Friday, July 10, 2009

Roger Ebert vs. film fans

Just a quick link right now, I wanted to share Roger Ebert's response to the backlash against his Transformers 2 review. I don't want to touch upon the film anymore, and frankly he doesn't seem to either, but his points about education are great. The best bit, however, is this comparison between sports fans and movie fans that I wholeheartedly agree with. I couldn't even begin to estimate the number of times I feel compelled to apologize for the fact that I studied culture in university when discussing film, television, etc.

I think it's ridiculous, and that those without the same kind of background in theoretical models and modes of thought don't necessarily have to agree with me by any means. No one has to agree with me. But to outright discount my opinion and those of theorists because they are "pretentious" or "thinking too much" is infuriating. The worst is when I have to hear these things from my ostensibly more educated friends, those who are often in university themselves, though not because they have any sort of respec for the institution or values they're paying for.

Sigh, at this point I'm more just venting about a few specific people I ahve in mind, so I'll stop. Here's the quote I wanted to point out, followed by a link to the post on Ebert's blog. Check it out, it's a good one.

"A reader named Jared Diamond, a senior at Syracuse, sports editor of The Daily Orange, put my disturbance eloquently in a post asking: "Why in this society are the intelligent vilified? Why is education so undervalued and those who preach it considered arrogant or pretentious?" Why, indeed? If sports fans were like certain movie fans, they would hate sports writers, commentators and sports talk hosts for always discussing fine points, quoting statistics and bringing up games and players of the past. If all you want to do is drink beer in the sunshine and watch a ball game, why should some elitist play-by-play announcer bore you with his knowledge? Yet sports fans are proud of their baseball knowledge, and respect commentators who know their stuff."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Trains, not Planes or Automobiles

I finally got around to reading a Walrus cover story that caught my eye back in May but eluded me until now. Monte Paulsen's piece on high-speed rail, and how Canada has completely failed to capitalize on this great mode of transportation is a fascinating piece.

Anyone who has used VIA to travel anywhere in Canada knows that there are serious issues with the service, especially in comparison to European systems like France's TGV or Germany's ICE. As the article repeatedly points out, the core issue in Canada is the ownership of the tracks themselves. The fact that the privatized CN owns the tracks that VIA has to operate on has essentially crippled the market for traveling by train in Canada. This is increasingly problematic in a world where alternative energy sources and modes of transportation are the topic of the day, and we can't afford to continue ignoring the need to improve our rail system.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Robocop, Transformers, and sexism and racism in blockbuster movies

So now that I've seen Robocop I actually feel somewhat vindicated in my lack of surprise at the racism and sexism in Transformers 2. I mean, yes, it's awful, and possibly the most overt example of prejudice in a Hollywood film in recent memory, but does that make it remarkable, or unique in its offensiveness?

Take the scene in Robocop when Nancy Allen's character essentially sets the plot of the entire film in motion by being unable to stop herself from taking a peep at the penis of the black member of Kurtwood Smith's gang. She has him at gunpoint, ready to be arrested, but his penis is out, and when she looks down for a second he hits her and puts her temporarily out of commission. As a result she is unable to come to Murphy's aid, he gets gunned down, etc., becomes Robocop. The entire plot hinges on this sexist and racist joke. Of course she's unable to stop herself from looking at the black man's penis, which is, of course, gigantic and thus worth looking at.

Some reviewing over the next day or so

So I've been seeing a bunch of movies recently, and now I'm spending the next day or so sitting at home due to my impending root canal operation. I had a failed attempt at the operation this morning, and I've been sitting at home without feeling the left side of my face ever since. I'm finishing up a documentary on Arnold Schwarzenegger and his campaign to become governor of California, and then I'm going to go rent Robocop, and maybe Spaced, Simon Pegg's TV series, and potentially a few Woody Allen movies, like Deconstructing Harry. Oh, and maybe Time Crimes too!

In any case, while I'm not doing much I figure that I'll write a few responses and keep the review ball rolling. Transformers 2 and Moon got me started, and so I want to talk about what I'm watching and also a few things I've seen recently that I have yet to talk about in any formal way.

To start off, I want to discuss Up. Kat and I saw it a while back with Morgon and Nick and Katrina and co., and so far I think it was probably the best movie I've seen in 2009. Of all the bigwigs over at Pixar, Pete Docter has always interested me the least. I've never been huge on the Toy Story movies, and I felt Monsters Inc. was boring and failed to draw me in emotionally. In general I always found Pixar movies to be interesting but generally not my thing, with the slight exception of The Incredibles.

That was until I saw WALL-E.

That movie changed everything, and completely sold me on the company and their films. It ended up being one of my top four films of 2008, along with The Dark Knight, Funny Games, and Rip: A Remix Manifesto, strange company for a Pixar film but certainly evident of my esteem for the story of the near-speechless little robot that could. The range of emotions Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter et al were able to evoke using a pair of binoculars attached to a box with wheels amazes me still. The film was actually stronger in the opening 45 minutes when there is no dialogue, particularly when WALL-E takes care of the in-stasis EVE and when he flies through space hanging onto her transport vehicle. The film reaches these heights again later on when it again returns to emotions instead of dialogue, showing us EVE's reaction to the video playback from her time in stasis, and her desperate efforts to revive WALL-E at the finale. In these sequences, and in general, the film tapped into something profoundly human through the story of two robots with the capacity for emotion.

As much as I loved WALL-E, I have to admit that Up does all of that even better in its first fifteen minutes alone.

The opening montage of Carl and Ellie Fredrickson meeting, falling in love, getting married, and living an entire life together is at once uplifting, inspiring, and crushing, and it brings tears to your eyes via the entire spectrum of empathetic sentiments. It's also completely devoid of dialogue. It lets the audience experience Carl's entire life with Ellie, and then grounds us in the time after her death when the story really begins. It's some of the most powerful film making I've ever seen, and following it we are shown an incredible adventure story that is effectively tied to the opening sequence such that it's poignancy elevates the entire narrative.

The first ten minutes are almost a film in their own right, expressing a story about life that is at once celebratory and aware of the harshness of reality. By extending the emotional arc of this sequence into the movie as a whole, Pixar enables us to really care about Carl, know him intimately without ever really hearing him speak, and in that way let us share his learning experience. It's almost like a really great sequel, but to the beginning of the movie.

There's also the curious interplay between reality and fantasy within the film. The story of an old man flying his house to South America via balloons is certainly rooted in the fantastic, but before we see this the film firmly roots its narrative in reality. Carl's life as the true story of the film begins is semi-tragic, his enthusiasm for life dead and gone along with the woman of his dreams, his late wife, Ellie. We are literally beaten over the head with this harsh reality as Carl, in a moment of blind, human frustration, hits a man with his cane and draws blood. In a Pixar film. It's almost uncanny to see on the screen, and it assures us, along with the subsequent legal proceedings, that we are watching a film in which the often unfair nature of reality is at play.

Then he takes off with his balloon-lifted house to a Conan Doyle-esque lost world inhabited by talking dogs, nigh sentient birds, and a crazed explorer who is remarkably spry for someone certainly pushing 80 or 90.

The contrast is effective because the film is, at its core, about the human experience, which itself is both fantastic and tragic simultaneously. Carl's adventure shows us that anything is possible, but the circumstances surrounding it remind us of the permanence of time and age, as well as the cruel side of love. The lessons Carl learns while trying to save a female bird named Kevin and a father-less boyscout are applicable to us all, just as the morals in the best of fairy tales transcend their circumstances. This could largely be said of most Pixar films, and indeed most films, but the maturity with which Carl's story is treated, and with which the audience is treated by having it told so unabashedly, make Up something more.

WALL-E is a film that I will buy when I finally get a Blu-Ray player, and I will enjoy its poignancy, beauty, and charm for years to come. I love its story, I love its constant and reverent nods to the sci-fi genre, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. But Up is without a doubt the best film Pixar has ever produced. It's a true fairytale, and a film that I will show my children (god I feel old typing that) in the hopes that it will encourage in them both good moral sense and an apreciation of film.

Alright, so that's a bit of a rant off my back. Been meaning to get around to that for a while now. As I said earlier, I'm spending a few days just sitting and watching movies, so I'm off to start that. First up is Robocop. Can't believe I've never seen that. Afterwards I have Crimes and Misdemeanors (Jo's recommendation), Before Sunset, and Spirited Away. Should be a good day or two, despite the tooth surgery and pain.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Moon: A landing befitting of Apollo 13

So I just got back from seeing Duncan Jones's Moon, staring Sam Rockwell, Sam Rockwell, and Kevin Spacey. The movie had been pegged as a throwback to classic, 70s era science fiction, and I expected to see Rockwell going batshit insane at a mining facility on the far side of the moon. Working as the sole operator there at the end of a three year contract, his only companion is a Hal-esque AI named "Gertty," voiced by the ever chillingly cool Spacey. All of that sounds great right? The best part is that that promising description doesn't even hint at the true premise of the film, which further grounds the film in traditional sci-fi lore and gives it a unique spin with loads of potential.

Despite all that, though, Jones and co. managed to make one of the most formulaic and disappointing sci-fi films I've ever seen.