Tuesday, February 25, 2014

LEGO, DEVO, and Mass-Produced Humanity: The LEGO Movie

Anyone who has ever gotten a LEGO set knows that when you first pull the pieces out of the box, you have two options: You can follow the instructions or you can build something else entirely. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller understand the rules of playtime. Thanks to them, The LEGO Movie is packed wall to wall with clever humor and tractor loads of good fun. Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation embodies Emmet Brickowoski, a lovable yet simpleminded everyman (everyminifigure?) who loves his life, enjoys his friends, and always follows the instructions. But the attentive viewer will notice that behind the cheery primary colors and peppy attitude, there's something distinctly Orwellian about this LEGO world. Everyone has the same morning routine, the same favorite song, the same positive outlook. Maybe its because they are LEGOs, you think to yourself. You can't expect LEGOs to have that much personality. Anyway, thanks to a prophesy, a call to adventure, and a white-bearded mentor named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman of course), the film is soon dutifully following the instructions for your basic Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey. Or is it?

This is where Devo comes in. That's right. You heard me.

Devo, the kitsch-sci-fi rock group from the 80s led by Mark Mothersbaugh has always been known for its deadpan surrealist humor and biting social satire. Their 2010 album 'Something for Everybody' is no different. Alongside catchy upbeat electronic music, Mark and his team sing robotically about their fast-food pop-culture driven dystopia that they live in. Personality is minimized and people are likened to rockets on a collision course for their pre-programmed targets. Do they live in the future or the present? It's impossible to tell.

During the build up to the release of 'Something For Everybody', Devo sardonically put a billboard up in Waco, Texas that "had been designed using focus groups to determine what everybody would like". The focus groups reported that people like: The color blue, soft textures, family comfort, and sexiness. Not surprisingly (and intentionally so), the result was rather hideous - a woman in a swimsuit sticking halfway out of a blue gelatinous Devo pyramid, with a happy family looking on from their couch. The subtitle: "This is something for everybody."

I suppose it should have not come as a surprise to me when the credits of The LEGO Movie rolled to reveal that the very same Mark Mothersbaugh was the composer for The LEGO Movie. And also not surprisingly, the land Emmet lives in reflects our own; the dumb tv shows, the generic yet addictive pop songs, and the overpriced coffee that we all buy anyway. All things that can become our sedentary comforts, prompting us to never look for another option. But what about that time when we were kids and we chose NOT to follow the instructions? No, we've all grown up and have jobs now - there is no time for experimenting. Best just conform to the familiar pattern. It's the safe thing to do. It's also the method adopted by the film's villain, President Business. He wants things to be just the way he likes them, without anyone else messing it all up. "All I'm asking for is total perfection" he declares. And so his domain is populated by lemmings who all live the same lives and have just enough perks to keep them ignorant and happy as they follow his instructions to build his world for him.

There is a lyric from Devo's song 'No Place Like Home' that reads "We are creating a brand new world around us / We are creating a brand new world without us."  It seems particularly poignant in this case - when everything is made for everybody, personality disappears and creativity is squashed.

Themes in The LEGO Movie are similar, which could have something to do with directors Lord and Miller's longtime collaboration with Mark Mothersbaugh. But these ideas actually flow naturally from the very fact that LEGO minifigures ARE mass produced, and there are literally millions of identical plastic persons that populate its sets. The director duo were smart to turn to the ideas of conformity and creativity, as these seem to be the yin and yang of the LEGO world. But amidst the social satire, they never stop having fun with it all - after all, LEGOs are about having fun and being creative. In the world of this film, the minifigure creations seem to be made in the image of their creators - they too have the creative spark. In fact, their heroes are the 'master builders' - those who are so creative they can build anything out of literally anything. But they underestimate President Business - who would commit the unthinkable to keep everything just the way he wants it.

However - just when all of the thematic subtext is screaming out that authority figures stifle creativity and rebels are to be glorified, the film takes a rather brilliant turn into something deeper and more thoughtful. Yes, and just when you forgot that this is a film about children's toys. The aforementioned Devo song intones "Can't have a rainbow without the rain / can't have a payday without the pain" and ends with the line repeated over and over, "And there's no place like home to return to." The meaning is clear as it is in the final act of the LEGO movie - home and family and simple acts of love can transcend our mass-produced humanity, and a selfless act shines so much more brightly than clinging to ourselves.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Quatermass: Where Sci-Fi and Horror meet

If Science Fiction is a study of what could be and Horror is a study of what we fear, Quatermass seems to be a perfect blending of the two.

Last night I watched both "The Quatermass Xperiment" (1955) and "Quatermass 2" (1957).

The Quatermass Xperiment
Here we get the hardened Scientist Bernard Quatermass, a skeptic who will stop at nothing to advance his scientific knowledge, and an alien invasion that is more of a possession than an invasion. The alien presence seems less scientific and more supernatural, and horrifying for its vast, destructive indifference. The Astronaut who is infected seems fearful of the metamorphosis, but remains speechless, as if his soul has been ripped from his body, leaving a completely unknowable presence in its place. The bleak, black-and-white photography of the film are a perfect backdrop and overall, Nigel Kneale's science horror is quite effective.

Quatermass 2
Nigel Kneale's second offering turns its focus to more of a science-gone-wrong widespread conspiracy story at first, and these elements are quite effective on their own. But soon the source of the conspiracy is revealed to be another vast, destructive and indifferent alien presence much like the first Quatermass, and we begin to see a theme. Quatermass 2 is more effective than The Quatermass Xperiment, perhaps because of Nigel Kneale's direct involvement, and the passion behind the project make even the dated effects seem more real.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Entering the Age of the Cinematic Universe

When we stop and look at our current age of entertainment and pop culture, we have to ask ourselves, "Where did we come from?" and "Where are we going?" A recent interview with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas featured the two pioneers of the Hollywood blockbuster hailing the impending implosion of the system they helped create. And when hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on movies that barely turn around a tenth of that, we have to wonder if they might be on to something.
When you look at the very first blockbuster successes in the late 70s - Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, Star Trek, and even a kids film like The Muppet Movie - Hollywood quickly learned that sequels make money. Even if the sequels diminish in quality, audiences will still flock to the theaters in droves to see them. Prequels work the same way, they soon discovered, and soon blockbusters soon became franchises. Franchises included comic books, novels, toys, technical manuals, and video games that pertained to the main subject of the franchise. And for decades, the franchise has been king moneymaker in Hollywood. It's gotten so that original material is going the way of the dodo, and even when it does surface in recent films like Pacific Rim, it cannot make enough money to sustain its large budget.
And then in 2008, Marvel Studios did something unique; they made individual movies that stood alone, each their own successful franchise, and then linked them together to create (pardon the unavoidable pun) a super-franchise. They called it the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With all its franchises clearly connected now in 2012's The Avengers, Marvel can revive forgotten franchises like 1969's Guardians of the Galaxy and people will go see the film merely on the basis that it is part of the bigger universe.
So where are we going? I think we are on the verge of a new age of these cinematic universes. At the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con, DC has revealed their own cinematic universe where Superman and Batman will both be featured in one film. Lucasfilm (like Marvel, now owned by Disney), hopes to eventually make two or even three Star Wars films a year - and these new films can take place in different eras, and feature different characters, but they will still be contained within the ever-expanding canopy of the Star Wars Universe.

George Lucas got it right in 1977. With Star Wars, he didn't just make a movie, and he didn't just create a trilogy or a franchise. He gave birth to a universe, populated with an infinite amount of nooks and crannies to be explored. You could look into just about any corner and find almost anything happening, from an alien cantina brawl to the rise and fall of galactic republics and empires. This is why it caught the world's imaginations in the first place, and why it is poised to be one of the next decade's best cinematic universes. And any studio wanting to succeed in this next decade will not only have to create a successful film, but a successful universe if they want to compete.

This is where Hollywood is heading. An era of cinematic universes. Tentpole four-quadrant blockbuster movies will make more and more money. Little movies will never be able to make 500 million dollars, so big Hollywood studios will cease to make them. I believe that original storytelling will live on in independent and overseas markets. Indie filmmakers continue to find and fulfill niche markets from the art house to hipster nostalgia to low-budget horror. And studios like the BBC, Studio Ghibli, Pixar, and even Sherwood Baptist Church have continued to seek out original stories that appeal to audiences small or broad.

Maybe, like Lucas and Spielberg predict, it will all come crashing down some day. Or maybe Hollywood will learn to adapt again. It's done so many times in the past century. Maybe, like the fine arts, cinema will reach a point in which it is barely recognizable from its classical origins. But artists will always find ways to express the truth and beauty they see around them, and companies will always find ways of making more money. Its these two basic facts about the way we work as humans that has taken the form of film making to this point, and will push it ever further into the future.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Why it is good to make monsters punchable: The simple merits of Pacific Rim

“Fairytales don't tell children that dragons exist; children already know that dragons exist. Fairytales tell children that dragons can be killed.”
~ G. K. Chesterton

Like Mexican-born director of "Pacific Rim" Guillermo Del Toro, I enjoy the strange stories of H.P. Lovecraft. No one else quite captures the thrill and immensity of monsters and otherworldly beings like he does. Many of them are so frighteningly incomprehensible to the humans of the stories that they defy imagination itself. Del Toro is by now well-known for designing unique and frightening monsters for his movies - clearly his imagination was piqued by Lovecraft at a formative age. And yet unlike the protagonists in Lovecraft, Del Toro's characters are known to react to impossible odds, creatures from other dimensions, and impossibly gargantuan monstrosities... by punching them in the face. We find ourselves able to enjoy them because they react in a way that we all wish we could; fearlessly. Guillermo Del Toro has said in interviews that Pacific Rim is influenced not only by monsters from old Godzilla movies and anime, but also by the delight he derives from watching Mexican luchadores duke it out in a ring. This film's main conceit may be silly, but it's also awesome.

But back to punching monsters. Many summer blockbusters can be fun to watch just by delivering sheer spectacle, like transforming robots or characters with super-strengths. And Pacific Rim is no exception. But Pacific Rim at its core presents a form of fairy-tale morality by showing you certain things that you really want to punch, and then giving you the cathartic release of punching them for you. The city-crushing creatures in this movie are punched, thrown, and bodyslammed into oblivion by the 'jaegers', giant humaniod mechanical vehicles driven by two humans. And when I above mention morality, that means it even cares enough to ensure that you know that civilians are protected from the collateral damage by frenzied evacuations - not a luxury all other blockbusters this year will give you.

The Kaiju (Japanese term for huge monsters) are separated into classes based on size and dangerousness. Similarly, the actual Kaiju themselves are only one class of monsters that this film tells us need to be punched. Even though Pacific Rim allows you to cheer for humans defeating monsters, it's not just being blindly optimistic or humanistic. It knows that some humans are very punchable too, particularly when they bullheadedly impede the greater good of mankind. From a slimy black-market dealer to a jaeger pilot who acts very disrespectfully to Mako (the female lead in the film), these characters reflect fairy tale archetypes like the troll under the bridge or the false hero. In each case, like in fairy tales, we get a moral foil to these more despicable characters who is willing to stand up for what is clearly morally right. These archetypes could easily feel dull and cliche, but they are handled well, and each character is grounded and detailed and relatable. We all know deep down that punching monsters is the right thing to do. And sometimes a last ditch effort is good if it's an effort in the right direction.

And then there are inner monsters; the class 5 Kaiju within us. The film starts with the human race already united against the kaiju, so it just automatically considers the monster of racial segregation and jingoism to have already been punched. Each character has some form of inner demon to fight, whether its painful loss or desire for vengeance. But like the actual monsters of the story, none of the characters sit and dwell on their problems like emo teenagers. They learn from their mistakes, pick themselves up, and give another shot at doing something they know is right - no matter how insurmountable the foe. And that's something we don't get to see very often at the movies these days.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Man, a Plan, and a Red Hunting Hat: THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

Everyone knows growing up sucks. Even though it can be fleetingly enjoyable at times, there is an inevitability to the pain that comes with it. And "The Catcher in the Rye" stands as a testament to that.

The first thing you notice when you read J.D. Salinger's most celebrated novel is the prose. The narrator Holden Caulfield is not impressed with the world and he's not going to lie about it. You get to see the world through the lens of our lovable misanthropic friend. Holden has gone from prep school to prep school, and now he's flunking four of his five subjects - and has just been given the boot out of Pencey. But as subjective as the narrator is, the way he describes the world around him is, in a sense, very real. He wanders off on rabbit trails, he leaves out what he wants to, and he interprets everything the way he sees it.

Holden is in the transition stage between childhood and adulthood. And it sucks. Everything about the adult world is phony, and he doesn't want to be a part of it. But he can't keep himself from growing up, in fact in many ways he already is an adult. His encounter with his younger sister Phoebe towards the end shows us that. The irony is that he is becoming (and already is) many of the things he hates about the adult world.

Like Dustin Hoffman's character in The Graduate, Holden is disillusioned with the 'road to success' and even though the adults in the story give him sound advice to succeeding into adulthood, they are all sacrifices of integrity - that phoniness he hates so much. He knows the path to adulthood corrupts his innocence. But of course, it's obvious that he's already been corrupted.

The red hunting hat is a key visual in this story. He keeps taking it on and off. He's proud of it, he lets it define him, yet he won't let people see him wearing it. It's just like the ways we grow up into our own identity - yet in doing so, people around you will find it strange - they may even scoff if your identity does not match with theirs. Then we become both simultaneously proud and embarrassed of our own unique identity - and yet that's what an identity should be; unique.

The title of the book is taken from a song - to Holden, these words sum up what he wants to be - someone who can save innocent children from the peril of adulthood. Something it seems he has already lost. But Holden finds out that the song isn't actually about a "Catcher in the Rye". If you look into the song's meaning, it's about willingly losing one's innocence and purity - just the thing that Holden shuns. In the end the story of Holden Caulfield is a tragedy - much like Don Quixote - a lost soul in a lost world, dreaming an impossible dream and fighting an unbeatable foe. Everyone has to grow up eventually, and what Holden really lacks is maturity.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Silver Chair

"Are you not thirsty?" said the Lion.
"I'm dying of thirst," said Jill.
"Then drink," said the Lion.
"May I--could I--would you mind going away while I do?" said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.

It was a rather dull day, and for almost no reason at all, I found myself picking up The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis. It's the fourth book in the Narnia series (if you read them in the correct order like I do), and ever since my mother read them to me as a child, it's been my favorite of the seven.

"Will you promise not to--do anything to me, if I do come?" said Jill.
"I make no promise," said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
"Do you eat girls? she said.
"I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
"I daren't come and drink," said Jill.
"Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.
"Oh dear," said Jill, taking another step nearer. "I suppose I must go look for another stream then."
"There is no other stream," said the Lion.

This scene always stood out to me, and the way Aslan is introduced to Jill Pole is particularly iconic. Aslan is no stranger to us if we've read the other books and we know he is a good lion, yet Jill is rightly terrified of him. This is something that the movie versions have never gotten right, is the way Aslan's power instills terror in the hearts of those who behold him. Instead, the movies turn him into a soft, lovable lion that you just want to be friends with. This is NOT the Aslan in the books. In one of my favorite lines from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (cut from the film), Mr. Beaver says, "Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."

"And now hear your task. Far from here in the land of Narnia there lives an aged king who is sad because he has no prince of his blood to be king after him. He has no heir because his only son was stolen from him many years ago, and no one in Narnia knows where that prince went or whether he is still alive. But he is. I lay on you this command, that you seek this prince until either you have found him and brought him to his father's house, or else died in the attempt, or else gone back to your own world."
"How, please?" said Jill.
"I will tell you, child," said the Lion. "These are the signs by which I will guide you in your quest. First; as soon as the boy Eustace sets foot in Narnia, he will meet an old and dear friend. He must greet that friend at once; if he does, you will both have good help. Second; you must journey out of Narnia to the north till you come to the ruined city of the ancient giants. Third; you shall find a writing on a stone in that ruined city, and you must do what the writing tells you. Fourth; you will know the lost prince (if you find him) by this, that he will be the first person you have met in your travels who will ask you to do something in my name, in the name of Aslan."

There it is, pretty much the entire story laid out for us right there in the second chapter. The quest is quite clearly presented, and now the audience knows what they are in for. Now all the reader must do is sit back and watch the plan go completely and horribly wrong.

These books work for all ages. They were written as children's stories, but they carry that kind of maturity that kids have that adults seem to think kids aren't capable of understanding. I first had these books read to me when I was 7, and they not only made perfect sense to me, they stuck with me and were a big influence on the way I grew up. I would recommend them for any child of any age.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Review: "The Dark Crystal" (1982)

When it comes to film and entertainment, Jim Henson and Frank Oz are two of my favoritest people on this earth. And before you tell me that 'favoritest' isn't a word, I shall just inform you that neither was "Muppet" before Jim and Frank came around. But their combined contributions (The Muppet Show, the character of Yoda, Death at a Funeral {2007}, the several Muppet movies, The Storyteller... etc, etc.) are a veritable smorgasbord of delight and goodness. So the idea of a dark fantastical myth from them, made entirely with puppets, automatically screams of genius.

And as the film starts, the experience does not disappoint. You are told the story of this world, and the myth unfolds from there. There are the dark and evil Skeksis, the banished yet wise Mystics, and the endangered Gelfling that has a bigger fate that he realizes. This is a short film (90 mins), but the scope is built on epic proportions.

You are soon entranced by the evocative visuals - Henson's and Oz' use of color and scale are unparalleled, and they pull off shots with elegance and texture that we could only dream of seeing in movies these days. The dialogue is mostly on-the-nose and even laughably cheesy at times, but it's easy to overlook because the world is so tactile, the visuals so sophisticated, that you can just swim in it for hours and never want to leave. The music and sound design, when combined, have a profound effect. The puppets (of which there are hundreds), even though you KNOW they are puppets, have a startling life to them that no CGI has ever been able to capture since, and it really is a paramount of beauty to behold. As a warning, however, I'll caution that many sequences in this film are creepy, intense, and the evil depicted is rather disturbing, and I would advise against showing this film to children.

The story continues in excellent mythic fashion, and many scenes seem to feel familiar, as if they were taken from Lord of the Rings, Return of the Jedi, or Harry Potter. But then you realize that this movie came out in 1982, before any of those films came out, and all you can do is be amazed at how influential this little film was on our concept of modern fantasy. The use of color in the film alone is unsurpassed, yet mimicked and echoed in films everywhere today.

The climax reaches an apex as the final confrontation between good and evil comes to a head. And thematically so far the film has been awesome - ideas of life, death, and rebirth - tied to the connectivity of nature, and best of all, a clear division of good and evil, which is refreshing amidst the slew of 'gray area' films these days. And to elaborate, the awesome thing here is that the Skeksis are truly portrayed as PURE evil. It's their very essence to be violent, gluttonous, vile, and deceptive. We're talking about proper good and evil. This is not just popcorn entertainment. This is a thinking movie, that engages you with philosophical ideas. But unfortunately, there is one, huge, major flaw. And I am sorry to say, that in order to hear more, you are going to have to embark into the SPOILER section of this review.

SPOILERS BELOW! If you have not seen this film, please read no further. Or, rather, please do, but only if you don't mind hearing the ending.

Okay. Where was I? Oh yes, the climactic battle of good and evil. How refreshing... until it is revealed that the way the conflict gets resolved is by "the good" (Mystics) COMBINING WITH "the evil" (Skeksis) to become one creature! Hold the phone. Yes, you heard me. Combining. Good merges with Evil, and THAT'S the resolution to the conflict. They mutter something about splitting and past mistakes, and then 'transcend into the ether' and we are supposed to shout "hooray" and be happy? This is where the whole thing devolves into a load of Hippie bull crap. There's nothing more hollow than saying that the solution to the conflict of good and evil is for them to become the same thing. This is exactly the 'gray area' nonsense that we all thought this film was avoiding in the first place.
Am I just asserting my own world view and being closed-minded? Well if we can't agree that pure evil is evil, and ought to be crushed, then what can we do? If we truly believed that, our laws, culture, and entire world would be thrown to the wind. It saddens me to see this film take this turn, because it was doing so swell up to this point. It did everything right until it did everything wrong. And to see this coming from Henson and Oz makes me even sadder.
The trouble is, no matter how well a film is executed, if it's core is rotten, it really stinks up the whole experience. So the film is a very mixed bag for me. I can enjoy the parts that are beautifully artistic, and appreciate the sheer craftsmanship that went into this film, but when I am reminded of the ending, I cannot leave without a bad taste in my mouth.

The fact is, some films are trash to begin with, and it's no surprise that they fail to reason out an idea to a good conclusion, or fail to illuminate some truth or even merely resolve a conflict the right way. But with other films, and I am talking specifically about The Dark Crystal here, it is very sad to see such beautiful art get squandered on a poor ending. It really is tragic. That said, I still really, really love the other 85 minutes of the movie. And I always will.