Monday, November 30, 2009

The Car Long Shot in Children of Men

I was listening to the /Filmcast on my way home from work and in the latest After Dark episode they discuss a controversial article by Mike D'Angelo over at The AV Club (for link see the update at the end of this post). In the article D'Angelo discuses and devalues the famous shot inside the car in Children of Men. If you haven't seen the film then stop reading right now and go watch the movie because it is a fantastic piece of cinema and you should go into it with as few preconceptions as possible (a fact D'Angelo's argument proves). If you have seen the film then after the break is an embed of the scene in question and a discussion of D'Angelo's critique.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

From Around the Web - 11/25/09

Bah, two link posts in a row... There will be stuff worth reading soon, I promise

I am quickly discovering that David Thorne's website is one of the funniest places on the internet

If you like Star Wars even a little you should check out this fantastic piece on the core values of the series, and extends this into a defense of Episode 1

The worst news I've heard all week... or all fall, for that matter...

The best news I've heard all week

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Some Sweet New Music I've Been Listening to Lately

Dan Mangan is in the midst of a world tour in support of his latest album, Nice, Nice, Very Nice. It's a fantastic album, with standout tracks like "Road Regrets," "Robots," and "Basket." If you swing by Google Videos there's one of Dan and the inimitable Shane Koyczan doing a medley of one of Dan's best songs, "Not What You Think It Is," with Shane's poem "Stop Signs."

Matty Powell, a great singer-songwriter who's currently working in the Toronto area. He put together an amazing album while he was living out in Saskatoon, and it has an incredible and distinctly Canadian prairie sound. He's a bit of a hippy so if that's your thing you'll probably love him, give a listen to tracks like "Hope," "Fall Soft," and "Toronto."

The Vandertramps, an up and coming new group of jokers from out east. They don't have much going on online quite yet, but the song "Snark" shows that they've got some definite promise. If you're into the 90s lo-fi indie scene at all then this band is one to watch.

Daniel, Fred, and Julie is a Canadian folk supergroup, if such a thing can even exist. The band is a colaboration between Daniel Romano of Attack In Black, Fred Squire of Shotgun & Jaybird, and the east-coast queen Julie Doiron. The album is a collection of traditional and original folk songs recorded in a few days in the humblest sense possible. They don't even really have an official website I can link to, but HeroHill has a great write up on them that includes a sample track and a song-by-song breakdown of the album by Romano. Definitely check them out, this is an album that shouldn't be missed.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Zombieland Review @ The Lemon Life

The folks over at The Lemon Life have posted my review of Zombieland. For any of you who are recent graduates from university, The Lemon Life is an online magazine that focuses on common post-grad experiences. There are a lot of people contributing articles that give advice and perspective on living without academic guidance for the first time. It's a cool site, you should check it out.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Toronto's Crippled Transit System

Ok, so maybe crippled isn't the right word. That would imply that it was at some point fully functional, when in fact that TTC system is and always has been a bit of a mess. Or at least it quickly became one.

This morning someone tried to sell me a clearly fake TTC token on my way to work. If he had wanted to put less effort into the job he could have just shaved down a penny. Appropriately, The Torontoist published an article today in which TTC Chair Adam Giambrone attempts to explain why Toronto is so far behind the curve on fare collection methods.

Giambrone tries to work the positive spin, saying that the TTC might "skip" rather than "miss" modern technologies via late adoption. It's not completely without merit, but it's still a "we're the last one to the party so we'll bring what you all forgot" type argument.

The fact that Toronto is lagging in terms of electronic fare collection is only one facet of our complete failure to have a sufficient transit system for a city of commuters. The fare's that are collected are far too high, with a monthly pass costing an unbelievable $109, and what's more these prices are likely to increase any day now. Our subway system has only two major lines, one of which is too large and reaches many destinations too close together to truly justify different stops. The two smaller lines cover specific non-central areas competently, but are so specialized that they are almost irrelevant.

Beyond that we have a massive and unreliable system of buses to cover the vast majority of the city. Add to that the inherently restricted streetcars which have resulted in the destruction of major thoroughfares en masse (I'm angrily looking at direction of St. Clair West). Furthermore, the GTA is only covered by additional transit that is completely separate from the basic transit costs. The city is mired by poor transit conditions that cost too much for too little and encourage people to drive.

Most major cities around the world have adopted electronic fare collection, and its high time we did too. This will cut costs by streamlining the process of paying for and getting on trains and buses, and will save money on the archaic transfers and ridiculous counterfeit tokens. It will allow us to direct the human resources of the TTC more effectively, and perhaps make the necessary updates to the system that we have been promised for years.

The fact that we are still so behind is completely unacceptable, especially for a city that purports to be making an effort to go green and reduce car emissions. Toronto is supposed to be one of the leading cities in Canada; we acted as though we actually deserved the Olympics for Pete's sake! It's time our transit system started to reflect our position, not the inflated size of our ego.

Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron

David Clowes' Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron is what would happen if David Lynch got together with the illustrators of Mad magazine. Beyond their titular similarities, the graphic novel is reminiscent of Blue Velvet in its exploration of a strange society on the fringes of our world. The story (sort of) depicts the insanity and ultimate tragedy of the entertainment industry, not unlike Mulholland Dr. At the same time Velvet Glove shares the unrestrained nightmare imagery of Eraserhead; the main character meets a fantastic variety of people in his journey, including a dog that has no orifices on its body and also a fish-girl who is the offspring of a potentially-divine merman.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are Review

There's a scene in Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are when Carol, the striped wild thing voiced by James Gandolfini, shows the protagonist, Max, a miniature model. Carol says that it's a model he built of his fantasy world, his dream landscape "where things turned out like you wanted them to." Max empathizes with the underlying senses of sadness and unfulfilled desires, and by seeing them outside himself Max begins to understand the sometimes tragic complexities of life, maturing years right before our eyes. The moment is breathtaking in its honesty and poignancy, achieving the delicate balance of compositional simplicity and poetic depth that marks the best children's films.

Unfortunately it is one of the few moments in the entire film that reaches this level of quality and transcendence.
I'm going to put frame this review subjectively because Where The Wild Things Are is a hugely divisive experience, and my reaction probably says more about me than the film itself. That said, for a movie that has so many people talking about how deeply it touched them, I found Where The Wild Things Are to be remarkably alienating and boring.

The film isn't bad per se, as it has many elements that are simply amazing: the casting, voice acting, costume design, creature effects, and cinematography are all outstanding. It's clear in every aspect of the design that Jonze and the other people involved truly loved the source material, and desperately wanted to do it justice on the big screen. The final product, however, is unfortunately a case where the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

The film should be seen if only from a purely visual standpoint. The creatures are unlike anything we have ever seen on film, cleverly interweaving puppetry-based practical effects with CG to give us real-world cartoon characters. The wild things look obviously animated and believably real at the same time, giving them a fantastic quality that perfectly suits their nature. The world they inhabit is similarly well realized and displayed, and the set design work boggles my imagination even now. The sweeping shots of barren landscapes are breathtaking, but at a certain point the world of the film begins to feel dry, empty and dead. Regardless it all looks beautiful, and the film is quite simply a visual smorgasbord.

The acting is also superb, both from the actors on screen and those who lent their voices to the wild thing creatures. The always remarkable Katherine Keener makes her ten minutes or so of screen time some of the most memorable in the entire film. Gandolfini gives his wild thing a depth and vulnerability that is frankly shocking since the creature sounds like Tony Soprano. Max Records gives an incredible performance as Max, giving the character a depth and believability that is rare in child actors. In short the movie is perfectly cast. 
So with all this praise, where does the film fall short?

The problem is that the film is barely a narrative. The events of the plot are loosely strung together at best, and there are no significant developments in the story. Everything fits together in an organic but vague way, and nothing about what happens does very much to push things towards any sort of conclusion. The film more depicts an emotional development than a story, but I’ll touch on that in a bit. For now it’s enough to say that Where The Wild Things Are moseys along in no particular direction.

A lot of reviews are supporting the film by arguing that the way the story is told reflects the embedded perspective of a child. Essentially the meandering, largely aimless flow of the narrative is supposed to convey the way in which a child’s attention drifts between disparate events without significant development or consideration.

I completely agree with this summation, as it's pretty clear that Jonze and co. made the choice to have the story unfold this way. Where The Wild Things Are adheres to Max's perspective both in terms of content and form, which makes sense given that it's his story, his experience. I just don't think that this technique was a good idea for a two-hour narrative film. It was perfectly suited to a ten sentence long children's book, and it might have worked for a short film, but it is not appropriate for a full length major motion picture. Throughout the film I often felt bored and restless, as did the people around and, importantly, all the children in the theatre.

It's particularly startling how much the film alienates children. It doesn't seem to even make any effort to appeal to children, and while it doesn't have to it is surprising that a film based on a children's book would not try to appeal to a similar demographic on some level. It goes on for far too long to hold the attention span of the average youth, and it doesn't really tell a story. When I was a child all of the films I remember loving had narratives that, while not always logical, at least moved forward in identifiable ways.

I was always more interested in serialized and gradually expanding narratives than episodic romps. To give an example as reference, anyone who watched the show ReBoot will remember when it changed and began to tell a long-form narrative as opposed to one-off adventures. I absolutely adored the show in its entirety, but my fondest memories are from after that shift. I loved how they told a story with characters and situations that evolved towards something, allowing me to emotionally invest in the development. 

ReBoot is just one example of how I gravitated towards narratives that moved forward in definitive ways, not necessarily towards conclusions but towards developments. Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are does move forward insofar as Max develops emotionally as a result of his time with the wild things. The problem is that this development is too subtle, drawn-out, and intangible to really appeal to children. More than that it's just not enough to be the central focus of a two-hour film.

Forward moving narratives almost always contain emotional developments within them, but Where The Wild Things Are reverses that relationship; it is an emotional development that is framed using some narrative elements. In that design it is an unconventional and interesting film. The emotional tale, however, is so definitively subjective that is undermines its own struggle to resonate with a large proportion of its audience. It tells the story of a wild, energetic boy raised by a single mother who has serious issues relating to his absent father. Unfortunately, if you can't relate to that story in clearly definable ways then you are largely barred from sharing Max's experience.

Jonze's film demands that the viewer see themself in Max, and project their subjectivity into the narrative. The embedded perspective is so absolute that it denies the viewer any opportunity to have their own perspective of the world of the film. It even dominates the camerawork for the majority of the film, as every shot literally captures exactly how Max sees everything around him, and nothing more.

There are ways in which Max's story speaks to the general experience of childhood, but the problem is that those more transcendent elements are truncated in favour Max's specific issues and how he learns to address them. It tells a story that could be read as a metaphor for his maturation. The film has been called a meditation on childhood, but I would more specifically call it a reflection on a certain type of childhood. Maybe if you loved the book your experience will be different, but I can't really speak to that and I think it's a failing in the movie that it has so much potential to alienate its audience.

In the end I did not particularly like Where The Wild Things Are, but I do recommend that people see it. More than that I think it should be seen in theatres. As I said, this film is worth the price of admission from a visual standpoint alone, and it really deserves the big screen presentation that only theatres can give. 

Furthermore you should see it because there really isn't anything else like it out there. The film is a remarkable experiment by a supremely talented and passionate young film maker. The New York Times put out a fantastic article on Jonze and the story of adapting Where The Wild Things Are, and it gives a sense of the difficulties he has experienced in trying to be true to his artistic vision. He truly is a modern auteur.

In summary, the film didn't do much for me, emotionally or as a narrative. That said, it was a stunningly beautiful and unique experience. I know that many people have been touched by the film, so it does have the potential to affect in profound ways. Go see it while you still can.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Monday, November 2, 2009

Crown versus Michael Bryant

Kirk Makin has published a good piece outlining the Michael Bryant case in the Globe and Mail. It'll be interesting to see how this goes down in court. My money's on him walking.