Monday, December 7, 2009
This isn't the first time that I've seen one of my local network news programs openly advocating something that anyone with a basic knowledge of carnival games would steer well clear of. In most cases, I really don't think that there's any bribery or conflict of interest at work. I find it much more likely that the reporters are just as gullible as these people's victims. I once saw a newscaster do a five minute segment about her numerologist. I'm not saying that it wasn't instructive. She helpfully showed us how to determine our individual "Life Numbers" and was more than happy to do some personalized mathamagic for anyone who swings by her parlor and is actually willing to pay money for it. The piece was actually a not-so cleverly disguised promotion for the, then, new series NUMB3RS, but the fact remains that a news personality presented a numerologist to the viewing audience as something other than a con artist who is too lazy to even have a good cold reading act.
Psychics selling happiness aren't the thing this year though. This season's sleazy come-ons will all promise to save or make you money in this troubled economy. Whether it's with a service that sells your address to the catalog companies or just a nice lady who tells you what numbers to play, that's the hot message now. When you hear it, run.
Saturday, December 5, 2009
For those unfamiliar with Rifftracks, they function like a some-assembly-required Mystery Science Theater 3000 for films that the crew on the satellite of love could never have afforded to license in a million years. The audio files are purchased and downloaded from the Rifftracks site and played along side of the DVD (video file, VHS, what have you). Audio and video are manually kept in sync with audio cues from Disembaudio, a robotic voice that occasionally speaks a line along with the film to show you how far out of sync you are even though you started playing exactly when they told you to.
I became aware of Rifftracks when the first Bay Transformers movie became available for Riffing. I plunked down my four bucks via secured third party internet escrow service and had myself a listen. The improvement was remarkable. Suddenly there were three professionals shouting at the screen for me and I'm not ashamed to admit, at a much higher level of funny. Sometimes. The second time around is just as good. Kevin Murphy, who played Tom Servo throughout the run of MST3K, has mellowed slightly in his need to simply berate Megan Fox for her general lack of ability and likability, and this time goes for elegantly giving voice Michaela's deep and unspoken thoughts. "Where's my lip gloss..? Do you, do you guys have any lip gloss?" It's with more insightful observations however that the track finds it's deeper meaning. Mike muses that the film makers seem to be under the impression that adults going to see a movie about giant robots will be entirely unfamiliar with marijuana and it's effects. ("Randomly attacking people, that's a common side effect of pot!") Just watching the movie all the way through again, I was struck my the sheer amount of harsh swearing in a film marketed to toddlers, but it took the Riffers to point out the me the surprising similarity of massive killing machine Devastator to not only a big, silly, slobbery puppy ("Who's a cute puppy? Oh yes he is! Yes he is!") but also the the contents of Fred Sanford's junkyard.
Keep your Rifftrack playing through the credits to take in Disembaudio's full rendition of Linkin Park's New Divide. As with the film, it's something that fans and people who hate it so much they can't stand to be in the same room with it can both get something out of.
And don't try to download the files through more nefarious means. Mike and his boys have littered the torrents with booby trapped files. There's nothing dangerous in them, but you might wish for a nice normal Rick Roll after listening to what you've downloaded. Believe me, Rifftracks are absolutely $3.99 worth of entertainment.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
The leader of the Junkions made his first appearance in the original (and greatly superior) TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE. He lives with his fellow autumn-themed motorcycle robots on the Planet of Junk, or Junkion, episode depending. The series never made that entirely clear, as both are used interchangeably. One should take into account that the Junkions are a difficult bunch to get a straight answer out of. Anyone who thinks "Oh Cisco", "Oh Poncho" is a romantic exchange and has laser guns built into his nipples is going to turn off a lot of people. It's the handlebar antlers that tie it all together for me though.
See the entire gallery at Sector70.com
Thursday, October 22, 2009
In my time at the shop it was never determined weather or not the place was actually wired for sound in the employee areas. There was no question that the sales floor was. The cameras were plainly visible and several staffers had been in the owner's office while the mikes were up. That wasn't anything abnormal. In a small store with a minimal sales staff, security measures are a normal and responsible thing to observe. What raised eyebrows was the fact that staffers had a way of getting fired once the idea of quiting was mentioned in casual whispers at the rear of the costume warehouse with a radio playing. There was also the curious habit that the owner had of exploding out of his office if a staffer was on the phone with a customer and took too long to answer a question or uttered the dreaded "I don't know". I didn't have cable television growing up, but I understand that there was a children's quiz show that dumped watery slime on contestants heads for saying "I don't know", and even taking into account that it was my job to handle and keep clean delicate fabric items, being doused with gallons of viscous, green bile might still have been preferable to having a three hundred pound man in hiking sandals, khaki shorts, and a polo shirt, all of which are three sizes too small because he won't let his wife shop at the big and tall shop, come charging at me, snatch the phone away and apologize to the baffled customer on the other end of the line for how bad I am at my job. He'd shoo me away to the sales floor, or to do the laundry as his face slowly returned to it's normal shade of bright pink. He might then grab the intercom and call an impromptu staff meeting lecture us all about the importance of being professional, and "not name names" whilst describing what must never be done and said whilst staring directly at me and laughing with feigned embarrassment. A day like this would often end with him staying until one in the morning and trashing the workroom so that we would all have to clean it up before he arrived.
After a few months, I started daydreaming about the shop being sued by a major corporation for copyright infringement. I knew that causing it myself would mean my instant unemployment and not getting to enjoy the resulting chaos, so I was good. I mastered the phone code. Mother's would call up and ask for specific characters. "Uh, no we don't have him..." I let my voice trail off mysteriously like I was making a drug deal or selling a hot TV. "But we do have a... Red Monster..?" I put a the hint of a question to it, trying to draw them out. I acted like I was telling them a secret or letting them in on a private joke. A lot of callers didn't have the time or imagination for this game, but most of them got it. I encouraged them to come in and have a look before committing to the rental. One of the things I thanked God for was that we didn't take rental orders over the phone. For management this was a credit card issue, but even if we could do it, I wouldn't have had the nerve to lead a customer that I may very well be dealing with later to believe that they would be picking up something that bore more than a passing resemblance to the puppet of their children's dreams. Most of our monster costumes were pretty good. Hardly what one might see at an amusement park but more than up to the task of dancing around in front of a sugared up gang of five year olds and disinterested, possibly inebriate adults, but there were a few that just had be seen before leaving the premises. Sometimes it was a rather shocking level of wear, but often it was a simple indifference on the part of management to what a character,or animal, actually looked like.
"Why can't the panda get the skunk body? It's black and white!" often concluding with, "What the hell do they know the difference?!" My reluctance to assemble a Statue of Liberty with a silver lamae toga, flashlight and a souvenir foam head dress was met with "That's what she looks like! She wasn't really green originally, you know!?" The less said of the "CP-30" costume the better, but copyright infringement was definitely not a danger- except possibly from the hockey pad company.
Purple Dinosaur was a different story all together. This was the most important thing that any employee could learn. Red Monster was our biggest mover, the three duplicate costumes of varying quality testified to that, but it was Purple Dinosaur that could destroy is all. We did not carry a Purple Dinosaur of any kind, and the very mention of his copyrighted namesake was to risk being fired on the spot. Tyrannosaurus Rex was the properties' official species, but such a wide birth was kept that no Dinosaurs were carried in anything on purple's side of the color wheel. No Red Stegosaurus, no Blue Triceratops, and no meat eaters of any shade. Tales were told and retold of souls brave or foolish enough to rent themselves out to children's parties as the engorged tyrant lizard himself without the permission of his creator and parent company. As it was related to us, men in suits stormed the parties serving papers and stripping the suited performers bare before back yards full of screaming, traumatized children. Their favorite after school television personality was torn apart before their eyes and exposed as the sweaty, human registered trademark infringer that he was. I was once watching a music video in which a performer made a brief appearance wearing a purple hippopotamus head. To those paying attention, it was clearly not a dinosaur, but I think we all knew what he was getting at. Even years out from my time at the costume shop, I imagined lawyers storming the closed set. The playback booming over the sound system. The band and video production staff jump the suits who are shouting to be heard over the playback and waving Cease and Desist orders over their heads. Suddenly an electric bass cuts through the air, and the lawyers' point man reels backwards with a shattered jaw. Cherry red blood arks as he twists in the air before knocking the others down like single-breasted dominoes.
What troubles me the most is how such a minor time in my life can still have such a strong hold over my thoughts and actions today. My years spent in retail have caused me to constantly find opened packages and evidence of theft, and I have to exert a conscious effort to not walk though a store in a way that causes me to be asked it I work there a dozen times. The upside of this is that I am more aware of my surroundings, and going into a store holds an entirely different kind of amusement value. I no longer bring evidence of "shrink" to associates attention, because they usually just think I'm covering for myself, and wearing long coats and shopping for toys gets me followed enough enough as it is. I can pick out the real shoplifters. If I don't like them at a glance, I might say something, but I usually don't. I know what the manages never seem to learn. It's much more fun to keep an eye on the customers than on the staff.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
If I had one major complaint about the Toy Story 3D experience, it would be the unfulfilled promise of a "sneak peek" at Toy Story 3. Technically this was paid off with the trailer at the beginning of the program, but I was expecting a bit more for my fourteen dollars than the same teaser trailer of the title graphic that has been circulating for months now.
In between the pictures, we were provided with a ten minute intermission. I was glad to see that the "Bathroom Break" as they called it consisted of some original material in the form of "Toy Story Trivia" and brief bits starring the cast. The reused material consisted of the "Toy Story Treats" bumpers made for the ABC late 90's Saturday morning line up. I have these on the "Ultimate Toy Box" set from a few years ago, but I know must people don't and they're still fun. The only trivia question that I couldn't answer asked the name of the airline that Big Al booked his flight to Japan on. I could recall their logo- a blue koi jumping up and framing the red Rising Sun of Japan, but that was it.
It's Far Ease airlines.
When seeing a movie in the theater with a bunch of people that one wouldn't normally be caught dead with, it is an opportunity to see things through an fresh perspective. I had always seen the characters of Buzz and Woody as a classic buddy movie and as a story of an unwelcome and slightly mad outsider intruding upon and upsetting the status quo, eventually coming to grips with his situation and finally becoming a productive member of society and thereby transforming it for the better. Thanks to an excitable young man, (thankfully) towards the rear of the theater, I realized that his generation saw him a little differently.
"BUZZ LIGHTYEAR! YAY! BUZZ! BUZZ! BUZZ! ROCKETS EXPLODE!!! TO INFINITY AND BEYOND!!! BUZZ!!! YAAAAAAY!!!"
It dawned on me then that small children love Buzz Lightyear in a totally un-ironic way. This kid probably did want Andy to throw out that that raggedy old cowboy doll and just play with Buzz because he is soooo awesome. "What's a cow-boy Mommy?" I could imagine him asking in all honesty. This is the sort of aggravation people like me face when they insist on seeing children's movies in the theater. We start to get the idea that we're the core audience and that the bothersome, unwashed children have just wandered in, and would be just as happy to sit and watch hot dogs rotating at the concession stand. Some might, but the fact is, kids do love PIXAR's films. Maybe not the screaming babies that pig-ignorant parents insist on dragging into the theater, but the slightly bigger ones who actually can keep still for eighty minutes. This is revealing of one of the less obvious brilliances of the Pixar Films. As these kids grow up, some of them will go back to these films and see them in a whole new way. That's what quality children's entertainment does. It plays to the kids and the adults simultaneously and speaks to them both with equal poignancy, and if a person is lucky enough to see something like Toy Story as a child then he or she gets to experience it both ways. They can watch it at age six and get excited at the cool space man with the laser and then as an older person who empathizes with the aging cowboy's fears of being abandoned and forgotten.
When Toy Story 3 comes out in 2010, a full fifteen years will have passed since the original. Viewers who were in kindergarten when they first saw Buzz and Woody will return to the theater, and maybe that will be the spark that makes them give another look to those "kid's movies" that they once loved. They might just realize that they're are a whole lot better than a lot of the "grown up" movies that they'd been getting so excited over.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Anyone who knows about Transformers knows that combiner teams are where it's at. It all started with the Constructicons- six construction vehicles that merged to form the most powerful Decepticon warrior, of his day, Devastator. Around the same time, a team of mighty robotic lions formed VOLTRON and protected the galaxy and later as a confusing bunch of cars and spaceships. The less said of the latter version the better. Now a nameless genius in China has bestowed upon the island of Sodor a mighty protector of her own- Combining Thomas! It would seem that Thomas the Tank Engine and four of his friends have joined forces to protect their idyllic island nation from some before unheard of menace in the form of a giant, smoke-belching, entirely unlicensed steampunk titan!
When Thomas' show was first broadcast here in the States as a segment on the "Shining Time Station" program, the closest thing to a villain was Schemer, the weaselly guy who ran the station's feeble 19th century arcade. This was back when the twelve inch tall "Mister Conductor" was played, to much disbelief, by George Carlin, and the place was run by Didi Conn, a simpering low-rent version of Shelley Duvall. I hesitate to guess how that cast would have taken the appearance of a towering amalgam of steam engines bestriding their non-animated island town, much less what Sir Topham Hat would think of the havoc that their gestalt form would reek on his provincial railway system, but something has obviously changed to warrant this level of Paul Verhoeven-ian over-kill.
The modern, half-hour version of the show, "Thomas and Friends" would be better equipped to fully realize Thomas' team in action, what with it's new-fangled CGI and such, but the question still remains, who are they protecting the Island of Sodor from? I'd like to think that they acquired this new power to combat the forces of sappy pablum like "Super Why", "Miya and Miguel" or any of the horrid talking vehicle shows that have sprung up in the wake of Pixar's CARS. Of course the obvious foe for a giant robot is an atomic monster. A radioactive purple dinosaur who emotionally manipulates children with promises of love but rewards that love with a punitive level of copyright protection that forces even the bravest souls to avoid even the mere mention of his unholy name. Hopefully Word Girl and Captain Huggyface will lend a hand in that historic battle. Word Up!
You can pick up your Combining Thomas Team at KOTOYS.com, a site with a dizzying array of knock off toys from the far east. I'm seriously thinking about this one.
Monday, October 5, 2009
Friday, October 2, 2009
Thursday, October 1, 2009
There isn't a lot that I can add to Distroct 9's dozens upon dozens of glowingly positive reviews. Put plainly, it is a creative, well-crafted and entertaining film. What I can do is address the concerns that some may still have from what they've seen the trailer and elsewhere. Yes, most of the effect shots in the trailer and TV spots, including the robot suit stuff, are from the end of the movie, but it's not as much of a spoiler as you may fear. It's also not nearly all that the film has to offer in the spectacle department. There's a ton of stuff that they could never trim enough to be presentable in a network TV spot. Alien weapons come into play and they are nasty, nasty business. People don't just get shot. They go pop. A minority of reviewers have have focused on this element to trash District 9 for "degenerating" into a "shoot-em up" and a "video game" at the end. Well, what they say with disdain, I say with admiration. Yes, there are video game-like qualities to this film. The best kinds. The jaw-dropping kinds. The kinds of things that make you say to yourself while you're playing "Wow. Why can't they do things like this in the movies?" That's what it's like. A possible problem character who caught my eye in the trailer was the black special ops guy with the scar on his cheek looking badass and pointing. "Just what this movie needs," I thought "some tough guy enforcer dude spouting evil one liners." Fear not, that shot comprises this guy's entire role. There is an evil tough guy enforcer dude, and he doesn't say anything clever or witty. He kills aliens and oozes hatred, but he never takes it over the top. The action scenes do come close though. I can promise that you will see few movies this year that will cause you to choke back a tear whilst rooting for a giant grasshopper as lighting guns cause bodies to explode off of gun towers in ways that Paul Verhoeven might think was a bit much. This is the real strength of District 9, the ability to subvert the expectations and get ahead of the trained reactions of even the most experienced sci-fi fan.
Surprisingly, Paul Verhoeven is the perfect guy to bring up while talking about District 9, because in my opinion it's nearest cousin in the sci-fi/ action/ social commentary department is probably Robocop. It's just the sort of film that, a lot of people, in spite of the good press, will still just dismiss as just another childish, violent sci-fi movie. May of those who go to see it, will be turned off by the raining blood from the bombastic alien weaponry and write it off as just a simple monster movie lacking any "humanity", as my local reviewer did here in Philly (Stephen Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer). I suspect that his mistake was to look for the film's humanity in the human characters. Our main character Wikus Van De Merwe, is spineless, self-interested, casually genocidal paper pusher. His willingness to allow aliens refugees to be gunned down like dogs in the street and their children to be burned in their egg sacks comes not from any real racial hated, but from ignorance, stupidity and blind faith in the system. He exactly the sort of cowardly bureaucrat that comprises the backbone of any oppressive regime. Given this introduction to our human characters, one should not be surprised to learn that it is an alien, not a human who is the only character in the film who is seen being overtly moved by the death and pain he sees around him. The fact that he looks like a side order at Lobster Fest, is only a superficial detail, and one that will be meaningless by the end of the film, if one is watching in the correct frame of mind.
I'm not going to go any further into the story except to tell you that it begins with a Trail of Tears type resettlement of the aliens from the titular district to a concentration camp-like tent city far away from the human population. It then morphs into a man-on-the-run story as our wretched protagonist Wikus starts growing an alien-like claw after squirting himself with the wrong can of goo, and Johannesburg's Halliburton-like defense contractors, the "MNU" imprint featured on the brilliant "Humans Only" viral marketing campaign, think that they can monetize the mutations in Wiktus' body but only after vivisecting him in their slaughterhouse of a genetics lab. He, somewhat implausibly, breaks free and seeks help in the least (or most) likely part of town. It's a fairly straightforward story but remains compelling due to the performances of our weaselly main character and "Christopher Johnson" an alien with a secret agenda and an Ellis Island name. If you're at all worried that this is going to be all social commentary and no action, don't worry. There are overt themes of racism, genocide and exploitation of the masses by the Military Industrial Complex, but there's still plenty of room for running fire fights, a car chase and no less than ten minutes of that exo-suit brawling with security forces. Good stuff if you can tolerate extended video game-style action and violence.
As for the look of the film, I found it engaging and as intelligent. The faux cinema vérité mixed with news footage gag wore out it's welcome for me with Diary of the Dead, but here we see that anything can be done well no matter how badly it's been abused in the past. The fourth wall is casually broken as shots weave in and out or surveillance cameras, interviews and then back into the action. It's done with smarts and edited like a piece of music. Don't let anyone tell you that this is just Cloverfield all over again. It's not. I liked Cloverfield for what it was, but District 9 is a real movie that doesn't rely on one trick for ninety minutes. District 9's bag of tricks is much bigger and better utilized.
Production-wise things measure up just as well. The CGI isn't 100% convincing in every shot, but it's solid and never upstages the story- even when it's staring down the camera. The creatures display genuine emotion without being too human, and real pains have been taken to make them all look different. This is not one stock model that is cloned a thousand times. All of the principal aliens have been given their own facial features, body type and coloration. They've even been given plausible rags to wear, although the one wearing a pink bra is a bit too weird looking to not pull the viewer out of the movie for just a second or two. It reminded me of WALL-E. The fact that they all speak in subtitles is the icing on the cake. There are characters on screen that cost thousands of dollars per second to animate, and the director it's afraid to force your eye away from them to read what it's saying.
What we see of the alien's tech is even better. Their weapons, covered in twenty years of grit and grime looks like a combination DOOM and Home Depot. Their worn metal and plastic casings show every minute of their age, but undercut none of their menace. Aesthetically we don't get that standard all-chrome techno alien gear look either. The production designers should be commended for giving a space travel-capable alien race a sense of design that allows for racing stripes. Industrial designers can phone in paint schemes on Planet X just as easily as they do here on Earth, and why wouldn't they? It's lived-in but not Star Wars, and it's modern without being Star Trek. It's just well done.
As for me,. I loved every minute of District 9. It doesn't have Robocop's laughs or 2001's scale (thank God), but has brains and soul. Not everything that I was hoping for was explored during the course of the film, such as the defense contractors being obsessed with reverse engineering the alien weapons but strangely disinterested in investigating their mothership. The cumulative effect of seeing District 9 is satisfying and effectively pulls the viewer into its world. I just better not hear anyone using the word "Prawn" to describe my alien brothers, or I'm going to have to go all exo-suit, lightning gun on their asses.
As for the sequel prospects- if I have to see lousy, straight to DVD Districts 10, 11 and 12 in the video store, it will be with a profound sadness that will eclipse even the shame I feel for the Starship Troopers sequels and American Psycho 2 starring Mila Kunis.
As for the story- always a concern when a feature is based on a six minute short- it's solid but not terribly complicated. The back-story of the alien's arrival is given in a surprisingly riveting history lesson at the head of the film inter-cut with news camera footage of our main character Wikus Van De Merwe, a boring, spineless, middle-management Afrikaner fall guy as he prepares to head up a Trail of Tears type resettlement of the "Prawns" (think the N word for crustaceans) away from the urban population and into a tent city concentration camp. Other interviews are inter-cut from a later point hinting at Wikus' "betrayal" and suggestions of something horrible having happened to him. One of the other management types is being interviewed in what appears to be an orange prison jumper further suggesting disaster. The underlying motive of the resettlement as a way to further separate the aliens from what little alien technology they are hanging onto is clear but never overstated. Unlike an American produced sci-fi, the audience is treated like adults and trusted to understand what is going on.
Also unlike most American productions, the main character that we are given is as much of a reprehensible, casually racist idiot as you are likely to find. Wikus Van De Merwe is not a slogan shouting fascist or a racist. He's an office worker who does his job and doesn't question the system. The fact that the system treats an entire species as animals and burns their children like garbage make no difference to him as long as he can go home at the end of the day and relax with his "angel" of a wife: A wife who drops him like a hot rock when things go bad and a system that attempts to vivisect him for profit and then brands him as a pervert and (although the phrase is never actually used in the movie) race traitor. From this point on, he's a wanted man and must seek help in the least (as in most) likely of places which will challenge some of his institutionally ingrained opinions. Wikus' character arc is motivated however, not by a sense of justice or his growth as a person but out of pure self preservation. It's this detail that really hammers home the almost ridiculously obvious overtones of racial inequity in the film: social change coming not from the softening of hearts, but from a negative cost/ benefit ratio. If you think that this is an unfair assessment of human decency, then District 9 may not be the movie for you, but there is more here than that, and if you can see the humanity in a CGI monster crying over the body of his fallen comrade, then you might just get a great deal out of District 9.
The look of the alien tech is perfect. Worn metal and plastic display a realistically industrial feel.The designers have even added colored stripes and the sort of paint jobs that power tool companies adorn their products with to liven up their blockish utilitarian designs. Add twenty years of muck and you have alien artifacts that look like they are straight off of an alien construction site/ battlefield.
Thought process while watching PONYO: "Wow! Oh wow! ... What!? Oh wow!"
The first thing that strikes you about Ponyo is that it is almost impossibly beautiful. It employs a loose Babar-like art style is a welcome departure from the recent trend towards lifeless photo-realism in animated productions. (I'm talking to you Polar Express.) Brush strokes and colored pencil lines are evident in the backgrounds making them feel as if they've been imported directly from the impressionist galleries of the world's greatest museums. long time fans of Hayao Miyazaki will recognize this look as being similar to his preproduction concept art. Here it has been carried over, seemingly unaltered, into the finished film, and the effect is perfect. It gives the art an electric quality that sets everything free and allows it to pulse with life. Even through the stilted American dubbing, the characters leap off of the screen with an irrepressible life and exuberance. So much exuberance that some audience members may be given reason to reflect upon how lucky they are to not have any children to keep control of in the theater. Hayao Miyazaki is a grandpa, and boy does it show! The over-riding message of the film seems to be that small children should be indulged in their every desire without a hint of restraint or thought to the consequences. This will no doubt make the film- already a huge hit in Japan- just as big with the ankle-biting set and the grandparents taking them to the movie. For the poor folks in the middle who actually have to take the kids home at night and keep them from breaking things, some eyebrows may be raised- mainly at the point where the childish whims of Ponyo, a baby fish who yearns to be human, causes a major natural disaster that threatens world-wide devastation in her escape from her "Sea Wizard" father's house. If you're expecting Ponyo to get even the mildest scolding for flooding a small town and displacing hundreds of people, don't hold your breath.
In case you're unaware, Miyazaki san has a bit of an ecological ax to grind. It's present in all of his works- the polluted river spirit in Spirited Away, the loggers in Princess Mononoke, the coal-burning war machines in Howl's Moving Castle... I don't have a good one for My Neighbor Totoro, but you get the idea. In Ponyo, it's our polluted waterways. Through it's stunning beauty, the film paints an uncomfortably realistic portrait of a litter-strewn shipyard. Plastic bottles, bits of trash and what look to be entire kitchen appliances bob in the harbor beneath simple, almost toy-like industrial cargo ships. Here again the art style serves to draw us further in. So often in an animated production, a heavy geometric object, like a ship, will plow through a shot as a big incongruous 3D model. Here they are traditionally animated, industrial yet somehow beautiful, and in perfect keeping with the visual tone of the rest of the film. This is what a movie looks like when a director knows what he's doing and cares.
Under the Sea (reference intentional) the world is alight with wonder. A mysterious figure in a candy-striped jacket drips a magical elixir into the sea beneath the bubble of air that hugs the bow of his ship. When the droplets strike the sea at the bubble's edge, they transform into playful jellyfish bobbing and twitching their way through the water. It's on one of these sprightly jellies that our little Ponyo hitches a ride to the surface where she will meet the five-year-old Sosuke and begin her adventure. The man is her father, a human who has rejected the surface world and plots it's destruction.
"You can't be human and magic" we're told, but Ponyo, as she is renamed by Souske- being a fish she couldn't introduce herself right away, (She needed a few minutes to get a hang of the language) is resolute. She will be a human and Souske's her man! The fact that Souske accidentally cuts his thumb rescuing her from a glass jar (eco-message), and Ponyo laps up his blood is her ticket up the genetic ladder. Weather or not she drank human blood is one of the first things that her father grills Ponyo on when he gets her back home. I know my parents were always keen on knowing what sorts of blood I had lapped up when I'd get away from them during the day. Ponyo soon proves that she's her father's fish-daughter by magicking herself up a pair of arms and legs and busting out again.
A lot of "hip" film reviewers like to get their rocks off going on about how Hiyo Miyazaki so daringly shrugs off "conventional storytelling" to do his own thing. If that's all you need as an audience member, then I heartily recommend Last Year at Marienbad (France 1961). It's unwatchable. You'll love it. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it assumes that Miyazaki makes movies for Americans. He doesn't. He makes movies for Japanese people, and you don't need to be exposed to a great deal of Japanese culture to realize that they don't go about things the same way that we do here in the West. Establishing the world, the tone and emotional impact comes first. Story structure, and often "logic" comes second. Japanese directors telling stories in a Japanese way is no more daring than a German supermarket clerk making PA announcements in German. The reason to love, adore and possibly even worship Miyazaki's films, from atop a big pile of Totoro, Catbus and Dust Sprite Plushies, is because they're good! Really, really good. Yes, some aspects of their weirdo Japanese sensibilities are guaranteed to set off alarms in American viewers' overly literal minds every once and awhile (like a tsunami not being that big of deal) but if you can get past it you'll have a great time. Bring the kids. Have fun. Then get the DVD, put on the subtitles to find out what the real dialogue is without a bunch of Disney kids mewling over it.
The new David Sedaris book is out. It's called When You Are Engulfed In Flames, and on Saturday he was signing here in Philadelphia at a small locally owned book store on Sansom street. Amanda was disappointed to learn that the book signing would take place at twelve o'clock, while she was still at work. She wouldn't get out until four-thirty but was holding out hope that it might last long enough for her to make it if she could get out of work an hour early. I knew that her chances of making it were slim at best. "Maybe I'll walk over there with her after work and we'll have dinner when we see that he's gone" I thought. Thinking a little more about the Excessive Heat Warning for the day, I suggested that she get the store's phone number to check before she went.
I had off work that day, and once Amanda was out the door, I thought about how she hadn't even suggest that I could go get the book signed for her instead of sitting at home unwashed, playing video games and eating junk. I also thought about how I did need to leave the house if I wanted to get anything done that day. I needed art supplies and they only place to get the model paint that I liked was only open to me on Saturdays due to my work schedule.
I would do it. I would get Amanda that autograph. It would be personally inscribed with a message so funny that it would delight Amanda and amuse David Sedaris. Nothing came to mind, but I could think it up on the bus.
Getting the bus that runs down 7th street, I felt a slight pang. "What was I forgetting?" I wondered. It would turn out to be the flea market that they were having in the Acme parking lot three blocks over. This sort of thing is usually a total bust around here, so I'm not too worried about the wonders that I passed up.
Before I left the apartment, I had to confirm for myself the address of this book store. "17th and Sansom?" I thought. "Is it a pornography store? It must be tiny!" Wrong on the first, right on the second. The line looked very similar to what I waited in to see the STAR WARS SPECIAL EDITION on the first evening show so I could get my Theater Edition Jedi Luke (currently selling on eBay for about ten bucks), only about ten times longer. A helpful man at the end of the line told me that I would have to buy the book before I got in line. Good to know. I made my way around and through the line, down the sidewalk, and up to the table where David would be sitting. Outside. "Poor guy" I thought. "Excessive Heat Warning". I bought my book and made my way back to the end of the now longer line. On my way I bought a lemonade from a man with a tray. It turned out to be an Alex's Lemonade. I don't know why I'm so suspicious about Alex's Lemonade. Maybe it just reminds me of all of the projects that my peppy, wired-looking keepers would get way too excited about when I was a child and then be crestfallen when I didn't see what the fuss was about. That or I'm just waiting to hear that all of the money has gone to somebodies Pacific rim sex tour.
At the new end of the line, a girl asked my if she had to buy the book first. She had just asked someone else and not gotten the answer that she wanted. A man who looks like he works in a book store is handing out papers addressing how the signing is going to be handled. The only line on the paper that registers for me is that pre-signed books are available. The rest of the writing on the page is swirly and indistinct, mostly forming the words "It's too hot out here!". I ask Book Store Man if I can trade my book in for a pre-signed. I can. I still have my receipt. Making my way back I wonder if this is too much of a cop out. If I was a Hero I'd wait in that line all day if I needed to. I thought about the Howard Stern autograph line. By the end of that, I was too exhausted and beaten to even manage a proper exchange of greetings, let alone request an inscription. There was also the reading that I'd miss. "Might be nice" I thought, if it was inside at Borders under air conditioning and mellow lighting with ample reading material around. Outside on a day like this, with the sun beating down on us, it would have been more like roll call at Stalag 17. Only the avuncular Nazi Commandant would be replaced with an droll gay writer put slightly off off his game by the blast furnace heat roasting his tiny frame.
I traded in my book. The signature amounted to a circle and two wavy lines which looked a bit like "OWL ". I asked if that was as good as it got. It did. I was still more substantial than the wavy line that Howard Stern scrawled for me. I took my booby prize and made my way for the comic book store a few blocks away. I had toyed with the idea of keeping this good deed a secret all day until Amanda got home, crushed with disappointment that she could not get her autograph, only for me to whip it out (the book) and display the signature for her inspection. Then I thought about how she may have hatched some plan to get out early or run over on a long break. It was probably worth forgoing seeing the glee in person to not risk some sort of mess. Instead, I called Amanda at work and gave her the good news right then. It was actually an odd mix of telling her what a great job I did for her, and how she shouldn't get too excited about the signature that I got from OWL. She was still very pleased. If only because I had bought the book for her. It hadn't occurred to me until just that moment, but then It hit me. This was a present. The voice of my father grumbled deep in my gut about all the cash that I'd be laying out that day in addition to this, but I silenced him. Amanda deserves a present from time to time. She gets them for me. Besides, I can always make her buy dinner for me later. Or a toy.
After Michael Bay's first Transformers movie, which seemed to get its best reviews from people who were glad that there weren't too many of those big, silly robot things clogging up the heart-warming family humor, funny dog schtick and golden shower jokes. Whatever percentage of said reviewers were also thrilled by the the brazenly xenophobic and jingoistic elements remains unknown, since few of them were obliging enough to voice how daring they thought the film makers were to finally skewer Indian call center operators, crocodile eating Creoles and gluttonous, cowardly, DDR playing black people. This is not the case for Transformers 2- pardon "Revenge of the Fallen"since everyone knows that a number in the title is box office and artistic death- A point hard to disprove seeing as how this, the un-numbered, crap, eleventh Star Trek and the whole of the Harry Potter series have also pulled down unholy amounts of coin. No the racist, xenophobic, jingoistic scat humor is front and center in most reviews this time around, with mostly the downtown papers choosing to focus on the anti-intellectual, Bush-missing, pro-invading Middle-Eastern countries angle. Perhaps in light of the first film, and Michael Bay's entire body of work, the pattern of Strong White Males Who Break All The Rules To Get The Job Done is beginning to impress itself upon the film-reviewing public at large. I can only pray that it's still somehow invisible to the masses who seek out these movies and exit thinking nothing of the fact that the only non-whites that they saw for the last three hours were jibbering their colorful patois through thick lips whilst wildly gesticulating or simply being permitted the dignity afforded to any cannon fodder. (Thank you Jordanian army!) Tyrese Gibson gives a singular performance consisting almost entirely of threatening to shoot the Wormy White Guy In A Suit.
It's nice to see Wormy White Guy In A Suit still working and right on top of his game. He only has a few scenes here, as I'm sure his busy schedule required him to run right out and demand to know what the kid in the Twisted Sister video is going to do with his life and why these Apple Jacks don't taste like apples.
Of course Wormy is here to tell us that The President is sick and tired of the Autobots war against the Decepticons costing hundreds of lives and millions of dollars in damage per engagement. The conclusion drawn by "The Administration" is that it's the Autobot's fault for being here and if they would just leave the problem would just go away. This is the part of the puppet show where the audience hisses at the Judge for putting Punch in jail. It seems that Mister Oba- ahem, The Administration is under the impression that since the Allspark has been destroyed, the Decepticons must have stayed behind on Earth to "hunt" Autobots instead of returning to their home planet of Cybertron to resume their day jobs as, I don't know, carpet cleaners. Had they watched the first movie with greater the attention to detail than did most of the screaming four-year-olds who were in the audience with me, he might have picked up on the part of Optimus' plan that involved dooming Cybertron to slow death via the use of said Allspark as a blunt instrument against Megatron in leau of say, shooting him. I'd also like to hear Wormy's justification for characterizing the Decepticons as "hunting" the Autobots when it appears to be the Autobots themselves who are conducting zero mercy, seek and destroy missions on the cowardly and disorganized Cons who are seen doing nothing except hiding until shot at. Given that Optimus' main plot points so far have been destroying his home planet and putting bullets through the heads of crippled prisoners, an odd picture begins to emerge, but forget about that. It's essential to that you do no more thinking than our characters from the Gummyment- characters who know perfectly well that there is still an Allspark fragment left on Earth, because they have taken it into their own possession. But just forget about that too for now.
Then we get some more "plot" involving a second Allspark fragment that was "in Sam's shirt" throughout the entire two years between this movie and the first. We've all left things in the pockets of our dirty clothes, (Sam refuses to wash it, because it's his "game shirt") but I think even a genius like Our Hero here would notice rock that brings kitchen appliances to life lodged in the weave of his mangled H&M hoodie.
This Allspark fragment will serve as the McGuffin for the first part of our story right up until the point when it isn't, and simultaneously alongside of another story wherein another Allspark fragment is used to revive the lifeless, starfish-encrusted body of Megatron by a character called The Doctor who looks like a cross between WALL-E and one of those garbage spiders from VIRUS who could have been cool had he not spoken in the same cartoonish German accent that Kenny Mars used in The Producers and with such bored disdain that he didn't even remember to say "Is it safe?" No explanation is offered as to how stabbing Megatron in his, again, woefully unarmored chest with the Allspark both kills and reanimates him, or why this method of resurrection is never considered for the soon dead Optimus Prime. (Maybe if Ratchet was in this film he could have explained things. Instead he gets one line over Optimus' dead body about how they should just go to another planet and leave the humans to their fate. Thanks Doc.) Nope, for Prime's resurrection, a Hero's Quest must be undertaken by Sam, his nerdy but refreshingly non-minstrel show quality room mate, his bimbo girlfriend, a half-naked John Turturro and the two real stars of our show, Skids and Mudflap. This is what we're all here to see folks. You've read bout them. You've seen them online. Maybe you've heard the word "racist" bandied about. That's the Twins. The way some people play them up, you might think that they take up more than a combined twenty minutes of the film's TEN COMMANDMENTS-like running time, but they don't. They nip and out as most of the supporting cast does. Hannibal Lector barely has as much screen time in The Silence of the Lambs (the real one) but he stole the show. Like the Shark in Jaws that looked so bad that they had to shoot it from the fin up, or the Alien in Alien that looked like a basketball player with a saggy penis on his head, the Twins have much less actual screen time than their visceral impact might suggest. Skids gets most of the lines, and rightfully so. All the better to proudly display his gigantic buck teeth. One of which, you must have read by now is gold. The attentive viewer may also note the Autobot symbol engraved there upon. Mudflap mostly stands to the rear of Skids providing him his primary "comedic" foil. This is for the best since he not only has much bigger ears (?) and a stupider expression, but he also has the distinction of actually having a brown face. You've heard all this before right? Ebonics? Yep they speak it. Reading? Nope, they can't do it. Hard swearing and racially charged insults? They've got you covered there too.
Many defenders of the film have questioned why these admittedly foolish characters need be considered black stereotypes. Jamie Kennedy, Ali G and whatnot. True we have all met "wannbe gangstas" of all stripes and shades. Good enough. I can play by those rules. Let's turn our attention to the human characters of color. No not Tyrese threatening to shoot the white man. I covered him already. There's Deep (every Oompah Loompah) Roy playing the easiest boarder guard in the Middle East. I bet you didn't know that "New York" was the magic word for making local military love you and not search your suspiciously beautiful and expensive American car (or girlfriend) in the middle of the desert, did you? There's a bunch of Arab-looking guys on camels, but I think they're accurate, so I'll leave them out of this. The primitive humans at the beginning of the picture- hunting tigers in ancient Egypt, as you do- were a bit odd and choreographed, but I wasn't there, so I'll give them a pass too. This brings us back to New York. Philly actually, where it was shot, but New York in the film, where John Turturro's character, Agent Simmons now runs a butcher shop for some reason. In spite of the Italian sounding name above "and Simmons" on the rear wall of the deli Turturro and his parents effect heavy Jewish accents and talk about white fish and bagels. This would just be dumb and sad were it not for my favorite character in the film- Yakov. Upon first viewing the movie, I had taken Yakov for a black man, as he appears slightly back-lit, but fellow Sector 70 member Tramp pointed out to me that the actor is, in fact, of south Asian decent and stars in among other things, CollegeHumor.com's STREET FIGHTER: THE LATER YEARS web series as a retired, cab driving Dhlasim However, whatever his background, Yakov is a dark-skinned ethnic type who has big buck teeth, f'd up speech and gets yelled at by his bosses for being lazy. We have bossy Jews shouting at their lazy foreign employee about how he isn't going to get his CHRISTMAS bonus and be able to afford his shiny new teeth. (To replace the giant, crooked fake teeth that he's wearing. (Do you remember the wax teeth scene from A Christmas Story? Like that.) We've left the jibbering robots miles back with this. Where is this ok? This scene is so shameful that it would have raised eyebrows in a silent film. Adding to the mess is the fact that this movie can't even keep their stereotypes straight! In the meat locker of this clearly Jewish deli are pigs. Lot of 'em. Clearly the Simmons' are reformed in addition to being broad caricatures of 1920s boat people.
The problem here isn't that any one group of people is singled out, it's that if characters aren't white, American males, they're foreigners who are stupid, talk funny and eat snails. And Paris is crawling with mimes. Can someone tell me why we're supposed to hate the French again? Because they're rude and intolerant of people who don't speak their language? Doesn't sound like any hockey-haired directors I know of, does it?
The plot such as it is, chugs along with heaping helpings of magic and Deus ex Machina until we're in modern day Egypt. Sam finds the Tomb Of The Primes with such ease that one might wonder if he just turned his place mat over and peeked at the answer. A tomb that evil, immortal robots have been conducting a really easygoing search for over the last seventeen thousand years. All the while The Fallen, the original Transformer bad guy, has been kicking around, not doing much of anything even though he apparently has the power to do whatever he damn well pleases. Nah, he hangs out on his space ship that looks like every evil space ship in a Made For Sci Fi original movie- a jungle of black power cables and gothic doorways. Had it not been computer-generated I'd have wondered if they had to take turns sharing it with the new STAR TREK film. "I've got a really ground-breaking idea for our evil spaceship set- turn out all the lights and hang a bunch of dangerously exposed wiring around! It's never been done!"
Since Sam has used the power of the Allspark to read his whole astronomy text book really fast he knows about that extremely obscure feature of the night sky known as Orion's Belt. It seems that it points directly at the Tomb of The Primes. I suppose some people might call me overly picky if I pointed out that even if Orion's belt pointed at anything on the surface of the Earth, you can't use seventeen thousand year-old directions based on the position of the stars as seen from Earth, because over that much time the Earth has actually changed its relative position to those stars rendering those directions useless. (By comparison, the stars used in the Zodiac calender are already almost two positions off from where the charts have them, and the Babylonians cooked up that pot of crap less than three thousand years ago.) But there I go expecting the barest sort of scientific literacy from writers who work for Michael Bay. So I'll just move on.
The saddest thing about this whole thing is that for all the ground-breaking, render farm-exploding special effects, there's just not one good idea on display. I hardly expect a lot of heavy ideas from a Big Summer Film, but it would be nice if the thought process could at lest rise above the level of a 1930's Tarzan movie. It's all the same tired crap that we laugh at when it's on Sunday afternoon TV but "Ooo" and "Aah" at when it's being done by an overly-pointy if perfectly rendered robot. One of the reasons I hated the first film so much was that the mecha design was so dark, busy and ugly, but now I welcome it. It's those pointy, bizarre and painfully inelegant designs that distinguish this Transformers from anything that I actually enjoy.
It would be willful ignorance on my part to ignore the less than inclusive elements in the original and subsequent TV series. It's well known that Casey Kasem actually quit the original show when a middle eastern "rogue state" as we call them now, was introduced called "Carbombya", but in its crudeness, at least that reflected the political tensions of the day and was aimed directly at Muammar Qaddafi who actually was a state sponsor of terrorism against the US. I'm not saying that it's ever right to have an Arab character swear on his mother's camel, but likewise, I'm not pretending that anyone is coming to this table with perfectly clean hands either.
Should we ever expect a Michael Bay film to be anything other than an insulting tangle of Big Big Special Effects, moronic male leads, their useless bimbo girlfriends and a bunch of stupid BS that doesn't go anywhere? No. We as audience members need to read the box and know what to expect. HOWEVER
What no none should EVER have to expect is the sort of ugly, pandering, xenophobic, crap that this movie is overflowing with. AND it's too long. By the end, even the Decepticons are mostly just walking around looking angry and bored because all of their best material had been used up an hour and a half ago. That's about the time that Devastator shows up and the best he can muster is some compulsive sand eating and a humiliating defeat at the hands of Mudgflap. Mudflap! The rotten little econo-sedan practically rips Devastator's head off. Thankfully for Devie, the camera cuts away from him long enough for him to be perfectly intact again, so he can beat up on the Great Pyramid- well away from the action scene where identical clones off all of his constituent robots are having a hell of a time fighting the Army Guys that the single Constructicon in the first scene literally rolled over. Well, considering how well the gestalt mode did in the last scene, I can't blame that set for taking their chances separately.
For all of its moronic, time-wasting nonsense, there actually are two good action scenes in the film. The problem is that they're both within the first hour and end up contributing to the sagging weight of the film's leaden final act . Even then, the best one requires the viewers to overlook the fact that the characters break through a wall in an East Cost factory, roll over a few times and then stand up in the middle of a North Pacific forest! Once that's done with, it's all Sam running and crying until he's shot because he's too stupid to not stand up into the crossfire and goes to robot heaven and meets the ghosts of the First Primes who literally, reach down and fix everything. Then Jolt, an Autobot who we have not seen until this very minute, casts some sort of spell or something that magically make another dead robot into flying Power Armor for Optimus Prime who fixes the whole big mess by shooting stuff! Well obviously!
After Prime's done defending the People of the Earth, he shows his great admiration for their culture by dumping his power armor right onto the back of the Great Sphinx. (Even though, the way the shot's framed, Prime seems to be standing about ten feet to the Sphinx's right, in mid air.). You've got to wonder about a movie that takes such joy in destroying a library, a forest, Paris and then Egypt's entire tourist industry. Maybe the third film will have fights on the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Nativity.
In the plus column, there are a lot more robots in this one. After the first nearly robot-free Transformers movie, I believe I said something to the effect of "If I'm going to watch a bad movie, it should at least have robots in it." I got my wish. The giant robots did show up, and they showed up in great quantity. Then offered me a delicious slice of watermelon, called a guy a pussy, tea-bagged me with a metallic nut sack and the dropped dead. One of them even wore a short dress and tried to tentacle rape Sam. That was actually sort of a high point for me. The giant robot kitty was fun too. Wait a minute. Did Soundwave tentacle rape that telecom satellite?
Final thought- Megatron's a real tough guy when his boss isn't around, huh?
originally published July 21, 2009 in the "Tom Servo Reviews" section of Sector70.com