Jetee

Warren Ellis found the classic French film, La Jetee, on Google Video. If you've seen 12 Monkeys, you'll recognize parts of the plot and some design elements, since Gilliam's film was basically a remake. I'd never seen the original before. Ironically, the use of relatively banal still images juxtaposed with matter-of-factly surreal narration makes the film seem older than it actually is (1962), but also makes it ideally-suited for low bandwidth online video.

May 9, 2006

Filed under: movies»commentary»cult

Maxximum

Last night, prompted by some strange chain of links, I found myself watching MTV's short-lived adaptation of The Maxx, which you can find on YouTube here. I remember when my family first moved to Virginia and we were living in an apartment temporarily until we could find a real house, I sometimes stayed up late and watched the bizarre animations that MTV was playing (anyone else remember Liquid Television?). The Maxx is one of the more intriguing examples. Theoretically it's about a big, purple, Tick-like superhero named the Maxx--but since he's actually a big, purple, Tick-like homeless guy who involuntarily finds himself in a dream-world (or hallucinates the whole thing), there's not a lot of classic superhero-ing taking place. The Maxx is mixed up with a freelance social worker named Julie and a serial killer named Mr. Gone, all three of whom begin to increasingly blur the line between the dream and reality.

It's pretty strange, but oddly affecting. Whether or not it eventually makes any sense, I found it captivating due largely to the stellar voice acting. The animation is also surprisingly well-done, combining traditional cell art with mattes and limited CG, mixing art styles as it moves through different story arcs--a bit like Furi Kuri. Until it comes out on DVD, it looks like YouTube is the only place to watch it.

March 2, 2006

Filed under: movies»commentary»others

Vendetta Vetted

James Wolcott likes V for Vendetta. It's hard to predict how the movie will turn out--the Wachowskis have shown that for every subtle or gripping directorial choice (most of The Matrix or Bound), they can also make one that's clumsy or overindulgent (the first ten minutes of Bound or the last two movies of The Matrix). V has, compared to Moore's other works and to its advantage, a much more over-the-top Hollywood plot. It's less likely to be sabotaged than the literate references of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

January 11, 2006

Filed under: movies»commentary»independent

Brokeback Mountain

The albatross around the neck of Brokeback Mountain is that it is "the gay cowboy movie." I hate to say that. It's not the fault of the director, or the actors. It's a product of our unfortunate political climate, I think. And it means that you spend the first half-hour of the movie wondering when Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall are going to make out. Granted, in a perfect world a lot of people would still be spending the first thirty minutes wondering, but it'd be of their own volition.

Brokeback continues on to be a fine film, even a powerful film. It reminds me very much of Ennis, Ledger's character. He doesn't talk much, he doesn't really make eye contact with people, and he's not terribly good at figuring out his own drives. Like Ennis, Brokeback Mountain mumbles along without drawing your attention to its craftsmanship. It's not flashy. But Ang Lee basically asks us at the end of the movie to look back across its arc, and I was a little surprised at how deeply it resonated for something that seemed very humble as I was watching it.

I'm reminded of last year's Saving Face, which faced similar barriers as "the Chinese lesbian movie" (I could probably write a whole other post on why one of them is about gay cowboys and the other is Chinese lesbians). Both movies work better if you can ignore the PR and watch them as the genre films they actually are. This isn't to say that the homosexual aspects of each aren't important, since both of them integrate those aspects into the plot and into the characters. But it's a far cry from, say, Bound, where the lesbian relationship is almost completely a gimmick that cashes in early and is then discarded. Even if that movie treated sexuality respectfully (again, another post completely), its meta-thematic representation was exploitative. I think that the public labels for Saving Face and Brokeback Mountain are attempts to trivialize films that are willing to handle sexuality the same way they address any other aspect of character.

My inner optimist hopes that enough people will watch Brokeback that the narrative will be turned on its head. Instead of being the "gay cowboy movie," it'd be "the movie that everyone said was just gay cowboys, but was actually really good." It's not going to magically spread tolerance on its own, but it might crack the market open just a bit.

My inner pessimist says "Sure. Just like the waves of tolerance that swept America after Philadelphia and Will and Grace. How'd that 2004 election work out for you?"

September 7, 2005

Filed under: movies»commentary»translation

Observations after watching The Grudge in Spanish

(don't ask)

  • Where it's at: Isn't it amazing that they made a movie set in Japan, based on a Japanese film and a fictionalized Japanese folklore, and yet it somehow has no actual Japanese people in anything other than bit parts? How can we explain this away? Are Americans really that challenged by Asian actors in film?
  • Dub this: I can't decide if localization into other languages is just lazy or incompetent. Why, in a movie already dubbed into Spanish, does Ted Raimi's character complain that he only speaks it a little? Why did they leave the English-for-Japanese subtitles at the bottom, and change the spoken Japanese to Spanish (thus making several scenes look either very foolish and disjointed)?
  • Joke that never gets old: "Man, Sarah Michelle Gellar's Spanish is fantastic."
  • Gimme lo-fi: In the original Japanese version of this movie, the effects were terrible. Nevertheless, it was a lot scarier than this. Why were so many great images cut? The entire subplot about the policeman's daughter and her undead schoolgirl pals is gone, presumably to make more room for Bill Pullman. I like Bill Pullman, but I like zombie schoolgirls more.
  • Una vista muy clara: Watching the movie in another language makes you pay more attention to the cinematography. A very effective device (and one that's very particular to Japanese horror--Miike uses it a lot, for example) is a close camera framing that remains completely stationary. It creates a lot of tension, possibly because the viewer really wants the camera to look elsewhere as the music rises, and it refuses. This can be very evocative of certain dream-logic, where your body refuses to follow your orders.
  • Do I frighten you? The monochromatic image of a woman with long black hair, combined with odd bodily movements, is still very striking, but it's also getting a little old. Let's find a new freakish visual, shall we?

July 5, 2005

Filed under: movies»commentary»horror»zombies

All You Zombies

Last week I was unable to see Land of the Dead, the fourth of George A. Romero's critically-acclaimed (and socially-aware) epics. This week I intend to remedy that fact, because while I love horror movies of all shapes, sizes, antagonists, and qualities, I particularly love the humble zombie.

The greatest horror movie villains have personified an aspect of the unknown, or have exaggerated the slightly creepy to excess. Silence of the Lambs puts a thin patina of rationalism over the sick uncertainty of the insane. Freddy Krueger is every bizarre, unexplainable nightmare you've ever had--and the early Nightmare on Elm Street movies play this in a way that later, campier films betrayed. Vampires have long been exposed as metaphors for libido and sexuality. Jaws stands in for bestial Nature. The recent influx of Japanese and Japan-influenced ghost stories (The Ring, The Grudge, or Dark Water) mix malevolence with a Lovecraft-like fear of What Lies Beyond.

Common to both the greats and to lesser aspirants (Darkness Falls, Wishmaster, Gigli) is a specific type of conflict. They express Man (or Woman) against Monster. Sometimes, as in slasher films, the Monster is also a Man. In Audition and Misery, it's a Woman (a whole topic for another day--or week). The exact nature of the Monster can vary, but it is almost always singular. Monsters that attack in the plural can still usually be dealt with as a distinct group--the Gremlins, Ghoulies, or Them! are still fundamentally actors within the plot. They are characters that have their motivations and react to the actions of the protagonists.

The undead are a unique creation (and they are a creation of Hollywood, as any informed person is painfully aware of the discrepancies between movie zombies and honest-to-Baron-Samedi-raised-by-a-houngan-and-set-to-work Voudoun zombies) because they don't fall into that role. I propose that zombies are not so much distinct monsters as they are an extension of a newly-dangerous environment. Whereas even automatons like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers are variables, zombies are a constant. Zombie movies, especially the good ones, don't focus on the zombies themselves as much as they focus on the people who have been placed in a zombie-fied environment.

For example, take 28 Days Later, which is not technically a zombie movie but fills the role of a condensed homage to the original Romero trilogy. At no point in the movie do we ask ourselves what the "undead" will do--they simply attack and infect anything within reach. Our attention is always focused on the human actors of the plot. Where will they go? Are the people they've met trustworthy? Are they themselves trustworthy? Who is betrayed and who is the betrayer? 28, like the best undead flicks, is really about people who are placed in a dangerous environment and not about the monsters themselves. The heart of its conflict could be expressed just as easily if the main characters were dropped into the middle of a jungle, or indeed, a war.

Romero has always played with this dynamic in his films. Night of the Living Dead is probably its purest expression, centering as it does on strangers thrown together in a farmhouse against the undead hordes. With Dawn of the Dead he added a social subtext about capitalism, and the zombies started to differentiate themselves more clearly. Day of the Dead continued that trend: both of the later movies feature walking dead that are clearly ex-members of society. Instead of simply wearing rags, there are zombie cheerleaders, businessmen, construction workers, housewives, and more. The third Dead movie also picked out a single zombie (I believe his name was "Bub") to treat as a character apart from the rest of the horde. Despite these nods to reality, the movies remained firmly focused on the living, despite their titles.

I'm curious to see what Land of the Dead will add to the mythos, because I understand that Romero has again used zombies as both environment and agent. I'm likewise interested to see the evolution of his Socialist undercurrents. Perhaps the greatest irony of zombie films is not their niche within horror movies, but that they are often smart movies about brainless subjects--both the living, and the undead.

June 28, 2005

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi

The Power of the Darth Side

The Darth Side: Memoirs of a Monster has been passed around the Internet for a while now. It's a brilliant retelling of Star Wars IV-VI from Darth Vader's point of view, complete with Livejournal-style moods and running asphyxiation jokes. The author has collected it now into a single file, so you can read it chronologically. I don't say this for a lot of fan-fiction, but I really recommend it. At this point, the elder Star Wars trilogy has become a cultural artifact, ripe for adaptation. The Darth Side is Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to its Hamlet.

Future - Present - Past