Thursday, February 25, 2010

Don't Want No Short, Short Film

Over the weekend, Abby and I watched a collection of Oscar nominated animated short films. Here are my reactions:

French Roast - a man in a cafe loses his wallet. Wacky hijinks ensue. I was a little underwhelmed--it was well enough animated, but the moral of the story seemed to be that if you're a douchebag who behaves irresponsibly (by, say, ordering dozens of cups of coffee to cover for the fact that you don't have money to pay for the first), then you will be saved by a twist of fate involving a bum and an old lady who robs banks.

The Lady and the Reaper - an old lady is anxious to rejoin her late husband in heaven, but is revived by a zealous young doctor. Death and the doctor feud over the lady's soul. Wacky hijinks ensue. This one had an old-school Tom & Jerry vibe, which was fun, and there were some amusing character moments (Death has a 3-headed poodle), but it felt pretty shallow, at the end of the day.

A Matter of Loaf and Death - by far the longest of the short films, this one featuring those lovable scamps Wallace and Gromit. There's a mystery, a bakery, some inventions, a love interest... It was thoroughly enjoyable, although the pacing felt a bit uneven. But it ended with a bang and some wacky hijinks. Oh yeah, it will almost certainly win the Oscar, not because it was the best film, but because it's well-made, familiar, etc, etc, etc.

Granny O' Grimm's Sleeping Beauty - in which an old lady scare's the piss out of her granddaughter with a telling of the classic fairy tale that is sympathetic to the villain, an older fairy with a bum knee who resented not being invited to the party. It's fairly clever and the animation is interesting, but the film suffered for its voice acting. The voice of Granny O' Grimm and the design of the character were oddly mismatched--the voice having the air of a younger woman faking an older woman's brogue.

There were some other films mixed in to pad the running time (and thereby justify the ticket price), all of them honorable mentions. This included the underwhelming Partly Cloudy that preceded Pixar's Up in theaters, a Canadian film called Runaway that was fanny if a bit cynical, and a Polish film called The Kinematograph, that is perhaps the most self-congratulatory bit of tripe I've seen since Battlefield Earth. But, at last, after a warning about content, we got the final film of the program.

Logorama - no wacky hijinks here. It takes place in a world completely constructed from corporate logos. The telephone poles are T-Mobile logos, the people are AOL or Bic Pen logos, the main bad guy is Ronald McDonald, who steals a truck full of weapons and takes a Big Boy hostage. There are spectacular car chases, disasters, wild animals (including the MGM logo) running through the streets. The police are all Michelin men. The story could come from any gritty, hard-boiled action movie, but it's a cartoon in which every character, location, and background is a recognizable product. It was at once the most realistic and surreal film of the entire show.

It was jarring, funny, unsettling and thought-provoking, and it's my pick for the Oscar (even though it's going to lose to Wallace & Gromit). I hate to spoil it, so find a way to see it if you can (it'll show up on YouTube before too long).

Then again, maybe Logorama wasn't the "best", per se. Maybe it just appealed to my bizarre, twisted sense of humor. After all, my favorite animated short film ever was a little Polish gem called Fallen Art that is bizarre and twisted to say the least.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Draw Your Own Conclusion

Thor? Oh, Thor?




Thor, you look guilty. What have you been doing with that hammer?



Thor... That wasn't very nice. Apologize right this instant.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Big Red Two

Well, I never thought I'd see this happen.

Verizon has a new commercial out touting it's "big red" network. This commercial is a nearly shot-for-shot parody of a twenty-plus year old commercial from Big Red gum.

The song, the scenarios, it's all there. And it works, because chewing gum commercials from the 80's are pretty thoroughly engrained into our pop culture. In fact, this isn't the first time I've seen that particular commercial referenced. Jason Webley does a medley of 80's gum jingles during his shows, which includes Big Red, Juicy Fruit, and Doublemint (and a fourth that escapes me).

But still, as a rule, art imitates life and life imitates art. So when art imitates art, it's because the original art is now considered a part of life... if that makes any sense. Once again, the serpent has eaten its own tail.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Most People Just Steal Thunder

While visiting my mother-in-law in Blue Springs, Abs and I decided (read as: "Abby decided and I went along with the plan) to take said mother-in-law to a movie. We watch Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.

In it, you get some interesting bastardization of Greek mythology, and a moderately lack-luster teenage thriller. Abby was bothered by the mythological inconsistencies (see above link) and wrote up a nice piece on that. So as a companion piece, I thought I might talk about the logical inconsistencies. So, read hers first, if only for the quote at the end (but be warned, it has a spoiler or two).

So, here are my issues:

The identity of the mysterious lightning thief was completely telegraphed. It's like his/her only job in the movie is to set up for the reveal. Some of the mechanisms behind the theft were left vague, but the identity was a no-brainer.

Villains of Greek mythology show up: the Hydra, Medusa, to be defeated by our heroes. Trouble is, they know about their strengths and weaknesses--they know them because these creatures were killed in the Greek myths. How could you possibly know that Medusa's decapitated head would turn people to stone if she was still alive?

Quite a few innocent bystanders get killed, including someone who was annoying but still managed to help protect Percy for many years--and his death was the post-credit "joke". This would bug me less if it weren't a children's movie!

What's with the antiquated clothing? You're telling me that the Greek gods moved Mt. Olympus so that it is accessible via a magic elevator in the Empire State Building, but they still walk around in togas and sandals? I would love to see some contemporary fashion with their traditional motifs threaded in. This would be in keeping with the logic of the film--after all, Hades was dressed like a rock star. Why not put Zeus in a sharp suit or some such?

And my biggest point, and I think this applies to the first two Harry Potter films as well (same director as Percy Jackson): over-acting is not necessary in fantasy films.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Gee 1.6, Wally

After three weeks, my phone finally updated its firmware from version 1.1 to 1.6. I liked my phone before, but this new version?

It's a whole new world.

Seriously, everything is better. The OS is more stable. There are more apps, most of the interfaces are cleaner and better-looking. The apps I had sport new, better functionality. Even the battery life is improved. The only downside (and this is a pretty minimal downside) is that it takes about twice as long to boot up.

I spent a good long while on Saturday downloading free apps: OpenTable, Google Sky, Twidroid (which is my favorite of all the Twitter clients I've tried), they even have that stupid light-saber app.

Why they can't factory load these with 1.6 (or even 1.5) rather than push out over-the-air updates to new phones is a mystery to me. I mean, I bought this thing from T-Mobile--they were just going to have to update it anyway.

Still, happy with the improvements.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Hats Off

While visiting my mother-in-law over the weekend, we caught some Olympics coverage which included a special report on athlete injuries. They kept showing footage of Shaun White crashing in the half-pipe and losing his helmet (about 34 seconds in, which slow-mo repeat). They showed this over and over.

So Abby joked made some comment that at least he didn't lose his whole head, which got her mom laughing. This then turned into a "catch it, before it rolls away" gag, which got her mom laughing even more. They got my attention and let me in on the joke and--not to be outdone--I suggested that if you did catch the head of an athlete who wasn't from your country that you had to throw it back...

And between Abby starting it, me taking it just one step too far, and Abby's mom laughing until she cried, it occurred to me that my family members are pretty damned twisted.

Which is not the worst way to spend a holiday weekend, let me tell you...

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Also, I Got A Shirt I Can't Wear In Public

So this week I saw a "psychobilly" band called The Goddamn Gallows.

Highlights from the show included fireballs launched from a flaming washboard, a song called Y'all Motherfuckers Need Jesus, and the drummer being dragged by his feet across the floor of the bar while two stage hands held a snare and tom in front of him.

So, points for showmanship, there.

I wish the sound had been better, because the songs sounded interesting, but I couldn't make out any lyrics at all. Everything was sort of a wash under the crash-ride cymbal, which wasn't miked, and the show was already ear-splittingly loud, so I don't know what they could have done... but still, it's the principle of the thing.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Revisiting The Terminator

Abby and I recently purchased and subsequently re-watched the original Terminator movie. This is the film that spawned as a sequel one of the greatest action movies ever filmed (that would be T2) as well as two more sequels and a TV series. This is the movie that first gave us Ah-nald's famous catchphrase "I'll be back". How does it hold up after 26 years?

Surprisingly well. Yes, some of the effects are 80's-tastic: there's the animatronic head sequences and some really bad-looking stop-motion animation. And the synth music that dominates the score is twelve different shades of cheesy. But on a drama-and-action front, it works pretty decently. Most of the movie is run-and-gun car chase sequences, interspersed with flashbacks to the future (yeah, I know) that feature man-versus-machine sci-fi war. Now I can't tell you how many times I watched the sequel, but I haven't seen the first one all that much--the one that actually establishes the mythology (and much of the design) of the series. And revisiting it has cast some elements of the sequel in a new light.

For instance, Dr. Silverman, the psychiatrist treating Sarah in the second film, treats Reece in the first. Somewhat incongruously, he ignores the fact that the two patients independently experience the same neurosis about Terminators. Which is not to say that it couldn't have been explained away with a few lines of dialog or by casting a different actor as the shrink... not a big deal, but it bugs me a little. Then there's the logic of time travel in the two movies.

Similarly to 12 Monkeys, The Terminator subscribes to the Oedipus Rex school of time-travel: attempting to change the future actually brings it about. Based on the fragments of narrative we get from Kyle Reece between explosions, the machines didn't attempt time travel until they had no other option--their defense grid was smashed, humanity had won the war thanks to one John Conner. So they sent a terminator back in time to prevent his birth--but if they hadn't, Kyle Reece would never have been sent back, and John Conner would never have been born.

This implies a timeline that cannot be altered--you can't actually change the past, if you go back in time, it's because you were already there (again, see also 12 Monkeys). But in the second one, the past actually does get changed. The resolution of the plot is that Judgment Day appears to have been averted. If you follow the series' continuity, Judgment Day is postponed, rather than averted, but the timeline has been changed nonetheless.

One can wax philosophical about time travel all day. Regardless, what we have here is a smart, taut action film that still resonates, even if it looks a bit dated.

Also, Bill Paxton is horribly miscast as a "tough" (see also: Aliens).

So, that's fun.

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Monday, February 8, 2010

The Politics Of Pandering

When was the last time we passed any kind of meaningful legislation?

Well, I suppose the phrase "meaningful" is a bit loaded, but I would argue that most bills passed since the 70's have been mostly window-dressing, designed to look good without actually solving anything. And I think that the emphasis has shifted away from solving problems and towards looking like you care about solutions.

And I will place the blame on the rise of info-tainment media.

Since news came to television and turned into a massive entertainment industry (and if you think TV news isn't an entertainment industry, I would direct you to Neil Postman's books on the subject). It's been fast-food-ified. The American people have more and more access to more and more information, but that information lacks nutrition. We get sentences, not paragraphs; headlines, not stories; positions without supporting arguments.

This has resulted in a country that is measurably irrational. Jacob Weiberg did a fabulous piece for Slate depicting just this phenomenon. A large majority of the people opposes extending the Obama stimulus. But a larger majority (we're talking over 80% here) supports extending unemployment benefits--which is a stimulus program!

Which means we have a state of political paralysis. How can a legislative body legislate when it is scheduled for upheaval every two years by a fickle America populace? No wonder politics has been absolutely reduced to pandering. And I honestly don't know if this situation is truly recoverable.

The age of American dominance may be ending sooner than we think.

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Friday, February 5, 2010

Return Of The Son Of Awful Cinema

Empire Magazine recently published a reader poll of the 50 worst films of all time. Number 1? Batman & Robin. Which, by all accounts was pretty horrific. So, for your viewing edification, below is an incomplete list of some of the horrible films I've sat through.

Battlefield Earth - This had potential to be some genuinely good sci-fi camp... the story is actually pretty decent. I don't know what went wrong, but the damned thing is nearly unwatchable.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - I've ranted about this one before. The moral of the story is this: you're not actually fooling anyone anymore, George, and it's stopped being cute that you think you are.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - removing the blatant racism and scat-humor from this film would not only have made it more palatable, but would have served the dual role of trimming an hour from it. Any movie based on toy robots that takes itself seriously enough to be 2-1/2 hours long is smoking some seriously good hashish.

I will digress to voice a big problem I had with this movie. Early on there was a none-too-subtle dig at the Obama administration in the form of a bureaucrat who insisted that the U.S. should at least attempt diplomacy when dealing with Decepticons rather than simply executing them. This made him a sniveling weasel--a plot point that made me rather uncomfortable, and yet was not borne out by the plot, which hinges on two Decepticons who defect and become good guys... sigh...

Austin Powers in Goldmember - this movie has no reason to exist. It, along with The Love Guru and Shrek The Third are the reason I cross the street when I see Mike Meyers approaching. Speaking of...

Shrek the Third - not so much a bad film as an awkward and bland one. Live and Let Die as a funeral dirge? Who thought that was a good idea? Like Austin Powers, what puzzles me so much is how this third installment could fall so flat after a second installment that was so brilliant.

Meet the Robinsons - follow me on this: for all values of n greater than 3, where n is the number of screenwriters, the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to n. You kinda feel sorry for it, because it's clearly trying. I could make a joke about SPED... maybe I should stop right there.

The Mod Squad - this is the only time I ever saw a movie for free and felt cheated by it. There's an hour and a half of my life that's never coming back.

Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows - lacking a witch, a book of shadows, and only tangentially related to the town of Blair. Also, it was excessively gory, made no sense, and failed to elicit any scares at all.

Cool World - this is arguably the worst film I've ever seen. Horrible story, horrible production values, painful to watch. Remember in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? when Eddie Valient went to Toon Town and was seamlessly integrated into a cartoon world? Cool World tried to get that effect with cardboard cut-outs...

Have a good weekend, don't watch anything that sucks.

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Modern Irony

While driving home from work the other day, David Bowie's Modern Love came on. I noted that the song sounded a bit dated and couldn't decide if that was ironic or not. On the one hand, you kind of expect a song called Modern Love to sound... well... modern. On the other hand, the song came out in 1983, and it sounds exactly like what you'd expect from a state-of-the-art song released in 1983, and it's no surprise that those recording techniques would sound a bit dated some 27 years on.

It doesn't help that we have a sort of confused notion of irony thanks to one Miss Alanis Morrisette. As I pointed out in a recent write-up on Jurassic Park, much of our learning comes from elements of pop culture and those frequently get their subjects wrong. Morrisette is more of the rule than the exception--her song Ironic gives a litany of supposedly ironic events, few of which happen to be examples of irony (which is, oddly enough, something of an irony). College Humor recently parodied the song, inserting phrases to make the situations actually ironic (e.g., "It's like rain on your wedding day to the Egyptian sun God Ra").

Most of what we consider "ironic" is actually "tragic" (this has become a running gag on Castle--thanks again, pop culture). But now that we know what irony isn't, what is it? That's harder to suss out than it should be. The concept of irony dates back to ancient Greece, and like many ancient concepts (e.g., humor or love), it's a bit nebulous because it's a single word used to wrap up many loosely related ideas. But a succinct working definition might be "the disparity between expectation and result". How does that help us vis-a-vis David Bowie?

Not much. Unfortunately, the problem is expectation. It sounds dated because it is dated, and it would not be reasonable to expect a song to never sound dated. On the other hand, you might expect a producer working on a song called Modern Love to make an effort to give it a more timeless feel--Tom Petty's You Got Lucky and Every Breath You Take by the Police both came out that year and neither felt quite as of-the-moment as Bowie's contributions. Then again, of the 100 top hits of 1983, I only recognized 3 that, in retrospect, don't sound like songs from the early 80's.

So is it ironic? Well, sort of, but not really. Which, in retrospect, makes this entire post deeply, deeply uninteresting.

C'est la vie,

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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Awesome-ness: There's An App For That, Too

This is one of the reasons I got a smart phone.

Zombieland came out yesterday, and I knew that Abby and I would want to buy while it was on sale so I went to Target over lunch to pick it up. Since I had some time to burn, I snapped a photo of the barcode using an app on my phone, which returned some prices from other retailers. Turns out a seller on Amazon was selling the movie new, and even after shipping it was cheaper than Target's price. After taxes, that's a difference of nearly two and a half dollars.

So I ordered it from my phone before I'd even left the store.

So, I went to Target to buy a movie, and I did make said purchase while I was there, I just didn't buy it from them. And that's a couple shades of awesome, if I do say so myself.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

In Memoriam: Dollhouse

Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's latest series, has come to a close after a twenty-six episode run. Because I feel like it, I thought I might drill down into a sort of critical recap of the series.

The basic premise of the show proved difficult for most viewers--essentially a high-concept sci-fi take on the white slave trade. Not that this idea is particularly hard to wrap one's brain around, but the gimmick of the show--that the main character routinely had her memory wiped and adopted new personalities for each assignment--deprived it of an emotional anchor. Much of the conflict of the show grew out of the character arcs of various protagonists and semi-protagonists who were at odds with each other. Kudos for originality of concept and for having organic conflicts rather than the rote good-versus-evil routine, but the unfortunate side effect of this is that no one knows whom to root for--or against.

There are ways this could have worked. Maybe if it had been more of an ensemble piece, rather than focusing on Eliza Dushku's Echo. The show worked at its best when it drew focus back from her. Perhaps the whole premise would have been easier to swallow if the narrative perspective came not from the dolls, but from their handlers, just so you have someone to cheer on week after week. We get a little of that in Boyd, but he's peripheral, not focal, (of course, this turns out to be a major plot point in the second season). In fact, the way the second season played out necessitated some of the choices that weighed down the first. And, honestly, even that might have worked if there had been a more versatile actor in the role (no offense to Dushku, but if it had been Christopher Guest or Gary Oldman or some female equivalent--we'd all have been mesmerized). Hell, if Enver Gjokaj (Victor) had been the focus, it would have been more interesting. He's a much more versatile character actor, better with accents and impersonations--his impression of Fran Kanz (Topher Brink) is so good that it got a reprise after a few episodes.

But instead, our focus is Echo, not because Echo is a particularly interesting character, but because she's going to be in about twelve episodes. Seriously, it's not until the end of the first season that the show truly breaks out of itself and morphs into the deeper character-driven serial that will carry it through the first half of the second season. Part of this is the emergence of Alpha--a genuine villain. Part of it is that the actors are a bit more comfortable in their roles. Part of it is that Echo starts being a character rather than a body. And part of it is that the show has always had a little bit of an identity crisis.

Because, let's face it: Dollhouse was never about a dollhouse. It was about the technology behind the dollhouse, the world of the dollhouse. It explored the different ways that said technology could affect society. This is all well and good, but it creates a very schizophrenic series. It starts out as a one-off adventures, but then it because a sort of mini-series that individually studies its main characters. [SPOILERS] Then it becomes an epic march to war against an evil corporation, and we finish things off with a little zombie apocalypse coda. [END SPOILERS]

So, could it have been better? Sure. Nonetheless, it was well-written, reasonably well executed, and it played with some interesting ideas in the spirit of all good science fiction. I was constantly being surprised by plot turn after plot turn, and I found the series imminently enjoyable. And mostly, I'm happy that it found a way to draw itself to some closure. I particularly liked that the closure didn't seem all that rushed, even though it was. And the fact that purchasers of Season 1 got a glimpse of what was coming in the Epitaph 1 episode made for some very rewarding foreshadowing.

[SPOILERS]

It was great to know that Topher would eventually have a mental breakdown while watching his mind start to fall apart. You could see Dewitt's guilt about how she used him begin to mold into a maternal sort of love for him. You could watch Alpha go on a rampage, knowing that he'd eventually become a good guy. And in the end, their stories all had endings--Adell's guilt was replaced with a charge to rebuild civilization. Topher got some redemption. Victor and Sierra finally got a chance to be together as a family. Ballard was resurrected to be killed a second time (that's how you know he's important--Whedon killed him off twice), and then sort of resurrected once more.

[END SPOILERS]

So, I have my complaints, but I've enjoyed it and I can't wait to see what Joss Whedon turns out next.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

G1, Wally!

So I finally got an Android phone--a G1 (I thought about getting a Nexus One, but frankly I prefer something with an actual keyboard). And I've had a week to play with it and get a feel for what apps are available. And I gotta say, Evan was right, Open Source is a ghetto.

People bitch about the iPhone store being so proprietary, but what you give up in openness you get back in quality control.

Which is not to say that I don't love my new phone or that I would rather have gotten an iPhone. But it's a frustration. Writing for Android is a versioning nightmare, and the app store is littered with weird ideas that are badly executed--so much so that it can be difficult to find a genuine app. And because the app store filters your search results based on the type of phone you have, apps that you know exist will just randomly not show up.

It's telling that more and more websites are moving away from the app and towards mobile versions of the website (a trend that was going the other way when the iPhone first hit the market).

But like I said, I don't want to give the impression that I don't absolutely love my new phone. It just didn't quite live up to the promise.

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