Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Case for So-Called Lives

Last night, I took a stroll down memory lane to about 1994. This saunter was thanks to a visit to a Target in Pacific Fair on the Gold Coast, where I was fortunate enough to find a DVD not yet on sale in NZ, the complete series of My So Called Life.

That's right - this is the show that made Clare Danes cool, a status she quickly lost (at least in my book) when her departure from the show at the end of series one forced its cancellation. This is the show which used Kurt Cobain angst and fashion to show the relationships between some of the more ordinary denizens of an upper-middle non-zip coded high school somewhere in mainstream big city 1990s USA. The first review line on IMDB calls this the greatest show ever made. And I know I liked it a lot.

But looking back now, many moons later (scarily many), it's interesting how I view the show. While some people see it playing a pivotal role in their lives (see this person's blog, when I googled the image above), I know I enjoyed it for the quite realistic portrayal of life (though still a Hollywood, beautiful people one, to be sure), and I definitely do still appreciate the storylines, the acting, and the innovative use of camera cuts. But one thing I think I never quite appreciated back then was how much the show was about the parents as well.

I remember the father, Graham, had a really interesting story arc throughout the first series, but never did I realise how much of the first few episodes that I saw was actually focussed on both him and Patti. We never follow their internal monologue as we follow Angela Chase's, but now, as a... well, older person, I can kind of relate to their stories more. Scary, but true.

It's odd to compare this with a guilty pleasure I have only recently come to, the Gilmore Girls. This show, I have only ever known as I am now, and I find myself more in tune with the Lorelai stories, though of course the Rory stories are interesting too. But, with My So-Called Life, I remember how I felt then, and compare that with how I react now. It's a fascinating experience.

And considering the number of shows I once thought were great in my childhood that have not quite lived up to that expectation following the passing of years, I must admit, My So-Called Life has held up really well - thank goodness...

Verdict: I can foresee a few more intensely teen angst-ridden nights in my future, and I am going to savour them. My So-Called Life definitely deserves nine lives out of nine.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Case for Pixar

The Earth is presumed dead, attempts to ressurrect her proving insufficient to the task. Humanity has fled. The planet is a barren wasteland. And only Pixar can turn this kind of post-apocalyptic scenario into the backdrop for a cute film filled with Disney values.

Wall-E is the latest film from the hallowed holographic halls of Pixar's digital palace. A lone, eccentric robot roams the littered streets of New York until a visit from a robot representative of far flung humanity comes visiting and breaks this little robot's isolation.

For a film without a huge amount of dialogue, Wall-E still manages to be witty, amusing and decidedly family fun. The lead little robots are cute, but not cloyingly so. Sure, the story is fairly predictable, but then this is a Pixar/Disney film aimed squarely at those people who loved Finding Nemo. And it definitely hits that crowd pleasing mark.

An added bonus for me was a live-action presence, in the form of Fred Willard as the BnL CEO (and planetary president?) who appeared only in commercials and video archives, but whose quirky style added a decidedly non-digital presence to the usual near-flawless Pixar computer generated universe.

Verdict: A huge amount of fun, that shouldn't be faulted for being the predictable film these kind of things eventually nearly always are. 4 Axioms out of 5.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Case for More Scales

Coming hard on the heels of the previous post, the Internaut in the NZ Listener pointed me in the direction of the website. I signed up and logged in and took the first Moral Foundations Questionnaire, to see where I sat in the great bleeding heart liberal v fanatical religious conservative.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, as my years advance, I have found myself coming somewhat in between in some measures.

Give the site a whirl though and let me know what you "find out about yourself". And there are plenty of other morality-based surveys there to keep one morally dilemma-ed for a good while.

Verdict: Seeing how one scores in relation to other people is always interesting for me, especially with regards to the less clear-cut (and not necessarily right v wrong) questions. Two big thumbs up out of three.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Case for Bull

A while ago, I tried to introduce upon the world the Smartscale TM. While it was a revolutionary step forward in unnecessary quantification, the exercise did leave me with the impression that two dimensions are not enough to fully capture the myriad complex facets that is smart and dumbness. And I will not try and tackle those extra planes here.

No, instead I will embark on another quantificatorial endeavour: the Bullscale TM.

Now, everyone with an office job has probably played bulls#!+ bingo, either mentally or physically, in some time at one meeting or other. The amount of drivel that can be spun by speakers of this tongue is truly staggering, and now we are getting into New Zealand election time, bull will make its way out of the boardroom and defecate on the street.

But it is not just the lack of reality behind the empty phrases that define “bull”. To me, there is an extra level as well – the belief of the person who is speaking. Because, to be honest, if someone spouts drivel but fully believes in it, that is quite a different proposition to someone who actively is lying to you.

And so, my Bullscale takes the “Reality” portion of bull, and adds in scale for “Belief”.

But what does that really mean? Well, I have thought of a few examples that spring to mind.

Where they fit on the scales is a matter of opinion, but here is my rationale:

High Belief/Low Reality: George W Bush

He may not be my cup of tea, but I believe he is completely sincere in his beliefs and does what he thinks is right. Not that those beliefs have to be based on any hard evidence, and hypocrisy (Iraq v Georgia?) is also something that doesn’t bother him.

High Belief/High Reality: Amnesty International

Man’s inhumanity to man is remarkable. Taking a stand for it is admirable. They may be slagged for a bit of bias now and then, but in general, they stick to their guns (figuratively speaking) no matter the target.

Low Belief/High Reality: Tobacco Companies

There is a large amount of money spent on research about tobacco’s effects, with the results almost guaranteed because they money comes from the leading tobacco companies. So there is “proof” provided, but can one really trust the source?

Low Belief/Low Reality: Winston Peters

May just be me, but I don’t trust him, and the persecution complex (rather than fighting allegations with facts) does not endear me to him either.

Feel free to let me know if you have doubts about the Bullscale TM, or the people I have used as my examples. Or else add your own. Though remember, the Bullscale is TMed.

Verdict: Another job no one wanted done is done. 5 bulls out of 7

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Case for the Yellow River

"The hit of the 38th Wellington Film Festival", the paper cried. Truth be told though, I did not go to Up the Yangtze based on that recommendation, but rather on the premise of the film: a documentary on the changing lives of those who live along the banks of the Yangtze river in China, now that the Three Gorge Dam project, the largest dam in the world, is nearing completion.

To be brutally honest, by the end of the film, I was quite disappointed. The main focus of the documentary was the family of "Cindy" Yu Shui, a poor family who live in a ramshackle hut near the rising river's edge, and her subsequent departure to work on the ships that ferry Western tourists up and down the river. A second, shorter story follows "Jerry" Chen Bo Yu, a wildly egotistical man also starting work on the same boat, and we also get to "talk" with interesting men from along the river, with different perspectives on what is happening and its impact on their lives.

While the blurb on the Paramount site says that "Director Yung Chang lets the subjects speak for themselves and avoids unnecessary commentary", I found that this was least true for the Yu family, whose story seemed to be "dramatically retold" for the cameras. Cindy herself rarely got the chance to speak directly about the various things happening in her life. The other people in the film - all real people to be sure - had the chance to let their individual personalities and perspectives shine through. While the director's commentary is fairly spartan, it tends to be recollections of his grandfather's poetry about the river, though without an actual frame of reference to see what has changed since that time, it is hard to really empathise with his wistful reminiscences. That plus the fact the actual project or the history of the river itself were virtually ignored left me without a context to properly place the signifcance of the changes.

The thing I had to remember for most of the Yu family story was that these are real people, real lives. Bureaucrats in China probably have ignored the plight of all those displaced by the project, and the tourist industry that has arisen in the wake of Western interest in the project probably has given rise to all sorts of hideous fake "traditional" pagentry and a service industry based on exploiting its staff. All the other people we encountered felt real, even when spouting tourist propaganda, but the Yus were the only ones to feel (and I hate to use the word) exploited by the film makers.

For my money, the documentary China Blue on the jeans manufacturing industry is a far better film than this one. Not to completely slate Up the Yangtze, but I was left with the feeling that the fascinating stories of the people in the film were done a disservice, in particular the Yus. For me, there is nothing worse than a documentary feeling fake. When the stories told were obviously true and the feelings real (like Jerry, and the man in the town where fighting with officials broke out), the film soared.

Verdict: A worthy goal, but I thought it didn't quite get it right, and it certainly did not live up to the hype. 1 gorge out of 3.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Case for Revisiting Hell

The scene: Tuesday evening, reclining in a leather seat in the glorious Embassy cinema. Trailers roll as I anticipate the start of Hellboy 2: the Golden Army, a movie that has, apparently, on the success of the incredible Pan’s Labyrinth, allowed the director to indulge in his fantastical imaginings. I expected too much.

First the positives: The film looks amazing. I found the animation for the bedtime story told at the beginning of the film (especially the rendering of humans as incomplete wooden puppets) particularly cute. The creatures are a mix of horrific and cute (the dark angel was my favourite), the sets are sadly sumptuous, and the action sequences are breathtaking and filled with lots of loud bangs.

So is the story. The bangs are the sounds of the audience (well, of me) shooting myself as highly obvious plot developments take ice ages (and about 10 minutes of then-rendered-pointless action ) to eventuate. Other clunking sounds were caused by the jokes, which mostly fell flat, ably unassisted by a new character who bore a strong resemblance to a Nazic Stewie Griffin – perhaps not so surprising when I realised he was also voiced by Seth MacFarlane. And the character development… well, there was none. An old relationship went through motions while a new romance was given so little time to develop that, besides a Manilow moment (used as a bland blunt instrument to drive home a later plot point), one would hardly realise it was there.

So yes, I was not overly impressed with the story itself. Oddly enough, at the time, the film passed by without too much pain. I later realised that, after I while, I had kind of started ignoring the dialogue and paid attention instead to the background and the fight scenes. And the prospect of the much-hinted at sequel… well, here’s hoping that gets stuck in its own kind of (development) hell…

Verdict: A step forward visually, but several leaps backwards in anything resembling a film franchise that I would care about seeing. Hellboy 2: the Golden Army is about demons and the underworld, so, perhaps inevitably, it lacks heart and humanity. 3 Hail Mary’s out of 10.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Case for Multiplicity

It is hard to express how low my expectations were going into Star Wars: the Clones Wars. Having experienced the devastating disappointment of the “prequel” trilogy, where special effects took the place of characterisation and horrendously complex (and to my way of thinking, nonsensical) plot supplanted fun and adventure, I was ready for the animated tales of the Republican Jedi versus the Separatist Robot Army to – to not put too fine a point on it – suck.

The Clone Wars is patched together from episodes from a prospective TV series aimed at children with attention deficit disorder, so themes and lines are repeated over and over again. It also meant though that most time was spent fighting and running around and blowing things up than talking about trade violations, so the whole thing trotted along at a fair pace until the horse encountered a plot hurdle, at which point it stumbled a bit, muddled through, and then carried on.

It is perhaps harsh to say that the characters in the animated movie had a lot more personality and were many times more empathetic than their flesh and blood counterparts. Harsh, but not untrue. Anakin Skywalker in particular was near likable, perhaps by the simple approach of removing the whole brooding “Doomed to Darth” anticipation and just playing him as a fairly happy go lucky and reckless Jedi. The other characters were much more in keeping with their grown-up film selves, for good or ill, and the new characters were fine, though of course will ultimately be pointless to the grander story (unless Anakin slays his pupil – now, that would an interesting twist for the kiddies).

While the film had nowhere near enough space battles for one such as myself, the other action sequences were entertaining enough. One of the contrivances of the plot is that the Jedi are fighting a robot army, so the slaughter of thousands of non-sentient beings leaves very little room for moral quandaries. The Clones of course are all Tems (he is everywhere! With so many different hair cuts!), and they are the red-shirted good guy cannon fodder, though to save the sensitive younglings, I noted that they all met the end of their mortality with their Storm Trooper helmets on.

In the end, my mind wandered as the story dragged, and the attempts at humour were as laboured as ever, but the pretty pictures kept me from glancing at my watch too often. And as the final credits rolled, I had to smile and admit it was not too bad. Definitely not great, but better than I had feared.

Verdict: How can one trust a modern Star Wars film that starts with the Warner Brothers “As Time Goes By” intro rather than the Fox fanfare? More than the “real” series, if this effort is anything to go by. The Clone Wars is squarely aimed at children, with the only real enticement for adults being the lure of their own childhood memories and the original Holy Trilogy. It would not convert anyone to the Force, but it will make a great computer game, which is possibly the point of the exercise. 5 Jawas out of 10.