Monday, July 07, 2008

Action Speaks Shallower than Words

I've never been a big fan of the action genre. Don't ask me why but while all my friends were harking on the virtues of 300 I was more interested in seeing The Queen. In fact, if it was up to me I would have seen The Queen instead of 300 one spring afternoon. But due to the fact that our movie selection was at the whim of other teenagers 300 ruled. I ended up seeing both and while The Queen now sits on my DVD shelf I haven't so much as given a second though, or viewing, about 300 after reviewing it. In fact, looking at my DVD shelf most of it is filled with drama and most action flicks I have are cross genre.

So how does a teenaged boy grow resentment towards a genre that is almost entirely aimed at pleasing him? Perhaps it was my long running fascination with sitting quietly in a corner and reading books for years that made me less interested in gunplay. Maybe it was my mother forbidding me to pretend to shoot people for years. More likely is the fact that I never grew up on any action films. In any case I've never been enraptured with the genre, so much so that I've only seen one Bond film, Casino Royale.

What exactly do I not like about the genre? Before going further let me make a general disclaimer. I'm excluding superhero, sci-fi and fantasy action films because these are totally different kinds of films at their core than the mainstream high caliber action flicks. There's a lot and I've a whole slew of grievances which I'm addressing in an upcoming review of Mission: Impossible, but one I'd like to flesh out is the lack of consequences or reflection of any kind.

The action film is a tedious and predictable beast. No matter how many die and how much damage is done the ending is always the same. Our hero triumphs and we get a short epilogue to wrap up loose plot ends. Then the credits roll. There's rarely, if ever, repercussions for the hero's actions. Even worse is that often main characters die and are never acknowledged at the end of the film. Not only does this make for an irreverent film but it also means that all the actions of the heroes and villains are more artificial than the computer generated effects that surround them because they have no impact on the world.

Even worse is the tedious action sequences are about spectacle after spectacle without any reprieve from the sheer noise of it all. If there isn’t someone shooting or something blowing up the sound is plagued by lengthy expositions or quippy one liners. Films of this caliber simply don't have the time or patience to stop for a moment and reflect, or give us a poetic visual moment. My favorite scene from the entire Star Wars series is the iconic shot of Luke looking out at the twin suns setting. It's a simple moment, the only sound John William's score. Yet the modern film has no such time for something that slow and thoughtful. It's a thrill a minute and instant gratification is the name of the game.

Yet not every action film suffers from these flaws and the ones that overcome these obstacles. The first one that comes to mind is my, and many others, favorite action film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In this rough and tumble universe actions have real consequences. Jones actions can often lead to the peril and death of those around him. Furthermore, the film stops to give us reprieve from the action. The map room and the digging during the sunset sequences both come to mind as moments of complete cinema as opposed to simple spectacle. Both consequences and reflections cumulate about halfway through the film when Indiana Jones is drinking in a bar after his reckless actions have caused the death of a beloved character.

But that was back in the day when blockbusters were in their infancy. One has to wonder then if there are there any other action films that take up this kind of tone? Only one other comes to mind and that's the recent Bourne Trilogy. One could even summarize the entire film as a reflection on the nature of being a killer. Much like his 80's counterpart Jason Bourne's actions have real impact on the people around him. People die because of Bourne's actions and while the films end on a high note there's a real sense that Bourne will be forever plagued by his past actions. Likewise, some of the best moments of the film are not the action sequences but the moments where Bourne breaks down or is confronted by his past once again.

Crossing genres this lack of consequences and reflection becomes less of a problem. Superhero films often play on the consequences of being a superhero and a normal person. Peter Parker's heroic adventures often lead to misadventures and an apparent lack of commitment in his life as a nerdy photographer. Likewise, almost every superhero goes through a moment of reflection as the hero is faced with a hard choice between returning to normality or embracing the nature of their alter ego. Science Fiction action films have even less of a problem with these challenges. The entire genre is seen by many as at its core a reflection on the human condition.

Frankly I don't care about your action sequences unless there are human emotions behind it all. One of the fundamental truths of human existence is that our actions have consequences. As long as the action genre ignores this simple truth of living I will have a hard time coming to grips with it. I'm not saying the a great action film must contain such sensibilities but that for me personally I'll much sooner watch Raiders or the Bourne trilogy for their human elements than watch any action flick for it's entertainment value. It's too simple-minded for me to mentally engage in, too shallow for me to immerse myself in and too showy for me to find entertaining.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Theological Tuesdays: WALL●E and Wanted

This is my first post of this nature so I'll briefly explain it. Every Tuesday I play to write up a post that discusses the thoughts, ideas and themes behind one or two films. I will generally default to the theatrical release I see but if don't have one on a given week I'll pick the one I think has the most worth talking about. I won't go into extreme depth but I'll assume you've seen the film and I will be spoiling the films, often including their endings. So if you haven't seen the films I've talked about I'd probably steer clear of these posts. That being said lets dive right into it.

Spoiler Alert: Major plot points of WALL●E will be discussed in depth.

First off most critics seem to think this is some environmental tale about what happens when people quit caring about the environment as the earth is covered in so much trash that the human races abandons it. Not only do I think this claim is bogus and a result of everyone looking for environmental messages under every rock but also writer/director Andrew Stanton shot down this idea in practically every interview it has come up in. What he said he believes that aspect is about is a cautionary tale of the danger of becoming an overly consumerist society. Furthermore, he says most of what people see as the environmental message rose out of narrative necessity and not idealist beliefs. He needed a reason for the humans to leave the planet and something for WALL●E to clean up. Furthermore, he says he has no intensions of being preachy at all with this film.

Moving on Stanton has said that he believes that at its heart WALL●E is a longing for love and I'm inclined to agree. Romance involving robots in noting new to the sci-fi genre but it generally has taken on more sexual connotations. Here there's no such animalistic approach to love. WALL●E is the last robot on earth in longs for companionship from another robot. He actually first develops this longing from a betamax copy of the musical Hello, Dolly. To him he sees the display of love as holding hands as he watched a pair of lovebirds in the music.

WALL●E also has an interesting social commentary on the advents of modern technology. As we develop better and better technology we run the risk of becoming so complacent and lazy that we become vegetables forced to move around by hoverchair. Also, as we create better ways to communicate with each other but communicate less in what we have to say. Face to face conversations become obsolete when everyone is just a holocall away. Is the film saying that technological advances are bad? No. All it's saying is that we have to be careful how much we rely on that technology before it takes over our very existences. Already we see individuals practically tied to their cell phone as they spend many of their waking hours talking, texting and sending photos.

Spoiler Alert: Major plot points and the ending of Wanted will be discussed in depth.

Fate. This seems to be the core ideology behind Wanted. In the middle of the film Sloan shows Wesley the machine that decides the targets of the organization. It's a giant loom that uses a binary code (yea it's cheesy) to spell out a person's name. It's said fate controls the name the loom spits out in order to achieve a balance in the universe. Understandably Wesley doesn't quite buy into the notion, so much so that he fails to execute his first target. Then Fox tells an effective story about her father being killed by a man whose name came up on the loom weeks before he murdered her father. Convinced by the story Wesley buys into fate and kills his target.

Then comes the twist. It turns out that Sloan's name came up on the loom one day. Wishing to save his own skin Sloan hid the evidence and reconfigured the loom to input names that would benefit him. Fate, it seems, has been twisted and is simply Sloan controlling the machine. The individual's potential to chart their own destiny is the final conclusion of the film. Wesley's character goes from being controlled by his sorry girlfriend, sorry boss and fear to becoming so cool and calculated that he is in control. The film leaves the back door for fate open but ultimately the film concludes fate is a ruse as Wesley takes control of his own life and kills Sloan.

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Week in Review: Pixar Studios

If I could only watch one film from one studio each year it would easily be Pixar's yearly release. Charming characters, masterful storytelling and peak animation has always made the studio a hit among kids and adults alike. Critics and households alike are no stranger to Pixar and it's hard to find a household with kids that doesn’t at least own one Pixar film. Many would say, myself included, that Pixar is the only redeeming thing about Disney (although I did enjoy last years Enchanted). We're nearing a decade and a half with Pixar being the leading animation studio and it doesn't look like it will let up anytime soon.

Their ascension to the throne of animation began with a small 1995 film called Toy Story. I actually remember this coming out as a young kid but at the time my family wasn't really into going to the theater so I didn't see it until it came out on VHS. I remember liking it but at the time I was to taken by my Sega Genesis to be really interested in any movie. Revisiting this film I found it more lacking than I though it was. I kind of had already deducted as a kid that the film was trying to tug my heartstrings but it wasn’t until re-watching it that I discovered how. Like I said I really wasn't that interested in movies as a kid and Toy Story didn’t spark any interest in me.

This changed when A Bug's Life came out several years later. I had gotten to the age where most young boys quit watching animated films and move on to solely watching Star Wars and other such PG action flicks. But at the time it was ridiculously hard to find any kind of copy of Star Wars and I would search every store I walked into for years to find the trilogy. But that's a tale for another time. The reason I bring it up is if I owned Star Wars I might have made this leap past animated films. But since I hadn't I still didn't think it was childish to watch animated features. A Bug's Life was the film that sparked my imagination and made me want to see more films from these people. We saw this film in a dollar theater months after everyone I knew had seen it. I'm sure the audio was crap and the video lacking but as a kid you tend to overlook that stuff. It's rather interesting that A Bug's Life is the first film I latched on to because re-watching them it's easily one of my favorites from Pixar.

Sometime around A Bug's Life coming out in theaters I had a sister, which is probably part of the reason why I saw it in the dollar theater. I always had a sister a couple of years younger but she never liked animated films that much beyond say Cinderella or The Little Mermaid. And about the time Toy Story 2 came out in 1999 she was able to carry on a coherent conversation and we took her to this film. She immediately latched onto it and we bought it for her for her birthday on VHS. If you have kids or younger siblings the one thing you know about kids and movies is that often they go through phases of watching the same movie over and over again. For her it was Toy Story 2. Yes, I enjoyed seeing this in the theater but found my sibling's constant watching of it on VHS slightly annoying, so much so that when I sat down and watched this film again I realized it's probably been close to half a decade since I've seen this film in its entirety. It's an animated gem, but like Toy Story I have some issues with it.

Then we move onto Monsters, Inc. I'm not sure what it was about this film but for some reason I really liked it when we checked it out on DVD. Maybe it was Billy Crystal and John Goodman or perhaps it was the simple novelty of owning a DVD. Unless I'm mistaken this was one of the first DVD's we had with a second disk of special features and I diligently watched each one. That being said upon this revisit I didn’t find it quit as good as I remember but still was a lot of fun.

After that Pixar finally gives the director's chair solely to Andrew Stanton in their biggest hit: Finding Nemo. I'll go ahead and say that I think my review is rather crap. Issues with the disk, a Physics test and the fact I couldn’t actually watch the film meant I wasn't writing it in the right frame of mind. That being said it's easily the most powerful of the Pixar films with a real emotional punch. I also really latched onto the humor here more than any other the film. In fact, for several months this film was constantly quoted in my boyscout troop by kids from age 12 to 17. The fact that it could be a hit with the audience most likely to pass by animated films is a real testament to the film's power.

After mainly being lead by people in the company from the early days Pixar gets some fresh blood in the director's chair. Pixar newcomer Brad Bird is no stranger to animation with the critically acclaimed but box-office bomb The Iron Giant under his belt before he came to Pixar. With his first Pixar film, The Incredibles, Brad Bird takes Pixar to the next level in terms of deep, thematic exploration. Furthermore he makes an impeccable action superhero flick for all ages. Pixar at this point already had a great history of excellent storytelling but Brad Bird raises the bar even further with a superhero film that surpasses its live action counterparts.

But alas all good things must come to an end and Pixar breaks their streak of great films with the sub par Cars. I'm sure plenty still like it but at least for me I found a lot that worked against it. Larry the Cable Guy, the crude humor and band narrative were all things that turned me off. Also, the eyes of the cars just didn't work for me. Every other Pixar creation has naturally has had eyes but once they superimpose eyes on the cars I don't think it works at all.

Swiftly moving on we get to a truly ravishing film. Brad Bird's Ratatouille is a masterful and mature achievement. The story of a rat in a kitchen could go wrong in so many places but Bird and the crack team of animators at Pixar poured a lot of charm into their rodent characters and made it all work. But where the film really shines is in the allegory of food as art. The creativity and consumption of art is what the film is really getting at. It's easily one of Pixar's best work and a must see.

We come to it at last, the film that inspired this whole shenanigan. Eight films viewed 7 reviewed in over seven days lead up to this one film. To say Andrew Stanton's WALL●E is an astounding achievement of modern animation may be an understatement. Looking forward I hope a lot of films latch on the new old way WALL●E tells its story primarily through the visuals. I already was expecting another great film going in but still WALL●E totally took me by surprise. It's easily my favorite Pixar film, the best film I've seen this year and just might be the best animated film ever made. Do yourself a favor and see this film. Take the kids. If you don't have kids take someone else's. This might even be a great date movie with its charming romantic story. In any case see it under any circumstance. This is the must see movie of the summer and anyone who lets it slip them by will be missing some of the greatest movie magic to reach the big screen in years.

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Novel Mondays: Amsterdam and Dune

Poor Molly, the book hasn't even started and she's already dead. I have to be honest, one of my pet peeves is the use of the death of a character as a mere plot device. I'm just a chapter into the book and already author Ian McEwan has pushed one of my buttons. This could even turn out worse if the whole premise of the book is built off her death. But for Now I'll give McEwan the benefit of the doubt. After all, he wrote Atonement, one of the most powerful books I've read in a good while. And I've also picked up on McEwan's excellent language in the first chapter, leaving me hungry for more.

But what I've been spending most of my time reading is Dune, the classic Sci-fi,/Fantasy novel by luminary Frank Herbert. I've read it before but this time I'm trying to dissect more of the details that make Dune great. The biggest thing I'm picking up is the political overtones. Unlike American politics I find the politics in Arrakis interesting because each word can mean the difference between life or death. Yes, I do think that most of the charactesr are a little to hypersensitive to mere words but in the Frank Herbert's universe words carry weight, unlike the American system of politics where words mean practically nothing.

I also picked up Dune Messiah and Children of Dune for practically nothing at a local resale bookstore downsizing their inventory so I'm going to be reading through the trilogy for the first time. I've actually read the trilogy before, but out of order. I started with Dune Messiah, then read Dune and then jumped ahead to Children of Dune. So I'm counting this as my first "proper" read through of the trilogy. For any interested in picking up the series I'd say that at least read the first two books and if you are still interested go for the third novel. After that I think the political intrigue becomes lost and the novels are basically reduced to bickering women (no, I'm not kidding).

After I get through the Dune Trilogy (which at this rate will probably take me a couple of weeks) and wrap up Amsterdam I'm not sure what I'll read next. I've got a hefty stack of books I haven't finished but they all seem rather dull at the moment (that and they're all nonfiction and after school I have no desire to read heavy intellectual diatribes). I might try my hand at Great Expectations or work my way through a compilation of Robert Louis Stevenson novels I bought about a year ago and haven't gotten past the first few pages. If you haven't guessed I'm notorious for reading the first chapter of books and then not touching them again for extended periods of time. I'm hoping to change that trend but seeing as I'm taking a full semester of school this summer it's not likely to happen any time in the next few months. Until then those books will be collecting a fine layer of dust till fall rolls around and I get back into the flow of regular paced education.